The Soul Collector

Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Featured Writer

The Soul Collector strode through the echoing streets of Sarvan, and found a cluster of people sheltering in the lee of the great reactor situated in the centre of the city. These people were the first that she’d seen in weeks. They watched her approach, her green robe swishing against the ground, a green lantern hanging from her hand, headdress framing her face, and a tall staff click-click-clicking on the ground.

“What do you want?” One man demanded of her, breaking away from the group and the fire that had been lit in the centre of their small huddle.

“To talk. I have a deal to make you.” She pitched her voice so as to sound more local, like him.

“We have no food,” he said, just as fiercely as before.

“I’m not hungry,” she replied smoothly, making it seem as if this should have been an obvious fact.

“Good.” He slunk back to the fire, exhaustion replacing the anger in his manner.

“What do you know of truth and beauty?” she asked the gathering as a whole.

“Nothing!” shouted one. “They’re both dead!” shouted another.

“Truth and beauty are admirable things to chase,” another man said quietly. He was quite close to the Soul Collector, “but they cannot be captured, nor may they be achieved.”

“Ah, philosophy. You’re right, though, Truth and Beauty do not exist in their absolutes, at least not in this world. In the next? Who knows.”

She walked around the group, pitching her voice higher, applying an edge of control to it.

“Death is an unknown. Beyond it may lie paradise or nothing. No one can know. But I can offer you something real. I can hold your soul in this world. I can keep you from the dark. I can hold your soul as insurance against the unknown. Is life meaningful? Or is it a hollow lie? I can’t tell you. But I do know that life can only truly hold meaning if it can be perpetuated beyond the grave. And that is what I offer. I can offer you a karmic loan on your next reincarnation. I can deduct time from purgatory. I can put off death’s call.”

She unhinged the top of her lantern. Wisps of green smoke drifted from it. One flurry began to form the shape of a human: she waved her hand through it, dissipating it.

“It’s painless, simple, and will feel like a dream of decades. Your mind will be free. This is a heaven of here and now. No need to eat or drink. Just the simplistic pleasure of being, forever more.”

Her vocal technique was proving effective, as they all listened with rapt attention.

Hours later, leaving the empty shadow of the reactor, staff again click-click-clicking on the ground, her lantern burned that much brighter.

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The Sea and the Skylark

Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Featured Writer

The wind is always cold. Or – I correct myself – the wind always feels cold. It’s usually about four degrees this time of year, but the wind makes it feel like minus ten. It’s heavily laden with salt. I’ve lived down here for months, but I can still taste the salt on the air. Obscurely, it’s a point of pride for the locals. ‘We have wind that can strip chrome’, they say, with a smug expression, as if expecting the visitor to try and best them. It’s not just chrome, though. The wind kills plants. Some people manage to keep pots of flowers, or sometimes trees alive for weeks and months, but they’re diligent. I tried keeping some flowers alive once. I didn’t manage it. The sea crashes against the beach, as if trying to drive it back. Most of the pebbles are gone, crushed to sand or whipped away by longshore drift. About half of the sea defences still stand.

Aside from the few straggling plants, the natural world has left as alone here. The last seagull was seen two years ago. Ever since, the seafront has been free of those avian pests. Funny thing, though, you don’t realise how much you’re going to miss them until they’re gone. I would kill just to hear that irritating squawk again.

Beach Street, the road closest to the sea, is actually pretty high compared to the rest of the town. The roads slope down towards the High Street – the town was built on the salt flats. As a result of that the High Street, and Middle Street, and all the way back until London Road are underwater. Since it’s close to the old High Street, Beach Street has become the town’s main thoroughfare. The rest of the town is pretty much just salt flats again.

Traders used to come down from London. When there were more animals around, some of those traders used to bring pigs and sheep and goats. I really liked the goats. Don’t ask me why, but they’ve always appealed to me. Might be something to do with the way they seem to eat everything. Smacks of efficiency, and I like that in people, so I like to see it in animals, too.

I had been walking along the old sea wall, as I liked to. Off land, (to my left) there was a block of flats. ‘Marina House’, or somesuch. Old, abandoned, and on the verge of collapse, the old building didn’t interest me. But something suddenly drew my attention to the decrepit structure.

I could hear birdsong.

I’ve never heard birdsong before, not live. The gulls, those most tenacious of the now vanished birds, didn’t sing, and I missed them plenty. But this was birdsong, real birdsong, the kind you hear in movies and on TV.

And finally, I spotted the bird. A lark, sitting on a railing, on a balcony of the second floor.

Behind me, I could clearly hear the sea, the tide ramping against the beach. These two sounds, both as old as the hills, and one that we had believed was lost for good.

“How these two shame this shallow and frail town,” I murmured to myself, quoting a poem from one of the few dry books I’d managed to save over the years. I was entranced by this delicate bird, who was singing so cheerfully. Not wanting it to fly away, I stayed motionless. I hoped I could stretch that moment on for days.

I must have been there for twenty minutes before the lark took wing and flitted away to the west, over the drowned houses, leaving me to the crashing and the silence once more.

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The Queen of Sparks

Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Featured Writer

Molly padded along a short alleyway, and emerged out onto a wide street. She was approaching the centre of Night City. High above, the slow beat of the topcity’s vegetable heart could be felt rather than heard, one beat every few minutes. Night City’s pulse was carnivore, rapid and arrhythmic, like the city itself. The road never saw traffic. It had never been designed for that. A tight crowd were advancing down the street. They were coming Molly’s way.

Even if the glittering sparks had not lit up the air, putting a crisp, clean edge on the night, Molly would have known who was at the centre of that tight knot of life. Night City’s mascot. Night City’s Queen. The Queen of Sparks. Molly heard the laughs of the group, heard the sound of a single clap, and was bathed in the violent, vibrant golden light that emanated from that majestic figure in the middle of the road. She drew back into the alleyway, not wishing to intrude and only wishing to watch this spectacle. The Queen whirled round, laughing merrily, touching her entourage on the hand and on the head, and everywhere her fingers landed, a spark of colour stayed, casting bright electric blues and deep forest greens. She occasionally made a throwing motion, and up overhead, a tiny sun of orange or yellow flared into life. The entire procession, the performance, was redolent with life and joy – a celebration that could barely control itself.

They passed Molly’s shadowy hide, and continued on. One man, towards the back of the group, turned away from the shining figure that was so captivating to everyone else. A spark that had been planted on his hand flickered and died. And Molly saw him draw the gun from inside his jacket.

Without thinking, she broke from her hiding place, and ran towards the man at the back. He was walking towards the Queen, purposefully, without the smile that graced the faces of the rest of the group. Molly pushed herself faster. The man pulled someone else aside, clearing a sightline between himself and the Queen’s back. He raised the gun, steadying it with his other hand. With a kind of nerve that can only come from harsh self-discipline, Molly ran into him. A foot on his calf, a hand smashing down on the elbow of his gunarm, then a shove that sent him to the ground. It was all over in seconds. The gun discharged once, and then she kicked it away.

Everything stopped. The colours died, only to be replaced by an almost painfully bright, white light. Molly was kneeling over the would-be-assassin, putting pressure on the arm she’d smashed, making him wince in pain.

“What’s your name?” Someone asked, presumably addressing Molly.

The voice was smooth, and cultured. In those moments, in that light, neither the heart of the topcity, nor the heart of Night City, nor Molly’s own seemed to beat.

“Molly, highness.”

The Queen of Sparks looked down at her. Almost absentmindedly, she drew a knife from the sheath at her hip. A trio of bells tied around her wrist sounded as she moved her hand. A smile spread across her features, an idea blossoming into her mind. She quickly replaced the knife, and between thumb and forefinger, twisted one of the bells on her wrist. It came away like a ripe fruit. She closed her hand around it, and closed her eyes. She squeezed the bell, muscles all along her arm tensing. After a moment, she opened her hand again, palm up, and extended it to Molly.

From the slit in the bell, a soft purple light shone.

“The light will last as long as I do. Take it, with my thanks.”

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Author : Sam Clough aka “Hrekka”, Featured Writer

We pieced together what happened later, taking what we knew about the way we’d been infected, and from what we saw happening to the rest of the world. We don’t know if we should count ourselves lucky that we were the first to be attacked. A few people tried to blame us for the phages, but one look at our country proved their claims absolutely baseless.

It began with a single phage. Small enough to slip past our defensive screens, and seemingly innocuous, it descended from space and latched onto a remote point on the national communication backbone.

The body of the phage turned out to be a bare-bones carrier for a crystalline substrate upon which was stored the ‘true’ phage. The mind, or program, or whatever you want to call the being of the phage listened to our networks. Hideously adaptive and completely alien, it learnt our machine code, and injected itself into the datastream.

The first changes were subtle. Traffic through ports was slowly choked off until it was no more than a trickle – of course, the port quotas were set remotely. Then the government quietly started to buy up heavy industry – factories, mining operations.

It barely made the news. The phage program was responsible, of course, hiding in the backbone, playing all the terminals off against each other.

Most of the factories were completely automated. That didn’t help us, either.

To the rest of the world, it just looked like our nation had gone quiet.

The same scientists who came up with the name for this attacker – sosiophage – society-eater, had the honour of putting a name to what happened next.

The country lysed.

The borders shut. Every communication link went down. The military’s robotic assets started systematically killing the nation from the top down. Some human soldiers followed their orders, and assisted the machines. Thankfully, a huge majority of our armed forces rebelled, and took to the defence of the cities. Technicians, realising that their machines were no longer under control took measures to break them. Three nukes were launched. Two of them hit the capital.

Our country had been eaten away from within. Without us noticing, we’d been stripped bare. When the factories had run out of resources, they disassembled themselves to provide the parts.

Like an exploding corpse, hundreds of thousands of phage machines erupted from our burnt and broken country. They flooded out, pervading every nation. Even after the phages left, our country was still burning. The capital was a radioactive ruin. Our armed forces were tearing the country apart – the humanists hunting down the robotic forces and those still obeying ‘orders’.

The rest of the world fell. Humanist soldiers and pilots fought back UAVs and robot tanks. We lost, we won, we lost again. People died. People came together. We were cowering, trying to consolidate. We were fearing another nuclear attack.

All of a sudden, all across the Russian Federation, China, India, and America, thousands of launches occurred. ICBMs had been co-opted, their payloads replaced by phages. We haven’t a clue as to just how many phages made escape velocity from our little rock.

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Author : Duncan Shields, Featured Writer

The nails slide out effortlessly from beneath the shizu skin of my fingers. The swollen carapace of my back splits in even sections and the hive breathes. The hum becomes a vibration you can feel in your chest.

Something like icing bleeds out my tear ducts and I’m crawling with death. The paper medical gown twitches where it shouldn’t and starts to tear as new bones find new ways to move and the flesh swells to accommodate. My eyes are wide and black. New teeth start growing out of my shoulders and elbows. Saber tooth armour. Clear quartz cataracts rise out of my forehead. The diseases in the air reflect back through the magnifying bacterial lens that is my aura.

I make Pestilence look like a child just starting out.

I’m not even out of control yet.

I am barely seen scissors in a pulled open mouth. I am moving so fast I become a series of shadows. I become a force. Sounds of my destruction are lagging a long time behind my actions. People and equipment are obliterated before they’re aware of danger. I’m moving so fast it’s like I’ve been unhinged from time. It seems obscene that I should be able to maintain this kind of speed.

Tumours form on my skin and blink open to reveal new biological armaments. The cells of my body have finished what the creators intended and are starting to improvise. I am bionanotechonology. Tiny molecular compound copies of me spray out in spore clouds to infect and replicate other flesh.

My only limit now is imagination. I’m becoming art. A bioluminescent avatar of creativity though destruction. A messenger of the meat come to destroy. I am all the horsemen. I’m the nightmare of the flesh. I’m conscious disease. I am biomass. I’m DNA with the lid off. I’m psychotic cellular intelligence with no brakes of conscience. I’m cancer’s descendent.

I leave a trail of hot fat and warm blood.

I tear through the lower floors up to street level. Guards empty entire magazines of experimental weaponry into me. They become food. I burst through the asphalt into afternoon sun. I am a multitude of arms and eyes and teeth behind a black ashen sporecloud that does not obey the wind.

I can smell the entire population of this city waiting to become one with me.

I figure if they can get me somewhere airtight with walls I can’t break…but that’s academic. I don’t trust them to get that organized before I become too big to contain.

They. I’m already thinking of them as they.

So easy for humanity to be shed.

Here they come. I lose conscious thought as I expand all my senses to the fight and the expansion.

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