“It only takes one person who believes.”

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Quinn, a remarkable lad who has no idea how remarkable he truly is, longs for adventure. He gets one with his grandfather, the formidable Black Art.

 

Black Art by PJ McIlvaine

Quinn found him in the fields, barely breathing under a blanket of snow. If he had not found him when he did, it was a certainty that he wouldn’t have lasted another hour, let alone a day.  He slept for a week, sweaty with fever, and when he finally roused, he was weak as a newborn foal. The only name Quinn and Sosie knew him by was what Irina, their mother, had called him even before he had left with their father. She spat it out milking the beasts, cried it when her fingers bled from tilling the rocky soil that produced very little: Black Art.

Black Art, once a proud lion of a man, had sat by the fire for weeks on end, old and shriveled. Sosie had no recollection of him, and only a dim memory of their father. But Quinn did, for he had the curse that he remembered everything and forgot nothing.

Irina burned to know what had happened to Ernst, but Black Art, though ill, was not a man to be hurried.   It came out one evening like a quick storm that had taken days to brew. Irina had cajoled a fretful Sosie to bed. Quinn was at the table, doing his lessons by the lantern.   Black Art was in his chair, his unlit pipe in his hand.  Irina bounded in, hands trembling, hours of worry and fear exploding. “What have you done with my husband? You should have been gone three months!”

Black Art calmly lit his pipe with an ember.  “Woman, you would not believe me even if I told you.”  He took a long breath before continuing, his face gray as the smoke curling from his pipe.   “The devil got him, but don’t you worry. I will get him back.”

Irina let out a shrill laugh, thinking the fever had seized him again.

Quinn didn’t know what to make of it. He had heard the hushed whispers, seen the sharp looks and elbow jostling every time they went into the village to trade. It was said that his maternal grandmother had the gift of healing, and her mother before her, but Irina had chosen a different path. His paternal grandfather, too, apparently had the ability of second sight. The days and nights of necromancers and fire-breathing dragons were long gone, but the old ways of the forest and Mother Nature were still feared, and it was a cold hard fact that no man in the village was more feared than Black Art.

Black Art turned to Quinn. “The gnarled tree in the North Fork.  I buried a rucksack by the overgrown root. I must have it. Do not dawdle to look inside it. I will know if you do.”

Quinn flew out of the cabin as if he had wings. Usually he did not go out after sunset, but he was more frightened of his grandfather than of any wild forest creature. The stars were low in the sky and an owl screeched a lonely tune as he dug around the root with his bare hands.  He unearthed a tattered rucksack and ran back to their cabin quick as a rabbit. Whatever was inside the sack, it was heavy, warm and pulsating like a man’s heart.

Black Art smiled as he reached inside the rucksack and retrieved a smooth glistening orb that sparkled with a thousand colors.

Irina turned pale and gasped. “I will not have that thing in my house!”

“Pardon? Your house?” Black Art roared. “Daughter, you forget that I and your mother, God rest her soul, lay in this very room before you were born.” He stared hard at Quinn, his eyes like snake slits. “Boy, do you know what this is?”

Quinn nodded. It was a Dae’gron egg. He had never seen one before, of course, but everyone knew the story of the last dragon and how in her despair she had been tricked to mate with a daemon. Their doomed offspring was neither dragon nor daemon, but a hideous tailed beast with misshapen wings and gnarled talons sharper than the King’s own war blade.  When Quinn was no higher than his father’s knee, a family in the Hill Lands had been slashed to ribbons. Ernst had been in the hunting party. The pitiful, maggot-infested carcass they brought back bore scant resemblance to the monster of the old tales.  After a few days, the carcass was cut up for scraps and thrown to the dogs, but even they would not gnaw it. There had been no reports of the beast since, and it was widely believed that it had been hunted out of existence.

Black Art’s face softened as he poured homemade ale into two goblets and slid one toward Irina. “Child, I am an old man who will have no more great adventures. I am not long for this world. As a father, I know I could have done better, but I beg you, take pity on me this night only and let us drink with no hard feelings.”

Irina bore no great love for her father, but she had been taught to respect her elders, so she drank. When she woke three days later, she discovered that Black Art had kept his promise, probably for the first time in his life. He and the Dae’gron egg were indeed gone. So were Quinn and Sosie. By that time they were deep in the heart of the Crystal Mountains, where icicles hung like rapiers and fog was so thick it choked like vines.

At first Sosie had whimpered, but a handful of sweet comb candy, which Black Art kept in his pocket for just such an occasion, soothed her.  Quinn was secretly thrilled. He was on an adventure. He would not have had it any other way. There were old graybeards in their village that had never been on any adventure; hardly even stuck a thumb beyond the valley, and here Quinn was not even ten.

It soon became evident to Quinn that his grandfather had planned this journey well. At the end of each day, they always found shelter: a cabin, a lean-to, a bungalow, a tree fort. There was always food and Black Art made sure that Quinn saw where the provisions were hidden.  As the days went by, Black Art said very little, and Quinn asked very little. His father had taught him the value of patience.

One night they set up camp in the tall billowing grasses of the Sheep Meadow. Sosie, exhausted, drifted off to sleep without touching her plate. The fire burned low as Quinn huddled under a blanket.

Black Art nodded his head in approval. “You are your father’s son, obedient and respectful. He has reason to be proud.” He tossed a pine cone into the fire, and it crackled.

“Why did the devil take Father?” Quinn blurted.

It took a moment for Black Art to respond. “It was because he was an honest man. Understand that of all the souls the devil collects, the soul of an honest man is the most prized and desired of all. To corrupt it gives the devil enormous pleasure, as he feeds on deceit, betrayal and treachery.”

As Black Art told it, there had been three trials. Their hunt had born little, and with winter on their backs like a braying wife, they were forced to go farther outland than usual. On their travels they encountered a blind, bedraggled beggar. The beggar dropped his cup, and out of it spilled four King’s coins.

“As I am not an honest man, I would have put two coins in the cup. Your father put all four back, for he could not abide taking from the less fortunate under false pretenses.” Black Art sighed as he cradled his broadsword.

Shortly afterwards, they came upon an ox, robust and well-fed. “That ox would have fed us for two seasons, and since I am a thief and not ashamed of it, I would have spent more time pissing in the bushes than on finding its rightful owner. But your father insisted, and he soon found the beast’s owner, a widow woman with six mouths to feed.”

The last trial came when they had stopped at a tavern for the night. A woman of low birth had offered herself to Ernst. “If I had been ten years younger, I would have lain with the slattern, for being faithful was never one of my virtues. But your father would sooner cut out his heart and serve it on a silver platter to the King then betray your mother.”

Soon Ernst fell ill. His arms and legs swelled up to twice its size, and he was afflicted with a strange fever, hot one moment, cold the next.  “At first I thought it was a spider bite, but no, it was the devil, furious and not to be denied. Your father fell into a half-sleep, not dead, not alive. Desperate times call for desperate measures. That is when I struck a devil’s bargain.”

Quinn knew the answer in a heartbeat. “The Dae’gron Egg,” he whispered.

“Aye,” Black Art nodded. “When I started out there were three, and now there is only one, which makes it all the more precious.”

“So we are going to see the Devil?”

“Some call him the Devil, but there is more than one, and he takes many shapes.” Black Art stared at Quinn, not unkindly. “All will be revealed in due time, boy. It will be especially hard for you. I suspect you will discover more gifts as you grow older. I think the same will be true of your sister.”

Quinn bit his lower lip, drawing blood. He thought back to the day when he had been with the older boys in their cubbyhole. He watched as they did unspeakable things to a tree lizard. To his shame, he had done nothing to stop them. Unbeknownst to Quinn, Sosie had followed them, and when the older boys had gone, she found the dead lizard. Quinn could not say what happened next, but within seconds the lizard came back to life and slithered away. Frightened, Quinn told his father what had happened, but Ernst said it was best not to speak of it or tell his mother.

Black Art puffed on his pipe. “Your father was right. Your great-grandfather was shunned for much less.”

Quinn nearly leapt out of his skin. “How could you know that? Are you a sorcerer? I thought they were all dead.”

Black Art smiled. “Necromancy is not dead, it has been forgotten. It only takes one person who believes. Belief can move mountains.”

Quinn thought of his mother, who did not believe.

“True. She does not. Yet.” Black Art’s face hardened. “We have prattled enough for one night. Rest, for tomorrow will be another arduous day. We are on the most perilous part of our journey. There will come a time when you must do as I say with no questions asked. You will hear and see terrible things but you must not waver or look back. Luckily you have youth on your side, for if there is one thing that the Devil hates above all else it is children, for children are innocent and do not fear him as we adults do. Do you understand?”

Quinn did not, but he nodded anyway, fear filling his gut like mud in a sinkhole.

A few days later they began their descent into the Cavern of Lost Souls, a winding and seemingly never-ending maze of tunnels and caves that went deep into the core of the earth. They passed fire holes and oozing pits, and in the foul breeze they could hear the screeches and moans from the doomed, dying, and undead. They climbed and walked until their feet were blistered and sore, for Black Art kept a quick pace.

After what seemed like an eternity, they came upon a moat guarded by an imp with a stump for a face.

Sosie thought him quite droll and giggled.

“What mortal dares to pass through here?” the imp cried, indignant.

“I am no mere mortal, imp!” Black Art bellowed as he opened his rucksack and took out the egg.

The egg had changed greatly since the last time Quinn had laid eyes on it.  For one thing, it was bigger, and its colors had faded while its surface had become translucent with tiny cracks. Quinn could see the outline of a misshapen creature with tiny wings. He shuddered.

Mesmerized by the egg, the imp motioned them to follow him as he scampered down a dark tunnel. Black Art put Sosie on his shoulders as they waded through waist-high water. Quinn felt things brush against his legs. He dared not look down. When the waters receded, they found themselves in a dark, dank corridor. As they walked things crunched under their shoes. Quinn glanced down and saw what looked like bones.

In the foreground there was an eerie orange glow, and they followed it like a beacon. It was there, in an enormous volcanic fire pit, that they came upon the Devil, half-man, half-beast, accompanied by another imp who was uglier than his brother.

“Who of the living dares to walk amongst the dead?” the Devil thundered.

Black Art shrouded Quinn and Sosie with his cloak. “You know who I am. Where is Ernst?”

“Where are my eggs?” the Devil retorted.

“Ernst.  I did not come all this way to bargain.”

The Devil snapped his fingers. In an instant Ernst appeared, curled up in a ball, more dead than alive.

“Papa!” Sosie shrieked.

“What was that?” the Devil leered and flared his nostrils.

“Just a cry from the undead,” Black Art replied as he unearthed the Dae’gron egg.

“You said there were three!” the Devil bellowed.

“So there were. Now there is one. If you do not wish to—“Black Art held the egg over the fire pit.

“No!” the Devil roared.

Black Art drew closer to the center of the pit. “You will let Ernst go. When he has passed the cavern and is deep in the sun, then you shall have your damned egg. Not a moment before.”

The Devil reared back on his hind legs. “You go too far, black wizard! I will keep both, the man and the egg, and I will suck the marrow from your bones. What do you say about that?”

In an instant Quinn heard Black Art’s voice in his mind: Take your father and sister and run like the wind, as fast as your legs will carry you. And do not, under any circumstance, turn back.

Quinn leaped out of the shadows and reached for his father.

The Devil recoiled, his fear palpable. “A child! He has brought a child!” Furious, he hurled both imps into the pit.

Black Art threw the egg against the wall; thick, gelatinous goo spilled out. The puny Dae’gron, too feeble to breathe, choked on the muck.

“My child!” the Devil screamed.

Now Quinn, Black Art commanded. Now.

Black Art drew his broadsword and lunged at the Devil.

Quinn carried his father back the way they had come, dragging Sosie behind him.  The mountain shook and trembled, as if in the grip of a powerful force. Rocks rained down on them as they navigated their way out. They did not stop until they were well in the grass lands.

Free of the Devil’s grip, Ernst made a remarkable recovery, his memory of the events erased. By the time they met up with Irina and some of the more brave souls from their village, Ernst was nearly the man that Irina had married. Soon the tale of Black Art and the Dae’gron Egg traveled through the land in hushed whispers, and everyone marveled at Black Art’s noble sacrifice. When Ernst went into the village, he was greeted warmly and with respect. His family prospered.

Late at night, when the moon was high and the sky blazoned with stars, Quinn liked to climb up on the thatched roof and remember, for remember he did.  There, with everything quiet and still, he was sure that he heard the rumbling of Black Art and the Devil, deep in the throes of an eternal battle that had no winners or losers.

It only takes one person who believes. Belief can move mountains.

Quinn believed.

 

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Requiem For The Fatherland

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Helmut Steiner had been rejected on every continent; his writing was deemed not “socially relevant.” The dolts! He drowned his sorrows at the local hofbrau. There one night he met a stranger who proposed something quite odd…

 

REQUIEM FOR THE FATHERLAND by William McIlvaine

 

Helmut Steiner was waiting at the gate when the post arrived with news that his manuscript had been rejected.

April 20, 1889

Dear Herr Steiner:

We regret that your novel, The Black Forest Romance, is unsuitable for publication at this time. We are at present interested only in works of realistic fiction with contemporary themes. Our editors are of the opinion that the Romanticism exhibited in your tale is out of step with modern audiences’ taste for socially relevant literature and therefore not worth the financial risk of publication. Please feel free to contact us again when your work meets more contemporary standards.

Most cordially,

Meinhard Graebner

Editor, Graebner & Sons, Publishers

Mannheim, Germany

That was it. The last publisher in Germany had turned him down. It was now logistically impossible for him to get his book published unless he gave it to publishers in England or France or Russia and what guarantee did he have of better luck with them? Russian publishers were notoriously careless with manuscripts and not even Russian authors could get their money from them.

The oafish English, what did they know about literature or anything cultural? And the French! Why, it was precisely the barbaric tones of the new French literature which was sweeping Europe before its crazed, decadent maw that Steiner was so earnestly writing against. Balzac be damned! The trash they were turning out was not literature, it was indecent. And they were the rage, with sweet Deutschland helpless before the onslaught of tasteless, formless, unsentimental books that dissected the degradation of the human spirit instead of celebrating and ennobling it, as the great Germans Goethe and Wagner and their ilk had done. No true German could create such cheap, base, vulgar garbage as what passed for literature in France, and yet even the German publishers were clamoring for it.

If the German people’s taste had sunk so low, perhaps it was no use being a writer for them. German literature cried out for a new voice that would speak for the values and spirit of a people, united under Bismarck and preparing to assume the rightful place of the Teutons and Aryans on the world stage.

Steiner put the manuscript away on the shelf, next to the other unpublished novels, tales, poems, and essays he had accumulated through the years, work that should have constituted the legacy of one of Germany’s greatest men of letters.

He could picture them in their leather bindings with gold leaf on the endpaper, and inscriptions, residing majestically in libraries throughout the world. He could imagine himself the literary giant of his age – Germany’s answer to Russia’s Tolstoy, France’s Balzac, England’s Dickens – residing in modest wealth while acolytes came to visit him and seek his inspiration and encouragement. He could see name appearing proudly in German literary encyclopedias and the subject of scholarly monographs. He could see . . .

. . . that he was a burned-out failure. His years of attempting to build a towering reputation were reduced to a few tales and poems published in obscure magazines that earned him no money and the rejection of his novel by every publisher in the land.

It might not be so bad to end it here and now, he thought. Fitting to emulate Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther” – Goodbye, cruel world and all that. Yes, if he could be sure that in his death his genius would be recognized. Perhaps in a future age – an age in which his predictions of German glory had played out as he had said – then the pages gathering dust on his shelf would be discovered and revealed in their true light, remarked upon by scholars and delighted in by the enlightened masses of Deutschland.

Perhaps if he could create one last great work, something that would secure his reputation. He would have to pull out all the stops, as the pipe organists said. Hadn’t those English Romantic poets all but sold their souls in order to write those verses? Was there not a devil he could sell his soul to?

Who really believed that nonsense?, Steiner thought as he trudged from his tiny house to the local hofbrau. Might as well drown one’s sorrows in the best beer in Munich. Herr Dietrich kept a fine house and was not troubled by the artistic tortures of Helmut Steiner, so long as he paid his tab.

Steiner knew the patrons of Dietrich’s never worried for anything. They were happy enough to plod along in their daily lives, never striving for better ones, never feeling themselves part of a larger destiny. The country had been at peace for nearly thirty years. Life was a good as next week’s hofbrau. To think that he was slaving and sacrificing his life for oafs like Joachim Kleindienst, who spent nearly every waking hour drunk on wine and beer in front of his hovel behind the hofbrauhaus. Or Dieter Schencker, who held down a miserable clerk’s job in his family’s equally miserable iron works, whose products were so shoddy no one in Munich would buy them and so they only sold them to unsuspecting – or uncaring – buyers from out of town. Or Gottfried Pfeiffer, who lived to whore and wench between bouts of fitful employment.

Were these the German people Steiner believed had a destiny to rule the world? Was this what he was striving for – to illuminate and ennoble a race that didn’t know about illumination and wouldn’t have cared to be ennobled as long as they got their beer every day and their whores every night? It is so futile to be an artist, he thought, feeling blacker by the minute until he pushed his way into Dietrich’s, at which moment he was just about ready to renounce his German citizenship and go live with the French, where – he hated to admit it – the wine was better.

“Our poet returns,” crowed one of the regulars as he entered the boisterous room. Ruddy faces turned toward him, some he knew, some he didn’t, but all characteristically stout, mustachioed, and among the older ones, balding. The drinking room was sparsely furnished but filled with bodies and smoke and rowdy with talk and laughter. Steiner was well known here and spent what little money he made drinking and arguing politics and art with whoever would listen.

“Did you create something for the Fatherland today?” sniped a man in a brown suit, mustache holding a trace of beer foam.

“Ach, you just want to be famous,” they would say.

Yes, he did want to be famous, he admitted to himself, but it was because he deserved to be. He was a visionary, after all.

“I see a Germany invincible,” he liked to say. “There will be a time when we stand alone against the world and emerge victorious. The Aryan people will rule in a reich that will last a thousand years!”

Most of his listeners had only a vague idea of what he was talking about. Most of them still thought of themselves as Bavarians, not united Germans. In the north it was the same – Saxons, Wurttemburgians, Schlesweig-Holsteiners. True, the Chancellor Bismarck had forged this German nation in “blood and iron,” as he liked to say. But this bunch of happy Bavarians was unconvinced that they had that much in common with Hanoverians or Westphalians. The idea of a Fatherland of all German-speaking people was slow to sink in.

“Did you create anything for the Fatherland today?” The cry was taken up. Rough laughter trailed Steiner as he retired to a dim corner of the room with a stein to nurse his wounded pride. He endured the heckling silently while moodily registering the presence of a stranger at the table next to his who was not taking part in the merriment that was at Steiner’s expense.

The stranger was dressed in a black suit with a black overcoat and wide-brimmed black hat that must have been the fashion of the day in Hamburg or Bonn, not here in the south, Steiner noted distractedly. The man leaned over and said with a knowing look, “You are a poet, yes?”

Steiner replied with a bitter laugh. “You see how they regard one.”

“Yes, prophets and geniuses are often scorned in their times, but they have a way of living in history when their prophecies are proved true and their works are celebrated for the genius they are.”

“Only after they are dead,” Steiner said.

“Yes, that is unfortunately true.”

“Would that I could sell my soul to some devil to write an immortal sonnet or a tale that would ring true in future ages.” He took a long draught of beer.

“Such a thing could be arranged.”

Steiner quickly sobered up. He looked the stranger straight in the eye.

“Repeat what you just said.”

The stranger repeated it.

“You are the devil?”

The man chuckled. “The devil who reveals himself as the devil would be a very foolish devil indeed.” Steiner noticed that the man did not speak German with an accent he was familiar with. It seemed to come from nowhere.

“Let’s just say that I can aid you in your literary efforts and perhaps grant you the immortality that you wish.”

“But how?”

The man leaned closer, to speak more softly against the din of Dietrich’s hofbrauhaus.

“How would you like to write the most prophetic novel of the dawning 20th century?”

Steiner grinned the grin of a man who knows he is being taken for a fool. In the 20th century he would have said something like, “You’re pulling my leg” or “Yeah, right.” As it was, he said, “You are not being serious with me.”

“Oh, but I am,” the stranger said gaily. “I can give you what you need to know.”

From inside his cloak he pulled a book and surreptitiously handed it to Steiner. The cover said The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The four-color paper dust jacket astounded Steiner, who felt its smooth surface with his hands and peered intently at the lettering. He looked up at the stranger inquiringly, but the man said nothing and his face betrayed no emotion.

“Look inside.”

“This happens?” was Steiner’s strangled query.

The stranger pointed to the publication date: 1960.

“I don’t believe you.”

“I have more to show you,” the man said, and pulled out Mein Kampf, paperback histories of the Holocaust and World War II, All Quiet on the Western Front. Steiner had never seen anything like them. No one in the hofbrauhaus was paying the two men any attention.

“But it can’t be,” Steiner sputtered. “You are playing a trick. A very elaborate one, I must admit. The books are a hoax.”

“Oh, they are real, all right,” said the stranger. “I assure you I am not tricking you. The future is there. Write it and you will be famous.”

Steiner was dreadfully confused. Even if he accepted this man’s word that the books were genuine, that the facts they contained were the true history of the century to come and he was somehow privileged to have it revealed to him now, how, he asked himself, could he accept the truth of what they told him? That the German nation would be defeated, not once but twice within a generation, and give rise to a madman’s twisted vision of what it meant to be German, a vision which would go down in ruins of destruction and infamy? Was this the German people’s inheritance?

“I see you are wrestling with your conscience,” the man said after a short time in which Steiner gulped his beer and stared at the table. “The man who sees the future is not promised that he sees what he wishes to see. The future is what you make it now, and already these wheels are in motion.”

“But to be humiliated by the French,” Steiner blustered, and several men turned their heads in his direction. He glared at them and said nothing. They turned back to their talk. And the English! Even that puny country in America!

“No, I won’t hear of it. It’s too much to believe.”

“There is a whole lot more in there that’s too much to believe,” the stranger said. “Think what you’ve got here. You don’t have to believe it. You don’t have to write a history book before history happens. You are an artist. Make a story and I guarantee you will make history.”

Steiner stroked his chin. Yes, he thought, it could be done.

“Let me read the books,” he said.

“Study them,” the stranger said. “But do not let anyone know you have them. I will meet you here one week from today. Bring them with you.”

Steiner hid the books under his overcoat and left the hofbrauhaus. A man near the door winked at his bulging overcoat and said conspiratorially, “The Fatherland!” And then laughed uproariously at his own joke. Others in the hofbrauhaus joined in. As he trudged through the street, Steiner heard them receding in the distance. “To the Fatherland! O Deutschland!”

Helmut Steiner was rarely seen in the hofbrauhaus after that.

*****

Memo:

November 8, 1951

To: Dr. Albert Einstein

Director, Advanced Technology Laboratory, Berlin

 From: Dr. Leo Szilard

Director of Research, Continuum Laboratory #2, Stuttgart

Classification: High

Subject: Discovery, Prime Interest

 

Dear Dr. Einstein:

Thank you for the glowing mention of our work in Research Lab #2 in your last report. It was quite a lift around here, believe me. Though we all know we are on the verge of a significant breakthrough here, both you and I know how difficult it can be getting this kind of thing justified to the top brass.

Anyway, I think we have an interesting piece of news here which might of interest to you and your objectives.

As you know, according to the ManyWorlds Theory of quantum mechanics, there are many universes, possibly an infinite number, existing parallel to our own, occupying the same space and time. They can only be observed when the single point of deviation from our continuum is detected through photonic regression analysis. Our research so far has verified that these deviations can be used to reconstruct the historical continuum from that point and observe its consequences. Since there is theoretically an infinite number of these deviations at an infinite number of points, it is also factually, not theoretically, impossible to isolate them all. For six months we have found deviation points from our own Time 1 continuum that amount to nothing more than infinitesimal blips: for example, one poor peasant dies one year sooner in one continuum and therefore has one less offspring, the absence of whom in the continuum has negligible consequences compared to our own. On the other hand, a continuum in which the American Colonial Uprising was not successfully defeated by the British would have incalculable ramifications – if we could find it!

This information is by way of background for the recent interesting discovery.

We have detected a very strong deviation in a continuum quite close to Time 1 – almost disturbingly so. The divergence centers upon our own Fuhrer. From what we have been able to ascertain in this line of divergence, the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler himself, is, rather than a benevolent leader of a technologically sophisticated nation, a despotic ruler of a Germany dominated by fascism and military extremism, and responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews. (Believe me, Dr. Einstein, I find it as hard to believe as you would.) This Hitler-led Germany instigated a destructive, worldwide war that ended with Germany’s defeat and Hitler’s suicide.

I admit I am quite shaken by this discovery. While we know there is a statistical possibility of such a divergence, that such a radical one should be found in such close proximity to Time 1 is perplexing and a little unsettling. As you know, the divergences we identify generally follow a pattern of lesser to greater deviation the farther they are from Time 1. This deviation is a major deviation from that pattern.

I would normally recommend continued examination in this direction, but in this case I will defer to your judgment on how to proceed.

Yours respectfully,

L. Szilard

                                                                        *****

Memo:

Dear Dr. Szilard:

Thank you for the highly interesting news. It is indeed indicative of a possible breakthrough in continuum research. We have known all along that the vast majority of divergences are trivial and your research is helping to improve the technology to detect the significant ones more easily. The Fuhrer is aware of this, through my briefings with him.

As for the grim discovery therein, it may be a statistical outlier. But I suspect that the point of divergence may actually be at the publication of the novel Fatherland by Helmut Steiner in 1890. It described a futuristic dystopia surprisingly similar to the one you discovered, and had such a profound effect on the politics of the German people that they would never have allowed such an eventuality. Hitler himself read it and it influenced him deeply.

But I do not believe the “evil fuhrer” discovery will cause too many waves, as yet. As a matter of fact, I will be meeting with Hitler tomorrow, and I can give him the message that we have uncovered his “secret self.” Ha ha, Fuhrer. Where have you been hiding all these years? What have you done with the real Hitler? I will tell it to him at tomorrow’s meeting. You know the Fuhrer enjoys a good laugh.

Yours,

A. Einstein

Life is like a car. Sometimes you make the wrong turn.

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Ethan had never gotten over Jenny.  Life gave him a second chance.  He was finally going to make things right.  But destiny had other ideas…none of them good. Ethan should have stayed in the car and turned up Michael Stanley. For your reading pleasure, may I present…

THE GIRL IN THE PINK FLIP-FLOPS by PJ McIlvaine

It was 3:45 a.m and I’d just finished my overnight shift at the factory, just another long, dull night in a string of long, dull nights. I was driving on Old Block Road listening to the Michael Stanley Band belt out “Working Again,” the best goddamn unknown band that Cleveland has ever produced.  They should have gone a lot further than they did; guess you could say that about a lot of folks, including me.  I didn’t usually drive this way, but I was tired and distracted and missed the turnoff.  It’s not like anyone was waiting up for me.

I saw her about a quarter mile from Rankin Bridge. She was on the side of the road, slim with long brown hair braided down her back like a knotted rope. When my headlights passed over her, I could see that she was dressed in a tank-top, a long white skirt down to her ankles, and pink flip-flops—oh, you know, those foam things, the kind you wear to the beach. I never could wear them. They always gave me blisters.

She didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. She just stood there, gently swaying as if she was listening to music in her head. It was like she was waiting for someone—someone special. There was something about her—maybe it was her hair, or the way her hips moved, or the warm spring breeze—that made me think of Jenny.

Now that was a shot to the gut. Damn, I hadn’t thought of Jenny in years. Well, that’s not quite the truth. I thought about her a lot. We were seventeen, we were in love, and we spent most of that magical summer in the back seat of my old man’s Cadillac along with the sounds of Meat Loaf and Billy Joel.  When I held Jenny close, she made me feel that anything and everything was possible, that I could be something more than what I was, which wasn’t much to begin with.  I had no special talents, no hidden genius. But sweet Jenny made me feel like I mattered, and when you’re seventeen, that’s your whole fucking world.

When Jenny told me one night that she was pregnant, I didn’t hesitate. I went straight to the old man and swore up and down that I was going to marry her, no matter what he or anyone else said. I should’ve known that the old buzzard would have other ideas. See, I was being groomed to take over the mill; I was going to college and get a business degree, settle down and marry the “right” woman, the woman he picked out. The bastard had my whole life planned out, and no whore in a tank top and cut-off shorts was going to mess that up. I put up a hell of a fight, but in the end, the old man got his way.  He always did.  He had a way of wearing you down like a pair of brass knuckles. My mother had long ago given up, preferring a bottle of Scotch to dealing with reality. I started the fall semester at the state university, Jenny was shipped off to California to stay with relatives, and her Dad, who was a foreman at the mill, got a nice fat raise and a promotion. It was all very nice and tidy, wrapped up like a Christmas present. The old man even paid for the abortion—six hundred bucks. He docked me for it, too.

Oh, the old man liked to think he had everything figured out, but the one thing he hadn’t counted on was life. In my junior year, the son of a bitch had a stroke that left him drooling in a diaper. The mill went bankrupt, Mom went off the deep end, and I had to drop out of school. The day after he was buried, I took off in his Cadillac. My first stop was Jenny’s house, where her father greeted me with a shotgun.  Jenny was engaged to a nice young man, he said, and she didn’t need me stirring the pot.  Well, after that, my next stop was the interstate, and I didn’t stop driving until the car blew a head gasket in Alabama. I never went back home, not even for my mother’s funeral. It took me awhile, a couple of scrapes with the law, but I got the wildness out of my system and married Susie when she was six months pregnant with Mark. I told myself that I loved Susie, and I suppose I did at some point. Not as much as I loved Jenny, but, you know, lightning doesn’t strike twice.

Over the course of the years I’d worked a variety of jobs in different states—salesman, driver, Security guard—you name it, until I found steady employment at the factory.  I thought I had it good.  I bought a wide-screen TV and a riding lawnmower to go with the house I couldn’t really afford.  I loved my kids, but I didn’t really know them, and they didn’t really know me. I left the emotional stuff to Susie. I always told myself it was going to get better, someday. Well, someday had finally come and the sore truth was that I was on the wrong side of fifty with a bad back and a beer belly, wondering where the hell my life had gone.  Seeing Jenny—I mean, seeing that girl—filled me with a bitter ache that gnawed at me, a sadness that no amount of tortilla chips, salsa and Budweiser could fill.  I glanced at myself in the rear view mirror and saw the gnarled face of my old man.

When I got home, Susie was in bed. I pulled back the covers and snuggled up against her like I used to, but she just pushed me off like a pile of dirty laundry and stumbled headlong into the bathroom. It seemed hard to believe, but once upon a time, I couldn’t get her out of bed. Hell, it wasn’t that long ago that she begged me to get on the day shift so we could spend more time together. Now, we just passed each other like strangers on a train.  I pretended to be asleep as she dressed to go to work, but all I could think about was that girl by Rankin Bridge.  After Susie and the kids were finally out of the house, I fumbled with my pajama bottoms and thought long and hard about what I’d do to the girl in the pink flip-flops as I lifted her long, white skirt.

Later, when I got up, I couldn’t say why exactly, but something was different. For one thing, my back didn’t hurt so much. When I put on my jeans, they weren’t as snug as they had been. I told myself it was skipping that extra six-pack and bag of chips. By the time I got to the plant, I swear, it was like I had the energy of a sixteen-year-old. I lifted boxes like I was some kind of Samson.  Me, who could barely lift a sack of potatoes without calling for an ambulance. The guys kidded me about it, said I was making them look bad. Susie noticed it too, made a couple of snide cracks when I puttered around the garage. What could I tell her? Maybe it was seeing that girl. Maybe it was thinking about Jenny. But whatever it was, I hadn’t felt so goddamn good in months—no, years.  And when I clocked out each night, I cranked up my CD player and began missing the turnoff on purpose. I slowed down when I came upon the bridge, looking, lingering, with a hunger I could taste. But I didn’t see her again. After awhile, I started to think that my eyes had played tricks on me. There’d never been a girl. I’d dreamed the whole thing up. Or maybe it had been that bottle of Jack Daniels I hid under the front seat.

A few days later, I was at the bowling alley with my buddy Silas from the factory. Officially, we were there playing, but unofficially, we were there for beer and girls who could have been our daughters in low-cut T-shirts and tight jeans. While the view was pretty good, I couldn’t stop thinking about Jenny, I mean, the girl on Rankin Bridge.  Hell, if I didn’t know myself better, I’d say I’d been bewitched.

I ordered another round for me and Silas. “Woo-wee, you won the lottery or something?” Silas hooted.

I shook my head. “I wish. Just feeling good.  My back’s been a hell of a lot better.”

“Yeah, those chiropractors work wonders.” Silas grabbed another handful of peanuts.

I fumbled with the words. “Silas, I got a question for you. The kids, where do they like to hang out?”

“Hell, that’s easy. Up on Rankin Bridge.  Been that way since before I was a kid, it’ll be that way when I’m gone. Why you ask?”

I nervously gulped down some beer and spilled some down the front of my shirt. “No particular reason. I just thought one night driving around there that I saw someone I used to know, is all.”

Silas gave me a funny look. “You don’t know, do you? Look, if you want to know about the bridge, you ought to talk to my boy Luther. He’s into that paranormal activity shit.” He turned and shouted at Luther, who was playing pool in the back. “Hey, Luther. Get your fat ass over here.”

Luther shuffled over to us, slow and eager to please. Silas had gotten him a job at the plant as a janitor when he graduated high school last year. Luther was a nice kid, polite and respectful, but not the sharpest saw in Home Depot, if you get my drift.

Silas jabbed his thumb at me. “Tell Ethan what you kids do up on Rankin Bridge.”

Luther’s eyes lit up. “It’s fun, Mr. Ethan. We play music, and Frisbee.  And we hunt for ghosts.”

I stared at Luther. He was dead serious. Silas had this smirk, like he was in on the joke. I decided to play along. “You don’t say, Luther. Ghosts.”

Luther wagged his head like a puppy dog.

“You ever see a ghost up there, Luther?” I asked.

“No, sir.”

“Any of your friends?”

Luther shook his head. “But just ‘cos I don’t see them, doesn’t mean they ain’t there. Bridge is cursed. Everyone knows that.”  That was a lot for Luther to say. Spent, he shambled back to his game.

Silas stared at me. “How come you be asking all these questions? You see something up there?”

I slapped a twenty down on the counter. “I asked a reasonable question, Silas. I don’t like being made a fool of.”  I turned to go, angry and embarrassed.

Silas grabbed me by the arm. “Come on, just jiving with you, man. Hell, let’s just say that I make a point not to drive up there.”

“Why? Afraid you’ll see a dead person?”

“No. ‘Cos it ain’t safe. It’s what you call, how do they say it…accident prone.  Must be the way the bridge is designed. Couple times a year, a car ends up in the river, and some poor asshole ends up with a toe tag. Same thing happened to Big Bob Rankin, except he lived.”

I was confused.  Who did he mean? Big Bob Rankin?  Our boss at the factory?

“Not that Rankin. His Daddy. Happened  when I was kid. My father was a deputy then, I remember him talking about it. The story the Rankins put out was that he took a wrong turn, but my Dad said he reeked of gin.  Big Bob also had a bad habit of putting his hands where they didn’t belong. Knocked up a couple of girls at the factory, so they say. Then he blew his brains out.” Silas paused, gave me a hard look. “Ethan, I’m gonna tell you what I tell Luther, but he don’t listen to me. If I was you, I’d stay far away from that goddamn bridge.  Everything the Rankins touch turns to shit.”

“Except our paychecks,” I teased.

Of course, I couldn’t stay away. I went back that night, and the night after that, and the night after that. I told myself it was because I kept missing the turnoff, but even to myself, I was running out of excuses.

And then a week or so later, I saw her again. It was raining, I could barely see through the windshield. But there she was in the pale moonlight, standing to the side like a wet dog, hair stringy, her skirt matted to her skin, still in those goddamn pink flip-flops. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, but I stopped the car. Hell, I do know. I thought maybe she was in trouble, or needed help. Maybe I wanted to talk to her. Maybe I wanted to fuck her. But by the time I got out of the car, she was gone. I ran into the woods and came upon some kids smoking pot. When they saw me, they took of like bottle rockets. Still, even with the pouring rain, I’d gotten a better look at her this time, and goddamn, she could’ve been Jenny’s twin sister. And just like the last time I’d seen her, I felt great. Better than great. There was something about that girl that made me come alive, made my blood race, made my heart ready to burst through my chest. I’d never felt that way with Susie, ever, not even in our best times. It was like I was coming out of a thick, blinding fog.  It was a feeling I didn’t want to lose.

A couple of days later on my shift, I was working in the back when Silas came up to me. “Ethan, you got a visitor.”

I gave Silas a what for look. “Who are you shitting? At this hour of the night?” Silas shrugged.

As I walked down the corridor, I wondered who it could be. I knew damn well it wasn’t Susie; if something was wrong, she would’ve called. I went into the outer office, and I saw her standing by the soda machine. It took a moment to register, and then I was back in Calhoun Middle School on the first day of eighth grade. I was at my locker, and a girl with long brown hair in a skirt and sandals shot past me. She dropped her book bag, and I picked it up for her. She gave me a smile, and I followed her down the hall like a lost puppy.

“Jenny?” I whispered, not believing my eyes. It had to be a joke. But it wasn’t.  Jenny burst into tears and flew into my arms, and I held her tight, and the years melted away.  Once I got over my initial shock, we went to the cafeteria. Over cups of coffee that went stone cold, Jenny told me everything. How she’d been shipped off to California against her will, how when she came back, that her parents had pushed her into marrying that nice young man, who turned out to be a drunk who used her for a punching bag.

All I could say was that I was sorry. Sorry for not standing up to my old man. Sorry for not looking for her. Sorry for a thousand other things I should have done and didn’t. And sorry, most of all, about our baby.

Jenny became quiet. She whispered something low under her breath. I didn’t catch it the first time, and then she repeated it. She never had the abortion. We had a daughter, her name was Miranda. Somehow she had found out the truth about her real father—me—and had run away. Jenny had no idea where she had gone, but I knew. Oh, I knew, because I saw her in my dreams every night. The girl on Rankin Bridge.

Jenny was staying at a motel on the outskirts of town, and I told her that I’d meet her there after my shift was over. I kissed her and held her and told her that everything would be all right. I was going to make it right. I was going to find our girl—maybe she was hurt, confused, disoriented—and make up for lost time, with her, and with Jenny. I saw it all so clearly now.

The hours flew by and then I was in my car, driving, Michael Stanley playing at full blast.  A line of severe thunderstorms rolled in and it was raining hard; cars and trucks were slipping all over the place. I sensed her before I saw her, standing under a grove of trees. It’s funny. I don’t even remember slowing down or stopping. I don’t remember her getting into the car.  I don’t even remember turning the ignition or the roar of the engine as I drove onto the bridge. I remember saying her name, and she looked at me, puzzled.

“Who’s Miranda?” she said.

The next thing I knew, the car jackknifed over the bridge railing and quickly filled up with water. I frantically pulled on the door handle, but it was stuck. I looked at Miranda, and instead of younger version of Jenny, what stared back at me were the sunken eyes of a rotting corpse. As the cold water rushed over my head and my lungs exploded, it gave me a soft kiss and a sad look.

“I’m sorry. I thought you were him,” it whispered as it disappeared, her pink flip-flops floating.

 

War Is A Beast. It Must Be Fed.

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Today’s twisted tale is about a young soldier who lives to avenge the death of his father at the hands of the most nefarious villain in the galaxy. He’s trapped his prey on a desolate planet. Victory is within his grasp. Oh, if it were only that simple…

DAKON 5 by PJ McIlvaine

I know what they say, but I don’t believe it.

Lyca X has 500-year-long winters with temperatures that freeze a man’s lungs before he can draw a single breath. Genticor boasts sky-high woolly sabre-toothed mammoths that can tear a man in two with one casual twist of its jaw.

In my mind, there is no doubt that the most desolate planet in the charted universe is Dakon 5 with its hazy purple moons, blistering heat, dank red quicksand, and subterra maze of corkscrew caverns. Dakon 5 would be my first choice of refuge if I was the most notorious terrorist in the five galaxies.

Our intelligence was incontrovertible. Etterling Re, the man who had killed my father, was on Dakon 5. I was part of a highly-trained Priority 10 elite Alliance task force whose sole purpose was to capture Re by any and all means necessary. Death was not an option.

Light years from home, I huddled in the cold, dark cave.  I held my photon diffuser in one hand and a hologram of my newborn twins, Jakob and Jules, in the other.  I was here for them, and for my father.

“So, they tell me that this is the son of Captain Artegun Harrold, commander of the ill-fated Trurian Rescue Mission, cut down in his prime by Etterling Re.” Commander Tygon gruffly eyed me from across the earth mover. It was a statement I had heard thousands of times before.  I always responded in the same manner. I nodded.

Commander Tygon beamed. “Today is the day that you will avenge his death.  Children will be named after you and songs will be sung in your honor.” He said this in a Baliwanese seesaw dialect that was both pleasing and grating.

Again, I nodded, my throat tight. I was the same age as my father as when he died. I was the last person he had spoken with.  The static of the holoviewer woke me up. I got there in time to see a grainy picture of my father, in full combat uniform, bleeding profusely from a horrific chest wound.  Our eyes locked. He managed to gasp “it’s a trap” before the picture went black.

I was ten years old.

In that moment, I became a man.  I enrolled in the Fight Academy soon afterwards. I ate, slept and dreamt of Etterling Re, whose trail of blood and terror spawned three galaxies and as many decades. I jumped at the chance to join the task force.

Still, this operation left me uneasy. For one thing, I wasn’t with my usual unit.  I had been on leave due to my children’s birth. Thus, when news came of Re’s escape to Dakon 5, a team was hastily assembled.   For another, I had never served with Commander Tygon. He seemed capable, but Etterling Re was cunning and resourceful.  He had outwitted us at every turn.  I wasn’t going to leave empty-handed again.

We split into three groups. It wasn’t long before we heard the first blasts and everything went to hell.  We met more resistance than our information had indicated we’d encounter. Our communications were blocked. I ordered my group to pull back, but we were cut off. As my mentor back at the Academy was fond of saying, this was fast turning into a shit show.

We plunged deeper into the cave, searching for an exit. Of course, I realized too late that had been the plan all along. My men were cherry picked off one by one until I was the only one left. I don’t know what was worse, the silence of the screams.

I felt a searing pain in my chest.  An hour in a Medivac and a shot of Xenophan and I would be fine.  I imagined that I was home, holding my newborn sons.  As I drifted in and out of consciousness, I heard footsteps. I grabbed my blaster, ready to fire.

Commander Tygon knelt beside me.

“Did we get him?” I asked.

Commander Tygon smiled. “No. Why would we?”

I clenched my jaw. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“And they said you were the smartest cadet in your graduating class.”  Commander Tygon removed my identification tag from my wrist. “Etterling Re was never on Dakon 5. He could he? He was stabbed to death twenty-five years ago in a fit of rage by a jealous lover. What an ignominious way to die.”

My mind raced. “That’s impossible! The Nexus Massacre, the—”

Commander Tygon unfolded my hand and removed the hologram picture. “Collateral damage in the galactic war on terror.  Etterling Re is a beast, and it needs to be fed. He is what keeps young people streaming to the academies. The Alliance economy flourishes. Citizens and planets are united in purpose. You will agree that this is a good thing.”

“You lie! My father—” I gasped.

Commander Tygon stood up, his sea-green eyes hooded. “I have not lied to you, Corporal Harrold. Quite the opposite.  Songs will be song in your honor in your valiant and noble attempt to avenge your father’s death. Women will name their sons after you. And in twenty, thirty years, no doubt your own sons will be on the hunt for the elusive Etterling Re.”

I understood, now. There would be no Medivac.  I would never see my wife or sons again. And in a crushing, final blow, I now knew what my father had meant.  What he had tried to tell me with his last gasp of life.

It was a trap.

OFFICIAL COMMUNIQUE FROM THE ALLIANCE, TIMEDATE 23.456: It is with deep sorrow and regret that the Alliance announces the death of Corporal Kameron Harrold in a failed attempt to apprehend the notorious Etterling Re on sub-standard planet Dakon 5.  Corporal Harrold was the only son of Commander Artegun Harrold, who was himself killed during the infamous Trurian Rescue Mission. Corporal Harrold is survived by his wife, Lorelei, and his newborn sons….”

Pleasure Comes With A Price

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In my best Rod Serling voice….in this slice of sci-fi noir, consider the curious case of Mr. Franklin Goss, con man extraordinaire. After years of fleecing marks, Goss is finally ready to settle down with the woman of his dreams. It didn’t come cheap. But then, pleasure never does…

The Pleasure Bot by PJ McIlvaine

Eight o’clock and she was already forty-five minutes late. Just like a woman. But as long as the bug-eyed bartender in this flea-bitten dive on the outskirts of Polar 12 was willing to sling them, I’d wait all night. Two nights if I had to. Because Vi was worth the wait in Outlander gold.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While I blew through another round of sweet, overpriced drinks with fake umbrellas, I guess I had to thank Otto Romulus, a two-bit hustler who couldn’t fart out a good con if his life depended on it. For some bizarre reason, the Truvian slimeball looked up to me, like he fancied himself my protégé or something. Yeah, right. Like that would ever happen. The kid has no imagination. Always goes for the short con, never the long. I tried to explain the difference to him once, but I don’t know how much got through that thick skull of his. Truvians weren’t known for being Einsteins, if you get my drift.

Anyway, a couple of months ago I was cooling my heels waiting for a ride on a short-haul mineral freighter to Portal 9 when I ran into Otto. After a couple of drinks — okay, more than a couple — he spilled the beans about Madame True, as if this nugget of salaciousness was going to impress me. Hell, no. Pleasure bots have been around since the turn of millennium, since the Keteroid Plague made human sex a death sentence. Now we were forced to rely on virtual sex with no taboos and a boat load of pharmaceuticals. Not exactly the stuff of love songs and legends.

Too long in one place gives me an itchy finger, and I’d left the dull wife and test-tube kids on Earth years ago. So I roamed the galaxies doing what I do best: giving people what they want. That’s really the essence of the con: making the suckers think that you have something exclusive. Something they can’t live without. Something that makes them feel younger, or older, or smarter, or more beautiful. Everyone’s got a weakness. Some more than most. And that’s where I come in. I provide a valuable service in the scheme of things, though I suspect my marks would have a different opinion.

So getting back to the story, I was in between jobs, as they say, when I looked up Madame True. Now I have to be totally honest with you. Pleasure bots gave me the creeps, Vi excepting. Sure, they do anything you want, but they’re clunky. Detached. Maybe that’s ‘cos they know they’re one and done. Hey, I’m not the one who wrote the rules.

Otto had bragged that Madame True had the best pleasure bots around. Unique. Lifelike. I thought Otto was talking through his two dicks, quite frankly. But Madame True was different. The other madames, you rented the rack and hit the sack. No fuss, no muss. Madame True’s gimmick was that she created custom pleasure bots. No garden-variety bots here. I mean, the questionnaire took me two hours to fill out. This wasn’t the usual stuff like eye color, bust size, hair length. It seemed kind of crazy, but I went along, figuring that if she delivered even 40% of what she promised, I’d be ahead of the game.

The minute I put my brain buds on, took a shot of Synthex and saw Vi, I knew that she — this — was different from all the other pleasure bots I’d had, and believe you me, I’d had plenty. Vi seemed real. Human. And not just in how she looked, which was everything I had asked for and more: lavender eyes you could swim in, mocha colored skin, lush chestnut hair. But it was in her responses. What she did. What she didn’t do. What she didn’t say. Pleasure bots are clunky, robotic, detached. I could’ve been humping a side of beef. But once we got the business out of the way, Vi listened to me. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking.

Twenty-four hours with Vi wasn’t enough. I begged Madame True for another night. She didn’t go for it at first. “Mr. Goss, I could lose my Federation license.” I wore her down, eventually. That, and another 240 million Faht. And the second night was even better than the first. I’d almost forgotten that Vi was made of pixels. I could smell her, taste her. She was like a fine glass of Pennolian wine. And just so you know it wasn’t about sex, which was great, the second night we didn’t even do that. We just talked. Or I talked.

But I knew the score. Vi was going to be deleted, just like all the other pleasure bots. I guess Madame True saw how upset I was. And then she said, oh so casually, in her sing-song Gonga dialect, ”There is a way, Mr. Goss.” At first I didn’t know what she meant. Then it dawned on me.

Clones.

Now we were in risky territory, even for me. Yeah, technically, clones were illegal. I’d heard stories of clone factories on some of the renegade outer galaxies, and the stories weren’t good. Like everything else, no quality control. And they had a rebellious streak. ’Course, putting in a self-destruct mode kind of defeated the purpose. We were talking a hell of a lot of Faht. My retirement fund and then some. To blow it all on a clone? And then I thought of Vi and those violet eyes. . . and the next thing I knew, I was wiring a deposit to Madame True’s bank account. She was even going to throw in a year’s supply of Z24, not that I needed it.

That was four long, excruciating months ago. I was ready. Hell, more than ready. Pumped. I’d thought about this moment night and day. And what we were going to do, me and Vi. I had a place on Utopia 5. A shack, really. But you couldn’t beat the sunsets. I wasn’t getting any younger. I’d decided that I was going to give up the game. Settle down. Yeah, I know. A Montrospoid can’t change its spots. But this was different. I could do anything for Vi.

I felt a tap on my arm. It was Madame True. I nearly spilled my drink. Woah. Didn’t realize how much I’d drunk. I followed her into the conveyor which brought us to the penthouse. I’d rented out the entire unit. Nothing but the best for my Vi. And before I knew it, there she was in the flesh. Not a pleasure bot anymore, but alive, real, breathing with lush hair and lavender eyes. Just as I’d imagined a thousand times in my dreams, only better. God himself could not have made her more perfect.

“Hello, Franklin,” Vi said, her voice as sweet as Sirindian honey.

I stumbled into my chair, feeling more and more woozy and disoriented. And hot. The sweat was pouring out of me like a river. I loosened my tie. Maybe that would help.

“Are you pleased, Mr. Goss?” Madame True asked.

I nodded, barely able to lift my head. I knew what the bitch wanted. I tapped out the account numbers on the M-pad, the final payment for services rendered.

“How much time?” Vi sounded distant, even though she was standing next to me.

“We have all the time in the world,” I muttered, my speech thick, my tongue thicker. I barely recognized my own voice.

Madame True shrugged. “Ten minutes. Maybe less. He drank enough to kill ten men.“

What the fuck did that mean? I wanted to say something, but my lips were numb. So were my legs. I tried to stand up, but I fell on the floor. I felt like a turtle on its back, helpless.

Through clouded eyes I saw Vi rip off her hair and toss the wig to the side. She had short, curly red hair. She kneeled next to me, cupped her eyes, and removed her contact lenses. Her eyes were vomit green.

“How does it feel to die, Mr. Goss?” Vi whispered.

Blood gurgled in my throat.

“You don’t remember me, do you? But I remember you. You fleeced my parents out of their life savings with worthless mineral rights on Aragon 13.”

I tried to force my legs to move. But it was useless. My hands.

I heard a noise. I smelled him before I saw him.

Otto Romulus. The creep was grinning, his tentacles slithering. “My father killed himself when he realized what a fool he’d been. Only it turns out those mineral rights weren’t worthless after all. It took me years to track you down.”

I wanted to scream. But nothing came out. I was done. As I drifted into a black void, I was back on Utopia 5, watching the purple sunsets with my dream girl.

My Vi.

The Weird and the Wonderful

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When I was kid, I loved The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, One Step Beyond and Star Trek.  My brother introduced me to Robert Heinlein and Stephen King. Thus began my life-long love and journey with all things strange and bizarre.

So what is speculative fiction? It’s what I call the weird and wonderful, the wacky and absurd, aliens in the cupboard, killer clowns, the fanciful and the fantastic.  Call it what you wil. Sci-fi, noir, horror, suspense, fantasy, world building—if it makes us think, gives us pause, has me curled up in a fetal position—all the better.

This site is for those tales, my own included, that have been long waiting for a home. If you’re tired of sending your precious babies into a cold blogosphere and hearing only crickets, this is the site for you.

If we’re going into the cold, dark oblivion, with only the stars to guide us, we might as well go together.

Submissions and questions: editortftosoo@gmail.com