“Killer App” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Nestled amongst row upon row of icons, the little grey square with the smiley face on it didn’t stand out. Beside it, a crimson chameleon and a maroon camera jostled for Laura’s attention. They had the advantage. Warm colours get people’s attention. Every app designer knew that. It was one of a million little brain hacks that should have been second-nature to whoever made the grey square.

Laura’s finger hovered over her phone screen. Against the red tiles, the little grey square receded like a stone at the bottom of a pond. Below it, the words “Happy Time” sat forlornly. Her eyes drifted over to the camera beside it. It was a “Blood Red Halloween Selfie Filter“. Only ninety-nine cents. It looked suspiciously like the “Rose Red Valentine Selfie Filter” she’d bought a few months earlier.

Her eyes drifted back to the grey square. It smiled back at her. Happy Time. There wasn’t a price below it. Her eyes flitted over to the chameleon icon. ‘Privacy VPN‘. Ten bucks per month. She thought about tapping away and doing a currency conversion. Ten bucks had been about seven quid the last time she’d checked. The economy couldn’t have gotten that worse in that amount of time, could it?

She shook her head. What the hell did she need a privacy VPN for anyway? If any of the five intelligence agencies currently watching her internet traffic actually paid any attention, the worst thing they’d discover was the obscene amount of time she spent on Facebook.

Her pattern of likes was so bland that every political party, even the fringe ones, thought that their campaign ads might stand a chance come election time. Maybe that was suspicious in and of itself? Maybe some suits in an undisclosed location had thought she was covering something up? Maybe they had people watching her right now? Maybe she needed that privacy VPN after all?

Laura sighed. No, that in itself would look suspicious. Her finger hovered above the icon. This was silly. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Plus, seven quid a month too. It’d be smarter to buy nothing. It wasn’t as if her phone’s memory chip was short of apps. Half of them cried out for updates every day. It was hit or miss whether she recognised their names.

Do the smart thing. Buy nothing. What’s the point of buying something new if you aren’t going to use it? Her eyes flickered back to the grey square again. No price. It could be free. She tapped on it.

The square expanded to fill half of the screen. Below it, the words ‘Happy time fun‘ appeared in tiny print. It had to be a scam. A virus that would brick her phone at best. She was about to go back when she spotted the review score. Five out of five. She swiped down and read the reviews.

Don’t be put off by the shoddy icon, this game is really addictive. A real indie project too, no micro-transactions. Just don’t expect to get past level thirty. (5/5)

OMG! Downloaded this 4 a laff on my old phone. Stayed up half the night playing. Awesome 🙂 (5/5)

The list went on and on. Each review looked real. There was enough variation in register, syntax and tone to tell her brain that humans had written them. There were enough grammatical errors, mispellings and sloppy phrases to tell her that whoever wrote the reviews hadn’t been paid for them. She tapped the icon.

A pop-up appeared: ‘This app collects personal data in order to improve the user experience.‘ She tapped it without thinking. A few seconds later, the program downloaded. She opened it.

To Laura’s delight, it was a fun game. As simple as Tetris, but with all of the complexity of chess. Sure, the animations were a bit primitive and the sound effects reminded her of computers in old ’90s TV shows, but that didn’t matter. It was fun.

Every now and then, her phone pinged and buzzed. Laura didn’t care about the notifications. The Facebook messages could wait. She reached level thirty. The review was right, it was tough. Something tinkled behind her. The wind howled. She almost beat the level. Nearly. Another go.

As the blade whipped across her throat as swiftly as a bullet, Laura barely registered the single second of stinging pain. Her final thought before the choking darkness engulfed her was ‘Goddamn it, I was so close.’

The masked man stood over the cooling body. An unseen smile played across his lips. As he wiped his knife on his lucky cloth, something buzzed in his pocket. He trembled with glee. Peeling off his gloves like a surgeon after a long operation, he tapped his phone. So many downloads, so little time….

“Remnants” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

There was half an hour to spare and the rain had picked up. Steve thought about ducking into a cafe and passing the time there, but there wasn’t a good wi-fi signal and it was four quid for a cup of coffee. The wind howled and gnawed at him. He scanned the high street. Betting shop. Cafe. Clothes shop. Cafe. Abandoned shell. Cafe.

Then, salvation. The bright expanse of the chain bookshop beckoned to him. Fond memories flashed through Steve’s mind. Those halcyon days where he’d lose himself in these temples to literature every couple of weeks. With a stifled laugh and a whisky-warm glow of nostalgia, he rushed inside.

The new book smell hung heavy in the air. Row upon row of pristine covers stared back at him. Each one featured either a muted neutral design that would go well with modern interior design trends or a single striking image that would look good in a tiny online thumbnail.

Whatever. He thought. Don’t judge a book by its cover. There were, after all, better things to judge a book by. Genre for starters. So, with that wisdom in mind, he slid past a shelf of literary novels – all of which proudly carried stickers proclaiming them winners of various awards. For half a second, he wondered if there were more awards than authors. A book with three stickers on it confirmed his theory.

As he turned the corner, the shelf shook. A 900-page boulder crashed down mere inches from his head, clipping his shoulder and fluttering to the ground like a wounded bat. Ignoring the throbbing ache in his shoulder, Steve glanced around. No-one had seen it. Good. He knelt down and picked up the doorstopper. Winner of Britain’s foremost literary award. Figures.

Carefully sliding the book back onto the shelf, Steve resumed his search. A grey cliff face of gritty crime thrillers stared back at him. The crushing uniformity of it was only broken up by the occasional moody blue rectangle. He continued his quest.

The garish primary colours of the childrens’ section told him that he’d drifted off course. As Steve turned away, his eyes fixed on a multicoloured mosaic of spines. The titles sounded suitably dramatic. Steve’s eyes lit up. He reached for one of them. Sci-fi & Fantasy? He looked at the book cover. It contained a picture of a sullen teenager staring into the distance. Nope. Young Adult fiction.

He continued his search, giving the “Travel” and “Mind, Body & Spirit” sections a wide berth. His eyes fixed on three bookshelves wedged into a tiny corner. Above them, the words “Sci-fi & Fantasy” smiled at him. He rushed over to them. There were interesting books here – an assortment of classics, both past and present. After ten minutes of searching, he selected a couple of interesting titles. But, there was more to find. Where was it?

Steve kept walking. He passed a pastel rampart of romance novels before almost crashing into a random table of books. When he glanced down, he saw that it was filled with popular bestsellers. 3 for the price of 2! 70% off! He didn’t recognise a single title on the table. He kept looking.

For a second, Steve’s eyes lit up again. In a forgotten corner, a single sliver of darkness stood out. A solitary rectangle of gloomy, heavy spines. With a smile spreading across his face, he rushed over to it. Finally.

As he got closer, his heart sank. Above the shelves, the word “History” glowered at him. He turned away. It had to be somewhere.

The voice startled him: ‘Are you looking for something?’

Steve spun around. A bearded guy in a staff T-shirt stared back at him. Steve smiled: ‘Yes, I’m looking for the “Horror” section.’

The guy stared at him blankly: ‘Er… There might be a few Stephen King books in the general fiction section.’

Steve’s face went pale. He should have expected it. But, when he trawled his memories, there was always a horror shelf. Even when it was just a token row of books that was one-third Stephen King, one-third paranormal romance and one-third Victorian classics, it had always been there.

It wasn’t right. A bookshop without a horror shelf. Something in Steve’s mind began to come loose. Had he been gone too long? Was there no place in this trendy modern age for the simple joy of a blood-spattered paperback about giant flesh-eating rats? It wasn’t right! Steve started hyperventilating. His eyes bulged. His head ached. The guy took a step backwards and shielded his face.

What happened next never made the papers. It was overshadowed by the cataclysmic shock of an offensive celebrity tweet. Within days, the cleaning staff had finally managed to scrub Steve’s stubborn brain matter out of the carpets. The manager had returned the damaged books to the publisher. The police had issued an incident number. Life went on.

“Let’s Play” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

In a tiny window inside a tiny window, GialloBlade81 leant closer to the camera and put on an ominous voice: ‘Happy Halloween everyone! We’ve got a real treat for you tonight.’ Under the bright studio lights, his dark hair stood out like a tarantula above the pale zombie make-up.

Beside him, Elvirus23 tugged on one corner of her plush slime monster hat and gave the camera a wonky stare: ‘Oh god, it isn’t a horror game is it?’

GialloBlade81 looked shocked: ‘Why, no. It’s the beloved SNES classic Super Mario World. Bringer of cheerful childhood nostalgia and innocent fun to millions of gamers.’

Elvirus23 let out a conspicuous sigh of relief: ‘Whew! I was worried that you’d dug up some scary indie game or something like that. Can we just play the first couple of levels? The ghost house level used to scare the crap out of me when I was a kid. That spooky music!’

GialloBlade81 cackled: ‘Oooonly joking! Of course it’s a scary indie game!’ He leant forward and pressed a button. On the screen behind him, a start menu with the words EMPTY HOUSE: REQUIEM dripped ominously. The howling laughs of hidden clowns skittered through the air. A CGI cockroach scuttled across the bottom of the screen.

Elvirus23 flinched and glowered: ‘You fiend! You know that horror games give me nightmares for..’ She corpsed. Once her hissing laughter had subsided, she said: ‘Better cut that from the episode, Norman.’

GialloBlade81 flashed a puzzled glance at the camera. ‘Really, it’ll be funnier if we leave it in. I mean, it’s not like any of our viewers don’t know that I’m the one putting on the brave face and you’re the one who only acts scared. It’s ironic. Postmodern, even.’

Elvirus23 shrieked with laughter. Finally, she took a deep breath and put her slime monster hat back on. She fixed the camera with wobbly eyes: ‘B…But, you said we were playing Mario.’

‘One of the cannibal clowns inside the Empty House is called Mario. The developers were kind enough to share that intriguing fact with me when they sent us the game key.’

‘S…Spoiler alert! Wait, did you say clowns?‘ Elvirus23’s eyes widened.

‘Oh yes!’ Another cackle. ‘It’s a real funhouse, I’m told!’

Elvirus23 made a show of covering her eyes and shivering. GialloBlade81 reached for the controller. Keeping his trembling fingers below frame, he pressed another button. The screen behind the presenters dissolved into the dilapidated hallway of a photo-realistic abandoned mansion. Lightning flickered through the gloom, illuminating dried stains on the flaking walls.

Keeping his voice under control, GialloBlade81 said: ‘Well, I’m giving this hotel a bad review on HolidayAdvisor when we get home.’

Elvrius23 opened her fingers and peeked out: ‘It had to be a haunted mansion, didn’t it? I can’t even go round National Trust museums thanks to those.’

‘Aren’t they usually only open during the day? Oh god, that would make a brilliant horror game. Just think of the number of restless spirits who roam the..’

Elvirus23 quivered theatrically: ‘No, don’t! Just get on with the game.’

He got on with the game. The first-person camera took slow, crunching steps through the swaying hallway. As it passed a locked door, loud banging and squeaking suddenly filled the air. GialloBlade81 barely managed to keep his composure. Beside him, Elvirus23 made a big show of screaming and falling off of her chair. As she climbed back onto the chair, GialloBlade81 ignored the furious pounding in his chest and kept playing.

He paused in front of the stairs. The only other place to go was a dark corridor. As he turned towards it, two red eyes glowed back at him. He nearly dropped the controller. Elvirus23 let out a piercing scream, worthy of any late-night movie. He took the stairs. Like the loading screens in the original Resident Evil, every creaking step seemed to take an age. He kept moving.

Neither of them heard the silent tread of oversized shoes behind them. It was only when the smell of greasepaint reached GialloBlade81’s nostrils that he dropped the controller and turned around. A giant motley clown towered above him, the smudged red smile on its face wider than ever before. GialloBlade81 tried to scream. Instead, his eyes widened. He clutched his chest and slumped forwards. His head hit the desk with a loud bang.

Elvirus23 couldn’t stop laughing. Within seconds, the clown joined in, his spiky green hair quivering and swaying wildly. Finally, Elvirus23 caught her breath and said: ‘Oh my god, Fred. That was too funny! Brilliant!’

Fred chuckled: ‘I wish I could have seen the look on his face. Oh well, there will be plenty of time for that during editing.’ He glanced at the slumped man: ‘Sorry about that, Norm. It was Sophie’s idea.’

Norm said nothing. Fred’s voice trembled: ‘Norm?’

Sophie frowned: ‘Come on, Norm. That’s the oldest joke in the…’ She leant closer. A single droplet of blood dripped from the edge of the desk. This time, there was nothing fake about her screams.

“Void” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Reza raised the scanner and swept it over the churned ground. On the screen, a thousand tiny fragments glittered like stars. He tapped a couple of buttons and waited. Five seconds later, a pop-up appeared: RECONSTRUCTION ALGORITHM COULD NOT RESOLVE DATA.

Muttering under his breath, he brought up a menu and set it to reconstruct multiple objects. A memory allocation error appeared. Reza twiddled with the amplification dial on the side of the scanner, hoping that getting rid of the smaller fragments would free up some memory for the processor. But, just after he started the process again, the air around him cooled by several degrees.

Without even thinking, he reached back and flipped up the hood of his anorak before returning to the screen. It was still processing. Curses and prayers competed for his attention. The air got colder. The little spinning thing on the screen moved slightly faster. Come on!

A reassuring ping echoed through the air. As Reza raised his head to the grey sky with relief, the rain fell. There was no small pattering of drizzle to give him a moment’s grace. One second, the air was cold and heavy. The next, it was a solid sheet of rain. Without even thinking, he hunched over the scanner and ran.

His feet squelched and slopped. He almost slipped. He kept running. Keep the scanner dry. He didn’t look up. He knew the route.

At least, he thought he did. As his shoulder slammed into the scorched trunk of an old tree, Reza realised that he was lost. The bare branches gave him little shelter. He ignored the ache in his shoulder and stayed crouched over the scanner. Worst case scenario, the rain will pass in six hours.

Luckily for him, he didn’t have to wait six hours. Above the furious pounding of the rain, Reza heard an intermittent slopping sound. Turning his head sideways, he saw a bright orange shape moving through the rain. A smile crossed his face. He kept crouching. Two minutes later, a hand touched his shoulder.

Beside him, Suzy shouted: ‘Come on! Follow me.’ She fumbled through her anorak and pulled out a plastic bag: ‘Cover it with this.’

As soon as Reza had got the scanner covered, they ran. It was only when the half-buried tube of the site station began to appear that Reza realised where he’d gone wrong. With all of the chaos of trying to get a reading before the day’s rains hit, he’d wandered into the neighbouring field. It was easy enough to do when your eyes were glued to a screen for hours.

Suzy held the door open as Reza rushed into the corrugated tube. Seconds later, she clanged it shut. Above their heavy breathing, rain pinged off of the roof like machine gun fire. The piercing smell of petrichor hung in the air. Reza fumbled with the bag and handed it back to Suzy. She placed it on the pitted wooden table before staring at the scanner screen. It was still working.

‘Did you get anything?’ Suzy sat down and reached for the scratched biscuit tin.

Reza pressed a few buttons on the scanner ‘Yeah. Hmmm…. Nothing in the database about it. Hold on, I’ll try a date extrapolation. Might be a few minutes.’

Pulling two misshapen biscuits from the tin, Suzy leaned over the scanner. On the flickering screen, a flat black ingot encased in shattered glass sat beside a loading bar. It made no sense whatsover. The glass couldn’t be there to protect whatever was inside it. Maybe it was some kind of emergency item, like the old fire alarms back at HQ? Suzy shook her head. Who would need a portable fire alarm?

She handed a biscuit to Reza. They ate in silence. The loading bar crawled forwards. Suzy smiled: ‘Have you got any idea what it is?’

‘My best guess is that it’s some kind of currency. The latest message from the London site mentioned finding thousands of items like this one amongst the bone fragments. The glass casing is a new touch, though. Maybe it was more valuable than the London specimens or something like that?’

The scanner pinged. They both stared at the screen. The number 2018 stared back at them. Reza laughed. ‘Typical.’

Suzy sighed ‘We got drenched for that? Another bloody void item.’

‘Don’t worry, we’ll piece it together eventually. I mean, we know it’s an early void item. So, it’s another clue.’

Suzy reached for another biscuit ‘Yes, but I was hoping for some real history. Some pre-2007 thing that actually told us something. It makes no sense! People before then had everything – recreational buildings, detailed machine-printed writings, tiny mechanical clocks and even reels of sequential images. Then, one year, they all just suddenly decide to start a two-century dark age. It makes no sense.’

Reza grinned and pointed at the plastic bag on the table: ‘I don’t know, they certainly knew how to make bags back then.’

“Limelight” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

‘It’s like Christmas, but better.’ Jane grinned. ‘Think about it. There are horror movies in the cinema, there’s cool-looking stuff in the shops and there are even horror movies on the telly too.’

Rachel sipped her coffee: ‘It’s better than nothing, I guess. But, look, it’s a ghost.’

‘A ghost?’ Jane glanced around the coffee shop. Her eyes fixed on a bearded man wearing an ironic Scooby Doo T-shirt. He tapped away at a smartphone, oblivious to the world around him. ‘I’d have thought zombies, or maybe robots? I don’t know what ghosts have to do with it.’

‘Think about it. When we were teenagers, a new remake of a Japanese horror movie would come out every few months. Then, in 2004, there were the “Saw” movies. Every Halloween, there would be a new one.’

Jane’s eyes widened: ‘Oh god, I remember those. Did you know, some people actually fainted during the third one?’

‘That’s exactly the point!’ Rachel took another sip of coffee. ‘People talked about them. They were popular. Horror movies were alive in those days. These days, it’s all superhero movies. And, every Halloween, they’ll trot out a remake of an old horror classic, a couple of horror-themed kids movies or a slightly edgier superhero movie. It’s like cinemas are haunted by the ghost of what horror movies once were.’

‘I never really thought of it that way before. I didn’t even notice. I mean, there are still horror movies.’

Rachel shook her head: ‘Yeah, but they’re like horror novels or heavy metal music. I mean, they’re there if you look for them. But, if you go back to the ’80s, they used to be mainstream. From everything I’ve heard, people who didn’t understand them used to moan about them all the time.’

Jane sipped her tea: ‘Well, at least people are moaning about other stuff these days. Although, does that mean no-one cares about the horror genre any more? Is it even still rebellious?

Rachel shrugged: ‘It used to be with comics. I mean, did you know that horror comics used to be a thing?’

‘Horror comics?‘ Jane laughed.

Rachel finished her coffee ‘Yeah, read some history. Back in the forties and fifties, they were the most popular type of comics. You know, Tales From The Crypt and all that.’

‘No, I don’t. Hey, wasn’t that a movie?’

‘Anyway, there was a big fuss about it back then. People howled about how they were corrupting the youth and all that nonsense. In the mid-fifties, the American comics industry introduced strict censorship rules. There were actual laws passed about it over here. And, of course, the only popular genre of comics that could survive were superhero comics.’ Rachel’s expression darkened. ‘They’ve been gloating about it ever since.’

Jane said nothing. Finally, she stuttered: ‘That’s… terrible.’

Rachel laughed: ‘You were right about Christmas though. Halloween is just like Christmas. A collection of mindless rituals that people go through just because something used to be more popular in the past.’

‘You mean, we’re like those miserable people who write to the papers every year moaning about how people have forgotten the traditional meaning of Christmas?’

‘Pretty much.’

Jane’s eyes widened. An icy chill shot down her spine. A silent scream died on her lips. Around her, no-one looked away from their smartphones.

“Pop Up” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Dan stared at the towering ossuary, a vast structure of jumbled bones reaching towards the slate sky like the grasping hands of a thousand undead. The only thing he could think to say was: ‘How the bloody hell did this get planning permission?’

Beside him, Tina laughed: ‘It’s a pop-up, it’ll probably be gone in a couple of weeks. Makes a change from the usual.’ She gestured at the sad-looking rows of shuttered shops surrounding it like gravel around a grave.

‘Yeah, but what is it supposed to be? I mean, you’d think there would be a sign or something.’

‘It’s probably a restaurant. They always are. Best case scenario, it’s an ironic homage to Halloween-themed breakfast cereals from the ’80s. Worst case scenario, it’s something political or, even worse, it’s a work of conceptual art.’ Tina raised her phone and took a photo.

‘I don’t know how they expect anyone to visit it. It isn’t like they’ve rolled out the welcome mat.’ Dan put on a silly voice: ‘Welcome, welcome to the house of bones. All the fun of the graveyard in one easy-to-reach location.

The skies darkened. Tina laughed. She tapped her phone a couple of times: ‘Maybe it’s got a website?’ She tapped a few more times and raised an eyebrow: ‘Apparently not.’

Quelle surprise. It looks like it hasn’t even discovered the telegraph, let alone the internet.’

‘No, it’s modern. It’s some underground thing that’s probably shared by word of mouth. On social media, of course. Do people have actual conversations any more?’

‘Aren’t we?’

Tina shook her head: ‘This is more of a discussion than a conversation, I think.’

Amongst the matchstick sculpture of femurs, tibias and scapulas, a single skull stared down at them. Slowly, its hollow sockets began to glow bright orange. Two rows of weathered teeth chattered eagerly, the noise skittering through the air like crickets in a campsite.

Tina’s laughter howled along the deserted street. Dan was about to make a sarcastic comment when the air rumbled. The sky flashed like a selfie and then the rain started to pour. The kind of heavy, opaque rain that Hollywood film-makers like to think that they invented. Gasping, Tina gestured towards the ossuary’s yawning mouth: ‘Come on, let’s get inside!’

As another lightning flash stabbed the sky, Dan pointed his thumb over his shoulder: ‘The bus shelter is closer.’

‘Fair enough.’ Tina said. They ran towards it. According to the parts of the timetable that poked out from behind the burnt and graffiti-stained glass, the 41 bus would arrive in five minutes. More like ten, Dan thought.

Tina huddled close to Dan on the cold plastic bench. Behind the sheets of rain, the other side of the road wasn’t even visible. Then, a pair of lights appeared in the distance. Tina smiled. It’s on time! For half a second, she thought about getting her phone out and documenting this unprecedented occurrence.

The lights got closer. It was only when they were the size of footballs that something began to feel wrong. Neither Dan nor Tina could place what it was. Perhaps it was because the light was a subtly different hue than standard bus headlights? Perhaps the two orbs were a centimetre off from their remembered models of what a bus looked like? They didn’t know. Both of them just stared.

As the lights got closer, they separated. A silhouette appeared against the rain, like a preliminary sketch. With slopping footsteps, the skeleton stepped out of the rain. It raised a large iron lantern and fixed two hollow sockets on the dumbfounded couple.

Dan regained the power of speech: ‘Nice cos…’ His voice broke off as he realised that the skeleton’s neck was too thin to be a costume. Tina gasped.

Seconds later, another lantern-bearing skeleton appeared. In a voice like teeth on a blackboard, it said: ‘Sorry folks, we don’t usually do outreach but the roof is leaking. Any donations will be very much appreciated.’

The other one rattled its head: ‘Yeah, we’re already on our final warning with the health and safety people. Give us a hand. Or maybe a leg?’

Dan laughed and fumbled for his wallet. The skeletons shook their heads. Tina’s eyes widened. They didn’t want money, they wanted…

But, before she could scream, the skeletons said: ‘We’ve got wi-fi and free coffee. Artisanal cupcakes too.’

Who could argue with that?

“Update” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

The first thing that tipped Sally off to the fact that the date wasn’t going well were Tom’s bookshelves. The books were the wrong way round. Two uniform rows of beige pages stared out, blending in perfectly with the magnolia wall behind them. She thought about leaning in and taking a closer look, but decided against it. Instead, she said: ‘It’s so good to find someone with books these days.’

Tom laughed and reached for a slender electronic device, the plastic a slightly brighter shade of magnolia than the walls: ‘Oh, those. They came with the flat. I rent books electronically with this.’

‘Ah, cool.’ Sally tried to smile. ‘I’m probably kind of old-fashioned. I don’t know, I always worry that those things might crash or run out of battery or become obsolete.’

Tom’s voice was confident, like someone from an advert: ‘Ah, but that’s all part of the premium plan. You see, I rent the device too. So, it gets updated every year or so with the latest model. Plus, all of my books are kept in the cloud too.’

‘But, what if the wi-fi goes out? Or the cloud servers crash? Or what if…’ Sally stopped. ‘Oh god, I sound like one of those doomsday preppers.’

Tom looked puzzled. A second later, he raised his voice: ‘Bub, what are doomsday preppers?’

On top of the beige bookshelves, a small white sphere glowed blue. An electronic voice said: ‘Doomsday preppers. People who believe that the collapse of civilisation is imminent. Common preparations include a “bug-out bag” of essential supplies and detailed emergency plans. Those who fear a zombie apocalypse often also stockpile weapons too. In jurisdictions, like this one, where firearms are restricted by law 86% of forum posts suggest that a shovel is the best defensive tool. Do you want to learn more?

Tom shook his head. Sally grinned: ‘Oh god, it’s like the computer from Star Trek.’

‘I’ll queue a few episodes up to stream later. I’ve always meant to watch it.’

‘You’ve never seen Star Trek? Don’t worry, your first time is always the best. Anyway, I got you this.’ Sally fumbled through her bag and pulled out a small wrapped parcel. She handed it to Tom. Wrapping paper rustled quietly in the silent room. Tom stared at the little box of chocolates.

A second later, he smiled and said: ‘I got you something too.’ Tom reached for his phone. It was the latest model. After tapping it a couple of times, he held the screen up. It read: ‘Immersive cinema. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Admit two.

‘Oh, wow! Thanks.’

Tom nodded: ‘I prefer experiences, you know. You should see some of the selfies from the last screening of it. People look like they’re enjoying themselves.’

‘I’m sure they are. Hey, do you want to get dinner?’ Sally was about to suggest a restaurant when she stopped and said: ‘I’m sure you’ve got an app for it. Crowd-sourced takeaways or something like that.’

Tom shook his head: ‘No. I was thinking something more local. In fact, I was thinking of preparing it myself.’

Sally smiled: ‘Awesome. And I thought that I was old-school. What did you have in mind?’

As final words went, they wouldn’t go down in history. Whilst Tom chomped and guzzled merrily, the last thoughts to go through the gnawed remnants of Sally’s brain were that zombie movies had lied to her. That was, she thought, the problem with all of them being inspired by one movie from the sixties. They were stuck in the past. Stuck in the days when hollow, soulless beings stood out amongst the crowd. But, of course, everything gets updates these days.

“Zero” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

A huge smile crossed Bert’s face as he gestured at the large chart behind him: ‘…And, with the recent contractual changes, annual profits per branch have increased by an average of twenty percent. Good work everyone.’

Polite applause followed. Bert scanned the table in front of him, carefully judging how much enthusiasm each branch manager showed. Two of them were over-egging it, almost to the point of sarcasm. He made a mental note of their names.

Keeping the smile on his face, Bert said: ‘Luckily for us, the press have been focusing on the larger companies. Any blowback from employees?’

‘Some grumbling.’ A bald man in a green suit shrugged. ‘I just tell ’em that if they’re good at what they do, they’ll get more hours. Works well enough.’

The man next to him laughed: ‘Too true, mate. I tell them that zero hours means zero hours if they don’t shut up about it. ‘

Beside him, a blonde woman in a pinstripe suit shook her head. ‘We’ve had a surge in union memberships. No strikes so far. Legally speaking, they don’t have a leg to stand on.’

A chorus of approving murmurs echoed around the room. Bert nodded. ‘Some trouble is to be expected. But, things will settle down. It isn’t like the competition can offer them any better. Honestly, I’m surprised that they haven’t sent us a cease and desist letter. I mean, where do you think I got the idea from?’

Polite laughter followed. Bert stood up slightly straighter: ‘Best of all, if trends continue, then I think that we are all going to have a very merry Christmas.’

More applause. A couple of people got up to shake Bert’s hand. He made a mental note of them too. One showed genuine enthusiasm, the other was brown-nosing. Stay at the top long enough and you get an instinct for this kind of thing. His mind began tabulating bonus figures as he waited for the applause to die down.

His eyes drifted over to the clock. It was nearly four. Keeping the smile on his face, Bert said: ‘And that about wraps it up. Keep up the good work everyone.’

As the managers left the room in high spirits, Bert reached for the intercom at the head of the table: ‘Any appointments, Susan?’

Clacking keys echoed over the intercom. A second later, Susan said: ‘Yes, a gentleman just showed up. Very insistent that he meets with you at once. Said that he called a couple of weeks ago and made an appointment. Can’t find any record of it though.’

‘Did you get his name?’

‘Phil Catafalque.’

‘Well, I’ve got a few minutes to spare. I’m sure I can squeeze him in. Send him to the conference room.’

Bert glanced at the clock. Fifty seconds later, Phil strode into the room. Everything from his slicked-back hair to his sharp suit screamed multi-national CEO. And, Bert noted with some glee, not one of those trendy tech company hippies either. A businessman of the old school. They were so rare these days.

As Bert extended his hand, Phil glanced at the clock before nodding at him: ‘I’ve got to say, your list of achievements is impressive. I’ve been waiting to meet you for some time.’

Bert blushed. ‘I wasn’t aware that news travelled so quickly, Mr. Catafalque. Are you interested in this company? I can assure you that our contractual changes are only the start of a wider strategic cost-cutting initiative. There has never been a better time to invest.’

Phil shook his head: ‘I’m interested in you, Bert. You’ve really done well for yourself here. But, alas, all things must come to an end.’

‘I don’t understand. In case you don’t know, I own this…’ Bert’s voice broke off as Phil reached behind his head. From the collar of his suit, Phil pulled a dark hood over his head. Beneath it, his face grew ever more gaunt until it was little more than a skull.

‘You’re… No, you can’t be. It isn’t possible.’ A red flush crossed Bert’s face. ‘If this is some kind of Halloween prank, then I’m calling the police!’

‘You would only be wasting their time. And mine too. Like you, I put a lot of stock in efficiency.’

Bert’s eyes widened: ‘Come on, surely we can work something out? At least let me make a few phone calls. How long have I got?’

A thin smile crossed Phil’s lips. His bony fingers reached towards Bert. ‘Zero hours.

“Rules” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Joanne sat back on the wine-stained sofa and tapped her phone: ‘So, are you going to this Halloween do at the union next week? I think there are still tickets available.’

A lager can hissed. Toby shrugged: ‘Dunno. Still can’t think of a good idea for a costume. I mean, have you seen the number of rules about it?’

Joanne laughed: ‘You’ve been reading the tabloids again, haven’t you? They always exaggerate these things. Every year, they pick one university with an especially zealous student’s union and then claim that their rules are some kind of universal law. It’s a sales tactic. If they don’t make their readers’ blood boil every day, they’ll go out of business.’

‘I think it might be our university they were writing about.’ Toby took a solemn swig of lager. ‘I was stupid enough to look at their website earlier. Seriously, there are dictatorships with less…’

Joanne laughed: ‘Well, of course they’re going to ban tasteless costumes. This is 2018, after all. What were you thinking of going as?’

Toby leant over and whispered something in Joanne’s ear. If she wasn’t already sitting on the sofa then she would have collapsed with laughter. When she got her breath back, she said: ‘Oh god, you wouldn’t have to worry about the union staff making a fuss. The police would have arrested you first.’

‘Seriously? Even without the… Oh, I see what you mean.’

‘Look, it isn’t too difficult to think of a costume. I don’t know, just go as Hannibal Lecter or Jason Voorhees or…’

Toby shook his head: ‘Rules won’t allow it. The union is worried about copyright.’

Joanne raised an eyebrow: ‘Please tell me you made that up. Well, that’s my costume down the drain.’ She put her phone down and reached for a bottle. After a couple of swigs, she said: ‘Ok, then. We’ll go with the classics. You can’t go wrong with a zombie or a vampire.’

Toby tapped his phone and shook his head: ‘Apparently you can. And I quote: “Costumes involving the undead may provoke fear and therefore are not permitted” .’

Joanne downed half of the bottle: ‘Isn’t that the whole point?

‘Apparently not.’

‘Ok, then. How about a trident and a pair of horns?’

‘Sharp objects policy.’ Toby finished his lager. ‘Apparently, it’s been extended to include anything that even resembles a point.’

‘What about a werewolf?’ Joanne tried to howl, but ended up belching instead.

Toby shook his head and was about to read from his phone when Joanne said: ‘You know, we should just go to one of the nightclubs in town. I bet they don’t have a huge list of rules about everything.’

‘Normally, I’d agree. But, I like a challenge. And, you know, I might just have thought of a good idea for a costume.’

A week later, Joanne shivered at the back of the queue snaking from the mouth of the student union building. It moved slowly, with the bouncers checking for drugs and the union’s officers carefully evaluating each costume afterwards.

A chill ran down Joanne’s spine. Even in her copyright-free pumpkin costume, she still felt a little nervous. And where the hell was Toby? She was about to phone him when she heard something rustle in the distance.

A large rectangle emerged from the darkness. As it got closer, she saw that Toby was wearing some kind of large board painted to look like a smartphone with a social media feed on the screen. He grinned at her. She looked puzzled: ‘It’s well-made. But, it isn’t exactly Halloween. I mean, what’s creepy about that?

‘Think about it. What has turned the world into the authoritarian panopticon of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the mindlessly superficial dystopia of Brave New World?’

Joanne was speechless. Finally, she stuttered: ‘Wow… That’s… Unusually literate of you.’

Toby shrugged and fumbled behind his board for his phone. He tapped the screen a couple of times and held it up: ‘Yeah, someone posted it online. Sounds pretty impressive, right? I’m not sure what the ’80s and a heavy metal album have got to do with smartphones though. Still, it should amuse the people at the door.’

“VR” By C. A. Brown (Short Story)

Trey was running through a valley of neon. Behind him, crackling radio voices barked HALT CITIZEN. He heard himself laugh. He wasn’t a citizen. The data raid on the Blue-Corp processing facility had seen to that.

Even with the best soft-masks that credits could buy, Blue’s tracer routines had still latched onto Trey’s neuro-ID. They’d crunched his brainprint in a quantum server farm over in Manila and sent the data to a dark site in Stockholm for enhancement and confirmation. From there, it had been a matter of running a simple usage trace on the open net. A level three hoover-bot set to look for macro-patterns in all of the corporation’s cookie records. Given that they owned 30% of the net, statistics were in their favour.

Trey kept running, hearing the footsteps getting louder and louder. He didn’t feel tired. The black-market nanotech coursing through his veins saw to that. Just as well I bought that upgrade he thought as he spotted the mouth of a metal-panelled alleyway. The HUD implanted in his retinas flashed up a large green arrow. It almost blended in with the rainbow reflections of the street’s many glowing signs.

Behind him, the bulls kept up the pace. With their dark helmets and shiny armour, Trey didn’t know if they were human or android. He didn’t care. As he got closer to the alley, a random pedestrian staggered out in front of him. A synth-head, so loaded with illicit pharma that spatial awareness was little more than an abstract concept. A bright red prompt flashed up in Trey’s HUD telling him to do something. He did. Another prompt flashed. He followed it perfectly.

Almost as if watching holo footage of himself, Trey grabbed the synth-head and hurled him backwards into the bulls – using the momentum to boost himself forwards. It took exactly 2.3 seconds. Just like the last time. He didn’t look back. He didn’t listen to the clattering and shouting behind him. He kept running.

By now, he was in the alley. Raven cameras whirred above. He picked up the pace, barely leaping out of the other side before the bulls activated the clearance system. The alleyway became a glowing caterpillar of flame. His HUD pointed to a shadowy alcove beside a shuttered shop. He ducked into it and waited. It would take two minutes for the clearance system to go through a full burn cycle.

On the other side, the bulls would be running range algorithms and probability trees. In eighty percent of pursuits, the perp took full advantage of the headstart. Typically running 300-400 metres. Tests showed that they stuck to brightly-lit areas, too panicked to chance stumbling in the dark. Data showed 75% of them turned right. As the flames died down, the bulls followed the most logical course. Trey watched them thunder past him, still barking standard warnings.

Green text floated in front of his eyes. CONGRATULATIONS. But, before he could work out what to spend his newly-acquired credits on, a voice from outside the world said: ‘Come on, mate. I need to use the telly.’

Sighing, Trey said: ‘Pause. Save. Quit.’ The world went black.

In the living room, Trey lifted the bulky VR headset off of his face and reached for the game console sitting beneath the flat-screen. Beside it, Joe grinned: ‘You were playing for five hours, mate. Good game?’

Trey laughed: ‘Yeah, it’s set in a dystopian parallel universe. Kind of like an indie version of Deus Ex, with a hint of Judge Dredd and Blade Runner. Oh my god, did you know that..’

Joe rolled his eyes: ‘…Blade Runner is set in the distant future of next November. You’ve told me already. Seriously though, I don’t see the point of all this dystopian stuff. I mean, the world is crap enough as it is.’

‘Yeah, but it’s a cooler type of crap. Plus, it’s nice to think that all of the scary stuff goes away when you turn the console off. That things could have turned out ten times worse than they did. Anyway, why did you want the telly?’

‘The footy’s on in five minutes. Light entertainment from this universe.’ Joe reached for the remote. The tail end of the news appeared: ‘…In the face of outspoken opposition from her opponents in congress, the US president signed the net neutrality bill into law. Now for an EU election party political broadcast from…

Joe laughed: ‘Parallel universes? I’m sure all of them are as boring as this one. It’s nonsense anyway. People are smart enough not to let the world turn into a dystopia.’

Trey nodded: ‘Yeah, I guess. Still, it makes for good games and movies though.’