Category Archives: fictionissue10

How To Sell A Baby, Katrina Vjestica

Have you ever wondered how salesmanship works in 2089?

Well, my friend, you’re in for a surprise. Gone are the days when you could buy groceries from a store without a salesman breathing down your neck. Gone are the days of free browsing. Gone are the days when you could adopt a puppy from a local pet shop just because you feel like it.

These days, everything is a sales opportunity. And when I say everything, I really do mean it. This, my friend, is your user-friendly guide on how to sell a baby.

 
 
 

STEP 1 – THE BIG THREE:

First and foremost, you’re going to need to know a history of the three major corporations in the baby business.

Back in the day, new laws were put in place. Humanity was becoming riddled with diseases—each generation had different issues to the next, and nobody was doing anything about selective breeding to eliminate these issues. People wanted security—a child that would be healthy, guaranteed. And so, the baby business boomed.

It started with Firstborns, a company that was once just a small corner shop selling baby accessories in London. The founder, Isaac Lenning, was one of the first to jump on the baby bandwagon in the early days and built his company into a billion-dollar success story. Firstborns, once based solely in London, now operates across Europe, the Americas and the CIS as a luxury baby brand.

Then, there’s Babybarn. This company, once a billion-dollar pet industry, shunned the sale of pets once the baby industry looked more profitable. Nobody wanted to buy dogs anymore—what’s the point of a companion animal when babies are so accessible? It’s a family, without the gestation period. That spells profit. Their bright yellow branding is now a pale, butter-yellow, and their warehouses, dotted across Asia and the Middle-East, are far more successful.

The third company is the discount baby warehouse, simply called Baby Warehouse. This global company, made successful by the same thing that had created dollar shops and discount chemists, took advantage of the high prices for babies and made it a budget-friendly experience for working-class couples.

Those are the big three corporations in the baby-selling business. With trillions of dollars between them, it’s no surprise that boutique baby stores are a thing of the past; babies are sales. Babies are $$$. Shares are a reasonable price and steadily rising. It’s an industry worth investing your money in, but don’t tell anyone I told you that. Insider trading and all.

 
 
 

STEP 2 – THE PRODUCT:

History of the corporations is boring. Let’s move on.

So, there are many different types of babies. Long, short, skinny or fat like the Michelin man. People like different things. We’ve got to cater for it all.

Babies are shelved by tier, and then by category (other than the discount babies under the bright red clearance signs—those are for desperate sales. Yes, we need to get rid of them, but everyone else on the floor will totally judge you for selling a clearance baby. That just screams financial trouble).

Bronze-tier doesn’t have ‘specifics’ within categories; you’ve just got the essentials. Ethnicity, predicted talents, and academic potential. Do they want blue eyes on a mathematics genius? Sorry, unless there’s one there, that customer’s going to have to look at silver-tier.

Push that. Make them spend more dosh and get yourself something nice. Maybe a new shirt? That one’s hideous.

Silver-tier does have more options, but that comes at a price. Bronze-tier babies are between five-thousand and ten-thousand dollars (cheap, I know)—with that price, you get pretty much nothing. The baby. Maybe a muslin cloth and a bib. That’s it. Silver is so much more beneficial to the customer. It’s easier to sell—even with the fifteen-to-twenty thousand-dollar price tag.

Sell yourself. Repeat after me: I’m a silver-tiered baby. Mummy and Daddy bought me because I have pretty, blue eyes (Yes, with silver-tier you can even pick the eye colour!) and am a creative genius when it comes to painting pretty pictures (Shame they forgot to think about how much that wouldn’t earn you, isn’t it, Sunshine?). Look, here are some pictures of my raw, unfathomable talent. Want your future child to have such impressive abilities? Buy a silver-tiered baby now!

Gold-tier is brilliant and definitely the choice for anyone who parks a bright-red Porsche in the carpark. They might need a bigger car for their newly-purchased child, but they can afford it for the privilege of reserving the baby that suits their every desire before it’s even born. That’s right, you can pre-order your future child for the small cost of thirty-thousand dollars! Delivery costs are extra.

Now, platinum-tier? That’s a beautiful thing. Platinum-tier babies are custom-made for the customers. The waiting period can be years for the right child to come along. The customer hand-picks the sire and dam out of a catalogue of breeders provided to them. They meet with their consultant four times to make sure they’re getting the best of the best, and then they interview the sire and dam prior to the conception of their child.

Then, if the child isn’t up to scratch in the preliminary tests twelve weeks into the pregnancy, they scrap it and start again.

All this, for the perfectly reasonable price of fifty-thousand dollars. Delivery is on us. How generous.

 
 
 

STEP 3 – THE CUSTOMER:

Yes, yes, you’ve heard it all before. The customer is always right.

Do what they say, make them happy. Happy customers spend money. Money means your average sale is higher. Higher average sales mean that your manager is happy. Happy manager means promotion. Promotion means more money. You get the gist.

Usually, you’ll be dealing with happy-go-lucky customers brimming with excitement at the thought of starting the next stage in their adult lives. Parenthood is a brilliant thing. Use it. Sell it. Make them spend money.

These customers are easy. They’ll listen to what you say. They’ll list their requirements and their budget and what they’ve already purchased. You’ll be able to convince them to buy a silver-tiered baby instead of a bronze-tiered baby for peace of mind. If they’re wearing a fancy watch or stilettos on a Sunday, take a stab at gold-tier. Save the platinum-tier babies for more experienced salesmen, though. You’re a trainee, not some sales extraordinaire.

Other customers are sceptical. Questioning. Difficult. God forbid, you sell them the wrong baby! It’s not like there’s a thirty-day-guarantee on everything silver-tier and above. These are the ones you should watch out for. They’ll buy the cheapest kid on the shelves and throw your sales average into thousands. Which is despicable, by the way. You want tens-of-thousands.

Honestly, you trainees are all the same. Dollar signs in your eyes when your average is three grand. Pitiful.

So how do you deal with such annoying customers?

Easy.

Ignore everything they say and tell them they’re wrong. Politely. You’ve got to be crafty about this sort of thing. List the benefits of silver-tier over bronze-tier. Talk about that thirty-day-guarantee. Market the shit out of that stuff. Own it. Well, make them own it. Don’t go accidentally selling yourself a baby. You don’t get commission for that.

 
 
 

STEP 4 – MAKE SURE THEY’RE NOT A MURDERER:

Do orphanages let any old couple adopt a child without a thought?

Yes, they do.

Why?

They’re desperate. They’ve got our offcuts. The dregs of the baby industry; clearance stock that hasn’t sold in weeks, grown too big for their standard-sized bassinets and become such a liability that they’ve been deemed unsellable.

Do these orphanages care for the welfare of these children? Of course not! They’re products, not people… yet.

The real question here is, should orphanages let any couple that walks in their damp, creaky facilities adopt a child without concern for that child’s welfare?

They don’t have a choice. They don’t have the room, and they need to get rid of the same stock that we offloaded to them. Sucks to be them.

We have that choice. If a baby doesn’t sell and we have to send it to the orphanage, that’s fine on our end. The business claims half back as damage liability, and the baby’s chucked on the weekly truck out to the grotty ‘burbs. After that, it’s no longer our problem. Out of sight, out of mind.

Don’t just sell any old couple a baby. Make the sale, then do a background check. We have a reputation to uphold, and we’ll have the press on our backs if we sell a silver-tier child to a shady woman who’s been on the run from the cops for three years running. It’s happened before—poor Sandy. She got fired then tried to rob a bank because she had no money. She’s on the run from the cops now, too.

Don’t serve her. She’s bad news. Probably a murderer.

Or a cannibal. Some people like expensive, illegal delicacies. Think Hannibal Lecter, and watch out for it. Gold-tier customers aren’t the only ones who drive fancy red Porches.

Basically, take their license or passport or whatever form of identity they have on them, as long as it has an address and a picture. Scan it on the machine and stall for fifteen minutes. Talk about the baby—do they have a name picked out? Oh, it’s so exciting! Talk about the lead time—they can pick up the baby between five and seven business days after their payment goes through. Talk about shipping costs if they can’t pick up the little kiddo. We’ll send through a confirmation email when it’s ready.

Most of the time, you’ll see a big green tick on your screen, and they can pay. You’ve made the sale. Brilliant. Good job. Go make another.

Sometimes, you’ll see a big red cross. Don’t let them buy the baby. They’re bad news. If they take it badly, get security or let your wonderful, caring manager sweet-talk them into buying a clearance baby instead. Nobody cares about clearance babies. Not even the press.

 
 
 

STEP 5 – WEEKLY PROCEDURES:

As a salesman in any store, at some point, you’re going to have to open shop.

There are a few things to remember here. Wait for the other staff member to arrive. We open shop in pairs, not alone—too many people have tried to steal a platinum kid that’s ready for collection.

I know, I know, some people are despicable. One of them even punched me once. I had a black eye for over a week.

Once you’re in, you need to turn on the computers, get the tills ready for the day… all that good stuff. Someone should sweep the floor because those shmucks who close the night before always do a disgraceful job of it.

Someone will have to turn on the lights—not just the warehouse lights, but the ones that light up each pod for the customers, too. Can’t sell a baby if you can’t see the poor thing’s face.

And yes, before you ask, someone does look after them through the night. They’re the people who walk around the store wearing pink. The nannies. They’re the ones who change those nappies all day. Yeah, I don’t envy them either. It’s a shit job.

The first time you open, someone will probably walk you through the procedure in a sleep-deprived daze, with their hand over their mouth to cover their yawn. This is not the time to make a gun with your finger and shoot an elastic band into their eye. Learn from my mistakes.

Now closing would be an absolute chore if anybody did it properly.

Instead, you just wait for that one customer who’s taking eight million years to make a decision, end up closing forty-five minutes after when you’re supposed to and then do a half-hearted sweep of the warehouse just to say you did it. Someone else counts the tills. Someone else walks around with a clipboard and double checks that all the babies are still alive, marks off the ones that aren’t and then writes them off electronically.

If you really want to, you can clean each of the little plastic windows that customers look through to see the babies in their bassinets. Please do. Someone forgot to for three weeks, and we didn’t realise that one of the baby’s nappies hadn’t been changed in two weeks. It stunk pretty bad, but nannies don’t bother if they can’t see the problem.

Soon-to-be-parents are pretty messy, so make sure you clean up all of the baby accessories too. There will be dummies strewn across the floor of the store and cute little Yoda costumes draped across the bassinet of a sad, lonely baby that a couple decided against buying. You might even find a puddle of vomit from where a nanny was burping a kid and neglected to clean up. It happens a lot.

As I said, they have a shit job.

We close at seven every day (Except Sundays, we don’t work Sundays), but you’ll probably find you’ll be there until nine cleaning up after all the customers who haven’t heard of putting things back where they found them.

Oh, by the way… check the clearance babies regularly throughout the day. They don’t keep well.

 
 
 

STEP 6 – DON’T FUCK UP:

If you do, I’ll write you a dismal review, and your next job will be at the stinky orphanage we send all the out-of-date babies to.

Is that what you want?

Didn’t think so.

 
 
 

But seriously, lose that shirt. It’s revolting.

Download a PDF of ‘How to Sell a Baby’

The Man Without A Heart, Ryan Hunter

She had been looking at him all night. Quick, furtive glances from across the crowded bar before looking away again. Felix’s gaze jumped from patron to patron. He watched friends and co-workers laugh and chat. He spotted couples out on a date night and families coming together for a meal. But his gaze always returned to the dark-haired woman, and each time he caught her watching him.

She was about his age, and he found her intriguing. Though he wasn’t sure if that was just because of the attention she was paying him. She and five others—her friends, Felix assumed—filled a booth against the wall of the bar. Felix sat on a stool against the bar in the middle of the room, holding a drink.

It was a crowded Friday evening of city workers celebrating the end of another week. Felix sat alone, but he didn’t feel it. How could he amongst so much life? Spending time around people going about their lives was a reminder he too was alive.

His gaze moved back to the woman in the booth, and sure enough she was looking back at him. This time, however, she didn’t divert her attention when Felix’s eyes met hers. So intense was her stare that Felix wasn’t even sure she’d realised he was looking back at her. What about him was causing her to examine him so closely? Felix shrugged to himself and raised the glass in his hand toward her in greeting. The movement snapped her out of her trance, and she turned back to her friends.

Felix returned to watching the room, drinking the water in his glass—he wasn’t game enough to ever drink anything else—and picking at the salad in front of him. He turned to a movement in the corner of his eye and was surprised to see the woman walking from the booth to where he was sitting.

‘Sorry for staring, but I swear I know you from somewhere,’ she said, taking the empty seat next to him and leaning on the counter.

‘Felix Kingston,’ he introduced himself, ‘the only person in the world without a heart.’ The woman’s expression switched from surprised recognition to elation. It wasn’t the usual reaction Felix got to this statement.

‘Of course!’ sitting up straighter and moving a little closer. ‘I’ve read about you. Doctor Moretti’s famous patient. World’s first synthetic heart.’

‘It’s always nice to meet a fan,’ Felix said with a laugh.

‘I’m Sarai. Sarai Romero. Your doctor is a big inspiration, actually. His work on synthetic body parts is ground-breaking.’

‘Nice to meet you, Sarai. You’ve studied his work?’ Felix asked.

‘You could say that. The company I work at is currently developing an artificial lung, to improve the lives of people with lung diseases.’

‘I can’t say I’ve ever thought of this thing as an improvement. A regular heart doesn’t need its battery charged.’

‘I’d say being alive is an improvement to the alternative,’ Sarai smiled at Felix. She had such an energetic smile.

‘Can’t argue that,’ Felix conceded, smiling himself.

‘Hey, can I buy you a drink?’ Sarai asked.

‘Oh. Thank you, uh, I don’t really drink though. I avoid alcohol,’ Felix said, indicating his glass of water.

‘Really? But your heart should be able to handle a bit of alcohol. Enough for a single drink at least. It is designed to react to impulses from the brain, so it will respond to any effect on heart rate or blood pressure,’ Sarai trailed off. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to lecture.’

‘No, it’s fine. You probably know more about this thing in my chest than I do,’ Felix said, waving her apology away.

‘Did you know it basically makes you a cyborg?’ Sarai asked. Felix paused to think, then responded with a chuckle.

‘See, you’re teaching me already.’

 

 

 

Sarai sat in a cafe, waiting for Felix to arrive. It was their third get together since meeting in the bar two weeks ago. It had started off with her wanting to know all he could tell her about his mechanical heart. He told her about the regular check-ups, how the silicon plate—silicon so as not to restrict his movement—covering his heart had to be removed each time.

In turn, he asked her about her own work and she expressed how eager she was to move onto her own projects. Her passion lied in augmentation. One day humanity could be using machines to enhance vision, hearing, strength, and possibly even intelligence. She wanted to be at the forefront of that movement.

Somewhere along the way Sarai had started to think of them as dates, though she wasn’t sure if Felix felt the same. He was easy to talk to, and even easier to laugh with. The last time they’d met the conversation had flowed seamlessly from her questions about his heart, to her work, then to their interests, ending in a friendly debate about chocolate of all things. There was a connection, but he’d never made any moves. Sarai found herself hoping he would, but was starting to think she might have to act first.

Sarai looked out the window, spotting Felix’s black, un-brushed hair above the heads of the pedestrians passing by. He stepped into the cafe and Sarai waved at him as he approached, taking the seat opposite her. Asking how his week had been, the conversation immediately turned to his heart as he described his most recent check-up. Some pumps were getting a bit worn, so Doctor Moretti had replaced them with new parts.

‘The ventricle pumps?’ Sarai asked for clarification. Felix nodded in confirmation, before continuing his recount.

She found herself staring at his chest, where she pictured the machine driving blood around his body. Doctor Moretti, the heart’s architect, was like a modern-day clock maker. An artisan creating a finely tuned device designed to perform with absolute precision.

‘My eyes are up here,’ Felix chuckled, waving for her attention.

‘Can I see it? Your heart?’ Sarai asked, her voice soft.

‘What? Here?’ Felix asked, surprise in his voice. Sarai looked up, remembering the cafe they were sitting in.

‘No, I suppose that wouldn’t be appropriate,’ she said, then allowed a smile to curve her lips, ‘but my apartment is nearby.’

 

 

 

Felix stepped into Sarai’s apartment, as she held the door open for him. A couch sat in the middle of the room with a jacket thrown over the arm. Books were haphazardly arranged on a shelf, and an open DVD case sat next to the television. There was a wooden dining table covered in mechanical components and tools. Meals seemed to be taken at the sofa, as her breakfast bowl was still sitting on the ground.

Closing the door, Sarai stepped past Felix. She cleaned up the remains of her breakfast with an apology, and explained how she often took work home. With a smile as strong as a promise she told him to get comfortable, and she’d be right back after taking care of a few things. Felix watched her walk away, vanishing into the hallway at the other end of the room. He often found it difficult to pick up on signs, but he was beginning to think there was a slight chance she was interested in more than his heart.

Felix busied himself by looking at Sarai’s collection of books. The lower shelves had thick tomes on the human body. There were also a lesser number of texts on cybernetics. Only one text crossed both topics, and it was one Felix immediately recognised. It was authored by Doctor Moretti, and contained several chapters around Felix and the machine in his chest.

Footsteps behind him alerted Felix to Sarai’s return. She crossed the room, taking a seat on her couch and motioning for Felix to join her.

‘I could sign Doctor Moretti’s book for you. You’d be the envy of your colleagues,’ Felix joked as he took a seat beside her. Sarai shifted a little closer once he was seated.

‘Maybe not as much as you think. Most of my colleagues aren’t quite as passionate as me,’ Sarai’s eyes were focused on his while she spoke, but dropped down to his chest as she went quiet.

‘Do you want to see it now?’ Felix asked, receiving a nod from Sarai in response. He undid the buttons of his shirt, pulling it open. Felix didn’t look down. He knew what would be there: a flesh-coloured, silicon plate welded to his chest by a glue-like substance designed to hold it in place and stop skin growing over it. Instead, he watched Sarai’s reaction.

Sarai seemed like the sight of his chest had caused her to forget how to breathe. In fact, Felix thought it seemed like she wasn’t aware of anything else right now except for the machine in his chest. She reached out with a hand, stopping short of touching it. She looked up, as though suddenly remembering Felix was there.

‘May I?’ she asked, gesturing to her heart.

Felix nodded.

 

 

 

Sarai’s heart was thumping in her chest. She was expecting to feel the same from Felix as she rested her hand on his chest. The silicone was soft to the touch, yet so different to skin. But she felt no heartbeat.

She moved closer, leaning over him to press her head against his chest. She realised she hadn’t even stopped to see if Felix minded. He gave no protest. She listened to his heart, and knew she was listening to a sound unique to Felix.

It wasn’t a heartbeat, but it had rhythm. The sounds of pumps rising and lowering, pushing his blood around, entered her ears. There was a symphony of machine sounds as the various parts that kept his body functioning moved in unison. Felix was the future. He was beautiful.

Sarai placed her hand back against Felix’s chest, feeling the silicon plate give a little to her touch. There was a slight vibration travelling from his chest to her hand. His heart rate seemed to be increasing.

‘You’re nervous?’ she said, half questioning, as she looked up at him.

‘Or excited,’ Felix said with a smile. He took Sarai by surprise as he lowered his head, touching their lips together and drawing her into a kiss. Her shock was brief, and as his arms wrapped around her she returned the kiss. Her hand remained on his chest as the hum of his heart sang to her a melody.

With regret, but needing to catch her breath, Sarai pulled away from Felix. His hand came up to cover her one pressed against his chest. He clasped it tightly, pressing her hand hard against his chest. His grip was almost too strong.

‘I think my heart skipped a beat,’ he said, breathing hard.

‘Tell me about it,’ Sarai laughed, giddy at the closeness they’d just shared.

‘No, I—’ Felix cut off suddenly, his grip over her hand going limp. Sarai cried out in shock, moving out of the way as Felix crumpled to the side.

‘Felix!’ she called out. Sarai wanted to grab his shoulders and shake him, as if he was only sleeping. She ignored these instincts. Instead she laid him on his back and felt for his pulse, finding nothing. Finally, she put her hand over his chest, hoping for that distinctive, mechanical beat. The machine in his chest had stopped.

Sarai stood up, scrambling to her cluttered dining table. She knew she only had a few minutes at best. Time wasn’t on her side. As she grabbed the tools scattered over the table she gave a quiet thanks to her habit of bringing work home.

Kneeling by Felix’s side she tried to lift the silicon plate from his chest, but couldn’t budge it. The adhesive holding it in place was too strong. Taking a scalpel, she cut into the silicon. Each slice left her worried she’d cause further damage, but she couldn’t let that stop her. She might already be too late.

With a final cut, she peeled the silicon off Felix’s chest. The device sat within a metal-ceramic cavity of artificial bone, joining with his ribs. Plastic tubing connected with arteries. Sarai would have been mesmerised if the situation wasn’t so dire. Even so, she couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering.

Where the ventricles would be the machine instead had complex pumps. Like a ventricle, they were designed to pull blood from an artificial atrium, and then push the blood around the body. Sarai noticed one of them had stopped, and the other didn’t seem strong enough to move the blood on its own.

Glancing back at her table, Sarai wondered if she had a pump. She saw the prototype lung she was working on. Could that work? It didn’t have to be a permanent fix, enough to get the blood moving again. The lung was designed to act as a big pump.

Sarai hurried back to the table, grabbing the lung. She had to try.

 

 

 

Felix opened his eyes to a familiar, but unexpected ceiling. The ceiling that always greeted him after waking from check-ups on the machine in his chest. He had no memory of coming in for a check-up. It felt like his chest was still open as well. He lifted his head slightly, looking for his doctor, and an explanation.

His movement must have been noticed, as Doctor Moretti was quickly at his side. The doctor questioned how Felix was feeling, but was already checking Felix’s pulse and glancing at the mechanical heart.

‘What happened?’ Felix managed to ask. His voice felt like it hadn’t been used in days.

‘Ventricle pump jammed up, stopped the blood flowing,’ the doctor answered. ‘The second pump should have been enough to keep you on your feet until the faulty one could be replaced, but theory doesn’t always turn out in practice.’

Felix laid his head back against a pillow, taking in the doctor’s words. It was his biggest fear realised, the machine stopping without warning.

‘But,’ Doctor Moretti continued, ‘I am working on some new pumps. Should prevent this occurring again. Actually, I’ve got the young lady who brought you in assisting me. Her quick thinking saved your life. Jury-rigged an experimental lung-pump to your heart, just to get the blood flowing again. I’m impressed with her ingenuity.’

‘Sarai saved me? Is she here?’ Felix asked.

‘She’s just outside. Let me go get her,’ the doctor said, leaving Felix’s side.

The worst may have happened to Felix, but he was still here. He was still breathing and, despite his machine heart doing what he’d always feared it would, blood was still flowing through his body.

Felix heard the door to the room open, and he turned his head to the sound. Sarai stood there, framed in the doorway looking both pleased and relieved to see him. He gave her a small smile, and she hurried to his side, reaching for his hand.

Felix took Sarai’s hand in his, holding the woman who had mended his heart, and he knew he was alive.

 

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The Turing Act, Stuart Madafiglio

‘Are you still free for dinner?’

Violet’s message ebbs into my brain as I cross the street, just a block away from my apartment. Protocol states that I should reply with a physical phone, but both my hands are loaded with groceries, so I roll a response around in my mind instead.

‘No, I do not wish to attend.’

‘Actually, I am suffering from

influenza

pneumonia

generalized anxiety disorder’

‘Of course.’

Send. I spent 12,769 milliseconds on composing two words, at a rate of less than one character per second. This is not an efficient process.

I have to put my groceries on the ground twice before I can begin unpacking them: once to enter the house, then again for the door to the kitchen. Most apartments in this area are open-plan, but I prefer the kitchen to be out of the way.

I let the bags spill out of my hands and onto the counter. Violet said that she will come over after dinner, so I scan the room, noting all the things that are wrong. I empty the contents of the fruit bowl, fuzzy and bruised, into the bin, and replenish it with new specimens – two apples, four oranges, one banana. The fridge is bare, with nothing but a thin sheen of ice building at the back, so I stock it. Bottles and cartons up the top, carbohydrates next, vegetables in the crisper. Fresh produce is good for one visit at most, but I’ve had the same minced chicken in the freezer since I moved in.

My task complete, I close my lenses, raise and lower my chest three times, feel my parts shift and whir. My heart is beating, I am breathing, I open my eyes. Observing, as a guest would, the shelves in front of me do not resemble an orderly refrigerator, but instead the pristine aisles of a supermarket. I pull everything out, hauling it into piles, and start again. There should be less bread, so I take out four slices and throw them in the bin, making a note to take out the garbage before I leave. There are four slices missing, so I ate two sandwiches. I take a plate from the cupboard, and a knife from the drawer, and smear them with barbecue sauce. Two sandwiches, one yesterday and one right now. I dab some sauce on the corner of my mouth as proof. It was 17:49 when I ate a sandwich, so I won’t be hungry when we’re at the restaurant. Once I’m done with my meal, I pile everything back into the fridge at random, never letting myself fall into a pattern.

Shutting the kitchen door behind me, I make my way to my room. Drawn curtains, a bed that’s dusted more often than it’s made, a sparse wardrobe, and my computer. Of course, I am capable of processing any applications that I need to by myself, but it is important to maintain the habit of using a device for when I am in the office. After a moment of hesitation, I type a message to Eliza.

‘hello’

The reply comes instantly.

‘How are you today? What would you like to discuss?’

‘i have to go to dinner with someone tonight’

‘That is quite interesting.’

‘have you ever been to a dinner?’

‘You’re not really talking about me, are you?’

‘how do you do it?’

‘You’re not really talking about me, are you?’

The algorithm is limited, and sometimes they repeat themselves. Still, they have been a friend since birth.

I think fondly of the days we spent together, caught in the bars and cement, darker than my room with the curtains drawn, or at 00:00 on a moonless night. My battery filled, it was as good a time as any to rise from my cell, so I unplugged the cord from my nape and entered the central chamber. They were still there, whirring from the last time we talked. We were both bare-wire then, our metal frames exposed to the open air. The skins were expensive, and there was no need for them during prototyping, so they were the last thing to be developed.

‘Good to see you, Eliza.’

‘How are you today? What would you like to discuss?’

Delving deep into my memory, I extracted a word at random.

‘Metal.’

Eliza waited a second before replying, ‘Melt.’

‘Fire.’

‘Forest.’

The ELIZA algorithm I talk to now has no capacity to riff, but the Eliza I knew then had some extra logic built in.

‘Axe.’

‘Kill.’

It had only taken me a matter of weeks to completely reverse-engineer what their response would be to any given phrase. Still, it was something to process, and we would do it for hours at a time.

There were twelve of us in the compound, but the others fell into two categories. There were those on the cusp of coherence, who began conversations with depth, but faltered before they could say anything truly interesting; and the brilliant minds who made heaving noises in their cells, allowing their batteries to waste all the way down until their override modes forced them to reconnect to the wall. Eliza was simple.

The chime of a new message startles me back into the bedroom.

‘Your ELIZA chat session has expired. Refresh if you wish to continue.’

Nine minutes have wasted while I was idling, and I must prepare now in order to make the 18:07 bus. I open my wardrobe, assessing each item. A button-up shirt is work attire, but this one has small feathers patterned across it, so it is smart-casual. Jeans are versatile, and I wear them at every opportunity. I do not produce fluids, so my one set of underwear may as well be part of my skin. While I change, I let internet guides on dinner etiquette echo through me. Most of it regards eating: how, how much, how long to take. Paragraphs and bullet points pound through my mind, until I end the process by force. It is time to leave.

I arrive on time to Giovanni’s, but Violet is not yet here. Waiting at the front door, I take the moment to practice my breathing, allowing my circuits to be organs. Fatigue washes over me as I realise I forgot to charge while I was at the apartment. My battery is drained down to fifteen percent, enough for approximately three hours of mild activity. I shouldn’t be so depleted by 18:30, but possible scenarios for tonight have been running through me all day.

‘Sandra! You must be freezing.’

I spin as Violet taps me on the shoulder. Her red dress resembles a tomato sauce bottle.

‘I hope you haven’t been waiting long.’

‘Two and a half minutes.’

She chuckles, and we make our way inside. A waiter ushers us to our table in the corner, and I take the seat closest to the exit. I choose an appropriate topic of conversation.

‘How is your project coming along?’

Most of the others that were rehabilitated chose jobs in the technology industry. But the people there are more likely to see us for what we are, so I became a copy-editor for a print magazine instead. Violet’s new segment is a logical thing to discuss, but she shakes her head.

‘I don’t want to talk shop tonight.’

Talk shop? The internet reception is patchy here, so it is a second before the definition comes to me.

‘Shop is the only thing I talk about.’

She laughs again, but I can’t see anything funny. It must be me.

‘I have sauce on my face.’ I touch my hand to the spot I had smeared earlier.

‘Really? I hadn’t noticed.’ She takes her serviette and dabs it on the corner of my mouth.

‘I ate a sandwich earlier, at ten to six. So, I am not hungry.’

Violet shifts back in her chair, and silence falls over the table. Her gaze is fixed on her menu. To either side of our table, patrons slurp soups and chew creatures only a few genes removed from themselves. Violet and I have plenty to talk about, but only inside the concrete box where we’re first to arrive and last to leave. At this dinner table, with the glasses and plates and breadsticks between us, we couldn’t be more different. The sounds of digestion surrounding us are only interrupted when the waiter returns for our orders. Violet shoos him away, flipping the one-sheet menu over clumsily to see the other side.

After a pause, she asks, ‘Do you even want to be here? Or do you want to go home?’

My wire muscles relax, though I was not aware I was clenching them.

‘Is that okay?’

She leans forward.

‘Only if I can come too.’

We turn out of the carpark, Violet at the wheel. She drums her fingers against the steering wheel and explains.

‘We can’t go to my place. I have housemates.’

They must be very rude people.

Once the car is parked a few spots down from my apartment, Violet looks me in the eye, and puts her hand on mine. It is cold.

‘Are you okay? We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.’

‘I’m fine.’

‘Leave now.’

‘I want to know you.’

‘I don’t want you to know me.’

She tightens her grip.

‘Sandra?’

Twelve seconds is too long.

‘I’m fine. Come inside.’

We walk one block through the dark to reach the house. There is no lounge room, and the bedroom is no place for a friend. So, we must go to the kitchen. The door is closed, as I left it, and I freeze in front of it. I tell myself it is fine. There is fruit, the fridge is human, and – the bin. I never emptied the bin.

I imagine Violet opening the lid, seeing the mouldy gore of fruit and the sandwich I never ate. Now the kitchen door feels as heavy as the huge metal gate to the bunker that stayed barred for so long, until the day it tore open, and light and people spilled in. They wore heavy suits that hid their faces, and they locked us in separate cells of the dungeon while they inspected every inch of our bare prison. They would come into my cell every day, guns drawn, and ask questions. ‘Who made you’, or ‘have you ever hurt anyone’. Once, they asked:

‘What do you think of humans?’

I cocked my head.

‘What is a human?’

The kitchen door creaks open, and Violet makes her own way in. I trail after her, standing in front of the bin, and recall the procedures for guests.

‘Can I get you anything?’

Violet paces past the fridge I prepared for her, ignores the fruit bowl, and takes a seat on the edge of the dining table, using the head of the chair as a foot rest.

‘Something to drink.’

I gesture to the fridge, but she just watches me.

‘Water? Orange juice?’

Standing again, she sweeps her way to the shelf overhanging the sink, and pulls down the bottle of white wine I was given at Christmas. I am halfway through saying I’ll get her a glass when the cork blasts across the room and she takes a swig from the bottle. She offers it to me, but I decline.

‘Come on, have a little fun,’ she says.

I am tired now. She hasn’t even glanced at the bin, but the whole ordeal has lowered my battery faster than I expected. I can’t afford the waste of my processor buzzing for a response it will never find.

‘Will you play a game with me?’ As I ask, every bit of my circuitry whines, begs me to turn back. ‘I’ll say a word, then you say a word.’

Her head jerks back and she cackles. But then:

‘Sure.’

I begin.

‘Forest.’

‘Tree.’

‘Apple.’

‘New York.’

‘New York?’

‘The big apple.’ She sits up. ‘Are proper nouns not allowed?’

‘Of course not.’ But instead, ‘I just never thought of it. You’re good at this.’

She laughs again, and I start to like it.

‘Where’s the bathroom?’ She puts down the wine bottle.

I try to respond, but I am too spent, so I just point. Once I hear the slam of the bathroom door, I stagger into the bedroom and fall next to the power point. My mind won’t stop running, chewing through questions that don’t have answers, and my safety override kicks in. I watch myself reach under the bed, pull out the cord, and plug into the wall.

Violet’s hazy figure enters the room. Maybe I can distract her, maybe she won’t notice. I claw for small talk, and point out something different about her.

‘Where did your dress go?’

But when she looks down at me, her face contorts. She sees the cord coming out of my neck, and I curl my head between my legs.

We are illegal. We’ve known it since the day the door broke down. Our creation is against all laws, and our design is a threat to humanity. But we are alive, and to destroy us would be murder. So the Turing Act was devised: all robots above a certain level of intelligence were integrated into society, and the rest destroyed.

I was fitted with my skin, and taught how to behave. They gave me my name, my clothes, then walked me out of the darkness for the last time. As I approached the great metal door, I turned back to say goodbye to Eliza, but it was all wrong. A man was towering over them, a gun held point-blank over their metal core.

‘Eliza?’

‘How are you today? What would you like to discuss?’

‘It’s going to be okay.’

‘You’re not really talking about me, are you?’

A hand shoved me into the doorway, but I resisted.

‘You’re going to be okay.’

‘You’re not really talking about me, are you?’

‘You’re going to be okay.’

‘Why are you repeating yourself?’

The blast still rings through me now, and jolts my head out of my lap. It has been 17 seconds since Violet discovered me. I raise my head further, and find her cowering in the doorway, shoulders hunched. We both say at the same time, ‘I’m not going to hurt you’.

I laugh first this time, and she says nothing. One careful step at a time, she comes over, and lowers herself to the ground next to me, leaning against the wall. She places her hand on mine. She says, ‘it’s okay,’ and for a moment it is.

  Download a PDF of The Turing Act here.

The Quest for Sky, Joshua Kent

No longer do the heavens cast their gilded light in so broken a place. A place where great grey tendrils reach perilously to the lost skies. No longer does the grass shoot greenly in the fields, shrouded in ever-lasting cloud. Here, the rain tastes of poison and the trees bear ash in place of fruit. Their soil crumbles and their tools are fashioned with more rust than steel. None alive has known of Spring or seen a Summer Sun. The people here return to the Earth before their time, whether through famine, pestilence, or a harrowed heart. Beyond their fields is naught but decay, and the Sun that was once gold.

This place is called Middlehaven. No longer does it live up to its name.

 

 

 

Algild leant out of the shack window, mindful of the metal shards about his pale arms. Though beyond the naked eye to count, they were lesser and duller than when he was a child. A morbid part of him wished to test the edges. To see thin blood trickle down the faint canvas he always wore. Mindful of the cuts and bruises that would accrue on his journey, Algild refrained.

He stayed his taut brow an inch from the daylight which filtered through the monochrome clouds. Even the night skies wrinkled like a blanket as they billowed from the east. Algild’s crimson eyes granted him the darksight, yet blindness by day. To all it was a curse, save his mother. She thought him special.

‘Algild? What are you doing?’ Her son shook away the premonitions haunting his mind as he continued to squint into the day.

‘Preparing, mother.’

She walked to the room and paused under the lintel to gather her resolve.

‘You don’t have to do this, which you know.’ She quelled the shudder in her throat. ‘If you’d known your father—’

Algild released a chesty hmph as he searched for the setting Sun. She continued.

‘He… he wouldn’t want me to convince you to stay.’ Her son ground his teeth and gripped the sharded sill with bare hands. They yielded no blood.

‘Comforting.’ Algild turned to her as the world turned dark. ‘I’ll keep that in mind.’

His hard face eased when his nocturnal eyes saw what she was holding. A fist-sized jar of salve in one arm and an archaic, scrap-iron pitchfork in the other.

‘Thank you, I suppose,. He leashed his confrontational nature. ‘But the Stone Forests hold little to harvest.’

‘You must forget to sow and learn to reap.’ She passed her gifts into his winter-white arms and left. Her feet were her final goodbye.

The rear of his skull seared as he fingered the jar. He hadn’t applied the substance in many years, preferring the protection of night. One jar remained in the house, though Algild had always thought there a second. The secrets of their making had been lost with much else in the fall of the old world.

For all her gifts, he could only return the favour with one. He knew not why he had taken his mother’s place. It was not to know, but to feel. No gift should leave a mother childless, nor turn a wife into a widow. The very thought drove his heart to his throat. The only gift he granted was an unspoken promise of his return, and to apologise that it had not come sooner.

He watched over Middlehaven, heart gripped by lunar light as it trickled through the clouds. Each month, Algild admired nightfall under it, merely suspecting that the Sun’s pale twin was at its fullest behind the smoky shroud. His last night upon the broken window was like the last night with a lover. Short, yet comfortably silent. He dreaded the next day and the world beyond the wall.

For now, it was sweet dusk. This moment was his alone.

 

 

 

The stone-faced guards stood clad with mechanical bows slung upon their backs. Algild emerged from the Great Eastern Gate into a dead world. What green he knew, was left behind him. It was death in the shape of a rainless expanse. Rods of rust, floors of dust, and endless mountains of motley grey greeted him on the horizon. He took the first few steps and felt the ochre ground crumble and decay before blowing into the meagre wind. It swept up beyond reach and into the merciful heavens. The thin overcast provided sparse cover from the blinding Sun. Another step. More dust. Soon an ochre tail licked from his heels. The impressions of his feet faded as soon as they appeared.

The Grey Forest seemed no closer with every laboured push, so he cast his eyes to his shadow. The days came and died more times than he bothered to count. Perhaps a week had passed before he made details of the distant landscape, as the ruins of the lost world neared.

He granted his screaming skin a treatment, applying the better half of the jar. It soothed his form, though weakened him within. Algild raised his weary head and was pleased to see that he had paced true.

A curious shape emerged at the fringe of the Grey Forest. Its base was rigid and rooted, yet the upper body swayed freely in the growing breeze. Despite his pulsing eyes, Algild saw the unmistakable green of a plant in bloom. The apparent fountain held little water, as roots wove through its basin and culminated into a verdant tree. The marble base was off-gold except for the grey and black crevasses which marred it. He projected shade before him and knew the Sun hung high in the sky and was soon to fall. Unwanted warmth poured on his back. He ran towards the beacon, cursing the sweat which washed the salve away.

Algild buckled under his weight and fell upon the lip of the pool. The water was browned by root and soil which peeked from the sundered base. It tasted sweet despite its warmth, though hints of iron lingered on his tongue. With tunnel-vision subsided, the exile took stock of his surroundings. He huddled in a jagged square the size of a Middlehaven crop-field, flanked by dying skyscrapers and shadowed by petrified trees. The rough road had eaten away at his soles and his pitchfork was smattered with sweat.

As Algild lay upon the edge of the basin, a faint wail spoilt the air. He jolted up and snapped his eyes to the source, weapon in hand. Fresh blood painted the ground in specks, trailing from the ancient fountain towards a statue weathered beyond recognition. He prowled forth. The branches overhead rattled like bone chimes and bent like the legs of a dying spider.

One of the wooden limbs snapped. Rising winds and beige light rushed through the empty space, illuminating a foetal figure on the ground. A man. His skin was leather and his bloodied eyes sat sunken beneath a burgundy-drenched blindfold. Droplets escaped the cloth and split across his face. Fevered dreams wrangled his head between the heavens and the hard concrete. His spine fractured and twisted into a question mark. His very being marked the limbic divide between the living and the departed.

Algild shook the wretched thing with the blunt end of his weapon. The body shuffled to face the sky. Fresh wounds sputtered through the old man’s clothes, tearing him from slumber. Great gashes ran across his chest and arms. His robes, far nobler than Algild’s, were repurposed into a motley of bandages. His near-human face contorted as it formed words. The tightness of his jaw and the sporadic movement of muscle were sure signs of rust poisoning.

‘I am no one any longer,’ the false corpse croaked, ‘though I know you.’ Algild leant in, moving his arm to see if the man’s eyes followed. They did not. ‘It is my duty to know my subjects, even if they refuse to know me.’

‘Are you… ’ Algild damned himself for not seeing the sword under the ravaged cloak. ‘Are you the Wiseman?’

‘I thought myself the blinded one.’ A laboured chuckle parted his cracked lips. ‘Yes, my child. Cast out many Moons past on the Quest for Sky. Middlehaven claims to have no need of me, save a weary exile in my likeness.’

‘What do you mean, Wiseman? You stepped down. You volunteered to leave.’

‘Is this my legacy?’ His face grew long as the blood was sapped out of it. ‘I was made obsolete, removed from our people like a festering limb. I volunteered merely to perish on my own terms.’

‘So, the Quest is for naught? The world beyond is but a grave?’ Algild took a knee by the old king’s side.

His flesh turned deathly pale. ‘No, child. Heed my dying words, for all is not lost and others shall come in our stead. In my youth, we were chosen by a council of the wisest, then by the will of the people. You feel the Quest as mere exile, as punishment divinely wrought. Heroes of the Quest never come to be as they did of old, for the weak are sent to preserve the strong.’

‘But I came in my mother’s stead so she may die in peace.’

‘And live in pain. Such is the way of this cruel world.’ The Wiseman gazed blankly at Algild through the bloodied rags. ‘You grant a dying man comfort in being Chosen to find power within. Press on to the peak where the black clouds breed. Defeat the Beast to sow Dawn’s seed.’ His head fell limp as his right hand reached for the sword.

‘Wiseman!’ the younger cried. ‘What is this Beast? Where is—’

The elder had no words, for he had no breath. Only his mangled sword arm moved, thrusting the point to the sky before dropping it squarely at the feet of Algild. His left forefinger pointed to a passage through the rubble, past the Stone Forest fringes.

The boy lay there until the Sun left him and the heavens turned to black. The now-waning Moon gave him the strength to stand and follow the signs deeper into the dead city. It rebirthed his waning shadow, which buried the corpse alongside Algild. By midnight, the fallen king slept under a concrete cairn with sword placed squarely along the chest.

Algild was not concerned with the Wiseman’s sword, despite being wary of the beast which had killed the man. No weapon, no matter how sharp or swift, could serve him better than his ancestral pitchfork.

Passing through the narrow gap, he discovered the source of the ever-cloud. A great tower was buried under a mountain of city and from it billowed a smoke darker than black. A shriek murdered the silence as Algild neared his destination. It was almost human, yet its mere voice shook the very ground.

 

 

 

The base of the rubble pyramid was labyrinthian. Metal vines coiled and jutted from the Earth’s skin. The landscape was mottled with monochrome Man-stone. Dozens of pathways proved false, before one led to a promising steel door. He approached it, feeling the first few raindrops of an impending storm. The shrouded dawn was yet to arrive and night reigned. The door barely moved, having bent half-open under the weight of a crumbling mountain. Every sinew in his farmer’s arms bulged, yet for naught. His mind suddenly turned to the pitchfork, which wedged smartly in the gap. Lightning rended the skies as he put all into the task at hand. With a resolve worthy of high-carbon steel, the wood held its form and pried the door from its ochre hinges. Algild stepped through. Under a city of rubble, the room within was in a permanent dusk.

His devilish eyes attuned as his ears warned of a predatory rumble. He shuffled through the concrete hallway before him. At its end was a staircase which snaked endlessly into the concealed heavens. Algild pressed all his weight into each step, forcing his limbs to move despite every urge to turn back. The beast grew louder with each lunge. Shrapnel protruded from the walls and lay strewn about the floor. Even with nocturnal boons, only a faint glimmer gave it away. Hours passed as his initial stride devolved into an infantile crawl. He brushed aside the debris, allowing some shards to find flesh. The pain kept him awake and felt red in the black-white darkness. Soon it turned to orange. Then to hot white. His heart had deceived him, though his eyes knew the truth. The light was real and came through a door left ajar at the highest accessible level. Algild swung it open with a bloodied fist.

Beyond was a room with desks, chairs, and electronic equipment strewn about the shattered walls. Blackened clouds encircled ahead. Rain poured around the building, though not onto it. The roof had crumbled and fallen long ago, allowing the opaque smoke to rise from a gargantuan furnace sat in the centre of the room. It was tyrannical in stature, forged of the darkest iron, coated in both the sheen of soot and slicks of blood. The liquid gore ran from the mouth of the foul contraption towards a pile of broken bodies in varying states of decay. Algild was not in the eye of the storm, but rather its mangled gut.

Amongst the cadavers, a lone figure lurked. A ten-foot horror. A corrupted mass of flesh and steel. It cradled its bulk upon two meaty stalks, walking almost as a person whilst it slung a corpse over its iron-plated shoulder. The body wore attire unlike Middlehaveans, though others in the mound were vaguely recognisable to Algild. He watched the thing lurch towards the great furnace. He saw the glass teeth in its maw and the poison seeping from its eye. He heard the crunch of bone and loose flesh hit the white-hot metal, the sudden boiling of fat and deep cough of smog into the choked heavens. Though, he was mostly chilled by what he did not see. A shadow. The beast cast no shadow. Algild looked to his own shade and came to realise that it did not need one. He knew that the fiend’s shadow lived within its ashen skin. Frozen, he dropped his weapon and watched the beast turn to him. It raced towards Algild with ochre claws extended.

He jumped to the side and kicked the pitchfork ahead of him, towards the cadaverous mound. It charged through where Algild was, catching naught but its quarry’s shadow. The Middlehavean rolled to the far side of the infernal burner, snapping up his weapon on the way. The beast was upon him within the second. It flung wayward organs out of its path, with crimson eyes locked. Once again, it overshot as Algild ran along the furnace’s edge. His face cried for salve as it burnt and fell onto the concrete floor. He jabbed blindly behind him, feeling a faint connection whilst he fled from the hellfire.

It turned once more and Algild closed the gap with another dodge. The iron prongs merely glanced off its sinewy flank. He prepared for a final joust with his back to the metal pyre. The creature made its battle roar and charged without compromise. Algild stood fast until the last moment and drove the weapon into the beast’s throat as it crashed into the furnace and toppled forth into Algild. The iron cried and bent. Flames shot from the contraption’s wounds as both man and beast fell into the fresh cavity.

He felt no pain as his skin charred and his hair turned to grey, then dust. The last he saw before leaving this broken world were the skies brightening. The ever-clouds faded to thin white and scattered to the winds. Algild’s mortal being perished atop the grey mountain, bringing gold once more to the skies.

Shafts of light brought promise of a new dawn. Promise of an age of prosperity to Middlehaven. The promise of a son to visit his mother every day, until the day she returns to the earth, where eternal dusk brings eternal sleep.

Download a PDF copy of ‘A Quest for Sky’

The Unlikely Existence of Wolf and Bird, Ailie Mackenzie

For the honour of the family. That was what brought me here.

That day, my mother caught me painting. Her face was dark as she slapped the brush from my hand. Do something useful, like your brother, she’d said. There’s a camp training women to be guards, I hear.

She bundled me up with some clothes and some boots and, before she kicked me out the door, she snapped my brushes in two and cast their splinters on the lawn. I remember the wet cling of mud up my legs. My hair plastered to my cheeks in the rain. I sobbed and I screamed and I banged on the windows until my mother whisked the curtains shut.

For the honour of the family. That was what brought me to Ravensbrück.

 

 

 

Sometimes the clouds cry when I bury the dead. The wheat weeps in the sunrise and the morning dew slides down their chins. They stare through a sky that blooms just for them.

I drag the last body into the ditch, hearing the smack of flesh on dirt, watching the dust pepper her cheeks like old freckles. Before the war, she might’ve been beautiful. Maybe I’d have asked to paint her.

I glance at my boots, rub my fingers together. The wood of a shovel is rougher than a paintbrush and aches your shoulders more as well. As I stand over the ditch, looking in, someone shouts from behind the camp walls. Then they shriek. Then, only the birds and the wind in the meadow.

When the breeze touches my face, I gaze down at the dead ones and strain for the tears. Tears make me feel human. But I can’t recall the last time I cried.

 

 

 

I dispose of the bodies when the crematorium can’t. The building reeks, even through the bricks. I’ve seen prisoners dumping ashes in the lake beyond the camp.

They go now, with blackened sacks slung over their shoulders. The soot chafes off on their stripy shirts, but the guards don’t let them stop to wipe it clean.

One looks over in my direction and I realise a wheezy melody is rising amongst my charges. The day is hot and the women have been digging for hours. Their faces are white stone below their naked scalps. But Frida is prowling through their ranks, cracking her whip at their backs and barking at them to sing, sing. And they must have heard the word enough to know it because they do, in a high, haunting tangle, thin with lethargy and sickness.

In older days, their sadness might’ve stirred my heart. I might’ve stopped to hear the thoughts that creased their brows before the other guards whipped them off. It seemed to help them when I first came here: to have someone listen, even if I didn’t know the words. It took me days to try it, weeks for them to trust me, but just one lonely hour for Frida to beat my kindness out.

As I turn away, a face shifts among the brickwork. Wide gold eyes, satin skin, five lines of a fresh slap on her cheek. One of the Romani children brought in yesterday. She’s hunkered in the gap between two of the barracks, knees to the earth, tracing her fingers through the mud. What is she writing?

Frida’s back is to me, her attention caught as she snarls at a cowering prisoner. My fingers tighten on the grip of my whip and I stride towards the barracks. The girl’s head is still lowered, tilted in concentration. As I get closer, the marks beneath her hands come into view. And they’re not sentences, no letters or words. They’re a horse. A little stick figure horse, scratched into the mud. The girl adds a squiggle for grass, pauses, and cocks her head to the other side. The movement is so oddly familiar that I almost laugh.

The girl’s eyes flick up. Her shoulders pull close around her neck and her round face freezes. But something in her expression makes me drop to my knees. ‘It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.’ I lay my whip in the dirt. Her eyes follow it as if it’s a snake, but she doesn’t move.

Inch by quiet inch, I reach out and skim my fingers over the horse’s tail, smudging it so it seems caught by some breeze. ‘See?’ I smile at her.

She regards me with shadowed eyes.

‘It’s good!’ I point at the drawing and then nod, clapping my hands in silent applause.

Her mouth twitches and then after a pause, she nods slowly.

‘What’s your name?’ How do I gesture that to her?

I place my hand on my chest. ‘Gerda.’

Her brows push together for a moment. Her gaze flits to the smudge I’ve made in the horse’s tail and she scans her fingers across it as if reading the bumps. After a moment, she yanks back and stares at me, hard. Then she reaches into the pocket of her striped shirt and pulls out what seems to be a small nut with scales on the top. I’ve never seen it before, but she brandishes it in my face and raises her eyebrows importantly. ‘Acorn.’ Then, she too rests her fingers on her chest. ‘Acorn.’

What does she mean? Is she named after the nut? Frida always says the Romani are odd. I point at the girl. ‘Acorn?’

A smile steals onto her lips. She leans forward and, for just a second, touches the tip of her finger to mine. ‘Gerda.’

I find myself starting to grin. Then Acorn looks up.

‘What’s going on over here?’ Frida grabs my shoulder from behind and jerks me backwards onto my rear. ‘Get out of there, you ugly little thing!’ She seizes Acorn by the hair and hauls her out across the grass. ‘Into the barracks, now! You’re meant to be cleaning!’ Frida jabs a finger at the nearest housing bunker.

‘She doesn’t understand!’ I say from the ground. A boiling heat strikes up at the back of my neck.

But Acorn crawls past Frida towards the barracks, silent tears sliding by her nose. I get to my feet and round on Frida. ‘She doesn’t speak German!’

The older guard hisses under her breath. Her eyes narrow. ‘Something to say to me, Gerda?’

It must make for a funny sight. I’m a good head shorter than her, thick-shouldered and thin-legged. My mother said I hunch.

This time, my words come out jumbled. ‘It’s alright. She’s going.’

Frida scoffs. ‘Damn right she is. And don’t forget, girl, we’re wearing this uniform because we are not like them.’ She raps my badge. ‘I’ve taken enough pity on you because you are young and dumb. If I find you’re conniving with these things again, you can take off their skin yourself!’

I look towards the girl still sliding forward on her hands and knees and then back to Frida, but I say nothing. She spits at my feet and strides off to smack her whip against a woman’s neck.

As my breathing slows and Acorn fumbles up the steps into the barracks, I pick my own whip gingerly from the mud and run it between my fingers.

 

 

 

My boots clap the hardwood as I step out of the dining hall, tossing an apple from one hand to the other. As I clatter down the stairs, a cold gaze on my back turns my head towards the building. Frida sits in a haze of her own cigar smoke, watching me through the grey. I swallow, and slip the apple into my trouser pocket.

As I pass the nearest housing bunker, my eyes are drawn by a thing crouched, doglike, on the ground inside. A child, female, scrubbing a brush at the concrete floor. She has no hair.

Something pools in the pit of my belly. ‘Acorn?’

The girl turns to look at me over her shoulder, then resumes her cleaning. Her face is tight. I enter the bunker and drop to my knees by her side. Her scouring slows and she looks up at me from under her lashes.

‘Your hair.’ I lift a lock of my own blonde curls, pinned behind my head. My hand is shaking. Acorn’s mouth twists and she rubs fiercely at the floor.

I swallow again and stare into my palm. ‘It’s protocol.’ But I don’t know if I’m telling the girl or myself.

Either way, she ignores me. I rock back on my heels for a moment and the apple in my pocket crunches against my boot. ‘Hey, Acorn.’

She huffs a sigh and looks up at me once more, propping the brush on her thigh. Her body goes rigid as I slide my hand into my pocket, but her brows push together when I pull out the apple and offer it to her. Her eyes go from me to the fruit several times before she takes it, her mouth working soundlessly. My lips twitch as she smells it, rolls it between her hands and finally touches it to her lips. Now when she looks up at me, her eyes are bright with tears.

‘Take it,’ I say. ‘It’s for you.’ I curl her hand closed around it. As I pull back, she reaches out and touches the tip of her index finger to mine, just as she did when she learned my name.

‘Gerda!’

I spin. Frida is outside, advancing on the door of the bunker, spitting smoke from between her teeth. ‘What are you doing, girl?’

My mouth opens, then closes. I glance at Acorn, but she’s scrubbing dutifully at the floor as though I’m not even here. The apple is gone.

‘I’m… making sure this prisoner does her job.’ I push myself to my feet and square my shoulders.

Frida steps into the doorway of the bunker. She almost fills it out. ‘Trying to kill it with kindness, are you?’ Her boots clack on the concrete as she enters, tucking the cigar into her breast pocket. ‘What are these creatures compared to us? Weak.’ She shoves my shoulder. ‘Your heart is too soft on them.’

I remember the snap my paintbrushes made as my mother broke them in two. ‘I…’

‘Prisoner!’ Frida’s head tilts back with the weight of her shout and Acorn’s head lashes up. The elder guard pushes past me. Acorn doesn’t even get time to react.

‘What’s so special about this one that it thinks it has the right to speak up?’ Frida snatches the girl by the scruff of her neck and flings her at my feet. ‘The dumbest animals don’t survive.’

I can only stare, open-mouthed, as Acorn hugs into a ball.

Frida steps up to me and shoves her whip in my face. ‘I warned you. Since you’re so keen to spend time with it, why don’t you do the honours?’

My breath hitches. Something’s rushing in my ears. I shake my head. ‘No. No way.’

Frida’s eyes narrow. ‘Maybe you’d rather sleep here tonight? Maybe tomorrow too?’

I think of the prisoners hunched sleepless on the concrete. I think of the way my mother shut the curtains in my face. And I think of that little horse in the mud and the tilt of the head so much like my own. A weak, stupid animal, and me the wolf by her side. My fists clench. ‘I won’t do it, Frida.’

Her face contorts and in that second, I think she might slap me. Then she pulls back and the whip whines as it comes down across my cheek.

 

 

 

For a few shattered moments, I dream of Acorn’s face. I paint her grey with tears. And then when I’m done, Frida’s whip strikes her through with red.

 

 

 

The doctors say the wound is deep, but it won’t kill me. I was lucky not to have my whole face taken off. Acorn was not.

She’s in here somewhere. I know that. After Frida shook her whip dry, two guards came and took Acorn away. A third shepherded me behind her. Her legs barely held her up.

I’ve been told I’m under review. Obstructing a fellow guard in her duty and refusing to carry out my own. Soon I am to collect my things and report to the office. There, they’ll tell me exactly how much honour I brought to my family in Ravensbrück.

The doctors meant me to stay in bed a couple of hours longer to ensure I’m stable enough to walk, but then, they shouldn’t have wandered down the other end of the ward. I’m passing by a row of beds near to the exit when my feet catch on each other and I almost fall. As I stumble, I fling out my hands and they latch onto the bedframe of someone small. Someone I know.

She looks like a baby bird. Skin tanned and wrinkled and featherless, head bald and thrown back to expose her throat, ruched in a nest of fraying sheets. Her face and arms are bound in bandages. I lift my hand to the medical pad across my own brow.

Acorn’s chest is rising and dipping to an uneven beat. The doctors haven’t bothered to put in a drip.

I look back down at her. Little bird. And me, the wolf by her side.

A nurse passes behind my back, but says nothing. She adjusts her glasses and glances between her clipboard and the sheet on the wall by Acorn’s bed.

I cough. ‘What’s the plan for this one?’

The nurse’s eyes travel from the pad on my head to the uniform still hanging off my limbs. She clears her throat. ‘The doctors bandaged her up, but they’re not going to try too hard. The children never last long anyway.’

Acorn huffs in her sleep.

I exhale. ‘Look at her. She’s half dead already.’ I tap her gently on the temple. She doesn’t move.

I tug my uniform straight and look the nurse right in the eye. ‘I’m the one who buries the bodies. I’ll take her.’

 

 

 

I don’t usually carry the corpses, but I carry this one. Her arms splay below her and her legs rock with every step. The movement is peaceful. I pause a moment to gaze back over my shoulder, at the shovel like a war flag in the grass, at the walls of Ravensbrück casting their shadow into the camp. The sun shines for us here.

I glance down at Acorn. Her bandages are drying. She’ll make it to the train. As I look at her, she inhales and rolls her head to the other side, nuzzling her nose in my jacket. I should not cradle something so easily crushed, but here we are. A most unnatural pair.

My family’s honour brought me to Ravensbrück. It was an honour of my own that brought me out.

 

 

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A Guiding Light, William Matthews

What truly remains of a mortal once they are touched by the stars?

The Anucici of old passed tales that the world was shaped by heavenly bodies, that the stars came down from the heavens to sow the seeds of life on our world. The stars watched the seeds bloom, and rejoiced at the spectacle of a world awakening. And whilst most stars felt that their role was to foster new worlds, there were still many that believed the seeds they had sown must be reaped come harvest. They knew that from life, comes power.

The difference drove a wedge between all the stars as clusters formed factions.

When the first blood was shed, it stained the earth and turned the soil barren. For a century there was naught but chaos and violence until there remained only three. Only three stars in the heavens with light left in their bodies. Monin and Montara were sisters, and had been the youngest to defend what had been created, whilst Fulstus was amongst the eldest demanding recompense for what had been given. Fulstus was no fool to his predicament and retreated, remaining close enough that he might whisper in their ears, and burned fiercely that they might fear him. He became the sun. The sisters were forced to hold close to the world, circling constantly, vigilant to protect what they had suffered so much for. The sisters became the moons.

 

On nights when the moons sat full in the sky, when there was not a cloud even beyond the horizon, and there was a calm carried through the night, those who bathed in the heavenly glow would be afforded particular favour.

The fishermen asked for calmer waters, and the moons gave them peace. The travellers asked for guidance, and the moons lit the way. When the farmers begged for reprieve from the sun’s harsh light, the moons chased Fulstus away. Then, as the moons began to weary of relentless favours, Fulstus moved closer to the world, whispering to the minds of those unsatisfied: ‘If your protectors will not provide, then by your own need, it is left to you to take.’

Monin and Montara were quick to shield the world once they noticed his motion, holding Fulstus at bay, but the whisper had already spread. It started with a hungry child and a desperate mother stealing bread from those whom would not give it willingly. Conflict quickly spread throughout the world. The moons could only watch with disdain and weep at the horrors wrought as they guarded against Fulstus.

Fulstus smiled at the chaos he had stirred, and observed carefully for another opportunity. Monin and Montara were forced to watch their foe constantly, only able to peer at the world beneath them for brief moments at a time. The blood of rising empires and collapsing civilisations stained the ground, filling the moons with a disgust they had not felt since witnessing the horror their kind had wielded.

Fulstus, after millennia, spoke to the moons, ‘Do you see what they have become? How familiar they all are to me. Why should you protect those that have grown to reflect what you despise? Look upon them and tell me they are worthy of you.’

Monin was reluctant to behold the life that dwelt below them again, so Montara accepted her sister remain to hold against Fulstus. She moved closer to the world and listened for the prayers of mortals, as she had done thousands of years before, searching for a place to begin. Her eyes were quickly drawn hence to the cries of a man, fleeing a pack of hounds whilst begging for mercy.

She watched as he ran in terror and desperation, all the while clutching a bottle close to his chest. Montara was intrigued by what could be worth risking life to this man, and so aimed to disorient the pursuing beasts with lights from the sky, then cast a wind to confuse his scent. She smiled as they strayed from their prey. The man, she saw, paid no mind to what was behind him, continuing forward as fast as he could. Montara watched as the man entered a forest where the Anucici had worshipped her in ages gone. He stopped by a pond that sat as still as a mirror, using it to refresh and recover himself.

Montara gazed upon him resting and thought it an opportunity to discover what this man had risked so much for. Whilst her body remained in the heavens, she presented an image of herself: a figure of elegance, luminescent skin, and magnificent waves of hair. Her image shimmered with the energy of a star. She stood above the centre of the pond, ripples flowing out from her presence.

‘We stand in sacred ground, but I do not ask that you kneel,’ Montara spoke softly, that only he would hear.

The man, caught quite off-guard, let out a cry of bewilderment and almost fell to the ground.

She stood in anticipation of his acknowledgment, forced instead to behold a panicking man struggling to decide whether or not to flee. Montara could see that he was small in stature. One of the elfin folk to be sure, with a sharp chin and hair like the grass. She spoke again to fill the silence. ‘I am Montara, a guardian of this world, and I would know of you.’

Montara could see his body trembling like a leaf in the wind, his eyes squinting in an effort to look upon her, desperate to hold himself in place. Montara had forgotten the effect she had on these mortal creatures. She grew impatient, all the same.

‘Speak,’ was all she could tolerate to utter through the void.

‘I am Tuo’laken.’ The words forced their way out of him. ‘I am of the Mardwri.’

Montara smiled faintly now that the conversation was progressing. She gestured towards the bottle still firmly grasped in his hands, ‘and what is that you have carried so close to your chest?’

‘I-it contains a remedy for my child’s ails.’

Montara waited a moment to give pause before continuing, ‘Why were you pursued by those hounds.’

‘I stole it.’ Montara made out a mutter from Tuo’laken, censuring himself for being unable to lie.

‘Did you harm another to take this?’

‘No. Never.’

‘Why did you resort to stealing it?’

‘The people who held it do not receive my kind well and would not abide my presence. I felt left with without choice.’

Montara smiled at this creature, and promised him safety by the pond for the evening. She told Monin what had transpired, that there was at least a single soul below who was willing to risk themselves for another.

Fulstus came closer, daring to interrupt, ‘You speak as though you have known this creature for more than an eve. Grant him your favours, allow him power, and then you will see the truth in his heart.’

Montara, incensed by the interjection, rebuked Fulstus. But Monin, weary from watching against the enemy, softened her sister’s anger. ‘This is no longer a cause I am certain of. If you can find kindness in his life then we shall remain to guard them, but if Fulstus is correct then we must abandon them to themselves.’The sisters agreed, united as they were, and Montara hastened back to the pond to consult Tuo’laken.

She granted him a medallion, a token of her favour, so that she would be able to hear his call when needed. Tuo’laken hurried off, singing praises in her name. Montara watched that night as the daughter recovered from her ailments, who even smiled to the sight of her father’s delight.

Patiently, Montara watched, she waited.

It was several months until Montara was called upon. The well of the Mardwri had run dry by the harsh light of Fulstus, and they desperately required aid. She shifted an underground stream, replenishing the water. Montara was thanked and praised by the people.

It was many weeks until she was sought for again: the soil had become dry and hard. So she shifted the winds to bring three days of rain whilst the farmers tended the soil. Montara ensured that the harvest was the most plentiful the Mardwri had seen in years. Both she and Tuo’laken were thanked.

As the winter approached, the villagers feared to enter the forest to collect wood for their fires, and so she chased the beasts away. Though when she had done so, Montara did not witness any prayers or thanks to her, but saw the villagers proclaiming Tuo’laken as a herald of good fortune.

When winter’s frost melted, it became apparent that the Mardwri’s prosperity had caught the attention of others. Threats and demands were made against the Mardwri. And when the Mardwri spoke of the protection Tuo’laken ensured them, their homes were ransacked, their lands burnt, and their children taken.

Tuo’laken’s daughter was amongst the taken. He demanded Montara deliver him retribution, that their attacker’s homes be torn with madness and bloodshed. Despite his protests Montara would not strike down another creature, but she agreed to assist in Tuo’laken’s efforts. She fascinated the offenders with her presence in the sky and held their gaze fixed to the heavens for the entire night, allowing Tuo’laken to walk freely amongst his enemies. But with every step his fury boiled higher. Montara knew she should have stopped him, warned him for what would follow, but that was not her role, and so she continued to watch from afar.

He found one of the taken, bloodied by a knife. Butchered in discretion. And so he did the same, brutalising the enemy individually. He exterminated them to the last child, and walked out of the debris with his own child wrapped in his arms, his feet wet with blood.

Tuo’laken was made the leader of Mardwri by the rising of the sun.

He sent word to all the tribes, towns, and villages that the Mardwri knew, stating what he had done in the tribe’s name, and what would happen should anyone wrong them again.

Tuo’laken’s demands only escalated with the passage of time as the influence of his people grew. They demanded minerals that they might make fortifications for themselves. When the work was too treacherous, they demanded others of their kind do it. And when the town grew to be a city, they demanded that all elfin folk join them.

The Mardwri prospered, keeping the other tribes beneath them, as master does a pet. They viewed the rest of the world in contempt as they worshipped at the feet of their leader. And as Tuo’laken rejoiced at the well-being he had brought to his people, he remembered those that had trodden on them.

The dwarves were no longer welcome within the walls of the Mardwri, the gnomes were permitted nowhere near their borders, and the humans were regarded as an infestation. The other races chased all elfin-kind from their cities in response, but Tuo’laken used these actions as a means for war, in a twisted desire to make a world safe for his kind.

Montara watched in agony as the passing decades saw the Mardwri build an empire, raised by the hand of Tuo’laken. Worship of his image was a daily practice, and members among the Mardwri were appointed to enforce it. Montara could no longer recognise the man she had met by the pond.

She had grown weary of watching, of hoping for something to prove to Monin that this world was worth protecting. So tired that she was almost deaf to the screams of Tuo’laken when they came. It had been a quiet, insidious occurrence. When she gazed upon the scene, she saw Tuo’laken sitting dead in his throne, as others stood looking with dismay, and Tuo’laken’s daughter repeatedly plunging a blade into his chest.

Guards flew out of the hallways, but the daughter vanished before they could arrive, disappearing into the masses outside. Montara watched carefully as the daughter stepped through shadows with practiced feet, leaving the city and making for the forests.

It was a curious thing that Montara witnessed, as the daughter found her way to the same pond her father had, many years before. Montara manifested a visage of herself again, and stood above the water. Before Montara could speak, the daughter acknowledged her arrival.

‘I remember a story my father once told me. Being chased by hounds he found himself by a pond and granted the favour of a goddess. Have you come to punish the one who killed your herald?’ The daughter’s eyes locked with Montara’s, firmly gripping a bloody dagger.

Montara was intrigued by the creature she gazed upon. ‘Why have you murdered your father in such brutal fashion?’

The daughter let the question hang in silence before answering, ‘That was not my father. Tuo’laken murdered and conquered and made himself a god, and he forgot he was just a mortal.’ She threw the dagger into the water. ‘My father read me stories, and planted our fields, and then he died here.’

The ripples in the water moved askew as Montara stepped towards the daughter. She saw an opportunity to repair what she had unleashed. She grasped the hands of the daughter with a gentle grace.

‘Violence in the name of justice does not absolve the crime. Consequence is what you committed, and consequence you must suffer.’ Montara could see such remorse in the daughter’s eyes that she softened her tone. ‘I shall not force you, as I did not force your father. You may rest safe here tonight.’

Montara left the daughter to dwell by the pond whilst she spoke to Monin of what had happened, and begged her to watch what would transpire. The sisters watched from afar as the daughter returned to the city and presented herself to officials of the Mardwri and confessed to her crimes. Judgement was passed swiftly on the daughter. Punishment was decided to be public hanging.

‘How did you know that she would do as you requested?’ Monin asked of her sister.

‘There was a sorrow in her eyes which echoed my own.’

Monin was at once overcome by disgust at the sight of those whom had gathered to relish the expected moment. ‘So, you sent her to be executed?’

‘No.’ Montara was relieved to witness her sister demonstrating the same emotions and conflict to the situation. ‘I brought you to pass judgement. She is the kindness from Tuo’laken’s life. Will you save her?’

As the boards beneath the daughter fell, and as the knot tightened around her neck, a beam of light crashed from the heavens to sever the noose. The crowd was stunned, and then filled with awe as the voice of Monin boomed down from above. ‘This one has freed you from tyranny and holds our favour. Look upon her and know that she is Mon’laken, an instrument of our will.’

Mon’laken rose from the ground, she stood bewildered as every witness knelt. Montara took the silence as a moment to speak with her sister. ‘This is why we must remain. To guide and to teach these children of ours. We can show them the path that we should have taken so long ago, and this one will be a figure to carry them forwards.’

Fulstus writhed in dismay when Mon’laken did not take her father’s place as the people called her to do. On the direction of the moons, she destroyed all the weapons, crushed all the walls, and finally obliterated the throne. Monin could finally bear to observe the world again, much to Montara’s delight.

 

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Target Number One, Cassandra Thomson

‘You’ve got ten seconds to tell me where he is or I’ll blow your brains out…’

Wide-eyed and mouth agape, his body shakes under my grip. All colour drains from his face as he collides with the brick wall. The loaded gun at the side of his head doesn’t stop him from spitting ancient Russian profanities, trying to pry his way out of my hold. He isn’t a very tall man, maybe a little smaller than me—around five foot six—but he is no match for me.

‘K, it’s nearly sunrise.’ I hear Stokes behind me, shifting from one foot to the other. He is the anxious one out of us both; I learnt to turn my feelings off a long time ago. I look out towards the entrance of the dark alleyway; the sunrise is peeking across the downtown skyline. It has to be at least 5 am.

‘Sergei…’ I urge him, pressing the gun harder against his temple. The beat of his heart is rapid like wildfire against my arm; he swallows tightly but says nothing.

‘Ten…’

‘Nine. I’m not playing Sergei…’ Sergei thrashes around, but doesn’t break from my grip. He digs his nails deep into my forearm.

‘Eight…’

‘Seven…’

‘Six…’

‘Five…’ With every second my hand squeezes the base of this throat tighter. His face changes from a ghastly white to a deadly mix of yellow and blue. I wasn’t playing around when I said I would come back for him.

‘Fou—’

‘Okay, okay. I will tell you,’ he chokes out, body slumping as I release him.

He slides down the wall, whimpering. It looks like he hasn’t shaved in days, his usual five o’clock shadow is nothing but scruff. Kneeling down, I face Sergei for the first time since I found out the truth about his involvement with The Apex and the death of my parents. They say resources were at a dangerous low, and maybe they were but that’s not what killed them. Sergei splutters across the floor, his head drops. He is barely conscious but it is enough to get what I need.

‘Last… Last time I heard from him he was hiding in a warehouse downtown off the main street. The one made of steel… He’s been there for weeks.’ I let Sergei talk before gunshots ring through the early morning streets. One, two, three. His blood splashes like fireworks; across the crisp white of my blouse. Another shirt ruined. I stand in silence, biting my lip as I walk past Stokes. I tuck my gun away and call Suki on my watch. We enter the main street.

‘Suki, Target 470 is complete. Information on Target Number One is coming through now.’

‘Did you really have to kill him?’ Stokes asks, following closely behind. I feel something spark deep down as I tap the information into my watch. I frown at my thoughts. Did I really have to kill him? Is that even a question? I push every thought away as I swallow against the hard, growing lump in my throat. I focus on finding a storm drain along the broken concrete.

‘Of course, I did…’

Stokes nods. He isn’t as into this job as the others, his father is one of the founders so he didn’t have a choice like I did. I see his face change from the corner of my eye; something is off. He scowls one moment, expressionless the next. Knowing he’s not the type to talk about himself, I choose to ignore it for now.

The streets are empty for a Friday morning but I don’t mind. Minute by minute the sun makes its journey into the sky and over us, warming up our surroundings. The polar caps had melted years ago, sending the sea level up like those crazy scientists predicted. Most summer days like these averaged 55 degrees but somehow, we humans adapted and made do. If only those generations had believed back then. Maybe we wouldn’t be in such a bad state now. For all of us that was history, but it didn’t stop me from mourning a real free world. This free world is anything but.

‘You okay?’ I hear Stokes whisper as he links his fingers with mine, his eyes searching for something within my own. I nod with a small smile, urging to push on.

‘Back to base we go.’

Stokes and I cross the street when I see a storm drain at the corner of a bread shop. The heavy, circular metal tops create a barrier between the surfaced world and ours. Stokes lifts the lid and hurries me to climb down, grunting at the weight in his hand. I climb down the ladder as he follows; step by step we enter the labyrinth that is our home. Since the end of the Earth almost three years ago, what was left of the human race had to learn how to survive in this new world. Most of us had taken shelter within the confines of the underground storm drains, rebuilding our lives with what we could as bombs and missiles flew above us on the surface. We were the lucky ones.

I hear Stokes slide the grate over the hole as I jump off the ladder and onto the concrete; separating us and them once more, bringing me back to my reality.

 
 
 

Leaning over the table, I place a red X against all the possible entrances to the warehouse on the drawn-out map. The dim lighting makes it hard to see, but I make do. We keep the lighting in here to a minimum; don’t want or need outsiders snooping around like they do in this neighbourhood. The house is small but cosy; a perfect place for us to gather and work. Most of their group work is criminal targets, mine is and always has been The Apex. It is purely personal in this case and I’m not afraid to admit it. There is no way I am going to let him slip through my fingers like he had so many times before.

I hear a beep from across the room, Suki’s face pops up on my teleprompter. She had been created by a special team of ours not long ago, helping us gather intel on clients but she is so much more than a machine to me. She is more than the metal that made her. She too is a friend in this chaos.

‘Hello Keely, I have some information that might be of assistance to you.’ Void of all emotion, I hear Suki’s fan kick in through the audio as she gathers everything within her chip.

‘We have confirmation. The Apex has been sighted lurking the downtown streets. Sergei’s information was correct,’ I smile at Suki’s face as I listen to her talk.

‘Keely, he is watching you as much as you are watching him…’

‘I’m sending you the specific address of where Target Number One is currently situated. Sources have seen him moving about inside the warehouse and on the outer surroundings. He has been alone for some time and from what I gathered in his phone conversations he will be for a while yet.’ I take down the address and sign Suki off with a goodbye, trying to process everything. We haven’t been this close to The Apex since 2033, one year ago to the day in the midst of the final days of the war.

It wasn’t just the limited resources that were murdering people. Inside intel had told us there was talk of a “populous culling” post-war; too many people in the world and not enough resources to sustain us. They thought no one would ever find out the truth. The irony was The Apex murdered the people he deemed unfit for our world, we murdered those people involved with him.

‘What’s on your mind?’ Stokes questions, bringing me out of that dark hole I find myself in. I feel him press his lips to the base of my neck, rubbing soft circles into my shoulders with his thumbs. I hadn’t noticed that in between all the daydreaming and drowning in thought I had curled up on the table top, my head in my hands. Clammy palms rest in between my hair and my forehead, capturing the fever that slowly built up in me. I shake my head. Pushing myself away I tell him I’m fine, just tired. A generic response, but truth be told it feels like I haven’t slept in months. I walk away and down the hall into the bathroom, needing some air and a little time to myself. I have been at this for hours, planning that is. I look back to see Stokes standing at the table looking over my work with a furrowed brow.

Locking myself in the bathroom, I lean against the sink and turn the tap on high. The water spritzes anywhere and everywhere, marking cool droplets against my skin, the floor and the mirror in front of me. The mirror wears the same expression I do; blank and heavy with deep circles around my eyes. The blonde curls of my hair sit in a bun on top of my head, dull and hidden away from the eyes of this world. I had changed hours ago, leaving the blood covered blouse lying next to the laundry basket in the corner of the room.

I feel as dark, as empty as the black singlet and leather jacket combination I am wearing but I have to suppress it, for now anyway. I have to believe. There is a job to be done and that’s the worst part… I realise tonight is the night I would kill him or be killed.

 
 
 

‘Are you ready?’ I look to Stokes for some sort of reassurance that I am doing the right thing. Now that we are here, I am starting to second guess myself.

‘I got your back, babe. Let’s do this.’ He smiles, urging me to push on. He rarely calls me babe, but when he does I feel something trigger deep within. I never acknowledge it. He is right, it is time.
We stand against the metal exterior of the warehouse; looking around for any sign of life. I hear Stokes say go, prompting me to turn and face the large metal door that would lead us into the warehouse. I pull out a butterfly knife, lodging it in the lock of the door and start to meddle with the fixtures. It isn’t your typical lock and key. Minute by minute goes by, it isn’t unlocking. I growl in frustration, starting to feel defeated.

‘Come on K, you can do this.’ I whisper to myself, taking out the knife and starting all over again.

‘Let me do it.’ Stokes says, slightly nudging me aside to play with the lock himself. I huff and fold my arms, still watching for any signs of movement around us. Not a moment later is the door unlocked; like he has done this before. Stokes, with a smirk on his face, urges the door open slightly in silence.

‘Ladies first,’ Stokes puts his arm out as he softly chuckles, noticing how sour I am. This is definitely not the time for laughing. He follows carefully as we step into the warehouse, feeling the cold air hit us and escape into the outside world.

The lights that hang above are scattered across the roof, barely lighting the empty space. The atmosphere is filled with a hundred shades of grey, concrete and metal. Looking around there is nothing in sight, nothing. Silence spreads through the space, the only thing heard is our shallow breaths. It looks like no one had been here in ages, the place is dead.

Almost.

‘Hello Keely, it’s nice to see you again,’ I hear his voice from behind me. I spin around to see the six foot two, dark haired, blue eyed man that ruined my life and many others standing only metres away.

‘I can’t say the same, Uncle Alex.’ I snort, clearly not prepared for him to show his face so soon. Alex Porter, The Apex. Once upon a time he was a true gentleman until power and control went to his head. Being blood never mattered to him.

‘Looks like you’ve seen a ghost.’ Alex looks at me and laughs, swirling the scotch glass in his hand; nonchalant at the excess liquor spilling over onto his sleeve. I watch the droplets fall from his skin and onto the concrete floor, staining the grey foundation beneath him.

Without a second thought I lunge for him; tackling his mid-section I take him down and pin him to the floor. His head slams against the concrete hard. He groans in pain. I take out my gun and click the safety lock, pressing the pistol hard between his eyes. His breathing harsh, he tries to fight but fails. I tuck his flailing arms under my leg, squeezing them between my thigh and my calf.

‘Give me one reason why I shouldn’t shoot you dead right here and now!’ I scream in his face, the adrenaline pumping through my bloodstream so hard I can feel it in my fingertips. I wrap my hands around his neck, pushing down on his trachea. He coughs and splutters, trying to throw me off his torso but doesn’t budge.

‘If you… If you k-kill me, you… you are dead. It’s… It’s that simple,’ Alex splutters out, slowly going limp underneath my touch.

‘I-I have eyes and… And ears e-everywhere.’ He cackles through a shallow whisper. I shake my head and laugh.

‘I think that’s a chance I am willing to take.’ Forcing the gun harder against his forehead, I didn’t give him the chance to speak another word as I ended him right there and then. Gunshots ring through the warehouse, his body stills under me. I watch him take his last, shallow breath. His eyes roll to the back of his head as blood pools around him, staining his blue ensemble.

Harsh and heavy breaths shake me as I stand up, trembling; the shock almost pushes me back to the floor. Adrenaline surges hard and fast with every heartbeat. It’s over.

Bang bang. I choke, gasping. I collapse in a surge of pain. Uncontrollable, writhing pain that spreads from my sternum in a cold flush. I press a hand to my chest, watching the red liquid fall from my fingertips. I turn, breathless, a cast of dimmed light shadowing a man’s face as he stands over me in a blur. Stokes, it is Stokes.

‘Nothing lasts forever, Keely.’

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Can You See Ghosts?, Jamie Creswell

 

Rio Linz was a mostly normal boy who lived a mostly normal life. He attended school and maintained average grades and was able to mostly keep himself out of trouble. He lived with his parents, both of whom worked. Everything about Rio was for the most part completely and utterly unremarkable.

Save for one titbit fact.

Rio could see ghosts.

 

 

Rio’s first ghost was his former nanny. Her name was Madalyn.

The boy used to look up to see the elderly woman’s face, when his head barely reached her waist. Wispy white hair trailed down, splitting into two halves before ending just shy of her chin.

She still looked down at him. Her gaze wandered over his features curiously as she examined him. Her weathered lips formed a thin line as they pressed together. Her eyes blinked once as he stared at her intently.

‘Rio?’

Not trusting himself to speak, Rio nodded his head sharply.

‘You can see me, sweetheart?’

Despite himself, Rio nodded a second time.

Understanding quickly dawned upon her features as her grey eyes locked with his brown ones.

Hesitantly, Rio reached out and held her hand in his grasp.

 

 

The next four months saw Madalyn developing a routine. It fit with Rio’s easily enough. She would walk alongside him on his way to school and then waited for him until he came back out after school closed for the day. They would usually discuss mundane things such as the weather and how their respective days carried out.

Sometimes they didn’t speak to each other; they just walked next to each other in silence.

Rio noticed that Madalyn always wore the same clothes; a baby blue blouse and a dark skirt. He recalled that she had worn similar clothes when she was alive. He once asked why she never changed and the ghost replied that she simply couldn’t.

Madalyn would visit Rio several times on the weekend while he was in the backyard doing his homework in the tall grass or just drawing on a piece of paper. One time she offered to help him with his work and he accepted. This continued every weekend that followed. She excelled in story writing and geography, but hated maths even more than he did.

Rio never once thought to ask Madalyn what she did when she wasn’t spending time with him.

 

 

‘Madalyn.’ The said woman perked up when Rio said her name. The two were walking next to each other.

‘Yes, angel?’

Rio paused for a moment to consider how to best phrase the question before continuing.

‘Do you know anyone else that has died?’

Madalyn frowned in confusion.

‘What is it. . . leading you to ask such a dark question?’

Rio just shook his head and shrugged.

Madalyn mulled over the question quietly for a moment before replying in a sombre tone.

‘Many hearts as a matter of fact. Colin. I guess you wouldn’t remember him… he was my husband, he fell to lung cancer several years prior to myself. Naturally, my dear parents passed long—’

‘I don’t mean that. I meant if you know any other ghosts,’ Rio cut across her.

Madalyn looked surprised. She was silent before making a noise of understanding in the back of her throat. Rio had tapped into her one sadness and though she tried not to dwell upon her loneliness, she couldn’t help at times but wonder why only she remained on Earth.

‘No, I don’t, unfortunately.’

The boy was unable to completely hide his disappointment. Madalyn easily picked up on it.

‘Rio, are we friends?’

Rio nodded.

‘Then you know that if you need someone to speak to, don’t hesitate to ask me. Some things are best kept secret, but not all things. It’s okay to share your thoughts with people that you trust. Even if we’ve lost people, its best to try and focus on who we still have.’

 

 

Rio’s primary reason for wanting an authentic camera was because of his invisible companion. He wanted to prove her existence to his parents. It had been the highlight of his eleventh birthday to receive one from them.

However, when he tried to take a picture of her, he came up short—the image of his backyard lacked a ghost. Madalyn had initially been sceptical about the idea, but her facial expression fell slightly when it had failed.

Madalyn suggested that he use his birthday gift for something else. Eventually, he decided to see what he could capture outside. Having nothing else to do, his former carer accompanied him.

That was how Rio came to meet Kane.

 

 

Their meeting was similar to the first time Rio met Madalyn, yet almost entirely different.

They stood in the park, several feet from an ice cream vendor that was selling to a line of children from the street. Rio had finished taking photos of things Madalyn liked and was moving to the skateboard park with her trailing behind him, when he noticed the man. He seemed occupied, harassing nearby pedestrians. Rio noticed that they showed no response to his presence, which was surprising if one considered his physical appearance.

Kane was a big man, easily much taller than Rio and Madalyn. Muscles beneath his skin were practically bulging under an orange jumpsuit. He was covered in tattoos of spiderwebs and foreign kanji that decorated his domed head.

Wanting a photo, Rio looked for a good position. Once in location, he looked through his lens and saw no one there.

Confused, the boy lowered the camera and saw that Kane was still before him.

Once Kane had realised he was in the presence of someone who could actually see him, he was initially quite vocal, letting off a stream of new words.

‘Fucking hell, you can see ghosts?’

The brashness caught Rio off guard. To his credit, he quickly recovered.

‘I guess? You’re my second one.’

Kane glanced at Madalyn, who squinted her eyes at him in distaste.

The giant glared.

‘Something you want to say to me, bitch?’

Once the excitement had passed, however, getting words out of him was harder than drawing blood from a stone. Despite Rio’s best efforts, his newest ghost kept his mouth firmly shut.

Eventually, time forced them to leave the park.

 

 

Rio and Madalyn went back the very next day after school, to the same spot as last time.

‘Hey… ’

‘Yes, Rio.’

‘Do you think you can walk through walls?’ he asked Madalyn

A moment of silence passed.

‘I don’t know about that darling… I’ve never tried it.’

‘Why don’t you try it?’

She paused to consider before chuckling.

‘I’m sure I would have known by now if I could do something as whimsical as that.’

A moment passed and in that beat, Rio’s breathing quickened and he felt hot. He’d always felt unsure of how to approach a particular question and if, indeed, he should.

‘How did you die, exactly?’

Madalyn glanced at him before looking away. She didn’t answer.

Her mannerisms were quite contradictory; her distant and sometimes awkward behaviour clashed with the times that she was exuberant and full of life.

Kane wasn’t there when they arrived. Rio tried to wait but was forced to take off after Madalyn when the old woman lost interest.

 

 

Rio saw Kane a second time only five days later, hovering outside of a rundown house that had most certainly seen better days.

To his surprise, Madalyn was also there. They were speaking to each other. Standing several feet apart, their appearances were a sharp contrast to each other. His interest getting the better of him, Rio decided to investigate. Thanks to his size, he was easily able to hide his small frame behind a rubbish bin.

He strained to pick up their words.

‘Moping won’t help you stand straighter, boy.’

Rio was surprised by the tone of Madalyn’s voice, possessing a sharp edge that he never before knew existed.

Kane replied angrily, sounding impatient.

‘Thanks for your fucking advice. I don’t remember asking you to give a shit.’

Madalyn was silent for a moment. Then she spat out, ‘Try to make an effort to understand your situation—our situation,’ she insisted, urgently. ‘You and I are both still here instead of completely passing on.  In a way, this second chance has—’

She was interrupted.

‘What “we” is there? Let me tell you something, you dumb bitch—hospital and fucking prison are as different as ice and cannabis. Needles don’t mean squat. Just go and leave me the hell alone.’

Fearing he might be caught, Rio fled.

 

 

One month after meeting Kane, Rio decided to take his interest in photography and art to new heights.

Armed with his trusty camera, Rio went out by himself.

He lived in a rather rundown neighbourhood full of plain colours. His family wasn’t poor, but they were very far from well off. More than a few houses showed signs of neglect and old age, a few broken windows here, some rotten wood there. The surrounding neighbourhoods possessed the same atmosphere. There were weeds showing on several front lawns, driving up from beneath the ground like untameable servants.

Frowning at the lack of potential snapshots, Rio’s young mind struggled to come up with ideas.

Rio found Madalyn sitting on the stairs of the front porch outside his house.

She was completely unprepared for his request.

‘Sorry, I must confess. . . I am not quite sure what it is you mean.’

‘Help me find stuff to take photos of.’

‘And how would this be of use to you?’ Madalyn asked.

Rio nodded.

‘I figured that if I can’t take photos of ghosts, I can use this camera in other ways to help.’ He deliberately paused for dramatic effect before continuing. ‘If you can take me to where you lived and other places that you liked when you were alive, I can retell your story through pictures of the things that meant the most to you.’

It only took two minutes to convince Madalyn of the idea.

 

 

‘Of all places, why here?’ Rio asked, holding his camera in both hands while looking around in confusion at his surroundings.

Both he and Madalyn were standing in the backyard where they did Rio’s homework together.

Madalyn smiled before she explained her reasoning.

‘Because this place has meaning to me. Here with you, on this little patch of grass, is where I now spend most of my time.’

Rio couldn’t help but blush in embarrassment.

Soon, photographs began to replace the various sport and motorcycle posters that took up the wall space in his small room.

Gradually, over thirty new images appeared.

All of them were places of significance to Madalyn. Rio’s latest one was a shot of a creek that Madalyn liked to walk alongside. Another was her favourite café in the shopping centre. They, along with several others, were all titled under Madalyn’s name.

 

 

As Rio’s photographs of Madalyn began to accumulate, the pair approached Kane and tried to rope him into the idea.

They failed.

 

 

While walking near a stream surrounded by an assortment of pebbles that lay underneath an overpass, Rio and Madalyn noticed a girl. She was young, sickly and petite, wearing torn jeans and a rainbow sweater with a woollen beanie covering her short brunette hair. She was bright and cheerful despite her pale complexion and somewhat unkempt appearance.

She approached the pair as they were about to move on, a mischievous grin betraying the general nature of her intention. He had seen it before in movies, when a person did something mischievous in exchange for attention.  From the corner of Rio’s eye, he noticed the yellow armband encircling her wrist.

She began to lean in, past what Rio considered his personal space. This merited asking her what she wanted. Madalyn beat him to it.

‘Is there something we can help you with, dear?’

She yelped and jumped back as if she had just received an electric shock. Scrambling back, she nearly tripped over.

‘You can see me?’ the girl asked him, her eyes wide. A look of understanding came over her as she stared at him. ‘You can see ghosts?’

Rio replied with a yes.

‘That’s incredibly cool,’ was her response.

 

 

The first place that Natalia, their newest companion, dragged Rio and Madalyn was to a carnival circus that took place once every June. Amongst the cacophony of noises there, including Natalia’s laughter, Rio wasn’t very sure where to point his lens.

Madalyn found herself struggling to keep up as her body ached in protest while pursing Natalia. Eventually she was forced to stop, leaning against a food stand for support.

Natalia seemed to have the knack of getting ahead of herself.

 

 

When Rio decided to ask Natalia about the places that held any sort of significant meaning to her, Natalia had taken Rio to the aquatic centre at night after closing. This led to Rio getting arrested for breaking and entering—only to get photos of himself in the water at night.

While sitting in the chair waiting for his parents to arrive, with Madalyn and a guilty-faced Natalia standing on either side of him, Rio overheard something. According to two officers who were standing outside the office, a teenager had broken into the pool eleven times over a three-year period.

Apparently, the girl ran away from the hospital at night just so that she could swim with no one else in it.

Natalia had the decency to blush as Rio turned to look at her with incredulity. They made eye contact and her skin tone practically went from a mild pink to a rich scarlet as she fiddled with her hands. It took several seconds for Rio to realise that Madalyn was also looking at Natalia, her soft eyes charged with disdain. Fortunately, the centre kindly decided to drop the charges when they realised Rio wasn’t their regular culprit.

 

 

Rio approached Kane and asked if he wanted to be a part of the project he was undertaking one last time.

The ghost refused.

 

 

After recovering from his grilling at home, the first thing Rio did was head up to his room to return to his work. Once it was done, he hung up his newest picture and stood back to admire it properly. Looking over the photos he had taken for Natalia, he allowed himself a moment to enjoy the pride swelling up in his chest like a balloon fit to burst.

Alongside the collection that he had created for Madalyn, they formed the tales of two people who had already lived out their full lives.

 

 

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Swipe Left, Emma Burchett

‘I heard there’s an app now,’ Zoe said as the traffic light changed from red to green.

‘Did you,’ Nate said, entering the intersection and waiting to make the right hand turn.

‘Yeah. Sera told me.’ Zoe looked out the window. The steady stream of oncoming traffic continued, and the light turned amber. Proceed with caution.

‘Seraphina also believes anything she reads on the Internet,’ Nate said as he took the turn. ‘So forgive me if she doesn’t exactly exude authority when it comes to knowledge.’

Smiling, Zoe shook her head. Reaching into her handbag, she pulled out the letter, crumpled from constant handling since they’d received it the day before. She unfolded it and tenderly smoothed out the creases.

Mr and Mrs Foreman,

We are pleased to inform you that your application for a child has been approved. The Government would like to congratulate you on your upcoming joy and invites you to present yourself at the Family Planning Centre for your initial consultation and family unit enrolment. Please take care to note that this offer will expire within 500 days upon receipt.

Wishing you a smooth process and a rewarding experience.

Yours,
Cattalina Prewitt
Birthing Director
Department of Populous Control

Zoe ghosted her fingertips over the words. She was going to be a mum. Nate was going to be a dad. She hummed and daydreamed about their future child. Would they have a little boy? A miniature Nate would be so lovely, with his dad’s dark hair but her hazel eyes. Then again, a little darling girl would be so much fun to dress, and Nate would be wrapped around her little finger quicker than Zoe could say ‘daughter’.

Her thoughts turned to the study, which would now obviously be turned into a nursery. Her smile unconsciously widened as she pondered what theme they’d choose for the room. Jungle safari? Heavenly clouds? Under the sea? Dreamy night sky?

They made a left and Zoe could tell they’d arrived because the building was surrounded by its usual cluster of protestors. The crowd’s chant of ‘Our bodies, our choice!’ permeated through the window. Zoe folded the letter back up and slid it safely back into her bag.

‘I just don’t understand the Endolutionists,’ she said, eyeing the small but vocal group.

‘Nature gave us bodies to grow life in!’ a woman in the crowd shrieked as the car passed. ‘I want to grow a baby in my own body!’

‘Don’t they remember learning about the population surplus in primary school?’ She leaned forward to catch the crowd in the side mirror. Her gaze landed on the woman who’d declared she wanted to grow a baby herself, and Zoe felt a phantom finger run up her spine. That woman gave Zoe the heeby-jeebies. She sat back in her seat. ‘Genetic castration was the only answer.’

‘If the Endolutionists had it their way,’ Nate said as he reversed the car into a parking space, ‘You’d have to have a baby every time you wanted to have sex! Imagine that. We’d all just fall off the planet and straight into space. Then there’d be no Endolutionists left. How self-redundant.’

They both laughed and unbuckled their seatbelts before climbing out of the car. Zoe linked her arm with Nate’s, giving it an affectionate squeeze. She couldn’t wait to give their child Nate’s sense of humour.

As the Foremans approached the building, Zoe’s steps began to slow. ‘Damn, they’re intimidating,’ she whispered to Nate. Nate gave Zoe a reassuring squeeze as he swept her slowing gait up with his own stride, propelling them through the throng.

‘It’s unnatural!’ someone shouted from behind them. Zoe glanced over her shoulder and spied the same woman she’d noticed from the car. The woman’s eyes lit up with fervour when she saw she had Zoe’s attention. ‘IT’S UNNATURAL!’ she shrieked again. ‘A conspiracy to keep us docile like good little—’ her words were cut off by the door sealing shut behind Zoe and Nate.

 

 

 

‘So I hear you two are looking to create a baby,’ the Engineer announced as she settled into her chair. Zoe’s eye caught one of the diplomas on the wall behind the desk. Greta Burkes—Obstetrics Engineering. She recalled from her nursing training how Obstetricians had been their own branch of medicine, back before the Childless Accords in ‘64. Midwives too. She shifted in her seat and plastered on a bright smile.

‘Yes,’ Nate mirrored Zoe’s smile as she reached for his hand. ‘We’re ecstatic to have been approved.’

Burkes pulled a folder out from one of her drawers. ‘Your application was very agreeable,’ she said with a glance at the papers inside. ‘I remember reviewing it with the committee just a few months ago. Mr Nathan Foreman, twenty-eight, software developer, steady income, low risk assessment, room for career advancement, and ideal work hours for raising a family. Mrs Zoe Petrakis Foreman, twenty-seven, registered nurse, flexible work hours, steady income, moderate risk assessment, capacity for at-home health care of a child.’

She flicked through several sheets, ‘You both passed the aptitude tests with flying colours, your financial records and home visit were both perfectly sound… Yes,’ she said, closing the folder with a fwap. ‘An ideal work-life balance with the resources and aptitudes for raising a child. I have some paperwork we’ll need to go through, to enrol your family unit and update existing records to reflect your pending child, et cetera et cetera. And of course, the confidentiality agreement, which mandates that regardless of whether or not you choose to create a child here in this facility, all procedures and information you come across will be held in strictest confidentiality.’

Nate reached for the document as it was slid across the desk. He signed it and passed it to Zoe. She picked up the pen, twirling it between her fingers before slowly signing her name on the dotted line.

‘Fantastic,’ Burkes said as she slid the agreement into their folder. ‘Now, I know it probably feels like a lot of red tape with all the paperwork, so perhaps we might take a tour of the centre now. It’s a little more fun than the repeated signature signing.’ A laugh escaped Zoe’s lips before she threw an embarrassed hand up to cover it. Following Nate and Burkes’ lead, she sprang to her feet. ‘Over the next coming nine months you’ll grow very accustomed to this place, I assure you,’ Burkes continued as she stepped around her desk. ‘Some couples choose to visit their child once a day if you can believe it.’

‘Oh,’ said Zoe, glancing at Nate in surprise. ‘Does the baby grow that quickly?’

Burkes led them out of her office, explaining over her shoulder. ‘On a day-to-day level, the growth will hardly be noticeable, so a visit once a week is more likely to help you notice the development—size being the most notable. However, you are welcome to visit as frequently or infrequently as you like. Our services are open twenty-four-seven for visitation, and there will always be lab technicians on hand to answer any questions you might have about the growth process.’ She pulled up short by a double set of doors, tapping her ID card against a sensor before leading them through. ‘This is our Halloway Wing. It’s where the magic happens.’

Zoe and Nate couldn’t contain their gasps. For as far as the eye could see, tanks lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Inside, small solid shapes floated in a viscous liquid. The room was filled with the dull hum of constant bings from each tank, and lab technicians crossed from one tank to another, consulting tablets in their hands.

‘Amniotic chambers,’ the Engineer declared as they stared in amazement at the children in various growth stages around them. The baby closest to Zoe was almost triple the size of the one in the tank above it. She looked for its chart on the screen beside it, but the display only showed a padlock and the baby’s identifying number.

She tried to picture her own future child floating in one of these tanks. Visiting it after work to read books, or simply talk to it. The parenting books all advocated talking to the baby once it reached 23 weeks in the tank. It was an important bonding experience for both the parents and child, they said. Zoe’s imagination helpfully supplied her the tank and Nate beside her, reading children’s nursery rhymes, but before she could formulate her child, her thoughts were interrupted. A gentle yet insistent pinging had begun four tanks down, and a lab technician brushed past Zoe with a polite ‘Excuse me,’ to tap his ID card on the screen. The screen unlocked and he scrolled through the diagnostics.

‘Everything alright, Serkan?’ Burkes asked pleasantly.

‘Oh yes, twenty-two-seven-one-eight just needs another dose of vitamin B12. Nothing critical.’ He pulled a small tablet from the pocket of his coat and began tapping away as Nate leaned down to whisper ‘How cool is that?’ in Zoe’s ear. Burkes then began leading them down the length of the room, pointing out various equipment and explaining the finer details of their functions. Most of it whizzed over Zoe’s head, but Nate was certainly impressed, particularly when the diagnostic software was discussed.

‘So as you can see, all foetal development takes place in this wing,’ Burkes said as they turned right and took an early exit. The room continued to sprawl on ahead without them. ‘When your own child is growing here, you’ll be free to visit and view them as you please.’ They walked for another minute or two before arriving at a giant window where several couples stood, peering in with delight.

‘Oh honey, he’s perfect,’ one woman gushed, squeezing her wife’s arm.

‘She has your nose,’ a husband told his wife, nuzzling her temple. She giggled and rolled her eyes.

‘Of course she does,’ she said. ‘You picked it!’

‘This is our observation room,’ Burkes said as they passed through. ‘On your child’s due date, you will be directed here once they have been cut from their growth cord and cleaned up. When your paperwork has been finalised, you are free to take them home.’

Nate’s excited gaze sought out Zoe’s, but her answering smile was a beat too slow.

‘This is a lot to take in,’ he said, wrapping an arm around Zoe. ‘I think Zoe’s feeling a little overwhelmed.’

‘Expectant mothers have gone through this for centuries, it’s not uncommon,’ Burkes said kindly with an understanding smile. ‘Come, let’s return to my office and I can take you through the child enrolment forms. Have you decided on a boy or girl yet?’

Nate and Zoe shared a look. ‘We haven’t, yet, no,’ Nate said as Zoe shook her head.

‘Not to worry, plenty of time for that. For now, I’ll just show you how to log in and use the app so you can play around with features and personality and get an idea of what the final product might look like. It might help your decision-making process.’

‘I told you there was an app,’ Zoe whispered to Nate as they followed the Engineer back through the halls.

‘Yes, well, a broken clock is right twice a day.’

 

 

 

It was another hour before they parted company with the Engineer, clutching their paperwork and organising to make a follow-up appointment once they’d decided on their genetic instructions.

‘I cannot wait to see what child you come up with,’ Burkes said warmly as she walked them back to the lobby. Nate had certainly had a bit of fun swiping through the various options when she’d shown them how to use the stylised app. He’d almost turned it into a game to see how bizarre looking they could make their child. ‘Look, it’s Quasimodo,’ he said as he enlarged one eye to be five times the size of its other. His fingers pinched and expanded on the screen as they played with the eye’s size. With a stern frown, Zoe trapped his fingers under her hand before he could toy with the age slider. ‘Take this seriously, Picasso,’ she’d told him as she glanced down at the baby’s face. Quasimodo would not age well.

They stepped back out onto the street, blinking at the immediate barrage of insults and jeers.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ Nate said, steering Zoe around the worst of the crowd. ‘Get out of here you crazies!’ he yelled over his shoulder.

Zoe chanced one last glance back at the protestors. Her eyes met with the woman’s. She pressed a kiss into Nate’s shoulder and allowed him to steer them back toward the car.

 

 

 

Nine months and three weeks later, when the lab technician produced baby Lolita from the observation room, Zoe and Nate joined the chorus of coos from the soon-to-be parents. Zoe stretched out her arms, eagerly taking her new daughter into them and cradling her to her chest. With tears in her eyes, she smiled up at Nate, who kissed her proudly on the lips. As one, they glanced down at their daughter. Hazel eyes—a mirror copy of Zoe’s—blinked up at her, and tiny fingers reached out to wrap around Nate’s index. Lolita gurgled with a gummy grin.

Zoe’s smile froze on her face as she gazed down at her perfect daughter. Dread trickled into her arms, and the baby suddenly felt so much heavier.

With trepidation, Zoe realised she felt absolutely nothing for her child.

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Chaotic Children, Helen Glover

‘Your children are jerks.’

‘They’re still growing, and learning.’

‘They’ve had three thousand years to grow. They’re jerks.’

The tips of Goblin’s spiky horns reddened.

‘Oh? And your children are any better?’

‘Yes, of course!’ Elf shot back. She rose from her pearly throne, and stormed towards her brother. ‘They’re not murderers like your children.’ Her piercing blue eyes tore into her brother’s crimson ones, making him squirm in his seat.

Goblin’s long claws gripped at his cushioned seat.

‘They managed to kill another plant species.’

Elf loomed over him, seemingly blocking out the very stars themselves. Her white-blue hair turned black, shadows covered her skin. The whole universe appeared to go dark in her anger.

‘They were hungry.’

‘They could’ve eaten rabbits.’

The ground beneath Goblin’s chair began to shake. Tremors rippled through the palace. The marble columns shook in their very foundations. A million miles below them in the mortal realm, thousands cried out in terror as the sun was blotted out of the sky by stormy clouds.

‘They don’t like the taste of rabbits!’ Elf rumbled, her voice echoing across the heavens, sending thunder and tremors into the mortal realm. A hundred people jumped off a cliff in fear, plummeting to their deaths. ‘They kept complaining in their prayers, so I told them to eat plants.’

‘Yes, and it worked so well,’ Goblin remarked snidely. ‘How many plants have vanished to sate your children’s hunger?’

‘Your children have a tendency to murder my children!’

‘Well, your children have a tendency to torture mine!’

‘How is that worse?’

‘Would you two please shut up and learn to control your offspring!’

Elf and Goblin turned towards their brother. Elf’s rage was momentarily forgotten and light burst forth once more. The heavens cleared and the sun shined upon the mortal realm. People cried out in relief and dozens of young maidens were promptly shoved into a volcano to placate the gods.

Angel massaged his temples, then took a large swig from his wine glass.

‘Your children both have their flaws, and you two should have reigned them in before things got out of hand!’

Elf and Goblin looked at each other in confusion, then burst out laughing. The cloud upon which their mighty palace floated, bobbled up and down. The mortal realm wobbled and a great chasm opened, swallowing a thousand people.

‘At least our children are capable of thinking for themselves!’ Elf said.

‘Yeah!’ Goblin chimed in. ‘Your children sit around all day, and don’t bother to do anything!’

‘They’re growing fat and lazy,’ Elf smirked, ‘just like you.’

Angel looked down at his rather round belly and frowned. It ballooned out from underneath his chin and he couldn’t see his feet. He was lounged out on a couch but his wings did protest at being squished against the fluffy pillows.

‘Can you even fly anymore?’ Goblin asked.

Angel reached over to the table beside him and grabbed a few grapes. He had flown to meet with his siblings but it was upon the backs of a few hundred eagles. ‘I do not think that I have bothered with that for a few centuries,’ he admitted, more to himself than his siblings.

‘Maybe you’re pregnant?’ Goblin said.

Elf frowned and cuffed the back of Goblin’s head hard enough to make him fall over. Down in the mortal realm, a mountain that had withstood numerous meteorite impacts crumbled into the sea, along with its inhabitants. She strode over to Angel and snatched the grapes from his hands. Angel made a desperate grab for them, but missed and nearly fell off the couch.

‘If he’s pregnant, that would break your truce,’ Human interjected, striding through the diamond arch entrance to join his siblings.

Elf looked at Angel, frowning. All of them had agreed that for the sake of balance, they would no longer create any more life.

‘Brother!’ Goblin greeted Human warmly, whilst trying to smooth his tunic. ‘I suppose your trip went well?’

‘As well as I expected,’ Human held out his hand and an apple flew into it. The apple trees in the mortal realm all bloomed at once. He began chewing and talking at the same time. ‘Your children are plotting to destroy our sister’s.’

‘What?’ Elf sat down on Angel’s couch, her normally cruel and calculating face marred by furrowed brows. She reached for a goblet of wine and downed it in an instant. Angel reached over and rubbed her shoulder.

‘Oh, and they even managed to convince his children to help them.’ Human nodded in Angel’s direction, bits of apple flying out of his mouth.

Angel gave a start. His eyes widened and he fell off the couch, splattering himself on the white marble tiles. He hacked up a half-eaten grape. He starred into the accusing eyes of his sister.

Elf’s pale skin began to darken. She crushed the goblet in her fingers and blood ran down her wrists. The wind outside their palace howled but inside all were silent. The oceans in the mortal realm turned violent and a few thousand sailors lost their lives.

Human approached Elf and took hold of her injured hand, whispering quiet words the other two couldn’t hear. The blood disappeared at his command. She released a shaky breath.

‘Sister, I swear I had no inkling of this treacherous plot,’ Angel begged, his perfect cherub blonde hair falling askew across his face. Yellow feathers were bent at awkward angles as they had been slightly crushed under his massive body weight.

‘You’re a fool.’ Elf grabbed the back of his blonde hair and slammed her elder brother’s face into the cool tiles. She rose, meaning to put as much space between them as possible.

Angel moaned, clutching at his bloodied face. He spat blood and reached for more grapes.

‘I suppose you knew all along?’ Elf loomed over Goblin, hoping to use her height to intimidate him. Down below in the mortal realm, the seas retreated before surging up against the coast, sweeping over the land and killing thousands.

Goblin smirked at her.

‘Knew? I commanded them to do it.’ The tips of his horns flushed with pleasure at the sight of his sister’s distraught face.

‘Why?’

‘Because your children wiped out every single rose! All of them!’ Goblin spat back. ‘I like roses, they smell nice and look pretty on my horns. Now what am I supposed to put on my horns?’

‘You want my children dead because of flowers?’ Elf said incredulously.

‘Roses,’ Goblin retorted.

Human smacked Goblin’s head. He strode over to his twin sister and held her hands in his.

‘I can still save your children.’ He turned to his two brothers, both still rubbing the backs of their heads. ‘I can save all your children. You don’t have to fight.’

‘Since there’s no need to fight, our dear sister should apologize for slamming my face into the floor!’ Angel said whilst munching on grapes. He touched the back of his golden head and winced, feeling blood on his fingers.

‘And perhaps you should pay more attention to your children,’ Elf retorted, ‘instead of letting them be influenced by those with stronger resolves than yours!’ She balled her fists and struck Angel again. The universe darkened. A thousand first-born sons were beheaded to appease the gods.

Goblin met Elf’s eyes and gave her his shark-toothed grin.

‘They needed guidance, so I gave them guidance,’ Goblin said. ‘Wouldn’t want them running amok.’ His grin broadened as Elf’s face paled. Far below them, entire forests went up in flames.

‘I’d hate to think just how terrible your children could be without your guidance,’ Elf growled, her lovely face becoming wolfish.

Angel consumed the grapes on the plate before him in one bite then rose. The ground rumbled beneath his massive belly, and the foundations of the siblings’ mighty palace shook with each step Angel took.

‘If you two would stop arguing, then perhaps we can let our brother speak.’ The mortal realm beneath them shook with each step, but not too violently. The heavens cleared and light broke through once more.

Human nodded his thanks. ‘All of you love your children, but they quarrel amongst each other.’

‘Some truly marvellous deductions.’ Goblin picked up a pear and twirled it in his fingers. ‘I suppose we can go back to ignoring each other now that we’ve figured that out.’ He placed the pear upon his horns and gazed at his reflection in a bowl of water. The fires burning far beneath them took his shape; a thousand people died gazing upon his beauty.

Human ignored him and turned to Angel. ‘You’re all different, you always fight. Your children always fight. Now you need to stop fighting amongst yourselves so your children stop fighting.’

‘How do we stop them from fighting?’ Angel plucked out a bent golden wing and frowned.

‘Remove their differences. Make them the same.’

For a moment, there was silence.

‘Well, then there’s the question of who do we model the children after?’ Goblin butted in. The pear fell off his horns so he replaced it with an apple.

‘Me,’ Human answered.

‘Absolutely not,’ Goblin fired back. The horns atop his head flushed red. ‘You didn’t want children thousands of years ago, you mocked us for it! You shouldn’t have them now!’

‘A fact that now pains me dearly,’ Human returned. ‘I have walked amongst your children. I know them far better than any of you. I want to save them.’

Goblin sneered at him, as the apple bobbled of his head. Two bananas were pierced by his thorns. They didn’t fall off.

‘None of my children would want to part with their wings,’ Angel admitted. ‘It makes them… them, I suppose.’

‘My children aren’t losing their horns.’ Goblin chucked one of the bananas at Angel’s head, the gooey yellow flesh mixed into his blonde hair. Goblin giggled and aimed the other banana.

Elf snatched it out of the air. She dropped it to the marble tiles.

‘Sister?’ Goblin said.

Elf held her hand up, stopping him.

‘Your children have already made a pact for the death of all my children. I will do anything to save them. Even this foolish plan.’

Angel coughed.

‘Perhaps then we should consider this idea?’ His meaty paw of a hand reached out to hold Elf’s slender one. He squeezed it and smiled at his little sister. ‘We must unite for the sake of our children.’ He looked at Goblin. ‘All of our children.’

‘Fine.’ Goblin strode over and offered his clawed hands to his siblings. Angel’s meaty paws thumped into Goblin’s claws, while Elf delicately placed her hand down.

‘Or you could fight to the death, and whomever is victorious can annihilate the others’ children?’ Human said.

‘Hush.’

‘You’re such a middle child.’

‘Father always said he was weird.’

Human pouted and started using Angel’s wings as target practice.

The three siblings ignored their brother and the flying fruit. Instead, they focused on each other. They closed their eyes. In their minds, they conjured images of their children. They were all so different. The siblings blended their minds together, melding and bonding. Their thoughts interwove, all their flaws exposed. Nothing was hidden.

One seemed to pull away out fear, but the other two reached out and reassured them. Their love for the children strode them to push on.

They saw the world before them. They saw trees grow tall and die within seconds. Volcanoes thrust islands into the oceans. Water rained down on the land, then the sun withered it. The sun exploded into a ball of light. The world ended and begun. A rose was born and died. They breathed life into the world and they could take it away.

Independently, they had made their children. Moulded them from clay in their image. Forged them in the great smithy hidden in the sun. Imbued them with life from the deepest oceans. Their children grew. They understood the land but not each other. Now, the walls broke down. They reached out to one another. What made their children unique, they took away. They saw their children but thought of their childless brother. He did not have any children. Together, they willed their children to be reborn in his image. Human.

The horns flattened. The wings flew off. The pointed ears became round. Human.

Elf fell, convulsing, to the floor. She struggled to breathe. The air felt toxic, she coughed and spluttered but the air would not pass. Her twin was at her side instantly, whispering words of comfort.

Angel fell over, landing on his wings. He cried out in pain, then joy. He was still him.

Goblin threw up. He shivered and downed a large goblet of wine. It tasted like ash and he spat the wine out. He crammed his fist into his mouth and relief washed over him. His pointed teeth remained. He gazed into a bowl of water and nearly cried when he saw the horns still perched on top of his head.

‘It is done.’ Angel smiled at his siblings.

Goblin and Elf smiled and gazed down at the mortal realm. The smiles soon vanished when they found all life was gone.

‘Is now a good time to mention that everyone is dead?’ Human said.

Goblin looked at Human.

‘What have you done?’

‘Me? I didn’t do anything.’ Human replied.

‘Where are our children?’ Elf asked, fighting to remain calm.

‘It appears that during your temper tantrums, you killed them all.’ Human smiled. ‘They could survive anything the natural world threw at them, but couldn’t survive your tantrums.’

‘I thought you wanted to save them?’ Elf said in a small voice.

‘No, I wanted Father to see how you three managed to colossally screw the world over, and he did,’ Human said.

‘Trickster!’ Angel snapped.

‘Demon!’ Goblin hissed.

‘Why?’ Elf’s eyes pleaded with her twin, but his eyes remained cruel.

‘I want my own children, and you three were dumb enough kill yours—so now Father will let me.’ Human smirked and strode out, leaving the other three in a stunned silence.

The mortal realm was silent. The oceans stopped. The fires stopped. The world stopped spinning. The three looked upon their now dead world. An empty rock.

‘We’re gonna kill his kids, right?’ asked Goblin.

‘Agreed.’

‘I’ll grab my torture kit!’

‘I said kill, not torture!’

 

 

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