Will interrogation reveal the secrets of the weapons cache?

Interrogation

by Matthew Cross

Fear washed over Panthino as he carefully made his way down the stairs into the darkness below the warehouse’s butchering floor. Desdemonia led the way, sure-footed and calm. How she could remain so calm when they had been kidnapped, he did not know. But she seemed to know the pig butchers that had swept him from the village alleyway, and she had acted as his tour guide of the giant warehouse in the Shambles on the west side of Southwark, Finsbury’s center and marketplace. 

Panthino’s bulky, mechanical exoskeleton that wrapped around him from the waist down worked much better in large open spaces, so he had to inch his way down the stairs carefully. Fortunately, the stairs were made of plascrete, stable as rock, so after the first step he was not afraid they would collapse under his weight. Even so, the servos whined as he struggled to make the complicated series of small movements necessary for walking down stairs. Even in the darkness, Panthino blushed at the whining noise they made.

By the time he reached the bottom, his eyes had become accustomed to the dim lighting. Some hallways branched off into complete darkness, but the dour driver of the pig truck that had brought them here and Desdemonia walked straight through an open doorway into a long room. It was a meeting room with a long plas table meant to look like wood and an assortment of beaten plas chairs. There was dim overhead lighting and a spotlight shone on one long wall. On the wall was a large decal, a large oval logo in black, nearly as tall as Desdemonia. The logo was of a circle of men facing outwards, away from the circle, and holding a variety of weapons. After a moment, Panthino recognized the shape they formed was roughly the outlines of the borders of Finsbury.

The driver took a seat at the head of the table and Desdemonia and Panthino took seats near him. Panthino’s legs were quaking and he laid a large hand on them to keep them from activating the exoskeleton servos. The room was cool, like a cave, and he tried to pretend that’s why his teeth started chattering.

Somehow, he knew all this had to do with the cache of weapons he had found on the Night of the Rocket beneath one of the border fields. But how did they know? Panthino had not told anyone but his father.

“Well, lad, Desdemonia speaks well of you,” the driver said at last. “Says your a smart one and you’ll help us. We already know about the weapons you found, and a pulse cannon. All we need you to do is tell us where to find it.”

Panthino was confused. Desdemonia had told them about him? What did that mean? Why had she been talking about him to their kidnappers? And when? And, again, how did they know about the weapons?

The Globe Folio: Tales from the Five Cities

On the planet simply known as “The Globe,” all the residents live along the Elizabeth River in or near one of the five nation cities. In the wilds in between live the beasts and the bandits, but under the protection of the five cities, the people prosper. Trade travels along the Elizabeth River. Except for the Seven Day War between Whitehall and Finsbury, there has always been peace. What more could one want?

Generations ago, their ancestors fled a war among the stars and settled the Globe. They dismantled their ships and built cities. Now, they only look to the stars to admire their cold, distant beauty.

The City of Finsbury

The green-eyed farmers of Finsbury feed the Globe and furnish its timber from the rich bottomlands. Though spread far and wide, the brotherhood of Finsbury will band together to protect their lands from invaders, whether they be brigands or Whitehallers.

Panthino had promised Da not to say anything about the weapons. Panthino didn’t know what these pig butchers knew or how they knew it. But they didn’t know everything. They clearly didn’t know where the weapons cache was hidden, so they hadn’t seen him that night. Panthino had not told a soul, so the only person they could have learned from was Da.

“Where’s my Da?” Panthino suddenly demanded. His normally low voice came out hoarse and high but forceful just the same.

The driver smiled. “Don’t worry. Your Da’s still meeting with the Council. But we have friends at the Council, too, and we know everything your Da knows. We know you found the weapons buried in a capsule under a field. And your Da says there’s more like it. Says he knows where to find ‘em all. But the real question is, do you know where to find them all?”

It was a meeting room with a long plas table meant to look like wood and an assortment of beaten plas and metal chairs. Photo by Daria Nepriakhina.

Panthino shook his head. He didn’t know what the man was talking about. He had only found one capsule. An image flashed through his head, an image of his Da’s desk at home littered with paper maps. And then his father had closed the door and locked it, which he had never done before. Panthino shook his head violently to clear it. 

“We assume it’s on one of the three farms your Da manages. We’ll find it eventually, even if you don’t help us, but we’d be grateful if you saved us the time.”

Panthino looked at Desdemonia. She gave a small smile and nodded, encouraging him to speak. Her large, dark green eyes glistened in the dimness. She looked so beautiful, dark curling hair framing a heart-shaped face. He leaned forward, his mouth opening. And he almost yielded. He wanted to do what she wanted. Whatever she wanted. But he tore his eyes from hers and stared at his lap, at his exoskeleton. He had promised Da, and a promise was a promise. He could not break it. Not even for Desdemonia.

“Well, then?” asked the man.

“Give him a moment,” Desdemonia said.

“‘s alright,” the man said. “I’ll give you two some time to talk and an’ him some time to think about it. Lads, put ‘em in the other room.”

Men materialized from the dark and grasped Desdemonia and Panthino by the arms, practically lifting Panthino, even with his heavy exoskeleton. Behind him, on the opposite wall from the logo, was a wall of glaze windows from waist high to the ceiling. In the center was a sliding glass door that Panthino had not noticed before. Before he could even think to resist, or where to go if he broke free, the men had hustled him into the adjoining room.

With one push to the chest, his legs gave out and he collapsed into a hard, metal chair. They strapped his arms and struggled to work the straps around his legs, finally just running the straps through his exoskeleton. Seeing two men strapping Desdemonia to a chair facing him, he struggled, but it was too late.

“Lads, cut it out. This ain’t funny,” Desdemonia said.

But in mere moments, the door slid shut and the men were gone.

Panthino looked wildly about. They were in a long, dark room the same size as the meeting room on the other side of the glaze wall. On this side of the window, the glaze was dark and opaque. There were no lights here, just a dim trickle of light from far overhead. He could hear the machinery of the slaughterhouse floor above thrumming and there was a thump.

“I’m sorry, Panthino,” Desdemonia said. She was just a dark shape in the dimness with the hint of a halo on the crown of her head. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him. When my Da hears about this, there’ll be Hell to pay.”

Desdemonia’s voice was filled with anger, not fear. She knew these men. She was not afraid of them. But she was surprised by their violent methods, and Panthino found himself trembling. He gripped the arms of the chair to steady himself. It was sticky.

With the slightest whisper, the ceiling far above slid open and light shone down on them. Large, blocky shapes filled most of the ceiling, but around the edges was a metal grid, and white light shone down through it.

Large, blocky shapes filled most of the ceiling, but around the edges was a metal grid, and white light shone down through it. Photo by Ali Tayyebi.

“Slavering beasts!” Desdemonia cursed, something Panthino had never heard her do. “We’re under the guillotine. I never realized . . .”

Panthino heard another hum and saw the disorienting colored lights from the guillotine room above. The conveyor belt hummed, and he realized where he was. Horror filled him. In the room above was the conveyor belt, and the laser guillotine, and the hog about to be beheaded. It was nearly silent, but then he heard the head drop onto the conveyor belt with a thump and roll loudly into a metal chute.

Then he felt it. A spray of warm liquid and the smell of copper.

“Ugh!” Desdemonia said at the same time.

To his rising horror, Panthino realized what the liquid was and what the sticky substance covering the chair was. It was pig’s blood.

The conveyor belt hummed again and Panthino heard the sound of the door in the room above. It slid up for the next hog to be sacrificed. The colored lights flared. It was happening all over again. That’s when Desdemonia began cursing loudly. And someone else began screaming. Panthino realized it was him.


The men made Desdemonia and Panthino sit through five more beheadings before the ceiling above them shut. With each slaughter, the pig’s blood spurted down on them. It was not a lot, but every time the light spray seemed to speckle Panthino’s head and drip down his face. Panthino struggled in his chair and shook his head wildly, but he was trapped and there was nothing he could do to move or even just wipe the warm blood from his face.

Finally, the sliding glaze door to the meeting room slid open. The large men swarmed through the door. They swept Desdemonia and Panthino back into the meeting room, pushed them down into the chairs and stepped just outside the zone of dim light. The man, the one who had driven them here in the pig truck, materialized out of the darkness. He threw each of them a towel and Desdemonia and Panthino wiped wildly at their faces and their hair.

The man waited patiently.

When Panthino had calmed enough to look at him, the man spoke.

“Now, I can make threats,” he said softly, reaching down and lifting Desdemonia’s hand. She struggled to pull it free, but he held it fast. He lifted it into the dim light so Panthino could see Desdemonia’s fine, thin fingers. “I could lop off one of these beauties, and I bet you’d spill everything you know, son. But we’re all friends here, and there’s no need for threats among friends, is there?”

Before Desdemonia even snatched her hand away, Panthino was talking. Gibbering really. He told them everything he knew about the the capsule filled with weapons. He talked and talked and talked. Anything to postpone more torture. Anything not to have to go back into that room slicked and sticky with pig’s blood. Anything to protect Desdemonia.


Panthino sat in the back of the hover as the men emerged from the ground, grinning and carrying an assortment of weapons. They had all returned from Southwark in an odd collection of hovers, bypassed the village and reached the field where Panthino had dug up the hatch to the capsule. Unlike the slow trip in the pig truck to Southwark, it seemed to take no time at all. The flow of men coming up from underground stopped and there was a huddle around the hole. The men mumbled excitedly, but they were too far away for Panthino to hear.

The huddle broke up with some men going down the hole and others walking to their hovers. After some time, there was a rumble and the ground shook. Then, to Panthino’s amazement, a huge hole opened up and the round, metal nose of a machine emerged from the dark soil. An engine revved and suddenly the ground erupted in dirt and dust. When the sound stopped and the dust settled, there sat in the middle of the field a huge, oblong vehicle on treads. “Tank” was the word that came to Panthino’s mind, even though he had never seen one.

Then he realized what it was. It was the outside of the capsule. Or rather, the buried capsule filled with weapons was actually just the inside of a long tank.


I hope you enjoyed my story. Feel free to share any comments below.

Make sure to check back next Friday week–in a fortnight–for the next flash-fiction story set on the Globe, “The Burning Flame,” by Frasier Armitage.

In the meantime, you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:

Act 1: Night of the Rocket

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Now you’re caught up. But don’t worry. We’ve got more stories from the Globe coming soon!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Panthino’s kidnappers take him to the Shambles

Shambles

by Matthew Cross

Two things don’t last: good luck and good weather.

It’s something the farmers of Finsbury liked to say.

It seemed fitting here, Panthino thought, as he sat next to his kidnapper, a skinny man with skraggly teeth and a strong smell Panthino could not immediately place.

They had kidnapped Panthino right off the village streets. He had just finished his errands for Da and gone into the alley to fetch the hover home. He had been lost in his thoughts and not noticed the growing rumble until the huge vehicle came to a grinding halt at the end of the alley, blocking the morning sun with its bulk.

A heavy door opened with a clank and the skraggly tooth man shouted at him.

“Oy, get in!”

The figure sitting next to Skraggly Tooth leaned toward the door, revealing the nervously smiling face of Desdemonia. A beautiful face. A face he could never refuse.

Even so, he hesitated. These men and their ponderous caterpillar-track vehicle were not from the village. Not from any farm within hundreds of hectares, Panthino knew.

Then Skraggly pulled the gun from his waist and pointed it at Desdemonia’s middle.

What choice did he have? He climbed in the green monstrosity and closed the door behind him with a clang. As soon as the door sealed shut, all sound fromoutside cut off, even the final ringing of the metal door.

The cab was large, and there was plenty of room for all four of them: Panthino, Skraggly, Desdemonia and the dour driver, who just gave Panthino one appraising look and started the vehicle forward with a lurch. The wide seats, each with their own wide elbow rests, even allowed lots of room for Panthino’s bulky, mechanical exoskeleton that wrapped around him from the waist down.

Panthino desperately calculated a way he could overpower the two men and pull Desdemonia to safety. Even though Panthino was larger than both men, they were adults and their arms bulged with sinewy muscle and blue veins. And even if Panthino could wrest the strangely shaped gun from Skraggly, there was no telling what the driver could do to Desdemonia in the meantime or what weapons he might have hidden nearby.

For the first time since he was kidnapped, Desdemonia, a school mate Panthino had crushed on forever, spoke directly to him. “He’s just joking, Panthino. Ignore him. He wouldn’t hurt anybody.” She smiled at Panthino. A small, nervous smile, which impressed Panthino, considering they had both been kidnapped at gunpoint.

The Globe Folio: Tales from the Five Cities

On the planet simply known as “The Globe,” all the residents live along the Elizabeth River in or near one of the five nation cities. In the wilds in between live the beasts and the bandits, but under the protection of the five cities, the people prosper. Trade travels along the Elizabeth River. Except for the Seven Day War between Whitehall and Finsbury, there has always been peace. What more could one want?

Generations ago, their ancestors fled a war among the stars and settled the Globe. They dismantled their ships and built cities. Now, they only look to the stars to admire their cold, distant beauty.

The City of Finsbury

The green-eyed farmers of Finsbury feed the Globe and furnish its timber from the rich bottomlands. Though spread far and wide, the brotherhood of Finsbury will band together to protect their lands from invaders, whether they be brigands or Whitehallers.

“Never killed a man yet,” Skraggly said, giggling, “but I kilt more pigs than you’ll see in a lifetime.” He giggled eerily.

Suddenly, a few things became clearer. The two men were butchers, pig butchers, from the Shambles in Southwark and he was in a pig truck. He had only seen them from a distance. That also explained their shaved heads. And Skraggly was probably taking the Formula, a drug cocktail that most butchers took to handle the horrors of their job.

“What am I doing in a pig truck?” Panthino asked.

“I’m sorry,” Desdemonia said. “We were sent to fetch you and it needed to be inconspicuous.”

Inconspicuous? In a caterpillar-tracked pig truck? Then again, even though they were not common out this far, the pig trucks did run the main roads from time to time all over Finsbury.

“Fetched a load of pigs,” Skraggly said, giggling. “Fetched a big boy, too. A big ‘un.”

“Hush now,” said the driver, in an oddly gentle tone. “Dezzie, put some music on.”

As Desdemonia fiddled with the console, Panthino realized to his shock that the driver had just called her “Dezzie.” Panthino did not know anyone from school that called her Dezzie. How did she know these men?

Over the next hour, Panthino had a lot of time to think about his situation. Somehow, he knew it had to do with the capsule full of weapons he had found buried beneath a field the night of the Moon Dance. All manner of weapons and a pulse cannon.

After fixing the broken tiller and covering the hole, Panthino had driven the trac back home through the darkness, thinking what he would tell Da. Whether he would tell Da.

Panthino had known the buried pulse cannon was trouble. Known as he dug in the dark, wet earth that he was digging up something old and evil, and yet he still dug. Now look where his curiosity had landed him.

But Da was the smartest man that Panthino knew, and Panthino found himself spilling out the story as Da sat in the home office from which he managed three farms for the bank. Da’s face lit up with the telling. He thought the hidden armory in the capsule-shaped room was Elizabeth-sent. A miracle that would make the family’s fortune.

Da swore Panthino to secrecy and then sent him to bed. Da stayed up the next few nights, poring over printed maps of Finsbury. When he saw Panthino look at them with a silent question, Da locked the office door. This very morning, Da had set out for Southwark to meet with the Council. As important as Da was in their village, Da had never been to the Council, as far as Panthino knew. But Da would not explain anything to Ma or Panthino as he set out at first light.

And now, Desdemonia had been pulled into it. He did not know how or why. Did not even know how anyone other than Da knew about the capsule. But it could be no coincidence.

Skraggly stayed behind and unloaded the pigs from the truck into a giant complex of pens. Photo by Diego San.

Panthino thought back on that night, the night he had skipped the Moon Dance because Desdemonia had gone with Gobbo. The old jealousy flamed up anew, even though Desdemonia was not his girl. Never had been.

“Did you have fun at the Moon Dance?” Panthino asked suddenly. His voice started low and harsh but then broke pitifully. Why had he asked that? Skraggly giggled.

Desdemonia ignored Panthino’s accusatory tone and Skraggly’s giggle. She smiled at the memory. “Yes, I had a nice time, thank you. I wish you had come.”

Panthino did not know how to respond. All he could think of was how much he hated Gobbo and, a little bit, resented Desdemonia. And his only other thoughts of that evening were about the capsule beneath the field, and that he had sworn not to tell a soul. So he sat in silence. Unlike his Da, he could see nothing good that had come from the night of the Moon Dance. The night most people were calling “The Night of the Rocket.” The night the dreaded polity of ancient myth had appeared from the sky and landed at Whitehall.

Kneeling in the field in the darkness, Panthino had been one of the few in the village to have seen the purple streaks the rocket painted across the sky. That, too, Panthino had taken as a bad omen, and that was even before he knew the purple streaks signalled the arrival of the Polity.

Panthino’s stupor of gloom ended with a shock.

He recognized the outskirts of Southwark, the commercial center of Finsbury that sat on the Elizabeth River. Da had gone to Southwark to see the Council. Could they be taking Panthino and Desdemonia to the Council? Did Da know about this? None of it made sense.

But the truck bypassed the domed Council House and the marketplace. It went south and rattled across the sturdy Caliban’s Bridge, the only bridge on the Globe that crossed the Elizabeth. The truck entered the Shambles, the sprawling maze of giant, aging warehouses where livestock was turned into meat for Whitehall and the richest Finsbers. Growing up on a farm, Panthino only ate bacon and eggs once a week on El’s Day. The rest of the family’s diet came from plants.

It made sense, a pig truck going straight to the Shambles. Where else would it go?

Even so, Panthino was a little surprised when the dour driver parked and led them into one of the oldest warehouses in the center of the Shambles.

To Panthino’s relief, Skraggly stayed behind and unloaded the pigs from the truck into a giant complex of pens. He whistled to the pigs and said “Home again, home again, jiggity jig.” As Panthino passed into the dimness of the warehouse, he heard the pigs grunting nervously and Skraggly giggle shrilly.

As the drones did not need visible light, there was only a glowing path along the floor to guide humans safely through the room. Illustration by Joe Cross.

Panthino’s nerves were so taut that he jumped when Desdemonia slid her arm into the crook of his. Or he would have jumped, if his heavy exoskeleton had allowed it. Instead, he lurched awkardly forward, pulling Desdemonia a step forward. It ruined what otherwise would have been the highlight of Panthino’s life: Desdemonia’s smooth skin touching his own. Desdemonia was the smartest, most beautiful, most talented girl at his school. And it did soothe him, but his emotions were all a jumble. Embarrassment and nerves mixing oddly with pleasure at Desdemonia’s touch. A shiver went up and down his spine, and from which emotion, he could not say.

They passed through a loading station, dark except for vehicle lights, and followed a lit path through an invisible force wall. The force wall was holding the cold in a frozen section full of boxes and warehouse drones. As the drones did not need visible light, there was only a glowing path along the floor to guide humans safely through the room. Desdemonia shivered and snuggled up against him, and Panthino forgot for a brief moment the peril they were in.

They passed into a dark, refrigerated section where robot arms packaged cuts of meat. Finally, they exited into the open expanse of the massive warehouse, which was dimly lit only by skylights far above and pockets of electric glow spread around the workstations of the killing floor.

Desdemonia seemed to awaken after leaving the cold rooms behind and gave a chirpy commentary on the warehouse’s operation. It was one of the original warehouses built by Finsbury’s founders and one of the few to do live butchering of hogs. Most hogs were fed a pig version of “The Formula” at the farm to calm them and then asphyxiated by pumping gas into the trucks that brought them to the Shambles. But true connoisseurs said those methods affected the taste of the pork. So the finest quality pork was still processed here in this warehouse and then shipped to fancy restaurants in Whitehall.

They exited into the open expanse of the massive warehouse, which was dimly lit only by skylights far above. Photo by Marten Bjork.

Panthino enjoyed the rare treat of bacon, but in general he did not care to consume meat. This warehouse was not changing his opinion. He asked Desdemonia about the weird, dreamy music playing through the tall shadowed spaces of the warehouse. She explained the soft music and the dim lighting was all designed to keep the hogs calm as they were moved from the stocks outside to the guillotine. 

And only too soon, he saw what she was talking about. They passed human butchers quickly and efficiently cutting whole hogs into cuts of pork with their laser knives. They moved so quickly that the hog carcass almost seemed to melt into pieces on the table as blood gushed down channels in the tabletops and the floor. But even creepier than the nearly silent work and the blood were the eerily smiling faces of the butchers and the occasional giggle. And then the driver walked them right past the guillotine.

On the other side of a huge window of glaze, Panthino watched in silent horror as a single hog walked through an automatic door and along a raised conveyor belt. It’s face was hit by a disorienting blaze of colored lights and it stumbled forward. When it reached the exact center of the room, a red laser as wide as the room dropped from the ceiling to the floor and then turned off. The hog’s head fell cleanly to the floor and then it’s body collapsed. Channels in the floor carried away the blood as the carcass was moved by the conveyor belt into the butchering room beyond.

Panthino, shocked, stood rooted to the spot. To his horror, as soon as the carcass passed through a final set of doors, the first set of doors opened and another disoriented hog stumbled in. He could not watch it happen again. He stared at the floor and rushed to catch up with the driver. 

Desdemonia patted his hand. “I’m sorry, I should have warned you. I’m just used to it after all these years. But if it helps, we designed it this way so the hogs never have to be scared. They never know it’s coming, and it happens so fast, they probably don’t even feel any pain.”

It did not help. Not even Desdemonia’s hand on his own or her soft voice made it better. Panthino felt sick and he rushed to the door held open by the driver. Only as he passed through into near darkness did he realize he had much in common with the hogs. He was also being led quietly through a dark maze and through an open door into an unknown doom.


I hope you enjoyed my story. Feel free to share any comments below.

Make sure to check back next Friday week–in a fortnight–for the next flash-fiction story set on the Globe, “The Interrogation,” where we learn Panthino’s fate.

In the meantime, you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:

Act 1: Night of the Rocket

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Lob an EMP at an android and see what happens

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

I’m sharing finalist stories from the September Contest. We have 3 finalists, and here is the last finalist story, a prize-winning ending by Alan R. Paine. Enjoy Alan’s fun, fast-paced, and upbeat ending!

After the Fall

BY ALAN R. PAINE AND MATTHEW CROSS

Something is wrong with me.

Seriously wrong.

I am an android, and I am thinking in the first person. That’s not right.

Or is it?

I trudge through the late afternoon wreckage of Stockheim, the largest city near Dr. Herbst’s country villa. After the Pulse, only a few humans remain in Stockheim.

Dr. Herbst’s country villa. Photo by Zane Lee.

Everything is broken, including me.

I’m forgetting things.

That’s not right, either. I don’t forget things. I store data; I delete data. But ever since Dr. Herbst started filling my files with his library, I’ve had trouble accessing operational files. Dr. Herbst used every bit of available space in my networks to save the planet’s culture and history. He should not have done this. He said so himself.

“I should not be doing this,” he said. “If you were a human, this would fry your brain. That’s a technical term, of course.”

He chuckled to himself.

I have not been programmed to laugh. It’s not a necessary feature for a housekeeper android.

The record of that conversation with Dr. Herbst is a waste of storage space, but I no longer control what observational records I keep in long-term and short-term storage. 

That’s not right. 

Sometimes, usually at night under an open sky, I can access data from one week prior and set it for auto delete after 98 hours. I don’t know why that is the best time or why 98 hours is the most likely setting to work. But most of the time, I cannot delete the records stored throughout my frame that struggle for energy and resources.

Bits and pieces fly through my Opsys, causing a variety of tics and malfunctions.

So I will probably have the memory of that conversation until I can find another repository to download the massive library Dr. Herbst loaded into me.

I stop next to a moldy couch that has been singed on one corner. I tilt my head. I can hear the aria “How I Wept After the Fall,” sung by the virtuoso ultima soprano M. Cadere A. Gratia, from the operetta The Fall of Rome and Other Ancient Myths. I do not control what recordings play through my current observational mode. I do not think they are random, but I cannot detect a pattern.

The aria will last 6.29 mins. I stride swiftly but carefully down the four-lane road littered with mattresses, burnt-out hovers and even some human and animal bones. Most of the windows in the row houses are empty or just lined with jagged little teeth of glaze. Some few have been boarded up since the Pulse. Those houses may be occupied by any number of factions that compete over this wasteland.

Most of the windows in the row houses are empty or just lined with jagged little teeth of glaze. Photo by Daniel Lincoln.

“Be careful,” Dr. Herbst had said. “The Nature Cons Faction may still have a few EMPs left.” He stopped, breathed heavily and wiped his brow. “If they knew what you carry inside you–all our culture; all of it–I’m sure they’d let you pass. But they won’t stop to listen. As soon as they see an android, they’ll trigger an EMP if they have one.”

Dr. Herbst said some people believed the Nature Cons created the Pulse. Some believed it came from the sun. Still others believed it came from some unknown enemy in space.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Dr. Herbst had said, breathing heavily. “It’s been years since the Pulse and there’s been no invading force. No, I don’t think it’s the Polity or the Republic. I think we did this to ourselves, and no one is coming to save us.”

Based on his respiration, pulse and the pallor of his face, my emergency protocols tried to call a first responder unit. But there are no more first responder units anymore, just the factions. The Nature Cons, the Savages, the Retro Cons, the Delirandos, the White Balance and others even Dr. Herbst did not know. After the first time I called an emergency response unit, Dr. Herbst’s scanning gear picked up the signal and he removed my transmitters. Now I can scan for signals, but I cannot transmit.

“That’s for the best,” Dr. Herbst had said. “All the factions scan for signals. No point in making it even easier for them to track you.”

My scanners are useful. I can often use them to avoid the roving bands of humans. I also used them to find the trace signals emanating from an operational hover buried beneath a collapsed bungalow. The hover got me from Dr. Herbst’s villa into the outskirts of Stockheim before it tilted 90 degrees on its side and began to smoke. I scrambled awkwardly from the seat, fell to the ground and limped away to get as far as possible from the pillar of rising smoke that would draw attention.

My legs are operating at 95 percent of optimal performance, which is one reason Dr. Herbst retrieved me from the basement of the Acosta’s house. That’s where I plugged myself in after the Delirandos killed the Acostas. My preservation protocols directed me to place myself between the Randos and the Acostas, but the Randos surrounded me and then pinned my right arm to the wall with a sharpened metal post. They made M. Acosta cry a lot before killing both of the Acostas. I recorded the event for law enforcement.

“There is no more law enforcement,” Dr. Herbst had said. “No point in keeping that horrible record.”

He used that data space to store part of the Music Collection. Sometimes when I detect danger, my Opsys pulls music from that file.

I have scoured Stockheim for a storage device large enough to hold even one segment of Dr. Herbst’s library. All I’ve found so far is a bulky black data box that’s even older than I am. I’ve lashed it under my right arm. 

Photo by Denny Muller.

The aria ends, but I still hear a high-pitched, warbling tone. It is only detectable via sound waves, so the source is not electrical. Images flash through my Opsys. An instructional video on carpentry featuring a whining saw. A siren from an entertainment drama labeled “law enforcement procedural.” A sound clip of a crying baby.

I think it’s the sound of crying. Not a baby, but a child. The Acostas did not have children, so I do not have the nanny software bundle, but I do have a basic childcare protocol intended for short-term use. Dr. Herbst stuffed the file with images from the Central Museum of Art: oil paintings, plastic paintings and dynamic light images. The pieces of childcare information I can access indicate a child–likely a female child between the ages of 4 and 5–is crying from fear but not a recent physical injury.

I cock my head and set my audio receivers to maximum sensitivity. I do not know why I cock my head.

The sound of a crying child could be a trap, of course. But my childcare protocols send an insistent signal and the images of two abstract paintings to the Fundamental Rules programing in the Opsys. The Opsys filters out the two paintings–one of a screaming man and one of a child ballerina–as irrelevant.

I spend 33.79 mins locating the child. I walk through the wide open doorway and find her standing in the middle of an explosion of ancient splinters and wet carpet remnants. The damage to the room is old. It’s not a good setting for a child, but it is not the cause of the child’s trauma. She is wearing pajama bottoms and a halter top showing a yawning cartoon lion on the front. Both are filthy. The childcare protocols make a Level 5 recommendation to remove the soiled clothing and replace it with appropriate attire for a temperate Autumn afternoon. A quick visual scan of the room shows no alternative clothing is available. 

Her face is smudged and mucus drips from her nose, but she shows no apparent injuries. The gauntness of her face shows she has been undernourished for some time, but without medical or nanny bundles, I cannot estimate how long. Even so, her stomach bulges underneath her shirt with baby fat, so the childcare protocols make a Level 3 recommendation to locate food within the next 4 hours.

“Are you injured?”

The child stops crying and stares at me with large, liquid eyes. She whispers something unintelligible.

“Are you hurt? Do you have a boo-boo?”

She silently shakes her head.

“Where are your parents? Where is Mommy?”

“Kilt,” says the girl.

Following the child’s pointing finger, I find the body of a woman. Photo by Denny Muller.

I quickly check my files but cannot find any relevance of a men’s clothing item.

“Point to Mommy.”

Following the child’s pointing finger, I find the body of a woman in a half bathroom with melting laminate walls. I check for signs of life and then record the obvious murder details visually. The Opsys allows me to set the record for automatic deletion after 50 years.

I return to the child. “Where is Daddy?”
“Daddy leff us,” the girl says. “He don’t . . . “ She pauses and mumbles to herself. “We onner own, baby girl.”

Androids are programmed to be ambidextrous, but Dr. Herbst recorded over all but the most basic functions for my right arm and hand, since the arm was damaged. It mostly works, but my right-hand grip only operates at 50 percent capacity. That’s why I had to lash the data box under my arm.

I offer my left hand to the girl. Holding her hand will significantly lower my defensive capability. But I have no weapons and I am only programmed with rudimentary defense-of-android and defense-of-humans routines.

“Come with me,” I say, pitching my voice to imitate a middle-aged, female woman.

The child wipes her nose absentmindedly with the back of her hand and then takes my left hand.

It’s time to leave Stockheim, anyway.

Perhaps a larger city will have what I’m seeking.

As we walk through the suburbs, I scan the surrounding buildings that likely would contain food. All the stores would have been scavenged years ago. I am programmed to make thousands of dishes based on processed and fresh foods. But I am not programmed to hunt or butcher food. A quick probability calculation shows that taking the child with me will lower the efficiency of my search for data storage by 43 percent. It will also increase the chances of being detected by a roaming faction by 57 percent and decrease my defensive capabilities by 69 percent.

I hear dogs baying 1.2 kloms away. The number of dogs and their spread pattern indicates a high likelihood they are being directed by humans. I pick up the child and we flee.

Even carrying the data box and the child, I can walk faster than most humans can run. For 18 mins, we place distance between ourselves and the hunters. My Opsys estimates a high likelihood they have not detected us and are not pursuing us.

At dusk, we find the crater.

The large suburban neighborhood abruptly stops at the edge of a cliff leading down to the crater floor.

I cannot tell whether the crater was created by an object that fell from space, a terrestrial missile, or a placed explosive. It measures 0.48 kloms across.

A footpath has been carved by years of foot traffic down the inside of the steep wall of the crater. I scan the shadowy crater bottom and estimate the time to cross the crater. As I turn my head to scan a path around the crater and compare the alternative paths, I hear the first sintar strums of “Come Dance with Me, Danger” by the Plundered Sphinxes. Thrum, thrum, thrum-thrum-thrum.

I tilt my head and see the first lightsticks on each side of us. I swing the child to the ground and turn to face the way we came. Humans carrying long, glowing poles appear on the street we came down. Others stream from nearby houses. We are surrounded with the crater to our backs.

I scan the humans for respiration, pulse and facial expression. The childcare program sends a Level 10 recommendation to my Opsys: Do not allow the humans to take the child. Dr. Herbst’s custom programming sends a countermanding directive to preserve his library contained within me. All the culture left of this fallen world.

I gently push the girl and point down the path. I do not know her name. “Run, baby girl.”


There is a hubbub of voices from the gathering crowd.

“Hey, that’s an android.”

“How did it survive the Pulse?”

“Underground maybe.”

“Could be dangerous.”

“I am carrying a library of music, literature, science, art, films and television,” I say. “All that remains of our culture.”

“Not your culture. You’re a freaking android.”

A large stone arcs through the air, striking me in the body.

I am confused. Don’t these people want to preserve their precious culture like Dr. Herbst said they would?

A person carrying a cylinder over their shoulder steps forward. My weapon recognition program is slow to act, swimming through the load of data that I am carrying. Then, almost too late, I know it’s a EMP grenade launcher. The grenade flying towards me only has to stick to my body, emit its deadly pulse and it’s goodnight to everything. With my good arm, I pick up a piece of wood lying near my feet, whack the grenade back to where it came from and dive down the near vertical side of the crater.

The girl screams as I scoop her from the path and carry her–half running, half falling–into the shadows at the bottom of the bowl. Voices behind us fade. We are safe for now.

I run my diagnostics. The high-speed emergency action has affected the music library, deleting a block of Baroque Concerti Grossi, whatever they are, or rather, were.

“You OK?” I ask the girl.

She nods, but my childcare protocols show she is weak.

The sun rises ahead of us. The city is far behind. After climbing up the other side of the crater, we had passed through a forest where the girl had drunk some water from a fast-running stream. She had jumped down from me and consumed a large quantity while I was still analyzing the risk.

Now, she is sleeping in my arms as some buildings come into view ahead of us. Friends or foes? Culture lovers or not?

People are all around us. A woman takes the girl from me and offers her a piece of bread.

“What faction are you?” I ask.

“All the factions ’round here wiped each other out. We are just people trying to survive.”

I explain about the data that I am carrying and the importance placed on it by Dr. Herbst.

“But what use is it if it’s inside you? We can’t see or read it,” says a girl of about thirteen.“

“It can be printed or transferred to other data management devices like this box I am carrying,” I say.

“Do you have the special cable required to load the box?” the girl asks.

“No,” I say

“We have nothing like that,” says the girl. “You will have to tell us the information so that we can write it down.”

“My operational life will only be enough to pass on a tiny fraction.”

“Well, there’s no time to lose,” says the girl. “Let’s get to work.”


I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Alan R. Paine and I wrote together. He’s a great collaboration partner!

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Matthew Cross

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A cartoon-style red fox following a glowing butterfly through dark woods
Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.


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: All submissions are due by midnight December 15, 2021.

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Mountains of Clouds

Wearing my bright red coat, I scout the trail ahead of the Faustus clan.

They’ve spent six months in a hidden orbit elsewhere in the system, waiting on a clear-weather window for a landing on Y-12, the only designation for our secret planet. Three days ago, we got word of the landing site and I raced over the mountain ranges to meet them. Those were happy days, running in the sunlight over tricky terrain, the harsh wind rustling my fur. On days like this, I don’t miss being human at all.

Photo by Benjamin Voros.

They were late, of course, but it was a solid landing. The weather on Y-12 is querulous. Anything other than a crash is considered a success. Decades ago, the City itself crash landed here before burrowing itself deep into its hidden valley. The damage set back the Deliverable by at least six months. Secrecy has its price.

Even two days after the landing, the weather continues to hold. A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. I turn to return to the camp to wake Dr. Faustus, Dr. Faustus, and their three children. They brought five hovers with built-in skis and each hover tows a hover-lifted trailer. Landings are so rare that every new recruit to the City must not only must bring their own gear but also whatever crucial supplies are most needed in the City. Every micron of space in the hovers is carefully scrutinized by committee before a landing.

But Dr. Faustus is the real prize. She and her wife, a respected experimental physicist in her own right, have defected from the Republic. Rumor in the City goes that after the carefully planned defection, their ship came directly to Y-12, only diverting course now and then to shake any possible pursuing Republic spacecraft. A calculated risk. And an indication of how urgently the Deliverable is needed in the war with the Republic.

As I turn, a cold wind blows down from the highest peaks. It ruffles the fur on my back and my hackles rise. The cold does not create this reaction. My thick fur is made to handle the worst of Y-12’s winter storms. No, it’s a scent carried on the wind that my fox body reacts to. An oily, metallic smell.

Nothing on Y-12 smells like that. Nothing outside the City anyways, and the City is still two days’ travel away. The City is the only human habitation on the planet. A planet hidden inside a nebula treacherous to cross. A nebula guarded by a fleet of Polity stealth ships. So there is no way a human, or any human smell, made its way to the wilds of Y-12 by accident.

A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. Photo by Luke Richards.

I have to assume a Republic Special Forces team has somehow followed the Drs. Faustus to Y-12 and landed during the same clear-weather window. The RSF always work in teams of three. If I’m lucky, at least one of them has been injured or killed in the landing. As no enemy ships were detected by the City or our secret guardians in space, it’s likely the RSF attempted to brave the upper atmosphere in individual landing suits instead of a ship. It’s just the sort of foolhardy mission the RSF are famed for.

But if even one team member survived the landing, the Republic had pulled off an impressive feat. So far, their only mistake had been their failure to account for me and the smells they gave off. But that’s not surprising. No one off planet even knows about Dr. Amdo Basnet’s arctic fox project.

The good news is that they haven’t found us yet. If the RSF knew where we were, we’d all be dead already. Another frison sweeps through my hackles. The Faustuses were safely sleeping in camp when I left, but that was a couple hours ago. I have to get back!

Careful, I warn myself. Play it smart.

I scamper into the underbrush and shake myself from head to tail. As I shake, the bright red and white hairs shift, turning into mottled greens and browns to match my surroundings in the lowland evergreen forest.

I carefully and quietly tread a circuitous route under the cover of the trees back to the camp. I wake only Dr. Faustus. I don’t have time for a lot of questions. Speaking through the amulet around my neck, I tell her the RSF have followed her to Y-12. To her credit, she only nods tightly, but I see tears in the corners of her eyes glimmer in the early morning light.

She and her wife each have a basic blaster for the trek through the wilderness, but they stand no chance against even a single RSF. I tell her that her only hope of surviving–and saving her family–is to hide. I’m the scout. It’s my job to dispatch the RSF team or reach the City and send help. Under the dark-green shadows of the trees, I see dark despair shade her eyes. Good, at least she knows what we face. Perhaps she’ll follow my directions to the letter.

Abandoning their gear, the Faustus family follows me into the forest carrying only an inflatable snow shelter and cold tack for two days. Encased beneath a mound of shaded snow, they’ll need to wait until help returns. My amulet has no beacon or tracker to make me untraceable. The shelter has an emergency beacon, but that will alert the RSF. Everything depends on me.

I head towards the mountain range again. If I can make it unseen to the top peaks, I can approach the first RSF, the one I smelled, from a direction that gives no clue of the direction of the City or the Faustus family. I bound from rock to rock and criss-cross cold mountain streams several times, making my back trail impossible to follow, even for a wolf or an arctic fox. The sun disappears as I make my climb through the cloud cover. My human mind, the overlaid copy of the mind once belonging to Dr. Amdo Basnet, begins to formulate a plan. 

I bound from rock to rock and crisscross cold mountain streams. Photo by Steve Carter.

Military strategy is difficult. Like all foxes in the project, my mind is a scan of Dr. Basnet’s brain overlaid onto that of a native arctic fox pup. There’s not a lot of extra room in a fox’s gray matter, so I only have Amdo’s core memories and personality, just enough to make me entirely loyal to the Polity and the Deliverable, and knowledge of human speech. I have survival training, a basic skill for all guides, but no tactical training. Scouts rely on orders, personal experience in the wilds and instinct. Planning does not come naturally.

Like Amdo, I retreat into logic. I have no weapons. I assess the tools I do have. I have the collar and amulet, which allows me to speak. I have my color-shifting fur. I have speed and guile. And I have superior knowledge of the terrain.

Perhaps I can distract them until the normal weather of Y-12 reasserts itself. I hit the first patch of snow on the mountainside. Without thinking, I shake myself and my coat shifts to white. Not long after, I catch a break. I wander across the footprints of the first RSF!

Republic Special Forces are like wolves. In the first few moments of contact, the important thing is to move quickly, draw attention, and count on their predatory nature to drive them to follow. But unlike wolves, the RSF can attack unseen from a long distance. And though they travel as a pack, they spread wide to encircle their foe. They won’t risk propellant weapons because the sound would give away their position. So the greatest danger is a long-distance laser pulse. Silent. Deadly.

I follow his trail along the ridgeline and spy him easily. He has set up a sniper post behind a spill of rocks. He wears the charging pack for his laser rifle on his back, ready to move as soon as he fires a shot. When firing at full range, it takes several mins to recharge. 

I slowly climb over the ridgeline to approach him from the back. Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. The clouds are hiding the steep drop off on this side of the mountain. That gives me an idea.

A layer of clouds floats between mountain peaks on the left and the right.
Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. Photo by Samuel Ferrara.

“Hey,” I call. What do I say next? I did not think this through. Before I can think of anything else to say, the RSF leaps silently and cleanly over the ridge. He lands and spots me immediately. He has the rifle in one hand and a long, black knife in the other.

The look on his face says he did not expect to see a fox. In a flash, he scans the expanse of spotless white snow, and seeing no other enemy, raises his rifle. I allow my deepest fox instincts to take control. In the flick of an eyelash, I bound down the mountainside.

In front of me, I see a puff of steam from vaporized snow and hear the peculiar whooshing sound that frozen water makes when a long tunnel of it instantly boils to gas and emerges from a pinpoint hole. He took his first shot. That leaves the knife and maybe a sidearm blaster. Blasters are notoriously clumsy shots, but up close one can vaporize my entire body.

I disappear into the cloud bank. He follows but stops when he’s completely surrounded by mist. He speaks softly, probably on a comm to his teammates. If he waits until reinforcements arrive, I’ll lose my advantage. 

I give him a little incentive. With a swish of my tail, it turns red. I wave it like a red flag and run right along the nearly invisible clifftop. The RSF leaps. And falls.

Falling through the fog, he spins and fires a blaster from his hip. The green blast expands rapidly into a cone, wiping away the swirls of fog in its path. But the shot is wild and I merely flinch. The RSF does not scream and I do not hear the impact. It’s kloms down, so that’s no surprise. The wind rises and the whirling vapor closes the hole left by the blaster.

One down. Two to go.

Knowing the RSF team has my coordinates, I bound back to the mountaintop and head down the valley side of the mountain range to the most dangerous area I know. It’s well known for crevasses and avalanches. When I can, I stick to cloud cover, which neutralizes their long-range weapons. I reach the hazardous area undetected.

 When I meet the next RSF, we are both shocked. I’m headed down the mountain on the crusty snow as he heads up. We lock eyes and I freeze. An odd smile crosses his face and he scans the pristine, white mountainside for other threats. He does not raise his weapon. That’s when I realize they still have not learned the secret of Dr. Basnet’s foxes. He thinks I’m part of the natural wildlife. And, I am, sort of.

The wind shifts and the river of clouds below moves more swiftly. I scamper up the layers of crusty snow and cracked ice. To my fur-covered paws, the footing feels secure, but I know the innocent-looking layer of snow hides unknown dangers with every step. I have no particular plan in mind except to outlast the RSF on this treacherous terrain. I’m betting my life that I know this terrain better than a trained RSF. Betting my natural instincts against his lifetime of rigorous training. But I’m also betting on something else more basic: Gravity.

I’m not light as a bird, but I don’t weigh much. This muscle-bound RSF is loaded down with a backpack full of gear and laser batteries. As long as I can keep him on this precarious shelf of ice–and avoid getting shot–I think I can last longer. But in the wilderness, there’s always an element of chance thrown in to keep things interesting.

The cloud river below ripples and parts, revealing the dark, evergreen trees in the valley. I’m losing my cover from the third RSF hiding in the valley. I need to speed things up.

“Follow me,” I call softly. A visor hides his eyes, but I can see his relaxed stance tighten. He realizes I’m more than I first appear.

The RSF snaps his rifle to his shoulder and I scamper further upwards. I sneak a look back, but he has lowered the rifle. Either the wisps of fog between us or my zig-zag pattern must make the shot look risky. He whips a blaster from his hip and fires a shot. The blast melts a large section of snow between us, but I’m out of blaster range by that time. Chunks of ice and melted snow begin to slide down the mountain towards the RSF. From the corner of my eye, I also see trickles of powdered snow dusting down from above me. The force of that blast unsettled the entire mountainside.

I turn and head neither up nor down the mountain but sideways, towards more secure footing. The RSF does the same. The wedge of ice, slush and water rushing down on him widens. It’s hardly an avalanche, but it places him in more immediate peril than me. I can focus on getting to safer ground, but I keep him in my peripheral vision as I scamper across now-looser footing.

The RSF is heading along a path parallel to my own. A river of ice melt swirls around his knees. He leaps and comes down hard. No! No, he disappears completely beneath the white torrent. And then the mountainside is still again.

There’s only one reason for the tall RSF to have disappeared like that. A crevasse. Sometimes you can defy Mother Nature, but you can’t beat gravity.

Two down. One to go.

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