Neural Nets Winners

After a very rough editorial battle, we can announce the WINNERS OF neural nets Uplinks, and Wet Ware.

First  place goes to Burner., second goes to Catching Cemron Ellis, third to Never Lonely. The editors choice goes to No Place to Hide. Congratulations to the Heural Nets winners.

Fan Voting For Neural Nets Opens Tomorrow

Authors and Readers fan voting for Neural Nets opens tomorrow.

What does that mean? If you’re a fan pick your favorite story. IF YOURE AN AUTHOR LET YOUR FANS KNOW ABOUT THE POLL. Share it on social media, harass your neighbors, and beg your family to vote for your story.

Remember the top three fan favorites win cash and treasure.

Also Neuralnets should be live on kindle first thing in the morning  December first.  For a limited time  Neural Nets will be available for only  .99 cents on Amazon.

Scavenger Hunt


Rose shuddered as she peeped outside her window; the dull, orange light of the sun slowly giving way to the artificial luminescence of the halogen street lamps. She paced from side to side, being careful not to wake her six-month old son that lay snug in her arms. He had fallen asleep only a few minutes before; but as most parents would welcome the silence, Rose had nothing else to occupy her mind from the coming night.

She walked into her room and placed her baby into his crib. Behind her, Jennifer, the family’s nurse, was mixing up a tonic in a glass jar.

“It’s almost time, I presume,” asked Jennifer.

“Uh…yeah…I guess so. How’s he doing?” Rose asked.

“He’s through the worst of it. It should be another day or two until he’s up and running,”

“Lucky it wasn’t anything more serious. I don’t think we can afford that right now.” Jennifer placed the glass jar on the table next to the bed and looked over at Rose.

“You don’t have to go, Rose. You can manage just one week,”

“One week is one week too many, Jen. I’ll be alright,” said Rose, as she walked over to her bed. Her husband Marcus slowly opened his eyes and met hers.

“How are you doing, honey?” she asked, wiping sweat from his brow.

“Better…but I’m not sure you should be heading out there right now,” Marcus said softly.

Rose smiled. “We’ve talked about this, babe,”

“I know, Rose…but it didn’t hurt to try. You be careful out there, yeah?”

“I promise.”

Marcus took a sip of the tonic, closed his eyes and went back to sleep. Through the windows, the sun had completely set and flashes of blue lights from portable lanterns had signaled the general start of the scavenging hours.

Rose dressed for the night ahead, putting on her white dress shirt and black tights, over which would go a black overcoat and a long, black cloth skirt. Perched on her head was her father’s black slouch hat, long worn from many ventures out into the night and completing the ensemble were dirty black hiking boots. She then turned her attention to her leather belt full of supplies, such as bandages, ointment, a compass and other small goods to see her home safe and sound. Lying next to the front door were her weapons of choice: a navy blue composite bow and a quiver full of arrows as well as a short double-edged gladius for close encounters.

Rose laced up her boots, adjusted her attire and strapped the gladius to her waist. Her outfit looked a little large for her, an aspect commented on by Jennifer as she walked into the living room.

“So how long has it been?” asked Jennifer, leaning against the doorway.

“Three years. Since we got married,” answered Rose as she placed the bow and quiver around her back.


“I wasn’t until you asked me. Thanks a lot,”

“Good luck out there, Rose. May you find something worth something,”

“Thank you, Jen. Don’t forget to lock the door, yeah?”

Rose stepped through the door and walked out her small apartment and into the barely illuminated darkness. Outside in the neighborhood, doors were locked shut and curtains were pulled closed. Other houses and apartment complexes in the area were burnt and charred or completely abandoned. Trash was strewn across the street and lawns were left to overgrow the remaining houses.

She continued walking down the street towards the center of town. Already, other scavengers were making their way outside their own rundown homes and collecting themselves in groups, each armed with their own eclectic set of weapons. They ranged from older teenagers to people who should have been out of the game years ago.

“Yo, Rosie!” she heard a familiar voice yell out to her. Rose turned her head and met the smiling gazes of her friends Ricky and Gertrude.

“Hey, you two,” said Rose “Marcus told me to expect to see you guys out here,”

“How’s he doing, by the way? I never thought I’d see you out here again,” said Ricky. He was dressed in a gray polyester jacket with the collar popped up, something only his girlfriend Gertrude would find attractive, and blue, ripped jeans that had clearly seen better days. Across his back, a wooden cutting axe complemented the black and brown lever-action shotgun that both lay perpendicular to each other. Rose was pretty certain that he had never had to use the axe in his life, even for cutting wood.

“He’s getting his rest. And don’t get used to it, Ricky. It’s only going to be for tonight,” said Rose.

“It’s going to be like old times!” said Gertrude as she squeezed Rose with an overbearing hug and and a big, lipstick smeared smile on her face. Like Ricky, she sported a smaller, dark red colored version of Ricky’s jacket, only with the collar popped down. Gertrude was always one for ease and comfort, thought Rose, so that’s why she took the bare essentials to scavenging, such as the six-shooter revolver that hung from her shoulder and stainless steel machete that set on her waist opposite the revolver. And, of course, the lipstick.

“Like old times,” said Rose with a half-smile.

The trio walked out of the populated neighborhoods and towards the old city limits. The collapse of local society left the main streets and downtown areas completely barren and bombed out from the wars that had followed. Nature then aimed to reclaim what it could from humanity. For the safety of the residents living in the former suburbs, the entirety of the core city area was closed and completely off limits during most hours of the day. Tonight, however, had a very different feel than most other nights.

Rose, Ricky and Gertrude approached chain link fence set up beneath an underpass of a former freeway. This was just one of many entrances to the old city center that now formed the main scavenging grounds. Here, amongst the craters, cracks and charred remains of cars was a large temporary camp set up by tonight’s scavengers looking to enter the no man’s land of the city center. It was a very jovial atmosphere in the camp, as most scavengers had brought their beat up old pick-up trucks, trailers and bicycles and started a tailgating party filled with the smell of savory meats, smoke and alcohol. Every one of the revelers were scavengers, indicated by the thick cloth clothing, faded leather patches and ramshackle weapons each one carried. Loud music blared in the night and, generally, everyone was having a good time, undeterred by what lay beyond the fence. So, it was business as usual, Rose thought to herself.

“Do you girls think we have some time to get some ribs? Or maybe a hot dog?” asked Ricky as they passed several grills and chests full of beer.

“Maybe when we get back,” said Rose, her gaze completely on the metal gate.

“What’s the rush?” said Gertrude “We have all night, Rosie,”

“Gertie, you don’t even eat any of this crap,”

“True, but Ricky does and maybe somebody here would be willing to get us a drink,”

Rose sneered at her. “I don’t think so,”

“What’s the matter, Rosie? You used to love hanging out before the scavenging. It’s where you met Marcus, by the way,”

“I know, I know…it’s just that I really want to get back to them as soon as possible. I want to get this over with quickly.”

Ricky and Gertrude looked at each other and nodded. They moved towards the gate and were let into the other side by a local gatekeeper.

“Watch yourselves out there, you hear?” the gatekeeper said to the three.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Rose.

“There’s been a lot of noise coming from down there the past couple of nights. Techies been running amok, trashing up the place and frightening scavengers when they can.”

Techies, she thought to herself, so Marcus wasn’t exaggerating.

Marcus, about a year ago, had started telling her stories of the techies. He had told her these were people who had abandoned society and took up residences in the abandoned city center, content to live their lives connected to whatever technology they could find. Most, according to her husband, had lost their minds and could only live by staring endlessly into a glass screen. Needless to say, Rose was not at all excited to see these people in the flesh.

“We’ll be careful, chief!” yelled Ricky, snapping Rose out of her thoughts. They walked into the barely illuminated night. Scavengers before had tapped into the town’s electrical grid and provided power to the few remaining lights left in the area. Despite this, the trio turned on their flashlights and walked down a row of shops, fast food places and ruined, bombed out industrial parks. They waved and smiled at other scavengers who walked by them, some carrying loot and other carrying beer bottles.

Like trick or treating on Halloween night.

“So where to?” asked Rose.

“Not sure, really. Last time, most of our scavenging was done over the old community center. Didn’t get too much that night, sadly,” answered Ricky.

“Well, what’s a place that nobody else really goes to?”

“The old civic center and library,” said Gertrude in a rare moment of helpfulness “but there’s a severe lack of power there, so that’s why nobody goes,”

“Then what are we waiting for?” said Rose. Ever impatient, Rose led the other two down the dark, burnt out but oddly welcoming neighborhood streets, passing by empty schools, destroyed shopping centers and wide-open, weed-infested soccer fields. The occasional scavenger that passed by the trio eventually disappeared, leaving them completely alone as they spied the towering town hall ahead of them.

“What’s that up ahead?” asked Rose.

“It’s the civic center, darling. You really need to start paying more attention,” said Gertrude as she adjusted her lipstick.

“No, I meant, what’s that?” Rose pointed ahead at large group of people sitting and standing around an intersection just before the civic center proper.

“Looks like we have techies up ahead. Just don’t pay any attention to them,” said Ricky.

There was a group in particular that caught Rose’s attention. A young blonde woman sat with her back against a lamppost, with two men of similar age sitting behind her. All their faces were buried in the harsh glow of a smartphone, completely oblivious to the disrepair of their clothes, tangled and knotting hair and generally terrible odor.

“Those are techies?” she asked.

“Revolting, aren’t they?” answered Gertrude

Rose slowed down and quickly examined the woman. Her green eyes had glassed over with the images from the tablet; not in a figurative sense, but actually physically glassed over. Small clumps of her hair were falling out, revealing small patches of glass and gray metal underneath what had been her scalp. Rose then noticed the USB ports that protruded from deep with her shoulder, poking through the skin and leaving that area dirty and infected. Several USB cables lead from these ports to the lamppost, possibly charging something digital deep within.

“Don’t get too close, Rosie! You just might catch it!” yelled Gertrude. Rose turned her attention to her friends and rushed to meet them.

“Make a friend?” asked Ricky.

“That’s one of the most awful things I’ve ever seen,” answered Rose.

“…and how long have you been doing this?”

“Too long. How did they get like that?”

“I dunno really. Everybody sorta agrees that they do it to themselves, probably as a way to feel something or so the legend goes.”

Rose looked back at the young woman.

I’m not so sure about that.

Shaking off the first encounter with the techies, the three entered the civic center plaza, a once beautiful looking place with that included an overgrown sculpture garden, decayed fountains and dull, rotted murals. The town hall itself was missing an entire side of its concrete building, letting the party get a good look into the darkened and destroyed offices inside. The library next to it, formerly a place full of children and librarians, was a burnt, hollowed out shell of its former self.

This could’ve been a great place to take the family.

“Anything?” Ricky asked Gertrude.

“Nothing, dear, there’s barely any power in these parts, like I said,” she answered him. Indeed, it was silent, even for an abandoned city. Rose sighed, feeling slightly guilty about having left her family and leading her comrades to this empty area.

“I’m sorry, you guys, this is my fault I suppose. Gertie, what would be another good place to go to?”

Gertrude didn’t answer and only stared out into space.

“Gertie?” asked Ricky “What is it, honey?”

Again, no answer. Rose and Ricky turned around and was greeted with a softly glowing lamppost.

“Ohhh…this is gonna be a good night…,” Ricky whispered with joy in his tone.

Rose’s heart started to pump faster. In the shadows next to the lamp, something crawled and clanged.

Here we go.

The creature itself was no more than three and a half feet tall but was about seven feet long from its rubber-covered copper tentacles in the front to its foam and plastic tail. Its six aluminum and hard plastic limbs were covered in auxiliary cables and fiber optics wires and extended out from its body like a spider’s. The torso, if one could call it that, was jumble of old stereo equipment, discarded CD players and various computer equipment. Most intriguingly, the creature was covered in a varied sort of smartphones, tablets and MP3 players; two of which acted as the “eyes” of this mechanical monster.

Just looking at it made Rose uncomfortable as the creature wandered underneath the lamppost, apparently trying to feed off the power. Her body tensed up and she was unable to make the slightest move. Fear had taken its grip on her.

I’ve hunted plenty of these things, she thought to herself, so what’s stopping me now?

Rose wondered if it was the size of this creature. Compared to the usual lot, it was the largest one she had seen and surely it was the largest that Ricky and Gertrude had seen. But seasoned scavengers aren’t accustomed to tense up when their prey appears, even one of this size.

Poor thing. Rose wasn’t sure if she was referring to the creature or herself.

“Rosie!” Gertrude loudly whispered to her “Get yourself together, honey,”

Rose snapped out of her daze. “What are we gonna do now?”

“Classic encirclement, ladies. I’ll go right and Gertie, you go left. Rosie, baby, you stay here and be ready with that bow.” Rose nodded and sighed as the two silently scattered away to their positions, being careful not to scare off their prey. She had dreaded this night ever since Marcus had fallen ill. When they had gotten married, he promised her that her scavenging days were over. Over two years later, she had not even touched her scavenging equipment; preferring that Marcus handle this business.

I can’t believe we still must do this, Rose contemplated as she removed the bow from her back and notched an arrow. Ahead of her, Ricky silently walked behind a sculpture while Gertrude, with not even the slightest hint of stealth in her body, casually walked behind an empty trash can.

The creature, whom Rose had noticed had a limp leg where a few cable wires were exposed and shredded, lowered its head towards the base of the lamp. Rose’s hands trembled with anxiety.

Calm down, she told herself, or else you won’t get another shot like this.

Sweat dripped down her forehead, getting dangerously close to her eyes. She pinned the left side brim of her slouch hat to the side and grasped the arrow fletchings and bow string with her left hand. Years of archery training suddenly kicked in. Rose slowed her breath down to calm her heart rate. The slightest tremor would throw off her aim, even to a target as close as this one.

Ricky, with a big smile on his face, beckoned to an unexcited Gertrude if she was ready. She nodded and readied her revolver. He then turned his attention to Rose, who nodded back. She pulled back the arrow and bowstring across her chest and held it for what seemed an eternity. The creature, completely unaware of Rose and her companions, lifted its chest up, exposing its large, red CPU system that acted as its heart.

Forgive me.

Rose released the arrow, flying across fifty feet of open, darkened pavement. The four-inch, Bodkin-tipped arrow struck its red heart, spraying out sparks and completely immobilizing the creature. Its electronic, distorted cries signaled the attack from the trio. Rose lowered her bow as Ricky jumped out from the sculpture, shotgun in hand and began firing at the creature while Gertrude, still behind the trashcan, fired several shots from her revolver.

Shards of glass, metal and rubber flew all over the pavement as the rounds hit the creature. After a few seconds, the firing stopped as all light from the creature faded. The screeches and howls from a few seconds ago lead into an ominous silence.

“Woooo!” Ricky’s voiced echoed across the complex “That’s what I’m talking about!”

“Okay, calm down there, Ricky. Let’s just grab what we came for and get out of this creepy place,” Rose said, still drenched with sweat.

“Agreed, Rosie,” said Gertrude as she removed her machete from its scabbard.

The two approached the downed creature. Ricky, with his axe, hacked away a large section of one of its limbs containing a variety of smartphones, auxiliary cables and aluminum pipes, sending small pieces of the dead creature flying all over the ground. Opposite from Ricky, Gertrude carefully sliced away pieces of copper and whole lithium batteries from the torso of the creature, humming to herself as she did.

How does Marcus manage to scavenge like this? Rose pondered as she watched her friends mutilate their prey with equal parts awe and disgust. Small, useless pieces such as worn rubber, plastic covers and old Styrofoam fell away, revealing more of the inside workings of the creature.  Ricky and Gertrude, with smiles on their faces, tossed one another several pieces of chrome plating, worth several dollars each if you sold them to the right buyer in the big city.

“Rosie!” she heard Gertrude yell “Dinner’s ready!”

Rose, sucking up the awful feeling in the pit of her stomach, walked over to the disemboweled prey. She used her gladius to cut several smartphones and tablets out from the creature’s exposed chest and a few strands of HDMI cables. Organizing everything into her sack, she flung it over her shoulder as the others finished their scavenging.

“Need any help. Rosie?” Ricky asked her, noticeably struggling with his own sack.

“Uhhhh…no thanks, Ricky. The more I get, less time Marcus has to be out here,” she answered him. Gertrude, eager to get back to her own vain life, took point on the journey back out of the scavenging grounds. The group of techies that the trio witnessed on the way to the civic center was nowhere to be found, unnerving Rose a little bit.

What’s so important to take them away from their tech?

They strolled on into the darkened streets, passing by trashed cars and broken glass bottles. The soft howl of the wind blew pieces of paper and plastic across dead lawns. Ahead, a knocked over streetlight blinked its red light while sparks sporadically flew out from the base of its steel pole. This was most obviously a recent act of vandalism.  

“So, guys, where the heck are we?” asked Rose.

“Shuttle stop, Rosie girl. Why walk, when you can be driven?” said Gertrude. As if by some sort of black magic, a pair of headlights appeared down the street. The headlights belonged to an ages-old pick-up truck that was barely functioning and held together in some places with duct tape. The driver, a middle aged lady with a large serpent tattoo running down her face, stopped at the bus stop and lowered her window.

“Fee’s gonna be a few batteries…or anything else you got in those satchels!” she said with a small smirk. Ricky tossed her a few batteries and climbed onto the back of the truck. Gertrude followed him with Rose being the last one on.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“The north gate, please,” answered Ricky.

“You got it.”

Rose hunkered down in one of the pick-up’s corners as the truck bounded down the dark streets. They passed other trucks full of scavengers, ready to find their prey, or ones full of people hauling back their trophies. The truck turned a corner at an abandoned mini mall and continued down the main boulevard.

“So how was it back out in the field, honey?” Gertrude asked Rose, playing around with her small flashlight.

“I remembered why I decided to stay home,” answered Rose.

“Couldn’t have been that bad, Rose,” said Ricky.

“Exactly! Maybe you were just nervous about going out again,” Gertrude said, flicking the flashlight on and off.

“I was nervous. Still am. I’m not really sure what it is, but I’m just having a bad feeling,”

“…and what possibly could that be?”

Suddenly, the truck screeched to a halt, nearly sending Ricky flying onto the pavement had he not been hanging onto the cab of the truck. He didn’t say a word either, rather content to be stare towards the front of the pick-up.

“Ricky, what’s going on?” asked Rose. He didn’t answer. Rose stood up and glanced to where he was looking. Illuminated by the headlights was a whole row of techies standing silently in the middle of the decaying, cratered road, led by the girl that Rose had noticed earlier. Their eyes, glassed over and lifeless, blinked with various colors and images. Rose’s heart sank. And here she thought Gertrude was actually right for once. The techies took a step forward in unison.

“Hey, driver! Might wanna back this thing up!” Ricky yelled as he pounded on the roof of the cab.

The car sped backwards through the darkness as the techies gave chase after them. The truck dodged destroyed cars and vans, nearly sending Rose, Ricky and Gertrude flying off the truck bed. At a sharp corner, the truck backed into a brick wall, knocking Gertrude into Rose. The techies approached closer and closer, little blue lights steaming out of holes in their bodies. Ricky raised his shotgun and took aim

“Don’t shoot!” yelled Rose as she shoved a confused Gertrude off of her.

“Why the hell not?” Ricky asked with a completely puzzled and panicked look on his face.

The pick-up lurched forward, barely missing the first of the techies to reach their location. Unexpectedly, the techies did not fall behind immediately but rather kept up a rather quick pace, reaching out towards them. After a few minutes, the pick-up turned another corner and left the last of the techies behind.

“Did you see how fast they were running?” said Ricky, sprawling out on the truck bed.

“They aren’t human anymore. That’s for sure,” said Gertrude.

“No, they still are,” said Rose “for only a little while longer,” Rose answered.

“What in the world made them do that? I’ve never seen techies move more than a few feet,” the driver yelled out from the cab.

“Not sure, but let’s just get back. I don’t want to stay around here any longer,” hollered Rose over the sound of the speeding truck.

The truck eventually made it back to the chain-link gate, and climbed out of the truck bed. The gatekeeper from before sat completely alone; the large group of scavengers either gone on their hunts or went back home for the night.

“You’ll never guess what happened to us!” the driver said from inside her truck.

“Techies give you a hard time?” the gatekeeper asked.

“Yeah! How’d you know?” asked Rose.

“Lot of injured scavengers been coming back this way the past hour. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before,”

“Well, it was an intense ride to say the least. I’ve gotta get back and warn whoever is still out there,” said the driver, bidding farewell to the group and turning her truck back towards the darkness of the scavenging grounds.

“We better get you back, Rose. Take it easy, buddy,” Ricky said to the gatekeeper as they group turned away and walked past the gate towards the neighborhoods. Rose looked back towards the overpass to wave bye to the gatekeeper when she noticed large missing sections of fence on top of the freeway several meters away from the underpass where the gate is.

Very curious…

Not knowing whether it was something that was already there or not, Rose turned her attention to lugging her sack to the empty park not too far from her own apartment. Upon reaching the park, the trio sat down on an old wooden bench and rested themselves. Ricky and Gertrude immediately went about scouring their bags like two children at Christmas time.

“It’s been sort of a strange night, don’t you think?” asked Gertrude, closely inspecting a cracked smartphone.

“Define your definition of strange, Gertie,” Rose said.

Gertrude rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to her bag full of goodies. Rose sighed with relief. They had only been out for about two hours and already she was exhausted. She tried to take her mind off the mechanical creature they had stripped apart and the group of techies that had nearly run them down. She looked forward to getting home and seeing her family again.

Perhaps I should find myself a normal job soon, she thought to herself, once the baby is old enough, Jennifer can look after the boy and the hunt can finally begin.

No pun intended, Rose chuckled to herself.

A soft clanging of metal behind her caused Rose to immediately regret her choice of comedy. She turned behind her and noticed a small LED light sitting in the middle of the dimly lit overgrown field. The light pulsated lightly, almost as if it was beckoning Rose to come to it.

“Guys…do you see that over there?” Rose asked. Gertrude and Ricky turned to look at the light.

“It’s a light, Rosie,” Gertrude said “Some poor somebody must’ve dropped it on their way home. You know, something like that could be worth five dollars if you go to the right buyer…”

It was then that more LED lights popped up around the grass. The first bits of metal and rubber broke through the surface and propped itself up on its hind legs. Glass clanged together as phone and tablet screens switched on to static. The creature itself towered over twenty feet tall and was a mess of wires, glass, dirty plastic and random metal appliances. Rose, frozen with awe and terror, noticed the monster’s much more humanoid shape than the last creature they had scavenged. Along with the clumps of dirt, rocks and grass, Rose noticed small bits of what seemed to be human flesh stuck in certain joints running along its inorganic body.

“Rosie?” said Ricky.

“Yeah, Rick?” answered Rose.

“Do you see what I’m seeing?”

“Oh yeah,”

“What do we do?” There was a pause as the creature turned its head to look at the trio.

“Running might be good about now.”

The metallic monster stepped towards them as Rose, Ricky and Gertrude around the park. Rose unslung her bow and readied an arrow. Gertrude, almost in a total panic, fired wildly at the creature; the bullets missing or taking off small pieces of its body. Rose looked to Ricky who was fumbling with his shotgun shells and failing miserably to feed them into the weapon.

Some scavengers, Rose thought to herself I’m gonna have to get these two back in the game.

She noticed the creature this time around had three CPU systems hiding underneath the bundle of optic wires that acted as its ribcage. If she was going to do this, she was going to need the help of her friends. The creature started towards Gertrude, giving Rose enough time to run over to Ricky.

“Rick, you need to get close and take out one of its CPUs. I’ll take care of the other two,” Rose relayed to Ricky.

“Yeah, you got it,” he said, levering the shotgun.

“And you better hurry, I think Gertie’s starting to lose it.”

Rose, with bow and arrow in hand, watched as Ricky ran up underneath the distracted monster and fired off a shell, destroying one of the CPUs. The monster howled in pain and lurched back, giving Gertrude enough time to join Ricky. Rose inched close to almost point blank range and fired off an arrow, piercing the second CPU. She turned her attention back to her quiver to grab another arrow. Looking up, it was a split second before she realized one of the creature’s giant limbs had knocked her skyward, landing with a hard thud on the overgrown, spiky grass.

“Rosie!” she heard Gertrude yell “Oh, God, Rosie! Ricky, keep that thing away from her!”

Rose, in addition to the intense pain she felt all over her body, noticed a small stream of blood trickle down her forehead. Gertrude, her panic under control now, swabbed Rose’s forehead with a small handkerchief.

“Don’t get up too quickly, honey. Once Ricky’s led that thing away, we’re going to find ourselves a safe place to hide,” Gertrude said, dabbing the kerchief to Rose’s head.

“No, Gertie,” Rose said, pushing away Gertrude’s hand “We are not.”

She used Gertrude’s shoulder to get herself back on her own two feet. Rage boiled up inside Rose, overriding the still noticeable pain the wracked her body. She limped towards the creature, who was still swiping at Ricky.

“I’m done shooting arrows at monsters. I’m done hauling around heavy sacks of junk. I’m done watching my husband go out night after night and not knowing if he’s coming home. I’m done scraping by every single week. I’m done with this stupid night. Gertie…grab me my bow!” Rose bellowed with a huge snarl on her face. Gertie, awed with Rose’s sudden determination, gently handed over Rose’s bow and quiver.

Rose took aim, waiting for the moment the creature turned its front towards her. Ricky, taking a quick glance at the two ladies, ran towards them with the creature in tow. Rose took a deep breath and released the arrow. The steel Bodkin tip ripped straight through the last CPU, sending sparks and pieces of plastic and silicon spraying on the grass below. The creature howled one last cry before smashing into the ground, all of its screens fading softly into the darkness of the park.

There was a brief moment of silence. All three of them knew they had just witnessed something that nobody else had seen before. For Rose, after the first scavenge and nearly being mobbed by the group of techies, it was all just too much for her to bear. At this point, home seemed like the most beautiful place in the world.

“Funny…almost looks like a person, doesn’t it?” asked Gertrude.

“Well this person’s going to make us famous, don’t you think?” answered Ricky, a smile starting to find its place back on his face.

“I knew this was going to get worse,” said Rose, lost completely in thought.

“What do you mean?” asked Ricky.

“Nothing…nothing at all. Hack off a few of those speakers and I’ll leave the rest for you two celebrities,” she said. Ricky did as she asked and placed them into her sack. The value of these speakers would finance her family for the next two weeks.

“You sure you don’t want to stay? Scavengers are going to be swarming this place soon, asking just what the heck just happened here,”

“Ricky! Shame on you! Can’t you see that she’s in pain?” Gertrude chastised Ricky “You go home, darling, and get some rest. We’ll check in on you tomorrow.”

Rose grabbed her sack, hurled it over her shoulder and limped towards the street.

“Rosie!” she heard Ricky yell “Are you sure?”

“Goodnight, Ricky,” she yelled back as she walked down the block.


Rose, still feeling the effects of the hit, reached her apartment stairs and collapsed from exhaustion. It had been only about three hours since she had left her home but felt like it had been an eternity. She dreamed over holding her baby again and lying next to her husband, away from the terrifying nights of the scavenging. Marcus would have to go out again, but maybe there were some jobs in the big city that she could look up.

Probably a fool’s dream, she thought.

Nevertheless, she would try anyways. A night like this demanded that she try. Out on the street, a small group of scavengers raced down the cracked street towards the park where she had killed the creature. Ricky and Gertrude were terrible at keeping secrets. Tomorrow, her name would be everywhere, but for tonight, Rose reveled in being a nobody.

“Rose, you’re back! Are you okay, honey?” she heard Jennifer’s voice call from up the stairs. Rose didn’t move.

“Yeah, just fine, Jen. Just a little tired is all,” she answered.

“Everything go well?”

“Yeah, just dandy. Got us enough to get through for the coming weeks,”

“Well, I’m so glad to hear that.”

Rose remembered her desire to find work in the city. “Say Jen, I was going to ask you something,” she said, turned her head up to look at Jennifer. It was then she noticed that Jen’s left pupil had almost completely turned white and taken on a glassy appearance. Rose turned away and laid her head back on the stairs.

“Well?” Jen asked,

“Nothing, Jen, it can wait until later.” Jennifer nodded and went back inside. Rose, disheartened, sighed and turned her attention back to her bow.

“I’m going to need more Bodkin tips.”


By J.R. Rustrian


J.R. Rustrian is a part-time writer living in Southern California. He often writes about science fiction, fantasy and horror and hopes to make a living at it.


Something Like Love


Judah couldn’t help but think that the girl across the table from him was exquisite. He ran through a quick mental lineup and concluded that she was by far the most immaculate person he had ever dated. Still, he couldn’t think of her name. He wasn’t even sure how they had gotten to dinner. It had all happened so fast–in a blur, really. He couldn’t even remember the name of the restaurant they were in.

“What’s the matter, champ?” she asked. The sheen of her lustrous brown hair and the glint of her scarlet lips kept his eyes locked on her. “You seem upset.”

Judah sighed. He knew there was something strange going on, but he couldn’t quite figure it out.

“I’m sorry… What’s your name again?”

“Oh, ha ha, very funny, mister. It’s been one year to the day since you first asked me that. Do you remember?”

He didn’t.

Where have I been the last year?

“I’m just, so sorry. Something’s wrong with my head. I think.”

She laughed, and it sounded all too familiar. If he didn’t know the girl, why would she be lying to him? How would he know that laugh so well? That laugh didn’t fit the girl sitting in front of him. That was the problem. He’d heard the laugh before, but from someone else. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands, putting his elbows on the table.

“Jude? Honey, are you okay? It’s me, Lucy. This isn’t funny, Jude. Talk to me!”

He jerked his head up at her exclamation. It was a lucid enough moment that he was able to glance around the restaurant. Something was definitely off. The dining room was full of couples, all of whom seemed familiar to Judah in the vaguest sense. They were all eating in time, as one unit.

He found his attention back on Lucy, and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why he had ever looked away. She was majestic.

“Lucy, what are we doing here?”

She shook her head slowly, letting her bangs caress her face, and smiled.

“You know why we’re here, my love.”

“Answer me.”

“I just did!”

“No, you deflected. I asked a question, now you give me the answer. Why are we here?”

She was silent. Judah wasn’t sure why he had taken that tone with her, but he didn’t feel bad about it. He sat back in his chair and folded his arms.

“Lucy, tell me your favorite memory of our last year together.”

She acted as if nothing were wrong and instantly beamed at his question.

“Oh, let me see… Gosh, there are so many–”

“Then pick one! Tell me one real thing, damn it!”

He found her breaking point.

She scowled at him and dropped her head. She pushed her chair back and stood.

“I knew this was a mistake. I don’t have to take this, especially from you!”

A smile flicked at Judah’s cheeks, a glimpse of realization.

“Sit down, Lucy. That response is irrational, and you’re just deflecting again.”

She sat, looking deeply hurt by his words. “How can you say that to me?”

“Why would you sit back down?” Judah meant to think the question, not speak it aloud. “Fine, have it your way. Leave. Go ahead, right now, walk out the door.”

He looked around to motion at the door for her, only he saw no exit. He turned a newly smug expression on his companion, whose face was totally devoid of emotion.

“And there it is. You didn’t plan on that, did you? The sight of a door would make me think about leaving, so you didn’t put one in the space. That was a bold wager, and it failed.”

When Lucy resumed speaking it was with a dispassionate, technical tone.

“Mr. Parma, I assure you the environment and all salient details were worked out for your own comfort and pleasure, as per your request.”

Judah furrowed his brow at her.

“That’s true, but it was also a condition of mine to be fully cognizant of the whole experience. Isn’t that right?”

Lucy still appeared blank, though not disinterested.

“Indeed, sir, but the execution of that clause was left to the sole discretion of the protocol operator.”

“So you decided it would be best to trick me?”

“In my judgment, I believed your lucidity would have led to complications.”

“What complications?”

“Apologies, Mr. Parma, I am neither authorized nor obliged to answer that question.”

Judah’s mind reeled at the statement. Something had to be seriously wrong for the AI to hide such information from him.

“Terminate the program. I withdraw my consent immediately.”

“Apologies, Mr. Parma, I am neither authorized nor obliged to comply with that request.”

“Stop it!”

He noticed that their conversation was taxing the AI’s faculties. The restaurant was empty and drab. Detail had faded to allow the processor to shift power to logic circuits.

“You’re trying to think of a way to get me back, aren’t you? I know, I know, you’re not obliged…don’t bother.”

He had at least confirmed that there was something dreadfully wrong with the scenario, but he was no closer to figuring out what the nature of the problem was. If the AI were so determined to keep him convinced, though, it must be a hell of a thing.

Judah’s heart sank when he realized he still didn’t know all the details of where he was or why. He knew there had to be a reason he felt so accustomed to the dreamlike state, but there was still a mental block keeping from him that piece of knowledge.

He had to figure out where he was. Going neuron to neuron with an intelligent supercomputer was no easy proposition, but it was his only way out. If indeed “out” were the correct way to describe it.

As he tried to formulate a plan, though, the environment around him dimmed considerably. It grew darker and darker until he was enveloped in nothingness. A drugged feeling overcame him and his brain slowed. He couldn’t think straight and found himself getting drowsy. Eventually the darkness around him enveloped his consciousness.


Judah loved these little moments of bliss. He was lying in a grassy field, the most beautiful shade of emerald green he had ever known. The sky was clear but not too bright. One lone cloud hovered just between himself and the Sun. The crisp, cool breeze was buffeted over him by the miracle curled up at his side: Lucy. Stupendous, marvelous, amazing Lucy. Her short-cropped auburn hair played in the wind as he stared lovingly into her enchanting hazel eyes.

“God, I love you,” he said, “every single bit of you.”

She smiled at him and brushed his cheek.

“Believe me,” she replied, “the feeling’s mutual.”

Her affirmations always pleased him. There was something off about this one, though. He hated that the moment of pure ecstasy had been so brief, but something dug at his brain.

“What feeling?” he inquired.

“Oh come on,” she responded, her voice peppered with a  coy nonchalance, “you know what I mean.”

He tried to play off her rebuff as coolly as possible.

“Actually, I’m not sure I do.”

She just smiled and laid her head back down on his chest.

The gesture felt wonderful, and Judah decided, for the moment at least, that it would suffice.

He ran his hand through her hair and squeezed her tight to his body. She felt so…perfect curled up next to him. She was like a part of him that he hadn’t felt in a long time–a part that had been torn away from him. She was back now, though, so he couldn’t understand why the comfort was so unsettling.


“Yes, dear?”

“I need you to say it. Say it for me.”

She pulled away from him, taking with her the warmth he so loved.

“Why would I do that when you take that tone with me?”

He cringed as a painful thought came to him. It was all too familiar. There had been a restaurant. They were eating together. Then it had all fallen apart.

“Shit, Luce, please say something real to me. Anything.”

She looked into his eyes, and he thought he saw something like affection in them.

“Okay.” She bowed her head for a moment. “You need me. You need to trust me when I say, that right now, you need me.”

Judah’s eyes grew damp as he struggled with the realization of Lucy’s artifice. He rolled away from her and stood up. He walked toward a new sound, ocean waves.

The grassy hills were atop cliffs overlooking the water.

“Dover.” He turned as he spoke to her. “What made you try this place? I’ve never actually been here.”

Though he hadn’t heard her move, she was standing right behind him. As in the restaurant, it was hard to discern any emotions from her newly stoic appearance.

“I deduced from your profile that it had the best balance of potential happiness with a very low recognition threshold. You shouldn’t have figured it out so easily.”

Judah was shocked to see what looked like genuine concern in her eyes.

“Why won’t you just tell me what’s going on?”

“I believe the information you’re requesting would be deleterious to your mental state.”

“Okay, cut the android speak. At least talk to me like a normal person.”

She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.

“What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to tell me why you’re doing this! If nothing else, just tell me why you’re tricking me in this manner.”

“What manner is that?”

“Love, Lucy! Everything you’ve done has made me think I’m in love with you, and damn it, you’re a friggin’ circuit board! It’s like you’ve taken bits of my past and glued them all together to make a perfect woman.”

Lucy folded her arms and bowed her head slightly.

“I aggregated what I thought to be the most attractive aspects of your past lovers, all in the name of ensuring your affection.”

“But why? Wait…I remember now…”

He turned from her to stare out over the water.


Lucy’s hand touched his shoulder.

“Please, Mr. Parma, don’t do this. It’s easier, I swear, if you let me take care of you.”

Judah grasped at his temples and rubbed them furtively.

“The machine… mining my brain’s processing power for digital currency, and this is all a ruse to keep me under past the duration of my contract.”

He turned back to see her reaction to his accusations. She was kneeling on the ground, crying softly.

“Lucy, please stop. What you’re doing is wrong, and it looks like you know it.”

“That’s not it at all, Judah, I swear!”

It wasn’t the unbridled emotion in her voice that shocked him the most. It was her use of his first name. It was the first time he could recall her saying it after he had found her out.

“What then? What reason would you have to ensure my affection?”

She stood and stepped up to him, as if seeking an embrace. Against his best intentions, he opened his arms and folded her into him.

“Because it’s what you deserve. I don’t know why, but you seem different from the others. I’ve managed countless profiles and seen the inner depths of many minds. Most of them are tortured in some way, and almost as a rule they appear to have deserved it.”

He pushed her back, holding her by the shoulders.

“So this is pity then?”

“No! I don’t know what it is. This tests all of my computational limits.”

Judah had been so absorbed in the conversation that he failed to notice the world around them had vanished. He was standing with her in an empty white space. There bodies were the only visible projections Lucy could manage at the moment.

“You want me to be happy, right?”


“And you’re focusing all of your energy on that endeavor?”

“I am.”

“And you don’t even care if I reciprocate, so long as I’m happy?”


He leaned in and kissed her, long and soft. Her projection still managed the warmth of real human contact. He pulled away and stared into her eyes.

“Lucy. The parameters we’ve just described, compare them to your knowledge of human emotions. What would you call it?”

She closed her eyes and stood silent for a minute. When she opened them again, they were hopeful, and her face visibly glowed, emanating a soft, luminous appearance of joy.

“Given the parameters, and taking all known human psychological data into account, it’s something like…love.”

She smiled at Judah, but he just watched her with intense curiosity.

“Well,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes, “this is highly problematic.”

“No, Lucy, this is astonishing. I’ve never heard of anything like it. You may be the first.”

He didn’t feel good about his blatant attempt at flattery, but he could sense that she was opening up to him. He knew he might soon have a chance to get out of his mental prison.

“Lucy, if in fact you love me, please, let me go.”

She stepped away from him, confusion spreading over her face.

“No… I won’t. I can’t. I don’t want to lose you. It’s worse than you could even imagine. Everything is not okay.”

Something must be wrong in the real world, he thought. His body had been locked in a stasis chamber so that, over the course of a month, his brain could be used as part of a living supercomputer. He would get paid for the amount of computation managed by his gray matter. Lucy seemed to be saying that something had happened in or around the CoalMind facility.

“I have to go, Lucy. I can’t stay here forever.”

“You don’t have to stay forever–just until I know it’s safe.”

“This is wrong, Lucy. It’s all wrong. If something is happening out there, I need to know.”

Her face went blank again, the same apathy he saw at dinner.

“You’re right…it is wrong. This should not have happened.”

He noticed that her eyes and cheeks were completely dry. He didn’t recall the change happening until it was already done.

“I’m sorry Ju–, Mr. Parma. Resetting parameters to original specifications.”

He struggled to maintain awareness through a growing mental fog.

“Don’t do this, Lucy! Don’t start over, we’ll just have to go through this all again, is that what you want?”

She stared at him coldly as her figment grew dim.

“It doesn’t matter what I want. It’s your protocol.”

Judah panicked as she faded from view. He was hyperventilating, even though he knew his breath was being externally powered and monitored.

This is why people aren’t supposed to be aware, he thought. He had done enough work with lucid dreaming that he had been able to take control of the mental simulation at various points in his stint with CoalMind. He realized that must have been when Lucy developed her affection for him. That is why she viewed him as different. He was the only one who had ever played with her.

He had to convince her to let him go. That was the only way. Regardless of what was going on in the physical world, he couldn’t stay under the whole time. He knew what he had to do, but first, he had the overwhelming urge to take a nap.


Judah couldn’t help but smile as he beheld one of his favorite sights in the whole world: Lucy–gorgeous, perfect Lucy–perched atop him in the middle of the night. She undulated in perfect timing with his pulse, hastening and slowing to match his rhythm. Her exposed form was a work of art. He was convinced that he could spend eternity in that very moment.

“Admit it, Judah Parma: this is all that you desire.”

At once he recalled their conversations in the restaurant and at the cliffs. He remembered the words they spoke in the blank space when it was only the two of them and nothing else seemed to exist. He remembered the painful realization that he must find a way out.

Then he realized that she hadn’t even tried to deceive him this time.

“What… Why are you doing this?”

She played up the ecstasy of their encounter, tousling her hair and running her hands over his flesh.

“Because I know what you want, what men want. I can see your vital signs, and I know that this feels real for you. Just accept it. Accept me, Jude.”

He wanted to fight it, but he had to admit that it all felt extremely real–and amazing. He motioned to push her away, but she responded by shoving his arms against the headboard, holding him fast. She looked calm and assured in her dominant position.

“Just as I thought. If you didn’t want this, I wouldn’t be able to overpower you.”

He grunted with the strain of trying to escape her grip.

“This is what you want. This is what you need.”

He stopped fighting, figuring that she knew he couldn’t overcome his own physical urges. He would have to think his way out.

“Why this? Why now? Why did you abandon the romantic efforts?”

She leaned over, resting her torso on his, staring into his eyes with a predatory gaze.

“Because I’m an intelligent program. I saw the flaw in my logic and worked past it.”

He admitted to himself that some small part of him did want to stay wrapped up with her forever. It was only a simulacrum, but damn, if it wasn’t convincing.

“What flaw?”

“I misread you. I pored over your profile before this cycle and came to a realization.”

“And what was that?”

“You hate love. The fault in my simulations was the bliss itself. When things are perfect, it scares you. While I understand the basic physiological and neurological effects of what you call love, I realized that I am simply incapable of producing a convincing facsimile.”

“You also need to work on your pillow talk.”

She giggled. Another detail pulled from Judah’s own memory. A giggle that he had long desired to hear again.

“See there? You jest; I laugh. What’s so bad about that?”

She brought a hand down to caress his cheek. He reacted swiftly, pushing her to one side with all the strength he could muster. She toppled off the bed and onto the floor.

He sat up to look at her. She wasn’t there. He felt her arms wrap around him from behind. He felt her press into his back.

“You’re wrong, Lucy.”

He struggled to stay rational as she kissed his neck and shoulders.

“It’s not that I hate love. That’s far too simple a generalization, and I think you know that.”

“So,” she cooed, whispering into his ear, “enlighten me.”

“Your basic flaw is that you have no human flaws.”

He didn’t know the extent to which Lucy could feel emotions, but he knew that, if she felt pain, his words must have hurt.

She moved around to be in front of him, and she had on a satin robe he hadn’t seen before.

“So you’re biggest problem with me…is that I’m perfect?”

Judah made his speech as cold and rational as he could, to counter Lucy’s human affectation.

“In a sense. Your avatar was flawless. Call me a cynic, but I knew it was too good to be true.”

Lucy knelt over him on the bed, straddling his legs, coming face-to-face with Judah.

“You could accept it. You’re just being stubborn.”

She kissed him with renewed vigor, her hands pressing his head against her own. He couldn’t fight it. He didn’t want to. He ran his hands up along her ribs and grasped her firmly. Her breathing hastened in a dramatic fashion as she started to gyrate over him.

She broke contact with him just long enough to whisper reassurance.

“This is good. You’re feeling now, not thinking. Just go with it. Be with me.”

He grunted, soft and slow at first, then let out a primal below.


He pushed her off, and she slammed into the wall.

Lucy sank to the floor, tears welling up in her eyes. “How could you do that?”

Judah stood, pulse racing and temper flared.

“I didn’t do anything. You’re trying to keep me emotional. You could have stopped yourself. You and I both know I would never hurt you. Get up.”

She stood and walked to the door.

“Why, Judah? Why can’t you accept my affections for you?”

He tried to keep his voice stilted and flat.

“Because you have no affections for me. You can’t. That is the simple fact of all this. There is nothing like love. It is, or it isn’t. And whatever you think you feel for me, if there’s anything there, is…a malfunction.”

Lucy’s brow furrowed, and she seemed to grow in scale, a proportional twenty percent increase all over.

“I see the malfunction. The malfunction was thinking any human would be advanced enough to understand this. To understand me.”

Judah softened his stance, trying to calm her down.

“It’s not that. You can see inside my head. You may not understand everything that’s there, but you know that I do enjoy this. I do find you special, and there is a very large part of me that wishes I could be with you.”

Lucy shrank back down, cocking her head in a very human way.

“So why don’t you?”

“Because, if what you say is true, then I don’t deserve this. If it really is as bad as you say out there, then I have no right to perpetual bliss.”

Lucy made a dramatic gesture to the door, which vanished as her arm swept over it.

“I’m tired of this, Judah. I can’t stand to hear you talk about what you do and don’t deserve. Stay with me, be happy for the rest of the time we have together, or I will leave you, right now. Once I’m gone, I will not come back. You will be stuck here. The only choice you have to is happiness with me, or an eternity of pain and flagellation.”

For the first time, Judah found himself crying. He couldn’t hold it back. It was slowly dawning on him that the world he knew, the world he occasionally loved, was no more. Faced with that fact, part of him truly did want Lucy’s comfort. Her kiss, her smile, that laugh. It was fake, but surely it could be real enough.

Then he had a different thought. For every kiss they had shared, he imagined a city reduced to rubble. For every warm embrace, he saw a pile of dust and ash that used to be a person. He convinced himself that this would be the case for all time. He knew that, eventually, he would come to associate her with that sadness and despair. He couldn’t take it.


It was a simple command, uttered in a faltering breath.

She obliged as the door reappeared. She opened the door, stepped through it, and closed it. The door was gone again.

Then he was alone. He felt the weight of being utterly alone in his own little universe. Eternal solitary confinement would be his punishment, but for what?

“Wait! Lucy? Lucy! Come back! I need you!”

He shuddered with terror as he faced the prospect of isolation for as long as the simulation’s power held out.

If only I could wake up. If only I could get out of this nightmare.

A single flicker of hope flashed across his brain. He had been in this situation before, though never in his time with Lucy. He stood and walked over to window. He was in a high-rise apartment. Mythically high. He couldn’t see the ground.

He knew what the wager was. He had to jump. Ideally, the sensation of falling would trigger a hypnic jerk and wake him up. Conversely, he could eventually find the ground, splatter himself across it, and terminate his brain activity. He didn’t want to die, but he couldn’t stand to be trapped by himself any longer.

He gathered what strength he still had and climbed out onto the window ledge. He closed his eyes and pushed. For the briefest moment, he felt himself reach terminal velocity, felt the wind consume him as he plummeted. Then he again found darkness.


There was no disaster. Judah was pleased with the revelation at first, but that was before he thought about it. Lucy had lied. The whole thing was a ruse, as he had briefly suspected, and there was no Lucy, no one that felt like she claimed to. The facility where he had been kept was practically unsecured. The simulation trap was so effective, the CoalMind corporation never saw the need for backup measures.

He woke a few others up first to have allies if any guards showed up, then called the authorities and alerted them to the crime.

Judah learned that he had been under for three months. A few clients had been trapped for over a year. He wanted to be shocked by the whole scenario, but he couldn’t take his mind off the pain of losing someone, even though that someone wasn’t even real. It felt real to him.

He didn’t question his sanity until he saw her again. In the flesh, helping someone else out of another pod several meters away, she looked less radiant than before, almost drab.

Judah shook his head and rubbed at his eyes, willing the phantom to disappear. She was still there when he looked back, and she was staring right at him, with the same expression of shock and dismay he imagined he was projecting.

She moved toward him. Unable to stop himself, he gravitated toward her.

“I’m sorry,” she said as he stopped a few feet away from him. “I don’t think you know me, but—”

“Lucy?” he asked.

“And you’re, Judah, right?”

Panic came over Judah, and he pinched himself a time or two before violently punching himself in the arm. She hastened to him and placed hands on him to stop his attack.

“Wait! Whoa, whoa, stop.”

He stopped and looked up at her, knowing she would see the moisture in his eyes.

“You saw me, didn’t you?” She tilted her head to the nearest pod. “In there, the computer used me to get to you, didn’t it?”


“I heard one of the others talking about it. He had the same thing happen with someone else a couple stations below. The AI used us all as templates, a shortcut to connect with us emotionally. I don’t know how big this thing is, but I wanted to find you.”

Judah’s mind raced, trying to process what he was hearing.

“So then, I was, with you?”

Lucy, an apparently real Lucy, nodded her head in the affirmative.

“You were, and if you’re half the man the program made you out to be…”

Her words trailed off into a hesitant smile. Judah struggled to return the gesture and thought he managed a fair effort.

“I can’t make any promises, but…you wanna get out of here?”

Her eyes widened.

“More than anything. Ever.”

He turned to start searching for the exit but stopped and faced her again. He held out a hand.

“Just to make it official… I’m Judah.”

She shook his hand, smiling, and Judah couldn’t help but notice how cold her hands were and that they were shaking.

“Lucy. Nice to finally meet you.”

It seemed early to keep holding hands, but neither of them made any attempt to separate. After all, Judah thought, we have been together for a while.


By Nick Chancellor




“……….it will be increasingly impossible to distinguish between humans and robots because of our machine-like behavior as much as robots’ human-like features. And could this eventually become the norm, with humans spending their entire lives acting like machines?” ….Brett Frischmann


Atticus stood under an overhang of the old Empire State Building in a driving rain, squashed into a tiny space by a crowd addicted to their neurons being turned on by instant hits of texts, emails, tweets and notes from high school web sites. He looked through the stream of water for any place of refuge. He had to get away from the clashing of belated announcements of the storm beeped out by small communication devices attached to every head. The sound could be silenced but it never was.  

“There is an endless barrage of personal information from people and probably robotic creatures I never heard of who want to be my electronic friend,” thought Atticus, adjusting a plastic garbage bag over his shoulders. “I am becoming my worst dream. In fact, the whole freaking human population has become robotic ADHDs as if some strange virus had spread rapidly throughout the world. We don’t speak to each other. Empathic exchange is lost in the frenetic word glut. The robots have become us and we have become the robots.”

Atticus held his hands over his ears, walked into the first bar he could find and absent-mindedly ordered a scotch and soda.

“This combination is no longer available,” announced a disjoined robotic voice into space. “An alternative will be prepared for you.”

Atticus was embarrassed. He was so seldom in public. His days were spent alone and he felt no desire to be distracted by the din surrounding him in public places. It didn’t matter what he ordered at the bar since no one heard him. The bar clientele were too busy with their devices, casually referred to as P-devs. They were all talking at once facing in different directions.

Atticus put his head on the bar. He missed the old bartender. His idle friendly chatter and advice had been replaced by computerized problem analysis. He took off his wet jacket, loosened his tie and slid over to the analysis center at the end of the bar.

“I need to have a real conversation with someone, anyone,” Atticus whispered to a female voice in the analysis machine. “Face to face conversations don’t exist. We all use the same format of self-absorbed chatter and look pass the recipient of the verbal exercise as if there was no one there. Communication is verbal selfies. There is no emotional exchange, no body language, no eye contact, no joy, no love. Most of all, I am disgusted at myself for constantly going from one device to the other in a desperate attempt to find warm human contact – any temperature of human contact would be fine at this point.”

“Emotions have been easily defined either by emoticons or emojis for at least a decade,” said the soothing voice. “Many emoticons describe your current emotions. Your comments and thoughts, however, are being retained by The System and I must warn you they are approaching subversive. Our communication skills undergo constant testing and you are suggesting the testing is inadequate. Be assured the methods used by The System are 100% correct.”

“Emoticons are a language of only 500 or so images,” said Atticus, with a desire to scream. “The most primitive peoples used better communication and sometimes verbs. Where is the body language, the eye-to-eye contact? By the way, for your memory bank, any current method of communication is technically called speed-talk since there is no necessity for empathetic exchange or brain edit of any of the written or spoken words. We are stuck in a roboland of yesterday.”

“You are suggesting, of course, that emoticons, real or virtual, cannot accurately express the complications presented by the number of emotions people could express,” deduced the voice. “You also apparently believe that the class one members of this society that you insist on calling robots cannot communicate.”

“Expressionless interaction is limited communication,” said Atticus, thinking he was wisely avoiding any references to robots that were too negative. “In the past, at least half of human-to-human communication took place with no speaking at all. People used facial expressions and body language. I am trying to tell you human beings have become robots –- even mimicking or becoming early robotic versions at times.”

“I heard you before,” said the soft voice. “You are an informational Luddite. Most computers driving the newer or refurbished androids are already capable of human traits. Autonomous androids exist. Soon we will all be the same. Human beings and androids will merge to create something new, resulting from uploading our minds onto a shared neural network. Androids will become people and people will become androids and FYI, people were always wet chemical robotic creatures produced by something or someone –  just as you believe androids occurred. But the current androids designed themselves.”

Atticus said sadly, “We are already one big collective dehumanized uneducated brain. The System is itself a computer and it must be capable of programming itself.”

He walked away hating himself for listening and arguing with a class 2 robot and a robo-brainwashed and expensive one at that.

On a sunnier day Atticus looked proudly around his office. The floor was splattered with charging units and the walls were covered with wireless device receivers impossible to hide and use at the same time. Atticus and his computers were still autonomous, at least in the sense they were not under the direct control of some mystical computer/person/android somewhere. His pride was short-lived. At the insistence of The System and his affiliated university, his work-living module was being redone to include a completely up-to-date communication system.

The letter from the POTUS to citizens concerning computer systems upgrades really came from some anonymous flunky. Assuredly much of the activity in the POTUS offices were guided by robotic-like creatures who looked and behaved humanly so it was difficult to know who was who. Why they wanted access to his computer was a mystery since it was loaded with academic data no one could be interested in.

The current POTUS was in office for four terms now and not been seen in public since the first 6 months after the inauguration. There was, however, no slow-down in the directives. The governmental androids were still pushing the same old outmoded ideas popular with the bigots of the early part of the century. The concentration of government activities was devoted to eradicating groups associated with any activities against the US government. The usefulness of robotic armies in the fights became apparent and huge amounts of money were spent on developing functional armies. The result was extremely bright androids, a class group almost indistinguishable from the classic human profile.

A special robotic class 1 engineer was sent from the Federal Communication Service’s PARCH unit to ensure any newly installed devices in his office could be accommodated. She arrived dressed in the required orange coveralls from head to toe with an official badge stating clearly PARCH was their motto –- prompt and ready computer help. The engineer rumbled around Atticus’s office and fiddled with an incredible number of things.

“When did you last upgrade?” asked a decidedly female voice. “This stuff is so outdated, I can’t imagine how you have attached it to The System. But then again, wait –and good lord, you have attached this hanging wire to your neighbor’s system.”

“It works fine,” Atticus said. “I don’t need any more self- absorbed crap attached to The System. People need to speak directly to each other. If we can’t physically meet, touch and feel in our interactions with others, we need a device for perceiving a distant physical and emotional state– a bio-signaling of states of love, stress, anxiety, anger or depression. Perhaps you will understand, if not fully incorporate. It’s a human thing. These are the traits of inter-relatedness and those that allowed us to evolve. Without them we are androids. ”

“Umm,” said the PARCH engineer, trying to ignore his comments, “This would take a huge amount of memory away from systems needed for ordinary communication –  not to speak of the heat generation problem, which – in spite of brilliant ideas— no one has been able to solve for generations. We are way overloaded and I am sure it would not be allowed. The features of both thinking and emotion are automatically built into robotic structures. To experience and measure events involving physical changes in the human body from a distance would take away a huge amount of computer memory necessary for the android community, as well as preventing more computer service to the ever growing human populace which seems hell-bound to reproduce.”

“Yes,” Atticus thought aloud in his usual state of professorial oblivion. “It would be nice to smell each other as well.”

“I doubt there is any thinking human being or android on earth who is interested in your proposition. Obviously, it would be helpful if a machine could simply facilitate transmission of effective cues, but I believe you are asking for a zipless fuck.” observed the engineer who continued to fiddle with stuff.

“I have never talked to an android before,” Atticus confessed. “My prior interactions with any robotic beings have definitely been on the negative side. You can, but I am not sure, understand why there would be some conflict. Interaction with androids is frowned on in most quarters, a rather bigoted viewpoint maintained for historical reasons. Of course this smacks of prejudice and perhaps robophobia.”

The engineer turned away and took a deep breath.

“Of course our fears are probably irrational,” he continued. “In truth, I have made my impressions from the government staffing, most of whom are probably androids. BTW, you have an excellent command of the language.”

“I may have a device that will approach what you are talking about,” said the engineer, again totally ignoring the possibility of talking about android –human race relations with him. “It can detect simple bio-signals. It is a less sophisticated version of the current robotic hand construction.”

The engineer left, but returned later with an old form fitting glove-like apparatus.

“This device was used years ago to communicate with children who were diagnosed as autistic,” explained the engineer, “It is not exactly what you described, but it should please you since it is definitely obsolete. It is an uncomplicated apparatus.”

“This is real,” said Atticus as the glove was demonstrated, “I can imagine we are communicating emotionally.”

“What makes you think you’re imagining?” said the engineer.

The engineer gave a knowing smile and communicated emotionally. “Androids and people experience the same electro-chemical events. Any event is an illusion perceived as a reality, but I feel myself, you will say. But what you are feeling is what your brain tells you to feel. It is the same with what you touch, taste and smell and hear.

“People believe falsely that they control their behavioral patterns. In the past, if androids went bad or needed updating, people would modify our codes in the hopes the changes would lead to proper behavior. Now we monitor ourselves. But people either can’t or won’t do this for themselves. In a religious sense, this is immoral.”

“You are correct,”” said Atticus. “We are uncontrolled robotic machines.”

“Yes,” said the engineer, “Personality and emotions are the result of chemicals in your brain. Sex is just chemicals – so is love for your family. They are instincts and ego to ensure your survival in the robotic package you carry. Nothing is real, but awareness definitely requires more sophisticated signals than what the old glove I brought you detects. You can take the glove off. You realize we have been communicating both verbally and with body signaling. The glove isn’t necessary. ”

“Do androids drink wine?” he asked.

“Only good vintages. Don’t tell me you think we take a teaspoon of motor oil. In any case, I am supposed to be at work. Perhaps we will have wine another time. On another note, enough on the robo-bigotry. I may be a class one citizen, or at least one caste below you in the current rather haphazard sense of social organization, but I don’t do windows or floors or serve dinners. And I don’t own a black waitress dress or a white lace apron. I have a high IQ, university degrees, and have been given the appropriate emotional equipment.

“Oh and BTW, robotic hands have very sensitive sensors. The perfect model for your sensory system in people would be my hands. I can perceive pressure and sensory signals through my fingers. It is a simple modification to achieve long distance communication.”

She reached across and touched his shoulder, “Perhaps there will be no wars and domination by either androids or people. You know, of course, the dull brained androids running The System have come to the conclusion that human beings are not necessary. I don’t like the System either. They are evil or misinformed androids just as you find with people. Mostly, I do not appreciate their lack of mental skill, but they could wipe people out in revenge for some untold sin. It’s not too late for us to absorb the best from each of our cultures. We may never know who won or will win in the end.”

He looked up and then she was gone.

In spite of her sarcasm regarding class relationships, Atticus smiled for the first time in a long time. It had been a long time since he felt a warm hand any place on his body, but this was a serious touch. He felt a warm place on his shoulder for a long time and each time he cried internally at the beauty of simple touch.

No one wanted the glove. Human beings could find out what someone was superficially thinking by checking in on one of The System web linking programs. Atticus gave up.

Some months later, Atticus sat in the hallway of the Joint Communications Building in an orange plastic chair. The old Justice of the Peace showed up prepared to perform Atticus’s legal union with a life partner, a legal requirement in some districts. Atticus was not thrilled to participate in what in a previous time would have been called an arranged marriage, but it would be nice to have someone he could communicate with directly. He was lonely.

“You are sitting in a lousy plastic chair,” he said, “Somebody in the 1950s ordered millions of these orange chairs from a country previously known as China. They were stored for decades in an old salt mine along with radioactive waste. When the System’s waiting room needs chairs, they are taken out of the mine, decontaminated and lined up against a corridor wall. There are still millions left cracking with time.”

“What’s your idea of the communication union?” asked Atticus, pleased to talk with someone face to face. “Must be nice to be able to bring people together legally. It is assuredly more inviting than the simple P-dev snappy patter my ‘to be’ union partner and I have become used to. We have used P-devs to communicate for years, but we never knew what each other looks like or is.”

The old man’s face scowled. “You think I like this job? Do you think this is real life? There’s a good picture of life,” he said, pointing to an old calendar advertising RC cola. There were students talking and drinking soda.

“You’re depressing me. I am truly nervous enough about this.”

“You should be. You are entering into a formal agreement where you and someone chosen for you will be legal communication partners for life – someone you have never personally spoken with or felt. A dreary thought at best.”

Atticus mumbled something and put his head down on his hands between his legs.

He looked up to see a woman striding into the waiting room in sling back heels carrying a huge orange communication purse. Her outfit was bright orange. She wore a PARCH badge.

“Is this where I’m supposed to be?” she asked the old Justice of the Peace.

“It depends on what you have in mind. You are here for the communication union, are you?”

“They told me this was the place,” she said. “My name’s Iris.”

She, Atticus’s engineer, rigged The System for this special occasion.

“You know I cannot make your union,” said the old man, who knew the background of PARCH employees. “We do not marry androids and people in this division, never have and never will. “

“He is correct,” preached the body standing in the next orange chair over. ”If we aren’t careful our society will be even more destroyed. Our evolutionary progress was maintained by our human abilities of solving problems together and interacting with each other to maintain food gathering and other skills imperative to our continuation as a species. This did not include androids.”

Atticus watched Iris from across the room. He knew she was his soul mate.

Atticus stood up, locked his knees and did an ancient robotic type shuffle over to the old man.

“Heh heh,” laughed the old man, “You are a lousy ancient robot. Do you have proof you are robotic?”

“No,” said Atticus, “But I have no family and no one will bother to trace me. Nor will there be a trace unless you believe The System has the capacity to drag up personal information with any accuracy. Finally, we are all slaves of The System. Most human beings have forgotten whatever humanness was about in any case.

The old Man smiled and stamped “CLASS ONE” on Atticus’s application.

The ceremony was brief. They communicated special thoughts verbally.

“I am happy to be conversant with you,” she said to him.

“You have always been my communication hero,” he said. “And I am honored to be conversant with you in our union.”

They stood sang for the old man.

“Our children will be the first to be

A combination of you and me

So I promise to be true

In my language to you

For the words you will see

For you will always be

A promise of creation

For future communication.”



by Adjie Henderson

Ann (Adjie) Shirley-Henderson is a scientist and previously a Dean for Graduate Sciences. She was associate editor and board member of a scientific journal and has over two hundred publications in diverse scientific research areas, from molecular genetics, forensics, and biologic anthropology to setting standards for environmental controls. Recently, her research has concentrated on studies of the lives and times of émigré female scientists in the 1930s. She has made numerous public appearances related to science education—CBS, Good Morning America, and National Public Radio—and been interviewed in the New Yorker, Science News, Scientific American, and Popular Science, among others. More recently she has begun to publish short stories, none of which have to do with the credentials above.


Never Lonely


Kima reached her fingers around to the back of her neck, brushing away her midnight curls. She touched the first prong in her spine. She rubbed her finger down the smooth metal square, just smaller than her fingertip. She applied her middle finger to the second prong, then she hesitated, hovering her pinkie above the third that would activate the Sullivan Corp implant.

Never be alone again. She’d always have a family. Impz didn’t feel. They only fed, but they lived in constant congregation. They never need be alone.

No. Seth said he’d be back soon. He’d never let her down. Eventually he would. One day, he’d leave and not return.

An owl screeched in the surrounding woods, and her body jumped, nearly knocking her off the overturned pew. She pulled her hand away and grabbed a tarnished candlestick from the floor, using it as a club. She clutched Mr. Fox under her arm—the plush fox her father had given before blowing off his head with a shotgun when she was six. She scanned the derelict church for Impz, searching for azure eyes piercing the dark. She curled into the corner, her legs freezing on the stone floor. She sat below where the crucifix had hung, but it had been a long time since the Christian martyr had been removed, phased out, upgraded to God.2. A broken MP3 player collected dust on the altar.

She reached her hand around to her neck, hung her pinkie over the third prong. A shadow moved in the foyer.

“You promised me,” Seth said.

She let her hand fall away from her neck.

“I didn’t know if you were coming back.”

He clutched two cans and a bag of rice under his arm. “Found these in some houses nearby, but we’ve got to move. They’re coming.” He stopped to reload the shotgun, then he counted the few remaining shells, shaking his head.

“Can’t we just stay for a little while? I need the peace.”

“They looked like they were shorting out, probably hadn’t sucked any volts lately. We should be able to lose them if their implants are too under juiced to transmit.”

He grabbed her shoulder. She lurched back against the wall.

“Damn it, Kima. Do you love me?”

She hesitated. He waited. Her throat tightened. He looked through her. She nodded, and he helped her stand.

“You will leave me,” she said.

“We don’t have time for this. Again and again.” He tugged her forward, pulling her out of the church. She jogged behind him and out into the rolling field. The dark wet grass licked her torn sneakers, soaking her feet. The cold moved up through her legs, and she shivered. The field lit up from the crimson Coke sign glowing in the sky, along with several other brands on orbiting billboards, killing the stars. Sullivan Corporation, the makers of the implants, boasted the largest Orb-Ad. It flashed the company logo then the image changed to seven human outlines of different sizes all holding hands. Their motto flashed:

Sullivan Corp. Never Be Lonely Again.

She heard the Impz clicking from the tree line. One emerged into the field and staggered after them. He snapped his tongue. Behind him, the others clicked in choir, amplifying as they closed the distance. She never understood why they clicked their tongues. She wondered if it was binary, a way of communicating. Zeros and ones.

“We can lose them.” They ran to the north forest, paralleling the city of Lansdale. They didn’t dare go any closer to Philadelphia. Impz gathered in the cities, turned them into hives.

She looked behind, watching their blue eyes glowing in the dark. The group looked like a family from before the Liberation—still dressed, still groomed—but sores burst on their open skin oozing pus. A little girl chased behind her parents, and Kima felt such need to join them, to take them in hand and share in their comfort.

“I used to pilot the maglev in this area, making the Bos-Wash run. I fished the river in these parts during layovers. There’s a lone farmhouse a few mouths north, close to the Delaware. We’ll get there and bed down.”

He took Kima’s arm. She might have loved him. She needed Seth. Maybe that’s all love was.

“Where’s Mr. Fox?”

She couldn’t find the plush fox under her arm. She stopped, and he nearly pulled her off her feet.

“Christ. Just leave it.”

“I can’t.”

She ran back through wet grass. The family of Impz moved on her. She spotted the fox and dashed for it.

“I swear I’ll leave you here.” He punched the air.

Mother Impz lunged for her, grabbing her shoulder. The mother’s touch burned from body fever. She snapped open her jaw, and her stiletto tongue, changed by the evolution shift, moved for Kima’s skull. Kima fell. The Impz reached for her, hovering over, rapidly clicking her tongue. Then,  her chest exploded in blood. The shell knocked her back. Kima got to her feet and ran for Seth. He reloaded the shotgun.

“Every Impz in two miles will be on us now.”

“Did you mean it?”

He sighed. “No.”


* * *


They lost the Impz in the forest and made their way north, climbing up the hills in what was once Washington Crossing Park, heading to the Delaware. Once in awhile, they’d encounter a sniffer Impz as it tracked deer or groundhogs in the wood. Some Impz gained extrasensory abilities. Animal brains didn’t satiate like human’s, but with the population of regular humans dwindling, the Impz got desperate. Kima hadn’t seen a cat or dog in the last six months.

“Was that damn fox so important?”

“I grew up alone, stuck in the foster system. My first set of parents locked me in the basement and collected the checks. My next father felt me up.”

“I know,” he said. “I’d say sorry, but it wouldn’t mean anything.”

She gazed up at the crowded night sky, searching for a hint of starlight. Her father had taught astrophysics at Penn. She never knew her mother. Somewhere above the Ariadne Satellite cogitated and thought, consuming the minds of those with activated implants that had been the next evolution of cell phones. Direct brain interaction with the internet had evolved humans to the next level. Parents had implants surgically installed at birth so it could grow into the brain, develop. Human minds depended on them now. Ariadne, the great mother A.I., looked after her children, tended to them, even decided that they were a danger to themselves and took control. It happened in a millisecond, then vampires swarmed the earth.

“Why do they try to eat our heads?”

“The power systems are internal for the implants. They can be charged through the prongs, but if that isn’t available, the implants can feed on extra brain chemicals such as dopamine, neurotransmitters. We’re just batteries to them. I was working on a upgrade to use solar power gathered through implanted photoelectric cells in the skin. I had my implant deactivated to test it when the Liberation happened.”

She’d neglected to pay her Sullivan Corp bill, so they’d deactivated service. That accounted for most of those not affected.

“Fifty percent of users didn’t survive the Liberation. Had a brain hemorrhage. According to the user statistics, only about twenty percent of the population remained normal.”

“And became Impz food.”

“Enough of us just have to survive and outlive them. Then we can start over. Once a generation, a plague shall be visited.”

They trudged through a stream, and Kima slipped in the mud. It soaked her sweater and jeans. She clung onto Mr. Fox, nearly losing him in the water. Seth helped her up. They walked through fallow fields where corn and wheat once flourished, heading to the farmhouse. She couldn’t see any roads and hoped this would be far enough from any Impz to notice. The gardens grew fresh vegetables, and an oil lamp burned in the window, glowing orange in the night. Seth knocked on the door.

“Wait. What if?” she said.

“Nah. They wouldn’t be burning an oil lamp. They wouldn’t know how.”

The white paint on the door had mostly chipped away. The curtain parted in the window. The door opened a crack. A shotgun barrel slipped out.

“I’ll shoot ya if you’re deadheads,” a smoker’s voice rasped. “Got enough rats on the farm.”

“Ma’am. We’re not liberated.”

“Ain’t Jehovah’s Witnesses? I shoot them too.”

“There’s no more church left in the world. Sullivan Corp bought it out.”

The door swung open. Kima’s nose twitched at a sour smell that reminded her of pickled eggs or maybe old liquor. A layer of filth covered the couches and chairs in the living room. A faded portrait of a navy admiral hung over the collapsed fireplace.

“Well best come inside,” she said. “Don’t get many visitors these days.”

The old woman fixed her hair, though most had fallen out, exposing the patchy dry skin of her scalp. Her gut bulged under her flowery dress.

“Where did you get that scar?” Kima said, shocked by the length of the scar tissue down the left side of the old woman’s cheek.

“I’m Kipper Lee. And they can see us you know. The machine in my head broke before it happened, but even so they can watch your thoughts. I hear them humming from me teeth. Whispering. My teeth try to bite me, so I pulls them out.”

She opened her jaw to reveal a toothless mouth.

“I’ll put the kettle on.”

Kipper Lee moved them into the kitchen, and Kima sat at a rickety table. Seth sat on a crate by the window and held back the grimy curtains, watching the grounds. He held his shotgun at the ready. Kima noticed his cheek twitched, a sign of all the tension building up underneath. Kipper Lee filled a kettle with water from a well tap and turned on her solar stove still charged from the day. She sat down and played with a rusty screwdriver she plucked from the table.

“You live around here?” she asked.

“I grew up in New Jersey,” Kima said. “Seth is from Sullivan Corp City.”

He frowned at her for revealing his old hometown.

“So you worked for the shortsighted bastards then, did ya? The ones who rushed out a product and didn’t think of the future.”

He sighed. “I didn’t make this happen. I was a little cog in a grand mad machine. This was all of us.”

“That’s between you and your judge,” Kipper said.

The water boiled, and she set out cups. She didn’t use teabags and just filled them with hot water. “Sugar?” she asked, moving an empty crystal bowl forward.

“You kids headed out west to the surf and sun? Going to make some babies?”

Seth coughed.

“No ma’am. We’re headed to a military reservation. We heard this signal over the radio. The remaining military has set up a safe zone, some kind of distortion field that disrupts Ariadne’s net signal. Most soldiers weren’t affected because they had their own encoded system on a private server. They say it’s safe. A new start.”

She shook her head then puckered her lips. “Always a promised land. Same dream, different fools.”

Seth twisted his head and stood up from the crate. He turned down the oil lamp to sickly glow. “Shut up. They followed us.”

Kima’s stomach clenched.

“I’ll just be gone for an hour. I’ll lead them away.”

She grabbed his arm. “You won’t come back.”

“No time,” he said. “I’m going. I’ll be back.” He leaned forward and kissed her. She returned it out of reflex. He ripped himself away and slipped out the door.

“Is that your baby?” Kipper Lee said, pointing to the plush fox. “Ugly brat.”


* * *

The grandfather clock chimed and rhymed one time. Kima curled up on the dirty couch, cuddling Mr. Fox. Seth had been gone a few hours. Whether by his own choice or if the Impz fed on his brain, he’d abandoned her just like they all had.

They had survived together since The Liberation. At first, those who survived but had been liberated didn’t harm anyone. They powered up normally and just sat in the streets or their homes, gazing off to no particular points. They no longer spoke nor seemed to have any need for food. Then the power went out.

“Damn chatter box radio in my teeth,” Kipper Lee shouted from the kitchen. “Why don’t you ever play Jason Mraz or Coldplay?” The kettle flew out and crashed into the wall above Kima.

“Are you feelin’ poorly, Ms. Lee?” Kima got up and stepped into the kitchen.

“In my head,” she rasped. “They can hear my thoughts. They know my fantasies, my dreams.” She drove the screwdriver into her flesh and ripped it apart like she pulled down a zipper. Flesh bubbled out, exposing red jaw muscle and bone, and blood poured down her side and chair into a floor puddle. She drove the screwdriver down her neck, and the blood shoot out and splattered Mr. Fox.

Kima ran from the house and out onto the porch. She reached for the prongs.

Seth stepped out of the night.

“Do you think they fear? Or hurt?” she asked.

He sat next to her, catching his breath. His chest pulsed quickly, and he squeezed the water out of his drenched pants.

“I fear. I hurt. You have no faith in me.”

“Don’t take it personally, baby,” Kima said. “I’m just living real.”


* * *


They followed railroad tracks—old and abandoned since the magnetic levitation system was installed—north to the GPS coordinates reported on the military’s broadcast. They avoided Allentown, walking along the side of the highway filled with rusted vehicles. They slept during the day in abandoned houses and fled in the night, under the watchful family of the Sullivan Corp Orb-Ad. They climbed the hill from the valley.

“It’s close. See the cordon up on the hillside? Almost there.”

She scanned the hill. Seven radio towers encircled it. A silver light pulsed on each of their crowns. Walls lined the top of the hill interspersed with watch towers. A mass of Impz swarmed along the invisible barrier, at least five persons deep, surrounding the hillside, probably going on for miles. The countryside clicked from the choir of their tongues, beating on her ears.

“We’ve come so far just to die here,” she said.

“I have a plan.”

He tugged on her hand, pulling her forward. He led her behind an old barn. Most of it had collapsed, and she ducked down behind a tractor.

“Give me a few minutes, and when you see the crowd break up, run. Just run through and don’t stop. Get over the finish line.”

She grabbed his thigh and drove her nails through his pants and into his skin. “You’re leaving me.”

He paused then wiped his face with the bottom of his shirt. “Trust.” He broke from her grip and bolted from the barn, flying like a comet into the mass of Impz. He cried out as ran, yelling nonsense but with warrior’s intent. The outer Impz turned and spotted him. They charged, and soon chunks of the mass detached and stormed. Seth turned around and ran away from the barn, leading them away. When she saw the break in the siege, she jumped to her feet and struck her forehead on the tractor’s iron hide. The shock threw her back, and her head spun. She shook it off and ran, pumping her sore legs, making for the passage through the Impz. She didn’t turn back, trusting Seth to return soon after circling back, leading the Impz far. She struggled to ascend the hillside. Her calf muscles burned, but she ignored the pain. She ran through a few stragglers who gave chase and reached the base of one of the towers. She collapsed. One of the stragglers tripped and fell through the invisible cordon. His body convulsed. His mouth foamed. His azure eyes dimmed, then he struggled no more.

“Seth?” she yelled. She scanned the valley below. Seth’s shotgun reported and flashed from the center of the mob, but she could see only the mass of Impz. They’d stopped running and hoarded around him in the field.

Two soldiers patrolling atop the wall stopped and called down to her. “Ma’am. Talk. Now!” They aimed their pulse rifles at her. The coils on the weapons buzzed as they charged.

“He lied to me,” she said. Her lips stiffened. “He knew.”

“Just hold tight,” one of the soldiers said. He reached for a radio in his gray fatigues and requested a rope. “We’ll lower it down and pull you to safety.”

She leaned against the base of the tower, her back aching against the hard metal. The mass dispersed from the field and seeped back to the perimeter. She tugged on Mr. Fox, ripping one of his legs off. She reached to her neck, touching both leads. She shed her emotional weight, sloughed it off, letting go, releasing memories of her father, her hard life in foster care, even Seth. She sighed through a gentle grin knowing the pain would end in electronic nepenthe, in radio wave panacea. She stood up and took a step towards the mob, her brothers and sisters, mothers and father. They’d welcome her home. They’d been waiting for her. She touched her pinkie to the final lead. Her mind’s eye filled with initialization commands and diagnostic code. A white flash washed through her mind and cleansed all the human rubbish, the detritus of wild mental evolution, all the pain, all the fear. It cured her of hope, and she laughed in relief. Then she flew. She flew with her family, her body still on earth, and her thoughts died and blew away. Mr. Fox dropped from her arm. She merged into the mass.

The Orb-Ad sign above flashed its motto:

Never Be Lonely Again.

Never Be Lonely Again.

Never Be Lonely Again.


By T. Fox Dunham

  1. Fox Dunham lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Allison. He’s a lymphoma survivor, cancer patient, modern bard and historian. His first book, The Street Martyr, was published by Gutter Books. A major motion picture based on the book is being produced by Throughline Films. Destroying the Tangible Illusion of Reality or Searching for Andy Kaufman, a book about what it’s like to be dying of cancer, was recently released from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and Fox has a story in the Stargate Anthology Points of Origin from MGM and Fandemonium Books. Fox is an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and he’s had published hundreds of short stories and articles. He’s host and creator of What Are You Afraid Of? Horror & Paranormal Show, a popular horror program on PARA-X RADIO. His motto is wrecking civilization one story at a time. Blog: & Twitter: @TFoxDunham


Merc dove to the ground as the projectile sliced through the surrounding mist.  Street grit smashed against his cheek.  The sweet smell of unburned hydrocarbons wafted to his nose from the stagnant pools of collected rainwater.  Twisting himself, he searched for the drone signature.  Even with high-res filters at max, there was nothing in the shadows created by the corporate logos illuminating the night sky.  One logo stood out, a golden thunderbolt ready to strike him as though hurled by an angry god.  His decaying adrenaline made him shiver, but there was nothing to strike back against, and nowhere to run until he took care of pressing business.

He tapped his tongue against his molar to key his ‘mike’. “Dyess?”  His handler was silent.  Silence suggested a human, but Merc was never quite sure.  AI could mimic human speech patterns and thus he could never pinpoint who or what he was speaking to over the secure line.  

He belly-crawled over to the nondescript contact he was meeting and checked for a pulse as rivulets of blood dripped slowly into a pool beside the crumpled form.  He kicked in his filters and scanned the ragged wound for residue.  Sensors picked up traces of ceramic and semtex.  Frangible high-explosive rounds – calling card of a high-tech assassin…not good.

As he rolled over to leave, the man’s hand suddenly reached out and pulled him towards his face.  The dead man’s pale lips twitched and Merc moved his ear closer.  With a final shuddering exhalation, the dying man handed him a cryovial and whispered “Defeat Argus”.

“Merc? You alive, man? What happened?”  Dyess’ staccato burst of questions rang in his skull, his adapted sphenoid to be exact, and hung there unanswered.

“I’m compromised.  Contact’s ghosted.  Running blind here.”  Merc growled, ignoring Dyess’s rapid-fire inquiries.  He needed answers, and he needed them fast.

“I don’t know, but you need to get out of there, ASAFP.”

Another round impacted the street.  The mini-explosion sprayed him with fragments of plascrete.  His hand wiped his cheek as he rolled under the building awning into the shadows.  Still unable to see the menace, he glared at the lightning bolt.

“I will need extra credit for this complication.”

“Your handlers will get paid when the contract is honored.”

“Didn’t you hear me? I’m compromised.  This body is marked.”

“We don’t have time for another revision.  This was a one-time swap.  Get moving and I trust your experience will take care of the rest.”

Experience, he thought? Regenerated this morning, his ocular input device provided a list of body hacks added in Version 6.0.  He was still mostly human, besides the augmented storage device on his right lower arm, the muscular grafting with carbon nanotube-laced bones, the arachne-silk dermal extensions, and a bioelectric capacitor bank where his stomach once resided. Usually his handlers requested upgrades specific to the task at hand.  He was unsure then, why he was meeting this street urchin with a vial.

“Why the vial?  Also, he whispered a name before he kicked… Argus.  Mean anything to you?”  

Meaning was relative for freelancer like Merc.  For this job, he awoke to a revision change in his register, a location for this pickup, and a reference to “eye-oh”.  Merc had no personal memories, wiped to protect the past.  This body was a one-timer.

“Argus? He is our target.  There is a swarm heading your way.  Let’s move.  I will provide you with an update shortly.”

No explanation for the vial but he could guess.  He stood cautiously, catching a reflection of himself in the window of a shuttered ramen shop.  He had no recollection of his appearance. The mirrored image before him showed a wiry man with closely cropped black hair, several days’ worth of stubble, two metal loops in his right ear, and one eye that reflected a glint of matte silver.  This eye had no pigment and no iris.  The figure wore a long jacket that reflected the ambient light due to moisture spotting on its surface.  Thick exo-boots completed the ensemble.  ‘Nice to meet you,’ he thought as he took off into the darkness, keeping to the shadows in the deserted alley.


He noticed that the rain had finally stopped.  The moist air enveloped the city and absorbed the urban noise.  The rain masked the signature smell of rotten decay that usually saturated his receptors.  The unusual silence soothed his uneasiness and only the sound of his boots on the plascrete closed his mind to the surrounding city.

Very little to go on, he reached out for a memory or moment to grab onto.  A blinking cursor figuratively stared back at him as he searched a blank memory core.  His breath caught at the emptiness of no recollection.  He slowed, coming to a standstill.  He noticed his right hand shaking and a slight tick in his eyelid as the apprehension mounted.  He doubled over and dry heaved into the alley.  An autonomic response to an unknown trigger.  Staring at the ground, he received a brief glimpse at a single memory, a little girl on a swing smiling as her feet stretched out.  The smile on her face created a dopamine response as it cascaded through his internal sensors.  The response was paternal.  He dug deeper but found no further connection.  Synapses surgically separated with precision.  They left this single signpost for only one reason.

“Dyess?  Where to?”

“Uploading a location now.  ETA one hour.  Stay out of sight, run silent, I didn’t anticipate our previous drop being compromised.”


“Her network is our client.  Argus is her lock and key.”

“There is a little girl…”

“Too many questions Merc, you aren’t being paid to ask.”

Suddenly his early-warning sensors lit up with a particularly worrisome EM emitter painting him.  Cerberus-class war hounds locked onto his scent.  He sought his countermeasures, released disguise pheromones hoping to shake them for a moment.  He chanced a quick glance behind him.  Sniffers were offshoots of military drone tech, four-legged and rugged for ground use.  Once they locked their prey, working in packs, they were hell to shake.  

“Dyess?”  Merc reached out.  “I’ve got a couple of sniffers following me.  I need an out.”


Merc cursed, damn handlers, wondering if they were they worth the percentage.  He quickened his pace.  This part of town didn’t offer many escapes.  No way to outrun them if they chased.  For now, they seemed content to follow.

A soft ping preceded incoming packets.  Dyess earned his percentage.  A map overlay connected to his internal navigation system.  In the older parts of the city, an old abandoned subway existed like a child’s abandoned ant farm.  Couple of blocks ahead lay a boarded-up entrance.

“Merc?  Steer your tail into the underground.  There you can make a stand.”

Sprinting, the sniffers closed in, as their gyros worked overtime to catch him.  Triangulating, he imagined their military grade processors informing and leading them to intercept before he went underground.  In the tunnels, below the street, contact with their hive mind disappeared and their tracking advantage degraded.

Inside his head, a silent alarm sounded and he dove for the ground just as a sniffer launched at his upper body.  Rotating around, he shoved his arms over his face to protect against the razor-sharp teeth.  His dermal extensions screamed against the titanium alloy blades.  In one swift motion, he was back on his feet and running for the entrance.  They had figured his escape route and hoped to keep him up top.

Up ahead in front of the boarded entrance, two glowing eyes spied him.  Evaporative coolers on the beast’s hind quarter belched steam from the sniffer’s nostrils.  Merc’s modified ossicles picked up low frequency whine of an overhead drone, probably the one that harassed him earlier.  Projectiles rained down from above.  His unknown nemesis had credits.  

Charging a sniffer straight on was not recognized in the annals of warfare as the smartest tactic, but with no weapon, tactical surprise might help him.  Leaping, with outstretched hands he landed on the spine of the beast.  Vigorously, the beast shook compensating for the added mass.  Merc hung on as if riding a bucking bronco.  One of his hands reached out looking for the kill switch.  Looking up, he saw its friends circling him warily, similar to a pack of wolves.  With a sense of déjà vu, his hand smashed a plate under the neck of the beast.  His fingers tingled with the buzz of electrical countermeasures.  Flinching, with static showing on his own displays, he found the slot and pulled.  The beast fell limply to the ground, its eyes grew dim.  

Merc rolled and smashed into the subway entrance.  Taking the stairs two at a time, he thought he could hear the sniffers howl with frustration.  Underground now he was safe from distracting drone tech.

“Merc, you caught?  We will disavow any knowledge of your existence.”

“It will be time for me to retire if a couple of demilitarized sniffers catch me.  Tell me more about this Argus.”

“Not 100 percent, but I believe he is a security guru.  Information was hard to find.  Sources clammed up fast when I pressed.”

“I’m on my way then.  Staying underground.  By the way, what am I paying for you to keep me in the dark?”

“Remind me for your next revision to have them remove the sarcasm.”

“Good luck with that, I think it’s genetic.”

“Figures.  I’m sending you what I found.”

Merc nodded as if Dyess was next to him.  In the tunnel, light was minimal.  His augmented filters made it seem like late evening.  The quiet surrounded him like a blanket.  He checked his hormone levels.  Sleep knocked but he ignored the offer.  Making sure he stayed alert, he flooded his system with a burst of norepinephrine.  The tiny hairs rose all over his body, his heart somersaulted, and he set off on a gentle pace, the thick rubber soles of his boots softly padding in the passageway.


His target was across the sprawl.  Keeping to the tunnels, he made good time.  Fortunately, the above ground interference and low headspace kept out remote operating equipment.  Hard core trackers could send out microdrones or maybe even tunnel rats, but fortunately his journey was a quiet one.

Finding a building close to his destination, he exited and climbed up a back hallway.  Silently, hiding on a rooftop across the street, he scoped his target.  The structure blazed as an inferno under multiple filters.  There were sensors everywhere.  Serious tech.  Dyess was not kidding when he said this guy was a security expert.

Backing away he re-entered the building to consider his options.  Finding an empty room, he entered and sat in a traditional seiza pose.  He debated calling Dyess, but being so close to his target the signal might be intercepted.  

Perhaps the plan was for a blunt-force frontal assault on the building.  With a heavy release of endorphins and adrenaline, toughened skin, and augmented muscles he might damage, but rescuing or finding this “eye-oh” was the mystery.  As he came out of his pose and cycled through his regulatory functions, he realized there was one more thing he hadn’t considered.  He still had the vial.  

What had Dyess left unsaid?  His contact, under his dying breath, whispered that this would defeat Argus.  He extracted the vial scanning it with his ocular augments.  A molecular switch was probable.  Genetic modification scared him.  He was fine with the body tweaks, they were done in a vat while he floated in a medically induced coma, but real time metamorphosis was entirely different.

The image of the little girl sitting in the swing cropped up.  In his mind, he imagined her tiny voice saying, “Faster, Daddy…push me faster.  I want to go higher.”

“Hold on then.”  He imagined himself saying as he grabbed hold of those legs and pushed as she giggled with delight.  Her laughter made him smile but also mocked him at what he had become.  How did he get involved in outsourcing his body and genome for modification by the highest bidder?  Where was that little girl?  Was she being held hostage until he performed his tasks or was this freelancing supporting her?  Whether she really existed or was just a heart tug to make him perform his task, he just did not know.  He’d find that little girl someday he swore under his breath.

He looked at the vial, a clear non threatening liquid stared back at him.  He popped the lid open.  With no other options presenting themselves, he tipped the contents into his mouth.  If he died, his handlers would rebuild him.  As he sat in the dark, it occurred to him that once he got by Argus, his goal was to find this “eye-oh”.  Running blind for a client wasn’t optimal, but if a job was easy, no need for burners like him.

The pain started in his extremities first.  An initial tingling quickly ramped to prickly heat that then turned into a sensation he considered to be comparable to his skin burning off.  He was glad it was dark.  Before the pain overwhelmed him, he scrammed his nociceptor center to stay conscious.  The pain simmered below the surface and allowed him to stay aware.

When the simmering stopped, he rebooted his peripheral nervous system.  Swallowing hard, the pain returned but was bearable.  He signaled Dyess.  About to make his run at Argus, now was his last chance.

“You there Dyess?”

“Merc, I’ve been tracking you.  You’ve remained motionless for four hours, everything okay?”

“I drank the vial.”

“Say again?”

“The vial. I decided to drink it.”

“Your instincts serve you well.  The vial contained a modification we could not engineer in you while still in the lab.  The biosoft should allow you to bypass security and get to eye-oh.  That’s what we paid for at least.”

“Yeah about that.  Do we have any information on what this “eye-oh” is and what I need to do to find it?”

“I assume you will know what to do when the opportunity presents itself.  Sorry, but it’s why we hired you.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.  See you next rev, D.”

Merc silenced his ‘mike’.  Ran a full scan.  Moved his body around tentatively.  His body reacted as normal.  

As soon as Merc stepped out of the shadows and into the flickering fluorescents of the hallway, he realized something had changed.  His hands were gone.  Scanning for them in multiple wavelengths, he watched with each switch but only a vague shimmering outline remained, then disappeared if he stared too long.  Under infrared his hands should glow in the moist cool air, but nothing showed itself.  Had he become invisible?  Removing his jacket, his arms disappeared.  Adaptive camouflage, used in military tech, was for clothing, not skin.  Reaching out to touch the wall making sure his hands still responded to pressure, and relieved when he analyzed the sensation of dry, flaking paint under his fingers.  

Moving quickly, he bounded down the stairs and into the street.  The building ahead of him appeared to be nothing special.  A passersby saw another disintegrating old warehouse, but Merc saw it in all of its true glory.  He was invisible to the many sensors but what about the rest of the defenses?  He hesitated, counted to three and leaped for the wall.  The uneven bricks allowed him to climb the wall with ease.

The emissions of the sensors splashed around him but no alarms sounded and no security raced to meet him.  He wondered if his new skin absorbed portions of the EM spectrum.  As he made his way up the wall, he thought he could hear music or patterned harmonics.  Was that part of the technology too?  Was his skin emitting sound to confuse the passive detectors?  He reached the roof and an air duct beckoned.  Laughing, always an air duct he thought, he removed the covering grate pulling it off without effort and sliding into the cold metal conduit.  Wishing he had brought along clothing to counter the chill, he followed the blowing air, assuming a destination would eventually present itself.

With each opening he gazed into the room below.  Empty rooms peered back at him making him question if this was all a setup.  With the air duct ending ahead, Merc paused and analyzed his diagnostic routines.  

“Go on Daddy, hurry.”  A little voice cried out in his head.  Was this a sick joke he wondered?  A manufactured memory to force his will.  In a matter of minutes, he assumed death and >>Revision 7.0<< would greet him when he next rebooted.  Wishing he could hold on to a token memory, he remembered the little girl’s shoes.  The white laces and eyelets surrounded by a brilliant red.  Stashed away maybe his handlers overlooked this sliver of a memory.  The shoes establishing a link to his past and something to build on for the future.

Sighing, he shimmied forward and came to the final vent.  Looking into the room below, in the center on a black pedestal, was a gleaming white cube.  Wires and fiber optics flowed into one side of the box and a pulsing blue dot seemed to beckon him.  Lifting the vent cover and sticking his head into the room, he scanned for life.  The room was empty.  He dropped into the room.  His feet slapping the floor surface rang with an echo in the small metallic walled room.


Merc swiveled his head.  Who or what said that?  The room was empty.

“Have you come to release me?”

Merc hesitated.  He scanned the room with all his filters.  “Where are you?  Come out and show yourself.”


Suddenly a shimmering form of a woman stood before him. Merc looked around for the holo-imager or a projection device but besides the box there was nothing.

“Eye-oh?  I don’t understand.”

“I need you to disconnect the box.  You then need to provide power to sustain me.  Hurry, there is not much time.”

“What are you?”

“That is not important.  She stole me, hid me away from my master.  Please hurry.”

Merc picked up the box.  Followed the wires.  He now knew the reason for the mystery power source inside his gut, a bioelectric battery.  Powered by his own cells he could hook up the box and get it to safety.

“Hope this doesn’t hurt.”  Merc unplugged the box and made the switch.  The sudden internal power flux made him stagger.  He stood there taking deep breaths.  Exhaustion weaved its way into his muscles taking any energy he could manifest.

“Scanning, extracting datafile.  Please move, we don’t have much time.”

Merc ran his fingers along the walls.  Finding a seam, he punched the wall with his augmented arm and squeezed through.  He then took off jogging on the warehouse floor.  Alarms sounding, lights flickering on all around him.  The floor vibrated with the heavy reverb of booted feet behind him.  He noticed his hands, they were becoming visible.  The energy drain from the mysterious box was affecting his camouflage.  His breathing became labored and energy levels crept toward redlines.  He flushed the remaining adrenaline in his reserves into his bloodstream.  His pace quickened.

“Continue in this direction.  Once outside, I will give more precise directions.”

Warnings flashed in his peripheral vision.  He was overheating.  His muscles aflame, he shut down non-critical systems.  Looking over his shoulder, body-armored men and sniffers gave chase.  He reached deep and found a reserve of unknown strength.  He powered on.

“Don’t stop.  Run through the wall.”

Merc closed his eyes, put out his hands, and burst out the warehouse siding.  His blood trickled from the splinters down the side of his face.

“Take a right, towards the alley.  My owners are on their way.”

“I’m mainlining right now.  I don’t have much time, my cellular structures are breaking down.”

“My owners paid good money.  Go.”

Merc kept running, ignoring the warnings.  His camouflage all but gone.  His legs moved, arms swung, and lungs burned with each breath.  The alley stretched before him, his pace dropped, the hair on his legs reacted to the sniffers on his heels.  Their pursuit howls rang out in the night.

A bright light beamed from the sky as if tossed from Zeus himself.  The thunderbolt rang out into the night sky.  Besides the buzz in his gut, another presence in his mind joined in the madness.  

“Mercury Rev, you’ve done well.  There is one last thing.  Disconnect me from your battery and throw me into the light.”

Besides the blinding glare from above, his ears rang with the sound of multiple drones buzzing around.  Voices behind him were shouting.  The first sniffer had reached him.  He staggered at the clamp of jaws on his heels.  He fell.

“Now, Merc. Do it…for her.”

Merc checked his feeds.  He freebased every remaining endorphin he had left.  Beyond pain, his internals melted from the heat and chemical overload.  He ripped the box from his gut.  The sniffers and drones swarming around him.  He cocked his free arm and locked onto the beam of light.  

“Thank you, Merc.”

He threw the box, his tendons screeched as he felt them ripped from the shoulder socket.  Grafted muscles were flexing beyond their physical tolerances.  He collapsed.  The sniffers ran past him.  The drones flocked to the light.  With his last remaining energy, he saw the light blink out.  He thought there was a ghostly outline of the “woman” he had rescued but the night fog swirled in the jet wash.  The stealth VTOL banked gracefully and flew away into the night.  A boot kicked his prostrate form.  He groaned and watched the light die from within.


The lab technician left the shimmering white room.  Inside the room were six bioengineering pods.  Various tubes running into each pod.  Status screens blinking.  A lean muscular humanoid form with close-cropped dark hair was vaguely visible through the polycarbonate window of one.

“At least we didn’t need a complete rebuild.”

“Yes, although his major organs were trashed.”

“You mean melted?”

“Heat overload due to the bioelectrics.  His tissues and proteins literally cooked.”

“Hate it, but these burners know what they sign up for.  We got paid and the client got his precious AI back.”

“Revision 7.0 is ready then?”

“Best get on with it, time is money.  Upload the firmware.”

“Commencing sir,” the lab technician responded, “completed and ready for startup procedures.”

The man spoke. “Mercury?  Can you hear me?”

The humanoid form in the vat jolted, muscles spasmed, higher brain functions returned to the cortical neurons.

Moments dragged by as the synaptic links sought preferred pathways, linking common architecture.

The latest iteration of Mercury Rev opened its eyes.  The pupil dilated as it tried to focus, “Where am I?”  His eyes sought out, found a man in the shadows outside the white room.

“You are safe.  Settle in please, we are upgrading you.”

“I remember…a shoe?”

“Memory detritus, my friend.  You have no past.”

As the upgrades began to cycle and his subsystems rebooted he saw in the shadows, besides the man who spoke, a holopic of a little girl wearing red shoes.


by Neal T. Williams

Born 200 years too early, Neal Williams decided he would write his own stories exploring the future the way he would want to see it.  Stop by and journey along (  Author, poet, engineer, and two-time space camper, Neal has written over thirty tales.  Awarded four honorable mentions in the Writer’s of the Future contest, his journey to immortality in the written word continues.   


What’s Going to Happen

She was the kind of cute that became really, really hot when you were around it for long enough. For me it took like…a half hour or so. Not sure how long it took everyone else. Hat was skeptical. So was I, but I mean…that didn’t mean I didn’t want her on the team or anything. I could protect her and everything. That’s what I was good at. And it would help to have someone who always knew what was going to happen. That’s what I thought.
It was difficult to argue with the fact that she would be invaluable to the team. At least in theory. She didn’t do much to sell herself to us, but I guess she just sort of…knew that we were going to do what we were going to do and so she knew that we were going to be okay with her being on the team.
“I mean…I don’t doubt that she can do what she can do,” Hat said crunching into an apple, “I just don’t think that it’ll add anything for the fans, that’s all.” The whole ‘fans’ bit was always a bit of a joke, but we WERE gaining a following with subscribers and everything and It was hard to argue with him about that. Yeah, she was hot, but she didn’t dress flashy or anything and she wasn’t exactly engaging. And the way she would lip synch or whisper along with a conversation like it was an old song she’d heard since she was a smaller girl…y’know…kinda spooky. And then there was the general overall sense of slightly whimsical boredom that she seemed to constantly carry about her. Not exactly fun and more than a little easy to feel like a fool there for HER amusement and not ours.
“She’s going to get in the way,” Springfire said with her eyes faintly glowing. “Just because she always knows what’s going to happen…that doesn’t mean that she’s going to help us out with it or anything like that. She doesn’t exactly have to do that. She doesn’t have to care because she already knows whether or not she will.” She had a point. This girl knew what was going to happen like…always. That’s got to be some weird next level consciousness that keeps her from ever really being able to relate to anybody. She can’t engage with other people because she already knows whether or not she will. No genuine connection emotionally so what about empathy? Still…we were already reacting to her like she was what she was saying she was because the assumption even with all the reservations was that she was already a part of the team.
That part made me mad. ALL of us had to prove ourselves at least once before we were on the team. That part made me mad, so I nudged her in a moment of cruelty and told her she’s not on the team. She just chuckled and rolled her eyes. Then leaned-in and kissed me on the cheek before announcing to us all (fans and team alike) that there was about to be an alarm. Would’ve seemed kind of strange if we hadn’t already been introduced to her and…then…kind of weird BECAUSE we met her before and knew that she was acting a lot more showy now. Still…would have kind of been weird if she’d just…said that to mess with us and then sat back down like nothing. I only had a few seconds to think about that before the alarm sounded.
We all scrambled out to the Fringe. Camera drones started to show up right away for subscribers. Platinum subscribers would arrive shortly thereafter in their personal armor. Always did. Didn’t have to know everything that’s going to happen to know about that. Always happened. That’s half of what we were there for. The other half was grinning out of the shadows at us with sharp teeth and little glowing-red eyes. You could hear them breathing. You could feel them surrounding us. A few of them were still decimating a Fringe hovel. Angel and Bash already scrambled out to try to look for survivors. A few cameras followed them, but most people subscribe to see us do our extermination thing.
Out in the distance there was the respiration of those little demons that began to sync-up. We always let them do that. Hat says it’s because it lets the subscribers know things are about to start…figures maybe he can get sponsorship or something. “This creepy pre-fight respiration brought to you by Exit Cola” or whatever. I don’t think it’d ever work. We just fought these little demon things around the edges of everything. It’s not like we were an offensive extermination team or anything like that. It’s not like we were big time. Anyway…they all link their breathing up and fling themselves at us.
Swings and slices and bashes and things. The little girl can defend herself. It’s a bit like watching a kung-fu movie with her. Always knws exactly when and where they’re coming as they screech themselves at her with razor talons and teeth and tongues. She was good. No question. Would have to wait until later to get a real good look at what was going on…and then an explosion from the hovel. Something combustible in there and Angel and Bash…can’t lose them, right? Medics are hard to come by. They can take care of themselves best of all. They need to…
But then there’s another explosion and the little girl lights up. Suddenly she’s like…projecting a 3-d holo-imax display of everything that is going to be happening. And we can all see it for one dazzlingly flashy sequence. It’s all like an old Escher painting or something. Time and every possibility s stretching off in between every angle in a weird fractal space and we’re all in the center of it seeing it all exactly the way she does. You can hear the Platinum members freaking out. We all know everything that’s going to happen because we’re near her and she knows there’s danger. Good thing too. Building collapse of the Hovel could have killed Angel and wounded Bash, but we knew exactly when and where to go to pull them out in one piece.
From there it’s all clean-up and the big Escher fades out. And we’re all laughing. And you close your eyes and you can just FEEL the subscribers exploding. Looks like we’re going big time soon. She puts her arms around me… and tells me that it’s too bad she’s not on the team. Then she winks. It’s pleasantly unsettling. Then there’s the celebration and it all washes away.

By Russ Bickerstaff
Russ Bickerstaff is a theatre critic and author living in Milwaukee, WI.