It was an anonymous package. Those always raised suspicions. The museum’s security had gone over it several times, and it had been run through all sorts of tests before it landed on the assistant curator’s desk. Amanda came back from Starbucks to find it waiting there, illuminated under the wan light of the lamp that always seemed a little too dim for her tastes. Her requests for stronger lighting continued to fall on deaf ears. She shook her head, put her coffee aside, and turned the package to face her.
Even at that small touch, a chill ran up Amanda’s arm and down her spine. Her hand snapped back from the plain brown wrapping of its own accord. Her mind scrambled for a rational explanation. She stepped away from her desk and towards the thermostat. She found the temperature the same as when she had left.
Slowly, Amanda turned to look at the package. It had not moved, of course, but the chill found her again. Her shaking hand reached out for her coffee, but moved towards the package instead. It took a moment of intense focus for her to pick up the paper cup instead of touching the string tied around the delivery.
It took Amanda a moment to decide on a course of action. She went to the curator’s desk, near her own, and picked up the Rolodex. Frantically, she paged through the notecards, finally finding the right one. Doctor Gibbons often called upon the person in question to discuss more esoteric or obscure fines, always out of the office, always off the record. She didn’t know what else to do, other than obey her lizard-brain instinct to run or the voice telling her to open the package. She shook her head, and used her free hand to pick up the phone.
Amanda drew in a sharp breath. Her hand seized just above the receiver for the phone. She looked up at her desk, at the package under the lamp. Without taking her eyes from it, she picked up the card from the Rolodex, backed away towards the door, and picked up her coat from its hook. She was out the door as quickly as possible, draining the cup in her shaking hand. She tossed it into a garbage can near the exit and looked down at the car. She walked as fast as she was able. The address was a dozen blocks away, but her long legs ate up the distance quickly. She was sweating and her breath was short as she headed up the stairs.
“How did it follow me?”
As if in response, the door opened in front of her. She was greeted by a man slightly taller than her, with short stylish hair graying at the roots, dressed in a bathrobe and holding a mug of what smelled like tea.
“Um. Can I help you?”
“Yes. I think so. I’m the assistant curator at-”
Amanda grabbed hold of her head with both hands and gritted her teeth in pain. The man put his tea aside and put a gentle hand on Amanda’s shoulder. Only slightly aware of what was happening, she let the man lead her into his office. She was eased into a couch or chair. An indeterminate amount of time passed, and Amanda felt her head pounding in an incredibly uncomfortable fashion. Something warm and aromatic was waved under her nose.
“Here. Drink this.”
It took an obscene amount of effort for her to put the mug to her lips and tilt her head so the liquid flowed into her mouth and down her throat. A hand that was not hers eased the mug away from her before she started to choke. The warmth of the tea washed down through the core of her being and the throbbing behind her eyes faded to a dull, distant ache. The voice with its demand began to echo deeper in her mind, still present but nowhere near as overwhelming.
That was when Amanda started crying.
The man took the mug away and returned with a box of tissues. Amanda wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She was horrified when the tissue came away stained red with blood.
“What is happening to me? I don’t understand.”
“You must be Amanda. Doctor Gibbons has mentioned you several times when we’ve had lunch together. Do you know who I am?”
She shook her head. “I know your name. You’re Nathan Deacon. You’re an archaeologist. That’s what the card in Doctor Gibbons’ Rolodex says.”
“He’s a good and private man. He hasn’t mentioned my falling-out with the University administration or how long I’ve been looking for another position. I had to sell my car and house, making sure I have the money to fly to digs and locations. Oh, and pay for this.” He gestured at the somewhat run-down office and the basket of blankets on one side of the futon, topped by a rumpled pillow. “The price I pay for being a ‘crackpot’.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
Deacon opened a small first-aid kit, removed a penlight, and used it to study Amanda’s eyes. “When did the voices begin?”
Amanda blinked. “How did you-”
“I’ve seen this before. A former colleague of mine came across an artifact that he claims filled his head with voices. He had nosebleeds and migraines for two weeks solid before he eventually wandered, delirious and screaming, into traffic. City bus hit him. There wasn’t much left.”
Amanda shivered. “That’s terrible. What was the artifact?”
“It was part of an ancient cult.” Deacon stood and walked to step behind a privacy screen set up in a corner of the office near the wardrobe. “They believed that god-like beings were angry with the course of human history and the species’ impact on the planet, and were praying for what they describe as ‘a great cleansing’ to wipe out humanity and let the planet heal itself.”
“Almost every culture has an end-of-the-world scenario.” Amanda felt her mind returning to normal. “We’ve had artifacts from those sorts of things before. This is the first time I’ve had this sort of reaction to such a thing. I mean… voices in my head…”
“It’s disconcerting. I know. I’ve been researching the cult for years.” Deacon reappeared in a rumpled button-down shirt, jeans with a hole at his right knee, and a leather jacket he was shrugging into, an item with quite a few zippered and snap-closure pockets. “Like I said – ‘crackpot’ in the eyes of the university administration.” He handed her a handkerchief. “For your nose.”
“Thank you.” She dabbed at her nostrils. They were clear, for now. “You say your friend…”
He held up his hands. “Don’t panic. The tea I blended works as a stopgap, but we need to deal with the source. We need to destroy the artifact, whatever it is.”
“How? This all started when I touched the package. Just the package.” She looked up at him. “How do we do this?”
Deacon smiled, and offered her his hand. “Trust me.”
They walked back to the museum. Along the way, Amanda felt the voice beginning to get stronger. She told Deacon about what it was saying, how it sounded, and the nature of the pain it caused. The older man nodded as they walked, holding the door open for her and following her through the building back into the offices.
To Amanda, the inner office she shared with Gibbons seemed darker. The light on her desk was a single, weak source of resistance to the encroaching gloom.
“What do we do now?”
She looked to Deacon in order to get her answer, but she saw the man was pulling on a pair of white gloves, with circles and odd symbols embroidered into their backs. He reached into another pocket and handed her a small, crystal vial.
“Repeat after me.” Deacon then said a short phrase in a language Amanda didn’t recognize, but she sounded out the words as best as she was able.
“Good.” He pulled the stopper from the vial and handed it to her “Drip some of the tonic onto my gloves, repeating the phrase as you do it.”
Amanda didn’t say or do anything for moment, then obeyed. Deacon held out his hands, palms up first, then turning them over and holding them under the drops before he nodded.
“Thank you. How do you feel?”
“My head hurts. It still is telling me to open it.”
Deacon knelt by the desk, drawing a circle with a piece of chalk. He gestured for Amanda to approach.
“I want you to put your hands near the circle. Please think about the world you know. Family, friends, good things, bad things. The entirety of the human experience. Fix the image of humanity in your mind. Do NOT break the circle. This is not going to be pleasant.”
Amanda nodded, sitting cross-legged near the chalk and leaning out to lay her hands near it. A low moan began in her mind, and she ground her teeth together, careful not to move. Deacon reached to the desk, pulling the string loose and unwrapping the brown paper. He took a sharp breath, and gently opened the wooden box. The moan became a howl, and Amanda winced.
“What are you thinking about, Amanda?”
“Picnics with my family. A really nice date I had with James.” She winced again. “Breaking up with James. Spending New Years’ alone. Spending New Years’ in the club…”
“Keep going.” Deacon removed the artifact. It was a small stone statue. Amanda couldn’t tell if it was a bust or a full figure, but it was a mass of appendages that were not remotely human, eyes and beaks in odd places. The whole thing turned Amanda’s stomach. But she kept speaking as things came into her mind.
“Getting sideswiped by a bike messenger. Walking with people to protest police corruption after Ferguson. Dropping that vase that I had just dated back to the 3rd century…”
Deacon placed the statue in the middle of the circle. Immediately, the shadows seemed to deepen even further around Amanda. She shrieked, and for a moment, her mind went entirely blank, save for a oily, ineffable feeling of what could only be described as a cold, unfeeling, empty void…
Deacon’s voice felt like a whipcrack. She repeated herself, her voice rising, adding memories from her childhood and things she hoped for, opening her eyes to see Deacon raising a claw hammer. The statue had begun to glow, emitting seething violet light from somewhere within it. Her eyes widened but, in spite of her fear, did not stop talking.
The archaeologist brought the hammer down hard on the statue. It shattered into stone shards that flew throughout the office, sizzling and spitting as they dissolved. The shadow of the creature rose over the humans, violet points of light reaching for Amanda. Deacon quickly pulled out a handkerchief embroidered with a design similar to those on the back of his gloves. After applying some tonic, he dropped it into the circle on top of something Amanda couldn’t see.
The shadows and noise immediately ceased. Deacon knelt, gathering up the cloth in his hands.
“What was that?”
“An idol to a being that pre-dates mankind and was worshipped by that cult I mentioned. This is a drop of its blood.”
“What?” Amanda blinked at Deacon as he removed his gloves, which were still around the cloth. “That thing was real?”
“Not was, is. And it’s looking for for a way into our world to destroy the humanity it sees as a plague.”
Amanda felt another chill slide through her body. “It would have used me.”
“Yes. But now we have its blood.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you saying ‘if it bleeds, we can kill it’?”
Nate Deacon shrugged. “I’ve seen movies before. But yes. We can, in fact, kill this thing.”
“I really appreciate you doing this, padre.”
Father Pryce still looked a bit skeptical. He shook the offered hand, for certain, and the money Timothy had given him was a welcome contribution to the church. Still, it was something Pryce had never done before. Tim handed the priest a case containing a syringe, shrugging out of his coat once Pryce took it. As the priest lifted the device, the man in the casket rolled up his left sleeve and turned his arm over. Shaking his head, Pryce watched as Timothy prodded the inner surface of his arm, up by his elbow, and his finger stopped on a prominent vein.
“You know I’m not a doctor or a nurse, Timothy.”
“I’ve had training, and I can walk you through it. Just place the tip of the needle just under my finger.”
Pryce obeyed. “Like this?”
Timothy nodded. “Good. Now, tell me there will be a slight pinch, and gently apply pressure with the needle, without pressing the plunger.”
“Um. There will be a slight pinch.”
Timothy chuckled. “Great bedside manner, Father.” He didn’t wince when the needle pierced his skin, but nodded after a moment. “Okay. It’s in. Push the plunger.”
The translucent, green fluid disappeared down the needle as Pryce pressed the plunger. Once it was gone, Timothy talked him through removing the needle and applying a bandage. He rolled his sleeve back down and put his jacket back on. He relaxed, laying back in the casket, his eyelids already heavy. Pryce gently closed the casket, turned to his pulpit, and went over his notes and words.
Family walked in, paying the respects. Friends kept towards the back. Finally, three men entered. Two were very tall and broad, not removing their sunglasses as they flanked the shorter, older man in the middle. The old man smiled beatifically at Father Pryce.
“I understand that the deceased met with a very violent end,” the newcomer said.
“That’s right,” Father Pryce replied.
“May I see him?”
The priest blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Got a hearin’ problem, padre?” This came from one of the older man’s… well, “goons” was the word that came to Father Pryce’s mind.
“Do you know who this is?” The other one took a step towards him. The old man held up his hand.
“I’m Antonio Firenze. This man was one of my employees. He also was endebted to me. I have encountered situations where people in Timothy’s position have done elaborate things to avoid my ire. I can make a significant donation to your church if you just open the casket for a moment. I would rather not make things uncomfortable on the off chance you make the other choice.”
Father Pryce swallowed. He did, indeed, know who Antonio Firenze happened to be. He looked out over the family and friends in the pews, mostly talking to one another and listening to the organist, then turned towards the casket, blocking the view from the pews to the sanctuary. He gently lifted the lid of the casket, turning slightly to let Antonio approach.
“Ah. There you are, Timmy.”
Timothy was completely still, and unnaturally pale. There was an odd, jagged wound on his forehead, over his left eye, stitched shut with what looked to be a fair degree of difficulty. Father Pryce swallowed.
“The undertaker tried to make him presentable. When I showed his mother, she asked for a closed casket.”
“Hmm. I can see why.” Antonio leaned down and pushed on Timothy’s shoulder. When there was no response, he did it again. Finally, after a moment, he reached back and slapped Timothy across the face. Timothy didn’t move, but revealed some blood and gore spattered on the pillow holding his head. The goons stepped back.
“So. He does seem dead.” Pryce lowered the lid as Antonio reached into his suit coat for his handkerchief and wiped his hands. “I apologize, Father. Thank you for indulging me.”
The men retreated from the altar, and Father Pryce got the service going in short order after that. The pallbearers took the casket out of the church and into the hearse. The procession to the graveyard was slow, often interrupted by cross traffic, and it was late afternoon by the time Father Pryce supervised the lowering of the casket into Timothy’s grave, with Antonio Firenze and his goons looking on.
Following the service, Pryce retired to his rooms in the rectory. It was the dead of night, half past midnight, when he took Timothy’s cellular phone out of his desk and used an application to summon a car. He wasn’t entirely sure how it worked, only that there would be no record of his phone or the land line from the rectory calling a taxi service.
From the back of the car, Pryce kept glancing over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed before the car left him at the gate. The grave was far back from the road, and the earth was fresh. Pryce left the car, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and picked up one of the shovels the groundskeeper had left behind. It was long, grueling work, and he still was on the lookout for anyone approaching. But, knowing what was at stake, he persevered, until his shovel hit wood.
He placed the shove out of the grave and opened it. Timothy removed his oxygen mask and smiled, taking the hand offered to help him out of the casket. He removed the makeup from his head and tossed it into the casket. Pryce did the same with Timothy’s phone. Together, they re-filled the grave.
“Will you be all right?”
Timothy walked with Pryce towards the gate. “Yeah. I have a locker at the train station with a change of clothes, some cash, and documentation. The Feds will be contacted once I’m safely away. What about you?”
Pryce shrugged. “Public transit. I don’t mind riding the bus home.”
They shook hands, and Timothy walked away into the night.
For the benefit of my new flatmates, here are some tips on living with a writer!
Courtesy Floating Robes
One of the most popular posts ever over at terribleminds is this one, entitled “Beware of Writer.” He also penned a sequel that’s just as worthwhile to read. But let’s say you’ve ignored his advice. You’re going to fly in the face of common sense and good taste and actually shack up with one of us crackpot writer-types, in spite of the tiny hurricanes of impotent rage and the nigh-constant smell of booze. Here’s a couple things to keep in mind that may help you keep from running screaming into the night.
Writers are Finicky Bitches
In addition to being very easily distracted (if you didn’t know, we are), writers can get new ideas all the time, at the drop of a hat. It’s not uncommon for a writer to have a few projects at work at any given time. Let’s say our subject is working on a novel and some poetry, and all of a sudden gets an idea for a new tv series about puppet detectives. It’s not enough for us to be distracted by video games or movies or pet antics or offspring or bright flashing lights or loud noises. No no, we need to distract ourselves on top of all of that.
Writers either drift in a slight miasma of barely cognizant perceptions as they indulge in their distractions, or they’re frustrated by efforts to reassert their concentration on something they’re righting. It can make a writer seem bipolar. And if they really are bipolar, woo boy you talk about fun times!1
Surviving this as an outsider requires a metric fuckton of patience. Either you will be asked to participate in some sort of odd habit, or you will be all but ignored as something new distracts the writer. You can go along with it or rail against it, but the important thing is to remind the writer that they should, at some point, write. Yes, you may get bitten over it. That’s what the rolled-up newspaper is for. Aim for the nose.
Writers are Masters (and Mistresses) of Excuses
You’re going to catch a writer not writing. This can be like catching a teenager with their pants down and making them explain the nature of the self-examination they seem to be enjoying. You just need to keep in mind that procrastination is perfectly natural and lots of writers do it. There are even some writers who encourage other writers to procrastinate.
Before I stretch that metaphor any more uncomfortably, the important thing to note is that writers will tell you all manner of tall tales in an effort to avoid your scrutiny. Especially if said writer’s bailiwick is fiction. I mean, come on, these people lie for a living. Or at least as a primary hobby. Of course they’re going to tell you space monkeys invaded in the middle of the night and that’s why the lawn hasn’t been mowed or the dishes remain unwashed. Damn dirty space simians!2
Just as writers need and, if they’re responsible and good, want to be told when something they write doesn’t quite work, writers also need to occasionally be called on their bullshit. “Space monkeys? I don’t see any poo on the walls other than your own. It’s time to shut off the Internet and make some more of that word magic happen, pooplord.” Your exact wording may vary, but you get the idea.
Writers Do, In Fact, Want to Write
So let’s say you’re keeping a writer focused on the now. You’re getting them to help out around the house. They’re watching the kids. They’re cooking meals. They’re renovating your siding and keeping you in whatever it is you like to do when you’re not working. Guess what they’re not doing?
If you guessed “writing”, you just won a bigass shiny No-Prize! Congrats!3
Take a look at any writer pontificating on the need to write, and you’ll see something emerge. There’s definitely a deep-seated compulsion there. On top of any other madness or psychosis, a writer needs to write. Yes, the writer may procrastinate, putter around, put off writing because writing can suck a big fat one from time to time, but at the end of the day, writing is at the core of who that person is, otherwise – Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? – they wouldn’t be a writer.
So do them and yourself a favor. Take the kids for an hour. Put the video game down yourself. Mow the lawn or wash a few dishes. Just give them space, and a little bit of time. If it’s been a while since they’ve written, you bet your ass words will happen while you’re tending to chores.
Or you could not, and they’ll resent you in a deeply personal way. Your call.
I think this may be the biggest key to surviving life with a writer. Giving a little measure of time to write, moreso than calling them on excuses or distractions, relieves the pressure in their minds and helps them get closer to their goals. And the writer will love you for it.
1 I can’t say anybody acted all that surprised when I was diagnosed as bipolar. There was plenty of relief that legitimate psychosis wasn’t involved, though. Not that the doctors could detect, at least. Suckers.
2 They’re rude as hell, too. Coming in the middle of the evening and keeping me from finishing a blog post with their howling and poop-slinging and I was researching League of Legends champion builds and got distracted from finishing this last night I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry please don’t bap me with the newspaper again.
3 Actual contents of No-Prize may vary, from “absolutely nothing” to “sweet fuck-all.”
So Chuck Wendig coined the phrase Spammerpunk and I thought I’d get down on that.
Greetings from another human. I am human and interested in human things. Your planet which you call Earth has many resources important to humans. An offer generous to humans can be made. Many lucrative offers to other humans have provided human familial units with much material wealth for reasonable replacement demands. Many benefits material wealth can be provided unto your fleshy human carapace especially when alternative is complete annihilation of species. Compliance is preferable to resistance. Please to be considering generous offer.
For this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge over at Terribleminds, Picking Uncommon Apples, the random number gods bestowed upon me 28, 18, and 31. Here’s what came out of those choices!
Ravenna slipped through the opened grate with the sort of smooth ease that only comes from years of practice. She heard the soft splashing behind her and closed her eyes for a moment. After a quick check of her surroundings, she turned and knelt by the hole in the floor, reaching down to take the stretching hand. As soon as he could, Barnabus set his other hand on the side of the hole to pull himself up, though he still needed Ravenna’s help. She suspected that, unlike her, he had not spent his childhood running through the forest, climbing trees and rocks, and learning how to hide.
“My apologies,” Barnabus said quietly, trying to kick some of the moisture off of his boots. “I misjudged the height of the run-off tunnel.” The tall, gangly man looked somewhat uncomfortable in the trousers and vest, since Ravenna had insisted his normal attire, a colorful robe decorated with the moon and stars, would be impractical.
Ravenna held a gloved finger to her lips, then took another look around. Coming up in the castle’s dungeon was risky, given that it was patrolled by guards and could contain all sorts of means to betray their position and purpose. However, she had also chosen to come at night. There was soft snoring from a nearby cell, but otherwise no sound. The stone corridor was lit by a torch on either end, and to her left, she saw the stairs spiraling up.
“Come on,” she whispered, walking forward in a deliberately cautious fashion. She glanced over her shoulder as they approached the stairs. Barnabus, for his part, was trying to do the same, his dark eyes wide. He took a few steps closer to Ravenna, making full use of his long legs.
“Are we sure he wouldn’t be down here?”
Ravenna shook her head. “He would have been if that serpent hadn’t slowed us down. Lord Lamborne’s auction has already begun. He’ll be in the grand feasting hall.” Ravenna was going to say more, but she heard a scuff of boots on stone above them. She held up her hand towards Barnabus, then waved him towards the inner wall. The stairwell had no alcoves or decorations, no means to hide. Ravenna set her teeth and braced herself, crouching down even further.
As soon as the slick, polished boots of one of Lamborne’s guards came into view, Ravenna seized it with both hands and pulled as hard as she could. The man, already heading down the stairs, was taken completely by surprise by the loss of balance, and toppled past Ravenna and Barnabus. Both of the intruders looked down at the guard’s crumpled form, and after a moment of ensuring he was not rising to follow, returned to moving up the stairs. Ravenna reached for one of the daggers sheathed at the small of her back, and Barnabus reached up to grab her wrist.
“No killing,” he murmured. “The queen was quite clear.”
“Who said anything about killing?” Ravenna flashed Barnabus a dangerous grin and turned back to the opening into the hall ahead. The small dagger whispered free of its sheath. Another guard was walking on the opposite side of the hall, in their direction. Ravenna began to bounce a bit, timing the steps of the guard, and held out her free hand to Barnabus.
Barnabus nodded, folding himself into the wall as best he could. Ravenna sped from the opening to the stairwell, her braid of long red hair coming loose as her boots hit stone. With liquid grace, she seized the guard from behind, the dagger rising to his throat. After a brief moment, Ravenna released him, and then clubbed him with the hilt of the dagger. The guard slumped to the ground.
“The feasting hall has two guards at the door and two walking the perimeter,” she told Barnabus as she sheathed her weapon. “But nothing on the balcony level.”
“Perfect.” Barnabus rested his hands on the pouches hanging from the belt around his waist. “Can we still get there from the wall?”
“If we’re careful and quiet.” She looked at him. “You’re not as clumsy as I thought you’d be.”
He shrugged. “Unlike some others of my profession, I do like to get out and enjoy fresh air now and again.”
With a wry smile, Ravenna lead the way from the hall and along the wall that dominated the outer perimeter of the keep. The feasting hall was set near the southwest corner, and its interior was alight and full of noise. Ravenna and Barnabus avoided the guards on patrol and, with the help of Ravenna’s grappling hook and sturdy rope, scaled the wall to slip in through a window on the second story. The feasting hall’s interior had small balconies on the longer walls, and while there were stairs up at either end, all of the activity was on the floor below.
“There’s Crown Prince Rudolph,” Ravenna whispered, pointing towards the dias at the back of the hall where the high table was set. “Do you have your distraction ready?”
“Yes,” Barnabus told her, reaching into one of his pouches. He produced a small, mottled orb, gray with black spots. “Something strong, yet subtle.”
She blinked at it. “That tiny thing? I thought you were a wizard. You said you’d distract the crowd – can’t you do it with fire or thunder or something?”
Barnabus looked annoyed. “I can, but I’d rather not cook us along with our reward. This, on the other hand?”
He tossed the orb into the crowd. On impact, there was a burst of light and smoke, and out of the sudden fog flew a murder of crows, cawing and flapping at the startled nobles. They clamored and ran for the exits. Barnabus winked at Ravenna.
“The Crow Egg,” he told her. “A specialty of mine.”
“Okay, wizard,” she replied with a grin, “color me impressed. Now, let’s get the Crown Prince and get out of here.”
I have witnessed the end of humanity.
I don’t know how any rational human being could have a different thought at the sight of people lined up outside of the ostentatious glass-walled store. For release after release, I watched them gather in excited little clumps, like concert-goers or the anticipatory audience of a brand new film, but this was for a piece of technology. These are over-priced, gaudy, soulless devices that wrap their purpose in distraction and push their purchases as hard as any pimp or corner dealer, and people are just sucking them up.
They’re getting more than they anticipated this time around.
I’m sitting in a mass-market coffee shop across the street from one of these peddlers of pointless pretentiousness. It sounds funny to say it that way, considering this venue is no better, but it has the best view for what’s to come. My cup of improperly brewed, thoroughly burnt swill sits in front of me, untouched. It is the rent I have paid for my seat; I am under no obligation to actually put the black sludge in my body. I have fresh beans, filtered water, and a flame-warmed kettle back home. I am here for the sights, not the fare.
The glass-walled store finally opens its doors. The first patrons, camped since the night before, lead the assembled in a cheer and saunter through the large glass doors. I check my pocket-watch. It is a simple mental calculation, provided all of my measurements and equations were correct. The patrons start streaming out as others stream in, holding their new prizes high. I watch as one of the happy new owners unwraps the plastic sealant, dives into the ostentatious over-designed packaging, and touches the object of his desire for the first time. It’s time for me to go.
I walk down the city streets, head into the public transit stop, and ride to my neighborhood. The mail slot in the door to my rented basement is stuffed with mail I continue to ignore. My rent, utility bills, and other angry correspondence is not going to matter in – I check my watch – a matter of minutes. All over the country, people are opening up their new devices and letting their skin come into contact with the aluminum. I turn on my radio and I wait, looking over my scattered notes and my practice at writing and translating several Chinese dialects.
My understanding and pronunciation of Mandarin were passable at least, and better than my Wu or Xiang, and clear communication had been a concern. Stowing away with international freight is not difficult if you know where to go and to whom one needs to speak. That necessity to speak is significantly more difficult, however, when it must happen outside of one’s native tongue. With the right words, however, you can convey meaning, especially with clear gestures and items in hand. I bartered more than bought, acquiring what I could in the wild or out of public sight, making trades in disparate sections to avoid detection. Even cash can be traced, if one is clever enough.
I open a can of beans from the stacks towards the back of the basement and spoon myself a mouthful. I am disinclined to go through the process of warming them up, so occupied are my thoughts with what is to come. I have anticipated outcomes, to be certain; one does not embark upon a plan such as this without some proper forethought. It is simply a matter of discovering which of the various sequences of events will play out. I have my hopes, to be certain, but there is a certain thrill in the unknown.
The Emergency Broadcast System breaks up the flow of the station to which I was listening. It is a general message: remain in your homes, an unknown sickness is manifesting, stay calm, and so on. I change stations to find live news. I come across the right position on the dial just as a crackling voice talks about people acting irrational, even ravenous, clutching new phones as they fended off other owners, attacked those they saw who were not owners of new phones, even using the devices as makeshift bludgeons. I check the time again. My estimation had only been off by a matter of an hour. Still, it had worked out that the effects were being felt on one coast while on the other, people were still in line, or opening up deliveries from their phone companies, or otherwise laying hands on the new phones for the first time.
I had been tempted, while in China, to limit myself merely to one manufacturer. While this day and its release would have the greatest immediate impact, I did not wish to have the outcome thwarted by a boycott or a mandate to not purchase that manufacturer’s goods. I had stayed overseas longer than I would have liked, risking detection and incarceration, but hearing the results, I knew I had made the right decision. Even if they turned away from the newest devices, purchases of substitutes would yield similar, if not identical, results.
Now came the question. Do I transmit my message now, or see if some other group claims responsibility? There were no shortage of religious fanatics who will feel envious they did not implement this solutions. But I have no delusions of invisible father figures whose approval I must attain for eternal bliss. My goals are more pure.
I have revealed the nature of humanity, petty and cruel and self-serving, and brought it into glaring relief for all to see through the means of the 21st century’s most prized possessions.
If you are reading this, you know the answer to that final question. You now know what I did, how I did it, and why I did it.
I do not imagine you will be thanking me, or grateful for the lesson.
But for what it’s worth: you, too, are witnessing the end of humanity.
For the final portion of this rather epic Flash Fiction Challenge Chuck Wendig has been running, I chose to finish the intriguing tale Velocity, started by Mark Gardner and continued by LC Finney. I hope they, and you, enjoy how I finish the story.
Part 1 (by Mark Gardner)
I rush to you with my eyes open wide. I’ve protected you for years, but now you’re my undoing.
I gaze at the weapon clutched in my hand. My knuckles white with exertion. I cling to what’s familiar, but it mocks me. A tool for keeping the peace used in such a profane manner.
I tried to stop them, but I wasn’t good enough. I did my duty with honor.
“Velocity two meters per second squared. Dispatching rescue drone.”
I snort at my ‘assistant.’ Or as much of a snort you can muster while falling. I’m reminded of a quip my partner said once: When trouble breaks out, the assistants break down. I kept up with all the maintenance, followed all the procedures. When the damn thing broke, I requisitioned a replacement.
I’d seen old videos of skydivers. They fall spread-eagle for maximum drag, but I’ve already reached terminal velocity. The problem is, they had a parachute. It’s been said, It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end. It’s amazing what trivialities the mind conjures in a situation like this.
“Rescue drone deployed. Calculating time until intercept.”
It’s amazing I can hear the thing with the wind rushing over me. The sound is intense. If it weren’t for my cochlear implant, I’d never know if help was on the way. The implant inputs audio directly into my auditory cortex and detects the vibrations of the tympanic membrane in my ear when I speak.
“Drone inbound. Estimated time until arrival, thirty-seven seconds.”
“Assistant.” I said. “Access geolocation. Estimate time until impact.”
I hear the beep. “Five thousand nine hundred eighty seven feet until impact. Estimated time, thirty-three seconds.”
I feel tears briefly – the wind steals them and their meaning from me. The sky is so clear, I can see for miles and miles. Below, the patchwork of ground creates a mosaic. It would be beautiful if it didn’t mean my death.
Resigned to my fate, I holster my weapon. I suspect if the wind wasn’t biting my clothing, I might try to straighten my tie and jacket. If I have to be a corpse, I’d prefer to be a handsome corpse.
“Impact immanent. Reduce speed immediately.”
No shit. I think as I see less and less of the mosaic below. I squeeze my eyes and think about what led me here.
Part 2 (by LC Feeney)
Gemma. Well, to be fair, not Gemma herself, but a need to impress her.
I’d always wanted to be special, to make something of myself. I’d lapped up all the propaganda, the adventure and romance they promised, the whole “be part of something bigger, something important” crap the recruiters feed you. When I’d signed up, I’d envisioned myself as something of a white knight, a superhero, a great defender of the clueless, unwashed masses. I’d risen through the ranks pretty quickly, and when I met Gemma, it seemed like a sign from God that I was on the right track, that we were meant to be. She was perfect in every way and I was determined to be worthy of her attention, her affection.
I focused on the memory of our last encounter, determined that my dying thoughts would be of her. Her short, coppery hair had fallen into her eyes, like it always did when she leaned down to kiss me, and she’d tasted of coconut curry and good beer from our supper. Our lovemaking had been slow, comfortable, familiar, and she had snuggled down into the crook of my arm afterward, so small and pale and smooth. I’d tried not to wake her as I’d gathered my gear and dressed in the dark, but she’d thrown on my carelessly discarded shirt from the day before and walked me to the door. She always did that, wearing my shirts around the house when I was away. She said she could smell me when she wore them, and it kept her from being lonely.
What would I have done differently, if I’d known that that would be the last time I’d ever touch her, ever kiss her? Would I have held her in my arms a little longer, kissed her a little more slowly, looked more deeply into her eyes as I said my goodbyes? Would I have tried to tell her how much I love her, or how my life had changed for the better since I’d met her? Would I have left her with some pithy, memorable line that she could recite, through tears, at my memorial service or have engraved on my headstone? Or would I have just driven away, like I had done so many times before, so as not to give her any unnecessary grief?
How much time did I have left? Could I send her a message?
“Assistant, contact Gemma,” I shouted, suddenly desperate to connect with her one last time.
An eternity of waiting, then a reply. “Gemma is unavailable. Would you like to leave a message?”
“No.” The tears sprang to my eyes again. It was a stupid, selfish idea anyway. She didn’t need to hear me die. It was better this way. At least, for her.
I willed my breathing to slow and my mind to focus on Gemma again, standing in the doorway wrapped in my dress shirt, blowing me kisses and waving as I pulled away from the curb.
My salary isn’t great. I’d only ever been able to afford a landcar for personal use. Not one of the fancy aircars that the rich or influential often get their hands on, making low flights across vast expanses of home on leisurely drives.
As the ground speeds towards me, the sun reflects off of the windscreen of one such aircar. I can’t tell how far up it might be, but from the way its moving, it isn’t on ground level.
And that gives me an idea.
My path to the aircraft from which I’d made my ill-advised exist hadn’t been a linear one. The operation, as laid out for me, involved infiltrating the hideout and gathering intel to feed back to my partner, who would in turn encrypt and burst-transmit it to HQ for analysis. We wanted to surprise these so-called ‘freedom fighters’, but one of them took a wrong turn towards the bathroom and found me in the tiny kitchen’s dumbwaiter. I’d managed to shoot three of them before getting shoved out the door. Not my proudest moment – dead guys can’t tell us where they buy their biowarheads.
I have about twenty seconds. I draw my weapon again, and dig around in one of the pouches on my belt, normally concealed by my suit’s jacket. The grappling equipment disables the weapon’s main functions and has a variety of attachment options, including a rather powerful rare-earth magnet. If that aircar isn’t a fancy carbon-fiber racing model – and judging by its leisurely pace, I’d say it isn’t – I can latch onto it. The grappler can reel me in, and I can get the driver to put me down on the ground safely, rather than letting me splatter.
That is, of course, provided the whiplash from the change in my velocity doesn’t break my neck or my spine.
It takes me five seconds to attach the grappler, another two to lock in the magnet, one more to enable the auto-reel. I spread my arms again to possibly by a couple of seconds back. The aircar is doing slow, lazy loops over the countryside. Someone’s sightseeing or taking photos. That makes my job easier, but then I get close enough to see just how far up they are.
Just a couple hundred feet.
This is going to be close.
“Warning. Impact in ten seconds.”
“Thanks for nothing,” I tell the assistant.
The grappler’s got about twenty meters of braided monofilament line in its spool. I try to eyeball the distance, the ways in which aircar is moving, and how many seconds I have left. I hold my breath, blink away tears, and wait an agonizing three seconds.
The aircar passes under me at the right angle. I pull the trigger.
I don’t remember the next second. Every goes violently black.
I come to gripping the gun as it reels me in. The driver of the aircar is turned halfway around, eyes as big as satellite dishes.
I show my badge.
“Got a phone?”
Getting back to the normal Flash Fiction feature here at Blue Ink Alchemy, I’m jumping into the Terribleminds challenge of Continuing The Tale, Part Two. I decided to follow up on the excellent start provided by Lisa Shininger, which you can see the original containing post here. Enjoy!
Part 1, by Lisa:
Fee didn’t recognize the voice at the door, but she knew the face when she looked through the peephole. Danny Vinzo was a pinch-faced boy with piggy eyes and a perpetual sneer. A bully from birth.
“You in there, Alou?” Danny demanded, banging again. “I texted an hour ago. We need more.”
“He went out. Back soon, I’m sure,” Fee told him.
She couldn’t turn him away. Danny was a regular. So she pasted on a welcoming smile and opened the door. It wasn’t hard to pretend. She had plenty of practice. Pleasant was a good distraction, one way or another.
Danny shoved past her and stomped down the hall like a man who weighed three times as much. Behind him came another boy. Solid where Danny was reedy, this one had skin like stucco and a suspicious look he seemed to aim everywhere at once.
“Sure, come in,” she said to their backs.
At least her kitchen always cheered her up, no matter what or who was in it. Danny heaved himself into a rickety chair, which creaked nervously under him. The other boy hovered near the fridge with his hands clasped behind him. His eyes never stopped moving, measuring everything.
Fee saw him look at her, away, back again. What did he see? Height of the new winter, hot and bright, and here she skulked in long sleeves and skirt. Boys their age always thought she was ancient—harmless—so she played it up. Sugared her voice even more. Asked if they wanted a glass of something. Her hands were starting to shake a bit. Not enough so they would notice, surely. She curled one hand until the knuckles cracked.
With a smile to Danny, she said, “Let me call Alou so you don’t have to wait. He should be back any minute!”
Fee picked up the phone and hurried out of the kitchen. Past the door to the basement and into the living room, she pretended to dial. There was no need. Alou was exactly where she’d put him.
“He’s on his way!” she shouted toward the kitchen. “Five minutes out, tops.”
Everything Fee needed was behind a false stone in the fireplace. She checked to make sure neither boy had followed. Danny wasn’t what anyone would consider the curious type, but his friend…. She jimmied the stone free. Inside the tin box behind it was what she needed, everything arranged just so. Of course it was. How could Alou have found it from the bottom of the stairs where he fell?
It was too bad Danny brought his friend. If not, she might have given him what he wanted, pills from Alou’s personal stash—for a ridiculous price but still low enough to send him away happy.
Fee shivered. She could feel that boy’s eyes staring at her here, rooms away. They were heavy on her covered arms, cool like the gun in her hand.
The house was quiet. So was the neighborhood. Fee couldn’t risk pulling the slide on Alou’s slender little automatic. She didn’t want to spook the boys in her kitchen. She knew Danny didn’t carry heat; he barely had enough scratch to pick up the pills to feed his addiction, let alone scrape up cash for a piece. The other boy was an unknown that Fee didn’t like. The gun was a reassuring weight in her hand, as it had been before.
She replaced the tin box and gently slid the false stone back into place. She winced a bit when stone scraped against stone, but a quick glance over her shoulder told her the boys hadn’t followed her. Was the larger boy behind Danny just a lookout? For what purpose, though? Alou had never double-crossed Danny. Alou had done a lot of things – cheated, lied, stolen, shut off the heat to parts of the house purely out of spite – but he had never handed a customer a raw deal.
Four minutes, now. She had to decide what to do. She had no idea if Danny would take pills from her; Alou had handled all of the business. She knew where everything was, now that she had taken the time and been able to leave her room and the kitchen without danger. She had already lied about Alou’s arrival, she couldn’t now take that back.
The cat wandered into view, curious and cautious, and it gave Fee an idea. She picked up the feline and put it on the bottom step, then gently shooed it towards the top. The cat was a large tabby tom, and he made a bit of a ruckus as he clomped upstairs. Danny didn’t kknow about the cat. For all he knew, it was Fee making her way towards a bedroom.
Fee quietly slipped past the staircase and around through the dining room. The floorboards didn’t creak as she moved, and she hugged the wall as she approached the kitchen. As she had hoped, the sounds of feet up the stairs made the two boys comfortable talking to one another.
“Whatcha think?” Danny was keeping his voice somewhat low.
“Damn shady.” The other boy had a baritone that belied his age. “Ain’t nobody seen or heard from Alou in a long time. Ain’t been around his usual haunts. Girls ain’t heard a peep.”
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s finding a new hookup. Last time he was here, he was talkin’ about getting bent over by his supplier.”
“He would have figured that shit out by now. Alou’s no slouch.” There was the distinctive, ratcheting noise of a revolver being checked.
“Whoa, whoa!” Danny hissed the warning at his friend. “Tre, come on, dude. She’s an old lady.”
“An old lady who’s blowin’ smoke up our asses. Alou owes folks money and if I gotta collect from Grandma, I will.”
Fee swallowed. The automatic suddenly felt very heavy in her hand. Ninety seconds left. Not enough time.
She looked out over the sea, walking next to her husband. The wind was picking up, waves crashing into rocks far below them as they navigated the cliff. She closed her eyes, listening to the white noise, memories drifting through her mind without a care for her current place and time.
“Did I tell you about the war?” Her question broke the long silence they’d been sharing.
“You’ve never been in a war.”
“Not recently, no. This was Korea.”
He blinked at her. “But… you were born in…”
“Yes, I know.” She smiled, holding his hand. “Do you think this life is all we get?”
“I mean, when you look up at the stars, and see into the infinite darkness that surrounds everything we are, and ever were, and ever will be… do you wonder about what we can’t see?”
“Honey, you’re scaring me.”
She squeezed his hand. “I know. I’m sorry. It just always happens this way.”
“What does? I don’t understand.”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve lived. I was a soldier in the Korean War. Before that, I hiding with my family in Poland when the tanks rolled in. I’ve been a slave, and I’ve sold slaves. I’ve explored distant shores, and cowered in fear of invaders. The older I’ve gotten, the more and more I’ve seen into the past.”
He said nothing. She turned to him and smiled.
“I know what you’re thinking. You think I’ve finally lost it. That I really need to be hospitalized until my head’s on straight.”
“I’ve never thought that. I mean, you’re a little odd, to be sure, but that’s what makes you so unique.”
“You’re kind. I know how I sound. I’m sorry I can’t say more innocuous things. But things are just becoming more and more clear.”
“Please stop. Come on. Let’s get you home. I’ll call a doctor…”
“Do you know what I’m afraid of?”
He stopped, and turned to face her. The wind whipped at her hair and she brushed it out of her eyes.
“I’m afraid I’d take you with me.”
“We’ve been married for, what, almost twenty years now? And it’s been lovely. I wouldn’t trade a second of it. You’re a good man. You’ve worked hard to take care of me, of our children. And you’ve never stopped loving me.”
“How could I?” He took both of her hands. “You’re brilliant. You make me laugh. You’re just as beautiful as the day we met. You’re scaring me because I’m afraid of losing you.”
“You won’t. I’ll always have this memory, now. These happy, quiet years with you. It’s something precious I’ll carry into the future. I just don’t want you to be afraid when your time comes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Death isn’t the end, darling. I know this for a fact. I just retain more than most people.” She paused. “I don’t want you to be jealous. It’s not something I chose from the start. But it is my destiny. To rise again, we have to fall.”
He blinked, and she leaned up to kiss him. She knew he’d never understand, but he loved her all the same, and that warmed her heart. After wars and terror and injustice, it was nice to have lived so simple a life. His eyes, full of love and concern, studied hers for a moment, and then he held her hands more tightly and pulled, trying to get her away from the cliff’s edge.
A powerful gust pushed against the couple. It staggered him, causing him to lose his footing. Even as he released one of her hands to steady himself, her feet also slipped. With a slight gasp of surprise, her leg went out from under her and she fell just over the lip of the cliff. Crying out, he grabbed for her, but gravity and momentum were against him, and after a moment, the forces won out over his grip, and she was falling.
On the way down she had flashes of previous moments like this. A fighter jet on fire over Korea. The terror of the camps. Staring down the barrel of a pistol. The sting of the lash. A knife in the back. Betrayal and hatred and duty and tragedy, all flooding against her in a rushing torrent of finality.
When she struck the bottom, there was no pain. She rested in the arms that had been waiting for her, looking upwards, heedless of the broken body she’d be leaving behind. This time the appearance of the shepherd was male, dressed in a dark and immaculate suit, untouched by the wind and the surf. She wrapped her arms around his neck.
“It’s odd,” she remarked.
“What is?” His voice was deep and rich, like a generous fondue pot of warm chocolate.
“Even as I knew I was coming back to you, I never stopped loving my husband.”
“There are all different sorts of love. Your love for your husband, your children’s love for you… ours. Some mortals foolishly try to limit themselves to one. In the short lives you lead, I do not know why one would deny oneself in things like love and joy.”
She shook her head. “Not everyone sees life the way you do.”
“I do have an interesting perspective.” He paused. “Your family – are you concerned?”
“No. He’s a good man. We made contingency plans. They will live on.”
“You’re sweet to ask. People misjudge you. They personify you so grimly. They don’t know how lonely you are.”
He kissed her forehead. “I’ve missed you, my phoenix.”
She smiled and nuzzled closer. “So what happens now? Do you shuffle me off to be reborn again?”
“Not yet. I’ve been waiting years to see you again. But just like how you can’t rush the moments of your life, you can’t rush moments like this, either. Between your fall and your rise there is an infinite number of forevers. Choose one, and let’s share it together.”
The title was generated as part of this week’s Terribleminds challenge.
Bruce hauled himself up the rain-slicked, metal ladder towards the top deck of the trawler Mary of the Magdeline. His poncho flapped in the wind, and he shook his head to keep the rain out of his eyes. He reached the top rung and pushed himself towards the door to the bridge. Gloved hands with quick, practiced motions spun the wheel to open it.
“Cap’n,” Bruce said, shaking off some of the rain water as he reached out to pull the door closed behind him.
“How’s the egghead?”
“I think he’s about done, sir. He’s got to be, he’s been in the aft head since the chop started.”
“He better be done,” Captain Hopkins growled as he wrestled with the wheel. “We’re going to need him.”
“I checked below decks. The team’s ready to go.”
Hopkins shook his head. “I don’t like having those jarheads on my boat, Bruce.”
“What choice do we have, sir? You saw the sonar reads as clearly as I did. This… phenomenon, I think the doc called it… it’s big, and it’s getting closer to the surface. The government…”
“Hang the damn government.”
“See, Cap’n, that’s why nobody likes making small talk with you.”
“Make your point, Bruce.”
“My point, sir, is that we’re neither have the equipment nor manpower to handle this thing ourselves. We’re not part of the government, which I know you prefer, and that means we can operate in international waters without raising a lot of heckles.”
“I’m not an idiot, I know all of that. All I said was I don’t like having these jarheads on my boat. Why, do you?”
“Their sergeant plays a mean hand of poker.”
The first mate crossed his arms. “Yeah, I don’t like this either. The whole thing gives me the creeps. I mean, it’s been a long time since my Navy days, Kevin, but things that big and that deep just don’t exist in nature.”
Kevin nodded. His clear, blue eyes never left the windscreen getting assaulted by rain and hail. His salt and pepper beard crinkled as he scowled. The Mary was an older boat, rusty in places and very friendly to barnacles in others, and keeping her on an even keel in weather like this took strength and awareness. Bruce didn’t actually like talking to his friend at times like this, but in the situation at hand, he had little choice.
“If it’s as big as they’re saying,” Kevin Hopkins finally said, breaking the white noise of the storm and engines, “what’s a platoon of Marines going to do?”
The door to the exterior opened again. The Marine commanding the platoon in question, Lieutenant Diaz, slipped into the cabin.
“Choppy seas, eh, gentlemen?”
Hopkins grunted in reply. Bruce folded his arms and watched Diaz shake off the rain. She was on the shorter side, dressed in dark camouflage BDUs and wearing her sidearm at her hip, a carbine kitted out for special operations slung across her back. Her beret looked crisp thanks to the hood on her poncho.
“We’re almost there,” Bruce offered.
“I had a feeling weather like this wouldn’t slow your crew down. It’s a fine boat with fine men, Captain.”
“Ma’am, it’s always good to see Marines, but i think Cap’n Hopkins is trying to keep us afloat so you can get down to your business once we arrive.”
“I have the boys assembling just below the foredeck now, Mister Kiley. Sergeant Howser will bring them up the moment I give the word.”
The Mary shuddered. Bruce and Diaz flailed for handholds. Hopkins cursed and spun the wheel to reaffirm his grip.
“Chop’s gotten rougher!” Bruce heard the note of nervousness in his friend Kevin’s voice. He turned to see Doctor Roslovich, pulling himself hand over hand along the corridor behind the bridge, approaching the,.
“How’s the accommodations, Doc?” Sometimes, Bruce just couldn’t resist giving someone like Roslovich a hard time.
“Wretched,” said the scientist. “Ideal for all sorts of foul adventure.”
As if on cue, the portable terminal Roslovich had deployed on arrival aboard the Mary pinged, loud and clear over the din outside. The scientist made his way there and tapped some commands into the prompt.
“Sonar readings confirmed! Anomaly is 300 meters off the port bow! It’s surfacing!”
Diaz leaned towards the radio clipped to her shoulder strap, eyes on the storm. “Howser! Port at 300! Hustle!”
Like clockwork, a stream of Marines in ponchos with automatic weapons and rocket launchers appeared on the foredeck. Bruce watched as Howser shouted orders, three Marines took up kneeling positions, and rockets streams into the stormy night.
The light of the rocket’s trails reflected off what seemed to be a solid wall of what appeared to be very, very fine scales.
Bruce, Diaz, and Roslovich looked on without a word. Hopkins reached towards a handle over his head towards the right side of the cabin. It turned a spotlight towards…
Roslovich began screaming. Diaz’s lip quivered, reaching behind her for her primary weapon. Bruce just stared. He stared up at the mass of appendages where a head might be on a creature that made natural sense. Within the quavering, dangling tendrils a pair of glowing yellow points, flickering like dire candles, narrowed at the vessel. A huge tentacle, easily the length of an aircraft carrier, rose out of the water before them, poised.
What can a platoon of Marines do? What can any of us do?
Sent from my iPad
For the Terribleminds challenge 100-Word Stories.
I lean out around the rock outcropping I dragged Riley behind to give us cover. I can’t see the shooters. But gunfire keeps my head down.
“Dave? Are they still shooting?”
“Don’t get shot. It sucks.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Riley coughs. His hands are over his wound. It looks bad.
“Hang in there, Riley. Blackhawk’s coming.”
“We shouldn’t have come here.”
“We had orders.”
“I meant the war.”
I look up. “Yeah. We don’t belong here.”
“I… never told you.”
“Never told me what?”
“Riley? Never told me what?”
I look again.
Riley’s not moving.
The sun was blazing high in the sky, and there were no clouds nearby to get in its way. Traffic was far below the rooftop terrace where he reclined, tropical drink in his hand. He tried to remember a time when he was this relaxed, and he admitted to himself that it had been a very long time since he kicked back like this.
He felt quite fortunate, and not just for the view or the booze. Not everyone was cut out for life in lucha libre, even among the most prestigious families. Yet here he was, reclining under the sun as a direct result of his successes in the ring. There were those who claimed it was a “young man’s game,” but he thought of El Santo and the Blue Demon, who fought well into their 50s and never compromised the quality of their fighting skill or their loyalty to their fans. It was physically demanding entertainment, but it still profitable for everyone involved, and it beat working at a desk five days a week.
“Your pardon, Señor?”
The voice belonged to Carlos, his manager. Rather than responding, he pulled up the bottom of his mask to get the straw between his lips. The icy beverage sloshed in his mouth and down his throat.
“Señor, the time is approaching.”
Behind the black sunglasses, the luchador rolled his eyes.
“Come on, Carlos, can’t you see I’m enjoying one of these junkets for once?”
“This is no laughing matter, Señor. You were challenged to a relevos suicida. El Trueno de Guadalajara has been training non-stop since the challenge, and you are here drinking!”
He had to smile. A relevos suicida was a rare challenge for a luchador. It was a tag team match, with the members of the losing team fighting one another to see who would be unmasked. It was quite a spectacle, and the unmasking could lead to a serious blow for the loser’s career. Carlos was deep into the culture, and deeply feared the shame he would gain by association with an unmasked luchador.
“Do you think I am unfit, Carlos?”
“Am I flabby? Slow? Do I, perhaps, smell of defeat?”
“No, no of course not Señor, I merely…”
“El Trueno de Guadalajara is a good man. A good partner. He’s also younger than I am. He’s less experienced. Of course he has been training like mad. He not only wants to do his share in the ring, he wants to take every precaution against being unmasked. Not to mention the honor he’d gain in unmasking the son of the original Rayo de Baja.”
“Come now, Carlos, have you forgotten? My father first wore these colors when he took the name Rayo de Baja in honor of one of his favorite luchadors, as well as our home. His career has been long and mostly unspotted. I was, and am, proud to wear the mask and carry on the tradition. Yet I am a man. Is a man not allowed to have time to breathe, collect his thoughts, and enjoy the sunshine on a day like today?”
“It is for that reason I ask you to at least warm up, Señor.”
“Do you really think I would dishonor the family traditions in such a way?”
“I simply think you should be cautious.”
“I chose a good partner. I have trained quite extensively myself. The relaxation was soothing my nerves before you began prattling. What more would you ask of me?”
“With your match in two hours? Some stretching, perhaps?”
He lowered his sunglasses to look directly at Carlos.
“Carlos… do you have a cell phone?”
“Give me your phone.”
The manager did so, and Rayo de Baja, Jr dialed in some numbers.
“Hello?” The voice on the other end was gruff but polite.
“Papa, it’s your son.”
“Ah, hello! I did not recognize the number. Isn’t that relevos suicida today?”
“It is, in fact. I’m catching some sunshine to relax beforehand. Like you did before yours in Mexico City, what was it, ten years ago now?”
Rayo de Baja, Sr laughed. “Twelve. And what a match that was! Nearly lost my mask.”
“I remember. Would you blame the booze?”
“No, of course not! I had worthy opponents all down the line. I would never be stupid enough to let something like booze impede my fighting skill.”
“Do you think I would?”
“I’m having a drink here on this rooftop and my manager seems to think it’s a bad idea.”
“…Is this his phone?”
“Give it back to him.”
He did, and watched Carlos’s face as he listened to the elder luchador. He couldn’t hear everything that was said, but he definitely heard his father raise his voice. He took courage whenever he heard it, and he hoped Carlos would too. Or at least get shocked into silence.
“Did you have to do that?”
Rayo looked up. Carlos was off the phone, but still holding it.
“Call my papa, you mean? No, of course not. I know my father well enough. I don’t have to call him before every match.”
“He… asked me if I have no faith in you.”
“I’ve asked you that before as well, Carlos. Sometimes, I’m not sure you listen.”
“Perhaps I don’t always, Señor. I apologize for that.”
“Let me tell you something my father told me the first time I was humiliated in the ring.” He sat up. “Learn from this. Take what you feel now and let it reinforce the lessons to be found in this moment. We are only as good as our worst defeat. We can be better than that, but only if we learn. Understand?”
“Yes. Yes, of course, Señor.”
“Good. Now get yourself a drink.”
Carlos pocketed his phone, nodding as he left, reminding Rayo de Baja that he should come downstairs in an hour to meet his partner. The luchador raised his glass and settled back to soak up the sun.
For the Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge, “Fifty Characters“. RNG results below.
Hollywood. Tinseltown. It has a lot of names, and so do the people that live here. Actors have screen names. Musicians have stage names. And if that woman on the corner was actually named “Champagne” by her mom and dad back in Pleasant Corners, Bread Bowl USA, I will eat my own hat.
I don’t even use my own real name. I don’t think the guy riding shotgun with me does, either. What kind of name is “Nick Vegas”, anyway? Sure, it looks bully on a business card, but he’s not really in a line of work where you just hand those out. You don’t want to leave a paper trail when you traffic in narcotics.
I’m waiting in the car while Nick talks to Mel. That, at least, is a short version of the kid’s name. Kids don’t normally go in for serious pseudonyms until they get a bit older than Mel’s twelve years. And, honestly, if my parents had saddled me with “Melvin”, I’d be looking for a change, too.
“Good kid, but lazy,” Vegas says to me as he climbs back into my car. Mel heads off down the street, slingshot in his back pocket. I wonder idly if he’s going to egg someone’s house after he does Nick’s errands.
“Let’s not talk about it.”
“Hey, my cousin asked me to get the kid a job, and I needed some packages delivered. What’s the issue?”
“He’s a twelve year old kid, Nick. That’s a little young to be making deliveries for us.”
“First of all, there’s no ‘us’. We’ve been over this, I got the contacts so I run the operation. You just drive the car and keep it warm if any John Q Laws start snooping around. Secondly, how old were you when you started?”
“My mother didn’t let me get into any of this business until I was sixteen, no matter how much I asked her.”
“Oh yeah? Didn’t know you were such a mamma’s boy, Sally boy.” Nick leans towards me as I pull the car away from the curb. I know where this is going. “Are you still a mamma’s boy? Do you call her at night when you get home so she knows her baby is all safe and sound?”
“Shut up, Nick.”
He laughs. It’s the laugh of a schoolyard bully. I remind myself that I have car to drive and a job to do. Our next stop is down by the RKO studios. I grease the night watchman’s palm and we pull around to where the trailers are set up, stopping outside of a smaller one. Nick gets out, and a plain-looking gent meets him at the trailer’s door. I don’t know many actors by sight, and this isn’t one of them. He probably got cast in some bit role due to his ability rather than his looks. Good for him, I guess. I light a cigarette while they do business.
Nick’s back in the car and we’re driving up Sunset Boulevard. Our last two stops are up on Mulholland Drive. I’m pulling us through traffic when Nick starts talking again.
“We’re making good time tonight. You’ll probably be in home in time for dinner.”
I don’t say anything. I don’t want to engage him. I can feel him leering at me.
“With your momma.”
“You really ought to shut up, Nick.”
Before he can respond, I turn on the radio. If the drive is going to be long, I don’t want it filled just with his jibes and jabs.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men…”
I lean back and drive. The Shadow calms me down. We listen for a bit but then Nick speaks up again.
“I’m more of a Lone Ranger kinda guy.”
“Get outta town. The Shadow is definitely better than the Lone Ranger.”
“Are you trying to tell me the Shadow wouldn’t get put down by a silver bullet or something?”
“The Lone Ranger would have to find him, first.”
“That’s why the Ranger has Tonto, dummy.”
“Has Tonto ever been in a big city? Between the food carts and the pipes backing up, it’s a bit harder to track someone’s scent, kemo sabe.”
“I’ll give you a kemo sabe if you don’t drive the car.”
“You mean like I have been this whole time?”
“Quietly, damn it.”
I smile and keep quiet. It’s good to know his skin isn’t that thick.
A while later, we’re up on Mulholland. There are some really nice houses up here. The first one we stop at is owned by a diplomat. I’ve run packages in there before, when Nick hasn’t been feeling well. The guy likes to throw big parties, with celebrities and girls and live music. He might not be American, but he’s certainly living the American Dream, as big and loud as he can, and I for one can’t fault him for it.
Our last stop is the furthest one out. The house is one of those ‘modern’ jobs, all harsh angles and round windows and weird lighting. Nick told me that the guy living here designed it himself. He also told me that the architect’s wife hates it. I catch sight of her briefly through the windows on the top floor – curvy, long hair, dressed in a bathrobe, on the phone with someone, not happy at all. The architect meets Nick at the door. He’s a sliver of a man, shorter than Nick (who’s a few inches under me), with a pretty browbeaten expression on his face. You don’t need a scriptwriter to see how these two got together, or how it’s likely to end.
Nick climbs back into the car, looking mighty pleased with himself.
“Want to grab a drink? It’s on me.”
I shrug. “Sure.”
We start driving back towards Los Angeles proper, and Nick finds, of all things, The Lone Ranger. I wait until the big chase sequence begins and the familiar horns of the William Tell Overture are heard before I pull the car over.
Nick turns to me to ask why we’re stopping and he gets a blackjack in the face for his trouble.
He’s not out. He’s dizzy and seeing stars. I reach past him, open his door, and shove him out into the dirt. I climb over the gearshift, grab my gloves from the glove compartment, and step out after him. He’s trying to get to his feet. I reach under the wheel well, finding the gun taped there, and I give Nick a crack on the head with it.
He’s holding his head. “What? What the hell is-?”
“I said talk.”
I wallop him again for good measure. He cries out.
“What? What do you want? I don’t understand.”
I cock the revolver, a little snub-nosed .38, and aim it at him. “Say ‘what’ again.”
“Okay! Okay. You got me. My name isn’t Nick Vegas. It’s Greg.”
“How much longer were you planning on ratting us out, Greg?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. One of my brothers is on the Vice Squad. They didn’t want to put a cop in the car. They knew you’d smell it.”
“Why is that, Greg? Do you know who I am?”
He shook his head. “All I know is your name is Tony and you work for one of the families. That’s it.”
“If you’re not a cop, how in the hell did your brother talk you into doing this?”
“We want to make the world better. Cleaner. More educated.” He fiddles with the ring on his finger, and shows it to me. “I’m a Freemason.”
I examine the ring with a scowl. “And your ‘brother’ is a Mason too?”
He nods. “Yeah. Called it a ‘moral obligation’.”
“Well, let me tell you something, Greg. Your ‘moral obligation’ is gonna get you killed. Where I come from, we don’t tolerate rats. Tell me how much your cop buddies know and I may let you walk home.”
“I told you. They know your name and who you work for.”
“Do they know what I look like?”
“They never asked for a description.”
“Dumb cops, then. The thing about Hollywood, Greg, is nobody uses their real name. My name isn’t Tony. It’s Nick.”
He blinked at me. “What…?”
I shot him. He went down, grabbing his leg. I walked closer as he squealed, drawing the hammer back again.
“Wait! Wait! You said you’d let me walk!”
“I said I’d think about it. And I did. Besides, you think you’re walking far on that leg now? Ciao.”
I fire two rounds into his chest. I’m turning away, and I hear him gasping for air. I make a face, turn, and shoot him once in the head for good measure. I then toss the gun into the brush and kick the body into the ditch.
It’s a long drive back to the city, but I’ll be home in time for dinner.
It’s lasagna night, and I never miss my momma’s lasagna.
18 – The shiftless rascal.
42 – The puerile, aloof smuggler who belongs to a secret organization.
40 – The plain actor.
34 – The tactless ambassador with big dreams.
22 – The weak, tolerant architect.
My response to the Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge, Pick An Opening Line And Go.
I closed my mouth, opened the door, and left.
I got about three steps down the street before my phone buzzed.
“Let’s… Let’s rethink this.”
I looked up at the buildings above me. “You do all the thinking you want. I’m done.”
“You made a good point about the heat. My associate misspoke.”
I paused just long enough to make them sweat. “If he misspeaks again, I will not answer this phone when I walk away.”
“I understand. Shall we continue?”
“Not yet. What’s the magic word?”
I smiled at a gentleman passing me on the street. “I’m waiting.”
There was an audible sigh. “Please come back inside.”
I turned and walked into the storefront again, removing my sunglasses. The steamer trunk remained where it was, between the patch of worn carpet I’d been standing on and the bare floorboards where the two men behind this mess now stood. The shorter man was putting his phone away while the taller one glared at me. I’m sure others found that look intimidating. From my perspective, it was keeping me from wrapping this up and grabbing lunch.
The interior of the antique shop was dark. It hadn’t been open for business in years. It wasn’t boarded up, though, so nobody took notice. It was just one of those city street curiosities folks walked by every day on their way to somewhere more important or interesting.
“Where were we?” The short man wiped his brow. The pleasant weather outside combined with drawn shades and poor circulation made the interior rather toasty.
“Your friend was just apologizing for calling me – what was it? – a ‘smarmy cunt’.”
“I’m not apologizing for shit, you-!”
The short man glared at his companion. “Just do it.”
The tall one said nothing. I crossed my arms. The suitcase held in my right hand rested against my hips.
Finally, he shook his head. “If it’ll move this along, fine. Sorry.”
“That doesn’t sound sincere.”
For a second, I thought the tall one was going to suffer some sort of aneurysm. He turned a fascinating shade of red. The short one shook his head, his pudgy hands raised.
“I honestly think that’s as good as you’re going to get. We’re not going to be here all day, are we?”
I made a show of rolling my eyes. “Fine.”
“Thank you. Now, can we please see the money?”
I lowered myself into a squat, something you have to do carefully in a skirt cut this way, and laid the case on the trunk. I opened the clasp and lifted the lid. The two men looked at the contents.
“Count it,” the short one said.
“Why am I counting it?” The tall one looked down at his partner as I stood.
“Because A, you’re the one who nearly fucked this up, and B, I fucking say so!”
“Ugh.” The tall one bent towards his task. “Still not sure why Escobar put you in charge.”
“Maybe because he trusts me to not do stupid shit like insult a buyer.”
I reached towards the bookshelf next to me, and one of the few books not covered in dust. The tall one shrugged.
“I call ‘em like I see ‘em, you know that.”
“Yeah, well usually they’re not standing right-”
The false book fell into my hands and opened, revealing the .32 Welrod inside. I took hold of the weapon and raised it, letting the book fall, aiming at the tall one first. The only sound the gun made was the firing pin hitting the primer, and that was nearly lost in a well-timed honking fit out in the street.
A shudder went through the tall man’s entire body when my bullet hit his skull and burrowed inside. The short man, mid-sentence, caught his breath and swung his eyes from his partner to me. My left hand worked the pistol’s bolt as he reached into his jacket for his sidearm. I fired again, the bullet shattering the short man’s knee. As he dropped, I worked the bolt a third time and, pressing the muzzle of the silenced antique to his suit jacket, destroyed his shoulder. I know he wanted to scream, but I stepped over the steamer and put the gun in his mouth.
“I’m going to ask you a question, and I want an honest answer. Do you understand?”
His eyes were wide. He nodded. I removed the gun, cocking the bolt.
I shook my head and put a bullet in his kidney, again filling his mouth with gun before he could scream. He tried anyway.
“I thought you understood.” He squirmed under me, bleeding onto the dusty floorboards. “You said his name in front of me two minutes ago. Now, tell me where he is.”
“I don’t know. He has a yacht. Usually he keeps it at the marina but when there’s sales going on he takes it out to sea.”
“What it’s name?”
“Libertador. I think it’s registered in Malta or something.”
“Thank you.” I worked the pistol’s bolt one more time. “I’m going to kill you now.”
He started to beg. He pissed himself. Neither one stopped me.
I dropped the pistol into the case, closed it, and set it aside. I opened the steamer trunk, feeling relief wash over me when I saw the contents.
“Come on, sis,” I told the girl inside the trunk. “Let’s get you out of here.”
She was malnourished and probably dehydrated, but she grabbed my arm and let me pull her out. She leaned on me as I picked up the case and aimed us at the door.
“How… how did you find me?” Her voice was quiet and felt broken, like she hadn’t used it in a long time.
“I made friends with an FBI agent. Soon as we get you to a hospital, I’m calling him about the boat. Escobar will pay for what he’s done.”
My sister shook her head. “He knows people.”
I smiled. “Well, he doesn’t know me.”
For the Terribleminds Flash Fiction challenge, “Life Is Hell“.
The stairs under the curio shop go down, down, down.
Marcia didn’t mind the exercise, and the decent actually helped her clear her head. The ambient noises and constantly guttering lights no longer set her on edge, as was certainly their intent. She was able to screen the flickering incandescence and barely intelligible pleas for mercy out as she mentally prepared herself. When it came to these negotiations, even moreso than with the fae or the vampires, one had to word things in a very particular and precise way.
Demons loved loopholes.
She finally arrived at the bottom of the stairs, 666 steps from the trapdoor in the curio shop’s back room. Demons loved shit like that, too. Marcia wasn’t in the mood for any of it. She pricked her finger with her knife, knelt in the semi-darkness that dominated the space outside of the stairwell, and touched the groove set into the stone floor.
Dark red light blossomed from the pentagram carving as the beacon activated. The star was pointed towards the stairs, making it inverted from Marcia’s perspective. An upright pentacle, like the one around her neck, was a symbol of protection. Its opposite was anything but. A howling noise from deep in the darkness beyond the pentagram began to rise and increase in volume, and after a few moments, the ground began to shake.
Marcia crossed her arms impatiently, and waited.
Symbols and script of an unspoken language began to float above the circle, and from the midst of them a gaunt figure slowly emerged. It towered over Marcia, clad in tight black leather, a dire cassock stained with blood that caught the light in a disturbing fashion. Its collar was high and tight, jutting its chin permanently upwards. It bared its teeth without choice as it had no lips to speak of, and its eyes were bound with what appeared to be vinyl, held in place with iron spikes through the eye sockets. Air hissed between its blackened teeth, and pale skin stretched as it spoke.
Marcia rolled her eyes.
“Not today, Bee. I’m not in the mood.”
Silence, for a moment.
“WE HAVE SSSSSSSSSUCH SSSSSSSSSIGHTSSSSS….”
“Did you watch the Hellraiser movies again last night? I’d say you do that religiously but I don’t want to be that insulting.”
“Come on, Beelzebub. Cut the bullshit.”
There was a pause. Then, all of the black leather burst outwards, taking the form of bats and flying away with squeaks and squeals. Underneath them was a gentleman slightly taller than Marcia, wearing a suit that, if it had been bought in one of the boutiques far above their heads, would have easily cost $10,000 or more. The man’s eyes, set in a deceptively handsome face, mirrored the red glow of the circle he stood in.
“You should have seen the last would-be summoner that happened down here. Making your lot piss themselves never gets old.”
“Hilarious. I told you I’m not in the mood.”
“Dear Marcia, when are you ever in the mood?” The Arch-Duke of Hell sighed. “This is why you can’t get a date.”
“No. I can’t get a date because I have to keep cleaning up your messes.”
An ancient mason’s hammer hit the stone floor without Marcia breaking Beelzebub’s eye contact.
“I found this in the home of a murderer. For some reason, when he killed someone, the spouse or nearest next of kin got pinched. Evidence and everything. I’m sure you know what that is.”
Beelzebub’s smile didn’t waver as he glanced at the hammer. “Well, well. These are increasingly rare.”
“I want to know what it is, in full, and I want to know what it’s worth.”
The demon crossed his arms. “I don’t think I like your tone.”
Marcia raised her chin. “Do something about it.”
For a moment, they stood and regarded one another. Then, Beelzebub started laughing.
“This is why you stay around, Marcia. I may not care for such disrespect, but I do admire your courage.”
“You can’t moisten me up that way. Tell me about the hammer.”
“It was one of many tools used to build Gomorrah. When the city was destroyed, so were most of those tools, along with their people. A few survived, including this one, saturated with the brimstone that fell from Heaven. As it was most often wielded by wicked men…”
“So it’s magical.”
“If you wanted to be utterly pedestrian about it…”
“What’s it worth?”
“Name your price.”
Money meant nothing to demons. A snap of their fingers could make extra zeroes appear in any number of bank accounts. But Marcia knew that if she wanted to maintain an edge in this game, she needed more than that.
“I want to add a clause.”
Beelzebub shook his head. “You keep doing this, we’ll have to redraft the entire contract.”
“That isn’t an option and you know it. The original stipulations stand. I just want to add a clause. My sister just had a baby boy. He’s off-limits.”
“Hmm. A good job keeping that hidden from us, girl. I didn’t even see anything on Facebook.”
“Do we have a deal, or not?”
The demon glanced down at the hammer. “You said this was used in murders? Recently?”
“Where is the murderer now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Would you like to?”
Marcia hesitated. Beelzebub smiled.
“We can’t have a loose end running around, Marcia. This is the deal: leave the hammer and kill its wielder when you depart this place, and your clause will be added. The contract itself remains unmolested. What say you?”
Marcia frowned. She wasn’t a killer by nature. Part of the reason she was in this situation in the first place was because she’d been too chickenshit to go after her assailant on her own. But after the contract had been signed, it’d been frighteningly easy. And now Beelzebub was telling her to kill again.
She thought of her radiant sister, and the innocent baby.
“Okay,” she said. “Deal.”
If you don’t know who Chuck Wendig is by now…
First of all, watch this.
Second of all, what the hell is wrong with you?
I’ve worshipped at the Altar of the Terriblemind more than once. It involves sacrifices of coffee, whiskey, tacos, and an outpouring of creative swears while dancing naked under the light of a full moon. While it’s yeilded quite a few fantastic books, which I’ll get to, it’s also given me the sense that I need to kick my writerly ass.
The last few months have been surprisingly stressful at the dayjob, which is perhaps due to extenuating circumstances in my head and diet and whatnot, but that’s not really an excuse. The dayjob only lasts a certain number of hours per day, and I could easily carve out more of the remaining time for writing. Hell, Hearthstone has long queues, as does Heroes of the Storm (waiting on my invite, Blizzard!), World of Warcraft has pauses for travel and queues of its own… and those are just the Blizzard games! I like to write posts like this while watching Crash Course or The Cinema Snob. It’s possible to pour the words into the cracks between the day’s longer hours. I just need to do it more often.
A while back, Chuck posted a photo of where he writes. It’s beautiful. Isolated. A window to the outdoors, a rig for his iPad (disconnected from the Internet, I’d imagine), a place for his coffee. I’m reminded again that not only do I need to make the time, I need to make the space. Sitting here tapping out blog posts isn’t too difficult, writing-wise, but it’s still incredibly easy to be distracted and if I want to get anything done, I need to focus. I must do that more often, just like I should work out more often. I can make all of the excuses I like about the dayjob or my mental/emotional state or what have you, but in the end, the only way to write is to write.
Wendig reminds me of this because, damn, that motherfucker’s prolific. He’s writing novels, novellas, serialized fiction, non-fiction about writing… basically everything a canny genre writer can write to keep writing. He’s got various points of entry if you’re not up on his work, too. Are you into vampires and/or zombies? Read Double Dead. Want a powerful female protagonist? Blackbirds is for you. How about urban fantasy mashed with gripping crime drama? Try The Blue Blazes. Young adult reader looking for something unique? Under The Empyrean Sky might be your bag. Just need advice/a kick in the ass for your own writing? Buy The Kick-Ass Writer already.
See what I mean? Whenever I worry that my ambitions are too “all over the place”, that what I write can’t possibly make it, Chuck reminds me that such thinking is bullshit. All I have to do is get off my ass. Or at least sit my ass down and write.
For the Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge, Five Random Words.
“Bless you, dearie. Granny can always count on you two.”
The words rang in Caroline’s ears as she and the mass of wrinkles beside her picked their way through the woods towards the city. To be fair, the wrinkles were mostly on Seymour’s face – the long, beige body of the hound was sleek and muscular, the body of a creature bred for hunting and snatching prey. To Caroline, there was a understated beauty about her most reliable companion. Every wrinkle told a story. There was no duplicity in the hound’s eyes, no tricks, no facade of civilization hiding a monster within.
The same could not be said for the bustling figures in the streets before her now.
She pulled her flat cap down towards her eyes. With her disheveled and dirty clothes nicked from some other urchin years ago, she could pass as a boy. This suited her just fine. She saw girls her age flit here and there, decked in finery and giggling to one another about parties and parents and lessons and boys, always boys. As much as the dresses and hairstyles were pretty, Caroline wondered if they had any idea what the world was really like as she and Seymour picked their way through the crowd towards their destination.
Granny needed some small things to complete her work. A topaz, some foxglove, a raven’s wing bone – not unusual requests from Granny. They passed the building bearing the sign ‘ORPHANAGE’, and the girl shoved her hands in her pockets and kept her head down as they walked by. Her orphanage was in the past, as was creepy Mr. Harrigan and his wandering hands. She reminded herself to go back one of these days and burn the place down.
Not today. Today Granny had sent her on a mission. “A love potion” were the words Granny had used, and Caroline couldn’t think of a sillier thing to waste precious time and wonderful charms trying to make. Granny could work miracles with her gnarled hands and spindly fingers; why a love potion of all things?
It wasn’t Caroline’s place to ask, though. She reminded herself that it was Granny, a hermit who owed her nothing, that had found her when she ran away, taken her in, given her a chance at life. A life in transit, mostly, of moving from place to place almost constantly and having very little to call their own, but it was a life all the same, and it was freedom and adventure and challenges and the world, the real world, not the one these people around her tried to close off with doors and windows and wine and employment. It was a gift, this life, and all that came with it, including Seymour. And it was a gift Granny had given her, only occasionally asking something in return.
Seymour nudged her towards the proper street. Caroline shook her head and stroked the hound’s fur. She had no idea if this town had leash laws or anything, but she didn’t plan on sticking around long enough for it to be an issue. Seymour was always close by unless she told him to stay somewhere, and even then he had a keen awareness of where Caroline was and if she was being threatened. A feeling deep in her guts told her that such skills might be required.
A gesture put Seymour right outside the front door of the jeweler’s. Caroline walked in, finding the large man behind the deck at the other end of the floor engaged in conversation with a young couple. She looked through all of the display cases until she found the semi-translucent beige stones she had been sent to acquire. Granny only needed one for her potion, but Caroline saw no reason not to pocket a few for herself. She reached for the case.
“Miss? Can I help you?”
Caroline turned, putting on her best smile while silently cursing to herself. “Just browsing, thank you.”
“Looking for something in particular? A gift, for Mom or Dad?”
The shopkeeper leaned closer, and Caroline glanced towards the large windows facing the street. As if on cue, Seymour started barking. The shopkeeper looked away and turned towards the noise, giving Caroline the chance to do a turn of her own and slip her blade into the seam of the display cases’ lock, tapping it open.
The young couple had also moved to the big windows. Caroline pocketed the gems and slipped past the adults to get outside. Upon seeing her, Seymour immediately stopped making noise and fell into step behind her. She kept her pace at a brisk walk until she was around the corner. The cries of “THIEF!” didn’t emerge until they were a block away, and by then, she and Seymour were running.
They stopped for breath not far into the forest, and Caroline immediately spotted some foxglove. With that, they returned home. However, the hearth was already burning despite it being warm and mid-day, and Granny usually didn’t start her fire until it was cold, dark, or she had all of her ingredients.
Caroline and Seymour stepped into the tiny log cabin. Stretched out on the couch Caroline had helped ‘liberate’ from a trash heap was the woodsman’s boy, a gangly kid with straw hair a few years old than Caroline. They’d met, made nice, bickered and even on one occasion fought before.
“Oh, dearie, dear, thank all that’s good you’ve returned,” Granny said. “The boy’s been snake-bitten, he needs medicine.”
“One thing at a time, Granny.” Caroline placed the potion ingredients on the table. “What does he need?”
“Find the snake. Don’t kill the poor thing, of course, just bring it to me. We can milk it for a little venom to make medicine.”
“I’ll find it. Seymo-”
The dog was already sniffing the wound, and was out in a flash. Caroline turned to follow, then looked back at the boy.
Suddenly, she understood why Granny would want a love potion.
My words: Hermit, Hound, Topaz, Foxglove, Orphan.
I was challenged to tell a story in Ten Little Chapters.
Lieutenant Richards looked up from the orders with a frown.
“I don’t like this, sir.”
“What’s to like?” The colonel didn’t look at his subordinate as he circled the map on the table in the center of the room. “They’ve got intelligence, they’re pinned down, and they need extraction.”
“This is deep in enemy territory. In a civilian area, sir. And we may need to work around hardened positions equipped with anti-air.”
“That’s why I bought you in, Richards. You and your team are legendary for this sort of thing.”
Richards shook his head. “Don’t use that word, sir. It’ll go to their heads.”
“You told him this is bullshit, right?”
Richards looked at Sergeant McNally. The enlisted woman had her arms crossed, and her freckles were scrunched in a frown.
“Not in so many words, but yes.”
“Should’ve used those words,” Corporal Collins offered. “Easier than beating ’round the bush.”
“So what’s the plan, then?” Corporal Nicheyev was never one for waiting. “Surely you have one, sir.”
“Of course he does,” McNally said, “and don’t call him ‘Shirley’.”
“Seriously. The four of us, this bunch of fortifications, and no air support?” Collins frowned. “This had better be good, boss.”
Collins listened closely to what he was being told. After a moment, he turned to the others with a shrug.
“He’s asking for a hell of a lot of money to show us the way.”
“He’s probably afraid he’ll catch a bullet.” Nicheyev shrugged, adjusting the rifle on his shoulder. “I would be.”
Richards rubbed his forehead, pushing the turban back a bit. It kept falling towards his eyes. “Collins, pay the man.”
“You can win it back from me next time we throw down some Hold ‘Em,” McNally said with a nudge.
“You all suck.”
Collins paid the man.
“I want to go record that this plan sucks ass.”
“What was that, Collins?”
“You heard me, sir!”
“Half the town will hear you if you keep that up,” Nicheyev reminded his compatriot.
“Fuck you. We’re at least a klick outside of the town, I’m waist-deep in sewage, and I’ll need to shower for a damn year after we get these geeks out of Hotel de-”
McNally hissed, holding up her fist. The four of them froze, lowering their weapons from where they’d carried them over their heads.
The truck above them shook gravel loose into the sewer.
The nice thing about civilized areas is that they needed to put down walkways for sewer workers. The bad news was, the rusty grilles were noisy at anything faster than a slow walk.
“Nicheyev, get some eyes up there.”
The corporal slipped past Richards, the snake-like camera in his hand. He gently worked the tube up the pipe and took a look.
“Not yet. Seems to be a bathroom.”
McNally glanced over her shoulder. “Hostage-takers gotta shit, too.”
“I know, but… hang on.”
There was a pause. Slowly, Nicheyev pulled down the camera. He blushed at the others.
“Wrong house. Definitely.”
Richards really wanted to ask Collins if this was any better. Instead, he crept forward another inch, gently probing with the barrel of his weapon.
The lights from their shoulders were hooded, and they didn’t want to risk more. That, however, made tripwires harder to find.
Like the one Richards found with a soft, deadly click.
He froze, and the three others behind him did the same.
“Claymore,” he hissed after a moment. “Nicheyev, you’re on.”
The corporal slipped past him, pulling tools from the pockets on his vest.
“Don’t move, sir.”
Richards started to sweat.
The manhole cover slid back, and one by one they climbed out into the street. It was dusk, and by Richards’ watch they were just about on schedule. They took positions outside the house’s back door, and waited.
The voice rang out around them, calling the faithful to prayer. Richards nodded at McNally. The sergeant thumbed the safety on her .45 and raised the suppressed pistol as she entered the door Collins opened for her.
Under the cries from the mosques, Richards heard the metal clangs of silenced gunfire. When it was over, they swept inside.
“How many, Collins?”
The corporal on the other side of the door poked his head out to look, only to jump back as cackling automatic fire peppered the wall and doorjamb with rounds.
“Two at least, sir!”
Richards touched the radio control at his neck. “Nicheyev, did you hear that?”
“Copy,” was all Nicheyev said. Richards said a silent prayer of thanks for this being a two-story house, and leaned out to deal some suppressing fire across the street.
When the return fire started again, it stopped abruptly after two loud shots from above.
“Got ‘em, sir.”
Richards turned to McNally, who held the CIA man up on her shoulders.
McNally gestured towards the door with a grunt.
“After you, LT, by all means.”
His ears were still ringing from the rocket blast. Richards tried to keep the pace up, but he could go no faster than his sergeant. The operative was still delirious from drugs and torture, unable to walk on his own.
“It isn’t right,” Collins lamented. “We shouldn’t have left him.”
“If he survived, he can take care of himself,” Richards replied. “If he’s dead, we can’t help him.”
Collins was going to protest more, but then he stopped and turned back, carbine raised.
“We’re not alone,” he hissed.
Richards kept the ice pack on his head as the Colonel read the report.
“I’m telling you, Richards… legendary.”
“We got lucky, sir.”
“Your man Nicheyev survived a rocket attack, son, that wasn’t luck.”
“He also nearly lost a leg, sir.”
“Did Collins really carry him the kilometer back to the extraction point?”
“He and McNally took turns with carrying duty, sir.”
“Unbelievable. I’ll see to it you all get full honors for this.”
“Thank you, sir. Even if we can never talk about it.”
The colonel nodded. Richards reached for the bottle.
Jack climbed the stairs to the apartment in question. He didn’t mind the Lower East Side, never had, yet some other detectives avoided it like crazy. He could understand why – shambling husks of former human beings were enough to put any normal person off their lunch – but to him, it was just another annoyance between him and a case.
The case in question was a young couple murdered in their home. Jack’s partner, Sam, was already on the scene, trying to make heads or tails of it. Sam was slightly overweight and never tied his tie properly, but he was a good cop and the salt-of-the-earth sort Jack needed around to remind him of why this job was worth doing.
There was also the fact that Sam, a full-blooded human, handled scenes like this better than Jack.
There were to victims. The husband sat at the breakfast nook’s table, and the wife lay near a shattered carafe of coffee. Both had burns on their hands and forearms, blood on their faces from their mouths and noses, and dark, smoking holes where their eyes should have been.
“I will never, ever get used to this shit,” Sam said, taking a sip of the convenience store coffee in his hand.
“Give it a few more years,” Jack replied. He was twenty years Sam’s junior, yet stood shoulder to shoulder with the seasoned homicide detective in terms of rank.
Jack absently rubbed one of the short horns that curled up towards his hairline, kneeling by the woman’s body. He dipped a finger into the blood that had oozed from her face, bringing it to his nose for a sniff. Under the tangy copper and surrounding smell of burning flesh was the unmistakable scent of home. Wiping his fingers clean on a handkerchief from his pocket, he turned his attention to the mail and its pile of past-due bills.
“What’ve you got, Jack?”
“These two were close to going Soulless,” Jack told his partner. He opened his mouth to say more, but he looked at the corpses again and he began hearing the Choirs and the sunlight coming in through the window really bothered him and he stepped outside, covering his mouth with the handkerchief. Sam followed, a hand on the shoulder of Jack’s tailored suit.
“C’mon, partner, let’s hear the facts.”
Jack smiled. “Thank you, Sam. Anyway. The pair of them gave up their souls for something, and have either been waiting for delivery or got played. Judging by the mail and the state of the apartment, their earthly concerns have been less and less important to them. Finally, their bodies are starting to take on aspects of the damned. They’re malnourished, their skin isn’t in great shape, and their blood’s taken on the smell of brimstone.”
Sam bit back his initial response, which Jack assumed would be an invocation of the name of Jesus. He appreciated his partner’s sensitivity. “Same as the last two?”
“Seems that way. I think I may know how we can find out more, though. Friend from the ‘old country’.”
Sam narrowed his eyes. “Which is your way of saying I shouldn’t be there.”
“Why, Sam, with skills like that, you could be a detective!”
Sam gave Jack a bit of a shove. “Smart-ass. Okay, fine. Go talk to your source, I’ll report in with HQ. And get a meat wagon down here.”
Jack nodded, heading down the stairs again. In the alleyways outside, he could hear the soft moans and occasional grunt or outcry from the Soulless. He got into his car, gunned the engine and headed downtown.
The city had definitely changed, even since Jack was born. Years before that, three archdemons – Asmodius, Aziraphon, and Azazael – had taken human form to offer mortals connections with dead souls in exchange for their living ones. Musicians got to commune with passed luminaries of the art. Comedians could channel the mannerisms of lost favorites. Actors took on the air of former glories of the silver screen. And all at the price of a measly human soul.
He turned towards the high-rises of Manhattan, rubbing one of his fangs with his tongue absently. Heaven seemed to be waiting to see what happened next, save for incidents like this. There was talk on Jack’s father’s side of a coming reckoning, of New York itself becoming Armageddon, a second Babylon for the Heavens to smite into oblivion. Some were even eager for it, a showdown millenia in the making.
Jack was of a different mind.
He pulled up to the valet, dropped the keys for the Astin Martin in the young man’s hand, and took the elevator inside to 33rd floor, and walked past the receptionist into the austere office beyond. He tried to ignore the way the sunlight made his scalp itch.
She was waiting for him. “Hello, Jack.”
“What’s next, Sandy, a family of four? We need a better way to communicate.”
Sandalphon got to her feet, buttoning the jacket she wore as part of her well-cut suit. “I dispatched a pair of nearly soulless sinners and sent you a message. Two birds with one stone. A shame, really – we could have helped them here.”
Jack swallowed. His skin was crawling and something inside of him screamed to flee. He stood his ground. “Is it going to be soon?”
Sandalphon looked away, out across the city, a crestfallen expression on her face. “Yes. The Choirs are gathering strength. It won’t be long.”
Jack set his jaw. He tried to put aside his unease at the same time he ignored how beautiful the angel was, how cute her blonde hair looked in its pixie cut, how he loved the fact she could take him in a fight the way no mortal could. He reminded himself that he trusted her, and that they were this planet’s only hope for survival.
“What do we do?”
Sandalphon turned to him, smiling a little. “Close the door, handsome half-breed, and we’ll talk.”
He closed the door.
According to Terribleminds and the Die of Fate, this story must contain “a talking cat” and “a plane or train ride”.
“This is your captain speaking. We’ve reached our cruising altitude, and forecast for today calls for clear skies all afternoon. Feel free to unfasten your seat belts and move freely about the cabin, and we’ll let you know if we’re in for any chop or how the Bears are doing. Thank you, and enjoy your flight.”
I don’t move, not at first. I glance to my left, to see if either of my fellow passengers need to get up, but the couple is looking out the tiny window into the vast beyond, through the 30,000 feet of air to the planet below. It’s a good thing that they are actually enjoying the flight, because I sure as hell won’t. Big metal tubes hurtling through the void bother me. Not necessarily because of the flying itself, but because with so much technology compressed into one place, something is bound to go wrong at some point.
And that’s not even taking into account the things that normal people can’t see.
The carrier in my lap vibrates ever so slightly. I figure she’s fallen asleep. The cat doesn’t like to fly any more than I do, but considering everything she’s been through, both before and after she came into my life, some pressurized air and rapid movement aren’t enough to spook her.
I crack open the well-worn book I brought with me. It’s one of the Star Wars novels. I’m not a big fan of fiction – my own life is interesting and weird enough, thanks very much – but once in a while, I like to take my mind away from the worlds around me and invest some time in a place and time when things are simpler. Heroes and villains are easily defined, even if the so-called heroes engage in wholesale slaughter under some flimsy justification. I have to laugh sometimes. It’s a lot easier than you might think to shove something or someone that isn’t you into the category of ‘other’ and build up your opposition to it. Plenty of wars get their starts that way.
Believe me, there are times when I wish it was that simple.
“Something to drink?”
I look up from my book and smile at the stewardess. Flight attendant? I can’t keep the PC terms straight anymore. I ask for a tomato juice. The couple beside me both get pops. I watch the woman as she pours, and I think I catch something in her eyes. The carrier in my lap shifts. Either her sleep is restless, or she feels something. I wait until the stewardess is gone and then down my tomato juice as quickly as possible. I’d have asked for a bloody mary, but I didn’t want to shell out for the liquor and I hadn’t thought to grab a tiny bottle of vodka from the duty free store. Whatever. I set the plastic glass down a final time and open the zipper on the carrier.
“About time, human.”
The voice is small and scratchy, the whisper nearly lost in the roar of flight. Just as well; normal people aren’t necessarily prepared for aspects of my life like this.
“Did you feel something, Crowley?”
“I still can’t believe you gave me that name.”
“You wanted more distance from your True Name, I’m providing it.”
“There are lots of goddesses of wisdom or knowledge, you know. Neith, Athena, Vör…”
“Is there a goddess of changing the subject?”
Yellow eyes glared at me from within the shadows of the carrier. “Yes. I felt something.”
“They’re called ‘flight attendants’. Don’t be sexist.”
“Who’s being sexist? Guys can be stewardesses too!”
“It’s a sexist term, jackass.”
“Crowley’s a gender neutral name.”
“It’s the family name of a male -”
“It’s gender neutral, you’re changing the subject again, and we’re on a goddamn airplane. Are we going to do this or are you going to keep sacrificing tuna privileges?”
There was a pause. “Okay, I concede. You win this round. Let me out so I can sniff around.”
“Give me a second.” I pick up the little plastic cup, with tomato-covered ice still rattling around, and return my tray table to its upright and locked position. I set the cup (with apologies) on the guy’s tray next to me. He doesn’t care – he’s holding hands with his pretty ladyfriend and they’re watching a movie. I unzip the inner portion of the carrier and set it opening-first towards the aisle.
Crowley is sable-black, pouring out of the carrier and onto the floor carefully, like an oil spill with legs and a tail. Her fur is actually quite soft, and she’s got a weakness for that spot at the base of her skull between her ears, which always make her start purring whether she wants to or not. But I don’t have time to coddle the cat. I unbuckle my seat belt and rise to follow her, heading towards the front of the plane.
I get some dirty looks from the people in business class. I’m shattering the illusion that their affluence separates them from the plebs back in coach. I’d linger to make more of them uncomfortable, but I’m on a clock. Crowley’s definitely on to something, and I have to be there to back her up. As much crap as I give her, I really can’t live without her.
We find the stewardess in question tucked away working on the in-flight meals. She glances at me and smiles a little.
“You should return to your seat.”
I cross my arms and lean on the wall. “Crowley?”
The cat jumps up onto the counter, startling the woman. Yellow eyes peer at her and the cat’s nose twitches.
“Nebiru,” Crowley says finally.
“Are you sure?”
“Yep. Brimstone and stardust, moreso than just about anything.”
The stewardess shakes her head, backing away. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“You’re on a flight full of mortals. Why?”
“It’s my job.”
“Come on, you took part in the creation the Universe, it’s gotta be more than a job.”
The stewardess nods. Her nametag says ‘Angela’. “I’ve heard of you. You’re the one who sends us back to Hell.”
“Talking cat give it away?”
“It’s probably your boorish attitude.”
“Shut it, Crowley.”
“I’m tired,” Angela says. “Tired of conflict, of choosing sides. I just want to see the creation. Wonder in what was wrought.”
“You’re here as a sightseer?”
“Is that so hard to believe?”
“Crowley, what do you know about the Nebiru?”
“Oh, now I can speak?”
“Out with it, cat.”
She sighed. “Nebiru were celestial angels before The Fall. They set stars in motion and plotted the courses of galaxies. Not many sided with Lucifer, but those who did often find themselves summoned by accident when idiot mortals tap into Lovecraftian ideas of old gods born of the stars.”
I look evenly at Angela. “Is that what happened?”
The demon nods. “I took the body of one of the participants in the ritual. I told them their Old Gods did not exist. They didn’t believe me. I showed them the cosmos as I’d seen it, back on the First Day. They couldn’t take it.”
“You killed them?”
She shook her head. “They’re blind and babbling. They spout equations they’ll never understand. They see stars burning and dying and exploding to burn again over and over again in their minds.” She turned away, towards the window over her shoulder. “It was too much. I should have simply escaped.”
My hand is in my pocket, the Medallion heavy in my fingers. One press to Angela’s forehead and the demon would be sent screaming back to Hell. Option A, here, was that I was fast enough to get it on her before she knew what was happening. In my experience, that rarely worked. That left Option B: I go for it, she tears out of her human meat-suit, and we fight on a plane 30,000 feet in the air with the lives of hundreds of innocents hanging in the balance.
Thankfully, there’s a third option, one I rarely take.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t see you.”
Angela blinks at me. So does Crowley.
“Crowley has your scent, now, and I’m going to take a lock of your hair. If anything ever seems off with you, we’ll come for you. Do you understand?”
Without a word, Angela reached under her hair, produced a pair of scissors from one of the cabinets, and clipped a lock, which she handed to me.
“Just stay out of trouble, all right?”
I pick up Crowley and walk back to my seat.
“That was uncharacteristically magnanimous.”
“Now you’re just showing off.”
“Azariel’s going to be pissed.”
“Maybe, but she’s not stupid. She’ll know a Nebiru on a plane’s no threat.”
The rest of the flight was quiet. And, wouldn’t you know it, Angela brought some free vodka to my seat along with another can of tomato juice.
I don’t get many good days on this job. I’ll take what I can get.
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.”