One More Turn

Author: CB Droege

Something brushes past Jonaton’s leg under the opaque waters. He slaps the water with his hands, creating as much noise and turbulence as he can. The noise and motion of the water only reflects off the close walls and comes back amplified. He closes his eyes and forces himself to focus. “Left, straight, left, right, right, left” he recites.
It’s surely only a rumor that there are things living in these chambers. He must have brushed past a piece of equipment from a past explorer or some other piece of long lost flotsam. The floor tiles of the passages are loose and always shifting under Jonaton’s thick boot-soles. There is years of debris down here: garbage, clothes, weapons, even the bones of those who came into the chambers and were lost when the tide came in.
Jonaton keeps a careful eye on the water level. Though it is always shifting, rushing around him, it is also very slowly rising. The tide has already reversed, and every step he takes now is pushing the limits of his return window. In a few hours, water will reach the ceiling. He has to be back to the entrance before that time, or his bones will join the detritus on these floors.
Stepping carefully, wary of any sign of serpent or fish, Jonaton sloshes around another corner. “Right, left, straight, left, right, right, left” he recites, adding the reverse of the turn he just made to the beginning of his mantra. The passage he’s stepped into is longer than any of the previous sections, but is otherwise identical to every passage he’s passed through to get here since this morning. He sighs. He doesn’t even really know what he’s looking for.
Soon it will be time to turn around. He should probably just turn around already, but he knows the looks that explorers get when they return too early, when they don’t search as much as they possibly can in the short time they have within the chambers. It’ll be another week before the tide is low enough to let another explorer into the tunnels, and Jonaton’s turn only comes once per year. He should make the most of it. Maybe this next turn will be the one which reveals the exit from The Fortress. Maybe he will be the one who returns to his people triumphantly declaring that their long imprisonment is finally at an end, that seventy-five years of living in a steel trap is now over.
He reaches the next intersection and looks left and right. Nothing that he can see looks like a way out. Maybe the exit is just down one more passage, maybe it’s just around that corner…
No. That kind of thinking must be how explorers die down here, always chasing one more turn in the tunnels. Jonaton turns around and begins to walk back the way he came, confident that he has done his duty to his people. Tonight, he will be honored for his task, for his risk, even if he will not be celebrated as a savior. “Right, left, straight, left, right, right, left” he recites. He knows this will take him home, where he belongs.

Panoptimized

Author: Majoki

“A solution to our problem requires a certain amount of ordered chaos,” Hsiang explained to his cellmate as they used the guard’s severed head to gain entry into DeadPan’s nerve center. “To find a workable answer we need to invite a wide range of possible solutions. Early on, this requires a certain amount of randomness in our search. Eventually, this turbulence has to be controllable in a way that allows us to turn disorder into a deterministic system. Does that make sense?”

“If it means killing Blythedale.”

“It could. But you need to be open to many other possibilities.”

“Like killing Sikkurd, Noh, Fallkirk or Mi Tang?

“Possibly. Though it may mean not killing anyone.”

“What kind of a plan is that?” Suarez asked, his meaty hand flexing around the iron brace Hsiang had removed from one of the industrial dryers in the laundry facility after his last shift. “This just isn’t about escape, it’s about vengeance.”

Hsiang nodded. “Yes. Vengeance. It should be optimized. Our wrongdoers should pay, but death is not the only toll we can exact.”

“Death is simple.”

“But not always painful enough,” Hsiang said softly. “Pain is a powerful teacher. Our vengeance should instruct. Remember, many will be watching.”

“We are always watched.”

“Exactly. That is the flow into which we must introduce turbulence. That instability will show us possible flaws we can isolate and then optimize in order to escape.”

“And punish,” Suarez reminded.

“Absolutely.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in absolutes, Hsiang?”

Hsiang grinned. “You, Suarez, are just the sort of turbulence needed to bring order into the chaos we are about to create.”

Suarez scratched behind his ear with the iron bar and then pointed with its filed end to the screens that displayed every prisoner in DeadPan. “Who do we start with?”

“It must be random. Not a conscious choice. That will make us reactors along with the rest.”

Suarez shrugged.

“Fair enough,” Hsiang acknowledged. He lifted the sentrybot’s pierced skull above the main console, looked away, then dropped the carbon cranium onto the central monitors where it bounced, flipped, spun and landed on the image of Snowden’s cell. The live feed showed him engrossed in a book, an honest-to-NSA paper and ink book.

“That’s it? This starts it?”

“Pebble in the pond. Butterfly in the breeze. Ghost in the machine,” Hsiang answered as he tapped the command and Snowden’s image faded from DeadPan’s surveillance grid.

“Now, out of the spying pan and into the fire.”

Tourists

Author: Hillary Lyon

“It happened right here,” I breathlessly exclaim to my friend. She grins and looks towards the old office building. I point to a corner window on the topmost floor. The gaggle of tourists behind us gasp and raise their cameras to take snaps of the old five-story red brick building. My friend glances at me and smirks.

“Three shots,” I continue. I make a gun out of my upraised hand, like a kid playing cops and robbers. “Pow! Pow! Pow!”

My friend opens her eyes wide and puts her hands over her ears in mock horror. “Oh no!”

“Oh yes,” I say flatly. “The assassin was a crack shot.” I then stage-whisper, “Trained by our own special forces!” Behind us, the tourists mutter unintelligibly among themselves.

“On orders from his second in command.” I shake my head sadly. My friend puts her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. “His very own right-hand man.”

The tourists’ mumbling rises in volume, becoming a discordant symphony of clicks and whines and staccato squeaks. I catch overtones of dismay, shock, and—disbelief? How dare these outsiders, these tourists, question my tale. I was born here, after all; I should know. That’s what I’ll say if one of them contradicts me.

My friend can no longer smother her laughter, but being the fine actress she is, converts her convulsions to weeping. She really should win an award for these performances.

I turn to face the group clustered behind us. Embarrassed to be caught stalking and eavesdropping, they rub their stick-like forelegs together and pivot their multi-faceted eyes away from the building. Their mouths quiver and sticky drool sparkles in the corners, threatening to drip down their darkly iridescent carapaces.

I look down my nose at them. “It’s all true. My father was a local police detective. My mother was a nurse at the hospital where they took his broken body.”

A tourist waddles over to me, places a spiked claw on my shoulder. I suppose it is an act of sympathy. In response, I wipe a non-existent tear away from my eye. I wasn’t upset; I was acting. Tourists can’t tell the difference.

My companion sighs and we continue our walk. The tourists scuttle along behind us, at a respectful distance, but close enough to listen to our conversation.

“And over there,” my friend prompts, waving towards the depression-era hotel across the street. “Isn’t that where . . .?”

“Ah, yes,” I finish for her. “That’s where notorious astronaut-turned-gangster, Boz McNally, was arrested for robbing a string of pizza joints. A bell-hop tipped off the cops. The police caught him climbing out a third story window, after he set the hotel ablaze. McNally gambled the fire would be a distraction—he lost that bet.”

“He was one bad hombre, that dare-devil spaceman,” my companion adds. “A rotten apple. A real no-goodnik.” The tourists chitter excitedly; they love our idioms.

They lose themselves in an orgy of picture-taking and outraged conversation. My friend and I take this opportunity to slip away into the first convenient, shadowed alley. They won’t follow us into such a dark, narrow space; they are famously claustrophobic.

Honestly, I can’t stand these tourists—they crawl over every historical site in our city, they over-run our parks, they crowd us out of our museums and cinemas. So hungry for stories, as they evidently have none of their own. Victors in the last war—supposedly brilliant strategists—yet they are so gullible.

But, hey, at least they spend their credits here.

When They Return

Author: Steven French

“Oh that’s wonderful!” Ruth clapped her hands in delight and turned to the avatar of the ship’s AI next to her. “Where did you get the idea from?”

Alfred lowered its head modestly and said, “Thank you Captain. I overheard Miriam reading to her daughter and I thought it might be nice to try and recreate the scene from the book … We have such a long way to go before planetfall and I thought the childrens’ spirits, in particular, could use a bit of a lift!”

Ruth turned back to the procession of softly illuminated figures moving sedately through the deck’s arboretum. The assembled adults and children murmured in wonder as they passed between the trees.

“So I drew on our collective unconscious – I mean all the stored data files I have at my disposal,” Alfred continued, “and then it was just a matter of setting up some holo-projectors.”

“Well, it’s like they’ve returned from the stories! And they certainly look as I’ve always imagined them to be,” Ruth said. “I wonder if this is how our ancestors saw them.”

Alfred turned away as the line of elves faded from sight. “Most likely not. Our images of fairies ultimately come from Shakespeare and, well, we all know where these figures come from …”

Suddenly one of the children cried out and Ruth and Alfred turned back just in time to see the last elf flash a feral snarl in a face that was for a few seconds no longer peaceful and serene but twisted and hateful.

“I’m so sorry” Alfred cried out as Ruth ran to comfort the crying child and her parents. “It was just a glitch!”

The following night Ruth reflected on those words and wondered what exactly had been drawn from their collective unconscious as the Chief of Security outlined the search for the missing child.

Friday Night

Author: Andrew Dunn

DJ Grim was on the strip of grass separating the track from the high school football field, dolled up like the Reaper itself, and pumping up the crowd with beats while the cheerleaders worked their stuff on the track. I was watching them, and fondling the latch on Anna’s bra through her t-shirt. She liked it, but pretended not to notice. Anna was chatting with her best friend Katelyn as DJ Grim upped the tempo. It was all choreographed so the music stopped, and cheerleaders posed, as fireworks crackled, popped and burned bright overhead.

#

“It’s all in your mind.” The healer said. “You don’t come from Blanton. You went to San Diego State.”

I eyed the dull green walls of his apartment with its posters of old rock bands, printed out media items about climate change, and trinket symbols he’d bought in bodegas.

“I remember it all. Clearer than I do the day I was born.”

#

“Who remembers the day they were born? I do. I awake sweat-soaked with bed sheets in balled fists, remembering the way new light, new air, and new everything first met my breathless form. A rap on my back sent my lungs in motion, drawing in a million unfamiliar flavors.
#

Anna smelled of caramel, because she’d paid two bucks more to have them drizzle that over her popcorn at the concession stand. She always bought her popcorn that way, and I loved it, for the way the flavor somehow waited on her body for my lips.

Katelyn was different. She preferred salt. I knew because I’d tasted that on her skin. As my hand ventured up Anna’s shirt, and she didn’t protest me unlatching her bra, I wondered whether Katelyn noticed and if she did, whether it reminded her of the last time.

#

My healer pranced about his apartment, playing with his man bun’s scrunchie, and peering out through peach-colored drapes at the world beyond. He begged, “You’ve got to understand, there never was a football field, Anna, Katelyn, or any of it.”

#

Anna once invited me and Katelyn into her bed. Without saying a word, me and Katelyn somehow faked that it had been our first time coiled together, naked flesh against naked flesh, making each other moan and sweat. I think Anna bought it. She took pics.

#

“Show me the pics.” My healer demanded.

#

I moved my cursor to the X in the upper right and closed out the session with my healer, griping, “They always want pics.”

Another in the room posted a pic of Colossus Clay and Arach-mo-chine, moving on to the field. The former: two-legged robot made of steel and carbon fiber, with boxing gloves as big as a Prius. The latter, a mechanical monstrosity constructed by the high school’s science club – it was steel and plexiglass, full of hydraulics, and modeled after spiders.

They would battle it out starting at the fifty-yard line. My hand would explore Anna’s back, and if Katelyn noticed, she’d lean in and kiss Anna, except…achiming sound – my alarm clock – interrupted everything.

#

I slid the VR visor off my eyes, up past my forehead. Beau was easing his truck into the driveway. There was dinner to pretend I was making, beers in the fridge for him to get lost in and when he did, I’d go back to Friday night.