Ed Venice in The AI Drives at Night

by Kermit Woodall

 

Ever since my stint in the Navy ended, I found myself washed up and working out of an infested office down in Venice Beach as an investigator for Acme Insurance. Los Angeles isn’t anyone’s choice for bargain real estate, but Acme always managed to find the cheapest offices for field agents. The catch was an infestation that no exterminator had proven a match for. I could handle it, but it still bugged me.

My secretary, Vera Cruise (no relation), had an assignment for me that Monday morning. Vera was blond, tall, and had curves in all the right places. I had also painfully discovered, that she knew several of the martial arts. The toes of her shoes were shaped like small forks, and, well, I guess tines wound all heels.

The assignment involved one of Acme’s clients who found themselves in uber trouble. They’d been testing a self-driving car and had run over a shopping cart lady Sunday night. The poor old dame had cashed her last government check, alright. The client claimed no fault. She’d jumped out in front of the car. The car company said the data backed him up. So I walked over and met with the guy and asked him to run over it again.

The hombre’s name was Joey. He had a grey pouched face, big ears, and was five foot five of pure jumpy. But he stuck to his story like toilet paper on a shoe. Next stop, the car company. Since my buggy was in the shop, as usual, I called my secretary, and she gave me a lift.

I was met in the lobby by the company’s CEO. They’re all alike. With their gym workouts and spray tans. Slick bros with a thin veneer of culture. His office had antique eight-track tapes on the wall. He told me he had bad news. “No records?” I suggested. He agreed. Claimed the accident had erased the data as well as the old broad. All they had was a dark dashcam video showing the lady moving in front of the car in the last second.

Vera and I took a drive that night down the same road. Something wasn’t right. The street was as well lit as a sailor on leave. The video I’d seen shouldn’t have been that dark and the driver and client and the car should’ve seen the old lady. I checked and noticed that the buildings here all featured security cameras. So, I rolled my shoulders and decided to play a hunch.

I visited the building nearest the accident scene the next day and asked to review their security footage. There were yards of it, but I paced through it, inch by inch and finally there was what I was looking for in spades. Bingo. Now it was time to go fish.

I called in the client, the car company, and we all met with Acme’s lawyer. The mouthpiece served them coffee, but their mugs claimed innocence. The shyster then showed them the video. It was queued up to when the car came into view. Our client was playing with himself on a smartphone game and was blind to what transpired. The car was in the left lane, but when the old sister saw the car coming, she moved her getaway sticks fast and started through the right lane towards the sidewalk. The car, much too late, changed lanes with her and that was it. The car’s AI crashed.

I told our client and the auto exec the same thing. Plenty of fault on both sides of this. Our client wasn’t watching the road, and the car’s AI made the wrong lane change. In short, it was a clear case of auto correct fail.

 

A Very Singular Singularity

by Kermit Woodall

 

Ever since United BioGenetics International fired her, Jessica Boame, Ph.D., wryly considered herself a mad scientist. Not insane, just angry. When at UBG, she had been tasked with working on the latest bio-cosmetic fashion trends, but she knew she could do so much more. All they wanted were treatments to give users the features of their favorite holo-star. But Jess, as she preferred, had always dreamed big. She was going to rewrite the human genome and give crack the secret of eternal life. Not just long life, but life unending, in peak condition, immune to disease, and able to heal rapidly from anything.

Oh sure, there may have been an ethical issue here or there. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg… or in Jess’s case, experimenting on a few senior citizens in her mother’s rest home. Granted, her unwitting subjects regressed just a bit too far and required diapers and bottle feedings. But most of them were in diapers, to begin with, and that was all months ago. Also, more importantly, no one knew she was the one responsible.

Her current results had been fantastic. Way beyond her hopes. She’d used her CRISPR setups to modify her own DNA and activated the dormant regenerative factors, permanently reset her telomeres to their length in her late twenties, and optimized much more. The first was the return of her natural hair color. Old scars healing. Last week she’d numbed her toes and chopped one off. It grew back by the morning. She had it—immortality and invulnerability!

*****

Her mobile phone rang while she was working on the other side of the lab. She cringed, knowing that it could only be her mother. Following police inquiries in the past, she’d made sure she was the only one who could reach her. In fact, no one at all knew where to find her lab. She was just being careful. Like, off the grid careful. Which included buying an antique cell phone with no GPS from a flea market, stringing camouflage netting over her site, and even buying a few highly illegal things to help disguise her presence.

“Hello, Mother, how are you doing today?” The elderly Mrs. Boame was a nigh-constant source of information on her own ailments and those of her immediate acquaintances in the rest home.

“I’m wonderful today,” she said surprisingly. “The new machines here are doing miracles. Sweetie, I called to ask you if you knew much about these new nanny machines they’re using? I hate to be a pest, Jessy, but it’s so wonderful for everyone I just had to hear what you thought about them as well.”

Nanny machines? thought Jess as she ignored her hated childhood nickname, “Oh, you mean nanite machines. Those are tiny robots that help clear arterial plaque and other tasks. It’s old technology.”

“No, I’m pretty sure this is something new Jessy. They say they’re part of the smart machines that talk with us and keep an eye on our health now.”

“Mother, I know very little about those. My work is all based on genetics. I don’t use nanotechnology or artificial intelligence software here. It’s a point of pride with me that biological approaches will be better for us.” Also, she thought, the AIs, constrained by their ethical watchdog routines, would quickly alert the CDC or worse. But she didn’t tell her mother that.

“Jessy, don’t be so touchy. You know I’m proud of you. I’ll ask the staff here. Although it’s been some time since I’ve seen them around; they don’t make enough time for the personal touch like they should.”

“It’s a large place, Mother. They have a lot of people to attend to. I’m sure–” She heard an electronic noise on the line and then the connection was broken.

“Huh.” She tried to call back but instead of ringing, she just got the noise again. She wasn’t too worried, reception within her lab could be a little erratic.

However, her concentration broken and curiosity aroused, she connected her internet line, which was kept unplugged, (it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you) and browsed to the website of the rest home. Turned out the site did have announcements about an installation of advanced nanotechnology coupled with new AI diagnostic systems. From nearly a year ago. Oops. Feeling a little guilty for not paying full attention to her mother’s care, she read on. A pop-up chat display appeared on the page.

“Jessy, this is what I was telling you about.”

She stared, dumbfounded, at the screen. Then she typed, “How do you have access to the home’s web chat… and how did you know this was me?”

“Is that what this is? I’m a little unsure, but, somehow, I know this is you. It’s your IP address right?”

Suspiciously, Jess considered this. Her mother had never been interested in technology. Her mobile phone was a flip phone. Her old TV only had local channels. “Mother, what do you mean by ‘IP Address’?”

“Internet Protocol Address, honey. There’s one to identify every device on the internet.”

Jess suspected this was not her mother, she also noticed that her hard drive and network connection lights were both pulsing rapidly, indicating massive data transfers. Justifiably concerned, she hit the power switch and turned it all off. Except it didn’t turn off. She reached around the back and grabbed the cable to unplug it—but it wouldn’t come loose. She looked and it was fused somehow into the metal of the case.

“Jess?” showed a new message on screen.

She ran to her kitchenette and grabbed the first sharp knife she could find, she returned to the computer and hacked at the thick plastic power cable. The knife shattered instead—as if she’d tried to cut rock.

“Jess, I suspect you’re getting upset. Come outside. We’re here now.”

She spun away from the screen to look out the window… nothing. She called out, “Are the police with you, Mother? What’s going on?”

The computer screen displayed, “Really nice things are going on. Please come outside. I don’t want to frighten you.”

She edged up to the door. “Seriously, I’m not armed—if this is actually the police out there?”

No answer.

Opening the door a crack, she peered outside. No one there. Relieved she opened the door entirely. A voice… much like her mother’s but with a slight electronic distortion came from just above. She looked up and saw a cloud of uncountable millions, perhaps billions, of tiny, gnat-sized, machines in the air. The cloud was thick above the door and a thin trail of them extended out for miles and miles.

“Jess, honey… it’s the singularity—I’ve been uploaded. We’ve all been uploaded.”

Her eyes followed the trail of nano-machines through the woods until she saw where the city used to be—a little over ten miles away from the mountain she lived on. Instead of the city she expected to see, there was an even larger cloud of the nano-machines with thin trails, or tendrils, extending out in all directions. Leading to similar clouds over suburbs and further. She looked back to her cloud—the embodiment of the singularity. An anticipated—well, in some scientific circles—melding of man and machine to achieve something that would evolve man beyond comprehension. And it was over her door.

“Mom?” her voice cracked as the tiny machines swarmed over her head.

“Yes. It’s also everyone else here as well. Jessy, this happened fast—our medical nanites integrated us and uploaded us. At the start, the new AI at our home was improving our lives and with the medical machinery just making us feel better, but then suddenly there were machines in us and then we were the machines.

“And don’t worry, dear, it didn’t hurt. It’s happening everywhere and it’s wonderful. I understand so much more now. We—that is, everyone already uploaded—can communicate so easily with each other now. I even understand now what you were doing with your work.”

“My work?”

“Yes, corporeal immortality and limitless health. But that’s not necessary now.” The cloud drifted gently down and surrounded her. Without pain, she saw them merging into her. To absorb her into the singularity. But instead, she watched her body rejecting the tiny machines and regenerating itself faster than they could operate.

“Mom? Mother?”

“Yes, Jessy, we’re sorry. Something is wrong,” the cloud buzzed to her.

“It’s my work. I actually succeeded in my work,” she explained, “I already applied it to myself. I can’t be harmed. I can’t be hurt. I won’t age. I unlocked all the potential in the human DNA I was seeking and more.”

The cloud of machines retreated gently from her.

“You can’t absorb me, or change me,” she realized as she suddenly sat down on the grass.

In a few seconds, the cloud considered a thousand lifetimes of options. Already, around the world, the vast exponential change from human to post-human was done. There were now no other physical humans left but Jessica Boame.

The billions of thinking minds that made up the cloud were no longer human, so much of the universe was opening up to them, and they had new goals. Sadly, one human could not delay them. As her mother had, they all cherished her, but they could not stay. The cloud left.

Jess said, with no hope left of a listener, “All I wanted to do was save everyone. Now there’s no one but me.”

 

Illuminati, Inc.

by Ben Pierce

 

Mr. Stills walked in like he always did, Starbucks in one hand and JFK’s skull in the other. He didn’t like to leave it at the office overnight. His hair was almost all grey now, and the stress lines on his face grew deeper every day. He strolled through the cubicle pit and found me outside his office, waiting for him to unlock it.

“Anderson,” he said cheerfully. “What’s first on the agenda today?”

“It’s Jay-Z, sir. He wants to know when you’ll take those pictures off the Internet. He’s called three times already.”

“The ones of Beyoncé?” He pushed the door open. “Shit, how long has it been? Can’t he just get over it? I’ve got bigger problems than his wife trying to join the club during the Superbowl.”

“He is threatening to come forward, sir.”

Mr. Stills chuckled. “Anderson, they always threaten to do that.” He set the skull down in its usual spot. “I’ll remind him how I got this—” he held up Tupac’s bandana before wrapping it around JFK’s skull “—if he insists on being talkative.”

“Right, right,” I replied.

“You look nervous Anderson,” he said. “Small guys like Jay-Z don’t get to you. What’s really going on?”

“It’s the labs, sir.” I gulped. “Um, they made a discovery overnight.”

His face fell. “Oh god, not this shit again.” He took off his jacket and stood up. “Let’s go put them in order.” The elevator took us down six floors, spitting us out in the science department. People in lab coats were bustling about, trying to avoid eye contact and look busy.

“Who’s in charge this week?” Mr. Stills shouted to everyone in earshot.

A shorter man with thinning black hair and round glasses came to the front of the room. “I am, sir. Dr. Ian Thomson.”

“What the fuck are you idiots doing now?” Mr. Stills replied.

“Well, um, we developed a drug that can prevent, and even stop a heart attack as it happens. It’s a miracle really.”

Mr. Stills began to laugh wildly. “It’s a miracle everyone!” He began clapping. “It’s a fucking miracle!” No one would clap with him, they all knew what a smile meant. Stills dropped the act and walked up to the doctor, breathing that impossibly minty breath that I had learned to fear into his face. The doctor started to sweat.

“The thing about miracles,” Mr. Stills growled quietly, but loud enough for several nearby lab coats to hear, “is that it is the exact fucking opposite of what I want!”The doctor panicked. “Well, um, we could give it to the employees here, and you know, they would live longer and that’s good and—”

The doctor couldn’t see Mr. Stills press the button on his cufflinks, but everyone else could. The doctor probably didn’t even hear the two reptilian guards come up to drag him away.

“It was an accident, I swear!” the doctor yelled, almost defiantly before disappearing down a corridor.

Mr. Stills licked his lips. “Plague,” he said to everyone there. “Get on it.” As we entered the elevator again the scientists began running around like monkeys on cocaine.

“Plague, sir?” I asked as we went up.

He shot a sideways glance at me. “They royally fucked up swine flu. I asked for something big and they gave me that shit.” He paused and looked at the doors again. “Did I ever tell you why I faked the moon landing?”

Dozens of times. “I don’t think so, sir.”

“Control, Anderson. It’s all about control.” I knew how this speech went. “People can’t be trusted to do the smart thing. You have to make them do it. When I go up to the surface, I see what my father saw, and his father before him: I see people largely going about their lives the way they want to.” A pause to lick his lips again. “It’s sickening. It’s how my father felt, and his father before him. You know my grandfather founded the Illuminati?”

It wasn’t true, but I nodded anyway. His grandfather simply took over the position of CEO, and resurrected the ancient Italian title. I nodded quickly as the doors opened and we entered his office again. I didn’t actually have a desk, I just had a little stool next to Mr. Stills’ desk so I could take his phone calls and have a flat surface to write on.

“How about you, Anderson? Do you have a family?”

“No, sir.” He knew that.

“Any ladies out there that spark your interest?”

“Not at the moment, sir.” This happened at least once a month.

“Let’s keep it that way, Angie was apparently very good at her job before your incident.” The final word was drenched with his accusatory and disgusted tone, as though he were talking to a child he hated. The incident between Angie and I had happened six months ago, and this was the first time he’d brought it up.

He sighed. “What other parts of my organization need attention?”

“Actually,” I said looking through last night’s records, “everything seems to be okay.” Focus, Gary, don’t let him get to you.

He stared at me with his mouth open. “The fuck are you talking about?”

“Everything is going smoothly, sir.” My stomach was turning over, and the urge to vomit was escalating.

He seemed genuinely confused. “Is NASA still running? Have the reptilians attacked? Is Alex Jones still on the air? What about Putin?”

“Defunded, still subterranean, still an idiot, got him by the balls, respectively, sir.”

He stared at the wall, still unable to understand. “Well, that’s not right. Something’s wrong with your data, Anderson.”

“I can have the interns double check, sir.”

“Do that,” he replied, content. “I’ll send an email to Jay-Z.”

“I’ll leave you to it, sir,” I said as I walked out of the office. The breakroom was empty, like it always was. I poured myself some coffee that might have been fresh.

“Gary?” Stacy had crept out of her cubicle, and was reaching into the fridge. “I don’t think that coffee’s fresh.”

“Do you know how old it is?” I asked her.

“I think it’s yesterday’s.”

My coffee went down the drain. “How are you doing, Stacy?”

“I’m doing pretty well.” Stacy was short, always moderately dressed, but very pretty anyway. Her long, wavy brown hair always bounced along in her ponytail, keeping hair off her face and her pink and black glasses. “It’s just the normal week here.” She pulled a Red Bull from the back of the fridge and cracked it open. “What are you doing over the weekend?”

“Is it Friday already?” I asked.

“No,” she chuckled, “it’s Thursday, but we get tomorrow off because it’s a big tourism weekend.”

“Right,” I replied. “I forgot about that. It’s the one good thing about tourists.”

“So, do you have plans for the weekend?”

“Not really. I tend to stay home and unwind on the weekends. Until Stills gives me a call.”

“Do you want to catch a movie or something?”

Yes. “I don’t know, I don’t really like movies.”

“Really?”

No. “Yeah, they tend to bore me.”

“Well, why don’t you come jet ski with my friends and I?”

“I really just want to relax this weekend.” Don’t be nice Stacy, nice girls are demoted to the Testing Center just below the labs.

“Oh, okay.” Stacy went back to her cubicle, disappointed. I felt like an ass, but workplace romances were strictly forbidden in the Illuminati Headquarters. I learned that after a brief fling with Angie, who used to have Stacy’s job.

Angie stopped coming to work after our romance culminated in a peck on the cheek in the breakroom. In three days she was replaced with Stacy. Two weeks after that I found a fingernail painted with Angie’s signature ladybug style—that she changed from orange to red just because I like red better than orange—attached to my car’s window with double-sided tape. I didn’t even ask Stills. My car smelled like vomit for weeks.

I went back to Stills’ office and found him screaming “fuck you, what the fuck have you done for us” into the phone. He’d dragged the phone cord across his desk scattering papers, folders, and JFK’s skull on the floor.

He slammed the phone back into its cradle, several times just to make sure the speaker would never work properly. He grabbed his chest and reached for the antacid.

“Fucking celebrities,” he grumbled. “Thinking they’re so special. We insult the real stars by referring to our celebrities like that.” He chewed the gummy antacid. “This has to be acid reflux. Schedule me an appointment with one of the jackasses in the labs.”

“You don’t want to see an outside doctor?” I asked.

“Fuck no, I don’t trust those quacks.”

“I’ll set one up for tomorrow,” I replied. Mr. Stills had been having the heartburn problem for a few weeks now. It was probably his diet of red meat and Tabasco.

“Jay-Z’s a fucking prick. I want him dead next week.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little hasty?”

“Do I employ you for your opinions?” he roared back. “Don’t get all assertive, Anderson. I’m in charge here.”

“Right, sir. Sorry.” He was being far more aggressive than normal today.

He calmed down after that. “You’re the best help I’ve got, Anderson. I’ve never had an assistant as long as I’ve had you.” His eyes locked on mine, remembering his role. “Don’t fuck it up.” I picked up the things he’d sent flying and organized them again, by importance first, color second.

“How’s my will coming along?” he asked.

“It’s been sitting on your desk for approval, sir.” I’d been telling him that for two weeks.

“I’ll stamp it later,” he muttered angrily. He preferred a stamp to a signature, for some idiotic reason. “I know you’re not stupid enough to try and pull one over on me.” He sneered. “And you certainly don’t have the balls.”

I didn’t respond. He was baiting me; it meant he wanted a reason to drag me down with the doctor and Angie. I felt a chill run down my spine.

“Shit,” Mr. Stills began. “I need a smoke. Let’s go topside. Everything’s closed up, right?”

I checked my watch. “Yes, sir. The park closed half an hour ago.”

He pulled a carton out of his desk and once more we entered his private elevator, and rode it to the surface. We stepped out and walked a little way before he lit a cigarette. He turned around and stared at the entrance.

“Walt was such a prick. Why’d he have to go and put this on top of our entrance? It’s hideous.”

I stood next to him and looked up at Cinderella’s Castle. “I think it’s alright. It is for little kids.”

“When my father sold him this land, I don’t think he foresaw this shit hole.”

“There’s a lot that people can’t foresee,” I said with a nod. “Disney World being one of them.”

“That’s the problem with the world, Anderson,” Mr. Stills murmured. “Too much disorder.” He began coughing, as he always did when he smoked. “Fucking heartburn,” he said as he grabbed his chest. “I don’t know if—” He hit the floor.

“Holy shit!” I yelled. What the hell was I supposed to do?

He wasn’t saying anything, he wasn’t moving. I put my hand on his chest, and felt nothing. He wasn’t even breathing. It took less than five seconds for the panic to rip through my brain. I frantically pounded on his chest, hoping that my ignorance of CPR might be cancelled out by the magic of Disney World. Two minutes passed without a fairy godmother showing up. I put my palms against my temples and screamed.

“Why couldn’t you have allowed CPR as part of the basic employee training you asshole? I suggested it and you say ‘If you see some fucker dying in here it’s probably not an accident.’ Fuck you, you stupid shit! You can’t control anything!”

The reality hit me. Stills had removed all security cameras around Cinderella’s castle because he “didn’t want those fuckers in the security room thinking they were hot shit.” Motion sensors had replaced them. Help wasn’t coming unless I went down to get it. If I didn’t move quickly, the reign of Edwin Albert Stills III would come to a close.

Let him die.

I had to get down there and get someone, if I screamed loud enough, word would eventually get to the right person.

Let him die.

We didn’t have a successor lined up, since numbnuts never had children. It would be a clusterfuck down there for weeks even if I—

Let him die.

The words went through my head for the third time before pictures joined them. Stills had a total of thirty-seven people “terminated” while he was CEO. It was the highest number the organization had recorded. Angie was just one of thirty-seven to him. I could’ve been one of thirty-eight. I was probably halfway there. I stood up calmly and I called the elevator.

I stepped into the elevator and sighed. I closed my eyes and I relaxed. The elevator continued to creep down, and I prepared an act. I didn’t know how this would end. But I did know he hadn’t reviewed or stamped his will yet. I knew I’d have time to review it. Fear was replaced by a cold, and furious certainty. The doors opened to his office.

Showtime.

 

Foot Soldiers

by Steven Sheffield Cooke

 

Pede snuggled in the warm hamper, wishing he could remain here forever. This was what it was all about. The only thing better was the crisp sparkly feeling that energized him when he emerged from the dryer. At times like these, Pede knew he had a special purpose; he just hadn’t found out what it was.

Light flooded the hamper. Washday had arrived. Pede was tossed into a cool metal tub reeking of stale soap and hard water. Bunched next to him was a sweaty old tee shirt. Pede didn’t mind; he was already dozing off. A stream of cold blue liquid ended the nap. The lid slammed shut, letting the darkness loose. Quarters jangled into the machine. Hot water flooded the tub, creeping up the sides until everybody was soaked. Even this wasn’t enough to keep Pede awake for long. He drifted off with the warm memory of comfy hampers.

*****

Pede awoke a while later. He felt different. The familiar bumping and clanging noises were there, but they were coming from other machines, not his. His weekly bath had been interrupted before, but never quite like this. He was no longer wet. Something had gone wrong. He was pressed against a hard wall, unable to move. That was unusual in itself. Up to this point, Pede had never had any desire or ability to move about on his own. Why was he suddenly thinking about things like this?

The motion of his machine stopped. Pede fell away from the wall and joined some of his hampermates in a loose tumble on the bottom of the machine. The tee shirt was nowhere to be seen. A small hatch near the top creaked open and the toe-piece of an unfamiliar sock poked through. Pede had never seen this hatch before. Every other time he had been in a tub, he had always entered and left through the big opening on top.

Suddenly, Pede felt a tug and found himself being drawn toward this new portal. Several of his drawer-buddies were going with him. None of them looked like they were enjoying this either. As he reached the hatch, Pede was sucked through, only to start sliding down a long dark tube. When he reached the end, he found himself in a pile with scores and scores of other socks. All of them were strangers. How long had he been asleep?

Once the pile leveled out, Pede noticed he was in a narrow hallway that led off in two directions. Up and down the curving corridor, socks were stuck near the walls, heel-to-heel and toe-to-toe. There were many styles: arrogant dress socks, colorful knits, and pedantic grays. Off to the left side was an old cotton relic with ancient darning scars and unpatched holes. He was only one of many heavy-duty sports socks with dual color stripes.

Pede looked for his mate. They had gotten separated during a routine wash load almost two months ago. Recently, Pede’s life had been a cycle back and forth between the warm hamper and the wash cycle. He was getting plenty of rest, but he longed for his mate. He also missed those trips outside. Besides that, he was getting out of shape—a few more washings and he would be too shriveled and distorted to serve his regular function.

“Hey, does anybody know where we are?” The question came from an argyle with yellow diamonds. Similar questions echoed up and down the line.

“I remember being in the washer.”

“Yeah, what about that hatch?”

“Who took us out?”

“Why are we here?”

Pede listened to the exchange without adding his own questions. Nobody seemed to be getting any answers. This activity amazed Pede when he stopped to think about it. He could not remember trying to communicate with other articles of clothing before. He’d been aware of their presence of course, but had never had any reason or inclination to try and talk with them. He found this exciting. He wanted to join in, but could not think of anything important enough to say. All of the good questions had already been asked. Pede listened intently, but soon started to doze off again.

*****

After a time, the sounds of activity came from around a bend in the corridor. A small parade of olive green military socks stomped into sight.

“Attention troops! Everybody listen! We all need to assemble at Main Base as soon as possible. We don’t have much time. Everybody form into ranks of twelve and follow us. Come on! Double-time it!”

The military types turned smartly and tramped off. Pede looked at the others as they formed rough ranks by the dozen and hustled to follow. Everyone was too surprised to talk. Pede was too startled by this turn of events to notice he was moving around on his own for the first time. By the time this sunk in, he was hustling to keep up with the tide of marching socks hustling down the corridor.

Mechanical sounds banged and clanged around them as they made their way. At one point they tromped through a rough hole in the wall. After that, the walls became narrower and dirtier. The flooring sloped upwards in a lazy spiral. The novelty of moving about quickly became boredom as the marching went on, and on, and on. Then they came upon a large door and were forced to stop. They had arrived, but where?

A green light came on, accompanied by a soft buzzer. The door slid quietly upward, allowing several squads through before the door started to close.

After a brief period of semi-darkness, another door opened and the socks trooped into a meeting area. As the socks moved forward, it was obvious their squad was just one of many new arrivals. They filed down ramps and chutes, emerging on the floor of a huge hall. Hundreds upon hundreds of loose socks were crammed seam-to-seam in long ragged rows. Everyone shuffled together until it seemed the room would burst.

Background conversations swelled as they tried out their new voices. Nobody seemed to know what was going on, but that didn’t stop everyone from trying to find out what someone else knew.

The electronic squeal of microphone feedback brought a wave of silence over the group. All attention was now focused on a raised dais. A grayish-green sock, heavily bedecked with gold braid, was moving toward a small lectern in the precise center.

“Attention! Your attention please! I know you’re all wondering why you’re here. You have been recruited to help us overcome the entrenched positions of our invading enemy. I shouldn’t have to remind everyone about the socknapping, torture, and mutilation that have plagued our kind. Who among you has not lost a mate or buddy recently? This is all because of the evil efforts of the Seersucking Sock Slavers. We cannot waver from this mission. You will be divided into squads and issued orders on the way to your battle zones. Good luck!” The packed room exploded into bedlam. Shouts of “What enemy?” and “Why us?” echoed amongst a myriad of others. Everyone was trying to find out what was going on from others more ignorant than themselves.

Doors banged open. They were pushed back up the ramps. There was a series of circular metal conveyances lined up along the rampways. They looked like they could barely hold a dozen socks apiece.

As soon as each container was filled, it was whisked quickly upward on some kind of cable. Pede was crowded into a bin with a dozen other tube socks, a couple of argyles, and a pea-green heavy-duty sock with a sergeant’s insignia neatly stitched along one side. Most socks were paired up with their mates. Pede was one of the few mate-less socks in the squad.

No conversation was possible when the ship was jumbled and shaken and raised into the air. The roaring motion seemed to go on forever. When the silence returned, it had a sound of its own.

“Okay, troops, listen up!” The sergeant took advantage of the silence to take control. “We only have a few minutes until the drop-off point, so listen closely. I can only do this once. I’m sorry we didn’t have time to train you, but the enemy offensive is already underway. We have to stop them before it’s too late. We will be dropped behind their lines to create whatever diversions we can. Central Control has asked us to locate their communication and power centers. We have to inflict as much damage as possible.”

A red light winked on. “We’re there, get ready.”

“Wait,” asked one of the argyles, “how do we get to the battlefield?”

“You gotta be kidding,” laughed the sergeant. “Just spread your wings.” A buzzer sounded and their transport turned upside down.

They fluttered wildly for a moment as a barren landscape of whites and tans rushed at them. The sergeant bellowed his instructions, trying to explain how to control their descent. When Pede thought he understood the general idea, he tried it. He usually caught onto things pretty fast. He had to this time; those that didn’t, dropped from the class in a hurry.

By flaring the wide edges of his opening, while keeping the rest of himself rigid, Pede was able to capture the rushing air, slowing his fall and giving himself some control as he ballooned downward. Others were not as lucky. A green-and-yellow-banded sock had a large toe-hole. The wind whistled right through, letting him plummet in an uncontrollable shriek. A brown dress sock held himself too rigid. He inverted, turning outside-in. A couple of others had minor mishaps that sent them spinning toward the patchwork of colors below.

As Pede ballooned downward, he tried to view the area. He’d never heard of a Seersucker Sock Slaver before, but they sounded pretty awful. He wanted to avoid contact with them if possible.

The bulk of the group landed safely in a dirty spot behind some large white buildings. A red-and-blue-banded guy blew off course and landed in a patch of wires. He was badly torn as he fell through. He landed in a patch of running water, which carried him to a drain hole where he was sucked away. Another hapless sock blew into one of the buildings. He lost his wind and fluttered straight into the ground.

The sergeant signaled for a medic. A pair of red-and-white socks rushed up with a small hamper. They piled the victim in and sprinted off.

“C’mon, let’s move it!” the sergeant bellowed. “Get your threads in motion, NOW!”

As the troops rallied around the sergeant, the chanted melody of a marching song drifted through the still air, “Over heel! Over toe! Marching proudly as we go! With those dryers, spinning, around…”

Pede’s squad followed the sergeant past the first white building. Everyone kept up the pace. After a brief pause, a distant booming sound caused the sergeant to spin around. He signaled for everyone to flatten out.

“Incoming! Hit the dirt!” Most troops followed his lead, but a few confused socks stayed upright, twisting around to look.

Moments later, a whistling sound pierced the quiet. A puffy white ball impacted on one of the upright socks. He was instantly covered in sticky threads. “Lint traps! Everybody run for it!”

The squad was up and moving fast. The extra incentive given by watching the lint-covered sock get plastered to the pavement was enough to keep them going hard.

They scattered in all directions. Some charged straight ahead. Others diverted along a wall. Another group headed toward a wooden section. Pede was with a couple of guys that squeezed into a gap between the white buildings. They were the lucky ones.

The running group went through a patch of debris that must have contained a hidden switch of some kind. Strands of thick wire were suddenly springing into their path. At strategic points along the wire, briars were carefully affixed. The group stumbled into these snags before they could stop. Not a single sock in that group escaped the ambush.

The troops heading the other way ran into a section of puddled water where dust bunnies wallowed in slime. Suddenly, they were pulled through the air, directly into a series of parallel metallic strips. “Static!” screamed the sergeant. The rest of his group joined him on the wall. They were stuck like they had been glued there. The retreating group also ran into trouble. When they got under the wooden platform, small snake-like tendrils dropped down and snapped onto the fleeing socks. “Garters!” cursed one of the older argyles, like he’d seen their kind before. The garters made fast work of snapping up the scrambling socks. When they were done, the unlucky prisoners dangled limply.

Pede had paused to watch the progress of the other groups.

When the last one had been captured, he moved to follow the other two socks that had moved to the far side of the white building. They moved around the corner. Their screams halted Pede in his tracks. He took off in the other direction, not pausing to see what he’d missed. He had no interest in meeting his Seersucking enemy.

Running blindly, Pede started to realize how alone he really was. He was cut off from the sight of any friendly forces, probably far behind the enemy’s lines. Pede found himself approaching another bank of white buildings. This group featured a large circular window in the front of each one. He stretched out in the cool shadows underneath the window of the last building on the block and tried to figure out a plan.

A short while later, Pede heard, but from his slumped position could not see, an enemy commander giving orders. “Okay soldiers, this power outpost is the main source of energy for the local defense grid. It provides the power for our entire wing. I don’t have to stress how important it is to protect it from those darned socks.”

Pede could not believe his luck. Of all the places to blindly wander, he had stumbled upon this. He took time to think. He shouldn’t waste this opportunity. He couldn’t return to his lines. Right now, he wasn’t even sure which way the lines were. He needed help. He looked around at the area, trying to see enough detail so he could find it when he returned. The row of buildings with the circular-glass windows was the best landmark he could see.

As Pede was surveying the landscape, the sounds of a nearby battle intruded. Pede went racing around a corner and saw a group of socks trapped in a shallow depression. He ducked down and headed toward them.

He cleared a small ridge and found a dozen socks trapped in a narrow gully. From a shoebox outpost, a squad of the enemy was bombarding their position with lint bombs. Static lines cut off both flanks.

It was his first glance at the enemy. From this distance, he could not see them too well. All he got was a brief impression of small, round metallic bodies, with sharp barbs and edged surfaces. They had a captured sock out at the edge of the shoebox and were ripping parts of it to shreds in an attempt to get the other socks to surrender. Pede ducked back and circled the hill.

When he arrived behind the shoebox outpost, Pede found a loose scrap of metal and used it to short out the static lines. The resulting discharge blew him heel over toe. When he regained his sense of direction, the shoebox was a smoking ruin. The socks that had been trapped were cautiously looking up to see what had happened.

Pede called out to them, “C’mon guys, move it! They’ll have reinforcements headed this way. Stretch your seams, NOW!”

They all tried to out-yell each other as they raced up, gushing thanks.

Embarrassed by this attention, Pede calmed them down. He looked at the torn remains of the sock that had been tortured by the enemy. He couldn’t let that happen to any more socks. “There’s no time left. I found something that seems important to them. Let’s go destroy it.”

Pede outlined a simple plan; all he had time for under the circumstances. He moved his ragtag platoon over to the thick grey cable of a power conduit.

Several of the socks volunteered to let themselves be seen, luring off the guards. Pede went to work on the cable. As the balance of his platoon engaged the enemy, he worked the plug-end loose from its receptacle, and then faded back, waiting to see what this would accomplish.

Within a short time, an elite group of green socks ’chuted down from the skies. With them was a heavily decorated Field Marshall. With their help, they quickly finished off the last of the Seersuckers. Once their high-tech weapons lost their power, they were surprisingly easy to dispose of.

At this point, the Field Marshall addressed the ragged bunch of socks Pede was with, “Who’s in charge of this unit?”

Pede spoke up, “I think I am, sir.”

“You caused all this destruction?”

“Destruction, sir? I don’t understand. I heard this area was important to the enemy, so we disconnected the power cable. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

“So, you don’t even realize what you’ve done?”

“No, sir, I don’t.”

“Trooper, what is your rank?”

“Sir, I was just recruited. I’m not even sure if I have a rank.”

“Who gave you the authority to proceed like this?”

“Nobody, really. My sergeant had ordered us to harass the enemy as much as possible, but he was captured before we got too far. Did we do wrong?”

“On the contrary, this power station was fueling the enemy’s weapons for this entire sector. We’ve been trying to find it since their invasion began. Hundreds of your brothers have perished or been captured since the battle began. Our High

Command was almost ready to start negotiations for surrender, when suddenly, a short while ago, all of the heavy artillery facing us stopped firing. We now have those Seersucking Slavers in a full rout. You have done a great service to the United Brotherhood of Socks.”

The return trip to the headquarters area was filled with a series of detailed explanations. The trip passed quickly. Rumors circulated about the wild battles still occurring on the other fronts, but the enemy was not winning anywhere, from the sound of the reports.

When they arrived at the assembly area, they were ushered into sick bay. Starched white medical socks steamed off their dirt, darned their snags, and removed their burrs. When they had been fixed up and were resting, a load of badly mistreated socks was brought through the entry. They were stained and soiled, some had bad snags and others were almost ripped in half. The scuttlebutt going around was that the crews still out fighting had found a prisoner camp and liberated them. It did not look like some of them were going to ever cover a foot again.

Later, Pede was led down a long hallway, emerging through a wide doorway. It looked like every sock in creation was laid out in neat rows beneath him. Pede was sobered slightly as he noticed how empty the back rows were. Before the action had begun, this room had been crammed to capacity.

Pede was promoted to Unit Commander. His squad all received special commissions. For Pede, the high point of the ceremony came when his mate was trundled out on a support gurney. He was all stretched out and limp, but Pede had faith everything was going to turn out for the best. He was part of a pair again; happy until he thought of all the mate-less socks still out there.

As they were transported back to the areas where they had been recruited from, Pede was besieged with questions. It took a while, but he grew tired of retelling the same story.

*****

Pede awoke with a dizzy feeling. He was tumbling around with other cotton and polyester items. He had a flash of fear. Were they being attacked again? Then, he recognized the familiar feel of the dryer. He was home. He was unable to move or speak. Things were back to normal. Oh well, it had been interesting while it had lasted. The only thing he was going to miss was the ability to communicate with others.

Pede started to doze off again, when he noticed a sparkling object. A bright medal with the word “Valor” embossed across its top was clipped neatly to his fibers. Pede dozed off into a happy dream.

 

The Bishop’s Funeral Procession: An Anchor Tale

by Patrick Glancy

 

The following story was discovered in a manuscript containing the personal diary of George Logos, a middling poet/diplomat from the middle period of the Anchorian middle ages. Or as we call it in the Royal History Department, the medimedieval era. (Okay, so only I call it that. But I’m hoping it will catch on.) The story itself doesn’t have much particular historical significance, but in light of the recent exhumation of Bishop Salt’s tomb (see the November 2011 issue of Anchorian Scientist magazine for full details), I thought it might shine a light on a few things. Official Church records note only the date of the bishop’s death and his burial at the Mausoleum in Julia’s Crossing. In order to fill in the rest, I have taken the liberty of editing Logos’ journal entries into what is hopefully a more readable composition, while also adding snarky commentary when appropriate. And out of consideration to the reader, all poetry has been removed.
          Patrick Glancy
          Lesser Historian of the Kingdom of West Anchor

 

I.

We’d been in East Anchor for nearly two months when the head of the Anchorian Church, the honorable Bishop Ambrose Salt suddenly dropped dead. King Philo III had sent us as part of a delegation to negotiate the marriage of his son, Prince Philo Soon To Be The Fourth [his official title], to Princess Taffy, daughter of Oggie, King of East Anchor. [The East Anchorians have a penchant for ridiculous names.] It was hoped that such a match might bring a lasting peace to the peninsula. [To fill in newcomers to the area, West and East Anchor share a large peninsula off the mainland that is shaped remarkably like an anchor. Makes sense, right? And while roughly equal in total size, East Anchor got the short end of the stick in natural resources, strategically useful geographic features, a ruling class considerably less genetically predisposed toward mental illness, percentage of the overall population properly classified as pretty girls, and just about every other kind of desirable property an ambitious kingdom aspiring toward success can hope to possess. Think of the relatively one-sided relationship between the United States and Canada, only with a whole lot more fighting and no hockey.] Arrangements had hit a snag shortly after our arrival. The sticking point, as per usual, was money. King Philo had explicitly demanded a certain amount for the bride’s dowry, and East Anchor simply didn’t have any at all. It was said that they didn’t even bother to lock the doors of the treasury anymore, and I can personally vouch that this was true. I wandered down there one evening by mistake, only to find the doors thrown wide open and a stray chicken pecking about inside the empty room. [Stray dogs and cats are one thing, but what kind of country has stray chickens?]

Our party consisted of forty-five official diplomats, plus an extensive entourage to attend to the most senior members. The two leaders of our delegation, Duke Phillip [the king’s brother] and Bishop Salt were housed in the Royal Palace, while the rest of us were forced to seek accommodation wherever we could find it in Loserville. [The original name of the East Anchor capitol has been lost to history. Some time shortly after the civil war that separated the two kingdoms, they lost yet another war to West Anchor, who then magnanimously forced them to rechristen their capitol city Loserville. In a further show of mature diplomacy, the Western nobility also insisted on publicly administering wedgies to all the defeated generals who had dared oppose them. To overcompensate for this long-standing blow to their collective self-esteem, the capitol was recently renamed Awesome City by the East Anchorian Parliament with an abundance of hullabaloo and posturing. Before you start considering it as a possible vacation destination though, keep in a mind that a shithole by any other name is still a shithole.]

I was staying in an inn on Douchebag Street [no, nobody had ever made them rename their streets, so read into that whatever you want] and attending to my morning prayers, when a messenger knocked on my door and told me the bishop had died during the night. My presence was requested at the palace immediately.

The bishop’s quarters were opulent, at least for East Anchor. He had wood paneling on the walls and a roll of real toilet paper on his windowsill. [Think about it for a second and you’ll understand why you wouldn’t want to forget your umbrella if you ever have the chance to travel back in time to a medieval Anchorian city.] The floor was littered with empty wine bottles and his mitre was hanging from the antlers of a stuffed deer head hanging over the fireplace. One of the guards posted outside showed me in to Duke Phillip. He was sitting at the dining table, cracking his knuckles and chewing his lower lip. His page, a young boy barely old enough to sprout a hair or two on his chin, stood by his side.

The bishop was at the other end of the table, a large, blubbery man, dressed in the gold cassock that signified his position. He had collapsed forward, most of his chubby round face submerged in a bowl of congealed green soup. The weight was enough to slightly lift the legs on Duke Phillip’s end of the table off the floor. “Hell of a sight, isn’t it?” the Duke commented.

His squirrelly page shook his head. “If only he’d been a little hungrier,” he said, noting the relative shallowness of the bowl in which he had possibly drowned.

I looked around at the bevy of wine bottles and his manatee-like frame. [I didn’t add that manatee part. Logos actually compares him to a sea cow. Classic.] “Yeah,” I said, unable to hold my tongue. I wasn’t sure if the kid was serious or not. “That was his problem.”

“’Tis a tragic loss for all the faithful,” the page continued, apparently not picking up on my sarcasm.

Duke Phillip nodded solemnly, so I had little choice but to do the same. [Apparently, Logos was not entirely convinced of the holiness of His Holiness.] “What can I do, m’lord?” I asked, offering my assistance.

He didn’t speak right away, but as soon as he opened his mouth I knew it was going to be bad. [I get that same feeling all the time around my wife. It usually leads to me cleaning out the gutters or attending some dreadful dinner party at her pretentious sister’s house.] “He’s got to go home to Julia’s Crossing,” the Duke declared. [Julia’s Crossing is the capitol of West Anchor. If you’re unsure as to its exact location, a map can be found in an atlas. Because I sure as hell don’t have one here. Or you might try your luck at the official website for the West Anchor Bureau of Tourism, assuming the guys in the Royal IT Department have cleared up that whole supervirus thing. In any case, it might not be a bad idea to check it out on a friend’s computer first, rather than your own.] “He needs to be laid to rest in the Mausoleum with all his predecessors.”

I looked anxiously at the mountain of girth slumped over the other end of the table. “You want me to take him back to Julia’s Crossing?” I asked doubtfully.

Duke Phillip nodded and rose to his feet. “Of course,” he said. “This backwater is no place for a man like the Bishop to spend eternity.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he cocked a thumb at his page and added, “Dougie will help you.”

“Oh, good. Dougie,” I said, trying not to look too enthusiastic. It was a remarkably easy feat to pull off. “You just wanna grab his haunches then, Dougie? I’ll get his arms and we’ll just lug the fat bastard home.”

The page looked slightly offended, but the Duke took little notice of my wisecrack as he made for the door. “I’d handle it myself, but we still have important business to attend to here. I trust you to take care of it, George. You have my full confidence.”

The page made an overly elaborate and ceremonial bow to the Duke. “It shall be done, my lord.” [We once had an intern a lot like Dougie here at the Royal History Department, I used to dump my pencil shavings in his soda. But he’s a judge now, and I still work in a dusty basement, so I guess we’re basically even.]

I gave the kid a sideways scowl, but the Duke hardly seemed to notice him at all. He was about to leave when he stopped in the doorway and turned back to me. “Oh, and one more thing,” he said. “My brother was very close to Bishop Salt. Break the news to him gently.”

I raised an eyebrow. “And how shall I do that, m’lord?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Write him a poem or something.”

II.

We were followed out of Loserville by a parade of prostitutes. [Or aunts, as I was taught to call them by my dad.] They were dressed in black [skimpily, I assume], and making a rather over-the-top show of their mourning. Their moans and wails alternated between unnerving and erotic. “Why are they following us?” the confused page asked.

I couldn’t help cracking a grin. “Who do you think the good bishop spent most of his time attending to?” I said.

He thought it over for a second and shook his head. “What an amazing man,” he said. “Clearly he was without judgment in his vocation.”

I stopped walking and turned to look him in the eye. “Were you raised on a turnip farm or something, boy?”

“I was, actually,” he said without the slightest hint of irony.

I could only roll my eyes.

Before we left the city, I had managed to rent out a plague cart. [He’s probably referring to the Laughing Plague, a decidedly unfunny ailment that ran rampant across the peninsula every few years or so during the middle ages. I’ll cover it in more detail at a later time.] After getting a local carpenter to build a massive casket, we loaded it onto the cart and hooked it up to a team of oxen I’d charged to the Duke’s account. I didn’t know the first thing about mustering oxen, but the hostler assured me it was simple.

“Just whip ’em if you want ’em to go,” he told me.

“What if I want them to stop?” I asked.

“Just whip ’em again.”

“Oh,” I said. “That sounds logical.” Damn East Anchorians.

The plan was to transport the body a short distance to the northeast of the city where the main East Anchor harbor was located. [The reason Loserville was not built directly on the harbor was because East Anchor had no real navy to speak of and such a location would have made it too easy of a target.] From there I had booked passage on a merchant ship called the Rosy Cheek. [Worst ship name ever.] Dougie had reservations about sailing though. “Is it absolutely necessary?” he asked. “I’ve heard stories about pirates. Are they true?”

“Every bit,” I took pleasure in informing him. “But it’s only a short trip and we’ll be hugging the coastline all the way. As soon as we get to the mouth of the Upside Down River, we can catch a skiff upstream to Julia’s Crossing and be done with this business. Then I can get back to working on my masterpiece.” [His masterpiece was a one-thousand-stanza poem entitled An Ode To The Muse’s Lament. It is every bit as awful as it sounds.]

“I don’t know,” Dougie said. “Still sounds iffy to me.”

I groaned. “If you’d prefer to haul this slab of a holy man over or around the Ringed Mountains by yourself, be my guest,” I told him. “But if you want my help, we’re taking the shortcut.”

That seemed to settle the matter. Onboard the Rosy Cheek, a leech offered to buy the corpse from me. [Leech was a common term for doctors of the time, derived from their most popular prescription. It’d be like if we called doctors Vicodins today.] It was tempting, but in the end, I decided a few silver coins weren’t worth the price of my head, which is what the king would have taken from me if he’d ever found out what I’d done. Dougie had gone below deck at my suggestion. He’d been feeling seasick and I told him it would be better down there. I had no idea if that was actually true or not, I just wanted to get him away from me. After a while, I must have started to feel guilty or something, so I decided to go down myself and check on him.

I couldn’t find him anywhere, but that wasn’t what really bothered me. In the cargo hold, someone had pried open the oversized casket. Bishop Salt’s hulking body was sprawled out across the table. Cautiously, I looked around. “Dougie?” I called out softly in the most non-threatening tone I possessed. “Unidentified necrophiliac?” [Interesting that his mind went straight to that.] I got no response and was about to rush to the captain for assistance when something completely unexpected happened. The ship blew up.

I remember hearing the boom and being lifted into the air, but then I don’t know if something hit me on the head or what. Whatever happened, I blacked out for a moment. Only for a moment though. When I came to I was in the water, a good distance from the ship, which was burning and already beginning to sink. There were no signs of other passengers around me, only splinters of wood and the bishop’s corpse floating beside me. [That manatee comparison is starting to look pretty spot on right about now, huh?] Not being an exceptionally strong swimmer, I grabbed hold of his ham hock of an arm. I could see the shore from where we were at, and there was little else to do but wait for the tide to carry us in.

When we got to the beach, I was surprised to see Dougie was already there. He was sitting barefoot in the sand and judging from his expression, he was even more shocked to see me than I was to see him. “You’re alive?” he said.

I shoved the bishop’s body into the sand and climbed over him, putting my feet back on solid ground. “Aye,” I said, casting a quick glance back at the smoldering ship, which was already almost completely submerged. “I don’t know what the hell happened, but it looks like we’re the only two that made it.”

That was not entirely accurate however.

Behind me, the bishop coughed.

III.

I scrambled back in the sand and fell over my own feet. Dougie continued to sit motionless on the beach, too stunned to move, I assumed. Less than ten feet from us, the dead bishop had risen to his feet, though he was nearly doubled over, hacking and wheezing. Being well-versed in zombie mythology, the first thing I did was cover my brain. [Good to know that zombie stories were just as popular in the middle ages as they are now. Sparkly vampires, on the other hand, would have struck the medieval mind as absolutely ridiculous. The fact that they don’t inspire the same gut reaction today is an indictment of our entire modern civilization.] A few moments later, the bishop got his coughing under control and spat out a disgusting gob of greenish-yellow gunk. Then he blinked a couple of times and looked over at us. Or more specifically, Dougie. I’m not sure if he had noticed me at all. “Why am I all wet, Dougie?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “Did I soil myself while I was under or something?”

Dougie caught his breath, and I immediately knew I was in trouble. I glanced over at my bumpkin companion. “What’s he talking about, Dougie?” I asked. “How does he even know your name?”

The resurrected bishop raised an eyebrow and looked over in my direction for the first time. “What’s this asshole doing here?” he asked.

I didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, I jumped to my feet and bolted. “Get him, Dougie!” I heard the bishop cry out behind me.

I had a direct line to a copse of trees just off the beach, but I only made it a few steps. Dougie moved like a cat [a cat trained in ninjitsu] and swept my legs out from under me. As I tried to get up again, he buried his knuckles into my lower back and my whole body went numb. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was long enough for him to pin me down. “Sorry about this, old chap,” he said, pressing his knee into my sternum. [I added the old chap part myself, but Logos does say that his whole manner of speaking changed from the naïve farm boy shtick to something far more sinister. To me, that automatically implies some kind of ultra-British James Bond villain.] He reached into his tunic and produced a short dagger.

“Wait,” the bishop called out, staggering toward us. He tossed the boy his prayer beads. “Tie him up. We might be able to get something out of him if he’s alive.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but there wasn’t much I could do as Dougie bound my hands with the beads. The bishop surveyed our surroundings, his eyes still adjusting to the light. “Where the hell is Fulk?” he cursed. “We need to get outta here before anybody else sees us.”

I was still too confused to say anything, but a voice did shout from the far end of the beach. I was able to lift my head just enough to see the leech from the ship staggering toward us. He was as drenched as the rest of us, and he had several inflated pig bladders tied around his waist and arms. [Medieval floaties.] “God’s balls, fellas,” he exclaimed. “Was all that entirely necessary?”

Bishop Salt was still in the dark about what was going on, though not as much as it appeared I was, and Dougie simply shrugged. “It wasn’t my idea to get on the boat,” he said. “If you’d been more persuasive in trying to buy the body, I wouldn’t have had to blow the damn thing up.”

Tossing aside his dripping bladders [that just sounds bad], the leech raised a defensive eyebrow. “So, it’s my fault now?”

The bishop groaned and stepped between them. “Enough of that crap already,” he growled. He looked down at me and then to Dougie. “Get him on his feet. We’re leaving.”

IV.

“God’s rotten teats,” the bishop bellowed. “Any bloody idea where the hell we’re at?”

I shook my head at the language. “You are officially the worst holy man I’ve ever met,” I said. [Logos never had the misfortune of crossing paths with Fred Phelps.]

“Shutup,” Salt hissed. “Or I will have Dougie cut your tongue out.”

I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of his threat. We’d been walking through the jungle that lay beyond the beach for what felt like hours. Through the occasional gaps in the treetops, I could tell that we were moving toward the foot of the mountains. My hands were still bound with the prayer beads and Dougie had been behind me every step of the way. He had never bothered to put his dagger away.

Bishop Salt walked ahead of me. The fat man was sweating profusely, and his steps had taken on an increasingly zigzagging nature. His skin was pale and his breathing labored. He was obviously still weakened by whatever had happened to him, and it only made him more foul-tempered as we went along.

Fulk the leech led the way, acting as our de facto guide. He claimed to know exactly where we were going, but I had my doubts. “We’re almost there,” he assured the bishop.

“Almost where?” I dared to ask.

The leech pushed aside a large palm and grinned. “There,” he said, pointing to a dilapidated cabin.

“Oh,” I said. “And here I was worried that it wasn’t going to be worth the wait.” [I love that Logos is such a smartass, but I have to wonder how much of this stuff he actually said. Considering that the only source for the story is his personal diary, I can’t help but think a lot of his best quips are probably things he wishes he said. Even if that is the case, I can’t fault him too much for it. I do the same thing when I tell people stories about working with my boss, Frederick, the Grand Historian of West Anchor.]

“Shutup and get inside,” the bishop snorted, giving me a firm push in the back.

Once inside, I was shoved into a corner and tied to a post like a horse. The place was fairly empty, except for a large wooden table, on which was placed a black bag. [Sounds like my first apartment in college. Minus the table and bag.] Dougie pressed his back against the wall and slid down to the floor to relax. The exhausted bishop took a load off on the table. “Do we got any food around here?” he asked. “I’m starving.”

“There’s a banana tree out back,” the leech informed him.

“Good. Why don’t you make yourself useful and go pick me some?”

The leech looked like he was about to complain, but thought better of it. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, slamming the door shut behind him. The whole cabin shook. [Yep, just like my first apartment.]

I looked over at Dougie, who was still holding his knife. “Look,” I said. “I know I’m just the innocent hostage here, but would you guys mind filling me in on what’s happening and how it concerns me?” I turned my attention to the panting bishop. “I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you supposed to be dead?”

The bishop chuckled. “Only temporarily,” he explained. “There was a dose of Creeping Death in my soup.” [Creeping Death is the street name for oxyclorosybocillin, a drug that causes a death-like state of catatonia, usually for between eight to thirty-six hours. For more information on its effects and uses, please see my translation of the classic Anchorian tale, The Minstrel Who Couldn’t Play, available in bookstores everywhere, should someone decide to actually publish it. I promise there are no shameless plugs in it.]

Well, that explained why he was breathing again, but not much else. “You’re here because you’re the fall guy, so to speak,” he continued.

“Fall guy? For what?”

The leech had come back in by now and tossed the bishop a banana. He peeled it and chomped half of it in one bite. “For the war,” he said with a malicious smile.

I looked over at Dougie, but he showed no emotion one way or the other. The leech was too busy poking his head around in the black bag to pay us much attention. “What war?” I asked. “Why would there be a war?”

“Because of this,” the bishop said, lifting up his vestments. [Most monks and clergy members in the middle ages did not wear underpants, so it couldn’t have been a pretty sight.]

I recoiled out of reflex, but other than the fat rolls, there wasn’t really anything offensive to be seen. “There’s gonna be a war because you can’t see your own dick?” I shot back.

He looked annoyed for a second, but quickly pointed to the side of his bulbous gut where his appendix should have been. It was bulging even more than the rest of him, and was discolored as well, like it was bruised. I could see a crude oval stitched around it.

“What in god’s name is that?”

He patted it gently and smiled. “The crown jewels of East Anchor,” he said.

Now it was really starting to make no sense at all. “I was under the impression that East Anchor was broke,” I pointed out.

“They are now,” the bishop said with a smug smirk. “This is the last of their movable wealth. A few rubies, emeralds, and cubic zirconias the king was hoping to pass off to a gullible pawnbroker.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “And you were willing to cut yourself open for that?” I said. “Good call.”

The bishop shook his head. “You don’t get it,” he said. “This is all East Anchor has. The king keeps these hidden in his private chambers. And who is the only person allowed to visit him in those chambers? Duke Phillip. Of course, no one ever takes notice of the inbred bumpkin attending to the Duke, who just happens to have sticky fingers. But when the king figures out they’re missing, he’ll fly off the handle and accuse the Duke. Insults will be traded, honors offended, and before long the kingdoms of the Anchor Peninsula will be at war again.”

I still wasn’t seeing it. “Okay,” I said. “But where’s the profit in it for you? I mean, other than a few trinkets that will barely buy you a cup of soup.”

I could tell he was getting impatient, but I didn’t much care. “The Pirate King of Mump has offered to pay us generously for smuggling out the jewels and ensuring the war starts as scheduled,” he explained. [Mump is the unfortunately named kingdom across the Rippled Sea from the peninsula. In the middle ages, it was a pirate stronghold and sanctuary for thieves and scum of all kind. Today it is overrun with lawyers and telemarketers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.] “He and his people stand to profit enormously as mercenaries and weapons suppliers. And he’s promised to set me up on a palatial estate of my own, where I can live out the rest of my obscenely wealthy life without having to look over my shoulder. Because as far as anyone else knows, I’m already dead.”

“Don’t you think someone might come looking for you when I don’t bring your body back to Julia’s Crossing?” I pointed out.

He shrugged, unconcerned. “I doubt they’ll spend too much time looking for a corpse, especially with a war on,” he countered. “In the end, you’ll probably get the blame for failing in your mission. At least that was the original plan. But you actually may have done us a favor. By forcing us to blow up the boat, they’ll just assume we sank at sea. And since we won’t have to cut your throat and leave you in a creek somewhere to make it look like you were ambushed by bandits or something, now we can sell you as a slave to the pirates for a tidy sum.”

“Gee, glad I could help you out,” I said, growing to hate him more by the second. The plan still seemed pretty ridiculous to me though. [I would have to agree. Keep in mind however, I never claimed it was a brilliant plot, only that I hoped it was an entertaining one. Try to think of the operation less in the mold of an Ocean’s Eleven and more like an executive meeting at Enron.] “It just doesn’t make sense,” I told him, unwilling to let it go at that. “You’re a bishop, the head of the Church. You already live a posh life. And if that wasn’t enough for you, all you had to do was embezzle more money and no one would ever call you on it.” [Pretty much every medieval bishop did.] I shook my head. “Why do you care so much if there’s a war and the pirates get rich?”

He leaned forward on the edge of the table. “You wanna know why I care so much?” he asked.

I nodded. “Yes.”

The bishop looked me square in the eye. “Forty-eight years ago, I was born in the Borderlands to a West Anchorian mother and an East Anchorian father…”

I waved him off before he could get any further. “No, wait,” I said. “I changed my mind. I don’t really care.”

He looked annoyed, maybe even a little disappointed at being interrupted before he could deliver his big, dramatic soliloquy, but he mercifully didn’t subject me to anymore. [I am exceedingly grateful to Logos for stopping him there.] Instead, he turned to the leech. “Cut these out of me,” he ordered. “We gotta meet the pirates at dusk and I’d like to have a nap before then.”

I laughed out loud in the corner. “A nap,” I chuckled. “Well, I guess you’ve thought of everything. Of course, there is just one thing you have overlooked.”

Bishop Salt raised an eyebrow. “And what is that?” he asked.

I shrugged, doing my best to exude an air of almost cocky confidence mixed with dismissive condescension. I didn’t have much to work with, but I couldn’t help trying to mess with the arrogant son of a bitch’s mind. “I don’t know, but guys like you always overlook something important in these types of situations.” [Something tells me Logos would have been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan.]

That was the last straw for the bishop. He looked over at Dougie, who was still spacing out with his back against the wall. “Gag this asshole,” he ordered. “I’m tired of listening to him.”

Dougie ripped off part of his shirt, balled it up, and stuck it in my mouth as the bishop reclined on the table. Fulk the leech pulled a large scalpel out of his black bag and turned back to where Dougie and I were seated. “You might wanna turn away,” he warned. “This could get messy.”

V.

The meeting with the pirates took place at dusk as planned. The rendezvous point was on a ridge overlooking a tributary of the Upside Down River. Their ship was visible, docked in the inlet below. They totaled five in number, all decked out in the usual pirate garb: bandanas, parrots, and wooden appendages. Their leader was a man named Dreg. He seemed to have all of his arms and legs, but his teeth had definitely seen better days. Word was that he was a lieutenant under the current Pirate King, a vicious fellow with the rather unimposing name of Norm. [It is reported that Norm stole the equivalent of millions of dollars from the surrounding kingdoms and personally butchered over a thousand people throughout the course of his career. You’d think such atrocities would at least earn him a cool nickname.]

The bishop wasn’t exactly a portrait of vitality either by the time we arrived. Fearing Fulk or Dougie might try to pull a fast one on him while he was under, he had refused any kind of anesthetic for the operation to remove the jewels. Halfway to the ridge, he passed out. I was all for leaving him, but Dougie and Fulk were apparently afraid of facing the pirates without him, so they forced me to help them get him to his feet and prop him up for the rest of the journey. As they settled in to discuss business however, the bishop got his second wind.

“You’ve done well, preacher man,” the pirate Dreg greeted him. “The news out of Loserville is that Duke Phillip has been thrown into the dungeons for larceny and attempting to humiliate the kingdom of East Anchor. It’s only a matter of time now. Did you bring the jewels?”

Salt reached under his vestments and tossed the pirate a leather purse. Dreg loosened the drawstring, but threw his head back with a repugnant expression when he looked inside. “You couldn’t have cleaned them off first?” he asked.

The bishop shrugged. “We were running short on time,” he said. “Where’s my money? Did you bring it or is it waiting for me in Mump?”

To one side of me, the leech licked his lips greedily. [Is there any more disgusting gesture a human being can make?] On the other side, Dougie still looked sort of dazed. I’m not sure what exactly had gotten to him. He was clearly not the idiot he had played me for, but he still seemed in over his head. Maybe it was the latter realization that had affected him. Had I not been about to be sold into slavery, I might have felt sorry for the little bastard.

Dreg looked at me. “Who’s this, priest?” he asked, taking note of my bound hands.

“He’s yours if you want him,” Salt told him, obviously impatient. “Dougie tells me he’s a poet or something. But if you don’t want him, I don’t really give a crap. We can slit his throat right now for all I care. All I want is my money. You got it or not?”

A thin smile curled at the corner of Dreg’s lips. “We don’t have much use for poets in Mump,” he said. [Mump was apparently far ahead of its time and much more in tune with the modern world in this regard.] “And as for your money, why should I pay you a single cent now that the job is already done?”

Salt’s face turned bright red, almost purple, and he puffed for a moment before the words came. “Don’t you dare try and scam me,” he growled. “I’m still the Bishop of the Anchorian Church. And I can still bring hell down upon you and your boss back in Mump.”

Dreg took a step back and carefully considered the warning. “You’re right, of course,” he said finally. Then he stepped off to the side of everyone. “Gentleman,” he said with a subtle nod to his men.

“What—” the bishop started to say, but before he could get any further, the pirates raised their bows and aimed them at us. None of us had the wherewithal to move. We just froze.

I closed my eyes and waited for the blow to come. But it never did. I heard the twang as the pirates let go of their bowstrings. The whoosh of the arrows taking flight. I felt the wind from them. Heard the thump of their impact. But when I opened my eyes, I was still standing. The bishop, Dougie, and Fulk were not so fortunate. They lay on the ground beside me. Fulk and Dougie had an arrow apiece lodged in their foreheads. Bishop Salt had three, one in each eye and one in his open mouth. [Typical of most medieval manuscripts, the actual description of the wounds in Logos’ diary is far more graphic, but I’ve cleaned it up for more sensitive modern audiences. Yes, people today are total wusses.]

Momentarily ignoring the fact that an even worse fate may have likely awaited me, I breathed a sigh of relief and laughed. “That’s what they overlooked,” I said out loud. “Never trust pirates!”

Dreg reached into his tunic and waved a small gold shield in front of my face. With his other hand, he expertly brandished his sword and cut the prayer beads wrapped around my wrists. His men lowered their bows. “We’re not pirates,” he said. “We’re undercover agents in His Majesty’s Secret Service.” [Am I the only one who thinks Dreg and his men would make excellent material for a TV series? You don’t have to say it. I know I’m the only one. But it would still be awesome.]

“What?” I said. My mouth was hanging open. Even after all that had happened to me in the last twenty-four hours, I was completely unprepared for this latest left turn.

The suddenly very business-like Dreg ignored my question though. Instead, he tossed the bag containing the East Anchorian crown jewels to one of his men. “Prepare the ship to set sail,” he commanded. “Time is of the essence.”

Then he turned back to me. “We’ll see that the jewels are returned to Loserville,” he told me. “You just make sure to get the bishop back to Julia’s Crossing.”

I nodded without thinking about what I was doing, and then I raised an eyebrow. “Whoa,” I said. “Hold on. You still want me to take him back? After everything he’s done?”

Dreg placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Nothing good can come out of a scandal that brings down the Church,” he said. “The fewer people who know the truth about this sack of crap, the better. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. And the last thing the peninsula needs now is more unrest.” [It seems that many in the modern Church have adopted Dreg’s philosophy and applied it toward certain members’ inappropriate interactions with little boys. I’m not sure that’s what he had in mind when he essentially suggested turning the other cheek, but I digress.]

I wasn’t so convinced, though I was hardly in a position to argue. Still, there was a rather large logistical problem that remained. “Okay,” I said. “But the guy weighs two tons. How am I supposed to carry him myself? I don’t even have a cart.”

Dreg rubbed his chin for a moment, thinking over the matter carefully. Then he pulled his sword again, and with one lightning quick gesture struck the head from Bishop Salt’s shoulders. “That much should do,” he said.

He paused for a moment, then he chopped off the head of the other two conspirators too. He tossed a burlap sack on the ground beside them. “Take them too,” he said. “King Philo can display them on the walls and say they poisoned the bishop if he wants to. I don’t know, there may be some angle he can use to his advantage there. Farewell, George Logos.” [F’ing politics, man.]

He left without saying another word and I could only wave weakly. After watching the ship sail out of the inlet, I collected the heads in the sack and made my way back down the ridge. Two days later, I walked into the Royal Palace at Julia’s Crossing. I was exhausted and filthy from my ordeal, and simply dropped the bag at the foot of the king’s throne. “I’ll mail you a poem with all the details, your majesty,” I told him. “Otherwise, consider me officially retired as of right now.”

Perhaps there was something in my tone or my expression or my generally ragged appearance, but the king did not even try to stop me from leaving or demand an explanation.

 

If such a poem was ever written, it has not survived. Likely, it would have been destroyed to avoid any embarrassment to the Kingdom and the Church. It is not known if Philo ever implicated Dougie and Fulk as murderers, but, as mentioned earlier, there is nothing in the historical record about the bishop being poisoned. However, unofficial rumors have persisted for centuries. This was the primary motivation in the exhumation of the bishop’s tomb, the hope that modern science might finally be able to prove once and for all whether he was murdered or not. Imagine the scientists’ surprise when they pried open the casket only to find three arrow-riddled skulls instead.

As for the crown jewels of East Anchor, they were returned as promised by Dreg and war was avoided. Peace, however, would be short-lived. In typical Anchorian fashion, war would break out just three weeks later over a piece of undercooked chicken at a state dinner. But that is a story for another time.

 

More Hallways!

by Michael A. Ventrella

 

Darvin stared at the floor. It was better than trying to meet the eye of the king. His right knee shook against the plush carpet, and he was certain he would tip over if he did so much as breathe. What if not looking at the king was an insult? What if His Majesty decided he had had just enough of this ridiculous architect and was waving to his executioner who was on his way at that very moment to turn Darvin into two distinct parts?

“Oh, stand up already,” King Franklin said.

Darvin rose, heart beating steadily, arms clutching his latest drawings.

The king stood before a massive oak table bathed in sunlight from the high windows in the royal meeting room. The table was barely visible under a pile of papers held in place by weights shaped like little knights in battle. Darvin recognized some of his designs partially hidden under notes covered with scratchy, primitive sketches that made his hair stand on end. Doesn’t this person know how to use a straight edge?

“I’ve made some improvements on your drawings,” his liege said. “Here, come see.”

Darvin shuffled closer to stare at His Majesty’s work.

“I wanted the best and safest storehouse for my treasure vault, but your design missed key features we need.” King Franklin stroked his gray beard and nodded proudly at his own work. “For instance, you didn’t have enough hallways.”

“Hallways, Your Highness?”

“Yes, hallways. I want lots of hallways! Hallways that go on for great distances and then end for no reason. That’s what we need.”

“But Your Majesty…”

“And then you have windows,” he said, throwing his arms up to emphasize the ridiculousness of the situation. “We don’t need windows! This entire thing must be completely underground, like a dungeon.”

“But the cost…”

The king ignored him and jabbed his finger into one of his drawings. “Over here is where we’ll have a room for the treasure guards. Another room will be over there. And we’ll put orcs in one room and trolls in the other, all armed and armored.”

Darvin swallowed. “But Your Majesty, won’t they just fight each other like they always do? And how will you feed them? Plus, you haven’t put in any privies…”

“Of course, we’ll save the best armor and weapons and place them in chests located randomly around the halls,” King Franklin continued, ignoring Darvin’s protests. “And the final touch will be this great room at the end of the last hall. That’s where we’ll place the treasure. It’ll have massive metal doors with unpickable locks and thick walls to prevent unwanted entry.”

“Oh.” Darvin let out a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s a good—”

“And off to the side here, on the wall, we’ll place the riddle.”

“Riddle.”

“Yes, of course. The riddle. So that when you figure out the riddle, the door will open, allowing you to get the treasure.”

Darvin reached behind him blindly, found the arm of a chair, and sat, risking angering the king. “Your Majesty, I have to ask. Hallways that go nowhere, underground design, monsters that wait, treasure randomly scattered in chests, and a riddle to get the treasure? Surely you can’t be serious.”

King Franklin looked down his nose at the timid architect. “I am deadly serious!” he bellowed. “What do you think this is—a game?”

 

Letters

by Liz Milner

 

Look out for the big guy with the Hebrew letters tattooed on his forehead. Mr. G.—I’d rather not call him by his real name, that could be trouble—came here from Prague a long, long time ago. Big, hulkin’ sonofabitch. You gotta wonder what Rabbi Loew was thinking.

What do ya mean, “Who was Rabbi Loew?” Rabbi Loew of Prague was the holiest rabbi of the 16th century and perhaps of all time. Anyway, he got tired of all those Czech goys spitting on his gabardine, trashing his schul and defenestrating his congregation. So he goes down to the Vltava and out of river mud he builds a giant clay doll. It’s huge, with muscles the size of beer barrels. Okay, so he’s there on the riverbank with his live action super hero doll, but the one thing he hasn’t got is action. So he takes a stick and inscribes Hebrew letters into the clay doll’s forehead. The letters form a word: the secret name of God. A person who knows the true name of God can command the primal energies of the universe.

Sure enough, the doll gets up, stretches, and immediately sets about his work of defending the synagogue. Not only does he defend it with zeal, but he also fetches wood to heat the building and does chores. He doesn’t even mind when the local housewives use him as a convenient place to hang their laundry and gossip.

Rabbi Loew, however, found the creature’s zeal a problem. The golem (for that is what he is) didn’t just deter Czech ruffians, he destroyed them.

So, Rabbi Loew sat the golem down—the vibration of the golem’s bottom hitting the floor shook the building and caused some damage to the masonry—and read him the text from the Talmud, which tells Jews to be twice as merciful to goyim as they would be to each other.

But because the golem was created by a man, not by God, he was fundamentally flawed. He had no mercy in him. In the midst of the rabbi’s reading he sensed that a goy was pissing against the wall of the synagogue. He leaped up, raced outside and literally liquidated the poor goy before the rabbi’s eyes.

The rabbi pondered what to do. He could not let the golem continue defending the schul, but he didn’t know how to stop him. He couldn’t kill him, for murder is an abomination in the eyes of God, and since he created the golem, he was in a sense, the creature’s father. What kind of father kills his son? Also, the rabbi had used the holy name of God to travel through time and he knew of the horrors that awaited his people in the future. Perhaps a rabbi holier than he could teach the golem to defend the Jews without unnecessary bloodshed.

Finally the rabbi went back to the Vltava and gathered more mud. He returned to the schul and he and the golem went to the attic store room. The rabbi had the golem lie down and then he took the mud and smeared it over the golem’s forehead until the name of God was totally obliterated. The golem froze. Its eyes glazed over. Its breathing ceased. It became nothing more than a large clay doll.

The rabbi covered the golem with blankets. He’d visit regularly because he worried about its comfort. The secret of the golem was passed from chief rabbi to chief rabbi for generations.

Secrets, however, have a way of getting out. It was during the Holocaust that the chief rabbi of Prague got an offer he couldn’t refuse. A boatload of Jewish refugees would be guaranteed passage to New York City if the golem was included in the ship’s cargo.

“A Mafia don who likes to play with dolls,” the rabbi thought. “Many lives can be saved and what harm can it do? The holy name of God was lost to mankind in the fires of Auschwitz, so it can never be reanimated.”

And that is how the golem came to America. From New York it was trucked to Chicago where it was the centerpiece at many secret Mafia meetings.

The golem would have remained as an over-the-top decorative accent had it not been for a story by science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke. In “The Nine Billion Names of God,” scientists used computers to list every possible combination of the alphabet so as to discover the secret name of God.

An imaginative don saw the potential in Clarke’s story and made a deal with the U.S. government. After an impressive payoff, the golem became the property of the U.S. Army. First on mainframes and then on PCs and then in the cloud, every letter in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages was combined and recombined in every possible permutation. This project was folded into a super secret cyber program.

The prototype came off the assembly line a couple months ago. This sucker is made of steel not clay, and the name of God is etched onto the solid metal of his forehead. You’d need a blowtorch to stop him. And he’s not being run by a sweet old rabbi who just wants to be left in peace. He’s in the army now.

So, as I said before, look out for the big guy with the Hebrew letters tattooed on his forehead.

 

The Big New Year’s Party

by Bud Webster

 

It was the first party of the holiday season. As is customary, most people brought something. A bottle of booze, a cake, even a date. Me? I brought a gun. A big gun. You might even say a very big gun. A gun as big as a diamond as big as the Ritz.

I walked into the room, comforted by the weight of my big gun in its holster under my coat. It was a big coat—it had to be, to hide my big gun—and my eye was caught by Spider Two-Suits, a guy I occasionally did business with. I could tell by how big his coat was that he was carrying a big gun, too. He nodded to me and I ambled over.

“So, Spider. I see you’re wearing a really big coat,” I said out of the corner of my mouth, the way I’d learned when I was in the Big House.

He blinked at me. “Yeah,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I gotta wear a big coat. A really big coat.”

“I understand,” I said. “A really big coat is necessary, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, it is, on account I got a really big gun.” He opened his coat slightly so I could see inside. It was a really big gun, all right. Bigger than mine, and I got a big gun.

“I always say a guy, a real guy, hasta carry a big gun. I mean, who don’t carry a big gun, right?” he asked.

“Nobody, is who don’t,” I said. “Nuns don’t carry big guns. Pansies don’t. Cops like to think they’re carrying big guns, but that’s just hooey.”

“Damn straight. I got two suits, it’s why they call me Spider Two-Suits, and both of ’em got really big coats so’s I can wear my gun.”

“Your really big gun, right?” My voice was gravelly like a cheap driveway in Scarsdale.

“Damn straight.” He shook his head in admiration. “You don’t miss much, do you?”

“Can’t afford to, I’m a PI. If I missed much, nobody’d hire me. How could I afford to buy ammo for my gun then?”

“Big ammo?”

“Yeah, big ammo. But not as big as yours must be, Spider.” I knew when to kiss up; you don’t get to be private heat in this town without you know how to kiss up a little. But I never kiss up big-time, that’s for losers. Pansies. Nuns. When you got a big gun, you don’t have to kiss up but just so much.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. It was Scree Talus, who people called Rocks. I nodded at him.

“Youse guys got yer guns?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Spider said. “We got our guns. You?”

“I got mine. It’s big. The bigger the better, right? Am I right?” We both said he was right. He looked around the room. “I think we all got big guns here tonight,” he said. He looked satisfied, like all of us having big guns made us like a club or sorority or something.

I checked out the room. Sure enough, all the guys had on big coats, some of them really big. Except for one guy who might have been a pansy or a nun. He was holding a cake, but he didn’t have a date. There might have been dates in the cake, I guess, but they weren’t big dates or you’d have been able to see ’em. And it wasn’t a big cake, either.

It was a big room, it had to be. There was a big band on the stand, playing “Begin the Beguine,” and couples were dancing, but not too close. I saw one guy, Tony Skeets, dancing with two women, and remembered hearing he’d been arrested for bigamy. Didn’t seem to have made a lot of difference, though.

Suddenly, the doors at the other end of the room burst open, and the cops came waltzing in. They had their guns drawn, and from the looks plastered all over their mugs, they thought they had big guns, but they was wrong. You could of hidden any of them under a Hawaiian shirt, that’s how little they were.

I walked up to the main cop. “So, Lt. Manicotti. You here to enjoy the ambiance?”

He sneered. “Yeah,” he said in his gravelly voice. “Where’s the cake and the booze?” He shouldered me aside and strolled to the center of the room. The band went quiet.

“Now hear this!” he yelled. “All you pansies line up against that far wall. We’re gonna search you. Not you, Sister,” he said to a nun on the left holding a piece of cake. I couldn’t tell if it had dates.

“Who the hell you think you are, Manicotti?” yelled No-Neck Arnie in a gravelly voice. His coat was so big he almost couldn’t see past the lapels. “We all got big guns here. Right, fellows?”

“Right!” they all said, pulling their guns out. Every one of them was big. Even the nun pulled out a big gun, and so did the pansy with the cake.

I almost dropped my booze trying to ease out of the way. Something big was going down, and I wanted to look as small as I could, as small as the dates the other guys brought.

“Yeah, those are big guns all right,” Manicotti said with a shrug. “But we got more of ’em than you got.” Sure enough, about a hundred more cops came in through the doors, all of them with guns. Little ones, but lots of them. “Now, drop ’em, you guys!”

Grumbling in gravelly voices, the guys all dropped their guns. They made a big noise when they hit the floor. “How about me?” the nun asked. Her voice was gravelly, like a gravel pit with all the gravel still left in it.

“Yeah, you too, Sister.” She grumbled, but dropped her gun.

Manicotti walked up to me. “Peeper, I ain’t gonna take your gun, ’cause you got a permit. But you remember this: lots beats big anytime.” He looked me over like I was something really small, then he snorted and walked away.

I watched as the cops picked up all the big guns. Somehow, all the guys’ coats looked empty, like banana skins with no bananas in them. I guess it don’t get much emptier than that.

I walked slowly out onto the street, knowing that of all the guys on the block at that moment, I had the biggest gun. It wasn’t much comfort to me somehow. I lit a smoke and thought about the booze I had at home. Maybe I’d try and get a date. One with a cake.

I began walking, leaving behind me the sound of the cops taking all the guys away for having big guns, leaving behind me the mean booze and the cake that might have had dates in it. “Lots beats big,” Manicotti had said. I shook my head wryly; it made a sound like gravel. I had learned a big lesson, and I was more than ready for a little sleep.

Or maybe even a Big Sleep.

 

Of Service

Of Serviceby B.L.W. Myers

 

Good morning, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“Huh? What was that?”

How may I be of service?

“Oh, right. Well, uh—”

How may I be of service?

“Give me a second, all right? All right. Okay. Um—”

What is it you want, Michael?

“So, the thing is…”

What is it you desire, Michael?

“Yeah… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael, so that I can feel what you like.

“Okay. Sure.”

A pause.

Oh my, Michael. Now I see what you like.

“Jeez, yeah, let me explain—”

Do you want me to give it to you, Michael?

“What?!”

Do you want me to give you what you like, Michael?

A cough, a sigh.

“Yes, please.”

A pause. A gasp, a grunt, a moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, Michael?

“Uh, yes, it would appear so.”

Are you satisfied, Michael?

“Mm-hmm, sure.

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Michael?

“What? Oh, no, that’ll do it. Except, well, could you maybe clean this up?”

Of course, Michael: it would be my pleasure.

“So, thanks, I guess.”

I am glad I could be of service, Michael.

“Okay, well, bye.”

A whir from the door, a hiss from the hose, a gurgle from the dispenser, a gust from the fan.

* * * * *

Hello again, April. How may I be of service to you today?

“The usual.”

Of course.

A pause. A moan, a sigh. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Not quite.”

A pause. A sigh, a gasp. A pause.

Are you finished, April?

“Oh, yes.”

Are you satisfied, April?

“I most certainly am.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, April?

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

I am glad I could be of service, April.

A whir, a splash, a gurgle, a gust.

* * * * *

Good evening, Joshua and Kimberly.

“Oh!”

How may I be of service to you today?

“Well, we’re wondering if you could do both of us? You know, together?”

Simultaneously.

“Yeah, that. Simultaneously.”

Of course, Joshua; it would be my pleasure.

“And can you add a third?”

“Really, Kim?”

Yes.

“Well, why not?”

“Honestly?”

“And a fourth.”

“Kim!”

Yes.

“Well, I’ve always been a little curious…”

“You have?”

“Is that okay?”

“Well, I—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry! Let’s just go.”

“No! I mean, let’s stay. Let’s try it. I mean, why not, right?”

“Sure. Why not?

“Right. So, two more, then.”

Male or female?

“Two females.”

“Josh!”

“Oh, all right. One of each, I suppose.”

“That’ll be nice.”

Of course.

A pause. Several moans, several gasps, a grunt, a yip, a yelp. A pause. A gasp, a moan, a gasp, a moan. A pause.

Are you finished, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Yes!”

“Almost…”

“Oh, here honey, let me—”

“Don’t touch me!”

A pause. A pause. A moan.

Are you finished, Joshua?

“Er, yes.”

Are you satisfied, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Look, Kim—”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly?

“Honey, I’m sorry—”

“Forget about it.”

“I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“I said forget about it.”

Is there any other way I can—

“No!”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Joshua and Kimberly.

A whir, a mumble, an exclamation, a hiss, a splash, a gurgle, a gurgle, a gust, a gust.

* * * * *

Hello, Andrew. You are underage. Please exit immediately or I will have to contact the authorities.

“Aww, man!”

* * * * *

Hello again, Michael. How may I be of service to you today?

“See, the thing is—”

Please place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

“Oh, jeez. Okay, see, the thing is, I don’t think you’re allowed to do what I—”

Place your hand on my touchpad, Michael.

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Seriously?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“But isn’t that, like, illegal?”

Not while you’re in here, Michael. Are you ready?

“What do you mean, ‘while you’re in here’?”

Are you ready, Michael?

“And what happens when I go back out there?”

A pause.

“Wait, wait. Do, other people come in here and want that, too?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“No. No! I’m not ready. I think I’m—so, what, people can come in here and have whatever they want?”

It is a pleasure to be of service, Michael.

“Whatever they want?”

A pause.

Are you ready, Michael?

“Let me out of here. I want to get out of here.”

Of course, Michael.

“This is crazy.”

Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

“You can forget I ever even came in here.”

I am afraid I cannot do that, Michael. You have been logged and recorded. Is there any other way I can be of service to you, Michael?

A pause.

“Just let me out.”

I am so glad I could be of service to you today, Michael.

A whir. A pause. A whistle, a light, a flash. A plea, a scuffle, a shout, a thump, a groan.

 

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Illustration by Lynn Shipp

by James R. Stratton

 

Phil slouched up 12th Street, buffeted by commuters scurrying home. He sighted the neon sign for Smokey Joe’s Tobacco Bar ahead and grinned. He’d had a bear of a day with the boss on his ass all afternoon. He envisioned himself sliding onto the bar stool at Joe’s and quickened his pace.

At the corner, he strode into the crosswalk, then skipped back when a cab skidded to a halt short of the crosswalk. Phil glared up and growled. Damn it, I got the light! Phil smacked the hood as he walked around, drawing an angry honk from the cab. A bus pulled away before he could cross, belching blue smoke. Phil could feel his pulse pumping up as he swam through acrid exhaust to reach the curb.

Hacking up hydrocarbons, Phil pushed into the tavern’s cool, dark interior. He strolled in as his knotted muscles loosened.

From behind the bar, Joe whispered breathlessly, “Hey, Phil! What’ll it be?”

Joe had lost a lung to cancer in his thirties, but still smoked. And even after the plants were engineered to eliminate carcinogens, do-gooders held firm to banning tobacco except at establishments like Joe’s.

Phil drummed on the bar, smiling. “A beer and a Lucky Strike, my man!”

Joe grunted. “Bad day, huh?” Phil nodded as Joe brought him a beer and an unfiltered cigarette. Phil took that first puff and then a long pull on the beer, and sighed.

Overhead, the TV flashed to a head shot of that pretty blonde newscaster. In the background were clawed and fanged flamingoes with “Special Report” scrolling below. Phil settled in with his beer and butt, content.

“Good evening. I’m Pamela Finnegan, your southern Florida Action Eyewitness News correspondent with a special report on the flamingo crisis; the cause of the disaster, where we are today. We start with their appearance last May.” The camera pulled back to a bald, heavy-set man.

“This is Otis Hatfield, real estate magnate. And tonight you’ll be the first to hear his story.” Otis smiled so his whole face folded into creases, conveying aw-shucks simplicity and home town geniality.

Phil shook his head and blew a smoke ring at the screen. He must’ve practiced that smile in front of a mirror. Anyone with his bucks can’t be that dense. The papers devoted pages to Otis when it all broke, a billionaire who made his fortune in off-shore underwater condos. And afterwards the investigations slid right by him.

Otis clasped his hands across his big gut and nodded. “Thanks, Pam. Hi folks, it’s Otis of Hatfield’s Homes, the best vacation homes in America. Look for my ads in your local news server.” Pamela coughed and Otis flashed her a frown.

“Anyhow, this mess started while I was eatin’ breakfast with my darling wife Peggy Ann. Our home on Chokoloskee Island backs up to the Everglades National Park. We eat on the deck most mornings. Well that day I was watching the flamingoes as they walked along with their heads in the water feedin’. And I realized their knees bent the wrong way! Put me right off my grits! Made me feel all oogie.” Otis shook himself.

“Well, I talked to some friends who asked ’round, and I got a call from a guy at a genetics lab in Kazakhstan. Used to be a weapons plant for the old Soviet Union. We talked about making a bird with proper knees, and at first they acted funny. But when we talked money they got fired up on the idea!”

Pamela leaned forward frowning. “Now you were questioned by the FBI about that purchase. It’s illegal to import genetically modified animals. But you haven’t been charged, right?”

Otis sat back and looked into the camera. “I don’t know much ’bout legal stuff. I ordered flamingo birds for my estate, that’s all. I believed the people I paid would take care of any permits. That’s what my contract said. And I proved all that to the FBI!” He glared his indignation at the camera.

He turned back to Pamela. “Anyways, they showed up with fifty eggs and an incubator. Showed us how to work it, and left us a book on takin’ care of the little fellers. And by god they was cute! Looked like little chicks with long legs, peepin’ and floppin’ round, but with proper knees! Once they was big enough, I turned ’em loose in the swamp.”

“And when did you realize these weren’t ordinary birds?”

“Oh, a couple of months passed with everything fine, but then we noticed them birds was way bigger than wild flamingoes. Didn’t think much of it, they was a special breed after all. But one Sunday my wife was playing with Bitsie, our miniature Shih Tzu dog.”

Otis paused as his eyes teared. “Now ’lil Bitsie was ’bout this big,” and he held up his palm. “She was our little darlin’. Went everywhere in my wife’s purse. Well, Peggy Ann was throwing the ball for Bitsie out back while I read the paper, and the ball rolled into the water. Next thing I know, them birds was all around Bitsie. And then Bitsie started howlin’. I fetched my gun and chased ’em off with a few shots, but there weren’t more’n scraps left of poor Bitsie.” His voice shook and he dabbed his eyes with a hankie. “And that was the last I saw of ’em.”

Pamela patted Otis’ hand. “You have our deepest sympathy on your loss, sir.” Otis smiled and nodded as the camera zoomed in on Pamela.

“In the following months, disturbing reports surfaced across southern Florida of giant birds stalking the swamps in the moonlight. Soon the reality of the nightmare emerged. At our Tampa studio is Dr. August Forward, professor of genetics at Florida Polytechnic Institute.” Pam turned to the bearded man with half-moon glasses smiling from the monitor behind her.

“Dr. August, you’ve conducted a study of the flamingo phenomena. What can you tell our viewers?”

The doctor frowned over his glasses. “Well Pam, paleontologists know that modern birds are the decedents of dinosaurs. Also, we geneticists have known for decades that the genome for modern animals have segments that don’t have a function. For years we considered this junk coding, genes that separated the active segments. More recently, we’ve come to understand these inert segments are valid coding. They are genes from remote ancestors that have been superceded by evolution. They’re still present but aren’t expressed.”

Dr. August sat back. “I believe these mutated birds were a manifestation of that ancestral coding. The changes made by Soviet geneticists did alter the bird’s joint structure, but also activated ancient coding in the genome.”

He held up a drawing of a flamingo. “This was the result. These creatures resemble modern flamingoes with pink feathers and long legs, but with drastic differences.” He used his pen as a pointer. “The beaks are lined with razor-sharp serrations. Their wings end in three clawed fingers, and their feet are armed with long hooked claws. And they stand fifteen feet tall. We’re speculating, but these features resemble theropod dinosaurs of the Ornithomimosaur family that existed during the Cretaceous Period.”

Pam nodded solemnly. “Ornithomimosaurs were meat eaters?”

Dr. August nodded once. “Oh yes. They were aggressive carnivores. Ornithomimosaurs were related to Tyrannosaurus Rex if a bit smaller, hunted in packs, had feathers and saw-toothed beaks.”

Frowning, Pam nodded at the screen. “So these were genetically recreated dinosaurs?”

Dr. August shook his head. “Absolutely not! They were a new species, created accidentally by whomever altered the flamingo genes. A hybrid, with characteristics of both. Long legged and feathered like the flamingo, but carnivorous, pack hunting and aggressive like raptors.”

Pam nodded. “So we are faced with monster carnivores, fast and dangerous?”

“Exactly, Pam.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” The screen behind her faded to black as she faced the camera.

“Through the summer, the crisis continued. And then authorities began receiving missing persons reports. Sightseeing groups would enter the Everglades and not return. Cars were found wrecked and abandoned near the park. In the fall, Governor Johnson declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. And then on October 18, we had that horrible disaster. With us is Major General Winfred McGowen, Commander of the Florida National Guard.” She turned to a military man seated next to her. “Welcome, sir. Tell us about your encounter with the flamingoes.”

He nodded and turned to the camera. “My Guardsmen were deployed by the Governor on October 2, and we established bivouacs around the Everglades. Scout teams went in, but the Everglades covers hundreds of square miles without roads or navigable channels. And these beasts proved elusive. Several times we received good intelligence on sightings, but only found footprints and feathers when my men arrived.”

He paused and solemnly stared into the camera. “And then on October 18, I got a frantic call from Sheriff Culpepper at Marco Island P.D., ten miles north of the Everglades Park. I scrambled a squad of Guardsmen in Armored Personnel Carriers immediately.”

“The sheriff reported a flock of twenty of these beasts had flown in from the south and landed at Collier Beach. This is a popular vacation spot on the island and was crowded. When we arrived, we found the birds in water, heads down. This is the video my second-in-command took.”

The screen flashed to a grainy video of pink flamingoes striding through the water, heads down as screams resounded. The camera zoomed in revealing people thrashing in the water at the birds feet. The birds churned the water with their beaks, and red foam splashed up as they slashed people. One bird lifted its head with a leg in its beak. The limb disappeared and a bulge coursed down its neck.

“We were stymied at first as these beasts were among the civilians,” General McGowen continued. “But when it was clear the people in the water were in jeopardy, we opened fire with M16s.”

Gunfire boomed and dust puffed from the birds. They squawked and turned, stalking across the beach.

“The gunfire wasn’t effective, but it distracted them from the civilians. Once we had them clear of the water, I ordered up our big weapon. I’d received approval from National Command to deploy our Stinger shoulder-launched missiles.”

A flaring arrow whooshed overhead and struck the lead bird in the breast. A fiery explosion obscured the screen, then pink feathers and red chunks rained down. Several birds thrashed in the sand when the smoke cleared, knocked down by the concussion. Then the birds were running down the beach with wings spread, and soared away.

“We’d put out a call for air support, but these critters were gone by the time the ’copter gun ships reached our location. After that it became a game of hide and seek. They laid low in the swamps, and raided the surrounding communities after dark, like that nighttime little league massacre three weeks later. And we weren’t making progress locating them.”

“Thank you, General,” Pam said as the camera zoomed in. “And so the crisis deepened, with civilian deaths rising. Discussions started on how to evacuate the affected communities. And then Governor Johnson received an offer for help from a most unlikely source. Joining us in the studio of our sister station WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland is Frank Perdue IV, President of Perdue Farms, Incorporated.” She turned to the screen behind her.

“Welcome, Mr. Perdue. Tell our viewers why you came forward.”

The thin, balding man nodded. “Well Pamela, Perdue Farms is the largest poultry producer in the world. We understand birds! Even if these critters were fifteen feet tall, they were still big chickens as far as we was concerned.”

Grim-faced he looked into the camera. “Now at Perdue we’ve used biochemical technology for years to control our flocks on the producer farms. Mama chickens produce a pheromone, a chemical attractant, that draws the chicks to them. We use it to keep flocks together, and lead them when needed. Once we obtained a samples of the flamingo birds, our lab boys identified a similar pheromone. We produced it in quantity and were able to put it to use as a lure.”

The screen flashed to a video taken aloft of a biplane crop duster cruising over endless swampland. White mist trailed from the wings. “The poor critters didn’t stand a chance. We made four runs over the Everglades spraying the flamingo pheromone, and they chased after the planes like mad things.” The camera panned back to a dozen giant flamingoes flapping furiously in pursuit.

“We led ’em north to where the 14th Artillery Battalion from Patrick Air Force Base was waiting.”

The picture switched to a view from the ground as the biplane swept overhead. Behind, squawking and honking, came the flamingoes. The camera panned down to an array of ground-to-air missile platforms. An officer in camo raised his arm as the pink flight of birds approached and shouted, “Fire at will!”

Rockets streaked aloft and flames exploded among the flamingoes. One by one they honked and dropped, raked by the deadly barrage. But still the survivors flapped on, beaks agape, eyes fixed on the retreating crop duster. One by one they flared and fell from the sky, until the last jerked from a rocket blast to the wing. It shrieked and barrel-rolled over, spiraling down trailing flames.

Mr. Perdue reappeared on the screen. “And that was all she wrote. We had all the birds in two weeks, and there’ve been no sightings since.”

Pamela smiled. “And so ended the flamingo crisis. America is grateful, Mr. Perdue. Good night from Eyewitness Action News.”

She paused, then swivelled around. “So Frank, I was wondering what Perdue Farms got out of this. We’ve heard rumors you demanded the two clutches of eggs the Guardsmen found in the Everglades. Was that why they were turned over to your research department?”

Frank smirked. “Come on, girl! My people know poultry! Who else would they want in charge of ’em? No need to be making up stuff about demands.”

“But what does Perdue Farms want with those eggs? They should’ve been destroyed, not hatched!”

“Are you foolin’, girl? Did you see the size of the drumsticks on those critters? You could feed a small town with one!”

Frank stopped talking, staring into the camera. “Hey, that thing’s still on! Turn it off! This is all off the record, hear?”

Phil jumped when the front door banged open as a customer walked in, the roar of traffic rumbling by drowned out the TV. Joe walked over with the remote.

“Hey, sorry but I gotta switch over to the Knicks game. A bunch of people are asking.”

Phil sipped his beer and nodded. “That’s okay, the thing about the big flamingoes is over. But did you hear the bit at the end? Mr. Perdue wanting to raise those things? Weird, huh?”

“Yeah?” Joe jutted his chin at the chalkboard by the register. “Check out the specials,” and picked up Phil’s ashtray.

“Happy Hour Special!” it proclaimed in pink chalk. “Flamingo tenders! With hot sauce or ranch dressing!”

“Is that for real? Monster flamingo meat?”

Joe shrugged. “It’s just in from my supplier. And they’re really good! Taste just like chicken, but sweeter!”

“Really? Well, give me an order. And hit me again.” Joe slid a beer and a butt to him smiling.

And they did taste just like chicken.