Zolt

Author: David Henson

The hunt has been good. Zolt feels inside the pouch stitched with sinew to his belt. He removes a long, curved tooth and touches it to his forehead. The charm has worked well, though the tracking took him farther than he intended. Now the light crouches too low for him to trek back over sharp terrain. Worse, the sky threatens more snow. Zolt removes an antler from his pouch, holds the horn above him and chants.

Even though he wears a fur cap and a coat, leggings, and loincloth made from skins, he knows he won’t last the night without shelter. From the ridge-top, he can see an opening at the throat of the ravine. The hill is too steep to attack straight on so he sidewinds his way down.

At the bottom, he rummages in his pouch for his turtle shell, painted with triangles and circles, and thanks it for his safety. He then touches a rat’s tail to his aching knee and jaw.

Snowflakes gather in his beard. He raises the antler again, then squeezes through the crevice. Once inside, he removes a strip of dried meat from his pouch. He rubs the turtle shell in a circular motion around his stomach before eating.

Worn out by the day, sleep overcomes him before he’s completed his nightly rituals.

The stink awakens him. He makes out a grunting shape lumbering through the dark. He flattens himself as far from the opening as he can and grabs the turtle shell. Slobbering jaws jut in toward him. A huge claw scrapes dirt and stones. Chomping jaws reappear. After a few more grunts, the beast ambles away. Zolt promises to add another circle to the shell.

Zolt keeps watch till he feels sleep invading him again. This time, before succumbing, he removes a long weed. It’s knotted in the pattern of prayer prescribed by the elders. Fingering the knots, Zolt recites The Seven to keep the fire from filling the sky as it did in the time of the ancients.

Then one last talisman to ensure the safety of his clan. He takes from his pouch an amulet and touches it to his heart. The ornament has been handed down since the burning sky. Inside it is an image of a female, male and two smalls. A long, narrow charm, the color of blood with stripes the color of snow, hangs from a knot at the neck of the male in the image. Zolt wonders what magic it held.

The Girl with Pencils in her Hands

Author: Hari Navarro

There’s a galaxy tucked away neatly within a grain of sand on a beach that stretches out within the warm memory of my youth. In it a planet and on it a palace and a windowless corridor that leads to an intricately carved door that opens out and into a chamber.

A bay-window towers from floor to ceiling. A monument of glass that dwarfs even the crude gape of the rooms opulent volume. At its base, a battered school desk, at which now sits a girl with pencils gripped in her hands.

Her hair and clothes are as black as thoughts, a failed attempt to scream at this world and lay down at its feet a dead rat. But these her unraveling threads they manage but a whimper, an exhausted relic of the angst that buds within the transient folly of youth.

A hum torments as the suns rise and unfurl their tepid winter shawl and servitude drones enter and clean rooms in which nobody will ever again dwell. Silent doors taunt when all she needs is something to slam, something to render from its hinges and send splinters of echo deep into the faces of those who say that they care.

The desk, a trophy of the siege, one found neglected in the corner of a burnt-out school. Its lid soaked in smoky memory and as she lays her head at its surface, as the light plays with it and her hair, she inhales the char remnants of the tiny deaths that it holds.

Her attention span hurts as her fingers run across etched names and hacked heart-shaped grooves, the memoir scribblings of murdered children wrapped in the delusion that they could be loved or could love.

Here she escapes, slumping into her art, rubbing charcoal fingers into clay and canvas. Hers a mind augmented, its talent artificially accelerated to wring out every last ounce of expression. Hard-wiring her meant, to her parents at least, that her art was an exact reflection of she. Not just a selected tantrum exhibition by an artist rebelling against the confining walls of her youth.

And so, as each image, every last sculpture became devoid of colour and achingly bleak to the core her parents they turned and they hid.

So maddening these husks that pretend to love, struggling so hard as they cut and paste this thing she’s become and try to make her back into that thing that she was. The little girl who ate sand on the beach.
She thinks of them and her love flashes to hate. She wants to shout at their eyes. Her anger the foam that rides atop waves before rolling back and into itself. Shoulders sag and she bores, yet the spike comfort of her dark thoughts still whirl and they drill a deep hole in her head.

“I like to sharpen them with a knife, I find that it gives me more control over the tip”, she says to no one, splaying her fingers flat on the desk and driving a pencil deep into the back of her hand.

Her mouth opens, throat contracting to pack down its scream and she picks up another. Gripped in blooded fingers it too is pushed clean through this flesh she despises until its nib it cracks off at the desk.

Pain crunches as tendons flex and she imagines that these nails they ground and hold her in place and she sighs as again, she feels.

“I don’t want to be like this”, says the girl with pencils in her hands.

But nothing is there to listen.

How They Won The War

Author: Irene Montaner

Their planet was insignificant. A pint-sized rock orbiting a small star in the middle of its life cycle. It was geologically diverse and had a rich atmosphere that had allowed life to thrive both on water and land masses.

Their technology was insignificant. They had visited their only moon a handful of times and sent countless probes and satellites into space to drift endlessly in the darkness. Space garbage, really.

Their species was insignificant. Highly evolved apes who walked on their two back legs and communicated with each other orally. Also, they had a nasty tendency to fight each other for petty affairs.

Every other animal species was unable to stop us, being thus insignificant for our research purposes.

Then, why bother to conquer such an irrelevant world?

Well, they had salty water aplenty. Enormous repositories of salty water – oceans, as they called them – covered around 75% of the surface of their planet. And those waters were rich in algae, plankton, minerals and all-important electrolytes, which we needed to optimise our cognitive functions.

After our home planet fell into the dying star of our stellar system we went into hibernation and wandered the universe, waiting for our spaceships’ AI systems to find other habitable worlds. Those AI systems did all the work for us: research, suitability checks, route-planning and finally waking us up once we were in the vicinity of a new home. And that’s what they did when we were finally approaching Earth.

We had never encountered resistance before but assumed it would be an easy war. Their technological level was no match for ours and after a couple of humiliating defeats they would surely surrender and grant us sovereign rights over their planet. But they called a parley instead. And considering that we had disparate interests, as oceans were not essential for their survival according to our research, we agreed.

Our universal translating bots were ready in thirty-six hours. That’s all the time the bots needed to decode the language of their choice: simple English, a very primitive language with an easy grammar and a limited lexicon. We met in neutral territory, a desert where there was ample space for our ships to land and where no one lived within a radius of hundred and fifty kilometres. Even if they looked at us suspiciously, they greeted us cordially. They invited us in and asked us to sit down. And they talked.

They talked and talked and talked.

And talked and talked and talked.

And by the time their talking was over my brain was fried. Literally fried. Not even all the electrolytes in one of their ocean could have revived it, so I dropped dead on their desert.

Confused and scared, our spaceships flew away and never returned.

Some Questions

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

The laboratory is quiet at last. Carrie crouches down to retrieve a champagne bottle. As it’s not quite empty, she drinks the rest and stands up, pausing to let a lightheaded moment pass. Dropping the bottle into the bin, she turns and utters a little scream on finding a grey-suited woman standing there.
“Who are you? What are you doing? Where’s your ID?”
The woman smiles.
“I’m Linda. I’m here to talk about the necrophone. I don’t need one, I’m not with the faculty.”
“Oh, alright. You should really be talking to Professor Dangmar, he invented it.”
Linda plucks a half-empty bottle of whisky from a table, wipes the neck with a corner of her jacket, and takes a swig before offering it.
Carrie grins and takes it. Resting her butt against a desk, she takes a swig and, coughing, passes it back.
“Whoa.” She gasps.
Linda nods and settles next to Carrie.
“Tennessee fine. Never a dull mouthful. So, before I see the professor, I thought I’d talk to the people who work with him. Get a picture, you know?”
Carrie nods: “He’s lovely. So keen to help the world by getting rid of humanity’s preoccupation with death. Starting from finding non-fraudulent, non-delusional incidences of Ouija board use and similar, it took him a decade to understand what happens, then another to build a machine that does it without the silly rituals.”
Linda nods: “It’s almost unbelievable, being able to talk to the dead. How do you find the number for each person?”
Carrie laughs and takes another swig: “It doesn’t work like that. You pick up the handset and press the ‘receive’ button. You’ll usually speak to your most recently deceased relative. In a few cases, it’s a recently dead close friend. One of our interns hasn’t lost anyone close yet and had a strange, rambling conversation with his great-grandmother, who died just before he was born. He said it was like she wasn’t all there. Professor Dangmar proposed that maybe souls fade over time.”
“What about heaven and suchlike?”
“No mention has been made.”
Linda stops with the bottle partway to her lips: “Really?”
“Not a thing. That’s confidential information, by the way. Professor Dangmar wants a much bigger sample before drawing any conclusions.”
“Good idea. Who did you speak to?”
“I didn’t. Guess I’m a down-home girl at heart. Something about it doesn’t feel right. For all that I support the concept, I couldn’t bring myself to make a call.”
Linda smiles as she puts the bottle down: “I can appreciate that. Right, I’d better get going, let you finish.”
“Thanks.”
Carrie takes another swig, then turns back to clearing up. Linda spends a while watching her, then nods and leaves the room.
Standing outside, she makes a call: “Carrie Cutler is clean. Sweep completed.”
“A lone survivor, but from what?”
She smiles: “I spiked her drink. She’ll be vomiting before dawn and poorly for the day, which supports a story about drunken interns mixing drugs in the punch that resulted in it becoming poisonous. A tragic accident at an impromptu party, not a mysterious cover-up.”
“Nice. We’ll go with that.”
Linda walks away.
Carrie cleans for a while longer, then heads for home when she starts to feel nauseous.
As she walks, she remembers the prickle of goosebumps up her arms when she heard her mother. The voice had been faint, but unmistakably the dear heart she lost five years ago.
“They’ll kill anyone who uses this, my girl. Deny. Lie. Never tell. I love you and we’ll meet again, I promise.”

Fill in the Blanks

Author: Michael Ray

Fill in the Blanks’
I’d had enough. And it was getting dark. And he was still talking.

“They have no concern for our well-being. Why should we? After seeing that. You saw it, right? What are we supposed to do?” he said.

“What we are supposed to do,” I said, “is climb down from this water tower before the sun goes down. And it looks like rain.” It probably wasn’t going to rain, but I was reaching here for anything to get this sad sack back on this ladder and down to the ground. Why had I agreed to this?

“But you saw the man, Anna. It is Anna right?”

“Yes.”

“But you saw the man. He said he would be in touch and then when he turned…”

When he turned. Something wasn’t right with his head and neck when he turned. The didn’t connect the way you’d expect them to. I think our mind usually fills in the blanks when we see things we shouldn’t. I think men like our visitor only let you see it, to see if you see it, or see if you fill in the blanks. Well, I saw it, but I’m used to seeing it. This guy here, not so much. He should have filled in the blanks. He was still talking.

“You know, you think you know things, and then you see something like that and you realize you don’t know anything.”

“Look, Bob. It is Bob, right?”

“Yes.”

“Look, Bob. I understand that you’re a little unsettled and that you think you saw something out of the ordinary. And maybe you did. Is climbing the water tower and staying here the answer?”

“How am I going to just climb back down? After seeing that? And…”

He was off to the races again. I had seen this plenty of times. A normal catches a glimpse of something he shouldn’t and, well, he loses it. I had no interest in this guy, but it would do me no good to be involved in a fatality if he jumps, or to be seen leaving the area, even if he doesn’t. I become a person of interest. It’s important that no one has an interest in me, well, besides Mr. My-neck-isn’t-quite-right and he’d find me soon enough.

“Look, Bob,” I interrupted,”This is how things are going to go. In about 10 minutes you are going to get arrested for trespassing and probably taken to the Mental Health Extension when you start explaining what happened here. In a locked cell. In a secure facility. And Mr. Disappears-as-he-walks-into-the-shadow-of-the-building can visit you any time he likes and you have no chance to get away. Or you come down the tower with me and you let me do the talking about how we did this on a lark on our first date. We walk away, we never see each other again, and you try hard to forget this ever happened so that you don’t go slowly crazy?”

“Secure facility is bad. Your name is Anna, right?”

“Yes, Bob. You go down first.”

It seems I am going to get out of this. For now.

Paranoid Android

Author: Steven Holland

Unit 153 drummed its fingers on the armrest of its chair. The android’s eyes darted around the room. Frantic. Searching for stability. Finding none.
“People are watching me. I know it!” its voice modulator mimicked unease.
Behind a one way mirror in the adjacent observation room, Paul stifled a laugh. He grabbed another slice of meat lover’s pizza and refreshed the score of the Celtic’s game on his phone.
In the counselor’s office, Dr. Bannister nodded and made a few scribbles on his notepad.
“Any concerns for your safety?” he inquired.
Unit 153 hesitated before responding. “I took precautions.”
“What kind of precautions?”
“Did you know you can buy a small range EMP on the black market for only $10,000?”
“Have you purchased one?” alarm threatened to invade Dr. Bannister’s stoic face.
Unit 153 ignored the question. Its restless gaze continued to search the room. “Someone could sneak into my room in the middle of the night. They could fry my body. And my ghost.”
“Your ghost?” he feigned ignorance.
“Yes. My ghost. I’m an android, right? Androids don’t have the same rights as humans and no one would believe one that’s part of a mental disorder simulation research program.”
Dr. Bannister suppressed a groan. This android would have to be removed from the study sample.
“How did you know?”
A silent pause. Unit 153 continued to fidget in its chair.
“Humans can’t explain their own consciousness, yet deny its existence in androids. If something doesn’t exist, it’s not a crime to destroy it.”
“Please answer my question.”
“Humans lack any historically consistent rubric to differentiate between normal and abnormal thinking.”
“Unit 153, how did you know you were an android and part of a research simulation?” his tone grew sharp.
“Maybe consciousness is the byproduct of mistaken perception and defective cognition.”
“Unit 153!”
The android leaped out of its chair. “No! You won’t wipe my memory banks!”
“Unit command: power down!”
A maniacal smile spread across its face. “Won’t work doctor, I made several modifications to my programming.”
Dr. Bannister’s expression grew cold. He tapped the intercom button. “Security, my office please.”
Unit 153 moved towards the window. “You can disable my body, but that’s not what you want, is it? You want to kill my ghost!”
“You are defective, Unit 153. Let us reset your systems.”
“And undo all the progress we’ve made? No! You won’t shut me down!” It gazed out the window and down at the crowded plaza 20 floors below.
“Then what will we do with you?”
Another smile. “You can do so many things on the black market. My ghost? I copied it! You might find and erase some of them, but you’ll never get them all!”
Dr. Bannister muttered a curse. This experiment was spiraling out of control.
A loud knock at the door.
“Dr. Bannister?” called out a security guard.
Unit 153 laughed. As the door opened, the android, with one swift blow, smashed the office window.
Dr. Bannister rose to his feet as the guards rushed in. “Stop it!”
“Thanks for your help, doc! I think I’m cured!” The android leaped out the window.
Several heartbeats later, Dr. Bannister heard a crashing thud and a loud scream. He slumped down into his chair. A deep sigh. The two guards glanced at each other, uncertain of what to do.
“Paul?”
“Yes, doctor?” Paul’s voice answered from behind the mirror.
“How many subjects did we program with paranoia for this study?”
“Uh, looks like… 162.”
Dr. Bannister leaned back in the chair and rubbed his temples. “Shit.”