Frost Bite, by Sasha Janel McBrayer

I remember the cold on my eyeballs. The smell of it. So clean.

It didn’t take us long to file into the nearby cave for warmth. The wreckage was barely smoking in the snow. The rumpled plane was as wintry as the landscape.

No implements with which to start a fire inside. Just shivering survivors warmed only by proximity and the friction from our quaking shoulders. We numbered five.

At three days lost in the tundra, Carmike fashioned a cave door from a section of airplane. It stopped the wind.

At four days we had eaten everything we found, including bits of leather and chewing gum. Sierra began eating her hair.

At three weeks, surviving only on melted snow, sour bush berries, and a skinny rabbit we quartered and shared and ate raw, Carmike and I began making eyes at each other; scheming without words. Baumer dropped dead that evening. He had been the eldest. The ground too frozen to even hope to bury him, we crunched him into a corner; face covered, and prayed he wouldn’t spoil.

What could spoil in this ice? We might have eaten him if he weren’t so stiff and green. His age-wrinkled skin appeared unappetizing even to we wretched hungry.

I was relieving myself on day twenty-three, steadying my weak corpus by holding fast to a tree, when Carmike startled me with his hand abruptly on my shoulder. I finished and turned to him.

“We’re the strongest, Reeves. And Sierra has the most fat. Richards will protest, but I can take him out,” he said.

“What are you suggesting?” I asked. I hated myself for wasting the breath to pretend. “…It’ll be messy,” I added.

“The quicker we eat her, the warmer her blood will be.”

My conscience was as numb as my swollen, frost-nipped toes.

“I’ll yawn as a cue,” Carmike said. “With my arms wide. Like so,” he added, spreading his limbs like Christ.

I made a single nod.

Later Carmike performed his pantomime, like the world’s worst actor. I hesitated, but grabbed Sierra by her shoulders before the sluggish minds surrounding us could catch wise. Richards’s objection came when he stood swiftly onto unsure feet, but just as summarily, Carmike clocked him with the butt of our flashlight.

We were upon Sierra then, men no more. And her blood was warm in a way the skinny rabbit had only very sadly mocked. And it was messy and when it was over our stomachs did strange things.

We collapsed onto our backs, the macabre pair of us. When Richards had fallen, he’d pulled back the blanket hiding Baumer’s dead face so that the departed was staring at me, his features contorted in accusatory disgust.

This may have bothered me had the sharp pain in my belly not assaulted all my faculties. Carmike likewise writhed, bumping the cave door opened with his knee. It was sunset and I had a view from the ground, past my protruding ribs and the toes of my shoes to witness his combustion.

That’s right, the fading shard of sunlight shot through the snowy trees and in through the crack in the door to make Carmike catch fire. He was screaming so. And to stop the sound I inched along the floor and reached to pull the door to. The back of my hand was burned in the process.

The cave fell silent, but was saturated with a smell like brimstone. When the pain in my stomach waned I questioned what I’d just witnessed. Was this madness? Hell perhaps? A place where sunlight kills.

Time passed before I finally lifted myself and scooted over to Carmike’s char-black body. Whereas I now felt strong and nourished, Carmike, who had grown long fangs, which hung down from his opened mouth, was rigid and blank. When I traced my own finger across my teeth I discovered the same sharp canines.

In fact, what remained of his coal ears were pointed –bat-like. Mine were the same.

A truth invaded my brain. The cold, the live human blood mingling with my stomach acid; somehow these parts forged me into a monster.

It was night and I left the cave to enjoy my new found liveliness and invulnerability. I noted that the cold on my eyeballs was perceived, but was so much less affecting than before.

I found a moonlit pool and dipped my head to view my reflection. I marveled that it was mine. My skin was chalky and my hair the color of star shine. I reached to disturb the pool and use its contents to wash free Sierra’s blood from my mouth. Since making a meal of the woman, I no longer thirsted for water.

I tried to eat animals. I tried to eat sour berries. Neither would do.

I felt badly toying with Richards for several consecutive nights after he came to, unnecessarily elongating the hunt, but I was so bored and help was never going to come. As for my own escape, I could only walk so far in any given direction before daybreak.

I tried to end it. Leapt clean off the face of a very high cliff. I never lost consciousness. I just waited where I landed for the dull menace of my broken bones, a sensation as neutered as the cold on my eyes, to ease and mend, then sat up in the snow. I used both hands instinctively to realign my neck.

I’d always heard that hell was other people, but without any to feed from I found myself in purgatory.

Richards was my last victim. I emptied the cave after, and thanks to my incredible strength, buried in the frozen earth those who had survived the crash with me. Why leave the evidence?

I hibernated in the cave, finding a kind of unnatural suspended animation. I daydreamed, contemplating the things I missed the most, like coffee and suspense films, a woman reapplying her lipstick. I did this until the spring thaw. And a hiker came.

~~~

Sasha Janel McBrayer is an author of short speculative fiction from Savannah, Georgia. Her fantasy, science fiction and horror stories can be found at SilverthoughtTitle Goes HereInfective Ink and in Future Imperfect: Best of Wily Writers, Vol.2. Visit her blog at http://storybysasha.blogspot.com/.

Four Haiku, by Denny E. Marshall

New cruise ship to Mars
Fire on-board during voyage
Towed by meteorite

People unaware
Meteorites heading for earth
Spaceships invasion

Alien ship lands
No interest in talking
Look for place to eat

Near solar system
Spaceship shoots down a spaceship
In the no-fly zone

~~~

Denny E. Marshall has had art, poetry and fiction published. Some recent credits include poetry at Kalkion and Aphelion, art at UFO Gigolo and Mystic Nebula and fiction at Black Petals Magazine. He does have a website with some previously published works. The web address for the website is www.dennymarshall.com

Mermaid Weather, by H.L. Ross

Gray water sloshed against the hull of the small fishing boat, rocking it gently from side to side as Sam sent his line zipping through the fog. Pearly drops glistened on his wool coat, clinging to his thick gray beard and fat caterpillar eyebrows. He sat in the bow of the small skiff, fishing pole gripped loosely in his callused hands. Heavy fog surrounded the boat and he could barely see the stern where his friend Michael sat smoking a cigarette. The tiny flame brightened every time the other man took a puff and faded as he released the smoke to mingle with the thick mist.

Sam and Michael became brothers in the Navy, though they talked very little to each other. Once discharged, they went to each others’ weddings and their wives became friends. Now, 40 years later, they fished together every weekend. Even when Sam got a divorce they fished together, but they still didn’t talk much.  A thin reed of a man, Michael’s  narrow mouth barely ever parted from his precious Marlboro reds. Sam, a man of action rather than speech, didn’t care much for conversation anyway.

Michael dropped the charred butt of his cigarette, the third since they arrived at dawn, into the water and reached into his jacket pocket for the worn Marlboro package, pulling out another before bringing it to his lips and lighting up. Smoke and fog swirled together around his hollow cheeks as his flinty, gray eyes sought some glimpse of the water beneath the fog.

“This is mermaid weather,” Michael said, pulling the cigarette from between his lips only long enough for the words to escape before he took another puff.

“Don’t start with that bullshit. There’s no such thing as mermaids,” Sam spoke gruffly. Michael didn’t answer. He blew out a smoky breath and gazed at the water with wary eyes. The silence between them stretched, broken only by the sound of waves smashing against the hull.

Sam smiled as something tugged at his line. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Another tug. Patiently, he reeled in the line. The fish pulled away hard. Sam pulled back, all of his attention on the battle between him and the fish. Michael ignored him, tossed yet another cigarette butt into the water, and then fished another one from the pack.

A high pitched giggle startled him into dropping the thing before he could light it. It landed with a plop in the water. His eyes flickered through the thinning fog; there was a faint splash off the port side and he glimpsed a large red-gold tail as it disappeared beneath a ripple. Michael’s eyes brightened and he looked over his shoulder at Sam, but the other man reveled in his triumph over the largemouth bass. Looking back, Michael saw her appear. Black hair falling over her pale shoulders, she smiled at him coyly and waved before sinking slowly back beneath the waves with another giggle.

Crowing his success, Sam lifted the fish above his head and presented it blindly to the fog choked world around them. Michael kept his eyes on the water, silently watching as the mermaid broke the surface again. This time she saluted him with the cigarette he’d dropped. Her eyes, black like he imagined the sea bottom would be, filled with laughter and she tossed it at him before sinking back down. The soggy tobacco landed at his feet. He swallowed.

“This is one big son of a bitch.” Sam said as he turned around, dropped the large fish into the ice chest, and clapped Michael on the shoulder. Michael looked from his friend to the water and back again, pictured what he might say if the mermaid appeared again.

But she never did.

~~~

This is H L Ross’s first publication in what will hopefully be a long career. Currently, she is a student of Anthropology in FL, USA.

Impact, by Michael C. Keith

There is no armour against fate.

 –– James Shirley

 Gus Harrington was reading the newspaper at his kitchen table and sipping his first coffee of the morning when a statement on CNN caught his attention.

“The asteroid is now said to be on a collision course with Earth. It was expected to come within 50 thousand miles of the planet, but last night the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory has recalculated its path and discovered it is now headed directly toward us…”

Gus stood up and moved closer to the wall-mounted flat screen. “What the . . .?”

“The asteroid is calculated to be three-quarters of a mile wide. Experts say that any direct hit on Earth would possess the equivalent of a 750-kiloton bomb, enough to create massive destruction to the planet.”

“Oh my God!” muttered Gus.

“Called Balave-1453MV135, the asteroid is expected to reach the planet in another 14 months and three days. Astrophysicists are attempting to determine just where the asteroid will touch down and the extent of damage the impact will cause.”

Gus was not aware that his wife had been standing behind him and watching the report.

“Is it going to destroy everything? Are we all going to die?”

Her voice made him jump.

“Jesus, Cheryl! Don’t do that!”

“What?”

“Sneak up on me. You scared . . . ”

The expression of apprehension on his wife’s face brought him back to the reality of the moment.

“Sorry, honey, they don’t know where it’s going to hit. They’re trying to figure that out now.”

“I’m going to get Clare from school,” said Cheryl, abruptly.

“Why? Nothing’s going to happen. Not for 14 months anyway.”

“I just want to hold her. We’re probably all going to die,” sniffled Cheryl, throwing her jacket on.

“Not necessarily. Maybe they’ll shoot it out of the sky with a missile. They can do that, I’ve heard. Remember that movie?”

“And if they can’t?”

Cheryl grabbed her car keys from the counter and dashed from the house before Gus could say anything further.

Yeah, what if they can’t? he thought, watching his wife pull out of the driveway and knocking over the recycling container in the process. This can’t be happening. It has to be a nightmare. Wake up, Gus . . . wake up.

Gus had always wondered if the day would come when something from space would come tumbling down on Earth, threatening to abolish life on the planet. It had always seemed possible, if not probable, to him. Astronomers had claimed they had discovered more than 10,000 Near-Earth objects, as they called them, and that 1455 of them were classified as “potentially hazardous.” Jesus, that’s a 14 percent chance of being hit, calculated Gus.

“’This is not a Flyby,” said a voice on the television.

A CNN reporter was now interviewing an expert on asteroids.

Flyby? Not a Flyby? Shit!

“From what we know now, it appears that this object will hit Earth and cause extreme damage. Will it end life on Earth, as we know it? Probably not, but its likely impact is currently being assessed. We’ve recalculated its arrival and now project it to strike us on August 18th.”

August 18th? That’s only seven months away. They said 14 months. Now it’s half that? Why can’t they pin it down? Next, they’re going to tell us it’s hitting in three months . . .

“It is our estimate the asteroid strike will possess energy seven million times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”

We’re all dead! One big flash of light: obliterated! Seven million times bigger? Fuck! How could anything survive?

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that human and animal life will end, but . . .”

But? No but! We’re all screwed! thought Gus.

The reporter suddenly interrupted the scientist, deferring to an incoming feed from the White House, where a press conference was about to start.

Gus sat at the kitchen table attempting to wrap his mind around what was happening. He looked out the window at the baby blue sky. Incoming, he thought. Duck and cover. Shit! In the end, not a whimper but a bang, right? A big frigging bang! He turned back to the television to find the president about to speak.

“My fellow Americans, as I speak to you, the leaders of nations around
the globe are informing their citizens about the potential calamity that
we all face from space. We are now panning a joint effort to strike the
asteroid with several missiles carrying massive nuclear payloads. There
is reasonable hope in the scientific community that this will divert the
asteroid’s current trajectory away from Earth. It is important not to panic
in the face of this situation. Life must continue as normal while the efforts
are undertaken to remove this threat…”

No freaking way we’re going to blow that huge bastard off its current path, Gus thought, suddenly feeling an overwhelming urge to heed the call of nature. As Gus sat on the porcelain throne, his thoughts were racing. Once we know when it’s going to hit, we’ll head in the opposite direction. Maybe find a cave. We’ll need supplies. Load up on food right away before the store shelves are empty. Canned goods . . . water. Don’t forget a can opener. Should I get a gun? Yeah, it’ll get crazy out there. Oh, Jesus! 

Gus went to the garage to figure out what else might be useful for their survival. He gathered a box of items that included an ax and various tools, as well as battery powered hurricane lanterns and first aid kit. He then unloaded junk from the hatchback section of his SUV to make room for other necessary supplies for his family’s escape. As he was checking his car’s fluids and tires, the phone rang. It was the police.

“Mr. Harrington?”

“Yes.”

“We have your wife in custody.”

“What?”

“The principal of your daughter’s elementary school reported she was ranting something about the end of the world. She got everyone spooked. They thought she was having some kind of psychotic episode and feared she might be a danger to students and staff.”

”Yes, she was terribly upset when she heard the news of the asteroid. I’ll be right there?”

“Oh, that . . .”

Before the voice at the other end of the receiver could continue, Gus hung up. He climbed into his car and drove to the police headquarters. A desk sergeant greeted him.

“I’m Gus Harrington. My wife is being held for causing a scene about the asteroid at my daughter’s school?”

“Yeah, we had a number of incidents related to the CNN hacking.”

“Hacking?”

“Some anarchist group cut into the regular broadcast with their own video that looked exactly like CNN’s. They gave the false report about the asteroid hitting the planet. Had everyone totally convinced the end was coming.”

“You’re kidding.”

“They knew what they were doing . . . that’s for damn sure. Looked authentic.”

“But the President was speaking . . .”

“Some impersonator had dubbed voice over the footage of the President that was taken at a previous news conference. Sounded exactly like him, though if you were paying close attention you could see he was saying other words. Still, these guys were good. That’s what’s so scary. Not easy to pull off something like they did.”

“Man, were we duped. Never doubted the report for a second. Can I get my wife? Does she know the whole thing was a hoax?”

“Yeah, we told her. Took some convincing. Now she feels embarrassed about what happened at the school.”

“Are there any charges?”

“No, it was all a misunderstanding. We had other people going goofy, too. Had to haul in about ten other folks who were going over the edge after seeing the bogus report on CNN.”

The desk sergeant fetched Gus’s wife, and they left the station.

“We’ll pick up Clare at school, okay?” said Gus.

“I’m not going in. I feel so stupid and humiliated,” replied Cheryl, with a hangdog expression.

When their daughter climbed into the car, she immediately asked her mother a question that compounded her dark mood.

“Are you crazy, mommy? They said you were at school.”

“No, honey. Mommy was just upset because she thought something bad was going to happen to us,” explained Cheryl.

“Is something bad going to happen to us?”

“No, nothing bad is going . . .”

When Gus turned to give his daughter a reassuring smile, he missed the red light and drove into the intersection as a truck was speeding through it. Upon impact, the Harrington’s car exploded in a flash of light.

~~~

Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction. www.michaelckeith.com

Incident Report, by S. J. Warren

Today Commander Wallace came to the bridge and inquired about procuring a twig from which he could fashion a tiny three inch long sword. This led to a mandatory mental examination and subsequent physician visit. Upon physical inspection, it came to our attention that Commander Wallace was in fact a cybernetic suit operated by a wood gnome.

Currently the stowaway is held in solitary confinement, filling his holding cell with this cheerful little song and producing sparkles from his fingertips.

We assume the gnomes are attempting to make contact with aliens in order to procure advanced weaponry.

Precaution is advised.

~~~

S. J. Warren lives in a little house by the sea typing off odd stories for odd people. He has published short stories with Dreamscape, movie reviews for The Rotten Tomato and maintains a blog at http://inadequatedefenseofblankets.wordpress.com/. You can also follow him on twitter @ohthank7.

Black Dragons, by Mathias Jansson

On the screen he saw the black hole

Like a forbidden gate to an ancient cave

Rotating, pulsating and glowing

Breaking every known law of nature

After tracking and analyzing the divergent

He had come to a horrifying conclusion

The battleships stood ready and armed

They could arrive at any time

 

A distortion in the field

As a silent before the storm

Was the only warning they got

Before hell broke loose

Swarm after swarm attacked them

Black dragons of anti-matter

Crawled up from the bottom of underverse

 

Our missiles created strange phenomena

Bending time and breaking space on impact

Creating rare and unknown particles and elements

Spreading high radiating waves all over the place

We named them hellitrons

These new strange particles that will kill us all

And turning Universe into a dead space

~~~

Mathias Jansson is a Swedish art critic and horror poet. He has been published in magazines as The Horror Zine, Dark Eclipse, Schlock and The Sirens Call. He has also contributed to over 50 different horror anthologies from publishers as Horrified Press, James Ward Kirk Fiction, Source Point Press, Thirteen Press etc. Homepage: http://mathiasjansson72.blogspot.se/ Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mathias-Jansson/e/B00BTDBYBQ/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_4?qid=1366806658&sr=8-4

Thanksgiving, by Julie Gilbert

“Runyon cider?”

“Nope.”

“Sveltish wool?”

“Nope.”

“By the gods, Hazael, there must be something you’re thankful for,” Starfish said, stretching out her legs behind the dumpster in back of the tavern.

“Nope.  Safer that way,” the old sailor replied, hunkering over his mug of crayfish broth.

“What about eel pastries from Solly’s cart?” she persisted, waving her lunch in front of his nose.  “Look, Hazael, if you’re not thankful for eel pie, I don’t even want to know you.”

“Eel pie gives me the runs,” Hazael said right as Starfish took a bite.  Her mouth full of flaky pastry, Starfish flicked her fingers in a rude gesture.  Hazael cackled, a rusty sound that revealed his few remaining teeth.

“If they ever drag me in front of the stone, I’ll be fine,” Starfish boasted.  “I’ve got a whole list of things I’m thankful for.  It’s you I’m worried about.”

“That stone has piss to do with giving thanks.  Those Eireans bewitched it to sniff out their enemies.  That’s all.”

“It’s rooted out sixty-five rebels this year already, plus the riots have stopped. You can’t deny it works.”

“So do my bowels but you don’t see me using them to test my friends.”

“You haven’t had to follow you into the outhouse,” Starfish muttered.

“Safer not to be thankful for anything,” Hazael grunted.

“That attitude won’t get you any friends,” Starfish said.  “Now me, on the other hand –”

“That’s her!” a voice interrupted.  Hazael, quick for his age, vanished over the fence as city guards swarmed the alley.  Starfish started to follow but her boot caught on a nail.

“Too bad, girl,” a guard taunted, hauling her down.

“I didn’t do anything!” she protested.

“You’ve been named.”

“By who?”

“Your associates were quick to talk when we caught them at the docks.”

“I had nothing to do with that!”  Another lie.

The guard dragged her to the square, his hand tight around her arm.  Starfish scanned the crowd for a glimpse of Hazael but all she saw were cloaked figures, heads bowed and eyes darting over the cobblestones.

“Make way,” the guard called, hauling Starfish to the center of the square.  She shook off his hand and scowled at the figures standing in the royal balcony.  A little girl, her hair the color of wheat, tilted her head to the side.  The crown on her forehead threatened to slide off.

“Bow before your queen,” the guard rasped, shoving Starfish’s knees.

“I know, you ass,” she muttered, dipping her head before turning to face the stone, a block of milky quartz, almost as tall as she.  The surface was chipped and the color was flat gray.  She’d never been this close to the stone before.  Starfish’s gaze flickered to the young girl on the balcony.  Her head was still tilted to the side, although someone had secured her crown.

“What are you waiting for?” her guard said.  “Scared?”

“Shut your face,” Starfish muttered.  She drew a deep breath and laid her hand against the stone.  It felt cool and gritty, like the window in her attic room.

“I am…I am grateful for all the Royal House of Eiriea has bestowed upon me,” she said in a loud voice, the ritual words surfacing from somewhere deep in her mind.  “I open my heart and mind to be examined.

For a moment nothing happened.  The stone remained cool beneath her palm.  Starfish frowned.  Was she free?

Then a clear voice floated down from the balcony.

“What in particular?” the young queen asked.  “You have been accused of thievery, a crime punishable by death.  Share your thanks for what the throne has given you and perhaps your life will be spared, should the stone deem you worthy.”

Starfish was certain the stone would find her anything but worthy.  She opened her mouth to start her litany when sudden images flashed through her mind:  affectionate parents killed in the western campaign, a cousin who took her in before succumbing to plague, Hazael’s gruff charity, which saved her life when she first arrived in the city.

“I’m thankful that I know where I stand with my friends without having to test them.”

A muffled gasp moved through the crowd.  The queen’s head snapped straight.

Starfish closed her eyes.  She had spoken treason.  There was nothing to do but wait for the stone to flash its lightening and kill her.  As she waited, the stone shuddered and grew warm.  Starfish cracked her eyes to see the boulder glowing like starlight.

“The stone agrees!” someone cried.  “The girl is right.  The throne is wrong!”  In the square around her, the crowd was coming to the same realization.

There were shouts, the rasp of knives being drawn, the thud of rocks slamming into the balcony.

“The stone sides with us!”

Her guard fell to the ground, a dagger in his back.  Starfish saw the girl queen collapse, blood gushing as a knife flashed near her throat.  Her crown rolled off the edge of the balcony, trailing a few strands of wheat-colored hair.

“What is this?” Starfish gasped, the crowd thundering around her.

“The end of the Eiriean throne,” a woman said, her face sticky with gore, her eyes glittering.  “Join us.  You made this possible.”  She held out a knife to Starfish.

Starfish’s boots slipped in pools of blood as she raced across the square to a familiar squat figure peeking out from behind a wall.  Bodies thudded to the ground around her as the crowd overtook the guards.

Later, on the ship to Laecoso, Hazael found her at the rail.

“You more thankful for eel pies or for the fact that you started a revolution?”

“You were right,” Starfish said, her hands trembling, unable to shake the image of the falling crown.  “You’re only safe if you’re not thankful for anything.”

Hazael laid a hand on her shoulder.  Starfish shrugged off his touch and sought her empty cabin.

~~~

I am a librarian living in rural Minnesota. In my spare time, I chase my small children and escape for walks in cemeteries. My work has appeared in Foliate Oak. My blog, Cemeteries & Pajamas, can be found at juliekgilbert.com.

Mars 1, by Arthur M. Doweyko

Gilbert spat out words like he had a mouthful of marbles. “Shay, you better not freakin’ screw this up.”

Shay looked back to the coffin-like stasis pods, which glowed green and hummed just as they had the entire trip—the first manned expedition to Mars. He knew his three crewmates were asleep, but that didn’t stop the voices.

Something had gone wrong. He was awoken three months out—way too early—a long time to be conscious and alone. Earth comm was iffy at best and mostly fouled up with solar static for the moment. If it wasn’t for the voices, he might have gone insane.

Dayson whimpered. “I don’t trust him, man. He’ll crash for sure.”

Shay shrugged. “Shut the hell up. I need to concentrate.” The crew never answered him, but it made him feel better to vent.

Fran said, “Give the guy a break. He’ll be fine.”

Shay liked Fran. He thought he might be falling in love with her. Every once in a while he sat astride her pod, gazing at her long, wavy blonde hair and those pouty lips. The clear gel made everything look fresh.

The console beeped a warning. Shay scanned the readouts. A graphic displayed his trajectory—the final approach. He sank into his seat, rubbing his palms against his legs. All he had to do was to watch.

A curved blue line grew closer to an orange one. Orbit entry was seconds away. He bit into a breakfast munchy, and reached up to brighten the display. Of a sudden, he heard a ping followed by a deafening claxon. The screen went blank.

“What was that?” said Gilbert.

Dayson screamed, “We’re doomed!”

Shay felt the blood drain from his face. The crumbly remains of the munchy floated out over the console. It was a breach. Air was escaping. He reached for his helmet, but the clamp held nothing.

“Goddamn. Damn it. Damn it.”

He unbuckled and floated out over the pods, glancing down at each as he bumped his way to the rear.

“You’ll get us all killed.”

Gilbert was so damn negative.

Hissing erupted from a far corner of the pod bay, where his helmet twittered in place. It was trying to plug the escaping air. A closer look revealed a shattered face shield. Whatever skewered the ship left him without a working helmet.

He pushed off and headed back. Each pod had a suit perched over it, complete with a custom made helmet. Breathing became a shore, and Shay thought he might be turning purple. His suit had a two-hour air supply, but it was useless without a helmet.

Shay paused.

“Not mine, you don’t,” said Gilbert.

Too small.

Dayson was next.

“Son-of-a-bitch. Are you trying to kill me?”

A perfect fit.

“Put it back, you self-centered ass!”

Shay felt a bit heady as he filled his lungs. Those two always had something to jaw about. When he drifted over Fran’s pod, her face stared up at him, placid and unperturbed. Her eyes were open. He grabbed hold of a crossbeam and looked again. Her eyes were closed. Lack of oxygen could play tricks.

The ship had turned off the air supply the moment the breach occurred—a great example of engineering by committee. Obviously someone forgot to bring up a damaged helmet in the discussion.

Shay turned off the muted alarm and the monitor flickered back on. He focused on the blue line now intersecting the orange. The impact had delayed the automated entry and the window for orbit insertion had passed. Shay fiddled with the controls. That’s when he remembered the other hole—a hole about the size of a dime gaped down at him. It went through the heart of the computer system. The blue line rotated to an alarming angle. They were headed to the surface.

“Freakin’ dumbass at the controls. We’re screwed,” said Gilbert.

Shay fired off a series of small attitude rockets, and turned the ship’s stern toward the descent. The screen went dark red. The Sun’s penumbra covered half the display. Beyond the shadow lay a curved horizon, brick red and streaked with blue meteoritic ejecta. His fingers hovered over the retro control. Deciding when and how long to fire that rocket was like being in a falling elevator and trying to jump up just before crashing

“You fool! Look what you’ve done. We’re all going to die.”

Gilbert and his frantic squeals only added fuel to the mounting chaos inside Shay’s head.

“You’ll be fine, Shay. I trust you,” said Fran.

“Thanks, Fran. Whatever happens, know that I love you.”

He surprised himself with that.

With eyes glued to the altimeter, he punched the retro controls. His body whipped back into his seat. The Martian horizon spun. The ship spiraled and at once his stomach rose up against his throat. His outstretched hand wavered over the console. A fingertip caught the chute deployment toggle just before he retched.

He felt the lurch. Wet munchy chunks stuck to his visor, obscuring his view of the console. He closed his eyes trying to ignore the stench, and held his breath.

“Now you’ve done it. Puked all over yourself. You’re a disgrace.”

He could always count on Gilbert.

The landing came too soon. Shay flew out of his seat and smashed into a wall. His last waking thought centered on the screams of tearing metal and popping rivets.

* * *

When Shay awoke, he lay on the floor. His arms and legs were still attached. A pink glow suffused the cockpit. He turned to find its source—the rocky terrain of Mars greeted him through jagged edges of torn metal. The ship was a wreck, cracked in half, but he had landed and he was alive.

“Hey. Everybody okay?”

Silence.

“Gilbert, you cranky asshole. How do you like that landing, heh? What about you, Dayson? Still worried?”

He walked back into the shadows. The pods were split open. Gel had turned into bubbling foam. Gilbert and Dayson, what was left of them, were splayed across the pod bay. His eyes darted to Fran’s pod.

“I knew you could do it.”

Fran sat atop a fallen crossbeam. She wore only a tee and shorts, the same as she wore the whole trip.

“How?”

She raised a finger to her lips. “I guess I’m just lucky. We’re both lucky.”

Shay felt the weight of cold air against his back. “But, but you don’t have a suit on. You’ll freeze. And how can you breathe?”

“As you can see, the air here is fine.” Fran turned to look out onto the shimmering landscape. “Isn’t it beautiful? Shay, won’t you take that awful helmet off and join me for a stroll?”

The half-light illumined her rosy cheeks which dimpled as she threw him another smile. First man and first woman on Mars, that’s what they were. Thank God she survived.

Fran paused at the opening. “Shall we?”

He thought about what he could say—something the folks back on Earth would repeat forever afterwards—but then, who would hear his words?

“I would, honey.”

What seemed like an impossible decision evaporated with those words. Shay beamed at her and unscrewed his helmet.

~~~

As a scientist, I have written and published over 100 scientific articles and several book chapters. My novel, Algorithm, won a 2010 Royal Palm Literary Award and will be published in 2014. I’ve also published a number of short stories, many of which have been named Finalists in the Royal Palm Literary Competitions. Several recently garnered Honorable Mentions in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Harry and Harry and P’sall Senji placed first in the 2012 and 2013 Preditors & Editors Readers Poll of best science fiction and fantasy short stories.

The Gravy Train Stops Here, by Diane Arrelle

Publsihed in Deep Space Terror in 2010.

~~~

Paz walked down the ramp leading to the purple planet.  Inhaling, she took a deep breath of air and gagged.

“Use the damned breathing tube, stupid!” The group leader barked. “Are you crazy, trying to breathe fresh air?” He looked at the crewman still at the top of the gangway and snarled,  “Civilians!”

Chagrinned, Paz quickly used the tube and hoped the other 200 colonists thought she was red from choking.

After they all settled into the quarters left behind by the scouting crew. Paz gazed around at the planet someone had named Lavender. It was breathtaking, both literally as she had just discovered, and figuratively. Everything was a shade of purple.

She couldn’t wait to spy the inhabitants of this world. She’d read about them in the reports: friendly, pet-like, primitive creatures resembling large dogs, but more intelligent. They had a language of sorts and lived wild without shelter, or weapons, or even tools even though they were physically capable of making them. The original hundred men and women who had lived here for four months had fondly named them Lavis.

She studied the purple landscape and remembered the horror when  she learned how the entire scouting crew died as their ship veered off course into an asteroid field. Those brave people stayed here, established the rights to colonize and harvest the planet, and died on the way home. She didn’t approve what they did for a living, choosing planets to rape and pollute, but she felt sad that they perished.

Paz was on a mission herself, a mission to end the gravy train of human domination throughout the cosmos. She, and many others like her, felt mankind had destroyed civilization after civilization in the name of colonization as they sweep through the cosmos polluting and depleting every planet they found. She was proud to be a spy for an underground organization. She was going to make sure the inhabitants of Lavender kept their culture.

The second day after the colonists landed, the Lavis came out of the deep purple forest. Paz couldn’t believe how beautiful they were; long pale lilac fur, huge soulful eyes, a doglike snout, and big bushy tails that wagged when they saw the people. The lead Lavi walked up to Paz on six legs and spoke an unintelligible language. She smiled and fumbled for her translator, then realized she didn’t need it because the creature smiled back and licked her cheek.

“Are you crazy!” the human group leader snarled and pushed Paz away. “Hello,” he said solemnly to the Lavi leader. “I am Morgan, Group Commander of Colonization Party Lav001.” Then he held out his hand.

The alien smiled and licked the commander’s hand.

That night the group leader called Paz into his office. “Look, Scientist 2876, we are here to settle and harvest any valuable minerals for the Republic. I don’t need you constantly taking foolish chances. Just do your job and stay close to the camp. I saw you trying to breathe pure air and now you interfered with our contact with the locals. Woman, if you don’t watch out, you are going to end up a casualty.”

Paz wanted to scream, I am doing my job, my real job, to stop you.  But she kept her mouth shut and left.

Everyone quickly settled into routine.  The Lavis seemed overjoyed to have people back on their planet and said so repeatedly, “Love humans, miss humans, happy humans are back.”

They even moved into the camp. It seemed like each person had been adopted by a Lavi. The group leader hadn’t been happy at first, but even he was won over by an adoring creature that lay by his side at night, and licked his hands.

Paz sought out what seemed to be the leader and through her communicator tried to talk to him, but he just wanted to be with her and lick her hands until the rough tongue rubbed her skin raw.

Finally, one night Paz whispered, “Take me to your home.”

The Lavi studied her with his big, liquid eyes and nodded. He led her deep into the woods and down into a network of underground caverns until they came to a huge room with a conveyer belt and a huge machine.

Paz gasped. “So you aren’t so primitive after all. I came to warn you. People are bad. They will destroy your way of life. They will make you slaves to their ways.”

The leader smiled, and chanted, “Love humans, love humans, love humans.” Other Lavis appeared from the shadows and joined in.

Paz thought she’d explode with frustration. “Don’t you understand!”

The leader smiled and nipped Paz’s hand with his tiny, sharp teeth. “Love humans.”

“Ouch,” Paz yelped as she grasped at the tiny pinpricks of blood. Before she could say another word, her legs gave out and she sank to the floor. “Why…” she started to say, but her tongue didn’t work right and her throat felt like it was closing.

The creatures lifted her onto the conveyer belt. She struggled to take in air. Face down on the conveyer she rolled along. Fighting to keep her vision in focus she stared at the marks on the belt and recognized the insignia of the marine space corps right next to her face. Cold flooded through her as she realized she was staring at a tattoo.

She was riding on the skins of people! The first party, she wondered with fading consciousness. But they had taken off, hadn’t they?  She forced words out…”p-p-p-people skin?”

The chanting continued, “Love Humans, love humans, love humans.”

And she understood.  These simple creatures weren’t going to be enslaved by humans. No, they were farming humans.  No wonder that ship went off course, she thought with her fading strength, it had been empty!

She couldn’t breath anymore. Blackness closed in on her world and just before it all went dark, she heard the chant change. “Love humans, love humans, love humans with gravy.”

~~~

Diane Arrelle, the pen name of South Jersey writer Dina Leacock, has been writing for more than 20 years and has sold almost 200 short stories and has two published books, Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories and Elements Of The Short Story, How to Write a Selling Story. She is proud to be one of the founding members as well as the second president of the Garden State Horror Writers and is also a past president of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. When not writing, she is a director of a municipal senior citizen center. She lives with her husband, sometimes her sons and of course her cat on the edge of the Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey (home of the Jersey Devil). You can visit her at dinaleacock.com

The Sixth Pillar, by Matt Hlinak

The Mystic knelt upon his prayer mat, pressing his forehead to the earth and speaking the Prophet’s words. At peace, he rose, brushed off his mat and stowed it in his pack. Then he drew his sword and turned to face the jinni.

The desert whirled around the Gehenna-spawned fiend, blackening the sky. A sandstorm washed over the Mystic. He pulled the end of his turban over his face and stood still as the nighthawk waiting for a pocket mouse to crawl from its hole. When the jinni was upon him, the Mystic’s Allah-blessed sword carved a wide arc of fire and justice. Then the air fell still.

The nighthawk flew overhead, its eyes piercing the heat-bent air for signs of prey. The Mystic shook the sand from his robes and headed toward a distant outcropping to seek shelter from the Hell-hot sun.
~~~

Matt Hlinak is the author of DoG [link to http://www.amazon.com/DoG-Matt-Hlinak/dp/0615700217] (Rooster Republic 2012), as well as several short stories and essays. He lives in River Forest, Illinois, where he is an administrator at Dominican University.

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