epilogue – Issue Seven

So everywhere there’s life, It goes.
Cryptic properties obnubilated
Within the half-blind dovetails,
Translating just enough –
Not to impose upon imposing beasts
Opinions secondhand and ill-fitting. 
The reader reads into what is read,
The words ever ink and dirt and shrug.
For what is The Cabinet in truth?
Infinite space
Collected. An offer.

 

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Image: comfreak via Pixabay

 

 

Cluck – A True Story – Tara Lynn Hawk

Fifty years                   from now
                         when                                            all the mini marts are gone and
          alien space chickens                run                         the plants
                                    humans the work beasties
         who will sit                    back                   and say
                                                                                                  I told you so!

 

 

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TARA LYNN HAWK is the author of poetry chapbooks Rhetorical Wanderlust and The Dead. Her work has appeared in Occulum, Rasputin, Anti-Heroin Chic, Uut, The Cabinet of Heed, Spelk, Wanton Fuckery, Midnight Lane Gallery, Idle Ink, Spilling Cocoa, Poethead, Social Justice Poetry and more. “taralynnhawk.com”

 

Image: Tara Lynn Hawk

 

 

The Last Red Cherry – S A Leavesley

Kis pulls the shiniest bauble from the Christmas tree and cups it in her hands. It looks like a see-through planet plucked from her porthole, and, valued at 1000 e-bits, it’s the most expensive decoration on the fake fir. Even before Kis had it priced, she knew this instinctively – this crystal sphere is the only thing she’s ever seen that is filled with clear water.

Kis switches her gaze from the bauble to the pale honey-colored liquid that she’s been sipping. The glass on her desk is simultaneously half-full and half-empty, even in artificial gravity. She tries to imagine again what Earth water would taste like, how rain would feel on her skin. But Earth is millions of miles away, smaller in her telescope than the decorations on the tree. So small that, if Kis could pick the Earth out of the sky, it would make a perfect necklace bead.

When she was younger and healthier, Kis’ great-great-great-grandma used to joke that, from this distance, her home planet was the size of an Earth cherry. Then Granchy would describe this cherry in luscious detail – sweeter than Saturn honey, redder than Mars, the color of pure, fully oxygenated blood, the last rare forbidden fruit. Kis’ mouth waters at the thought of this wonderful thing that she’ll never get to taste. Only one such tree left in the solar system, its precise location lost.

Still, at least Kis has this aluminum tinsel tree. If Granchy could see her now, she’d joke that Kis was eyeing up the decorations as Earth women used to drool over displays in jewelers’ windows, picking out the rings with the biggest sparkling rocks.

Kis finds it hard to imagine getting excited about hard stone. Metal and mineral are everywhere. Her fascinations are different. Yes, almost everything about the baubles is artificial, but not quite. She’s had them tested. Her oldest pieces carry traces of Earth elements, of land dust, even water and once-living matter. Their light and shine too is crafted by hand and imagination in memory of the old ways, in honor of life.

Kis’ favorite decorations are the transparent spheres dating from just before the exodus, with scenes depicted inside like mythic hanging snow globes or old-fashioned crystal balls into the future. Granchy used to stare at them for hours before finally pronouncing her predictions.

Granchy’s last insight though had been little more than a babbling of random words: “Honey-river-stone-hail-red-petals-glaze-falling.”

“Falling.” Granchy had repeated the word again before falling back against her pillow in the spaceship sick bay.

Every time Kis visited, she’d look round the small dorm with sinking despair. It was full of patients like Granchy – after centuries of anemic life, their hearts petal-thin and their minds finally running out of space for more memories.

No point dwelling on this, Kis drags her thoughts back to the fir. She can feel Granchy with her, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, plucking another glass ball from the green branches, then telling Kis to look inside if she wants to divine the future.

But the sphere in Kis’ hands is black as a starless night. There are beautiful chiming bells inside but they only sound when shaken. Kis pushes the swinging bauble harder and harder until…the black ribbon snaps and it falls from the tree.

Perhaps Granchy isn’t with her after all. Granchy would never choose such a dark future. Kis’ hand hovers above a globe with a frozen lake. Brightly scarved skaters dance across the surface to a swirl of beautiful soft yet joyful choral music, its song composed entirely from snatches of different people’s laughter. She longs to cradle it in her hands, but she fears this choice. It’s as if the Ghost of Other People’s Promises is beguiling her with sham dreams.

She touches the next sphere gently – it’s entirely filled with flurries of plastic snow – a gift of Christmas Present. The white flakes will not settle long enough for there to be anything but blizzard. Like the cosmic debris constantly pelting the spaceship.

Kis picks up the original bauble again. Granchy called this ‘The Rain Globe’, saying it reminded her of her last days on Earth. As Kis’ other plans seem to have failed, she wonders if she should get Granchy’s poem about it framed for Christmas. She flicks through Granchy’s e-note until she finds the words.

 

The Rain Globe

Imagine the Earth sealed in curved glass,
our world as a rain dome. The wet

more frightening than drops of light
glistening towards dice houses.

Hold this sphere in your palm,
turn it upside down and it’s the sky

that drowns. Foundations cling
to the thin land above.

Imagine we’re tiny people,
speaking through bubbles,

all of us now divers
thrown in water flight,

lives tilted
towards spillage.

 

But suppose this Christmas is Granchy’s last? It isn’t the most cheerful gift to give her, even if Granchy’s mind has gone too far to understand the sadness.

Ting! Kis’ electroscreen flashes with a new message.

“Your merchandise has been located. Your order is in g-flight!”

Kis senses her heart pumping redder and faster as she reads. She’d not really expected her search to work. But now this message from Galaxis. What if this is it? Finally.

Of course, Kis tries to slow her breathing, it could be a fake – black-world sellers are notoriously unreliable. But as past-dealers go, Galaxis’ reputation is legendary on the contraband scene. If it really is a cherry from that last tree? If the rumors are correct, one sniff may be all it takes to save Granchy.

And the price? Kis wills herself not to think about that, as she packages up The Rain Globe in stellarwrap. So long as this works, it will be worth it. It’s not the first heirloom they’ve had to sacrifice, and she still has Granchy’s poems.

Kis hears her own nails tapping the desk in time with her heartbeat, as she waits for her exchange to process. The noise reminds her of Granchy’s recordings of an old analogue clock ticking, only faster, more arrhythmic, hollower.

To occupy her fingers and thoughts, Kis turns to one of the brighter entries from Granchy’s journal and forces herself to concentrate on the lines.

Underwater: Surviving

In our new place / the fish
              that pour from the common tap
                          rise a little faster \ bubble bigger

                          Away from town streets / the water
              tastes clearer / easier to swallow
unthickened by twists of pipe

through terraces submerged
              in the flood \ of their own debris
At sea in this new world

              we are strangers to ourselves
                          Oceans teach us to dive deeper
              to find strength we never knew

If…when dry land returns
              we will welcome free-walking
but guard tails and fins in case

              We made this house of gills
                          layered with synthetic scales
              now \ we swim with it

Although, it’s the hundredth time Kis has read the poem, this still seems worlds away from her own life. No water, no individual homes on the Interstar, only an infinity of space outside and the increasingly more cramped crampedness of near-communal living inside. But the title and Granchy’s determination…survival Kis gets. Survival is the one essential that they’ve all been fed and watered on. Survival and hope.

Ting! “Your g-pod has landed!” The electromassage flashes a brighter blue neon than the lights on the Christmas tree, its chime louder than any bells Kis would ever wish for her frozen-lake skaters.

Although Kis is trying to stay realistic, she can’t help feeling expectation rise inside her as the small pod arrives in her cubicle-chute.

She prizes the pod apart and takes out a tiny box.

It looks the right size. She imagines the weight is right. But she’s scared now to open it. She’s never seen a real cherry, so how can she even tell if it’s genuine? There’s only one person Kis knows who will know for sure. The same person that Kis needs it for.

Shoving the box in her pocket, Kis grabs the next zip-express and hurries though the shafts towards the sick bay.

It’s hard to distinguish Granchy’s dark curls from the shadows on her pillow. Except the shadows are dancing and Granchy’s hair and head are still. Granchy’s breathing is slower and shallower even since Kis’ last visit.

“Granchy,” Kis whispers. “It’s me.”

Kis sees Granchy’s eyelids flutter and bends over to kiss her great-great-great-grandma’s moon-pale cheek.

“Look, I’ve brought you something.”

Opening the box, Kis lifts out the waxy fruit by its stalk. This thin wiriness bends with the weight of the shiny soft bead that she’s been promised is real cherry. It looks real, feels it too. She wishes Granchy’s eyes would open, and stay open long enough to look, check and reassure Kis.

Steadying the fruit with her gloved palm, Kis uses a scalpel to nick its surface, then slides a tiny sliver of reddish flesh into her specimen dish. If this is what it should be – and if it does what it should do – there’s enough cells for her to sample and re-synthesize.

Then, clasping the rest of the small bead gently between two fingers, Kis holds what she believes is the last red cherry to Granchy’s lips…and hopes.

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S.A. LEAVESLEY is an award-winning journalist, fiction writer and poet. Author of two novellas, her short fiction publications include Jellyfish Review, The Nottingham Review, Ellipsis Zine, Oxford Today and Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine. Nominated for Best Small Fictions, she also runs V. Press poetry and flash imprint.

Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

 

 

Still Life – Jesse Bradley

Mitch tries to talk me out of staying behind to babysit mom. You could use the night off, he said. I shook my head and made him hand me his car keys; Mitch’s car hasn’t recovered fully from his last night out on the town.
I sit in front of the glass shed mom’s living in and sip whiskey that’s a hair above cheap, where the bottle’s glass but the glass is so frail, it’d break in mid swing during a bar fight. Tonight, mom’s taken an evaporating green watercolor. She’s enveloped the glass chair we got her to practice maintaining a human form.
Today, she managed to sit still and cross her legs. She bounced her right foot the way she used to when got giddy, like when dad brought home flowers or I brought home a rare ‘A’ on something. It was when she tried smiling that her limbs exploded. Mom seeped out of the stumps and dispersed back to her gaseous form. Unlike all the other times she failed maintaining a human body, mom was too tired to bang against the glass. We’ll try again tomorrow, she said. Mitch used it as a reason to celebrate and be stupid, like a man in his early twenties should be sometimes to remember he’s alive.
I lay down on the grass, next to the half full glass of whiskey. Maybe, we should let mom go, let her fly high into the sky, chase the stars, but then I think about the birds, the unfortunate helicopter or plane that flies through her, their names.
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Image: noeminihoul via Pixabay

 

 

You’re Very Beautiful – John Holland

“You’re very beautiful,” I say. I do not know whether, by their standards, she is beautiful.

She looks surprised. Flustered. Perhaps because I met her only a few seconds ago. Touched her arm at the crowded bar and introduced myself.

“Thank you,” she says, and giggles. I can see that she thinks I am beautiful. Handsome, they call it.

“I like your eyes,” she says. I have learnt to smile with my eyes. Learnt that they like that.

“Yes, I have two – the normal arrangement,” I say. I am aware that they find that funny. She laughs. It’s a good sign. I ask her what she’s drinking. Vodka with something. I have the same. It’s easier. The barman pushes the drinks towards us. I give him paper money. She puts the glass to her lips. I do not drink.

There are two seats at the back of the bar where we can sit. Briefly I hope.

“Are you English?” she says.

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked. My accent is not completely accurate.

“Yes,” I say, “But my father was Swiss.”

She nods. And smiles. Asks about Switzerland. I mention the Alps, clocks, gnomes. It’s what I’ve learnt.

I say I am a financial broker – working for animal welfare. Money and a conscience. That I have a hybrid sports car, using electricity as well as petrol. And a riverside flat.

“With a view to die for,” I say.

“Nice,” is her reaction.

“It’s only a few minutes away.”

And in those few minutes we are there. And she has drunk more vodka. This time straight. She has let her fingers linger on the Kelim rug. And admired the kitchen – white tiles with stainless steel. It’s in the kitchen that I ask her to add her name and address to my system. I must monitor.

“For the gift,” I say.

“Gift?” she asks.

She says she’s never seen a computer like it. I agree she hasn’t.

We walk onto the balcony. Stand a little apart. Listen to the noises of the air. I stare at the darkness, the bloated sky. And home.

She looks at the side of my face. I turn and smile. We kiss. These days I kiss well.

She says she’s never met anyone like me. That I am unusual. I smile. Tell her that someday people may say the same about her.

Soon she is naked in my bed. I say that I will use a condom. I act it out under the sheets. I penetrate immediately. And finish.

She insists she would like to stay.

I say that really she wouldn’t. She dresses. I close the door behind her.

I report progress towards the target. Change the sheets. Choose different clothes and walk to another bar. Find another woman.

“You’re very beautiful,” I say.

 

 

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JOHN HOLLAND is a prize-winning author from Gloucestershire in the UK, and the organiser of the regular event, Stroud Short Stories. Website – www.johnhollandwrites.com

 

Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

 

 

Window on the World – Tom Gumbert

Sergey Vasiliev stares out the window, eyes wide. No matter how many times he sees it, it makes his spirit soar.

“Really Sergey? It’s not like you haven’t seen a sunrise before. In fact, you see it every ninety-two minutes. That’s like a bajillion since you’ve been on this mission.”

Sergey smiles and shrugs his shoulders. He looks back at Kiyoko Watanabe as she pulls the daily calendar page, wads it into a ball, and releases it, watching it float away.

“Seven days and a wake-up,” she says, a smile spreading across her face. “Going to make it home for Aimi’s fifth birthday!” She moves her hand to her lips, then to the picture above the daily calendar. “Goodbye International Space Station—hello baby girl!”

A glint of light pulls him back to the window and he watches the sun become visible above the curvature of the earth. Glorious. A new day, and all the hope and promise that comes with it.

“Good morning ISS crew.”

“Mornin’ Houston,” Mission Commander Jules Rousseau says in his best Texas drawl.

‘There you go, Commander,” the mission controller cheers him.

Sergey can hear the laughter in the background. With the sun fully visible, he abandons his window on the world and starts for the breakfast area.

“Who’s picking the music this morning, Commander?”

“My turn, Jules!” Kiyoko says in a sing-song voice.

“Please let it be, ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” Jules mock pleads.

“In your dreams, my French Cowboy. This morning I want a little ‘Pepper’ with my breakfast,” Kiyoko declares.

“Nooo,” Jules wailes. “Sergey requested them yesterday, remember? ‘Back in the USSR?’

“Jeez, Jules. Not the Beatles ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ Just ‘Pepper.’ You know… the Butthole Surfers.”

“Butthole Surfers? Why would anyone request music by a band called the Butthole Surfers?”

“In honor of you,” Kiyoko informs him, “You know…because you’re an asshole.”

Sergey laughs hard at the unexpected retort.

“Is that Sergey laughing?” the mission controller asks, his voice incredulous.

“Don’t know, Control. Never heard him laugh. Not sure I’ve even heard him speak,” Jules teases.

*      *       *

Breakfast was always Sergey’s favorite meal. He recalls his childhood, sitting with his parents at the breakfast table enjoying butterbrots and kasha, his parents chirping about his mother’s writing or papa’s work in the lab at the university, then shifting their attention to him, enraptured by his accounts of school. The optimism of his parents at the start of each day sustained him, regardless of what the day might later bring.

On the ISS, the crew typically gathered for meals, and over the mission, Sergey had grown quite fond of his crewmates, especially Jules and Kiyoko. Though each was involved in serious work weighted by immense responsibility, their macaronic banter was eurhythmic, always bringing a joy to the table that attenuated the pressure of their mission. It was reminiscent of his childhood, the optimism sustaining him through the loneliness of months in space. He adored listening to Kiyoko’s stories of Aimi—how her face lit up when she spoke of her daughter, who at the age of four, was already using computers as well as children twice her age. “She’ll be twice the computer scientist that I am,” Kiyoko predicted.

Jules’ stories often involved his family’s vineyard and how much he loved giving tours, especially to schoolchildren. “They’re our future, Sergey,” he would insist, and Sergey was thrilled when Jules had asked him to assist him in presenting a biology lesson that would be transmitted to the schoolchildren in his hometown in a few short hours.

The time in space had given Sergey time to think about his own future. His status as ISS astronaut elevated his already impressive engineering resume, and he was certain that when this mission was over he would have a choice of opportunities that would assure him of a comfortable, if not lucrative lifestyle. Maybe then, Larissa would take his marriage proposal seriously. He imagined their marriage, followed by a honeymoon in Hawaii, and then a life together with three, maybe four children—

The alarm startles them, temporarily gorgonizing each before spurring them to action. Sergey allows the others to depart the compartment first, before propelling himself to his assigned station at the controls of the robotic arm.

“Commander, do you have a visual?”

“Where am I looking?” Jules asks.

“Port, eleven o’clock,” mission control tells him.

Sergey looks out the window. In the distance he can see it and he readies himself at the controls of the robotic arm. With an estimated half-million objects in space and less than forty-three thousand tracked, close approaches occasionally occur and a collision course is a constant concern.

“See, it,” Jules says.

“Can you calculate its trajectory?” Mission control asks.

“On it,” Kiyoto tells them.

Sergey can feel the tension through the silence. “What are we tracking?” he asks.

“Mobile Satellite,” the mission controller says, brusquely.

“J2000 projects it to be on course for intersect with 2015-158A. ETI three minutes. Approximate distance from ISS, one kilometer.”

“What satellite is mobile?” Sergey asks.

“2016-0027,” comes the terse reply from mission control.

“Malfunction?” Jules asks.

“Unknown.”

Sergey looks out the window, but can no longer see the satellite. “Are we a safe distance?”

“We’re safe,” Jules assures him. “Resume normal activities.”

“Negative on resuming normal activities, ISS. Prepare for maneuver,” Mission Control instructs.

“What’s going on?” Sergey asks, but his question goes unanswered.

On the closed channel, Jules tells them, “Meet me in Unity Node.”

Sergey is the first to arrive, his distance from the robotic arm only a few meters from Unity Node.

Kiyoko is next, and they hear Jules moving toward them. Sergey doesn’t like the way she is frowning and avoiding his eyes.

“What’s going on, Jules?” Sergey demands.

“This could be bad. A maneuver is precautionary, in case we are targeted.”

“Targeted? Who would be targeting us? Why?”

“You know the scenarios, Sergey.”

“Guys, I don’t think it’s us. The target, I mean.” Kiyoko looks at each of the men. “2016-0027, that’s the North Korean satellite, and it’s either malfunctioned or is deliberately being maneuvered on an intercept course with U.S. early warning.”

“What does this mean?” Sergey asks, looking from Jules to Kiyoko.

“We’re not sure, Sergey. Maybe nothing. Maybe the children are playing games, you know, trying to frighten each other again,” Kiyoko says with a shrug, though her tone makes the reassurance feel disingenuous.

“Well they need to stop with the games,” Sergey says, “it’s dangerous and irresponsible.”

Jules puts a hand on his shoulder. “Look, Sergey, we don’t know what it means, so there is no point getting worked up about it. We just need to focus on our training and hope for the best.”

“ISS, maneuver commencement in one minute. Recommend crew move to Quest,” mission control announces.

Kiyoko puts her hand on Sergey’s back and gives a gentle pat before following Jules to the conjoined Quest airlock. Sergey follows and within seconds, they are in.

“Mission control, we are prepared for maneuver,” Jules announces.

“Copy, initiating thrusters.”

During past maneuvers, the movement of the ISS to maintain altitude or avoid debris had been so slight that Sergey could offset the effect by placing a pinkie finger against a fixed object. This time, Sergey feels his body shift as the station moves.

“Do you feel that?” Kiyoko asks.

Jules gives a slow nod.

“They’re trying to move us in a hurry, Sergey says as he checks his watch. For the next three minutes, no one speaks.

“Mission control to ISS Crew, we request one of you go to the cupola for visual confirmation.”

“Roger, control. Confirmation of what?” Jules asks.

“US Space Command has lost data from 2015-158A.”

“Shit,” Kiyko moans.

“Exactly,” mission control answers.

“I’ll go,” Jules volunteers.

“Me too,” Sergey says, giving an apologetic shrug to Kiyoko.

They move through Unity to Tranquility and then to the Cupola, the entire trip taking less than two minutes. Sergey follows Jules in, head first, their legs protruding into the Tranquility node.

“Kiyoko, can you give us those coordinates again?” Jules requests.

Sergey cranes his neck, turning to see anything that appears out of the ordinary, when in his periphery, he catches an intense flash.

“What was that?” Sergey yells.

“Mission control to ISS, US Space Command is reporting launch of ICBM.”

“Sacre bleu,” Jules exclaims, covering his face with his hands.

“No, no, this can’t be—,” Kiyoko says, her voice breaking.

Sergey looks through the cupola glass at the earth and sees intense flashes up and down the Korean peninsula and in nearby Japan and China.

“Stop, please stop,” Sergey moans.

“What, Sergey? What’s going on?” Kiyoko asks, alarm rising in her voice.

Sergey feels a hand on his forearm. Jules is shaking his head.

“Kiyoto, what is our current altitude?” Jules asks.

His question goes unanswered as they continue their eastwardly orbit over the Pacific. They watch in horror as a missile streaks past them in its downward trajectory. From the waters off the Hawaiian Islands, sagittate projectiles rise on an intercept course.

“Yes,” Sergey says, for the first time feeling something akin to hope.

“Wha—?” Jules yelps as his body jerks downward.

“Move,” Kiyoko says as she projects herself past him into the cupola.

She twists, and Sergey knows she is trying to locate Japan, but he can’t take his eyes off the missiles shooting towards each other. Suddenly, where there had been one downward missile, there are many.

“Where is it?” Kiyoko cries. “Where is Japan?”

“It’s out of visual range,” Jules calls up.

“Mission control, MIRV’s deployed over Hawaii,” Sergey reports.

“What the fuck is a MIRV?” Kiyoko says, still searching for Japan.

“Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle,” Jules says, his voice deflating.

Kiyoko glances down at him before twisting her head side to side while Sergey continues looking toward Hawaii. Her sharp intake of breath causes him to turn. “What?”

He can see they are just off the California coastline and Kiyoko stares, mouth open in horror, at the streaks emanating from the ground.

Sergey follows her gaze, sees the myriad of lines streaking into the sky in long arcs from California and the Washington coastline. The intense flash from the west causes them both to cry out and cover their eyes.

Sergey feels Kiyoko brush against him as she departs the cupola.

“Let me see,” Jules says, and Sergey imagines him pulling Kiyoto’s hands from her face so he can inspect her eyes.

Sergey hears her crying, but the sound is interrupted by audio warnings. He rubs his burning eyes, trying to restore his vision while simultaneously attempting to discern how many warnings and what they mean. For certain, the close proximity warning is alarming as well as an equipment failure warning. Is it the solar panels? He blinks a few times to clear his eyes. Is that a fire alarm?

“What’s happening Jules?”

“She’s okay,” Jules answers, elevating his voice above the alarms. “And you?”

“Okay. What about the alarms? What’s happening to the station?”

“Mission control, what’s the status of ISS?” Jules asks on the open channel.

For a few seconds there is silence, and then static.

“Mission control, come in.” Jules repeats.

More static, followed by a popping noise.

“Mission control, what’s happening?” Sergey yells.

“Mission control, come in now,” Kiyoko demands.

“Sergey,” Jules says looking into the cupola and pointing.

Sergey looks through the glass and gasps. To the west, a mushroom cloud rising far higher than the ISS, appears over Hawaii. “EMP,” he mumbles, knowing that no amount of yelling or insistence would restore communication with mission con

“We have to check the status of the station,” Jules insists.

“I…”

“Stay,” Kiyoko sniffles, “I’ll go with Jules.”

Jules and Kiyoko disappear into Tranquility node and Sergey returns his attention to the cupola, where the view is disorienting. Satellites appear outside their normal orbits, and nothing seems to be in its normal place. He watches a weather satellite lose altitude, falling into the path of orbiting space junk where it is pummeled by debris, before breaking apart and assimilating into the mass. He witnesses several near misses and one spectacular collision which, thankfully, is far enough away to not impact ISS.

They are over Texas when he sees the first streaks rising above the north pole. The counter-launches from Kansas and Missouri are immediate, as is his nausea. Sergey leaves the cupola, struggling with dizziness and what feels like the start of a massive headache. He propels himself toward Quest, his heart racing as he pulls forward. Inside, he searches for the transdermal dimenhydrinate patch he hopes will bring him physical relief. Sergey finds it in the space suit and applies it to his arm. He closes his eyes and tries to will his heart to slow, his stomach to settle and his heart to stop breaking. He counts backwards from one hundred, reaching twenty-seven when the fire alarm goes silent. The other alarms have also abated and now, the only sounds are the proximity alarms.

He wants to believe this is good news, that Jules and Kiyoko are putting the station back in order. When his count reaches fifteen, he is interrupted.

“Sergey, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Jules, I hear you. Is everything back to normal?”

There is a slight hesitation and then, “Please meet us at Rassvet.”

Sergey bristles. Rassvet is the port where the Soyuz craft is docked. Were they considering leaving ISS?

“On my way, Jules.”

When Sergey reaches Rassvet, Jules is outside the Soyuz capsule, his face pale and grave. Looking past him, Sergey sees Kiyoko sitting inside, clutching the photo of Aimi to her chest.

Jules steps forward, taking Sergey’s forearm and directing him back towards Zarya module. “She’s insisting we return,” Jules says.

“Why, is life support failing?”

Jules shakes his head.

“Structural issues?”

Jules shrugs. “The station’s still functional, though the navigational system is fried. We may be losing altitude, but that’s not what concerns her. She’s insisting we return so she can find her daughter. She said she’s leaving with or without us.”

Sergey looks from Jules to Kiyoko and back. “What do you think, Jules?”

Jules sighs. “For us, there are no good options.” He looks back at Kiyoko. “If I had a daughter, I would go back.”

*      *      *

From the Cupola, Sergey watches Kiyoko and Jules depart the ISS. He lifts his hand, though he doubts they can see him and immediately feels the intensity of loneliness. The pull starts in his stomach and radiates outward until he feels as if he’s been sucked into a blackhole. He’s over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge when he loses sight of them.

In his fantasy, Kiyoko and Jules splash safely off the coast of Japan, are picked up by a science vessel and taken to Tokyo where government leaders assist in reuniting her with Aimi. “It’s okay, mama,” Aimi will assure her, “the missiles didn’t work. Can we go to the festival and get Choco Bananas?”

The fantasy provides some relief and his spirit is bolstered again when Africa comes into view, the twilight revealing a continent unscathed. Perhaps the concatenation isn’t as catastrophic as he feared. He rubs his burning eyes. The emotion of the past hour has been exhausting. With eyes closed, he thinks of Larissa, wonders what she is doing, whether she is afraid and who is with her to provide comfort. He vows he will never leave her again…and his mind slips into unconsciousness.

*      *      *

His eyes pop open at the sound of the alarm. Through the cupola the earth is dark. How long has he been asleep? He checks his watch. He should be seeing the sunrise, but instead… He puts his hand to the glass and feels tiny vibrations. His head spins with the realization that he is in the midst of a pyrocumulonimbus cloud. Soon the entire station is vibrating, alarms blaring.

He recognizes the alarm for abandon station, and realizes that the ISS is in catastrophic danger. His eyes brimming with tears, he tries to imagine Kiyoko and Jules safely in Japan, reunited with Aimi. From his window on the world he begins humming a song, then singing, “Here comes the sun. Here comes the sun. And I say, it’s alright…”

 

 

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Image: Free-Photos via Pixabay

 

 

A Study in Torment – J L Corbett

Dear reader, I fear my sanity is escaping.

The following account is written with intentions of importance, none of which include the provision of entertainment. I urge you, the reader, to heed the foolish actions detailed in these pages, for it seems increasingly likely that you too may one day find yourself in a situation as sinister as mine.

It began with an interruption. The day thus far had been spent mostly in frustration as I had attempted to untangle several theories of human cognition; I was at the precipice of a breakthrough when the door to my office swung open without the customary preceding knock and my thread of thought was snapped. Professor Hadleigh strolled into the room with a level of joviality that suggested a complete disregard for his mid-afternoon trespass.

“…as you can see, it’s quite spacious. It’s just Doctor Pendleton in here presently, but I’m sure he would be happy to- oh, Pendleton! Dear fellow, my apologies, I didn’t expect you’d be here!”

“Well it is my office, professor. Who else would you expect to find?”

“Don’t you usually have an undergraduate seminar around this time?”

“I cancelled it. The children never listen to a word I say, they can teach themselves for all I care!”

“You cancelled… why on earth would you- no, not today.” Hadleigh made a big show of biting his tongue. He’s quite insufferable as a head of department. He subscribes to a hierarchy determined by job title rather than intelligence or academic brilliance, because this is the only hierarchy of which he can be certain he sits atop. I despise him.

“I’ve just been giving a little tour of the university to Doctor tuh-woah-mist-oh, who’s on loan to us from karr-killer university in Finland,” Hadleigh spoke the foreign words with an irritating slowness and still managed to horrendously mispronounce them. “His work on cognitive empiricism has caused quite a furore in academic circles in Finland, and he’s chosen our humble institution as the location for a year-long sabbatical. I expect you’ll be eager to pick his brain, given your shared field of study.”

I noticed for the first time the figure standing beside him, a stocky young fellow with a rather vacant facial expression. The heavy little man’s bored demeanour persisted as he complimented Hadleigh’s pronunciation, who grinned proudly like a dog who’d received a treat.

“I was not aware that Karkkila had a university,” I said as I shook his cold hand. His grip was strong, which I supposed was unsurprising given his Viking heritage. In the moment before he made his reply I could hear a faint whirring sound, similar to that of a gramophone record spinning on the centre spindle before being touched by the needle. At the time I dismissed the sound as of no significance.

“Karkkila Yliopisto was founded in 1847 and is one of the finest academic institutions in Finland,” he stated, and the whirring stopped. The cadence of his speech was eerie. Listening to the words, one got the impression that they were merely sounds which had to be made in a specific order rather than words with meanings attached. I reasoned that I was simply unaccustomed to the lilt of the Finnish accent.

I informed Hadleigh that I really did have quite a lot of work to be getting on with, and I turned back to my desk.

“I’ve decided to put Doctor Tuomisto in with you, Pendleton.”

“Put him in with me?”

“Well, this office is intended for two. I know you’ve had it to yourself since Doctor Clemens left last year-”

“Doctor Clemens’ leaving was nothing to with me, as I have told you before! His work was abysmal, and if it were not me it would have been one of my colleagues!”

“Enough, Pendleton! Everyone in this department is required to share an office, including you. Your thoughts on the matter are irrelevant!”

So, it was done. The empty desk which sat opposite my own was dusted off and half my office was surrendered to a man hailed as an expert on human cognition, but who had clearly yet to master human interaction. The Finn’s saving grace was that he did not say much. All the things he did decide to verbalise, however, were decidedly odd.

“Pendleton, tell me the details of your current thesis.”

“Pendleton, delineate, if you can, the unifying themes of your numerous research papers on the subject of empiricism versus nativism within the study of cognition.”

“Pendleton, share with me your thoughts on Descartes’ mind-body dualism and your reasons for these thoughts.”

I did not take to the Finn at all. His skin had an unnatural, metallic hue and his dull eyes were unshakable. His joints moved slowly, and his centre of gravity appeared to shift with each footstep, as if his body was fighting against its poor design. If Finland is filled with people like him, it must be a very queer place indeed. I decided that I should very much hate to visit a place like that.

For a couple of weeks, I hated him quietly. Each time his joints wheezed as he moved about my office in his strange, stiff way, I tutted loudly. Whenever I looked up from my work to find him staring at me as though his eyes were recording my every move, I made a rude gesture (which appeared to perplex him). Each time he probed me about my research, I suggested he return to Finland, where he was clearly much better liked.

The event which tipped my annoyance into fear transpired on a Tuesday afternoon, when I was enjoying a rare moment of solitude in my office. I glanced out of the window at the gaggle of students who were sitting in the grass, enjoying the unexpected April sunshine, and then I spotted the Finn awkwardly traversing the path leading from the library to the Micklethwaite building. I groaned inwardly at yet another intrusion by the irritating foreigner into a quiet moment, when I saw him stop quite abruptly as his right eye popped out of its socket and rolled about on the path like a large marble.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! None of the students lounging on the grass and loitering outside the campus buildings even noticed – they were much too immersed in their own idiotic conversations to notice that mere feet away from them a suspicious foreigner had spontaneously expelled one of their body parts!

The Finn looked around himself quite slowly, eased himself into a kneeling position, retrieved his runaway eyeball and carefully slotted it back into its socket. He carried on towards the Micklethwaite building in a manner suggesting nothing strange had happened at all.

That evening I returned home to find Hirsch, with whom I shared a small house at the time, sprawled on the chesterfield in the drawing room with his eyes half closed and a glass of red wine dangling in his limp grip, dripping onto the pages of the book lying open in his lap. I snatched the glass and he awoke with a start.

“Wha..? Pendy, what the…?” he sat upright and ran his fingers through his dark curly hair, as he often did upon awakening. I knocked back the remains of the wine and poured myself another from the bottle he’d left on the coffee table.

“The filthy European is a damned machine!”

“I feel this is a story which could have waited until I woke up more comfortably,” Hirsch groaned. He set the sodden book on the coffee table and lit a cigarette. “I’m getting a little tired of hearing about this chap, you know.”

“He’s not a chap! He’s a thing, he’s an it!” I told Hirsch of what I had witnessed and when I had finished he seemed irritatingly amused.

“So, what you’re telling me is that Doctor Tuomisto is an incredibly sophisticated automaton posing as a human, hellbent on stealing your research and thus ruining your career?” he chuckled.

“Yes! Why else would he appear in my life, watching my every move, asking all these questions about my work?”

“Ah yes, because your work is of great significance.”

“Oh, be quiet. I should’ve known you’d be like this, you always are after this muck!” I slammed the glass of wine back on the coffee table and stormed upstairs to the spare bedroom. Just before the door slammed behind me, I heard his taunting words chase me up the stairs.

“…yes, of course you’re right, Pendy, you always are! He’s a machine which has travelled across the North Sea specially to steal your fascinating research, because nobody else in all of Europe is half as smart or as brilliant as you are…”

Bastard.

I was certain of the Finn’s true nature, but as a loyal subscriber to the scientific method, I decided to gather more data before making any irreversible decisions.

The next day, the Finn wandered into the office and made a low hissing sound as it slowly lowered itself to a seated position at its desk. I had come to believe it to be some sort of mechanical necessity – clearly the spies at Karkkila University had not invested as much money has they should have into their pet automaton.

“Doctor Tuomisto! Just the man I had hoped to see, could you weigh in on something, please?” I was sickeningly cheerful. The Finn turned its head ninety degrees to meet my gaze.

“Yes, Doctor Pendleton. I am always happy to help.”

“Excellent. So, tell me – what are your thoughts on alumantheses?”

Its dark eyes bored into mine as it attempted to compute the nonsense word. “Alu… man… theses.” It tested the syllables.

“Yes, alumantheses. Thoughts?”

The Finn repeated the word once more. “I believe the subject of alumantheses to be of considerable intrigue and the area as a whole is deserving of further scrutiny. Don’t you agree, Doctor Pendleton?”

“Interesting, Doctor Tuomisto, very interesting indeed. Whilst we’re on the subject, what are your thoughts on diptherescence?”

Again, the Finn made a show of repeating the word slowly and pausing in mock consideration.

“I believe the subject of diptherescence to be of considerable intrigue and the area as a whole is deserving of further scrutiny. What are your thoughts on the matter, Doctor Pendleton?”

It had been programmed with a sentence template for use in response to unfamiliar terms. There was no doubt – it was a machine!

For several hours I seethed, infuriated at the insolence and utter weasly nature of the dirty worms at Karkkila University for being so threatened by my research that they would attempt to steal it, and at Hirsch’s disbelief that my research would be worth stealing.

I was sick of science being wielded as a weapon. I had devoted my life to the study of the human mind, and where had it gotten me? Out of ideas and barely middle-aged, sharing an office with a dirty foreigner for weeks before finally stumbling upon the discovery that it wasn’t even a real man.

Reader, it was this moment of utter mortification at my lacking intellect that drove me towards my downfall. I was sick of looking at the Finn. I decided to bash its stupid metal face in.

*      *      *

“So, Doctor Tuomisto, how are you enjoying our humble university?”

The Finn’s neck wheezed as it turned its head ninety degrees to look at me. “I am adjusting to your institution most pleasantly, thank you for asking.”

“Is it much different to your university in Karkkila? It is Karkkila, isn’t it?”

“Yes. My home university is Karkkila Yliopisto, with a student population of 8152, home of the Karkkila Bears, who have won a total of three pesäpallo games against competing universities. Pesäpallo is a Finnish sport in which…”

There was, as always, an abundance of words but a dearth of intelligent information. A further twenty-five minutes passed without incident or conversation. I pretended to write fervent notes for much of this time, all the while carefully listening to the sounds of my colleagues locking their offices for the evening and saying goodbye to one another.

By half past seven, there were no sounds at all from the corridor outside.

“Doctor Pendleton, you have been working for several hours. I am interested in your work. Describe it in detail, please.”

“Perhaps later,” I paused, as if a thought had just occurred to me. “Damn. I think I left some of my notes in the library. I’ll be back in a few minutes, Doctor Tuomisto.”

The Finn stood up so abruptly that its chair clattered to the floor. “I will retrieve your notes. I will return promptly.” The stupid machine clomped down the corridor, determined to complete the wild goose chase.

As its heavy footsteps died with distance, I darted out of the office and strode quickly up and down the corridor, peering into each office window. All of them were empty, with the lights switched off. There entire building was most likely deserted.

I darted back into my office and rifled through my desk drawer, my hand finding the paperweight, one of two objects I had ensured were inside earlier that day. The glass cube felt heavy and important in my hand, and I found myself trembling.

Behind the open door was the best place to hide, and I stood with the paperweight raised over my head, my left foot positioned slightly forward. I was ready to pounce. Several minutes passed and I wondered where the infernal thing had gotten to. Just as my arm was beginning to ache I heard a noise outside and my whole body jerked, flinging the paperweight into the door, where it bounced back and hit me square in the jaw.

Pain erupted in my face and I whimpered involuntarily. I set the paperweight down on my desk, retrieved the second object from my desk drawer and took a quick swig. The liquid pleasantly burnt my lips and eased the pain in my jaw. I had hoped it would steady my nerves, but it did not.

“Hello, Doctor Pendleton. I was unable to retrieve your notes from the library.”

I whipped around, then froze. The Finn was in closer proximity than I had anticipated and we almost collided. This was the first time I had been close enough to examine its dark, inscrutable eyes, and I wondered if perhaps the whole damned thing had been a product of my imagination. Were those eyes truly as lifeless as I had assumed?

Suddenly, the metal man looked quite human.

“Perhaps you would like to recite your notes, I would be happy to-”

The paperweight cracked heavily against the surprisingly thin metal which had been painted to resemble skin, and it was only when my hand drew back that mind caught up to body. The Finn staggered backwards. There was a large dent in its left temple and the whirring noise was louder than it had ever been previously.

There was no scenario in which I could leave this miserable job half done and escape unimplicated. I approached the spasming machine, raised the paperweight above my head and, god help me, I did not stop until the whole ghastly thing was finished.

Towards the end, it became difficult. Sparks flew from the Finn’s joints; its eyes were pinwheels and its entire body seized and shook. Suddenly the limbs flew away from the torso, shot past me and smashed against the four walls of my office, leaving the abandoned torso to clatter against the floorboards.

I was a murderer.

No. It was just a machine. Machines can’t be killed.

It was an interesting conundrum. What makes a killer? Does the victim require a certain level of sentience, or is the sensation of killing sufficient to change a person irrevocably from man to murderer?

As I knelt by the remains of the Finn and peered down at the mess, the torso swung upon on a hinge and I was sprayed with a thick black liquid. It stung terribly as it appeared to bond to my skin; I gagged on the smell and began to hyperventilate. I would later scrub my skin red raw in the shower, and it would be futile.

The black liquid has long since faded, after staining my skin for several days. The infection, however, has yet to fade. With each passing day I find it increasingly difficult to write as the muscles in my hands continue to inexplicably atrophy and my eyes lose their ability to focus. I have thrown blankets over every mirror in the house so that I do not have to risk catching sight of myself – once a man, then a murderer, now a spectre.

My body cries for rest but rarely finds it. My nights are fitful spats of broken sleep, wherein I am taunted by nightmares in which Finnish academics have tracked me down and threaten my life for destroying their spying machine. I am tired. Hirsch has left.

As far as I know, the remains of the Finn are still where I left them: locked in my office’s equipment cupboard, the only key to which is in my possession. In the days following the killing my telephone was ringing a lot, presumably Hadleigh wondering where on Earth I’d gotten to. It rings less frequently now.

I wonder each day about the true purpose of the Finn. Was it ever really trying to steal my work, or was it simply pushing me into a scenario in which it could douse me with poison? And if so, why? More importantly, who would build such a machine and send it to my door?

Such questions hardly seem relevant now.

I fear the Finns will come for me.

 

 

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J.L. CORBETT is the editor of Idle Ink, an online publisher of curious fiction. Her short stories have been featured in Storgy Magazine and Preoccupied With The History Department. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read, and she doesn’t get out much.

 

Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

 

 

Snapshot – Olivia Fitzsimons

There are no photos anymore. It’s seems strange to think that once we even photographed our food, our shoes, our selves. Tiny made up records of our lives. Carefully curated memories. Shared with strangers the world over. Made videos that lived and died on a server, a snapshot of your views, your days, your arse. Liked and loved and corresponded without words at all just symbols.

It was fine too, recording everything as this place turned slowly into perilous paradise, while trying to avoid the other images on your feed. Brazil burning to the ground. Sahara spreading and surrounding African cities that succumbed rapidly to desertification. Ignoring Paris drowning slowly, the Louvre submerged and history destroyed piece by piece. It was comical initially, watching swimming in the seine but when the waters didn’t subside, when temperatures didn’t drop, everything changed. Then everything stopped. Ireland ourselves alone. It seemed like a bad joke. I try to stay out of the sun.

I still carry my old phone, battery long dead, storing thousands of moments that I stole or forced from life. Sometimes I long to sit idly flicking through 20 variations of the one picture to find that perfect look. Editing life to make it covetable. Colours brighter, everything vibrant and eye catching. Heighten that idyllic sunset. Crop the blemished bystander in the bad coat from the profile of your life. Deleting anything that didn’t fit the performance. Life as a portrait.

A familiar feeling washes over me I’d thought I’d forgotten and I take out a battered iPhone, screen cracked and just hold it. Most people keep devices like relics. I know I should stop carrying it around with me. A useless piece of ancient technology.

I never kept photos in my wallet. That was a thing old people did. Not that we need wallets anymore but still I’d like a photograph. I see people sometimes in the camps linger over treasured pictures, they are always alone, sometimes it seems that they only exist on paper, that they aren’t really here at all.

On a board outside the village, there are thousands of pictures of missing people, pinned with tacks, and mouldy bits of tape, the oldest images battered by the elements, bleached out by the sun, smiling happy faces lost all over again. Often I find myself standing there staring up at all these unknown, giving them pretend lives, loves, deaths, because no one has ever taken a person from that board. No one has ever been found. I was going to be a photographer. I think about the images I would take more often than I should. I let my mind wander more frequently than is safe. I check my phone again. Stomach pains flare. Hunger cuts me open. There are no photos anymore.

 

 

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OLIVIA FITZSIMONS is a northerner living in Greystones, County Wicklow. Takes her feral children to the woods often, swims in the sea and loves to get lost.
Shortlisted Sunday Business Post Penguin Short Story Prize 2017
Shortlisted Retreat West Flash Fiction Competition 2017
John Hewitt Summer School Bursary Winner 2017

 

Image: via Pxhere

 

 

The Reaping – Philip Berry

The last Galen fighting ship corkscrewed away, its lateral engine trailing a spiral of purple smoke. Small elements became separated from the curve of its hull. When their reflective parts caught the sun they glared momentarily before fading into the massive shadow cast by an adjacent moon. The rate of separation looked modest, the movements of each particle graceful, but the forces were immense and the suited human soldiers being hurled through the smoking rents blacked out long before their air supplies ran down.

General Fent Spaith, 35 years old, watched from the bridge of his command cruiser. A square head and prematurely greying temples exaggerated the impression of natural authority. The battle was won. It marked the close of a decade long war, the last in a series of eight wars that had spanned seventy-five years. The mutually agreed periods of respite between wars had allowed each of the three sides to re-group and re-arm; Galens, Antonians and Korzyra.

General Spaith, leader of the Antonian military, had joined forces with the Galens as the eighth war commenced. Together they had vanquished the Korzyra. Then, without warning, the Antonian force had abandoned the treaty of alliance and turned on the weakened Galen fleet.

Others had counted the total number of lives lost. Others had measured the obscene percentages of metals and organic materials that had been vaporised during the Long Fight. But these data did not interest Spaith. He had proved the doubters wrong. The doubters were dead. He had killed them all in the prelude to the eighth conflict. In doubting him, they had undermined the war effort. History would absolve the dictatorship he had established.

“Congratulations Sir,” said his Aide de Camp from across the pentagonal bridge. Smoke, resulting from surges in some of the instruments, had been supressed into a dense carpet by xenon purges. The Aide de Camp was called Bolan, and he was an artificial. Spaith’s entire staff were artificial. He preferred them that way.

“Thank-you Bolan.” Spaith’s words were slightly muffled by the air-supply he wore over nose and mouth. “And what of that Galen coloniser? It escaped the peripheral net during the firefight.”

“I took the liberty of issuing orders to set up an even wider net… I didn’t want to trouble you during the closing manoeuvres. The coloniser is heading towards a string of linked Mercs as we speak. They have laid ripple chains across its path.”

Lungless Bolan breathed easily in the xenon.

Spaith nodded. “Good. Make sure they wrap around. I don’t want it disabled, I want it destroyed. And let me know when it’s done. How large, by the way?”

“The coloniser? Small. There are 900,000 souls on board.”

“I was surprised how easily they fell for it, the Galens.”

“You had been cultivating them as potential allies for many years sir, since the sixth war. Did you always intend the double-cross?”

“Yes Bolan. The long game. It requires patience.”

“I see sir. Their trust in you was… naïve.”

Spaith gave Bolan a quizzical look.

Bolan moved forward. His shins swished through the smoke and left eddies above the floor. He wore the uniform of Spaith’s army: dark blue textile, silver piping on the trouser legs and the arms of his tunic. Silver insignia – five semi-circles – on his right shoulder, indicating the high-rank that justified his presence here. Spaith looked back from featureless viewing screen. The smoking carcasses of every defeated ship had either fallen out of view, or been vaporised in the clean-up.

Bolan was coming too close. Spaith wasn’t used to proximity like this.

“Bolan?”

“Please, Sir, this is an historic moment. Let me be the first to shake your hand.”

“Err…of course. Pleased to.” He extended a hand to the artificial. Bolan took it, and held Spaith’s wrist with his other hand in a comradely gesture. Then he tore Spaith’s hand off in one swift, sure motion.

“BOLAN!” Spaith sank to the ground on his knees. “What are you…?” The General held the stump with his good hand, and watched the blood well up from the raw surface in horror. He clasped it to his chest like a child would a precious bird.

But he had already retaliated.

A combination of eye movements that one could only accomplish by using each extra-ocular muscle in a pre-determined sequence had activated a personal distress call through neural sensor implanted very early on in his military career. The small legion of personal (artificial) guards who resided in the walls of the ship sprang to life, burst through the thin metal panels that had hidden them during the entire campaign, and stormed the bridge, encircling Spaith in less than thirty seconds.

None touched Bolan, who stepped back.

“Watch him boys,” Bolan instructed them, calmly.

“KILL HIM!” ordered Spaith, gesturing at Bolan.

“General, your personal guard are loyal only to me. They will look after you. Medic, treat him.”

One of the guards pulled the stump from Spaith’s chest, irradiated it gently, picked off two arterial spurters with a cauterising beam, and dressed it in a traditional crepe bandage.

Spaith’s bewilderment grew and grew. “Bolan, what is this? We have won. I have led you to victory. Who is behind this mutiny? Whose orders are you following?”

“General Crall.”

“Matthew Crall?”

“They are his orders.”

“He’s still alive?”

“Very.”

“I… I heard he’d been irradiated by a solar flare in the Dallant system?”

“He recovered. He is close. I am permitted to speak for him. Here. This will allow you to focus.”

Bolan reached for an object in his pelvic cavity, through an intelligent seal just below the place a human umbilicus would lie. He held out a chipped enamel cup, standard military issue to new cadets.

Spaith’s expression changed.

“You remember it. Good. General Crall thought you would.”

For General Spaith, things began to fall into place.

*     *     *

The cup used to sit in Matthews Crall’s locker. On the second day of the first term at the training academy he had showed it off to the other boarders, rotating it lovingly in his hands, pointing out the seamless lines. Matthew told them that his parents had bought it from the only shop in the quadrant that stocked equipment with the academy’s official design – a scatter of points in the shape of the nearby Anvil Nebula.

Fent Spaith, eleven-years old, said nothing as this precious object was lauded.

Through the following weeks he noted how it was brought out every evening when the boys were allowed to make hot chocolate. Matthew washed it and dried it carefully, then placed it back in the locker – a misnomer, for nothing was locked in the academy. Trust in one’s fellow cadets was absolute.

The boys, one hundred of them, were tested throughout the year. The results of these tests were displayed on public boards. Fent did well, and was reliably in the top five. The top three, based on cumulative scores, were taken off-world at the end of the first year to an advanced training facility.

The year’s final test was a full war game, in which each cadet piloted their own craft in a sphere of space with a diameter of 300 kilometres. Its boundaries were lined with field-nets. The craft were designed to absorb laser energy without exploding; instead, their brittle alloy hulls disintegrated, leaving the pilots suspended in protective rescue fields, where they hung until the game was completed.

The transparent and barely perceptible naso-oral specs worn whenever they visited an extra-atmospheric training theatre channelled an inexhaustible supply of air. But while they languished, the cadets were vulnerable to further indignity. If a fellow cadet aimed a laser at their chest badge – a larger version of the Anvil – their cumulative score would be reduced by ninety points. This was enough to pull them way down the ranking.

The primary aim of the game? To destroy a cube of hard mineral that hovered on the far side of the sphere. None of the training cadets had enough firepower at their thumb-tip to achieve this alone; a minimum of eight craft had to fire into the same spot to break down the crystal structure. Once that had been achieved, the cadet who reaped the greatest weight of mineral rubble in the scoop slung under their hull won the game.

It was called The Reaping.

Fent formulated a plan. He worked on it from the middle of the second term. Such scheming was not unknown, as academy lore told that to win The Reaping required more than flying and shooting skills; it demanded political aptitude.

So Fent identified and recruited a team of twenty fellow cadets. They agreed to watch each other’s backs, play interference, engage other groups and, when the density of craft had been sufficiently reduced, align for the final assault. Then they would concentrate their fire, smash the cube, and clean up. The twist, the hook… points garnered from the spoils would be shared across the twenty, even if some of them were disintegrated in the process. Points awarded would be proportionate to the number of ‘kills’, that is, disintegrations and badge shots. Each of the twenty recruits liked the idea. It was novel. Their supervisor liked it, and she recorded in her training file that Fent had shown promising ingenuity.

Several days before the game Fent looked carefully over the latest rankings. He lay third. Good. But he wanted to be first. Matthew Crall was second, lying twelve points ahead of Fent. If they both had a good game and were not shot, their relative positions would remain unchanged. Crall was in the group of twenty. He was an ally. On the night before the game, Fent went to sleep in a troubled state of mind. Troubled, but certain of what needed to be done.

*     *     *

“Matthew, you got those purple scum covered?”

“They’re toast.”

Fent Spaith smiled. Matthew was doing a good job, leading a sub-unit of five craft on a mission to corner the major threat to the Twenties strategy. Fifteen cadets had come together in opposition to Fent’s initiative, and with the permission of the supervisor had splashed the noses of their craft with purple paint. Their leader, Yamina Vaye, had taken down three Twenties already. The pilots were still spinning in their rescue nets, trying to slow themselves down by dragging their fingers through the invisible fields.

Matthew was angry. He spotted an opportunity during a long roll, adjusted his yaw, waited a moment longer as Yamina’s aft section slid into his crosshairs, and watched her craft crumble in the glow of his laser. She screamed as the structure collapsed around her, but she was in no physical danger. Matthew swooped down to face her, made eye contact, smiled, and blasted her chest. The field protected her, but the badge on her chest registered the hit. The ranking computer adjusted itself. Yamina fell from eighth to twenty-third place.

“Well done Matthew. Time to regroup, bring your five back, we’re clear for the cube.”

Fent was dominating the theatre. He had personally destroyed six craft. Altogether, the Twenties had destroyed a quarter of the field. Lone rangers, twosomes and triads were too nervous to approach the cube. The twenty (actually fifteen by now) were ranging across the cube’s six faces in well organised formations. They owned it.

“Line up Twenties,” ordered Fent, “Last six to arrive, I want you to cover us. Martha, you’re furthest from us, I want you to hang back and signal any surprise attacks. There may be a late forming group who haven’t shown their cards yet. It’s what I would have done.”

And indeed, as the nine Twenties lined up and prepared to blast the cube, a chevron a craft stormed into the space beneath them firing incessantly. Three Twenties collapsed into flailing limbs. The firing line was now down to six, too few to damage the cube.

“Martha, Tommy, Vera… join the line, now, NOW!”

Fent span off the line in a parabola, spraying fire with fearsome accuracy. The chevron of attacking craft split, two were destroyed, the remaining three lost heart. Their pilots did not fancy being scooped up at the end of the game, perhaps ninety points the poorer.

When the three laggers had joined the line Matthew Crall took charge.

“Lower right corner, on three – one-two-three FIRE!”

Nine beams converged on the cube. It resisted for a minute. The cadets watched their power reserves drain. But at last the mineral cracked. A defect enlarged from the heated corner towards the centre, then zagged back, reaching the top side and causing the heavy mass to split.

“Right fragment!” shouted Fent.

The beams stopped, then leaped forward again, quickly crumbling the larger half of the broken cube. The surviving Twenties systematically reduced the fragments into ever smaller parts. Pilots in nearby craft watched jealously. Cadets out in the sphere who were caught in rescue fields put magnifiers to their eyes and watched.

The mop up took half an hour. Matthew Crall filled his scoop and turned for the base. Fent’s craft slid into his path.

“Hey, Fent, your scoop’s only half full! There’s nothing left.”

“It’s OK Matthew. I know where to find some.” A line of light connected Fent’s gun to Matthew’s flank. Matthew’s craft fell briskly apart. He fell into the instant field, reflexively covering his head with his arms as components swirled around him. When he brought his arms down and looked out into the almost empty sphere (a few rocks floating, a handful of cadets watching in fascination), his badge was glowing with the attenuated heat of Fent’s laser.

*     *     *

Twenty-four years later General Spaith sat in the commander’s chair, bound by sticky fields. His amputated arm throbbed, but was no longer bleeding. A sub-window in the corner of the large viewing screen showed the arrival of a shuttle. The markings indicated that the occupant was a general.

Twenty minutes later Matthew Crall entered the bridge. His frame was spare, his face narrow, but he wore his black hair long, and he had an air of authority about him that he had lacked at the academy. The artificial crew turned towards him in as one. Spaith turned the chair with a movement of his remaining, free hand.

“Crall. What is this game? You have no authority in this theatre.”

“My authority is broader than you can imagine Fent. You’ll forgive me if I use first names. We know each other so well, after all.”

“But you… you barely made it out of the academy. Your career… it was pure nepotism. Your mother…”

“She helped, I will admit that. But my contribution to Antonian society was never going to be marshal. No. Moral rather. That was always my strength.”

Spaith’s gaze was empty. He had no idea where his old classmate was going with this. But he sensed that there were forces in this room about which he had no comprehension.

Matthew Crall approached the commander’s chair. He moved his head, and an artificial deactivated the sticky fields. Spaith sprang to his feet. The same artificial held him back with a rigid shoulder grip.

“Hold your temper Fent,” Matthew’s lips brushed Fent’s ear as he whispered. “These artificials are on trigger settings. They’ll pull you apart if they conclude I am in danger.”

“Then explain to me. Why am I being treated like this.”

Matthew stepped away. “Because your morality is no longer required. It has served its purpose. Your abilities – to persuade, cajole, dissimulate and double-cross – were exactly what we needed to win the final war, but we cannot allow those values to infect our great society.”

“What is this naïve rubbish?”

Crall trembled at the word naïve. His gaze hardened.

“You accused me of naivety once before Fent. Do you remember?”

“No.”

“Then watch. Bolan.”

Bolan extended an arm, spread a palm and projected a recording onto the viewing screen. Fent saw himself as an eleven-year old, from the point of view of another cadet. He stood in the corridor with the food lockers, barring the way to anyone who might pass. The wearer of the cam, Matthew Crall, spoke. Moving shadows and indistinct murmurings gave the impression that other cadets lined the walls, anticipating a confrontation. The view swivelled to a locker door. Matthew’s hand reached for the enamel cup. Then Matthew tried to proceed along the corridor. Fent blocked him.

“I only want to get a drink Fent.”

“No. You can’t. Why have you appealed to the supervisor?”

“Because I was on your side, and you shot me.”

“Show me the rule that says I shouldn’t have.”

“There are no rules Fent, you know that, but it’s wrong.”

“And nothing to do with falling to thirty-three in the ranking? You really think they’ll rescind the strike? Never. The game is for grown-ups! I won. You lost. That’s how war works! Or didn’t your Mummy tell you the facts of life!”

Fent reached forward. His hand loomed in the cam’s field of view. When it was withdrawn its fingers were curled round the enamel cup.

“It’s time to learn some of those facts Matthew. The ranking stands. GET IT?”

Fent held the cup in the angle between the locker’s door and its hinge, then slammed the door shut. The force dented the mug. Splinters of white enamel exploded off its surface, revealing a dark blue undercoat. The cup fell to the floor and rocked on its side until it came to rest. Matthew knelt down, the floor rose up on the viewing panel, and a pale hand extended to retrieve the ruined object. The audience of artificials and two humans, Spaith and Crall, heard a low howl – the young Matthew’s anguish. A child’s distress. A symbol of home, comfort, destroyed.

The film stopped, the screen turned grey, then reverted to an external view of space. The adjacent moon threw off reflected light, blood-orange, deriving from the system’s old star.

Fent faced his accuser boldly. “So this is revenge, for a childish argument.”

“It is more than that Fent. In this display of petulance and ambition you sealed your fate. I had only just returned from the game. My cam was still activated. The supervisor saw this footage. She contacted my parents. My mother intervened. She was on the ethics council, you knew that didn’t you?”

“She carved your career out for you. We all knew that Matthew.”

“More than that. She nurtured your career too, in a way. Manoeuvred your postings, dangled you in harm’s way but ensured you were not killed… made you the little Napoleon you are. But without his reforming zeal.”

Spaith was looking around the bridge. “Are we being filmed?”

“Everything is recorded, all the time.”

“So superior. Yet you let me win this war at great sacrifice. As we speak, nearly a million Galen’s are drifting into a ripple-net. Your precious ethics allow that, so long as it secures the Antonian hegemony. Damned hypocrite.”

“Don’t worry Fent. The coloniser is not a problem. The 900,000 souls are all artificials. The Galen’s saw you coming.”

“You tipped them off. And yet they still permitted the destruction of their fighting force?”

“They recognised that your strategy was fundamentally sound. The pincer movement on the Korzyran fleet was necessary. But the Galens were careful to put no more resources into the theatre than absolutely necessary. The coloniser was a distraction. It worked. The last Korzyran order was to chase it down, and that brought them into your sights. We have signed a treaty of long term co-existence with the Galens.”

Fent had nothing more to say. He had been out-thought.

“Enough,” said Matthew, “It’s time to go.” He drew a blaster, threw the enamel cup into a mobile field so that it spun on its vertical axis in the xenon-heavy air, and shot it. The force tore the cup from the field and into the viewing window. It bounced off, a black and charred echo of its once gleaming form, and fell to the floor… again.

“Fent. Bolan will escort you to the academy. Your injury, sustained in action, precludes you from military rank. Your place in our society will be as a tutor – tactics, formations, artillery. That is your fate. Goodbye. I am taking this ship.”

When Spaith’s personal shuttle, piloted by Bolan, was ten kilometres from the command cruiser, the general’s face began to twitch. He winked three times, looked up, then down, then left, then left again. It was a very unnatural sequence of movements.

“What are you doing?” asked Bolan, turning away from the controls. His blank face betrayed no concern, but his tone did.

“It’s done.”

“What have you…?”

Behind them, silent in space, the hull of the command cruiser began to undulate.

“I just triggered a five second mass auto-destruct of every single crew member.”

Pale smoke began to leak from the bridge, which was situated on a sloped tower. In the engine room, where artificials worked in a radiation soaked environment without danger of sickness, mutation or malignancy, two hundred medium-level explosions immediately shut down the ship’s power and caused a chain reaction. The lower part of the ship blew out, releasing a shower of humanoid forms into the void. They were not scared. They did not need oxygen. They would remain sentient until the freezing temperature arrested the flow of positrons in their distributed cortices.

“The thing I have always loved about Antonian artificials, Bolan, is their absolute dependability, at the end of the day. If, that is, you happen to have gone to the academy with the chief programmer and persuaded him to embed the right sequences destruct before setting out to war. Poor Matthew, for all his finer instincts, he never did understand human nature.”

Bolan had turned back to piloting the shuttle. He readied himself for the expanding force wave that would soon catch up with them. Then he glanced at the shrivelled enamel mug that an inexplicable impulse had led him to collect from the floor before entering the shuttle. He took in its warped shape, its ulcerated surface, its rough lip from which no one would ever sip… and pondered a dilemma in his customary, algorithmic manner – how long, really, can the Antonians reign?

 

 

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PHILIP BERRY recently published a collection of SF short stories called Bonewhite Light. Explore his work at www.philberrycreative.wordpress.com or @philaberry  

 

Image: prettysleepy via Pixabay

 

 

Curiosity – James Wise

There was a time I thought my life was all it’d ever be. Attended by many careful hands and kept in a sterile room, I was loved, monitored, nurtured and protected.

So it was quite a shock when they put me on top of a massive rocket and fired it into space. I drifted for a million miles before bouncing to an unceremonious stop on this remote world.

Now I wheel slowly onwards, tilting my dusty face to a bronze sky, a distant peak, to peer at the rocks. I see no one else and never will. I take selfies.

 

 

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JAMES WISE has been writing most of his life, with poems published in local Oxford anthologies Hidden Treasures and Island City, alongside Tom Paulin and Paul Muldoon. With an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, James has had short stories featured in MIROnline and Issue 14 of The Mechanics’ Institute Review.

 

Image: Skeeze via Pixabay

 

 

Yellow – Barbara Lovric

She was yellow with fear. Cold Piss ran through her veins instead of hot down her leg. This was no super hero Marvel movie where she could sprout wings and loop the fuck out of there. Though she wished it was. Wished it was. Wishes are fishes. Fishes are wishes.

“Fucking cop on yourself already for feck’s sake,” Jimmy hissed, breath steaming like the train which had just left the station.

“That’s the last train.” Mandy’s voice trembled. They had missed it by seconds. Some fella with a belly of one too many pints and a heart attack waiting to happen had tried to stick his hand in the gap to hold it open, eyes big as his belly. He knew. Oh yes, he knew.

Jimmy ignored the display blinking NOT IN SERVICE. NOT IN SERVICE. “It fucking isn’t.”

But they were alone on the platform.

“It’s like that movie. Warriors. Warriors. Come out and play. Remember, Jimmy. Remember?”

“Yeah, I wish homicidal gangs were our worst problem.”

Mandy wrapped her piss cold arms around herself. “There’s no way out now.”

Jimmy put his arm around her as the red tail lights of the train disappeared around the tunnel bend. “Doesn’t matter. Where the fuck they gonna go, anyway?”

“End of the line. End of the line for everyone,” Mandy giggled.

Jimmy dropped his arm and for the first time looked at her like a liability.

“Don’t you leave me, Jimmy Murphy. Don’t you fucking leave me.” Her voice rose with every syllable. She could see him weighing his options. It only took a second or two. Didn’t matter they’d been together for five years, an abortion, his brother’s suicide and a trial. None of that mattered now. Nothing mattered…”

He grabbed her hand and pulled “Come on. I know a way out.”

“But where we gonna go, Jimmy? Where we gonna go?”

He didn’t answer, just ran. She had no choice but to go with him.

They made it to the surface and darkness. It was quiet as a nightmare before the monster pounces. The alarm clock of Mandy’s pounding heart wouldn’t slow down. They’ll find us now. Find us for sure.

But the streets were empty as a Christmas dawning.

No more Christmases. Not ever. Ever. Can’t go home. There were no homes any way. Only cells. They were gathering them up, slamming the doors and throwing away the key. Mandy felt the window eyes watching. The curtains twitching. Was it better to be locked up waiting for the food to run out? For everyone to turn on each other? For mothers to eat their young?

What would you do, Mandy? Would you eat Jimmy? Would ya? Huh?

“I know where there’s a boat.” Jimmy said as they crouched behind some bins. Where were the rats? Surely, they would inherit the earth along with the cockroaches?

“We’re too far from the water, Jimmy. We’ll never make it.”

“Bullshit,” Jimmy said and they started running.

It was late or early or somewhere in between and the air slap dashed against their faces as they ran through mist that had either fallen from the charcoal sky or risen from the ground like huffing and puffing corpses dragging themselves from hell. It’s a nightmare, right? All just a nightmare. I’m gonna wake up, Jimmy by my side and we’ll have a smoke and laugh about it. He’ll tell me I’m a psycho and better lay off the drugs but I stopped that shit years ago so what the fuck is this now?

“Mandy.” Jimmy panted and heaved but his voice was full of something both had forgotten. Hope.

The pier was empty. Not a sail boat, yacht or cargo ship in sight. Maybe the mist had swallowed them whole.

“Are we dead, Jimmy? Is that it? Are we dead and just don’t know it yet?”

Jimmy laughed. “You edjit. Look.”

She followed his finger to the dinghy lap dancing against the pier. The tide was high and all they had to do was step into it and push off.

Thank Christ. She’d never believed in God but someone or something was looking out for them. Drawn Jimmy through the fog to the pier. Saved a boat, a small boat but big enough for the two of them to hold hands and sail into the sunset. There’s no sun, stupid. Haven’t seen that fucker for ten days, ha ha days, ten whatever the fuck, now.

There was no motor so Mandy lay back while Jimmy did the rowing.

“Is it getting warmer, Jimmy,” she said five minutes or five hours later. Hard to tell in unshifting twilight.

“You fucking joking?” Jimmy said, sweat lashing from his forehead. “You laying there like a princess and me killing myself here.”

“A princess you rescued. I love you, Jimmy.”

Jimmy grunted.

It was then Mandy noticed the water. “We got a leak, Jimmy. Oh fuck. The boat’s got a leak.”

Jimmy drew in the oars. “Look for something. Something to bleeding shove in the hole.”

But there was nothing.

“Jesus, Jimmy. It’s like bath water. Like a sauna. Like a lie down after a hard day’s work and someone’s rubbing the job out of your muscles and I’m just going lay back in it for a bit. Float like. Jimmy?”

But Jimmy was already lying next to her. Steam rising from him like a train through the night. If only we’d caught the train. If only…

Mandy started leaking. What harm? Everyone pissed in the sea. As the water turned yellow like spices in a soup, she felt herself fading, eyelids going down like a sinking ship and luxuriating in the warmth.

Christ, Jimmy, I can’t remember the last time I felt this warm. This good. Jimmy?

But Jimmy was a thought. A memory through a sieve as Mandy cooked in the hot water. He was her last thought and it was a good one.

She never even felt the spear pierce her flesh.

 

 

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BARBARA LOVRIC is originally from America but living in Ireland some 20 years. Recently long listed for the Bare Fiction Short Story Prize, Barbara was also shortlisted for the 2017 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year award. Twitter: @BALovric

 

Image: StockSnap via Pixabay

 

 

Trap Street Irregulars – Peter Haynes

A man came to me as I was locking up for the night. He brought in a gust of cold air, hugged himself warm on the bench by the donations box. The high crackle of tyres on wet tarmac screened out as I closed the door.

“This isn’t a church where I come from,” he said. His face was familiar though I could not place him, covered as it was in a layer of dirt.

“Are you hurt?” I asked. “Hungry? I can call the hostel. They usually have beds.”

“How long has this been your god’s house?” he asked.

“This has always been a place of worship. Are you lost?”

The man laughed. “Is that him?” he asked, pointing at the crucifix with an expression of less-than-sacramental amusement.

“It is. An equal part of him anyway.”

“Then I’ve met your god,” the man said. “He drinks at the Bricklayers Arms on Warren Road and he’d find this behaviour puzzling. Do you have a Warren Road here?”

“Listen, friend. It’s late -”

“I found a map,” he continued. “Of where I live, only different. I found it here, in the basement of this building. On a bend in Willow Street it showed a path I’d never seen before. I went there and turned — just a little to the right, or was it left? — and here I was. In this city, not mine. Cursed by curiosity!”

“Can you show me this map?” I asked. “Perhaps you will remember where you live?”

The man stood — taller than me by a hand — and took out a folded sheet of paper. On it I could see my city’s streets, the familiar blocky representations of shopping centres and car parks. I felt confident we would find his way home. The longer I looked, however, the less the map made sense until all that remained was a jumble of oblique corners and patches of static. All, that is, except one name, dissipating where the collector roads of estates danced in jagged scintillations.

Trap Street.

I don’t know how long I stared but at last I was forced to sit and hang my head from dizziness.

“Doesn’t make sense, does it?” he said. “You don’t belong there anymore than I belong here.”

“What do you want?” I demanded.

“Have you ever been invisible?” he asked. “I have learned in just a few days that you can become…unreadable to a place as that map is unreadable to you. ‘Awful to lose your home,’ I’ve heard some say. ‘Terrible luck, but perhaps if he didn’t drink so much?’ And the headaches, the stumbling. You feel it.”

My mind was swimming in disconnected junctions and overlapping slip roads. I tried to get to my feet but there was a weight in my bones keeping me down.

“Look, I don’t think I can help you.”

“I think you can. See, not everything is different here. Take this building: mostly the same but with different furniture.” He gestured to the altar pieces shining with the day’s last light from high windows. “This is a place of shelter in my city.”

“As it is here,” I heard myself say.

“I need to look in the basement,” he said. “I promise I won’t hurt you. Please?”

He offered a hand grimed by nights lost in streets he could not navigate. I took hold and he led me to the basement door, flicking on lights as he went.

“After you,” I said. I could lock him in maybe? Make a call and have someone pick him up. I had all of the numbers but none of the courage.

“Can you manage?” he asked, looking down the stairs.

“If I trip, you’ll break my fall,” I said.

In the basement, stacks of broken pews awaited repair. There were paintings propped up here and there of miscellaneous holy figures. The stranger identified them as we passed: that one, his next-door neighbour; there, the man who runs the off-license; the young paramedic who came when his mother had a fall; that doctor who never minded the clock running over if it was serious.

Their names and deeds were all known to him. To me: strangers.

We found the map in the elasticated pocket of an old leather suitcase. It showed my city, though a half-century older. The streets and buildings were smaller, more crammed in. “See for yourself. I can’t look at it,” he said, and busied himself tidying the clutter while I searched.

It couldn’t really be there, could it?

What I found was impossible to deny. Our Trap Street was near to where the river ducked into concrete culverts beneath the industrial parts. I led him down and through that decaying district to the plain brick wall of an abandoned factory where no such road existed.

“How does this work?” I asked, but before he could answer, the ring of a bell. I stepped back from the approaching cyclist, looked again but the stranger was gone.

Could I really say all this happened, if following my natural inclination for the truth? I do not know and anyway who would ask?

What should I say, then, about those who wander by choice? The curious; those who cry against the slow crawl of the day or sing to themselves in empty rooms? Easy to deem them artefacts of folly to be removed completely from sight. Perhaps only when we can turn — to the right, or was it the left? — and see from slantwise vantage the prisons in which each of us is incarcerated will we see it is the other that proves this world true.

Could ours not also become a city of saints?

Perhaps the stranger would destroy his map. Would he expect me to do the same?

I could not and it waits there now amongst the junk and sacred icons, left to dust and darkness until needed.

 

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PETER HAYNES lives and writes in Birmingham, UK. His work has appeared in Unsung Stories, Reliquiae Journal, Litro USA, Spelk Fiction, Hypertext Magazine and elsewhere. In 2016 his writing was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association award in short fiction. You can find him on Twitter @ManOfZinc.

 

Image: Hnyja via Pixabay

 

 

Where Night Lights Tremble* – Clio Velentza

They met at the empty café, where gravity gave in to the occasional glitch. As he waited, his tea parted briefly in two. He gathered the sugar granules with a fingertip. The coffee maker gurgled. Outside, snow kept piling on red sand.

She slid into the opposite seat.

“You broke the world,” she said. “And failed to fix it.”

The table hovered for a moment, and the tea froze into a golden orb. He peered through it. “I thought I could make things right.”

Her upside-down reflection shook its head. A feather flattened itself against the window, its vane slick and blue. She touched the glass.

“Perhaps this was someone we knew.”

Hot currents carried the feather off. Snowflakes swirled, mingled with clumps of ash. The neon signs cast their last words across the desert.

She gestured at the sky, and a star followed her hand like a moth. “I thought the end would be grime and gloom. But it’s splendid. Like when it all began.”

“Like when we put it all together.”

“When it seemed this Time would be the one to stick.”

They exchanged a smile. Above them Aurora Borealis sighed, billowed and sang. The eager star blinked in sudden surprise, as if recalling something important. It wavered and fell, and crashed into its mates.

 

*Andreas Kalvos, from Fifth Ode; To The Muses

 

 

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Image: via Pxhere

 

 

Lucinda – Christie Wilson

forecast: clear and windy

data: conclusively inconclusive
in reference to explorations

Lucinda stands tall by the river
waders wet, muddy drops
decorating the grass

inside the sunshine,
artificial of course and no longer
present since the requisite
year has passed,

they found traces of
pure gold
leading Lucinda, test tube in hand
to the now gray and murky shores

forecast: windy and not so clear

data: consumption decreases clouds
in the minds and fields

water samples passed to gloved hands
Lucinda stands dripping at their doors
face a portrait of a face
all utility
naked, save grace

under covers, behind tented walls
her sister and the sisters of others wait

forecast: cloudy, chance for rain

data: gold in the light, pyrite in the water

holding their bags, hoisting their children
over barbed barriers and sinkholes
of sticky mud, Lucinda brings the women

in half, they are divided
ten swallow this, ten swallow that
then back over the drenched and dying land

forecast: rain

data: default toward hope
symptoms shift to improved

tented roofs hold
out the water and in the noise
smiles when the screaming stops
and echoes of splatters recede

Lucinda sits marking the graphs
a delicate script she will transport
swimming through the field they walked

forecast: cloudy

data: people precious
threads binding the earth

Lucinda brushes her sister’s hair
makes a path through the others
promising a return she knows
she might not make

clothes at her skin
puddles off her brow, Lucinda slips
data through slots for the now sleeping
to review

shakes hope off like distraction
trudges, new supplies in hand
back into the seeping darkness

 

 

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CHRISTIE WILSON lives in Illinois. She is currently writing a collection of short prose. Her work appears in Atticus Review, apt, CHEAP POP, and New World Writing among other places. Visit her at www.christiewilson.net or follow her @5cdwilson. 

 

Image: Martina Sarkadi Nagy via Pixabay

 

 

Hangers On – Steven John

In my dream I hear the whip-lash of firecrackers. I feel bones being broken on a butchers block. I see a boy throw paper screws of gunpowder onto the pavement from a coned paper bag. My head bolts round on the pillow, currents of electricity shock up and down my neck. I stare my ears into the dark.

Awake now, I still hear the cracks, and laughter. Every night, prowling packs of them, high on vapour, waiting for their freenet ration to come online. I lay listening in the green hue from the clock. 3am. Another four hours before any freenet. Another four hours before these ferals feed, snouts blue in their screens, gobbling it up. My thoughts glitch. The firecrackers and caterwauls aren’t from the street outside the window. The noise comes from behind where I lay in bed with my wife. They come from the rear of the house.

I get out of bed, cross the room to the window and touch the translucence pad on the glass. The pane changes from black to clear. The street outside is empty. Spots of rain fall in the sodium glow from the few streetlights that work. Cars and quik-shaws parked, charging up on the patchwork of tarmac and mud. Sewerage burps up from under the manhole covers. Luminous graffiti painted on the charging posts, scribbles down the street like fireflies.

“What’s that?” My wife wakes, still groggy from the hypnonoise in her earplants.

“Sounds like drunks, or vapunks, with fireworks. From the backyard.”

I put on a gown and walk into the empty back bedroom, our daughter’s childhood dolls propped up on the pillows, their black eyes reflect spots of white light. The firecrackers are louder now and I make out voices. The window glass is on permanent translucence. The repair-men never come. I look down into the yard. There’s a group of young people on the decking, some standing, some lying on the loungers, exhaling clouds of colour, white, green, purple GM weed. The laserbarb fence around the yard is intact. They must have accessed through the path at the side. The alarm has packed up again, or the housecomms would have spoken. My wife stands naked beside me. One of the males raises a bottle.

“Great tits lady. Join the party”.

My wife swipes at the opacity pad on the window.

“It doesn’t work”.

“I’ll call the police.” She leaves my side.

Two of the females start to have sex on a lounger. Their legs are no more than bones, full tattoo cover, green and yellow snakeskin, shaved genitals, grey with disease, open wounds. I turn on the housecomms, press ‘garden’.

“If you don’t leave now we’ll call the police.”

“Call away shithead. We party right here.”

My wife returns to the bedroom in a robe. I hear holding music on her phone.

“999. Wait time ten minutes, go to website or call back. Call’s in a queue.”

“Wait.”

One of the males squats to defecate on the grass. Black liquid squirts. The one with the drink throws a firecracker.

“Fuck off Janus. Can’t I shit in peace?” Bowels cleared, he pulls trousers over black stained legs. The females have stopped their sex but haven’t re-clothed. They sway their skeletal bodies to an unheard beat.

“Infected. Antibiotic resistant. All of them”, my wife says. “We can’t go outside”.

“We don’t know they’re resistant. Could be they haven’t got money to buy the new strains.”

Some are missing fingers, hands, feet, limbs; frayed stumps waiting for an auto. A girl’s rusted alloy-leg doesn’t respond to her chip, it’s bent at the knee, she walks on tiptoe. A virus infested headchip.

Someone has answered my wife’s call. She hands me the phone.

“This is 999 sponsored by Angel Globenet, Bluelight Response. My name is Laverne. How may I help you?”

“Police please”.

“Before we proceed I need to take you through security. Your account number, date of birth and postcode please.”

I hear sounds of cooking in the background; plates and pans, children arguing, a baby crying. Out-sourced phone response. A cheap emergency contract. All we could afford.

“You’re through security Mr Hughes. May I call you Vaughan?”

“Just send the police. I can hear you’re busy.”

“We need to know the nature of your call Vaughan”, I hear a door close, muffling the background noise.

“Vapunks in my backyard. They’re infected, need antibiotics”

“Have they used or threatened violent behaviour or are they causing any criminal damage to your property Vaughan?”

“They’ve been throwing fireworks and smoking tobacco. They’ve had unsafe sex on my garden furniture and shit contagion on my grass. They’re trespassing on my property. It’s 3.30 in the morning. Is that enough?”

“Under the terms of your contract Vaughan, none of what you’ve said is covered for police response.”

A child in Laverne’s house whispers. I hear the child over the phone. I hear someone retch.

“Daddy’s got blood on his shirt”, a child’s voice.

“What are my options?” I ask Laverne.

“Vaughan, we can offer you a remote police response with e-mailed status and action report within the hour for £350, or a professionally written complaint to the police for £175.”

“We’ll have the remote response with email.”

We go downstairs into the kitchen. My wife pours two small measures of sterilised water and puts out pills. I turn a window to clear. The one called Janus and a girl put their faces to the glass. My wife takes pictures. Janus has vampire teeth implants that protrude over his lower lip. The girl’s few remaining teeth are stained purple from GM weed vape, her face aflame with spots, some bleeding, some gangrenous, her face being eaten.

I shout, “Leave us alone. Fuck off”

Janus speaks “We don’t like hangers-on old man.”

My wife says, “don’t antagonise them. They’ll break in, infect us.”

“They’re not going to break in. They know they’d be shot. They want to be arrested, taken to a life-seekers camp. Free food, medicine, vapes.”

From over the rooftops we see flashing blue lights. A police drone. The vapunks cheer and wave at it like a rescue.

The drone, silhouetted in blue, hovers silently at roof height above them and points down its weapons. Pinpricks of white from the underside of the drone coalesce into one iceberg of daylight. The geiger-paint of the vapunks hair, their tattooed skin, their vape clouds, all turn shades of grey, diminishing them to a black and white photograph. A camera with a single red eye scans over them, a blade of blue medi-data light slices through each one in turn. The light searches out modified weapon capabilities on their auto limbs.

A she-bot voice from the drone. “A complaint scene video, identification and medi-reports have been uploaded to police headquarters for analysis. Any new complaint of criminal behaviour will be met with an immediate armed response.”

“Arrest us you FUCKERS”, Janus throws his bottle in the direction of the drone. The drone ascends two meters higher.

“Throwing litter incurs a fine of a one year freenet ban. We advise you to desist and recycle waste according to the manufacturer’s instructions.” The drone raises its weapons, ascends into the dawn sky, and scuds back across the rooftops.

My wife asks “what happens now?”

“Open our emails.”

In the sitting room we turn on an i-panel. There’s an email from Angel Globenet, Bluelight Response with a vidfile attachment. We read the e-mail.

Subject: Complaint of unsupervised firework display, tobacco smoking, unsafe sex, fouling private property, public nuisance and trespass.

Police Priority: less than 5%

Advice: All personnel identified by remote police response unit. Low risk of criminality. Four identified personnel terminally infected. Life expectancy – less than 26 days. Eight identified personnel – 86% antibiotic resistant. Do not approach. Angel Globenet recommends precautionary dosages of antibiotic versions 684/674/ah-f/9, available in 1 hour from Amazon Drone.

Action: 21-28 days to arrest, subject to higher priority incidents.

We watch the vidfile; an aerial view of our decking. We see our geriatric faces at the window, our shreds of grey hair, our stooped backs, my arm holding up my 120 year old wife. The auto walkers fused to her pelvis have broken. The repair men never come.

‘Hangers-on’ they call us. With luck our National Death Service euthanasia will come through soon, although if this carries I know where to find a quasi-legal clinic. She’d go tomorrow. I’ll hang on a while longer.

 

 

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STEVEN JOHN lives in The Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, UK and writes flash fiction, short stories and poetry. He has had work published in writing group pamphlets and on short fiction and poetry websites including Riggwelter Press, Reflex Fiction and Fictive Dream. In December 2017 Steven won the inaugural Farnham Short Story Competition and has won Bath Ad Hoc fiction four times. Steven has read from his work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, Stroud Short Stories, The Bard of Hawkwood and The Flasher’s Club. Twitter: @StevenJohnWrite

 

Image: StockSnap via Pixabay

 

 

Your Guide to 22nd Century Bird Watching – William Gilmer

1. You’re not going to find anything indoors, so get your respirator and head outside.

2. Don’t feel bad when no one in your bunker cares about your pictures of Amazons. Birding is supposed to be risky, so a species made to deliver packages simply isn’t going to impress.

3. Always assume an unfamiliar specimen wants to kill you. While the most dangerous models are on the borders, that doesn’t mean a random family or business didn’t buy one in vain hopes of safety.

4. They’ll never get tired, so if you are spotted, hide don’t run.

5. Internet forums are the best places to gloat about your latest sighting. Expect non-birders to go glassy eyed when you start talking about the rarity of MXR-110s.

6. In the unlikely event that you see an actual bird, evacuate the area immediately and report to the nearest Avian Flu Control Office. There’s a reason we live in bunkers.

 

 

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WILLIAM GILMER is a writer and poet living in Michigan where Fall never lasts long enough. Over two dozen of his pieces have been published in places like Speculative 66, Moonsick Magazine, Empyreome Magazine, and The Sunlight Press. Keep an eye out for his monthly articles in Enchanted Conversation: A Fairytale Magazine, and if there isn’t enough going on in your feed, follow him on Twitter @willwritethings

 

Image: djedj via Pixabay

 

 

Debt – Cass Francis

It’s ridiculous how fast the world changes—like something out of a song, where a twist of phrase leads you into a totally different place, where before you know it you’re starting to wonder whether it’s even the same song anymore. @isaac_almeida24, with sandy hair & a broad chin had to walk away, reset, & drive home. He runs a hand through his hair. Still wears the gold wedding band, though it’s almost been a year, the weather too warm for the season. No snow. No ice. Not even much rain—more like a dry fall than a winter. Except it’s flu season & of course his youngest, sitting in the seat next to him with a paper mask over her mouth—her baby pink lips—her makeup, inexpertly applied, smeared—got sick. Terribly so. But no matter because he managed to walk away, reset, & save her. & they sit next to one another in the car, him driving because he still can’t get used to the self-controlled-car thing—neither of them talking much.

“We must have run across someone with the flu,” he says, pale blue eyes scanning the road. “You got sick.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she says, pushing a strand of black hair from away from her mask. Her tone is huffy—normal for her age, so @isaac_almeida24 doesn’t press it.

“Of course, you didn’t, baby. But it happened all the same.”

He thinks of her health, so different from the pro-reset hour before—he can still picture her in the backseat puking into a grocery sack, shivering with fever, pale as the winter moon. He can almost still smell the sourness of the vomit, even though he isn’t completely sure it still counts as something real—something that existed—now that he has reset. Now that he broke all the rules and ignored all the warnings left by his late wife telling him that messing with the linearity of time is dangerous.

She would have done the same thing, he tells himself.

She would have done anything to keep her youngest child alive. & she would have done it again & again if need be, damn the danger, he tells himself.

His youngest points out the window. “The glass,” she says.

He follows her gaze—all the windows of the buildings they pass are screens shimmering with digital ads for bright & gleaming goods & services, some of which make @isaac_almeida24 blush—though his youngest seems unfazed, even amused, rather than scandalized. The usual holograms play around the buildings & business signs—a smiling bearded mechanic cartoon climbing up the sign for an auto repair shop—but the window ads are new, something that must have slipped through the break in time during the last reset.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” he mutters to his daughter.

“It’s like we’re in the future.”

@isaac_almeida24 chuckles, trying in vain to match her light mood, her innocent fascination with the changing times.

She lay defenseless & shaking on a hospital gurney, her body raging with fever as if she was being burned alive from the inside out. Doctors swarmed. Nurses pushed him from the room. & then later after hours or what felt like hours of pacing and hand-wringing, a doctor came out & squeezed his shoulder & told him the bad news. “I’m sorry,” the doctor said, & @isaac_almeida24 felt weak, sick, dizzy. He didn’t even think—just numbly took his wife’s contraption, the Spinner, from his pocket, pressed the button & spun backwards in time, until before the flu, before his youngest daughter got infected, before all the tragedy that seemed to be destined to take her reached up again to grab her and steal her away from him.

& then he thought of his wife, & his whole body stiffened with guilt & shame.

He thinks of her on the drive home, his hands tightening around the steering wheel. He thinks of her with guilt & shame because deep down he knows that she wouldn’t have done what he did—break time & reset it so that their youngest child wouldn’t die. He knows she wouldn’t have because she didn’t. She chose instead to walk away without doing anything. She believed that nature was important to preserve, important above all else, & breaking the laws of nature was like taking out a loan or buying something on credit. Breaking time, breaking the laws of nature, meant you were building up more & more debt in the world—& before long some force more powerful than you will come collect.

@isaac_almeida24’s daughter has died six times—twice before her mother left & four times within the past year.

*      *      *

How would experiencing death this way affect them, his daughters? @isaac_almeida24 worries that they’ll never understand it the way others understand it—with permanence, as something final & not meant to change. As something meant to be respected. With every reset, his youngest becomes sweeter, more innocent, believing that everything always works out for the best. On the other hand, his oldest—@LuLuSea—becomes darker. She seems to not understand the tragedy of it—that destruction is permanent & leads to sorrow & mourning. @isaac_almeida24 fears that she has lost respect for life.

At home, he stands in @LuLuSea’s bedroom doorway. “Good,” he says, “you’re already packing. We’re going to head out to the cabin for a few days.”

“Not me,” she says.

She’s throwing clothes into a suitcase without folding them—a sign that she’s more interested in making a point than actually going anywhere. She has @isaac_almeida24’s own sandy hair & his wife’s matter-of-fact stubbornness. “What do you mean, not you?” he says.

“I mean I’m not going to the cabin. I’m not going anywhere with you.”

She knows that he reset, @isaac_almeida24 realizes. He doesn’t know how she knows, but she’s always been a smart one—always used to tag along with her mom to classes & the lab, & so probably picked up some ideas there. Maybe she can tell from small changes in the technology surrounding them. Maybe she just notices a flicker of light, a change in the wind. “Where are you planning on going, then?” he ventures.

“Like you don’t know.”

“Where?”

She throws down a bundle of socks and slams her mother’s left behind notebooks on top of the pile in the suitcase. “I’m going to find Mom.”

@isaac_almeida24 shakes his head, has to swallow & look away down the hall. She takes his hesitation as either skepticism or a challenge & puts her hands on her hips, defiant, chin out. He shakes his head again & can’t meet her gaze—what good is a father who can’t even look his child in the eye? “Honey,” he says, “we talked about this—your mother. She’s dead, & there isn’t anything we can do about it.”

“She’s lost,” says @LuLuSea, “& you’re too much of a coward to go after her.”

He ducks away into the hallway. “Get packed for the cabin.”

“& you don’t care.”

“Get packed. I’m not kidding around.”

As he heads down the hall, he can hear her groan & zip up her suitcase in a frustrated huff. He goes to the living room, wanting to turn around & scream, “Your sister just DIED,” but instead he closes his fists & swallows again to diffuse the anger, the pain. No tears in his eyes. Instead, strangely—madly—he wants to laugh. He holds that in too, making it to the quiet of the living room.

The windows of their house are also digitized, & the screensavers cast eerie pink & green pixelated light across the beige carpet. He’s sure he can change them to a more natural curtains or blinds, or even plywood, but he doesn’t know how & doesn’t have time right now to fool with it. His youngest is sitting on the couch, running her fingers through her black hair. She seems so much more delicate than @LuLuSea—who’s older & therefore bigger but also just seems more powerful, more volatile. His youngest is a candle flame. His oldest is a wildfire. But maybe his perceptions are off because he has so recently seen his youngest so sick, her eyes sunken & her face flushed & her skin clammy gray as if she was about to turn to dust right in front of him. Beside her packed pink suitcase on the couch, she’s sitting with her legs folded underneath her, her head leaning back and her black hair fanned out around her like a thrown-back veil. She’s not wearing her mask. “We don’t have to go,” she says.

“I’d feel better if we got away for a few days. Just chilled for awhile, you know.”

She looks like she wants to say something else. @isaac_almeida24 waits for the words. “Is she really dead?” she finally whispers. “Like gone forever?”

He sighs. Nods. “What matters is that we’re together. Getting out of town for a few days will help, I promise.” He makes himself busy by going to the window & pressing his finger to the glass until the alternating green & pink changes to white blinds that ripple a bit, as if real & pushed by a cool breeze. “We can talk about it, though,” he says, “on the drive. It’s good, sometimes, to talk about these things.” His mouth is dry, his heart pounding from the lie. “It’s healing.” He turns around. “Where’s your mask?”

“Daddy,” she groans.

“Put it on. We’re not taking any chances.”

*      *      *

The girls sit in the backseat as they drive up to a gas station—the last one on the way to the cabin. The youngest picks at her mask. @LuLuSea keeps her arms crossed, a stony expression on her face. The windows of their car don’t play any digital images—either their car is too old a model for that, or there are laws about that sort of thing being a distraction for drivers. The girls can only watch the countryside rolling by and listen to the music through their implants. @isaac_almeida24 can only watch the road. He pulls up to a pump & gets out, makes accidental eye contact with the guy on the adjacent pump and nods guardedly, & says to the girls, “Wait here.” As if they’re going to go anywhere. As if they have anywhere to go.

“He hasn’t said a thing, not the whole trip,” @LuLuSea says as soon as her dad has closed the door & is out of earshot.

“He’s just tired,” says her little sister, picking at her paper mask, snapping the elastic. “& probably scared.”

“Of course—he’s always tired & scared. He’s never going to tell us about her. about what happened. Never. He’s too much of a coward.” @LuLuSea looks over at her sister, who stares out at the gas pump, numbers scrolling higher & higher & a celebrity news video playing on the screen. “You should press him again—he listens to you. He can’t say no to you. You should ask—we deserve to know.”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“I have—he doesn’t listen to me.”

“I don’t want to make him mad.”

@LuLuSea sighs, disappointed & letting it show. She doesn’t say anything for a moment or two, though, instead watching out the window. Her father is a nervous man, glancing up & down the road & at the strangers coming & going to the gas pumps & the convenience store. He’s small & scrawny with boring sandy-colored hair—like her own. “She isn’t dead,” @LuLuSea says. She doesn’t know whether she just can’t hold in her frustration any longer or whether she wants to screw up her goodie-two-shoes little sister or whether she’s angry at her father for never listening or whether she’s desperate to get her mother back. “She’s just lost,” @LuLuSea continues when her sister doesn’t say anything. “Lost in time. & every reset when Dad breaks time, he creates more loops, & it makes everything more complicated. He makes it harder for Mom to find us & for us to find Mom.”

“Dad says she’s gone. Gone for good.”

“He’s lying. Or he just doesn’t know. But I’ve read the journals. I know & I think he does too, somewhere deep down, & that’s why he gets all pissed—”

The door opens. Chirping birds. Rustling leaves. Passing cars.

@isaac_almeida24 climbs into the driver’s seat. The girls are quiet.

*      *      *

The truth is that he will probably start bawling, talking about her. After all, sometimes he starts bawling making coffee, walking into the backyard, picking up a can of beans in the supermarket. How could he get through some speech about her to his daughters, to her daughters? There is no way to explain the truth behind it, anyway—the truth that she wasn’t a good person, wasn’t a caring person. Wasn’t a good mother & might have loved them—might have loved him—but in the end didn’t care enough to not leave. To put them before work, before ambition. He will start bawling. Then he’ll start ranting, & the girls, or at least the youngest, will start crying. & no doubt it would turn into some argument between him & @LuLuSea.

A few days ago, he overheard them together in the bathroom, @LuLuSea straightening her sister’s hair & saying, “You know, he posts stuff on social media using her accounts, like as if nothing happened. It’s severely weird & creepy. Kind of pervey, too. He’s acting like she’s still alive. Like he knows that she’s still alive, & he’s waiting for her to come back.” @isaac_almeida24 became teary, hurried from the bathroom as if fleeing from the scene of a crime.

It’s true. He posts as her sometimes. As @Sierra, so that her followers out there in the world, all the strangers who only know her as a name & ideas & passion about knowledge think she’s still here. Think she’s still alive.

@isaac_almeida24 is compelled to do this the same as he’s compelled to reset to keep his youngest daughter alive. He doesn’t know if it will really mean that he’s perverted—corrupting the laws of nature & putting himself & his family, his entire world, in danger. He doesn’t know what he owes nature, given that it has stolen so much from him & is still hungry, still trying to take more.

He does owe them an explanation, though. His daughters. She was their mother.

They deserve to know that she loved them.

Or loves them?

Or will love them?

He doesn’t have the words to describe this situation just like he can’t tell you how the windows display digital video, how the Spinner works, how & why his daughter keeps dying & why he keeps having to save her. He’s not like his wife was. He’s not smart. He’s not particularly curious. He doesn’t have eyes that shine with burning suspicion at every question that claims to have no answer.

“I don’t know what happened to your mother,” he admits suddenly, as if alone in the car, as if alone & feeling the tears coming & desperate to keep them at bay—to keep his mind & vision clear, to make it where he’s going. “I don’t know,” he repeats.

They’re about five minutes from the cabin, weaving down an unpaid road through the campgrounds. The girls weren’t expecting him to speak, so he feels their surprise and hesitation to say something that would put an end to his speaking mood. But he has to tell them something, even if it’s wrong. “I can tell you about her, though. That’s one way to keep her here with us—to talk about her & remember her.” He swallows.

He begins to speak.

*      *      *

Your mother used to get up at eight o’clock every morning, sharp. She did everything with a schedule. If it wasn’t on the schedule, she couldn’t do it.

Late at night, @LuLuSea and her sister tromp through the woods, headed for the lake in the center of the campground.

@isaac_almeida24 is in the shower when they sneak out, his mind numb and reeling from the events of the day, replaying what he said about his wife as the water ran lukewarm across his skin. The drain makes a tortured choking noise. He can smell the girls’ strawberry scented shampoo and his own mountain fresh scented body wash. He turns off the water & listens to the silence broken only by crickets chirping outside & water dripping from the showerhead. He pulls back the curtain, steps out of the shower, dries with a towel, preparing to go to bed.

She’d get up at eight. Breakfast at eight-fifteen—always with one cup of black coffee. At eight-thirty she dressed—always jeans & a plain t-shirt. On weekdays, she left the house by nine to go to the lab or her office until class—made it to campus at nine-thirty. She usually taught on Tuesdays & Thursdays at ten, one, & five, & on Mondays & Wednesdays she had lab classes. The rest of the time she was working in her lab or in her office, working all the time on her research. You remember. It was pretty much around the clock there for awhile. But she’d be home by six, unless she had a night class. I always cooked, kept the food warm for her.

“Just stop dying,” @LuLuSea says, half joking, as they march through the woods.

“I can’t,” says her sister. “I don’t do it on purpose.”

@LuLuSea carries the Spinner, careful not to press the button yet. “I know,” she says. “It’s like fate.”

“Yeah.”

“You have to die.”

“Everyone dies.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Sticks snap, leaves crumple, & acorns burst under their feet. @LuLuSea worries that their father will hear & come racing after them with a shotgun, but she smiles a bit at the irony of him accidentally shooting her sister. But then @LuLuSea imagines the pain & blood & she sickens. Tries to walk quieter. “It’s sad, though, & kind of unfair that you keep dying & making it harder to find Mom.”

“I don’t want to make it harder.”

“I know,” @LuLuSea tries to soften her voice—tries to communicate to her sister that she doesn’t mean to accuse, that she means to comfort. That she just wants things to turn out right, that she just wants things like they were before their mom left. @LuLuSea looks over at her sister hurrying along in the too-heavy coat, no paper mask, her lips baby pink & her cheeks flushed in the chilly air. “I don’t mean it’s your fault. I mean it isn’t your fault—that’s why it’s unfair.”

She showered at ten & was in bed at ten-thirty. Read or did other stuff, kept herself occupied until midnight, when she’d turn out the light & try to get some sleep. At first, the schedule was so annoying. I mean, at first, when we were dating, I thought it was charming & eccentric. Then we got married & I thought it was maddening. But after years I guess I grew used to it & started depending on it, & realized I guess since she left how much it meant to me, how I had grown accustomed to that—to having that control over time…

They stand at the edge of the lake, the dark sky spotted with stars & wispy gray clouds that floated in the reflection on the surface of the water. The reflection of the clouds looked like smoke suspended in the shimmering blackness. The girls stare, frozen as if staring at the edge of the world. Crickets, leaves, wind. The Spinner spins in @LuLuSea’s hand, & both girls breathe plumes of frosty air & the cold water trickles against the muddy shore.

“I’m scared,” says @LuLuSea’s sister, her voice so frightened that it’s almost all breath.

“You’ve done it before.”

“It feels different this time.”

@LuLuSea knows what she means—there’s something about the dark & somber peace of the lake, the woods, & the distant cabin that makes this moment seem different from all that has come before.

Her sister takes the first step forward into the water, her jaw locked with determination.

*      *      *

@isaac_almeida24 howls when he makes it to the lake, sees the water lapping his youngest daughter’s small body against the shore. He tries to revive her. He tries to reset. But the Spinner is missing and the air won’t go into her lungs and stay there and it’s no use, it’s no use at all, and by the end of it he’s sobbing like a child. He carries her back to the cabin, lays her on the kitchen table, & calls the police. & then he doesn’t speak—he won’t say a word to them. He won’t say a word to anyone. The police take him in for questioning. They suspect him for awhile, but can find no proof. The girl’s death is ruled an accident, and her sister probably ran away, not knowing what else to do. The police cannot locate her. They send @isaac_almeida24 to a hospital, where he stays in the psych ward for a few weeks, then is transferred to a facility out in the country, somewhere safe, somewhere quiet, somewhere peaceful. He talks rarely, but he posts online regularly.

“Death is natural, but nature is a cycle,” he posts as @Sierra. The doctors monitor his accounts carefully, looking for clues about his condition. “For every ending, nature owes us one beginning.”

Other than that, he spends the days staring at the doors as if waiting for them to open.

He stares at the windows as if waiting for the pixelated light to flicker.

Stares at the clocks as if he’s waiting for the time to change.

 

 

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Image: via pxhere

 

 

One Boot – Steven Carr

Nelson believed that sometime in his life he had been abducted by aliens and was experimented on. Sitting on the side of the highway surrounded by sun burnt yellow prairie grass he gazed up at the star spattered night sky watching for spaceships. He licked his parched lips, savoring the last flavor of salty pretzels and stale beer that clung to them. From out in the prairie the barking of coyotes sounded almost melodic. He wondered, Do coyote eat humans?

He lay back in the grass and with his arms behind his head he inhaled the prairie aromas of cow and buffalo manure, dying grass, and sun scorched earth, carried by the steady, hot breeze. After a few minutes of trying to ignore the flying insects that buzzed around his head and used his prominent nose as a runway, he sat back up and swatted at the bugs, even though he couldn’t see them. In the darkness the only thing around him that he could see very clearly was his white sock. He wiggled his foot.

On the other foot his green snakeskin boot was entangled in a clump of grass. It took several tugs on his lower leg to free it. With his sock and boot lying side by side at the end of his outstretched legs, he thought, How did things get this out of hand?

Standing, he scanned the dark highway, and seeing no headlights in either direction, he stepped out of the grass and onto the pavement. Surprised to find his brown Stetson stuck on a bit of tar, he picked it up, brushed it off, put it on, and began walking toward home. In the otherwise quiet of the night his boot clomping down on the concrete with every other step resounded like firecrackers being set off in a cemetery.

He kept looking back to make sure no aliens were following him.

*   *   *

Beams of sunlight were breaking through the thick, gray early morning clouds as Nelson hopped on the booted foot up the long gravel driveway to his house. The stones crunched beneath his boot. His foot with the sock hurt too much to lower it, so he held it up like a horse with a lame leg. His two dogs, Scrapper and Bigboy, both mutts, came around the house, barking, and ran up to him, their tales wagging frenetically. There was an engorged tick attached to the space between Scrapper’s large brown eyes. Bigboy’s long black hair was matted and coated with prairie dust. Both dogs smelled of dead gopher.

Hopping toward the steps leading up to the porch, he patted both of the dogs on their heads, and said, “I feel as mangy as you look.”

He jumped up onto the first step as the front door of the house was thrown open.

Stepping out onto the porch in her pink bathrobe with both hands on the butt of her 44 Magnum revolver and her finger on the trigger and aiming at Nelson, Cathy said, “You come up one more step and I’m going to blow your head off.”

Balanced on the booted foot, Nelson removed his hat and slapped it against his leg. “You dumped me on the side of the highway when I was drunk. I could have been eaten by coyotes.” Or taken into space.

“Coyotes don’t eat people,” she said, keeping her gun aimed at him.

Well, now I know, he thought. He lowered his socked foot and bit into his lower lip. He was certain he felt the blisters on the sole of his foot burst. The foot in the boot felt as if it had swollen several sizes.

“Put the revolver down before it goes off accidentally,” he said. “One of these days one of your stunts is going to kill me.”

Giggling, Cathy lowered the gun and put it in a pocket in her bathrobe. She leaned against the porch railing and with her left index finger twirled the curled end of a strand of her long brown hair. “What happened to your other boot?” she said.

“I don’t know,” he said, then began up the steps, wincing with every step.

*   *   *

Sitting on the window seat, Nelson watched a small herd of buffalo slowly cross the border of his property. The breeze that came under the partially raised window was scented with rain, although the night sky was clear. A screeching hawk drew his attention away from the buffalo. He heard it but couldn’t see it. When a gleaming white stripe flashed across the sky and disappeared beyond the Badlands formations, he shuddered. I wonder who they’ve abducted, he thought.

Cathy came into the bedroom carrying a cup of tea. “How are your feet?” she said.

He held the bare foot up and showed her the bandages he had put over the blisters. He kept the booted foot raised on a pillow on the window seat. “My ankle is so swollen I can’t get the boot off,” he said.

“That’s too bad,” she said. She carried the tea to him and handed it to him. Steam curled up from the dark brown liquid. She sat on the edge of the bed, watching him intently.

“Thank you,” he said, then raised the cup to his lips and blew on the tea, then took a sip. “This is good,” he said.

“I have something to tell you,” she said, twirling the end of a strain of hair. “I’m pregnant and I put poison in the tea.”

She’s insane, he thought just before he passed out.

*   *   *

Rain pelted the kitchen window as Cathy poured milk on her bowl of oatmeal. She let it set for a moment then scooped spoonfuls from the bowl to her mouth. The ticking of the clock on the wall above the refrigerator was slightly louder than the rain. As she ate she flipped the pages of a calendar, counting the days until the baby was due.

Nelson entered the room with his hands on his head. His skin was pale. “What did you put in the tea?” he said.

Cathy looked up and said, “Does it really matter?”

“I guess not,” he said as he sat down at the table and propped his booted foot up on a another chair. “Being poisoned was something different. You haven’t done that to me before.”

She put a spoonful of oatmeal in her mouth. “It wasn’t actually poison,” she said with a large grin.

He put his crossed arms on the table then put his head on them. “Are you really pregnant?” he said.

She put her finger on the January 19 square of the calendar. “I wouldn’t make something like that up,” she said.

I thought the aliens rendered me infertile, he thought.

When the scratching at the back door began, Nelson and Cathy remained seated. They were each waiting for the other one to get up and go to the door. After several minutes and knowing Cathy was capable of ignoring anything she wanted to for as long as she wanted, Nelson got up from the chair and shuffled across the kitchen to the door and opened it. Scrapper was sitting on the top step, dripping wet, with a forlorn look in his eyes.

“Why aren’t you in the barn?” Nelson said.

Scrapper barked and turned his head toward the open prairie.

“Where’s Bigboy?” Nelson said.

The dog barked again, then ran down the stairs and stopped in the mud, his nose pointed in the direction of the Badlands formations. Nelson closed the door and returned to the table and sat down.

“Is everything okay?” Cathy said.

“Bigboy is in the Badlands,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to go look for him later on.”

“That would be the right thing to do. That dog has no sense of direction and won’t get home on his own,” she said. “Watch out for rattlesnakes while you’re out there.”

And alien spacecraft, he thought.

*   *   *

It was late afternoon before the rain stopped. Nelson sat on the edge of the bed changing the Band Aids on his foot while Cathy sat in the window seat writing baby names in a small black notebook.

“How about Waldo?” she said.

“Good Lord, no,” he said as he covered the last busted blistered with a Band Aid.

“Mandrake?” she said.

He slid a clean white sock over his foot. “No,” he said.

He attempted again to get the boot off but his foot was still too swollen. He stood up and looked down at the contrast of the white sock and the green boot. For a moment he considered putting another boot on the socked foot, but it gave him the vague feeling he would be betraying the missing boot. He crossed the room and bent down and kissed Cathy on the forehead.

“If I don’t come back, look for me among the stars,” he said and left the room.

As he went down the stairs he tripped over fishing line that had been tied to the bannister at one end and tacked to the wall at the other. He tumbled over six stairs before landing on his buttocks at the bottom on a throw rug. He looked up. Cathy was standing at the top of the stairs with a huge grin on her face.

He got up and went out the front door, called for Scrapper, and got into the truck with the dog in the passenger seat and drove off toward the Badlands.

*   *   *

With the windows down the wind blowing in carried the aromas of wet earth and prairie grass. Twilight cast gold and purple light across the limestone formations. Scrapper had his head out the window with his mouth open and his tongue hanging out and flapping in the breeze. Nelson drove slowly on the narrow road that wound between two walls of rock. Intermittently he would slow almost to a full stop and call Bigboy’s name. Just when he was about to quit looking and return home, he spotted Bigboy sitting on top of a formation and looking up at the sky.

Nelson pulled the truck to the side of the road and he and Scrapper got out. Together they climbed the formation and reached Bigboy just as the sun set and stars began to freckle the night sky.

“What are you doing, you crazy dog?” Nelson said to Bigboy.

The dog continued staring up at the sky.

Nelson sat down next to him and Scrapper sat down on the other side of Bigboy. All three looked up at the sky.

There was a sudden flash of light above them and an object fell out of the darkness. Nelson’s missing boot hit him on the head.

I knew it, he thought.

He put on the boot and looked at both boots, side by side. Once again he felt complete. He climbed down the formation with the two dogs and got in the truck and drove home.

 

 

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_

STEVE CARR, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over a 120 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012966314127 and Twitter @carrsteven960.

 

Image: Beate Bachmann via Pixabay

 

 

Rabbits – Kim Goldberg

One morning the landscape got up and walked away. The rabbits were the first to notice. No grass to flirt in, no earth to tunnel, no gardens to decimate. Each rabbit gazed at its colleagues suspended in empty space. There was still an abundance of sky. But the horizon was as vague as a pointillist painting, having no terrain to conjoin with, no union of heaven and earth, as the Daoists would say.

With more free time on their paws, the rabbits spent much of it copulating. There was little else to occupy them. When the other species took measure of their collective situation and the impact of rampant rabbit fornication, the Animal Kingdom passed anti-copulation laws (which were really anti-rabbit laws because the other species knew how to keep their privates private or read a book or resort to auto-erotic techniques if need be).

The rabbits soon had enough progeny of voting age to repeal the anti-copulation laws and enact new laws mandating the construction of sexual amusement parks in every town. There were no raw materials with which to build these amusement parks or towns. So these items remained mental constructs until enough creatures had passed away from starvation that their bones could be used for scaffolding and their hides for tent canvas, awnings, slides, water beds, camel cabanas and many other applications.

Rabbit hedonism ensued for quite some while, with the other species sulking in the bleachers. Until one day, under a blue sky adrift in tufted clouds, a new landscape arrived seemingly out of nowhere. Much coitus interruptus occurred. The other species cheered and scurried to anchor themselves to the earth. This caused the new landscape (which was really an old and arthritic landscape that had been on the road too long) to drop dead from a heart attack. No one noticed.

 

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_

Kim Goldberg is the author of seven books of poetry and nonfiction. Her surreal poems and tales have appeared in Augur, Big Smoke Poetry, Dark Mountain, Poetry Is Dead, and elsewhere. She ponders, wanders and watches birds (and rabbits) on Vancouver Island. Twitter: @KimPigSquash

 

Image: Jose Antonio Alba via Pixabay

 

 

The Ship and The Water – Jamie Stedmond

Hideki Itô had an unsettling gait. He walked like a man uncomfortable in his own skin, a man not yet fully accustomed to the ebb and flow of his limbs. Shambling forward seemingly unaware of just how far his legs would take him at each step, of how wide the arc of his pendulum arms would be each time they swung. His walk was lumbering and ridiculous, but at just that much more than a glance he could be seen to be in perfect command of his unsteady totter. He strained to contain each bodily progression, steadying it just enough to take its absurdity and make it seem lithe, even graceful. His confusing stride lacked an audience as it clicked its way over marble surface to the elevators for his floor of the Moud-Iverson.

The elevators were cylindrical containers with walls made entirely of glass. They ran down the side of the building like surface veins, supplying their occupants with breathtaking views of the city above and below. Hideki could see the varied and garish lights of the undercity, illuminating the mismatched assortment of buildings and shanties that made it up. He could see innumerable cars gridlocking along the webs of motorway that snaked above the under, and through blocks of skyscrapers that cast long shadows on the laneways. In his peripheries he felt the rhythm of the whirring drones patrolling the upper reaches next to low-level satellites, their lights blinking steadily against the dark.

Hideki’s pupils widened and his breath grew shallow as he tried to absorb the view in a single stare. The city was laid out before him, all shining towers and endless bridges and flowing slums and bars and walkways and snaking sections of road and pillars and monuments and sparse patches of green and thousands of people, repeating to the horizon, more gridded and arranged here near the fringes but towards the centre it was a fractured cluster, a heaped mess of buildings all clambering over each other to escape, a cradle of primordial cityscaping.

Hideki thought about the billions of hours of labour, the innumerable materials and projects, the ego and freedom it took to build a city, the scale, the movement, the colour, looking out on it was like having his head smashed open by a bullet train. The city was a wonderful, unlikely idea. His reverie ended abruptly as the elevator pinged loudly, it had reached the ground floor. A tinge of red crept into his pale features as he exited the elevator. He allowed himself to become too submerged in his thoughts at times, embarrassingly so. Nevertheless, as he made his way out of the lobby he was still wading in the shallows.

He checked the time, he was on schedule for his meeting. He gave a few hard blinks in quick succession, trying to clear his head and shake off distraction. He was a pragmatic person. Sometimes this served him well, at other times it got him into trouble. He moved quickly across the road, this was the fastest route to his destination but it was also an area where someone in a suit as expensive as his could not afford to relax. He weaved his walk through various alleys, past shanties and dive bars and mumbling figures on the ground before taking another elevator, up this time, to a safer, more respectable level of the city.

As he had risen the sun had fallen and the nighttime dark gave the city room to glow. Nightlife began to crawl out of the woodwork like insects from under a damp rock. Hideki glanced around with faint disdain. The bars and restaurants in the area were all themed around nostalgia. There were ’50’s diners with waitresses on wheels and red vinyl booths, millennium bars that “rang in” the year 2000 almost nightly, to his left he saw Vision 2020 a barrage of flashing lights and dance music pulsing. More bars cluttered each side of the walkway, an overload of light and sound churning at each edge. He grimaced. It wasn’t drugs, loud music or flashing light that bothered Hideki – he mostly enjoyed drinks, clubs and dancing. No, it was the faces all twisted, facing backwards; nostalgia was insidious. The past was a dull thing to celebrate when the future was so much closer, the breath on the back of your neck, razor edged with potential.

For this reason he was childishly annoyed at the meeting place his supervisor had chosen, one Sammy Swing’s – Resongin’ The Sixties. He took a table for himself near the back, ordered a water and a gin/tonic, then waited patiently while near-ancient wails rebounded around him. As the third song kicked into gear Hideki was joined at his table by a rounded, balding man in an ill-fitting suit. He smiled as he looked around, enjoying the sixties aesthetic which he’d missed in the firsthand by a few generations at least.

“Nice evening, welcome, Mr Itô,” Hideki nodded in reply. He ordered a large burger and fries for them both. They remained silent until the food came. The man chewed his burger enthusiastically. “Some very sad business has been set afoot of recently, Mr Itô. A young executive has brokered a deal that is very sad for us. Of course, he likes his deal, it works well for him. He does not know of the special relationships his deal interferes with. It is no good.” Again Hideki simply nodded at this, sending blond hair waving over a broad forehead.

“Obviously,” he squeezed out between bites, “you are a very experienced negotiator. I must ask of you to make a counter-offer to him. He celebrates tonight, higher up than this,” he laughed, “approach him and perform with your customary efficacy, and all will be well, no more sadness for us.” He cocked his head at Hideki in question.

Hideki replied with a final nod. The man eyed Hideki carefully. Hideki’s face was blank, his eyes empty. The man was staring into a keyhole, he could stare into this dark for hours and still not be able to guess the shape of the key. Still, he seemed satisfied with Hideki’s inscrutable features and after a few moments the man took his cue from Hideki and simply nodded.

The man wiped his chin and cleaned his hands with a napkin bearing Sammy Swing’s smiling face. He set off to settle the bill, turning back once “Rafa Cole. His name. The rest of the details will be sent along accordingly.” He nodded again and smiled, seeming happy with his new habit.

*   *   *

The moon hung still and clear in the sky as Hideki ascended in another elevator. He had changed into a less formal suit, a cut more suited for an executive party rather than an executive meeting. He checked his pockets reflexively and repeatedly until the elevator reached its floor. As soon as the elevator stopped he stepped out and instantly adopted a more carefree face, and let some of the awkwardness of his stride show, not wanting to appear intimidating. The bar he was headed for reeked of its height, with black walls, tinted windows and a team of bouncers ensuring the privacy of its upper clientele.

“Name?” the bouncer stated more than questioned. “Lars J., with Shimenji,” Hideki stated back. The bouncer checked the list and his ID before stepping to the side allowing Hideki to be swept up into the bar.

The whole place pulsed with bass; music throbbed throughout, almost visible in the air. The room was full up with smoke and laughter, the floor awash with people. Clusters of young businessmen and women were perched on black leather couches, more were swaying in dancefloor haze. The lights were low, dimming and brightening in time with the music. Hideki couldn’t spot any light fixtures on the walls or overhead, the room seemed to generate its brightness from thin air.

Hideki slid himself atop a stool and leaned on the dark quartz counter. He could see himself, reflect dully in the black sheen. The whole area behind the bar was walled with a matte black metal, the bartenders dressed in all black too. The grim suaveness of the place almost made him miss the homely tackiness of Sammy Swing’s.

The bartenders were an efficient procession, moving up and down the length of the counter, never letting a glass stay empty too long. Hideki ordered a daiquiri and watched impassively as the bartender made it in front of him. He sipped it and made a smile. It was too sweet for his liking. His attention didn’t stay on his drink for long. He took another sip and began to search for Rafa Cole.

He knew Cole’s appearance from the pictures the supervisor had sent on to him. Rafa Cole was the inverse of Hideki in appearance. Where Hideki had blonde hair and pale skin, Rafa was tanned with short black locks. Where Hideki was broad and stocky, Rafa was slight and wiry. One was tall, the other still boyish in his height. Hideki, being the taller one, was able to spot Rafa quickly from his higher viewpoint. Rafa walked along, entertaining a group of his young colleagues. His movement was fluid and extravagant, unrestrained. He talked with animated eyes and he smiled easily. Hideki’s face was meaningless, it did not convey anything at all. He was comforted by their difference. Their mirroring. There was something of balance in it.

Hideki thought this in passing. He was no great believer in fate, but some things to him felt more important than others. In a situation like this he respected balance, a touch of magnetism would make things go more smoothly. He studied Rafa for a few minutes until he saw the young executive head out to the balcony for a cigarette. He followed him.

He moved across the dancefloor unnoticed, brushing through its occupants. No one turned their head to watch him go. His ghostly march brought him to cold night air and the sight of distant lights below. The club was in the upper reaches of the city. A long ways below people thronged about too tiny to be made out, and cars buzzed and clumped like feasting flies.

Hideki leaned on the black railing of the balcony. The man he sought stood a few feet further down, lost in thought, or drunken stupor, Hideki couldn’t tell. Hideki too became lost again as he watched the city. His mind moved like a watermill, turning over the same thoughts slowly and evenly. The man, Rafa, noticed him. He smiled, gave a nod. Hideki raised his daiquiri in reply. Again, silence.

Moments passed like this. The man turned to go, his cigarette end crashing to earth below. “Light?” Hideki ased. Rafa turned back seeming puzzled. He strolled over and leaned next to Hideki. “Light” he repeated, patting his pockets until he found one. He lit the cigarette Hideki had produced, the two men standing close to shield against the wind. “Rafa Cole?” Hideki grunted around his cigarette. “There we go… hmm? Sorry, yes, Rafa”.

Hideki Itô took a long drag of his cigarette. Rafa Cole watched him, relaxed and expectant, not reading into what was a moment of stomach churning stillness, nauseating tension. The fragile moment was still, then it was broken. Hideki moved, a sliver of silver flashing at his wrist. He pounced, slashing. Adrenaline pumped through him, his heartbeat filling his ears like wool and din. He worked with assembly line rote, his mind clear and focused. He was calm and immutable still. Rafa Cole struggled; Hideki was strong.

He swatted the flailing arms. He stabbed, forcing steel into the gristle and softness of a neck. He stabbed and stabbed again, in and out, clear heavy strikes that damaged and bloodied. He rended Rafa Cole until he was sure he was dead, and blood flooded out of Rafa, hot, bitter, marking his success.

Hideki took a moment to breathe. His heart seemed to rise like Shepard’s tone. It couldn’t get any faster and it continued to quicken. Breath shallow and heart knocking he searched his pockets. There was confusion inside, he had to act before it became commotion, action.

He took out a small black device, it was smooth and had a grainy texture.

Hideki had killed. A heart had stopped beating. Police drones would have recognised the loss and he would be surrounded already. There was no escape for a killer here, not at these heights.

The black device hummed. It was ready for transfer. He placed it on the back of his neck and it attached itself like a leech, making a wet sound. It was time. Now things became difficult, unsavoury. He picked up his knife again, and denied any shake to his hands. He gulped down deep breaths. He brought the blade under his chin and carved his neck in a fluid, practiced motion.

Hideki cut his throat, fluid and beautiful, like poetry. his neck gushed oily red onto the balcony. He dropped to his knees slowly. From his knees it was another short fall to the cold marble floor. His blood began to pool around him. . He had felt himself sinking, felt himself being dragged down into quicksilver water. Slowly, moving down to dark and cold, and calm. Dying was always cold, always calm. He felt his eyes closing and let cold waves wash over him, let urgent tide drag him down.

Two men lay dead when scene was locked down. An unfinished daiquiri and a lit cigarette kept each other company on the balcony.

*   *   *

His eyes shot open, blinked, gasped. There was no air in his lungs. His limbs thrashed pointlessly, heavy and foreign. Clothes were lead weights on him, he felt sodden. His brain burned with the burden of thought, his mind heaved, overcome with pure animal panic. He flopped and shuddered on a hard metal trolley, mouth fixed in an O, gasping, dumb.

He wriggled and writhed on the trolley. Eventually the tinny rattle quietened and he was still. His chest began to move up and down in a more regular fashion. His pupils reduced themselves to pinpricks. He sat up on the side of the trolley he had awoken on, staying there a few moments, not wanting to stand too quickly; new legs always took getting used to. He could tell these legs would turn to jelly when he set them to the floor.

He waited for some time, just breathing and feeling the feel of his skin, the weight of his hands. The way his mouth curved when he made different expressions. When he was sure he could stand without vomiting he stood up and walked, stumbling and spasmodic, over to the mirror on the other side of the room. He looked at his face. Stranger. Japanese, certainly. He could imagine him being from somewhere near home. It was comforting. His build was slight, but muscular. He liked it well enough.

He stared for a few more moments then reached around to the back of his neck and plucked a small black device from it. Similar to the one he had stuck in his neck a few minutes ago, but inverted, the other side of a relay. As the body dies, but before the brain shuts down it transfers, across aether, across space, across nothing. Now he was here. Mostly.

As he inspected his new face more closely the door behind him opened and a bald, rounded man entered. “Very late, Mr Itô, suspicious to be wandering around so late” he chuckled. Hideki tried to nod, instead jerking his head to the side jarringly. “A flawless evening. A happy evening. Sad for Rafa Cole. But needs must, yes?” He smiled. “Iamb glad forrour success” Hideki said, trying to work the words past a large and disobedient tongue.

The man brought Hideki to have tests run. Standard of course, and all very healthy results. He picked up his pay package on the way out. Money, and keys. A new apartment, a new car, a new everything. His old apartment would be ransacked and scoured soon enough. Nothing would be found. The night had passed by the time Hideki was allowed to leave the company building.

Hideki enjoyed the sunlight as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. The warmth of the sun soaked into him, new to his skin, skin in which he had never been warm. Skin that still remembered death, a different death, far away. Someone else. He had been plunged headfirst into dark water and a hand, this new, warm hand, had broken the surface, half a world away. Hideki wandered aimlessly through the city on the way to his new address. He took breakfast in a small cafe, and later stopped for a drink at a disco themed restaurant. His stomach showed no upset at his preferred food and drinks, which was some comfort.

The sun was preparing to set all over again when he reached the Moud-Iverson.

Hideki took an elevator, rising up the side of the building. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the cool glass. Looking out at the city while he rose made him feel nauseated. He fit his key into the door of his new apartment. It was stylish and lush and he tasted ashes in his mouth. Everything in the apartment felt plastic and mocking. It was always like this at first, he reminded himself. Starting again.

It would pass. It would pass, and still, Hideki Itô did not sleep well that night.

 

 

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_

JAMIE STEDMOND is a young Irish writer, currently based in Dublin. Jamie is pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at University College Dublin. Previously published in The Bohemyth, Cagibi, ZeroFlash (forthcoming), and Paragraph Planet.

 

Image: via Pixabay

 

 

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