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.

Discards

Aspen Winters loves the library. The books. How organized everything was on the shelves. That it wasn’t her father’s pharmacy.

Her first step to independence. A real job and a chance to get away from her father. Soon she’d get her own apartment.

Plus Tony worked at the library. Two years older, with the cutest dimple, she couldn’t wait to work side-by-side with him.

One day she’d run the library and everything would be perfect. Just perfect.

💀

This was one of those perfect blue sky days that came along too rarely in Grays Harbor, even in June. Today the sunshine brought out the bright reds and pinks and yellows of the roses along the front of the Parker library. The green metal roof sparkled with droplets from the brief rain last night. The rain had stripped the mill-stink out of the air, leaving everything fresh and smelling clean.

A perfect day to start a new job. Aspen Winters rose up on her toes, feet in her white pumps, the ones that she normally only wore on special days. Her heels dropped back down to the sidewalk with a click. If she took that step, if she walked into the library, it’d be real. Today she wouldn’t be going in like it was any other day. Today she’d be going in as someone who worked in the library. Like Ms. Rachel, the librarian, or Tony Hill who was two years older and had the cutest dimple on his cheek. She wouldn’t be a librarian, no, not yet. Not until after she finished high school, college and then got a master’s degree, which was all going to take forever. But it was sort of like being a librarian.

It was her chance for everything. To save enough money to get away from her parents for good. Her own money, not the small allowance that Daddy paid when she worked down at his pharmacy. Eventually even her own apartment.

Aspen ran her hands down her blue dress. Not the robin’s egg blue of the sky, but a rich blueberry blue, almost a purple like the blueberries that Mom used when they made jam. It was one of her favorite dresses and came with a wide orange belt. Mom had complained of course, like always, saying she was too pale for such dark colors. Aspen liked bold, bright colors. She had won on the dress, giving in to Mom on her lipstick, going with a light pink instead of the deeper ruby that she had wanted.

She wasn’t about to let that spoil her first day on the job.

Aspen took a deep breath, there was just a faint hint of saltiness to the air, and took that first step. She walked right up to the staff entrance and knocked sharply on the glass with her knuckles.

The door swung out and Aspen stepped back. Tony Hill leaned out, hanging on the door frame with one muscled arm. A tattoo peeked out of the sleeve of his black t-shirt. Aspen had to look up to see his eyes, deep hazel and gold, and his bright white smile.

“Hey there, Aspen! You’re on time, good move!” He winked. “Got to get on the Dragon Lady’s good side on your first day.”

Did he mean Ms. Rachel? She always seemed so sweet. Aspen tried to think of something, anything to say, but her tongue had curled up and died like a salted slug in her mouth. Her gut clenched.

Tony moved to the side, holding the door and gestured. “I’m kidding, of course. Come on in. I’m supposed to give you the grand tour. Ms. Rachel should get here soon.”

Somehow, Aspen managed to walk past him. She kept her hands clasped together. In all the years that she had been coming to the library she hadn’t been back in the staff areas before. The room was bigger than she imagined. With a couple computers, doors that went to other rooms, and then the short hallway that went out behind the front desk. The door clanged shut behind her.

Tony appeared beside her. “Well, this is the workroom. It’s where we hang out and make fun of the people coming into the library.”

He laughed and bumped his arm into hers. “Don’t look so shocked, Aspen. I’m just kidding. Mostly.”

Aspen forced a small smile on her face, hoping that she wasn’t blushing. God, she probably was. Mostly when she came into the library she didn’t say anything to Tony. She was always tongue-tied around him. He was a senior at Parker High, on the swim team and the cross country team. He didn’t hang out with any one group at school, but seemed to know everyone. He was like totally her opposite. Tall where she was short. He had dark wavy, beautiful hair and her hair was so blond it was almost white. He was tanned and she was a pale fish. Plus he was popular with everyone, and no one hardly knew that she existed.

It was so strange that she was going to be working with him now.

Tony didn’t seem to notice that she was at a loss for words. He pointed at a computer sitting up on a computer desk in the middle of the room.

“That’s the processing station. We check in stuff there. All the courier boxes that come from the other libraries, plus whatever people dump in the book drops. You have to watch the book drops. Sometimes people put all kinds of crap in there. We’ve had needles, used condoms, and actual crap, like dog shit bags and stuff.”

“Really?” Aspen blurted the question, horrified at the idea. Who would put that stuff in the book drop?

Tony shrugged. “Sure. Not all the time, of course, but yeah, it happens. One time we had a guy that put mason jars full of honey in the drops at several of the libraries. No lids, but it was actually pretty smart. The jars rolled into the drop and then the honey just oozed out all over everything in the drop. That was a bitch to clean!”

“That’s awful!”

Tony laughed. “Yeah, it was. Lucky for me, I wasn’t working that day, so I didn’t get stuck cleaning it up.”

He turned and pointed to her left. The corner of the room was taken up with something, she didn’t know what it was. There were handles with three grips that looked like they turned, on tall panels of whatever it was. Some sort of track ran along the bottom.

“That’s the compact shelving,” Tony said. “It’s where we store supplies, weeds, and all that stuff.”

“Weeds?”

Shelving? It didn’t look much like shelving. Tony stepped forward and grabbed the handle on one of the middle sections. He spun it with one hand. The units parted and then Aspen understood. Each section was a bookshelf, but they were on tracks the tracks. As Tony spun the handles, the four units on the right rolled away from the other four and opened up an aisle in the middle. And there were shelves, full of all sorts of books on both sides. The shelving was taller than Tony, rising up almost to the ceiling and it was three sections of shelving deep.

The shelves stopped and shiny red pegs popped out of the side with a loud clunk. “What’s that?”

“Safety lock.” Tony pulled on the handle to move the shelf. It wouldn’t budge. He slammed his hand against one of the pegs, pushing it in. Now spinning the handle moved the shelving unit. He reversed the direction on the handle until the peg popped out again. “See?”

Without waiting for an answer he moved into the aisle and pulled a book down from the shelves, flipping through the pages. He sniffed at it and wrinkled his nose before putting it back on the shelf.

“Smells like cat piss. We get that a lot. Too bad, good book otherwise. Sometimes you get some good stuff that’s being weeded.”

He’d said that before. Aspen took a breath. “Weeded? You mean the books?”

“Yeah. We discard them. They get weeded out when they’re damaged, or if it’s just been sitting around too long and no one wants to read it.” Tony grinned. “Sometimes you get pretty good stuff. Even if you don’t want it, things will sell online.”

Maybe she looked shocked or something because Tony stepped out of the aisle saying, “They’re going to just throw them away. It’s not a big deal.”

Tony hit the safety peg and spun the handle the other way until the shelves came together with a loud clang that made her jump. Tony saw and laughed.

“Hey, don’t worry. I won’t close it with you in there!”

Maybe not, but if she had to go into the compact shelving she was going to make sure to lock it so that no one could turn the handles. Just in case.

“Come on,” Tony said. “There’s a lot more I’m supposed to show you.”

💀

Twenty minutes later Tony was showing her the shelving carts when Ms. Rachel finally showed up. Ms. Rachel didn’t seem all that old, only in her twenties. She was short and fat, with long black hair and was always smiling. She waggled her fingers at the two of them, rings flashing on every finger.

“Are you two getting along okay?”

Tony beamed. “Oh yeah, she’s sharp. She already knows how to put things in order and where all the sections are.”

Ms. Rachel pulled off her jacket, a bright yellow slicker with white polka-dots. “I told you. Aspen has been coming in since she could hardly see over the front desk. I was thrilled that you applied for the job when Jon, well…”

Aspen nodded, saving Ms. Rachel from the awkwardness of saying anything. She knew all about Jon. He had been very old and forgetful. Probably the only reason that he had lived alone in that moldy old trailer was because he didn’t have anyone that cared enough to put him in a home. She didn’t think anyone was much surprised that he had left a burner on. More than once she’d been in the library when he was shelving books and had seen him put the books in the wrong place. Ms. Rachel was probably too nice to comment on it, but it did make things harder on everyone else when they couldn’t find what they were looking for on the shelves. For some reason, people would put up with that from somebody as old as Jon. Not for her. If she messed up that badly, even Ms. Rachel with all her smiles would let her go.

That was something that Aspen didn’t even want to think about. If she lost the job now, it’d make things that much worse at home. She’d never hear the end of it. They’d tell her that she’d have to just keep working in the pharmacy after all, like they’d warned her. At least through high school and probably community college. Maybe even after, if she went to Evergreen and they made her stay at home. The idea of spending the next four to eight years working in Winters Pharmacy, and being stuck at home, was about as appealing as going to prison. If Daddy had his way, she’d keep working for him for nothing except her allowance. Why would she get a paycheck when she got free room and board? They were family, Daddy said. Which obviously meant that he thought she would always work for free.

Not now. She was sixteen and had gotten the job on her own. So what if Daddy didn’t like it? The library was close to school, the schedule was flexible, and they actually paid her. Minimum wage, now, but it was a lot more than her allowance. Not even her mother’s guilt trips over leaving Daddy to work in the pharmacy alone were going to change her mind.

“Just give me a few minutes to get settled, and check my email and then I’ll be out,” Ms. Rachel said.

“No worries,” Tony answered. “I’ll watch the desk. Aspen can start working on her first cart.”

“Great!” Ms. Rachel said.

Then she was gone, disappearing through the door in the workroom that led to her office. It shut soundly behind her.

Aspen looked over at Tony. He tapped the shelving cart. “Almost time to open up. You can go ahead and start putting these away. When you’re done I’ll give you a pull list.”

“Pull list?”

“It’s just a list of stuff that people want at the other libraries. We pull it off and send it to them.”

Of course. She’d gotten holds in before, many times. “Oh, the holds!”

Tony laughed. “That’s right. Go on then, better get those shelved!”

Aspen pushed the cart. It wasn’t hard. The cart was gray, sort of like a small bookcase with three shelves. There was a different one for each of the three sections of the library, and the first she’d picked was the nonfiction section. It also had the teen books on it, labeled with a “YA” sticker. As she walked away from the desk she had the feeling that Tony was watching her. She resisted the urge to look until she reached the shelves and turned down the first aisle. Then she did glance back at the desk and Tony was watching her. She ducked her head and pulled the first book off the cart.

She really enjoyed putting the books away. She knew all about the Dewey Decimal system and everything. It left her mind free to wander. Was Tony watching her because she was new, or because he was noticing her? She hoped it was because he was noticing her, even if the thought made her all shivery inside. She’d noticed him, of course, at school but there was no reason to ever think that he had noticed her at all. More than once, as she  moved through the aisles, she glanced back up at the desk and found him looking her way. She just didn’t know why he was watching.

There was that, and it also bothered her what he had said about the weeded books. Just taking them didn’t sound right. Maybe he was telling the truth, that the books were going to be thrown away. In that case, you could look at it that he was rescuing the books, but it still sounded weird. Why would the library just throw away perfectly good books? Not the ones that stank of cat piss or whatever, but books that you could sell online? That really bothered her. If anyone was going to sell them online, shouldn’t it be the library, and the library getting the money from the books?

Aspen got to the end of shelving the first cart of books without figuring out an answer. It was her first day, after all. Maybe after she’d been working at the library for a while, she’d know more about it.

💀

Three weeks later, on a Tuesday when she was scheduled to work until eight, Aspen showed up at 3:30 and discovered that it was just her and Tony working the closing shift. They were in the workroom when he gave her the news.

“Ms. Rachel had an all-day sort of meeting at the admin building,” Tony said, leaning on the workstation in the back. “Sara’s off at five.”

Sara was an older woman, plump with curly gray hair who spent most of her time with her wide bottom planted in a chair at the desk. She tended to wear baggy shirts and stretch pants to work. And she had one of those mouths that turned down at the corners, which made her look perpetually unhappy. It would have helped if she smiled, but in all the years that Aspen had been coming to the library she hadn’t ever seen Sara smile. Even now, that’s where she was, parked on the chair at the front desk looking at some website on the computer.

Probably Facebook. Aspen had no idea what friends Sara had on there, but usually that was the site she had open.

Working in the library wasn’t exactly the way she had imagined it. Her job was mostly putting away the books, movies and making sure everything was straight and in order. Sometimes she pulled off materials that people wanted. She impressed Tony when she lifted the courier boxes, which were much lighter than the shipping crates used at the pharmacy. Even after only three weeks, Ms. Rachel had noticed how much better the library looked than when Jon was working there and had said as much.

Okay, she hadn’t put it quite that way. But Ms. Rachel did go on about how great everything looked, at how neat all the shelves were, and how much better it looked with books displayed on each shelf. Aspen had done that on her own, because she liked to see the beautiful covers, and figured other people would like it too.

It took work to keep it that way. She hadn’t found any needles in the book drop, but people did make a mess of her shelves. She’d go through a section, like the new book shelves making everything neat and then some old woman would come in and turn it into a disaster area. Books pulled out, falling over, shoved back behind the others.

How hard was it to put things back the way you found them? She wanted  to say that and didn’t. Instead, she smiled and put the section back the way it should look.

By the time Sara left at five, without saying anything, she was just gone from her perch, Aspen had shelved five carts of books. And she had fixed the mess someone had made of the cookbook section and pulled a holds list. Today she was wearing a cream-colored dress and she ran her hands down it, checking for any dust smears. When she had started working at the library the shelves hadn’t looked like anyone had ever dusted them. Dusting all of the shelves was one of the first projects she had tackled. Her dress was fine, including the strawberry-red belt that matched her new red pumps, her nails, and lipstick. She had treated herself with her first paycheck.

The library was empty. Even the bank of computer stations along the wall were empty. Usually there were patrons hunched over the stations, but it was late. Other than Tony, she was alone in the library.

She went back up to the desk where Tony was scanning a stack of DVDs into the computer to see if there was anything else she could do.

He scanned the last movie, Psycho, and then moved the whole stack into a recycled plastic grocery store bag. He smiled at her.

“Hey, Aspen. How’s it going?” His eyes moved as his gaze traveled from her face down to her chest. He did that a lot but still hadn’t asked her out.

Why did he have the movies in a bag? “Do you need me to shelve those?”

“No, that’s okay, I was just going to check them out.”

Aspen moved to the side enough so that she could see the screen. She hadn’t been trained on all the computer stuff yet, but she knew enough to know that Tony wasn’t checking out the DVDs. He hit the ESC key to clear the screen and laughed.

“Thing is, somebody beat me to it. Cleaned out all the discs and just left the cases. I had to withdraw them from the system.”

He was lying. His neck was flushed. His smile couldn’t cover it up.

Aspen’s heart pounded. She still hadn’t brought up what he said about weeds with Ms. Rachel. Usually Ms. Rachel seemed so busy, and Aspen had told herself that she must have misunderstood what Tony was saying. Or at worse, he was saving books from the landfill.

Now, she wasn’t so sure. She had shelved those movies recently and they weren’t empty when she shelved them, she was sure of that.

She found her voice. “Do we call the police or something?”

“No.” Tony laughed. “Like they’d care! It’s a few DVDs. Stuff goes missing from here all the time. Nobody cares. I’m just going to take the cases to recycle them.”

It was true that the library didn’t recycle anything. Ms. Rachel said that was because the city was responsible for that sort of thing, and they didn’t want to pay for recycling.

But she didn’t believe that Tony was taking the DVD cases to recycle them, any more than she believed that the discs weren’t in the cases. She leaned on the counter.

“Is there anything else you need me to do?”

He shook his head quickly. “No, that’s fine. I’ll just put these in the back. Holler if you need help out here.”

Tony hurried to the back.

Aspen walked around the counter, trailing her fingers along the smooth surface. No dust. She saw to it that things were kept clean. The library needed someone like her. Even Ms. Rachel didn’t care about the little things like dusting, but they were important. It made an impression.

This thing with Tony, that was a problem. A serious problem. If she went to Ms. Rachel with accusations would she believe that Tony was stealing things from the library? He could deny it. What proof was there?

Aspen ran her fingers along the keyboard. She knew that the system would show the movies as withdrawn, but that didn’t prove he hadn’t found the cases empty, just like he said. And the books he took off the weed shelf? Maybe if she knew where he sold them online, she could show that to Ms. Rachel. Even if she did, would anyone care? Why would the police care about someone taking books that the library was throwing away anyway?

Except no one was going to throw those DVDs out. Tony was just taking them. It wasn’t right.

Accusing Tony, though, that could go wrong. He could deny it. Or claim that she had taken them! What was there to stop him?

Nothing. Aspen sighed and leaned her elbows on the counter. She stretched her right leg back and rested her pump on the shelving cart.

When she saw movement in the corner of her eye she turned her head and beamed at Tony standing in the doorway staring at her.

“Do you have any plans after work?” Aspen asked.

Tony shook his head. “No, not really.”

Aspen arched her back a bit more. “No one’s going to notice if you don’t go right home?”

“No.” Tony laughed. “My dad’s usually good and passed out by the time I get home. I have a six-pack in my car, you want to go have some fun?”

Aspen straightened up. “That sounds perfect.”

She walked toward Tony, keeping her eyes on his. He took a step back into the workroom.

“I just remembered,” Aspen said. “I was looking at the books back here, but I couldn’t reach one on the top shelf. Could you help me get it?”

“Sure. Yeah, no problem.”

Tony turned and went to the compact shelving. He spun the handle to open the discards aisle enough for him to slip inside. “Which is it?”

Aspen reached the shelves and ran her hand along the long metal handles. “All the way back, on the left. On the top shelf. It’s the one with the blue cover.”

She leaned to peek down the dim aisle. The shelves were tall. Tony was stretching his right arm up, finger running along the base of the books.

Aspen kicked off her shoes and slapped her hand against the safety peg.

Tony turned and grinned. “Funny.”

She winked at him. He shook his head and went back to reaching up to the top shelf. She grabbed the handle on the shelving. She spun it to close the shelving. Tony yelped, still almost laughing, then there was a woof of expelled air as it got hard to turn the handles. With her feet planted, she used every bit of leverage she could squeeze from the handles. Every quarter inch she gained was hard.

Something snapped, like a stick breaking.

A gassy, farting smell leaked out of the aisle.

At one point there was a thrashing sound like a trapped animal trying to escape. Then a thudding, flapping sound as books fell.

A final wheezing, gulping noise.

Then nothing.

Aspen held on until her arms shook. When she finally let go blood rushed into her hands and she had tingles like they’d gone to sleep.

According to the clock, it was already past time to close the library.

💀

On Monday afternoon, when Aspen came into the library, Ms. Rachel was in the work room. She looked pale and washed out. Her fat hands wrung together.

“Oh dear, I have the most terrible news!”

Aspen clutched her small green purse in her hands. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s horrible. The police called. It seems that they found Tony’s Mustang at the bottom of the cliff off quarry road. It was all burnt up.”

“Tony wasn’t in it, was he?” Aspen asked in a breathless voice.

Ms. Rachel nodded. Tears welled up in her eyes. “He was such a beautiful boy. I know you two kids hit it off right away. I’m so sorry. They say he must have been drinking and smoking up there and lost control of the car.”

Aspen hung her head.

“If you need to take the day off, I completely understand. I’ve called admin. They’re going to send over help. Sara was so broken up, she had to go home.”

Aspen sniffled, then shook her head. “No. Thank you. Tony loved the library. I’d rather remember him by keeping it the way it should be kept.”

“Oh, you’re a sweet girl,” Ms. Rachel said. “I feel so lucky to have you here. I expect you’ll be running this place eventually.”

Aspen shook her head slowly. “Oh no, you’ll be around for a long time. Won’t you?”

💀

4,200 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 73rd weekly short story release, written in June 2013. 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 have it up. Next up is my story Forgotten Opportunity.

The Greatest Gig

Tourists from many worlds enjoy cruises on the Elegant Slipstream for all the amenities and the cascading relativistic auras that surround the ship when it reemerges into normal space.

First Technician Chrystal Eagle never tired of the show. First Technician, she preferred starship plumber. Much better title. People — no matter the species, humanoid or not — expected sanitation systems to work invisibly.

The worst part of the job wasn’t the systems. It was the passengers. Still, greatest gig in the galaxy.

A story for those who enjoy big, bold, fun science fiction universes.

🚀

Coughed up into normal space, the Elegant Slipstream, rolled in the light of a cold blue Sun, giving the passengers, and one First Technician, a show worth dying for – of cascading relativistic auras. While the rest of the crew busied themselves with transition mechanics Chrystal enjoyed a forward lounge with a drink in her hand and a plate of genuine Terran truffles. Unless one of the Yelephant monks decided to use the humanoid facilities again she didn’t have anything to do except watch the passengers and the show outside.

Greatest gig in the galaxy, starship plumber. Or Biological Waste and Recycling Management Technician, but plumber worked and was less of a mouthful.

Speaking of mouthfuls, another truffle was in order. Studying the plate, her light suddenly was blocked. Chrystal looked up. Great. One of the passengers. She didn’t even know the species on this one. Humanoid, mostly. The cluster of wiggly blue, red and tan tentacles at the top of the shoulders didn’t exactly count as a head. The tentacles started out tan in the outer-most ring, longer and rougher looking. The red made up the innermost ring and looked almost pornographic. Were the black dots at the ends of the blue tentacles eyes? Who knew?

“Yes?” she asked, not knowing if the being would understand.

A translation bracelet on its disturbingly human-looking arm spoke up. Thought-controlled? Or was it making noises outside her range of hearing? “Pardon me. Are you a member of the crew?”

As if the blue coveralls and embroidered name didn’t give it away. But with so many species one couldn’t always tell what counted as fancy dress. She’d seen beings that thought wearing still-dripping bloody skins was the height of fashion.

“Yes. But I’m on a break.”

“Excuse me, you are broken? Do you require medical assistance? Should I call the Steward?”

The volume of the bracelet needed to be dialed down. “Jeez. Keep it down.”

Chrystal stood up and stepped closer, smelling something like ginger. Not bad. Too bad she couldn’t tell where to look at this being. She was taller than it and looking at the absence of a head was too disturbing. She focused on the intricate weave of its textured black shirt. Looked like some sort of artificial polymer.

“Look, what is it that you need?”

“I was using the facilities back there for the purpose of defecation –”

“That’s what it’s for.”

“– and something odd happened.” The passenger interlaced its hands together. It appeared to be waiting.

“I need a little more than that. What do you mean something odd happened?” She raised a hand. “Without getting too gross. I see enough shit as it is. I don’t need that kind of detail. And if this is a medical odd-thing, then I’m not the one you should be talking to.”

The bracelet sounded distressed. “I am in perfect health and do not appreciate the insinuation that my condition would be otherwise.”

“Jeez, I wasn’t saying that. Sorry. What was the problem?” Passengers. Greatest gig in the galaxy, but sometimes the passengers could be the greatest pain in the arse. And she was missing the show outside. Any moment now the relativistic cascade would surge and then the backwash would pass over the ship. She didn’t want to miss it.

“The disposal mechanism appeared to be jammed. It did not function properly.”

“Okay, great. I’ll fix it. You did the right thing reporting it.” She pointed at the huge transparent lounge wall. “But watch this, okay?”

The relativistic auras increased in activity. Fractal patterns exploded into view, spread, multiplied, spanned colors only seen in dreams. It became so bright that many beings looked away even though the screens wouldn’t allow any harmful radiation through. It was a birth-of-a-universe moment, only in this case the Elegant Slipstream was the universe. The CrunchBang drive collapsed the ship and everyone aboard at the departure point only to explode out at the destination point. Chrystal understood plumbing, not the drive, but she appreciated this moment when the ship was reborn in normal space. The trick? Don’t think about the “crunch” part.

At the moment the auras became their most intense the entire show vanished. For a long three seconds those that could hold their breath did. The passenger beside her didn’t twitch a tentacle where its head should be. Then a blinding wash of activity appeared and swept over the ship.

Chrystal popped a truffle into her mouth, chewed and washed it down. “We’re back. I’ll fix the loo. Enjoy the truffles, if you can.”

🚀

Chrystal waved into the facilities, the auto-servicing lockout triggering right away. The light panels above all of the stalls looked green indicating everything in good functioning order and unoccupied. The place smelled of antiseptic and cleansers. Even with the ventilation filters. But it could be, and had been on other cruises, worse. After the Yelephant monks had used the humanoid facilities she’d had to suit up in full bio-hazard gear before Larry, the Ship AI, even let her inside. That was the trouble with a cyanide-excreting species.

The first stall looked just as it should, like a complicated medical device with so many hoses and armatures that most new passengers needed an hour long orientation just to understand how to use the thing. Giving them plenty to eat and drink during the orientation help ensure that any initial hesitation would be overcome. Designed to function for nearly a hundred know species, the stall worked for all and wasn’t comfortable for any. Chrystal moved down the line, banging open each door. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. A bit of something on the floor there not cleaned up yet, but nothing to prevent a species from using the stall. Or, if exceptionally fastidious, any of the other stalls. Nothing. Visual inspection turned up exactly squat.

Maybe she should go back out and drag that passenger in here by his tentacles and ask him again exactly what his problem had been. But that ran the risk of being interpreted as a sexual advance. Rules stood very clear on that point. Avoid all reasonable risk of any behaviors that might be construed as sexual in nature. Grabbing some passenger’s tentacles? Yeah, that could be bad.

“Larry?” Chrystal called out. “I could use some help here.”

The smooth tones of the Ship AI came through her ear-piece. “Technician, why do you insist on using that nomenclature to address me?”

Just to see if I can piss you off. Fortunately Larry didn’t have telepathic capabilities. Too expensive. “You sound like a Larry to me. A passenger reported one of the stalls in here had jammed. Do you have any record of the event?”

“I do not record the private activities of passengers.”

“Never? Not even to study how biological intelligences behave behind closed doors?”

“Never.” Larry’s voice never varied. No emotions.

And yet she believed that Larry had emotions. There’d been hints over the years. Sooner or later she’d get a response out of him.

“What about the logs from the stalls? Any sensors detect any anomalous readings? Any interruptions in service?”

One of the stall lights switched to amber. Fourth down the row. “The indicated stall picked up an overload thirty-three minutes ago. Distribution fans in the initial capture chamber shut down to prevent damage. However the blockage appears to be clear now.”

“Clear? How could it clear if the fans shut down? Without fans there’s no airflow, no suction. Nothing to move material further down the system.”

“Nevertheless,” Larry said. “The system appears clear now on all sensors.”

“So I’m supposed to accept that it is clear? Based on a reading that could be faulty? I don’t think so. I do that and more passengers complain then I have a problem with the Captain. Shut it down. Send out the droids. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“As you wish, Technician.”

The amber light switched to red. In the wall opposite the stalls a panel slid up. Three squat egg-shaped chrome droids hovered into view, each about the side of her fist. The red sensor lights on their pointy ends traveled back and forth. All three hovered over and lined up in front of her.

“Okay, boys. We’ve got a passenger complaining of a jam in that stall. I need a volunteer to take a look inside the initial capture chamber.”

The two left-most droids floated back away several inches. The other one dipped briefly to the floor in defeat.

“Okay. Let’s do this. Come on Huey.”

She walked over to the indicated stall and pushed open the door. Huey floated right up to the door and stopped. Chrystal snapped her fingers. “Come on Huey, take the plunge!”

Huey let out a raspberry of protest and rose up to the seat. The droid position itself right above the seat and turned to face her. The red sensor light dimmed. It gave a small whistle of despair. “Sorry Huey. Gotta flush you.”

She pulled the release lever hit the override button to open the capture chamber seal. Huey hung for a moment above the open capture chamber and then dropped out of sight. Chrystal pulled her tablet out of her pocket and with a couple flicks pulled up Huey’s feed.

The capture chamber walls rose up around Huey, gleaming with the red light from his sensor beam. The upper part of the chamber looked perfectly clean without out any trace of what the chamber was used for or any sign of problem. Huey let out a questioning warble.

“Nope. Look down, Huey. Let’s assume that any problem would be lower.”

Huey screeched like a horny Moh’bunian. Then the droid rotated around its center of gravity until it could see the bottom of the capture chamber. There. Past the vents and fans, some sort of glistening blue shape in the bottom of the capture chamber. The blue whatever it was reflected the light from the droid, giving it a sort of purplish cast. The shape shrank back away from the droid.

Huey beeped and started to float up away from the substance. The blue stuff swelled out of the bottom of the capture chamber. Chrystal knocked the release lever back up. The top of the capture chamber rotated shut. Huey’s beeps became more frantic. The droid bumped against the top of the chamber with a dull thunk and still the substance rose into the space. She couldn’t see many details with only Huey’s light in the chamber.

“Larry! Can you get the scoop on whatever is in that capture chamber?”

“Sensors do not detect anything in the capture chamber.”

Chrystal looked up at the ceiling. “Yeah. What about Huey?”

Huey clanked against the top of the capture chamber again. The droid’s muffled beeps came faster. The other two droids floated into the stall and took up positions on either side of the unit.

“The sensors in the capture unit are designed to detect the presence of waste products. Not cleaning and maintenance droids.”

“Fine. Access Huey’s feed.”

More thunks on the lid of the capture chamber. On her screen she could see that the bluish substance now filled at least half of the chamber. Huey hardly had room to stay above it. In the dim red light she couldn’t make out many details. Whatever it was didn’t look liquid.

“Visual analysis is inconclusive.”

“Great.” Huey banged against the lid repeatedly. The droid’s beeps merged into a continuous sound of distress. “Alert the crew. There may be a hazardous substance in the waste disposal system. I’m going to try flushing it to composting and processing. Maybe I can clear it out.”

The stuff had nearly reached Huey. The droid screeched.

“Sorry Huey.” Chrystal waved her hand in front of the flush panel. An override prompt appeared on her tablet. She thumbed it. “We’ll get you out.”

One of the droids at her feet gave out a hiss of static. She faked a kick at it. “We’ll get him out. Really.”

The system fans kicked in creating a powerful suction. Fans in the capture chamber started to move. Huey’s distress signal cut off as the droid made a dizzying dive down to avoid the fans. The blue substance shrank back down into the drain. Huey dropped after it. The droid spun about, pointy end pointing up at the closed top of the capture chamber. Weak anti-gravs struggled to hold the egg-shaped droid out of the drain but soon proved no match for the suction. Huey spun around and with a loud sucking noise followed the blue gunk down the drain. Down, into the pipes and through the system.

Chrystal pocketed the tablet. “Let’s go get him, boys.”

🚀

Using the tablet Chrystal tracked Huey’s progress through the system. Now that the system had sucked whatever it was through the pipes, Huey dove after it in pursuit with cleaning brushes extended. With the other two droids trailing on her heels like a pair of baby ducklings she ran out of the facilities back into the lounge area. She turned and went through an unobtrusive door discreetly marked ‘Crew Only’. Behind the scenes she could really run. She grabbed a rail sled, pulled it down, stepped on and kicked off. The droid right behind her managed to get up on the sled and grabbed the front with an extruded manipulator. The other missed the jump as the sled shot off down the corridor. She twisted the throttle full up. The sled sped down the corridor at high speed. The rail guide lights flashed red ahead to alert anyone in the corridor of the oncoming sled.

The ship resembled a giant strand of DNA, a double-helix with a passenger side and a crew side. The sled reached the main crew strand and spiraled down to the lower processing levels, just one level up above the engines. She slowed right at the main access hatch and expertly stepped down. The sled snapped up. Faster than the droid which hadn’t relaxed its grip yet. A plaintive wail came from behind the sled. Chrystal pulled it down. The droid rolled out and bounced across the floor. The red sensor light dead. Chrystal walked over to it and gave it a nudge with her foot. A small spark of red appeared.

“Yeah, I know you’re not dead, Dewey. Come on.”

The light came on and moved back and forth over the pointed end of the droid as it rose from the floor.

“Don’t look at me like that.” Chrystal looked at the tablet. Huey had nearly reached this level. “Let’s go give an evacuation route.”

Through the hatch, droid close on her heels. This was on one of the cross chambers connecting the two strands of the ship. Massive and full of all sorts of equipment, the facility was capable of processing waste from over a hundred known species with up to ten thousand different passengers and crew at any given time. Crew technicians of many races in white coveralls walked with purpose. Every phase had to be monitored. With so many species waste handling could be a big deal. Even so they snapped to attention as she came through the corridor. Her blue coveralls announced her presence as a First Technician, top of the slop. Head of Biological Waste and Recycling on board the Elegant Slipstream.

“Don’t hold your noses now, get in there!” She waved them back to work. She ran down the corridor towards the central command center. A fat bead strung between the crew and passenger strands the C Prime coordinated all the waste handling on board. She came at the transparent doors fast enough that they barely slid open enough for her to get through. The doors snapped shut behind her. Dewey crashed into the door.

Miguel Stacks bounced up out of the command chair, his tan coveralls showing his rank as Second Technician. “Chief!”

Chrystal gave him a nod and dropped into the chair. Still warm. “Can somebody get me some iced tea?”

A junior tech appeared at her elbow with a steel, black-capped thermos of iced tea. Chrystal took it. Dewey managed to get through the door and hovered over to her chair.

“Miguel, there’s a blockage coming down the system. Tap into Huey’s feeds. I want it diverted into an empty and clean holding tank.”

“We’re at capacity. To free a tank we’ll have to shift waste. We might have to vent the excess.”

“And have the Captain deduct the cost of the organics from our budget? I don’t think so. If you need to bag and store it. We can reintroduce it into the system after I’m done.”

Miguel started shouting orders to the technicians. Droids and techs spun to work. Dewey waited beside her foot. She sipped her iced tea. Dewey whined. “I told you, we’ll get him out of there. Besides you volunteered him for this mission.”

Dewey sank lower.

“Larry?”

“Yes, Technician?”

“How long until Huey and the blockage reaches the chamber?”

“Two minutes.”

“Has the Captain been informed of the situation?”

“I have not informed her of the matter at this time since it has not threatened the integrity of the ship or passengers.”

“Good. Keep it that way. I’ll report after I have a chance to figure out what’s going on.” Chrystal got up, slipping the thermos into one of her pockets. “Come on Dewey. You’re in this with me. Miguel! I’ll be at the tank.”

“It’ll be ready when you get there,” Miguel said. “We’ve bagged the excess and stored it.”

Right. Back out of C Prime, down the corridor back to the main Crew strand. She followed the directions on her tablet to the tank, one of thousands of blisters sticking off the main strand. She waved a hand at the access hatch. It turned green and the hatch opened.

“Go on,” she told Dewey, nudging the droid in.

Dewey beeped in protest.

The tank looked pristine. The smell of bleach hung strong in the air. Given the turnaround time, not bad. She pulled her tablet and checked the feed. Huey whistled joyfully and plunged after the bluish blockage. She felt the breeze from the air being pumped out of the pipes leading into the blister. All other paths had been blocked off. Whatever it was, it was coming in here.

“Let’s wait outside,” she told Dewey.

The droid chirruped and darted around her when the door opened. She let the chamber seal behind her and turned the wall transparent. Just in time. A mass off blue doughy material appeared in the pipe. It oozed out down towards the floor. More and more poured out. With a last pop it fell free and landed on the floor. It immediately rose back up, moving. Three blobs appeared along the topside. Two lengthened and narrowed. The rest of the material rose up higher, then the lower section split into two trunks. It’d taken on a vague, doughy humanoid shape.

“Who’s that shit-head?” Chrystal asked.

Dewey gave a questioning warble.

“Let’s find out.” Chrystal waved open the chamber. “Larry, kill the fans.”

The door opened and Huey fell out of the pipe in the ceiling. The droid hit the blue person-thing, bounced off and managed to come to a rest an inch above the floor. Manipulators retracted leaving the droid a smooth egg-shape again. Both Huey and Dewey turned sensors towards the figure at the center of the chamber.

The shape continued to change and become more humanoid. In fact she could see now definite signs of maleness. The creature firmed up. Details began to take shape, features in the blue head. Right before her eyes the substance changed from a doughy caricature of a person to a gorgeous muscled guy with beautiful sky-blue skin and a sunny smile. Navy blue hair hung down to his shoulders.

“Hello there,” he said, clearly happy to see her.

Chrystal shuddered. “Okay. Icky. Do you know what you just came out of up there? You need a shower before you touch anything. Then, you need to explain what you were doing clogging up my pipes.”

The stranger nodded. “Whatever you say.”

🚀

Chrystal waited near the door to the finest restaurant on the Elegant Slipstream wearing a tiny black dress. She felt very exposed without her coveralls. But it wasn’t every day that the Prince of a planetary dynasty asked to take her to dinner for saving him from the complexities of the waste management system. It turned out he had attended the orientation for the humanoid facilities but had to revert to his unformed state to expel waste. He should have been in the non-humanoid facilities. Anyone could make that sort of mistake.

Prince Harris, as he asked to be called, walked into view. Dressed now in a fine black tuxedo, with his blue skin he looked exotic and lovely. And, he had assured her, entirely clean. He had promised that he had washed everything, not just his hands, before dinner. The Captain was pleased that her quick action had prevented some sort of diplomatic incident, which could have happened had the Prince been cooked, chopped and composted.

Watching him walk towards her with such easy grace Chrystal thought she’d gotten the best end of the deal. Starship plumber. Greatest gig in the galaxy.

🚀

3,548 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 72nd weekly short story release, written in April 2010. 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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Discards.

Placer Crime

Beau Clayton loves the hustle of Eureka Gulch. Men swarmed to the growing town, caught in gold fever. A perfect place to begin a new life, build a new library, and bring culture to the new community.

Twice now his love of detective stories led him to help solve crimes. Sheriff Mullins wants help again with a dispute over a claim.

Trouble is, the story the miners tell sounds impossible.

💀

Gold fever wasn’t an illness. The people of Eureka Gulch didn’t lie around in their beds moaning with sweaty brows. They did puke in the streets, mostly outside of any one of the twenty some-odd saloons and similar establishments that had sprung up faster than the miners could dig out the ore. If anything gold fever made them stronger than normal men; the sound of hammers never stopped in Eureka Gulch these days.

Yes, things were happening and Beau Clayton was right in the middle of it all. Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Creasor, owner of the Creasor hotel and other valuable properties, and the support of Ms. Emily Collins, Beau’s public library was getting a proper building after spending the past weeks in a log-base tent. The new construction was going up conveniently right across the road from the current tent library. The support came in part thanks to his help in resolving questions in a couple unfortunate deaths.

He was thin, of average height, with a dark charcoal suit, patched and worn. He wore a bowler hat over dark hair. His face was clean-shaven with high cheek-bones, a strong jaw and dark, intelligent eyes hidden under a deep brow. A thoughtful face, turned now to the building going on across the street.

Beau sat in a split log chair, sanded now to prevent splinters, with a copy of The Strand in his lap. It had only just arrived on the last stage up from Spokane with the camp’s mail, and Beau was quite excited to see it contained a new story by none other than A. Conan Doyle, “The Story of the Beetle-Hunter.”

He hadn’t started reading yet, choosing to savor the moment and he was distracted by the sight of the walls of the library going up. Built with strong timbers and then raised up. Down came the hammers! A flurry of nails driven into place and in moments the walls stood erect on their own.

He was the only one paying any attention to the library’s construction. All around the camp new buildings were going up. General merchandise stories, druggists, clothiers, mining supply companies, and of course, the saloons that the temperance movement couldn’t touch out here.

Each day he took a walk through the streets, marveling at the growth in the town as the population swelled in anticipation of the opening of the south half of the Colville reservation for mineral claims. Yet again those hopes had been dashed, a week earlier on June 8th, when the anticipated announcement had failed to come.

The mood in the camp was tense, swollen to bursting with dreams of getting rich. Thousands had poured into the region from all over. Sooners spotted claims out in the country, not legal claims yet, but there were many out there waiting for the word. The hotels were full, the women’s boarding houses and the drinking establishments alike were busy with customers. The merchants couldn’t keep enough shovels and picks in stock to meet the demand. Many men dreaming of their own claims had turned instead to working the already richly proven mines in the north half, like the Republic and Lone Pine claims. Everyone waited for word from President Grant that the bill had passed.

This was all a long way from his father’s established law offices and the courtrooms where he practiced. There had been a letter too, among the post, from his father’s firm. The letter sat unopened next to his coffee cup, on the stump beside his chair.

The Strand or the letter? Which to read first? With the Strand the outcome was already decided. He would enjoy reading the magazine. With the letter? That outcome was also already decided. There wouldn’t be any good news coming from that letter.

When he had broken the news of his decision to head north and establish a library, his father had thought him mad. So did everyone else. Who threw away a legal career in one of the most exciting cities in the west? Spokane was a center of activity and prosperity. It benefited from its placement, from the natural resources surrounding it, and the stream of men moving north to places like Eureka Gulch and Idaho. It was a modern city, full of modern ideals, and was a good place for a law firm to prosper.

Had Beau wanted to pursue that career, his future would have been secure. Instead he had thrown it to the wind to establish a library. A mad dream, yes, perhaps. Yet he was absolutely convinced, to the depths of his soul, that reading was the ultimate key to prosperity. He had always enjoyed reading. Everything, anything that he could get his hands on. It came to him that he could do much more good in the world by encouraging others to read. By offering books to all, and classes in reading, he could have far more impact on people than his father ever had in his law firm. Making the wealth of human knowledge available to everyone, what higher calling could there be? Surely that was better than the role of a lawyer!

Try telling that to his father who saw most common people as barely a step above illiterate savages. Given the examples of humanity that he saw in his practice, that was hardly a surprising attitude. When it became clear that Beau really meant to leave the firm and pursue his mad dream, his father had threatened to disinherit him. For all he knew, that was the contents of the letter. It’d be like his father to serve official notice that he had been disinherited.

Stuff it all. He’d left that behind and didn’t need the reminder. Beau left the letter untouched.

Across the street, the men working on the library swung down from the beams. They dropped their tools and walked away down the street. Beau pulled his pocket-watch out. Past noon already. They wouldn’t resume their hammering until later in the afternoon, when it began to cool slightly. This would be a good time to get some reading done. Or would be, except that sheriff Mullins was making his way down the street toward the library. The sheriff’s attention was clearly fixed on Beau, although his eyes still watched everyone around him. He nodded congenially to those he passed, his clear blue eyes catching everything with a hawk-like intensity. His long mustache and sharp nose emphasized the hawkishness of his face. He was young, but there was nothing green about the sheriff. He had that look on his face as he got closer.

It was a look that said Beau wasn’t going to get a chance to read his magazine. He set it aside and stood as the sheriff strolled up, boots kicking up dust.

“Mr. Clayton.” Mullins extended his hand.

Beau shook. The sheriff’s grip was strong. “Sheriff. Looking for something to read?”

Mullins’ lips twitched. “I haven’t finished the Tolstoy you gave me to read. Maybe I should have waited for winter.”

Beau chuckled. “Maybe.”

The sheriff turned and looked across the street. “The new library is coming along.”

“Yes. As fast as they work, we’ll be moving the books in before long. Ms. Collins is already arranging a ribbon-cutting ceremony.”

Mullins stroked his mustache. “She is a fine lady. It’s hard to credit the doctor with such a daughter.”

Dr. Collins was an odd man and maybe slightly too fond of whiskey for “medicinal purposes” to be considered strictly professional. Ms. Collins had mentioned that the loss of her mother had changed him. Hardly surprising.

“I think her late mother deserves much of the credit.”

“Just so,” Mullins said. He looked like a man at a loss for words.

“You didn’t come by to discuss Ms. Collins,” Beau said. “And since you’re not looking for another book, there must be another reason for the visit.”

Mullins stuck his thumbs behind his suspenders. “Yes. I did have a reason, although seeing the library going up, I see that there’s little point in raising the matter.”

“Sheriff, you might as well tell me since you came down here.”

“Okay, then. I will. I was thinking of asking if you’d like a deputy position. I could use someone smart and educated to keep me from making a fool of myself.”

“You don’t need me for that,” Beau said. “No one would make the mistake of thinking you a fool.”

Mullins’ blue eyes sparkled. “Maybe not. I still could use someone like you, if you weren’t busy running a library, that is.”

Beau glanced at the letter from his father’s law firm. A sheriff’s deputy? No, he wasn’t really suited to that either. He looked back at Mullins.

“You’re right, I’ve got a library to run. And you need men that can shoot straight and break up fights. That’s not me.”

“Of course. Sorry to trouble you.” Mullins started to turn.

“Sheriff?”

Mullins turned back around.

“I would have time to consult, from time to time, as needed.”

“Consult?” Mullins rubbed his chin.

“Reading isn’t the camp’s favorite vice, although my storytelling sessions have attracted a fair share of miners interested in hearing something other than the Bible. What I mean, is, if there are problems that require someone smart and educated, I expect I’d have time to assist.”

“As it so happens, I’ve got a dispute between some men right now, that could use some expert advice.”

“A dispute?” Beau scooped up the letter and pocketed it. The Strand he left on his chair. “Tell me more.”

💀

Beau’s borrowed mare bounced him in his saddle as he followed Mullins along the San Poil. The river was still high from the flooding a couple weeks earlier, but down from that torrent. The water was mostly clear now, instead of the muddy, foamy froth that had rushed down the river bed during the storm.

Other than the sound of the horses’ hooves on the packed trail, once they were away from Eureka Gulch, a quiet fell. The sort of quiet that city men never knew. It still struck Beau when he was away from the bustle of Eureka Gulch just how quiet it was in this wilderness. The sound of the shallow river flowing over the rocks, the bright bird song off in the trees that shaded the river bank, and little else. Truthfully, it was a bit unnerving. Beau watched the woods carefully. Would a bear make a noise before it attacked? What about wolves? There was probably more to fear from half-savage sooners that camped out in the wilderness waiting for the chance to strike gold when the south half opened. Not to mention the Indians from the reservation. Twelve tribes, including Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, and some men were bound to hold grudges. Either way, the quiet made him uneasy.

“How far are we going?” He asked Mullins.

The sheriff’s gelding clopped along in an unhurried  fashion. The sheriff twisted around to look back. “Not far now. Not as far south as that trouble we had.”

That trouble being the murder of one Indian, and the attempted murder of both the Mullins and Beau. Fortunately a fate they had avoided.

“Just up here, around this bend.”

Around the bend revealed a wide sunny bank stripped of plants and a good deal of dirt. Two men sat on piles of dirt. Panning gear, a rocker box, and shovels had been left lying on the ground while the men ate what looked like a rabbit roasted over a small, almost smokeless fire. Horses were tethered further up the bank. Both men were dressed in dirty clothes, worn and patched. They were skinny, with deep-sunk eyes and similar long faces. They might have been brothers, although the one on the left had deeper creases in his face, less hair and what there was of it tended to gray. A father and son, then?

The older man dropped his tin plate and stood up. The younger slowly followed. Dark eyes glanced at Beau and back to the sheriff.

“Sheriff,” the older man said. His few teeth were yellow and long. “You find that thief yet?”

Mullins’ reined in his horse. “Not yet, Mr. Higgins.”

A scowl deepened the lines on the man’s face. “What’re you doing back here, then?”

Mullins gestured at Beau. “I brought my consultant down to hear what happened. This is Beau Clayton, he’ll be helping me out.”

“Consultant?” The younger man said.

“That’s right,” Mullins said agreeably. “You just tell him your story.”

Mr. Higgins spit, a high long arc that splashed into the slow-moving river. “Couldn’t you jus tell him yourself, instead of riding out here?”

“I could,” Mullins said. “Except I want him to hear it from you so he can ask questions if he wants.”

“I’ll try not to waste your time,” Beau said.

The young man laughed, which earned him a scowl from the other. Mr. Higgins hitched his thumbs in his suspenders.

“Fine. What happened, Mr. Clayton, is that a dirty con man took our money and left us an empty claim.”

Clayton looked at the torn up bank above the river. “You bought this claim?”

Mr. Higgins nodded. “Yup. Paid twenty dollars for it. We were working our way down stream looking for a place to work when we came across a man here. He only had a shovel and a small pan, not much equipment, but we could see the gold in the pan as we rode up.”

“So you offered to buy his claim?”

The younger man spoke up, his tone bitter. “No. We didn’t. Would’ve moved on. Should have done.”

“Yeah, we should’ve done so. My son told me as much, but I didn’t listen. He had the gold right there in his pan. Told us he was finding it much harder work than he had thought, and wanted to go back to making shoes, and wondered if we’d like to buy the claim. He even dug out some more ground and washed it right in front of us, showing us the gold.”

Beau recognized the story. “So he took the gold he had already found, your money and left you with the claim.”

“Right,” Mr. Higgins said. “I feel the fool. He was gone on his donkey and we got to work. We found a few small flecks, nothing more. By the time we stopped, he was long gone. I sent my son up to talk to the sheriff.”

“And I brought Mr. Clayton to consult on this,” Mullins said.

“What’s so confusing about this?” Mr. Higgins said. He jabbed a finger at the dig. “There’s no gold here!”

“I’ve read about cases like this,” Beau said, trying to calm the man down. “The con man loads a shotgun with a small amount of gold and shoots it into the ground. Then he pretends to discover the gold but lacks the means to realize the claim himself so sells it off to someone else.”

Mr. Higgins shook a finger at Beau. “See! That’s what happened! He shouldn’t be that hard to find, sheriff! Mark told you what he looked like!”

Mullins tipped his hat up. “Yes, he did. Why don’t you just tell Mr. Clayton and be done with it?”

Clearly, Mr. Higgins was reluctant to say anything. He rubbed his jaw, and spit again with great accuracy into the river.

“Jus tell him Pa!” Mark Higgins said.

“Fine!” Mr. Higgins squinted up at Beau. “He was small, a dwarf. Odd-looking, his face wrinkled but somehow he didn’t really look old. He wore a funny coat, square and red, worn and patched but dressy, with a ruff round his neck and lace at the ends of the sleeves.”

Beau rocked back on his horse. Surely, the man wasn’t describing what it sounded like.

Mr. Higgins went on. “Also had buckles on his shoes, a leather apron and a cocked hat on his head! That’s the way he looked, I tell you!”

Mr. Higgins’ jaw clenched, as if he dared Beau to dispute him.

“And you said he rode off on a donkey?”

“That’s right. Man that size, he’s not going to ride a horse, is he? Ask around, you’ll find ‘em and get our money back!”

Everyone was looking at Beau, Mullins and the miners. Was this a joke? Mr. Higgins certainly didn’t look like he was kidding, and less likely to have read Yeats.

“Forgive me, Mr. Higgins, maybe I’m misunderstanding something. Are you saying that this man was a leprechaun?”

“Leprechaun!” Mr. Higgins scowled. “I never said that!”

“No,” Mullins said. “You didn’t call him that, but this is why I asked Mr. Clayton to come down and talk to you. He’s setting up a library back in Eureka Gulch, he’s an educated man and I thought he might recognize what you were describing.”

The younger Higgins surged to his feet, hands clenching into fists. “What are you saying? My Pa told you what he looked like!”

Beau held up a hand. “I didn’t mean any offense, son. A man named Yeats compiled a book ten years ago on fairy and folk tales. The  man you describe sounds like a leprechaun, the one-shoe fairy.”

Mr. Higgins turned to Mark. “Get it.”

Mark turned fast, nearly tripped and scrambled across the uneven ground to the other side of the fire where he rummaged in their gear. He ran back holding something in his hand and gave it to his father. Mr. Higgins turned and offered it up to Beau.

It was a shoe. Beau took it. The shoe was leather and well-made, narrow at the tip with a silver buckle across the top. It looked new. The smooth leather didn’t show any signs of wear. There was little dirt on it, mostly from the miners’ hands. He passed it on over to Mullins, who turned it over in his hands too.

“Where was this?” Beau asked.

Mr. Higgins pointed over to a log near the dig. “Found it over there, figured he left it.”

Mullins said, “You didn’t mention this before.”

Mr. Higgins shrugged. “Didn’t see no point. Might be worth something, we don’t get our money back. You mind?”

Mr. Higgins held up his hand.

Mullins  glanced over at Beau.

Beau shrugged. Keeping it wouldn’t help them find this man, leprechaun or not. Mullins tossed it down to Mr. Higgins.

The man caught the shoe. “So, sheriff? You gonna look for ‘em or not?”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out for a little man in a red coat on a donkey. If I see him, I’ll ask about your money. My guess? He’s moved on already.”

“Figures,” Mr. Higgins said. “Just our luck, you know?”

“Keep the shoe,” Beau said. “Maybe it’ll turn out to be lucky when the south half opens.”

Mr. Higgins held it up, looking at it. “Maybe so.” He pointed the shoe at Beau. “You believe us?”

“Mr. Higgins, I’d be delighted if we found this man you talk about, I’d have many questions for him.” That much was true.

💀

The ride back to Eureka Gulch passed mostly in silence as the day wore on. Beau mulled over the story in his mind. The miners hardly seemed the sort to make up such a story. And what about the shoe? It was real enough, quality craftsmanship. Just one shoe. What did that prove? Mr. Higgins could have heard the stories about leprechauns, but why make up the story? What would it gain him, except ridicule if word got out?

Riding over the last hill, the town lay beneath them. Mullins reined in his horse and fell in beside Beau.

“You’ve been quiet,” Mullins said. “What do you think of their story?”

“The details are right,” Beau said. “The obvious answer is that they set it up themselves. Except I don’t get the sense that Mr. Higgins would deliberately lie about what they saw. He seemed genuinely angry about the money he claims he lost.”

“That’s my sense too.” Mullins chuckled. “A leprechaun, though? Running a scam like that?”

“It’d fit. According to the legends they are fond of pranks, gold and drink. A town like this? They’d be right at home. You might want to start looking for him in the saloons, sheriff.”

Mullins laughed. “I’ll keep an eye out. Somehow I doubt I’ll have much luck.”

They reached the rode and headed on into town. The noise of Eureka Gulch washed over Beau, a welcome change from the quiet out in the wilderness around town. He touched his hat.

“Thank you sheriff, that was an interesting diversion. I wish I was more helpful.”

“You’ve helped plenty,” Mullins said. “Thank you for your time.”

“You’re welcome. I’m always happy to help.”

Their paths separated. Beau rode back to the livery and left the horse. He was on his way back to the library when he spied a familiar, and welcome sight coming down the street ahead.

It was Emily Collins, the lovely daughter of Dr. Collins. She wore a simple blue hat, with a white ribbon, over her dark hair and a plain but neat blue dress. Today she also wore white gloves. She smiled warmly as he approached, then wrinkled her tiny nose when he got close.

“Mr. Clayton, you are covered in dust! What have you been doing?”

“The sheriff and I rode out to talk to a couple of miners, victims of a prank at a placer mine.”

“Prank?”

He doubted the sheriff wanted stories of leprechauns spreading around the camp, but the rest of it didn’t matter. “A con man discharged gold from a shotgun into the San Poil river bank, then panned it out of the ground, thereby proving that there was an easy deposit of gold to be found. He sold the claim to the miners and left with the gold and their money.”

“The lure of gold does attract all sorts of men,” Ms. Collins said. “Any chance that the sheriff will catch the man responsible?”

“Perhaps,” Beau said. “His description was distinctive.”

“I hope he is caught. We don’t need thieves around here!”

“Better the sheriff catch him before anyone else,” Beau said. “The men around here tend to believe in a very swift form of justice at the end of a rope.”

“I would hope that they would respect the order of law.”

“As I would,” Beau said. “Would you like an escort?”

Ms. Collins’ smile widened. “I would. I’m returning back to my father’s house for supper. Would you like to join us?”

Beau’s stomach rumbled in response. Ms. Collins laughed.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

He smiled in return. “I do apologize, the sheriff took me away before lunch.”

“Then you must join us. I insist.”

“It’d be my pleasure.” He brushed at the dust on his clothes. “If I’m not too dusty?”

She laughed. “We will manage.”

Beau gestured and they walked on down the street.

Ms. Collins was just telling him about the progress on building the new school when he saw a small gray donkey tied up outside of one of Eureka Gulch’s many saloons. “The Cobbler’s Tankard,” according to the sign.

His heart nearly skipped a beat. He touched Ms. Collins’ arm. “Excuse me, one moment.”

“What is it?”

It was a mad, impossible thing, but he had to see. “I need to see a man about a book.”

He hurried off to the saloon. The donkey was covered in long hair, and wore a tiny leather saddle. There was a rolled blanket across the back, and bags of goods strapped to the small beast. The stock of a shotgun stuck up out of the rolls.

Beau went on past, up onto the wood porch, and shoved open the door. The interior was dim and smelled of smoke, beer, bread and meat. His stomach growled again. Behind the bar the bartender, a gray-haired man gone wide around the middle, leaned on the bar and watched him over a drooping mustache. Other than the bartender, there were only a few men, sitting alone or in small groups around the rough wood tables in the place.

None were wearing red jackets or a cocked hat. He got a few glances in his direction, standing in the doorway, but most were more interested in their drink or food. He turned, feeling foolish, except for the fact of the donkey outside.

Back in the shadowy corner, light glinted on metal. His eyes began to adjust and he made out the small shape of a man at the table. He made his way across the room, expecting something, anything except what he saw when he reached the table.

A wizened face peered up at him from the dark shadows beneath his cocked hat. Thick whiskers ran down the sides of his jaw. Dark eyes looked back at him. The man’s coat was red, with golden embroidery and rows of shiny buttons. Just as Mr. Higgins had described, there was an Elizabethan ruff around the collar and lace on the ends of the sleeves.

“Ye been lookin’ for me?” The man said, his voice high-pitched.

“The sheriff is looking for you,” Beau said. “About a claim you sold to some miners.”

The man, Beau couldn’t think of him as a leprechaun, leprechauns didn’t exist, lifted his glass and drained it down. He clunked it down on the table and belched.

“That’s what I think of de sheriff!” His dark eyes glittered. “What business is it of yers?”

“He asked for my help.” Beau took a breath. “Why don’t you come with me back to the sheriff’s office? We’ll straighten it out there.”

The man stood up on his seat, which put him nearly at Beau’s height. He sneered. “I don’ think so.”

He reached into his coat and pulled out a silver snuff box. He opened the lid and offered it up to Beau.

Beau lifted his hand. “No, thank you. I really think —”

The man took a pinch of the snuff and flung it at Beau. The dust hit Beau’s face with the rich scent of tobacco. He coughed and the dust tickled his nose. He sneezed explosively and heard the man laugh. He sneezed again, then a third time before he recovered. He rubbed a hand across his face and looked for the man.

He was gone. The table was empty.

Beau spun around. None of the other customers were paying him any attention, and there was no sign of the little man.

He rushed to the door and burst outside. There wasn’t any sign of the man, and the donkey that had been tethered outside was gone. Ms. Collins stood right outside of the saloon looking up at him. Her eyebrows raised.

“Mr. Clayton, are you quite alright?”

“Did you see where he went?”

“Who?”

“A little man, in a red coat…” How foolish did that sound? Beau stopped himself before he could continue. The leprechaun — what else could describe him? — was gone.

“Little man?” Ms. Collins said. She looked up and down the street. “I didn’t see anyone. Does this have to do with the man the sheriff was seeking?”

Beau looked down at her. If he chased this, he’d look crazier than he already did. He smiled. “Yes, but I must have been mistaken. I thought I recognized him from the description, but he’s not here.”

“Okay. In that case, should we continue to my father’s house? He does get grumpy if his supper is late.”

Beau descended to the street. He took her arm. “Supper sounds fantastic. Don’t let me delay things any longer.”

“Very well.”

They started walking. Beau decided not to mention this to the sheriff. The library was getting built, no matter how crazy it might seem to his father. He touched his jacket and felt the letter. Later, he’d read that and see what news it contained. For now, tonight he wanted to enjoy a meal with the lovely Ms. Collins and Dr. Collins, safe from troubling news or meddlesome leprechauns.

There was enough gold fever in Eureka Gulch without chasing after fairy stories!

💀

4,721 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 71st weekly short story release, written in July 2013. 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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story The Greatest Gig.

This Treehouse is Haunted

Joel returned to start over. Seeing his best friend’s house for sale felt like fate. A new job. A house he remembered from childhood. Even the old treehouse remained.

Almost as if time stayed still here. As if everything had waited for him.

You never forget your first loss. On either side.

💀

For Joel the yellow ranch house represented a homecoming, and yet not, at the same time. The house itself hadn’t changed much since the summer days he had spent here playing with AJ. It was still that same sunflower yellow with the bright green trim. Obviously it had been repainted because it looked just like he remembered it. The stone-walled flower beds out front hadn’t changed at all either, but the satellite dish perched owl-like on the corner of the house was new. Standing on the wood porch everything felt askew and out-of-proportion. He was too big for the porch, and it was empty of the worn nylon patio furniture that AJ’s parents had kept on the porch. Even stranger was looking across the street at his old house, hardly recognizable, with piles of junk and several rusted cars decaying on what strands of grass remained.

Joel knocked his fingers against the sturdy white post beside the steps, just to assure himself that it was real. He was back, in the town that he had never expected to return to, owning his best friend’s old house. He knocked once more on the post and went inside, feeling like a visitor in his own house, to confront the piles of boxes scattered around the house. Kitchen first, he wanted the coffee maker, coffee and his thermos. Fuel for the rest of the day.

Not having to report to work at his new teaching job until Monday, Joel spent the day unpacking and putting away his few belongings. One of the bedrooms became his office with his computer desk in the corner, the glass surface actually having made the move without getting broken. He set up his two computers, monitors side by side flanked by the scanner and the printer. From his tan microsuede chair he could lean back and look out the window at trees across the brown backyard. Surprisingly the treehouse where he had spent so much time with AJ still looked intact despite all of the years. Others must have kept it up in the years since AJ’s parents had moved away. When night fell Joel made himself a plate of spaghetti, with a spicy Italian sausage sauce from a jar, and carried it into the office. He put it down on the clear glass in front of the monitors while he pulled up his latest project on the right computer. TweetDeck filled the screen on the second computer, the constant stream of tweets giving him a sense that he wasn’t entirely alone.

At about nine, long after the sun had set, a light flickering in the window pulled Joel’s attention away from the article he was writing. He leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. A blue light flickered in the distance. It was so dark at first he couldn’t even decide how far away the light was, but then he realized that it was coming from the treehouse. A bolt of fear shot through his nerves. If local kids were playing in the treehouse they could get hurt —

He pushed back from the desk and ran out of the room. The house was dark but he flicked on the light switches as he advanced through the house. First the hallway, then the kitchen and dining room, and last off all the light above the back deck. Joel unlatched the slider and stepped out into the yellow circle of light cast by the fixture above.

Cold air slipped through his t-shirt and across his chest. A loud chorus of frogs filled the night air with their music. Thanks to the bright moon didn’t look as dark outside as it had through the window. The porch light didn’t carry far past the deck but he could see the long overgrown back lawn, the flower beds marking the edge of the lawn, the large square of the garden filled with dried remains of plants and past that the field that was the main part of his property. Across the field stood the trees where he and AJ had built the treehouse.

The blue light flickered and bobbed within the treehouse, shining out of the single window facing the house. Clearly someone was there. Joel rubbed his jaw, stubble rough against his hand. He didn’t want to scare them, but just the thought of kids up in the treehouse made him feel queasy. He walked across the deck, skipped down the few steps to the lawn and started across. He’d have to get out there and tear it down. The treehouse shouldn’t have been left up all this time.

His eyes adjusted as he made his way across the lawn. He saw his faint shadow moving ahead as he reached the edge of the lawn and stepped off into the wilder field beyond. Dry tall grass tickled his elbows. He picked his way through the field, stumbling at times on the uneven ground. The blue light flickered and moved, reminding him of a candle, but what candles gave off that sort of light? Probably wasn’t a candle at all, but some sort of glow stick that the kids were holding.

Joel remembered another time, coming out here on a hot summer night with his sleeping bag tucked under his arm and his heart hammering a thousand beats per minute. The air hadn’t felt so cold that night, but it was cooler at least than his room. It was AJ’s idea that they sneak out to the treehouse and camp out for the night. Of course he couldn’t ask his parents if it was okay, his mom wouldn’t have thought it proper for him to camp out in a treehouse with a girl. At the time he both knew that his parents disapproval had something to do with kissing, and he thought the whole thing was weird because it was AJ. They always hung out together. But camping out together was something new, and exciting because they were sneaking out.

Now, as he got closer to the treehouse Joel still couldn’t make out anyone in the treehouse, just the blue glow coming from the window. The light flickered, dimmed and then brightened. Sort of like what he’d expect from an electronic device. A video game? But the light stayed a deep blue color and didn’t change. About ten feet from the trees Joel heard whispering. He stopped and listened. He heard the incessant croaking of the frogs, the wind rustling through the grass, and in the far distance the sound of a car. Nothing more from the treehouse.

Joel walked closer, almost to the first trees in the clump that held the treehouse. “Hey! In the treehouse! Come on down from there!”

The light winked out.

Joel put his hands on his hips and wished he had gotten a flashlight. “Come on, I need you to get down from there.”

Nothing. Nothing but the frogs and the cold wind that cut through his t-shirt. Bright stars and the moon lit everything clearly, and nobody came out of the treehouse. With the blue glow gone the window was a inky well of darkness. Boards nailed across the curved tree trunks made a ladder up to a trapdoor in the base of the treehouse. He could go around to the other side, there were windows in each wall, but he probably wouldn’t be able to see anything else. He couldn’t tell but they might have hung curtains in the window. It sure didn’t seem like the moonlight was getting inside.

“Listen,” Joel called. “That treehouse is very old. You could get hurt. Come out now, or I’m going to have to call the police.”

He crossed his arms and waited for the creak of the trapdoor opening, but nothing happened. The seconds passed and he started getting pissed. Maybe these kids were used to playing in the treehouse but they had no business being up there. This was his place now, and he and AJ had built the damned treehouse. They had no right to it. Even if they called his bluff about the police he was going to tear it down. He couldn’t have kids up there.

“Last chance, I’m warning you. Come on out now!”

A spark of blue appeared in the window. It flickered and danced but didn’t look quite like a flame. Then it spread out in all directions and thinned. The blue light poured almost like a liquid, tracing cheeks and a nose, swirled around dark eyes and poured over parted lips. She looked out the window at him with eyes that reflected back the moonlight.

Joel’s breath caught in his chest. He thought his heart might simply stop beating.

AJ.

That face, he knew it, the delicate features insubstantially traced in that blue glow, shifting almost like a candle flame, that was AJ. He took one step back and suddenly could move again. He turned and ran across the field toward the distant yellow porch light of the house. He tripped on a clump of grass and sprawled face down in the field. He scrambled up and ran again.

Joel reached the lawn, crossed it in a few strides and sprang up onto the deck. He yanked open the door and stepped inside. Only as he slid it closed did he look back.

The treehouse was dark again. No blue lights. No sign of AJ.

Joel groped for one of the dining room chairs and sat down. He put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands to stop them from shaking. His head hung as he focused on breathing. In and out, just the breath flowing past his lips. When he felt steadier he raised his head and looked out the sliding glass door, dreading what he might see. The treehouse was dark. The porch light cast a yellow circle of light on the red-stained boards of the deck. Superimposed over it all was his own ghostly reflection. A man on the verge of forty with extra pounds showing in his face and around his waist, his sandy brown hair buzzed close to his scalp. Hardly the skinny boy of thirty years ago with a mop of hair always in his eyes.

Slowly, feeling his years, Joel stood up and turned off the porch light. He went back through the house, turning off the lights as he went until he got to his office. There he sat down in front of the computer and with a few clicks opened his pictures folder. He scrolled through and opened the folder with his childhood photos. It took a few minutes to find the one that he wanted, but then he saw it and opened it in the picture viewer.

Two grinning, tanned kids stood waving on a bright summer day in front of the treehouse. AJ looked like a forest sprite with tiny daisies braided into her hair. Her nose had a small wrinkle between her eyes as she smiled, and there was a spray of freckles across her cheeks and nose. It was definitely her that he’d seen in the treehouse. He had hoped that somehow he was mistaken, that his memory was tricking him, but that was her. The picture was taken only a couple weeks before she died.

Joel rubbed his eyes. Had he really seen her ghost out there tonight? That’s what it seemed like, but that couldn’t be, could it? He stared at the picture. He hardly recognized himself, but AJ, she looked mostly the same. More vibrant and alive in the picture, of course. Not made of glowing blue smoke or whatever that was that he had seen, but it didn’t matter. He knew he had seen her.

He shook his head and hit the keystrokes to turn off the computer. Then he turned to the other computer and shut it down too.

Maybe he had seen her ghost. Maybe she came back because he moved into the house. He didn’t know and it didn’t matter, tomorrow he’d work on tearing down the treehouse. It should have happened a long time ago.

Joel turned out the light switch as he left the room. He hesitated and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. Gradually he could make out the moonlit field and the dark shape of the tree in the distance. Nothing else.

He went to bed.

💀

The sun was almost straight overhead before Joel put aside the latest flattened cardboard box and admitted to himself that he was avoiding go out in the back yard. Even on this bright sunny, but cold, day, he didn’t want to face the treehouse again. But if he put off tearing it down would AJ come back again tonight?

He didn’t want that. He couldn’t face it again. Joel went over to the garage wall were he had been hanging his tools. He took down the long crowbar and headed out the back door into the yard.

The treehouse looked less frightening beneath a clear, sunny sky. The frogs were quiet. A few crows clung to the branches above the treehouse. Joel started across the lawn and the crows took off, flying out across the field toward the woods that ran along the back fence. Joel knew this whole area, which had managed to remain mostly unchanged despite the years. Part of that was the creek that snaked along the west side of the property, causing most of the property to fall under wetland buffer laws. It had kept this area from being developed the way the neighborhoods had taken over the other side of the street where he had lived as a kid. Not that he and AJ ever spent much time at his house. Why would they, when he only had a small yard and AJ had acres to explore? Plus the woods, which seemed to stretch on forever.

His first day back in town he had driven by the houses just to see what the places looked like and he had seen the for sale sign in front of AJ’s old house. It felt like fate when he called the realtor. Now he clutched the crowbar and looked at the treehouse and wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe he should have stuck to places across town, it would have been closer to work, instead of acting on impulse and buying this place. But the price had been good and most of his memories were positive. All except the end.

Joel tromped through the last of the grass in front of the trees and came right up under the treehouse. The trapdoor was closed. He lowered the crowbar and then leaned it up against the trunk. Before he could question what he was doing he grabbed the boards that made up the ladder and hoisted himself up onto the trunk. It didn’t go up all that high but just being off the ground made him feel slightly dizzy. He looked up at the trapdoor and climbed up, carefully testing each board for any weakness before he trusted his weight to it. He wasn’t a skinny kid anymore.

At the top he reached up for the trapdoor and felt sticky spider webs on his fingers. He jerked back and looked closer. Webbing stretched across the trapdoor and old webs dangled, moving slightly in the faint breeze. A fat spider crouched in one corner, watching the web. Tiny mummified corpses hung from other strands.

Joel swallowed. Clearly no one had been inside the treehouse in a while. But then a ghost wouldn’t need to disturb the webs, would she? He grimaced and reached through the webs to the latch on the door. It had rusted and didn’t move easily but he pried at it until it popped loose and hung free. Then he pushed up, half expecting the latch inside to be fastened as well but the trapdoor lifted, hinges squealing and webs breaking. The spider scurried for safety across the bottom of the treehouse.

With a thud the trapdoor dropped back into the treehouse, shaking loose dirt and debris that rained down on Joel. The smell of dust and mildew filled his nose and he sneezed. He shook his head, wiped his face on his sleeve and peered up at the opening. He could almost hear AJ’s voice telling him to come on up, but there wasn’t really anything except one of the crows calling in the distance. His back ached from clinging to the boards. Up or down, he had to decide.

Joel sighed and climbed up the next couple steps. He put his hands on the floor on either side of the opening, wet slick leaves slipped beneath his fingers. He stood up and was in the treehouse at chest height. It didn’t look like anyone had been in the treehouse in a long time. The leaves piled in drifts in the corners and were matted down against the boards. Small plants had sprung up from the litter, including a small tree growing near the center of the treehouse. There was a gap in the moss-covered roof above. Spider webs hung thick across the underside of the roof, and stretched across the open windows. Up close the treehouse didn’t look all that safe. The boards could easily have rotted so much that they wouldn’t hold his weight.

But his plan had been to climb up inside and start by dismantling the roof first, and work his way down the walls, removing the floor and the ladder last. If he couldn’t stand inside then he was going to have to rethink his plans and get a tall ladder or something so that he could work from the outside. He reached out and pounded on the floor with his fist. Leaves squished beneath his hand but the floor felt solid and strong.

Joel braced his hands on both sides of the trapdoor and boosted himself up. Already into the movement he felt a sharp pain on the right side of his chest and in his right shoulder. He almost collapsed and dropped through the hole, but managed to sort of topple over onto his left side into the treehouse. The floor didn’t crumble beneath him. It felt strong and solid. Joel groaned and sat up, scooting back so that only his legs dangled through the open trapdoor. The boards seem secure enough, but his shoulder burned with pain. He must have pulled a muscle. He cradled his right arm in his lap and shook his head.

So stupid! He was supposed to start work on Monday and now he had hurt his arm. He had to go into work, he couldn’t afford to jeopardize this job. If he minimized writing on the chalkboard he might make it through okay.

Despite the debris and signs of age the treehouse looked very much like he remembered. With the trapdoor closed there had just been enough room for him and AJ to roll out their sleeping bags.

“I wish the ceiling opened up,” AJ said. “Then we could see the stars.”

Joel didn’t move, he didn’t turn to look at her. He cradled his arm and looked down between his feet. From here it looked like a lot farther down, but not too high, just high enough. One slip, and AJ had fallen, her arms spreading out like wings. Then she was on the ground, lying flat on her back looking up at the treehouse. Joel had expected her to move, to roll over, cry, groan or laugh. He kept waiting for her to do something but she didn’t do anything. A freak accident, his parents called it later. If she had fallen an inch or two to the right the fall might have knocked the wind out of her, but there was the branch and she just didn’t move.

“Don’t you wish we could see the stars?”

Then he turned his head enough to see her sitting on the opposite side of the treehouse with her legs drawn up against her chest, her arms wrapped easily around her knees. She was hard to see, the blue light she was made of was washed out by the daylight coming through the windows. She was like a faint blue flame on the verge of being blown out, but he could still recognize her.

“It’s daytime,” Joel said. “We can’t see the stars at all.”

“Oh.” AJ cocked her head at him and squinted. “You don’t look the same.”

Joel nodded, surprised at how calmly he was taking her presence. “Right back at you, kid.”

She laughed, her voice faint and high.

“What are you doing here, AJ?”

“Waiting for you, like always. You’re so slow.”

A shiver ran up his arms and Joel winced.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“It’ll be okay. I’ll ice it at home.”

“I think we should go see the stars now, why wait?”

“It’s daytime.”

“But the stars are always there.” AJ sprang to her feet and held out a faint hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

Joel reached out with his own hand, also blue and faint in the sunlight. He turned his arm, marveling at the way he could see right through to the sapling growing at the heart of the treehouse.

AJ took his hand and, despite the fact that both of their hands looked insubstantial, he felt her warm grip in his. Not only that but his hand matched hers in size. He stood and looked down, realizing that he had changed. His body was his as he remembered the last time he was with AJ, a young boy playing in the summertime.

Far down below he lay on his back beneath the treehouse, looking up with wide open eyes. Joel couldn’t see the crowbar but he knew it was there too, beneath him. A freak accident, people would say. He must have been climbing up to tear down the old treehouse and fell, landing on the crowbar.

Joel looked into AJ’s clear blue eyes that he had missed for so long. “Let’s go look at the stars.”

And they did.

💀

3,708 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 70th weekly short story release, written in March 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 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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Placer Crime.

Witness to Dust

The Dust came and Death followed. An alien pandemic unleashed on the world, transforming people into Dusters.

They called themselves Witnesses. Witness to what?

Delancie Haines didn’t know. She read the news, saw the reports about the new minority, hated and feared by everyone. Stories of loved ones transformed, turning on their own families.

She didn’t understand. Not until Death chased her down the trail.

🚀

Delancie Haines didn’t have breath to curse but she sure as Hell swore silently with each step as she ran from Death down the old railroad trail.

Nowhere else to go. On either side the ground dropped off into deep ditches clogged with brushes beneath the drooping bows of the Douglas fir and cedar trees. If she tried leaving the trail the creature would be on her in a minute.

So she kept running. No fun left in running now. Her arm pulsed with pain and the blood ran down before flying off her elbow. Her breath sounded ragged to her own ears. And behind her, she heard the sound of the creature’s claws scrapping on the pavement with each stride. Death’s breath came hot and heavy, thick with excitement.

But he’d have to work to catch her. She wouldn’t make it easy.

Despite the pain, she found she didn’t feel scared. Pissed, yes. It galled her that she’d be fodder not only for the beast but the newspapers. The forest on either side looked beautiful, rich and green, glistening from the constant drizzle that rained down from the cloudy sky. It pained her that she’d never see it again.

Ahead, at the bottom of the slope, she saw the bridge over the Deschutes. The wood planks ran across of the old railroad bridge. Chain-link fences lined either side. During good weather people swam in the pool beneath. But today there’d be no one.

Except for the house overlooking the river.

Delancie stumbled. No way she’d make it that far. It sounded like the creature was right behind her now. She half expected to feel his claws at her back but she regained her stride and pumped onward. He had to be so close. She could smell him again. A rich organic scent like a freshly turned compost pile. She’d smelled it before he came out of the bush but she hadn’t recognized it until she saw him.

If she hadn’t been running already this chase wouldn’t have happened at all. He misjudged and she got away with only the cuts his claws left in her shoulder.

Across the bridge. If she could make it that far, get help from the people in the house. It was a chance.

She concentrated on moving her legs. Her breath rushed in and out. She pumped her arms in time. Death’s breath panted relentlessly behind her. She didn’t dare look back.

The bridge was right there. Delancie imagined her feet hitting the wood. The hollow sound it made with each stride. It hadn’t been that long ago that she’d run across it coming the other way. She could almost see herself running blissfully in ignorance towards her death.

A low snarl behind her and something snagged her shirt. Fabric ripped. A chill ran through her limbs and she pushed as hard as she could. Running with everything she had until she felt like she was going to puke. Fine, puke, but she wouldn’t stop. Not for that. Not for anything.

She wanted to see the Sun shine again. She wanted to admire Mt. Rainier towering like an impossible snow-capped colossus over the landscape. She wanted a hot double-cheese pepperoni pizza straight out of the oven. Or a night watching movies with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. Hell, even another day at work, never mind what anyone might think.

The bridge was only a half-dozen strides away now. Delancie ran for it.

Claws raked fiery pain down her back, the fabric of her shirt shredding like tissue paper. The force of the blow nearly drove her to her knees. She cried out. She screamed with as much rage as pain. No fucking way! Not like this!

Delancie slammed her elbow back. She connected with something that felt like a wood post but the beast fell away and she was still on her feet. She ran ahead onto the bridge. The chain link rose up on either side taller than her head.

Trapped.

She heard the beast’s claws on the wood. She felt sick and weak. She hated it and knew, she knew, she couldn’t make it to the end of the bridge.

Desperately she jumped at the chain link. She caught the wire and climbed despite the pain. The beast growled. She heard it coming.

She kicked out at the sound with everything she had. Her foot hit the beast solidly. She climbed. Grabbed the top of the fence.

Sharp spikes of pain sank into her calf and a terrible weight nearly pulled her from the fence. She clung to the fence and screamed.

“No, fucker! No fucking way!” She slammed her free leg down on the beast. Pain flared up in her leg and her stomach heaved.

Vomit exploded from her lips. She tasted her salad with Italian dressing again. She felt dizzy. She kicked down again as hard as she could. Again.

The weight vanished. Her arms felt like lead but she pulled up. Her breasts scraped against the top but she bent over..

…vision swam…

…water dark and rippling below…

A growl and scrambling on the wood.

Delancie swung her legs over the top of the fence. Her fingers still hung onto the wire. The beast hit the fence and shook it.

She blinked and saw it clearly, inches away through the fence.

A man, except not. A bare muscled chest and arms like two small tree trunks. Nice. Thick neck leading to a face not too human. A short muzzle with dozens of small, sharp teeth. Eyes an impossible blue like a high mountain glacier lake. Shimmering blues-black layers of chitin surrounded the eyes, covered his cheek bones and spread back over his head like a helmet. Despite the alienness she thought it was a nice masculine face.

“Fuck you,” she said sweetly.

She let go. Falling felt like rest. She closed her eyes. It ended too soon. She hit the water and it knocked the wind out of her.

She went under. Oh Hell.

🚀

Delancie grabbed the bed rails and pushed herself up. Pain ripped along her back and shoulder. She cried out.

“Whoa, you didn’t try to get up, did you?”

The speaker was a fortyish black nurse giving her a look that forbid any disagreement. The room had plain walls with a television on a mount above the bed. Metal rails on the sides of the bed. A hospital then. She should have known from the medicinal smell alone. Delancie eased back down, that hurt, rolled onto her good side and breathed a little easier.

She attempted a smile. “Better?”

“I’d better not find you getting up again,” the nurse said. Delancie saw her name tag read Sarah.

“Okay. Where am I?”

“Saint Peter’s hospital. You’re lucky to be alive after a Witness attack.”

A Witness. Delancie closed her eyes for a second. When she opened them again Sarah wasn’t in the room but she found an older man sitting in the chair beside her bed. She must have fallen asleep. So had her visitor. He sat slumped in the chair. He had neatly trimmed white hair, pale skin, and wore slacks with a comfortable-looking brown and white knitted sweater.

His eyes opened. “You’re awake.”

“So are you.”

His lips twitched but he didn’t actually smile. He rose from the chair and placed his hands on the bed rails. No wedding ring but he did have a ring on his right index finger. A surprisingly delicate gold band which held a shiny blue-black stone. No, she thought. Not stone at all. Chitin.

“You’re a Witness.”

“At least you didn’t use the term Duster. I appreciate that.” His voice was calm. He seemed patient.

“Isn’t that considered rude?”

“Yes, but I am also being rude. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m called Wainwright. I’m here to be your sponsor, Delancie.”

“Sponsor?” Delancie shook her head. She felt her gut sinking. She knew what he meant. “I don’t need a sponsor. The guy that put me here needs a sponsor.”

Wainwright nodded. “Yes, indeed. He’s already been identified and is receiving the care he needs. But we’re talking about you. Unless you trust me next time it could be you attacking someone.”

“I’m not going to attack anyone!”

“That’s what we’re going to work on. I’ll be in touch. Here’s my card.” He left the card on top of the service table.

“Wait, shouldn’t you be answering questions?”

Wainwright shook his head. “Not just yet. It’ll all make more sense later on. Get some rest.”

Delancie lay back in the bed, grimacing at the pain. Although, to be honest, it didn’t hurt all that much. Most likely they had her on some good painkillers. She remembered the feel of the Witness’s claws raking down her back, and…

 

A thrum of excitement fills the air as she stands before the crowd. The houses have segregated themselves. Blue Hive clusters closest to the stage. Their chitin gleams like oil beneath the Sun’s light. To her left gather the Green and Red Hives, each keeping an extra space of separation between themselves and the neighboring hives. On her right are the members of Yellow Hive, only slightly fewer than Blue. The wind brings with it the co-mingled scents of so many people. Her mouth-parts vibrate as she draws in the odors. Their excitement pours across her pods like a fiery rush of hot blood. This is why she performs. This moment when she stands at the confluence of these hives beneath a deeply blue sky.

 

Delancie gasped. She clutched the bed sheets. For an instant she’d been somewhere else. Someone else. She still felt the sadness that underlay the excitement of the impending performance.

She lay in the hospital bed and turned the experience over in her mind. The people in that audience hadn’t been human at all. As it unfolded she hadn’t found anything odd in the way they looked because she hadn’t been herself. She’d been… Someone, the performer. She knew the name. It stuck in her mind like seeing an actor she recognized in a movie and not being able to recall the name.

But there wasn’t an Internet Movie Database for this.

Like everyone she’d read about what the Witnesses went through but she’d never realized it was like this.

The door to the room opened. Sarah came in and for a half second Sarah looked like the alien. A strange, soft, oddly colored alien. Her weakness made Delancie’s mouth water. Sarah looked like food.

The sensation passed in an instant and Sarah was only Sarah, her nurse. Even so it left Delancie shaken. She pointed at the service table just out of her reach.

“Can you give me the card, there?”

Sarah smiled. “Of course, hon. Here, let me move this closer.”

She wheeled the table up so it extended across the bed above Delancie’s waist. “Is that better?”

Delancie picked up Wainwright’s card. Just his name, number and email address. Nothing more. Plain type.

“Yes, thank you. Are my things here? My cell phone?”

“I’ll get them for you, they’re right over here.” Sarah opened a small cupboard in the corner of the room.  A LCD monitor hung on a monitor arm off the side of the cupboard. Sarah took out a plastic baggy. “I’m sorry, your clothes were ruined.”

“That’s okay, just the phone.”

🚀

“You’re telling me I’m going to be a werewolf?” Delancie stood in her own tiny half-painted green kitchen, her arms crossed, staring at Wainwright reclining on one of her so-called antique wood dining room chairs. No matter what he sat in he seemed to recline and melt into the furniture. His calm vibe got on her nerves. “Really? Isn’t that the gist of it?”

Wainwright shook his head. “We don’t like being called werewolves any more than Dusters. And with my help you can learn to control the change. You must, or you’ll make someone else the victim.”

“How many people just give up and eat a bullet instead?”

Wainwright grimaced. “Too many. I don’t think you’re one of them.”

He had her there. Delancie turned away from him because if she didn’t she might start shouting. And it wasn’t Wainwright’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, even the poor bastard that lost control.

And she didn’t want to be like that. She’d just put in the new bamboo eco-counter top in her kitchen. She picked up a plain hemp dish towel and wiped away a few crumbs from her morning toast. Wainwright was right. She wouldn’t eat a bullet.

That didn’t mean she needed to accept what he’d told her either.

She shook the crumbs in the sink and turned back around. “There has to be a way to cure this. Something that can be done before it goes any further. Aren’t there treatments?”

“Treatments? No. Not the way you mean.”

“So I don’t have any choice?”

Wainwright stood up. He smiled sadly at her. “You can either accept my advice or take the consequences if you don’t. You choice. You know how to reach me.”

Delancie slammed her hand down on the counter. “You can’t just walk away!”

Wainwright paused and looked back. “Watch that temper.”

Then he left. Delancie swore and leaned on the counter. She needed to run. She always felt better after a run.

🚀

When she hit the trail she turned towards Yelm. Not running away from what happened. She wanted to see different scenery. Six miles to Yelm, another four out along the Yelm Prairie Line trail and then back. Twenty miles. After a run like that she wouldn’t need to worry about changing into a monster. She’d collapse and sleep for ten hours.

She ran toward the Sun and it played hide-and-seek among the trees over the trail. A few clouds decorated the sky. Her breath moved easily in and out of her lungs. She felt good. Her wounds didn’t hurt. She didn’t even have any scar tissue. That freaked her out when she noticed that there was hardly any marks left by her attacker. Wainwright explained it but she hadn’t needed the explanation. She knew right away what it meant. She’d known since her first inherited memory.

She was a Duster. A freak. A werewolf.

Her face burned at the thought. She didn’t think that about other people. She understood that they didn’t have any choice about what they were, any more than anyone else with an illness. She didn’t approve of treating them like lepers. She’d always believed that the condition could be controlled.

But now she felt violated. It wasn’t even the attack. It was what happened. Like carrying a rapist’s baby. The thought of alien bio-tech coursing through her veins, remapping her DNA and changing her into something else made her angry. How dare they send that out into the universe, knowing that if it worked it would profoundly alter whatever life forms it came into contact with?

Much more practical than trying to send out starships to colonize other worlds. Just send out dust spread by the solar winds to rain down on other worlds and remap them to match your own physiology and embed memories so that the culture carried over as well. Better than any message. No need to decode it because the transformed organisms would simply understand the memories as if they’d lived them.

Delancie breathed deep. Her muscles flowed smoothly. She noticed a cross street ahead and checked for traffic on either side. Then she saw the name of the street. Bighorn. She’d reached the outskirts of Yelm already.

She checked her watch. 24:30:23. Impossible. She couldn’t run a four-minute mile. She considered stopping but she felt great. Fantastic. She crossed the street and kept going.

She ran past a housing development, the Nisqually Valley Golf course and then on into Yelm itself. She reached 510, darted in front of a large SUV and was across, ran past the metal wagon wheel onto the Yelm Prairie Lane trail. She kept running. She hadn’t even been trying before. She pushed harder. She felt her muscles work smoothly. Her left knee didn’t bother her. The wind blew past her face.

It didn’t take long for her to reach the end of the trail. She checked the time. 39:02:03. Delancie stopped. She put her hands on her hips and waited to be sick. She felt fine. Her heart dropped back to a normal rate. She didn’t even feel sweaty.

Impossible.

She turned around. Could she beat the time back? She grinned and took off running. She pushed. She sprinted. She didn’t hold back at all. She flew down the trail.

Pain!

It felt like a baseball bat connected to her skull and tried to drive her head out of the park. She dropped and her momentum rolled her across the trail. She ended up on the grass curled into a fetal position. She clutched her head as if she could hold it together.

She screamed. She lost all control then and seized. Her body thrashed in the grass. Her fingers burned. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t even scream anymore. She rode the convulsions until she thought she’d die and they kept going.

Delancie eventually realized that the convulsions had stopped. Warily she tried moving. Everything hurt. She reached up and froze.

Her fingernails hung by strips of skin. In their place were dark blue-black claws. Lighter blue chitin covered the backs of her fingers to her mid-knuckle.

“Fuck no.” She sat up and carefully reached into her pocket. The claws made it awkward but she got her cell phone out. She pushed the voice command button. “Call Wainwright.”

He met her on the trail with a baseball cap, sunglasses and gloves. Delancie snatched them out of his hand.

“Thanks.”

“Take a breath,” Wainwright said.

Delancie glared at him. He looked so soft and he had the gall to stand there and tell her what she should be doing.

“Think,” Wainwright said. “Think about what you’re feeling. Why are you so angry?”

“Because…” She couldn’t say why but it felt like everything must be his fault. She growled deep in her throat.

Wainwright held up a mirror in front of her face. He might as well have thrown a large bucket of ice water in her face. She shivered.

She’d always known that she was pretty. Twenty-four years old, with fair skin and a complexion her girlfriends always admired. She felt guilty because she didn’t have any extensive regime to maintain her skin. Even with all the running and weather her skin usually glowed with health. No one would be signing her up to win a beauty pageant but that’s only because she didn’t fit the standard mold. With her green eyes and little nose she looked good. Unconventional, but pretty.

She didn’t recognize the face in the mirror. It looked like her jaw bones had been pulled apart, widened. Rays of chitin extended from her now-missing eyebrows back over her head. And her green eyes had gone over to a deep sky blue. It was a striking face still, but broader and more powerful than her own. An alien face.

Wainwright lowered the mirror and held out the glasses. Delancie took them, slipped them on and then did the same with the hat. Before she could put on the gloves she had to brush away her fingernails. It seemed like it should hurt but it didn’t. She pulled on the gloves. She shoved her hands into her pockets as they left the trail to walk over to where Wainwright had parked on the street.

At home Delancie stripped off the hat, gloves and sunglasses and went straight to the mirror near the door. Wainwright came in and shut the door while she studied her modified appearance.

She looked at him. “How long does this last before I go back to looking like normal?”

Wainwright shrugged. “I couldn’t say. It varies. Some never switch back.”

“Have you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Did you attack anyone?”

“I killed my wife,” Wainwright said. He didn’t look away. He didn’t whisper. “I got mad. I got mad a lot in those days. It didn’t take much. Someone driving too slow on the freeway. Anyone working in customer service. I wasn’t mad at her. As usual she just got to hear about how my stupid boss pissed me off.  Then I went into convulsions. She tried to help. She called 9-1-1 but before they got there I’d already changed and killed her. I injured two of the EMTs before I ran out. I was stalking a young girl walking home from school when the police shot me.”

Delancie’s knees felt weak. She went to her couch and sat down. She grabbed one of the pillows, saw her claws pricking the natural cotton cloth and tossed it away. She hugged herself instead.

Wainwright walked over to the chair-and-a-half and dropped down. He swung a leg over the arm and watched her.

She felt like crying. She felt like tears should be pouring out of her eyes but nothing came. Her eyes stayed dry. She couldn’t cry. She looked at him and couldn’t bear it. She looked away.

“What happened after that?”

“I healed. While I was in the hospital I changed back. A Witness came to me and helped me. That was still in the early days.”

“You didn’t know you’d been exposed?”

“No. It was the Dust back then. I didn’t know until the change. It’d been in the news. You remember how it was.”

Delancie nodded. She remembered the fear bordering on panic. The alien pandemic that turned people into monsters. No wonder people had been terrified. But the world went on and there was a new minority for people to hate. If anything the hate burned brighter because this was a contagious condition. She closed her eyes.

In the darkness she listened to her house. The refrigerator made noises, the ice maker. Wainwright’s breath sounded soft and steady. She focused on that. Matched his breathing. In and out.

She felt an odd sensation. Like her fingers had become straws in an extra thick milkshake and they were trying to suck up the ice cream. She kept breathing. The pressure built and then popped. She felt a pressure growing on her head and jaw. It didn’t so much hurt as it felt like a chiropractor making a difficult adjustment. Then everything felt better.

Delancie opened her eyes. Wainwright gave her a small smile and held out his mirror. She reached out and stopped. Her claws were gone but her nails were still missing. The tissue looked pink and fresh. Tears sprang up in her eyes. She took the mirror and looked at herself. She had her face back. Except her eyebrows. Tears ran down her cheeks. She set the mirror down and wiped the tears away.

She took a deep breath and looked at Wainwright. “Okay. I get it. What do I need to do? This changes everything, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, more than anyone unmodified realizes.”

🚀

That night Delancie went out in her backyard and stood beneath the bright full Moon. She didn’t change into a monster. It didn’t have any sway over her. The stars burned bright above, the Milky Way a cloud of stars across the sky. The air felt cool on her skin. She rubbed her arms. She didn’t know what the future held. But whatever happened from this point on she knew she’d handle it. She wouldn’t let this beat her and make her into a monster. And maybe someday she’d actually understand why someone up around one of those stars had done this.

Because right now she didn’t have a fucking clue.

Delancie gave the stars one final look and went back inside. Time for a movie and Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk. She’d earned it today. Hell, she hadn’t killed anyone.

🚀

2,007 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 69th weekly short story release, written in November 2009. 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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.

Better the Boy

New pups mean trouble. Bones found himself pushed aside when the Masters brought home their new pup. The Boy. Unable to walk or do much. It didn’t last.

Now the Boy takes Bones’ place in the Masters’ bed. He walks. Grabs. Pinches. Bones watches the Boy carefully.

Whatever else the Boy might be, he is part of the family, a small Master — and Bones protects the Masters.

🚀

Bones heaved a sigh and dropped down on the blankets beside the bed. He put his muzzle down on his paws and sighed again. The stump of his tail twitched slowly and ebbed. The Masters had said, No! Go lie down! But he wanted up on the bed with them, beneath the heavy blankets, out of the cold. Instead the Boy was sleeping between the Masters. Bones’ ears pricked up to the sound of the Man rolling onto his side. Bones groaned over his stiff legs as he stood up and shook. Sometimes when the Man was on his side he allowed Bones up on the bed beside his legs. Bones shoved his nose beneath the edge of the blankets. It smelled of the Masters’ sweat and beneath that the milky smell of the Boy.

A hand pushed his head back. “No! Go lie down!”

Bones drew his head back. He licked his lips and walked out of the room into the dark hallway. A plastic gate stretched across the hallway at the end by the stairs, blocking his way downstairs, so he couldn’t get on the couch. Bones turned the other way and walked down to the bathroom. He inhaled and smelled dust and a faint rich fishy smell. Two eyes looked at him from atop the toilet and a low growl filled the air. The Cat. Bones stopped in the doorway and licked his lips again. He didn’t dare check the box with the Cat crouched on the toilet. Cautiously Bones went into the bathroom, only far enough to reach the metal bowl of water on the floor. He kept his ears alert for any sound from the Cat as he lowered his head. He lapped at cold water.

A blue light flashed through the window. Bones lifted his head and saw the Cat turn and do the same. Bones watched the window. The light came again, a bright flash of blue light. The Cat turned and jumped quietly off the toilet. He hugged the ground as he scurried past Bones and down to the Boy’s room. Bones backed slowly into the hallway, watching the window.

The blue light flashed again. He heard something this time. His ears pricked up and he heard a low humming noise. Not a car noise or a rain noise. Bones whined in his throat. He turned and padded down to Masters’ bedroom and went inside. The light flashed again, around the edges of the curtains blocking the window. Bones went to the edge of the bed and shoved his nose beneath the blankets again, shoving his nose right up against the Man’s bare leg.

“No! Bones, lie down!”

Outside the blue light flashed again.

Bones whined and poked his nose back beneath the blankets. A hand roughly shoved him back.

“No, Bones!”

The humming noise sounded closer and louder. Bones sat down and watched the window carefully. On the bed he heard the Man’s breathing slow and soon he started snoring again. The Boy made a sniffling noise and sat up in the bed. Bones could see him sitting between the Masters, facing the window.

The blue light flashed again and the Boy giggled, his voice high and painful to hear. Bones whined. The Boy’s head turned quickly and his tiny eyes looked right at Bones.

Bones stopped whining. He didn’t dare move. He waited for the Man to shove the Boy and tell him to lie down but the Man didn’t move. The Woman was snoring too. The blue light flashed again, and the Boy giggled more. This time he moved, crawling down the bed between the Masters. Bones stood up and considered his escape options. When the Masters first brought their new pup home the Boy couldn’t do much of anything. But now he had mastered running around on two legs and grabbing things with his hands, including pinching ears.

The Boy reached the edge of the bed and swung his legs down to the floor. He ran around the bed right at Bones as the light flashed again. Bones turned and ran out into the hallway. He stopped and looked back as the Boy came into the hallway. The Boy went straight to the gate and reached for the latch. Bones tensed. Surely the Boy couldn’t —

The latch popped free. With a grunt the Boy shoved the gate and it swung open above the stairs. Bones took a couple hesitant steps closer. He looked into the bedroom but the Masters didn’t wake. The Boy didn’t hesitate. He went to the top of the stairs and looked down, wobbling a bit. Bones worried that the Boy might fall, he did that often. But the Boy sat down and scooted forward until he dropped down to the next step. He giggled again.

Outside the blue light flashed again and still the noise continued. It wasn’t loud but Bones felt it through his feet all the same. The Boy kept moving, one step at a time, until Bones had to go to the top of the stairs to keep him in sight. Bones looked back at the bedroom, whining but the Masters didn’t wake up.

Bones barked.

“Bones be quiet!” the Man shouted. “Bad dog!”

Bones cringed. His tail stub tucked up tight against his body. Meanwhile the Boy had made it all the way down the stairs and was running away. Bones whined. If anything happened to the Boy, the Man and the Woman might blame him. Bones hurried down the stairs after the Boy.

Downstairs the blue light flashed even brighter through the kitchen windows. The Boy clapped his hands together and laughed. He turned and looked at Bones.

“Bone!” The Boy said happily.

Bones watched him warily. There was no telling with the Boy what he would do.

Then the Boy turned away from Bones and ran out of the kitchen into the dining area. Bones followed. If the Boy wanted food off the floor there wasn’t any. Bones had checked before they all went upstairs. But the Boy didn’t look for food. He went over to the door and pushed the flap on the dog door. Bones whimpered. The Masters had told the Boy not to touch the dog door but the Boy didn’t stop. He got down on his hands and knees, and then crawled through the dog door! The blue light flashed as the door flapped back and forth.

Bones ran over to the door, his nails clicking on the wood floor. He got to the dog door and pushed his head through. The Boy was standing up again on the porch. Moonlight lit the smooth grass, flower beds and the raised garden beds where Bones wasn’t allowed to dig. And past all of that, where the hill rose up to the fruit trees a dark shape hung in the sky right above the trees. Bones smelled something on the wind, a spicy sort of smell that made his nose itch.

The blue light flashed and lit the whole orchard and yard for a moment. Long enough for Bones to see small shapes moving around the orchard. More little masters! He whined even as the Boy clapped his hands and walked to the edge of the porch.

The Boy pointed. “Light! Boon!”

Bones pushed through the flap and stepped out onto the porch. He shivered. They shouldn’t be outside at night. He was being a bad dog, but he couldn’t let the Boy go by himself. He barked softly at the Boy.

The Boy looked at him. “Bone!”

Then the Boy sat down on the top porch step and scooted off. It only took a moment for him to reach the bottom step and then he got up and ran off across the lawn. Bones followed, keeping up easily, but he felt sick inside. Halfway across the lawn the blue light flashed again and Bones saw new little masters gathering together ahead of them, just beneath the fruit trees. The Boy fell forward when he stepped off the lawn but he picked himself back up and kept going. Bones stayed beside him.

The blue light flashed on again and stayed on this time. The Boy stopped and the new little masters were just ahead. Bones whined deep in his chest. The new little masters were taller than the Boy. They had bigger heads that lacked fur. Large black eyes shaped like the Cat’s eyes looked at the Boy and at Bones. One of the new little masters made noises like a bird and held out a hand with four long fingers to the Boy.

Bones jumped forward, barred his teeth and growled. His fur stood up and then he sneezed. He growled more and barked. The new little masters shrank back. Bones took a step forward, still growling and showing them his teeth. He barked again and again. The Boy started crying and Bones felt sick inside. He didn’t know what to do, but these new little masters were too much. They had to go! He charged forward, barking.

That did it! The new little masters turned and ran away up the hill. The blue light flashed brighter from the thing humming and hovering above. Two of the new little masters vanished with the light.

Bones heard the door back at the house bang open.

The Man shouted. “Liam!”

The Woman shouted something too.

Bones kept up his barking at the fleeing little masters. The light flashed quickly and each time two more vanished. Bones heard the Man reach the Boy as the last of the new little masters vanished. The humming increased and the object in the sky flew away faster than a crow, going straight up until it disappeared from view. He heard the Woman reach the Man and the Boy

“Bones!” the Man cried.

Bones cringed. But then the masters and the Boy were all around him, petting him and praising him. “Good dog!”

Bones’ tail stump waggled as fast as it could move. Bones licked hands and faces that pressed close. He wanted it to go on forever but eventually they drew back again and headed back to the house. Bones followed, running around them all the way. When they got back inside his people got out food, poured milk and sat around the table talking in excited voices. The Man gave Bones a big milk bone. He flopped happily beneath the table and chewed on the unexpected treat.

Eventually the milk bone was gone and his people sounded tired. The Man yawned and then they all got up, the Boy already asleep in the Woman’s arms. They all went upstairs to the bedroom and the Man latched the gate again. Bones wearily walked over to the blankets piled on the floor but the Man lifted the covers on the bed.

“Come on, Bones.”

Bones didn’t need to be asked again. He crawled up on the bed against the Man’s legs and closed his eyes.

🚀

1,873 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 68th weekly short story release, written in November 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 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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Better the Boy.