“I’m afraid,” the chair said, “that the faculty committee has no choice but to deny you tenure, Dr. Smith.”

“But why?” Smith said, arms cast wide to encompass the whole Department of Literature committee. “The guidelines say that I have to publish at least three memes, and I have published six across three different social media platforms!”

“You need to take a closer look at the tenure requirements as updated,” the chair said. “You need to publish at least three viral memes. None of your memes surpassed the 10,000-share or 100,000-view threshold as set out by the new tenure documents.”

“But two of them made it onto Know Your Meme!” cried Smith. “Surely that’s enough!”

Some murmuring from the committee, as the members whispered amongst one another. “I’m sorry, but those are provisional entries to Know Your Meme, still being researched for permanent inclusion as of this hearing,” the chair said at length. “While a verified Know Your Meme entry might be cause for leniency, in this case the committee sees none.”

Smith sagged, defeated.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Smith,” the chair said. “You’re a fantastic teacher and researcher. But a leading university like this has to remain relevant, and without faculty producing and submitting dank memes on the regs, we risk losing that relevancy.”

“But I published five books and ten articles a year,” Smith whined.

“Very impressive,” the chair said. “It will look good on your resume and CV, I’m sure. You have six months to set your affairs in order before automatic termination. Do you have anything else to add?”

Smith looked up at the chair, eyes tearing up, barely able to croak out the words: “Lol, no.”

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Jeremy slid the blade out, careful not to nick the ribs. The customer, who a moment earlier had been demanding to see a manager, wheezed like a faulty bellows as he fell to his knees, dropping the pack of razor blades and letting the expired coupon flutter to the ground. Having carefully chosen a remote corner near the alcohol storage, which was off-limits for Sunday sales in that town, Jeremy was sure that nothing would interfere with the customer passing on.

“Shh, it’s okay,” he said, as the man gasped quietly. “You’re going to a better place. Little things like this won’t bother you anymore.”

The knife, Mr. Happy, had come out red and wet, so Jeremy took a moment to wipe it off, revealing the jaunty grin cast into the stainless steel blade. He replaced it next to its smaller wife, Ms. Joy, in the custom sheath he’d made in the small of his back. They’d been cheese knives, once, their smiles serving as holes to help them glide through dairy without sticking. Justin had bought them on the spot when he’d seen them in that Kenosha Goodwill, since they were absolutely perfect for his purposes. Stainless, one-piece with a low risk of breaking, small enough to easily conceal, and–most importantly–aesthetically pleasing.

Whether he was slipping Mr. Happy between ribs or driving Ms. Joy betwixt cervical vertebrae, their smiles not only kept the blades from sticking, they reminded Jeremy why he did what he did. He wasn’t slipping into retail stores dressed as an employee to waylay and end customers for himself; no, sir. The motivations were wholly unselfish. He was sending them to the Better Place, where none of the things that bothered them would do so anymore. Jupiter’s second moon, Europa, was big enough for all the souls he could send there, after all.

Jeremy carefully took off his store uniform vest and folded it, before walking out the loading dock with a jaunty wave at the janitors there.

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“We are…taking a break from magic,” said Opaem. “The patience of an elf is great, the patience of a sage still greater, and yet neither is infinite.”

“Speak for yourself,” Brianna said sullenly. “You’re the one whose dumb magic system doesn’t make any sense.”

“It is my honor to meet you, Chosen One,” said Moew the Master. He placed a clenched fist inside an open palm, and bowed. “Magic has its uses, but it is the art of combat that will save you if an enemy gets within stabbing range.”

Opaem wandered away, muttering angrily, striking a meditative pose near the far side of the training ground.

“He never did have a sens of humor,” Moew said. “So! The legends state that the Chosen One will be a master of all forms of combat. what would you like to start with? Perhaps my personal favorite, the gentleman of weapons, the sword?”

He drew a double-edged straight sword from a scabbard and ran it through a series of whistling sword dance moves before offering it to Brianna. “Uh, yeah,” Brianna said. “I don’t know how to do that.”

Moew gestured to a weapon rack. “Quarterstaff?”

“Looks like a whole staff to me.”

“Spear?”

Brianna shook her head. “Never used it.”

“Not even to roast food?” Moew said, flabbergasted.

“We have a thing called a microwave oven where I come from,” Brianna said. “Spearing meat over a fire is pretty rare.”

“Wouldn’t microwave radiation heat the water molecules and damage the composition and structure of the food?” Moew said.

“Maybe, but it’s quick and easy,” Brianna said. “Hey, if you know about microwaves, does that mean you have like microwave death rays?”

“What? No!” Moew said, shocked. “The power consumption and range would make any such weapon tactically useless at best. Here we are all about the sword, the bow, the spear, the saber.”

“What about…guns?” Brianna said. “I bet I could use a gun. Simple point and click interface.”

“The legions of the Dusk are too numerous,” Moew said. “A sword never runs out of bullets.”

“But a bow runs out of arrows,” Brianna said. “I see a bow over there.”

“That,” Moew said, gritting his teeth, “isn’t the point.”

“I think you just don’t like guns,” Brianna said. “They’re not as fancy and don’t make you look as cool, but I bet more guns–or like BIG guns–could kill the Dusk.”

Moew sheathed his sword. “Do you even know how to use a gun?”

“My uncle’s in the army, he does artillery. How hard could it be?”

“Perhaps we should start you with something else,” Moew sighed. In the distance, he thought he could hear old Opaem chuckling.

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Airport Thrillers
Only good for reading if you’re high.

Bibles
Everybody already has one they’re pretending to read.

Children’s Books
For obvious reasons, we prefer to buy these when they are new and not sticky.

Complete Works of Shakespeare
Unless it’s a First Folio, we’re good.

Diet Books
The only weight you lost was money from your wallet.

Encyclopedias
We have computers in the library now, have you heard?

National Geographic Magazines
We know they’re cool. That’s why we already have some.

Reader’s Digest Condensed Books
Low-calorie books are less filling.

Textbooks
If they’re pre-2015, they’re too old to be useful. If they’re post-2015, they’ll just get stolen.

VHS Tapes
DVDs don’t need to be rewound.

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“Argenbright Hospital,” Lincoln Andoh said. “Built 1980, closed 1990, in business a shade under ten years, now abandoned.”

“It’s guarded,” Arcelia Demme said. “24-7. They’re worried about meth-heads pulling our all the wires. Urban Xpl0r tried to get in for a YouTube video last year, spent the night in jail.”

“Wait, there’s a hospital in Argenbright?” said Rolland McCelland. “I thought the closest one was in Brookshaw. My sweet granny lives in Argenbright, she has to drive over an hour to get to Brookshaw Baptist.”

“Argenbright was supposed to be a hoity-toity development, once upon a time,” Jeff Brito said. “Went bust on Black Monday, I think. Not that folks were sorry to see them go.”

“You don’t just put hospitals in developments,” Rolland said. “People around here could’ve used it. Why did it close?”

“Lots of stories, but no one knows,” replied Lincoln. “I heard that an unlicensed pediatrician was working there for a while and got a few kids killed.”

“Built on a Superfund site and contaminated with dioxin in the water,” Arcelia said. “That’s what Urban Xpl0r said.”

Jeff was already on his phone. “I looked it up, the official word is lack of staff and lack of demand.”

“But not lack of bullshit,” Rolland said. “People need hospitals and hospitals bring jobs. Closing after 10 years and putting armed guards up is more than some corporate bigshot handing out pink slips.

Ruben Nuzzo, who had remained silent during the whole exchange, lifted a hand. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “There’s no way in, so I move that we go someplace else. UX Club is already at two nights in jail and I don’t want to make it a hat trick.”

“There was no way in,” Lincoln said, smiling. “I just happen to have a lead. My cousin works at the same security company, Asp Protective Services out of Brookshaw. They’re bankrupt after that lawsuit, closing up shop. The last paychecks bounced, and most of the guys have already walked off the job.”

“So they’ll just hire another security company, then,” Ruben said. “Named after another deadly animal or something.”

“Turns out my cousin wasn’t above taking a little revenge on Asp for shafting him,” Lincoln said. “Their contract isn’t up yet, and no one knows they’re toast until the announcement on Monday. That gives us a full three-day weekend to uncover, and explore, the secret of Argenbright Hospital with the UX Club.”

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People grieve in their
Own way on their own time
But sometimes seeing them
With their memorial posts
Their pages for the dead
Just gives me a little of
The heebie jeebies
The grievie jeevies

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“The thing I think we fail to see is that Japanese exceptionalism is just American exceptionalism in a funhouse mirror,” said Sato-Gray. “We may not recognize the image, but it comes from a similar place.”

“How do you mean?” the panelist asked.

“Well, for example, if you tell an American that many Japanese people feel that they are exceptional because they are direct descendants of the Shinto sun god Ameratsu, that American will probably laugh and think something about superstition. But then they may go on to claim that America is uniquely blessed by God with nary a thought to how off this may look to an outsider.”

“So,” the panelist continued, “you are saying that these differences are what cause misunderstandings?”

“Not at all,” Sato-Gray replied. “I am saying that the similarities are what cause misunderstandings and conflict. We are very much alike in broad strokes, though different in the details. But there can never be two most exceptional nations in the world.”

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Since the undead rising began, a few basic rules have made themselves manifest.

1. Killed by one, rise as one.

If you are killed by the undead, you rise as one a short period of time later. Generally the dead rise as simple zombies (or skeletons) but it’s not unknown for them to rise as the specific sort of undead that slew them.

2. Undeath is expensive.

Rising from the grave has no precedent in international law, so the dead lose all their wealth and possessions. Furthermore, the treatments–both medical and arcane–to sustain an undead body quickly add up, forcing many undead into servitude.

3. Entropy is inevitable.

The process of decay is somewhat arrested by rising, but it is not stopped. Cutting-edge mortuary science, often paid for by undead insurance brokers Ike Z-Surance, helps keep undead looking fresh and lifelike for as long as possible. It is also possible to prolong decay and dissolution for some time after looking lifelike is no longer possible. But if it takes days, weeks, or centuries, all undead eventually decay to nothing. No one knows what happens after that.

4. Conversion is possible.

A zombie can become a skeleton, a wight can become a lich, and many other “lateral” moves are possible. New undead are often strongly recruited, which has led to a certain cult like atmosphere in some undead mono-societies.

5. They’re all unholy.

Every major religion on Earth that existed before the rising has condemned the undead as foul, unnatural, and abominations. While some new religious movements sympathetic to the undead have arisen, they tend to be dismissed as cults. While some progress in undead rights has been made, primarily making it illegal to kill them in many circumstances, they remain on the whole shunned by religious and conservative people. Those religious and conservative folk who are reanimated almost always destroy themselves or go mad thanks to the inherent contradiction of their condition.

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“Come in, then,” Rivers said. “Mask on, of course.”

“I’m vaccinated,” Hillian replied.

“Mask on,” Rivers repeated, hooking his own over both ears. “Can’t be too careful with the new variants, and also with liars.”

“I’m no liar, Dr. Rivers,” Hillian huffed.

“And I’m a philosophy professor, which means I know about the inherent paradox of claiming one is not a liar,” Rivers said. “Either come in or don’t, you’re letting bugs in.”

With a sigh, Hillian put on a rumpled disposable mask and entered. The house was a mess, books and clothes heaped on every surface, and several cats slinked through the mess, wafting the unmistakable odor of kitty litter with them.

“So what does the provost’s office want with me,” Rivers said.

“Sort of a wellness check,” Hillian said. “You haven’t been answering your emails.”

“I’ve been reading them,” Rivers said. “Most don’t need or deserve replies.”

“You haven’t been answering your phone.”

“That’s what email is for,” said Rivers. He pulled his bathrobe tighter around him as if annoyed.

“You haven’t been in the office for a month.”

“Got a home office right in back, works great,” Rivers said.

“You know that the president said that everyone had to go back to work, right?” said Hillian, cocking his head.

“I am working,” Rivers huffed. “Reading emails, advising students, and supervising independent studies. I’ve also been working on three papers and a book.”

“From where I’m standing, it looks like you’re living a bachelor lifestyle and using elaborate excuses to avoid doing any work,” Hillian said. “That’s also partly why I’m here.”

“To give me an ultimatum? Don’t bother,” Rivers said. “I know my rights as a tenured professor after fifteen years.”

“Are you saying that you’re going to keep doing nothing until we have to take formal, and expensive, and unpleasant, legal action?” Hillian said.

“I’m saying that I am a philosophy professor, and nothing that you can do to me can compare with what the last year has convinced me is coming. I’m going to keep on as I have been, since it’s the last relaxation any of us are going to get.”

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I used to enjoy thrifting. Then a friend asked me how I enjoyed picking over the bleached bones of middle America for fun and profit.

I still enjoy thrifting, but now I wonder what happens when the whale fall is spent and the bones are gone.

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