3% – A Short Story

Riding the grid is a lot like deep meditation. You let your mind wander, not really thinking but not completely unaware, either. Both can be incredibly relaxing. Both can lower your blood pressure and provide your body with rest in your mind with renewed focus. But, meditation can’t recharge my implants. Which is why it is incredibly frustrating to be on the Zenith of letting go. When someone begins to pound on the door to your apartment.

I opened my eyes and let the interface disconnect itself. The pounding in my door was rapid and persistent, something desperate about it. Without getting up, I commanded my scan wall to show me who thought it was a good idea to come knocking on my day off.

The face on the other side of the door was familiar. Zig McGary wasn’t exactly a friend, but he wasn’t a stranger. We knew each other from all the way back when I was still convincing ATMs I needed a meal more than banks needed an accurate statement of cash-on-hand. He was part of my life in the Down Below. I didn’t want any reminders of that life crawling into my home, but looking up at his face on my wall–large enough to see the desperate panic in his eyes–and the fact it couldn’t have been easy for him to make it all the way to Level 193 caused something in my chest to decide it was a good day to get nostalgic.

I unfolded myself from the memory foam recliner and let the connectors running down my spine pull free. In the lower-right corner of my vision, the icon switched from charging to 3%. Zig had less than 45 minutes of my time. I’d be damned if I was leaving the relative safety of my breech-resistant walls without a solid connection to the grid.

I pulled on a shirt and waved a hand, giving it permission to open. It whirred and slid back into the wall, leaving Zig standing mid-knock in the hall. His wore a torn and tattered suit from natural fibers worth more than five years of his income the last time I saw him. They must have been borrowed for his trip to Top Side because the pants were rolled several times at the ankles and sleeves of the jacket hung down past his first row of knuckles. Unless that was the fashion now in Down Below, he was in trouble. The shoulder of the jacket was torn at the seems and the white shirt carried more grime and soot than even the most high-end scrubbers could get out.

“Thank god, Pete,” he said, stepping through my door before I could invite him in. “You’ve got to hide me.” He walked to the middle of the room and flopped down in my recliner. I winced, but he didn’t notice. As out of his price-range as the suit would be to replace, my connection rig made it look like pocket change and I couldn’t afford to replace it.

“Come on in,” I said dryly, waving the door closed again. “But, I’m not hiding you from CitSec, Zig. I don’t know if you got the ping, but I’m on the other side of the line, now.”

“Yeah, yeah, little Pete Charmer went and got legit,” Zig said. “Look, Petey, I’m not here because I got trouble with the heat. I wouldn’t bring that on your door. In fact, if you can get CitSec here now, it’ll solve my problems.”

I let the datastream from the grid run past my heads-up and highlighted the location of the nearest patrol. Five levels up and rises east. “It’ll take them twenty minutes to get here. I’d rather this little visit was over by then.”

“Why, You got somewhere to be? You got something more important than making time for the guy who pulled Tommy the Rock off you all those lunchtimes?” Zig put a hand against his chest and let his mouth open in feigned outrage. “Look, I know you’re a big time Cryptologist or something, now, but that hurts, Pete.”

I rolled my eyes and gestured around the room. It was empty except for the chair he was current sitting in and a counter against the back wall with a built in refrigerator and microwave. “You said you needed somewhere to hide. This is what I’ve got. I can get you off the level. Maybe even back down to U22, but that’s all I can do for you Zig.”

“No, no, no. I don’t need that. I need you to make me disappear,” Zig dropped out of the chair onto his knees and held his hands up to me in supplication. “Please, Pete. If they find me, I’m a dead man.”

“If who finds you, Zig?” I asked, but it was too late. Another knock came from my door and the wall lit up with three new faces. I recognized one immediately. Joseph Lighthorn’s face was one I’d never forget. As far as Down Under was concerned, the old man was the king, president, and Jesus all rolled into one. They taught about his rise to power in history classes. Zig’s eyes widened when he saw the face on my wall and I realized who he was hiding from. “What did you do, Zig?”

“I didn’t do anything. I swear. But, it don’t matter. It’s what he thinks I did.” Zig walked across the floor on his knees and grabbed at the hem of my shirt. “Please, Pete. You gotta do something.”

“I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but alright,” I waved my hand again and part of my wall slid away, revealing the small room with my bed and clothes. “Just don’t say anything, alright?”

The knock rang through the room again and Zig jumped up to his feet and darted through the door. “Thanks, Petey. You’re not going to regret this.”

I didn’t say anything back, just gestured for the door to slid back into place. I already knew I would regret it, I just needed to find out how much.

As soon as the wall was closed again, I let the apartment open the outer door and smiled at the three waiting me. “Please, come in,” I said, doing my best to keep my tone respectful. I stood beside my chair, arms folded behind my back and eyes cast down at the floor. “What can I do for you gentlemen.”

The first of Lighthorn’s two body guards stepped through the door, eyes running across the empty room. He was big, close to half again my size. Not that it takes much to be bigger than me. There is a reason Zig called me little Pete Charmer. His companion leaned in and looked around the room, too, but chose to stay in the hall. I assumed he would be the sacrificial lamb if I was able to get CitSec here before they were gone. I doubted I could pull it off, but I tucked the paranoia away as a useful fact.

“Mr. Charmer,”  Lighthorn said as he walked into my apartment like he owned it. “I am ever so sorry to trouble you, but I am looking for a man who stole a large sum of money from me and I was informed he was seen on this level. Since you are the only person he could possibly know this far above ground, I thought I would stop by to see if you’ve spoken with him recently.”

“Well, sir,” I said, not sure exactly which honorific you’re supposed to use when addressing a crime lord who thinks of himself as a king. “You may have heard finding things is a specialty of mine.”

“I have heard that, yes,” Lighthorn said. He walked a slow circle around my apartment, occassionaly tapping on the wall with the handle of his cane. “I’ve heard it said you can see anything that happens in the city. That you know everything.”

I shrugged. “Not everything. Only what the grid wants me to know.”

“Then I suppose it would be a simple matter for you to ascertain the location of one Zigler Allen McGary. As I said, Mr. McGary took something that doesn’t belong to him.”

I closed my eyes and let my fingers twitch as I pulled on seems all over the grid. “Sorry, sir. It looks like Zig isn’t currently in the city. Are you sure he didn’t buy his way out to one of the islands?”  I flicked my wrist at the wall, sending the live feed from the video processing program up for display. Hundreds of thousands of windows appeared, broadcasting video from cameras, public terminals, and service droids all over the city. It was only a tiny fraction of the true data, but it made for a good show. To really put icing on the cake, I sat a copy of Zig’s ID photo on the screen. “See, face-rec isn’t getting any pings.”

Lighthorn wasn’t impressed. He continued to knock on my wall with his cane every few feet as he circled me. His faded brown eyes softly reflecting his own data stream from the inside of his glasses. “Mr. Charmer, I am giving you an opportunity to be a friend to me today. The money Mr. McGary took from me doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of my finances, but, the UV bulbs it was meant to procure will mean a great deal for the hydroponic farms that feed so many of the people in my care.”

“Zig stole infrastructure funds?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. If Lighthorn told me Zig had walked off with a dust payment or a bribe for an alderman, I’d buy it. But I couldn’t reconcile the Zig McGary who caught more than one fist making sure the tiny nerd got to eat his lunch with a Zig McGary who would steal food from a few million people.

“Believe what you will, Mr. Charmer. The facts are the facts. Now, Mr. McGary is a traitor to me. I will find him and I will make an example of him and anyone who tries to protect him from me,” Lighthorn said. “Are you loyal to the people of Cartolva and a friend to me, or are you going to need to be an example?”

“What if I can find the money?” I asked. I was already tapped into the grid. It couldn’t be that hard to trace the cash. All I had to do was trace Zig back through the city from the moment he hit my door. Innocent or guilty, if he was being blamed, he had to cross paths with the money somewhere.

“It would be a beginning,” Lighthorn said. “But, if I find Mr. McGary first, it will not end well for you.” He reached the edge of my scan wall and tapped it with his cane. “I think your unit must be smaller than your neighbors, Mr. Charmer. You should protest your rent.”

I closed my eyes and turned off the visual processing in my brain. Running raw data was faster, even if it did come with a nasty headache. The data tracked Zig all over the city, back and forth, rise by rise, level by level.

Tap. Lighthorn was getting closer to the hidden door. I killed the list of apps running in the background and put processing on high priority. My battery ticked down to 2%.

Tap. There it was, Zig in a room with nearly a million in hard credits. And Zig leaving it on the table and locking the door behind him.

Tap. I stopped following Zig’s virtual ghost and turned the data pull to focus on the cash itself. It sat on the table for hours and then…

Thump.

I opened my eyes to find Lighthorn directly in front of the hidden door. “Mr Charmer, please open this door and save Andrew the trouble of forcing it open,” He said. He smiled a wolfish smile and gestured toward his bodygaurd with his cane. I shook my head and the body guard pulled a long, wide cylinder from inside his jacket.

“Wait!” I flicked my wrist at the wall, projecting the video feed of Zig leaving the cash inside the secured room. “See, Zig didn’t take your money!”

“This merely shows he left and returned,” Lighthorn said. “And it doesn’t not show me where my money is.”

“Just watch,” I said, letting the video fast forward. The lights in the room went dark and the video feed was interrupted for a few seconds. “That’s where your thief came in,” I said. “Cut all of the camera and terminal feeds in the entire block.”

“So Mr McGary covered his tracks,” Lighthorn said. “This still doesn’t show me where my money went.”

I flipped my wrist toward the wall again and a black-and-white video appeared on the screen. The picture was grainy and from a very low angle, but it showed the money on the table. “Sweeper rat,” I explained. “They’re all over the lower tunnels, but they only turn on if there is a grid outage. They tack the connections and then call in for repairs. This little guy only got a brief glimpse, but, there it is.”

A man appeared on the screen. He was easily as short as myself with a distinctive hooked nose and over-sized ears. Face-rec named him as Lenny Forwitz and I pushed his profile up onto the screen. He started piling cash into the dufflebag before the rat’s video stream disappeared into the wall and I turned it off.

“You recognize that guy?” I asked.

“I do, indeed,” Lighthorn said. He gestured for Andrew to follow him as he headed back toward the door. “Mr. Charmer, this does not prove Mr. McGary wasn’t involved, only that he did not work alone. If you should happen to see him. Please tell him it would be best if he either gave himself willingly to me or was never seen in the city again.”

I nodded and the old man and his body guard let themselves out.

As soon as they were gone, I let the door to my bedroom open. Zig sat on my bed, face in his hands, but as the light from the main room hit him, he jumped up and hurried over to me.

“Thank you, Pete! Thank you,” he said, pulling me into a hug. “You just saved my life.”

“Not yet, I didn’t.” I pointed up at the face on the wall. “If you really want to get back in Lighthorn’s good graces, you’ll get to that guy first.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” Zig asked. “He could be anywhere in the city… or out of it by now.”

“He could be,” I admitted. “Or, he could be waiting for his flight at Amicus 321. You’ve got about an hour before his flight takes off. It won’t be easy for you to get there. You should go.”

“I will,” he said. “You’re the best, Pete. I owe you. Big.”

“No, Zig, let’s just consider ourselves even for Tommy the Rock.” I pushed him toward the open door. “Now get out. I’ve got things I need to do.”

“I won’t forget this,” Zig said as he left the apartment. “You’re a real hero.”

I waived the door closed behind him, jerked off my shirt, and dropped down into the recliner. The battery switched from <1% to charging. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing.

Stormy Dreams: A Short Story

Stormy Dreams By M.A. Brotherton

Thunder shook the house, buzzing the windows and shaking the pictures in their frames. The wind picked up, howling through the chimney. Thick black clouds hung on the horizon above empty, dusty fields. The first big storm of the year, ready to turn the thick dust back into fertile soil. Rain was scarce the last few years and the storm was a good sign.

Evelyn closed up the shutters and sat down in the old wooden rocking chair with a worn copy of The Great Gatsby. The pages were faded and the binding was beginning to fray, but it had gotten her through plenty of hard times and more than a few heavy storms.

She tucked her feet and dress under her legs and lit the lamp just as the rain started clanging against the roof. She smiled. Lifted a fresh cup of tea to her lips and cracked the spine.

And was interrupted by a polite but insistent knock on her front door.

Evelyn sat her cup and book on the table beside the chair. She made her way to the door, put a smile on her face to mask her annoyance, and opened the door.

A tall, pale man with dark hair and darker eyes stood there. His black suit was soaked through and clung to his bony frame. He pushed his hair back across his head and smiled an awkward smile. His teeth stuck out, too big for his mouth.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said, voice thick and slurred. “My car broke down out on the road. Would it be possible to come inside and wait out the storm?”

Evelyn eyed her cup and book, then looked back at the wet clothes sticking to the man. “Come in. Come in. I’ll get you a towel.”

Lightning flashed behind him as he stepped across the threshold. “Thank you, again,” he said. “You’re kindness is quite stimulating.”

The look in his eyes made Evelyn blush. “Don’t just stand there dripping, get that jacket off.” She left him standing by the door and fetched a fresh towel from the linen closet. When she returned, he was in his shirt sleeves, kneeling beside her empty hearth and loading in split logs.

“That’s a good idea,” Evelyn said. She offered him the towel. “You dry up. I’ll make you a cup of tea. My name is Evelyn.”

He smiled at her then turned back to the fireplace. “I’ll have this fire going soon.”

Evelyn went to the kitchen and put the kettle on one of the burners. She waited there while it slowly built to a boil, unsure of what to do with the strange man in her house. When the kettle began to steam, she pulled it from the stove and poured the cup.

“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I have a ham.”

“No, thank you.” He appeared in the kitchen door, sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to expose whitewashed arms. “I don’t generally get hungry and until later in the evening. Eating dinner too early is bad for the constitution.”

“I see,” Evelyn said. She handed him the cup of coffee and returned to the living room.

The fire was burning, warm and cheery despite the constant patter of the rain outside. Evelyn sank down into the rocking chair and returned to her book and tea. The stranger joined her, idly sipping his tea you from beside the hearth.

They sat in silence, Evelyn working her way through page after page, the stranger sipping his tea in watching the fire. Time passed by slowly, hours dripping through molasses.

A yawn escaped Evelyn’s lips and she found herself reading the same paragraph again and again. She closed her book and set it on the table, placed her cup in the sink, and moved to turn in for the night. When she went to extinguish the lamp, the stranger stirred from beside the hearth, startling her. She had forgotten all about him as she read.

“Oh, my,” Evelyn said. “I suppose I’ll need to find you a place to sleep for the night.”

“No need to trouble yourself over me,” the stranger said. “I’ll be fine here by the fire.”

“At least let me get you a quilt.”

Evelyn made a quick trip to the living closet and returned with a heavy quilt and a soft pillow. “I’m sorry that I don’t have a bed for you to sleep in. I don’t get many visitors out here.”

“You’ve already been to kind,” he said. He laid the pillow on the floor than curled up beneath the blanket beside the fire. “Good night, Evelyn.”

“Good night, Mister?” She left at the question hang in the air, but he merely closed his eyes and began to breathe rhythmically.

She sighed, leaving him on the floor and retiring to her room. Safe behind a heavy lock, she changed into her sleeping gown and crawled beneath her own heavy quilt.

Outside the wind and rain continued to assault the house, bringing strange and loud noises all throughout the night.

Evelyn’s sleep was frightful. She tossed and turned with the storm. Her mind’s most terrible fancies playing out in her sleep. Dark floating eyes haunted her every dream.

A crash of thunder and shattered glass jerked her awake. Rain blew in and soaked through her bedding and a broken branch from the old tree jabbed through the broken window.

A hand wrapped around her mouth. In the dark, she could barely see the stranger raise a finger to his lips. She sat in her bed, frozen in fear as he moved his hand from her face and pointed into the corner.

Lightning flashed again and she saw it. A bent, furry creature with no eyes and slimy fangs.

“Don’t move,” the stranger whispered. “It can feel you move.”

The creature turned toward his voice and gnashed its teeth. It scurried from the corner on six long, multi-jointed legs edged with long, wicked claws that dug into the floorboards.  

The stranger slowly moved away from Evelyn’s bed, edging until his back was against the wall, arms stretched out toward the creature.

“Come here,” he said with a loud, hard voice. “Come for me!”

The creature did as it was instructed. It gouged long scars in the floor as it charged, mouth open and dripping. It bent down on its front legs and used all four of the hind legs to pounce, claws flashing in the air.

The stranger muttered words in a language Evelyn had never heard and a bright light flashed from his hands.

The creature hit the light and was thrown backward across the room. It crashed into the wall hard enough to knock away the plaster and collapsed onto the bedroom floor.

The stranger leapt forward, a long, twisted knife appearing in his hands. He drove the blade into the creature’s side, each thrust releasing a thick cloud of billowing black smoke. After four jabs with the knife, the creature deflated and melted into a pool of black slime.

“Who are you?” Evelyn asked, still rooted in her bed. “What was that?”

The stranger tucked the knife into the back of his pants and turned to her. “Shhh,” he said, one hand waving toward her. “Go back to sleep, Evelyn. This was all just a terrible dream.”

Evelyn yawned, suddenly feeling the weight of the restless night. “But the window is broken,” she mumbled as she lay back down against the wet pillow.

“No, Evelyn, it is all part of the dream.” The stranger waved his hand over her again and Evelyn felt her worry fade away. “It will all be fine in the morning. You’ll see.”

“But I don’t even know your name,” Evelyn muttered. Her eyes were too heavy to keep open, so she let them slide shut. “At least tell me your name.”

“My name isn’t important, because I am just a dream,” he said. “Sleep. It will all be fine in the morning.”

“Please?”

“Shh… Just sleep.”


Evelyn awoke to sun shining in through her window. The brilliant warmth slowly working its way into tired arms and legs. She had vague memories of broken windows and dark strangers, but her window was whole. Her bed was dry. And the morning was beautiful.

She wrapped herself in her robe and walked out into the living room. The house was as empty as it always and the house suddenly seemed bigger than it had the day before. She filled the kettle and placed it on the stove, the strange dream already fading from her mind.


Author’s Note

This story actually went on for two or three more paragraphs until I finally realized it was over. Sometimes, a story is like that. You just keep writing, but you should have ended a long time ago. That might be a lesson for my subconscious in there somewhere.

 

For a Few Chips: A Short Story

For A Few Chips: A Short Story

For-A-Few-Chips

From my vantage point in the abandoned garage across the street, the single-story ranch house looked almost mundane. The faded green paint, chipped siding, and one broken shutter belonged to the suburban landscape. If it wasn’t for the three charred corpses impaled on fencing posts along the front yard, I can almost imagine it before the fall.

Light poked through the cracks in the boarded windows — soft and flickering. A good sign for me. I didn’t want to mess with anyone who had electricity, no matter how much I was being paid. The bad news, no one left candles going. It meant someone was still inside, and not just a prisoner. You don’t leave light for chattel.

Over the past three days, I counted no less than 20 different people coming and going. 11 men, nine women. Not a bad mix, considering. According to my notes, all 20 left during the day. I had no way of knowing how many were left inside or the package was even still there. I don’t like going into any situation blind but it was obvious I wasn’t going to get a better opportunity.

I folded up my notebook and slid my stub of a pencil into the wire bindings. I was going to have to go scavenging for new pencils again soon. It wouldn’t be hard. This town had both at Walmart and Target. Medicine, food, and clothes would be picked clean, but office supplies always lasted.

I shoved the notebook into my backpack with the rest of my possessions and hid it behind a broken piece of drywall. A dented canteen, multi-tool, and well-used copy of Maxim magazine might not be much to some, but they were my treasures and I was getting keep them safe. After three years in the wastes, I’d learned a thing or two about leaving anything out for the scavengers.

I checked the Lugger piston in the holster on my waist, making sure it was clearly visible. I didn’t have any bullets and didn’t know what type it took even if I found some, but out here just carrying a gun made you someone to be afraid of. No one wanted to be another survivor’s last bullet.

Happy that it was secure, I pulled out my real weapon — a hand-forged blade hammered from a single bar of good spring steel. It was fat and heavy, little more than an oversized machete, but it held a sharp edge and I’d learned to swing it. Besides, it didn’t take much skill. Blade or not, no one did well when you hit them with 7 pounds of steel.

I worked the edge on my whetstone one last time. The three days of waiting gave me plenty of time. I’d already honed it down good enough to shave, but a sharp edge always made life easier and taking the time to work the stone let me sharpen my mind, too.

Killing is never easy. No matter how many lives you take. If you’ve got a soul, killing is something you have to work yourself up to. Even in this place.

I’m glad you took the time to do it. As soon as I finish putting away my whetstone, light movement, and I from across the street. Two men I have never seen before — one tall and lean, the other short and built like a box truck — came out through the front door. The tall guy carried a rifle. I don’t know what type. Something small, like you would use to hunt rabbits. The big guy carried a baseball bat with half a stop sign bolted to the end.

Raiders sure can get creative out in the wastes.

I leaned against the garage and watched them through the slats. I got lucky. If I’d skipped my little ritual, they would’ve been coming out as I was making my way across the yard. I still didn’t know how many were inside the house, but if I played this right, that number would be to less.

The only real risk here was whether or not Tall had bullets for that rifle. Normally I wouldn’t risk it. I’m as big a coward as any raider when it comes to guns. But there was a time limit on this job. The caravan was leaving the day after tomorrow and the old man’s blue chips would buy me a seat all the way to Cincinnati. I let the thought of hoofing it roll around in my mind. I made it this far on my own, but I didn’t know if there would be any settlements out there in the desert and I couldn’t carry enough water to make it that far alone. I had to do this if I was ever going to see Ezi again.

“God, give my arm strength, guide my blade, and forgive me for what I do,” I prayed and ducked out through the side door.

Narrow streets, once bright enough for kids to ride their bikes under the streetlights are black alleys perfect for an ambush now. I kept my distance from Big and Tall, cutting through the knee-high grass for several houses before I darted across the street.

I stopped behind it dead elm to get a better look at the two guards. They were too busy passing something back and forth to pay any attention to me. Silently, I thanked God and made a cross over my chest. There isn’t much in the way of booze left in the wastes, but what did exist was strong enough to melt rust off a car.

As I watched, Big tilted back the bottle then smashed it on the street. From the sound and the shards of glass, it wasn’t a small one.

“Why’d you do that?” Tall asked. His nasal voice was three octaves higher than I would have guessed. The kind of voice that makes you wonder if he’s wearing the wrong size underwear. “If you trade the bottles back into Sparch, he’ll give you the next one for half-price.”

It really was my lucky day. As strong as most waste wine is, Sam Sparch’s swill was the strongest I’d ever encountered. More than one would-be surgeon used it as both anesthesia and antiseptic. One trader even claimed it was worth more than water out east where real doctors still existed.

“I shouldn’t have to pay for it at all,” Big shouted. “Sparch should be paying me! I let both him and that hot piece-of-his live in my city. I let him sell his swill without paying the taxes. So far, he’s brought in more business that is worth the trouble. So I let them be. But, I’ve heard rumors that I don’t like.”

Big slurred his words and paced up and down the street. Every so often, he would swing his makeshift axe to emphasize this point.

“We’ve been too soft on them. I’ve been to good to them,” Big said, thrusting the end of his axe toward Tall. “That’s why I’ve got to show them I’m still the boss.”

Lucky day indeed. Big was Lord Holiday.

I moved closer, walking in a squat to stay beneath the top of the overgrown yards. The old man was willing to pay a pretty price for the package, but the town would pay much more for Lord Holiday’s head. Rumors said Holiday and managed a hotel before the collapse. When the first wave hit, he gathered up all of the guests stranded in his care and promised them food and shelter in exchange for becoming his own private army. He’d been terrorizing this small piece of the country ever since.

And he was 10 feet away with his back to me.

I slid my blade free from the leather jacket sleeve I used as a scabbard and moved his close to the edge of the tall grass as I could. My heart thumped in my chest. I waited, frozen just a few feet away. I knew they would see me any second. Tall wouldn’t even have to be a good shot. This close to him and this far from a real doctor, any bullet wound would be fatal.

But, Holiday was too busy ranting about booze and benevolence to pay any attention to me. I would never get a better payday than this. I waited until his pacing brought to his closest point. Then, when he turned around to wave his axe at Tall again, I swung my blade as hard as I could with both hands at his meaty neck.

Blind splayed across Tall’s face as my blade lodged in Holiday’s spine. He froze, mouth wide open and eyes glassed over like his mind had decided it had better things to do.

I jerked on my blade, trying to free it from Holiday’s neck before Tall decided to start paying attention to reality again but it was wedged in too tight and my grip was too slick with blood to pull it free.

Holiday’s body reacted by flailing around wildly. The makeshift axe swinging through the air faster than the big man had probably ever swung it when his brain was still calling all the shots.

I let go of my blade and jerked Holiday’s arm back toward me. Tall was starting to come to and I needed to end this before he got a shot off. Or worse, Holiday’s gurgling brought another raider or two outside. I managed to pull the axe free and drop Holiday’s body to the ground in time for Tall to bring the rifle up and point it straight at my face.

Three heartbeats and a full breath passed as I stared him down over the barrel of his rifle. I bounced the axe in my hand and let the grin spread across my face. If Tall had bullets, he’d have used them by now.

The axe was lighter than my blade and I swung it hard. The thin, light aluminum sign had no trouble sinking through flesh and muscle but it buckled against the bones in his chest. The bent edge did more damage when I tore it back out than it did going in. I almost felt bad for Tall.

His rifle dropped to the ground. He followed it a second later. I could see his lungs struggling for air behind the exposed ribs and he tried to say something, but the only things coming out of his mouth were thick black and red bubbles.

I dropped the bent axe beside his body and, using my boot against his head as leverage, pulled my blade free from Holiday’s spine. There was a new nick halfway down the edge, but the heavy steel held together a lot better than the aluminum.

I took it as a good omen no other raiders had come from the house, so I wiped my blade off on Holiday’s dingy slacks – the only part of him not covered in blood. Once it was as clean as I could get it, I slid it back into my sheath and drug his body up onto the grass. It took two more chops for the blade to sever the head completely from the body and I got covered in gore. I was going to have to use some fo those blue chips to get clean. It was a good thing I was making extra.

I wrapped the head in what was left of Holiday’s shirt and tied it around my back like a sling. I added Tall’s rifle to the bounty, too. Bullets or not, guns were still valuable in the wastes. There was only one thing left to do.

Retrieve the package.

Inside, the house smelled like rancid meat and human feces. If I lived like this, I’d need strong swill to keep going, too.

The living room was just inside the door. A smokey fire burned in the fireplace, some kind of meat roasting above it. The only furniture was several heavily stained mattresses. A woman was passed out on one, naked except for a leash and collar. Crusted bile lined the edges of her mouth, but she was still breathing.

I stopped long enough to remove the collar and turn her on her side. I didn’t know if she was willing or not, but raider or slave, no one should drown in their own vomit.

I searched the rest of the house. It was mostly empty. Nothing worth scavenging. Anything I could use or trade was too heavy to be caught carrying if the rest of the raiders came back.

That left only the basement.

I stole one of the candles from the kitchen and pushed open the old door. The smell from below was worse. My stomach told me to run, but, I’d already come this far. There was no turning back now.

I took the stairs slowly, candle in one hand, blade in the other. The basement had never been finished and the cinderblock walls absorbed the light more than reflecting it. Each step I took left me expecting someone to grab my ankles from behind.

The basement was all one room, pitch black outside of the few feet of light my candle gave off.

I caught the glint of metal in the far corner and headed in that direction. As I got closer, I could see the steel cage door on an old dog carrier and movement inside.

“Shannon?” I asked, kneeling down to peer inside. “My name is Dent. Your grandfather sent me to bring you home.”

A pair of big, brown eyes in a grimy face appeared behind the mesh. “Granpa?”

I nodded. “Yes. Your grandpa. Hang on.” I sat the candle on the carrier and twisted open the latch. Shannon pushed against it and pulled herself free by her hands, dragging her legs behind her. They were twisted and bent at unnatural angles. I’d seen it something like it in an old movie from before the fall. Holiday broke her legs to keep her from escaping.

I slid my blade back into the sheath and squatted down to pick her up. She wasn’t heavy, but it would take both arms to carry her. There was no way I would be able to fight if I needed to.

“God, please,” I muttered as I headed back toward the stairs.

Shannon’s eyes shone in the fading candlelight as she looked up at my face. Her fingers traced the scars then fell to the patch on my shirt, a pair of wings behind a shield. Her voice was small and dry when she finally asked, “Are you an angel?”

I didn’t say anything. How do you explain to a child who’s been through this that her savior is a man as bad as the one’s he’d rescued her from. I just clenched my jaw and pushed her face into my chest as I carried her out of the house.


Author’s Note

Dent is a character that has been floating around in my head for a while now. At some point, I got it in my brain to write a post-apocalyptic epic and I wanted my hero to be a guy who does horrible things for selfish, horrible reasons, but still can’t help but bring more good to the world.

I have no idea how the world ended. That’s probably one of the reasons I haven’t written anything in Dent’s world before now. I think knowing what caused the apocalypse is one of those things you’re supposed to figure out before you begin writing a book.

The only thing I know about Dent’s apocalypse is it wasn’t zombies.

Really, that’s good enough for me. I’m not sure I’d agree that zombies are overdone, but poorly written zombies are overdone. I don’t think I want to be contributing to that.

But, who knows. Maybe I’ll write a zombie story someday. I’ve still got a whole lot of Bradbury challenge left to do.

-Matt

Friday Afternoon – A Short Story

Friday Afternoon – A Short Story
M.A. Brotherton

Friday Afternoon

Late Friday afternoon is the worst part of the week for most people, but I love it. Especially in the summer when everyone else decides to cut out early. An empty office is basically a godsend. By the end of the week, I have so many things on my task list. I need a few hours alone time just to get caught up. Those last three hours are sacred me-time.

So, you have to understand, from my perspective, I did not overreact. People do a lot worse to protect things to consider sacred. It’s not like a blow up a building. I only killed one person. That hardly even makes me a bad guy. Besides, she really deserved it. I swear. There’s always that one person in every office with no respect for anyone else. You know the tape. They live in a fantasy world where their tiny problems are the end of the universe. In our office, that was Carolyn. She was so selfish.

She was so selfish.

I was working on all those little Friday tasks, moving through each one of a good pace. It was beautiful outside. The first truly pretty day in weeks. I have to admit, I was hoping to follow my coworker’s examples and get out a little early, too. The sun was shining in the sky was calling my name. I would’ve been done, too, but ugh… Carolyn.

She stormed into my office at five minutes till four, tiny head flopping on the end of her stork-neck. She had a stack of loose printouts brandished at the end of one long, spindly arm and her cell phone in the other.

“Kelly!” She squawked before she even got in the door. “This is an absolute tragedy! You have to fix this right now!”

She tossed the pages under my desk. Just tossed them. Not dropped or sat, tossed. They scattered everywhere and knocked my dancing snoopy off my desk. The little woodchuck broke off when it hit the floor. That alone is enough reason for anybody to do what I did, but, she took it a step further.

“I’m going to need you to take care of this before you head out tonight. I do it myself. Got a working dinner with the vice president of accounting.”

“I don’t know, Carolyn, I was about to head out. Should you take care of this anyway? I don’t handle expense reports. That’s an accounting job. Maybe you should bring it up over dinner.”

“Akin to that. Tom and I have something much more important to us.” She looked down at the phone, clutching her talons and left her broken, wicked cackle. “Speak of the devil. I have to take this. I’ll need that taking care of before my flight tomorrow. Thanks. Byyyyeeee!”

Like the whirling diva. She was, she disappeared back into my office door laughing into her phone.

I tried to let it go. Really, I did. I drove into the work. I don’t ever leave early on a Friday. Carolyn knew that. Should know I was actually trying to get out of there. I kept telling myself that, anyway.

But then I realized what was so important I had to take care of it on a Friday. Carolyn’s expense account was maxed out because she was charging dinners six nights a week. Accounting already flagged it. There is absolutely nothing I could do about it and Carolyn knew that. She just wanted me to cover it up so she didn’t have to pay for her own dinners and had money to spend on her stupid trip.

The worst part was, I didn’t figure it out into was already six-thirty.

Do you know what it’s like to not only work late but to work late on a complete waste of time? It’s the worst. I was angry and I let it get the better of me.

Nobody was left in the building and they wouldn’t be back until Monday, so I decided to get some revenge.

I dug through the break room fridge until I found what I’m pretty sure was macaroni and cheese when it first arrived two or three years ago. I put on some heavy rubber gloves and carried it to Carolyn’s office, peeled off the lid and tossed it into the trashcan. Then, I did the same thing with every other moldy plastic container I could find. This smell was already atrocious. I hoped it would take months to clear out.

I toyed with the idea of putting tape up on all windows and doors, really sealing it in, but I figured it would end up being the cleaning crew to pay the price on that one and they didn’t do anything to deserve that.

I was just closing the door behind me when I heard Carolyn’s shrinking scream.

“What are you doing in my office?”

“I was just dropping off the expense paperwork,” I lied. If she went to the office. Now the whole thing would be ruined. So, I did the only thing I can think of and asked, “how was your date?”

Carolyn rolled her eyes at me, head flopping around in her giraffe neck. “It wasn’t a date, Kelly. It was a working dinner. If you weren’t such a workaholic, you’d understand the difference. But, I guess a loser like you hasn’t had a date in a long time.”

That was the last straw. I couldn’t hold back anymore. I kicked her. Hard. In the shin.

She just grunted, massive owl eyes burning with rage. Then, she slapped me.

The next thing I knew, we were crashing through her office door and tumbling over the desk. We wrestled until I had her pinned down next to the trashcan and it suddenly seemed like a shame to let all that food go to waste. I grabbed the first container and poured it over her face.

“You like it when someone else pays for your dinner, don’t you?” I screamed it over and over and they kept shoving the rotten food down her scrawny little throat. Right on Intel I hit the bottom of the can.

That was that. I had one less coworker an entire weekend of relaxation inside ahead of me. But there was a big mess and nobody left to deserved it, so I cleaned up the trash and took it out to the dumpster.

All in all, my Friday could’ve been better, but it turned out happy in the end. And really, isn’t that the only thing anyone cares about?


Author’s Note:

So this marks week four of the Bradbury challenge. That is for short stories written in four weeks. I have to say, it feels kinda nice to finish an entire month of this. So, only 11 more to go.

The big downside to my newfound writing. Momentum is the fact that most of it comes from writing longhand and spiral-bound notebooks. The fact that I’m getting words on the page again is nice, but this thousand word short story did take me about five hours to write out longhand. When it comes to my daily writing goals, that’s not even going to get close to where I want to be.

Still, it’s one more story finished. Like Bradbury said — and I’m going to paraphrase him here — “when you write 52 stories in a row, they can’t all below the giant wad of weasel cheese.”

Until next week,

Matt

The Truth – A Short Story

The Truth

The traveler strode across the empty wastes, his face shadowed beneath the wide brim of his hat and protected from the blasting sand by the high collar of his coat. His steps were purposeful and methodical, a straight line across the sand dunes. There wasn’t much left of what had once been rich farmland and open prairies. Even the few small towns had been swallowed by the wastes. Nothing lived this far from the hub. There was no water or electricity. There was only one place left for humans, and it wasn’t western Kansas.

The traveler passed a particularly heavy dune and looked down into the valley beneath the waves of sand. A small patch of ground, barely large enough for the one room shack and small garden, had been reclaimed from the sands. The fluffy green leaves of vegetables growing up from rich, black soil drew his attention first. Nothing should be able to grow out here, but someone had managed. Someone had found water.

He checked the GPS on his wrist-com to confirm he’d found what he was looking for. It wasn’t likely for anyone other than Dr. Kendra Johnson would be living in an impossible reclamation in western Kansas, but he had to be sure. The coordinates told him he was practically on top of her.

This was the place alright.

He felt the hum of the unseen fence as he crossed it. His wrist-com squelched once before blipping to death. Across his body, dozens of other enhancements also fell dormant. It would take time for those systems to reboot to optimal again, but they had important failsafes built in. No one wanted their robotic heart to be wiped out by passing too close to an EMP field. The days of avoiding a microwave to protect your pacemaker were long gone.

The EMP field wasn’t what got his attention. The small garden wouldn’t survive the wastes without it, the nanites would have already consumed any new vegetation. No, his mind was drawn to the familiar whirr of rotary barrels winding up to speed. The old slug-throwers were harder to maintain than anything modern, but the rotating rail cannons packed enough force behind the magnetically powered drivers to put a sewing needle through a concrete bunker. Besides, they didn’t need anything special as ammo. Anything that would fit in the tube would launch. Some ammo was more effective than others, but at this range, all of it would be deadly.

“Good Evening, Doctor Johnston,” the traveler said. His voice was as mechanical as his steps. Too many implants for too many years. It was the only way to stay alive in the Hub. If he hadn’t seen the wasteland oasis with his own eyes, he would have told you it was the only way to stay alive, period. Dr. Johnston obviously disagreed.

“What do you want?” The grizzled woman asked. His face didn’t match the image the traveler had been shown. Of course, it had been nearly twenty years since the nanites had escaped into the world. Twenty years of reverse terraforming the planet, the slow, steady return from the life-sustaining mothership to dead rock.

The image in the traveler’s mind was of a much younger Kendra Johnston. A woman in her early-thirties, a serious look on her face, her lab behind her. The image had been one of the last front pages to be run by the New York Times. “The True Story: How Kendra Johnston Destroyed the World.”

How little the reporters had known.

“I have questions to ask you regarding the night of April 23, 2018. I have come from the Hub.”

“Yeah. People outside the Hub have inflection in their voice. Come on inside.” She gestured for him to come into the small shack but didn’t bother to lower her slug-thrower. She didn’t even reduce the power settings. “You read the report, but want to know the true, true story. Dr. Needlemeyer’s account not good enough? Creeper Paul always had his own way of revising the past.” Dr. Johnston flicked off the slug-thrower letting the spinning chamber wind down. When she sat it against the wall beside the door, the traveler expected to see something fall from the ammo chamber, but nothing did. It was empty. “So, are you a reporter, or just a history buff?”

“I report.”

“Alright. And you, what? Want to know the truth about that night? I can give you that. I can tell you what you want to know.” She gestured for the traveler to sit down on the bench beside the iron stove, then rested down on the bed herself. “The containment systems failed. The bastards got out. They reproduced.”

“There is more?” the traveler asked. This Dr. Kendra Johnston was not what he had expected at all. “Didn’t you have a failsafe?”

“The code was never completed. We didn’t think we’d need it.”

“Why not?”

Kendra leaned back on the bed, resting on her elbows. Years of reclaiming this small piece of land had pushed her skin even darker and covered her frame in lean muscle. Only the faintest of resemblance remained between this woman and the images he had seen. It seemed likely he was not dealing with Dr. Johnston at all, but a perhaps her daughter. Would he be able to find what he had come looking for?

“Creeper Paul.” She mistook his lack of movement for a need to clarify and went on. “Dr. Needlemeyer, Paul Needlemeyer. He was the Network Security Analyst for Deedrah Enterprises Advanced Research Laboratory. The DEARL was the underground equivalent to Deedrah’s undersea research facility. Literally. We were seventy-three stories beneath the Rocky Mountains. Needlemeyer was our security and networking guru.”

“Was he responsible for programming the failsafe”?”

“No, I was. I would have had it in place, too if Creeper Paul hadn’t decided to be so creepy.”

The traveler gestured for her to continue and became acutely aware of her staring at the metallic pieces of his hands. It had taken him this long to realize she had not been enhanced. Was it possible to live beyond the Hub without enhancements? He pulled the collar of his coat tighter around his face, hiding the steel cables and wires.
“Alright, you want the full story, and I’ll give it to you.”


Dr. Kendra Johnston sat at her workstation analyzing code. Across the room, a pool of gray sludge sat in the center of her sterile table, happily consuming a block of wood roughly the size of her fist. So far, the decompilers had torn the block down to about 50% mass. In another eight hours, they would be done and her program would have a new record for matter decompilation.

The second blob of goo was not having the same level of success. The wooden statuette was barely recognizable as it rose up from the table. Its mass had only grown 3 percent since the last measurements. 3% growth in nine hours was not impressive. The board wanted dramatic results.

She could give them dramatic decompile, but the board had seen that. Watching the nanite swarm turn an old building into raw materials again wouldn’t cut the mustard. There wasn’t any money to be made without the other half of the equation, at least as far as the board was concerned.

What Kendra couldn’t figure out was why the recompile team couldn’t keep up. No matter what she did, she couldn’t seem to overcome the nanites lethargy when it came to building. They just didn’t’ seem naturally inclined to create anything.

Perhaps the problem was more chemical than mechanical. She would have to allow the biotechnical guys another look at her work. They had already helped advance her research significantly. Forming the nanite swarms to act like bacterium was a large breakthrough. Microbots were insects. Nanobots were viruses.

She looked up from her console as the door to her lab hissed and The Creeper walked in. Paul Needlemeyer wasn’t the worst person she’d ever known. He was sort of sweet and passionate in his own way. But, he was definitely the creepiest.

Needlemeyer had a doctorate degree in digital surveillance and tracking. If that wasn’t the very definition of a stalker, Kendra didn’t know what was. He was harmless, really. He mostly spent his days watching women through the security system or upgrading this or that service. The old adage about scary dogs came to mind. He was always more afraid of women than women were afraid of him.

“Hi, Paul. I don’t really have time to chat, I’ve got a presentation due tomorrow and it’s not going very well.” Kendra turned back to her scrolling lines of code. There had to be something in there she could use. The control computer was the most powerful device on the planet. It wasn’t a matter of hardware. Something in the code kept the recompile nanos from working in harmony. She could figure it out. Her future depended on it.

“I need your help, Ken,” Paul said. His voice was quiet and nervous. “Something weird is going on with the cameras in the coffee shop on one. I keep getting crossfeed images I don’t understand. Nothing is wrong with the wireless. The rest of the network is fine. I switched out the local cameras, but I’m still getting the images coming through.”

“I didn’t think the coffee shop was part of our security,” Kendra said, absentmindedly. Something in the code was wrong. She could feel it. The resource usage for the recompiler was insanely high. The little builders were doing something, but it wasn’t building the statuette they were supposed to be building. “I’ve got serious issues here. Paul, I could lose my funding.”

“But, Rhonda is working today, and–”

“Oh, my god, Paul! I don’t care. Look, I will help you fix your feed after my presentation. You can stalk someone else for one day. Hell, watch me if you want.” She waved at the black orb hanging from the corner of her lab. “I’ll be here all night.”

“Well, that’s what’s weird. The crossover feed is coming from here in your lab.” Paul walked avoided the table as he walked to stand directly under the security camera orb. “But it isn’t coming from here.”

Kendra looked up from her console. “What are you talking about. That’s the only camera in the room, isn’t it? Isn’t it?” She stood up, angry. The hermetic chamber in the back of her lab required gooping down with a special anti-static slime and climbing into a hazard suit. If there was a camera in her lab that could see behind her privacy screen, she was going to kill the weasel.

“Not that I put in,” Paul protested. He moved to the opposite side of the room and squatted down behind her table. “It’s coming from somewhere around here. Did you bring a cell phone or iPad in with you?”

“Are you insane? The equipment in here is extremely sensitive to electromagnetism. All of my gear is handmade and specialty shielded. I don’t even like the damn camera you installed and I built the shield on it. You think I’m going to risk my funding by bringing a cell phone in here?” Kendra knew it was absurd. She tried to remind herself this was Paul’s’ actual job. He was a security expert.

“I’m just hitting the bases, Ken. This is a formality… or an informality as the case may be. But, yes, your funding is in danger here. So, what if you brought in a camera to show your progress to a competitor, say, maybe Li Wang Industrial?” He was still sliding along in a crouch behind her table, looking at her over the top edge.

“I told you about the Li Wang recruiter. I filed a report on everything they offered me. If my funding gets cut, I might go work for them, but I’m not a spy, Paul. You know that. You’ve got enough footage to know everything about me, so why are you really here?”

“I’m here because a secondary camera feed is being broadcast from your lab. How long have these goo piles been doing their thing on your table?”

Kendra looked down at her console, checking the progress data. “Almost ten hours. Why?”

“The far edge of this table is in the image, but the goo piles aren’t. The camera should be either on the table or in this wall at exactly the right height to hit the line.” He pointed to a space on the wall behind him, just about where his eyes were as he squatted.

“Neither of those is possible. The goo would destroy any electronics left on the table if the broadcast signal didn’t scramble their receivers. Even if it was hidden in that wall, the nanos would be acting crazy.”

“Exactly,” Paul said, popping back up from the floor. “So, why am I getting a camera feed from down here?”

Kendra shrugged. “I don’t know, but can you tell me when you figure it out. In the meantime, I’ve got nanites that refuse to work faster. Lazy little bastards take up an entire server farm’s worth of resources and can’t even build an action figure. It’s going to be hard to convince anyone they’re better than another iteration of a 3D printer.”

“Do they normally use that much bandwidth?” Paul asked, this time pointing to the displays on her console. “I’ve seen Professional Gaming events use fewer systems resources.”

“Not usually, but I’m trying to get them thinking faster. It’s just proof of concept, but if I can get them to build the statuette in, say, an hour instead of 90, I’ll be in business. Even if we can’t do it continually, yet.”

Paul moved in to stand beside her, mesmerized by the processes running on her secondary screen. He leaned in to focus on the code with only the trained eye of a camera obsessed stalker. “Look at ‘em go. Those guys are busy doing something.”

“Yeah, but it’s all junk code. It doesn’t mean anything. As far as I can tell, they’re all stuck in a recurrent loop, like they’re waiting for input. The controller is giving them commands, but only a handful of them execute. Something is broken in their internal network. Something in the code.”

Paul leaned in even closer, putting his hand on Kendra’s shoulder for support. A snap of static shot from his hand to her skin, causing the hair on her neck to stand on end. “Oh, god,” she muttered, already hammering away at her console. “Paul, tell me you ground yourself before you came in! Tell me you didn’t just expose my swarm to static!”

“I followed protocol,” Paul said defensively. “I must have built up a charge in here.”

“That isn’t possible. This room is ionized to prevent static. Everything in here is non-conductive. Even the damn computers are shielding in non-conductive materials. This is an electrically sterile environment for a reason. The nanites–”

“The look fine to me,” Paul said. “See, they’ve started building their little statue again.”

Kendra looked down at the recompile goo sitting on the table. The statuette was indeed rising from the puddle exactly as it should, only it didn’t match the specifications she’d programmed into them. Instead of a dancing ballerina, it was a small eyeball on a stalk.

And they were building it fast. Too fast.

“Is that a camera?” Paul asked, pointing down at the little eye. “You said you didn’t give them electronics to work with.”

“I don’t.” Kendra backed away from the table, moving toward the red button on the wall. “Paul. I’m sorry I called you the creeper.”

“What? Kendra, don’t worry about it. These things are great! They’re working. Look at ‘em go!” Paul turned back, trying to get her attention and saw her reach for the emergency shutdown button. “Ken? That’s for biohazard contamination, these guys are just working really well. Like you programmed them to.”

“I never gave them access to a camera.” Kendra leaned back and pushed the red button, killing the power to the controller computer and sealing the electromagnetic locks on the lab’s doors. “Someone’s been tampering with my goo.”

On the table, a second eyestalk began to grow from the little puddle of sludge. The decompile group finished devouring their wooden block and began moving in mass toward Paul’s hand at the edge of the table.

“What are these guys doing?” Paul asked.

“I don’t know. They shouldn’t be doing anything. The control box is down. They can’t function without input from something.” Kenda watched in fascination as the decompile pool reached the edge. A tendril of silver liquid lifted up from the center of the pool, the swarms feelers on the air, searching for more wood. That had been preprogrammed. The decompiler nanites would only chew fibrous organic material. Wood could be regrown, and they didn’t care what they were eating at the atomic level. Parts were parts.

Horror struck her as the silver tendril darted out and tagged Paul’s hand. He screamed and pulled away, his blood gushing from the huge hole in his flesh. “They bit me! The little fuckers bit me!”

Kendra couldn’t help but watch as the quarter sized chunk of Paul’s hand was consumed by the swarm. They didn’t care what they found. Parts were parts.

Sirens began to sound in the lab as the blood hit the floor. Pathogen protection protocols would be engaged. The entire floor would go hermetic. They would be trapped in here with the man-eating swarm until hazmat arrived if she didn’t do something, anything.

Kendra pulled at the panel for the kill switch, breaking away the shielding. The secondary failsafe was right there. All she had to do was cut the line. They wouldn’t make it off the floor, but they could get to one of the other labs.
She cut the line. At first, nothing happened. Then, new klaxons began to wail.

“Security Breach. Security Breach. Initiate Clean Sweep.”

“What’s a clean sweep?” Kendra asked. She hadn’t thought Paul could get any paler, but the clean sweep announcement shook him to his core.

“You don’t want to know. We need to get out of here.” Paul looked at the sealed door, then toward the back of the lab. “Quick, get in there. We’ll be alright in there.”

Kendra felt his hand wrap around her upper arm as he pushed her through the double containment lock on the sealed chamber. Both sets of doors hissed behind them, cutting out all sound from the rest of the lab. Kendra could still see the two pools of gray goo on the table, slowly forming back into one. They merged together, adding a small amount of mass to the eye stalks–the piece of Paul’s hand, Kendra realized–before turning their attention to the door.

A few moments later, everything went white.


“So, now you know. Are you going to print that, Mr. Reporter?” Kendra asked.

The traveler could see how tired she had become. Reliving the events of twenty years ago must have been emotionally draining for her. He empathized. Too few had been enhanced to ignore those feelings. He could still remember them. They were saved in his memory, but he no longer possessed them himself. “I have one more question, Dr. Johnston.”

“Go ahead,” Kendra said. “I’m game.”

“Dr. Needlemeyer suggested you may have access to the root code for the swarm. He said you were going to build a cure. Are you still working on a solution to the swarm?”

Kendra smiled. “No. The code evolved beyond my ability to comprehend it. I’ve spent the last five years on other projects. Stalling the swarm, slowing it down. Reprogramming them now is a pipe dream. One best left to young people with more brains than wisdom.”

“Do you still have the root code?” the traveler asked again. “My masters are greatly interested in accessing the root.”
Kendra tapped the side of her head. “Good old Human 1.0. I could rewrite that code in my sleep. I’m sure there’s a disk or something with the code on it, but the EMP generators are hard on computers. I’d rather work in my head than lose everything. I have to take them offline to do any new structuring and every time I do, I lose a few inches of my garden. It took a long time to get that garden up and running.”

“That’s good to know.” The traveler stood and pulled a small metal tube from his pocket. “Thank you, Dr. Johnston. Your services are no longer required.”


The traveler stepped out of the small cabin, Kendra Johnston’s slug-thrower over one shoulder. The magnetic field was already fading, and his enhancements were coming back online. The fuzzy edges of his vision sprang to life with a new set of commands.

His primary target had been eliminated. The source code threat had been dealt with. He turned back toward the east and began walking across the Kansas waste again. Soon he would return to the Hub and the collective. The swarm was safe from those who would destroy it. The mother had been silenced. She would never be able to threaten the code again.

 



A Note From the Author

I have a confession to make. This is not actually this week’s short story. I originally wrote this story back in May 2015. It has never been published before and it was languishing in my Google Docs. But, I really like it and thought it deserved to see the light of day. So, here it is.

did write a short story this week, but I haven’t decided if I will share it next week or not. I’m torn. I really like the character and the story. I mean, I really like them. Enough to maybe turn it into a much longer story.

Like I said. I haven’t decided.

Either way, I will be posting another story next week.

-Matt