Wayward Son

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

June looked up as the diner door opened. There was Jack, ten-fifteen every morning like clockwork. Same dark, carefully pressed single-breasted suit, always with his trench coat folded over his left arm, fedora perched on top of his head.

“Morning baby-doll, what’s cookin?” He flashed a wide smile that she couldn’t help but return.

“Nothing much Jack,” he took the newspaper she had waiting for him and headed back to his corner booth. “The usual?”

She didn’t have to ask, he ate the exact same breakfast every single day.

“Yes please. Why mess up a good thing?”

June followed him to his seat with a fresh pot of coffee, and placing a mug on the table, filled it almost to the top with a flourish.

Jack picked up the mug and swallowed half the steaming liquid without looking up from the paper, and June waited until he’d put the mug back down before filling it again and heading back to the counter.

Her line cook already had eggs, bacon and home fries in the window, and chased it a moment later with a side plate of white toast. She picked up a bottle of HP sauce in one fist and balanced the toast plate on top, then carried the lot to Jack’s table.

“Thanks a bunch cookie!” That smile again. He’d taken off the hat and placed in on top of his coat on the bench beside him. His hair as always was gelled perfectly. She watched as doused the plate in sauce, then systematically devoured every morsel, washing it down with the rest of his coffee.

He’d been coming since before she started working at the diner, and she’d originally assumed that he was part of some period movie shoot; always the exact same look, always the exact same clothes. In fact nothing about him ever changed. She’d been serving him nearly a decade now, and she could swear he wasn’t a day older than the thirty years she figured he was when she’d poured him that first cup of coffee. She’d put on a few pounds, and acquired a few wrinkles along the way, but Jack, well Jack was just perfectly Jack.

“Holy mackerel!” Jack’s shout startled her back to the present. “Would you get a load of this!” He was pointing excitedly to a page in the newspaper in the Science & Technology section.

June read the headline, “Scientists Find Seven Earth-like Planets Orbiting Nearby Ultracool Star”.

“That’s pretty exciting,” June watched Jack as he rapidly scanned the page without looking up, “maybe one day we’ll be able to travel there.”

Jack stopped, and stared June right in the eye. She felt cold all over.

He stood, and placed a crisp ten dollar bill beside the empty breakfast plate, lining the edges up exactly square to the corner of the table without averting his gaze.

“I certainly hope so,” he said, finally looking away and collecting his hat and coat from the bench.

“I’m going to need a ride home.”

Putting his hat back on, and folding his coat over his left arm, he started for the door.

“Do you want me to call you a cab?” June asked, her confusion evident in her tone.

Jack didn’t turn as he answered. “Oh baby-doll, no,” he hesitated, then added “but thank you.” Then he disappeared out the door into the mid-morning sunshine.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Author : Tim McDaniel

The ceiling opened and the Priest Judge Arbitrator descended into the Control Center. Tloygruu bobbed his head up and down the correct number of times, but one hand snuck down to tug on his genitalia.

There was no need for concern or worry, he reminded himself. He had been told that at a certain point in the voyage the Priest Judge Arbitrator would appear, after all. But no one had explained to him exactly when that would happen, or what the Priest Judge Arbitrator would do.

The Pilot flapped a hand in his direction, and Tloygruu realized that he was still pulling on his genitalia. He ceased and sent a fluttering gratitude.

The Priest Judge Arbitrator, not looking in his direction, moved to the back of the room to stand in the alcove reserved for it, and inserted the inputs. Its mottlings were a neutral purple and brown. Tloygruu glanced at the polished metal surface of the display stand in front of him and noted that he himself was swirling with orange and blue.

“Frontro, tell us all when you expect that we will reach the new world.”

The Pilot turned to look at Tloygruu. She swirled orange and green, even around her neck fin – the Priest Judge Arbitrator had unnerved her, as well! “The estimate is four percent, all.”

Four percent. Ninety-six percent of the journey lay behind them. So long ago it had been, and Tloygruu but a Trainee Commander, when the signals had been detected – a new world of life, intelligence! Such a thing had not been seen for two hundred years. And so soon, they would be the first to see the new species, to learn and teach, and exchange. To meet The Other, and to realize themselves through The Other’s eyes. The Other would benefit in the same way, and could also expect advances in energy, medicine, and transportation.

The excitement spread throughout the Control Center. Frontro, Chali and Zhingi, and Tloygruu himself, became nearly translucent. Only the Priest Judge Arbitrator remained passive.

“Command,” the Priest Judge Arbitrator said. “Alter course. The new world will not be visited.”

The translucence was swept away by a dark tide.

“Priest Judge Arbitrator?” Tloygruu finally managed to say. “All would like to respectfully inquire as to the reason.”

The Priest Judge Arbitrator left the alcove and returned to the center of the room. As the ceiling opened and its platform began to ascend, it said merely, “With the lessening of distance, the transmissions of the senders have become readable.”

The ceiling closed behind it.

“Course is altered,” Frontro said. “We return to starting point.”

“To clarify,” Chali said, “our descendents will return to starting point, not us.”

“Zhingi,” Tloygruu said, “display for all the transmissions from the new world.”

In the air before them shimmered pictures. Bipedal creatures with multicolored, flapping skins moved about, operated machines, interacted with one another.

“They’re beautiful,” said Frontro.

And they were. So different, so new.

The pictures changed, and a large group of the beings were seen surrounding a single one, who sat and did nothing unexpected.

The picture changed again. Large structures loomed, and the creatures moved among them. Then the creatures were inside a structure, interacting with one another.

“There are accompanying sounds as well,” Zhingi said. “They include more than random noise, and the machines have translated the meaningful strings.”

Tloygruu could almost feel a tendril of orange snaking across his skin. “Let all hear the translations.”

They watched, and listened.

“What is that recurring noise – that one, which we just heard?”

“The laughter of many,” Zhingi said.

“In unison?” Tloygruu asked. “Are they a hive? Or is it that they require leadership, even in this?”

Soon they understood.

“Can we continue to watch, with the sound off?” Frontro asked.

A Legend In His Own Tima

Author : Gray Blix

Glastonbury Tor was cordoned off by military, of course, but one hundred and fifty metres below tens of thousands coursed through the town and fields east, where a festival was underway. Costumed performers from Renaissance faires, popular in Somerset, entertained the masses, who gave little thought to the historical inaccuracies, given that the occupant of the shiny capsule next to St. Michael’s Church claimed to be from an era predating Elizabeth I by nearly a millennium. He presented himself as none other than the legendary King Arthur come to life, or more precisely, come home from a journey across the cosmos.

If he had wandered into town and made such a claim, he would have been ridiculed. But having arrived in a shiny capsule the size of St. Michael’s tower, disgorged on the Tor from a triangular alien spacecraft whose shadow darkened the town as it passed over, he was accorded the status of, well, not the reigning monarch he desired, but that of a galactic rock star.

Communicating through a viewscreen which materialized on the exterior surface of the capsule, he looked to be humanoid, middle aged, of modest height but regal posture, whose muscled physique was apparent beneath his gold-flecked robe. He spoke in a quiet yet compelling tone in a language first taken to be extraterrestrial but recognized as Old English by a local scholar who’d heard his statement that he was displeased to find a foreign army occupying his kingdom. He warned that if they could not bring him a translator he would have to forego negotiations and proceed directly to the task of reconquest with weaponry and wiccecraeft they could not even comprehend much less resist.

The scholar hastened to what appeared to be twin towers on the Tor where, as soldiers pointed guns and military aircraft circled, she exchanged words with Arthur through the viewscreen and was invited within. She did not emerge for thirteen days and would later write a best selling book, “My Fortnight with King Arthur.” Suffice to say, Arthur was besotted and Gwynn was beguiled. She let him call her “Gwenhwyfar,” after his Guinevere, and her book described in prurient detail everything she had done to please him and make up for the period, lengthy in Earth time but just a few years by his, in which he had lacked female… companionship.

As her other book, “King Arthur in Space,” explained, the wounded monarch had been abducted from a 6th century battlefield and taken at near lightspeed to a faraway planet to heal. Old English lacks words to describe all the wondrous things he had witnessed and experienced, so she made a lot of it up. Who could contradict her, now that he had departed, the triangular spacecraft having returned to beam up the capsule and rocket away moments after she had left him?

And, yes, she did indeed leave him, screaming Old English swear words as she exited the capsule and stomped down the hill. Although pride and book royalties wouldn’t allow her to admit it, he was a fraud. Something he had said, a casual comment as they lay together, looking up at a viewscreen of an Earth torn by wars, polluted by poisons, and transforming into a planet of desert islands surrounded by warm and lifeless seas, had broken the spell he had on her, something about even a wizard as powerful as himself being unable to change the course of human events and an Eorthe gone mad. At that moment she had realized it wasn’t Arthur who had enchanted her but someone else from that tima… Merlin.

Run Run Run

Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer

I’m pulling taters when I hear the bell and the rhyme starts pounding in my head. I scatter the haul as my legs take off of their own accord, carrying me with them.

Run, run, run,
The snuffymen come!
No time to hide
Just dive inside
Down the flows
Dim the glows

Their ears give them away. They might be behind a hedge, but the ears stick up above, all mirror shiny like the hubcaps on Uncle Tap’s old truck. Seeing ears ahead, I drop and roll under the hedge on my left, then cut across the maize field beyond, heading for the second grate. It’s open! I dive through and pause to make sure it ratchets quietly shut. No need to attract attention from what’s under them ears.

Run, run, run,
The snuffymen come!
Behind the hosties
Dodge the ghosties
They want your heat –
Be quick on your feet

I drop torches into their water cans as I run past. Ahead I can hear people trying to be silent as they scoot round the maze of server machines. Behind me, the darkness fills with a scary silence. I reach the machine stacks; there’s nothing to do about Laura, caught by the cooling-wights. I slip by easily as they’ve clustered about her body, soaking up the last of her life. Must remember to light a candle for her if I make it.

Run, run, run,
The snuffymen come!
Round the scrap
Through the trap
Cemetery stones
Under the bones

It’s a short corridor from the stacks to the piles. I have to slow down as the scrap has sticky-outy bits and jagged edges. Just as I reach the far side of the junkyard, I hear the cooling-wights scream. They fear snuffymen because they can’t steal their heat and snuffymen can do for them. The rhyme thunders in my ears, louder than ever.

Run, run, run,
The snuffymen come!
Pop a lid
Like she bid
In with the dead
To save our heads.

I dive into the chute and hope I got the right one. I plunge left, then right, then slam down with a ‘whumpf’ into a pile of old softs. Scrambling out of mouldy sheets and shirts, I hear chute-flaps banging. Snuffymen always hit the flaps to make sure we haven’t left traps. They never remember we criss-cross this end of all but one chute with cheesewire.
Out of the laundry dump, down the tunnel and into the necropolis. Headstones and crypts as far as the eye can see – and my underground eyes can see a long way. I hurdle three crypts and swing past a tombstone topped by a statue of a screaming angel with one wing missing. Two over, one back. A big, old grave topped by black stone. I slap its surface as I wince: Snuffymen screams are horrid.
The cold stone lifts along one edge and I wriggle into the dark, helped by the dozen hands pulling at me. The ratchet rattles as it’s released and we curl about each other as the lid drops and silence comes back.
“Breen, you made it!”
“Did too, Ella. Laura got chilled, let me pass easy.”
“Candle for her tomorrows, then.”
“Aye.”
“Time to pray?”
“Make it short, Ella.”
She starts and we whisper along, sounding like leaves in a churchyard on an autumn wind.
“Snuffymen, snuffymen, can’t get us today.
Snuffymen, snuffymen, take your nets away.
Snuffymen, snuffymen, we’ll not be your kill.
Someday, snuffymen, our kin will do you ill.”

Age Gap

Author : Chris Lee Jones

My twenty-first birthday, and I’ve got him a gift he can’t refuse.

He’s older than me and I know that bothers him. He hasn’t expressed as much in words, of course; he’s not that kind of guy. But he’s my kind of guy.

“Wait a few minutes,” I chirp, “I’m getting dressed.”

I’m putting on the blue dress that he likes, the one I wore on the eve of my graduation, the one that swept him away.

Three months we’ve been going out, and I can tell he’s the one. I mean, a girl just knows, doesn’t she?

“Hurry up!” he chirps back, and I’ve got a fix on him now; he’s just two blocks away, heading towards my apartment on his sweeper.

I make sure I’ve got his gift in my hand when I open the door.

“Surprise!” he says, giving me a cheeky up and down, holding his sweeper aloft like a prize kill. “It’s even faster than mine – I clocked up ninety on the McGovern road, and it didn’t even wobble.”

I don’t know what to say. A new sweeper – it must have cost him a fortune.

“Thank you will do,” he says, chirping a big smiley which fills my entire field. “And what’s this you were saying about a gift for me?”

I wait until he collapses into the sofa before I show him the ticket.

“This is it?” he says, eyes closed, scanning the words.

I was hoping for a more immediate reaction. Surely he recognizes the logo?

“Futurebreaks?” he says at last. “I don’t understand…why would we?”

I sit down beside him, snuggling up. “It’s not for us, silly, it’s for you. You’ll only be gone a few months, and when you return, I’ll be…”

I can tell by his eyes, the way they’re flickering and scanning, that he’s free-searching. I give him a few seconds, let him do the calculations himself.

“A three month round trip at a hundred gamma? Louise, you’ll be nearly fifty…”

“Exactly! The same age as you. Won’t that be fantastic? And before you ask, I want to make you a promise…”

He looks concerned, confused.

“OK, I’ll spell it out. I love you, and I want you to know that there won’t be anybody else. For all the time I’m gone.”

And I mean it. I’ll miss him like mad, but I can throw myself into my career. Twenty eight years is a long time – I might even make professor.

A sadness has come over him, a sadness that I don’t understand. He’s told me that he’s got no close family to speak of, and that he’s nearing the end of his earning phase. Now is the perfect time. So what’s bugging him?

I try to think of something to lighten his thoughts. “By the time you get back, I’ll be a whizz on this sweeper…”

“No, Louise. I can’t do this. I mean, fifty…”

There are tears in his eyes as he gets up and leaves.

I try to chirp him a lover’s heart, but his core has blocked me out.

Learning to Walk

Author : Beck Dacus

I knew she was weird well before I talked to her. Why? Simple: she tripped.

Nobody walked around without Antrips. These little computers in motors on your knees can predict when you’re unbalanced, and the braces connected to them around your upper and lower legs come into action to stop it. Saves you a ton of embarrassment. Unless you’re Demila.

She was walking to class when she tripped over her shoelace, and she tumbled. Nobody expected that. They had never learned that you’re supposed to help someone get up and pick up their stuff when they fall down, but even if they had, they’d be too confused to remember. So she rose and collected her things on her own, and once everyone snapped out of their trance, they did her the best service they could. They walked away, pretending like it never happened.

I couldn’t do that. I asked her why she didn’t wear them.

“You want me to show you? If you’ve got a car, you can come over to my house after school and see.”

*Gulp.* A girl was inviting me over! Of course teenage, hormone-driven me said yes. So after my last class let out, I jumped in my car, called my parents to tell them where I was going, and almost got a ticket getting to her house.

Once there, she led me into her garage and showed me her setup. It consisted of a big rubber mat, a table with an old-fashioned stereo on it, and these exercise clothes she wore that made me sweaty. When she turned on the music, it came together in my mind. She was one of those kids who loved old stuff. Old songs. Old mats. No Antrips. I could’ve left then with my question seemingly answered, but that’s not how fate ordained it.

“Wanna try?” she asked.

What was I gonna say? “No, bye”? I took her outstretched hand, and she showed me the moves.

Once I learned the basic steps, she told me to try them in tune. I figured it’d be pretty easy– it was a simple rhythm. But something unexpected happened. My Antrips never let me finish.

“Ugh!” I said on the third try. “Stupid things think I’m gonna fall.”

“Take ‘em off,” she said.

I didn’t think she was serious, so I said, “Doesn’t matter. I can just reprogram ‘em real quick–”

“No, Cameron,” she said. “Take ‘em off. Come on. That’s simpler.”

“What? B-but I’ll fall!”

She smiled and shook her head. “I swear you’ll never touch the ground.”

I wasn’t sure how she could promise that, but she had complete power over me. I did what I only usually do when I go to bed at night: I slid off my Antrips. Away from their protective cling, I felt like a newborn fawn. I could barely walk, much less dance, I thought. But the look in Demila’s eyes made me try.

I did a couple of the steps, and stumbled over the last one. Without my Antrips on, I went toward the ground like a brick. But Demila caught me.

“What’d I tell you?” she said, contagiously grinning. She told me to try again, and I obeyed.

In an hour, we were waltzing together. Then we tried out some less ancient songs, until my dad ordered me home over the phone. The next day, I didn’t wear my Antrips to school. Demila and I walked precariously around the halls, ever in danger of tripping and falling with no way to catch ourselves.

But so what? We could catch each other.