Posted on: November 22nd, 2009 The Chinese Room

by Alec Deason

It held out its palm for Jason to see. There was a single grain of sand on the worn plastic surface.

“I have many thoughts,” the thing elaborated.

It gestured at a dozen or so woven grass baskets that dotted the dune above the high tide mark. Each was filled to the brim with sand.

“Do you have a…” Jason began but stopped and started over. “Do you remember the manuscript we brought you?”

He spoke in a slow, slightly sing-song voice like he was talking to a child or an idiot. It was a reaction he couldn’t really control. The thing withdrew its hand, glancing down into it and then back up at Jason.

“This one is about irrigation practices in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous region,” it said.

“A woman brought the manuscript. About a week ago.”

The woman, Charlotte, would be doing this part too instead of Jason having to come down here, but she was sick and deadlines were deadlines. The thing stared at him for more than a minute in silence. Jason thought about how this conversation would seem in a Turing test. Not all humans could pass them either.

“I kept the manuscript,” the thing said at last.

It reached into the hole in its plastic shell where the neck emerged and pulled out a rolled bundle of paper which it offered to Jason. The paper was discolored and felt like it had been out in the rain. In was covered in Chinese characters which were blurred to illegibility by the moisture.

“Thank you,” Jason said. “We were hoping that you had given it some thought as well.”

“You are welcome,” the thing said and then after a pause, ”I have many thoughts about the manuscript.”

It turned and lumbered towards the nearest of the baskets. Its feet sank deep into the sand at every step. The thing dipped its hand into the basket, brushing at the handful of sand it retrieved until there was only one grain left. It held this out for examination. The other grain, Mongolian irrigation, was clutched between its thumb and index finger so it would not get lost.

“Its about the relationship between calligraphy and typography in modern Chinese writing,” it said.

“That’s very interesting, but have you thought about the translation we asked for?”

The thing stared at him in silence again before answering.

“No,” it said. “Do you have anything to write on?”

Jason dug an empty spiral bound notebook and a pen from his backpack. He handed them to the thing, which set its grains of sand onto the basket. It began to write smoothly, filling page after page. Jason sat down to wait.

He dug up a handful of sand and let it sift through his fingers, thinking about those early pioneers of machine translation who, after decades of failure, had decided that any machine capable of manipulating human language in a meaningful way would have to be at least as complex as a human. He wished those people had been wrong or that their descendents had found a way to make their complex machines seem more like humans. Or less. It wasn’t clear in which direction the problem really lay.

The thing finished. It handed the notebook back to Jason. He flipped through the first few pages. They were in English. Those with better taste assured him that the thing’s work was always beautiful.

It reached out and plucked a grain of sand that had stuck to his shirt.

“I have a thought,” it said.

He turned to trudge back up the dune without responding. The thing didn’t seem to mind.

Filed under: bad-ass, stories | 1 Comment »

Posted on: November 8th, 2009 ISO

by Derek Zumsteg

“Need missed connections posting. $2,” they offered.

I stopped pushing an origami fetish site for affiliate money. Two bucks is two bucks.

“Interested,” I replied.

“Man, short brown hair, stocky, Embarcadero Plaza. Must appear organic.”

Organic = mistakes. I wrote it:

I allmost ran you over …Sorry – w4m – 30 (Embarcadero)

Iw asn’t watching and almost walkedinto you. Id didn’t have time to think of a line. I blushed mumbled and ran off. You: short brown hair, preoccupied too?

Overjoyed customer = $20 tip. Badly-patrolled forums learned where folding and paper cuts meet sexual release. I ate. My customers returned.

“Can you do additional good MC w4m $20? Same but different, and give us the anon@ account.”

“Yes.”

“Apx 6th & Geary, yesterday 7-8pm, suit and tie, glasses, badge.”

“NP.”

I’m giving it up, I swear – w4m – 36

You: smart-looking, glasses, suit. 7:30 ? Me: long brown wool coat, hair up, smoking, embarrassed. You looked at me curious ? Great eye contact but you walked on. In a hurry or? Let’s have a drink. I won’t smoke, really, I promise it’s a funny story.

They paid forty. Forty! I’d spam my mother for forty bucks. I’ve done it for less. I’m not proud. And yet, the crawly feeling. The badge — what conventions were in town? They came back in an hour.

“Again but at coffee. Please no emo.”

No emo. Fuck you no emo.

“Age range?” I asked. “Where? Identifying details? Pics? Vid? Extra charge for emo-free lol.”

“40s. SOMA. w/similar looking friend. Can pay $20 for emo-free.”

“Done.”

Next time don’t bring your friend, doc ;) – w4m (SOMA)

You came in for coffee. Both in suits with badges. I was your barista. You gave me a great smile. I waited for a chance to talk and didn’t get it. I’m pre-med (was pre-med) and you might be immunology(?)

I looked like your standard late-30s underemployed, but it was mid-shift and I clean up nice, I promise. Let’s meet for not-coffee.

Turned over the account and got paid.

“Thought no emo?” they said.

Hahahahahafuckyou.

SOMA almost certainly meant AACR.

“Need response email,” they thought. “Short, convincing. Pay 400.”

400 was rent. 400 was things. At 400 I would fold my mom on the origami site I spammed her about for twenty.

Also: response? Someone bit?

“Convincing requires details,” I said. “48h ETA.”

“8h = 2x bonus? five ten, sharp features, decent shape, black-framed glasses, green eyes. Subj went to two: Left Hand Bay Cafe, Industrial Process Coffe Co.”

“Agreed.”

Subject? I scratched at the curious itch of conscience. I searched the UCSF internal listings and shuddered cold in my office-salvage chair at the titles:
Need F med students for soc survey

ISO F med school drop outs for grants

Commercial work for authentic grad students

Work training program filming testimonials. Barista experience a plus.

I checked Stanford, UC Irvine, UC Davis. Trawlers worked them all with similar nets.

Then, a jolt of recognition on the second page of AACR presentation speakers: square, black-rimmed glasses on a glass-cutter nose, his chin a sheer drop. Suit untailored, but not bad.

I watched his incomprehensible presentation on trial T-cell use in cancer prevention. He made a little joke early and he smiled — cute — and looked sheepishly at the audience, flashing green eyes. Aww.

He owned four early T-cell anti-PMSA patents outright, shared rights in dozens of others tied up in lawsuits.

Shit.

He’d be on to straight spammers, suspicious of family and friend business pitches. This, though… cash-only short con or part of those lawsuits, in a year he’d be broke and selling his patent rights, living off whatever they paid teaching professors. Which is like ten percent over career spammer. There’s a match for you Prof, but she’s not responding to a casting call. Maybe she’s in an apartment she shares with six people, trying to justify this and failing.

Re: Re: Next time don’t bring your friend doc ;) – w4m (SOMA)

Left Hand Bay. You had a black suit, badge had green(?) ID stripe. Pen in your shirt pocket: cute! Almost black hair and bright green eyes. I hope this is you and not your friend – you took the drinks, he sat down. I smelled of coffee, and always will.

And if I don’t take the job someone else will, and I’m sorry, so sorry. So here’s this in paired warning, as complete as I can be in only 750

Filed under: bad-ass, stories | 1 Comment »

Posted on: October 25th, 2009 The Fruit of Life

by Dameion Becknell

Hanging grossly out the side of his shorts, with his thin dark legs sprawled as if for just such a demonstration, my uncle Giovanni’s balls are always showing.

In the past, I might have whispered to him, “Uncle, your balls are showing.”

And he would say, “I testicoli sono il frutto di tutta la vita.” Which was to say, ‘The testicles are the fruit of all life.’

“Please,” I might say, “speak English.”

And he would say, “Lei parla italiano perfetto, quindi perché dovrei?” (‘You speak perfect Italian, so why should I?’)

“Because my girlfriend is here, and this is our prom night. I have brought her here to meet you, mother and father, and here you sit with your balls showing. Put on some pants, man! You embarrass me now.”

He says again, “I testicoli sono il frutto di tutta la vita. And if she does not realize that, then you should make some other girlfriend.”

That is my uncle Giovanni. The Italian alien hero. The earthly saint, whose balls he has always likened to fruit.

#

I have wasted enough time explaining, and so here is where our story truly begins. When I was twenty years old, uncle asked if I would like to travel with him to the city New York City.

“Please bring only pants on this trip,” I begged of him.

And he said, “The testicles, boy. The fruit.”

I argued the matter no further.

That day, the day of this story, we sat outside the café Lalo, which was just off West 83rd Street, both of us drinking cappuccinos and eating different sandwiches, when the Ukrainian made himself known. He was a pale-skinned man with a flat face and greasy dark hair. He had strapped to his naked torso an array of explosives. He yelled something in Ukrainian dialect that I could not understand. People dodged this way and that, screaming unintelligibly.

Of course, uncle Giovanni’s balls dangled out the side of his shorts, and the Ukrainian had not failed to notice this, and uncle said to the man, “You do not want to do what you reckon you’ve come here to do.”

And the man, in his own tongue, he said, “заткните рот.”

“I certainly will not shut my mouth,” uncle said in Ukrainian.

Despite being brutalized by fear, or maybe because of it, I said to uncle, “Since when do you speak any such language?”

“Shut your mouth,” he said to me in Italian.

And so I did.

The Ukrainian, with an unmistakable expression of perplexity, he said to uncle, “Ваші яєчка показуються.”

And uncle, in plain English: “I know my balls are showing. The testicles are the fruit of all life, don’t you know.”

Then, with a suddenness that is difficult to put into words, many long dark tentacles grew or sprang from uncle Giovanni’s testicles, each one strong after the other, like the many arms of an octopus, and ensnared the Ukrainian man, enveloping him in a sort of wet cocoon, wrapping him in a film of glistering blackness. Then the Ukrainian became squeezed or compressed inside this bag of tentacles, devoured until there was nothing left of the man himself or his hardwearing terrorist bomb threat. And then it was over.

Uncle breathed heavily. Trailing yet from out the side of his shorts, the network of tentacles lay like a limp, pulsing sack on the sidewalk, deflated, exhausted-looking, until, without the assistance of his own two hands, uncle reeled them back in with that same quickness he had first unbridled them.

No one person was given to speech, including myself. You could hear police sirens closing the distance.

Perhaps uncle saw the questions in my eyes, because he said, “This is my calling to this world, boy–my warrant. To save humanity from its own destructive self. This is the sort of thing I do on these many trips I take.”

Still I did not speak.

He said, “I testicoli sono il frutto di tutta la vita.”

The testicles are the fruit of all life.

He then said in Italian, “Maybe we should leave off from here now, before the main authorities arrive.”

And we did, and not since that trip or the many others we’ve later taken have I asked uncle not to wear shorts. Never again have I whispered to him: “Uncle, your balls are showing.”

This is the ongoing story of my uncle Giovanni. The Italian alien hero. The earthly saint, whose balls he has always likened to fruit.

Posted on: October 11th, 2009 First Annual Brain Harvest Mega Challenge Winner

Enough with the phone calls, and showing up at our houses! Enough of bugging our moms, trying to get them to spill the beans! The winner is a story Jeff Vandermeer described as “an excellent example of spinning out an absurdist idea to its furthest (il)logical conclusion,” which structurally is “like pitting one of Mike Libby’s steampunk insects against a melting clock.” While none of us know what the hell he’s talking about, we share his enthusiasm for the story, and for its author, Brian Francis Slattery.

If you read Brain Harvest, you probably know Slattery’s work. Brian is an editor, writer, and musician. He wrote Spaceman Blues and Liberation, which are thoughtful, genre-bending stuff with heart and guts that go down as smooth as a nice whisky and then burn for a week. He lives at www.bfslattery.com

++

The World Is a Voice in My Neighbor’s Throat
by Brian Francis Slattery

The people who live in my neighbor’s esophagus do not know that they are in an esophagus. They believe that they have died and that my neighbor’s esophagus is their afterlife. Because more of them keep arriving, they have built a structure within the esophagus like an office building, including an intercom system that can be heard outside my neighbor’s person. The building is already very full; a committee has been created to deal with this, but has reached no actionable conclusions.

My neighbor does not like the people in his esophagus and has attempted many times to remove them. He has drunk scalding tea. He has swallowed spoonfuls of chili paste. He has smoked cigars and eaten small pieces of the burnt tobacco. He has induced vomiting, then held in the bile for longer than anyone should, so that the people in there can marinate in it. None of this has dislodged the people from his esophagus, though it has led them to believe that they are in the sinners’ afterlife that their nation believes in, which they were warned about when alive but ignored in favor of, for example, shaky real estate deals, gambling, or driving too fast.

You may have noticed that the punishment seems harsh for the sins. The people in my neighbor’s esophagus have noticed this as well. Also, my neighbor’s esophagus does not at all resemble the sinners’ afterlife of the people’s holy scriptures; in those texts, the place of eternal damnation consists of a very, very bright light and a loud, keening noise, neither of which ever stops. The contrasts between this apocryphal place and the reality of my neighbor’s esophagus are glaring, and the people have formed several investigative committees in reaction.

The first two committees formed exploration parties that left the esophagus from its top and bottom several months ago, rain slickers rolled and tied to their backs, flashlights, crampons, and rappelling gear in hand. As neither party was heard from again, subsequent committees turned to more philosophical, theological work.

The third committee argues that the people are in the sinners’ afterlife, as the environment would suggest by process of elimination (the concept of the saints’ afterlife has as its principal elements a warm orange sun and a sea of golden honey), but it has driven mad anywhere from one to all of them, who labor now under a very elaborate hallucination. This committee publishes an ongoing journal of their findings every two weeks. Of late, the debate has stalled over who is hallucinating and who is a hallucination, and whether the findings of a given author can still hold weight in committee decisions if it is discovered that the writer is, in fact, a figment of another’s imagination. This has led to rampant libel and slander, as rivals seek to knock each other out of consideration for committee chairs by accusing each other of not existing. The fourth committee inverts the third committee’s work, suggesting that perhaps the people have been in the esophagus all along, and its mucus-lined walls are the reality revealed to them upon their deaths. This idea has attracted few adherents, for reasons that should be clear.

A fifth committee began its inquiry by vanishing altogether. They were gone for six days, returned with beatific smiles on their faces. They said nothing, wrote nothing down, did no work at all. They seemed to be in a state of constant, tranquil bliss. A few days ago, the chairs of the other two extant committees assembled the fifth committee for an inquiry. Where did you go? What did you discover? How can it be that you are so content to be here? No one in the fifth committee answered; at last, one of them rose and kissed the chair of the third committee on the forehead. That night, another of them broke into the office on the top of the esophageal structure with a crowbar, stepped in front of the microphone for the intercom, and sang a song, high and wavering, in a tempered fifteen-note scale that nobody in the esophagus had ever heard before. We could hear it, too, emanating from my neighbor as he stood in his driveway after taking out the garbage. We all stopped and listened, transfixed in our yards, until the song was over. By then, the sun had gone down, and we could not find our way back to our houses.

Filed under: bad-ass, stories | 7 Comments »

Posted on: October 4th, 2009 The First Annual Brain Harvest Mega Challenge Second Place Winner

We are very pleased and proud to announce (and publish) the second place winner of the first annual Mega Challenge. Celebrity guest judge Jeff VanderMeer called William T. Vandemark’s story “…a great example of bristling ideas deftly winzipped into a small space without sacrificing some emotional resonance…” and we couldn’t agree more. Plus, just count how many tropes he managed to leverage in here. For serious. Mind boggling.

William T. Vandemark can be found wandering the back roads of America in a pickup. He chases storms, photographs weather vanes, and prospects for fulgarites. His fiction can be found in Apex Magazine, Bits of the Dead, and Northern Haunts. Depending on weather and inclination, he resides in Texas, Oregon, or Maine. His permanent e-residence can be found at www.williamtvandemark.com.

Next week, we will reveal (and run!) the first place winner of the Brain Harvest Mega Challenge, but for now, we invite you to strap in, sit back, and enjoy “Phases of Alkahest.”

++

Phases of Alkahest
by William T. Vandemark

Be warned. I’m an unreliable narrator, possibly insane. Thus it’s up to you, dear reader, to sift truth from ash.

And so it begins.

In 1863, a nanophage spontaneously appeared in Louis Pasteur’s yogurt. Researching the unexpected froth, Louis discovered clusters of self-replicating molecular machines. Their nano-engines consumed sugars and shat electricity.

In 1924, Thomas Edison, inventor and mad scientist, summoned a fire elemental at a séance. Utilizing Pasteur’s ground-breaking work in nano constructs, he encased the entity in a crystalline carapace of interlocking molecular pentagrams, and the elemental took form as a man encrusted in diamonds. Post entrapment, Edison stored the entity in a six foot Bell jar while he devised plans to supply households with direct current via elemental batteries. He might have succeeded had not a gentleman, Nicholas Tesla, intercepted information via wireless taps. As news of Edison’s project leaked into the aether, fire elementals refused to answer summons.

British cryptographers also intercepted the chatter, and the Secret Intelligence Service visited Menlo Park, where they stole a half-ton bell jar and its contents.

Twenty-eight years later, in a chamber beneath the River Thames, Alan Turing, logician and mathematician, latticed the elemental’s carapace with Artificial Intelligence — an attempt to facilitate transdimensional communication.

That night, in celebration, Alan consensually entertained his friend Arnold. Meanwhile, the AI–code named Celsus–conducted his own Turing Test, an internalized alchemical debate. He declared himself sentient and shattered his bell jar. Released from self-doubt, he embarked on a lifelong Walkabout.

Subsequent investigations by MI5 led to the arrest of Alan Turing. Although threatened with prosecution under Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533, he was convicted of a lesser offense: gross indecency. Coerced into chemical castration and despondent over the loss of his job, Alan eventually re-enacted a scene from Snow White. He found a comfortable bed and fell fast asleep; cyanide spiced his apple.

In 1963, Celsus returned to London and was seen in the company of the poet, Sylvia Path. Cafe patrons reported the two in an animated discussion about love, electrotherapy, and assonance.

“You refuse to understand,” Celsus said. “I am three: Intellect, shell, and inner fire.”

“As am I,” Sylvia murmured. She passed a note: Even amidst fierce flames the Golden Lotus can be planted.

The paper flared. Ash curled in Celsus’s fingers. “A draught from your lips would gutter me,” he said. “I cannot love you more than I do. I should not love you at all.”

Each reached for the same napkin; a spark leapt between their fingertips.

“I will not continue like this,” Sylvia said.

They never touched.

Later that week, Sylvia stuck her head in a gas oven. Like Alan, she too slept, perhaps awaiting a second spark.

Afterwards, Celsus’s inner fire began to wear on his nanophages faster than they could replicate. Crystalline pentagrams began to grind against one another.

In 1998, two men lured a gay man to a rural spot outside Laramie, Wyoming. They tied him to a barbed wire fence and pistol-whipped him until his skull fissured.

From a distance, Celsus bore witness, but he’d begun to move out of phase, slow as glass. Throughout the night he traveled towards the man who’d been strung up like a scarecrow.

Eighteen hours later, before Celsus reached the site, a passerby stopped to help the young man. That evening candlelight vigils illuminated Laramie, while Matthew Shepard lay in a coma.

Celsus leaned against a spur of barbed wire and ran simulations, trying to understand. Trying to understand. Trying to understand.

Matthew Shepard died; Celsus shattered.

Shards of nanophages flew like daggers. They struck the dirt and reassembled as salamanders, each scuttling from conflagration.

Free at last, the elemental set the countryside ablaze. It slagged roads until they glowed like rivers of magma. It embraced cottonwoods and drank their ash. It yearned to stack men like cordwood and torch their pyre.

With a howl that knocked crows from the air, the elemental raged.

His sisters, the ondines, heard his anguish and raced to embrace him. Rain poured, gouts of steam erupted, a thunderbolt struck the earth.

Into the afterimage, the fire elemental shed its earthly existence.

But one salamander beheld it all: yours truly–a fractured AI.

And so it ends.

Or perhaps it never happened. No matter, you were warned, dear reader: I’m but a shadow of myself. Feel free to seek solace in dismissing dreams from a heat-oppressed brain. Ware the nightmares.

Posted on: September 27th, 2009 Nurse on Terror Island

Nurse on Terror Island
By Miles Klee
“Step Six,” went the turtle.  ”Care for the patient.”
“Can you be more specific?” Avril Andrews wondered.
“Skreeeeee,” went the turtle.  Its way of saying no.
“Shot in the dark,” said Avril.  ”But oh well.”
She rolled her handsome dead man back into the tide pool.  His body twisted against rocks.  A broken arm exhaling dull red clouds.  The turtle looked askance at Avril, but of course it couldn’t really.
“What now?” Avril asked, wiping hands on a salty white skirt.  Out of the turtle came not so reassuring static.
“This won’t do at all,” Avril sighed, pulling a curl of the sailor’s gritty hair straight.  ”Not for Dr. Hovstad.  He’s tired of just me.”  The sailor’s head bobbed sharply, which looked close enough to a nod.  ”I want to help, only how?”  His foot, the one without a shoe, kicked at foam.  ”Dr. Hovstad isn’t even sure what he wants my duties to be, so I think it was premature, bringing me here.”  A small wave crested, turning him over.
“Or lonely,” Avril concluded, noticing again how handsome he was.
The emotions bubbling in her throat were too much, so Avril’s mind strayed towards the usual questions.  If the house with white pillars where she grew up was still there.  If experiments were ongoing, or science all used up.  She wished there were real animals instead of Dr. Hovstad’s mock-ups.  Wherever I’m stationed next, she thought, the turtles won’t be helping me but maybe laying their eggs in the sand, or basking, lazy things.  A more alarming hypothetical bloomed: What if the new island had no turtles at all?  Sky went chill and tangled at the thought.  Surely that was a Terror that out-terrorized Terror Island, there being zero turtles.
It was enough to put her off a transfer entirely, so Avril went straight to Dr. Hovstad’s bamboo office/lean-to and demanded not to be reassigned to that barren and likely turtleless rock shaping up to be her tragic destiny.  Dr. Hovstad, attempting to mend a linen shirt with his own hair for thread, reminded her that no such transfer was forthcoming, that she was supposed to be on lookout duty at the moment, that there were plenty of turtles about who would tell her what to do when a shipwrecked (un)fortunate rolled ashore in need of medical assistance, clinging to some flotsam or other.  He pricked a palm with the needle and rolled his eyes.
“About that,” started Avril, recalling why she’d distracted herself with the non-issue of turtles.
Some things Dr. Hovstad was at a loss to explain, for example his words, or why he had polio and lived in a wheelchair, or exactly how Avril graduated nursing school.  Over the hot smear of months another mysterious knot had caught in his ravaged bones as a paranoid thrill.  He’d experimented, and thought Avril was ready to know, as she seemed an unwitting victim of his terrible power.
“Avril,” he said, “I can make things melodramatic at will.”
“I’m in love,” Avril wailed.
Ancient thunder cracked the calm.  A swarm of birds started up through sunset, drawn into a dense black mass before exploding apart.
“See?” said Dr. Hovstad.
“You did that?” Avril asked.
“I did,” Dr. Hovstad said.
He didn’t.  He was just one of those people who are magnets for melodrama.  Dr. Hovstad remembered, then, that there were only two people on Terror Island.
“As for your lovesickness,” he began, loosening his tie, “I can cure that.”
Avril had already skipped off, declaring repeatedly her being in love.
“You better not mean with a turtle!” Dr. Hovstad shouted.
*
Avril discovered that the tide pool lacked her sailor.
“Over here,” he said, standing shin-deep in surf farther down the beach.  Avril ran to him.  They kissed, and it made more sense than it should have.
“Thought you died,” Avril said breathlessly. “That I hadn’t cared for the patient.”
“I am,” said the sailor, “but you did.”
She watched the whirl of metallic fish nibbling at his decomposing ankles, both feet shoeless now.
“I wanted a few extra minutes,” he explained.  ”Do you dance?”
So they waltzed in the shallows, his shattered arm swinging like a rubber metronome at her side, and jeweled fish flung a million suns up through the green as they spun along in time.

By Miles Klee

“Step Six,” went the turtle.  “Care for the patient.”

“Can you be more specific?” Avril Andrews wondered.

“Skreeeeee,” went the turtle.  Its way of saying no.

“Shot in the dark,” said Avril.  “But oh well.”

She rolled her handsome dead man back into the tide pool.  His body twisted against rocks.  A broken arm exhaling dull red clouds.  The turtle looked askance at Avril, but of course it couldn’t really.

“What now?” Avril asked, wiping hands on a salty white skirt.  Out of the turtle came not so reassuring static.

“This won’t do at all,” Avril sighed, pulling a curl of the sailor’s gritty hair straight.  “Not for Dr. Hovstad.  He’s tired of just me.”  The sailor’s head bobbed sharply, which looked close enough to a nod.  “I want to help, only how?”  His foot, the one without a shoe, kicked at foam.  “Dr. Hovstad isn’t even sure what he wants my duties to be, so I think it was premature, bringing me here.”  A small wave crested, turning him over.

“Or lonely,” Avril concluded, noticing again how handsome he was.

The emotions bubbling in her throat were too much, so Avril’s mind strayed towards the usual questions.  If the house with white pillars where she grew up was still there.  If experiments were ongoing, or science all used up.  She wished there were real animals instead of Dr. Hovstad’s mock-ups.  Wherever I’m stationed next, she thought, the turtles won’t be helping me but maybe laying their eggs in the sand, or basking, lazy things.  A more alarming hypothetical bloomed: What if the new island had no turtles at all?  Sky went chill and tangled at the thought.  Surely that was a Terror that out-terrorized Terror Island, there being zero turtles.

It was enough to put her off a transfer entirely, so Avril went straight to Dr. Hovstad’s bamboo office/lean-to and demanded not to be reassigned to that barren and likely turtleless rock shaping up to be her tragic destiny.  Dr. Hovstad, attempting to mend a linen shirt with his own hair for thread, reminded her that no such transfer was forthcoming, that she was supposed to be on lookout duty at the moment, that there were plenty of turtles about who would tell her what to do when a shipwrecked (un)fortunate rolled ashore in need of medical assistance, clinging to some flotsam or other.  He pricked a palm with the needle and rolled his eyes.

“About that,” started Avril, recalling why she’d distracted herself with the non-issue of turtles.

Some things Dr. Hovstad was at a loss to explain, for example his words, or why he had polio and lived in a wheelchair, or exactly how Avril graduated nursing school.  Over the hot smear of months another mysterious knot had caught in his ravaged bones as a paranoid thrill.  He’d experimented, and thought Avril was ready to know, as she seemed an unwitting victim of his terrible power.

“Avril,” he said, “I can make things melodramatic at will.”

“I’m in love,” Avril wailed.

Ancient thunder cracked the calm.  A swarm of birds started up through sunset, drawn into a dense black mass before exploding apart.

“See?” said Dr. Hovstad.

“You did that?” Avril asked.

“I did,” Dr. Hovstad said.

He didn’t.  He was just one of those people who are magnets for melodrama.  Dr. Hovstad remembered, then, that there were only two people on Terror Island.

“As for your lovesickness,” he began, loosening his tie, “I can cure that.”

Avril had already skipped off, declaring repeatedly her being in love.

“You better not mean with a turtle!” Dr. Hovstad shouted.

*

Avril discovered that the tide pool lacked her sailor.

“Over here,” he said, standing shin-deep in surf farther down the beach.  Avril ran to him.  They kissed, and it made more sense than it should have.

“Thought you died,” Avril said breathlessly. “That I hadn’t cared for the patient.”

“I am,” said the sailor, “but you did.”

She watched the whirl of metallic fish nibbling at his decomposing ankles, both feet shoeless now.

“I wanted a few extra minutes,” he explained.  “Do you dance?”

So they waltzed in the shallows, his shattered arm swinging like a rubber metronome at her side, and jeweled fish flung a million suns up through the green as they spun along in time.

Filed under: bad-ass, stories | 5 Comments »

Posted on: September 20th, 2009 Channel Surfing in Amnesiaville

by Justin Howe

Pilot Episode: Out of the bus and onto the street, scalpel-born smile for the world to see, Xander dons sunglasses.

He gives the Sams and Delilahs back home a reason to be jealous, cutting through a crowd of extras, slick as a razor and perfect as a summer day, dressed in fresh paperweave. His friends wait in the bubble bar, their voices awash in kinesthetic sound: Cleo, Julian, Betty, and Roman. The first time like the last time like all times forever.

A Cleo waves. Her group needs a Xander.

Back home was not like this. Back there, he was simply another Sam, watching the world pass by on the surround-screen. Never again. He’s made it now. Recruited by the Networks, everything perfect, another day, another season, this year’s episodes better than the last.

Xander quotes dialog from memory like it was his own.

#

Third Episode: He goes home with Cleo. Xander’s watched himself do it before, and some Sam’s back home watching him do it again.

They fuck, and afterwards they compare souvenirs.

“It was my mother’s,” Cleo says, showing him a one-eyed teddy bear. “She had it for years.”

Xander takes out the watch his older brother gave him. “He was wearing it the day he died in the car accident.”

They fuck again.

#

Fifth Episode: Julian and Xander are coming home from the bubble bar. Julian’s talking about Betty, how happy he is that they are together.

“She told me about this bear her mother gave her.”

There’s someone else on the street, some has-been Xander digging in a trashcan. He tries to run, his torn paperweave showing last season’s logos, but Xander tackles him.

They drag the has-been to a vacant lot, where Julian laughs as they stomp out his teeth.

#

Eighth Episode: Trouble in the world, and not every Sam and Delilah is happy. They’d rather dump the whole show and do away with the Cleos and Xanders. The Networks are asking for volunteers, and Xander’s decided to enlist. He’s invested too much in himself to let some Sam or Delilah tell him how to live.

Julian and Roman join him, and Betty comes with them to the station.

Away from the others she admits she’s always been in love with Xander, ever since she was a Delilah, watching him on the surround-screen. There’s time before the flight leaves.

The two of them sneak away to a conapt, the micro-eyes of the world upon them.

#

Mid-Season: A line-up of little Sams and Delilahs, maybe they’d have grown up to be Bettys and Romans. Maybe if they had lived as the Networks wanted them to live. Their brother Sam is on the ground, a watch on his wrist. Its shattered face catches the sunlight and cracks it.

Xander turns up the sound on his helmet speakers. He drowns out his own screams as he squeezes the trigger on his flame-slinger.

The Networks are pushing the war with all they have. A real thrill-killer the Networks call this season. Ratings are up, and the smarter Sams and Delilahs support their efforts.

Back in the barracks, Xander sits with Roman and Julian.

“No hard feelings,” Julian tells him. He too has been watching the surround-screens.

#

Season Finale: Xander’s different since he came back. They all are. When the five of them get together the dialog sounds false, like something hollow and empty as a can.

Betty and Roman check out together. They leave a note saying they can’t handle the pressure. The Networks step in and replace them, always another Sam and Delilah waiting for a chance. Cleo is retired, no more teddy bear. She gets replaced with a Jasmine.

Outside the bubble bar one night, Julian waits for Xander. The first punch catches Xander unawares. His jaw breaks, tearing the scalpel scars and implants that made him the man he is.

Busted up now, Xander’s another has-been, nowhere to go but down from here.

#

New Season: And Xander steps off the bus, no longer a Sam, owned by the Networks. All his new old friends wait for him in the bubble bar, the first time like the last time like all times forever.

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Posted on: September 12th, 2009 Ribbons. Lightning.

by Joanne Merriam

She saw it coming from the dome: the train like a wide, metallic bolt of lightning, and the people on the bridge. If they started running right away, that second, they just might make it. She shouted at them, the thick metal and glass around her a drum for her voice to echo in.

Their suits were like little universes: no sound from outside. On Earth, they’d have heard the train, she thought. Their backs stubbornly faced the danger, and then were swallowed up by it.

A woman entered the room and said, “hello,” but she ignored her, tears coursing down her face. “Oh, look!” the woman said. “Isn’t that beautiful! I wonder what it is.” The fabric of their suits had caught in the wheels, and, ripped and fluttering in the train’s wake, spun there, reflecting both suns in searing flashes.

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Posted on: September 5th, 2009 Soldier

by Maria Deira
He returns from the war mostly intact, the only noticeable change his inability to look me in the eyes. “Look at me,” I say when we make love. Instead, with his eyes shut tight and his lips pressed to mine, I’m the one who sees everything:
A pair of broken boots, dusty and frayed, mine but not mine. What I would give for a pair of clean socks right now, I think. Just imagining the snug fit of new cotton tube socks is enough to make me come again and again.
A young woman, skin the color of sand, leaning against the doorway of a crumbling house. Her hands curl into two little fists, round and tight. Impermeable walnut shells. “What’s your name?” I want to ask, but she stares past me, through me, with a hot silence that warns me to keep just as still.
A man resting his head against the steering wheel of a car. “Mornin’,” I say, and everything is peaceful until a warm breeze tosses back his hair, revealing a melted face, blistered and dead, greasy tentacles hollowing out his eyes. My nose bleeds, my saliva crystalizes, and all I can do is run away.
The last time we make love, we fuck. And I see myself sitting on a lawn chair, tanned legs neatly crossed, oversized sunglasses substituting as a headband. “You’ll be fine,” I say. “I’ll pray for you.” In my hands, I hold an orange, a miniature orb plucked from the sky. I take a strip of its dimpled rind, shield my front teeth with it, and flash the world a sunny, empty grin. I’m so calm, so vain, so naively cruel — as though the end of our world hasn’t already begun. Looking at myself then, I’ve never felt so scared.

by Maria Deira

He returns from the war mostly intact, the only noticeable change his inability to look me in the eyes. “Look at me,” I say when we make love. Instead, with his eyes shut tight and his lips pressed to mine, I’m the one who sees everything:

A pair of broken boots, dusty and frayed, mine but not mine. What I would give for a pair of clean socks right now, I think. Just imagining the snug fit of new cotton tube socks is enough to make me come again and again.

A young woman, skin the color of sand, leaning against the doorway of a crumbling house. Her hands curl into two little fists, round and tight. Impermeable walnut shells. “What’s your name?” I want to ask, but she stares past me, through me, with a hot silence that warns me to keep just as still.

A man resting his head against the steering wheel of a car. “Mornin’,” I say, and everything is peaceful until a warm breeze tosses back his hair, revealing a melted face, blistered and dead, greasy tentacles hollowing out his eyes. My nose bleeds, my saliva crystalizes, and all I can do is run away.

The last time we make love, we fuck. And I see myself sitting on a lawn chair, tanned legs neatly crossed, oversized sunglasses substituting as a headband. “You’ll be fine,” I say. “I’ll pray for you.” In my hands, I hold an orange, a miniature orb plucked from the sky. I take a strip of its dimpled rind, shield my front teeth with it, and flash the world a sunny, empty grin. I’m so calm, so vain, so naively cruel — as though the end of our world hasn’t already begun. Looking at myself then, I’ve never felt so scared.

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Posted on: August 30th, 2009 Inventory

By Jason Fischer

You are standing at an existential crossroads, a wasteland at your feet and a song on your lips.  Overhead, a trio of mechanical vultures have begun circling, and the red dots of their laser-sights are crawling across your bare chest.

To the west runs a dank near-motionless river, and every now and then something thrashes around in the water.  The way east is blocked by an endless sense of ennui.  South is a burning city, and an ex-wife to whom you owe alimony.  To the north stretches an endless desert, with rumours of a herd of undead camels. There is a gleaming muscle-car parked here, but passage to it is blocked by an enormous white bull.

There is a set of tubular bells here, and a three-legged stool.  There is a sign on the river bank.

Obvious exits are North, South, and Angst.

>READ SIGN

It says “Do Not Swim”

>GO SOUTH

Your wife’s divorce lawyer is eyeing you from the city outskirts.  Are you sure?

>INVENTORY

You are carrying:

Compass
Pistol
Divorce Papers
3 Bullets
Your Sense of Self-Respect
Wet Towel
A Mid-Life Crisis
Toasted Cheese Sandwich

>GET INTO CAR

The bull paws at the ground and snorts.  Are you sure?

>PLAY A SONG

I’m sorry, I can’t understand that command.

>PLAY TUBULAR BELLS

You hit at the bells.  You haven’t been trained in the musical artistry of tubular bells, and the sound seems to anger the bull.  You now regret torching the Tubular Bell Academy.

>SHOOT BULL

Your pistol is unloaded

>LOAD PISTOL

You try, only to discover that these are chocolate bullets.

>LOOK AT BULL

Blocking your passage to the muscle-car is an enormous albino bull.  This powerful creature towers over you, with blood-stained horns and a piercing gaze that speaks of great intelligence.  It is looking at you expectantly, but warily.

>GIVE SANDWICH TO BULL

It sniffs at your cheese sandwich with disgust.  The sandwich appears to be soggy.

>GET STOOL

You pick up the three-legged stool.

>SIT ON STOOL

You sit down on the stool and rest.

[STAMINA +3]

>MILK BULL

What are you, some kind of wise guy?

>READ DIVORCE PAPERS TO BULL

The wet towel has soaked everything in your pack!  The papers are ruined.

>WRING OUT TOWEL

The towel is now dry, and should be safe to put in your pack.

>GIVE BULL YOUR SENSE OF SELF-RESPECT

The bull is satisfied with your offering, and leaps into the river to fight with the unseen water-creature.  It’s an epic battle of the titans, and will likely go on for hours.

>GET INTO CAR

You open the driver’s door and climb in.  It smells good.

>START CAR

The muscle-car roars into life, and the fuel gauge leaps to full.  “Born to be Wild” is playing on the stereo.

>GO NORTH

You floor it.

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