Rapunzel

Author : cchatfield

The small group marched forward in loose formation, swaggering with the confidence that their training would kick in when needed. The sandy landscape offered no threats, no hiding places, no life.

Their destination: a lone tower, hidden in a secluded valley lined with flat, open rocks.

“Looks like it was built to last,” commented the leader.

The tower stood a hundred feet high, pale sunlight illuminating its simple apex. The rusty surface silently boasted of the hundreds of years it had stood untouched and promised tenfold more.

“It’s just up there?” asked the navigator, rubbing his hands.

The leader nodded, “Should be a stairwell. And don’t get excited, we don’t know what the security’s like.”

They soon located a door leading to a winding stair that filled the entirety of the tower’s innards. It opened to a dark room and the group of mercenaries froze, alert for booby traps. They knew from experience that the ancient treasure hoarders had perfected the technique of turning empty spaces into dangerous surprises.

They entered slowly, adjusting to the darkness.

“We got it,” whispered one of the mercenaries, eyes wide at the sight of the altar sitting on the opposite end of the room. An archaic padlock hung limply from an unassuming chest seated in the place of honor. Guns held tightly, all attention focused on their quarry.

Off to the side was a standing oval, four feet tall. It resembled a woven basket, braided with dusty metal strands rather than plant fiber. The navigator motioned towards it with his gun. “Looks like a cocoon doesn’t i-”

A razor blade grew from his throat. The rest of the team was in motion before he hit the floor. They ducked and rolled to avoid the flying whips of metal hissing around the room. A few strands of razor thin wire bisected the leader. Thicker vines of ropy cord snarled the second and third-in-command. In a moment the group had deteriorated into a pile of corpses on the floor, the echoes of their sparse gunfire bouncing into oblivion.

Fully unwrapped, a small robotic figure tread softly around them. Green orbs acted as eyes on a childish body. Hundreds of wires fanned from her head in a constantly writhing, prodding cloud. They worked quickly, dissecting the team and slipping the remains through a thin grate to land with dull clacks on a pile of bleached bones.

After inspecting the chest for signs of damage, the mechanical girl stood over the leader’s cooling form. The corner of a picture peeked from his pocket. While the wires busily stripped bodies on the other side of the room, she snatched it and folded it into plated metal hands.

Their job done, the girl regained her position in the corner. She unfolded the picture, her emerald eyes feasting on the image while the wires reassembled, sheathing her form.

The tower, built to last, crouched in silence.

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One Exception

Author : Jay Haytch

One exception

She stood at the threshold and looked out at a burnt world.

It wasn’t really a proper threshold. There was no welcome mat, for starters. Just a trod-over pile of rubble where one last stray missile had hit the city wall and left a person-sized crack. On one side, the city. On the other side… well…

No one had sealed the breach, even after all these years. Why bother? There was no enemy anymore. Nothing left out there, they said.

Behind her she heard the morning fanfare trumpet through the city’s loudspeakers. Time to get up and start the day, for everyone. No exceptions.

She looked ahead through the crack again. Blasted, fractured, cold, harsh desert. Barren rocks and brutal landforms. Grey. Lifeless. There were no windows in the city wall; this little crack was all the view its inhabitants could get of the rest of the world. It was all the view they needed.

Others had gone out before, of course. But no one knew what happened to them. They never returned. She knew as soon as she set one foot over the threshold, it was all or nothing. No one was allowed back in. No exceptions.

She hadn’t seen the orderly yet, but it didn’t matter. She knew it would be there. There was an unwritten rule that anyone could stand where she was and contemplate the outside for as long as they needed to, and the orderlies wouldn’t interfere. Until that person turned around.

Wait, there it was, in the doorway of a nearby building, watching. It had gifts for her if she would only head back to the city. A comfy leather jacket that would pin her arms tightly to her chest and a big bottle of serum that would make her happy and content again. For the rest of her life.

Some people took the orderlies up on their offer. They went back to being productive citizens and smiled a lot. Every day in fact. No exceptions.

Only the insane would think of doing what she was thinking of doing. The sane, they stayed put. The city, after all, provided a person’s every need.

She stepped forward, through the gate of civilization into who knew what. Though the grey was ahead of her, to her left and right – obscured by the wall until she’d passed the point of no return – there was green.

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Stealth Education

Author : Glenn S. Austin

“Well do you think it did any good at all?” The President asked the others sitting around the large oval conference table in the command bunker.

The President asked the question to the entire room, but his tired eyes looked directly at his Press Secretary.

“It’s too early to tell Mr. President.” The Press Secretary was a tall, thin middle-aged man who looked like he would be more comfortable in a cubicle at a large accounting firm than sitting here advising the leader of what was left of the free world. “Most of the education we provided was for long term survival, over a period of months and years. We knew our training program was really only directed at the small portion of the population that would survive the initial catastrophe.”

“Yes, yes, I know, but we’re three months in now, do we have any indication as to what percentage took the training to heart?”

“Sir, the problem is that the ones who really learned from all of our educational programming, will not be jumping up and down waving a “Help Us” banner.”

The President raised his eyebrows; everyone knew that meant he wanted the speaker to elaborate.

The Secretary explained. “One of the re-occurring themes in all of the training was that staying hidden and off the grid was the best strategy for continued survival. No matter what the threat, it is always best to stay concealed from both the initial threat that brought down society, as well as hiding from other survivors who will just consume your resources, while reducing chances of long term survival.”

“Going to be tough to take the next Census.” Quipped the Chief of Staff, to quite a few chuckles around the table.

The President looked at his Chief of Staff and pressed for a better answer to his original question. “Well what real data do we have that any of our training programs had an effect?”

The Chief of Staff looked down the table at the Commerce Secretary.

Commerce took a second to look at the contents of a folder in front of her on the table. “Sir, our numbers indicate that the retail sales of bows, crossbows, and firearms increased, as the number of training programs increased. We feel that this correlation indicated the message was taken to heart by at least the folks who watched the training videos.”

“Do we have any idea how many watched the training videos?” The President asked, looking further down the table at the network executives.

The collection of suits looked around at each other and silently selected a representative. A large man cleared his throat as he stood up to respond. He looked directly at the president, “Sir, the collective ratings for our Zombie Apocalypse programming indicate over fifteen million repeat viewers. In fact our Zombie programs as a whole were the highest rated programs at one point.

The exec waited for a response and then continued when all he got was a nod. “Our Alien Invasion programs also faired very well with over ten million viewers, and another ten million watched the nuclear, loss of electric grid, and EMP blast, apocalypse shows.” The exec concluded, “We only had 7 years to provide the programs but we reached over 25 percent of the U.S. population with the combination of survival training education we provided.”

The President grinned slightly and addressed the table at large. “So the future of the USA and civilization now depends on couch potatoes who watched apocalyptic Zombie and Science fiction disaster shows. Let’s all hope they learned something!”

 

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Symptoms and Side Effects

Author : Rachelle Shepherd

The streetlamps sputtered on, spilling buttery fluorescence on Broadway Street litter. Sparrow opened the kitchen cabinets where chrome rows of Midnight Oil hissed in the shadow.

“Another night, Sparrow?” He didn’t answer. He never talked anymore, only scribbled in his journal and chewed his teeth crooked on pull-tabs.

Midnight Oil. 100% pure energy info-tech, all natural human animal hormone. Each tiny can was polished aluminum, reflective down to the print. Circuitry wrapped its wires around brand logo and rim and vanished down into the belly of the can. If you took a penlight and peered past the pull-tab, you could see through the translucent hormone to where the circuitry disappeared into the darker depths of oil.

Street rumor said that the circuitry never ended, not on any can. Constant loop.

With a magnifying glass the flawless circuitry became fine line English. Words all crammed in one gut-wrenching punch of symptoms and side effects. Gigabyte after gigabyte of consequence raced its message down those wires. Always changing.

Sparrow had classic addiction. Addiction and a writer’s muse, one of Midnight Oil’s bastard prodigies. Midnight Oil Poetry! Drinkers beware: metaphor in every can.

Sparrow plucked one off the shelf, chugged it, staggered, tossed the waste. When he turned back to me he had the pull-tab between his teeth.

*

Another night. I began to dread it just as much as my flat-mate, a man grown gaunt.

“You can’t live off metal shavings and steroids,” I said. He grinned a grin of broken teeth and ragged tongue. He’d been gnawing that pink skin at the edges.

The streetlamps hummed and spilled out sunscreen puddles over Broadway Street stray cats.

Midnight Oil. He said it stung the first dozen times. I saw the blisters myself, the pockets of pus clustered around his lips. There was a callous on the inside of his middle finger by the end of the week and crumpled stationary crackled underfoot with every step. Some of those pages were only words, some sentences, some dark night dead-end poems. All projects of a wired mind. Sparrow had gone viral.

He stopped talking, sleeping, eating, paying rent, paying attention. But he always burned the Midnight Oil.

I had my cigarettes, Surgeon General, and I lit one. Sparrow stood at the kitchen cabinet, his army of chrome soldiers full attention.

Another pop and hiss, guzzle and gag, gasp.

*

I woke up one morning to sunshine streetlamps fighting city smog. Some days, there was real Sun out there, the bona fide all natural firefly in the sky. You could see it on the news, too, if you were scared to go outside.

Sparrow dead on the kitchen floor, a pull-tab in his teeth. The linoleum was hormone slick.

I peered down at his open, vacant eyes. Circuitry bobbed across his iris.

I rushed for my magnifying glass. I was back before the words were swallowed by the black hole of his pupil and flushed down the cords of optic nerve.

Penlight? Check.

I put a beam on them, trapped that fine line English with my glass eye. They struggled with the congealed pool of sticky blue, strangers to 100% all natural human animal death throes.

They read: symptoms and side effects.

 

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Builders

Author : chesterchatfield

I woke up one morning and found a small robot living on my leg. By the time I stumbled up to the bathroom, I could feel the little parasite burrowing, trying to get at my mind. After an hour, I’d become a passenger in my own body, watching this little creep run me around like a puppet.

It walked me down to a local mall and we bought a wristwatch, no one seeming to notice an alien presence behind my eyes. We hopped a bus, walked a bit more, and then buried the watch in a hole filled with tons of other trinkets, tools, and sheets of metal. I have no idea where we went because it avoided looking at any signs or landmarks the whole way. That treasure trove could be practically anywhere.

As the day wore on I felt the presence weaken, like it’s batteries were running down. By the time we returned to my apartment, I wrestled control back and the robot dropped off my leg, lying limply on the ground. It was about six inches long, metal plated like a cylindrical leech. I doubted it would be able to travel very far without a host.

Reaching over to gingerly poke it, I finally noticed a small notebook that had been tied around the thickest part, like a dog collar.

Inside were accounts from what I guess are all the other people it’s latched onto. The first dozen are in foreign languages I can’t read, but towards the end they’re English. Each person wrote their name, the date, and what the creature had them do. The list varied from cutting down trees to robbing a jewelry store. The most recent was dated twenty-five years earlier. Judging from the jumble of letters, numbers, and codes in one, I think some kind of research facility had it at one point. I guess they weren’t careful enough.

There was also a note that the thing had so far proved indestructible, but that it wasn’t a danger after it fell off. The woman who had it before me, Linda, had speculated for a page or two that it was building something. That it had been on earth for hundreds of years. She planned to leave it locked in a trunk in the attic space of her apartment building.

I dropped it off the pier, locked in a safe. It’ll escape eventually, but not for a while. And it won’t land on anyone while they sleep.

The creature tapped its bright pincers, interacting with a shipboard computer while its companion observed apathetically. On a trip of this length, watching the other often became their only entertainment.

“Wait,” the watcher suddenly clicked. “Go back.”

The other flipped back through the sensory images, landing on a cold metallic orb, full of energy.

“Reminds me of that build-helper I made. Remember? I was gonna teach it to repair the shuttle’s temporal navigator so I could spend time trading chem with that gorgeous piece of shell down at Carnite IV.”

They spent a moment in fond recollection. “Didn’t work out though. Hadn’t even attached limbs yet, gave it a list of parts and the damn thing just hopped ship to go find a new mineral base for the reactor.”

“What happened to it?”

“Either floatin’ around space or landed somewhere, I guess. Ha! Maybe it’ll find the materials to actually make a new reactor.” The creature dissolved into clacking laughter. “I never got around to teaching it the containment procedures! That thing was persistent. Probably end up blowin’ a small planet!”

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