August 2019


In my dream, I see a square tower, corbeled and crenelated like the fortresses of old, suspended in the infinite void. It is the only solid amidst a fluid darkness, yet it is somehow still darker than that, as if hewn from blackest obsidian. In the nearest corner, a figure stands upon the parapets. I can see that it is a figure, yet I can see nothing else; they are radiant and made of white light. Nothing stands against the glow, and the tower with its surroundings are all the darker for the painful radiance.

I do not know what it means, but I do know that each night the tower is closer and more distinct, while the figure is brighter and more difficult to perceive.

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The Dead City…who could say they remembered its real name, before it was claimed by howls and snarls and vicious dissonance?

Nothing ever came out, save a rank odor when the winds were just right and the occasional howl of something inarticulate and unknowable (or perhaps just metal on metal). Things occasionally went in–explorers, scavengers, missionaries even–but it was as sure a death sentence as dangling from a makeshift gallows or facing down a firing squad as far as most could figure. People gave the Dead City a wide berth coming and going, with signs warning the unwary away the only part of the old road that saw any maintenance in those latter days.

Yet lights still shone in the night, even though the power had been cut, dried out, or redirected practically forever ago. People with binoculars could see movement from a safe distance, but an inversion layer kept it shimmering and indistinct. Smoke rose from chimneys and stacks as if the city were alive.

And, if anything, it was that illusion of life that filled people with bone-deep dread.

Survey after survey confirmed the same thing: virtually every planet with a certain environment had been colonized millions of years ago. The environment was Cytherean, hothouse planets similar to Venus, and it seemed to be pure chance that whatever beings had made the colonies had not found their way to Venus herself.

The ruins rapidly degraded in those atmospheres, of course, but they still stood out through their use of perfect circles and curves (never straight lines) and their young age, less than 100 million years old when the average Cytherean planet had a surface three times as old. The surveys rarely found any extraterrestrial life on these worlds, a few quasi-microbial organisms at best. But that was hardly the most curious thing about these corroded outposts.

They had all been destroyed, or abandoned, around the same time, approximately 47 million years ago. The destroyed sites appeared to have been wiped out by kinetic weapons fired from orbit, while the abandoned ones tended to be the most remote, the most distant–cut off and left to wither on the vine, as it were.

Someone, or something, attacked these ancient colonists and caused the disintegration of their civilization within a matter of centuries. These attackers have been dubbed the “Hyksos” by researchers, after the mysterious attackers and invaders of ancient Egypt that vanished suddenly from the historical record not long after they entered it.

Despite the incredible nature of the Cytherean colonists, attention focused primarily on the Hyksos–who they were, why they made war on the Cythereans, and–most importantly–if they might yet return.

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“The first notion that I had was from Anna Innsbruck, who had a fellow that was a pilot,” said Madame (and Captain) Waschbaer. “He said that pilots were required to fly the Albatros D.III aircraft from the factory to the front, and even, as a lark, snuck Anna into his aerodrome.”

“A most grievous breach of military discipline, Madame Captain,” said Inspector-General Baumkopf.

“Indeed,” said Waschbaer. “A most grievous wartime necessity.” She called out to one of the girls nearby, barking at her to mind her engine after spotting oil pooling underneath it.

“Was she caught?”

“Anna? Her fellow showed her how to fly the plane, she grasped the rudiments at once, and within a month she was flying for her fellow every other day,” Waschbaer laughed.

“Until she was caught.”

“Until he was promoted! Anna’s idea about ferrying aircraft made it to someone who could act on it, and she quite naturally came to me to recruit ladies with the necessary skill, subtlety, and dexterity. The brothels of Vienna are as much a battlefield as Flanders or the Dolomites, Inspector.”

“Clearly there is a fine line between flying a plane from the factory to flying it in combat,” Baumkopf said. “The former being quite logical wartime work, much as our womenfolk find in the munitions factories, and the latter being a different beast entirely.”

“You have our friend Luigi Cadorna to thank for that,” said Waschbaer, “when a flotilla of his Italian planes tried to intercept a factory delivery to the aerodrome here at Gorizia. Luckily, the aircraft was armed and my girls knew how to work the machine guns.”

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“Anyone who has ever visited The Persian Cat in Vienna knows that there is no creature more deft, more supple, more responsive than a high-class courtesan,” Madame Waschbaer said. “And, as any who have attempted to cross me or my girls knows, there is no creature more dangerous and resourceful when angered.”

“Well, yes.” Inspector-General Baumkopf said, uneasily shifting in his mirror-polished boots. “So I’ve…heard, in any case. But still, what a remarkable ascent, from the whorehouses of our nation’s capital to sailing above the front lines for His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s Aviation Troops, hm?”

“I think you’ll find that it’s quite a remarkable ascent from anywhere to flying in a heavier-than-air machine, Herr Baunkopf,” said Waschbaer. “Even your men.”

The madame and the inspector continued strolling along the line of Albatros D.III biplanes turned out for inspection. The latest fighter designs from the Empire’s erstwhile ally, they were newly-built by KUK Waggonfabrik. Baumkopf gave a curt nod to the women and aircrews standing at attention in front of their machines before turning back to Waschbaer. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said. “But I wanted to see how and know why. That’s why I came myself instead of sending an assistant.”

“Well, the how you’ll see in a moment, when we fly a sortie,” said Waschbaer. “No demonstrations, this will be a live-fire exercise, a special delivery to our dear enemies across the lines. No wasted fuel or girls’ lives.”

“And why?” Inspector-General Baumkopf jabbed his swagger stick at the nearest pilot, Erna Pichler. “We do not see fit to put His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s delicate flowers on the front lines, so why do they fly above them?”

“Why, to release more of His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s strapping young lads to die for their country in the Russian mud, of course.”

“And why…er…why empty the brothels? Surely there are virtuous women who could serve and not-“

“Oh please, Inspector-General,” scoffed Madame Waschbaer. “Call a spade a spade. You may call the girls dancers, courtesans, prostitutes, whores, whatever you like, it is nothing they haven’t heard before.”

“Why…courtesans?” Baumkopf continued, looking uneasily over Erna Pichler’s various and sundry assets with a foreboding sense of familiarity. “You say they are deft, and supple, and all that, but-“

“But they are also tough,” the madame shot back. “That toughness is what will win them glory in this war while freeing your boys to be in a frozen trench someplace. And, if you’ll pardon my Francais, these girls are used to men getting screwed over thanks to them.”

Baumkopf, red as a cherry tomato, sputtered in response.

“Relax, it is a joke,” said Madame Waschbaer. “I am a commissioned officer in His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s Aviation Troops if you wish me brought up on charges for speaking so freely.”

The inspector-general continued walking past Erna, who gave him a smile and a wink, continuing the inspection almost automatically.

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Library donors whose lives are written into books bound in human skin—their own skin.

But for those who have tired of what this mortal coil has to offer, the Deerton Public Library has an exciting and eldritch new donation option available.

“We call it the Soul Codex,” says Director McGee. “It’s a very simple process. By stepping into the dark circle scryed in Library Sub-Basement B1A1 on the night of a blood moon, you will enable the ley lines that crisscross in sacred geometry beneath our building to do the bidding of powers beyond mortal comprehension.”

During the process, which McGee describes as “going quietly to sleep though the agony of a thousand papercuts,” the donor’s complete life and knowledge will be transferred in its entirety into a specially prepared codex. This book, with infinitely many pages accessible with a simple index, will contain the sum total of information accessible—consciously or not!—to the donor.

“Of course, this leaves their existing body a lifeless shuddering husk,” says McGee. “But waste not, want not! We recycle every bit of that husk through a rigorous program of organ donation for cash and anthropodermic bibliopegy.”

The book, now bound in the skin of its former owner—“you could technically call it autoAnthropodermic bibliopegy if you wanted to,” laughs McGee—is then added to the collection, where it helps the cash-strapped library earn additional income. “The human being is a walking mass of secrets, secrets that people will pay dearly for. Whether it’s gossip or blackmail or even something prosaic like a WiFi password, all is contained in the book. The library is happy to let you look at it for a flat per-minute fee.”

The only limitation, so far, is that the Soul Codicies cannot be checked out. “For obvious reasons, they are confined to our rare book room,” says McGee. “We may eventually begin circulating them, but it will require alterations to our late ite policy! Needless to say, your immortal should would be forever forfeit if you failed to bring the book back.”

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“There’s just one, er, problem with our analysis, Doctor,” said Sean.

“Well, out with it then,” barked Dr. Grey.

“You were right about the corpse, it had not been mummified in the traditional sense,” Sean said. “But we were wrong about the age.”

“What?”

“You thought it was a rare example of an unembalmed body placed in an 18th-dynasty, but our analysis shows that it’s far too young to be anything like that. In fact, this body is from less than 100 years ago.”

Dr. Grey looked over at Sean. “When was the tomb excavated?”

“1924. There were rumors of a curse, since the expedition leader’s wife vanished during the excavation.”

“I’d say we just found her.”

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The interviewer closed his portfolio, setting it aside. “We call the organization Ducks Unlimited, of course. But we want you to tell us: how unlimited are they? What, if anything is the limit of the ducks where Ducks Unlimited is concerned?”

The CEO candidate, Mr. Smith, folded his hand and smiled. “A limitless duck exists,” he said, “whether now–in which case we must seek it–or in the future–in which case we must prepare for its arrival. Once this unlimited duck is known to us, we will steadily feed it, small things at first, and then greater, until it contains all things and all is unified within the flesh of the ur-fowl.”

Looking to his right and then to his left, and finding smiles and nods on both sides, the interviewer rose and extended his hand. “I think you’re our man, Mr. Smith,” he said. “Welcome aboard.”

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No one screwed with Mama Roneck.

She didn’t say much, serving primarily as a maid and monitor for her unruly brood following the early death of her husband. When times got lean and the boys began turning to petty crime, Mama Roneck made sure that they were well-fed and well-clothed doing it. Whenever the police stopped by the ramshackle Roneck homestead, she would greet them, serve them tea, and calmly hand out terse alibis that were backed up by neighbors.

It wasn’t like Mama Roneck didn’t reward them for their loyalty. The Schmidts got a gold watch chain after insisting Elmo Roneck had been with their boy fishing on the night that the Philips 66 had been knocked over. Essie Billingsley found Ray and Ernest Roneck sullenly and silently helping bring in her harvest after she’d sworn up and down they’d been nowhere near the ditch where Sammy Carruthers’ torso was found. But while these little gestures were welcome, most folks in those parts would have played ball anyway, carrot or no, because of the stick involved.

No one screwed with Mama Roneck.

One day, as she was wont to do, Mama Roneck showed up at Jeremy and Carol Shire’s little patch. “You were with the boys fixing a wagon last night,” she said. “Swear to it if the cops come by, and we’ll look on it as a favor.”

Jeremy, sick of her demands and with only a silk handkerchief to show for the last time he’d lied for a Roneck, angrily spat his tobacco in his cup. “You’re going to have to to better than your usual if you want that,” he said. “I want twenty bucks this time.

Carol had tried to stop her husband, tried to apologize over him, but Jeremy–fortified by a little hard cider–held firm. He was not telling Roneck lies unless cash was attached.

“All right then,” Mama Roneck said. “Sorry to trouble you, Jeremy Shire.”

“Does that mean you’ll be back with my money?” Jeremy said.

“You’ll get what I owe you, and no mistake.”

The next day, a plume of smoke was seen rising from the Shire farm. When the cops got there, they found what was left of Jeremy and Carol upstairs, in their bedroom. No one could quite get their story straight after that, whether the cops had found evidence that the couple’s throats had been cut, or whether burned bits of rope showed they’d been tied to their bed as the house came down about them.

Either way, everyone was able to get their story straight about where Mama Roneck had been the night before, and where her boys had been the night before.

No one screwed with Mama Roneck.

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“Gently, gently, now. There we go.” With the grace and elegance of a nurse drawing poison from a wound, Nyartha drew the memories from Codswallop’s skull. They materialized briefly as wisps of steam in the air between them before Nyartha breathed them in like the steam off of fresh-baked bread. She let out a shuddering, gaspy sigh of pleasure as the last wafts of vapor–if vapor it was or had ever been–vanished up her nose.

“What a truly brilliant, magical adventure I had in the Grimsby Heights, Mr. Codswallop,” said Nyartha. “The sensations are so real, so vivid, like a strong wine. I was so terrified by the end, granted, but what a rush of life!”

“Grimsby Heights?” said Codswallop, twitching his whiskers. “Hm. Never been. Always wanted to go, though, in my youth.”

That’s what you meant by sharing memories?” Rags cried. “Sucking his life right out of his head?”

“Oh please, don’t be so melodramatic.” Nyartha reclined back in her chair, a golden goblet in her hand. “I’ve not hurt your precious manservant. He’s lost nothing, so far as he’s concerned, and I am able to live the life of adventure I so richly deserve without breaking the terms of my…imprisonment.”

Rags swept the feast off of the table before him. “You won’t get anything like that from me!” he shouted.

“Of course not, boy,” said Nyartha, gently. “You’ve barely had any life or any memories to take, after all. I’ll have to find another use for you. Perhaps a nice fillet, fresh-cut and preserved with a little magic. You might sustain me for the time it will take to scoop out what’s left of your Codswallop and lure in some fresh meat.”

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