Pic Posted on Instagram
For Chuck’s latest challenge, I thought I’d describe one of the constants in my life over the past decade or so.
1) He only ever wears one coat, the same creamsicle orange with slightly darker stripes.
2) He likes to wander around the apartment and shout pitiful meows at the walls when I’m not around.
3) According to the vets, he is a “senior pet.”
4) When I’m writing or blogging, his very favorite spot is right in front of my word processing window.
5) He has a cool, moist nose, which you notice when he nuzzles his way under your hand so you pet him.
6) If I put dough on my lap, he’d be making bread, while purring (and wheezing) to beat the band.
7) Be he loafing with all four limbs tucked under his bulk, or pushed through a tissue box, he’s not as stealthy as he thinks.
8) He bats at his sister until she moves, then takes her spot to soak up the best sunlight.
9) He has especially stinky crap when he eats fish.
10) He trots towards me, his tail high and kinked, when I walk through the door after a long day.
Chuck’s Random Song Challenge had me shuffle my music, and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “When I Change Your Mind” came up first. I decided to try my hand at some Netrunner fiction while smacking this challenge around. Please enjoy!
When he wheeled himself over to his rig and pulled out the lead, he questioned again if he had a legitimate shot at changing things. The world was big, and getting bigger. The Corps were getting their tendrils into more and more aspects of daily life, and the masses were buying into the fiction that everything was awesome more and more every day. Runners, like him, were definitely in the minority, and everybody ran for different reasons. Anarchs ran to tear down the system, and Criminals ran to make money. Shapers, like him, ran because they could.
In his case, he ran because he had to. He had a mind to change.
Seamus (or as he called himself in Runner circles, ‘R0bR0y’) gently prodded his scalp with his fingers, the lead in his hand. The access port was down near the base of his skull, the terminal of the spinal drive that interfaced with his nervous system. The bank of towers and monitor systems in front of him would, theoretically, protect him from any Corp backlash from his run. It was theory, at this point, because like most Shapers, he’d built the thing himself. So for all he knew, the moment he jacked in, it would fry the rest of his body, leaving it as limp and useless as his legs.
He slipped the lead into the port. He leaned back into his wheelchair and closed his eyes. Sirens sounded far away in the city, and closer, he heard throbbing beats of music, the clatter of pans as someone frantically made dinner, shouting, laughter, cursing, lovemaking. He held on to that memory of the real, the tangible, the living. Then, Seamus flicked the old-fashioned toggle switch in the center of the rig.
His senses immediately were overwhelmed by an ocean of static. Like the rising tide, the data pulled him under. For a long, timeless moment, he was spinning away from everything, his mind lost in the bits, absorbed into the ones and zeros until Seamus ceased being his own individual self and he was one with the vast expanse of untamed information.
And then, R0bR0y rezzed on the outskirts of the local Haas-Bioroid branch and their monolithic servers.
Each rose like a featureless black titan against the backdrop of sickly green cascades of numbers. Their surfaces reflected the data, encased in layers of thick, slippery Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics – the famous ICE Corps used to protect their servers. Walking on the legs his avatar had rezzed, R0bR0y moved from server to server, peering at their ID tags. The remote servers were mostly obscure, but a tip he’d brought with him told him the one in the center contained current cybernetic trial records. He took a deep breath (unnecessary here but old habits die hard), dropped into the stance of an Olympic sprinter, and bolted towards the server.
The initial layer cracked and shattered the moment he hit it. It was like the layer of frozen water on top of a deep snowbank. The sound raised the alarm. The first real ICE R0bR0y encountered took shape before him. A faceless thing, its limbs too long to truly be considered human, weapons sprouting from its forearms and shoulders. The label on its chest read “VIKTOR.”
R0bR0y reached behind him, to where a highlander would wear his scabbard. The blade came into his hands, glowing white-hot, bits dripping from its edge. Despite its appearance as a sentry, this ICE was a code gate, awaiting the proper passcode to disable its damaging subroutines. Instead of trying those infinite combinations, though, the Runner gave a howling battle-cry and charged. The blade, dubbed ‘Gordian’ by its creators, seared through the body of the bioroid before it could take proper aim. It collapsed into a bloodless pile of broken bits, and R0bR0y charged forward.
Out of the darkness of the next layer came a figure in a long coat, adjusting its hunter’s cap and lighting a pipe. It looked up at R0bR0y with a curious expression.
“Now, who are you and what business do you have here, I wonder? Oh, don’t bother speaking, I can deduce the answers soon enough.”
Despite his digital nature, R0bR0y felt nauseous, and he tasted peanut butter. A trace! He reached behind him, into the programs installed back on the rig, and produced a glowing lotus in his hand. The Sherlock sentry cocked its head to one side, the trace momentarily forgotten. R0bR0y triggered the self-modifying code, and from the lotus burst a human-sized spider, a black-bodied arachnid with glowing red eyes and long, spindly legs. It pounced at Sherlock, the Sentry backing away to fight it off as R0bR0y sprinted past. The server was close enough to touch.
R0bR0y skidded to a stop, a third figure now barring the way. It was tall and wide-shouldered, bearing an imposing sword and a helm tipped with horns.
“I AM THE GUARDIAN OF THIS REALM. YOU CANNOT PASS.”
Heimdall. He’d heard of this ICE. Like Viktor, it was not the sentry at it seemed. It was a barrier, and a hard one to break at that. Fortunately, R0bR0y was not without friends, and one of them had loaned him something for this task. He snapped his fingers, and a lithe, somewhat ethereal woman faded into view beside him. She took one look at Heimdall, and a confident smirk slowly blossomed on her blood-red lips.
“Ooo,” she cooed, sauntering towards the barrier. “You’re in trouble, now.”
With a grin, R0bR0y ran past the pair and into the server itself. He found the file he was looking for, edited the lines, and looked over his shoulder at the distant, faded point of light from where he’d begun.
Seamus snapped awake. The rig’s fans began to wind down as he gingerly pulled the lead free. The sensation of walking, of running, slowly faded as he breathed, letting the real world return to his senses.
And then, the phone rang.
For the Terribleminds Flash Fiction challenge, “Twisted Love“.
His was a good life.
Charlie left his desk at his office promptly at 5 PM. His secretary was certain to take all incoming calls from this point, regardless of the status of his cases. His accountant was already up to speed on everything, his accounts in order and better than ever, and nothing else really mattered. The end of another good day.
He drove his BMW down his streets just the way he liked. He drove as fast as he wanted, and never bothered to use the turn signal. Why should he? It was his road, this was his sedan, and nothing was going to stop him. The poor jerks in their poor coupes and poor pickups were just jealous. They’d be even more jealous if they knew about his hot wife in his big house at the end of his lane.
It wasn’t perfect, though. Not yet. His big house wasn’t quite the way he wanted it. Someone would have to carry on his legacy, inherit his greatness and his history, and tonight was the night he was going to make that happen. His friends would be hitting his town without him, with all apologies to the lovely ladies they’d be seeing at his bar. But his family, as he told them, was more important.
He pulled into his driveway, parked his car, grabbed his briefcase, straightened his tie as he walked up his walk, and entered his house.
Charlie’s cheerful words died in his mouth when he saw her standing there.
She stood with a pair of suitcases from his matching luggage set. She was dressed for travel, in smart and form-fitting jeans under a white blouse with a dark jacket over it all. Her hair was back in a ponytail to show off his earrings, and she toyed with his wedding ring as he struggled to speak. The struggle was even worse when she said three words he did not understand.
“Come again?” That was what he managed to say.
“I said, I’m leaving you.”
“Ronnie, what’s wrong? What’s going on?”
“What’s wrong?” Veronica’s blue eyes seemed to flash under the light of his chandelier. “What’s wrong? I should be asking you, since you’re home so early. What’s the matter? They run out of whores for you to fuck down in the city?”
Charlie held up his hands. “I don’t know what you’ve heard…”
She shook her head. “Don’t bother. It’s not like I don’t get it. You’re rich, Charlie. And that was fun for a while. But that’s all there is to you. You think you can buy your way into whatever you want.”
He blinked. “You want to leave because I’m rich?”
“No. I am leaving you, and it’s because you’re a selfish, possessive, whore-mongering asshole. You know, I don’t think I would have minded you fucking around if you had bothered to tell me. Hell, it might even have been fun. But no, you had to run around behind my back with your little friends and do this to me.”
“Ronnie, baby, I can stop…”
“Shut up. Just shut up.” She threw an envelope at his feet. “Those are test results, Charlie. I went to the doctor because I’ve been in pain for days. Not that you’ve noticed. It’s chlamydia. Chlamydia, Charlie. Who knows how long I’ve had it? Now the doctor isn’t even sure I’ll be able to have kids; we won’t know until after this has been treated.”
“We can fix it…”
“No. There’s no ‘we’ anymore, Charlie. I’m leaving. I already talked to David Wescott, at your firm, about the divorce. It’s a strong case but we can settle amicably if you cooperate.”
Charlie loved her. Even standing there, furious at him, he loved her dearly. He couldn’t imagine his life without her. She was his wife. His wife. His wife. As long as she was in his house, she was his, there was no question about that. So, he reached behind him and locked the door.
“What are you doing, Charlie?”
“You can’t leave. You’re mine.”
Her jaw tightened. “You can’t keep me here, Charlie.”
“You can’t leave.” Maybe she hadn’t heard him. “You’re mine.”
“You don’t own me, you sick bastard.” She pulled off the full-karat diamond ring and threw it at him. “You don’t own people.”
“You ungrateful bitch!” Charlie crossed the distance between them in two of his long strides and grabbed her shoulders in his hands. “You are my wife! This is my life and you are a part of it! Always have been, always will be, and nothing you say or do can change that! It’s my life! My rules!”
“Let go of me!”
He was going to tell her that he would call his doctor, and with his insurance, they’d be clean in no time, and then his wife would give him his children and start his family and then she wouldn’t leave for anything because his wife would love his children too much to take them away from him.
He was going to say that, but Veronica’s knee came up hard into his balls, and he collapsed onto his floor.
Through the searing pain and the tears, he looked up to see her fumbling at the door locks. He managed to get his feet moving, his hands pushing his body up off of the floor, and he practically rammed her, slamming her against his front door. He was down again, but so was she, and he was able to grab hold of her ankle.
“Let go, Charlie!”
She kicked him. A sharp heel laid open his face, and he screamed. His hand went to his face and she scrambled to her feet. He reached behind him, grabbing his briefcase, and he threw it at her as she tried to flee. It caught her in the small of the back and she went down again. She managed to stand as he sat up, getting his feet under him.
“It’s my house!” He looked around for something to grab, something to defend his home, keep it as it should be. “You can’t leave!”
She didn’t respond. He reached over to his umbrella stand, picking up one of his long golf umbrellas. He gripped it in both hands as he stood. When Veronica came around the corner, he was going to tell his wife that he loved her and he couldn’t bear to see her go.
That was before he saw his gun in her hands.
“Ronnie, put the gun down.”
“No, Charlie.” She was wiping tears from her face with her free hand, a bruise blossoming on her cheek where she’d hit the floor. “Please move.”
“That’s my Colt, those are my pearl inlays you’re holding, now put it down!”
“Charlie, you have a weapon and you’ve struck me, this is self-defense, now please move.”
“God dammit, woman, this is my house and you are my wife and -”
She shot him.
The sound was deafening in his front hall. His ears rang as he collapsed, pain blossoming in his leg, blood staining his pin-striped suit slacks. He grabbed the wound and howled. He barely noticed when she stepped over him, his suitcases in her hands, the sound of a taxi outside on his driveway.
His blood didn’t stop coming out of his leg, his hands were sticky, and he looked up at his chandelier, and he prayed to his god. Please don’t let me die, I’ll give her anything she wants, just please please don’t let me die.
The ambulance arrived at his door just as it was getting dark. He found out later that Veronica had dialed 911 from the cab, after calling her lawyer of course. He was told this when he woke up in the hospital, handcuffed to the bed, with two police detectives asking about his wound and her injuries. His morphine drip made him happy to answer their questions, his heart-rending tale of betrayal and love and loss certain to move them to tears.
Neither one of them moved, or showed any emotion. Tough crowd.
Someone had been listening, though, as Charlie did not die. He was alive, and fully conscious, when Dave Wescott, whom Charlie thought was his friend, told him that Veronica’s case was rock solid and it would be easier for everybody if Charlie just settled out of court. At that point, Charlie was too exhausted from physical therapy to argue.
He came home to a house that would soon not be his. He put the keys of his car down on his table and walked into his study. He opened his desk and looked down at his gun.
It was his. It was all his. And a voice inside his head told him it should stay that way forever.
Courtesy Hunt for Alien Earths
This Terribleminds Fairy Tales Remixed challenge is right up my alley, and when the d20 rolled up “hard sci-fi”, it felt like Christmas all over again.
The planet was desolate, inhospitable, and far from any civilization. Which meant it was pretty much perfect.
Christopher Prince bent near one of the rovers deployed at the start of his expedition, cleaning off its sensors and re-calibrating its terrain-following mechanisms. A small chime inside his helmet brought his attention to the oxygen indicator on his wrist. He still wasn’t sure why the helmet didn’t include a heads-up display like fighter pilots got in the Space Force, but he was in the Survey Corps and they often had to make do with cast-offs from the other military divisions.
He made his way back to the launch, the conical craft sitting on spindly legs on the vast, open plain dominating the planet’s northern hemisphere. The samples of soil, minerals, and water in his pouches rattled slightly as he ascended the ladder into the cabin. He strapped in and keyed the comm.
“Rapunzel, I’m ready for the beacon.”
Like clockwork, the indicator appeared on his display. He fired the launch’s ion rocket, burning most of his fuel to achieve exit velocity. There was plenty on the ship, of course, as it wasn’t made for atmospheric entry, and thus didn’t need as much of the argon that fed its thrusters. Once in orbit, Rapunzel’s beacon guided him in, and it took only a few rotations and nudges with the launch’s reaction control systems to line him up for docking.
He pulled himself out of the launch and into the airlock, happy to feel fresh (albeit recycled) air on his face when his helmet came off.
“What did you find, Lieutenant?”
Rapunzel’s voice was just as welcome as the air. He silently thanked the designers who’d settled on the female vocal set.
“There’s water down there, Rapunzel. I think it’s arctic run-off and I’m not sure what’s in it.”
“Water is an excellent sign. Do you think the atmospheric inadequacies can be addressed?”
“If there’s water, we can create clouds. Clouds can be seeded. I think there’s a good chance.”
Conversations with Rapunzel rarely involved anything other than his planetary findings. Her role was more analysis and communication than it was companionship. Still, she was a good opponent in games, loaded with multiple critiques and viewpoints on literature, and recently started forming her own opinions. Scuttlebutt was that another ship-board AI, Cinderella, had started showing more evidence of self-awareness, asking questions about identity and purpose. This made some of the brass nervous, but when Rapunzel brought up those subjects, Prince felt perfectly comfortable.
He sent the encryption information packet back to headquarters, got updated information on enemy fleet movements, and took some intelligence reports to his bunk with him. While the Survey Corps rarely saw any sort of combat, it was good to stay current on the situation, and relations with the Colonial Congress had never been more strained. Piracy and sabotage were rampant, and as he looked over the list of missing vessels, he assured himself that, this far from the colonies, nobody would bother messing with him.
The next day, he was back down on the surface, taking more samples and recalibrating a rover, this time on the southern hemisphere. Instead of water, he found flecks in the soils samples that weren’t minerals. They seemed to be dessicated biological matter, fossilized perhaps. He wouldn’t be sure until he got back into orbit, however, but he was excited as he returned to the launch.
“Rapunzel, I’m ready for the beacon.”
He activated the launch’s external camera once he was in orbit, lining up to dock. He blinked at the display, and then turned a dial to zoom in on the ship’s registration number.
It was not the Rapunzel. It was the Dame Goethel, reported lost near pirate territory. As he watched, a close-quarter weapon turret swung in his direction.
Prince didn’t wait for demands. While he wasn’t a high-ranking military officer, as a member of the Survey Corps, he knew his way back to the Empire’s innermost territories; in his case, he knew safe routes to Earth. He kicked his main drive on and began evasive maneuvers. The launch was small and hard to hit, but even so, the Goethel‘s turret hit him three times, the second slug knocking out his camera before the third sent him in a spin. He didn’t immediately hit the planet’s atmosphere, so as far as he knew, he was tumbling off into open space.
His reaction control fuel was nearly gone by the time he got the spin under control, and his guidance systems had failed, shorted out by wiring knocked loose in his escape. He checked his oxygen levels – not great – and debated activating his distress beacon. It was likely the pirates would be listening for it. They could follow his rough trajectory, but space was a big place. He’d probably run out of air before they found him.
He was blind, alone, and dying.
He recorded a log, encrypted it, and hid it within the launch’s data drive. The transmitter was working, but with only the small porthole in the hatch, lining up a tight-band transmission would be nearly impossible. Still, he had to try. He was using tiny bursts to find the right star when a survey vessel swung into view.
He wasn’t close enough to read its name. A chill went through his body, either from fear or from life support failing.
“Chris? Are you all right?”
He smiled. There was no way the AI on the Goethel knew his name, and even so, it wouldn’t sound so concerned.
“Yes, Rapunzel, I’m okay.”
“Good. I detect your launch is heavily damaged. Do you need me to walk you through repairing the docking alignment?”
Together they fixed the launch just enough to get him docked. He stumbled out of the launch into the airlock, and collapsed on the deck.
“Let’s go home, Rapunzel.”
“Of course, Lieutenant.”
“And on the way, you can tell me how you found me.”
“I’d be happy to.”
I rolled on the tables from this post for this week’s tale.
Table 1: Detective
Table 2: Casino
Table 3: Left for dead, out for revenge!
Now, let’s get it on!
You lose track of time to a scary degree when some Neanderthal knocks you out. I was under the impression they only got physical with you at casinos if they caught you counting cards or feeling up the cocktail waitress without her consent. Apparently, they beat the shit out of idiot gumshoes who are getting too close to the truth, too.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been thrown a beating by what colloquially folks would call a ‘goon’, but this time, it wasn’t my fault. I was playing it cool, understand, and specifically not winning too much at the hold ‘em table. When your job is precipitated on reading people, poker becomes practice more than anything else. And the reason I charge so much for my services is, without hyperbole, I’m very fucking good at what I do.
The problem is, my reputation preceded me. I got fingered (not as sexy as it sounds) by one of the pit bosses, who told their boss, and one thing lead to another and this shambling prick in an off-the-sale-rack suit was slamming my head into the wire racks in a pantry. He wasn’t pulling punches. He meant to kill me. He seemed to be know what he was doing, too. Without breaking my bones or leaving major bruises, it would look like I stumbled into the wrong room and cracked my skull. Bam, case closed, everybody go about your business, nothing to see here.
Thankfully for yours truly, the fucking ape was too dumb to make sure I was done before he left me.
Son of a bitch took my gun, though. Old-fashioned pearl-handled .45 – a gift from an old partner. Engraved, and everything.
I push myself up off of the grimy closet floor, and I remind myself that the tux is a rental and I’m probably not getting my deposit back because the thing’s covered in grease and God knows what else now. I get out of the closet, get myself down the hall – my head is pounding and I want to vomit – and find a locker room for employees. They have spare jackets for the waiters and croupiers. I swap my smeared slightly mothball-smelling coat for one of those, and find my way back to the floor. I pick up a tray of drinks on the way for good measure.
I weave through the slots, people taking drinks and leaving cash. I stay on the move until the tray is empty. I make my way back towards the poker pits. It takes me a few minutes of circling and trying to look innocuous, but then my beefy friend comes through a back door. Have I mentioned he isn’t too bright? He doesn’t see or hear me coming up behind him. I wait for him to turn a corner, knowing there’s a tiny blind spot in the bazillion-camera coverage of the floor, and then I introduce my lovely tray to the big fat target that is his big fat head.
You’ve heard of glass jaws, right? This guy apparently has a glass skull. He drops like a bag of hammers. Not surprising, considering he’s about half as smart.
Service with a smile, asshole.
I get my gun and my phone back, give the prick a kick in the ribs for good measure, and make my way to an exit. In the parking lot I check my phone, and sure enough, our Cro-Magnon friend didn’t bother flashing its memory or even deleting the recordings I’d been making.
It’s quiet in the lot. Which is good, because the slab of stupid I’d left laid out on the carpeted floor had friends, and they were coming out after me. I hear the door slamming open, footsteps, and the hammer of at least one gun’s hammer getting pulled back the way a guy unzips his fly. They’re not even trying to be subtle.
So, why should I?
I break into a run as I draw my piece. You’d think it missed me, the way it just flows into my hand and my arm extends with it to start taking shots. I’m not trying to kill or even wound anybody, just trying to keep their heads down. Well, maybe wound someone. A little. Out of spite.
I’ve got ten years of experience between firing ranges, ‘official discharges’ as a detective, a couple undercover jobs, and this freelance business after I got drummed off the force. These morons seem to have gotten all of their experience from playing video games.
“Way to shoot wide, Call of Duty!”
I’m already getting in my car by this point, and I can’t help but get the last word in. Now, I know it’s unsafe, and you assholes at home better not do this, but it’s an emergency, so I dial my contact. Or rather I dial my contact’s office. I say some words to his lovely and polite secretary I’m not going to repeat here. I make a mental note to send her flowers because nobody deserves to have their mother referred to in that fashion, especially not someone just doing their job for an honest wage. Seriously, I’m a prick sometimes. I called you all assholes like three sentences ago. Anyway, I’m on hold and I’m swerving through traffic. Both things I hate. When he finally picks up the phone I’m fucking livid.
“You did not tell me there would be hitmen and legbreakers at this meet!”
“I thought it was a given.”
“No, it was not a given, you sawed-off prick. Put down the fucking doughnut and listen. I have him on tape.”
“You cut out there. Say that again?”
“Of course I cut out, jerkfuck, I’m on the goddamned freeway! I said, I – got – him – on – tape.”
“Saying what, exactly?”
I change lanes to pass a Yugo. A goddamn Yugo, in this day and age. And I thought my life was hard. “He’s saying that he’s in over his head and wants a way out. He says it’s for tens of millions. The words ‘cocaine’, ‘heroin’, ‘ecstasy’, and ‘hit squads’ are mentioned. And not by me.”
“I told you I could do this! Now it’s time for you to hold up your end.”
There’s an uncomfortable pause. I’d glare at the phone if I wasn’t trying to drive as safely and quickly as possible. Those two things are not easy to do at the same time. And this is with one hand on the wheel. I’m dead serious, kids, do not try this shit at home. (Oh, and if you are a kid, sorry for all the swears.)
“Don’t. Do not tell me there’s a problem or a ‘snag’ or some other bullshit. The next fucking words out of your fat face better be ‘where are you and where do I send the chopper’ or I swear to fucking Christ I will leak this shit to the Internet and take my ass to goddamn Lichtenstein.”
“… Where are you, and where do I send the chopper.”
“Was that so hard?”
“It would have been easier if you hadn’t interrupted me, jerkoff.”
“I’m on the Interstate heading west. There’s two – no, check that, three – black Cadillac SUVs full of angry men with guns probably under orders to shoot my ass and drag what’s left back to the casino to get worked over by this fucking dumbass lump of lard who…”
“Wittaker, I need you to focus.”
I pass a bus. I think someone takes my photo through the window. Tourists. “Yeah, yeah. Sorry. And sorry about the fat comment. But seriously, man, you gotta hit a gym.”
“Jesus, fine. Two exits ahead, there’s a parking garage, 8th and Spillane, top level’s exposed and probably mostly empty.”
“Hey, can you cover me with a couple of establishments?”
“What do you-”
He’s cut off when bullets start hitting my windshield. Dammit, I thought I’d lost them behind the bus! Or at least, gotten out of line of sight. Whatever. I drop the phone and start to serpentine. Which is a fancy way of saying I drive like a goddamn maniac and piss off plenty of decent people.
I take the exit I told my contact about and I don’t bother to slow down any more than I have to in order to avoid flying over the guardrail. It’s two turns onto 8th avenue, and then I pass Spillane. I cut the wheel and pull the handbrake, and practically slam into the wall next to where I want to go, which is through the little arm they drop on you so you take a ticket. It cracks like a toothpick against the grill of my Pontiac and I’m heading up the ramp before the night watchman can run out after me yelling obscenities.
I’m still a bit nauseous from earlier, so taking so many fast turns in such a confined space almost knocks me out again. My head is swimming and I can’t read any of the signage for shit. It’s a miracle I don’t get lost. I make it to the roof, grab my phone and stumble out of the car, and throw up. I manage to get to my feet as the three Caddies pull up onto the roof and line up one next to the other. The hitmen get out of the cars with guns drawn, at least seven of them, and all of them looking really pissed off.
The cherry on it is when my fat friend rolls out of the back of one, holding an ice pack to his head.
“Oh, hey! Look who’s vertical!”
“That was a cheap shot, you fucking prick!”
“Ha!” I’d literally laugh in his face if I could cross the killing field. Well, killing parking tarmac. “I’m not the stupid son of a bitch who left me alive!”
“Well, let’s correct that,” says one of the hitters. They all take aim.
“Sure, you go ahead and you fucking shoot me.”
I think between the ride up through the parking garage and their raging hard-ons, they hadn’t heard what I’d heard. It became obvious when the spotlight came on.
“Right in front of federal officers!”
Three (Three? Christ.) black helicopters with FBI emblems slapped on their sides come out of the inky night, bathing the roof of the parking complex in bright white light. The hitmen stagger back from the glare as I spread my arms wide and invite them all to kiss my ass. I don’t think they hear me over the loudspeakers above my head.
“THIS IS THE FBI. DROP YOUR WEAPONS AND PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEADS. THIS IS YOUR ONLY WARNING.”
The helicopters land, and agents in tac armor with submachine guns spill out, yelling orders and putting zip-ties on the hitmen. Agent LeToux, suit rumpled and hair a mess as usual, gets out of one and walks towards me. I give him a hard time, but he’s a man of his word. Even if he could stand to eat a few less Big Macs. He’s not unhealthily fat, but someone’s got to ride his ass so he stays in shape, and Mrs. LeToux sure as hell isn’t.
“You are a pain in my ass, Wittaker!”
“I didn’t tell you to send a whole SWAT team out here, LeToux!”
He snatches my phone out of my hand. “No, but you DID say there’s enough evidence on here to shut down the whole operation!”
“Hey, you called me, asshole, because these pricks can smell a fed a mile away.”
“Yes, and we thank you for your service, now can you kindly fuck off so we can do our jobs without you breaking anything else?”
He turns to walk away.
“Hey! Tell your guys to get my tux jacket back! It’s a rental!”
He flips me off. Doesn’t even look back.
LeToux loves me. If he denies it, he’s lying.
Not really my type, though. Don’t tell him that. I wouldn’t want to break his heart.
Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenges return! This week: Roll For Title.
Shelby couldn’t stop hearing her doctor give the diagnosis. Six months. Six months of surgery and chemo and radiation and living in hospitals and shitting into bags. Her first appointment was in two days, and she was taking today to find something, anything else, that would fix this.
Wandering the streets wasn’t helping, but it was better than sitting at home. She kept her coat closed against the strong winter wind, glancing only occasionally at the bright neon around her. She’d told her husband that she needed a walk, time to clear her head. Jack seemed to understand, kissing her forehead and telling her to call if she needed anything. How her feet had carried her downtown, she didn’t know. Yet here she was, avoiding eye contact with others and trying to ignore the people around her, the joy and the despair alike, lost in her own desperation.
When she did look up, her eye caught the neon sign that flickered like a dying candle and read, simply, “Magic & Fortunes.” She wasn’t particularly superstitious or religious, but something pulled her through the door, staring at the candlelit interior as the chimes on the handle rattled and sang. A stooped old woman emerged from the shadows.
“What can I do for you, dear?”
She said the first thing that came to mind. “I want to live.”
The old woman nodded. “Sit down, and tell me everything.”
She did, as the old woman poured her some tea. When she was utterly spent, tears rolling down her cheeks, gnarled yet soft hands patted her wrist.
“Don’t you worry, dear. I have just the thing.”
A few minutes later, the old woman was bustling about, setting up a small black cauldron on the table over a tea light, taking things from various unlabeled jars and muttering softly to herself as she mixed the ingredients together. When she was done, a small glass vial, slightly steaming and filled with a liquid the color of mucus, was set on the table.
“Drink every drop, dear. It will add ten years to your life.”
Skeptical yet somehow unable to resist the urge, Shelby took the vial in both hands and poured it down her throat. A violent tremor went through her entire body and she collapsed out of the chair. She came to her senses a few moments later, slowly getting to her feet, finding the old woman smiling at her.
“There, now. Let’s talk about payment, shall we? All things for a price.”
It was more than Shelby thought she’d spend, but as she walked back out into the street, she felt less desperate and alone. The wind that had felt so cruel and cold instead seemed to be whisking her back home. Jack was waiting for her with a hot meal and a roaring fire, and the sex they had that night was the best either of them had experienced in a long time.
Shelby made an appointment with her doctor the next morning, and went in to have everything double-checked before the procedures began. She sat in the exam room, not daring to hope for what something told her was the inevitable answer.
No cancer. Not a trace.
She rushed home after that, eager to tell Jack. It was her turn to make dinner, and she was planning the meal in her head. Something sweet and succulent, and maybe after she’d try on that negligee Jack had bought her that she’d always been too timid to wear. The thought had her smiling as she started making the turns towards home.
She had to pull over briefly to let a fire engine speed past. And then another.
Her heart crawled up into her throat when the ambulance passed her.
She sped around the corner towards her house. Firefighters were already hosing down the walls as flames crawled through the windows into the night sky. She stumbled out of her car, screaming Jack’s name, barely able to see through the tears of panic as she tried to scramble to the house. A police officer grabbed her and puller her back, telling her firefighters were already inside.
What they pulled out of the fire didn’t live long.
Through the sleepless night and blurred days that followed, Shelby tried to focus on the arrangements, the family visits, the friends who let her sleep at their place until the insurance company sorted things out. But her thoughts kept drifting back to the old woman with the knotted hands, and the way her doctor had said the word ‘miracle’.
Finally, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she went back downtown. She tried to retrace her steps. Nobody seemed to know the shop she was talking about, and the more she asked, the more desperate she became.
She came around a corner, and recognized the neon signs. Breathing heavily, she ran down the street, skidding to a halt in front of the store she’d visited, remembering that cold night when she’d wished for something, anything, to give her hope.
The building was boarded up and dark. It looked like it hadn’t been occupied in years.
Shelby stared at the store. Her shaking hands closed into fists. Screaming, she flew at the door, clawing at the boards, pulling off one, and then the other. She kicked the door in, uncaring of the eyes and pointing fingers around her. She bolted inside, hunched and angry, ready to fight.
“Come out, you old hag! You’ll pay for what you did to Jack!”
There was no response. Wind and silence. Shelby went from room to room, upstairs and down, looking for anything, anything at all. When she returned to the foyer, a clean, unblemished paper was resting in the dust that hadn’t been there before.
Shelby bent towards the note, her fingers on the paper, ensuring its reality.
All things for a price.
Shelby looked up to see a policeman holding a taser in her direction. Slowly, she stood, her hands in the air.
This began weeks ago with this story, prompted by Terribleminds. Many heartfelt thanks to Jon, Courtney, and Josée for keeping this going. It’s time to wrap it up!
“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 premises, 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.”
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.”
“This is as good a time as any,” Father Benjamin said. He grabbed the handle of the door and gave it a turn. He rammed his shoulder into it and slammed the door into the hall against the creatures in the hall.
They shambled as their bones clacked together. Skeletons, creatures of dark magic mobbed the hall. They weren’t just science experiments gone wrong. The bones assembled at the point of convenience.
Some had three and four arms, others had leg bones growing out of their skulls. A hodge podge of dark evil waited for Father Benjamin and Abigail to join them in the hall.
He burst into the hall blasting rounds from the shotgun into several of the skeletons near the doorway. Their bones exploded in a spray of powdery bone shards. Abigail followed his lead. Her silver sword swung in a wide arc severing bones as it swept through the group.
“Back to back,” Benjamin yelled. “Don’t let them through.” Another blast of the shotgun brought them closer to clearing out his side of the hall.
“Having fun yet deary?” she asked. The silver of her sword flashed through the skeletons that charged her en masse.
Father Benjamin grinned. “Just like my seminary days.”
Two skeletons darted beneath sword and shotgun, circling to attack from the sanctuary end of the hallway. Abigail lunged at them.
“Crenshaw! Wait!” yelled Benjamin.
Too late. A third skeleton slid between the witch and the priest. Then a fourth. Abigail shrieked as the first two surrounded her. Benjamin took aim, but his gun gave no more than a click. Empty.
With a roar, he reversed the gun and slammed the stock into one skeleton’s head. The skull shattered, but the bones dragged at him as he thrust the barrel against the still-standing skeleton. Abigail took the head of one hellspawn pinning her to the wall. But the last one kept coming, and more poured into the hall behind Benjamin.
“I warned you not to get in my way,” said a voice.
All around them, the skeletons froze. Abigail’s cry echoed in the sudden quiet as she thrust her swordpoint through her final attacker’s skull. Together, she and Benjamin turned toward the end of the hall.
Beyond the motionless horde stood a figure in purple robes. A hood hid the face, but the skeletons’ puppetmaster was unmistakable.
“Hello, Gillian,” said Abigail.
“Hey, Abby,” came the answer.
“Long time no see” Abigail said, still holding her sword ready for attack.
“Yeah, sorry about that. You know, I’ve been busy, or I would’ve called… How’s Mom?”
“Mom?!” This from Father Benjamin. He turned sharply to Crenshaw, his prayers forgotten, his fingers loose around his cross.
“You didn’t know this, Father? Abby and I go way back. To the womb, actually.”
Gillian took a step forward. “But don’t worry. Just move away, let me get the stone and I’ll go on my merry way.”
“You were never a good loser, Gill. My spells are stronger now.” Abigail advanced, her sword held high, her other arm at her back for balance.
“This changes everything!” Benjamin cried out.
Abigail, not changing her stance, directed her words to Father Benjamin behind her but kept her eyes on Gillian: “What do you mean? Why?” Gillian chuckled. Yes, she chuckled, a frosty, chilling chuckle. Her skeletons waited for her orders.
“There’s a reason why I asked you here, Ms. Crenshaw. It had to be a Crenshaw witch for this to work. Now I know why.” Gillian’s cold, loud laugh shook the hall and the skeleton bones rattled.
And now, the conclusion:
Abigail blinked, sword still at the ready, processing what she’d heard. “What?”
“Chalk!” Benjamin repeated. “Toss it back to me.”
Abigail’s free hand fished around to find it. Skeletons shambled towards the pair as she threw the chalk back towards the priest, without looking. Benjamin had to step towards it to catch it. The skeletons reached out, and Abigail’s sword flashed. Gillian laughed as her sister moved to defend the priest.
“This would be a great deal easier if you just gave me the stone, sister. Are you really going to defend this… this man?”
Abigail shook her head. “And you gave me shit for staying in school.”
It was the first time he had used her given name. She turned, and saw him holding up a black slate. On it in chalk was a complex circle, ringed in runes, that Abby recognized instantly. Without hesitation, she sliced the palm of her left hand on her blade, and slapped the slate Benjamin held. Instantly, there was a loud pop, and the skeletons collapsed.
Abigail turned, and Gillian was gone.
“Here.” He began wrapping a cloth around her hand.
“Later. Right now, we have a church to clean up.”
The series at Terribleminds continues…
++++++++++++++++++ Part 1: Josee De Angelis ++++++++++++++++++
Of course it would rain today. It couldn’t be nice and sunny. Perfectly crappy weather for a crappy day. Shane dragged her luggage down the hall, her box of books under her arm, all her hats on her head – good thing the rain hat was the last one she found. What she couldn’t fit in her suitcases she wore. The furniture would have to come later. She couldn’t stand to be in that apartment one minute more.
The rain was coming down hard when Shane opened the front door. It was very dark, as if the clouds decided to play with people’s minds and make it look like nighttime. This did nothing to lighten Shane’s mood. Where would she go? Where could she go? Not going to her parents’ home, that’s for sure. Her sister’s? Only if she wanted all her past choices to be dissected, analyzed and declared wrong. They were wrong, but did she really need to hear it from someone else? Not so much.
Shane decided to walk north to put as much space as she could between herself and the apartment, where she lived moderately happy for six years. That was before everything changed. Before yesterday.
++++++++++++++++++ Part 2: Liz Neering ++++++++++++++++++
Yesterday the shadow had appeared. It began as a black spot, hidden away in the corner. But as the day progressed it had bled like spilled ink into the bulk of the room, until by the time she had gone to bed, it had stretched its dark fingers across the bulk of the apartment. She had slept huddled on the sofa, her knees drawn up to her chest, her hands wrapped around her shins to keep her tightly coiled and far away from the blackness coming to claim her.
They would never understand. They would never believe.
Shane pulled her hats down further, tugging them down her forehead until their stacked brims concealed her downcast, black-rimmed eyes. She stopped in the street. Water poured down her hats, splattering fat droplets onto her shoes. She rubbed her eyes until they burned.
“Think,” she said. “Think.”
She felt something; the short hairs on the nape of her neck rose. She turned on her heel.
The blackness was there. It crept towards her, sentient, hungry, writhing like a serpent as it slunk closer. A voice, oily and thick, cut through the air.
“Shane,” it hissed. “Come to us. Be one with us. We understand. We do not judge.”
++++++++++++++++++ Part 3: Ken Crump++++++++++++++++++
That voice, she thought, I know that voice!
Slowly the pieces began to fall into place. Shane spun on her heel, gathered her box of books tightly under her arm and strode toward the Cup of Comfort coffee shop at the north end of the block. Her suitcase rolled smoothly through the gathering puddles, making rhythmic “sslack” sounds as it jumped the sidewalk cracks. Halfway there, a wheel caught in a crack, broke off, and rolled into the street. The suitcase reeled and twisted out of her control. Shane stole a look over her shoulder at the suitcase and then back toward the blackness. It still crept toward her. What had she read about the blackness? She squeezed her books closer to her body, and abandoning the suitcase, she walked on.
That box of books was one of her past choices her sister would undoubtedly dissect and analyze again, given the chance. “You paid how much for those?” she had demanded in that I-know-everything voice that only big sisters have. “They’re so old the covers are all bubbly.”
“The covers are not bubbly,” Shane spat. “They’re anthropodermic!” And she immediately wished she could have unsaid it. Her big sister didn’t need to know the books were bound in human skin.
++++++++++++++++++ Part 4 ++++++++++++++++++
“Can I get you something?”
Shane blinked. The barista was looking at her pleasantly. For now. When Shane blinked, something else that wasn’t a barista was smiling at her. It was a smile she had seen before, in the shadows, a dark smiling face with eyes like bruning coals and teeth made of knives. Shane blinked again, and saw more of them. She squeezed her eyes shut and willed herself not to think about the books or the words penned in blood or the macabre images…
“Miss? Are you all right?”
She opened her eyes. She was back in Cup of Comfort. The barista looked more concerned than anything, and Shane tried to smile. It was difficult as the shadows got longer out of the corner of her eye.
“Yes. I’m sorry. I was thinking about my sister. Could I get a cup of coffee, please?”
“Sure.” The barista set about making the drink. “Are you in town to visit your sister?”
Shane swallowed. Her only hope was that, with a few customers in the shop, the darkness would be held at bay, at least for now. She needed time she didn’t have.
“No.” Shane bit her lip. “She’s dead now.”
“Casey’s Jersey City crew got careless,” Says Bossman. “Zombies flooded three sites. Two held them back but we blew the third. Horde made it up four flights and we couldn’t risk it. All told, probably lost fifty people.”
Bossman looks at me, gin blossoms reddening. The skin around his eyes draws tight, his hands, resting on the desk between us, clench, unclench. “Go find Casey. You ask him how he nearly lost three buildings. Then, once he answers, you make certain it doesn’t happen again.”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
Boss nods, quick, but the tears never leave his eyes. I turn and make for the stairs. How do I make fifty deaths count for something? These weren’t soldiers or made-men. These were men, women, and children, each under the protection of the Poverelli family. Fifty dead. And I gotta go make it fifty-one.
Name’s Blaylock, but everybody calls me Block. The name suits me. I’m muscle for the Family. It’s my job to make sure none of these mooks foul up and let the dead run riot over our rooftop paradise.
Here, it ain’t the zombies on the streets you gotta worry about. It’s the guy beside ya still breathing.
I only knock once ’cause I’m a little pissed. I’m standing just outside the door to Casey’s office, gun in hand. Behind me there’s a little crowd of civilians gathering. They’re all lookin’ mean at me—probably because they’re a little fed up with the administration at this point. They’re all quiet-like though, ’cause I was sent by Bossman himself and they knowed it.
It took a while to get to Casey’s place, what with the big, still smoking ruins of the building he lost in the way. Before the screw-up I coulda walked straight over. The buildings had been like a row of teeth, albeit crooked and rotting. But, one of ‘em had got knocked out, so I had to schlep it ‘cross the gap on the ground, which was dangerous.
That was a stressful trip. I am stressed.
So, I only knock once. Then I open the door, see Casey still getting’ outa his chair, and say to him, “Casey.”
“I… I can explain,” he says, but his face says he can’t, so I shoot him before he can bullshit me. His head pops like a soda can that somebody shook up and dropped.
I turn around and hear one of the civvies, actually a soldier I guess, since he’s pointing a gun at me, say, “We’re sick of the Family’s shit.”
I see that they’re all pointing guns at me and frown. I musta underestimated how angry they was.
Here’s the thing about Jersey City that some folks forget.
Jersey City folks, they’re used to some gunfire ruining a nice, quiet evening.
Jersey City zombies, well, they ain’t so kind.
There’s a reason my gun’s got a silencer. It’s not that whisper-quiet pchew, pchew bullshit you’d get in the movies, but it’s a damn sight more quiet than, say, a bunch of pissed-off civvies with poorly-maintained firearms.
I duck ’round the corner into Casey’s place when they start unloading. I ain’t gonna lie, being outgunned by just about anybody is pretty scary, and I’m a little scared as I hunker down behind Casey’s davenport. But I got two things going for me.
One, the mob’s more scared than I am, so they hesitate rather than rushing me.
Two, guns without silencers are loud as balls.
“Why don’t you come on out, Block?” It’s the soldier again. Gotta be the leader. “Stop hiding and face death like a man.”
I spot the fire escape outside of the bedroom window, a room and a half away. I’ll never make it with them watching.
Then the zombies start breaking down the door downstairs.
The civvies panic. I make a break for it.
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.