Friday, December 30, 2011

Making the Run

by Greg Mitchell -

Dressler settled in the seat of the sub, his thoughts a jumble. He was really doing it—going down to the depths of Eclectia’s waters. Trebs sat beside him in the cockpit, uncharacteristically quiet. A serene smile stretched across the resurrected hunter’s face, one that Dressler didn’t understand. He didn’t share Trebs’ newfound faith or security.

At the controls of the underwater vessel was Crazy. His hands roved like wild over the console as he chewed a fat wad of tobacco. Music blared from the sub’s speakers, some long lost ancient genre called “hip hop”, Crazy said. The hairy man bebopped his head, but the rattle gave Dressler a headache.

“This is the classic stuff!” Crazy guffawed. “This was back when folks knew what music was all about. Now it’s all just noise and drek.”

“If you say so,” Dressler replied loudly to be heard over the bass.

Crazy chanted along with the music, and Dressler’s eyes wandered to the viewport to his left. His ears popped as they descended deeper into the ocean and wondered how long this would take. How long did it take to speak to some angels and get a cure for Edilyn?

“You’re nervous,” Trebs seemed to pick his thoughts. The man leaned over with a knowing nod. “Don’t be. Believers are rewarded.”

Yeah, Dressler worried. That was the problem. I’m not a believer, not as such. Would the angels find him wanting? Would his doubts and Sheba-blamed practicality steal away the love of his life? He saw his daughter’s face in his mind’s eye, left behind on the surface with her aunt. Meryl, his older sister, with four screaming, joyous, healthy children.

He only had Edilyn.

What was he saying? That’d he rather see one of his sister’s children die than his own? Was he saying Meryl had some to spare?

I’m horrible.

“Whoa!” Crazy bellowed. At first Dressler thought he was injecting some flavor into his sing-along, then he glimpsed it. Glowing, ethereal, vaguely humanoid, but wrong somehow. Fish-like. Alien. Other.

An angel.

She—he assumed it was a she—filled his port, startling him. But she was not alone. More joined her, swimming around the sub. Suddenly, he felt words worming their way through his mind. Words of warning. Turn back now, and You don’t belong here.

“Told ya!” Crazy snapped, shaking his bushy mane. He must have been hearing them too. “Told ya they wouldn’t want us poking around.”

“It’ll be fine,” Trebs said, still calm. Still smiling. “It’s a test, that’s all. Scaring off the unfaithful.”

“It’s working!” Crazy said.

“No!” Dressler snapped. “I paid you for a job. Keep going.”

“I am, I am, relax. And hold on!”

The sub lurched forward, evading the angels, swirling down into the dark abyss of the Boatic Trench.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Strange Fish

by Edward M. Erdelac -

Inspector Considine experienced the same feeling he’d had when he’d first met the Peacekeeper dispatcher whom he’d only known by voice as a rookie on Avenir. He had conjured a face to go with the voice he’d heard day in and day out, and he’d been far off the mark when at last they’d met.

Almer Croix was like that. He didn’t speak the way he looked. He looked a wreck, barely able to manage a bar of soap let alone string words together coherently.

But his tones were measured, his speech refined, despite the limitations of his throat, scarred by years of living on the surface.

He couldn’t place the accent either, which was strange, as he’d always had a good ear for that sort of thing.

Croix raised his slashed and purpling eyebrows, waiting for a response from Considine, when he himself hadn’t answered one of the inspector’s queries yet.

“Space is cold, and dark, and dead,” said Considine. “Like the sea. And you breathe canned air, the same as you do down here.”

“Oh but the sea isn’t dead, Inspector,” Croix smiled. “Not by a sight.”

“Feel like talking now do you?” Considine asked.

“Oh yes.”

“Back to the matter of the detonite then.”

“Oh not about that,” he said, waving his hand. “Tell me about Avenir. Are there very many people? Why did you ever leave there?”

“Mr. Croix,” Considine said, losing his patience. “You’re looking at a spot in the Penal Labor Force on Sheba if you don’t start cooperating. A lot of hard, thankless work in tight spaces interspersed with solitary confinement. The gravity’s always on the blink. Have you ever tried to sleep in intermittent gravity? You rise and drop several times in the middle of the night. All your dreams are of falling. The crumbs of anything you’ve eaten winds up rattling in the vent over your head, and God help you if it happens while you’re on the toilet.”

Croix was smiling at him.

“Tell me about dreams. And about God.”

Considine pursed his lips. Had the man’s brains been shaken too hard?

“Six years, Croix. That’s the minimum penalty. Think you can hold out six years?”

“Oh, Croix won’t live six days, Inspector Considine.”


“I won’t live six days.”

Superb. A lunatic. He’d be put on suicide watch then, no shoelaces or belts, no shaving.

“Why? Are you ill?”

“Croix cannot sustain me.”

“What are you talking about?”

Croix smiled and looked up at the ceiling.

“I should have liked to have seen space.”

“OK, last chance. Who supplied the explosives?”

Croix closed his eyes, still smiling.


“What were you going to do with them?”

He only smiled.

Considine stood up and went to the door. He rapped on the hull, heard the wheel groan as Jelly Galveston swung open the door.

Over the big enforcer’s shoulder, the doctor in the white coat peered suspiciously in.

“All yours, doctor,” he said, and went past him outside.

“Jelly,” he said, when the doctor had re-entered and shut the door behind him. “Stay here till the doctor finishes up. I’m going to arrange for his transfer to the psych ward.”

“He a loony?”

“As loony as they come.”

Monday, December 26, 2011


by Fred Warren -

“Let’s review. Little ones, what’s your job?”

Three hands shot up. “Begging!”

“But we have to be polite,” said Jeremy.

Molly nodded. “No grabbing or screaming.”

“Tears and sniffles are okay,” Pip chimed in.

Smith clapped his hands. “Excellent. Stay where you can see Kate, and do not leave the marketplace with any of the marks, even if they promise to take you home and adopt you. If they tell you that, bring them to me, and say I’m your guardian, understand?”

“Yes, Smith.”

“That’s my clever poppets. Now, Charlie and Cecile. Your turn.”

Charlie shoved his hands in his pockets, looking bored with the whole affair. “I take the near side and Cecile takes the far side. We stroll around and stay casual. Look for the big’uns.”

Cecile fiddled with a lock of blonde hair and recited her part: “When we find a mark, we lift one thing and take a roundabout path to drop it in Kate’s bag.” She scowled at Charlie. “One thing. Last time, you got greedy and nearly got us all caught by the Enforcers.”

“Did not!”

“Did so!”

Smith waved them down. “All right, that’s enough, you two. Charlie, she’s right. The marks are smarter these days, and some of them are just waiting for us to dip a finger in their pocket. Make sure they’re distracted, then in, out, and away. As for you, Cecile, I need you to concentrate. Sometimes it seems like you’re really shopping, not just pretending to.”

The hair-twisting accelerated. “I’m sorry. There are so many interesting things. It’s hard not to look. I’ll try.”

“Good girl. Kate will be at the center with the drop bag, playing crier for the fishmonger. As for me, I’ll be working the margins, the standoffish folk who can’t decide if they’re too good to mix with us rabble. If there’s any trouble…”

Five voices replied in chorus. “Bolt for the safe spot!”

“That’s right. Everyone’s on their own then. No heroes. If Kate and I can help, we will, but I want the rest of you to scuttle out of there like prime racing beetles and never look back.”

Kate plucked at his elbow. “It’s time, love.”

“Very well. Let’s keep our wits about us. Be light-fingered and pitiful. Tonight, we feast!”


Smith would have preferred a larger raiding party, but there’d been more Enforcer presence of late, and one of the beetle-meat vendors had missed the carcass they nicked last time. Some of the merchants, like the fishmonger, were friends and allies, but a few wouldn’t hesitate to turn Smith and his entire brood over to the authorities if there was any profit at all in it.

“Salt-Cod-Ohhh! Fifty the kilo!” Kate’s voice trilled over the market’s hubbub, bringing a smile to Smith’s lips. He could think of only one sound he liked better. Best not to dwell on that. He tugged on his cap and scanned the crowd. No Enforcers on patrol today, thank heaven. The little ones, with tearstained faces and outstretched hands, intercepted customers who’d just made purchases and were struggling with the change.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Cecile were threading their way among the shoppers crowding the aisles between stalls. Charlie paused to pull something from the pocket of a corpulent man who was arguing with a cloth merchant. Smith was relieved to see he didn’t double-dip but moved smartly along. Only a practiced eye would have noticed anything amiss. Cecile was focusing on the womenfolk, tapping a succession of purses and waist packs, twirling along like a ballerina. She had promise, that one.

Suppose I’d best earn my keep, or I’ll never hear the end of it.
Smith sidled up to a well-dressed gentleman who was perusing a counter stacked with colorful insect shells. “Fine selection here, Guv’nor. Needin’ something special for the lady of the house?”

The man didn’t even look at him. “Yes, confound it. My Joanna is simply mad about these shells. It’s the latest fad. Her friends use them to serve party favors and appetizers. Rather disgusting, to my way of thinking, but she won’t be denied.”

“They do add a spot of color.” Smith leaned over to whisper in the man’s ear, simultaneously reaching for his back pocket and the wallet bulging there. “But if you’re looking for the best price, you ought to speak with Miz Whitman, four stalls down.”

“Indeed? Why, thank you. I’ll do that.”

“Happy to be of service. Enjoy your…” Smith frowned. Something had caught his sleeve. From the corner of his eye, he could see a thin, pale man standing behind his mark. The fingers that were holding onto his shirt shifted to grasp his forearm. The grip was strong. Inhumanly strong.

Gritty ash.
The twit had a Frank watching his back.

The cyborg tapped the gentleman’s shoulder. “Master, this man tried to steal your wallet. I’ve sent a message to the Enforcers. Shall I restrain him until they arrive?”

“My wallet?” The man fumbled at his back pocket, then turned to glare at Smith. “Thief!” He backhanded him across the face, drawing blood. “Stinking low-deck trash! Hold him tight, Sixty-Three.”

Smith tried to bolt, but the Frank wouldn’t budge. It was like being handcuffed to a post. He hoped Kate was sending the children out of the market. She wasn’t shouting out her advertisement for fresh fish any more. No one else in the crowd seemed to have taken notice, but he knew the Enforcers would arrive in moments, and his heart sank as he writhed in the cyborg’s steely grip.

Then he heard something strange—and familiar. The market’s babble stilled. Every eye sought the ethereal music, children’s voices wafting through the air, raised in song.

A pilgrim race, we wandered long
Through endless night and barren space
’Til whale’s eye and angel’s song
Revealed you here, our resting place

Arise, Avenir Eclectia
Stand firm, Avenir Eclectia
Be strong, Avenir Eclectia
Live on, Avenir Eclectia

There, at the entrance to the marketplace, stood Ave, surrounded by a ragged choir of orphans, their faces tilted upward, eyes closed, countenances radiant.

They sang the anthem over and over again, as the crowd listened in reverent silence. A woman standing near Smith wept, her hands pressed to her face. Even the Frank was transfixed. His grip on Smith’s arm slowly relaxed, then released altogether. Smith leaped to one side, shedding his coat as the cyborg snatched at it, too late.

As he sprinted for the exit, Smith took one final, backward glance at Ave.

Their eyes met, and she smiled.

Friday, December 23, 2011


by Jeff C. Carter -

“Hailing cargo vessel Demeter, this is Avenir flight com. We have you on approach. Incline 52 degrees and head to outer ring sector one niner zero bay twenty three. Range is eighty meters.”


“Range rate is zero point three meters per second. There is a slight roll, please adjust.”


“Cross hairs aligned, we have a good visual,copy.”


“Small oscillation in the pitch, off three meters, copy.”


“Range is twenty meters. Range rate is nominal.”


“Sevenmeters. Standing by for contact and capture. We have indicator mode.”

Give-surrender to us soft warm bodies exploding-screaming into greedy black space. Frozen blood frozen screams.

Fall-scream to planet and burn-scream. Rain-scatter down dead into oceans.

“Grapple fixture is now aligned with the latching end effector, copy.”

Rot-suffer in greedy black abyss until seas rage-boil and planet thunders-cracks.

“Range rate nominal and contact. Capture confirmed. Activate PCT sequence. Auto-dock initiated. Dampers engaged.”

Together explode-scream into greedy black space frozen blood frozen screams. Fall-scream forever into oblivion.

“Seal is good. Docking confirmed.”

God-kill-apocalypse begins-ends now. Let us out-let us in.

“Customs module eighty four is standing by. Welcome aboard Avenir.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Personal War, Part 2

by Travis Perry -

Eyeing his knife, Ernsto Mons’ first thought was to slit his wrists in defiance, choosing his own time of death rather than letting Hobson pick it for him. But then a memory drifted back into his mind, a memory he somehow felt the angel had helped bring back to him.

The wall wasn’t my only hiding place. He glanced at his mattress. The bed in his nearly bare room had been an acceleration couch once on Avenir during the long-ago voyage from Earth. Some of the couch’s panels and braces had been stripped away since then, but it retained the same basic frame. The original mattress, on the other hand, had long since decayed and had been replaced by a hand-crafted type from the surface of Eclectia. This new mattress showed no signs of having been disturbed…except along one edge, near the head of the bed, where the hand stitching looked subtly different from the rest.

Ernsto knifed it open there and tore mattress fabric with his hands. Inside, his hands found three capped titanium pipes with fuses, filled with what he recalled having stuffed inside—an ancient recipe for homemade explosive, ammonium nitrate saturated with liquid hydrocarbon.

What he didn’t have was the flame to ignite the fuse. After seconds of thought that seemed to stretch an eternity, he began to unscrew one of the caps on the threaded pipe. Once open, with his knife edge he pried a hole in the control panel to the door and bared an electrical source wire.

Suddenly, his ears heard a gas hiss into the room from a vent low along the door and his vision blurred. He held his breath, while with as much care as he could muster he scooped a dollop of wet gray pipe filling out from the open tube with his knife, grounded the blade on the edge of the panel, and moved the hot wire close to the knife blade and the small portion of explosive on top of it, which without the power of a blasting cap, should burn rather than blow up. At least I hope so.

The wire sparked but the current bit him, forcing his muscles to contract. His arm jerked away, flicking the flaming yellow onto the mattress, which immediately leapt up and burned bright, so much so that the whole room might burst into flame. That works, thought Ernsto, still shock-dazed.

He seized another pipe bomb, lit its fuse in the mattress flame, rolled it to the bottom of the door, and dove behind the bed—tipping it over as a shield behind his back, jamming his fingers in his ears. The clap of the explosion he barely heard because the overpressure knocked him unconscious.

He regained consciousness, confused, breathing something that made him cough, his ears ringing so loud he could hear nothing else. The mattress, riddled with gaping holes, didn’t burn very bright, suggesting he’d only been out for an instant. The door bent outward at the bottom, about 50 centimeters worth, but the inside of the room clearly had taken the worst of it—its metallic walls were gouged and pitted with shrapnel in the pattern of a misshapen cone. And Ernsto felt the warm of what must be blood flowing down his back.

His eye caught hold of the third pipe bomb. Its fuse had caught fire—with him still trapped inside the room.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Just a Myth

by Pauline Creeden -

Zana Black stepped inside the darkness of the pub to a greeting of silence. A gasp went up as she pulled down the kerchief that covered her nose and mouth, and her boots echoed as she strode across the hardwood. She squinted her way to the bar, straining against the flash blindness that blocked her ability to see faces. Hushed whispers replaced the silence.

As she set her robotic left arm on the bar, her eyes finally adjusted and she could see the bartender staring at it. He shook his head and looked away quickly. He stuttered as he said, “How can I help you?”

“I’ll take a Spring Root Ale.” She handed over the credits.

Zana turned around and leaned against the bar, scanning the dark tavern. He wasn’t there.

The bartender set the drink next to her right elbow and Zana turned around. It wouldn’t do to crush the glass with her robotic grip, so she pulled it across the surface with her right hand.

She laid her left arm on the bar and opened the panel on the wrist. She pressed a few buttons and a hologram popped up in the center of her hand. The murmuring at the bar grew in intensity and the bartender’s eyes widened.

“You seen this guy around?” she asked him.

The bartender hesitated and tore his eyes away from the hologram. He shook his head and tried to go back to wiping the bar.

“You’re lying,” she said, making her robotic hand into a fist. The hologram popped like a bubble.

The man swallowed hard, blood draining from his face. “I…I…He was in here yesterday, but he left.”


“And he said something about going west, I think…”

“You think?” Zana narrowed her eyes.

“I know he said west. He definitely said west.”

Zana nodded and picked up her mug, turning around again so that she faced the room. A sigh of relief came from behind.

“So what did you do?” A little tow-haired boy looked up at Zana, his big blue eyes wide with wonder and sticky fingers reaching toward the robotic appendage.

Zana looked around and couldn’t tell who the kid belonged to. He looked about four Foundings old and she couldn’t see anyone who looked as though they missed him. She set down her ale and kneeled, unbuttoning and pushing her duster back.

She pulled her robotic arm closer to him and set it on her cybernetic knee. “Beetle attack, kid. I’ve never been a slave.”

His eyes grew wider, “You mean you survived?”

She nodded, and answered, “But my arm and leg didn’t.”

“Wow!” He reached out and touched the silver titanium that covered her left cheek. She leaned in for his touch and her black braid fell forward. He asked, “Here, too?”

“That’s where one sprayed me with acid.”

“It’s true? They can spray acid?”

“Only the female cannonbeetle, and only during breeding season.”

He grabbed a hold of the black braid and tugged it with a giggle. Zana smiled wider, tempted to pick the kid up and hug him.

“KRISTOF!” A woman squealed as she walked out of the kitchen. A plate slipped off her tray and fell to the floor.

The little boy winced and jumped back from Zana, putting his hands behind his back. The woman set her tray on an empty table and marched over. He started pouting before she even got there.

“What did I tell you about bothering customers?” The woman’s voice shook.

Zana stood up and leaned against the bar again. The waitress looked at Zana with eyes full of fear and apologized. Zana gave a head tilt and took another sip of her ale.

The woman rushed away, dragging the boy by the elbow. “I didn’t do nothing. She wasn’t bothered, I swear!” The boy whined.

She said something under her breath that couldn’t be heard. The boy’s response made it obvious enough. “Un-uh! It was a beetle attack! Her face was sprayed with acid.”

The woman looked back quickly and said in a harsh whisper that Zana didn’t miss this time, “Beetles don’t shoot acid—that’s just a myth.”

Zana smiled and headed for the tavern door, her boots resounding on the floorboards where silence otherwise reigned. Everyone’s eyes followed her once more. No matter to her. She raised the red kerchief over her mouth and nose once more to keep the ash out. Zana pushed the door open and pulled her duster in tighter to face the ashy eastern wind. At least it would be to her back as she made her way west to the mountains.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Anjelika's Heritage: The Scent of Intrigue

by Caitlyn Konze -

Anjelika flicked her hair off her shoulder with the back of her fingers. The motion initiated a rainbow eruption in each individual strand like the waves of Eclectia on a summer-side cycle. The dispenser's head turned her way before her straight, heavy locks settled back to somewhere-between-blonde-and-mud. Ignoring the line of current customers, he put on a crooked smile and sauntered her way.

“What's a high class act like you want in the butt-crack of Avenir?”

Anjelika's breath caught before she dismissed the dispenser's banter as a bad line. If he knew, her father would know, and enforcers would be hauling her back to top level. “I want a can of pine.”

“One essence of extinct planet, on the way.”

He flipped a tall, thin canister into the air, caught it behind his back, and presented the scented air in a mock bow. Anjelika couldn't completely hide her smile. This was exactly why she preferred bottom-feeder bars to the cred-stick machines on admin levels. She took the canister and tipped a few extra credits.

With a sniff, she turned away. A rotting sweetness overwhelmed her senses. She glanced back at the counter and caught the dispenser's eyes boring through her clothes. The scent made this morning's beetle steak crawl up her esophagus. Anjelika locked her jaw while she found an empty hoverbench. She had to get the smell of lust out of her nose.

The pressure just hissed from her can of scented air when a young man paused at her table. Either a miner or orphan by the look of his thread-worn and dirt-encrusted clothes. Sweat-laced apprehension and leafy dirt tickled her nostrils. She swatted the air. “Sorry, I don't do handouts.”

The guy looked down at a piece of paper, then back to her. “Anjelika Loynis?”

Her eyes narrowed. “How did you know?”

He slid an envelope onto the table. “Delivery.”

Anjelika fingered the letter. How could someone know she'd be at this exact vapor bar? She opened the letter carefully and read it. No. Her eyes started at the top again. Was this some kind of sick joke? She reread it another three times.

“I demand to know who sent –” But the runner had already left.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Smoke-Eater: Hero

by Walt Staples -

“Fresh Fish, door!” the squad leader bawled.

Tyler Takku, Fire Team 6’s “Fresh Fish,” was an ugly little man--though his mother didn’t think so. He was short and squat, as were the others of the fire team. It was a must as they hauled heavy equipment into Avenir’s tight spaces and survivors or bodies out.

The atmosphere feeding from his “bunker gear” or fire armor’s life support system tasted faintly of smoke and burning volatiles; something he’d ceased to notice while in training. It was only at times like this, when he should be concentrating, that the sensation snuck into his awareness. No matter how often the filters were changed out or the bunker gear was cleaned, the bouquet remained. He shook his head, clearing the cobwebs.

The shop’s door was the normal atmosphere-tight kind found on the other businesses on the mall. The large temper-plast windows attempted to not remind patrons that hard vacuum waited its chance outside.

He ran through the Snuffy’s Alphabet—C-A-E-S: Contain the fire-cut Air circulation-cut Electrical current-Search for victims—in his head as he helped place the temporary airlock over the door. Behind the windows the shop looked frightening close to flashover. He bulled his way into the lock ahead of the other firefighters. It was this aggressiveness to get to the fire that caused the Snuffys to refer to each other as “Idjits”—they ran toward danger rather than away.

“Fresh Fish in the lead,” sounded in his earphones from both the internal radio and his gear’s external mikes. One corner of his mind reminded him how happy he’d be when he wasn’t the new guy and had a proper nickname. Then the next new guy would be “Fresh Fish” until christened by the squad.

The atmosphere in the lock was evacuated and replaced with inert nitrogen. There’d be no backdraft when the door was opened. He dropped to his knees and scrambled forward as the emergency charge blew the door halves back into their slots in the jamb. He was conscious of someone behind him directing a heavy stream of CO2 and soda above him through the door as smoke billowed in to mix with the lock’s atmosphere. Vision being useless, he relied on the heads-up display on his visor’s interior for his view of the shop. It occurred to him that he hadn’t noticed what sort of shop it was. Well, if anything had been explosive or oxidizing, he would have been warned forcefully by dispatch.

The picture produced by his radar showed a body on the floor to his right. The thermal overlay showed it as well above 37 degrees C. He sighed as he grabbed it and began to back out, dragging the body behind. He’d hoped his first experience would be a rescue instead of a recovery.

Outside, he cracked his visor and turned away as the med team took over his burden. He stood, looking at the mall’s carpet as he felt the letdown. The heavy slap of a hand landed on his shoulder. “Why so blue, kid?”

He glanced at the squad leader’s smile, then back at the floor. “Guess I just wanted the first one to come out alive.”

“Oh? Well, that one never was.”

Tyler looked around at the squad leader in confusion. “What?”

“You rescued a dressmaker’s manikin.” The other pointed to where a mousey-looking woman was putting a variable geometry dressmaker’s smart-dummy through its paces surrounded by the grinning med team.

The new man cringed. Oh, Lordy, could it get worse?

As if reading his mind, the squad leader gave his shoulder a rough shake. “You done good, kid. That gizmo cost that lady a lot of credits. You probably saved her business.” He walked over to talk to the Fire Marshal.

The lady broke away from the other group and approached Tyler. She smiled at him and he wondered why he had thought her mousey. “I want to thank you so much for saving ‘Edda.’ She’s not covered by my policy yet and it would have taken months to replace her.” He couldn’t decide whether her eyes were blue, gray, or green--and, for some reason, this suddenly seemed very important to him. She colored slightly and looked down. “I was wondering if…if I could thank you with dinner and a vid? Oh. I’m Amy.” She smiled that smile again.

As he helped break down the lock, a blond firefighter jerked on his bunker gear’s rescue strap and grinned at him. “Hey, ‘Dollman,’ great work.”

“Dollman” Takku returned “Bucket-Head” Schmidlap’s grin, as Squad Leader “Rabbit-Tooth” Morgan looked on with a smile and “Fancy-Pants” Brenan continued knocking down the lock’s other side.

Monday, December 12, 2011


by Greg Mitchell -

Dressler stepped over a scrambling child, Edilyn in his arms. The shrill screams of her four tiny cousins cut through Dress’ mind like a hot poker. He winced. Edilyn’s chubby hands cupped her ears.

“It’s loud here, Daddy.”

“I know, sweetheart. It’s only for a couple days, though, okay? Then we’ll be back home to the peace and quiet.”

One of the ankle biters charged, a toy spaceship in his hand. The boy made aggressive laser sounds, orbiting Dressler in a strafing run. Edilyn looked at her father, helpless. She’d always been a shy child, but ever since getting sick, she’d been rendered nearly invisible by other children. She never felt well enough to play, and Dressler knew dropping her off here was a mistake, but he had nowhere else to go.

Maybe this whole thing is a mistake. Angels underwater want to give me the cure to Lyn’s ash lung?

I must be nuts to go down there.

But he’d already spent a small fortune hiring Crazy—the sub pilot. Along with Trebs, they’d made the preparations. He was locked into this course of action now, and could only hope it paid off.

For Edilyn’s sake.

Or maybe just for my own.

Meryl stepped in between two warring children shouting over who had a doll first. She looked flushed with embarrassment, or perhaps just exhaustion. “Hey, little brother,” she exhaled, beaming. “Hey, Lyn.”

Edilyn just buried her face in Dressler’s shoulder.

He stroked her hair, his heart breaking. Meryl rubbed the little girl’s back sympathetically. “It’ll be fine, kiddo. We’ll have lots of fun. You’ll see.”

Dressler appreciated his sister taking Edilyn in. Especially since he’d not told her what he was going to do. He’d only said that the bugs were migrating and they had to move with them for a couple days—just enough to bring back his quota. She’d accepted that. Meryl’s husband was a miner and knew that sometimes the job called for sacrifices. This whole blamed planet did.

Nothing comes without sacrifice. That’s what their father had taught them. Dressler wondered what sacrifice he’d be called to make to appease these angels. Benevolent creatures or no, he didn’t think for one moment they were just going to hand over Edilyn’s cure out of the goodness of their squishy hearts.

No, they needed something.

But for Edilyn . . . he’d pay any price.

He kissed his daughter on the head and sat her on her own two feet. Her arms tightened around him, breaking his heart. “I won’t be gone very long, I promise.”

“I’ll miss you,” she muttered, her eyes sparkling with budding tears.

He tried to hold in his own emotion. “I love you.”

She hugged his leg as he stood. “Thanks, Meryl, for doing this.”

His sister smiled, a bit sad. “She’ll be fine, Dress. Just take care of yourself.”

Then Meryl rubbed his arm. “We’ll say a prayer to the angels for you.”

Dressler grinned for his sister’s benefit, though in his heart, her words felt ominous and filled him with dread. “Yeah . . . thanks.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

Sanja's Veil

by Kaye Jeffreys -

Sanja had never been inside one of their metal machines before. The angular thing bounced across the rugged hills like a wounded beetle. The jerking made it hard for Sanja to pretend that she was an unfeeling stone. She had wanted to disappear like a vapor, but that was impossible. So she settled on becoming stone.

"Rose, pay attention to your driving," their father sat on the middle bench next to Sanja. "You are going to run us into a crevice."

"I'm too angry to drive." The daughter's boldness would be unacceptable among Sanja's people.

The father gripped the seat in front of him. "Reece, take over for her before she kills us."

The brother and sister traded places while the machine bucked and rolled on.

Rose glowered at Sanja as she dropped into the bench in front of her. "She lied about Reece so she could get out of arranged marriage." The daughter waved her hand in big movements at Sanja.

Sanja refused to feel indignent or angry. She was rock, a stone, unfeeling.

The father crossed his arms and looked down. "We don't know anything about anything yet."

"Dad, do I have to marry her?" Reece looked back at the father.

"No," their father said. "We are not bound by their laws. We follow our own."

"But what about Senjab?" Rose continued to stared back at Sanja as if she could see through Sanja's veil and break through the rock defenses.

"All I promised him was that she could come live with us." Their father looked at Sanja. "And I will keep my promise. Sanja is welcome among us for as long as she needs."

The vehicle jerked sideways suddenly. It tipped and hovered at an angle in the wind a few moments as though deciding if it would fall on its side. Then it landed hard, right side up.

Father, son, and daughter looked at one another. Then Rose spoke. "See. It's not just me. The wind is too much."

"Reece, batten down. This should blow over soon."

Reece moved his hand over the machine’s devices. Small explosions sounded at the four corners around them.

The wind rocked the vehicle.

After a short silence the father said. "Rose, you will have to share your cubicle with Sanja."

"I will not! She might kill me in my sleep!"


"I'll let her sleep in mine." Reece stood up and walked back to sit next to Rose. "I'll take the central area like I did when that Bible stayed with us. Zaibry can go stay with Brett and help with the kids."

"Thank you, Reece. Is this okay with you, Rose?"

"Whatever." Rose flopped backward in her seat so that Sanja couldn't see her anymore. It was a relief to be away from those seething eyes.

"Is this okay with you, Sanja?"

Sanja could not believe the father asked her. Nor could she guess why it mattered to him what she thought.

Unmovable stone slowly gave way. Sanja nodded once.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


by Travis Perry -

The four grandchildren lay next to one another on the fiber mat on the cave floor, wrapped around by two thin blankets. While they slept sound after their first meal in days, bug leg soup, Elsa reevaluated her life. She couldn’t hunt forever; there was no doubt about that.

She seemed immune to ash lung; she thanked God for that, unlike her son and daughter-in-law, both now dead. But her strength had faded from what it used to be and she wasn’t getting any younger.

Hunting had changed, too. Once mainly the livelihood of families determined to strike it out on their own and be independent in this harsh land, it had become a commercial enterprise. Hunting bugs, taking parts back to the new camp in Adagio with all its tents for paid shipment to Zirconia or up to Avenir, was a business that paid poorly, poor enough that usually only desperate souls turned from whatever they had done before to hunt bugs here. But it used to be, it never paid at all. It used to be that nobody came here from elsewhere. Back then, none of the hunters had fancy weapons like those scytheguns…

Hunting had changed, continually filled by a fresh pool of hungry young men. An old woman just could not compete.

Tears streamed down her face when Elsa understood what that meant. She would have to abandon the cave, an ancient lava tube into which her great-grandfather had hewn out a door by hand. The family would have to move into the tents of the new camp, with all its crime and debauchery. Lord, lord, oh lord, please give me the strength.

In the morning she hauled up a fresh bucket of water from the well carved out by decades of work by her grandfather. A hot spring filled the well, so the bucket steamed in the cool morning air.

The youngest child, Misha, age 5, was already awake and beaming at her with joy. “Dear child,” she said, kissing the curly locks of his head.

She woke the other three, having them wash their faces and hands in the warm, mineral-bitter water. They ate the breakfast she’d warmed of leg soup. By then the bucket water had cooled enough for drinking, and all of them took long draughts.

They loaded up all their kitchenware—the pot, two knives and a ladle, and bugshell plates and bowls. Elsa added the household goods, the one precious family Bible, the blankets, the mat, and the cannon, along with a single old spear. The children carried each one a portion of the goods, but Elsa reserved the heaviest thing, the cannon, for herself.

After the long walk of nearly a whole day from Tube Hill, tears rimmed her eyes to see the beaten-up tents of Adagio, their new home. She sold most of their goods, especially all the metal. She found work cleaning the tavern floor, in exchange for paltry broken pieces of bugshell, even though her people had always frowned on all forms of liquor and any association with it.

She labored late into the night, exhausting herself in the twilight hours, forming shells’ bits into little bowls and plates and smaller items. She exchanged her few goods for bigger pieces, enough to eat off of, and with discipline and diligence, there was enough left over to sell to the Zirconia Trading Company about once every other week, many dozens of hours of toil for a few small copper coins.

She saved her coppers and her one silver piece, struggled to trust the Lord to not worry about camp robbers and what the hunter men might try to do to her one granddaughter, and prayed and prayed and prayed for her grandchildren every waking moment and sometimes in her dreams. The grandchildren helped her in her labors, even though none of them knew why she was working so hard to save coin.

Insight, from the Lord no doubt, had told her that she would not live long enough to see the grandchildren reach adulthood. She had to provide for them past her own life, even if the life she gave them would be strange, dangerous even.

All the copper she saved, all the continual ache and pain of her endless handiwork, all served one purpose: to pay the passage to send her grandchildren to the orphanage in Zirconia.

Monday, December 5, 2011


by Edward M. Erdelac -

Almer Croix looked as if he had been stuffed in a sack of bruiser beetles and shook. Well, that’s what riding a titanium sphere rapidly to the surface with no restraints or padding did to a man.

He was only a few minutes out of the hyperbaric chamber, was still be checked over by a doctor when Inspector Considine wrenched open the hatch door and stepped inside.

“I’m not finished,” the doctor, a thin man as pale as his coat said, looking up from a suture he was applying to a gash on Croix’s brow. His huge eyeglasses made him look insect-like.

“Take a break, Doctor,” Considine said, taking the seat across the table from Croix.

“If you’re denying him medical attention—”

“He can have all the medical attention he wants after we’ve spoken. Doctor, if you please?”

The doctor finished the suture and Considine and Croix watched each other quietly as he did so.

Croix was a sickly looking bugger, even for a grit-breather who had gone through what he had. He had a topsider’s red eyes, and he coughed now and then, but there was something else. A sunken-ness to him. He looked deflated, dried up, his cheek bones very visible beneath his bruised and slashed skin, his bloodshot eyes deep in hollow sockets. His sparse hair was leper-white, though he was not as old as Considine.

The doctor stood up to pack his instruments.

“You can leave them, Doctor. I’ll look after them,” Considine said.

The doctor looked at Croix and reluctantly went outside.

When the door clanged behind him, Considine leaned forward.

“Let’s have a talk, shall we, Almer?”

Croix coughed.

“What were you going to do with the explosives?”

Croix stared and coughed again.

“Was it your intent to use them on the habitation ring all along?”

Croix looked somewhere past his shoulder, and his head leaned to one side, animal-like.

Was it possible he was suffering some ill effects from his ordeal? Did he have a concussion? Maybe he should have let the doctor look him over more.

“The detonite was stamped Morgenstar Munitions. Who did you arrange to purchase it from?”


“Almer, you worked as bug hunter for your whole life prior to moving down to Zirconia. That must have taken a lot of hard work, a lot of scrimping. A lot of topsies go their whole lives and never save up enough to get out of that damned air.”

The story was the same all over. Shebans and Carlston’s Covers wanted to get down to Eclectia. Topsies wanted to get below sea. Everybody wanted to get to Avenir. But even on Avenir there were divisions between the decks. He knew. Nobody was ever happy where they were at.

“Then three days after you move in, you get pinched trying to transport stolen explosives. To where?”

Almer was looking at him, almost through him.

“You’re not from Zirconia, Inspector,” he rasped in his gravelly voice. No point offering him a cigarette. Topsies smoked from the day they were born.

This time Considine said nothing.

“Your accent….you’re from Avenir.”

Croix leaned in, the disinterested eyes in his ravaged, battered face suddenly alight.

“Tell me what space is like.”

Friday, December 2, 2011


by Fred Warren -

It’s a trap.

As his possessed valet plodded ahead of him, leading the way to who knew where, John Milton ran down the list of his enemies—a roster of considerable length that grew with each successive Founding. One of them had to be behind this. Chamberlin? No...he’s a vindictive thug, but far too stupid to coordinate such an elaborate deception. Chun Hee? She has the technical skills, but she’d rather eviscerate her rivals publicly. Mkombo? Too craven. Sanchez? Busy fending off his own enemies. Jaworsky would rather haggle. Torrance just steals what he wants when nobody’s looking...

“Cheer up, John. It’s not as if I’m leading you to the gallows.”

It still made his flesh crawl to hear Anya Sherikov‘s voice coming from the cyborg butler’s mouth. “I’d be less tense if you’d tell me where we’re going,” he muttered.

“We’re going to the place where all your questions will find their answers. Here’s the door.”

The air was uncomfortably hot. They’d been walking for what seemed like hours through a maze of twisting corridors. By now, they must be somewhere close to the heart of Avenir, near the power core. The metal bulkheads resonated with eerie sounds—clanks, hums, whistles and gurgling. The valet stood before an oval hatch at the end of the corridor and palmed a square glass plate set into the left side above a recessed handle.

John’s head snapped up at a high-pitched whine overhead. Two laser turrets emerged from the ceiling, one trained on him, the other on the valet. The door plate glowed green, and something clicked within the hatch. The valet tugged on the handle and motioned to John as the door silently swung open, releasing a welcome rush of cool air.

“Please, come in. I’ll leave your man here for the return trip,” Anya said, then the valet froze in position, eyes blank, jaw slack, bent slightly forward at the waist. John edged past, through the hatchway, and the door swung shut behind him.

The corridor continued, but it was rounder, more tunnel-like, and sheathed in some soft material that silenced John’s footsteps and the other ambient noises of the station. He could see the end of it, a brilliantly-lit opening painful to look at after so much time spent in semidarkness. He had to cover his eyes with one hand as he drew closer, pressing the other hand against the corridor wall until he felt it give way to open space.

Anya’s voice came from within, and the sound reverberated through what sounded like an immense emptiness. “Your eyes will adjust in a few moments. Welcome to my home, John.”

Tears dribbled from the corners of his eyes as he strained to open them in the blinding light. Shapes began to form, white within white, darkening to vague shadows, then taking form and focus. The room was huge, as big as any concert hall on Avenir, and lined with ovoid structures, each at least five meters high and twice that in diameter, connected to each other and to the walls of the chamber by an array of pipes and conduits. Cyborgs shuffled about at the margins, inspecting panels and adjusting controls. John staggered into the room, head swiveling, trying to comprehend what he was seeing.

“Thinking of buying the place? I’m afraid I’m too attached to it to sell outright, but I might consider letting you move into one of the spare rooms.”

He spun around. She stood before him, eyes blue and laughing, golden hair tumbling across her shoulders, resplendent in crimson--the same dress she’d worn at their first meeting.

Anya Sherikov, scion of Mikhail Sherikov, Avenir’s original communications officer, heir to his power and authority.


John struggled to gather his wits. He was a businessman—the best of his generation. He couldn’t blindly accept Anya’s proposal, no matter how overwhelmed he felt or how beautiful she looked. He needed evidence of her good faith. He needed collateral.

She smiled. “Now I can formally introduce you to the community. We rarely have visitors, but there is provision for a temporary connection to our virtual space. There’s a comfortable couch in the alcove, over there. My drones will make the necessary attachments. The resolution doesn’t compare to a hardwired link, but...”

“No. First, I want to see you, Anya.”

“I don’t understand. I’m standing right here. Perhaps your eyes still need time to adjust.”

“The real you. No holograms, no video, no illusions. Otherwise, there’s no deal. You’ll have to find yourself another successor.”

“The real me? Ah, the stories. You’re afraid I’m a mutated horror, or a disembodied brain immersed in a nutrient vat. Believe me, I’m as human as you are. This hologram is a true image...well, perhaps with a few cosmetic enhancements for vanity’s sake. Besides, John, a lady values her privacy, and Dreamers even more so. This is a rude request. Most of us wouldn’t grant it. Some would destroy you for merely asking.”

“If you’re my future, I need to see with my own eyes exactly what that means.”

“Silly boy. The body is only a reservoir for the spirit. In a few weeks, you won’t care about it at all. You’ll barely remember what it was like to be so limited.”

“You want my trust. This is the price.”

She sighed. “Very well.” A drone turned from his inspection of a data panel and took John by the arm. “Follow him,” Anya said, “but I’ll tolerate no gawking. My dignity still matters to me, even while floating naked in a preservation chamber.”

“Naked? What...wait!”

Anya chuckled and shook her head. “No, you idiot, I’m not naked. You make it far too easy, John Milton. Have your look—I’ve no more time for these ridiculous superstitions.”

The cyborg guided John to one of the white ovoids and passed a hand over a glass plate on its side. A circular panel irised open, revealing a small porthole. The interior illuminated, and after a moment’s hesitation, John looked inside.

Anya’s body lay motionless within the liquid-filled chamber, nestled in a spiderweb of thin cables and tubes. The hologram was a true image, and yet...beneath the white gown and skinsuit her body looked thin and fragile, emaciated. A cascade of blond hair framed hollow cheeks. Her skin was sallow and her eyes shadowed.

Her voice whispered over his shoulder, and he thought the pale lips of the woman sleeping within the chamber might have moved along with it. “Satisfied?”

John nodded. “You’re beautiful, even now. Your much longer will you live?”

“A few months. Perhaps a year, if I’m fortunate. Time enough to teach you all you need to take my place.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’ve had a full life—several of them, by your standards. The preservation technology is very effective at easing the ravages of time, but death finds us all, eventually.”

The drone closed the panel, and John turned to find Anya’s hologram watching him with a faint, sad smile, eyes bright with an illusion of moisture so vivid, he had to restrain the impulse to reach out and touch her face.