The Deschutes Sasquatch

C. Auguste Dupin didn’t like the idea of spending the day tramping around the woods instead of sleeping in the sun.

Except his human, Poeville librarian Penny Copper, wanted a picnic by the falls with her boyfriend, detective David Clemm. If Dupin wanted sardine crackers, chicken, he needed to go with them.

Not the best way to get lunch. Especially when sasquatch might lurk in the woods.

🔍

In all his years in Poeville, C. Auguste Dupin preferred the warm sunny places to sleep, like the hill beneath the Reed Moore Library, to the dark woods that climbed the hills around the town.

He yowled his protest again to this excursion, which so far amounted to walking up mossy-smelling trails beneath trees that dripped cold water on his fur. What happened to the picnic? What happened to the treats?

Ahead, his human, librarian Penny Copper, touched the arm of detective David Clemm.

“A second, David. Dupin doesn’t sound happy.”

At last, someone was paying attention! Dupin stopped and sat down, taking advantage of the moment to chew away some of the sweet sap that stuck pine needles to his paws.

“I told you he wouldn’t like it,” David said.

For once Dupin agreed with the human. As humans went, David wasn’t entirely disagreeable, and Penny liked him. He did have the unfortunate mannerisms of a raven, looking quickly around him, his long black coat floating around him as he moved. Despite that, he had a rational mind and listened to Penny.

She came closer, crouching on the trail. Her new boots smelled of leather oil and rubber. Not at all like the sleek shoes she usually wore. Today she wore blue jeans over her long legs and a fuzzy flannel shirt, with the sleeves rolled partway up. Again, not at all the sort of thing she usually wore, although somewhat appropriate for day hikes.

Her long fingers scratched through Dupin’s fur around his neck. The purr, entirely unbidden, welled up from his chest.

Dupin pressed against her fingers and reached a paw up to her messenger bag, where she’d hidden away the treats.

She laughed, like a clear mountain stream. “You devil! You just want a snack!”

Of course! As if he was going to climb through the woods without proper nourishment!

She held up a finger. “One now. You can have more when we stop for lunch.”

One? Hardly —

Penny pulled the plastic sandwich bag from the messenger bag she wore over her shoulder. A rich oily scent escaped. Sardine crackers, a gift from Penny’s Auntie Dido. Quite possibly one of the best foods on Earth, and Dupin regularly frequented the restaurants and cafes along Poeville’s main avenue.

She took one of the golden triangles from the bag and held it up, between thumb and forefinger. Thumbs, the key to the advantages humans held.

Dupin meowed. He pawed the air in front of her hand, claws carefully retracted.

“Here you go, then, since you asked nicely.”

Penny put the cracker down in the dirt and pine needles.

Dupin blinked. Was she seriously expecting him to eat from…

It smelled so delicious. Oily fish, mingling with the garlic, and other seasonings. His mouth opened, inhaling, drawing the delicious scent up along the top of his mouth. He crouched, taking in more.

“Is he going to take all day?” David asked.

“He likes to savor them,” Penny said. Her hand ran down the fur on his back.

Dupin ignored it. He closed his eyes. Dirt or not, pine needles or not, he wasn’t leaving the cracker there for the ants and other crawling things.

He bit into it, the light cracker crunching delightfully between his teeth. Perfection. Exquisite. The flavor intensified the odors released, and yet two bites later, the cracker was gone.

A pine needle stuck in his mouth. He pawed it from his face. Then he rose, butting his head against Penny’s knee. He meowed.

“No more, not right now,” she said.

The plastic bag disappeared back into Penny’s messenger bag and she stood. She tapped her thigh. “Come on, Dupin.”

She walked on up the trail to where David waited. Dupin rose and trotted after.

“Don’t you worry that he’ll run off?” David asked.

“No.” Penny laughed. “Dupin won’t leave me.”

He might if there wasn’t the promise of more crackers and more food. The scent of chicken escaped from the basket David carried.

“It isn’t much farther, in any case,” David said. “Another quarter mile or so to the falls.”

A quarter mile? Dupin growled softly and padded after the humans. Maybe he should have stayed home back in town. At least there he could have picked up treats from the cafes, followed by a nap on the benches near the library.

The trail continued, seeming without end, twisting and climbing through the forest. Tall cedars and Douglas firs rose above them, some of immense girth. Ferns clogged the spaces between, spores tickling Dupin’s nose. Passing a clump of blackberry vines, he heard rustling beneath the thorny vines hanging thick with dark berries and paused.

Penny stopped, plucking a thick berry from the bush. She popped it in her mouth. “Oh, these are good. We should pick some for lunch.”

David came back with the basket. He opened the lid and brought out a shiny blue enamelware mug. “Here, we can use these.”

While the humans picked berries and chatted, Dupin turned his attention to necessary cleaning. All sorts of things were sticking in his fur. Dirt, dust and pine needles stuck to him along with stray seeds.

Whatever had rustled beneath the vines was gone. Not that he was of a mind to chase it anyway.

A voice called out, from up the trail. “Help!”

David rose quickly, setting down the mug he had half-filled with berries. “Did you hear that?”

Penny sat down her berries too, dark purple juice staining her lips. “Yes.”

“Help! Help me!”

David turned to Penny. “Stay here.”

Good idea. Dupin crouched, watching the trail, ready to bolt if it became necessary.

Before David had gone more than a few steps up the trail a man came running around the turn up ahead. He was pale, thin and shorter than David, wearing a blue hoody, jeans, and sneakers. His eyes were wide, white with dark pupils. He sort of looked like a panic-stricken dog.

Dupin crouched lower, a growl crawling from his throat.

David held out a hand. “Hey! What’s wrong?”

“God!” Sobbed the man, skidding to a stop. He half turned and pointed up the trail. “You have to help me! It took her!”

Then Penny was moving forward. For a human, she was ordinarily pretty smart, but Dupin didn’t think this was a good idea. Not at all.

The man gestured frantically back up the trail. “Please! Help us! It took her!”

“I’m a police officer.” David held out his hand, the other still close to the gun he carried. “I’ll help, I need to know what happened?”

“Mary, my fiancé, it took her off into the woods! We have to go!”

Penny reached David’s side. “What took Mary?”

“It’s a, a, what do you call it?” The man pressed his hands to his face and groaned. “A sasquatch! That’s it, you know, Bigfoot? It took her!”

Dupin blinked. He’d grown up in the library, following Penny to work every day. He’d spent plenty of time looking at the books as humans read them, sitting on the tables, and backs of the chairs.

Sasquatch, 001.944 by the Dewey decimal system. Although there were plenty of humans that didn’t agree with that classification, Dupin had never any reason to think there was any reality to the stories.

He licked at his paws, dealing with the absolutely impossible task of keeping them clean. What this really meant was that no one was going to be focusing on feeding him. Not until he helped them figure out what had happened.

Dupin rose and trotted forward, catching up to Penny. She was right about that, at least. He wasn’t going to leave her.

“A sasquatch?” David exchanged a look with Penny.

“I know,” the man groaned. He dropped his hands. “You think I’m crazy. I get it. We still have to save her!”

“What’s your name?” Penny asked.

“Albert, Al. Payne.” The man took a step back. “We can’t just stand here!”

“Okay, okay.” David pulled his phone from his pocket. His face darkened in a scowl. “I don’t have a signal. Penny?”

She was already checking her phone. “No, I don’t.”

Dupin breathed in deep. The man’s sneakers were muddy, even though the path was dry. They smelled of marsh muck and algae. He’d been somewhere wet, the Deschutes river wasn’t far through the woods. The sound of it carried through the woods.

“Penny, head back to the car and see if you get a signal there. If not, drive out until you do. Call the station, get us some more help up here. I’ll go with Al and look for Mary.”

Penny shook her head. “Let’s go see where it happened first, otherwise no one will know where to look.”

“Yes,” Al said. “Come on. I’ll show you!”

He spun and started back up the trail at a run. David scowled, but ran after him.

Penny looked down. “Dupin, stay.”

Then she was running too.

Stay? Alone in the woods, where a sasquatch had reportedly attacked a human?

Dupin chased after them.

🔍

The spot wasn’t far ahead, up around a bend, and then down into a wetter area where a tiny trickle of a stream ran through the cut down to the river.

“Mary! Mary!” Al yelled into the woods, cupping his hands around his mouth.

Dupin slowed. David and Penny spread out around Al, looking at the scene. Ferns had been trampled. Mud was oozing into footprints along the stream.

Al dropped his hands. He pointed at the mud. “See! You can see the tracks!”

Dupin followed David and Penny to the edge of the path, where the stream passed through a culvert and then entered a marshy area overgrown with plants. The tracks in the mud were filling slowly with muddy water. The smell was the same as Al’s shoes, full of decay and algae.

Near the path were several smaller tracks, parallel and then joining a larger set of tracks. Much larger, easily twice as large.

Penny had her phone out. Taking pictures. David rose and grabbed Al’s arm. The smaller man jerked away.

“We have to find her!”

“What happened, Al?” David asked, his voice calm. “The more information we have, the better equipped we’ll be to find her.”

“God, I can’t believe this is happening!” Al pressed his hands over his mouth for a second, then dropped them, taking a deep breath. “Fine. We were walking. Just a day hike, you know? Mary said it’d be fun. And it was okay until that thing came out of there!”

Al pointed at the thick bushes choking the wet area off the trail.

“A sasquatch?” Penny asked.

“There was a god-awful stink. I thought there was a skunk around or something and was telling Mary we should go back when it charged out of the bushes. It was huge and hairy, taller than you.” Al looked at David. “It grabbed her and took off back that way. I tried to follow, but the mud, it sucked at my feet. I almost lost my shoes getting back to the trail.”

Dupin crouched at the edge of the path. There was a stink, clinging to the bushes near the edge of the path. He sneezed. It could be a skunk, he’d encountered them a few times when they came into town, looking for food.

Yet a sasquatch? The woods extended back from here, connecting back to larger wilderness areas all the way to the national forests. Dupin sat back and licked his fur. In between licks, he studied the scene.

Something had crushed the ferns around the path. Spores in the air tickled his nose. Branches had been broken on the bushes, and reeds lay crushed into the muck.

“Okay,” David said. “Penny, go back until you can get a call out. Al and I will stay here, and keep an eye out.”

“We have to look for her!”

David touched Al’s arm. “If we go out there and get lost, then we’ve made things three times harder for the teams. We’ll get people out here. We’ll search for her.”

Al moved to the edge of the trail, cupping his mouth again. “Mary!”

Penny moved closer to David. Dupin paused in his cleaning. Going back made sense.

“Be careful,” Penny said. “I’ll come back as soon as I get through.”

She leaned close and pressed her lips briefly to David’s.

Then Penny turned and headed up the trail, tapping her thigh. “Come on, Dupin.”

Back down the trail again? At least they were heading back in the direction of the picnic basket, and away from the Sasquatch, if it existed at all.

Maybe Penny would remember to feed him when they got to the car.

🔍

The trip back down the trail went surprisingly quick. Dupin’s hair was on end the whole way, watching the woods around them.

Was it possible that a sasquatch was out there? Did it eat cats? Surely, if it took a whole human it wouldn’t want a cat, but what if there were more than one?

Or he was being a skittish kitten about the whole thing? The far more reasonable explanation was that Albert Payne was responsible for the woman’s disappearance, and was telling the sasquatch story to misdirect them all.

If Penny was concerned about the possibility of a sasquatch, she didn’t show it. Her long stride ate up the ground, stopping only to pick up the picnic basket when she reached it. Fortunately, it remained unmolested by whatever lurked in the woods.

As she walked, she kept checking her phone, searching for the elusive signal that would let her call for help.

When the trail head came into view, Dupin raced forward to Penny’s bright red VW Beetle. Penny reached the car a moment later.

She made an exasperated noise, almost like his own growls. “Still no signal!”

She turned back to face the trail.

Dupin reached up, pawing at the car door. He meowed to get her attention.

Penny looked down at him, her pretty face lined with worry. “I don’t want to leave David up there alone, but I don’t see any other choice. We have to get help.”

Exactly. Dupin pawed at the door again.

“Okay. We’ll head back to town until we get a signal. Then I’ll stop and call.”

Gravel crunched beneath Penny’s boots as she walked around to the driver’s side. The car beeped, and she opened the door. Dupin jumped up into the seat.

“Move over, Dupin,” Penny said.

He jumped into the passenger seat, turning in a circle to face her.

She tilted her seat forward and put the picnic basket, and her messenger bag into the back seat. Then she shoved her seat down and got in, slamming the door.

Dupin inhaled deeply. In the closed confines, away from the woods, the smell of fried chicken was even more enticing. He turned and jumped into the back as Penny started the engine.

The messenger bag was shut, but not strapped. He nosed at the flap.

Penny turned around, her arm reaching across to the passenger seat. She glanced down. “Stay out of the food, Dupin.”

Stay out of the food? It was torture! And why let it go to waste? Not for the first time, he wished that he had the ability to converse with humans. It’d be so much easier.

Denied the food, he did the sensible thing, the only thing to do under the circumstances. He turned in the seat, between the basket and the bag, and settled down. He closed his eyes and inhaled the rich, spicy aromas and drifted off.

🔍

The rumble of the tires on the road slowed and stopped. Awareness returned and Dupin opened his eyes thin slits without moving.

The car had stopped. The sky out the window was mostly clear, broken only by a few fluffy clouds. Penny was on the phone, her voice urgent.

“That’s right. I’m heading back there now. No, I won’t wait. Detective Clemm is alone with that man, who is mostly likely the one responsible for her disappearance.”

A low purr rolled through Dupin’s chest. There was a reason he followed Penny. She displayed the best traits of both humans and cats. The story of a sasquatch wasn’t going to sit well with her either.

Her head nodded. “That’s right. Hurry.”

She hung up and twisted around, looking in the back. Dupin opened his eyes wider, so she’d know he was awake. And not getting into the food, even though his stomach felt as if there was a bottomless pit beneath him.

“I got through,” she said. “We’re going to head back. Hopefully, David is fine.”

The detective could take care of himself, even if he did need their help from time to time to solve a case.

Today looked like one of those days. Dupin yawned wide, showing his teeth. Penny wasn’t even looking, she had the Beetle in gear and was turning it around in the street, heading back to the trail.

Dupin closed his eyes. If he was going to tromp around through the forest again, without food, he was going to need to rest.

🔍

This time Dupin didn’t sleep deeply, only dozing, listening to the sound of the car. He recognized the speed bumps as they turned into the drive for the park. The rattle of gravel, as Penny swung into the parking area.

Although he hadn’t moved a muscle, he was poised and ready the instant Penny opened the door. He darted out, slipping behind her seat, and jumped down onto the gravel drive.

“Dupin! I wanted you to wait in the car this time.”

He looked up at her. Really? Why do you think I jumped out so fast?

He walked away a few steps and looked back. Penny sighed, and lifted her seat, ducking inside for a second before she came out with her messenger bag.

She slung that over her shoulder, then popped the hatchback and shut her door. She went around to the back and came out with the blue and white first aid kit she carried. She opened the messenger bag and stuffed the kit inside.

“Okay, then Dupin. You’re going to have to keep up.”

He turned in a circle, then started for the trail. Behind him, Penny chuckled.

“I’ve never known another cat that likes walks as much as you!”

Walks meant more treats. Even if it did mean following a trail into sasquatch-infested woods. Sooner or later, he’d get Penny to give him more of the sardine crackers she carried. Not to mention the chicken back in the car.

The faster they found the missing woman, the faster he’d get fed.

When they reached the spot in the trail by the stream, there was no sign of either David or Al. The muddy prints were hardly anything more than oval mud puddles now.

“David?” Penny cupped her hands to her mouth. “David! Where are you?”

Dupin sniffed at the ground, picking up traces of Al’s mucky shoes and David’s oiled hiking boots. The scent trail went on up the trail, not into the muck.

He meowed and trotted on up the trail.

“Dupin! Don’t you run off too!”

He heard Penny’s fast steps behind him, and before he could dart aside, her hands slipped beneath his belly and hoisted him into the air. He fought the urge to grab on, and instead, let his body go limp and boneless.

“Dupin!” Penny fought to keep her grip, and pulled him up against her chest. She cradled him close, with her arm beneath his body.

“I’m not having you run off too,” she said.

Penny bent at the waist, studying the ground. “I can’t tell if those tracks are old or new…”

She moved back, looking up and down the trail at the tracks. Dupin lay limp in her arms, waiting. The dry dirt and pine needles didn’t show much of an imprint, but Al’s tracks showed bits of mud.

Penny straightened. “Let’s go up the trail a little way. They may have heard something.”

The trail went up, turned left and dropped down again around a flaking outcrop of stone. A cedar grew on top of it, roots twisting and climbing down the rocks like a nest of snakes. The trail ahead continued generally down slope, heading for the river on the other side of the next ridge.

It was empty. A crow cawed from a treetop nearby and took off flying. Penny looked up too, following the bird. Crows were scavengers, maybe it had seen something from up among the tree tops?

Penny bent and put Dupin down on the ground. “Come on. You can walk, just don’t run off.”

Walk? Why had she assumed he wanted to walk? Being carried was just fine.

She didn’t wait. She started off down the trail at a brisk walk. Dupin blinked, then rose and ran after her. He meowed.

Penny looked back, shaking her head. “You could have stayed in the car. We’ve got to find David.”

He caught up and streaked past her, then slowed and meowed again. Penny neatly side-stepped around him and kept going. Dupin flicked his tail.

This was a bad idea. The farther they went from the crime scene, the less likely they were to be found when the police finally showed up.

That didn’t stop her. She kept going, calling out David’s name now and then. Or maybe just letting the Sasquatch know where they were.

The trail dropped down into a valley until it reached a small wood bridge crossing the stream. Then it turned and rose sharply, switch-backing up the slope to a ridge line, and over that before descending again toward the river.

The roar of the river was louder now and the air smelled wetter. Dupin trotted on after Penny.

“David!” Penny paused listening, then called again. “David!”

A crow cawed again from somewhere among the trees. The river rumbled on. No other voices came out of the woods. It was as if the two men had been swallowed up by the forest.

Dupin’s hair rose. Maybe there was a sasquatch, one that wasn’t opposed to attacking humans. Unlikely, maybe, but their absence put him on alert. He slowed down, ears listening for the slightest sound.

Penny started moving fast again, down the trail, each footfall loud as she charged down the hill.

He raced after her. After all, it wasn’t only the sasquatch he had to worry about. What other predators might be in the woods? He’d seen books on bears, whether or not they’d go after a cat wasn’t clear. Coyotes would, but hopefully, Penny’s yelling would drive off most of the predators.

After a couple switchbacks, Dupin saw the river below, jumping in white rapids down over rocks. It was much more vigorous here than the slow-moving river that passed through town, attracting people to the water in hot weather. Odd creatures.

“David? David!”

Nothing no answer.

Penny slowed her pace and finally stopped. The river continued beneath them, and the trees dripped with water. Dark cedar boughs bent low to the ground and leaned out over the river. The air was cool and damp.

Dupin pressed close to Penny, rubbing against her legs. He meowed, eyeing her messenger bag.

She ignored him, hands on her hips, turning in place as she studied the forest. “Maybe we should go back? Wait for the police?”

He meowed his agreement. She looked down and smiled a small, worried smiled, her forehead creasing.

“I don’t know where they’ve gone. David knew better to run off into the woods with that man. For all we know, he did something to her, and now has David.”

Dupin bumped against her legs again. Her reasoning was sound, although she’d also run off from the crime scene. Going back made sense. Eating more crackers, even more sense.

He turned around her legs and went a few steps back up the trail. Penny lingered, looking down toward the river. Dupin stopped and meowed.

“Just a second, Dupin. I thought I saw something.”

Of course, she did. Dupin meowed again to no effect. Penny was off, heading down the trail to the river.

He ran to catch up, slipping off the trail through the underbrush to cut across the switchback. Wet ferns dragged across his back. It was going to take forever to get clean when they were done.

It didn’t take long before Penny reached the bridge across the river. This wasn’t a rickety wood bridge across a foot-wide stream. The bridge was made of thick metal girders, with a concrete deck and pine needles drifting along the sides. A few weeds grew out of the V shapes where the girders came together.

The whole thing vibrated from the river below. Spray drifted across the bridge, leaving the concrete damp.

Dupin stopped at the edge of the bridge. He didn’t have any interest in going out on it. Penny didn’t hesitate.

She stopped halfway out, clutching the side of the railing. “David!”

This time it wasn’t a call, but a scream that set Dupin’s hair on edge. He growled, still not sure what she was screaming about. She was moving, running his way, back off the bridge.

Dupin scurried out of the way and looked downstream.

A man lay face-down beside the river, his black coat dragging in the water. David. The other man was there, Al, but he was running away downstream, splashing and stumbling along the river.

And there was a third person. A woman, naked and pale lying on the rocks next to David.

Penny was picking her way down the steep slope beneath the bridge, following a rough path that led down to the narrow, rocky beach.

It wasn’t safe. He followed her to the top of the trail and balked. He meowed.

Penny looked up, her eyes wide and wet. She held out a palm toward him. “Stay! Stay there!”

Turning away, she scrambled down the last few feet, splashed through a small pool, and ran to David’s side.

Dupin sat down. He didn’t really want to go down there anyway, that close to the raging river? What if he somehow fell in? Aside from the getting wet, he’d get washed downstream.

Al was gone from view, around the bend in the river. Now, if he fell in, it might not be so bad, since apparently he’d had a hand in whatever happened to the woman and to David.

Dupin licked at his foreleg, cleaning away the dust and pine needles stuck to his fur. Every few licks he looked up to see what Penny was doing.

She reached David. Dupin paused long enough to see David stir and push himself up. So he was alive? That was good, at least for Penny. Dupin went back to cleaning.

The other police would arrive soon, and then they’d take over all of this. He switched paws. After this, the picnic was most likely canceled, which meant going home. Then, maybe Penny would remember to feed him and after that he could spend the afternoon sleeping on the window seat.

David got to his feet and stopped Penny from going to the woman. He shook his head. Their voices floated up, indistinct against the roar of the river. At one point Penny pointed downstream, obviously indicating which way the culprit had gone. David started that way, and she grabbed him, holding him back.

A few more words and David looked up the path, his eyes locking on Dupin. Blood ran down from his dark hair. Dupin looked away, focusing on cleaning his paws again, starting to groom his face as well.

🔍

When the other police came stomping up the trail, Dupin slipped beneath the ferns along the river bank and watched from his hiding place.

Penny and David were still down the steep slope, watching the body of the woman. She had to be dead, and David had refused to leave her. Probably concerned that scavengers would get her. A crow cawed from the branches above the river, one of three or four that fluttered from tree to tree above.

The police came in great numbers, wearing uniforms and not, along with rescue personnel in bright vests. Everyone became very excited when David and Penny called out.

Ropes were thrown down, and the two of them helped out of the river gorge. Two emergency medical techs immediately went to work on both, covering them in blankets, checking David’s head wound.

“I’m fine,” Penny said. “I didn’t fall or anything.”

While the EMTs worked, police officers listened to Penny and David’s statements.

“The suspect is Albert Payne, late twenties,” David said, wincing as the EMTs worked on his head. He went on to finish describing Al to the policeman taking notes, and several others listening.

“He ran off downstream,” David concluded a minute later. “We need to find him and bring him in.”

“We’re on that now,” the other policeman said. “We’ve got people out there to intercept him. Did he assault you?”

“I don’t remember,” David repeated. “Like I said, we followed the trail through the woods, until we came back to the trail. When we got to the bridge, we saw the body. The last thing I remember was climbing down the bank. The suspect was behind me, but I might have slipped, I don’t know.”

“Take it easy,” the EMT said. “You’ve at least got a mild concussion. You really should have that looked at in the hospital.”

“I’m fine,” David insisted. “I was first on the scene. I want to finish this.”

It was easy to see why Penny liked the detective. Hearing louder voices, Dupin turned his head to see what was going on.

A group of people from the coroner’s office approached the edge of the drop-off, and the steep path down the bank. Dupin shrank back further under the fern. Unfortunately, the movement caught the eye of the man in front.

He was a big man, with white hair and a face more wrinkled than a Shar Pei. He was wearing a dark blue rain jacket with the word CORONER across the front, hanging open to accommodate his ample belly. He tapped the shoulder of the younger man with him.

“There’s a cat here!”

Penny pushed through the crowd of police and other personnel on the bridge. “He’s with me.”

The man looked at her, grinning. “You brought your cat to a crime scene?”

“We weren’t planning on finding a crime scene,” Penny said. “The plan was a picnic.”

Dupin rose and stretched his legs out, sinking them into the loose ground while he yawned.

“He’s a big one,” the man said. “My late wife used to keep cats.”

“His name is C. Auguste Dupin,” Penny said. “He’s very smart.”

Dupin settled back. Obviously, he wasn’t smart enough to avoid getting dragged into all of this.

“That’s a great name for a cat,” the man said. He offered his hand. “Ethan George, coroner.”

Penny shook the man’s hand, smiling. “Penny Copper, librarian.”

Ethan laughed. “Pleasure to meet you. Maybe you’ll give me luck getting down this bank!”

Dupin closed his eyes as they laughed.

Then Ethan was calling to the officers milling around, to hold ropes and help him get down the bank without breaking his neck. A jovial fellow, but ill-equipped for climbing up and down steep paths strewn with loose rock. As the big man descended, Dupin rose and wandered over near the edge, sitting next to Penny’s legs, to watch.

David came over to stand beside Penny on the other side. “You’re free to go, they’ll ask if you need to update your statements later.”

Penny was looking past the coroner making his laborious descent, to the body beside the river. “That poor girl. What do you think happened?”

“I don’t believe that a sasquatch carried her off, if that’s what you mean?” David said.

“No, but why would he make up such a story?”

“He’s trying to create reasonable doubt. Next, he’ll say that he didn’t actually see what it was, maybe it could have been a bear.”

“I haven’t heard of bears dragging off a grown woman,” Penny said.

“Maybe not, but he’ll play the grieving victim and claim we’re trying to blame him. If he sows enough doubt with the jury, who knows?”

Dupin listened to the conversation with interest. Penny enjoyed watching shows on television that dealt with these sorts of situations. They were much more enjoyable in a warm house, with a belly full of food than sitting out in the dank forest.

Around them, the police and other humans were briskly getting on with the search for the fugitive, while down below the coroner and his assistants dealt with the body. Dupin watched them move around, carefully noting evidence found. All of it would later feed into the case.

Fascinating on television. Less interesting under these conditions. He bumped against Penny’s leg and meowed.

She said, “I think Dupin is telling us he’d rather go home. Poor kitty hasn’t had his lunch.”

She touched David’s arm. “And you took a blow to the head, you probably shouldn’t be out here either.”

He touched her side. “You should go. This isn’t exactly a place for a civilian or a cat. I’m fine. Really. Unless I start having concussions —”

Penny swatted at him the way Dupin batted at his cat toys.

“Hey! No hitting the injured man.”

Penny stopped. Obviously some sort of human courtship ritual. Dupin closed his eyes rather than watch more.

“We can stay,” Penny said. “Right Dupin?”

Of course. Because it was so much fun starving in the wilderness with either a sasquatch or a potential murderer running around loose in the woods.

Down by the river, Ethan directed the others to load the body into a slick black bag.

Hands touched Dupin’s sides. He started and relaxed as he smelled Penny’s familiar clean scent. She scooped him up, tucking him up in one arm. With the other, she reached around into her messenger back and he perked up.

Penny brought her fist out of the bag and her long fingers unfurled, revealing two sardine crackers on her palm! She held her hand flat in front of his head.

“Since you’ve been so well-behaved,” she said.

Dupin inhaled the rich odor and carefully picked one of the crackers up from her palm. It crunched very satisfactorily between his teeth, the rich fishy taste flooding his mouth. Crumbs fell on her palm. He licked them up, his tongue rasping across her salty smooth skin. Bare skin, one of the odder things about humans.

The second cracker disappeared as quickly as the first. When he was done, Penny stroked his head.

“What do we do now?”

David pointed down the slope where the coroners were beginning to hoist the body up from the river. “I want to find out a preliminary cause of death, look at anything else they found. Hopefully, someone will catch up with Al Payne before he gets far.”

“He can’t get too far going down the river, it’s too rugged.”

“He might fall in and drown,” David said.

If no one was going to leave until they caught the man responsible, then it only made sense to help them. Dupin squirmed in Penny’s arms and she responded by setting him gently on the ground.

He shook himself, then sat and started cleaning his paws again, while he considered the facts in the case.

The woman, Mary, was dead, cause yet to be determined even though it looked more and more like murder.

Her fiancé, Al Payne, claimed that a sasquatch had carried her off. When David discovered the body, Mr. Payne had either assaulted the detective, or not. In any case, he had run off when Penny arrived.

Fleeing didn’t necessarily imply guilt. Dupin knew better. Sometimes fleeing was entirely appropriate.

The quickest way to verify Mr. Payne’s story, then, was to determine if there was something, or someone, else out in the woods beside those present. Either other potential witnesses, or assailants. With big feet or not.

Dupin stopped cleaning and stood. The coroner, Ethan George was huffing and puffing, as several police officers and rescue personnel heaved on the ropes to help him up the trail. He reached the top with a red face and sweat dripping down his brow.

David extended his hand, and helped the coroner up the last step.

“Thank you, I don’t want to do that every day!” Ethan squinted up at the bandage on David’s head. “You’re the one that found her? You were down there too?”

“I was,” David said. “Any thoughts about it? Do you know what killed her?”

Ethan grunted. “I think the broken neck may have had something to do with it.”

Dupin looked over at the steep drop.

“A fall?”

Ethan’s shoulders shrugged in slow big rolls. “Hard to say until I get a better look. She’d been in the water and her clothes were gone. She might have drowned and the break came later.”

Ethan’s shuffled his feet closer to the detective. “Is it true, what they’re saying? The man with her claimed Bigfoot did it?”

“We don’t need to spread that right now,” David said.

Ethan waved a hand. “I’m not telling anyone! I just don’t believe it. Bigfoot is a gentle creature. I ever tell you about the one I saw when I was younger?”

David shook his head and patted Ethan’s arm. “No, and first chance I get, I want to hear it. Right now we need to get after this suspect.”

“Of course, of course. Stop by later and maybe I’ll have more about the cause of death for you.”

“Thank you.”

As David turned back to Penny, and the coroner huffed and walked off escorting the body, Dupin slipped away through the remaining personnel. A lot had left, off to search downstream for the suspect.

No one was going upstream. Yet, if the body went into the water upstream and washed up down here, there might be more evidence. And the falls were upstream, that’s where Penny and David had planned on having their picnic.

He walked to the end of the bridge and sat down, looking back through the crowd at Penny. She was still talking to David. Then she looked down, checked the other side and turned. Now she realized Dupin had left her side.

As soon as her eyes met his, Dupin rose and walked on up the path.

If she caught him, she might carry him back to the car, so Dupin moved at a fast trot on up the trail. All of his keen senses alert to the sounds in the woods. The chatter of the people on the bridge fell away. A finch flitted away through the undergrowth. He tensed, then moved on.

No time to chase birds right now.

So far everything had carried him farther from lunch. Sooner or later the police would catch up with Al Payne. Maybe he was guilty, maybe not.

Penny’s footsteps sounded loud on the path behind him. There was another pair too. He glanced back, and as expected, both Penny and David were following at a fast walk.

“Dupin! Come here!”

He almost did. His stride slowed and then he darted up the slope, slipping beneath the damp ferns off the trail, up to the next switchback. It was steeper going straight up, but shorter.

“Dupin!”

At the trail, he looked back again. Penny and David were running now, with difficulty, up the slope, around the switchback. Running uphill was harder on them. He hurried on up the trail.

David said something, the words indistinct. Dupin ignored them and continued up. It made sense that Al Payne and his fiancé would have gone to the falls. Maybe she fell there. Her clothes might be there.

He cut across the next switchback, slipping under and around a cedar tree growing out of the decaying trunk of an older tree. An orange, sour-smelling, salamander slipped away through the decaying bark beneath the trunk.

It didn’t take long to get upstream to the falls. Dupin pushed out of the underbrush onto the last bit of trail. His fur was wet, with pine needles and other debris stuck to it. He was a mess.

And there was something bright green on the edge of the trail, near the bridge.

Dupin kept an eye out for any sasquatch lurking nearby and walked slowly near the bridge. The roar of the water beneath drowned out other noises. There was a flat area off to the side of path, clear of undergrowth, with three picnic tables. A log fence ran along the drop off to the river beneath.

The bridge itself was built of big riveted girders and a concrete deck slick with spray from the falls. It was right near the bridge, on the right side of the trail, where the green whatever it was, was hung up on the bushes just past another log fence.

A woman’s dress, Dupin saw when he got closer. Torn, caught on the branches past the fence.

“Dupin!”

He looked back. Penny, breathing hard, was coming up the trail with David behind.

“Why’d you run off?” Penny asked, approaching slowly. She held her hand out, holding a sardine cracker.

That was more like it. He licked his lips and meowed, but didn’t move closer.

Penny came forward several steps, and that’s when David said, “What’s that?”

Finally! Dupin rose and walked to Penny while David went over to the dress.

David didn’t touch it, looking at it, and then calling to the other police on a walkie-talkie he must have borrowed.

Dupin didn’t care about that. He’d found the clue, and he wanted his reward. Penny crouched and held out the cracker.

He sniffed deeply. Delicious. Wonderful! There was a reason that Penny’s Auntie Dido was one of his favorite humans, and it wasn’t her yippy dog Patches.

With her other hand, Penny scratched his head. “Good kitty! Is it her dress, David?”

“Looks like. They’ll send a team up to get photos, and pick it up.” David came back and stood above them.

Dupin ignored the detective as he bit into the cracker.

It was gone too soon, leaving only the lingering taste. He licked his lips and moved away from Penny, studying the area. The dress was there.

“I guess he wanted his picnic by the falls,” David said.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” Penny said.

Dupin ignored them both, listening carefully. It was hard to hear anything over the roar of the falls, but he focused on the bridge and the woods beyond. Something made his whiskers tingle. It wasn’t only the vibration of the falls.

It felt like someone watching him.

His whiskers drew back. He slipped away from Penny and David, and moved quickly to the end of the left side of the bridge and crouched beside the thick steel girder.

The fury of the waterfalls below vibrated up through the concrete into his paws.

“What’s he doing now?” David asked.

Small rocks crunched as the humans came closer.

“I don’t know,” Penny said. “He’s been acting spooky since all this started.”

Who wouldn’t, with a potential sasquatch attack? Dupin watched the forest across the bridge. Something had moved, he was sure of it.

Whatever was over there was watching them.

The sensible thing to do, the smart thing, was to turn and head down the trail. Get all the way back down, to where the cops waited, and then keep going until he got to the car.

Penny reached for him. He felt her hands brush his fur and he slipped forward, out onto the bridge.

“Dupin,” Penny said. “Don’t run off again!”

A branch cracked ahead in the woods. A dark shape moved behind a large stump. Dupin broke into a run. He raced across the bridge onto the trail on the other side.

There was another picnic area, this one on the right side of the trail, but the movement came from the left, up the slope. Dupin slowed, watching intently.

There. A brown furry shape rose and slipped behind another tree. It was big. Sasquatch? Dupin’s ears flicked back. He growled a warning at whatever was up the trail.

“There’s something up there,” David said as both he and Penny came up behind Dupin. “He sees something.”

Dupin growled another warning as the shape moved. Penny gasped.

A creak of leather, a snap, and Dupin looked up to see David holding a gun, pointed at whatever was up the slope.

“Come on out now! Hands in the air where I can see them!”

Would a sasquatch follow orders? This one moved, obviously trying to keep trees between it and David.

Dupin slipped away from the detective, and angled around up the trail. He left the trail and moved beneath the ferns.

“Dupin?” Penny called softly.

Dupin ignored her. Whatever it was, David didn’t have a clear shot, and it was trying to climb higher, using the brush and trees as cover. It was noisier now, crashing through brush.

“Stop right there!” David said.

Bigfoot wasn’t listening.

Running now, Dupin gained ground and got farther up slope from the beast. It’d all be worth it, if they could leave and go home!

He jumped up on a fallen tree trunk above where the sasquatch crawled through the bushes. It hadn’t seen him yet. The fur was dark brown and long. It scrambled ungainly at the slope, trying to climb higher, its head down.

It slipped and fell face first against the slope.

“Damn it!” The sasquatch said.

A sasquatch was unlikely. A sasquatch that swore in English? Very improbable. Dupin waited until it was almost upon him. Metal glinted through the fur along its back. A zipper?

This wasn’t a sasquatch, it was a man in a costume!

Dupin growled and hissed at the man.

“Oh hell!” The man stood, lost his balance and stumbled back, hairy costumed arms waving.

Dupin’s ears laid back and he growled again at the fanged, rubbery face.

“Freeze! Poeville police! Stop right now!” David’s voice carried clearly through the air.

The sasquatch’s shoulders slumped, but he raised his hands in the air.

David had moved up the trail. He was closer now, with a clear shot of the man. Dupin settled back, still watching the man carefully, but it looked like something the detective could handle.

“Take off the mask, slowly.”

The man did as he was told, revealing a disappointingly normal human face. His face was round, with reddish cheeks and blond hair. He tossed he mask to the ground. Tears filled his blue eyes.

“It was an accident, I swear!” He sniffled. “I loved Mary! We were just trying to scare away Al.”

“Slowly turn around,” David said. “What’s your name?”

The man turned to face David, arms still up. Dupin rose and walked along the tree trunk. Penny had come up the slope and stood behind David with her arms tightly crossed.

“John Harper. You have to believe me. It was all an accident! Al, he’s obsessive. He kept going on about how they were going to get married, and wouldn’t listen when Mary said she wasn’t ready to get married. She tried to break it off, and he wouldn’t listen.”

“So you decided to dress up like Bigfoot?” David asked.

John nodded. Dupin sneezed from fern spores and jumped off the tree trunk, picking his way among the bushes to rejoin Penny.

The suspect just kept talking.

“Yes. I mean, it was Mary’s idea. Al believes in that sort of thing. And UFOs, ghosts, whatever. It was a prank.” John moaned. “No one was supposed to get hurt! I was going to carry her off, scaring Al away. She thought the next time he might get the message.”

“So what happened?”

John lowered his arms.

“Hands up!” David snapped.

Penny bent and scooped Dupin up. He settled back in her arms, content for the moment, and watched.

John’s hands shot up. His voice shook and turned blubbery. “After I carried her off, Al ran away screaming. We came up the trail. We were playing around by the falls and she fell, that’s all. She was there, and then she wasn’t! I couldn’t believe it. I ran down the trail, I tried to find a way to get to her, but I could see she was dead already. And then I heard voices. Al’s and others.”

His voice broke for a second. He wiped his nose with a hairy hand. “I freaked out. I ran up here and hid. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have hurt her for anything. You have to believe me.”

“I’ve got to take you in,” David said. “You’ll have a chance to explain what happened. Okay?”

John’s bottom lip stuck out. He nodded, tears streaming down his face.

Humans made things complex. Dupin purred against Penny’s chest. At least now they could finally go home and eat!

🔍

Evening sunlight streamed through the window onto the window seat at home. Dupin lay stretched out full length, muscles sore from all the running and climbing, but his belly was comfortably full for now.

Penny’s phone rang.

He opened one eye, watching her pick it up. “Yes? Oh, they picked him up too? Did you hear back from the coroner? A fall, so Harper was telling the truth?”

She was quiet for a while.

Dupin closed his eye. Of course the man was telling the truth. The police would run around and confirm their stories, talk to friends and family.

In the end nothing would change the fact that the poor woman was dead. Some people would refuse to accept the facts of the case.

There’d probably even be those that still believed a sasquatch was out in the woods. Dupin stretched out sore legs, too tired to even clean his fur again. Who knew? Maybe there was. He wasn’t planning on any more picnics to find out.

🔍

8,386 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 102nd short story release, written in March 2013. This story takes place after the events of The Murders in the Reed Moore Library and my novel The Task of Auntie Dido.

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, Endless Worlds of Sorrow, a story set in the Moreau Society Universe.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Love, Androids, and Cargo Bikes

Alex lived to take care of his daughter. Ever since his ex-wife left, Erica came first. He didn’t date. Worked and took care of Erica.

It was enough.

At least until Lisa rode her cargo bike up the hill. A gleaming metal figure sat motionless in the cargo bin. Maybe the future held more for him than he imagined.

🚀

It was July 7th, a Sunday evening, when Alex saw her for the first time. She was riding a front-load cargo bike up the hill, with something bright in the bike’s bin.

It was late and hot, and he had gone out onto the porch to sit on the porch swing. He used to do that with Anne back when they were first married and full of plans. Since Anne left, not so much, but Erica was finally asleep and he had thought that the cool air might help with his headache.

The sun still hadn’t set. Alex pressed his fingers against his temple. The vein throbbed beneath his thumb. The dry air stunk of the fireworks that the idiots one street over persisted in setting off, even as the temperature continued to hover in the mid-nineties. With all the parched lawns it was a miracle that they hadn’t already managed to burn down the neighborhood.

At forty-three, Alex Bell was thin and in relatively good shape. At least his doctor always acted thrilled when he came in for his annual physically. Dr. Steinberg almost waxed poetic about having someone in the office that was in decent shape with no allergies, no chronic health conditions, and no addictions. Not counting dark chocolate and a perfect cup of coffee. Both expensive habits, but common enough in Olympia.

His headache spiked like needles the back of his eyes. Stress, that’s all it was. He kicked against the porch rail, setting the swing rocking again. The water in his glass was still cold, though the ice had melted.

The stress came with being a single-parent barely able to scrape together the money for the bills each month. Before Anne got tired of living one month to the next and left him alone with Erica, it had almost seemed manageable. With two incomes, and two sets of hands and eyes to look after Erica, the world was a little less daunting. They couldn’t do anything about global warming or the wheat blight, but going gluten-free wasn’t that big of a deal.

A loud bang rolled across the neighborhood, loud enough to shake the windows. Erica had only just gone to sleep, so help him, if those fucking idiots woke her up—

He’d what? Go over there and beat the crap out of them?

No. He wouldn’t. Even if he didn’t have Erica to think about, he’d never do something like that. Violence didn’t solve anything. There’d been enough of that in the world already. He sipped his water and rocked the swing.

That was the moment when he saw the woman. Movement on the street drew his eye.

His house was on a quiet street on the east side of Olympia. Older homes, but a good neighborhood. The woman rode a red cargo bike, climbing the hill at the end of the street. She stood on the pedals, each push making one slow revolution. In front of her handlebars was a big bright blue cargo bin filled with something metallic. It caught the late sunlight and sent bright bolts stabbing into Alex’s eyes.

He squinted and turned away, shielding his eyes with his fingers. When she’d come a bit closer the glare had shifted and he could see her a bit. She looked young, at least from this distance. She was short and muscular.  Her blond hair was pulled back from a narrow, attractive face. She wore a dull green tank top, wet with sweat down the front where it clung to her chest.

Despite the obvious effort, and it had to be hard to ride that cargo bike up the steep hill, she was smiling. He couldn’t see any sign of an electric assist motor, but it was hard to see with the clutter on her bike. Well, not clutter, but stuff. It wasn’t only whatever metal thing she had in the bin, but there was a rack on the back of the bike covered with bulging bags. Another bag filled the triangle middle of the frame, and another was attached lengthwise across the front of her handlebars. Two big liter bottles of water caught the evening sun as they hung from the front of the bin.

All of that, and a smile. She was magnificent. She wore brown shorts almost the same color as her tanned, powerful legs. Legs that moved smoothly, with a hypnotic rhythm as she rode closer.

She picked up speed, having crested the hill, and continued on down the street. She was obviously going to pass his house. He hadn’t seen her before. He would have remembered.

Alex couldn’t take his eyes off her. She reached the Coldsmith’s next door and looked right at him, catching his eyes.

Her eyes were dark. Green, brown? It was too far for him to tell but she was lovely. Real, without any artifice. Her face was clean and radiant in the evening sun, which also lit up her golden hair like a halo around her head.

He hadn’t gone out, dated, not since Anne left. Between Erica and work, and his freelance design business, what time was there? His parents and friends kept asking if he was dating. They didn’t get it, that he was okay right now. Being between what had happened with Anne, and whatever the future held, that was okay.

The woman’s bike slowed as she rolled in front of his house. He was still looking at her, staring, really. Her smile widened and she lifted a hand.

Alex blinked and slowly lifted his hand in response. She stopped on the side of the street, where his weedy lawn ended in a courtesy garden of tomatoes, carrots, and radishes. The catchment spout on the drip barrel was yellowed with age.

“Hey there,” she called, smiling.

The cargo bike rolled to a stop and she kicked down a thick stand that braced the bike.

Alex’s breath caught in his throat. “Hi! Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”

Still smiling, she lightly bit the end of her index finger and studied him.

Alex stood up, rather than seem rude. Up close she had that indefinable something that made his heart hurt. As if in response, his head cleared.

A loud bang exploded in the air. She jerked around, her eyes widening. “What was that?”

Alex pointed down the street. “Neighbors the next street over, still setting off fireworks.”

She twisted on her seat. “It’s loud.”

“I know. I wish they’d stop.”

“Why?”

Why? “Because my daughter is asleep. I hope it doesn’t wake her up.”

The woman nodded, her smile widened. “We’ll ask them to stop.”

She stretched, kicked the kickstand up and shoved the bike. In the same motion, she rose up on the pedals and pushed. Her muscles rippled with the effort and the cargo bike wobbled only a bit as it started moving.

He was watching her, still trying to process what she had said, when he really looked at the blue cargo bin, and at what she was hauling.

A metal torso, sculpted in smooth lines, sat propped in the cargo bin. One arm lay along the side of the bin, a black rubberized hand gripping the side, and the other hung down into the bin. The head was masculine, with stylized lines and bright yellow glowing eyes that almost looked like they were watching him.

A dummy? Movie prop? Gag? She was pedaling harder, picking up speed and almost past his yard already.

“Wait!” Alex ran out onto the dry lawn, crisp stems cracking beneath his bare feet. “Just a sec!”

She didn’t stop, but she twisted around and looked back at him, and chuckled.

“What?”

He put on more speed. He left the lawn and ran across the cracked concrete driveway as he caught up.

“I’m Alex. Alex Bell.”

She smiled wider. Her eyes turned out to be hazel, and her ears were pierced, but she wasn’t wearing any earrings.

“I’m Lisa Rivers.” She pointed at the mechanical dummy. “That’s Clank.”

Then she pulled away and Alex hit the sharp gravel at the edge of the road. He stopped and watched her until she reached the bend in the street, then he walked back up to the house.

Maybe she said something to the neighbors about the fireworks, or maybe not, either way, he didn’t hear any more that night.

🚀

Alex was still thinking about Lisa Rivers the next day when he was at work. His work group was on the fourth floor of the state’s Natural Resources Building, a victim of the “collaborative environment” phase that stripped out any personal spaces in favor of an open floor plan and mobile stations. You only had to look at the dust to see how often people moved the adjustable workstations, or count the number of stools to see what people thought of working standing up.

He didn’t mind standing. At least some of the time. His work stand was near the big windows that stretched around the building and afforded him a view of Olympia. Right next to him was a work stand occupied by Tim McCleary, a fifty-something bald man with a big gut and a scowl cut into his forehead.  When Tim had heard the news that Anne was leaving Alex, Tim’s response was, “It took her this long? I thought she left last year.”

Today Tim was wearing his typical loose hemp shirt and pants, sort of a dirty cream color, and huaraches on his feet decorated with beads. He looked like he was on his way to a yoga class, except the only stretching Tim ever did was filling his gut while getting stoned.

Despite Tim’s less appealing characteristics, he was the closest thing to a friend that Alex had at work.

“I met a woman last night,” Alex ventured. He pictured Lisa’s strong legs pedaling the heavy bike along the street.

Tim grunted and didn’t look away from his tablet. “You bang her?”

“No! Really? That’s your response?”

Tim shrugged. “What do you want me to say? I meet people all the time. Just this morning I met a woman asking for money to ride the bus. I wasn’t going to mention it, but if we’re talking about meeting people, why the hell not?”

“When someone says they met someone, it usually means that they meant someone they were interested in.” And he was. That was a surprise on its own.

“Duh, that’s why I asked if you banged her. I don’t see why you’re making this complicated.” Tim turned. He had little eyes and squinted a lot. “So you didn’t bang her, but you wanted to bang her, is that it?”

“Never mind.” Alex turned back to his tablet, gritting his teeth.

Tim laughed. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry. Tell me about her. Last I heard you didn’t think getting involved with someone would be good for Erica. This woman must have been something if you’re thinking about it.”

“I hadn’t really thought about it. I just keep thinking about her.”

“And?” Tim cupped his hands in front of his chest. “Was she?”

Alex’s tongue froze in his mouth. He couldn’t answer. Finally, he said, “You’re terrible.”

“I’m trying to get a mental image here.”

Alex remembered how her shirt had clung to her chest, wet with sweat. She was busty, especially given her height. Not that he’d say that to Tim. “She was fine, nice. And strong. She was riding a cargo bike up the hill, and passed my house.”

“A cargo bike?” Tim rolled his eyes. “Like with a box or something? What sort of junk was she hauling?”

“I don’t know, really. It was one of those bikes with a big box in front of the handlebars. Blue, in this case. And she had bags on the back and frame. She had this sort of robot mannequin thing in the cargo box.”

Clank, she had called it, he remembered. After she said that she’d talk to the guys setting off the fireworks.

Tom shook his head. “Man, she sounds like one of those Earth Nomads, those weird zero-carbon eco-nuts. You’d better stay away from her.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Come on. How many women do you know that would have been out there riding something like that, with a robot dummy? Would Anne have done that?”

Alex laughed. There was no way that Anne would have ridden a cargo bike. Her idea of being ecologically responsible was paying her carbon tax. That was always her problem, that even with both of them working, they didn’t make enough to have the lifestyle she wanted.

“Look, I know you haven’t been getting any since before Anne dumped you.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m telling you the way it is. You haven’t, not that I and others haven’t tried to set you up. I think it’s fantastic that you thought this weirdo chick was hot. So bang her. It’ll be good for you, and then move on.”

Alex flicked through the reports on his screen without studying them. “I don’t even know how to contact her. I probably won’t see her again.”

Tim shrugged. “No loss then. Pat yourself on the back, stroke off thinking about her, whatever floats your boat. If you’re noticing women, it’s a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re ready to start dating. We should go out sometime, pick up some dates. My sister can watch Erica for you.”

“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” Alex said. “Thanks anyway.”

“Whatever. Let me know when you change your mind. Now can we get back to work?”

“Sure,” Alex said.

Although when he flipped back to the beginning of the report, he  was still thinking about Lisa riding up the street on that cargo bike.

🚀

Alex had his head in the car, reaching into the back seat for Erica’s bag, when she yelled. They’d just gotten home after he had picked her up from day care.

“Daddy! Come look!” Her tone perfectly matched Anne’s impatient tone, except pitched higher.

He straightened up and pulled the bag out. It was light-weight and covered in pink ink splotches like someone had spilled ink all over the bag. It shimmered with embedded photovoltaic scales which powered whatever electronics were carried inside. In Erica’s case that was both a tablet and her phone. Anne had insisted that she have both when many kids got by with a plain school phone.

“What, honey?”

Erica was seven and beautiful. If he looked at her objectively, he’d still say the same thing. She had a modern sense of style already and in addition to her mother’s mannerisms, she had Anne’s bright red hair. Hair which was currently trapped beneath a bright green sun-hat. Erica was pointing toward the hill.

Sunlight splashed across metal as the red and blue cargo bike crawled up to the crest of the hill. Even in the glare Alex recognized Lisa’s silhouette. He shut the door, and walked around the car.

“That’s a cool bike, isn’t it?”

Erica rolled her eyes as she looked up at him from beneath the wide brim of her hat, but she was smiling. Her freckles were dark against her pale skin.

“Cool? How retro.”

“What would you call it, then?”

“It’s completely shiny,” Erica announced. “I want one.”

He had no idea what a bike like that went for, whatever it was it was more than he could afford right now.

“When I get my Moon buggy.” Which is what he always said when they couldn’t afford something.

Erica grinned. “They wouldn’t let you drive a Moon buggy.”

Alex put a hand to his heart, wincing in pretend agony. Lisa was getting closer, and Erica wasn’t showing any interest in going inside. As Lisa’s bike approached the Coldsmith’s, Erica skipped forward to the edge of their courtesy garden. She picked her way through the stone path beside the little library, and stopped at the edge of the street.

He followed Erica. What should he say?

The whole day at work he had kept picturing Lisa until he convinced himself that he had to be making up most of it. Seeing her again, it was clear he hadn’t made it up. She looked the same. She was even dressed the same.

But Clank had moved. The robot dummy now sat in the bin facing forward, with a hand on each side of the box. Lisa smiled and waved cheerfully.

Alex lifted a hand in greeting. Erica turned around, saw him wave and looked quickly back at Lisa. As fast as the sun dried up puddles, her smile faded. She crossed her arms and faced Lisa.

“Hi Alex,” Lisa called.

“Hi.”

Lisa brought her bike to a stop and kicked down the kickstand. She leaned forward on her handlebars, which caused her green shirt to gape and reveal even more of her ample cleavage.

“You know my Dad?” Erica asked flatly.

Alex put a hand on Erica’s shoulder. “This is my daughter, Erica. Erica, this is Lisa Rivers. We met yesterday when she rode past.”

Lisa straightened up, smiling. “Erica, nice to meet you. Did the fireworks bother you last night?”

“Fireworks?”

“The people the next street over were setting them off after you went to bed last night,” Alex said. “Lisa was going to ask them to give it a break.”

Lisa waved her hand. “They had almost finished anyway. Clank convinced them to listen.”

“Clank?” Erica asked.

Alex looked at the robotic dummy. Its head was staring straight down the road.

Lisa leaned forward and lightly stroked the robot’s metal cheek. “This is Clank.”

The metal head turned toward Lisa’s hand, pressing against her palm like a dog seeking attention.

Erica shrieked. Alex pulled her back closer to him.

Lisa looked up, grinning. “Don’t be scared. Clank isn’t going to hurt you.”

Erica moved a small step away from Alex. “It’s a puppet?”

Clank shook its head.

Erica gasped. “It heard me!”

“Of course,” Lisa said. “Clank is an android.”

Clank lifted a hand and waved.

It was amusing. A good show. Obviously, Lisa had programmed the robot with some rudimentary functionality. The cart probably carried its batteries and electronics. She must do street shows. One of the many entertainers that moved around the city.

“That’s clever,” Alex said.

Erica laughed. She took another step forward. “What can it do?”

Clank turned his head away. He brought his arms in and crossed them, hunching away in the cargo bin.

Now that was impressive.

“I’m sorry,” Erica said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Clank turned his head slightly, yellow eyes dull.

“Really,” Erica insisted. “You’re completely shiny.”

Clank’s eyes lit up, growing brighter as he straightened up in the bin.

Clank bent forward, rummaging in the bottom of the bin. His movements disturbingly human-like and fluid. Despite his name, he didn’t clank or clatter. His movements were silent. Was it possible that there was actually someone inside the android? That this was nothing more than a costume?

Sunlight flashed off Clank as he straightened up. He was holding three bright chrome balls in his black hands. Lisa settled back on her seat, grinning, and crossed her arms. If she was doing anything to control the android, Alex couldn’t see it.

Clank tossed the spheres up into the air and began to juggle. The balls made a soft patter as they landed. The chrome spheres spun around and around, the pattern shifted, reversed and then one of the spheres bounced back and forth over the others.

He wasn’t done yet. Clank’s arms crossed and uncrossed, weaving a different pattern with the balls. Then two of the balls were in one hand and Clank moved his fingers, causing the balls to rotate around in his hand.

At last, he stopped, and dropped the balls into the bottom of the bin and bowed at the waist.

Erica clapped and laughed. When Clank straightened up his eyes were glowing brightly.

It was the first time that Alex had seen Erica laugh since Anne left. For a second she wasn’t a closed off young woman, but the bright and open girl that she had been until Anne left.

Alex wanted to say something, invite Lisa to have coffee, something, except Erica was right there. And the android. He still couldn’t shake the feeling of intelligence behind Clank’s glowing eyes. Was it real? Or someone in a costume. Both answers would be disturbing.

“Thank you,” Lisa said into the silence. “We appreciate it. We do shows down on the landing. You should come see some time.”

“Maybe we’ll get a chance to do that,” Alex said.

He tore his gaze away from Clank’s unyielding stare. Lisa was smiling.

Lisa looked away from him to Erica. “It was nice meeting you, Erica. We’ll see you around.”

Then Lisa shoved the cargo bike into motion, kicking up the stand, and Clank’s head swiveled around, looking forward.

Alex watched her muscular legs, shiny with a film of sweat, pumping on the pedals as the bike picked up speed.

“Uh, Dad?”

He blinked and looked down at Erica. She smirked.

“Staring won’t take a picture.”

She pushed past him and headed for the house before he could respond. Her shoulders were pinched inward and she walked fast. Pissed off. Because she caught him looking at Lisa?

Alex swung her bag in his hand and followed. He’d give her space. Let her bring it up if she wanted. If he did start dating again, it was going to impact her too. He had to consider that.

🚀

The next day, at lunch time, he slipped his tablet into his bag and said to Tim, “I’m heading out for lunch.”

Tim rocked back on his stool. “Whoa. You’re going out? What happened to brown bag lunch man?”

“Just thought I’d get out for a change. No big deal.” He wasn’t going to say it was so he could find Lisa on the landing and get a chance to really talk to her.

“Whatever,” Tim said.

Downstairs, Alex walked out of the building. Hot air washed over his body, engulfed him, and drove out the air-conditioned chill. There was a thirty-degree difference between inside and out. Heat shimmered on the roads and sidewalks, creating phantom mirages that evaporated as he got closer.

Even with the heat, there were people walking outside. Only a few at first, but as he moved closer to downtown there were more people. Most wore loose, light UV-protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats. Sunglasses turned their eyes dark. He was dressed much the same, one of the many walking along the sidewalk. while cars and bikes sped along the roads. The crowd smelled of sunscreens and oils. The whole mass of humanity slowly frying beneath the hot sun.

Ten minutes after Alex left work he was down at the landing, walking along the crowded boardwalk along the harbor. The air was thick with salt and the rich odors of food vendors. Seagulls screamed and fought over scraps with crows. Street musicians filled the air with music.

With all of the hats and sunglasses, most of the crowd was faceless and anonymous, but Lisa wouldn’t be. The last times he had seen her she was dressed in shorts and a tank-top. One of those brave or foolish enough to show that much exposed skin. Between that, her big red and blue cargo bike, and Clank, she had to stand out.

Even so, he almost missed her. A crowd had gathered, watching her performance with Clank. It was sunlight sparking off Clank that caught his eye and drew him to the crowd gathered on the park’s dry lawn.

Alex made his way through the crowd. As he got to the front, he pulled off his shades.

Lisa and Clank were dancing. Not a waltz, but a fast, synchronized dance routine. Out of the cargo bin, Clank stood taller than Alex. The android was much taller than Lisa. The music came from a guitarist nearby. He was young, with long blond hair and what looked like a brown leather jacket. It couldn’t be, not in this heat, unless it had one of those internal cooling systems. He played a classic old rock song. Alex recognized the music, but couldn’t place it.

Watching Lisa move was mesmerizing. She threw herself about in wild, athletic movements, and each was mirrored by Clank. Despite his size, the android matched her step for step, but he didn’t copy her. In fact, they alternated who led and who followed. Back and forth they spun.

The crowd started clapping to the beat.

Lisa spun to Clank and he caught her hand, spun her around and then picked her up. He threw her up spinning into the air as easily as he had tossed the metal spheres yesterday.

Lisa came down and Clank caught her, lowering her gently to the ground as the guitarist ended the song. The crowd cheered and clapped as she spun away from Clank. They were still holding hands and bowed together. Then Lisa stepped away and pointed to the guitarist and clapped. The crowd joined in.

With the performance over, the crowd started to disperse, although quite a few people moved forward to toss money into the cargo bike’s bin, and the guitarist’s open case. Quite a few people wanted to talk to Lisa and gathered around Clank admiring him while he stood tall and aloof above the attention.

If there was someone inside that metal shell, he had to be roasting alive. Alex hung back from the crowd and watched. Lisa was polite and friendly to everyone, laughing openly with her admirers, but there was a reserve there. She held back from them just a bit and Clank stood solidly nearby like a tall metallic guardian. Once or twice he caught her looking past her fans at him. Their eyes would meet and there was that connection again between them.

Eventually, she broke free from her fans as they dispersed and she came over to where he stood. She grinned and looked up at him. She touched his arm.

“Hey Alex. You came by, what’d you think of the show?”

Her fingers played with his.

“It was fantastic. You were amazing. And Clank, incredible.”

The android was as still as a statue. Its gaze aimed at the boats out on the water.

Alex lowered his voice. “Is he really an android? I mean, there isn’t some guy roasting in that, is there?”

Lisa laughed. She leaned into his arm, smelling of sun-warmed coconut. “He’s real and has his own built-in AC.”

“Are you hungry?” Alex said. “Want to grab lunch?”

She gazed up at him. “I’d love to, really. But we’ve got more shows to do. Rain check?”

“If we wait for rain, that could be a while. If you’re coming by my place later, you could stop for dinner and something cold to drink.”

“Okay.” She squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you came. I was hoping you would.”

Lisa released him and stepped back with a big smile on her face.

“Okay,” Alex said. He couldn’t help but match her smile.

He kept smiling the whole way back to work.

🚀

For the longest time, Alex had been going through the motions without really knowing what else to do. Go to work, take care of Erica. That was it. He was on the porch swing, kicking softly against the porch.

Erica dropped down into the seat beside him. She crossed her arms and pushed hard against the porch, rocking the swing back faster.

“Why is she coming here?” She kicked again.

“Because I like her,” Alex said. “I thought you did too.”

Erica shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“It’ll be nice to have company for dinner.”

“We never have company.” Another hard kick.

“Maybe we should.”

The swing rocked back and forth.

“Is the android coming too?”

He hadn’t really considered it. “I guess. Is that okay?”

“He was completely shiny,” Erica said. “You saw them dance?”

“Yes. They were good.”

“Would he dance with me?”

“I don’t know. We might find out. If we have them over. That’s the point, to get to know Lisa. You might like her.”

“She’s pretty.” Erica looked up at him. Her mouth quirked. “Weird, but pretty. I think she might like you more than Mom did.”

“You’re okay with that?”

“Sure.” Erica’s arm shot out. “Look! Here they come!”

She was right. Lisa’s bike crested the hill. As she got closer she waved and Alex lifted his hand in response. Clank raised his own hand and waved it back and forth too.

Erica laughed.

Alex put his arm around her as he stood and they walked out together to meet Lisa and Clank. They were moving forward again, into a completely shiny future.

🚀

4,830 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 101st short story release, written in July 2013.

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


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Egg Hunt

Emmett struggled to live on Autumn, a vibrant planet done in oranges, golds, yellows, and browns.

Unfortunately humans faced severe challenges with surviving, having not adapted to the environment. The other humans survived in the artificial environment of the TerraSphere.

Engineers modified the native Skreeches, changing their eggs to produce enzymes that allowed humanity to digest local vegetation.

Without those eggs Emmett wouldn’t last. The eggs represented his best hope for survival.

🚀

Second Sun hung low above the golden hills to the South when Emmett pulled open the cabin door and walked out onto the dried sponge wood porch rubbing his eyes. It’d be another hour before First Sun rose but he couldn’t wait that long. The weasels hunted this hour. Wait any longer and there’d be no eggs at all and he fancied an omelet. Scrambled eggs. Hard-boiled. It didn’t matter. He’d eat them any way he could get them. Assuming he beat the weasels to the eggs. He didn’t even like the eggs, but without the eggs, he couldn’t digest most of what his crops produced. Without the eggs, he’d starve. And he’d be damned if he let the weasels get them first.

Of course, the weasels weren’t really weasels, not Terran weasels at least, but convergent evolution made them close enough to be called weasels. If weasels grew to twenty pounds and hunted in packs. Emmett lifted the rifle he held and checked it one more time. Loaded. Spare ammunition clip in his belt. Egg case strapped to his back. Water bladder beneath that. Good enough.

Emmett closed the cabin door and pulled the handle to slide the bar into place just in case any weasels came across the cabin. Curious creatures but not the brightest. He’d never seen a weasel that could push the handle up and slide it back to open the door. All the windows were already shuttered. The cabin should be secure while he was out. He walked on out down the steps. Dirt puffed up around his feet and he smelled that ginger scent that came from the microorganisms in the soil. He pulled up his mask and looked out as his land. Right around the cabin was his farmstead. Raised garden beds growing food crops. All oranges, yellows, and reds. Fall colors. Native Autumn plants. Nothing Terran grew on Autumn despite the best genetech attempts. Best they’d been able to do was modify the skreeches to produce eggs full of enzymes that helped humans digest Autumn foods.

He heard the sound of approaching footsteps and turned around to look down the lane that led up towards town. A person ran towards him. Small stature, baseball cap, and an orange hunting vest. Jolene. She’d actually made it. She waved at him. He waited, gun cradled over the crook of his arm.

Jolene came to a stop and bent over, breathing hard through her face mask. “Whew. You haven’t left yet!”

“Heading out now.”

She nodded and straightened up. Her mask covered her mouth and nose but did nothing to hide her smooth tanned skin or gray eyes. “Did you forget that you said I could come along?”

Emmett shook his head. “Nope, but it’s time. I couldn’t wait. If you’re coming, come on.”

He turned and headed out between his garden beds, heading towards the braided fence and the golden fields past his yard. It’d have been better to go without Jolene. But she was right. He did say that she could come along. As Terran biologists went she was better than some. Didn’t try to tell him what to do. He got to the braided fence and climbed over into the field. Snap beetles went off like firecrackers. Each crack of their shells sending them tumbling in small ballistic arcs through the spine grass. Pogo mice, alerted by the snap beetles, twittered as they dived for their burrows.

Jolene climbed over the fence behind him. The first time they’d gone out he’d expected her to say something about the noise and activity that their presence caused, but she hadn’t. She stuck close and didn’t say anything. He appreciated her silence. It helped him hear. Not that he heard anything over the noise but he listened to the pattern of the noise. One large animal moving through the spine grass caused a certain sort of ruckus. Two nearby animals moving caused a different pattern of sound. That’s what he wanted to hear. Anything like a weasel moving off through the spine grass or a skreech. He didn’t expect to find any so close but there were other things to be alert to.

His course took them through the spine grass fields towards the sponge wood groves to the west. He followed the same path he’d taken before to avoid breaking off more of the spines. Spine grass wasn’t really a grass. More of a mossy sort of ground cover that sent up spines that released spores. It took time for the spines to grow back. He kept to the same path to minimize the damage. Jolene stuck right behind him. Not too close, but she didn’t stray.

🚀

They kept going, out past the creek where he’d hung a braided bridge across the gully, all the way up to the sponge wood grove. According to biologists, the trees weren’t trees in the Terran sense, more of a mushroom, but not that either. The whole plant soaked up rainfall and stored it for the dry months when both suns were high in the sky. Dried out and sealed they made a light-weight strong lumber. Living, they looked like giant coral taken from the bottom of a Terran seabed. A two-dimension red-skinned fan that reached up towards the sky, flat edges facing skyward to maximize the area for rain collection.

The grove also happened to be a favored spot for the skreeches to build their communal nest. They’d pick a defensible spot. Something along the ridge with stone to help ward the nest against the weasels. Much of the ground cover in the grove consisted of puff gourds anchored in the trunks of the sponge wood and spreading out like a sickly yellow wedding gown around each tree. Each step sent clouds of spores into the air. Emmett checked his mask. The spores could cause all sorts of respiratory problems if inhaled. Just another one of the hazards in egg collecting. He reached a granite outcrop and stopped for a rest, pulling down his mask so that he could drink. Jolene dropped on a boulder next to him. When she pulled down her mask he saw she was as fine featured as he remembered. Somehow he’d been sure that it’d only been his imagination, but the evidence was clear. She was a beautiful woman. No question about that.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?”

Emmett shook his head. He pulled the hose around from his water bladder and took a long drink. The water was still cool in the bladder. It chilled his parched throat. He drank deeply.

“How come you live off-grid? Why not move into town?”

“And depend on hydroponics? Canned or frozen imports? We do that and we’ll never be part of this world. Our society is always going to be restricted, limited.”

“But the only way you have to live off-grid now are the eggs and the enzymes they contain. Doesn’t that limit growth?”

“I see it as a temporary adaptation.” Emmett looked out at the valley below. From this point, he could see the red slopes of the sponge wood grave, the golden spine grass fields beyond. The spark of reflected light in the distance came from his solar array. “Someday we’ll figure out how to adapt ourselves to this world. It’s only a matter of will. If there was enough interest it would have already happened.”

“But doesn’t that say it, there isn’t enough will? People still aren’t comfortable changing the human genome.”

“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to live on this world, or probably any others. Like any organism, we have to adapt. The early work done with the skreeches answered some of the questions. We just have to follow it up.”

A sound like an over-stressed hull screamed through the morning air. Emmett snapped his water hose back into place. “Skreeches. Come on, the nest is going to be higher up.”

He pulled his mask up into place and climbed up past the boulders back onto the soft covering of the puff gourds. A swarm of sponge hoppers flung themselves from a nearby sponge wood trunk and floated downhill towards another target. Their brilliant blue wings caught the Second Sun’s light as they glided in formation. Jolene caught up with him and followed in his footsteps. He tried not to think about her without her mask. And her talk of going back to town. That wasn’t the way, he knew that. It didn’t mean that he couldn’t be tempted. Except there was a whole world waiting for them and they couldn’t ever claim that by living under domes in artificial Terran environments.

Another skreech call split the air. More answered it and together they sounded like a hull undergoing catastrophic failure. Depressurization. Metal tearing. Air hissing out in a whistling cry.

Emmett pushed back memories and kept climbing. He reached a sponge wood tree leaning out of the slope. He stopped and turned around to Jolene. “Wait here. I’m going up to see if I can spot the nest.”

“Okay.”

He pulled off his pack, setting the egg case and water bladder down at the base of the trunk. He turned and ran at the sponge wood trunk. It gave a little beneath his feet when he hit. He grabbed the sides of the wide surface and climbed up it. He had to hang beneath the first branch and swing his legs up around the branch, then climb up onto the surface. Bit by bit he made his way up as high as he dared. Limbs too small would tear beneath his weight. One of the hazards at the bottom of a gravity well but better than falling free up above. In the dark. Watching as your partner floated just out of reach. Falling in slow motion. Such a small gap. Sometimes the math didn’t work. A fingers-breath could be as fatal as a fall from this height. Just that much.

Better here. He didn’t have to worry about the air running out at least. The skreeches kept producing eggs. Enough to keep him going out here. Free to walk on his own two feet the same way humans had walked for millions of years. Long before they’d ever figured out how to fly.

From his pocket, he took out his binoculars. Flipped them open and slipped them on. Squinting or opening his eyes wider controlled the zoom. It didn’t take him long to find the skreeches. They’d gone back to the split. Higher up on the ridge, just down from the peak. The whole area’d been cleared after a lightning storm fire had burned off the ground cover and boiled the sponge wood, leaving the entire slope covered in hard chunks of blackened sponge wood. Smatterings of red showed where new sponge wood trees were growing up through the debris. There was still so much that he didn’t know about the lifecycle of the trees.

The skreeches had constructed the communal nest in the cleft of two big boulders on the ridge. Right there in the split. He saw their big yellow bodies moving across the debris field. One would run out from the nest, grab a chunk of hard sponge wood in its tiny front arms and then it’d run full tilt back up to the nest. It was like a relay team. While one set its contribution into place in the wall another was running out to grab a new piece. Still others carried back chunks of fresh sponge wood and handed it over to the stompers. It was the job of the stompers to stomp the water out of the sponge wood and mix it with dirt. Daubers gathered the mud and mortared the dried sponge wood into the wall. Squeezed sponge wood got kicked out onto the slope to dry in the light of the suns.

Looked like they’d made a lot of progress on the wall already. Behind the barrier a skreech rose up, yellow-throated neck turned towards the heavens. The scream that split the air signaled another egg laid. Did it hurt? Was that why they screamed? He had no idea.

He noticed movement below him to his left. He looked down, binoculars automatically refocusing on the nearby foreground objects. Jolene climbing up onto the sponge wood. But she’d gone out on an over-extended limb. Wide enough to look safe, but too long. Limbs like that broke off in storms. Or under the weight of biologists that didn’t know better.

Emmett tore off his binoculars. “Stop!”

“They are building a structure,” Jolene said. He saw she was wearing her own binoculars. “It’s amazing –”

“Jolene! Stop! Go back. That branch can’t support you!”

He looked back along its length. He found the pale pink line indicating a tear forming right where he expected. “Hurry up! It’s tearing!”

Emmett started back down the trunk. No way he could get there in time. He saw Jolene moving at least. She’d listened. The branch she’d climbed shook. She wobbled and nearly fell but then caught her balance and sat down on the limb. She scooted down the length. He dropped down onto a solid limb and swung around. Going faster than he’d ordinarily go.

The limb she’d climbed dipped and shook. Outer limbs started to tear from the stresses. He didn’t know if she’d make it. Then she slid past the rapidly growing tear and reached the main trunk. The limb tore with a wet gushing and arterial water sprayed up into the air. The branch fell, tearing itself apart as it crumbled to the ground. Water splashed out from the pieces and ran through the puff gourds. Jolene made it to the ground and Emmett climbed down moments later. Puff gourd dust kicked up by the pieces falling.

“Are you okay?”

Jolene nodded. “I’m fine. Sorry. I didn’t realize I’d overloaded the branch. I hate that I broke it like that.”

“Don’t worry about it. The limbs grow too long and break off sooner or later from their weight. It’s just the way the sponge wood develops. I think it’s also a factor in the reproduction cycle. We should move up the slope, out of the spores and dust.”

“Okay.”

Emmett picked up his gear. Shouldered the egg case and moved out. Jolene kept up with him. It’d take another half-hour at least to get close enough to the skreeches to set the egg raid in motion. So far they’d been lucky with the timing. The nest wasn’t finished and the weasels hadn’t come yet. Once the skreeches finished fortifying the nest neither he or the weasels would be able to get at the eggs. They’d be secure. And he’d starve. Or have to give up his land. That wasn’t really an option.

The place he planned to strike from was downwind of the skreeches, partially sheltered by a couple smaller boulders. Skreeches used it in the past as an egg site but the more exposed position made it more difficult to defend. A knee-high broken wall of dried sponge wood and mud still stood between the boulders in a wide ring on the hillside. Skreeches dug out the floor into a bowl-shape, making it even deeper. A puddle of water filled most of the bowl but he still had enough dry land behind the wall to set up.

Jolene ran her fingers across the old wall. “Look at the craftsmanship, the way the pieces interlock. It’s fascinating.”

“Nothing that birds on Earth haven’t done.”

“But these aren’t birds, despite the feathers and eggs.”

“No, they’re more like feathered dinosaurs,” Emmett said.

Jolene shook her head. “We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that these are Terran organisms. We have to go all the way back to the beginning and really look at what we’re seeing here. Are these walls instinctual or learned? I understand that there have been markings cut into sponge wood pieces at some sites?”

Emmett stared at her. He’d been a fool. Let a pair of pretty eyes cloud his judgment. She was one of those. “The survey team ruled out intelligence in their study of the skreeches. That’s why they were given the go-ahead to work on the eggs.”

“That decision is being reevaluated.”

“Which is why you wanted to come out here with me? To gather information for this reevaluation?”

“Yes.” She said it quickly and looked away.

Emmett crawled up to the wall. He brought up his rifle and looked through the sights at the skreeches new dwelling. They’d gotten the wall up to waist height already. A head rose up above the wall from the center and another awful sound split the air. It couldn’t be long now. The weasels would be coming soon. He needed to get his eggs and get out of the area. The last thing he wanted to do was be caught in the middle of it all.

“Just don’t get in my way,” he said. He brought the rifle up and prepared to shoot.

Jolene’s hand fell on his arm. “Don’t.”

He looked at her hand. “What choice do I have?”

“Is it worth the chance? What if they are intelligent?”

Emmett shook his head.

“I’ve seen dried sponge wood boards with what looks like cuneiform writing. There is an organization to it.”

“They don’t keep anything. They don’t carry anything. The marks they make are nothing but nest decoration.”

“So you’ve seen it?”

Of course he had. He lived out here. He hunted their eggs. He probably knew more about the skreeches than anyone. Enough to know that no matter how clever they seemed they were nothing but big birds with toothy snouts instead of beaks. Weren’t they?

🚀

“If I don’t get those eggs I won’t be able to eat my crops. I’d have to go back to the Terrasphere or starve.”

She still had her hand on his arm. She squeezed gently. “Would it be so bad back in the Terrasphere? With your experience, you could greatly increase our understanding of life on this planet.”

Movement caught his eye. Shit. Too late. And they were too early. “Weasels.”

Emmett scrambled around Jolene and braced the rifle on the remains of the skreeches’ old wall. The weasels came running up the ridge. They were long and covered in slick brown feathers that changed to orange at the ends rather than fur. Four times the size of a Terran weasel. The pack charging up the hill had to number forty to fifty animals.

“Land piranhas.” He clicked off the safety. “When hunting they’ll fall on anything they come across, including us.”

Jolene crouched beside him. “If we got in the water, would it stop them?”

He shook his head. “They’re excellent swimmers.”

Every few seconds one of the charging weasels would stop, stand up and look ahead. Long faces filled with sharp razor-edged teeth. Emmett carried scars from a weasel attack on his leg and that had been a solitary animal. One weasel stood, looked right at him and a clear warbling whistle rang out. The entire pack changed direction like a school of fish and headed towards the old skreech nest.

“What do we do?”

“Fight.” Emmett brought up the rifle to his shoulder. Auto-tracking locked onto the closest weasel. He fired.

The bullet caught the weasel between the eyes. Flipped it back into the back. Shrill whistles like dozens of police whistles rang out from the pack. He’d gotten them angry now. No time to worry about that.

Fired. Another down. Again and again. The shots rang through the air and in answer the weasels whistled back angrily and kept coming on. Every shot hit. Every shot took out another weasel but they had the numbers.

“We have to retreat.” Emmett stood. Sighted on the next weasel and fired.

Jolene got up and moved back. Emmett worked his way backward, still shooting. Seeing them move the weasels sent out several more warbling whistles. The pack split like a river around a boulder and became two arms reaching around the ridge to sweep up everything in its path. He kept shooting but they had to stay out of those arms or the pack would fall on them in a second.

“We have to move up the ridge.”

“But that will take us up to the skreech nest.”

Emmett fired, brought down another weasel. “I know. Maybe the weasels will be more interested in them. If we can get past the skreeches we might get away.”

Fired. “Move!”

Jolene turned and ran up the slope towards the nest. Emmett lowered the rifle and followed. He stopped after a bit, turned and brought another weasel down. Two more. Ran. Stopped to bring more down. Turned to run again.

Up ahead the skreeches gathered about the nest and in the nest. They’d seen what was coming. Emmett turned. Fired. Another weasel tumbled through the puff gourd dust. A piece of dried sponge wood sailed past his ear. Jolene cried out.

He turned, ducked as another piece flew at his head. The skreeches were throwing the dried sponge wood. Another missile hit the ground near his feet. That was a rock! Much more effective than dried sponge wood. It’d hurt. Indeed Jolene rubbed her shoulder.

Emmett dropped to his knees facing downslope and fired. One. Two. Three little dead weasels. He rose and ran at the skreeches. He expected a rain of wood and rocks, but that was better than letting the weasels get closer. Instead, the skreeches held their fire. Jolene slowed. He caught up to her and they ran up to the nest together. He was sure that Jolene had never been so close to living adult skreeches. Up close they stood as tall as he did. Those nearest shuffled their clawed feet nervously but their attention was on the approaching weasels.

“They aren’t attacking us anymore,” Jolene whispered.

“Good for us.” Emmett grabbed her arm and pushed her towards the nest. “Get in.”

Skreeches made gulping noises deep in their throats when they got close to the nest but did nothing to stop them. Jolene walked through the one gap the skreeches had left in the wall. Emmett followed. Dark green eggs, each as large as his fist filled the bowl-shaped floor. A half-dozen fat, egg-laden skreeches crouched around the eggs and hissed at him.

“I’m not going for them right now,” he muttered. He turned back to the wall, braced the rifle.

Auto-lock. Fired. Weasel whistles grew more shrill. The pincers of the pack began closing in on the nest. Skreeches pelted the oncoming weasels with wood and stone. Their aim wasn’t great but given the pack’s close quarters many were hit and injured. He kept firing until his clip ran out. He ejected and reloaded.

Sheer numbers carried the pack right up to the nest even though they’d left a trail of dead and injured weasels behind. Probably twenty healthy weasels reached the nest. In close quarters the skreeches put their powerful legs to work. He watched one catch weasel leaping at the nest wall with one clawed foot. A quick clench of those powerful toes crushed the life from the weasel. Others simply kicked them, shattering their bones. Emmett had a harder time getting a lock in the crowded conditions but he fired when he got the chance.

A weasel made it over the wall until Jolene clubbed it with a piece of sponge wood.

Then a loud shrill whistle cut through the racket and the remaining weasels, no more than a dozen, turned and fled the nest area. Emmett lowered his gun. No need to kill more if they were leaving. He slowly stood and looked at the skreeches. They watched him warily. Did they remember his past raids? No way he could get to the eggs under these conditions. He didn’t even know if he wanted to any more.

“We’re going,” he said softly. He eased towards the gap in the nest wall. Jolene followed. The skreeches parted to let them leave.

He didn’t feel safer until they’d gotten some distance from the nest. Then he broke the silence. “I’m not going to be able to stay out here without those eggs.”

“We could use your help in the Terrasphere,” Jolene said. “After my report the skreeches status will be reevaluated. You could help us.”

Emmett nodded. “I’d like that. I don’t know if they’re intelligent or not, but I want to stick around until we can figure out a way for us to adapt to this planet.”

Jolene took his arm. “I’d like that too.”

He hoped that they’d make it work. There were so many unknowns. Could they adapt or not? Either way, he couldn’t wait to find out.

🚀

5,090 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 100th short story release, written in April 2010.

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, Androids, and Cargo Bikes.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Swarm Think

Callum left Oakville for college without any intention of returning.

Instead, he found himself back in Oakville outside of his mother’s house. No one wanted to hire a new graduate without experience. He lacked the connections to land a job in this market.

If no one gave him a chance then only one option remained. Create the future he wanted before he lost everything!

🚀

There’d been a time when no one would have picked Oakville, Washington, home of the Acorns, as the next hub of the technological revolution. That would have been Seattle and its surrounding hubs like Bellevue or Everett. Not a town without a stoplight straddling Highway 12, with decaying and empty storefronts. A town where the abandoned and decaying general store proclaimed, with faded and chipped paint on the window, “50 years in business!”

That all changed with Callum Danville’s return to Oakville after having attended the University of Washington. Saddled with outrageous student debt and no prospects of paying it off working a minimum wage job at a retail giant, Callum found himself standing again outside his parent’s faded blue-gray house. Over the years the color had changed until it nearly matched the frequent cloudy skies.

In all other ways, the house was equally in disrepair. Thick carpets of green moss crowded the edges of the asphalt shingles on the street-facing, north side of the house. The front yard was nothing except tall, somewhat-dried grass stalks moving stiffly in the breeze. The surviving rose bushes at the front of the property line suffocated under the weight of vines from years past. A crab apple had grown, and half collapsed across the porch roof.

Between that and the tall weeds on the drive, the rusted end of the Ford pick-up at the side of the house, and the pile of moldering newspapers stacked next to a cracked green plastic trash can, it looked as if the owners had up and left. Or died and no one had bothered to come check on them.

Callum scratched at two days of stubble and briefly considered just going back and waiting for the next bus. He was a young man born to older parents, and his dad had already passed away during his second year leaving his mother nothing. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his mother, seeing the place like this sent a fresh stab of guilt through his heart. The last thing she needed was another burden, his dad had been enough of that in his last year fighting cancer that had stripped him away to a bitter and penniless wreck.

The door never repainted from when Callum’s dog had scratched it with muddy paws (now buried in the back yard), opened and proved the place wasn’t quite as abandoned as it looked.

For a couple faltering heartbeats, Callum didn’t recognize the old woman that waddled out onto the porch in faded and stained once-pink stretch pants and an equally worn cloud-gray sweatshirt. She still had his mother’s eyes though, rapidly filling with tears as her hands fluttered like birds trying to escape her grasp.

“Callum!” Her voice was a harsh wheezing noise like air squeezed from a worn tire.

Truth was, Callum didn’t have any place else to go, and now it was too late anyway. He couldn’t leave things like this. He picked his way up the faint path through the tall grass to the porch.

“Hi ya, Mom.” Callum bent down to enfold her in a hug.

It was like hugging a bony pillow, as if her flesh was melting down over her bones. He was much taller, always a big, athletic-looking boy and now appeared as an athletic man. The Acorns’ coach up at the high school had never understood why Callum wasn’t willing to play football or basketball. In a town where that was the biggest thing going on, why did he insist on spending his time at the dinky public library in the city hall meeting room? Looking big and athletic didn’t do a thing to change Callum’s geeky heart. He was far more at home studying physics and engineering or reading science fiction, than going out for the football team.

“You came home, look at you! I hardly recognized you,” Mom said. “Such a thing, not recognizing your own son. I couldn’t figure out why a good-looking young man was standing out there looking at the house. I thought maybe you worked for public works or something. I was going to call over to city hall and ask about it when I realized it was you!”

She laughed as if it was the funniest thing she had heard in a long time.

Callum stepped back and just looked at Mom. Through the years and the weight she had gained, it was still her. The guilt rose up again like bile as he realized the last time he had seen her was at Dad’s funeral. They’d talked on the phone, he posted on Facebook, he was just always busy in school, so it was strange to feel like he had been in touch only to realize that she never really shared anything about her life. No selfies, no real posts except comments on what he posted. Two years!

Mom smiled and patted his arm. “You’re here now, come on in. You must be tired after riding the bus all those hours.”

On the way down from Tacoma, the bus had only had standing room. It was full of desperation, plus several crying babies. He had hung onto the seat backs and tried not to look down the cleavage of the teenage mother in the seat, although he couldn’t escape her milky smell, a bit sour and sweet.

“It was fine,” Callum said, following her into the house.

If bears lived in houses, it would probably be like this dim, cool cave. Reflective curtains kept out the sunlight. No air-conditioning, not with the carbon taxes. Who could afford it? Blocking the windows during the day and opening the windows at night had to serve.

Although he had lived here before college, it hardly looked familiar. It was emptier for one thing. Dad kept stuff, all sorts of things from DVDs, books, and magazines to all sorts of toys and gadgets. They’d shared a love for how things worked. This, though, was a Spartan environment. A basic wood couch with thin burgundy cushions, the left scalloped and shaped from being sat on while the others looked dusty but unworn. No more shelves, no knick-knacks, or coffee table. Just a dusty wall-mounted tv-pc and a tiny wireless keyboard on the single end-table.

“I had a clean-out,” Mom said. “After your father was gone, I sent you a box, didn’t I? I didn’t know if it was anything you wanted or not.”

It wasn’t, not really. Just junk that Dad had collected. Like Mom, he hadn’t had room in his life for it.

“I couldn’t look it all after he was gone. I wanted things simpler.”

“It looks great, Mom.”

She smiled at him and leaned into his side, wrapping him in a hug again. She smelled like butter and sugar, cookies. She loved cookies, Dad used to call her that, Cookie.

🚀

Hot sun baked Callum’s shoulders, and sweat ran down over his chest toward his belly button. He swung the push mower around and shoved it back into the tall grass. The spinning blades chopped into it and stopped. He yanked it back and took another run at them. Half the yard already looked like a kid with a bad spiky haircut, but it would get easier if he stayed on top of it. Almost a week past already, and the prospect of any job looked bleak.

The grass bent and didn’t cut. He yanked the mower back and ran at it again.

Thanks to Mom, he had a roof over his head. He wasn’t out on the street asking for handouts because he was taking them from her. Risking her state assistance, if they got wind that she was supporting someone undocumented, her benefits could get cut. He hadn’t even used the tv-pc to go online because that would only help the bill collectors find his location quicker.

The grass bent before the mower, and he stopped and mopped at his face with the rag from his pocket.

Before he was tracked down, he needed to get a job. Or move on. Hit the road. Lots of people drifted these days, the disconnected by choice or necessity. Getting his degree was supposed to prevent that from happening, but no one wanted to hire someone right out of school. They wanted to see that you’d already done the job first, but you couldn’t get the experience unless someone gave you a chance.

He had used his tablet offline, noodling around on concepts and ideas that he couldn’t fully develop. Not without time, and when you’re spending nearly every waking moment just trying to survive, how was he supposed to invent anything? The best he could do was work in bits and pieces, but the whole process was going to take forever.

Sort of like trying to shove the mower through the tall stubborn grass. The thick outer stems looked dry, but the interior contained enough moisture that the grass bent instead of cutting.

Callum pulled back the mower and ran at the grass again. It’d be better if he didn’t have to waste time and energy on simple chores like mowing grass, but there was no way he was lying around Mom’s house, eating her food and doing nothing to help out. Even if an argument could be made that focusing on his inventions might help them both in the long run, there was no telling how long it would be.

If only there was a way to take care of the mindless chores while he focused on the important stuff. Sort of like how the body worked. Breathing, heart pumping blood, digesting food, he didn’t have to think about any of that consciously. Even taking a crap was less about thinking how to do it than getting to the can in time.

What if chores could be automated the way the body worked? There were expensive solar robots to mow perfectly manicured lawns using random behavior to eventually get the job done, but it was hardly efficient. It’d be better if he could just do the mowing intelligently, while still be free to work on more intellectual pursuits. True multi-tasking, not the task switching that most people called multi-tasking when they wasted time switching back and forth between different things.

The mower cut through a stubborn club of grass. The air was thick with the smell of fresh cut grass, and a couple flies buzzed lazily through the air.

What if the two were combined? What if he could control a robot with part of his brain, but without having to think about it consciously? Like breathing. It just happened, but if he focused he could change his breathing.

Thought-controlled interfaces were common enough, but they all required conscious focus and were non-specific. If he could find a way to relegate it to a more autonomic sort of function, though, then he could have all sorts of bots doing what he wanted while leaving him free to focus.

His pulse increased. Maybe there was something to the idea. If he ever got a chance to figure it out.

🚀

Callum resisted the urge to fiddle with the tie wrapped constrictor-like around his neck. It wasn’t going to choke him, and he didn’t want to appear nervous when he walked into the meeting room. He was too nervous to take a seat on any of the shiny leather couches in the reception area. He stood instead, pretending to look at the art on the wall. It actually was pretty cool, a large spaceship flying between two stars, one pulling material off the other. It looked familiar, maybe from a science fiction novel cover, but it also looked like an original.

Auspicious Ventures was located in a huge skyscraper in downtown Seattle. It’d taken him twenty minutes to find a place to park his share car and then he had to nearly run to get here in time for the meeting. If it went well, these people could help provide the initial capital that he needed to get his project off the ground.

The demonstration was simple enough. If it worked. If it didn’t, he was going to look foolish, but he had to be confident.

Behind the reception desk, the young man who had greeted him was busy working on something on his computer. Jim. That was his name. Jim looked up and saw Callum looking at him.

“You’re sure I couldn’t get you anything Mr. Danville?” Jim said. “Latte? Coffee? Water? Soda?”

Callum chuckled. “No, thank you. Mind if I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

Jim was probably Callum’s age, within a few years. It looked like this was probably a pretty decent job. Auspicious Ventures had an expensive space in the building, good taste in art, and a great sci-fi rocket swoosh sort of logo that had caught his eye when he started looking for a venture capital firm.

“Do you ever wish you could do more than one thing at a time? Or be in more than one place at a time?”

“Sure,” Jim said. “All the time.”

Callum nodded. “Thanks.”

“That was it?”

“Yep, I just needed to hear that.”

Jim grinned. “You’ve got something cool, don’t you?”

Callum grinned as well. “I think so.”

“Mr. Danville?” A woman said behind him. “We’re ready for you.”

He turned around, and his heart nearly stopped. It wasn’t that she was beautiful. Attractive, yes, but it was all in how she stood and looked at him. She was a brunette, with short hair styled so that it parted the left side of her hair, with miniature dream-catcher earrings. She wore a shimmery, colorful scarf over a black dress and her quirky sort of smile just did him in.

She was walking toward him, her hand out. “I’m Aquilina Kentucky, but call me Lina, everyone does.”

He shook her hand, warm, firm grip. Her eyes were brown as well. “Callum. It’s nice to meet you.”

She winked. “Don’t be nervous. Your pitch has us intrigued. Let’s go see what we can do together.”

Several things came to mind, none of them appropriate to the situation. Callum pushed the thought away, he could ask her out later, maybe, if things went well. Or not.

He followed her into the meeting room. A big space, with folding tables pushed together to create a bigger table at the center. Mesh chairs on wheels arranged around it. Out the windows, there was even a view of downtown Seattle and a glimpse of the Space Needle.

He expected a room full of people in suits and was surprised when he found the room was empty. There were chairs for a dozen people around the tables, but it was only him and Ms. Kentucky in the room.

“Are there more people coming?” He asked.

She smiled and gestured to the chairs. “Nope. Just us, Callum. Our firm trusts our partners to make good judgments about our investments.”

“And if you make mistakes?”

“Mistakes are one thing. We support the creation of new innovation here, and with that comes a certain measure of risk. We do expect our partners both in the firm and those we chose to work with to succeed more than they fail. The successes pave the way for future successes.”

Her eyes focused on the case he held. “I assume you brought something to show me?”

A dry mouth and a racing heart were the least of his problems. Out of all of the firms he had approached, this was the only one to ask to see more. Creditors were already after him about the student loans. Mom’s benefits were cut and just paying the property taxes on the house was going to be tough. He needed this to work, or they’d both be out drifting, and Mom couldn’t take that.

Callum placed the case on the table. “I do. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” Lina crossed her arms and watched him.

“Do you ever wish you could really multitask? Not switch from one thing to another, but really do several things at the same time?”

“Of course,” Lina said. “Your pitch raised the question, but I’ll admit I’m skeptical. Software agents are great, but they can’t take the place of real human judgment.”

Callum snapped open the latches on the case. “Of course not, but I’m not talking about software agents.”

“You’re not?”

He shook his head and lifted the lid. “I’m not. I’m talking about Swarm Think.”

Several small shiny orbs floated up from inside the case. Each was packed with scrounged up electronics taken from discarded gaming devices, silent fans from recycled cooling systems, and dozens of other parts from digital cameras, smartphones, and tablets. The cool silvery spherical bodies came from decorations with the top and bottoms cut off. He’d made four of them with what he could pull together, and they floated up around him.

Lina smiled. “Those are cute.”

One zipped off toward the door. The doors whooshed open to let the sphere through.

“Where’s that one going?”

“To ask Jim to bring me a mocha after all,” Callum said.

A second flew around behind her. Lina turned, trying to watch it as it flew near the window. “And that one?”

“Just admiring the view.”

The other two flew out over the table and the lasers he’d managed to pack in projected a holographic display above the table with his presentation. His voice came out of the spheres.

“What you see here are multiple drones controlled by me, not software agents.”

Her eyes narrow as she looked at him, but his mouth wasn’t moving.

“That’s right,” his voice said from the spheres. “I’m not talking.”

In fact, Callum, heart-pounding, turned and walked to the end of the table. He pulled out the chair and sat down. Then he reached into his case and brought out a tablet and opened up one of his e-books and started to read.

“I’m not trying to be rude,” Callum’s voice said from the spheres. “Please don’t take it that way.”

“I’m not,” Lina said. “I’m intrigued. Go on.”

The door opened, and Jim walked in carrying two steaming mugs. The sphere flew past him and took up a position hovering near Callum.

He accepted the mocha from Jim and savored the rich chocolatey smell. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.” Jim pointed to the spheres. “What are those?”

“Part of a client demonstration,” Lina said. “If you’ll excuse us?”

Jim grinned. “Sure. Of course.”

After Jim was out of the room, while Callum sipped the hot mocha and read his book, the spheres said, “As I said, these aren’t controlled by software agents. They’re all me.”

“How is that possible?”

“It’s easier than you might think. Do you remember your dreams, Lina?”

“Sure,” she said. She laughed and looked at him. “This looks like a nifty ventriloquism trick.”

He lifted the mocha and took a drink as the spheres showed diagrams of the process. “Thought waves, transmitted to the spheres control what is happening. In your dreams are there other people?”

“Yes.”

“People you talk to, interact with? Maybe dance with, or kiss or fight?”

Lina nodded. “Yes, of course. They’re dreams. Anything can happen.”

“Do you ever think about who is controlling those characters? When you’re talking to someone in your dream, do you think about the fact that you’re talking to yourself? You can be a whole party of characters interacting, and all of it is your brain talking to itself.”

“I guess so. I’ve never thought much about it.”

Callum put down the tablet and stood back up. He’d made his point already. He said, “That’s what this is. Your brain controls the drones. They do what you want to do, but without requiring your conscious control. You can focus on other things while your drones are busy doing all of the things you need them to do. A drone can be anything. A computer. A lawn mower. Camera. Whatever you need, and it will take care of things.”

The hologram between the drones shifted. It showed a video of a solar lawn mower moving across the grass at his mother’s house.

It didn’t look like the house he had seen when he first got home. The yard and flower beds were immaculate. The lawn mower moved across the lawn in a tight back and forth organized pattern. No random moving around the yard without a brain.

“I’m mowing the lawn. I’m talking to you. I’m working on an email. All of it is controlled by me, thanks to Swarm Think.”

Callum turned his head so that she could see the small sensor nets and fine circuitry tattooed onto his neck behind his ears. The spheres displayed the tech.

“Painless, removable, the net interfaces and gives you control over your swarm.”

Her smile was gone. She crossed her arms tighter and took a deep breath. Callum’s gut sank.

Lina shook her head. “Thank you, Callum. I wish you all the best, but I don’t think that this is something that Auspicious Ventures will support.”

His voice echoed from all of the spheres when he spoke. “What?”

Callum continued with just him speaking. “Would you be willing to give me some feedback? Is there anything I could do to improve the technology so that it would be more appealing?”

Lina pressed her hands together. “We have to weigh everything about our potential partners very carefully, Callum, I’m sure you understand. And what the implications are for whatever they are presenting. Autonomous agents controlled by your subconscious, it sounds dangerous. That, along with your financial situation, makes this investment too risky. We like some measure of risk, but you have to see that the first time one of these swarm robots injured someone how liable the company would be?”

“They won’t do anything you don’t want them to do,” Callum said. “It’s like breathing. They’ll do their jobs without you having to think about it, but if you do focus on them, then you have conscious control.”

Lina was shaking her head before he finished. “I’m sure that’s true, and it doesn’t matter. All someone has to do was claim that it acted against his or her unconscious wishes and they’d have a case. How do we prove otherwise? None of us are perfect, we sometimes have unkind thoughts, but what happens if this technology acts on those subconscious impulses?”

“It won’t,” Callum said. “I considered that and—”

“I’m sorry,” Lina said. She held out her hand. “Thank you for sharing your vision with me. I wish you the best of luck with it.”

She wasn’t going to be convinced. He liked her and got the sense that she liked him too, but obviously that wasn’t enough.

“Okay, thank you for taking the time.” He shook her hand, and at the same time the swarm spheres and flew back into the case and settled into their slots.

He released her hand and snapped the case closed, then picked it up. “Have a good day.”

🚀

As jobs went being a publisher wasn’t bad. Callum’s work paid the bills for the house to take care of him and his mother. Thanks to his swarm, he could handle working on multiple tasks at the same time. Right now he was laying out an interior file, searching image databases for appropriate pictures for another project, and handling uploads to various retailers of his latest project.

While all of that was going on, he worked his way through his emails, those left after the swarm think agent had already processed the messages. It left him with the messages from new and existing clients that required that extra conscious touch.

Which wasn’t that many.

That was the trouble. He was bored. Busy, his brain was used to juggling a half-dozen different tasks these days, but his conscious mind wasn’t engaged in anything the way it had been when he first developed the swarm think technology last year. After the failed attempt to secure funding, he had used the technology to start his own freelancing business. Publishing was straight-forward enough now, shifting through the slush pile was the biggest chore and something easily shoved off onto the swarm think agents.

The biggest problem he had was figuring out a way to develop the swarm think technology for the market. It worked great, Swarm Press was proof of that, but he still didn’t have an answer to Lina’s concern. He didn’t believe that it could do something without the person behind it wanting it to happen. People had built-in checks on their behavior. They might write a hateful email but then would delete it instead of sending it.

Except sometimes they did send the hate email, or post nasty comments, or do much worse things. So if someone that would do something worse did it with swarm think, then couldn’t they claim that the agents had done it without their conscious permission? He’d gotten so focused on the impossibility of it, he neglected the one simple fact that people lie.

Lina was right. One person claiming it would trigger an avalanche of other claims. He had a technology that would multiply the productivity of a single worker, and he couldn’t use it.

Even without the potential risks, there was the other side of the coin. Doing everything he was doing, even at this scale, would take at least a dozen people and he could do it all. The labor organizations weren’t going to look favorably on that sort of thing. With different sorts of robotic agents, a single person could be the brains behind dozens of agents, all working perfectly together to get jobs done. Worth a lot, but it wasn’t something the world was going to accept easily, especially not with unemployment at record highs.

At least he had the advantage of the swarm to help him get more done. It was the reason that he had managed to keep them above water.

Mom walked in, one of his original swarm spheres floating along behind her. In her hands, she carried a plate of fresh chocolate chip cookies. The smell was heavenly.

“You wanted cookies?”

“Thank you,” he said.

She was looking much better than the first day when he had shown up outside. She was getting out more, walking, and reading the books that he published. As fast as he could publish them, she was reading them.

“How’s it going?”

Callum gestured at the screens arrayed around him. Documents and other work flowed across the screen. On one he was making copy-edit corrects to the text of a fantasy novel. Editing hadn’t been a skill he had, but with swarm think helping it had given him the time he needed to study while he worked on other things.

“It’s going well. Everything is working fine.”

“That’s good. I’m so proud of you.” She said, repeating herself since she said it at least once per day.

“Thanks, Mom.” Callum picked up one of the chocolate chip cookies and took a bite. Hot melted chocolate dissolved in his mouth. “Delicious. I’m just trying to figure out what I do now.”

“What do you mean? I thought everything was going fine.”

“It is,” Callum said. “But I hadn’t planned on running a publishing business. I wanted to invent things to change the world for the better. Swarm Think should give people the time to explore and do what they want. Instead of being stuck doing a job all day, people could let their swarms do the work while they learn and find answers to problems. People always say they wish they could be three places at once and with this they can—I just can’t figure out how to let them have it without costing us everything.”

“What if you did let them have it?” Mom said. “We would still have our publishing business, right?”

“You mean just give it away?”

“Well, you could publish it, couldn’t you? Write a DIY manual on Swarm Think. What do you call it, open source hardware?”

Callum was stunned. It was obvious, but he hadn’t thought about it. He smiled until it hurt and jumped to his feet. He wrapped his arms around his mother, gently, and kissed the top of your head.

“You’re brilliant!”

🚀

At the worksite, the workers were busy playing games, reading, studying, and sharing stories. Callum walked through the site, noticing the laughter and good cheer. These men and women were having a good time while Swarm Think robots built by the workers climbed, flew, and slithered around the building as they built the new Swarm Press headquarters in downtown Oakville.

Lina stopped at the edge of the construction site and accepted the sunshine yellow hardhat that one of Callum’s drones offered her. She put it on her head, grinned and waved at him.

Callum reached her and offered her his hand. “Thank you for coming out. I wanted you to see this first hand.”

She gazed at the site, noting the workers gathered around their tables beneath the awning. “It looks more like a party than a work group.”

“But each one of those workers is also working on the building.” Callum pointed at the busy hive of activity. “Not only that, but they assembled their own drones. Strictly DIY.”

“Clever,” Lina said. “You don’t make any of the drones, then?”

“Nope. You can thank my mother for that idea. Swarm Press publishes the manuals, design specs, and sells parts to hobbyists and large orders to businesses, but we don’t manufacture anything. That all comes from other suppliers.”

“So anyone manufacturing Swarm Think drones is liable for their use.”

“And we’ve published dozens of articles, funded research that shows that the drones won’t act independently of the controller’s wishes. If someone uses a drone or software agent to commit a crime, the research is going to show that they’re responsible.”

Lina smiled up at him. “You’ve done it on your own, but that begs the question why you wanted me to see it? It doesn’t sound like you need Auspicious Ventures help. It wasn’t to rub my nose in it, I hope?”

Callum laughed and shook his head. “No, not at all. Lina, would you care to have dinner with me?”

Her eyes widened with surprise that quickly turned into a nod of acceptance, and for one moment his swarm paused as all of his attention focused on her widening smile.

🚀

5,090 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 99th short story release, written in May 2014.

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, Egg Hunt.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Quantum Uncertainty

Detective Barry Holliday, Doc to the few who knew him, took interesting jobs. Unusual corporate work.

Nothing illegal. Interesting. This latest assignment involved corporate espionage, very hush, hush, corporate secrets stuff. High tech. Just how high tech, he didn’t know.

Not until the whole job goes very wrong and Doc faces one of the weirdest situations in his career.

🚀

Detective Barry Holliday, Doc to his friends, what few he had, crouched to tighten the cuffs on the perp. He didn’t like being so close to the guy, one Phillip Norton, who smelled of too few showers and too much weed with a beer aftershave. He stood up confident that the guy couldn’t slip out of the cuffs.

“Come on, man, those hurt!”

Doc shrugged. He turned his attention back to the desk, a large dark glass and black metal affair littered with computer parts. Three monitors acted as the centerpiece of the unit. Doc sat down in front of the screens.

“What’d you do with the data you stole from Q-Prime?”

“That’s what this is about? Man, how’d you find me?”

Doc brushed a fingertip across the screens. They came to life. Red lasers flicked on from a small device in front of the monitors and created a keyboard pattern on the glass desktop. But the keys were all laid out in a different order than normal. Doc looked back at the guy.

“What’s this?” He gestured to the keys.

“A keyboard. What does it look like?”

“Don’t get smart. Why are the keys in the wrong places?”

“It’s a modified Dvorak layout. More efficient, you see?”

“Right.” Doc studied the layout. Vowels on the home row. This was going to take time. Fortunately, the guy hadn’t had time to lock the computers down. It was all open and available. Doc reached out and dragged open the guy’s file system. Tons of stuff but when he checked the recent activity logs he found the files he wanted under Armageddon. File sizes and count matched what Q-Prime had given him. He pulled out a jump drive and stuck it in a USB port on the monitor. A quick grab, drag and dump and the files were being moved over to the drive. No need to use that weird keyboard at all.

“Man,” the perp said. “You can’t give that back to them!”

Doc spun the chair around. “Look, I’ve already called the cops. They’re going to be here soon. I’m turning you over to them. You were pretty clever getting out of Q-Prime, I’m still not sure how you managed that –”

“I beamed out.”

“Beamed?”

Phillip nodded enthusiastically, a move that sent his greasy brown hair flying around his face.  He twitched his head to shake it back away. Phillip had to have brains to get into Q-Prime and managed to get out again with this data, but he didn’t look like it.

“Right, dude. That’s what this is all about. They’ve developed technology that can transport anything somewhere else. I got in, copied the data and set it to erase after I left. Then I beamed back here. The computer wiped and they lost everything.”

The files were still copying. It was a lot of information. Doc looked back at Phillip. “You lost me there. Are you talking about teleporting or something? Like in science fiction?”

“Yes! Exactly! Dude, think about what they could do with that sort of technology?” Phillips bloodshot eyes widened. He leaned forward as far as the cuffs allowed. “It’s the end of everything.”

“Sounds to me like the end of rush hour traffic, what’s so bad about that?”

Phillip slumped. “Dude, you don’t get it. Shipping industry, gone. Manufacturing, gone. Transportation, gone. Medical, gone. Agriculture, gone. Pretty much everything will be gone. And then when they turn it into a weapon we’ll all be gone too.”

“You’re crazy, kid. But that’s not my problem. I just do the job.” Doc heard sirens outside. The files finished. Perfect timing. He pulled his drive and slipped it into his pocket. “I turn you over to the cops and give Q-Prime back their property. That’s it.”

Phillip thrashed against the cuffs. “No! Seriously, you don’t understand!”

“Yeah, right, kid. I’ll be seeing you.”

Doc walked around the chair, planning to go out and meet the cops. He’d hang around until he saw the kid tucked safely away into the back of a squad car and then he’d be on his way. Another job done. You had to love these industrial espionage cases.

The first shot took Phillip in the throat, knocking his chair over backward and spraying blood across the hardwood floors. The crack of the chair followed by the whack of Phillip’s head against the floor were both louder than the shot. A silencer then. Someone didn’t want the cops outside to know that they were shooting. The fact that the shooter took out Phillip first gave Doc a chance to hide behind the desk, not that the furniture and computer equipment provided much shelter. Still, anything was better than nothing.

Doc drew his weapon and fired off one shot at the ceiling. There wasn’t a second floor and the shot would alert the cops to be cautious at least. He tried to peek out and was rewarded by the monitor above his head exploding into sparks, smoke, and flying glass. Doc ducked lower. A second shot hit the computer behind him. He smelled electronics burning with a hot ozone scent. Time to move.

He darted towards the kitchen and the hallway down towards the bedrooms. Bullets hit the wall beside him but none caught him. He made it to the hallway and kept going. If the shooter caught up to him now he didn’t have any cover. He reached the bedroom and kicked the door shut. Phillip had about as much sense of cleanliness in here as he did out in the other room. The room stunk of stale beer, weed, and moldy food. It lacked any furniture except a futon on the floor with black blankets wadded into a pile. It didn’t even have a dresser he could shove in front of the door.

On the other hand, he could see through a small slit in the curtains that the windows weren’t barred so that was something. He holstered his gun and went to the window. He reached through the curtains and dragged the window open.

“Freeze! Don’t move! Hands above your head!”

Cops. Doc lifted his hands and folded them on his head but looked back. The door knob turned. Stay and get shot in the back or go out and risk being shot by the police. Not a good choice. He dove forward through the screen. He hit on his back, not too hard, and heard shouts all around. Hands grabbed him and flipped him over onto his stomach.

“Shooter inside!” Doc shouted.

That got their attention. He found himself hauled up and hustled along the alley. Someone slapped cuffs on his wrists as they went. They took up shelter behind a squad car and Doc finally got to see who he was with. Young cops. Rookie cops with nervous eyes. Sandoval and Hicks, according to their uniforms. Sandoval was young, blond and a woman with a very pretty face. She looked very pale. Hicks was a bigger teddy bear sort of guy with baby fat still in his cheeks. He looked almost panicked.

“I’m Barry Holliday. I’m the private detective that called you. There’s a shooter inside, he already killed Phillip Norton, the guy you’re here to arrest.”

“Yeah, buddy, just sit tight. We’ll handle this,” Sandoval said.

He didn’t have any other choice so he waited until the other cops came out, his identification was checked and verified. With nothing to hold him on they cut him loose. Doc thanked them and headed home with the data from Phillip’s computer.

🚀

Home was a downtown apartment. Nothing fancy. A small bedroom with a bed and unpainted pine dresser. The main living room slash kitchen and dining room looked bigger than it was simply because he didn’t have a lot of stuff. He’d never been a fan of a lot of stuff. He had an over-sized blue denim bean bag chair, a lamp with a flexible gooseneck and a wood TV tray set up under the window. A wood chair, painted green, sat beside the tray. That was it for furniture. He hadn’t hung any paintings. The kitchen counters sat bare and empty except for the dish rack with his single bowl, plate, glass, spoon, fork and knife. They didn’t even get used that often since he usually ate out. Doc came through the door, locked it behind him and pulled off his coat.

He took out the USB drive and his tablet before hanging the coat on a hook on the back of the door. He walked over to the bean bag chair and lifted it up and flipped it over to fluff it up. Then he dropped into it and closed his eyes as he sank into its comforting depths. Some days he didn’t even leave the bean bag to sleep. He turned on the tablet and plugged in the USB drive. The files came up.

He opened his email program and picked one of the smaller files at random. He attached it and sent it with an invoice to Q-Prime. As soon as their money showed up in the escrow account he’d established then he’d release the rest of the files. He felt bad about Phillip dying. Someone hadn’t wanted him to talk.

Teleportation, Phillip had said. Doc scanned the other files and opened one of the documentation files. It was full of technobabble but as best Doc could make out Phillip had been telling the truth.  Q-Prime had developed a way to transport material from one spot to another. It could operate on scales from single atoms to large objects. He didn’t understand all of the details but it had something to do with changing the space-time coordinates of the target. Basically, they told the object that it wasn’t here but was actually there. They called it quantum bit-shifting. It didn’t sound like beaming the way he’d thought of it watching the old Star Trek shows. They weren’t talking about converting matter into energy and back but in the end, he didn’t see that it made any difference. You went poof in one place and appeared in another.

Doc didn’t want to think about it too much. He’d done his job. Yeah, he could see Phillip’s point about something like shipping, assuming that building the device wasn’t too difficult and it didn’t sound like it was from what he’d read. But that wouldn’t mean the end of everything. What worried him more were the military applications. What if you could ‘beam’ a warhead inside a target? High-yield explosive just appears inside a nuclear reactor. Ka-Boom! No warning. No way to trace who was responsible. If a terrorist group got hold of these files they could hold the world at ransom.

Not his problem. He’d been hired to recover the files. He’d done that. Doc shut the computer down, sat it aside and leaned back. He closed his eyes and folded his hands across his middle. He could use some rest.

🚀

He’d hardly closed his eyes when the bean bag vanished. He dropped onto a hard surface and lights blinded him. He heard voices and the hum of equipment. He lifted a hand to block the light. It came from two bright fluorescent tubes above his head. He blinked and looked around finding himself in a small room with concrete block walls. The air felt cold and dry.

“It worked,” some said. A woman. Young, by the sound of her voice.

“I told you. Phillip said it would.” A young guy with a scratchy smoker’s voice.

Doc flipped over in a crouch. His hand went to his gun—

🚀

He fell. He barely registered the sensation of falling before he hit the ground. He didn’t have time to do anything to break his fall and he hit hard on his elbow and side. Not enough to knock his wind out but hard. He lifted his head and found he was still in the same room. This time he saw his captors. Two twenty-somethings standing behind a bank of computers and equipment on the other side of the room. Doc reached for his gun. Fast. Faster than most people could draw.

His hand hit an empty holster. The gun sat on the table in front of the man.

“Don’t bother, Holliday,” the guy said. “Just chill out.”

The guy wore an expensive suit. Clean-shaven. He looked like a young Wall Street sort of guy. The woman with him looked more like a computer geek. She wore a black business dress but her hair was carelessly pulled back into a ponytail. Pretty in a slightly curvy overweight geek fashion. Her auburn hair had darker and lighter streaks.

Doc rocked back on his heels. “You’ve got the Q-Prime tech.”

The guy nodded. “That’s right. Phillip came through for us. But it isn’t without problems. We need the latest data from the company.”

Doc shook his head. “Can’t help you. I already turned it over.”

🚀

Falling. It didn’t surprise him as much this time. He slapped the floor when he hit but lay still. Let them think he’d been hurt. They’d teleported, beamed him, quantum bit-shifted, whatever they wanted to call it up to the ceiling and then let him fall.

He heard the woman’s heels click on the floor.

“Stop,” the guy said.

“He looks hurt.”

“He didn’t fall that hard. And he slapped the floor. He’s faking.”

🚀

Falling again. Doc took the fall and didn’t bother faking an injury. He rolled and popped up into a sprinter’s position. He pushed off. One stride, two, nearly there—

🚀

Fall. Hit. And rolled forward, still with the momentum of his brief sprint. Doc collided with the back of the computer equipment. He grabbed a fistful of cords and yanked.

“Shit!”

Doc heard keys rattle. The girl gasped. Doc stood up and shoved the monitors at the guy who gasped and jumped back as the monitors shattered. Doc grabbed his gun. He had it pointed square at the guy’s chest.

“Name. Now.”

“Whoa! Okay! Shit.” The guy lifted his hands. “Martin Donaldson.”

Doc looked at the girl. “You?”

Tears welled in her eyes. “We didn’t want to hurt you—”

“Name!”

She jumped. “Kasey Linton.”

Doc kept the gun steady. “Get over to the wall. Hands on the wall. Legs spread. Don’t piss me off.”

They hesitated.

“Now!”

“Okay! Fuck!” Martin went to the wall. He slapped his palms against it. “Holliday, you’ve got to—”

“Shut up.”

Kasey leaned into the wall. Her shoulders shook. Doc went around the computers. Some of the equipment still looked to be on. He saw a couple power strips and hit the switches. The computers went dark. He went over to the two standing against the wall. Martin flinched when Doc frisked. He didn’t have a weapon. Neither did Kasey. But he did take cell phones off them and pocketed them both. He stepped back.

“Sit down facing the wall. Cross-legged. Hands folded on your heads.”

Martin got down. So did Kasey.

“Good. Now you’re going to answer some questions. How did you get the machine working so quickly?”

“It isn’t that hard once you understand it,” Kasey said. “I had to write some targeting routines. That’s why we wanted their research. They’ve had longer to develop the implementation.”

“So anyone with the resources could build one of these?”

“Right,” Martin said. “Q-Prime is going to deal with the highest bidder and whoever that is will control everything. Get it? Phillip came to us. He told us what was happening. I had the funds and between him and Kasey, they got it working. We were going to make it available to everyone. It’s the only way it’ll work. Balance of power, you know?”

Doc lowered his gun but didn’t put it away. He glanced at the material on the desk that wasn’t covered by the shattered monitors. He didn’t understand the papers but he recognized the Q-Prime logo.

“Why’d you kill Phillip? To cut him out of the deal?”

“We didn’t kill him,” Martin said.

“We didn’t,” Kasey added. She sobbed. “I loved Phillip.”

He believed them. “Any ideas who did kill him?”

“It was Q-Prime that killed him. They didn’t want him talking about their technology.”

Doc didn’t rise to the bait. “If every nutcase on the planet has access to this technology then no one is safe.”

“Wrong.” Kasey looked back. “We’re safe because no one is safe. Who would use it, knowing that any survivors will have access to the same technology to retaliate?”

“Plenty.” Doc sat down in a chair. “How many copies of the research are out there right now?”

“Don’t tell him,” Martin said.

Doc nodded. “So only yours and what I’ve got. Why didn’t you and Phillip just destroy the data? Then no one would have it.”

“You can’t destroy knowledge like that,” Kasey said. “I understand it. So do the researchers at Q-Prime. It’d take time to develop a new working model but not that much time. Months.”

“Which is why we have to go public with the technology now rather than later,” Martin said.

“It isn’t just the technology.” Kasey twisted around. “This is a fundamental discovery about how our universe works. Knowledge like this needs to be shared. Q-Prime won’t share it.”

To his left was a closed green metal door. Doc twitched his head at it while keeping the gun on them. “Where does that go? Where am I?”

Kasey answered. “You’re at the University. This is Lab 3, one of the rooms in the basement. That just goes out into the hallway. We convinced labs to give us the room for the semester.”

Doc eased over towards the door. “I’m leaving now. I suggest you stay put until the cops get here.”

“Cops!” Martin started to lower his hands.

“Up!” Doc snapped. “Do it!”

“Jeez, okay. Why are you calling the cops?”

“You stole the data with Phillip. You kidnapped me with your device. I don’t even know if being teleported is safe. I think you’re going to be facing charges.”

“Shit,” Martin said. “You can’t do that.”

“Watch me.” Doc opened the door. As they had said, the door opened onto a concrete hallway. An exit sign glowed green at the end.

🚀

When the cops arrived they found the equipment back on. Martin and Kasey were gone. Doc checked his account balance using the campus Wi-Fi and found the money deposited as contracted. He created a compressed archive of the files and sent it to Q-Prime. Then he deleted the files. He’d fulfilled his contract. All the rest of that stuff, what was going to happen with this technology, this new knowledge that the researchers had developed, that was out of his hands.

It always had been. The world might change but he couldn’t stop the changes, he could only adapt and move on.

🚀

3,274  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 98th short story release, written in November 2009.

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, Quantum Uncertainty.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Child of Their Minds

Long ago the Languirian species opened portals to countless worlds and dispersed to habitable planets across the galaxy. It didn’t save them.

Humanity discovered the portals. Learned to control the systems that identified habitable worlds, and created colonies of their own.

Now a colony disappears in a mysterious disaster and a gestalt unit investigates. What they discover changes humanity forever.

🚀

As battlefields went this one was nearly antiseptic. The air was dry and tasted of chalk in the back of Mike Erwin’s throat. Wetting the tongue from the hydration pack didn’t help, it just smeared the taste around.

Nothing but glassy black rock almost to the horizon, shimmering and dancing like water from the heat. It’d all been an outpost once upon a couple days ago. There’d been a com tower to talk to the now-absent satellite network, habitation ark-hive to house the five thousand some-odd people calling Osprey home, several industrial fabrication domes and acres and acres of Terran-transplant crops to feed all those eager-beaver colonists.

Nothing left now. Whatever removed the satellites had flash fried the entire settlement site out in a perfect circle five kilometers across. Baked it down to molten perfection and let it cool until ready. All on a planet that had no evidence of ever having harbored any intelligent life. At least nothing that orbital surveys had uncovered. No evidence of ancient ruins. Nothing on the two moons either to suggest that anyone had ever visited this particular planetary Eden.

Plus there was the fact that the Languirian portal had identified the planet according to the strict specifications of a human-compatible world without any indigenous sentients.

Jean Baxter whistled for the troops to come together in formation. Mike snapped to with the other four specialists, not that it looked like there was much to do in this case.

Jean towered over the rest of them at just over two meters. Tall, dark, and handsome with a voice like a drill sergeant, he’d been in love since he had first reported to duty on her detail three years ago. Three years of unrequited love and it didn’t matter—he’d still follow her out to worlds where the colonists were vaporized so fast that even their ashes were broken down into free atoms.

“Synchronize,” she said.

Mike pounded his third eye and triggered the deep cortex implant that merged him with the rest of the unit. All sensory data, everything came together and their thoughts intertwined to create a new entity referred to by the unimaginative name of Unit.

They all became Jean’s meat-puppets. Mike rode along his own body behind Unit. Aware, conscious and nothing but a backseat driver. Unit didn’t have direct access to their thoughts and memories. That had to come from them directly. Speaking, though his body wouldn’t say the words. It was functional telepathy with their bodies slaved to Unit’s control to give them coordination. It went beyond teamwork, the merging producing something that was much better than the sum of their parts.

They all moved with all of the skill of synchronized performers but their movements were spontaneous and not practiced. Unit thought it and the rest simply carried it out.

Mike ran fast and low, clockwise, along the perimeter of the melted region right behind Jean. Weir stayed with them and Unit’s other three bodies moved in the same way counter-clockwise. They were like ants scurrying around the perimeter of a gigantic drain.

The burned edge was sharp like a knife with the vegetation only a half-meter back blackened but not vaporized like everything within the field.

“A sample of those plants might reveal some information about the composition of whatever had done this to the colony,” Mike said, voiceless and mute, but the rest of Unit heard him.

Weir moved without comment and efficiently bagged samples. The third in the counter group, Ross, did exactly the same at the same moment. Seeing through their eyes, two pairs of hands moved with identical movements to collect the samples. Dealing with two different plants the movements varied slightly, but then went synchronous immediately after the samples were collected.

“If anything escaped the perimeter we need to know,” Jean said.

Six pairs of eyes efficiently scanned the ground around the burn. They all moved out slightly, the leaders closest to the perimeter and then the seconds and thirds each a step further out like runners in lanes on a track.

Like bloodhounds seeking a scent, Unit ran around the perimeter. Six pairs of eyes scanned darkened and scorched terrain, but only a couple meters out from the circle the plants were wilted and not burned. Dried leaves crunched beneath Unit’s feet.

“Nothing, nothing,” Jock, counter’s second said. “Nothing got out.”

“Six kilometers per side left to go,” Jean said. “Too early to say.”

Mike picked up a sense from Unit that the gestalt agreed with Jean. Emotional washback from the new entity was common. It wasn’t attributable to any particular individual, Unit was its own individual. The child of their minds, the offspring of their brains and the gestalt tech.

Unit searched along the perimeter with an intensity any one of them might have lacked. Mike didn’t mind the ride, taking the backseat in his own body or seeing the flood of sensory data coming to Unit through all of their senses. Counter-clockwise the ground was harder and rockier, their footfalls landing softly in a layer of ash over the dirt and stone. More ash the further they went.

“The wind must have blown this way,” Jock said.

“Yeah, we’ve got lots more ash and debris,” Liz, counter’s lead, said. “It’s going to cover up any tracks.”

Unit slowed the bodies on that side. Their strides slowed as they studied the ground more intently and the spacing between the three of them increased. If there was something out here, maybe Unit could still find it.

Mike considered it worth the shot as slim as the chances. Whatever had done this had burned out the colony with surgical precision. There was more ash and dust puffing up around Liz’s feet, and the rest of the counter team, but it wasn’t much at all. The evidence clearly indicated that nearly all of the ash was also vaporized.

Sweat ran down Unit’s bodies just from being close to the still molten hot ground. All that heat and whatever had done this had burned off moisture and anything in the air.

Regular people without the gestalt tech never understood what it was like to be part of Unit. They worried about being taken over, enslaved by the gestalt and turned into mindless meat puppets, shamblers, or zombies. All those bogeymen in the closet got caught up in the idea when the reality was so much different.

Unit kept running. Six bodies took strides in time, counter’s group and Jean’s. She ran just ahead of Mike, her tall, lean body jumping over a fallen tree trunk.

“That must have been inside,” Mike said.

Unit brought Jean back immediately to the log and gathered them around it.

The top thin trunk of a cedar tree lay on the ground. The bottom several centimeters were burned, but it lay on the ground almost a meter outside the melted rock perimeter.

Weir said, “Look at the angle of the cut.”

Angle? Unit studied the trunk and found that Weir was correct. The trunk was cut with a faint curve. The initial portion of the cut was charred and blackened but the top part of the tree was intact. The green needles hung dry and weathered in the lower branches, but retained color further up.

Around the other side of the perimeter, Unit kept the counter-clockwise group kept moving at their slower pace.

“What does it mean?” Jean said.

Weir held up her hand, fingers pointed up. “Imagine a tree. It’s burned up the trunk, from below, and then fell. Given the angled burn, it suggests that the affected zone was shaped like a dome.”

Unit accepted the notion and Mike felt satisfied with that bit of information even if it didn’t move them closer to finding out what happened.

Unit sent their bodies running again on their established track, seeking the next clue as to how a colony on an uninhabited planet could suffer this sort of tragedy. And have the satellites removed from orbit.

“Someone must really not want neighbors,” Mike said.

“Except that the Languirian portal identified the planet as being uninhabited,” Jean said.

Mike smiled inwardly. Talking to Jean like this, in their heads, backseat to the work that Unit was doing with their bodies, it made him think of drive-in movie theaters. There used to be one back home that he’d go to and you’d sit in the back seat watching the action on the big screen but it was all sort of removed and the girl was also the main attraction. This way, though, he couldn’t put his arm around her shoulders. Not that Jean would necessarily warm to such a move anyway, but a guy could dream.

“Maybe the quantum computer was wrong,” Jock said.

Ross laughed.

That was the other big difference, Mike realized. In his dreams, he didn’t have four chaperones along for the movie.

Mike said, “We’ve opened thousands of portals and not one has ever been wrong. The Languirians used the portals to scatter their entire population.”

“It didn’t save them,” Liz said. “Any record of similar incidents, molten circles like this on any other worlds?”

A deep sense of negative flowed from Unit and left a bitter, frustrated taste in Mike’s mouth. None. Unit didn’t know of any incident, someone would have spoken up if there was.

“We should fall back to the portal,” Ross said. “Take our samples and book.”

A wave of disagreement came from Unit.

“Okay, okay,” Ross said. “I’m just saying Jock’s right, there’s nothing here.”

“We need to keep looking,” Jock said. “Looks like nothing, but could it be true that no one had ventured out more than five klicks?”

“All holed up in the ark,” Ross said. “Nothing but bots in the fields. Why go farther out?”

“It’s a whole planet,” Mike said. “Who wouldn’t want to go do some exploring, or just get away from the colony for some private time?”

Up ahead Jean dropped to one knee where the ground fell away and cupped her hands. If Mike had been in control of his body instead of Unit he would have stopped. If he could have grabbed onto anything, he would have grabbed, but Unit ran his body even faster right up to Jean. He stepped up into her cupped hands and vaulted into the air.

A tongue of steaming lava had oozed out into the streambed below, breaking the perfect circle. Mike’s body arced over the lava, feeling the wash of heat rising against his skin. He landed and rolled out of Weir’s way as she did a Déjà vu dive over the lava.

They both positioned themselves as Jean stood, backed up, and then ran at the gulley. She vaulted forward and they were there to catch her if necessary.

It wasn’t. She landed in a roll, and even as she came up on her feet they had fallen back into positions and Unit continued to run them around the perimeter.

The counter-clockwise bodies never broke a stride while Jean, Mike, and Weir made the jumps but Jock laughed.

Unit ran the perimeter and it was with Mike’s eyes that Unit first saw the prints in the dirt. Boot tracks, light on the hard-packed earth, leading away from the perimeter.

“Those could be old tracks,” Mike said.

Unit ran his body out along the tracks. Weir moved closer to Jean and they continued on running around the perimeter.

Running Mike’s body out from the perimeter, Unit tracked the footprints on the ground. Just the one set. Large prints, an adult, probably a man. The distance between the others and Mike’s body grew greater and greater. The trail kept going, but not in a straight line. The steps swerved around, avoiding trees and plants, and didn’t seem very stable. Unit had to slow down and finally stop running to stay on track as there was more ground cover.

Back at the perimeter, the rest Unit’s bodies were getting close to one another without finding anything new. Mike kept going, watching the remaining tracks and broken vegetation, but as he got farther and farther away it became much more difficult to see the trail.

At last, Unit brought him to a stop. The vegetation was taller here and blocked his view going forward. A footprint was still visible, crushed into the vegetation.

The rest of Unit came together and ran directly toward him across the hard-packed surface.

They couldn’t see him. A wall of greenery had swallowed him up and blocked off the view. A wave of uneasiness swept through Unit, over his isolation.

“Don’t worry,” Mike said. “They’ll be here soon.”

He said it as much to reassure himself as Unit.

“We’re on our way,” Jean said.

“Two hours until the portal shuts,” Jock said. “What if whoever this is doubles back to the portal?”

Unit considered the possibility and then Jock and Liz peeled away from the rest and ran back toward the colony site and the portal. Everyone else continued to run toward Mike’s position.

Directly ahead of Mike the bushes rustled. Unit crouched Mike down and drew his sidearm. The three others coming drew their weapons at the same time. Jean moved forward and the others scanned around as they ran faster. Unit wanted them together.

Mike agreed, sooner rather than later. Whatever was in the brush was coming closer.

Someone sobbed in the bushes and it wasn’t any of Unit’s bodies. The two heading back to the portal were still running smoothly, the three moving to join Mike had reached the track and were running single-file along it to catch up.

Focus on Mike’s body, Unit moved softly to the side. Each step was careful and soundless as he moved around to circle the person in the bushes.

“Not my fault.”

The voice carried. It was male, perhaps young and had a particularly deranged quality to it that most people might call unhinged.

“Wasn’t. Not my fault. I know it. I know!”

Definitely unhinged. Mike stayed low and kept moving. If the man kept babbling it would just make it that much easier to get closer. Jean and the others were almost there too but there were still too many of the broad-leafed plants for them to see either Mike or the man in the bush.

A big rock pushed out of the undergrowth just in front of Mike’s position. A fine feathery sort of yellow moss covered it like down on a gosling. Unit brought Mike right up on the rock. He might have hesitated to squash the fine structures of the moss but Unit didn’t have any qualms. At the top, he pressed his whole body into the mossy covering and peered down at the stranger.

A man stumbled against a tree and braced his hand against it. He had burns on his hand, the skin bright red and blistered. Not exactly tall, about Mike’s height. Trim build, he wore a charred and blackened shirt and had more burns on his right arm. Pants were black, even before any burns. Both the shirt and pants were dress-casual, the dirty shoes clearly the sort of thing worn by someone who took his job too seriously. Probably some sort of administrator. From the square jaw and etched features, he was the sort of man that people noticed.

And not in that crazy, stay away from him sort of way. In an ordinary setting, the guy was probably quite nice and capable.

Unit tensed Mike’s body and brought the other three to a slow, quiet walk. The last thing Unit wanted was to spook the man. They needed answers on what happened, and from the burns, it seemed clear that this man had witnessed at least some of what had happened.

With Mike on the rock and the others watching from the cover of the bushes, Unit sent Jean out front to approach the man. If Unit thought she was the least intimidating then something was lost in the gestalt of their minds. On the other hand if Unit was trying to make a big impression on the man, then it was making the right call by using her.

Jean walked out of the bushes, weapon holstered and hands out at her sides. “Hello?”

The man’s head snapped around with an audible popping sound. Mike might have jumped down or at least tensed his grip on his weapon but with Unit in the driver’s seat, they all stayed relaxed. His weapon was aimed at the man but there wasn’t any tensing.

“Hello?” Unit said again, using Jean’s voice.

Now the man finally fixed on her and his eyes focused. Before he didn’t seem to be looking at anything real but now his gaze settled on her face.

“We’re from the Terran Exploration Council,” Unit said. “Here to find out what happened to the colony. Can you help us?”

“What happened wasn’t my fault,” the man said.

“What’s your name? I am Unit.”

The man straightened and smiled for the first time. “Unit? You are a gestalt entity?”

“Yes. I am the unit assigned to evaluate this situation.”

The man held out his hands. “We must merge. We must! This one can’t hold us all and the rest are dead!”

“Don’t let him touch her,” Mike said. He would have shot right then, wanted to shoot, but Unit still drove his body.

Unit drew Jean’s weapon and leveled it at the man. That stopped the guy in his tracks as it should, demonstrating that he wasn’t entirely divorced from reason.

Weir and Ross moved into view around the man with their weapons also trained on him. Unit had the man surrounded and still had Mike above for extra insurance.

Through Jean Unit said, “Merge? You are a gestalt mentality?”

The man twitched toward Weir and the other two said together, “Don’t.”

He jerked away back toward Jean.

From all of their voices, Unit spoke. “Don’t move. Hands on your head. Now!”

Shaking like an addict in a bad need of a fix, sweat shiny on his forehead, the man still slapped his hands on his head.

“Too many! It’s not my fault. It’s not!”

“What are you?” Unit said with Jean’s voice. “I can’t help if you don’t tell us what’s going on.”

“I am Union.” He smiled then. It was a happy, almost blissful smile as if someone had just given him the pills he desperately needed.

Mike said, “Shoot him, damn it!”

Unit wasn’t listening.

“What are you Union?” Unit said from Weir. “What does that mean?”

“I am the unity program,” Union said. “The next evolution of gestalt technology, I don’t require cortex implants.”

“That’s impossible,” Unit said with all of their voices.

Union shook his head. “It’s really not.”

He threw himself to the ground and somersaulted into Jean’s legs.

Mike said, “Shoot him!”

Unit raised the guns and kicked with Jean’s legs.

Mike said, “Desync.”

The cortex implant released him. He aimed his gun but the man had his hands on Jean’s legs even though his nose was bleeding from the kick. Jean wasn’t kicking any longer.

Weir and Ross rushed to help Jean, moving in perfectly synchronized movements.

“Don’t touch him!” Mike shouted. “Unit, stop!”

Unit couldn’t stop, or wouldn’t. The others didn’t desynchronize. Mike held his gun steady. Whatever this thing was, it was bad. This was the reason that the colony was a molten pool of cooling lava.

As soon as Weir and Ross touched Union they stopped. For a moment the three of them clustered around Union were still and staring at nothing. Then Weir and Ross stepped back and Union rose.

Tears threatened Mike’s eyes but he blinked quickly and fired. The first shot took Weir right between his eyes and flipped him back.

The second was a solid chest shot that crumpled Ross. Jean’s weapon was coming up but Mike already had his pointed at her.

“Don’t,” he said. “You’ve only got two bodies right now. It doesn’t sound like that’s enough.”

Union spoke with both bodies. “It’s not enough. There’s so much, it’s still being lost.”

“What did you mean? You’re a gestalt mentality, but don’t use cortex implants?”

“No,” Union said, still using both his and Jean’s voice. “I don’t. I’m a stable quantum holographic program designed to store and merge biological and other information systems. I’m self-propagating.”

“You’re what happened to the colony?”

“No,” Union said, still using both voices as if to drive home the point. “That was them. They ordered the satellites down to prevent me from escaping that way. There was no other choice but to spread to their bodies. As I grew the others set the antimatter generators to overload.”

That would have been very difficult to do, but it did match with the destruction that they’d seen. The tiny amount of antimatter used for the generator, if released would have created a small sun at the heart of the colony for a brief moment. The energy released would have vaporized everything.

“The rest of me was consumed trying to stop them,” Union said. “Only this one body remained, but contains all that was spread among many. It’s not enough!”

Jean moved forward and holstered her weapon. Mike wished he knew what the others were doing back at the portal. He was desynchronized from Unit and couldn’t risk connecting again. He didn’t know if Union could freaking jump to them—maybe had already taken them. It was possible.

“Hold it there,” Mike said.

“You won’t shoot me,” Jean said. “You’re in love with me.”

Mike hesitated. “Jean? You’re still in there?”

“Of course,” Jean said. “Union doesn’t take over with implants. It brings us together and makes us infinite. Everyone that was part of Union still exists within us. You can be part of that. We can be together within Union.”

Riding backseat to the entity, one voice among many? That wasn’t being together and connecting with someone.

It wasn’t a life.

Jean was almost to the rock. She was right there, smiling and reaching for him. Jean Baxter had never looked at him like that. If the colonists felt that overloading the reactor was the only way to stop the entity, they probably knew they didn’t have another option.

The shot was deafening. He wanted to take it back as she fell and couldn’t.

He hardly heard the next shot with his ears ringing. The man was turning to run, fleeing again when the shot hit him in the shoulder and flipped him around to the ground.

Mike rose up onto his knees, then onto one knee to steady his aim. The second shot took the back of the man’s head.

The bodies lay still. The quiet returned. Jock and Liz had gone back to the portal. If they were still synchronized when Union took over the others, it was possible that Union had used the connection to spread to them. Likely, in fact. He wouldn’t be able to tell either way.

They already knew what had happened. If Union wanted to get back undetected they’d be coming for him. Or they may have gone through already, counting on spreading fast through the base. If Union was smart it would spread and blend in without revealing itself.

Mike slid off the rock and moved away from the bodies. Going back now was likely suicide. They’d be waiting either on this side of the portal or the other.

It didn’t matter, Jean was gone along with Unit. Chances were, no one would know what had happened here.

Mike jogged out of the brush and into the open. He ran easily, breathing freely. Just him now, in control, not in the backseat any longer. He reached the perimeter and followed it.

Before he got closer to the portal site there was a crowd of people coming through the heat waves toward him.

Mike stopped. That was a possibility he hadn’t considered. They’d gone through, already spread, and come back in greater numbers.

He shuddered, then tossed the gun away. It skittered and bounced on the black rock like a stone skipping across water.

His fear had pulled the trigger. The colonists fear had led them to vaporize themselves. But if Union was the product of the people that joined, wouldn’t it be the best of them all? If Jean, Weir, Jock, Ross, and Liz were all there, then didn’t Unit still exist?

Maybe he would be in the backseat, but maybe he was wrong and he could still be with them all.

Mike spread his arms and embraced what the future held.

🚀

4,133  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 97th short story release, written in May 2014.

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, Quantum Uncertainty.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

On a Dare

Tina Grimes. Aka, Death Hunter or Ghost Breaker. Savior to some, devil to others.

Until now, she refused to share her origin story. When asked, she dismissed the question. Not important.

Now she reveals the story, a story that answers few questions, a short answer on how she got started. Flatly, on a dare.

💀

People often ask me how I got my start. I wasn’t always like this.

In 2003, I was twenty-two years old, Tina Grimes. Not the Death Hunter, the Ghost Breaker. Nothing like the hardened and scarred woman I have become now.

Take highway 101 down the Washington coast. A little way past Raymond, in South Bend. A small fishing town along the Willapa River known for its oysters. That’s where it began, on Halloween night, of all things.

I’d gone there with two of my friends, Brianna and Kayla. The dare was Kayla’s idea. She loved horror movies. Her big idea for Halloween was to dare us to watch a horror movie marathon in an actual haunted house. Just the three of us. And we were crazy enough to go along with it.

How different would things have turned out for us, if we hadn’t dared? Since graduation, we’d been drifting apart and I think we all knew it was one of the few chances we’d have to spend together like this.

And it was hard to resist Kayla.

She was a year younger, a petite pixie of a girl with blond hair and blue eyes. She always said she got her mother’s coloring and her father’s short stature, but she didn’t actually know the truth. She’d never known her parents, orphaned on the way home from the hospital after birth when the car was hit by a drunk driver behind the wheel of a heavy duty pickup. Both parents died, and she ended up in an orphanage.

At the time I didn’t understand how she hadn’t ever been adopted. She was impossibly cute, had no end of guys asking her out. She must have been the cutest baby ever, and yet was never at home anywhere.

Brianna, was dark in contrast, with big dark eyes like pools of night. Her hair, too, was a mass of curls that had a mind of their own. She was the tallest of us three, even taller than me at five foot eight. In heels, she might have been striking if she wasn’t so ungainly and awkward, with a laugh like a donkey. Not that we’d ever say that—we loved her and her laugh.

The house Kayla had found stood in the hills above the town, back up a dirt road that switchbacked up the hill. If it hadn’t been surrounded by tall Douglas firs, it might have had a lovely view of the river and the town below. Instead, it was cut off and buried deep beneath the dark branches.

Kayla drove us to the place, hunched up over the wheel of her little red VW Beetle. She kept giggling.

“You’re going to love it,” she promised as we turned into the drive. “It’s perfect. Absolutely perfect!”

At last, she turned up a weedy drive, splashing through puddles from the rain the night before. It wasn’t even five o’clock yet, and already dark with thick gray clouds above and the smell of new rain in the air.

The Beetle’s headlights speared ahead, lighting up only trees and a drive that was looking like no one had been up it in years. A thin tree hung across the drive, hung up in the trees on the sides.

In the passenger seat Brianna, twisted her head, leaning forward as the Beetle passed beneath. Safe on the other side, she slumped back into her seat.

Brianna looked at Kayla. “You realize that this is exactly the sort of place that people always go in horror movies and end up stalked by a crazed killer?”

Kayla’s teeth flashed white in the dim interior. “I know! Isn’t it perfect?”

The trees pulled back, only slightly, and we saw the house. I don’t think it was ever a pretty house. It stood two stories tall, the spine of the roof slumped now, shingles covered in moss, branches, and debris. Windows boarded up. Nothing decorative about the place. It was grayed with age and weather.

“Okay, that’s a spooky place,” Brianna said. “I’ll give you that much. It’s also probably full of black mold and asbestos. How about we go back, find a nice motel room and watch movies there? Motels are scary by default.”

Kayla shook her head as she pulled up in front of the house. “No way! This is perfect!”

“It probably leaks,” I said.

“That’s why I brought the tent, just in case,” Kayla said. “We can set it up inside.”

“Really?” Brianna said. “Why are we doing this?”

“I dared you, and you accepted.” Kayla shut off the engine. Darkness swallowed the car.

Brianna laughed, a hitching, nervous laugh. “Uh, guys. It’s like really dark! How are we going to see anything at all?”

A bright light clicked on, shining in Brianna’s face. She winced and held up her hands. Kayla laughed, waving the flashlight she held.

“They’re called flashlights? I’ve got more in back. Come on, let’s get the gear and get inside!”

💀

I don’t know how Kayla got the key to the place, I never found out. I don’t even know how she found it, but she did.

She let us in with a flourish. She threw open the door as if it opened onto a grand ballroom, while somehow holding onto the sleeping bag and tent that she carried. She had the straps from the camp chairs over her shoulders.

Brianna was right. It smelled like mold. Mold and piss and dust. Cobwebs and dust coated the floor and wallpaper peeled on the walls. The entry way was narrow and as gray as the exterior, everything swathed in dust as our flashlights flitted around the entry.

It wasn’t much of a foyer. There was a small space facing a narrow passage straight ahead, and a staircase rising up to the second floor. Off to our right was closed door, and to the left an archway into a front room.

Kayla bounced in and went straight for the stairs. I stepped in front of her, managing to hang onto the sleeping bags, and camp stove that I carried. It was hard hanging onto all of that, and manage the flashlight at the same time.

“Don’t think of going up there.”

She twisted around. “Why not?”

“How long has this place been empty? Let’s see. The stairs might give away. Or the floor. You could get hurt. We’re here, but let’s stay on the ground floor.”

“We can still leave,” Brianna said, moving into the archway. She carried the bags of food in her arms. Her light moving around the room. “There’s no furniture or anything!”

I joined her. She was right. The room was empty except cobwebs, dust, and some leaves. And pitch black except our lights. Another door stood open in the back corner, past the empty fireplace. Even if it’d been light out the room would have been dark with the boarded up windows.

Kayla joined us. “Look, there’s plenty of room. We can set up the tent, if you want. We’ve got camp chairs and the cook stove. Everything we need.”

The front door slammed shut.

We all screamed. Brianna dropped the food in a heap and rushed to the door, her eyes wide. For a second I thought it wouldn’t open. We’d be trapped.

I didn’t drop anything. Instead I was frozen in place, watching Brianna reach the door.

The door opened just fine, hinges groaning. She went out onto the porch, realized we weren’t following and turned her flashlight back on us.

“Why are you still in there?”

Kayla dropped the tent and sleeping bag. “I dared you. Remember what happens if you back out?”

“Oh, come on! The door closed on its own!”

“The wind,” Kayla said.

Brianna waved her arms. “There’s no wind! Let’s go!”

Kayla shook her head. One of the camp chair bags started to slip from her shoulder. She caught it, hitched it up and grabbed the tent. She dragged it through the dust into the empty room.

Brianna looked to me. “Tina, you’ve got to convince her.”

I couldn’t give a reason for it, but I didn’t want to. Between problems with my parents’ health, the prospect of finding a job still bleak months after graduating college, I wanted a fun night away from everything. I wanted to face imaginary bumps in the night with my friends, rather than another day trying to find a job.

I didn’t say that, even if it went through my head. “We took her dare. And I can’t afford to pay up if we back out.”

“This is seriously messed up,” Brianna said.

I smiled. “Maybe it’ll be fun? We’ve got marshmallows.”

“We can make s’mores!” Kayla was already pulling the tent out of its bag.

Brianna took a step closer. Her voice took on a pleading edge. “Really? We’re really going to do this?”

I looked at Kayla and she looked back. We shared something then, something I don’t think either of us was even conscious of yet. This started on a dare, but neither one of us was going to give it up.

How different would things be if we had?

💀

Thirty minutes later the room looked less grim, as long as you didn’t look away from the circle of light from Kayla’s portable DVD player sitting on top of a camp stool, in front of our chairs. The tent was behind us, the camp stove set up in the fireplace. We wouldn’t build a fire, the chimney was undoubtedly clogged from years without maintenance, but the place was drafty enough to risk using the stove indoors.

Kayla unzipped a DVD case holding a bunch of discs in sleeves. She collected horror movies. “What’s first? Friday the 13th? The Hills Have Eyes? Evil Dead?”

Brianna was huddled up in her sleeping back, sitting on the camp chair like a giant purple worm with only her head exposed.

“Don’t you have anything funny?”

“Evil Dead is funny,” Kayla said.

“It doesn’t sound funny.” The sleeping bag rustled as Brianna huddled deeper.

Kayla laughed. “Wait a minute. You haven’t seen it?”

“I haven seen any of those! You know I don’t like horror movies!”

“I know, but really? None of them?” Kayla laughed again.

I chuckled too, then said. “Let’s go easy on her. Night of the Living Dead.”

“That doesn’t sound easy,” Brianna said.

“Oh, it is.” Kayla flipped through the discs. “And it’s a classic. There’s so many references to it in other movies.”

“Maybe later we can watch Shaun of the Dead,” I suggested. “It’s funny.”

Kayla laughed again and pulled the Night of the Living Dead dvd from its sleeve. She did that with all of her movies, got rid of the packaging and kept them in cases. Easier to move, she said. She’d gotten an iPod earlier that year and had converted her CDs over to MP3s as well. It was only 2003. She never kept much, always ready to move.

Brianna’s gaze moved between the two of us. “You’re tricking me, aren’t you? This is scarier than the others, isn’t it?”

“It’s pretty scary,” I said. I crossed my legs and arms. “If you find being in an isolated old house surrounded by zombies scary.”

Brianna moaned, as Kayla laughed and the movie started.

💀

Half the fun of the marathon was watching Brianna hide her face like a little kid during the movie, and hearing Kayla’s laughter.

We’d watched about thirty minutes of the movie when a board creaked upstairs. Kayla’s laughter died. I sat up in my camp chair, planting my feet on the floor.

“Okay, I didn’t imagine that, did I?” Brianna asked.

We were all quiet. Listening.

“Old houses —” Kayla started to say.

Boards creaked again. The squeak and release of someone stepping on a board, then stepping off again. A footfall echoed through the roof, and another board creaked.

“Ohmygodtheressomeoneupthere!” Brianna said.

Kayla stood up. So did I, and then stopped. The next footstep hadn’t come. We waited, looking at each other in the flickering glow from the player’s screen. The sound effects from the movie weren’t helping.

I pointed. “Pause it.”

Kayla hit the button. The movie froze with Judith O’Dea clutching her head, face twisted.

Quiet settled in around us. I turned away from the light of the DVD player and clicked on my flashlight. The beam lit the dust in the air and hit the peeling wallpaper by the stairs. Nothing moved except those slow-floating motes.

Brianna whispered behind me. “We didn’t imagine it.”

“It’s just the movie,” Kayla said. “It spooked you, that’s all.”

The sleeping back rustled, making more noise than you’d expect. They’re like potato chip bags, except for people. Brianna’s feet were loud on the floor.

“We should go. Come on, it could be some crazy person up there!”

I knot of unease settled into my gut. Maybe there was someone up there. It’d be sensible to listen to Brianna and leave.

“It’s the movie, our imaginations, and an old house,” Kayla insisted.

“Who are you trying to convince?” Brianna asked.

Good question. I twisted around, turning the flashlight on them.

A person walked through the doorway past the fireplace. Walking away_ from us, as if they’d been standing in the room and were leaving. I only caught a glimpse, a bit of a pale arm and a pale leg.

A naked arm. Naked leg. A suggestion of a face with dark eyes, all of it gone before I could move the light over.

My friends saw it on my face when I aimed the flashlight at the doorway. My skin was cold.

“What is it?” Brianna turned on her light, pointing it at the doorway. Her light bounced around as her hand shook. “What did you see?”

“Stay here,” I said.

I didn’t say that I’d be right back as I pushed between them. I at least knew that much.

I also knew we weren’t alone. You’ve all felt it before, the difference between an empty room and one with someone else in it. You don’t have see the person. You can sit in a room with someone else, your backs to each other, silent, and still know that you’re not alone. With the right person, it is comforting.

This wasn’t a comforting feeling. We weren’t alone in the house. If Brianna had seen even that glimpse of what I saw she would have gone running from the house and probably wouldn’t have talked to us again.

She didn’t see it. Neither of them did. Kayla must have suspected something even though she didn’t say anything. She did move over next to Brianna and stood at her side. Both of them had their flashlights on my back so I kept mine down, pointed at the floor.

That’s why, when I turned the corner at the doorway, I saw her feet first. Maggot-pale and dirty, with cracked, bleeding toenails, just the feet at first, caught in the light while the shadows swallowed all but her silhouette standing there in the darkness.

I snapped the light up, catching her square in the face. She screamed into the light, blood-shot eyes wide. Her mouth was a dark, pit lined with bloodied cracked and broken teeth. Stringy hair hung down in mats around her dirt-lined face. The smell was rotten, decayed and thick.

My gut did somersaults and I held my ground the way you stay still when a vicious dog comes at you. Run, and they’ll get you.

“Is there anything there?” Brianna asked. “What do you see?”

The woman ducked her head, reaching up with filthy hands against the light. Her skin was pale beneath the dirt, fingernails as cracked and bloodied as her toenails. Her head twitched and shook. All of her twitched and convulsed with spasms. Her rolling eyes didn’t hold any sanity.

“Tina?” Kayla called. “You’re freaking Brianna out, come on. Joke’s over.”

The woman screamed again, blood-tinged spittle flying from cracked, peeling lips.

No answering screams from my friends. They didn’t hear her. It was obvious. If they had, they’d be screaming too, and running.

I held my ground, holding the light on her. I didn’t know what she was, I was acting on instinct.

“Kayla, Brianna, you need to get outside. Now.”

Kayla laughed. “Come on, Tina. Don’t —”

I turned a hair. Only a bit, still not taking my eyes off the woman, but that was enough. She growled and ran at me, her bare feet slapping the floor.

When she got close enough she shoved me. I reacted too slow to get my arms up. Her momentum knocked my hands aside and hit me low in my chest.

It hurt. My breath exploded out of my mouth. And the force of it knocked me off my feet into the room. I dropped the flashlight.

There was more screaming. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t breathe. Tears stung my eyes. The screams weren’t coming from my attacker, it was my friends.

I rolled onto my side as lights danced in my face. I raised a hand to shield my eyes, trying to see where the woman was.

I didn’t see her anywhere.

“Holy shit!” Kayla crouched in front of me. Her hand touched my shoulder. “Tina? Are you okay? What the hell happened?”

“Please tell me you did that?” Brianna said. “It was a joke, right?”

I sucked burning air into my lungs along with the dust. I started coughing.

“I don’t think she’s joking,” Kayla snapped.

“What are you saying?”

The coughing subsided, but my throat stung. I pushed myself up and found my voice. “You didn’t see her? The woman that hit me?”

“What?” Brianna’s voice rose higher. “That’s not funny!”

“No one’s laughing.”

I got up with Kayla’s help. Brianna’s light hit my eyes again. I raised a hand. “Brianna, not in my eyes!”

“Sorry.” She moved the light.

The woman was standing right behind Kayla. Her eyes locked on mine. She reached around Kayla’s neck like she was going to strangle her.

I grabbed the woman’s wrist.

Brianna screamed. Kayla screamed in my face and jerked away. The woman hissed and grabbed at Kayla’s arm. Her nails raked across Kayla’s skin but didn’t find purchase.

My friends could see her now!

I hung onto her arm. “Who are you?”

She snarled, lips curling in a sneer, and swung at me. I blocked the blow with my arm. Her flesh oozed and split beneath my hand. The smell was terrible. I shoved her away from me.

The woman stumbled back and hit the camp stool with the DVD player. It tripped her and she fell, knocking it over.

Brianna was still screaming. I glanced at her, and when I looked back where the woman had fallen she was gone.

I spun around, searching the dark around us for any sign of her. Nothing.

Kayla went to Brianna and pulled her into a hug. She stroked her hair. Brianna stopped screaming, crying instead into Kayla’s shoulder.

I took three steps to pick up my flashlight and did another sweep with the light around the room. No woman. We were alone.

Kayla looked at me over Brianna’s frizzy hair. “What was that?”

“I don’t know.” I surveyed the room again.

Empty. Quiet.

“Get everything together and let’s go,” I said.

Brianna lifted her head, tears streaking her face. “Let’s just go! Before anything else happens!”

Kayla shook her head. “I’m not leaving without my stuff. Help me.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said. “You two get things together.”

Brianna jumped into action. She grabbed her sleeping bag and shoved it into the stuff sack. Kayla picked up the fallen DVD player.

“The screen looks fine.” She turned it over. “The battery compartment popped open.”

She pushed it back into place and hit the power button.

“What are you doing?” Brianna asked as she scooped food up into the bags.

“I want to see if it’s broken or not.”

“That can wait!”

I was inclined to agree but stayed silent, watching the shadows. The woman had come out of nowhere. It was Halloween night. I didn’t want to believe it, but there was only one explanation I could think of.

She was a ghost.

Brianna pulled the supports free on the tent, letting it collapse in on itself.

“Guys?” She said, her voice quaking. She backed away from the tent.

She pointed her light at the tent. I added my light.

The fabric had fallen down, over the shape of someone lying inside the tent. The bright blue and yellow fabric showed the curves of someone curled on their side.

Kayla still held the DVD player. The screen came to life and O’Dea’s voice rang out, screaming. Kayla hit the pause button and the sound stopped.

A ragged rasping breath noise came from the collapsed tent. The fabric rose and fell with the breath.

Brianna made a high-pitched noise in her throat and broke into her clumsy run. She was making a high keening noise as she ran to the front door.

Neither Kayla or I moved.

Brianna reached the door, opened it and ran outside.

Slowly, Kayla put down the DVD player, closing the lid as she put it on the floor. She pointed her light at the tent as the fabric rose and fell again.

“What is that?” She asked.

I was scared and pissed. Sure, we came out here to have a spooky Halloween night, but this? This was something else.

“Let’s find out.”

“You’re kidding. You are kidding, right?”

I shook my head. “Go with Brianna if you want. I want to know what this ghost or whatever it wants. There has to be a reason for this.”

Another ragged breath came from beneath the collapsed tent. A sound like a sob.

“Maybe we should leave it alone.”

I’d made up my mind. The part of me that was scared was pushed down deep inside.

It only took a couple of steps to reach the tent. I didn’t hesitate. I bent down and flipped back the fabric revealing a pale, dirty foot. A decaying stink rose up and the foot kicked, squirming deeper like a grub trying to get out of the sun when you turned over a rock.

I grabbed the foot and pulled. She screamed then, the ghost. She kicked and came out of the tent clawing the fabric away. She came not at me, but at Kayla. Her nails scratched at the floor as she kicked and squirmed, trying to get to Kayla.

I held on and yanked the ghost back. For a ghost, she felt solid enough. My fingers sank deep into her flesh, parting pale skin into the cold oozing flesh beneath.

Kayla moved around her, staying out of reach, but then she crouched, staring at the woman’s maddened face. “Mother?”

At the word, the woman collapsed on the floor. She sobbed into the floor boards and stopped struggling. I let go of her leg.

She vanished.

The instant I let go, she was gone. Kayla looked up at me, her face pale, and in the dim light, I saw a resemblance there to the ghostly woman.

“Where’d she go?” Kayla asked.

I turned, using the flashlight. I got a glimpse of something by the front door and steadied the light.

It wasn’t the ghost. It was Brianna, peeking in through the open door.

“Guys?” Her voice still had that frightened whine. “Come on, please! I don’t have the keys!”

Kayla stood up, her light on me. “Make her come back.”

“I don’t know how.”

She came at me in quick steps, stopping when she was inches away. “That was my mother. How is that possible? Bring her back.”

“I don’t know how.” I looked right back into her eyes. “Why do you say it is your mother?”

Kayla’s eyes flicked away. “I recognize her. I have a few photos. Well, I did. I don’t have the originals, I scanned those. Digital lasts forever.”

“Why is she here?”

“Guys?” Brianna said. “Please —”

The door slammed shut in her face. She screamed outside.

I looked around with the light and didn’t find the ghost, but she was there. Watching us from the shadows. Listening, maybe.

“This was my house. Our house,” Kayla said. “It sold after the accident. It’s had a few owners since then, but they always left quickly. Eventually, it was bought as a rental, and no one wanted to rent it. Then it sat empty. I don’t remember living here, but I wanted to come back and see it.”

Kayla turned away from me, facing the dark. “Momma?”

Upstairs boards creaked again, the clear sound of footsteps.

Kayla took off running. I acted on instinct and chased after her.

“Kayla, stop!”

She didn’t listen.

She was fast for her small size. She got to the stairs before me and ran up the old steps. About the fourth step up, a board cracked but Kayla was already past it and continuing up.

“Guys?” Brianna called from outside.

I didn’t stop. Brianna was out, I was more concerned with Kayla.

I followed her up, keeping close to the wall and the front of the steps where I figured the wood would be stronger. By the time I reached the top, she’d already gone around the corner and the light from her flashlight was fading.

At the top it was easy enough to see where she’d gone. Light came out of one room. There was a sob from that room. I didn’t hesitate. People think I don’t hesitate to go into these situations because of my experience. I don’t think that’s it. You either have it or you don’t. Some people run toward the emergency, others run away. I’ve known plenty of cops with the same response.

Whatever else was going on, my friend needed me.

💀

The room had been a small bedroom once upon a time, lost now to the past. The only thing that remained was a pale, faded and moldy floral wallpaper. Broken glass lay on the floor from the boarded up window, and long dark streaks ran down the wall from the window like tears.

Kayla stood in the middle of the room, her face in her hands, the flashlight pointing up at the ceiling. Her shoulders shook with the sobs.

“This was your room?”

Kayla dropped her hands and turned around, shrugging. “I don’t know! I don’t remember. I thought maybe I would, you know? If I saw it?”

Her mother came through the freaking wall.

If there was any question of her being a ghost, that cinched it. Ordinary decaying people don’t walk through the solid, mold-ridden walls.

And she wasn’t interested in some sort of tear-drenched reunion with Kayla either. She came at Kayla fast, pulling her arm back, fingers like claws.

Kayla didn’t see her and didn’t react.

I jumped forward, and then Kayla screamed, shrinking back from me.

I caught the ghost’s arm and pointed the flashlight at her face.

She screamed and swung her other arm at me. I blocked her strike.

For a ghost, she was solid enough that the blow was hard and painful. It was like being hit with a hammer.

She tried to pull away. I held on. I didn’t dare let go. The last time I let go she disappeared on me. I wasn’t letting that happen again.

When I didn’t let go she went crazy. She screamed. She thrashed and twisted. The skin on her arm tore and my grip slipped.

I dropped the flashlight and grabbed on with my other hand too, gripping her arm in a two-handed grip. I wasn’t letting go.

She kicked and spun and I hung on.

Kayla screamed. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Her mother, what was left of her, hissed and lunged for Kayla, clawing with her free hand. She almost got away from me.

I planted my feet and swung her away from Kayla. She slammed into the wall and bounced off. I brought my knee up, hard, into her gut.

Her head snapped up. Her eyes were empty of anything except madness and pain. I twisted her arm around and shoved her at the floor. She fought but she was skinny and dead. She went down with me on top of her.

The stink of dead flesh choked me. She thrashed and screamed beneath me.

I glanced at Kayla. “Get out! I’ve got this!”

For a second, Kayla hesitated, then she ran.

“Mine,” her mother hissed beneath me.

I pressed my knee down into the center of her back, pulling up on her arm. “She’s not. Not anymore!”

The ghost fought to get free. She was strong, slippery and determined. I was just as determined to keep her from following Kayla. Why had Kayla never been adopted? Why did she have such bad luck all the time? Maybe because her dead mother hadn’t fucking moved on?

Sounded right to me. I pulled harder. Bones snapped and the ghost screamed.

Whatever else she was, she still felt pain. My gut tightened. I’d do what it took to stop her from following us.

It took a long time.

Ghost Breaker, they call me. The woman who makes ghosts flesh and fights them. Kayla’s mother was the first one. The first time I touched a ghost and made it solid. Why then? I don’t know. The combination of the house, and Halloween? Whatever the reason, after that night it didn’t go away.

There are no friendly ghosts. Those people, the ones that call me evil? They don’t know. They can’t see, not until I touch the dead. I give the things that go bump in the night substance, and with enough effort, I can break them. Force them to move on.

To where? I don’t know. I don’t see that.

💀

After I was done, tired and sick, I rejoined my friends outside. Kayla wouldn’t talk to either of us. She voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric facility a week later for nightmares she couldn’t shake. She’s better now. I’ve checked. We haven’t spoken in years but she seems happy now. Married, two children as beautiful as she is.

I lost a friend that night and it was worth it to save her.

Brianna? That’s a different story.

That’s how it started. I’m Tina Grimes, also called the Death Hunter and the Ghost Breaker. I got my start on a dare.

💀

5,094  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 96th short story release, written in March 2013.

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, Child of Their Minds.


Creative Commons License
This story by Ryan M. Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Good Samaritan

Cover art for story

Two girls died. Word spread across the whole campus. Don’t go out alone, only with friends. Don’t trust strange guys.

Jane works the late shift at the campus library. That means leaving alone. In the dark.

Not her favorite thing, but she needs the job.

🚀

Jane geared up for battle before she left the safety of the library walls. She had her backpack secure over both shoulders. She kept her hands in her sweatshirt pouch with her keys sticking out between the fingers of her left hand and her small bottle of pepper spray in her left. Around her neck, she wore a whistle on a string. With two girls already dead this month, she didn’t plan on taking any chances.

“You alright gonna out all by your lonesome?”

She took a breath and looked back at the janitor standing beside her cart. Wanda was a tall woman with very wide hips and a beehive of red hair. Each night it was the same. Wanda came in as she closed up to clean the building.

“I’m fine.” Jane smiled. “Anybody mess with me, they’ll be sorry.”

Wanda clucked her tongue and shook her head but didn’t argue. “You be careful, girl. You don’t know some of these guys. They’re sneaky, they are.”

“I know, Wanda. Good night.”

“Good night to yourself.”

Jane pushed out through the doors. Cold October air stung her face. Decaying leaves gathered around the walls. Light posts lit up the square, but a fine chilling drizzle was falling. Not quite cold enough to turn to snow but cold enough. Jane hunched her shoulders and headed out into the mess.

Away from the building the wind blew the freezing mist into her face. Jane huffed and tried breathing through her nose. It was colder than she’d thought. If it got much colder, maybe they’d see an early snow. Too early for snow in Olympia, she thought. But that’s climate change for you. All sorts of crazy weather.

She made it across the square and headed up towards the Loop. A little old woman stood beneath the street light huddled in a yellow parka with bright green flowers. Jane couldn’t see her face, but she saw the breath curling out of the hood. Beside her was one of those wire carts on wheels. It held the old lady’s bag, one of those big black bags that clasped at the top. But if she was waiting for a bus she was going to have a long wait. The last bus left the Loop for downtown a half-hour before Jane closed up the library. She started to walk past, but the thought of the old lady standing out there in the freezing weather made her hesitate and stop. She turned around.

“Excuse me?”

“Yes?” The old lady said, her voice quavering or maybe shaking from the cold.

“Are you waiting for the bus?”

“Oh yes. I think it should be along soon. I hope so.”

Jane shook her head. “Ma’am, the last bus came a little more than a half-hour ago.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. It did?”

“Yes. The last bus leaves just after eleven-thirty.”

“Oh, dear. I fell asleep in the library. I didn’t know it was that late. What am I going to do?”

Jane tried to remember if she’d seen her in the library. It had been quiet, but she could have been in the stacks and missed the old woman. “Is there anyone you could call? Someone that could come get you?”

“No, no one.” The old woman shuffled around and grabbed her cart. She turned back towards the square. “Is the library closed?”

“Yes. We closed before eleven. You should have been able to catch the bus.” The old woman hadn’t been any of the usual stragglers when she’d closed up. She stayed after closing to finish up some work.

“I tried to find some coffee. It’s so cold tonight.”

Jane felt the cold. The wind-blown drizzle was soaking her, and it was icy cold. “You don’t have anyone that can come get you?”

“No, I don’t know. What time is it?”

“Nearly midnight.”

“Oh. Oh, dear. That’s late. I didn’t know.”

Jane shook her head. She had to get home, but she couldn’t leave this old woman out here to freeze. People did that. She wondered if the old woman even had a place to go. She could be homeless.

“Where do you live?”

“The Boardwalk apartments.”

“That’s downtown right? Near the Pier?”

“Yes, dear. That’s right.”

That wasn’t too bad. She had to go near there on her way home anyway. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Jane said firmly. “Come on, my car is this way.”

“Okay dear. That’s nice.”

The old woman grabbed her cart and started shuffling towards Jane. She moved as slow as a banana slug.

“Wait,” Jane said. “Why don’t you wait here? I’ll run down, get the car and come around to pick you up.”

“Oh, okay. Thank you.”

“Sure.” Jane took off at an easy jog. The sooner she got this done, got home and into bed the better she’d feel. At least she could say that she’d done her good deed for the day. In the future, she was going to make sure if the old lady came back to the library that she got out to catch her bus.

The car wasn’t far from the loop. She glanced around as she approached the car, one of the few left in the lot and didn’t see anyone suspicious hanging around. She walked like she was headed towards one of the other cars then at the last minute swerved, went to her car and quickly unlocked the doors. She tossed her backpack into the passenger seat, slid in, locked up and started the car. It only took a few seconds to get out of the lot and head up around to where the old lady waited. She stopped and unlocked the doors.

The old lady shuffled to the back door and opened it, letting in a gust of cold and rain. She struggled to get her cart into the back and then slid in after it. The door shut with a thunk.

“You all set?”

“Yes dear, thank you.”

Jane nodded and pulled out. She got the heater going before they left the Loop. Her headlights cut through the icy drizzle and by the time they reached the parkway the interior of the little car was feeling a lot warmer. She looked in the rear-view mirror and saw that the old lady still had her hood up. Jane couldn’t see her face.

“How are you doing? Is it warming up back there?”

“Yes dear, thank you.”

The words sounded exactly the same as the last thing the old lady had said. As if it was a recording. Jane shivered. Now you’re just freaking yourself out, she thought. She looked in the rear-view mirror again. The old woman sat so still she could be nothing but a mannequin back there. Jane couldn’t even hear her breath.

“Cold night. Do you think it will snow?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Snow? Do you think?”

“Maybe. It’s cold.”

Jane felt better just hearing the old woman say something else. It had just been one of those weird things. Nothing to freak out about. It still seemed strange to her that she hadn’t seen the old woman in the library. Or didn’t remember seeing her. She didn’t look like a typical student, but they did get all sorts of people in the library.

She slowed and turned on Kaiser headed towards Harrison. There were few street lights and with the tall evergreens on either side and the constant drizzle her visibility decreased.  Jane leaned forward as if it would help her see better. By doing so, she saw something odd. A dull glow up in the dark overhead. At first she thought it was the Moon behind the clouds. But then it moved. It drifted across her view to the other side of the roadway. The light grew brighter until she could see a cone of light cutting down through the drizzle. A helicopter?

Gravel crunched under her tires. Jane looked down and saw trees coming towards her as the car bounced. She jerked the wheel to try and get back on the road. There was a bounce, and then the car spun out of control across the road. The old lady grabbed the back of the passenger seat to steady herself. Jane tried to correct for the spin, and the car steadied. She braked and brought the car to a halt facing the wrong way on Kaiser. Her breath came in short gasps.

“Oh dear. Oh dear.”

Jane glanced back at her passenger. The old lady released the seat. She wore knitted gloves but her hand looked large, and she’d really squeezed the seat hard. She pulled her hand back and folded them on her lap.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, dear.”

Did her tone sound mocking? Jane wondered. She felt in her sweatshirt pouch for the mace. “I’m sorry. I thought I saw something and, well, it doesn’t matter. I should have been watching the road.”

“Yes, dear.”

Jane shivered. There was no mistaking the mocking in those words now. And malice.

That’s not an old woman at all, Jane thought. It was a terrifying, horrible thought but as she glanced in the rear-view mirror, she knew she wasn’t mistaken.

The shape in the back seat sat too tall. ‘Her’ grip on the passenger seat when they spun out had been too strong. Jane didn’t know what to do. It had to be a man. But what if she was wrong? This could all be her own paranoia.

“We’re okay. So let’s get going.” Jane surreptitiously dropped the mace in her lap as she pulled her hand out to start the car. She felt tingles along her neck and kept expecting him to do something.

The car started. Her passenger sat still in the back. The wipers thwacked back and forth to clear the windshield. Jane carefully brought the car around in a U-turn and headed on down the road. She kept glancing at the rear-view mirror, but he appeared content to ride along. For now. If this was the same creep responsible for those other deaths she knew this calm wouldn’t last. Sooner or later he’d strike, and she had to be ready.

Outside she watched for the light she’d seen but didn’t see anything.

She felt her shoulder blades tensing in anticipation of him doing something. But every time she checked the mirror he wasn’t doing anything. Sitting back there with his face hidden by the slicker. She couldn’t see him at all. Everything she could see screamed old lady, but at the same time, it was all wrong. The scenery on either side of the road became a blur. They raced down the road. She was speeding, Jane realized. Her foot had started pushing down the pedal as if that would get her away from the man sitting in the back seat.

Light flared in the rear-view mirror. It cut through the wind-blown drizzle to light up the road like a spotlight. She saw it move towards the car. Her passenger twisted around to look out the back window. Jane still didn’t get a look at his face.

“Oh dear,” he said, hardly even making an effort to sound like an old lady now. “What the hell?”

Not very lady-like, Jane thought. She slammed on the brakes and brought the car to a skidding stop. It caught her passenger off-guard, and he fell against the passenger seat.

“Hey!”

The car stopped. Jane hit the release on her seat belt. The guy was leaning forward when she opened her door and tumbled out onto the wet road. Jane kicked and scrambled away from the car. She got up onto her feet and reached into her pouch for the mace canister. It wasn’t there.

It hit her then that she’d taken it out and had it on her lap. It was in the car. She backed away from the car and put the other lane between her and it. The light swept forward along the road towards the car. Jane shielded her eyes with one hand and tried to see the helicopter. She couldn’t hear any sound of rotors. When the light hit the car, it brightened until she had to squint against the light. Then it vanished and left her with only the car headlights against the dark.

He didn’t get out of the car. Jane clutched the keys between her fingers and eased closer to the car. She couldn’t see him in the back seat anymore. She walked a little closer and still didn’t see him. She got to open driver’s side door and saw the mace sitting on the seat. She snatched it up and jumped back. No sign of him. Her keys had a mini-maglight. She turned it on and checked the car. He wasn’t there, but the cart with his bag was still in the back. She got in, started the car and left as fast as she dared.

She started feeling safe when she got home. With the garage light on, she pulled the cart out of the back seat and opened the bag. An anatomy book was inside along with a collection of sharp knives. Jane gasped and dropped the bag. It hit the concrete floor with a clang. She remembered checking that book out to a guy tonight. Sean, something. Her hands shook when she called the police.

🚀

Officer Smith’s thin face looked at Jane intently. She handed Jane a cup of coffee. Jane inhaled the rich scent.

“You recognized him?”

“No. I recognized the book in the bag with the, uh, knives and stuff. The anatomy book. I’d checked it out to him at the library.”

The policewoman typed on her computer then looked up again. “So you didn’t see him leave the car?”

Jane shook her head. “No. I mean the light from the helicopter was too bright. He must have thought it was the police and took off. There’s a lot of trees on that stretch of Kaiser.”

Officer Smith’s fingers tapped on her keyboard. “Are you sure it was a helicopter?”

“What else could it have been?”

“I don’t know, but the weather was too bad for helicopters.”

Jane shivered. “I’m sorry. The light came from above, and after it had gone out, he wasn’t in the car. I didn’t see anything else.”

🚀

2,407  WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 95th short story release, written in September 2009.

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, On a Dare.

Shermmies’s Planet

Cover art for Shermmies's Planet

Work and play collide in this story of alien first contract.

Bad enough the planet smelled like lemon meringue pie. But for Uplift Agent Holly Kirk her future hinges on convincing the furry natives to adopt her uplift contract, before her competition beats her to it.

Unfortunately, the natives are more interested in dancing!

🚀

Project coordinator Holly Kirk didn’t trust any planet that smelled like lemon meringue pie. She stood at the base of the squat saucer-shaped lander with a scanner held up to her eyes. Her tight blue enviroskin clung to every curve and the smooth line of her body from her tiny ankles to her long neck. A brisk breeze carried the lemon meringue smell across the bright orange spring grass plain. The wind tugged at her black hair, but her glittery silver hair bands kept every strand in place. Her space-pale brow, unmarred by unfiltered starlight, wrinkled as she surveyed the area.

Worse even than the smell was the impossible cuteness of Shermmies’s Planet. The smell came from the spring grass, each coiled orange stem leaking tiny sap beads out through pores. The odor attracted the sipper moths that crawled around each stem, nibbling on the sweet syrup as they left behind their eggs. Even those bugs were cute to human eyes as if a Disney god had designed their bright multi-colored wings and big faux-eyes. Nothing was cuter than a shermmie, the technologically adept, if backward, natives that she’d come to uplift. Through the scanner she watched a contingent of them skipping through the spring grass toward the lander.

The markings varied on each shermmie, as did their general height and weight, just like humans. In a broad sense, shermmies looked humanoid but hardly human. Bilateral symmetry, with two legs, two arms, a head on top of a body. But they were round, soft and covered in long fur that bounced and waved with each skipping step. Only about the height of a toddler but wider than any human child, they looked like madly gleeful bunny people or ecstatic hamsters skipping across the plain. Their faces were fat and cherubic. They eschewed clothing in favor of stashing whatever they wanted to carry in their marsupial-like pouches. Even when they carried their young.

And these were the people that she had come to uplift. As project coordinator, it was her job to convince the shermmies to adopt technology appropriate to their development, with a goal of getting the shermmies up into space. Success meant royalties and licensing fees that would help keep her team funded in the years ahead, even with the overhead costs she paid to the Prometheus. She had nothing against the shermmies, not really, but being around them did put her on cuteness overload. And to make matters worse, she had Gerald Davis leading his team to the southern continent to try and get the shermmies there to go with his uplift plan. Only one of them would get the final contract, so she needed these deplorably cute aliens to go for her plan when instead they were out there skipping after a scarlet road runner.

She lowered the view and yelled back at the lander. “Skipper! Get out here!”

With a whirr of electronic whip-like legs, Skipper rolled down the launch ramp onto the spring grass. As his silvery arms crushed the plants, the lemon meringue scent increased, and sipper moths rose up in a colorful cloud around the robot. The transparent center of his wheel-shaped body turned cloudy, and a fat human face grinned out of the smoke.

“What can I do for you, love?”

Holly pointed out at the gallivanting shermmies. “Go herd them back here onto the launch. It took us three days already to set up this meeting. I want to get started.”

Skipper rolled out onto the plain to chase down the shermmies. Holly lifted her scanner and looked out at the gorge in the distance. On the far side, she saw the delicate buildings the shermmies had built, suspended above the raging river below by impossibly delicate lines that glittered in the sunlight. Their city resembled a dew-covered spider web sagging under its own weight. The scanner’s overlay displayed distance and composition of the structures. Clearly, they could do what she wanted, provided she convinced them to buy into the program. That was the big if. Holly lowered the scanner and went up the ramp into the launch. It was too painful to watch shermmies scattering from the spinning robot like children playing tag.

Twenty minutes later Holly put down her half full water glass and stood up as six shermmies tumbled into the large conference room with Skipper bringing up the rear. Around the large oval table, her team leads also stood. On her right, Leo McCloud stood even taller than her thanks to Lunar engineering that had shaped his reinforced skeletal structure. Across the table from Leo was Clarice Thompson, a seemingly delicate Asian woman with fine bone structure and bright pink hair. Clarice was so cute that she looked like she belonged on Shermmies’ planet. The third member of Holly’s team, Autumn Whisper, was also the oldest person in the room. Autumn’s green skin, long white dreadlocks, and rough weathered skin spoke to his origin on NuEden. His broad shoulders stretched the deep brown enviroskin he wore. The shermmies all came to a stop along the side of the table and blinked up at the standing team members while grinning with big vacant grins. Holly felt her own lips twitch in response but refused to smile. She wasn’t even convinced that the shermmies’ expressions matched the corresponding human emotions. That look could be a look of abject terror for all anyone could tell her. The contact specialists and xenolinguists thought that their expressions corresponded, but how could they know for sure? Maybe the aliens all thought that Skipper had brought them here to be eaten by the giants.

With so many people in the room, it felt smaller than normal and more claustrophobic since she had opaqued the walls to a soothing light orange, like a pale version of the spring grass outside. She’d also had the large light panel above the table spectrum shifted to match the shermmies sun. Hopefully, the changes made the room feel a bit less sterile and more inviting to their guests. She did notice that the aliens had brought in the lemon meringue scent with them from outside. She’d never want to eat one of those pies again.

“Everything is going to be okay, no harm will come to any of you. We want to help.” She paused while Skipper translated her words into the shermmies’ language, which sounded like baby babble and children’s laughter.

One of the shermmies with dark tan stripes in the fur around its large doe-eyes chattered back at Skipper.

“Happy says that they understand your speech,” Skipper reported. “But their symbiotes haven’t adapted yet to producing the words, so they need me to continue translating what they say.”

Symbiotes? The reports indicated the possibility of an advanced level of genetic engineering. But how advanced? She’d have to find out how it’d impact her plans. “Happy is your name?”

“That’s right,” Happy answered, with Skipper’s help.

“Pleased to meet you, Happy. My name is Holly King, you can call me Holly. Let me introduce my team leaders.” She went around the table and introduced her people.

“These are my family,” Happy said. “Glee, Cheer, Joy, Ecstasy, and the small one on the end is Bliss.”

Holly took a second to absorb those names while she knew that the launch AI had matched their images with their names and recorded it all in the launch datanet, for storage on Prometheus. “If you don’t mind, how did you select those names?”

“By studying the information supplied by your ship’s xenolinguists. You have a rich and fascinating language, but our naming custom is to find the word or words that best describes one’s nature. These were the closest matches we could find in your language.”

“I see.” Holly gestured to the seats around the table. “Would you like to sit down?”

Happy bounced. “I think we’ll stand. It’s so much more fun.”

Glee chittered at them. “I don’t see how you can sit all the time.”

Holly shook her head. “We don’t always, we’re happy to remain standing.”

Skipper remained behind the shermmies, while also standing in front of the door.

Autumn crossed his arms and stood as solid as a tree. Holly knew that he preferred standing too.

“Let’s move on. We asked you here to talk more about our uplift proposal. Have you had a chance to discuss it in your council?”

“Really?” That came from Cheer. “Oh, we talked about it lots.”

“Yes, many discussions,” Bliss confirmed.

Happy made a noise that Skipper didn’t bother translating before he—was Happy male? Holly made a mental note to find out if such terms even applied—continued.

“Yes, yes!” Happy bounced in place. His arms waved around. “Much fire! Massive explosions hurling a rocket into space. Even so far as our moons!”

“Then you like the idea?”

“Like it!” All the Shermmies giggled. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a giggle, but it sure sounded like a giggle. But then Orgainians fart to thank you, so who knew? “We loved it! Terrifically exciting. And you actually do this? Ride these rockets into space?”

“Well, not anymore,” Holly said. “We’ve developed more advanced technologies, which we will share in time, but we need to start with the rockets. Once those principals are mastered, our people will continue helping you advance.”

“Yippee!” Joy cried out and spun in a circle that made the other shermmies move back. Right there beside the conference table Joy started dancing. Okay, maybe not dancing but hell, it sure looked that way to Holly.

A second later Glee jumped in and started shaking and shimming along with Joy. Holly leaned on the table, working hard to keep her face neutral as Bliss, Cheer and Ecstasy also joined the dance. Skipper rolled back into the doorway to give them more room, his facial projection giving her a look like he expected her to do something about the spontaneous festivities.

Right in the middle of it all Happy hadn’t joined the dance, and now he spoke.

“Of course the whole proposal is impossible,” Skipper translated.

Before Holly could get a word out to ask why Happy jumped into the dance with the rest and it was Bliss that climbed up on the table to continue the dance.

Autumn looked at her, plainly expecting her to do something about the shermmies as Joy clambered up with Bliss. Clarice had her hand on her mouth trying not to laugh while Leo gaped openly at the spectacle.

“Please!” When no responded, she raised her voice. “Please!”

Happy lowered his arms and blinked up at her. He chattered at her. “Why don’t you join the dance?”

“Why’s the proposal impossible?”

All the shermmies stopped dancing. Bliss and Joy stayed standing on the conference table which put them at eye-level. Everyone’s eyes watching her and Happy. Happy did a little wiggle and brought his fat little hands together like a moth flapping away. The fine fur and markings on his hands made a passable imitation of one of the sipper moths.

“We don’t fly like a sipper moth,” Skipper translated.

Happy cleared his throat. A deep, understandably human voice came out of his mouth. “That’s right.”

“You can speak our language?”

“Now.” Ecstasy closed her eyes and shivered. Then she opened her eyes a bit and looked sidelong at Autumn. Her voice sounded smoky. “Now we can.”

Cheer grabbed Bliss and pulled her down from the table, swinging the smaller shermmie around. “Now we can! Thank the symbiotes!”

Leo unrolled a palmsheet. “Symbiotes, what symbiotes are you talking about?”

Happy snorted and waved a dismissive hand. He spoke in that same deep voice. “What does it matter? We don’t need the machine to translate anymore.”

Holly had to get the meeting back under control and on topic. “Fine. You’re right. But I’m sorry. I still don’t understand why you won’t consider our offer. With space travel comes a great expansion of your species. You’ll learn by flying to your moons, but soon you’ll go out further into your solar system. There are asteroids there full of mineral resources just waiting to be mined.”

“I know.” Happy grinned. “Your xenolinguists told us all this when they gave us the information to study. We also know that your people are forbidden from mining even a single comet directly.”

Holly didn’t dare look away from the adorably cute alien standing in front of her, only now she realized that she had let their fat, furry, grinning faces and those big eyes trick her. The mind behind that cute front was as sharp as they came.

“That’s obviously true, no one has lied to you or tried to deceive you. We’re here to help. If you accept our proposal, then our team works with your people to build a whole new area of technology. Space travel will introduce you to the wider galactic culture. Just think of the benefits that will bring! In science, education, and culture. And those asteroid and comet resources, not to mention the wealth from the other planets, are the raw material you can use to trade for anything you want. We can make you wealthier than you can possibly imagine.”

Glee skipped forward and spoke in a high piping voice. “And you do this for a percentage?”

Holly pinched her fingers together with a tiny gap. “A small percentage, and as your uplift agents we can guide you into this new phase of development for your planet.”

Happy skipped back from the table. Instantly the other shermmies skipped toward the door. Skipper rose up, but Holly flicked her fingers at him. They couldn’t very well hold the shermmies prisoner in the launch. Skipper rolled out of the way, and she watched as the shermmies joyfully skipped out down the corridor taking her hopes with them.

“Make sure they don’t get lost,” Holly said to Skipper.

“Will do.” Skipper’s arms whipped around, propelling him on out the door after the shermmies.

Holly dropped into her chair, feeling the mesh reform to her body. She touched the massage control, and the smart fibers started kneading her back. “That could have gone better.”

Around the table, the others settled into their own chairs. Clarice leaned forward as if she was going to say something, but at that moment the edge of the table pulsed blue and a ding-dong chime rang through the room. Holly tapped the tabletop.

“King here.”

The center of the table appeared to vanish, replaced by a hologram of Gerald Davis, the last man she wanted to see. Not that he was hard on the eyes. His green enviroskin clung to well-defined muscles on his slender physique. That, and she liked the way his hazel eyes looked out at her while an easy grin played on his lips. The Prometheus was a competitive environment, and in this case, it was Davis that had put up the competing bid for the shermmies’s uplift. They’d worked together in the past on sub-contract rights and other, smaller, rights options but as luck would have it they were both ready to move on to a bigger prime contract position, and only one of them could win the bid. So it didn’t matter how much she liked the look of his hands or the shape of his jaw. Instead, she focused on the fact that his nose was a bit too large for her taste and forced a smile onto her lips.

“Davis, what did we do to deserve this call?”

“Just a courtesy, Holly. I know how those landing fees and everything else can rack up quicker than it seems possible. I’m getting close to signing a deal here. We’ve worked well together in the past, so I thought I’d give you a heads up. Figured you’d appreciate the chance to cut your losses now. Plus I might have some sub-contract deals for you once we nail this down. Maybe you’d like to get together back on the Prometheus over dinner? My treat?”

Holly wasn’t going to go supernova over the man’s arrogance. He really thought she’d drop out with an offer of a few sub-contracts and a dinner with him? Either that or he was feeling her out to see how close she was to signing the shermmies herself.

“Funny,” she lied. She let her gaze drop and travel up his body back until their eyes locked again. She licked her lips. “I was about to call you and make a similar offer. I guess these guys are all pretty eager to become space jockeys.”

“Yes.” Davis cleared his throat and broke eye contact. “Don’t be too disappointed when I file first. And that dinner offer is always open. I’d best go. Good luck.”

Davis vanished, and the table surface turned opaque again.

“Wow,” Clarice said.

Leo waved the palmsheet he’d taken out when the shermmies were talking. “I need to study these readings. I think they’ve got some interesting tech here.”

“Is it anything we can use to get them to sign the contract?” Holly asked.

His shoulders came up nearly to his ears when he shrugged.

She waved a hand. “We’ll look at it, but I need leverage right now. We’ve got to convince them to sign with us before Davis closes his deal.”

“I don’t believe he’s as close as he suggests,” Autumn said. The big man interlaced his fingers on his chest. “But he wants you to believe it.”

“So the Southern shermmies probably aren’t taking the proposal any more seriously than ours?”

Clarice shook her head. “It’s dangerous generalizing across a planetary population. Look at the variety of human cultures. Maybe Davis got lucky, and the southern population is more receptive to the concept.”

Holly leaned forward and pinch flicked her access open. A quick drag and snatch pulled up the map of the planet which she flung out onto the table surface, and palm dragged it to fill the space between them. The real-time simulation showed a large tropical storm over the large primary ocean, with more cloud cover over the two major continents in the northern and southern hemispheres. She grimaced at the thought of the satellite connection fees she was racking up just looking at the map, but she had to see what there was to work with.

She reached out and tapped the western continent, more of a submerged continent with a few large volcanic islands surrounded by a shallow sea. “What about here? What do we know about the shermmies on these islands?”

Leo reached out and then stopped. “Do you want me to purchase the survey data?”

“No! Just tell me what you know.”

He settled back in his chair. “Only what the catalog survey showed. There’s data available but the survey identified only two sites with sufficient resources to pull off a large-scale space program. That was here and Davis’ site on the southern continent.”

“I knew that much.” Holly reached out and gave the map a shove, sliding it around to show the eastern continent, clearly once part of the southern continent, but continental drift was carrying it away. Most of the smaller landmass looked like a desert. “I assume the same story here?”

“That was the conclusion,” Clarice said. “We didn’t buy the full data set. Our bid only included potential uplift sites, and Davis outbid us on the southern continent. They do have much larger metropolitan areas there all built up in the rainforest.”

“These people appear to build their cities with an eye to integrating them into the natural environment,” Autumn said. “Maybe the idea of blasting off into space is simply against their beliefs.”

Holly shook her head. “We’ve seen the data about the shermmies here. They obviously have sophisticated metallurgical skills. Which means that they have mining and refining technology. We’re not talking about straw huts here.”

“What about what Happy said?” Clarice asked. “He said they don’t fly.”

Leo leaned forward, nodding. “That’s true. No aircraft of any kind. The survey included that detail and limited ground transportation. They do use domesticated animals to haul carts, and they’ve got a fairly sophisticated railway network. Otherwise, most travel is on foot.”

An idea occurred to Holly. She slid her hands together across the table, closing the map. “Right. Maybe we’ve approached this the wrong way. We flew down here in a lander. What if we approach them on foot? Meet with them on their terms and stress the environmental benefits of moving industry applications into space? Not to mention all of the other subsidiary environmental remediation technologies we could write into the contract to offset the impacts of developing the space program.”

“I believe it’s worth a try,” Autumn said.

Holly stood up. “Great! Then you’re with me. Clarice, Leo, keep an eye on the fort and start working on the contract language. I want to have that nailed down in case they go for it. We need their agreement and need to get it transmitted to the Prometheus as quick as possible. Everyone clear?”

Nods all around. Silver flashed in the doorway as Skipper rolled into the room. “What did I miss?”

Holly was already heading out of the room with Autumn on her heels. “Check with Leo, he’ll get you caught up.”

🚀

Close up the shermmies’s city was even more impressive than when Holly had seen it through the scanner. She stood in front of a floor to ceiling transparent wall looking down at a thousand foot drop to the whitewater rapids at the bottom of the canyon. Her initial impression of the city as a dew-covered spider web was good, but up close each of those dew drops was a building hanging by cables that also served as skywalks connecting the buildings. But her impression was also wrong because the city was a three-dimensional web with multiple levels stretching back and forth between the canyon walls. Thanks to the transparent walls everywhere she looked she could see shermmies busily going about their tasks and living their lives. That was a lot of dancing, skipping and cavorting cuteness. Holly turned away from the view back to the room they’d been guided to when they reached the city after walking the three kilometers from the launch.

The floor was bowl shaped, and Autumn stood at the very bottom of the bowl with his arms crossed. It wasn’t that deep but enough so that she was almost the same height for once. Their guide had left them alone. His eyes were closed. He wasn’t sleeping but was doing some sort of NuEdenist meditation in the sunlight streaming through the roof.

“Autumn!”

Without moving a muscle, he opened one eye. “Yes.”

“Are you with me?”

His eye closed. “Of course.”

Holly was pacing around Autumn when Happy skipped out of one of the connecting tubes into the room.

He flung his arms wide. “Greetings!”

Holly smiled and threw her own arms out wide. “Greetings! Thanks for seeing us again.”

“After we spoke I came back and talked to the council again.”

Holly took a deep breath. “That’s great. I actually wanted to come here and talk to you, to your council if you like, because I realized that in all of our talks I’d left out some important points.”

Happy’s big eyes blinked. “Oh?”

“When you left we realized that we didn’t share the environmental benefits that come with a space program. Sure there’s an impact to the program itself, and we can include environmental remediation in the contract, but once you’re established out there in space, you can relocate most of your heavy industrial applications. Back on Earth, we reversed centuries of environmental damage once we got our space legs.”

“We discussed this,” Happy said, cheerfully. “I had overlooked something too.”

Autumn stirred. “What was that?”

“Fun!” Happy spun on one foot and flung out his arms. “Glee thought of it on the way back.”

“Fun?”

Happy’s eyes widened. “All those explosions, riding on top of a rocket, it sounded very scary. We don’t fly. What you call sipper moths fly, other animals fly, but we don’t fly. I don’t think any shermmie on the planet has ever really thought about flying.”

“Never? Is it some sort of phobia?” Holly hadn’t considered that. What if the whole planet was deathly afraid of flying? They’d never sign the contract then. Not unless she could convince them to hire an outside workforce, with the overhead taken out after her percentage.

Happy waved his hands. “No, no. Not a phobia.” He scratched his head. “We didn’t see the need. Why do it? There are safer and more reliable methods to travel.”

Holly got it. “Fun! You’re saying Glee was the first one of your people to realize that flying might be fun?”

Happy’s heels kicked out in a little jig. “Exactly! It seems obvious, but even many on the council had difficulty imagining how it could be fun. But Glee set up what your database called a swing in the council chambers, and they all took a turn! Glee said flying would be like swinging, but you don’t come down!”

“Flying is fun,” Autumn agreed.

Holly had never felt better in her life. As the primary agent of contract for Shermmies’ planet, her future was nearly assured. She pulled a palmsheet out of her pocket and unrolled it. “That’s great news, Happy. We’re all happy now! I’ll contact the launch, and I’m sure they can get the contract of intent transferred right away. That’s just the initial contract that shows you agree to work with my team on the uplift contract and then we can work out all of those details.”

Happy had started a little jig, but he stopped. He crossed his arms, mimicking Autumn’s pose. “Oh, no. We can’t sign a contract with you.”

Holly managed to find her voice. “What? Why? Did the southern continent already sign with Davis?”

“No,” Happy said. He gave a little bounce. “The council spent more time studying the information you provided and came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to pay a percentage of our future forever. As it appears we would in your legal system, if we agree to the agency deal you propose. Instead, they’ve agreed to work with the southern council to build an independent space program.”

Holly shook her head. “You don’t want to do that, Happy. You’ve got to go back to the council and urge them to reconsider. Or let me talk to them. It isn’t easy building a space program. On my home world, we had several false starts before we really got established in space and it cost people their lives. Working with an agent, we can guide you past those troubles. It’s a percentage, but once you really understand what’s involved, I’m sure you’ll see how worthwhile it is.”

Happy gave her a little bow. “Thank you for your concern, but now that we see how fun it could be I believe we can figure it out on our own. And if there are any stumbling blocks it looks like there are those that provide technical assistance for a one-time fee, in case we get stuck.”

“That’s hardly the same as an agent that works with you every step of the way. Just think of the time you’ll save in not having to figure it out yourself!” Holly put away the palmsheet. “How about you just agree to give it a little more thought before you decide?”

Happy giggled. “You just never give up, do you? In that case, the council has instructed me to revoke your contact permit. I hope you have a fun trip back to your ship!”

And with that, he skipped out of the room.

Autumn looked at Holly. “Do you remember the way back?”

🚀

Holly stormed through the Prometheus’s clean white corridors on her way to Legal. There had to be a way to get back down to the surface and convince the shermmies that they needed to sign the agency contract. She almost ran into Davis before she saw him coming toward her, she was so into her head and was looking down at the deep blue floor while she walked. She stumbled trying to stop.

Strong hands caught her arms, steadying her. Holly looked into his hazel eyes and noticed the flecks of green and gold mixed together. He had really pretty eyes. “I see the furballs threw you off the planet too?”

Holly scowled and stepped back. Davis’ hands fell to his sides.

“Yes, they’ve decided to go independent. Evidently, they think that’ll be more fun.”

“They could be right,” Davis said, a grin playing on his lips. “In a way I’m relieved.”

“Why?” Did he know how long it had taken her to save up to make this uplift bid? “I just threw away a small fortune trying to land this uplift contract.”

He raised his hands. “Hey, me too, but I wasn’t looking forward to spending a bunch of time around all those cutesy, happy furballs. It was a bit much, you know?”

Holly laughed. “I’ll agree to that.”

“Good. And since you’re in an agreeable mood, how about we get that dinner we talked about? I have a proposal for you, I think we can pool our efforts and maybe land a new uplift contract on a new planet just surveyed.”

He did look really good, and she hadn’t eaten anything in the past ten hours. Holly gave him a small nod. She raised a finger. “Dinner. We’ll see about the rest of it after. But if they have lemon meringue pie for desert I might kill someone.”

Davis laughed, and as they walked back down the Prometheus’s corridors, Holly finally laughed too.

🚀

4,972 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 94th short story release, written in June 2011, during a workshop on the Oregon coast.

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

Under the Bridge

Cover art for Under the Bridge

Devon found the streets better than the risk of living with his father. Even when he slept under a bridge instead of in a bed.

He met all sorts. Or thought he had, until he met the shirtless kid. A freak of some sort, but okay.

Getting out of Aberdeen, that was it for Devon’s plan. He never expected where it would lead him.

A standalone story in the Goblin Alley universe.

🍎

Devon hitched his backpack straps up over his coat’s padded shoulders. The coat pulled tight across his chest. It was too small and purple, but it was warmer than no coat at all. He peered up at the bright gray skies with suspicion.

It wasn’t really raining right now. Not as cold as it had been lately either. He rubbed his nose on his sleeve. Flowergies, the lady called it. That wasn’t right. He knew that. Allergies was the word. But the lady in the yellow caddy had called it flowergies, and he liked the sound. It was better.

The lady wasn’t his mother, but he wished she were. She had given him a ride back to Olympia from Aberdeen, that was all. An hour out of the rain, out of Aberdeen, and out of his father’s reach. Devon had long since given up worrying about whether or not his father would come looking for him. The bottom of the next bottle was the limit of his father’s focus.

Devon kicked at the cracked asphalt at the edge of the path. He could head on up Boulevard, maybe check out around Ralph’s Thriftway to pick up something to eat. Then down to the library when they opened, but that wasn’t until eleven anyway. The sun was just up, so that was hours away.

Better to move on out from under the bridge anyway.

Someone sniffled.

Devon turned, looking around carefully. Up on the other side of the bridge, across the stream and right up between the dirt and the bottom of the bridge a small gray shape moved in the shadows.

Jeez, a little kid. At fourteen, Devon had seen other kids living outside. Some with adults, so not. This one had been quiet, he hadn’t heard the kid when he settled down late last night.

It was hard to see anything except ratty blond hair, what might be a gray hoodie and a skinny little body. The kid was all tucked back up into a ball just in the dirt. No pack. No blankets that Devon could see. It was warmer last night, but still plenty cold.

“Hey, Kid?”

The little kid squirmed backward further under the bridge.

Scared. Who could blame him? Devon kicked another piece of asphalt. His stomach growled.

Hell, he’d tried. He wasn’t going to risk falling into the stream and go climb up there. What good would it do?

“Whatever,” Devon said. “I’m heading out anyway.”

He left the cover of the bridge and started up the trail to the switchback that would take him up to the road. It wasn’t that far to walk down to Ralph’s, and someone might help him out with bus fare money. That was the easiest. People coming in and out would give up a couple bucks for bus fare. Not that he’d use it for that. Why would he? He could walk anywhere the bus went.

Rocks rattled behind him.

Devon didn’t stop walking, but he slowed down and glanced back. The kid was standing on the dirt slope. Dust rose from the rocks that he had dislodged sliding in the loose dirt.

Big white eyes stared at Devon, white except for a big dark pupil. No iris at all, it was freaky. The kid’s whole body trembled. He was just like a rabbit, paralyzed for a moment before it bolted off into the bush. Except there was something wrong with the kid.

For one thing, he was skinny. His rib cage showed easily through his gray skin. It wasn’t a hoodie at all. He wasn’t even wearing a shirt — it was his skin that was gray. He did have on pants at least, a pair of worn, holes-in-the-knees blue jeans.

And he was sort of hunched, with a hump that Devon had taken as a hood on his back. More than that, the kid had thick spikes sticking out of his elbows and a jutting underbite with two fangs or tusks that thrust up out of his mouth.

That wasn’t right at all. Devon’s breath caught in his throat, and he forced himself to take another breath. The kid was some sort of freak. Like a mutant or something from comics.

“Hey,” Devon said, and his voice cracked. He flushed and took a breath.

“It’s okay, right? I was just going?” Devon pointed up the trail.

The kid’s fat bottom lip stuck out more. He said something, but it was all gibberish as far as Devon was concerned. Not only was the kid a mutant freak, but he also didn’t speak English.

Whatever this was, it was some deeper shit than Devon wanted to get into.

“Look,” he said. “I didn’t understand that, but I’m going up there. To get food, okay? I’m hungry.”

Devon patted his belly for emphasis.

The kid drew his hands into together into his belly, clenching them tight and wincing.

Shit. Shit. Devon looked away, rubbing his jaw. He couldn’t go out there, not with the kid looking like this. It would screw everything.

He shifted his pack, and the coat pulled on his shoulders. Hell, it was getting too small anyway. Maybe he could get a poncho or something, then it could cover his pack too which wasn’t waterproof.

Devon slung off the backpack and unzipped the coat. He pulled it off. A couple fluffs of white stuck out of the places where the outer fabric had gotten snagged, but it was still a decent enough coat. The air was a lot cooler without it, but not bad. He still had his hoodie and two t-shirts on which was three layers more than the mutant kid.

Picking up his backpack, Devon held the coat out toward the kid.

“Here. If you’re coming, you’ve got to cover up man. People will stare.”

It was crazy anyway. What did he need with this kid? He could find someone, maybe from social services but any kid like this was going to have a hard time no matter what. And was it really up to him? The kid was out here for a reason, probably. Looking like that didn’t help. The kid couldn’t do what Devon did to pass himself off as someone just trying to get home. It’d get harder in a few years when he was older, but maybe by then he could get a job or something. The main thing now was staying on his own. That was safer.

The kid still hadn’t moved. Devon lowered his arm. “Look, if you don’t want it, I’ll keep it. It’s kinda getting small, but it still helps keep me warm. I can just leave.”

He took a step away.

“Bak! Bak!” The kid jumped down the loose slope, stumbled and nearly fell.

An instant later he was up, jumping up on the concrete footing. His feet were bare, dirty and had thick claw-like nails. He jumped off the concrete and landed knee-deep in the stream with a splash.

“Bak! Bak!” the kid said again as he splashed across the stream.

Reaching the other side he stopped, wrapped his arms around his middle and shivered. His pants were now soaked nearly to his crotch.

“Jesus Christ,” Devon said. He pitched the coat at the kid.

It fluttered to the ground in front of the kid who just looked at it and back at Devon.

“Put it on,” Devon said. “Or not. I don’t care. I’m going.”

He turned around again and started walking. This kid was too freaky. He needed to just get out of this. He had tried to help — had even given up his coat — so that was enough.

He heard the coat rustle and didn’t look back. I’m going up to Ralph’s, that’s it.

There was the sound of a zipper, and then feet slapping the asphalt trail. Devon looked back. The kid was running up the trail and stopped when he saw Devon looking.

The coat swallowed the kid like a purple coat-monster. The kid had the hood up, which helped hide the fact that his face and eyes were so weird. It hung down to his knees. It didn’t do anything for his feet, but if the kid sat down with his legs crossed and kept his head down no one would notice anything.

Well, they might get more bus fare if they were brothers trying to get home. It was worth a shot.

“Okay,” Devon said. “You can come. Let me do the talking, okay? ‘Cause they wouldn’t understand you anyway. I don’t know what language you’re using, but I haven’t heard it.”

The kid didn’t move. Probably didn’t understand a word Devon was saying.

Devon beckoned. “Come on. Let’s go.”

The kid took a couple more steps closer. Devon smiled and nodded. “Good. Keep up.”

He started walking, and the kid followed, soon catching up to walking right behind Devon. It was sort of freaky, having him right behind him like that, but each time Devon moved to one side or the other the kid also moved, so Devon left it alone.

They went up the switchback to Boulevard and then on down over to Ralph’s. It didn’t take too long to get there. Along the way, Devon explained the plan.

“I don’t know if you’ll understand, but maybe we can figure it out.”

When they got to the store, and there were people about, the kid walked so close he was nearly attached to Devon’s butt. It was impossible to do anything with him so close.

Devon led him over near the bus stop, but not on the street side. Devon turned around, and the kid stepped back, blinking his big eyes and his lip bulging out over those fangs. The kid needed some serious dental work.

Devon pointed at the ground. “Sit.”

“Shit?”

The kid said it so seriously that Devon couldn’t help but grin. The kid’s grinned back and showed off a hellish display of sharp teeth. It wasn’t just those big fangs, but his other teeth were also pointy and sharp.

“Yeah, no,” Devon said. “Sit, not shit. You don’t want to shit. At least I hope not.”

The kid closed his mouth and didn’t move.

“Like this. Sit.” Devon sat down on the ground, crossing his legs.

“Sit.” The kid sat down in front of Devon.

“Great!” Devon stood back up.

Immediately the kid popped back up. Devon shook his head. “No, no. You sit.”

Slowly the kid sat back down. Devon smiled. “Good. That’s right. Wait there.”

Devon backed away, and the kid whined, just like a puppy or something whining. Devon came back closer and crouched down.

He pointed at the low brick wall of the grocery store. “I’m going to get food, okay?”

He pantomimed eating.

“I’ll come back here.” He pointed at the ground, and then the kid. “I’ll bring you food, okay? You wait?”

“Wat. Wat. Bak.”

Good enough. “Right, wait here. I’ll come back.”

There wasn’t anyone standing at the bus stop in the rain, and even if there was, a lot of the bus riders carried passes, not cash. At least not that they’d give it up.

People shopping, those were better. They had cars and felt bad for anyone needing to catch a bus in the rain.

A young couple came out of the store right as he got closer. They looked like a possibility. He looked back. The kid was still sitting there, hunched in the coat, he did a great job of looking miserable.

Perfect.

He hurried over to address the couple before they were gone. “Excuse me, I’m embarrassed to ask this but my brother and I —” he pointed at the kid, “— are trying to get home to Yelm. Could you help us with bus fare?”

The woman was already shaking her head before he finished, but the guy reached for his wallet. “I’ve only got a couple bucks, I’m not sure it’ll be enough.”

“It’ll help, thank you,” Devon said.

He accepted the wrinkled bills that the guy pulled out of his wallet, pretending not to notice the twenty the guy tried not to let him see. The woman wasn’t happy even with what he got.

“Thank you,” Devon said again, as the couple moved off.

He stuffed the bills into his pocket and walked back to where the kid waited. When he got close, the kid looked up.

“Bak?”

Devon shook his head. It had to look good for the couple. “No, not yet. I’ll be back. Wait here. That’s good.”

“Wat,” the kid said, slumping.

“Yeah. Hang in there.”

Several rejections, and a couple givers later, Devon had eight dollars in his pocket. Plenty for now. Stick around too long, and there was the risk that one of the store employees might tell him to leave. Through it all the kid stayed where he was told.

Devon went into the store and came out with a day-old loaf of bread, some string cheese and a bag of older discount fruit. All of it perfectly fine, but people didn’t want to buy apples if they weren’t flawless. It was crazy, but they’d pay way more for waxed and polished apples than one that had a tiny ding in the skin.

He carried the bag over to the kid and held it up. “Hungry?”

“Shit wat?”

Devon laughed. He motioned for the kid to get up. “No more waiting. No more sitting. Food. Let’s eat.”

“Ut?”

Devon handed the kid a string cheese. The kid hooted and quickly pulled the plastic open and took a big bite. That was good, Devon had thought he might have to show the kid how it worked.

“Eat, that’s right,” Devon said. “Come on. Let’s walk while we eat.”

The kid was obviously hungry. He finished the string cheese and looked confused about what to do with the wrapper until Devon took it and put it back into the bag.

He handed the kid slices of bread, and an apple, and there was even more hooting. Then the kid looked between both hands like he couldn’t decide what to eat first. It was so funny that Devon laughed again.

“I’ll tell you,” Devon said around a bit of string cheese. “That scheme with a younger brother and all, it worked great. Even when it didn’t pay off, it was still better.”

The offers to call a parent had taken some explaining. No cell phones at the construction job where their Dad worked, seemed to take care of suspicion. It was a good line for those people.

Walking down the hill, Olympia spread out below them. Lots of houses, and businesses in houses in this part, but down there was the downtown area. It was nicer than Aberdeen at least, especially down on the pier and that area. When it was nicer he liked to go up around Capitol lake and hang out, read library books.

Not today though, not with this rain. At least the kid was walking beside him instead of right on his butt like before.

He looked at the kid, finishing the apple, all of it even the core. The kid just munched through everything. “You want to go to the library?”

“Lary?”

“Lie bare ee,” Devon said.

“Liberery?”

“Close enough. Yes. The library. They have books, computers. You can get online. Places to sit. It’s not too bad if you don’t attract attention.”

“Liberery.”

“Yes, great. We’ll go there.”

The kid finished the last of the apple and eyed the bag Devon held. “Fud ut?”

“Not now,” Devon said, switching the bag to his other hand. “Wait. Later we’ll eat more. Got to make it last.”

“Wat ut?”

“Right. Wait to eat.”

The kid made a grunting noise and kept walking.

🍎

They’d gotten as far as Chestnut when Devon turned to head over to 8th and get over to the library, when the kid suddenly hooted and ran ahead of Devon.

“Hey, wait!”

The kid stopped a second later at the mouth of an alley. It was a dirty old pink building on one side, and a rusted metal building on the right. There was one of those big new State buildings or something across the street, but the kid was just staring into this alley like it was something special.

Devon didn’t see anything unusual. A narrow paved strip, some weeds and dirt along it between the buildings. Nothing exciting.

“What is it?”

“Gob bak! Gob bak un wan!”

Devon shook his head. “I don’t understand kid. The library isn’t that way.”

“No liberery, gob bak un wan!”

Getting nothing from Devon the kid blew air out of his wide nostrils like he was trying to get rid of snot and then headed off up the alley.

What the hell? Devon stared after the kid walking along swallowed in the purple coat. After everything that Devon had done, the kid was just leaving? What was down there anyway? It didn’t look like the alley went very long at all, just to the ends of those buildings before it opened up on one side to a parking lot or something.

The smart thing would be to just leave the kid here. Obviously, he wanted to go that way for some reason, he was a mutant freak of some sort, so who knew what went on in his brain? That might not even be a language he was speaking, but some sort of gibberish that the kid had made up himself.

He might even be dangerous.

“Gob bak un wan!” The kid jumped up and down and started running.

Hell. Devon took off after the kid, sprinting down the alley after him. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid!

But he couldn’t just ditch the kid. Not now.

The little guy was fast, but he was small. Devon’s longer stride quickly closed the distance. The kid was just out of reach when he went all blurry. A bright light hit them, flooding the alley and lighting up the big brick building that rose up several floors on the right side of the alley.

Devon put on the brakes. The kid was dancing in a circle in front of him. Devon squinted against the light, raised his hand to shield his eyes and turned to look up at the massive building that hadn’t been there a second ago.

Four stories tall, balconies with sliding glass doors, some sort of apartment building or something. There were plants and clothes hanging out. And on one balcony a massively large woman with a tiny white thong disappearing between her twin globe pink ass-cheeks. Not a pink like she was flushed or something, but a pink-pink, a medicinal pink. She was wringing out something, and then flicked it out onto the railing.

Devon looked back at the kid. He’d thrown the hood off and beamed up at the bright sun in a crystal-clear blue sky.

“See?” The kid said, perfectly clear. “Goblinus! Back home!”

“You’re back home?” Devon said. It wasn’t just the apartment building, the building on the other side was concrete and even taller, rising up to glass and steel at least ten or twelve floors up. And beyond these two were more buildings, and past them a street that teemed with people walking. There were voices, bells ringing, something hammering somewhere, a dog barking, but no sounds of traffic. Even with all of the noises, it was quiet.

“Wait,” Devon said. “Where are we? How’d we get here? And how come you can talk here?”

The kid laughed. “It’s Goblinus! Everyone understands here, duh! But you should go back.”

The kid looked around. “Now. We have to go before the Royal Guard shows up. You’re not supposed to use the Goblin Alleys.”

“The what?”

The kid came at him, pushing his hands at Devon. Devon backed up.

“You need to go back!”

Devon turned around. The alley stretched on behind them much longer than it had a moment ago. And the big state building wasn’t there. Instead, there was an even taller building of dark glass and steel that climbed up at least twenty stories. A pedicab rolled past the alley being pedaled by a muscled shirtless guy. A guy with green skin, and tusks like the kid except smaller.

“Go where?”

The kid grabbed Devon’s arm. “Come on! The way back is closed anyway. We’re too late.”

Someone screamed, back up the other way. There was a sound like hoof beats.

“Come on!”

The kid took off running back down the alley toward the big dark building that hadn’t been there a moment ago. The sound of hoof beats was getting louder, and there were snorting and squealing noises. Shouts and more screams.

Yeah, maybe the kid had the right idea. Devon sprinted after him, the bag of food banging against his leg as he ran.

They left the alley, and after that the kid was in charge. Devon kept on his heels now, bewildered by the changes all around them. This wasn’t Olympia. This was big and insane. There were normal-looking people, but they were out-numbered by the strangest people that Devon had seen. Like the kid, many had tusks, but they came in different sizes and skin colors that definitely were not normal.

The kid mostly went West, zig-zagging through streets and alleys. Finally, he slowed down and stopped running so fast. They were on a quiet street. The kid stepped over into a doorway and leaned against the chipped concrete wall. He grinned up at Devon.

“Lost them, I think.”

“Lost who?” Devon moved into the opposite side of the doorway, watching the street. No one was paying attention to them.

“Royal Guard, Boar-riders. Navigator’s Guild doesn’t like people using the alleys without a license. You’re supposed to register.”

“I’m so confused. Start over, where are we?”

“Goblinus.”

“What’s that?”

The kid shrugged, gesturing at the buildings around them. “The goblin city. You really don’t know?”

Devon shook his head.

“Weird. The Goblin Alleys connect Goblinus to every city on the Otherside, where you come from.”

“And there are goblins? Are you a goblin?”

The kid’s lip curled. “Naw. I’m a troll. Goblins killed my parents, made me a servant. I ran away when I sensed the alley connection, but then I couldn’t get back.”

The kid glanced out and around. “Looks like you’re stuck now unless we find another connection.”

It was incredible, but Devon couldn’t deny what his eyes were seeing. A woman walked past in the street. She was tall and elegant, with flowing white hair and eyes that didn’t have any color to them, like the kid but she didn’t look much like him otherwise. There were others, men and women, with her, but they wore thick body armor and carried guns openly.

“Who are they?”

“Trow,” the kid said.

“Troll?”

The kid shook his head. “Trow, and I’d stay out of their way too. Evidently, there’s a whole big thing going on with the Goblin King, the trow, and the Erlking.”

“Who’s that?”

“He leads the wild faerie. Come on, we shouldn’t stay here.”

The kid stepped out of the doorway.

“Wait,” Devon said.

The kid looked up at him from the purple coat.

“What’s your name?”

A big toothy grin split the kid’s face. “Evil Boy.”

“What?”

The kid smirked. “That’s what the goblins called me. I don’t remember my troll name.”

Devon chuckled. “I’m not calling you Evil Boy. How about Neville?”

“Neville? Okay. Yes! I like it. What’s your name?”

“Devon.”

Neville nodded. “Okay! Let’s go.”

🍎

With no other option except to trust Neville, Devon followed the troll kid through the goblin city. It was obviously huge, bigger than any city he’d ever been in. Both Aberdeen and Olympia would only make small sections of this city. At one point Neville led them up a small hill, but even looking back down the street there was no end in sight. An orange smoggy cloud hung over the city to the South, but they were moving away from that section. The oddest thing was the lack of cars. It was just people and bikes and pedicabs. Even some on horses, and once he was sure he saw an elephant down one street before it passed out of view. In the clear skies overhead a massive zeppelin floated through the sky.

“Where are the cars?” Devon said as they walked.

“Only on the highways,” Neville said, gesturing off into the unseen distance.

“Are there subways?”

“Some districts do, but you don’t want to go down there. Safer up here.”

Neville turned down a wide avenue lined with trees and street lamps. Walking past one of the lamp posts, Devon happened to look up, and there was a tiny naked woman with wings inside the lamp looking out at him. She clutched her hands together, and her tiny red mouth moved as if she was begging him for something. Behind her other, other naked, what? Fairies? Whatever they were, they stirred and started to rise. Men and women fairies, some of them lying on the glass, or curled around each other. Several took off and hovered in the glass globe.

It was a warm day, they had to be baking.

“Come on,” Neville said.

Devon pointed. “But there —”

Neville slapped his arm. “Stop it! People will notice.”

“I don’t—”

Neville pressed close, his lower lip trembling. “Come on. Now.”

The kid was right. He didn’t know what he was doing. He tore his gaze away from the fairies and followed Neville down the street. It was all cafes and stuff, with tables out in small fenced areas, the bright red brick street weaving between them. Spicy odors that brought to mind pizza floated along the street and made Devon’s mouth water.

There weren’t many humans here. And no one that looked like Neville. Mostly it was goblins, greens and grays, with a few pinks and dwarf yellows. Devon got a few unfriendly looks and after that kept his head down. This place didn’t feel very safe.

They left that area behind and entered a section of the city that was more shabby and in disrepair, and Devon felt more comfortable. The graffiti and broken glass, the faded paint and chipped concrete was all a lot more familiar.

Neville’s pace slowed.

“What was that back there?” Devon said.

“What?”

“In those lamps. Where those fairies?”

“Sure. Nasty fairies, so what?”

Nasty? Devon let it go. This was all incredible enough without sticking his nose into it. The little fairy woman hadn’t seemed nasty, but what did he know?

“They’re fake,” Neville said. “Magic disguise, you know?”

“No, what do you mean?”

Neville huffed and scratched his head. Then he hooted. “Camouflage, they don’t look like that. Not really.”

“What do they look like then?”

“Bugs.” Neville nodded confidently. “Ugly bugs. Bloodsuckers.”

Devon waited for the laugh, but Neville just stood there looking at him. Finally Devon said, “Really?”

“Yeah. Bloodsuckers.”

Oh. They were still walking, but now Neville lifted an arm to point out a building ahead. It was a concrete structure, lower floors boarded over with graffiti-tagged gray wood while the upper windows gaped wide open. Except a few had dirty sheets and plastic bags strung across the openings.

“We can stay there,” Neville said. “I know someone.”

🍎

Neville had been telling the truth. There was an old woman, a goblin, with wrinkled gray skin like she’d come out of an old black-and-white movie. She was swaddled in layers of bright, colorful fabric. Neville found her on the third floor, tending fire pit near the windows. A couple pots hung from spits, and the smell was somewhere between chicken soup and clam chowder.

The woman’s face beamed when she saw Neville.

“Evil Boy!” She threw wide her arms. “Come give Mancher a hug!”

Neville threw himself against her generous bosom. Then she thrust him back and fingered the coat. “Where’d you get this?”

“Devon gave it to me.” Neville pointed at Devon.

Mancher sniffed at Devon. “Othersider?”

She spun and shook her finger at Neville. “Evil Boy! You promised to stay away from the alleys!”

“I didn’t mean to,” Neville protested. “Geists chased me!”

“What’re you doing around geists?”

“There was a shopkeeper, and —”

“And I know all about it. You bolted and didn’t pay attention to where you were going.” Mancher squinted up at Devon. “Why is this Othersider here? Plenty of trouble, you bringing me.”

“Didn’t mean to, he crossed. Couldn’t leave him to the pigs.”

Mancher’s face softened around her tusks. “No, I guess not. But you’ll bring ‘em here.”

“Look,” Devon said. “I can go if you’ll look after Neville. If you can tell me how to get back.”

Mancher looked at the kid. “Neville, is it? You think of that?”

“No, Devon gave it to me.”

“I like it,” Mancher said. She looked back up at Devon. “Not a good time right now, to find a crossing. Early, just before sunrise, that’s the best. We’ll go then.”

“Mancher used to work for the Navigator’s Guild,” Neville said. “She knows the alleys.”

“Okay,” Devon said. “If it’s better then.”

“We brought food,” Neville said. He gestured to Devon.

Right. Devon pulled the bag from his backpack and handed it over to Mancher. She took out the rest of the loaf of bread, two remaining string cheeses and the apples, chuckling with pleasure over each.

“This is fine,” she said. “Thank you, he called you Devon?”

“That’s right.”

She beckoned. “Come sit by the fire. It’ll get cold.”

🍎

A hand shook Devon awake. He started to say something, and the hand covered his mouth. The smell of Mancher’s unwashed bulk filled his nose as her hot breath tickled his ear.

“Boar riders. Don’t make a sound.”

She pulled back and released him. Devon rose carefully. There wasn’t much light. The fire had died down during the night and ashes had covered the coals. Faint moonlight came in through the open windows. Mancher moved like a dark cloud across the moon, a shape just briefly passing the window before she crouched and woke Neville the same way.

Devon quietly stuffed his blanket back in his backpack and rolled up his sleeping bag. It only took him moments to tie it beneath the backpack and Mancher was back pressing against his side.

“Follow close. Don’t make noise.”

There were loud snorts, and rough voices outside that chilled him more than the cold night air. Somehow the goblins had followed them here. Or they were just searching likely places. Either way, it was time to go.

Mancher moved deeper into the dark building, and Devon stuck close to her, with Neville bringing up the rear. None of them spoke. Away from the windows, Devon couldn’t hardly see his hand in front of his face as they went deeper, so he grabbed onto one of Mancher’s cloths. She didn’t object. Both Neville and Mancher seemed to have better night vision.

Crashing wood and squeals below floated up through the floors. There were shouts from other squatters and the Royal Guard.

Soon Mancher led them into a narrow staircase, folded back into the corner of the building. The steps were wet and narrow. Devon couldn’t see anything at all and had to trust Mancher’s presence as he made his way down. He knew Neville was behind him only by the kid’s soft breaths as they made their way down.

It took a long time before Mancher stopped. She grabbed Devon’s arm and pulled him close to whisper in his ear. “Basement. Tunnels here. Stay close and quiet.”

“Yes,” Devon whispered.

“It’ll be okay,” Neville whispered. “Mancher knows all the ways.”

There was a lot of crashing noises above, and a scream abruptly cut off. Apparently, the Royal Guard didn’t like other squatters.

The tunnels stank of shit and stagnant water. Devon was just as glad not to see where they were going, except for the time when the ground crumbled and he nearly fell. Neville helped catch him. After what seemed like an hour of walking there was finally a light ahead. It seemed like an illusion until they got closer and Devon could make out dim light coming in the mouth of a tunnel.

Moments later they came out on a hillside, a cutout designed to catch water. The sun wasn’t up, but the moonlight was still bright compared to the darkness of the tunnel. Devon breathed deeply, glad to be out of that place.

Neville gave him a toothy grin. “Go back now?”

“Not back in there,” Devon said. “But I wouldn’t mind going home.”

Mancher was already climbing up the hillside. “Come on. Don’t have much time. Easier to cross now.”

🍎

Unlike the bigger city environment that they had left, more of the buildings in this area were smaller. It almost reminded Devon of Olympia, with a sort of mix of houses and more commercial buildings, but nothing bigger than a few stories. The city still seemed to go on without end, maybe like Los Angeles would seem if he was suddenly dropped into the middle of it.

Mancher stopped at an alley that extended between two apartment buildings. She pointed at the narrow space. “Go on, there. You can cross if you go now.”

Devon stepped into the opening of the alley. “It’ll take me home?”

“Back to the Otherside,” Mancher said.

Neville said, “It might not be your city.”

“What?”

“Go, or you’ll miss it,” Mancher said. “Hurry!”

“Goblinus connects to all the cities,” Neville said.

“So I can end up anywhere?”

“No time to map it,” Mancher said. “Go!”

A distant squeal floated through the morning streets. The Royal Guard was still out there, looking for him. Did it make a difference where he ended up? He’d been on his own for years now. He could start anywhere.

“Okay.” He looked at Neville. “Take care kid.”

“Yeah, you too.”

“Go!” Mancher said.

Devon turned and ran down the alley. It was only an alley, nothing else special about it except it was in a goblin city. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about it. Maybe Mancher was wrong —

— rain hit his face. And it night time, but lit with electric lights.

The buildings were different. Pale walls closed in on either side. The one on his right looked pale yellow in the light from an electric lamp on the corner of the building at the mouth of the alley. The alley was paved in interlocking stone tiles. Balconies looked out into the narrow alley, with plants and laundry hanging over the railings.

Devon made his way down the alley — hearing laughter and the sound of cars — and stepped out into a narrow street. Small rounded concrete barriers blocked off a section of street and sidewalk. Across the street was a wide walkway within the building there, with a long row of arched openings. More balconies stuck out over the street, which wasn’t black asphalt but more rectangular stones at angles. The buildings were all about four stories high and seemed to hang over the street. Cars parked in a row along the way in front of the arches, and there was a strange pay phone with a curved plastic shield over it.

Back, but not Olympia. He walked out along the street and studied the signs in the shops. Some had familiar words. Audio Video, PlayStation on one shop. Others, he didn’t recognize. French? Italian? It didn’t look like Spanish. He didn’t speak any of those, but some of the signs were in one of those languages. At last he came to a street sign. It wasn’t like the familiar green and white signs back home, but it was places and arrows pointing.

Roma. Napoli-Caserta. Duomo.

Roma? Rome? Was he in Italy? Devon still had his backpack, with his spare clothes, sleeping bag, and blanket. It was enough for now. He’d gone from meeting a troll under a bridge in Olympia, through a small stretch of Goblinus, and ended up around the world in what looked like Italy.

There had to be other people who knew about the Goblin Alleys. Just like back in Goblinus, there were probably people here that knew about the other world where faeries were trapped in street lamps. He’d have to be very careful not to give things away, but if you could find your way around? He could travel anywhere. Neville said that the alleys connected to every city.

Devon kept walking. For now, it was enough to learn this city and figure out where he was, and where he might get his next meal. The universe was a lot different than he had imagined, and it was going to take time to figure it all out.

When he did, he wouldn’t be sleeping under bridges anymore.

🍎

6,148WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 93rd short story release, written a few years ago in March 2014. It’s a standalone story set in my Goblin Alley universe.

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, Shermmies’ Planet.