Hear No Evil, See No Evil

Currently in Birdy Magazine at https://www.birdymagazine.com/featured/hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil-by-joel-tagert-art-by-dave-danzara/. Full-sense sims are addictive—and the Three Monkeys will do anything to shut down the neuroport clinics.

I want to get a port.

Absolutely not.

All my friends have them.

What friends?

My friends online.

Those aren’t your friends. You’ve never even met them.

That’s not true, Mom. I know them. You should see the places we go.

Alex, you don’t go anywhere. You hang out in your room all day with your goggles on. You probably don’t even know their real names. Don’t even know what they look like.

Names don’t matter. Bodies don’t matter.

Prism and Prison

My latest in Birdy Magazine, “Prism and Prison.” It’s fascinating how metaphors – which is to say, stories – can both offer new perspectives and lock us into just one. Ultimately all concepts fall short of reality, and the universe is always greater than our thoughts about it; but this is not to say it is something concrete, but rather is infinitely labile, wood turning to smoke, gasses condensing into planets.

Humans are not machines, she told herself. The brain is not a computer.”


A Greater Magic


Image by Tyler Gross

“You have entered now into the Great Illusion,” said the sorceress. “When you passed through the mirror, you left one world and entered another. Who’s to say what’s real?” She ran a hand through the fur of the lioness beside her, then waved languidly at the great hall, the four steel golems, all spikes and armor. “Did you know I’m a queen in my world?”

Naoko Furoshi stood with hand on her sword, feet apart, ready for instantaneous movement in any direction, precisely poised. Of course she knew the risks of chasing a highly magical being into a mirror, but she hadn’t realized Leyendra was actually this powerful. Furoshi traced a rune of revealing in the air with her left hand, the magical forces she employed leaving tracers behind her fingers.

Her eyes thus magically sharpened, the hall popped: the speckled black marble at her feet, Leyendra’s silky yellow outfit, the texture of the lion’s pink tongue when it yawned. There was magic here, spells of protection, of magical amplification, runes laid into the stones and woven into the tapestries. But the room itself did not waver; so far as she could tell, it was a real place, somewhere in the multiverse. She had been foolish to come here. Continue reading


Early in spring Yama-uba fell sick with a fever. One morning, after a terrible night in which she thought she might die, she woke to hear the crying of a child. Startled, she sat up, looking around with alarm.

“Who’s there?” she called hoarsely. The only answer was more crying. “Hell and death, child,” she cursed, fighting her way to standing, damp with sweat beneath her crude patchwork robe. When she moved, her little pet mouse, Kyojin, scampered from the blankets and sought shelter behind a box. Yama-uba tottered over to the door, lifted the rope latch and looked with astonishment at her visitor.

Her sole visitor: for the child was alone, a little topknotted boy in a beautiful green kimono embroidered with a pattern of interlocking yellow snakes. His face was red and streaked with tears; he might have been two. Breath hitching, he looked up with big wet eyes.

Yama-uba looked, but she saw no one in the rain-glistening forest. “Hello?” she called, loudly as she was able. But no one answered, and her visitor only sniffled at her inquiries. He looked in rosy health, and his attire bespoke wealth and position. But what was he doing out here in the forest? Continue reading


They named the city Solitude, being without a sister on all the planet’s surface, a singular ruin spilling to the cliff-bound edges of a wide, high mountain valley. At least they assumed it was a ruin, for nothing moved among its sharp right angles, or nothing they could see from space; but then, life often acts unseen.

In the end four went down in the shuttle: Tor Mandelson, first lieutenant and pilot; Lida Trent, linguist; herself, Aless Raith, exobiologist; and Aless’s husband, Parnell Jacobs, planetologist. Parnell had consumed four cups of coffee in preparation and was beside himself with excitement as the shuttle descended. “We should have about twenty hours of daylight remaining, followed by eighteen hours of night. Then we’ll see something crazy, you better believe it. All that radiation striking the atmosphere is going to make things light up like a candle. It’s going to –”


Image by Dylan Fowler

“Less chatter on coms,” Tor said, taciturn.

Jacobs just switched to a private channel and kept talking. “So far so good, not even much static, though we are sitting right inside the transmitter, so to speak. I still don’t think we’ve solved the problem of communications, though.”

Every planet had its difficulties: too hot, too cold, too much gravity, too little, no water, all water. Eos was a .92 on the Earth Similarity Index, a prime candidate for settlement; but its sun had a bad habit of emitting solar flares, interfering with radio communication. The first probe they’d sent had passed through the magnetosphere and then just… stopped communicating. It was a real problem; Aless just didn’t want to hear about it now, as they were getting their first glimpses of the planet. “Can we maybe just be quiet for a minute?”


“Can we be quiet? As we land?”

His brow tightened. “Sure. Sorry, just excited I guess.” He seemed to want to say more, but she turned off the channel and that was that.

They landed shortly after dawn in a wide plaza ringed by rectilinear monoliths. The sky was gray-white, the sun weak. As they performed the long series of checks prior to stepping outside, Parnell sounded clipped. Letting her know that if she wanted to be all business, then All-Business Parnell could handle it. At last the airlock opened and they were outside, enclosed in silver pressure suits and laden with equipment. Continue reading

A Bad Day for Abaddon

“Life is a prison,” hissed the demon, exposing fangs that dripped with smoking acid. “Give me your life and I will free you of it. With my aid, you will gain power in the next world, and rule as queen over the kingdom of the dead.”

In-Here-4“I like life,” answered Furoshi, raising the tip of her sword. “Like, there’s a restaurant down the street from me that has this kickass breakfast burrito. I like to go there on Sundays, drink some coffee and chat with the bartenders. I think I’d miss that, if I was a slave to you in hell.”

She’d gone there just this last Sunday, in fact. Hadn’t really expected to travel to hell so soon, but you had to expect the unexpected. Now here she was facing this ugly son of a bitch in a desert of darkness deep in Seven Circles, the hell nearest to Earth. The desert swallowed light like the sands swallowed water; an ordinary light would go out in moments. Fortunately, Furoshi had spent her twenty-first year in a lightless pit of a prison in a goblin undercity, and had learned a nearly telepathic sense of an enemy’s body in the dark. Besides, her sword and whip glowed pretty bright.

“Then never mind the kingdom,” said Abaddon, his lion’s body tensing upon the crumbling head of an ancient statue, “I will take your life for pleasure.” And he sprang.

The sphinx-like demon was faster than Furoshi would have believed, covering the twenty yards between them in two bounds, pebbles spraying, curved claws extending from his eight legs, sharp teeth bared in the human face, snarling. Furoshi barely had time to speak a word of power to the rune-whip in her left hand and flick out the fiery line before springing right in a twisting motion that left a smoking wound in the demon’s first forelimb, where Furoshi’s sword had deflected its motion.

But those eight legs were faster and more agile than any earthly animal’s. Mid-charge they zagged, claws already slashing toward Furoshi’s unprotected face. Abaddon’s frightening visage, surrounded by the writhing black serpents of its hair, stretched and roared, a noise something like a jaguar’s.

No doubt the creature was expecting a quick end to an uneven challenge, but he hadn’t reckoned on two things: first, Furoshi’s armor was heavily magicked, infused with the blood of a steel-golem she’d destroyed years back; second, her rune-whip had almost instantaneously wound itself around several of Abaddon’s mid-legs, and now tightened on them cruelly, while Furoshi hacked at the back legs, half-severing one.

Abaddon screamed in pain and fury, and now the fight really began. The demon was terrifyingly fast, and every part of it was dangerous, from the hissing serpents to the spitted acid-venom to the giant, rusting fishhook of the tail. Unfortunately for Abaddon, Naoko Furoshi was a fifth-level witch of the Bloodearth Order, the chosen successor of her teacher, Kokorono Mizuno Ryu, the Dragon of the Heart’s Water, and her skin was scarred with runes and her katana was magic as fuck, and she was, as they say, a fucking badass. Furoshi put the hurting on that hellspawn, and when she was done, it was missing two legs and the other six were bound tight by the runewhip, its arcs ablaze with eldritch power, shooting sparks where the demon fought against it.

Finally Furoshi put a forceful boot on its neck and pointed her katana at the thing’s eyeball. “You gonna play ball now?”

“Kagejin,” hissed the demon. Shadowkin. “You will meet your doom here.”

“Well, maybe. I mean not here here, though, right? More like ‘here,’ in Seven Circles generally. Because you have to admit, in the here here, it seems like you got beat pretty bad. You could get beat worse, though. Like head-chopped-off worse.”

“Speak your will, witch.”

“I’m looking for somebody,” Furoshi began. Cautiously, she let go the whip – it was plenty smart enough to keep the monster tied tight on its own – reached into the sleeve of her robe and withdrew a photo, a three-by-five she’d printed at Office Depot a couple days ago, when she’d taken the gig. “This one.”

It was a picture of a little boy posing with a stuffed Cookie Monster, blue fur poking from between his fingers. “Peter Lushnikov is the kid’s name. His soul was stolen by a demon named Zaraz, Eye of the Red Storm. That’s who I’m looking for. Know where he’s at?”

Abaddon laughed, a single spiteful cough. “What does it matter?” But when Furoshi raised her sword to strike, the creature’s wet black eyes went wide and it gasped, “The center! Zaraz is at the center.”

“Hell has no center,” Furoshi said, puzzled. “It’s not geographically fixed.”

“Why then Seven Circles?”

“I mean, they’re not literal circles. They’re realms of existence. They go down forever, far as I know. It’s like a dream – it has no limits.”

“Yes, and where the limits end, there you find Zaraz.”

She frowned. “I need directions, not riddles.”

“Seek Croven the Aged, then. Toward the broken moon of Erebos until you see the salt-statues on the plain. He spoke to me once of Zaraz.”

Furoshi regarded her opponent warily. “If I let you up, are you going to be reasonable?”

A hiss; then, “Yessss.” So with a shove of her boot, Furoshi leapt away from the demon, sword raised, and called her runewhip to slither back to her hand, unwinding from foot and claw.

“What is the boy to you?” asked the demon when he was free. “Your son?”

“What? Oh God, no. No babies for me. Ick. I mean, no offense to anyone, just not my thing. No, I’m a professional. People hire me when they have a paranormal-magical missing-persons kind of issue. The clientele are pretty specialized, sure, but you’d be amazed what they’re willing to pay. Now if you don’t mind backing up until I basically can’t see your ugly ass anymore, I’ll be on my merry way.” She waved vaguely with the sword, where the broken moon Erebos was just rising, blood red over the broken stones of the desert.

“We will meet again,” promised the demon. “Unless Zaraz devours you first.”

“Let’s cross our fingers and hope neither happens, shall we? Now go! Get outta here!” She cracked the whip for emphasis. With a final hateful vituperation, the demon turned tail and fled.

After a few spells to make sure he was really and true gone, Furoshi turned and started slogging across the desert. Investigations in hell were never simple and never easy. Still, it beat working in an office all day.

The Shadow of All Things Past


Orrin hadn’t wanted such a large group, but his sister, Patience, wouldn’t be dissuaded, so in the end they were four, including his friends Matt Deving and Tom Rodriguez. Patience was the youngest, at eleven; Orrin the oldest, at fourteen (and the tallest, by a good five inches). Before dawn they made their way to the surface with their bicycles. In the early days of the Fort, you wouldn’t have been allowed outside at all without a rad suit, but these days even kids were allowed outside to play. There was talk of moving to the surface entirely, and some families had – there was obviously more space up there – but most still preferred the security of the great underground bunker that was Fort Haven.

They brought protein bars, and plenty of water, at least a gallon each; Orrin insisted on checking each backpack individually, and brought a little filtration system too. As the day went on it would get hot – a hundred and ten, maybe – but by that time they’d be down in the city. It would have made sense to go at night, but none of them wanted to be there after dark. “Everyone set?” he asked when they were gathered by the road.

“Let’s go already,” Matt said.

Orrin had read that the Romans built roads to last a thousand years, but it seemed like the Americans’ hadn’t lasted ten. Occasionally the kids took to the blacktop where sections still remained, but mostly they rode on the gravel shoulder. Rusted hulks of vehicles were lined all along the roadside or pushed down the ravines, long ago moved for the convenience of travelers. The kids kept peering into them, looking for skeletons, but it had been a long, long time, and most had collapsed into dust.

As the day lightened the landscape came clear: the mountains at their back, rough rocks and scrub grasses at either hand, the plains ahead. Once there had been trees, but they had all died in the Fall, and been burned for fuel by the survivors. At a small rise Orrin paused, staring into the sun. “There it is.”

Far below, the ghosts of roads still lay etched upon the earth. Upon that grid the broken remnants of human activity lay like cracked and discarded teeth. Disordered heaps of steel and concrete were dotted with larger structures; and in the far distance, a cluster of high-rises, or at least their skeletons, still clutched at the cloudless sky.

It took three and a half hours to reach the outskirts, by which time their asses were hurting bad from the bike seats. They stopped several times to rest and drink water, but Orrin kept pushing them on, thinking how much harder it would be on the return trip, riding uphill.

They came to a concrete bridge and rode it over a dry riverbed, and at last came to a building, or the remnants of one. It was large but low, constructed of cinder blocks that still retained some traces of beige paint. Of course the roof had long since fallen in.

“Should we go in?” asked Thomas.

“It’s why we came,” Orrin said, setting his kickstand.

“What if there’s someone inside?”

“There’s not.”

The double doors, made of ancient red-painted steel, still hung from their hinges. When Orrin opened the right it squealed like a disgruntled spirit. What if there was someone inside? But then, who could live here? What would they eat, with all the animals gone? Insects? He’d heard that’s what the Scratchers did, in their desperate surface lives: harvested beetles and ate them.

He shoved his way inside and entered a wide and roofless hallway. Nothing much but sand and debris from the roof, ancient boards, bits of metal. He turned at the first doorway.

Chairs and desks, dozens of them, in chaotic arrangements, tumbled and rusted. The color of the chairs’ plastic surfaces had only partially faded, orange, red and blue. He felt the others come up behind him and look over his shoulders, except for Patience, who peered around his stomach. “It’s a school,” she whispered.

Of course it was. Had been. He turned and went on. There might be a nurse’s station.
Indeed there had been, the red cross on a kit on the wall still visible. But it had been looted entirely, probably in the first days of the Fall, leaving nothing but grit and cobwebs.

They rode on, past the square concrete footprints of vanished houses, vehicles burned down to the axles. “Where are we going?” Patience asked.

“There,” Orrin said, nodding at the cluster of high-rises. If there was anything worthwhile, that’s where it would be.

The sun rose higher, and they sweated beneath their baseball caps. The dead city seemed to go on and on. He’d seen videos, of course, but he hadn’t realized it was so vast. Millions of people had lived here. How many in Fort Haven? Two thousand, stuffed into their concrete chambers like ants in a hill. How many at the larger refuge of Centcom, a hundred miles south? Maybe twenty thousand. And in all the world? A few million? Fewer than had lived in this single city.

They passed the remnant of a stadium, an enormous, half-shattered circlet of steel and concrete, like the discarded crown of a long-dead god. And on, until they stood at the foot of one of the high-rises, looking up awed. It was the tallest structure they had ever seen, by far; and it was a blasted ruin, the top third missing, its windows shattered or melted.

They did not try to go inside, but continued past plazas of dust and broken monuments, rubble heaped like mountains, avenues of drifted sand, and one building that had collapsed at an angle and still stood leaning wildly, like a soldier trying to stand on a broken leg. Further east, where they dared not stray, the destruction was still worse, the landscape reduced to an uneven expanse of cracked black glass.

Finally, in the heat of the day, they chose a building that was comparatively intact. They wandered its dead halls touching the gray faces of computer screens, the pitted and melted plastic, picking up broken bits of objects whose purpose they could only guess at. In its open-faced lobby they sat and ate, saying little.

They explored a few hours more, finding much of interest but nothing of use, until in late afternoon Tom pointed to a concrete wall. “Look at this.”

On the pale gray surface lay dark patterns. After a moment the shapes fell into place, and Orrin’s blood ran cold.

Three human-shaped outlines were etched there, each in a running pose. Here they had been caught; here their forms remained, forever fleeing. “Ghosts,” breathed Patience.

With difficulty Orrin tore his gaze away. “Just shadows.”

“Are we going to keep looking?”

He shook his head. “There’s nothing good here. It’s all gone.”

Together the four began the long hard ride back home, the sunset flaring in their eyes. Long before they arrived the moon rose, and its battered and lifeless face seemed a foreshadowing.