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The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2

The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2

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The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2

Comprimento:
460 página
7 horas
Lançado em:
Nov 3, 2016
ISBN:
9781370825233
Formato:
Livro

Descrição

An eclectic collection of science fiction, fantasy and horror from around the world. The e-version in all formats is available for sharing and distribution in its original format. From a space opera to dark fantasy and into a strange world of steampunk you will find something for you. Most authors will have their websites listed in the back so you can read more of their works, or if you'd like to say something nice to them, they might like that as well.

This is the third anthology to come from Altair Australia and it won't be its last, but if you want to contribute to this non-profit adventure in literature then please look up Robert N Stephenson's website for future anthology calls and how you can perhaps help him in this work.

Lançado em:
Nov 3, 2016
ISBN:
9781370825233
Formato:
Livro

Sobre o autor

R N is a writer who has tired of the perfectionist model of the world and in their own small way attempts to enlighten people with wonderful stories and not so wonderful insights into life. The Pencilled in God is all about who we have become as a people, while all other works are fictions designed to entertain and distract us away from all we have become. Entertainment is paramount, so please, be entertained.

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Amostra do Livro

The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2 - Robert N Stephenson

The Worlds of Science Fiction,

Fantasy and Horror

Vol. 2 2017

FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2017 (THE WORLDS OF SCIENCE FICTION FANTASY AND HORROR Vol.II) THIS EDITION PUBLISHED IN 2016 BY ALTAIR AUSTRALIA PTY LTD ISBN: 978-1506166414 (PAPERBACK + ELECTRONIC BOOK) COPYRIGHT © CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS 2017 COPYRIGHT COVER ART © KIRSI SOLONEN 2015. COVER DESIGN © ROB BLECKLY 2017. THE RIGHTS OF THE COLLECTED AUTHORS TO BE IDENTIFIED AS THE AUTHORS OF THIS WORK HAS BEEN ASSERTED BY THEM IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE COPYRIGHT AMENDMENT (MORAL RIGHTS) ACT 2000. THIS WORK IS COPYRIGHT. APART FROM ANY USE AS PERMITTED UNDER THE COPYRIGHT ACT 1968, NO PART MAY BE REPRODUCED, COPIED, SCANNED, STORED IN A RETRIEVAL SYSTEM, RECORDED, OR TRANSMITTED, IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY MEANS, WITHOUT THE PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE PUBLISHER AND OR THE AUTHORS

With thank you to Tarran Jones and Rob Bleckly for helping to make all this possible.

The Worlds of Science Fiction,

Fantasy and Horror

Vol. 2 2017

Edited by

Robert N Stephenson

Published by

Altair Australia Pty Ltd

The Cover Artist

Kirsi Solonan

Finland

This Finnish digitally painting artist is married to her Wacom tablet. It's been so for nearly 10 years now and she's also in the process of starting her career as a fantasy/fiction writer, as her 'Ordera' has been slowly developing as a massive project, a tale she hopes to see continuing far into the future.

Many of her works are (dark) fantasy art. She hopes to find that unique touch in every work she makes, to give something new to familiar subjects, but more so not so familiar ones... Blazing and rich stories and heart-breaking fates and creatures are all out there waiting to be painted and told. In other words, telling a story in one frame is her key method.

She also thinks that using effective lights and strong colour schemes and still growing an idea from simple feelings and giving them a Face and a stage makes the picture rock. The main goal and highest prize is the successful emotion it creates when looking at the piece. Maybe making you wonder about things in another perspective and even get touched by the work.

What she deals with is controversy, nature, duality, the hidden aspects of humanity, the violence that persists in the soul that sees injustice, and the empathic part of the heart that doesn't give up when things get hard. And in these modern times, that is more than hard to maintain.

The battle of survival is not an illusion, it happens between the emptiness of the powers controlling us all from the inside, and the universal understanding of pain and love for truth and freedom, which connects all life together.

www(.)kirsisalonen(.)com

Contents

Introduction

No One is So Fierce - James Van Pelt - USA

Queen of Diamonds - Floris M. Kleijne - Netherlands

Booting Bottom - T.D. Edge - UK

Peeping Tom – J G Faherty - USA

Wings That Make No Sound - Samantha Murray - Australia

Dancing for Azathoth –

Jaap Boekestein & Tais Teng - Netherlands

Sanguine – Jonathan Shipley - USA

Belief - Gustavo Bondoni - Argentina

Invasion Day – Victoria Knight - Australia

A Slice of Heaven - Zayan Guedim - Algeria

Despair – Brandon Grundling - South Africa

Last One - Eric Del Carlo - USA

Mnemo's Memory - David Versace - Australia

Hewit's Report – Gene Stewart - USA

Path to F’dar - E.J. Alexander - Canada

The Demi-Arcanist's Will - Jakob Drud - Denmark

Executive Pressure - Brian Koukol - USA

The Trembling - Hernán Salvarezza - Argentina

290 - Harvest Time - Lyn McConchie - New Zealand

And the Matter of the Library Fine - Leon Chan -

Singapore

The Pale Witches of Autumn - Nicola Lombardi - Italy

Introduction

The year is 2017 and the search through 2016 has brought together an eclectic mix of voices, styles, and stories ranging from horror to epic science fiction. But there is more here as the search also went further in doing its best to find what was available, in English, from other nations outside the typical English speaking regions. While the search wasn't deliberate, it was focused on what could be created in vision as well as place and it was here some good work was discovered. These works from traditionally non-English speaking regions are not what would have been obtained via translation. As such, some of the deeper characteristics of language has been lost along with some of the more unusualness of culture and world view. The representations in this collection have been written for an English-speaking audience. It is hoped in the future actual translations would become available for writers that may only write in Spanish, French, German, Italian etc. This small book is only a representative sample of what was on offer in 2016.

The reason behind the creation of these anthologies is to raise awareness of other writers in this mixed field and perhaps allow the reader to get a taste and search out other works by these authors. To help in this regard the anthology will have what links are available at the end of the book so readers can find and read works of the authors they have liked, or gained an interest in.

Does this attempt at a worldview deliver the absolute best available in the marketplace? It is a question often asked and even argued against. The benefit comes in the knowing the world exists outside the usual offerings in fiction. The world is a big place and there is plenty of room for everyone to have a voice, provided we don't become too ruthless and objectionable. It is possible some great fiction has been overlooked, it is possible, but taste does play a part in some of this and as much as s sense of neutrality is put in place there will be leaning to what is liked over what is just well written.

This year does see many new voices to the anthology and some rather dark takes on the world. The mix of three genres, including some of the sub-genres, has allowed for an interesting combination of imaginations and emotional journeys. The inundation with stories through 2016 was encouraging and showed the concept of creating and writing is well and truly alive, despite the dumbing down through technology saturation. Intelligent stories were also on the rise but even though the colloquial tale about teenagers in small towns was still popular it garnered scant support. It was good to see we have reached the end of some of the over the top vampire fair and werewolf memes and have moved more into the twisting and further development of these tales away from things created in and by marketing studios.

Like the 2016 anthology, not all works will impress and some may even be deemed atrocious and some deemed brilliant. This dynamic observation by readers and critics is what keeps writer's minds alive and keeps them striving for the future. Do yourself a favour and search out some of these authors, or if they have no contacts, send a note to the publisher just giving your thoughts. Good or bad, apathetic or indifferent they may be, all are valuable. As always it has been a joy to put this work together.

Robert N Stephenson

January 2017

No One is So Fierce

James Van Pelt

USA

I’m forty-nine, Jamie thought and live with an ocean view. She paused on the quarter-mile long causeway to the Kingsmark Reef Lighthouse, shifting the heavy book bag from one shoulder to the other. Waves slid by on each side of the strip of rock and cement that connected the lighthouse property to the mainland. Nice day. A manageably cool breeze off the Pacific instead of the steady coat-cutter that kept all but the hardiest tourists from visiting. She’d heard Mark Twain said the coldest winter he’d ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, which was three-hundred and seventy miles south. Clearly, he’d never visited Kingsmark Reef in early September.

The tide would cover the causeway in an hour. Already, higher waves lapped over, sending long ripples down the sidewalk. Water trickled off the rocks. Crabs scuttled away. A seagull hopped aside to let her pass, and the wind smelled like seaweed and icebergs. Wet shoes were a small inconvenience to not living in a sterile, urban studio apartment with noisy neighbours and drive-by shootings. Much better than stepping over trash spilled from broken bags in the alley. Better than Friday nights sitting at the Slap and Tickle, fending off married realtors whose wives didn’t know when their husbands got off work.

Jamie mounted the steps to the lighthouse door beneath a biblical verse inscribed in a corroded brass plaque. Predictions said the waves would rise tonight. An unseasonal Labour Day storm hundreds of miles away churned the ocean already and was coming this way. By morning, they’d close the beaches. Too early to be a true winter tempest, but a harbinger of the season to come.

The heavy metal door creaked open into the blockhouse the light tower rose from. She turned back. If she could have seen over the bluff, only her car covered with a tarp remained in the parking lot. She’d pulled the shutters over the visitor centre and gift shop windows, giving the place a huddled and deserted look.

The lighthouse clung to a spit of land fifteen feet above sea level. Too dangerous for a boat to moor, the land bridge was her only route in and out, and was wet so often that algae slickened it. From a rock, farther from shore, seals barked. A cormorant streaked low, skimming the water. If the storm lasted, she might be stuck inside for a week or more since waves would splash over the walkway even at low tide. She hoped for a big one, a long, violent, pounding storm that dumped rain so fast she could wade into the sea and not notice the difference, one that kicked waves into a froth and rattled the lighthouse’s foundation. The kind of storm primitive people would have attributed to vengeful gods. That’s what Jamie wanted. Give me a storm to raise leviathans, she thought.

The door creaked open. At one time, it might have been waterproof, but now during a storm the ground floor filled with water that slammed against the door and pushed through the cracks. The room drained slowly and smelled like a fishy vegetable tray gone bad.

Still, I’ve won the lottery, she thought. Most people never run away to the circus, despite their hopes. They don’t become firemen or astronauts or surgeons. They don’t get to raise the dream family, or their kids turn out bad. Not many fairy tale endings in the real world, but here she lived the fantasy. Jamie clanged the door shut, threw down the heavy bolt that held the ocean at bay, and hung up her raincoat. She breathed easily for the first time all day. Sitting in the gift shop stressed her more that it should. Mostly people came to the lighthouse were looking for someplace else, like St. George Reef Lighthouse, twenty miles down the coast, a much more scenic attraction, although it took a helicopter to get to it. Fussy parents with whiny children. College kids on a lark. Foreign tourists collecting postcards and those little silver spoons with tiny cameos of the site. Kingsmark Reef Lighthouse stood impressively above the water, but the park trail to it was poorly marked and there were no photogenic overlooks from the road to set it off. Steep stairs in six long flights led to the shore, and all those steps had to be climbed to bring a tourist back to the visitor centre. The wind, too, sweeping off the frigid Pacific made it uninviting. Rocky spurs around the lighthouse shattered waves, creating a near-constant salt-water mist that soaked coats and ruined cameras. It was a singularly uninviting place. Jamie loved it.

The only feature of the lighthouse’s main floor was a large, round wooden trapdoor to one side. A long metal bar that ran between two iron brackets anchored in stone held it shut. Jamie had opened it her first week on the job to reveal a well. The dark and silent water swirled slowly and rose and fell with the ocean swell. During a storm, water pounded against the trapdoor from below, like a monster’s fist, and squirted from the edges all around.

She mounted the spiral staircase. Since 1881 when the lighthouse was put into service, every metal surface, like the stairs and central stair pole had been scrubbed of corrosion, primed and repainted many times, but now the paint covered pits and ridges and other imperfections. Nothing in Kingsmark was smooth, not the metal nor the wood nor the stone. Even the heavy glass in the lantern room had grown wavy with time. In the hundred and forty years, the lighthouse had stood, three keepers had died, two from waves crashing through the lantern room glass. If anyone doubted the sea’s power, they only had to look at the first death: a seventy-pound rock cannonballed through the glass, catching the lighthouse keeper in the chest.

Jamie had not seen a storm where the waves crashed that high, but Park Service Superintendent Tacket warned her about them. In the old days, when the light had to be tended, the worse the weather, the more we needed a manned lighthouse. But now the whole operation is automated, and ships have GPS positioning. There’s no need to put anyone’s life in danger. Even the lighthouse keeper’s cottage is miserable in the winter. We have a deal with the Holiday Inn Express off the highway to put our keeper up. You don’t need to stay here during storms. I don’t want you to stay here. He looked solemn and serious in his park ranger uniform. Sometimes he’d drop by the gift shop for a coffee. Tacket had worked for the park service for forty-five years, and they all showed on him. When he took off his hat, his wispy grey hair looked like an afterthought.

Jamie read everything she could find on lighthouses before she took the job. She told him, The beacon is still an active guide to navigation, sir. GPS can fail. A ship in trouble needs visible markers. She thought about Kingsmark Reef’s reputation. In 1871, a coastal steamer named the Sister Hibiscus tore out its bottom during a fall storm. Only eight people (and a pair of goats) survived of the one-hundred and sixty-one on board. I don’t mind the weather. Have you seen this poster? She held a framed image they sold in the gift shop of a man standing at the blockhouse door of a lighthouse, a huge wave crashing against and enveloping the tower above him. It seemed impossible that the wave wouldn’t engulf him and sweep him away. My life was sort of like this before I got here. I’m staying.

He’d given her a puzzled look.

Jamie mounted the circular stairs, keeping a hand on the centre pole. In an hour, she wouldn’t be able to leave. When the storm hit, the waves would burst around the blockhouse base and overwhelm anything standing. Now, though, middle of the day, light streamed through the tower windows, tall gun slits filled with twelve-inch thick glass bricks. She didn’t need to turn on the lights. The second-floor room held food, water, furnace and the kitchen. The third floor were the keepers living quarters while the fourth floor contained electrical equipment to run the beacon and the radio. Eighty-nine feet from base to top, Kingsmark Reef was the second tallest lighthouse on the Oregon coast.

She checked her phone. No reception which filled her with joy. No television in the lighthouse, no Internet. Only the radio. She dropped the book bag on her bed before rushing to the lantern room, an untraditionally large space, lantern in the middle, a circular bench against the wall facing in surrounded it, which was an addition in the late 1990s when the lighthouse became a tourist attraction. A mannequin dressed in a navy-blue wool, traditional double-breasted sack coat stood beside the lamp looking out to sea, his cap at a jaunty angle. When Jamie brought tour groups up, the lantern room could accommodate about a dozen. With the doors to the catwalk open, there was room for more, but for now, the lantern room was hers. Standing at the catwalk, she felt like a queen, like Thalassa, the Greek goddess who was the progenitor of fish, older than Poseidon even. She arched her back, pressed her belly against the rail and let the sun bathe her despite the cold breeze.

Last week, on a particularly clear and calm night, she’d stood in the same spot with a full moon heading toward the horizon. She gazed into the gleaming sea, awash with silver and bright glitters. A couple miles out, a freighter glided by, its deck lights flashing. She’d looked fruitlessly for mermaids because the night was too perfect for them not to exist. Selkies too or Jonah’s whale or Melville’s. Anything could come to reality on a night such as that. Werewolves on the shore, perhaps, or Valkyrie descending from Valhalla.

The next day, she called her sister in Portland. Give my renters notice and sell my house, Jamie said. Put a price on it that will move it in a hurry. Deposit the money in my account. I’ve filled out all the paperwork for you to do it, and I put it on my desk in my office. Take anything you want. Estate sell the rest.

What’s going on, Jamie. Are you in trouble?

Never been better. Jamie hung up.

Was it being forty-nine? When she’d turned thirty, she wondered where her twenties had gone. Her diploma brought her a middle-management position, and her portfolio grew. Portland provided plenty of entertainment. She’d joined a book club, made friends, moved out of the apartment and bought a house, but when she looked back, her twenties felt too short and wasted.

The thirties looked the same with a little more body fat. Three affairs, all short-lived. Moved back to the city. Leased the house out as a real-estate investment. Saw a therapist for insomnia that turned out to be depression, and somehow limped into her forties. She commuted on the bus. One day last year, a teenager sat next to her, her hair done in green and purple spikes, a nose peg, a skull tattoo on her neck. Jamie balanced a briefcase on her lap wearing a light green pantsuit and beige jacket. Her shoes pinched, but they matched the belt. She’d spent the morning in a budget meeting and the afternoon at a values, vision, and mission seminar. Tomorrow was her performance review with her manager, a pimply man fifteen years' younger who she’d trained a decade ago. The spiky haired girl faced her and said, Did you see yourself like this when you were my age?

Wind pressed relentlessly from the west, snapping tops off waves, sapping the sun’s heat, but clouds covered the horizon, growing as she watched, pushing a storm swell. Translucent grey-green ridges, rich with seaweed shadows and fantastic shapes swept towards shore, shattered against the rocks. She couldn’t feel it yet in the guardrail, but when the tide rose, when the waves grew, they’d shake the tower.

Eight hours later, after the sun set, the wind’s muted caterwaul echoed in the living quarters. Jamie sat on the bed, a quilt wrapped around her shoulders, reading a book. This is what she missed in her old life, the unrestricted indulgence in her senses, in her imagination, in the world shuddering and alive around her. She tried, oh she had tried. Hiking when she could get away. Vacations. Meditation. Prayer. But people surrounded her. Certainly, not all bad. Jamie volunteered at the soup kitchen. She joined charities where she found the selfless who devoted their lives to helping others. People who were spiritual and inspirational, but they didn’t overwhelm the mundane work, the debts and taxes and indelicacies that came her way every day. The distractions and indignities. She’d memorized Hamlet’s to be or not to be speech because Shakespeare captured the essence.

A solid boom echoed from below. Jamie laughed, dropped her book, then ran down the spiral stairs barefoot, the metal cold and sharp. She carried a lamp because the ground floor had no electrical lights—they’d short out when the sea invaded. The top stair overlooked the trapdoor in the floor. Ten feet across. Water dampened the dark stone, and a sucking sound came from the trapdoor’s circumference as the water retreated. A moment’s pause, as the air reversed, whistling before a solid water column rushing upward. Then a whump she felt in her chest. Water sprayed from the trapdoor’s edges. It leaked from the metal door that was her only exit. The ocean had come. If she loosened the trapdoor’s bar, the water would slam into the ceiling in a powerful spout. It wasn’t just the sea, though, trying to batter its way in. Denizens lived below, she was sure, which was the hope she couldn’t share with her workers, with her neighbours, with the spiky-haired teenager who had no idea who Jamie was. Wonders and monsters lurked in the world, Jamie was sure. They lived in the blank spaces people ignored, in the terrain, they could not tolerate, in severe weather. As sure as she was sure of anything, Jamie knew terror and beauty in the leviathan, in hidden nature, multiplied and made grand.

An inch of water caressed the floor like oil, then flowed back toward the trapdoor. The powerful entrance demand would come again. A let me in that could not be denied. Jamie didn’t feel forty-nine while sitting on the stairs, shivering in the stone ocean cold broadcasting from the brick walls. Back she went, to when she was seven, lying in bed on a turbulent night, as tree shadows waved on the wall, where the open closet door hid horrors, when her hands and feet retreated under the cover, pulled tight in, like a child-sized armadillo, locking out the claws, teeth, tentacles, and spines. Scary, yes, but also huge and glorious and limitless.

The sea, now, would be churning and wild. Jamie mounted the stairs toward the lantern room, like an acolyte or penitent, lamp in one hand. If she’d been the keeper a hundred years earlier, she would have spent the afternoon buffing the reflector, cleaning smoke residue from the lamp lens, trimming the wick, checking the whale oil or kerosene or carbide supply. She would have adjusted the vents to provide a steady draw for the flame and wound the clockwork to rotate the beam through the night. Now, though, the lamp was electric. It still flashed forth as a beam, three quick rotations followed by three slow ones, the lighthouse’s signature pattern, not only warning of the rocks, but also telling ships where they were. This was her first ocean storm, the reason Kingsmark Reef Lighthouse existed, a beacon sending light into the darkness, warning mariners of rocks that poked up like massive megalodon teeth waiting to rip the flimsy hulls asunder. She shielded her eyes. No rain in the storm yet, only wind. Jamie put a raincoat over her nightshirt. She needed more clothes, but she wanted to see, she needed to see what was out there.

The wind pulled the door hard against her grip, and now the full-throated roar of the provoked ocean pummelled her, dampened her face and soaked her hair. The light swept by, throwing her shadow out to sea, then moving on like a vast, foggy sword. This wasn’t a January storm, not the kind of waves that knocked down lighthouses or picked up rocks to throw through the lantern room, but it was her first one. The Sister Hibiscus sank during a September storm, maybe no worse than this one. There could be ghosts, she thought, and for a second she heard voices calling for help in the ocean’s cacophony before losing them in the grinding clash between waves and reef. The mist dancing light stabbed toward the sea again.

She wasn’t a middle-management drone, clinging to her desk and employees, serving her bosses’ whims. Companies couldn’t reach her here with targeted advertising, nor could politicians chart her leanings. Standing at the rail, she revelled in the cold baptism of salt spray, of the heady gusts that tugged at her coat. When the light went around again, two bright spots reflected to her from far at sea, and by the next light, they were closer and larger and twice of a height of the lantern room. Jamie leaned toward the shape coming toward her, vast, cyclopean, leather-winged, a face filled with tentacles dipping from the clouds and then hidden within them, and then another behind it just as big, waves breaking harmlessly against them. The first one reached out; its hand grasped the lighthouse just below her feet, shaking the structure. Revealed in the light, its skin was obscenely lumpy, and then the lumps were not lumps, but clinging man-sized creatures, water, and seaweed streaming from them. Hysterical with joy, Jamie remembered the inscription above the lighthouse door, No one is so fierce that dare stir him up: who then is able to stand before me? She’d thought it meant the sea.

I’ve seen the leviathan, she thought. I’m not that poor woman who’d sat in her apartment night after night, afraid that an empty wine class, a torn paystub, a lifeless daily commute was all the world offered. She felt the ocean’s cold in her feet, on her bare legs that seemed as solid now and as slick as marble. Ocean trickled on her face. She licked at its salt on her lips. If the tentacled creature looked down at her, even noticed her, she knew she would go mad—she was nearly mad now—but it would not be Jamie who would be lost. That sad person died long ago.

Its skin was so close, she could mount the rail, leap onto it, but the beings who already had attached themselves looked hungry. In the arcing brightness and acetylene shadows, they stared at her, ready to render her to her bones, and she was jealous of them.

Then the hand moved on. The giant turned to walk along the shore. Light shone on it, slid away, and when the light returned, it revealed only an ocean at war with the wind and shore. The woman who had been Jamie laughed at the fullness of the world.

I am the keeper, she thought. I tend the light at night, and all beings who visit are welcome. I am ageless.

Queen of Diamonds

Floris M. Kleijne

Netherlands

Now on video

Ace of spades. Queen of diamonds. Three of spades. Two of hearts.

The youthful female voice droned on as a succession of playing card graphics unreeled on-screen. After the first forty cards, had appeared on the laptop, the pattern was obvious. I phased out the images and the actual words, and for the remainder of the clip focused on the voice itself. It was a pleasant voice, suggesting melodiousness, but on the soundtrack to this bizarre home movie, the girl sounded stressed, unsure of herself--scared even. She was obviously not happy doing what she was doing.

The last card in the series, the eight of clubs, faded to black, and the sound ceased. I swivelled my chair to the left, facing Albers. She tapped the screen off and inclined her head.

So, Richard?

So what? I replied. That was one of the most boring home videos I've ever had to watch. Get to the point.

Albers smiled. She was used to my bored and insolent attitude. She was also fully aware that it was almost entirely feigned. We had worked together on a wide range of projects, some perfectly above-board, the majority sprinkled across a wide spectrum of shadiness. I was her outsider, her specialist, an independent contractor who usually delivered when her own people couldn't. My rates ensured that she only called me in when the case absolutely required it, so I was certain there was something to interest me here.

I just didn't have a clue yet what it could be.

Albers took her glasses off and took her time folding them and placing them in their cassette. My turn to smile; it was her trademark gesture, announcing frankness, a confidential subject, or both. She was a severe blonde in her late forties, pale-faced and straight-nosed. Dressed in a tailored men's three-piece and with her hair pulled back into a firm little bun from which a few strands had escaped, she resembled a small-town headmistress more than anything. Instead, she was R&D manager for a major Euronext trading house that would never publicly admit they had an R&D department in the first place--her business card said 'Head of Operations', Zadelhoff & Verschuren.

I can't remember her first name.

Have you heard of Project Preview?

As a matter of fact, I had. I was around the offices enough to pick up the hallway buzz. But from what I had heard of Preview, it was exclusively a matter for their legal department. I said as much to Albers.

True. At this moment, most activity concerning Preview is in Legal. But the core of Project Preview falls under my department and is extremely confidential.

Aren't they all, Albers?

Not to this extent. If successful, the project could give us quite an edge on our competitors.

Cogs started whirring in my head; the hair on my neck tingled. I straightened my six-foot frame in the chair.

Project Preview, top secret, edge on the competition? Is this what I think it is? Are you saying what I think you're saying?

Albers inclined her head slightly, regarding me with what seemed to be amusement.

That depends on what you think I am saying.

You know what I'm thinking, Albers! If I'm right, I can understand the secrecy--doing R&D into insider trading is Euronext suicide! Not to mention illegal...

Albers sighed theatrically.

Oh Richard, why so squeamish?

I stared at her unbelievingly for a long time before I caught on to the slight upward curve of her mouth and the ironic wrinkles around her eyes.

Okay, okay--my bad. It's not insider trading. Are you going to tell me what it is, or are you just going to toy with me until you've had your fun?

I apologize, but I just could not resist. I'll tell you what Project Preview is about.

And she did, and as she spoke my initial surprise morphed into disbelief and annoyance.

They were looking for clairvoyants.

I expect you have questions, Albers concluded.

You expect right. I leaned forward in my chair and raised a fist. Two questions, Albers, and then I'm out of here. I unfolded my index finger. One: why is Legal even involved?

Albers waved her hand in a dismissive gesture.

Their team is breaking ground, creating jurisprudence for when we need it. Basically, getting the High Council to explicitly declare the use of clairvoyants on Euronext legal. What's your second question?

I unfolded my middle finger and shook the resulting V sign at her. Have the Board of Directors gone out of their collective mind?! I exploded. Or is this some weird test of my common sense? Clairvoyance is a King's Day scam, Albers! Are you telling me Z&V is planning to base their trading strategies on what Madame Zaza says?

Clairvoyance is...

Bullshit! There is no such thing!

The girl in the video...

... was wrong! I counted, Albers. I counted through the first forty, and she got only one right. I suck at math, but I bet you and I could do the same!

Albers looked at me, completely unfazed. She remained silent for what seemed like minutes.

Easily, she said finally, with a smug smile.

What?

I said, easily. I did have a statistician work it out, of course. You and I would easily do as well. We took her through a series of 500 random cards on a computer screen she could not see. She named the correct card twelve times. My statistician tells me that anyone at all could score that well. I asked him if the result showed any sign of clairvoyance. He laughed and said he would not let her gamble with his money.

Albers looked and sounded triumphant as she told me this. I was puzzled, half-expecting a punch line. Were they asking me to find them the real thing? But then why show me the video at all?

Here's the point, Richard. We have very good reason to believe the girl is a full clairvoyant, scoring as near to 100% as makes no difference. We believe this girl is going to make Z&V very rich indeed. She was discovered in Arnhem when a teacher took her through the same test and she scored 500 out of 500. The teacher knew about our clairvoyance program and entered the girl. She is very convincing.

Yeah, except on video.

That is exactly it, Richard. She can't do it in our controlled lab setup. Her teacher tells us the girl needs to feel safe to do it, to be with people she trusts.

New alarm bells started ringing.

Tell me about this teacher.

Miss Eva Jacobs. An average teacher, as far as we can tell, but with a talent for connecting with her students. She is very close to the girl. They're living together in the apartment we provided, on Herengracht.

The girl brought her teacher?

Yes. She was adamant about not bringing her mother. She wanted Miss Jacobs, so we gave her Miss Jacobs.

I mulled this over for a bit. It all smelled fishy to me. In fact, it sounded like a very likely scam.

In this program, do you give out all the facts?

Albers smiled knowingly and said,

Not about the purpose of Project Preview, obviously, but we do share the information about the relocation, the scholarship, the private school, the other perks.

I laughed quietly, shaking my head.

Albers, Albers, Albers. Give me one good reason why you don't think you are being scammed. It's the perfect set-up! Poor girl, bad parent, good teacher, and here you come with a perfect little escape clause. All they had to do was come up with a good story about why it doesn't work in Amsterdam. You bought right into it!

We have reason to believe her claims, said Albers, primly.

Oh yeah? What reason?

This, she said, triumphant again, and tapped the screen once more.

I swivelled back towards the laptop. The new video started on a black screen. A voice sounded that I had been listening to half an hour earlier.

The cap, Miss Jacobs, the girl said.

I heard chuckling, a different voice. Light appeared at the edges of the image, suddenly flooding the screen, as a black circle moved away and down, enclosed in blurry pink blobs. The image darkened as the camera auto-adjusted, then drew into focus.

In the foreground was part of a wooden classroom desk with piles of papers neatly stacked and a Bluetooth keyboard. A lit flat screen monitor sitting on the desk filled half of the video. The classroom was a standard high school affair, with strips of window on one side looking out into the hallway and unseen windows on the other letting in sunlight. Posters and bookcases covered the back wall. Chairs were disarrayed, suggesting the end of a school day.

In one of the front-most seats was the girl.

She looked uncomfortable, no doubt partially caused by her tall shape in the small seat. But there was more to her discomfort, an impression that she was not quite at home in the classroom, or in her own body. The impression was enhanced by her facial expression: she looked confused and even a little scared, wide eyes darting here and there, swallowing and wincing every

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