Alpha Kestrel — Assassin of the Dead

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

Once upon a moonstruck hour, a newborn baby was stolen. Snatched from the cold place upon which she lay swaddled and still and stashed with leather hands beneath the wet warmth of an old man’s beading oilskin poncho.

Pools of shed torrent on the hospital floor the only trace of his ever being there at all. Sole evidence that this poor wee soul hadn’t been taken by some malevolent supernatural entity. Proof, scant as it was, that this horror was surely the work of a very much human flavour of fiend.

The fact that said child was already dead did not ease in the least the pain of parents already slumped beneath the heft of this most abject and distilling loss. Time heals all they say but with no body to lay beneath the inscription time only agitates…

Time pulls the stitches apart.

This was no random act of perversion, as twenty other lifeless babies were likewise denied the chance to eternally rest that very same night. Blessed be those early hours in which unripe and all but rotting fruits were so purposefully plucked and claimed.

Years later, I had chance to meet the operative charged with gleaning my remains from that slab drawer onto which I had been so lovingly laid. He was old and smiled as he showed me the crook of his trigger finger, its tendons long ago slashed into the most ready and perfect of stances. He was a lovely man, but hard. The deep plunge of his eyes screaming with the spark that only manifests in the knowledge that it was he whom held sway over who lives and who it is that does not.

“I’d never felt it. Not before you…”, the elder had muttered massaging at the swell of his knuckles. “Never felt the weight of existence. But, as I scooped you up and my grasp pulled against your barely formed sinew and it shifted and lolled within your shroud, I felt… no, I tasted… death. The living death, that which coils inside when hearts do stop. I knew it existed, its eradication is what we’re for. But I’d never felt it so magnificently radiant. Until you.”
Praise me?

I was chosen for my potential aesthetic and a genetic anomaly that allowed me to be resuscitated, of a fashion, and brought back into this realm of the living. My ancestry leaked into the data-stream so, as close as might be possible, it could be determined that I’d blossom into a beauty that transcended even the word itself. Our looks are a bullet you see, one of many that we employ in the entrapment of dark souls that require putting to final and unequivocal rest.

The theoretical aspect of my training ended today as the Teacher instructed Tau to lay down upon the gurney that had been wheeled beneath the room’s huge chalkboard.

She spoke, and her words were wet upon the air and from where I sat I could just see the shimmers as they ran down bare legs to the contraction and fidget of Tau’s nervously grasping toes.

I was transfixed and yet, my hearing did wander. I took in the others as their chairs creaked in unison and every one of us tightened and sought to reign in the inflamed swell that gripped within of our skin.

“Rho Kestrel, make your way to the front of the class. Today we lay waste to your purity. Today you will all sample your raison d’être. Praise be to be taught.”

The Teacher carefully unbuttons Rho’s kestrel-crested uniform and we all stifle a collective giggle as it momentarily catches and then drops over the jut of my classmate’s strikingly excited self to the floor.

Tau moves on the gurney and I move too as for the very first time I see private things other than my own. I wish I could say that my vivid imagination had prepared me for it, but I can barely swallow as awkwardly positioned flesh seeks to find its rhythm.

“Tau please encapsulate Rho and feel as this procurement radiates. Do you sense how you illicit responses from each other? If not, as the term progresses, there’ll be ample opportunity to uncover just where the weaponising of your gender leads. And now… pause and… withdraw.”

“Who noticed the beading liquid that appeared at the beginning of the lesson? This is a clear pre-ejaculate, also known as Cowper’s fluid. It functions as a lubricant and an acid neutraliser. The receptacle is normally acidic, so its deposit before full emission can change the internal environment and promote survival of the emitted discharge, which is not an issue you’ll need to bother with. This fluid also acts as a lubricant during interaction, which will help in the retrieval and destruction of the target’s soul residue. Eta Kestrel! Your attention, perhaps? There will, I assure you, be a test!”

I’m not a good student. I struggle with mathematics, numerals fly on the page like flurries of black ash above the driven snow and languages are just plain foreign. But this I can feel as it connects and stumbles and gropes through every little last cell of my being.

“You’ll become elite in ending those so smugly believing themselves exempt from final judgement. Olisbokollikes — look it up! You’ll find even a well-placed snack can afford you the access you require to take out your target.”

If befuddled frowns could be heard then the classroom’s collective confusion would’ve blown out every one of the ornate archer’s windows that slit the walls of this our mountaintop lair.

All hail the almighty loaf!
I know about dirty stuff… I do, I do.

The Teachers words blur as do my eyes and I listen to her breath as it twists into me and, in turn, swirls into the thud that pulses down and thumps on the chair between my legs.

The moment suspends and elongates and my shoulders drop forward and my head whips back and I can smell them all. Every last one of this world’s trapped and stranded lost and dirty fouled pneuma.

“Praise be — to be me,” I sigh into a broadening smile. “Praise now that I know, most exactly, what it is that I am for.”

Priestess of Setup

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The approach panel flashes green and shows the Public Credentials of the impending caller. I call to Julie as I head for the door.
“They’re here.”
“Thank goodness.”
The relief in her voice is more than her Mental Balance counsellor would be happy with, I’m sure.
A low double chime indicates arrival, and that it’s a formal call.
I tap to open the door, then step to one side, waving the robed dignitary in.
“Thank you. I’m Servitor Andrews.”
She puts her hood down and I recognise her instantly.
“Charlene?”
The fixation of my teenage years turns and smiles at me in a distracted way.
“Montecourt… Charles?”
Ouch. Some things never change.
“My elder brother. I’m George.”
She nods.
“You have a matter that needs attending to?”
Julie rushes round the corner and grabs her hand. Half-towing, she leads her towards our gathering room.
“We were left them by George’s uncle. He got them back before the seawalls went up.”
Charlene pauses to look over the stack of black boxes and jumble of wires.
“It wasn’t disassembled by a Servitor.”
I sigh.
“My father still harbours some delusions regarding personal action outside class designations.”
She nods, her tone sympathetic.
“It’s something we encounter with the last of the first generation post-ecollapse. Don’t worry. I see no attempts to reassemble or open casings. This is not a Contravention matter.”
Julie flaps her hands in relief.
“Would you like some tea?”
Charlene stiffens.
“Are you a Vendor?”
Julie blushes.
“Sorry. I’m the designated family hostess. It’s habit.”
“Then if you happened to make surplus sufficient for a third cup while preparing for you and your partner, it would be rude of me to refuse.”
She smiles.
That’s clever. Bypassing the class statutes by using the etiquette standards.
“This shouldn’t take me long.”
With that, she moves to the pile of technology and starts to sort it. Time passes. Julie brings tea for us.
“I presume you intend to have it on display and in use here?”
I nod.
She indicates the tall black boxes.
“Place one of the tallest in each of the corners on your AV display wall. The medium-size go in the corners at the opposite end of the room. The smallest pair go halfway down the length of the room, and the cube goes against the AV wall. Try to get it as central as you can.”
It takes me a few minutes moving ornaments and display cabinets, but I finish in time to watch her wander around the room, bending to slot a small silver card into the back of each of the boxes. She sees me watching and smiles.
“Connecting wires are inefficient and overly complex. Part of my duty is to simplify where it will not affect the output.”
She checks her infocuff,
“If the two of you would stand in the centre of the room, please.”
We do so. She taps the activate panel. The AV wall lights up. A deep hum raises the hair on my arms.
The film we’d been watching last night starts from where we left off. Except, this time we’re standing within the audio. It’s astonishing. Julie makes little noises of awe. Charlene smiles.
“They called it ‘immersive sound’. Apart from being quite spectacular, these devices are now banned products due to the rare materials needed to manufacture them. Your uncle left you a valuable legacy.”
Julie looks at me and shakes her head. We’re not selling it.
Charlene smiles.
“I’ll leave you to enjoy this souvenir of a world we’ll never have again.”

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.