The Last Beautiful Thing

Author : D. Magliola

Ron was sprawled on a park bench. His dirty hands were tucked into the kangaroo pouch of his salvaged Nike hoodie. He exhaled a cloud of vapor and wheezed with his next breath. A single tear ran down his cheek and was absorbed in the dust mask that protected his mouth and nose. Everything had gone to hell since the day before. The scene that previous evening had been different. She had been there.

People had been fighting over things for longer than anyone could remember. First it was for oil. Then it was bombs. Then it was freedom, then food, and finally people just fought for themselves. All around the filthy world, people had stolen shotguns from WalMarts and fought for their lives. Later, people lost hope even in themselves. There was no reason to go on, death was easier than fighting.

Then, in the broken cement jungle of Chicago, a small group of scavengers found the girl. She was small, soft, and autistic. It was as if her fractured mind had turned down the volume of the fighting. She was the only one who hadn’t lost hope. She shared it with those who found her. They became the Protectors. The group of men and women, only a few dozen strong, defended their little bubble of hope for years. She was the last beautiful thing. In a world of horror, she was the only relief. The Protectors risked their lives to steal her food. When she became ill with typhoid, they tore apart every abandoned supermarket and pharmacy in Chicago until they found penicillin that hadn’t dried up and become like chalk. She could play the piano, so the Protectors stole her one. While a handful of them stood night watch in the entrance of their decrepit subway station, she had played beautiful music. Wonderful random little notes would tinkle through the frigid night air and help people forget their dead families and hunger. Sometimes she’d sing.

Then one night some freakoids came through in a minivan. They had all the seats taken out and a .50 caliber M-2 Browning bolted to the interior. They hit the guards and crashed down the stairwell, throwing the passenger door open and filling the depot with hot lead before Ron could blow the bastards away.

She had been sitting on the bucket next to the piano with her head on the keys. Her torn dress was an off shade of muddy red, the puddle beneath her matched.

Ron took another ragged breath through his mask. The world had ended that night. There was nothing left to fight for. What would he do? Maybe he’d join the other Protectors, at the bottom of the Sears Tower. Their broken bodies felt no pain. Why go on living in a world with nothing beautiful?

Ron removed his mask and took another breath. He hawked a pint of warm red relief, his scarred lungs liberated of life by the razor dust. If she couldn’t come to him, he’d go to her. Ron closed his eyes and departed to find the last beautiful thing.

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Sky Marshal

Author : Phill Arng

It was wet work, being in the Sky Platoon. Yawning decades hunched in the basket of those primitive balloons with nothing for company but the clouds and the telescopes for watching all our friends below.

Time moved differently in the chronosphere and it lent itself to idle thoughts. They hadn’t mentioned that when they sent us up here, a few of the centurions went a tiny bit mad. Blew the wrong people up, as it where. That was a crime as we saw it in the early days.

Our job was to enforce the laws, to begin with they where largely contradictory; we fixed them once we had solved the philosophical foundations. Ethics, logic, that sort of thing. Oh yes, time! hah! we had a unique perspective for fixing that one.

I was watching when the first generation of senators frantically ordered the decommissioning of the Sky Platoon. The exact moment when the Emperor violated section eight of the Aerial Autonomy Act. I was watching his face in melting slow motion as zeppelin 17 arrested him. It seemed artless and marked the end of our tenure as public servants.

I must have arrested more than any other zeppelin during that era. I had a somewhat errant perspective on genome crime, I’m ashamed to say. To my credit, I was soon able to arrest individual genetic mutations without destroying the host. That is before we started enforcing the Atomic Pre-Destination Act.

Atomic predestination law isn’t really something you can do alone inside your mind, you see? You have to think up compression matrix to store the positions and vectors of a millennia of atoms, cede synapses to independent thought patterns when parsing them… Whole consciousness fragmented, it was an age of neuro-rebellion. Zeppelin 17 cut some of his brain out with the lens of his warrant card, the rest of us just tried to forget.

Its a shame I only remember the bad stuff. The more I forget, the more the stuff becomes bad. I remembered better than most and my balloon was among the last to fall. I think there are still people up there, warring for their minds, destiny out of sync with sanity.

The world is about to end, did I mention that? I thought it might be for the best. Difficult to tell, really, when your a recovering schizophrenic.

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Space Walk

Author : Duncan Shields

The helmet amplifies my own breathing and makes me feel uncomfortably confined. It’s like when you can hear yourself chewing and it sounds so noisy because of the bone conduction going on with the sound but outside of your head its fine. Except with me I can hear my own breathing coming through the speakers in my earpieces. All I can see through the faceplate is infinite space salted with Christmas-light stars. This is my first space walk.

Something interesting happens to the human mind when it’s confronted with this level of distance. Visually, there is no up or down and below your feet is an unknowable distance of nothing. The tallest building you’ve ever dared yourself to look over the edge of is nothing compared to this. Your brain tries to get a hold on it. It either gives up altogether or the monkey starts screaming and you go crazy. Right now I’m not sure which way it’s going to go. Am I going to blind myself by projectile vomiting against the glass? Am I going to claw at the catches on my helmet just to make it stop? My breathing is getting loud and ragged in my ears. My vital signs are rising.

Control senses it.

“You alright?” comes down the speakers.

I breathe back and manage a squeak. I feel like screaming but I can’t. I know I’m starting to lose it. Any second now the line is going to go tight, they’ll reel me in, and I’ll get shipped dirtside to a desk job or a training facility and my days in space will be done if I don’t get it together.

“McGavin! You alright?” comes down the tube again.

And just like that, like someone shooting out the part of my brain that’s not evolved, I don’t care. It’s like the monkey blew a fuse and just went dark. I look at the stars and they’re just stars. I look down and see my feet dangling and below them is just space. I’m fine. I can feel my little heart blink and start to slow down, relieved.

“Roger. I’m fine.” I say.

The instructor can hear it in my voice that I have it under control and I’ll be fine. He’s done this hundreds of times. He knows the signs.

“Copy. Five more minutes then we’ll pull you in. Enjoy it.” He says.

I start to hum a little tune that I heard a couple of weeks ago. I’m still humming it later in my bunk, going over the high fiving of my fellow successes and our uneasy shunning of the people who panicked and are going back to Earth tonight. I wonder for a while what the switch was in me and how it really didn’t seem like a conscious decision. I wonder if survival is different for some people, like we evolved from different apes. Some people panic, scream and run while some people just turn off and sublimate.

I drift off feeling mysteriously strong but not personally responsible.

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One Step Forward…

Author : Michael Shreeves

The call had gone out, and they came. Across land, sea, air, hundreds of miles, they came, three million all told. No one in United Dissent could afford to miss an opportunity like this. Still, especially with a pig like Beauregard being sworn in, we should’ve expected this.

If looks could kill, F.O.S.-Zone 841 would’ve been a massacre. Sierra Clubbers were glaring at fresh-cut stumps and fence posts, EFF lawbies at the suits running the multiphasic sight/sound anti-media ECM blanket, and polibloggers and libertarians at the 30ft live feed of the inauguration speech. Us neoComs and anarchists kept busy, thrashing to some third-rate spall band on a packing-crate stage.

Yet another white-button-shirt paced in my direction, his green peace-brassard hanging loose. His plaque didn’t say if he was latter-day or witness, but to us and the IRS it didn’t really matter anymore.

“This is an absolute outrage! They bleed our church dry, and we aren’t even heard! Where is the media?”

“Well, CNN’s barred on threat of monopoly prosecution, MSNBC’s at the great temple for the Patch Vigil, and Fox, well…” I glanced at the holo projector fanfare. “You hear about Phoenix?”

The white shirt cringed. “No one prosecuted, but four-hundred hospitalized… Still, I’ve had the training. If they come, we’ll take it as martyrs, and the people will hear us.”

“They will, eh? What people exactly? The Supporters who hate us here, or the outsiders who hate us all anyway? What network’ll tell ’em?”

“But…. but…” Boy Scout stuttered. Deputy Directors in the UD weren’t supposed to talk like me. “There are three million of us here, they HAVE to hear us!”

“Three million in a thousand camps hacked last-minute out of the swamps. But don’t worry, I’m sure the suits are listening to every word we say.” I looked at Boy Scout and shrugged. “Look, its very simple. Non-violence has a lot of things to depend on. The bravery of its adherents and the brutality of its enemies are the ones we learn about. But the enemies have to care about their image. They have to want to look good for allies and voters and history. Reporters showed Ghandi and King beaten and won the hearts of the people. But the world already fears us, and the people, well, all they’ll ever hear about is how THEIR candidate’s inauguration went off without a hitch. They won’t even know we were here.”

“But… what then?”

We watched the commandeered metro buses pull up to the gates with some straggling dissenters. This batch preferred white hoods to peace brassards, though. Some of them didn’t even bother hiding their shotguns and bats as the suits processed them through the gates.

“Beauregard’s buddies are here. Excuse me.”

Boy Scout straightened up, ready to stand proud and take his licks. I walked over to the rapidly disintegrating stage, kicked the top off a crate, and grabbed an AK.

“Thank god we lost on gun control. Hasta la victoria!”

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Author : Kenny R. Brown

A very sweaty, very fat man with a rifle paces back and forth at the top of the wall. He is guarding the only entrance, but he is more for effect than for any real purpose. An entire army would be unable to break down these doors. Made of an unknown metal, the entire fortress, let alone the doors are a relic of a long forgotten time.

The most ancient texts in the archives refer to the construction of the Stronghold as the last hope of the people, but the threat to be avoided was omitted from even those texts. Most of the collective wisdom of humanity was lost when the Terms went dark.

Now, those of us who are left gather at the doors of the Stronghold each day; hoping that this will be the day that we are chosen. On the days when the doors open laborers are brought in to toil in exchange for a brick of SynFood.

I have been coming each day since I was a boy. Today though is different. Today, I have come for another reason. During the last dark season; as I was exploring the caves near the village, I stumbled across a camp of the ancients. Inside the remains of a vehicle; I found a trunk containing a rifle much like the one carried by the sweaty fat man. Also, there was a Term; but this one wasn’t dark. It was portable, and self-powered.

I read about the Stronghold. How it was built to house millions; protecting them from an ancient catastrophe. What’s more; I found the code to remotely open the doors. Today; I will bring my requests to the door of the Stronghold. When they refuse to offer shelter for the people of my village; I will open the doors and the men of my clan will storm the Stronghold. Today; the walls of Jericho will fall.

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