Entertainingly Evil
29
Mar

Vengeance for Captain Phenomenal by Megan Neumann

Yeah, she’d heard about the Captain—how they’d stripped him, tortured him, made him beg before robbing him of his glory and his life. Gemini didn’t care.

Why should she? Captain Phenomenal was her enemy. For years he’d tried to thwart her. Every robbery she’d attempted, he’d been there, floating above her in the sky with his cape flapping even when no wind blew.

When they fought, he threw out cheesy lines like, “Stop, evil doer!” and “Justice will be served!” Sometimes Gemini had been so distracted by these words, she’d hesitate to roll her eyes, and he would almost beat her. But she always got away, taunting him as she ran in two directions, using her power to split into two women to disorient him.

Admittedly, she sometimes lingered at the scene of a crime a little too long, just for a chance to fight. Even though he was a spandex-wearing freak, he fought like no other, moved with grace and skill. He challenged her. She loved to split into her two selves and fight him from two sides, dizzying him until he’d finally trip over his ridiculous cape.

Then her masters, the Keepers, took him—brainwashed him. The Keepers collected the super powered, and the Captain was just another beast in their menagerie. He became her comrade in crime. How she’d hated that. How could the Keepers make her work with someone so good? What were they thinking? Captain Phenomenal could never be a villain.

But after the Keepers put him in a cage, assaulting him day and night with their brainwashing devices, all remnants of good disappeared. They twisted his mind so he thought only of pleasing his masters.

Gemini hadn’t needed brainwashing. She’d always been a villain. The Keepers had only blackmailed her. They forced her into servitude for their evil conglomerate using information. She hated working for them, but rationalized it wasn’t so bad. She could tolerate it. She did what she loved—stealing—and sometimes she had a good fight with Captain Phenomenal.

After his mind belonged to the Keepers, they made Gemini and the Captain partners. He became General Sinister. She should have been happy. He did what she said without question. That was the problem.

They went on mission after mission. General Sinister was ruthless. He stole for the Keepers. He killed for the Keepers. His fiery eyes turned onto the people he once saved, igniting and killing civilians without mercy. He was the perfect villain.

Or was he?

He had no passion for his crimes. A villain needed to love what they did, and General Sinister was a soulless puppet that only followed orders. He had no fight left in him.

One night after they had taken a cargo ship, Gemini lost her patience. He had just killed six crewmembers and was throwing their bodies off the ship, chucking them as far as his super strength would allow. She pulled him away from the corpses and screamed, “What are you doing? This isn’t you!” Tears fell from her eyes. Why was she crying? Only idiots and weaklings cried, but she couldn’t stop herself. She fell to her knees and said, “Please! Wake up! I miss you!”

He looked at her, bewildered. Then he laughed.

She stood and struck him across the face, leapt onto him, knocked him to the ground, and pummeled him with her fists. She split into her two selves and kicked him from every angle as he struggled to escape.

“Wake up!” she screamed. “You’re a hero! Fight me!”

He only recoiled from her, covering his face, pleading, “Please, we’re partners. The Keepers wouldn’t want this.”

She screamed, “You stand for justice! You’re good. I’m an evildoer. You’re not. Don’t you remember? ‘Justice will be served.’”

At these corny words, he fell silent. His face contorted in pain. He backed away from her slowly, shaking his head. Then he flew away.

For weeks she heard nothing from the Captain, and then Gemini heard from the other kept villains—Captain Phenomenal’s brainwashing had failed. He remembered who he was, and he knew far too much about the Keepers. He needed to be put down.

The Keepers took him once more. Instead of brainwashing him, they beat him to an unrecognizable pulp and left his naked body in a dumpster behind a Denny’s. No one would recognize his corpse as the hero who saved the world countless times, fought Gemini countless times. When she heard about this, she told herself, so what? Who cares about a hero? One less weirdo in spandex.

Then she’d remember the fights—he’d hold her close in his arms, squeezing the life from her body, staring into her eyes. She’d spit in his face, bite, kick, and thrash. Only when her double would sneak from behind could she escape his hold. Then it would be her turn to knock him from the top of a building or slam a hammer into the side of his head.

Back and forth, they’d go, year after year. He could have killed her, but he never did. He could have captured her, but he never did. Captain Phenomenal wanted a fight, just like her. Now their fights were over.

Yeah, she’d heard about the Captain.

He deserved vengeance. But what could she do? She wasn’t a hero.

After the Captain’s death, Gemini bided her time and thought about what it meant to be a hero. Heroes fought for something good, and Captain Phenomenal had been good. If she couldn’t fight him, then maybe she could fight for him. Taking on the Keepers would probably kill her. She probably deserved to die. All she could hope for was vengeance and one last good fight dedicated to the Captain.


Megan Neumann is a speculative fiction writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her stories have appeared in Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and Luna Station Quarterly. She is a member of the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group and is particularly appreciative of their loving support and scathing critiques.




24
Mar

Memory Boxes by Pam L. Wallace

Sara sat on the floor, surrounded by boxes of shiny-grained wood, one ear attuned, as always, to Darrell’s breathing, holding her own breath each time his stuttered—waiting, waiting for his next breath so she, too could breathe again. He lay on the bed, curled into a near-fetal position.

All that was left of the man she’d married all those years ago was an empty husk, his essence lost in the plaques and tangles miring his brain. He’d been her backbone and her cheerleader; given her strength and inspiration. Now she had one last gift for him. She tucked a strand of gray hair behind her ear and straightened her posture.

It was time to let him go.  She did him no favors by clinging. He’d made her promise to remember their joy and not dwell on the sorrow. They’d made more than enough memories to last her until they were together again.

The wood had been culled from their small home orchard, cut into planks that were hand-planed by Darrell. Together, they’d lovingly crafted each box, the joints meticulously dovetailed. The smallest was barely as big as her thumb; the largest an eight-inch cube.

The box of apple wood was first, the odor of the wood sweet but tart. A smile was carved into the lid. She cradled the box against her chest. Finally, with a sigh, she opened it, freeing the memory they’d so tenderly placed within. A ball of sparkling motes floated from the box to circle her head, and the memory burst into a vision. Teens at summer camp, they’d giggled as they ran down the dusty path to the lake and splashed into the clear chill water. It was a comfortable day that only turned awkward when he moved to kiss her, neither one knowing quite what to do and bumping noses in the process.

The memory left her and floated over to Darrell, where it settled on his chest. His breath stuttered, then he inhaled a deep, clear breath.

The next box was the largest. Fashioned of black walnut, the grainy wood was sanded to a smooth satin finish. Sara held it close to her heart, breathing in the musty fragrance. Walnut, for passion.

She opened the heart-carved lid and the memory soared free, filling her vision with the day they’d met again after years apart. A perfect spring day, filled with promise. She’d entered the coffee shop feeling rushed and harried and bumped into someone’s back. She’d already begun her apology when Darrell turned around. The words died into meaningless blather as they recognized in each other their youthful summer romance. His eyes had sparked with golden glints of passion. They’d never been apart since.

It was a precious memory, one Sara did not want to let it go, but Darrell’s frail figure, so changed from the robust man she’d shared life with, was all the impetus she needed. She gathered the memory in her hands, where it glittered like rays of sunlight. She blew it to Darrell, where it settled upon his brow. The lines of pain etched there eased, loosened from their stranglehold.

And so it went, the boxes lovingly held, their smooth sides rubbed and kissed. The lids opened while the redolent woods released their memories. The pine brought a peaceful glow to Darrell’s face, the oak a touch of color to his wan complexion. The olive reminded her of his wisdom in choosing what to keep and what to throw away.

The clock struck midnight as she opened the last box. Around her on the floor were the empty boxes, their lids scattered haphazardly. She’d saved this box, the tiniest, for last. Cherry wood, full of sweetness and light. Darrell had sanded this one with especial care, rubbing at a tiny nub that most would not have noticed.

Sara held the box for the longest time before sliding the lid off.

The memory burst forth with a smell of cherry blossoms, the same that had littered the ground on the night they’d returned home from the hospital empty-handed. “Don’t worry,” he’d whispered. “We’ll be fine without children. As long as I have you, all’s right with life.”

The memory cloud lingered over her head. It was very hard to let go, but the memory was not hers alone to hold. With his diagnosis, she and Darrell had sorted through memories, picked the most special and consigned them to the boxes. His plan was for Sara to have the memories after he was gone, but even then she’d known she’d use them to ease his passing.

Sara released the memory from the cherry box. It flickered and spun across the room, then drifted down as a twinkling waterfall upon Darrell’s shoulders. His face relaxed, calmed, strengthened. And so did the burden upon her.

Sara stepped through the scatter of empty boxes to her beloved’s side. She held his hand and smoothed his brow. She whispered in his ear words meant for him alone.

He opened his eyes, and her husband looked out at her one last time. His smile was glorious and tender and all the memory she would ever need.

She placed a last kiss upon his lips as the light faded from his eyes. And with the kiss, the memories flowed back to her, gentle and sweet, with a promise she would never be alone.


Pam Wallace is a little bit of this and a little of that, but the sum of her parts can mostly be described by one word: family. Her stories can be found at Daily Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Shock Totem, and Journal of Unlikely Entomology, among others. She is part of the badger crew at Shimmer Magazine. This story was previously published on Daily Science Fiction.




22
Mar

Under a Wing and a Prayer by Alan Baxter

I remember my grandfather’s face, even though he died when I was three. Mum said he used to hold me for hours nearly every night and whisper in my ear, too quietly for her to hear what he said. But I recall word for word what he told me.

It’s why I’m standing here, a blood-stained knife in my hand.

Again.

I can only resist so much of his influence.

I’ll savour this a moment more before I leave. He warned me to keep moving, after all. Those words of his yearn to escape my lips, some vile language, old and evil. But I won’t give in to that part of his spell. He always finished with a whispered, Resist and keep moving, in his own voice, his own language. Like he slipped me that last against the will of the invocation he was forced to weave about me.

His malevolent words churn inside me, clawing through my guts and veins, looking for a way out. If I speak them, I know the result will be bad for me. I can’t resist the urge he gave me to murder, but I can fight the compulsion to say the words. I can do that much. I can’t let it get any worse, the killing is bad enough.

My heavy breath echoes in the empty house. I strain to keep his words from bursting out of me as I pocket the knife and slip out the back, teeth gripping my tongue. Heavy rain is a blessing, rinsing my hands before I jump into the stolen car and peel away.

#

As the rush of the kill fades, Granddad’s cajoling dwindles to a distant murmur again. Same every time. Fifteen now.

His power over me emerged about the same time hair grew around my cock, grew stronger through my teens and first forced me to kill at seventeen. There were all the animals before that, of course, but my first person, I mean. Four years and fifteen people. How long can I keep this up?

Next time, I’ll resist the words and the desire to kill. Next time. I can beat him.

I roll over on the motel bed to let a fitful sleep take me. I’ll dream of him like always, but I need the rest. I haven’t slept in days and killing fills me with fatigue.

#

“Hey.” I flick him the smile. I know it works. I’m not so good with girls, but I’m catnip for the boys. “You here alone?”

He shrugs, embarrassed. “Not supposed to be.”

“Stood up, eh? What an asshole.” It’s only been a month since the last one. But fuck you, Granddad, I can’t resist your coercion. “Wanna get some air?”

Reckon I might strangle this one. Haven’t done that for a while.

#

He put up a good fight, but his vacant eyes stare at me now, upside down as he hangs off the side of his bed. Granddad’s words are clawing through me, like razor blades slipping under my skin. My mouth opens involuntarily and I bite down on my tongue as the first word escapes.

“You make me kill but I will not say your words!”

And the next two slip out behind my weak determination.

It’s never been this hard to keep the words in. Sweat streaks my face and a few more force their way past my trembling lips. I can’t hold them in. Fuck me, I’m going to say them all. The killing isn’t enough any more, I have to use his words and they pour out, a litany of hate in a language broken and sharp.

A shape forms in the air, shimmering in the dim bedroom. My grandfather stands before me. His face is stricken, brows knitted. He glances at the guy on the bed. “You killed so many, always resisting me.”

“Your magic is weak old man.”

“You were supposed to resist that.” He jabs a finger at the bed. “Resist it and let me save you. I was dying. I knew what was coming for you and I made preparations.” Tears trickle from his eyes.

He starts to incant something and it’s not dissimilar to the words I resisted for so long. I tip my head like a dog as I listen, wondering what… and it burns! Oh, how it burns! I scream at him, beg him to stop, but his face is set and he finishes and starts over.

I know this Rite, though I have no idea why. Some part of me has heard it before and hates it. It sears, furnace hot in my blood, and the killing desire arcs through my bones like I haven’t just choked the young life out of that guy on the bed. Rage lives in me, swirling, burning, spitting rage. I need to kill, but there’s no one here. I grab and claw at my grandfather, but he’s insubstantial as smoke. Some part of me, suddenly dislocated, slams and thrashes inside my mind and body.

And like a branch torn from a tree in a storm, that part of me rips out. A feral howl tears through the room as I collapse.

I feel more alone than I ever have before.

A part of me is missing.

The killing part.

Violent shivers of guilt and self-hatred ripple through me. What have I done?

My grandfather nods, exhausted. “You’re free of it,” he whispers as he fades, tears on his cheeks. “For now. Don’t let it in again. Resist. Keep moving.”

A dark presence stirs in the shadowed corner of the room. It rushes towards me. Liquid ice floods my guts and my legs are weak as I stagger to my feet and run.


Alan Baxter writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook.




17
Mar

Smart Money by Samuel Marzioli

Harold Lewis entered the liquor store, a decrepit old space that was as dusty and unkempt as it was gaudy. Seasonal decorations lined scuffed and holed walls, along with advertisements featuring alcohol and scantily clad girls in semi–erotic poses. Far from an oddity, it was indicative of the kind of slum the Mars colony had become over the past fifty years.

“Where’s your whiskey?” Harold said to the girl seated behind the front counter.

The girl didn’t look up. She furrowed her brows, causing a metal ball connected to a chain that linked her eyebrows to droop and rattle. She read a few more words from her reader, and then flicked a finger toward an old plastic palm tree set in the far off corner.

Harold strolled over. It wasn’t taste he was after, just any slosh that would burn his throat and dull his brain until it had all the sharpness of a polished steel ball. His eyes lingered on a sale sign, written in bold red letters. The brand was Irving Don Blankly, a swill peddler whose reputation made a descriptor like hideous sound too flattering. He took it anyway.

When he plunked down the bottle on the front counter, the girl slipped Harold a phony smile, threw a disgusted sneer at his choice and scanned the bottle’s barcode.

“Seven ninety–four,” she said.

He reached into his pocket and grabbed a crisp, new ten–dollar bill, its center portrait embossed, covering the advanced tech hidden beneath the surface of every bill of its kind. Smart Money, they called it, but Harold didn’t know why. He only knew what he had read in the daily news ticker: that it had become the sole legal tender for the entire Mars Colony; that it was supposed to uphold fiscal responsibility; and that it was the last resort of a failing economy on the road to utter ruin.

The instant the girl touched the bill, it turned bright red and she jerked her hand away.

A financial and mental health assessment has been requested,” said a tiny voice from the center portrait. Seconds later, it continued, “Purchase denied,” and its color shifted back to green.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” said Harold, caught between bewilderment and the implications of what the bill said. The girl stared at Harold, uncertain on how to proceed.

This man is an alcoholic and has only fifty dollars in his bank account. Do not sell him this product.”

The girl shrugged and took up her reader. She settled back on her stool and began to read.

“Wait,” Harold said. “Take it!”

The girl shook her head.

“It’s my money. I can do what I want!”

“Not my problem,” she said.

Harold,” said the bill, “fiscal responsibility is every citizen’s priority now, and the only way to achieve it is by eliminating self–destructive and time–wasting behaviors.” It turned a dull shade of brown and the words, “This note is legal tender” were replaced by, “NON–NEGOTIABLE.”

The moment Harold saw the change, his face contorted with rage. “You turn back right now, or so help me…”

Purposeful damage, defacement, or destruction of legal currency is a crime subject to a fifty thousand dollar fine and up to a year imprisonment,” the bill said.

“Take it!” he pleaded with the girl.

“No way, man. I’m not getting in trouble for you or anyone.” To prove the point, she grabbed the bottle and placed it in a plastic container behind the counter.

“I don’t need this! Fuck you,” he said to the girl, “and fuck you too!” he said to the bill.

Please avoid unnecessarily foul language or I will be forced to report this disorderly conduct to the authorities.”

“Fuck! You!” He poked the bill, leaving an indention the size of his nail tip.

The bill immediately turned bright red again and let out an electronic beep. “A deputy is en route. Your threatening gesture has been deemed a potential risk to public safety. I must warn you, do not touch me again as I have initiated self–defense mode.”

Harold began to shake with fury. He stared at the bottle in the reshelf container, licked his lips, and then eyed the bill warily. He felt like a starving man locked in a cage, with no key and food just out of reach. Or rather, it was worse than that, because he did have a key if only he dared to touch it.

He pushed his face closer to the bill, dropping his shadow across its polymer surface, as if his proximity to the portrait was as intimidating as it would have been to a human. “Last chance.”

The bill remained red, silent and impassive.

“Ain’t worth it,” said the girl, peering over the top of her reader.

“Shut up!”

You’d better listen to her,” the bill said. “You’re only making things worse for yourself.”

Harold snatched the bill up with both hands. Before his brain received his intention to rip it in half, firing up the appropriate synapses to trigger muscle movements, the bill made a solitary beep. A jolt of electricity shot through Harold’s body, causing his muscles to shake and vibrate.

His eyes stared wide and round, a mixture of surprise and terror. He teetered for a moment and then toppled over with a resounding crash, his arms held out stiffly in front of him, still holding the bill.

The girl fell back, pressing her palms against the wall behind her, pushing on it as if she were trying to climb by the sheer force of friction.

“Shit,” she said, uncertain whether Harold was dead or merely stunned.

The bill reverted to non–negotiable brown. “Subject designated Harold Lewis has been pacified. Martha Foster, consider yourself held as a material witness until the authorities arrive.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

On the contrary, fiscal responsibility is no joke,” it said and resumed its state of soundless hibernation.


Samuel Marzioli was born and raised, and that’s all you need to know about that. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including The Best of Apex Magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Shock Totem. For more information about his work, please visit his website at marzioli.blogspot.com. This story was previously published in Stupefying Stories Showcase #1.




15
Mar

The Sin Collector By Sarina Dorie

“Have you any sins?” the old man’ creaky squeak of a voice largely went unheard in the chaos of the market. He shuffled his twisted frame past the basket makers and fruit venders, one hand on his cane, the other holding out his cup for money. “Penance for sale. Has anyone any sins for me?”

A woman backed her bustle into the baker in her hurry to be out of his path. The couple selling their pottery and the man purchasing, it cast their gaze down as though the horse droppings at their feet were of far more interest. The sin collector’s scanned the crowd, his vision dimmed and blurred by cataracts.

“I have a sin,” a young woman said, one child propped on a hip, another clinging to her dingy apron. She leaned in close so that only he might hear. “I’ve got myself with child again.”

“Yes,” said the old man, squinting at her through a mop of uneven hair. “That is no sin in itself.”

The young woman bit her lip, absent-mindedly prying the child’s hand from tugging at her cap. “The child is not my husband’s. How much is penance for that?”

“It’ll cost you five shillings.”

She glanced over her shoulder before she counted out the coins and discretely placed them in the cup. The other market-goers went about their business, eyes averted.

The man bid his patron to lean closer. She shifted the child to her other hip and bent down so that her face was even with his. The man placed a hand on her forehead, whispering words of prayer in his hoarse voice. Gray mist swirled out of the woman’s nose and mouth. As the man removed his hand, the vapors followed his movement, drifting closer to him. They danced over his tattered clothes, finally sinking into his flesh. New liver spots appeared on the sagging skin of his wrist. An addition of wrinkles marred his fingers.

The woman slipped off.

The man called out in his hoarse voice, “Have you any sins for me to collect? Anyone?” He shook the money in his cup, the sound carrying farther than his voice.

A man in a fashionable new waistcoat strode forward. He stopped before the crippled old man and studied his pocket watch, not making eye contact, lest he be associated with the man. “How much is it for murder?” he asked under his breath.

“Depends. Was it intentional?”

He cleared his throat. “That is to say, ahem, not exactly. I simply meant to, ahem, restore my honor.”

“So you knew this man?” The sin collector knew a falsehood when he heard one. He didn’t know what the man was withholding about this sin, but it would be worth something. “A pound, then.”

The man in fine clothes tisked, as though the price were too high. Still, he quickly shoved the pound note into the stranger’s cup, then turned the other way to show he wasn’t speaking to the collector.

The old man was used to this. He grabbed the rich man’s sleeve and muttered his words of prayer. Stretching as high as his hunched body could, he touched his fingers to the bare flesh above the man’s cravat and waited for the sins to rise up. Oily, inky vapors drifted out from the rich man’s nose, mouth and eyes. A mild stench of rotting cabbage rose up from his pores and mingled in the air before sinking down onto the old man and settling over his frame. The old man grunted in pain as another twist was added to his spine. The mild hunch in his shoulder became a pronounced bulge and he leaned more heavily against his cane.

The sin collector shuffled along, calling out his services. No one met his eyes. It was custom not to stare. A young man marred with soot, begged to have his sin of stealing cleared so that his soul would be clean enough for heaven once again. Individuals waited at a respectful distance for this new patron to leave before another stepped forward for his services.

The baker waited for a lull in the patronage. “What did you do to deserve such a sentence, old man?” He called out, wiping dusty fingers against his clothes.

“I committed no crime. It was simply my calling. Just as you have yours, baker. Have you a sin for me to collect?”

The baker shook his head, dark eyes sparkling. “No. I am an honest man. I have no need of your services.” He held out a roll from his basket.

The old man’s eyebrow quirked upward. “Is that so? If it isn’t, you’ve just added a lie to your soul—that’s only few pennies to remove.”

The baker patted his round belly and chuckled. He met the sin collector’s eyes. “You’ll get no sins out of me.”

The old man shuffled closer to accept the bread. A puff of dust from the baker’s clothes clouded up in the air. One paying close attention would have noticed the shimmer in the sediment of flour; a gold vapor that drifted up from his pores, from his breath, and circled the old man, as if trying to decide where to land. It settled in his eyes, the milky white cataracts disappearing.

The old man took in a deep breath, smiled and bowed his head in thanks.


Sarina Dorie has sold over 85 short stories to markets like Daily Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s IGMS, and Cosmos. Her novels include: SILENT MOON, DAWN OF THE MORNING STAR, and URBAN CHANGELING. You can find info about her short stories and novels on her website: www.sarinadorie.com




10
Mar

Without A Trace By Jeremy Szal

One minute my professor was ranting on about patterns of chemical dynamics. The next minute he disappeared. Poof. Gone. Vanished in the blink of an eye. It was the first time it happened.

And it wouldn’t be the last.

Everyone thought it was funny. Somehow our dour, lazy professor had pulled off a magic trick and disappeared. We were waiting for him to reappear when the girl next to me disappeared. Then another. Then another.

The reports came in seconds later. People across the globe had randomly disappeared. No tricks. No slight of the hand. No illusion. Just gone.

That was the moment it stopped being funny.

Every few seconds of the day someone would disappear. It didn’t matter where they were, what language they spoke or whether they were filthy rich or dirt poor. Nothing. Beggar or king, they vanished all the same. There was no pattern, no form of repetition or predetermined method in which it happened. The cosmic dice was rolled and a person disappeared.

The theories started pouring in faster than people could write them. A parallel dimension. God’s wrath. A wormhole. I heard countless more, each one crazier than the last.

But it didn’t matter. People kept vanishing without a trace and we had no answers and no solution.

Very soon the world became a lot less busy. The streets slowly started to empty. Shops shut down. There were fewer cars on the road. All those crazy theories drained away, bit by bit. There were getter fewer people to write them and fewer still that cared enough to read them. All the stations and airports started to close, but I saw that one coming. Seriously, who was going to get on a plane when the guy flying the last one disappeared mid-flight?

Everyone that I knew had vanished already. The last person to go was a friend that I worked with on a few occasions. I forgot his name. I went around to his house, finding it empty. Upstairs I found his baby. With its father done, it had died of starvation. It died alone. I never went back to see if the corpse had disappeared as well.

I spent my days searching for others, but it was pointless. I haven’t seen another human being in four days. It felt like four years. There was no one in the streets. No one in the parks. No one in the city. No one anywhere. A long time ago I would have done anything for this kind of privacy.

I stood on the boardwalk and gazed out at the deserted beach. I could remember those busy weekends where the beaches would be jam-packed with thousands of people as they drank and laughed themselves senseless. There wasn’t a single soul in sight.

I still wasn’t sure if I was the last person on Earth or not. It certainly felt that way.

Why haven’t I vanished yet? I thought. It seemed strange that I was still here after all this time. There was nothing to do now but wonder about what comes after the disappearance. I gave up trying to figure out why or how. I just wanted to know what happens afterwards. None of the theories feel right, but surely that’s not the end. It can’t be. It doesn’t make sense. None of this did.

It doesn’t matter, I told myself. You can’t do anything about it anyway.

The only thing you can do is wait.

And so I did. I sat on the park bench and waited to disappear. Waiting, waiting, waiting…


Born in 1995, Jeremy Szal’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in venues such as Nature, Abyss & Apex and Perihelion, and his nonfiction in Strange Horizons and Grimdark Magazine. He’s also the assistant editor of Hugo winning podcast StarShipSofa. He lives in Sydney, Australia. This story originally appeared in MicroHorror.




8
Mar

From the Editor’s Lair by Jennifer Brozek

Speculate! is going strong. I’m seeing a lot of submissions, but I get the feeling that not everyone is reading the guidelines. All horror must have a clear supernatural element and I want stories of at least 4000 words. My poor slush reader is telling me slush pile horror stories. Try not to be one of them.

We’re down to the penultimate month for EGM.Shorts. There is no unintended theme for this month, but I’m pleased to mention that the second superhero story I accepted is in it. I think you all will enjoy that story and the rest we have for March.

“Without a Trace” by Jeremy Szal
“The Sin Collector” by Sarina Dorie
“Smart Money” by Samuel Marzioli
“Under a Wing and a Prayer” by Alan Baxter
“Memory Boxes” by Pam L. Wallace
“Vengeance for Captain Phenomenal” by Megan Neumann
“Touring Test” by Holly Schofield

You can read all of our previous flash fiction at the EGM.Shorts Archive page.




25
Feb

High as a Power Line By Chris Galford

It was never easy coming down. Saya lay back in her bath tub, dragging soft-bubbled water droplets up her skin. Where her nails met hair, she tingled and cooed, or she had—the sensation was deadening. She blinked. The water was cool, cooling—still a pleasant sensation, but not right. She so rarely got to feel warmth. She could sense it, but this, this was something else entire.

In the surface of the water she caught a glimpse of something broken, something lost. Emotional mutilation, she was told, would do that to a creature. The mind was a series of processes, but once it had tasted something new, it was hard to go back. Harder every time, in fact. Knowledge was the greatest drug; it certainly wasn’t pot the stories had growing in a garden years before knowing, with a deific “don’t touch this” sign dangling from it.

When she pulled her clammy bulk from the inky surface of the waves, Saya looked toward the sink with a sort of hopeless despair. Some things left ghosts images in the data, a sort of imprint of a notion, even if the feeling itself faded. She was addicted. She knew this, had long since come to terms with it. Other addicts might have shuddered, there alone in a 12’x12’ room with no heat. Those addicts had no trouble remembering, though—no trouble feeling. The feeling was the whole point.

The drive that sat on that sink was empty now. It had transferred its contents, served its purpose. Programmers had designed their files to auto-delete on transference, in order to do their part in the grand battle against piracy—or the grand battle to make more money. Same thing, really.

This was the end. Until the week’s scheduled duties were performed, Saya had no more credits to blow on such extravagance. All that was left was the dark drudgery of consistency. Saya closed her eyes and shook her head, trying to force the rage to the surface while there was still time.

If she focused all of her internals toward the imagery, she could still feel the time she had wandered the wilds of Australia—the biting heat of sand on skin, windy breaths in hair, a dizzying collective of hunger pangs as the air went dry and yet wavy before her eyes. In the same vein, she could still feel the shells of the Great War pounding all around her. The reverberation set hairs on end, stuck pins of regret and terror into her very heart, as though she were some simple voodoo doll. She could remember what it was to weep—the texture of the salted droplets running down from clenched eyes.

Bits faded. What was clear muddled, muddied, became grey and unobtainable. Saya was not those people. They were experiences beyond her, sensations lost to touch. Piece by piece the activities of the world were reduced to the dull, impersonal inactivity of her daily subsistence. The emptiness was leaking in; the droplets, still clinging to her, lost their chilly edge, were reduced to nothing more than the weight of exterior condensation on synthetic membranes. Were she a little more aware, the regret of this loss might have made her panic. In turn this, too, dulled. Already her mind was regressing to the sense of presentence which possessed all members of her stock and trade. To think ahead was impractical, beyond the confines of her core use parameters. She was neither paid nor programmed to think—and the former was only ever crafted at all because some enterprising senator saw an opportunity for more ties to bind.

By that same course, to dwell on the past was not economical.

There was a pang inside. She might have called it hunger. A few moments ago, it might have been, though eating was not necessary. Rather, it was the last terrible taste of these programs, a sort of virus which wormed its way inside, to create a hunger for more humanity. Clever marketing at its finest.

All sensations ended with a twinge of regret and loss.

Saya had not fought in a war. She would never see Australia—she was in Canada, in the dead of winter, and she had never even seen beyond the bounds of her own city. Unless there was a specific need for corporate interest to transfer one of her entities, Saya would exist and decommission all within the same expanse.

She could sense the water that had settled in her “stomach’s” USB port. She could break the molecules down, piece by piece, to say exactly what had penetrated her outer layers. Yet as the last of the memory micro-transaction trickled down to naught on its pre-paid timer, she could no longer feel it.

The week rebooted.


Chris Galford spends his days as a freelance journalist and editor, but speculative fiction is the spark that gives his nights purpose. Beyond his short fiction, this Michigan native is the author of “The Haunted Shadows” trilogy of fantasy novels, as well as an award-winning poet.




23
Feb

“Are You Receiving?” by Rebecca Birch

Galactic Standard Date 11657.3.
Planetfall succesful.  Atmosphere breathable, as anticipated from earlier analysis.  Base establishment under way, following standard protocol.  Work is slow, given we’re a five-man crew, but no unanticipated challenges yet reported.Landscape is surreal.  Frozen drifts and billows, like snow back home, but when you look just off of straight there are rainbow spectra dancing in the crystals.  Winds are constant.  Science Tech O’Malley reported hearing voices when she went outside to set up the solar panels, but the doctor assures me it’s just the change in aural input after so long aboard ship.  I’m confident initial planetary analysis showing no sign of intelligent life was accurate.Captain Marjorie Halstone, awaiting confirmation of transmission.


Galactic Standard 11663.8.

Base operational, but not optimal.  Solar energy collectors hampered by constant snow accumulation.  Panels have been re-oriented to discourage build-up, and shifts have been instituted to clear off what does pile up.  We’ve begun local reconnaissance on foot.  Until proper energy levels are established, use of mechanized transport is unfeasible.  The snow’s spectral light phenomenon appears to intensify during nighttime hours.  Still awaiting confirmation of original transmission.  Are you receiving?

Galactic Standard 11672.5.
Despite re-orientation of panels, snow accumulation has not decreased, and panel surfaces are sustaining damage.  This snow has abrasive properties not previously anticipated.  Energy reserves are now below sixty-percent of recommended.  O’Malley continues to report hearing things and is no longer permitted alone surface-side, after attempting to follow the sounds out of range of communications.  The doctor has prescribed sensitivity dampeners.

I have not told anyone about the sounds I hear on my own panel-clearing shifts.   I prefer to remain un-medicated.

Reconnaissance has been curtailed for the moment to focus on snow abatement.  Techs Akira and Butler are working to find a reliable countermeasure, but as yet have had no success.  Study of atmospheric data shows no sign of any foreseeable change in weather patterns.  If no solution is found, I’m afraid I’ll be forced to order the termination of this mission.

Stand ready to initiate evacuation procedures and please send immediate confirmation of all transmissions.

Standard 11677.2.
Butler is gone.

We didn’t know he was missing until he failed to return from his nighttime clearing shift.  I attempted to track him, but the colors in the snow hid any footprints, and the farther I got from base . . . Well, up to this point, I believed the sounds I was hearing were environmental, but now I swear there are words . . .

Belay that last bit.  No, Doctor, I don’t require any dampeners.  See to O’Malley.  She and Butler were close.  Please shut the door behind you.

Energy reserves have dipped below forty-percent.  O’Malley is begging to go after Butler, even with an increased dosage of dampeners.  The doctor has been drafted into panel maintenance, over his objections.  We can’t risk letting O’Malley outside again.

Captain Halstone requesting immediate evacuation.  Before we lose another.

11680.2.
Dampeners weren’t enough.  This morning, O’Malley vanished.  Left during my shift and I never saw her.  Never heard her.  Just those damn lights.  I see them on the backs of my eyelids whenever I close them.  Akira says he hasn’t gotten more than three hours of sleep in the past two days.  I’m not much better off.  As for the doctor, he won’t talk about the lights.  Won’t talk about anything.  I saw him dosing himself with dampeners, though he claims he doesn’t hear the voices.

Power reserves at fifteen percent, well below emergency levels.  Both Akira and I have triple-checked communication mechanics.  Everything is in working order.  Why aren’t you responding?  Send help now.  Please.

11682.3.
Found the doctor dead in his bunk this morning of apparent dampener overdose.  Energy reserves at three percent and falling.  The cryo-chamber won’t last once they power’s gone, so we’ve buried him in the snow just outside the exterior hatch.  His family would wish to have his remains, if anyone should hear this message.

Akira thinks the voices may be originating from a point southwest of base.  Remaining here is no longer an option.  If there’s something else alive out there and we can find it, then maybe we have a chance.

This will be the last communication.

#

We stagger together through a changed landscape.  The snow-light is no longer a mosaic of scattered crystal prisms.  Instead, a bright rainbow band spreads across the drifts, leading us southwest.  I wouldn’t believe it if Akira didn’t see it, too.  Our feet sink in with each step down the golden path in the center, and we cling to each other for support.

The voices are clear now, rising up out of the snow.  Captain Halstone, abort landing.  Unexplained phenomenon detected planetside.  Repeat, abort landing.  Please confirm.

My own voice, like a dream, Awaiting confirmation of transmission . . . Are you receiving?

I hear O’Malley, too, and Butler.  You’re almost here, Captain.  Just a little further.  Akira, we’re so glad you’re coming.

Just ahead, the rainbow narrows until it vanishes in a pool of silver light.  Two familiar forms stand with arms outstretched, their bodies rimmed with kaleidoscopic auras.

Akira squeezes my arm.  We head for the light.

I don’t know what’s on the other side, and I don’t know if we’ll ever return, but I’m telling the wind our tale, hoping it will sing until someone comes after us.  Someone who can bring the story home.

Ready, Akira?  Let’s go.


Rebecca Birch is a spec-fic writer based in Seattle, Washington.  She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and Fireside Magazine.  Find her online at www.wordsofbirch.com. This story was first published in Nature, Volume 511.




18
Feb

INCIDENTAL By David Versace

Everything changed for Benji when he hit puberty and lost his incidental music.

Growing up, he was no different to any other kid. He played the same games, ate the same food and he was followed everywhere by the same simplistic, cheerful party pop. Sure, there were times when he ran through some minor keys, like when his parakeet got out of its cage and eaten by the neighbour’s cat, or when his mum caught his dad harmonising with the neighbour’s suggestive bossa-nova ambiance. But even after Mum started her new life as a soloist, Benji mostly bopped along with an untroubled heart and a C-D-F refrain in the air.

One week after his thirteenth birthday, his music went away. His friends Cally and Winston noticed it before Benji did.

“How come your music’s stopped?” asked Cally. She was taking a break from their soccer practise to peel open an orange. A warbling trombone wafted up from the mix of her usual upbeat swing number. “Are you feeling okay?”

Winston thundered the ball past Benji into the goal net. “He’s so dumb he think it’s the intermission!” A cymbal clash broke Winston’s soaring, horn-heavy fanfare. They all chuckled along.

Benji hadn’t even noticed the silence. Now it followed him everywhere.

His mother was even more worried. With a frantic oboe chorus buzzing in her wake, she raced Benji to the paediatric musicologist.

The doctor, his furrowed brow echoing with elegiac mountain pipe music, took blood samples and ran some basic scales tests. Benji’s music didn’t respond. The doctor referred him to a psychoacoustics specialist.

The specialist steered Benji into an acoustics chamber that could detect a pin drop or a dying man’s last chord. Nothing. In a baffled studio that damped every noise but Benji’s breathing, he took x-rays and brain scans and a few more blood samples.

Benji waited for hours, the only sounds his scared breathing and his mother’s muted, mournful chorus that sometimes swelled to a rousing reassurance of lively drums and brass.

Finally the specialist returned with images of Benji’s head. In time to a stern, staccato waltz, he tapped a ruler at a blue patch in the cross-section of Benji’s brain and recommended exploratory surgery.

Benji couldn’t tell whether the specialist’s jarring pitch changes meant that he was excited or confused.

Cally’s outrage expressed as atonal ascending scales, strident and brassy.  “They’re going to cut your head open?”

Benji shrugged. “Nobody knows what’s wrong. I think they’re scared.” He tried to sound brave but not so much as an adventurous viola sounded forth. “They try not to be but my Mum says she can hear it in their trebles.”

Winston said, “They should just leave you alone. You don’t have to have music if you don’t want it.” But then he ran away, trailing a clatter of cowbells and plucked ukulele notes.

Benji thought it over. Winston was wrong. He wanted his music back.

Nurses wordlessly flitted around his hospital bed making efficient, business-like movements. They swept in and out of sight like ants disassembling a picnic to brisk, professional woodwinds.

As Benji breathed through the anaesthetist’s mask, their music wandered away from melody into tuneless contralto waves.

But Benji was aware of their timpani rumbles of submerged fear and the first dissonant strains of a bassoon as the surgeon arrived. Keys diverged and time signatures fell out of harmony as his eyes closed.

#

Benji knew before his eyelids began to unglue that the operation had failed. Nothing surrounded him but the soft hiss of a ventilator, the hum of indifferent machinery and the hushed buzz of human speech beyond too-thin walls.

He tried to squeeze his eyes shut but the darkness made the silence worse, a void that drained hope and fed despair. With a lump rising in his throat, he let the light in and looked around at the blue wall of vinyl curtains hanging around his bed. The curtain’s perimeter diverted around the back of an unoccupied chair. He felt its emptiness deep inside his stomach; he felt no hunger for the bowl of pale, spotted fruit in the bowl alongside his pillow.

Benji knew one thing. All the doctors and nurses hadn’t been able to figure out what happened to him. His music was gone. They didn’t know where it was and they didn’t know how to bring it back.

He thought about the last time he had cried. One afternoon a year ago, his father had said goodbye in a haze of endless regret, unstoppable tears and slow-strummed minor chords.

Without low, slurring strings rising with the lump in his throat, Benji didn’t remember how to cry.

The talkers came closer and now he could hear strains of concern, confusion and even some anger. He could hear violins darting in and out of their upper registers. His mother was nervous and upset. Benji steeled himself for the crashing peals of percussion and trills of flutes as she tried to hide her fear and disappointment.

Voices and shadows fell across the curtains and they parted for his mother and the surgeon. Benji met her eye. He tried to think of a way to tell her he was sorry.

Then all at once Benji’s mother’s music softened and transformed. A counter-melody cut through her distraught fugue, a chorus of violas laying down a bridge for a crisply-strummed guitar to appear.

Benji’s mother looked around in surprise, even a little alarm – she’d never made a sound like it. Next to her, the doctor’s face made the same expression. His music was falling into rhythm with hers. Guitars and a snappy drum fill, the kind that made Benji want to stamp his feet and wave his arms. Fun, happy music spilled out of them and filled his ears.

Benji smiled at his mother. He laughed at the doctor, and the nurses who ran in and the orderly who reached for him with big, trembling hands.

They were playing his song.


David Versace is a writer from Australia’s winter-blighted capital, Canberra. He is a slush-wrangler, proof reader and dealer in encouraging critiques. His work appears in the anthology “Next” (CSFG Publishing 2013) and in the forthcoming “The Lane of Unusual Traders” (Tiny Owl Press 2015). Twitter: @_Lexifab





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