“What’s with the mask, honey?”

Lyra sighed, and pushed a lock of her long black hair over her ear. “What’s the matter, never seen a Raikon before? It’s traditional.”

“Traditional? With shark on one cheek and the raccoon on the other are traditional? Oh, honey, I could tell you were an animal but that’s just perfect.” The man leaning on the street corner grinned a grin that said nobody who asked him for directions was getting what they wanted.

Lyra silently kicked herself. Her mask, wooden, stark white, and glazed, was often her first outlet for self-expression. When she’d woken up in that ramshackle North Kaiwa inn that morning, it had just cried out for something fierce on one cheek and something resourceful on the other. She should have just left it blank, but she was an artisan and whether in the family forge smelting platemail armor or the fletchery carving a bowstaff, the creative impulse wouldn’t be denied.

“You going to tell me the way to Leonidas’s or not?” Lyra said.

“Maybe…or maybe I’ll knock that mask off your pretty tan face so I can see where those blue eyes fit in.” The man pulled a shortsword out of a loose fold in his clothing and advanced.

The sword at Lyra’s side flashed into her hand. She’d made it herself, talked Father’s ear off about how she’d made it perfectly balanced and how a rapier of its cut and cross-section was used in combat. It glinted in the North Kaiwan sun as it arced toward its target…

…and the brigand easily brushed the weak and badly-aimed blow away. “Flashy, but you can’t actually use the damn thing, can you?” he chortled. “Just like that stupid mask.”

It was true, combat was not Lyra’s strong suit: the instincts that were natural in bringing an item’s potential out in the forge weren’t worth anything in battle.

“You give me everything you’ve got and let me have a little fun, maybe I’ll let you live,” said the brigand.

Lyra aimed another swing, but the counterattack was so fierce that it stumbled her backwards, landing painfully on her tailbone.

“So it’s gonna be that way then, is it? Fine by me, I get what I want either way.”

The brigand aimed a savage blow at Lyra, to which she held up her own blade in self-defense. The swords connected…

…and the brigand’s shattered so violently that several fragments drove into his skin and his arm fell limp and numb at his side. Wearing a horrified expression, he beat a hasty retreat, slinging anti-Raikon epithets over his shoulder as he did so.

“Hmph, that’s right,” Lyra said to herself, getting to her feet ant adjusting her mask. “Trying to come at me with a gutter-steel falchion and thinking I wouldn’t see the impurity seam! That’s what happens when you get cheap stuff from a cut-rate forge.”

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Chuck rubbed his hands together uneasily. “Yeah, about that. Are you sure it’s not…you know, too soon? For going out to a bar?”

“I’m practically healed, Chuck,” said Evan. He had to go in for a biopsy on the ‘other lump’ in a week and stick to eating stuff that his body wasn’t going to violently reject from both ends thanks to the chemo. But Dr. Jaipur hadn’t said anything about not drinking, and he said a lot about not doing other stuff.

“Well, yeah, I suppose,” Chuck said, nodding. “But just because you’re okay physically doesn’t mean you’re okay mentally. I mean…you’re twenty-four with a fresh orchiectomy. I can’t even imagine what that must be like, how you must feel, not being able to have kids…”

Evan’s eyes flahed. “Even though I never wanted any kids to begin with?” He’d told Chuck before that he was just too messed up to bring a kid into this world–a world that, he might add, didn’t need any more humans, thank you very much. That conversation had been years ago.

“Well, you never know when someone might change their mind,” Chuck said. “And, I mean, to have that door closed for you so early, to lose even the potential of ever having kids…”

“Goddammit, Chuck, stop that,” Evan tossed back his drink and tapped the bar for a refill. God, Chuck was just like everyone else! It wasn’t that Evan’s life has been turned upside down, or the chance that the cancer was eating him away from the inside, or the fact that the orchiectomy hurt like hell and he’d always have the scar, or how the operation had hurt his chances of ever having a normal college student life. No, everybody felt sad for Evan strictly because of the fact he couldn’t have kids anymore.

“Evan, I-“

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Evan said. His drink was refilled and he took a fresh swig of it. Considering it was served in stemware, a swig was about all there was to it. “You don’t have to cling to me like some kind of chaperone, Chuck. I’ll get a cab home.” He’d come there to get plenty drunk, not wallow in sympathy for not being a portion of a person factory anymore.

Chuck seemed about to say something, but instead he gathised his things. “I’m a phone call away if you need me,” he said.

“Thanks, but I won’t. Good night, and don’t wait up.”

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1/19: Marrs Properties LLC is happy to welcome you to your new home in our exclusive Rolling Greene subdivision! We think you’ll agree that your recent real estate purchase with us guarantees a long and happy period of home ownership in Mississippi.

2/15: In answer to your question, we have had no complaints about spiders by your neighbors. As your family is the first to inhabit #591637, Marrs Properties LLC has no record of previous owners. We have a contract on file with Arachnicide Pest Solutions out of Cambridge, and would be happy to refer you to one of their specialists.

2/29: Your Arachnicide Pest Solutions spraying is complete, and the charge, less a 25% contract discount, will be spread across your grounds fees for the next six months. You may return to #591637 at your convenience.

3/8: In response to your query, Marrs Properties LLC offers its deepest apologies. We have had a contract with Arachnacide Pest Solutions for fifteen years without complaint, and we wish your son a speedy recovery from his spider bite. Unfortunately, your homeowners insurance will not cover medical costs or the cost of another spraying by an outside contractor.

3/31: Having read the report of the building inspector, Marrs Properties LLC would like to remind you that all real estate purchases and mortgages are final. However, to help defray the costs and avoid a lengthy litigation progress, we have agreed to contract Wilson Pest Control out of Jackson to conduct an additional and more thorough spraying. We trust that this solution will be mutually satisfactory.

4/27: Marrs Properties LLC is pleased to announce that Wilson Pest Control has completed its spraying and found no evidence of further spider infestation. You may move back in at your convenience, and we trust that this will amicably resolve the matter to our mutual satisfaction.

6/3: We here at Marrs Properties LLC would like to offer you our deepest and most heartfelt condolences on your loss. We must remind you, however, that your signature to the pest removal contract by Wilson absolves Marrs Properties LLC of any and all liability and that your homeowner’s insurance will not cover funeral expenses.

6/19: In response to the motion filed earlier this month, Marrs Properties LLC must reiterate that all sales are final, all mortgage details are non-negotiable with the lending institution, and that we cannot be held responsible for your latest hospitalization costs in the same way that we were regretfully forced to return your bills from the Napier Funeral Home, Cambridge Children’s Hospital, and Holy Trinity Cemetery. Again, we do offer our sympathies for your misfortune.

7/16: Marrs Properties LLC must condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the condemnation of your property by the county authorities as unfit for human habitation. We reiterate that there are absolutely no complaints of spider infestations from your neighbors, that your property was newly built, and that we and our subsidiaries cannot be held responsible for your negligent actions in making your home attractive as a habitat to pests.

8/21: As reflected in the legal papers served you this afternoon, it is our sad duty to inform you and your family of your eviction from Rolling Greene, effective immediately. None of the paperwork you have offered alters the terms of your binding and lawful contract with Marrs Properties LLC or excuses non-payment of mortgage.

11/1: Marrs Properties LLC is happy to welcome you to your new home at #591637 in our exclusive Rolling Greene subdivision! We think you’ll agree that your recent real estate purchase with us guarantees a long and happy period of home ownership in Mississippi. We regret the delay in your move-in; lingering legal issues forced us to contract to remove pests attracted by the former owners, but now that the process is complete, you may move in at your convenience. In response to your question, we are not aware of where the site of the Battle of Spider Creek falls within Rolling Greene, but we can assure you that all proper steps were taken during our vetting and construction process at #591637 and elsewhere.

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The Muscogee County Film School was established in 1984 on a cheap patch of formerly fallow land about 20 minutes outside of Hopewell. It was the beneficiary of state largesse that Governor Blanchard hoped would create jobs and attract tourism, much like his support of Six Flag AutoWorld in Flint. And, like AutoWorld, it was a colossal fiasco.

For one, the MCFS was located very close to Southern Michigan University, which had a small film program under the auspices of its Department of Communications, as well as a small Theatre minor attached to Liberal Arts. Incensed that Blanchard’s money went to a new entity rather than SMU, and that his administration and trustees hadn’t been consulted, then-SMU president John Henry Brand refused to support the MCFS. Faculty and students were duly warned that associating with it would mean dismissal.

The MCFS was therefore forced to offer highly subsidized tuition to undercut SMU and attract students from the rural parts of Michigan as well as out of state. It was a money sink, but nevertheless managed to attract both students and teachers, graduating its first class in 1985. There were modest sets, editing suites, and state of the art equipment and film stock. Student entries successfully competed in the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and indie filmmaker J. H. Crofthume brought some notice to the school when he was shortlisted for an Oscar in a technical category.

But it soon began to fall apart thanks to a short film that was completed and screened in 1987: Kashish Is Everywhere. No copies are known to survive, but a newspaper clipping indicates that there was an outbreak of violent nausea and headaches when it was unspooled at a Hopewell grindhouse. The students whose names were on the film claimed to by mystified by the content, which they said they did not remember filming. The title–Urdu for “attractive”–was a mystery as well, as none of the students were from India or spoke Urdu.

Nevertheless, the phrase Kashish Is Everywhere soon began appearing throughout other films, in audio recordings, and even scrawled on chalkboards in the classrooms. MCFS teachers blamed it on an elaborate practical joke by students, or sabotage by a vindictive President Brand. Either way, the films in which the phrase appeared reportedly had the same nauseating and migraine-inducing effect on the students working on them, and even those who were unaffected were deeply unnerved.

Enrollment plummeted for the 1988 season, but despite half the number of students and half the teachers consequently on furlough, Kashish Is Everywhere continued to appear throughout every medium that the school made, taught, or used. Due to a lack of students and teachers, the 1989 season wound up being the last for the MCFS. The classes were suspended pending an infusion of cash from the state government, but with Governor Blanchard’s 1991 electoral defeat, the funds were not forthcoming. The school was quietly abandoned without a formal closure or sale.

Thanks to this abandonment as-is, the Muscogee County Film School became popular with urban explorers in the 2010s. But attempts by filmmakers to take advantage of the site have so far failed due to corrupted files on digital cameras, and explorers report that the school is overwhelmed with Kashish Is Everywhere graffiti.

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The assembled members of the scientific staff each had a visible Strepsipterid protruding or pulsating beneath their clothing, and their faces all wore the same beatific expression. Motile scurrying larval planidia, each the size of silver dollars, crawled over the floor and the bodies of the people in their thrall, while butterfly-sized males flitted from perch to perch about the larviform female parasites.

“They are peaceful parasites, it is true, but that does not mean they do not know a modicum of defense.” Dr. Warren said, her voice a serene monotone. “The others are dead; having refused the gift, we were forced to act in the name of the greater good.”

It was only then that Gracie noticed the soldiers in the wings, their rifles limber and deadly, their own Streptisterid parasites alive with pulsations.

“Surely you must concede, Dr. Warren,” Gracie said, trying to appeal to what might be left of her colleague’s logic, “that one can refuse the gift but not wish those who have accepted it harm. Isn’t that the kind of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ thinking that your peace seeks to defeat?”

“You are proceeding from a false assumption,” Warren replied coldly. “Could the creatures of the Precambrian who could not to adapt to an oxygen-rich atmosphere from one that was purely nitrogen persist? Of course not. The gift is oxygen; to refuse is by definition to die.”

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“I should have known you were behind all this,” growled the koala mercenary, a eucalyptus cigarette smouldering in his mouth and a tiny .22 revolver in each two-thumbed hand.

Dr. James Platypus cackled, his tail waving merrily. “THE.POISON.CLAWS.OF.MY.KIND.ARE.EVER.TRIUMPHANT.AGAINST.THE.REDUCED.BRAINS.OF.YOURS.” he crowed through the intermediary of a cell phone touch screen equipped with Gaggle Translator.

“Where’s the trigger?” screeched the koala with his inhuman voice, striking Dr. Platypus on his smug beak. “Where’s the trigger?”

Platypus laughed. “YOU.THINK.I.WOULD.TELL.YOU?” he typed into Gaggle Translator with a trembling paw. “LIKE.ALL.OF.YOUR.KIND.YOUR.BITING.AND.CLAWING.AND.SHRIEKING.IS.JUST.A.SMOKESCREEN.FOR.IGNORANCE.”

A hammer pulled back and a barrel pressed to the back of the koala mercenary’s head preempted his reply. “Kara Quoll,” he said bitterly. “How could you?”

said Ms. Quoll, with her hands, in Australian Outback Standard Sign Language.

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One Hundred – The grand old man, whose grandfatherly aloofness makes Ten seem warm and clingy. He rarely involves himself with the day-to-day concerns of his neighbors but is roundly respected by most of them for his evenhandedness. He reports to a much higher authority known as Infinity, though he has also been seen with the enigmatic figures of π and Prime (the leader of the Prime Club). One Hundred’s aloofness and inaction mean that he is often content to let events take their course through inertia, intervening only at the point where a catastrophe must be averted.

Sixty-Six – At once shunned and looked up to, Sixty-Six is the bad girl of her neighborhood, bedecked in black and riding a motorcycle to buy groceries. She completely owns and embraces her stereotyped role, and makes her neighbors even more uneasy because of it. Most often seen with Thirteen, who has a bit of a hero-worship crush on her, and has an ongoing feud with Thirty-Three.

Fifty – Staid, patrician, and generally grouchy, Fifty has a laconic wit and generally prefers to keep to himself and be left alone. When roused to action, though, he is a terrible opponent and a stalwart ally. His extensive military service and the rumor that he keeps an old military surplus pistol in his jacket are enough for most of his neighbors to give him a respectful berth and honor his desire for privacy, fine cigars, and cask-aged whiskey.

Thirty-Three – Intensely moral and ethical, Thirty-Three is often harshly judgmental of anyone who departs from behaviors that are dictated by her personal code. Always the first to start a moral panic and the last to abandon it, Thirty-Three is nevertheless very generous with her time and her money, and volunteers extensively for a variety of causes. This leads to many of her neighbors seeing her as a nosy, gossipy busybody, though many have benefited from her generosity. She has an intense and ongoing feud with Sixty-Six.

Thirteen – A mopey, sulky, and moody wannabe goth, Thirteen is often shunned by his neighbors for his relentless negativity and outward signs of depression. He is, however, a poseur who affects much of his public persona in imitation of, and with a massive unrequited crush on, Sixty-Six. In private, he is actually quite fond of bright colors, cartoons, and sing-alongs but does his best (which is not terribly good) to keep those facets of himself from the public eye. A member of the Prime Club, he is tolerated by the Primes somewhat more than the Composites.

Twelve – Prissy, preening, and generally full of herself, Twelve enjoys lording it over anybody she can, especially Ten. Ten generally allows this treatment to roll of his back, which makes Twelve all the more anxious to prove, and flout, her superiority. She is very skilled and intelligent, and not above manipulating others (especially Six) to get her way, and can often be found conspiring with Nine to lay Ten low and prove herself the greatest once and for all. For all her negative bluster, though, Twelve is very loyal to her friends Six and Twenty-Four.

Eleven – A raucous and noisy wannabe rocker, Eleven is cheerfully oblivious to her utter lack of talent. With her bandmates Twenty-Two and Forty-Four, she is determined to become a starlet to show up both Twelve and Ten, both of whom regard her with sometimes thinly veiled patronizing attitudes. For all her designs on superstardom, she is also very devoted to the Prime Club, serving as its secretary and with a record of perfect attendance.

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