Prisoners

Author: David Henson

The prisoner, his shoulder burning with pain, winces the pickaxe overhead then slams it down. The crystalline surface fractures. The shards slice his hands as he loads the jagged pieces into his wheelbarrow. When he hesitates, a disembodied voice tells him to pick up the pace. The prisoner finishes filling the wagon then struggles it to a pile about 200 meters away. He dumps the load then sinks to his knees, gasping.

“You know what to do next,” the voice says, hurriedly. “You think I can spend all my time watching you?”

The prisoner braces himself with the pickaxe, pulls himself to his feet, then slams the tool into the surface, gathers up the broken pieces and wheels them back to his previous location.

“Pick up the pace,” the guard says, watching one of the control panel’s myriad of monitors. Each screen shows a prisoner working loads of shattered crystal back and forth. Suddenly a buzzer. The guard scans the monitors until he sees the culprit, a prisoner leaning on his pickaxe. Before the guard can react, another buzzer, another lollygagging prisoner. Another buzzer. Sweat beads on the guard’s forehead. His hand trembles and he looks over his shoulder at the door to his monitoring station. He needs to get the idle prisoners back to work before —

The guard’s unit manager barges into the station. “What the hell is going on in here?”

“I … I can’t keep up. Too many. I get after one, and three others start goofing off. There’s too many. Too much to do.”

“Find a way,” the unit manager says. “Or you’ll be joining them.” She claps her hands. “Pick. Up. The. Pace.”

“Yes, ma’m,” the guard says, wiping his brow with his sleeve. “Prisoner 182,” he shouts into his microphone. “Pick up the pace.”

“That’s more like it.” The unit manager steps back out into the corridor, one of many that connect the array of monitoring stations. She lowers her head, charges toward the sound of buzzers coming from down the hall … and plows into the associate warden.

“Your sector is out of control,” the associate warden says. “Sounds like a kazoo band in here.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ve got a bunch of incompetent guards.” Buzzers sound from the station she just left. Then more alarms from the opposite direction.

“No excuses. Now pick up the” — A badge on the associate warden’s lapel chirps.

“Are you sleeping down there?” a voice blares from the associate warden’s badge.”

“No, warden. I’m on top of it. Sometimes I don’t think my unit managers know what they’re doing. I —”

“I don’t have time for excuses,” the warden says, a tinge of panic in her voice. “Now pick up the pace before —”

#

The former warden dumps the shards then sinks to her knees gasping for air.

“Pick up the pace,” a disembodied voice shouts.

#

The editor closes his laptop, winces back from his desk and groans.

“What’s the matter?” his wife says, massaging his neck.

“So many submissions. I move one, and three more pop into the queue. Can’t keep up. Eyes are burning. Gotta take a break.” The editor starts to stand, but his wife shoves him back down into his seat.

“I think you need to pick up the pace, Sweetie,” she says. Then looks nervously over her shoulder.

The Painted Face

Author: Rollin T. Gentry

A series of video clips play on the large screen behind the podium, low budget re-enactments, as a smooth, male voice narrates: fear of heights, fear of the dark, snakes, and spiders. Primitive humans making simple mistakes leading to their demise. All dead, but their tribes never forgot them.

Dr. Janis Everett takes a deep breath and steps to the podium. To the crowd of potential investors, she says, “Genetic memory is a window into our past. With the next round of funding, we hope to begin treating common phobias.” She pauses, thinking, I should stop here before I make a fool of myself. But she doesn’t stop. “Before I conclude, I would like to present one last phobia, which on the surface seems trivial compared to the others. But ask yourselves, ‘Why couldn’t a clown be as deadly as a poisonous snake?'”

Around the campfire, half-naked, dirty people watch a prehistoric clown entertain. Choluk’s long hair is tied up high in pigtails bound with cords of leather. Drool runs down his beard, and his nose is tinted red from the juice of berries. This is not the first time he has acted the fool for the chief. In fact, he loves to make the chief laugh; he loves the chief. Choluk acts drunk and falls down; everyone laughs. The voices Choluk hears are the gods speaking, are they not? When he saw a mouse die after it had eaten the red berries, the gods told him what to do. He dried the berries, ground them to powder, and hid them in his leather pouch.

Choluk bounces around on all fours like a monkey. When everyone is laughing, he empties the poison into the chief’s cup. The chief will now become a god. He continues his act until the chief falls backward, gasping for air. Choluk readily admits his deed. The warriors of the tribe execute him, but they never forget how the laughter distracted them, how they underestimated the fool. And they will always remember his painted face.

Another scene begins.

In Mongolia, a fat man dressed in fine silk sits on a throne. Before him, a juggler stands on one foot, keeping four rocks in the air. The juggler used to be a hunter among his people before the king’s army made slaves of them. He wears the white face paint and clothes of a woman. When he drops a stone, he feels the crack of the whip.

The juggler asks in a little girl’s voice for three torches to replace the stones. The king motions for the guards to comply. The king wants to see if the fool will catch himself on fire. After successfully juggling the torches, he asks for three swords, saying that if he fails, he might very well cut off his manhood and really be a woman then. The king laughs and orders his guards to swap the torches for swords. Keeping the swords in the air, the juggler flirts with the guards like a concubine. They mock him, slapping his face, and laugh until they are out of breath.

In that moment, the juggler hurls the swords at the king, pinning him to his throne, straight through the heart. Before the guards can kill the juggler, he shouts, “For my wife and daughter, you pig!” But the king is already dead.

The screen goes dark. The house lights brighten.

Then like a crack of thunder, sudden applause, and people standing.

Dr. Everett relaxes her grip on the podium and smiles the faintest smile. It seems she isn’t alone after all.

Field of Flowers

Author: Hari Navarro, Staff Writer

The man hangs inverted and naked from the pole that sits at the centre of a galaxy. A neglected cosmos of once delicate but now mob trodden flowers. A meeting place that slopes down, pulling away from where the eternal city had halted its crawl, before thinning to sip of the great river that glides at its edge.

He cries through fear sodden eyes and he cries through a throat that now gags at the steel and the hard swelling lump of his tongue. His brilliant eidetic mind swims in sounds and colours foreign and sharp and he grasps for just what he has done to entice these things to hate him so.

The four-legged beast that had drawn him through the streets had looked back at him twice as he’d stood screaming through the bars at its back. It knew. It knew, that the words that he spat were but shadows of ideas and of experiences had, and not the daggers of demons.

“This beautiful globe spins as it voyages around its great star. Its song echoed throughout the glorious infinite gape up above. Everything is familial, where even the stars in the sky have with them their own family of spheres. These dark-matter filaments that connect us all. Devoid of the politics and the caveats of intelligent construction, it calls down with a beauty and horror and diversity all of its own”, he’d screamed in words that none did care comprehend.

And then, as the crowd parted, they spat and jeered as the cage door flung open and they clawed and they ripped. They tore the suit from his body, how they cackled at this thing so unknown and different, with its panels that flashed though no flint had been struck and no candle had offered its glow.

An iron spike is driven through his cheek and another up from under his chin until it bore into the roof of his mouth. Together they form the same symbol as that at the top of the staffs that sway through the crowd and his ankles are clamped in chain.

Up becomes down and the man smells his hair as it bubbles and pops as the flames tendril up from the faggots. He wails, and for an instant the baying falls silent as his last guttural cry seems not of this world. There is unfathomable truth in this hanging moment as the man history calls Giordano Bruno he flakes away and into the ash.

This great man, the very last of his kind and the very first to step down from the stars.

Chalet

Author: Mark Joseph Kevlock

The snow outside is at least four feet high. This will finally give us that chance to talk. Only, which one of us will begin?

“I never meant to hurt you,” Marcine says.

“You tried to kill me on three separate occasions.”

“I don’t always have free will,” Marcine says. “It comes and goes.”

She’s giving off some sort of pheromone that’s meant either to seduce or to poison me. I’m immune to none of her charms.

“I’m trying to save the world,” I say. “I have altruistic goals.”

“I hope you succeed,” Marcine says.

“So why do you keep trying to stop me?”

“I don’t fear the world,” Marcine says. “I don’t even believe it exists.”

I look out the window in defiance of her claims. The ski lift is still operating, but with no riders.

“You don’t believe in real people, do you?” I say.

“My reality is different,” Marcine says.

“How can I prove to you the value and worth of human life?”

Marcine stares pensively into the crackling fire, just like a woman would. “Maybe you could make me fall in love with you?” she says.

“I barely survive our encounters as it is,” I say.

I see too late that she’s got the idea stuck in her head. She begins to undress, right here in the lobby. Maybe I’m giving off pheromones of my own.

I don’t stop her until near the end. She’s all underwear and a smile. Outside it’s minus twelve.

“Love doesn’t save the world,” I say. “Kindness does.”

“I can be kind,” Marcine says. “I can kill mercifully if I really try.”

I begin to wonder how badly lovemaking would mess her up. I’m halfway entertaining it.

“I can kill the witnesses afterwards,” Marcine says, “if that bothers you.”

The firelight catches the seams along the side of her skull. Just an illusion, like any woman.

“The way I spread my message is generational,” I say. “Each decade they believe it a little more.”

“Evolution is so boring,” Marcine says. “If I want better people, I can just build them.”

“You can’t build humanity,” I say. “You have to grow it, inside out.”

“Why are you so sure that you exist?”

I don’t have a degree in philosophy. I just have a gift for sharing love. I show people their best.

“I perceive all the same things you do,” Marcine says, “and they mean nothing to me.”

“What about God?”

“He must have built me,” Marcine says. “I don’t see Him much anymore, and He never talks to me.”

She has a multi-dimensional awareness beyond human perception, so who knows?

“We’re both very old,” I say. “Older than these bodies. We don’t have to be at odds.”

“I can kill you with kindness,” Marcine says. “Wouldn’t that be ironic?”

Underneath her free will, she has programming. The programs tell her to eliminate prophets like me. Her mission is to retard the growth of spirit.

“Mankind is a failed experiment,” she says. “It keeps evolving beyond itself. It won’t just be what it is. I need to cancel that equation.”

“Because God told you to?”

“It’s inside of me somewhere,” Marcine says. “You can’t start over without a clean slate.”

“You really believe that your kind are the galaxy’s ultimate life form?”

“Form is an illusion,” Marcine says.

The underwear is last to go. Lodgers are staring. Marcine doesn’t even believe we’re real.

Afterwards, she’ll probably try to kill me again.

Service Animals

Author: Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr.

Tee-Crux entered the spaceport with her service animal in tow. Everyone stopped to stare at her ET-Ultra. Even the ticket agents and porters gawked. Tee-Crux was especially pleased with the oohs and ahhs from the verbal races and the flapping of skin or feathers from the non-verbal. All had heard of the Ultra’s soothing qualities and most had viewed the vids she produced for the Nature Channel. Yet few believed that the screams of an Ultra could cure subspace-sickness.
“They’ll see,” she thought.
Subspace-sickness was the bane of intergalactic travel. The nausea was so intense that only an AI could pilot a ship through inner-space. Each galactic year a handful of passengers died, while many others had their brainwaves scrambled. The introduction of service animals on flights helped to ease the suffering, but it was not a cure. Then Tee-Crux’s mate, Blee-Crux, returned to Crux as the sole survivor of a deep-space expedition to the delta-quadrant. His AI pilot had malfunctioned and Blee-Crux had done the impossible. He piloted through inner-space without going insane. His secret, he had discovered a small, smooth-skinned, bipedal animal that radiated calming energy waves. The major space-liners had sent expeditions to retrace Blee-Crux’s trip, unsuccessfully.
“Blee may have no interpersonal skills,” thought Tee-Crux, “but he is the best smuggler in the galaxy.” He proved that when he secreted fifty mating pairs of Ultras home. They had spent the last five cycles conditioning the new pups for inner-space travel. Tee-Crux squared her shoulders and lifted her tusks up high. “Today is the day we cash in!”
A mob of paparazzi pushed through the crowd shouting, “Make it scream! Make it scream!”
Tee-Crux waited until the terminal and adjoining concourses were packed. Then she raised her hand up high to reveal a remote control. She waited until the crowd hushed, then she pressed the button.
The ET-Ultra screamed with exquisite agony and fell writhing to the floor. Its sound washed away everyone’s anxieties. Even after the Ultra quieted, the feeling of well-being continued. The crowd burst into applause of loud clicking. Few in the annuals of the Coalition of Solar Systems had ever received such an ovation from so many different races at the same time. As the crowd made-way for Tee-Crux to pass, she felt as if she were riding inside an anti-gravity pleasure bubble.
She boarded a charted spaceship, one that had cost her and Blee-Crux their life savings. Inside, she found two hundred executives from competing space-lines already seated. All were seasoned space survivor. Tee-Crux pressed the button. The Ultra’s screams produced the desired effect.
“One billion credits for exclusive rights,” shouted the first bidder.
“Two billion!” said another.
“Please, a moment,” said Tee-Crux. She picked up the ET-Ultra. It buried its nose in her neck and whimpered wonderfully. Tee-Crux patted its back. “Fellow Coalitionists, we are about to experience the smoothest take off in the history of interstellar flight. There will be ample time to bid during our three-hour cruise.”
As a multi-limbed flight attendant helped Tee-Crux secure the Et-Ultra into its carrier, he noticed odd artwork on the pet’s license tag. “What’s that?” he asked.
“ET-Ultras like to scratch tiny designs on the walls,” said Tee-Crux, “especially that one. We’re using it as our logo.”
“Does it mean anything?”
“Ultras rate too low on the sentient-index for it to mean anything.”
“I collect animal art. May I take a pic?”
“Certainly.”
The attendant clicked a pic and posted it on Intergalactic String. In minutes, a trillion followers viewed the strange animal markings for the first time.
– Fuck You –

Elephant Shoes

Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

I stand in the doorway, an invisible force for the moment stopping me from going any further.

Arthur, ever the watchful companion, lifts his head and looks right at me, ears perked up, tail wagging, gently thump-thump-thumping against the bedspread.

She sleeps.

With feet like lead, I manage the distance from the door to the edge of the bed, where I stop again, rooted.

This is as close I will get.

I thought I’d forgotten the gentle curve of her cheekbones, her hair absently tucked behind her ear even when she sleeps. The slow, rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, the way she tucks the duvet in between her knees.

I can almost smell her hair.

How long can this last?

Arthur lays on his back now, looking at me upside down, his jowls giving in to gravity and his teeth exposed in a funny inverted smile.

He huffs, and she stirs, eyes opening sleepily.

I’m lost in a sea of amber-flecked green.

Please, let this last.

The expression on her face changes. I’m not supposed to be here, I’m a million miles away. I recognize the look of sleepy confusion, and I know, tomorrow, if we could sit on the balcony drinking coffee together, she’d describe that space between waking and sleeping where she tries to hold onto the dream, to write it down on some non-volatile part of her brain to deconstruct later.

But I won’t be here in the morning.

This is as close as I’ll get.

“I love you”, I say.

She can’t possibly hear me, but still, her mouth moves in reply and I can almost hear her voice as she says, “elephant shoes too.”

It’s a private joke.

I feel my heart breaking first, then a tug at the base of my spine and I’m yanked backward through the doorway, then the wall in the hall into the living room. Arthur rounds the corner at a gallop, he can sense the terror I’m feeling as I leave him at the patio doors, out and up, the grass receding, the giant sycamore tree in the yard.

Then the clouds.

The edge of the atmosphere.

The sucking void of space.

The rest is a blur, the distance we covered as a crew so carefully, so patiently to end up here, gone by now in an instant.

I wonder as I’m pulled through the cockpit windshield and snapped back unceremoniously into my body if the rest of the crew shared the same experience.

I’d ask them if I could.

But I can’t.

I close my eyes, the blinding fireball of the star that’s caught us in its inescapable grip searing into my brain.

My last thoughts are of a sea of amber-flecked green, of elephant shoes.