Wednesday, June 29, 2011


by Travis Perry -

The fist-sized cannonball made a neat puncture in the seam that ran down the middle of the mammothbug’s exoskeleton. Dazed by the blast of the cannon as she was, this was not the first thing Elsa noticed.

The first thing she realized was the bug charging her way, roaring in pain. It wasn’t until long moments afterward that some detached and objective part of her brain realized the shot actually had been in the right place, it should have hit the bug’s heart, killing it instantly…

Her mind pondered but her body scrambled up the rock face immediately behind her, knowing the bug would come straight after her and was a poor climber. She moved as fast as her elderly frame would bear, the bug roaring behind her—too close. The only thing that soothed the bitter certainty that she would die was the fact she had been certain of her own death before—and lived.

“Help, Lord!” her mouth said, it in turn operating independently of her slow-moving body and shot-critiquing mind. She found hand-and-toeholds and moved upward, not fast enough, she knew, as the bug’s roar drew terrifyingly near.

But then from behind her came the muted crack of a scythegun followed an instant later by the roar of its projectile breaking the mammothbug’s back. Elsa glanced down and saw the bug’s last twitching movement before death. Its carcass was not even two meters from the rock face.

Behind the bug’s body, she saw her savior, a grim-faced bearded man, in new-looking clothes, about a hundred meters away. “Thank you, young man!” she shouted and waved, feeling her face spread in a wide smile.

He approached without saying a word until he was close. By then, Elsa had recovered her cannon and her skeleton saw. She would have to cut the carcass in pieces and carry it bits to get it home. She’d be lucky to get it all back before the scavengers arrived, but once she returned with the first piece, the children would help with the rest. She began her work, starting to saw off the right front leg.

“What are you doing?” said the man, now only meters away, his weapon not quite pointed at her but not quite pointed away, either.

“Oh, taking home some of this kill for my little ones.” Observing his scowling face, she added, “Since you were so kind as to help me, perhaps you would like to take half for yourself?”

Now the weapon pointed itself directly at her. “This is my kill. Move along outta here.”

“Surely there is enough here for both…perhaps you would like to take three-fourths of the beast? I really need at least a small part for my family…you see, one of my sons abandoned us long ago and the others have died in the hunting, the last leaving a very pregnant wife and five little ones behind.” She smiled as sweetly as she knew how, trying her best to appeal to his sense of human decency.

“My kill, old woman,” his voice growled, not sounding particularly human. “Shove along. NOW.”

She moved, bitter tears streaming down her face. Why, dear God, she thought, would you save me from a quick death only to let me die a slow one?

She glanced back behind her and saw the man carving her bug into neat slices with a powered blade, paying no more attention to her at all. And it came to her in a flash of insight what she should do. There were a whole series of little ridges in this narrow valley—she should duck behind one, reload the cannon with the last of her powder and the last cannonball and kill the man stealing the food from the mouths of her little ones.

Behind a ridge no more than twenty meters from her intended prey, the powder and cannonball in place, heavy guilt flooded Elsa’s soul. This is wrong, she acknowledged and knew with bitter resentment that no matter what it would cost her, her God demanded one thing from her: forgiveness.

Elsa wept bitterly.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Until Again

by Kaye Jeffreys -

"Jereth, wait!"

Only one voice on Avenir had the power to slow Jereth down…and that was it. Jereth stopped pushing through the crowd in the narrow corridor and turned. A man in a flight suit cussed him. Jareth lifted his chin and stared him down. The crew member looked away and scooted around. Social status had its perks.

Jaren caught up with him. "Are you leaving without telling me?"

"If I told you, then I'd have to explain." Jereth looked up at the silvery lighting system rather than at Jaren. Regret hollowed his stomach.

"I know why. It's him. You had another fight."

"You heard us?"

"Not just me."

"So much for maintaining appearances." Jereth adjusted his pack's strap on his shoulder. "How did you know I was leaving?"

"I found the note that you scheduled for tomorrow. The 'take care of Neenah' note. Where are you going that you can't take your cat?"

Jereth deflected him. "Will you take care of her?"

"I will spoil her. Where are you going?" Jaren wasn't thrown off.

"Zirconia. I explained in the note." Jereth lied but gave Jaren the best believe-me look he could summon. After all, he was going there first.

"I come of age soon. You couldn't wait?"

"He would have expected it and stopped me. I can't risk that. These walls are closing in on me." Jereth scanned the bobbing heads of people rushing to and fro. A woman glared at him as she pressed by. This time Jereth smiled. They were in the way and he didn't care. He was over this place.

"Don't forget me." Jaren's words brought Jereth out of his small enjoyment.

"I could never forget you, brother."

"Half brother." Jaren hung his head.

Jereth rested his hand on Jaran's shoulder. "You are the only brother I have."

Jaren wouldn't look up.

This was what Jereth was trying to avoid. An emotional separation. Neither of them were good at it. He fought off a tear that pricked his right eye.

"Look at me." Jereth released Jaren's shoulder, brought his forearm in front of his chest, parallel to the floor, and fisted his hand.

Jaren reluctantly brought his arm up so that his fist touched Jereth's elbow and Jereth's fist touched Jaren's elbow, making the sign for the Farewell Promise.

They said in unison, "Until again."

Friday, June 24, 2011


by Mary Ruth Pursselley -

There is no peace under the great domes the strangers come from. Their very walls emanate anguish, animosity, and despair. One can sense it, even from a distance, hanging in the water like blood lingering after a shark’s kill. It is my curiosity—the force behind many things I do—that lures me there in spite of all. Curiosity… and pity. I don’t understand the unhappiness of the strangers. What has caused it? Can nothing be done to change it?

Or is this bitter aura their nature?

I am inclined to believe not. Today, as I hovered close over the domes, one mind stood apart from the others. It was not angry or tainted like the others. Its touch in my consciousness wasn’t septic like the others. Reaching out to listen more closely, I realized why this mind was different.

This stranger was happy. I listened as emotions rippled through her consciousness like bubbles in the deep ocean, and her mind formed peculiarly-shaped thoughts—the words of her language. The shapes, patterns, and rhythms of the thoughts were new and different, and made me laugh at their oddity.

Until one thought formed a shape I recognized.

The word itself, in the stranger’s tongue, meant nothing to me. It was the shape of the thought behind the word, the emotion on which the word stood, the precise harmony with which the thought and emotion were fused, that gave me pause.

The stranger thought my name. Her consciousness formed the exact shape and feeling of my identifying thought. But she did more than that. She gave my name a word in her language.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011


by Kat Heckenbach -

Robynn walked behind Denton and Strand, her arms crossed and shoulders hunched, peeking between their heads. If she wasn’t so tall for her age, she’d be terrified of the two older boys. But she passed herself off as older so they wouldn’t bully her like the other kids. Instead, they took her in, treating her almost like an equal. Almost.

She glanced around, nervous. They shouldn’t be in this corridor—urchins didn’t even belong on this level, where the rich lived and didn’t want to be reminded of the poor and homeless. If anyone saw them they’d probably be accused, and convicted, of stealing—even without evidence.

She should just turn around, slip back to the lift and go down to their own level. Who cares what they have to show me…it can’t be that big a deal…

Denton and Strand stopped suddenly, and Robynn nearly slammed into Denton’s back.

“There he is.” Denton cocked his head slightly to the left where a man walked toward them. Robynn sucked in a breath and pushed against the wall behind the boys.

“You really think he’s a ’droid?” Strand whispered, face turned so Robynn saw his profile. His eyes were wide.

Denton nodded. “Gotta be.”

Robynn bit down on her lip. The man was getting close now—why weren’t they leaving? Her stomach twisted as she willed herself to meld into the metal wall.

And then she noticed…the man wasn’t even looking at them. He was only a couple of yards away. He should’ve been glaring at them, calling to have them hauled off. But he just stared forward, until he stepped up next to them.

The man turned slowly—stiffly—toward them. Robynn ducked her head behind the boys like a turtle pulling into its shell.

“Are you lost?” the man asked. There was something odd about his voice…

Robynn sucked on her lip. Could it be? Was Denton right?

“No, sir,” Denton said. “We’re just heading back to our rooms.”

The man’s head tilted to the side, and then he gave a courteous nod. “Well, then, get going.” He stared as if waiting for them to move. Robynn noticed he didn’t blink.

Denton and Strand looked at each other, their faces straining as if holding back laughter, and then they moved forward, exposing Robynn.

She froze. The boys kept walking farther away, but she couldn’t make her feet move, or make her gaze break from the man’s face.

He leaned in, hands on his knees, and whispered. “Don’t worry, I won’t report you. Get back to your level, though, before someone else sees you.” His lips curled into a friendly smile. “Oh, and I’d make some new friends. Those boys aren’t too bright. They wouldn’t know a ’droid if it hit them in the face.”

“So you’re not?” The words slipped out before Robynn could stop them, and she bit her lip again.

“Of course not. I heard them whispering halfway down the corridor…and I’m just having a little fun with it.” His eyes narrowed, and he patted her shoulder. “You believe me, right? Ever heard of a ‘droid with a sense of humor? It’s not exactly something you can install.” He winked and straightened up.

Robynn relaxed, and nodded at the man. Then she headed down the corridor toward the lift. She stopped and hit the button. The doors to the lift opened, but Robynn didn’t step inside. She gazed down the corridor where the man had been standing…where he’d spoken to her, and smiled, and winked…

…but not once had he blinked.

Monday, June 20, 2011


by Fred Warren -

John Milton left the party via the door nearest the spot the beautiful woman in the red dress had occupied before she vanished. He didn’t believe in ghosts. If he wasn't hallucinating from fatigue, this was probably the handiwork of some joker in Network Control peeved that his new electronic toy wasn't in last week's shipment from Adagio.

Joker or not, the man knew his business. John had seen holograms before, but never one so perfect, so lifelike as this one.

He turned a corner, muttering to himself, and was nearly to the end of the dimly-lit corridor before he realized it was a cul-de-sac. He whirled about to retrace his steps, and pulled up short.

She was there. Close enough to touch.

The woman tilted her head, an amused smile playing across her lips. "Hello again, John. I'm so glad you decided to pursue me. I was hoping we might talk awhile, in private."

"Who are you?"

"Someone with an interest in this colony...and in you."

"If this is somebody's idea of a prank, I'm not finding it at all amusing."

"It isn't a prank. I simply want to ask you a question. A serious question."

He folded his arms across his chest. "I'm listening."

"Who controls Avenir Eclectia? Where does the true power reside?"

This was the question? A half-educated child could answer it. "The Peace Council, of course. They govern the colony, enforce law via the Peacekeepers, adjudicate disputes, regulate trade..."

She frowned. "Come now, you have more insight than that. Let me put it another way. Why are you living in luxury on Avenir rather than scrabbling after insect carcasses in the ash, on Eclectia?"

"Trade. I broker the exchange of raw materials from Eclectia for processed goods from Avenir's nanofactories, and I’m very good at what I do."

"It seems terribly inefficient. Why aren't there any nanofactories closer to the source of the raw materials?"

His irritation was mounting. He'd had this conversation a million times with all manner of politicians, petty bureaucrats, and spacers. "Well, the factories require a zero-gee environment for maximum throughput, but I suppose the real reason is that we can't replicate them. The technology is held by the First Families...but they're all Dreamers."

"Yes, we are."

Her words were like an icy rivulet of water down his spine. John edged backward, away from the woman, until he bumped into the featureless metal wall at the end of the corridor. If the stories were true, there was a person directing this image, but its true form was a bloated, deformed travesty of humanity, or a disembodied brain, or an amorphous thing floating in a nutrient vat, somewhere in a dark, armored recess of the station. "You’re lying. The Dreamers are wired into a virtual fantasy world. They’ve abandoned all human contact."

She smiled and slowly closed the distance between them as John flattened himself against the wall and turned his face away. "Oh, not all human contact. It's a useful bit of propaganda, and not entirely false, though we're much more intimately involved in the affairs of this colony than anyone, including the Peace Council, could imagine."

The image flickered as she bent forward to whisper into his ear, and he squeezed his eyes shut as his hands clawed against unyielding metal. "We represent an unbroken line from the original command crew of the Avenir, and we still take our responsibilities very seriously. One of those responsibilities is stewardship of the nanofactories. They are the true heart of Avenir Eclectia. Without them, the colony dies. No machines, no weapons, no replacement parts, no medicine. The hunters can't hunt, the miners can't mine, the undersea cities and the station fall into disrepair, and plague ravages the population."

He could feel her breath, warm and feathery on his cheek, and a wisp of spicy perfume hung in the air. No. That's impossible. He forced himself to open his eyes. She stood five feet away now, her blue eyes drilling into him. Measuring him. He swallowed hard and forced out the words: "What do you want with me?"

"We've been watching you for some time, John Milton. You are intelligent, energetic, and ambitious. Most of all, you are one of only a few people on this station who understand that our colony is doomed unless the status quo is changed. You have a vision for its future, a vision that we, with slight variations, share."

She blinked out of existence for a moment, then reappeared at the corridor intersection. The calculating expression was gone. Her eyes were moist. Pleading.

I'm dying, John, and I have no heir. I'm inviting you to take my place. Join us. Become a Dreamer.

Friday, June 17, 2011


by Walt Staples -

The old man shuffled down the corridor, slowed by his burden. His friend had put on weight towards the end. He glanced down at his own paunch and grinned ruefully. His friend wasn’t the only one packing it on of late. He thought about his burden. Friend? No, much, much closer than a mere friend. Almost a lover. What was that ancient word? Bunkie--the one you ate, slept, shared a blanket with, and died with if worst came to worst. Yep, his bunkie.

The disposal tech looked up as the old man entered. “Yes, sir? Can I help you?”

“A disposal.”

The tech looked at the shroud-wrapped burden. “Why didn’t you just put it down a disposal chute? Why lug it here?”

The old man smiled slightly. “Biological.”

The tech raised his eyebrows and tilted his head. “Okay.” He pulled up a form on his display. “Weight of object to be disposed of?”

“Five kilos.”


“My bunkie.”

The tech looked at his display, then leaned closer to it. “I’m not seeing a listing for that. Could I take a look?”

At the old man’s nod, he unwrapped the shroud on the end nearest to him and stopped. After a moment, he looked back up, his eyes softened. “Yeah, okay. Tell you what, I’ve got a document box that should work. Be right back.” When he returned, the old man placed his burden in the container and the tech sealed it. He then attached a small reaction unit and a guidance pack to the container. He consulted his display and tapped in the coordinates for the guidance pack’s A.I. Then he opened the funerary airlock and placed the container on the track. The container moved in and the inner hatch closed. The tech tapped once and the light above the lock changed from green to yellow to red.

The old man began to ask, “I wonder, when I…”

The tech smiled gently. “I made a note of your I.D. When the time comes, if it’s within the parameters, you’ll be put on the same course.” He looked at his display. “Your...bunkie will reach Tau Ceti in 162 standard days.”

The old man, his eyes wet, sniffed. He wiped a finger beneath his eye. “Thank you, so much.”

The tech nodded. “I had a dog once too.”

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


by H. A. Titus -

Reeder stared out into the murky sea. It stretched as far as he could see, changing colors the further away it went. Close to the viewing bay, it was a pure, bright teal. A few feet away, the color melted into a dark blue, then a midnight blue, then inky black.

Schools of purple and yellow-striped seafish swam in circles near the viewing bay, attracted to the underwater city by the lights and the warmth. One swam straight up to the glass and knocked on it with its parrot-like beak.

Reeder laughed and knocked his knuckles against the glass. The fish retreated in alarm. A translucent shimmer floated between him and the fish. Reeder felt a strange, peaceful warmth flow into him. It wasn’t the first time he or his family members had met one of these strange underwater creatures. Angels, some called them.

Reeder was pretty sure that the one that had driven his brother mad with fear hadn’t been an angel.

The shimmer floated away, leaving behind an indiscernible gap in the view. The colors of the fish and the water seemed duller. Reeder picked up his official messenger’s bag and turned away to finish his day’s work.

Soon, he’d have enough money to explore deep into the ocean. Find out what what those creatures really were. Get a good glimpse of one.

Maybe find a cure for his brother.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Bottom

by Travis Perry -

Ernsto’s feet touched down at the bottom of the sea, six kilometers below surface. The lifeforms that had been beneath him had cleared away as he descended, he never seeing any trace of them with his own eyes.

His sonar screen now showed more green dots of movement, seven hundred meters dead ahead. He shuffled forward, deliberately leaving his dive suit floodlights off. He wanted his arrival to go unnoticed until he was ready to strike.

Various types of the creatures called “angels” lived at all depths of the ocean, but the top-dwelling ones contacted mankind often and knew which human beings to avoid. But these bottom-dwellers wouldn’t be ready for a man like him.

He would approach the group his sonar told him were clustered together in the dark, net at least one, kill any that resisted, and then jet upward to Zirconia before the aliens could react, a solid, simple plan to exploit the angels’ ignorance. The only shortcoming—he didn’t know anything much about them either…

His eyes began to pick up a glow coming through the inky blackness of the deep. At first he wondered if he were imagining it, but it kept growing brighter and brighter. Must be undersea magma, he thought, but no, the water temperature was far too low. And the color seemed wrong.

At one hundred meters from the movement on his sonar screen, the glow’s brightness approached that of the Twin Whale, light rising up from the ocean floor and illuminating little bits of floating debris and odd-looking fish swimming over the light. These fish, he realized with disappointment, were the source of his sonar reading.

But he noticed something else, a bit of a ridge between him and the light. He approached it cautiously, crawling the last few meters to the edge, knowing from experience that crossing a ridge in a danger zone standing up is a good way to get shot—though his experience had been of the man doing the shooting.

Facemask over the edge, the brilliance below him stung his eyes. It took long seconds to adjust, but he gradually saw the ocean dropped down below the ridge into a massive shining thing, at least a kilometer wide, full of movement.

Shapes with wide fins like wings, lit up with sparking and changing patterns of bioluminescence, mostly white, what must be dwellings, likewise glowing, mostly blue or green, what where passageways—no, streets, several hundred meters below him he saw, an entire city of angels shining brightly at the bottom of the sea.

There must be thousands of them, he thought to himself, his mouth dry. For a long moment, he almost quit the mission. But no—he had never failed to deliver any cargo he’d been paid to smuggle. He wasn’t about to start failing now.

He patted himself down, running his hands over his bandoliered and belted weapons. Then he braced himself to roll over the ridge, down into the Angel city below.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Debt of Gratitude

by Mary Ruth Pursselley -

There hadn’t been any choice but to send Celia to Zirconia. Well…there had been. Celeste slapped a cloud of ash loose from her canvas pack and shrugged it onto her back to begin the trek down the mountain to Adagio. She supposed she could have let her little sister stay land-side with her to grow up like the other orphaned kids in the settlement: dirty, hungry, a master thief by age twelve.

Their parents had killed themselves—literally—working to make sure Celeste and Celia never had to face that kind of life. Their mom had succumbed to ash lung only a few months before a mining accident killed their dad. Celeste had been thirteen Foundings old, and Celia just eight.

A harsh wind kicked up, and Celeste shut her eyes as it blasted her with dust. Once it subsided, she wiped the grit from her eyes, then reached back and pulled a pair of goggles from the side pocket of her pack. She fitted them snugly over her eyes, blinked a few times, and kept moving. It was getting cold. By morning it would be full winter—every bit as miserable as summer, just in a different way. At least she had a place to stay, relatively safe from heat and cold alike.

She and Celia had been evicted a week after their dad died. One of their mom’s friends, Maddie, had let them live in the back room of the tavern she owned for a few weeks, while Celeste tried to figure out what to do. It was Maddie who had suggested sending Celia to Zirconia.

It was one of the tavern’s patrons, a bug hunter named Trebs, who’d told Celeste about the buried city and the market for artifacts. It hadn’t seemed like a good idea to her, and she had said so. But Trebs fired back with a good question: what else could she do? Aside from thievery or some even worse profession, the only options were mining and hunting. He told her to her face that she wouldn’t be able to “hack it” in either one.

He’d also given her the name of a dealer who, he’d heard, was in the market for relics and artifacts. She’d decided to give it a try, and within six months she had enough money to pay for Celia’s transportation to Zirconia and the first semester’s tuition at the boarding school there. Trebs had been right.

Sure, there were times like this when Celeste crawled out of a tunnel at the end of the day, caked with crusty ash, exhausted, miserable, and wishing she’d never met Trebs, much less been dumb enough to take his advice. But the fact was, without him, Celia would be just another hungry street urchin.

She owed him one.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


by Joseph H. Ficor -

After the graduation ceremony, Enforcer First Class Shouhei Fiko went away from his classmates clutching the small gray envelope.

He had refused to open it until after the ceremony. His classmates had opened their assignment orders as soon as they received them. Shouhei was afraid that he would jinx his chances if he opened the envelope early. His apprehension eased a little after making the decision to wait.

The night before graduation was spent praying—and pleading—for his desired assignment. He even forsook the traditional congratulatory beetle steak breakfast given to graduates on the morning of the ceremony.

He wanted to join the space division. To be among the emptiness and infinity of space was heaven compared to the dust and heat of Adagio. He loved his family deeply, but he desired to fly in the dark coolness of space. He wanted to feel a closeness to sky from which his ancestors had descended. He desired release from the family’s Eclectian prison.

A millennium of time passed before he made the final tear in the envelope.

He removed the paper and unfolded it carefully.

His dream crashed like a beetle that had been struck in the underside by a meat hunter’s bullet.

His destination was Sheba.

Monday, June 6, 2011


by Jeff Carter -

Dr. Kwame Singh basked in the shimmering blue light and felt the pulse of ocean currents against his skin. Even though he was 30 km beneath the surface of Sheba, he felt as though he were in the oceans of Eclectia. The miners had used the blue mineral pectolite to gild the walls of their cathedral with every color of the sea. The rhythm of the waves came from a circle of drummers beating a slow and somber cadence. Since a lifetime of inhaling grit and ash had rendered them unable to sing, they offered up prayers with drums made from the shells of giant sea snails.

He thought of his frustrating time in dank Port Xenia. The study of Theological Drift had come to a halt around the same time as the Avenir. His parents and grandparents had made their contributions, charting the fracture, conglomeration, and slow dissolution of Ancient Earth religions. The long journey across the void had opened space for a spiritual Cambrian explosion. Kwame intended to capture it by pioneering a new field called Evolutionary Theology.

The colonists of Port Xenia were wistful about the so-called ‘angels’ they rarely glimpsed through the portholes, but there was nothing ecstatic or transcendent in their middling culture. The first true believers he met were the miners on their pilgrimage from Sheba. Their hair was unkempt and their skin was like leather, but their eyes were tranquil and electric. These men and women had contact with the ‘angels’ more frequently and intensely than Dr. Singh had ever observed.

He had followed the miners back to Sheba and discovered the cathedral that they had built by hand. A bright light carved across the ceiling, interrupting his reverie. Supervisor Braun was stomping towards him, his helmet light glaring. “Third shift is starting. Break it up.”

As the miners shuffled out they genuflected to the statues of patron saints that had been streamlined with fins and curving fluke tails. The supervisor looked at his chronometer and scowled. “Isn’t there an abbey topside for this? If they don’t spend less time banging drums and more time working, the technology we depend upon will fail.”

Dr. Singh smiled with dawning understanding. “They risk freezing vacuum and hellish inferno every day to feed their families. Do you really think it is just technology that they depend on?”

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Spirit of Fun

by Walt Staples -

In his idle moments, Pomphee, the department’s head, wondered whether it was prescience on the part of an ancestor that led to picking the name or whether, possessing that name, the man before him felt at some level required to live up to it. Doctor Professor Erschreckendmann or, more simply Doctor E, hulked in the armchair across the desk from him, if a man of 60 kilos can be said to “hulk.” Perhaps it was it was his way of holding his head tilted forward and regarding the subject of his interest from beneath thick, bushy brown eyebrows, a gleam of green glimmering in the shadows. In combination with the ferocious mustache, one was given the uncomfortable impression they were being observed through a sniper’s sights from ambush.

The other spoke, “And that’s your problem? One freshman prankster?”

Pomphee nodded. “Precisely, Doctor.”

Doctor E lowered his right eyebrow. “What makes him special?”

The department head sighed. “The last stroke was the neutron particle spectrum analyzer.”

“Richardson’s new toy?”

“Yes. Well, it seems young Hacket found a way to view questionable artworks on it.”

Doctor E half smiled. “Something neither the League nor the chaplains would approve of, no doubt. So? Take them off.”

“That was the first half. The second became apparent when those, in a moment of weakness…indulged, shall we say. It seems anyone who does comes away with a red face.”

The professor chuckled. “That shocking, are they?”

“No,” Pomphee shook his head, “literally red. Hacket linked a cantrip to the instrument. If one uses it for its proper purpose, there is no problem, but if used to view…” he let the rest hang and reached for the cigar box on his desk.

Doctor E gave a great gust of a laugh. “Ah. That’s why Richardson and half his grad students are nowhere to be seen. And the mice of the department want me to bell this young cat.”

The other nodded. “Just so.” He pushed the cigar box across the desk and raised his eyebrows.

Doctor E put up a hand in negation. “No. A wise alchemist doesn’t smoke. There are far too many things in my laboratory that are much too fond of fire.”

The department head choose a dark Cabyo and touched it into ignition. “Will you handle the matter?”

The smaller man rose, turned, and with his hands clasped behind him, strode to the door. As the guard gnome held the door, he stopped, turned, and with hands still clasped, answered, “I’ll think on it.”


Hacket peeped around the corner of the sub-hallway. Though designated only for maintenance robots and gnomes and other such creatures running errands, the students often used it as a shortcut between their cells and the library. The string was almost invisible and stretched across the hall neck-high on a human. He snickered. The next student though would receive a very wet surprise. He glanced again at the buckets; their color merging them into the walls and ceiling.

Footsteps! He crouched so as to peer around the corner from a lower vantage. The freshman’s freckled face broke into a big toothy grin as he recognized his victim, the sawed-off little runt with the huge mustache from the Materials Department. This was going to be so good!

His quarry approached the string oblivious to its presence. Hacket put a hand over his mouth to stifle a giggle. The little man touched the string—his head flew from his body! Hacket froze in horror and the bottom dropped out of his stomach as the headless body fell forward, hit the floor, and flew into hundreds of fragments.

As he stood transfixed, a hand dropped on his shoulder and a voice rumbled, “You might consider breathing again.”

Hacket slowly turned his head. The hand on his shoulder belonged to the little man and it was attached to the rest of him.

The redhead found his tongue. “How?”

Doctor E twitched his mustache with amusement. A green fire burned behind his eyes. “A simple matter of bi-location and atomization, my boy.”

“How the devil—?”

“No,” the professor cut him off, “in my case, they’re from the other side. An inheritance, one might say.

“Now, if you can control your clownish impulses until the end of the semester, I’ll take you on as a lab assistant. Come along.”

As he followed, Hacket asked, “Inheritance? Is it elven blood then?”

The old man snorted. “Elves? Of course not--Heinzelmännchen.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“Look it up, boy,” Doctor E threw over his shoulder, “That’s the way you learn.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


by Fred Warren -

The room buzzed with conversation, punctuated by the occasional titter or guffaw. Glasses clinked, and a Bach sonata lilted overhead.

It was oh, so pedestrian.

John Milton hated parties. Hours of making polite conversation with people he didn’t particularly like, listening to timeworn music, imbibing watered-down drinks, and nibbling reprocessed hors d'oeuvres.

He tried not to think about what might have been reprocessed to create the pretentious snacks as he scanned the crowd. Most of these drones were irrelevant—mid-level administrators, Spacer Guild functionaries, a few merchants and Peacekeeper staff officers. Of more interest was the handful of Peace Council members sprinkled about the room. John’s import-export business was comfortably profitable, but a few insincere compliments and discreet bribes were necessary to prevent government inspectors from looking too closely at his books.

Time to turn on the charm. He drained his cocktail and set the empty glass on the bookshelf he’d been leaning against. After straightening his blue satin tunic and twisting one of its diamond studs into proper alignment with the others, he set sail for Councilor Mkembe, who was dithering over a tray of canapés.

A flash of red caught the corner of his eye, and as turned toward it in reflex, he hesitated. A willowy blonde woman in a low-cut crimson gown smiled at him from a corner of the room. Her eyes beckoned in counterpoise to the ironic tilt of her lips. He didn’t recognize her, but John smiled in return. How could he refuse such a cultivated invitation? Perhaps the evening wouldn’t be a total bore after all.

He altered his course, knocking one of the cyborg servants off-balance and sending a plate of finger sandwiches clattering to the floor. No one, including John, paid it any mind. The servant bent down and silently collected the spilled food as John swerved around and through the loose circles of chattering partygoers. The woman’s smile widened, and it was dazzling. Her eyes were cerulean blue, her skin smooth and perfect. There might be three comparable beauties on all of Avenir. How could he not have noticed her before? John shouldered his final obstacle, a corpulent bureaucrat, out of the way and reached toward her.

She vanished.