The Beta Chamber

      I never saw them enter, didn’t hear them come up behind me.

      When I regained consciousness I was strapped into a wheelchair.

      A burly young guy pushed it, and a dark haired girl with a device in her hand connected to a wire on my arm monitored my vital signs as they walked.

     They said nothing, so that gave me time to gather my wits and thoughts. 

    We were in some sort of tunnel, a cross between beige and gold, with geometric glyphs engraved on the walls. I didn’t recognize the language.

   “Where am I?” My voice was hoarse from whatever they’d used to knock me out.

      “In a tunnel,” the young man said, smarmy the way young people are sometimes.

      “And where is that?” 

      “You’ll see.” Again with the tone. I decided to keep quiet.

      The girl’s device dinged every so often, her heels clicked and the chair’s wheels squeaked as they rolled, and I could hear the shuffling of the guy’s feet as he pushed me.

      For a while those were the only sounds that bounced off the tunnel walls.

      There seemed to be a high speed rail down the middle of it, but it seemed like it was out of service; I heard no rumbling or whoosh of anything that might make use of it.

       I studied the glyphs again, my anxiety growing as we headed for a patch of darkness.

      My breathing quickened as the girl’s device beeped.

      She looked at the attendant. “Now?”

      He nodded, she pressed a button, and the darkness bloomed and opened like the black maw of hell as I went under again.

   

                                               ***********************

     Disoriented, I woke up in a room full of fluids gurgling, sluicing, and sussurating through tubes attached to IVs, and those attached to row after row of people sitting at identical desks with identical screens.

     The young man left me alone with the dark haired girl without saying another word.

     “What is this place?”

     She smiled, sitting on the edge of what would be my desk as she replied. 

     “This is Beta Chamber. It’s designed for the ruling class of writers that can’t find enough people to read their work and provide reliable feedback. They pay us to, um, procure and supply them.”

      My head was reeling. “What? Ruling class of writers?

      She shifted to a more comfortable position, locking me in with her eyes.

     “Yes. The writers have taken over the surface world. There are tiers of them now, so we have customized tiers down here. The ones that break the bestseller lists of major periodicals get the Alpha Chamber, and the elite get Editors. 

     “Beta Chamber is for the aspiring ones. It helps us weed out the impostors, wannabes, and untalented. We assign those to Zeta. It’s the slush pile for false encouragement for the emotionally sensitive and thin-skinned.

     “Some do the work, get better and move up to Beta. Most don’t.”

     “How the hell can… “ I caught myself. “How do you make such a determination?” 

     “The Agents.”

      “Agents?” 

     “They’re the gatekeepers that protect the Editors. At all costs.”

       I made a noise, and spluttered. “How do you…how do they…. ?”

        This is only going to get worse. Just shut up.

        She arched her brows waiting for me to finish, but I shook my head.

       “Never mind.”

       “Good, it’s almost time for your first book. It comes up on the screen. You are to read it all the way through in one sitting and provide your feedback.”

       “Hundreds of pages in one sitting?”

       She smiled again. “We use caffeine IVs, and those eyelid holders they use for laser surgery.”

       “This is madness. You can’t keep us here against–”

        My monitor crackled and brightened with information:

      Loading Book 1 @ 350 pages:  Reading to commence in 1 minute.

       She got up, took a slim metal collar out of the drawer and fastened it around my neck. When the eyelid holders dropped from the ceiling, she secured those too.

       The current shooting through the collar cut off my screams.

                                                 *****************

      I don’t know how long I’ve been here. 

      When they’re done with the stimulants, they use narcotics to help us sleep and avoid nightmares. The eyelid holders go back into the ceiling, the lights dim and the screens go dark.

      When there’s an alarm, that means a Beta has read too slow for too long. They’re either demoted to Zeta, or their IV is laced with a deadly chemical. I’ve since learned that the blocks of the tunnels are, in fact, their crypts.

      The meaning of the glyphs are only known, and closely guarded, by the Editors.

      I dream of escape, but it seems the writers have a firm hold on the surface world.

       For now.

      But the Betas are ever restless. We watch for weaknesses, gaps, mistakes that will allow us to gain our freedom and burn the bookstores and libraries that warden our prison.

     Then we’ll cast the books, no matter their format, into the raging bonfires.

     You have reached the end of Book 783.

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My Elusive Muse (A Revenge Tale)

She’s right there beside me, watching me struggle, dangling the words like strawberries, or honey running down the comb. I reach to take them into my hands, then they fade to nothing.

She gives me dreams of pushing the stone of Sisyphus.

They surround my head, and I reach up to take them, but they dart and dance like dragonflies.

Let me have them.”

‘Say please.’ Her laughter is muffled, soft, like we’re separated only by a thick wall we can still hear through.

‘Take them from me. Tell me what I’m thinking you should write.’

“Can I get a hint?”

‘No.’ Again the laughter, and the silence became one not just of amusement, but complacency.

I smiled. “I have an idea…”

That startled her. “But I–”

“It didn’t come from you…” I pointed to the mirror she had her back to, “It came from her.”

She was visibly shaken. “Th-th-that’s impossible!

“Apparently not. She’s the spitting image of you, and she wants to take your place.”

“NO!”  My elusive muse watched in horror as her reflection gave a feral smile and reached for her, then bolted for the door, but it was locked.

Panic-stricken, she turned to see her own arm come out of the glass….

CYBERBULLY

1)

Keith’s mother was calling him for breakfast, annoyance creeping into her voice, not because he was late, but mostly because he wasn’t responding; even if he woke up late, he usually let her know he’d be down.
He was slow, big and burly, so she didn’t like to rile him. Built like his dad, was Keith, and had his temper sometimes.
She’d gotten the phone calls from the school, and told them she’d come in, promised to, even, until fear of her son got the better of her, and she made up excuse after excuse to keep avoiding the school’s administration.
They’d run out of things to do with Keith, and to him, and now, he pretty much did what he wanted, short of sexual assault, to anyone he wanted.
It made no difference to him: boys, girls, sometimes the same age as him, sometimes a little younger. He seemed to enjoy those especially.
The older kids around his age just got a look of resignation, knowing he could, and would, beat them if he didn’t get his way.
But the younger ones were the ones he enjoyed the most, the ones who didn’t know him, who grew all wide eyed and blubbery as he menaced them, and who bruised so easily when he hit them.
She was loathing calling him again, but she did.
“Keith! Your breakfast is getting cold, and you’re gonna be late! Come on, now!”
The front door opened, and she thought it was Keith, beginning to feel silly.
He just went out to get the newspaper.
But there was no one standing there.
Her stomach did a little flip, and she grabbed a kitchen knife, though she knew she’d more likely cut herself than an assailant; still, it might work.
“Keith?”
No answer.
She peeked outside. There was no foliage for cover for a potential thief, and the street itself was beginning to fill with students heading for the bus stops, smiling and laughing because it was Friday, full of chatter about weekend plans, or immersed in their devices, eyes intent, their facial expressions mostly serious, though some were laughing, mostly in mockery at someone they designated a ‘loser’ worthy of their derision.
Online was serious business these days; life and death dramas full of intense emotions played out there, and every so often, the internet got blood on its pixels.
She closed the door, breathed a sigh of relief, chalked it up to a random breeze rather than the inexplicable, and heaving a sigh, she went upstairs to see what her son was up to in that disaster of a room she’d long ago given up asking him to clean.

*****************
He still had his gaming glasses on, the ones that ‘immersed’ him in fantasy worlds of fantastical creatures, scantily clad elf princesses, impossibly large-muscled men who’d obviously be on steroids in the real world, all capable of doing ‘cool impossible things,’ as she once heard it said.
His head was tilted back at an angle; there was something wrong, and she hurried in, since he didn’t turn around at the sound of her coming down the hall to his door.
She walked up beside him, a tentative hand on the back of the swivel chair.
“Keith?”
She spun the chair around, and Keith’s head dropped to the floor with a loud, wet thud.
A piercing sound rent the air, and darkness claimed her as her scream of anguish and fear rendered her unconscious.

****************
Akihiro woke, squinted his eyes against the morning sun sneaking past the blinds, and was a long time trying to sit up before he finally managed it.
He finished the half bottle of water by his bed, and slipped off the edge of the mattress, bare feet in the small piece of rug that kept his feet warm before he put his slippers on.
It was Friday, and for that he was glad; Fridays meant forty-eight hours of respite from Keith Murray.
Keith Murray was what they called ‘the school bully,’ making it sound like a mascot or something.
Keith Murray had belittled Akihiro whenever he saw him.
“You’re so small you could probably drive a Hot Wheels car.”
Sometimes, Keith would forget he said the joke before; he had a few, some for size, some for the contempt he held for intelligence, and he never failed to barrage Akahiro with a few, standing in front of him, preventing his movement, cornering him, digging elbows, or twisting Akahiro’s arms.
The kids would laugh, some of them, just for the sake of having Keith think they were cool, but Akihiro could see the shame of the coward in their gazes, turning away when he found their eyes, their smiles faltering and disappearing when he looked at them head on.
Well, Keith Murray was no longer a problem.
Akihiro had seen to that, and he never even left the house.

****************
Akihiro’s dad sat on the edge of the bed while Akihiro was sloughing off his covers.
“Wake up, son.”
“I am, dad.”
“Hiro, why are your game glasses in bed? We talked about this…”
“I know, dad. I just had one more mission to complete, so I finished it.”
His dad shook his head and chuckled, rifling Akihiro’s lengthening hair.
“All right then; since you’re the ruler of the universe, with all the teachers
saying what a ‘delight’ you are, I’ll let it go this time. But keep your grades up, all right?”
Akihiro smiled and looked around his room. “Up where?”
His father laughed, and got up to leave, but something seemed to pass over him, something foreboding and he turned around to look at his son.
Akihiro was just getting out of bed, putting his slippers on, when his father saw light shining from his eyes.
It looked like black light, but that couldn’t be.
His heart was pounding, and he didn’t want to call his son, but he had to know.
“Akihiro!”
The boy jumped, visibly startled.
“What is it, dad? Geez, you scared me.”
There was no light, and his father shook his head.
“Nothing, son. Thought I saw something that’s all.”
“It’s just me here.”
“Are you…all right?”
“Yeah dad, I’m fine.” His eyes betrayed his fear, but his father chose not to press the issue, nodded, said nothing, and left as the feeling of panic subsided, but not the memory of the light.

2)

He was the last person Keith expected to see; he stood on the hill so Keith could see his avatar.
Keith was smiling, because the shadow his character cast dwarfed most of the others, but the smile vanished when he recognized Akihiro’s avatar.
Keith had been killing at will, at random, but he must have saved a rabbit somewhere in history.
Akihiro shuffled down the hillside toward him.
“You challenging me, runt? I’ll beat your ass here, too.”
Akihiro said nothing, and his character’s muscles rippled beneath his tight skin.
Keith’s character smiled, and charged, sword in hand.
Akihiro sent his mind streaming down the cable, becoming his character, the heat of the day oppressive, burning across his shoulders like a mantle of fire, the sizzling sand beneath him cooked his already calloused feet.
Keith’s CG warrior uttered a vile curse, and closed with Akihiro’s.
Keith was more agile as a warrior than a bully, and his character’s knife was fast, but Keith didn’t really know how to fight with it; he kept slashing instead of trying to get in close, where a knife was most useful.

Akahiro’s sword was longer, so he needed to keep his distance. If Keith cut him, he would feel the pain; Keith didn’t know that, and Akahiro wanted to keep it that way.
He pushed Keith’s warrior away, and managed to slash him across the chest, but it was slight, and Keith feinted right and came left, knowing that to be Akahiro’s weak side.
But Akahiro had been working on it…
With the ease of a skilled matador, Akihiro sidestepped the next attempt to slash his character, and as Keith pulled back to regain his balance, Akihiro kicked him back to keep him off balance.
Keith stumbled backward again, Akahiro’s long sword sliced through his throat, removing most of it, almost taking off his head.

Blood spouted, and hissed with steam as it sunk into the sands, and Keith’s warrior fell over backward, his head held on by a few missed strands of muscle, the sand billowing up like a shroud of made of gold dust.
The eyes of Akihiro’s CG warrior flashed a dark violet light, and Akihiro returned to his own body. 
It took time to come back to the reality of his own slightness after feeling the swell and pulse of being so strong, but the warrior was in pain too, and had a lot of scars that still burned in the desert sun. 
If not taken care of properly, he would be in serious trouble if he lacked mobility, even a little. 
Sometimes the enemy attacked in swarms.
But that was not the case today, and there would be no more battles for Keith.
Ever.
Akihiro looked at the screen; the body of Keith’s CG warrior lay broken and emptying out at his feet, the icon for his heart was now black with a red X over it.
He smiled, admiring his handiwork for awhile, and onscreen, the first of the vultures began to enter in from the right; a nice, realistic touch to an otherwise routine role playing game.
The thrill of the fight subsiding, the need for sleep growing strong, Akihiro took off the gaming glasses, showered, humming his warrior’s game music, and went to bed, the dark violet light pulsing under his eyelids to the rhythm of his heart.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.  2015

Play Dead

The audience grew silent as the houselights finally dimmed.

The darkness settled over them like a worn, well-loved cape across the shoulders, providing an intimacy and warmth in the small theater.

A single spotlight, silver white, hit the center of the stage, and in the middle of it stood a man with a knife protruding from his throat.

Rivulets of blood widened and thinned in time with his heartbeat, and his head was down, his black hair hanging limp and greasy in front of his face.

He looked up, and his eyes were gone, the crimson ruin of his sockets turned toward the audience in all their grisly glory.

Some screamed, some turned away, some fainted, but none left.

The actor shambled toward the front of the stage, and those in front shrank back from his grim visage as he seemed to look at them one by one, and smiled affably, for all that his lips were swollen and his teeth were gone.

“I can hear your heartbeats, feel the heat of your blood rushing to your faces; the tang of your sweat is in the air like bitter brine, mixed with perfume that smells like sweet tea.

“You, dear audience, are a study in contrasts. You fear me, but don’t run, because you’ve paid to see me here.

“Here I am. Are you pleased? Do you have your money’s worth?”

He waited, and some began to sob as they rose to leave.

He smiled again.

“So soon? You’re being rude. You haven’t met my wife yet. Honey?”

A woman emerged from the opposite side of the stage, her torso split, organs shining wet and red in the spotlight, her head at an odd angle, with a short piece of rope still wrapped in a thick coil around her neck.

“What crime did I commit,” she said, “that they treated me so?”

She went and stood beside the man, and they held hands.

She kept her free hand around her body to hold her organs in, and blood cascaded over her arm as her knee buckled, but the man held her firm.

“Can anyone help us?” she said.

The people in the back began to scream, and cries of “Let us out!” reverberated through the theater.

“They’re rude, honey. They want to go. Can you hear them?”

“I can hear them. Shall we release them?”

“I think we should.”

No one was left in a seat as the audience scrambled, screaming and crying, for the door.

“You haven’t finished watching the play; there are more of us,” the eyeless man said.

From the balconies and exit lobbies, other actors and actresses in dead makeup shambled toward the captive audience.

As they fled to the exits, they found the doors locked, and the cast, about one hundred in all, shuffling toward them, hands outstretched to tear, fanged maws opened wide as they salivated over their crumbling chins.

The man and woman called from the stage as the dead cast members began to tear the people to bloody strips.

“Thank you for coming,” the eyeless man said.

“We hope you’ve enjoyed our play,” the disemboweled woman said.

They took a slight bow, and came down the stairs to take part in the killing, the white spotlight following them as far as it could, before it went dark.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015

Trace (3)

3)

Trace pushed himself up, quickly set his clothes right, and extended a hand to Lydia, who smiled at the gesture.

He turned his back as she adjusted her clothes too.

“Such a gentleman,” she teased.

He smiled, but she couldn’t see it.

“Thank you for not leering, after…”

He just nodded.

“So many men just stare…”

“I get it; you don’t need to explain.” He remembered the view the king had as she knelt before him…

She nodded, finished dressing. “I’m done.”

He turned around.

“I’m sorry, Lydia. I was…”

“Trace, I swear, if you say ‘weak,’ I’m going to thrash you. We’re not betrothed.”

She laughed, “We’re not even lovers, in the real sense of the word, and we’re certainly not family.

“You were tense, and I…helped you.”

He smiled again, and she returned it.

“So what happens now?”

“You help me solve the murders, and we’ll take it from there.”

She turned it over a moment.

“Fair enough.”

“Who’s the child? What’s his name?”

“Arrick, but he’s asleep by now.”

“We’ll have to wake him up.”

“I wouldn’t; his mother’s a bear of a woman, in temperament. If she thinks you’re up to no good, I warn you, she really will thrash you; I haven’t seen you in action, but if you lock horns with her, unless you use magic, you’re not sure money.”

“Where are you going after work, you know all this stuff?”

She grew peevish from something she sensed he was implying.

“I’m not riffraff, Trace. I have to navigate the back roads sometimes; they’re not savory places. You’re not the only one with an edgy circle of friends and rivals.”

“Fair enough. I didn’t mean anything by it, Lydia. No need to get defensive, at least with me.”

“Forget it; no offense taken. Let’s be on with it.”

“You know this place better than I do.”

“And I know that you’re a mage, and I need not wander creation to find what you can easily summon.”

Trace found his respect for her growing; for a serving girl, she had a bit too much spine, and he found himself wanting to know more about her, but in her reprimand she overlooked one very simple truth, and he teased her with it now.

“But Lydia, you know what he looks like.”

“Oh.” She reddened, and he smiled, and she swatted his arm playfully as she walked out ahead of him.

**********************

Lydia knocked, and Arrick’s mother answered, not pleased at the late night interruption.

“Arrick? I’ll not wake him!”

She went to slam the door in their faces, and it didn’t budge.

Hissing, she clutched her wrist at the sudden resistance to the force of pushing it.

Trace moved in, and something in his eyes brought Arrick’s mom to a quivering stillness.

“Wake him.”

She turned away, leaving the door open so they could see her, and she woke Arrick, who rose quietly, and rubbing his eyes, looked at the stranger standing in the door. The blonde girl next to him he knew from the kitchens. She was kind to him, and snuck him chocolate treats; sometimes he shared them with his mother, but sometimes he didn’t, though he always felt guilty then.

“Arrick, you know what happened tonight at the banquet, right?” Lydia prompted to warm him up to the subject as he continued staring at Trace.

“Yes. The king and queen were killed.”

They were taken aback by how articulate he was for his age.

“You saw who did it, Arrick?”

“No. Their head was covered.”

“Was it a male or female?”

“A female; there was a perfume smell.”

Lydia smiled at that, and as his story unfolded, Trace realized the murderer was far more powerful than he thought.

This was going to be a battle of wills as much as a physical war.

And now there was Lydia to consider as well.

If she still wants to go….

  Trace’s lips twisted in a rueful smile, but then he noticed Arrick’s face paled.

*********************

   There was a perfume smell, and it receded, along with the unnerving weight of the kitchen girl’s subtly threatening stare, which she gave him over the mage’s shoulder.

    She would kill him if he told the truth; Arrick didn’t doubt that for a second. In the doing, she would not be kind, and it would not be a treat.

How could he be a mage, and not feel the evil emanating from her? She was standing just over his shoulder.

 Arrick grew cautious, and his first instinct was to protect himself and his mother.

“All I saw, sir, is whatever you saw me see in your vision. I didn’t follow whoever it was.”

“That’s fine,” said Trace, not believing it for an instant.

 Arrick wondered if she’d seen his knee sticking up; he’d slid on the floor up against the cabinet, and had to bend his knees.

Lydia shifted restlessly.

“It’s late, Trace.”

He spent a moment longer staring at Arrick, then turned to Lydia.

“All right.”

He turned back to Arrick and put his hand out, and Arrick shook it lightly.

“Thanks for your help, Arrick.”

He shrugged as his mother all but stumbled over him to close the door.

“So what happens now,” Lydia said, another nervous smile on her face.

“I’m going home; the royal brats haven’t left yet, so you’ll stay here. Meet me tomorrow, late morning, and we’ll pick it up from there.”

“What if someone comes to kill me later?”

“You can handle yourself, Lydia. Don’t pretend otherwise; there’s more to you than you’re letting me see.”

He walked past her, and left her staring after him, though she said nothing, and didn’t try to catch up to him.

She looked at the closed door once more, her eyes narrowing, and then, smoothing out the frown, she went back to her own place, and went to bed, a knife under the pillow.

And dreamed of Trace.

His naked back was to her, and she slipped the knife from beneath her pillow…© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015