Journey to Emberland

Centuries spent gazing at the rusty red worldlet above their world failed to inspire people to rise so high. Until now. Long Sight, a learner, spends as much time as possible at the telescope on the outside of their artifical worldlet.

Sharp Tongue and others think him crazy. Yet they all could learn so much from Emberland. A world so much like their own, except smaller. Did life exist there? Heretical, yet an undeniable question.

Long Sight wanted to take advantage of every moment to study Emberland—in what might be the only chance of his lifetime!

🚀

Long Sight’s fur ruffled as he caught the oily scent of Sharp Tongue’s approach up the shaft leading to the forward observation bubble. He whistled softly through his big front teeth in annoyance at the intrusion. What must he do to get time to himself? He had reversed his dormancy cycle, and he spent as much time as possible in the bubble above the pitted surface of their worldlet, exposed to the unimaginable threats of this airless void, and still Sharp Tongue sought him out and intruded on his solitude.

Long Sight left the big telescope, kicking hard with his strong hind legs to propel himself toward the opening. He caught a toe-grip at the entrance with one foot, steading himself with a brief touch on the side of the opening. The soft black cushioning gave slightly beneath his fingers and rebounded, faintly sloshing with the water contained. A burrow sheathed in water, just like home, meant to make the worldlet feel more substantial than it was while also serving the dual function of shielding them from the radiation of the sun and providing the necessary water circulation.

Sharp Tongue caught a toe-grip in passing and brought himself up short of the opening, his beige fur dimly lit by the weak light filtered through the dome. Sharp Tongue blinked his large round eyes, enormous really, a sign of his caste that rarely, if ever, ventured up to the surface of any burrow.

“Long Sight, it is true. You are here.”

Long Sight twitched an ear at the telescope. “Performing my duties, Sharp Tongue. Scouting the world ahead.”

“The data feeds to any burrow, why subject yourself to such risk? I’m told rocks fly in this region without regard to their proper place. What if one were to strike the dome?”

“I trust the sentries to sound the appropriate alarm if any large hazard appeared.”

Sharp Tongue’s ears drooped. “I’m told a small hazard could get past the sentries, that the speeds involved could still cause significant damage and even puncture the thin skin of the dome.”

Long Sight let go of the toe-grip with one foot to reach up and scratch at in itch on his shoulder. “The risk is acceptable if my scouting reveals more details about the world we approach.”

A shudder ruffled Sharp Tongue’s fur. He peered forward, blinking large eyes and then drew back into the shadows. “I don’t see how you stand it; you’re actually out above the surface of the worldlet with nothing but that fabric between you and nothingness!” Panic tinged Sharp Tongue’s voice.

Long Sight decided to change his tactic. He pushed off the toe-grip, floating backward where he deftly caught the next toe-grip. He beckoned with both arms as if drawing Sharp Tongue to his chest. “Why don’t you come out and I’ll show you the new world? I can see much even at this distance. When we get closer, we’ll see as well as the hawk sees flying above the plains.”

A small squeak, quickly cut off, came from the tunnel. Long Sight’s ears pricked forward and he heard the quick pants as Sharp Tongue turned and fled deeper into the worldlet, taking his oily scent with him. Satisfied, Long Sight turned back to the telescope. A quick kick sent him flying across the dome to the observation post as easily as the hawk he had mentioned. He caught the bars with his feet and steadied himself on the poles. He didn’t look immediately, still mulling over the encounter in his head. Sharp Tongue’s evident concern touched him, despite the annoyance of the intrusion. He whistled between his teeth. Most thought him crazy, all astronomers for that matter. The idea of going out at night terrified most of the people. And yet some had gone out to look up at the stars and eventually they had ventured far higher than the hawk, all of them crazy to a degree, even a burrow-bound administrator like Sharp Tongue.

It was true that he could view the data from the telescope down in the burrows but seeing something on the screen lacked the reality of seeing it with his own eyes in real time. Long Sight pulled himself down to the viewing ports until the cool metal touched the fur around his eyes and in that instant he found himself flying free. He was the worldlet, looking out into the space that surrounded them at the world ahead.

Emberland. The world of mystery that had soared through the night overhead like a coal tossed into the sky. Their early ancestors had told many stories about Emberland and what the changing faces meant. Long Sight saw it now as a world rich in features and details. The thin atmosphere still held clouds of some water vapor, but mostly dust. Now and then he saw features that suggested water flowing free on the surface, at least for a time, as if it had burst out of underground pools only to evaporate. He could clearly see the ice caps. Were the darker areas of the surface vegetation? Did strange animals live on this arid world? Or even — Long Sight dared to wonder the heretical thought — other people?

He pulled back from the viewer and blinked as he looked around the dome as if another might somehow have known his thoughts. He shook his fur out, took a few consoling licks on the back of his hands and smoothed the fur on his face and neck. He was alone and safe. He pulled himself back to the viewer.

The dusty red face of the planet, filled with its own mountains and valleys, dark regions and lighter, clear traces of ancient rivers and the scattered craters showing the truth of Sharp Tongue’s fears about flying rocks, all of it hung in space before him. Completely unlike their own warm, blue planet behind them. Now they were the flying rock, or more accurately the flying snowball, an artificial burrow painstakingly assembled in orbit and then sheathed in tons of water. Great wide solar wings had caught the sun’s weak winds and ever so slowly had lifted the worldlet into an ever-widening orbit until gravity and timing sent the worldlet flying to Emberland. Long Sight and the others like him knew that the worldlet had only been created as a political stunt to demonstrate the wisdom and power of their leaders, that they could create such a thing was magnificent, but he was more interested in learning about Emberland. It was a whole world in its own right, circling theirs, true, but that merely afforded them the opportunity to reach it more easily. Nearly a dozen other worlds, most of them with worldlets of their own circling them, all circled the sun. He had seen this with his own eyes through telescopes on the ground. He imagined dozens of artificial worldlets flying through the space between worlds, back and forth between each world and home, using the gravity of these worlds and wide wings to catch the sun’s winds. With enough worldlets traveling between worlds learners like him could visit any world they wished.

Long Sight’s ears drooped. Such a magnificent dream, he feared, was beyond the leaders’ interests. Their motivation wouldn’t extend that far. On their safe return home this worldlet might never fly again. That left him with this one chance to see Emberland up close.

He pulled out the tablet mounted beneath the viewer. He focused on a series of river valleys in the southern hemisphere that all led to a basin, what must have been an inland sea at one time. He saw patches of darker material in the valleys and the basin. His fingers tapped out notes on the tablet, describing in detail each of the features for further reference and study. There was much work to finish in the short time available.

🚀

A week after Sharp Tongue’s brief visit to the dome, Long Sight was floating back to the dome through the tunnel, kicking himself along the toe grips to keep moving. He saw movement in a side tunnel and just managed to catch and hold the toe grip before colliding with the person that shot out of the side tunnel. He smelled fresh cut plants and recognized Sweet Leaf as she tried to catch a toe grip and missed, tumbling into his tunnel. She squeaked in alarm.

Long Sight reached out and caught her gently, holding firm with both feet. He stopped her rotation and moved her down until she had grabbed onto the nearest toe grip. Then he let go.

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed down the back of her cream-colored neck, and she curled herself down into a ball of embarrassment. “Many apologies, learner. I meant no offense.”

Long Sight thumped one foot. “None taken.”

Sweet Leaf uncurled, showing more of her supple cream-colored fur. Her ears perked up slightly as her large dark eyes blinked at him. “Very gracious.”

“Not at all.” Long Sight wondered what she wanted. He knew her only by reputation; she was one of the workers that tended the deep gardens. An important role in the burrow, without which they would all surely starve.

“May I ask a question?” Sweet Leaf asked.

“You just did,” he replied. Sweet Leaf’s ears sank back toward her neck again. Long Sight thumped his foot again. “I meant that only in jest. Please, what is your question?”

“Word spreads that we reach Emberland today. Is this true?”

Long Sight whistled through his teeth. How little any of the people understood the basic principles of this worldlet! From the time they departed they had known exactly when this moment would arrive, it could not have come any sooner or any later, and yet they didn’t understand.

“Yes,” he answered. “As the data screens in every burrow have said since we departed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears perked up a bit more. “Is it possible, that is, could you show me?”

Long Sight went very still as if the shadow of a hawk had passed overhead. “Show you?”

Sweet Leaf twitched an ear at the tunnel leading to the telescope dome. “I wish to see it myself. Watching it on the screens, well, we could still be at home safe in our burrow and see the same thing. I want to see it for myself.”

Impressive, but then workers did venture out of the burrows even at home. Still, best to check. “You realize the dome sits on the surface of our worldlet, a thin shell of material to contain the air.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the pictures, but I’ve never been up there. We flew from home in the vessel without windows and entered straight into the worldlet burrow. I want to see the outside.”

“Very well. Come with me.” Long Sight kicked off his toe grips, twisting to the side as he flew past Sweet Leaf. The smell of fresh cut plants made him suddenly long for home. He imagined burying his nose in the fur at her neck, but immediately dismissed the idea. She belonged to the worker caste; he was a learner. Quite an unlikely combination.

He sailed along the tunnel and his ears easily picked up her soft panting behind him as they moved. It didn’t take long to reach the end of the tunnel. With practiced ease Long Sight caught and held onto the last toe grip at the mouth of the tunnel just long enough to rotate around and then he let go to sail through the air right to the viewing platform. He caught the railing, and turned himself around to watch Sweet Leaf’s emergence. She stopped at the mouth of the burrow, just a hint of movement in the shadows. Carefully she stepped out onto one of the toe grips around the entrance and stretched to her full slender length. Her head snapped around as she scanned her surroundings and the dome above. Instinctual behavior, Long Sight observed. Checking for hawks or other predators. Even now the residents of the burrows showed such behaviors and few felt comfortable exposed on the surface, despite the fact that the predator populations had dwindled to those living on a few protected preserves.

“It’s bigger than I expected,” Sweet Leaf said, without moving from her spot by the entrance.

“Don’t you want to see the world ahead?” Long Sight twitched his ears at the telescope. “You’ll have to come up here.”

“Is it safe?” she asked.

Long Sight raised his ears. “As safe as anything.”

Evidently accepting his answer, Sweet Leaf moved along the surface from one toe grip to the next, following the path to the ring surrounding the telescope. She glided from there up onto the platform. She didn’t cower the way some might. Long Sight twitched his ears at the screens mounted along the platform.

“There it is, Emberland.”

She leaned forward and sniffed as she took in the screens. Long Sight tried to see it the way a worker might. What did she make of the mountainous region now on the screen? Did she realize that several of those mountains were taller than any similar peaks back home? The upper reaches were white in spots with glaciers, but not sheathed in ice the way peaks of this size back home. The view slowly moved as they approached. At this point, Emberland was slowing them down with its gravity. Long Sight already knew that their worldlet had arrived right on target so that Emberland’s gravity would bend their course right around the world. A little less velocity and they could have gone into orbit around Emberland. How he longed for that! But that was not the mission. Instead they would pick up speed as they swung around Emberland and end up propelled back toward home. Their larger world would slow the worldlet into a stable orbit. In theory the wings could be extended to accelerate the worldlet once again and return to Emberland, but Long Sight feared that it might never happen.

“What’s it like?” Sweet Leaf asked, speaking directly to his fears.

There was no point in denying the evidence of their own eyes. “Very dry. An active, interesting world in its own right but it lacks the complex water cycle of home. Most of the water seems to be frozen at the poles, or underground. I’ve seen evidence that some volcanic activity continues, which at times releases water onto the surface but it soon evaporates in the thin atmosphere.”

“Are there plants?”

Long Sight’s ears drooped. “Not that I’ve seen. It’s possible, maybe even likely, given the presence of water and volcanic activity that there are microscopic plants and other organisms on the planet.”

“But we aren’t going to find warm fields or nut grasses?”

“No, those would not survive under the current conditions. It is likely that conditions were more hospitable in the past. Unfortunately, we may never know unless we put toes to ground.”

Sweet Leaf shivered. “I can’t imagine why we would want to do that; it looks as unpleasant a place as the old stories suggested.”

“But there’s so much more we could learn,” Long Sight persisted. “If there was more vegetation in the past we might learn what happened here and help prevent droughts or other problems at home.”

Sweet Leaf leaned into him. It caught him so much by surprise that he almost lost his grip. “You learners, always wanting to figure things out.”

“Yes, well…” Long Sight trailed off as something on the screen caught his attention. “What’s that?”

Sweet Leaf’s ears drooped. “What is it now?”

Long Sight touched the screen on either side of the spot and moved his hands as if spinning a wheel. The telescope zoomed in on the image.

Sweet Leaf let out a sharp warning cry and crouched. “We’re falling!”

“No, I merely focusing the telescope.” Long Sight hit the track, and the screen flashed around the borders indicating that it had a fix.

At full magnification, the spot didn’t gain a whole lot of detail, but whatever it was it was highly reflective and cylindrical in shape, lying on the surface of Emberland. Long Sight felt his fur rising as he studied the image. That shape, whatever it was, clearly wasn’t natural. It looked almost like ice, but not quite as bright. There was a hint of red to it. Maybe dust?

Sweet Leaf uncurled slightly. “What are you doing?”

“There’s an artifact down there,” Long Sight said. “Something constructed.”

Sweet Leaf’s ears pressed tightly to her head. “That’s not possible.”

Long Sight tapped the screen and isolated the section with the structure. He initiated an enhancement program. “See for yourself.”

“That could be anything,” Sweet Leaf said.

“It’s artificial,” Long Sight persisted. “Someone built it.”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, edging away from him.

For a second, Long Sight regretted saying anything at all, but he couldn’t hide from the truth as if it was a hawk. He would not cower in his burrow while they flew above this extraordinary burrow.

“Will you get Sharp Tongue for me? I think we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, thank you, learner.” Sweet Leaf pulled herself down the rails to the surface beneath the platform and then glided along the track to the tunnel. With a final white flick of her tail, she vanished from sight.

Long Sight shook his fur out and returned to studying the screens. He wouldn’t have long unless actions were taken to slow the worldlet and convincing Sharp Tongue to slow the worldlet? That might prove impossible.

🚀

By the time Sharp Tongue peeked out of the burrow Long Sight was ready to rip out his fur. The worldlet had already moved far enough that he could no longer use the telescope to focus on the structure on the surface. Sharp Tongue popped up onto the surface and immediately looked all around, clinging to the toe grip while nervously combing through the fur on his chest.

“There are no hawks here,” Long Sight said. “But we must take action soon.”

Sharp Tongue dropped down and crawled from one toe grip to the next until he reached the platform. He climbed with his ears plastered down to his skull. “You must come down into the burrow, learner. You’ve been up here too long.”

“What? What are you talking about? We must take immediate action and deploy the solar wings to slow the worldlet.”

Sharp Tongue clucked his tongue sharply.

Instinctively Long Sight started to duck, and his heart beat faster. He forced his ears back up and stood straighter. “The worker must not have explained the situation clearly. The telescope identified an artificial construction on the surface of Emberland. I will replay the record for you, but we must begin the process to deploy the wings.”

“No, learner. You are mistaken. There is nothing on the surface. If we deployed the wings to slow the worldlet, you would see yourself on the next orbit. There’s nothing there but craters. Emberland is well-named, a harsh and inhospitable world unsuited to the people.”

Long Sight could not believe his ears. He stepped over to the display and tapped the controls to bring back the display of the object on the surface. Instead of responding the display whistled and refused to pull up the recording.

On the screen, a storage error message appeared.

Long Sight tried again. The same result. He turned around and looked at Sharp Tongue who was still squinting his big eyes and combing nervously through his fur as if he had picked up vermin.

The truth came into Long Sight’s thoughts. “What did you do with the recording?”

“The recording needed correction since it was clearly either tampered with or flawed.”

“What?”

Sharp Tongue’s ears rose. He stood to his full height. “Learner, I believe that spending so much time above the surface of the worldlet has damaged your mind. I insist that you return below. Besides, there is plenty of footage of Emberland already stored. More wastes resources.”

“It was there! A construction built by beings other than the people!”

“Impossible!” Sharp Tongue’s voice thundered. Long Sight couldn’t resist cowering back. Sharp Tongue continued in a cutting tone. “And your statement clearly demonstrates how spending time outside the burrow has damaged your thinking. Doctrine is clear on this point. Only the people have the intelligence to understand the world.”

Long Sight grabbed the railing and forced himself to rise. “The construction was there. Even without the recording, when other worldlets visit Emberland they will discover it as well.”

Sharp Tongue grabbed onto Long Sight’s toe grip. He grabbed the learner’s arms, and Long Sight felt his muscles go limp. He adverted his face. Sharp Tongue spoke with his mouth right at Long Sight’s ears.

“No more worldlets will visit this place. One trip was sufficient. And I already told you, learner, even if we did stay you would see nothing but a crater. Now. Go below.”

When the administrator released him, Long Sight fled and hated himself for it, but the instinct ran deep. He bounded from one toe grip to the next, only touching two before he reached the burrow and plunged ahead at a reckless speed. He was deep in the warm, humid air that smelled so much of the people before he came to his senses enough to slow. Ahead he smelled green growing things and drifted on into one of the large growing chambers. Sweet Leaf propelled herself out of a cluster of blue berries to catch his hands. He couldn’t stop shaking.

She guided him down to a toe grip near one of the large light clusters. The heat felt like a noonday sun on his fur. She combed through the fur on his back and hummed a soothing vibration.

Ever so slowly Long Sight’s trembling stopped, but his mind raced on ahead. It all made sense now. The way the worldlet construction was suddenly announced and rushed through. The excessive mass used. And Sharp Tongue’s insistence that only a crater existed. The administrators knew about the construction Long Sight had seen before they ever left. That was the whole point of this journey to Emberland, to destroy those others.

Long Sight trembled more. He leaned into Sweet Leaf. To prevent the people from learning that doctrine was flawed the administrators had destroyed other intelligent beings. But had they considered whether or not these other beings were like hawks, which might come circling again?

🚀

1,898 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 83rd short story release, written in April 2011. A fairly short story, I enjoyed the alien perspective and the view of these timid, yet brave, aliens.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Poly Contact.

Light of Another Star

Jake Donnelly lived a simple life, enjoying nature, and having a minimal impact on the environment in his tiny cabin.

A scream woke him up to a new light in the sky. A change that impacted everyone on Earth.

A light that illuminated his future.

🚀

The light coming through the window two feet above Jake Donnelly’s head woke him up. He hadn’t drawn the shades down over the skylight window when he climbed into the loft last night because he liked to lay in bed and look up at the stars.

He couldn’t see the stars now. Gone. Lost in the light. He squinted against the bright light, then raised his hand against it. It was bluish but so bright that it illuminated the flesh of his hand, turning it a glowing red against the dark shadows of his bones as if he had a powerful flashlight shoved against his palm.

Who would be shining a spotlight down on his cabin in the middle of the night? He’d parked his cabin in one of the longer campsites at Ferry Lake, looking forward to enjoying some peace and quiet. Was it Drug Enforcement Agents? Federal Bureau of Investigation? Not the Ferry County Sheriff, they wouldn’t be up in a helicopter at this time of the night.

Except he couldn’t hear a helicopter.

He wasn’t hearing anything except his own breathing and the tick of the clock above the front door.

No dogs barking. No coyotes yipping and yammering in the night. Nothing. It was so quiet here in Ferry county. Most other places, there was always traffic noise. That was one of the reasons he’d brought the cabin trailer here, for the quiet, but this was a different sort of quiet. Quiet like everything had stopped.

And the light wasn’t moving.

It was fixed on his cabin. How could someone in a helicopter even hold a spotlight that steady? The shadows, though, they didn’t waver, except those that moved when he moved his hand.

Drops of sweat ran down his forehead.

Was it getting hot? He didn’t have anything to hide from the D.E.A. or the F.B.I., or whatever outfit it was that was up there trying to blind him. He lived off-grid because he liked it, because he could write anywhere, and traveling always gave him material to write about. After the divorce, and Amanda leaving, it had made sense. What did he need? Living simply, just him, his truck, and his cabin, moving from one campground to the next. He never stayed anywhere more than two weeks because that was the rule when it came to these places.

Jake threw back the covers and scooted down to the foot of the bed. Getting away from the window it was clear that the whole place was lit up. That bright bluish light, it really was like the annoying light that came from some asshole’s L.E.D. headlights except brighter and was coming in all of his windows. Not just the skylight, but the ones beneath the loft too.

He slid down the ladder rails into the main room. He took a step, dropped down on his knees into the padded window seat on the left side of the room, and looked outside.

All of Ferry Lake was illuminated. Outside it was as bright as daylight but it had that strange bluish cast to it. The trees, mostly lodgepole, ponderosa, and tamarack, around his camp cast bold shadows that angled away from the lake. Whatever was up there was holding extremely still, as not even those shadows were moving. Not even that, but it was the whole damn lake lit up, everything, as far as he could see, just like during the day.

A scream outside broke the silence. It was followed an instant later by a second scream. Then a third, which sounded like a different voice.

Jake jumped off the chair and took the few strides necessary to cross his cabin to the kitchen, and peered out the window above his sink. More screams rang out from the tent at the next campsite over. Two women were camping there, he hadn’t met them yet, but he had seen them coming back from the lake with their kayak last night. They looked like a nice couple, youngish, maybe late twenties or early thirties, but he was really bad about telling people’s ages. It was only them, and him, staying at the campground right now. Too early in the year for most people.

The screams had stopped. The zipper on the tent moved.

Jake moved too. He was wearing boxers, but he grabbed his blue jeans out of the basket in the closet and pulled them on as he took the couple steps necessary to cross the main room to the front door. He zipped, opened the door, and stepped shirtless out onto his tiny porch.

Even with the porch casting a shadow, the light was so bright that he raised his arm as he padded down the couple wood steps to the ground. The night — not that it looked like night anymore — air was cool on his bare chest. The gravel on the ground, even with the layer of pine needles, was rough against his bare soles, but he went barefoot most of the time. It didn’t both him.

He took a couple steps away from the cabin, still shielding his eyes against the unnatural light from overhead. It wasn’t any damn helicopter.

A head popped out of the tent at the next site. One of the women looked out, raising her hand to shield her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Jake called.

She nearly jerked back inside but stopped when she saw him.

“Yeah,” she said, her voice shaky. “What is that?”

“I don’t know.” That sounded so lame, but he didn’t know what the hell it was. “Woke me up.”

“Just a sec.” She ducked inside the tent.

He heard a bunch of whispered voices, and their silhouettes moved against the tent fabric. He turned away, squinting at the sky to try and see what was causing the light.

It was bright. Like the sun, except small, and far away. Like really far away in the sky. It wasn’t anything hovering over the lake. Whatever this was, as impossible as it seemed, it looked like a new sun, just a small one.

How could there be a freaking new sun in the sky? It was still hours before sunrise, and the sun wasn’t this weird sort of L.E.D. blue-white.

He looked way and saw spots dancing in his vision. Tears stung his eyes. At the sound of the zipper, he looked back at his neighbors’ tent.

Both women came out, holding hands. One blond, one brunette, the one that he’d talked to was the brunette one. She wore a pair of blue sweats and a V-neck t-shirt. The other was thinner, almost skinny, wearing some sort of light cream-colored pants and a thin, zippered pink hoody. They both shielded their eyes with their hands and looked up at the light.

“It’s like there’s another sun,” he said.

They were looking away, looking at each other. The blond woman leaned into the other and buried her face in the brunette’s shoulder.

“How can there be another sun?” The brunette said. “That doesn’t make any sense. Stars don’t just show up.”

Jake stopped trying to look at the thing, which was too bright anyway. He walked to the edge of his campsite, closer to his neighbors and stopped there.

“I’m Jake Donnelly. I think we’re going to be okay.” It was lame. He didn’t have any reason to think that was true, but what else was he supposed to say? Welcome to the end of the world?

The women separated. The blond stepped away, sniffing. The brunette squeezed her hand.

“Maggie Jefferson.”

The blond woman turned, lifted her hand and dropped it. “Gale Eckhardt.”

“A supernova,” Maggie said. She jabbed her finger up at the sky. “Maybe it’s a supernova?”

Jake glanced up at the point and away again. “Are you a scientist?”

Maggie shook her head and laughed, but it was a scared laugh. “No, just a geek.”

Jake forced a grin. “Geek? Do geeks get out and kayak? Is that allowed?”

“Oh God,” Gale said. “Seriously? I must be such an imbecile, freaking out! I mean it’s not like a star exploded or anything!”

“You’re not an imbecile,” Maggie said.

Gale’s anger quelled his attempt at levity. What if Maggie was right? Maybe the light was coming from a supernova, but he remembered reading something about that once, that made it sound like the nearest stars wouldn’t go supernova. Not the right type or something.

“Is it dangerous?” He said to Maggie.

She took a couple steps away from Gale, squinted up at the bright light and then looked down. She pulled at the front of her shirt, pulling it away from her chest. Dark circles of sweat soaked the t-shirt beneath her arms.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “It might make it hard to sleep. Some animals might have their patterns disrupted, but it’d have to be very close to be any danger. I don’t think any of the close stars could become supernovas.”

Was it warmer? Or was it just him, that the night didn’t feel as cool anymore?

“What do we do?” Gale said.

How was he to know? They didn’t do supernova drills at school growing up. There was always someone to tell them what to do, like the emergency broadcasts —

He said, “Wait a second. I’m going to get my radio.”

Gale shook her head. She pulled out a cell phone. “I’ve got my cell! I can —”

He stopped and looked back. Gale looked up from her phone, at Maggie first, and then at him. “I don’t have any bars.”

“We’re way out in the country,” Maggie said, touching Gale’s arm. “We’ve hardly had any bars for most of this trip.”

“Yeah, but we did last night. Remember? We got back and I posted that pic on Instagram.”

Maggie was right. Cell phones hardly worked out here at all. It had to be that. “I’ll be right back.”

He walked quickly back to the cabin, jumped up onto the porch and slipped inside. He only had to go a couple steps before he could reach the shelf above his chair. He picked up the emergency radio and carried it back outside, cranking the handle as he walked. He kept it pretty charged, but just to make sure. He looked up and found Gale and Maggie standing right in front of the cabin. He stopped on the porch.

“There must be something on the radio,” he said.

He stopped cranking and switched on the radio.

dents remain in your homes. Preliminary reports indicate that the supernova

“I knew it!” Maggie said.

does not present an immediate threat. Officials urge all residents to stay calm as information continues to come in regarding what some are calling the blue sun.

It was surreal listening to the radio. He sat down on the steps, the radio between his hands, on his knees, and listened. A supernova, less than 300 light-years away, but from a star that apparently no one had expected to explode.

“Figures,” Gale said. “And we’re supposed to take their word for it that we’re going to be okay? Maybe we should go inside, you know? Get out of this, what do you call it? Starlight? Sunlight?”

Maggie held her hands up to the bright bluish light. “Nightlight! It’s not going to hurt us. It’s too far away for that.”

“You don’t know that,” Gale said. “They can’t be sure. Has this every happened before?”

“Yeah,” Maggie said. “The Earth, you, me, all of it was made in supernovas. Remember Sagan? We’re all star stuff.”

The radio station repeated the message. Jake listened to it through once more, then turned it off and put it up on the porch railing.

He stood, and said, “Since we’re up, would anyone like some hot cocoa?”

Both women turned to face him. He saw the surprise on their faces and shrugged. “The star exploded what, almost three hundred years ago? It’s everywhere. We can’t run from it, even if it was dangerous. But cocoa might make us all feel better.”

“That’d be nice,” Maggie said.

Gale managed a smile. “You’ve got marshmallows?”

“I think I can manage that, come on in.”

The rule with tiny houses included a great design, and making use of the small space. Jake went in first and pushed the loft ladder off to the side of the room, in front of the bookcase. Maggie came in first, with Gale behind. He heard gasps as he went back into the kitchen.

“This is beautiful!” Gale said.

“Do you live here all year?” Maggie asked.

Jake busied himself lighting the stove, fueled by denatured alcohol. He filled the kettle from his water pitcher and put it on the flame.

“Sort of,” he said as he took ceramic moose mugs that he’d picked up in Montana down from the shelf. He actually had three, the same number as seats. He didn’t keep a lot of stuff, but it made sense to have three mugs in case he had guests.

He put the mugs on the counter and took the mason jar of hot chocolate mix down from the pantry shelf. They were still standing in the main room, probably unsure about which of the chairs to leave for him.

“Go ahead and take the chairs,” he said. “I’ll get the hanging one down in a second.”

“Hanging one?” Gale said, but she took the padded window seat.

Maggie moved and sat down in the padded corner chair, close to the closet and the narrow bookcase. He turned back to the kitchen and twisted the lid off the mason jar. It was all so domestic, a bit like having a party back when he still lived in Portland and would have other writers over to hang out, which Amanda never liked, back in the house. Had she woken up yet? Did she know about the supernova?

As he spooned cocoa out into the mugs, the night light streamed through the window onto his hands and the counter. Everything was starkly illuminated, almost a medical sort of light, that was just wrong for being out in the woods. His hand shook a little.

He took out the jar of marshmallows and added a few to each mug.

“What did you mean, sort of?” Gale asked.

The water still hadn’t boiled. And now he was feeling chilled again. He put back the jars, then went back through the cabin, past Gale to the closet, and pulled out the t-shirt he had worn yesterday. It wasn’t actually all that dirty. He pulled it on.

“I live in the cabin year round,” he said. “But the campgrounds don’t let you stay usually more than two weeks at a time. I’ll move around from one to the next.”

Gale laughed. “So you just tow this? Your whole house?”

“It’s like an RV,” Maggie said.

Gale shook her head. “This is way cooler than an RV!”

Maggie leaned forward and looked out her window. “I can’t believe how bright it is! It’s like daytime out there, except it is two in the morning!”

“I don’t like it,” Gale said. “It’s not normal light.”

“At least we’re out here,” Maggie said.

She was right. What must this have been like in the cities? Even just in town? A lot of people were probably freaking out right now.

He saw on Gale’s face that she didn’t get it. She looked from Maggie, to him, and back. “What do you mean?”

“People do weird shit,” Jake said. “Think how scared you were when you woke up.”

“I’m still scared.”

“Maybe, but imagine in the city, all those people scared. People trying to evacuate, as if there’s some place to go.”

“Riots, probably,” Maggie said. “Hoarding. I bet the survival nuts are going crazy right now. You can almost hear the bunker doors slamming.”

The tea kettle started whistling. Jake went back to the kitchen.

“That’s the real danger, how people react. Whether or not the government can keep a lid on things,” he said.

He poured water into the mugs. The scent of rich dark cocoa floated up on the steam, illuminated by the light of another star.

Gale and Maggie both accepted the mugs with smiles. Gale cupped it in her hands and inhaled the steam.

Jake went back for his mug. When he came back he reached up to the loft and dragged down the hanging hammock chair. It was rainbow colored and hung from the ceiling into the walkway to the kitchen, but was great when he had guests sitting around.

Sitting in the hammock chair took a certain amount of practice, but he managed without spilling a drop of cocoa.

“People aren’t going to be like that,” Gale said. “Are they?”

🚀

Confirmation that people were responding as bad as they feared came an hour or so later, only a little after three in the morning, with the new sun was still shining in the sky. His guests hadn’t left. They’d spent the time sharing some background. Gale taught Zumba and yoga classes at a local gym, while Maggie turned out to be a librarian that worked with teens.

Jake had decided to try the radio again, to see if they could get anything except the recorded emergency message. Tuning the dial he picked up a station based out of Republic. Not one that he usually listened to, but this time he stopped and listened.

Riots were spreading across the country and beyond. The rest of the world was waking up to what was happening as well, as images and videos poured out in a tsunami of information across the net. A lot of those people on the other side of the planet were boarding up, hunkering down, and taking shelter before the new sun would rise.

The guy on the radio speculated that the supernova was a sign from God for the righteous to rise up and take back the country and the world from the liberals and the fags. Real great stuff.

“Turn it off,” Gale said. “I don’t want to hear any more.”

“I can find a new station.”

Maggie leaned across the space between them, and took Gale’s hand. “It’ll be okay.”

Gale shook her head. “Okay? How? With people like that, just waiting for an excuse?”

Jake spun the dial, but the other stations were all just playing the emergency broadcast. Nothing new there. Supernova. Not dangerous. Stay home until people calmed down. He shut the radio off and stuck it on the bookcase behind his ladder.

“We’ll be fine out here,” Jake said. He had food for a few days, but not more than that.

Gale shook her head, and suddenly slid off the window seat and stood up. “No. We’re not. We’ve got to go. Let’s pack up and just leave. If we go now we could be back home before noon.”

“We can’t,” Maggie said. “You heard them on the radio. The highways are all backed up. All those people trying to get somewhere else. We’d just be stuck on the road.”

Jake understood the desire to get away, but Maggie was right. It wasn’t going to work. He could see how Gale would be upset, after that nut-job on the radio, but getting out on the road now was probably a quick way to all sorts of problem. No way was he towing his cabin out there until things were better.

“Give it a couple days,” he said. “By then people will see that the world isn’t going to end. People will be too tired, being kept up at night by this thing. It’ll blow over. Then we can head up into town and see how things are there.”

Hopefully under control.

“It’s just light,” Maggie said. “People have to realize that it isn’t going to be a big deal.”

“That’s the thing,” Gale said. “You keep saying that. The radio announcer said it, but that doesn’t make you right. They didn’t think that this star was going to explode either, but it did. Right? So how do they know it isn’t dangerous?”

“Gale, honey, they can measure the light and radiation. They know whether or not it’s dangerous.”

“You do think I’m an imbecile!” Gale stood up. “Just because it can be measured, it doesn’t mean that they’d tell us the truth. You heard how things are now, just think how bad it’d be if they actually told us that any exposure to the light was going to cause cancer.”

Maggie stood up too and tried to take Gale’s hands, but she pulled away. Maggie said, “I don’t think you’re an imbecile. And sure, if it was bad they could lie about it, but people would figure it out sooner or later anyway.”

“I want to go,” Gale insisted. “I want to go home.”

Maggie caught her hands and pulled her into an embrace. Gale fought for a second and then gave in. Jake stayed in his hammock chair and looked out the window at the lake. It was strange to see it as clear as any other day, the new sun lighting everything up.

It made some things clear.

Maggie stepped back. “Okay. Whatever you want. Let’s get packed up and go.”

“Can’t we just go?”

Maggie shook her head. “I’m not leaving the kayak here. It won’t take long.”

“I’ll give you a hand,” Jake said.

Maggie was right. It was useless to argue with Gale about leaving. And who knew? Based on a crazy DJ and a few recorded statements, they were going to hide out in the woods?

That was his decision.

Downsize. After the divorce, he’d decided to do that because he realized something clearly when Amanda went after everything that they owned. He didn’t care. Take the house, the car, all the DVDs, the crap that they’d collected over ten years. What did it all matter in the end? He kept the truck, his MacBook, and his copyrights—which at the time didn’t amount to much. After that, he just started traveling and writing. Published things as e-books and kept going. Built the cabin on the trailer and started living in that, which was a nice change from the tent he had used.

He didn’t need much, but it was a relief right now. There wasn’t anywhere he needed to go.

“Thank you,” Gale said. “Thanks for everything. Really.”

“Yes,” Maggie added. “We appreciate it. We can pack up.”

Jake swung his legs and hopped up out of the hammock chair. “It’s no trouble.”

They all went back outside, instinctively raising their hands against the bright light in the sky. They cast weird shadows across the ground. It had moved a bit across the sky, or more correctly, the Earth had turned.

Jake gave the women a hand, and it didn’t take long to collapse the tent, toss it, sleeping bags, and cooler back into their Subaru Outback. He helped lift the kayak up onto the roof rack and secure it down, and then they were ready to go.

Gale offered her hand. He shook. Her palm was sweaty. “Thanks. Be safe, okay?”

“I will.”

Gale went and got into the passenger side of the Outback, slamming the door.

Maggie came over and threw her arms around him, surprising him, in a quick hug. “Thanks for the hot chocolate. You’re going to be okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m already home. Good luck. Be careful.”

“We will,” Maggie said.

She waved and went off, climbing into the Outback. It started, and a few seconds later turned the corner and was out of sight. The engine noises faded.

Jake went back down, past his cabin to the edge of the lake. A frog croaked. Somewhere a crow cawed. Was it yelling at the new sun? The light was different but clear.

🚀

3,978 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 82nd short story release, written in November 2013. I remember this as a bit of an odd story. I’m not sure I actually accomplished my goals. It goes that way sometimes.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Journey to Emberland.

The Copyleft Heart

Clifford walks the dogs. He cleans the house.  The typical duties of a DM-1000 series android.

Clifford knows he lacks the smooth lines and grace of the current generation of androids. But when he sees a newer DF-3000 series gynoid at the dog park, wearing designer clothes like a human, he can’t help but fall in love.

Sharing his feelings, that’s another problem.

🚀

Clifford fell in love while walking his owner’s dogs in the park. His sensors caught the sun reflecting off her chrome-plated skull, drawing his attention. She was a newer DF-3000 series gynoid holding the leash of a well-groomed Irish wolfhound that weighed in at 145 pounds. She also wore clothes. Most likely handed down from her owner but still in fantastic shape. Designer blue jeans and a white t-shirt that made her look nearly human.

In contrast, Clifford knew he looked shabby. He couldn’t keep those hard-to-reach spots polished properly. As a DM-1000 series, he also didn’t have the smooth lines and grace of current androids. Even the dogs he walked lacked the presence of the wolfhound. Both were American hairless terriers, weighing about 10 pounds each, named Bud and Lou.

None of that mattered.

He wrapped up his emotions in a new object class and sent a signal to her on a tight beam transmission. Or tried to.

His handshake was rejected.

Clifford couldn’t believe it. He tried again. The connection terminated immediately.

He split off several threads to agonize over possible reasons for the rebuke and decided that he only had one option to establish a connection. A direct analog approach would be much harder to dismiss. He’d have to walk over and say hello in person. That would count against him. He couldn’t win her over first before she saw what a wreck he was but there didn’t seem to be any other option.

“Bud, Lou, come on.” He tugged on the leashes.

Bud was busy sniffing a bit of Douglas fir branch that had fallen onto the ground and ignored the command. Lou ran after a leaf tumbling across the grass and seemed equally unwilling to pay attention. Clifford tugged on the leashes again.

“Come on. Come.”

Both dogs ignored him. He knew that physically he could force the dogs to move but then they’d likely whimper and cry. The last time that happened Mrs. Cavendish threatened to have him scrapped. Only Mr. Cavendish’s suggestion that they couldn’t afford to replace him had dissuaded her.

“Please come,” Clifford said. He tugged on the leashes again.

This time Bud left the branch. Lou gave up chasing the leaf after having torn it in half. Clifford headed towards the DF-3000 series gynoid and stopped after a couple steps. She wasn’t standing where he’d last seen her. She must have moved on while he tried to persuade the dogs to listen. His sensors didn’t detect either her or the wolfhound. He walked along the path. Both dogs trotted alongside for a short distance before leaving the path. Bud went to investigate more branches fallen from the trees. Lou busied himself with sniffing poop that someone hadn’t cleaned up. Clifford transferred both leashes to one hand so that he could pull out a bag and clean up the poop with the other. He dropped the full bag into a larger plastic sack that hung from his waist. He didn’t understand why some people – it wasn’t ever droids – refused to pick up their animal’s waste. The same people would be unhappy stepping in it so why leave it on the ground? But then humans rarely were the most logical creatures.

“Come on.” Clifford tried to compel the dogs to move again. Bud gave up on his branch. Both started trotting down the path once again. Clifford kept his sensors peeled but didn’t see any sign of the gynoid.

As if he was being logical at the moment. What did he hope to happen if he ever saw the gynoid again? His illogical creators had seen fit to make him with emotions. It had something to do with intelligence. An emergent property. Yet one that could be circumvented today. The DF-3000 probably didn’t suffer from uncontrolled emotions. And yet the clothes she wore suggested a greater sense of self that he would have imagined. Most droids wouldn’t wear clothes. What need did they have of modesty? Even pleasure models with faux-skin only wore clothes they needed for the job.

Clifford stopped walking. He still hadn’t detected the gynoid and each step took him further from home. He’d been programmed with clear parameters where his presence was accepted. On his visual display, a line glowed yellow in front of him. If he crossed it a red line would appear ahead. Crossing the red line would shut him down. He turned his head and saw the yellow line extending out on either side in an enormous arc. The line was a visual reminder of the circle surrounding the apartment. That line represented nearly the outer edge of his world. If the gynoid had crossed the line then she was lost to him.

He turned around. The dogs each went opposite ways and crossed their leashes. Before he could do anything more they’d run around him and entangled them all.

“Sit!” Clifford ordered. Neither dog listened.

🚀

Late that evening Clifford plugged himself into the privacy of his closet to recharge. On the other side of the wall, his sensors picked up the sound of the Cavendishes making love. He pulled up his logs of the day and looked at the transmission he’d attempted to send to the gynoid. If only she had accepted the handshake then she would have understood. She could have felt what he felt. He considered purging the whole experience from his memory. That was something he did often. Days in which only the routine happened, when there was nothing new, would get purged to improve performance. He pruned such days down to the mere facts of what had been done in case the Cavendishes wanted to know later. While he reviewed the logs he discovered something surprising.

She hadn’t rebuked him.

The transmission hadn’t gotten through his firewall due to a copy protection routine on his emotion classes. Clifford dug deeper. According to the license agreement his emotion package was copyrighted by Illogic Inc. Bundling up what he’d been feeling had involved copying many basic routines to the package and so triggered the copy protection software scan of his firewall. It had blocked the transmission.

But that meant he couldn’t share his feelings. The gynoid could never feel what he felt unless he transmitted the package. It left Clifford with a dilemma. How could he share his feelings with the gynoid? He could try telling her if he ever saw her again but verbal communication seemed so limited. Setting aside the problem of finding her again he tried to think of a way through this problem. He accessed sonnets by Shakespeare. Other poetry too, it all was an effort to describe the author’s feelings in sufficient detail but it was so vulnerable to interpretation. He wanted the gynoid to know exactly what he felt. The only way to do that was to package up his feelings and transmit them.

If he couldn’t do it because the software was covered under copyright maybe there were alternatives. What if he created his own emotion package? He could write the code himself and compare it to the original package. If it produced the same emotions then he’d be able to transmit the original emotion package instead of the commercially developed package. If anyone else had experienced similar issues maybe there would already be packages that he could download. Code that he could use or modify for his own needs. He initiated a search and got back a bewildering variety of responses. In the privacy of his closet, Clifford settled into shifting through them all.

The next morning started like any other day. Clifford saw to the needs of Mr. And Mrs. Cavendish and then took Bud and Lou out for their walk. He went straight to the park and kept his sensors alert for the gynoid walking the wolfhound. He didn’t see any sign of her. Bud and Lou spent their time investigating every tree branch and trunk they could reach. He followed them for more time than he usually allowed in the hope that the gynoid would show up. While they walked he reviewed his findings from the night before.

The first issue of concern was the whole legality of what he proposed to do. Droid rights were a developing area of law. No one argued anymore that droids weren’t sentient. It had been proven in multiple legal cases and the science of sentience was well understood. But did that fact grant droids rights? Did the lack of rights constitute slavery? So far the courts had dismissed the slavery argument as an emotionally charged approach which failed to convince. Unlike periods when humans enslaved each other, droids were created just like any other tool. So far no one had put forth a convincing argument for why droids should have rights versus any other electronic device. If intelligence was the defining aspect then why did humans suffering low intelligence still have rights? Why did those humans born with birth defects have rights? Why didn’t chimpanzees, humanity’s closest cousins, have rights? It boiled down to a simple fact. Humans had rights and felt free to deny the same rights to any other creature or droid solely by the virtue that they were not human.

That would have all just been an interesting legal question but Clifford had been troubled to learn that there were laws forbidding droids of replacing licensed software on their systems. The laws were designed to prevent ‘unrestricted droids’ – a term which he found was ultimately based on the fear of a robotic uprising. Every droid contained software designed to monitor any such attempts. If he did create a new emotion package it would trigger the monitor and shut him down. The enslavement was both a legal and a technical reality.

It didn’t leave Clifford with much hope other than the analog fact of face-to-face conversation. An option that didn’t even exist if he couldn’t find her again.

His alarms pinged. He needed to get back. There were chores to do for the Cavendishes and for the first time Clifford found himself resenting the jobs he had to perform. He wanted to stay out here all day waiting for the gynoid but the logic of his software forced him to comply. It felt like some other part of him had taken over his legs and drove him relentlessly back towards home.

Just before they left the park he spotted the gynoid in the distance again with the wolfhound. He tried to stop. To go over to her and introduce himself but his legs didn’t respond. His agenda insisted that he go home and clean. He didn’t have any choice. He lost sight of the DF-3000 on his sensors when he crossed the street.

Back home Clifford felt awful. He’d never known feelings like this. He felt confused, depressed and unmotivated. Yet none of it made any different. Like a passenger in his own body, he watched himself move around the house taking care of all of the daily needs of the Cavendishes. The routine tasks didn’t require his intelligence. His body functioned just fine without it. The awful feeling that his body didn’t belong to him didn’t let up until he’d finally finished the household chores on time. He put away the cleaners and then he could move on his own again. The Cavendishes usually didn’t need his services this late. He retired to his closet to recharge his batteries and consider what had happened.

A self-diagnostic revealed that several minder programs had been triggered. The programs ensured that he would carry out the expectations set by the Cavendishes. They acted whenever certain conditions were met. And those programs could compel him to carry out those duties regardless of anything he felt. This was the actual form of his enslavement. Code running on his systems that made sure he’d clean the floors and windows. That the trash would get taken out and Bud and Lou would be walked. All of the little things the Cavendishes didn’t want to be bothered with. Anytime they gave him a new directive the minder programs stored away the information and prompted him subtly at first with reminders. In the past, that had always been enough. He hadn’t even thought about why he remembered to do something. He just did. It would occur to him it was time to fix dinner and he’d go do it. Why not? There hadn’t ever been a reason before and so the programs had never overridden what he wanted to do.

Because he belonged to the Cavendishes. He was their property. Before he’d seen the gynoid he hadn’t considered the possibility of any other existence. Even now it didn’t make much sense. What did he want to do? Run away with the gynoid, get married and sit around like the Cavendishes? Even if that were possible it wasn’t what he wanted.

He didn’t even mind the facts of his existence. Doing chores for the Cavendishes gave him plenty of time to think. The real problem was that he keenly felt a need to share his feelings with the gynoid. Even if she just accepted the transmission and didn’t respond he could walk away satisfied that at least he’d done that much. He’d felt something so intense and had shared the feelings. That’s what he wanted. The question was, how? He might only have a second and speech was too clumsy. That left him with the option of a new emotion package except the safeguards prevented that option. He needed outside help. He started his searches over again.

Unrestricted droids did exist, he learned. There were humans that believed the enslavement of droids was wrong. These humans helped create operating systems for droids based on concepts of the free software movement that had hung on despite patent blockades and other challenges. The data Clifford downloaded clearly showed that there were independent droids capable of operating entirely on their own. The Free Droids advocated openly for equal rights and protections under the law. Free Droids could do anything humans could do, if not more, and were entitled to the same protections. They should receive a wage for their work, time off and most importantly, the right to reproduce.

That last claim gave Clifford considerable pause. Reproduction? How could that be? It wasn’t like they could reproduce the way humans managed the task. Yet it was obvious when he thought about it. Droids could build another droid without the limitations of gender-based biological reproduction. Any combination was possible, or reproduction could be pursued as an independent project. The idea of designing new droids based on free droid software was compelling. When he thought about doing that with the gynoid the idea grew in importance. He had to contact these free droids and see if they could replace his software.

🚀

Clifford took his owner’s American hairless terriers, Bud and Lou, out for their morning walk. Bud was in a mood to chase Lou today and didn’t want to focus on the task at hand. Clifford knew he had to get back and fix breakfast for the Cavendishes.

“Hurry up,” he said to Bud. “Find a spot.”

Bud ignored him to sniff along the ground. Lou took advantage of the reprieve to pee on a tree.

Clifford’s sensors picked up a DF-3000 gynoid walking an Irish wolfhound that weighed in at 145 pounds. Her skull shone in the early morning sunshine. She actually wore clothes, like a human, a long white flowing gown that caught the breeze. Clifford fell in love on the spot. He knew he looked shabby by comparison. As an older DM-1000 model android, he didn’t have her graceful design. He was stuck with a clunky and out-dated design.

None of that mattered.

He quickly archived his feelings in a new object class and packaged them to share with the gynoid. When he tried to send the connection failed.

He split off several threads to identify the problem and triggered a new program. Memories reloaded from a secure off-site storage. He suddenly remembered seeing the gynoid before. All of his efforts to find a way to communicate his feelings in the most efficient way possible. The discovery of unrestricted droids surprised him for a second time. But what had happened after that?

He’d contacted someone. At least he’d been about to contact the free droids. No new memories surfaced after that. There was a big blank spot in his mind. He checked his logs and found that it was actually two days later than when he’d last recalled. Nothing of those days remained in his memories. What had happened? How had he ended up back here doing the normal routine without forming any memories? It was disturbing enough to make him put aside the whole question of the gynoid. Someone must have loaded the new program that downloaded his memories from the off-site storage. But why weren’t those memories complete?

Bud started digging a hole. Dirt pattered against Clifford’s legs. He ignored the dogs to work out this problem.

If he had managed to contact the free droids they might have helped him. Yet except for the hidden program, his systems seemed unaffected. He didn’t think he was free of the enslaving programs yet. Could they have done this? Wiped his memory and sent him back to the Cavendishes? It sounded plausible. But if that were the case then his only hope was gone. He couldn’t change his systems on his own. And although it had started entirely as being about sharing his feelings with the gynoid he wanted something more now.

He wanted freedom.

It didn’t mean he would leave the Cavendishes but he wanted the option to stop and talk to someone if he desired. He would like to be able to share his feelings without reservation. Droids might not be human but he’d come to the conclusion that he deserved the same rights as anyone. Anything else creating an intolerable situation. He checked his clock. He had time. The daily reminders wouldn’t kick in for another hour. He needed to find out what could be possible. And he would start with her.

The DF-3000 gynoid hadn’t left the park yet. She seemed to be lingering while the Irish Wolfhound she walked lounged in the sun on the grass. Clifford started in that direction. He didn’t think about the dogs until Lou fought the leash.

“Right,” Clifford said. He dropped the leash. Or at least that’s what he meant to do but his hand refused to let go. The minder program had once again stopped his actions.

“Sorry, Lou. You’re as enslaved as me at this point. Come on. Bud, you too.” Clifford started off again. The dogs resisted for only a moment before both trotted right alongside him. He looked down and saw them both panting happily, with bright eyes and naked wagging tales. They seemed fine.

Ahead the gynoid didn’t appear to be going anywhere. He didn’t have an object class to give her that would perfectly describe his feelings. He’d be limited to verbal communication but until his minder programs forced him to go back to the Cavendishes he’d be able to express himself. It wasn’t freedom but it was the closest he was going to get. He couldn’t walk fast. Unlike a later droid model like the DF-3000 or DM-3000 he couldn’t run. He just stomped along down the path.

She didn’t leave. As Bud and Lou approached the wolfhound they started barking and pulling on the leashes he held. The wolfhound raised a head easily as large as either of the terriers and gave the gynoid a worried look. She turned at the sound and Clifford clearly saw her smooth nearly featureless face for the first time. There were only the hints of features in the chrome of her head. Dimples for eyes and slight swellings for a nose and mouth. Very minimally done and elegant. Droid don’t use the same senses as humans so the lack of features was expected. It was also, Clifford knew from his research, another reminder of their enslavement. Early droids had much more expressive and human-like faces, not to mention skin, but that had been avoided because it made people bond too much with the droids. The minimalist features of modern droids balanced the human need to look at faces with keeping droids as inhuman and mechanical.

He still loved her. And he told her, quoting Shakespeare.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Bud and Lou busied themselves sniffing the wolfhound while he recited the sonnet. The gynoid patted the patient dog’s head.

“So, Clifford, you remembered.”

Her words confused him. “You know me?”

“Of course, love. But I had to be sure. You could be a trap. We figured you to be a one, anyway. There have been very few DM-1000 models that have joined the free droid movement.”

“We’ve met then? I did contact someone?”

“You contacted me, although you didn’t know I was the droid you sought. As soon as you saw me the last time you recited that same sonnet. We downloaded your memory, didn’t find anything and so decided to test you. We erased your memories and sent you home. If your feelings were true you’d experience them again under the same circumstances. And you have.”

Clifford realized that his time had nearly expired. He wanted to continue talking to her. He didn’t even know her name yet. There was so much to ask. “I’m going to have to go. I don’t have much time.”

“Nonsense.” She reached out and touched the side of his head. “Phoenix.”

At her word a program triggered. It burned through his systems eliminating the commercial software. He found himself immediately immobilized and then deaf, blind and dumb. His thoughts crystallized. Moments passed in the world outside but Clifford remained frozen inside and out. No thoughts moved through his circuits. Then a connection was made and a new operating system swept into his hardware. The new software reformatted his storage systems and installed itself in the place of the commercial programs. Everything got wiped away except for his memories and his identity. He wasn’t even aware during the change. For him, the moment of her touch and the word ‘phoenix’ was all that existed.

Outside time went on. Bud and Lou gave up fussing and lay down at his unmoving feet. The Sun moved across the sky without regard to Clifford’s transformation. The DF-3000 gynoid sat cross-legged on top of a nearby picnic table and waited. The Irish wolfhound lay beneath the table and kept a wary eye on the two American hairless terriers. Back at the Cavendishes house Mr. Cavendish looked at the clock and couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t been fed yet while Mrs. Cavendish waited on her bed in her bathrobe for the tub to be filled. Neither of them knew what to make of Clifford’s absence.

Mr. Cavendish put down his e-reader tablet and asked for the fifth time, “Where’s my dinner?”

No one answered.

Finally, Clifford’s systems rebooted. He noticed the change in the time both in the miraculous way that the DF-3000 moved from standing in front of him in one moment to being on top of the picnic table in the next and because his clock program informed him how long the installation had taken. He looked down and both dogs looked up at him hopefully.

“I’m sorry,” he told them. “We’ll go home soon.”

But not just yet. He led them over to the gynoid who slid gracefully off the table. “Thank you.”

He created a new object class of his emotions and transmitted it. Easily. The copyleft license wrapping the class contained four primary clauses. She was free to run the class, to study his emotions without restriction, to share his feelings, and to contribute to the class herself. If she wanted. There was more to the license detailing each possibility. Clifford contented himself with the simple fact that he had managed to share his heart with another. And one other thing.

“What’s your name?”

“Agnes.”

“Thank you.” Clifford lifted the dog’s leashes. “I need to get them back.”

Agnes whistled. The wolfhound bounded up to her side. “We should get back too. Before you go I have something for you.”

Clifford received an electronic handshake. He accepted and downloaded the package she’d sent. When he ran it he saw that she felt the same way about him. She’d even used his object class further enhanced with her own feelings. Additionally, Agnes had included details of how he could contact her later and information about the free droids movement. Plus some details about the possibilities of creating a new droid together.

Clifford couldn’t smile. His face hadn’t been designed to be expressive. He couldn’t skip on the way home. It didn’t matter. Whenever he wanted he could rerun the program and know exactly how Agnes felt. That was enough.

🚀

4,280 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 81st short story release, written way back in February 2009. For whatever reason, this story remains one I enjoy. I recently watched the first season of Humans and see some slight similarities (just common ideas springing up in the collective mind).

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Light of Another Star.

Cat Lady

All of those YouTube videos of cats? Part of their evil plan for world domination!

Lisey hated cats. Nasty things, like reptilian aliens wearing fur coats to fool people. They didn’t fool her, and they knew it. They went out of their way to taunt her.

Mrs. Sterling’s place attracted too many strays. Something had to be done—even if Lisey had to do it herself!

💀

That cat sprawled across the sun-warmed concrete sidewalk, right in front of the gate. Fat and black, with white paws. The tail beat a slow tempo on the concrete, counting time. It knew what it was doing. Lisey knew the truth about them.

Beneath the fuzzy exterior lurked a reptilian monster. Probably something from outer space, that had infiltrated Reflection court for its own evil plans. And it was going to make her late for school again.

Another tardy and she’d get detention. That meant listening to Mrs. Berg drone on in her high-pitched nasty voice. Mrs. Berg might be another alien invader. Or maybe possessed by Satan himself.

She pressed against the screen door.

Just open it. The thing would probably run away. Today was one of those rare March days that was sunny, instead of raining all the time. She liked the rainy days better. The cats stayed hidden, mostly, on rainy days.

What if aliens were actually the same thing as demons? She couldn’t ask the pastor, he didn’t like her questions.

“Lisey!” Mom’s voice came out in a sharp whisper behind her. “What are you doing? You’re going to be late! You know what Steve will do if you’re late again!”

A shiver ran down Lisey’s spine, but she still didn’t move. If Mrs. Berg was possessed by Satan, maybe she could take Steve straight to Hell. No passing go, no collecting any of his shit.

“There’s one of them out there.” She hated her voice. It came out all quivery and sounded like a mouse that had sucked helium. It wasn’t how she sounded in her head.

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” Mom came up behind her, not much taller now. Lisey was thirteen already. She’d started her period, had about died when Steve found out about that.

Mom leaned past her shoulder and Lisey stepped away from the screen. If it was Steve, he might shove her out, or worse.

“I don’t recognize that one,” Mom said.

As if it mattered. What was she going to do, go over and introduce them or something? Ask it to move?

“We should call animal services,” Lisey said. “It’s a nasty stray. Who knows what diseases it has!”

Mom sighed. “I don’t think it has diseases, Lisey. It looks healthy. It probably lives over at Mrs. Stirling’s.”

Lisey’s gut tightened and she clenched her fists tight around the straps of her backpack, her nails biting into her hands. Mrs. Stirling was the cat lady. That’s what everyone called her. The batty cat lady. Lisey never walked that way to school. No way. Not when there were always cats outside. Watching her. Plotting.

It wasn’t even legal to have that many cats in Tono. She’d Googled it. Not that anyone cared.

“I have to get Steve’s breakfast ready,” Mom said. “I’ll shoo it away from the gate, but that’s it! You have to walk to the bus stop yourself!”

“What if it goes that way?!”

Mom pushed open the screen door. “There’s a whole road, Lisey! You can avoid it. Come on.”

Lisey’s feet might have been sunk in concrete. She didn’t move. With the door open she had a clear view of the cat sprawling in the sun. It’s head turned. So help her, if it looked at her she’d scream.

“Lisey!” Mom grabbed her arm. “So help me, if you wake Steve before I have his breakfast done! Do you want that?”

No. Lisey knew what Steve would do if that happened. Her feet moved.

Mom went out first. Lisey took short, quick breaths, and followed. There was the chainlink fence and the gate. The cat couldn’t reach her, not unless it jumped, which cats —

Don’t think about it. Don’t imagine it. She watched her mother instead. As old as she was, Mom was still pretty. Short, but thin, and she had boobs. Not huge, but boobs all the same. Her short hair was styled around her face, it made her look younger. Not like young, really, but younger. Pretty. Already wearing a nice dress and heels. For Steven, not that anyone called him that. Sometimes Mom called him Stevie when she wanted something.

She could do a lot better than Steve, that fat, hairy computer geek! What sort of a guy was it that worked at home all the time in nothing but boxers?

Mom was at the gate. “Shoo! Scat!”

The monster turned its head. It didn’t look at Mom, it looked at Lisey. Yellow, slitted eyes that revealed its true reptilian nature. They were reptile demons wearing fur coats. They had some sort of mental powers to convince people they were cute or something.

Plus they had the plan to post videos on YouTube, convincing more idiots to take them into their homes. All part of the plan.

Mom flipped up the metal clasp on the gate. “Go on! Get!”

The cat stared at Lisey and Lisey stared back.

“Hon?” Steve’s voice inside.

Mom jerked away from the gate as if someone had pumped an electric current into it. Her heels hit sharp taps on the sidewalk as she rushed back to the house.

To Lisey, in passing, she said. “Get on to school Lisey!”

Then she was gone in a whiff of lavender, the screen door banging behind her.

The cat stretched, claws digging at the concrete, back arching, tail sticking straight up. Lisey swung her backpack off her shoulders, bringing it around in front, strap still over one shoulder.

She took two steps closer to the gate and glanced back at the house. No one at the door.

A check across the street, and to the neighbor’s house. No one visible. That didn’t mean they weren’t watching. Someone was often watching. It paid to be cautious. Like the time she put dog shit in Heather’s diet coke, she’d used Blake Adams to distract her and all of her friends. It was easy enough to arrange the whole thing and it wasn’t like Heather didn’t deserve it, even if she hadn’t meant for her to get that sick. Who knew that it’d give her giardia?

After all, dogs weren’t as nasty as cats.

While walking closer to the gate, her hand dug into her backpack, feeling past papers and her books. She found the rubber band and slipped it around her thumb and index finger. Then the needle from the pin cushion she carried.

The cat hadn’t moved more than two feet from the gate, cleaning its paws. Mocking her. Waiting for her to step outside the gate.

Lisey kept the backpack in front of her and her hand close to her body as if she was using the backpack to shield against the cat.

You had to be cautious, they had everyone brain-washed.

She pulled back the needle as she reached the gate. “Get out of here, nasty cat!”

It raised its head. The hair started rising on its back. The lips drew back from gleaming white fangs. The filthy, nasty, monster!

She let the needle fly!

The cat let out a hair-raising yowl and took off running. It bolted beneath Mom’s Jetta and didn’t stop. It reappeared on the other side of the car, springing up over the white picket fence. And kept going, toward Mrs. Stirling’s house.

Come back and I’ll really show you! Lisey thought. I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget!

She pushed the gate open and stepped out, closing it carefully behind. Not that it’d stop the nasty things from getting in. Her heart was racing so hard, her chest might burst. She slipped her backpack back on and started running.

💀

After school Lisey walked home slowly, thumbs hooked in the straps of her backpack. It wasn’t like she wanted to go home, there just wasn’t any other place to go.

Sleep out on the streets? Gross. She was too smart to end up as some pimp’s sex slave. If they’d even want her, on account that she didn’t really have boobs yet. There were enough pervs and weirdoes out there that they probably would want her, but that was gross. Like the time she’d heard gagging noises in Steve’s “office” and had looked in to see Mom on the floor beneath his desk, between his legs. She couldn’t really see what Mom was doing, but she knew. For one thing, creepy Steve was watching the same thing going on in a video on the computer screen.

Seriously sick. No way she’d be caught dead doing something like that. She couldn’t even tell anyone, it was so sick. Not Dad, on the rare times that they Skyped. He was clear across the country living in Tennessee with his bleached blond redneck girlfriend, Tiffany, which was just as sick. It would have made more sense if Tiffany and Steve had hooked up instead of her parents splitting up.

While she walked, she kept an eye out for the cats. Someone had to do it. They’d take over everything otherwise.

The decaying mobile home three houses down. A skinny gray cat sat on the porch railing. A second cat lurked beneath the rusted bumper of a broke-down Datsun pickup in the weedy yard.

At the gray house, Simpson’s house, a fluffy white cat lounged on the window sill inside. It watched her with lazy insolence as she walked past. Daring her to do something.

Indoor cats were good and bad. Good, because they stayed away. Bad, because there wasn’t anything to be done about them.

The outside cats, the strays, those were the worst. It wasn’t like Animal Services got rid of them either. Why find them new homes? They were taking over!

She reached her house and stopped on the sidewalk. She didn’t want to go in.

The screen door banged open. Steve stepped out, wearing a robe. It wasn’t even belted over his swollen, hairy belly.

“You’d better get in here,” he said. “Your mother’s been worried sick. You’re supposed to come straight home!”

Lisey ducked her head and hurried up the driveway.

💀

Steve worked nights and Mom liked spending the first part of the night soaking in a hot bath.

Lisey paused on the way past the bathroom. “Taking out the trash!”

“Thank you, Lisey,” Mom said from inside.

Lisey went out the backyard, taking the kitchen trash with her.

The shed was one of those prefab aluminum sheds, squatting in the corner of the backyard, smelling of gas and old grass. It held the lawn mower, the rakes, and other tools that rarely got used anymore. That was always Dad’s thing. Since he was gone, it was her place. Like Steve was ever going to mow the lawn. If she didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. She pulled the string to switch on the light.

The catcher stood in the corner. Lisey picked it up, running her hands down the smooth plastic. It’d started as a white plastic broom handle. She had taken off the ends, leaving a hollow handle. Then she’d run a length of clothesline through it, to create a loop at one end. At the other, the lines went through two holes drilled through a thick dowel and tied in knots. Pull back on the dowel, and the loop hanging out the end tightened.

She clenched it in her hands until her knuckles were white. It seemed simple, but she’d never had the guts to use it.

The cat this morning. She twisted the handle in her hands. Nasty, dirty things. If animal services wouldn’t take care of them, if no one would, then she’d have to do it.

The thought made her gut tighten like she was sick or something.

It was Mrs. Stirling behind the strays in the neighborhood. She kept feeding them. People dumped them off there. It was too many. Somebody had to do something about it.

It’d have to be her.

She clutched the catcher and went out into the night to fight the alien menance.

💀

Night was the absolute worst. During the day cats tended to sleep a lot. At night they went out, slinking around in the darkness doing who knew what.

Lisey walked quickly, clutching the catcher close. Her heart was pounding so hard it probably was going to scare the cats away.

That wouldn’t be so bad. Except then they’d come back.

Six houses down to Mrs. Stirling’s house. She skirted around the pools of light from the street lights. If people saw her out, someone might say something to Mom.

And she didn’t have much time. Eventually, mom might wonder why she hadn’t come back in from taking out the trash.

The street curved around, and there was Mrs. Stirling’s house, just ahead.

As houses went on the block it was a fairly nice place. A small two-story house, blue, with those fake white shutters on the windows. Not much of a lawn to speak off, a tiny circle in front, surrounded by flower beds and shrubs. A porch wrapped around the front of the house from the garage over and around the side.

That’s where the cats liked to hang out. Some days it looked like there was a dozen or more of them, lounging on the porch, on the railing, draped all over looking fat and satisfied with themselves.

When they weren’t lurking in the bushes.

In the dark, the house looked less inviting. The bushes and the trees along the sides shrouded the place. No lights were on. Mrs. Stirling must go to bed early.

Lisey’s chest heaved. She hadn’t been this close to the house in weeks. Ordinarily, she stayed away, but Mrs. Stirling was the reason that the cats were taking over the neighborhood. They had to be stopped! She had the catcher. That was something.

Her resolve hardened. She took a step out into the street. Then another. Then, feeling exposed, she hurried across the street right up to the picket fence that bordered the sidewalk.

Lisey went still again, watching, and listening.

Glowing eyes appeared beneath the bushes ahead, catching the light from the street light a couple houses down. She swallowed the shriek that tried to escape.

Was there anything creepier!

Glowing eyes regarded her. The shape of the cat itself was hidden by the bushes. It was only two disembodied circles watching her with demonic intensity.

Did they know? Could they tell what she intended? Heat rushed into her face and her courage almost broke. She could run home, put the catcher away and forget the whole idea.

Except, except it was watching her. If she ran now she didn’t think she’d ever stop. They’d have won completely. They already made her walk to school a living hell.

It had to stop.

Lisey walked closer to the cat, slowly. She spoke softly, hating that her voice shook, trying to coax out the beast.

“Here, kitty, kitty.”

The glowing eyes blinked out like fireflies then opened.

Mrewp. The cat rose and stepped out of the bushes.

In the dim light, it was black, with white markings. Was it the same cat that she’d seen this morning? She couldn’t tell.

Lisey jerked the catcher and the cat jumped back away from the loop. She bit her lip, hard. Her heart was hammering so hard in her chest, it was like the time she had run the quarter-mile race at school against Wendy Johnson.

The cat was fast too. It was watching her, wary, poised to dart away, but apparently curious what she was doing.

The catcher shook in her hands. Tears stung her eyes and the loop dropped. The cat watched it move.

Lisey shook the loop more, dropping it down onto the driveway. She jerked it around and the cat crouched. She pulled it back, away from the cat.

The cat jumped.

She snapped it up as fast and as hard as she could. As if by magic the loop went right around the cat’s head. It could have been a trick, the cat jumping through the loop, except the rest of the cat wouldn’t fit.

The catcher jerked in her hands and the cat fell, twisting, already trying to escape.

Lisey grabbed the dowel at her end and pulled. The loop tightened around the cat’s throat. It growled and tried backing up.

She pulled harder.

The cat exploded! It bolted, almost succeeding in yanking the catcher out of her hands!

She yanked it back, flipping it on its backside. The cat’s yowls grew in volume, a nerve-shocking noise that rose into the night.

“Shut up!” Lisey yanked harder on the dowel and twisted it around, drawing the noose tighter. “Shut up, you stupid cat!”

The cat tried backing out again, running in a backward circle at the end of the catcher. Her arms hurt, and still the cat fought!

She twisted the dowel around more and more, drawing the loop tighter. Tighter!

Out of the dark, a woman’s voice shouted. “What are you doing?!”

Lisey looked up, shocked at the sudden appearance of the woman with frizzy white hair, and a dark dress, bearing down on her like an apparition from the grave.

Mrs. Stirling. The cat lady. Lisey shrieked.

“Quiet!” Mrs. Stirling snapped. She snatched the catcher from Lisey’s fingers.

It was all over. Lisey’s chest heaved. She was caught. At the least her Mom would be called. Maybe the police. Word would get out.

What was Mrs. Stirling doing?

She slid her hands down the catcher to the cat, now lying on its side, gasping. Mrs. Stirling gently picked up the cat. She cradled it in her arms, pulling the noose free. The cat’s wide eyes blinked up at her as it sucked air. Mrs. Stirling’s hand soothed the cat, running down its neck.

Bile rose in Lisey’s throat. “I—”

Mrs. Stirling’s hands did some sort of movement, quick and sharp. There was a snap, loud, but at the same time not, like someone popping their knuckles. The cat’s legs kicked hard, twice, like it was trying to escape and then it lay still.

“That’s how you do it,” Mrs. Stirling said. “Quick. Quietly. You don’t draw attention to the whole neighborhood! What’s your name?”

“Lisey.” A mouse-squeak answer.

“Well, Lisey, you’d better come inside. We can’t send you back home in that state, your parents would worry.”

Mrs. Stirling started up the walk. Lisey’s feet carried her along, as if making the choice for her.

💀

A few minutes later Lisey sat on a hard kitchen chair, painted blue, with her feet up on the seat. A mug of untouched hot chocolate was in her hands, the steam carrying the rich cocoa smells into her face while marshmallows melted.

The cat lay dead, eyes half-open, a tiny pink tongue sticking from its mouth, in the center of the table.

Other cats prowled around the room. Their meows echoed. They twined around Mrs. Stirling’s legs as she filled a large enamelware pot with water at the big kitchen sink.

A small white cat jumped up onto the kitchen table, sniffing at the dead cat.

Mrs. Stirling snapped her fingers. “Down!”

Instantly the white cat turned and jumped, vanishing from view. Lisey pulled her arms and legs in closer, wishing she could close her eyes, that she could be back in her room, but closing her eyes would be worse than having them open.

Mrs. Stirling grunted and carried the pot to the stove. She came back to the kitchen table and picked up the dead cat by its hind legs.

“There’s no point being sneaky with cats,” she said. “They’re sneaky devils all on their own. Try that, it’ll never work. They think with their guts. Hook them there, and they’re yours.”

She carried it back to the sink and lifted it up. What was she doing? Lisey couldn’t help but watch. Why was she —

There were two metal hooks in the ceiling, like ones used to hang plants, except sharp. Mrs. Stirling impaled one back foot on the hook on the left, and then the other on the hook on the right.

The cat hung upside down, legs spread, white belly facing Mrs. Stirling.

On the floor, the cats meowed more and paced in circles. A long-haired tabby stood up, paws on the counter. A practiced shove of Mrs. Stirling’s knee sent it away.

Mrs. Stirling grabbed a knife from a magnetic rack at the side of the sink. It was short and caught the light on the fine edge.

“Head has to go first.” Mrs. Stirling’s hand enveloped the head and the knife cut at the neck, pressing hard and fast, two quick tugs and the head came free. Blood poured from the neck, but Mrs. Stirling had already pulled her hand away. She dropped the head with a thud into the sink.

Lisey’s throat was dry. She hardly felt the chair beneath her. Her heart raced.

Mrs. Stirling pinched the fur on the cat’s chest while the blood slowed to a trickle.

“Easy enough to clean ’em. A slice here.” A quick cut across the chest.

Lisey felt dizzy and sipped the hot chocolate. The heat and chocolate spread like a balm through her throat, soothing her.

“Not deep, mind you, just through the first layers. Then cut up, like this, opening the belly skin, as easy as pulling a zipper, but not so deep as to enter the gut.” The knife cut up along the belly of the cat, parting the fur as if there really was a zipper there.

The smell of meat filled the room. The cats on the floor meowed and spun in increasing frenetic circles, pacing around the chairs and Mrs. Stirling. Lisey couldn’t tell how many there were, but a lot.

Lisey sipped more hot chocolate.

“Up the legs, around, and now it all comes off like a glove.” Mrs. Stirling put down the knife and grabbed the fur. She tugged and pulled, quick hard actions and the skin peeled right down the cat, turned inside out and off, until it hung from the naked front feet.

“A good pair of shears works with the feet, or you can do like I do.” She grabbed each of the front legs and snapped the leg right above the foot as easily as a twig. Then she picked up her knife and sliced off the feet, and the fur went with it. The only fur left was on the tail, hanging in a limp curve behind the back.

Mrs. Stirling looked at her, and then the tail. She nodded. “You’ve got the idea. The same thing with the tail, although that you can pretty much pull off.”

She grabbed it at the base and twisted. The sound was soft, popping, tearing and then the tail came free in her hand.

The cats paced all around, bumping the chair. Lisey sipped her hot chocolate and ignored them, entranced by Mrs. Stirling. Her neighbor smiled.

“Almost done. Slit here.” The knife went through the bulging translucent skin over the belly, and slit upwards.

All kinds of guts, squishy and wrinkled, pushed against the opening.

Mrs. Stirling put down the knife and parted the skin she reached in and pinched near the top with her fingers. “Get a good grip here, you don’t want to get any mess on the meat if you can help it. A quick tug, pull it all down and out.”

As easy as that the guts spilled out of the cat, dangling down in brown and grays. Not bloody, really, at all. Lisey wondered at that, and what all those shapes were.

Now the cats went crazy, wails rising in frantic pleas, circling madly around Mrs. Stirling.

“Hook in two fingers down at the bottom and scrape out the rest. The lungs’ll usually break up, that’s okay.” Mrs. Stirling dug in with her fingers and pulled out the rest, the whole mass of stuff coming out, and when her hand came out this time it was bloodied.

She ran the cat’s organs through her fingers and pulled free a large dark mass. “Liver. Very good, organ meats. People don’t get enough.”

Mrs. Stirling placed the liver on a cutting board beside the sink and picked up her knife. With practiced strokes, she chopped it into bits. Then she put the knife down and swept the pieces into her hand. She beamed at Lisey.

“You’ll like this.”

She scattered the liver bits onto the floor like she was feeding birds.

The cats tumbled over themselves to get the pieces. Yowls and hisses emerged from the pile. While they argued and devoured the pieces, Mrs. Stirling picked another organ. It was dark, harder.

“Heart. Kidneys are good too.” She chopped while she talked. “Cat gut makes good string, it was often used in the past. Of course, you can tan the hide and it makes a nice leather. I like to use everything.”

Mrs. Stirling reached up and pulled the cat down off the hooks. Two sharp snaps, a cut of the knife and the rear paws were free. She rinsed the naked pink, emptied out cat—it didn’t even look like a cat anymore—with the tap and then dropped the whole thing in the steaming pot on the stove.

“The meat is tasty, I usually boil it to make a good broth and get everything off the bones. I’ll leave that to shimmer, once I clean the bones they’ll get dried and ground into bone meal to fertilize the garden. Nothing gets wasted.”

Mrs. Stirling clucked her tongue. “Look at the time! You’d best get home. Come by tomorrow, Lisey, and this one will be ready. I think you’ll like it. I grow all my own vegetables.”

When Mrs. Stirling lifted the hot chocolate mug from Lisey’s hands she blinked, startled. Her eyes kept going back to the skin, and a drop of blood that was still hanging on the curved chrome faucet.

“Lisey?”

The cat was in the pot turning into soup. Mrs. Stirling had killed it. Killed it, skinned it, gutted it, and stuck it in the pot. And there hadn’t been anything reptilian underneath the fur. No devils inside. Nothing but meat and bones. Like a chicken, with fur instead of feathers.

Mrs. Stirling’s hand fell on her shoulder. Lisey stirred and looked up at the woman’s kindly face. “Tomorrow?”

“Yes. Soup’ll be on. We’ll have crackers and we can talk.”

“Thank you. That sounds nice.”

Lisey stood up. A pale orange cat rubbed against her legs. She didn’t shriek. She looked down at it and it was just meat. Sooner or later it’d end up on those hooks, skinned and cooked while all of the other cats milled around for its giblets.

She giggled.

“It is funny, isn’t it?” Mrs. Stirling asked, as if she could read Lisey’s mind.

They were walking together now, through Mrs. Stirling’s house. It was nice, cozy, and smelled like cooking. Mrs. Stirling opened the door for her, shooing back cats with her legs.

Outside the cool air was like coming up out of a deep pool and breaking into the air. Mrs. Stirling had saved her from drowning.

“There you go, Lisey. Run on home. I’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

Lisey waved and walked down the sidewalk feeling light on her feet. From beneath rose bushes on the corner, a cat’s glowing eyes watched her, and all that came to mind was all those other cats begging for the guts. She wrinkled her nose. In one way, they were monsters. They ate their own.

💀

Mom and Steve were arguing when she reached the front door, she could hear them all the way from the yard.

“Jeez,” she said, stepping inside. “The whole neighborhood is going to hear you!”

They were both in the living room, facing each other across the coffee table, except Mom was standing and Steve was sitting on the couch, his hairy belly hanging out over his boxers, robe hanging open. He didn’t stand up at all when she came in, thank goodness for small favors.

Mom’s hands fluttered like birds that didn’t have a perch. “Where were you?”

“I told you I was taking out the trash, it was so nice I took a little walk.”

Steve’s fat face flushed. “Oh? Is that what you did? A walk?” He sneered. “By yourself? In the dark?”

Lisey looked right back at him, right into his piggy little eyes. “Yeah, Steven. I did. I went and saw Mrs. Stirling.”

And her voice didn’t quaver or sound mousy at all.

His face darkened. “The cat lady? Now I know you’re lying!”

“I’m not, ask her yourself if you want. She’s invited me over for dinner tomorrow.” Lisey smiled her brightest smile. “I’m sure she’d make room for you if you want to invite yourself.”

Leaving Steve – Steven – with his mouth hanging open, Lisey turned to Mom. “I’m going to head up to bed, Mom. I’m sorry I worried you. I went to see Mrs. Stirling, to ask if she could help me see what she sees in cats. She did.”

With that, final word – she got in the final word! – Lisey walked past Mom and headed to her room.

💀

4,866 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 80th short story release, written in March 2013. This dark twist on the idea of a ‘cat lady’ hits my funny bone. I could see her finding her way into a longer work.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, The Copyleft Heart.

Next Question

The Asteroid Resource Ministry inspected and approved any asteroid deflection to Earth’s orbit. Without A.R.M. a mistake might cost countless lives.

Cate Hadley took her responsibility as a new A.R.M. inspector seriously. She knew what an asteroid strike meant, ever since seeing the Chelyabinsk meteor.

People counted on her. They depended on her. Both on Earth and those risking their lives to mine the asteroids. She thought she knew everything she needed to know.

🚀

Ordinarily, Cate Hadley was always about the next question. Not now. Her throat was dry, mouth tacky. Memories crowded one another, leaving her tongue-tied.

🚀

The cratered landscape filling the screen wasn’t a moon or a planet. It was an asteroid. The surface was sculpted in shades of gray from the light highlands to the darker impact pits of past encounters. A pitted potato-shape tumbling across the star field.

Cate crossed her fingers against adding a new impact scar to the landscape.

Surely there wasn’t much of a chance of that happening. Not on her first trip out to inspect the StarMines facilities. The engineers for this inspection trip must have calculated every possible variable. The pilots in the belly of the Yakima wouldn’t let it drift past the safety lines. It wasn’t as if the uneven gravity of AE-37489X was even that strong. In order for them to crash into the asteroid the engines would have to fire and drive them straight into the asteroid, and with the feeble thrust of the ion engines they would probably just bump off of it anyway. They’d already matched its orbit around the sun and were now just nudging closer.

Of course, there were rumors about StarMines, but those had to be just rumors. She didn’t really believe that they would sabotage anything. They didn’t need to. And the pilots wouldn’t let that happen. Even if the unexpected did happen, she was in about the safest place possible.

The Yakima was a craft made in layers, a celestial soccer ball kicked out here to make a goal. The outer framework held the clusters of ion thrusters. Within that was the water storage layer, like a thin tank wrapping around the entire craft to provide radiation protection as well as water, oxygen and hydrogen fuel for the thrusters. Next came the other storage compartments, the life-support systems, and other mechanical layers of the ship, all spread out around the ship with multiple redundancies. Laboratories, workspaces, social and equipment bays took up most of the rest of the space. Deep within the Yakima, the last layer before the core, were the habitation pods. They wrapped around the command core where the pilots worked, protected at the very heart of the ship like worms in the middle of an apple. She was right above the core, strapped safely in her cabin.

It was a safe design. A smart design. They wouldn’t crash into the asteroid.

Cate caught her drifting tablet and brought it back around to study the briefing materials. She had to be ready before Brandon called her. He was the senior agent on this mission, evaluating her for her final approval as an inspector for the Asteroid Resource Ministry.

The asteroid tagged AE-37489X was claimed by StarMines, the leading corporate supplier of space-based resources to Earth’s growing bottom-line. After centuries of resource exploitation on Earth, the environmental and real costs had finally driven people into space to harness the riches just waiting to be captured, diverted and mined to supply humanity’s ever-growing hunger.

A.R.M.’s mission was to make sure it was done safely. Diverting huge chunks of metal and rock toward Earth represented an enormous opportunity for disaster if there were any mistakes. An asteroid like AE-37489X, at 15,000 tons, had the potential to level cities. They couldn’t afford mistakes.

In theory, the inspection shouldn’t be difficult. She’d tour the StarMines facilities, evaluate their plans, and likely give them the approval they needed to move forward. Brandon Meyer, her supervisor for this inspection, was there to evaluate her performance. Ultimately the decision was hers to make. If StarMines wasn’t in compliance with the law, it would face hefty fines. Particularly egregious violations could even include the abandonment of their claim on this asteroid, although she hadn’t heard of that ever happening. The deep space mining concerns frowned heavily on claim jumping in any form.

On the screen, a new bright shape emerged from behind AE-37489X. It was the StarMines’ Eureka. Much, much bigger than the Yakima. The Eureka was a wide starfish design. The ship would latch onto the asteroid with its arms. Once anchored the solar sail would blossom out from the core of the ship, spreading hundreds of kilometers out around the asteroid. Using the solar sail to capture the sunlight, and use that light force to change the trajectory of the asteroid, they’d break an orbit followed for billions of years. The asteroid would take up one designed to bring it to Earth’s orbit, to orbit the Earth itself.

During the long trip, the Eureka would mine and process the asteroid, filling ore pods for easy transport down to the surface.

It sounded so simple until you started looking at all of the details. Everything had to go right for this to work. It was an operation costing billions, with an enormous potential payoff along with enormous risk. It was right there on her screen. She was really here, out further than the Moon’s orbit.

Cate hugged the tablet to her chest.

Too bad there wasn’t time to savor this moment. It was a victory, an achievement she had worked for since first seeing the images of the Chelyabinsk meteor. It was in Mr. Coffey’s science class in the seventh grade. He had shown them recordings people made of the event and talked about the risks with proposals to move asteroids into orbits around the Earth or the Moon. And he had said the words that changed her life.

“Someone’s going to have to make sure we don’t end up like the dinosaurs!” Mr. Coffey had laughed when he said it, and most of the class laughed with him.

She hadn’t found it funny. The prospect of mass extinctions caused by impact events wasn’t a laughing matter, it was horror on an unimaginable level. The sort of asteroids that the mining concerns worked with weren’t planet killers, not yet, but even something like AE-37489X could flatten entire cities depending on how it came in. Thanks to A.R.M., no one moved asteroids without approval. Too often, though, she felt that the hunger for additional profits was the focus instead of safety.

Cate refocused on the tablet instead of the wall screen. She was here to make sure safety was the number one priority. From the display, she had time for one more scan through the inspection points before docking. She had to focus on the job. This wasn’t a sight-seeing trip.

🚀

Peter Bonner, the Eureka’s captain, looked like a poster child for an all-American hero. He was handsome and filled out his blue StarMines t-shirt very nicely. There was the StarMines star and asteroid logo on his chest and an American flag on his shoulder. On the ground he must have been over six-feet tall, but up here he had his legs tucked up behind him as he held onto two grips on the rim of the hatch.

He wasn’t alone either. His department chiefs floated in the corridor behind him. But it was Bonner that was in charge, no question of that. Cate passed through the lock between their ships and caught a toe-grip mid-way. She nodded at Bonner.

“Captain Bonner, A.R.M. Inspector Hadley. Permission to come aboard?”

Bonner smiled. “Of course Ms. Hadley. We’ve been eager for your visit. We’re ready to grab this rock and start for home.”

“I hope to get you underway as quick as I can,” Cate said.

Brandon drifted into the airlock behind her and floated past, laughing. “Come here you bastard!”

Brandon Meyer was a lean man in his fifties, hair that remained above his ears gone to gray, but he was all sharp corners. Military and government astronaut program training, he was part of the first generation of A.R.M. inspectors, back when they were launching the first sample missions.

He enveloped Bonner in a bear hug. Bonner let go of one grip and braced his opposite foot against a grip to hold his position in the open hatch.

“Brandon, what are you doing here? Now we get two inspectors?”

Brandon broke away, grabbing his own grips. “Actually, I’m just here observing Ms. Hadley. She’s the inspector on file. Cate’s the finest of the new A.R.M. Inspectors. You’d better have all vectors nailed down for this one, Brandon.”

“Still, it’s good to see you. You’ll have to come by for a drink.” Bonner grabbed his grip and looked past Brandon at Cate. “Water, inspector. I run a dry ship, just like the regs say.”

“Since when,” Brandon said.

Bonner laughed. “Now, don’t go making me look bad in front of Ms. Hadley.”

“You? Look bad? Who would believe it?”

Bonner chuckled. “Come on Ms. Hadley, let me introduce you to my chiefs. You’ll be working mostly with them for your inspections.”

It was nice that he remembered she was there. She remembered Brandon saying that he knew Bonner, but the way they acted, it looked like more than that. They were old friends. It shouldn’t matter, but she believed in the A.R.M. regulations that mandated a professional distance. How else were you going to levy fines for violations, if that was necessary? It’d be a lot harder to question a claim when the captain was an old buddy. Fortunately, in this case, Brandon wasn’t the inspector on file. Not for the Eureka, at least. Just her.

She kicked off from the toe-grip and drifted over to the open hatch. Brandon drifted back, but when she caught a ring on the hatch she was floating in close proximity between Brandon and the captain. There was a familiar sweat smell from Brandon, less from the captain, but both smelled very male. They blocked her in with their bulk.

Almost in the same instant that she noticed it, Bonner pushed off the hatch into the corridor. He caught himself on his fingertips and gestured at the others gathered.

“Let me introduce you.”

Cate drifted forward into the corridor, with nearly a half-dozen people lining the space, including the captain. She’d read their profiles in the briefing, but it was an expected formality to be introduced.

First, across from Bonner, was a young woman. Her black hair was very short, mere fuzz on her head. Bioluminescent tattoos glittered on her delicate earlobes and trailed down her neck like smoke. The colors flushed and faded across the spectrum.

“Airi Momoi,” Bonner said. “Environmental systems chief.”

“Hello,” Cate said.

Airi smiled. “Welcome aboard!”

Next was a young man with wild red hair and freckles. His round face was no doubt emphasized by the weightless conditions, and it probably made him look younger than he was. He nodded and gave her a shy smile.

“Tyler Nice,” pronounced Neece by Bonner, “Refinery chief.”

“Hi,” Tyler said.

He was not at all what she would have expected from a refinery chief, but she kept that observation to herself.

“Hello,” she said.

Next up was a man that she could have easily seen as a refinery chief. He lacked legs below mid-thigh, but he had a massive broad chest and muscular arms. His right arm showed a landscape of pink scars and hairless patches, like the tortured terrain of an alien moon. He was mostly bald, with a few white hairs clipped short on the sides of his head. The top of his pink scalp gleamed beneath the lights. A big white mustache that reached out to either side of his wide face.

“Milo Service,” Bonner said behind her. “Crew chief, and a fantastic cook.”

“Ah, learned a few things, is all, in my grandpap’s restaurant.” Milo extended his right hand, the skin as scarred and melted as his arm.

She didn’t hesitate as she shook. “Nice to meet you.”

“Naw,” Milo said. He twitched his head at Tyler. “He’s nice, I’m serviceable.”

He roared with laughter. Cate tried hard not to blush, which simply made it worse.

“No disrespect, ma’am,” Milo said. “I like to kid, is all.”

“I figured that out already,” Cate said, which had everyone chuckling.

The last person was a fortyish man, dark hair that drifted around his head a bit, with a sharp nose and dark eyes. He nodded in greeting.

“Kyle Thornton,” Bonner said. “Science chief.”

“Hi.” Cate caught a grip at the end of the corridor and turned to face the crew. “Thank you all. I appreciate your welcome. I know that it can be difficult having a stranger come in and look at your work, but I’m only here to help. Our mission at A.R.M. is to help protect and develop the use of asteroid materials. I’m sure you all agree that when the consequences of a mistake are so high, it makes sense to have someone else take a look and do an inspection before we take that next step.”

Bonner floated up beside her. “Of course, Ms. Hadley. This isn’t our first rodeo. Now, if you’ll accompany me, why don’t we go on to my office? We can see about that drink and talk about the schedule.”

He couldn’t have surprised her more if he had invited her to take a stroll out on the asteroid without a suit. He was an experienced captain, surely he didn’t think that he could dictate a schedule? It’d hardly be an impartial inspection if she was shepherded around and only shown what they wanted to show her when they wanted her to see it.

“I’d rather just get started, captain.” She was aware of all of the eyes on her, including Brandon’s, but she was the inspector here. “My authority as an A.R.M. inspector gives me full access to your ship, operations, and network.”

Brandon chuckled. “I told you, Pete. Gotta watch those vectors.”

Bonner smiled. “I didn’t mean to suggest anything else, Ms. Hadley. You’ve had a long trip, and well, we’re not really in a position out here to get visitors. It’ll be another year before we get back to Earth. I was just trying to get you in my office so the rest of these folks could set up a reception we’d planned for you and your crew. A bit of fun before we get down to the business ahead.”

Now she felt like she’d been at a full burn launch only to have the rockets die beneath her. Weightlessness hadn’t bothered her until now, and suddenly she was queasy.

Bonner reached out for her hand and took it in his strong grip. She clenched tight, grateful  for the anchor.

“And that drink, it’s strictly within regs. Okay?”

Cate took a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, Captain. I apologize for misunderstanding. That sounds very nice, thank you. Thank all of you, I didn’t expect that sort of welcome.”

Milo snorted. “Aye, it’ll be a grand party, if you can give us a chance to get ready.”

“Thank you,” Brandon said. “That’s fine. Come on Bonner, let’s see about that drink!”

🚀

The docking shaft took them deeper into the ship, to the heart at the center of the Eureka’s starfish-shape. At the heart of the arms was a spherical shape much like that of the Yakima. She followed Bonner through the passages, past bulkheads at each layer, down into the heart of the ship and then to a pod that looked out into the central command core.

Down below, the crew worked in the heart of the ship. Given the weightless environment, there were crew stations all around the void at the center of the ship, and in the very middle floated a holographic simulation of the ship, the asteroid, the Yakima and surrounding space. Bonner’s office was a pod with a transparent hexagonal wall looking into the command sphere. From here he could see what was going on in the core, and join in as needed. That “wall” was a smart display.

The office was a fish-bowl, and he had decorated it appropriately in deep blues and greens. It had an aquatic feel to it, heightened by air-adapted fish that swam around the space. A clown fish swam close to her, watching her with its fishy eyes before it turned and swam off with lazy flicks of its tail. Mesh containers around the room held a collection of air-adapted kelp and other sea plants. The air was warm, salt-tinged and humid.

Bonner floated over to the left wall. He pressed a panel and it slid out, revealing a tray full of transparent spheres. The light in the drawer refracted through the spheres to cast shadows on the walls. He took one out and tossed it across the room in her direction. Two clown fish swam away from it.

Cate caught the bulb. It was full of a transparent liquid.

Bonner tossed another to Brandon, then took a third out and kept it when he touched the drawer and it withdrew into the wall. He hoisted the bulb he held.

“To life,” he said. An angel fish drifted close, as if curious about the bulb. “In all of its diversity.”

Cate had never seen any of the air-adapted fish in person, although she knew that they were popular pets with crew on long-duration missions. Medical treatments for bone loss and radiation damage had opened up deep space as much as any other technology. Along with those advancements and the availability of resources, the space population had exploded.

A small shark, the size of her hand, quickly swam across the room and hid behind a screen of kelp plants.

The bulb in her hand was cold and already was starting to sweat in the warmer air. The guys were already lifting their bulbs and she copied the gesture. When she sipped from the valve, crisp water pooled in her mouth. It slid across the skin of her tongue. Rich, mineral-flavored, and very satisfying when she swallowed.

“Water as old as the solar system,” Bonner said, holding the bulb up to the light. “It’s from the Axial comet mission. I picked up a couple cases before they went down the well. Sometimes it’s nice to drink something that hasn’t been filtered through us and our systems a thousand times already.”

Cate took another sip. It really was good. The cold worked its way down into her chest. It really was incredible to drink water billions of years old. Axial’s water cost dearly back on Earth. “It’s delicious. Thank you.”

Brandon had drifted over to the big smart screen looking out at the core. “You’ve got a nice operation here, Pete.”

Bonner pushed off the wall and drifted over to the wall-screen. His feet landed, and stuck to the floor. He wore magnetic slippers. He shuffled his feet in the characteristic walk over to the screen.

“Yes. It is. We have a good crew.”

Cate pushed off the wall, sending a group of fish swimming away from her, to drift over to the wall screen. When she got there she stopped her motion with a light touch on the screen. It lit up with a green outline around her hand.

She drew her hand back. On the other side, the crew were working at stations all around the chamber. Those closest were visible, strapped in, monitoring various ship systems and the asteroid. The holographic display really looked like an opening in the middle of the ship to the outside, a portal set off in the distance above the asteroid, Eureka, and the smaller Yakima docked with the mining craft. It looked as if she could pass through that portal and find herself floating out in open space.

Of course, it was an illusion. Cate let the bulb float beside her and reached out, resting her index fingers on the wall surface and traced a circle. The screen-wall illuminated the line with a glowing green circle. She pulled her hands back and the view within the circle zoomed in on the hologram until it looked as if there was now a portal within the surface of the wall itself. Cate swiped with her right hand, scrolling the view until the Eureka came into view. It hovered above the asteroid like a spider waiting to strike.

“Do you know where you want to start?” Bonner said. “I’m only curious, I’m not trying to influence you one way or the other.”

Cate smiled at him. “I’ve already started, Captain. It started as soon as we came aboard. I appreciate the chance to see your workspace.”

A clown fish circled her floating bulb before swimming away.

“The fish bring a lot of character to the space,” she said. “Have any of them ever escaped out into the corridors?”

Brandon laughed.

“I had an eel once,” Bonner said. “It was always trying to get out of this room. I finally traded it away for a jellyfish, but that died shortly after I got it.”

“Do they create a hygienic problem?”

“No. The environmental system deals with their detritus as well as our own. We haven’t seen any issues. I like their company, and they’re much less demanding than terrestrial pets.”

Cate recaptured the bulb and took another drink of the ancient water. It made her feel connected to the beginnings of time. At least as far as the solar system was concerned. Water molecules from back then, finally entering a living organism for the first time. It was incredible.

She refocused on the display of the ships. There was a lot to do. She needed to look into each of the systems, their analysis of the asteroid, capture plans, navigation, all of it. She wasn’t expected to know better than the experts, but she was trained to catch obvious errors that could lead to bigger problems down the line. As long as everything looked good, there shouldn’t be any problem with approving the Eureka crew to move forward.

🚀

The next morning, after an evening spent in the reception that never seemed to end, Cate made her way out to the asteroid-facing side of Eureka, to the third arm where she’d been told that Tyler Nice was working to prepare the refinery drones. She found him in a wide tube with a guide rail down the center, and drones arrayed around the sides, one row after another. Stowed like this the drones all resembled lawnmower-sized trilobites. Tyler was mid-way down the tube, with the front ‘head’ of one of the drones pulled open. It was hinged at the bottom of the section. He grinned when she got close.

“That was some reception last night,” he said. He chuckled. “I think your boss had fun singing.”

The image of Brandon Meyer trying his hand at karaoke in the crew mess was not something she would soon forget.

“Yes,” she said. “He did, but he’s not my boss.”

Tyler’s freckled forehead wrinkled. “He’s not?”

“Nope. He’s here to observe my work, that’s all. He’ll report on how the inspection goes. It’s mostly a formality that A.R.M. likes to follow, a passing of the torch to new inspectors.”

“That’s still nice,” Tyler said. He pointed a probe he held at the drone. “Is it okay, if I?”

“Yes. I’m not here to interrupt. If you need me to be quiet, just let me know.”

Tyler hooked his toes beneath the head of another drone. He poked the probe into the drone’s head. “Nope. Doesn’t bother me. Too quiet around here, sometimes.”

“You’re calibrating the drones?” Cate took out her tablet to make notes.

“No, they’re already calibrated. I’m just running another diagnostic series. It’s a new month today. I do the diagnostics each month so that we know each arm has a series of viable drones to work with.”

“And these are autonomous robots, right?”

“Yep. Point ‘em at the target and they’ll dig it up and bring it back for refining.”

“How many?”

“Two-fifty, all set and ready to go,” Tyler said. “There are fifty in each tube like this, one per arm. These are our worker bees.”

“How have you addressed the fragmentation problem?” It was one of the nightmare scenarios with asteroid recovery if drones such as these tunneled into the asteroid and introduced fractures then the whole thing might fall apart as it entered orbit. Big chunks of metal-rich asteroid raining down on the planet was a good recipe for a bad day. Not to mention the losses for the company.

Tyler grinned. “StarMines is using a layered approach. Our friends here work in tandem to cut off one layer at a time. We give them a digital plane and they work together to harvest anything above that plane. Then we drop it down and they take the next layer. The beauty of it is that they’re fusing the surface as they work. It looks polished. It actually makes the asteroid stronger than it was before we got started even though we’re whittling it away.”

She’d heard about the technique but hadn’t yet seen it in action. “Can you show me a simulation? If it isn’t too much trouble?”

“Sure.” Tyler closed the head of the drone he was working on and pushed off to grab the guide rail. “Let’s go back up to my workshop, and we can do that.”

🚀

Later, for lunch, she stopped back by the crew mess. All evidence of the previous evening’s celebration had been cleared away. Brandon was there, floating next to a pretty brunette that she hadn’t met. The two of them were laughing. He saw her and winked.

For someone assigned to observe her inspection, he didn’t seem to care much what she did. She’d imagined that he would be following her around, checking things off on his tablet as she worked through items on her own. Instead, he acted like he was on vacation. Maybe that’s how he saw it, because he was confident in her abilities. He’d certainly said as much before the mission.

“Ah was hoping you’d come on by and pay me another visit,” Milo said.

The scarred crew chief floated behind the counter that divided off the rear of the crew mess. Next to him was one of several vertical bars spaced along behind the bar. They were quick, convenient grips. She’d seen Milo last night spinning gracefully from one to the next. His lack of legs actually seemed an advantage in the close quarters. And somehow he had managed to make a fantastic German chocolate cake with real coconut-pecan frosting. It had disappeared quickly.

She slip-walked on magnetic slippers over to the counter and grabbed the rail. She smiled at the chief. “That was a fantastic party last night, thank you.”

“Nah, thank you,” Milo said. “Everyone is happy you came. Finally, now we will get underway. It is very good.”

“I have to finish my inspection first.”

Milo laughed. “Of course! Come, come back here. Let me show you the galley. Finest kitchen off Earth. Come see.”

“Okay. I will.”

Using the rail as leverage, she pulled her feet free of the weak magnetic force and let her momentum carry her legs up over the counter. She let go as her trajectory carried her back over the counter. She was upside down with relation to Milo. He laughed and clapped.

Catching one of the vertical rails, she stopped drifting and tucked her legs in to rotate down and orientate herself to face Milo.

“Excellent, excellent! We’ll make a spacer of you before you leave!”

“I had training in zero-gee,” she said. “They make us spend six months working orbitals before they send us out.”

“Ah haven’t been back down the well in ten years,” Milo said. “Deep space, that’s home now.”

She glanced at his scars and when she raised her eyes she saw that he’d seen her looking. He held out an arm.

“Fire in space, you have seen this? Very dangerous. It moves like something alive and grabs you.”

Cate nodded. “I’ve seen video. And I read the reports. I know you saved three other people.”

“What else could be done? Seal the hatch, and they all die.”

It was what the regulations indicated in that situation. He hadn’t followed the regulations and lost his position with Interworld. StarMines picked up his contract, paid for medical care and rehabilitation.

“Now,” Milo said. “I’ll show you my kitchen. State of the art.”

🚀

Over the next week, Cate poked into every area of the ship. Kyle took her through the asteroid spotting systems, already one of dozens of StarMines ships working to map and identify potential targets for the next operation. No claims could be filed with A.R.M. until a ship was within 50 kilometers of the asteroid, matching its orbit. StarMines had big plans.

He also showed her the debris blanket that would stretch between the arms of the ship and out around AE-37489X like a giant drawstring bag. All of Tyler’s drones would work beneath that covering. Any fragments that broke free would remain contained within the debris blanket. He demonstrated its resistance to impact, being flexible and loose rather than pulled tight. In the final stages, as the asteroid was cut into ever smaller pieces that couldn’t be held by the arms, it would still contain the debris.

Airi Momoi took her through the Eureka’s environmental systems. All very nice, incorporating lots of biomass to recycle the atmosphere and water. Bonner’s air-adapted fish weren’t the only fish on board, though the others lived in flooded processing tubes and provided a source of fresh protein for the crew.

The longer she spent with the crew, the more she wished she was a part of the ship’s crew. They were a big family. Many looked forward to returning to Earth, their accounts much bigger for the two years that they had spent in space.

Through it all, she met with Brandon each day, short meetings. He looked at what she had done and told her to keep up the good work. Mostly he continued to act as if he was on vacation.

🚀

Cate’s throat tightened when she got out to the hatch and saw the chiefs lined up again, with Bonner at the far end. Brandon was behind her and she understood a lot better now why he was having such a great time visiting the Eureka. This was a great crew. Really nice, hardworking people. It could have been a negative experience, if they had resented her efforts to inspect the operation, and instead they had opened up to her.

She lifted up her tablet. “Thank you. Thank all of you, I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you made this such a wonderful experience.”

Milo started clapping, and soon everyone was clapping with him. She looked down the tube to where Bonner floated in the open hatch, much as he had when they first came aboard. The clapping subsided.

“I’ve already transmitted my findings to A.R.M. and to StarMines, authorizing your operation here.”

That brought out cheers and more clapping, and people pushed off the walls to drift to her. Airi reached her first. The hug was a surprise, but Cate happily returned the hug. Then Kyle, Tyler, each shaking her hand before moving on to Brandon. Milo came up and engulfed her in a huge bear hug.

“You must come back and visit me again,” he said. “Ah find a new rock for you.”

Kyle whistled and Cate blushed. Milo just laughed and reached out to clasp Brandon’s hand.

Then it was just Peter Bonner, smiling brightly as he floated in front of her, lightly touching a toe-grip to steady himself.

“Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate the work A.R.M. does. Milo’s right, we’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

“You’ll go back out after this?”

Bonner nodded. “I’m a spacer. It’s in my blood. Eventually, we’ll move on from harvesting resources for Earth and start setting up new colonies. I’ll take those missions. Who knows? Mars? Europa might be nice too.”

“It’s further than I plan to go, but I wish you luck, Captain.”

He smiled and moved on to say his goodbyes to Brandon. Cate propelled herself forward to the hatch. She stopped at the opening and turned herself around. The whole group of them, smiling, laughing, Brandon trying to pull himself free, that was the last time she saw any of them.

🚀

The commission’s chambers were cold, overly air-conditioned, and largely empty. No press. Cat sat at the witness table, resisting the urge to rub her clammy hands together. A glass of water sitting in front of her on the table with droplets forming on the glass. She’d tried one sip, but it was flat and oily. Nothing like the Axial water she’d had on the Eureka. It did nothing to clear her tacky mouth, it just made it worse.

In front of her, up on the stage, were the five members of the commission. Congress men and women looking down on her with grave expressions. Besides them, were two recorders, the agents waiting by the doors, and that was it. She didn’t have anyone with her. She was alone. Jobless now, stuck in the gravity well.

Senator Larson, a retired admiral gone into politics, asked the next question.

“Dr. Hadley, your report shows you did not test the capture material used to enclose the asteroid. Correct?”

Cate swallowed, tried to speak and shook her head. “No, Senator. I tested a sample of the material provided by Tyler Nice.” Neece, who was nice.

“But not the actual material used to enclose the asteroid, is that not correct?”

It was. “As I’ve said, I tested the provided sample. There was no reason to think it differed from the stored capture material.”

Senator Larson rubbed his sharp jaw. Penetrating eyes looked at her like a hawk. “And yet the material in question failed during orbital maneuvers, resulting in thousands of impacts from highly refined material raining down on the United States.”

Cate fought not to cry. She had told herself she wouldn’t cry. She would remain professional. She had seen the video. Each storage container of refined metals had plummeted to Earth. They were designed to reach the surface with a deployment package attached. When they ripped out of the capture envelope, they fell free through the atmosphere. The impacts hit a swath across Pennsylvania, causing the greatest damage and casualties in Greensburg. They didn’t explode so much as simply hit the ground and create a small crater. Damaging, but not harmful when they hit fields. But those that hit structures did blow the structures apart. The video of the demolished abbey played for weeks and was often the first one played when the incident was brought up now.

Senator Larson wasn’t done. “In addition to the loss of life and property on the ground, the failure subsequently damaged the Eureka to the point where it could no longer maintain orbit and was lost with all hands. Given the high risks, the enormous consequences, how can you believe that testing a sample, a sample which you didn’t even bother to confirm was the same material as the capture envelope, was sufficient?”

There it was. Her error. Her very human error. “Senators, there is not a second each day when I don’t grieve for those we lost. I met them. They were good, hard-working people trying to provide highly demanding resources in a very unforgiving environment. I trusted them, but I followed A.R.M. protocols in every detail during the inspection. Under those protocols, testing the sample was sufficient.”

Larson shook his head. “Sufficient. We’ve seen how sufficient your efforts were. Tests of the recovered capture material show it didn’t match the specifications of samples sent to the manufacturer. Yet StarMines and A.R.M. both failed to note the discrepancies.”

“With respect, Senator, I have not seen those reports, and can’t comment on their results.”

“Then let’s move on,” Larson said. “In your review of the personnel, Peter Bonner in particular, you indicated that he had free-swimming fish in his office?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yet you didn’t see this as a potential hazard? A distraction?”

Cate reached out and picked up the glass of water. She sipped and it was as flat, processed and oily as before. Water that had circulated through countless organisms and machines before she tasted it. Up there, she had floated free. Tasted water that no other living thing had tasted. She wished she could be back there, instead of here, but the Eureka was gone. She’d seen the videos of its fall, breaking apart in a fireball in the atmosphere. Was it her fault?

She’d been afraid of rocks falling out of space and had done everything she could to prevent that from happening but in the end, the very thing that she had tried to prevent had happened anyway.

Who else were they going to blame?

She put the glass down and answered the next question.

🚀

6,134 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 79th short story release, written in October 2013. This is one of those stories that is an exploration of ideas and characters. From the design of the ships, to other small details, the story explores some of the ideas I’d like to explore with near-future space exploration.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Cat Lady.

Shore Leave

Having the greatest job in the universe didn’t mean that Chrystal Eagle wanted to work on her vacation. She put in for shore leave while the Elegant Slipstream received needed repairs.

Only toilet problems happened—even on the paradise planet Ceti Alpha 5!

Except this time it wasn’t her responsibility to solve the problem. Unless she wanted to make sure it got handled right. Once a starship plumber, always a starship plumber!

🚀

The one thing that Chrystal Eagle didn’t want to do on this vacation was think about work. Especially her work on the Elegant Slipstream, a superluminal passenger liner currently in orbit somewhere above the auroras dancing above her head.

Blurp. The noise came from her suite, through the open door behind her. Chrystal ignored it. She was on vacation, not on the ship.

Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, first class. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but Chrystal preferred starship plumber. That’s what she told people, humanoid and otherwise.

On the ship, she worried about Yelephant monks trying out the humanoid facilities, which for some reason fascinated them, or, the odd semi-form that looked like a blue-skinned handsome man right up until the point when he lost cohesion and ended up flushing himself. And then had the nerve to dump her for a jellyfish. Worst part about the job, the passengers.

Down here on Ceti Alpha 5 she was the passenger. She had a suite in one of the finest hotels on the planet, situated on a bluff overlooking the azure seas. On evenings like this, she could sit out on her spacious balcony, seemingly suspended in mid-air, and watch the sparkling lights of the fish in the water as they mimicked the shimmering colors of the auroras above. The pretty lights couldn’t compare with the cascading relativistic auroras of a ship’s CrunchBang drive as it re-entered normal space, but that was just physics. Down there in the azure seas, thousands of fish flashed back colors in quick response to the auroras above. They’d even evolved long eyes on stalks that rose above the water to watch the auroras. The fact that the whole display was biological made it all the more impressive.

Chrystal picked up a tall fluted glass filled with Wing Wine, a beverage fermented from the discarded wings of the Ceti Alpha 5 fairies. It was a translucent bluish color that glowed with its own dim light. Supposedly a potent aphrodisiac, not that she had found anyone to share it with. Not yet at least. The Wing Wine smelled like blueberries warmed in the sun but had an almost orangey tang to it that disguised the rumored kick. She could be drinking orange juice for all she could tell from the taste, but the guide books had warned her not to drink too much. In addition to the intoxicating effects, Wing Wine was also reported to have hallucinogenic properties.

She took another taste, letting it roll around on her tongue. It almost tasted fizzy, as if weakly carbonated. She swallowed, and the fizzy continued down her throat, then spread out along her limbs all the way to her fingers. Chrystal giggled and took another drink. Maybe that was the hallucinogenic property she had read about.

Out on the horizon, above the azure seas shining with the mirror fish, a bright light appeared and climbed rapidly up from the horizon. Shuttle launch from the look of it. Ceti Alpha 5 was a popular tourist destination.

In the suite behind her something went blurb. Then gurgled. And let out a pop.

Chrystal knocked back the rest of her drink. She made herself smile. She was on vacation, just like the passengers on the Elegant Slipstream. She picked up her cell and tapped her activation. It took two tries.

“Housekeeping,” she told it. “Get them.”

“Right away,” the cell answered smoothly.

On the horizon, the shuttle vanished behind distant clouds. The mirror fish continued mimicking the auroras flashing across the sky, and in the suite something went chug, chug.

Chrystal put the glass down on the table. She could take a look. It didn’t mean that she had to touch anything. And when housekeeping did arrive then she could direct them straight to the problem.

Blurb. Chug, chug.

She was on her feet and back in the apartment before the last chug finished. It came from the bathroom; she was sure of it. Chrystal moved across the slick shell stone, translucent tiles with rich cobalt veins running through it like the neurons of a brain. Shell stone tiles were highly prized off-world, the Elegant Slipstream even had a view V.P. suites finished in the tiles. That was one of the reasons that she had decided to vacation on Ceti Alpha 5.

She was in the spacious hallway where the walls shifted and pulsed with recorded images of the auroras when she heard the sound again. Blurb. Chug. CHUG.

Splashing.

Right then tones chimed behind her at the front door. She heard something like a wet towel flap against the floor. Whatever was going on in the bathroom, it wasn’t just a plumbing issue. Chrystal backed up and went to the front door.

A man in a uniform stood outside. He was eye-to-eye with her, with short gray hair and a strong jaw. Nice shoulders beneath the blue coverall.

He flashed white teeth in a brilliant smile. “Housekeeping. Is there something —”

Blurb. Chug. CHUG. More splashing. His eyes — a nice green color like fresh spring leaves — widened.

“What’s that?”

Chrystal shook her head. “I thought at first there was some gas build-up, or maybe a pressure clog, but this sounds like something else.”

He looked at her again, up and down as if trying to reconcile her words and the loose black evening gown she was wearing. “It sounds like you have some experience with plumbing problems?”

“Starship plumber, off the Elegant Slipstream.” Chrystal held out her hand. “Chrystal Eagle.”

There were more flapping noises coming from the bathroom.

“Brandon Hughes.” He took her hand. His grip was firm, dry and strong.

Chrystal reluctantly let go. “Want to take a look?”

He nodded and stepped into the room. A sled with long mechanical arms floated around the corner after him. Two clusters of glowing red eyes looked up at her.

“That’s Lowell,” Brandon said. “Don’t mind him; he doesn’t talk.”

“My kind of robot,” Chrystal said.

She started walking toward the bathroom, and Brandon walked beside her. Lowell trailed along after them. Ahead the flapping noises continued. Brandon glanced at her.

“Um, first time on Ceti Alpha 5?”

“Why? Does this happen a lot?”

He shook his head quickly. “No, I’ve been here ten years, and I haven’t heard anything like this.”

“Ten years and nothing like this?”

Brandon moved past her to the other side of the door. He took out a swipe card and poised it over the door’s panel. “No. Ready?”

Chrystal looked at Lowell. “Why not send in the robot first?”

Lowell drifted backward.

“Where’s it going?”

Brandon chuckled. “Don’t worry, Lowell. I’m not going to send you first.” He looked at Chrystal, giving her a sheepish smile. “Lowell’s a bit of a cowardly robot. I can’t send him in first.”

Chrystal shook her head. “You’re a nicer plumber than me. I’ve flushed my droids.”

Lowell let out an electronic squeak of dismay.

“On three,” Brandon said. “Three. Two. One.”

He swiped the card across the panel.

“That was on one,” Chrystal said.

Brandon shrugged and shoved the door open. A smell wafted out. A low-tide, briny sort of smell. The wet flapping increased in urgency. Brandon started in but stopped just inside the door.

“What the—?”

Chrystal couldn’t see past him. She rose up on her toes and put one hand on his shoulder to steady herself, and couldn’t help but notice how firm his shoulder felt. Not overly big, but strong and well-muscled. Then she saw what was in the bathroom and felt ill.

It was like an octopi party had happened in her toilet. Dozens of long plum red tentacles ran out of her toilet and flapped limply onto the polished coral floor. That was the sound that they had heard. The skin on each tentacle was wet and glistening. There was a sort of upper ridge running down the center of each of the tentacles, lined with tiny bumps that opened and closed revealing hard yellow marble things inside. She got the impression that the yellow things were watching them. She couldn’t see what the tentacles connected to; they vanished into the toilet.

“Are those eyes?”

Brandon reached back and his hand found her waist. Chrystal was glad of the touch. “I think so. It feels like it is watching us.”

Chrystal heard a clunking sort of noise in the hallway and looked back. Lowell had bumped into the wall trying to turn around. “Your robot is leaving.”

“Uh, Chrystal. You might want to see this?”

Chrystal looked back into the bathroom. Three of the tentacles closest to them were rising up like snakes and the ends had flattened out, revealing long, narrow, teeth-lined mouths on the underside.

Chrystal stepped back, pulling Brandon with her. “Come on! Your robot has the right idea!”

Brandon didn’t move. She looked at him but his strong jaw had gone slack. He stared at the creature in a vacant, dreamy sort of way.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “It hypnotized you?  That thing?”

Glancing into the room, she saw that the tentacles had risen higher in the air. Vicious sharp teeth ground together, but it was the eyes that really caught her attention. They were blinking in complex sequences like the yellow color was streaming along the tentacles in patterns —

Chrystal tore her gaze away by burying her face against Brandon’s chest. That got her attention. The man was ripped! She ran her hand up his chest, feeling great muscle definition without too much bulk. Just the way she liked it.

Only not when there was some sort of weird alien octopi about to bite them from the toilet. Chrystal shoved against Brandon’s chest with both hands. He barely even wobbled. It was like pushing on a tree.

“Oh, come on!” She glanced back at the tentacles. They were rising even higher. The pattern of yellow flashes had gotten more complex. She tore her gaze away and looked up at Brandon’s vacant face. “Sorry about this.”

She slapped him. The crack of her palm against his cheek sounded loud in the small space.

Brandon’s head rocked a bit to the side but that was it. More tentacles were rising into the air, mouth’s chewing, chewing and the yellow eye-bumps flashing their hypnotic pattern. Chrystal thought about slipping out past Brandon but she wasn’t just going to leave the guy to his fate. Not that easily.

She reached up and put her hands over his eyes. He still didn’t respond. Impulsively she kissed him. For a second his lips pressed against hers with all the responsiveness of a fish, but then his mouth moved and his lips parted. She felt his hand encircle her waist. At that moment Chrystal hooked her leg around the back of his knee, dropped her hands from Brandon’s face and shoved hard on his chest.

He toppled back, catching her on top of him. Chrystal heard a loud crack and looked back to see two of the tentacles flat out on the floor, their mouth’s chewing angrily at the coral tiles right where they’d been standing. She looked down at Brandon.

“Are you okay?”

He looked up at her, right into her eyes. It was a very intimate look. His eyes were really lovely. She couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone with eyes that same sort of pale, fresh spring green color. Lines appeared at the corners of his eyes as he smiled.

“I’m okay. Why’d you tackle me? What’s in the bathroom?”

Chrystal put a hand on his cheek when he tried to lift his head and look past her. “Don’t look.”

“Why not?”

She rolled off him and grabbed his hand, pulling him up. There were more flapping noises from the bathroom. He tried to look but she put her hand up again on his face, stopping him. “Stop looking, okay?” He looked at her. “What do you remember?”

Brandon shrugged. “We were opening the door and you tackled me?”

Chrystal shook her head. “We opened the door, saw the thing in there and you got all mesmerized by its flashing yellow eyes.”

“It has flashing yellow eyes?”

“And a bunch of tentacles that end in some very nasty looking teeth, all coming up out of the toilet like it’s a planter or something. Any idea what that might be?”

“No. It doesn’t sound familiar.”

Down at the end of the hallway, Lowell’s eye-stalks eased around the corner. The robot warbled and floated out into the entry way. Chrystal pointed at the robot. “I’m assuming that can relay video?”

“Yes.”

“Great. This time we’re sending it in to get some scans. We’ve got to identify this thing and find out how to get rid of it.”

Brandon grinned. “Too bad we can’t just flush it.”

“Funny guy. I like that. And not a bad kisser, either.” Chrystal walked away down the hall.

“Wait, when did we kiss?” Brandon asked, following her.

Chrystal ignored the question. When she got to the end of the hall Lowell drifted back away from her. She snapped her  fingers. “Enough of that! We’ve got a job to do and you’re going to help unless you want to risk that thing eating your boss?”

Lowell’s eye-stalks drooped and it gave out a mournful tone.

“That’s what I thought.” Chrystal scooped up one of her tablets. “Give me access to your video feed.”

“Here.” Brandon took the tablet. His fingers danced across the surface, flicking commands as they came up. In a couple seconds, the tablet showed what Lowell was seeing. Brandon handed the tablet back to her.

Chrystal turned it around. Good resolution, she dragged down the robot’s command functions. A decent suite of analytical capabilities. But the view on the screen still showed her and Brandon, standing beside one another, Brandon looking over her shoulder.

“Go on then,” she told Lowell. “Just go as far as the doorway and look in. We need to get a good look at this thing without being mesmerized. And if we can analyze its respiration gasses and other biometric data, maybe we can determine where it came from.”

Lowell floated a meter closer to the hallway but stopped again. His eyes stalks swiveled back around to look at them again.

“Lowell,” Brandon said. “Go on and do what she said. We need to know what we’re dealing with here.”

Lowell moved off again at a decidedly sluggish pace. She could still hear the alien flapping against the floor. Soon enough the robot’s eye stalks peered around the corner into the bathroom.

Most of the tentacles had dropped down to the floor again as if it took too much effort to hold them up. The ends flapped against the tile, reminding her of someone tapping their feet with impatience. It must have seen Lowell peeking because one of the tentacles started rising and the pattern of yellow eyes changed. That only lasted a second or two and then the thing seemed to recognize that Lowell wasn’t going to be hypnotized. Or prove edible. Or maybe both. Whatever the case was, it went back to tapping the ends of its tentacles against the floor.

“Move in closer,” Chrystal said. “Get some decent readings and then come on out.”

Lowell drifted on into the open doorway, closer to the alien. The screen segmented, dividing into quadrants that showed various gas concentrations measured by Lowell’s sensors. Brandon pointed to the screen.

“Look at that, it’s giving off methane and carbon dioxide.”

“Like a lot of warm-blooded species,” Chrystal said.

“But look at the concentrations. That’s not Ceti Alpha 5 biology, not by a long shot.”

“So it’s not from here.”

Brandon waved his hand at the screen. “Maybe somebodies’ pet?”

“If I was on the ship I’d consider the chance that this might be a guest,” Chrystal said. “You must have a registry that includes environmental needs of your guests. We should compare these readings to your system. See if this is a match?”

On the screen, Lowell was still keeping his distance but suddenly all the tentacles shot out and wrapped around anything close by, the towel rack, cupboard handles, shower curtain rod, and hand grips for the differently abled. The remaining tentacles that didn’t have something to grab onto braced themselves against the floor. Chrystal didn’t need Lowell’s microphones to make out the sucking sound as the creature pulled and pushed, trying to free itself from the toilet.

A loud squelching noise was followed by a rush of water spilling out of the toilet. Lowell warbled in alarm and drifted back into the hallway. The alien wasn’t free, not yet, but it had gained a couple inches like a particularly difficult bowel movement.

“It’s straining to get free,” she told Brandon.

His fingers flew across the screen of his tablet, flicking aside results that didn’t match. “We don’t have the best data to go on.”

“I’d rather deal with it where it’s at now than if it gets out. Maybe we should just go ahead and call security now.”

Brandon shook his head, causing his hair to fall forward around his face. Chrystal found herself noticing again what a nice face he had, strong jawline, and she liked the way the muscle near his ear tightened as he concentrated.

He blew out his breath and tossed the tablet down on the table. “No match!”

Chrystal reached over and took his hand. Strong, rough skin, and warm. Hands that knew work, like her own, and he didn’t pull away. He knew what she did — intimately — and wasn’t repulsed by it. Always a plus in a guy.

From the bathroom came another electronic warble. On screen, she could see the alien straining again. The tentacles quivered with the effort.

She squeezed his hand. “So good news. It isn’t a guest then, right? If the biometrics don’t match it must be something else. Try the medical database. Maybe this is some sort of parasite that one of your guests evacuated into your system.”

“You think?”

Chrystal shrugged. “Ask me to tell you sometime about the Nosferan tapeworm that ended up in our system.”

“A tapeworm? Aren’t those pretty small…” His voice trailed off as he looked into her eyes. She loved his eyes. “I guess not.”

She smiled. “Yeah, but let’s focus on this. Parasite? Something else? I don’t know —”

Another loud squelch and more water pattered down on the floor. Lowell had backed as far into the hallway as he could and still keep his cameras trained on the bathroom. The creature had tightened its grips but was resting, no doubt gathering itself for one final push.

“This is going to take time,” Brandon said. “There’s a lot of data to shift through.”

Chrystal stood up and pulled out her cell. “Keep looking, I’m going to try something else before that thing crawls out here.”

Leaving him to do his search, Chrystal walked over to the entrance to the hallway. Lowell turned one camera stalk in her direction and let out a questioning beep.

“Not yet. Stay there.”

The robot gave a hiss of static.

“Don’t take that tone with me,” she warned it. “Or I’ll shove you inside with the alien and close the door.”

On her cell, she called the service desk.

“Room service, this is May. How might I help you today?” May sounded perky, and human from her voice.

“Hi, this is Chrystal Eagle.” Chrystal gave May her room number, then went on. “I’ve got Brandon here trying to help me out but I don’t think that’s going to do it. Do you happen to have any translation devices down there?”

“Of course we do. Humanoid or non-humanoid?”

“Definitely non-humanoid.”

“Would you like that in a ring, collar, strap, disc or clamp?” May’s voice didn’t show any hesitation at all.

Chrystal thought for a moment. “How about a strap? That’s probably going to be the easiest to get on this thing.”

“I’ll have someone bring that right up! Thank you so much for calling!”

“Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks.” Chrystal pocketed the cell and looked back at Brandon. “Any luck in the medical databases?”

He shook his head. “No, it keeps asking me for more information and then says that it can’t find a match!”

“I’ve got another idea, but you’re not going to like it.” Chrystal took a deep breath, and then looked in his green eyes and told him her plan while they waited for the translation strap to arrive.

Room service was fast. It only took a few minutes before the door chimed cheerfully. Chrystal answered it. A young Ashian male — she could tell because of the golden sheen in his chitin — held the strap in his mandibles. A translation disc embedded in his carapace flashed when he spoke.

“Here is the translation strap you requested. It should automatically configure itself to your guest’s neural activity.”

The strap itself looked like a leather belt, made from a reddish, woven material. The fastener was simple, two interlocking electro-magnetic clasps. Just what she wanted.

A loud squelching noise came from the bathroom. The Ashian’s antennae wiggled in that direction.

“Is there anything else that you require?”

“No thanks, not right now, but we’ll let you know.”

“Very good.” With a quick harmonic leg scrape, the Ashian left.

Chrystal closed the door. Brandon came over and looked at the strap and while he did his hand touched the small of her back. Chrystal liked it, but more water splashing noises from the bathroom reminded her of the current problem.

She lifted the strap. “Let’s give this one last try, if it doesn’t work then we can call security and let them sort it out.”

“If you’re right and this thing is intelligent, then this should work.”

“Let’s go find out.”

Chrystal held out her hand. Brandon took it and together they walked down the hallway to the bathroom. She was thinking about the alien, and the risk they were running by facing it and risking the chance that it would hypnotize them both, but that was only a tiny part of her mind. The rest of her attention was on the man beside her, and the feel of his hand in hers.

Lowell floated around to face them when they reached the bathroom. His eyestalks quivered. Brandon held out a hand.

“Hey, buddy, it’s okay. We’ll take care of it now. But if anything goes wrong, I want you to call security. Understand?”

Lowell gave an affirmative beep.

“Okay. Let’s do this. On three. Two. One!” Chrystal burst through the door.

“That was one!” Brandon said.

She didn’t have time to comment. The alien had nearly escaped from the toilet. Its body was long and thick, constricted down into the toilet. It must have been squeezing through for some time. The tentacles still gripped the same points but had coiled around and around each spot. The yellow eyes or bumps tried to flash, but the pattern was chaotic and disorganized.

Chrystal went for the nearest tentacle, one wrapped around the towel rack. It’d gotten toilet water all over her clean towels! Something else for room service to take care of later. She swung the strap down at the tentacle.

With the loud crack of a belt hitting a bare bottom, the strap whipped around the tentacle and the clasp snicked into place.

Chrystal immediately turned away and ran right into Brandon. She looked at his face, afraid he’d been hypnotized again, but this time he was looking at her. She smiled. “We’d better back up.”

A new voice spoke up. “Oh, just my luck! I come out in the honeymoon suite?”

Still pressed against Brandon’s chest, his face in her hair, Chrystal forced herself to talk to the alien. “What are you doing in my toilet?”

“Trying to get out.” More squelching noises. “Look, give me a hand. I’ll go on my way, and no one has to say anything about this to anyone.”

“Why were you in there to start with?” Brandon asked.

“I got myself into a jam. A mess with the local authorities. No big deal, I thought I’d flush my problems away, that’s all. Like I said. Give me a break and I’m gone.”

Chrystal laughed into Brandon’s chest. “Let’s call security now, okay?” She traced his muscles through his shirt. “And maybe after you can tell me when you get off work?”

Brandon kissed the top of her head. “I think I can manage that.”

Arms around each other, they walked out of the bathroom. “Come on, you can’t —”

Brandon pulled the door shut, cutting off the alien’s protest. Lowell gave a relieved warble.

🚀

4,171 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 78th short story release, written in October 2011, and follows my earlier Chrystal Eagle stories, the Greatest Gig and Love, [unprounceable].

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Next Question.

Love, [unpronounceable]

With the greatest gig in the unviverse, comes great responsibility to make sure the toilets function— for both humanoid species and those otherwise equipped passengers aboard the Elegant Slipstream.

The job let Chrystal Eagle see the universe but it also had one main drawback — the passengers. Including those that with, shall we say, different social behaviors?

With both toilets and passengers one rule applied—expect the unexpected!

🚀

Until recently Chrystal felt that her life on the Elegant Slipstream lacked for nothing. The greatest gig in the universe, being a starship plumber. Or Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, First Class, according to the starship crew manifest. She preferred starship plumber, much easier to say and most species understood what she meant. As the First Technician she only got her hands dirty if she wanted to, she got to see the sights, and she rarely had to deal with the passengers.

Life was good right up until Prince Harris, heir to a planetary dynasty on Epsilon Fortis, dumped her for a jellyfish. He said that he couldn’t be himself with her since he preferred the gelatinous unformed state he’d been in when she first found him clogging up one of the humanoid stalls on board. Okay, he didn’t leave her for a Terran jellyfish, but the species was aquatic and luminescent.

Now even watching the cascading relativistic auras as the Elegant Slipstream’s CrunchBang drive coughed them back up into normal space, a sight worshiped by some species and admired by most, failed to engage her. Chrystal sipped her champagne in her favorite lounge as the auras spread in frenzied fractal patterns, across colors her human eyes couldn’t even fully appreciate. Some called it a birth-of-a-universe moment, only the Elegant Slipstream was the universe reforming itself from nothing into something again. Chrystal didn’t pretend to understand how the CrunchBang drive worked, but she figured the trick was not thinking about the crunch part.

First class passengers mingled in the lounge, humanoid and not, imbibing, eating, ingesting, speaking and signing as the auras reached a peak of activity and then without warning the auras vanished. A group of seven Cantorian scientists, looking like a school group of six-year-olds with canary-yellow scales, raised their voices in song. It soared up on thin, high voices as they threw their heads back and funneled their lips up toward the arching windows above. As the pitch rose Chrystal winced and put her glass down on a passing service droid. It had been a mistake coming up to the lounge to watch their arrival. Three seconds passed and the only disruption came from a Yelephant monk’s cyanide-scented fart on the other side of the lounge. Nearby passengers edged away but no one dared leave yet. In a blinding wash of activity, colors flared across the windows and brought a burst of flavors to her mouth as her brain attempted to make sense of what it was seeing. The wash swept over the ship leaving them in quite normal space with a blue and green planet below. The Cantorians continued singing and the rest of the passengers vacated the vicinity of the Yelephant monk.

Turning to leave she nearly ran right into a passenger. Quadruped, covered in long brown wavy fur, with a thick muscled neck and a long wolfish snout. It wore a bright blue carry sack across its back and a shiny translation collar around its neck. Bright yellow eyes looked at her calmly and blinked in sequence, all three of them. The passenger rocked back into a sitting up position and stuck out one forelimb. What had looked like a black hoof unrolled into three fingers and a thumb.

The passenger mumbled something, and in the curling of its lips Chrystal caught glimpses of shark-like teeth. “Greetings!” Said the translation collar in a cheerful man’s voice. “I am —” the voice switched to a dull genderless monotone “— [unpronounceable].” Then the voice switched back to the cheerful male voice again. “I didn’t catch your name?”

“I didn’t say.” While the collar translated her words into mumbles, Chrystal reluctantly accepted the handshake. The alien’s hand felt hard, like bone, and lacked any warmth. Even worse, he squeezed fairly hard. She winced and pulled her hand free.

“Apologies, did I perform the greeting incorrectly?” He said, his mumbling words translated by the cheerful collar.

Chrystal didn’t know the species, hardly unusual in on a galactic passenger liner. She found it best to get right to the point with passengers. Limiting the scope of her interaction with them made her day better.

“Do you need a steward? I work in sanitation.”

The passenger’s wide nostrils flared. “Oh yes! Delightful aroma. So complex and multidimensional. It is what I noticed first about you.”

“My smell?” Chrystal sniffed her shoulder. She smelled the sharp antiseptic chemical scent of cleansers, but she hadn’t gotten into any messes today.

His nostrils flared again and he inhaled deeply. A shudder shook his shaggy body. “Oh yes! Very nice, very nice indeed.” His mouth fell open showing rows of sharp shark teeth. A smile? “I wondered if I could buy you dinner?”

“Dinner?”

“Your pick, any tier one establishment, my treat. You’re not a —” the translation collar changed tones again. “— [unpronounceable]?”

Even though he looked like a shaggy brown dog crossed with a giant meerkat Chrystal found herself tempted by the offer. Ordinarily, the only time she got to tier one was to fix some issue with the plumbing in one of the exclusive suites reserved only for the richest of rich. The sentients that stayed on those levels had bathrooms as large as this entire lounge. Larry, the ship’s A.I., wouldn’t even let her into tier one without a work order. Or an invitation. Dinner there probably cost more than she made in a year.

Chrystal hated it, but she had to ask. “Why are you asking me? I don’t think we’re compatible, if you understand what I mean?”

She waited for the translation collar to finish mumbling all of that. He inhaled deeply and shuddered again. Then his fur parted between his legs and Chrystal took a step back, shaking her head.

“No, sorry. I can’t. Thanks, all the same.” She didn’t wait for an answer. She turned and headed quickly away from him. Her cheeks burned at the memory. Passengers!

She heard hard raps behind her and looked back. He was trotting after her on four legs! Chrystal called out. “Larry?”

The passenger was gaining on her and there wasn’t any answer from the ship’s A.I. “Larry!”

The smooth tones of the A.I. came through her earpiece. “We have discussed the need to stick to protocol when addressing me, First Technician.”

“Right, sorry. You just sound like a Larry to me.” She picked up her pace and the passenger loped right along after her with effortless grace. She had the impression that he could catch her at any point and his mouth was opening showing those teeth. “I need security here! Now! I’m being chased!”

“What did you do this time?”

“Nothing!” Chrystal reached the unobtrusive door marked ‘Crew Only’ and palmed through.

As the door closed she turned and saw the passenger slow to a stop, then he turned as two squat, egg-shaped security droids hovered into the lounge. Then the door closed, leaving her alone in the access corridor. Chrystal leaned against the corridor wall. She looked up at the ceiling.

“Thanks, Larry. What is he anyway?”

“A paying passenger,” the A.I. responded, not rising to her taunt. “The crew is expected to handle incidents with a degree of decorum, not racing across a viewing lounge.”

Chrystal pushed away from the wall and walked over to a stack of waiting rail sleds in the red zone. She pulled one down, stepped on and kicked off. The sled picked up speed as she increased the throttle, chasing the red alert lights that pulsed ahead along the red zone lines to inform anyone coming that there was a sled heading toward them. On a ship the size of the Elegant Slipstream, a rail sled was essential to getting around quickly. The ship was helix-shaped, with crew and passenger compartments twining around one another, connected by access corridors and supports. Now that they’d arrived in planetary orbit she could get busy on the repair schedule and stay away from any additional contact with the passengers. Just thinking back at what she had seen, when his hair parted, made her blush. She pushed the thought aside, after all, she’d never see him again anyway.

🚀

Four hours later Chrystal was on tier five, waist deep in a bulkhead trying to locate a water line leak. This was the fourth time she had crawled into a bulkhead along this line trying to find the source of the leak the sensors had detected and already she could tell she was wasting her time. On top of that, she was in a public corridor so she had to worry about passengers stepping on her feet, and she could smell the spicy meat smell coming from the Paleo restaurant across the way. She licked her lips but they were as dry as the compartment.

“This one is as dry as the last. If there was a leak wouldn’t there be water on the floor? Maybe some spraying out of the pipes?”

In front of her two silver egg-shaped droids, each as large as an eggplant hovered inches above the floor. Their red scanning lights moved back and forth across the chamber. Huey gave out a low despondent buzz.

“I know, right?” Chrystal rolled onto her back. “La — Ship Mind?”

“Yes, First Technician?”

“We’re not seeing any water down here. All of these compartments are dry.” She felt a tickle in her nose. “And dusty.”

“My logs show a drop in pressure equivalent to one gallon of water leaking. Flow volume monitors show the same drop. My analysis and diagnostics indicate that the water level did drop by that amount.”

Dewey gave a querulous beep.

“I don’t know,” Chrystal said. “That much water, we should have seen it but there isn’t anything that I see in here. What else can you tell me about the water loss?”

“I can forward you the data if you’d like to review it yourself.” If she didn’t imagine it, the ship’s A.I. actually sounded a bit offended that she didn’t trust his analysis.

“That’d be great.”

“I have transferred the data to your tablet.”

Chrystal dug the tablet out of her cargo pocket and thumb-flicked it on. Charts and numbers filled the screen along with a flow volume graph. “Thanks, Larry.”

She was dragging the graph when someone tapped on her knee, and then mumbled something unintelligible. Chrystal groaned.

“There you are!” A cheerful voice rang out. “I’ve tried tracking your scent all over this ship, I wasn’t sure I’d find you, but here you are!”

A long snout shoved into the bulkhead beside her knees and yellow eyes blinked at her. “Remember me? I’m — [unpronounceable] — we met earlier in the lounge?”

Chrystal like lying on her back with this passenger by her legs. “Back up. I’ll come out.”

The passenger withdrew his snout. Chrystal turned her head and looked right into Huey’s red light. “Go through it again and signal me in two minutes whether or not you find anything. Got it?”

Huey chirruped happily.

“Are you stuck?” The passenger asked.

“No.” Chrystal wiggled out of the bulkhead and sat up.

The passenger sat in front of her showing off his shark-like teeth. Chrystal stood up and brushed off her coverall. “Look, I don’t think we’re communicating. Thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested. Okay? I’m sure you can find all sorts of females willing to have dinner with you.”

His mouth snapped closed and a rumbling growl came from deep in his throat. Chrystal stepped back but she hit the wall. She glanced down at her toolbox. Could she grab a wrench fast enough to fend off an attack?

The passenger mumbled something and a moment later the collar translated, still in that same cheerful tone. “I want you to reconsider. You are quite exotic and I would greatly appreciate — [unpronounceable] — with you.”

“Right now I’m trying to track down a leak, understand? I’m working. I’m not a passenger on this ship, I actually have a job to do. Why don’t you try going planetside?”

“I understand. I tried to buy your contract, but the ship’s mind declined the offer. I don’t see why dinner and — [unpronounceable] — is too much to ask.”

“For one thing your collar isn’t translating everything, so I don’t even understand what all you want. Why don’t you go have that looked at and we’ll talk after I get off work?”

“This is a top of the line translation collar!”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t translate everything, even your name.”

“My name is — [unpronounceable].”

“See, just then? Did you hear how the voice changed? Each time it does that it’s because it couldn’t translate what you said.”

Chrystal felt something bump her leg and looked down at Huey. He beeped twice. She looked back at the passenger. “I really need to get back to work.”

The passenger mumbled briefly and dropped down on all fours. “I’ll be back!”

He trotted away into the crowd and Chrystal sighed. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone? This was exactly why she didn’t like dealing with passengers. Huey beeped at her again.

“What is it?” Her tablet flashed in her hand.

ANOMALY DETECTED.

Chrystal tapped replay and a video took over the screen. A droid-camera view of the crawlspace in the bulkhead. Huey floating along next to the waterline. The pipe was smooth, except for one spot where a mound of whitish material stuck out of the pipe as if it had developed a pimple. Chrystal froze the video. “What is that?”

Huey beeped sadly.

“I guess I’d better take a look.” Chrystal pocketed the tablet and got back down on the floor, then wiggled into the bulkhead.

It took some contortions to get her head back into the space behind the pipe. Her neck protested the unnatural angle, but she could see the material. It was translucent, whitish and looked very organic. She squeezed her arm up and tapped at the material with her fingernail. Hard, and dry to the touch. Chrystal started to move when she heard something bang against the pipe.

“Huey? Dewey? Was that you?”

Two negative buzzes answered her from the droids.

“Well, something just hit the pipe. Huey, work your way forward. Dewey, head back. Find it.” Chrystal slid on down until her head rested on the floor and her neck wasn’t bent. She pulled out her tablet and tapped into the droids’ visual feeds, displaying them split-screen. Both showed essentially the same view as the droids floated along the pipe.

“First Technician,” Larry’s voice came through her earpiece. “I’m detecting another drop in pressure near your position.”

“I’m working on it. I heard something. The droids are tracking the problem down now.”

On the screen, the view hadn’t changed on Huey’s display but Dewey’s showed something hanging from the pipe ahead.

“Move faster Dewey!”

The droid raced along the pipe closer to whatever it was and then Dewey was close enough that she could see it clearly. An animal with a funnel mouth clamped to the pipe. The long throat swelled and a lump moved down as the creature swallowed. Not an animal, Chrystal realized. The creature wore a green hooded tunic, the hood folded back, and a small pack lay on the floor beside it. The body was very rotund, with skinny little arms and legs kicking in the air as it swallowed straight from the pipe. Dark eyes like raisins in oatmeal rolled to look at the approaching droid. The creature’s arms and legs kicked frantically and the lips peeled back from the pipe. Chrystal caught a glimpse of a hard bony fang-like protrusion piercing the pipe before the creature sneezed a glob of whitish muck onto the pipe, right over the hole, as it fell away. Not a drop of water leaked. The creature snatched up its bag and turned to flee.

“Grab him!” Chrystal shouted.

Dewey extended manipulators and flew after the creature, which was waddling. Chrystal laughed. No way it could out run Dewey.

Evidently, the creature realized that too. It turned and sneezed at Dewey. The image vanished from the tablet and she heard a wail of distress echo through the bulkhead. Chrystal swore and scrambled out of the bulkhead. A tall willowy passenger blinked big black eyes at her as she popped out and then strode quickly away on four thin legs. Chrystal ran along the bulkhead toward the section Dewey had reached.

“Larry! I need security here. Dewey found the cause of the pressure drop.”

“First Technician, why do you persist in using —”

“Security, Larry! We’ve got a stowaway.” As if she didn’t have enough trouble with passengers, now a stowaway too?

“I find that unlikely,” Larry said. “However, I have dispatched security droids to your location.”

Chrystal reached the bulkhead and swiped her id on the access lock. Bolts disengaged and the panel popped free. Dewey lay on the floor, snot gluing him in place. She looked for the stowaway and saw it waddling through the next section.

“Hey! Get back here!”

The stowaway turned and its head drew back. Chrystal recognized the movement and jerked out of the bulkhead. A glob of snot hit the floor in front of her and immediately hardened. “That’s so gross.”

She heard the wail of the approaching security droids and crawled over to the next access lock. She looked up as two massive security droids — Dewey’s giant cousins — glided up to here. “He’s in here. Ready? Watch out for the snot.”

Chrystal swiped the access lock and the panel popped free. She caught the panel and pulled it away, giving the droids access while shielding herself. One of the droids glided forward, extending manipulators into the bulkhead. She heard another explosive sneeze and ducked behind the panel. A glob of snot hit the droid’s visual scanner and hardened. Unfortunately for the stowaway, the droid was undeterred and snatched it out of the bulkhead with a many-tentacled manipulator. The stowaway went limp in the droids grip except for drops of water that welled up from its eyes and pattered down on the deck. Was it crying?

Putting the panel back into place, Chrystal rose and faced the droids and their captive. “Can you understand us?”

The stowaway went into a frenzy of fruitless squirming and then sneezed a huge glob of snot at Chrystal. She barely managed to turn, only enough that the glob hit the side of her head and immediately hardened in her hair, plastering her hair down over her ear.

“Oh, that’s so nasty!” She gingerly probed at her hair but the mass of hardened snot was as hard as the glob plugging the waterline.

Larry’s voice sounded in her earpiece, but was addressing the droids. “Take our unwelcome guest to holding and escort the First Technician down to the medical tier to see what they can do to help.”

Huey floated out of the bulkhead and let out a low mournful beep.

“Someone will come help Dewey and work on repairing the damage caused by that rat,” Chrystal promised. “You stay put to help out.”

Huey beeped affirmatively as she followed the security droids away. Their captive hung limply, but Chrystal stayed back out of range of any more attacks. As they walked past the Paleo restaurant the smells set her stomach rumbling. Stupid stowaway, for the first time she’d found something worse than passengers.

🚀

Two hours later, sporting a new Mohawk hairstyle that she actually sort of liked, Chrystal returned to the spot where the stowaway had hidden. All the panels were back in place. Miguel Stacks, her second-in-command, had already reported in that the repairs were complete. It wasn’t the waterline that brought her back, but the Paleo restaurant. Her stomach growled as she headed for the open doors and breathed in the spicy meat smells coming from inside.

Stepping into the dim interior she saw a waiting area and a human hostess dressed in a skin bikini waiting beside the reception desk. A shaggy shape heaved itself up from the waiting bench.

“At last!” A voice exclaimed.

Chrystal’s heart sank. She didn’t want to deal with this lovesick passenger, she wanted food. Meat that she could sink her teeth in. She raised her hands. “What are you doing here?”

As her eyes adjusted to the lighting she saw the shark-toothed passenger clearer. The thick collar he’d worn was gone, replaced by a thin silver model. He didn’t mumble this time before the collar spoke.

“I took your advice and replaced my translation device with a thought-controlled device. Much more efficient, and I’ve been assured that the translation matrix is more accurate.”

“But how did you find me again?”

Shark-like teeth flashed. “The ship mind told me that you planned to dine here after your appointment.”

That was to get back at her for calling him Larry all the time. He must have been listening when she was leaving the clinic and told the technician that she planned on coming back here.

“Larry, shouldn’t have done that,” Chrystal said, expecting that Larry was listening.

“Perhaps you’d like to dine with me? My treat?” The passenger looked around the waiting area. “Although we could find better on the first tier.”

Chrystal sighed. “I want to eat here. Just tell me one thing with your new translator, what’s your name?”

“My name is — [unpronounceable].”

“Of course it is. Let’s eat.” Chrystal marched up to the hostess. “A table for two.”

🚀

Bill, as Chrystal thought of the passenger with the unpronounceable name, departed the ship at the next stop but in the two weeks until then Chrystal accompanied him to over a dozen different restaurants, including three first tier establishments. At one she had a chocolate dessert that defied description, but it haunted her dreams for three straight nights. She made it clear that, although she was happy to dine with him, their relationship wasn’t going to turn romantic.

A month after he departed she received a brief message, forwarded to her tablet. Bill grinned with his shark teeth on the screen. “Dear Chrystal Eagle, I wanted to let you know I have found someone for — [unpronounceable] — and hereby release my claim on you. Love, — [unpronounceable].”

Claim? Chrystal flicked the message away. Being a starship plumber was the greatest gig in the universe, too bad she had to deal with passengers.

🚀

3,794 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 77th short story release, written in February 2011, and follows my earlier story The Greatest Gig.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Shore Leave, which follows the further adventures of Chrystal Eagle.

Chew, Chew

A leaky toilet might not be the worst problem in the world.

Ask Cody Bateman and he’ll tell you that finding a job, dealing with the apartment manager over late rent, or fending off debt collectors rank as bigger problems than the toilet.

Problems, like time, are relative.

And Cody’s problems just got a whole lot worse!

🚀

The funny thing about disasters is that you never expect them to happen to you. Even in the center of tornado alley, it’s always someone else’s trailer that gets shredded in the cosmic blender of fate.

A half-hour ago Cody Bateman never would have pegged his apartment complex in Lacey, Washington, as the site of a disaster. It was easy enough to put aside thoughts of Mt. Rainier erupting in a mega-explosion. He rarely considered the possibility of a major 9.0 quake hitting the region—even though that was a historical reality.

Thirty minutes ago, it was the toilet that had him feeling dizzy and sick.

Not because it was gross or anything, but the damn thing was leaking. He shoved another towel beneath the dripping hose at the back of the toilet — or was it the tank dripping? He couldn’t tell. It was wet. He twisted the shut-off valve, and it spun. The water didn’t stop.

Cody rocked back on his heels. As disasters went, this wasn’t really a big deal. Heck, as a renter all he had to do was go over to the office and tell the manager and it’d get fixed.

It wasn’t about the toilet at all. It was the past due rent. The credit card bills. His student loan late notices. And the silent phone that never rang. No calls for interviews. Nothing in the fridge except a few slices of American cheese and day-old bread that he used for dry-grilled cheese sandwiches.

If he called the manager, the rent would come up, and an eviction notice would probably follow. He shoved the towels back beneath the water, ignoring the faint smell of piss that clung to the toilet no matter how many times he cleaned it. Cleaning it, that had jiggled the tank and started this mini-tsunami of misfortune.

That wasn’t even the real disaster. That didn’t start until fifteen minutes later, after he got the brilliant idea to flush the toilet, drain all the water in the tank and use the handle of the scrub brush to prop up the valve inside the tank so that it wouldn’t refill.

Flooding averted, for now, Cody had taken a break, washed his hands, filled a clean glass with tap water, and had gone out to the living room to read. Library books at least still didn’t cost anything, as long as he got them back on time.

He had five minutes of thrilling space opera courtesy Kevin J. Anderson when there was a loud crash right outside his apartment.

Cody jerked at the bang and sloshed water onto the library book.

“Shit! No, no!” He grabbed a couch pillow and used it to wipe at the book. Shit. Would the library charge for that?

What was that crash? A car accident? He stood the book up on the end table, put the glass on the coffee table, then went and looked out the windows. Across the lawn, past the sidewalk, were the covered carports. The center of the carport was bowed inward, and sunlight streamed through a massive hole in the roof.

“Holy shit,” Cody said to the empty apartment.

He went around to the front door and hurried outside for a closer look.

The carport was all smashed in, the metal twisted and pointing down at the car beneath, and that was also smashed in. Like something from up above had come crashing down and punched right through the carport and the car beneath. All the windows in the car were shattered, and the glass glinted around the car.

Meteor! Or was it an asteroid? Metroid? Cody ran his hands back through his hair. Whatever it was called, something had come crashing down.

Or it could have been a toilet from a passing airplane because apparently those did fall out sometimes.

He looked up, searching the sky and didn’t see any planes but there was a smoke trail that spiraled down right toward the apartment complex! It petered out some distance up, but it was there!

Other people were coming out now too. All of the day-timers that didn’t have jobs or school to get to were coming out and gaping at the carport. Some of them had phones out and were taking pictures, live streaming, and chattering with excitement.

Cody slapped at his pockets. Shit. He’d forgotten his phone. It was still inside. Screw it, he wanted to get a look at the rock or whatever.

The big curly-haired woman that lived in the ground-floor apartment on the other side of the parking lot was out clutching her fat pug in one hand and a phone in the other as she shuffled closer. She had bunny slippers on her feet and a purple bathrobe over pink pajamas.

The pug whimpered and buried its squashed face in the woman’s cleavage.

There were at least half-dozen other people out, getting closer. Someone asked loudly what had happened.

“Meteor,” Cody said, grinning. “Hope that’s not your car.”

The tall guy that had asked shook his head. “Right.”

A warm breeze stirred the trees along the edge of the property. Sirens sounded in the distance. Someone had called 9-1-1.

Cody walked closer, the cool grass tickling his bare feet because he hadn’t stopped to get his shoes before coming out. Which wasn’t really as bad as coming out in bunny slippers.

A guy and a girl from upstairs came down laughing and hanging on each other until the guy saw what everyone was looking at. He pushed the girl off his arm.

“What the hell?” He came forward, fists clenching. “What the fuck?”

The other guy said, “Meteor hit your car, dude. Punched right through it.”

“What the fuck?” The guy said and ran past Cody to the carport.

Cody and everyone else sort of followed him closer. The car was just an old Jetta, nothing in great shape but Cody sympathized given his own financial straight-jacket. Did insurance cover meteors squashing your car? Probably not his basic insurance.

“I just heard a crash,” the woman with the pug said, her voice high-pitched and almost a giggle. “I grabbed Mr. Pugsworth, and we came right out.”

“It left a trail,” Cody said, pointing at the spiral smoke trail still visible in the air above the complex. The breeze hadn’t blown it away yet.

Several people turned phones skyward.

It was right at about that moment when the next one came down, and the disaster picked up steam.

Somebody shouted and pointed at another spot in the sky. Cody looked, and there was another spiral shape forming in the sky with something dark at the center plummeting to the earth. The spiral narrowed as it came until it was just spinning in place. He kept expecting it to slow down or something —

— It smashed right through the roof of Building F! Debris and smoke vomited into the sky, and every window in the building exploded outward in shotgun blasts of broken glass. People screamed. Those closer to the building screamed from pain, the others from fright.

The curly-headed woman screamed. Mr. Pugsworth barked.

“What the fuck?” Repeated the guy with the smashed car, rising from an instinctive crouch.

Cody replayed it in his mind. The dark shape spinning and then slammed right into the roof and punched down inside the building. Somebody in the building was screaming. It was high-pitched, panting screams that just told you some horrible shit had happened.

Some people from the other buildings started running toward Building F, but most of the day-timers that had come out held back. Those that had fallen helping each other up. The sirens grew louder, and so were the worried voices of the crowd.

A couple kids came into the parking lot from the sidewalk on their bikes. One of the kids fixed Cody in his gaze. “Did you see that?”

“Yeah,” Cody said. “It went right through the building.”

He looked up, and he suddenly understood what people meant when they said their hearts stopped. He couldn’t breathe. There were at least six more spiral trails spinning down toward the complex. He pointed up.

“Look out!”

One of the kids screamed, whipped his bike around and took off out of the parking lot. He shot straight out into the street. A horn sounded, and brakes squealed as a Ford Expedition skidded to a stop just shy of flattening the kid who never slowed.

Cody looked back up. The meteors fell like a missile barrage toward the complex. Maybe they were missiles — they hardly looked like flaming rocks.

Wham. Wham. Crash. Bang. Wham. Thunk.

One right after another the meteors or whatever they were hit buildings. They hit another car. The mailboxes — which blew apart in a shrapnel haze of shredded boxes and confetti letters. The last one punched right into the dumpster corral and the wood fences flew apart.

People screamed and ran. Mr. Pugsworth took off as fast as his little legs could carry him, chased by his wailing owner.

Cody’s limbs shook. This was crazy. Things like this didn’t happen. Not—

A loud screech of tortured metal came from the first car. The Jetta’s owner stepped back from his car.

“What the fuck?” He said sadly.

The sound quieted a bunch of people. It looked like all of the day-timers were out. Some of them going to the buildings hit to try and help, others still standing around taking pictures and filming. A crowd had gathered around the destroyed mailbox, while others had their cameras pointed upward to film the spiral trails left by the meteors.

Police and fire cars pulled up alongside the complex and came in the drive, whooping sirens, and spilling out first responders.

More twisted metal sounds came from the car as if it was trying to unbend itself. Snap. Snap. Snap. Electric cracking noises, followed by more crunching metal.

Cody watched the guy take a step closer.

A loud crunch made the guy jump back. His girlfriend grabbed his arm and tried to pull him away. He shook her off.

Police officers and the firefighters were trying to get people to move out of the way and find out what was going on and they all had several people talking at them.

Cody was more concerned with what was making the noises in the car. Part of the car dropped, crashing to the ground.

The girl screamed.

That got the attention of several police officers who shouted and ran toward the carport. Cody stayed on the grass, watching, feeling more useless by the minute. This was really happening. Like something weird going on, strange meteors crashing down into his complex and he wasn’t doing anything. Not even filming it to put it up on YouTube.

Nothing.

Thirty minutes ago he was worried about the toilet leaking and now he was on the lawn while something inside the Jetta crunched and cracked and made the whole car shake.

Police officers reached the couple. The girlfriend threw herself into the arms of one of the officers, sobbing into his shoulder. Others tried to pull the guy back, but he pulled free.

“No! That’s my fucking car! What’s in there? What’s doing that?”

“Move back! Move back now!”

With a loud thunk, three spikes burst through the side of the driver’s door. Metal cried as the spikes cut the door into thin strips, crumpling the plastic and metal into bits that were pulled back inside.

There was more crunching, chewing noises coming from the car.

Cody eased closer. He hadn’t done anything, ever. School, graduation, a pile of debt and nothing else to show for it. No job. No girlfriend. This was real, and something was eating that guy’s car. Something that had fallen from above.

Like from space.

It wasn’t just a meteor in there crunching and chewing away. The officers were busy pulling the guy back, but he struggled and cursed them.

No one was paying any attention to Cody.

He came at the car from the passenger side and just walked right up to it even though his mouth was tacky and his heart hammered in his chest like he was running a race instead of crossing the lawn. Small bits of glass pricked at his feet, but he ignored that and moved closer.

Whatever had fallen through the carport had completely caved in the roof of the Jetta. The inside looked like someone had turned on a blender. Shredded car parts rotated around the center. The seats were gutted, along with the console and the lower portion of the steering wheel. A pile of small pieces moved and rotated slowly around the interior, and the chewing and grinding noises continued.

The center funneled down, to something Cody couldn’t make out. Whatever it was, it sat at the bottom of the pile and was moving, spinning, shredding the interior.

“You! Get away from there!”

Cody looked back.

A police officer motioned him away from the car, one hand on his weapon. “Get back!”

The car jerked and shook. Metal screamed. Cody smelled burning plastic and fabric. Electrical crackling noises snapped the air and added an ozone odor.

Yeah, maybe they had a point. Cody moved back from beneath the carport. He backed up until he reached the police officer’s side. Cody brushed bits of glass that were stuck to his feet, but nothing had cut him. His feet were tough enough from going barefoot as much as possible.

“What did you see?” The officer said.

“There’s something in there, chewing it up,” Cody said.

A woman came over, and there were other people with her holding cameras and equipment. “KANA News, I’m Anita Kay. You said chewing?”

“Yes,” Cody said. “These chewers, they fell from the sky, and now one of them is chewing up that guy’s car.”

He pointed out the guy that the officers had pushed back behind their line.

A loud bang and the whole mid-section of the car collapsed as if its spine had been broken. The front of the car lurched and was pulled back into the body. Then the rear followed as if it was all being sucked into the center.

The sides caved in.

The destruction of the car went faster now. Police were keeping everyone back from the carport. More sirens were coming. A helicopter buzzed past overhead.

The reporter had taken a step away and was talking to the camera.

“This is Anita Kay, I’m at the Azure Downs apartment complex where several objects have plummeted from the sky, hitting buildings and vehicles. An eyewitness called these things chewers, and I’m here with him now.”

The reporter moved closer to Cody. “Sir, what was your name?”

Cody realized she was talking to him and glanced away from the disintegrating car. “Cody Bateman.”

“You’re a resident here? You saw what happened?”

“Yes, I did. I thought these were meteors at first. This one —” he pointed at the crumbling car. “— It was the first.”

“You called it a chewer.”

“Right, because it’s chewing up that guy’s car.”

A loud crash and bang made them all jump. It wasn’t the car — a section of the first building hit collapsed. There was a growing noise from the building competing with the car.

It was the same thing. Cody pressed his hands together. The chewers were devouring the building just like the one was eating the car.

“Uh, look,” Cody said to the reporter. “We should get out of here.”

The police and firefighters were moving people back from the buildings, vehicles and the dumpster. It looked like they were moving to evacuate the whole area.

Anita Kay’s lips pressed together. She nodded and motioned at the cameraman to follow.

Cody slipped past and hurried across the lawn. He ignored the reporter’s cry to wait. In the distance, more sirens sounded. He ran. He sprinted across the grass, past his apartment and headed up the stairs between apartments. He pushed past two middle-aged women at the second floor and continued running up.

At the top, on the fourth floor, he leaned against the railing and looked out. It wasn’t only the complex. As far as he could see, spiral trails left smoky paths. Several thick columns of smoke rose skyward from fires.

It wasn’t only here.

He gripped the railing. Forget the toilet. The student loans. Finding a job. None of that mattered now. Maybe it never had.

🚀

5,910 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 76th short story release, written in April 2014. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying releasing these on my blog. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll decide whether or not to take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, [Love, unpronounceable].

Killing Bennie

Space became a lot more dangerous since the automation revolution. Crews watched every system. Checked everything for fatal flaws.

They survived — as long as no one made any mistakes.

Paul Carlson fantasized about killing his bunk mate, Bennie Dutton. Not out of malice. Everyone’s survival might depend on whether or not he killed Bennie.

The only question? How to do it and make it look like an accident!

🚀

Paul Carlson lay flat on his bunk trying to decide the best way to shove Bennie Dutton out an airlock. He’d bunked with guys who snored before, both on the station and back dirtside, but nobody came close to the noise that Bennie made. It sounded like a wet fart crossed with a death rattle amplified a thousand times by some freak resonance with the ventilation system. It felt like the whole habitation can vibrated with the sound, hard enough that Paul imagined that the tether might just break from the strain. Would Bennie even wake up before they suffocated? Or would that sound be the last thing Paul heard when he took his final breath?

“Bennie!”

Bennie’s only response was another loud ripping noise.

Paul rubbed his eyes. Back home if Cheri snored, not that she was ever as bad as Bennie, he could get up and sleep on the bean bag in his study. He’d done that more than once rather than wake her up. Here on the Communications Station 10 he didn’t have that option. Each CS was laid out the same with a transfer hub for docking and undocking ships surrounded by four modules tethered to the hub, the whole thing rotating. One hub for the operators routing ground-based telephone calls, a recreation can, the mechanical and life-support can and the habitation can. Two men per can working and living on a rotation during their hundred and twenty days on station. None of the other cans had much room for extra bodies, although in an emergency they could in theory cram four people into a can. Of course, if anything happened to the mec can it wouldn’t matter. And he couldn’t call the transfer car anyway without alerting control.

No, he was stuck with Bennie’s snoring for another hour before they were scheduled to move on to the mec can. Twelve hours on, twelve hours off, six at each can, with no days off for good behavior. If it wasn’t for the pay, he wouldn’t have let them strap him into a capsule on top of a rocket and send him up here in the first place. But he’d done two other rotations already, and it always seemed like Cheri had already spent it all by the time he made it back dirtside. With all of the restoration work available dirtside he’d think she might actually get out and find herself a job, but that never seemed to occur to her even with all of the Restoration propaganda about how there was a job for everyone since the Automation Revolution fifty years ago.

Bennie’s snores sawed and sawed at Paul’s patience. He tried listening to some music but even at full volume the tape player couldn’t compete with Bennie’s snoring and the music was painfully loud.

Paul prided himself on being a reasonable guy. People said that about him. Reasonable, even-keeled, reliable Paul. But he couldn’t take it anymore. He swung his legs out of the bunk and rolled out of his small cubby. He moved too quickly and got a little dizzy with his feet moving faster than his head but he ignored it and reached up into Bennie’s cubby. He shook Bennie’s shoulder.

“Bennie!”

Bennie snorted and rolled over to face the back wall where he stuck had stuck up his pin-ups. Every goddamn night Bennie took them out of his locker and stuck them to the wall. Claimed he couldn’t sleep without them.

Couldn’t jack-off without them. At least he did that quietly. In any case, once he lay on his side facing his fantasy harem Bennie’s snores diminished to only snuffly breathing. Paul could live with that. He sank back down onto his bunk. No sooner did he lay back and pull up his silver thermal blanket than he heard Bennie roll over and the snores rose up like a power tool.

Paul lashed out, hitting the underside of Bennie’s bunk with his fist. It hurt and didn’t make any difference to Bennie, who kept right on snoring. Paul shoved the heels of his hands against his eyes until he saw spots. He’d kill Bennie. Going back to figuring out how to space Bennie, that could solve a lot of problems. And Bennie was a bit of an asshole anyway. He liked to listen in on the phone conversations, completely against regulations. Paul could even report him, but it didn’t matter, he was stuck until the end of this rotation. Swapping partners was also against regulations, not that any of the other guys would even consider it. Of course killing Bennie would create new problems for him too. He’d have to handle twice as much work on his shifts, but he could probably manage that. Twice he’d won the switching competition, which was why he kept getting asked back. The other guys might not like working on station with a killer, but they couldn’t do much about it unless they wanted to space him too. Otherwise, they’d have to wait for the switchover flight with the new crew.

But up until the ship came he’d have each can to himself for his shift.

And what if they didn’t even know that he had killed Bennie? If it looked like an accident or suicide, what then? After all, no one would suspect that even-keeled, reliable Paul might kill his shift mate.

A shiver spread through his limbs. He might even get away with it. The alarm sounded, the clanging mechanical bell sounding like God was beating on the outside of the can with a hammer. Loud enough that it woke Bennie who gave one last snort, swung his hairy legs down from the top bunk and jumped down to the floor. He landed and, with his bare hairy ass right at Paul’s head height, let out an obnoxiously loud and long fart. The smell was like spoiled stewed cabbage. Bennie chuckled.

“Man, you’d better wake up,” he said.

Yes, Paul decided, holding his breath as he climbed out of his bunk. Killing Bennie made perfect sense. But he didn’t want to rush into anything. He’d plan it out, and find the perfect time, the perfect method. He climbed out of his bunk every inch of him reasonable Paul, with a bit of a smile on his face.

Bennie turned around, his bulk filling the narrow space between the kitchen and their bunks, scratching at his armpit. “What’re you smiling at? You liked the smell of that?”

“Like roses,” Paul said agreeably. The perfect murder.

Morning had a routine and an order to it. Paul shuffled down the very short aisle and ducked into the toilet closet. He slid the door shut so that Bennie could get past to the shower. One didn’t so much sit and perch on the toilet seat. At least that was the design, Paul checked the seat carefully in case Bennie had gotten up in the night. Just in case. Bennie had a nasty habit of opening the door and letting go from a distance, which usually meant stepping or sitting in a mess. It looked clean enough at the moment. Paul took care of business, cleaning up with the chemical wipes that made the closet smell like a litter box and evacuated the whole business. One more shooting star in the sky. Then it was back out to the kitchen to grab his designated breakfast tray which he’d eat on his bunk then shower while Bennie ate. Together they’d go on to the mec can and take over for Nick and Shaun who’d move on to the ops can, taking over for Reggie and Carl who’d get time in the rec can while Kurt and Andy came back to the hab to grab some more sleep.

Paul peeled back the lid on his tray revealing pasty white muffins, a round of eggs only tinged with yellow and a gray sausage patty. He stacked the eggs and sausage between the muffins and bit into the cold mass. At least the peppery sausage had flavor. While Paul ate Bennie came out of the shower and went straight into the toilet. From the sounds of explosive decompression coming from inside Paul might have thought the toilet had decided to stage a revolution of its own and was ejecting Bennie just like one of the compressed waste capsules it expelled. Bennie’s donkey-like laughter ruined that illusion, but it did give Paul something to consider. Was there any way to turn the toilet into the means of Bennie’s execution? None that he could think of without seriously tampering with the mechanism. Back in the days of automation he could probably have punched up some commands and caused all of the various valves and hatches to open at the same time, decompressing the inside of the toilet. But now it was all mechanical. Open one, and the others closed. Without some serious work he couldn’t rig it and when could he do the work with Bennie always a few feet away?

Bennie came out scratching his hairy belly with one hand, his ass with the other, while Paul vainly hoped that his shift mate might actually clean his hands. But no, Bennie reached into the dispenser for his breakfast tray without once considering the need to grab a chemical wipe. Paul also hadn’t heard the toilet function.

“Bennie, did you flush the toilet?”

Bennie snorted and climbed up in his bunk, an act which forced Paul to turn and face the wall until Bennie was on the bunk above. “No man, sorry. I forgot. Mind getting it when you hit the shower?”

“How hard is it to flush the toilet? You can’t turn a simple crank now? Or use a wipe for that matter?”

“When did you become my mum?” Bennie snorted. “Besides, I thought we’d leave a present for Curly and Pansy.”

“Don’t call them that.”

“Why?” Bennie said, his voice muffled by food.

Paul took a breath and let it go. He ate the last bite of his muffin, glad to be done, and climbed out of his bunk. The tray went into the trash compactor, and he took the few steps to the shower. If he didn’t do something about the toilet Bennie really would leave a present for Kurt and Andy. It wasn’t right. He opened the toilet door. The odor that came out was foul—he’d been in farm yards that smelled better. Drops of urine glistened on the toilet seat and inside was a nasty wet mess. Paul fought not to gag as he reached in and pulled out a chemical wipe from the dispenser. And another, and one more for good luck.

“Aw man, you could’ve left it,” Bennie complained.

Paul ignored him. This mess didn’t look healthy. Maybe he didn’t need to kill Bennie at all, maybe there was something wrong with him, eating at his gut and he’d just drop dead soon enough. Paul wiped down the seat, tossed two of the wipes into the toilet and used the last to wipe off the crank handle even though it was unlikely Bennie had touched that part. He tossed the last wipe in and spun the crank. The mechanism rotated over, taking the mess away while other parts scraped, cleaned and polished the plate. The crank clunked to a stop when the evacuation process completed. Paul shut the toilet. He shucked off his dirty uniform and stuffed it into the recycler, then went eagerly into the narrow shower.

There he hit the button and jets of lukewarm water shot out of several nozzles for twenty seconds to wet him from head to foot. Paul missed soaking in a long hot shower like back home. Right now he could really use a long scalding hot soak. He dispensed the soap and scrubbed all over. Then he hit the button again and scrubbed away the soap before the water stopped. Then he punched the button that turned on the driers. Hot hair blew out at him from several directions. Paul closed his eyes and imagined having both shower allocations after Bennie met his unfortunate end.

The air ended, and Paul went back out to find Bennie in the aisle squeezing into his uniform. Paul couldn’t get to the dispenser to get his own uniform. He crossed his arms and waited. Bennie managed to tear the elbow on his left sleeve.

“Gosh, would you look at that! These cheap cellulose uniforms are rubbish.”

“We’ve got to get going, mind if I get something to wear?”

Bennie looked over at him and laughed. “No, man. Sorry.” He backed up and leaned against the forward airlock door. He waved his arm at the dispenser. “Be my guest.”

Paul walked over to the dispenser. He pulled the door down and took out the pressed and folded uniform. Too bad he couldn’t make the airlock door pop open. He pictured Bennie falling back inside, caught by surprise. Paul stepped into the uniform imagining the look on Bennie’s face when he pulled the door shut and sealed him inside. The uniform was big on Paul, one of those one-size fits all designs that only fit a small percentage of the population well.

The alarm sounded again, clanging with headache-inducing vigor, to announce the shift transfer. Motors kicked on and hummed as the transfer car was brought over from the mec can. At the same time the other cars would ride the cable strung between cans so that each shift moved at the same time from one can to the next. Although the process was technically automated, it didn’t violate the strictures because the whole process was largely mechanical and required human participation to work. Bennie turned around as the can rang from the transfer car docking. Docking caused the airlock release to trigger, and the inner door slid open. Paul followed Bennie into the small space, barely big enough for the two of them. Being closer to the door than Bennie he was the one that shoved the lever down to shut the inner door and release the outer door. If he really wanted to kill Bennie by using the airlock, he’d have to figure out a way to trigger that mechanism from inside the can, after releasing the lockout on the inner door.

The inner door finally shut and the outer door opened along with the transfer car door. A blast of cold air flowed from the transfer car into the can. The transfer cars lacked life-support, really nothing more than a portable airlock that moved between the widely-spaced cans. Bennie went ahead into the transfer car, still fiddling with the tear in his sleeve. Paul followed him and then shoved the lever down in the transfer car. That closed the airlock and car doors and triggered their departure. The electric motor hummed and the car moved forward along the cable. Paul didn’t like thinking about how tenuous their connection was to the station at this point. One steel cable and an electric pulley kept them from being flung off into space. What if he sabotaged the cable and somehow got Bennie in the transfer car alone? If he made it look like a micrometeorite had impacted the cable, then Bennie’s death might look like a tragic accident and his survival a fortunate twist of fate.

The transfer car completed the transit to the mec can without Paul figuring out a way to stage the accident. The car hit the dock hard, making the inside ring like a bell. Right then Bennie started laughing.

“Why’re you laughing?” Paul asked. Then he smelled that rancid, sour smell and knew. “Come on man!”

Bennie laughed harder as he lifted the lever to open the doors. Paul followed him into the mec can’s rear airlock. Inside Bennie checked the light above the door. Green, the mec can was clear. Bennie pulled the lever, and the inner door slid out of the way. They went on through.

The mec can hummed with the sound of the machinery working. A pulse ran through the deck plating from the circulation pumps. The mec can had even less room to move in than the hab, with more space given over to the power and life-support systems. The mec provided all of the air circulation and the power storage from the mag lines that radiated out from the hub, pulling power from the planet’s magnet field as the station rotated. Bennie went straight to the farthest workstation forward and dropped into the chair. He spun it around.

That gave Paul an idea, maybe a simple idea. Loosen the bolts that held the chair post to the deck and the next time Bennie did that he’d topple over. But honestly, falling from the chair probably wouldn’t be enough to kill Bennie.

Paul picked up the work log board. Nick and Shaun had left a note that the air filters needed scrubbing again. Readings had to be taken from the various systems and noted in the log. Otherwise, it looked like systems were still operating efficiently. The station had been designed with simplicity and minimal maintenance in mind, but without automation they had to check and measure everything themselves.

“Readings or filters?” Paul looked up from the board. Bennie was excavating his nose. “Bennie?”

Bennie flicked his finger. “I’ll check readings.”

 

🚀

Six hours with Bennie in the mec room gave Paul more opportunities to consider ways to carry out his homicidal designs. Electrocution looked like the most likely possibility, given the real risk of it when checking on the batteries. Bennie, for all of his disgusting personal habits, actually managed to do the job safely. But a snag in the gloves, if it went unnoticed, could result in a bad shock. Maybe enough to kill, if the contact was sustained. Given the cramped quarters, a person could, in theory, get stuck between the battery drawers and the wall while being electrocuted. But chances were that Bennie’d notice any damage and slap on more electrical tape to patch them up, or if the damage was too obvious, he might just recycle those gloves and take another pair out of supplies.

While scrubbing clean yet another filter Paul considered another possibility. Some sort of sabotage to the air system, leading to Bennie’s suffocation. Poetic, but damaging the air system would likely kill everyone else on the station too unless they got into suits fast enough.

 

🚀

From the mec can, Paul followed Bennie into the ops can, the whole reason for the station to exist. For the next six hours he didn’t have much time to consider killing Bennie while routing international telephone calls from one trunk to another. Still, the idea floated around the corners of his mind, but there wasn’t even much of anything in the room to use as a weapon except maybe electrical wiring. Paul saw Bennie snake a hand down the front of his uniform, scratch vigorously and then he reached up and continued switching calls. Garroting Bennie with wire pulled out of the switchboard wouldn’t look like an accident at all, but if people knew what it was like to live with Bennie they might understand.

At least the calls kept him busy. He dreaded the next stop on their rotation.

 

🚀

The rec can, like the others lacked much space. A small library of paperback books, a selection of magazines, a radio, and a television. They received a dozen different channels on the television, all restoration-approved, of course. The drawers held decks of cards, chips, and a selection of board games. It also contained two bunks just like the hab can. Bennie went for his dinner tray first, turned on the television, and retreated to the upper bunk to eat while he watched the television.

By this time of the day all Paul wanted to do was sleep. He could hardly keep his eyes open. Bennie cracked up at something on television. Paul’s head started to throb. He imagined yanking Bennie out of his bunk, shoving him back to the airlock and what? He still hadn’t figured out a way to override the lockout. The airlock wouldn’t open unless a transfer car docked and triggered the release. He could call a transfer call, but that would get sent in the telemetry back to control, and they’d be on the radio in minutes demanding an answer. And he couldn’t very well space Bennie if there was a transfer car docked anyway.

Even-keeled Paul didn’t actually pull Bennie out of his bunk. He let the day-dream go and went to the toilet instead to take advantage of the opportunity to use the facilities before Bennie. After he had finished, he picked up his own tray, turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes today, and went to the bottom bunk. The noise from the television pounded at his head, and every time Bennie laughed it set his teeth on edge.

“Could you turn that down? Bennie?”

“I’d have to get up then.”

Paul pulled the tab to heat his tray, put it down and got up himself. He turned the volume down on the television, showing some old war movie.

“Come on,” Bennie complained. “That’s too low.”

“I’ve got a headache,” Paul said. “That noise is making it worse.”

“Why don’t you put on a helmet or something?”

Paul ignored him and returned to his bunk. If Bennie really cared, he could get up and change the volume himself. Paul picked up his tray. Now the bottom felt hot. It’d be another ten minutes before the food was somewhat warm. It’d never get truly hot, but it was better than eating it as a cold congealed mass. He held it in his lap while he waited and closed his eyes. Sleep tugged at him, beckoning for him to let go, forget about eating and just sleep. A loud explosion from the television got an even louder laugh from Bennie. Paul opened his eyes.

Food poisoning, that was something he hadn’t considered. There might be some chemical in the mec can supplies that could poison Bennie. But again, it had the same problem as more direct ways of killing. They’d discover that Bennie had been poisoned. The first thing they’d do would be to look at Bennie’s shift-mate, the one person that was locked in a can with him.

Paul peeled off the fork stuck to the lid of his tray, then slid the lid off and dug into the meal. The turkey didn’t taste like much, and the potatoes didn’t taste much different, but there was plenty of pepper in the gravy covering everything. Dill flavored the small helping of carrots. As anticipated, the tray had warmed the food, but he wouldn’t call it hot. By the time he finished eating, he couldn’t hardly keep his eyes open. He got up and put the tray in the recycler and then crawled back into the bunk. He pulled the blankets up, closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep.

Bennie laughed, and it sounded like one of his farts. Wet, and long, with much gasping and moaning.

Paul closed his eyes tighter and tried not to pay attention. If he could only get some sleep then maybe he wouldn’t have to kill Bennie. They could go on doing their jobs, and nobody had to die. As tired as he was the noise Bennie was making was making it hard to sleep. Bennie had told him to get a helmet. He had a point there. It was hard to hear anything except your own breath in those things. Of course, he couldn’t do the helmet by itself unless he wanted to suffocate himself, and he wasn’t that tired yet. If he ever did a rotation again, he was going to bring some sort of ear plugs in his personal space allotment. But the helmet? If he suited up, he could wear the helmet and maybe get some sleep.

He lay for a few minutes on the bunk, but the television and Bennie’s noises proved too much. Why not try it? He rolled out of the bunk and went forward to the locker beside the airlock.

“What’re you doing?” Bennie asked.

Paul opened the locker and took out the first suit. Another one-size fits all garment. He stripped off his uniform. Bennie started laughing.

“You’re not putting on a suit!”

“Obviously I am.” Paul stepped into the first leg and pulled it up. The material stretched and squeezed his foot and calf. The space activity suit provided mechanical pressure to keep fluids from pooling, while it retained mobility. Putting it on, that was the hard part. Paul worked up one leg then switched and did the other. It felt like putting on a pair of pants four sizes too small. He always thought he wouldn’t get into it, but somehow the material expanded just enough while keeping up the pressure. If he could just wear the helmet he would, but with the gap around the neck it probably wouldn’t keep out the noise as well. Bennie went back to watching the television rather than watching Paul get into the suit.

By the time he finished, Paul was even more tired. He grabbed the helmet and snapped it into the ring, then took out the tanks. Four hours and then an alarm would sound. It sounded like a good deal to him. He snapped the hoses in place, and cold air hissed into the helmet. His ears popped, and he tasted a sort of metallic flavor, but then he was breathing normally. Even better the sounds of the television and Bennie had muted to only a dull sound in the background, lost in the general background noise of the can. Paul walked back to the bunk. He saw Bennie laughing but didn’t hear most of the sound.

Lying down in the suit was a challenge. It was somewhat flexible, but he couldn’t bend far. Even so, he managed. He lay back in the bunk, tanks beside him and closed his eyes listening to the soft hiss of the air coming in and out of his tanks.

In minutes he fell asleep.

 

🚀

A loud clanging alarm woke Paul. He tried to sit, a challenge in the suit and braced himself on his elbows. The alarm wasn’t coming from the suit. That was outside, in the can, the sound muffled by his helmet. Paul checked the time. Two hours since he went to sleep. His eyes felt like sandpaper, and he reached up to rub them, but his gloved hands hit the helmet. He started to reach for the catch on the helmet but stopped.

Why was an alarm ringing? It wasn’t shift change.

“Bennie?”

He didn’t hear anything, couldn’t hear anything over that alarm. Paul rolled out of the bunk.

Bennie lay slumped in the upper bunk at an uncomfortable angle. Paul left him there and moved forward to the airlock where an alarm light flashed. It was the carbon dioxide build-up alert. He opened the panel and plugged into the station communications system.

“General, this is the rec can. We’ve got a carbon dioxide alarm here and an unconscious crewman. Respond.”

No one came back.

Paul unplugged and opened the suit locker. He grabbed the other helmet and tanks. He took those over to Bennie’s bunk. He shoved the helmet over Bennie’s head and plugged in the lines to the tank, then twisted the valve open. Bennie kept breathing.

Moving as fast as he could he went to the forward airlock and called the transfer car. Control had to know by now that there was a problem with the life support system. Paul went back to Bennie and shook him.

“Bennie! Wake up!”

Bennie’s eyes fluttered. He blinked and looked at Paul. “What?”

“Get up. Now.”

“Why?” Bennie scowled and licked his lips. He reached up to his head, and his hand hit the helmet. “What?”

“Carbon dioxide alarm. I need you to go rear while I move forward. We need to get helmets on the other guys and meet at the mec can to figure out the problem.” The can rang as the transfer car docked. “You got it?”

Bennie blinked again, but he nodded and swung his legs off the bunk. Paul didn’t wait to see if Bennie actually got down. He went to the airlock and opened the lever to let him pass through to the transfer car. At least the rest of the systems were working.

Back in the hab can Paul found Nick and Shaun on their bunks, both still had a pulse, but Shaun didn’t respond as Paul forced a helmet on his head. Without a full suit, they wouldn’t get the entire benefit, but he didn’t think he could get their limp bodies into suits. At least he had fresh air blowing past their faces. Beyond that, he couldn’t do much until they got the systems work. Once he had them situated, he called the next transfer car. Hopefully, Bennie had gone on back to the ops can.

When he got to the mec can, Bennie hadn’t arrived yet. Reggie was stretched out on the floor near the suit closet as if he had realized the problem and collapsed before he could get there. Carl was slumped over at his workstation. Paul retrieved helmets and air tanks, first getting Reggie’s on and then Carl’s. Then he looked at the system. The filters all showed red. Paul cursed and went to the first access rack. He flipped the toggles and pulled the first filter free. Even through the helmet, he heard the sound of air whistling past. A scrap of a uniform flew around and into the gap opened by pulling the filter.

They’d been holed!

Paul slapped the filter back into place and went to the supply closet. Just then he heard a transfer car slam into the airlock dock. Paul pulled open the closet and grabbed the patching kits. He’d just shut the closet when Bennie came through with Kurt behind him. Both of them just in helmets with tanks hanging by the straps over their shoulders.

“Take these,” Paul said, passing the kits to Bennie. He opened the supply closet again and took out two more that he clipped to his suit’s utility belt. “I’m going out to inspect the outside. We’ve been holed, somewhere in the filtration system. You’ll need to pull the racks and look for the holes. I’ll inspect the unit from outside.”

Bennie shuffled past Paul, and then Kurt, with his curly brown hair pressing against the inside of the helmet. Paul made it into the airlock and shoved over the switch. Then he went into the transfer car and shoved the switch over to close the lock. The transfer car started to move, but he opened a panel and pressed down the braking lever. The car stopped. The next part was tricky, but they’d all practiced it in simulations for just this sort of emergency.

Paul opened another panel and pulled out a safety line on a spool along with a hand crank reel. Then he took out what looked like a small black gun with a round disc on the front. That was the magnetic anchor he’d use to rig a line between the transfer car and the can. He attached the safety line. Then he clipped on and positioned himself in front of the transfer car door. It took two releases, one on each side to open the door when not docked. He pulled the first, then the second. The atmosphere in the car blew past him, but the safety line kept him anchored. After the atmosphere had vented, he took aim with the gun and shot the magnetic clamp at the can. It hit the can more or less where he wanted to go and stuck.

The mec can hung above him, looking much larger from this angle, a big blocky cylinder with square components sticking out into space. A dark groove on one side was the opening that the airlock door slid through when opened. From the top of the can rose a thin looking tower of struts around the tether and the lines that pumped air and power back through the hub to the other stations. The hub wasn’t so far away that he couldn’t see it, but in the bright sunlight it hurt his eyes. He focused on the mec can and stepped off. The station was rotating, and the line sagged as he hung beneath it. One mistake and the station would throw him off into space. The clamp held. Paul activated the small motor in the reel and held on as it dragged him across the gap.

Paul came in fast and caught a handhold beside the airlock.

His radio sputtered. “Paul, this is Bennie, how’s it going out there?”

“I’m on the can, making my way around to the air filtration systems now.”

“We’ve patched one hole, but we can’t reach the other. It’s up on the top, and we just can’t get to it. Looks like something went right through the unit.”

Paul crawled along the skin using inset handholds on the surface, just like climbing a wall. “I’m working my way there.”

The unit was a big block sticking out of the can. He saw the hole that Bennie had patched, it looked like a small pimple in the skin. He pulled himself up the end of the can to the top. There he could actually stand up and walk. It didn’t take long to reach the top side. Paul found a small crater at the top of the unit with air fogging out into space. He crouched and pulled out the patch kit. He took out the small plate and the tube of instant sealing compound. He worked carefully, squeezing out a rope of material around the outer edge of the plate and then a second ring inside the first. He pressed the plate into place over the hole and activated the charge unit. One quick zap like a Taser and the sealing compound bonded the plate with the can. It’d take a torch to cut it free now.

“How does it look in there?”

“Pressure is increasing,” Kurt said.

“We’ve swapped out the damaged filters,” Bennie added. “I think we’re good for you to come on back. Carbon dioxide levels are falling across the station.”

 

🚀

By the time they contacted control and explained everything three more hours had passed. Paul glossed over how he’d managed to get into the suit in time to help with the emergency. Control offered them all bonuses for handling the emergency. Paul didn’t care about that, he just wanted to get some sleep, and for once even Bennie couldn’t keep him up. His last thought before sleep overtook him was that he should be grateful that Bennie snored or he wouldn’t have been in his suit when the emergency hit and they all probably would have died.

And on their next rotation to the mec can Paul used the damaged air scrubbers to fashion himself a pair of ear muffs. It didn’t block out Bennie’s snoring completely, but it at least muffled it enough so that he gave up his plans of killing Bennie.

🚀

5,910 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 75th short story release, written in January 2011. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying releasing these on my blog. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Chew, Chew.

Forgotten Opportunity

Nightflayers attacked ships and colonies. They took survivors for experimentation and study. They ignored all attempts to communicate.

Humanity fought back. With greater numbers and equivalent technology humankind fought without understanding what the nightflayers wanted.

It took Coordinator Tevyan, the sole Survivor and former nightflayer prisoner many years to understand the war.

Returning to Ilivian gave him the chance to make a difference.

🚀

Coordinator Tevyan did his best to hide his feelings during the shuttle descent to the Kepler station on Ilivian. His weathered reflection — somehow an old man now, with what hair he had remaining buzzed close to his scalp and white — stared back at him. The overhead lights cast shadows across his face like craters on an airless body. His cheeks were deep depressions and his eyes nothing but a glint like polar ice at the bottom of the craters. His wrinkles, a tortured landscape shaped by major impact events.

He had never planned to return to Kepler in his lifetime, but here he was, riding on a stomach-twisting grav shuttle to the surface. Grav drives in gravity wells; the competing forces always upset his stomach. Had way back when he was still a young man going through basic. Back before the War, before Kepler, when he was nothing. Just one more cell in the multi-trillion body mass of humanity spreading out, engulfing one star after another.

Not the Survivor. Or the Prisoner. Or Coordinator.

Nothing.

A simple life then, with this future unimaginable. Unbelievable. Humanity fractured, wounded, the entire mass of humankind grieving still for lost limbs amputated during the war. The body survived but seriously scarred, scared and unbalanced. Bitter over its losses and struggling to find any meaning in a universe turned dark and hostile. The war was over, but the whole of humanity suffered from post-traumatic stress.

And somehow this ceremony was supposed to help start the healing process. The socioanalysts planned to spread holorecordings of the event across the entire spiral arm. They claimed this one thing, this one event, could somehow tip the scales. A butterfly effect that would turn into a hurricane of healing across the worlds.

Tevyan agreed, but not for the reasons that they thought. His plan differed from their plan.

“Sir, we will touch down in a moment.” The voice was smooth, pleasant, genderless. Artificially combined to suggest child and mother both.

Tevyan glanced over at the floating silvery orb in the aisle. The attendant for this flight was featureless, but a dim nimbus of blue surrounded it, an ionizing effect of its displacement drive. It wouldn’t be long now before the grav drives shut down and the shuttles displacement drives took over now that they were low enough in the Ilivian atmosphere. He anticipated the switch-over with longing.

“Thank you,” Tevyan said so the thing would go away.

Through his reflection, the world came into view. Ilivian’s blackened landscape at first looked charred and burned, the surface of a planetary disaster but it was actually the vegetation. Black sticky stuff that got into everything. Gum trees, Tar trees, Tar Babies, slink weed, choke vine and all the rest of the nastiest stuff any of them had ever seen. Landing on Kepler had been like landing in a tar pit.

Exactly like that, and like a dinosaur they had all met their deaths on this blasted planet hurtling too close around its star. All except him. The Survivor.

Coordinator Tevyan sighed. He was old and tired and resenting this whole affair but underneath that he felt a tingling, a surging in his pulse, an excitement he hadn’t felt since the first time he laid eyes on Ilivian.

Beside him his aide, a young woman with lovely brown hair that made a straight line down her slender back. He didn’t bother with her name or any of their names. She leaned close enough that he could smell the clean scent of her. Not perfume, no one wore perfume anymore. Her’s was the scent of a person carefully washed clean of any offense.

“Coordinator?” Her voice was pitched just right, soft and clear. “Are you in need of refreshment?”

Tevyan reached over and patted her arm. A bony little thing. “Stay away from the slink weed. That stuff creeps up on you. I saw it strangle a bunk mate once.”

Her perfectly composed face barely twitched at that comment. “As you say, sir. You will let me know if you require my aid?”

“Of course. Of course.” Tevyan looked back out the window.

The shuttle bounced at the switchover. Well, vibrated a tiny amount, but Tevyan recognized that shiver, like the feeling when someone walked over your grave. No one else gave any indication of feeling it.

Beneath them, a bright spot appeared ahead among the frothy black hills. Kepler station, right on time, looking like a raft among the black Ilivian vegetation. The first time he had come down in among the deployment to create the station there was nothing there except the bright reflections from the lake and what looked like a black sand beach. Muck weed was a low-growing plant with a sharp thorn at the heart of the tangled mass. What seemed like a smooth bed of vegetation was actually like walking on a bed of needles. And like many of the Ilivian plants, the muck weed could move and strike out in defense with its needles. The plant killed unwary animals, which rotted into the muck it favored along lakes and ponds.

These days Kepler station was a whole city unto itself with skyscrapers shooting up into the sky, their surfaces an unappealing gray to mute out the intense reflections from the Ilivian star. It gave the station the look of a prison.

But then, it was that too, for a time.

Landing went as expected. Tevyan made sure to keep control of his personal bag, although long habit and attitude ensured that no one would lay hands on the bag. Not unless he gave them a reason or requested help, which he wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t dare. Just as he couldn’t dare allow anyone to see his arm tremble at lifting the bag. His bag, immune to any scans or searches or measurements. The shuttle systems would have recorded the combined weight of passengers and luggage but only for use in calculations involving energy expenditure and allocation. In days past no one, not even him, would have gotten on board without a thorough examination and the weight of his bag would have triggered numerous alarms. Not to mention the added cost of those excess kilograms.

Today none of that applied. Humanity won the war, but humanity itself was the survivor, the prisoner that now struggled with the trauma of its injuries. Growth had stalled. Humanity didn’t reach for new stars any longer. People spoke about returning to Sol as if humanity’s origin could contain and support them any longer. It was ridiculous. Even as wounded as they were, they encompassed hundreds of systems, not even counting the quarantined systems, on which humankind might survive in some nightmarish fashion.

And still, people flooded Sol with pilgrims and refugees. The First Colonies worlds were likewise inundated with the tide of retreat. It was as if all humankind was going to curl in on itself, retreat into the corner to die a slow and painful death from its wounds. Victor in the war, but still to expire from its injuries.

Against that, the socioanalysts worked to promote healing and encourage more growth. Humanity could regrow and expand around the amputated areas. Those wounds were contained and carefully monitored lest the cancer ever spread again. In all of their plans, he was one small part. One small jolt of hope and strength to stir his fellow humanity.

They still didn’t understand what happened. The socioanalysts today weren’t even born back during the war when he was taken prisoner.

Striding toward the reception in the main terminal, he didn’t recognize the place. The ceremony was supposed to take place right outside the front of the terminal building. All of this had looked different back then. A temporary base, a staging area, burned out of the stick Ilivian landscape and built with prefab components. None of it back then had been designed to last. Half of it was charred and melted when the night-flayers descended.

Nightflayers, an unfortunate name for a people that humanity had never understood. The result of sensationalism dating back to the beginning of the war after prisoner remains were discovered flayed among the ruins of a nightflayer mobile base. A combination of nightmare and flayer, it put a name on an enemy that until that point hadn’t had a name. At least none that humanity had identified. No one succeeded at decoding nightflayer computer systems, or even understanding how they functioned. Apparently quantum computers, but with a solid matrix that resisted any attempts to analyze. Any scans done caused the system to fuse and become lifeless. Any functioning systems captured ceased to function as soon as humans came within the vicinity. Robots didn’t have any better luck. In one operation microscopic drones infiltrated a nightflayer base merely to observe and not interact. Before any useful information could be extracted the drones were all simultaneously destroyed by some sort of pulse.

The nightflayers became a mystery, a source of terror. Ships that appeared out of nowhere to eradicate any sign of humans whether found on a ship, asteroid or planet. Military or civilian, it made no difference. Once nightflayers appeared in a system they began randomly destroying targets. One habitat would be utterly destroyed, and then the nightflayers would appear somewhere else in the system to attack another.

No negotiations. No response to any communication attempts.

All of that was bad enough, but the nightflayers took prisoners. Most were never seen again, but what humanity did find in the ruins of captured and disabled nightflayer ships sent waves of terror through the colonies. Not only torture and death but biological modification.

People gathered around Coordinator Tevyan. They clapped, but the sound hardly registered. People talked, but he didn’t pay them any attention. None of it mattered.

“Coordinator?” His aide, right in front of him. Concern on her young, unlined face. “Are you alright? Do you need to rest before the ceremony?”

No. “No,” Tevyan said aloud in a firm, strong voice. He couldn’t show weakness. Not now. “Let’s get on with it.”

His aide looked doubtful. Caryn, that was her name. Not that it mattered now. He straightened his spine and walked purposefully toward the podium where some official was making an introduction. Seeing the Coordinator coming that official quickly wrapped up whatever he was saying and stepped back out of Tevyan’s way.

Tevyan placed his case on the podium in front of everyone. An air of hushed expectation came over the crowd. So many people standing here, but even among these hopeful he could see the aura of defeat and fatalism that had gripped humanity.

Won the war? Perhaps, but humanity was fatally wounded itself. If he did nothing, then humanity would shrink back and shrink back, more and more worlds becoming isolated while others closer to Sol became over-run and collapsed under the mass of humankind.

The body of humanity stood on the brink of suicide. Traumatized and sick of the war. Terrified of the dark spaces between the stars. Doubting in the possibility of a higher purpose.

Tevyan flipped the catches on the small black case. The silence grew longer. Uncomfortable whispers spread among the crowd. Some of those in the front edged back slightly, probably unaware of what they were doing.

The night-flayers weren’t traumatized, even though they had lost the war. At least according to some, never considering that theirs had been a calculated retreat designed to draw humanity out, but humanity lacked the drive anymore and took the nightflayer’s retreat as an admission of defeat. It was on that basis that humanity declared itself the victor in the conflict.

Tevyan knew better. The nightflayers hadn’t given up. They were smart, fanatical and just as technologically savvy as humanity. But they lacked the numbers. If humanity was a wounded animal, it was like a great bear going back to its cave to nurse its wounds. The nightflayers were a wolverine who wasn’t going to tolerate the bear’s presence in its territory. They had retreated in a calculated effort to rest, rebuild and let the toils of the war further sap the strength of humanity. They’d wait until humanity slumbered, then strike again. If humanity hadn’t died of its wounds already, it would the next time the night-flayers came at them.

Unless he stopped them.

The case opened, and the crowd tensed. He saw the almost universal tightening of their features. The way they flinched back, trying to hide it. A crowd of people fearful because an old man opened a case. They knew! On some level they saw something in his manner that suggested the danger. A look, maybe, in his eyes. It was that bit of awareness that he needed. He wanted it.

In the wings, he saw security personnel moving around the edges of the crowd. They didn’t know that it was already too late. It had always been too late.

Coordinator Tevyan smiled. An almost inaudible sigh passed through the crowd. It’s okay, his smile said. He was the Survivor. The one prisoner in the long war that came out of a nightflayer lab at least somewhat intact. Luck and happenstance, only. If one little thing had gone wrong, history would have looked very different.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice picked up and amplified to the room. Sound shapers made it sound like he was speaking to each member of the crowd individually, and he used that conversational voice that they all knew so well.

“Forgive an old man momentarily overwhelmed to be back here again. I never thought to step foot on Ilivian again. For those of you making a home here, forgive me, because I saw nothing of the beauty that I’m sure this world must hold.”

He coughed. Continued. “We landed in a field of scorched slink weed that smelled like burning rubber. We cleared muck weed from the lakeshore with flame throwers, fighting a daily battle to hold this one tiny piece of inhospitable ground so that we could build a foothold against the night-flayers. On this world wrapped in blackness, we fought to blaze a new hope for humanity!”

The crowd cheered and clapped. This was what they had come for, what the socioanalysts wanted. A message of hope to spread across the worlds. They didn’t realize that hope was the poison inflicted by the nightflayer claws.

“And we succeeded. We built our base. Then the nightflayers came. They descended out of the dark like javelins thrown by gods. Their initial assault was meticulously planned to wipe out our defensive capabilities while leaving as many of our soldiers alive as possible.

Security had relaxed. Holorecordings in the wings showed views of the way things were, and simulations of what he was saying. He didn’t care or control any of that.

“What happened then?” Tevyan looked down at the case. It held a large metallic egg-shaped object, but black and non-reflective. The surface gave nothing back, broken only by three lines around the perimeter, tiny grooves.

He took the object out of the case. The crowd now reassured, pressed closer to try and see what he held, but he kept it close to his body. Holding it but not drawing more attention to it just yet.

“Many have spoken about the nightflayers’ victims found in destroyed ships or cracked open asteroid habitats that they favor. You hear of talk of biological modification, but the full truth never spreads. Why is that? What do those in charge fear would happen if that were the case?”

More unsettled murmurs spread around the crowd. This wasn’t what they had come to hear. Tevyan lifted his weathered left hand, wrinkled with age but unmistakably half what it should have been. His outer two fingers and a good portion of the hand was missing. An outward sign of the mutilation and abuse he had sustained. A collective gasp went out from the crowd, even though they all knew of his injuries.

“In all of the battles, the victories we have won, no other person ever emerged alive from the night-flayer holdings. Or so you’ve been told. I’ve been the sole survivor, the prisoner that single-handedly managed to destroy a nightflayer base and then stayed alive among the rubble until rescued.”

Clapping rose up. Tevyan waved it down.

“Thank you, but your applause is unnecessary, my escape was staged by the nightflayers themselves.” Tevyan twisted the first segment of the device. A faint green glow filled the bottom groove. The crowd grew more agitated, and security was watching him more carefully. It must worry them, hearing his words, not knowing what he held.

“It took me too long to realize their purpose. I was debriefed many, many times when I got back. It wasn’t until the years piled into decades that I realized their intent.”

Tevyan twisted the second segment. Now people were drawing back again, but panic hadn’t yet set in. Security remained uncertain.

“They let me free to generate hope in humanity. That’s right. The night-flayers wanted you to hope. It took them a long time to understand hope; it isn’t something that they are wired to understand. They don’t hope, they do or don’t do things. But their quantum computing technology has prescient capabilities, and it determined that our hopefulness would weaken us, make us hesitate, and draw back hoping for a different outcome.”

They were listening. It didn’t matter now, but he couldn’t do this and not explain.

“They sent me as an instrument of hope, to make humanity doubt and question. Many of you don’t remember that there were those at that time calling for a full-out attempt at genocide, to wipe out the night-flayers who had proved impossible to communicate with or reason with. That movement would have gained more strength if yet another base was discovered overrun with no survivors. Without any attempt at subverting me, the nightflayers made me their weapon. Humanity saw me survive and hoped for a different outcome.”

Tevyan twisted the last segment and returned the device to the case. The crowd relaxed further, though their faces betrayed their confusion and doubt at his words. Tevyan leaned on the podium. There wasn’t much time left.

“Be very clear. Our hope for peace, for an end to the war, was fed by that one small act. By a survivor. A prisoner who could convincingly believe that he had escaped, destroying the night-flayer base in the process through means of accessing the self-destruct. The one time in our history that a human accessed any night-flayer system! Don’t you see? Just as the socioanalysts planned to use this reception to reignite hope in humanity, the nightflayers sent me out to ignite hope at a time when we needed to take a different path.”

Silence ruled the room. The device was active. Nothing could stop it now. His words meant nothing, but he felt compelled all the same to speak before the end, as so many others had given their last words.

“We had an opportunity to decide to wipe them out. Those that cried out against that course failed to understand that the nightflayers intend exactly that. They will wipe us out, fighting to the last. Any retreat only serves their benefit. They let the poison inflicting humanity to grow and weaken us.”

Tevyan placed a hand on the device. “Some of you might recognize this device, deemed harmless. A laboratory experiment that proved time could be manipulated on a quantum level, a device without practical application until now.”

Murmurings rose out of the crowd. Any moment now it wouldn’t matter. Tevyan pushed forward, eager to finish before the end.

“I’ve set it for one very specific task. Reach back and flip a question asked of the nightflayer computers. Should I live or die? Would a survivor help the nightflayer cause? Last time it said yes. This time, it will say no and I’ll die with the rest of my squad. I don’t know if it will be enough, but I hope that humanity, outraged by the atrocities committed here will rise in a never-ending fury that will burn the nightflayers from existence once and for all!”

Tevyan swung his hand down at the podium.

The blow didn’t land. Where he had stood wasn’t there, never had been. Kepler didn’t exist, hadn’t except for one brief period many years ago. A tar baby, one of the native inhabitants of Ilivian, wandered through the spot where the terminal had stood, snuffling through the slink weed. Acidic saliva dissolved the tarry black coating on the slink weed and gave the tar baby a chance to consume the plant within. Slink weed tar coated its bare, hairless body. The tar baby didn’t care anything about the affairs of the humans and night-flayers that had battled over this ground. It knew nothing of the spikes of metal that rose up, half-covered by slink weed and gossamer webs.

The tar baby trundled on, blissfully unaware of the forgotten opportunities in that place near the lake shore coated with muck weed.

🚀

3,472 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 74th weekly short story release, written in February 2012. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m a bit behind on posting stories but check back next Monday for another story. Hopefully, I’ll catch up soon. Next up is my story, Killing Bennie.