Entertainingly Evil
16
Feb

ONE HUNDRED YEARS By Gerri Leen

She wanders the castle late at night, a haunt that startles the servants when she finds them flesh to flesh in the darker corners of the place. She doesn’t mean to interrupt their trysts; she just can’t sleep.

She slept for a hundred years. Most thought that was the curse of the evil fairy, but it wasn’t. Not for her, at any rate. The years passed in a heartbeat, dreams keeping her company as she lay unchanging behind the forest of thorns while the world grew colder and uglier.

She knows her sleep was a curse for those who loved her, who no doubt hoped that someone would break the spell, wake her up, and restore her to the loving bosom of her family.

But no one could, not till her prince woke her, the man she does not sleep next to because her restlessness disturbs him.

She thinks the wildness in her eyes also disturbs him. Her inability to laugh at his jokes because she does not find him funny, not when sleep eludes her, when dreams waft away as a possibility for others, not for her.

She has heard the doctor tell him that a person can go mad if they are deprived of dreams for too long. She wonders how the doctor knows this. Did he do that—keep some poor soul awake until his mind split apart, until he screamed from the lack of the solace of dreams?

“My lady.” It is the prince; he is very good at finding her.

“James.”

“Come to bed?”

He does not mean to sleep. She has her own rooms where she can toss and turn and light the candle and blow it back out again without disturbing him. He wants to be with her, to take her.

He earned that right when he forged his way through the thorns, when he woke her with his kiss.

He has never asked her if she loved someone before she was cursed, or if she loves him. She thinks he does not care.

She thinks he would like to get an heir from her before she has gone completely mad. She imagines he will not let her keep the baby with her, that he will fear for the baby.

She thinks he might fear her on his own behalf. He does not look like a husband come a wooing, but one who wishes to do his duty and be told that finally his burdensome, non-sleeping wife has accepted his seed and will deliver a child.

She wonders if he will want to have more than one.

“I am not tired.” This is, of course, a lie. She is exhausted—she simply cannot sleep. The final piece of the curse. Wake from eternal sleep and the other side of the coin is eternal wakefulness.

“My love”—he stumbles over the endearment—”I mean that I need you.”

That is true. He needs her to give him a child. Since he so unwisely married her before he knew of her nighttime wanderings, so flush with triumph over beating the curse when so many other princes failed.

She never knew they even tried to rescue her. Her sleep was peaceful. Her dreams lovely. She misses them. She believes she dreamed an entire world for herself when she slept in that thorn-wrapped tower.

She knew peace: she does not think she ever will again.

“You wish me to do my wifely duty?” She wants to state it that way, as a duty, something to be borne not enjoyed—not needed the way he says he needs her. It is not that he is unkind to her, it is just that after living in a world of dreams, he is a pale shadow of what she created for herself.

Lying with him is messy and immediate, and she detests how it grounds her in the life she lives, in the restless days anticipating not slumber as her ladies do but endless vigilance.

She has gone to the priest. She has called for the fairies. Any of them, even evil ones.

The priest has no remedies and the fairies do not answer.

James moves restlessly and finally says, “Yes, I wish you to do your wifely duty.”

“We should understand each other. Speak plainly.” She knows her eyes are hard by how his expression changes.

“Of course.” He looks down. “I have tried to make you happy, Beauty.”

She does not think that is true. He tried to make himself happy with some attentiveness to her needs—at first. But her happiness has never been an issue for any of the princes who stormed the thorns—had it been, they would not have sought to wake her.

But she says none of this. She says, “I know,” because it is the easier thing to say.

She follows him to his room and lets him remove her robes, and she keeps her eyes open but then sees him close his.

He will not look at her?

As he finds completion in her flesh, she murmurs, “I was happy. Before you woke me. I had my dreams and they were beautiful.”

He lies collapsed on top of her, breathing hard, and tightens his hold on her arms, but she thinks it is possession that drives the firmness of his grip, not hurt, not love rejected.

“You may return to your room.” He rolls off her and faces the wall.

“Perhaps this time I will conceive.”

“Perhaps.” He does not sound hopeful.

This too may be part of the curse. She is over a hundred years old—can she conceive? Even if her beauty did not dim, perhaps the part of her that can create life did?

“Good night, Beauty.”

“Good night, James.” She can see there is some level of misery in the way he lies so still on the luxurious bed that she should share, so she gives him the best gift she can: “Sleep well.”


Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. She has stories and poems published by: Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, Grimdark, Athena’s Daughters 2, and others. She is editing an anthology, A Quiet Shelter There, which will benefit homeless animals and is due out in this year from Hadley Rille Books. See more at http://www.gerrileen.com. This story was first published in the 713 Flash Contest by Kazka Press.




11
Feb

Human Through and Through by K. A. Rochnik

The sun sets behind the row of giant pines, as I watch my manta ray son circle slowly near the bottom of the pool. I hunch at the edge, arms wrapped around my belly, like I’m bleeding from a hidden wound. I track my son’s smooth glide, intent on soaking up every inch of his dark bat-shaped body.

Last year when he was still wholly human, he darted about, dodging sharp corners by a hair, artfully prat-falling. I would put my nose in the crown of his tousled head, and savor his smell. Now I can’t tell his scent from a bucket of chum. I can only sit half-in, half-out of the pool for so long my skin never unpuckers, stinging from saltwater sores. I wait for him to circle past, reaching out to rub his velvet black head. I try to catch the silky tip of a wing as he glides by.

My husband came out earlier, to talk. He’s worried about our daughter, who’s gotten so skittish and wary, wanting to hole up in her room, burrow under her bed. I told him it’s the fox in her. A month ago she woke up with paws and a fluffy red tail. He thinks I’m neglecting her. Maybe I am, but she’s still mostly human and our son is not.

My husband’s hired a special truck with a lift and a water tank to take our son to the ocean. This time tomorrow he’ll be gone.

The light just went off in our bedroom.

I have one more night to beg the Earth, in all its infinite wisdom, to change my son back.

#

So far the animal mutations affect children on the cusp of puberty. Overnight their extremities change to that of a threatened species. In California, it’s mostly bear, mountain lion, wolf, elk, and large marine animals, like sea elephants. A family from our elementary school was on an African safari. Their four children woke with the respective tails of a hyena, lion, elephant; the last with the antlers of an impala. They never came home.

Some of us tried plastic surgery, but the animal parts grew back.

We got used to the changes. There was even talk of restarting school. Some of the parents began to feel a kind of pride, like the mother of a boy with a bristly curly tail and tusks jutting from his jaw, going on about how smart wild pigs were.

Then the children transformed completely.

Governments passed sweeping wildlife reforms all over the world. The children needed clean habitats, unthreatened by humans. No more slaughter for trophies to hang on walls or poaching for superstitious cures. No more hunting at all. We are not animals who eat our young.

I suppose you think it all worked out for the best. The Earth setting itself right, putting balance back into the ecosystem.

To you and your beloved Earth I say this. May you stew in pollution. May you wheeze on carbon emissions and choke on the mountain of plastic in the oceans.

I don’t mean it. Please bring my son back.

#

The next morning I wake up next to my husband, staring at his back without blinking, gasping for breath through slits on my neck. The pillow’s silky with fallen-out hair.

I’m mute so I take care to bite him gently, then lick at the bead of blood. There’s a sudden rustling as he turns over, then a great upheaval, with sheets flying as he jumps out of bed, eyes bulging, mouth O-shaped.

I’m sorry that he’s upset.

There’s a fin sticking out of my back. I’ve seen those awful videos of sharks hauled up on the decks of boats. Their dorsals cut off; their mutilated bodies tossed back to die. I feel a rush of excitement. My change is only fair. It’s part of things being set right.

My husband huddles in a corner, hands on his face, his shoulders heaving.

Maybe I’ll become a megalodon, the biggest shark that ever lived. That would be cool, but I don’t think it works that way, since the megalodons were extinct before humans existed. Another big predator then–a tiger or a mako. Something sleek and fast, but without the cinematic baggage of a great white.

Maybe I can have sex one last time but no, only a shark’s clasper is fitting in there. I could make pancakes for him and our daughter one last time, but I don’t have all the ingredients and I’m not up for a trip to the grocery store.

He’s calm now. He’s come back to the bed, stroking my head softly. Soon he’ll carry me to the pool. When the time comes, he’ll ride in the truck that will take me to the ocean. His lips will tickle the tough gray skin where my ears used to be, saying good-bye.

He’s a good father, and he’ll take care of our vulpine daughter, until the day she scampers away into the brush.

He’s losing his family, but I don’t think he is lost. The Earth loves all its animals right down to the microbes. Even the humans. She’ll keep some of them around, in the right amount.

Still, a part of me is sorry that he’s human through and through.

This is how the Earth answers me. Maybe it’s what I wanted all along—to drift into the ocean with my manta ray son. With a wave of his wings, he’ll glide away, disappearing in the darkness.

Then I’ll go, too, racing after the scent of some wounded creature, following the spilled blood.


K. A. Rochnik writes speculative fiction from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area, both novels and a wide range of short stories. She is most interested in exploring how technology illuminates human relationships, needs, and passions. She graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2014.




9
Feb

Alienated by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Three days, we’ve been on this planet. Over a year, earth-time. But we don’t talk about earth-time anymore. It weakens morale, says Sir Overgeneral Halfish.

My morale went out the window when I found out I was sentenced to be transported off planet.

I was never one of those little girls with rocket ships and toy telescopes. I had a hermit Barbie with a pink plastic cave in which she kept her 14 pairs of shoes and 13 ball gowns. I was never an explorer. I just wanted a quiet life with pretty things. A pink plastic cave would suit me just fine.

I killed my husband. I got off light: five months transport and twenty years on the colony. More than twice as long as my marriage lasted. For eight years, I wore thousand-dollar designer dresses and three-inch heels and silk scarves to hide the bruises on my arms.

Now look at me. Wearing a gray jumpsuit with neon-orange reflectors, digging up stunted purple fingerlings as a part of some insane terraforming project in the middle of system 5088b.

At least we’re not locked up; there’s no chance of escape. We have caches of dried goods and imported water tanks. We also have Sir Overgeneral Halfish, who doesn’t want anyone forgetting that this is punishment.

Orbital solar mirrors were the miracle solution to the Goldilocks problem. They say this place was uninhabitable, no native plants, just desert wasteland and solar winds. Sounds like Albuquerque to me. No one cares what might have come before.

No one but me. I see them. Bright green swirls in the darkness, hovering over the orange-brown dunes. Sir Overgeneral tells me not to worry my pretty little head, it’s just swamp gas. He doesn’t believe anything’s out there because he’s never seen anything. They don’t show up until late-shift, when we’re meant to be indoors with blinds down. They gather on the outskirts of our hovel and they watch.

So I watch back.

My married life taught me to avoid attracting attention. So I sat perfectly still, just the quiet sound of home-made purple fingerling schnapps splashing into my plastic cup. My secret still is why I’ve been out during late-shift in the first place. There’s yeast here too, not that I’ve told anyone. That’s not the point.

The point is, reconnaissance looks the same all over the universe. They formed an acid-green perimeter around our settlement and shimmered along the vegetable gardens and inched right up to the security blinds. Then they pulled back and melted into the wind-blasted dunes where the Overgeneral keeps telling me no life could survive.

I never saw any need to follow them. I figured I’ve done my bit, telling Overgeneral, Sir, I think you’ll find there was something here first. And now they come up most every “night”.

I didn’t know they even knew I was there until Warden Lecter caught me.

I was creeping back into the compound after checking my still when she sprang out from the water tanks. She’s the worst of the wardens; there’s something not quite right about her.  I mean something weird beyond voluntarily relocating to a poisonous planet to bully three dozen women.

I stood tall, hoping she couldn’t hear my heart thudding.

“You should be in your hut,” she growled.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said and turned to go. She put a heavy hand on my shoulder to stop me.

I flinched and held my hands up. When she laughed, I knew I was in trouble. Just then, the green mist shimmered around the edges of the compound.

“Shoulda thought about that before you went sneaking.” She grinned.

The green mist swirled up behind her. I twisted and bolted straight to my hut, slamming the door behind me. The only sound was my pounding heart.

Once I caught my breath, I cracked the door open. There was no sign of Lecter.

The green mist flared and then faded into the hills. I went to bed and stared at the ceiling until first bell.

The compound was in an uproar. Warden Lecter disappeared without a trace, they said. I didn’t say a word. A week later, they found her bones behind the water tanks. Not an ounce of flesh to be found, just her bones, clean as a school experiment.

I stayed inside during late-shift after that. Forget the still, my tastes of freedom. I buckled down to do my time. But the next time Sir Overgeneral Halfish sneered at me as worthless, I started thinking about that night again.

I mean, Lecter must have run when I started running, right? Even if just to catch me. So how come I got away and she didn’t? Other than they were already used to me, sitting outside, sharing the stars.

Or maybe they just don’t like the smell of my schnapps, hell if I know. But it seems like they would be good friends to keep. Shimmery scary friends that eat people, sure. But hell, I’m not exactly spoilt for choice.

So now I set my lawn chair out each late-shift, when I know everyone else is safely asleep, and I watch. The mists know I’m here. They whirlpool around my lawn chair. I figure we have a truce, of sorts. And if that truce doesn’t extend to the others, well, that’s not my problem.

The purple fingerlings are growing fine and the water tanks are hooked up with enough water to keep fifty of us going for a decade. There’s no one else here due for a while, just us and the mists. I’m happy to lure the Overgeneral out of his hut if that’ll keep them happy, maybe the rest, too.

Maybe it could be paradise here after all.


Sylvia Spruck Wrigley was born in Germany and spent her childhood in Los Angeles. She now splits her time between South Wales and Andalucia. Her fiction was nominated for a Nebula in 2014 and her short stories have been translated into over a dozen languages.  Her first novella, Domnall and the Borrowed Child, was published in 2015 by Tor.com and is available now at all good book stores. You can find out more about her at http://www.intrigue.co.uk/.  You can find out more about her at http://www.intrigue.co.uk/. This story was originally published in Nature Physics Magazine.




4
Feb

THE HAT by Barry King

(Editor’s Note: It is my sad duty to say that Barry King passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on November 18, 2015 from a massive pulmonary embolism while he was recovering from pneumonia.)

.

.

.

Thunder cracked as Theo scanned the traffic at the crosswalk, waiting for a gap. He was just about to risk it, when something—a top hat—blew into his face. He grabbed at it. It was the real thing: silk inside and outside, with a worn headband. He looked around at the waterlogged pedestrians around him. No hatless men in evening dress. Odd. But he was late and behind on his sales quota, so he took it with him.

It dried on his desk as he made his calls, one after another, each more depressing than the  He fidgeted with it while negotiating a tricky contractual change with Robinson-Weston, and a business card fell out. On the back, it said “thank you!”. Thinking it was the owner, he called the number at Marzden, Inc., and discovered, no, he didn’t own a top hat, but as long as Theo was on the line, there was actually a need for his company’s services. Could he come by this afternoon?

On returning, the division chief came out and shook his hand personally for landing the account.

Stunned, he took the hat home.

It sat on the coffee He examined it during a commercial. There were initials inside: G.A. Gilbert Andrews? Gilroy Ames? Thinking about his stroke of luck, he made a decision. “You’re mine now. I’m going to keep you,” he said aloud, and went to bed without placing the ad.

The next morning, he picked it up, thinking maybe to take it with him. He took the bag instead.

He didn’t usually pack lunch, so he decided to sit in the park today. The only vacant seat was on a bench beside an attractive young woman who made room for him. They talked, and he soon learned her name was Anna Arminoff. She worked in counseling. She lived alone with her aging father, a retired performance artist, and she mostly went to films for entertainment. Theo found himself humming on his way back to work.

The next morning, there was a pair of movie tickets under the hat.

After the movie, he and Anna strolled along the canal, talking about anything that came to mind. She had been planning to go to that particular film; the director was her favorite. It was almost as if he knew her already.

The next morning, Theo eagerly lifted the hat. There was a pamphlet underneath for a craft fair. He went to the park, thinking to ask Anna to come with him, but she wasn’t there. He waited halfway through lunch, but she still didn’t show. He went to the fair himself, and was looking over some interesting ironwork, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Anna.

“I didn’t know you liked this sort of thing.”

“I didn’t know either,” he answered. They laughed, and toured the fair together. She bought ice creams. He bought her a tiny rose pin made of garnets and helped her pin it on. When he dropped her off at work, she thanked him and briefly kissed his cheek. They exchanged phone numbers. He got back to work an hour late, but nobody said anything. Nobody was going to challenge the man who had landed the Marzden contract. He smiled, looking out the window. Things were looking up for him at last.

The next day was the weekend, and the hat didn’t fail to provide. The concert tickets were for that evening, and, of course, they were for Anna’s favorite band. The best seats in the house. They held hands through the concert, and walked home arm-in-arm. When they reached the point between their apartments where they had to choose which way to go, she pulled him closer and suggested his place.

Heart thumping, he unlocked the door, grateful that he’d cleaned up the night before…

He suggested martinis, which she agreed to enthusiastically. He went to prepare them. But when he came back with the drinks, there was a look of fury on her face. “You… you CREEP!”

Theo stood there with his mouth open.

“You… I don’t know what game you’re playing at, but stealing my Dad’s hat? Have you been stalking me? Did you break in and read my diary or something?”

“Your dad’s hat?”

“Yes. He’s been heartsick about it. It’s all he has left of his act—the Great Arminoff. But you’d know that, wouldn’t you?”

“Anna, no! I didn’t steal anything. I found the hat! I was going to return it,” he lied.

She stared at him a long time, then picked up her purse and went to the door.

“I don’t know, Theo. Maybe you’re telling the truth, but I’ve had enough weirdoes in my life. You’re nice and all, but knowing all this stuff about me beforehand… It just creeps me out, OK? So I’m not going to call the police, but I never, ever, want to see you again.” With that, she left.

Theo sat down, nearly on the point of tears. After a while, he turned on the TV. He drank both the martinis.

The next morning, bleary-eyed, he found, on the table where the hat had been, a small note:

So sorry, young man, to toy with your affections. But you weren’t going to get me home. I had to make my own way. No hard feelings. With regret, Great Arminoff’s Hat.


Barry King’s short stories and poetry can be found in such diverse venues as Unlikely Story, The Future Fire, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Crossed Genres, Lackington’s, and Ideomancer. The rest of him can usually be found in the kitchen when it’s not eking out a remote existence on the Internet making things go.



2
Feb

From the Editor’s Lair by Jennifer Brozek

Speculate! is now officially open for submissions. Make sure you read the guidelines carefully.

For February, we have another unintended theme of what makes us happy and how far we are willing to find it. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do.

“The Hat” By Barry King
“Alienated” By Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
“Human Through and Through” By K. A. Rochnik
“One Hundred Years” By Gerri Leen
“Incidental” By David Versace
“Are You Receiving” By Rebecca Birch
“High as a Power Line” By Chris Galford

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




28
Jan

AN OBJECT LESSON IN MISANTHROPY By Michelle Ann King

I’d always believed my mother was destined to become a certified Crazy Cat Lady, so the idea of her having a friend of any kind, let alone a boyfriend, took some getting used to. But once I met Bill, I liked him. He had a nice smile, good manners, and a cute Scottish accent.

God knew what he was doing with Mum. Since I couldn’t remember the last time she’d left the house, I had no idea how they could even have met. On a website, I suppose. He was some kind of lecturer or researcher at the university in Cheltenham, so maybe it was a science project.

He turned up—on time, of course—with wine and flowers. I put the first into the fridge and the second into a milk bottle, which was the closest thing we had to a vase. Mum was supposed to have cooked dinner—Fettuccine Alfredo, nice and simple; I’d even gone down to Sainsbury’s and got all the ingredients for her—but she spent the afternoon playing online poker instead. She did that a lot. Now she looked round the kitchen with her eyebrows raised, as if surprised there was no food on the table.

“I’ve ordered a pizza,” I said. “It’ll be here soon. Pepperoni, pineapple and anchovies.”

“Sounds great to me,” Bill said. If he was disappointed, he didn’t show it. Man had class.

Mum went to the fridge and took out the wine bottle. “Zoe was an accident,” she said. “I never wanted to have kids. Never thought I’d be able to—freaks of nature are usually sterile.”

Bill and I both blinked. Well, how’s that for a conversation stopper?

“Nina, love—” he started, but she held up a hand and his mouth snapped shut.

“You’re thirteen,” she said to me, pouring herself a glass of wine. “Adolescence, puberty, that’s when it kicks in. There are things I have to tell you. Teach you.”

I gave her my best you have got to be kidding me face. “I’m fourteen, since you’re obviously not keeping count. And are we seriously going to do the talk about the birds and the bees? Now?”

“Actually no, we’re going to do the talk about the genetically mutated enhancement of cognitive functions.”

Bill had been shifting in his chair. At that, he froze.

“Would you like to start, dear?” she asked him. “It is your specialist subject, isn’t it?”

Then she grinned at me. “You were right about all this, Zoe. Him. Us. A science project is exactly what it is.”

I stole a glance at Bill, who was starting to look a little red in the face. Had I actually said that out loud? Normally, I tried harder to keep my uncharitable thoughts to myself. At least one of us needed to understand the concept of politeness.

“Oh, I understand it,” she said. “I just don’t see much point in it.”

Okay. What was going on here? This wasn’t funny.

“No, it’s not. It’s not funny at all.” She drank her wine and looked at Bill. He was very still, only his eyes following her. “You found me though Ekstrom, didn’t you? I knew I’d regret letting that little bastard walk away.”

“Mum, for the love of God—”

“Oh, love of God never has anything to do with it. Love of money, yes. Love of fame, and prestige, and academic recognition. Love of power.” She tilted her glass at Bill. “Did you really think it was going to be that easy? That you’d bring me in with wine and flowers and sweet nothings? Do you really think you’re that good in bed?’ She laughed. ‘What am I saying? Of course you do.”

Bill still didn’t move. I touched his shoulder. “Do you have any idea what’s going on here, or is she simply trying harder than ever to convince me that she’s completely batshit insane?”

He stared at me, but didn’t reply.

Mum lifted the wine bottle and topped up her glass. “You can answer her,” she said.

Air exploded from Bill’s mouth in a rush. “Zoe, listen to me,’ he said. ‘My phone’s in my jacket pocket. Take it out and call Stefan. It’s in the contacts. Do you understand? Stefan. Call Stefan.”

“I’m sorry,” my mother said in a sing-song voice. “Stefan can’t come to the phone right now. In fact, Stefan won’t be coming to the phone for a long, long time.”

Bill’s eyes locked on her, and for the first time I realised he was scared. Really, genuinely scared.

“You know what always amazes me about people like you?” she said. “That you know, or think you do, what I am. What I can do. And yet still you come. Well, congratulations. You were right. And for your special prize, you get a first-hand demonstration validating all your theories. Aren’t you thrilled?”

Bill’s Adam’s apple jerked as he swallowed. It looked painful. “Nina,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Please. I’m sorry.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know.”

Bill silently, horribly, began to cry.

“Look at this,” she said, pointing at him. “Look at this, girl, and remember. This is how it is, and this is how it will always be. Men like him will come for you. Some will try to persuade you, some will try to use you, some will just try to kill you. But wherever you go, they’ll always come.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. My voice sounded very small. “I don’t understand any of this.”

For a moment her expression softened. But only for a moment. As Bill began to make choking sounds, she turned away. “Try harder,” she said.


Michelle Ann King writes science fiction, fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her short stories, which have appeared at Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Podcastle, are being collected in the Transient Tales series, and she is working on a paranormal crime novel. Find more details at www.transientcactus.co.uk. This story was previously published in Untied Shoelaces of the Mind.




26
Jan

One Hundred Words by Eneasz Brodski

It started as a lark. It had long before been noted that the sapients of the sol system endlessly agonized over the purpose of their existence. Idle speculation arose over how they’d react to the true answer. As always, the final arbiter was experiment and observation.

The results were fascinating, and are oft replicated. It remains the most popular, if least important, aspect of the program.

On the hundredth day of a new “Human” ruler’s reign, they are visited by The Ambassador. The current empire calls its rulers “Presidents”. The Ambassador appears as a man and speaks one hundred words.


Denial

The man standing before the president finishes his message and falls silent. They’re alone in the oval office, in time stolen between seconds. Outside, the swirling autumn leaves hang fixed in place. Carter looks at him for long minutes before speaking.

“You mean to tell me no one is alive? That we’re just machines?”

The man had not said that. He reiterates that nothing has changed but Carter’s knowledge.

Carter smiles sadly. “I’m sorry to tell you that you’re quite mistaken. Our souls are thoughts in God’s mind, and He does not have fleeting thoughts. He died for us all.”


Anger

Nixon’s laughter dies away, slowly at first, and as he comprehends his face returns to its familiar scowl.

“It’s not a joke?”

The man has nothing to add. Nixon’s face hardens further. His hand clenches into a fist.

“Look here, I won’t have this! You think we’re powerless? We can destroy your whole little experiment from the inside!”

The man shrugs. They can roll back to prevent that. They have once before.

“It’s obscene!” Nixon slams a fist into the desk. “I’ll damn us all before I let this stand!”

He might as well rail against the sun for rising.


Bargaining

This president is optimistic. That will change. The man indulges him with amusement.

“Surely you can see how your actions seem strongly immoral to us,” Obama opens.

“Do you care for the moral concerns of ants?” asks the man.

“Perhaps we can come to an arrangement,” Obama offers. “There’s much our peoples can learn from each other.”

“What knowledge could you trade with an ant colony?” the man counters.

“We’ll be powerful one day, why make enemies of us now?”

The man smiles slightly. “For a people who want the meaning of life, you’re never happy when you’re given it.”


Depression

The younger Bush is at his ranch, alone. Clearing brush, all his previous life a distant memory. The words echo in his mind.

He crouches and grasps a handful of dirt. He opens his hand slowly, peers at it, watches it fall incrementally to the ground. Searches it for falseness. It is only dirt.

He looks up into the deep blue sky. Peers into it to find the artifice. But it is always only the sky.

Nothing matters, he thinks. I may as well do as I wish. Read stories to children. Land jets on aircraft carriers. All is vanity.


Acceptance

This president leans back and considers the man before him. His recent brush with death has brought him stark clarity.

“You know what I think of that?” Reagan says, reaching for a jelly bean. “Not a damn thing. You come here with your grand secret, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference, does it? We may be tools to you, but we still have to live. We still have to beat the recession and the Soviets, and your revelation doesn’t change anything.”

The world would continue regardless, for better or for worse.

“Get out, I have work to do.”


Eneasz Brodski lives just outside Denver with his fiancé and their two dogs. When  not at his day job or writing, he produces a bi-weekly podcast of rationalist fiction at www.hpmorpodcast.com. He’s been interested in politics from a very young age, as his parents fled their home country due to strong objections to communism.




21
Jan

The Business is Dying by Dantzel Cherry

Quentin turned on the lights in the embalming room to find the first body he’d seen there in weeks. It was his father, twitching on the floor with a gaping hole in his head, the gun a few inches from his fingers. He was already one of the undead he had resented so much in the last 18 months of his life – shuffling, clumsy bodies that only took a bite if you got too close.

On the counter was a handling pole, made to fit a human neck. Next to it sat a handwritten note, lightly sprinkled red.

Dear Quentin,

I’m sorry you’ll be the one to find me. The gun is supposed to take you pretty quick. I guess I’ll find out soon. I want you to take me to the zoo to be with your mother, and then get a real job – forget the family business. I hear the zoo is hiring.

Love,
Dad

Quentin dried his eyes on his sleeve and picked up the handling pole.

“Apocalypses can’t last forever,” he muttered, and snagged his dad’s neck. “Let’s go for a walk, Dad.”

Two shambling hours later, they stood by the old wallaby exhibit turned Deceased Last Names A-H Enclosure. The head zookeeper chewed a piece of hay and looked Quentin and his father up and down. A peacock cried in the distance. It was silenced, one way or another, by the moan of a zombie.

“So this is Henry the mortician,” the zookeeper said. “Were you his apprentice?”

Quentin dropped his gaze and nodded. “And his son.”

He whistled. “I’m sorry, kid. I’m Jack, by the way.” They shook hands. “You know how to hold a water hose?”

Quentin looked at the green hose and back at Jack.

“Can’t be harder than inserting a syringe into a squirrely vein,” he said.

Jack traded the hose for the handling pole, and pulled Henry toward the wallaby exhibit.

“They seem to like getting sprayed down every so often. Must feel good in this heat. Just keep ’em well watered and they’ll be happy enough.”

That day and for the rest of the week Quentin watered the zombies, built shelters to give the undead refuge from the sun, and took the most restless on long walks, collared with a six foot handling pole. On Saturday Jack presented him with an undead red parrot. It squawked and tried to bite through the cage.

“Freshly dead,” Jack said. “He’s always been a vicious thing. I figured you could – you know – use your mortician skills to hold his nasty little beak shut. Or something.”

“Not a bad idea,” Quentin said, and reached out to pick up a stray feather. He snatched his hand back from the snapping beak just in time. “Nothing a needle can’t fix.”

He brought the parrot back the next day with the beak sewed shut. With its most powerful weapon neutralized, the parrot gave up the fight and rode Quentin’s shoulder. He only occasionally dug his claws into Quentin’s skin as payback.

After several weeks Quentin felt comfortable walking two undead at a time, and soon after he worked up the nerve to hunt down his parents.

“Come on, Dad,” Quentin coaxed Henry.

He was jerked to the right and dragged forward several steps before reining his undead mother in. The parrot let out a muffled squawk in protest.

“Whoa now, Mom, we’re not going that way. You’re going to – well, not choke yourself, but it can’t feel very good. We can’t eat the monkeys today. Walk this way. That’s right, follow the parrot, just through this gate…”

Walking both parents meant double the pauses. They were easily distracted by birds chirping, flies buzzing, or any other reminders of tasty, living creatures, but eventually all three were safely home and Quentin had his father’s body strapped onto the embalming table. The old man wouldn’t rise anytime soon. Bloated, rotting hands scrabbled on the table, possibly seeking the comforting touch of his son, perhaps looking for lunch. Quentin chose to believe the former.

He checked that his mother was still secured in the corner and set the parrot down on the counter, out of reach of any grasping fingers. He gripped his father’s hand and steadied the arterial needle.

“I figured it out, Dad,” Quentin said, smiling into Henry’s bulging, darting eyes. “It took thirty tries over the last few weeks, but I did it. I can save the family business and give you peace at the same time. Just had to rearrange the embalming order a bit.”

He gave the pale hand a squeeze then slipped the needle into place. The formaldehyde forced the long-sluggish blood to action. Quentin opened a vein nearby and the blood spilled out, clotted but freed. Henry exhaled loudly and closed his eyes.

Quentin’s mother moaned from the corner.

“Don’t worry, Mom. You’re next.” Quentin smiled as his mother clumsily clapped her hands.

#

Within days of reopening the business, Quentin lost track of how many calls he’d received, and yet another call was coming in while he was teetering on the ladder, hammering a new sign above the mortuary door. He let it go to voicemail.

Quentin looked at the parrot and raised his eyebrows.

“Nothing a needle can’t fix.”

Quentin pounded a final nail into the sign, and climbed down the ladder to take a look.

– ETERNAL REST MORTUARY –
Ensuring your final rest stays FINAL
Now making house calls

The parrot made a muffled squawk.

“I like it too,” Quentin said, stroking the bird’s head. A few red feathers came away in his hand.


By day, Dantzel Cherry teaches Pilates and raises her daughter, and by night/naptime she writes. She is prone to dance as the need arises, and it often does. Her work has appeared in Fireside and Galaxy’s Edge. She can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@dantzelcherry) or her website at www.dantzelcherry.com. This story was previously published in Penumbra.




19
Jan

The Singer and the Song by Manny Frishberg

Even his mother did not hear him cry, his song was so different from all the others. I didn’t understand that at first.

I was elated. Just a lowly grad student out collecting data on a research vessel between semesters, and I had been the first to hear a new whale’s song. An undiscovered species? I thought they might even put my name on the paper.

I played the recordings at triple speed, gathering data points without even really listening. I could hear the difference, of course, long before I realized what I heard. –  creaks and squawks like the pods of blue and finback whales we had come to monitor, but in a vocal range far above either of their songs. A different song from the one the pods composed and sang together throughout the mating season.

Only the males sing, and only during their winter mating season. We can easily tell them apart. Blue whales sing at around 17 hertz and the finbacks an even lower 12 – a rumble at the very edge of hearing, more like a buzzing in your jaw until you speed up the playback. But even at triple speed his call was special, the way his voice rose and fell like an infant’s wail – to my ears at least, mournful.

I replayed the recording at normal speed and for the first time I heard the song just as the hydrophone had recorded it. A shudder swept up my back. It’s just a wild animal vocalizing, a mating call, I had to remind myself.

Since we were there for the season, I logged his movements in and out of the inlet where we lay anchored. His tone made him easy to single out, unlike the rest. The longer I listened the more I began to sympathize, though I’d been taught to try not to.

When I went back to school in the fall, I looked for earlier recordings. The project had been funded just that year so I searched other studies that might have recordings with for similar patterns. None.

I discovered that the Navy had tested sonar in those waters several years ago. It took a FOIA request and getting the ACLU involved to get the data. I heard his distinctive calls on their tapes.

I traced him back a dozen years. Working backwards I heard how his song evolved. In the first years, he sounded nearly normal. Still a calf, his tones seemed almost right; his vocal organs must have been so small. As years went by his voice changed – the tones increasingly wrong, mimicry made more bereft because to the others he was screeching.

All the whales in a pod sing a single song, composed each fall on the trek to the warm, tropical waters. There, the calves are birthed and their next year’s siblings are conceived.

Hearing his songs over those years, I sensed him losing hope. Each year he diverged further and each year he joined the blue whale pod later in the spring – like an exile condemned always to follow, never to join.

For my post-doc I tracked my whale through the next three mating seasons. The longer I listened to him, the more I felt a kinship grow between us. I wished I could tell him that I, too, am a solitary creature, adrift alone in an ocean of my own kind.

(I knew I had conjured this connection in my mind – how could he even know I existed; why would he ever care? Yet the whale had invaded my soul.)

By that time I actually sighted him, I had my name on several papers and an assistant professorship, well on my way to tenure. His body was the unmistakable blue the world’s largest creatures are named for, the same rounded body, but slimmer. Also unmistakable, the dorsal ridge that gives finback whales their name. He was not a new species but a hybrid, a mule. He shared many of the features of both species, but in the end he was neither. Now, seeing him, for the first time I truly understood. After that, nothing else mattered.

My grant was up and my new proposal was turned down. Even so, I had my plan. I knew I’d have to fund it myself.. I sold my house – too much space for a loner anyway – and bought a sailboat, equipped it with hydrophones and a synthesizer with underwater speakers. I set off, searching for a range, a tone.

I found it in the voices of Pacific humpbacks in the seas near Tongo. I stayed with them through the summer, learning to play their song until my synthesizer gave a pretty good approximation.

When the humpbacks accepted me, odd accent and all, I headed north. I found him, as I knew I would, still trailing the pod that he always did in their Arctic feeding grounds, still alone.

I followed them when the pod left for the Arctic, learning to play their new song as they created it. Then I taught it to my whale, transposing the notes and cords as best I could into a key he could sing.

He and I fell further and further back from the pod, changing course a bit at a time, luring him away. Out on our own, I started changing the blues’ song, bending it toward the one I’d learned from the humpbacks until my finback-blue sang only theirs.

In the southern tropics I began picking up the humpbacks calls and, little by little, I backed away. Somewhere near Kiribati I lost him. His voice had merged with the chorus.

These days I play my synthesizer for myself, adrift alone in the world.

I tell myself he is just a wild animal but I miss him like a kindred soul.


Manny Frishberg has made up stories since he started staring out windows. He has been learning to do it better for the last 30 years and inflicting the results on an unsuspecting public since 2010, along with numerous magazine feature stories over a long writing career. He lives near Seattle.




14
Jan

Tell Me by Edward Ashton

“Tell me how the world ends,” Ani says.

Michael shakes his head.

“Some things,” he says, “it’s better not to know.”

They sit across from one another, at a table in the back of a dimly-lit bar. His hands are wrapped around a half-empty bottle of Belgian beer. She lifts a martini glass, sips delicately at a drink that’s more fruit juice than liquor.

“You think you know everything,” Ani says.

Michael shrugs. It’s a statement of fact, not an accusation. They’ve only just met, but this much at least is already clear.

“I’m dying,” Ani says. “Did you know that?”

Michael hesitates for a moment, then nods. He looks up from his bottle and into her eyes. Ani doesn’t look like a dying person. Her skin is smooth and pale white, with a dusting of freckles across her nose and her cheeks. Her hair is long and full and red streaked with blonde, flowing over her shoulders in a billowing wave. The only hints at her mortality are a slight gauntness in her face, and a faint tremor in her fingers as they rest on her glass.

“Do you know what will kill me?” Ani asks.

Michael nods again, and takes a long pull at his beer. Lank brown hair frames his broad tanned face, and the week’s worth of stubble on his cheeks and his chin.

“I do,” he says, “but I’m not going to tell you.”

Ani laughs.

“I already know,” she says.

“No,” Michael says. “You don’t.”

Her eyebrows knit in annoyance.

“I do,” she says, “but you obviously don’t. You’re trying to be mysterious. It’s not working.”

Michael smiles, spins his bottle like a top, then catches it before it falls.

“I know you have malignant melanoma,” he says. “I know you’ve been told it’s in your liver and your lungs. I also know it’s in your brain, in your right temporal lobe. And I know that your doctor hasn’t told you that yet.”

Ani’s jaw sags open. Michael finishes his beer, waves a waitress over, and orders another. He orders a second drink for Ani as well, though her glass is still half-full.

“But…” she says.

“Right,” he says. “I know you’ve got cancer. You know you’ve got cancer. You think that’s what’s going to kill you, but it’s not.”

Ani scowls.

“It is,” she says. “My oncologist says it’s not curable. He wants me to do chemo anyway, says it could give me an extra few months, but…” Ani touches her hair absently with one hand, then shakes her head.

“I know,” Michael says. “You made the right decision.”

He leans his chair back on two legs, balances for a moment, then drops it back down with a bang. A song begins playing on the jukebox at the front of the bar. Ani smiles at the first few notes, then looks down at the table and blinks away a tear. Michael raises one eyebrow in question.

“My father used to sing this to me,” she says. “When I was little, and I couldn’t sleep, he’d come into my room, sit by my bedside and sing. I think this was the only song he knew.”

“It wasn’t,” Michael says. “It was just the only one that didn’t have the word ‘fuck’ in it.”

Ani laughs.

“You’re probably right,” she says. She slides her hand forward until their fingertips touch. “I still love it, though.”

“So do I,” Michael says. He pulls his hand away. “My father never sang this to me, but my first girlfriend did once.”

The waitress comes by with their drinks. Michael hands her a twenty, smiles, and refuses the change.

“She was dying, too,” Michael says. “My girlfriend, I mean. It was a summer thing. She was gone before Christmas.”

“What from?” Ani asks.

Brain tumor. She was sixteen.”

They drink together in silence until the song ends.

“So,” Ani says. “Are you going to tell me?”

Michael looks up, wipes at his eyes with one hand, and finishes his second beer in one long, bitter pull.

“Tell you what?”

Ani rolls her eyes.

“What’s going to kill me.”

“No,” Michael says. “I told you. Some things, it’s better not to know.”

Ani tries to meet his eyes, but Michael’s gaze slides away.

“Did you tell her?” Ani asks.

Michael closes his eyes, and bows his head until his forehead nearly touches the lip of his bottle.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Ani says. She looks around. The bar is nearly empty.  “Tell me how the world ends.”

Michael raises his head, and looks down at his hands. They lie on the table, palms up, fingers half-curled. His nails are short and ragged, bitten almost to the quick.

“You’re right,” he says. “It doesn’t much matter.”

The song on the jukebox now is a saccharine dance mix that nobody’s father or girlfriend would ever sing to them. As it spins down, a light flares through the window at the front of the bar. It grows brighter and brighter, until the whiteness seems to seep through the ceiling and the walls. Ani looks down. Her bones are dark tendrils in her glowing white hands.

“You see?” Michael says.

Ani closes her eyes.

“Tell me…”


Edward Ashton works as a cancer researcher in Rochester, New York. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues, including Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, and Escape Pod. His first novel, Three Days in April, was published by HarperCollins in September 2015. This story was previously published in Every Day Fiction.





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