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.

Night Light

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

I woke with a start before dawn, the sky outside was still dark and yet the room was bathed in a shimmering orange glow.

For a moment I thought I was dreaming, but the room was my room, as I left it when I went to sleep, excepting of course the strange light. And the man.

He sat just beyond the foot of the bed in a straight back chair that did not belong, his arms at his side, hands folded neatly in his lap. His head was tipped back ever so slightly, and flames poured as if liquid from his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth only to evaporate before reaching his shoulders, filling the air and the room with this shimmering liquid firelight.

I knew in my gut what this was, who this was, why he was here. I had been remiss, I owed him a debt and he was trying to collect.

I believed him lost. I thought I could forget. I thought he was free of this mortal coil, and yet here he was, having found his own way from who knows where to me.

The air crackled, static charge raising my hair as it bridged the distance between the walls and where he sat.

His head tilted forward ever so slightly, the fiery eye sockets looking right through me before he disappeared with a snap, the room suddenly plunged back into darkness.

I sat stunned for some time, hair still on end, the smell of ozone permeating the room and a metalic taste in my mouth.

I raised a hand, pulled a fistful of light from the ether and tossed it to the empty glass globe hung from the bedroom ceiling. It coalesced there, gained strength, and bathed the room in a soft white light.

My knowledge of and agency over light came at a cost, the loss of a partner I assumed was final, but clearly more than light can be pushed into and pulled from the ether, and if he was there, trapped in the who knows where, it would be in my best interest to find a way to bring him back.

Before he found a way back on his own.

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.

Finding the Truth

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The roof is a tarpaulin, sheltering walls braced with lengths of burnt wood and fungus-like runs of building foam. The floor had been churned mud before a levelling blazer converted it to blackened glass. At the centre of the room a figure is tied to a chair, clothing reduced to rags. Wires criss-cross his body. Everything’s covered in dirt, except for the officer leaning on the wall in front of the figure. She’s gazing at a holographic display that floats in the air between them.
“Let’s try again, Captain Thirm. You claim your unit intercepted Major Proth’s retreat. Somehow, despite managing to kill all the grunts, you missed him.”
The figure in the chair spits.
“Interrogator Reed, my reply stands: your commander is a prick.”
The veracity indicator flashes bright green.
“Still telling the truth.” She coughs. “From his point of view.”
The shadowed image in the video window wobbles as a fist slams into the camera.
“I told you to stop him doing that!”
“Commander, the only way to do that will render him unable to reply.”
A face looms close enough for the light from the screen to pick out the shine of his scars.
“I authorise the use of special measures.”
“Commander, we’ve been making this man’s nervous system light up like a Christmas tree for three days. In that time, the only information we’ve obtained is 1,442 reiterations of his opinion of you. The time for psionic interrogation is when the subject’s neurosurgical landscape is uncompromised, where the nuances between truth, lie, and obfuscation can be discerned.”
“I emphasised special measures. Turning him into a vegetable is acceptable.”
“Commander, use of that discipline is an atrocity under the Convention of Mars. I refuse.”
“If you disobey me, mindwarper, I’ll have you shot for treason.”
There’s a pause, then she steps through the holographic display and places her hand on the Captain’s head. His body jerks. On screen, the shadowed figure nods.
Thirm finds himself unable to move. A burning sensation races about in his head, becomes almost unbearable, then vanishes. A voice speaks within his mind.
*Hello, Walter. I see you volunteered for experimental pain buffering. It seems to have worked. I’ve also browsed other relevant memories. I see events occurred as you reported, and can detect no interference. Do you have any idea why the official record disagrees with the truth you participated in?*
Walter struggles for a moment, then works out how to reply.
*We overran this sector far quicker than expected. Proth had to improvise, starting with the decoys my team met. The Commander has fresh scars. From ten years ago? I patched him up after that battle. Also, like most of our side, he has no problem with psionicists. Commander Adams would never use a derogatory term like ‘mindwarper’.*
*You’re insinuating that the Major has hidden himself within our chain of command?*
*Remote warfare has unique hazards. Proth seems to have exploited them. He’s getting the witnesses killed during interrogations. Tell whoever’s going in to be careful. He’ll be guarded by the survivors of his Special Tactics Executive.*
*Excuse me.*
He’s alone in his head, her hand still in place. Minutes pass.
The shadowy figure on screen slumps sideways and disappears. A woman in PsiCom uniform takes his place.
“Initial reads confirm the hypothesis. We have captured Major Proth and one STE operative.”
Her hand lifts from his head.
“Welcome back, Captain. You’re reinstated, and are scheduled to return to duty after a seven-day furlough.”
“Join me for a drink?”
“I’ve been in your mind.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’.”