Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 8
Stories
The Frankenstein Diaries
by Matt Rotundo
The Angel's Touch
by Dennis Danvers
Accounting for Dragons
by Eric James Stone
End Time
by Scott Emerson Bull
Limbo
by Stephanie Dray
Horus Ascending
by Aliette de Bodard
From the Ender Saga
Ender in Flight
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Laws and Sausages
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

End Time
Artwork by Dean Spencer
End Time
    by Scott Emerson Bull

"Damn heat," Jacob muttered, as overhead the sun bleached the sky, claiming temporary victory in its immemorial battle with darkness. He leaned forward on his chaise and lit a brown Turkish cigarette, an old addiction that refused to kill him. He was too old to care. He'd stopped counting birthdays after fifty-nine and was convinced that death kept him at arm's length just for spite. If God possessed an ounce of mercy, he would have taken Jacob by now, but Jacob knew the Devil had right of first refusal and evil's patience had no limit.

A screaming child shattered the surface of the pool. The kid's parent, a stooped man with frazzled hair and dead eyes, hovered close as if expecting disaster. It's a sin to bring kids into this world, Jacob thought. What future did they have anymore? He spied one of the cabana boys and waved his empty scotch glass. "And be quick about it," he told him. "The first three are wearing off."

In the pool, the splashing kid swallowed a mouthful of water and flailed away as if drowning. The father grabbed the kid by the arm and pulled him to the steps, ignoring the offered assistance from a middle-aged woman in a pink bathing cap and matching sunglasses. The woman shrugged and continued her journey around the pool, collapsing on the empty chaise next to Jacob in a muddle of paperbacks and sunscreen.

"My Lord it's hot," she said, in perfect Middle American. "I wanted to escape the cold, but this is ridiculous."

Jacob closed his eyes. Maybe if he ignored her.

"Looks like you're enjoying it though," she went on. "My ex used to go on about global warming and I'd tell him he was nuts. Now look at the world. Is it true what they said on the news? Did another polar ice cap break away?"

Yeah, lady, Jacob thought. The earth is melting and the days are getting hotter and the nights blacker and it's all thanks to those wonderfully toxic gases we belch into the air.

The woman continued unfazed. "I have a brother who lives on the Outer Banks and they swear the beach is creeping up to their bungalow. What a world we live in."

You don't know the half of it, Jacob thought.

A rogue cloud blurred the sun and cast a long shadow across Jacob. He had a sudden feeling of disconnection, as if the world had shifted on its axis. Across the pool, a wiry gray-haired man in thick, black glasses shuffled towards one of the umbrella'd tables. A thin moustache curled like a caterpillar over his lip and he had on a white robe with the hotel's crest embroidered on its breast. Scuffed sandals on his feet indicated either a certain frugalness in the man or that he had traveled far. Jacob knew both to be true. The cloud moved on, but the man remained in shadow. He looked over at Jacob and smiled.

The woman prattled on. "I'm from Minnesota," she said. "Just got in this morning. I tell you, I don't know how the airlines keep running. Three hours to get through security, then a six-hour flight without so much as a bag of peanuts. So are you American?"

"Lady," Jacob said. "Would you please shut the hell up."

Evening descended upon the island. Back in his room, Jacob unpacked his last suitcase. He'd unpacked the first two when he arrived, transferring clothes to the provided dresser, and books and writing implements to the desk by the window. At that time, there'd been no need to unpack the third. Now he spun the rusted tumblers on the black valise and let the locks snap open. Inside were two guns. He placed one under the mattress and the other beneath the cushion of the couch.

Afterwards, he went down to the Tiki bar with its smoldering torches and scowling waiters. He took a seat on one of the stools and nodded to Fred the bartender, who assembled him a Manhattan. Fred made a lousy drink, but possessed a disinterested nature.

To the right of the bar sat a palm-lined patio. The wiry man from the pool, now adorned in a wrinkled linen suit and blue sneakers, sat at a table in urgent conversation over umbrella drinks with Ms. Minnesota. Candlelight played off their faces, his dead white, hers wildly sunburned. They made a clichéd couple, the skinny hen-pecked husband and his over-bearing wife, though nothing could have been further from the truth. Jacob imagined them discussing the sorry state of the planet and how environmental shift wasn't really all that bad and wasn't the drainage plan they'd devised to save New Orleans from more Post-Katrina misery a marvel of engineering design? Jacob's curiosity overcame him and he took his drink to a table close by and listened.

"You seem so confident about this," the woman said. "I've been having nightmares ever since that something or other collapsed."

"The Larsen B," the little man said. His honey-smooth voice sent a chill through Jacob.

"So you believe this will lead us to a new age of reason?" the woman asked. "A new Enlightenment?"

"Change is good," he said, taking a sip from his drink. His cheeks bellowed around the straw like a puff adder. "We've become too complacent. Even about violence. We crave it. Knowing that others are dying makes us feel more alive. It's the fear of it all. We need a world-wide threat like this to really make us sit up and take notice."

Same old sleight of hand, Jacob thought. Keep your eyes on the rising tide as I slip away with your soul.

"But what about the war?" she asked.

"Wars come and go," he said. The little man was really getting full of himself now. "They're inconsequential in the scheme of things. They kill off some of us. We kill off a lot more of them. Our God's happy. Their god's happy. Everyone gets the requisite sacrifice of souls. At the end of the day the Earth has completed another rotation and we're one step closer to a new day. Nothing can stop it."

The woman slurped her drink. "Talking to you has made me feel so reassured," she said.

I'm going to vomit, Jacob thought.

The wiry man smiled. "You know you have remarkable green eyes."

Jacob sprang to his feet, attracting their attention. "They're not green," he said, "They're blue," and walked out of the bar, the wiry man's smile burning into his back.

Bad news on the television. Scientists discovered serious cracks in another Antarctic shelf. They now fear there could be some kind of sub-geophysical continental shift or some crap like that. The Earth was melting. Jacob couldn't be bothered, preoccupied as he was by other things, death primarily. Two days ago he'd have welcomed it with open arms. Now he felt differently. Maybe it was the idea of death on somebody else's terms. Jacob wasn't sure. He stayed up all night watching the apocalyptic news and cleaning his two guns.

At five a.m. the phone rang. Jacob let it ring three times before answering.

"This is ridiculous," the wiry man said. "Let's have dinner tonight."

"I didn't think this was a social visit," Jacob said.

"What else would it be?"

Jacob didn't answer.

"Come on," the man said. "You'll be saving me from another evening with that moaning cow."

"I thought suffering was your business."

The little man laughed. "Shall we say seven o'clock?"

The hotel's restaurant suffered from an over adornment of palm trees and bubbling fountains, so much so that it became difficult to determine where the inside stopped and the outside began. The hostess led Jacob to a table by the tropical buffet, but Jacob redirected her to an empty table for two by the French doors. He lit a cigarette and ordered a Manhattan. The holstered gun jabbed his ribs.

The man appeared wearing his linen suit and sneakers. He walked swiftly, in spite of a pronounced limp, and his eyes lit up when he saw Jacob.

"Forgive my attire," he said, offering his hand. "I keep leaving a note for the valet to have my suits cleaned, but the bastard never takes them."

Jacob shook the man's hand. It felt cold, the skin dry and rough. He wore makeup to obscure the ancient lines in his face and his dark eyes were red-rimmed and yellowing, as if damaged by sights no mortal man could comprehend. They betrayed his origins from a place so buried beneath the Earth's mantle that it defied human comprehension. Hell remained a feeble concept, even for those fallen few trying to scrabble their way out.

"So what do they call you now?"

"I've been trying Nigel on for size," he said. "I make a good Englishman, don't you think?"

"Your accent stinks."

A waiter appeared at the table with one of the hotel's parasoled concoctions. Nigel had never ordered it but then there was no need. He had a way of making people do things without their realizing it. He took one of Jacob's cigarettes, lit it, and erupted into a coughing fit.

"Smoking's bad for you," Jacob said. He rattled the ice cubes in his empty glass. "Think you could work your magic and get me another one of these?"

Nigel's brow wrinkled and the waiter returned with another Manhattan.

"Cheers," Jacob said. "Now tell me why you're here."

"We live in a world taken over by the young, Jacob," Nigel said, as he examined the back of his hands, an annoying habit Jacob had forgotten about. "People don't value their elders in this society. They'd rather pack us off to a nursing home." He narrowed his eyes at Jacob. "Or ship us off to die on some Caribbean island."

"Worse things happen."

Nigel took another drag and let the smoke roll out of his mouth. "The problem is that this younger generation is callous. Killing is sport for them. Years of mental decay brought on by video games, I suppose. They see it as their God given right to inflict pain on the world. Morality died years ago. You need to have a taste for killing innocents now."

"Morality's a joke," Jacob said.

"Perhaps, but we had a moral code in those days. We thought of ourselves as the good guys."

Jacob laughed. "There are no good guys or bad guys, just different points of view. We were soldiers fighting a war. I fully expect God to forsake me."

"You don't believe that?"

Jacob glared at Nigel. "Tell me why you're here."

"You know why I'm here."

"Then get it over with."

"It's not that easy."

Jacob stared out the French doors, watching the darkened sea shove layers of foam onto the beach. "You should have let me die."

"And lose a good man? Besides, you begged me."

"I was scared."

"You're scared now."

Jacob stared back at Nigel. "Are you offering me a deal?"

"Just something that alters the bargain a bit. You consider coming back into the fold. That way you'll relieve me of the need to kill you."

"Assuming you'd be successful."

Nigel grinned.

Jacob looked back at the sea. "I'll think about it," he said.

The waiter brought a plate of blackened tilapia to Nigel and handed Jacob the bill. Apparently, their meeting was over.

"You have until tomorrow morning," Nigel said.

Jacob threw the bill on the table and walked out of the restaurant.

Scientists predicted Bourbon Street would be under two feet of water in a year's time. The President's newly appointed Head of Environmental Studies denounced such rash predictions. He went on to say that other studies, funded by the government, would prove these conclusions to be the stuff of tabloid journalism. Besides, the engineering effort to save New Orleans would be astronomically expensive, somewhere in the trillions and the state of Louisiana couldn't afford it. N'awlins itself couldn't be reached for comment, as it contended with revelers packing the streets in what was being called Mardi's Last Hurrah.

Jacob should have died at least twice now. The first time was back in '43 when he'd been ambushed by a German sniper and Nigel or whatever he'd called himself back then had conjured a little magic to save Jacob from the ultimate fate. The second time, by Jacob's calculations, should have been 1998. Using the average age of his parent's demises, and accounting for advances in medicine, that was the year he should have died of natural causes. He would have been seventy-five. He certainly had no right to be breathing in the year 2010. He wondered if Earth felt the same way.

Jacob walked into town where he found a local bar to drown his thoughts. Drinking in morbid silence, he considered Nigel's offer, as locals and a few brave tourists coupled and uncoupled to the mandates of cheap rum and scratchy reggae. The bourbon soon turned Jacob's mind into a bleary haze. A young woman with black hair and black eyes sat next to him and they talked a while about God-knows-what. Jacob guessed she was a prostitute and he considered financing some sex in the hope it might make him feel more human, but when the time came he couldn't pull the trigger, so he stumbled back to the hotel alone.

He pushed his cardkey into the door-lock and the light went green. Please enter. The room smelled of smoke and fear. He showered in water as hot as he could bear, and then fell onto the sofa to watch TV - some talent show in Portuguese. Soon he passed into the world of nightmares. He stumbled through the burning landscape of Indo-China, smelling of sweat and cowardice, and came across a series of heads minus their bodies, each black-haired and too young, and dropped haphazardly along the dusty ground. They pleaded with Jacob as he walked amongst them. In real life, they'd cried soundlessly and for only a few tormenting seconds, but in the dream they chattered endlessly in sing-song voices. "It's the end time," they cried. "Come join us."

Shadows shifted in the room and Jacob woke with a start. The television and lights had been extinguished. Chill night air entered through the open balcony door. He reached under the cushion for the gun. It wasn't there.

Jacob searched the darkness, but nothing showed itself. The odor of fear clung to the air, as if it had followed him back from the dream. He'd made it easy, hadn't he? He'd left himself exposed and perhaps that's what he'd wanted. Perhaps he was no longer man enough to control his destiny. He wanted to die. He wanted it all to stop.

"Go ahead and shoot me," he shouted at the shadows, but the shadows didn't answer. His head pounded. He leaned forward and the room shifted angrily. Walking was out of the question. He slid off the couch and onto the floor. Something thin and metallic - a trip wire his mind screamed - caught against his knee.

Blue flame shocked the room. Jacob dove under the desk busting his shoulder on one of the metal legs. The lights flashed back on, as did the television at obscene volume, some big-breasted diva singing an old disco song in heavily accented English. Jacob struggled to his feet. Duct-taped to the top of the television was a smoking clown gun. A flag stuck out of its barrel.

It read, "Bang, bang. You're dead."

"So what's the deal?" Jacob asked, lighting a cigarette. He had a wicked hangover, like somebody playing racquetball against the backs of his eyes. Nigel sat across from him at a marble table next to the busy shuffleboard court. The slide and click clack of the discs provided a back drop. Above them the sun blazed and the palm trees conceded to the Caribbean winds.

"Just a disposal job like all the rest," Nigel said. The smile on his face was unnerving. "I want you to kill that cow from Minnesota."

Jacob stared at Nigel. "You're kidding?"

"I never kid about work," he said.

"But why? She's a complete innocent."

"There are no innocents. Not any more."

"That's insane."

"The world's become an insane place, Jacob. We have to do things that are distasteful to promote the cause."

"And what cause is that?"

Nigel looked away, as if distracted by something. "The final battle is imminent. Sides are being taken. We need to throw in our lots with the winning side."

"Which is?"

"Good always triumphs over evil," he said, with a bit of a leer.

"Or so they say."

Nigel leaned forward so he could whisper. "Look, how hard can it be? You have a gun. Walk up behind her when no one's around and bang. It'll take you seconds. You can be finished this afternoon and I can go the hell home."

On the beach, children played in the frothing surf. Jacob watched as their parents stayed close, their eagle-eyes alert for trouble.

Nigel took one of Jacob's cigarettes and lit it. "You're just a soldier doing a job," he said.

"But she's a human being."

"She's a body with a soul. Kill her and set her free. Do her a favor."

Jacob said nothing.

Nigel sighed. "She's taking the bus into town for some shopping," he said, shoving a pamphlet across the table. "Dangerous places these villages. A lot of bad things can happen."

Jacob picked up the pamphlet and walked away.

Innocents die in times of war. They always have. The trick now is to use that as an advantage. The leverage gained can be tremendous. The only problem is acquiring the taste, or at the very least the tolerance, to commit the deed.

Jacob went to his room. He put on a white cotton suit, straw hat, and comfortable pair of shoes. He slipped the gun that Nigel hadn't taken into his belt and stared into the mirror. He barely recognized the old man that looked back.

The bus taking them into town sat parked outside the hotel's lobby. Jacob took the seat behind the Minnesotan so he could study her on the way into town. She wore her hair tied back in a flowered scarf between a set of strong shoulders, the kind that bore responsibilities and gave reassurance. Jacob imagined her as a schoolteacher or perhaps a nurse. The role of caregiver seemed to fit her well.

The ride took twenty minutes over pockmarked roads. The marketplace reeked of tourist trap. Wooden carts piled with plantains and bottles of poisonous rum blocked every escape. A steel drum quartet played American pop songs while scruffy kids pushed cheap souvenirs in high-pitched voices. Jacob watched the Minnesotan buy a miniature bottle of sand decorated with a tiny sombrero and a sign that read "Life's a Beach." When she disappeared into the crowd, Jacob went in search of a bar.

Two hours later as Jacob had hoped, the Minnesotan, laden with bags and packages, came into the bar to quench her thirst.

"Join me?" he asked, his voice sounding wrong. Four lagers and lime wrong.

The Minnesotan eyed him with suspicion.

"I'm sorry I behaved like a jerk yesterday," he said. "At my age behaving like an ass is one of the few pleasures I have left."

The woman laughed and sat down. She was prettier than he'd remembered, but then he hadn't really bothered to notice.

"You made me laugh, so I guess I can give you another chance," she said.

"I'm Jacob," he said, putting out his hand.

"Anna Robertson."

Jacob ordered Anna Robertson a lager and lime, while he switched to bourbon. The gun jabbed into his back.

"So are you running from something?" she asked.

Jacob laughed. "Isn't everyone? What about you?"

"Two ex-husbands and a teenage daughter who'll only notice I'm gone once the rent isn't paid. I plan on hiding myself here until the money runs dry and then maybe I'll whore myself out. Think I'll get much?" she asked, batting her eyes.

"A gentleman never answers a question like that."

"Yeah, but an ass might," she laughed.

They drank three more rounds before the call came to return to the bus. Jacob had one of those phony buzzes where everything feels right with the world, although you knew the cold hand of reality was waiting to grab you by the throat. They took two seats together and the Minnesotan talked non-stop, as she pretty much had since her first beer. She moved seamlessly from the hardware business her second ex-husband was running into the ground to her blood-sucking, job-allergic, daughter. Throughout her patter, she became friendlier, touching Jacob's thigh as she made certain emotional points. Jacob nodded occasionally, as he tried to ignore the gun digging into his back.

"So tell me about Nigel," she said out of the blue.

"Nigel?"

The bus lurched through a pothole.

"He said you two used to work together."

"Did he?" Jacob said. He darkened his tone in the hope Anna would drop the subject. She didn't.

"He said you were the best at what you did."

"Nigel talks too much," Jacob said.

"He told me you were a hero."

"He's a liar."

Anna smiled. "He told me you'd deny it, too. 'Jacob will say he was just a soldier doing a job,' he said, but you fought to protect our way of life."

Jacob turned towards Anna. "He said that?"

"No. I just assumed . . ."

"There's nothing special about me. If anything I carry the burden of more sins than most. Nigel likes to boast because he thinks it justifies the crimes we committed. We'll both burn in hell. The flames around me just won't be as hot."

The color drained from Anna's face. She clammed up and kept a silent watch out the bus window for the rest of the ride. Jacob stewed in self-pity. He cursed himself for not having loaded the gun. Not so he could shoot the Minnesotan. He'd known when he looked in the mirror that morning that he wouldn't have the nerve to do it. He just wanted to put the barrel into his mouth and get it over with.

Nigel was waiting for him when he got back to his room.

"You're drunk," he said.

"Screw you," Jacob said, and collapsed onto the bed. Nigel pulled him back to his feet.

"I've gone out on a helluva long limb for you," he said. "You better pull yourself together."

Jacob pushed Nigel away and poured himself a whiskey. "I'm not doing it," he said.

Nigel knocked the glass out of Jacob's hand and slapped him hard across the face. Jacob swung back and missed. Nigel punched him in the face, making the room go from red to black. Jacob fell backwards onto the couch.

"What's happened to you? It was never like this in the old days."

Jacob rubbed his jaw. "I believed your crap back then. I'm too old for lies now. Besides, it's over. Earth is dying. Soon there won't be anything left to fight over."

"The battle is much bigger than this stinking planet," Nigel said.

"So whose side are you on now?"

Nigel clicked his tongue against the back of his front teeth, another of his annoying habits. "The same side as always. Who did you think you sold your soul to anyway?"

Jacob shook his head. "All these years and it's been nothing but lies, hasn't it?"

"And you believed every one of them," Nigel said. "The human soul is so pathetic."

"And yet it's such a popular commodity. You can go back to Hell. It's finished."

Nigel took a gun out of his pocket and checked the clip. "Nothing's finished until I say so."

"What are you doing?"

Nigel smiled. "I'm going to do what you couldn't do," he said.

"But there's no point."

Nigel took aim at the lamp on the desk and pretended to squeeze off a shot. "A good soldier follows orders," he said. "You were a good soldier once."

Jacob got up off the couch, but Nigel turned and pointed the gun at him.

"Go ahead," Jacob said. "Shoot me."

"Poor Jacob," Nigel said. He rotated his neck as if releasing the tension of a bad day and like storm clouds parting for a devil moon, the little man's façade dropped to reveal the tortured creature within, the twisted vessel of stolen souls. Jacob remembered the drunken evening when this creature had claimed that he was fighting to regain the status he'd had up above, before he'd fallen from Grace. That was how he seduced Jacob. But it had always been about evil. Always. Jacob knew that now.

The creature that called itself Nigel blinked bloodshot eyes at Jacob, who looked away.

"Look at me," it hissed. "I am your mirror. I'm what you don't want to admit about yourself."

But Jacob couldn't look back.

"Fine," the thing said. "Live with your cowardice. I'll do the deed myself. But just remember, Jacob. There are no innocents here, only different degrees of sinners. You've learned nothing if you haven't learned that."

"Don't do it," Jacob whispered.

The door opened and closed. The creature was gone.

Jacob knew he had to find Nigel and stop him. He tried to guess how Nigel would do it. He knew he had a flair for the dramatic. He also knew Nigel would wait until Jacob arrived to stop him, since that would add a level of sport to the affair, one that the mere act of killing lacked.

He hurried to the lobby where he heard talk of a tropical storm. "Nothing to worry about," the night manager said. "It'll blow over by morning."

Outside the sky had turned angry. Jacob headed for the beach hoping the sea air would clear his head. He was finished with drinking. Indeed, he'd probably come to the end of a lot of things.

The palms churned above him, their dry whispers sounding alarms. The ocean spread before him, teasing him with its offer of permanence. Jacob ran into the surf, water splashing his legs, hoping the cool water would clear his head, but it only made his suit cling to his ankles. His head was littered with memories, things he'd done and seen and tried to forget. A lifetime of death and despair. What did it matter anymore? When had it ever mattered?

It had all been lies.

Up ahead he saw shadows on the beach. The little man. The sturdy woman. Nigel had made it easy.

"Anna," Jacob cried. He saw her turn, and then Nigel. He saw the gun in Nigel's hand.

"Go back," Nigel called. "There are more than enough bullets in this gun."

Jacob walked towards them. "So what's it all about, Nigel? A show of loyalty? Another dead soul notched in your belt?"

"She wants to go," he said.

"Only because you've sold her your deceptions."

Jacob reached where they stood on the sand. He looked at Anna. She stood passively by Nigel's side, her eyes faraway and dreaming lies of paradise.

"Give me the gun, Nigel."

The air shivered. Rain fell, as the moon turned away.

Nigel didn't move.

"The gun," Jacob repeated, holding out his hand.

Nigel smiled, showing his foul teeth. He pointed the gun to Anna's head. She continued to look off in ignorant bliss.

"Say bye-bye," he hissed.

"No," Jacob yelled.

He lunged at them, pushing Anna free. Nigel stumbled and fired, missing them both. "Bastard," he shouted as he regained his footing on the sand. He pointed the gun at Jacob.

Jacob approached him, his hand still held out. "Give me the gun."

"As you wish," Nigel said. "Your end time has come anyway."

The gun fired, releasing a flash of orange. The bullet tore through Jacob's chest. It knocked him back a step. Warm blood spilled down his stomach.

Jacob looked down at the darkening hole in his white suit. He didn't feel pain, only something more like release. He stared at Nigel. "Not yet," he said, and he rushed the little man, his hands finding Nigel's throat. "Not without you."

Nigel shot again and Jacob's chest shuddered from the impact. Still he tightened his grip on the little man's throat, his thumbs finding the windpipe. As the cartilage in Nigel's throat collapsed, a thin smile crossed his lips, reminding Jacob of what he already knew. That you couldn't kill evil, you could only thwart it for a while, or at best, ruin its day. For now, for Jacob, that would have to be good enough. He felt the cleaving of spirit and body and heard the cries of captured souls escaping all around him. What had seconds before been Nigel, or the creature from Hell, or whatever the damn thing he was, had departed. Jacob wondered how quickly he would see him again.

A breath caught in his throat. He released the empty husk that had held Nigel and fell to his knees. He looked down and saw his blood pooling on the sand.

End time, he thought. End time for everyone.

Darkness filled in the gaps between the earth and the sky. The winds joined the frenzy of the coming storm.

Jacob fell forward. The last earthly sound he heard was Anna's screams.

He wished her well.

He wished them all well.


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