Author : Jay Knioum, Featured Writer
Is this Waterloo? This is Waterloo, isn’t it?
That was the question that sealed it for me. That bright day in Hyde Park, with the pigeons. It wasn’t a great feat to hide the Professor’s keys from him after that. The Apparatus, however, was another matter. Very hard to find good movers, especially in 1924. Bubble-wrap was a long time coming.
He came with me to the station, watched me watch the mules haul the crate aboard a flatcar. I’d catch up with it in Vienna, but not before a side trip.
I poured his tea as we steamed across the Channel, and often again on the train to Zurich. The Professor seemed lucid now and again, but he always came back to Waterloo. It was the horses. In his youth, his horse had been shot out from under him during the thick of the fighting. How he survived to get the Keys to the Apparatus, I still didn’t know. He didn’t like to talk about it.
He wouldn’t talk about it even now, after the centuries he had crisscrossed, the things he’d seen. I would ask him, when he was at peace, clear-minded, usually just before sleep and after a belt of brandy.
He would just smile. He’d touch my face, and ask about the horses.
We made Zurich. It broke my heart to hand him over to the nuns. One of them reminded him of his mother, and he spoke to her as such. God bless her, she took his weathered hand in hers and answered in kind.
Time catches up with us all, he used to say, no matter when it finds us. The first time he said that, we were moving ghostly pieces across a virtual chessboard some miles above the Earth, while a friendly automaton served us synthetic liqueur in crystal printed that very morning. He said it again in the light of a campfire, as the smell of sage filled our noses and the cattle stirred sleepily in the Texas twilight.
He’d always loved Texas. I left his spurs with the Sisters, in case he might remember them.
It breaks my heart that I couldn’t leave him in Orleans, but his great grandnephew would take the wrong side in the war to come.
We all meet our Waterloo.
Author : Jay Knioum, Featured Writer
He thought he heard crows. When he found the noise, it was just a loose telephone cable blowing against the remains of a wire fence. Crows wouldn’t have survived. Crows built nests, not bomb shelters.
“Ramon? Hey Ray!”
“Yeah. You find anything, Smitty?”
“Not a damn thing. Another fuckin’ goose chase. The Lootenant’s losin’ it, man. Tellin’ you.”
“He says look for survivors, we look.”
Smitty chewed his bottom lip and seethed. “Yeah, Sergeant.”
Ray searched Smitty’s eyes, then slapped him on the helmet. “Ah, fuck it. Nobody and nothin’ around here anyway. Let’s go, man. Get dark soon.”
Smitty grinned. “Hoof it, dude. I wanna get back before Deke, get first dibs on Ziggy before the rest of those fuckers stink her up.”
Ray didn’t say anything to that. He never did. He’d stood up for Ziggy once, after Deke’s squad found her in that parking garage, blind and muttering. She never stopped muttering, even when Ray found Deke on top of her three nights later.
Ray tried to play the white knight then, pulled Deke away and took a rifle butt in the temple for his trouble.
“We ain’t soldiers no more,” the Lieutanant told him that night, “We’re just keeping the kennel, throwin’ scraps into the cages, making sure the dogs don’t get hungry enough to kill us.”
When they got back to camp, Ray saluted the Lieutenant, reported a quiet patrol, then left the boys and Ziggy to themselves. He kept walking.
He picked his way across a cratered parking lot, keeping his weapon handy and sweeping the ruins with practiced attention.
He crept over the low hill of shattered concrete, threaded his way around a forest of exposed rebar and found the school. He figured it had been a school because of the playground and the torched remains of school buses in front of the building, parked in a row, waiting for kids that never boarded.
He made his way around back, to the wall. Her wall, where she always waited for him in the midst of the other shadows, where the light and heat from the blast left imprints on the school wall. Imprints of fire hydrants, and trees, and a swing set, long melted away. Images of children, and their teacher.
Ramon smiled at her. He brought up his hand and brushed a finger gently around the curve of where her neck would have been. “I’m sorry, baby. Sorry it took me so long to get back, but the Lieutenant…”
He trailed off, then pulled something else out of his jacket. “I found this. There was a library, I think it was. There were some shelves in the basement. Looks like a book of poems. I tore out all the burned pages. I can read it to you if you want. I figured it might make you happy, bein’ a teacher and all.”
He looked up at her again. “I sure am glad we found each other. I guess it’s kind of a good thing that all this happened, or else you wouldn’t be here, neither would I.”
She stood there, one with the wall, silent.
Ramon unshouldered his rifle, sat down cross-legged and carefully opened the book. He started to read.
The shadows on the wall listened like no one else.
Author : Jay Knioum, Featured Writer
Yellow emergency lights make Chrys look like an elf as she gazes up at them, her eyes flashing with reflections.
“Shut that shit off.” My voice is robotic. Still not used to it.
Merlin’s already at the panel, jacked in through the conduit in his temple. The yellow flashing turns to yellow ambient, the sirens are silent. I can hear Chrys’ heavy breathing.
“Just a couple more floors, babe.” She doesn’t say anything, just squeezes my hand. I know she did that because the pressure registers across the display in my retinas. I turn and look at her. Vitals are going apeshit. She’s gonna pop at any time.
Spider pounds up the stairs behind me, grim look in all six eyes, slamming fresh ammo charges into his gun harness. I heard him unload downstairs. If he’s empty already, then the company jackoffs are serious about this. His pacer drones whirr behind him, past us, then ahead, barrels smoking, lasers fanning the stairwell above and below.
I’m getting Spider’s readout from the cloud synch now as he squeezes past me and Merlin to clear a path upstairs. He aced about eighty bad guys downstairs, but more are coming.
JASMINE cuts in. “Four floors left. Extract is two minutes away.”
I’m gripping Chrys’ hand in new plastic. She printed it for me yesterday, her own design. Subdermal sensors tell me she can’t go much further. “Hang on, babe. Deep breaths.”
“He’s coming, Penn,” she says, “He’s coming. Don’t know if I can…”
I squeeze with my plastic hand, taking her vitals through sensors woven into the palms. “You’ll make it.” I wish I could hold her hand in my real one. “Come on, Chrys, one step at a time.”
She does it. Pulse climbing. One foot, then the next. My girl is a fucking superhero.
The cloud gives us recon from Spider’s drones. Four hostiles. I can hear the drones firing. Then they start disappearing from the feed. One by one by one, but not before giving us intel. JASMINE boils it down for us, but Spider gets there first.
“Ninja,” he says. Spider folds up his guns, draws out filament blades in all four hands. “Expensive.” He starts up the stairs. “Not as expensive as me.”
“Shit,” Chrys says in between groans. “Shit.”
Her vitals are spiking. Our son is coming.
Our son. I don’t care who paid for him. I’ll pay more. We all might.
“I’ll carry you.” I put my plastic arms under her, draw her back gently.
“You dumb shit,” she says, “You aren’t rated for the weight.”
“Then I hope you didn’t skimp on materiel.” I’ve got her in my arms.
Not my arms. The arms I’ve got there, with her.
“Extract is approaching,” JASMINE says. Quicker than we thought. Merlin turns from his panel and gives me a thumbs up. “Hacked the nearby weather beacons,” he says, “Got a fix on our position, and sent out a bogus emergency clear-sky. Soon as Spider clears the landing pad, we’re off this bitch.”
Spider is advancing up the stairs. I can hear rotors thudding through the structure.
I hear a lot of nothing.
The cloud synch is going batshit. Spider’s vitals light up. They go soft.
The drones open up, firing at ghosts.
I can hear the shell casings hitting the stairs from the drones, but what I’m seeing is Merlin’s blood.
It hits the floor before his head does.
Last message from Spider on the cloud synch: I GOT THREE.
This was number four.
Chrys squeezes my hand. “I love you,” she whispers. I don’t hear it. I see it in the cloud feed.
My hand is a detonator. My body is a bomb.
All four ninja are gone. So are the top four floors of the building.
So am I. So is Chrys.
The window goes black, CARRIER LOST in green letters.
I cancel the window. Pull off my headset. Grab a tissue, wipe my nose.
“The fuck, Penn, ” Carl is yelling from the couch, his eyes glued to his show on the wall. “We gonna order Thai or what?”
I’ve got one thumb. I use it to toggle the stick, turn my chair toward him. “Yeah. Yeah, Carl. Thai’s okay, I guess.”
My chair’s wheel knocks over a stack of papers as I turn. Statements from Southside Genetic Repository. I’ve been a loyal donor. They paid for this place. They paid for a lot of things.
Good thing one piece of me works.
I wish I could have met Chrys. She sounded like a superhero.
Author : Jay Knioum, Featured Writer
I’m wearing your hand from my neck.
I spent a week drying it out, preserving it, taking care that the tattoo was still visible. Once I was convinced that it didn’t stink, I threaded the zip-tie through the wrist, hung it over my head and tucked it inside my jacket. Good thing, because I don’t think this group I hooked up with would understand. Some of them still have their husbands, wives, kids, moms or dads out there. They still hope. They can still look at the moon and think to themselves, maybe you’re looking at the same moon right now. They can stay warm with that thought as they drift off to sleep.
All I know is, if you’re looking at the moon, you aren’t thinking a damn thing. Not even of me.
I take it out now and then, when it’s my turn on watch. Everyone else is asleep, or trying to be. I take out your hand and look at that tattoo. I did it for you, while I was learning the trade. It looks like shit, but you loved it.
WANT. You had me tattoo that on your left hand, in that spidery writing that I used to use back then.
Somewhere, you’re out there. Maybe you’re dead. Maybe you’re shuffling around under this same moonlight. On the hand you’ve got left, I’d written IGNORANCE into your skin. Same spidery letters. It looked like shit, but you always kissed me and told me it was better than any ring.
Eventually, I put your hand away and someone relieves me. So it goes. Dark, sunrise, sunset, dark. Moonlight.
Sometimes I think I feel your hand move, feel it cup my boob like you’d do sometimes. I’d remember those mornings when you’d be making breakfast, but I wanted something else.
But it’s just a dead thing. Somewhere out there, you’re a dead thing. This hand around my neck is a dead thing. I fall asleep hoping that I’ll find you crushed under a car somewhere, or against all odds, with your stump in a sling, surrounded by people like the people that surround me.
That’s when I remember how I found your hand. It hadn’t been cut off. Hadn’t been torn off. It had been bitten off. Anyone who gets bit, they turn. I’ve seen it. I know that’s what happened to you.
That’s when my hope turns to ash, but it’s still there. I hope, someday, we’ll see each other again. I’ll see your stump, and I’ll see IGNORANCE on your other hand.
Then I can finish this. We can both rest then.
Til death do us part.
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.”