Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Word Carrier: Mission

by Walt Staples -

In the infirmary, Brother Kadfell, the abbey’s medico, asked, “With or without, Douay Bede?”

The Bible smiled at him. “Without, Brother.”

The other nodded. “As you wish.” He set the hypo to dispense the first-aid spray without its anesthetic component and sprayed Bede’s blistered palm. The choice of each newly Published Bible was a secret Brother Kadfell would keep. It was a choice that by tradition was not discussed with anyone.

Outside the infirmary, Brother Charles waited for Bede with a frown. Bede took in his erstwhile teacher’s expression and his heart sank. His assignment had been decided. He had hoped to be assigned to a mission among spacers with the priest he would be paired with. From Brother Charles’ face, he knew it was bad. Probably a mining settlement on either Sheba or Quatermain. He consoled himself with the thought that if it did turn out to be Sheba, at least he could visit the abbey on occasion. He took a deep breath. “I take it that my assignment has been decided?”

Brother Charles nodded grimly. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

Bede braced himself. “Where?”

Brother Charles answered in a voice of doom, “Thou art assigned to the Spacers’ Mission.”

Bede blinked. Had he heard right?

Brother Charles leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. “You know, you might want to close your mouth before Hubert or one of the other cats decides to go rat hunting in there.”

It took Bede a couple of tries to get enough air to ask, “Why didn’t you just say so?”

His teacher grinned at him. “Because I was afraid you’d try to swarm up me and slobber all over me.” Putting the lie to his fears, Brother Charles threw his arms around the Bible in a bear-hug. “Congratulations, boy. You worked hard for it and you’ve earned it.” He held Bede at arms’ length. “You’ll do us proud.” He raised an admonishing finger. “But only in a proper non-Seven Deadly Sins meaning of the word. Understand?”

Bede beamed back at the big man. “Yes, Brother. I’ll remember. When and where do I go?”

Brother Charles dropped his hands and folded them within his sleeves. “The where is the Spacers’ Mission Mother House on Avenir, sort of neutral ground, as it were. The when is a couple of days from now; after all, it would be a bit rude to skip dinner with his Excellency and the rest of the abbey, tonight.” He cocked his head and squinted one eye. “Besides, you left off the most important part of the question as far as your future success goes.”

The Bible raised his eyebrows. “What’s that, Brother?”

“The who. You’ve been matched with Father Oaku Mary, T.O.R.”

“What’s he like?”

His teacher shook his head. “Don’t know, really. His records look okay and he’s fresh-caught like you. His Ordination was day before yesterday. I guess you’re going to find out first-hand in a few days.” He changed the subject. “Let’s go find your folks. I suspect your mother probably wants to maul you some. I hear their parish priest sprung for their fare?”

“Yes, bugherds don’t make a lot, so Father Mack came up with it. Said only that it had to do with a penance.” They turned the corner.

Monday, February 27, 2012


by Edward M. Erdelac -

Considine opened the door to the interrogation room and stepped in.

“Alright Ms. Pacoy, I understand you’ve got a match.”

She was sitting at the table where he’d left her, a pixviewer in hands. She turned it to him, screen glowing in the dim room.

“That’s him. That’s the one that loaded the cargo on Avenir.”

Considine took the pixviewer and regarded the face and file in front of him.

“Alright, you can go, Ms. Pacoy. Let’s keep a closer eye on our cargo bay, shall we?”

“Yes, sir.”

Jelly stepped aside to let her leave the room.

“Orin Bantry,” Considine read, skimming the details of the man’s personnel file. He was rusty-bearded, balding on top, green eyes.

“Should I call it in, Inspector?” Jelly asked.

“No Jelly,” Considine said. “I think I’ll handle this one personally. You can go back to the garage.”

“Alright,” Jelly said.

Orin Bantry, thirty-four years old. He’d been with Morgenstar Munitions for seventeen years, was a Cover by birth, his father a miner on Sheba, mother a teacher on the space station, one of the glorified tutors who passed a rudimentary education on to the kids of the Sheba miners. They had to know how to read their oxygen regulators, didn’t they? How to seal a pressure suit and operate a drill.

Humble background, yes. He’d made the jump to Avenir as part of Morgenstar’s outreach program, basically a quota filling, much publicized hiring process the company ran every year to keep the Sheban miners from thinking they were a slave class. One lucky soul in a million got a cush job, got to live on Avenir.

Bantry’s job hadn’t been exactly cush, as the program put most Shebans and Covers into the freight depot, packing detonite and hauling crates. He’d apparently been one of the few to display genuine career aptitude. He wasn’t just a leg-upper. Worked his way up from freight to R&D, concocting the zero-G explosive devices his family used to safely blow holes in Sheba without scattering the miners into infinity.

But after eight years of being a hands on worker, he’d been promoted only a few months ago to administrative assistant to Aloysius Morgenstar himself, latest in a long line of corporate heads who could trace their lineage back to the founding of the company.

And now he was smuggling detonite to a whacko ex-grit breather on Zirconia.

But why? And why the confluence of two one-in-a-million individuals? A topsy bug hunter who made the jump to kelp farming and a brilliant chemist who’d been dug out of Sheba….two caste jumpers.

Something in his jaw pained him. That little man, that homunculus he used to joke about. The one that kicked him in the tooth when something wasn’t right.

He made his way back to his office and keyed in Gorsh again.

“Stanlon!” Gorsh in his clean suit, in his nice Peace Council office. “We’ll have the extradition crew ready in about ten minutes, so have Croix ready in about thirty?”

“I’m afraid there’s going to be a delay,” Considine said. “ZMB has quarantined the suspect for the time being. Seems he’s riddled with all sorts of viruses.”

“What! I’ve already put the extradition in motion.”

“I know, but you know how ZMB is. They’re adamant about scanning him.”

“Scanning him?” Gorsh repeated, a little nervously it seemed. “Under no circumstances!”


“That is, I won’t have the delay. The wheels are already in motion.”

“Well I’m sorry, but we’ve no jurisdiction over the Medical Bureau, as you know. The doctor told me there’s a danger of contamination, and you know how touchy the sea monkeys are down here about germs. Nothing short of a squad of Enforcers is going to get him released early.”

“Damn!” said Gorsh. Something certainly wasn’t going his way.

“May I make a suggestion? How would it be if I maintained a close watch on the whole thing personally, and brought Croix up myself as soon as he’s released?” said Considine.

Gorsh was chewing his lips. What was the matter with him? Why did he want Croix so badly?

“Very well, Stanlon,” said Gorsh, straightening his tunic. “But I want you to keep a very close eye. And I want the results of the scan transmitted to my office as soon as….no, wait. I want you to bring me the results. And impress upon the ZMB the need for candor. We’re building a case, here after all, and anything, any narcotics in his system, for instance, any abnormalities at all, could be admissible as evidence.”

“You want the results kept secret?”

“Dammit, Stanlon….yes.”

“Alright….sir. I’ll advice discretion.”

“Do more than advise it.”

“Gorsh, do you expect some abnormality to show up in the scan?”

“I don’t know of course. Don’t be ridiculous. Look, we’ve had some botched sentences up here lately. Lot of angry relatives, influential people petitioning the Peace Council. I just want this to go very smoothly.”

“I see. Alright.”

“Alright. Stay on top of it, and call me as soon as he’s released, or if there are any complications.”

“I’ll do that.”

Gorsh winked out again.

Well something was surely going on here. He’d felt it prudent not to mention the doctor’s diagnosis that Croix was dying from his ailments.

Croix. What was it about the man that agitated Gorsh? Well, Considine’s purpose in delivering the man personally was two-fold. He could continue this investigation better on Avenir.

Now all Croix had to do was survive long enough to make the trip.

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Mind of Metal and Gears (FLASHBACK)

by H. A. Titus -

Hazy whiteness blurred with colors as they moved in and out of his line of sight. The sound filtered to his ears, sounding similar to the time that Denton had shoved his face into a vat of brine for salted bug meat.

The one thing that he could clearly feel was the pain—the throbbing ache in his right wrist, and—not really pain for his left hand. More like a cramped, prickly feeling. Like someone had been clutching his hand tightly for hours.

One word, a familiar word, floated by, and he grasped at it, rolled it around in his head like a bearing, until he understood it.


He forced his eyes to focus. They felt bruised and ready to fall out of his face.

His sister's blue eyes came together, clear in the blur. "Hey, sleepy-head!"

A second face joined his sister's, a woman in white with a funny-looking cap on her head. "Stay calm, Clock. Your brother just went through a lot of trauma—you shouldn't excite him."

"Trauma?" Cog muttered, trying to sit up. His right wrist felt weird. He was putting all of his weight on the wrist, not the palm of his hand. Why? Was his hand asleep and bending under the wrist weird?

He looked at the empty space where his right hand should be. A splotchy red and white bandage wound around the stump of his wrist.

His heart lurched. "Clock?"

"It's all right, it's all right," the nurse whispered hurriedly. "You just had an accident."

Accident. His memories came flooding back. It hadn't been an accident. Money had run out. He hadn't been able to find work for two weeks. He'd been stealing food for Clock and a meat vendor had come after him with a knife.

The nurse's lips drew together. "Such a shame," she murmured under her breath. "Such a waste." She turned away. "I suppose I should contact the orphanage about you two. Goodness knows that you'll need someone to take care of you now."

Clock's blue eyes flared. "Don't you worry about us. Cog's got a mind of metal and gears. Right now I bet they're spinning so fast that there's smoke just about ready to come out his ears. So don't you worry about us—Cog can take care of us. Right, Cog?"

Maybe so. Maybe not. But he wasn't about to go to an orphanage, not after the horror stories he'd heard from runaways.

Cog grinned at his sister. He had to be confident, for her sake, even though his own insides felt like gelled bug's blood. "Sure, sis. Sure."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


by Jeff C. Carter -

Nosey was trying to get Bruzzy to talk again. She had known the boy her entire life but he had only recently spoken his first words: “Rahab is death.” Now Bruzzy crouched on the floor, once again as silent as the grave. What had Dr. Lev done to the boy to get him to speak? And what did it mean? Bruzzy wasn’t telling.

“Do you know what the definition of insanity is?”

Nosey looked up and gasped when she saw Valljon towering over her.

“It’s trying the same thing twice and expecting a different result.” Valljon said.

His face flickered between a sneer and a smile, which was unbelievable because it usually held no expression at all. Valljon was the oldest patient at St. Christina’s Clinic for the Neuro-Atypical. The rumor was that he was turned into a servant for an aristocrat, but when they put the control chips in his brain something went wrong. He was little more than a vegetable after that, just a fixture of the Rec Room among the furniture.

“What happened to him? What happened to you?” Nosey gasped.

“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…,” Valljon chanted.

“…crawl into your stomach and out your mouth,” Bruzzy finished.

“Would you like to see for yourself?” Dr. Lev said.

Nosey scrambled backwards when she heard Dr. Lev’s voice.

“Leave me alone!”

Something caught Nosey’s ankle. It was Bruzzy’s hands.

“Come along now,” Dr. Lev chided.

Valljon hooked a hand under Nosey’s arm and yanked her painfully off the ground. His strength was incredible. Bruzzy latched his small fingers around her other arm. Dr. Lev opened the door to the medical ward.

Immediately Nosey’s terror increased as they entered the unfamiliar room. Her fear of open spaces careened with her current panic and she went limp. Her mind curled into a fetal position.

“That’s better. This will only take a moment.” Dr. Lev cooed.

Valljon pinned her face down on an examination table and lifted the hem of her flimsy gown. She felt cold air on the exposed skin of her back. Dr. Lev withdrew a long thick-gauge needle.

“This is like a spinal tap, but we’re not taking anything out. We’re just giving you a little gift,” he said.

The needle’s contents seemed to shine and bubble. Was it a drug? Dr. Lev walked around Nosey and she saw it up close. The thing in the needle undulated, its thin glistening body catching the harsh exam light on a thousand cilia and teeth.

The worms crawl in. The worms crawl out.

Nosey’s body tensed and she drew in her breath to scream.

Monday, February 20, 2012

On the Eve of the End

by Greg Mitchell -

The sub was on autopilot. Crazy had since outmaneuvered the angels at the top of the Boatic Trench, hiding within a series of underwater coral caves. It’d been tense for nearly twenty minutes as Dressler, Trebs, and Crazy nestled in the coral, no lights on, running on minimal power. The sub had been quiet as a tomb, filling Dressler with dread. At last, the angels moved on and the sub resumed its underwater quest.

Now they were lowering their way towards the meeting place, where Trebs’ angel contact was leading him. It occurred to Dressler more than once to ask why, if the angels had invited him to the ocean depths, the ones closer to the surface were so intent on keeping them away. The couple times he’d posed that same question to Trebs, his co-hunter had simply said “Trust me.”

It was a lot to go on trust, but every time Dressler thought of returning to dry land, he only had to think of Edilyn.

Crazy sipped at a mug of steaming drink, the same as Dressler and Trebs tended. The three of them sat around a small card table in the sub’s hold, taking a moment for themselves while the autopilot finished its journey. The coffee break was equal parts celebration that they’d dodged the angry angels and a time of quiet reflection. A strange sort of bond had been formed through the experience, and Crazy was feeling chatty.

The large man went on, pleasantly enough, talking about his various adventures piloting the oceans. Dressler nodded in and out of the conversation, enjoying the man’s stories when he was listening, but mostly thinking of home and how much he stood to lose if this little sojourn went south.

“So you’re a bug hunter, huh?”

Dressler blinked, realizing that Crazy had addressed him. “What? Oh. Yeah.”

He sipped at his drink. “Thought only criminals took that job.”

Dressler shrugged.

“I don’t mean to offend,” Crazy quickly added. “If that’s the case, then that’s your own business. Just saying you don’t look to me like much of a criminal.”

“No, it’s okay,” Dressler said. “I…served some time.”

Trebs blanched. “You never told me that.”

Of course he hadn’t. He didn’t tell anyone, save his employers. “It was about three years before Lyn was born. My daughter,” he added, realizing he’d not told Crazy her name. He felt as though the man had earned that much—risking all he had to escort Dressler on this fool’s errand. “It was a bar fight. I was lit up and mad about something. Guns got involved…I got a lenient sentence on account that we both were drunk and no one could tell who started shooting first. But…”

Crazy nodded, listening with a sympathetic ear. “You’re not that man now,” he said, not asked.

Dressler felt a thin smile emerge. “No. My daughter changed all of that.”

“Kids have a way of doin’ that.” Crazy buried himself in his mug again, thoughtful.

“You have any kids?” Trebs asked the pilot, suddenly, and it felt as though the man was a third wheel, butting in on a private conversation, though he’d been there the whole time.

“Used to,” Crazy answered, and left it at that.

Proximity alarms bathed the cabin in red. Crazy simply rose, slow and steady.

“What’s that?” Dressler asked, his heart starting to race.

“We’re here,” Crazy announced, like they’d reached the end of a leisure tour. “Now it’s time to see what the fuss is all about.”

“Yes,” Trebs stood, solidly. “It is.”

That’s when Trebs pulled the knife.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Flashback: In Remembrance

by Walt Staples

Dr. Nordheimer Pomphee slammed his fist on his desk, producing an almost musical note. “I will not have it. Not in my team.”

The little man on the other side of the desk raised one bushy eyebrow. “Oh? And you plan to do what exactly?”

The head of the Avenir's astrophysics team purpled as he gripped the arms of his executive swivel chair. Through gritted teeth, he answered, “The name stays 'Sheba.' I am the team lead...ergo, I am the team.”

The other preened the huge mustache that hid most of his lower face, a green glimmer playing in the shadows beneath his luxuriant eyebrows. His reply was quiet, “Then you are a team very close to fragmenting and flying off in unfortunate directions. Look, it was bad enough that you personally jumped the gun and announced that 94 Ceti A's second planet has a satellite before we're close enough to nail down why that planet has a fast wiggle of its axis. What's the rush? I mean, how long has Avenir been outward bound from Earth? A week or two more's going to make a difference? Then you had to go and name that satellite, 'Sheba,' without input from the rest of the team. Why 'Sheba?' Where did that come from? What has it to do with 'Eclectia?'”

“Rank hath its privileges.” The tall man brought his hands together on the desk in front of him and looked down a beaky nose at the astrochemist before him. “Now, get out.”

Tony Brazzi was waiting in the companionway outside. “Well, that went well,” he said brightly. “A rather rank situation I should think.”

The little man squinted one eye at the astronomer, then smiled ruefully as he tapped the bulkhead. “Does seem the shipwrights skimped a bit on sound-proofing.”

“So, what do we do, Dr. Niemand?”

Clasping his hands behind his back, Dr. Niemand set off toward the lift. “So, you go back and try to find out why both Eclectia and Sheba have the shimmies. And I go and try to find out where 'Sheba' comes from.”

Tony hooked a thumb back toward the door. “What about him?”

The astrochemist cocked his head. “I've always been of the opinion that once someone flatly rejects reason, the only course open is to find a comfortable place to sit and watch them make a fool of themselves. After all, one should not stand in the way of high art.”


During the dog watch, the little astrochemist stopped before the door of an auxiliary to the main data office. After bypassing the door sensors and those of the office, he settled himself at the subsupervisor's console. He punched in “Personal: Nordheimer Quintilius Pomphee” and a long string of alpha-numerics. He leaned back watching the blur of information flow across the screen. At the point of Pomphee's sixth birthday, he slowed the flow and turned up the volume. He replayed the sequence three times, watching the young Pomphee joyfully accept his wiggling birthday gift. Dr. Niemand sat lost in thought for some time, then coming to a decision, made a modification to the record so that it could only be opened with Pomphee's biosignature.


Tony rubbed tired, aching eyes, then looked at the numbers on the screen once more. There was something there, but he just couldn't put his hand on it. He turned to where Dr. Niemand lounged, feet up, reading a hardcopy from Tony's collection. The astronomer sighed, linked his hands behind his head, and tensed his muscles. He relaxed and asked, “Which one are you reading?”

The astrochemist smiled and answered without looking up, “King Solomon's Mines.”

Tony grinned. “Printed that out yesterday. Stayed up most of the night reading it. Alan's quite something.”

The little man turned a page fondly, “We're old friends, the hunter and I.” He looked up. “Problem?”

Tony gestured toward the numbers. “There's something hiding in there, but every time I get close, it skitters away.”

Dr. Niemand gazed at the screen thoughtfully as he ran a finger over his mustache. “Ne, as someone said once, 'when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'”

Tony turned back to the screen with a frown. After a moment or two, his eyebrows went up. He stared at the screen unseeing for a moment longer, then said quietly, “Oh, my.”


“They are Sheba I and Sheba II,” Pomphee blazed. He and the astrophysics team had been deadlocked for the past four days. One by one, those who normally backed his decisions had fallen by the wayside; either convinced by argument or through exhaustion. He looked from grim face to grim face like a boar brought to bay. His glare settled on one who entertained a half-smile. “You find this funny, Niemand?”

“Sorry, gas.” The astrochemist replied blandly. He nodded slightly to Elizabeth Rona, the tall, shapely planetologist.

Taking her cue, she spoke, “I can make it worth your while, Nord.”

He stared at her, thunderstruck. Coming to himself, he stormed, “First argument, then threats, now you offer yourself?”

Her laugh was musical. “No Nord, I have much too much respect for both of us. No, what I offer is something unique on the Avenir. If you will yield and accept Tony's name for the second moon, I will supply you with one chocolate covered fresh strawberry per day until we reach orbit around Eclectia. Think how long it's been since you tasted one, Nord. Each from my personal plant in hydroponics.”
The team leader's face lost its anger as he looked back over the decades to a very special birthday. He licked his lips and swallowed. He nodded curtly. “All right. The second moon is Quat—what was it again?”

“Quatermain,” Tony supplied.

“Fool name.” Pomphee lowered his head as if in remembrance of something and walked out.

“Not perhaps as good as the name of a beloved pet from when one was a boy, but a good name on the whole,” Dr. Niemand observed to himself just loud enough for Tony to overhear.

The astronomer asked from the side of his mouth, “How did you know he would go for it?”

“Ah, t'would be telling.” He tilted his head and grinned.

Tony shook his head. “You are a scary man, sometimes.”

“Sometimes,” the little man agreed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Escape, Part 1

by Travis Perry -

Each movement brought a spasm of pain to his back and his left ear felt like a hot poker had been shoved inside it. In the angel’s chamber, Ernsto maneuvered the robotic cart carrying the portable pressure tank to the circular lock near the floor, below the transparent wall that physically separated him from the angel.

Two doors entered this room; the one behind him he felt confident was secure—shut tight, its locking mechanism damaged. His left hand held the plasma blaster, covering the door in front of him as his right hand worked the controls to the circular entrance into the angel’s tank.

Waves of comfort and empathetic caring emitted from the angel, reminding him of his grandmother’s touch when he’d been sick as a child, a warm soothing blanket and hot honey tea from her gentle hands, her voice telling him she loved him. The angel’s care probed not only into the suffering of his body, but reached deep into hidden parts of himself, working to soothe the damage he’d done by destroying other men.

The light near the door flickered and he fired on the entryway, a plasma bolt peeling the blue paint on the metal sliding door. Easy, easy, said the warm embrace of the angel’s mind.

He replied, “Babe, the lock’s ready. You needa come out so I can transfer you to this tank, so I can take you back where you came from.” His voice rasped in a whisper, but he knew she understood him. He hadn’t actually needed words at all.

She came out and he physically pulled her from the lock and briefly her body was in his arms, wet and rubbery. Now she suffered the pain of low pressure and his mind clumsily tried to comfort her with it’s okay, it’s okay. But then she was in the portable tank, the lid sealed shut, and the rising water pressure returning her to normal.

At that moment the door snapped open and two enforcers scrambled into the room, plasma pistols raised, shouting, “DROP YOUR WEAPON!” He was ready to kill or die trying—the angel flooded his mind please please please, begging him to stop. His left arm twitched to raise his weapon but he found his hand had let go of it. It dropped to the floor and his heart accepted what the angel wanted. He would allow himself to be captured.

Behind the first enforcers came two others, and then another two. The first pair threw him to the ground and handcuffed his wrists together. They hauled him to his feet and he saw there were now at least ten enforcers in the room and a plainclothes peacekeeper and some firecrew. Among them, in the safety of their numbers, stood Hobson, a triumphant smile on the wizard’s face.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Trouble With Croix

by Edward M. Erdelac -

“He’s dying,” said the Doctor outside the interrogation room where Croix was sitting peaceably.

Considine wasn’t overly surprised. The man looked almost as if he’d died already. Lung deterioration was a common cause of death to Topsies. They worked half their lives to get out of the poison air only to find it had already killed them long ago. Sometimes the knowledge drove them to a nihilistic kind of crime. It made a kind of sense. He just wished he knew what Considine’s target had been.

“What of? Not his injuries, surely.”

“Without a complete scan I can’t say, but by his symptoms, a multitude of things.”

“A multitude?”

“Pneumonia, syphilis, orange and yellow fevers….”

“What?” Enforcer Brendermyer interjected. “Is he contagious?”

“Oh yeah. But most of the things he’s got we’ve all had inoculations for. The thing is, he should’ve had them too prior to entering the city.”

“Couldn’t he have slipped the requirements?”

“Not on your life. The Zirconia Medical Bureau is extremely tough on topsy immigration. Even the crooks don’t bypass the physical requirements. Nobody wants some nasty bug bite disease running rampant in Zironia. Could deep six the whole population.”

“How could he have contracted multiple viral infections?” Considine wondered aloud.

“I don’t know,” admitted the doctor. “I’m going to have to request that he submit to a full scan back at the Medical Bureau before I release him to psychiatric care. I’ve got to catalog all he’s got, make sure he’s safe to move.”

“He’s not going to psych. The Peace Council’s requested he be extradited to Avenir.”

“Well he’s not going anywhere till he’s released medically.”

“Alright, Doctor. Can you arrange transport?”

“I’ve already alerted the ZMB. They’re sending a haz-mat team to bubblewrap him and take him back.”

“Fine.” He would have to tell Gorsh Croix wouldn’t be ready in two hours.

Considine looked through the porthole in the door at Croix. The man smiled at him, a little wearily, but still present of mind.

“Could his condition affect his mind, Doctor?”


“Will you alert me once the scan’s complete?”

“Sure thing.”

Jelly came tromping down the corridor in his Enforcer gear.

“Hey Inspector, that freight jockey’s gone through the personnel pix from Morgenstar, says she thinks she’s got a match.

“Thank you, Jelly,” Considine said, going off toward the room they’d left her in.

“Hey Inspector!” Brendermyer called.


“The club! My gig! Can I go or what?”

“Once the ZMB comes and picks him up, and as long as the Doctor checks you out, it’s alright with me.”

“I’m not gonna have time to change out of all this crap,” he said, gesturing to his tactical wear.

Considine shrugged.

“Maybe it’ll improve your act. Make it a gimmick. Brendermyer: The Laughing Enforcer.”

Jelly at least, chuckled.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Fortuitous Stumble

by Jeff Chapman -

Another gust pelted Elihu Simmons’s goggles with ash grit, each tiny speck clicking against the translucent saucers of scuttlebug shell and gouging a new pit that he would have to polish away. He thanked the good Lord that Sarah had chased after him with the goggles he had forgotten. He made a mental note to thank her--passionate kisses or watching the baby--when he got home, if he got home. He hadn’t seen this storm coming. It might exhaust itself in an hour or expel its fury for days.

The gray dust cut his vision to a few steps. The scuttlebug shell blurred what remained, reducing his perception to shapes and shadows. Got to find shelter, he told himself, before you’re hopelessly lost.

A bandanna woven from powderbug bristles wrapped his mouth and nose. Dust clogged the fabric where the moisture from his breath dampened the cloth. Grit stung his left ear. Another blast scratched the sliver of cheek exposed above the bandanna. He cursed creation and then asked forgiveness before he’d sucked another bitter-tasting breath through the bristle cloth. Struggle, curse, and beg forgiveness, his daily mantra and all for what: to keep Sarah and the baby alive and offer a few souls a grain of hope. If this was the Lord’s gift, He could have it back. Elihu begged forgiveness. “Service and humility over pride. With humility comes wisdom,” he repeated. “The Lord sustains the humble but casts the wicked to the ground.”

Elihu held his spear in the crook of his arm and reached behind his head to adjust the knot and raise the cloth to shield his cheeks. The next gust caught him standing straight and off balance, punching him in the chest. He stumbled backwards and to his right and then took an extra step to regain his balance, but the ground he sought was not there. He tumbled over, thinking his appointed day had come. Sharp rocks, a cluster of beetles. He saw them both in his mind’s eye and both would tear him to shreds.

Twigs snapped as they poked his hands and arms. He landed in a prickly bed of lavabushes, on his stomach. The impact knocked the wind out of him. Perhaps the Lord had more for him to do. Something moved beneath him. He ripped off his goggles to see a horde of scuttlebugs burrowing into the ash beneath the bushes, kicking up plumes of dust as their wriggling bodies disappeared. About the size of his palm, the critters lived off lavabush seeds near the bottom of the food chain.

Walls of black lava rock, rippled with vertical crests and troughs, towered on either side of him at least seven meters and tapered until they met five meters ahead of him like the prow of a boat, an ark of shelter. Ash swirled into the crevice, but the deep, narrow crack offered protection from the blasting wind. Behind him, the crevice extended as far as he could see. In a cave here he might wait out the storm, protected from the wind with plenty of lavabush to fuel a fire and its seeds to roast and eat. If he conserved his water, he figured he could last for days.

Elihu found his spear lying atop the tangle of lavabushes that had been tumbling across the waste into this crack for tens of years. Already a layer of dust coated the shaft and blade of his spear. He strapped his goggles across his forehead. He needed all his vision to watch for signs of a cave. With his spear thrust forward, he crunched through the knee-deep lavabushes, which stuck to his pants, requiring him to stop every few meters to knock the bushes loose. He crept forward, listening and studying the walls. “Though I walk through the darkest valley,” he whispered, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” If he ever needed to believe those words, it was now. An occupied cave could be worse than none at all.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


by Kat Heckenbach -

Gavin lifted his head, blinking. His eyes ached from straining over the microscope. Dr. Spiner had shown him how to work all the buttons and dials, how to focus and find the tiniest of particles. It had been fun at first, but today’s work was boring and Gavin couldn’t stop his mind from wandering.

“Dr. Spiner?”

The wizard-scientist’s eyes were all that moved. And at that they only peeked out from under his shaggy bangs for a moment.

“I know it’s late, and you’re tired, son. It won’t be much longer though.” His hands shuffled nimbly among the various instruments in front of him.

“I just had a question, sir.”


“What’s your first name?” Gavin hoped he hadn’t crossed a line by asking. It had only been a few months since he started his apprenticeship with Dr. Spiner, and the scientist had never treated Gavin like the child he was. Other than calling him son—which put a lump in Gavin’s throat each time he thought about it even though he knew it was just a nickname.

Dr. Spiner raised his whole head this time. “It’s Spiner, of course.”

Gavin felt his forehead scrunch. “But…but you’re Doctor Spiner. I thought…”

The scientist shifted on his stool. “What kind of first name is Doctor?” He smiled, but it was a smile that didn’t travel to his eyes.

The smile dropped and he sighed. “My first name is Spiner, Gavin. I abandoned my last name years ago. I suppose it’s still in my records, but no one knows it, not here. I’m just Spiner…or Doctor Spiner. And no one, until you, has asked me about it.”

Gavin’s skin flushed hot. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to…” He reached for the microscope again, but before he could put his eye against the lens Dr. Spiner was standing beside him. Gavin slowly looked up and met his dark eyes.

“I don’t mind, Gavin. I come from a family I’m not very proud of, that’s all.” The scientist lifted his hand and stroked a stray hair from Gavin’s face. “You don’t have a last name either, do you?”

“Just what the other kids call me. “

“And that would be?”

Gavin swallowed, throat burning. “Talker.”

This time the scientist’s smile lit up his whole face. “Seems we both need one then.” He turned, grabbed his stool and pulled it over. When he was seated, he leaned his elbow on the tabletop, work seemingly forgotten. “What shall our new last name be, son?”

Monday, February 6, 2012


by Fred Warren

“This interface provides much less fidelity than a fully-integrated network connection, but we’ve found it useful as a means of conferencing with outsiders from time to time.”

Cyborgs assisted John as he shuffled to a contoured couch and lay down. The full-immersion helmet permitted a narrow, foggy, green-tinted view of the room, and of Anya’s holographic image standing to one side. “It’s like a gaming rig, but it’s a lot heavier,” he wheezed. Tubes and wires ran from the suit to a conduit in the ceiling, high above. He felt like a life-sized puppet. “I can barely move in this thing.”

“I think you’ll find this simsuit is more sophisticated than the ones you’re used to. Of course, when you experience the hardwired connection, you won’t be able to distinguish it from real life.” She turned away. “I have a few more preparations to make, but I think you’re ready to enter our virtuality now. I’ll see you inside.”

“Wait. I still have questions…”

Anya motioned to a cyborg sitting at the control panel. “Activate the interface.”

John’s muscles convulsed, and a wave of vertigo tunneled his vision, then expanded it to infinity in a rush of color and light. As focus returned, he found himself standing in a bare, white room containing a table, a chair, and washbasin with a mirror. There was a single door, closed, and the doorknob didn’t turn when he tried it.

He looked down at himself. He was clad in a thin blue gown that tied at the back. His arms and legs were stylized , smooth and hairless, like a doll’s, but the hands and feet had the proper number of fingers and toes. Turning to the mirror, his own face gazed back at him. It wasn’t a perfect image, maybe a shade more lifelike than the virtual-reality games he had played as a teenager. Dark brown hair, parted at the middle, green eyes, prominent cheekbones, a trace of stubble at the chin.

“Hello, Mister Milton. Welcome to Paradise!”

He spun round. Smiling up at him was a little girl wearing a pink-pinstriped dress, white pinafore, and a square cap emblazoned with a wide, red cross. A stethoscope was tucked into a pocket on the pinafore.

He couldn’t help but grin back. “Paradise, eh? I thought it would be bigger. Who are you, and where’s Anya?”

The girl tilted her head, light-brown curls bouncing with the motion. “I thought you would be taller. I’m Doctor Vicky. Miss Sherikov is arranging your meeting with the other Commanders, and she said I should see to your examination in the meantime.”

“Anya said nothing to me about an examination. Is this some kind of joke? You’re just a kid.”

Her smile vanished, and her eyes narrowed. “I’m ten Foundings old, and I’m the Avenir Medical Officer. Sit on the table so I can begin your examination.”

“Listen, Doctor…Vicky? Nobody’s examining anything on me until I see Anya.”

“Hmm. I guess Miss Sherikov forgot to tell me you’re a moron. Get on the table. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Makes no difference to me.”

John slid himself into a sitting position on the table, clutching the gown tightly around him. “This can’t be right. It’s…it’s indecent.”

“Mister, if you’ve seen one avatar, you’ve seen ’em all, and that goes double for this piece-of-junk interface you’re using. I’ve got stuffed animals with more physical detail.” She pulled the stethoscope from its pocket, set the prongs into her ears, and pressed the diaphragm onto his chest.

“Hey, that’s cold!”

“Shut up. Lungs clear, heart function good, slight hypertension, minor plaque buildup on the aortic wall.” She reached up on tiptoe and set the diaphragm against his throat. “Some narrowing of the carotid artery, but that’s easily reamed out.”

“What do you mean, ‘reamed out?’”

“Do I have to tape your mouth shut? Bend over so I can reach your head. EEG recording…complete. Hmm. A couple of freaky spikes. I’ll take a closer look at that later. Mm-hmm…intracranial pressure normal, pituitary normal, thyroid normal. You can sit up straight now.” She moved to his stomach and frowned. “Wow, you’ve got the liver of a sixty-Foundings man. What have you been drinking?”

“Vodka, mostly.”

“It’s killing you. Stop it. Now, turn over.”

“This thing is open at the back. There’s no way I’m letting you…”

“Okay, the hard way, then.” Vicky began rolling up her sleeves.

The door opened, and to John’s great relief, Anya entered the room, cradling a large datapad. Like his own image, her avatar wasn’t nearly as realistic as the hologram he was familiar with. She was dressed like a secretary, in a burgundy suit, and her red hair was pinned into a conservative bun. “Ah,” she said, “I see you’ve met our Doctor Remsen. Victoria took charge of Medical and Life Sciences after her father’s death, two Foundings ago. We would have liked her to have more time to ease into her responsibilities, but she’s doing a fine job. She’s extraordinarily bright.”

“I wish you’d call me Vicky. Victoria makes me sound like an old lady.”

“You’re an officer now. We must maintain decorum.”

“Whatever.” Vicky pointed at John. “He won’t cooperate with the examination.”

Anya laid a hand on her shoulder. “Victoria, do you remember what Captain Aziz said about your bedside manner?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Vicky sighed. “Less attitude, more professional.” She produced a huge syringe, with a disturbingly long needle, from somewhere behind her back. “Ahem. Mister Milton, I will need samples of your blood, bone marrow, and cerebrospinal fluid to complete your physical examination and obtain the necessary data to prepare for your integration into the Avenir Command Network. Please roll onto your stomach, as the necessary control points for your simsuit are located on your avatar’s back.”

“Wait…bone marrow? Cerebro-what?”

“This will hurt.”

Over his shoulder, John could see Vicky’s cherubic face grinning from ear to ear as the needle descended.