Thursday, November 30, 2017

11/30/17

THE COLLECTOR
By Mark Renney


Thomas collects the needles. It is an unpopular job but is open to all. No qualifications are required or prior experience, not even a recommendation. One has simply to turn up and register at an Agency office, take to the streets and, using the bags provided, start Collecting.
The needles are everywhere, at least here in the lower levels where they are a part of the landscape. The Refuse Department is desperately under-funded and can’t cope. The Cleaners sweep up the needles, gathering and moving them to the designated areas. These, at first, had been tracts of wasteland; a part of this part of the City, but now almost anywhere that has been abandoned and deserted is used as a dumping ground. Many of these places have become so rancid and rat infested that even the hardest and most dedicated of Collectors won’t venture in.
The progress the Cleaners make is so slow as to be almost impossible to detect. In the interim they gather and pile the needles wherever they can find a space; where the pavement widens a little at the end of a street or on a busy corner for instance. Even on traffic islands or grass verges that run alongside the roads. At the communal areas on the housing estates, the needles are, of course, a constant. The Cleaners can do little more than push them into the middle until they resemble unruly bonfires that can’t be lit. The hypodermics are made from a hard plastic that won’t burn easily; it is inflammable although, if the heat can build up enough, they will melt and meld. And where this has happened strange shapes appear, grotesque sculptures with the needles protruding like the spikes of some medieval weapon.
It would be wrong to assume, simply because there are so many of them and that they can be found almost everywhere, that collecting is easy.
The main body of the hypoderms and the plungers are susceptible to being crushed when trampled on and so don’t last for long. They are easily cracked and squashed and the needles, which are delicate, get twisted and bent out of shape and are quick to rust and corrode.
The Opportunists are also a problem. They aren’t attempting to make a living from Collecting but are always alert and whenever they spot good needles they will snatch them up.
Thomas has heard that, in the mid-levels, all the users bag and return their own needles, collecting the cash for themselves. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened here. But some of the users do make an effort to dispose of their needles in a reasonably responsible way. Separating them from the rest of their trash at home, they take and dump them on one of the countless piles or heaps that are littered throughout the city.
The Opportunists often stalk a User, waiting for him or her to drop their needle and, like vultures, they will swoop in, grasping and grabbing and yet the needles that make it into the rubbish heaps they choose to ignore. Many of them are merely chancers and it is a way for them to make a little extra. If they see a good needle laying in the street why wouldn’t they, and why shouldn’t they, pick it up? But there are others who appear much more desperate and are quite obviously Users.
Thomas wishes that he didn’t feel so resentful toward them. He doesn’t want to be judgemental - after all, everyone is using, although there are levels of course, especially here in the lowest of places. But the Opportunists won’t get their hands dirty and they don’t grub and sift through the garbage because they don’t want to be mistaken for Collectors or Scavengers.

Thomas began collecting closer and closer to one of the designated areas. At first he kept to the perimeter but gradually edged his way in. The work was slow, laborious, but there were still good needles to be found and at least he didn’t have to compete with the Opportunists or with any of the other Collectors in fact.
No-one came here now, not even the Sweepers who had long since stopped using this particular site. There had once stood here a large warehouse or factory of some sort, but it had been demolished and levelled in order to create a space. Much of the debris from the original building remained. Brick rubble and broken glass and such, which made the collecting even more difficult. But Thomas was determined and started to clear a path and make his way toward the middle.
He dragged old pallets and broken packing cases from close by and shored up the sides to prevent the needles from falling in on him. Eventually he had to add a roof section, using sheets of corrugated tin. And as he pushed his way deeper and deeper into the heap he added another of these sections and yet another and another. And from this vantage point Thomas hacked at the rock face, as it were. He collected the needles in heavy hessian sacks, rather than the flimsy plastic bags provided by the Agency, placing the good needles in one and in the other those that were misshapen and blunt. And as he worked below the needles rained down from above, covering the roof until the tunnel was entirely hidden


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Mark Renney lives in the UK. He has had work published in 365tomorrows/Unbroken Journal/Bones and forthcoming in Spelk. He also contributes to the Art Blog Collective Hijacked Amygdala.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

11/23/17

Fracture
By Lawrence Buentello


Jeremy Spiegel was minding his own business when a fissure opened in the universe.

At first, he didn’t recognize the event as a cosmic fracture, only that something terribly weird was happening in the living room of his small apartment.

Jeremy was preparing to leave for work—he’d just been promoted to assistant manager at Big Henry’s Burgers—when he noticed something shining in the air in the middle of a room where nothing should have been shining. He ceased buttoning his shirt and stood staring past the sofa at the phenomenon, which appeared as an intense yellow light hovering two feet off the ground. Squinting, he realized the light was wedge-shaped and constant, and that just below it, half-hidden by the glare, lay an anomalous piece of something else on the carpet.

The object on the carpet was also wedge-shaped, and a moment’s consideration created the dynamic in his mind that the object and the light possessed similar dimensions.

Failing to understand what was happening, he stepped closer and slowly bent down to his knees. The light didn’t seem radiant, but static, which even Jeremy knew was physically impossible. He raised his hand to feel if it gave off any heat, but he felt nothing. The object on the carpet glowed faintly, but only on one side, as if he were staring at a large piece of lemon pie with a shimmering crust.

Jeremy was a young man who lived alone, had dropped out of college after a couple of semesters of misused time, but was happy in his own circumstances; this was something for which he wasn’t intellectually prepared, and for which he had no answers.

He stood again, wondering if he should dash out of the apartment to find someone to verify what he was witnessing, but he really didn’t know anyone in the complex and was hesitant to knock on the doors of strangers. What would he ask them? Please come to my apartment to look at something weird?

As an alternative, he ran into the bedroom to retrieve his cell phone to record the event on video, but the device failed to turn on. He stumbled back into the living room futilely jabbing his thumbs at buttons, but the battery was inexplicably dead.

As he glanced up at the light, the thought suddenly occurred to him that he couldn’t possibly be seeing a three dimensional display, so he tossed the phone onto the sofa and carefully circumnavigated the phenomenon. But as he moved around the light it rotated to face him, as if he were staring at a hologram. No matter how quickly he moved, the same perspective remained in his line of sight.

Jeremy wasn’t a scientist, just an ordinary human being. But he was at least as curious as the next ordinary human being, so he got back down on his knees and crawled cautiously toward the light.

When his face was no more than three feet away he realized he was seeing something within the illumination, or beyond it—

He crept forward, uncertain, but still extremely curious, and stared into the radiance.

Beyond the haze, which was thick and gauzy, and bizarrely corporeal, he could see a field of stars as if he were staring down the barrel of a telescope, not as a two-dimensional display, but a vast space of glowing bodies in a three-dimensional reality that seemed to exist infinitely within the general area of the living room of his apartment.

Baffled, he leaned back on his knees and tried to understand what he was seeing, but he had no idea.

He stared again at the wedge-shaped object on the carpet, which seemed harmless enough, and on a whim reached down and picked it up.

The object felt almost weightless, like a light cork or dried sponge, with only one slightly glowing surface; the rest of it seemed indistinct and his eyes refused to focus on it clearly. He sat for a moment, estimating the size of the object as compared to the size of the hovering light, then moved it toward the light to see if his estimation was correct.

It was—the object appeared as if it would fit the light precisely.

That’s when the fingers appeared through the wedge-shaped crack in the universe.

Well, not exactly fingers, more like shimmering green appendages roughly corresponding to fingers; they flexed in the light, seemingly testing the atmosphere on the other side of the fissure.

Jeremy Spiegel screamed. He didn’t care if his scream sounded unmanly or not, his terror was genuine. For a moment, he couldn’t seem to move, and then he watched unbelievingly as his arm reached out and his own hand slapped the fingers, or appendages, or whatever they were, as if slapping at a large spider on his shirt.

A noise with no earthly analogue squealed through the air and the fingers retreated.

Again without thinking, he pushed the wedged-shaped object into the light, as if stuffing wadding into a hole from which an unpleasant species of vermin had just poked its nose—the object slid perfectly into place within the fracture.

And the phenomenon vanished.

His mouth open in surprise, Jeremy rose to his feet studying the living room, which now held no phenomena, except marinara sauce stains on the carpet. Did what he thought he saw actually manifest? Or had he just suffered the king of all delusions?

Jeremy realized he didn’t have time to ponder the implications of what had just transpired; he was overdue for his shift at Big Henry’s Burgers and had to hurry out the door.

Of course, he had a legitimate excuse—

But who would believe he was running late because he had to prevent an invasion of Earth from another universe?


- - -
Lawrence Buentello has published a great many short stories in a variety of genres. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

11/16/17

Upstairs
By David K Scholes


“Where are you off to suited up like that,” asked the bot.

“Upstairs!” I replied “for my mandatory annual visit.”

I didn’t mention that it was my very first trip. As a child it wasn’t compulsory for me to go up but as a young adult I had no choice.

The mile long trip up took just a few seconds.

Then I was there. On the planetary surface along with four other humans and our AI supervisor. I was briefly almost overcome by the sheer openness, the vastness that assailed my senses.

“We’ll take in the view from the closest of the mile high towers,” said the AI.

There was another equally short trip of only a few seconds to reach the top of the mile high observation tower.

The view was, for someone used to labyrinthine underground complexes and corridors, quite breathtaking. I knew enough physics to know I was not high enough to truly observe the curvature of the Earth, and yet it seemed as if there was just a little. Just my overactive imagination I suppose.

I had experienced 3D simulations, virtual reality trips and even temporary mind implants but it’s just not the same. None of these properly prepared me for the sheer scale of it all.

From the top of the tower we took it all in for what seemed like an eternity. Later we transferred from the tower on to the nearby, docked sub-orbital cruiser for a full planetary sub orbit. It was even more breathtaking. Again nothing below had or did prepare me for this.

Finally we finished our “upstairs” visit with a 1000 klick return trip in an overground electro-magnetic cruiser. Across rivers, lakes, down through ravines, threaded through mountains and across deserts. All things that I had read about and even experienced virtually, yet things that otherwise might just as well have been theoretical concepts. I wondered now why my selected parents had not allowed me to come upstairs as a child. At least once.

So far everything up here had looked to be on automatic with no humans present. Our AI guide just issued instructions to the robotic mechanisms.

Then it was time to go below again. My breathless fellow travellers looked relieved but I felt a slight tinge of sadness.

* * *

Unexpectedly I had trouble settling back into ordinary life back underground. .

“It happens,” said the robotic therapist. “It’s very rare indeed, but some humans have difficulty on returning underground. It’s more likely if you never went up as a child.”

“What’s the cure, Doc?” I asked.

“Until recently, I would have prescribed drug therapy combined with more frequent above ground simulations and virtual reality experiences, but not for you. Now, for cases like yours, we have started trialing an extended return to the surface approach.”

* * *

I went back up again with just two other humans, one of them our guide.

“It will be less of a scenic tour and more of a working arrangement,” said the guide. “Everything up here has been running pretty much autonomously. For decades there has been no permanent human habitation above ground. You are at the vanguard of change establishing a human presence up here again.”

About then it dawned on me. I was going to be up here for good. Whatever it was I had, they weren’t about to let me, or those of my ilk, return below to upset the apple cart.

I was so confident of this that as the guide showed me about my new habitat I didn’t even broach the subject.

It might one day be sad never to return underground even for a holiday yet looking across to the vast horizon I was truly untroubled.


- - -
The author is a science fiction writer with eight collections of short stories and two novellas (all on Amazon). He has been a regular contributor to the Antipodean SF, Beam Me Up Pod Cast, and Farther Stars Than These sites. He has also been published on 365 Tomorrows, Bewildering Stories, the WiFiles and the former Golden Visions magazine.
He is currently working on a new sci-fi novella.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

11/9/17

Sunset
By A. Katherine Black


“You think you’re old enough to apprentice in engineering next season, then you’re old enough to help your ma prep for nightfall.”

Joyce stood at the kitchen window, watching sunset colors spill over the fields, while Jack huffed and stomped through the kitchen door and into the study. She took a deep breath and turned to the table to re-count supplies and ensure they had twenty meals, enough to sustain them through the night.

Juliet burst through the back door and into the kitchen.

“Mommy, guess what?”

She held a hand behind her back, excitedly rotating her body to and fro.

Joyce gave her daughter a tired smile, reminded of how difficult it was to entertain this little explorer while they were locked in the house for the many hours of night. She hoped the school had honored her request for extra vid lessons.

“What is it, Sweet?”

With great care, Juliet brought her hand from behind her back. It was closed in a loose fist.

“I found one! Just like the song says, but they’re not stinct anymore!”

Joyce spoke an order to the house to begin pre-seal procedures. Whirs and clicks sounded in the walls, as the house prepped air tanks and heaters for full night seal. An insulated shield slipped over the kitchen window, blocking out the last of the daylight. She turned to the food packs on the table and began counting silently, prepared as every parent was to attend to real life matters while pretending to listen to her child’s all-important report.

Juliet began to sing an old nursery rhyme in a cheerful tone.

“A flower of old
A flower of old
With lovely green spikeys
And terrible bities”

Joyce looked at her daughter as a chill crept up her spine. Juliet slowly opened her fist to reveal a small flower with long, green outer pedals and white rounded inner pedals. Its middle was a deep purple, almost black. She held it out to her mother proudly as she continued singing.

“The flower of old
The flower of old
That wiped out the first ones
With touches so fast done”

Words failed Joyce. She held out a hand to her daughter, gesturing that she stay where she was. She checked the vid on her wrist, pulling up archive photos to confirm identification of the thing in her daughter’s hand.

“My flower of old
My flower of old
Its beauty is legend
With truth never ending”

Juliet held her chin high and sang the old song just as all young ones did, with no understanding of the meaning, of the history, of the fate of the first settlers on this world.

“No flower of old
No flower of old-“

“Shhh,” Joyce said, keeping her distance. “Sweet,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “We don’t want to damage it, such a fragile thing.” She looked toward the door to the study and choked down a sob. “Don’t move.”

Juliet’s eyes went wide. “Yes!” She whispered. “I am a discoverer!” She shivered. Her face grew pale.

Joyce’s mind raced as she tapped messages onto the screen on her wrist.

“Yes, Sweet, you are a great discoverer.”

She verbally ordered the house to make the final countdown to night. Soft words rang through the walls, warning of impending seal, unbreakable until morning.

Tears streaked freely down Joyce’s face as she regarded her younger child, forever her baby, doomed by one innocent touch of a deadly, near-forgotten flower. It would be quick, at least. Joyce approached her child and placed an arm around her small shoulders.

“Sweet,” she said, “we need to take this flower outside. It belongs in the wild, not in a people house.

Juliet nodded seriously and walked with her mother toward the back door, pausing just inside, on her mother’s cue. Joyce’s legs were weak, her heart heavy. The house’s countdown was nearly over.

They stepped outside.

The kitchen door swung shut behind them and hissed its final seal against the coming night.

Juliet’s face showed surprise as enormous shadow crept across the fields.

“It’s okay, my sweet.” Joyce smiled and wrapped her hand around Juliet’s. The flower tingled under her grip.

###

Jack walked through the swinging door from the study to the kitchen. Motion lights triggered and lit.

“Ma?”

A vid activated on the wall, first showing a message left by his mother, and then a message from the Mayor, reassuring him they would be there for him, via vid, through every step of his first night alone.

The house cracked loudly, adjusting as extreme cold set in.


- - -
A. Katherine Black is an audiologist on some days and a writer on others. Her short and flash fiction stories have appeared in Abstract Jam, 365 Tomorrows, and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. She lives in Maryland with her family, their cats, and her coffee machine.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

11/2/17

Above the Bright-Eyes
By Matthew Lee


“Pull the brim down over your eyes,” says mother as you step out into the airy afternoon. “Someone will see you and they’ll have the minister round.”

“But there’s no one about,” you say. “And it hurts.”

Mother stops and looks at you the same way she did that time she locked you in the back room. Since she stopped sleeping at nights, you are even more afraid of her. You do as she says. You might be only fourteen, but you know how to read people all right. You continue down the hill past the park, the wooden wheels of your chair clacking on the rocky path. The cicadas are loud.

Although you cannot see much with the hat brim pulled down, you know where mother is taking you. You feel uneasy. Going past your schoolhouse, you wonder if they will make you go back. You have decided - if they try to make you go back, or keep on mistreating you, you will run away. That is, run away in the only way a crippled boy can - to join the Bright-Eyes.

“Jaron is in no danger,” you say. You are worried about mother. As usual, she pretends she can´t hear you.

Jaron is your older brother. He’s sixteen. He’s big and strong and can run and climb, but he’s jealous of you. This afternoon he has sneaked off with Zilpha again. Mother has woken up earlier than usual from her afternoon nap and she’s carted you out to find him.

“Boy, is your brother going to get it,” she says, walking faster.

Mother pushes you down a bumpy, pebbly road overgrown with thistles and you reach the entrance to the mine. You are on the rocky ground above where the Bright-Eyes live. Mother peers in through the dark space between the loose boards. The space is just big enough for a brave boy and his girlfriend to slip through on late summer autumn afternoon. Mother calls his name.

After father’s accident, they boarded up the mine. Father would still be alive if they hadn’t dug down so far. You told him not to dig, you told him the Bright-Eyes didn’t want to be disturbed, but he didn’t listen and no one else listened. What happened to him wasn’t your fault.

“I know he’s in there,” mother says quietly. The smell of peaches drifts by.

You notice her hand is shaking even more than usual. You remember when mother stopped sleeping at night and her hands started shaking. She started screaming in the middle of the night and said that she was being pulled down through her bed and through the floor. So she started sleeping during the day instead. That’s when our neighbours stopped coming around and Jaron started sneaking off with Zilpha.

Often you have travelled here. Often you have travelled through that hole between the boards, along that tunnel, down the place you call The Throat, sliding down between those slippery rocks and to the lake under the ground where the Bright-Eyes live. Often you have swum with them, looking out from creamy light-bulb eyes and feeling the warm currents sliding along your carapace. You have glided along the bottom of the underground sea, feeling roughness on your ridged underbelly. You have breathed the water down there, grateful for the nourishment, your tendrils swaying behind you like long ribbons on a windy day. You were there watching as your father and the other miners broke through the cave ceiling and heard the screams as the Bright-Eyes went inside their heads and broke them like eggshells.

People are weak, say the Bright-Eyes. Slip into their minds, as we showed you, and you will understand why they are weak. They have no place here. We are the ancients and this place is ours. You steady your breathing and open your eyes wide and with practised ease, you rise up out of your rickety chair, glide through the spaces between and you are inside mother’s mind once again.

Mother is still very confused. She is terrified of the way you talk in your sleep and the way your eyes have gone cloudy. That’s why she locks you up. But now you see something new; you see that she has been talking to the minister. He has convinced her there is evil inside you. She believes him. She believes she is being punished and she will continue to be punished while you are alive.

You slip back. And you know - your childhood has ended. Father is lost, Jaron will soon be lost, and now mother is lost. It is time.

“Mother. Jaron’s not in the mine.” Her eyes are empty. “The Bright-“

She suddenly puts up her hands to her face. There are lots of tears that weren’t there before and her make-up is running. She looks at you and yells at you and starts hitting you and you cover your head with your hands and you start crying too. You’ve never heard her say words like that before.

Later, you are back in your room with the door shut. It’s almost dark. Mother has laid you down in bed. The crying noises stopped a while ago. Your eyes open wide, like the first time the Bright-Eyes found you and came to you in your sleep. Oh, happy day! Your breathing changes and your heart beats faster. You hear their soothing, echoing voices and you tell them that you have decided. They are euphoric. They feel your pain, they say. You don’t have to suffer any more. You will leave the futile world of men. You will gain an able body and you will gain a purpose. As you start to sink down through the bed, as if it was made of silken water, you hear the muffled sound of the front door clicking open.

Boy, is your brother is going to get it.


- - -
Matthew Lee teaches English in Zaragoza, Spain, and sometimes feels like he spends more time correcting writing than producing it. One of his goals is to tip that balance. Occasionally he thinks about his native England.


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