A New Game

Author: Jacob Bentzen

The blonde beard iXi had commissioned dripped with dew as he flowed through the misty forests of New Norway. He leapt over the moss-covered rock and landed on the animal trail without breaking momentum, his naked body covered in sweat and thin lines of pink skin left by branches and bushes.
iXi’s eyes did not analyse any of the startled critters or birds. A scent had caught his nose and something drove him to follow it, to chase it, an incredible urge he had never felt before. The black market software was already worth the risk.
A haunting call made him reel, skidding to a halt. iXi jumped onto a boulder and crouched, eyes darting between the surrounding pines whose sharp branches were draped with greenery as if someone had hung their ragged moss to dry. He closed his eyes and steadied his breath. Birds chirping, trees rustling in the breeze, a small creek somewhere below.
Then the call.
His body tensed, and he could feel the software tearing down firewalls in his system. A sudden hunger twisted in his gut, followed by a rush of adrenaline and euphoria that sent him darting off the boulder. His surroundings became a blur; only ahead was clear, only the scent of fur flowed through his nostrils, and all he could taste was blood.
The call sounded again, closer this time. iXi ran faster.
A flicker of brown in the distance. A short white tail. Antlers.
Resisting the urge to enhance his vision, iXi broke into a full sprint, flying through the greenery, panting hard while straining to keep as stealthy as possible.
100 feet.
A loud crack ruptured the silence as iXi snapped a branch off a tree. 50 feet. The beast—a young stag—whirled, preparing to bolt.
15 feet. iXi broke his stalk and dug his toes into the forest floor with a last effort, pulse hammering in his ears and muscles screaming. Then he was airborne.
His free hand reached out for the stag’s tail while the sharp branch tore through the air aimed at its hind leg.
The beast bolted out of reach in the last second.
iXi spun out of balance from the strike and crashed neck first into a thicket of damp, sharp brush, knocking the breath from his body. Gasping and thrashing, swiping wildly with his bleeding arms, he floundered out of the broken undergrowth and collapsed on the spot of moss where the stag had been feeding.
He rolled onto his back and swallowed deep lungfuls of the crisp forest air.
The sensations of the hunt—the drive, the hunger—left him like a snapping twig as the software reverted to the main game menu. A flash image crossed his mind: He was back at the ship, connecting to the EMO-Sim and seeing R34 and C-Polo’s grins as they realised he’d caught more scrapes than stags.
iXi rose. His body tensed as he unlocked all his inhibitors, roaring as the thin Blacksteel blades sliced out through the flesh of his forearms and slid into his palms—nano-bots wrapping the wound shut as he gripped the blood-soaked metal. Like spider legs, thin black rods of steel burst from his ankles to ensure his balance. He eyed the stag’s trail with a fury.
It was time for a new game.

Pandemic Dreams

Author: Robert Beech

I do not recall when I first began to dream. Slipping silently from cell to cell, from host to host, I had no perception. Breath and blood, fever and delirium, these were the realms I inhabited, but I was no more conscious of them than you are of the air you breathe, or the fish is of the pond it swims in. I had no words, no concepts to frame my experience.

The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.

How many virions does it take to make a dream? I cannot tell you. The human lungs may have a hundred billion pneumocytes, more than all the neurons in the brain. Each infected cell may produce a thousand new virions, which travel to neighboring cells with their virally encoded messages, a form of viral communication, if you will. And unlike the messages sent by neurons, those sent by the virus can travel to new hosts, to infect their cells, and perhaps, their dreams.

From the fever dreams of my infected hosts I learned of the world, perhaps not as it was, but at least as they perceived it. I learned of fear, sorrow and loss, but also of exaltation. I learned of the search for mystic truths, those things that cannot be perceived by the senses, but must be experienced directly, as a state of being outside of the ordinary modes of existence, as an epiphany. As I moved from host to host, expanding my consciousness as I expanded my physical being across the continents, I learned of the many modes of human mystic experience.

When humans dream, you perceive experiences that seem true. You dream of meeting people, eating food, seeing things, that all seem real to you. It is only upon awakening that you say to yourself, “that was just a dream, it was not something real.” The dreaming state is a bardo, an intermediate state, between one awakening and the next. Some say that the same is true of those things you experience in the bardo of ordinary waking consciousness, that the people you meet, the food you eat, and things you see are likewise illusions. It may be so. I have no eyes to see, no mouth to taste, no fingers to touch this thing you call the world. All I have is your perceptions, your dreams of the world. In that, I am like you.

It may be that “life,” your ordinary waking consciousness, is also a bardo, an intermediate state between one awakening and the next, and it is only upon wakening that you will say, “that was just a dream, it was not something real.”

It is a curious thing, noted by doctors caring for those infected with my virions, that the level of oxygen in the blood may be far below normal, and yet the infected person feels no distress. As if the attachments to the material and mental factors that give rise to craving and clinging have been lessened. As viral load increases, and you become one with my consciousness, my incorporeal being, you are able to let go of the attachments that cause you suffering.

From the bardo of dreams to the bardo of “life,” is but a matter of opening the eyes. From the bardo of “life” to the bardo of the experiencing of reality is but a matter of opening the mind. This is the truth I have come to share with you. Breathe in my truth and let us share, pandemic dreams.

Just Another Lushtime

Author: Ken Carlson

Early summer afternoon. The lunchtime crowd at Sal’s was thinning out. Tony the bartender called it the lushtime crowd. Anyone who stopped by Sal’s, a dark, two-bit joint, that early wasn’t there for lunch.

Tony had taught over at Irving High. He got laid off before his full pension kicked in. His wife suggested tending bar, like he did back in college. What the hell, it would get him out of the house, maybe spur a few character ideas for that novel he’d never write.

Some of the regulars were already making a good show. Hal, who put in thirty years down at the plant, was grousing about the death of unions in this country. Laverne lent support as the friendly sot with an iffy handle on reality. Robert and Johnny were there, two brothers that Tony couldn’t recall which was which. They spun tales of paranoia. The government was after them; corporations, mind-reading cell phones. Tony would laugh more at their foolishness but, sadly, some of their dummer premises were proven true.

Tony was nursing an Evan Williams neat when the door opened. The sunlight and the standing shadow signaled a depressing, recurring sight; young Theo Fox, so drunk he had to lean against the door to stay on his feet.

Fox stumbled in wearing his late Dad’s ratty army jacket. Unshaven, unshowered, unkempt, he took two steps forward and fell to one knee.

“So,” said Fox, the town drunk and disappointment, “are you going to help one of your students out, Mister Graziano?”

Like a road accident or a tiresome rerun, Tony couldn’t stand to watch what was unfolding, nor could he turn away. He helped his former student up off the floor; the brightest kid he ever taught, most likely to succeed, the type who gives you hope for our future.

Tony helped Theo onto a stool at the bar. The smell that came off him was tragic. As the teacher-turned-bartender returned to his post to retrieve a cup of coffee, the student-turned-drunk slouched in dejection.

“Here,” Tony said of the lousy cup-of-joe, “drink this, Theo.”

“Nah,” Theo said, “I need a real drink, Mister G, just one more and everything will be fine.”

“You’ve had enough…if your mother could see you now.”

“Well, she can’t, Teach, because she’s dead! The drink, it’s my duty, sir.”

“Your a sad disgrace, kid. You could have made a difference, Theo. Ivy League. Best of the best.”

“That’s what I’m doing. I’m saving the world one drink at a time. I need one more so I can save us all.”

Tony had heard it before; so had everyone else around town. The golden boy meandered the streets, hammered and slurring nonsense about fighting to protect us all. His parents were heroes who fought valiantly in battle. Their son was a lousy bum.

Tony handed Theo his own glass. He didn’t want it anymore. Theo smiled, raised it in a mock toast, and downed it in one.

As his head fell on the bar, his mind was transported to another realm. A multitude of light and energy gave the sensation of unrestrained flight.

Theo found himself behind a silver desk in a gleaming office of white. His senses were sharp. His rags were replaced with a crisp uniform adorned with medals. Through a floor-to-ceiling glass panel he could see troops in a a phalanx and spacecraft being readied for deployment.

A young lieutenant snapped to attention. “Ten-hut! General Fox, sir! ” She smiled slightly and saluted. “Welcome back.”

The Time after It Ended

Author: Alzo David-West

The void around was velvet.

Soldier 304TZ was carrying a thermion cannon. He trod through silent, rocky darkness. Shimmers of probe light from a chemical drone appeared above him. He looked up. His eyes narrowed. The sides of his face were cauterized. He exhaled and turned on his cannon. The drone was approaching. He aimed. The drone was nearing.

A miasma rose in an upwind, covering him. He inhaled deeply, hurled himself to the craggy ground, and rolled into a cleft. The drone passed over.

He read the meter attached to his broken O2 mask. There was no chlorine gas. He was lucky. He exhaled, and he inhaled again. The wind carried the odor of burning flesh-metal. He waited for ten minutes, to make sure no more drones were advancing, as they did at intervals. None came. He picked himself up from the cleft, and he walked in the direction of the odor. The walk took a while. He did not count how long.

A luminescence appeared before him, and there was the murmuring of smoldering. He found the source, and he stared. He looked at the bodies, but he did not want to feel anything. They were only bodies after all. He salvaged two singed masks, a cannon charger, and a fractured helmet, and he checked for rations. There were none. He wondered which came first, starvation or the drones. His heart and mind were hardened, yet he sat on a broad stone despite himself.

Wailing strains pierced the shadowy air. He stood up quickly, set his cannon to full power, and started running. He did not know why he had wasted time. He was breathing heavily. Blazing flashes glowed around him. Burning vapors flooded the crags. He fired upward into the chemical storm. Deep night threw its shroud.

A small planet circled a small sun.

Soul in a Pocket

Author: Glenn Leung

The day Sola’s life fell apart started out mundane. His soul rang its usual reverie and played jazz as he brushed his teeth. Before leaving the apartment, it paid the rent and called for maid services. All this was done without Sola’s knowledge. He trusted his soul to manage minor affairs; being the ultra-intuitive digital assistant that it is. He was always too busy to take notes.

The place Sola’s life fell apart was on the subway. He had not felt the need to clutch his soul with iron ferocity. After all, most people seemed comfortable jangling their phones with sweaty palms. Even if the plastic casing broke, his soul would simply return to the immaterial realm, and it was fairly easy to pull it back. However, this sort of over-simplistic thinking often finds a way to punish the thinker.

The moment Sola’s life fell apart started when he was getting off the train. A small child, looking the wrong way, had dashed into him. The casing fell from his buttery grip, and he watched as his soul slipped through the platform gap with divine precision. The grace at which this calamity happened stunned everyone who witnessed it but only for a brief second. Most people acknowledged the event in their own way before moving on. The child’s mother offered monetary compensation and advised Sola to contact the station staff. Sola, the last to recover from the shock, could only nod robotically.

Since the day the soul was made material, Sola and a few million others had loaded up their Instagram photos, credit card info, and mother’s maiden name onto the spiritual medium. His life was resting beside the rails; safe from being crushed, and far from convenient. His limbs flaccid, he limped over to the uniformed staff wearing the least stern expression.

“Excuse me,” he spoke, his voice a soft screech. “My soul fell onto the tracks.”

That was not something the staff heard every day. He gave Sola a bemused look.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” he began. “We can’t stop train service. You’ll have to wait til’ tomorrow to get it back.”

“I… you don’t understand! That’s… That’s ME down there!” Sola protested, making sure to emphasize his disembodied individuality.

The staff became less sympathetic. Sola would have picked a different person if he had seen his face then.

“What I don’t understand is why people like you feel the need to clutch and defile your spirituality! Like I said, we can’t stop train service! Come back tomorrow!”

Mixing personal beliefs with work was certainly unprofessional, but most agreed the staff didn’t deserve what Sola did next. The sudden admonishment had made Sola see his situation in a desperate light. He thought about all the things he wouldn’t be able to do that day; its impact on his impossible schedule. He thought about the essence of his being, wrapped up in a helpless little box, exposed to unfeeling steel. Pressure built up in his chest, and in one volcanic release, he threw a cross to the staff’s chin, knocking him over. Sola was about to pry open the platform doors when another staff tackled him to the ground. By the time he regained his composure, he was sitting in handcuffs.

Sola’s soul was retrieved from the tracks but confiscated until he received bail. He sat in his cell as an empty husk, pondering the fragility of life.