At Border Control

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“Papers, please.” The border officer, a young lady with light-blue skin and iridescent hair, held her hand out without looking up at the next entrant.

The passport that a rubbery, deep-red hand with double-ended digits gave her was crudely-made – just a sheaf of coarse paper sheets with no cover to speak of – and the entry form was empty. Oh joy, another mouth-breathing savage, she thought with a sigh, and raised her eyes to size up her latest torment.

The traveler was a tall and imposing humanoid, clad in primitive armor made from the hide of some scaly animal. His pointy head was marked by two broad tentacles that sprouted from the sides of his chin and rested on his shoulders, with another, smaller pair coming out of his cheeks. His mouth was a line of jagged teeth, a chevron-shaped flap of skin – actually a vestigial fifth tentacle – stood in for a nose, and a pair of sickly-yellow eyes studded the sides of his face.

“Name?” Her voice carried as much annoyance as she could muster.

“You can read it there,” the man growled with a crackling voice, pointing at his travel documents.

“Yeah, and you could’ve written it here too, buster,” she waved the form around. “I need you to confirm all data. Name?

His facial tentacles writhed in anger. “Gallurak of the Bleak Fort,” he said after a while.

She cast him a sideways glance before moving forward. “I’ll go ahead and write ‘Bleakfort’ under ‘surname’. Nationality?”

“Nag-Quelthhu, Bane of Hope,” he said with a solemn tone.

Her supervisor, a couple booths away, perked up at the mention of that name. “Like, that doesn’t even sound like a country,” she said, rolling her eyes as she filled the form. “What the hell is up with that name, anyway?”

“It is a name one such as you is entirely unworthy of uttering… woman.” His tone of voice made it clear that he was thinking of some entirely different and much less civil word to call her.

“Hey, chill out, okay?” She splayed her hands in the most insincere apology possible. “I’m just trying to get through this form here, no one’s offending your gods or ancient spirits or whatever.”

“Only fools hold to such childish superstitions,” he snarled. “Unlike those fantasies, Nag-Quelthhu is real, much more so than your republics and governments.”

“Alright, alright, let’s move on. They’re waiting.” She pointed at the long line of people, of the most varied shapes, sizes and colors, snaking all the way back to the wormhole and beyond. “Occupation?”

“They can wait as long as they must,” he said. “Because, to answer your question, I am a Void Enforcer.”

She chuckled. “Del, ‘void enforcer’, that’s rich. What the hell do you guys do, check empty jars to make sure they’re still empty?” The supervisor, now wide-eyed, started making his way toward her booth.

Enough!” He slammed his fist onto her desk. Across the hall, the head of security motioned to a nearby guard, who started walking toward him as well. “I have suffered more than enough of your insolence, worm!” Gallurak bellowed.

“Sir, you will calm down right now,” she said firmly. “You may be a Grand Wizard Whatever back home, but here, you’re in Union territory and–”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” her supervisor barged in. “Has this lady offended you?” He gestured for the approaching guard to stop a couple paces away.

“She has displayed the vilest disrespect for the Bane of Hope and their direct representative!” the man yelled. “She must be punished at once for such insubordination!”

“She will be, I assure you,” the officer said, while his younger colleague looked at him in disbelief. “But first, let me help you through. I’m sure you’re on urgent business.”

“That I am,” Gallurak growled, snatching his passport from the young woman’s hand as he moved through.

“But he… the form…” The border officer tried to object, being quickly hushed by her boss.

“And welcome back to Bhadrapada Six!” The supervisor forced a smile at the traveler until he cleared the cluster of people leaving the booths, making a series of annoyed sounds as he shouldered his way past them.

“Whew,” he sighed. “We can, uh, just figure out how to fill the rest of that,” he said, examining the form.

“What the hell, Denker?” the lady said. “You saw him getting violent! We can’t have them thinking they can get away with that sort of behavior! You said it yourself, security protocol is…”

“Yeah, I know what I said,” the wearied man snapped back. “And it still holds, of course, but this case is… Delemmir’s sake, girl, that’s a Void Enforcer right there!”

“So freaking what?” she protested, writing whatever seemed appropriate on the remaining fields. “You guys are telling us all the time that the rules apply to everyone, that there’s no such thing as nobles or whatever when it comes to protocol!”

Denker let out another sigh. “Again, that’s still true… but in certain cases, you have to let common-sense take over, you know? I mean, do you even know who Nag-Quelthhu is?”

“What do you mean, ‘who’?” She looked up at him. “Isn’t that a country?”

“Gods… you don’t know, do you?” He rubbed his eyes. This girl’s lucky she was born a scion, or she’d be out there cleaning toilets, he thought. “Just… thing is, Void Enforcers are the very top brass at Nag-Quelthhu’s domain. They answer only to the big guy, and are considered his right-hand… well, tentacle men. You piss one of them off, you’ve got probably the most powerful vukhar in the whole planet raining hell on you, and you don’t want that. Nobody does… the government, least of all, so I’m sure they’ll understand if you bend the rules a little bit for him. Got it?”

“Vukhar? Oh… I see.” She looked over her shoulder, catching a last glance at the hulking red form moving toward the exit of the portal station. “Poor guy… for all his arrogance, he’s really a slave, isn’t he?”

“Slave? No, I don’t think that’s fair,” her supervisor mused. “That word implies a being in the same general category as their master. No matter how subjugated, a slave is a someone, not a something. Folks living under a vukhar? The very best they can aspire to be is a tool, like him.”

“And the worst?” A chill ran across her spine.

Denker shrugged. “I’d say ‘food’, but those actually get off easy. The worst, I’d say, are toys.”

Battle at Phrynea

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“Sir, the kyrrztli chancellor is on the telescreen.” Naresh, the chief of staff, stood by with a wearied look. “She insists on an audience.”

“What a prick,” President Hargunn grumbled. “Can’t you hold her off a bit longer? Things are just starting to heat up down there.”

Naresh shook her head. “We’ve been trying, sir, but she’s adamant. Says it’s urgent. And yes –” she interrupted the President’s objection “– we did tell her that all strategic concerns should go to General Arbael. No use. She insists she’s gotta talk to you, and only you. And… let me remind you, it’s her forces backing us up there in Phrynea.”

“Alright, alright, bring it over,” Hargunn said, sitting up in his chair and straightening his suit. “You guys, keep watching the field. All info goes to Janker,” he said, motioning toward his military advisor. “Let me know if there’s anything vital.”

A moment later, two aides carried the heavy telescreen into the situation room, and set its heavy base onto the mahogany table with a clunk. On the smooth crystal screen, there was an insectoid wearing the formal regalia of a Raidmaster.

“President Hargunn, you are now speaking to Supreme Chancellor Zyrrktli of the Galuran Basin Confederacy,” Naresh announced, struggling with the kyrrztli’s name.

“Good morning, Excellency,” the President mumbled quickly.

“Good morrning, yeer Excellency,” the Chancellor replied with a bow. “We have come to addrress yee with a prreeposal regarding our prrevious negotiation of the rrights to rhodoprasyte mining in the Upper Drrigyr.”

Hargunn frowned. “Rhodoprasyte mining? I… I’m sorry, Chancellor, but with all due respect, we’re in the middle of a battle here!”

“So arre we,” the insectoid replied, “and yet our analysts have managed to find the time to rreassess the terms of our cooperation. We must discuss it at once, I insist.”

“But why now?” The human was baffled. “Couldn’t we at least table this discussion for when the battle is resolved?”

“I’m afrraid that will neet be possible,” Zyrrktli calmly objected. “After all, the rresolution of such battle may well depend on the outcome of our negotiation here… that would make feer quite an interresting paradox, nee?”

“Sir,” Colonel Janker whispered in the President’s ear, “the kyrrztli haven’t moved in.”

“What?” Hargunn whispered back, casting a distrustful look at the telescreen. “They’re bailing out?” The insectoid patiently watched the exchange, clacking her fingers together.

“No, sir, they’re in position,” the military advisor replied. “They’re just… standing there. Not doing a damn thing.”

The Chancellor glanced at a metal plaque someone presented her and waved it away. “It seems things arre developing quite peerly in Phrynea, see say reports. Maybe it weeld be wise to accelerate our negotiation.”

The President’s face fell, as realization dawned on him. “You… wouldn’t.”

“Prreetect the lives of my citizens by keeping them away frrom a battle that brings no prrofit feer us? I weeld, and in fact, I am deeing same rright now.”

“That’s… betrayal, of the lowest kind!” His face contorted into a scowl. “You made us a promise! So your word is worth nothing, huh?”

“There were nee trreaties signed,” the insectoid said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “Nee handshakes. Nee public declarations. We betrray neething but a vague plan of action that is easily superseded by furrther plans.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Naresh said, barging back into the situation room with a communicator in hand. “I’ve got Arbael on the link. He’s getting desperate, you gotta talk to him.”

Hargunn took the device and pressed it against his temple, glaring at the telescreen. “Listening,” he said.

“Find a way to contact those goddamn bugs!” the general screamed into his mind through the link. “They’re standing there like freakin’ statues, not responding to our backup signals, and Basin Command refuses to acknowledge any comms!”

“Oh, I’m in touch with their command, alright,” the President said, eyes fixed on Zyrrktli, who watched him calmly. “Right at the top.”

“Then tell ‘em to get their abdomens down there, because our boys are getting butchered! The Nuradians are sending in air support from the north, and the bugs are supposed to be our anti-air!”

“I weeld like to remind yee that we may begin furrther negotiations whenever yee’re ready,” the Chancellor started. “Specifically, we have grreat interest in the plots seerrveyed near the villages of Fargyr and Damin.”

“Sir?” Arbael insisted. “Do you copy? Have you gotten through to them?”

“Forget the bugs,” Hargunn replied. “They’re not fighting.”

“What the hell do you mean, they’re not fighting? That’s not an option, sir! We need them, and we need them now!”

“Repeat, they’re not fighting. Figure it out.” He shoved the communicator into Janker’s hands, shaking with anger.

“Reaching an agrreement is a simple matter,” the insectoid continued. “I’m sure we can rresolve this in time to rrejoin the battle.”

The President leaned on the table. “The only agreement you’re getting is this: Your soldiers get in there and do what they’re supposed to do right away, and maybe we’ll consider letting you keep the mining rights you’ve got now.”

“Our contrracts are already signed with the winning bidders,” the kyrrztli coolly replied. “Feel frree to attempt to feerce them out of the plots. I understand the Alliance views such brreaches of contrract rather peerly. Although yee might be too occupied retaking Phrynea from the Nuradians, of keerse.”

“Dammit!” He pounded the table with his fist. “We are not giving in to blackmail! To Hell with you and your damn soldiers!”

“Sir, please cons–” Naresh tried intervening, being silenced by a dismissive handwave from her boss.

The Chancellor made a pinching motion to someone off-screen. “Such strreeng weerds to a head of state are quite the un-dipleematic gesture, I’d say. Nee mind. In name of our leeng rrelationship, I’ll refrrain from turrning my seeldiers against yeers… directly, at any rrate.”

“Do your worst… bug!” Hargunn snarled. Beside him, Janker struggled to answer General Arbael’s frantic appeals, while Naresh argued with foreign representatives.

“I believe our negotiation is eever, then. Glad to eenderstand one another.” Another motion from Zyrrktli shut down the telescreen link, making her vanish from the crystal screen.

The chief of staff approached her President. “You do realize that losing Phrynea will make our whole Bhadrapadan colony non-viable, right?”

“Of course I do!” He slumped onto his chair. “And set Varasa’s position within the Alliance way back. And wreck our economy. Not to mention cost me my job, most likely.”

“Glad you understand what’s at stake here, is all I’m saying.” Her voice was subdued.

“What the hell was I supposed to do? Roll over and let her have her way with me?” He glanced at the foreign dignitaries in the corner, who were glaring disapprovingly at him. “That’s not how you do diplomacy. Not with these psychos, anyway. You gotta show strength. Excuse me,” he said, picking up the communicator Janker was handing him.

“We’re in a dead-end, sir,” Arbael’s voice rang inside his head. “The bugs raised a fog around the enemy’s pods to shield them from our own anti-air, and now they’re collapsing the south passage as well. Our forward can’t fall back, and our rear can’t give support. It’s a goddamn slaughterhouse in there.”

Damn.” The President made a fist. “Those bastards didn’t just hang us out to dry, they’re aiding the enemy.”

“At least they’re leaving now,” the general sent back. “For all the good that does at this point. Sir, we need a decision.”

“General, you’re in charge of military strategy,” Hargunn replied. “It’s up to you to make the calls.”

“Oh, I’ve made my call,” the commander said. “But since you’re officially responsible for the operation, we need your go-ahead to disengage and fall back.”

“I see.” President Hargunn sighed. “General Arbael, you are authorized to abort the operation and organize a retreat to the closest allied base.”

He tossed the device on the table, without waiting for the acknowledgement, and got up. There would be time to debate his decision later, but at that moment, there was nothing to be done. So the President walked out of the room, ignoring all the voices yelling at him in discontent, and closed the door behind him.

The Heplion Contingency – part 2

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Chapter 2: In the Dark

Nimban woke up into total darkness. What was that? – it asked itself. It had been unconscious for a while, no way to know how long. How could something like that happen?

The last image recorded in its memory came to the fore: after its safe’s sudden opening, it had a light shone on it, and behind that, a young human woman. Nimban had barely had time to register this intruder before she activated a psionic plate. A psychic nullifier, to be sure – only that should be capable of disabling its artificial mind.

It extended its senses outward. Sight was useless there, of course, but a psionic brain such as Nimban had other resources to draw upon. Sonar input revealed it was inside a much thinner container than its usual safe, which was hardly surprising; it had obviously been stolen. It didn’t seem to be moving. Its telepathic probe wasn’t registering anyone nearby. It was deciding whether to activate its uplink to the Conglomerate database and consult it about the present situation, when it detected a mind approaching.

Concentrating on the new arrival, the artificial brain felt around in its thoughts. That was a fairly complex mind, sentient, but still unprotected. He (or she) was preoccupied with fleeing from someone, but not very urgently; his pursuers shouldn’t be close by. At the edges of his consciousness, there was also a desire to acquire something that could be sold or bartered for some kind of food and shelter.

Hey! Look here! Nimban mentalized, sending these thoughts to the approaching stranger. There’s something really interesting for you here!

The being out there got curious. Did I hear something?, he wondered. It’s like I heard a voice in my head, calling me…

That’s right! Nimban answered. Go on and look around! There’s something very valuable here. You could make a lot of money.

Ah, what the hell, the stranger thought. I’ve got nothing else to do anyway. Where’s this thing?

I’m not sure, the brain sent back. You’ll have to search.

After several minutes of searching – during which Nimban heard several objects being moved and thrown around – the container was finally opened. On the outside, there was a dark alley, filled with junk, drenched by recent rain, the last of which was still coming down lightly. The creature whose mind it had reached out to was humanoid, with a gaunt body and thin limbs. The hands pulling the hidey-hole’s wooden lid away had three thick digits each, and the face leaning in had two large, round eyes with slitted pupils, a tiny nose and mouth, and a pair of small antennae on top.

“Yrrzk klyk dikhty”, the stranger said in an unfamiliar tongue.

Interesting, Nimban thought to itself. If I’m not mistaken, that’s one of Bhadrapada VI’s races. At least I’m not off-planet.

“I’m sorry, I cannot speak your language,” the psionic brain said out loud, in the common tongue. “Do you speak common?”

The alien pulled it out of its hiding place, bringing it under the soft light of a distant lamp-post. “Of course I do,” he answered. “Well, look at that… seems I wasn’t going crazy after all.” He turned the strange object over in its hands, examining it. “Yeah, very pretty… worth some nice scratch just for the jewelry. And it talks, to boot… by the way, what the hell are you?”

“First of all, please allow me to apologize for so rudely intruding upon your evening,” the device said, its green light pulsing with every word. “I’m an eighth-generation Lemnis series artificial brain, designed to aid my owners in various functions involving intellect and knowledge. I have been nicknamed Nimban, so you may call me that. And you would be…?”

“Uh… Dykstri,” the man said. “I’m just some guy. A gryzzik, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I was simply wondering about your name, but thanks for the information. I’ve never had much contact with people outside the office where I was installed, so I have so far never had the pleasure of encountering a member of your species. By the way, Dykstri… could you please tell me where we are? This looks nothing like my office!” Nimban’s artificial voice took on a lightly jocular tone.

The gryzzik stared at the jewel, dumbfounded. He could hardly believe he was talking to this gizmo – worse, he was answering its questions, as if he had any reason to indulge the curiosity of some bauble. However, he somehow couldn’t help doing so. Words flowed out of his mouth, almost against his will.

“We’re in Arabar Downs,” Dykstri answered. “In Harmony. By the harbor.”

“Oh, splendid,” Nimban said. “I haven’t gone very far then. Good to know. And, just to be sure… this is still the night between the 13th and 14th, right?”

“Uh… yeah. Little over two. Why?”

Just a matter of minutes, then, the artificial intelligence pondered. I must have been teleported. This looks like a retrieval spot… I wonder when will the thief’s associates come pick me up. As well as who are they, come to think of it.

“No reason,” it replied simply. “So… I need to be returned. I don’t even know how did I wind up here. Could you give me a hand? I’m sure my owners will reward you handsomely for that.”

The gryzzik’s large eyes narrowed. “Yeah… I suppose so. Sounds like a good idea. Where are we going then?”

“Thank you for your cooperation!” Nimban’s tone was genial. “Would you please drop me off at Karnati’s local headquarters, at Umrad Hill? Kemish Avenue, 3112.”

“Sure, sure… I’m on it. Going there now.” The man put the artifact in his coat pocket and started walking. Or I could just drop it off at the nearest pawn shop, he pondered. Lot less risky that way. Too much exposure, dealing with a big corporation. They’ll ask questions.

Still listening to the half-insectoid’s thoughts, Nimban was considering whether to allow itself to be pawned off – and maybe find someone more reliable to bring it home – when its sonar picked up another creature nearby, tailing their movements from about a dozen paces away. It was too far away for telepathic monitoring, however, and the coat blocked visuals. Friend or foe? the device wondered, and decided it couldn’t afford to take chances.

“Hey, Dykstri?” it said. “It’s rather late, and I’m sure my company is quite preoccupied with my absence. Could we please hurry along to Kemish Avenue?”

“Told you, I’m getting there,” the man said, although he was headed in a different direction. Yovan’s shop is half an hour away, he thought. I just have to stand this pain-in-the-ass gadget this long and I’m getting rid of it for good.

No, you’re not, Nimban replied telepathically. A chill ran down Dykstri’s spine. “I must insist,” it added vocally. “Please return to the correct path and speed up your pace.”

“Why… you just can’t…” The humanoid felt exposed, vulnerable, and a little betrayed.

“I can, and I will.” The brain’s voice was steady and forceful. “If you will not cooperate in good faith, I’m afraid I will have to take measures to ensure your compliance.”

The gryzzik’s legs stiffened and started moving of their own accord. He tried to control them, but the presence in his brain was just too heavy. It seemed to buzz with raw power, numbing his will, obscuring his personality, until it almost seemed like he had always intended to do what the artifact willed him to in the first place. His head pounding from the struggle, he turned into a side street and started walking faster.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” Dykstri whispered. “I’ll do what you want. I just don’t want anyone asking questions when I get there.”

“I’ll put in a good word,” Nimban replied softly, “but I can’t make any guarantees. They have their protocols.”

“What’s the point?” he protested. “They should just be happy to get their stuff back! Maybe if I just toss you at their door and…”

“You know, you’re not exactly helping your case here. Need I remind you that you don’t quite hold the most favorable position in this debate?”

“Alright, alright, I’ll play along!” The half-insectoid sighed. Let’s just hope they haven’t brought in the cops yet, he thought. “Can you let go of me now?”

“Do you promise to keep walking to Karnati as quickly as possible if I do?”

“I promise, I promise! Just don’t do this… thing again!”

Nimban released its control over the humanoid’s mind. He stopped for a bit to breathe a sigh of relief, and feeling the presence starting to encroach on the edges of his consciousness again, bolted off toward Umrad Hill. “I’m going, alright?” he said, breathlessly. “Chill out, and just leave me alone.”

They moved silently across the city, feet quickly crashing over the last dregs of the night’s rain, and ducked into a dark alley to short-cut a wide commercial block along Novelke Avenue. About halfway along the corridor, from one of the garbage piles lining its walls, a man-sized figure pounced at the running man, knocking him out cold before Nimban had a chance to react to the sudden movement.

The assailant patted the gryzzik’s limp body, and finding the bump in his pocket, pulled the device out. The moonlight filtering down from the piles of junk above them barely touched the scene, but Nimban’s night-vision caught her just fine. Her Emishan features – tan skin, curled red hair, epicanthic-fold eyes – were familiar.

It seemed that thief had found it after all.

STOCK MARKET

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(Note: This is a story written under the Machine of Death premise – a collection of stories written by several authors that somehow involve the existence of a machine that predicts how (but not necessarily when) its user will die. This story, STOCK MARKET, was submitted for the second Machine of Death volume, but didn’t make it into the final cut, so I’m making it available to the public here. If you’re interested in this story or its premise, please visit the Machine of Death website for more information and FREE access to the first collection of short stories, an audiobook podcast, and other cool related resources.)

STOCK MARKET

by Fernando H. F. Sacchetto – July 1st, 2011

 

“Chambers and Compton, come in here for a moment.”

It was always a bad sign when Foster called us into his office like that. He was a rather to-the-point kind of guy, who usually preferred to walk up to your desk and lay it on you right away. When the talk was inside his office, either he was going to chew you out, or the case was particularly sensitive – which I always figured was the worse of the two. This time, it was the latter.

“What did we do this time?” Compton asked, only half joking.

“It’s not what you did, it’s what you’re gonna do, which is make pretty damn sure you know where you’re stepping with this one.” There was a fat case folder on his desk, which he turned our way. “Just in from the Department of the Treasury. The name’s W&M, for Worthington & Masters. Business consulting, financial market analysis, insurance, I don’t know what the hell else. Business never really been my thing. Problem is, they and their clients have been doing some really dodgy trading on the stock market, mostly by knowing stuff before anyone else had a right to. You know, buying just before the big merger that drives the stocks up, selling when the bad news hasn’t gotten out to the public yet, and so on. They’re calling it insider trading, of course. Have a look for yourselves.”

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Sacrifices (first layer)

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(Note: This story was written in two layers. The second layer retells the story with a deeper and more complete viewpoint, and is meant to be read after the first. It will be posted in the future; if you wish to read it sooner, please leave a comment or otherwise contact the author.)

Sacrifices

(first layer)

by Fernando Sacchetto – mar. 2007

Oh. My. Fucking. God.”

Zaminsky was seasoned, the most experienced one in the medical field and one of the oldest people around, but that obviously wasn’t enough to prepare him for that sight. He turned away, retching slightly. “How… how come?”

We, uh… still don’t know.” Mihara strived to find the composure to say anything at all, as he pulled the bloodied sheet off the body. She was mostly intact from the neck down, but the head that Zaminsky had uncovered was barely recognizable as a human body part. It would be impossible to identify the mess as Karen Higgsen if the colony wasn’t small enough for everyone to immediately know who was missing. Fragments of bone, tooth and eye could be seen amid the pool of gore and blood that formed in the caved-in head, crowned by blood-drenched blonde hair. “I guess there’s going to be a security inquest, and…”

No, I mean… how could anyone… you know.” Vague gestures made up for the insufficiency of words.

Yes, tell me about it. I still have a hard time believing it myself.”

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