Author : James McGrath
The knife blade gleams in the half-light, sliding through its target.
The tape then gives and the box lid opens. This must be box five-hundred, I think as I pack the circuit boards onto the conveyor belt. But what do I know? All time has moulded into a lump; one solid, inescapable moment.
Think of Earth, think of terraformed Mars. They wouldn’t allow these conditions there, but nobody as poor as us could hope to live on planets like those. Diode Ltd, the owners of this Planet (or is it just a factory? How would any of us even know?) run a completely different kind of world.
We awaken at five each morning, eat our bowl of porridge and go downstairs.
Straight to work, no messing about.
Work ends at midnight and if you’re sensible you have your evening meal and go straight to sleep. If you’re too tired in the morning, you could work too slowly and those that are fired are “thrown to the wastes”.
The others seem to enjoy their sleep. Each of them breathing peacefully when I awaken, confused and disorientated.
You see, even in my dreams I work.
It must be my brain, I tell myself. It has known nothing else since I finished the “Earth Education for Colonials”. The course lasts until age ten and I think I’m forty-two.
I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to do anything but pack these boxes now, but the vague and clouded memory of childhood makes it worse. It taunts and teases me from afar.
Time makes no difference to me; at 5.15 each day I pack boxes, and in the dreamscape of night I pack boxes. My knife always looks the same and the drab backdrop of the factory never changes.
I try to fight it. Pinching myself whenever I can, but I say “Ouch!” in my dreams too.
When you’re asleep, how do you distinguish between what hurts and what is perceived to?
I draw a cross on the back of my hand, hoping it won’t appear in my dreams. It enters my subconscious after two days of working with it and it follows me into the night.
I try changing the symbol every day, to trick my brain. Now, when I’m checking if I’m asleep I’m no longer sure of what to look out for.
Did I change it today? Did my head change it for me?
I look at the snake drawn on the back of my hand. The guy in the bunk underneath mine dealt with the checklists and is now wandering the wastes for losing his biro.
But I couldn’t feel sorry for him when I wasn’t sure I was even feeling pain myself.
I needed something new.
It would only work once, but that was enough.
The knife misses the tape this time.
The back of my wrist feels beautiful.
The back of my hand feels.
This is new. It has to be!
It’s overpowering. Intense. Raw.
I scream manically and no one looks up from their stations, but as I go down I see a foreman rushing over to me.
I couldn’t dream this. I’ve never felt this before.
Something warm and sticky caresses my cheek and I hear the foreman swear loudly.
“Shit! Not another one of these today.”
Author : Bob Newbell, Featured Writer
The man wearing Victorian garb with what appeared to be brass welding goggles pushed up on his forehead walked into the bar. The look of confusion on his face had little to do with the bizarre menagerie that comprised the establishment’s clientele. The bartender smiled and nodded at him and gestured to a barstool.
“What’s your pleasure, sir?” asked the portly barkeep.
“Uh, brandy, I suppose,” the man said.
The bartender produced the drink for his customer.
“I say,” said the man, “this will probably sound a bit odd, but–”
“You have no idea who you are or how you got here.”
Astounded, the man replied, “That’s right!”
The bartender looked the man up and down. “You’re a steampunk,” he said at last.
“I beg your pardon.”
“Airships and Babbage analytical engines and lots of gears and London in the late 1800s. Sound familiar?”
The man gulped down his brandy and said, “Yes! That’s it exactly! That’s where I’m from. But how did you know? And why can’t I recall who I am?”
The bartender leaned on the counter and said, “You’re nobody. Nobody in particular, that is.” He poured the man another drink. “You’re what I call an ‘archetype’. They’re all archetypes here.”
“I don’t understand,” the man said.
“Take that fellow sitting in the corner, for instance. The guy in the form-fitting spacesuit with the raygun in his holster. Back in the ’30s and ’40s he’d drop by for a drink on a rare occasion. By the early ’60s he was coming in all the time. Now, he’s a fixture. Almost never leaves. He had his time in the media and the pop culture and the collective consciousness. But that time passed. So now he’s here.”
The man was about to speak when a fellow clad entirely in black leather and wearing mirrored sunglasses walked into the bar. The newcomer’s left arm was a robotic prosthesis. He silently walked up to the bar, was handed a beer, and then went to a table and sat down alone.
“Cyberpunk,” the bartender said. “Close relative of yours. Since the 1990s, he’s become pretty much a fixture here, too.”
“Who are you and what the devil is this place?” the steampunk asked loudly.
“Those are very difficult questions to answer. This bar doesn’t exist in any material sense. Neither do you. Think of this establishment as a sort of resting place for the paradigms of speculative fiction. An idea is created in science fiction or fantasy. Maybe that idea flourishes. It ascends through the subculture, perhaps breaks through into the mainstream culture. But then its popularity wanes. People become uninterested and start to forget about it. It never vanishes entirely, of course. There will almost always be some minuscule following. Even if there isn’t, the themes and tropes still exist, entombed in a faded pulp or hibernating in an old VHS tape. And it may even become popular again someday. But until such a day comes, these specimens of speculation get reduced and distilled down to prime examples, to archetypes, and they inevitably end up here.”
The steampunk stood up and backed away from the bar. “You’re barmy! I’m not some archetype! I’m a person!” He turned and ran out of the bar.
The bartender wiped the counter down with a rag. “They all say that when their time is almost up and the culture is ready to move on to something else,” he said to no one in particular. He looked at the steampunk’s half-finished second brandy. He sighed. “Yep, he’ll be a fixture soon, too.”
Author : Desmond Hussey, Staff Writer
“… Mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell.” – St. Augustine
Numerals flow in random digital pulses around a wide black band high in the perilous chapel’s white marble walls. Each numeric chain makes a full rotation before disappearing into its own beginning point, like a snake devouring its own tail.
A cabal of twelve ebon-clad Mystics, their robes finely detailed with glimmering stars and moons, are aligned like sentinels around the circular perimeter of an intricate tile mosaic occupying the center of the main gallery. The mosaic’s design is a mesmerizing mathematical fusion, depicting colored rays, radii, circumference ratios, triangles within squares within circles. Imaginary numbers. A thin line of red tile carves an elegant spiral path through the entire motif.
A thirteenth figure, a woman, naked and bound, every inch of her pale skin tattooed with alien cartography, hangs suspended inches above the locus of the circle by a rope which vanishes into the overhead shadows. Her blue eyes glisten with terror.
Silently, each Mystic produces a heavy, linen sack from within their robes and proceeds to dust the mosaic in a thin, chaotic layer of salt.
Then they begin their chant.
Quietly at first, nearly inaudibly, the heinous invocation multiplies and rolls over itself like an approaching thunder clap until the vast chamber is filled with a reverberating chorus of harmonized frequencies. Subliminal numeric equations weave themselves together within the esoteric warp and weft of dark tonalities, evoking foul attention from the Realms-Between-The-Spaces.
Awakened by the hypnotic din, the salt begins to dance, moved by invisible forces until it has gathered into a vibrating pattern of circular and curvilinear lines on the floor, and when the chanting shifts octaves suddenly, the pattern of salt changes. Circles bud like dividing cells into smaller, twin circles forming a more complex pattern.
Darkness gathers like a noisome cloud above as, once more, the surreal chant shifts octaves. Again the trembling salt sketches out a more compound geometry, levitating from the ground and twisting into a three dimensional spiral which rotates around it’s anchor point, the woman. Her long, auburn hair floats freely from her body now as if underwater, stirred by eldritch currents. She struggles weakly against her restraints.
In a bone-shuddering climax, a sudden bass tone resonates throughout the chamber scattering the salt into a loose dome above the mosaic and silencing all other sound. The darkness beyond the dome is complete, shrouding the miscreant wizards behind a protective saline field.
All that remains visible is the woman hanging within a malevolent emptiness by a spidery thread. She has ceased moving. Her eyes, only a moments ago staring in wide-eyed horror, are now drained of color, becoming slick, shifting voids, like twin pits filled with oily, black serpents.
With the deliberate, agonizing pace of an emerging butterfly, the skin around her eyes, mouth, nose, navel, vagina and anus begins to fold over itself, her body inverting and contorting into a shapeless mass of pulsing muscle and viscera. One by one, each bone is excreted and drops to a gruesome pile on floor.
Numerous mismatched eyes and prehensile, snake-like appendages emerge at random points from the hideous, crimson flesh-beast. Still suspended from the rope, the mass splits across its middle, forming two massive, bloody lips which begin a gross mockery of speech.
“A go-go lap dancer, a pip, was able to peel in a zip, but she read science-fiction and died of constriction, attempting a Mobius strip.”
The confused Mystics stand in muted bewilderment.
“Sheesh, Tough crowd.”
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Author : Jae Miles, Staff Writer
“Oh for god’s sake, not again.”
It’s only the fourth time I’ve thrown up in the last hour. As I reach for the towel, everybody in the room tenses. They relax after I wipe my mouth and sag back into the chair.
“For a killer, he doesn’t show much.”
The burly one is right. I show very little of the dangerous composure my kind is supposed to have.
“That’s what makes him effective. Appearing to be harmless.”
The skinny one passes comment in an attempt to appear wiser than he is. He’s the junior of the team.
“Whatever. He’s worth a fortune. Plus we get upgraded just for finding him.”
The leader is the longest serving. For all his experience, he has no idea what he’s captured. Or I hope he doesn’t. I may have screwed up this time.
“Can I have some water?”
The reply is unanimous. They have no idea why I’m rated as an unstoppable, highly-trained threat to their employers, but they are cautious. Too many have died trying to take me.
“You can have a drink when they get you where they want you to be. When the interference lets up, I’ll report in and everyone will be a lot happier. In fact, I’ll go up to the roof and call in.”
They watch their boss leave and miss my shoulders drooping in relief. I thought I had been caught for real this time.
Burly and Skinny are just getting worried about Leader when two loud thuds herald my deliverance. The air distorts in front of them and slams them into the wall so hard their bodies leave tracks in their own blood.
The door swings open and a familiar figure strolls in with a tray of food in one hand, a steaming compressor-pulse shotgun in the other.
“Room service, Mister Jennings?”
Fleming always makes me laugh. His deadpan delivery and ability to imitate any accent is just so refreshing after moments of utter terror.
“Thanks, John. And say thanks to Sally and Spitz too.”
“And Charlie. He’s been supervising the ‘atmospheric’ interference and his eyes may never uncross.”
Eight years ago I was a junior accounting clerk. One morning I found myself arrested for serious crimes across the country, all corresponding to places I had been at the relevant times. After a lot of shouting and screaming, I was resigned to my life being over. That night, a man came to my cell. He explained that I had been set up to cover for an operative of Asylum, a company that worked internationally for the highest bidder. They had even corrupted governments.
But this man’s bosses only employed those whose lives had been damaged or destroyed by Asylum. If I wanted, they had a lunatic plan for me to strike back at Asylum. That was the night I started working for Exile.
The next day I daringly escaped during a prison transfer; there being no traces of me having had any help.
Asylum think that when they framed me and it drove me to discover hidden talents. They want me dead because I obviously know a lot from interrogating everyone they send after me before I kill them.
Actually I know nothing and have a team of the most dangerous people I know, and who I believe to be the most dangerous people on the planet, making sure I always get captured and never get kept.
Professional killers really shouldn’t be this much fun to travel the world with. I’m having the time of my life.
Author : Clint Wilson, Staff Writer
We were pretty much finished. A dozen seven-foot Parakti loomed over us, spewing their fowl breath past yellow fangs. The survivors huddled behind me, fourteen hungry women and children. They had all looked up to me for protection. Now?
The leader’s greenish black skin tightened over his frame as he struggled to make our speech. “Your children will be raised on slave farms. Honor decrees that the rest of you may speak your last words now.”
When I was but a boy I had once witnessed an eerily similar scene. I had been a scared waif hiding beneath some debris while the man protecting his small band of humans that day had been my father.
He had been a blacksmith, as tough as they came. And he laid down a challenge that day, something I had never seen before and have never seen since. The alien had had no choice but to accept. And my father was killed in seconds. Then I watched the slaughter of the other adults.
Now I stood taller than my father had once been, and I too had started life as a blacksmith. This was followed by a stint in special ops, which was followed by two tours of duty on the Parakti home world. These days I climbed die scrapers with a hunting axe on my back. I too was as tough as they came.
I closed my eyes and uttered the words I had heard so long ago. “By the spirit of Great Zatai, I question your honor Parakti.” The looming beasts all gasped and looked instantly to their superior. I went on, “You will not even grant your challenger xathoo before honorable unarmed combat, and me but a puny human?” I slapped my chest twice, another Parakti challenge.
The leader stepped forward, easily a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. Now I could really feel his hot disgusting breath. “I never once said I would not grant you xathoo human. Now I grant you xathoo so make it quick!”
I did not hesitate. “If I win you let us go unharmed.”
The entire troop of Parakti broke out in their gurgling laughter.
“Granted!” shouted the leader as he swung his claws down at my face. And then suddenly I wasn’t there. Like I said, I was as tough as they came, hard as the nails I used to pound out by hand and just about as fast as anything alive.
Before he could whip around I was nearly behind him and by the time he finished his turn I popped up with five pummeling blows to his chin in less than a second. The alien reeled and that was all I needed. In less than a heartbeat I was five feet off the ground twirling my entire two hundred pounds, my foot whipping along like the projectile in a slingshot. The kick to the side of his giant cranium rang out like an old fashion gunshot. And even as he dropped like the ton of shit and slime that he was, I could see his yellow-green eyes flickering back to consciousness. And as I fell upon him his sharp claws swiped once more at my leg, but by the time they got there, there was only air. My other leg rammed downward, my knee cracking alien face bones. His body heaved one last time. I thrust my hand in and ripped his Parakti heart from the back of his throat, and held it up high… as the rest of them lowered their heads, and stepped aside to let us pass.