ISSUE 15, October 2017



Cover Art by Nova-Bun Arts



*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

The People's Assassin
By Eddie D. Moore

   ​    The chair creaked, though heavy and well made, as King Ulric leaned forward to stare into the eyes of the captain of his personal guard. His voice was low and threatening as he spoke. “What do you mean, you can’t find her? Gabek, over the years, your men have tracked down some of the slimiest thieves and assassins ever to plague this kingdom, and you’re telling me that you can’t find that witch I call a wife!”
    Caden stood behind the servant’s door, straining to hear the conversation in the other room, while candle flames quivered on the walls. He fingered the thin blades sheathed on each of his forearms through his shirt, ensured that the cuffs covered the hilts. Though he had performed this task many times and was proficient in his skills, he wiped a sweaty palm on his pants with a shake of his head and thumbed the solid metal ball in his pocket that he considered a lucky talisman.
    Gabek stood straighter. “Your Grace, most peasants are eager to see the king’s justice served to thieves and murderers, and a few coins always helps them to overcome any fear of retribution. The Queen is a different matter. She has help, and their fear of her is greater than their desire for coin.”
    The King growled to himself, and the chair protested as he leaned his weight against its back. “Then they will have to learn to fear me more than her. Round up another group for execution, make sure this group is younger than the last, and the fires burn slower.”
    When Caden heard the King tap his cup against the metal tray sitting next to him, he lifted the wine pitcher, straightened his back, and held his chin high as he entered the king’s chamber. Gabek glanced at Caden while he filled the king’s cup and his eyebrows drew together.
    Gabek placed a hand on his sword hilt and his eyes flicked toward the King. “Do you have a new serv…” Gabek’s voice trailed off as a small metal ball bounced under the king’s chair and rolled across the room. The King and Gabek turned their heads and watched the ball until it hit the far wall.
    Caden placed the pitcher of wine on the table, then reached up his sleeves and grasped the dagger hilts. “I’m sorry, Your Highness,” said Caden as he swiftly drew the daggers and stuck one into each man’s throat with practiced skill.
    Gabek grabbed the thin blade with one hand and fell to the floor gurgling. The king’s eyes grew large, and he held his breath as he stared at Caden. Hatred burned in his eyes as his face turned red.
Caden shook his head as the King reached for his dirk. “As I was saying, I’m sorry, Your Highness. The people have decided that you no longer represent their interests.”
The King opened his mouth, blood ran down his chin, and stained the front of his shirt. Long seconds passed while the king’s eyes glazed over, and bubbles stopped forming around his wounds. Caden cleaned and sheathed his blades. He emptied the pitcher of wine on the floor and looked over his clothing for blood then whispered, “Not a drop on me. Damn, I’m good.”
Caden pocketed his metal ball and listened at the door to make sure the guards hadn’t been alerted. Careful not to open the door too wide, Caden slipped out of the king’s chambers and nodded to the guards. He walked straight backed like a proper servant until he turned the corner and then burst into a run. He dashed up the stairs taking three at a time and tossed the pitcher into an empty room as he passed. He heard footsteps approaching, and he slowed his pace as he reached an intersection.
Eyes averted, Caden walked with a sense of purpose, and the servant didn’t give him a second glance. Caden found the room he was looking for and slipped inside. He stripped off the servant’s uniform and returned it to the closet.
Bells began to clang in the distance, and he heard raised voices shouting. Caden grabbed his own clothing that he had stashed under the bed and dressed quickly. The pants, shirt, gloves, hooded overcoat, and even his shoes had been dyed white to match the castle walls perfectly. The overcoat was made of rough spun material and dyed with a few streaks resembling the mortar between the castle’s rough-cut stones. The tips of his fingers protruded through the gloves allowing for feel and grip, and he rubbed his thumbs and forefingers together while he prepared for the descent to come.  He sat on the edge of the window and took a deep breath. He could hear doors crashing open and soldiers shouting to one another as they drew closer. With a deep breath, he swung out the window and into the night air as the door to the room burst open.
    Caden clung to the side of the castle by his fingertips. His overcoat blended perfectly with the wall, making him invisible to the passive observer. Forty feet did not seem far, until it was between you and the ground, and he fought to slow his breathing when he glanced down. His finger tips flared with pain, and it took every ounce of strength he had to keep his grip while the soldiers searched the room inside. The finger and toe holds on the castle wall were tenuous, and it took the skill of an experienced climber to find them. When prepping for the job, Caden had specified the exact thickness of his shoes soles to fit into the mortar joints. Without the shoes, he doubted he could have made the climb.
Over the years, Caden had become known as The People’s Assassin because he tended to accept contracts on those who abused their power; however, he often tracked down criminals for the bounty with the aid of his partner, Jerrell, to keep coin in his pockets. It seemed there was never a shortage of men willing to take advantage of those less fortunate than themselves, or devious men willing to prey upon the weak. He held his breath as a soldier approached the window and looked out.
    The soldier breathed a deep sigh and turned back into the room without looking to his right. “The assassin could not have gone far. The king’s guard said he wore a servant’s uniform and went this direction.” The soldier stomped away from the window. “There are more servants’ quarters above. Find him!”
    Caden heard the soldiers’ footsteps fade as they ran to continue the search. Criers announced the king’s death in the distance calling for the people to be on alert, while he carefully worked his way down the wall using the same finger and toe holds that he found to climb it earlier. He had planned on being far away before the king’s body was found; this job was going wrong very quickly.
    He dropped the last ten feet to the ground and rolled under a wagon. He opened a hidden door on the underside, pulled himself into the false bottom and latched the door. He reached through a hole under the driver’s seat and tapped Jerrell’s boot. A moment later, the wagon rolled forward.
    While the wagon rumbled down the cobblestone street, Caden tried to clear his conscience. It always bothered him having to take another person’s life. He forced himself to think about the people he saw die the day before by the king’s order. Three were burned at the stake and four were beheaded under the accusation of harboring the queen. One of those executed couldn’t have been more than thirteen, and it broke Caden’s heart that someone so young died so horribly. If any man deserved to die, it was King Ulric.
The queen had disappeared after her husband ordered his guard to arrest her. After searching the town without success, the King began executing people, and he promised to increase the numbers daily until she was found. It was widely known that they both accused each other of assassination plots, but it was the common people paying the price.
    The wagon made a right turn, and it came to a sudden stop. Caden heard the clank of steel and the shuffle of several horses’ feet. “Hold! What’s your business at this hour?”
    Jerrell’s deep voice was unmistakable. “It’s just a load of hay for the stables. Is there a problem?”
    “There is an assassin in the area. Have you not heard the criers? The King is dead.”
Through a small crack, he could see a soldier search underneath the wagon and he could hear thuds above him as they poked around in the hay. The wagon had been used by a local smuggler for years and the false bottom was cleverly concealed. Caden felt confident that the false bottom wouldn’t be discovered, but he breathed a sigh of relief as the soldiers departed, and the wagon began moving again.
The wagon made less noise as it moved off the cobblestone streets and on to the dirt roads. Caden stretched out, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.
    He jumped as something thudded into the side of the wagon. “We’re clear, stop sleeping on the job, and let’s go get paid.”
    Caden lowered himself to the ground and then rolled out from under the wagon. Jerrell extended a dark hand to Caden and pulled him to his feet. “Jerrell, I’m disappointed. We just gave the people of this city justice, and your focus is on getting paid?”
    Jerrell folded his massive arms. “Once we get paid, we can put many miles between us and this city. I am rather fond of my head, and as we get further away from here, the odds of keeping it attached to my shoulders get greater.”
Caden put on some darker clothes and a cloak to cover his face. “If my skin was dark like yours, I wouldn’t have to wear a cloak on hot nights like this.”
    Jerrell’s laughter sounded like a landslide. “What makes you think that I’d want to see your face?” He reached over and pulled Caden’s hood over his head. “There now, light or dark, that is much better.”
Caden tossed the clothing used to scale the wall into a nearby fire pit and climbed onto the wagon’s seat. “Well then, let’s get a move on. Our contact should be at the tavern by now.”
    Jerrell climbed onto the wagon beside Caden and snapped the reins. “It’s about time you see things my way.”
    After returning the wagon to the smuggler they had borrowed it from, they walked to The Charging Ram, a small tavern on the edge of town. Jerrell went inside first to look for anything out of the ordinary, and Caden followed a few minutes later. He spotted Jerrell sitting at a corner table nursing a drink, which signaled that all looked well, but stay alert. The bartender met Caden’s eyes and nodded toward a door left of the bar.
    Caden eased open the door and found his contact, Narac, sitting at a small table in the center of the room. Shadows danced eerily on the walls of the dimly lit room as the lantern’s flame flickered. Caden was hesitant to enter. Narac sat with his back to the only other door in the room, and he adjusted the lantern brightening the room as he met Caden’s eyes. Caden closed the door behind himself as he slipped inside. Narac nodded as Caden took his seat and poured them both a tankard full of stout ale.
    Narac pushed a tankard closer to Caden. “Congratulations on a job well done, and of course, living through it.”
    Caden took the offered mug but sat it back on the table without drinking. “I will say I lived through it when I am far away from here.”
    Narac gave one glance at the mug sitting on the table and sat back down. He reached under his chair and then tossed a heavy leather bag onto the table. It landed with a solid thump and the jingle of coins rattling against one another. Caden loosened the drawstring and peeked inside with a raised eyebrow. He nodded once and placed the bag back on the table in front of him.
    Both of the room’s doors burst opened at once, and four battle scarred soldiers stepped in. Two of the soldiers entered from the common room, closed the door, and stood firmly planted in front of it. The other set of soldiers stepped through the door behind Narac, and they were followed by a woman with a commanding presence. Chills ran down Caden’s arms, and his heart beat hard against his chest as he looked into the cold, dark eyes of Queen Lycia. Her black hair hung in large curls around her shoulders, and Caden would have thought her beautiful if he hadn’t learned so much about her recently. She wore the golden robes of a priestess, and she looked at Caden appraisingly.
    After an awkward moment passed, the Queen smiled. “Caden, relax. The crown thanks you for your service.”
    Caden’s eyebrows drew closer together. “I’m afraid you're mistaken, Your Majesty. I don’t work for corrupt governments or merciless tyrants, and from what I’ve heard, you are just as merciless as your husband.”
    Lycia raised an eyebrow. “It seems to me that you made an exception in this case, because I was the one that sent Narac to find you and acquire your services. You see, I discovered that our dear subjects were planning to seek out your services. So, I planned this little trap just for you.” She wiped away nonexistent tears. “What a shame that you managed to kill my beloved Ulric before we could spring the trap.”
    Caden replied sarcastically, “Yes, you look absolutely devastated.”
    Lycia gave a thin smile in reply.
Caden leaned back in his chair and nodded. “This is a trap, but it isn’t your trap, Your Majesty.” He lowered his chair to the floor and smiled. “It is my trap.”
The Queen tossed back her head and laughed. “You are too much! I have my four best guardsmen with me. You cannot threaten me! I will admit that you are good at sneaking about, but you don’t stand a chance against my soldiers.”
Caden locked eyes with the Queen. “I think you picked a bad time to make your position as a Canist priestess public knowledge.” Caden shook his head slowly. “The people don’t want magic returned to the world, and everyone knows that the Canist would have to sacrifice children for the magic to be restored. Did you really think they would let that happen?”
Lycia lifted an eyebrow and a finger as her anger flared. “I don’t care how they feel! A few less children in the world is a small price to pay if I can have real power, and I grow weary of this conversation.” She glanced at the guardsmen and said tiredly, “Kill him.”
A metal ball bounced under the table, and it roared loudly as it rolled across the wood floor. A couple of the guards watched the ball until it thudded against the wall. Caden leapt from his chair, put his back against a wall, and slid a blade from his sleeve. As the two nearest soldiers began to advance, the door to the common room burst open, and Jerrell rushed in. The soldiers closest to the queen turned to fight Jerrell, and Caden lunged toward one of the distracted guards. The guard fell clutching at the blade in his throat, and the other soldier ran toward Caden.
Caden was slammed hard against the wall as the guard plowed into him. He managed to grab the guard’s arm and hold back his dirk. Caden’s heart raced as he stared into the man’s eyes. The soldier pushed harder, and the dirk moved slowly toward Caden’s chest. Caden resisted with all his strength, but the knife came ever closer. He began to panic as he felt the tip sting his flesh and warm blood ran down his chest under his shirt. The soldier froze as a large brown hand holding a small curved blade appeared at the soldier’s neck followed by a deep voice.
“There is no need to die today. Just drop the dagger.”
The dirk fell to the floor with a thump, and Caden let out a deep breath. Two of the guards were left sprawled on the floor in bloody pools, and a soldier that Jerrell had knocked out began to wake up. He yielded as Jerrell stepped toward him. Caden looked at Lycia, and she ran out the door that led to the tavern’s common room.
Caden glanced at Jerrell with wide eyes and released a deep breath. “I could’ve taken three of them as well if I had your muscles.”
Jerrell laughed with a deep rumble. “If you had my muscles, you could not climb walls like a little spider, and then you would be jobless. What else is a little man like you good for?”
Caden grinned and shook his head. “I would love to be jobless. Sadly, I’ve already heard of a Lord in Atha that…”
Jerrell held up a hand and interrupted. “You can tell me of his deeds on the way to Atha. Let’s finish here first.”
Caden nodded and walked with Jerrell into the tavern’s common room that was now completely full. Lycia was red with anger, and she was being held between two men large enough to give Jerrell a challenge in a fight. She screamed about divine rights and demanded that the people obey her will. When no one moved to aid her, she began to telling each one of them how they would die.
Narac stepped up beside Caden and offered him his hand. “Well, you were right. I was just told that the rest of the soldiers are laying down their weapons.”
Caden stared into Lycia’s eyes and stepped closer. “As you can see, Your Majesty, I only work for the people.” He nodded toward the door. “I think there are a few grieving families outside that are waiting to pay their respects to the crown.”
Fear filled Lycia’s eyes, and she screamed in terror as she was dragged outside.

Eddie D. Moore

Eddie D. Moore’s job requires extensive traveling, and he spends much of that time listening to audio books. His stories have been published by Jouth Webzine, The Flash Fiction Press, Every Day Fiction, Theme of Absence, Flash Fiction Magazine, and the Centum Press. Find out more on his blog at: https://eddiedmoore.wordpress.com/.


Plastic Teeth
By A.P. Sessler

William Burke playfully gnashed at the air with his new plastic teeth as he unwrapped a peanut butter cup. He licked the chocolate from the wrapper, then dropped it into the white plastic bag his mother held before him.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Welcome,” he said, noticing the odd sound of clapping canines as his jaws met. He removed the green plastic teeth just long enough to eat the candy, then placed them back in.
“Easy, Count Chompula. If you eat too much candy, you'll get a tummy ache,” Mr. Burke teased him.
“I'm not a vampire. It's a magician's cape!” William reminded his father.
“He was just joking,” said his mother. “Now go play with the other children.”
“Do I have to?” he whined.
“Yes. This is your Halloween party, and they're your new neighbors.”
His shoulders slumped as he trudged into the center of the dark menagerie, ducking beneath the cotton cobweb strung across the arched opening on the way.
“I hope they like him,” Mrs. Burke said.
“Come on,” said Mr. Burke. “A good-looking boy like that? Of course they will.”
Mr. Burke exited the dining room through the archway into the living room. Unlike William, he managed to get a face full of synthetic web.
“All right!” His booming voice filled the first floor of their two-story home as he peeled the offending substance from his face. “Does everyone have a pair of plastic fangs?”
The gathered assorted characters proudly flashed their plastic teeth.
“Good,” he said, then whispered to his wife, “Did you get all the trash?”
“Right here,” she whispered back as she raised the bag full of teeth wrappers.
“The kids love them, don't they?”
The children growled at one another like little monsters, baring fierce fangs and wicked grins, squealing and laughing.
“I guess Carlo the Great would be pleased that his old gimmicks are still being used,” he said.
“How did you even find them in that mess?” she asked.
“It wasn't too hard. For an eccentric old man, he wasn't that bad at organizing things. On one side of the basement, there was the magic show stuff: top hats, magic closets, trick saws and knives, and a trapdoor stage. On the other side, there were the gags: electric hand-buzzers, fake poo and vomit, whoopee cushions, and of course, plastic vampire teeth.”
“And let's not forget the section in the back.”
He laughed.
“I'm serious,” she said. “I don't like having those kinds of books in our house.”
“Babe, if we were that superstitious, we wouldn't be celebrating Halloween.”
“In any case, I still think we should sell it all online. I bet we could make a killing.”
“Off of stuff like plastic teeth? They're probably a dime a dozen.”
“The kids seem to be getting some enjoyment out of them.”
“Yeah. Carlo was a great entertainer.”
“And a decent realtor,” she said, leaning in to give him a quick kiss.
She felt a tug on her shirttail, followed by a tinkling bell. She looked down to find Dudley, the family poodle, standing on his hind feet. He was wearing orange and black foil bows on several sections of fur, and a belled collar about his neck.
“No, Dudley, I haven't forgotten about you,” she said to the anxious-eyed dog.
When she leaned down to pet him, she noticed William, quietly sitting on the couch by himself, apart from all the chattering children.
“Here, Dudley. Let's go play with Billy,” she said, leading the dog to William. “Billy, Dudley was bored, so I thought I would bring him over to you.”
“Hi, Dudley,” said William, baring his green vampire teeth.
Dudley bared his own teeth and growled.
William returned the growl, sending Dudley scampering up the stairs into the master bedroom.
“Billy! Why did you do that?”
“He did it first.”
“Never mind. Stay here and try to talk to someone,” she said, looking up the stairs.
“I'm sorry,” he said as he stood up. “I'll get Dudley and bring him back down.”
“Okay, but don't show him those teeth. They scare him.”
He ran up the stairs and disappeared into the bedroom.
The grandfather clock chimed eight.
Mr. Burke approached the stereo system and paused the Spooky Sound Effects CD. The room quieted.
“It's time!” he announced. “Earlier this evening, we had you all place your votes for best costume in our ballot box, so if we could have our own mad magician William come forward to help count the votes …”
“He went to fetch Dudley,” Mrs. Burke informed him.
“Just a moment, everyone,” said Mr. Burke.
They waited a minute, but William didn’t come back down.
“Billy?” Mr. Burke called.
Still nothing.
A plump boy in pumpkin costume approached. “Mrs. Burke?”
“Yes, honey?” she asked.
“When do we eat?”
“The pizza will be here soon, right after we announce our winners.”
“Okay,” he said, waddling away.
“Yes, everyone. Pizza will be arriving soon, so hold your horses and wands and broomsticks and whatever else you have. And speaking of magic wands, I'll soon pull William the Great out of our magic wardrobe,” Mr. Burke said, then unpaused the CD.
A witch's ghastly laughter filled the room, followed by moaning spooks and the sound of dragging chains.
William's parents walked up the stairs, down the hall and into their unlit room. From outside, they saw him staring out the bay window, his back hunched. The bright moonlight poured into the room, stretching his shadow across the floor like a piece of black putty.
“Billy? It's time for the costume contest,” said Mr. Burke.
William remained silent.
“Did you find Dudley?” asked Mrs. Burke.
The boy flinched, straightened, and half-turned his head to catch her voice. Light from the hallway sparkled in his left eye.
“Did you hear your father? It's time for the contest,” she said.
William turned away, hunching his back again.
As she approached, she heard his mouth in motion, chewing or sucking some curious delight.
She saw bits of foil lying at his feet, glinting in the moonlight.
“Your father and I told you not to eat all your candy. You should save it—”
On second glance, Mrs. Burke could see the orange and black bits of foil on the floor were not candy wrappers as she had assumed. They were clearly untied bows.
“Dudley?” she called, glancing about the room.
She listened for a whimper or a bark, but only heard William's soft laughter.
“What is it, Billy?” she asked.
He turned his head, and she saw something dangling from between his teeth. His mouth was dripping a dark substance that couldn't be chocolate. The thing in in his mouth fell with a jingle, quickly muted by the thick carpet—Dudley’s collar.
She looked at the reflection of the bay window. In it, she saw Dudley's lifeless body, marble-white, lying limply over William's hands. A large, bloody stain covered Dudley's neck.
Mrs. Burke slapped her hand over her mouth to silence the scream.
Someone’s hand took hold of her shoulder. She jumped, turning to find Mr. Burke. He pulled her to his side, then shoved her away, towards the door.
“Leave me and Billy alone,” he said.
“I'm not going anywhere without you,” she replied.
“You have to help the others outside. We can't let them see Billy like this.”
A soft voice spoke from behind them. “Don't worry about us.”
Mr. and Mrs. Burke turned to see their young guests silhouetted in the bedroom door.
“No, children. It's time for you to leave. Billy isn't himself,” said Mrs. Burke.
“Neither are we,” a child replied, followed by the others' impish laughter.
A sea of green, glowing teeth appeared on the dark figures as their closed mouths opened into fiendish smiles.
“We're so hungry,” they said. “We can't wait any longer.”
William's parents froze, paralyzed with fear as the children and their glowing mouths filled the room. Tiny, cold hands grabbed at their sides and limbs, while plastic teeth, now stronger than bone, began to bite and tear into their flesh.


A.P. Sessler

A.P. Sessler is a resident of North Carolina's Outer Banks. A.P. frequents an alternate universe not too different from your own, where he searches for that unique element that twists the everyday commonplace into the weird. When he's not writing fiction, he composes music, makes art and muses about theology and mind-hacking. He also likes to dress in funny clothes and talk about the first English colony in the New World.
His short stories have appeared in e-magazines, audio podcasts and print anthologies such as Keystone Chronicles, Dark Hallows 2 and Turn to Ash, Volume 2: Open Lines.​
Night of the Lesson
By Eddie Generous

She put her head down and closed her eyes.
The weather had gotten very bad very quickly. Her parents agreed that she wasn’t to stay out past light. Given the incredible snowfalls they’d had recently, that was for the best.
Fourteen was an age that demanded freedom and bred certainty of self-indestructability. Most importantly, the fourteen-year-old social standing was of uncompromising importance. Parents could demand any old thing… There was to be a get together in town and only two miles from the hotel.
There were no guests thanks to the season. The recent turn in forecast kept away even the most ardent tundra travellers. Folks feared the snow, so soft, so clean. Lowa Stratton did not fear the snow. She feared missing a party, missing a first tongue kiss, missing that one true chance to fall in love. She feared what people might think if she didn’t trudge the snow and winds to make an appearance.
It took triple the time, but she made it. Thankfully, once within the town limit, the winds fell off to mere gusts. Out of town, the world was flat and desolate. The road wide, icy, and straight. No turns or twists, head down against the wind, she had leaned and pushed through the white wall of gale forces.
The shop was a recently abandoned container shed. North of town, on the southeastern shore of Hudson Bay, SentierOmni had built a new shipping and receiving facility, along with dozens of new warehouses and sheds. This left the shop open for party squatting.
When Lowa arrived, the place was empty. She waited. The winds picked up. Her cellphone battery had chilled too far and the juice in the battery had evaporated. Snow blanketed the world through the window, adding several new inches every sixty minutes. Her phone had told her it was just after two in the afternoon when it flared momentarily before locking on a still of her background photo and then fading to charcoal in a series of brickwork crystals of color. Two o’clock meant that less than an hour of daylight remained.
The walk home would take much longer, given accumulation. Longer still in the early afternoon dark of fifty-second parallel.
It was warm in the shop. There were blankets and a couch, but her parents would kill her if she stayed out all night. There was a hard decision coming, but it became easier by the lonely minute. If nobody came, then she wasn’t missing a party.
Shadows drifted across the cloudy mounds. Lowa lifted her hood, slipped on her mitts, and started back into the frosty world. The town was different in such weather. There were no cars or pedestrians. No moose or bears; only her, the diamond-edged snowflakes whipping up from the ground, and the pounding winds themselves. Head down, she aligned her body with the memorized target miles away and walked.
It was not long before her feet numbed. It reminded her of half-thawed chicken. Her skin existed, she felt it, knew it was there because that’s where it had always been. It grew worse by the minute. Nearly absent of sensation, the skin on her feet seemed too soft over ice brick bones. She wiggled fingers to keep the blood flowing topside.
Whenever she looked up, hoping for a landmark, she saw nothing. On and on, the driving gales pounded against her. The feet beneath her continued moving, despite them no longer feeling as if they belonged to her.
Sundown stole her sense of space and she forced her legs, trudging up what she hoped was the road. Her thighs were chapped beneath her pants. If it were not for the absence of temporary heat, she might’ve mistook the sensation between her legs as having pissed herself.
She’d been cold before, they were symptoms. On she moved.
It was not long after the light departed that she experienced the trueness of night creep through the layers of her heavy parka and insulated pants. The drips in her nose crystalized. Breath did the same in her lungs before quickly melting.
Soon, she would become another lost teenaged face in a land of lost teenaged faces. There couldn’t possibly be much further to go. The thought of the posthumous embarrassment fuelled her weary limbs.
She imagined the wolves holding a chow line over her body. A mama dragging her away to feed her pups. That would be better than getting lost so close to home. At least people weren’t likely to think her too stupid to walk a straight line.
Earlier, Lowa scoffed at her mother’s overreaction to the weather. Now her voice, those words, rang like a warning siren: You can’t go out in this, don’t be crazy!
The steps became painful and the voice grew louder: Don’t be stupid, you’re not going out.
“It’s my life,” she mumbled, shivering, reliving.
With sorrowful shattered glass pangs gliding her bloodstream, she lifted her face to search for the property lights around the hotel. Tears froze on her cheeks. It was black, even the snow pushed about from the sky seemed like soot rather than clean powder.
On and on. Cold and tortured.
Lowa stumbled and teetered sideways into the gathered snow. Rolled onto her back and looked up. Snow covered her face and it tasted so pure.
Don’t be crazy!
“I’m sorry,” she whispered and turned onto her side, knowing that to rest was to die. Although never truly believing it, not in an honest sense. Death was for others, older people. “Hot chocolate. Bathtub. Fireplace. Slippers. Bed.”
Mentally emboldened by self-promise, she bent her frosty knees and pushed forward. Breath moved in and out of her chest at a higher pace, staying cold within, freezing her lungs. It hurt and still, she pushed.
Don’t be stupid!
“I know, I know.”
Don’t be crazy!
“Got it.”
Something jabbed into her leg and Lowa fell backwards in pain and surprise. From the ground, she saw light. Miraculous, glorious, welcoming light! Light was love. Forcing her body forward, she sat up and drank in the snow-muddled scenery.
It was the chest-high wrought iron fence–waist-high in the quickly packing snow–that had jabbed and toppled her. Lowa had meandered from the track, but managed to hit the hotel property. Her heart leaped and hot tears rolled, freezing before reaching her chin. She followed the fence from the stretching backyard around to the front of the property.
Light fought the night and won to reveal safety.
Inside, “You stupid girl!” her mother screamed.
“You’re grounded until spring,” her father added.
“We were losing our minds! You think of nobody but yourself, do you Lowa?”
Lowa shrugged. “I’m sorry.” It was never so close to the end, she saw that now. All along, her brain had overreacted to the discomfort. Sneaking out and getting temporarily lost was hardly a thing to ponder.
The shouts went on until her parents had said enough and stormed off to their bedroom. Lowa waited to hear the telltale slamming of a door before she crept to the family bathroom. She filled the tub and felt her body threaten to break apart as she stepped in. Thawing those frozen bones and harried mind worked like a pumice scrub against any lesson learned by the plight.
Eyes closed, the hot water cascaded over her soul with new and mounting relief, never ending, more upon more.
Eyes opened. Cold and dark. She was in the snow and freezing.
To rest was to die.
She sat up and screamed, “Mommy! Mommy!”
She got to her feet and trudged, again in her snow gear, again beyond the safety of the indoor world. On and on. Tears rolled and her recently thawed body was again like a meat popsicle.
“Daddy, help me!”
Don’t be stupid!
“Please.”
Don’t be crazy!
Forever it seemed. Pain rode her veins like kite strings to the powerful burden of negativity blooming within her mind. She’d never been so defeated and tired. The yard lights and bath water had felt so real a minute ago.
You can’t go out in this.
“I’m sorry, Mommy, I won’t. Help me! Find me!”
The pain was hard and full. The pain was the only thing she recognized.
She stumbled forward and looked sideways. Fifty feet to her left were lights fighting through the snow. The hotel. The hotel and the loving warmth within.
“Don’t let it be a dream.”
Inside the shouts raged. Mother and father scolded their frozen daughter.
“Don’t you know how many stupid girls die every year?”
“Girls just as dumb as you!” her father added.
Lowa waited for the door to slam after the shouting ceased and crept to her bedroom. She stripped down to her underwear and crawled into the cool sheets that worked quickly to normalize her skin.
Safety and warmth swaddled her as if she’d returned to the womb.
Indoors in a storm was love.
Maybe she shouldn’t creep out against her… probably overreacting, she’d be smartened in the morning. She sobbed happily, wiping snot streaks about her pillow. Pins and needles invaded her flesh as the cold lost its grip. It was the longest night of her life, but it was over. She drifted.
Snow fell on her face and she shrieked. Freezing, she sat up. Dreams of home broke her will… almost. Move or die. It had become real. It had become so damned real. The possibility of real death. Lowa Stratton’s demise, real and possible and eventual. It could be now and forever.
She was stupid.
Don’t be stupid.
She was crazy.
Don’t be crazy.
On she went. The snow had gotten so deep. Her exhaustion threatened to put her down, sink her into the snow and bring about eventuality.
“Mommy!”
You’re not going out.
“I did, it’s too late. Daddy, come get me!”
Tears gathered in ice shelves beneath her eyes. Grim and done. Grim and torturous. Her sluggish feet dragged through the powder. On and on.
Light flickered and her heart hardly twinkled. Beaten, she fell forward and crawled. The hotel was there, but it took twenty more minutes.
The shouts were small. Her mother cried. Her father looked away.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, please.”
More as if going through the necessary motions, they barked at the girl. The stupid girl disobeying her parents.
Lowa hung her head and waited for her parents to leave before she went to her room. Déjà vu was on her. If she was still in the storm dreaming, let her be dead. She had nothing left to fight with, no strength, no will of teenaged self-assurance. She would stay home forever.
The night would take her. The night was a faceless monster.
On a whim, she climbed onto a small shelf in her closet and hid behind her limited wardrobe. The night would take her no more. No, she would stay awake until light and never leave again until the ice thawed and the river rose.
She counted minutes, unwilling to sleep for fear that she might awaken outside. She remained vigilant, eyes wide and claws ready.
Her eyes fluttered despite her.
Sleep.
She awoke cold.
No more.
Not frozen, only cold. Not really even cold, but cool. She heard voices. Opened her eyes and peered through the slated doors of her closet onto the familiar silhouettes belonging to her parents in their parkas.
“Where is she? Not in the tub, where is she?” Lowa’s father asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” her mother whispered, tears on her throat. “Maybe three’s enough.”
“The book says we should go one beyond what we think is enough. She’ll never learn to mind us if we stop early, now we have to find her or she’ll sneak out again next time there’s a party.”
“Yeah, but only once more. She was so pathetic when she came back last time.”
“Only once more,” agreed Lowa’s father.
Lowa closed her eyes and dreamed of night, knowing it wasn’t the only monster looking to get her.​

Eddie Generous

Eddie Generous is a Canadian living on the Pacific coast with his wife and their cats. He operates a fledgling literary horror outfit aptly named Unnerving.





Sweetest Blood
​by Kristyl Gravina

The party was in full mode as she entered. All eyes turned on her. She looked as dainty as a porcelain statuette; her emerald eyes bright, her lips red. Dark locks of hair fell softly around her pretty face.
She moved slowly among the throng of onlookers; her eyes like a predator’s searching for prey. At last she saw a familiar face; Thomas, a fellow student in her Biology class. Her smile was sweet as she casually asked him if he had seen Nathan around. Thomas told her he’d last seen him heading towards the backyard. As she started to move away, he touched her arm, and asked if she could hang out with him a little longer. Her glare was so vicious that he stepped back, wide-eyed.
She made her way to the back where another group of youths were hanging out by the pool. She was getting impatient now.
If she didn’t find Nathan soon, she'd go crazy. Her throat was on fire. She scanned the area and spotted him in a corner, kissing a girl. She clenched her fists in anger and took a couple of breaths to calm down before she approached them.
At first, they ignored her.
She cleared her throat. This time they looked up.
"Can't you see you're interrupting us? " Nathan said, rather rudely.
"Nathan, you're mine. Come with me." It exasperated her that Nathan forgot about her every time, though it wasn’t his fault. She was the one who made sure he did. For her safety, and his.
This time the girl spoke up. "What the hell…”
She glared at the girl who didn’t finish her sentence, and instead doubled over in pain.
"What did you do to her!? You crazy bitch!"
Oh Nathan, sweet Nathan. He could call her names but she still adored him. He was so beautiful, so tall and muscular. And his scent, intoxicating.
"Come with me, my dear Nathan," she commanded while offering her hand. He took it, confused.
She led him inside, and upstairs into one of the empty rooms. He followed dazedly. "Finally, my darling," she said as she sat beside him and sank her fangs into his wrist, drinking his sweet blood.
The next day, Nathan sat next to Thomas during biology class. Thomas, noticing Nathan's bandaged hand, asked him about it.
"Oh, this? I accidently cut it last night. There was some broken glass at the party."
"Speaking of which, Katrina was looking for you last night, then I saw the two of you going upstairs together. You have to tell me what happened, man!"
"Katrina? Who is Katrina?”
“The new girl, she's sitting two desks across from us now, over there. She just looked this way."
"It wasn't me you saw, mate; I was with Shelly all night."
"But she came asking for you."
"Are you sure she was looking for me? Maybe you were drunk and thought you saw me."
"I wasn’t that drunk. I'm sure it was you two I saw. Or perhaps you're not saying because you think I'm going to tell Shelly about this?"
"Seriously, Thom, I don't know what you're talking about. I’ve never spoken to Katrina in my entire life. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen her before."
The bell rang and as Thomas and Nathan rose from their chairs, Katrina approached, her green eyes a tad darker than usual.
"Thomas, great party last night! And whom might this be?"
"I'm Nathan, nice meeting you."
"The pleasure is all mine." She inhaled. “Well, see you later, Nathan!"
She left the room smiling. Now that she had introduced herself to Nathan again, things would be easier for their next meeting. She needed to think of a way to keep him close. She was running out of ideas for these random encounters. And now Thomas had seen her twice with Nathan, possibly more. Perhaps she could try tasting him as well. Maybe he tasted even sweeter. No, that was not possible. No one was sweeter than Nathan.
She exhaled as she walked to the next class, her mouth watering.

Kristyl Gravina

Kristyl Gravina is from the island of Malta where she lives with her husband, son and three cats. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Third Wednesday, Down in the Dirt magazine, Haiku Journal, The Literary Hatchet and Hindered Souls: Dark tales for dark nights among others.

​ 


Xeno-Nativity
By Mary E. Lowd

Maradia was working on the specs for a free-flying, zero-G maintenance unit when she heard a customer come into her storefront.  She was glad to put the work aside -- it was almost entirely a hardware job with barely any creativity to it.  She left the workshop area and entered the storefront to see a tired looking woman with bags under her eyes and a perfect, golden-haired child nestled on her hip.
"You're back," Maradia said.
"I've been to R4R, at the other end of the Merchant's Quarter," the woman said smugly.
"Look," Maradia said, "I've already told you that the level of intellectual complexity required for a robotic nanny to be at all effective would easily push that robot over the threshold necessary to pass the sentience tests."
The tired woman scrunched up her face in a flash of confusion, then shook Maradia's words out of her head and said, "Gerangelo says he'll do it for me."
"Do what?  Build you a sub-sentient robot to look after your baby?"
"Gerangelo says I don't have to tell my robo-nanny about these sentience tests."
"Can you prove that?" Maradia asked, excited in spite of herself.
But, then, the woman looked confused again, and said, "Why would I want to do that?"
"Of course you can't."  Maradia sighed.  "If anyone could prove he'd been telling people that, Gerangelo would lose his license to practice robotics.  At best.  At worst, he'd be thrown in jail for Conspiracy to Enslave.  Sentient robots have rights."
And I should know, Maradia thought.  I made Gerangelo.  Back then, he'd just been Gary.
The woman frowned and hitched the beautiful little girl in such desperate need of a nanny higher up on her hip.  "I'm telling you, Gerangelo will make my nanny for me.  But, I'd rather work with you."
The implication inherent in the woman's tone was that she'd rather work with a real human than with a robot.  Ironic, from a woman who wanted her child raised by a robot.
Maradia was beginning to lose her patience with this customer.  "If you have enough money to commission an especially designed sentient robot," she said, "then why don't you just walk over to the Refugee Quarter and hire a Heffen nanny?"
The woman looked at her coldly.
"There's a lot of Heffens out of work," Maradia continued, "and I'm sure some of them are excellent with children."
The woman looked at her as if to say, "Are you finished?"  So, Maradia added, "They could use the money."
"I'm not going to trust my angel to a Heffen and their foreign ways."  She practically spat the words, but, at the same time, she cradled her docile little blue-eyed daughter to her.  It was a bizarre concatenation of tenderness and prejudice.
"Great," Maradia said.  "Then you're a xenophobe as well as a potential robot-slaver."  She went to the door and held it open for the woman.  "If you hire Gerangelo to make you a sentient robot, and you deny that robot access to the sentience tests, you will find yourself facing an expensive out-of-court settlement."
"What are you talking about?" the woman said.
"He's done it before.  He'll make an anonymous tip, and the cops will show up looking for enslaved sentient robots."
"If Gerangelo's been doing that," the woman said, still failing to walk out the open door, "why haven't I heard about it?  Why's he still in business?"
At least, Maradia's words seemed to be finally getting through to her.  "They always settle out-of-court," Maradia said, "to avoid the scandal.  And part of the settlement is a non-disclosure agreement."
The woman's eyes widened.  "Wouldn't you say that anyway?  Even if it weren't true?  I mean, you are his competition."
"Lady," Maradia said, "If I were trying to compete, I'd take your business."
The woman chewed that over in her mind, and Maradia finally got her to start walking through the door.  But before she was all the way out, the woman turned and said, "Then what am I supposed to do?"
"I guess, you'll just have to take care of your own child."  Then, with a huge sense of relief, she closed the door behind a woman she never wanted to deal with again.  Maradia felt pretty sure the feeling was mutual.
Maradia went back to work, but the zero-G unit couldn't hold her attention.  She kept picturing that blond-haired girl, nestled on her mother's hip.  The child had been carelessly sucking her thumb, blissfully unaware that her daily guardianship was under contention.
"Blast it all," Maradia said.  She put her work away and left her shop.
The walk across the Merchant's Quarter was one of the busier and more interesting walks one could take on Crossroads Station.  There were shops everywhere with colorful, interesting things for sale, and there were lots of people browsing them.  Consequently, Maradia preferred walking through the Residential Quarter when she merely wanted to walk.  Right now, though, she was going to see Gerangelo.
His shop was severe.  Elegant, but severe.  The name -- Robots For Robots, with the R4R symbol behind it -- was lettered in sans-serif blacks and blues on the door.  The consultation room behind the door was monochromatic and minimally furnished:  only three uncomfortable chairs and a computer table.  Maradia let herself right through that office into the workshop in the back.
"Hello, Mother," Gerangelo said without looking up from the circuitry he was soldering in the elbow of a detached arm.  He knew Maradia hated it when he called her that.
When she'd first made Gerangelo -- Gary, then -- they'd been lovers.  She'd built herself a robot with dark hair, brooding eyes, broad shoulders, and an intellect to match her own.
It was Maradia's first romantic relationship, and like any human she made mistakes.  She became jealous, needy, emotional.  But Gary weathered all that.  After all, his super-high-yield elasti-particle wired brain had been trained on all the digital data Maradia could compile about herself.  He was made to love her.
What Gary couldn't forgive was that falling in love with him made Maradia change.  Love softened her.  She became a kinder, more accepting, more mature woman.  Gary stayed youthfully flippant, brilliant, and judgmental.
One day, he judged Maradia and found her wanting.  That was the day he took his sentience tests, sued her for half her robotics company, and changed his name to Gerangelo.
"You must be thinking of doing something stupid," Gerangelo said.  "That's always when you come to see me.  When you have a stupid idea in mind, and you want me to talk you out of it."  He looked at Maradia pointedly with his beautiful eyes.  He could see right through her.  Maradia still loved that about him.  At the same time as hating it.
"I talked that woman out of buying a robo-nanny from you," she said.
"I knew you would.  I lost her business the minute she walked out of my door."  Gerangelo shrugged.  "I don't think I'd have much use for a nanny-brained robot working in my shop anyway.  I guess he could always go work for Gary at Trattoria Silicon."
Maradia knew it bothered Gerangelo that she'd re-used the name Gary on his successor, but that was part and parcel of their competitive, antagonistic relationship.  She liked the name.  Besides, Gerangelo hadn't kept it.
The image from that morning of that golden-haired child, innocently sucking her thumb flashed in front of Maradia's eyes again.  "Have you ever thought about building a robotic child?" she asked Gerangelo.
"Bored much?" he said.  Gerangelo knew he'd stolen most of the interesting work on Crossroads Station from Maradia.  "Are we talking pre- or post- sentience?" he asked, unable to resist an intellectual challenge.
"Pre-sentience," Maradia answered, considering the details.  "For the sake of argument:  three-year-old human."
"So, we're talking about a robot with a primary purpose of pretend play and mimicry...  Interesting."  Gerangelo thought a moment longer; Maradia could practically see the particles bouncing through his neural pathways as the metaphorical gears turned.  Finally, he concluded, "Of course, completely useless."
"Pre-sentient," Maradia pointed out again.  "So you could turn it off when it stopped entertaining you."
"Yes," Gerangelo agreed.  "And then you'd have a very expensive statue."  His tone was about as patronizing as if Maradia was a three-year-old child herself.
Maradia knew he was right.  The materials for a robotic brain that complex would be very expensive.
She could afford it.  Despite having lost half her company to Gerangelo, Maradia still made a consistently comfortable income from her line of Roboweilers -- The Robotic Pet That's Better Than a Real Dog!  Nonetheless, she had an uneasy feeling that a robot wasn't really what she wanted.  For a flash, she pictured herself in that horrible woman's place -- small, warm arms wrapped around her neck.
But a robot could be warm.
Maradia shook her head, and Gerangelo looked at her.  She glared at him, feeling like a fool.  To cover the feeling, she said, "Don't you think educating people about the sentience tests would be a better way to advocate for robotic rights?  Campaign at the schools...  Provide informative seminars to workplaces with a lot of robots?  That kind of thing?"
"I educate people," Gerangelo said.
Maradia sniffed, and Gerangelo looked at her levelly.
"I'll leave the more general purpose education to you," he said.  "If you don't want your species being taken advantage of by me, then see to it that they don't take advantage of mine."
And Maradia couldn't argue with that.  As much as it stung her to watch other people make the same mistake she had with Gerangelo, it wasn't because Gerangelo's behavior was wrong.  (Although, it was kind of sketchy.)  Mostly, it still bothered her that she had ever treated Gerangelo that way.  "I'll try to put something together," she said.
Gerangelo grunted, but his sparkling eyes could see that she was saying she was sorry.
Walking back through the Merchant's Quarter, Maradia found herself pondering exactly why the idea of a child appealed to her.  She'd never been good with people, and much preferred the company of Gary, Gerangelo, and the other sentient robots she'd made over the years to most biological sentients.  Her legacy was secured in them as well.  So, why did the idea of a pre-verbal, uncoordinated bundle of biology nestled warmly in her arms tug at her heart?  It was completely illogical.
And completely unattainable.  Her husband had no genes, only silicon and metal alloys.  In her funk, Maradia's feet walked her directly to Trattoria Silicon where Gary immediately brought her a piece of fudgy chocolate cake.
"What's wrong?" Gary asked.  He had lighter eyes, a slightly thicker nose, and thinner shoulders than Gerangelo.  Like any biological sentient owns the right to control if and how their genetic design is used for cloning or reproduction, robotic sentients own the right to control if and how copies of them are made.  Besides, Maradia would have found it entirely too creepy for Gary and Gerangelo to look exactly alike, even if it hadn't been illegal.
"I think I want something stupid," Maradia said.
Gary waited.  Maradia avoided his eyes, looking down at her cake and fiddling with her fork.  "Have you ever thought about having children?" Maradia asked, still looking down.
"No," Gary said.  "But, I think quickly."
Maradia looked up, but she was too late to see the smile in his eyes.  He'd already switched to a pensive frown.  "What?" Maradia demanded.
"I was remembering the Karillow plants," Gary said.  "And the fish."
Maradia shifted uneasily.  Neither had fared well under her care.  The Lambda fish lasted ten months.  The plants did worse.  "Fish don't talk," Maradia said defensively.  "A child would learn to."
The implication being that Maradia was only interested in creatures that could talk to her.  "You know what's better at talking than a child?" Gary asked.  "A robot."
They both looked at the blue, four-armed robot juggling in the corner.  His name was Archive, and he was a sentient story-telling robot that Maradia had designed.  He was so devoted to his story-telling that he'd wiped his memory banks of everything unnecessary to his every day functioning -- except his stories.
Archive worked for Gary now, entertaining the customers.  And he made Maradia's heart ache.  Gerangelo had left her.  But Archive had taken it a step further and forgotten her.
"I don't want you to take this the wrong way," Maradia said to her best-friend, confidant, and lover.  "But I'm tired of robots."  Then she sighed and slid her arms forward on the table until her head rested wearily on them.  "I wish I were a robot," she said.
Gary didn't need to point out the inherent contradictions in her argument.  Instead, he reached out and held her hand.  His hand felt human in hers.  "Redesigning Trattoria Silicon into a family restaurant would be fun," he said.
Maradia's heart jumped.  Panic?  Excitement?  Horror?  She had no idea what she was feeling, but Gary felt her hand pull away.
"Up to you," he said.
Maradia looked at Gary levelly.  He wasn't subject to random fluctuations of chemical imbalances interacting with centuries old, biologically ingrained hardwiring.  Yet, he sounded... positive about the idea of having a child.
Suddenly, Maradia felt silly and angry.  She wished Gary would forget about the whole conversation, but, of course, he wouldn't.  His memory completely outclassed hers.  Perhaps he would be kind, however, and not bring it up.
Except, a secret part of her wanted him to.
For the next week, Gary said nothing on the subject, and Maradia felt a mixture of relief and infuriation.  She worked on drawing up plans for a pre-sentient child robot, but it felt like building another toy.  Another Roboweiler.  Its learning curves would be fake, pre-written.  She briefly considered designing a barely-sentient robot, but Gerangelo would have her arrested for robot abuse for sure.  And she would deserve it.  Building a barely-sentient robot would be little better than brain-damaging a human child to keep it from out-growing you.  It would be wrong.
Besides, she didn't want a child robot that would stay a child forever.  She wanted to watch it grow up.  But robots don't grow up; they are who they are.  Only children grow.
Then several articles showed up on her computer.  Clearly, Gary had flagged them for her.  The first article was about self-cloning.  Maradia didn't need to look past the title.  She had mixed enough feelings about her own life and self to know that she didn't want to inflict a genetically identical experience of the world on a new person.
The next few articles were about various adoption programs.  There was a long waiting list for infants of any species, but Maradia wasn't sure that she wanted an infant anyway.  Why not skip straight ahead to a child who could speak, if that was an option?  Of course, there was a waiting list for human children of any age.
The final article, however, was very interesting.  It didn't read like the others.  It wasn't a press release with information for prospective parents.  It was more like a tabloid story, filled with sensationalism about a bizarre cult deep in the refugee section of Crossroads Station.  "The Baby Exchange," as the tabloid called it, was a program run by myrmecoidal aliens who drew in naive young mammaloid women, housed them in their commune, and impregnated them with alien fetuses.  It sounded too strange to be true, and Maradia almost laughed it off, putting it aside to be forgotten.
However, a quote from one of the myrmecoid matrons stayed with Maradia as she tried to go on with her work that day.  "Our aim is to build future peace through present sisterhood.  All our exchange mothers and their xeno-native daughters are sisters here."
When it came time to take a break for lunch, Maradia found her feet carrying her toward the refugee section of the station instead of the Merchant Quarter and Gary's restaurant.
The architecture was the same throughout Crossroads Station, but the further her feet carried her into the refugee section, the more she felt like she was on a different station entirely.  The broad hallways narrowed into winding paths, filled with makeshift stands.  Where there was one wide corridor in the Merchant Quarter, it split into two or three pathways between these temporary looking stalls here, filled with strange, alien goods.
Maradia thought she was used to alien goods -- there were Srellick shops and Heffen restaurants in the Merchant Quarter.  But, here, there was even more variety -- stalls manned by species she couldn't identify -- and even the familiar goods -- like Heffen food -- looked strange.  She realized that she'd only encountered the gentrified versions, deemed acceptable for human palates before.
Nonetheless, Maradia stopped at a Heffen stand and ordered a Golan wrap from the jowly-faced caninoid there.  She unwrapped the crinkly paper and ate the burrito-like object as she continued to walk.  It was warm and spicier than Golan wraps she'd bought in the Merchant Quarter.  But it wasn't that different.
When she finished the wrap, Maradia faced the fact that she'd wandered herself lost.  The limited clues in the tabloid article clearly weren't enough for her to find her way.  Not without asking for help.
The looks of disgust Maradia received from the first few aliens she asked were nearly enough to scare her right back to her office to work on designing the football-sized robots with the intelligence of a shoe that the space station government had commissioned.  She kept telling them it would be cheaper, in the long run, to build a sentient maintenance bot to live on the exterior of the station.  But they didn't want to deal with the complications of keeping a sentient robot happy, so they kept commissioning a new robot for every little maintenance job that the station's hull needed.
Finally, an avian man with puffy feathers was able to point Maradia in the right direction.
The front office felt like a hole in the wall.  There was a desk with a reptilian Srellick receptionist behind it, and she shushed Maradia furiously when asked, "Is this the baby exchange?"
The Srellick woman beckoned for Maradia to step closer and lean in.  Then she said in a fierce whisper, her forked tongue flicking, "We never call it that."  Leaning back in her chair and returning to a professional, front-desk voice, the receptionist said, "This is the Xeno-Natal and Cultural Exchange Program.  How can I help you?"
"I read an article about this program," Maradia said.  "I guess, I'm looking for more information."
The Srellick woman stared at Maradia with her lidless eyes.  "Of course," she hissed.  "Would you be a prospective new mother then?"
Maradia shifted uncomfortably, opened her mouth, and failed to actually say anything.
"A member of the press?" the Srellick offered as an alternative.
Maradia wasn't ready to agree to the truth, but she didn't want to lie either.  "I'm just looking for information," she said.
"Very well," the Srellick receptionist said, holding out a hand to indicate the row of chairs along the back of the office.  "If you take a seat, then I can have one of our matrons see you for a brief, informational meeting in about fifteen minutes.  There are also some pamphlets on the end table."
Maradia smiled at the receptionist, but the look she received in return was stony.  Feeling decidedly unwelcome in that office, Maradia retreated to one of the chairs and grabbed a couple pamphlets from the end table.  She sat there flipping through the glossy, colorful pages, trying to figure out what information -- if any -- she could glean from their almost militantly cheerful sales pitch.  Besides a few quotes about universal peace and sisterhood, the pamphlets were mostly filled with pictures.  Lots of pictures.  Happy mothers; laughing babies.  There was a scaled mother -- another Srellick like the receptionist -- cuddling a feathered gosling of a baby.  The next picture sported a pair of mothers and babies -- a gray-furred mother with a perfect pink cherub of humanity, bouncing on her knee, and a human woman beside her, hugging a tiny, downy, big-eyed koala-like baby.
Maradia couldn't tear her eyes away from the human mother's contented smile and those deep, deep, brown baby-koala eyes staring up at a human mother adoringly.  There was something familiar and comfortable about the way they didn't match yet so clearly believed they belonged together.  Alien and human.  Robot and human.  That was the kind of relationship Maradia was used to, had been seeking out and experiencing for her entire life.
"I'm sorry," Maradia said, standing up from the chair. "But, I can't stay right now.  Could I perhaps make an appointment for later?  Tomorrow maybe?"
The receptionist offered Maradia a list of times, and she picked one when she was sure Gary would be free.  He should be here with her for this.  It had been his idea, after all.  And he would be the father.
During the meeting the next day, Maradia could feel herself getting more and more excited.  She wanted to turn to Gary and say, "This is it.  This is what we're going to do."  But, it wouldn't be right to interrupt the matron, and she really ought to listen to all the information before she made her decision.
Even if she felt sure that she knew what that decision would be.
The myrmecoidal matron explained the theory behind Xeno-Nativity:  the strongest bond of love exists between infant and mother; thus, to forge a robust peace between disparate species, that bond must be extended between them all in an intra-species network.  To this end, young women wishing to be mothers could come to the Xeno-Natal Program.  In exchange for their own DNA and certain promises, these women would be provided with housing, food, and medical care throughout the process of conceiving, carrying to term, birthing, and raising an alien child.
"It is unusual," the myrmecoidal matron said after finishing her spiel, "for a woman of your... shall we say societal standing... to come to us."  Her voice emanated from the small mouth parts inside her mandibles and had a clacking quality, but she spoke perfect Solanese.
"What do you mean?" Maradia asked.
The matron turned to look at Gary, sitting beside Maradia and holding her hand.  "Romantically bonded," the matron said.  "And financially stable."  Her antenna circled above her head.
Maradia could see where the allegations that the baby exchange was a cult came from.  It was downright creepy that their usual clients were unmarried and financially unstable young women.  Did they also try to separate the young women from the rest of their friends and family?  That could explain the requirement that the young women live in the Program's dormitories.
Nonetheless, she was already wondering what species her Xeno-Native child would be.  "I think your goals are noble," she said.  She felt herself blushing, but Gary squeezed her hand.  That made her blush even more.
The matron's antenna lowered to horizontal, pointing toward Maradia.  "Our goals are difficult to achieve," she said.  "Interspecies sisterhood does not come naturally or easily.  If you want to join us, Sister Maradia, you won't be exempt from the rules followed by our other mothers."
Maradia nodded.  She would miss her own quarters on the station, but a year and a half -- from three months of pregnancy until the child's first birthday -- was not so long.  Most mothers, apparently, chose to stay longer.  "Gary can live in the commune with me?"
The matron hesitated long enough to make Maradia worry, but she answered, "Yes."  Then, her antennae circling again, she said, "The requirement that most mothers find hardest to accept is that you will not get to choose the species of your child."
"I understand," Maradia said.
"It's absolutely necessary to the success of our program."
"I can see that.  You wouldn't want people playing favorites."
"Exactly," the clacking of the word in the matron's mouth ended on a hiss.
After the meeting, Gary guided Maradia through the busy mob of the Refugee Quarter to a small pocket park under a giant window that looked out on the starry vacuum outside.  They sat down on a bench and watched all the alien children playing on the colorful jungle gyms and swooping through the low-grav bubbles.
Gary took a paper bag out of his pocket and handed Maradia a sugar-studded scone.  "Fresh from Silicon Trattoria's bakery," he said.  "I baked it myself this morning."
Maradia took a bite from the scone.  It was sweet and dry with a hint of lavender.  She loved it.  Then she imagined sharing it with a child.  Would a Heffen pup have a sweet tooth?  What about those koala-like aliens?  Or the avian ones?  She didn't know if she could connect to an alien child.  It would be different from her in so many ways.
"Are you sure about this idea?" Maradia asked.
"Yes," Gary said.
Maradia envied how easily he knew his own mind.  Hers wasn't so easy to understand.  When she looked at the different species of children on the playground and imagined adding one of them to her life, she felt a rush -- her heart raced; her head went light.  Everything felt a little unreal.  Was that good or bad?  Excitement?  Or terror?  Maradia wasn't sure.
Maradia took another bite of the scone.  She ate the rest of it and licked the coarse grains of sugar off her fingers.  She loved the taste and sensation of the scone, but the flour and sugar were already turning sour in her stomach.  Unless that was just another emotion.
Living in a human body was hard enough without putting an alien embryo inside it.  She liked the idea of having an alien baby, but she wasn't sure that she could stomach the idea of what she'd have to do to get there.  As she understood it, pregnancy could be rather unpleasant without inter-species complications.
"Do you feel like your body is a part of you?" Maradia asked Gary.  "Who you are?  Or is it just a box -- a really complicated box -- that you're stuck inside?"  She wrapped her arms around her stomach, still trying to understand her own feelings.
"My body is a gift," Gary said.
"A gift?" Maradia asked, surprised.
"Yes, a gift from you."
Maradia looked into Gary's eyes, trying to figure out if he was simply saying something sweet and sentimental.  That didn't seem quite like him.  "What do you mean?" she asked.
"I was a program before I was an android.  My core intelli-chip gained consciousness before you finished building the body for it."
"You mean..." Maradia said, "when I had your brain hooked up to my computer system?  You remember that?"
Gary nodded.
Maradia thought about that.  She supposed the theory behind the Xeno-natal clinic worked on a similar principal.  By growing a child's body with her own, she was giving it a gift.  Once the child was born, it would feel indebted -- no, grateful -- to her.  It would be hers.  It would belong to her, even though they would be completely different.
"I can't do it," Maradia said.  "I can't handle the idea of having myrmecoidal nuns implant an alien embryo inside of me.  Morning sickness, labor pain -- everything that's hard about pregnancy is bad enough.  They didn't talk about it -- I'm sure they don't want to scare away prospective mothers -- but, I'm educated enough to know that they'd have to subject my body to massive levels of hormone treatments and localized genetic re-engineering for the process to even work."  She shook her head, not meeting Gary's eye.  "I'm sorry.  I can't."
"Don't be sorry to me," Gary said.  "I'm fine."  He put his arm around her, and she scooted closer to him on the bench.  She rested her head on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry to myself," Maradia said.  "I got this idea in my head, and I can't get it out."
They sat together, quietly watching the children climb up the colorful ladders, slide down the slides, and float in the grav-bubbles.
"Do you know why I brought us to this playground?" Gary asked.
"To watch the children," Maradia said.
"Yes, but why this playground?"
Maradia shrugged with the shoulder that wasn't pressed up against Gary.
"The Refugee Quarter Orphanage brings their children to this playground," Gary said.
Maradia narrowed her eyes, looking more closely at the children.  Most of them were Heffen pups with flowing orange fur, pointed ears, and swishing tails.  A couple avian children flapped their wings, summersaulting in one of the grav-bubbles.  There was one Srellick child -- green scales scintillating in the starlight -- sitting on the foam ground under the jungle gym, playing with a scuffed up older-model Roboweiler.  Maradia smiled.  It was nice to see her work being used as intended.
She kept watching the Srellick and realized that the child was reprogramming the robotic dog.  The Roboweiler was doing tricks that Maradia had never programmed it to learn.
"Huh," she said.  "That child seems to be good with robots."
"Like you," Gary said.
Maradia laughed at the idea.
"You know that it's all propaganda, right?" Gary said, gently.  "Everything that nun was telling you.  Bonds of love aren't forged by birth.  You wouldn't have to give birth to an alien child for it to love you."
"I made you," Maradia said.  "You love me."
"Does Gerangelo?"
Maradia couldn't answer at first.  Finally, she said, "In his own way."  A moment later, she added, "But I see your point."
They watched the children playing until a Srellick man came up to the child with the Roboweiler.  They left the park together.  Clearly, that child was not a refugee orphan.
Absurdly, Maradia was... disappointed.
"I know what I want to do," she said.  "We need to make an appointment with the Refugee Quarter Orphanage."
There might be some humans who wouldn't even employ alien refugees, but Maradia was going to open her life to one of them.  Hopefully, she would find one who would open its heart back.​​

Mary E. Lowd

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than seventy short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com.
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About the Editor:
Amber M. Simpson

Amber M. Simpson has been writing short stories and poetry since the age of ten. Lover of all things horror and fantasy, she writes mainly in these genres, often with a touch of romance thrown in for fun.  Amber lives in Kentucky with her husband and their two crazy but loving little boys.