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 their 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. More

The Heplion Contingency – part 1

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Chapter 1: The Karnati Job

Astal raced through the night, her boots splashing across the puddles on the street. Although the tram accident – its horses crashed through the front doors, courtesy of her friends at Urush – bought her some time, it was barely enough. One could never be too careful around the likes of Karnati Incorporated.

She quickly found the hole in the perimeter she was looking for – some guard who strayed too far from his station to see what that commotion was all about – and considered her possibilities. She could get to work on the wall right away, but there was no knowing how long the guy’s curiosity would last, and he was a bit too close for comfort at any rate. Eh, to hell with it, she decided, unsheathing her knives as she crept up behind him.

Fortunately for her – not so much for the poor bastard – he was distracted enough to let her walk right up to him. He was shifting around, trying to find a better position to peek at the front of the building, so Astal had to wait breathlessly until he settled enough for the path to the area under his chin to be clear. A quick double stab and scissor-cut – to chop his windpipe and any chance of calling for help with it – later, he was just a metal-covered sack of flesh to be dragged behind the garbage at the nearest alley. Goddamn idiots, she thought with a snort, they armor up every part of their bodies except for what really matters. More

Untitled SF/Fantasy Work pt. 2

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The man awoke into an amber haze. He opened his dark eyes slowly, straining to focus them, finding nothing but a blur. He moved a brown-skinned hand jerkily, as if rusted, in front of his face, and found out his eyes worked after all. He struggled to find his bearings, to no avail. There seemed to be nothing but a soft, shimmering glow around him.

Am I dead? The thought suddenly formed inside his head. What happened to me? Where was I before I got here? He had trouble remembering. He closed his eyes, willing the knowledge into his consciousness. There were people moving around him, vague, as if through a mist. They appeared to be doing some procedure to him. Aliens? Was I abducted? The idea popped up unbidden, and he quickly brushed it away, amused. No, his memory seemed to be of something he consented to, though he couldn’t remember exactly what. On the other hand, it seemed to have no connection to his current situation, so he focused on that instead.

He started to move his limbs around. They ached when he did so, a good ache, as if they hadn’t been moved in a long time. He could feel his tendons working under his skin as he flexed his arms and legs. Guess I’m not dead after all, he thought. His arms felt heavy though – he reasoned they were just stiff, but something wasn’t quite right about them. Something that had to do with his face as well, which felt bloated. Pulling his hand up to his cheek, he realized what was wrong – he was hanging face-down.

A jolt of panic sent a surge of energy through his body. He became suddenly aware of restraints on his chest, belly and thighs. He wasn’t certain about before, but now felt like an abduction of some sort. He started struggling against his bonds, which seemed to be some sort of black rope, and soon stopped. Where am I going to fall down to from here? Looking down, he realized the shimmering haze was water. Distorted shapes started to resolve in it – tunnels, spheres set on the wall, which were giving off that amber glow, statues of undecipherable shape, and a large round apparatus of some sort directly under him, inlaid with complex concentric designs.

The man stretched down his arm and managed to touch the water with his fingertips. It was cold. He brought his fingers into his mouth, and tasted salt. They got me to some maritime base, he thought. He looked up and realized he was hanging from some sort of stonework dome. The bricks were some unfamiliar sort of brown stone, and seemed to fuse into one another. He was starting to ponder about how this must be some place off the coast when movement down into the water caught his eye.

“Hey!” – he yelled. Whatever was down there was already gone into one of the tunnels. He managed only to catch a quick glimpse of if – some pale, fluid form, swimming away rapidly. It seemed to be some sort of aquatic animal – some large fish, or maybe a squid. Something with limbs. “Come back here!” – he cried out, only a moment later realizing the futility of talking into water.

Fully alert now, he once again started struggling against the ropes, this time taking care to not fall off from them. He turned himself around, pulling his body up and sitting on the ropes as on a swing. He wasn’t really tied up, he realized, noticing for the first time he was naked. Thinking about who captured him, or why, led the man to wondering who he was. That memory seemed hazy and distant as well. I’m rich, he remembered. That could be it. I’m some sort of big figure. I’m…

He felt a sudden sense of dread. The fact just dawned on him that he had forgotten who he was, where he was, what he did. His name. Amnesia, he thought, but that didn’t seem quite right. After all, he could feel his memories buried just under the surface. He just had to dig a little more. I own a company, he realized, relief gradually seeping into his mind. I meet with people. I close deals. I make things. I… design things. It all seemed to make sense now, like a puzzle whose pieces were just starting to fit together. I’m popular. People talk about me. I see my face on the news. The image came to him – a thin, smiling face, clean-shaven, brown-skinned, with wild and curled black hair. They love and hate me. They argue about me. They call me a genius, or a fraud. They call me many things. They…

They call me Chan.

Untitled SF/Fantasy Work

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A storm was raging under the sea. Clouds of dark sand lashed about under the dusky glow – even near noon, the crew had to bring lanterns to travel this deep – as stinging thermals, reeking faintly of sulphur, raced across the ocean floor. Precious little life ventured into the badlands of Lagash, and what few creatures were left after mining started – mostly slugs and starfish in this barren terrain – slunk into crevices for shelter.

“Move!” – roared a distant voice, muffled by the current. “You’re not paid to dawdle!”

From a fissure in the ground, which had been widened to about three yards across for the ore bowls to move in and out of what was known as Site Eleven, emerged a gaunt figure. Its rubbery, mottled-gray skin was covered by drab peasant’s garbs – a threaded greenish-brown shirt, a pair of loose leather trousers, and a thin kelpen scarf wrapped around the lower half of its face, topped by a pair of large, bloodshot, slitted eyes. No helmet covered this poor miner’s bald and spiny head. He held a short rod topped by a sphere glowing with greenish-amber light in one webbed hand, and removed the scarf with the other, revealing a pair of nostrils and a wide mouth lined with tiny triangular teeth, framed by an angular jaw festooned with thin ropy strands of flesh.

As the foreman, clad in scaled skins and an iron helmet, swam down through the clouds, cutting his way across the streams with his wide and powerful webbed feet, he saw the workman and turned to face him. “What’s wrong with the lot of you?”, he bellowed. “It’s been almost a turn o’ the clock since I’ve seen anything come outta there!”

“It’s something we hit, master,” the crewman shouted. “We’ve been trying to clean it up and… best you see for yourself, sir.”

The crewmaster dove into the aperture. “It ain’t gold that you dug up, is it? You worms think you gonna sneak gold under my chin, you got something else coming!” He weaved through the tunnels, guided more by the faint rumble of discussion coming from below than by the trail marked by the lanterns stuck to the cave wall.

“…should just bury it right back and leave it well alone,” a voice floated up. “You’re a dolt,” said another, “we’ll go home a rich bunch o’ bastards, mark my words!” A third cut in: “Nah, he’s right, smells like trouble to…”

“What are you barnacles blabbing about like a gaggle of old wives?” – the foreman burst into the discussion. The miners were in a chamber along the newest shaft, circled around a nook in a wall, their tools fallen to the ground far below. The lanterns pressed together close to their object of attention looked like a shimmering sun on a rippling surface.

“We was about to call you down here, master, just wanted to make sure–” one of the workers started, before his boss shoved him aside and pushed his way into the circle. “What you got here, worms?” – the foreman asked.

Their response was just to swim away, letting him have a clear view of the niche. The wall had a hole about four feet across, and embedded a foot or so into the rock was a smooth metal surface. It was inlaid with perfectly straight lines, and a foot-wide depressed metal square was set above a series of intricate etched patterns.

“We put that cover right back on, master,” a crewman said almost pleadingly. “It was giving us the willies. I say we leave it well alone and pretend nobody saw nothing.”

“Silence!” The foreman struggled with the square lid. He could feel it coming loose, but it had no handholds. “Gimme something to pry it out!” He swam down to the ground, grumbling, to pick up a wedge as his crew floated about mouthing half-formed excuses.

He finally tore out the thick metal cover. As it clattered down, he knocked into the smooth, hard surface under it. “I’ll be damned,” he said, “a plate under a plate. This some worm’s idea of a joke?”

“Master…” One of the miners spoke in a thin voice. “Look again. Into the plate.”

“What do you mean, into the…” He raised his lantern, and caught a glimpse of it. The light seeped into the hard surface, broken up, as if into a crystal, only clearer… and this material had something set deep into it.

The foreman bolted away reflexively, mouth agape. He looked around at his underlings, who silently nodded. He swam back and pressed both his face and his lantern into the crystal. The shape inside was unmistakable. He had seen it before, in carvings and statues – there was a large one, supposedly life-sized, in the children’s center he was raised in. This one was a thin, slumped figure, much different from the triumphant pose he recalled from memory… but there was no doubt that it was one of them. One of the ancients.

A human.

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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