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Fiction: The Break-In

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It was supposed to be a harmless teenage prank. Break into the abandoned church and nick something. He expected her to return with a rusty candlestick or rain-soaked hymnal. If she didn’t chicken out. He hadn’t expected her to creep out of the ruined abbey dragging a four-foot long sword behind her.
“Where’d you find that?” He really hadn’t expected her to stare at him, then raise the blade like it was weightless.
“I was chosen,” she said. Then her expression hardened. “And I can see what you truly are.”
“Oh,” he said, scrambling away from her. “Hell.”

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Fiction: Capturing Light

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“Where are the flowers?” I looked up from the painting.
“They’re on the table.” I said, gesturing to the bouquet.
“But you haven’t included them. And the vase is wrong. That looks like a perfume bottle!”
“I can’t draw what’s really there,”I said. “Have you ever heard the idea that taking a picture captures your soul?”
“What nonsense.”
“Inauspiciously worded wish. Now I can’t paint anything alive without capturing it.”
“That’s bullshi….”
I finished adding the tiny figure inside the jar. It was a fairly good likeness of him.
“See what I mean?” I asked, but he was gone.

Fiction: What You Did, and What You’ll Do

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They’ll say you killed yourself, which isn’t exactly wrong. By now, your guest has recovered from his ordeals, and will pass all but the most thorough forensic examinations. He’s a little thinner, a little more drawn, but by the time you’re done, nobody will know the difference. Your future self has been living with you for months, at this point.
When he found you, he was a wreck. You almost didn’t recognize yourself. His hair was going gray, and he was starved nearly to the bone. His stared wildly, like he was being hunted. Not knowing what else to do, you took him home.
No matter how hard you pressed, your future self refused to tell you how or why he traveled back in time. He said it was too dangerous for you to know, and you believed him. After a few weeks of care and good eating, there was little difference between the two of you, save for his hair, and the scars, you dyed his hair and gave him some clothes. They were his anyway.
Your future self was afraid of the outside world, and refused to leave your house. He constantly surfed the news channels, even the one that you can’t stand. He signed you up for digital subscriptions to a dozen newspapers from around the world. You constantly changed the password on your laptop, but of course, it didn’t do any good. When you asked what he was looking for, he would get distant a distant look and go quiet. It was disturbing for you to watch terror and despair play across your own face. He told you it was safer if you didn’t know. Eventually you stopped asking questions.
He did give you missions, though. Tests to see how broadly he could influence the events that brought him here. Some missions were as simple as being in a certain place at a certain time, such as a coffee shop. Others were more involved, such as striking up a conversation with a stranger, whom your future self described perfectly. You had to say just the right things, the lines you and your future self practiced. You felt like an actor, without any idea of your role. One night, you drove out to the woods and dug up a heavy, iron-bound chest. It looked like an illustration from a fantasy novel. Your future self forbade you to open it. You dragged it five feet east and buried it again.
When, nothing happened after the first month of missions, your future self began to relax, but he still would tell you nothing of the future, or leave the house. He sent you on longer and more complicated jobs, requiring you to use up most of your time off from work. The missions never seemed dangerous, but they never made sense, either. You did them anyway, trusting that if anyone had your best interest at heart, it was your future self.
Your future self kept a journal, and one day your curiosity got the better of you, and you snuck a look at it while he was asleep. It was either written in shorthand, code, or both. You couldn’t make any headway with it. A week later, he burned the notebook without a word.
Even though he would tell you nothing about your fate or the future, you had long conversations with your future self. You reminisced about your shared past, and his perspective was enlightening. You also philosophized often about what would happen if the future really does diverge, or if it was already diverging. You saw less and less of your friends. It was too difficult to explain your increasingly odd behavior, or why your house was suddenly off limits.
After three months, he announces that the missions have been a success. You cheer and open a bottle of champagne and wait to see what will happen. Nothing does. Your future self announces he feels tired, and goes to your guest bedroom to rest. He never gets up again.
At first, you think it is another test or a mission. After a week, you ask him what is wrong. He doesn’t know himself. He tells you that the timeline has changed, he thinks. But now, something is missing. Your future self isn’t your future self anymore. You did it. But now the time he came from doesn’t exist anymore. He thought that he would fade away, or find himself back in his own time. It doesn’t work like that, apparently. He avoided fate, but now he has now future. He feels like a puppet with cut strings. You say this is a good thing, that he is free. He shakes his head, slowly. A puppet without strings can’t move on its own. He slides into a deep depression.
You do everything you can to cheer your future self up. You guess that you know him pretty well, after all. You screen your favorite movies, cook your favorite meals, and even invent elaborate schemes to get him outside. You suggest claiming he is your cousin from out of town, or find local masquerade events where he could hide his face. You even offer to let him go out as you. Your efforts are met with stony silence. You visit a doctor and claim his symptoms, scoring a little vial of medicine. Since you share the same DNA, you don’t think it counts as fraud. He flushes them down the toilet while you’re at work.
That night, he asks you to kill him.
He says that he found a new rule to the laws of the universe. He expected to fade away, or to find himself back at the point where he left, or even to have never come back in time at all. He expected that time would either make room for him or erase him, but it did neither.
Instead he finds himself trapped without fate, unable to do anything at all. Any further attempt to change his circumstances falters before he can accomplish it. Otherwise he would have simply killed himself. Unable to go back and unable to make a life for himself, the only thing he can do is die, but even that needs another hand.
At first, you refuse. He keeps after you, showing interest in something for the first time in weeks. Eventually, offers you a reward for all of this: A second notebook filled with information from his future: Stock tips, world-series winners, schematics for inventions that will make you a very rich man. He says that he’ll burn this one too, unless you kill him. This time, you agree, and tell yourself it is about mercy, not money. You almost believe it.
The assisted suicide doesn’t go as planned. It’s harder to kill anyone than you expected, and the trauma of watching yourself die is nearly more than you can take. Eventually, you shoot your future self, and let the gun drop. You had a plan to deal with the body, but seeing your own corpse isn’t something you are prepared for. You take the notebook and run. At a truck stop halfway across the country, you buy a newspaper and read your own obituary. As the murder investigation goes on unsolved, you start a new life for yourself.
It will be harder than you think. You’ll lose all your savings trying to get a new identity, and soon you’ll be broke and without a social security card. You’ll manage to get a job under the table, but never make quite enough to survive. You’ll console yourself that you still have the notebook. As long as you’re careful, and don’t draw attention to yourself, you should be fine.
But the notebook won’t work. None of the predictions will come true. At first they will be similar. You’ll make a little bit of money. The stocks you pick will do well, but never reach their predicted heights. The sports scores will be close but never quite correct. No one will be interested in your ‘inventions,’ or they simply don’t work quite as described.
Eventually, the notebook will fail you entirely. At first you’ll blame chaos, the thousand tiny variables that somehow changed when your future self went back in time. Then, you’ll suspect that your future self made a mistake. This will turn into a suspicion that he gave you false information on purpose. Before long, you’ll be certain that the figures in the notebook change when you aren’t looking. You’ll become obsessed with it, spending all day flipping through pages, rarely eating, never sleeping. Eventually you’ll lose your job washing dishes. You’ll fall behind on your debts, which will lead to some very unpleasant encounters.
Finally, you’ll discover the hidden pocket on the back cover, and pull out the single piece of paper inside. At first, the schematics and equations won’t make any sense to you, but the more you stare at them, the more sense they will make. You won’t be able to afford the materials and exotic components, but you’ll do what you have to, and eventually your time machine will be complete. You’ll look at your drawn face and gray hair in the mirror, and you will know what you have to do.
End

Cover photo by JLS Photography, shared under a Creative Commons License.

Fiction: Her Monstrous Bridegroom

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1433730548_1df471bd29_o“I don’t know about the shroud,” Princess Audra said, glaring at her reflection in the glass. She reached up and fussed with the stiff, white embroidery. A bony hand slapped her on the wrist, as quick and sharp as a whip.
“It is a veil,” the matron corrected.”And it is traditional.” She had a habit of stressing that last word. Tradition. Everything had a tradition, everyone needed to follow the traditions, always remember the traditions. Tradition, tradition, tradition. The invaders had so bloody many of them, and she had been forced to learn them all, ending with the wedding, the most horrifying Tradition of all. “You only need to cover your face until the end of the ceremony.” The princess wanted to weep, but she refrained. She couldn’t cry in front of the matron. She had made it quite clear the consequences of that behavior soon after the invasion.
But it was a shroud, no matter what she called it. It was her death, the death of her people. When the strange invaders came with their machines and their armies, they hadn’t stood a chance against them. And it had been made quite clear that their continued existence was a sufferance. Their enslavement was a mercy. Their tortures an ‘education.’
And yet, what greater horrors would the monsters inflict if they didn’t conform to their rules. If they didn’t allow themselves to be ‘civilized.’ If she didn’t lay back and let their general take her, like an apple from a tree.
‘It is time, let’s get you out there, and remember your manners. He isn’t wedding you for your beauty.” The matron yanked her roughly to her feet and adjusted the veil around her. The skeletal old woman showed surprising strength when she wanted to. Grabbing her so that the fabric of the strange gown wouldn’t tear, hitting her so that the marks wouldn’t show, that was the matron’s way. Audra pulled herself together, and reminded herself that this was for her people, that this was all she could do, for now.
An honor guard waited outside the door. Their horns were gilded, and their claws tipped in jewels for the occasion. She couldn’t bear to look at them as they marched in formation around her. She clutched the roses Matron shoved into her hands tightly, ignoring the little thorns she had neglected to remove. She tried to remember the vows, all the things they expected her to say, all the surrenders they would demand of her. She looked at the rich carpet, imported from the invader’s country, rich and red as blood, and so different from good grass under her feet.
After the ceremony, there would be a feast, and she would be forced to smile and wave as the general’s troops came and congratulated him, made little gifts of their fealty. And the air would be thick with the smells of liquor and blood. She wouldn’t be allow to gag. And after that, would be the wedding night.
She considered the possibility of killing him then, while his guard was down, after he took what he wanted. It was possible he would do nothing to her. He had seemed as disgusted with her shape as she was with him, after all. But the tradition must be maintained, and he would probably take her, just for the form of it, even though there would be no one there to watch. She prayed there would be no one there to watch.
She could smother him to death. She could press all her weight against him with one of his soft pillows and crush the air from him. She could claim it was an accident. They might believe her. But there would be others. Cutting off the head wouldn’t kill the serpent. She needed to be patient. She would to play their games, their politics. And she knew something would be irrevocably lost, but it was the only way to preserve what she could. When fighting monsters, one must think like a monster. Her father had refused. He had clung to his honor like a branch in a torrent, and they swept him away. She couldn’t make the same mistake.
They reached the doors of the chapel. They opened, and strange music, a chorus of bellowing iron beasts rose around her. She marched forward, staring straight ahead at her monstrous bridegroom. He waited next to their priest, his gleaming armor polished, his jeweled dress sword at his side. He stood tall, but he stared at her with impatience, his face all hard angles and bristling mustache.
She took slow steps, as though she could wait out destiny. But she reached him, and he pulled the veil back from her face. It caught briefly on her horns, as gilded as her guards’. He wrenched it free and looked up at her. It was strange, she thought, that this man, this human, stood a foot shorter than her, weighed a hundred pounds less. But he and those like him conquered them so utterly. She would learn his secrets, and she would turn them against those that had taken her kingdom. She would make herself a monster, if that’s what it took.

Cover image by Lori Greig

Fiction: Monster Hunting

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Monster Hunting

Shauna wakes up with a start. It’s dark in the cell-like dorm room. She hears her roommate snoring in the bunk above her and realizes it must still be the middle of the night. She raises her head and looks for her phone. It sits charging at the foot of the bed. Its diffuse screen is the only light she can see. Shauna is sure something just bit her. She brushes a hand down her leg. She feels a welt, but no bug. She listens in the dark for the whine of a mosquito, but all she hears is Kara snoring above her. Maybe she dreamed it, she thinks. She spent all day outside playing “GO Monster Hunting.” She must’ve gotten bit by something earlier and just noticed it now.
“GO Monster Hunting” is the hottest Augmented Reality game out there, and Shauna is addicted. So is the rest of the zoology department. So is half of campus, from what she can see. What she really likes about it is the game’s sense of realism. Not the monsters themselves, of course. They’re all Saturday-morning-cartoon kid friendly, with big, glassy eyes and toothy smiles. But the behavior and physiology of the monsters is actually quite advanced. Every kind of monster has its own territory, its own preferred food, its own habits. And they were getting more refined and realistic with every update.
She feels another bite. This one is sharper, more painful. She draws her leg up and grabs it. She doesn’t feel anything, but something’s there. Maybe a spider or an ant got in. She reaches for her phone to use as a flashlight. She prays that the dorm hasn’t been infested with bedbugs.
In the harsh glare of the flash, she sees a pair of small, circular welts above her left ankle. There is no sign of what made them, though. She moves to get up see if she can’t flush the thing out by shaking out the covers. She’s bit again before she can stand up. There is a stab of needle-sharp pain on her right thigh. She’s instantly on it with the phone, but there simply isn’t anything there. She doesn’t see anything, doesn’t feel anything but the sting. She watches as the welt rises as if by magic. And then she notices the flashing green light and the forgotten notification.
‘An app has just updated! Tap here for more information!’ She taps.
‘GO Monster Hunting Update #13!’ the update reads. A tiny blurb underneath brags that the engineers have added ‘a whole new level of realism to the game. Interact with your favorite monsters in all new ways!’ She knows she should be getting up, running all her bedclothes through the wash, and try and find the bedbugs or whatever it is, but Shauna decides to load the app first, just for a second.
The camera activates the second it loads. There’s a monster nearby. There’s another little bite on her leg, and as she’s trying to find it, she lets the phone fall on her leg. Which is when she sees it.
“Mos-ki-ki!” A synthesized voice chirps from her phone speaker. There’s a monster on her leg. It looks like a mosquito, although it has a pair of huge anime eyes and an improbable, goofy grin. She almost thinks it’s looking at her. “Mos-ki-ki!” It calls again, and cheerily plunges a needle-tipped proboscis into her thigh.
She feels the bite.
Shauna shrieks, brushes her hand down both legs in panic, but there’s nothing there. Not in the real world, anyway. Onscreen, the monster chirps again.
“Mos-ki-ki!” She backs away from it, and nearly falls off of the bed in her panic. A day-lit, rational part of her brain is screaming that it can’t be real. That the game has no way of hurting her in the real world. The cartoon bug turns and looks at her, the big compound eyes furrowed in animated annoyance. It hops towards her. Her thumb accidentally clicks on it, bringing up a helpful description from the game.
“Moskiki. Insect Group. This small, blood-sucking monster is easily defeated individually, but known to travel in swarms.” It hovers towards her, undeterred by the bed’s topography, and settles somewhere offscreen. She feels a bite on her arm and finds it again.
Shauna knows this can’t be real, is sure that she must still be dreaming, but can think of only one solution. She pulls up her inventory screen and selects a net. Drawing a quick circle around the monster with her finger, the net appears over it, and it cries out before being engulfed. The net shakes a few times in cartoon struggle before a tinny fanfare plays. ‘You captured a Moskiki! Battle Power 16!’ A text box informs her. She breathes a sigh of relief. The thing is gone.
She tenses again when her phone beeps with a new notification. There is another monster nearby. She recalls the behavior tip the game just gave her. Moskiki move in swarms.
Trying to remain calm, still hearing nothing but her roommate’s snores, she raises her camera phone and sweeps it across the dark room. Over the bed, the two matching desks, the closets, the knee-high brown dorm fridge. Dozens of cartoon eyes stare back at her through the screen. She sees a whole microcosm of small monsters: Insects, mice, plants. They are all newbie fodder; low-level and hardly threatening. But they are all carnivores, and they can all see her.
She spends the next hour defending her position. She runs out of nets twice, but makes use of the handy online store until it stops accepting her credit card. Finally, with all her in-game resources exhausted, the tide of tiny, biting monsters subsides. She is covered in welts, scratches, bites and sores, but none of them are life-threatening. The first rays of dawn peek in through the gap between the dorm blinds. The nocturnal creatures retreat. She heaves an exhausted sigh. Maybe now she’ll have a chance to figure out how this happened, and if she can stop it.
And then her phone beeps excitedly. EPIC MONSTER DETECTED! It exclaims. The speaker lets out a digitized roar.
“Dragocorn!”
It stomps in through the wall. The game runs off of GPS data. Construction means very little to it. The dragon is huge. It takes up the entire screen no matter how she retreats. There is something decidedly cute about the design, but the zoology student is more worried about the massive horn, huge fangs, and wicked talons reaching out for her.
Shauna is out of nets.
***
Shauna’s roommate Kara wakes up around ten. She pulls off her sleep mask, takes out her earbuds, (she can’t sleep a wink without the sound of ocean waves cranked up to eleven) and climbs down from the top bunk. She looks around for her roommate, but doesn’t see a sign of her. They usually catch a late brunch on Sundays at the good dining hall on the other side of campus. Her area of the dorm room looks a bit more rumpled than usual, but there is no sign of her.
“Must be off chasing monsters in that dumb game of hers again,” she mutters as she gathers her towel and supplies to take a morning shower. She doesn’t notice Shauna’s phone, still nestled half-hidden in the covers of the lower bunk. Onscreen, a huge, full-bellied dragon snoozes happily on top of the satellite map outline of their dorm building. She doesn’t see it open a single red eye and follow her out of the room.

Cover image by Faris Algosaibi, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Fiction: She Swings the Hammer

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Outside, the wind howls.
Inside, she swings the hammer.
Outside an impenetrable darkness covers everything.
Inside, the fire is bright and warm.
Outside snow falls silently, building in endless drifts, covering a lost world.
Inside, he tells her she is wasting her time. Wasting her strength. Wasting their resources.
Outside, crunching steps leave prints in the always fresh snow. Some prints resemble boots. Others are bare, their owners having long since stopped caring about the cold. Other are different.
Inside, she ignores him. She swings the hammer again and again.
Outside, fists fall on reinforced doors.
Inside, She stops hammering.

Fiction: The King is Dead

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The King is Dead

On the night of his fifteenth birthday, Gep’s father took him to see the king. His father was the Minister of State, and he was thus afforded this great honor. The royal family were very rarely seen in public. He was taken through one of the twenty-seven gilded gates of the Impassible Palace, and they made their way through the cyclopian maze of buildings in the dead of night, meeting no one.
His father ushered him down a long staircase, a flickering lamp the only light as they descended far below the earth. Finally, they came to a golden door. The room within was alcoves. Each contained a plinth on which rested a skull on a red velvet cushion. The last in the line wore a bright golden crown. Gep’s father said nothing, waiting for him to reach his own conclusion. It was a common test, although the circumstances were never this ghastly before.
“The king is dead!” Gep shouted. His father frowned and tilted his head. A sign that he was partially correct, but had missed something.
“Not so loud, boy. You are a man now. It is past time you were inducted in the mysteries.”
“How long, father?” Gep managed at last. His shock was overwhelming. His family genuflected at the royal portrait of King Rekir IV every morning with great ceremony. And now, he was staring at the king’s crown on the empty, grinning face of the skull.
“Him?” his father asked in a casual tone he’d never heard before. “A bit more than three years. He still has another seven or eight years in his reign before he’ll be murdered by his jealous brother. Of course, the royal guard will sniff out the truth of the matter, and not long after presiding over a lavish funeral, he will be tried, and his virtuous son will take his place. That is as far as the omens have worked things out.”
“But who rules the country?” Gep asked, still staring at the empty eye sockets. His father sighed. He’d hadn’t had this much difficulty when he was the lad’s age, but then, he hadn’t been quite so reverent as Gep. That was going to be a double-edged sword.
“The ministers, of course.”
“But how can a kingdom run without its king to oversee it?”
“The ministers have always run the government. They simply no longer do so at the whims of an inbred madman.” The boy flinched, as though he expected divine wrath to settle on his father that very moment. Nothing happened for a long while.
“How long has this been happening?” Gep asked, looking back at the long line of skulls. His father smiled.
“A very long time. My father inducted me in the conspiracy when I was your age. And his father before him, and so on.” Gep was silent for a while, as he worked on the implications.
“But how? Why hasn’t someone noticed before now?”
“Let me show you something,” his father said. They took another winding path up and down through the palace. They emerged on a balcony overlooking a vast, empty square. A building on far side was covered in scaffolding. It was being torn down, or remodeled, or rebuilt. It was impossible to see beneath the fabric. There was always some work being done in the Impassible Palace.
“You have never seen the king, or any of the royal family. Everyone knows they exist. They read the newspapers, they hear the gossip, they see the portraits and pay their respect. But they are apart from common concerns, protected by layers of guards. They are shrouded in a maze of bureaucracy as thick as these walls. They are kept alive in story alone, in chance encounters and the barest hints. In a few days, a palanquin will be brought to this courtyard. The workers will stop, and they will bow to their king. A hand might emerge, the barest hint for any brazen or bold enough to look up from the stones. And they will tell that story, and they will believe in the king who approved their work and graced them with his presence.
“So there is no king,” Gep said, almost dejectedly.
“Not at all, boy. There is a king, and he’s better than a flesh-and-blood ruler. Flesh and blood is fragile. It’s weak. It goes mad, it makes unreasonable demands. It drains the treasury. It exhausts the country in vanity and pointless struggle. But an idea? An idea is immortal as long as someone believes it. And the citizens believe very strongly. They work hard for their lord, and they are happy and prosperous.”
“But who leads them?” Gep stared up at his father with fear in his eyes. Behind him, the shadows were being chased away by a rising sun.
“We do. The ministers keep the country working in the king’s name.”
“But how do you agree?”
“Come with me, Gep. It is time for you to see what I really do.” The Minister lead his son up to a tower, a group of men and women were waiting for him. They ignored Gep and immediately began argue with his father about a dozen matters of state. He cleared his throat and brought the meeting to order. Each in turn presented their business. They sat at a mahogany table in fine robes and determined the fates of millions. Gep watched as they worked for and against each other, and he understood. He smiled as the sun rose over the Impassible Palace, and his suddenly rosy future as a head of state.
Afterwards, the minister of finance spoke to the boy.
“What do you think of our conspiracy, young man?”
“I am overwhelmed, sir. I don’t understand how people can be ruled by an idea.”
“People are constantly ruled by ideas, and it is important to remember that ideas can replace people quite easily.” Gep didn’t understand the threat for a long time.

Cover image by Loizeau shared under a Creative Commons, Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives License.

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