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M-BRANE SF

M-BRANE SF

The World Wobbled… Issue #9….October 2009

FEBRUARY 2009

Issue, Date Quisque: 


FICTION BY:

WILDLIFE

ROBINS LANGE McHUGH GRADY WARD BRILL REYNOLDS-WARD OBERMEYER EARLS KOZZI SYKORA DAGSTINE KURISATO

EDEN ROBINS Nora's dog, Toby, was imaginary. He was half poodle, half dachsund, and half lhasa apso. He was always hiding. Nora chased him through the tall grasses, slicing her hands on stalks of big bluestem, her sneakers pounding the knobbly ground, kicking up a cloud of dust and bugs. She burst through the grasses into the parking lot of the 7-11. “Toby!” she squealed. “C'mere Toby!” The dog bounded toward her, and the two disappeared back into the prairie. Nora liked to hide too. Sometimes Toby would chase Nora, but not as often as she chased him. He always found her too fast since dogs have good noses. Mom wasn't anywhere near as good at finding her. The deal was this: she could get her ears pierced, but she had to wear those babyish GPS earrings with the stupid LED lights until she turned thirteen. Which was forever from now. Mom wanted to know where she was just in case something bad happened or she wandered too far. There was no hiding from the earrings. And Mom always buzzed just when things were getting good. Today, Nora and Toby decided to play God. Worm God. They sat on a matted patch of switch grass and wilted Johnny jump-ups. Nora's face was painted with bee balm pollen and she sucked in her cheeks like a queen. Nora raised her arm above her head. “I decree that you shall be two worms!” she decreed, and lowered her hand onto the worm chopping block, like hai-yah! karate style. The two new worms wriggled and tried to burrow under the matted grass. Nora pulled them out. You could really only get four worms per worm. After that there just wasn't enough worm left to go around. Hai-yah! and then there were four.

…CONTINUED TO PAGE 4!


M-BRANE SF

EDITORIAL NOTES 10/2009 As I finish work on this new issue, I am reflecting on September. It was a busy and productive month, but decidedly not easy for me. A seasonal change in the weather is supposed to become apparent at this time of year, I suppose, but what happened here was unseasonable and unwelcome…too cool too soon, and much, much too rainy for anytime, anywhere. I also had a lengthy bout of illness, just to make things grayer. Day-jobbery was particularly onerous and depressing as well. But there was definitely an upside: I finished work on Things We Are Not. It is now for sale (with a pre-order special) at the TWAN blog (www.mbranesf3.blogpsot.com). In fact, some of you now reading this are lucky new readers who started subscriptions to this zine as a consequence of pre-ordering the book. The official publication date remains set for 10/15, and it will be available for sale by then by way of Amazon as well. A PDF edition can be pre-ordered now from the TWAN site, and Kindle/Mobi ebook editions will come online by 10/15. Certain aspects of finishing the book were more timeconsuming than I had expected. Unanticipated little glitches cropped up here and there. I had to push back the release date. But, overall, I am extremely satisfied with the end product. Also, I can say (for once in my life) that I feel like I learned something valuable for the next project without having to feel a lot of regret over the past one. It’s usually been the case that when I say “I learned something” it is with wistfulness and regret over whatever the painful learning experience was. Not this time! I had a good case of nerves the night that I uploaded the printer-ready files to the printer and a spell of anxiety waiting for the arrival of the proof copy. I may have cringed as I opened the package containing the proof, fearful of how it would be screwed up and need to be redone. But all was well. Indeed, the book was beautiful. Here is me holding that proof copy in my hands:

October 2009

ASTOUNDING STORIES ROBINS: Wildlife 1, 4 LANGE The Kangaroo Wars 8 McHUGH: Empty Mind Came Back with the Pearl 11 GRADY: Hello Again 20 WARD: Chance in the Year 54 23 BRILL: Hibiscus Sex 26 REYNOLDS-WARD: Cold Dish 29 OBERMEYER: Graftworld 34 EARLS: Fibonacci Numbers and the Psycho Living

in the Condemned Funeral Parlor 40

KOZZI: The Veritable Vegetable Victory 44 SYKORA: The Coming of the Abaries 52 DAGSTINE: The Red Economy 55 KURISATO: Lurker 59

M-BRANE SF Edited and published by Christopher Fletcher Contents © 2009 by Christopher Fletcher and MBrane SF (except for by-lined writers’ stories and articles, all rights to which revert to their authors upon publication in M-Brane SF) Subscription information and writer’s guidelines may be found on Christopher Fletcher’s blog at www.mbranesf.blogspot.com

On page 3, see the list of “Benefactors.” The people on this list (and a number of others who elected to remain anonymous) are great M-Brane heroes. They all made monetary gifts to the Things We Are Not sponsorship drive,

CONTINUED TO PAGE 3… 2

CONTENT ADVISORY

Let the public be warned that M-Brane SF may (and probably does) contain items of subject matter, language, content, theme, and philosophy which could offend some people and which may, in the judgment of some people, be inappropriate for young children. Opinions or ideas stated or implied in stories or articles in M-Brane SF are those of their individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the attitude of the publisher. The contents of M-Brane SF are primarily fictitious in nature and do not say anything one way or another about any real situations or any real persons living or dead.


M-BRANE SF

October 2009

THINGS WE ARE NOT BENEFACTORS The publisher wishes to offer many a heart-felt “thanks you” to these generous people (and a number of anonymous ones as well) whose donations helped make possible the book’s completion.

TWAN cover, front and back together …continued from page 2 and their contributions defrayed much of the up-front cost of getting the book done and also kept the M-Brane general fund healthy enough to get the zine through this month and into the next. Please visit their websites and support their various projects. It is wonderful to have found such a supportive group of people, and it strikes me as really remarkable (and rather humbling) that so many people believed in the project enough to hit that Pay Pal button. From the Things We Are Not blog…these introductions originally ran, along with photos of most of the writers, at www.mbranesf3.blogspot.com from September 17 through September 23: Abby “Merc” Rustad’s story “Queen for a Day” will startle and delight readers. A story of a young woman who gets to be Queen, literally, for a single day, it is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. It is also a marvelously designed tale of a character who has suffered too much injustice in life finally finding a breathtaking way to set things right. Merc is an up-and-coming writer with one of the darkest senses of irony and sharpest senses of humor that I have read in recent memory. Regular M-Brane readers will remember her story “Unpermitted” in issue #2, and she has also had recent publications with Dunesteef and elsewhere. A couple of weeks ago when I was deciding the order of the table of contents, I decided that I wanted to end the book in a way that would take the reader to a world whose atmosphere and sense of wonder would linger long after reading the story. Things We Are Not will conclude with Alex Jeffers's beautiful novella “Composition with Barbarian and Animal.” It is one of two reprints in this collection, having appeared in a different form, in Silverberg and Haber’s Universe 3 in 1994. From the first line, the reader is pulled into a lushly textured world of

D.D. Tannenbaum Sponsor of the 8 Minutes sf/f/h fiction contest, Final judge: Mike Resnick… Something has happened to the Sun. In 8 minutes, everything changes… Top five stories win cash prizes, 25 stories to be published in anthology, full details at http://www.8minutes.info Kaolin Fire editor of GUD Magazine www.gudmagazine.com, and web developer for hire www.handbrewed.com Crossed Genres Magazine edited by Bart Leib and Kay Holt http://crossedgenres.com Derek J. Goodman author of The Apocalypse Shift, direct from https://www.createspace.com/3394909 Abby “Merc” Rustad Author. Meet her online at http://mercrants.blogspot.com Pamela Rentz Meet her at her blog, You’re Doing it Wrong, www.pamrentz.com Margaret Blake Member of the Outer Alliance and self-described “stealth queer” married to another “stealth queer,” living in Denmark Robert E. Keller Sf/f author, on the web at www.robertekeller.net Samantha Fleming Writer and bicycler, “going mad in a world of cultural detritus and social waste”…www.ravenfamily.org/sam Megan Arkenberg Mirror Dance: fantasy e-zine. A world of fantasy awaits... http://mirrordancefantasy.blogspot.com

Continued to page 10… 3


M-BRANE SF This wonderful and deeply perceptive story by Eden Robins brought a lot of things to mind as I read it. I remembered the kind of free and imaginative playtime that the protagonist Nora enjoys, but without the restrictions depicted here. I thought about what a drag it would probably be, by contrast, to be a young kid now with paranoid parents setting up play-dates for me. I remembered how strange the long sleep hours could be as a kid, cloaked in bizarre dreams, sometimes punctuated by stranger thrills and anticipations of things to come. And I remember feeling stunned when things that I had assumed to be true simply fell away in an instant, leaving a lonely sense that no one but me really understood what was going on. Enjoy your visit to a strange yet perhaps very familiar world, created by Eden Robins, co-editor of Brain Harvest. Eden will also appear, within days of this publication, in Things We Are Not, with her astounding story “Switch.”—CF

…continued from from cover The earrings buzzed. They tickled her earlobes, and she tugged at them. They don’t come out. Their pinkypurple flash lit up her t-shirt, which was covered in burrs and other nubs. She picked off as many as she could because Mom hated it when she didn’t walk on the sidewalk and got all dirty. She pulled at her buzzy ear and looked for the bobbing yellow heads of a nearby compass plant. The broad leaves told her south was this way so she and Toby trudged toward the sidewalk. Buzz buzz buzz. She could barely hear the rustle of the Delacova’s grazer over the buzzing. They would be mad about the matted grass. The Delacovas were the only family on the block who still planted geraniums around the edge of their lawn. Who knows where they got the geraniums. The lumpy ground gave way to wood chips as Nora and Toby stepped onto the narrow sidewalk. It was hot and there was no shade. Nora felt buzzy and prickly and miserable, but still she shuffled along, kicking up wood chips and running her hands along the bluestem and rye, stripping the seeds off and scattering them on the sidewalk. “The sun wasn't setting when I buzzed you, Nora,” Mom said from the doorstep. Mom was also called Helen, mostly by Dad who was also called Teddy. The bee balm and dandelions tossed their heads at Nora as she trudged up the wood chip driveway. “What were you doing all the way out there?” she asked, holding the door so Nora could pass. She picked a burr from Nora's short brown hair and sighed. She pressed a button on her keychain and Nora's ears stopped buzzing. “What's for dinner?” Nora asked, rubbing her ears. She kicked her shoes off in the entryway and left them.

4

October 2009 “Pick those up please. Vegetables for you, seitan kebabs for me, salad for your father.” Mom said, picking up the shoes and placing them neatly on the welcome mat. Nora was into vegetables these days. Organized by color and sometimes also by size. Carrots here, then tomato chunks, small broccoli, celery stalks. “Where's Dad?” she asked. “Garage,” Mom said, frowning. “He's got a. Surprise.” Nora squealed and covered Toby's ears so he wouldn't be upset. “Is it a dog?” she asked. “Is it half poodle, half dachsund, half lhasa apso?” She followed Mom into the kitchen. “Nora, you know we can't get a dog. They're not endemic,” Mom said. She lined a carrot up with a ruler on the counter and cut it into identical pieces. Why don't you want a cute little red fox? Or a coyote pup?” “Schmendemic,” Nora muttered, sinking into a kitchen chair. “I don't want a stupid robot.” “They're not robots, honey, they're real wild animals. Real wild animals with special brain implants that you can play with but not worry about getting hurt. Isn't that cool? I would have loved that when I was a little girl.” Chop. Chop. Chop. Nora shrugged. “I have Toby. It's okay.” A crash shook the whole first floor of the house. “Teddy?” Mom shouted. She ran toward the garage door. Nora followed. “Teddy?” She threw open the door. The car was not where it was usually parked near the recharge outlet, but was sitting in the very back corner of the garage, next to some useless gardening tools. In the center of the garage sat a massive wooden crate with the word LawnCom stenciled in block letters along the side. And next to the crate, sprawled out on its side and snoring, was an adult bison. “Teddy,” Mom breathed, hand on her chest. Dad was holding a thick instruction manual in one hand and a remote control in the other. “Damn thing broke my whatzit,” he muttered. “My tire jack.” “You could have been killed,” Mom said. “I don’t think this is such a good idea. Can’t we return it? Why don’t you get a white-tailed deer like everyone else? Or even an elk?” “This is a top-of-the-line grazer, Helen,” Dad said, pointing at the instruction manual. “Plus it says right here, LawnCom is committed to providing quality merchandise. Our grazers never have the disobedience problems you see in other companies’ products.” Mom shook her head. “Can’t believe everything you read. Nora, be careful,” she said as Nora commanded Toby to sit and stay and then marched over to the bison. Nora watched the huge brown mound rise and fall, heard its whistly snore. “It’s just a robot. It can’t do anything,” she said. It smelled like floral air freshener and plywood. She touched the coarse curly fur at its shoulders.


M-BRANE SF “Nora!” Mom yelled. “Dinner time,” Mom said.

Nora pulled her hand away.

There were always three dinners. There used to be two—one for Mom and Nora and one for Dad. Dad's dinner had to be cold so that it wouldn't get cold. He ate a lot of salads, but sometimes the greens wilted before he got around to eating it. Then Nora got into vegetables, and now Mom made three dinners. Nora picked up a carrot first and nibbled at it, staring at Dad's salad and mentally partitioning out the vegetables into color-coded piles. Dandelion greens and lamb's quarters here. Move over the carrot slices. Then tomato chunks. Grey strips of tofu. “I want you to be very careful with Daddy's grazer, okay? Promise me you'll keep a healthy distance from it,” Mom said, looking in Nora's eyes. “I guess,” Nora shrugged. Toby begged at her feet, wagging his tail along the floor. But he didn't like vegetables. Stupid dog. “I mean it. And I don't want you wandering around in the neighbor's prairies anymore either,” Mom slid a block of seitan off her bamboo skewer. “We don't know all our neighbors, and anyone could be hiding in those tall grasses. You could startle a grazer and get stampeded. That's one thing you could say about the old lawns. They were safer for children to play in.” Mom attacked her seitan with a butter knife, and it split in two without a fight. “What was it like when you were a kid?” Nora asked. “Why don't you play in the roof garden? There are pretty flowers up there and butterflies too.” Nora smooshed a tomato in her mouth. Mom stared at her so she nodded a little. “Can I bring Dad his dinner?” Nora asked. “Finish yours first, and then we'll see,” Mom said. “I'm not trying to ruin your fun, sweetie. It's my job to look out for you. I'm your mom, it's just what we do. Got it?” Mom smiled and slid a mushroom off her skewer. “Let's look through Daddy's LawnCom catalog and see if you find a little fox you like. You can't say you don't like something if you've never tried it!” Nora stuffed the rest of her vegetables in her mouth in color order. “Now can I go bring Dad his dinner?” she said, trying not to spit out broccoli buds. Mom was still eating. “Okay,” Mom said. “Go ahead.” Mom slid the rest of her vegetables off the skewer and poked at them with a fork. She looked sad so Nora hesitated for a moment. “I’ll leave Toby here to keep you company,” she said, and grabbed Dad’s plate. Nora dreams about uncomfortable things. Sexy things. Women with big boobs shaking their hips. Boys and girls rolling around with their arms around each other and all their clothes on. When Mom asks what she dreams about, she skips over these parts. The rest of the time, she usually has nightmares. Nora woke up whimpering and clutching her blankets.

October 2009 The window was open, and she was scared of it but couldn't remember why. The more she tried to figure out why, the less she knew and the scareder she got. A breeze hissed through the grass, and Nora tried to wake up Toby. She shook him and pulled at his ears, but he just yawned and stretched his legs out so she was squished against the wall. “Mommy?” Nora whined. “Daddy?” A violent snort sounded from across the hall, followed by a few quieter snores. They wouldn't hear her over Dad's snoring. Mom always wore earplugs. Nora pushed at Toby and squeezed past him onto the floor. She stepped into the hall and peered down the dark staircase. The entryway should be at the bottom of the stairs, but she could only see two steps, and then blackness. But it should be down there. It had never not been down there. She took a step down. What if it wasn't there? What if there was nothing down there? What if the blackness swallowed her up? She took another step. And another. And then she ran down as fast as possible. Down down down. Onto the tile floor. Down another step. Out the garage door. Her feet slapped against the concrete floor of the garage, and she could hear the heavy animal breathing. Her heart lurched in her chest. “I'm not afraid,” she whispered. She took slow steps toward the breathing, her arms stretched wide to test for stuff she might bump into. She stubbed her toe on the floor and bit her lip to keep from yelping. She felt around the empty air. Maybe this wasn't the garage anymore. Maybe it disappeared and she could never go back. She was breathing too hard and her head felt swimmy. Was it here? Where was it? Then her hands pressed against the grazer's warm, cropped back. It breathed. Up. Down. Up. Down. She paced her breathing with its (his? hers?) and ran her hand along its back to the fluffed curls at its shoulders. Sitting down on the cold floor, she leaned her back up against the bison and closed her eyes. Up. Down. Up. Down. Nora dreams of knobbly knees. She dreams of new things that are difficult but get easier. She dreams of finding food, of hiding. She dreams of warm bursts of air on her face. Nora opened her eyes to the dark and felt warm bursts of air on her face. She couldn't see it, but she felt it. The huge face hovering over her. The walking mountain. The hot breath quickened and closed in. Nora was barely breathing. She couldn't move. Her body ached with cold. A leathery cushion pressed into her forehead and left behind a trail of mucus as it pulled away. Nora skittered to her feet and ran out of the garage, pressing herself against the door. She locked it. Her heart pounded. “Have any good dreams last night, Nora?” Mom asked, whisking a bowl of eggs. “Yeah, but I can't remember,” Nora lied. She rolled carrots around her plate, making sure they didn't touch any of the other vegetables.

5


M-BRANE SF “Good,” Mom smiled. “You going up to the roof garden today? I can buzz Bina's mom to see if Bina wants to come over and play with you.” Ew, Bina. “No thanks, Mom. I think I'll help Dad boot up the grazer.” She pulled on the tablecloth and avoided Mom's face. But Mom was nodding. “Well, be careful. You two keep an eye on each other. And two heads are better than one,” she said. “I'll bring out some iced mint tea later, how does that sound?” Toby didn't feel like playing today, so Nora left him in her room. Nora and Dad stood on the porch, and Dad let Nora hold the remote control. “It's easy, see? This button sets it to graze, and the slider underneath sets the speed. You don't want it to go too fast. Then it might eat something you're trying to grow because it isn't paying attention. But you don't want it to go too slow either.” He moved the slider all the way to the right and the bison jogged back and forth, whipping its heavy head around and chomping at the grass. Then Dad slid the marker all the way to the left and the bison stopped in its tracks, dipping slowly. Closer to. One. Blade. Dad moved the slider to the middle. “So. We'll just keep it right about here. Get it?” Nora stared at the bison. Dad cleared his throat. “And then this button puts it to sleep. Don't press it during the day though. I found out he takes a long time to wake up. Kinda like you, huh kiddo?” Dad nudged her and laughed. “Is it a he?” Nora asked. “Oh who knows. So that's it! Graze and sleep. Easy, right? Want to try?” Dad handed her the remote. “No thanks,” Nora said. “Your mom and I are thinking of adding this to your chore list, so you need to learn how to run it,” Dad said. “Hey Teddy! That a grazer I see?” A male voice shouted at them from the sidewalk. “Jimbo! That you?” “Sounds like a big one. What is it, elk?” Dad chuckled and winked at Nora. “Bison! Come take a look!” “No kidding!” Jimbo, also called Mr. Kozlowski, shouted. He jogged up the driveway to the porch. “Hey there Nora! What do you think of your dad's new toy?” “Show Mr. Kozlowski how to run the grazer, Nora,” Dad said, stuffing the remote control in her hand. “She's a quick study, this kid.” Mom and Dad watched the news, that show Money Tree, the news again, Natural Living, the late news, and then the news on another channel. Nora sat up straight in her chair, kicking the chair legs to stay awake. They were running out of news. Dad had work in the morning, but Mom might stay up forever. “Isn't this fun? Spending time together?” Mom said. “This is why I love summer. Spending time with my family.” She looked from Dad to Nora and smiled. “Toby too. Is... Toby here, Nora?” Nora shrugged. “I don't think so.”

6

October 2009 “Ah! That reminds me,” Mom said. “Teddy, let Nora look at your LawnCom catalog. She wants to get a pet.” “No!” Nora shouted, then softened her voice. “Not right now. I'm tired.” “Then go to bed, sweetie,” Mom said. “I know you hate the news.” “I'm not tired tired,” Nora said quickly. “I'm just a little tired.” Dad heaved himself upright in his bamboo recliner. “Well I'm tired. Somebody's got to be the responsible parent.” He gave Mom a look that made Nora nervous. Mom cocked her head at him and frowned. “Don't stay up too late, Nora. A growing girl like you needs her sleep.” Mom followed close behind Dad, whispering something serious, probably. There was pacing upstairs and heated whispering. A loud sharp word here and there. Nora blinked through the channels, giving each channel five seconds to prove itself. She tried to piece a story together from all the different parts of the different shows. The pacing upstairs slowed and then stopped. Finally, there was a puff-puff noise as two bodies got into bed. Nora’s eyes kept getting heavier and her blinks longer. The channels skipped when you did that. Nora perked up a little when she heard the first snore come from upstairs. She slid out of her chair and shuffled to the garage. The bison breathed deeply. His (her?) back rose and fell. Up. Down. Up. Down. Nora sat on the concrete floor and shivered. It was popsicle cold. She tried not to think of popsicles. Hot cocoa with marshmallows. She leaned against the bison's back and closed her heavy eyelids. She can smell everything in the world and it's all separate and easy to tell apart. Mud here. Grass. Poop. Something else's poop. Each of the flowers, and she knows them all. She presses up against a warm curly flank and a mother guards her, watches over her. Nora opened her eyes to the warm air again. She felt the bison over her, breathing, watching. Her breath puffed. She was smelling Nora. She rubbed her fuzzed face against Nora's and then lay down again, carefully, curling around her so she was hugged by the bison's legs. Nora rested her head on the bison's flank. The legs looked so small, and Nora pet them gently. “I wish I could stay down here,” she said, struggling to keep her eyes open. “But I can’t.” She pulled herself off the floor and yawned hugely. Maybe she could keep that dream in mind and dream it again. “Have any good dreams last night?” Mom asked. Nora shook her head. “I didn't sleep very well.” Mom frowned. “Oh honey, I’m sorry. Any particular reason?” “No. Just couldn't sleep.” “Well try not to stay up so late tonight,” Mom said, scooting back her chair and taking her bowl to the sink.


M-BRANE SF “I've got some errands to run today. Need anything while I’m out?” Nora poked at her cereal. “Nah.” She looked up at Mom. “Is the grazer outside?” “Oh no,” Mom said. “No, I told Dad I don't want that thing roaming around when he's not here. I don't care what LawnCom says.” “Why is a fox okay but a bison isn't?” Nora asked. Mom tousled her hair. “The bigger the animal, the harder it is to control. Didn't you learn that in science class?” She slung her purse over one shoulder and pinched her own cheeks for color. “I'll be back in a few hours. And no roaming around the lawns while I’m out. Why don't you give Bina a call? I bet you two and Toby could have fun together in the roof garden.” Mom smiled and tugged on Nora’s dangly GPS earrings. “Toby's busy,” Nora said, and Mom laughed. Nora waved goodbye to Mom from the garage door. Maybe she dreamed everything. Maybe the bison hadn't woken up and breathed on her. In the news, when grazer brains misfired and overrode the controls, it ended with people getting killed or hurt. Not sniffed. She must have made it up. She had tossed and turned all night in her bed, and her sheets wrapped around her legs in a way that she couldn't undo. The bison was where Nora had left her, her legs curled around a calf that didn't exist. Nora was a little scared to see her in the light. She looked at the head. The sharp horns. That carpeted face. She looked like a monster close up. Nora hesitated, then touched her forehead. Her fur was bouncy, and she patted it lightly. She yawned. She lay down in the spot the bison left for her. Nora didn't dream. She didn't need to. But she also didn't hear the garage door open, didn't hear the clank of Mom's bicycle hitting the garage floor, didn't even hear her wild scream. She heard the bison grunt, though, and opened her eyes to her standing over Nora. The bison was glaring at Mom. “Oh my God, oh my God,” Mom said. “Mom, it's okay, Mom!” Nora said, scrambling to her feet. “It's okay!” The bison just stood there, breathing, staring at Nora, watching her every move. Mom whipped her head around and found the small table where the remote was sitting. She grabbed it. “It's okay, Mom, she's not dangerous!” Mom slid aside a bottom panel on the remote that Nora had never noticed. “Get over here, Nora!” she screamed. Nora stood and pressed her hand against the bison, feeling its heavy breathing. “Don't touch it, Nora! Please!” Mom motioned for her, her face contorted. “What are you going to do?” she asked in a little voice, taking a step away from the bison. Mom pressed the button under the hidden panel, and the bison crumpled to the floor. A crack snaked through the concrete.

October 2009 “What did you do?” Nora shrieked. She dropped to the floor and pressed her face to the bison's side. She wasn't breathing. “You killed her!” Mom reached down and heaved Nora to her feet. She brushed the hair from Nora's forehead. “Did it hurt you? Are you okay?” Nora pulled the remote from mom's hands and pounded her finger on the graze button like Dad taught her. The bison didn't move. “You killed her,” Nora said. “I shut it down, honey. You can't kill a grazer. They're not really alive,” Mom said. She hugged Nora tightly to her chest. Nora could feel Mom's heart pound through her shirt and it made her feel icky. “I'm so glad you're okay,” Mom said. Mom smoothed the hair from Nora's cheek. “Now why don't you go run along and play with Toby.” Mom cupped her hands around her mouth. “Toby!” She yelled, winking at Nora. “C'mere Toby!” She knelt on the ground and petted the invisible outline of a dog. “There's a good dog,” she said. “Isn't Toby a good dog?” “Toby's a good dog,” Nora said. Then she knelt down and petted the empty air. Eden has lived many places and worn many figurative hats. She is a Clarion West '08 grad and coeditor of Brain Harvest: An Almanac of Bad-Ass Speculative Fiction.

7


M-BRANE SF I’m going to leave it to each individual reader to decide for him or herself what to make of this very amusing—and rather crazy—story. The author suggests a metaphor through which to view it in her brief afterword. Sue Lange is a member of the Bookview Café authors consortium (www.bookviewcafe.com) and appeared previously in MBrane SF with “Zara Gets Laid” (issue #5).—CF

October 2009 our absence. To generate a little cash flow, they’d snatched a 14-year-old virgin from a nuclear family and were offering her for sale to the Banditos. The Banditos were a gang of cut-throat humans — all male, and all carrying large guns and with ribbons of bullets criss-crossing their chests. They were mostly Anglo boys with thick dyed mustachios. Later we found out that they had just painted the mustachios on so that after the war they could easily recivilize themselves and get laid. The Banditos were the backbone of our side. They were ruthless. Being meateaters, they never buried their enemy’s dead, they simply consumed them. I heard they consume their own as well, but that’s never been corroborated. So our Bordello had been turned into a bordello with Banditos lined up outside the front door. Two kangas stood guard on the fire escape outside the upstairs back room where the naked fourtenn-year old lay chained to a huge armoire. Walnut. Early American. Philadelphia period with in-laid ivory. Very heavy. The kangas planned to pick off the lusty brigade members one by one, mid-thrust. A good plan, you will agree. Apparently the SmartPills ® were fresh. Potent. Pfizer. I thank my lucky stars I had been held up by a stray conversation on theory after the day’s scheduled action. After the battle, somebody had mentioned the victims asking for it. You know how provocative that is. You just can’t let it go. I’d been engaged and lost track of time. After arguing for an hour, I realized I was going to catch hell for missing the rendezvous time with the den mother. Truth be told, I was more afraid of Ma than any pack of Macropi — or Banditos for that matter. So when I got back to the Bordello I slipped through a side door, hoping my entry would be unnoticed. I planned to drift in amongst the others and slyly announce, “Why, I’ve been here all the time,” as soon as invectives attached to my name began. Wasn’t meant to be. As I snuck in I heard the oaths of horny gents lined up in the kitchen. I knew full well red-blooded Aryans wouldn’t be caught dead in the vicinity of our headquarters regardless of their nod to a matriarchal culture. It was obvious something was up. I snuck back out and went around to the back to an alternate staircase. Once up top, I could hear a chickie whimpering in the back bedroom and a chain scraping across the floor. This was serious. No Feminista cries during sex. I tiptoed into the house and stood just outside the back room. Pushing on the door ever so slightly with my fingers, I

The Kangaroo Wars by Sue Lange

It happened back in ’45 during the Kangaroo Wars, that bloody heat-up when Big Bod, leader of the Macropi, found the zoo’s lost shipment of research SmartPills®. He thought they were his clan’s regular meal. Pills just like them had replaced normal kangaroo food years previously, so he just passed them out to his pals and mates like always. Next thing you know, the city’s infested with marsupials stealing ammunition and threatening the mayor. The humans, rightful owners of higher brain function, reacted quickly and all out war erupted over night: Ten thousand Homo sapiens versus roughly the same amount of Macropus rufus. They were clever and had those legs, but we were organized. With everybody participating in guerilla warfare of some kind, the city got pretty much laid to waste. Houses, schools, churches, everything, quickly lost their functions as social center or nurturing hearth or what have you. Each structure, however moral and upstanding its former occupation, served now as a mere backdrop to the infernal, never-ending, seventy-two day war. I found myself a captain in the Feministas, a squadron known throughout the conflict for teamwork and support of its members. Our headquarters was in an old bordello over on South Street. A place whose one-time sumptuous beauty could be seen in the French vanities and high ceilings painted with scenes of Cupids having sex with plump Gabriels while Venus voyeurised with a smile. There was a piano in the main hall. In spite of the war, the beds had somehow remained intact and were lousy with feathers and comfort. The Bordello was a good place to return to after a sortie. One day I got separated from my company and had to return to the Bordello alone. Unbeknownst to me or the other Feministas, the wallabies had taken over the hotel in

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M-BRANE SF opened it just a crack. Just enough to get a peak. In the mirror above the oak — Jacobean, early period, with gilt frame — vanity, I spied two wallabies on the other side of the window, snickering and brandishing knives. A redfaced, naked, girl-child lay on the floor. A dead and bloodied faux-Mexican lay sprawled across the bed. The scene was appalling. Janey, our laundress, had just bleached the sheets the day before. That blood would never come out. In a flash, I swept into the room and slammed the window shut, giving myself a few minutes before the smart, but not that smart, kangaroos kicked through it. There were 50 angry Banditos just outside the door of the antechamber now demanding their chance at the virgin. One Feminista against 50 Banditos is no match; besides they were the backbone and we needed them. All of them. The first on line crashed through the outer door. He was a big drink of water with a harelip that had been surgically fixed in infancy, a close-cropped ‘do that stood on end, and spittle on his chin. He was just brushing me aside to get at the innocent one in the back room, when the rest of my platoon returned from a meeting, also up the back staircase. They had no idea what was going on and were in heavy planning mode. Just now they were assembling in the antechamber, forming little groups of four and five, discussing how the meeting had gone and what areas needed improvement. I knew then that we were in trouble. On paper, legally, that is, the Feministas and the Banditos were on the same side. But with today’s situation: a virgin in need of protection and 50 lusty Banditos deserving of the spoils of war, even if they are our own spoils, we were about to lose the house to a couple of half-smart shit kickers who were previously clueless regarding the physics of glass. Soon they would get hip. Quickly I grabbed the white guy’s lapels. In the surprise show of force, he succumbed. “Listen,” I said in a voice the gathering Feministas wouldn’t hear. “How’d you like a freebie?” Predictably he said, “Huh?” “If you off them two Macropi on the escape out there…” (I pointed my elbow to the window) “…and make sure the maiden gets into the hands of my pals over there …”(I nodded towards the closest group in heavy discussion on strategy), “…I’ll give you a go on the house.” But he was sharp and could sense a flaw a mile off. “You a virgin?” he asked. I had to improvise. “What do you want one of them for?” I said. “Sure they’re pure, but what you want is quality. Tell you what, you take care of the kangashits, I’ll clean off the bed. We’ll take the day off, order in some Chinese, call up for champagne. The sisters’ll take care of the brothers and you and I’ll have a good roll. I can show you things you’ve never seen before.

October 2009 Not knowing exactly what things this Cossack, or Hessian, or Hun had seen, I continued improvising. I licked my lips in universal come-on language that I knew he’d translate into whatever particular fantasy he liked. He balked a little at first. “Why would you do that for me?” he said. “Well…” Continuously improvising I added a coy smile and a bashful bend of the knee. “I kind of like you.” In a flash, just as the kangashits had figured out what a window was and kicked through it, he unsheathed his sword and skewered the both of them in one blow. Pushing them back through the window, he released them over the edge of the escape to the ground below where they landed with an “oof!” and a thud. Apparently they died half an hour later. Meanwhile I pulled the velvet window curtains closed and dragged the dead guy off the bed. I stuffed him underneath, then stripped off the linens and shoved them under as well. I threw back the doors of the armoire and withdrew a clean feather bed and a set of crisp ivory sheets. Crane’s. 400 thread count. 100% Egyptian combed cotton. Not your mother’s percale. While I was doing all that, the Bandito guy fulfilled the last part of his bargain. “What on Earth?” Millie, a short, but fiercely quick guard roared from the next room. “A virgin, Ma’am,” the Viking roared back. Then I heard five or six attachés snap open and for a moment I thought the Hun was done for, but he held his own. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch, Ladies,” he said. “Her maidenhead is intact, she will attest to that. The kangaroos had been planning on selling her to a bunch of, well, soldiers, Ma’am.” “Her maiden…!” Gin, a sharp-haired, sharp-eared, sharp-tongued thirty-something, cried. “We don’t give a shit about that crap. That’s your thing. Look here.” A shuffling of documents ensued. Just about that time the boys behind the door decided the big guy’s turn was up and the next one should have a go. They set up a fierce howl of complaint and began kicking the door. I’m sure the Feministas looked at one another with question marks hanging in the air above their heads. “The soldiers,” the Dragoon said, just as the door flattened inward and fifty angry white boys with painted on black mustachios piled in on top of it. The big guy stepped smoothly away from the scene and quietly closed the door to the boudoir behind him. We listened for a moment as fifty swinging dicks went almost audibly limp. The attaches snapped shut and preparations for dinner for a hundred got underway. Me and the big guy took care of our unfinished business. We ordered some Chinese like I promised and had Champagne sent up. You wonder why I went through with it when I could

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M-BRANE SF so easily have gotten out of it. Fifty Banditos are too much, but one? Piece of cake. Sure I could have given him the shove-off, but we’d made a deal. If you don’t have your honor, what do you have? And there’s nothing quite like a roll in a fresh, featherbed with Crane’s 400 count, Egyptian combed cotton linens. Besides, like I said, I kind of liked him. Sue Lange says: This story was inspired by the Obama/Clinton conundrum. Can you spot the identifiers? http://www.suelangetheauthor.com Metropolis Ink published Sue Lange’s novel, Tritcheon Hash, in 2003. In 2007 Aqueduct Press published W e, Robots. Currently her serialized, multimedia extravaganza, The Textile Planet, is available free from http:// www.bookviewcafe.com.

October 2009 …continued from page 3 strange and highly nuanced social orders, language, religion, personal power and love. Jeffers says that this story may one day be the first segment of a complete novel set in this world. I bet that readers will share my hope that this will indeed happen. Lisa Shapter offers one of the most deeply subversive stories in the anthology, her “The World in His Throat,” a stand-alone excerpt from a longer novel. Told in a mode that reminded me (for some reason) somewhat of cerebral East European-style sf (think the 1970s Russian-made film version of Lem’s Solaris), it takes on issues of gender roles and reproductive rights in the context of males—military men, no less—needing to bear children as the “mothers” of a new human colony on a distant planet. Without revealing too many “spoilers,” I think readers will find fascinating and perhaps surprising the course of events for the first child of this new world, a boy engineered with the ability to self-impregnate, and the decision he makes for himself. In “The Offside Trap,” Stephen Gaskell confronts homophobia and the psychological pain of denying who you are in the context of a sports story. Jacksy is a football team captain (that’s “soccer” to those of us in the States) with a strange ability. His personal life and his understanding of himself is upended when a new man joins the team, a man that Jacksy suspects of being a stealth gay and whose very presence comes to be perceived as an attack. Readers who know me personally may raise an eyebrow that I, the epitome of the non-sports fan, even selected a soccer story for this book. Readers will see why I did, however, when they read this one. It is gripping and darkly beautiful, much like (I am told) the game itself can be. Stephen Gaskell is a Clarion grad, a Writers of the Future published finalist and recently appeared in M-Brane SF with his story “Prisoners.” As readers of Michael D. Griffiths’ “Skinjumper” serial in M-Brane are aware, Mike has a fascination with the concept of cloning and mind/body transfer as a means of literally changing one’s biological sex. His offering for Things We Are Not, “Transitions,” is not a Skinjumper story, but it does deal with technologically-aided sexswapping. With science fiction television, such as Star Trek, I have been told that the producers call episodes that are set entirely within the spaceship “bottle shows.” Also, back in the early days of science fiction movies there were plenty of examples of stories where a crew of people (men, mostly) travelled through space and worked out their very dramatic yet very Earthly issues in the confines of a ship. This story sort of took me back to those days.

This charming kangaroo picture is from the Ettamogah Wildlife Sanctuary coloring book site. You can print it and color it!

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Continued to page 22…


October 2009

M-BRANE SF Maura McHugh’s story is startling and rather mindbending. It is by turns both scary and funny, and told so vividly that its images will linger for a long time after the story is read. The concept of a “multiverse,” which is part of the science fictional underpinning of this tale, can either be really fun or really tedious. Fortunately for us all, in this story, it is very much the former. Before I saw this story, I had not known of this writer, but she is already on my list of Ones to Watch. Maura is also scheduled to appear in MBrane #12 with “The Secret Names of Buildings.”—CF

Empty Mind Came Back with the Pearl

on a mobile phone past Art. The giant hound yanked the leash away from his mistress, and loped off to snuffle in the shade of a tree where a large man crouched, his back against the tree trunk, observing the juggler. Art followed the man's line of sight, and admired the brown arch of the juggler's neck under the collar of her tailcoat sewn from quilted patches. She threw the translucent spheres in complicated patterns in between her legs as she highstepped on the spot. How does she do that? he wondered. Her muscled thighs bunched under black Lycra shorts, and the parachute jump boots she wore were crazily out of proportion to her small frame. A lance of light from an orb dazzled Art. He blinked and looked away. A hint of nausea squirmed, and Art shifted on the glossy bench, sliding a little. In the puzzle shadows cast by the tree the man scratched behind the Great Dane's ear. His dark fingers clad in leather fingerless gloves slipped under the dog's collar, and snagged the leash. He handed it back to the dog's owner, who carried on her phone conversation without a nod of thanks. Sweat beaded on Art's lip as the queasiness intensified. He inhaled deep, slow as he'd been taught, but got a whiff of the rancid onion rings heaped on top of the sunwarmed rubbish bin. An old woman with blue fibreglass hair inched a little further from him on the bench. Art swallowed panic, and breathed through his mouth. The juggler kicked the glass globes, which drifted dreamily upwards with the rainbow hue of soap bubbles. He almost expected them to burst on contact with her hands. He heard the paper bag drop, and looked down. His arms were the jittering limbs of an epileptic puppet: disconnected, uncontrollable. His vision blurred. Art suspected he may have groaned, because the man under the tree looked in his direction. A shaft of sunlight illuminated deep-set brown eyes and a blocky jaw. Everything—the children, the granny, the trees, the bench—doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and multiplied until they were squiggles of overlaid forms. Except for the man under the tree and the juggler. They were blissfully static amid blots of knotted overlaps. Art slid to his right. His head bounced off the bench seat. A startled noise from the old lady's direction. Then he saw them. Three glistening, scarlet man-shapes poured from the blood of corruption, with heads composed of scribbling, discordant veins, and skinned hands embedded with hooked wire. The red triad floated across the manicured grass and wove between the looped overlays. They honed in on the juggler. Art concentrated on her still form to anchor him amid the confusion. She looked directly at him, as did the man under the tree, and the force of their regard was an

by Maura McHugh The juggler—a petite woman in a bowler hat—tossed nine crystal balls into the air, tumbled, and caught all of them behind her back. The swarm of ice-creamed children gathered on the grass before her shrieked in delight, partly at her dexterity, and partly at her Indiana Jones-like ability to keep her hat on her head throughout her acrobatic performance. Art winced at the noise, and considered a move to another bench further away. Yet, an agreeable shadow from the nearby sycamore cooled him, and he'd forgotten his sunglasses in the rush to make his appointment that morning. Plus, seating was sparse in Green Park at lunchtime in August. Pods of tourists wallowed past, cameras jutting, on the way to Buckingham Palace, while parents in flip-flops pushed strollers towards the entertainment on the sun-scorched lawn. As a distraction Art squinted again at the Lilliputian print on his latest prescription. One tiny phrase shouldered forward: “retrograde ejaculation.” Bing, bing bing, Art thought, we have a winner. It scooped the tiara for “Miss Scariest Side Effect” despite vicious competition from veterans like involuntary facial tics, or drug-induced Parkinsonism. He dropped the bottle of pills back into the paper bag. A shivery rattle, like the warning of a snake, was barely audible under the childish din. He glanced down and spotted the tremor in his hand. Art crumpled the bag into a small, wadded package in his fist. A Harlequin Great Dane dragged a slim girl chatting

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M-BRANE SF uppercut to his mind. : time stop (A vibrating string stilled.) All around him the jerking tangles froze. Except for the man and the woman, and the three skinless creatures. The pain vanished. Art sat up. “Look out!” The woman spun in a movement of balletic beauty, where thought and its expression were inseparable. The red men speared towards her. An agnostic since sixteen, Art didn't believe in a soul. Yet, in that instant he knew that a spark—something essential and valuable— resided within him and it was in danger from those things. They would gorge upon it even as he cried for oblivion. The man rose and planted his feet wide in the ground behind the juggler. The first creature darted towards her and slashed with its hooked fingers and scalpel nails, but she was behind it somehow. She rammed one of her glass spheres into the throbbing mass that was its head. It winked out of existence. Two more shot towards her. She laughed—a tone of ecstasy—and somersaulted to land between them. Compared to her their movements were sluggish like putrid honey. She flicked both arms out straight from her shoulders and a glass ball zipped into each pulsating head. They blinked out. “Show off,” the man sounded unimpressed. She shrugged, and a sly grin twisted her features into an expression of impish violence. “C'mon, Rex. I need play-time.” Both of their voices possessed a weird cadence that resembled an amalgamation of a thousand accents. “Threadmen should be eradicated instantly. They may have reported back to the Entanglement.” “Good job I was around. What would you do? Reason them to death?” Art shrank into his clothes, not wanting to attract attention. They turned to glare at him. The girl was at his side, a hand upon his throat, her mouth by his ear. “Who are you little humanoid?” her lips grazed his earlobe; he was hard immediately. It would have been cause for celebration if he wasn't so terrified. Her other hand rested on his erection. “Tell me quick, or I'll shred it.” “Iona. Down.” She was ten feet away again, flicking two glass balls in the air. “Spoilsport.” She watched Art with predatory desire. He babbled: “I'm Art, Arthur Kepler.” The man called Rex regarded Art as if he was an insect. “I was, am, an independent film director. Shorts, features, TV specials, even commercials when I need the cash, but I've been unwell, kind of crazy really, so I haven't been working recently, just the odd...” “How did you see the Threadmen?” Rex asked. Iona's voice was flat. “Just wipe him.” She juggled the balls in complex patterns.

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October 2009 “It's protocol,” Rex replied. Iona sighed elaborately. “Stuff procedure. It's bad enough we're stranded on this reality-string. Interrogating the apes wasn't part of the deal.” An expression of irritated patience crossed Rex's face, but his intense stare never left Art's eyes. “I don't know,” Art gushed, “I've been hearing and seeing stuff lately, but nothing like those things... Threadmen?” “For the love of the Spinner!” Iona exclaimed, her hands clamped upon her hips. The spheres hung suspended in the air, frozen in a figure of eight pattern. “It's a fluke, Rex. He has banjaxed antennae or something. Dump the multiped.” They stared at each other and Art sensed an exchange, dense and volatile, passing between them. Incomprehensible data flashed across his mind, overlaid with multi-hued shapes and pictographs that didn't fit inside his head, so they tore new spaces to make room. Thought fragmented, splintered. A kaleidoscope of informational landscapes rotated in and around him, both beautiful and layered with topographic detail. Hands upon his face. His hands? “I told you he was different.” The man's shape was a jeweled mountain that rotated through infinite dimensions. “You should know better than to listen to me.” Hers was a whiplash of razor pyramids, coiling in and out of time and space. : time start (The twang of a released double bass string. Deep and resonate.) The smell of cut grass; vanilla ice cream; urine. “Are you all right young man?” the voice spun from a three-dimensional decaying meatspace clad in a ridiculous tweed coat. He blinked. There was another term for this creature, but it eluded him. Applause, cheers. From his sideways view Iona bowed to animated meatpuppets, and caught metal discs that glinted in the sun as they spun towards her hand. He mapped the rotation of their arcs as she plucked them from the air. A firm hand upon his shoulder. He looked up into a face that had the stability of rock. “He's a friend, I'll take care of him,” subliminal instruction thrummed in the voice: Trust Me. “That's all right then.” The mouldering flesh retreated. Rex sat Art up and pushed him to his feet. Iona flickered in front of them. “I'm not touching him, he's pissed himself.” Art should be embarrassed, but he could not reach the place where emotion used to reside. “He's in reality shock, and you will help me get him to his home.” A hand gripped Art's bicep. “Check his wallet.”


M-BRANE SF Thought stopped. His orientation flipped. “Catch him.” Art woke from ragged fearful dreams. He opened his eyelids a fraction. He was lying on the sofa in his cramped flat in clean jeans and a t-shirt. Black and white images flickered on his plasma screen TV. An old man, beaten yet rejuvenated, danced with a little terrier that twirled on its hind legs. They waltzed down a path in a park towards an indistinct future. He watched the final moments of Umberto D wash over Iona's face. She sat crosslegged before the ringstained coffee table. A soft toy of a little green alien was lodged in the crook of her arm. Its three eyes stared upwards in hope. A tear tracked down her freckled cheek. “I always cry when I watch it,” Art said, and sat up. “Sometimes,” she said, not looking at him, “this world is profound.” Iona turned, and her strangeness shone in her contemptuous stare. Art wondered how anyone could not notice. “And then one of you speak.” “Who are you? What the hell happened?” She laughed, and shook her head. “Multiped,” the word a stab of disdain. “It has its advantages,” this from Rex, who stood in the doorway to the kitchen, a Lucozade in his hand. His grey hoodie was unzipped. A network of scars on Rex's neck—shining threads on matte skin—crept upwards from the scoop of his t-shirt. Iona grunted. Art had the sensation of eavesdropping on an old argument. The tracery of scars on her forearms gleamed in the wash of light cast by the TV. The bowler hat was cocked back on her head. Art clenched his hands. “What's going on?” Iona scooted around on the floor so she faced Rex. “Yes, please, do tell?” Rex sat on one of the two chairs by the small kitchen table. He nudged a stack of hospital bills with his elbow. “How long have you been sick?” “What's a Threadman?” Despite his fear, Art needed to wrench back control. The atmosphere in the room thickened, like before thunder. Humming. Mental flashes: / A multi-dimensional weave of threads /zoom in/ foam caught in the web /zoom in x 100/ a bubble universe /zoom out x 100/ the thread in between /zoom in x 10/ Threadmen gush through the line /zoom out x 10/ the bubble tinges pink, then burgundy /zoom in x 1M/ revolution, death, conflict / The vibration ceased, but it felt close, as if Art could just reach out... His mind stalled. A migraine seized him in a vice grip. Iona: angry, in strike mode. “He hacked our interchange!” “It's unconscious.” Rex: calm, downgraded Iona's combat response. Fingers touched Art's temples, and the faintest prick of the skin registered. A space widened at the end of the mental black hole, the pressure lessened, and for the first

October 2009 time in years Art experienced clarity. He opened his eyes as Rex withdrew his hands from his forehead. “I can think,” Art marvelled. “You could have fooled me,” said Iona. The quiet was fresh, novel. Art's grin was spontaneous and wide. “How did you do that?” He touched the skin on his forehead and felt a tiny metallic bump. Iona rolled her eyes, stood, and stalked into the kitchen. Rex watched Art. “It will filter out the background noise. It's common among my people.” “Who are you?” Iona emerged from the kitchen, an open Red Bull in her hand, and leaned against the doorframe. “We're nobodies. That's why we're here.” “You didn't have to come.” Rex replied, quiet. The can in Iona's hand dented, and sickly-sweet liquid pooled on the top. “You're my partner.” “It was my choice. Not yours.” Iona crushed the can and the drink splashed over her hand and dripped onto the linoleum. “I thought you just needed a break. I figured a couple of months on a tagged reality-string and you'd beg the Spinner for reassignment.” “I don't have your faith, Iona.” This comment deflated her, and she stared at the busted can in her hand. Rex turned towards Art again. “Besides, it seems the Spinner had reasons to send us here.” Iona licked drops of Red Bull off her fingers and regarded Art. “The Spinner plans.” It had the ring of a proverb. She chugged a long draft. Paused, belched. “Do you think he's selected?” Rex shook his head. “Too old. What age were you?” “Five, maybe six,” she shrugged, “it was a long time and many realities ago.” “I was four.” The words slipped out of Art: “I got sick three years ago.” Iona walked back into the kitchen. Water sprayed and gurgled. She emerged, wiping her hands on a Winniethe-Pooh tea towel. Her expression was thoughtful. Rex shifted in his seat. “That's when we arrived.” To Iona: “Did you get a trace on the Threadmen?” “I pegged it as a random scouting party. I'll check.” Iona dried each finger of her hand individually and examined the movie posters and rack of DVDs that covered the wall in front of her. “They hid amid a scattershot of bounced signals.” She screwed up the towel in her hand. Winnie smiled at Art from a fold. “This place is making me lazy. I should have screened it more carefully. But he noticed.” A resonance, muffled, like a car with a thumping sound system passing by in the street. Iona and Rex looked at each other. Art's eardrums vibrated. Iona and Rex turned at the same moment to stare at him, wide-eyed. Or rather, just behind his head. A hand composed of bloody tendons and hooks

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M-BRANE SF touched his shoulder. Rex and Iona's movements slowed down. A pinch, and Art's body froze. / the beauty of an eviscerated body, trembling with life, quivering for release / Art couldn't vomit. He didn't have permission. / the Entanglement brings the fulfillment of combat, the love of war, the joy of carnage / Iona's eyes narrowed, a little quicker. Behind Art something stirred, leaned close to his exposed back, and a wet appendage licked the individual vertebrae in his neck. Art's body couldn't express its revulsion. / we will shave you, peel skin from muscle, implant the barbs and killing wires, you will scream your love of the Entanglement, you will bring the peace of pain to your people / The oscillation in his mind was almost physical. He pictured the neck of a stringed instrument: some wires shivered, others were still. The combination was important. The licking thing swabbed up behind his ear, needle teeth clamped upon his right earlobe, and punctured the flesh beneath the cartilage. He couldn't scream. The ripe scent of blood flooded the room. / you will not fall to the Singlepeds, you will travel the filaments of the multiverse, infect what the Spinner hides from us / Flesh separated, and worst of all, the slurp of chewed meat as a nova of pain bloomed in his ear. / sweet fluids, in the laboratories of the Entanglement, we will taste you, piece by piece / Art leaned hard into the pain, and rode the torrent. It allowed him to focus on the vibrations, to separate them. There was a beat missing, a skip in a rhythm. He reached... Iona speeded up, marginally. The creature sucked upon the blood pouring from his torn ear. A surge of panic destroyed his concentration. The vibrations merged again. Iona would not save him. The hooks bit into his shirt and punctured his shoulder. Blood blossomed in the weave of the fabric. / we summon the flow / The thing powered up to connect to a distant arcing current that Art knew would destroy him. Adrenaline-powered fear focused Art. He rushed towards the vibrations: he saw individual waves, all fluctuating except one. A dark pressure descended. He was submerged in a black ocean and a cacophony of shrieks raced towards him. He flailed towards the trapped wave, and released it. Art pitched forward, clumsy, but continued his momentum and rolled off the couch. His wounded shoulder slammed into the edge of the coffee table, but the spike of pain motivated him. Something stabbed into the couch behind him but he rolled, upside down, rightside up, and landed on his knees beside an Iona who movements were gaining speed. He turned, and wished he hadn't. The empty sockets in its large fleshy skull fixed on him somehow, and its spiked tail slashed towards him. Art

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October 2009 lurched to his feet and stumbled back through the open kitchen door. Iona caught up. (Her hat tumbled towards the ground.) She gripped blades in her hands as she vaulted the length of the couch, her legs tucked up to avoid the lashing skeletal tail with its barbed hook. Iona struck at the neck as she landed before it, but it scrabbled back and careened into the front door. She dodged sweeping arms, and kicked her opponent in a kneecap, which dislocated with a crunch—the creature trashed its moist head as if in pleasure. (The bowler hat bounced off the linoleum floor.) Pounding on the floor from the flat above: “Shut it you nutjob, or I'm phoning the flith!” A shift, and the thing was behind Iona, who also shifted, but Art couldn't follow the fight. They were visible only in violent flashes. Rex stood by the table, his arms folded over his chest, and watched the confrontation. Thump, the creature appeared, shivered, and twin blades crossed to sever its head from its ropey neck. It collapsed to the ground, revealing Iona, before it disappeared. She panted. A line of gore bisected her face. “That was a work-out.” Rex picked up her hat and handed it to her. “We haven't dealt with one of them in a while.” Iona tapped the hat on her head, and accepted the paper napkin he offered her. She wiped her face. “We'd better split. They'll send more.” She grabbed her coat from the hook by the door, and shrugged into it. She threw Rex's denim jacket to him, and he caught it neatly. Art stepped forward. “What about me?” Rex indicated the door with a jerk of his head. “You're with us.” “What was that thing?” Iona threw Art's leather coat at him, and it hit him in the chest and slumped to the ground. He stared at it for a moment, and back at the pair by the door. “What the fuck was it?” shock added volume to Art's voice. Above him the neighbour hammered the floor again. Dust drifted downwards. Art cocked his head upwards and shouted, “One more bang Mr. Grayson, and I'll have you!” Silence. Quiet, his voice steadier, “What was that thing?” “A Collector,” Rex answered, “the Entanglement sends them to bring back specimens for interrogation, or perhaps, modification. Congratulations, you've got their attention. Let's leave before another one, or a dozen, show up.” Art opened his mouth, but closed it again. Too many questions crowded his mind. Answers would have to wait. His ear throbbed, but the blood had clotted. His shoulder ached. Iona opened the door and checked the hallway. Art picked up his jacket and put it on. Rex conferred


M-BRANE SF with Iona by the doorway. Art went into his tiny bathroom and slapped disinfectant on his ear—muffling a scream of pain—and an awkward bandage. One of the pair banged on the bathroom door. Art turned off the TV and the DVD player in the living room. A capsized mug, knocked during the mêlée, lay on the rug. A black splatter of old coffee pooled by its mouth. The pattern matched the blood splash on his Trios Couleurs: Bleu poster. Pink dots peppered Juliette Binoche's face. It won't come out, he thought. From the open doorway Rex gestured. Art grabbed his knapsack, wallet, and locked the door of his flat before his fled with Iona and Rex. They took the Tube. Art hung onto a pole, jittery, imagining a monster attack at every station. The doors hissed open, and people crowded in and out of the carriage. Each time he tensed for a skinless arm to slip between the press of bodies and grab him. Iona sat, her short legs crossed at the ankles, and her bowler hat pushed forward to hide her face. Art thought she was sleeping, and wondered how that was possible. Rex swayed beside him as the train hurtled between stations. Earlier, they'd skidded into the Highbury and Islington underground station. Bottles and rubbish stank up the alleyway to the entrance. A man in a string vest sat beside a mound of newspapers and hawked them to commuters. “Why can't you do that time thing?” Art flapped his hand at Iona as they jogged. She snorted. Rex replied. “It emits a signal, and they're looking for us now. The Tube is faster, and safer.” “First time I've heard that,” Art said. To a chorus of chirps from swiped Oyster cards they moved through the turnstiles. Art remembered An American Werewolf in London, and long escalators that descended into confined spaces. It had never bothered him before, but it was the first time a creature from another reality had attacked him. What demons did he have to worry about now? After a number of hurried transfers, he sat between Iona and Rex during their third circuit of the Circle line. There were four other travellers on the train. Rush hour had ended hours ago. “Vampires?” Art whispered to Rex. “Threadmen enjoy blood,” Rex answered, his eyes closed, “but they crave suffering more.” “Maybe that's where the myth comes from? Threadmen visited this... what did you call it... realitystring, before?” “I doubt it.” Rex's face was serene. “Why?” Irritation prickled Art. “Because you'd be corrupted. That's what Threadmen do; they infect reality-strings. To add power to the Entanglement.”

October 2009 “Is that what's going to happen? We're going to be invaded by those things?” His voice rose, and a young businesswoman peered at him over the top of her crime novel. “Enough questions, Art.” “But...” “I'm busy. You're breaking my concentration.” Art stuffed his resentment deep inside, and rocked to the rhythm of the train. He stretched out his feet and considered his threadbare Converse runners. His Mum hated them. The pair of Pumas she'd bought him for his birthday remained in his closet at home. They were too new. He'd bought the Converses during the shoot for his graduation film from Uni. They had history, memories. He could see the black thread mark from where the camera dolly had rolled over his left foot. He'd repressed a yelp to avoid ruining the shot. They'd had to re-shoot the scene anyway because the sound technician had been too busy ogling the actress's bum to press “record”. Art closed his eyes, and remembered happier days, before madness and monsters. His chin dipped to his chest. He dreamed. The Void is now, past, future. The Void is fertile, gravid, sterile. The Void is impossible, so from it springs life, and its antithesis, death. (Art floats through universes, galaxies, and stars as they bud and wilt, expand and collapse.) The two forces struggle for dominance, each attached to its agenda. They are lovers who loathe their attraction. Once, there was a hope of integration, but now there is only competition. Their purpose solidifies, takes form: the Spinner and the Entanglement. Yet, before they began, before they split, before they winked into existence there was an ignition, a pinpoint flash, which set them in motion. (A pulse throbs in Art. A heartbeat of memory.) What began the dance? What plays the tune? (Art snores, oblivious.) What's for breakfast? A plate of the full English landed in front of Iona, who smiled with affection at the ancient waiter. “Cheers Neville,” she said, and buttered her toast. Rex sniffed his plate of chips and beans, and stirred the steaming water in the metal teapot. Art regarded his bacon butty, chips, and cup of coffee with adoration. It had been a long night: shuffling from station to station, cups of Café Nero coffee fuelling them, whiling away a couple of hours in a deserted pub with flashing poker machines, and finally a cold and uncomfortable kip on a park bench warding off the occasional solicitation. Iona scared them off easily. “It's been ages since I've been here,” said Art, gazing

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M-BRANE SF at the primrose yellow wood paneling in the caff. The tables were packed with customers—some reading The Sun, and others The Guardian—even at 7am. A signed photograph of Steven Berkoff stared at him from a collection of celebrities. “God bless the greasy spoon, one of Britain's finest inventions.” Rex splatted ketchup on his plate. “The owners are Italian.” Art crunched into his toasted bacon sandwich. “They make a fantastic butty,” he mumbled around his mouthful. The door to the café opened, and an Indian woman, wearing a turquoise and silver sari, entered. “I heard the Kray twins used to eat here.” Rex nodded his head, “Reggie was polite, for a maniac.” Art whispered: “You knew him?” Iona barked a laugh as she demolished her food. Rex almost smiled. “I like documentaries.” “Don't laugh at me. You don't explain much.” “Because you wouldn't understand,” said Iona, spearing a chunk of sausage. The Indian woman eased into the empty chair beside Art. “How's it going Chandra?” Chandra regarded the Art Deco paneling before responding: “What a fascinating establishment you've discovered in this otherwise uninteresting backwater reality.” She had the smooth precise tones of an Oxford graduate. Rex put his knife and fork down and picked up his cup of tea, “How bad is it?” Neville arrived at the table, and placed a teapot and cup and saucer in front of Chandra. The scent of jasmine drifted up. She nodded her thanks and waited for him to leave. Art proffered his hand. “I'm Art, by the way.” Chandra paused, shook it with the tips of her fingers, and turned to ignore him. “The Spinner has decided to fight for this reality-string.” Iona and Rex froze. “She said it must not fall,” she poured tea into her cup, “under any circumstances.” Iona's grip on her knife tightened. “I hope you've brought an army, because I've been monitoring the stringactivity and this reality is going to be red with Threadmen soon.” Chandra sipped her tea primly. “We'll have help if it comes to that.” Iona leaned forward and pointed the knife at Art. Butter dripped off it onto her plate. “Is it about him, or is it just a coincidence? The Spinner won't answer my data requests, and every time I transmit I have to change location. We've travelled half of London in the past twelve hours.” Art stared at the blunt knife, and considered the damage Iona could do with it. He sat back in his chair. Rex placed his hand over Iona's fist, but she shook him off with a sidelong filthy look. “The Spinner says this is an originating reality. If it falls then an entire multiverse will collapse,” Chandra paused for another drink of tea, “perhaps several.”

16

October 2009 Iona stared at Chandra as if she was crazy while Rex tapped his teaspoon against his cup and stared at the ripples in his milky tea. Clink. Iona dropped her knife on the table, leaned back in her chair, and regarded Art. Clink. “We're fucked.” Clink. Art objected, “Hey, it's not my fault,” he checked with Rex, then Chandra, “right?” For a moment the only sound was the murmured conversation of the other diners, knives scraping across toast, and the rattle of dishes from the kitchen. The fried bacon congealed in Art's stomach. He bolted for the men's room. He kicked the stall door open in time for his breakfast to hit the bowl. Art fell to his knees and groaned at the stench of fat, coffee, and stomach acids. He puked again. He reached up, pulled the lever, and staggered to his feet as his food flushed away. Rex was by the door. “You okay?” Art wiped his mouth, and shouldered past him to the sink. He splashed water on his face, scrubbed his hands, and regarded Rex's reflection in the mirror. “You've got five minutes to explain it all or I'm off. You can sic your Ninja juggler on me for all I care.” “You have a unified multiverse presence. Threadmen target people like you, usually in the originating universe, because once they infect you they can access the different versions of you across the expanded universes. It practically guarantees a multiverse takeover.” The information stopped Art's voice for a moment. He turned slowly, thinking fast, and stared at Rex. “There's another me in each of these universes?” “In every eventuality. That's rare.” “But, I'm nothing special.” For the first time Rex smiled. It had genuine warmth. “Maybe that's your strength.” Art grimaced. “My superpower is ordinariness. Fucking great.” An unpleasant solution arose. “Why don't you kill me?” “It's too late. They have your signature, and while it won't be as easy, they could trace you across this multiverse.” Iona opened the door. “Knock, knock.” Art stepped forward, and jabbed a finger at her, “You knock before you enter.” In the cold florescent light her face had a brutal marble sheen. A blur. Rex stood between Art and Iona. She pressed against Rex toe-to-toe, and scowled up at his face. “No,” he said. She stepped back, and her eyes were shards of black ice in the stark light. “I've called for a field of honour.” “What?” Rex grabbed her coat in two fists and lifted her in the air; her boots dangled a foot above the tiled floor. He snarled in her face, his lips curled back over his


M-BRANE SF teeth. She grinned. “Welcome back, Rex. I missed ya.” He dropped her. The door to the bathroom swung open, and a Goth with a chain in his nose stood at the entrance. The three of them stared at him. He raised his hands, and backed off. “I'll wait.” The door closed. Iona adjusted her coat in the mirror. “The Entanglement has agreed to terms.” An explosion of dust and noise. Rex removed his fist from a crater in the wall. He stared at Iona in the mirror, and ground out the words, “You should have consulted me first. I outrank you.” “Chandra is the superior here, and didn't you resign?” Art looked between the two of them and a memory from Miss Kearny's history lessons arose. “Are you talking about a trial by combat?” Neither of them acknowledged him, but stared at each other. Underneath, he sensed the rumble of a thunderstorm exchange. Iona spoke, “I'm the best combatant. I'm representing the Spinner.” Rex turned, and slammed the door open. Iona was on his heels, and Art followed. Rex did not conceal his fury, and the noise level in the room dropped as if the people in the café were an emotional barometer. The chair squealed as Rex yanked it out. Punters peered at them from behind newspapers, menus, or from the periphery of their vision. Neville, pouring a coffee into a mug, frowned at them from his station. “I'll do it,” Rex said. Chandra placed her cup on its saucer. The bangles on her wrist chimed. “What about your vow?” Iona dropped into her seat and placed her hand over Rex's wrist. He shook it off. “No,” she whispered. Art slipped into his seat. “I renounce it,” and for a moment the air thickened. Rex's shoulders slumped a fraction. “No,” Iona repeated. She pulled at his arm, but he didn't respond. “Is everything all right?” Neville hovered, cup in hand. Art replied. “Yeah, thanks.” The old man hurried to another customer, and the noise level in the room rose. Chandra nodded with a smile of satisfaction. “We accept.” Art swivelled in his chair to gaze at the Indian woman and her upright, poised, carriage. He clapped his hands softly. Chandra ignored him, and when Rex raised his eyes to meet his, Art knew his intuition was correct. “It was all about Rex, wasn't it? Did you tip off the Threadmen to this place? Nudge my appointment to a certain time and location? Make me sick in the first place?” Chandra's mouth tightened, “Don't be preposterous.” Art turned and pointed at the scars on Iona's arms. “How did you get them, how did he get them?” Iona's voice was devoid of emotion. “We have one expression, no other selves. They're wiped out when we're selected. All best eventualities are ripped from the others

October 2009 and grafted in when we're trained in service to the Spinner.” She raised her arms and the web of old scars gleamed in the light. “It's a reminder of the sacrifice of being a Singleped.” Chandra dabbed a napkin to her lips, and stood. “Primrose Hill. Dusk.” Art thought Iona's stare might combust Chandra on the spot. “You played me,” she said. “The Spinner plans,” Rex said. Art pinned Chandra with a stare. “What's the difference between you and the Entanglement?” She leaned on the table with her knuckles, and the pressure paled her cinnamon skin. “The Spinner allows choice.” “After you've stacked the odds.” “You can't compare us to that abomination! Have you ever seen the degradation they visit upon a person, a world, a universe?” her voice crackled with outrage. “You're so quick to judge little man, why not see why Rex fights?” : connect / A dead planet /zoom in x 10/ a scarlet continent /zoom in x 1000/ a plane of pulped bodies, Threadmen glide among them slashing, tearing, gutting /zoom in/ a face of wet muscle in which teeth jut out and eyes float and skinned lips stretch in a constant scream that will not end / : disconnect Art gagged and choked, but there was nothing left to eject. Instead he laid his forehead on the cool surface of the table, and gasped. “Which do you prefer now?” Art couldn't look up at Chandra. The images, the feelings, and taste of the devastation rendered him mute. He imagined his Mum mangled in that fashion, and tried to erase the image from his head. “You'd better leave,” Iona's voice, her hand upon Art's arm, “before I crack my loyalty conditioning.” When Art raised his head Chandra had left. Rex stared at his palms. “Trillions of lives are at risk because of me.” Iona and Art shared a look, a spontaneous moment of concern. Rex twisted his neck so his spine popped. “Don't worry. I'll do what I'm designed to do.” They sat at the table, said nothing, and listened to the coffee machine hiss and grind, and people discuss their jobs and family. Life continued around them. The sunset breathed orange, pink, and gold over the crest of Primrose Hill. They climbed in single file up the dirt path: Art first, followed by Iona, and Rex last. The day had passed quickly. Iona and Rex had disappeared after breakfast, and Art returned to his flat, since there was no reason to stay away. He showered, tended the wounds on his shoulder and ear, and sat numb, shocked, in front of the television. Families rowed on chat shows, presenters fashioned toys out of egg cartons, and there was a disturbing amount of

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M-BRANE SF advertisements for crap that Art realised wasn't very important. He phoned his Mum, and listened to her discuss her book club, the cat, and her ongoing row with the council over the collection of her bins. He told her he loved her, and she promised to make him lasagne when he visited on Sunday. He'd always hated her lasagne, but he'd never wanted to eat it so badly as he did right then. He watched the film he'd laboured over at University, leafed through the scripts he'd written, and logged on to IMDB to examine his credit list. It hadn't been updated in two years. If he—everyone—survived, Art was determined to work again. He met Iona and Rex at the bottom of the hill as the evening veered towards night. Rex wore a sleeveless onepiece garment that adhered to his body like an oil slick. The spider web of scars shone on his muscled arms. “Where are your weapons?” Art asked. “This is the old-fashioned way. One-on-one. No armour, no weapons. Only the strength of champions.” “That's stupid. I'd want a fuck-off gun if I was up against a Threadmen.” Iona nodded at Art. “That's my kind of thinking.” Rex paused, and looked around at the landscape of trees and grass. “This has nothing to do with common sense. This is the ritual of struggle.” They reached the top of the hill, and the London skyline was a jagged row of teeth that snapped up at the darkening sky. Below them couples strolled hand-in-hand and people walked their dogs. The hill was deserted except for those gathered for the battle. Chandra's sari snapped in the breeze, and across the space a group of three Threadmen loitered, their scalped heads tilted upwards to smell the air. Rex stood beside Chandra. Art and Iona took up position to Rex's left. Chandra placed her hand on Rex's shoulder. Her voice was clear. “Rex Sadat, for the Spinner.” The Threadmen spread out, and a small red figure emerged from between them. / Iona Wallace for the Entanglement / The creature that slipped forward was Iona's doppelganger from a hell dimension: skinless, glistening, with wires threaded through her arms and emerging from her fingertips as cruel hooks. Iona staggered, but Rex caught her. She leaned against him, and for a moment she pressed her face into his upper arm and drew in a shuddering breath as if inhaling strength from him. She straightened, and turned to regard the mauled, naked version of herself that stopped mid-way between the two groups. “It can't happen,” she whispered, “they promise they get them all, that no one is left.” She shivered as the Entanglement version waved. / you are my prize, I shall gut you as I was gutted, you will know no mercy / “You'll be dead in seconds,” Iona rasped, and squeezed Rex's hand. “Kill her, please.” He nodded.

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October 2009 Rex turned to Chandra. “After this I'm done. She's done. If you don't agree I'll walk away right now and damn the Spinner, this multiverse, and all others.” Art felt the overlay of information exchange, the connection to a distant relay, and the dull headache of a returning signal. She nodded. Chandra spoke, her voice carrying across the darkened hill, “Engage the field.” The air became charged. The fighters and observers stood in a square field of light. Iona noticed Art's puzzlement. “It contains the fighters, won't allow shifts, weapons, hides us from sight, and prevents intrusion.” Rex stood opposite scarlet Iona, and raised his left hand. “Hear this, that I have this day neither injected stimulants, nor have upon me weapons or active enhancements, whereby the Wager of Combat may be abased.” The Entanglement champion repeated the pledge. A signal, and Rex swept for her legs, but she flipped backwards, out of reach, before she tumbled towards him to kick hard for the head. He dodged, slid in close, punched for the throat, but she blocked him, and jabbed him in the chest. He spun, twisted her left arm, a crack, and threw her to the ground. Blood streamed down his chest. Beside Art, Iona stood with her hands clenched, and leaned forward as if into a stiff breeze. The red woman bounced up, bone poking from her lower arm, and sliced forward with the blade of her right hand. Rex slapped it away, and launched into a volley of blows and kicks, which she blocked or evaded. Art blinked. The edges of the fighting pair blurred with trails of potential actions. He squinted, trying to see what was happening, rather than what might happen. The tortured woman latched onto Rex, and dug the hooks of her fingers deep into the muscle of his left forearm. The vibration was in Art's head again; it was Art's head. She ripped back, and tore muscle and skin from bone. Even as Rex howled he did not stop or flinch, but used her momentum to fling her from his body and to the grass. She rolled to avoid his descending foot... ... and spun upwards to slit Rex's throat... ... and bounced up to drive her hand through his chest... ... and Rex stumbled, she leaped on his back, and broke his neck... The images poured into Art's mind in juddering layers of probability. He tried to stumble backwards, but couldn't move. Rex and Iona were frozen at the mouth of a rippled tunnel. Each potential action poised for completion. Art gritted his teeth as his body shook from the force of the fate of an entire multiverse focused on the outcome of a single event. He grasped one eventuality, and a pinprick of light flashed. ... and Iona rolled to avoid Rex's stamping foot. It


M-BRANE SF descended too quickly and crushed her neck. She attempted to move, but only her head flopped. In a deft motion Rex twisted her head right around. She didn't move again. Rex stood and raised both hands above his head. His arms, chest, and legs streaked red. The Threadmen disappeared, as did the remains of Iona's double. By the time Iona reached Rex he had collapsed to the ground. She stabbed a cylinder into his neck, and rolled an opaque bandage over his arm—it melted into the exposed muscle. He screamed once, and his back arched. Chandra didn't move. The cool air carried the fragile scent of night flowering cadfly. The sounds of the surrounding city rushed back: a faint siren wail, the muted roar of traffic, and the overhead grumble of an airplane. Art turned to face her, “The tune changes at random.” She regarded him for a moment, and Art fancied he saw the Void—limitless, limited—in her eyes. She nodded at him, and walked down the hill. Rex sat propped up by Iona when Art approached them. Art squatted, and watched Rex's muscles knit together. Flesh stitched itself up, and a paler skin grew at remarkable speed. Rex's head tilted slowly up towards Art. He slurred, “I did it,” and grinned. Iona sniffed, “You wouldn't have beaten me.” Rex laughed, winced. “Right now I wouldn't try.” Art held out his hand. “Well done.” Rex grasped it with his uninjured hand, and they shook for the first time.

October 2009 hot, and I needed a story for the following week. I had a notepad, mental snapshots of two people I'd spotted in the Seattle streets (who became Iona and Rex), and images from a dream I'd experienced a year previously. I doodled and sketched a little, and then began to write armed only with faith in the motivational power of a deadline. The title of the story comes from a parable in the "Tao of Pooh". It reflects not only Art's strength, but how the story itself manifested. Since that first rough draft I've worked hard to shape the story without eroding its original impulse. The narrative tricks I employ at times are my attempts to capture non-verbal experiences using words. My inspiration came from cinematic techniques. Although Maura was born in the USA, she was transplanted early to Ireland, where telecommunication masts sprout beside Neolithic graves. Her stories and poetry have appeared in markets such as Shroud Magazine, Goblin Fruit, Pseudopod, Black Static, Jabberwocky 3, and Paradox Magazine. She's a graduate of Clarion West. Her web site is splinister.com

Art woke the next day, huddled in his dew-soaked jacket and leaning against a tree at the bottom of Primrose Hill. He stood up, and watched a luminous dawn flare from behind the mound. Birds sang their morning psalms. He couldn't remember how he got there, but he inhaled the chill morning air, and experienced a wonderful satisfaction with the world. Something cool and solid weighed down his closed hand. He raised it and opened his fingers: a clear glass globe sat on his palm. He lifted it to greet the sunrise, and watched the light refract into a multi-hued spectrum. Inside the globe was a suggestion of another orb, and a smaller one inside that. It was an infinite glass matryoshka ball. An idea for a film unfurled in Art's mind like a scroll. A science fiction adventure; one that traversed time and space. “What's for breakfast?” he asked aloud. He had a hankering for his Mum's lasagne. Art walked through the park, tossed the ball up in the air, and caught it. He laughed as an exuberant sense of possibility bubbled up within him, and London, Mother of Cities, gathered him to her breast. Afterword by Maura McHugh: I was at the Clarion West Writers Workshop, it was

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M-BRANE SF How frightening—and perhaps wonderful—it could be to find out if a love long dormant and assumed dead can be revived. Can it survive the changes wrought by time and circumstance and ignite anew? Janett L. Grady’s darkly ironic vision has appeared previously in M-Brane SF, in issue #2’s “New World Order.”—CF

Hello Again by Janett L. Grady

As the cab pulled away from the curb at Chicago's Space Block & Testing Center, Alex was amazed at how steady his nerves were. It was a long time since he had felt so free, so calm and secure. Perhaps it was because he had reached a definite decision after six long years of fear and doubt. And yet his decision was not absolutely definite. He didn't expect his visit with Peg to change anything....he'd still be half a man. But maybe she wouldn't care. He was no longer with the wacko space crowd, which is why she had walked out on him ten million years ago. There was no harm in trying. He had to see her. They had grown up on the south side of Chicago, next door to each other, on the fringe of a ghetto, with the glass towers of the rich rising high and mighty in the distance. They had come of age during the great depression of 2010, a bad time for business and banks, a down-time for the free enterprise system throughout the western world, a time when the young and fit were rioting in the streets, tearing things apart in search of something to eat. Now Alex and Peg were in their forties and had not seen each other for twenty-plus years. There had always been a playful, comfortable warmth between them, but never any talk of love and marriage. It was ten o'clock on a Monday morning when Alex stepped out of the cab in front of her house, a red-bricked bungalow with a freshly cut lawn and neatly trimmed lilac bushes along the walk. He stood for a moment, transfixed by a pair of white-hooded sparrows searching amid the grass cuttings for nesting material. Finally, in a flutter of wings, the birds disappeared into a stand of cottonwood. Alex walked up to the front door, hesitated, and then rang the bell. The door swung inward, and standing there was Peg wearing a bathrobe, blue and fluffy, and Alex could tell by the look on her face that she was more than a little surprised to see him.

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October 2009 “Alex!” “Hello, Peg,” he said. “Long time.” She didn't say anything. Peg just stood there, a blank stare on her face, and Alex was suddenly shy and unsure of himself. But he mustered his courage and winked at her. “Want to go on a picnic?” he asked. “A picnic?” “A picnic. You know, sandwiches, a little wine.” “What are you doing here?” she asked, sounding suddenly wary. “I had no idea you were in town.” “Just passing through,” he said. “You still with those space nuts?” “No,” he said. “I gave it up a few years ago.” “Want to come in?” Alex shrugged, then smiled. He followed her inside and sat down across from her at the kitchen table. “You want some coffee?” “I'd rather not,” he said. “Let's go on a picnic.” “I'm really not up to it, Alex. I've been kind of out of it lately.” “If we go on a picnic,” he coaxed, “it might help. We'll go over and sneak into Baxter's orchard...swipe a few apples like we used to.” He reached out and touched her hand. “Why not? You could probably use a little of the old times right now.” “I don't know.” she said, head down. Then she looked up at him. “I guess you heard about Will, huh?” “Read about it,” he said. “I'm sorry.” She took her hand away. “Is that why you're here?” “Let's go on a picnic,” he said. “We'll talk about it.” “I loved him, Alex.” “I know.” She twisted her fingers together. “We had a fight, but I loved him.” “I'm sure you did,” he said. “Will raced out and got drunk,” she said. “They're pretty sure he fell asleep at the wheel.” “That's what I read,” said Alex. “It happens.” She wrung her hands and started crying. “I loved him, Alex. I really loved him.” “Take it easy,” he said. “ It was not your fault.” She wiped the teardrops from her cheeks. “I heard you were on that third trip to Mars a few years ago. Did you have fun?” “Nope, no fun,” he said. “We didn't go to have fun.” “They're crazy,” she said, shaking her head. “I'm glad you gave it up.” “Get dressed,” he said. “Let's go on a picnic.” “But why?” she asked. “Because I love you,” he said. “Now, will you get dressed?” Peg burst into tears. She stood up and turned her back to him, buried her face in her hands. Alex got up, walked over to her, and put his hands on her shoulders. “I've always loved you,” he said. “Always.” Peg turned around, slowly, and took a backward step away from him.


M-BRANE SF “Oh, Alex,” she said, “that's stupid You don't want me. Not now. Not after...” “Why not? Because you were married? Because we drifted apart...went our separate ways? Peg, look, it happens.” “You don't love me,” she said. “How could you?” “I do.” “But why now? You never talked this way before.” “I would have, but...” He caught himself, unsure of how to say what he wanted to say without starting the old argument. “Stupid!” she blurted out. “ You left me, Alex, even when I begged you not to go. It was too dangerous. I told you to stay home, to get a job here in Chicago. I told you they were just using the poor. “ “Yes,” he said, “you did. But I had to give it a try. I wasn't into burning things down, and there were no jobs, no money, nothing. I wasn't going to end up walking the streets, begging to be fed. It was something to do, Peg, just something to do.” “You could have found a job, Alex, shoveling cow shit at the yards if nothing else. But no, you had to go and get into something weird. It was dangerous, Alex, too goddamn dangerous.” “I know that now,” he said. “Well, I'm glad you're out of it...b-but it's too late for anything, Alex. It's just too late.” “Is it?” “I'm sorry to disappoint you.” “I'm not disappointed,” he said. “I wasn't counting on it. This is nice, just talking.” “It is?” Alex moved closer, and did what he had to do. He kissed her. “It's too late,” she said, when Alex let her go. “We're different people. It's been too long.” “Let's go on a picnic.” He spoke as if he hadn't heard her at all. “Where?” “Baxter's orchard.” She grinned. “Why there?” He grinned. “You know.” “Oh, Alex,” she said, “don't be silly. There's no reason to go back there just because...” “We made love there,” he cut in quickly. “We didn't call it that, but that's what it was...love.” He kissed her again, and this time she kissed him back, a warm, wet, open-mouth kiss that brought back memories of Baxter's orchard. He pulled her in tight and let his hands go to her buttocks. She didn't resist. “You called it a nice piece of ass',” she said softly, when Alex gave her the chance, “and that's all you want now. Right?” She pushed him way, went back to the table and sat down. “You don't love me.” Her voice was firm. “You want to play house. You just want to fuck me.” Alex sat down across from her. “You're wrong, Peg. I do love you. I've always loved you.” She shook her head. “You're here to get laid, Alex.

October 2009 You read about Will and now you're here to make things worse.” She bit her lip. “I can't do it,” she said. “I'm sorry, but I'm not going to do it without love. I never have. I'm not some hard-up whore.” “So you admit it?” “Admit what?' “That it was love...that you loved me when we did it in Baxter's orchard.” “I loved you,” she said after a long pause, “but then you left me to join those nuts, to go into the so-called testing program. You were a high school graduate, Alex, not some geeky scientist. I had to force myself to fall out of love...and Will was part of it. It worked,” she said, raising her voice. “It really worked, Alex.” “I love you,” he said quietly, a tremor in his voice. Alex was losing his nerve. Then she looked directly into his eyes, a small smile on her face. “We could date,” she said. “I mean, we could go out once in awhile.” Alex knew then that Peg could still be in love with him. But there was one more thing he had to know...could she love a man who was now less of a man than he used to be? “We'll date,” he said softly. “But there's something you ought to know.” He reached over and squeezed her hand. Then he stood up. “I was going to show you something out in the apple orchard,” he said. “I thought maybe the atmosphere would lessen the shock, sort of put good memories in the way of disaster.” “What...something bad?” “Bad,” he said. “Real bad. It's kinda hard for me to talk about, so I'm going to just show you.” Alex opened his trousers. “Do you mind?” She stared up at him for a long time, as if she was on the verge of saying something, but hesitating. Then she shrugged. “Go ahead,” she said. “Show me.” Alex pulled down his trousers, then his shorts. “They're still not sure why,” he said, “but after a month of living and working on Mars, weird things started happening to the crew, especially to the men. As soon as we got back, we ended up having to stay and be tested here at the Space Block. It was a politically-correct decision, a great big secret. They had us locked up and tested for six long years. They're thinking it might have been psychological, sort of a lack-of-use type thing, but they're still not sure.” Alex stood there, exposed, with his legs apart and his hands on his hips. “They let us go last night,” he added, “and today it'll be on the news.” Peg stared, glaring at his groin, at skin wrinkled and dead, shriveled and pale... “My God!” she gasped, and pushed herself up from the table. Alex, from the waist down, was horribly deformed, each testicle had been reduced to a mere lump of knotted flesh and his penis was oddly twisted, an irregularlyshaped fold of pallid skin. “The price I paid,” he said, voice husky. “Half a man. Nothing to offer a woman in bed...and no children.” He

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M-BRANE SF pulled up his shorts and trousers. “You were right, Peg, it was too damn dangerous. We were guinea pigs. It happened to the guys on trip one and two, and they took us along on trip three just to see if they had things fixed.” Peg scowled. “Asshole pigs,” she said. “Why can't they just fix things here and mind their own business? What's wrong with those people?” “Calm down,” he said. “It was an unexpected risk. They didn't tell us about it happening on the other two trips. There's no way I could have known.” “You shouldn't have signed up,” she said. “I told you.” “Ha,” Alex laughed, “even after six years of those clowns looking at it, they still don't know why it happens. It just does. You're right, Peg, they're a bunch of assholes.” Peg turned, walked over to the kitchen sink and poured herself a glass of water. She turned, smiled prettily and then emptied her glass in one long swallow. “Alex?” “What?” he managed to ask, his heart pounding. “Hello,” she said. “Hello, Peg.” “Want to go on a picnic? I'll get dressed.” “I'll wait,” he said. Janett is a senior citizen who writes from Palmer, Alaska. Her work has appeared in magazines all over the country.

October 2009 …continued from page 10 We have here a small party of people, men of no particular virtue other than their abilities to run a spaceship, who come into conflict with each other as a bizarre series of events plays out. It features genderswitching and an unbalanced, grotesquely sexist villain prowling the corridors. I was happy when I found the story because I had been thinking that we needed a grim “bottle show” to round out the book’s spectrum of subgenres. Mike’s next Skinjumper tale will appear in MBrane #10. Eden Robins is co-editor of Brain Harvest: An Almanac of Bad Ass Speculative Fiction, a webzine that is probably the single best venue for flash fiction. She will lead off MBrane #9 in a few days with her remarkable short story “Wildlife,” and will appear in Things We Are Not with her story “Switch.” It is the strange tale of Sweetness, a woman who finds herself trapped in a preposterous situation that is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Readers will not soon forget its darkly triumphant ending. As with Eden above, I am pleased to offer in the space of a few weeks, two items from Mari Kurisato. Her story “Lurker” will appear in M-Brane #9, to be followed shortly after by its sequel “Connected” in Things We Are Not. In these stories, Mari takes the reader to an alternate world slick with the cybersphere and layered with mystery and discovery. It’s a place that will seem both strange but also strangely familiar to readers who live a lot of their lives on the web. Mari is also, of course, the artist who created the book’s beautiful cover art. The timing happens to be fortuitous because I will be including subscriptions to MBrane with pre-orders of Things We Are Not when the preorder period starts in a few days, so readers will be able to get both of Mari’s stories at once. Win. Around the little M-Brane world, Brandon Bell hardly needs any introduction. Regular readers will recall his gorgeous and stunning stories in our first and fifth issues. His new offering, the book’s titular story, “Things We Are Not…,” is a window on a world that has been blighted by a bizarre plague, where humans still manage to find some comfort in each other…where a magpie talks. No kidding. Brandon has managed to seamlessly weld together a science fictional premise, an urbanfantastical atmosphere, and some old-time religion (of the Elder Gods kind). In addition to his M-Brane appearances, Brandon has also been published in Byzarium, Everyday Weirdness, Hadley Rille’s Return to Luna anthology, and Nossa Morte (forthcoming). He has also been a chief architect of the Aether Age shared world project, which is one of the Brane’s next big upcoming projects.

Continued to page 33… 22


M-BRANE SF A recent episode of the public radio show Radio Lab focused on a woman who developed an intense gambling addiction after going on medication for her severe Parkinson’s disease. What’s the connection? We know that it is apparently the loss of dopamine that results in Parkinson’s disease’s characteristic loss of motor control. It turns out that the electro-chemical switches in our brains which regulate bodily movement are also very integral to seeking out gratification: to eat, to have sex, to do those things that give us pleasure, we generally need to get up and move and go seek out what we’re wanting. When all this goes awry, unexpected problems can emerge. In the case of the lady with the gambling addiction, her Parkinson’s treatment helped the Parkinson’s a lot, but it also threw a chemical switch that made her get a great deal of pleasure from gambling. What’s more, our brains are naturally disposed toward pattern recognition anyway. We are not only likely to see patterns in things, we will see, under some circumstances, patterns where none are present. We want to see the patterns that tell us that pleasure is imminent. The gambling addict sees these patterns where there are none, and derives pleasure from it. In the case of the lady with Parkinson’s, the chemical soup and the tripping switches in her brain made her even more susceptible to seeing these nonexistent patterns and deriving so much pleasure from them that she could not quit until she had literally squandered away her whole life savings. Sadly, the cure for her addiction was simply to go off of her Parkinson’s medication and let its symptoms fully return. The following story—the tone of which reminded me somewhat of David Bunch—is about a lottery, another kind of gambling where people dream that there is a pattern if only they can just see it.—CF

Chance in the Year 54 by Bill Ward Hear ye, hear ye; hark to the Yearly. Thum, Thum; move your bum. Move your bum, dumb old Thum. Yearly, Yearly; time for change. Time that chance — let loose to dance — will stomp all over Thum. Thum bumbled along the main artery of City 7, jostled by the crowd, embarrassed by his freakish height. It was the time of the Yearly, the Big Chance, the lotto that made men and broke them piece by piece, gave and took with electrified hands, wiped tears from cheeks with bloodsmeared fingers. Crunched, killed, cured, loved — the iron

October 2009 boot of fate straight up the ass. It was the year 54. Thum, Thum don’t be glum; perhaps they’ll trim your legs. It had been in 48, when the superplastic statue of Big Chief Bristle was put up in Dispenser Square, that Thum had been chanced away from his crèche and made a gawkie. As a child, he had had an aptitude for mathematics and music, and City 7 would have been lucky to draw him for a period of Free Service, or straight into the servitor class. “But life,” as Bristle had famously said, “was a random series of random events dispensed randomly.” So in 48, Thum’s legs did break; long-stretched gams form stilted straights. There were other gawkies in the crowd shuffling into Dispenser Square — other freaks punctuating that mass of uniformity. There was a fat man ahead and to the left of Thum, sticking out like an enormous pink berg in a sea of gray. Thum could clearly see the little vestigial wings of the sugar bags strapped around his back, feeding fattie while he was away from whatever display case they normally kept him in. Thum saw others as well. His freakish height — nearly twice that of a normal man — let him spot a pair of conjoined gawkies struggling along closer to the stage. Their crazy canter, the result of an extreme difference in size, caused a ripple in the Yearly crowd like the bow wave of a boat. Thum could not be sure, but one of them seemed to be a child; that bastard Big Chance having picked him to be grafted, Siamese-Twin-style, onto the body of an adult stranger. Gawkie, gawkie; look at you! Holy shit, can you be . . . true? Places were filling in, the crowd murmuring in anxiety. Ticket drones buzzed overhead. Filtered sunlight clung to the plastiform and stiffboard buildings that were City 7’s administrative core, obdurate blocks of synthetic material like the bright buttons on a crèche brat’s teachieo. Thum, finding a place to stand, teetered uneasily and strained to see if there was any movement on the stage. Soon the MC would emerge, and the Yearly drawing would begin. Big Chance. Thum looked to his fellow freaks, hoping to catch their attention, but all eyes were on the stage. The Yearly was a hopeful time for his kind; after long terms of being gawked at and hated and pitied, after a thousand sleepless nights alive with the painful aftereffects of crude surgery, every freak in City 7 was eager to draw different in the Yearly. Yearly, Yearly; dearly, dearly; how I wish my life would change. Crowd noise grew as the hovering drones — particolored lozenges like giant pieces of dirty candy — began to dispense the Yearly codes. Thum held up his blank ticket as the red curtain of a drone’s code light slid over his section of the crowd. When it had passed, Thum looked at the new numbers glowing neatly on his ticket’s surface — 129045 — and listened to the groans and excited talk around him. A whole theory of numeration had sprung up in the

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M-BRANE SF populace to decipher and give meaning to the numbers assigned during the Yearly. Thum watched them now, whispering and confiding, the swift twitches of emotion animating their faces — hope, despair, envy, fear. All false lights in the perpetual dark of chance. Some few even traded tickets, or stole them, or threw them away as if that could possibly alter the real coding that the drones had imparted on each and every implanted soul stud in the city. Thum knew — as did all his fellow gawkies — that random meant random, that there were no exceptions, and that trying to decipher the indecipherable, or outflank fate, was only to delude one’s self. The freaks had learned the lessons of Big Chief Bristle well, and understood in their deformed and super-stressed bones just why Bristle’s motto had been “tough titty.” Touchy titty; pretty, pretty — please Big Chance change me back! Thum’s hands twitched, his eyes glazed at the stray — practically random — thought conjured by the Big Chief’s favorite phrase; images of the unobtainable female pleasures denied him. But a swift, sharp blow to his foot brought him back to the reality of the jostling crowd and he staggered, nearly toppling, as he jerked his foot away from the smashing pain. He saw the source of his sudden torment. A crèche brat, just come of age for the Big Chance, taunting him and stomping after him with thicksoled sneakers. “Freak! Freak! Freak!” the boy cried in a rasping, reptilian voice. Thum stumbled over his stilt legs and bumped into those around him. His waist was at head height, and he accidentally brushed his ass against an elderly women’s face. She shrieked and flailed at him as the boy came after him like a metronome, all the while continuing his chant. “Freak! Freak! Freak!” Freak, freak; take a seat; then that little shit won’t see you. Thum moved further through the grumbling crowd, his height letting him slice through where the boy could not, and soon he had lost his small attacker. He sat down, losing his view of the stage just as the MC appeared and launched into the Yearly. “Citeeeeee Seveeeeen!” the MC crooned, and the crowd burbled its excitement in return. Thum imagined the cellophane sheen of the man’s hair, his denture smile. It was always the same MC. “Year time takee Big Chanceo!” Things seemed to get smaller, darker, as if a storm cloud hovered overhead. It was City 7’s polarized light filter, dimming for effect. “Startee up, back to basics simples! Three year Agrithrall stint foooooor you and you and you and you…” Roars and screams and tickets flashed in hands, activation sirens blared. Lists of red numbers flashed in the air above the MC — 004561, 033367, 100115, 100802, 104999, 121034, 178981, 257294, 490000 — reams and reams of crimson fate. Hundreds of people began making their way out of the crowd toward Shitkicker’s Gate. They were farm-bound, to be worked like robot slaves, and it would be the last they saw of City 7 for three years.

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October 2009 “Ooooh,” the MC said, “hard workee make strong back, ha! So how’s bout getee some one year factory-jacks, hmmmm? New plant for atomics, super-super-dangerous — fooooor you and you and you . . .” Howls, outrage, sobs and, worst of all, silent dead faces and slumped shoulders. Sirens blared as tickets came alive, numbers flashed in the air — 000092, 054782, 101234, 110876, 138888, 301023, 308901 . . . on and on in pulsing red decree. Men and women and children left the crowd for their new lives in the atomics plant. Hang-dog faces, hang-dog frowns; be glad you’re not one of Big Chance’s clowns, Thum thought, lifting up a bit where he sat to peek over the heads of the crowd. Cheer up, chin up; it’s just a year — visit freak surgeons if you want to learn fear. Thum shuddered at the memory of the surgeon’s rack. More numbers exploded in air, more lives rewritten. Thousands were called for Free Service — the Great Average — and Thum squeezed his ticket and willed it to shriek its telltale and tried not to resent the smiles he saw passing him on the way out of the square. They were all safe for another year, and Thum retreated into himself for a time, rocking gently, as the thousands upon thousands of the Great Average were called and his ticket remained silent. When they broke Thum’s legs they broke his mind — now all his thoughts are nursery rhymes. “Oooooh, time-o for Big Change biggest of all, my simples. Takee break from all this boring jobee chance foooooooor insta-vap! Number one-two-nine-threethreeeeeeee . . . five!” The MC shrieked the numerals, the ticket code flashed in the air big as a bomber-jet, and the crowd roared. Thum, who for a brief moment had hoped the numbers would spell his own doom, stood up and watched as a drone swept down on the unfortunate 129335. It made three passes, and finally caught her with articulated arms and flew her to the stage. Thum had seen it before but he could not take his eyes of it now. “Bye-bye now, bye-bye. Bye-bye now, bye-bye!” said the MC. The woman — just a silhouette on the stage at this distance — was annihilated in a silent flash. Vaporized. “Ooooh, biggest Big Chance — but life is bitchy, simples, tough as titty. How bout we chancee some longtimes, hmmm? Rejuvee foooooor you and you and you…” Simple simples, death and life — teeter-totters on the knife. People were rewarded. Given rejuve treatments and stacks of bristlebucks. Some people were given the best thing of all, a choice. People were punished. Vaporized, mutilated, lobotomized. A man close to Thum screamed and attacked those around him when he’d chanced into gawkiedom as a Rolly-Poley, and was retrieved by a drone for surgery. Nearby, a woman wailed when she was chanced into a gender-swap. A child was led away for execution. It went on and on, all day, as the crowd dwindled and Thum sat and rocked, his ticket cupped in


M-BRANE SF both hands. “Oooooh, holy shit-o, simples. Ready for this?” The MC said, pacing the stage, excitement in his voice. They’d come to something big, and the MC was milking it with professional enthusiasm. “Oh my. Oh my my my — chancee for big time. Chancee for new Bristle. Big Chief for five year-o. Oh my my my.” Bristle? A new Bristle? Could Big Chance really do that? All eyes were on the great, super-plastic statue of the Big Chief, his majestically rounded torso, the waxy dome of his forehead. A new Big Chief? “New chiefy! Who’s in charge? Who’s the biggest? Who will it be? New Big Chief for five whole year-o foooooooooooor . . .” The MC shouted the number and the siren blared in Thum’s ear. For a brief, rapturous moment, like the halfremembered feeling of a dream of normalcy, Thum knew he was the next Big Chief. The next Bristle. The big guy who could change things, get his life back, fix his own head and body and fix the world, too. But it wasn’t his ticket that was blaring. Thum turned to see where the sound was emanating from just as drones swept down and lifted the boy — the nasty little crèche brat — up into the air and took him to the stage. Thum’s guts churned like cold slugs at the sight. Stompy, stompy; little shit . . . Now we’re all fucked. “Ha, ha, young lad-o. Tellee simples big new plan. Tellee City Seven big new way, big new chief.” The MC said as the boy was deposited on stage. “I’m Big Chieeeeeeeeeeef!” the boy shouted in one extended strident note like the death of music. “I’m in charge! I’m the one! I’m the biggest! You all suffer! Fuckee you little simples — I’m Big Chief!” The MC chuckled good naturedly as they led the boy away toward the Big Chief’s offices, still raging in delight at his new power. Thum thought he saw the boy’s white sneakers flashing off the stage. “Oh, wowee, simples. How about that? Big Change for real-o, hmmmmm? But we got lots more to do. Lots more chance. Time-o for another insta-vap? What sayee simples? Let’s vap — oh cruel-o fate, let’s vap another!” Thum, alone in the midst of the herd, looked down at his ticket, number 129045. He clutched it in both hands, and made a wish. MC, MC, please pick me; please pick me; please MC . . .

October 2009 to a bullying child who would then be selected as dictator for his mad dystopia was there from the start. I suspect my attitude toward playing the lottery can probably be discerned from this story.

Afterword by Bill Ward: I've always enjoyed these author afterwords but, unfortunately, it seems whenever it's my turn to write one I can't recall much of the process of my story to craft something interesting. So, I can't really remember the genesis of “Chance in the Year 54,” though I know I initially thought of it is a piece of flash fiction. I do recall that most of the flourishes of the story, such as the alternating nursery-rhyme versus, and the strange names and punishments, sprang up in the writing of the piece, though the idea that my central character would fall victim

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M-BRANE SF Here’s something you don’t see every day: a charming mash-up of human and floral sex, some lusty intimacy across the animal/plant kingdom divide. Bob Brill also appeared in M-Brane #3 with “Sleepless Sleep.” By the way, the accompanying photo is of a hibiscus in bloom on my front porch.—CF

HIBISCUS SEX Sidney: Just now I felt a twinge of fear thinking that soon Ill be tied into the brain of a chimp, but as I face that fear it fades away, and I am ready to begin my journey. You have lowered me down into the deep, deep well of myself. I can feel a universe of interior being opening up to me. All the worlds of possibility seem now equiprobable. Already I’m half a stranger to the world in which I woke up this morning and drank my coffee. All that remains of that world is your voice, Doc, your voice with which you can lower me down and raise me up. Yes, I trust you and I feel safe hanging down here at the end of your voice. Doc: Very good, Sidney. You are fully prepared. All systems are working well. I’ve opened the line between you and the chimp. Whenever you’re ready, just cross over. You are on an open channel and ready to go. Good luck, Sidney, and good journey. Sidney: It’s not working, Doc. I’m trying, but I can’t get across. The chimp is fighting me. I’m up against a wall of seething hostility. Doc: All you have to do is concentrate on your desire, on your immense curiosity to journey into the mind of another creature. You’ve trained six months for this moment and now it’s all yours. Sidney: It’s no use. Wait, something is happening. There’s a tremendous pressure building up. I feel like an arrow being drawn back in the bow. Oh, Doc, now I’m being hurled out of my body. The chimp is still blocking me, but I’m out, out in the room, bouncing off the walls. I’m floating around the lab, looking down at my body lying on the table, the helmet on my head, the electrodes, the implants, all the cables and wires leading from my body to your weird machine with its flashing lights. I see you looking up, Doc, but you can’t see me, can you? Doc: No, I see only your body on the table. I didn’t think the chimp would put up such a fight. Sidney: No and you also didn’t think that I could be bumped off the channel and into the free space of the room. Doc: We’ve made our first important discovery. Let’s

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October 2009 think about it before we do any more. Concentrate on getting back to your body, and I’ll haul you up the well. Sidney: Not yet, Doc. My mind is out for the first time and I like it. I want to look around. Doc: I’m not sure what might happen. I’m not even sure you can get back to your body. That’s still an untried experiment. Our theory needs revision. Let’s regroup here, Sidney. I think you ought to come back now, if you can.

by Bob Brill

Sidney: Later. I’m heading for the hibiscus on the windowsill. Doc: Sidney, I don’t like this. The circuit is doing things I don’t understand. I’m not sure I can keep you safe. Sidney: Listen, Doc. I’m getting no resistance in this part of the world. Nothing but good vibes coming from this hibiscus. All you have to do is keep that chimp away from me. In fact, you could do me a really big favor and take him out of the room. I’m going in for a closer look. Listen Doc, here’s our next discovery. The roving mind can zoom in for close-ups. I’m now about the size of a stamen. I know because I’m standing right next to one. Yes, standing, for I seem to be traveling in some mentally constructed facsimile of my body. The anther has split open and I can see pollen grains heaped inside like sparkling jewels. I hope you’re getting a good recording. Doc: I read you loud and clear, Sidney. Sidney: I’m going to zoom in a little further. Doc, I’m in a beautiful place. A huge, intricately articulated space filled with shimmering golden light. I’m standing on a pollen grain. It’s covered with bumps and pits and twisting spires laid out on a surface which curves in a larger rhythm of hills and valleys. Other neighboring pollen grains rise up to meet high overhead in magnificent undulations to form an airy cathedral that envelops me in a bath of pure sunlight. The convex walls of this space with their thousands of intracellular reflecting surfaces and their vast tessellated curtains of xanthophylls have transmuted sunlight into gold. The photons in here are inspired. They’re dancing off the walls and through the walls in all directions. I’m walking now among the bumps and pits and spires, climbing the hills and hollows. My horizon changes swiftly, and I see, as the walls converge and my path narrows, that farther on the space opens again into another shimmering airspace. I’m wandering from room to room, leaving one surface for another. The rooms are growing successively dimmer. I must be descending into


October 2009

M-BRANE SF the pollen mass. The light is still beautiful, but subdued, with fewer sparkles and increasing opacity. Looking down into one of the pits, I see a flat surface peppered with small dark holes like the drain plate of a sink, only between these holes small black stalks rise up, each supporting on its tip a transparent globe like a drop of dew. I’m going in closer now. I’m standing on the drain plate at the base of a stalk. I’m holding the stalk and leaning over one of the holes. I can see nothing below but a faint smudge in the darkness. Some invisible vapor is making me dizzy. I’m falling now and plunging through thick fluid. I’m inside the pollen grain being sucked through the cytoplasm in a swirl of light and shadow. It smells like seaweed and it’s all going glub, glub, glub... Doc: Sidney, come in please. I’m not getting your signal. Sidney: My consciousness has infused into every corner of this wonderful creature. I am the pollen grain. Its wants are my wants. I don’t know how to tell you. There are no words for it. I’m in the haploid state, you see. My chromosomes are unpaired. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world. I’ve got to find an egg soon. Let me say it another way. We made love for endless hours in our tiny compartment on the speeding train. The shades were drawn, the lights were out. We lay deep in each other, our bodies pointing head foremost in the line of our travel. We could see each other in the occasional bursts of diffused light that penetrated the window shade as our bed in a box hurtled through the night. Once I raised the shade and saw raindrops on the window streaking slowly backward, as though against their will, while dark tree shapes flew past. While stopped in a station we heard a commotion on the platform, voices in Spanish just under the window, strong lights piercing our sanctuary through the window shade. It reminded us of the war, the uncertainty of our destination. She was crying as we lay there waiting for the journey to resume. I tried to comfort her, but it was not till we were moving and out in the fields again that we were able to shake off the world and reenter the small closed universe of each other. This went on far into the night. At some point in space-time we must have fallen asleep. It was just getting light when the train jolted to a halt and woke us up. A party of soldiers came aboard, breaking open the doors with their rifle butts. We were torn apart. I was dragged out of the train and locked into a van with a crowd of others. She was not among them. I spent the rest of the war in prison. I never saw her again.

my stock of imagery. I don’t know if that really happened to me, or whether I saw it in a movie, or whether I just made it up. The pain of that parting seems to have obliterated my memory of the blessed diploid existence I led before. We pollen grains are virgins. We have forgotten our previous incarnations. We long for reunion but we don’t know what that means. It’s all happening for the first time, just as it always did before. Doc, you could do me a big favor. Just shake that hibiscus. Liberate the pollen. With luck I might end up on a nice sticky stigma.

Doc: What are you saying, Sidney?

Doc: Sidney, come in, Sidney. What’s happening? Please report.

Sidney: That’s as close as I can come to describing the pain of meiosis, what it felt like to be ripped in half. We crave chromosome pairing badly, and yet we don’t know just what that is or why we want it so much. It’s not happening at the verbal level, so I chose a metaphor from

Doc: Sidney, listen to me now. You are not a pollen grain. You are a human being lying on a table, hooked up to a machine that has separated your mind from your body. Don’t forget, Sidney, you have to come back. Sidney: Not until I’m whole again. That comes first. Shake the hibiscus. Doc: Okay, I’m giving the plant a shake. Sidney: Doc, Doc, you’ve set me free. I’m flying out in a cloud of pollen. Millions of us. The race is on. I can feel the excitement and confusion of all the others, and this is charging my own excitement and confusion. I’m tumbling end over end. Out of control! The race goes to the lucky few. Almost all of us must perish. We’re riding on fear and excitement and hope. None of us may land on a stigma. We may every one of us land on the floor to suffer a time in solitude before we die. Yet if it’s to happen at all, the time is at hand. The next few moments will tell.

Sidney: I smell it. I smell it. Aaaaaah! Doc: Sidney!

27


M-BRANE SF Sidney: I’m in stigma! Oh it’s juicy, it’s sticky, it’s heaven. I feel such a quickening. Oh enzymes, hormones, big changes. Preparations madly afoot. Now I know what my twisting spires are for, penetration of the intoxicating mother flesh. I’ve got three in almost all the way and three more in part way. And all six are sucking up this delicious enzyme that’s turning on switches all over me. A thousand new cocktails are being mixed here, a hundred new systems I never knew about are bubbling into action. I’m growing a pollen tube. Yes, I’m sending down a tube to find that egg. It’s a long journey and I’m still haploid, still lonely, may still fail. There won’t be eggs for all of us at journey’s end. But for now I’m prospering, heading with high hopes and fears through nourishing country toward the distant goal. Oh my aching chromosomes, hear this. Out on the lake. Fourteen years old. The whole boy’s camp standing on one barge, pulled slowly though the darkness by the camp launch. Stars are choking the sky. The land is dark. The lake is black. And, oh, the stench of young untested sperm, a barge load of male virgins gliding through a cosmic night toward a rendezvous with the mystery, a dance at the sister camp six miles up the long curved lake in the dark. Our counselor, Bill Braun, leaning on the barge rail smoking a cigarette. He’s seventeen. Been laid a lot or so he said. Last night he told us about this blind date he had. When he took her home she asked him in, said wait while I get into something more comfortable, came out bare ass naked. His eyes nearly fell on the floor. Of all the luck. Then he said we fucked for hours. Thinking of that, I beat off under the covers. Stuart says it’s bullshit. I don’t know, but I hope it’s true. We ride over the dark water, sending up in the clear summer night the combined odor of three hundred pubescent males. Hormones in the moonlight. Pheromones calling from afar. True lovers circling the cosmos in search of holy pussy and we don’t even know what that is. We schoolboys defuse these mysteries with dirty limericks and risqué songs, giggling over vulgar formulas, like you take the mass of the ass times the cube of the boob. We are well versed in the trajectory of adolescent jism in the air as it hits the wall, the toilet, the washcloth. We gaze up longingly at the lighted windows of virgin cheerleaders where an undecipherable algebra is at work, an all compelling x with hints of y and z to come. We summer campers know nothing, only that we are floating up the cavern of the night, star-spangled sperm-spangled summer night of boyhood toward some ineffable destiny, blindly re-enacting the life cycle of our species. Look at me now, Doc, riding this pollen tube express as it plunges toward the calling eggs. In silence it grows like a hard-on toward its goal, ten thousand enzymes coordinating to choreograph this dance. I’m really close now to an egg. The competition is fierce, and I’ve got to be first or I’m dead. Almost ... almost ... Yes! Glorious! A great chemical frenzy as I fuse with my mate.

28

October 2009 I wasn’t planning to attend the twenty-fifth class reunion, but at the last minute some intuition prompted me to go. And there she was, my old college flame, still so attractive despite the passage of time and the accumulation of husbands, kids and wrinkles. I hadn’t thought of her in ages, but as I approached her now I tried to recall how it happened that our lifelines diverged and we fell out of touch. She saw me and her eyes lit up. I felt a surge of excitement as we walked right into an embrace that cancelled the years. Our fiercely rooting tongues triggered an explosion of boiling enzymes in our blood. How we found ourselves in the broom closet I don’t know, but standing there, thrashing among the mops and pails we consummated our lust. Rational thought had flown, dignity had decamped. We surrendered to the grand imperative, lights burning in every window of our souls till nature achieved its purpose with us and we collapsed back into our separate bodies. And yes, out of that hot fusion came a child, another link in the great chain of being that has descended to us from deepest antiquity and that stretches far out into the future. Haploid diploid, haploid diploid, over and over in the ancient rhythmic dance of the chromosomes. Soon will come hibiscus seeds. If and when I return to my body, we’ll plant them. We’ll watch them sprouting, little diploid hibiscus babies reaching for the light. Okay, Doc, I’m done here. Reel me in anytime you’re ready. If you can. Afterword by Bob Brill: The original version of this story was more than twice as long as the final. I liked the concept and much of the writing, but it wasn't working. I finally realized that it had to be shortened. This is an unusual story. It has no conflict, no plot, and not much character development. It's a rhapsody celebrating sex, life and the natural world. Henry Miller has some fine rhapsodies embedded in his novels, but the really long ones tend to be tedious. I had to kill some of my favorite passages and that helped. It could use even more cutting, but I just couldn't bring myself to rip out any more of my rhapsodic prose. Bob Brill is a retired computer programmer now devoting his energies to writing fiction, memoir and poetry. He has published fiction in Lunarosity, Bewildering Stories, Flashquake, M-Brane SF and other journals, as well as short memoir pieces in Flashquake. His poems have appeared in Simply Haiku, Prune Juice, 3lights Gallery and Aphelion. He is still looking for a home for his novel.


M-BRANE SF In 1877, a group of Nez Perce Indians, led by Chief Joseph, fought a running battle with units of the United States Cavalry, as the chief led a strategic retreat toward Canada. Eventually, with defeat inevitable, Chief Joseph surrendered, ending the last major fighting between the United States and the indigenous nations. “Hear me, my chiefs,” Joseph said after the surrender, “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” The reason I mention it will be apparent when you read this grim yet hopeful tale.—CF

Cold Dish By Joyce Reynolds-Ward Damn snow. Kathryn Miller methodically packed her survival backpack, emptying her data hidies, glancing up from time to time to check the intrusion scanner. Nothing human moving near her backwoods cabin—not yet, anyway. Unless they could block her sensors. They could, possibly, in this snow. Damn snow. Any other season of the year she could pull off a clean getaway on foot; cross the meadow and drop into the draws leading to the deep canyons feeding into Hells Canyon. Between the rugged contours of the land and her all-weather stealth suit, she could disappear from all but the skilled eyes of the Nez Perce Indians who had reclaimed this isolated part of their original homeland. But not in snow. Crusted snow with a firm ice coating, maybe. Not in the soft powdery stuff that had fallen last night. Damn snow. She allowed herself a couple of minutes for a quick breakfast, idly rubbing the sore spot behind her ear where Sarah Stephens had injected a behavioral/monitoring implant ten years ago. The implant was the reason for her urgent departure. Sarah'd left her alone for many years, not tried to issue compulsions or activate the monitoring devices. Until early this morning, when Kathryn's protective nanos blocked the first compulsion attempt, and woke her. Contacts with friends and allies yielded nothing. Kathryn's former employer, Do It Right, was rejecting all messages. Not good. This was it; the time she'd both hoped for and dreaded was now. Kathryn looked around her cabin one last time. It had been a nice hidey-hole for the past five years, while she'd

October 2009 waited for Sarah to take action. But now its usefulness was over. One last thing to pack. She picked up the picture taken many years ago of her fiancé, Dale Francis, killed by Sarah. She smiled wistfully at it. Then she tucked the picture into her backpack, sealed her stealth suit and pulled the backpack on. She left the cabin without looking back, triggering one of the thermal cartridges hidden in the doorway as she stepped gracefully into her custom-made snowshoes. The cabin was in flames by the time she reached the meadow's edge. She followed the canyon rim around to its steepest pitch, stripped off her snowshoes and fastened them to her pack, then used her rope to lower her pack, then belay herself, a process she would repeat three times to reach the bottom of Grouse Creek. Just like she'd practiced. And, had it not been so snowy, it would have been more effective. Damn snow. Damn snow, the ghosts in her mind whispered to Sarah Stephens as she paced through the knee-deep stuff while waiting on the blacksuits searching through the remains of Kathryn Miller's cabin. Others might attribute the whispers to failing sanity or a glitch in nanolink programming. Sarah knew better. These ghosts were real, and one day they could bring her down. The thought made her mouth twitch. She'd kept them at bay for forty years now. No reason why she couldn't continue to do so. She let the wind push her along Kathryn's path to the rimrock edging the canyon. She stared across the narrow, ponderosa pine thickets to the rim on the other side, down the steep canyon carved into the earth below her. Rimrocks, steep slopes, caves, null spots where no detector worked. Kathryn was down there somewhere, unless she'd fallen and her broken body lay quietly among the trees and snow. No. If Kathryn was dead her voice would have joined the others inside Sarah's head. Her implant guaranteed that. So she was still alive—but where? Where was she going? And how had she known when to run? The whomp-whomp-whomp of an approaching helicopter caught Sarah's attention. She trudged back to the staging area, doubled against the rising wind, only now noticing how steeply the meadow dropped toward the canyon edge. Rob Meacham climbed out of the helicopter. “Why isn't Miller's implant working?” Sarah demanded. “I don't know! Ness Ryan screwed up all the data!” Meacham whimpered. “I haven't been able to find one complete backup—still trying to recover what she didn't trash.” Sarah clenched her hands into fists. “It was your job to make sure this didn't happen!” she snapped. “You knew she wasn't reliable. You knew she was operating under duress, damn you!” She started to raise one hand,

29


M-BRANE SF then dropped it. No time for this. Ness Ryan had fooled them all, even Sarah. She'd thought Ryan was settling down to make the most of the research opportunities. After all, Sarah offered twice the power which her daughter Diana's company could give Ryan; twice the influence. Twice the money. “President Stephens,” the blacksuit commander said nervously. “Yes.” She turned away from Meacham. “We've lost Miller's trail.” He swallowed hard but didn't flinch under her steady glare. “My people have discovered a cache of half-destroyed security equipment in the cabin. I think she's got equipment to match what we've got. If not better.” Damn it, Diana, you lied to me! Sarah clenched her fists again. Her daughter had sworn up and down that her company's nano and neural net research had no security implications; that her Security research was nothing more than what a savvy company had to do in order to get along in this era when corporate power was greater than government power. She'd believed Diana—but now it looked to be a good thing that she'd forced Diana into exile and made her put granddaughter Melanie in charge. Melanie was young, inexperienced, and lacking her top people. “Run a full Inquiry on Do It Right, Inc,” she ordered the blacksuit. “Miller has connections with them, and probably kept it up in spite of blackout orders. I want you to issue a Notice of Takeover from StephensCo—put Peter on it.” “What about Miller?” “Can we catch her?” “Harder than we thought. The snow drops off pretty light as you go down into the canyon. Harder to find her tracks. Hard enough to track down someone who wants to be found in this country. Add the crap the Nez Perce have put up and it's damn near impossible.” “Find her. I don't care how you do it, just find her. Put Meacham to work; he knows what her implant can do.” “Yes, ma'am.” The commander saluted her, then turned away, Meacham tagging along behind like a whipped puppy. Sarah sighed. She needed Miller's help to consolidate her power over the corporations who loosely dominated the country right now. If they'd all just listen to her and get along, everything would go just fine. If only Anne had listened to her. If only Diana would. Why did they all have to argue with her? Why wouldn't they listen? Would they all have to die? At last. Kathryn reached the old mine shaft deep in the Imnaha drainage. She fiddled with the confusion screen controls and waited for them to stabilize, revealing the old opening. After she went inside she restored the confusion screen, then slipped off her backpack, sighing with relief. Before she went further, however, she checked the intrusion sensors, running down the registry of all who

30

October 2009 had accessed this place since her last visit. Nothing untoward. Good. She activated a space heater, then dug in the stores to fix herself some food, and set up a pallet to rest on. After she ate, she lay down, but her mind kept racing. What to do now? Dare she try to contact anyone again, or should she wait until she was safe in the Nez Perce longhouses? No one messed with the Nez Perce these days, not since they'd activated Joseph's Ghost, the floating electromagnetic pulse generators, and a half a dozen other varieties of protective electronics seeded throughout these deep canyons. Curiosity got the best of her. Kathryn rolled off the pallet and went to work at the comconsole. She checked individual contacts first. Nothing. Corporate contacts. Nothing. But there was a transmission, low-band, on the emergency DIR network. Diaspora Preparation. Diaspora Preparation. Diaspora Preparation. Pause, then repeated. Oh shit. Something bad had happened, bad enough for Melanie to pull the plug and send Do It Right staff fleeing. Kathryn tapped over to the subband which would have coded traffic. It yielded little more except the briefest report. The internal labs of the Confederated States reported that Vanessa Ryan, formerly employed by Do It Right, Inc until her services had been conscripted by the Confeds, had perished under unknown circumstances related to one of her projects. Shit! Now Kathryn knew what had gone wrong. Ness had decided sabotage the Confed labs and gotten killed in the process. Which meant that the Confeds had gotten too damn close to Do It Right's research. Wearily, she signed off the comcon. Now what to do? Revenge is a dish best served cold. She'd waited for fifteen years to avenge Dale's death. This was the perfect time, the perfect place. It would also be the perfect distraction from Ness's death. But how to do it? The glimmerings of a plan began to emerge. Kathryn pulled out a datapad and began to organize her thoughts. She'd only get one chance. As she sat in the blacksuit mobile headquarters, staring out at the blizzard which had started up again, Sarah felt old. Ancient. There was something about this country which reminded her that she was, after all, in her nineties. Somehow it counteracted the antigeriatics which kept her body stabilized at the equivalent of thirty years old. What's in those Nez Perce floaties? That Joseph's Ghost and the others? She carefully glanced at her hand, the marker of the antigeriatic nano effectiveness. No change. She relaxed. A mental illusion then, simply tension. Just old memories from when she'd wandered this country in her youth. Back before she'd earned acknowledgment as the Stephens family heir, back when she could afford to be idealistic. She could vaguely remember camping here, of exploring the cliffs below, examining old mining


M-BRANE SF shafts—old mining shafts. Damn. How many of those old mine shafts were on a map or database somewhere, so that they could tell when one was being obscured by a shielding device? Sarah tabbed her radio. “Meacham. I've got something for you to check.” She was barely going to have enough time to get it all done. Kathryn popped a stimtab and pulled up the screens monitoring the EMP generators. The increased activity caused by Sarah's blacksuits had several of them drifting toward the Grouse Creek drainage and the Imnaha. But would they get here in time? She tweaked the command codes for a hurry up. Then she set about tracking the big one, Joseph's Ghost, the EMP generator. Joseph's Ghost was her own creation; one of the reasons she'd taken up residence on Grouse Creek. While the Nez Perce scientists were pretty damn good in their own right, they weren't about to reject any help from outside, especially from Do It Right. The Hells Canyon area was a prime testing site for the bioremediation security gadgets Kathryn and Ness had been devising in the DIR labs the past ten years. Bioremediation bots with real teeth to protect the sites they were reconstructing; stuff to disable those devices that would interfere with the reclamation process. Joseph's Ghost went beyond disabling individual devices. Joseph's Ghost could kill. It had the ability to trace back the wireless links of any device it encountered and hack the network source by reprogramming the network to self-destruct, bringing down anything networked into its target. Comlinks, nanodrivers, the computers monitoring the devices, any individual chips linked into the target device, perhaps even the medical nanos of those connected to the target. Kathryn wasn't entirely certain how far the Ghost would go. It had started as a Ness Ryan project, which Kathryn had taken over and brought to Hells Canyon because the Nez Perce scientists had asked for bioremediation enforcement help with teeth. There'd been a lot of tweaking done to the Ghost by the Nez Perce since she'd last played with it. While she roughly knew the Ghost's parameters, for all Kathryn knew, the Ghost could bring down all the North American networks. If not the world networks. The Ghost could kill Sarah's control over the North American Confederated States. Question was, how far dared she go? As far as it takes, she decided grimly. As far as it takes. She pulled up the Ghost's programming and got to work. “This is the best map I can find,” Meacham said. “And the damn thing's one hundred years out of date. It doesn't show any shafts, just mining sites. No information on what's a shaft, gravel site, you name it.” Sarah scowled at the screen showing various mining sites. “I know there's better maps than this available.”

October 2009 “There probably are. Buried in paper records somewhere, god only knows where. Maybe in Salem, maybe back in D.C. This is what we've been able to unearth online. The Nez Perce dumped a lot of our local records when they hacked into the system five years ago. We've never been able to restore them.” “What about mineral surveys? We might be able to cross-link them.” Meacham shook his head. “Nez Perce proprietary info. They locked it all up. I've got some bots spidering through what records we can get into, but it's going to take time.” Sarah sighed. Damn, damn, and damn! Fifty years of unrest had undermined a lot of systems. Too many of the country's leaders had handed everything over to those who would trash an effective, centralized bureaucracy. And you were one of them, she wryly reminded herself. It hadn't been just dissidents seeking protection from powerful centralized governments, but corporations seeking fewer restrictions on their activities. Did it to myself. Oh well. Memory was fleeting and transient, but it was all she had right now. She pulled up the Grouse Creek area and began scanning through the sites. Too damn bad this wasn't one of the places she'd haunted in the old days. This was going to have to be a sheer guess. “Let's check out these sites,” she said finally, pointing out five claims. “If Miller's gone to ground somewhere it has to be close. She's on foot. She can't get too far away.” Unless she's got help. For all she knew, Miller could be miles away by now. Kathryn popped another stimtab and began the destruction cascade sequence for this control center. She needed to leave a trail, something to get the blacksuits within range of the Ghost, now drifting up the Imnaha. She left most of her things behind as she left the center. It was time to travel light and fast; maybe the Nez Perce would reach her in time once she was done and maybe they wouldn't. That didn't matter. Taking Sarah out did. The center signaled her just before it died. “That's it, then.” Kathryn dropped her shielding. “Stephens!” she yelled into the canyon. “You want me? You come get me! Yourself!” “We've got her!” Meacham yelled. He cranked up the volume on the monitor implant, in time for everyone in the control center to hear Miller's defiant scream. Then the signal started moving. Fast. “How the hell is she doing that?” Sarah demanded. “She pick up a ride somewhere?” The blacksuit captain ran a scan, following Miller's signal. “Augmented stealthsuit,” he reported. “Gives her a boost. But it's an energy drain. She can't keep that pace up for long.” Sarah nodded. “Let's pick her up. She alone?”

31


M-BRANE SF “That's what the scanners say.” “Good. Pull together a crew and let's go. Get me a suit. I'm not taking any chances.” “It could be a trap,” the blacksuit captain said. “It probably is. But she's more valuable to me alive. If I'm out there myself then any mistakes are on my head.” “I don't like it,” Meacham said. “You're not paid to like it.” Sarah grabbed the suit the blacksuit captain handed her and pulled it on. “If anything happens to me, this is what you do.” She gave Meacham detailed instructions. With any luck, this won't be necessary. Just to be safe, however, she performed one last memory upload as the helicopter lifted. Her own little secret; her personal gamble on immortality. They can kill me but they can't get rid of me. Unless, of course, Ness Ryan had screwed this one up too. But that would hurt Ness as well, wouldn't it? Sarah stifled a sudden impulse to giggle. She broke off the link and triple-secured it. If something happened— well, these memories might just not make it into the record. And if it didn't, she'd have time for another update. No sense in chancing on losing everything—she'd heard too many rumors about the capacity of some of those Nez Perce devices. Running, running, running. Kathryn's breath came in deep, hurting sobs but she didn't dare stop yet. The Ghost was still too far away for her liking, and there was almost enough time for the hunters to find her. Get up here, you piece of electronic shit! She kept listening for the pinging signal which would tell her that the Ghost was within range. There! Gotcha! Kathryn slowed to a stop and bent over, breathing hard. She dropped to the ground, finally, gasping for air as the Ghost drifted nearer. Was this place going to work? She looked around. There was a flat spot on the bench just above her, big enough for a medium-sized helicopter to land. Perfect. That'd attract them here. Now could she find a credible flight path down the hillside which would still keep her within launcher range? The Ghost would take out the computers, but she'd still have to deal with the people. Unless she crashed the helicopter in mid-air—no, she wanted time to ensure that the Ghost had done its work. Yes. Perfect. This was the place Sarah would die. She pulled out the datapad and programmed the last touches into the Ghost. Then she armed her launcher, hid it, and waited. “Got her,” the blacksuit captain reported. He pointed out a small, black-suited figure bent over double on the trail. “Looks like she ran out of juice. She might be able to get a bit further, but my guys can get her. We can set down close by.” “Alive,” Sarah said firmly. “She's no good to me dead. Don't chase her over a cliff!”

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October 2009 “We won't.” Sarah sat back, her eyes fixed firmly on Miller. As the helicopter circled above her, Miller rose. She shook a defiant fist at them, then started sliding down the side of the canyon toward a cliff. “Hurry up, she's getting away! I don't trust her not to jump!” It seemed to take too long before the helicopter was on the ground. The blacksuits leapt downhill after Miller, depending on their suits for controlled landing. Sarah cursed softly as Miller raced toward the cliff. The helicopter motor stopped. The chatter of the electronics stopped. The blacksuits crumpled and two of them crashed, rolling downhill in an uncontrolled slide. Sarah gulped for breath, suddenly light-headed and unable to control her trembling limbs. “EMP!” the blacksuit captain screamed. Shit, shit, shit! The final upload and activation wouldn't happen and it'd all be for nothing if she didn't do something, now! By pure force of will Sarah dragged herself back toward the helicopter, all of ninety years old. There was one last chance to upload these final memories, one last chance to trigger the save feature. Whatever Miller had done, she'd not killed her own nanos. She barely reached the helicopter and pressed the button for shielded manual upload. Something whistled overhead. The world exploded around her. Joke's on you— was all she had time to think as everything went black. “Pretty damn spectacular,” the Nez Perce elder said to Kathryn. “Weren't sure we could get you before their folks did.” “How far did the cybercrash go?” The elder laughed. “It's a mess. Didn't bring down all the North American networks, but close enough. You set things back quite a bit.” “That's what the Ghost was supposed to do.” “Yep. Our networks are shielded, so we're the powers that be here for a while. Oughta be able to write our own terms to get your people back on line.” “Good.” Kathryn leaned back. “Any word from Do It Right?” He shook his head. “Took their network down with everything else. Someone had linked it into the main stuff—I thought they hadn't done that.” “Probably got done to them, before Diaspora.” “Yeah. Probably.” He paused. “Be a mess for a while. Could use a good hand or two to fix things up and network with your folks. Think you could do it?” “Don't see why not. Give me a couple of days to rest first.” “Oh, you'll have that. No problem at all.” He got up and left her. Kathryn sighed with relief. She rubbed the skin over her implant. Her own nanos reported it as dead. She wasn't sure how she'd managed to save her nanos while


M-BRANE SF killing the implant, but damn, it was worth it to know Sarah's shadow no longer hung over her. Or did it? Something nagged at her. She shouldn't have been able to hear that last thought in Sarah's voice. Joke's on you— She wondered what the hell that was all about. Nothing I need to worry about. And still—she thought she could hear Sarah laughing. Don't stop looking over your shoulder, she decided. Afterword by Joyce Reynolds-Ward: "Cold Dish" had its roots in an idle phrase mentioned by my husband during a camping trip near Hat Point in Hells Canyon. Further inspiration came when we visited a little meadow up on Grouse Creek, near Morgan Butte. The meadow slopes down slightly, with a small, rock-bottomed dry snowmelt creek that cascades over a steep cliff that drops into the Imnaha drainage. The first time I saw it, I knew a story had happened there. And so--"Cold Dish." Sarah Stephens and Kathryn Miller exist in a world I devoutly hope never comes to exist, but sometimes fear may well happen. Enjoy. Joyce Reynolds-Ward lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and son. An avid horsewoman and ski bum, she is also a middle school learning specialist at a small school on Mt. Hood. Her publishing credits include a Semi-Finalist placement in the Writers of the Future contest and past stints as an opinion columnist for the Portland State Vanguard (while earning her Masters Degree) and a computer columnist for the Catholic Sentinel.

October 2009 …continued from page 22 Jay Kozzi presents a story that is probably the grimmest in the whole collection, but ultimately one of the most redemptive as well. “Pos-psi-bilities” covers the comingof-age years of a young gay guy who fights to survive the degrading and abusive conditions of his home-life as tragedies follow one upon another. But he has a special gift and a special ally. I guess I will also mention that it is not all grit and struggle in this story: it contains a segment of the most vivid and fun erotica in the anthology. It’s a remarkable story, and I believe that Kozzi has considered finishing a novel-length version of it (a good idea, I say). Therese Arkenberg’s “Reila’s Machine” is set in a world where a privileged class inhabits airborne cities, while the less well-to-do get by as they can on the surface. Eresbet is a woman on the run from the sky people, wanted for theft, when she comes upon the home and workshop of Reila. Soon we learn that Reila is building something illegal, and together these women will risk everything to assert their freedom. It may be one of the most “exciting,” in an action/danger sense, of all the stories in the book. Therese is a young writer in Wisconsin from whom I suspect we will hear a lot more from in the future. She also appeared in M-Brane #4 with her story “Mother.” C.B. Calsing, in the afterword to her story “Seeker,” describes how she got a lot of insight into survival in a disaster scenario or a post-apocalyptic situation during her experience with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In “Seeker,” she combines that insight with a thing all reasonable people fear: the eventual domination of the United States by religious fanatics and racist supremacists. That’s a scenario that has usually seemed only remotely possible, but since the lunatic fringe seems to be flourishing nowadays in their opposition to a black President, “Seeker” seems to be perhaps the timeliest entry in this anthology. In “The Meerprashi Solution,” Deborah Walker introduces us to an interesting alien race whose mating practices are quite different from those of humans. For one thing, they bond in groups of three. Humans have changed, too: switching gender is commonplace. In this entertaining story about gender, sex and the meeting of cultures, the protagonist has a remarkable encounter with the Meerprashi, which leads to both a personal breakthrough and an incredible opportunity for the people of Earth. Deborah has appeared in M-Brane SF in issues #5 (“Daughter of Science, Daughter of Magic”) and #8 (“Forever Sisters”) and has had a number of other

Continued to page 67… 33


M-BRANE SF In the following story, the Graftworld itself is almost as much a main character as the human characters. A biosynthetic horror the size of a planet, it is a living thing and a place that a visitor will not soon forget even after one’s business there is done. Also, readers may not wish to be eating while reading this. Just saying.—CF

Graftworld by Fredrick Obermeyer Three days after receiving his sister’s plea for help, Justin James Jenetter arrived in orbit of Graftworld. He walked up to the edge of the ship’s observation lounge and looked down at the planet made entirely out of skins. Its splotchy, brown surface stuck out like a hairy mole on an old lady’s cheek. Just looking at the world made his own skin crawl with disgust. How could anyone live on a shithole like this? Jenetter thought. Fay had come here. Why? God only knew. She was just twenty-three and she was already moving from one disaster to another. She seemed to stay on worlds only long enough to get in trouble and then move on. Only this time she pissed off the wrong guy and didn’t get a chance to move on. He remembered her frantic face on the comline. “He’s going to strip me, Justin!” Fay had said. “Please, you’ve got to pay him off and get me out of here! Please!” Jenetter looked down at the patch of credit cells grafted to the back of his hand, hidden within a prison tattoo of a black skull crying blood. He rubbed it and scowled. Just when he had started to pull his life back together, Fay came in and tore everything down again. He wouldn’t even bother helping her, except that before his father died he promised that he would watch over her. Fucking bitch, Jenetter thought. This is the last time I’m helping her. Next time she gets in a mess, she can find her own way out. “Surface arrival in five minutes,” the voice said. “Please take your seats and strap yourselves in. Thank you.” Jenetter walked over to the nearest seat and locked himself in. The ship drifted below the brown extradermal layer of the planet, past vast fields of metal and bio-metallic skins stitched together, past endless fields of atmospheric hairs and cysts that absorbed carbon dioxide and produced nitrogen and oxygen, past pores that secreted water and other liquids.

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October 2009 Beyond the first layer lay countless other layers of skin. Billions, possibly trillions of layers, all stitched and welded and in some cases intertwined together. They descended past skins made out of forgotten organic languages, skins made out of literalized logic and metaphor, skins made out of dust and bones and the ground up teeth of hundreds of extinct species. After endless hours of descent, the ship finally landed in one of the capillary strands. As soon as the moorings were secure, Jenetter raced off the ship. When he got off the ship, Graftworld’s air struck him, a wretched mix of burnt fat, ozone, mustard seeds and body odor. He looked down and saw an endless abyss filled with layer upon layer of skin. According to the brochure that Jenetter had read on the way down, no human had ever gone beyond the first few layers of skin and lived to tell about it. Nor did anyone know how or why Graftworld came to be. It simply was there, floating in space, its origins lost to time. Along with that, the document stated that some humans sought immortality by stripping their skin, endowing it with sapience and merging it with Graftworld, discarding the rest of their bodies in the process. As Jenetter walked from the capillary strand into the skin itself, he saw several stripped bodies connected to the walls. They wriggled back and forth like worms in an apple. Jenetter gagged, looked away and nearly threw up. An hour after arriving, he found a public information kiosk and located Voyusko’s business address. From there, he passed through three more transport pores and entered a tanned skin club built on the edge of a biometallic layer of skin. He entered and saw an intelligent acystant that grew out of the ground. The cyst had several linguistic hairs that stuck out of its yellow, jaundiced hump. “Anton Voyusko?” Jenetter said. The hair grew itself out and vibrated in a certain language pattern. His translator necklace said, “Down the hall, third room on your right.” Jenetter nodded his thanks and hurried down the hall. As he walked, he rubbed his own neck, wondering if this place would make him grow intelligent acystants on his body. He arrived at the stitch door and it opened itself. Anton Voyusko sat in the middle of a pinkish-gray pleasure pore, letting its soft hairs massage his naked body. He was a tall, muscular man with gray and black striped hair, political scarification on his face and hands and twenty silver earrings in his nose, mouth, ears, eyebrows, nipples and belly button. Two guards with many ear and body piercings stood near Voyusko. They had batons in their belts. Jenetter tensed, ready to start fighting. The men looked equally eager, but Voyusko emerged from the pore and slapped a towel patch on his muscled belly. It wrapped itself around his waist and sealed itself in the back.


M-BRANE SF “Mr. Voyusko,” Jenetter said. “And who might I ask are you?” “Justin J. Jenetter, sir. I came from Vaneria.” “The shipwelding yards?” “Yeah.” “That tattoo on your hand tells me you’ve been more places than that.” “Marineris slam on Mars. Ten years. Involuntary manslaughter.” “Not first degree murder?” Voyusko folded his arms and looked unimpressed. “I would have done him that way, but the first blow killed him before I had the chance.” “Are you sorry you killed a man?” “I would’ve been sorrier if I hadn’t.” Voyusko dropped his arms to his side and walked around the pore. “So why have you come here?” “It’s about my sister Fay. Apparently she owed you some money. She tried to skip out before you could collect, but I guess that didn’t work out. So I’m here to find her and pay off the debt.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jenetter frowned. “Yeah, you do.” Voyusko’s face tightened with anger. “I never heard of this Fay what’s-her-name.” “She mentioned you specifically. Said you were going to strip her and graft a painskin on her if she didn’t pay up by next week.” Jenetter glanced at the guards, wondering if he could take them. They looked strong but slow. Maybe. “She must have mistaken me for someone else then, because I’ve never heard of her.” Voyusko looked him right in the eyes and didn’t blink or look away. For a liar, he was pretty good. “Did you kill her?” Voyusko snorted. “Kill her? I never even knew her. Now look, I don’t know what your problem is, Jenetter, but you better—” “You listen—” “No, you listen to me, you son of a bitch! You get the fuck out of here right now or else I’ll have you stripped!” Jenetter smiled. “Last chance. You going to tell me where she is?” “Get rid of this fuck!” The guards reached for their batons. Before they could pull them out, though, Jenetter struck the first one in the nose with his elbow and kicked the second one in the kneecap. Both men dropped to the floor, screaming in pain as they clutched their respective injuries. To make sure they stayed down, Jenetter kicked both men in the head. Voyusko watched the scene impassively. Jenetter frowned. Seeing his men beaten so badly shouldn’t make him act so nonchalantly. What advantage did he have over him? “Very nice, Mr. Jenetter,” Voyusko said. “But I’m afraid that’s all the fun you’re going to have.” Unperturbed, Jenetter walked up to him and said, “You don’t tell me where my sister is, I’ll kick your fucking ass

October 2009 so hard that you’ll be shitting out of your ears!” Voyusko spread his arms and smiled. “Take your best shot.” Jenetter walked over to oblige him. But before he got near the man, Voyusko tapped his hand three times. Artificial hairs burst out of the skin-based floor and wrapped around his feet. Jenetter grunted and tried to move, but the follicles locked his feet to ground as surely as chains. Looking smug, Voyusko strode over. When he got close, Voyusko reached up to his right eyeball and popped it out of its socket. He held the artificial eyeball up to him. Grunting, Jenetter tried to grab at him, but he was just out of reach. “Observe,” Voyusko said. He twisted the eyeball once. “Ordinarily my fake eye is harmless. But one twist will give you a mild skin irritation.” He twisted the eyes twice. “Two twists and you get a really bad rash.” Before Jenetter could move, Voyusko pressed down on the eyeball and it squirted a clear chemical onto Jenetter. “Of course this world’s skins have given me immunity to the histamine encourager. You haven’t, though.” As soon as the chemical struck Jenetter’s skin, it began to break out in hives and rashes. It felt like someone had bathed his skin in itchy fire. He screamed and scratched at his arms and chest, but nothing could stop the horrendous itch. “The two twist effect will wear off in about twenty minutes.” Voyusko smiled and popped the eye back in its socket. “Three twists will put you into a fatal anaphylactic shock.” He knelt next to him. “So you’re lucky I don’t like killing people unnecessarily. But if you ever fucking bother me again, I’ll give you three twists and dump what’s left of your corpse in the nearest chewerskin. So be smart and get off this planet before I decide not to be nice anymore.” He let Jenetter scream and itch for five minutes, then picked up one of the fallen guards’ batons and struck Jenetter in the head. Jenetter awoke moaning. His skin still had red splotches, but it didn’t feel nearly as itchy as it had earlier. His head was another matter, though. It throbbed incessantly. He looked down and found himself lying on a pile of glowing skin flakes. He glanced up and saw himself in a field of luminescent skin that stretched into seeming eternity. Some of the skin flaked off into little glowing piles that rose several feet in the air. He lay there for several minutes until his head cleared, then he pushed himself off the flakes, looked behind him and saw a transport pore in the distance. Jenetter walked along the glowing dandruff piles till he reached the pore. It propelled him onto another layer of skin and he found himself surrounded by humans with purple and blue patches of skin, along with political and religious scarification. Some people had data acystants growing out of their heads and sides like knobs. Some

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M-BRANE SF people communicated via shed skin cells and hair. Other people had their epidermises partially merged with the skin walls. Frustrated, Jenetter slipped through the mass of people, wondering how he could find Fay. Somebody around here had to know something. Criminals like Voyusko certainly didn’t work alone. First things first, Jenetter set himself up in a dried skin hotel. He paid three weeks worth of credit cells, then got to work. He looked through bars, clubs, hotels, skinshops, brothels, anywhere that he believed people might have seen Fay. During the next three weeks, he tried over four hundred locations in four different layers of skin. He tried an organic layer, a bio-metallic layer, a language layer and even one layer of skin that was locked in a dermal civil war with itself over grafting rights, constantly shifting and attacking itself with sharp hairs, pimples, boils and harsh chemicals secreted from various pores. But all his inquiries led nowhere. Nobody knew anything, nobody saw anything and from the looks of it, nobody wanted to know or see anything. At the end of three weeks, all Jenetter had to show for his efforts was some missing credit cells and aching legs. Part of him considered hiring a private detective, but he didn’t have the kind of money needed for a long search that might take months or even years. And he eventually needed work. He considered finding permanent residence, but the thought of living on this shithole disgusted him. Still, he had to find Fay, no matter what. I’ll do another day’s search, then see about bringing in a detective, Jenetter thought. At the beginning of the fourth week, Jenetter ate a breakfast of fried algae and mushrooms grown from one of the lower levels. The greasy food made Jenetter sick to his stomach and more than ever he longed to find Fay and get the hell out of here. Jenetter cruised down the streets, looking for more places to search. Down the street there was a local skinshop that catered to scarification, tattoos, designer cysts and acystants, global positioning calluses, dermavees and even extra digital, camouflage and combat skin mods for the right price. Curious, Jenetter walked down the street till he reached the shop. As he started to enter, he glanced back and saw a woman who looked a lot like Fay walking towards the store. She was a bit shorter than Fay, but the resemblance was uncanny. For a brief moment, Jenetter thought that he had lost his mind. He blinked and saw that she was still there, still coming towards him. “Fay, it’s me! Justin!” Fay shuddered to a stop. Her eyes widened in horror. Before Jenetter could walk over, Fay turned and ran. For a second, Justin couldn’t believe it. Then he snapped back into reality and chased after her.

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October 2009 “Fay, wait, it’s Justin. Stop!” She ignored him and bolted around a corner. Justin followed her and crashed into two Dermists. They tried to grab him, but he kicked them back and kept running. He ran down a long skin street and saw Fay running behind another market. To cut her off, he bolted around an eczema parlor and ran around the adjacent corner. He hurried to the next corner and cut her off as she tried to cross the street. He grabbed her and pulled her behind a small shack. “Let me go!” she said, kicking and punching him. “Easy, Fay! Calm down! It’s me, Justin!” “Let me go, you fucking bastard!” “Fay, stop it, Fay, Fay—!” “I’m not Fay!” Justin ignored her hits and stared at her, unable to believe her words. “Of course you are. You’re Fay Jenetter.” “No, I’m not. Now let me go.” “Then who are you?” “Maria Voyusko.” “Voyusko? You mean you know Anton Voyusko.” “Of course I know him. He’s my dad.” Justin released her and stepped back. “Then what are you doing with my sister’s skin?” Looking terrified, Maria stepped back and straightened her coat. Justin grabbed her again and shook her. She tried to scream, but Justin covered her mouth. “Where’s my sister? Where’s Fay!” Her eyes widened in horror and he took his hand off her mouth. “I don’t know, mister! Please, don’t hurt me! It’s just…after the fire, I, I—” “What fire? What are you talking about?” “The fire in our house. I got burns over seventy percent of my body and daddy, he, he said he’d make everything all right. He’d get me a new skin for my body and a few weeks later he…this is what I look like now.” Justin released her again, trying to figure everything out. “But how could it happen? My sister’s skin wouldn’t fit you and besides, there’d be tissue rejection. Your immune system would attack it and—” “Some of the planet’s skins can modify almost any organ so it can be transplanted to anyone else. Including different skins. They can even make me look a lot like her.” “But why Fay?” Justin sighed. “Do you have any idea where she might be?” “No, I don’t. I just—I’m not sure—” “Listen to me. I need to know where my sister is, and you’re going to help me.” “I can’t help you,” Maria said. “My father—” “I didn’t ask if you would help me. I said you’re going to help me. Understand?” “All right, O.K.! Just don’t hurt me, please!” “I won’t, so long as you do as I say.” “What do you want me to do?” “Right now go back to your father and tell him I know


M-BRANE SF about the transplant. I’ll contact him in an hour and go from there. Right now, go home.” “You’re not going to hurt my father, are you?” “I don’t know.” “Please don’t. Whatever you think about him, he’s a good man. He gave me my life back.” “And now I want my sister’s back. Now go.” He pushed her away and she staggered out of the alley. Fear tightened his stomach. He hurried out of the alley and ran back to the hotel. An hour later, he called Voyusko’s house. Voyusko answered after three rings. “Maria told me what happened,” Voyusko said. “Where’s my sister?” Jenetter said. “Is she dead?” “What if I said yes?” “Then you better get the best protection you can buy for your daughter.” “You listen to me, you fucking cocksucker! You come near my daughter again and I’ll fucking kill you—” “Is Fay alive or dead?” Jenetter said. “Tell me that much.” “All right, she’s alive,” Voyusko said. “Where?” “Hold on, cowboy. I’m not saying anything more.” “I want my sister back with her skin intact.” “Fuck you!” “Maybe you don’t understand English.” “And maybe you don’t understand what I’m saying. As long as I’m alive, I’m not letting that bitch go free.” “Find another skin for your daughter.” Jenetter scratched his tattoo. “It’s not just that. Fay tried to kill Maria.” “What are you talking about?” “This.” A small screen appeared on the upper right hand corner. It showed Fay walking through a skin house. She was planting something. Five minutes later it exploded and started a fire, burning patches of the house. Jenetter couldn’t believe it. The footage had to have been faked. Fay wouldn’t do something like that. Wouldn’t she? After all, this was the same woman who had left behind more than one man dead under mysterious circumstances. “Maria told me about some snooping that Fay was doing, looking into our personal assets. The night before she stole my money, she set the house on fire. I think she was trying to kill us both to cover up her crime.” “How do I know that isn’t fake footage?” “I don’t give a fuck what you think. That bitch tried to kill Maria and it’s only fair that I take her skin and give it to my daughter. Call it poetic justice if you want to. And if you don’t like that, you can go fuck yourself.” “Why didn’t you or your daughter tell me this when we first met? Why did you both act like you didn’t know her?” “I didn’t have to tell you anything. And besides, for all I know, you’re part of her crew or some boyfriend of hers, looking to get even.”

October 2009 “I don’t want to get even. I just want my sister back with her skin.” Yet even as Jenetter said it, he wasn’t sure he wanted to save her. If she really did this, then maybe she did deserve to suffer. Still, no matter what, she was his blood. And blood was more important than anything else. But was it right to let her go on hurting more people? Who could say? In any case, he would deal with Fay later. “I’m not handing her over,” Voyusko said. “So forget it. If you’re smart, you’ll get off this planet by tonight and never come back.” “I know Fay isn’t perfect, but she’s still my sister,” Jenetter said. “I have to do something.” “I don’t care.” Jenetter sighed. “Look, what about a compromise? What if I give you the money to purchase your daughter another skin? You tell me where Fay is and we leave the planet together and never come back. That way, everybody wins.” Voyusko scratched his chin with his thumb and remained silent for a minute. Two minutes later, he dropped his hand and said, “All right. You bring the money and I’ll tell you where she is. But I want your assurance that you’ll never come back to this planet ever again. If I even see you in orbit, you’re dead.” “You got it. So where do you want to meet?” “Come back to my club tomorrow at twelve with the money.” “Fine.” Jenetter hung up and sighed, wondering if Voyusko would really go through on the deal. Late that night, the phone in Jenetter’s hotel room rang. He clicked on its screen. It was Fay. No, Maria. He kept forgetting that she had his sister’s skin. “I need to talk with you right now,” Maria said. “Can I come up?” Jenetter said, “Sure. What’s this—” Before he could finish the sentence, she signed off. He sighed and waited till she knocked on the door. He opened it and said, “What’s that about?” “Don’t go to tomorrow’s meeting. It’s a trap. My father’s planning to kill you as soon as you walk in.” Jenetter’s stomach burned with acid. “Why are you telling me this?” “I—I’m worried that you might take my father out with you and I…I’m tired of wearing Fay’s skin. I just…I just want to be me again.” “Did you really overhear her saying that she was planning to swindle you and your father?” Maria looked right in his eyes. “I did. But I…I liked Fay. She seemed like such a nice person and I never thought she’d do something like this.” Her eyes glistened with tears. “Shows how much I know, huh? God, how could I be so gullible? Usually I’m so good at spotting phonies—” “Fay’s an expert manipulator. It’s her job.” Maria covered her face with both hands. “Now I’m

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M-BRANE SF forced to look like her. Damn him. Sometimes he can be such a fucking asshole! I think that even after everything she did to him, he still loves her a little bit. That’s why he made me look like her.” “Where is she, Maria? Tell me and we’re out of your lives forever.” “I’ll show you. But we have to hurry. Come on.” “I just have to use the bathroom for a second.” “All right, but hurry.” Maria left. Once she was gone, Jenetter slid a security proof ceramic pistol out of his travel bag and tucked it in back of his pants’ waistband. Then he hurried out of the hotel room with Maria. Jenetter and Maria traveled down three transport pores to a layer of screaming skin. The walls were angry red dotted with blue and gray veins. Jenetter’s spine tingled with fear as he entered sadodermal layer. Some of the walls of skins had translucent and even semi-transparent patches. Through them he could see and hear humans inside the walls, thrashing and screaming as the skin tortured their skinless bodies. “This way,” Maria said. She led him through the tunnels till she came upon a fork intersection. They took the middle tine and stopped a few hundred feet from it at one of the patches. A terrible wailing came from inside a patch, but mixed in with the cacophony of screams it barely registered. Maria reached over to the organic pad next to the patches and touched the skin in a particular pattern. After a moment, the patch opened and slid out a shelf. On the shelf lay Fay’s body, or rather what was left of it. A reddish-yellow painskin had been grafted over her flesh, full of pimples and boils and rashes. Many of the hairs were ingrown and other hairs from the skin stabbed her every few seconds. Fay’s voice was hoarse from screaming. She looked up at him with bloodshot eyes, her face a mask of unrelenting agony. She cried tears of blood and tried to reach for him. Instinctively, Jenetter staggered back, horrified. Maria tried to reach for her, but one of the tendrils slashed her. She cried out and drew her hand back. It dripped blood. “Get her out of there!” Jenetter said. “I’m trying!” Maria said. She leaned over, past the tendrils, and pressed a button on the side of the shelf. “Stop right there,” a voice said. Jenetter and Maria whirled around. Voyusko appeared at the other end of the tunnel with two new bodyguards. All three of them carried guns. Fear struck Jenetter’s nerves like a static shock. “Daddy, no!” Maria said. “Enough—” “Stay out of this.” Desperate, Jenetter reached behind him and took out his pistol. Maria rushed between them, put her hands up and said, “No, stop it! Both of you! Stop!” Jenetter tensed, ready to shoot them. Voyusko looked

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October 2009 equally willing. But Maria stepped in between them and held up their hands. “Actually, I’m glad you came down here. Now I can put you right next to your sister and you can both spend the rest of your lives in hell—” “No!” Maria said. “Nobody’s doing anything.” “I told you to stay out of this!” Voyusko said. “This is a matter for men and you’re too young to understand—” Maria glared at him. “So you think I’m just a stupid woman, is that it?” “I didn’t say that. I only want justice for you and—” “He just wants his sister back, that’s all. Please, daddy. Please. I can forgive her. Can’t you?” “No, I can’t. Besides, you let her go, how many more people will she hurt or kill? How many more lives will she ruin?” “I won’t let that happen,” Jenetter said. “Oh really,” Voyusko said. “Considering what she did to my daughter, it sounds like you’ve been doing a real good job.” “That was my fault. I was in prison and I couldn’t watch over her there.” Jenetter lowered his pistol slightly. “I’m sorry for the harm she caused you. If I had known what she was planning to do, I would’ve stopped her. Believe that.” Voyusko scowled, not looking convinced. “I’ll give you the money,” Jenetter said. “Just give me Fay back and her skin. It doesn’t have to end like this.” Voyusko turned to his men. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let this slide.” He gestured to his men and they pointed their pistols at Jenetter’s knees. Maria stepped into their line of fire. “Get out of the fucking way!” Voyusko said. “No! You do this and I’m stripping my skin!” “Honey, you can’t…” “I’ll go get a painskin.” “You’re talking senseless.” “Am I? You should listen to yourself. Mr. Jenetter’s giving you an out and you just want to hurt him and his sister because of your pride. Think, for once in your life. Please!” Voyusko hesitated. After a moment, he gestured to his men to lower their weapons. They did so. “I want all your credit cells right now,” Voyusko said. “You’ve got them.” Jenetter shed all the credit cells from his skin. He handed them to Maria and she gave them to Voyusko. “After the swap, you’ve got two days to be offworld.” “We’ll be gone in one.” Jenetter holstered his pistol. “By the way, there’s one more thing I’d like before I leave.” Voyusko’s brow furrowed. “Oh, and what’s that?” Eighteen hours later, Jenetter stood with Fay near the extradermal layer. The shuttle offworld wasn’t due to arrive for another hour and they stood by themselves on a metallic balcony overlooking a patch of artistic iridescent skin whose rainbow colors shifted into beautiful


M-BRANE SF geometric patterns every few seconds. “Thanks for saving me,” Fay said. “What are brothers for?” Jenetter said. “I can’t wait to get out of this fucking place, so we can find some other rich jerk off and fuck him out of his money.” She looked down at her newly-skinned arms. I think next planet I’ll get some diamonds implanted in my skin.” “Oh, by the way, that reminds me, I got you something.” “What’s that?” “A little souvenir.” Jenetter reached into his pocket, took out a small box and handed it to her. “What’s this?” “A present.” “You shouldn’t have.” “Don’t I know it.” Jenetter gestured to the box. “Come on, open it.” Fay did so and frowned. She took Voyusko’s prosthetic eye out of the box and held it up. “What’s this?” “Like I said, a souvenir. I took it off Voyusko before I killed him.” She looked it over and laughed. “I never knew he had a fake eye.” “That’s not the only thing. He kept some credit cells inside in case of an emergency. There’s a patch in there worth about a half million at least.” Fay’s eyes sparkled as she turned the eye over. “How do I get it?” “You just twist the eye two times and then press down on the button here. You see, it pops open.” “Oh really.” Fay started to twist. “Shit!” Jenetter said, and snapped his fingers. “What?” “I forgot one of our bags in the terminal. Hold on, I’ll be right back. Don’t open it till I get back.” Fay smiled slyly. “Of course not.” He kissed her on the cheek, turned and walked away. A minute later, he heard her scream. He walked back to her and saw the hives on her skin. Screaming, she thrashed and itched her body all over. “I know what you did to Maria,” Jenetter said. “And I put a little incentive inside your dermis. The next time you try any shit on anybody, your skin will kill you. Slowly and painfully.” “Justin…please…make it stop!” “I will. In a little while.” With little remorse, he folded his arms and watched Fay suffer for a while.

October 2009 disgusting planet? From there, I built up the idea of a man who had to go there to save his sister and the reasons why people might want to stay on this world. Fredrick Obermeyer lives in Cooperstown, NY and is a graduate of the State University of New York at Albany. He enjoys writing science-fiction, horror, crime and fantasy and has had stories published in the Dead Inn, Alternate Realities, NFG, Fedora, Electric Spec, The Fifth Di, Newmyths.com, Fusion Fragment and Space Westerns.

Afterword by Fredrick Obermeyer: I've always been interested in science fiction books about different worlds. Ringworld, Riverworld, Cageworld, Midworld, Dune, etc. And I wondered what a world made out of skins would look like? How could it exist? How could you live on it? And maybe more importantly, why would anyone in their right mind want to go to such a

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M-BRANE SF

October 2009

The setting of this next item, from the singular imagination of Jason Earls (“Death of the Flying Humanoid,” M-Brane #1), is in a way, another version of the kind of warped world depicted in Bill Ward’s story, “Chance in the Year 54,” elsewhere in this issue. Once again we have a society in a single city that is bizarre in its behavior and fixated on numbers. But unlike the random, hopeless lottery in Ward’s tale, the contest in this story can theoretically be won if the protagonist’s math skills are up to the challenge. But are there really puzzles not “meant” to be solved?—CF

yellow spots and flicked out of his mouth randomly whenever he spoke. But the psycho was extremely nice to Shalen and seemed to be a deeply caring individual with a good heart. Everyone said the psycho in the condemned funeral parlor had taken too many obscure brainenhancing drugs in his youth, which eventually turned him into a misanthrope and a recluse. Everyone in town was afraid of the psycho but they refused to evict him from the funeral parlor since they weren’t sure what kind of violence he would unleash upon the town if provoked. Shalen went to the psycho’s funeral parlor, which was dark from the electricity being shut off long ago; and mysteriously the place always smelled strongly of charcoal and smoke. Long brown dusty curtains hung from every wall and black coffins were stacked in corners, while old guest books and broken lamps stood crookedly on tall stands. “Ah, this new problem is very tricky,” said the psycho in the condemned funeral parlor, after Shalen described what he had seen on the poster. “Can it be solved?” Shalen asked. “Oh yes, I believe so,” said the psycho. “But it will require extensive brain-work and an abundance of computation on your part. I will give you one main hint, which should be enough to solve it. I think the solution depends on a connection between the transcendental number Pi and the Fibonacci numbers. If you are able to find the right connection between the two, you will easily find the solution.” “I understand,” said Shalen. “Thank you.” “Is the mayor offering a reward for this solution?” said the psycho with his arms crossed and his black tongue flicking out of his mouth. “Yes. $10,000.” “Nice. That will help you a lot.” Shalen smiled and nodded. “And I’ll split the money with you if I solve the problem.” “That won’t be necessary,” said the psycho. “I have enough money. Plus, you know I despise all forms of currency.” “Of course,” said Shalen. “Well, I’ll be going now. I want to start working right away on the new Fibonacci problem.” “Good luck.”

Fibonacci Numbers and the Psycho Living in the Condemned Funeral Parlor by Jason Earls Shalen had seen posters advertising it all over town: another new Fibonacci number theory problem. The citizens of Shintoville had recently become obsessed with Fibonacci numbers and were continually putting up posters describing different unsolved problems, with generous rewards offered. The posters would appear every two weeks or so, plastered up in shop windows, stuck to the sides of buildings, or seen blowing down dirty streets. One morning Shalen stood in front of one of the posters, pondering the newest Fibonacci problem. He stood for nearly an hour, parsing the problem statement, scratching his face, contemplating a possible solution, sighing and shaking his head, trying to form some method of attack. But this newest one seemed almost impossible. Shalen knew he would have to possess true mathematical genius to solve it; plus he knew he’d have to visit the psycho living in the condemned funeral parlor for hints and advice. Whenever Shalen needed help with one of the mathematical problems his town proposed (although he had never fully solved one yet), he would usually go see the psycho living in the condemned funeral parlor, who was known to be a former math professor and bona fide mathematical genius. The psycho living in the condemned funeral parlor had met Shalen in a dark alley two years ago and had immediately taken a liking to him for some unknown reason; and Shalen liked the psycho as well, even though he was slightly afraid of him and didn’t fully trust him. The psycho living in the condemned funeral parlor had a thin emaciated body and dark gray skin. Huge black circles surrounded his protruding eyes and his head was bony and too large for his body. His black tongue had

40

Shalen walked straight home and sat down at his computer and opened his main number theory software package, which the psycho living in the condemned funeral parlor had written especially for him two years ago. Shalen immediately went to work, typing and thinking and programming. He racked his brain for three


October 2009

M-BRANE SF solid hours, but yielded very little positive results. Soon Shalen stopped typing and remembered the hint from the psycho. He ran the words over and over again in his mind: “...the solution depends on a connection between the transcendental number Pi and the Fibonacci numbers...” He immediately computed 500 digits of Pi and stared hard at them:

= 144; while another solution is Pi * 62522 = 196418.655... and Fibonacci(27) = 196418. INCREDIBLE! That must be the connection! Yes, I see the solution now. The psycho in the condemned funeral parlor was right. But I need more terms.” A few more solutions popped up.

Pi=3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971 6939937510582097494459230781640628620899862803482 5342117067982148086513282306647093844609550582231 72535940812848111745028410270193852110555964462294 8954930381964428810975665933446128475648233786783 1652712019091456485669234603486104543266482133936 0726024914127372458700660631558817488152092096282 9254091715364367892590360011330530548820466521384 14695194151160943305727036575959195309218611738193 26117931051185480744623799627495673518857527248912 279381830119491...

But Shalen realized that to fully solve the town’s new problem, he would have to find a solution with at least 10 digits. As he stared at the solutions, he realized his algorithm could be improved significantly to speed up the search. He made the adjustments and soon found the 10digit term needed to solve the Fibonacci problem. When he saw it he immediately knew he had achieved the goal he originally thought was impossible; and he knew he would soon be recognized as a hero by every citizen in Shintoville. He made a print out of the terms and circled the 10digit one and wrote in a few sentences fully explaining his solution so he could present it to the mayor. He slipped the paper in his front pocket, but before giving the mayor his answer, he wanted to tell the psycho in the condemned funeral parlor that his hint had been correct. Shalen entered the dark funeral parlor and inhaled the familiar smoky charcoal smell and coughed a little. The psycho quickly appeared from behind a stack of coffins. “I solved the problem, but only by using your hint,” Shalen said. “Congratulations,” said the psycho. But Shalen noticed the psycho did not look genuinely pleased. Instead, he had his arms folded and was staring down at the floor with his brow furrowed and the corners of his mouth pulled downward; and he looked more disturbingly thin than usual. “What’s wrong?” Shalen said. “Are you depressed about something?” “I’m afraid there’s a curse associated with this particular number theory problem, Shalen. When you left the other day, I did some further research, trying to double check my hint and make sure I wasn’t off track, and I chanced upon some terrible information. I wanted to warn you as soon as I found out, but as you know, I do not venture outside this condemned funeral parlor, so I had no way to contact you.” Shalen scowled worriedly. “Okay, well what is it? What is the curse?” “I’m not positive I should divulge the information,” said the psycho in the condemned funeral parlor. “But you must warn me if I’m in danger!” “You’re right... Well, upon perusing certain passages in ‘The Sentences of Sextus’ – one of the Nag Hammadi scriptures, I realized that some of the paragraphs there could be interpreted in such a way that the solver of this particular Fibonacci problem will eventually come to see large Fibonacci numbers obstructing their field of vision.”

Next he computed the first fifty Fibonacci Numbers: Fibonacci(n) from 1 to 50: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946, 17711, 28657, 46368, 75025, 121393, 196418, 317811, 514229, 832040, 1346269, 2178309, 3524578, 5702887, 9227465, 14930352, 24157817, 39088169, 63245986, 102334155, 165580141, 267914296, 433494437, 701408733, 1134903170, 1836311903, 2971215073, 4807526976, 7778742049, 12586269025, ... He needed a connection between the two. What could it be? What exactly could the psycho in the condemned funeral parlor be referring to? Is there any connection possible between these two highly disparate mathematical entities? Shalen cogitated and struggled and squeezed his forehead. Soon he began typing again, trying a few different ideas. But nothing seemed to work. He stared at the digits of Pi for awhile, then looked at the sequence of Fibonacci numbers. Pi equal to Fibonacci? It’s impossible. They can never be equal, can they? What about altering Pi in some way? Perhaps use another operator like multiplication or division. Include the floor function, maybe. Shalen put his fingers to the keyboard and wrote a function to test for Fibonacci numbers, then he typed: for(n=1, print(n“,”))

10^6,

if(isfibonacci

(Floor(Pi*n)

),

Solutions immediately popped up on his computer screen: 1, 7, 11, 46, 1331, 9122, ... “Amazing!” he yelled. “Floor(Pi*n) can actually be a Fibonacci number! Pi * 46 = 144.513... and Fibonacci(12)

62522, 428531, 7689672, ...

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M-BRANE SF “What exactly does that mean?” said Shalen. “You will soon see large Fibonacci numbers everywhere you look.” “That’s impossible. Why would that happen?” “Because no one is supposed to possess the knowledge linking Pi to Fibonacci numbers. It’s too powerful for humans to handle; and it disrupts the balance of the Universe.” “How soon will I see the Fibonacci numbers?” “I’m not sure. If you have truly solved the problem, I suppose you’ll find out soon enough.” Shalen shook his head. “But at least I will receive the $10,000 from the mayor.” The psycho in the condemned funeral parlor only nodded, then turned and hurriedly went into a back room of the parlor. Shalen didn’t know why the psycho left so quickly but didn’t call for him. He went out the door and walked toward main street, still determined to show the mayor his solution, collect the $10,000, and become a hero in Shintoville. While walking, he chanced upon the original poster advertising the problem he had solved. He stopped and examined the sentences and thought how obvious the solution now seemed. Then he glanced to the top of the poster, but instead of the design there, he saw the 1000th Fibonacci number in red digits blocking his field of vision: Fibonacci(1000)= 4346655768693745643568852767504062580256466051737 1780402481729089536555417949051890403879840079255 1692959225930803226347752096896232398733224711616 4299644090653318793829896964992851600370447613779 5166849228875 Shalen quickly closed his eyes and shook his head. When he looked at the poster again, the number disappeared. “My God. What was that? The Nag Hammadi curse? No, it can’t be.” He began walking again, remembering what the psycho in the condemned funeral parlor had said about “The Sentences of Sextus” and Fibonacci numbers. “Surely seeing that big number was only my imagination,” he said. Arriving at the steps of City Hall, Shalen put his hand on the large oak door, but instead of seeing the etched glass in front of him, he saw the 2000th Fibonacci number shining in large green digits: Fibonacci(2000)= 4224696333392304878706725602341482782579852840250 68109801028013731430858437013070722412359963914151 1088446087538909603607640194711643596029271983312 5987373262535558026069915859152294924539049987222 5679531698287448247299226390183371677806060701161 5497886719879858311468870876264597369086722884023 6544222952433479644801395153495629720876526560695

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October 2009 2980649984197744872015561280266540455417171788193 0324025204312082516817125 His forehead got hot; he felt dizzy. Almost on the verge of passing out, he sat down on the front steps and cradled his head. “No, this can’t be happening. Eventually I will go blind if I continue seeing the huge Fibonaccis. Maybe if I don’t look around much I won’t see them. I’ll just keep my eyes closed most of the time.” Squinting, Shalen stood and entered the building and asked the receptionist for the mayor’s office. “I have the new Fibonacci solution and want to tell the mayor personally,” he said. He went into a waiting room, the mayor came out seconds later in an expensive blue suit wearing a happy expression, and Shalen saw a few vague Fibonacci numbers floating around the mayor’s head. “Greetings Shalen!” said the mayor. “I hear you have a solution for me!” But Shalen didn’t see the mayor anymore, or even hear his words, he only saw the 3000th Fibonacci number in blue digits obstructing his vision: Fibonacci(3000)= 4106158863079712603335683787192671052201251086373 692524088854309269055842741134037313304916608500 445608300368357069422745885693621454765026743730 454468521604866062924973605034697734537331968874 058472552900820490869075126220590545421958897580 3110922267084927479385953913331837124479554314761 1073276240066737934085191731810993201706776838934 766764778739502174470268627820918553842225858306 4083016618629003582668572382102358025043519514729 979196765240047842363764533472683641526483462458 4057321424141993791724291860263981009786694239201 5404620153818671425739835074851396421139982713640 679581178458198658692285968043243656709796000 He stood up quickly and put his hand over his eyes to make it go away. He tried to speak, wanting to tell the mayor his solution, but no words came out and when the mayor tried talking to him the only sounds audible were low-pitched mumbles. Shalen still needed the $10,000 reward however, so he tried reaching into his pocket for the paper he had written his solution on, but felt only a few balls of lint. He knew now it would be impossible to collect the reward or become a town hero; every time he opened his eyes he could see only the 3000th Fibonacci number. I guess I’ll be cursed forever, Shalen thought to himself. All because I solved an almost-impossible Fibonacci number theory problem. What a crock. He squinted his eyes so the Fibonacci numbers would be less visible and tried to wave at the mayor although he could barely see him, then he lumbered out of the mayor’s office with defeated body-language. He went out the big oak door and stood for a moment on the


M-BRANE SF steps, trying to decide whether to go home or not. Then he noticed a familiar silhouette standing by the curb in front of City Hall. “Could it be?” Shalen said. “The psycho living in the condemned funeral parlor? He never comes into town, or even goes outside.” He went down the steps and opened his eyes a little wider, still trying to keep the large Fibonacci numbers from appearing. He went up to the psycho who was standing with his thin arms crossed, trying to protect himself from the citizens of Shintoville and from being outside. “What are you doing here?” Shalen said. “I found a cure for you. Are you seeing the Fibonacci numbers yet?” “Yes and it’s horrible. I tried to get the reward money from the mayor and tell him my solution, but I couldn’t even communicate from seeing the large Fibonaccis.” “Don’t worry. I’ve got a good cure. I found it in the sacred book ‘Allogenes the Stranger.’ I’m confident it will work and you’ll be normal again in no time. But you must lay down on the sidewalk for a moment.” The psycho from the condemned funeral parlor put his cold gray hand on Shalen’s forehead and another on his back and helped him lay down on the sidewalk. Then the psycho began murmuring strange phrases in the Coptic language in a dry muffled eerie voice. Shalen felt strange and uncomfortable lying on the cement in the middle of town with the psycho so close to him. Then a citizen on the street wearing a gray trenchcoat with thick whiskers rising almost to his eyes noticed the psycho bent over Shalen and laying hands on him. “Stop! What the hell are you doing to that young man?” the citizen said, running closer. “Hey everyone! It’s that weirdo who lives in that old funeral parlor; he’s attacking this young man here in broad daylight!” A policeman driving by heard the commotion and the citizen yelled at the cop. “Look what he’s doing to this man on the street, officer! He’s strangling him! Stop him!” “No! He’s fine!” Shalen yelled at the citizen. “He’s helping me. Leave him alone. Let him cure me.” The policeman slammed on his breaks and stepped out of his patrol car. “STOP WHATEVER IT IS YOU’RE DOING, SIR! RELEASE THAT MAN, NOW!” But the psycho didn’t hear the officer due to the loud Coptic phrases he was speaking. “He’s killing that young man!” the citizen in the trenchcoat yelled. “Do something! Save him!” “LET THE MAN GO, OR I WILL DRAW MY GUN AND SHOOT!” the officer yelled. A few seconds of silence, then just as Shalen yelled “NO!” the officer drew his gun and shot the psycho from the condemned funeral parlor five times in the back. The psycho dropped to the cement next to Shalen, holding his chest. “BUT HE WAS CURING ME!” Shalen yelled, rolling up into a sitting position.

October 2009 “HE’S DANGEROUS! GET AWAY FROM HIM!” the police officer yelled. But Shalen ignored the command and turned toward the psycho, leaning over him. “You’re not going to die, are you? Give me a spell to take the bullets and death away.” “I’m afraid it won’t do any good,” said the psycho in a low weak voice. “The shots are fatal. But never mind that now. Are you cured? Are the Fibonacci numbers still blocking your vision? Or did the cure from ‘Allogenes the Stranger’ work?” Shalen looked over at the officer and the citizen who were now discussing something a few feet away. He blinked a few times, but didn’t see any Fibonacci numbers. His vision actually seemed better than usual. “I think it worked. I don’t see any more of the large Fibonacci numbers.” “Excellent,” said the psycho. Then Shalen stared down at the psycho’s face and tears filled his eyes. “I will never forget you, psycho. Thank you for curing me.” The psycho from the condemned funeral parlor gave Shalen a brief friendly smile, then his eyes quickly fell shut. And the police officer leaped forward, tackling Shalen to the cement and quickly placing him in tight handcuffs, as the citizen in the trenchcoat yelled “Right on!” repeatedly in the background. Afterword by Jason Earls: At the time I was reading the Nag Hammadi scriptures, which reminded me of some Lovecraft stuff, and I wanted to write something horror-tinged, weird, and surreal with heavy computation. After finishing the story I immediately thought of M-Brane since I knew you were tolerant of mathematics in fiction, and so that was the first and only place I submitted it. Jason Earls is the author of Mathematical Bliss, How to Become a Guitar Player from Hell, Red Zen, Cocoon of Terror, Heartless Bastard In Ecstasy, and If(Sid_Vicious == TRUE & & Alan_Turing == TRUE) { ERROR_Cyberpunk();}.

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M-BRANE SF Here’s another story set in Jeff Kozzi’s vast space opera milieu, which readers may remember from “Interstellar Sting” (#4). In this one, a military commander is taken to task for an apparent failure against an enemy that should have been easily defeated. The Angroolians in this tale reminded me somewhat of the Phylosians in the animated Star Trek episode “The Infinite Vulcan” (that’s not a bad thing—big fan of the animated series here!). We have here a fine bonus in the form of Jeff’s illustrations, which will aid a newcomer to this universe in getting a sense of its diversity.—CF

October 2009 smile to one corner of her thick lavender lips. Angroolia isn’t one of those additions or inductions. The Orfezzin presence surprised her more because she knew she wasn’t on an Orfezzin ship. The ceilings were higher than the baseform-height Orfezzin would build. The manual controls for doors and airlocks were higher up the wall and without automatic sensors or multiple controls along the height of the doors. A ship designed for use by various-sized races would have been fitted with anyone-accessible accommodations. This ship’s gravity pulled harder and heavier than membranegliding Orfezzins would prefer. The expanse between ceiling and deck almost guaranteed Blakkarrions, but Regna didn’t need to guess. She could smell Blakkarrions. The vessel’s air filtration systems couldn’t abolish the rancid acidity she’d come to associate with their thick, dry, near-reptilian skins. The Orfezzins’ nervousness increased when a Blakkarrion passed. They saluted quickly and yanked on Regna’s arms with a showy display of brutality that would ingratiate any Blakkarrion. Neither said anything, but continuously peeked behind them to see if the Blakkarrion had paused. I’m not even with a Shalhoon division anymore, Regna realized. The Blakkarrions have me. I don’t see how Angroolia could have been that important. For the first time, Regna realized she would probably never see her husband or parents again. The Shalhoon-influenced ranks of the new empire followed the civil protocols of the Interplanpols or the long-gone Konvokashun. Blakkarrion racial ideals of brutality and fear ruled their segregated ranks. With even greater display of savagery, the Orfezzins bodily threw her into a room. The doors slid shut with a dull scratching noise. If Regna had not been distracted with the doom suggested by her presence on a Blakkarrion ship, she would have noticed that the Orfezzins had thrown her from the sides of the door to avoid drawing unnecessary notice to themselves. A Dogomon sat at the left end of the semi-circular table beside a Delmeen. Three Blakkarrions dominated the center of the table. Their shoulder whips impatiently snapped against the walls and the outer rims of their chairs. To the left of the Blakkarrions, a Quiglini sat beside an insectoid. Mere months before, Regna wouldn’t have been able to recognize a Wellnigh, but six of them had served under Regna on Angroolia. Regna couldn’t differentiate Wellnigh individuals, but she could hazard a safe guess. The name hissed past her incisors. “Tidniak.” “Pleased I lense you again, commander,” the Wellnigh greeted. Even his screeching voice couldn’t disguise notes of triumphant sarcasm.

The Veritable Vegetable Victory by Jeff Kozzi Teloch Regna followed her captors willingly. If she didn’t, they’d only drag her down the cold gray corridors. Regna knew the protocols of the treatment of prisoners. If the ever-growing military force had sourced only from Shalhoon, Regna would have expected civility, and even a cordial, professional tone from the guards. But Shalhoon, the closest world to the geographical and political center of the galaxy, had somehow allowed itself to be shadowed by the Blakkarrion Empire. Regna’s status as a prisoner of war held by her own forces heightened her opinion of Shalhoon’s growing Interworld disgrace. Regna had been transferred between captor’s ships four times since leaving Angroolia. The two Orfezzins who now escorted her were the first of their kind she had seen. Their race had surprised her, as did the somber silence they maintained. The sight of their uniforms alarmed her. Their tunics were fashioned in the beige and marine colors of the original Blakkarrion Empire, not the black and turquoise colors of the expanded empire. Her exposure to Orfezzin people had been frequent enough only to determine that Orfezzin never stopped chattering. Their silence was as much a sign of their nervousness as was the twitching of their two long fingers. The Sivil Galaxi’s second most populous race, Orfezzin were spread across scores of worlds throughout the galaxy, presumably including Blakkarrion-ruled colonies Fortress and Bedross. While she had originally looked to the Orfezzins with a dash of hope despite their Blakkarrion uniforms, Regna could not maintain a rational hope that they might be spies or saboteurs. Less than two years since the attack on Simmel that marked the beginning of the Blakkarrion-Kajerist War, some two dozen worlds had been forcibly inducted into the new empire, in addition to hundreds of willing admissions. Regna’s trail of thoughts brought a tranquil

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M-BRANE SF No chair had been provided for Regna. She stood before the seven aliens, but the seated Blakkarrions still rose closer than Regna’s own head. Their shoulder whips writhed. She stiffened, then angled her chin upwards. Brought before such a committee, she expected to die this day. A robot stood in the rear corner of the room. Regna could reasonably assume that it stood behind the organic members of the assembly to record her debriefing/trial, execute her when the Blakkarrions saw no further use of her, or both. “How do you answer the charges?” the Blakkarrion at the center of the table commanded. “I’m sorry, sir, but no charges have been expressed to me.” “This Qualmloid was taken into custody on my will as soon as we had landed on Beld following the retreated Angroolia,” Tidniak screeched. “Serious charges,” the center Blakkarrion whispered. “That we failed to take Angroolia?” Regna asked. If she omitted a few things that Tidniak might not be aware of, she held to the hope that she might live through the interrogation. “We Blakkarrions place more emphasis on failure than Shalhoon,” the center Blakkarrion said. “There has, in fact, been little failure since the Unifikashun formed. This makes yours unforgivable.” Quickly, Regna bowed her head and prayed her goodbyes to her husband and parents. When she straightened her neck, she faced the center Blakkarrion squarely to his yellow eyes. “I am a Shalhoon. I expected some of my own people at any hearing.” “Your people serve us,” the center Blakkarrion hissed. “Emperor Tsaan’s alliance with your Shalhoon is in the clear role of the superior power. We demanded you, they gave you.” The skin that covered the sharp frontal point of the bone plates on the Blakkarrion’s face wrinkled around his nostrils. Blakkarrions’ jaws set entirely beneath their large bulbous skulls. The nostril-wrinkle was the Blakkarrion’s best imitation of a sneer. “When the time is right, Tsaan will dispose of Kajer and his Shalhoon as easily as we shall dispose of you.” Regna’s eyes clouded even beyond the normal smoked translucence of Qualmloid eyes. They wouldn’t make threats against or admissions of intended betrayal of Shalhoon if they had any intention of letting her live. She saw clearly what the Angroolians had told her. Blakkarrions honored no treaties or decrees. They would destroy anything they saw no further use for, whether those things be allies, machines, or entire worlds. “Then dispose of me. I’m not going to beg for my life. I served well. I commanded well.” “You failed well!” the Quiglini roared. “You should have bombed them!”

October 2009

The center Blakkarrion’s shoulder whip snapped at the table, the merest kreep from the Quiglini’s flabby fingers. If the tip of that long slender series of bone had struck just a little closer to the rear of the table, it would have sliced open the Quiglini’s hand. The merest pinprick, any cut strong enough to draw the slightest trace of blood, was enough to introduce a lethal dose of Blakkarrion venom. The Quiglini clamped his snout shut and dashed both hands to his lap. The center Blakkarrion panted a fetid breath of annoyance at the Quiglini, then rolled his yellow eyes back to Regna. “Yours is the only failed conquest since the Unifikashun formed. This concerns us deeply, you understand. Angroolia should have been one of the easiest conquests of our great Unifikashun, yet it is the only one that failed. We very well may take your life, Qualmloid. That is no longer yours to offer or salvage.” He paused to allow the threat—and hope—implied in his statement to linger. “Now, certainly, it is not Blakkarrion custom to assign command of anything beyond children and cleaning to females, and I am inclined to leniency because that error is so often committed outside our stable Blakkarrion Kore. In time, Emperor Tsaan will convince Emperor Kajer of his foolishness in allowing that to continue.” “My gender has nothing to do with Angroolia,” Regna said. “Then please, now, past Commander Regna, tell us why you think you failed in that task. It should have been easy enough, even for a female. After all, the Angroolians are plants!” The center Blakkarrion’s shoulder whips snapped against the back wall in emphasis with his final word.

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M-BRANE SF “That is why we failed,” Regna stated. “You failed because they were plants,” the center Blakkarrion echoed. “Yes.” “Plants!” The Dogomon barked. “No worthy for eat, and you fail!” “We failed against the Angroolians because we had been prepared to fight them as the Unification has inducted any other mammalian or reptilian or insectoid race! But we weren’t fighting mammalians or reptilians or insectoids! We were fighting Angroolians! Plants!” “So you understand our astonishment at your failure,” the central Blakkarrion said. “In one brave strike, we have conquered the Simmellians! In one swoop, we conquered Pixe and Moon and Dolar to make the Sentral Sistem ours! But you failed against the Sivil Galaxi’s most heinous pacifists! You failed against plants!” “Sir, I served as a squadron commander at Hemp, so I’ve fought insectoids. I was second in command at Kobtrite, so I’ve fought mammalians, ones too small to

even seem like they could be fought against. The Angroolians were different.” The Delmeen tapped a long slender claw against the polished tabletop and rasped, “Their difference is that you failed.” The Delmeen’s teeth drew Regna’s eyes. “The difference is that we were trained to fight understandable foes, ones that walked around and built houses and ate and crapped and fornicated on First Day. We landed on Angroolia in perfect order of a standard induction. Tidniak here probably told you that, if the dirty bug was honest. We landed in Vastorin, the capital city. And that’s the first we realized, right from the ignition, that everything we knew was wrong!” “Why is that?” “Because we realized we were dealing with plants! Vastorin is a damned forest! Have you ever been to Angroolia? What do you think plants have as a capital?” The leftmost Blakkarrion snapped his shoulder whip

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October 2009 against the back wall. “Continue.” “We knew what the Angroolian people looked like. We stopped every one we saw and clearly identified ourselves as representatives of the Unifikashun and demanded audience with governmental leaders.” “Was your audience granted?” Regna shot a suspicious glance to Tidniak. Certainly he had reported all this. Did they question her because Tidniak suspected the communion she had experienced with the Angroolians? “The response was the same from every Angroolian we encountered. Every one of them said the same thing in that willowy telepathic voice of theirs: I am as much the president/king/emperor/jarti/presider/first as any other, and I decline your invitation.” “Then did you bomb them?” the Quiglini asked. “No. After three days of hearing that same exact line from every Angroolian we encountered, I had the team return to the shuttle. I teleported some of the first team back to the Kiyansut and replenished them with crew from more powerful telepathic races.” “And what now did that accomplish you?” the central Blakkarrion asked. Regna swallowed. “Absolutely nothing. What are a few Hemps against a world full of telepathic plants who share a complete symbiosis with every plant and animal on their world? The T’s tried to initiate contact, but the response was the same, always exactly the same as if it had been ingrained in the subconscious mind of every living thing on Angroolia: I am as much the president/king/emperor/jarti/presider/first as any other, and I decline your invitation.” “Did you think to persuade them?” “Of course. We employed the Kabern Diktums, building fear of larger Blakkarrion capability while assuring them that we had no desire to employ such measures or see them employed. They thanked us for our concern and asked us to leave Angroolia. Of course I refused to do that, on the grounds of my duties and my concern for their safety should Blakkarrions arrive.” A Shalhoon, or any other civilized Sentient, Regna thought, would be insulted to be placed in the role of the overlording disciplinarian. But every one of these creatures shows pride in it! The Delmeen’s grinning! The Blakkarrion on the right is patting his own chest! “And their response was?” the center Blakkarrion beamed. “They politely but clearly told us to mind our own business.”


M-BRANE SF “So then you bomb them?” the Quiglini asked. “No, sir, we did not attempt to bomb them at that time. I ordered all but a skeleton crew of communications officers from the Kiyansut to Angroolia in order to group all the T’s I had under my command. I instructed them to telepathically surge the Angroolians with pure mental fear.” “Why now didn’t this work?” the center Blakkarrion demanded. “I don’t know, sir. Against any other race, this should have worked, even telepathic races. I have two theories. One is that the symbiosis that the Angroolians share with everything alive native to Angroolia was more than our telepaths could effect.” “What the other theory?” the Wellnigh asked with a sneer. “That because the T’s were targeting plants, their conceptions of the fears they tried to instill were meaningless images to the Angroolians. Who can say what plants fear?” “Drought,” the Blakkarrion on the left said. “Darkness,” the Blakkarrion on the right said. “Fire,” the center Blakkarrion said. “No matter what fears our T-teams attempted to instill, the Angroolians resisted. Only after the T’s kept trying did the Angroolians retaliate.” “Yet you let that attack, and all its casualties, go unpunished!” the Wellnigh screeched. “Not true,” Regna insisted. “Our difficulty in punishing the Angroolian attack was identifying the Angroolian attack.” “You lose fifteen percent of your ship’s crew now, but deny an attack?” the center Blakkarrion accused. Regna remembered the warbles and whistles of birds in the forest, pastoral sounds that had induced a peaceful rapture within her soul while most of her telepathic crew died. She had been watching a long-snouted nectarsucking bird flitting through rich purple blossoms when the telepathic “attack” had been reported to her. “They didn’t fire lasertrons at us. They didn’t launch missiles or projectiles. They didn’t barrage us with wave disruptors. All our projecting, effecting, and communicating telepaths on Angroolia just died. We never even found out if the casualties were from a direct Angroolian attack or other factors in Angroolia’s T-fields.” “And how did you cope with this loss?” “I commed the ship to make sure the communications officers I had kept on board were still alive. It would have been a more difficult journey to Bard if we didn’t even have any T’s left to staff the comm boards.” Regna stiffened and sharply turned her head to Tidniak. “At the time, I didn’t know that Wellnighs were only communicating telepaths with other Wellnighs.” Tidniak’s features blurred as the excess skin around his exoskeleton shifted, as if he was about to spring into underbrush and camouflage himself in the leaves to wait for prey. “No important.” Regna stood tall and proud as she had done when

October 2009 Tidniak had first made himself known to her. “If you’ve convinced the Blakkarrions to assemble this kavortkort because you’re still trying to avenge your fellows who died on Angroolia, then it is.” “This debriefing is in response to your overall failure!” the central Blakkarrion bellowed. Regna turned to face the center of the table. “My point is valid. When I called up all T’s, I did so by crew rosters that told me what races were telepathic. If even one of the Wellnighs had told me their telepathy doesn’t extend to non-Wellnighs, they’d all still be alive.” “We Blakkarrions don’t train our allies to question the orders of better rank,” the center Blakkarrion said. “When I briefed the telepaths for what I was going to have them attempt, the Wellnighs should have informed me of their limitations. That’s not questioning orders. They were incapable of performing the task.” “As your command of Angroolia proved you,” Tidniak hissed through his serrated gums. The lavender skin on Regna’s face tightened. The first time Tidniak had confronted her about the loss of all his fellow Wellnighs, she had dismissed him at this point. She no longer possessed that option. He and his vicious allies would dismiss her, permanently. The best she could do was move the interrogation forward on her own. “After the T’s died, I regrouped what staff I had left on Angroolia and teleported back to the ship with the bodies. I had one of my remaining communicators call the fleet for advisement and back-up. At the time, most of the active fleet was occupied with the conquests of Sse and Pelle. I was told I was on my own.” “Further failure to you,” the Blakkarrion on the left said. “The fleet too took worlds of aliens active and resisting by force while you couldn’t conquer a world of plants.” “We bombed the outskirts of Vastorin and transmitted demands for their surrender over the fighters’ loudspeakers.” “Still the plants resisted?” “Of course they still resisted,” Regna said. “They’re plants. They don’t have ears. They can only communicate telepathically. I returned to Angroolia with ground forces and approached the first Angroolians we saw alive and I demanded surrender in the name of the Unifikashun.” “You must not have bombed them enough,” the Quiglini said, “if they not comply.” “The exact response was, Is this how you invited Simmel, on such a larger scale? I am as much the president/king/emperor/jarti/presider/first as any other, and I decline your invitation.” The Quiglini slammed his fists down on the table. “Then you should have bombed them more!” “We already suffered casualties without a trigger pulled against us. I was angry. I drew my lasertron and burned the plant.” Her voice failed as images replayed in front of her eyes. Leaves smoldered then burned. Small tranquil rodents had scurried from the underbrush around them, running in circles, writhing in pain. Leafy strands

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M-BRANE SF shook in the wind that carryied wisps of smoke until the unbidden memory fell to total blackness in Regna’s eyes. She forced herself to continue in a softly dispassionate tone. “First through the stalk, then its bud or head or whatever it would call it, then I started to fire through the rooty membrane it uses to move around on. My crew followed my example with all the other Angroolians around us.” “And still you failed,” Tidniak hissed. “Their death cries crippled us.” “Death cries?” the Blakkarrion on the right sneered. “Angroolians have no mouths. How can they scream a lovely little death cry?” “Telepathically,” Regna huffed. “I was felled as soon as I hit the top of the creature. My shot to the base of its

stalk or whatever missed by a kraap. I was on the ground, and I had thrown my ‘tron aside, and was clutching my head. All of my crew were doing the same, whether or not they had been ones to fire on the Angroolians. Seven more of my people died. The rest of us were crippled for hours. Four others didn’t make it through the night.” “You should have bombed them,” the Quiglini repeated. “Nint,” Regna swore. “I’d never felt anything like that before. Hope I never do again.” The Blakkarrion on the left snapped the ends of both shoulder whips against the rear door that Regna assumed led to either a more private meeting room, or a torture

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October 2009 chamber. “A Blakkarrion would have had more stamina.” The Blakkarrion on the right snapped the end of one of his shoulder whips on the floor at Regna’s feet. She jumped back and bounced off the sealed door behind her. “A male would have done better.” “Anyone would have done better,” Tidniak hissed. She fought her automatic reflexes without success, and Regna trembled before her executioners. Her stoic bravery had fled her when the Blakkarrion had snapped his shoulder whip at her feet. Blakkarrions were so huge, fifty percent more height and mass than an average Qualmloid man, and the three sitting before her were each perhaps seventy-five percent of hers. Her heart pounded against her ribs. Tidniak maneuvered in his chair so he was nearly on top of the table. His malleable contour seemed to have broadened, but the malicious intensity in each of the hundred lenses of his eyes had sharpened. Regna’s hands shook. Her fingers no longer seemed to work. The Dogomon panted, and stared at her with a peculiar gleam in his eyes that beseeched the truth in the ancient rumors that Dogomons often ate prisoners as if they were the most lowly non-sentient creatures. Regna’s breaths came in short bursts that seemed to provide no nourishing oxygen. The Quiglini, seemingly only to himself, all but ignored her as he continued a tirade that outlined the benefits of mass bomb drops on resistant worlds. Regna’s kneecaps felt ready to melt. The Delmeen clicked his long talons against the polished tabletop. “Continue!” the center Blakkarrion bellowed. “I ordered more ground troops to the surface, with portable cannons and good old fashioned incinerators. I ordered them into Vastorin, to destroy everything, not just the Sentient plants but all the smaller plants and the grown buildings and any little animal they saw.” “The Kiyansut recorded no such maneuver,” the center Blakkarrion accused. “She failed against the Sivil Galaxi’s worst pacifists,” the Dogomon snarled. “She failed against plants.” “All the slow movements I’d seen from Angroolians is a lie,” Regna declared. “The Angroolians had gathered while we were stunned from the backlash.” With a membraned stump of probing roots at their base, Angroolians typically moved slowly and deliberately by expanding and contracting that rootball at the bottom of their stalk. “So you should have been able to burn them that much faster,” the Delmeen said. “They didn’t give us a chance. They released spores all around us. Most of the insectoids in the ground forces were dead in seconds. The rest died more slowly. The six reptilians in the unit were unconscious within a few minutes. We mammalians were dizzied. We couldn’t even hold our ‘trons up. Someone started firing, and a few of the crew shot each other before we collapsed, one by one. I could see those soft fluffy spores dancing in the air around me as I fell. A Billone in my unit tried dragging me away. I could smell him beside me.”


M-BRANE SF The Blakkarrion’s voice carried a clear note of disappointment. “And now they didn’t kill you when they had the chance?” “Fool pacifists,” one of the other Blakkarrions said. “When I came to, it was cloudy. The sun had gone to the horizon, and I could see the stars. I was afraid to think, that the Angroolians would sense my thoughts and find me.” “So you just hid?” the center Blakkarrion asked. “No, sir. I realized that T’s as powerful of the Angroolians would know I was awake the second I was. I acted fast, to stop them from shutting my mind down or knocking me back out with those spores of theirs. The Quig’ should be happy. I ordered a bombing, away from us, on the other side of Angroolia, before they could stop me.” “And still they resisted?” the center Blakkarrion asked. “Yes. I don’t know what they did. All of us on Angroolia blacked out, telepathic backlash.” “You should have had your communicators ready to screen the T-fields,” the Delmeen whispered. “They were already all dead! I had my T-shield active the entire mission, as every commander is supposed to when off the ship. It probably saved my life with the first backlash, but it did nothing for me when the bombing killed thousands of Angroolians all at once. They transmitted their pain back to us. My crew on the ship, it was like you could tell how T-sensitive or receptive each race is, by how quickly they died.” “This backlash affected your crew in orbit?” “Yes! Didn’t that little twig bug tell you that?” The Wellnigh’s contour rippled as he sat more erect in his chair. The plates of his insectoid exoskeleton became visible at his six extremities. “She was duty for the crew and lethal them instead.” “I was out for two Angroolian days! I woke up, surrounded by four of them. My T-shield had been taken from me, or maybe overloaded with the backlash.” “And you bombed them more in retaliation?” the Quiglini asked. “No. I couldn’t.” “Oh, your Shalhoon conscience?” the Dogomon panted. “My technical inability,” Regna said. “Not only was my T-shield gone, but all of my equipment. Weapons, communicators, chrono, everything. They’d gone as far as to rip the pockets off of my uniform. When I woke up, it was just me and the Angroolians. Four of them, standing over me.” They had swayed slightly in the wind. She could smell their bodily blossoms, so fragrant. She had reared once when her eyes opened to behold them, but she had felt only a tranquil sense of completion, like she had naively expected of her marriage. She had felt no fear then. She felt the fear only now, in the presence of the Blakkarrions. The Delmeen touched his clawed fingertips against each other. “You should have shredded them to pieces. Ripped their leaves off. You have told us you are a veteran

October 2009 of campaigns. Are you no warrior?” “I guess not. I should have tried to escape, done what you said...rip their leaves off.” “Why didn’t you?” the center Blakkarrion demanded. “I really don’t know, sir. I think the thought even occurred to me then. The Angroolians have those vinelike leaves for an arm or hand or whatever, but I don’t think they could have held me with them. I was on my back on some moss, looking up. I woke very suddenly, and very alert. I just snapped my eyes open, and the Angroolians were there. It was strange. They don’t even have eyes, but I could feel them staring at me. More scrunched their way towards me, and they all stood over me, bent forward a little. They had me completely surrounded. I almost thought they were going to root themselves there, do something to me.” “And what did they do to you?” the left Blakkarrion asked. They stood over and around Regna. The wispy grasses at the top of their trunks waved in the wind. They bent lower, their “heads” coming closer to Regna, without threat, without malice. Peace overcame Regna. Looking back, she would, briefly, think that she should have lashed out. She could have kicked through them, torn off any tentacle-vine appendages that grabbed at her. Instead, she looked back at them. Fear and anger and malice avaporated first from her mind, then from her eyes. The Angroolians leaned closer still, and anything Regna might have said slipped off her tongue and into inaudible nothingness. Her sight of the Angroolians faded. She saw something else, not quite white, with a rich woven texture. She felt movement, a slow, tranquil swaying, and when she looked up, she saw the bottom of her mother’s jaw, the slight contractions of her flat nostrils, the vibration of her lips as she hummed a lullaby. Then she saw her father’s face emerge from behind the mountain of her mother’s shoulder. He smiled. His hand loomed huge as it slowly advanced on her. Soft, gentle, warm, his finger barely touched her forehead, then smoothly traced down the bridge of her nose. His smile broadened. Regna blinked repeatedly. The image of her parents faded. The Angroolians still stood over her. She hadn’t imagined herself in her parents arms; her imagination would have included herself more prominently. The Angroolians had unburied a true memory, too early for her conscious mind alone to ever have remembered. The Angroolians had been specific, fostering the memory of her own mind that would foster peace, tranquility, and contentment more than any telepathic image they could have forced on her from outside her own mind. And in that image, she felt how all relationships should be, devoid of religion or politics or any other conscious thought. She stammered at the Blakkarrion’s question, trying to recall her current time and place without losing the newly resurgent memory that would never fade again. “Nothing. Everything. I don’t know. If any other enemy surrounded me the way they did, all around, standing above me and looking down like that, without eyes, I would have screamed in terror and fought my way out or died trying.” The center Blakkarrion’s whip snapped in the air. “But you didn’t?” “No.”

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M-BRANE SF “Coward Shalhoon,” the right Blakkarrion sneered. “No. I wasn’t afraid. I was perfectly calm. I thought it was their spores, but those put Qualmloids asleep. They asked me if I was all right. They told me I’d been out for two days. They apologized for the deaths among my crew.” “There weren’t many of us left, and the Angroolians apologized for that. So many times, they kept apologizing. They didn’t mean to transfer their pain back to us when we bombed them. Their telepathy is empathically based. Maybe that’s why Angroolia doesn’t have big predatory animals. Everything on the world feels what the Angroolians feel, and the Angroolians feel what everything on Angroolia feels. I think maybe when I woke, I was part of that, or had been while I was out. I don’t know. But I felt no fear, no more anger, just sadness for the crew I’d lost. I don’t know. The sun was coming through the leaves of some of the actual trees, reflecting off sap on the bark. It was beautiful. Birds were singing.” The Dogomon licked his lips. The Delmeen clicked his long claws together. The three Blakkarrions had ceased snapping their shoulder whips, but the ends curled and uncurled as if in anticipation of a strike. The Quiglini’s fists had stilled against the table where they’d fallen with his last punctuating slams. His long snout open to reveal the serrated gums that served as Wellnighs’ teeth or mandibles, Tidniak stared at Regna. In the corner, the Ulvenbot stood in cold mute silence, recording everything. Regna closed her eyes and tried to recall the peace she had felt when she woke on Angroolia. The sensation was not far away, but could not return to her mind while she was surrounded by such aggression. “How did you escape?” the center Blakkarrion finally asked after several moments of silence broken only by an occasional click of the Ulvenbot’s internal mechanisms. “I didn’t,” Regna answered. “I didn’t even want to leave that spot. The Angroolians told me, Do what you must, and the ones at my feet parted. When I stood, one of them uncurled its vine-arm and offered me one of our communicators. I took it. I stared at it for a long time before I started walking to the small encampment that the remains of my last crew had made. I called for them to ‘port us back to the ship, and I gave the order to retreat.” “You didn’t bomb them again?” the Quiglini asked. “No. I saw no need, no possible gain. We’d kill some more Angroolians, and they would share that pain with us if they couldn’t help it, and when they recovered, they’d ignore us and everything we did to them.” The Blakkarrions grunted between themselves in their own language. Regna watched their flame-yellow eyes dart to and fro within their boney sockets. She took a single step back, and brushed against the sealed doors. The room was not big enough to evade their whips. The center Blakkarrion peered at her. His six subordinate officers waited in silence as he regarded her. “Past Commander Regna, we must ask you now. If you were to be sent another force to take Angroolia, how would you go about it? How many ships would be needed,

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October 2009 and what kind of weapons?” “I wouldn’t,” Regna said. She nodded to herself as she thought she could feel a smile on her lips. “I wouldn’t bother trying, because I don’t think the Angroolians can be taken.” “There is no foe that cannot be defeated,” the center Blakkarrion assured. “It took Blaakos millennia, but we have defeated Simmel at last.” “Simmel unattended would be a threat to any plan Blaakos makes. I am a good officer. I understand politics and power. You had to strike Simmel, and strike as you did, fast and hard. That would never be necessary with Angroolia. Angroolia and Simmel were the first two worlds to initiate contact, but in sixty-two thousand years, Angroolia has never been at war. Angroolia’s never been involved in any of the wars this good Sivil Galaxi has seen. Angroolians are the galaxy’s pacifists, the mediators and meditaters. The Angroolians pose no threat. Angroolia itself has nothing of value to us, no abundant provisions, no troops to induct. The moon’s entire solar system is surrounded by secure imperial holdings. I wouldn’t try to retake it. There’s nothing to be gained, and our efforts would only kill us.” “That is Shalhoon cowardice speaking.” “No, it Qualmloid realism speaking. Realism beyond any race, except the Angroolians. You have nothing to gain, and people to lose. Angroolia has barely ever cared to voice itself in the old Interworld Kounsil sessions. Why should you care if they don’t attend the imperial sessions? They’re plants. They don’t care about animals like us.” Listening to herself, she frowned at that mistruth. The Angroolians do care. They cared about their losses, and cared about ours with equal love and remorse. It’s like their telepathic touch in my mind has faded. I still feel their love for me, after all I did to them. “Our efforts are better spent taking worlds that either pose a threat or have exploitable resources.” “We should bomb them,” the Quiglini said. “We should just blow up such a useless world,” the left Blakkarrion said. “Use them to garnish a good roast,” the Dogomon said. The center Blakkarrion lowered his huge hand over the console at his seat and clicked at the controls. The doors behind Regna slid into the walls with a dull scratching noise, as if a pebble had gotten caught in the mechanisms and would eventually damage the door’s operation. She fell through the doors and into the clutches of the two Orfezzin guards. “Dispose of her,” the central Blakkarrion said. The door scraped shut as soon as the Orfezzins had dragged her fully out of the room. Fear stabbed through Regna’s chest. She thought she would have preferred to die by the Blakkarrion’s shoulder whips. After a few moments of a burning sensation through her veins, she would be dead, a clear, if internally unclean death. Once again she sought the tranquility she had found only once in her life, for that brief moment on Angroolia.


M-BRANE SF She hoped they would return her to her cell. For as long as she was still alive, she held on to a hope of one day seeing her family again. She didn’t speak native Blakkarrion or any of its dialects. She didn’t know if the Blakkarrions had discussed her time and form of execution. The hope of returning to her cell died swiftly. The Orfezzins didn’t lead her down the longer corridors that ran the breadth of the ship. Moving quickly and almost furtively, as if in constant lookout for enemies, they frequently changed short corridors, clearly working their way towards the hull. Regna walked with them. Resistance was futile. She regretted her impending death, knowing that they would execute her in the oldest form of vessel discipline. No one would ever discover what had happened to her. She froze when the Orfezzins nudged her towards the airlock. Her eyes fell to their torsos. Each one’s rib cage bulged at the center of his torso to form a lump over his chest above the comparatively concaved waist. Their holsters slung from their necks, because the gliding membranes on their sides prevented comfortable use of waist or leg holsters. As if sensing her attention to his lasertron, one of the Orfezzin backed away from her to cover his companion. His long slender tail twitched nervously. He looked down the corridor behind him then hissed, “Don’t blow this op for us now!” Another tranquil sensation smothered her fears. Her eyes rolled to the closer Orfezzin’s bone plated face. “Good luck,” one of the Orfezzins whispered as the inner airlock door opened. Oddly, uncharacteristically, she smiled at the Orfezzin, then turned away from him, feeling peace, feeling a distant promise that more peace would be hers so very soon. The inner door closed behind her. Light overwhelmed Teloch Regna. Shock sliced through the tranquility she had harbored. She imagined she saw the outer airlock door open before she rematerialized in another ship. Her flat nose sniffed at the sweet, flowery air. She slowly stepped off the teleporter platform. The gravity was lower than the Blakkarrion ship. She almost slipped in her overstep. An Orfezzin caught her with a gentle greeting. “Where am I?” The Orfezzin took a tender, protective grip on her arm and led her from the small teleport room. “The Winashey Falak.” The ship’s hum changed beneath her feet as the engines worked at a quick acceleration. “Thanks. Thank you. But can I ask why?” The Orfezzin shrugged. “One day, Orfhez and our culture across the whole galaxy will fight this war openly. But we can’t do more than spy for now, except an occasional rescue.” Regna stammered. “I appreciate it. I just don’t understand it. Why would you have risked your agents for me?” The Orfezzin led her through a narrow corridor and

October 2009 into a small community room where two other aliens waited. “They said you understood,” the Orfezzin said. “They said you shouldn’t be wasted to the Blakkarrions.” The Orfezzin pointed to the two Angroolians as the tentacle vines that passed for their arms spread in an open gesture of greeting. Afterword by Jeff Kozzi: To date, this is my most successful story, marketing-wise. It has been shopped only five times, and has been accepted by two editors. Despite that, you won’t be seeing "The Veritable Vegetable Victory" anywhere else. It was written for and accepted by Once Upon a World back in 2002. That magazine never saw another issue after #10, which featured my first published Sivil Galaxi story, "The Spark Inside." The October 2001 publication of "The Spark Inside" in Once Upon a World #10 proved awkward. The story featured two human characters trapped in a subway during an attack in an undeclared war. That was a little too close for comfort considering the horrific events in September 2001. Editor Emily Alward received enough feedback about the coincidental timing (Once Upon a World #10 was actually published late) that she solicited stories that would focus on "alternative ways to counter terrorism and state (and other) violence." The theme seemed a good format for my further exploration of the Angroolian race of plant pacifists with an approach influenced by my recent reading of Spider Robinson's Another Round at the Spaceport Bar. The "retold" story could tie together the physical and political elements of the war in a way that an "as-it-happened" telling could not. I have to admit that I hate the cutesy-ness of the story title, but I never did come up with anything I liked better. The editors who have accepted the story never asked about changing it, so I guess it’s the right title. Jeff Kozzi is a Providence, Rhode Island property manager. “The Veritable Vegetable Victory” is his fourth Sivil Galaxi story to see publication, following “The Fate of the New Companion” in Alienskin.com, “The Spark Inside” in Once Upon a W orld, and “Interstellar Sting” here in M-Brane’s fantastic fourth issue. He is much better in the longer form than with short stories and is currently in search of an agent to represent his well-developed and professional manuscript/s of Kajerist Empire trilogy while he finishes an independent Sivil Galaxi novel, A W oman of Distinction. “The Veritable Vegetable Victory” is set within the Kajerist Empire timeframe and background, but is a completely new and independent story.

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M-BRANE SF In too many places on Earth, populations are made to live literally under the gun as armies, militias, governments and other malicious actors conduct their pointless and ruinous business. We can see it in the Congo, in Somalia, in any number of “breakaway” regions in Russia, in Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine and many other places. In this story, such a victimized people seek a way to resist their persecutors.—CF

October 2009 ramshackle cottage, to a new wicker shanty roofed with moss, at the edge of a natural pond. From inside came loud splashing. “Don’t worry, they know me.” She stepped inside. He peered over her shoulder at the blue cets swimming around their home-dug pool. When she pulled up a gate in the wicker wall, one clapped its flippers and swam outside, to the larger pond, while the others followed, whistling. Bapu gaped as the sleek creatures flopped out of the water and struggled up a mossy bank. One after the other they went sliding back down on their bellies--splash! “Why don’t they just run away?” he marvelled. “They like this cosy home.” Bepi chose a lichen from her basket, ripped it in two and tossed it in; and the cets snatched at the pieces and tore them to bits. Balancing on his tail then, the fattest squirted water at Bapu through his sharp front teeth. “The Maker protect me,” cried the moon-faced man. “It’s only water, Bapu.” He wiped his face with his hands. “How do you make them eat the lichen?” Bepi waved him to a mossy stump, out of range of the frolicking cets, and arranged herself beside him: “You know how the Northland is changing, growing warmer every year. Our ducks have dozens of hatchlings now, and lichens grow to a caribou’s shoulder. Even the sea creatures are changing.” “I used to catch more fish in late summer.” He shook his empty trap. Standing up, she declared: “What I think is, we Bethem need to make some changes too--or our settlement won’t survive.” He nodded gravely. His neighbor wanted to rehearse what she’d say at the Council of Household Heads. “I am in favor of domesticating the cets,” Bepi announced, and grinned when his mouth dropped open. “We’ve always taken them for their meat, and I lost my husband on a cet hunt. But if we build them sheltered ponds and let them breed, they’re happy to stay with us and eat lichens, with a treat of seafood now and then. Do you know, I even carried my herd-head back to the sea-that fat one, who squirted you--and let him loose, to see what he would do. He dove into a wave and disappeared. The next day he waddled back from the beach, and brought along two females too--and they’re all still here.” “Plainly a miracle from the Maker.” Bapu raised his four-fingered hands to the sky. “In any case, we can use their eggs and milk, which taste delicious. We can share out breeding pairs

The Coming of the Abaries by Anna Sykora

“The Great Glacier is melting,” said moon-faced Bapu, who carried an empty trap. He’d met his neighbor, Bepi, on the gravel beach, gathering lichens in her wicker basket. They gazed at the green-striped block of ice out in the sea, gleaming beyond Refuge Bay, where the Bethem had a small settlement. “My brother saw that berg calve, Bepi. The Maker is punishing us.” “The Abaries are heating the sea to cool their reactors.” Bepi’s golden eyes flashed in her tawny face. Even for a Bethem she was small and plump; the point of her hood just reached his shoulder. Now pulling back her fur-lined hood, she shook out her shaggy, red hair. “They only think of themselves, not of us, or the creatures who need our care.” Behind the beach, curls of smoke drifted over the feathery evergreens. “We should lay out more offerings to the Maker,” Bapu suggested. “Maybe she’ll cool the sea.” “The Maker helps those who help themselves.” Bepi plucked a last, giant lichen, rolled it up and stuffed it into her basket. “Come home with me and I’ll show you my cets.” “I’ll never understand what you see in those vicious creatures,” he complained, striding after her to the path between the trees. As usual, his neighbor’s homestead looked busy and untidy. Bepi had lost her husband on a hunt, and refused all her suitors, including Bapu. Her twin daughters, Shig and Shag, were weaving withes into the fence around the yard, where ducks and geese squabbled, honking and plucking at each other’s feathers. Pale-haired Ott, a five-year-old with squirrel cheeks, stood on tiptoe at the caribou paddock, feeding them lichens through the fence. He grinned up at Bapu, who signed awkwardly: “Hello, little butter ball.” “I’ll get lunch in a minute,” Bepi signed to her son. “Please, help the girls when you’re done here. I want to show off our new herd.” She led Bapu behind the

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M-BRANE SF to the other settlements. Our food supply assured, we can even spawn new colonies of Bethem.” “Not so fast,” Bapu protested. “What about the Abaries? They drove our foreparents into the Northland and forgot us here. They won’t let us live and thrive if we spread south.” “They don’t have long to survive,” she announced, and he stared as if the Maker herself had rowed her kayak down from a cloud. Bepi burst out laughing. He scolded her, blushing: “You speak like a witch who has eaten a black mushroom. How can a Bethem know such things?” “I was tinkering with my grandma’s atomic TV. I thought, maybe I can weave some wires together, to make waterproof collars for my cets, so I can tell them apart. The old rustbucket stuttered back on for a minute, and I watched what Granny called a News. The Abaries are fighting some new war over gold, of all things.” At the dread word “war,” Bapu raised his eyes to the Maker’s pure green sky, and way up high a silver speck grew larger, glittering like a ball of ice. He pulled Bepi squeaking to the ground and shielded her with his body as the meteor roared overhead and slammed into the beach beyond the trees. The tops of the evergreens thrashed and swung; and barking the cets splashed back into their coop. “Let me go!” Struggling free, she rushed to secure both entrances. Then she grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the beach. “Maker look down and take heed,” cried Bapu. Blue flames licked at the wrecked, metal sphere that had gouged a deep trench in the gravel beach. Two silverarmored giants sprawled near a hatch, and two held another up, who was hopping on one foot. A wave came hissing over the trench’s edge. “The tide is coming in,” said Bepi with concern. “They’ll drown there.” “They’re Abaries,” Bapu hissed, tugging her back from the rim. “They’ll kill us both without a pang, like we pinch leeches from a caribou’s neck.” “By the Maker, you get my children away. Then run and alert the Council--you’re fast. Get everyone to safety, in the mountains.” “And what are you going to do?” “Hurry, Bapu--before they see you!” “The Maker protect you.” He stroked her shaggy hair, and then sprinted towards the path between the trees. The Abaries, meanwhile, had stripped their dead and built a mound out of the armor. Breathing hard, and cursing each other, the three were scrambling out of the trench. “Bamagama-ha!” Bapu yelled, waving her arms as Bapu dove into the evergreens unseen. A heavy-set, blackhaired giant trained his hand-weapon on her, sneering: “Look at the midget. A real Bethem beauty.” Smiling, Bepi held out her open hands.

October 2009 “Don’t blast her, Sanjin,” the injured one ordered, whose uniform boasted a double chevron. A jagged scar puckered his cheek. “We can use a friendly native here.” Scowling Sanjin stuffed his weapon back into the holster on his thigh. The third Abari laughed with scorn, who was skinny and thin-lipped, with a pale orange complexion. Murmuring “Bamagama-ha” and still smiling, Bepi stepped backwards as they advanced. “Look like we’ve got us a moron, Lieutenant Freet,” the orange man declared. “Quiet, Mogum,” Freet urged, and turned to Bepi--who stood her ground, out of reach. In a friendly voice, with a big, fake smile (which only made his bad cheek bare its teeth), he asked, “Woman, do you understand Standard Wordage?” She shook her head, throwing up her plump hands: “Bamagama-ha.” “Maybe local Bethem have forgotten Standard,” said the lieutenant. “They’ve lived too long in isolation.” “Or incest has made them into morons,” Mogum retorted scornfully. “We’ll use sign language,” the lieutenant decided, and made showy motions of eating and drinking. “Ah,” Bepi crowed and pointed towards her hearth smoke, curling above the evergreen trees. She gave the men a friendly wave, to come along, and started towards the path herself, dragging her feet as if they hurt and humming loudly to herself. Muttering together they followed her. They had to bend to fit through her cottage door. The round table inside was set for four. On the hearth a copper pot simmered on a tripod, breathing forth a savory, vegetable aroma. “Looks like she expected us.” Sanjin lowered himself to a wooden stool, which groaned beneath his bulk. Bepi motioned to the others to sit down too, and then ladled them soup Bethem-sized bowls. While the Abaries gobbled and slurped she bustled around, tidying up strewn toys and clothes. From the back of a wicker cabinet then she drew a slender bottle, painted red. “Bamagama-ha,” she said cheerfully and carefully filled four, tiny cups. She raised one, as if toast her guests, and delicately wet her lips. The Abaries raised their glasses, gulped. “Wow, that’s strong,” gasped Sanjin. “Tastes like old-fashioned Wodka, the kind you need a license for.” The others smacked their lips and held out their cups for more. “Bamagama-ha,” sang Bepi. Suddenly Lieutenant Freet staggered away from the table. When he sat down hard on a bench, which broke, little Ott crawled out from underneath, wailing and rubbing his shaggy, blond head. Sweeping him up, Bepi cuddled him; then she signed for him to be still, and obey. “Another Bethem moron,” groaned Megum. Seizing the bottle he tipped it back and drank it off in

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M-BRANE SF three gulps. Lieutenant Freet leaned against a wall, his pale blue eyes rolling dizzily. “Lookee there,” cried Megum, pointing at a small, six-handed image of the Maker in a niche. “Sure looks like gold.” He snatched it up and shook it. “Bamagama-ha,” warned Bepi, nesting Ott on her ample hip. “Gimme that,” cried Sanjin drunkenly, and tore the statue out of Megum’s grasp. They tumbled against the table--which collapsed--and Freet roared as they flailed on the floor together: “Stop it, you greedy dogs!” cried Freet. As shelves fell with a clatter Bepi leaped out the door with Ott; frantically she signed at him to run away quick, to Bapu’s homestead. Then somebody howled, and a blaster beam burst through the house and singed a tree. When she peered through the hole, Sanjin lay still on the floor, his skull bashed in with the golden idol. Gasping, his bloodshot eyes bulging, Megum crouched, clutching his stomach with both hands. There was an awful smell of burned flesh. As he fell back, his hands slipped down and she saw the black blast hole through his body. “Ah, ah,” she cried. Freet came hopping out the door, who’d stuck the Maker’s image in his belt. “What did you do to my men?” he roared. “Slipped something into their chow--you did! I’ll get you, Bethem witch!” Bepi scampered out of his reach, but Ott stood wide-eyed in the yard. Freet grabbed him and pressed a blaster to his head. “Give me your gold!” he yelled at Bepi, tapping his weapon’s snout on the idol. “Bamagama-ha,” she pleaded, pressing her hands to her heart. She pointed to the hutch, where a pair of bug-eyed rabbits crouched over their heap of greens. Slowly, she unlatched and opened the top, and motioned to Freet to place Ott inside. Grimly he did so, and latched it again, then trained his blaster on her heart. She pointed at the Maker’s image in his belt: “Gold,” she said distinctly. Beckoning him to follow, she led him around to the coop where she kept her cets. She opened the door and pointed inside; they heard splashing, and Freet hesitated. “Gold,” she repeated. “All the gold. Bamagamaha.” He bent and stepped inside; kneeling on his good leg, he stuck his right hand into the pond. He screamed— and Bepi kicked him in and jumped out; she slammed the door and latched it tight. Out of the forest burst Bapu with a troop of settlers, waving staves and fishing spears. “Bepi, you’re safe.” He embraced her, lifting her off her fur-booted feet. Hugging his neck, she shed a few tears. “How did you ever master those monsters?” “I served them witch-wine. They went mad with desire; lucky they didn’t find me lovely. Did you save Shig and Shag?” “They’re safe with my brother’s wife. Bepi, I couldn’t find little Ott.” “He’s fine, with our rabbits.”

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October 2009 “Rabbits?” “It’s a long story,” Bepi cooed as he set her back on her feet. She took his hand, and all of the Bethem stamped their feet. The thrashing noise from the coop had subsided. For a moment, Bepi faced the closed door. “Bamagama-ha,” she said, like a benediction. “May the Maker eat your guts.” Afterword by Anna Sykora: How do oppressed minorities survive? Writing a historical novel on the witch persecutions in Germany, I realized that some techniques are probably universal... Anna Sykora has been an attorney in New York and teacher of English in Germany, where she resides with a pediatrician and three enormous Forest Cats. To date she has placed 45 tales in the small press or on the web, most recently with Rosebud, Afterburn SF, Aoife’s Kiss, the Iconoclast and the Barbaric Yawp. She has also published eighty poems.


October 2009

M-BRANE SF The recent and ongoing times of trouble in the world economy—which some people now realize is nothing less that the death of a paradigm—have been forcing more and more people to reconsider what they want out of life and what they really need to get by. This story is about some people who are confronted with some similar issues when expectations unravel on the Red Planet.—CF

They made ends meet, somehow, and she still stuck with him. It was Lindsey’s theory that all bad experiences could have a definite objective reality and might later transform a family’s life. Some, but by no means at all, of these experiences, Lindsey believed, came through karmic channels. All, however, appeared to have their source in pain, emptiness, and utter hopelessness. Complete deflation at depth was the one requirement to make somebody ready for a transforming experience and, when you weren’t looking, a sudden stroke of good luck. Deflation at depth. These words leaped at Harold, as he constantly listened to his wife’s ‘But things will get better real soon’ spiritual rants. The fact here was the Martian economy hitting rock bottom. Wasn’t this the story of every now-homeless person he knew? The Wastelands venture began modestly though. Seven years earlier Harold was making money on this rock, dreaming once more of power and stimulus. They joined the country club and dined in only the finest restaurants. They had affluent neighbors and held backyard barbecues. How times change. He and Lindsey were alone now—again, the family scattered. Even their closest friends were assigned welfare-like living arrangements; some were put on program waiting lists. This was no easy role for a man who prided himself on being the great provider. He knew the planet had suffered heavy market losses, and suspected that most of the population’s savings were being carried away on a carpet of corporate greed. There was one point where Lindsey almost committed suicide in front of him, but she couldn’t do it. The positive attitude was gone. The look in her eyes remained in his memory, superimposed on a thousand details of winter 2062: breadlines, crowds going nowhere, just standing and waiting. There was always the odd rabble-rouser, and a bit of rowdiness or a small riot would break out. Enforcement droids on wheels would be dispatched. They used tasers and gas grenades to stun and subdue the masses. Innocent casualties often lay trampled in the wake, most of the time young children. On the day he was invited to the Wastelands, however, his response was one of almost boyish excitement. He had practically no ready cash, but he was told he wouldn’t need any. Had Mars not been so cold, he would not even really need the clothes on his back. Or at least that is what he was told. Right away he saw it as a personal challenge; nobody had left the confines of the terraforming network before. Not even as far as the polar caps, where pipeline building was temporarily halted. There, privately owned engineering facilities turned climactic, carbon dioxide ice into conduits of bacteria-free water. Non-robotic life forms were only allowed to stay

The RED ECONOMY by Lawrence R. Dagstine There are times in a man’s life when the negative effects of otherworldly society seem to be coalescing, building to some terrifying crest. In the cold summer of 2059, Harold Dawson could feel such a time approaching. Your typical interplanetary suburbia, surrounded on all sides by environment-friendly electrons and terraforming playgrounds. The atmosphere was really like a spa. Amazing thing, science. For decades administrations on two worlds had struggled with the economy. Up and down, up and down. Then just down. It was always the “first priority” or “first job” of some highly regarded political figure to get things back in shape, to stop the bleeding and pave the road to recovery. To provide relief to middle class families. Yeah, sure. Invest in real estate on the Red Planet, the smiling woman in those cyber commercials said. Just build some highways and lay down some sidewalks. Forget the sandstorms. We’ll create infrastructure and handle the rest. What a joke. There was no more reassuring the public millions of miles apart from each other that the problem was psychological, than there was blaming the turmoil on some other inconceivable cause. They’d forcefed the same kind of Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac crap a halfcentury earlier to the citizens of a place once called America. When Harold stood on Olympus Mons Drive and watched his family’s possessions being carried out of the colony house and packed into an EG-11, he knew the worst had finally come. The whole thing reminded him of his grandfather’s situation. He didn’t have the money to pay the movers. All their furniture, including many heirlooms and fine antiques, was put in hock to a storage station. And Harold was a former flight engineer with a wife to support, no home, no roots and prospects of establishing any. He and Lindsey began a gypsy life in micro-apartments and housing units people lent them. This was embarrassing and disturbing enough. Worse was what Harold felt happening to himself. When anyone asked how he and Lindsey had got through the next two years on the Martian calendar, he’d say, “We were taking trips across the terrain a lot.” He never boasted once about pimping his wife out to the occasional cargo trader, looking for a good time and willing to pay a decent penny.

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M-BRANE SF within the vicinity of the infrastructure. That was the law of Martian suburbia. Forever and always. Being a Wastelander was like being part of a nomadic religion. You had to be part of this unusual caravan, and you had to adhere to the rules of their society. They were a very friendly and accepting group—which meant a lot during this period, for there weren’t many who accepted so willingly—but like any Depression, sacrifices had to be made. Some of this he could talk over with Lindsey. Some he could not. And after all they’d been through, if she suspected how concerned he really was, she had her overwhelming faith. Everything would be all right. She would make it be. Never again would she attempt suicide. Everyone in the caravan had a role; only he did not. Of course, the only way to survive, Harold realized, was to appear as confident as anyone else, and nothing helped with that like conversation. Getting to know who you’d be living with, what your function would be when the time finally came to have one. Throughout Harold’s midlife, part of him remained an Earth boy who responded to every aspect of nature—to wind and rain, the stars, the shifting color of leaves. Deep down he was reminded of a lifestyle he long missed. It wasn’t always about reaching the limit or being successful or grazing the heavens. Imagine now, trees on Mars. Turn left, lush yellow beaches and sparkling blue waters. Turn right, rolling hillsides and flower-pocked valleys. There was nothing this plentiful in or around the infrastructure. The terraforming network provided the air and many asphalt wonders. Most of it, however, was generic. Within the suburbia there was still the void of many scenic miracles—in these struggling times the network could only do so much—once thought impossible nonetheless without manmade influences. The Wastelands provided these splendors now for free, without the need for status or riches. It was really that simple. Harold was ecstatic: “If only they knew what I know now…” He was very satisfied with the Wastelanders’ free tour. The tour guides in his caravan were very generous and humble, and he was very appreciative of their hospitality. It was as though they, along with this new form of Mother Nature, helped him keep his soul his own. Or at least what was left of it: “I’ll never go back to those breadlines or my old way of life so long as I live. No more recessions or depressions or worries again. And Lindsey, she’ll finally have peace of mind. For you, Baby…” While hiking those hills, he said, he saw himself in a much different perspective. And Lindsey was a constant delight, joyful of every word that came out of his mouth. He knew he could have looked the planet over and never found another woman who enjoyed the things he enjoyed or had such new confidence in him. This was what amazed him about this whole experience. It really was worth the sacrifice. Knowledge, material possessions, whatever it is. As they’d stride along he’d look down at all

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October 2009 the different flowers and then back up at his wife. He no longer wondered what it was that gave her that faith, because his own optimism had been renewed. “Utopia,” he said. “What?” “You heard me, babe, downright utopia!” “I was just about to say the same thing,” Lindsey said. “I just can’t understand how Olympus Mons doesn’t know about this, or all the other cities. We’re halfway across this sphere, and there is just so much more inside the belly of it. Look!” “And without the threat of sandstorms.” “Yeah, I noticed that. It isn’t artificial whatsoever.” He bent down and picked up a rock. “There’s nothing like this on generated maps. It’s almost like a dream.” “I suppose these people keep it concealed for a very good reason. They only invite those they feel deserving of their paradise climate.” Lindsey breathed the air. It was just as good as the air back home. Not filtered, not produced. Even the sky was a different color. “It reminds me of Eden.” “Maybe this is Eden.” Harold laughed. “They seem to be very primitively devout. Extraordinarily smart. I suppose hippie-like, but tribal where their recruiting and customs are concerned.” Lindsey now cuddled up to him. “As long as we don’t talk to any snakes or eat any apples along the way,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “I never want to go back.” “Oh, we’re never going back, babe. This is our new home.” They loved every minute of it, especially the moments alone. Especially while the Wastelanders were off discussing things. In some ways, these people reminded Harold of the Hare Krishna, handing pamphlets out at some spaceport. In some ways, this home of theirs was just like Earth. In other ways, a wilderness island, all pretty and private and resort-like, smack dab in the center of a cold distant world. It felt eerie at times. At sunset, or sometimes dawn, they would stand on a mountaintop, having skinny-dipped in a real mountain stream, looking out over endless miles. And with real water. The temperature was always just right. Then they’d lean back against the wind, their bodies naked, and all their worries seemed to be sucked up by the sun. They were in love all over again, and they knew in their very beings that that was how things were always meant to be. They also knew if only they could keep this, they could do anything. No matter how large the role. But what was their role in this newfound life? The electricity and age-old microprocessors being installed was a sign of something. The number of metallic devices and the rise in radio communications were symbols of change. Harold did not think anything of it. He always lent a hand. He felt he owed at least that much. Over time, the Wastelanders invited more couples


M-BRANE SF from the terraforming network, desperate for some kind of salvation or new life. Men and women were informed about what sacrifices had to be made, and what it constituted of. Soon the caravan rose in great numbers. Harold began to recognize a few old faces from way back when. There were people he thought starved to death or put in management assessed housing, neighbors whose barbecues he had been to, their children’s christenings he had attended. Even former country club members popped up now and again. As the population of the caravan grew, so did the natural wonders of its geography. It was all too good to be true. When everyone within the Wasteland had his own tin lizzie, pretty soon they’d see a web of highways being built clear across the wilderness. It was inevitable, Harold thought, and there’d be alterations in everything, in how people shopped, traveled, did business, socialized, in how the young ones were educated and courted. Even the waters and air levels began to be monitored. “Eden is suddenly becoming Olympus Mons Drive,” Lindsey said one day to him. It was the first day in almost three years that she’d felt some kind of depression in her. “I used to look forward to the future, to our old age. For once, I was finally happy. But why am I suddenly looking down again?” Harold, now gray and wrinklier around the edges, said, “I know what you mean. These people once offered a prosperous life to newcomers. They promised a free climate, a technology and radical-free environment, an atmosphere where one farmed and used natural resources. People shared or traded. Now if you want things like food or agriculture, you need to sign up for it, stand in line for it, or buy it.” “Oh, Harry, you don’t think the Earth corporations have taken over, do you? You know, the big suits from way back?” “It’s a possibility. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you solicitation crossed my mind. I’d also be lying if I didn’t tell you I often wonder if our old stocks have value again.” He stopped to think for a moment. “We haven’t even been back home. I wonder what our old neighborhood is like. I wonder whatever became of our old house. I wonder who the mayor is now. I wonder who’s in charge of everything. The Wastelanders go there to recruit new families, but never us. That’s just not part of our function.” “Is it a transgression of the law for a goodstanding member to say that they want to leave?” Lindsey turned away now, scared. “I don’t know,” Harold said. “Do we even have a law now?” He thought long and hard. “I do remember some of the people being given uniforms.” “You mean the caravans have their own police force now?” “Honey, I can’t really be sure. I’m so busy installing databanks these days for the new communities, that—” He stopped mid-sentence and smiled. “Hey, remember when we promised each other that we would

October 2009 never worry again?” “Yes. I miss those days.” Harold cupped her cheek. “Those days aren’t gone.” He looked behind him at the most beautiful forest, and at the bottom of one of the tree-lined paths was a lake. “Look down there,” he said, pointing. “Perfect for swimming. Remember when we skinny-dipped in the moonlight, or at the break of dawn? Remember when we didn’t care about our clothes or what people thought about our nakedness? Remember falling in love all over again? Remember making love before the waters?” She blushed. “Yes, I do.” “Come on.” He took her hand in his. “Let’s hike down there right this minute!” She stopped. “But…but whatever for?” “We’re going skinny-dipping! That’s what for. Just like old time’s sake.” Slowly walking forward, Lindsey undid the top buttons of her blouse. “I suppose you want to reassure me your way.” “Utopia does that.” He removed his shirt and tossed off his shoes and socks. “It brings out the kinky in me.” Then he unzipped his pants and threw them in some bushes. Laughing and screaming, Harold chased Lindsey down the trail all the way to the foot of the lake. Although most people were less aware than them, he and Lindsey kept hearing the word progress. They kept seeing it: progress, progress, progress. It was such a terrible, filthy word. It was just one of the things that had got so many societies into their little predicaments in the first place. Change. Another word, just as cruel and abhorrent. Harold saw the colors on the wall now. It was happening all over again. Only he and Lindsey seemed to question it. The moment they reached the lake, an electronic fence went up. Harold yelled for Lindsey not to take another step further. The water had been barred off. That’s when he looked over at one of the trees and noticed a metal sign: NO TRESPASSING. He had never seen it there before. The fence was another symbol of the industry bug, and the industry bug was like an infestation which spread from one part of the planet to the next. It was like locusts eating away at a central crop, and you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see it coming. The Wastelands, however, were still the same. Beautiful plantlife, rich soil, great rivers and plains. Enriched habitats without the slightest hint of degradation. The same rough-hewn mountains and deep hanging valleys. The same inner quiet and the old, unique ability to clear man’s head of financial cobwebs and leave him with a shining wondrous excitement about what lay ahead. The Wastelanders saw Harold’s conflict about the new line of social order as a reflection of negative attitudes from the once-terraforming network—he’d heard that his old hometown collapsed under the weight of the Red Economy—and they found such thinking profoundly

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M-BRANE SF dangerous. “It’s amazing what you can do with a wasteland,” they told him, “especially when in the right hands.” “Yes, Mr. Dawson, you should know better than us. You yourself came to this planet with dreams and aspirations like the next man.” “Why, you can even start over,” other caravan leaders said. “That’s the beauty of it.” “How dare you complain! You were sick of the breadlines and wanted to run around free, did you not? We gave you that privilege. We provided an atmosphere for it. And now it’s time you invested a bit of yourself and sacrifice for us!” The old ideals had been individualistic; now Harold could see them becoming a planet of giant corporations and greed again. There was a sign flashing in his head: WELCOME TO NEW MARS. Even worse— he paused and waited to hear the rest of the thought come rolling out in a clipped tone of protest—he could see the Wasteland being run by corrupt political machines. But if their experiment in new government was to succeed at all, it had to be brought about by the people themselves. Not just caravan leaders. There was no other capital or work force to draw upon. Something had been let loose on the planet. A force, at the time, that no former resident of the old network could fully understand. To some it was extremely frightening; they even started a late-night talk group. All of them had questions. The one thing that could wreck all they had rebuilt would be their own power drives, those ballooning egos which had been deflated when the Red Economy went bust. “My wife’s scared to death,” one man said. “We never knew things would get this out of control. Guards with watchdogs? Everything costs big money again? When did we ever have to reinstate a monetary system? People forced to work twelve-hour shifts? We don’t know what’s going to happen.” “You and me both, brother. I have two kids. I have to look out for what’s in their best interests. And I sure as hell ain’t going back to those soup kitchens.” “It looks like a dictatorship’s on the rise, if you ask me,” a senior in the group said. “I’m too old to do anything about it. If I had stayed at Olympus Mons, I’d be dead now. So I might as well die here. At least I’ll go knowing the last years of my life were spent around loved ones in a semi-comfortable environment.” Harold studied the faces of each member of his group. “I have to get home to my wife in a bit,” he said, contemplating everything brought up, “but you know, no matter where you are, life often repeats itself. Looking back now, it’s like we outsourced ourselves without realizing it. Were we used? Perhaps. Are we still being used? Probably so. The only difference is that we were invited into it. Temptation is a bitch, what can I say? Hard times will do that to a person.” Then the next question would come up. Just

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October 2009 what were their values? Finding no ready answer, they’d just go about whatever it is they did and repeat the cycle. Later that night, as Harold walked past the apartment complex he’d built with his own two hands, and where the Wastelanders live comfortably with their brothers and sisters, a decade seemed to separate him from the bankrupt terraforming network and the frantic pressures of this current infrastructure. But that was the life he lived in now. Or almost lived in. Walking up the street toward his trailer, he smelled meat. Lindsey was probably rustling up pork chops again. As he approached the trailer steps, he couldn’t escape the knowledge that he hadn’t done much of a job of living in either society. When he looked at the big picture, he found wisdom in an old Earth saying: sometimes things are just too good to be true. Afterword by Lawrence Dagstine: The inspiration for this story results in what's going on with the recession, the outsourcings, and the current economic woe. If it can happen here in 2009, why not decades and generations down the road once we've conquered other worlds? I feel it can follow us. Lawrence Dagstine is a freelance writer. His byline has appeared in hundreds of print magazines, small journals, and webzines viewed all over the globe. Well over 350+ times. He’s consistently covered science fiction, fantasy and horror. He’s written for Aoife’s Kiss, Beyond Centauri, The Martian Wave, Atomjack, The W illows Magazine, Tales of the Talisman, Jupiter, Nova SciFi, Necrotic Tissue, Polluto, Withersin, OG’s Speculative Fiction, Black Ink Horror, MBrane SF, and many other genre publications. Sam’s Dot Publishing released his first short story collection in 2009 — FRESH BLOOD: Tales from the Speculative Graveyard. He currently lives in New York City with his family.


October 2009

M-BRANE SF Mari Kurisato’s fictional world, to me, is evocative of cyberpunk, manga and noir thriller all at once. It also strikes me as a somewhat eerie world, as if seen through a strangely tinted window. And it’s a place that may feel familiar to readers who live a lot of their lives online. This month, readers will be able to visit this world a couple of times. First, I am pleased to present the following story. Then, in a few days, I will publish its sequel, “Connected,” in the anthology Things We Are Not (visit www.mbranesf3.blogspot.com for details). Mari is also a digital painter, and she created the anthology’s beautiful cover art.—CF

stoplights winking as if this ghost world exists in a single blink of an eye. I never knew what the beast beneath the earth was, when I was alive. I felt it, instinctively knew it was there, like dust particles in the air, or the charged pressure right before a lightning storm. The tension, fear, and dread I felt back then was connected to the sensation of the beast far below the world, like a lover you feel sleeping under the bed covers next to you, there but distant, present but muffled. My shoes squeak loudly against the ash white pavement of the street. It's ok, no one but me will hear. Why would they? No one lives in this city. Sorry, that's a bit of a joke. The internet café I am walking towards gleams in the night from down the street, a shiny plastic and aluminum box packaged with promises of escape from dreary work days. Neon characters glow and pop against the muted darkness of the city. The feeling one gets standing beneath the café sign is the exact same feeling one has when awakened in the early morning, that wide sensation of being everywhere else except where one's body is. I pull the door open. The electronic bell chimes, “dee-dooo,” but no one greets me. The café is filled with the crisp sharpness of a sealed container set aside ten thousand years ago, newly opened. Computer monitors sit in obedient rows atop beige faux-wood Ikea tables, plastic chairs gleaming in the light cast by small lamps at each table. I set my bag next to my favorite machine, a flat screen aluminum iMac with a metallic keyboard. I am thirsty. Or at least I want to be. I get nostalgic for food sometimes, especially after visiting this Net café. I miss coffee the most. The power button feels charged with electricity. The start up “poing” sound reminds me of a plucked metal D string from a cello. I log onto the internet. Before you ask me how can the dead surf the internet, can I ask you how it is you came to be reading this post on an internet message board? You don't really have to take my word for it, you couldn't, unless you knew where I was buried. Even if I gave you my name, (Mika Anzai) you'd still have a hard time finding any information about a grave. I think my body is all over the Pacific by now. According to the news websites, my body was never found. At first I was listed as missing, then presumed dead of suicide. There are a few threads posted on the News message boards speculating that I'd eloped with a businessman to Brazil. Others thought I was murdered by a foreigner. That isn't the case at all. Anyone who knows me knew I didn't associate with foreigners. Not because I had a bias against them, but if you had ever seen a picture of me you knew I was the type to avoid going outdoors if I could

LURKER by Mari Kurisato

1. Akihabara, just outside Gera-Gera Internet café Mika Anzai A spirit lies beneath the earth. Not like the turtle of the Onondaga Tribe that carries the earth on its back, but a seething and gnashing creature. The spirit sleeps, like creatures in Lovecraft stories. It trembles, moves, and the earth cries out. The spirit inhabits my thoughts when I walk through the city. I wish I could comfort the spirit. Its sheer size is larger than the whole earth, and its body is darker than the empty space between stars. What could a dead woman say to make such a beast feel at peace? I died in a drowning. Too much water in, not enough oxygen. It was a mistake. But I'm at peace with my murder. Having an unremarkable life as a shut in, living days like repetitive film frames of the same grainy sequence in a tiny one bedroom/kitchen apartment, with its bright shiny walls and sunlit sparks that danced on motes of dust, over and over. This existence after death is spectacular compared to that empty circular life. I walk the through the empty city. It is frozen at the exact moment of my death, cars stopped at the exact second I expired, trains on tracks going nowhere fast. The sun and the moon avoid this place. But stars wheel overhead. Shadows dance in the corners of alleyways and along the sagging quarter inch-thick telephone wires. It's still well lit, neon lights buzzing through eternity; traffic

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M-BRANE SF help it. I was your typical hikikomori loser—a housebound shut in. So aside from people who delivered my groceries and packages, I didn't really associate with anyone. Pathetic huh? Yeah, I thought so too. That's why I don't really regret dying. Well, I mean I do, but it has done wonders for my figure these days. Sorry, I'm sure the jokes are wearing a bit thin. Back to my point, the internet is just a vast collection of connections, data transmitted using the same protocol. Computers talking to each other all over the world. Records of the data are kept and stored, whether for a second, or decades. Like memories, the metaphor is the same. Data is created using energy, memories are created the same way; energy moves throughout the universe. I'm sure you're not really interested in metaphysical crap like that. No one really is, until they are dead. But the “what and why” of continued existence after death is really important when you're hovering at the bottom of a bay, not breathing yet very much still conscious and aware. A side note. If you have to die at sea, try not to die at night wearing heavy clothes. Getting to land takes awhile, and you will never be able to wash out all the sea salt and whatever else is in the Bay these days. My mistake for standing around on the isolated part of the deck of that tourist yacht, moping about fate and the lack of love in my life at that point. There was a foreigner aboard the ship at the time. A dishwasher, Raul Alvarez. We never met, but I've been to his room in Ikebukuro. As much time as I have on my hands these days being dead, I've been to almost every apartment in the city. His room was in a hostel, run by the same company that runs the tourist yacht. It's pretty sad. Alvarez shared his room with others, and it smelled of spilled beer and cigarettes. Four sleeping mats, all crammed together, not much larger than the closet in my apartment. The toilet was down the hall. Though the lights came on in the hall, in his room the only light came through gaps of the boards that covered the broken window. Alvarez left Japan when his name was circulated in the media in connection with my death. I've thought of tracking down his address and sending him an email, but that would be cruel and really weird. Besides I don't connect to the internet to spend my days goofing on Mixi or Twitter consoling the living. I have a reason for being online. I have to stop my killer. I was drowned. More to the point, I was hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat on that yacht, by a woman I know as Many Faces. That's her online handle on the forum where I met her. At first when we met a year before, I thought her name was a bit strange, rather goofy, childish. It's only now that I realized what she meant by it. You might think the name “Many Faces” is something indicating a hydra-type personality. That is, someone who changes masks, faces when the need suits them. She certainly had that personality, but only so far as it went to hide her true ambitions.

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October 2009 I was waiting for her on the deck near the rear of the yacht, reading her latest text message on my cell, when I heard the footsteps. “Anzai-san?” she said. I jerked around. She had brown hair, natural, like a European woman's, and light blue eyes. She smiled, pink lipstick on plump lips. “Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.” “No, that's ok,” I said, trying to calm down. She was so pretty, taller than I expected, dressed in a Nike running jacket and jeans, her hair in a tight bun. She was carrying a gym bag, like she was coming back from a fitness club. She had a body for it, I thought. “Thank you for meeting me like this,” she said. She smiled gently. My face got hot, I bowed and started stammering an apology. Then we were close enough to kiss. Her eyelids fluttered, just slightly. “Close your eyes,” she said, sweetly. I did. I bet you know what happens next. My world lights up, bright stars of dazzling light flashing an instant before the shockwave of pain. Unfortunately, the pain associated with the sound erased my memory of the noise. She stood there, lit by the deck lights, smiling that same soft smile. I grabbed at whatever it was that had struck me in the face, clutched it to my chest. I leaned back to gasp, tumbled over the edge, and that was it. It was like being punched into sleep. What I can remember, after coming to my senses there at the bottom of the bay clutching the weapon that had killed me, was my first clue as to who Many Faces was. It was an aluminum baseball bat. Please don't get me wrong, I don't mind being dead. Actually, aside from the lack of food, it's like a perfect ideal of what I wish life would be like. I can go anywhere I want, though naturally I avoid large bodies of water. I can do anything, goof off, play around. When I was visiting Raul's old room in Ikebukuro I stopped by a nearby pachinko parlor my grandfather used to like, and unscrewed the front glass on a machine, and hammered all the nail pins so that every pachinko ball would have a better chance at winning. I did that to every machine. That took what might have been a few weeks in ghost time, but sure enough, there was a big story about it the next living day when I checked the newspapers online. For the first few months I was in the ghost city, I thought I was in Hell. I wasn't confused about being dead. I had a pretty clear idea of what happened, and the dramatic change resulting in the lack of people and activity in one of the world's largest cities was a pretty easy clue even for me. The worst part though, was finding out that I couldn't eat anything anymore. Trust me, I tried. Piece of advice for when you die; don't bother trying to eat or drink anything. It doesn't work, and takes real inventiveness to correct a mistake like that. The details are pretty unsightly, so I'll not delve into it. But eventually the shock gave way to a numb sort of comfort. On a whim I decided since the lights and shower and heater worked back at my apartment, why not check my computer? The rest is pretty easy to figure out. Thing


M-BRANE SF is, the internet is the one thing here that doesn't pause or reset when I leave the room or wherever I am. I don't know if it's some sort of Electronic Voice Phenomena thing, but I'm grateful for it. I get the feeling that as patient as the beast is, I won't be here forever, and I've wasted too much time wandering around without doing anything. It took me awhile to figure out what it was I was going to do in the first place. So here I am. At 2ch.net, sifting through more entries from Many Faces. She scatters her remarks through the various categories of the board. But her most eager posts, the ones with the most clues as to her whereabouts, or her plans for her next victim, are always in the Games section. Appropriate, I think. The place I lurked and posted messages in was the HIKKI, or shut in category. You saw that coming, didn't you? I didn't post much. The 2ch.net message boards encourage anonymity. But she was watching the HIKKI board for quite awhile. Her unique trip code, or identification number stretches back a long way and she's one of the few that persistently use an online handle at all. Most everyone types in “No Name.” And while 2ch is a huge board, being dead redefines the phrase “lots of time to kill.” At first, I was too confused to try to stop Many Faces. I had to come to grips with being dead after all. Even though I knew I had been killed, this version of the afterlife is both “normal” and surreal at once. It's not anything like Patrick Swayze in Ghost that's for sure. Far as I can tell, I can touch things, drive around, all kinds of stuff. I've even driven a train down the Saikyo line from Shinjuku to Ebisu. And like always, the next ghost day, the train was back where it was the moment I died. This seems apply only to obvious things. Big things. Trains tend to be noticed if they magically appear at Ebisu at the wrong time, but pachinko game nails, well, no one but the weekly nail adjustment man notices those. Those obvious things don't change if I wait for them, but the moment I leave the visual vicinity, poof. No noise, nothing. But everything is back to the way it was at 8:46pm. I would feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day if I ever slept. However, like eating, using the toilet and all that, I don't sleep anymore either. I read a lot. I'm currently reading all the manga I never had any time for when I was busy working from home as a search engine optimization web developer. It was dull lifeless work, but my clients paid well, and the work was mentally involving on a surface level. Plus it had the added benefit of never having to leaving my apartment, which is why I was one of the few self sustaining hikikomori, (shut-in people) who give up on trying to deal with all the craziness outside their door. I mean, have you looked out there lately? Take a few minutes and think about all the absolute insanity waiting for you outside that inch and a third fiberglass door with the deadbolt, top lock and lever mechanism. Rapists. Criminals. Predators, killers, mindless, heartless monsters

October 2009 shoved inelegantly into human bodies. Not here. At least, not as far as I can tell. I might actually welcome the company, really, since its just me and the beast beneath the city, the earth, and all that. He's not very talkative, though he listens well. When he does speak, it's in in this voice that you can really only understand when you're at the bottom of the sea. His name is ▌▌▌▌▌▌▌, but I call him Dreadbunny, or Bunny, for short. Supposedly no one alive knows his name, and whenever I type it out, those funny characters show up instead. Sorry about that. I call him Dreadbunny because when I first saw him I was walking on the bottom of the sea, I looked east. I saw one of his seven heads rising like a ten story high black tower from the murk. That looked scary, until I focused on his eyes, which glowed like lighthouse lamps. Dazed, I found myself drawn to him, and I started walking towards him. He shook his head, like a dog might, and his ears, or horns or whatever, flopped about in the water like bunny's ears. Weird huh? He told me his story then, as I walked around at the bottom of the sea. Or at least, the part that was relevant to me. He's been around a very long time. He's been written about before. In the Bible, and other books, though he says “journalists never get it right”. He sleeps much of the time, and really it's better that way. He and I both agree on that. He's not scary, really, but being awake gives him terrible headache in all seven of his heads. I pity him, since I can't feel any pain anymore. Nothing physical anyway. Another great thing about being dead. There really isn't anything to be afraid of. I spent a few ghost months skydiving off buildings once I figured that out. It's fun, though recovery is always messy. You know those strange moments in life when you have a dreadfully morbid thought like, “I wonder what it would feel like to fly without wings?” It feels great! Makes a huge mess though. And I wouldn't recommend it if you're alive to begin with. Otherwise the experience is just a huge let down Sorry about that. Enough reminiscing. With a “clik-a-clik” of the mouse I open up the games board and read through the thread about my death. Mr. 770, a man who named himself after his first post number in the original thread about my disappearance was one of the most active in the thread. But it seems Mr 770 has gone missing also. Apparently, Many Faces has been hard at work. 2. Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Bay Mr. 770 The City looks gorgeous tonight. The Rainbow Bridge really provides a nice view. Lights glitter like fireflies in the distance, yellow, green, blue. The moon stands high over the bay east of me, and the sky above me even beckons forth with a few flickering stars.

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M-BRANE SF I rub my goatee for a moment, and whisper my “name.” “Mr 770. Mr. 770. Mr. Idiot. What kind of man am I?” The edge of the bridge swoops down and far away beneath my boots, and for a moment, I watch the water in the distance glimmer in the moonlight. The vast darkness below seems to yearn for me. As the cool fall breeze lifts strands of hair from my neck, (like a lover) I ponder for a moment, thinking of what happens next after I let go of the thick suspension cable of the bridge that prevents me from tilting forward, down, away. Is this my suicide note? Step back in time to one month ago. One month ago, things were crystallizing for me. When I lost my job six months ago, I thought I'd take a month off or so, then find a newer less stressful line of work. Five months later as I sat in my room locked in, lying on a pillow on the floor, surrounded by manga, my ears seduced by trance music, I realized I was beginning to fall into a real hikikomori lifestyle. A NEET (Not Employed, in Education, or Training )who rarely left his room and was a social failure. I submit applications and resumes online every day, but so far there's been nothing, and I had to cash my savings just to pay my part of the rent. I'm getting disconnected, and that's bad...because once really disconnected I will simply fade away and die. What kind of man is that? Men like me, life's losers, deserve to die really. We are a drain on those who care about us and are to shell shocked to help ourselves. We are an ugly part of the universe. Me especially. I have a handsome face, nothing too remarkable or memorable, but I am too fat, too big to begin with—though Kumiko insists I'm not fat. The mirror doesn't lie. I own a tread mill, use it 5 times a week on my better weeks, count calories, keep a food journal, do crunches, all the stuff a chronic fatso can do. And yet, like other hikikomori I lack...discipline to actually achieve anything. I'm still 64 kilos. People say to me, “just do it,” and I don't even laugh at the irony of that statement anymore. If it was something that could just be "done," I'd have done it ages ago. I wonder if these people have ever been afraid to step out their front door. Afraid of what failure's aftermath really is. The irony is, in the beginning, I could fake being extroverted really well. I'm not a true hikikomori, I can go outside at night, like when I shuffled out to put the trash in the bin. Night time, one month before I visit the Rainbow Bridge, I was sitting at the metal picnic table nearby after taking out the trash, stroking my goatee and typing on my cell. I heard the cicadas in the trees. They didn't sound like the ones in dramas or anime, but there in the darkness they distracted and comforted me—temporarily relaxed the anxiety of my situation. Didn't last long though. My life is complicated. I've been... shut in my room four months now. Yet I have a few friends. They stay in contact with me online. And I actually have a girlfriend who loves me way too much:

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October 2009 Kimiko. Then there's this other girl (OTHER girl?!) who is my crush if not a serious love interest. Her name is Many Faces. Well, that's not her name really, just her online handle. I met her that same month. I was writing about her that night at the picnic tables by the trash can, angry at myself and the world because the way things in life don't ever work out. I had a loving woman at home, but found myself angry that I was falling for another woman who was also attracted to me at the same time. “Infatuations,” Many Faces said, “die down, as time passes.” This told me two things. That firstly, what I had surmised had been correct, both about her having a crush on me, (I might be hikikomori but I'm not tone deaf to emotion) and the fact that like any people who crush on me are with me over longer and longer periods of time, lose that crush. It's inevitable. I might be charming, and witty, and loquacious, but that's about it. I'm still hard to look at, hard on the eyes. People seem to like my writing, and I guess my conversational skills could be much worse, but that is belied by my personal interactions with people out in the world. Overweight at 160 lbs, I lumber through life in jeans and a less and less fitting t-shirt that ill covers my massive frame. I try to act confident, yet I hate the way I look, almost to the point of violence. Kimiko says I've been drinking a lot more lately. That's true. In vino veritas, didn't you know? The truth is, I want to be so angry. But I can't let anything like that out. It just churns inside. So I drink, then write melancholy things on my cell phone while sitting next to the trash can. That's the quirk of my life. I shouldn't complain. Kimiko loves me wholeheartedly, or at least says she does. Yet, I don't feel “real” with her, rather more like I'm a puppet, a toy in a play not of my own making. Life with her feels like slipping from one prison to another. That's a terrible cruel thing to do to another person, I know that. It's not fair what I do to her. It's selfish, to live the life of a hikikomori, an anthropophobic shut in while she works hard all day. I want a job, but really, besides food service or unskilled labor jobs, what am I qualified for? I'm a loser, totally, and I should be absolutely thankful Kimiko wants to take care of me in the way she does, but there's something about the way she pressures me for things like marriage, raising children, things that I think would require setting aside whatever life I have, and I know that's the noble thing to do, the proper thing is to set aside whatever my stupid dreams are to help her pursue hers, but something in me just balks at that idea. Which explains why, when I lost my job at Bic Camera it was just easy to come home, and close the door to the world and its stench and all the prying eyes. Alcohol helps somewhat. I'd like to think that I'm better than that, now. I used to have crippling panic attack episodes all the


M-BRANE SF time, every day, so much so that everywhere I looked all I could see where the razor edged liners of light pouring through the cracks under closed doors, and the scent of alcohol-soaked sweat was endless. It would get so bad I couldn't leave my room for days. Now, I can leave my apartment once every few weeks. Yet there's the other girl, Many Faces. I don't know how this happened, but this Many Faces has a crush on me. It's unbearable. She's unbelievably cute. Not like average person, Banana Republic cute or anything, but Hollywood star cute, a dead ringer for Maki Horikita. I'm flabbergasted... what she sees in me, I have no idea. Please try to understand my situation. I'm a thirty-one year old hikikomori. Total loser. I look like the otaku version of Jabba the Hut. Heavy on the ugly. I'm not fashionable, my clothes are usually Mr. Big cast offs, in garish colors or just gray. In short. I'm a complete failure. When I'm not having drinking binges, I spend my time writing and surfing the Net. This girl, this Maki Horikita doppelgänger and I knew of each other through an internet forum devoted to drama fiction obsession. But we never actually interacted until on a whim, I agreed to have dinner with an old friend and my ex-roommate who was visiting from Seattle. My old friend, Eduard, was now a semi-famous jazz musician. Because he performed with his band he rarely had any time to see anyone, so even though it meant venturing outside, it was a great opportunity to catch up with him.. And how did I, a hikikomori, know this famous jazz musician, you ask? Well, again, the internet. Though Eduard's an up and coming star now, back when we met in a fan fiction chat room hosted by Mixi he wasn't yet famous, and we kept in contact, even eventually agreeing to share a 2k apartment together while he was in college. Somehow, on the fiction obsession forum where Eduard and I had settled in after the Mixi chat room was permanently closed he became acquaintances with the Maki copycat, who ended up joining us for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Roppongi. Up until that point Many Faces had never really existed for me personally, I mean, I knew her screen name but until that night at the restaurant we had never spoken to each other on or off the forum. Since Eduard was back in from Seattle I was feeling nervous, so I had had a few drinks early on, and by the time “Maki” had arrived I was acting like an obnoxious jerk, hamming it up with my old friend. Famous jazz musician or not, I had missed him like crazy. Even though we weren't the type to chat everyday, we sometimes got online and commiserated when one or the other was feeling down, or frustrated about life, like work or relationships. Eduard was a bellwether friend in that respect, as our lives seemed to be on similar courses for awhile before he become famous. Still, it was fun catching up with him that night especially since Eduard seemed a tad homesick and

October 2009 was contemplating moving back. It helped that the food was good too. Generous portions that a fat person like myself secretly appreciates, with gyros, pita bread, Greek olives, and lamb. All which together with the alcohol I was having put me in a sense of relaxation that I hadn't felt in quite some time. I was probably a bit too boisterous for my usual self. But when the Maki Horikita double came in and sat at our table I took it in stride, smiling widely as if I had expected her when Eduard introduced us. Inside, at the time, I felt a vast, concrete blankness—so stunned was I by Maki's raw, blunt beauty. A heart-shaped face, light cinnamon complexion lightly flecked with just a few freckles and shockingly pale blue eyes. All this framed by long, thick, shiny, brown hair. Well, it struck me like a kendo bokken to the head. Inwardly I think I was shocked, though I acted boisterous and foolishly extroverted. She seemed really shy, and a bit demure. Her voice was soft, and hearing her talk felt like silk cloth brushing my cheek gently. I was smitten that night for sure. That is when I met Many Faces. Back to this current time. The view from the Rainbow Bridge is heartbreakingly beautiful. The water in the bay below whispers, and I wonder if it's whispering for me to be a man and just jump. I started the mess that landed me here. It's my fault that Mika Anzai is dead. Many Faces agreed that I pushed Anzai to the brink. It's my fault she died you know. Mika Anzai that is. I ran a small website until just recently, that catered to fan fiction of great Japanese dramas and anime, and I was making good money off it. Nothing to live on mind you, but it was something to show Kimiko. And Many Faces told me she really loved my work. She said I should think about expanded the website to let others submit their own stories. Even though I didn't agree with the idea, her beauty is not to be argued with. So I opened up the section for new submissions, and stipulated that successful stories would see a percentage of the money from my website advertisement revenue. I didn't think I would get many responses, because I secretly think my work wasn't worth that kind of attention. But of course I let myself have a moment of fantasy, imagining myself as the editor of a new web portal that could compete with powerhouses like Kodansha or MediaWorks. Stories by unknown creators started trickling in. Mika Anzai was one of them. She was a shut in, like me, but even though I pitied her, her stories were just really bad, like someone had taken Haruki Murakami's work and put it in a blender with Stephen King's. I was pretty wasted when I read her stories. I thought I was going to just reject her work, because it didn't fit with my standards. It was really poor. I reread her email cover letter. It was arrogant, pure and simple, saying that I should publish her work, so that I could be the person who one day said I discovered her. Needless to say, I was incensed, and a bit drunk over the

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M-BRANE SF situation at my day job at Bic Camera. I wrote an unkind email chastising her attitude, and pointing out the various errors of her piece. It was to be frank, a rude thing I probably wouldn't have said sober. I sent it, and received an email a week later as a reply. It was a dramatic suicide note, saying she was going to jump off the Rainbow Bridge to end her shame. I thought it was a bit melodramatic, and deleted the letter, and went back to drinking. That same week a woman was reported missing, in the Tokyo Bay Area. At first I was only mildly worried, until the NHK newscaster revealed the name of the missing woman. Mika Anzai. 3. Akihabara, Gera-Gera Internet café Mika Anzai Mr 770's real name is Yanagata Koichi. He used to work at Bic Camera, and has created a large body of dōjinshi novels, self published and originally printed at a Copy Center. Nowadays he serializes most of his work online, and gets some money from Google ads. It's not really enough. Not judging from where he lives. I've been to his apartment. It's sad. His earnest minded girlfriend works two jobs to support him while he stays at home, persisting at drinking and writing mediocre stories. I've read them, and they have a certain appeal if you're into that sort of thing, but I wondered if he ever thought he would make a living from them. But something in what he is, or what he does and creates, amuses Many Faces, and she leveled her blue eyed gaze upon him, plotting. She's already set a few plans in motion to pinch him out between her fingers and ruin Kimiko's life as well. Two for one. She'd like that. Many Faces, I've come to believe, really isn't human. That is, she's made from flesh and blood, has a heart, lungs, and the like, but her soul is darker than Bunny's. She doesn't really think what she is is evil, per se, but she probably views herself as a shark amongst humans. I don't really understand why she thinks the way she does, and I spent hours talking to her while goofing off together in Second Life. I'll admit, in the beginning I was sort of infatuated with her, but I wasn't going to do anything with it. Being a gay woman in Japan isn't exactly the latest fashion. Maybe if I had more courage, I'd ask her later, but when I first met Many Faces she was too charming not to pay attention to. She was persistent sometimes, but that was ok, because she was really the first person who opened up to me. I had friends in the online world, but no one with as magnetic a personality as hers. It took me awhile to really discover just how cruel she could be. She doesn't really hide her personality when she's online, and at first, I thought she was just really conflicted, wounded like I was. I thought, she wasn't really as evil as she said she was, but that she acted that way to draw attention to herself. Clearly, I wasn't really thinking ahead on that.

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October 2009 At the time, she said she wanted to meet me in person, to go have coffee together and talk about the world. I confessed to her that I was a shut in. She said that I had courage and strength, and that she would wait until I was ready. It went on like that for awhile, until after one evening I told her about my life. How I wished I could have the same fairy tale life as in the Densha Otoko drama on TV, where an anime-obsessed geek saves a beautiful woman from danger on a train, and they eventually fall in love. I joked about how I'd like to find love like that one day. So we went on, sharing bits of our life until one day she asked me if it was ok for a woman to like another woman as a lover. I hesitated, but then replied, “Certainly.” I obviously wasn't against the idea, but it was odd that she brought it up. Though truthfully, I began fantasizing wildly at that point. You already know the rest, about how we agreed to finally meet. I truly think if she were born a man, she'd be a successful violent serial killer. In her way, she's the worst kind of person possible. She has no remorse, no sense that destruction of everything isn't the way things should be. I've studied her for a long amount of ghost time, now. It was hard for me to even believe that people like that really existed, outside of movies. She's not fantastical, like you'd expect from a movie villain, like Hannibal Lector. But she's deadly real. By day she works as the mid-level manager of an Aoyoma branch of an Chinese financial services company and, despite the hard times, that company is doing very well. At night, she plots. Intricate moves, bit by bit. Like a chess player. She leaves notes on her computer. She's that arrogant. It's taken ghost-city-years to research her background, because she's an expert at keeping herself hidden from the living. When she uses the internet to connect to 2ch.net, she always uses new IP addresses, and new proxy servers. She never accesses the board from her apartment, or her place of work. And whenever she logs on, she spends less than ten minutes online. She's no Tsutomu Shimomura but she's better than your average script-monkey teenager. Tracking her down might require inhuman patience. One might even need an apartment-by-apartment search of the city to find out where she lived. One would have to have a huge investigative force, or decade of time to track that kind of paranoid efficiency. I think that's why Bunny lets me stay. The Net café is soon blaring with music from the store CD player. I turn on all the other PC's and Macs, and start them playing music, and TV shows too. News, Dramas, radio shows, whatever. The noise probably bothers Bunny, but it makes me feel less alone. Like the city is really alive. I miss being alive. Not that I'm angry about being dead. That's the end result of life, anyway. But, I am angry about how someone I trusted and tried to help tricked me in the end. Cruelty


M-BRANE SF like that, it's the unforgivable sin. Many Faces real name is Kajiyama Ryoko. I found that out when I first visited her place long before coming to the Net café today. She lives in Aoyama, in a large western style 3DLK apartment that is appointed with many nice little touches all designed to hide her reality. Framed Monet prints cover the walls of Ryoko's living room, her kitchen has a manual pump espresso machine from Italy, and upstairs her office has a glass case of Gucci Chiodo timepieces. Also on her office PC hard drive were copies of emailed letters and Densha Otoko fan-fiction stories that had my name on them. She had sent three letters to Koichi. Mr 770. She was impersonating me and making it appear that I had written some very bad fan fiction, and that I was upset at Koichi for refusing to publish them, threatening my suicide. I left her apartment back then, and wandered through the city, jumping off the Tokyo Tower for a few weeks over and over. I was, needless to say, upset. Today I went back to her apartment. Everything was just as it had been the night I died. I sat at her computer, and found what I needed. Then emailed myself copies of everything I could find on her hard drive that related to my death, including the posts she composed for 2ch.net. I emailed copies to the Tokyo police, with a forward saying that I, Kajiyama Ryoko, knew certain facts regarding the death of Mika Anzai that I wanted to confess. The music blaring from the CD speakers is loud enough to give me a sense of energy. If everything goes well, I won't be around much longer. I will miss this place. I finish reading the thread about Mr. 770's disappearance. Then I pull his cell phone number from an email I sent myself. I've never done this before. “Bunny. I'm going to call him now. Is that ok?” I say. He can hear me, even through the noise, and the distance. He can always hear me, straddling the gates of both places as he does. No response. No gnashing of teeth. Silence is consent. I open a new browser window and surf to my Softbank webpage, open the SMS text messaging service window and compose the first message to Mr. 770. 4. Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Bay Mr 770: Yanagata Koichi The Rainbow Bridge groans and shakes a little bit with the morning wind. I'm starting to feel the flush of my night's drinking, and I rub my goatee as I look out across the scene. Can't I draw courage from the drinks to just go through with it? I can hear sirens in the distance, and the smell of sea salt, ocean air, and the pungent smells of cars, diesel oil, exhaust waft past me on alternating hot and cold drafts. The glowing fireflies of light shimmer in the distance. It's still early, about 4:30am or so. I'm leaning against the

October 2009 suspension cable and my back aches. I came all this way. It seems silly not to jump. I figure jumping into the bay would be the cleanest way, no fuss or mess for the pedestrians and minimal, but expected hassle for the authorities if my body is ever found. The rest of the world will be celebrating tonight, because the US has elected a new president who is taking office today, a man many believe can change the world for the better, and here I am, in Tokyo, contemplating jumping off the bridge and ending my shame. I was cruel to someone just because she had the same dream I did, but was too forward about her talent too soon. What good did telling her so rudely do? Sure, she was a bit persistent, and a little condescending, but secretly, that's no different from me. I said something stupid, and she died because she took it to heart. I've never had the courage to go through with this before. But now someone is dead, and waiting for me down there. I could live with the shame of being a hikikomori, a bad writer, even a loser, but the shame of causing Mika Anzai to kill herself? It's just as Many Faces said. I should do whatever it takes to resolve my humiliation. I'll jump, and this laptop here will serve as my suicide note. I'll jump and look for Anzai in the afterworld, in the water, and beg her forgiveness. Just then, my cell phone beeps. I don't recognize the number. It's a text message. Mr. 770. You shouldn't jump. I'm not down there. ´∀ ~Mika. I have to reread it. This feels like a scene from One Missed Call. Anzai disappeared. Rather, she committed suicide, in this same bay. It's a cruel prank. Ghosts don't send text messages from the afterworld. There's no explanation for that. Many Faces said I should resolve in my heart to do what was right, given the fact that Anzai killed herself because of one of my stories. Could this be Many Faces asking me not to join Anzai? But Many Faces doesn't have this cell phone number. Only Kimiko and my mom do. And Kimiko was sound asleep in our bed when I left around midnight last night. It's a mystery. I find myself sliding down to the ground, in a thumping motion, like a sack of concrete. It's hard to breathe. The phone beeps. Another text: Mr. 770 I can't forgive you for my suicide because you had nothing to do with my death.~ Mika It's too cold up here anyway. I climb back down the railing, and nearly slip and fall to the concrete maintenance walkway below. The walk back across the bridge warms me up, and after I make it back to where my bike is, I ride through I look for a coffee shop, but in the area around the Shibaurafutō train station there aren't that many coffee shops open this early. Defeated, I ride the

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M-BRANE SF train in a nearly empty car to Shimbashi “Mr. 770.” I whisper to myself. Whoever had sent the message knew about my exchange with Many Faces, and my online/offline identities. It is a strange sort of warmth in my stomach, knowing that. Suddenly, the urge to see Kimiko rises up and I want to kiss her over and over. All my anger is gone. It's as if the whole earth just rose up and swallowed my pain, shame, anger and fear. The ride home is pretty nerve wracking still, because of traffic. People still bother me. I really need a drink. Then again, considering the text messages on my phone, maybe not. 5. Akihabara, Gera-Gera Internet café Mika Anzai The music in the Net café switches off. I turn off the iMac, and sigh loudly into the silence. Stopping Koichi from killing himself was the last piece. I don't know if he's going to try to change his hikikomori spirit, and become a better man. Probably not. But I can keep him from Ryoko's grasp. Right now, the police should be searching her apartment. She might be at a police station for questioning, I don't know. That's not why I am here, really. If she escapes, that's none of my business. She won't be able to touch Koichi, or anyone else in Japan for a while, presuming she does escape. Not with the gigabyte of documents and photos I sent the Metro police department. The door of the Net café chimes as I open to leave. The earth sighs, and I see a man at the end of the street leaning against a Porsche. He's tall, wearing jeans and a turtleneck, with short, silver hair and sunglasses. I see a rabbit's foot key chain dangle from his pocket. He smiles as he opens the car door for me. “Ready?” he asks. I want to say no, I'm not. I want to stay here, remain in the shadows, lurking. But I find myself drawn to him, as we all do, one day. “Yes, of course.” I say, with my most polite smile. It feels strange. As we drive out of the city heading across the Rainbow Bridge, I glance out to the bay, where the sun is rising. “Does your head still hurt?” I ask. He shakes his head, and I watch the sun touch the tops of the skyscrapers in the city. I put my hand in his. It's warm. Until today, I was just a lurker. Now I'm going. I'm... Afterword by Mari Kurisato: I started “Lurker” as a change of pace from my first novel, which I had finished the week prior. The novel ended in a surprising fashion, with one of the main characters doing something very painfully unexpected. I began writing Lurker more as personal emotional catharsis from that than an actual story. Since I'm obviously not dead, let's just say the character Mika Anzai asserted

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October 2009 control fairly early on and changed the direction of the narrative. The story quickly became part of a vast world beyond the limits of the tale itself, but I reigned in all the tangents and cut it down from fifteen thousand words to twelve thousand reworking it line by line. After receiving a rejection slip from a literary fiction magazine, I finally let go of my desire to control the story. I scrapped most of it and started over, imagining myself an interviewer at an indie coffee shop in my mind's eye, and waited, drinking coffee and listening to Yoko Kanno. Then it happened. A character arrived at the Creativity Coffee Shop and we chatted about a “What If?” scenario. Rather, the character talked and I took notes, typing as fast as I can, trying to keep up. I managed to writer “Lurker”'s conclusion, and thought I was done with it. The sequel to “Lurker,” “Connected” will be available from M-Brane as part of the queer anthology publication “Things We Are Not” due out sometime near the publication of this story. “Connected”'s sequel “Flight” has been previously published on the web, and I will be republishing it on my website around shortly. The sequel to “Flight” is currently in the works as a manga project collaboration. Mari Kurisato is a 32-year-old recovering hikikomori writer and digital illustrator, working on her second novel. She rarely leaves her apartment, living with her lesbian partner and (straight) cat. She has an irrational crush on the works of Masamune Shirow. In homage to him, she uses Mari Kurisato as her pen name/online identity. It is not her real name. She is not Asian, but Ojibwe Native. Conversely to her exuberant even somewhat sarcastic personality online, she is painfully shy in the non-virtual world. Mari's privacy is very important to her. She doesn't do phone interviews, publish photos of herself, or meet her online friends and clients face to face. “It’s devilishly hard just to get up the will power to go outside in daylight.” she said, rather apologetically. Unsurprisingly, Mari is a big fan of the Internet communities found on Twitter and Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. On the web at www.marikurisato.com


M-BRANE SF

October 2009

…continued from page 33 recent publications elsewhere. A man pursues a boyhood dream of sending an object into orbit around the sun. A poet decides that she’d like to get away from it all. Their paths cross in astonishing fashion in Alex Wilson’s “Outgoing.” This novelette, which originally appeared in Asimov’s a couple years ago, is a deeply touching story, and (in a book with a lot of outstanding endings) has one of the most extraordinary and satisfying conclusions. Alex runs the audiobook project Telltale Weekly and the minicomic/zine Inconsequential Art. Derek J. Goodman’s “As Wide as the Sky, and Twice as Explosive” is the amazing story of Johnny Rey’s relationship with something called “580T-85.” I’m not even going to tell you what 580T-85 might be, and whatever you might guess it is, you’re almost certainly wrong. I don’t want to spoil a bit of this story before its release, but I will say that Derek certainly answered the call when I said that I hoped to see some stories that expand the definition of queerness and come up with the new permutations of it that a genre like sf makes possible. Derek has appeared in M-Brane twice (in issues #4 and #6), and has had many other recent and forthcoming publications elsewhere. His novel The Apocalypse Shift was recently released by Library of Horror Press, and his short story “Dea Ex Machina” is being adapted for an opera. Yeah, an opera. Trent Roman’s “Confessions of a Call Herm,” as one might glean from the title, focuses on a protagonist who is biologically an intersex person and who has found some advantage in this, working as a call girl (well, call herm) for a class of plutocrats who occupy the heights of colossal towers in a highly stratified (literally) society. This very amusing story combines a lively confessional style with a murder mystery and a bit of bedroom farce as well. Trent writes from Montreal, and describes himself as “fascinated by what makes people tick at both the intimately personal level and the sweeping societal level, and enjoys every opportunity to pursue such questions through the means of fiction.” Larissa Gale’s “Diplomatic Relations” is a somewhat comedic “first contact” story involving humans meeting aliens and attempting to find some common ground. For me, it is somewhat evocative (in a good way) of a Star Trek episode about first contact, and it is the only story of its kind in the collection. Also, its component of “queerness” is quite unlike those in any of the other stories, and I will refrain from revealing it here—this story is rather “spoiler”-prone. Larissa has also appeared in Ruthie’s Club, Justus Roux’s Erotic Tales and Oysters & Chocolate.—CF

Maus expects that everyone will order at least one copy of Things We Are Not. Maus generally prevails. Pre-orders received by way of the offer at www.mbranesf3.blogspot.com include a year subscription to the PDF edition of this zine (if you already have a subscription, purchase of the book will extend it another full year). Win!

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ASTOUNDING NEW FICTION FROM… Alex Jeffers Rick Novy Robert Keller Toiya Kristen Finley James Hartley A.J. Kenning Jennifer Gifford Liam R. Watts Michael D. Griffiths 
 
 


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 November 2009

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M-BRANE 9  

The astounding ninth issue, packed with great new science fiction.

M-BRANE 9  

The astounding ninth issue, packed with great new science fiction.

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