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ISSUE 007, January-February 2022
Publish Date: January 1, 2022
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR: GAMIFIED
By Rob Carroll
Life is a game of growing complexities that require ever-increasing amounts of time, resources, and energy to sustain. Under normal conditions, this makes life challenging. But with the growth rates of today’s complexities having gone exponential, we are now racing toward an unflinching asymptote that threatens not just to make the game we play harder, but to crash it.
For too long, the power structures of the United States have seen this invisible wall coming, but rather than course-correcting, they have chosen to cheat the input process through credit, leverage, and debasement. They have chosen rent-seeking behavior over production. And thanks to this selfish choice—combined with insane regulatory capture of the U.S. government—complexity growth has become cancerous, the tumor from which it metastasized possibly now terminal. All the symptoms are there: the Have-Nots have less than they’ve had in generations, and the Haves have so much that the gross excess they hoard has started to rot. Our societal body is being attacked on multiple fronts and it is quickly running out of treatment options.
It’s not too late for a cure, but we must first recognize that those with all the in-game power today will change the rules tomorrow if it appears they’re going to lose, and that we as a population, regardless of personal identity or political ideology, will always be manipulated to organize against one another in ways that will exclusively serve those at the top. We’re being divided so that we may be conquered. READ THE REST FOR FREE.
THIS WILL BE THE MOST VULNERABLE POST I'VE EVER MADE
The medium-rare filet tasted of garlic, rosemary, and regret on his tongue. It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. It was that slow churning of velvety dark liquid that wove its way through Sasha’s intricate necklace tubes. Her Peeks often put him off his food, but it had been worse since she’d upgraded her internolights. The violet light—incessant, obnoxious—pulsed gently with her heartbeat. It permeated their every moment, from dinner dates to the bedroom.
Knowing that their relationship was unraveling had somehow made everything even less bearable. Even this restaurant, with its tacky novelty cocktails and throwback twenty-tens dishes, depressed him now. Somewhere along the way, he’d agreed it was their favorite local. Somehow, he’d kept pretending to be okay. But the truth was every time they ate here, a sticky kind of claustrophobia overwhelmed him, a sense of being funneled into feelings that weren’t really his.
And tonight, with the juices of the steak curdling in his mouth, he wondered if love could morph into low-key horror without you even really noticing it. Maybe that was what troubled his sleep every night, and not just the gentle hum of Sasha’s tech.
She thought his discomfort was funny and called him “my adorable luddite.” They’d had bitter arguments about it: the way everything revolved around her Peeks, the constant repackaging of their life to share with strangers, the relentless sharing in exchange for products, free food and drinks. I’m just expressing myself, she’d correct him when he complained. Like branded content could actually express a human being.
ALL THE SLUDGE YOU WANT TO DRINK
I leave the break room with my mug in hand, filled to the brim with sludge. Like everything else around here, it’s brown. It tastes exactly like you’d expect something people call sludge to taste: bitter, sour, acidic. The texture is granular. It’s like drinking cement mixed with dirt mixed with the bodies of slugs. A little bit runs over the edge of my mug, and I lick it off. I savor the flavor on my tongue.
When you’re hungry, any flavor is good. One lick, and I want more. I want to rush back to the break room, slurp what’s left from my mug, and refill it. But my break is over. I’m almost late. If I get back late, they’ll punish everyone. They’ll turn the spigot off for hours.
I speed walk through the narrow hallway, barely wide enough for my shoulders. The walls, floor, and ceiling are as brown as the sludge. The lighting is low, but I’m used to it. Just like I’m used to the recycled air. At least it’s better than the air outside, which isn’t breathable. If our Friends hadn’t built the enclaves, their terraforming would have killed us. It’s better to live in here than die out there. How many times has my dad said that to me? Now I hear it in my own voice.
I get back to my desk just as my computer starts beeping, the light on top flashing red.
“I know, I know,” I say under my breath, pressing the button.
Three coworkers glare at me over their cubicle dividers. I mouth, sorry. Hopefully those few seconds didn’t attract any attention. I look around the room, but the only one of them I see is Nice Guy. That’s what I call him anyway. Who knows what his real name is? Some combination of clicking and hissing that I can’t understand. Nice Guy’s about my height, five foot ten, with a black exoskeleton and seven legs. The seventh, uneven leg, is shorter and protrudes from the neck. He’s wearing a large breathing mask over his face, so all I can see is one of his seven eyes.
He winks at me.
By Beth Goder
Hamir pulled herself from the regeneration sludge, which smelled faintly of strawberries, and flexed her budding exoskeleton.
“Another try?” the whale asked, blinking seven yellow eyes. Blue whorls opened and closed against his wet skin, melded together like infinity symbols. His flukes stretched out to the horizon, forever.
Regeneration gel knitted Hamir’s organs together. The exoskeleton cradled her body.
The need to be in the spiral pulled at her.
Every time she died, the whale asked her this question. Every time, she gave the same answer.
Before she entered the spiral, a part of her screamed. I hate this murder planet. I hate this whale who feeds on my death.
But she loved the whale, too. She loved the spiral.
The spiral swallowed her. She ascended to the first rundle.
The spiral had 105 death rundles. The first rundle stank of grease. The smell, to Hamir, was like coming home.
A blood-sucking worm jumped on her exoskeleton and extended its green mouth toward her neck. She touched its destabilizer without pausing.
The worm evaporated one pulpy ring at a time.
How many times had she defeated the worm? She had stopped keeping track.
It was only a small victory, but the rush was the same. That feeling of absolute glory.
I’ll do it this time, she thought. I’ll climb all the rundles. I’ll defeat the whale.
She didn’t stop to think about her motivations because the truth would have distracted her. And frankly, her motivations were disturbing. It was simpler to think tautologically: she climbed the rundles to climb them, for the hedonistic pleasure of defeating whatever creatures she found there.
ART FEATURE: THE END IS PIE
By Rob Shields
Feature by Rob Carroll
Hiro Protagonist, the aptly named main character in novelist Neal Stephenson’s 1992 cyberpunk send-up, Snow Crash, was the gig economy’s first avenging angel. As a sword-wielding hacker outfitted with all the latest tech, he stopped at nothing to deliver your pizza in thirty minutes or less.
Now three decades later, uber-talented programmer artist, Rob Shields—who seems to have stepped into Stephenson’s shoes and, with that added power, smashed his foot down upon the accelerator of his own supercharged imagination—returns to the mean streets of the cyberpunk genre’s capitalist hellscape with his creation, End of the World Pizza, for more fast-food-fueled mayhem, this time starring cybernetic wage slaves with even bleaker job prospects, and demonic delivery machines vying for corporate dominance across all planes of existence. (NOTE: Six undead delivery drivers from End of the World Pizza are featured within these pages, as are two artworks from Shields’s other project, Neon Wasteland. The artworks from Neon Wasteland feature augmented reality. To view the augmented reality aspects of these works, download and use the Neon Wasteland app for iOS and Android).
STARFISH PIZZA PARTY
The blackest parts of space often hold the most colorful life.
That’s one of the things I’ve learned during my career as a space junker. And it’s why I’m out here, heading toward the blackest void in search for something different, something special. I’ve gotten quite sick of the same gray shards of metal I usually haul.
My ship, known lovingly as The Shed, crawls forward, the great vacuums in its sides sucking up discarded treasures and debris. I take a bite of pizza, feet propped on the center console of my flight controls. My heart leaps in excitement as the stars come fewer and further between. The blackest part of space. The best part of space.
Another important bit of knowledge? There is no better food combination than crispy yet soft dough, thick, stringy cheese, and crushed and spiced tomato sauce.
My last trip back to Earth, I scored a great deal on a stash of pizzas. Now when I’m hungry, I just need to throw one into the hyperspeed microwave that I’ve had installed on The Shed. That piece of kitchen machinery has revolutionized space cuisine. Just toss some pre-packaged food onto the conveyor belt there, and it comes out the other side, piping hot and ready for consumption.
Cheese and sauce oozes down my chin, so I brush my long, curly hair away from the food mess. The Shed bumbles along through empty space. I’m thankful for the calm ride, as it lets me enjoy my savory meal.
It’s taken awhile to reach this sector of the black ocean. Junkers don’t usually make it out here in one piece, but for years now, I’ve upgraded my ship with the bounties of previous trips so that I can.
With another slice of pizza in hand, I head towards the window. My boots feel especially heavy, as if weighed down by the gravity of the situation. I peer out the window, staring into the inky void around me. It’s so dark, almost as if stars themselves are afraid to shine here.
ZOMBIES ARE OUT, MERMAIDS ARE IN
By Ivy Grimes
Heather didn’t stop being an influencer overnight. She didn’t do anything dumb to get cancelled. People just stopped caring about zombies.
Things had gotten so bad that she had to ask her best friend Amberly if she could go to the Dove Party as her plus-one. It was the first time she hadn’t received her own invitation in years.
As they were getting ready in Amberly’s palatial bathroom before the party, Amberly gloated a little. Heather hated her for it, but she’d done the same when she first became famous.
“You took me to my first big Dove Party, and now I’m taking you. Isn’t it crazy?” Amberly spritzed a mist of water around her tail so that it wouldn’t dry out while her stylist glued rhinestones to her scales. Her assistants had lifted her out of her tank so her tail could be properly decorated while they silently scrubbed the glass walls of the enclosure.
“Thank you so much for the invitation!” Heather said. She was depending on Amberly, so she had to be a good sport. Her main goal for the party was to meet the most famous influencer of all, a girl whose online name was Cindy Cares. Cindy was glamorous and compassionate. She had championed every social cause Hannah could think of in her “Woeful Wednesdays” segments, which spotlighted marginalized influencers. Hannah’s agent said being a charity case in “Woeful Wednesdays” was Hannah’s last chance to get huge amounts of traffic like she had before, as humiliating as it would be. If something didn’t change soon, Hannah’s agent was going to drop her.
The face of the Earth offers no quarter for my targets. No hole, no dip, no crack, my zone clear under gray unfeatured skies, horizon to dusty horizon. I jump and, nimble-quick, stride over my eliminated targets, which are strewn hither and thither. I am lighter now, ninety-five percent of my rounds spent in execution of their duty. My duty. Like my rounds, I am single purpose, I am juice and steel and bullets and eyes, no micron wasted on mechanisms for reloading, recharging, repair, or retreat. I am simple. I am poetry. I still have a few rounds left.
My eliminated targets leak hemoglobin, the protein that gives blood its color. The color stands vibrant against the hodgepodge of limbs and clothing: faded denim, threadbare shirts of printed patterns (checks or stripes or pictorial representations) and worn work boots the same color as the ground they had so recently tread. Black mustaches or clean-shaven, it doesn’t matter, each target’s upper lip still beads the drops of sweat from the trek, even now in death. Hats of straw on a few heads—grit embedded in the woven strands—baseball caps on the rest—navy once, now bleached lilac by the sun; maroon once, now bleached pink; green once, now bleached the same soft yellow as the pulse of the sun behind the overcast sky. But nothing—nothing—as vibrant as the protein that is colored red.
Check, check, check, tick, tick, tick, tick, I am all but done. I feel my mood darken, the inevitable let down after a flow state, but in the next instant, I perceive a movement at the horizon. Another group? Stragglers from this one? Either way, the perception of a new target rescues me from ennui.
THE ELSEWHERE FINGER
By Bill Gusky
From the looks of the place, you’d never guess that this was once a popular family restaurant.
Now it’s just a char-broiled slab with snarls of rebar sticking out the sides, maybe two feet tall and eighty or ninety feet in each direction.
For the moment it’s covered in a sad carnival of poster-board photo tributes, stuffed animals, grocery-store flowers.
You’ve seen this kind of thing before.
Candles burning and melting into puddles everywhere: white sticks on booze bottles, little votives, and the kind in tall glass jars with Virgin Mary on the front.
Little white crosses, names written on them in gold and silver Sharpie.
A tapestry in progress, colored string and yarn between two upright pieces of rebar, they’re tying in photos, toys, flowers, bits of colored glass, IN OUR HEARTS FOREVER.
The people stand in clutches, in huddles, speaking in low voices or simply holding one another silently. Big tangles of arms and sadness.
An old, white-bearded guy in a black tee, vest, and jeans hangs away from the rest, pacing along the slab and wailing on a harmonica. He pauses sometimes to let out a wordless, musical howl. The blues man’s lilting elegy meanders through the sad, stale morning.
What happened was that this eating establishment, the West Covina Lord Burgerberry’s, with its forty-foot ceilings and a second-floor arcade, was driven straight down into the ground so neatly and violently that everything inside ignited at precisely the same moment, blasting out through the windows in roughly the time it takes a bullet to leave the barrel of a gun.
By Alex Woodroe
I was out on the porch smoking a cigarette when it happened. That was my prime sit-there-and-worry time, midnight hours on the porch, staring out at the dark. I worried about my twelve-hours-a-minute job for the paper, and how I was gonna leave Dan, and what might be staring back.
Out of nowhere, this thing—this enormous, moon-sized thing—shot across the sky, and my brain rapid-fired plane, bomb, wrath of God, rocket, hallucination, meteor, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.
It didn’t look like it was coming at us, so I wasn’t scared, just excited, thinking something interesting and different was finally happening. Even meeting the Devil himself would have been better than knowing nobody out there cared, so I half-hoped the flaming ball of what-the-heck in the sky was exactly that: a moon-sized devil.
Whatever it was, it was fast and trailed fire. It lit the moon something fierce as it passed behind it and came out the other side. And then it did come right at us, and I finally was afraid.
Still not afraid enough, though.
I sat there and watched it, thinking if it was gonna come crashing into us, there wasn’t anything a sack of potatoes like me could do about it anyway. It got bigger and angrier, and just when I thought it was big and angry enough to take us all to hell, it stopped, and we stared at each other for a hot minute. Then, out of nowhere, it spat out a lot of little pieces that sparkled and scattered every which way, leaving bright afterlight trails on my eyes.
FEATURE INTERVIEW: ELLEN DATLOW
Feature by Janelle Janson
My appreciation for books can be credited to a number of great authors from the past and present, but it was the work of Ellen Datlow that convinced me that a great editor is an incredible thing. Datlow is a multi-award winning horror, fantasy, and science fiction editor who has dominated the dark fiction scene for over forty years, and it’s not hyperbole to say that she is a powerhouse. Datlow has compiled some of the best of what genre fiction has to offer, and her intelligence, sharp instincts, and—let’s just face it—magical editing powers are unparalleled.
I first encountered her work when I picked up a copy of Echoes (2019), an anthology of ghost stories. Echoes features several of my favorite authors, including Stephen Graham Jones, Paul Tremblay, Joyce Carol Oates, Nathan Ballingrud, and John Langan, and I loved it all. So when Datlow’s anthology, Edited By (2020) published, I immediately had to have it. After finishing Edited By, I made my way through Datlow’s extensive backlist, including her annual series The Best Horror of the Year, Final Cuts (2020), Tails of Wonder and Imagination (2013), Doll Collection (2015), Body Shocks (2021), and the new Shirley Jackson anthology, When Things Get Dark (2021). So, I guess it’s fair to say that I’m now a fan, and that is why I was so grateful for the opportunity to chat with the queen of anthologies for this feature.
POETRY: WAR PAINT
By Gerri Leen
It’s easier than you might think to wander this world
Make-up comes in many colors
Sufficient to hide gray-scale skin
Just be sure to apply it aggressively
SERIALIZED FICTION: OVERRIDE (PART ONE)
Delek watched as the man in the black Syntech uniform tapped on his tablet’s touchscreen. The guy was a foot shorter, and about half as wide. He looked like a mech pilot in comparison to Delek’s massive frame, as if he could climb into a cockpit in Delek’s chest and operate him from the inside. The Syntech logo glowed lime green on the LED-infused fabric of the man’s shirt. A digital patch displayed his name in matching green letters: Roi.
“ID?” the man asked.
Delek slid up the sleeve of his work shirt. His thick forearm muscles rippled as he rotated his arm toward the ceiling, revealing a diamond-shaped formation of raised dots embedded in the underside of his wrist. Above the dots was a tattoo of a stylized skull, along with a banner reading Kill. Bathe. Repeat.
A laser the same color as the Syntech logo beamed from a lens above Roi’s touchscreen and scanned the dots. A friendly confirmation tone sounded.
“Got it.” Roi ran his finger down Delek’s dossier on his touchscreen, reading as he scrolled. He cocked an eyebrow and whistled. “Nice. Check out these numbers.” He tilted the tablet so Delek could see.
“What about them?”
“Highest I’ve seen for a Sentinel. Or for anyone, honestly.”
Delek motioned to his wife, Neera. She was standing behind him, leaning against the kitchen counter with her arms crossed over her chest, her taut biceps forming solid curves of muscle under the sleeves of intricate tattoos that covered her arms.
“Take a look.”
“I don’t want their money,” Neera sneered. She balled her fists and took a menacing step toward Roi. “Get out.”
TECH FEATURE: CRAFT NETWORK
NFT marketplace, Craft Nework, was founded in late 2020 and built on the interoperability-focused ICON blockchain, with the mission to be a decentralized, self-governing platform for creators and collectors to buy and sell digital artwork via Web 3.0. And while it’s true that there is no shortage of NFT marketplaces—with many more coming (some backed by large publicly-traded companies like Coinbase and GameStop)—the founders of Craft see a bright future for their project, even amid the growing competition. With large corporations like Nike, Adidas, and Coca-Cola, and professional sports leagues like the MLB and NBA now offering their own NFT collectibles, the industry is certain to evolve in ways we can’t yet conceive.
To learn more about Craft Network, Web 3.0, and the utility they provide, we spoke with early Craft contributor and developer, Lucas@Staky. “Staky” refers to Staky.io, a cryptocurrency staking-as-a-service company that he co-founded. It operates on numerous blockchain ecosystems.
ART FEATURE: THE TESTIMONY OF THE FIVE HUNDRED
Art by Radiant Void Labs
Story by Andy Dudak
Radiant Void Labs created the things you see here from extraterrestrial DNA. The first five hundred alien embryos that they created each spoke into the world a line of alien thought that was entirely unique to that specimen. Sensing that there was more to these words, the five hundred lines of thought were compiled by Radiant Void Labs and later translated by science fiction author and translator, Andy Dudak. Once properly assembled, the five hundred lines of thought created a sort of oral history—a testimony, if you will—told by the collective minds of these mysterious beings. Here now for the first time is that testimony in its entirety.
Translated from the improvised, bio-pictographic language of five-hundred alien embryos…
- We are <pieces-of-the-universe-observing-itself>, of six <species>, conceived with lore pre-encoded, but we are forever ignorant.
- This is our testimony, expressed just before our scanning by mercenary humans.
- Each of us comprises a <sentence> of this testimony.
REPRINT STORY: COMMUNIST COMPUTER RAP GOD
By Andrea Kriz
Originally published by Clarkesworld
Fabien accidentally created the Communist Computer Rap God as part of his 30-second vid for YouTube Re:Rewind 2035. At first, he tried to maintain it was entirely nonpolitical. But when the Communist Computer Rap God got into a prolonged argument about the merits of proletariat control over cryptocurrency blockchains on a popular AItuber’s livestream, he was forced to address the situation. He asked the Communist Computer Rap God to join him in his YouTube apology video.
“I don’t get it,” the Communist Computer Rap God said.
Fabien explained that, although sentient AIs were a relatively new—and rare—occurrence, studies suggested that they were similar to children in their first months of life. In that most of the Communist Computer Rap God’s behavior could be attributed to the creator—Fabien Deckar’s—influence and teachings.
“It doesn’t seem fair,” the Communist Computer Rap God said.
So, Fabien was forced to apologize alone. His channel, he told his dwindling subscriber base, had never been meant to be political or espouse any particular form of government. Certainly not to make light of the atrocities committed by past regimes. He carefully went over the failings of both capitalism and communism, making sure to mention his own grandfather’s persecution by Soviet authorities back in Eastern Europe back in the day. He got several facts wrong, of course, but his viewers took it as authenticity, and more importantly, as a sign that he hadn’t hired a PR firm to do the dirty work for him. So, with relief, he got away with only losing 20,451 subscribers over the incident.
Until the Communist Computer Rap God created a YouTube channel, that is.
COVER ART FEATURE: VIRTUAL BOYZ 21
By Rob Shields
“Virtual Boyz 21” is a remake of my 2016 animation titled, “Virtual Boyz,” and depicts the main henchmen of the Neon Wasteland comic series. This 2021 version was sold on Known Origin and features a new 2.5D parallax effect in augmented reality (AR).
Neon Wasteland is a new type of comic book experience that combines cartoons, comics, and video games through augmented reality. Featuring a killer synthwave sound track and interactive story elements, Neon Wasteland #2 is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. Learn more at NeonWastelandGame.com.