Jacob stood alone on the fog covered dock. A spectral figure wreathed in frost and ice crystal.
The glock hung loosely at his side with the apathy of sleep deprivation.
A beam of light lanced through the fog and somewhere far off a fog horn belched.
His fingers were numb on the grip and his exposed skin was cold and clammy.
He waited some more.
Then he heard it, the slow stutter of hooves clacked across the dock; Each step loud and surreal in the opaque air.
Jacob told himself it was only the chill of the fog, but he knew better.
He saw the eyes first.
Red as rage and hot as a furnace.
One step after another.
He ran his tongue over his ragged lips and croaked out a greeting.
His voice sounded like a lost child.
Afraid, alone and desperately wanting to be elsewhere.
The terrible eyes moved forward in their unrelenting pace.
It ripped through the fog, its two cloven hooves leaving a scorch marked trail.
His teeth chattered .
It came to a sudden halt, its black armor clanking like a death toll.
It gave a serrated grin.
“Hershel… be nice. This is just a friendly chat.”
She emerged from behind the hulking figure, in her pin-striped blazer and slacks, no shirt or tie beneath, her fedora cocked at a jaunty angle over her eyes.
Jacob swallowed. He tried to remind himself that this was not a woman. It was something else. It. Use the right pronoun.
It lifted its chin. The eyes were a dull red, the color of arterial blood on skin, if it weren’t as pale as what she… it… wore. The eyes focused on the gun.
“Is that for me, Jacob? Are you here to pump me full of lead? Or… something else, maybe?”
The tone was playful. The lips, brighter red and moist, smiled slowly.
“I want out. I want to stop hurting people.”
The lips pursed into a pout. Fingers slid up the lapel of the jacket.
“Jacob. Jake, baby. You asked for this. We had a deal, remember?”
It took steps. Slow, deliberate, hip-swaying steps. Carrot and stick, Jacob told himself. Carrot and stick. That’s all this is.
It was close, now. It looked in his eyes. It touched his chest.
“Do the sweet promises we made really mean nothing?”
I was going to write something about writing when you can’t write (which I may still do), but due to time constraints I couldn’t quite get it together. Here’s a similar bit of advice from earlier in the year. Today I’ll do a better job of carving out writing time than I did yesterday.
Writing, as a creative endeavor, has a lot of advantages. You don’t need special equipment to write – at the bare minimum you just need something to write with, and something to write on. You can write about literally anything you want – fiction or non-fiction, on any subject or in any style, you can even write about writing itself! And you can write just about any time you like.
This is, however, the biggest potential problem writers might encounter. Delayed writing is writing that suffers. It’s better to write right now.
Chuck recommends writing in the morning. In fact, he recommends a lot of things that writers should pay attention to. But one point he hammers home like ten-penny nails your skull didn’t know it needs is Writers must be writing. And the sooner you write, the better.
Unless you completely shun human contact and seal yourself into some kind of bubble, things are going to come to your attention that interrupt your writing time. Spouse. Children. Chores. Tumblr. Any number of items that you are compelled to contend with vie for your attention, and you will not always be able or willing to resist their call. And you know what? That’s okay.
What matters is, you learn what works and what doesn’t, and you refine what works until you’re pounding out the words as immediately and completely as possible.
If you need to get up earlier in the morning, do that. Gotta rearrange your schedule? Do that too. Discuss new divisions of chores with the other humans you live with (if you live with any). Stock up on things that motivate and energize you – coffee, Clif bars, Oreos, booze, whatever. Make yourself a plan to write more, and do everything you can to stick to it.
Because, let’s face it – we’re at war.
Time wages a ceaseless battle against us. Every day you’re vertical is an act of defiance in the face of inevitability, even moreso if you write. Which means, to me, that every day you don’t write is losing ground to the enemy. You can fight to get that ground back, but it feels like running uphill. It’s more trouble than it should be. You do much better if you simply write right now.
So stop reading blogs on the Internet, and go do that.
For the Terribleminds Flash Fiction challenge “200 Words At A Time: Part One” – I’m curious to see what people make of this.
“This is never going to work.”
The witch looked over her shoulder as she drew the pentagram on the wall with red chalk. “If you have a better idea, Father, I’m all ears.”
“Believe me, I wish I had a better idea than drawing these things on the walls of my church.”
“Do I need to remind you that you’re the one that called me?”
“And if my Bishop knew, he’d probably excommunicate me faster than you can say ‘Martin Luther’.”
“He might react that way if he knew about all of the guns on the premesis, too.”
Father Benjamin looked up from the shotgun he was loading. “This is America, Miss Crenshaw. Everybody has guns. Even the clergy.”
“Those are the shells we discussed?”
“Silver buckshot soaked in holy water? Yes.”
“Good.” Crenshaw looked up as the pounding began on the doors. “I knew I should have started there…”
“At least they’re only coming from one direction.” Benjamin worked the shotgun’s pump action as he moved towards the door. “Finish what you’ve started. I’ll hold them off.”
“What, and let you fight it alone?” Abigail Crenshaw dropped the chalk, drawing the silver sword from her dark scabbard. “Not a chance.”
I may not be participating in NaNoWriMo to its letters, but with Cold Streets rewritten to the point of demanding test readers (more on Friday), it’s time to turn my attention to my un-rewritten fantasy novel Godslayer. It doesn’t count as NaNoWriMo because (1) technically parts of it were already written before November, and (2) since it’s a rebuild-from-scratch of an old idea, it doesn’t really count as a new novel. Maybe I’ll have something in mind for next year. In the meantime, please enjoy the first 1,745 words (sorry, Chuck) of Godslayer.
If he lost his concentration, he could die. Or worse, fail the test.
Asherian bent his attention on the challenge before him. Feedback from a botched transmutation did terrible things to the human body. He did his best not to think about ruptured organs or spontaneously shattering bones. More chilling, he knew his master would likely return to check on his progress, more than likely before he was done. The shopkeeper must have known Asherian would be showing up early in an attempt to practice, because he’d been waiting for the apprentice by the workbench at the back of the shop.
“This is lead, Apprentice.” His master had shown him the lump, about the size of his thumb, before dropping it in the middle of a transmutation plate bolted to the workbench. That, at least, Asherian wouldn’t have to worry about. It hit the center of the circle with a dull, resonant thud. “I want it to be gold by the time I return.”
Asherian moved his eyes over the circle’s lines, at the runes inscribed within its curvature, at the bisecting lines leading to inner circles and even smaller ones around the metal. His hands rested on either side of the plate, his magical ability flowing through his arms and into the circle at the direction of his will. He could channel, cast, incant, all the necessary components for transmutation. He could even inscribe circles of his own that impressed masters and elders alike. But if he could not do this simple task, he’d remain an apprentice for years to come.
It was his eighteenth year. He’d been an apprentice for eleven of them. It was, to him, long enough.
This was a test all alchemists had to pass, and Asherian was certain he could complete the task. However, he hesitated. He took a deep breath, knowing how close he was to becoming a Journeyman, even as other thoughts tugged at him. This was a choice he knew he had to make, and this was the moment.
As he began to incant, he felt the tug from the lump of lead. It resisted the change. It was a dense, simple metal. The reality of it, the years it had remained lead, pushed back against his intent to alter it. He focused more upon it, channeling more of his will, the tiny trenches in the plate beginning to give off heat. Repeating the incantation, Asherian felt the temperature rising, pushing away the sensation as much as possible as he kept his focus on the lead in the center of the circle.
Moments that felt like years passed as the apprentice tried to overcome the natural resistance of the material. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the lead began to grow hot, steam rising from the lump before it began to glow. Asherian fought down a feeling of elation, knowing that even the slightest distraction could undo all of his work. Sweat was beading on his brow, sliding down his jaw. Time was running out. He left the incantations out and simply focused on the process, feeling the lead give way to the power of his magic…
A drop of sweat fell from his chin onto the plate. At once, the circles flared brightly, almost immediately going out. Asherian, gasping, stepped back from the workbench with his hands raised. His breathing was ragged, his fingers twitching. He stared at the lump of metal, barely visible through the steam coming from the metal plate.
“For a moment there, he was your spitting image, Alwred.”
Asherian looked toward the front of the alchemy shop, through the threshold to the sales area where his master did business. The senior alchemist stood just within the work area, another figure behind him in the doorway. Both men wore robes in the deep cobalt and silver trim of Tel-Urad. Asherian swallowed, inclining his head to the second figure, the taller one, the headpiece of his staff with its precious center gem marking him as the highest member of the Sorcerous Guild.
“I recall working rather hard myself.” Alwred stepped into the room fully, regarding his son with a haughtiness that might have been pride but could just have easily turned to disapproval. His cheekbones were high and sharp, underscored by his trimmed beard of dark hair. “But he has his mother’s eyes.” Alwred picked up the lump of metal from the center of the still-steaming transmutation plate, turning it over between his fingers.
“I didn’t know you’d be here.” Asherian wiped his brow, nervousness filling his body with unwelcome electricity.
“I did not want you to.” Alwred handed the lump to Asherian’s master. “Zaru, this is not gold.”
Asherian felt deflated. He sank against the back wall of the workshop and struggled to remain standing.
“Hmph.” Zaru scowled at it. “So it is not.”
“Tell me, how many of your apprentices have been faced with the lead into gold test, only to transmute the lead into platinum, instead?”
Asherian blinked. Say nothing. Keep your thoughts closed.
“They are close, those metals.” Zaru weighed the lump in his palm. He was a broad man with thick fingers, and he disliked Asherian being taller and more thin than he. “And platinum is worth easily as much as gold if not more, for experimentation as well as trade with the surface.” He closed his beefy fist around the lump. “But the fact remains he failed his test. He missed the mark. Overshooting the objective is not the same as striking it true. Such a mistake could be fatal in other circumstances.”
Alwred said nothing. He kept his focus on how he should be feeling in this moment of apparent failure. If this test is the end goal, it’s not enough for me to fail. My father just had to show up, looming over me, judging me even more harshly. The transmutation plate exploding in my face would have been preferable. If this test is the end goal. His hands trembled, and he closed them hard until his fingernails bit into his palms. He fought down his anger and sorrow, raising his chin to the two older men in the room.
“I will collect my things and go, then.”
Zaru blinked. “I didn’t give you my leave.”
Asherian stared at him. “What?”
“I did not give you my leave, apprentice. Failure of this test does not mean your apprenticeship with me ends. It simply means you must remain part of my shop a little longer.” Zaru’s plump lips curled into a smirk. “Did you think I would simply cast you out if you failed?”
Asherian relaxed his hands. “The thought crossed my mind, master.”
Zaru laughed. It was a deep, resonant sound. “Are you so harsh with your apprentices, Alwred?”
“The ones that need extra encouragement, yes.” The High Sorcerer gestured for Asherian to come out from behind the workbench. Asherian managed to get his legs moving again, still finding it a struggle to let go of his frustration. His father laid a hand on his shoulder. “You cannot expect to pass every test that crosses your path.”
“I know, Father, but this test is the hallmark of a true alchemist! What am I without it?”
“An apprentice, and my son.”
Asherian bit back any further response. His father’s position was something that Asherian tried not to rely upon for special treatment, especially from the likes of Zaru. “Thank you for allowing me to continue my lessons, Master Zaru.”
“You have a great deal of promise, Asherian. Both your father and Elder Cahrn agree.”
“I spoke to Cahrn before I came here.” Alwred still had a look on his face like he was appraising Asherian’s worth rather than enjoying his presence. “He wanted me to wish you luck on your test. I did not know you’d already begun.”
“I knew the test would be difficult. I wanted to begin early, before Master Zaru had business coming through his front door.”
“And now that you’re done, I want you out of my shop. You’re sweaty and you stink of defeat. Get yourself bathed.”
“I will see you at home later, Asherian. We will discuss how this obstacle affects your future. I want to ensure that when you accompany me to meetings of the High Council, you are the best alchemist you can be. Which means you should be able to turn lead into gold without so much strain.”
With that, Alwred left the shop, bidding farewell to Zaru, who set about preparing his shop for business. Asherian watched him go before gathering up his staff and satchel. His training staff was as tall as him, made from maple wood gathered from a grove near the Magistone Wall to the north and etched with several basic alchemical circles in miniature. He’d gotten in the same day as his first focus, a simple copper band he’d slipped around one finger. It, too, had been engraved with alchemical symbols.
The implements felt heavier than usual. Bitterness crept into his mind as he felt their heft, his mood coloring the shop interior a shade of red. While his master chided him for not getting the transmutation exactly right, the fact that he had not only completed the exercise without serious incident but also made the transition from mundane metal to precious metal would have been lauded elsewhere. But staying to argue the point would gain him nothing, and he was long past caring what Zaru had to say. He had more pressing matters at hand, even as he focused on his feelings of rejection to deflect attention from his true intent.
The lump of platinum sat on the shop counter, as Zaru bent behind it to find some jar or other display. Asherian moved quietly, his fingers still tingling slightly, and waited for the right moment. Zaru mumbled and there was the clink of glass. Asherian’s hand darted out and came back with the platinum. He moved to the exit, slipping the metal into his satchel. Zaru took no notice.
As Asherian left his master’s shop, he kept his thoughts carefully guarded. He was not about to put past his father the notion of a seer plucking them from Asherian’s mind. However, Elienah had taught him how to guard himself from casual scans. He ordered his mind as he walked, just as his sister had shown him, only letting himself contemplate his plans as he turned onto the main thoroughfare of Tel-Urad.
This week, for The Subgenre Smash-And-Grab, the d20 Ring picked Space Opera and Technothriller.
The intelligence report appeared one letter after another on Commander Dane’s data-pad, red letters turning green as they were decrypted by the star cruiser Intrepid‘s onboard AI. He frowned, and turned to the lieutenant keeping pace with him as he strode down the corridor.
“Edelston, have Captain Poole join us on the bridge, please.”
Lieutenant Edelston nodded and ran off. Dane walked through the pressure doors onto the bridge, glancing around at the men and women at their duty stations.
“Shipboard communications are still down, sir.” The yeoman near the Engineering console was next to one of the ship’s best technicians, who was elbow deep in the circuitry underneath. “Last report from the Drive section was that the reactors are at 25% power. We’re not losing life support any time soon, but we’re essentially dead in space.”
“Damn it. Navigation?”
“We’re drifting deeper into the nebula, sir. Telemetry suggests we can remain undetected if we stay on this course for the next few minutes, at least. We got lucky, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. I need a runner to get me an update from Drive.”
“On it, sir,” an ensign said, who promptly left the bridge. Dane turned back to the report in his hand. The AI could not communicate or transmit any new information with the system down, but archives were still available. The intelligence report was timestamped just before the sudden shutdown of communications and main drive function, a transmission from Fleet Command. Dane read it over again as the runner from Drive reappeared on the bridge, only slightly out of breath.
“They say we’ll have full function in ten minutes. They’re going to use power from the main gun to jump-start the drive.”
Dane realized what was going to happen, and handed the ensign the data-pad as he left the bridge. He jogged down corridors and slid down stairwells, stopping at one point to pick up a sidearm. In just over a minute, he was in the bowels of the ship, entering a maintenance area over the construct that ran its length. He drew his weapon and dropped through the hatch.
Poole turned, his arm around Lieutenant Edelston’s shoulders. His free hand held a plasma cutter, poised at her neck.
“Weapon on the deck, sir.”
“Edelston, are you hurt?”
She shook her head. Poole tightened his grip on her.
“I said, weapon on the deck.”
“I heard you, Captain. I’d like you to explain yourself, first.”
“We have to abort the mission, Commander. What we’re doing out here is wrong.”
“We’re observing fleet operations in the Sirius system, Bob. Nothing more.”
“Why not send a survey team to do that? Why send a star cruiser?”
“We’re the fastest and most capable ship in the fleet. We have an experienced crew. We were already on maneuvers in this area of space.”
“And we also have a goddamn moon laser as our main gun.”
“That’s just a colloquial term for it. You know its proper term is coaxial cannon.”
“Whatever it’s called, it shouldn’t be out here. Now, put down your gun.”
Dane studied Poole for a long moment. “I’ll take my finger off of the trigger, but I can’t put it down. Fair enough?”
Poole tightened his grip on the lieutenant. “I don’t want to hurt her, Dave.”
“Then don’t. Put down the torch and I’ll put down the gun, and we can talk.”
“Talk? What is there to talk about? I shorted the primary transfer coupling in the Drive section. I did it in such a way that killed our communications, for now at least. I know I’ll be court-martialed for this. There’s no discussion to be had.”
“You still haven’t told me why.”
“The Senate’s not popular back home. They need something to rally the people behind. A war with Sirius is a great motivator.”
“We barely have contract with Sirius. Why would they want to start a war?”
“Profit? Votes? Who knows? All I know is, a star cruiser with a moon laser is an extremely aggressive message to send, even if your orders are really just to observe. What were our orders, Dave?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
“What target did the Senate pick out for the moon laser?”
“Stop calling it that.”
“Why? It’s called a moon laser because they intend it to blow holes in moons. It can level cities from orbit in a flash. They sent us here to start a war.”
“Bob, please, let her go.”
Poole flicked the plasma cutter on. Edelston winced, gritted her teeth, but didn’t cry out. She looked at Dane. The ship’s commanding officer touched a stud on the side of his sidearm, and Edelston gave him a very small, almost imperceptible nod.
“What do you want, Bob?”
“I want us to go home. I want you to record and transmit full disclosure of our orders to every newswave station in the Colonies. I want the Colonial Senate to answer for what they’ve done, and what they intend to do. And I want you to put me in an escape pod as soon as we’re in range of the Outer Reach.”
Dane pulled the trigger. The sidearm, set for stun, hit Edelston in her mid-section. She gave a short, sharp cry as the electromagnetic charge blasted through her system, and she collapsed. Before Poole could react, Dane stunned him, too. The comm device on his belt chirped at him.
“Bridge to Commander Dane. Main Drive systems and communications restored, sir.”
“Excellent work. Tactical report?”
“Long-range scans indicate several Sirius frigates making for the nebula. They know we’re here.”
Dane frowned. He’d never agreed with their orders, and he wasn’t about to risk his ship and crew if they’d already been compromised.
“Plot a course for Station Theta. Get us out of here.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“And I’ll need a medical team at the Foward Coax Bay.”
He looked down at Poole.
“You should have talked to me, Bob.”
This week at Terribleminds, we were asked to use a random song title.
Cornelius remembered the morning’s breakfast all too clearly.
“Bah!” One of the consuls, Gaius Terentius Varro, shot to his feet and stabbed a finger at the other. “You’re as spineless as your beloved Fabius! Give me one good reason why we don’t destroy the enemy of Rome here and now!”
The other consul, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, shook his head, holding his bread firmly in both hands as if to keep them from going for a weapon. “I’m telling you, Varro, every other Roman leader that has smashed into this enemy has brought ruin upon himself and his men. Look to the examples set by those who’ve come before, and think before you act.”
“What would you have me do, Paullus, you old degenerate? Wait for Hannibal to escape from us? Look! Out there are only 40,000 of his men! We have twice that many!”
“Yes. Across an open, flat plain, where his cavalry and beasts have the advantage. We should dispatch at least one legion to the hills nearby, and neutralize the high ground. If you want to capture Hannibal, we should attempt to contain him first.”
“Capture him?” Varro crossed his arms. “You forget, Paullus. I swore an oath to Rome that I would crush Hannibal, not capture him. I would be a poor consul indeed if I took such an oath, and did not back it up with decisive action.” He picked up his cup and raised it to the tribunes assembled in his tent. “To oaths fulfilled! To victory! To Rome!”
Cornelius had toasted with the others, not wishing to antagonize Varro any further, but even then, misgivings emerged in his mind regarding Varro’s plan. However, it was Varro’s day to command, and thus the army was deployed to face the Carthaginian forces. Cornelius noted that the enemy was arrayed with their lighter infantry in the center, advancing ahead of the rest of the army, and as he squinted through the dust, he could have sworn Hannibal himself was at the forefront of that detachment.
“Hah!” Varro pointed, tall and proud in his saddle as he rode with his cavalry on the army’s left flank. “See, the man himself comes to face his doom. Advance!”
The Roman legions packed in closer and closer, as Varro had planned. His goal was to use his powerful, superior numbers to smash straight through the lines of Carthage and fulfill his oath. Cornelius, for his part, drew his sword to do his part in supporting the advance. The battle at Cannae was joined. Varro, Cornelius, and the rest of the Roman cavalry on the left flank engaged the light but nimble Numidians, a cavalry contingent that had long been the bane of supply lines and water-bearers of the Romans.
As the battle began to take shape, spears clashing and thrusting in the dusty morning, Cornelius saw that Hannibal and his center were falling back. They were not fully engaged. Varro called for more pressure on the center, pressing the Roman legions even more tightly to one another and goading their advance. As they smashed into the Carthaginian spears and slings, a cry went up from the rear of the cavalry formation. Out of the dust came heavy Carthaginian cavalry, and Cornelius recognized Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, leading the charge.
It took Cornelius a moment to realize what had happened. While they had been on the left flank of their formation, Paullus and his cavalry had been on the right. Something must have happened to Paullus, Cornelius thought as he wheeled his horse. Suddenly, as the Romans kept advancing into the Carthaginian lines collapsing around them, encircling them, Varro’s cavalry was itself caught between two other forces. As Hasdrubal closed in on one side, and the Numidians on the other, Cornelius looked past them towards the infantry, and what he saw seized his heart.
It had been hours of fighting, and now the trap Hannibal had laid was closing hard on the Romans. Once the cavalry was done with Varro and his horse, they’d wheel into the Roman rear, leaving the legions nowhere to go, so tightly packed now that they could barely swing their swords. Cornelius turned back to Varro, perhaps to suggest they fall back into the Carthaginian heavy infantry and perhaps relieve some of the pressure, but Varro was already galloping from the field, glancing over his shoulder, his face white as the marble of the Roman senate.
Cornelius fought his way through to make his own escape. A Numidian spear found his shoulder, but he struck back at the man wielding it and wrenched himself free, kicking his horse to break from battle. He rode towards the river, intending to follow it to safety, but stopped short at the sight of several men near their slaughtered horses, ready to accept the oncoming Carthaginians. In the center was Paullus, bleeding from a wound in his head.
“Consul,” Cornelius said, “can you ride?”
Paullus shook his head. “I ordered the dismount. I will not abandon our men to suffer and die alone.”
Hasdrubal and his horse were wheeling around as Cornelius had feared. He offered his reins to Paullus. “Please, Paullus. Flee while you can.”
The older man placed his hand on the tribune’s wrist. “Cornelius. Do not waste in useless pity the few moments left in which to escape from the hands of the enemy. Go, announce publicly to the Senate that they must fortify Rome and make its defense strong before the victorious enemy approaches. And… tell Fabius privately that I have ever remembered his precepts in life and in death. Suffer me to breathe my last among my slaughtered soldiers.”
Cornelius clenched his jaw, fighting back tears. The cry went up from the heavy horses of Carthage as they came upon their prey. Cursing, Cornelius kicked his horse hard, leaving the scene behind him with all speed. Cannae was a disaster. Varro had failed in fulfilling his oath.
He had no idea how any of them could save Rome now.
The song “Back It Up” is by Caro Emerald, and has nothing to do with Rome. The Battle of Cannae took place in 216 BCE. Learn more about the Punic Wars here.
Normally, this would be where I share with you the latest story I cobbled together for this week’s challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds. But this week, I can’t do that.
Chuck gave strict instructions this week. You can go here to find out what they are, and then hunt down my entry. I believe it’s towards the bottom of page three.
Good luck to everyone involved. The prize is pretty awesome.
Also, it’s a horror theme, so… sweet dreams.
Dark Island by Steve Carter
This week Chuck at Terribleminds had us roll for our titles.
The boat’s small outboard motor lost its place as the only sound when Jessica spoke.
“I still don’t think this is a good idea.”
Carl rolled his eyes. “Yeah, you’ve made that pretty clear. But we need you, Jess. You’re the one who looked up the legends in the first place.”
“They’re just legends. I don’t see why we have to come out here.”
“For the truth!” That came from John, who sat by the engine to steer the boat. “You said yourself there are a lot of unanswered questions about Lindsey Swanson and how she died.”
Jessica didn’t say anything. She stared into the fog. It wasn’t uncommon for the vast lake near their town to be blanketed in swirling gray, especially in the morning, but usually strong winds from the hills came down to clear things up, and let those living on the edge of the lake see the faint outline of the small island in the middle of the lake. But today, there was no wind. It was calm. Quiet. And silent.
Jessica felt another chill go through her body.
“It’ll be fine.” Carl gave Jessica a smile. “You’ve got the knowledge, John’s got the boat, I’ve got the gear. Not to mention the military training.”
“You’ve been in ROTC all of a semester and a half, dude.”
“Shut up, John, it’s still military training!”
“Quiet, both of you.” Jessica’s voice was a soft hiss. “We’re here.”
Up close, the island loomed out of the mists. The mound was mostly wooded, and Jessica’s research indicated a cabin sat in the middle of it. John leaned away from the outboard engine.
“Any chance someone’s still living there?”
“As far as anybody knows, it’s been abandoned since the 1880s.” Jessica crossed her arms. “Reports of people coming out here are sketchy, at best.”
“Not so sketchy anymore.” Carl pointed. “Look.”
On the shore of the island, a few boats lay scattered on the rocks. Two were aluminum canoes, one a wooden kayak, the others larger craft like the one they were using. Jessica turned to John, whose face had gotten considerably more pale. Carl pulled out his phone and started taking pictures.
“Instagram,” he told the others. “No way we’re getting lost without a trace, or anything.”
“Stop it.” John eased the motor down as they approached the shore. “There’s nothing here. It’s just trees and stuff.”
Jessica picked up her backpack, which contained a few flashlights, a bottle of water, her camera, and a notebook with her research and notes. Neither Carl nor John had brought much besides the contents of their jeans, as far as she could tell. John guided the boat within a few feet of the shore, and Carl hopped out of the boat to pull it up onto land. The three got out, and Jessica handed out the flashlights.
“Just in case we need them.”
“I’m telling you, there’s nothing here. We should just leave.”
“Come on, John, we’re already here. We might as well take a look around.”
“And if there’s nothing here, there’s nothing for us to worry about, right?” Jessica gave John a smile that belied the creeping feeling under her skin. “Let’s head up the hill and have a look.”
The fog made travelling through the forest slow. All three of them watched their footing more than anything else. As they approached the summit, a dark shape loomed out of the mists. Jessica felt, simultaneously, vindication for being right and an even more pronounced sense of dread.
“Okay. So, there’s a cabin. Great. Can we go now?”
Carl ignored John, reaching under his shirt. “You said nobody’s supposed to be leaving here, right, Jess?”
Carl produced a pistol and pulled back its slide, checking its action. “Just making sure.”
“What? Carl, why did you bring a gun?”
“I’m being prepared.”
“Jess brings flashlights and water and God knows what else, and all you can think to bring is a gun?”
“Look, your pencilneck…”
“Shut up, both of you!” Jessica wanted to yell, and struggled to keep her voice down. “Let’s just look inside, take some photos, and get out. Okay? Carl, put the gun away.”
“Do it.” She walked past him and reached for the handle of the cabin door. It swung open on its own.
“I’m going back to the fucking boat-”
Before John could finish speaking, Carl grabbed him by the collar and pulled him into the cabin. Jessica rolled her eyes and followed. Their flashlights penetrated the gloom, moving over smashed plates, rotted food, animal carcasses, and floors stained with blood.
“Is it just the one floor?” Carl asked. Jessica shrugged. She looked past the threshold within the room to the bedroom, then moved her light over a metal ring set in the floor. A gentle tug opened the trapdoor, and she moved her flashlight to peer into the darkness.
“Looks like a root cellar.”
“I’m not going down there,” John whispered. “You can’t make me.”
“Now, listen, you little-”
In turning to face John, Carl bumped into Jessica, sending her down the dark stairs in a tumble. There weren’t many stairs, eight or so at most, but Jessica still managed to strike her head on one of them. For a moment, everything was dark.
A sharp, loud sound she’d never heard before snapped her back to her senses. She tried to stand, but the ceiling was low. She smelled smoke, like something burning, and looked up to see a thin haze at the top of the stairs.
The sound, again, accompanied by a bright flash of light. Gunfire! It was a lot louder than on TV. Something moved in front of the cellar door – Jessica couldn’t make out what it was, but it almost looked like the hem of a white dress.
John came down the stairs, like he’d been tossed. His face was covered in blood, his eyes wide and unblinking.
Jessica screamed, and the cellar door slammed shut.
Time is relentless. The seconds never stop ticking away, inching us closer to our destinies. Anise reflected on this as her mental countdown towards the execution got shorter and shorter. Two minutes, ten seconds. She looked at the back of the man in front of her. Will this make any difference? What will happen next?
The sirens began to sound and the raggedy man broke into the grin she’d seen before.
“Hear that? They finally noticed we’re not where we should be.”
Anise stayed close behind the man her grandfather sent, breathing mostly through her mouth, lest the smell of the drainage pipe crawl up her nostrils. She cast her eyes upward, as if she could see through the stone to the courtyard they now bypassed.
“Does this mean the execution won’t happen?”
“Oh, it’ll happen. Just not now. You’ve bought those men at least another day. See? You’re saving lives already.”
Anise didn’t feel like she was saving lives. She didn’t know how she was supposed to feel. Above her, the hangman’s noose meant for her neck hung empty. Soon, men and dogs would be scouring the prison for her. This was the reasoning behind the man using the drain; the stink of living waste and dead bodies would hide her scent. Or so he thought. Anise wasn’t sure. Dogs had powerful noses. And they knew how to track.
“Just a little farther.”
“How do you know your way through here?”
“This isn’t the first time I decided prison life wasn’t for me.”
It occurred to Anise that it was possible the man was a liar. That he wanted to keep her for his own nefarious purposes. But if that was the case, how would he have known about her grandparents? Or her real name? She shivered, drawing her grandmother’s shawl closer around her shoulders as they walked.
‘Just a little farther’ was another fifteen minutes of slow, careful, smelly trudging before he stopped by a small alcove in the wall. He went first up the metal rungs sticking out of the brickwork, towards wan sunlight filtered through a manhole cover. Gently, he pushed the metal plate up and aside, hauling himself through the hole. Anise followed, finding his hand waiting for her to help her up onto the street.
The city had grown organically which meant the prison was situated in the middle of some residential areas. Anise winced at the full brunt of the sirens coming from the high walls topped with barbed wires. The man beside her took hold of her shoulder, even as the crowd moving to and fro around them looked at them or towards the prison.
“Come along. Let’s get you safe.”
Anise stayed close to the man as they moved through the streets. Everywhere she looked, Anise saw faces of people devoid of hope, dressed in clothing stained and torn by their hard lives, eyes downcast to avoid the posters of propaganda and any sentries on the rooftops. They wove their way through the byways and alleys to reach a ramshackle rowhome several blocks from the prison.
Other men and women waited inside, and they greeted Anise with quiet enthusiasm. None of them were her grandfather, and the more she looked, the more worried she became. Finally, the man who’d freed her pulled her aside.
“I’m sorry he isn’t here. We have to keep you separate for now. It’s too dangerous otherwise. But there’s a way you can help him, and help all of us.”
Anise nodded. She was lead upstairs and sat at the desk. A woman adjusted dials as she waited. When she couldn’t stand it, she looked up at the man and asked.
“What’s your name?”
“Call me Mickey.”
“Mickey… what do I say?”
“Whatever is in your heart.”
She took a deep breath. The woman nodded to Mickey, who bent over Anise to turn on the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt your regularly-scheduled government-mandated programming for a special announcement.”
He looked at Anise and smiled. Anise took another breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she began to speak.
“My name is Anastasia. Six months ago, I was a princess. I lived in the palace on the hill. The one that’s been dark since the Duke and his allies in the military stormed it. My mother and father did not survive this attack. I managed to escape, changing my name, moving from place to place until I was captured and sentenced to die.”
“I was sentenced to die because I was born into the family that has looked after this kingdom for 300 years. From what I understand, we were a prosperous people. Not always happy, but prosperous. You were taken care of. Some went hungry but others helped. Now, look around. Look at the kingdom now. More are hungry. Fewer are around to help. Families have been put to death and the streets run with the blood of the innocent in ways that have not been seen in centuries.”
She looked at Mickey and the others in the room. A crowd had gathered. Some were weeping. She went on.
“If you can hear my voice, know that you are not alone. You are not forgotten. In their grab for power, the Duke and his allies have forgotten that the first office of a ruler is to care for the people under their rule. The Duke doesn’t care about you. He doesn’t care if your children starve. I do.
“And mark my words. Your pain will not be forgotten. It will be visited upon the Duke and those that stand with him tenfold.”
Somewhere in the distance, something exploded. More sirens sounded. Mickey took hold of Anise’s arm, but she kept her finger on the microphone’s button.
“Please. For my sake, for the memory of my parents, your king and queen, do not give up. Never give up. We fight for a better tomorrow. All of us must fight. Mother, Father, I’m coming home!”
She was pushing herself through the third squeeze she’d found when she heard his voice again.
“Your heart rate is elevated, Doctor Simmons. Everything okay?”
Simmons sighed. “I’m starting to regret letting the med-techs wire me up. Other than that, it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“Okay. We’re not getting picture at the moment.”
Simmons grunted as she pushed herself another inch through the squeeze. “That’s because I’m moving through a subterranean rock formation barely wide enough for my body, Eddleston. You’re going to have to wait until I make it through.”
“I’m just telling you what the situation is up here. Howards wanted to remind you that champagne is waiting for you back on the Cousteau.”
“Did you hear that?”
“That was me… urgh! …rolling my eyes.”
In truth, Simmons knew that they wouldn’t be here without Howards and his millions. He was, after all, the contractor with the wherewithal to pick up on what the military would have passed off as echoes in sonar readings from their subs. A man accustomed to having only the best, he’d sought out the world’s foremost speleologist, which is how Simmons met him. In truth, she admitted to herself as she reached the end of the squeeze that she preferred talking to Eddleston. A fellow academic, even if their fields weren’t terribly related, Eddleston at least was able to hold a conversation with her on cavern structure and other areas. She wondered often how an archaeologist knew so much about caves, and when asked, Eddleston just shrugged and said “I like to know where I might have to go.”
She took a deep breath when she emerged from the squeeze. The caves had been formed by lava flows, leaving the rock faces smooth and slightly spongy to the touch. She knelt and reached back to pull her backpack through the bottom of the squeeze, which had been wide enough for her feet. A meter up, it had been so narrow that her torso had barely made it through. She took a moment to readjust her suit, and make sure her helmet was secure on her head. The lamp on the helmet’s left side cast wan light through the cavern before her. She tapped the camera on the right side.
“Do you have picture now?”
“Yes!” Eddleston sounded more relieved than anything. “Thank you, Doctor. I’m sorry if I’ve been too intrusive; you must be used to exploring caves on your own.”
“It’s the first time I’ve been down a shaft carved with industrial lasers. I think we’re all a little unnerved.” She looked around, taking her time to pan the camera. “I’m not seeing another squeeze or any branching tunnels. I’m going to proceed ahead.”
“Roger. This is about where the Navy’s readings ended. We don’t know what’s beyond this point.”
“Correction. We don’t know yet.”
There was a pause on Eddleston’s end as she made her way forward. Then, she heard him chuckling.
“Howards reiterated how much he admires your attitude.”
“Wonderful. It’d be nice if he weren’t so obvious about how much he admires my ass, too.”
“They did make that environmental suit a little form-fitting. Are you comfortable?”
“It’s warm down here. Is all of the volcanic activity dormant?”
“That’s what the seismology indicates. Howards said that lava was, and I’m quoting, ‘the least of our worries’.”
Simmons frowned. “A bit dramatic for the inside of a dormant undersea volcano.”
“You know, there could be more than that down there.”
“I still don’t buy it.”
“Myths have basis in fact as well as folklore. If we find nothing, we find nothing. But if we find something…”
“James, I admire your tenacity, but there’s a reason people stopped giving you grants. A few bits of difficult-to-identify metals aren’t enough to substantiate your claims.”
“I know. I’m trying not to get my hopes up. But I have to admit, the possibilities…”
“Hold on.” She looked up. “Are you seeing this?”
Behind what seemed at first to be a turn in the tunnel, Simmons saw something reflecting the light of her lamp. She walked over to it and, after a moment, touched it. Through her glove, she felt a chill.
“What is it?”
“Metal,” Simmons said, “at least I think so.”
She pulled a climbing axe out of her belt, chipping away at the solidified magma. A few minutes later, she stepped back to look at what she’d uncovered.
“It… it looks like a hatch.”
“I knew it.” Eddleston’s excitement was palpable even over the wireless radio. “Can you open it?”
“There’s a handle, let me…” She put her hands around what seemed to be the handle, and gave it a tug. It moved, slowly, and after a moment she was able to turn it. The hatch opened inward, and she stepped into a short metal corridor, facing another hatch, this one without a handle. Her foot touched a skeleton at her feet, and she gagged.
“Stinks in here.”
“Trapped sulfur from the lava. This poor soul must have been locked in here when it happened.”
“There’s writing here.” She ran her fingers over the embossed symbols on the inner hatch, and the small circular hole in its center. “I can’t make it out.”
“It’s definitely similar to what I found in Madagascar. Let me see if I can find any similar characters.”
Simmons knelt, picking up something from the hand of the skeleton. She tried not to look at the skull’s empty sockets or open jaw. She held the object up to her lamp. It was a cylinder, copper in color, that caught the light and reflected multiple colors.
“That’s orichalcum! The highly conductive and extremely durable metal used throughout Atlantis. I’m certain of it!”
“James, are you saying that…?”
There was a burst of static in the radio. “Doctor Simmons, we’re… …something…”
She tapped her earpiece. “James?”
“Sarah… …et … anger…”
The hatch slammed shut behind her, and her lamp went out.
This week’s challenge from Terribleminds combined with a spin of the d20 ring resulted in the following.
I stumble out of my room in the middle of the night. It isn’t really my room. I don’t live there. I’ve been staying there, sleeping there when I can sleep, but I don’t live there. I’m trying to remember where I live. Maybe I can get back there. I wish I knew how far it is. Let’s try to figure out where I am, first, and go from there.
These clothes aren’t my clothes. I can barely call them ‘clothes’. They’re powder blue, featureless, formless. I’m wearing socks. I think they have grips or something on the bottom. I’m not sliding on the tile floor. Do I have tile floors where I live? Just in the bathroom. Most of the first floor’s hardwood. The second, carpet. Back in my house. It’s a nice house. I miss my house.
I almost lose my footing. Thanks to the socks I don’t fall. I grab the wall all the same. I’m face to face with it. It’s a bulletin board. When my hand comes away from it I have a flyer in my hand. My vision’s blurry for some reason. I can barely make out the words. It’s some kind of announcement about group therapy. Am I in the hospital? What for? Am I sick?
I wish I could remember clearly. I look down at my arms. There’s a wound in the crook of my right arm, and it doesn’t seem to be bleeding too bad. No, wait, maybe it is? There’s tape there. I close my eyes tight, trying to reach past the haze and the pain and the confusion to figure out how I got here and what’s wrong with me.
There were screams. I think some of them were mine. Not now, all I can do right now is try to breathe. My mouth tastes horrible. It’s sticky and gross. Did I throw up? I hate throwing up. Is that why my throat’s sore? Am I in for some kind of cold?
I look at the flyers. All of them are about positive thinking and therapy appointments and “Remember to take your meds!” and shit like that. Is this a psych ward? I take a few more steps down the hallway. It seems really long. I don’t know which way the exit is. I can’t seem to make out any red signs. How are there no exit signs? Isn’t that a fire hazard?
Something isn’t right. My knees buckle and I try to stay standing. I’m sweating like crazy. Standing shouldn’t take this much effort. My head shouldn’t be this foggy. My insides shouldn’t be fighting to crawl out of my ass. What the hell is wrong with me?
Someone telling me I’m crazy. This was back home. This was when the kids got packed up and I was left alone. I don’t know how I got here. Does anybody know I’m here? Does anybody care?
Wait, what? Who said that?
you’re not alone
What the actual fuck. Now I’m hearing voices. That’s just great. I feel like I want to throw up again.
Everything seems to be getting darker. The hallway feels like it’s getting even longer. My head wants to explode. I feel my pulse behind my eyes. It’s deafening. The only thing I can hear is that voice, it’s not my voice, I don’t know what’s going on.
I look down at my arm again. It’s turned dark, shot through with violet glow instead of blood. I can see right through it. It’s one arm, it’s many arms, it doesn’t exist. I shake my head to try and clear it. But I still hear the howling. It’s like a train, a train full of the lost and the damned and the hungry and the angry, and it’s coming my way. I’m standing in the tracks. I’m standing in the hallway. I’m standing in my home. I’m standing in nothing.
I open my mouth. I think it’s because I want to scream. But that doesn’t happen.
When I open my mouth, the voice that isn’t mine comes out. It says words I don’t understand. Everything starts to shake. My body doesn’t shake with it. It’s like I’m cut off from the world. Cut off from myself. Trapped in my own skin. A prisoner. A puppet. A pawn.
Somewhere, something is laughing. Then the world starts to come apart.
The Scout ran at full stride down the corridor to the office of the Overseer. The General was already there, talking about the positioning of the automated drones around the blue-brown world that turned beneath them. The Overseer folded its primary appendages across its chest as the secondary pair set down the report it had been reading.
“Something urgent, Scout?”
“A thousand apologies for the interruption, Overseer, but… the natives have discovered our devices.”
The Overseer’s mandibles clicked. “Well. That is unfortunate.”
“We knew it would happen sooner or later,” the General put in. “They’re not stupid.”
“Some of our telemetry would suggest otherwise.”
“It suggests primitive, mammalian tool-users with a modicum of intellect. They do have very limited space travel.”
“I know.” The Overseer gestured towards the expansive windows behind it. “Look at them. They hurl these hunks of metal into the void without nary a thought for orbit degradation or collisions with future launches. And they still have yet to colonize their sole satellite, to say nothing of the other bodies in the system!”
“We estimate they have had the capability to at least land expeditionary domes for twenty or thirty stellar orbits,” the Scout offered. “Perhaps they do not realize…”
“…that they are populating their homeworld to death? That they are on the brink of suffocating on their own numbers?” The Overseer’s antennae twitched, a common gesture of annoyance. “There is a reason our hives are able to thrive. The Queen, Ancestors protect her as Descendants praise her, never allows more mating pairs than the generation can handle. These creatures have no sense of control or direction. Our Observation Posts have demonstrated that much.”
“How?” The General’s expression was quizzical. “The Scout said they have only just discovered the Posts.”
“But many more remain undiscovered. In their fields, in their hives, in their very cocooning structures, Posts are everywhere on that planet.”
One of the Overseer’s primary appendages touched a control on the desk. Several displays came up of the dominant species on the planet: their governments in action (or lack thereof), their eating habits, how they mated, how they filled their days, their wars, their struggles, their hunger, their emotions. The Scout was, for a moment, overwhelmed by the diversity of it all.
The Overseer stood, looking at the displays as it paced. “I wonder sometimes if they would welcome us. We could obviate a great many of their problems for them. Their star is quiet young, rather vibrant, and produces an abundant amount of energy, yet their facilities for harnessing that energy are pitiful. Only a few of their more developed nation-states approach what would be considered the bare minimum for the lowest of hives on our worlds. Additionally, while they have abundant supplies of water and even mobile atmospheric patterns, they continue to use far more primitive and toxic means to heat their hives and power their machines.”
The General grunted. “They’ve been stuck on nuclear fission for dozens of stellar orbits. Maybe they just enjoying blowing themselves up.”
“It would seem that way. There are deliberate, casualty-causing explosions in areas where there are no active wars.”
The Scout cocked its head to one side. “Why would anyone do that?”
“Terror.” The General’s antennae gave a twitch of irritation. “Instead of negotiations, diplomacy, or up-front warfare, some of the members of this species conscript others of the species to cause damage to civilian populations. If the population feels it is unsafe, they could destabilize as they scramble for self-preservation, or shut down for fear of exposing themselves to future attacks.”
The Scout was silent, watching the monitors, stunned by this knowledge. The Overseer gestured at what had once been a forest.
“They wantonly destroy swaths of the vegetation they need to survive to expand personal territory. Countless members of the species are destitute, left without the means to feed themselves, while others seem to live in luxury while producing nothing for the good of the planet. The Queen has her position and prestige because of the hard decisions she has to make for the good of our species, and she sees to it that mating pairs are well-matched and successful. These creatures do nothing but acquire more material wealth.”
“And then there are those who are renowned for nothing but said wealth.” The General shook its head. “They have no honor from the battlefield, won no struggles to improve themselves, produced nothing of value. Yet the native society all but bows down before them. It is madness.”
“So what do we do?” The Scout dreaded the answer to its question, but asked anyway.
“Bio-targeted purge. We isolate the genetic structure of these parasites and cleanse the planet of their scourge.”
The Scout watched the General as it spoke. Then, without prompting, it touched one of the Overseer’s controls. The images changed to vibrant, colorful views of works of art, static and in motion, and the room was filled with musical strains, one song cross-fading into the next.
“Look, my superiors, and listen. This is what the planet produces in spite of all you have said.”
The General and the Overseer looked at the displays, and then each other, and then back. The Scout observed them, as it did with other species. As much as he had been selected as Scout for his curiosity and insight into alien races, he still found his own just as fascinating.
“Beautiful,” the Overseer said at length. “I had no idea that kind of barbarism could produce so much beauty. For such creatures to live this way, in their moments, so immediate and visceral… there’s beauty in it.”
“Does it change anything?” The General seemed unmoved. “Is preserving this art, singular as it is, worth consigning a planet this rich and vibrant to its fate?”
The Scout’s mandibles clicked. “I felt you should know the species you would condemn to death better before committing genocide.”
The Overseer waved an appendage. “Leave me to think. You will have my answer soon.”
For the Terribleminds challenge, “Another Ten Words“.
Even when he was human, he never cared for funerals. Death was an uncomfortable subject for many mortals, and funerals tended to bring an individual face to face with the specter of mortality, especially in violent circles. He stayed back from the front of the church’s sanctuary, where family members both intimate and extended slowly filed past the casket to pay their respects. He had no desire to show a lack of respect; he’d simply said everything he needed to say at their last meeting.
“This lot never cease to captivate me.”
He didn’t have to turn to know a statuesque woman was standing behind him, uttering those words. It was a presence he’d felt many times.
“I warned him about this. I told him he was pushing too hard against the Gates.”
“And now he is gone. Has all of your deceit been worth it?”
At that, he did turn to face her. She had been a beautiful woman by mortal standards; looking past the skin, he could barely withstand her glory. Part of him shrank, fought to run, pleaded to hide, to be forgiven; he crushed the sentiment under his heel.
“Why are you here, Raziel?”
She smiled. “Have I become so like you that I need an ulterior motive to see you?”
“Absolutely. Next thing you know you’ll be bathing in brimstone.”
Raziel made a face. “I don’t think that’d help my complexion.”
“Somewhere in the canyon Below, Beelzebub is recovering. It may take time, but he will return.”
“In the meantime, you can consolidate your power. Rally your troops. Get things in order before the balloon goes up.”
“I’m curious. Why did he choose that vessel? He must have known it was dangerous.”
“He was always fascinated with the way humans quote-unquote ‘organize’ their crime. He wanted to see that world from the inside. I was, naturally, obliged to follow. And you know for a fact that we are not common clay as they are.” He gestured at the funeral-goers. “It takes a bit more than a few little punctures to send us back from whence we came.”
“It does take some doing to rip the demon out of the flesh.” Raziel examined her fingers. “It’s almost an art.”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
Raziel looked at him evenly, then at the rest of the funeral. “I wanted to see the aftermath. Witness mortals facing their mortal nature. Record what choices they make.”
He smirked. “That’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Their choices.”
“No, wait, hear me out.” Belial began to pace. “Lucifer wanted for us – you and me – the same thing that God gave to humans. He wanted us to be able to choose. But, think about it. Lucifer fell. And we fell with him. We did make a choice. But whereas the choices humans make do not essentially change who or what they are, we were changed. Disfigured. We no longer have your grace and glory; we have only malice and terror. We remain as awesome as you in countenance and presence; yet humans run towards you away from us.”
“That is, at best, a broad generalization. Not all mortals make that choice. Some reject the notion of Heaven as a place to be sought and opt to make deals with your kind. Others eschew metaphysical planes entirely and believe that there’s nothing but the dirt and themselves.”
“Doesn’t that just reinforce my contention that humanity’s free will, and the choices born of it, does not fundamentally alter them?”
Raziel thought for a moment, reaching out with her hand to examine a willow branch protruding from a bouquet near the exit. “Is that why you want to usurp Lucifer?”
Belial winced. Even the mention of the nature of his plan made him anxious and paranoid. Still, he pressed on. “Think about it, Raziel. It can go back to the way it was. The Satan is supposed to be a complimentary role. The point is to test humanity, not stick it to Heaven over a grudge. Heaven is the carrot; Hell is supposed to be the stick. Lucifer is angry, angry enough to still want to end the whole thing. Global cataclysms, gatherings at Armageddon, the Horsemen, all of it.”
“And you’re not?”
“Would I be working with you if I was? Raziel, something changes about us, on the atomic level, when we make the choices that define us. Humans can define and re-define themselves at the drop of the proverbial hat. How can they do this? Why were they made so malleable? I need to know the answers to these questions. I need data. I need to experiment.”
She crossed her arms and leaned against the font of holy water near the back of the sanctuary, the one used by incoming parishioners to cross themselves. “So make deals and observe the results for yourself.”
Belial shook his head. “Too inefficient. A deal can take decades to bear viable data. If I control more demons directly, I can observe more results. This is the logical conclusion.”
Raziel studied him, and to his surprise, smiled a little. Even more surprising to him was the reaction from his body.
“That is what this is all about then? The mere result of an equation you’ve processed already?”
“For the most part, yes. There are fringe benefits, of course. Like seeing that pompous ass Beelzebub get kicked back downstairs. Nice work, by the way.”
“Darling, one doesn’t become the Keeper of Secrets in Heaven without learning how to silence those who’d disseminate those Secrets.”
He looked at her, deeply, for a long wordless moment. “That’s why you’re here. You want to know if I’ll betray you now that Bub is out of the way.”
“It’s a logical conclusion to make. You are a demon.”
“Yes, but I gave you my word that our bargain is ironclad. You know how seriously we take such things.”
“Perhaps we should discuss that more.” Raziel smiled again. “Over dinner.”
For the challenge Subgenre Frankenstein over at Terribleminds.
Don’t ask me how they found me. I’d changed my name, moved across the country, started over with a new job, a new life. I stayed off of the grid, paid for things in cash, and wasn’t exactly on the right side of the law. I’d never been one to kowtow to established high-profile authority, and while that’d put me in hot water more than once, I was still my own man and I still made my own way in this world, busted and broken and threatened as it was.
So imagine my surprise when old Colonel Richmond knocks on the door of my dinky apartment.
It was 2 AM when he came calling. I’d killed half a bottle of whiskey a couple hours earlier and my intent was to finish it off the moment I woke up. Big Jim had more work for me, but the fat fuck was keeping me in a holding pattern while he cleared something or other with his bosses, or at least found a way around ‘em. I thought it might be him, but when I staggered up from the couch and looked through the peephole, I saw the old handlebar mustache and crisp military stance I both admired and hated. He couldn’t hide those behind civvies. I grunted, and opened the door until the chain was taut.
“No. You’re deactivated. For now.”
“What d’you want, Paulie?”
“I hate it when you call me that.”
“So go away, ’cause I ain’t stopping.”
“I can’t. I have orders.”
I’m not sure if I grunted or chuckled. Maybe both. “Those orders prevent you from drinkin’?”
Richmond gave me a thousand-yard stare. I closed the door, undid the chain, and threw it open. I turned my back on him and went back to the couch and my bottle. He stood on the other side of my coffee table as I took a swig. It burned in my throat and all the way down. Woke me up.
“What brings you to the ass-end of the urban sprawl, Colonel?”
“This.” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a mini-tab. A couple of touches later, I was watching video footage of Los Angeles. Something at least fifteen feet tall and made of scales and bad attitude was smashing into buildings and roaring, something bright and probably acidic dripping from its jaws. I watched for a few moments before taking another drink.
“We don’t know why or how they’re here. But chances are there’s more coming.”
As I watched, two fighters swooped in. For a moment, the casual observer could have mistaken them for your typical military aircraft. But as they turned, they changed, weapons pods becoming arms and thrusters legs, grasping massive cannons that had formerly run the length of their fuselages. The monster turned and spat at one, dissolving the chest that protected the cockpit, while the other opened fire.
“We believe this is a scout. Others popped up in Tokyo, Singapore, Seattle, Vladivostok, Melbourne…”
“I get the picture.”
“We’re spread thin. The UN has authorized us to take steps to ensure we have the defenses we need. Last time, the threat came from above. We’re afraid this is something new, from the sea or another source. We’re working on it.”
“Can ya get to the part where you tell me what th’ hell this has t’ do with me?”
“You’re the Destroyer.”
I glared up at him. “Was. I told you. Retired.”
“Deactivated.” He tapped something on the minitab. An official document appeared. “This is a reactivation order. Full rank and privileges from the time of your discharge. Back pay. First crack at the new Variable prototypes.”
I set down my bottle. “You must want me pretty bad. Question is, what for?”
“We’re getting volunteers by the truckload. Somebody’s gotta train the ones good enough to pilot Variables.”
I laughed in his face. “Forget it.”
“I said no, Paulie.”
“We need you.”
“Why? Didn’t anybody else survive the invasion?”
“None of them are as good as you.”
“That’s because most of ‘em are dead.”
“That isn’t your fault.”
I stood and started to pace. I didn’t like where this was going. “Explain that to me, Paulie, ’cause my understanding of ‘CAG’ is that I command the air group. Meaning the people under me are my responsibility. And when an entire squadron gets blown outta the sky by an alien death ray nobody told me about I might add, I figure it’s the CAG’s duty to feel shitty about it. You didn’t write out all of those goddamn condolence messages, Paulie. I did. ‘Destroyer’? Got saddled with that back at Acad. Didn’t think I’d be destroyin’ the lives of the people I called brother an’ sister.”
“We were at war. People die.”
“They got massacred, Paulie, because they didn’t know what they were flyin’ into. I was deliberately kept in the dark because some egghead in Intelligence wanted data on that superweapon. And now you want me to tell starry-eyed wet-behind-the-ears kids how to fly and fight without knowin’ what they’re going t’ be fightin’? Forget it. I got enough blood on my hands as it is.”
“So I heard. How’s the leg-breaking going?”
I gave him a thousand-yard stare of my own. “At least these chuckleheads have it comin’. Kids like Parker and Tibalt and Sanderson never did anything wrong. And I’m expected t’ just keep on goin’ when shit’s being kept from me that could’ve saved ‘em? No.”
“Hear me out.”
“No, Paulie. Fuck your orders, and fuck you for knockin’ on my door.”
“These are monsters, Jack. Not aliens with tech we can use. Not an enemy with tactics we can exploit. These are just monsters. You’ll know as much as we do. Nothing held back, nothing under wraps. That is a promise.”
I sat back down. I turned it over in my head. Fuck Paulie even harder for having a point. Those kids were going to face combat if I trained them or not, but at least if I gave them the benefit of my experience, they might stand a chance out there. And if I knew what we were up against as much as the black-hearted so-called ‘Intelligence’ branch did…
I took another long pull from the bottle.
“Full restitution to the family of every man I lost. Their children’s children had better have college funds.”
“And I want a free hand to train these kids as hard as I like. I don’t want to give ya anybody only half-prepared for what’s out there. You’ll have hardened Variable pilots or you’ll have kids getting sent home to live long, healthy lives makin’ babies in suburbia.”
“Can I have a pony?”
“Fuck off, Jack, this is serious.”
I grinned at Paulie and finished my whiskey. I threw the bottle out of the window, and was rewarded with a shattering sound and some cursing.
“Fuckin’ vagrant out back thinks he’s hot shit.”
“Are you done?”
I walked to my closet. I didn’t think I’d ever be doing this again. But, against the voices in my head, the screams of the dying, the pleas of Tibalt to look after his son and Sanderson to tell her wife she loved her, I pulled back the cheap shirts and scuffed pants hanging there, and pulled open the false panel in the back. My uniform was there, preserved and crisp in the airtight container, from the beret with my major’s rank on the Variable Defense Force flash to the seams of the pants. I turned to Paulie and gave him a salute.
“No, sir. I’m just gettin’ started.”
One of the titles generated by the Random Story Title Generator for this Terribleminds challenge inspired the following.
The people passing by on the street probably saw her as one of Boston’s countless bohemian young people. Between the purple in her hair and the rings in her lip, it was an easy mistake to make, and one she on which she relied. What was the point, after all, of maintaining a secret identity if people picked you out of a crowd on sight alone?
The Copley Plaza loomed over her. Her friend on the force dropped hints that Chavetti and his crew were meeting there. More than once in sessions at the social worker’s office that was practically her second home, the names came up. Chavetti. Charlie B. Big Mike. Dice. The same police friend had also indicated that they were here for a reason: meeting some big overseas honcho. Apparently, the FBI would be watching the hotel.
The thought made the sushi in her stomach flail in anxiety. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She’d walked through plenty of hotel lobbies before. If she walked with intent and didn’t look around nervously, nobody’d look twice. Even the gym bag wouldn’t seem out of place. She took a deep breath, crossed the street, and walked through the hotel doors.
Chavetti likes the suite on 6, her detective friend had said. He likes the view.
She didn’t pause or hesitate at all as she moved through the lobby. It was only once she was in the elevator that she caught her breath, and told herself to calm down. Once she pressed the button for 6, she dropped her gym bag, pulled it open, and removed the cape from within. It was long enough to cover her from her shoulders to her ankles, and the hood easily covered her entire head. As she swept it over her shoulders, she felt the sensation wash over her, like fine grains of sand were running down her entire body. It was not unpleasant, but it still unnerved her every time.
The cape was a curio, something that had been tucked away in her grandfather’s attic for years before she found it. Neither of her grandparents could provide an explanation as to what it was or where it had come from: her grandmother lost a battle with Alzheimer’s years ago, and her grandfather was very serious about the secrets he kept. Still, as the inscrutable magic of the cape swept over her street clothes, transforming them into the tough but flexible fabric that hugged her curves and protected her, she had to wonder where her grandfather had acquired it, and if he knew its true nature.
The elevator doors opened, and Dust stepped into the hallway. Discovering the cape had been eclipsed by discovering its powers, which had happened over several nights when she’d visited her grandfather with her parents after her grandmother’s funeral. Upon donning the cape for the first time, as it changed her clothes, she heard the voices of every mourning victim in her office. Social work wasn’t easy, and she’d always told herself that just listening made a difference. With the cape on, however, she always felt like she could do more than just listen. She could act. She could do what others could not. Touch those the law found untouchable. Bring justice where it was sorely needed.
So what if the cops called her a vigilante?
Dust approached the suite quietly. When she arrived at the door, she leaned towards it without touching it, her ear towards the wood. The doors were very thick, but she could make out several men laughing. Stepping back, she lifted the hood over her head, and focused her attention on the cape, and the arcane symbols stitched into its inner surface. She pulled the cape close around her, and in the next heartbeat, she felt herself dissolving into fine grains in the carpet. To a passer-by, she might have resembled a pile of brown sugar or sand. She was still capable of motion, however, and she slid under the door into the suite.
She couldn’t see so much as perceive the people in the room. There were at least six of them, possibly as many as eight. She had to assume they were all armed. She slid through the carpet towards what she hoped was the window, and willed herself to begin taking her normal shape. As she did, and her hearing came back, she heard the air conditioning turn on. This was good; any bit of wind could be helpful for her cause. When her eyesight was restored, she fixed her gaze on the short, slick, douchey face of Chavetti.
“I think you’ve made enough families mourn, Chavetti.”
Charlie B and Dice went for their guns. She waited for the last possible moment before she released her form again, moving with the wind as she felt bullets passing harmlessly through the dust she left in her wake as she moved. Dust stung the eyes of the gangsters and they began to fire wildly. She passed between them, moving as fast as she could, and when they started screaming in pain, she found herself smiling. She kept moving in her semi-dust state until the screaming either stopped or lessened to pained moans, and she stood before Chavetti, who was cowering behind a couch.
“You… you know who you just…”
“No. I don’t. Look at my face. Do I look like I care?”
Chavetti raised a hand. “Please…”
“Like all those families who begged you? You’ve had this coming.”
She went granular again, this time falling into Chavetti’s mouth and nose. The sensation was odd, but she mentally bore down and kept the gangster under her until he choked on her dust. Then, pulling herself free, she left the room the same way she entered, leaving the doorknob and lock untouched.
Outside, with her bag over her shoulder and tea in hand, she watched the police cars and ambulance speed in. She waited until they wheeled out the body bags, then walked away.
Courtesy Alistair Cunningham
For the Terribleminds challenge, Somethingpunk. I think this qualifies more as laserpunk than cyberpunk, but you be the judge.
Jack Magnum was never more at home than he was on the ground, a warm beamer in his hand, goons on his tail.
The incandescent neon of the street illumination and the various store signs were a counterpoint to the lances of hard light that sliced through the night. This had been a nice neighborhood once. Before Manhattan had been co-opted by the Cyber-Mafia, it had been making a comeback from the various financial failures of the early 21st century. That was before America got carved up and sold like so much cake at a desperate bake sale.
But Jack Magnum hadn’t given up on America.
“Jack! Two more on your nine-o’-clock!”
“I know.” The AI in Jack’s head, which called herself Artemis, was helpful in some situations and irritating in others. His cyber-enhanced senses and on-board radar could communicate with him at the speed of thought. There was no need for Artemis to engage his inner ear speaker to give him information he already knew. Still, there was a hard barrier between them when he was conscious, so he understood her desire to keep him safe. After all, if his body failed, she’d cease to exist.
He swung his .75 caliber heater in the direction and squeezed off two rounds. The projector snapped off two flashes of steel-melting light, and one assailant found his faceplate burned off, exposed circuitry sizzling and its CPU melting down its chin and faux leather jacket. The Cyber-Mafia liked to dress its goons up like bikers, so the human populace didn’t blatantly see the mostly robotic terrors that kept them in line and fed the syndicate its cash and bodies to maintain business with the struggling and laughable US government.
“That’s three total still on our tail, Jack. What’s the plan?”
“There’s a hoverbike 100 meters ahead. Can you hack it?”
“I’m on it.” The wireless transmitter in Jack’s skull hummed as Artemis tried to access the hoverbike’s security and key it to Jack’s DNA. Jack fired behind him, and heard a surprised, robotic squawk as another foot soldier got blasted. Two to go. If he couldn’t blast them, he could outrun them, and keep the information packet in his hard drive out of Cyber-Mafia hands.
“It’s ready, Jack!”
He turned and sprinted backwards, taking his gun in both hands, firing a shot that melted the gun-arm off of one of his pursuers. The other opened fire, chewing up pavement just behind Jack. He had to turn quickly and jump, lest the half-molten pavement slow him down. The neon of the airbike snapped on, and Jack leapt onto it. He holstered his heater and revved the drive, getting the fans up to speed, and kicked hard off the ground. Standard airbikes didn’t have much in the way of altitude, but the hop threw off the aim of his pursuers. He whipped around the corner and tapped the holo-projector in his right cybernetic eye to call up his GPS plotter.
“They know your face, Jack. It’s going to be hard to get off of Manhattan.”
“The CIA didn’t hire me because this would be easy, Artemis. Now find me a chopper or a boat.”
“I’m on it. I’m just saying, they’re going to shut down the island rather than let you off.”
“I don’t get what the big deal is.” Jack swerved around a truck, which honked at him on general principle. “All I have is the shipping manifests for the Cyber-Mafia’s airplanes and boats for the next six months, and a detailed list of every government document to which they have access.”
“Which means they can no longer blackmail the government into holding Manhattan, I know. It’s what they wanted you to get.” Jack’s map was replaced by a holo-representation of Artemis. He knew it was a replication of one of her designers, a petite young woman with bangs, short hair in the back, and a form-fitting suit. “But Jack, the Cyber-Mafia’s been in control of the island for almost a decade. They have a private army. Hell, for all we know they have an air force by this point. How do you plan on getting around them?”
“If I can’t, I’ll just go through ‘em. Just like in Casablanca.”
Artemis rolled her eyes. “Jack, after Casablanca, your organics were barely alive and your system was shot to pieces. You had to crawl onto the rescue boat and it nearly sank!”
“We’ll be okay, Art. Trust me.”
She sighed. “I hope you’re right.” She brought his GPS back up and plotted a course through the streets to a dock. Smiling, Jack revved the engine and made a sharp turn.
Minutes later, he brought the bike to a halt near the dock. He blasted the lock off of the gate with his heater, and made his way down to the boats. Artemis had picked out a small speedboat, rigged up for water skiing. It was a derelict, a relic from before the Cyber-Mafia. Artemis walked him through getting the engine running and disengaging the rig that could slow them down. When he looked up, he saw spotlights in the distance.
“Artemis, tell me those are CIA choppers on the other side of the sea wall.”
“Negative. Cyber-Mafia attack choppers on an intercept course. Three of them so far.”
“Well, shit.” Jack pulled out his head and checked the charge. 50%. Probably enough to take down one chopper with a well-placed full-power shot. He looked down at the boat. “Artemis, I need to know how to drive this thing like a pro.”
“Look, we’re the only hope the country has of getting back to what it was. It has to start with us. We have to at least try. Agreed?”
“You mess up, you’re going to get us both killed.”
There was a pause. Then, suddenly, a rush of information, part head-swimming kiss from a beautiful woman, part searing shock of straight whiskey.
Jack Magnum smiled. “Trust me, darlin’. Just hang on. It’ll be fun!”
Chuck’s weekly demand this time is to include four random items. Can you spot them all?
They dragged him into the office by his arms. His legs felt weak; there was no way they could support his weight with them yanking him along. He was tossed onto the carpet like a sack of garbage. He found himself looking at the skull of what some might have considered a large lizard, but he recognized as a small dragon. It had been re-purposed to serve as the base of an umbrella stand.
“We found him, Father,” said one of the twins.
“He thought to hide from you among the mortal officers of the law.” The other twin tossed the badge onto the expansive desk that blocked most of his view. He struggled to look up, fighting down waves of pain. He got a kick in the kidneys for his trouble.
“Castor, Pollux, I’m surprised at you.” The voice from behind the desk was deep, grandfatherly, almost kind; yet in it was the rumble, the muted flash, the sense one gets when a storm is blowing in. “This is my guest, not some common churl. Get him in a chair, for Gaea’s sake. And clean up his face. I won’t have him ruining my carpet.”
The twins obeyed, hauling him into one of the chairs facing the desk. A wet rag all but smashed into his face, and as the blood was wiped away, he tried to will his bleeding to stop. Whatever charm they’d used to stunt his powers, it seemed to have faded, as his head cleared immediately. He blinked, and looked up to face the man he’d been dragged to see.
Behind the chess board on the desk sat what appeared to be an elderly man with broad shoulders and the solid build of someone who’d spent a lifetime perfecting his physical form. His suit was tailored, hand-made, and clearly costly. His white hair was long, and his beard was somewhat fluffy. Had the suit been red, one might mistake him for Santa Claus.
“Now, Prometheus. What would possess you to put on the airs of a policeman? In the game of ‘Cops and Robbers’, would I not be the cop?”
“It let me get close to one of Chronos’ servants. I was trying to help…”
Pollux backhanded Prometheus. “No lies before the mighty Zeus!”
“Pollux, please! Castor, look after your brother.” Zeus reached down and plucked the bishop from his side of the board, examining it. “Prometheus, you and I have had our differences. I’m still not certain how you escaped your prison in the first place. But we both know that my word is law. And that law cannot be countermanded, not by the cleverness of any being, mortal or Titan.”
“I could be back on that mountain now, if you willed it.”
“Then why am I here?”
Zeus smiled, and replaced the chess piece. “I’m curious more than I am angry. How did you escape, and why?”
“The how doesn’t matter. The why does. I told you: I can help you fight Chronos and the other Titans. Time is against us. You should hear what I have to say.”
Zeus raised an eyebrow. Thunder rolled in the distance. “Have a care, Titan. I am not so curious that I am willing to permit you to command me. Begin at the beginning. How did you escape?”
“I made a deal with the eagle.”
Zeus laughed. “A deal? What could you possibly offer it that was not the liver of an immortal?”
“I told it about America. I told it that it was a sacred animal there. It, too, could be truly immortal, and not simply tasked with devouring me. I said, ‘If you free me, I will take you there, and you will be adored and loved.’ It took a few days… and a few livers… but it believed me.”
Promet heus tried not to blanch at the memories. Centuries, millenia had gone by, and every day, atop that lonely mountain that killed any mortal that attempted its summit, the eagle tore him open and made him feel every snapping sinew and every bite at his innards until death came like a merciful, dreamless, abyssal sleep. He’d long stopped cursing his fate each time he awoke, and it was only through the tiny fraction of power he’d had left that he was able to learn of the far-off land the eagle wished to see.
“Where is it now?”
“A zoo, in Chicago.”
“Hah! Duplicity worthy of any of my children. Even as a fugitive you do not disappoint.”
Prometheus nodded. “I am happy to have amused you, my Lord.”
Zeus waved his hand. “Pshaw. I have Wingus and Dingus here to kowtow to me. You, however, never bowed. You defied me, and not from jealousy or fear or anger. You defied me to do what you felt was right. Defiance had to be punished, but I always respected what you did.”
Prometheus blinked. The admission felt earnest, but oddly timed. It slowly dawned on Prometheus that he was right, and Zeus knew it. Chronos and the other Titans were growing stronger, and time was getting shorter. Slowly, so as not to antagonize the twins, Prometheus reached into his pocket, produced the sealed envelope, and handed it to Zeus.
“This is why I escaped.”
Zeus looked at it. On it was written a single word. Hera.
After a moment, the King of the Gods opened the envelope. He read the letter within. Twice. When he looked up at the twins, his eyes were alight with the fire of the sky, the lightning that was his herald and his wrath.
“Leave us. Prometheus and I must speak alone.”
The twins bowed and retreated. Zeus set down the letter, glared at Prometheus for a long moment, and reached across the chess board to reset it. He moved his white king’s pawn forward two squares, gesturing at Prometheus.
“Tell me how this treachery began.”
Prometheus, in spite of the pain, smiled. He moved his queen’s pawn forward.
The story starts when your protagonist tries to stop a robbery.
Another character is a messenger who wants your protagonist dead.
I hope you enjoy the result!
The gunshot cut through the muted conversations and soft rock in the bank lobby.
“Everybody on the ground! This is a robbery!”
Samantha hit the ground along with everybody else, quickly taking stock of the situation. There were three of them. All of them had pulled on balaclavas the moment the leader had pulled out his gun, a small automatic. The other two had carried shotguns into the bank under their jackets. The guard close to the door was already down, holding his bloody nose. She risked another glance up: the butt of the guard’s revolver jutted up out of the jeans of one of the guys with shotguns. Definitely amateurs. No pro stuffs a gun in the direction of their junk like that.
Putting her eyes back down as the leader gave a speil about individuals’ money being insured, she tried to remember what she had seen before the situation began. The robbers were wearing jeans and running shoes; from what she’d seen of their frames, they were in their late teens or early twenties. Some of Don Giorgio’s numbers runners were that young, but none of them would be dumb enough to undertake an unauthorized strong-arm robbery. The bank was on neutral turf between the Italians and the Chinese; either of them making a move like this would be suicidal.
It was difficult for her to keep her head down and thus limit her available information. She was next to the counter on the customer side; that meant she was about eight paces from the door. She didn’t know the actual distance to the vault or the offices from where the bank employees and homeowners looking for lower rates were getting dragged out. Samantha risked looking up a bit towards the fresh hostages: three employees, two housewives, one guy who had the look of an accountant, or perhaps an attorney. Either way, none of them were likely to be in a position or inclination to help her.
She heard a grunt from behind the counter, and it definitely sounded like it was above her, not on the same level. She tried not to tense up in anticipation.
“Hey, come here and give me a hand with this.”
So the kid in charge was at least smart enough not to say names. They could be difficult to identify if they got away. As one of the guys with shotguns headed for the vault, presumably to help get a door open or stuff more money into bags, Samantha gauged the position of the third robber. When he was close enough, she started faking a cough, rolling over onto her back. The robber came by to investigate, glaring down at her.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
Samantha didn’t respond, faking her cough, looking up at the ceiling. The robber stepped over her, one foot on either side of her, raising his shotgun. She could see the end of the barrel shaking. She would have to be very careful, and very fast, if she wanted to keep her head intact.
She sat up and grabbed the shotgun in one motion, pulling the barrel to the side of her shoulder and away from the others. Before he could react, she brought her knee up hard, slamming into his crotch. His eyes bulged out of his balaclava and he made a noise like a beached walrus. The shotgun game out of his hands, and as she stood, she reached down and pulled the revolver free of his jeans. Shaking her head at the kid, she smacked him between the eyes with the butt of the pistol. He collapsed at her feet.
The other two came out of the vault, but she was already taking aim. “Drop your weapons! Federal agent!”
The one with the shotgun complied immediately. The other one, his mouth a grimace of annoyance, had his semi-automatic pistol in the grip of a trained shooter.
“You useless shit.”
Before Samantha knew what was happening, he was turning his pistol to the back of his fellow robber’s head and pulling the trigger. The people on the floor started screaming as the dead kid fell to the tiled floor behind the counter. Samantha cocked her revolver.
“It doesn’t have to be this way.”
“Yes it does, Agent Barnum. I came here to deliver a message.”
She blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“We’re tired of those old farts taking out their old grudges in our neighborhoods. Other banks in both the Triad and Giorgio territories are going up today. We’re cleaning house, and you’re in our way.”
“Who is we?”
Sirens and screeching tires outside made him glance away. Samantha took her shot. Blood flew from the young man’s shoulder and he staggered, slipping in the blood spreading from his fallen friend. She moved around the counter to get close to him, but as she did, she saw him putting his dead compatriot’s shotgun under his chin.
“Have fun with my dental records.”
He pulled the trigger. Samantha winced, feeling warm ichor spatter her face. The security guard had gotten to his feet to let in the cops. Samantha wiped her face with a tissue with one hand, holding up her badge with the other.
“Samantha Barnum, FBI.”
The officer in front nodded to her as he holstered his sidearm. “What’s the situation, ma’am?”
“This was made to look like a robbery, but there’s something else going on. Get on the horn, find out if any other holdups are in progress.”
“We’re on it.”
She glanced towards the vault, then looked again. The robbers had brought in duffel bags, presumably to make their escape with their ill-gotten gains, but one of them was laying open. Samantha saw several grey blocks, a tangle of wires, and large LED numbers, counting down.
“Better get your bomb squad down here, too. Then I’ll need your help getting these people out of here.”
“What’s going on?”
“In a word? War’s been declared.”
From the Terribleminds challenge “Last Lines First” comes…
“Truth be told, I’m not sure any of them are actually dead.”
The mug of coffee shook in the engineer’s hands. The nails were chipped and the fingers calloused from years of cleaning, changing, tightening, and banging the many moving parts required for jump drives. The man facing the engineer, wearing vintage suspenders over a tailored shirt with an open collar, nodded slowly.
“Just… take your time, Parker. Who was the first to die?”
“Rigger. Co-pilot. He, uh… he heard something, down in the bay. He didn’t check in for hours. Mosely, he was my partner, and he went to find Rigger. He… found Rigger’s comm unit. It was covered in blood.”
The well-dressed man exchanged a look with the room’s third occupant. Nothing was said. After the engineer took a shaky sip of his coffee, he continued.
“Mosely was next, of course. He went to the head – ate too much cornbread. He always ate too much cornbread. Anyway, I heard the scream. I ran to the head, opened the door, and his toolbelt was there. The vent was hanging off of its frame. I guess… I guess whatever it was grabbed him and yanked him up through there. His toolbelt wasn’t bloody, though. There was this… goop on it.”
“Don’t know how else to describe it. Doctor Bolton took a sample, and told us later it was a ‘viscous secretion’, whatever that means. That was after two of the mining crew got snagged. We still hadn’t seen the thing. It was down to me, Captain Hammond, Akers the pilot, Doctor Bolton, Lydia the company rep, and Des the mining foreman. We were talking about abandoning ship and looking for help.”
“We… we saw Rigger.”
The man in the suspenders leaned towards Parker. “Describe exactly what you saw.”
“He was standing there, in the door to the mess hall. He had… this chunk missing from his neck. One good eye. He stared at me…” Parker gripped the mug in his hands, trying to steady them. “It was like getting stared at by an animal at a zoo. There’s something there but it’s not him. It’s not the guy I used to swap dirty jokes with over moonshine on third watch.”
“Was it just Rigger?”
“At first. He came into the room, went right for Captain Hammond. We tried to fight him off. But he was so strong. Stronger than I thought he’d be. Then Mosely came in, and… I got away. I ran.”
“Nobody can blame you for that. What happened next?”
“You need two people to activate the self-destruct. Nobody else made it out after me. So I grabbed a shuttle and flew out of there. I was never a good pilot, but we were in deep space. I just headed straight towards Proxima, and that’s when the patrol picked me up.” Parker finished his coffee. “Mister Cogburn… am I in trouble?”
Cogburn shook his head. “No, you’re not personally in trouble. The Company knows that there was nothing more you could do. But I wanted to get your story first-hand.”
Before Parker could ask why, Cogburn produced his tablet and showed the image on it to the engineer.
“The Night Raven, your prospecting vessel, was spotted by patrols on a direct course for the Sol system.”
“That’s right. If they get to Earth, they can either take control of the hub of space travel for all the colonies, or head for the surface to make more… things. We’re still not sure exactly what we’re up against here, but we do know we can’t let that ship reach Earth.”
Parker looked to the other figure facing him. “Is… is that why you’re here?”
Cogburn turned to the person next to him. “At this point, the Company is asking the United Colonial Military Command for help. Lieutenant Olsen here is in command of an Expeditionary Platoon operating out of Barnard’s.” He handed Olsen the tablet. “Do you think you’ll be able to help, Lieutenant? We need to intercept the Night Raven, capture at least one of the infected subjects, and determine the origin of this… contagion. The Company is willing to give you anything you need.”
Olsen frowned. “Are you and Parker coming?”
Cogburn shrugged. “I doubt Parker would want to come along.”
“Oh, Jesus, God, no.”
“Right. So it’d just be me. I’m the Company’s liaison and work in their R&D department. They wanted to send an executive but we were able to convince them that you’d find a brain more useful than a suit and smile.”
“You know how to handle a gun, Cogburn?”
“I’ve fired one a couple times. Never at anything living, though.”
Olsen’s face did not soften. She had yet to uncross her arms or move from her position of leaning on the desk, but she looked like the sort of solider who’d be combat-ready at the drop of a hat. Green eyes studied Cogburn from under a close-cropped mop of blonde hair, and the scar on the right side of her mouth for her lip to her chin made her scowl all the more intimidating.
“Don’t expect my men to hold your hand when things get dicey. Ship invasions are tense, close-quarter clusterfucks under the best of circumstances. I don’t like taking civvies into combat zones.”
“One: I’m not your typical civilian. Two: The Night Raven is owned by the Company and they want to protect their investment. Three: If you have to scuttle the ship, you need someone who can override the ship’s fail-safes quickly, and unless one of your soldiers is a former Company employee, that means you need me.”
Olsen snorted. “That’s extortion.”
“No, Lieutenant, those are the facts.”
“If you’re lying to me, I’ll shoot you myself.”
“Um.” Parker looked up at the two of them. “Does… this mean any of them are still alive?”
Cogburn tried to smile. “Maybe. Anything’s possible.”
“Either way,” Olsen said, “we’ll take it from here. We leave at 0800.”
Art courtesy Valkyrie Power
This week’s Flash has a two-fold purpose: to meet the weekly challenge over at Terribleminds (Down the TV Tropes Rabbit Hole, my random trope was “Amusing Alien”) and to provide some hot robot action for my friends at Geekadelphia.
From the moment they got the distress signal, Jack knew the mission would be a tough one. While their ship was fast, and difficult to detect at range, they’d be detected once they made orbit, especially once he and Fenris began their drop. Still, it was better for everyone if he hit the atmosphere without engaging his engines, lest the seperate heat bloom catch the eye of SAD batteries on the ground.
“Oh, I hate dead drops like this!”
He looked down at Fenris, who clung to his leg. Fenris was about three feet long from snout to tail, a wolf in miniature size, though the shape-shifting alien had often taken other forms. He still wasn’t sure why the creature tagged along with them. It was good to have a companion when he was sent into hot zones like this, but it wasn’t the kind of thing he’d admit to the rest of the crew.
“Just hold on. We’re almost out of the kill zone.”
The radar system cleared moments later, and he got his bearings on the refugee convoy. He needed to make sure the armored infantry didn’t wipe out the civilians before they reached their ships, and then, provided he survived, he’d have to take out the local SAD battery, or at least blind their sensors, in order to help them escape. It was a tall order, and he was just one guy.
He was one guy in a super-advanced multi-theater fighting machine, but he was one guy nonetheless.
The advantage of doing a dead drop into a fast approach was that he barely registered on ground-side sensors. And if he did, the interceptor mode of the Thundercracker had a very low profile. Most mech units had to be delivered in fat, heavy drop pods that were easy pickings for active SAD batteries, which is why the big militaries of the great powers liked to open hostilities with orbital bombardment. But the Aether Rogues were a more surgical, subtle bunch, at least to hear Captain Boros talk of it.
“Here we go, Fenris. You ready?”
“Most definitely, boss. Radio silence, right?”
“Right. The Alliance and the Confederation are both on the lookout for us, so we don’t want them to know we’ve been here.”
“Means the locals won’t know who to thank, either.”
“We don’t do this for the thanks, Fenris.”
“No, we do it for profit! Money! Cash prizes! At least a free meal! What’s our prize for doing this charity work?”
“A warm fuzzy feeling?”
“I’m already warm and fuzzy. Why do you think I keep this form so much?”
Jack veered the Thundercracker over the combat zone, ready to make his final approach. “You’re the crew mascot. You don’t get a say.”
“Well, I should! I provide a valuable service to the crew!”
“Oh yeah? What’s that?”
“I boost morale and you know it.”
“That’s questionable. Now, hang on.”
He make the sharp, bootlegger turn back towards the convoy, and saw the hulking pacification mechs of the Confederate occupation forces lumbering towards the trucks and transports. They were armed mostly with howitzers and close-quarter autocannons, as they were made more for urban civilian control than open warfare. Their size and slow movement gave Jack the advantage. He hoped it’d be enough to offset the general lack of armor inherent with his variable mech.
He slammed down on the airbrakes and pulled the lever to trigger the transformation. The main thrusters pivoted downwards as armor plates slid into place, and the ramjet intakes rotated into position just above them. Weapons rearranged to a more forward position, to be mounted on shoulders or held in articulated armored hands, and the cockpit’s nosecone flipped down to tuck under the cabin. The sensor cluster emerged from between the missile pod shoulders, and high-gain cameras snapped on behind red protective lenses.
Suddenly, the pacification mechs found a combat mech of unknown design between them and the convoy.
“How many of them are pissing themselves?” Fenris had clambered up onto Jack’s shoulder to get a better view of the scene through the mech’s HUD.
“At least two. Let’s spook the rest of them.”
He fired an arm-mounted particle beam at the nearest mech. His aim was good, and he burned a hole through its neck plate and severed the connection between its cockpit and main sensors. He heard the hissing of the heat sinks along his mech’s arm. In space, heat was less of a problem, save for making yourself a bigger target at range, but planetside it could cripple you to go too hard on your weapons. Jack made himself wait at least three seconds before firing again.
In those seconds, five of the howitzers facing him flashed. He dodged to the right, feeling trees collapsing under the mech as the roadway was blown to pieces. Even though his vision was obscured, he still had a lock on the mechs thanks to his previous view and his uplink to the Aethernaut. He triggered his missile pods and fired half of his payload. As the ground shook from multiple impacts, he carefully got the mech back on its feet.
“Fenris, you okay?”
“We seriously do not get paid enough for this, Jack.”
“You’re the one who begged me to come along!”
“I figured there’d be some lovely refugee daughters who like puppies!”
Jack reacquired his targets. To his dismay, none of them had gone down yet. He took the Thundercracker’s main weapon in both hands, raised it to the mech’s shoulder, and took aim. It slid open length-wise and the magnets crackled to life. Before any of the pacification mechs could respond, Jack fired. A ferrous slug the size of a domestic landskimmer launched from the railgun, broke the sound barrier twice, and was barely slowed by the mech in Jack’s sights. It had torn a massive hole in the machine, just below the cockpit in the chest, and the big mech toppled.
“Okay, Fenris. Which one is next?”
After an unfortunate false start last night, I re-rolled for Chuck’s flash fiction challenge “Another Roll of the Dice“. The new rolls gave me the “Grindhouse” genre, with the elements “a troublesome dog” and “a hidden compartment”.
The road stretched out into the inky darkness, pierced only by the headlights of the purring 1960 DeSoto Adventurer plunging into it. Deke knew he had to get out of town, and fast, before the law came down hard on him. It didn’t matter that the bullets they took out of the poor guy were all silver; they’d see it as murder, not the supernatural pest control that it was. Still, a wife (well, widow now) and kids were safe, as was their town, and they’d never have to fear a full moon again.
Zeke perked up from his place in the passenger seat, looking out the window. Deke put his foot on the brake, just a little.
“What is it, boy?”
Zeke’s tail thumped the leather seat, and he began to pant. He was excited by something. Long years on the road had taught Deke to trust the bull terrier’s instincts, and he pulled into the saloon parking lot. The Adventurer rattled to a stop, and Deke stepped out, followed quickly by the dog. Deke looked down at Zeke, his hands on his hips.
“Can I count on you to stay on the porch?”
Zeke cocked his head to one side.
“Yeah… I thought so. Just don’t be a menace, okay? Be nice.”
Zeke responded with a short, upbeat bark.
Inside, the saloon was lit mostly with neon lights. Pool balls clacked on their table in one corner. Deke found an empty table near the back wall and sat where he could see the rest of the saloon. His waitress, tall and curvy with long dark hair, walked up moments later.
“Get you something to drink, sugar?”
“A cold bottle of beer, miss, if you don’t mind.” He put a few bills on the table, and she took them to the bar. Deke had to pull his eyes away from what her hips were doing to focus on the rest of the saloon. His thumbs tapped the buckle of his belt idly, and he took a deep breath.
You’re just keyed up from the werewolf fight. Calm down. It could just be a seedy bar.
He heard the bikes outside moments before the riders entered. Three men, all broad-shouldered under their leather jackets, and a woman walked right up to the bar. Deke’s waitress returned, and he could see her smile was a bit less natural this time.
“What’s your name?”
Deke smiled. “That’s a good and lovely name, for a good and lovely lady. Rachel, what can you tell me about the foursome that just walked in?”
Rachel glanced nervously at the bar. “It’s best if you don’t ask.”
Deke leaned forward. “If it’s trouble, I might be able to help.”
Rachel took another glance, then leaned over to whisper to Deke. He tried to ignore how she looked.
“They tore up a lawman who came ’round here a few months ago. All he did was ask about a few missing person cases. Next thing you know…”
She shook, visibly. Deke laid his hand on her wrist, the silver rings on his first and third fingers catching the neon lights.
“Outside there’s a white DeSoto. I want you to go and open the passenger side door, then the glove compartment. Don’t do anything else, and do not get in the car. Do you understand?”
He smiled. “It will be all right. Just trust me.”
“Rachel!” The bartender’s bellow was unpleasant. “Flirt on your own time!”
Biting her lip, Rachel nodded at Deke, then dropped off her tray as she said she was taking a break. Deke watched the bikers more closely. The moon was still full, and their arrival was on physical vehicles. That narrowed the possibilities considerably. He finished his beer, stood, and approached the bar to hear what was being said.
“I’m telling you,” the female biker was saying to the bartender, “now that the furball’s gone, there’s nothing to stop us now. His territory’s ours for the taking.”
Deke whispered a quick prayer, then tapped the closest biker on the shoulder. “Pardon me.”
The burly man whirled, clearly ready for a fight. Deke’s fingers flicked the clasp of the hidden compartment on his belt, and the vial dropped into his hand. His thumb popped the tiny cork, and a snap of his wrist put the contents in the biker’s face. The hissing was immediate, and the biker fell back, screaming.
“Holy water,” the woman said, looking Deke up and down. He smiled, and he heard Zeke barking outside.
“I had a feeling. You lot always squabble with werewolves over good hunting grounds.”
She lunged for him, and he stepped back, but not far enough to avoid having his shirt clawed open. His silver cross spilled out into the air, and the trio still standing stepped back. Zeke bounded into the bar, grabbing one of the bikers by the ankle in his powerful jaws. Deke grabbed a nearby chair and smashed it against the bar. The one unfettered male biker came at him, fangs out, a deadly undead missile. Years of training and less than favorable scraps put Deke on his back, a shard of wood aiming up. The improvised stake found its target and the biker rolled away, grabbing the wood protruding from his chest.
The dog let go of the ravaged throat of his victim and shot outside. The female hissed, stalking Deke as he stood.
“You won’t leave here alive, holy man.”
“Who said I was alive in the first place?” Deke pulled at the hole in his shirt, showing the scars across his chest. “One of your kind killed me a long time ago. God brought me back to make sure your kind never rules the earth.”
“I’ll send you back to your god right now.”
Zeke returned, a can of lighter fluid in his jaws, his tail wagging. Deke smiled, producing his matches.
“Ma’am, with all due respect, I think you’ll be getting to where you’re going first.”
I rolled for the Terribleminds ABC meets XYZ challenge, and got “Game of Thrones” meets “Batman”. I’m not sure I stopped there.
Night falls on King’s Landing. I find another dog with its guts spilling into the street. This dog was a person, once. Someone’s son. Maybe someone’s husband. Once a human being, now a chilling corpse. Like this city. It once held wonder and potential. Now it is only death and misery.
So be it, I say. If this is how the city wants to rot under the Lannisters and their little product of juvenile lust, so be it. But innocents suffer too much. They watched loved ones rot and wither under the gilded heel of the lions. They cry out for justice, without saying a word, for fear of the blade of Ilyn Payne.
I’ve decided to answer them.
The rooftops of the city are where I roam. There was a time when the Lannister soldiers on constant patrol were a source of fear for everyone there who was not in Tywin’s keeping. For me, it had become a challenge to avoid detection every night when I slipped out through the hidden corridors built by the Targaryens. The libraries and hidden alcoves throughout the keep had given me the knowledge I used; late nights with needle and thread helped me craft the cloak and cowl that hid my identity.
It’s after two bells past the sunset that I find tonight’s prey. As much as the Kingsguard are supposedly on duty every hour of every day, they’re also supposedly celibate. Yet there was Ser Meryn Trant, making his way towards the house owned and nomially run by Petyr Baelish, the man they called Littlefinger. Trant knew better than to walk the streets in his pure white cloak and golden armor, but his swagger was unmistakable. Arrogance and smug superiority propelled his every step.
I cannot tell you how badly I want to kill him.
I wait until he was inside. I move and jump from one rooftop to the next, my steps sure and silent. The claws on my knees and palms carry me down the wall outside the house, and I peer into one room after the next. I finally find him, with two of Littlefinger’s girls. He sits near the bed, sharpening a dagger as he watches them undress each other. I can’t discern what he could be planning, but I decide immediately he won’t finish whatever depraved thought that fills his head.
As soon as he stands, licking his lips like a wild animal catching the scent of fresh meat, I kick open the window and enter the room. Trant turns towards me with a snarl. Before he can say anything, I am on him, one hand clamping his jaw shut, the other delivering a quick blow to his throat. The Kingsguard staggers back, still clutching his dagger. He’s moving towards his sword, even as he struggles to breathe. He is, however, off-balance, and I sweep his feet out from under him. As soon as he’s on the floor, my feet are on his chest and his own dagger rests at his throat, clutched in my gloved hand.
“Whoever you are,” he manages to snarl, “you’re dead.”
“When morning comes,” I whisper, “you’ll wish you were.”
He laughs at me before I bludgeon him with the dagger’s hilt. Something tells me that will be his last laugh for a while.
When they find him, hours later, he was strung up over a street in Flea Bottom. Stripped and left to cook in the morning sun, his fingers were all broken, along with his wrists and elbows and knees. He had been cut many times, the most vicious cut being the one that left him without his manhood. He is, however, alive. Death, after all, is a mercy, to hear the Lannisters tell it. I’m merely playing by their rules.
From the Hand of the King to the lowest urchin in Flea Bottom, everybody wants to know who had done this. Of course, when they find the message on Trant’s body, they come asking me.
But I am a mere, lowly prisoner here. I have been since Ser Ilyn Payne took my father’s head. I’ve spent so much time learning to avert my gaze and agree that my family are a pack of traitors that nobody’s noticed the time I’ve spent preparing for that night, and all the nights to come. I keep my eyes downcast. I pretend to fear the queen. I mask my disgust for Joffrey. I can still convince them that a prisoner is all I am, and that I am no threat to their plans, their gold, their precious throne. But I’m not without that streak of rebellion. I carefully hide any evidence I leave, seek out stray red hairs, keep my face concealed; yet part of me enjoys the game, the chase, almost daring them to confront me, so I can tell them what I really link of their house and what they’ve done to me and mine.
That is why, into Meryn Trant’s chest, I carved the words “BAD WOLF”.
This week’s Flash Fiction challenge from Terribleminds was for random words. The die of destiny chose mint, scorpion, republic.
“Harry? Are you out here?”
He didn’t look up from his rows of mint. The plants were coming in nicely, and he was happy with their color. The tomatoes had yet to fully ripen; he was hoping that the weather would stay relatively cloudless so they had a chance to grow in a bit more. He heard the back door swing open, and knew that Bella was standing there, watching him.
“What’s wrong, Bella?”
“The children. Where are they?”
“I’m sorry, I had to send them off.”
Bella crossed her arms. “To where?”
He wiped his brow and stood. The garden had a high, white fence around it, designed to keep out both rodents and prying eyes. He was glad for it; he knew this day was inevitable.
“They’ll be safe, looked after, and want for nothing. That’s all you need to know.”
“Let’s go inside and discuss this.”
“Harold, tell me where our children are.”
He looked down at the trowel in his gloved hands, then up at his wife of six years. “It’s not going to matter.”
Bella’s eyes widened. “Harry, what is going on? You haven’t been the same since you got that letter.”
“You mean this one?” He pulled the small, rigid card out of his pocket. It was decorated only with the embossed image of a scorpion. “Unfortunately, this changes everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“This was a letter I prayed I would never get. I was told… the Republic told me that I would not be needed, not under this new administration. They promised me things would be better. They… well, I guess they made a lot of promises, didn’t they?”
Bella blinked in the sunlight. “What are you talking about? Harry, you’re an accountant. And you still haven’t told me where our children are.”
“I lied to you, Bella. I don’t work for an independent accounting firm. Honestly, I’m not all that great with money. The only reason we’re doing as well as we are is that my stipend from the Republic is quite generous. It’s easy to balance the books when there’s plenty of coin to go around.”
Before she could say anything, he stepped close to her, looking into her eyes.
“The reason I got this card is because the Republic has need of one of its most dangerous servants. My code-name is Scorpion.”
“But… but, your parents…”
“Your photoglyphs from university…”
She stared at him. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because if I am to return to that life, I need to do it knowing the people I love are safe. Our children are safe. Now you must do the same.” He bent, digging his trowel into the dirt near the end of the row of mint. A few scoops revealed the tin box he’d placed there five years ago, after their anniversary. He stood slowly with the box in hand, brushed off some of the loose earth, and handed it to her.
“I had a friend help with this. New identity, plenty of coin, some rations and a means to defend yourself. Take it and go.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “You want to send me away? Just like that?”
“No, Bella, I don’t want to. I am being summoned by the Republic. I swore an oath to answer that call. This is duty, not choice.”
“You chose to marry me. You chose to father my children. You chose to build this life. And now, you will just walk away, saunter back into the presence of those idiotic politicians to, what, kill for them? Steal? Lie?”
“All that and more. It is an ugly life.”
Bella wiped her face with her free hand, then opened the box. After a moment, she reached inside and removed the pistol, taking aim at her husband.
“Bring back our children.”
“Bella, listen to me…”
“No. Enough of your lies. You’re pathetic, Harry. I’ll admit, I almost bought the ruse. But I know you’re gentle. I know you’re kind. I know you’d never kill.”
“Bella. Do not do this.”
“You will take me to my children, and then you will pack your things. If you want to go off and leave us, fine, but leave us as a family.”
“I can’t do that. It’s too dangerous.”
“I’m the one with the weapon, Harold – I am the danger you have to deal with.”
“I’ll do it. I’ll shoot you.”
“I believe you.”
He didn’t give her time to think. He dropped the trowel and moved, hands reaching for the pistol. She’d never seen him move this fast, he wagered, and so disarming her would likely be easy. He’d done it dozens of times.
She struggled. He tried to keep from hurting her, even as his training told him a dozen ways to end the confrontation – a stiff chop to the throat, stab her neck or between her ribs – but none of them would let her walk away. He pushed the pistol and tried to free it from her grip.
The weapon discharged, and blood splattered on the mint.
It was very quiet for a long time after that.
“I’m cold. Is it winter?”
His hand was sticking to her body. “No, Bella. It’s summer. It’s sunny.”
She coughed. There was blood in it. “I couldn’t live without my children.”
“I’m sorry, Bella. I’m so very sorry. I never meant for this.”
“Why did you marry me, then?”
“Because I love you. I always will.”
She managed a smile. “I think you were trying to help us. Were you?”
“Then… I’m sorry.”
“I know. I forgive you. Can… can you forgive me?”
“Oh, Harry.” A bloody hand, shaking, touched his cheek. “We’re such stupid, short-sighted people.”
“Meant to be.”
“Yes, my love?”
“Is that your real name?”
“Will you… will you tell me?”
He bent and whispered it to her. She smiled and, trembling, kissed him.
“It’s… nice to meet you.”
“This is dumb.” It was about the thirtieth time Victoria had said so. “It’s been in my family since before they came over. I know where it came from and who it was made for. And on top of all of that, curses do NOT exist.”
“Look, I just want to be sure, okay? You know I love your dad; think about it. He’s a chemical engineer. He knows how proportions work. Didn’t you tell me once he’s a great cook?”
“Then how exactly did he give himself a case of food poisoning?”
Victoria glared at her would-be mother-in-law. “I still think we’re wasting our time.”
“Our time isn’t better spent in the waiting room. We’re being proactive.”
Victoria studied the facade of the building. ISAIAH WELLINGTON – PSYCHIC SERVICES
“I’d rather trust the medical professionals.”
“They’re doing all they can. Come on.”
With a pained sigh, Victoria followed Sylvia into the house. The main room of the small domicile was paneled in dark wood and filled with the smells of sweet incense. It was definitely present but not overwhelming. The man at the table in the center of the room did not look up from the Tarot cards on the table in front of him.
“Please, Sylvia, call me Isaiah.”
Victoria rolled her eyes. “Some psychic. You probably called him.”
“You’re not going to learn anything if you have that attitude.”
“And what am I going to learn here?”
“You’re going to learn about the history of your family.”
“You don’t know a thing about my family.”
“You are Victoria McNally, your family has been in America since before the Revolutionary War, and you come from a long line of conquerors and betrayers.”
“Did you look that up on Google, Mr. Psychic?”
Isaiah looked up. His eyes were completely white, and Victoria gasped at the sight.
“I don’t get much from websites, Victoria.” As he packed up his deck, Sylvia noticed the titles of the cards were in Braille. “Now. Let’s have the item.”
Sylvia fished around in her purse to pull out a white dishtowel wrapped around something. She began to unwrap it. Isaiah’s face uncannily turned in her direction.
“Be careful. It must touch no other hand but mine. Did you wear gloves when you retrieved it from the mansion?”
“Yes I did. It’s considered a historical artifact. Anybody who’s wanted to see it outside of the case has had to wear gloves.”
“Good. It should be as clear as possible.”
Sylvia carefully began to unwrap the towel, letting the contents spill out into Isaiah’s extended hands. Fingers with cracked nails turned ancient metal end over end, and Isaiah’s milky white eyes slowly closed.
“The dagger was forged in the highlands seven… maybe eight hundred years ago. A gift, for one of the first warriors to bear the name McNally. I can see him… tall he was, broad of shoulder…”
“Like the cover of a romance novel?”
“I don’t think he’d know, Victoria.”
“Actually, I wasn’t born blind.” Isaiah opened his eyes and smiled. “But I do need you to keep quiet and not interrupt me.”
Victoria found herself blushing. “Sorry.”
The psychic closed his eyes again. “Ah… there it is. It was forged in honor, and yet, it was used to stab friends and family… even lovers… spouses… and every time it tasted blood that way, its anger grew…”
Sylvia took a deep breath. “How can a… knife… be angry?”
“Shh.” Victoria waved a hand at Sylvia. In spite of the way the atmosphere in the room had changed, grown more cold, Sylvia smiled.
“The anger,” Isaiah went on, “is not from the weapon. It’s from the victims. They left a tiny bit of themselves behind. Soaked into the metal on a level science will never, could never find. And it’s reached out into this family through the ages… Victoria, how did your mother die?”
Sylvia turned to look at Victoria, as the college freshman looked down at her hands. “She got sideswiped by a truck on a bridge. Her car went down in the river and she was trapped inside. She… she drowned.”
“And now your father is… ill?”
“Bad case of food poisoning.” Sylvia studied the dagger in Isaiah’s hands. “Is… is it cursed?”
“In the most simple of terms, yes.” Isaiah turned it over one more time. “Its effects will not always be obvious, but it does not know the state of the world or even where it is. All it knows is its need for revenge. It will never be rid of it.”
“Then how do we get rid of it?”
Isaiah closed his eyes for a long moment. “If the dagger is undone in a way that knows no dishonor, the vengeance will have nowhere to go.”
Victoria furrowed her brows. “Why am I thinking about Lord of the Rings all of a sudden?”
“It’s a shame we don’t have any volcanos nearby.”
“No, but don’t we have that steel mill?”
Sylvia thought about it. “Yes. And they’re very proud that they’ve gone for months without an accident…”
“Which would be dishonor, right?”
Sylvia smiled, reached into her purse and laid some money on Isaiah’s table and plucked the dagger from his hands. “Thank you, Isaiah.”
“I look forward to your return. Oh, and Victoria… if you study too hard for physics, you won’t be rested enough to do well on the exam.”
Victoria blinked, then started to smile. “Wow. You’re the real thing, aren’t you?”
Isaiah smiled and shrugged. “I had to give up my dream of being an indy car driver and find something else to be good at.”
Victoria giggled, and Sylvia took her hand to lead her back to the car. The mill was a short drive away. They found a worker eating lunch outside, and Sylvia paid him a few hundred dollars to throw the dagger in.
They waited for half an hour. Victoria was starting to doubt it’d work, and then Sylvia’s phone rang.