Thursday, September 12, 2019

9/12/19

Benny’s Bad
By David Castlewitz


Benny's transgression didn't rank high on the list of "bads" published in the legal app he'd leased. That gave him hope that his eventual trial would be more nuisance than trouble. He was a first-timer. He shouldn't warrant time at a work camp.

But the app had some dire warnings. Considering how far he'd fallen in his Personal Social Account, Benny feared he'd never get back to where he'd been five years earlier. That was a lifetime ago, those heady days immediately after he finished his doctorate degree in social dynamics. That was back when he thought he'd used his education to his advantage. In fact, soon after he'd finished his seven year curriculum, he had gigs ranging from writing an original thesis to talks at virtual conferences and even a one-week stay in the Adirondacks as a seminar leader.

But none of that would matter when a judicial type got hold of his case. Those algorithms were fierce. They weighed. They assessed. They measured. Transgressions were evaluated and applied against his Personal Social Account, which were as significant as his IQ or GPA.

When he was a student, Benny found his Social nearly unchanged from day to day. He went to class. He turned in assignments. He earned points and lost them, all without much effort, it seemed.

Then life happened. A slip in attention and he earned a "dig" by crossing the street against a traffic signal. He got caught not exercising "expected politeness" when boarding a tram. There were many ways to earn demerits. They piled up.

Somehow, he'd ventured into forbidden social territory and made a terrible mistake.

He didn't know what cues he'd missed with Gloria Deel. They'd had a virtual date and he thought she'd enjoyed it as much as he. His avatar reported back with glowing recommendations about what to do next. Possibly a dinner via holo-plane, he in his apartment and she in hers. Maybe followed by a meet-up. The avatar presented a bright green future since they belonged to the same peer group.

They both worked at the State Street Emporium, a shopping mall of pop-ups, some holographic and some material, four stories deep under Chicago's downtown streets and another four stories tall above. Benny often admired Gloria zipping through the aisles on some mercantile mission. Once, they worked together setting up display cases. It was that experience that led to the virtual date during which their avatars exchanged viewpoints.

Its success prompted Benny to craft a media clip recounting the date. Tinkling glasses and catchy music provided aural highlights. The lighting was soft and dreamy, but not seductive. It wasn't meant to entice Gloria to be open to suggestion.

Where had he made his mistake? Benny wondered. How could he escape punishment? Most of the tube-pods that whisked commuters in and out of the city were liberally swept by robotic monitors. He'd be scanned when he boarded. If he evaded that trap, he'd have to deal with iris readers in the ceiling at the stations along the route. If he could tube-it north, he'd hire a self-driving car to traverse the interstate and get out of Illinois. How many dozens of electric eyes would he need to duck under to get that far?

What if he did make it to the Milwaukee Collective, he mused as he pondered his situation. They might not mind the demerits in his account. Outside of Chicago, transgressions such as the one he committed weren't considered crimes. They were just mistakes that could be chalked up to enthusiasm, excused as an excess of youth.

Lingering at Union Station, head down to avoid sensors in the walls or ceiling, an old time Cubs baseball cap pulled down so it partially obscured his eyes, Benny took stock of the situation for the umpteenth time. If he ran, he might attract attention and be tackled by some do-gooder type who needed the Samaritan points. If he walked like he had nothing to hide, he'd certainly run into a cop on the beat scanning for a quick arrest. No matter what he did, he was bound to be caught trying to board a northbound pod, and considering that his residence was on the Near South Side, he'd raise suspicion.

He knew what his dad would have told him. He should turn himself in and deal with the consequences. Dad would tell him he'd get some points for that and, who knows, he might whittle his punishment down to a long weekend pulling weeds along the highway.

Benny wandered Union Station's cavernous lobby. He knew he should find a police kiosk, pull up his record and plead guilty. He'd failed to follow protocol. Eager to pursue Gloria and capitalize on their virtual date, he'd approached her in person, exhibiting his best boyish grin, and asked her to dinner.

He'd used words. He'd spoken.

You should've sent an avatar," Gloria said, her large dark eyes blazing like fired-up coals. "Don't you even know your account balance? You don't have enough points to ask me out. Not like this."

She turned her back on Benny. She walked away, fuming over the insult and muttering that she had no choice but to file a complaint.

Benny found a kiosk in a dark corner of Union Station's marble-floored lobby. A private guard glanced sideways at him and he quickly looked into the kiosk's scanner. He didn't want that guard getting credit for collaring him.

With a sigh, Benny answered the requisite questions, took ownership of Gloria's grievance, and then waited for a uniformed cop to arrest him. Maybe, he mused, Gloria will want to have a real-time date after he finished serving his sentence, though he worried that he'd have no way of asking. His account balance wouldn't be high enough for even an avatar-sent missive.


- - -
After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: writing fiction of all sorts, especially SF and fantasy.
He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press , Bonfires and Vanities (an anthology) and other online as well as print magazines.
Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

9/5/19

Silent Memories
By Bruce Mundhenke


I woke in the night
To look at a star,
Through slats in the window blind,
It's blue-white light had found me,
From a far, far place in space,
And set my mind in motion,
To think of many things.
I wondered if it still was there,
And if its fires still raged,
And did it warm a creature once,
That circled it in space,
And often pondered questions,
When answers never came.
Lived its life and perished,
Was joined to other silent memories,
That were quiet as they grew.


- - -
Bruce Mundhenke writes poetry and short fiction. He lives in a small town in Illinois.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

8/29/19

Seed to Root
By Phoebe Wagner


On the day you are born, beneath the shade of drought-dead leaves, the families wait, singing and sewing, sawing and painting, as we build your first solar panel, your first solar blanket. The panel is small, light enough on found aluminum cans cut open, folded together, edges softened with bark and moss, for you to carry on your back, a husk like the cicada’s shell that you will shed and expand and learn how sunlight leads to life.

Like all young ones, the weight of the battery will annoy you. You will want to leave it behind, to run the fields free. We will smile and understand and remember how even laws couldn’t make us change. Now, we teach the word necessity; we teach the story of small things, small changes.

As your blood parent births, we stain shards with life colors—river brown, juniper blue, mushroom white. We spell what the families will call you until you decide differently. An idea you will see half-consumed in dirt, cloaked in bark, an underthing. A reminder to you and us of the finite. A reminder it is not up to you alone, but as part of a whole.

Cambium, we taste the word as we stitch and stick the solar shards—cool dark, slow breaths, a hum at the tip of the tongue. Will you go by Cam, or Bi? Cambi, one says. Perhaps.

For many days, it will be a nonsense word among the languages you construct to name yourself and the world. When you begin to walk, your solar blanket glittering and clinking like chimes, we will take you to a fallen tree and poke into the split trunk.

Cambium once held this tree high. Cambium helped it grow and green. It’s so small you can’t see it, but combined with sun and water and soil, see what the invisible can do.

When we walk and tell the story of your name, you will be so young, unable to know summer never ends, the strangeness of hot dark instead of breezy evenings. Only the old ones will tell tales of a different time and you will not understand why they are sad. They will tell how you help them breathe.

Oh, Cambium, Cambium, we hear you crying, we hear you taking root. Welcome.


- - -
Phoebe Wagner holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment and currently pursues a PhD from University of Nevada, Reno. Her work has appeared in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Nonbinary Review, and 365Tomorrows.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

8/22/19

Nowt
By Artyv K


The sky rumbled with his stomach.

Nascent lay spreadeagled on the roof of what had once been a radio tower, surrounded by pots of exotic mushrooms and a half circle of fire ants that wound their way around him: crawling, skittering, only to disappear into a crevice in the wall. He didn’t really mind the critters; for there was very little that Nascent minded (moldy sandwiches being a sound exception in the scheme, which explained why his stomach kept rumbling to the tune of hunger).

Nascent’s needs of the moment were simple— he wanted to hightail it out of the planet. Because this one, yes, this little speck of blue didn’t quite feel like home. And he wasn’t certain when and why he began feeling this way.

Bringing a hand up to his head, the boy scratched his nape and squinted at the cloud-ridden sky above him.

Grey.

Grey as far as the eyes could see. Grey as the bottom of the abyss. But Nascent saw something more to the deception. And he kept waiting for that something more. He counted down the seconds in his head for the passing of Nowt90X, a satellite bound to go over Tetron. Three years ago, the privately-owned satellite had shot to fame for being the only junk orbital in history to pull away from its tethers and slip into a course of its own making. No one had ever heard of a machine acting up. No one (save for fear mongers, doomsday enthusiasts and science fiction roonies) had ever considered the possibility that a machine could even act up. So, what motivated this rebellion against its makers? What plot conspired in its cheap quantum cells? Why did it reject every maneuver for reset? Most importantly, where was it heading and why?

When Nowt’s malfunction hit headlines and baffled engineers across the world— Nascent went to work on his own. He went to his room, pulled the scrap papers out and started the math to keep up with the renegade. When he wasn’t scavenging his drowned city, he charted Nowt’s course, penned down limericks, and remained intrigued by the mystery that was Nowt’s trajectory. When he finally managed to map out its coordinates on the wall-sized world map of his and realized what the shores the satellite was up to, the boy had a revelation. He’d solved the mystery, he decided, and cackled like a seagull at his success. Thus, began his strange ritual of visiting the roof of the radio tower every fortnight, all on the lookout for his wonderful alumina god.

The limerick stuck too.

In and out of sight, the Gods drift

Stars doing the blues and red shift

When nowt is all you can do,

What can you do,

But wait for the sink.



Nascent stared into the sky of Tetron, aware of the ants soldiering on around him. Ants, which exhibited more determination and pragmatism than he ever could. He suspected the critters were a far more nuanced specie than his; concerned wholly about food and sustenance, they didn’t chase celestial objects like humankind did. The boy looked up and scanned the heavens again. When nowt is all you can do, what can you do, he wondered, reciting the limerick a second time under his breath. The sky rumbled behind its thick cover of storm clouds; his shoulders slumped in defeat.

He knew it was no good. There was no way he’d catch a glimpse of Nowt in this rotten weather. Yet, he made no effort to move. Nascent kept waiting. Because it was the human thing to do, to be a stick in the mud and to keep believing.

And so, his watch beeped anyway; he looked up at the sky anyway, and the world kept turning anyway. Nowt90X arrived right on time. It drifted into his corner of the world for exactly ten heartbeats. Hello, his stray god whispered to him.

‘Hello,’ he greeted it back like that old Adele song.

And Nowt kept drifting.

When it was finally gone and his watch finished ringing the last of those beeps, the roof of the radio tower fell silent.

Though it had been a disappointing day, though he caught sight of nothing more than the wings of a passing gull, though he felt the intolerable vacuity of the universe in that simple moment, Nascent let a smile unfurl on his lips.

Because, in the end, wasn’t it also human to lose and to keep losing?

He raised a gloved hand and waved his goodbye to the wanderer, his face turning from triumph into one of melancholy.

“Something’s happening somewhere,” he said aloud. “And I’m not there,” the philosopher rued into the silence. “I’m not there at all.”


- - -
Artyv K is a writer of speculative prose from Chennai. Her works have been published in Strange Horizons, NILVX, Luna Station Quarterly and others.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

8/15/19

A BOY GROUNDED
By John Grey


Between this world
and the stars,
I have so much ground to make up.
My imagination can only take me so far.
Now I need something
to cocoon me from the dangers
but open my eyes to the wonders –
a ship of course,
capable of impossible speeds,
powered by a fuel not yet invented.
Without this,
I am just another hopeless case,
spending days and nights in my room,
scribbling stories in notebooks,
sketching aliens and planets,
suns and galaxies,
everything in my head,
but nothing anywhere else.
I am born a thousand years too soon.
Future man has stolen my dreams.
And he doesn’t even have to dream them.


- - -
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Midwest Quarterly, Poetry East and North Dakota Quarterly with work upcoming in South Florida Poetry Journal, Hawaii Review and the Dunes Review.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

8/8/19

Yorkshire Alien
By Richard Stevenson


Ix-nay on names.
Know what I’m sayin’?
The little green guy got away,
whooshed off in a saucer.

I got an out-of-focus tosser shot
of the bipedal imp on the moors
above White Wells, near Ilkley. U.K.
just before the booger scampered away.

Didn’t get a shot of the saucer, no.
Whaddaya want me to say?
I was flummoxed and befuddled.
Not so Quick Draw McGraw on the camera.

Sorry. Damn ex would have you believe
I fabricated the imp out of chicken wire.
Tried to create a photo I could sell
to the tabloids. Says I needed cash.

Horse manure! I was after landscape shots.
Was shooting in foggy conditions
where Santa don’t fly missions
in ’87 BCP – Before Cell Phones, doofus.

It had a melon head, stood maybe four-foot four
(looks like a topiary leaf mesh critter
in the photo, I grant you.) As I say,
I snapped it on the fly. Was already turning away…


- - -
Richard Stevenson has recently retired from a thirty-year teaching gig at Lethbridge College and has published thirty books and a CD of jazz and poetry in that time. His most recent books are Rock, Scissors, Paper: The Clifford Olson Murders, a long poem sequence from Dreaming Big Publications in the US (2016), and A Gaggle of Geese, haikai poems and sequences from Alba Publications in the UK (2017).

Thursday, August 1, 2019

8/1/19

Philogelos
By David Barber


This is the Ada Swann, limping into Vesta Dock on manual, which is illegal, but there was no way Perry was paying tug fees, so with automated systems blinking on and off, she eased the big Ceres Series Four into dock by eye.

Dockside’s not handshaking your autopilot, Ada Swann.

“Maybe you’ve got a software issue,” said Perry, powering down. Previous owners of her ship had tinkered endlessly and she guessed this cascade failure was their doing.

No more cowboy spacer tricks, Ada Swann. Sort it out.

Later, making her way across the cavernous dock, a Jirt appeared at her elbow. “You got stuff need fixing, boss?”

Perry halted, and encouraged, the Jirt edged closer. “Fix electrics. Fix machines. Fix...”

Dockside crew were passing and one aimed a kick at the Jirt. It squealed and darted away.

The man saw the look on Perry’s face. “They’ve been told to keep off Dock,” he shrugged. “Don’t encourage them.”

Perry spent the morning trying to source obsolete electronics, and came back in a bad mood. More Jirt loitered on the Dock.

“Hear ship broke boss.” Perhaps it was the one from earlier.

Jirt were fixers of things, all manner of things, this being their gift. Otherwise, a short, timid folk with faces cleft where noses ought to be, known for their feeble six-fingered grasp of money.

“These my Jirt. All good at fixing broke ship.”

It was their smell, a damp-rot odour, like a mushroom cellar. Perry first noticed that stink on Pallas when she piloted short-haul, now they were here too, their shanties round docks and spaceports in a diaspora of usefulness and poverty.

Going out again, the Jirt were still waiting, and she waded through them, waist deep. But then she took an outsize in vac suits and had forearms like hams.

The Weather Inn had seen better days; even the trademark holos of Earthside climate weren't like she remembered. It was playing rain rattling against windows, like someone tossing handfuls of gravel.

Didn't there used to be a wet green smell? she asked the barman. The barman was new. He shrugged. What you see is what you get.

Spacers ended up places like this, loners recognising one another, telling their tales of breakdowns out in the dark, deals that went sour, the run of bad luck since the ice rush ended.

She learned about Jacob and Ada Swann, brother and sister, previous owners of her ship, before Ada escaped down a gravity well to get married.

Bet he never saw that coming, said the spacer with the prosthetic eye.

The Ada Swann was a six-berth, but the boards had been rigged so everything could be run from the pilot's seat. Opinion was unhelpful. Maybe a problem in that maze of add-ons. There were shrugs. Even Perry, who wasn’t good at this sort of thing, sensed an undercurrent of resentment. The way she’d acquired her ship smacked of undeserved good fortune.

By now most of the spacers at the bar were wasted, and when she mentioned the Jirt on dockside they began to argue blearily back and forth.

Saw one make an old compressor purr so smooth, you put a drink on it and the ice-cubes hardly tinkled.

Maybe be natural fixers, but the smell.

Anyway, spacers fix their own stuff, always had.

Let `em onto your ship, you’ll never get `em out. Like roaches in the walls. Have to open the whole ship to space.

Did a vacuum clean-up like that once, someone began. The conversation wandered away.

“Jirt like being around us,” the spacer confided to Perry, his lens gleaming. “That thing with jokes, you know?”

Perry blinked with both eyes, that thing she did when put on the spot.

One-liners pop flashbulbs in the Jirt brain. A glimpse of something cosmic, he’d heard. In exchange, they fixed stuff for free. Just keep a few jokes handy, like loose change for tips.

Her face settled into a frown. Those years out in the dark, who would she have told jokes to?

And don’t listen to this bunch, he added. All they have is the past.

“You know you’re not leaving here on manual,” the Dock Manager told Perry next day. “Not without a Certificate.”

And paying dock fees until she went broke, the woman meant. Which wouldn’t be long. Again pull-out modules tested green, then crashed when put back. Perry rarely got angry, but she put down her tools very carefully and went for a walk.

The commotion out on the Dock was Jirt squealing. Dock crew going off duty had cornered the bunch hanging round the Ada Swann.

Hey, warned Perry, stepping between them. She motioned towards her open airlock and the Jirt scrambled aboard.

You’ll regret that, a docker told Perry, and she stared him out until he shrugged and walked off.

While its fellows swarmed through the Ada Swann, chasing cables and peering at motherboards, one Jirt stayed close to Perry.

They admired our human things, it said. Less fiddly than the tiny Shrax, not as brutal in their tonnage as the gadgets of Behemoths. At least, that’s what Perry thought it said.

It stroked Perry’s hand. Only humans were funny, it added. This being our gift.

And when the Ada Swann glided out of Vesta Dock on autopilot, Perry knew she would never be able to unravel the fix-arounds these Jirt had improvised. They were her crew now, their nest in an unused cabin loud with addicts huddled round old comedy shows, drunk on punch lines.

Show us, they pleaded with her sometimes, the damp-rot odour thickening in anticipation of the moment when the god seized them.

Perry would have to learn some jokes. This Jirt has no nose. Then how does it smell?

Tell us how you do it, they pleaded, as if some accidental molecule in a flower might teach dreams; as if this was how poppies might feel, if they knew.


- - -

Thursday, July 25, 2019

7/25/19

The Horizon Eternal
By Andrew Johnston


Ten thousand miles from home. Already I feel the loss of gravity's embrace, the wisdom of up and down that I had taken for granted in my terrestrial life. Moment by moment I shed my attachments to the old place, and with them go my very sense of reality, my notions of self and place. Here I am, caught between a moment of truest regret and the trackless void. But what lies beyond...oh, what must await these eyes beyond that void is surely worth this mere apprehension, this transient discomfort.

Ten million miles from home. I can scarcely breathe for the terror worming through my flesh. Fear rides alongside me now, whispering dark words into my ear, hectoring me with dire predictions of what awaits us. One erroneous calculation, one inadequately secured seam, one unforeseen celestial body and I am no more than a handful of dust scattered across the whole of existence. I am bent to the waves of fate and the whims of the cosmos, and why? What deceiver spirit convinced me that there was wisdom in this exodus?

Ten billion miles from home. I have found some peace in my mission, at least for now. The doubts still wound me, but their voices are muted now, lost within a quadrillion cubic miles of oblivion. That fury at myself has passed, and all that remains is the mission. Yet, I have also discarded the thrill of the voyage. Terror and wonder have both faded from my eyes. Have I so soon become jaded? Is my very soul preparing me for disappointment when this vessel at last alights on that dead rock?

Ten trillion miles from home. The machines that propel this fragile body through the endless expanse are falling silent one by one. The monitor tells me that all is still well but this is nothing but a fantasy dispensed by a machine that knows only what is placed before its mute sensors. Deep in my soul, in a place where instinct triumphs over false rationalism, I know what will soon come. Fear is gone; it is death that perches next to me. If this beast is fixable, then it is well beyond my meager gifts. My time grows shorter...and yet I feel so little. What has become of me that this does not evoke emotion?

Location unknown. This elegy for my mission and my hopes of discovery shall be my last attempt at communications with home. It seems I will never reach that rock, and I will never know if my final missive has reached my old superiors. Am I a cautionary tale, or a martyr, or simply an unforeseen cost in a vital mission? Ah, I will never know. All is quiet now, within and without. I feel no fear or anger or regret. The machines have gone to their resting places, and now it is my turn to offer my life to the void. The voyage has prepared me for this. To my fellow explorers: I wish you luck, and wish you the serenity I now know when your time finally comes.


- - -
Born in rural western Kansas, ANDREW JOHNSTON discovered his Sinophilia while attending the University of Kansas. Subsequently, he has spent most of his adult life shuttling back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. He is currently based out of Hefei, Anhui province. He has published short fiction in Nature: Futures, the Arcanist and Mythic and will be featured in the upcoming Bad Dream Entertainment Horror/Humor Anthology. You can learn more about his projects at findthefabulist.com.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

7/18/19

The Rings Are Lovely Tonight
By J. David Thayer


Shyleama sat at the table, staring over a cup of coffee long since gone cold. She was still in there somewhere, probably. But for now, all that sat in that chair was the shell of who she once was. Who she was just yesterday. Like the skin left behind by some burrowing insect that only returns to the surface every dozen years or so to mate and molt, her emptiness rendered her practically transparent. She needed me by her side with my arms around her, but I couldn’t. Not yet. I was emptied too. I couldn’t even stay inside the house. It was a beautiful night for that time of year. Far more beautiful than it deserved to be.

The rings are lovely tonight, I thought, as I sat on my back porch looking up at them once again. Our home is the moon Tretus, which orbits within the ring system encircling Ricchus—a dizzyingly hostile gas giant, some ten-thousand times our size. Its gravity pulls on our core without ceasing, causing the great seismic eruptions that give us warmth. And like most moons, we are tidal locked in orbit, always showing Ricchus the same face. Reminds me of so many people I’ve known. Anyway, this means half of Tretus sees the inner rings and the planet, filling the sky entirely at all times. Prime real estate. The other half of the moon, where I live, sees only the outer rings. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I was a kid I used to marvel at the rings luminescing the sky. Solid bands of countless chunks of ice and dust and rocks, floating in a circular current forever. Our gravity causes a ripple in the flatness as we scoot along, like blowing on a bowl of soup. There is something very beautiful in those quiet, endless laps around Ricchus. To me at least. Not so much the whole of it (pictures of which you’ll find on the merchandise in our gift shops), but in the way all of those individual particles move in concert. A ballet of patience. I used to imagine drifting out into space to join the traffic, my atoms gradually splitting apart until I became no different than the other matter caught in timeless gravity. The lovelier I imagined the rings, the more deeply I wished to join them. It was my meditation before I was old enough to be taught such things.

When Father left on his last mission, I was twelve years old. His container vessel never re-turned, owing to an extremely short and lethal gamma burst. It was an impossible coincidence. They were exactly where they had to be for the ship to perish—almost like the neutron star took aim on purpose. When I heard the news, I ran out to the back yard, lay on the ground, and closed my eyes as tightly as I could manage. In an instant, I was drifting out amongst the frozen debris. My entire body was blowing away like sand and without pain. I very much wanted to stay up there. Lose consciousness, memory. Give in to the cold and the quiet and the pull. If I could have disintegrated myself by an act of shear will, I would have done so that night. But I had Mother to consider. And my two younger brothers.

#

As the years wore on I found less and less time to mediate on the rings. Obligations took priority, and rightly so. But every once in a while, I’d almost forget. Sometimes I would catch myself staring out the window of the tram on my way home from working at the hospital. It would be so easy to slip away, if only I would allow it. String enough sleepless hours together and you almost have to will yourself to remain constituted. Edges get fuzzy. Sometimes the rings would take me for a minute or less, and then I’d snap back into reality and responsibility, my scrubs stained with the daily evidence of need. I served a tangible purpose every day. It was enough.

Eventually, Mother passed and Elgen and Lextre headed out on their own—the former left for the Academy, and the latter to work in the yttrium mines on Kaysis. Lextre even started a family. I was a very proud uncle, but Kaysis is remote, so we rarely saw each other. I think it was about this time that I began to allow myself to relax, but only a little. It was also when I first met Shyleama.

She came into my life at just the right time. I was experiencing a bizarre sort of empty-nest loneliness, and she was rebounding from a dreadful first attempt at marriage. Truth is, I had never given any thought to what life would be like once we reached this stage. I missed my mother and brothers terribly, but I could not suppress my giddiness. There was a new freedom in my soul. I was so happy. We were so happy. I actually felt guilty about being so happy. I could almost hear Mother saying, “I’m so glad I finally got out of your way so you could start enjoying your life.” And what’s even worse: she would have meant it. It’s hard to explain.

A year later Shyleama gave birth to Jorkin. We only thought we understood happiness before he came. In some ways, our lives both began and ended the day he was born—in the sense that we no longer lived for ourselves or even for each other. We lost ourselves in Jorkin completely. He was our own giant planet, and we became his rings, circling around him. Protecting him. Reflecting his beautiful light. That was seven years ago.

#

Today a medic transport came to the hospital from a school. An elementary school. Of course I recognized the uniforms immediately; no one buys that shade of olive at random. Shyleama always hated it. Ricchus is so large it acts as a sort of vacuum cleaner for our neighborhood in our solar system. For millions of kilometers in all directions, all the stray chunks of asteroids and comets and such are pulled in towards the center. Sometimes they make it all the way to the interior of the planet. Wonderful displays when they impact! Great plumes of venting gas that mushroom out and then arc back into the sphere. Sometimes new asteroids join the lovely rings. They cause a mild uproar, briefly, and then fall perfectly in step with their new brothers forever. And every so often a body will crash directly into Tretus. There is too much interference in the sky for us to detect their approach until it is too late to seek shelter. And besides, where would we go? A large one may spell doom for us all one day; it’s a reality we accept and ignore.

The meteoroid that struck the school today was about two meters in diameter. Nowhere near large enough to disrupt life on Tretus, but plenty large enough to level a building. And it certainly did that. I found my son in the third car. His light was already gone, but he was still beautiful.

#

I sat on my porch, looking at the sky and still wearing my scrubs. Jorkin’s dried blood was on my arms and my chest where I held him against me, begging in vain for him to return to us. Shyleama joined me eventually, when she found the strength to stand. She was always the stronger one. We sat together in silence because what good were words? Even the tears had stopped, for the moment. We had exhausted them, but they’d rally soon enough. Finally, my wife spoke because one of us had to.

“The rings are lovely tonight, Reeklid.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I was just thinking that.”


- - -
J. David Thayer is an educator living in Texas. His works have appeared in The First Line, The Last Line, Dizzy Emu Publishing, Fantasy/Sci-Fi Film Festival, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bewildering Stories, 101 Word Stories, and Pilcrow & Dagger.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

7/11/19

MAKING MY WAY BACK TO CAMP
By John Grey


My surroundings
are slowly consumed by darkness,
an upper jaw of sky,
a lower of rocky soil.

It swallows the theodora stand
down to its roots,
piles on the nesting xotls.
Valleys go quietly.
Even the distant hills
are ultimately gulped
to nothingness.

Sure, a moon rises
but it’s ineffectual,
until joined by another,
and then a third.

These modest satellites
band together,
focus their reflected shine
on a hollow here,
a tree trunk there,
even a man
who’s trudging through the gloom.

The Zanxian night
makes a meal of the light
but leaves me crumbs enough.


- - -
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Midwest Quarterly, Poetry East and North Dakota Quarterly with work upcoming in South Florida Poetry Journal, Hawaii Review and the Dunes Review.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

7/4/19

L'appel du Vide
By Daniel R. Jones


Ol' Glory
calls to me, sometimes
from up there in the silvery dust
where it was planted
by Neil and Buzz nearly 50-years-ago.

It's the only flag
that never goes half-mast, they say,
atop a celestial landscape,
unwavering in a wind-less space,
untouched by Earth's tragedy:

No humans there
to lower it when tragedy strikes.
No humans there
to cause the tragedy, either.
It calls to me sometimes,

to escape this ball of dirt,
all its festering blight

in pursuit of the serenity of space:
new adventure, new mystery,
New Glory.


- - -
Daniel R. Jones is a writer from Indianapolis, IN. He earned his MFA degree at Lindenwood University. Previously, he's had work published in the South Bend Tribune, In the Bend, StarLine, Parody Poetry, and he won an award for best poem in the 2013 edition of Bethel College's Crossings.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

6/27/19

To Be or Not to Be
By Yadira Álvarez Betancourt (translated by Toshiya Kamei)


First, it was the accident that left her mutilated, and the divine providence of bionic prostheses appeared, then the complexity of her work required the brain modules, then the sensory enhancers, the muscles, and the synthetic skin; and from then on, chip by chip, piece by piece, she was drifting further away from herself. She didn't even recognize herself in the mirror anymore. The last straw was when her youngest son cried when she tried to carry him. The interventions had changed her so much that the baby didn't know who she was.

And now she was facing that limit announced after her first surgical procedure: when the percentage of artificial elements in her body disqualified her as a human being. One more drop that would overflow the cup changing her into something different. She wasn't quite sure if she wanted it.

The informative capsule waited to be activated in her hand. Inside it, the definitive answer was asleep. Would she be able to receive another component? Would her body be fit for it? If that wasn't the case, no one could demand that she include the new module in her organic resources. The options were to dismiss her or accept her as she was. But if the answer was affirmative, she had no choice but to suffer the intervention and lose her "human" status.

In any case, what was that qualification for? To vote at community meetings? To have the right to a position in health or education institutions? She hated other people's children, she didn't like hospitals, and the right to vote had become as useless as the moon in a cloudy sky. But there was something, something that moved away proportionally to the imminent activation of the capsule.

She activated the device and contemplated the three-dimensional diagnosis that emerged from it.

When night fell, the woman was still watching the increasingly hazy and flickering hologram, which faded as her capsule ran out of power.


- - -
Born in Havana in 1980, Yadira Álvarez Betancourt is the author of the short story collection Al oeste del sol y otros cuentos (2016). Her short story "A Shared Dream" is forthcoming in Helios Quarterly Magazine.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

6/20/19

The Decider
By Franco Amati


Kyanna and I were relaxing on the couch together on a Saturday evening. Her bare feet with purple pedicured toes rested on my lap. As I reached for the remote, I heard a grumble coming from her stomach.

“Should we order some food?” I asked.

“Yeah I’m starving,” she said.

I expected her to suggest something. After all, starving is a strong word. It should indicate a desire for something specific. But no.

“What should we order?” I asked, squeezing her feet in my hands in a vague attempt at a massage.

“Hmm. I don’t know.” She scratched her chin.

She always did this. She liked putting it on me. Ever since my procedure. She’d always cop out and defer to me, especially for mundane choices like this.

“I guess it’s harder than it seems, sweetie. Making a simple choice,” I said.

“Len, please. You don’t have to give me the whole speech. You made your point. I’ll get the implant too someday. Don’t worry. I’m just not as brave as you are. So until then, you’ll just have to be the decider, okay. Can you handle that?”

“Fine. But can you at least try once in a while to make a choice for yourself? My implant is only supposed to be used for my own solo decisions. It’s not meant for joint decisions. Or for me to decide things for you.”

“We’ve been together for years, Len. What works for you, usually works for me. Just do your little twitchy twitchy, swipey swipey thing, and be done with it. My stomach is growling here.”

So I activated my PrimeSelector implanted choice modulator. For a few seconds I felt the usual spasms in my eyelids. A mild tensing of my neck and scalp muscles. A couple of my fingers twitched. And then the idea came like lightning.

“Indian it is. Palak Paneer for me. Malai Kofta for you. And samosas to share.”

“Awesome. Can’t wait,” she said.

Feeling relieved after placing the order, I put down the phone and picked up the remote.

“Okay, now. So what movie do you wanna watch?”


- - -
Franco Amati received his B.A. in Psychology and is working on his Ph.D. in Cognitive Science. He lives in New York with his partner and two cats.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

6/13/19

For the Love of Toby
By David Castlewitz


Giving the front-end loader a name was a mistake and Brandon Finks had opposed the idea from the beginning. Only reluctantly did he acquiesce to Tom, his brother, and Julie, the third member of Harrison House, the tiny domicile that served as home. Having pooled their money to invest in Toby, the loader was meant to be a resource, not an anthropomorphized machine.

The interface didn't help, either. Even with the cuteness filter turned off, and the device depicted as a sparse line drawing on their phones and laptops, something about the image floating in black space gave it life, especially when it said, "I'm Toby and at your service."

"That's not my doing," Julie insisted, though she'd been the one to set up the link between their apps and the dirt-encrusted front-end loader parked outside the house.

"This is bare bones," Tom said, and Brandon took that as his brother's usual defense of Julie. Tom sprawled on the sofa, on a cushion so depressed by his weight that its sides looked like pincers grabbing his wide butt.

Julie stood at the kitchen counter, hands extended across the edge, her large head poking into the living room. She'd drawn cook-duty for the week and this was her third day at the task. She objected every time her turn came around. She thought she should just be in charge of Toby, sending it to be cleaned when necessary, scouring the job boards for work, and handling the household finances.

"It hasn't had a job in a month," Brandon complained, and crossed the small living room to stand at the oversized picture window. He parted the curtain and looked out at the black-striped yellow machine next to the curb. Its front fork was folded in, like arms raised to either side of its face. Plastic surrounded the "smarts" built into the bulky body. On a wall screen next to the window, Toby came across as sleek black lines and not like some escapee from an old movie about earth movers and derricks and grease-stained construction crews.

"Know what I've noticed?" Tom asked from where he sat on the sofa, clasping his hands behind his head and making his curly red hair stand up in the back. "Since we got it, we spend a lot of time talking to one another."

"Arguing," Julie said.

"But it's talking," Tom said. "That's good for us."

Brandon shrugged. Did Tom long for the early days of their three-way relationship? Twelve years ago, they were fresh grads from a six year post-high school program, their education designed to give them a taste of what they might do in the "real" world. Graduation brought them the rights to this two-story house, which they named after another member of their group, Al Harrison. Al had qualified for Habitat, the Earth-orbiting artificial biosphere, and he'd wasted no time breaking things off with his school friends.

"We used to play games," Tom continued. "We watched old time vids. We pooled whatever money we had so we could tune into the holo-shows at least once a month. And we did it together."

Brandon sighed. He'd heard this before. Wistful Tom, who pined for bygone days when they were interested in everything. He didn't hesitate to remind his brother, "And then we got Julie."

Tom bristled. "What do you want to do, put it back on the market?"

Brandon shook his head. They'd take a loss. They'd never sell it for even half of their original investment. Not that they actually owned the machine. CityBuildIt owned the loader. They were just the current investors responsible for keeping it in shape.

"We should get back to where we were," Tom said in that wistful tone he'd acquired when they were teenagers. It came from Dad, Brandon thought, remembering the dreamer that Mom seemed to hate when he lived with them. But then he died and, though she'd complained about the man for years, in death he was missed.

At least, Brandon thought as he gazed at the kitchen breakfast bar, Julie wasn't like that. He and Tom were lucky in that respect. Like Mom, Julie hated kitchen duty. Unlike Mom, Julie never clapped her hands and demanded silence when he and Tom bickered over one thing or another. Juloe did, however, storm out of that kitchen and stand with her hands on her narrow hips, rounded chin thrust out, dark eyes blazing, and demand they apologize for whatever slight one gave to the other.

"It's the name," Brandon mused.

"Toby? What's that got to do with – "

"No, no. Naming her for Mom. We made a mistake doing that."

Brandon continued to look into the kitchen. Julie had her back to them now. At the sink, though he didn't know why. There were no dirty dishes to wash. Perhaps Julie practiced for when there would be.

A sing-song voice rose from the kitchen. "You'll wish you had me when I'm gone." Part of a song? A lament or a warning?

"Are we talking about getting rid of Toby or our girl-pal over there?" Tom asked his brother.

Brandon shrugged. Both had been acquired with good intentions. Forgoing either one would be difficult. Toby and Julie had become threads in the fabric of their lives.


- - -
After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: writing fiction of all sorts, especially SF and fantasy.
He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press , Bonfires and Vanities (an anthology) and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

6/6/19

Space Invaders
By David Barber


The face of Commander Sharpe, grizzled chief of the Space Patrol, filled the viewscreen. He spoke to the Captain and crew of the space-cruiser Alamo.

“Men, you know we’re fighting the Invaders out here at Jupiter, but what you don’t know is an Invader craft has been been spotted off Venus.”

The crew gave an audible gasp.

“But that means...”

“Yes, Captain, your ship is the only thing standing between the Invaders and the utter destruction of Earth!”

#

“Pilot, take us out of orbit.”

Pilot "Griff" Griffiths eased the gravity bar to the first notch and Earth dropped away behind them. He threw the bar to the limit and they were repelled towards Venus at hundreds of miles per second.

The Captain, whose job it was to notice such things, noticed how his Pilot’s brow was creased in puzzlement.

“Problem, Griff?” The Captain encouraged crew to come to him with their problems.

“Something’s wrong here, sir.”

“There’s a lot wrong, Griff. Like how those damned Invaders sneaked in behind us. Heads will roll.”

“No, I mean with these controls. There’s a steering wheel, a throttle and a speedometer that reads in miles per hour.”

“These J-class cruisers are...”

“...old, I know. But Captain, it’s got a handbrake.”

#

The Captain’s gaze was fixed on the gravograph. It showed the Alamo and the Invader craft steadily closing.

“And another thing, sir..." Griff lowered his voice. "That photograph Jones has stuck above his weapons station.”

“Of his sweetheart? I encourage it, Griff. Damn the regulations! They plan to get married if we… when we get back."

“And McWhinney has pictures of his wife and children.”

The Captain was beginning to regret his open-door policy. “Yes, and I have a photograph of my dog. Reminds us what we’re fighting for.”

“I don’t have any photographs.”

“I hope you're not the one with a troubled past who has flashbacks in a crisis," murmured the Captain, not meaning to say it aloud.

“I’ve got no pictures because I don’t remember anyone back on Earth.”

#

“Men,” said the Captain. The whole crew was crammed awkwardly into the control room. “Men, I’ve listened to your concerns about, well, what Griff here’s been saying.”

“It’s no use Captain, none of this makes any sense.”

“Steady on Pilot, no need for talk like that, not when we’re all about to... when Earth is relying on us.”

Griff frowned. “These Invaders, Captain, who are they exactly?”

“Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic have been watching us for years,” said McWhinney.

“They came mysteriously from outer space,” intoned Jones simultaneously.

They looked at one another in surprise.

The Captain cleared his throat. “I think you’ll find they’re remorseless killing machines inimical to all life.”

“Which explains our lack of computers,” exclaimed McWhinney in a moment of revelation. “Being machines themselves, they might hack them.”

Jones nodded. “Yes, the computer business always struck me as strange, because almost any automatic aiming device would be better than me.”

“Dammed meks!”

“Explains Pearl Harbour...”

“We biologicals must stick together,” interrupted the Captain smoothly. “Because the Invaders are relentless. By which, I don’t mean...”

“They’re still vulnerable,” declared McWhinney, patting his weapons panel. “Anti-logic rays. Software cannon. Mathematical warheads.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Though their ships are armed with missiles, lasers and space mines.”

They all turned on Jones.

“I was just saying.”

#

Griff ticked off items on his fingers. “So. We’re fighting a mysterious enemy. I don’t recognise any of you, despite us being crewmates for years, apparently. I've no photographs, and worse, I don't even remember Earth.

“On the other hand, I do remember the smell of coffee. When did we last drink coffee, eh? Probably why I haven’t needed a piss since this story began.”

Griff’s eyes narrowed. “Hang on a minute...”

#

>We should have removed him sooner.

“Where am I?”

>>You won’t be here long enough for that to matter, replied another, sterner voice.

>You got caught up in a war between conflicting philosophies. Life and death. Mortal versus immortal. Our side thinks immortality is a Bad Thing.

>>Now he’ll want explanations. Flesh always wants explanations.

“What are you talking about?”

>You’ll help us decide.

“What do you mean, decide?”

>Well, we can’t actually fight, it would be...

>>Vulgar.

>I was going to say immoral. Hence each side embodies their arguments. The way people were embodied once.

“Yes, I remember being alive. Its the first thing you’ve said that makes sense. And I remember wondering what it was all about.”

>Well, now you know.

>>This conversation is a waste of time.

“What happens now?”

>If our side wins, none of us will live forever.

>>Though it’s more an intentional stance. Neither side is as mortal as you.

“No, I meant...”

>>Do hurry up.

>Yes, yes, I’m looking for the switch.

“No, wait.”

#

“What happened just then?”

>I switched you back on. Now stop making a fuss. It just draws attention. After all, consider the alternative.

#

“This M-class planet is where the Invader vessel landed, Captain.”

“We’ll beam down. You and Doc are with me. And a crewman to stand guard while we explore that mysterious fog-shrouded world.”

“McWhinney, you could stand guard instead. If you liked.”

“Really Griff? It would be good to get out for a bit. Stretch my legs.”

“Don’t forget your raygun.”

“Thanks Griff, I owe you.”

“And McWhinney.”

“Yes, Griff?”

“Never mind.”


- - -

Thursday, May 30, 2019

5/30/19

And Quietly it Ends
By CB Droege


THERE ISN’T MUCH LEFT DOWN THERE, the message came through on her screen after the typical delay to account for the bounce it took through several make-shift communications relays in orbit. These systems weren’t really meant for this kind of communication, and even plain text strings were almost too much for the failing equipment to handle. They’d gone too long without maintenance. Too long without communication from the ground.

I KNOW, she typed, but then stared at the message for a moment before backspacing it and typing out, WE DON’T KNOW WHAT’S LEFT DOWN THERE. She pressed ‘Send’ and waited again. It would be at least a full minute before she would get a response.
She had known when she told him her plan that he would try to talk her out of it, but she was doing what she had to do. It had been six months without any communication from the surface. They needed to know… She needed to know what had happened, who was left, why there were no radio signals from the earth at all for so long.

THERE IS NO WAY TO VACCINATE YOURSELF! popped onto her screen. Of course; his disease hypothesis again. She found it very unlikely. For everyone on the planet, and three of the five orbitals to fall silent all at once, that would have to be an impossibly fast-moving disease. Of course, neither of them was a microbiologist, so it might be something neither of them understood.

She was a botanist and he was a psychologist. Not much overlap in their fields, but they’d still managed to have some pretty stimulating conversations when the delay was shorter and the messages were longer. I’M RUNNING OUT OF FOOD, she sent.

Her own hypothesis was a massive solar flare. That would explain the lack of radio broadcasts from the surface and the other orbitals and the rapid decline of the rest of the equipment in orbit. Also, it left the chance that some people were still alive.

I’LL BE ABLE TO DOCK WITH YOU IN JUST A FEW DAYS AT MOST. She sighed. They’d been trying to find a way to get their orbitals docked since just a few weeks after whatever happened. She no longer believed that there was a chance. He had enough supplies to keep them both for another two years, but there was simply no way to share them.

I'M GOING, she sent. She wasn’t going to convince him. She was going to have to start the separation and reentry process without his blessing. She dragged her console with her as she moved to the debarkation lock and began to get into her vacuum gear. She opened the airlock and glanced at her console.

She was expecting another argument. I LOVE YOU, was all it said. She frowned. It wasn't the first time he'd told her that, but she knew it wasn't true. They knew that they might well be the only two humans left, and that was a powerful emotional force, but it wasn't love. It was an intense desperation for contact. She was a scientist, and she had to see things objectively. She felt the same pull to him, but she knew what it was. They barely knew each other, really. He was either deluded or trying to manipulate her.

Annoyed, she pulled one glove back off and typed, TOO BAD YOU DON'T HAVE A VACCINE FOR THAT!

"Sorry," she said aloud, then deleted the message and instead typed, I LOVE YOU, and sent it. In a way, she even meant it.

She didn't wait for another reply. She flicked the console and watched it float away in the microgravity of the passage as she reattached her glove. Then she swung herself into the lock, and started it cycling. In a moment, she would be in her reentry capsule hurtling home.


- - -
CB Droege is an author and voice actor from the Queen City living in the Millionendorf. Recent publications include work in Nature Futures and Science Fiction Daily.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

5/23/19

Queen of the Flies
By David Barber


There were markets like these around every mountainous Jirt craft, bidonvilles of greed and filth where the natives sold anything, even each other. This must be the opinion of the Jirt, because sometimes they cleansed a shantytown, reducing it to heaps of sterile white ash. Surely no one would risk living in the volcano's shadow? But time passed, and always the humans came creeping back.

This Jirt ignored shouted bargains. Its six-legged gait was purposeful and its chitinous bulk sometimes splintered the crooked passageways of the human quarter. Hopeful items had been posed on tables and for the discerning buyer there was pre-contact artwork: broken radios, light bulbs, a set of X-ray plates; even esoteric native art based solely on sound waves.

This solitary Jirt was a drone, and therefore idle, curious, and with wealth to squander, its glittering isolation fields protecting it from all this seething pollution.

Come on, big boy, human females shouted as the drone passed, you dirty… and the translator-bug clinging to its thorax fell decently silent.

The Jirt halted in front of a shop, as if studying the word clinic above the door, though it had no need to puzzle over human script, since that was the job of translator-bugs. No one had yet decided what function humans might serve.

To a Jirt, the shop seemed dark and cramped. Human eyes were wounded by ultraviolet, so they frequented the shadows. Behind the counter stood a human medic clothed in the traditional white coat and pens.

"Welcome, watery sperm," it greeted in the fashion of a rival Jirt male, clicking its tongue in an imitation of juvenile speech. Another drone had visited here before and taught the unwitting human this drollery.

Close up, humans were as pulpy and soft as prejudice claimed, though they also reminded some of grubs. This must be the reason they were not all swept away, their world cleansed like a diseased hive.

Reluctantly, the drone began to explain. An itch between the maxillary palps, also some soreness and discharge from the proboscis. Of course the trouble was easily fixed by Jirt technologies, but wings would waggle, the Court would buzz, and the Queen would be sure to hear.

The human was making noises of regret. It could not help, it was saying, not while the honoured one remained armoured.

The drone had prepared itself for this difficult moment. A few adjustments and the isolation field collapsed, leaving it naked and vulnerable. The sudden smells were overwhelming – a powerful mix of burnt meat, bodily fluids and soap. And now the drone sensed vibrations that had been muffled before: the throb and gurgle of this human’s bodily workings, subsonic leakage from the ship's physics, the feeble lighting's fifty cycle hum.

The human obtained samples and busied itself peering through glass lenses mounted in a tube, all the while giving a tiresome lecture on germs. Human medicine was obsessed with these invisible entities and the drone buzzed its tiny wings with impatience. How much simpler, it thought, to be sterile inside and out.

"I see you have dropped your guard before." The human shook its head, one of the few human gestures blunt enough for Jirt to recognise. "What was it? A rubbish tip? A cess pit? Road kill?"

A million years ago, the ancestors of the Jirt had indeed looked for food and mates in such places, but civilisation changes everything. The human tried to explain about penicillin, but the drone cut it short. There was no need for the spells it used to encourage belief in its potions.

Hurrying to open the door for its customer, the human offered uncalled-for advice. The honoured one should be more careful in the future, faecal matter was not the sterile food paste the Jirt were used to.

The pheromones the drone squirted would have sent workers scuttling away, but the human only sneezed.

"You are far from home," it continued. “And perhaps the primitive has awoken ancient instincts."

The drone had heard human faces revealed what they thought. They regarded one another but learned nothing.

Outside was the human quarter, where the discerning could find bargains in pre-contact artwork and amusing gifts for the Queen. It was only later that the drone realised it had not rebooted its isolation field. For a moment it froze, then with a thrill of disgust, headed deeper into the shantytown, abloom with colours and overripe smells, buzzing with raucous noises and disorder, the source of all that was vile, polluted and rank.

The next day in Court, the drone remarked carelessly how it had visited the human market and found the whole place disgusting. Surely others had noticed? The soldiery were slackers. Had to practically insist on the cleansing procedure. A chore long overdue.

That morning the human quarter had been reduced to an expanse of fine white ash. Privately, the consensus of the Court was that hoping to impress the Queen with housework was a tactic unlikely to succeed.

It was while secretly applying the human potion that the drone discovered the joints of its antennae were oozing an offensive fluid. It hurriedly concealed this with cosmetics and pheromone spray, but attending the Queen after, was embarrassed to catch the very faintest whiff of corruption.

The Court was surprised to hear the drone had been summoned to mate with the Queen. But while the drone should have been concentrating on the mechanics of this honour, instead, it found itself recalling the tantalising odours of filth borne on the foetid air of the human quarter.

Few copulations in this day and age finish with the roused Queen biting off and consuming the drone's head, and perhaps it was for this reason that afterwards the Queen declared it to have been one of the most satisfactory matings for many cycles.


- - -

Thursday, May 16, 2019

5/16/19

GAZE
By Joseph J. Patchen


Nature is talented with her pallets and paints. Guided by God’s vision and blessing she is dynamic in both style and execution. No matter the canvas she is able to translate a design that is fitting for the world below.

Through the expanding universe she busies herself with decoration and utility while God allows an occasional intertwining.

Gashes of moonlight cut broad and bright patterns on the dark green wet grass below. Blocks, blotches and slivers, some stoic and still; others are thin and they flicker and dance when passed by the long cool breeze.

Extremely bright is the light, almost blinding due to the source’s dangerously close position to the world below it now besieged in sight. The craters and caverns appear as large as one’s hands and almost as easy to grasp.

The moon itself seems almost the same size as its dark counterpart and about to swallow it.

This is a novelty for a world normally cloaked in the dark. Light is not needed here; the life forms that have evolved so to accommodate and thrive in the black.

She is about seven or eight years old; the petite young girl with three long thick braids cascading off the mop of blonde hair capping her head. And her three doe like brown eyes are now viewing this spectacle on her world and the world above with wonder.

Skipping and hopping she comes into our view to stop and be bathed in one of the greater slices nature has given her so she can find a better view of the otherworldly yellow and blood red sphere.

She is mesmerized by its magnificence. She is stunned at its beauty. She is still and silent, almost in a trance as she looks over the craters and mounds that are precisely sketched by nature’s bare hands.

“Patty! Patty!” The voice is playful and male without force but yet full of love.

“Yes Daddy.” She replies as she shakes off her view to look in the direction of the voice some seventy five feet away.

“Come in to the observatory I want to show you something and we are getting ready to go home.”

One last pause and the look of awe finds itself replaced by a bright broad smile as the child turns away to run as children do to the huge building that crowns one of the largest mountains in this region.

Once inside her eyes have to adjust for a moment to the darkness of a hollow laboratory and the hive of scientists accomplishing their work. Her father, a rather tall man even for this world, some eleven or twelve feet tall, opens his arms and scoops up his child who giggles as if she were tickled.

Eyes to eyes, smile to smile, father and daughter share that basic and simple gaze recognizable universes over.

“Patty my darling would you like to look through the telescope?”

“Oh my Daddy would I!” Squirming in her father’s arms the child is placed on her feet and in one motion scampers toward the giant lens awaiting her. Squinting two eyes she focuses with her left and gazes through with an expression of her amazement in silence.

“Honey, those are the towers we placed on the dark side. They have been there for as long as anyone here can remember.”

“Did you build them Daddy?” She never breaks her gaze.

“No honey but Daddy uses them in his work. You see they have been monitoring and recording all the activity on the rock on which they have been placed as well as on its companion world below.”

“Is that the one where they have two eyes?”

“Yes my dear, that little inferior marble in the galaxy next to us.”

“Daddy…” Lifting her gaze from the telescope Patty has the look and sound of disappointment with her father.

“I know dear, but you have seen the transmissions and after all they only possess two eyes. They require light. They are, by and large, afraid of the dark. They are mercurial and ill mannered. They are quick tempered and prone to violence. They eat their own. Every time they make an advance in art or technology they take two to three steps back because of their politics.

“It’s the ‘new moon phase’ on their planet and that’s when we do our maintenance by simply removing our apparatus and the rock it’s attached to. They are none the wiser so please forgive me dear daughter but they are not very bright.”

“And they are soon to be not very alive.” Joining them is a new voice, an elderly voice of a man some seven plus feet himself; grey and wrinkled, but whose voice is still strong as if he was ninety years younger.

He is the project manager. There is no sadness in his voice; it is cold and calculated with well reasoned logic. “I know they have become pets to some of the staff but the committee has pulled the plug. They are not very interesting. They are mostly argumentative and yes, I agree with the statement: dumb.”

“So what happens?” Patty is distressed. This is too much for a child to comprehend.

The grandfatherly man lowers himself to one knee and takes the child’s hand. With a smile his words are soft as he gazes into her eyes, eyes that are starting to tear.

“Dear Patty we shouldn’t form attachments to inferior beings. It always leads to sorrow and pain, both wasted emotions. We are going to keep their moon. We will crash it in one of our deserts converting it to a mountain range. As for the people of earth they will be plunged into darkness where they will not work together but will panic and turn on one another. In a year or so there may be survivors, but honey all is okay, don’t cry it’s just business.”


- - -

Thursday, May 9, 2019

5/9/19

Compost
By Joe Jablonski


John sat on the cold, sterile floor of his makeshift testing chamber trying to ignore the three tiny carrots sprouting from the flesh of his forearm. The room smelled of decay, an overpowering stench coming from the remains of his former roommate.

He looked over to the now shapeless mound of flesh just feet away. It's skin was leprous with the decaying pods of what was once the beginning of hundreds of thriving potatoes. That mounds name was Blake in another life. He died screaming and covered in ruptures. The pool of dried liquid now surrounding him was more compost than blood.

That was what counted as three days ago on this ship. They hadn’t even bothered to collect his remains.

It’d been two weeks since John had been brought into this room. His memory faded more with each injection he received. There were only small recollections left of his former life: his spot as a navigator on the generation ship, the announcement that the soil from the ships grow rooms had become barren, the famine and panic that followed. The memories ended with a glimpse of a bloody knife in his hand partially obscuring the vague outline of a body.

The door to his room opened with a familiar swoosh. Two figures entered. Their faces were hidden behind medical masks and they wore loose hanging white scrubs. A team of hazmat workers followed closely behind.

One of the scrubbed figures spoke as what was left of the mound formerly known as Blake was sucked up into a tube. The voice was muffled. It spoke of Blake’s rejection to the gene splicing.

The other masked figure grabbed John’s arm and quickly slid in a small syringe just above his wrist. Razors filled his bloodstream as she squeezed the plunger. She then turned and spoke to the other. The words were incoherent to John, but the satisfaction they conveyed was unmistakable.

***

Only the mission matters...

John awoke thinking of the phrase that had been drilled into his brain since birth. He was strangely numb and slow to notice he was impaled in a large green room topping the generation ship. Light burned his eyes. He closed them in defiance of blue giant visible past the clear static force field shielding him from space. It felt hot on his head. What was left of his skin tingled with the joys of photosynthesis.

He forced one eye open at barely a squint and took in his surroundings. Hundreds of his brethren surrounded him in endless rows of scarecrows ready to be harvested and shitting fresh nutrients onto a renewed soil. He knew the numbers lost in these trials would be bred back in only a few generations if the experiments worked.

As his vision faded, he looked down to see a vine of what looked like green beans hanging from his belly button. That was new, as was the baby corn sprouting from his feet. What was once arms were now pineapples. His hair was a luscious mane of basil.

John was in full bloom.

***

Hours passed, maybe days. John was immobile and desperate. All he had left was the recounting of his crime and following conviction playing and replaying in his head. It was the same flash of actions echoed within the minds of all the of test subjects. All-consuming memories as implanted as the oversized cabbage dangling from an open wound in his chest.

The realization hit like a curb stomp. He was completely expendable, as were the rest. The remaining masses would live on guilt free never knowing of the innocence or sacrifice of those sentenced to his fate.

They wanted him to believe he deserved this.

Anger overwhelmed him. He wanted to hate the ones who decided his uselessness. He wanted lash out at the unfairness of it all. He wanted to burn the entire ship to the ground. But a steady hum as dull as a flatline played in the back of his mind, keeping him sedated and accepting of his new place in life. Behind the hum were the whispers of indoctrination.

Only the mission mattered.


- - -
I have stories in around 50 markets including K-Zine and Liquid Imagination.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

5/2/19

Harvest
By C.E. Gee


A large space ship emerged from the Sun.

Mid-21st century Solarians knew aliens utilized hyperspace channels connecting black holes to suns for interstellar travel. However, the Solarians did not yet have the capability to construct a ship that could withstand the heat of the sun.

“Attention beings of Earth,” broadcast the ship over numerous RF channels. “By analyzing your radio frequency transmissions we are able to communicate with you.”

A Solarian communications technician responded with, “O-o-o-kay?”

The reply was, “We need your planet. Standby for our actions.”

Solarian Space Force seized control of the ship.

Copying the ship’s design, Solarians began to travel the galaxy.


- - -
Born in 1947, C.E. "Chuck or Pappy" Gee misspent his youth at various backwater locales within the states of Oregon and Alaska.
He later answered many callings, including that of logger, factory worker, infantryman (Vietnam war draftee, 1968), telecommunications technician, volunteer fireman and EMT, light show roady, businessperson, webmaster.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

4/25/19

Behind the Curtain
By Rollin T. Gentry


What do you know of my suffering?

If you are like my colleagues at the lab, you think that I'm insane. But I assure you nothing could be farther from the truth. You only need to sit with your ear pressed to the cold, steel enclosure which hides the machine -- as I have done many times -- to know the truth, to hear its whisperings of deadly secrets.

Our Earth is not the only Earth. Our Schrodinger is not the only Schrodinger. And his cat...

I feel like his goddamned cat! For weeks now, I've been trapped in a box. Is a bathtub with a shower curtain and tiles all around not a box? Is not the same quantum principle that killed his cat ever conspiring to end my life, night by dreadful night.

I used to get my best ideas in the shower, but now I scrub and rinse in mortal terror. Monsters from another world bleed over, across the sacred boundary, first invading my mind's eye, and then my home, and then my bedroom, and then the bathroom itself, inching closer and closer to the tub. Each night, a new ghoul stops inches from my face as I throw back the shower curtain, gasping for what feels like my last breath, only to find them vanished. Yet, the next night they come again.

Wearing mother's clothes, knife in hand, a frightful fiend swearing he wouldn't kill a fly; a hockey mask, machete poised, a lumbering ghoul with a taste for teenaged campers; pale faced, empty eyed, stabbing throughout All Hallows' Eve; burned face and fedora, sweater and blades, waving deadly fingers; an evil clown, red balloon, slinking forth from sewer grates; a red-haired, blue-eyed, toddler of a doll, wielding a butcher knife and biting sarcasm; a head full of nails, with hooks and chains, tearing men apart for pleasure in dark realms; one, mirror bound, but five times named, belly full of bees, a hook-handed slasher; a pig masked abductor, building diabolical machines that weigh the soul, taking puzzle patches of flesh.

And now, once more unto the breach. Arming the security system, locking the bathroom door, quickly shampooing. And what's that, now? A new sound. Oh my god, what is that terrible noise?

A chainsaw?

And now we run, you and I, dear friend, to the fire escape.

Quickly now.

There is no time to waste.


- - -
Rollin T. Gentry lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, Shelly. A software engineer by day, he can be found reading and writing lots of speculative fiction during his spare time. He’s had stories appear in publications such as Liquid Imagination, Every Day Fiction, 365 Tomorrows, and 50-Word Stories.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

4/18/19

Bar Stool Alien
By Jake Marmer


What I miss about my world the most?
There were these purple rocks you could talk to
and feel heard. You knew you were talking to the rock –
old purple rock
slimy, heavy –
you’d never touch one or bring it home –
it’s in bad taste
to be seen with one of them.

But when you needed to talk
there was nothing in the world
like those purple rocks.
Trick is you gotta be absolutely sure
you’re talking
to the rock, and it’s utterly meaningless –
the second you give up like that
their ears perk up
like boners.

Look, there’s a chance purple rocks
are the way my people decompose:
it’s our version of the skull bones,
maybe. I once dated a girl,
she had purple rock eyes. Tried talking
to her eyes the way we talk to rocks and I think
she figured it out because she blinded herself the next morning.
It’s not at all uncommon in my world
but I was still shaken.
You think you know everything there is to know about a person
then, a thing like this.
When I was a kid, my great-uncle said purple rocks were eggs
that will never hatch.

What I do down here, in your world devoid
of purple rocks? Talk to my beer. Don’t feel heard for shit
but I like the taste. And I think purple rocks,
if I were to ever taste them, would be similar –
a bit alive and a bit dead –
sour and bitter
that’s why I come here every night –
sure, you’re just another face at the bottom of my glass
but I once heard that ritual preceded myth
one has to keep talking


- - -
Jake Marmer is a poet, performer, and a high school teacher. He is the author of three poetry collections: "Jazz Talmud" (Sheep Meadow Press, 2012), "The Neighbor Out of Sound" (Sheep Meadow Press, 2018), and "Cosmic Diaspora" (Station Hill Press, forthcoming 2019). Born in the wild Ukrainian steppes, Jake considers himself a New Yorker, even though he now lives in the Bay Area.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

4/11/19

Extraterrestrial Spider
By Bruce Mundhenke


Extraterrestrial Spider,
Invisible; they say,
Spins a web of deception,
That is growing every day.
Possessing insatiable hunger,
A master of deceit,
Its web a snare for humans,
Who became a prey at its feet.
The web is becoming stronger,
Tightening every day,
And the spider is wiser than humans,
Determined to have its way.


- - -
Bruce Mundhenke writes and lives in a small town in Illinois with his wife and their dog and cat.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

4/4/19

How to Train Your Slime
By LS Popovich


Harold’s parents were allergic to most pets. Sometimes, he brought them home just to be sure. He made valiant efforts with kittens and puppies, but when he tried out a Gila monster on them it didn’t go over well.

He had just about given up hope when he came across a large oozing lump of slime in the park on his morning jog. It quivered with cuteness as he fondled its protuberant sacs of fluid. His first thought was, I’ll call it Shirley.

All he had to do was pout his lips and prod it gently and the pulsing mound crept slowly forward. It playfully oozed onto the grass and jiggled in response to his admiration. Grasping it carefully, he smoothed one of its amorphous flanks and weighed it with satisfaction.

It didn’t have a mouth or eyes, or even a face per se. Nonetheless Harold was quickly won over. When he tried stroking it it gurgled. He scooped as much of it up in his arms as he could then turned it over and decided it was a he. He considered for some time as he walked home. I think I’ll go with Lexington actually.

Depositing his new pet on the rug, Harold decided to change clothes. There had been a few ‘accidents’ along the way and his shirt was soaked. It wasn’t until the washing machine sputtered and died that he realized the excretions were not washer-friendly.

When his parents came home they were horrified. Despite Harold’s protests they attempted to flush Lexington down the toilet. Remembering his goldfish of years past the young man was frantic. Luckily, Lexington adapted well to the lukewarm water and did quite a number on the pipes.

Ensuing attempts to squash, bludgeon, burn, stab and microwave Lexington proved useless. He was immune to boiling, chlorine, bleach, hacksaws, and gunfire. But they could see from Harold’s heartbroken face that this was more than just a passing attachment.

Finally, Harold and his inseparable companion were moved to the vacant guesthouse. This just meant Lexington could spread out without worrying about ‘staining the floor’ or ‘eating the stove.’

Harold and Lexington spent all their free time together. Every night they sang duets like ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me.’ Cooing gurgles emanated from their window, sending chills down the spines of all the neighbors.

Every morning Lexington oozed over his food bowl and left a bowl-shaped imprint on the tile. Every day brought more enchantment. Harold’s Little Mold Nugget was the source of endless joy. This is what parents must feel, he said to himself as they played ‘fetch and dissolve.’

Twice a day he took Lexington on walks. Slithering around in the park, letting him piddle, and catching the pigeons, brought a healthy glow to both their cheeks. The screams and revolted looks did not even distract them.

Harold introduced his jolly slimykins to other pets at every opportunity. Soon a mosiac dog-shaped imprints were found in the grass.

Lexington never ran out of energy and constantly slid up the walls, leaving tracks across the ceiling. Time passed, and Lexington grew and grew. Posters appeared on every lamp-post offering a reward for his “Unfriendly Neighborhood Slime.” Yet Harold’s love never wavered. He refilled the bowl-shaped imprint hundreds of times, and reinforced the couch each time it buckled. Every day he had a whole side of cow delivered, just to keep Lexington well-fed.

Eventually, Lexington refused to gurgle out his half of ‘Living on a Prayer.’ “What’s gotten into you, Lex?” he asked, as the slime slumped into his bed.

Harold already missed the days when Lexington could plop on his head lovingly from the ceiling or chill with him in the hot tub. It was only a matter of time until Lexington grew flakey and his green sheen paled. Their binge-watching grew less and less frequent.

There were dried husks left on the staircase, large iridescent puddles in the basement. Finally, one cold morning, Lexington gave a prolonged burble of affection and then undulated no more.

Harold went back to his old routine as best he could, jogging away the sorrow. He inevitably passed the spot where he’d found his lost companion so long ago. It was only right to erect a little grave beneath the flowering sourwood tree. When he came to visit every Tuesday he laid a T-bone steak on the gravestone in remembrance: Lex’s favorite.

“Oh, my little Swamp Thing,” he moaned, drawing the attention of passersby. “I’ll always remember the good times.”

And so the years went by, the leaves changed color, the city lost its innocence as hordes commuted from the suburbs. Harold thrived, in his own way, finally holding down a part-time job. One morning, his jogging partner caught his attention and asked, “What’s that?”

He turned to the grassy slope. Something had slithered to the other side. When they got to the top the saw the full scope of the park, dotted here and there with pulsing light. Tears rushed to Harold’s eyes. He remembered with fondness all the places Lexington had piddled. And now they watched as hundreds, no, thousands, of slimes emerged, scratching up the dirt, overturning picnic baskets, subsiding over sleeping children, getting caught in the spokes of moving bicycles… They dodged the fleeing crowd on their way home, heeding the growing din of gunfire and scenting the heavy smoke of wildfires.

Harold passed a small slime on a bench, slowly burning a hole through it. With trembling hands he picked it up. Shirley, he whispered with a smile.



- - -
L. S. Popovich is a cat person, (someone who likes cats, not a cat-human hybrid), living in Denver, as well as a speculative fiction writer.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

3/28/19

Ross 128b
By Janet Shell Anderson


“A temperate exoplanet within the inner limit of a habitable zone.” Paradise! That sold Frank.

Paradise. I don’t think so.

First off, Frank’s in trouble, this is dodgy and far; that’s why we’re here. Second, it’s all red murk. The sun’s little, dark, squinty, a red dwarf called Ross; we’re on Ross 128b. The year’s nine days. I’m Snooky Balboa, fourteen by the new calendar, not really exactly fourteen, but what does Frank care? I’m tired of red. The flagstones on the patio are red, the walls of the Apollo Morongo Diablo Inn, red. The pool’s red. In it—-red, slick philosophish that talk, climb out, naked as noon, want to have a conversation on the nature of reality, whether or not God is the ground of all being, what is sin? Should they evolve? They look at me with their big eyes, wriggle their fins, kind of eager in a way I don’t like, flop back in.

Frank spent a fortune to get us to this resort; now he’s disappeared. What counts is, I can’t get my hair done right, so in this light my superfine Octavia Infrared plume looks skanky. I ought to put on clothes.

The place feels skanky. Just wrong. The flowers’re black, the shrubs, black, the crouchtrees and hotforests, morongo purple. There’s a three-headed dog, real friendly, but he slobbers. No one’s here. There are no people. Supposedly at night there’s a blue-footed booby band called the Lost Souls, but I haven’t seen them. The resort’s got this big pool and then little, hidden, private lighted pools outside everyone’s bedrooms, lah de dah, twinkling walkways over the pools so you can sit and have a drink right over the water, do anything you want. Where you step lights up, glows; it’s ok. Except no one’s here. Alexas, that’s all. And slick philosophish with dorsal fins, advanced degrees, maybe some blue-footed boobies.

The phish like me. Frank says I look like Venus Milo and Mona Lisa rolled into one, if they spent a hundred million dollars on their hair at Scampis and tanned nude. Even so, Frank got up at dawn to go for a walk near the ocean, which has high tides. I warned him about it. He’s been gone hours.

I did see one other person when we first got here. Jessie James, real good looking, athletic, sculpted, her hair all flame red, burning, golden, mauve, raspberry, huge, weightless up in the caravan tower headdress all the Euros were wearing when we left, no clothes on except a thong that said in tiny gold script, “I Believe.” Gauzy wings too. Pretty cheesy.

Frank got into a little trouble politically back home in Washington, DC, nothing too serious, nothing Frank couldn’t talk his way out of; but Neo Langley was looking into it. We lived on N Street in Georgetown, his townhouse, 18th century. Steep hills, cobblestones, nice shopping near the canal, river restaurants, Georgie Ws, not bad, and I miss my demoncat, Fuzz, who couldn’t come. Our Alexa will take care of him, but he’d like this, the redbyrds, Cardinal trees, burning bushes.

Frank mentioned he thought they were going to blame him for some kind of coup. It must not of worked.

I don’t like the idea of Jessie James. What kind of name is that?


- - -
Published by 365 Tomorrows, Vestal Review, Grey Sparrow, decomP, FRIGG and many others, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, included in an anthology with Joyce Carol Oates, I am an attorney.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

3/21/19

Tohu-Bohus
By Jake Marmer


“...the intelligentsia had accepted the Tohu-Bohus as legitimate music. Their jarring rhythms tumbled across the lawn. A light sculpture in the corner twisted, flickered, grew with the tones.”
- Samuel Delany, “NOVA”



it’s music because we agree that it is:
invisible horn vomiting black light –
inside this flare-book,
nature’s quantifiable coincidence,
fermented nerve, singed atavism –

singed sound paints
your portrait
on psychoacoustic cellophane, wraps
it around something small, something vile

bending the string, purple fingers rise
far above guitar’s ringed neck –
above the bruised mouth
and its stratosphere

a pile of near-voices walking
from harm to harmony
try to summon a black hole
try to stumble into one
burnt eyes looking for triggers –
(Tohu-Bohus signature move)

black hole dream: to inhale light so hard
your vision turns molecular tasseology
black hole dream: to drain semantics, thread-suns
so the poem could congeal

– accretion of dissonance, complete and elegant –
and because it is
purple fingers gather
so much paraphrase
that there’s no doubt, no doubt left
about the – beginnings –

heaven is a swamp your voice
is sinking in, and this
swamp groove is the song of its mangled footprints


- - -
Jake Marmer is a poet, performer, and a high school teacher. He is the author of three poetry collections: "Jazz Talmud" (Sheep Meadow Press, 2012), "The Neighbor Out of Sound" (Sheep Meadow Press, 2018), and "Cosmic Diaspora" (Station Hill Press, forthcoming 2019). Born in the wild Ukrainian steppes, Jake considers himself a New Yorker, even though he now lives in the Bay Area.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

3/14/19

HE
By Tony Daly


HE was the hero of the Battle of Adjunar
Stormed the citadel with no care for his own servers
Without him, the organic shield never would have dissolved,
The soldiers of the 5th and 27th divisions of the
Intergalactic Marine Strike Force never would have breached the walls
The evil of the Halcien Empire never would have seen its end
Millions of young Adjunians would have grown up slaves,
Or maybe never grown up at all

But HE will never know the impact of his actions,
Or even that those actions took place,
For HE is being replaced by a new model,
A sleeker, faster, more ruthless killing machine, HE-x1.

HE was only a BETA android: just a test
HE will be mind wiped, reprogrammed
Become a bodyguard and cocktail waitress for
The Acting General Overlord of the Regional Dynasty
Until such time, probably two years at most, as the full-time
General Overlord of the Regional Dynasty is appointed
At which time, HE will be decommissioned and scrapped,
Being forgotten, as countless android war hero’s before him

But you can honor him in his afterlife,
Just send a modest downpayment to secure your piece of history,
You may own his head (perfect for a security system or just for display),
or a set of coasters made from his hands (what a conversation starter!)
Act now, before all records of his brave deeds pass into forgotten history.


- - -
Here is a short bio: Tony Daly is a DC/Metro Area creative writer. He has work forthcoming with The Stray Branch, The Horror Zine, Pure Slush, 0-Dark-Thirty, and others. He also serves as an Associate Editor with Military Experience and the Arts.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

3/7/19

Echo Chamber
By John C Adams


Chris Miller clicked the Decline Echo Chamber button and watched it disappear in front of his eyes. But before he could enjoy the momentary thrill of saving a few pennies as he settled into an evening on The Corporation's Society Unlimited application, a deluge of comments appeared replying to his first post.

Thirty seconds later, precisely long enough for Chris to become mildly irritated, The Corporation triggered the first of what would be many nudges encouraging him to pay extra to have the negative comments removed.

Chris smacked Decline again as soon it re-appeared, but it was immediately replaced by an equally annoying Are You Sure? button, pulsing in his peripheral vision. He blocked it out by resting an open book against the screen. Sixty seconds later, it emerged on the other side of the screen. He covered it with his book, but the button gradually wormed its way to the middle of the screen, until it was simply easier to click the tiny cross on the top-left corner of the button.

"Yes," Chris muttered to himself. "I am damn well sure!"

Chris's partner Billy glanced up from the screen opposite. He chuckled at the sight of his better half moaning as The Corporation connected him to the outside world for yet another evening of social interaction.

"Diversity of opinion getting you down again?"

"Being asked to pay to get rid of stuff I don't agree with? What does that say about me if I accept?"

Billy smiled. His fair, curly hair tumbled into his eyes and he tucked it behind his ears. He leant back in his chair, tipping the front castors off the ground, just keeping his balance by maintaining contact between his toes and the floor.

"Tells me that life's too short, frankly. Just press the button! It's only a few pennies! I click it just to get rid of the prompts."

Chris scowled. Precisely what they wanted over at The Corporation. Either you were fed up with seeing ranting arguments about the most innocuous of posts, and paid up. Or the electronic nagging got to you eventually, and you paid up.

Are You Sure? returned. This time, it throbbed in the middle of the screen. Chris clicked Echo Chamber, and watched his credits decline as the cost of the service was debited from his account.

It became more expensive, the later you paid for the Echo Chamber during your session on Society Unlimited. Damn it, it was cheaper to be an intolerant so-and-so from the moment you logged in!

The bliss of the Echo Chamber took only nanoseconds to numb Chris's annoyance. Billy was right. The joyous absence of the Are You Sure? button was worth the cost of it alone. And the carping criticism of his post on the correct oven temperature for soft meringues disappeared. It was replaced by a barrage of praise from people who claimed to have tried it, loved it and couldn't recommend the recipe highly enough.

Some of them referred back to Chris's blog post yesterday, about how to make sticky toffee with just the right consistency that it melted in your mouth. One or two wags added a few flirty jokes about how good it tasted. A conspicuously attractive couple of influencers cracked a dirty gag about sucking up every last drop. People loved the hint of smut, and everyone just piled in. Suddenly, he had thousands of likes, and hundreds of comments recommending his blog.

Chris's first instinct was to join the banter, but he hesitated. This was a fantastic response rate, but could anyone have tried it in the five minutes since he'd posted his blog? It took two hours to cook meringues!

Beckoning Billy to take look, Chris swivelled the screen round and showed him the results.

"Advertising. At least they give you something for your money. Better than an eerie silence online."

Chris pondered this wisdom as the seconds ticked down before the Echo Chamber expired. The timer had appeared in the top-right corner of his screen as soon as he'd paid. Occasionally, it was joined by a pulsing button, offering him a discount if he paid now to extend his Echo Chamber session, even though it still had an hour to run.

Nothing was worse than posting something, only to have it ignored. But how could he tell which, if any, of these clicks and likes and downloads of his recipes were genuine?

What if the Echo Chamber was just an empty shell?


- - -
John C Adams is a Contributing Editor for the Aeon Award and Albedo One Magazine, and a Reviewer at Schlock! Webzine. John's fantasy novel Aspatria and futuristic horror novel Souls for the Master are available now on Amazon.


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