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River Road

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Wanda Wilbur watched the paddle holster holding the grip-worn .38 Special slide onto the sturdy, sweat-stained leather belt. “You goin’ out? You been patrolin’ near every afternoon.” Wanda took off her Buddy Holly glasses. “Who my s’posed to talk to?”

“Well, Miz Wilbur, lack of an audience has never bothered you before.” He smiled to himself. That was a good one. “Missoura’s now the meth capital a the United States accordin’ to the Feds.” He grimace-smiled this time.  “Gotta keep the hopheads outa our backyard.”

Wanda nodded and clicked her tongue as she rearranged a large bobby pin in her hair. “Well, lucky for us, we got six-term Sheriff R.T. Barnes on the trail.”

The Sheriff ambled toward the fly-friendly screen door. “I’m gonna go cruise the river a bit. The wife calls, tell her I’ll be home for supper at six.”

Butler County had no towns over 200 people, so Black River, which crossed the county, had been the de facto activity center for as many generations as anyone could remember. It still was.

As the lone department cruiser crossed the rat-a-tat-tat bouncing boards of the canopied wooden bridge, it slowed so he could scan up and down the river for signs of miscreants. Nothing marred the tranquil shimmering of the flowing water and the forest of trees jutting out over the water, hanging onto the banks despite the earth being slowly eroded away by the winding and swirling currents below them.

He eased off the bridge, turning north onto the gravel road that roughly paralleled the riverbed. The artery had no name, but most called it River Road.
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No Alarms and No Surprises

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War... - Editor

No Alarms and No Surprises

by Brian Lyons

The first time Mickey had seen Afghanistan was as he had thundered down into its terrifyingly beautiful landscape in the belly of a great C17 Globemaster. He'd been dazzled by the form and colours of the harsh yet stunning scenery he had swept over. It seemed to him to be a land comprised of huge towering snow-topped mountains, or the swirling dunes of vast breathless desert plains with thin green stains following sparse river valleys.

As they had started to descend, his neighbours on the plane had wedged their helmets firmly under their seats. He quickly did the same; he'd seen Apocalypse Now too.

The gentle tones of No Alarms and No Surprises, one of the more melodious of Radiohead's tracks, rippled across his consciousness through the earphones of his MP3 player. It was a strangely appropriate soundtrack to his very first descent into this country. He took it as an omen.

Mickey loved his music and knew it could be a tool to help him through his time in this place. It could save his sanity. Now, without anything else, he clung to it, finding significance wherever he could in every line. However he was aware that his experiences, and the memories they generated, would, in the end, probably destroy the relationship he had built with those much-loved songs.

#

All around them was silent, but for the occasional moan of wind and swish of sand. Even the radio was short of its usual frantic traffic on this hot hazy day. Now and again a wayward insect crawled up the inside of a trouser leg and needed an admonishing slap, but that was about it.
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100 COFFINS

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A Western saloon... - Editor

100 COFFINS

by Coy Hall

Roth Cadman rode through the drizzling midnight rain towards the livery stable of Trinity Hill. Mud jumped from the street, up his leg and around his face. Rain fell in stinging drops. With the exception of a few dim lights shining from the saloon, the town looked deserted along Main Street. Cadman moved into the dry stable and dismounted. The livery, like the town around it, seemed deserted.

Maybe it’s the late hour, he thought to himself, pulling his things together and unsaddling the horse. But the explanation wasn’t convincing. Boom towns like Trinity weren’t in the habit of going to bed just after sundown. Cadman put the horse away and fed it. Beating the rain from his hat, he prepared to make a dash through the downpour towards the saloon. He needed a drink.

The sky rumbled with thunder. Wind moved the rain in sideway sheets across the dark, muddy vista.

Cadman stooped his shoulders and ran for it. The mud was three inches deep in places, and puddles, like small ponds, dotted the street. A plank sidewalk led up to the porch of the saloon. Cadman stood breathlessly beneath the awning, glancing inward over the batwing doors. People were inside, a lot of them, sitting quietly around the dim glow of candles.

Cadman did what he could before entering, smacking his hat against the rail and wiping the water and mud from his unshaven face. He was used to being alone, and used to being stuck out in the weather, but that didn’t mean it didn’t make him miserable. Nights like this made him feel like a stray dog.

As Cadman entered, the folks barely stirred. They turned and looked for the most part, then fell back to their solemn thoughts. Every table was full; people lined the bar shoulder to shoulder; the walls and steps were covered by those standing. There were more than a hundred people in the large room. For light, homemade candles, bitches as folks call them, constructed from tin cups and bacon grease lined the main bar and decorated the tables. Shadows danced in the few open spaces. A haunting aura hung about the room.
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Pack-Brothers: The Ambush

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I would join - Editor

Pack-Brothers: The Ambush

by Will Frankenhoff

Dusk settled into the remote mountain pass. A chill breeze arrived, whispering among the stunted birch trees and silver-barked alders clinging to life amid the hard brown soil. An arctic fox, her coat already white in preparation for winter, paused to sniff the air. High above, a pair of red-tailed wyverns spiraled across the sky in an elaborate mating dance. The sole sign of civilization was an old road, its cracked paving stones overgrown with chokeberry bushes and knee-high spikegrass. Climbing out of a small wooded hollow to the west, it ran along the northern edge of the pass before turning southeast to head deeper into the mountains.

Blade-Lieutenant Eldan Swayne crouched behind a lichen-covered boulder thirty feet back from the road, a small hand-held crossbow resting in one gloved hand. Clad in the grey-green buckskin leathers of the Republic of Almaren’s Border Watch, including a hood that left only a slit for the eyes, Eldan’s motionless form blended into the rock; one shadow among many in the deepening twilight.

He was not alone. Eight other members of his small company lay concealed nearby. Most were armed with powerful recurve short bows; some cradled heavy crossbows. All carried regulation-issue longswords in blackened scabbards across their backs and broad-bladed daggers sheathed at their waists.

A voice whispered in Eldan’s mind, “Chief?”

The lieutenant breathed a sigh of relief. The “voice” belonged to Canus, Eldan’s pack-brother and the final member of the company. Eldan had sent him out to confirm the location of the Ssylarian slavers they’d been tracking the past two days.

“Yes, Canus?”

“I’ve found them. Three wagons. About a mile to the west, just past Laughing Falls. They’ll reach you in twenty minutes or so.”
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Blood of the Father

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Eye see you - Editor

Blood of the Father

by Philip Roberts

For the first ten years of Charles Mclemore’s life he knew only wealth and luxury. On his tenth birthday his father pulled him from his bedroom one bright, sunny afternoon, and led young Charles down plywood steps, across dusty cement, and through an entrance hidden behind an aged, rotted cabinet.

Eyes glistening with frightened tears and the sting of dusty air, Charles struggled against his father’s grip, a man he’d known as a face more than a parent. He’d always seen his father’s reddened eyes from a distance, pronounced jaw and chin firmly set whenever looking upon his own son. Hired help had tended to Charles’s needs, the word father itself meaning little as Charles was forced down crumbling stone steps, their only light held in his father’s outstretched hand.

They ended in front of a wooden door barely able to contain the bright red shining behind it. The sight silenced Charles, mute when the door opened and his father gently pushed him into the small room.

At first Charles thought he stared at a nude man inside a wooden cage. The only light came from a metal stand with a red bulb on top of it, but Charles ignored the light to focus on the stranger hunched in the corner of the cage, his arms draped over his knees, the skin pale white.

The man’s head lifted, shifted towards Charles, the movement sending ripples through the skin, bloating the flesh. The man had no face, the skin around the outside of the head pulled back into dark oblivion, and as the being pulled into a crouch, Charles could see the skin itself dripping to the hay covered floor.

Eyes pulled opened in the man’s chalk white chest, ten of them in all, but melding together, turning the man’s entire chest into a massive eye, his very arms being absorbed into the skin, empty face tilting upward. And then, in the middle of the eye another line formed, split it open into a toothless mouth. Charles barely heard a dry wheeze. It gave up on its attempt at speech before it could finish, pulling back into the corner instead, the more human form returned, except in the hollow face Charles saw the flesh pulling together, forming a replica of his own youthful features atop the pale, adult body of the entity.
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The Fleet of the Moon's Library

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Who knew? - Editor

The Fleet of the Moon's Library

by Joshua Kemp

It was 2023 before we, Humanity, set up a sustainable base on the surface of the moon. When I think of all that we learned from the libraries, it seems insane that it took so long. Once we got up there, once we started roaming around, beyond a few hop skips and jumps, that’s when we found it; The Library.

Whoever built it, if they were still watching, must have figured this seed planet a pretty miserable failure. Here we are more than six thousand years into our race's one big shot for the title, and we’re too busy killing each other to get the big picture. Three years after Moon Base Selene I was established, a walker probing for ice found the first entrance to the library. Within a month of active searching beginning we found a dozen more portals to the library, and the world shattered.

I mean, it was chaos, insanity. The Pope killed himself! I was alive, I read about it the day it happened! It may not seem like much, since you’ve probably never thought about a pope outside of history class, but believe me, that just didn’t happen, but nothing like the library had ever happened or will ever happen again. The first thing we learned, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was we are not alone. There beneath the dilating doors that swirled open at our approach were machines thousands of years beyond human technology; Rows and rows of black obelisks, their surfaces laced with tiny vein-like tubes through which a faintly luminescent green liquid flowed, Massive star craft bristling with long barreled turrets and missiles with tiny cockpits perched ludicrously atop massive engines and power plants. These and ten thousand other wonders we discovered up there soon became commonplace.
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Shaman

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Why did he still live? - Editor

Shaman

by Melissa Embry

Black Omar looked up as he entered the marketplace of al-Shara, squinting against the late winter sky at the inscription overhead. The town clinging to the banks of the great river was little more than a village, but the pillars surrounding its marketplace supported a roof – only slightly dilapidated – that formed a sheltered arcade, a comfortable place to exchange gossip and merchandise, human or otherwise.

The carved inscription, Omar had heard, honored the caliph who had the arcade built when Syria was a land of importance, before successor caliphs pulled back to Baghdad. But wind and sand, summer sun and winter rain, and the stones flung by generations of small boys had nearly effaced the inscription.

A shimmer obscured Omar’s sight, the aura that presaged true seeing. He shrugged off his uneasiness. And in any case, he could not have read the inscription. He was a slave.

A child’s scream resounded within the marketplace, followed by the thudding footfalls of men running in the warren of alleys. Omar leaned against a pillar, out of the path of any fleeing thief.

A man – not young, but not as old as Omar -- raced past. He held a scarecrow of a small girl against his shoulder. The lightning streak of a scar ran down one cheek and into his beard, the scar that had given the man his nickname – the Frank, al-Mastoub – the slashed one. Two pursuers panted at his back – the guards of the slave dealer al-Darda, their weapons drawn.

Al-Mastoub spun around, laying the child over his left shoulder to free a hand. His old scimitar leaped from its scabbard with a hiss. Almost too fast for Omar’s eyes to follow, the blade slashed across the attacker’s arm, ripping the man’s sleeve. The dirty wool bloomed red. With a groan, the guard dropped his weapon into the dust.
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Faceless

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Always make a backup - Editor

Faceless

by Terry Light

A flash of tangled crimson wrapped around Julianne’s legs so tightly she couldn’t escape the dark man approaching her bed. She covered her eyes with her right forearm, screwed her eyelids shut more tightly and whispered, “No!”

In her mind, she heard a shout.

An ominous “thump” announced each step as the faceless man drew closer. She heard his high-pitched wheezing and the dull bass of his heartbeat - then heard a click and two soft reports that sounded like a cobra spitting.

Red sheets. A cocking pistol. Suppressor. Gunshots.

A nightmare.

Julianne woke suddenly, screaming, fists clenched, elbows bent, curled tightly in a ball on her side with a thin sheen of perspiration coating her skin. Her bed was hard. No. It was the floor. She opened her eyes and saw a flat surface of black and white tiles stretching endlessly to infinity. White clouds drifted in a gentle breeze across a sunless blue sky.

“Another dream.”

“A lucid dream,” said Jon, her artificial intelligence implant.

“Better than my last nightmare.”

“Interesting.”

“Why?”

“I don’t remember your last dream.”

Julianne’s implant was beneath her skull, in her head, with her all the time. The only reason it could not know about her previous nightmare was because she turned it off. But she didn’t turn Jon back on. So why was he in this dream?

“You weren’t in my last dream,” she said. “Not as an AI, not as a participant, not as an observer.”

“Why not?”
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The Cromera

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Give and take - Editor

The Cromera

by Lydia Kurnia

Shilvana was six when the masters first severed her hand.

She had been waiting for this day. After all, that was their purpose: food for the Cromera. If her body parts meant safety for the elves of Farizia, then this was nothing but an honourable sacrifice.

The Cromera protected all, weathering the storms that forever threatened the city. In return, the masters would sustain Her with the younglings. Before puberty, Shilvana’s kind had the gift to regenerate. Her hand would grow back in a matter of days.

She just did not know it would hurt so bad.

She was fortunate. The Cromera only wanted her hand. Her best friend Erikh had almost died from bleeding when he lost both his arms at previous feeding. The masters would always try to negotiate, knowing there was limited supply of younglings for the Cromera to feed on. She must not be too greedy—Goddess or not. But Shilvana knew at the end of the day: what the Cromera wanted, She got.

Shilvana had never seen the Cromera. The masters would never let the younglings near Her. In the dining hall, the younglings would gossip about what She might look like. They made it a competition: whoever came up with the worst would get the top bunk at the quarter. Shilvana had won once, when she told them the Cromera had several heads—each made of thousands of mouths and stomachs—that was why the Goddess was always hungry. The top bunk was not as worthy a prize as she had imagined, but Shilvana was proud to have made the other younglings flinch.
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Wednesday's Seagulls

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I'd dry-swallowed the last instant coffee days ago, but the thought “Oversleep and he'll eat your brain” gutkicks you awake. No matter how tired you are. Two or three nights with only a couple of hours sleep puts sand in your brain and smothers your joy in life. Six nights like that, and your brain glues shut and your energy dwindles into bovine endurance just this side of death.

I spasmed awake at the first flicker of dawn. When I saw that enough tide remained to leave a ribbon of saltwater between Wednesday and myself, I released my breath and massaged crud from my eyes. Nothing had changed. A hundred-foot rock in the middle of the South Pacific. The shattered plane I slept in. And the dead man, Wednesday.

Wednesday stood so still the island danced in comparison. Sunlight glinted off the golden hoop dangling from the desiccated stub of his left ear. His right leg ended in twin spears of worm-eaten brown bone. Salty air coursed through the crack in his skull and out his broken teeth, whistling loudly enough to penetrate the crash of the ocean's fierce churn around us, and the corrugated tear across his gut displayed mummified bowels and stumps of rib. I couldn't imagine how long he'd been on this rock – years? Centuries? How long did it take to turn a human being into jerky, and how long could human jerky last? Six bullets had lodged harmlessly somewhere inside him, and the flare gun hadn't singed his petrified invulnerability.
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