“Offshoots” Dark Fantasy by Cecilia Kennedy

At the Neon Studios Salon, tails creeped luxuriously along the napes of necks in shades of lavender and pearl—and I wanted one—one that hissed and shimmered, one that blinked with long eyelashes and snaky curves. My mother said that no self-respecting daughter of hers would ever go there. Rumor had it that the walls were filled with the bones of the dead, but it was also the best place to get the latest hair styles, the kind that all of the boys at school liked.

            To get a boy to like you, everyone knew you had to have the stair-step bob with the long, leafy tail that sprung to life, growing in the back—the one that made the boys sneak a hand up there and run the tail through their fingers, hoping it would lick them.

“I’ve seen the way boys behave when girls your age grow a tail, letting it swing to and fro while walking, swaying their hips. Don’t ever disrespect yourself like that. Don’t get used,” my mother had said, but I didn’t see the harm.

            The tails were mesmerizing. Everyone I knew wanted one, and everyone’s grew in differently, in different colors. My friends told me that after the stylist washed their hair and trimmed it, they pulled out a sharp knife and cut an indentation in the nape of the neck. They said the stylists kept gems in various shapes and colors in a special drawer and would insert one into the cut. My friends swore that it didn’t hurt at all because the knife was incredibly sharp, and the stylists had a special license to perform light surgical procedures. Once the gem, which was gel-like, was inserted, the stylists pricked it and seeds oozed out. Over time, the tails grew, developed, licked fingers, or playfully hissed.

            The Neon Studios Salon didn’t exist inside of a mall, wedged between a movie theater and an arcade. To get to it, I borrowed my mother’s car (on the pretense of running errands) and drove it through wooded streets, just past the center of town, where all of the country clubs shared views of forest canopies in the summer. All kinds of women—important women—snuck off to the salon while their husbands played golf. They didn’t let their tails grow too long, and they modified the bob cut just a bit—enough to be stylish, but still acceptable in their social circles. I didn’t have to worry about any of that, and neither did my friends. We were young and had nothing to do with country club circles.

            At the edge of a wooded street, stood a massive, Craftsman-style home, with white trim. From the outside, it didn’t look like much. It didn’t look like it could be the hub of modern style.

However, there was a sign, done up in soft purple, fluorescent lights that flashed “Neon Studios Salon,” but not in that creepy, motel-by-the-side-of-the-road way. More like a dream-sequence music video in pulses of desire and mystery. Inside, walls the color of deep eggplant gleamed in the light of crystal chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling. The air smelled of perfume and fruit-scented hairspray and shampoo. Mirrors shined, etched in gold. A stylist, Rochelle, who was blond with a violet, glitter-streaked tail that slapped the air behind her, took me to the shampooing station to begin my appointment. Already, I knew I was in excellent hands. I ignored what I thought were groans and shrieks coming from the walls, somewhat drowned out by the latest Top 40 hits blaring through the speakers, booming with synthesizer beats. I still heard the noises faintly and wondered if Rochelle heard them too. They sounded sorrowful, anxious, and if I looked close enough, I thought I saw the walls move. But it was clear that Rochelle didn’t want me looking at the walls. She’d turn my head in the sink whenever she caught me straining my neck. The ashen flakes that fell all around, though, were hard to ignore. They landed on the sleeves of the protective black cape Rochelle game me, and in Rochelle’s hair. Someone came by to sweep up the piles that accumulated on the floor, and I wondered if they were the remnants from the dead—the bones in the walls. I wondered if that’s what made this place so special.

            In the main salon area, Rochelle worked quickly to chop off my shoulder-length locks, shaping my hair into a sharp bob with distinct stair-step layers in the back. Then, she took out a knife.

            “Most people say it doesn’t really hurt,” she told me. “Sometimes it does, though. Just depends.”

I nodded my head. She opened a drawer at her station and showed me the gems I could choose. They all looked impossibly beautiful, but I eventually settled on a diamond-shaped, green glittered gem.

            “Don’t move,” she said, “and uncross your legs. Otherwise, your body will be uneven and so will your cut.”

After injecting the back of my neck with a topical numbing agent, Rochelle made the first cut, which felt like fire, searing and burning, despite the numbing solution, but I refused to scream or cry—or jump. Why would I? Pain was a part of the deal. I’d be entering the world changed, and everyone would notice, especially the boys.

            “There. All done,” Rochelle said, before pricking the diamond gel pack, letting the seeds run smooth and warm down my neck. She then massaged the area to work the seeds in and told me not to wash my hair for 24 hours at least. I left the salon with everything my babysitting earnings could get me, which included a 20-ounce bottle of lavender jasmine shampoo (specially formulated to help tails grow), matching conditioner, mousse, and hairspray.

            At first, my mother didn’t notice. The nub that formed on my neck was my secret, and I’d gently rub it, just to make sure it was still there. Within a few weeks, though, the seedlings started to sprout, growing like ruffles on lace collars, trailing down my neck, weaving themselves into one sturdy strand of brilliant garden green, speckled with light. Never mind that when I went to the beach that year, I wore a skimpy bathing suit, much too revealing for a girl my age. Never mind that I blossomed and spilled out of the spaces strategically cut into the bathing suit. It was the tail that enraged my mother the most.

“Oh, you’re getting attention all right. The wrong kind of attention. And everyone’s talking about you—all of the neighbors—all of my friends. I’m so embarrassed.”

            While I was somewhat ashamed because of what my mom said, I just couldn’t stop myself. I’d look in the mirror, pull the lovely strand across my shoulder and over my neck and admire the way the glint of green picked up lighter shades in my eyes. It hissed happily, darting between my fingers, and I just couldn’t imagine how I’d look without it.

            The solution to my problem, I believed, was silence. I shut my mother out. We stopped talking. I stayed longer after school, went over to my friends’ houses more often—my friends who all had tails, just like I did. Besides, a tail didn’t mean you had to do anything with a boy. You just could if you wanted to, at least, that’s what I thought until my friend Jodi mentioned the walls at the Neon Studios Salon. I remembered the rumors but hadn’t thought about them for a while. Despite what I had experienced when I got my hair cut, I brushed the sounds and the ashes off as nothing. To me, the rumors had to be entirely untrue.

            “Oh, no!” Jodi told me one day at her house. “If you get a tail, you have to follow through or else. The bones in the walls are from virgins—other girls who got tails but didn’t follow through.”

            “Follow through?”

            “Yeah, you know?”

            “Have you . . . followed through before?”

            “Yeah. It’s no big deal. But if you don’t, well, the walls know. They whisper their secrets to the owners of the salon. They find you in the middle of the night—or in the middle of the day.”

“That’s not true.”

            “Remember Betsy Mulligan?”

            “She moved.”

            “She didn’t. Her tail grew in, but she didn’t follow through. Think about it. When’s the last time you saw Betsy Mulligan?”

            “We were eating ice cream at the mall. And then, I don’t remember what happened next. I guess her parents picked her up or something.”

            “No. She was snatched up off the street. Her virgin bones were ground to powder and stuffed inside the walls. The sacrifices of virgins—not the shampoos and gels and seeds—make the tails grow.”

Jodi’s news was alarming, and I half considered cutting the tail off to maybe break the spell, if it could be broken that way, but I couldn’t. I loved it—the whole look. I couldn’t imagine going out in public with out it. I’d be so plain with just a naked stair-step bob. I’d be nothing special.       

            But I couldn’t let myself get sacrificed, either, if the rumors were true. As much as I hated my mother, I didn’t want her to grieve the loss of a daughter. So I followed through, with the first boy I met a party. We spent fifteen minutes in a closet together. For me, the experience was underwhelming, but necessary. He wanted another date, said he thought we bonded, reached for my hair, but the tail pulled away. In fact, the tail lasted longer than the boy, and I left the party with my life intact, but wondering if anyone would notice. Would anyone, such as my mother, be able to tell that I followed through?

Eventually, there were signs. The green strand grew long, sassy, and started to hiss. Apparently, you’re not supposed to let it get too long. You had to get it trimmed, but I liked the length. My mother, on the other hand, believed the length was a new source of embarrassment.

            “It looks awful. Even your friends haven’t grown their tails to the length you have. Why do you insist on just destroying yourself?” Then, she yanked the front of my hair, turning my face towards her, and asked, “Have you had sex? Tell me now. I’m not leaving you alone until you tell me.”

My mother’s threats were never empty. Her rage knew no boundaries. If I left the room, she’d follow me, and there were no locks on the doors in our house. Those were the rules.

            “Yes! So what? At least I had the decency to not get sacrificed to the salon. So there, Mom. You happy? Happy, Mom?”

My mother put her head in her hands and mumbled something about how she’d be able to take care of a pregnant daughter.

            “No, Mom,” I said. “I’m not pregnant. We were careful.”

            “So will there be more—boys? Times?”

For the first time in a long while, I saw a smile on her face. Her shoulders began to shake as she laughed. A big, powerful, triumphant laugh that rang out through the streets. I’d just said the funniest thing she’d ever heard.

            She never spoke badly about the tail again. In fact, she let me grow it out longer, and later, when Dad left us, she went to the Neon Studios Salon and got one too—in blazing red.

            “I don’t think so. It wasn’t that great.”

From then on, every afternoon during the rest of my high school years, we’d sit on the front porch. Mom would pour me a glass of champagne, and we’d watch the cars go by, our shimmering tails, hissing and snapping at the air.


Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/). Twitter: @ckennedyhola


“Body Neutral” Dark Science Fiction by DL Shirey

He looked 18 or 19, well within the desired age range Avril was hired to target. His sparse scruff of wannabe beard was the same sandy color as his hair. There was no subtlety in the way he stared at Avril. He pushed off from the wall he had been leaning against and gave a playful shove to two of his half-dozen cronies, parting them to get a better look.

          “Da-amn,” he said, elongating the word into two syllables, adding, “Look at this chiquita.”

          For Avril, a male/dominant like this was golden. His reaction would have a greater influence on the marketing statistics than these other six teenagers combined. Yet it was Avril’s job to treat the m/dom like any other consumer: forget he was cute, don’t add twitch to her hips or throw back shoulders to thrust out her chest. Just be a normal girl walking the mall, don’t even think about the stats.

          The outfit she wore today was stylish, yet bland: a long-sleeve cashmere turtleneck that showed just a hint of tummy, vintage Levi’s that fit well, but not too tight, and scruffy Chuck Taylor’s. People were to see Avril as a fashionable young woman in her early twenties, but not linger on her clothes or the shape of her body.

          Avril loved modeling. She enjoyed being the focus of attention, turning heads and feeling eyes upon her. It was exciting. Yet, thanks to some training in disciplined anatomics, Avril kept color from flushing her cheeks. Any change to her body could skew the results for this job.

          She glanced at the m/dom and made sure he was looking, then shook back her shoulder-length purple hair. Avril’s earpiece registered his eyetrace.

          “I’d die to get with that,” the m/dom said and followed with a mime. He pulled the trigger of his finger pistol and mouthed POW as the mock bullet exited his opposite temple. A head snap completed the improv until the laughter of his fellows brought the m/dom back to life.

          Avril ignored the performance.

          A chime from her earpiece indicated that the requisite amount of consumer impressions had been reached. It had taken three laps around the mall to achieve the numbers. Now Avril could relax a bit and let go a few of her anatomizations.

          Mall walks were hard work, even for someone trained as a Variegate. Well, partially trained. Avril had cut short her apprenticeship to model full time. She felt she had mastered her craft enough and it seemed like a good decision. Her career was progressing nicely. The agency had booked her for more runway jobs and even paid for Avril’s travel to better-paying mall gigs, like this one. If she could maintain her numbers, Avril’s future would be filled with the glamour and attention she craved.

          She stretched her neck to pull out stress. Twenty minutes of forced anatomics took its toll. Tremendous muscle control was needed for a Variegate to configure specific body features, such as lifting the cheekbones or elongating the neck. She’d been told that a few more years of apprenticeship would train her to modify properly, without the stress that novices endured.

          But Avril knew better and her status proved it. She was still a rising star at the agency, though that one job had gone terribly wrong. Every model had a bad day now and then, even full-fledged Variegates. Avril pushed the incident from her mind.

          She trudged up carpeted stairs to the nondescript offices on the third floor of the mall and her skin darkened with each step. Coloration was one of the easier things to turn on and off, and reverting to her normal skintone saved energy. This assignment called for a specific look, so until the job was done, Avril could not totally unbuild her present augmentation. It took hours to construct the required anatomy and only minutes to lose it, should Avril’s concentration slip.

          What she wouldn’t give to let the strong hands of a masseuse soothe her aches and stiffness. Avril often scheduled a massage following a job, not only to relax, but also to luxuriate in the feel of strong hands on her skin. Being touched was something she did her best to avoid while working.

          She opened an anonymous door to a very small room. There was one desk on the far wall behind twin monoliths of frosted glass. The panels were four-feet wide, parallel to one another, and stretched floor to ceiling. They did not resemble a toaster, but that was the appliance Avril thought about each time she stepped between the opaque partitions. She couldn’t move for two minutes and by the time the download was complete, her skin color would be its normal, cinnamon brown. Cinnamon toast, she thought.

          But the colors most important to Avril were the ones appearing on both slabs of glass; silhouettes of her body, front and back, rendered in reds and greens and blues. This was a visual aggregate of everyone who had fixed eyes on her; the colors translated to hot, medium or cold depending on which body parts had been gawked at the longest and those ignored:

hair

face

neck

shoulders

arms

hands

chest

stomach

waist

hips

butt

thighs

calves

feet

The colors mixed and pooled into a body-cloud of subtle color variations: reddish browns and rosy yellows on all the popular parts, violets for areas receiving mixed assessments and shades of blue for least viewed regions. Finally, streams of numbers tallied themselves next to each body part. These were viewer stats based on audience type, categorized by dom, subgroup, age and sex.

          Avril’s earpiece chimed again and she sidestepped from the toaster. The colorful outline of her body remained on glass. Avril studied the numbers and smiled. Round Three had registered neutral viewer stats on most body parts, except hair— those numbers exploded. Which was the whole reason for today’s job, to see which hair color attracted the most attention.

          Avril felt a small pang of conflicting emotions; virtually no eyeballs had lingered on her tummy. Totally blue, for the third time today. She was pleased to a point because it meant she had remained body-neutral and wouldn’t have to re-do the session. But it could also mean that the poof of belly fat was viewed as unattractive. Avril didn’t like that. Neither would the agency.

          Back to business, Avril thought.

          She walked over to the desk, referred to the assignment board and typed Purple #122-3479-3 on the console. Thumbing the ENTER key made the anatomic heat-map disappear from the twin towers of glass.

          Avril removed the purple wig from her scalp and placed it on the plastic headform. She raked her manicured nails where it itched most, just above her ears. Her stubbly sidewalls were growing out and would soon need another buzzcut. Avril rubbed, but did not scratch, between the five tight rows of crocheted braids, pulled back from her wide forehead. She checked to see that the tiny ring of elastic at the nape of her neck was still doing the job of holding the braids taut.

          On to Round Four; twenty minutes with the jet-black wig and she would be done for the day.

          Avril pulled on the hairpiece, aligning the mop-cut bangs above the arc of her eyebrows. She rarely wore make up, but this job stipulated lipstick. She reapplied the designated shade. One final check in the full-length mirror and she was ready for Round Four. There was only a moment’s hesitation as she pulled down the sweater to try and hide her belly. Avril was capable of redistributing her body fat, as she did for runway jobs, but there were only so many anatomical balls she could juggle at one time.

          This was the one regret Avril had for leaving training; not being able to render all those fine details that a certified Variegate can do to perfection.

          By the time she reached the mall’s first floor, Avril had repigmentized her skin and double-checked that all configurations were in place.

          She recognized many of the people she had passed in previous rounds. Repeat eyeballs were an important metric. The eyetraces of those who had noticed her before would be compared, the differences measured, and any reactions to Avril’s hair analyzed in micro-impressions. Avril tried to walk the same path, at the same speed, with the same posture, to gather as many Repeaters as possible.

          “Wasn’t her hair purple before?” The f/dom said it, a robust black lady, pack leader for six mall-walking seniors, all women. They were clad in colorful workout clothes, stretching in preparation for their walk, adjusting socks and sweatbands.

          Avril had seen them before, gathering like a flock of hens, the f/dom headmost in the pecking order. She and Avril had locked eyes before. Now, the woman was really giving Avril the once-over.

          “Kids these days.” The f/dom was talking to her group, obviously speaking loud enough for Avril to hear. “I mean, she struts around here with clothes tight enough to show everything God gave her.” The gaggle clucked and muttered in agreement.

          Avril assumed the comment was about her breasts. Had she not been on a job, Avril could have shocked the women by increasing her cup size. It would require her to release the hold on the other body parts she was governing and rechannel fluids to her chest. Avril could only imagine the looks on their faces as her bust enlarged.

          Avril caught herself smiling, then realized how the last few seconds might affect the results of Round Four. She needed to concentrate on maintaining the required configuration and keep walking or she might have to abort this black-wig session and start it all over again. One thing the agency did not like was a re-do.

          Avril elongated her stride slightly, intending to put distance between her and the seniors.

          “Step lively now, ladies,” came the voice from behind.

          Avril needed to tamp down her emotions, or at least keep them from affecting her appearance. Others watching her might see a thrusted chin, knitted brow or a narrowing of eyes. Any body differential could adversely affect the numbers.

          Dealing with Instigants, like these women, was the worst part of mall jobs. Avril wanted to stand up for herself, but that would negate an entire day’s work. Sure, the data-collection system would weed out stats from anyone who instigated verbal contact with Avril, hostile or otherwise. But if a confrontation escalated to a certain level, it could nullify a whole job’s worth of data gathering. Especially if an Instigant touched Avril.

          “I’d rethink that outfit if I was you. That top is too short,” the woman said from behind, between breaths, “And those jeans, a little snug in the crotch, don’t you think?” The mall-walkers chittered with laughter.

          Avril realized she was clenching her teeth and the first taste of panic made her mouth go dry. What if the woman caught up and put a hand on Avril’s shoulder? Any unexpected physical contact and Avril could lose control of her body. It had happened in the past; that sudden gush of adrenaline would undo everything Avril was holding together.

          Avril couldn’t afford another invalidation, the agency wouldn’t stand for it. She decided to make a hard right, go up the stairs to the second floor, hoping the women would not follow. But her escape was cut short by a familiar pack of teenagers.

          “Chiquita,” the m/dom said as his posse blocked the stairs, “Long time no see.”

          He angled his scruffy beard into a smirk, then reached out and grabbed one of Avril’s hands. He whispered something close to her ear.

          It wasn’t the disgusting words that made Avril repulse and push away, it was ebbing of her restraint. She could feel all those little dams of muscle control start to give way. As hard as Avril tried to resist, the backslide progressed. And with it came fear.

          The older woman changed instantly from antagonist to ally. She stepped up beside Avril. “Keep your paws off of her, young man. Who do you think you are?”

          Avril held up her hand to keep the woman from intruding.

          The m/com laughed and grabbed Avril again, this time by both her shoulders. Rage coursed through Avril’s body and she could no longer maintain the tenuous hold she had on her anatomy.

          Avril shoved the m/dom. Hard.

          “No, I got this,” she said to the woman. Avril’s voice lowered to a growl.

          “That’s right. You go girl. Show ’em what you’re made of,” sang the chorus of mall-walkers.

          Avril snatched off the black wig and threw it to the ground. She swallowed hard, letting loose an Adam’s apple that wasn’t there before. Fists clenched in anger, Avril took one threatening lunge toward the m/dom.

          “I ain’t fighting no girl,” the teenager said as he backed off. “Or whatever you are.”

          The flimsy sweater tightened around Avril’s bulking shoulder and arm muscles as they returned to normal girth. Avril took another step toward the teenagers and felt his penis and testicles descend, pressing on the inseam of his jeans.

          “What in God’s name,” the old woman exclaimed when she saw the coarse stubble shadow Avril’s cheeks and chin. “Time to move on, ladies.”

          It took every bit of restraint Avril had to keep from taking a swing at the scruffy teenager. The m/dom stood his ground for one long moment, then pushed past his six sidekicks and retreated up the stairs. They all followed.

          Avril felt the heat leave his cheeks. He could have sped up the process, but didn’t have the strength. All he could think about was how the agency would react. His budding career was in jeopardy now that it had happened twice.

          Picking up the wig, Avril walked back toward the office. He tried not to make eye contact with the shoppers who stopped and stared. Avril knew many of them had seen him before, as his earpiece chimed over and over again, still registering their eyetraces.   Everyone was looking at Avril.


DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies from Truth Serum Press and Literary Hatchet. Find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.


“Summer In Uummannaq” Fiction by Mark Mellon

The Chamber Magazine Contemporary Dark Literature

After we crossed the Northwest Passages, a vast expanse of gray sea, and were over Baffin Island, the Commodore allowed the barbot to serve me a martini.

            “Just one, Rome. Try to keep yourself together. After all, we have Claire to think about.”

            The Commodore said this in front of Claire, in fact, in front of everyone. We were on the bridge, admiring the Commodore as he steered AS Vanderbilt, jaunty in a white yacht cap and red blazer with a garish crest on the pocket. I ignored my father and gratefully sipped the ice cold cocktail infused with toad venom. The barbot knew my preferences.

            “Peyton, that tickles.”

            “That’s why I did it.”

            My older brother and his new wife tussled and giggled. Laurel, my mother, watched with an approving smile, faint like everything else about her. The Commodore chuckled, but then returned his attention to the wheel. I continued to drink. The bridge was in the bow. Encased in a transparent glaz canopy, we had a three hundred degree view of bright sky above and surging seascape below, an amazing prospect that once thrilled me as a child. We were over the Davis Strait by that point. Not long now. The Commodore turned the wheel hard to port.

            “Turbulence ahead. I don’t want anything upsetting Claire. For all I know, she may already be carrying my grandson.”

            “Commodore, how you talk.”

            As if Claire would get pregnant on her own, like a savage. I took another sip, tried to make the drink last. Only the first day and my family had already stretched my nerves to the breaking point. We all knew the Commodore was faking, that the giant airship was efficiently, continuously steered by AI with no need for human guidance or help. I’d figured it out at twelve and lost respect for him forever. But still, here I sat with my family, headed once again to our summer resort.

            “Wait until you see Uummannaq, Claire. I know Peyton has shown you holograms, but until you see it in person, you can’t appreciate it properly. It’s a very special place, full of happy family memories. And I know you’re going to add to them this summer, my dear.”

            Claire giggled. She was blonde, tall, and perfect, no surprise since her characteristics were specifically chosen by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gates, in close consultation with their personal biogenetic engineers.

            The conical, gray airship sailed in solitary grandeur through a blindingly blue sky over a black sea. Powerful electric motors drove long bladed propellers at four hundred kph. Midmorning sunlight poured into the bridge, softened by glaz filters. Laurel had a bowl of strawberries and cream. I finished my drink and blinked at the barbot.

            “I said one, Rome.”

            “Yes, Commodore.”

            Vanderbilt passed Disko Island, a lush, green dot fifteen kilometers below. Almost there. To our right, a vast, endless sward of tropical jungle spread before us, Greenland. The airship  descended. The Commodore vigorously spun the wheel.

            “Stand beside the canopy, Claire. I want you to be first to see Uummannaq.”

            Claire took Peyton’s hand. They went to the bridge’s edge and looked down at the white capped sea below.

            “Uummannaq straight ahead,” the Commodore cried. “Clear the decks and batten the hatches for fun and adventure.”

            I inwardly groaned and yearned for another drink. Claire wildly squealed in delight.

            “Oh, there it is. And it’s wonderful, just like you said, Commodore.”          

            Laurel went to look as well. Vanderbilt headed toward the broad, electric blue fjord carved from Greenland’s mass. A small island loomed ahead, capped by a towering crag, the most prominent peak in western Greenland, topped in turn by a half kilometer high structure of gleaming glaz and titanium steel, the Vanderbilt summer home, one of a half dozen Greenland private resorts.

            “Oh, look,” Laurel said. “It hasn’t changed.”

            “Why should it, dear?”

            A blazing fireball soared in a tight spiral around the airship, then flashed past in a shower of red and gold sparks. The airship pitched and yawed, a violent oscillation AI guided stabilizers desperately scrambled to overcome. The fireball streaked toward Uummannaq.

            “What’s that?” Claire shrieked.

            Peyton sighed. “Don’t worry, dear. That’s just Barton.”

            Indifferent to the terror my younger brother’s typical stunt inflicted upon Claire, the Commodore chuckled. “They broke the mold when they made Barton.”

            “Thank God for that too.”

            “Please, Eaton. Can’t you be pleasant?”

            “I’ll be pleasant, Laurel, if you don’t call me ‘Eaton.'”

            “That’s enough, Rome.”

            I fell into sullen silence. The Vanderbilt steered for the mansion’s apex. Propeller blades retracted into their housings that folded in turn into apertures in the airship’s horizontally ribbed hull. VTOL rotors steadily whirred the airship downward. Three massive clamps on an inline axle sprang open on the airship’s keel. Matching catches opened on the landing pod beneath. With a great hiss of helium, Vanderbilt slipped into the berth. The clamps slammed home. The Commodore tethered the wheel with a rope and dusted his hands, plainly pleased by yet another job well done.

            “Safe and sound, just as I promised. Now to disembark and begin our vacation.”

            The Commodore snapped his fingers. With gentle, hydraulic ease, the canopy split in two. An air saloon ascended from the landing pod. It hovered close, an electric rotor powered open coach with seats for eight upholstered in mammoth hide. A short ramp extended from the saloon and locked into place with the bridge. The Commodore needlessly assisted Laurel up the ramp. Claire and Peyton followed with goosing and giggling and other obligatory, young married nonsense. I went last, sat up front, and brooded.

            The ramp unlocked and retracted. The Commodore sat in the stern and put his hand to the tiller. The saloon lifted noiselessly away from the airship. Black maintenance drones swarmed over Vanderbilt like a horde of winged ants. A gap opened in the landing pod. The saloon descended into the mansion. Numerous, gargantuan floors passed by, endless, tastefully furnished spaces brightly lit by transparent glaz walls that opened onto blue panoramas of sea and sky.

            The saloon landed in garden niche T-37, a recessed, hundred hectare inset with an AI controlled microclimate. The Commodore intended to show off his collection. Hopefully, I could drink when lunch was served. Amid the broad green sward where lesser Cretaceous reptilians gamboled, bots laid out a feast fit for the gods upon a damask clad table. The centerpiece was an auroch’s gleaming, roasted haunch, clad in aspic, surrounded by broiled chickens, ducks, and pheasants.

            “Everyone must be famished after that long trip. Sit down and eat.”

            We took our places. The Commodore nodded. Wheeled, bow-tied waitbots trundled forward and served choice viands whether we wanted them or not, grilled filet of coelecanth, thick, juicy indricotherium chops, three kilo bats stripped of their wings and fricasseed in their skins.

            “Oh, what a nice meal. Don’t you think so, Claire?” Laurel said.

            A few meters away, a velociraptor tore out a duck billed hadrosaur’s throat with his sharp claws. Claire gasped. Peyton smiled.

            “Don’t worry, Claire. We’re all right behind the tension barrier.”

            “Don’t let a raptor eating lunch bother you. After all, you’re doing the same thing, just with less effort.”

            Barton strolled up. Another of his sneaky entrances. He must have used a tether.   

            “This is Claire, right? Say, Peyton got lucky. I got to congratulate you.”

            Barton slipped an arm around Claire’s shoulders and planted a kiss on her mouth more appropriate for a late night date than a new sister-in-law. Peyton just took it. But then again we all did, even the Commodore, but he thought Barton was cute.

            “Barton, enough horsing around. Sit next to your mother.”

            “Certainly, Commodore.”

            He sat down, pecked Laurel on the cheek, and ate with his huge appetite. I had a chicken wing and a large glass of white wine I frequently refilled.

            “So how is Galt’s Gulch, Barton?” the Commodore asked.

            “Dull. That’s why I came early. AI flashed the airship was only five K’s away. I decided to give you a real Uummannaq welcome, Claire.”

            She smiled. “I admit I was scared, but Peyton explained it to me. You certainly make an impression, Barton.”

            “You could get us killed with your stunts, Barton. Maybe someday we’ll get lucky and you’ll succeed.”

            Laurel’s mouth formed a small “o” of dismay. The Commodore gave his patented cold stare, but I was long immune. Peyton scowled. Barton just laughed. Used to rigidly maintained gentility, Claire’s eyes went wide in blank incomprehension. Two triceratops mated in the distance, reptile jaws gaped wide in carnal ecstasy. I continued to drink. It was just as good a time as any other for Claire to learn what the family was really like.

            “You’re overreacting and being gratuitously cruel, Eaton. You promised if I showed you the respect you claim I’ve denied you, you’d curb your sharp tongue and drinking in return. I see you’ve no intention of fulfilling your bargain. Try to be civil for a change.”

            I got up and walked away.

            “Eaton, you have not been dismissed from the table.”

            “The name is Rome,” I said over my shoulder.

            “You can always take a rocket pod home, Rome,” Barton said.

            I ignored him and continued to the terrace’s edge. As I surmised, a tether hung there. I winked. The tether recognized my retinal signature and came alive, crackling with energy. I slipped on a silicon glove, broke the invisible tension barrier, and grasped the tether.

            Bonded tight by the glove, I plummeted downward, twenty stories to my quarters at the mansion’s base, as far from my family as I could get. Once inside, I downed a stiff, straight shot of skullbustium and laid down on my bed, anxious for oblivion.

            I slipped into a deep, black sleep, devoid of dreams.

***

            It was almost 1800 when I came to, slightly groggy. I shook off the drug’s aftereffects, cursed my indestructible constitution, and got up. A wink turned a glaz wall transparent. The summer sun was pitched high in the northern latitudes. Hours of daylight remained. I decided to walk outside and filled my flask with brandy.

            I slipped through a side entrance to the two story high master portal. It was a balmy thirty degrees C. Uummannaq’s craggy flanks were fringed with tropical foliage, wine palms, teak, ebony, mahogany. Green lichen ate into the mountain, ever so slowly sapped the stones of nutrients.

            I put on a glove, and snapped my fingers with my other hand. A tether snaked from a wall to form a gentle arc downward to the plain. I grasped the tether and flew toward the ground, careful to look away (heading rapidly, inexorably toward an unyielding landscape makes me nauseous). At the last moment, the tether slowed my fall and I landed with a fair grace. The plain was thickly forested with wine palms and other fruit bearing trees.

            I took a path to the sea. A faint breeze tried to ruffle my hair, but it insistently stayed in place. Thick undergrowth restricted my vision. Waves crashed in the distance.

            “SSSSQQQQQUUUUUAAAAAWWWWKKKK.”

            A large, male dodo jumped onto the path before me, gray feathers ruffled and short wings spread wide in a full threat display. He snapped his powerful beak at me. His mate must be nursing an egg somewhere nearby. The dodo was ready to fight.

            “Here, pretty birdy.”

            The silicon googleplexchip ring on my right hand discharged low voltage into the bird. The dodo shrieked and ran into the brush. I resumed my walk. Two kilometers later, I reached the beach, a broad, flat stretch of sand that extended into the hazy distance. Dodoes hustled among nearby trees in search of fallen ripe fruit. This was where we swam, when Peyton and I were small, before Barton came along.

            I  arranged palm leaves into an improvised pallet in the shade, stretched out, and drank from my flask. Birds circled over the beach in uncountable numbers, common gulls and the great, white winged pelagornis, while black and white great auks clustered on worn rocks that jutted from the sea. In the distance, a plesiosaur’s long, sinuous neck and head reared forth from the sea only to submerge again. The vast, light blue sky was cloudless. There was nothing human around me. The waves’ susurrus and the steady heat combined with alcohol to lull me to sleep.

            “This is a pretty spot. Didn’t you try to drown me here when I was two?”

            Barton sat on the pallet’s edge, arms wrapped around his legs. I sighed, sat up, and took another drink.  

            “You know, it’s none of my business, but even a biologically engineered liver can only take so much punishment.”  

            “What do you want, Barton? You never see me unless you want something.”

            “Rome, that’s not true. You’re the only one besides me who can face facts. Laurel, Peyton, definitely Edgar, they’re not much different from bots.”

            “Then why do you kiss Edgar’s ass? It’s what I hate most about you.”

            Barton lightly slapped me on the knee. “You know I only do that so I get my fair share of the estate when Edgar hits one hundred twenty. That’s only seventeen years away.”

            “You’re counting every second aren’t you?”

            “No. I’m only forty-three.”

            “I hope Edgar leaves it to Peyton. That would serve you right.”

            Barton snorted. “Edgar favors me, not that slavebot Peyton. Take Claire. An excellent example of his inadequacy for any real, important task. She’s more woman than he can handle. Why should she be with him?”

            I looked Barton dead in the eye. “That’s why you’re bothering me. You’ve got some crazy idea about using Claire to hurt Peyton. Because it’s the worst, most completely inappropriate thing you can possibly do.”

            “You give me too much credit, Rome. Still, nice chatting with you. We should do it again.”

            He stood up to leave, but turned to look at me.

            “One thing puzzles me. Call yourself whatever you want, but why ‘Rome?’ Why not ‘Paris’ or London?'”

            “I like the place.”

            “It doesn’t exist anymore.”

            “Neither do the other cities you mentioned. That doesn’t mean I can’t miss them.”

            Barton shrugged. “I never will understand you, Eaton.”

            He strapped on his jet pack. Barton took off with a blast of flame as he soared toward the mansion’s peak. I lay back on my pallet and tried to forget the whole unpleasant interlude, but failed. Summers at Uummannaq had always been emotionally fraught affairs, but Claire represented a new source of tension and strain. Barton was plainly hell bent on mischief. And Barton always had his way, no matter what.

***

            Things seemed to calm down after that, at least on a superficial level, as the family settled into the holiday routine. We took the airship low over Greenland to view natives in their primitive huts. The Commodore promised to hold a party, to invite guests from other grand homes like the Rockefellers, Putins, and Dimons so Claire could meet everyone as Mrs. Peyton Vanderbilt. The Corsair was run out from dry dock, black, sleek, with a sharply raked hull and four 6000 hp electric motors.

            We took a cruise. Barton harpooned a megalodon outside the fjord. We watched him die from the bridge. The giant shark thrashed about and leaped from the sea, biting at the harpoon that pierced his side, but finally rolled over and lay still upon the surface.

            “Shark steaks tonight,” Barton crowed as powerful winches reeled the thirty-five ton monster toward the Corsair.

            I saw the admiring look in Claire’s eyes. She had to notice how active Barton was compared to Peyton. He shared my indolent, passive nature, although not my vices. Claire had a lively disposition herself. She liked to organize parlor games after dinner with everyone’s enthusiastic participation, myself excepted. I watched them laugh as the Commodore tried to act out a word. Barton roared along with the rest of them, but his eyes never left Claire.

            His attentions toward her steadily increased with invitations to play jet pack handball over the landing pad, to race one horned elasmotheriums across the island plain, goaded by laser prods, or just to hang motionless for hours in the bodywarp web, mutually lost in mindless limbic ecstasy.

            It was more than obvious what he wanted. Of course, the Commodore thought Barton was just being attentive, making Claire feel at home. If Laurel had any concerns, she kept them to herself. She stuck to her laser knitting, cutting and stitching various bits of DNA to make tiny, fanciful creatures she kept in plaz terrariums. Peyton just laughed it off. After all, Claire still slept with him every night. He’d don a holomask and return to supervising sandhogbots as they dug for rare earths and alien metals on our lunar mine, another task like steering the airship AI could handle perfectly well.

            I confronted Claire when she was alone and told her the truth.  “You should know Barton never does anything nice on purpose. He only wants to play a mean trick on you and Peyton. Stay away from him.”

            Claire gave me a sad, pitying look. “What the Commodore says about you is true, Rome. You drink too much and look at things all wrong because you’re drunk. From now on, Rome, until your attitude improves, I’d prefer that you left me alone, if it’s all the same to you.”

            “Just as you say.”

            The party was held soon after that. Airships hovered over the landing pad. Elegant saloons descended down to the Grand Ballroom, a square kilometer in size and three stories high. Music bots hummed a gentle, quiet welcoming drone. Men wore opaque suits that made them  walking cubist blocks while women were attired in flaming sundresses that hurt the naked eye so everyone had tinted masks. The Commodore was in his traditional sporran and kilt in the family tartan while Laurel wore a simple white gown adorned with living, writhing homunculi. He held his arms high in greeting.

            “My dear friends, let’s get another summer off to a good start with music, food, drink, and dancing.”

            Given their cue, the bots pumped out tek with a thumping beat. Guests danced, lively or sedate depending upon age and disposition. Barton took Claire’s hand, held her tight, and put her through the sinuous motions of the shameless, sordid Galt’s Gulch Grind. They couldn’t have been any closer if they were sutured together. Younger guests laughed and cheered them on. And Peyton took it with a dumb look on his face.

            The party went on by the sun’s light, a pale disc hovering just above the sea’s edge. Food and drink were consumed, megalodon steaks cooked in lemon juice and garnished with thyme, plesiosaur roe with sour cream on a fifty kilo baked potato, tender percopteris leaves with Roquefort dressing, washed down with champagne, beer, toad venom shots, and pineal gland bitters. Everyone ate and drank so heartily they were close to stupefaction. Peyton was particularly hangdog, slumped in his chair, eyes half closed, drumstick in one hand, empty glass in the other. He sat up, shook himself aware, and looked around him.

            “Where’s Claire?”

            I scanned the vast hall, but didn’t see Claire or Barton. Had they slipped out unnoticed in the party’s hubbub?

            Shortly afterward, Barton showed up. He sauntered slow and cool across the ballroom. No one seemed to notice, probably due to being stuffed and inebriated. I’d had as much alcohol as anyone else, but barely ate and was in my usual state of lucid drunkenness. I watched him approach Peyton. I knew we stood on the edge of an awful, unforgivable event, a ratcheting up of family ugliness to an unbearable level.

            Barton snapped his fingers and overrode the AI. The musicbots ceased. A woman’s sobs filled the air, soft, miserable, inconsolable. Claire’s.

            “Barton, how could you? I loved you and trusted you-“

            Barton laughed. “Peyton, I usually like to keep these as souvenirs, but it’s really your property for now, so here.”

            He threw a pair of mauve shamseen panties onto Peyton’s lap. He looked down and the flimsy undergarment’s meaning sank into his sozzled brain. Peyton threw his wine glass at Barton. He neatly sidestepped it.

            My brother’s unexpected show of anger surprised and pleased me. I hoped for more, but Peyton instead reverted to type and ran weeping from the room. Kilt a-flap, the Commodore went to the table.

            “What in the name of sweet plutocracy have you done, Barton? You seem to have upset Peyton terribly.”

            “He’s just angry, Commodore, because he knows Claire’s mine now.”

            “Come, come, Barton. You like to joke, but I went to a great deal of trouble to arrange Peyton’s marriage to Claire. You can’t upset that on a whim. We’ll find you an appropriate mate in due time.”

            “No, I want Claire. She needs a real man. Just tell the Gates you switched brothers.”

            I had to get away, from the guests, the mansion, and most of all, my family. I grabbed a bottle of champagne and ran to the ballroom’s rim where I broke the tension barrier and grabbed the nearest tether. Outside, I hustled quickly down the path, glad for once to be born athletic. The sun had slipped away and the weak gray night begun. Dodoes huddled in their nests, grateful for the brief rest.

            The long, curved beach was fringed by a delicate scroll of shifting, small, silver waves. I unsealed a hermetic pod with my ring and dragged out a long unused rowboat. I pulled the boat into the water, got in, and put the oars in their tholes. Out in the fjord, Barton couldn’t sneak up on me and I could drink in peace.

            Biologically engineered muscles easily adjusted to the unwonted exercise. I rowed until I was in the middle of the fjord with a clear view of Uummannaq, then shipped oars. The boat bobbed gently in the water. I uncorked the champagne. Foam arced into my lap. I drank deeply.

            At the mansion, the tek had resumed, loud enough to be heard in the fjord, along with occasional snatches of high pitched, feminine laughter. Order or what passed for it in our family had apparently been restored and the party had resumed. The Commodore liked to keep up appearances. I took another stiff pull from the bottle and wondered. How would things finally play out? Would the vicious fighting ever end or simply drag on for the rest of our lives?

            A giant fireball erupted from the mansion, a huge explosion that shattered glaz and steel and cast fragments in all directions. I held my arms before my face to shield myself from white hot steel scraps and razor sharp glaz fragments. Another explosion, even more massive and destructive than the first, snapped the mansion in two. The sundered top fell into the fjord, taking my family and most of Terra’s plutocrats with it. A huge wave swept toward me, but the cork like boat easily crested it. Wreckage was strewn all around me.

            My question was answered. Peyton had taken a coward’s revenge and blown up Barton, himself, Claire, our parents, and everyone else who had witnessed his cuckold’s shame. I’d only escaped by sheer accident. Always under strain, dysfunction had reached the point where the family cracked like a badly cast vase, the fault built in from the start.

            I laughed for a while and cried for a time. When I finished the bottle, I threw it into the water, and put the oars back in their tholes.

            I rowed westward, where the sea could swallow me and Terra would finally be done with Vanderbilts.


Mark notes:

“By way of background, I’m a novelist who supports his family by working as an attorney. I have four novels and over seventy short stories (many as reprints) published in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Denmark. Short fiction by me has recently appeared in Thriller MagazineTigersharkTall Tale TV, and Into The Ruins. A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Prize for SF/Fantasy. More information about my writing is available at: www.mellonwritesagain.com.

Mark says about this story: “You may be interested to know I wrote this yarn as an SF version of a John Cheever New Yorker piece, something I felt compelled to do after reading his collected short stories.”


“Getting the Boot” Fiction by Ara Hone

Zippo clutched a yellow billiards ball in her fingertips, hitched up a knee, and zinged the ball across the stretch of green, felt-lined table. It smashed through the field of striped balls with a force minuscule in proportion to that which their galactic adversaries had smashed the Earth.

She bird-dogged the gold smear’s trajectory to the corner pocket, and when Hipshot nailed her with his signature body check, she didn’t lift her boot from the sand. She was no crud novice and wouldn’t give the ref a reason to cry foul. Neither was she a war virgin; she knew her duty. With tomorrow’s mission, she might save the remnant of human population from extinction, if she dared.

Zippo’s yellow ball sank the pocket, and Hipshot’s team of pilots howled. Her teammates cheered, kissed their talismans of tiny carved fists, and broke through the defeated airmen to whisk her to the place of honor, the makeshift bar. She wanted to win all the nights to come—the game, the war—and never play either again underneath a sky hung with clouds like thick, oil-stained wads.

“To our leader, General Zippo,” Hipshot said, and the company shouted hear him.

If she’d lost the game, Hipshot’s pilots would have wrenched off his boot and filled it with white lightning for her guzzling pleasure. Instead, it was hers the team pried off for him–the one she’d tramped about in all day, deciding do we fly or not? Beyond the thick wads, electrified sugar lit up the black. Tomorrow, the weather wizards predicted clear skies.

We fly.

While a nurse filled Zippo’s dusty leather with forget-all-about-it-juice, she fiddled with the silver disk at her throat. If she used the technology, she could win. If she used it, she may not find her way back.

The feather-light disk weighed the heft of a man’s soul.

Trade one life for many lives.

She wanted to stuff the yellow billiards ball up somebody’s ideological ass.

Earth needed a home for its remnant…and the secret lives yet to come. Do it. She jerked the disk free, and her head swam. Civility landed on the trash heap the day she’d glimpsed the enemy’s fragile skin and savage gaze through a burning cockpit glass. Do it.

Her heart squeezed at the tilt of Hipshot’s lips.

Camp men embraced the caveman look, but he rose each day and scraped his face clean with a straight blade. Only grandpas grew fuzz, he claimed. Just this morning, he’d rubbed her cheek with his chin and then elsewhere to prove it.

Making nice and playing the gracious winner was for pussies. Do it.

She stealthily salted his white lightning with the disk’s silvery remains, slammed the sand-encrusted consequence into his fist, and hooked up her chin. “Drink, flyboy.”

“To our fearless leader,” he shouted. Glasses clinked in the night. “And to those poor bastards, our brothers and sisters. For them, and the fight.”

“The fight,” the company murmured.

Zippo gripped her own shot of reality and longed for its fire tingling into her toes; the ones left bare by her missing boot. A traitor’s work demanded sobriety. She tamped down awareness of the bright flecks clinging to Hipshot’s lips. His airplane talisman peeked from his unzippered flightsuit, and she inhaled the stirring dust. Flying regs required pilots to observe twelve hours between the bottle and throttle. He had precisely twenty minutes to make the evening’s frivolities count, and it seemed he would drink until cutoff.

She accepted the return of her beaten leather, his fingers sizzling like matchsticks against hers, and a crevasse opened inside. She should go back to the billiards table and the game of crud. Turning away was easier than facing what she’d done.

Pilots died every day.

If he didn’t buy the farm tomorrow, he doubtless would next week or the week after—

Stop with the excuses—shit.

Her hand, the one that signed his reaping, pressed against her belly and its secret within. She wanted Hipshot; heat burned into her cheeks. She wanted this one life for a lifetime. But leadership had its consequences, and he stood six foot tall, too damned dependable, and no longer hers.

Tomorrow, she would order the captain to fly inside enemy territory on a so-called intelligence-gathering mission. When the creatures opened their withering fire, he wouldn’t flee the airspace, not her best and bravest pilot. When he crashed behind their lines, Hipshot, in a signature body check, would deliver Earth’s final, terrible weapon tailored for the enemy, alone.

Withholding all the truth was cruel. She did it to shield him.

Her breath cut like razors—

She kept silent to spare herself.

Someday, when their child ran across a reseeded Earth beneath clear, cloudless skies, Zippo would play the old game with old teammates. Afterward, she would raise a sacred boot to her lips and dribble the warm, sour remains into her mouth and drink to those who made it. She’d salute her love who didn’t.

She entwined her fingers with his, and leading the way through the catcalls and darkness, dared imagine the new world to come.


Ara Hone writes speculative fiction. Before that, she climbed silos at sunset, joined the military when it wasn’t cool, and survived a sales career. She loves books and a great TV series. When she’s not writing, she’s editing for Flash Fiction Magazine. Her best advice? Drink coffee daily. @ara_hone

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