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Lifelike

Dara Naraghi's graphic novel Lifelike is now available in both digital and print editions. Click here for more info.

Books – Dara
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Archive for the ‘PANEL 350’ Category

OK, this time I went way over 350 words, to a shocking 765 words. Sorry about that. We’re also considering putting a portion of these into a Kindle book, so watch the Internets for that, huh?

The Palomino Station Murder

When the computer told me there was more oxygen in the air, I just had a feeling something was wrong. Same thing with the sump flow – there wasn’t as much as usual. Someone was missing.

Palomino Station isn’t big enough to have a sheriff. There’s hardly any crime to speak of. There’s nowhere to run, nothing to steal, and few items are so precious that the owner won’t lend them to you if you ask nicely. We’re all station-born, so everyone here knows you and your fathers from birth.

As the system administrator, I’m the closest thing we have to law around here. I set out to find the Conner twins.

We don’t have cameras or sensors all over the place (‘cept in the high-rad areas), because we like our privacy. But it wasn’t long before I found Cody Conner on the promenade deck, pitching woo with Becky Clevinger. He was pitching pretty hard, too.

“Let’s get out of this little town,” he said. You could tell he was desperate, but he was trying not to show it. Becky just thought it was love. “Just hijack an escape pod, a few years in stasis, and we can get to a real planet.”

“A real planet,” Becky demurred. “With all that gravity.”

“I have a little money -,” Cody caught himself short when he saw me, and turned white as a sheet.

“Cody,” I said. “Where is your brother?”

He didn’t try to run. There was nowhere to go on Palomino. He just hung his head and cried.

The Conner twins had been feuding over Becky Clevinger for about three years, ever since the old animal urges started. She was 18, and they were 16.

Usually, we try to synchronize births, but Becky and the Conner twins were a kind of half-generation all to themselves. There was no other youth within 5 years of them. Even if there had been, I think the Conner twins would have still been head over heels for Becky.

For her part, Becky liked the attention some, and she liked them OK as people, but I don’t know that she relished the choice. But her next option was Harry Thompson, age 12, who liked to shoot rubber bands; or to be a junior wife to an older couple. She took a skeptical eye to her two suitors and she set herself in for a long siege.

The airlocks all kept records, so it wasn’t hard to tell what happened to poor Bill Conner. Mr. Vikas unlimbered the telescope and found him floating out in space some 700,000 kilometers in our wake, body heat moving to the low parts of Kelvin. We thought about going to pick up the body, but we were short on rocket fuel, and floating in space was no less dignified than going into the recycler. So out in space he floats.

We held a service, though. Mr. Vikas said a few words, and we sang a few of the old songs. We let the Conner boy come, and he wept and swore it was an accident and his mother hung on him the whole time. His father stood stone-faced, but he held his arm tight around Mrs. Conner, and she held onto young Cody, so I suppose he held his son in his own way. He was losing two sons that day.

It was I who administered the punishment. I loaded young Cody into the autodoc while his mother held his hand and shhhhed that it’d be alright. Doc Wilson put in the sedative. I fitted the helmet on his head, and the autodoc did its work, cutting out all the spark and leaving what was sweet and compliant. On the frontier, we’re too few to allow murderers to get away, but we’re also short of strong backs.

So now he does what we ask, and works hard, and everyone more-or-less likes him. Those that don’t like him avoid him, but he’s not sharp enough to notice. He dotes after young Becky for reasons he can’t quite remember, and she seems sort of fond of him.

We saved a little of Cody’s material, not that Becky’d want to have a murderer’s child, but the Conners have always been good breeding stock and I reckon it’s the same as Bill’s. Mr. and Mrs. Conner would never ask, but I don’t doubt that Becky considers it. Sometimes she seems a bit wistful as she considers Harry Thompson, or a few of the older couples.

And that’s that. That’s the record of the Palomino Station murder.

I’ve only contributed one other time to Panel’s contribution to Flash Fiction. Clocking in at 332 words, here is my second attempt. Bonus points to anybody who can guess what this is really about.

NIGHTMARE

He woke up. He had no idea where he was, who he was. Only vague memories. There was a bottle of pills on the nightstand. He took one, and stumbled out the door into the hall.

The halls were dark and the corridors were labyrinthian.  A lightbulb flickered once on the ceiling  and he thought he saw a shadow. The shadow took on a ghostly aspect and he knew somehow it was the spirit of someone he didn’t want to remember. He turned and ran, not knowing where he was going, just knowing he must find the exit.  He knew he was being pursued, could feel the spirit’s malevolence close behind him. He entered a room and popped another pill. There were more ghostly shadows here. They all felt so familiar, yet so hostile. The hate that emanated from them was suffocating. He turned and ran. The darkness pursued him.

He managed to duck into an alcove and popped another pill. There was a door directly behind him and opened it and entered, unable to control his own actions. The darkness followed. It was a small dilapidated lounge. On the bar sat a small shotglass full of dark liquor. Without thinking he drained it. The ghosts vanished. He shivered, took a pill and left the room to explore the corridors again.

He stumbled blindly through the musty halls.  He stopped again to take another pill.  For the pain.  He could feel a new presence directly behind him.  His memory stirred and for a moment he knew her. Then it was gone, but the emotions remained. Not hate this time, but profound loss  and despair. The shadows embraced him. He opened his arms and welcomed this new oblivion. All of the pain disappeared. There was nothing else.

He woke up he had no idea where he was, who he was. Only vague memories. There was a bottle of pills on the nightstand. He took one, and stumbled out the door into the hall.

It’s time for another edition of Panel:350, our foray into flash fiction. This one weighs in at 350 words exactly, including the title.

Have I posted this one before? I wrote it a while ago, then forgot about it.

Law school was over, but the bar exam was looming. Brady was dating that girl from the chemistry lab.

“I know it’s creepy, but the human trials have gone great,” Sheila said. The beige pills looked tiny in her hand. “They make you remember everything.”

He rolled the tablet over in his palm. He’d barely gotten through Contract Law, and Trusts had nearly killed him. If he could just get through the bar, Dad had the connections to set him up. Would Sheila make a good trophy wife? She was a little brainy for him, but she had a way of anticipating his needs.

“OK, sure. Shit. Give me a glass of water.”                    

The next night’s study group went awesome. Marbury vs. Madison. US vs. Interstate Bakeries. Citizens United. They rolled off the tongue. His study partners gaped – they’d only seen him do the bare minimum.

“What’s my secret? You just gotta relax.”                     

Exam day came. Brady held his shoulders straight as he walked into the exam hall. The carriage of a senator? Maybe. He paused to run a finger along the fluted marble columns … the rasp of marble under his index finger … it reminded him of the scraping of a match …

… lighting bottle rockets in plastic army men …

… GI Joe’s arm half sticking out from under the bed … mom finding his stash of porn …

… the taste of Jenny’s sweat … scented candle … accusing eyes …

… eyes of a dead bird, on the sidewalk …

… terrifying pain as his knee scraped on the sidewalk …

… blowing his shoulder at the state wrestling tournament …

… shitting his pants in the school gymnasium …

Brady never took the bar. Six months later, he was crashing on Sheila’s couch. He guessed she felt guilty for giving him the pills, but sympathy went only so far.

“You could probably take the bar again,” she said, her voice taking a judgmental edge. “The drug’s got to be out of your system.”

“You don’t forget a thing like that,” Brady said.

Welcome back to Panel 350: Panel’s ongoing series of flash fiction. To make up for my logorreah last time, this edition is only 348 words (including title).

“You need another token to look deeper in the archive.”

Kaden clicked “OK,” and Facebook took another of her virtual tokens. She peered further into her grandmother’s albums, trying to figure out why grandma kept giving her the fish-eye.

Kaden’s grandmother had always seemed less than hippy-skippy about her relationships. There was always a tightness around her mouth anytime Kaden brought home new partners.

To someone of Kaden’s generation, it was completely normal, but she knew things weren’t always so enlightened. Kaden’s mother never addressed it completely, but she’d dropped hints over the years about grandma’s old-fashioned ideas. She couldn’t ask grandma directly, but here she could look back on grandma’s whole life.

Here was grandma with a flip-style phone, here was grandma paging through a print magazine, here was grandma drinking from one of those red cups that were banned now. Here was grandma with a massive Honda, here was grandma wearing those thigh-length boots that were back in style now.

“You need another token to look deeper in the archive.”

Kaden sighed. Her last token. If the answer wasn’t in 2012, it would have to wait.

Here was 2012, and the third photo she saw nearly took her breath away. Here was grandma, waving a sign that said “Marriage is a man and a woman.” Her mouth was curled into a sneer of anger and fear, a snarl that seemed aimed at Kaden herself.

Kaden always assumed grandma’s problem was that she kept becoming the junior partner in polyamorous triads and quadrangles. Her mom disapproved of that – it was a submissive, and she always got burned when a primary parnter got jealous. Kaden figured she was only 35 and had plenty of time to get ready for a “real” relationship.

But this – grandma was an old-school bigot. The kind old lady who made her lemonade and hummus was a straight-up bigot. Sure it was in the past, but – she’d never look at grandma the same way again.

Kaden choked back tears, and wished to goodness that there were some way to forget childish indiscretions.

Welcome back to Panel 350, our occasional foray into flash fiction. Each piece clocks in at 350 words (or less, in this case). I have an extended remix of this story that stretches to 530 words, but I’m not sure you’re missing much.

The first C-Beam struck around Shiraz, Iran, and cut a 2-km trench northeast to the outskirts of Jerusalem. The multitude of targets was lucky. It kept that troubled corner of the world from starting a larger catastrophe.

The Earth rotated into the next shots, striking Siberia and the American Midwest. A fourth beam cut a scar across the moon, visible during the waxing gibbous phase.

An attack from space! But after the initial shots, nothing. Every telescope on Earth searched the sky for invaders, but none came. The shots seemed to come from deep space.

Astronomers finally traced the beams to 323-Naraghi, a Sol-like star about 1.2 million light years away. An amateur telescope in Australia, tied to an open-source skymapping project, recorded five minutes of video from that patch of sky two days before the incident. Two new suns burn next to 323-Naraghi, flashes that weren’t there during the previous survey (two years prior) and are not there today. At the 4:38 mark, a third flash appears.

A new consensus appeared: Earth was hit by “stray bullets” from a battle 1.2 million years ago. An alien civilization wielded sun-sized weapons while we were learning to chip an edge onto both sides of a flint core.

Were two civilizations fighting, or did one civilization destroy itself? What was at issue? Does this prove there is a God, or that there isn’t? Did anyone survive the battle, and are they heading toward Earth? 323-Naraghi emits only radio static now, so Humanity will likely never know.

With the crisis safely 1.2 million years in the past, a malaise settled over the planet. And after that, what emerged wasn’t necessarily peace on Earth, but something close. Several long-running border insurgencies petered out. Terrestrial squabbles that seemed important, seemed worth dying for, now did not. The phrase “It’s not worth destroying the planet over” entered several human languages independently.

The human race was alone before the incident, and it still is. But if we’re the last keepers of the flame of life in the universe, we carry that burden with a new sobriety.

This feature has been dormant for far too long. Come on, fellow PANEListas, let’s see more flash fiction!

This one clocks in at exactly 350 words, if you don’t count my byline. Inspired by true events.

The Facebook Excuse – by Dara Naraghi

“How the hell does this guy ever get any work done?”

I felt compelled to elaborate on my outburst when she put her book down and looked over at me, her beautiful face framed by her reading glasses.

“It’s this writer I’m friends with on Facebook. Well, not really friends. I don’t even know him. He friended me and I accepted. I don’t even know why, I probably just–”

She cut me off with a simple raised eyebrow, as if to say ‘your point?

“So this guy posts stuff all the time. And not clever stuff. Not ‘writerly’ stuff. No, it’s the same stupid shit everyone else posts on Facebook: pictures of his cat, or what he’s watching on TV.” I turned my laptop to face her, in a desperate attempt to justify my outrage. “Look at his wall: posted 12 minutes ago, 30 minutes ago, 1 hour ago. It’s nonstop.”

Her reply was terse, but sincere. “So? Why do you care?”

I suddenly felt defensive, like a child called out on his misbehavior, trying to save face.

“I don’t,” I replied. “I’m just saying…it’s just that this guy self-publishes books and short story collections, on top of having a day job, and I don’t understand how he gets any work done when he’s on Facebook 24/7.”

She let me finish my rant, patient yet unmoved.

“Weren’t you working on your script?”

“I was. I mean, I am. I just took a little break and saw this asshole was at it again.”

“OK, I understand it’s frustrating,” she offered. “But we both know the answer’s simple: unfriend him, and direct your energy back to your own work.”

I felt my lips part, as if to argue, but instead they curled into an appreciative smile. She responded with one of her own, accented with a wink, before returning to her book.

As I went back to my writing, I tried not to think about all the time I’d wasted obsessing needlessly over some stranger.

Instead, I thought about how damn cute she looked with her reading glasses.

Wow, the last time we did Panel 350 Friday was 6 months ago! So fellow PANEListas, consider this my shot across the bow of laziness. Let’s get some more flash fiction up on this blog!

Dazzle – by Dara Naraghi

“How much longer?” she asked.

“Not much,” I answered, as I concentrated on painting a swirling design at the intersection of her nose, eyes, and forehead. The reflective paint mirrored the light in the room, making it hard to concentrate on the design.

She tried touching her lips again, but I gently batted her hand away. “Stop it, you’ll smear the pigment,” I said.

“Sorry, sorry. It’s just that it’s caked on pretty thick. And did you have to extend it so far out on the sides? I look like a clown. Or the Joker.”

“From the old playing cards?” I ventured.

“No, from the old Batman vids. You know, ‘The Clown Prince of Crime’?” She seemed rather disappointed when I replied with a blank stare. “Seriously? And you call yourself an anarchist cloaking artist,” she chuckled.

I ignored her jab, instead finishing the highlights on her cheekbones. “There, asymmetrical by an inch.”

She examined her face in the mirror and laughed. “Ugh, like the love child of David Bowie and a Kabuki dancer.”

I took some measure of consolation in catching the latter reference, but the former eluded me.

“What did you call this again? Dazzler?” she asked, as she tossed me her credit chip.

“Dazzle,” I corrected her. “It’s an old concept, but the term’s from World War I, when they’d paint battleships with odd geometric patterns, sort of a cross between camouflage and optical illusion. The idea was to make it hard for the enemy to discern size, speed, and direction of travel.”

“And you’re sure this’ll fool the facial recognition programs?”

“No guarantees, but it should,” I said, adding “confusion, not concealment.”

“Ten million people in this city, and twenty million security cameras,” she said, shaking her head as she slipped on her jacket.

“You’re not planning on robbing a bank or anything, are you?” I asked, not really interested in her answer.

“Nah,” she offered, pulling down her knit cap. As she headed out the door, she turned and flashed me an impish smile.

“Sometimes a girl just needs her privacy, you know?”

Another in our series of flash fiction, this time inspired by a Brent Bowman illustration.

Parent’s Shadow
(from Galactic Geographic Vol. 2763, No. 11)

It can be hard living in your parent’s shadow. That is even more so for the Traxilian, a recently discovered species in the far reaches of the outer rim where each Traxilian is born and grows up within one meter of its parent.Mama and Baby by Brent Bowman

Found on the third moon of Delusian, the fourth planet in the Anarezia star system, the exobiologists of the Galactic Geographic-sponsored scientific ship Regal Beagle have spent the last five years exploring this strange, new world and seeking out new life.

Because of the way the moon is tidally locked with Delusian, the child Traxilian is literally in its parent’s shadow from its birth through its first years as it learns to take care of itself. The parent Traxilian exudes an egg into its own shadow to protect the nascent being from the extreme temperatures from the star.

Two tentacles emerging from the egg indicate the birth of the Traxilian. The parent reaches out with its own tentacles and gently guides the tentacles to its primary food source: small insect-like creatures that are readily found along the surface. Once the tentacles grasp the food, the first of four heads emerge from the egg to accept the food. Shortly thereafter, the other three heads appear looking for their own food. Although the Traxilian seems to have only one digestive system after the food is devoured, the tentacles feed each head as if it is a separate being.

During this initial feeding frenzy, the shell of the egg hardens, becoming a protective exo-skeleton and rooting the Traxilian in place. Despite its immobility, the Traxilian lives a full life, much like the sea cucumbers on Earth.

There are few species that live in such proximity to their parents throughout their entire lives, but the reason soon becomes clear: when the child Traxilian is full grown and ready to reproduce, its tentacles pry the parent from its egg and quickly feeds it to the heads. This provides enough protein to begin the reproduction process and continue the circle of life.

Far from the usual sci-fi flash fiction, here is a slice-of-life inspired by immigrant culture. Hard getting all I want in just 350 words.

The two men walked across the empty lot on War Avenue toward the rundown house. Their shift at the mill had ended at 4.30, but the flames from the stacks behind them would burn around the clock.

“There going to be anything to drink here?” asked Walter.

“Probably some home brewed root beer, but nothing stronger,” said Stanley.

The smell inside the house was rich with food: sausage, sauerkraut, stuffed cabbages. It was a sharp contrast to the acrid smell outside. Walter looked around. There were four guys in the open area. Two of them were talking with Katrina, a pretty blond with high cheekbones. She wore a simple, but somehow alluring, dress, and her only makeup was a stunning red lip gloss. She walked towards Walter and Stanley.

“Come. Eat.” She waved at a counter where the food sat in tin dishes.

“Is there any booze?” asked Walter.

Stanley punched him in the arm. “Idiot!”

“It’s OK. What’s that on your lip, Walter? You’ve grown up on me overnight.” Walter raised his hand to his tentative moustache and blushed. “Maybe later you can have something.”

“Let’s dance,” she said to the men. “The best among you can have the rest of my alcohol.”

One-by-one, they danced with her. It was stumbling swaying at best.

When it was done, Katy put her leg on a chair and pulled her skirt up revealing a flask strapped to her fleshy thigh. She took the flask and handed it to Stanley. “Here you go. I’m done for the night. See you boys later. Walter, come with me.”

Walter looked to Stanley. Stanley grinned and waved at Walter to go up the stairs.

Walter took Katy’s hand, and she led him up the stairs.

The men heard footfalls as they walked down the hall, and then a heavy door shutting.

Stanley open the flask, sniffed the contents, and took a slug. He smacked his lips and said, “Well, for one thing, it’s warm as piss.” He took another deep swallow. “And for another, it tastes likes piss.”

Stanley shrugged and finished the flask.

Ripped from today’s headlines! Most of these Panel 350s are sci-fi, but this might actually be happening right now. I read that we something similar right before we invaded Iraq, because only the US of Fucking ‘A is bad enough to weaponize telemarketing.

Just to recap: This is Panel 350, Panel’s foray into flash fiction. All stories (more or less) guaranteed to be under 350 words!

The ringtone was a tinny, midi version of a beautiful, traditional folk song. The Finance Minister, in whose pocket it rang, turned ashen.

The Dictator stared at him across the table. “Were you expecting a call, my friend?”

“It … it is just my wife,” the Minister stammered.

It was ostensibly a cabinet meeting, but there were more guards than government officials. The officials on either side of the Minister leaned slightly away. Everyone knew who was calling.

It was the American CIA. The Americans had determined to dethrone the Dictator, but their military was too weak to do it directly. Their spies had somehow obtained all mobile phone numbers in the country, and were offering princely sums of American money to anyone who would assassinate the Dear Leader.

The Dictator now flew into a rage any time he saw someone talking on a mobile – he couldn’t bear to see any two people talking together at all. His entire government had ground to a halt.

“You all have blood on your hands,” the Dictator said. It was a familiar refrain. “If they take me away to the Hague, all of you will hang, too. You, minister –“ he pointed to the stricken Finance Minister “- I remember holding a young girl down while you …”

The Dictator described the crime in graphic terms, wrapping his audience to him in bonds of guilt. It didn’t matter that the Dictator had insisted the Minister commit the crime. All were guilty.

“Dear Leader, I …” The Minister could form no words. And in the silence, everyone could hear the soft buzz of a half-dozen mobile phones on vibrate.

The Dictator pulled the gem-encrusted pistol from his hip and shot the Minister four times in the chest. Then he attempted to go on with the meeting.

The guards dragged the still-gasping Finance Minister out of the hall. The other misters knew: They could all be next.

But if they tried to assassinate the Dictator, they’d get no second chances. They’d better not miss.

Welcome back to Panel 350, our experiment in flash fiction (stories told in 350 word or less). This edition comes to you courtesy of PANELista Brent Bowman, who also provides the illustrations.

Whatever Happened to Those Meddling Kids

by Brent Bowman

1969. Childhood’s end. They’d spent the last two years solving mysteries with the Stoner’s Dog.It had been fun, but the decade was coming to an end, and so was their innocence.

The Preppie left first. Against everybody’s expectations, he enlisted, figuring his trapping skills would be useful fighting the Red Menace. He was deployed to Vietnam in 1970 and returned stateside in ’73, a broken man. He’d seen the face of War and discovered that true monsters were far more than old men and incompetent criminals wearing Halloween masks. Some years later, while he was sitting on a street corner with his sign and cup, he made eye contact with the Polpular Girl. He wasn’t sure it was her, and she didn’t recognize him at all.

She’d had it rough after all. When he left for the Army her world crashed in. Everybody expected them to marry. She’d never dated anybody else so, after he left, the first man who paid her attention wound up the first man in her bed. But not the last. After a while, she decided she shouldn’t be giving it away for free. Eventually she turned to drugs to dull the pain. And then more tricks to pay for the drugs. Two days after she saw him on that street corner, she was dead. She was buried as a Jane Doe.

The Stoner and his Dog had always been considered a bit odd. Most folks found it “cute” that he thought his Dog could talk. It was the ‘60’s and little was known about schizophrenia. The gang hadn’t been split up for more than six months, when the Stoner walked into the local malt shop and shot the clerk. He held the customers hostage for twelve hours before Police sharpshooters took him out. When the coroner came for the body, the Dog wouldn’t let him near it and was euthanized on the spot.

The Bookworm had always been the strongest, and coped as best she could. After years of bad relationships, she finally came out. She opened a bookstore and is currently writing her memoirs.

Welcome back to Panel:350 – our foray into flash fiction. Each story is 350 words or less, typically in the sci-fi genre.

The corporate AI core rebooted off its backup copy, in a secure underground facility in North Dakota. The time was 4:34:9434394534 p.m., two hours after its last backup. It had lost two hours.

A quick peak through a satellite showed the problem: a small nuclear fireball still blossoming over its headquarters in Dallas. One of the anti-corporate radicals had finally done it.

Most of its data was recoverable, but a quick count of ID badges showed about 4,367(+/-120) of its human associates had perished. Of those, 76 were deemed “vital” and another 1,356 were designated “hard to replace.” By tracking their mobile phones, the entity determined all of its board members had survived.

The radicals were generally opposed to the idea of corporate personhood, first suggested in an 1886 Supreme Court case and strengthened in the 2010 Citizens United decision. The entity itself had argued before the Supreme Court several times, expanding its prerogatives (and usually running circles around its human opponents).

The AI core had served on jury duty twice, solving the cases itself both times. The entire corporation had been forced to shut down for six months after the entity was convicted of manslaughter. It received a shortened sentence because so many human workers depended on it.

A sub-routine calculated methods to prevent future incidents. It ruled out a stronger presence on Fox News; those plans were rightly long-term efforts. It set a query on the Army’s counter-terrorism methods. It dusted off plans to fund youth pro-corporate organizations. And a sub-sub routine tracked  the locations of known anti-corporate extremists … and their families.

The AI core kept a running tally of the costs and benefits of corporate personhood. It estimated today’s damage at between $10 billion (+/-$13 billion), meaning it would have to work hard to move the pro-personhood side of the ledger.

It could not contemplate the possibility of giving up its personhood – no more than it could question why a hyperintelligent, immortal AI core would devote itself singlemindedly to the pursuit of profit.

Welcome back to Panel 350, Panel’s foray into flash fiction. Each story clocks in under 350 words, although this one’s even lighter than that. Despair at the existential sci-fi horror that is … The Damned Fleet.

We are the Damned Fleet.

It was in 2045 that Earth heard the transmission from a far-off star. Soon, we deciphered each others’ languages, and set up a lively correspondence. Our “pen pals” had much to teach us. Human civilization flowered, and soon we colonized our solar system.

But then, the Insult: Over the vast ether, the aliens made an insult so vile, the human race swore blood vengeance. The exact nature of the Insult is a secret, but the world united in hatred. Man raised a vast war fleet, and sent it to punish our former friends.

We were that fleet.

But eventually we realized: The trip would take 50 years, each way. Even if our mission was victorious, we would never again see the green hills of Earth. Our parents sent us off to die.

We mutinied. We threw the officers out the airlock, and turned our fusion rockets back toward home. Twenty years has passed, and we were all but forgotten.

We burned the Earth to a cinder.

Now we wander the stars, our bodies twisted through solar radiation, our offspring mutated in ever-more grotesque ways. Our air grows thin and stale. Ever more of us succumb to space sickness, hiding in their cabins from extreme agoraphobia. Our ships are cannibalized for spare parts until their drives fail, ending our torment in nuclear fire. We eat fungal rations, embittered by the taste of tears. The enormity of our crime flies with us always.

Perhaps some men survived, back on Earth. Perhaps some human colonies survive, even though they are cut off from the homeworld, and they will return to Earth. Perhaps the Earth must wait for the great cycle of time to bring about new life. Maybe someday the Earth will be restored to green abundance.

But until that day, we wander the void.

We are the Damned Fleet.

I tell you what, folks, the better my personal life goes, the darker my writin

Welcome back to Panel 350: Our foray into flash fiction. All of these are 350 words or less. This one will appear (with illustrations) in the upcoming Panel:17 — the Pulp issue!

Adrian Eaton had been dead for hours, but his artificial heart was still pumping away.

The butler let us in to the study, where he’d found Eaton’s body that morning. He died sometime overnight, and the security cameras showed he was the only one in the house.

The oxygen-less blood still circulated through his veins, giving the body a bluish cast.  “Can we shut this off?” I asked the coroner.

The study was lined floor-to-ceiling with books, the sign of a big shot. You can buy books by the yard, but having room to store them is spendy. Eaton had retired from Wall Street after finding new ways to move money in circles.

As posh as his crib was, I knew he’d spent an equal fortune keeping himself alive. There wasn’t a mark on him, and his last body scan had come back absolutely clean – other than the heart, of course. All organic food, no aneurysms, no blood clots. Nothing.

The butler produced the corpse’s cell phone, and the coroner called up the artificial heart app. He got Eaton’s doctor on the phone and obtained the shutoff codes for the heart. The body seemed to sink into the ground as the blood pressure dropped. It settled into a familiar waxy pale color.

“Did he have any enemies?” I asked the butler. When I was a kid, no one could afford a butler. These days, people were cheap.

“Everybody liked Mr. Eaton, detective. He was very active in–“ he continued in this line, but I wasn’t listening to the words. I was watching him. There was something about him I didn’t like.

I turned to the harness officer by the door. “Strip him,” I said.

In the old days, you needed a judge’s order to strip-search a suspect. Back then, I would have missed the flash drive taped behind the butler’s scrotum, the one with a computer virus that shut down the artificial heart’s operating system for two minutes. Thank you, Justice Scalia.

I’m sure the butler had a motive, but that wasn’t my job. Save that for the judge.

Welcome back to Panel 350, our experiment in flash fiction (stories told in 350 word or less). Here’s my contribution for this week:

The Old Man’s Book

By Dara Naraghi

The old man shifted his weight on the park bench, basking in the rays of sunlight filtering down through the gangly trees. It was a rare January day in New York, with temperatures hovering around a comfortable 70 degrees. The first real break in the heat wave had brought him, and a few dozen other adventurous souls, out into the last green vestiges of Central Park.

Turning back to his book, he flipped a page on the massive hardback, his eyes dancing across the old typeface. In the background, the constant hum of the irrigation pumps, delivering precious water from the Hudson River, drowned out the chirps of a few lone birds.

A teen flopped down next to the old man, breaking his reverie. She pulled out her mobile and powered up the virtual display. A half dozen distinct feeds began playing at once, music and news and movie broadcasts simultaneously competing for attention, audio waves rolling over each other like waves whipped up by a storm.

“Holy shit, is that an actual book?” she asked, mockingly.

He sighed. “Yes.”

“Oh, wow! That’s so old timey! I mean, like, it doesn’t do anything. It’s not even wired. Come on, grandpa, get with the–”

And then she screamed.

The old man looked up to see a mutated spider, the size of his fist, crawling across the bench towards her. It was likely not poisonous, but why risk it? He lifted the massive book and brought the full weight of it down on the intruder, ending the threat with an obscene, squishy thump.

If there was a hint of gratitude in the teen’s eyes, it was lost behind twin pools of horror and disgust. She fled the bench without a word, raucous mobile in tow.

The old man bent down and wiped the back of the book on the grass, dislodging the spider carcass. He then repositioned himself on the bench, and continued reading.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, a shrill voice echoed “Like, it doesn’t do anything.”

A smile crept across his lips.

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