Bojan Ratković is a writer from Serbia, now living in Ontario, Canada. His work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, Great Lakes Review, Fiction Vortex, and on the World SF Blog. He is pursuing a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Western Ontario.
about the narrator…
Steve Anderson has been acting on stage for more years than he cares to admit, and has worked for 10 seasons at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire–most memorably, selling pickles. These days, his main acting job consists of performing one-man shows and storytelling programs with his touring series, Great Tales Live.
He’s fascinated by Civil War history, and has led almost a thousand walking tours in Gettysburg. He performs as a living history interpreter along the Civil War Trails. He lives in central Pennsylvania with his beloved wife Rhonda and a varying number of cats.
Ride the Dragon
by Bojan Ratković
We were a band back then, in the bat-shit Wild West days of the game. We held our court at the Gentleman Boozer, the loudest pub on the big map. It was Haru, Flygirl, Black Boris, and me. And we had floaters, part-time comrades. Mostly kids who wanted to be like us, who did us favors. But Tony Rem was there too, the one that rode the dragon.
It’s hard to believe now just how big it was, when they launched True-Fantasy. It was the first MMORPG with MaTRiX immersion headgear―it jacked you in, made you really live it. Most of the players were funboys―kids who played for fun―and they paid the bills. But you could make RL coin if you were good enough―real life currency―and the rest of us wanted a cut.
Punchers punched the clock, putting in RL hours to work as barkeeps and innkeepers and helpdesk clerks. Gougers sold rare items for RL cash; there was a big black market and bigger gray area, and you could make a killing. We were glitchers―beta testers, top players. Exposing glitches in the game was our business, and admins paid top dollar to help them fix whatever bugs we could find. But it wasn’t about the money. All the top glitchers, the real cowboys, were after big scores. We proved ourselves by exposing the wildest glitches, the ones that got the map talking.
There was a group of mercenaries in the Boozer the day Tony came to us about the dragon. They sat across from us, up by the stain glass windows. They were the wrong kind of mercs, cutthroats. They helped the funboys on their quests, for a fee, but then they’d turn on them, cut their throats and take their items. And poof, back to beginner’s village. It wasn’t exactly legal, but they used proxies, rented avatars. Admins kicked them, they came back.
Tony strolled in like a breeze, letting the doors clap shut behind him. He walked over to the back and took the chair Haru wasn’t using, on account of his horse’s ass. Haru’s avatar was a centaur with a black leather jacket and shades, and his game was speed. He made his name by galloping vertically along the walls of the White Palace as the whole map watched. It took less than an hour for the admins to fix the glitch that allowed Haru to defy virtual gravity, but the stunt made him famous.
“I got the ticket, boys,” Tony spat out like he’d been holding it in for days. “The big one.” (Continue Reading…)
Nancy Fulda is a past Hugo and Nebula Nominee and has been honored by Baen Books and the National Space Society for her writing. She has been a featured writer at Apex Online, a guest on the Writing Excuses podcast, and is a regular attendee of the Villa Diodati Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction can be found in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and other professional venues.
(Photo courtesy of www.nancyfulda.com)
about the narrator…
Originally born in Texas, Tren eventually escaped and wound his way through a mystical series of jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has worked as a software QA Tester for both graphics drivers and video games, a freelance mascot performer, and several jobs on a PBS kids’ show. For most of his life, people have told him that his voice is a pleasure to listen to. But since being a werewolf phone sex operator can get boring, he decided to use his powers to entertain a broader audience.
by Nancy Fulda
The dream is always the same. You are a tangled mass of neurons, tumbling through meteors. Flaming impacts pierce your fragile surface, leaving ragged gouges. You writhe, deforming under bombardment, until nothing is left except a translucent tatter, crumbling as it descends. Comets pelt the desiccated fibers. You fall, and keep falling, and cannot escape the feeling that, despite your lack of hands, you are scrabbling desperately at the rim of a shrouded tunnel, unable to halt your descent. Glimmers crawl along the faint remaining strands, blurring as you tumble…
You awaken to warmth and stillness. Gone are the soulless tiled floors of the seniors’ home. Sterile window drapes have been replaced by sandalwood blinds. Fresh air blows through the vents, overlaying faint sounds from the bathroom and from morning traffic on nearby canyon roads. You clutch the quilted blankets, stomach plummeting. This cozy bedroom, with its sturdy hardwood furnishings, should be familiar to you; but it isn’t. Two days, and still nothing makes sense. You feel as though you’re suffocating. Tumbling…
Your wife has heard you gasping for air. She comes running, nightgown flapping behind her. Her face is creased in overlapping furrows. Your mirror tells you that the two of you are a match: the same fading hair, the same shrunken hollows along the eyes. Laugh lines, she calls them, but you cannot manage to see them as anything except deformities, in your face and hers both.
“Elliott?” She grabs your hand and kneels at the bedside to look in your eyes. “It’s me, Elliott. Everything’s fine. Everything’s going to be ok.”
Her name, you recall, is Grace. She told it to you two days ago, and is irrationally elated that you are able to repeat it to her upon demand, any time she asks. You feel like a trained puppy, yapping for treats, except there aren’t any treats.
There’s just Grace, and this room. And before that, the seniors’ home. And before that…? You’re not sure. You flail at the bedside for your notebook, thinking it might offer continuity. But there are only a few shaky scribbles, beginning the day before yesterday.
Grace pulls you upright, propping pillows against your spine. She fusses over you, adjusting your hair, prattling off questions. She seems to think you’re in pain, but you’re not. Not any more than you’d expect of a man with joints and bones as old as yours. She tries to kiss your forehead, and you recoil.
It’s a cruel gesture, pulling away like that, but you can’t help it. She’s a stranger, and despite the anguish in her eyes, it feels wrong to pretend otherwise. You can’t feign love. You won’t. Not to please her, not to please anyone.
I grew up in Texas but I live/work/play in Northern California, like all writers my cat loves me particularly much, and my husband is a fantastic man. I work as a registered nurse at a Burn Ward, which is amazing and challenging in equal measure.
The things that interest me most are Disneyland (not kidding), esoteric philosophy books, alchemy as it relates to Jungian theories, William Blake, and Super Paper Mario.
Things you should know about me: I made a special side trip to that Snake Farm between San Antonio and Austin on a recent trip to Texas, I have quite a lot of tattoos — the peacock feather images featured on this website are all actually from my backpiece — and I can eat my weight in sushi.
about the narrator… Jonathan Danz is a writer currently working on his next novel about the daughter of a coal miner who embarks on a journey across parallel dimensions to find her father who disappeared under mysterious circumstances two years ago. Jonathan lives in West Virginia with his wife, daughter, two cats and his mountain bike. jonathandanz.com
by Erin Cashier
Those were the days Geo couldn’t walk through the market without stepping on someone else’s shoe. If money wasn’t tied to waist it was zipped, and anything dropped — paper, panks, crumbs — zipped too. Geo sold junk there: stripped wires, sharp green-squares, transistors like pills. “Someone junk, someone treasure!” Geo call. Men come over to see what Geo had, comb over findings, and Geo with stick, ready to slap at zippers. Stand all day, stand half night, then walk home to hard mat shared on second floor. Kick junk man out, eat food, sleep, till day begin again.
Geo hunt for junk at old places when junk run low. Sometimes old posters hidden from rain. Posters show things that not there. Happy men, metal cages. Men touching screens. Men smiling. Like said, old posters. No smiles now.
And sometimes, girls. Some cut out, but see where shape was left. Cut here, tear there. Reach out and feel where maybe curve had been. Hold nothing in hand. Imagine, if no one watching. Geo knew girls. There, but not there, like the sun, Never touch the sun, and never touch the girls, neither.
Jon yell, “Junk, junk!” Geo with stick, watching men come by. Man comes to table. Leans over. Clothing new. Business man? Tinker man? Jon’s boy watches man’s back. Makes sure no one else steal his money before Geo can.
Geo sees glint in man’s eye. He like something he see. Geo step forward. Geo like what Geo see. “You like?”
Man’s head bows. “No, no, nothing.”
Geo knows glint. Geo knows lie.
Man scans table, sniffs. “There’s nothing here. None of this is worth anything to me.”
“I’m an artist. I can maybe use this.” Man picks up three metal bits.
Geo grunts again, waits. Watches man’s hand reach for first thing he like. Glint-thing.
“And maybe this too. How much?”
Geo point to first pile. “Four panks.” Geo look at man clothing, hair, naked chin. Points to hand. “That, too expensive for you. Put down.”
Geo hold up zip-stick. “Too pricey! Put down!”
Man’s eyes narrow. Geo offend him. He think he can afford all junk here, all table, all tent. But he do what Geo say, sets glint-thing down. Geo pick it up: round, metal, cold. Geo ask for most expensive thing Geo can think of. “Worth one night.”
Man’s eyes widen. Anger blaze. But he cannot steal from Geo here. Whole tent junk men watching. Under table, Jon step on Geo’s shoe.
Man lean over table, snatch ball from hand. “Done.”
“Go to the third tower two days from now. I’ll let them know you’re coming.” Holds up metal thing from pocket. Light flashes. Geo is blind.
When sight come back, man gone. Geo works, goes back home, lays on mat. Feels junk man’s fear. Should Geo have bargained harder?
about the narrator… Multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, producer, composer, and heliocentrist George Hrab has written and produced six independent CDs and a concert DVD; published two books; recorded hundreds of episodes of an award-winning podcast; emceed countless science conferences; been a TEDx speaker; and has even performed for President Clinton. He’s traveled to four continents promoting critical thinking, science, and skepticism through story and song. George is considered one of the preeminent skeptic/science/atheist/geek-culture music icons currently living in his apartment. www.GeorgeHrab.com
Prophet to the Dogs
by Bethany Edwards
A long time ago, in another life, when there were so many billions of us that 382 of them were small change, I worked in an office building. I was the graphic designer for a community arts magazine—circulation 382—on the top floor.
Across the street from this office building was a tiny, nameless park. It contained a few trees, some scraggly bushes, four benches, and just enough grass so that people thought they could hide their cigarette butts in it. I would always put my butts in the trashcan on the corner like a civilized person, but no one else ever took after my good example.
Despite being small, the park attracted a very diverse crowd. People in my building took their lunch break there, college students read or tapped away on their devices, teenage skateboarders attempted to skid across the backs of benches, moms let their young kids burn off some energy, and homeless people curled up with their dogs in the evening.
But by far the most interesting people in the park were the protestors. There were no huge corporate or political headquarters in that part of town, so we didn’t get organized protestors. We got lone Don Quixotes, tilting solo at the windmills of modern evils. They were usually spreading the message that the end was nigh if we didn’t stop global warming or come to Jesus. I got a big kick out of them when I first started my job, but over time they all faded into the background of my everyday life.
Until the day I noticed the “YOU ARE ALL F&@^%D” girl.
about the author… Edward Ashton is a clinical research scientist and writer living in Rochester, New York. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues both in print and online, ranging from Louisiana Literature to Daily Science Fiction. Three Days in April is his first novel.
about the narrator… Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia and makes internets for a living. He has been published in — among others — Asimov’s, Escape Pod, and Evil Girlfriend Media, and has work forthcoming (or already released) in 2016 from Abstract Jam, Stupefying Stories, and The Overcast. In 2015, he released his first collection, The Clockwork Russian and Other Stories. When not writing, he mostly complains that he’s not writing.
By Edward Ashton
Micah steps from the shuttle and onto the tarmac, eyes slitted against the hard north wind that whips across the empty runway. The sky is a flat, leaden gray, with high thin clouds too light for snow, but too thick to let the sun come through as anything more than a vague, diffuse glow near the southern horizon. Micah hunches his shoulders against the bitter cold, ducks his chin to his chest, and pulls his coat tight around him. He hesitates, glances up at the desolate stand of dead trees at the far end of the runway, then walks slowly toward the terminal building.
A sense of uneasiness, which has lurked deep in his belly since he boarded the shuttle, grows steadily as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s alone here. He hadn’t expected an honor guard, but he’d expected… something. As he reaches the terminal entrance, he looks back to see the shuttle wheel around and accelerate back down the runway. He pauses with his hand on the door. He can see through the glass that a half-dozen bodies are sprawled on the floor inside, perfectly preserved. He takes a deep breath in, then lets it out slowly as he enters the building. The scream of the shuttle’s engines fades as the door swings shut behind him.
As he climbs the frozen escalator to the arrivals lounge, Micah remembers the last time he passed through this airport. It was years ago, and he’d been on his way to visit a distant cousin in the North Country. He remembers stopping for a drink before heading to the rental car counter, intending to stay only long enough to take the edge off before a four hour drive, but instead spending most of the afternoon drinking crappy domestic beer and trading double entendres with the bartender. She was tall and lean and blonde, not young, but not yet old either, and her smile caught and held him long after he should have been on the road.
She’s dead now, of course. Lake Ontario was the epicenter. When the strike came, it was twelve thousand miles in any direction from here to safety.
Ben Hallert: I live in Oregon with my wife, two children, a plane, and a reach that regularly exceeds my grasp.
Laura Davy lives in California with her husband and two cats. She wrote her first story when she was in elementary school and, despite the fact that the plot didn’t make sense, she kept on writing. She is a Viable Paradise 19 graduate and has been previously published in Apex Magazine, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Stupefying Stories Showcase. You can learn more about her at www.lauradavy.com.
Brian Trent: Work of mine has appeared in Escape Pod, Pseudopod, ANALOG, Fantasy & Science Fiction, AE, Galaxy’s Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and more.
about the narrators…
Trendane Sparks: Originally born in Texas, Tren eventually escaped and wound his way through a mystical series of jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has worked as a software QA Tester for both graphics drivers and video games, a freelance mascot performer, and several jobs on a PBS kids’ show. For most of his life, people have told him that his voice is a pleasure to listen to. But since being a werewolf phone sex operator can get boring, he decided to use his powers to entertain a broader audience.
Nicholas Camm is a British actor, audio-book narrator and voice overer. He is just about to begin recording the 7th book in the Eddie Malloy Mystery series, a set of thrillers set in the world of horse racing. He has acted with, in his humble opinion, some notable luminaries, including Derek Jacobi, Ray Winstone and ex Doctor Who, Matt Smith, and has apparently been on the big screen in Times Square, although he wasn’t there to see it. He was recently a holographic mad professor in an experimental theatre piece, and has just finished filming an advert with a famous German footballer (that’ll be soccer for you Yanks!). Nick still ranks the time when Peter Watts emailed him to say, “You f*#~king nailed it”, about his narration of Pete’s story ‘Malak’ for StarShipSofa, as one of his giddiest moments. One day Nick will stop procrastinating and write a sci-fi novel. Until then there’s hoovering to be done.
Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him. He works full-time as the public relations coordinator at McPherson College, where he also received his master’s in higher education administration in spring 2016. He’s excited to get his life back. He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.
I’ve always loved speculative fiction. That’s the fancy name for stories that involve lasers, or swords, or in the very best stories, laser-swords. So as a kid, I decided to try writing it. And it went really badly.
A few decades later, after a short stint as a science reference librarian, I’m a stay-at-home dad who answers urgent questions like ‘When’s lunch?’ and ‘Can you find my stuff for me?’ It’s not really much different then helping the undergrads back at the University, but it can wear thin at times. In an effort to save my sanity, and avoid housework, I’ve returned to writing.
I think it’s going better, this time.
about the narrator…
Roberto lives in Portland, Oregon. By day he works as a community college student advocate and recruiter. By night he geeks out on all things fantasy and science fiction, comic books and board games. He produces and co-hosts “A Pod of Casts: The Game of Thrones Podcast” ( http://apodofcasts.com/ ) and is a proud monthly supporter of all “Escape Artists” productions. Roberto is a father of four younglings being raised in The Ways of The Force and is married to Barbara, his Sun and Stars. Personal Website: robertosuarez.me
Saints, Beasts, and Zombies
By Gary Kloster
The kids ambushed me on the west side of the camp, near a line of abandoned latrines. Every time they hit me I gasped for breath, and sucked in the reek of old shit.
“Worthless. Everything you got.” A kick thumped into my ribs, driven by lazy contempt, not bone-cracking rage. “Why do you only bring toys here, gringo? You want the little girls to play with you? Or do you like the little boys better?”
The boy bared his teeth at me, lips twisted by an old scar, and his gang laughed. A dozen dirty little scarecrows, the youngest maybe ten, the oldest maybe fifteen. Gangs like this crept around the edges of the Minchin Refugee Camp like feral dogs, fearful, curious.
I’d watched them, boys choking on machismo and desperation, making fun of the peacekeepers as they passed. Listened to them taunt the girls. I’d hated seeing how this place wasted them, turned them small and stupid and angry.
Now, face down and hurting in the dirt far from the center of the camp and the protection of the peacekeepers, I just hated them.
“You come back, you better bring something better than toys. Or we won’t be so nice.” One more kick, and I managed to roll enough so that it caught me on the shoulder and not the head.
They walked away, laughing. They had my coat, my cell phone, and my satchel full of Qbooks. The phone was a burner, with less than an hour left to it. The coat was cheap, but I’d miss it on the walk back through the Andean night. The Qbooks, though…
Their loss hurt me more than the kicks to the ribs.
Maybe one of them would keep one. Stare at the tablet’s cheap screen and wonder about the symbols that danced across it. He might listen to it, play with it, and learn. Learn to read and write, learn math, science, languages. Maybe he would learn enough to escape this place and grow into a man wise enough to change the world, and end the need for camps like this once and for all.
“Or maybe you should get yourself checked for brain damage, Raul,” I muttered as I slowly pushed myself up out of the dust. “Because I think you’re starting to hallucinate.”
“What the hell happened to you?”
“Twelve stitches and a tetanus booster.” I sat at my desk, counting out the ibuprofens the clinic had given me, setting up for an uncomfortable night.
“Before that, Raul.” Grace shifted, leaning back and frowning. The motion made my eyes flick to the glowing image of her face centered in our chat window. She’d cut her dark hair, going back to the short style that she’d favored before she married Mark. A style I’d always preferred, but Mark had liked it long.
Marriage counseling must not be going well.
“Got rolled by some kids. No big deal.” I tapped at my keyboard, opening up the status windows on my Qbooks. Numbers danced, charts flowed, colorful distractions from her face.
“How many stitches does it take to make a big deal?”
“Christ, Grace, I got mugged.” My head still pounded, despite the clinics drugs, and I wasn’t feeling very diplomatic. “It happens, third world or first. Why don’t you stop pretending to be my– my mother and tell me why you called?”
Grace stared at me, dark eyes unreadable, and I wondered if she knew the word that I had swallowed. Probably. I stared at my columns of numbers and tried to lose myself in their familiar misery.
“I’m calling about the email you left yesterday. The one asking me for money.”
“Shit,” I muttered and straightened up in my chair, looked at her and tried to smile. Wished that I had changed my shirt into something more formal, less stained with dirt and blood. “Yes. I was-”
“Wanting money,” Grace cut me off. She ran a hand through that short hair, staring off into the darkness of her study. For the first time, I noticed the boxes stacked up behind her, the shadows that filled her empty shelves instead of books. Noticed too the absence of rings on her fingers. “I can’t do it, Raul. Not now. I asked Mark for a divorce two days ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, almost a whisper.
“No you’re not,” she said back, her voice just as quiet.
I looked from the screen, avoiding the image of her eyes, stared down at my filthy hands until my computer chimed quietly. A text chat request, and my fingers slid across my touch pad to kill it. Then I noticed the name, beast696.
Everything always comes at once, I thought, and tapped the window open.
beast696- Santo Raul! Heard you almost got yourself martyred today!
The Beast, after almost two weeks of silence. My fingers tapped the keys, just as Grace began to speak again.
“That isn’t what this is about. The money. It’s just, with the divorce coming, my lawyer-” she trailed off, her hand scrubbing through her hair again, as if searching for the length she had lost. “I just can’t do it.”
Raul@FindingGenius- No martyrdom for me. Just
a little banged up. Where you been?
“Your lawyer said no?” I said. I flipped through screens until I’d pulled up the tracking program I’d paid a hacker friend of mine to create, after it had become obvious that my security chops were too meager to capture Beast. “Why?”
“She seems to think that if I send large amounts of money to an ex-boyfriend in the middle of my divorce, it might look bad.”
beast696- Busy, Santo, busy.
Raul@FindingGenius- Did you look at those math lectures I sent you?
Beast696- Some. Got distracted though by something else on that site.
Raul@FindingGenius- Let me guess. The crypto?
“You’re giving to a charity, Grace. Not a person.” I activated the tracker and it started to bounce through the net, hunting for the Qbook that Beast was using, trying to grab its locational data. The little computers were meant to be easy to find, hard to tamper with, but Beast had hacked his into submission.
“You are that stupid charity, Raul. Finding Genius is you, a camper van, a crate of Qbooks, and a martyr complex.”
beast696- Crypto is cool, Santo. Very money.
Raul@FindingGenius- Money’s not everything, Beast.
beast696- I thought you were fighting ignorance, Santo. Not promoting it.
“Martyr complex?” The ghosts of a thousand old arguments drifted through those words, waiting. “Is that what you think this is? These kids need me.”
“They need you, Raul?” Grace leaned back from her camera, became a silhouette against the gray Seattle skies that filled the windows of her study. “They don’t know you. You’re just another interfering anglo trying to tell them how to run their lives.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit, Raul. You’re not from there. You’re grandma left Bolivia when she was five. The only thing you know about those people is what you read on Wikipedia.”
“I’ve been here two years, Grace. I know them now.”
“Christ, has it been two years?” she said. “Right. You left right before the wedding.”
Raul@FindingGenius- Don’t go black hat on me, Beast.
That’s not the world you belong in.
696- So what is? Your shitty school in La Paz?
“That’s not why I left.”
Grace stared at me, silent.
“It wasn’t. That company-”
“You mean the one we started?”
“It was a mistake.” I rubbed a finger across the stitches sewn neatly over my eyebrow and winced. “Using the Qbooks to haul kids in for the highest bidder isn’t right. That company turned us into zombies, Grace. Ransacking the world, looking for big fat brains to eat.”
“We’re saving kids, Raul. Finding them in the slums and bringing them in, giving them the best education money can buy. They’ll change the world. That’s what you said, what you wanted.”
“What I wanted.” Had I ever known what I wanted? “We were, you are, snatching kids out of the places their genius is needed most and selling them off to corporations for exploitation. Saving kids. Damn it, you wrote those awful contracts that we tricked those kids into signing. Zombie pimps, trafficking IQ’s instead of ass.”
“Jesus, why do I even try?” Grace said. “Finding Genius was your idea to start with. That’s why you got to keep the damn name.”
“Yeah, my idea. But you and Mark made it profitable.”
“Mark, I– Shit, now I can’t even keep you straight, you both piss me off so much.” Her eyes flashed at me, dagger sharp even over the link. So beautiful, and part of me wanted so much to say sorry. It felt years too late for that, though.
“So. No money.”
Grace stared at me, and the anger in her eyes dulled to exhausted pain. “No Raul. No more money. No more time. No more me.”
The chat window went black, her face gone, just an afterimage when I shut my eyes.
“God damn,” I whispered into the silence. Then the tracking program beeped, and I opened my eyes.
beast696- I don’t need school, Santo Raul. I need
beast696- It might not be everything, but it’s enough
to get me out of here.
The tracking program had opened up a map and dropped a pin into the location it had found.
“Shit,” I said dully, staring at it.
Raul@FindingGenius- Sorry. I’m here.
beast696- Your tracker done?
beast696- So where am I?
beast696- Where’s that?
Raul@FindingGenius- Canada. You didn’t do the geography lessons.
beast696- Too busy learning security protocols.
Raul@FindingGenius- You’re too smart for this place, Beast. Let me help you. The school in La Paz is a good place. Why won’t you let me help you?
beast696- Because you’re asking too much for something I don’t want, Santo.
beast696- Stay away from those bad boys and stay safe. Okay?
Two weeks later, I sat at my desk in suit coat and dress shirt, tie and fleece pants, hoping to hell my shivering didn’t show over the link.
“So far, Finding Genius has distributed almost a thousand Qbooks through the villages and refugee camps of southwestern Bolivia. Each of those tablets is a chance for a child to learn, and a chance for us to find children who might someday change the world. Already, we’ve located a number of children who might become the next Galileo, Curie, or Einstein.”
I kept a smile on my face, resisted the impulse to scratch at the maddening itch of my almost healed stitches. “Well, we’ve had some successes–”
“Three.” The man from the Gates Foundation leaned back in his chair, frowning at me. “I see three children that have been sent to La Paz by your program in two years.”
“Well, genius isn’t something–”
“Two of them have returned to the camps already.”
I gave up and swiped a sleeve across my forehead, scratching my itch. “They’re children. They missed their parents. I’m sure–”
“Uh-huh.” The man sighed, turned in his chair. “There’s already a UN program that uses tablets for rural education.”
“Qbooks are better,” I said. “And that program makes no effort to search out gifted students.”
“No. I hear there are private entities that do that.”
I shut my teeth on a retort, knowing it wouldn’t help. “Look, I know there are other worthy causes. But this area needs our help right now. The lithium war between Bolivia and Chile may have only lasted a week, but the armistice after has run for over three years. These people have been driven from their homes just so we can have batteries. We owe them something.”
“We owe everyone we can help whatever we can give, Mr. Hastings. But the Gates foundation is committed to giving where it can do the most good. And I’m afraid your program just hasn’t proven itself. I’m sorry. Best of luck elsewhere.” The window winked to black.
Elsewhere. I jerked my tie off and cursed. All my elsewheres had been used up long ago, and now—
My computer chimed.
“I’m really not in the mood for your shit today, Beast,” I said, looking at the text request. My finger hovered over the screen, ready to tap the window closed. “Damn it,” I muttered, and tapped it open instead.
beast696- santo you there ineed
Raul@FindingGenius- Beast, I’m here. What
beast696- get me please, come here, now, i
A new window flashed open on my screen, the tracking program suddenly springing to life. Trumpets rolled through the speakers, and a bulls-eye drew itself over a satellite image. Camp Minchin, cinderblock buildings and trailers and tents and shacks made of plastic sheeting and scrap. In the middle of it a red pin fell, marking a trailer half-overgrown with blue tarp.
The Beast’s lair, at last, right here, so close.
Raul@FindingGenius- Beast, are you in trouble?
Raul@FindingGenius- I’m coming.
The trailer door, dented and peeling, shuddered under my hand.
I pulled my new coat closed, trying to block the wind coming down from the mountains, but my shaking had nothing to do with the cold. What the hell was I sticking my neck into, here, alone? What the hell was I going to do if no one answered my knock? What the hell was I going to do if they did?
I should have talked to the peacekeepers. They wouldn’t have wanted to come out into the cold night, looking for a boy whose name I didn’t even know, but I should have—
The door jerked open.
A woman, sharp bones wrapped in wrinkles, eyes of cutting glass, glared at me. “What?” The word, Quechua, not Spanish, was spat out like acid.
“Child. Book. Where?” I stumbled over the language, gave up and switched to Spanish. “I’m looking for a boy with one of these.” I held up a Qbook. “Have you…”
The woman glared at me silently, then shut the door.
I stared at the blank metal and cursed, raised my hand and pounded on it, the noise echoing over the low growl of radios and the low moan of the wind. I pounded until the door jerked suddenly open again, then I stumbled back, almost falling.
The boy stepped out, red eyes flashing at me over a mouth twisted into a sneer by his scar. He wore my old coat, and in his hand he held a Qbook, worn with use, painted with markers. “You gave her this.”
A set up. An ambush. I shook, afraid and angry and tired, but my voice came out steady. “Who?”
The boy took a step closer, his too-big eyes feral with rage. “My sister. The Beast.” The boy stared down at the Qbook in his hand, his face stone except for the scar.
“Grandmother hated her, always playing with this. Wanted her to do real work.” His hands clenched on the thin tablet. “She took it away from her, when she sold her.”
“To be a maid in El Alto, that’s what those men said.” The boy stared at me, eyes burning. “That’s a fucking lie, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Traffickers. I stared at the bright flowers and crude faces that covered the Qbook. They hit the camp, sometimes, looking for girls to run to… anywhere. “Goddamn it. The peacekeepers—”
“Let them in.”
Bribed, and damn it the boy was probably right and I’d have no idea who was in on it, but what the hell was I going to do? My hand spasmed around my phone. “Did you see the car they took?”
“Did you get—”
The boy held out the Qbook. On its rain spattered screen, a series of letters and numbers glowed. A license.
“Can you get her, Santos? Can you save her?” His eyes searched mine, and I could finally see the despair hiding behind all that rage.
“I’m going to try.”
“You’d better,” the boy whispered, his words barely breaking the sound of the rain. “You’d better.”
“Raul.” Grace, in her office, and there were boxes there too, crowding the desk around her. “I told you. No more—”
“I’m sending you something,” I interrupted. My fingers flew across the keyboard, dumping Beast’s file to her. Her eyes scanned her computer’s screen, started to come back to me, then stopped.
“How old is he? She?”
“She’s twelve, thirteen, I’m not sure. All I really know is that she maxed out the Qbooks intellect profiles. She’s the best I’ve ever found, Grace, and she’s obsessed with computers.”
Grace’s eyes narrowed, hard focused. “So why haven’t you scooped her up?”
“She’s been dodging me, until today. When her grandmother sold her to some traffickers.”
“Wait. Shit, what?” Grace’s eyes flashed at me. “Why the hell are you calling me about this?”
“Our– Your company.” I stared at the boxes around her, then focused on her face. “You and Mark. I know you’ve arranged extractions, gotten kids out of bad situations before. You have money, contacts. I told you to stay out of Bolivia, but–”
“We have contacts in that area,” she said, and we stared at each other, silent.
“Call them,” I said.
“Raul. Christ.” She stared down at her boxes. “I just told Mark I was quitting. Told him your idiocy had gotten to me. Now you want me to—” She broke off, sighed. “Twelve. Shit.” She stared at me, eyes small and sharp on my screen.
“I’ll talk to him. But there’ll be a price, Raul.”
“I’ll pay it.”
“No you won’t,” she said. “Your Beast will.”
My hands clenched over the keys. “I—”
“Have nothing Mark wants. Not anymore.”
Damn her. Damn me. My hands opened. “Whatever. Just help me save her.”
The road to El Alto was rutted and worn. That made it easy to angle my van across it, looking like it was stuck axel deep in a pothole.
“They’re coming,” a voice rumbled in my ear, Spanish brutalized by a thick Australian accent. I had no idea where Grace had dug up this merry little band of mercenaries, and didn’t want to. The fact that she could do it so quickly was a clear signal that the company had spun to a whole new level of insanity after I had left. Damn me though, it was useful now.
“You sure it’s them?”
“Right time and place, according to the info we bought. You’ll have to check the plate.”
“Okay,” I muttered into the headset, listening to a truck engine getting closer. I watched headlights swing around a curve, stared blind into them and waved my hands, stepping out of the way. With a lurch, the truck slid to a stop and I stepped forward, trying to see through the light.
“You hang that piece of junk?”
“Yeah,” I said, forcing myself to walk closer, blocking their headlights with a hand. “Can you give me a pull? I’ve got a chain.”
“Yeah, but do you have cash?”
Another voice, and laughter, and I was close enough to see the license now.
“It’s them,” I whispered in English, and the driver’s door was opening, a dark figure stepping out.
“What?” the truck driver asked, then he shifted, head turning toward the sound of boots crunching through the dust, and there was a pop.
With a strangled grunt, the driver fell. He thrashed in the dust, a black taser dart clinging to his chest like a vicious electric tick. Then the truck lurched at me.
I jerked myself to the side, barely dodging the rusty bumper, stopped myself from diving away and grabbed instead at the door that was flopping open as the truck bounced forward.
In the cab, the other man twisted, trying to get himself centered behind the wheel while he pulled something up off the seat beside him.
I ducked without thinking, heard a crack like fireworks and suddenly glass was falling, the broken shards of the window tapping like hail down on me. Almost lost in the echoes of the gunshot came another neat pop.
Big hands grabbed me and shoved me away from the door. The Australian blasted by and jerked the twitching man out of the truck and slid in, stopping it. The rest of his squad was there then, slipping out of the darkness like ghosts. They surrounded the truck, opening doors and flashing guns, and wrenched another man out of the back, zip tying his hands behind him.
Behind the last trafficker, five girls straggled out into the night, silent and shaking.
I reached into my coat and pulled out the Qbook, the bright colors marked on it glowing in the headlights. “Beast?”
She wore a Yankees t-shirt, dirty jeans, and in her face I could see a dim echo of her brothers.
“Santo,” she said, and took her computer from my hand and curled around it, clutching it close.
When I finally turned my computer back on, Grace was waiting for me.
“Raul, goddamit, where are you?”
She glared out of the screen at me, looking almost as rough as I did, and no one had been shooting at her.
Maybe I should have answered my phone.
“La Paz. Safe.”
“Safe,” she said. “You couldn’t have texted me that hours ago?”
“Your Australian did.”
“My Australian told me that the job was done, and that you had driven off with a van full of girls. That’s all I’ve known,” she eyes slipped, checking her computers clock, “for three hours.”
Three hours. For a second, I wondered what the mercenaries had done with the traffickers, than I decided I didn’t care. “I had to drive here and find Maria and get the girls settled.”
“Who the hell’s Maria?”
“Social worker from the school I work with.” And a damned good one. I’d rousted her from a date and settled five girls on her, and she’d had them showered, dressed, fed and settled around her apartment before I had time to stammer out my story.
“Okay,” Grace sighed. “That wasn’t completely idiotic. You still there?”
“I’m in my van, parked outside. I—” Laughter echoed somewhere on the street, people going home from the bars, and I trembled, still feeling the aftershocks of adrenalin. “I’m not sure what to do.”
“So what’s new?”
I looked away, stared out at the city night and caught sight of a skinny wraith hunched over something on the steps that lead up to Maria’s building. I popped open the door and called out, “Beast.”
She looked up, stood and walked to the van. Short and scrawny, she barely looked the thirteen she claimed.
“What are you doing?”
“That woman told me to sleep. I don’t want to.” She clutched her Qbook to her chest, defiant.
“Get in,” I said, picked up my phone and snapped a quick text to Maria. On my screen, Grace tilted her head, tracking the girl’s movement past the camera.
“Grace, Beast.” I repeated the introduction in Spanish, but the girl ignored me, settling into my narrow cot with her computer.
She had refused to give me any other name.
Grace focused again on me. “Have you talked to her yet?”
“Do it. We need her to sign a contract, and we need permission from her guardians. Will that be a problem?”
I thought of that old woman, the angry eyes of her grandson. Sold her. “No. Not with a little money.”
“Good. We need to get her out before any of this shit gets noticed.” Over the speakers came the click of her fingers, dancing across keys. “I’m sending you all the papers you’ll need, including her contract.”
The computer pinged, the file popping into existence, but I was watching Grace. “I thought you were quitting.”
“I was. Because of you. But Mark…” She stopped typing and looked past her computer, past me. “I promised him another six months. So we could manage the transition better.”
“So he could convince you to stay,” I said.
“That was part of his price, wasn’t it? For tonight?”
“Yes,” she said again, running a hand through her short hair, and it was my turn to look away.
“You used to be together,” Beast said, curled on my bed.
“A long time ago.”
“Mmmm.” The girl held up her tablet, turned its screen to me. “Is this the contract she wants me to sign?”
Beast had gotten the file from some watchdog group’s expose on the company I had started and its practices. I could see logo at the top of the screen, the familiar first lines. “Looks like.”
She flipped the screen back towards her and danced her fingers across it. “Not so money. Twenty-first century slavery, that’s what all the comments say.” She stared at me through her ragged hair. “Am I going to get sold again, Santos? Twice in one day?”
“No.” What would it cost me? Would Mark demand I come back and work off what I owed the company for this? I felt the phosphors of Grace’s face, burning behind me.
No. He wouldn’t want me back.
It didn’t matter. I’d figure out a way. I wasn’t going to make the Beast pay for her life. “You don’t have to sign that. You can stay—”
“Stay? Here? Or with my family?” Her eyes looked just like her brothers, when they were filled with rage. “I don’t want to go back to them, Santo. Or that shithole camp. I want to go to the world you come from, with things and money and choice.” She tapped her Qbook’s screen. “I want this deal, without being screwed.”
“What’s she saying?”
Grace’s question pulled the Beast’s eyes off me, to the screen. When she spoke, her transition from Spanish to English was almost flawless. “What I’m saying is that your contract is shit. I want something money.”
“Whoa, young lady.” Grace waved her hand. “I can’t—”
“Don’t talk to me about it,” Beast said. “Talk to my agent.”
I blinked at her. “What?”
“The football boys, from the camps. They get agents, when the scouts from Europe come. Why not me?”
Her head dropped, her fingers flashing across her screen. Behind me, my computer chimed, and in the window beside Grace’s face the girl’s words appeared.
beast696- Do you really want to help me, Santos?
beast696- Then why don’t you ever listen to me? Why haven’t you ever tried to find out what I want?
“I—“ I started, then stopped. I’d never asked her what she wanted, yes, but… “You’re thirteen.”
She didn’t bother to look up as she typed.
beast696- I’m me. This is my life, not yours. So who’s life are you trying to save, anyway?
I stared at the skinny girl, the stickered, battered, markered Qbook cradled in her hands, and my stomach lurched. “Yours,” I said, and for maybe the first damned time I thought about what that might mean. “Okay. Just one thing. Can you call me your advocate, instead of agent?”
Her eyes flicked up, gleaming with reflected light. “You work for me, Santos, really work for me, and I’ll call you whatever you want.”
“Raul, what the hell is this?”
Grace’s voice carried the lawyerly grate of whetstone on steel, but that didn’t shake me. I’d dropped into this country two years ago, nursing my wounded pride, convinced I could save these kids, save the world, just by showing up. But I’d never asked Beast what she wanted, never asked any of the kids that. I’d never really considered that, not when I was the brain eating zombie, and not when I was trying to play the saint.
“This?” I said. I turned back to my computer, fingers tapping keys, and I pulled up a copy of Grace’s contract onto my screen. “This is round one. First thing, citizenship. Or a green card, maybe a visa, if it’s good enough, but something besides that revocable piece of crap that you hold over these kids heads.”
“Christ, you’re serious, aren’t you?” Grace was pissed, and goddamn it felt good to see her looking at me with something besides disappointed resignation.
“Damn right,” I said, skimming the contract, tapping out notes. “You better wake up Mark, he’s going to have to be in on this.”
“Perfect,” Grace snapped. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Raul?”
I stopped typing and stared into the camera. “Same thing I’ve been doing ever since we met.” I pointed behind me, at the scrawny girl curled around her tablet. “Trying to save the world. One genius at a time.”
Mike Buckley’s fiction has appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2003, The Southern California Review, and numerous times in The Alaska Quarterly Review. His science fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld(in a story read by Cast of Wonders’ Marguerite Kenner), Pravic, and is forthcoming from Abyss and Apex. He is currently working on a Transhumanist murder mystery novel. He has been nominated for various awards, and his debut short story collection, Miniature Men,was released in 2011. He is a practicing Creative Futurist, using science fiction storytelling to improve corporate and government policy. He is also an instructor with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and regularly teaches workshops on science fiction and short story.
about the narrator…
Barry Haworth is from Australia and he last narrated for Escape Pod in episode 428. This is his third appearance after offering to narrate as a way to contribute to one of his favorite shows.
City in the Wound
By Michael Buckley
In the middle of the night Eztli decides to burn The Mothers. He’s a block down and they’re visible through a sliver of space between two corners, drapes of light kelping back and forth slow in the darkness.
Eztli runs, safe for the moment ‘cause it’s his street, Da is watching, but then off his block, out into the middle of the road.
A brick flies past him. He hears shouting in the rooms above The Mothers, but their boys and girls don’t make it out in time. Now it’s just him standing in front of The Mothers. There’s three in a row, their dresses shimmering and lovely, and they stare down at him, so kind and gentle. The one in front is actually crying as Eztli sprays stolen gasoline in a wide arc across them. Eztli hates her for it. He could burn her a thousand times.
The lit match hits the wall and The Mothers go up. The children scream from the second floor. Feet bang on the stairs. Eztli runs, the warmth of the fire behind him, listening to the other screams, the ones coming from beneath the flames.
That night he sleeps next to Da, the composites moving about slowly behind him, lulling. And he doesn’t dream at all.
Da wakes him the next day. The composites reach finger-like to brush his cheek. Feels like lizard skin, or what he’s heard of The Native’s hide.
“Wakee,” Da says. His voice makes Eztli’s lips go cold. “Wakee. Food for the others. At the farthest pit.”
Eztli stands in the morning light. The street is dead quiet and Da behind him moves across the wall, ticking and groaning and hissing.
“You slept close to Da last night for burning The Mothers,” Da says.
Samantha Murray is a writer, actor, mathematician and mother. Not particularly in that order.
She lives in Western Australia in a household of unruly boys.
about the narrator…
Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on twitter or instagram.
Divided By Zero
by Samantha Murray
As a child I already knew that there were different kinds of infinity.
When I asked my mother whom she loved the most–me or my brother–she would pause and then say she loved the both of us.
How much did she love us? I wanted to know. And she’d say she loved me an infinite amount and my brother an infinite amount too.
From this I knew implicitly that two infinities did not have to be the same size.
As a child I knew this although I had no words for it. It was what drove me to ask the question. I knew also that I was waiting for her not to pause.
She always did. Every time.
Secure in his answer, my brother never asked the question. I was the lesser infinity; that of whole numbers perhaps, while his was of real and irrational numbers, which could be complex, and transcendental.
My brother won awards and prizes, was tall and athletic while I could not use my legs, but this is not why his infinity was infinitely bigger and infinitely better than mine. I’m sure people wondered how anyone could fail to love my brother when he was so brave and shining–but I think they have the causality backwards. Everybody loved him and he took all of that love inside himself until he could not help but glow like a nebula pinpricked with stars.
My lover indicates the space between our two bodies. She moves so that the space is gone, my skin flush against hers, no gaps. “Is this not enough for you?”
I let her words fall away into silence, receding from us, shifting into red.
Nan Craig holds an MSc in Global Politics from the LSE and worked for the social enterprise Participle, and as a freelance editor, before becoming Publications Director for the Centre for Global Studies. twitter.com/nancraig
about the narrator…
Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. For more about her, as well as links to her fiction and information about her popular online writing classes, see http://www.kittywumpus.net.
by Nan Craig
This bloke was as ordinary as you’d get. His own patches seemed good – seamless, no tics or sags, which gave me a bit of confidence. I wondered if he’d even done some of them himself. His surgery – because it turned out he was properly licensed for teeth and eyes – was as neat and rundown as he was. Burn marks in the carpet. The walls and chairs were grimy with fingerprints. The only clean thing in there was his kit, and for that at least I breathed relief. It was a residential house in Grangetown, with an ordinary looking dentist’s chair in the back room, letters of qualification framed on the walls. But he lead me through that room, and up the stairs.
I lay on my back on the grass and howled. No one was going to hear me up here, anyway, so I let go. I was no singer, mind, and the whiskey in me didn’t help. I started off singing something, something old, and then let it degenerate into yodels that swooped off into the overcast skies like gulls. I half hoped I could shoot something down with my wild yells.
I just wanted to forget. Forget what? Oh, everything. The last six weeks, the last six years, the whole of the sky and all under it. It was harder to get drunk than I’d thought, even on this 47% stuff. The wet grass soaked my t-shirt through to my muscles. They didn’t even ache, the bloody useless powerful things. There was no chance. No chance for nothing.
I’d thought no one could hear me shout, but then I heard an answering whoop. It could have been a bird, I guess, but I knew the voice already – it was Ioan. As soon as I’d registered that the wind stole all sound of him away from me for a few minutes and then I heard his breath again as he reached me, puffing a bit against the incline of the hill, hurrying. He stood over me, casting a weak shadow, and toed me gently with one boot.
“What’re you up to, now, eh? You look bare plastered. How have you even managed it? I thought you didn’t get drunk, Sergeant Major?”
I propped myself up on my elbows and took another swig.
“I’m not drunk,” I said. “I’m just trying to be. I’m an extravagant failure. At this. And everything else, so they tell me.” I gestured with the bottle down at the town below us. Port Talbot, sprawling and gasping.
He kicked me in the ribs then, not so gently, though we both knew I wouldn’t bruise.
“Anyway, it’s Captain,” I said. “And I’ll do a little private court martial if you’re not careful. Up here no one can here you scream.”
“Ooh, Sarge,” he said. “D’you promise?”
He was kidding. Helen wouldn’t even have cared. She had no reason to be jealous of me, sadly.