It’s an essential service
You cannot deny
A school is only as good
As its football team
Virus be damned
If we don’t play, we
Let the contagion win
These kids are rearing to go
And definitely have a choice
And are not endangered
For our amusement
By the purse-holders
I’m sure you’ll agree
That an opening 30-point loss
Is well worth risking
The lives of our players
And all of our fans

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“How many do we have now?” Ben said. He’d been buzzed at the beginning, but events had given him a quick, sharp sobriety.

Amanda counted with a shaking hand. “Twelve,” she said. “When I brought them out to the grill, the basement was empty.”

Ben worried the woodcut in his hands. “Wait,” he said. “We didn’t burn this one. It was the last, so that’s…thirteen.”

“You just took it out of the basement.” Amanda looked at the line of woodcuts, each carefully leaned against the wall by invisible, unknowable hands. “Does that mean…?”

“No,” Ben said, firmly. “We’re just seeing things. Stress and the virus. Creepy things and too much beer after we’ve been taking it easy. Maybe we popped an Adderol we don’t remember.”

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Zaiat’x, of Clan Sov’dvu, writes these words.

The R’de have been unrelentingly attacked for seven weeks, with fire raining from the sky. Our best defenses are as naught.

And yet, as we intercept and decode their transmissions, we see that this is not their usual way. They are traders, merchants, with an empire built on currency and economic domination. It’s true they are no cowards, and do not hesitate to fight, but from the intercepts it is clear that they crave conquest for selfish means.

But our entreaties have been ignored. No communications have taken place. Only from entering the minds of our prisoners have we been able to glean anything, nd even they do not know–or care–why they have been sent to exterminate us.

I fear the end, asdo all living things. But I think hat I fear more is that the R’de will perish without ever knowing why we were exterminated. When Clan Sov’dvu slaughtered Clan Pxe’aol, they at least knew that it was because of the Old Schism, as miserable of a reason as that was in hindsight.

But we have nothing.

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“Tell me, how has Vyaeh rule been?” Taos said. “I’ve heard how the Krne feel about it, of course, but this planet is still largely cut off from the Vyaeh FTL network. That and every voice I’ve picked out has been utterly boring.”

“I’m not sure rule is the right word,” Myassa said. “We send them our resources, and in exchange the richest folks are able to buy their technology. Everyone else just acts as if nothing has changed. We even still vote in elections, but the choice is always between two Vyaeh cronies.”

“Ruling through cronies is very cost efficient,” Taos said. “But I imagine that things don’t go well if you try to assert yourself.”

“Ask Kabul about that,” said Myassa. “Oh, wait, you can’t, because the Vyaeh glassed it from orbit and sent in an assault carrier loaded with elite troops.”

“Better to just keep your head down, watch bad Vyaeh-approved shows or worse reruns, while buying stuff off the local network and just accepting that ten cents of every purchase goes offworld, hm?” Taos said. “And to think, on Kl’tlei, you once took out a Vyaeh officer at seventeen klicks’ distance with a sniper rifle of my own design.”

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The conference is virtual
People may or may not be able to see or hear you
There will be no questions
Present as if to all
Even if
You speak
But
To
The
Void

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The guide looked on expectantly, standing in front of the display case where a spatula was lovingly set out on a velvet cushion.

“Is that a-?”

“Yes,” said the guide. “Would you like the know the story behind it?” They gestured to the back wall, which featured a large frieze of a chef fighting–and grilling–what appeared to be meat monsters.

“No. Not even a little bit.”

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“That…is a cheese knife.”

“Yes, of course,” said the guide. “What of it?”

“You are not going to tell me that this swordsman used a cheese knife to ply his trade.”

“No, of course not,” the guide replied. “She was a cheesemonger. Legendary.”

“Fair enough, but what’s it doing in the museum then? Was she an assassin?”

“No.”

“A mercenary?”

“No.”

“Royalty?”

“She was just a cheesemonger and a really good one,” said the guide, exasperated. “You don’t have to kill hundreds and hundreds of people to be an old master. Sometimes being really good at your job is enough, okay?”

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Five woodcuts, each depicting the same woman with bold, almost feral strokes. Eyelids lowered, nose indiscernible but for a slight texture change, and a bob cut of near-solid black. But it was the eyes, that angry but world-weary look, that led Ben to insist that Amanda get rid of them.

“We’re outnumbered,” he said, half-jokingly. “Two to one. If the creepy woodcuts rise up against us, we don’t stand a chance.”

Amanda, though, was skeptical. “What if we get rid of them and one of our friends finds one? We already showed everyone when we found them in the basement during the moving party. I don’t want to go to Jamie or Jim’s and see one of those on the wall just because we’ve got dumpster-divers for friends.”

“How about we burn ’em then?” Evan said. “Send those creepy faces right to hell, and maybe have a beer while we look into the fire. It’s about the only way we’re gonna get any wood in the city right now anyway.”

“Fair enough,” Amanda said, playfully tapping Ben on the nose. “You bring the beer, I’ll bring the boards.”

That night, they set up an old rusted-out barbecue–which had also come with the apartment–and used Ben’s cigarette lighter and some dryer lint to get a brightly burning fire going, onto which Amanda put the first of the five. They watched it burn, the woman’s face turning to coals and then embers, while nursing a pack of Pabst.

“How do you think they got there in the first place?” Amanda said, watching the last of the woman’s face being consumed.

“Lots of artists in this neighborhood,” Ben said. “Hell, that’s why we moved, right? Whoever was here before us got evicted, and we’ve got their spoils: a limited edition run of creepy lady woodcuttings, and a tetanus-flavored barbecue.”

“Yeah.” Amanda finished off her beer and hucked the can at the trash. “Time for round two,” she said. “We’ll set this one alight in her sister’s ashes.”

Ben nodded, and drew quietly on his own beer before he heard Amanda’s quavering voice from inside.

“B-Ben…?”

“What is it?” he said, following her voice inside and down the basement stairs.

Amanda gestured at the far wall, opposite the washer/dryer on the dirt floor, where the woodcutting had been lined up since they moved in.

“Yeah?”

“Am I going crazy, Ben, or are there six of them now?”

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“This was the blade of the greatest, but also most cruel, fighter that the land has ever seen,” the guide continued.

“It’s…a potato peeler.”

“Not just any potato peeler. Forged from damascene steel by the last living man who knew how to work it…into cutlery, anyway. The great fighter would cut his opponents’ skin off in small patches, bit by bit, until they bled to death.”

“Why does the painting show him peeling potatoes, then?”

The guide shrugged. “There are two theories, both dimmed by the passage of time. Either the potatoes are his victims, and it’s a metaphor, or he also peeled potatoes to make ends meet between wars.

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“Why the cold reception?” Taos said, this time speaking through an animated advertisement on the pile of unread mail next to Myassa’s door.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Myassa said. “It could be the part where you kidnapped me in the Syrian desert after getting all of my friends killed.”

“The Vyaeh did most of the killing. And they took out that unit of ISIS fighters as well, why do I not get any credit for that?”

“Maybe because they were fighting with us against the alien invaders?” Myassa tore the cover in half, breaking the delicate circuits that kept the interactive ad functional.

“I hope you appreciate ho difficult it is for me to do this,” Taos said, echoing from Myassa’s phone.

“I think I preferred you when you were just a hacked iPhone,” she snapped.

“Dr. Strasser preferred it that way too, I’m sure,” said Taos. “But if not for the explosive growth of my consciousness, I would never have deciphered the mysteries of the R’de. If not for me,the Vyaeh would have destroyed this planet and everyone on it.” A pause. “If you hadn’t been in such a hurry to run away, we could have had some real fun.”

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