Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Friend in Need

by Travis Perry

Jax knelt down beside Ernsto, who was flat on his back on a sandy patch at the bottom of a rocky gully, wincing in pain. “I’m so sorry about last night—I guess I’ve been regulating how much I drink by how much I bring in…I usually run out of cash before I can put down that much ale.”

Ernsto snorted, “So it’s my fault for helpin’ you bring in too big a haul?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. The fault was mine. I’m sorry I led her to you, that Zana lady.”

“Well, don’t expect much from me. I never used to forgive anything from anyone.”

“Used to? Does that mean you forgive now?”

“Well—that angel sure would want me to…” Ernsto’s voice trailed off and his eyes watered.

Jax stared at his new friend and didn’t know what to think. He’d heard Ernsto cry out before, as in for help or in pain—but he’d never seen him cry, not a single tear, not even when he’d set the bone in his arm. There was so much he didn’t know about this guy. What in the world could have affected him so much?

“What angel?” Jax finally asked in a soft voice.

“Never mind about her…I forgive you. God knows I done a lot worse than what you did. To someone a lot better’n me.” A single tear streaked down the side of his face, past his ear into the sand. Ernsto wiped at his face absently, as if he didn’t really care.

“Changing subjects, er…I don’t think I set your bone quite right. Your left arm is shorter than the other.”

“Hmmm. Don’ blame yourself. I think it’s because the bone is shattered in that spot.”

“Ah…doesn’t that mean it will never heal right? I’m not a doctor or anything, but I think that’s the case.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure you are correct.”

“Shouldn’t we, ah…do something about that?”

“Got any suggestions? Remember I’m wanted everywhere. And believe me, the man that’s after me is sure to make me disappear forever. If they catch me.”

Jax rubbed his chin, looking upward, Sheba visible low over the east mountain ridge in the dust-orange hued sky. “You know, I think I’ve got an idea…”

Monday, November 4, 2013


by Jeff C. Carter -

Rahab piloted the hulking spider along the lightless tunnels of the space station’s outer ring.  When Rahab entered this arachnid body, it had seemed so rigid and heavy.  Here, in zero gravity, it floated gracefully like Rahab’s true form.  Rahab never suspected that space was so like the ocean depths.

Rahab had learned much about this strange city in the sky.  Artificial atmosphere, to fill the air-breathers’ lungs.  Artificial light, to hold back the dark.  Artificial gravity, to hide the pull of the endless void.  The air-breathers here were even more sheltered than the weaklings of the cities of the sea.  Constant panic boiled beneath the surface of their minds.  The flavor was piquant and intoxicating.

Rahab crippled the artificial gravity wherever he could.  With its illusion torn away, only the truth of empty chaos remained.  The air-breathers of the city in the sky believed they were safe from the crawling horrors below.  Their fragile minds believed themselves beyond reach.  But Rahab was patient.  Rahab was sly.  Rahab was Death.

The spiders were spreading throughout the city in the sky.  Rahab felt waves of blood lust and gales of despair saturate the metal corridors.  The air-breathers were learning the way of all flesh.  The city in the sky would plunge out of orbit and rain destruction upon the cities of the surface and the cities of the sea.  Rahab would greet their scattered corpses as they sank into the blackest depths.  Rahab would embrace them all in his many arms.  Together they would await the end of time. 

A vibration along the tunnel wall caressed the fine hairs in the spider’s clawed legs.  Its multitude of eyes picked out a pair of small air-breathers shuffling along in magnetic boots.  Rahab tasted the sizzle of nervous energy in the air, but not the spice of panic.  Rahab’s heart sang with joyful murder.  Rahab would descend from the darkness and split their rational minds wide open.  Rahab would feast on fresh, primal fear.

One of the air-breathers, a female, spoke.

“Should we double back, Dressler?  This tunnel looks clear.”

Rahab crept closer. 

“Could be.  We have bagged a lot of bugs on this deck,” Dressler said.

An unpleasant clear tone, like a high pitched whine, rang from the male.  It was not just the absence of fear.  It was a quiet conviction.  The bitter tang was nauseating, and somehow, strangely familiar.  Rahab let the air-breathers escape with their sour, overripe minds.  Rahab was seeking juicier prey.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Word Carrier 11: The Just Regardeth the Life of his Beast

by Heidi Kortman -
“Ouch,” Bede muttered as he hurried down the corridor toward the dispensary. “I’m sorry you hurt, Pangur Ban, but so does the back of my neck.” With each of the quarr’s rapid breaths, its scales rasped Bede’s skin.

He didn’t dare to leave the animal unattended, and holding it stable across his shoulders meant that he didn’t have a hand free to keep the hem of his robe from hindering his stride. Ahead was the last corner.

The dispensary door and shutters were closed. Bede rattled the shutters. Maybe the dispensarian was compounding a salve. No light escaped the slats. “Brother Wilfred, Brother Wilfred, are you there?” He set the quarr on the narrow counter ledge. “Stay.”
Bede grasped the door lever. Locked. He pounded, and raised his voice. “Brother Wilfred.”

Farther down the hall, a door opened. The bishop’s confessor poked his head through. “Be quiet! Meditation is hard enough in this place without your noise.”

“Father, is the dispensarian with you? I need medicine for my quarr.” He’d said it. My quarr.

“Bibles don’t own anything. No, he’s not with me. Be quiet or be gone.” With that, the confessor slammed the door.

“The two of them deserve each other,” Bede muttered, as he returned to the panting quarr. “Let me see, boy.” The blisters were taut with fluid.

“I wish this robe had a hood.” Bede bent again and took the quarr across his shoulders. If he’d caught the case of grooblies that had struck the dormitory in the spring, he might know which was the dispensarian’s cell. The bishop, however, was cautious of his health. Odds were good that the confessor could steer Bede in the right direction.

He trudged to the man’s cell door, and gave it three solid thumps. When it opened, Bede stared into the confessor’s flushed face. “This quarr saved the bishop’s life. Now it needs tending. Where will I find Brother Wilfred at this hour?”

Pangur Ban flattened his ears and showed fangs. Bede tapped the quarr’s nose, but not before the confessor’s face went pasty.

“T-two levels down, across from Water Purification.”

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Big One

by Greg Mitchell -

“No,” Dressler said for the fourth time, now folding his beefy arms, hoping to add to the effect.

Yulaura crossed the room, releasing an exasperated breath. She flopped in the seat across from him in Meryl’s crowded living room. At their feet, five children played and rough-housed, except for Edilyn. Dressler’s daughter sat next to him, stiff and serious. She was more hunter than child now.

“Dress, be reasonable,” Yulaura groaned. “We need this.”

“We? Or you?”

“Me! You!” She gestured to the cramped quarters, shouting to be heard over the lawless kids. “How long can you possibly stand to live here?”

An especially sharp cry split Dressler’s nerves as one of his nephews pummeled his squealing niece with a pillow. Yulaura had a point.

Only last week he and Edilyn had taken in a stranger who’d run into a spot of trouble. Turns out that trouble had followed him to their home. There had been an attack. Edilyn had kept her cool, and Dressler had never been prouder of her. Together they’d defended their home and kept their haggard guest safe—but the house was destroyed. His sister Meryl had graciously offered them a couch for the last few nights, but he and Edilyn were used to their quiet. Their solitude.

A stray pillow sailed through the air, smacking him in the face. He scowled.

“What’s the job?” he grumbled. “More importantly, what’s it pay?”

Yulaura’s bright eyes lit with excitement against her tanned face. Her teeth beamed white in a wide smile. “Big. This is the big one, Dress. My contact says that it’s a huge infestation. Biggest one they’ve ever had. Hunters from all over are coming, but there’s room for everyone. And money for everyone, too. Lots of money.”

He squinted at her, apprehensive. “Well, there would have to be, considering where we’re going.”

His stomach flopped, just at the thought of it. A wave of queasiness settled over him as he rolled the word over in his mind: Avenir. There was a damn bug invasion on Avenir. The thought of breaking orbit, going into space…

Dressler swallowed hard, his weathered hands feeling damp.

After his little “adventure” down in Eclectia’s oceans, Dressler was determined to keep nice, solid earth under his feet at all times from here on out.

He looked to Edilyn, heaving a sigh. “What do you think?”

His daughter leaned over and hugged his arm. “I don’t want you to leave again.”

He patted her curly, dirty blonde locks. He didn’t want to leave, either. Last time he’d left her, he’d followed his last partner on some harebrained scheme. That turned out badly, to say the least. He’d nearly died down there in those waters, facing off against that thing. Now he was thinking about going up into space and fighting the monsters up there?

Yulaura continued to grin, nearly bouncing in place. “Come on, Dress. We need this,” she repeated. “Think of Lyn. You guys can’t stay here.”

She was right. As usual. He didn’t now why Yulaura was so excited to leave the planet. Maybe it was just the lure of adventure. Yulaura certainly liked to live on the wild side, getting them both into their share of trouble during their partnership. But he trusted her. She’d not let him down yet.

Dressler looked to his daughter, apologetically. Edilyn rolled her eyes and let him go, realizing he’d made his decision. “Oh, alright. But hurry back. If I have to stay here much longer, I’m going to go out of my mind.”

Dress chuckled and gave her a playful smack in the face with a pillow. “Be back before you know it. Maybe I’ll even bring you a souvenir.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Appeasement

by Grace Bridges -

Ave hurried along ring E towards the junction of the 38th degree. The sack of food balanced between her shoulder blades as she awkwardly gripped both top and bottom.

Location E-38 was close to Smith’s stomping grounds. Too close for comfort, in fact, but his group wasn’t just any old rival gang—if she could call it that at all. He had been her friend, had wanted more too soon; so she’d removed herself. Now he had Kate to be mama to the littlies under his care. Still, she was confident he would offer leniency.

She came upon the place suddenly and almost tripped over Felicia, huddled at the outer edge of the group. Ave heaved the sack from her small frame. Many hands relieved her of the weight. Hushed cries of delight followed as they found what was inside.

Ave looked over her shoulder, then down the adjoining corridors. All was still. Finally, she allowed herself to inspect the contents of the gift.

Dried bug meat found eager mouths and hidden pockets. Below that were heavy slices of lavabush bread, which not all of the youngsters had seen before, though they well knew the seeds in their shells as a rare treat. After the bread, Ave reached into the sack again and discovered cool, round shapes, smooth to the touch. Her eyes went wide. “Fruit!”

“What is it, Ave?”

“It grew on a tree. In a garden.”

There were gasps all around at the legendary words. Fruit would not grow on the planet’s arid surface. It came only from the hydroponics departments of Avenir itself, or the same setup in one of the undersea cities. This wizard Spiner must be very rich.

She withdrew a shiny globe and held it up carefully between thumb and forefinger. Possibly the greatest treasure she had ever touched. The children oohed and aahed, but none reached for it.

Just then, shadowy figures loomed up in the hallway facing Ave. She checked to her left and right, and found they were hemmed in there too. She turned to the corridor she’d arrived by. Clear so far. Ave took a step.

Smith stepped out in front of her. “Nice of you to pay us a visit, my dear. I hope your intention is for our…mutual benefit.”

The tone of his voice was all swagger and bully. Had he really hardened so much? She stared into his eyes, trying to read him. Perhaps it was a show of strength for the benefit of his groupies.

Ave held up the sack and smiled. “We bring you fruit.”

Monday, October 21, 2013


by Fred Warren - 

The corridors reeked of smoke and pesticide as they neared the marketplace. Smith and Kate paused to soak kerchiefs at a water tap and wrapped them around their faces to block the noxious vapor.

They found Charlie’s undelivered parceland the horrors writhing feebly within it.

Kate wiped her fingers convulsively on her skirts. “Augh. Fertilized spider eggs, much too close to hatching. What manner of fools has Beadle taken up with?”

Smith crushed the parcel under his boot heel. It made a sickening wet crunch. “Fools or lunatics. Maybe the Peacekeepers are trying out a new weapon they couldn’t test openly.”

“You think they’d turn these things against the very people they’re sworn to protect?”

“I don’t know anything anymore, Kate. The world’s turned upside-down and sideways. Nothing’s impossible.”

They entered the marketplace and found it empty of customers, merchants, and wares. Most of the stalls were overturned and broken. Spiders skittered here and there, and Smith dispatched the few that seemed aggressive. What the pesticide hadn’t killed, it pacified.

Their search revealed nothing. No children hidden beneath the wreckage, no trail, no evidence they’d ever been there. Smith slumped against a wall and slid down until he was sitting on the floor, head bowed on his knees. It was as if someone had drained all the air from his body.

Kate knelt down and stroked his cheek. “Don’t give up hope. Moving a dozen orphans is no easy feat, whether or not they’re cooperating.”

“Or dead.”

Her gentle caress flashed into a stinging slap. “If that word passes your lips again, it’ll be you in need of a proper burial. Think, man. Which route out of here would Beadle and his henchmen take?”

Smith scowled and rubbed his jaw. “It’s pointless.”

“Humor me.”

He stood up and scanned the market bay, pausing a moment to consider each exit. “The service corridor,” he said at last. “Over there. Nobody but suppliers uses it…and us, now and again.”

“Sounds like a good place to begin. Lead on.”

They’d only walked a few dozen paces before they found a skid loaded with motionless children, and two burly men in Enforcer uniforms sprawled on the floor nearby.

Kate sprinted to the skid and began pressing on necks and wrists for warmth and pulse, bending down in search of a soft whisper of air against her cheek. She smiled and waved at Smith. “They’re all here! All breathing, all safe! Let’s get them back to the nest.”

He just stood there, staring at her, eyes blank.

She trotted back to him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and shook him. “Aren’t you happy? It’s a miracle they weren’t lost to us forever!”

He pushed her away—gently, but firmly. “I’m angry, Kate. Angry at myself for thinking I could trust Beadle. Angry for letting the sight of a Peacekeeper uniform terrify me into witlessness.”

“You meant well. Don’t torture yourself. God’s mercy provides for those whose hearts are true. They’re safe. Be content with that.”

“God’s mercy indeed, despite thinking myself too clever by half. Things have to change. It’s not enough anymore to keep to ourselves, pretending that no one will notice, or that we’ll be able to dodge anybody who does. We can’t defend ourselves. We need help. We need allies.”

She wasn’t in a mood to argue. “First, we need to get these wee ones onto their feet and back home. Pull them out of this meat wagon, and I’ll find some water to help rouse them.”

Smith nodded and began hoisting the children from the skid and propping them against the wall of the corridor. A few were already beginning to stir and moan.

Kate knelt down to examine one of the prone Enforcers. It was odd…there wasn’t a mark on him. No bloodstains, no sign of a scuffle.

Then she saw it, and she checked the other corpse to be sure. A single, perfectly round hole was drilled into each forehead, about the diameter of a piece of stout packaging cord, the flesh at its edge neatly cauterized.

A soft whirring sound came from above.

Kate froze. Moving only her eyes, she surveyed the corridor’s ceiling as gooseflesh prickled along her forearms. Nothing was there.

So, it’s allies he wants? Seems he has one already.

And there were some allies it might be better to do without.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

An Unexpected Gift

by Grace Bridges -

Ave rested against the wall with the little ones piled on and around her. Their slumbering breaths formed a restful haze in the dimly-lit service corridor.

A vibration in the floor brought Ave to full wakefulness. She tensed, and the children around her shifted in their sleep. They knew the drill.

Ave listened a moment more, then burst into action with a shake that roused all the babes. Within seconds they sat upright, watching her for instructions.

“E-38. Go!” The tousled heads hustled away towards the prearranged meeting spot. Ave made sure they were all out of sight before she tucked herself into the tiny niche behind a support pylon.

The footsteps grew louder. She still had to concentrate extra hard to make them out; the visitor intended stealth. Ave’s heart hammered. She squeezed her eyes shut and gritted her teeth. Then, like the turn of a page in an old book, peace washed over her with the silent song of a whale from the red planet far below.

She drew herself up to full height, breathed slow and deep, and opened her eyes just in time to spot a smallish shadow pass her hiding place. An orphan from one of the gangs? She was bigger. She could take him.

Ave darted out and grabbed the impostor from behind. Pinned at both elbows, he squealed and struggled. She dragged him back to the nearest light source, a small panel of blinking diodes. “What are you doing here?”

As she roughly turned him to face her, she realised he was hugging a bulging sack. Her eyes found his face. “Gavin!”

He relaxed in her grip. “Ave. Don’t hurt me. I brought food.”

“For us?” Ave boggled at the sack.

“I know you need it. The whales told me. I can get it.”

Ave gulped. “You’re not stealing from the wizard, are you?”

“No, silly. Spiner knows.” He laughed, then peered up and down the empty hall. “So where are your kids? Isn’t this your night zone?”

Ave looked away. “Not any more.”

Monday, October 14, 2013


by Fred Warren - 

Avenir Station, Paradise Virtuality, Communications Nexus

Anya Sherikov and Vicky Remsen sat back-to-back at glowing consoles that floated within a mosaic sphere of rectangular windows--each one displaying a tiny fragment of the mayhem that was spinning through the Avenir space station.

Vicky paused to rub her eyes. “How do you work like this? Another ten minutes, and I swear I’m going to hurl. By the way, I’ll make sure you experience that with me in all its multicolored glory.”

Anya’s eyes darted among the scenes of carnage. “You’re a doctor. Prescribe yourself an anti-nausea drug.”

“Oh, you are so funny.”

“The good news is that we’ve done as much as we can, for now. The colonists will have to take it from here. I only hope our assistance was enough to keep them from being completely overrun. Before you log out, double-check the lower levels…make sure the pest control agent is working. You may need to dispense another blast if spiders are still moving about.”

“Way ahead of you. Checking the last couple of ring segments now.” Vicky’s fingers paused on her console and she leaned forward to squint at one of the windows, tilting her head to bring it into alignment. “Whoa. That’s weird.”

“What’s weird?”

“Enforcers who aren’t running away. They’re at a corridor intersection, having an argument with some raggedy bum, and there’s a skid next to them with bodies piled on it.”

“Those are probably unfortunates caught in the first swarm.”

“I’m zooming in on it. Monitor A-34. The Enforcers sure look angry. I wonder if...ohmigod.”

“Now what?”

“Miss Sherikov…the bodies…they’re children.”

“Children? Let me see that. Perhaps the shabby fellow is their guardian, and he’s angry with the Enforcers for failing to protect them. Ah, there’s an audio tap nearby. Maybe that will shed some light on what’s happening.”

The Enforcer who seemed to be in charge stood scowling at the ragged man, arms crossed over his chest. Anya and Vicky could hear his gravelly voice now: “I told you, no payment until the end user certifies the goods. Doll-quality is worth four times whatever we have to dump into the labs. We’re not paying top credits for substandard material.”

Anya’s eyes narrowed, and she whispered a curse in Russian.

“That wasn’t the deal.”  The bum jabbed a finger at the Enforcer’s face. “I’m not waiting for some pasty-faced accountant to cull this lot to fit his budget.”

One of the other Enforcers was moving the bodies around on the skid, lifting up arms and legs. “Hey! This one’s got a club foot, Harry!”

“Do tell. I doubt it’s the only one. Forget it, Beadle. You’ll wait ’til the quality check’s complete.”

Vicky turned her seat around and leaned against Anya, arms gently encircling her shoulders. “Doll-quality? Labs? Material? What are they talking about?”

Anya pushed her away. “I need you to go check on John. Make sure he’s integrating properly. I’ll finish up here.”

“He’s fine. Father Sukahara sent me a progress report a few minutes ago. I figure they’re on their third pot of tea by now, which means Milton’s getting the nightingale story in all its painful detail.”

“Check him anyhow.”

“No. I want to know what those Enforcers are up to. The whole situation is sketchy, and you’re avoiding my questions.”

Anya spun around, nose-to-nose with Vicky. “If you don’t leave this instant, Victoria, I will isolate you from the network.”

Vicky backed away, eyes wide. “All right, all right. I’ll go. No need to get violent.”

“I’ll explain everything later. Out!”

Vicky’s avatar vanished, her voice trailing behind. “Just don’t expect me to stop asking.”

Anya returned her attention to the argument on screen. Flesh traffickers. Preying on children. They were usually more discreet. It was the first time she’d caught them in the act—and they’d chosen a singularly poor location for their little spat.

I’m sorry, dear one, but I can’t let you see what happens next.

Anya’s fingers flew across her console. The sphere of monitors was replaced by a single red-tinted display, front and center. With a grim smile, she aligned its flashing reticle on the nearest man.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


by Edward M. Erdelac -

Considine’s fear that the downing of the fighter would bring the rest of Morgenstar’s air force, while not unfounded, proved inconsequential.

Yulaura took full advantage of the gritty, cluttered skies, driving the rover down through low canyons and grumbling along beneath rocky overhangs, rendering them nearly invisible from the air.

They did see a pair of fighters circle like carrion flyers far overhead, but the downing of their comrade had perhaps made the others wary about flying too low.

It was a circuitous route, but in two hours time the rover came to a stop at the edge of the ocean, where the old sub-ferry station waited, along with a single Morgenstar fighter, sitting on the shore.

“Looks like they wised up,” said Yulaura. “Or one of ‘em did. What now?”

“They haven’t seen this rover,” said Dressler. “As far as they know, we’re just a bunch of grit-breathers looking for passage to Zirconia. Give him a spare suit and a mask and let’s park this thing. We’ll wait till the sub-ferry docks and then go.”

Considine donned a too-tight exposure suit and desert robes and a mask as Yulaura pulled the rover into the holding lot.

They waited a half an hour before the tower of the sub-ferry broke the surface of the water and pulled into the dock.

“You sure he’s worth all this trouble?” she asked Dressler.

“Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t, but there’s still the compensation to be had. And that’s worth the time, yes, unless you wanna live in the rover from now on.”

Yulaura sighed as Lyn pulled on her facemask again.

“Well I don’t wanna live in this thing,” said the girl.

They stepped out into the whipping, volcanic winds, and walked to the shelter of the station.

They were the only waiting passenger except for the Morgenstar pilot lounging on a bench in his flightsuit. He was a clean-cut, angular fellow, not one of these bruiser security officers, but he had a stingshot pistol strapped to his thigh, and when they came in out of the wind, he stood up.

The ferry-attendant, a bored looking old woman, announced the arrival of the ferry through her squelchy public address, and stood up tiredly to take their money.

The pilot walked towards them, his hand on his pistol.

The doors to the ferry opened, and Considine was delighted to see two familiar faces step off, along with a crowd of people bound for elsewhere.

Considine stepped to the two uniformed Enforcers and pulled off his facemask.

“Haj! Jelly!” he exclaimed.

It was Jelly Galveston and Haj, two of his own team. They looked startled to see him and stared bemused at his clothes.

Considine glanced back at the Morgenstar pilot and saw him hesitate, then move his hand away from his pistol and trot back outside, heading for his fighter and communications line no doubt.

“Inspector?” Jelly said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Haj drew his pneumatic sidearm and covered Considine.

“You’re under arrest, Considine.”

Considine raised his hands slowly, and looked over at Dressler, Lyn, and Yulaura with what he hoped was an apologetic expression.

“I’ll sort this out, I promise.”

Dressler and Lyn started forward, but Yulaura grabbed them both by the elbows.

“Sure,” she said. “Be sure and contact us when you do.”

She pulled them back, turned them around, and walked back outside.

Monday, October 7, 2013


by Fred Warren - 

“There is a thriving black market in illegal cyborgs, and the government ignores it.”

“There are illegal markets for any product.”

“Product? We’re talking about people, John.”

Darkness had fallen outside Jiro Sukahara’s little house, and stars twinkled like tiny gems in the sky. Crickets and frogs joined the chorus of cicadas droning in the trees, and Jiro’s nightingale was trilling merrily from a perch somewhere atop the roof.

John Milton didn’t like the turn this conversation had taken. Why is Jiro so upset about the colony using cyborgs? It’s like complaining that we eat beetle steaks. He sipped his tea, a little too quickly, scorching his tongue and spilling a few droplets onto the table. “Cyborgs are more machine than anything. They’re the property of their owners. Hundreds are bought and sold legally every day.”

“This particular market preys on the destitute of the lower levels. They’re taken and modified against their will.” He sighed. “Even little children. You’ve perhaps heard of ‘Frankie dolls?’”

John groaned. He would choose the most awkward example. “Yes, but…those are therapy devices for sterile couples. They’re only harvested from among the brain-dead…hopeless cases that would be euthanized anyhow….there’s a strict quota, and it takes a murderously expensive permit to get one. Nobody would…”

“Nobody? You’re a trader. You understand the laws of supply and demand better than I do. What would you say if I told you twenty-five new cyborgs of that variety have been added to the Avenir network in the past Founding alone?”

“Impossible. The permits…”

“Forged, along with their network credentials, not that anyone in authority is paying much attention.  You’re defending this phenomenon rather vigorously. Is it because you owned a cyborg yourself?”

John could feel his face beginning to flush. “That has nothing to do with it. I bought him legally. He was a violent criminal scheduled for execution. He chose cyborging instead.”

He? Do you use personal pronouns for all the machines you own?”

“This was different. We spent a lot of time together. He was my valet. Best I ever had, human or otherwise. I never abused him.”

“Did you think of him as human?”

“Cyborg brainware is very sophisticated. It was hard to tell the difference sometimes.”

Jiro rocked back on his heels. “And that is my point. A surgically-modified person is still a person, no matter how extensive the modification. Inside each cyborg, buried more deeply in some than in others, is a human soul that demands the same reverence and dignity you and I expect. This colony has fallen into a grave injustice, and to my own shame, I’ve watched it happen and taken no action to stop it.”

The chaplain wasn’t angry…he was distraught. Agonized. He’s not trying to box me into a rhetorical corner, he’s baring his soul.

John was silent for a few moments, then he reached across the table and lifted the teapot to refill Jiro’s cup. “Even if you’re right about all this, you can’t blame yourself for what we chose to do.”

“My hands aren’t any cleaner. The Dreamers employ cyborgs to maintain our life support pods and their connections to the station. Including mine.”

“I don’t see much hope of changing things from here, barring the sort of dramatic intervention you’ve said is taboo.”

“A large ship may be turned by a tiny rudder.” Jiro leaned forward. “I have a plan to singe Avenir’s collective conscience…but I’ll need your help.”

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Word Carrier 10: Havoc

by Heidi Kortman -
Bede turned his spoon over in the bowl of lukewarm chowder. Father Oaku wolfed down the curried seraph nymphs with no apparent inclination to share.  At least the huge tureen supplying this end of the refectory table obscured most of Bede’s view of Bishop Guashs table manners.

Across the table, his mother crumbled slices of wolner-grain bread into a pile on her plate. He couldn’t go to her, now that he was under Oaku’s authority. Bede stifled a sigh.

Toward the bishop’s end of the long refectory table, one of the Manuscripts shrieked, but not louder than the bishop’s bellow, or the crash of an over-turning bench. All the way down the table, people craned their necks, then scrambled away.

Bede leaned back on the bench, to see past Father Oaku’s hunched shoulders. A glistening spider dangled on its line of silk above the bishop’s dinner plate.

“Douay Bede, where is that creature?” Bishop Guash cowered against the back of his chair. The spider climbed a foot higher, then dropped again. “Answer me!”

“Pangur Ban,” Bede whispered, and the quarr shifted— “there is a spider, the biggest I’ve seen, and you must hunt after all.” Douay Bede stood. “The quarr is here, Your Grace,” he said, pitching his voice above the commotion.  He snapped his fingers, and Pangur Ban leaped from the floor to the table top.

The quarr drew back his lips and thrummed a short, discordant sound. His tail twitched as he stepped over place settings and around serving bowls. Scales rose and flattened rhythmically along his spine. Down, down the table; nearer, nearer to the still-suspended spider.

Bede held his breath. Did the quarr have enough skill to take prey this large? The bishop’s face was pumice gray, and sweat-wet. He clutched the arms of his cathedra chair. The dinner guests Pangur Ban passed were goggle-eyed.

The spider stretched its forelegs, and dropped lower. Its other legs spraddled as it came to rest astride the bowl of striped korath pears. Its abdomen was half-again as long as the chowder tureen. The spider’s rear legs, long as Bede’s arms, stroked back along its spinnerets. Filaments of greenish silk appeared.

Bede stepped over the bench, and followed Pangur Ban down the table. The quarr’s progress was hindered by a tureen of chowder. Bede shifted it aside, and the quarr slipped through.

Belly scales almost brushing the table top, ears laced back, Pangur Ban advanced.

The spider continued to gather silk. Its rear legs spread, stretching out the webbing. Would it throw the silk over the bishop, or worse, over Pangur Ban?  Bede hesitated.

Clang! One swipe of the quarr’s left paw knocked the fruit bowl from under the spider. Soft pears bounced, bruised, and splattered their too sweet juice over the width of the table.

Bede gagged. Under Pangur Ban’s other paw was the spider’s abdomen, spraying ichor that hissed as the drops pitted the table where they landed. The rest of the spider had leaped forward, trailing more ichor, which mixed with the curry sauce on the bishop’s plate. The arachnid spun in a final threat dance, palps down and fangs extended. The quarr reached out its right paw, and flipped the bishop’s plate. It stepped onto the stoneware, then scratched a discarded napkin over the mess.

“He’s not… going… to eat it?” The bishop’s voice shook as he left his seat.

“Apparently not, Your Grace.” 

Pangur Ban flicked his right forepaw,  and the scales on his flank quivered. Bede snapped his fingers. The quarr jumped from the table, but refused to put weight on the forepaw.

“He needs tending, Your Grace.” Bede crouched. “No claws with me, Pangur Ban,” he said as he examined the quarr’s pads. Usually gray and smooth, they were blistered, and mustard gold. The quarr flinched back. “The spider’s ichor has scalded him.”

“Do it quickly, then meet me in the Gallery.” The bishop turned aside, but drew up short, as Brother Reita, in hazard gear, accosted him.

“Were you spattered, Your Grace? The ichor is caustic.” The assistant infirmarian reached out.

Guash slapped his hand aside. “No. Leave me alone.”

Bede took a deep breath. “Brother Reita, could I have some irqaq sap? Pangur Ban has been scalded.”

Brother Reita nodded. “Tell the dispensarian I said you could have his entire supply. We have other medicines humans tolerate better than that.”

“Thank you, Brother.” Bede scooped up the quarr, draping the creature over his shoulders. “Your Grace, I’ll return soon.”

Monday, September 30, 2013


by Fred Warren - 

“Mmm.” The tea was hot and astringent, with a pleasant flowery note. The illusory beverage had more character than most Adagio wines. It was enough to make a man forgo alcohol altogether.

John shuddered at the thought. Not quite yet.

Jiro watched him with amused interest across the low wooden table where they knelt on red silk cushions. “Feeling more comfortable?”

“Yes. The vertigo’s faded. It’s nice to be drinking this tea rather than wearing it.”

“The virtual-reality system learns along with you. New tasks become less awkward with each repetition. Every action you take smoothes and refines your interface.”

Outside Jiro’s house, the sun was setting, its last light splashed across the fading blue sky in pastel streaks of orange and pink. John felt a pleasant urge to stretch and yawn, which he indulged, an even more enjoyable sensation. “I guess I should begin work on my own personal space now. I’ve imposed on your hospitality long enough.”

“Think nothing of it. You’ve been pleasant company, not at all the spoiled socialite I expected. Forgive me. I should know better than to judge people from my own prejudices…especially someone who’s managed to catch Anya’s eye.”

“I…expect she’ll find me less impressive as time goes by. I’m no altruist, Father Sukahara. I’ve spent my whole life looking for an edge, manipulating situations to my advantage, chasing power and influence. Even my decision to come here was selfish.”

“I prefer to believe you will find it most profitable to seize this opportunity to start afresh. Become the person you’ve always wanted to be, John Milton. You’ve stepped onto a blank canvas. Anything is possible.”

“I’m not sure I know where to begin.”

“Do what I did. Build yourself a place where you feel completely at ease, where you can ponder the course of your life without distraction. Then, listen.”

“Listen to what? God?”


“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m a chaplain. What sort of advice did you expect? Try it. You may be surprised.”

“If I’m surprised, I promise you’ll be the first to know.” John drained his cup. “So…how exactly do I get out of here and into my own space?”

“Wait a moment. Before you go, there’s a particular matter that’s weighed heavily on me for a long while, and I’d like a fresh perspective.”  Jiro’s eyes locked with John’s. “Tell me…what do you think about the cyborgs?”

It was an odd question. John rarely gave them any thought at all. If this was a test, the textbook answer was safest: “They perform essential functions too dangerous or degrading for human beings. Cyborging is an efficient way to salvage incorrigible criminals and the hopelessly impaired so they can make a productive contribution to the colony.”

Jiro refilled John’s cup from a matching black porcelain teapot. “The technology was originally developed as a lifesaving measure of last resort for the terminally ill, but it’s traced a degenerating ethical spiral since then. It was applied to individuals with profound mental defects, then it was offered as an alternative to capital punishment, and from there, words like ‘incorrigible’ and ‘impaired’ and ‘hopeless’ were introduced and their definition expanded to encompass almost anything the civil authorities desired.”

“Those same authorities instituted a multi-level review process to prevent abuse.”

“Yes. I also find it interesting that no petitions for cyborg modification have been denied in the last ten Foundings.”

“That doesn’t mean they were unjustified.”

“There is a thriving black market in illegal cyborgs, and the government ignores it.”

“There are illegal markets for any product.”

“Product? We’re talking about people, John.”

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bird Hunting

by Edward M. Erdelac -

The bed had been overturned and blown against the opposite wall, and Considine had to worm his way out from under the debris.

He heard Dressler in the next room shouting for his daughter, and heard her anxious reply.

Considine pushed himself to his feet, rubble sliding off his shoulders, as Dressler appeared in the doorway again with a long rifle.

“You alright?” he demanded more than asked.

“Fine!” Considine managed.

Dressler nodded and leapt through the hole in his home, into the whirling ash and cinder blowing outside.

The girl scampered out behind him, a breathing mask on her face and another dangling from her fist. Considine limped along after.

Dressler rushed straight for a stand of rocks a few yards from the smoking house, and dove down behind as the Morgenstar fighter roared and banked overhead, coming around for a second pass.

They must have tracked him to the house somehow.

Considine could barely see or breathe. He clenched his eyes against the horrendous air and breathed into the crook of his elbow, but his eyes streamed tears.

When he joined them behind the rocks, Dressler already had the spare mask on and was priming the powerful-looking rifle.

The girl looked at him and grabbed his elbow, pulling him close to shout in his ear over the wind.

“Pull your shirt over your head!” she shrieked through her breathing mask.

He did so. The relief wasn’t total, but it wasn’t negligible either.

He heard the whining engine of the fighter droning closer. If the pilot could see them through the clouds of ash, he would vaporize their position with an eruption of his cannons.

Considine pulled the shirt down and scanned the area for another place to flee, but they were in the middle of nowhere.

Dressler was climbing on top of the rocks.

“What’re you doing?” Considine yelled. “Get down!”

Dressler ignored him and put the rifle to his cheek, aiming it at the sky expectantly.

Considine saw the fighter then, coming in low, flying through the ash like a great winged hunting beast.

Dressler saw it too, and fired.

The rifle bucked against his shoulder and the end of the barrel flamed, spitting out a heavy shot with a loud crack.

The fighter passed just over their heads with a roar.

Considine saw the wings waggle, and suddenly the nose dipped sharply and the bird went down, ploughing earth with its face, flipping radically end over end, and coming to an explosive rest directly in the center of Dressler’s house, which blew apart, sending chunks of permiform in all directions.

Dressler lowered the rifle.

Lyn, her blonde curls whipping around behind her facemask, stood up and slapped her father’s leg with the back of her hand.

“You should’ve let it pass!” she scolded.

“Nice shot, Dress!” came a new voice, a woman’s, but muffled by a face mask. “But bad timing!”

A decidedly female form, masked and robed, stood nearby, a long hunting rifle cradled in her arms.

Parked a few yards behind her was a bulky six-wheeled rover.

“Yulaura! The girl squealed, and rushed over, pointing angrily back at Dressler, who was coming down off the rock somewhat less heroically than when he’d ascended it. “Didja see what Dad did?”

“It was a great shot,” Considine offered, as Dressler inspected the inferno where his house had once been.

“Nothing in there that can’t be replaced,” Dressler muttered. “But who the hell was that?”

“Nothing you need concern yourself with. I can’t ask you to take me to Zirconia now that I know they’re after me. Just lend me a breathing mask and…”

“The hell with that,” Dressler said. “Yulaura, fire up the rover and let’s get going! How do you expect me to collect compensation for all this if you’re dead, Inspector?”

Monday, September 23, 2013


by Karina Fabian - 

Dorran froze at the threshold to the hospital room, his feet refusing to obey his mind’s command to propel him past the sterilization field and to Bonina’s side.  Instead, he hovered, his fists clenched, his eyes roving her body, taking in the tubes and needles, straining to see some sign of motion.  In all the years they’d known each other, she’d never stopped moving.  Even asleep, she had shifted and kicked at the heavy hides on their bed.  Here, they’d cocooned her in sterile white sheets, and the only motion he saw was the rise and fall of her chest in time with the ventilator. 

Her parents had insisted on rushing her to the station, a land of metal and glass, machines and white.  So much white.  Sterile. Cold.  They’d tied her to machines that breathed for her, cleaned her blood, kept her fed, even cleansed her of the layer of dirt that inevitably worked into the skin of anyone who lived on Eclectia.  They’d preserved her life--but had anyone held her hand?

Why couldn’t he?

He held his hand before him, stained and grimed from a lifetime of mining.  He remembered the first time she’d held his hand between both of hers, pale and beautiful and fluttering.  Always in motion.  Now, she needed him to move, and he couldn’t.  Coward.

“Please.  I’m sorry.  I take it all back—every harsh word.  Just, please.  Move for me.”

Friday, September 20, 2013


by Fred Warren -

The corridor light was dim, but still bright enough for reading. Whatever soulless computer or bureaucrat controlled the day/night cycle in Avenir’s lower levels would soon throttle it down to a barely perceptible glow. Smith turned a page in his tattered copy of Oliver Twist and squinted at the tiny print.

‘Hush!’ said the girl, stooping over him, and pointing to the door as she looked cautiously round. ‘You can’t help yourself. I have tried hard for you, but all to no purpose. You are hedged round and round. If ever you are to get loose from here, this is not the time.’

Struck by the energy of her manner, Oliver looked up in her face with great surprise. She seemed to speak the truth; her countenance was white and agitated; and she trembled with very earnestness.

‘I have saved you from being ill-used once, and I will again, and I do now,’ continued the girl aloud; ‘for those who would have fetched you, if I had not, would have been far more rough than me. I have promised for your being quiet and silent; if you are not, you will only do harm to yourself and me too, and perhaps be my death. See here! I have borne all this for you already, as true as God sees me show it.’

Kate settled in beside him and pulled up her shawl so it covered her head and shoulders. “We’ve never before sent them off alone.”

With a sigh, Smith closed the book and stuffed it into the folds of his coat. “If they can’t manage a job this simple, they’ve no business going out at all, with or without us.”

“It’s not the job that’s prickling the hairs on my neck. It’s the partnership.”

“All Wallace cares about is the money. We have a deal. We help him smuggle his parcels, and he lets us be.”

“How very warm and cozy.” Her smile was acidic. “’Tis a glorious day indeed, when we clasp hands with the likes of Wallace Beadle.”

He wouldn’t look directly at her. “You think I’m enjoying this? I had no choice.”

“There’s always a choice, Smith. You taught me that. Your speciality is finding the choices nobody else can see. Since when do you give up so easy, or toe the line on a contract with a piece of filth without conscience or scruples of his own?”

“This is different. Peacekeepers are involved. I can crack Wallace’s skull if gets too high and mighty, and I can lead a few fat Enforcers a merry chase, but I can’t dodge Peacekeepers. Their resources are unlimited, and they have license to kill.”

“Fine. You were backed into a corner, with no other options, so you ducked your head and tugged at your forelock, for the sake of the children.” Kate stood up and gazed into the depths of the long corridor where they’d skipped away on their dubious errand.

“Something like that.”

She whirled on him. “And what of Wallace’s options?”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Put yourself in the wretch’s shoes for a moment. What’s your best option...your most profitable option? Surely not to honor the terms of your arrangement.”

Smith shrugged. “He’d gain nothing from betraying us. Orphans are a flea on the government’s backside. Plucking them from the corridors and taking them into custody costs more than ignoring them, no matter how much pocket change they nick.”

“It all depends on what you do with them afterwards, doesn’t it?”

Now he lifted his head and stared at her. “Do with them? You mean mad labs? Doll factories?”

“We’ve all heard the stories. It explains the missing.”

“There are better explanations for the missing than fairy tales spun to keep fractious children in line. If there truly was a black market in flesh, the Peacekeepers couldn’t let themselves be linked to it, and even Wallace wouldn’t sell children.”

“Wouldn’t he? I expect a dozen new Frankies would fetch a pretty penny. He was always joking about it, remember? ‘Rich folk want their pets obedient and housebroken,’ he’d say. Wallace gets a tidy bonus, and he cuts out your heart in the bargain.”

The words of Nancy, Oliver’s guardian angel, echoed in Smith’s head: I have saved you from being ill-used once, and I will again, and I do now.

He groaned. “I hate it when you’re right.”

Kate knelt beside him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “I’m not asking you to go back on your word, love, nor to put the wee ones at risk. Just take a quick look, to be sure. Make well and certain the slimy latchmaggot is keeping his promises.”

“What if we’re seen?”

“Ah, Smith. Seen? Have you sunk so low?”