The Idea Man

Cover art for the Idea Man

Writers get ideas and inspiration from all sorts of places. Often the process seems mysterious. Where does a writer find a muse? Where do you get your ideas? Here is one answer.

🚀

On a Tuesday, at ten in the morning under a bright new sun, the Idea Man materialized on the concrete driveway leading up to the writer’s rumpled split-level home. In the long lines and tight pressed creases of his dark suit the Idea Man managed to combine used car salesman, haughty auctioneer, and mortician. His distinguished gray hair was slicked back and combed, not a strand out of place. In one manicured hand he carried a monogrammed black leather briefcase. With his free hand, he reached up and adjusted his thin red bow tie.

The Idea Man had to close this deal, the powers-that-be had made that perfectly clear. Close this deal or the future as he knew it might not exist. He smiled his best thousand-watt smile and marched smartly up the driveway, across the concrete path to the front door, all the while stepping fastidiously around the cracks sprouting dandelions. He pressed the doorbell buzzer and waited.

The writer opened the door wearing dark gray sweat suit bottoms, a dark green sweat suit top and a gray bathrobe over the top. His dark hair stuck out in unruly directions and stubble covered his face like a case of black mold. The Idea Man held strong to his resolve and didn’t let his smile falter as he stuck out his hand.

“Sir, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

The writer didn’t shake his hand, instead crossed his arms and glared.

Undeterred the Idea Man lifted the briefcase. “I have something here that I think you’ll be interested in.”

“I’m not.” The writer moved to close the door.

The Idea Man put his hand out on the door. “Wait, sir, please! I’ve come from the future to help you.”

The writer squinted at him. “Future?”

“That’s right.” The Idea Man hoisted the briefcase again. “Please, five minutes. You won’t regret it.”

“Hell, I haven’t had my dose of crazy today. I’ll give you two minutes before I sling you out on your ass if you’re wasting my time.”

“That’d be fine, sir.”

Books dominated the inside of the writer’s home. The Idea Man couldn’t look anywhere without seeing books. Packed bookshelves lined the walls of the front room and shorter shelves blocked off the room from the stairs leading up and down to the different levels of the house. More books crowded the built-in shelves lining the stairs and ahead, down the narrow aisle between the front room and the stairs, the Idea Man saw even more shelves lining the walls around a dining room table swallowed by stacks of books. In the center of the front room squatted a worn wood table mostly covered with books except for a small pocket for a computer monitor. Two big leather chairs slumped beside the windows with books covering the small coffee table between them. The writer went into the front room and dropped heavily into the far chair. The Idea Man took the second chair and when it threatened to swallow him whole, he struggled up and perched on the edge with the briefcase balanced on his lap.

“Well?” the writer demanded. “How the hell do you plan to help me?”

“Ideas! Best-selling high concept ideas. Ideas from the future! No more struggling while you face the blank page. With these ideas you’ll write prescient stories that thrill and amaze your readers.”

The writer stared.

“Sir, this opportunity —”

“Opportunity? That’s what you’re going with? An opportunity? And what? I suppose you’ll want to split the money of anything I write with these ideas?”

“There are costs and hazards associated with time travel, of course, and our detailed outlines —”

“Outlines!” The writer jumped from his chair with such vehemence that the Idea Man shrank back into the chair that had threatened to swallow him. The writer jabbed a finger at the computer on the table in the middle of the room.

“I’ve got a book in progress on that machine. Over there in the dining room I’ve got another one going and a third downstairs in the living room! I have stories coming out of my ears upstairs in the small bedroom. Don’t even get me started on the projects in the basement because I haven’t been able to get down there in weeks! I’ve got so many fucking ideas that it isn’t humanly possible to write them all!”

The Idea Man tried to rally his courage. “But these ideas are based on future developments in science and technology!”

The writer lunged forward, grabbed the Idea Man by the arms and hauled him up out of the chair. He shoved him toward the door. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the future! I make my own goddamn future!”

At the door, the Idea Man turned around. “I don’t think you understand the value of these ideas. If you’d let me show —”

“Tell me this, if your ideas are so fucking fantastic why don’t you sit your ass in a chair and write the goddamn stories yourself?”

“I’m an idea man, not a writer!”

The writer wrenched the door open and shoved the Idea Man outside. The door slammed shut behind him. For several seconds the Idea Man stood on the porch, blinking at the blinding sunlight before he faded away like the ideas he carried.

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908 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 92nd short story release, written in December 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, Under the Bridge.

Different Gravities

Kyle Rader discovered fatherhood on Mars and more challenges than dirty diapers!

The careful colony timetables get thrown out the airlock when the new Martian governor announces her pregnancy en route to the red planet.

Unexpected challenges introduce new stresses when raising the first child on Mars, but Kyle believes his son’s destiny will transform humanity.

🚀

Coming to Mars Kyle Rader never imagined this, this waiting. We’re hardly on another planet but we’ve already managed to recreate waiting rooms. You would have thought we could do better.

A slight man with a kind smile and epicanthic folds that revealed his mixed heritage, he smoothed the legs of his blue overalls and waited for the doctor to return while keeping an eye on his son Jon. The room was small, by necessity most of the rooms in the outpost were small. It wasn’t really a waiting room, but also an examination room. Native red brick walls, an examination bed made from aluminum and recycled fibers. Jon lay on the bed looking up at the lights above. He loved lights. A touch screen hung on the wall and a portable supplies cabinet sat in the corner. No magazines, of course, but the screen did offer a menu of entertainment options. Kyle ignored the screen.

Barsoom only housed a hundred people. A hundred and one now. His son. A pregnancy that had caused a great deal of consternation back on Earth when they discovered eight weeks into the trip that Jenny had gotten pregnant. There had been a lot of concern about whether or not she could handle the landing on Mars at eight months pregnant. The Mars Colonization Project Administration hadn’t been pleased that their carefully selected Governor had been the first to get pregnant but what could they do?

Jon turned his head and grinned broadly at his father, showing his six teeth.

“Hey buddy,” Kyle murmured. “Bored yet?”

Jon rolled and sat up. He waved his arms in the air.

“It won’t be long.”

As if on cue the door slid aside and Dr. Ayres stepped into the space. A slight woman with her red hair braided back and very pale skin. She served as the chief medical officer for the colony. Kyle stood up.

“Doctor.”

She smiled. “Call me Amanda, Kyle. It’s good to see you.” She looked at Jon and her smile grew. “Hi Jon! My, you are the cutest baby!”

Jon smiled back at her. He loved everyone in the colony. They all fussed over him. The first Martian. He was a celebrity before he’d even been born. “Baa. Daa. Ni!”

Dr. Ayres, Amanda, went to the other side of the bed. She crouched to put her head at Jon’s height. He happily batted at her face with pudgy fingers. “He looks good. How’s he doing?”

“Good. Very good. He’s eating well. He’s gotten sitting up down and crawling but he hasn’t been able to walk yet.”

Dr. Ayres pulled out a tablet from her pocket. She tapped and flicked her way through the screens and wrote a quick note with her finger. She pocketed the tablet. “Does he try to walk? Is he pulling himself up on furniture?”

“Yes. He’ll pull himself up, and a few times he’s tried to take a step away but he can’t keep his balance.” Kyle put a hand on Jon’s back. His son beamed at him. “I think he’s worried about falling.”

“Did he get hurt?”

“No. He didn’t fall that hard.”

“And he gets around fine crawling?”

“Yes.” Kyle looked at his son. He loved Jon more than anything. They hadn’t planned this to happen but he couldn’t imagine life without him. “He’s all over the place crawling.”

As if to prove it Jon lunged forward onto his hands. Kyle scooped him up in his arms. His son hardly weighed anything. Around 8 pounds. He still had to do the math in his head and convert that to weight on Earth, but even then Jon didn’t weigh much. It kept all sorts of scientists busy watching his development.

“So you don’t think we have anything to worry about?”

Amanda shook her head. “People learn to walk at their own pace. Be patient. He’s only a year old.”

“But back on Earth he should be walking by now, at least most children would be but he doesn’t seem to be showing any progress.”

“He’s not on Earth,” Amanda said. “We have to give him time. He’s the first person to grow up on Mars. Jon is going to be teaching us a great deal.”

🚀

On Jon’s third Earthday, what would have been his third birthday on Earth, Kyle watched his son unwrap his big present with butterflies in his stomach. To accommodate everyone they were holding the party in the park dome and it looked like the entire colony had turned out. Jon sat at the center of the gathering facing a large sack. Back on Earth, he’d have been showered in gifts. Here they had worked out one gift that a number of the colonists could produce. Jon struggled to get the ties undone.

Jenny crouched beside him and offered to help. Jon shook his head and kept at the knots. Jenny straightened up and sipped her glass of water. “You’re almost there!”

True enough. Jon untied the last knot with a flourish. Kyle was proud of his son but still worried about the gift. He and Jenny had argued about it but she’d been determined that her son needed help to walk. Kyle still believed that Amanda was right. Jon would get there on his schedule.

The bag fell away revealing the walker. Everyone cheered. Kyle saw lots of satisfied smiles. People raised their glasses and clapped. It looked pretty slick. A woven seat, rounded frame and four wheels crafted by the machine shop. All from recycled material. Expensive but Jenny wouldn’t have any other way. She claimed that it was necessary now that there was another baby in the colony, plus one more on the way. The population would grow and they had to know that their children could learn to walk. At least that was what Jenny claimed.

Jon pushed it with one foot. He used his feet often, just not for walking. Kyle thought his son was quite adept at it. Jon looked over at Kyle. “Dad?”

That usually meant he wanted his father to explain something. Kyle squeezed Amanda’s hand and went over to Jon. He crouched down. “Happy birthday, son.” He kissed his son’s head. “It’s a walker. You sit in it and then can walk around.”

Jon’s grinned melted faster than ice could sublimate. He pushed the walker harder with his foot. It rolled toward Jenny. She stopped it.

“Now, Jon, that’s no way to act. This will be fun.” She gave Kyle a hard look. “Tell him it’ll be fun, Kyle.”

Kyle ran his hand through his son’s hair. “Why don’t we give it a shot, bud? Just try it out for your mother?”

Jon looked at his mother, back to Kyle and then at Amanda. He shook his head.

It was the look at Amanda that did it. Jenny got that look in her eyes. She reached down and picked Jon up. He screamed and flailed his thin arms. No matter how hard he twisted he couldn’t break free from Jenny’s grip. She stepped over to the walker and started to lower him. He kicked his feet at the seat.

“Give him some time to get used to the idea,” Kyle said.

“He’s had time. You coddle him instead of encouraging him.” She turned Jon around to face her. “I want you to try this. It’s no harder than sitting in a chair.”

Which he hates, Kyle thought. Jon didn’t care much for furniture at all. He preferred to sleep wrapped in a blanket on the floor than in his bed. He crawled and sat on the floor and didn’t appear to want to change that.

Jon shook his head. “No! No!”

“Yes,” Jenny said. “You’re going to have to try it. Understand?”

People in the crowd looked uncomfortable. Kyle didn’t want to get in a big fight with Jenny but he hated to see Jon forced into the walker. He’d tried to tell her that Jon wouldn’t like the walker but she’d convinced herself that he would once he saw it.

Jenny plunked him down into the seat. He wouldn’t extend his legs. He pulled up his feet and gripped the front of the walker’s tray. His bottom lip quivered. He sucked in air and then held it. His face turned red.

“Stop it,” Jenny said. “Don’t hold your breath like that.”

Jon kept holding his breath. He screwed his eyes close. Jenny reached down and put a hand on his shoulder. “Jon, breathe.”

Amanda brushed past Kyle. Jenny looked up and saw her coming but too late. Amanda reached down and picked up Jon who threw his arms around Amanda’s neck. His breath blew out noisily and then he sobbed into Amanda’s shoulder. Jenny stood up.

“This is the problem. You let him get away with everything!” Jenny looked around and saw everyone staring at them. Her gaze hardened. “We can never forget that we’re the first outpost of a new human civilization! We need to do everything we can to help our children succeed and sometimes that means making them do something they don’t want to do.”

“He gets around fine without walking,” Amanda said. “Why are you so insistent that he walk?”

Jenny shook her head. “I’ve got work to do. Party’s over, people. Let’s get busy.” The crowd started to disperse. When Kyle joined Amanda with Jon then Jenny turned back to them. She pointed at the walker. “He’s got to learn to walk. We’re not going to launch a new human civilization on our hands and knees.”

🚀

Jon hated the walker and never used it. Put him in and he’d lift his legs. But put him on the floor and Jon was happy. By his eighth Earthday Jon still didn’t walk but he could gallop around the habitats and climb better than any adult. Kyle thought that his son was very graceful and it didn’t look like he’d be alone any longer as the younger children didn’t show any sign of walking either. Amanda thought that it was something in human development that didn’t work on Mars. With the different gravity, the kids just never learned to balance properly for walking. Their muscles developed differently. They could stand holding onto something but for general movement, they preferred crawling. Or quadrupedal movement on hands and feet. Or climbing. They hated shoes, and their genetic testing didn’t show any abnormalities.

Kyle and Jon were at home when the house system announced a visitor at the door. Jon swooped down from the bars that Kyle had installed around the house and landed in front of the door before Kyle even got up from the couch. Jon slapped the pad to open the door. It slid aside revealing Jenny standing in the doorway.

Jon brought his legs up to his chest and hugged his knees. Jenny crouched. “Hi Jon, aren’t you going to say hi to your Mommy?”

“Hi, Mommy,” Jon mumbled reluctantly.

Jenny tousled his hair and stood up. She stepped over their child and he bolted out the door on all fours. He was fast and down the path out of sight before either of them said anything. Jenny shook her head and sighed. She looked around at the bars mounted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling.

“You’re not even trying Kyle. You’ve let our son devolve into some sort of monkey.”

“He’s not a monkey.” Kyle took a breath. It didn’t pay to argue with Jenny. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Thank you, but no. The station is ready. It’s time for Jon to go.”

Kyle walked into the kitchen nook. He picked up his glass from the counter and filled it from the tap. He drank the cold water and turned back around to face Jenny. “He’s not going up to your station.”

“Don’t be ridiculous Kyle. He needs an education.”

“He can get that here.”

“He can’t get the physical training he needs here. It’s important for his health.” Jenny pressed her hands together. “We’ve talked about this before. I thought you understood.”

“I understand that you can’t see that our son is fine how he is. All of the kids are fine. Amanda says –”

“Amanda is not the governor of this colony!”

“– that the children are healthy. Sending them up to the station will increase their exposure to radiation. And for what? So that you can force them to learn to walk?”

“It’s more than walking. That’s only one consequence of developing in low gravity. We know that now. If our children have any hope of a normal life then they need to develop in an environment that simulates the world they came from. It’s like –”

“Amphibians going back to water to lay their eggs.” Kyle put down the glass. “I’ve heard all the speeches. As adults, we can live and thrive in lower gravity environments but our kids need to go back to the water. Well, that’s bullshit, Jenny and you’re not taking my son.”

Jenny’s lips tightened. “He’s my son too.”

“And you left us,” Kyle snapped. “You left and now you can’t stand to look at your son.”

Jenny shook her head. “You’re in denial. He’s not okay. I’m doing this for him and all the other children.”

“You’re not, Jenny. You’re not seeing the future here. You’re clinging to the past. And I’m not going to let you do it. Jon stays here!”

🚀

Kyle stopped the rover a kilometer out from the dome. It wasn’t a single dome any longer but a cluster of geodesic structures anchored by red bricks. Through the transparent panels, was the familiar green of Earth plants. Amanda joined him up in the front. “That’s it.”

“Yep. Namaste.” The new dome built by the children of the original settlers. It’d been a point of debate for the past decade. M.C.P.A. liked to pretend that they still controlled Mars but Jon and the rest had other ideas. “Come on.”

He kicked the brake release and they bounced on down towards the dome.

Jon met them as they came out of the connecting airlock. He’d grown long of limb and body and he hung by one arm from the tunnel roof. Regularly spaced bars ran the length of the tunnel. He wasn’t alone either. Eileen, the second child born on Mars now grown to a woman, hung from bars behind Jon and Brad peeked out of the pouch she wore.

“Dad.” Jon swung forward and wrapped his free arm around Kyle’s shoulders. “It’s good to see you.” He released Kyle to pull Amanda close. “Mom, glad you could make it.”

More faces appeared at the end of the tunnel. Children, some hanging upside down to look into the tunnel. Jon saw Kyle looking and turned around. He waved an arm. “Scat!”

Laughing the children scampered away. Jon shook his head and smiled at Kyle. “You know how kids are.”

Kyle looked at his son, now a man some twenty-five Earthdays old. To Kyle’s Earth-born eyes his son looked frail. Too skinny and thin of limb but there was no hiding how easily he moved through the tunnel with his family, with strength and confidence to face the future.

“It’s good to see you, too, Jon. I’m eager to see what you’ve got going on here.”

“He’s got a lot to show you,” Eileen said. “Come on. We’ll show you the way.”

Jon and Eileen swung off, slowly, waiting for their old ground-pounders to follow. Kyle watched them move with grace and beauty. Jenny had been right about one thing. This was the birthplace of a new human civilization it just wasn’t going to conform to old ideas. It was going to surprise them at every turn.

And Kyle couldn’t be more proud.

🚀

2,630 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 91st short story release, written in January 2010. I wrote this for my son. Watching him find his way has been one of the most miraculous things in my life.

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 Idea Man.

Poly Contact

Aliens arrived and offered to share their advanced technology with humanity. The secret to reaching the stars, ending wars, and suffering.

The price? Marriage. The aliens want to forge the alliance through marriage.

Bill and Anne sign up to marry one of the sexy aliens—but when it comes down to it, will they go through with it?

🚀

It was a living room. Bill’s own living room, but at that moment he saw it the way a stranger might see the room, which wasn’t too surprising considering who was coming over in, oh just any minute now. What would an alien think of the house?

The furniture mostly came from the Furniture Barn over on highway 507, a big tan microsuede reclining couch along the wall. It was the sort that reclined with the touch of a button but somehow swiveled so that the couch could be right up against the wall and still recline. Bill always thought the couch was designed by the folks that designed minivans because it had the same sort of cup holders tucked away into the arms and the central compartment that also had plenty of room for the army of remote controls.

The loveseat matched the couch, and so did the one solitary reclining chair. The piece that never fit with the rest was Bill’s own gigantic blue denim Bed-in-a-Bag and matching footstool that he’d had since college. They all called it the blob, after the monster in the old James Dean movie, because the Bed-in-a-Bag was a big mass that dominated the side of the room next to the recliner. From the big Samsung HD LCD television to the furniture, the room looked lived in. A place to play with the kids, to watch a movie with the family and, now and then, to fool around on the big couch.

Bill rubbed his hands on his blue jeans and paced across the room again. He glanced up at the quartz clock embedded in a polished slab of redwood from their California trip. Any minute now. The rest of the family looked almost as anxious.

Well, Anne did, sitting in the recliner with her Nook balanced across her knees and her feet tucked up under her as if she was still just a girl instead of a hair over thirty. Bill couldn’t sit like that, not for long, unless he wanted his knees to ache and stiffen up. He thought Anne looked beautiful, though, with her dark red hair tumbling down over her light green blouse that matched her eyes, but a couple shades lighter. Even at her age people always mistook her for younger and then they gave him that questioning look because his own short hair was now going about fifty-fifty gray. Not gray, actually, white. Especially on the sides and on his face if he let his beard grow out at all. He had let it grow for a week last winter and had thought it made him look so old that he had shaved it off.

Stretched out on the loveseat, Trinity looked like a younger version of her mother with a pixie-cut instead of long hair, and like her mother, she looked younger than her actual age, but whereas Anne enjoyed people thinking she looked younger, Trinity hated it. She didn’t look very happy about this meeting either, but she was here instead of out with friends or working an extra shift down at the library where she shelved books after school.

It was his living room and this was his family. A family that anyone could be proud of, and now they were thinking of adding another member to that family. Bill wiped his hands on his jeans again and had just looked again at the clock when the doorbell rang.

Anne looked up at Bill. Their eyes met and he remembered the first time he saw her at a crowded environmental group meeting in college. Their eyes had met then and he hadn’t been able to look away. He hadn’t even heard the speakers anymore. He had spent the rest of the meeting mostly gazing across the room into her eyes, so much so that when they finally met after the meeting it already felt like they were intimately involved.

“Prompt,” Anne said.

Trinity swung her legs off the loveseat and bounced to her feet. She smiled at Bill. “Well, Dad, let’s go meet it.”

“It? That’s not polite,” Bill said.

Trinity’s smooth forehead wrinkled. “Why?”

“Ze and Zer are the correct pronouns. We want to make a good impression.”

“Fine, let’s go meet zer, then.”

“Is Rory outside?”

Trinity rolled her eyes. Rory was her Old English Sheepdog. Very friendly, but Bill didn’t want the dog all over zer for their first meeting.

“He’s out in the yard. But you know he’s going to want to come in.”

“Later.”

Anne touched Bill’s arm. She’d gotten up while they were talking. Bill patted her arm and headed toward the front door. He reached out to put his arm around Trinity’s shoulders but she took a step to the side out of his reach. Bill let his arm fall. No need to push it right now. He reached out and opened the door.

Zer stood alone on the broad wood porch and looking into those deep azure eyes with the tri-lobed pupils Bill felt like he had back in that meeting with Anne, like he didn’t want to look away. The intensity of zer gaze took his breath away. He felt his heart beat faster.

Zer spoke in a deep, smoky voice. “I am so pleased to meet you all at last. My name is Rysala.”

Bill finally managed to blink. He grinned broadly and held out his hand. Rysala’s hand slid into his and zer grip was firm, strong and dryly warm. He felt a twinge of regret when the contact ended. “Bill. We’re glad to meet you too. This is Anne —” He waited for them to shake. “And our daughter, Trinity.”

Rysala gave them all a small smile that didn’t reveal any teeth. “I am very pleased.”

Bill stepped aside and gestured for Rysala to enter. “Please, come in.”

Rysala walked past and Bill caught a scent of something, nutmeg, maybe. Rysala was everything that the videos had showed and so much more. Shorter than zer had looked, not much taller than Trinity. He hadn’t noticed looking into zer eyes but seeing zer walk with Anne and Trinity he could see it now. Of course, ze was humanoid and ze moved with an easy fluid grace that was captivating to watch. Zer features were fine without appearing overly delicate. Zer golden skin was a deep warm color like wheat fields in the sun and zer outfit revealed lots of skin, bare arms and legs, and the flowing green dress left zer back bare as well except the dark golden-brown braid that hung down zer spine. Bill thought that ze was beautiful and exotic, so much so that it made him more nervous about this whole idea.

Anne laughed at something that Rysala had said. Bill recognized that laugh and the flush that had come to Anne’s cheeks. She was also responding to Rysala. The press said that Rysala’s people were androgynous but that wasn’t really it at all. To him, Rysala looked definitely female but he knew that to Anne ze must look male. It was quickly established that—to humans—the Giselians appeared male or female depending on the gender-preference of the observer. Bill tried to see Rysala as male and just couldn’t. She was too pretty, like a model with that amazing golden skin.

“Bill?” Anne asked.

Bill nodded and followed the everyone into the living room. Anne gestured at the couch. “Would you like to sit?”

Rysala inclined zer head and went to the couch. Ze sat just like Anne had earlier with zer feet tucked up beneath zer. Ze smiled at them all. Trinity dropped onto the loveseat. Anne went back to the recliner which left Bill to sit on the couch in between them. He started to lean back but he felt much too nervous to recline against the padded back. He leaned forward and tapped his fingers on his knees. He glanced over at Rysala.

“How was your trip down? Encounter any bad weather?”

Rysala shook zer head. Ze reached over and lightly touched the back of his hand. He felt an electric thrill and held very still beneath zer touch. Zer fingers were long, with an extra joint and an extra finger. He hadn’t noticed it until now. It should look odd but it looked pretty normal.

“I am grateful for the invitation to meet with you. I understand the complexity of what we ask. You must have questions for me?”

“I’ve got one,” Trinity said loudly.

“Trin—” Anne started to say.

Rysala raised a hand. “It’s quite alright. This affects her as well. What’s your question?”

“Why are you guys doing this? Why would you want to marry into families on Earth?”

Bill spoke up. “We’ve talked about the reasons, Trinity.”

“I’d like to answer,” Rysala said. Ze leaned forward, zer elbows on zer knees. Zer dress fell forward slightly and Bill caught a glimpse of a smooth curve of zer breast. He looked away and saw Anne’s face, staring at Rysala.

“Trinity, you’ve studied history, right?”

“Yes.”

“In your history, you’ve read about wars, right?”

Trinity nodded. Rysala smiled that warm smile of zers. “You must have read about alliances forged through marriage? People finding peace through the bonds that they forge and the children they bear?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so. But this is different.”

“Certainly. It must be different. For one thing, we’re not human. And we all must wed to forge this alliance. Which of those facts bothers you?”

Trinity shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess both. What am I supposed to call you? Mom? Dad? How’s that supposed to work?”

“Rysala is fine.”

“But you’ll be my parent too?”

“That’s correct. I will do everything in my power to keep you safe, to care for you and see that you live in a peaceful world.” Rysala glanced over at Bill, and then Anne. “That’s assuming we come to a decision.”

Bill found it hard to look at anyone. All of a sudden the situation seemed so surreal. What had he been thinking? A year ago the ships appeared and then the offer had been made. When all of the aliens had wed into human families then, and only then, would they share their technology and all the wonders that promised. That had caused a great deal of conflict, to put it lightly. On a planet that couldn’t even agree on humans of the same sex wedding, or on having multiple spouses, the idea of polygamous relationships with aliens was enough to enrage many people.

But who was he kidding? Bill knew exactly what he had been thinking. It wasn’t about how cool it was that dozens of starships orbited the planet, or that the aliens were already building a colony on the far side of the moon. It was when he saw the first broadcast and saw them standing on the bridge of their ship. They looked like angels. Sexy golden angels. He’d been captivated by their radiant beauty. Scientists talked about the golden ratio and suggested that for them all to be so perfect that they had to be the product of some sort of genetic engineering, but none of that mattered. He couldn’t get the image of them out of his mind. Three days after that broadcast he had guiltily masturbated while looking at pictures online.

It took time before the treaty was signed over the protests. Even so, he wouldn’t have ever dared to bring up the possibility if Anne hadn’t also seemed intrigued.

Trinity and Rysala had kept talking. Their laughter brought him out of his introspection. He smiled, very aware that he didn’t know what they’d been laughing about. Then Rysala looked at him and he was drowning again in zer azure eyes.

“Uh, so how does this work? What happens now?”

Rysala pressed zer hands together. “How does it work normally?” Ze looked over at Anne. “How did it work with the two of you? Was your marriage arranged?”

Anne laughed. “Hardly! That’s not very common here. Some places I guess.”

“I see,” Rysala said. “So you arrived at this arrangement on your own. How did that happen?”

Anne looked at him. Bill shook his head. “You tell it better.”

“Okay.” Anne took a deep breath and looked at Rysala. “It was intense. We were both in college and we thought we were determined to save the world. Our eyes met across a crowded room and I just couldn’t stop looking at him.”

“Please,” Trinity said.

“Hey!” Bill looked at his daughter. “Careful, missy.”

Anne laughed and the whole time Rysala watched them. Anne went on. “For Trin’s sake, I’ll leave out the gory details. The fact is, we fell in love.”

“What’s love?” Rysala asked.

Bill looked at zer, they all looked at zer. “What do you mean?”

Rysala’s head cocked slightly to the side. “This concept has come up often in our discussions and I admit I still find the notion mystifying. Your people talk about falling into love and out of love but no one can give us a clear answer. We’re pointed to literature, music, and poetry as much as science and none of it gives a clear answer.”

“You don’t love anyone?” Trinity asked.

“No.” Rysala smiled. “We have mutually satisfactory relationships, often with multiple individuals. It is very pleasurable and beneficial.”

“But you’re giving that up by coming here?”

“That’s correct. We all want integration with your people. It seems the best course to develop trust between our two cultures.”

Bill stood up. He smiled. “Rysala, would you like something to drink?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“We have wine, tea, coffee, soda, water, juice or milk? I don’t know what you usually drink.”

“Water, please.”

“Okay. Anne, could you give me a hand?”

“Getting water? I think you can manage that Bill.”

“I’d like a root beer,” Trinity said.

“Funny. I’ve only got two hands.”

Anne got up. “Fine.”

Bill led the way out of the living room and into the kitchen. He went to the cupboard and started pulling down glasses. He handed one to Anne.

She looked at it. “Do you think ze wants ice?”

“If not ze can always tell us. What did you think about all of that? They don’t understand love?”

Anne put the glass under the ice dispenser. The ice maker made grinding noises and crushed ice dropped down into the glass. “I don’t understand love. Do you?”

“I know I love you, and Trinity. I don’t need to understand it. I feel it. Ze doesn’t.”

“So?” Anne moved the glass over to the water dispenser. “This could solve so many problems for us. Rysala’s income would take us up several income brackets.”

“You think we should do this for the money?”

Anne took the next glass and started filling it with ice. “People have always married for money, or alliances like ze said.”

“Maybe, but we’re talking about marrying an alien. An alien who can’t love us.”

“Actually, I heard that they’re great in the sack. Very enthusiastic.” Anne looked at him. “You should love that.”

“I’m not talking about sex.” Except he couldn’t deny thinking about it. Heat rose on his neck. “If ze doesn’t understand love, how can we trust zer?”

Anne filled another glass. “I don’t think we need to obsess on this detail right now. Why don’t we see if we even like each other? I think ze can understand liking someone.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Bill said.

Except when they went back to the living room with the drinks and Anne brought it up Rysala nodded right away. “Like? Certainly. We have preferences, just as you do.” Ze lifted the glass and took a sip. “I like ice in my water. It isn’t something that we ordinarily do, but the cold is very refreshing.”

“What do you do?” Trinity asked.

“Do?”

“Yeah, like a job.”

Rysala shook zer head and put zer glass down in one of the cup holders on the couch. Zer moments looked graceful and smooth, like a dancer. “Whatever I find interesting. Since our arrival, I’ve been very interested in your mystery fiction. I think I might like to try writing.”

“Oh.” Trinity laughed. “Like Castle?”

Rysala laughed as well. Zer laughter sounded like a baby laughing, pure joy. “Yes! Castle! I’ve watched that show. It is very enjoyable. I understand that most mystery writers do not help the police as he does, but it makes for a most entertaining fiction.”

Anne asked, “What did you do before this?”

“I spent time working on the designs for our facility on the moon. That’s right? You refer to this planet’s natural satellite as the moon?”

“Right,” Bill said.

“Very odd, imprecise phrasing. There are many natural satellites in this system. Wouldn’t our moon be more accurate?”

“It might,” Bill answered. “I couldn’t tell you why we don’t phrase it that way.”

“So you worked as an engineer?” Anne asked.

“Yes,” Rysala answered.

“But now you want to write fiction?”

“Yes.”

“And your bosses don’t have a problem with that?”

Rysala sipped at zer water. “We do not have a hierarchal societal structure the way you do.”

Bill found that surprising. “But we’ve seen the broadcasts, isn’t Pyrny your equivalent of a President?”

“No, although that seems to be a common misconception. Most people want zer to be a President, or King, or General or some other term for one who commands others. Pyrny is simply the one that represents us in these discussions because doing so interests zer.”

“You’re socialists,” Anne said. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“That wouldn’t be accurate, although I can see how it might seem that way. Our economic system is aimed at parity. One type of work isn’t valued more than another, although unpopular work may require bonuses to interest someone. Yet the basic rights of life require that everyone’s basic needs be met. There are many injustices on this world.”

“We know that,” Bill said. “But you still decided to join us. I’m surprised that you didn’t take your ships and leave.”

“That could still be the outcome,” ze said. “If we are unable to integrate into your world then we will depart.”

“You’d just leave?” Anne asked.

Rysala leaned forward and lightly touched the ends of Anne’s fingers. Bill expected her to pull back but she submitted to zer touch and even smiled. “We are a patient people. We would not leave without making every effort to make this alliance work.”

Bill watched Anne’s fingers playing with Rysala’s golden fingers and he felt a deep churning in his stomach. His throat constricted. His eyes felt moist. He rubbed his eyes and coughed into his hand. Abruptly he stood. “Excuse me.”

He left the room and went blindly into the kitchen. He coughed twice before he got there and blundered over to the sink. He turned on the water and turned his head sideways to drink out of the faucet. He straightened up with cold water dripping down his face. He grabbed a blue terry cloth dish towel — part of the set of towels his mother had given them as a gift last Christmas. He toweled off his face.

Where had that come from? He’d been sick with what? Anger? No, although that was there, it was something more. The sight of Anne’s fingers flirtatiously playing with Rysala’s had made him jealous. It didn’t happen when Rysala touched Anne. It had happened when Anne touched zer back.

“Are you okay?” Rysala asked in zer silken voice from the doorway.

Bill put the towel back. “Fine. Just something caught in my throat.”

Rysala walked into the kitchen. God, she swayed as she walked. Bill couldn’t take his eyes off her. He was ensnared by her — zer, no — her. He couldn’t see Rysala as anything except an exotic, incredibly sexy woman. Alien in a way that excited him rather than repulsed. Bill took a step back and ran into the sink.

She didn’t stop. He couldn’t move further away, it’d look ridiculous. He suddenly felt like he had at his first high school dance, standing against the wall watching Kathy Brown dance with the popular boys while wishing that he could get up the courage to just go up and ask her to dance. Chances were that she’d say yes if he could just get up the courage to ask.

Would Rysala agree to stay if he got up the courage to ask? Did he dare after that fit of jealousy?

Rysala came close and didn’t stay back. She came right up until she was almost pressed against him. She stood an inch or so taller than him. He smelled nutmeg again. Not overpowering, but it tickled his nose. She spoke, her breath warm against his face.

“Is this what you want?”

She didn’t give him a chance to answer before her lips brushed his. Smooth and wet without being overly so and very warm, like kissing someone with a fever. It ignited his nerves. His hands moved up and brushed the green fabric of her dress. It felt like microsuede beneath his fingertips. Rysala pressed against him, her whole body hugging against him. He ached for her.

“Bill?” He broke the kiss, looking past Rysala to Anne standing in the doorway. He couldn’t read her expression. Her face was all stiff, though, she didn’t look happy. “What are you doing?”

Rysala turned around and held out a hand to Anne. “Come here.”

Anne crossed her arms and shook her head. “I think we should just go back to the living room and talk more.”

She left without another word. Rysala put a hand on Bill’s chest. “It will be okay. I will talk to her. Why don’t you stay here?”

Bill worried about Anne’s reaction but that was a small part of his concern. Mostly he wanted to hold Rysala again. He’d never felt anything so strong. And the thought of her going to Anne — he couldn’t even think about that.

“Stay here,” Rysala said.

Bill couldn’t find any words as she turned and walked with that incredible sway towards the door. He found himself watching the way her braid hung down her bare back. Trinity showed up in the doorway just as Rysala reached it. Rysala touched her arm lightly and went on through. Seeing Trinity compelled Bill into motion. He went around the kitchen island, around the bar to the dining room and sat down at the table. He put his hands flat on the surface of the table. Trinity came over and sat down across from him.

“Dad, what’s going on? Mom came back into the room looking all pissed. What did you do?”

“Nothing.” He couldn’t look at her. But he never lied to his daughter. He glanced at her face and only saw concern. “Not much, anyway. Rysala kissed me and your mother saw.”

Trinity looked down at her own hands. “Isn’t that part of this whole thing? I mean, you and mom are talking about marrying zer, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s one thing to talk about it and another to do it.”

“So you’re not going to marry zer?”

Bill shook his head. “We just need to work through some of this first. Rysala is going to talk to your mother. I think we’ll work it out. What do you think of her?”

“Mom?”

“No, I meant zer, of Rysala?”

Trinity grinned. “Ze is sort of cool. Ze reminds me of Orlando Bloom, except sometimes ze seems more like Angelina Jolie too. It’s strange, but it seems to depend on whether or not ze is focused on you or on mom.”

“Tell me about it!” Bill laughed. “I can’t picture zer as a guy. It’s all very weird.”

“As weird as polygamy? I mean, wasn’t it all illegal until the aliens showed up?”

“Yes, but there was already a movement to get government out of the business of regulating marriage. The Giselians tipped the scale with their offer. No one wanted them to just up and leave. We need their help.”

“The whole thing is crazy.” Trinity shook her head. “I mean, ze already said that ze doesn’t know what love is.”

Bill thought back to the kiss. “Maybe not, but they still know what buttons to push.”

“Dad!”

He held up his hands. “Come on, I’m not going into details. I’m just saying, they may not think of things quite the same way but that doesn’t necessarily matter. I’m not sure Rory feels things the same way we do, but that doesn’t matter.”

“Rory loves me, how can you say that?”

“I’m just saying that he’s a dog. He’s affectionate and loyal but how can we know if he feels love the same way as we do?”

“Because I know.”

“Maybe. Dogs evolved on Earth, I can see that other animals would be wired the same as us. But Rysala isn’t from Earth. It sounds like they just don’t understand love at all.”

“Maybe it’s just because they’re only learning the language.”

“Maybe.” Bill rapped his knuckles gently on the table. “What about you? How are you doing with all of this? Do you want another parent around?”

Trinity shrugged. “I’m happy with you and mom and I’ll be going off to college soon. It doesn’t change how I feel about you guys. It’d be weird, but I still love you.”

“That’s good.”

Trinity glanced over at the door to the living room. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

“I don’t know.” Bill stood up. “Let’s go rejoin the party.”

He held out his hand and his daughter took it. It made him feel much better. Stronger. He could face whatever was happening in the other room. They went to the living room together. He half expected to see Rysala and Anne kissing or something and was relieved that they were just sitting on the couch, facing each other with mirrored postures. Both had one leg up on the couch and one extended down to the floor. Anne looked up as they entered and smiled. Her lips twisted ruefully.

“Sorry about that Bill, it just caught me by surprise.”

Bill shook his head. “Me too.”

Rysala turned slightly so that ze could see them. “Come sit down, Anne and I have been having a nice conversation.”

Bill went to his big blob chair and dropped into the comforting softness. Trinity went over to the recliner and sat down there. “So we’re good?”

Anne nodded.

“I am enjoying your company,” Rysala said. “I believe that I’d like to pursue these relationships further if you all consent?”

Bill looked at Anne and she gave a slight nod. Trinity shrugged and gave him a big grin. “Go for it. Why not?”

Bill took a deep breath and looked at the two women and the alien in his life. It felt like stepping out of a spacecraft high above the Earth but he nodded. “Okay. That sounds good.”

Rysala laughed, a deep infectious laugh. Soon they all started laughing and Bill couldn’t even say why they were laughing but it bled the tension out of the room that had been there since they first opened the door. He felt more comfortable after laughing than he had all night. He dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“So, what would everyone like for dinner? Chinese? Thai?”

Trinity and Anne both looked at Rysala. Ze smiled and looked at Bill. “If it is okay I’d like to try pizza. It sounds very interesting.”

“Okay, pizza it is.”

He flicked through his contacts and picked the place. If ze wanted pizza he had a feeling that everything was going to work out fine.

🚀

4,636 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 84th short story release, written in October 2010.

There’s a lot of debate about marriages and relationships these days. Some want to define marriage as only being between a man and woman and deny it to others who love one another. Historically marriages have sealed treaties, patched relationships, and have bound families together. What if aliens showed up and didn’t just want to trade, but wanted to marry into our families? Would we do it to gain access to their advanced technology? I think it’s a fascinating concept, one I might return to again later on.

At least the Giselians are attractive to both sexes, they could have been something very different.

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, This Book is Haunted.

The Greatest Gig

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. But I’m on a break.”

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

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

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

“Look, what is it that you need?”

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

“That’s what it’s for.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you wish, Technician.”

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

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

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

“Okay. Let’s do this. Come on Huey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. Access Huey’s feed.”

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

“Visual analysis is inconclusive.”

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

The stuff had nearly reached Huey. The droid screeched.

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewey sank lower.

“Larry?”

“Yes, Technician?”

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

“Two minutes.”

“Has the Captain been informed of the situation?”

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

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

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

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

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

Dewey beeped in protest.

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

“Let’s wait outside,” she told Dewey.

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

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

Dewey gave a questioning warble.

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

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

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

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

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

The stranger nodded. “Whatever you say.”

🚀

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

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

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

🚀

3,548 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 72nd weekly short story release, written in April 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Discards.

The Special

Nick knew the road. The motels that blurred into one another, smelling of sex and desperation beneath the cheap cleansers. He ate greasy burgers in more railcar diners than he could count.

The sign said Picket Fences, a railcar diner brighter and more cheerful than most. A place to get a bite before the long drive home.

Nick knew the road. He knew how heat mirages made things look different than they were—he never expected to end up in a mirage himself.

People say beware of what you wish—that includes fantasies.

💀

On Friday afternoon Nick found himself propositioned by a prostitute for the first time in his life.

It happened in what he would have thought was the most unexpected place. He’d been driving for most of the day when he saw a diner up ahead beside the road. Fashioned with two railroad cars painted yellow, with white trim, the sign above proclaimed it as “Picket Fences.” True to the name a small white picket fence surrounded a green lawn out front. Daisies waved in the breeze. The diner looked like an oasis in the barren desert of the highway. The dingy gas station next door looked like it belonged but the diner stood out. His stomach rumbled and before he realized he had decided to stop he had already signaled and was turning into the parking lot along the side of the diner.

As he walked inside a bell rang above the door and he was greeted by the scents of bacon and burgers. He heard the sizzle from the grill. The first railroad car held a bar and a row of tables for two. Through the connecting door he could see that the second car contained larger tables. The only people in the place were a waitress behind the bar and a guy in a blue suit nursing a drink. The waitress looked to be mid-thirties, trim with dirty blond hair tied back. She welcomed Nick with a bright smile as he came into the diner.

“Take a seat. What would you like to drink?”

Nick slid onto a stool one over from the guy in the suit. He glanced over and the other guy looked back with red-rimmed bloodshot eyes. Nick nodded and the guy turned back to his drink.

Nick looked up at the waitress, noting that she had amazing green eyes. “Coffee would be great.”

“Gosh, if you’re that easy to please I’m not even going to have to work here.”

Nick chuckled. Behind her he could see that the back wall of the train car had been removed to allow an addition which contained the kitchen. He couldn’t see the cook but there was a teenage bus boy washing dishes. He looked back at the waitress and saw her name tag read “Janice.”

She set a steaming cup of coffee down in front of him. He met her eyes again. “If it isn’t out of line, is Janice your real name?”

“So my mother tells me. I don’t think she’s the baby-swapping type.” She laughed openly.

“Well then Janice, what’s good in here?”

She put a hand on her hip. “Other than little ol’ me?”

He flushed a bit and couldn’t think what to say.

“Oh quit teasing the guy,” the drunk suddenly said. “Why don’t you just tell him the specials for once?”

Nick was shocked at the guy’s outburst. Janice waved a hand at the drunk like she heard it all the time. She turned back to Nick.

“Our double patty melt is on special today. That comes with fries and a soda, if you like. Plus we’ve got a lemon meringue pie that’s heavenly.”

“And?” The drunk leered.

Janice waved her hand again at him. “Oh shoot, hon. You don’t think he’d be interested in that, do you?”

The drunk eyed Nick. “He’s got a dick, hasn’t he? What man wouldn’t?”

“Maybe you should watch your language in front of the lady,” Nick said. He couldn’t believe the guy. Still, he also couldn’t help but wonder what the drunk had referred to, but he wasn’t about to ask.

The drunk laughed and smacked the bar. “Lady! Haw, do you like that? Lady. She’s no lady, not this one.”

Janice nodded her head happily. “Oh, he’s right. Leroy knows that for sure.”

Nick didn’t know what to do with the information but he was starting to feel like the butt of this particular joke. Worse yet, he didn’t understand the joke. He decided the best course was to ignore it all.

“I think I’ll go ahead with the patty melt. That sounds good.”

“That’s great hon. It’ll be up in a bit. Nothing here sits around under a heat lamp. It’ll be fresh and hot.” She winked. “Like me.”

She spun around and headed to the kitchen with her shoes tapping on the floor and spared him the need to respond. He picked up his coffee and sipped it. Leaving now would seem rude, he thought, but he wished that he hadn’t pulled into the Picket Fences diner. Something about the place seemed odd to him.

Leroy slid over onto the stool beside Nick. That close he could smell the sweat and alcohol haze that clung to the drunk. Leroy turned his head a bit towards Nick but kept his eyes on Janice.

“You know buddy, you really should ask her about the other specials. It’s something alright.”

“I’m good with my order. Thanks.”

Leroy reached up and grabbed Nick’s shoulder. He leaned close. Fetid breath caressed Nick’s face. “Take it from me, you won’t regret it.”

Nick shook his shoulder and Leroy let go. Nick resisted the urge to shove the guy away or get up off the stool. “Look, I came in to get a bite and then I’m on my way. I don’t want any trouble. So why don’t you finish your drink and I’ll have my patty melt.”

Leroy shook his head. “I could do that but it’d be wrong. I’m trying to help you out here, buddy. I know what you see when you look at me. I’m not so far gone that I don’t despise my own reflection. I didn’t spring from that bar full grown as you see me, although the bar stool might disagree. I used to be somebody. I worked on Wall Street up until the collapse. Even that didn’t really bother me. I’d cut my losses and walked away with plenty to carry me the rest of my days.”

“I don’t really need —”

Leroy leaned close. “Listen! I’m helping you out. I could show you. I don’t mind you watching. You spot me the cash and I’ll show you the gash.”

Nick shoved Leroy and slid off his own stool at the same time. “Get away!”

Leroy glared at Nick but then shrugged. “Fine. I’ve done it all anyway. Good luck to you, sport.”

Nick stood aside as Leroy blundered out through the door leaving only the smell and the sound of the bell above the door.

“Leroy took off, did he, hon?”

Janice was back at the bar. She didn’t look as old as he’d thought originally, he realized. No way she was mid-thirties. She had to be younger than that.

“You lost?”

Nick blinked and realized that Janice was talking to him. “Yeah, I’m fine. Sorry, it’s been a long day.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

She smiled. “Why has it been a long day? I thought all these days were pretty much the same length?”

Nick chuckled with her. “That’s true. But when you’re driving all day it seems like the day is longer.”

She snapped her fingers. “You know, I think you’re on to something there. Perception, isn’t that what they call it? How something can be one way but you see it differently?”

“I think so.”

Janice leaned on the counter. She looked to the right and then the left as if to make sure they were alone. They were, except for the cook and bus boy working in the kitchen.

“Leroy might not be entirely wrong. I could tell you about our other special, if you’d like.”

“I’ve already ordered.”

Janice waved her hand as if fanning a bad smell. “That don’t matter. You’d have room for this after you eat.”

“I don’t usually eat pie,” Nick said. He didn’t know what she was getting at, but after what Leroy had said he felt a bit uncomfortable.

“I’m not talking about pie, hon!” She laughed. She leaned closer and her voice dropped. “I don’t make this offer to every customer. Trouble is some people can’t handle it.”

His gut felt tight. “Like Leroy?”

She nodded. “Like Leroy. He hangs around even though I’ve told him to stop. I need to do something about that.”

“I think I’ll be good with the patty melt, thanks.”

Janice shook her head slowly. “You haven’t even heard what the offer is yet, hon.”

Nick didn’t deny that Janice was attractive. And he might be dense but he’d pretty much decided that she was coming on to him. He didn’t have much experience with that sort of thing. He wasn’t unattractive, at least he didn’t think so, but he never attracted that sort of attention from women. Those he’d been with over the years he’d made the advances and each time he’d been surprised when the woman in question responded positively. Then he’d met Melody, his wife, and along with his love and gratitude he felt relief that he was officially ‘off the market.’ Since then he’d never really been tempted to stray.

He held up his hand and ran his thumb across his ring. He didn’t say anything, assuming the hint would be blunt enough.

“Oh hon, that don’t matter none,” Janice said. She took his hand. “This is the special. I can become any woman you’ve ever fantasized about and we can have ourselves a good time. You like Jennifer Connelly? Sandra Bullock? Julia Roberts? Or do you like them younger? Kirsten Bell, maybe?”

Nick shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t think I’m interested in your role-playing.”

Besides, as attractive as she might be she didn’t look like any of the women she mentioned any more than they looked like each other.

“Let me give you a taste,” Janice said.

Only it wasn’t Janice standing behind the counter any longer but Jessica Alba with her dark waves of hair and dark eyes drawing him in. He remembered seeing her in Sin City. No sooner than he recognized her and there was a different woman behind the counter. Taller, blond and very attractive but he didn’t recognize her from anything. A moment later it was only Janice standing behind the counter with a smile in her eye. She winked.

“You get it now, hon? We’re not talking dress-up here and games. I’ll actually become whatever woman you’ve fantasized about down to the last mole or birthmark.”

Nick tried to understand what he’d just seen. It couldn’t be possible. How could this waitress in a roadside diner suddenly become all of those women. Guiltily, he realized that he found the idea tempting.

He shook his head. “I don’t know what you just did, but you can’t really become those women.”

A bell rang behind her. She winked. “Saved by the bell, hon. Order’s up. I’ll let you eat and think on what you’ve seen. I’ll heat up that coffee for you too.”

She grabbed the coffee pot and refilled his cup, then went back for the plate. She put it in front of him a moment later. Golden bread, grilled meat and giant fries filled the plate and the air with its aroma. Nick’s stomach growled. He thought he should just get up and walk out of the place. He’d never been propositioned before like this and it finally occurred to him that Janice must be some sort of prostitute. She didn’t care one bit about him beyond what he could pay.

He picked up half the patty melt and bit into the sandwich. Juices exploded across his tongue with almost scalding intensity. It tasted divine. He chewed slowly and took another bite while he worked over the problem in his head.

Look what had happened to Leroy? Drunk or not, according to what he’d said he used to have money. Implying that he spent it all on Janice here. Nick could see it. Janice becoming every actress, starlet or model that Leroy could imagine. The two of them having sex on the bar or with her bent over one of the tables in the next car.

Nick picked up a French fry and bit into it. It crackled between his teeth, hot and crisp on the outside while being soft and even hotter inside. Almost too hot to eat. He blew out his breath and realized that he had started to get an erection thinking about the possibilities. It wouldn’t be anything except sex. The sort of sex that people dreamed about. Some people even had lists for that sort of thing. He remembered watching Friends and they had a show about that, you could have ten people on your list and if you ever got the chance your partner gave you permission to sleep with them. That sort of thing.

He finished the first half of the patty melt feeling more guilty than ever. And there was no denying now that the idea turned him on.

“How is everything?” Janice asked.

The question startled him out of his thoughts. He looked at her. She looked like Janice, the waitress, not some Hollywood actress.

“The food is great,” he managed. He wanted to say something else but he didn’t even know what that might be.

“You’ve been giving thought to that special I mentioned, haven’t you?”

He felt tongue-tied and flushed.

She chuckled. “Oh hon, don’t worry so much about it. A bit of fun is all it is. Perfectly safe, I assure you. And don’t worry about that pretty wife of your’s — how’s it any different than you tossing off while you fantasize? She’s not one of those women who expect you to stop entertaining yourself, is she?”

He had the feeling that it was a lot different than the time he spent by himself by the virtue that he wouldn’t be doing this alone. Not that he was going to do anything, he corrected himself silently. Not if he got out of there now. He pulled out his wallet.

“What do I owe for the food?”

“You’ve only had half your sandwich,” Janice said. “It’s no big deal. You don’t want the special, that’s fine. Why don’t you finish your meal?”

Nick picked up another French fry to humor her. It tasted fantastic. He couldn’t resist trying one more, than another. Remembering how good the patty melt tasted he decided he might as well finish his meal. It wasn’t like she was going to attack him or something. The flavor of the patty melt was wonderful. The hot juices burst across his tongue and blended with the melting cheese. Janice smiled at him.

“Good, isn’t it?”

Nick nodded.

Melody leaned on the counter. Nick coughed, spraying out bits of bread and patty melt onto the counter. Melody smiled at him.

“Really, hon. Do you think I’d mind? I know you’ll always love me. Why shouldn’t you have a little fun? Remember how I looked when we first met?”

She changed. He recognized her, it was still Melody but now it was Melody at twenty-four. Thirty pounds lighter with firmer muscles and better skin. Her hair was cut short back then and styled. She was as gorgeous as he remembered and his erection came back hard, making sitting uncomfortable. She leaned across the counter and took his hand. Her face was only inches from his and he could smell the apple-scent of the organic shampoo she used back then.

“I said I can be any woman you fantasize about, even if that’s just your wife as you remember her being when you met. And I can do all of the things that you never dared ask her to do. How can it be cheating when I’m her?”

Her lips touched his. Only a second but it felt wonderful and sent electricity through his skin. Nick slid backwards off the stool. He shook his head.

“No matter how you change I still know that it’s someone else. Even if you look like her.” He took out his wallet, removed a twenty and tossed it on the counter. “Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

Nick turned to leave but she came around the bar and blocked his way. She smiled nastily, in a way that Melody would never do.

“Haven’t you heard the phrase, ‘Hell hath no fury’?”

Nick backed away.

She wasn’t Melody anymore. Instead Marilyn Monroe stood in his path looking like she had at her best. She stalked towards him. “I don’t make this offer to just anyone you know? I save it for my special customers.”

He walked backwards through the railcar at a faster pace. He looked into the kitchen but the cook and bus boy had vanished.

Katherine Hepburn laughed at him. “Remember what we said about perception? They weren’t ever actually there. You saw them because I wanted you to see them.”

He turned and ran towards the next car. He made it to the connecting door, through and pushed it closed behind him. Through the window he saw Julia Roberts running towards him with a snarl on her beautiful face. He had thought he could jump down but metal bars enclosed the space between the cars. There wasn’t any way out. He yanked open the next door and went through into the second car.

A smell of rotten meat filled the car. Nick gagged and pinched his nose closed. The place was full of mold and lumps slumped at the tables. The pristine dining room he’d seen through the connecting doors was replaced by a decaying slaughter house. He heard a door bang open behind him and saw Jessica Biel step into the space between the cars. Nick ran down the aisle between the tables. His foot slipped on something that squished. He kept going towards the end of the railcar.

A woman laughed behind him. He glanced back and saw Sarah Michelle Gellar in the aisle behind him. She laughed again.

“Where are you going, hon?”

“I just want to get out of here and go back to my wife.”

“Oh, I don’t see that happening. Not now that you’ve seen all that you’ve seen.”

There was something wrong with her hair, he noticed. It looked like it had fallen out in patches. He backed down the aisle. She kept walking towards him. He moved faster then broke into a run for the door. He reached it, yanked on the door and it rattled but didn’t open. He yanked again. Nothing. It was locked.

More laughter behind him but it sounded scratchy. Nick looked back at her. She didn’t look so good now. Her face was a patchwork of different women all mismatched. Different eyes, skin tones, a nose made from several parts, her scalp was largely bald but sprouted tufts of hair in different colors.

“Hon, you might as well give it up now.”

Nick looked around for something, anything that could be used as a weapon. On his left the decayed skeleton of a man lay slumped in a booth. His clothing and skin hung on his bones in rags. Both looked torn apart. Nick bent down and grabbed the poor fellow’s upper leg bone. He yanked on it and pulled the whole body up off the table into the aisle.

The creature that had been Janice and all of the other women laughed at him. “What are you doing, hon? Pulling his leg like that?”

She laughed again. While she laughed he put a foot on the hip bone and yanked up again. With a loud pop and tearing of dried muscles the leg bone came free in his hand. The round knob at the end looked hard. All in all, a serviceable club, he thought.

Janice tsked him. “You shouldn’t be thinking such things. Others before you kicked and hit and fought such as they could but I’m still here, aren’t I? It would have been better you took the special. Then you might have died a happy man at least.”

“I plan to die happy.” Nick swung the leg bone. Not at her but at the window in the door at the end of the rail car. He put his whole body into the swing. He pictured the window shattering apart into sparkling pieces.

The round knob went into the window and got stuck. Nick pulled on the bone but the old flesh slipped in his hands. He heard her running towards him now. It wasn’t far. Any second and she’d have her claws in him. He gave the bone a big yank and it popped free pulling the window with it. He swung it back and hit Janice with the broken window.

She screamed and fell back, batting the glass away with enough force to knock the bone from his hand. Nick didn’t hesitate. He turned and dove through the window. His legs scraped the edge and he tucked his arms up as he rolled through. He hit on his shoulders and rolled with the fall up against the picket fence.

It was gray and weathered with age now. Pickets were missing and weeds grew tall around it. Nick got to his feet and kicked his way through the fence towards his car. He didn’t look back then.

Only after he got in the car and it started up did he look back at the railcars. The whole place looked like an abandoned wreck. For a moment he saw a woman’s face in the broken window looking out. It could have been anyone, he couldn’t tell what exactly she looked like before he pulled out and got back on the road for home.

💀

Three weeks later he ended up out that way again. He hadn’t called the police or told anyone what had happened. Who would believe the story. He hardly didn’t believe it himself anymore except it had taken nearly a week for the scrapes on his legs to heal. He got to the spot only to find the railroad cars gone and no sign of the diner. He saw a man sitting on a chair outside the gas station and pulled in.

The man raised his face when Nick walked up. It was a tear-streaked Leroy that sat on the chair. Leroy waved a bottle at the spot where the diner had stood.

“She’s gone and left.”

“Why’d she let you live?” Nick asked, chilled inside despite the hot sun.

Leroy shook his head. “I’ve never known. I would have given anything for her but she wouldn’t take me like the others. Not completely. I thought maybe she loved me, but she left me here.”

Nick didn’t have an answer for him. He left Leroy sitting in front of the gas station as he’d found him and vowed if he ever saw Picket Fences sitting beside a road somewhere he wouldn’t stop, no matter how tempting it might look.

💀

3,828 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 63rd weekly short story release, written in September 2010 and originally released under my pen name “R.M. Haag”. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Dreamstone.

Truth-Seeker

Regi finds the busy world outside his Airstream trailer too full of misery and pain to tolerate. He leaves it all behind for the quiet of his land, the company of his dogs, and the freedom from the thoughts and dreams of others. His magic shows him the truth of things – no matter how dark the truth revealed.

Cali Spencer knows his power might save the life of a child and interrupts his peace. How can he deny her?

💀

The dogs barked, waking Regi from his fitful sleep. The hammock swung beneath him as he rolled on out to land on the cold floor with his bare feet. A big man, Regi filled the small Airstream trailer. Filled it to the bursting point just standing in the small center space. He wore only his blue shorts which left the rest of his well-defined body exposed. He went to the door and had to bend over so he didn’t hit his shaved head on the top of the opening.

On stepping out into the clearing he felt a prickle on the air. Another mind, several of them, at a distance yet back in the trees. The dogs barking had made them nervous. Regi rubbed the space between his eyes and hoped that he could keep a headache at bay.

Quiet. He didn’t say it aloud but the two dogs standing in front of the Airstream, Genghis and Khan, two big brindle mastiffs, calmed to an alert poise. Regi rubbed his eyes. A few clouds hung above Mt. Rainier, stained red by the sunset. Whoever was out there he wanted them gone.

“Hello?” Regi called. “You’re trespassing. Best you get back on the road.”

When had that ever worked? This time wasn’t going to be the exception. They came on foot, three of them. The boulders he’d put out at the end of the drive had at least stopped cars from getting any closer. The man and woman he didn’t recognize. White, well-dressed for the city but not dressed to be out in the woods and mud. He recognized the third member of the group. Officer Cali Spencer, the perpetual thorn in his side. She might be small but she was tenacious.

Spencer hooked her thumbs in her belt and assumed a wide-legged stance. Her wide mouth opened in a broad smile. “Regi, how’s it going man? You’re looking good.”

“Better before you showed up. I was sleeping. Peacefully.”

“Sorry to interrupt your beauty sleep but I need your help.” She turned her head slightly towards the couple standing nervously behind her. Genghis and Khan eyed them. Khan licked his lips.

Lie down. Both dogs stretched out on the ground. Khan, always willing to push his luck yawned widely to reveal his big teeth. When Regi looked at him Khan gave him an innocent who-me-look.

“I don’t dream anymore.” Regi looked at the couple, out of place white folks trusting this cop enough to bring them out in the middle of the woods to face a big giant of a man wearing nothing but blue shorts and his scars. Between the scars, his muscles and the two equally muscled dogs it was a wonder that they hadn’t already taken flight. He didn’t like that his size intimidated people but he couldn’t do anything about their reactions. In case Spencer hadn’t heard him he repeated himself. “I’m serious. I don’t dream anymore.”

“I heard you.” Spencer’s smile widened. “And you know what Regi? I don’t give a fuck. You’re going to do your magic thing that you do for these people. You’ll change your mind. You know it. I know it. So let’s stop doing this pissing contest and talk like civilized people. You can make us some coffee.”

Only her. He flushed. Anyone else and he’d have gotten pissed off but she made him weak. He hated that about her. Or he loved it. He never could decide. Both were true.

“You push your luck.”

She shook her head. “No I don’t. Come on, that’s a good boy.”

Regi growled. He turned back towards the Airstream. “Give me a few minutes.”

He resisted the urge to slam the Airstream’s door when he went back inside. He grabbed a clean white t-shirt from the bins beneath his hammock. In a standard Airstream they had a bed there but he didn’t fit the bed. A hammock hung diagonally fit him better and was more comfortable. He’d converted the space beneath into additional storage. He pulled on the shirt. Then he went to the small kitchen and put on hot water.

A knock at the door.

Spencer. He leaned on the counter, took a breath, then turned and leaned over to open the door. Spencer looked up at him. “Need a hand?”

“I can manage.”

“Let me in, I’ll help.”

Regi growled and drew back. Spencer bounced up the steps into the Airstream. She shut the door behind her. He caught a glimpse of the couple talking in hushed whispers while shooting glances at the Airstream and the dogs.

“Do you have mugs?”

Regi pointed to the cupboard. Spencer opened it and took down three of his four plain white mugs. In the small space he couldn’t help but be standing close to her. The only way to get further away would be to climb into the hammock and that wasn’t the message he wanted to send. He could smell the clean soap and gun-oil smell of her. He took his can of instant coffee out of the cupboard. No reaction from Spencer. Her thoughts felt carefully ordered. She didn’t let anything slip.

“A child is at stake, Regi. That’s why I came. Their child has gone missing.”

“They aren’t suspects?”

“No. Not so far as we can tell. It sounds like a genuine abduction. We need to find this child. I need your magic.”

How could he argue against helping a child? He couldn’t. Except she didn’t know what she asked of him. She saw results. Helping people. Her big heart for everyone else blinded her to things she couldn’t understand.

“Of course,” he conceded. He peeled off the top of the coffee can. “It isn’t as easy as you might think and there are risks.”

“I know you’re up to any risk.”

“Me, maybe. But what of the child? There are two ways this is going to work and they both might fail. Or we might be too late.”

Spencer shook her head. “I won’t believe that. We’re going to get this child back.”

The kettle whistled. Regi moved it off the burner started spooning coffee into the three mugs on the counter. He poured in the hot water and stirred. Spencer watched. After he finished she picked up one and headed for the door. He took the other two and followed. She opened the door for him and they descended back out into the darkening evening. As soon as he approached the couple they tensed. He held out the mugs.

“Here, be careful. They’re hot.”

The offer overcame their hesitation and they both took the mugs. Spencer gestured at Regi. “This is Regi Banks, the man I told you about. Regi, Michael Smith and his wife Ann.”

Regi nodded. He didn’t have any furniture out here in front of the trailer. Nothing but the overgrown road that led to this clearing. The rest he let go to wildflowers. There was no way all of them could fit comfortably into the Airstream.

Michael spoke up first. His mind flared with suspicious and fear that mingled around him. A flash of distrust burned through his aura. The sight of it nauseated Regi. He took a deep steadying breath and looked past the man and the soothing colors of the sunset.

“You don’t look how I expected a wizard to look.” Michael laughed, as if to suggest it was a joke.

Regi still couldn’t look at the man. He looked at Ann when he answered. Her aura flickered with soothing traces of hopefulness amid the sadness. He wanted to fan her hope. “Wizard, sorcerer, magician, psychic, all of these words fail to describe who I am. I’m not a Gandalf of any color. I don’t have any spell books. I can’t mutter some sort of incantation that will teleport your daughter here.”

“Then what good are you!” Michael ran his hands through his hair. He looked at his wife then leveled a finger at Spencer. “Why’d you bring us out here?”

“Cool it.” Spencer approached Michael. She didn’t lay her hands on him but she looked him squarely in the eyes. “Cool it now. Regi’s a friend of mine and what he can do is miraculous and it costs him more than you can imagine. So just cool it. Oh, and for the record, I didn’t tell Regi that your child was a daughter.”

That caught Michael’s attention. His protests died on his lips. He looked at her, at Regi and then over at Ann. He took his wife’s hand. A tiny bit of hope from her aura spilled into his, dousing the distrust somewhat. It made it easier for Regi to look at the man.

“I’m sorry your daughter has been taken. I may be able to help you find the truth of what has happened, but the truth isn’t always comfortable. It isn’t always easy. I find the truth of things. That’s the magic I possess.”

“Truth.” Ann’s voice was hardly more than a whisper.

“Just the truth.” Regi looked out at the sunset. He looked back at the couple. He didn’t want them here with their minds and auras demanding his attention. Spencer’s on the other hand, she felt soothing. Comforting. He didn’t pay too much attention. He didn’t want to pry but she helped him. Like the dogs helped him, but in a different way. “I can’t do this by myself. I serve as a guide of sorts. A protector. ”

“What do we have to do?”

Regi spread his hands and looked up at the darkening sky. “We need to sleep and I will help you discover the truth of what happened to your daughter.”

Suspicion flared up again in Michael’s aura, mixed with distrust. “Sleep? Out here? How is any of this going to help?”

Ann spoke before either Regi or Spencer could say anything. She touched her husband’s arm. “We are going to try this.”

“I brought the camping gear.” Spencer jabbed her finger back at the path. “It’s in the truck. I’ll bring it up.”

“I’ll help you,” Regi said.

They walked through the tall grasses with Spencer in the lead. Genghis and Khan ranged around them through the grass, their minds filled with curiosity and wonder at everything they smelled. It made Regi smile. Of course that’s the moment Spencer looked back at him.

“What are you smiling about?”

The smile vanished. “Nothing.”

“You were smiling.”

Regi shrugged. Spencer shook her head and kept walking. She was aware of him behind her. He shifted his attention to avoid prying deeper. The light was failing fast but there were enough stars and moonlight to light the clearing. As they went beneath the trees even that light disappeared and the darkness enveloped them.

“Just a sec.” He heard Spencer pulling her flashlight free from her belt and waited. She clicked it on. “There. That’s better.”

Regi stayed silent. He didn’t mind the dark and he knew the path well. It’d be little issue to walk in but he let her have her light. Khan ran past them with Genghis hot on his heels. Beneath the trees the road wasn’t as overgrown yet and there was more room to spread out. He moved up next to Spencer.

“How is your family?” he asked, politely. Spencer’s two boys must be getting taller than her now. They took after their father who had died in the line of duty overseas.

“The boys are good. They’d love to come out here and camp. Maybe do some fishing.”

It sounded nice. Regi pictured relaxing with Spencer and the boys. Just enjoying their company. Too bad that was just a fantasy. They’d tried it once. His head hurt for two days afterwards.

“Maybe some time.”

“I know that tone. You’re just trying to be polite. Forget I mentioned it Regi.”

He touched her arm, only for a second. Her face turned up to him. “I don’t want to forget. I’m not good around people. It is difficult enough with one. Several people, that’s hard.”

“So you’re going to live your life as a hermit?”

“It’s worked for others.”

Spencer shook her head and walked away.

At the end of the drive several big rocks blocked the drive. Past that was Spencer’s black SUV. She unlocked the back and started pulling out the camping gear without saying another word. He didn’t need her to say anything. Not with the disappointment and tension tinting her normally calming aura. He picked up the tents and a couple sleeping bags, tucking the bags first beneath his arms and then holding onto the tent bags. Spencer picked up the rest of the gear and the last sleeping bag.

The silence lasted all the way back to the clearing. Genghis and Khan showed up from their romp just as they reached the grass and raced ahead. Even across the clearing Regi keenly felt the Smiths’ emotions. He walked into it anyway. For their child’s sake.

Crickets sang in the field while he worked on setting up the tents. The dogs lay down in their usual places in front of the Airstream. He erected both tents close to the trailer.

“What do we do?” Ann asked.

“Sleep,” Regi said. “Just go to sleep.”

“You’re not going to chant or dance around a fire?” Michael asked, his tone sarcastic. “No smoking peace pipes?”

“That’s not how my magic works, but if it makes you feel better be my guest. Try not to set the whole place on fire. I’ll be going to bed now. The sooner you do, the better.” Regi looked at Spencer. “Good night Cali.”

She met his gaze and he saw the tension drain from her aura. She smiled. “Good night.”

He went back into the Airstream, ignoring Michael’s angry whispered argument with his wife. Michael obviously didn’t like feeling out of control. The dogs got up and followed him into the Airstream. They waited for him to climb into the hammock and then spread out on the floor. Between the two of them they took up about all the space. He lay back on the hammock, reached over and flipped the light off. Outside he could feel the minds of his guests slowly settling down. Like it or not Michael must realize he wasn’t going to change anything tonight.

Regi closed his eyes. He breathed deep. He claimed none of the labels applied to him but there was one that fit. Magic. It had always been part of him. He’d known things about people. The truth of who they were. Over time it became harder and harder to bear. He isolated himself as much as possible but still they came.

He felt the magic grow. It flowed out along his limbs, crawling over the hammock beneath him. The hammock didn’t change. The Airstream remained. Even so Regi felt like he had moved to another place. He blinked and sat up in the hammock with that sense of dislocation persisting. He swung his legs down towards the floor.

Genghis glowed with a rich amber light. Khan glowed with more of a healthy greenish light, like that from Spring plants. Their light illuminated the Airstream and caused shadows to dance and twist. Regi looked at the world with new eyes as he stood up. Parts of the Airstream looked covered in patches of some sort of scaly white scabs. It was a kind of other-worldly fungus that grew in spots where metal was fatigued. He scrapped it off sometimes but it always grew back.

The dogs panted happily at him. Khan sat up. “Going out, are you?”

Genghis rolled over. “Can we come?”

“Of course.” Regi opened the door and the dogs ran on ahead. He stepped down into the cool night air into a field transformed.

Fairies lit the grasses like stars from above. They floated around just above the tops of the waving grass. Dozens clustered on the tents canvas, licking off the dew. Up close Regi could see through their lights to their chitinous bodies that gleamed with a rainbow of colors. Realizing they’d been seen the fairies took off in a buzzing cloud. The dogs ran around the tents snorting the fairy dust.

“Stop that,” Regi told them. “It’s a disgusting habit.”

“You should try it, Man.” Khan flopped over and rolled in the dust. “Nothing like it.”

Genghis sneezed.

“Don’t wake them,” Regi warned.

He walked over to the Smith’s tent. At his gesture the zipper parted silently. Both Michael and Ann lay sleeping in separate bags. Ann lay on her back with her mouth open and a soft snore. Michael had curled into a tight ball within his bag so that only the top of his head stuck out.

Regi stuck out both hands and made a grabbing motion. He yanked back. Michael and Ann both stumbled up onto their feet, tripping on the sleeping bags. They had to duck to avoid the low tent ceiling. Both were dressed in pajamas, Michael’s stripped and Ann wearing blue pajamas decorated with clouds.

“Come on,” Regi told them.

Confusion and fright flared in their auras but they followed. His command compelled them out of the tent into the clearing. He left them gapping at the transformation of the clearing and went to Cali’s tent. The zipper parted at his gesture. She looked completely relaxed, twisted on her side. She still wore her uniform and gear. She knew what asking for his help meant.

With her his gestures took on a gentler movement as if he was reaching out to pick up a baby. That’s all it took. She sat up and crawled out of her tent. He enjoyed watching her grin grow when she saw the fairies dancing above the grass.

“It’s so beautiful! I didn’t know if they’d be here this time. Are they always here?”

“Not always.” Regi turned to the Smiths. “Are you ready to find out the truth?”

“Of course not,” Genghis said.

“Humans are never ready for the truth,” Khan observed.

Michael stared at the dogs. His mouth fell open but nothing came out. Regi walked over to the couple and place his hands on their shoulders. “Ignore the dogs. Pay attention to me.”

Michael’s head snapped up and he looked at Regi with real fright. Ann’s brow wrinkled. Tears filled the corners of her eyes.

Regi gestured for Spencer. “Join hands.”

“This should be fun,” Khan said.

Shush. Go play!

The dogs looked at one another, tongues lolling out of their mouths and then they took off across the clearing. Fairies scattered out of their path like leaves on the wind.

Spencer joined them and took Michael’s hand on one side and Regi’s on the other. Regi held his free hand out to Ann. Unlike Spencer’s warm, confident strength her hand felt soft and limp in his. She took Michael’s other hand. Regi looked across the space between him and Michael and locked eyes with the other man.

“Don’t let go. We’re going to go back now, back to the moment when your daughter was taken. We will discover the truth. Just remember not to let go. Understand?”

Michael nodded. Ann’s jaw trembled but she nodded sharply. Spencer squeezed Regi’s hand.

“Okay. Here we go.” Regi reached out for the slipstream of time. He found it and locked onto it.

It felt like a rope pulling at his insides. He didn’t resist but he held onto his charges. The clearing vanished in a blur. A riot of color that lasted only a second before everything snapped into focus. Somewhere, some when else.

A suburban ranch house, nothing fancy. Blue with white trim. The lawn needed to be mowed. A beachball and a small child’s wading pool sat at the center of the yard. A tiny delicate-looking girl with black ringlets stood in the driveway, in front of a closed garage door. She wore a bright yellow dress. She swung her arms and sang to herself in a high voice.

“Marrry had a litttle lambb!” Over and over, she repeated those words.

Beside him Ann sobbed. It seemed they stood not four feet away. Regi could feel the warm sun on his skin. Spencer had turned her head away to look past Regi.

“Look,” she said.

Regi turned his head. A navy blue van with no back windows drove slowly down the street. TER883 on the license plate. A white man in sunglasses and a black baseball cap sat behind the wheel. The van slowed even more as it came up to the driveway. It sat for a second and Regi could feel the man’s eyes on the girl.

Leaving the van running the man opened his door. He got out and went around the van to the back and opened the doors. Then he reappeared holding a fluffy stuffed lamb.

“Hey there,” he called out.

When Mary turned he held out the lamb. “Is this yours? I found it.”

“Mary! No!” Ann cried.

Neither the girl or the man heard her. Regi squeezed her hand. “Don’t let go. We can see what happened. That’s all.”

His head throbbed and his chest hurt. Soon it would be hard to breathe. The pull on his midsection was growing more intense. He couldn’t keep them here long.

Mary walked closer to the man. “You found her?”

“That’s right. And then I was going past and heard you singing. I thought she might be yours.” He straightened up and let his arm drop to his side. He shrugged. “I guess not.”

He turned as if to leave.

Mary ran right up to him and tugged on his sleeve. “She is mine!”

He looked down at the girl and stepped away. Back towards the rear of the van. He shook his head. “I think you’re just saying that because you want her now. You didn’t lose her, did you?”

Mary bit her lip. She walked up closer to the man. Regi could hardly hear here answer. “No. But can I have her?”

“Sure.” The man tossed the lamb into the back of the van. While Mary stared in shock at the back of the van he reached down, covered her mouth and carried her up into the back of the van. A second later the doors closed.

Regi couldn’t hold on much longer. He looked at Spencer. “Enough?”

Spencer nodded. “Yeah, I think I’ve got enough to ID him.”

“Mary!” Michael cried out. The van had started moving.

Regi let go. Everything blurred for a second and then went black. He woke up instantly and sat up in the hammock. The dogs lifted their heads and he could feel their disappointment that the adventure hadn’t lasted longer. Regi got down and eased between them to the Airstream door. As soon as it opened he heard Ann crying. His headache threatened to blind him but he made his way down to do what he could to help them through the night.

 

💀

Two days later he looked up from his book at the feel of a mind on the path. He was feeling better today, first time since the other night. He really didn’t want any company.

Still, he went out into the clearing and watched Spencer come out of the woods. She wasn’t in uniform today. Instead she wore a long cream-colored dress and had let her hair down. And he discovered that her presence didn’t set off warning bells in his head. He met her halfway.

“We caught him.” She took Regi’s hands. “Mary is okay, scared, but he didn’t hurt her. Had a room all made up in his house for her. It was probably only a matter of time before he did something, though. They’re still digging up remains out of the crawlspace.”

Regi shook his head and looked at the trees and the grass. “I don’t know how you do it.”

Cali laughed. “Funny, I was going to say the same thing.”

Regi looked down at her open face and pulled her close. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Magic.”

💀

4,054 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 61st weekly short story release, written in February 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story The Time That Remains.

Stay Extended

Darkness engulfs the shitty Park Vista Hotel, trapping guests inside with no power. Ben, a touring cyclist looking for a night in a bed, regrets not pushing on to the campground.

Three days trapped in the concrete hotel. Three days with that prick Carver appearing out of the darkness to demand a volunteer before feeding the trapped guests.

Ben seeks answers. A way out. An explanation for the darkness, for Carver. Answers that change everything.

A story of things that do more than go bump in the night.

💀

Ben joined the rest of the guests in the Park Vista Hotel lobby to hear what that prick Carver had to say today. Walking down the stairs in the dark all he could think was how much he hated this massive concrete silo. Why design it to look out into this massive empty space and then do nothing with the space? At least with the power out he didn’t have to ride the elevator and look at it, but he remembered the dull gray space. A dozen or so brightly colored kites hanging from the different levels would make the whole thing much more cheerful. At least it would give guests something to look at when they rode the glass-walled elevator, instead of the few fake plants and brown furniture waiting at the bottom.

Ben pushed open the door and walked out into the dark corridor. He knew the way now so well there was no need to use the flashlight he carried in his pocket. Lights flashed around on the walls from the flashlights the guests held. One hit his eyes, causing him to wince.

He heard raised voices from the crowd and picked up his pace.

Cole Petersen, a gray-haired overweight golfer from somewhere in the mid-West shook his pudgy finger at Carver. “You can’t keep fucking doing this!”

Carver didn’t budge. He didn’t even blink. Ben slid into the crowd, nodded to Tuyet who was rubbing her hands together nervously, and made his way closer. Carver looked unchanged since the first day when this all started. About five six, thin, probably no more than a hundred and thirty pounds. He had these sunken eyes that all the same looked very bright and a narrow nose. He wore the same perfectly pressed blue suit as the first day too.

Carver smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s very simple. One person submits to the blood test and then you all get to eat. It’s just a blood test. I only need one. And then you eat.”

Carver gestured at the tables behind him. Bracketed by two bright Coleman lanterns were at least a dozen pizza boxes. Now that Ben saw them he realized that he could smell pepperoni and sausage. His stomach growled. Nothing since the leftovers he ate this morning and that was with rationing. Some of these people probably hadn’t eaten since yesterday.

Ben raised his hand. “I’ll do it.”

Sweet old Sara Thompson reached out with one liver-spotted hand. “But you did it already, Ben.”

Carver snapped his fingers. “And so right you are, Mrs. Thompson. Sorry Benny, one to a customer. I need a new volunteer. One who hasn’t been tested before? The pizzas aren’t going to stay hot forever. Pepperoni, sausage and Canadian bacon for the meat lovers among you, and some vegetarian selections for the sheep. Even a couple plain cheese for anyone that has had enough excitement already. Alright? Who is it going to be?”

“I’ll do it!” That came from one of the guests Ben didn’t know well. Mary? No, Margaret. Something like that. She was short and stocky. She stepped forward and pushed up her glasses. “Let’s get it over with.”

Carver turned sideways and gestured back at the reception desk. “If you’ll just come with me to the office, miss?”

“Marlene Carlton.”

“Ms. Carlton, thank you so much for your assistance. I’ll send you back out with the others soon enough.” Carver followed her around the tables. “The rest of you? Enjoy!”

Cole made it to the table first and snatched an entire pizza box off the tables. Ben turned to Mrs. Thompson. “Why don’t you have a seat here? I’ll bring you some food.”

“Thank you Ben, you’re so kind.” He held her hand as fragile as twigs as she sat down.

As soon as she was safe he made his way quickly to the tables where people were starting to crowd around. Cole reached for an entire bottle of soda but Ben put his hand on it first.

“There’s plenty of food if we share,” he said loudly.

Cole’s chubby face flushed.

“Cole’s going to help serve everyone, right?”

Ben took the pizza box from Cole’s hands and put it back on the table. Everyone had stopped and was watching. “I’ll help. Let’s form an orderly line and we’ll all get through in moments. Okay?”

Cole looked around at everyone watching. He opened his mouth and closed it again.

“Great! Cole, thanks for giving me hand.”

Ben walked around the table. He put down the pizza box and opened the top. Supreme, with peppers and olives. The smell caused his stomach to rumble louder. he ignored it. Cole joined him at the other table. They opened all of the boxes and the rest of the guests formed a line. It went quickly then. They picked up paper plates and Ben and Cole served out the slices and poured the sodas into the paper cups Carver had provided. When a box was emptied they moved it down to the floor beneath the tables.

When Tuyet reached the line Ben handed her a second plate. “Can you take a plate over to Mrs. Thompson and come back for the drinks?”

“Yes, of course.”

Ben put three slices on each plate. Mrs. Thompson wouldn’t eat so much in one sitting but she could save it for later. Cole noticed and scowled but he didn’t say anything. Just as Ben had said, they got everyone through in short order. Marlene, he would remember it now, came back just as they were finishing the last guest. Ben handed her a plate. She had a bit of a gauze pad tapped with blue tape to inside her elbow.

“How’d it go?” Ben asked.

Marlene wrinkled her lip. “It hurt! I think he did it on purpose. I saw him smiling about it. Is there any supreme left?”

Ben gave her the last two slices and added the last pepperoni as well. “You need to get your iron up.”

After she left Ben picked up a plate and handed it to Cole. “Take your pick.”

Vegetarian or cheese, that’s all that was left. Cole looked at both, scowling and finally grabbed the last three slices of cheese pizza. He poured the last root beer into a cup and stomped off. Ben tried not to chuckle as he happily piled the four remaining vegetarian slices on his plate and picked up a two-liter Coke bottle with a little left at the bottom. Later he’d take the empties and fill them with water.

He carried the plate over to the coffee table where Tuyet was keeping Mrs. Thompson company and tried not to pay attention to blackness covering the Park Vista’s front doors. He should be able to see out towards the Great Smokey Mountains but there was nothing out there. Literally nothing. The first day they all must have gone out on the balconies thinking that someone had pulled a prank and painted their windows black during the night. But the blackness wasn’t paint, but it did envelop the hotel.

And yet somehow Carver managed to have fresh hot pizza for them.

“There’s Ben,” Mrs. Thompson said. She pushed the paper plate with two remaining slices an inch across the coffee table. “Dear boy, this young girl brought me too much. I can’t possibly eat all that!”

Ben nudged her plate back. “You’ll want to save those for later Mrs. Thompson. Our Mr. Carver hasn’t been bringing us three square meals. You might get hungry.”

Mrs. Thompson curled her lip and waved her hand, as if shooing off a fly. “That Mr. Carver is a sadistic prick!”

Tuyet coughed on her food. Ben handed her a napkin. “Are you okay?”

She nodded quickly.

“I don’t disagree, Mrs. Thompson, but that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know for sure when our next meal will come.”

Mrs. Thompson looked past him at Cole. “No. You never do know.”

Hard to believe they’d only been in this situation four days. Sometimes it seemed like hours. And yet each day Mr. Carver only wanted one person to donate blood for whatever tests it was that he was doing. As for the man himself, no one saw him come or go.

Ben bit into a slice of pizza and looked around. No sign of Carver at all. He put the piece back down on his plate and stood up. Tuyet looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Where are you going?”

“I want to check something out. Keep an eye on my plate for me, okay?”

“Of course.”

Ben walked away from the table towards the reception desk. Behind him he heard Mrs. Thompson’s voice, louder than she probably realized.

“Such a good-looking young man, don’t you think, dear? Are you married? You should be so lucky as to get someone like him.”

Ben grinned. Mrs. Thompson sure spoke her mind. He loved her for it too, but he worried about her in their current situation. No power, cut off from everything, what if something happened?

Past the modest reception desk was a door marked, “Staff Only.” Ben had been back once already, when Carver conducted his blood test. Maybe now would be a good time to get answers. Ben picked up one of the Coleman lanterns from the food tables on his way. He shoved the door open and went inside. A narrow hallway with vertigo-inducing stripped wallpaper, faded now with age. A grim sort of place with no expense spent to make the staff feel more comfortable. His lantern light barely lit the long hallway. If Carver was back here he didn’t have a lantern on.

Ben walked past the door to the reception desk to the next door on his right, the manager’s office. That’s where Carver had been doing the blood tests. The dark brown door was open and no light was coming from inside. Ben edged the door open and lifted the light high.

“Mr. Carver? It’s Ben Paulson. Are you in there?”

Inside the same boring office he’d seen on his first trip back here with Carver. Nothing but unattractive beige filing cabinets on one wall, a fake wood desk with a dusty computer taking up most of the room. Piles of paper had claimed the rest of the desk except on one side. Those papers lay scattered on the floor behind the desk and in their place was a box of gauze and blue tape. Nothing else to indicate Carver had even been here.

So where had Carver gone? He had to have a back way out. Maybe a way that they could take advantage of if they found it. Ben turned around and a bright light shone in his face. He could just see someone behind the light, holding the lantern. Ben raised his hand.

“Mr. Carver?”

“Think again asshole.”

Ben recognized the voice. Cole fucking Petersen. The last thing he needed right now. Ben kept his tone even.

“Did you see Carver when you came in?”

Cole swung the lantern at Ben’s head. Ben turned away barely in time. Even so the heavy base caught his shoulder. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stumbled away from Cole and collided with one of the chairs, dropping his own lantern on the floor.

“Asshole, think you can order me around!”

Cole brought the lantern swinging down at Ben’s head. Ben’s hands tightened on the arm of the chair and he swung it up. The thin, curved metal legs caught Cole’s arm and the lantern and knocked them aside.

Cole grunted and charged.

Ben thrust the chair at him. The legs caught Cole in the ribs. The man bellowed and the force shoved Ben back towards the wall. Cole grabbed the chair and pushed towards Ben. Ben resisted just for a moment then he let go and stepped quickly to the side.

Cole, off balance, crashed forward and landed on the chair. He groaned and started getting up. Ben waited until Cole shakily regained his feet and then sent a sharp right into Cole’s face. Like hitting bread dough on the counter. Two more quick jabs and Cole dropped. He fell on his side.

Ben shook his hand. What now? Tie the man up? Leave him to try it again? Maybe he wouldn’t.

Ben left the office and pulled the door closed behind him. He took both lanterns with him. Let Cole blunder around in the dark for a while. Maybe he’d remember who the real enemy was.

The others would need one of the lanterns. Ben went back out to the lobby. Heads turned when he came out, groups clustered around the flashlights that Carver had passed out the first day. People whispered to one another. They must have seen Cole go in and hadn’t done anything about it. And now Ben comes out with both lanterns. There’d be lots of talk now. Ben replaced the lantern on the table. Tuyet waved to him.

“Are you okay?” she asked when he reached their chairs.

“Fine.”

Her eyes turned past him back to the “Staff Only” door. “Cole?”

“He’s taking a nap.” Ben shook his head. “We’ve got to find out what’s going on here and we can’t have people like Peterson creating trouble. I need to go back. Have you seen Carver?”

“No.”

“Such a nasty man,” Mrs. Thompson commented. “I don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I don’t like him either,” Ben said. “But right now he’s our only connection to what is going on here. I’m going to go back and see if I can find out how he’s coming and going.”

Back through the door into that unappealing hallway. He paused at the office door and checked on Cole. Still out, but breathing with a slight snore. Bruises already forming on his cheek. Ben left him. Nothing he could do for the man right now.

Down the hallway. The light chased away the darkness as he moved forward. More rooms. Doors to the kitchens, storage rooms and a staff lounge. All disturbingly quiet. Ben hesitated and went into the kitchen. There could be food. He went to the big refrigerator and pulled open the door. Even though he knew the power was out it still surprised him when the light didn’t come on. Ingrained habits.

Nothing inside. Bare racks and a faint smell of mold and cleansers as if someone had cleaned it out quickly without getting down into all the corners. He shut it and looked around. Another door open to what must have been a dry goods pantry. Nothing there. Not even toilet paper.

It would have surprised him if Carver had left anything back here for them. The bastard must have cleaned it all out before starting his little blood test experiments. Couldn’t have them running to the kitchen for meals, could he?

Ben leaned back against the counter. So nothing. Vending machines empty. No power anywhere. Fortunately the water worked but nothing else. And nothing but blackness outside. It was so dark in here that the lantern only made a small pool of light. Hardly seemed any different than the stuff outside.

Except the darkness outside never went away. It didn’t have substance. It didn’t even prevent anyone from going out into it.

Three days ago. People still didn’t have a clue what was going on. Carver had shown up with sub sandwiches that day. Asked for a volunteer to give blood and then they could have the food.

Thinking back, the thing that struck Ben as the strangest about it all was that no one threatened Carver. A small man with his oddly bright but sunken eyes and that perfectly pressed blue suit. A lightweight. The sort of guy that men like Peterson delighted in picking on. Outnumbered by all of the guests but not one of them threatened Carver. Ben had felt it when he stepped forward and looked into Carver’ eyes. There was an emptiness there that said, that said, Ben rubbed his eyes thinking,

Go right ahead bucko, and see what it gets ya.

And more than that, something else. In Carver’ pocket. He played with it. His fingers fondling the cool metal switch. A switchblade.

Ben’s head snapped up. A switchblade in Carver’ pocket. That’s what he had. No reason that Ben should know it but he didn’t doubt what his gut told him. Good ol’ Carver carried a six-inch switchblade and in days past he liked to cut on people with that blade.

“Lost, Benny? Maybe you ought to get back on to the others.” Carver stood leaning against the pantry door frame as if he’d been there all the time.

Except Ben knew that Carver hadn’t been there. The pantry had been empty and Ben had closed the door after he checked. Regardless, Carver stood there now watching him.

Ben stood his ground. “How long is this going to go on? How much longer are you going to keep us here?”

Carver shook his head. “Benny, you’ve been tested already. My advice? Go back to your room. Stay there until my work here is done.”

“That’s it?”

Carver spread his empty hands.

“Great. Fucking great.” Ben clenched his fists. He wasn’t a cowardly man, but he also wasn’t the sort that started fights. As strange as everything was he couldn’t just go after the guy.

Ben forced his fingers open and walked away trying to tell himself that he wasn’t a coward. That he was doing the right thing and that he wasn’t — snick — afraid that Carver would pull out a switchblade kept sharp and cleaned many times.

Passing the office Ben checked on Cole, but the office was empty. Ben went on out to the lobby again. He carried the lantern over to the table where Tuyet and Mrs. Thompson were waiting. He put the lantern on the table and dropped heavily into his chair. He rubbed his eyes.

“Are you okay?” Tuyet asked.

He looked up and forced a smile. “Fine.” He thought about telling them about his run in with Carver and decided against it. His stomach growled. “Just tired. And hungry.”

Ben snagged a slice of pizza from his plate. Only lukewarm now but he didn’t care. It still smelled of garlic and cheese and tasted great when he bit into it.

Mrs. Thompson hadn’t touched her pizza.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.

Mrs. Thompson shook one brown-spotted hand. “I’m not hungry now. Maybe later. I think I’ll go to my room and rest.”

Tuyet stood and offered Mrs. Thompson a hand. Mrs. Thompson accepted her help and slowly rose. Tuyet picked up Mrs. Thompson’s plate. “Here, I’ll help you.”

“Thank you dear, you’re so sweet. Both of you, absolutely delicious.”

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Ben asked.

“Fine, dear boy. I just need to rest.”

“Okay. Be sure you drink plenty of water.”

Mrs. Thompson’s thin lips spread in a smile. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get plenty to drink.”

Ben watched them walk away across the darkened lobby towards the stairs. Then he turned his attention back to the food. He finished the slice he’d been working on, enjoying the rich onion and garlic flavor, and eyed the remaining three slices. Best save them. Eat one later and then he’d have two for tomorrow. With nothing to wrap them up he didn’t think they’d last longer than that.

He picked up the plate and the Coke bottle and headed for his own room. After he safely stashed the food and filled the Coke bottle he’d come back for the other empties and fill them too. He didn’t have any bleach to sanitize the bottles but they could rotate them out. So far water hadn’t been a problem but he wasn’t counting on it lasting any more than all the food in the hotel kitchens had lasted. Carver had to be behind cleaning the place out. If it served his purpose he’d probably turn off the water too.

Maybe Carver would if he didn’t get what he wanted. Ben thought about the switchblade again. He could imagine Carver cleaning blood from the gleaming silver blade — silver? Ben shook his head. He was just making things up. He couldn’t know for sure if any of this was real or all in his head. He might have imagined the switchblade.

Except it felt real. It felt true. He couldn’t explain how he knew, but then he also couldn’t explain the darkness that had engulfed this monstrous, soulless hotel.

As he came out of the stairwell on his floor he could see light from down below. A few people were still hanging out in the lobby. Little pools of light from their flashlights. Wasting batteries so that they could see each other’s faces. Three had taken the chairs around the lantern he had left behind. Anything to get away from the ever-present darkness.

Ben still didn’t take his flashlight out when he headed back towards his room. In the hallway he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face but he knew the way and his hands were full with the plate and Coke bottle. He stopped when he had counted out enough steps. He put down the bottle and took out the flashlight and clicked it on.

There was his door. Room 413 in this shit hotel. He put the plate down too and pulled open the door. With the power off the electronic locks didn’t work. At least they hadn’t been locked in, probably some fire regulation. He pushed the door open and held it with his foot while he picked up the plate and managed to hook a finger around the bottle so he could carry both inside. Once in he turned immediately to the right and put both down on the counter beside the bathroom sink. Then he went back to the door and flipped the security bar.

Ben hated the room. If there was any other way to strip a room of personality and charm, he couldn’t imagine it. The room was functional but it lacked anything of interest. A bed, a small desk and a television on a stand. One abstract painting on the wall done in nothing but orange and green that looked like some sort of sore. The darkness was the best thing that ever happened to the room. If he only saw it through the small, dim circle of the flashlight then it didn’t seem quite as bad.

The light caught his red reflectors on his Street Machine recumbent bike where he’d leaned it against the wall. Not for the first time he wished he had pushed on to the campground instead of deciding to splurge and stay the night in this concrete death trap.

He crossed the room to the sliding glass door and unlatched it. He slid it open and walked out onto the balcony. Nothing more than a three-foot deep concrete balcony that ended in a waist-high concrete wall that had a square metal railing running around the top. The air outside felt just as it did inside, warm and humid. The flashlight illuminated the faint circle in front of him and then nothing beyond.

It was quiet. Quieter than anyplace Ben had ever been before and darker. No glow reflecting off of clouds from the city that should be at the bottom of the hill. No lights at all except for his weakening flashlight. He might as well be suspended in a void with only the small piece of the balcony remaining. It didn’t even induce vertigo because there was nothing below to see.

Ben turned around and the flashlight pulled the sliding glass door and his room out of the darkness. He went inside to the nightstand and took out the Bible there. Then he carried the book out to the balcony and set it on the concrete wall. He carefully place the flashlight on the wall to illuminate the book, then he flipped it open at random.

1 Samuel 23.16. Ben ripped the page from the Bible. He worked quickly and folded the thin paper into a long narrow paper airplane. Then he picked up the airplane, and his flashlight. He threw the airplane off the balcony and kept the light on it. For a couple seconds the airplane hung suspended against the darkness. Then it vanished.

Ben put the flashlight down and flipped to another section. Ecclesiastes 10.10. He ripped the page and folded another. This second one he threw at an angle downward. It flew straight but when it got about four feet away from the building it too vanished in the darkness.

Ben closed the Bible and shut off the flashlight. Everything vanished around him except for what he could feel beneath his feet and in his hands. The edge looked clearly defined. It surrounded the core part of the building but that meant the sections of the base that extended outwards from the central core were cut off. What happened beyond the darkness? After what had happened that first day Ben hadn’t dared test it.

There’d been a man, Ted Wright. Young guy, in shape. Neatly dressed. He kept cracking dentist jokes to calm everyone down. He had volunteered to go out before Carver showed up. Walked off into the darkness and never came back. Peterson had been one that had argued that it must mean Ted got out, but Peterson hadn’t volunteered to follow him.

Ben knew it in his gut. Wise-cracking Teddy was as gone as those paper airplanes. Maybe Carver could bring him back out of it but — snick! — he wouldn’t.

By feel alone Ben walked back into his room, shut the door and returned the Bible to the nightstand. He sat down on the bed. Tomorrow he’d do some more experimenting. They needed to map the boundary, mark it somehow so that they could monitor any changes. It was better than sitting around doing nothing while Carver tested them one-by-one.

 

#

 

Morning. If it could be called morning when Ben couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, but his alarm had woken him up to a breakfast of pizza and water. Now he was on his way downstairs to check the boundaries of their dark prison. He left the flashlight off to conserve the batteries and made his out to the balcony overlooking the center of the hotel. Nothing but darkness. Everyone was probably still in bed. That suited him. Especially if Peterson stayed up in his room. That’d be great.

He walked along the balcony with his hand grazing the concrete wall until it ended at the elevators. They’d been lucky that no one had gotten stuck inside. He crossed the hallway to the stairs and pushed the heavy door open. It banged shut behind him, the echoes fading out in the dark.

Ben started down, thinking not for the first time, that this must be what it was like to be blind. No light whatsoever. Nothing but absolute blackness that could be hiding anything. Carver could be standing right there in the dark and Ben had a feeling that Carver didn’t mind the dark at all. Ben listened carefully but didn’t hear anything that suggested anyone else was in the stairwell with him. He took his time going down with one hand on the stairwell rail the whole way.

At the bottom Ben headed out into the main lobby. He wanted something to mark the boundary. Masking tape would be good. He flicked on the flashlight a couple times to stay on track for the front desk. He shoved the door open and made his way behind the desk. Cupboards beneath the desk hung open. Papers and other supplies lay scattered about. He hadn’t been the first to poke around back here.

He didn’t find any masking tape but he did discover a package of small yellow Post-It note pads. Those would do the trick. He stuffed them in his pocket and headed back out to the front of the lobby, keeping his flashlight on. He wanted to do this quickly. He walked out past the first set of open doors into the main foyer past the brochure rack of local attractions and the newspaper machines that still had papers from almost a week ago.

His flashlight couldn’t illuminate the doors to the outside. The light vanished as if swallowed by a black hole. He ran the dim circle along the floor until the darkness cut across it, sharp-edge and unyielding.

Holding the light on that point Ben walked right up to the darkness. He crouched and set the flashlight on the ground so that a long beam illuminated the edge between the hotel and whatever the blackness was that had engulfed them. He peeled Post-It notes off the first pad and placed them on the floor right up against that darkness. His knuckles grazed the boundary line and he felt a deep cold but no substance.

Ben used a half-dozen notes to mark this segment and then he rocked back on his heels. Cautiously he reached out with just his fingertips to try the barrier. Cold, but not unbearably so. No resistance to his touch. He pulled his hand back and his fingertips were unharmed. So what had happened to Ted Wright? Could he have gotten through? But if he had, why hadn’t anyone come to help?

Ben picked up the flashlight and stood. No way to know but he wasn’t going to try the darkness, not just yet anyway.

Instead Ben worked his way along the barrier, placing Post-It notes every few inches. The way the light cut off even though there wasn’t anything solid was unnerving. He stuck notes all along the boundary line across the lobby from one wall to the next and then stood back to survey his work. The arc was gentle, but obvious, as if a wall of darkness had gone up around the hotel.

He went back into the hotel and headed over towards the gift shop. He walked past empty candy shelves — guests or Carver? — and aimed the flashlight at the back corners. No wall of darkness interrupted the beam. Evidently the gift shop didn’t extend back far enough to intersect with the wall.

Next he tried the staff only corridor again. The place was empty and silent. He walked back towards the kitchens and staff lounge. Once again he felt as if there were silent people watching him from the darkness. Ben turned in a circle but the flashlight only showed the worn, dull brown wallpaper. Nothing else.

Just past the staff lounge the flashlight’s beam was cut off by the wall of darkness. Ben walked up close, put the flashlight down on the floor and used the Post-It notes again to mark the boundary. He played the flashlight along the dividing line on the wall. The darkness, whatever it was, bisected the entire hallway. He stuck a couple more Post-Its on the wall to mark the line there. Then he picked up the flashlight and turned it off.

The darkness was absolute. He could hear his own breathing. Ben took a breath and held it as he listened for any other sounds. Nothing. Pressing in all around him, an unnatural absence of everything. He reached out his arm towards the wall and was rewarded by his fingers touching that numbing cold. It had no substance but there was something there.

Ben imagined bone-white gnarled hands grabbing his own hand and pulling him into that cold dark. He jerked his hand away and rubbed the fingertips on his pants.

He resisted the urge to turn on the flashlight and instead turned away from the barrier and walked blindly down the hall back towards the main lobby.

Lights flashed across the lobby into his face as he emerged. A young family, father, mother and a small boy stood across the lobby. He’d seen them before, in line for food. The boy had dark hair and grinned as he pointed the light at Ben.

“That’s not him,” the mother murmured.

Ben shielded his eyes with his hand. “Good morning.”

The father coughed. “We thought maybe mister Carver —”

“I haven’t seen him.” Ben clicked his own light off. “I’m Ben. You are?”

“Matt and Trina Parker.” Matt touched his son’s head. “This is Connor.”

“What are you doing?” Trina asked.

“Looking around to see if we’ve missed anything.”

“You mean a way out?” Matt looked at his wife and back to Ben. “I could help.”

Ben shook his head. “Best you all wait in your room. If I find anything I’ll let you all know.”

Matt shook his head. “No. I’ll come with you. Trina, take Matt back to the room.”

“What?” Trina lowered her voice. “But Matt, it’s so —”

“We’ll be fine. No sense all of us blundering around in the dark.”

Ben waited. Trina sighed and took Connor’s hand. “Fine. We’ll go back.”

Connor tried to pull away. “No! A want to go with them!”

Ben shook his head. Matt touched his son’s shoulder. “Listen, go to the room and look after things there, okay?”

Connor looked at Ben and back at Matt. “But—”

“Connor.”

“Fine.”

Trina leaned close and kissed Matt’s cheek. “Be careful.”

“Go on now.”

They walked away, slowly. Matt turned back to Ben. “Now what?”

“I’ve already marked the line across the lobby and down the hall in the staff area back there. I was going to go into the restaurant next. I think it might extend out far enough. Then the conference areas.”

“How are you marking it?”

Ben held up the package of Post It notes.

“Oh, okay. What will that tell us?”

Ben shrugged. “Maybe nothing. It might help someone avoid walking into it. And it’ll give us an idea if the line moves.”

“You think it’ll move?”

“I don’t know but it feels like a noose around this hell hole and the thing about a noose? It tightens.”

“Right.” Matt twitched his light back towards the restaurant. “After you?”

Ben headed for the restaurant. He didn’t turn on his flashlight. Matt’s looked brighter, the batteries would probably last longer. Matt walked beside him. He flashed the light up into the silo. Ben caught a glimpse of a white face looking down from the balcony four floors up. Whoever it was pulled back before he could recognize who it was.

“Keep the light on the floor,” Ben said. “We want to see the edge when we reach it.”

“Right. Okay.” Matt pointed the flashlight at the floor. Dark brown carpet in this section around the chairs. “Why did you come here?”

“The park,” Ben answered. “I’ve on a cross-country bicycle tour. Just made the bad mistake of deciding to stay in a hotel one night.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah.” That’s what Ben had thought the moment he walked into the hotel. Three things had convinced him to stay. First, no one told him he couldn’t bring in his bike. Second, it was already getting dark outside and he had put in a lot of miles already. Twenty more in the dark seemed too much. Plus he’d already climbed the hill to the hotel. And last, the prospect of a hot shower. Big mistake.

They left the carpeted area for the fake marble floors and the restaurant was just ahead. The sign board out front still proclaimed the grilled salmon special. The darkness swallowed everything else.

“Slowly,” Ben said. “Let’s not walk into whatever it is around the hotel.”

Together they moved into the restaurant, both of them watching the circle of light on the dark floors. They walked past the cash register and the bar deeper into the restaurant. Ben remembered seeing seating back under the windows. It seemed like the restaurant must stick far enough out to intersect the darkness surrounding the place.

Sure enough, right before the step up at the back, a line of darkness cut a sharp edge across the circle of light.

“Wow.” Matt moved the circle further across the line and back. “Look at that! What happens to the light? How can it just stop like that?”

“I don’t know.” Ben pulled out the Post It notes. “Hold the light still while I mark the boundary.”

The light steadied. “Sure. Okay. That’s just weird.”

Ben crouched down at the edge of the circle of light. He extended his hand out to that sharp edge and felt the cold on his fingertips. He pulled his hand back.

“What’s it feel like?”

“Nothing. It doesn’t feel like anything except cold.” Ben peeled off a Post It note and stuck it right down at the boundary line.

“That’s a good idea,” Matt said.

“Maybe.” Ben added another. “It might help as long as the batteries last in the flashlights. After that, not so much.”

“But —”

Matt’s words cut off in a yelp. The flashlight flipped away across the restaurant, hit a table and bounced off to the floor. The light flashed across Ben’s eyes. Very aware of the barrier only inches away he pulled out his own flashlight.

Matt screamed. He heard Matt or someone crash into some chairs. Ben aimed the light towards the noise. He saw Matt’s terrified face, very pale in the light. Someone with frizzy white hair clung to his back. Then they stumbled out of the light.

Ben rose and headed towards the sound, trying to catch them in the light. Matt screamed more. Ben found him with the light and saw that the person on Matt’s back appeared to be biting his neck. Bright red blood spread down Matt’s blue shirt. Once again whoever had Matt jerked him out of the light. Ben went after them.

Ben heard a grunt and then a thud, like someone falling. His light found Matt face down on the floor. Mrs. Thompson stood beside him in the shadows with blood covering her chin. She grinned at him and ran her hands up her sides suggestively.

“Ben, dear boy. Will you help me carry this —” she kicked Matt “— up to my room?”

A deep biting chill touched Ben’s back. He turned the flashlight away from the horrific image back towards the barrier and his arm swept into that deadly chill. The light vanished, including Matt’s dropped flashlight. He lurched away from the cold and his light returned. He heard a snarl from Mrs. Thompson but before he could get the light on her the cold hit him again.

It was moving!

Ben backed away and aimed the flashlight at the floor. The line advanced steadily. He walked backwards and the light kept pace with him. He reached Matt and reached down to check on the man.

A polished black shoe and perfectly pressed blue suit leg emerged from the darkness, followed by the rest of Carver. He walked out of the barrier and looked down at Ben.

“Leave him, Benny. He’s gone. Who did it?”

Ben slowly rose. “Mrs. Thompson. What is she?”

“My problem.” A brief smile flitted across Sander’s face. His hand slid into his pocket and came back out holding something. Snick. A bright silver switchblade popped up. “Now that I know who it is I’ll take care of it.”

The line continued to advance and Carver walked forward at the same pace. Ben held his ground.

“That’s what all of this has been about? Finding her?”

Carver looked out into the darkness. “Of course. Contain, identify.” Carver grinned. “And remove.”

And then Carver disappeared into the darkness. Ben tried to follow him with the light but the man moved too fast. A second later the barrier touched Ben’s back again and he hurried forward. He ran past Matt’s body, sorry he couldn’t do anything for him, and left the restaurant. From above he heard a man shout and swear as if surprised. The cold darkness was closing in on the building. By now it must be intersecting with the rooms.

Flashlights flickered to life above like so many fireflies in the night. The lights danced around the concrete walls. Voices were raised and the hotel echoed with the sound. The smell of Matt’s blood clung to Ben and when he pointed his flashlight down he saw that he was leaving bloody footprints. He must have walked through Matt’s blood.

Ben heard more shouts and saw people pointing their lights up the central shaft. Several floors up the lights cut off. The darkness descended at the same rate it advanced inward. People started screaming and running along the balconies towards the stairwells.

“Stay calm!” Ben shouted. “Don’t panic!”

No one heard him over the din. He saw a middle-aged woman with brightly dyed red hair trip and fall. Up on the floor right below the approaching darkness a balding man climbed over the balcony and appeared to be trying to reach the next floor. He let go. Fell towards the next balcony and his hands bounced off. He screamed and tumbled as he fell eight floors down until he landed with an audible crack across the back of one of the chairs.

Ben clenched his fists. Carver. That prick Carver was behind it all of this. Okay, so Mrs. Thompson was some sort of vampire, but trapping them all here? Obviously Carver didn’t care who got hurt in the process.

“Ben!”

Ben looked up and saw Tuyet three floors up struggling through the panicking guests.

“Hold on! Let them go past!”

Tuyet clung to the balcony as others shoved past her. Ben started towards the stairwell but people poured out into the lobby. He backed up and looked for Mrs. Thompson. He didn’t see her. Those coming down saw the body of the man who fell and backed away. Several people were crying.

Above he saw Tuyet moving now towards the stairs. He shoved his way through the thinning crowd towards the stairs. He met Tuyet there when she came down and pulled her aside.

“Are you okay?”

She wrapped her arms around him, her body thin and light. She smelled faintly of apple. She nodded against his shoulder. She drew back and ducked her head.

“Sorry.”

He squeezed her hand gently. “Don’t be. Are you okay?”

“Yes. What’s going on?”

Ben held onto her hand and led her out into the lobby. With so many using their flashlights he turned his off and stuffed it in his pocket. Several people had their lights pointed up at the balconies as they watched the impenetrable darkness descend.

“Carver’s barrier is closing in on us. He’s looking for Mrs. Thompson. Have you seen her?”

Tuyet shook her head. “Wait, Carver is doing this? Why is he looking for Mrs. Thompson?”

“She’s not what she seems. I saw her kill a man.”

Tuyet covered her mouth.

Just then a scream cut through the babble of the guests. More people started screaming and running away from the other side of the lobby. Lights flashed in Ben’s eyes. A man ran right at him. Ben braced himself so that the man hit his shoulder and bounced off. The guy staggered and ran around Ben.

“Stay here,” Ben said to Tuyet.

He plunged into the crowd, shoving his way through as people backed away from something. When he got through all he saw was another body, a woman in a auburn dress, lying on the ground with a bloodied throat. He saw Marlene standing at the edge of the crowd, pointing a flashlight out into the darkness beyond the body.

“What happened?” Ben asked. Tuyet came up behind him and touched his shoulder.

“The old woman. She attacked her,” Marlene said. “She’s gone crazy.”

Ben took out his own flashlight and stepped out away from the crowd. Tuyet tried to pull him back but he waved her off. Ben walked slowly towards the body with his flashlight on. Carver’s darkness hadn’t reached the lobby yet. Past the woman’s body was the opening into the conference areas. Ben aimed the light that way and caught a glimpse of something moving in the dark.

“Mrs. Thompson! It’s Ben, please talk to me.”

Laughter floated out of the darkness.

Ben walked around the body and deeper into the dark. “There’s nowhere to go. We’re all trapped here. Come out.”

Another throaty chuckle from the dark ahead. Ben hesitated. Where was Carver and his silver switchblade? What was the man going to do? Kill her? What if she had already killed Carver? But then if she did that wouldn’t it mean that the darkness would go away?

Ben walked deeper into the dark beneath the balconies, into the wide hallway. On either side were conference rooms and ahead a wide staircase that led down into more conference areas. Except Carver’ blackness cut off the stairs. A flash of white in his light drew Ben’s attention towards the conference room on his right.

The light illuminated a woman standing in the doorway. Mrs. Thompson, except her skin wasn’t wrinkled anymore and her blood-splattered dress clung to firm breasts. More blood smeared across her full lips. She was young again. She smiled at Ben and licked her lips.

“You, my dear boy, are an unexpected treat.”

Ben shivered. He didn’t have any weapon. No way to fight her. He kept the light on her. “If we stop Carver will the darkness go away?”

She tilted her head to the side. “You’d help me?”

Carver stepped forward out of the dark conference room behind her. Mrs. Thompson gasped and her back arched, thrusting her chest forward. She screamed and spun around. Her hand lashed out, long nails ripping out Carver’ throat. He blinked and dropped to his knees.

Carver’ silver switchblade stuck out of her back. Ben ran forward and grabbed the knife.

It felt like ice burning his hand. He yanked it free. Mrs. Thompson turned around but he was ready for it and ducked beneath her swing. He rose up and plunged the knife up beneath her breast bone, seeking her heart. She gasped.

Ben slid his other arm around her and pulled her close. He shoved the knife up harder. She shuddered against him. Their eyes met.

“Dear boy, why?”

“Really? You have to ask?” he whispered.

She went limp in his arm, forcing the knife even deeper. Ben lowered her to the floor beside Carver’ body. He pulled the knife free. Blood covered the silver and dripped to the floor. He crouched down and used her dress to wipe the blade clean.

Then he stood and — snick — retracted the blade. He pocketed the knife.

Light flooded the hallway as the ceiling lights came on. He looked down at the floor but the bodies were gone. Not really gone, he knew. Left in the other place. Since he took up the switchblade he understood it all. Carver had shifted all of the guests into a pocket in the other place. Now they had returned and the pocket had collapsed, taking the bodies along with it. Ben walked back out into the lobby where the guests were already leaving. Some going back to their rooms but others just headed out towards the doors.

Tuyet came towards him and folded her hands together. She looked at him with big dark eyes. “What happened?”

“They’re both gone.”

She nodded. An awkward silence grew between them. Ben could say something, he knew. Make some effort but he understood Carver now. Mrs. Thompson hadn’t been the only one of these creatures. There were others out there. How could he just forget that? The switchblade gave him the ability to fight them. He knew how to walk in the darkness and shadows now.

Tuyet looked away for a second and that’s all it took for him to move into the shadows. Just enough to hide from view. She looked back and gasped. From her perspective he had vanished.

“Ben?” She looked all around, bit her lip, and then turned and walked away towards the elevators.

Ben trailed along. He’d go up to his own room, sticking to the shadows, and get his bike and gear. That’s all he needed. A way to get around, until he found another one. He had a feeling he needed to go north.

💀

8,088 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 60th weekly short story release, written in September 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Truth-Seeker.

Proposal

Join Unity and discover true contentment. Security. Peace. Purpose.

Tom sees his marriage fraying. Could Unity solve their problems?

Rachele believes that Abigail Mission controls Unity, her mind ruling over everything, and means to prove it.

A story of security, freedom, and possibilities.

🚀

Rachele sat on her big denim bean bag with the lapscreen across her knees. Tom couldn’t see her eyes because of her overlays but her head moved blindly towards him. Her hands snatched at things he couldn’t see. It made her look like a demented monkey. She didn’t care. She liked the old tech. Familiar. Reliable. She still didn’t trust sensory implants.

“Hi.” Tom cleared his throat. Tried again. “They came to the door again today. Two of them.”

He still couldn’t tell if she heard him.

“Rachele?”

“Yeah, right. So? You told them we weren’t interested? Is them even the right word? Hard to say, isn’t it. What gender?”

“Women.”

Rachele cocked her head and snatched at more things he couldn’t see. She reached down and grazed a finger across the lapscreen. “Women, huh? Attractive?”

“You know. Like any of them you’ve seen. Well-dressed. Healthy. Fit.”

“Anything for the health of the unity. Isn’t that what they say?”

“I don’t know.” Tom rubbed his jaw. “Look. I told them to come back. Tonight. After dinner. Said we’d listen.”

Rachele’s hand paused in mid-air. Then she made a shoving gesture. She reached up and pulled the overlays down. “You can’t be serious, Tom.”

“What can it hurt to listen? Besides, I thought it might be nice to have some people over.”

“They aren’t people. It’s just one person. Her. Abigail Mission.” Rachele pressed her hands together in front of her chest. “Those women at the door? Her. That guy in your office, Matt? He’s her too. They’re all just her.”

Tom shook his head. “I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s just what people are saying.”

“Yeah, saying because it’s true. The woman is a neural virus. She’s replicating through hosts all over the place. And she’s not the only one. Look at what’s happening in China.”

“I just said we’d listen.”

Rachele shook her head. “What’s to listen to? Tom, if you’re feeling suicidal or something then we need to get you help. Depression can be treated.”

Tom felt his gut tighten. He needed to get out of here. He didn’t want to listen to any more. “Whatever. Look. I’m going to go for a run.”

“Tom, we should talk.”

He shook his head. “Not right now.”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He went back to the bedroom. Pulled out his running shorts. Changed while his head kept buzzing at him. Why’d he even bother? Rachele stopped listening a long time ago. He sat on the bed to pull on his shoes. Shouldn’t have even bothered.

🚀

Tom ate dinner alone again.  Rachele left while he was out on his run. Left a note on his system. Chasing a story. Tom carried the dishes to the sink while listening to a radio stream. Classic ought-tens. It made him think of growing up. Home with the folks. They’d been very close. Just the three of them. And the dogs. Chickens. Goats. A regular farm boy. Reading together in the evenings. Eating most meals together. When he married Rachele he thought their life would be like that. He tried, at first. For a while.

A knock at the door. Tom set the dishes in the sink, wiped his hands on a dish towel and went to answer the door.

The same two women stood outside. Well-dressed in matching black dress-suits. Other than that they didn’t look anything alike. The one on his right looked younger, round, soft pretty face. Auburn hair pulled back in a bun. The other woman was a few inches taller, square face, more striking than pretty with blond hair loose down to her shoulders.  Both smiled at him.

The blond held out her hand. “Mr. Hanson, we are Unity. May we come in and talk about what we offer?”

Tom took her hand. Her palm felt warm against his. Strong grip. He looked at her green eyes seeking something, some indication of who was looking at him. “Hi, call me Tom. What do I call you?”

“Sara.”

Tom let go of her hand. The other woman held her hand out. They shook. “I’m Tiffany.”

Tom stepped back. “Come in. Thank you. I’m sorry, but my wife had to go out for work.”

They all sat in the living room. Both woman asked for water when he offered them something to drink. Tom took the seat across the coffee table from them. He rubbed his hands on his pants.

Sara leaned forward, interlacing her fingers. “Tom, what do you know about Unity?”

He shrugged. “What the feeds say. I’ve done a little research but it’s all a bit confusing. People say all sorts of things.”

Tiffany’s mouth quirked. “Isn’t that true? They’ve all got their own agendas. They’re own beliefs to promote.”

“Or they want to tear down what others build,” Sara said. “It’s hard in that to get any solid, truthful information. That’s why we do this, so that we can meet with people face-to-face.”

“We’re here to answer your questions,” Tiffany said.

“Okay. Well, my wife says that you’re all Abigail Mission. That she’s sort of taken you over.”

Tiffany smiled. “That’s what a lot of people say. We hear that all the time. But Unity doesn’t erase anything. Everything that was before Unity is still there after Unity.”

“But Unity brings peace and ―”

The door opened. Rachele staggered in dripping wet.  Blood ran down the side of her face. Her hand rose up holding a black glistening gun which pointed at the two women.

“Out, now,” Rachele said.

Tiffany and Sara rose together, their movements perfectly in sync.

Tiffany pointed at the gun. “That’s not necessary.”

“Like hell it’s not!” Rachele’s hand shook. “Get out.”

Tom hadn’t moved. He couldn’t move. Rachele bleeding, waving a gun, it didn’t make sense. The two Unity women walked slowly forward. Rachele moved back and out of their way but kept the gun pointed at them. They walked out the door which closed behind them. Rachele’s hand fell. The gun slipped from her fingers and thunked to the floor.

At the sound Tom moved. He stood up and rushed to her. He took her arm and guided her towards the couch. “You’re hurt. We need to get help.”

Rachele shook her head. “No. I’m fine. Get the first aid kit.”

Tom retrieved the kit from the bathroom. He kneeled at her feet and opened the lid. A scratch cut across her forehead. He got out swabs. “What happened?”

“Unity happened,” Rachele said.

“Unity?”

“I tried to get into their compound. Dogs chased me. A branch hit my head, that’s all.”

“What were you doing going into their compound?”

“Researching the story. What else? I got some great footage. You should see it. When they think no one is watching the masks drop away. There’s no more pretense of individuality.”

Tom shook his head. “I was just talking to two of them before you barged in waving a gun! They seemed like individuals to me.”

“It’s all pretend.” Rachele winced as he pressed a pad over the wound and taped it in place.

“I don’t think so,” Tom said.

“You haven’t seen the footage yet. It’d change your mind.” Rachele rubbed her eyes. “I’m beat. I’ve sent it to your system. Check it out. Let me know what you think.”

🚀

Rachele might not use sensory implants but her externals still picked up sight and sound. But it lacked touch. Tom rode along the unedited playback.  When the Douglas fir boughs brushed against her arm he couldn’t feel it. Or the cold. The rain on her face. He felt like a ghost with Rachele on her mission. Witnessing without participating or really being a part of the events.

When the recording started she was already over the fence and making her way among the trees that surrounded the property. She didn’t have far to go. She shoved through thick ferns and then green grass spread out ahead of her. The sun hung low in the sky ahead ― the sun on her face didn’t carry any warmth. Rachele didn’t narrate either. She always preferred to shoot her footage raw and add voice-overs later. The green fields spread out around her as she ran forward. The ground rose slightly towards the big house at the center of the property. Rachele didn’t appear to be heading for the house. She angled across the field towards the right side of the house where bright white lights shined on a metallic geodesic structure rising above the surrounding trees.

It looked huge. Two hundred feet tall at least. It dwarfed the house. Tom knew about the structure. Folks talked about it from time to time, speculating about what Unity was building. It sat in a cradle of four concrete and steel arms that cupped the bottom portion of the sphere. The triangular metal panels covering the sphere were flat black and didn’t reflect the lights shining on them. All around the structure people moved like ants. Not ants because of the size of the thing, but the way they moved. In streams of motion carrying parts to the sphere. A line snaked from metal warehouses behind the structure around it and inside through wide hexagonal openings. Other streams of people marched out of openings. All working in perfect unison.

Tom felt a chill. Rachele got closer and closer, using decorative shrubs for concealment. Her externals zoomed in on the people working. All wore the same pale yellow jumpsuits. Their faces lacked expression. They looked intent. Focused. They moved with energy and purpose. But all the same. All had the same expression. The same way of moving.

A loud bark startled him. His heart lurched. He tried to run but of course it was a recording. He couldn’t run. More barks and Rachele rose from her hiding place and turned away from the sphere.

Tom disconnected from the feed.

🚀

His name is Arnold Riley. Twenty-something, he doesn’t look like he belongs working in a library. Always dressed in a sharp suit, today blue with a dark purple tie. Tom watched him from the book stacks when Mrs. Jenkins came in with her bag of books. A warm greeting, dimples on his cheeks. Everyone loved Arnold. Tom never asked him about Unity even though Arnold wore the small lapel button with the Unity infinity symbol.  Tom waited until Mrs. Jenkins shuffled off to the book stacks and then walked over to where Arnold stood near the door.

“How’s it going?” Tom asked.

“Perfect, Tom. It’s nice to see Mrs. Jenkins today. There’s still a few people like her left that want to hold real books.”

Tom glanced over at Mrs. Jenkins poring over this week’s selection of print materials. “What difference does it make? If she had sensory implants she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Arnold shrugged with an easy grin. “I don’t know. Nostalgia.”

“But the national library system provides everyone with access to everything. Isn’t that better?”

“Yes. Of course.” Arnold sorted the books on the shelving cart and pushed the button. The cart sped off to reshelve the books.

Tom cleared his throat. “I met a couple women from Unity last night.”

“I know. Your wife sure made a dramatic entrance.”

“You know about that?”

“Of course, Tom. It’s not called Unity for nothing. You still can’t decide, can you? Does Unity wipe out individuality? Are we all Abigail Mission like your wife says or do we retain our individuality?”

Tom shuffled his feet. “I guess so.”

Arnold smiled and put a hand on Tom’s shoulder. “Why does it have to be one or the other? With Unity we have a collective purpose and will. We all belong. There’s no discord. No disagreement. And everything we are, everything that made us unique is still there. Nothing is lost in the process.”

Tom chuckled nervously. “It sounds too good to be true.”

“I remember that fear. I felt it before I joined.”

“So what changed your mind?”

“I wanted to be a part of something more,” Arnold said. “I wanted to do something important with my life.”

Tom looked around the library. Other than Mrs. Jenkins there were only a couple other people in the library, both sitting in chairs reading. “This is it?”

“In a way. I serve a purpose working here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Have you ever felt content, Tom?”

He thought about it. Content? When had he felt that way? Not recently. Then it came to him. On his parent’s farm, twelve years old, lying in a hammock between two trees at the edge of the field with a book and a piece of chocolate. A perfect moment when he didn’t want for anything.

Tom looked at Arnold. “Not for a long time. And it was only for a moment.”

“Unity is contentment,” Arnold said. “We propose the same thing to anyone interested in joining. Join us. If you don’t like it you can leave.”

Tom shivered. “Does anyone ever leave?”

Arnold’s smile widened showing white teeth. “No.”

🚀

Tom sat on the couch waiting for Rachele to finish her work. He couldn’t stop shivering. He rubbed his hands on his pants again. Looked up at her. Mumbling, eyes hidden behind her overlays. Grasping and moving things that he couldn’t see. At last she stopped. Her hands lay still on her thighs for several moments then she reached up and pulled the overlays off.

“Tom?” She rubbed her head. “How long have you been there?”

“Awhile.”

Her forehead wrinkled. “What’s wrong?”

“I want to join Unity.” He took a deep breath. “I’d like you to join with me.”

“Tom―”

“We aren’t happy. You haven’t been happy. And we’re drifting apart! I feel if we join Unity we’ll be a part of each other in a way we’re not right now.”

Rachele looked down at her hands. She looked up at him again. “You still don’t believe that it’s suicide?”

Tom shook his head. “I talked to Arnold. He said that if we joined we could still leave if we didn’t like it.”

“And you believed him?”

“Yes!” Tom got up. He walked away from her to the windows. He looked outside, down at the sidewalk with all of the people pushing and shoving their way along. Impatient for a chance to get ahead of the person in front. A thin man in a long black cloak ran a few steps towards a crosswalk and stopped when the light changed. Tom couldn’t hear him, but he saw the man’s head bobbing and fist half-raised towards the light. Tom turned back around, crossing his arms.

“I believe him. He’s Arnold, but more than that. He seems content. When have you ever been content?”

Rachele shook her head. “I can’t remember. I do love you Tom. I’m not going to lose you to Unity. Maybe things have been rough but I couldn’t imagine life without you.”

Tom heard the quaver in her voice. It touched him. He believed her. His throat felt tight.

Rachele stood up. “Here’s my proposal. I’ll join Unity. And I’ll leave. That way we’ll know for sure it’s possible, I can tell you what I experienced and then we can decide together.”

Tom couldn’t think of anything to say. Tears welled up in his eyes.

Rachele reached out to him. He closed the distance between them and took her hands. He tried to speak and the words stuck in his throat. He coughed and tried again.

“I love you―”

“I know. I love you too.”

“―but Arnold said no one leaves.”

She reached up and put her hands on either side of his face. “No matter what happens, no matter how wonderful it might be, I’ll leave. I promise.”

He pressed his lips to her forehead. It was what he wanted. Why did he feel so scared? “You don’t have to do this.”

“You’re worth the risk. I hope I’m wrong about Unity. But if it turns out I’m right you’ve got to do something for me.”

“Anything.”

“Fight them. Promise me. If I’m right about them then you’ve got to fight them.”

Tom shook his head. “It won’t be like that. You’ll see.”

“Promise me.”

He took a deep breath. “Okay. I promise.”

🚀

Two days later and no word from Rachele. Tom couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. He wanted to go to the compound and look for her ― but the last time he called they assured him that everything was fine. Tom paced the apartment, waiting. Then the door opened and she walked it.

He almost didn’t recognize her. Rachele usually wore whatever was comfortable but now she wore a stylish forest green suit with the high collars that were so popular at the moment. Her hair had been done up in a complicated fashion with curls framing her face. She smiled brightly at him.

“Tom!” She held out her hands.

Tom didn’t move. “Rachele? What’s ―”

“It’s wonderful.” She walked slowly towards him. “I was so wrong about Unity. You were absolutely right. You have to come with me and join. We’ll be together in a way that we always dreamed.”

His stomach hurt. He sat down on the couch and looked at his hands. He couldn’t stop shivering. “You didn’t leave Unity?”

Rachele sat beside him. She wore a delicate floral perfume. Rachele never wore perfume. “I know I said that. I used to say a lot of things to cover up for my fear. But I understand now. There’s no point. I was wrong. Worse. Paranoid. Depressed. Vindictive. I hated Unity because they always seemed so perfect, so content. I saw deception where none existed. It is what you always thought. And once you join all of your hopes will be realized.”

Tom looked at her. Her eyes searched his face. He saw joy in her eyes. Happiness. It had been a long time since he saw that in her face. But he shook his head.

“You’re not Rachele. You’re Abigail Mission, Unity. You have her memories but she’s gone. Consumed by your collective consciousness. I want you to leave.”

“You’re wrong. I am Rachele. I’m just a part of something else now.”

“Then do what you promised. Leave Unity. Once we confirm that you’ve disconnected then we’ll talk. If what you say is true then we can join together.”

“There’s no need for that,” Rachele said.

Tom sat back and crossed his arms. A sob caught in his throat. “Then you should go. I’m not joining. Not ever.”

Rachele stood up. “And how long will that last? Every day more people join Unity. How long will you be alone?”

Tom looked up at her. Somebody’s idea of how Rachele should look. Dead, but not legally dead. “As long as it takes to find a way to free my wife and the others you’ve taken.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Rachele said.

Tom covered his face. “Just go.”

She left. He heard the door closed. He pushed back the sobs and the black wall of despair that threatened to overwhelm him. He needed to be strong for Rachele. Find others like him, that knew the truth. Convince people of the danger before it was too late.

Tom rose from the couch. He went to the window and looked down. He didn’t see Rachele. Just people going about their business. How many already belonged to Unity? How many had been taken over? There was a lot of work to do.

🚀

3,260 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 56th weekly short story release, written in June 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story So Little Time.

Bouncing Baby Boy

Gary Poland Jr., first child born on the Moon and already in the history books. His dad nicknamed him Micro-Gee.

Raising a child on the Moon brought new challenges. Micro-Gee walked, ran and climbed early. Armstrong base lacked day care facilities.

Sometimes parenting in an extreme environment means making some creative decisions.

For readers who enjoy a light science fiction father-son story.

🚀

On Earth Gary Poland Junior would have weighed six pounds eleven ounces but on the Moon he weighed in less than a pound. He pinked up right away as the multi-armed Obgyn-bot cleaned and measured him. Then two long white arms lowered the baby down into Gary Poland’s waiting hands. The baby hardly weighed his hands down. He worried about dropping him.

“Your son’s Apgar scores are very positive,” the Obgyn-bot said.

Gary Poland Senior looked into that wrinkled face and smiled. “I’m going to call you Micro-Gee.”

Micro-Gee looked up at Gary’s ruddy face and screamed out his first cry.

Gary beamed. “Boy has a good set of lungs!”

On the bed Gary’s wife Claire managed a weak smile. “Our oxy bill is going to go up.”

“It’ll be worth it,” Gary promised. He gently laid Micro-Gee on her breast. “You’ll see.”

🚀

What Armstrong lacked in space it also lacked in character or comfort. Being a family of three allocated Gary, Claire and Micro-Gee a dome-shaped chamber eighteen feet in diameter. Two hundred and sixty-four square feet of lunar concrete floors, with matching walls and ceiling. Still, Gary thought it was much better than their previous habitat which had just been a partitioned section of a lava tube containing a bed that rotated into a desk surface during the day and a small wash basin. This space actually felt like it could become a home.

Gary and Claire stood in the center of the dome―Claire cradling Micro-Gee in her arms―and marveled at the sense of space. Claire laughed. “This is really going to cut into our budget.”

Gary beamed. “We’ve moved up in the world. You’ll see.” He bent and looked down at Micro-Gee’s sleeping face. “And we owe it all to him. I wouldn’t have applied for my promotion if you hadn’t gotten pregnant.”

“I thought they were going to ship us back Earthside.”

“More expensive than letting us stay here. They’ve got too much invested in us for that.”

“But what about my job? It’s not like there’s a daycare around here.”

Gary slipped an arm around Claire’s waist. “We’ve got all this space now! I’m sure we can set up a corner for you to work in. Plus, when he gets older, it’ll be easier. There’s probably going to be other kids. Maybe we can work out something with other parents. The colony is going to grow. Micro-Gee is just the first.”

“Maybe,” Claire said dubiously. “There isn’t really a corner in here. It’s round.”

Gary laughed. “It’ll be fine.”

🚀

Gary heard screaming before he even reached the hatch. He picked up his pace. He took a deep breath and palmed the hatch plate to open the door. The sound that came out cut right through his skull. He winced, put on a smile and stepped through before the door closed. Their chamber smelled faintly of pee these days. Claire sat on a red and black blanket on the floor with Micro-Gee trying to twist out from under her hands. His tiny face scrunched up and another ear-splitting scream came out of his tiny mouth. Claire looked up at Gary. Her blond hair hung limp around her colorless face. Even her blue eyes looked paler than usual. The only color in her face came from the dark circles under her eyes.

“Can you help me with this?” Claire glanced down at the diaper.

Gary set his bag down beside the hatch. “Of course.”

He joined her on the carpet. “Should I change or hold him?”

“Just change him. I’ve already got him. He shouldn’t be moving around this early!”

“That’s on Earth. We’re going to be redefining the developmental milestones for here. He never had any problem lifting his head. He’s probably going to be up running around earlier than a child on Earth just because it’s easier here.”

“But he’s rolling himself around the room! I tried using the pillows to fence him in but then I’m afraid he’s going to roll onto one and suffocate himself.”

“We’ll just have to keep an eye on him.” Gary bent down, grinning at his son. “Isn’t that right Micro-Gee?”

🚀

By six months of age Micro-Gee could run, jump and climb. Abilities that on Earth would have taken him twice as long to develop came to him easily in the lower gravity on the Moon. It also meant greater challenges for Gary and Claire.

“I have to go to this meeting,” Claire said one Tuesday morning. “It’s the L-5 conference. We’ve been planning it for the past eight months!”

“I realize that.” Gary kept an eye on Micro-Gee’s progress climbing up the netting attached to the walls of their room. A room that felt much smaller these days. The netting helped as it gave Micro-Gee far more room to explore. But he still couldn’t get over the image of his son hanging from the netting overhead. “It isn’t my fault that the last solar flare knocked out three of the telescopes in the array. We need those telescopes online before daylight comes or it’ll delay dozens of research projects.”

“Du du!” Micro-Gee shouted.

Both parents looked up with alarm. Micro-Gee hung overhead.

“Du du. Du du. Du du.”

“You shouldn’t have let him watch that movie. A baby his age!”

Gary shrugged guiltily. “I didn’t think he’d actually pay attention.”

Screeching, Micro-Gee released his grip on the overhead netting and plunged towards his father. Gary caught the boy neatly which caused Micro-Gee to erupt in laughter. A second later he squirmed and grunted to get down. No doubt to climb up and do it again.

“I’m going,” Claire said. “I’m sorry about the telescopes but I have to go.”

She picked up her bag and looked at Micro-Gee climbing up the netting again. “You guys have fun.”

Then Claire was gone leaving Micro-Gee with Gary who looked up at his son climbing upside down now on the netting. He didn’t have any problem wrapping his fat little toes around the netting to help hold on either.

“Be careful,” Gary said. “You don’t want to fall.”

Micro-Gee giggled and let go. Gary lunged to catch him but couldn’t get there in time. Micro-Gee landed on his padded bottom and immediately bounced up on his feet and ran unsteadily back towards the wall.

Gary caught his balance and straightened up. “What am I going to do about the telescopes?”

First he tried calling the Dean of his department. The message indicated that the Dean had gone off to the L-5 conference, the same one that Claire was attending. Peter couldn’t because he was still on medical leave. Manami couldn’t get away from her work analyzing and processing the batches of data gathered for distribution Earthside. It really looked like he was the only one that was trained to do the repairs necessary and if he didn’t it would cost the entire colonial operation.

“Du du!”

“I’m not going to catch you,” Gary warned. He looked up at his son. “I’m trying to call someone.”

“Du du. Du du!” Micro-Gee let go of the netting.

Despite what he had said Gary dropped the phone and caught his son. Micro-Gee cracked up at that and wanted down again. Gary scooped up the phone before Micro-Gee could grab it.

“What am I going to do with you?” Gary asked.

🚀

The rescue ball was a sphere big enough for an adult if they stayed in a seated position. Flexible, durable with projected holographic displays and a built-in air recycling system and equipped with a powerful transmitter, the rescue ball was designed to be used in pressurization loss emergencies when there wasn’t time to put on a spacesuit. A person simply pushed head first into the ball which automatically sealed itself.

Micro-Gee loved the rescue ball. Gary felt pretty bad about putting his son in the ball until he saw how much fun Micro-Gee had rolling the ball around the telescope installation. Gary kept a small video feed running in the lower left quadrant of his helmet tuned to the feed from inside the ball. From the inside the ball looked almost transparent with a geodesic lattice and a few heads-up displays monitoring status. Micro-Gee rolled around the Lunar regolith in the spotlights from the rover. Gary kept talking to him so Micro-Gee wouldn’t get scared while he worked on the telescope.

“Hey, buddy. I just need to pull this fried board and swap in the new one. Won’t take a minute. Don’t go anywhere.”

Since Micro-Gee mostly seemed to be rolling the rescue ball in circles that didn’t seem to be a problem. Gary studied the access hatch. No removable screws here that could be lost. Just big easily gripped red knobs that disengaged to provide access to the panel. He spun the first two and glanced down at Micro-Gee. His son sat in the center of the ball clapping his hands. Something he did when he was pleased with what he had done.

“That’s right, very good baby.” He spun the remaining two knobs. The panel came free and swung open.

Inside a green flip release allowed access to the primary circuit board. Micro-Gee cracked up laughing. Gary glanced up. The ball rolled past the telescope, bounced over a small rock and Micro-Gee cracked up again. The sound of his laughter brought a smile to Gary’s lips. He pulled the circuit board and slipped it into the slot in the replacement case. Then he took the new board out and slid it into place. Micro-Gee laughed again. Higher pitched.

Gary glanced at the display. Micro-Gee looked happy and all the readings showed green. Gary shoved the latch into place to secure the board and took out his diagnostic tablet.

“Du du.”

Gary glanced at the screen. Micro-Gee tottered in the ball. He spread his arms.

The tablet interfaced with the telescope. Gary triggered the diagnostic routines to check the circuit board.

“Du du. Du du!” Micro-Gee laughed and on the display seemed to pitch forward.

Gary jerked his head up looking for the ball but he didn’t see it anywhere. On the screen Micro-Gee lay against the side of the ball laughing. What was he doing? Gary accessed the rescue ball systems and expanded the sensor data. He switched to an external view.

Blackness.

Nothing but black outside the ball.

“Micro-Gee!” Gary left the telescope and bounded over towards where he’d last seen the ball. He still couldn’t see it anywhere but out of the range of the headlights the surface was dimly lit. He triggered the tracking systems. The ball’s position showed up but what it showed made no sense. According to the readout the ball should be within two meters but he didn’t see anything. All sharp-edged shadows and small rocks. Tracks from previous visits crisscrossing the area. Nothing that looked like the rescue ball and he should be able to see the exterior lights.

Micro-Gee stopped laughing. On the screens Gary could see him standing up, pushing against the ball but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

“Hang on, buddy. I’ll be right there.”

He walked forward carefully, afraid of what he would find but he thought he already knew. Sure enough, as he closed on the position indicated he saw what at first looked like another shadow on the other side of a boulder but the shadow was round and too large to come from the boulder. Micro-Gee had found a hole and must have rolled right into it.

A hole meant a lava tube, which meant that this area could be unstable. The last thing he needed was to fall into a tube himself and get hurt. He checked the rescue ball systems. Everything green. Micro-Gee had given up trying to move the ball and sat in the center of the ball picking at his toes.

“That’s it,” Gary encouraged him. “Play with your little piggies. I’ve got to get a few things from the rover.”

Gary bounce-walked back over to the rover and grabbed a long probe from the tool rack at the back. At the front he opened the releases on the winch and pulled out the cable. He clipped it to his suit. Then he turned around and headed back to Micro-Gee.

Micro-Gee was beginning to get frustrated. He stood up again and beat his fat fists against the side of the rescue ball but whatever it’d fallen into it was wedged.

“It’s okay, Micro-Gee. Dada’s going to get you out of there.” Gary reached the edge of the hole without breaking through the ceiling. He activated his wrist-lights and pointed them down the shaft. It curved down and about three meters down he could see the rescue ball. Dirt covered the top, blocking out the exterior lights. That must have come from the sides when Micro-Gee broke through. The trouble was that the shaft didn’t look very wide. Gary couldn’t be sure that he could fit down there and he needed to get down in order to attach the winch cable. His other option was to go back to the rover again and send a distress signal. But a rescue could take time. The rescue ball was designed to keep an adult alive for several hours and should be able to last even longer with Micro-Gee.

Micro-Gee started crying. He beat his fists against the sides.

He couldn’t make his son wait. Not without at least trying first. If he could get him out easily then it’d be done. “And we won’t tell Mama, right Micro-Gee? Hang on, buddy. I’m going to come down there and get you out.”

Gary held onto the probe in case he needed it to dislodge any debris and sat down on the edge of the hole. Narrow, but he might make it. And if he didn’t the winch could pull him out. This was exactly the sort of thing that they were trained not to do. He felt sick. On the screens Micro-Gee screamed some more and pounded on the side of the ball. And fell forward.

Shit, he must have dislodged the ball. Micro-Gee laughed and crawled forward. The tracker showed the ball moving away.

“Micro-Gee! Wait!”

Gary slid into the hole. He just fit. His suit scraped on the sides. He kept telling himself that it was reinforced. It wouldn’t tear easily. In moments it widened out and he reached the spot where Micro-Gee had been stuck but no longer. Debris had caught the ball but now it had moved away. Gary was able to bend over and crawled after the ball. A short distance later he could stand up.

He was in a big lava tube. Easily the same size as the colony tube but it ended a short distance ahead in a flat wall. Someone had to know this was here, didn’t they? He saw the rescue ball about a meter away rolling towards the wall. Gary bounced after it and caught up. He put a hand out and stopped Micro-Gee. He sent a visual image into the ball.

“Hey there buddy, just Dada. How about we go back to the rover, okay?”

Micro-Gee tried to grab him but his arms passed through the image. He blinked in confusion.

“Don’t worry about it.” Gary grabbed the recessed handles and picked up the ball. As he turned with it his light flashed across the wall. It gave back a metallic gleam.

What? Gary walked closer and set Micro-Gee’s ball down. Micro-Gee laughed and rolled towards the wall. Gary stayed beside his son and widened his wrist light. The wall was metal. And down towards the right side where rubble piled up alongside the wall he saw a hexagonal opening. And lying in front of the opening a splayed form in a dusty red suit. Except that the shape was all wrong. Micro-Gee rolled right towards the body.

A body? Gary stopped the ball. He activated all of his cameras and turned the light onto the body. It was a body. His throat felt dry. A body in a space suit but the legs were long and bent oddly. Same with the arms. The helmet was a wide, flattened oval shape at one end but the light didn’t reveal what was inside. Whatever it was the suit didn’t look human.

“Micro-Gee, what did you find?” Gary wondered.

🚀

Micro-Gee became an instant celebrity. The baby that fell down a hole and discovered an ancient spacecraft. Teams of researchers descended on the Moon to study the craft and its occupants. Whether Gary was a fit parent or not also became a frequent discussion. Gary defended his actions, arguing that nothing he’d done jeopardized Micro-Gee’s safety. It just went to show that life on the Moon was going to be like life anywhere, with its own hazards and you just dealt with it the best you could.

Micro-Gee’s only words on the subject? “Du du!”

🚀

2,832 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 53rd weekly short story release, written in July 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story What Dragged in the Cat?.

Alien Conspiracy Theory

Cleveland Parrish dreamed big and his waistline grew bigger. Success as an inventor remained just out of reach.

At least until the alien walked into his basement and gave him a chance to improve his life.

Fans of aliens visiting Earth will enjoy this light-hearted look at an Alien Conspiracy Theory.

🚀

Cleveland Parrish, forty-one years old with an expanding midsection and a thinning top-section, enjoyed the warm air the dehumidifier blew across his feet. The Frigidaire appliance looked something like a Star Wars droid, a fact that he enjoyed. It squatted next to his desk, a battered state surplus piece of furniture complete with scratched putty-colored paint and a peeling wood veneer top. The desk and Cleveland were right in the center of his mother’s basement beneath the hula dancer lamp with a single bulb that was strapped to the ceiling and plugged into a squid surge protector also held to the ceiling by a thin strip of metal. More power cords plugged into the surge protector’s many arms and dangled down to the computers and monitors that covered the desk in a web of components not too unlike something from a Borg cube. This was his special place, his top secret workshop, that no one—not even his mother—was allowed to enter. Which made it all the more surprising when the door at the top of the stairs opened and the alien walked down into the basement as if he owned it.

Cleveland didn’t doubt for a second that the alien was in fact an alien, even though the shadows on the stairs somewhat obscured his features. To someone less observant the alien might even pass as human, with the long black business coat, collar flipped up like some hard-boiled detective, an expensive black suit and a hat on top of a too-pale head. But to Cleveland, he saw that the alien’s legs didn’t bend in the right places as he walked down the stairs and two of the fingers in the black gloves he wore didn’t move at all but stuck straight out unnaturally stiff. Even what was visible of his neck and face was pale and waxy as if he was an escaped exhibit from a wax museum. When Cleveland saw that he had an alien intruder in his basement he pressed four keys simultaneously on his primary keyboard and just like that all of his systems went into a lock-down mode.

Leaning back in his Aeron chair—deliberately not even glancing at the hidden panic room—Cleveland folded his hands on his ample belly. “I don’t know what you want, sir, but you aren’t going to get it out of me. I doubt even you will be able to get past my encryption.”

The alien walked until he reached the circle of light cast by the lamp strapped to the ceiling and he stopped. He held his hands out to his side, palms up. “Mr. Parrish?”

“That’s me.” Cleveland was pleased that his voice remained steady. Aliens knew about him. There was actually a freaking alien standing right in front of him. Even though he suspected that the alien wanted his invention, he still found it sort of awesome. “Who are you and what planet are you from?”

The alien reached up as if to take his hat off but his face and neck came with it, peeling free of the alien’s head. Wet fur glistened in the dim light. The pale dangling mask looked like Michael Meyers, and Cleveland rubbed his moist hands on his stained lab coat. Beneath the mask the alien’s face screamed “animal” to Cleveland. Furred, big domed head, with bright yellow eyes and a mouth full of white teeth. It should have looked like a monkey’s head, or an ape’s, but somehow it didn’t look like those at all. Something about it still suggested a non-terrestrial organism. Cleveland looked into the alien’s eyes and had no doubt that they had evolved under a different sun. No special effects makeup ever could look so real and yet so alien at the same time. Even with CGI it would probably prove impossible to ever capture the exact sense of alien that he got from his visitor. The alien was like a live actor inserted into a cartoon. No matter how much it interacted with the cartoon characters it just never felt like it belonged. This being, this person who had evolved under a different sun, didn’t belong on Earth.

“Mr. Parrish, I came to offer my assistance with your invention.”

Despite the constant warm breeze from the dehumidifier, Cleveland felt a chill. “My invention?”

He knew his voice came out too high-pitched, as it always did when he was nervous.

“We’ve detected your early tests. Without our assistance there is a risk that you might destroy your entire planet.”

“That quake was totally not my fault!” Cleveland winced. He tried to lower his voice. “I don’t believe that my invention could do what you’re suggesting.”

“Not now, but further testing could lead to the construction of a stable singularity that could engulf your entire planet.”

Cleveland shook his hand at the alien, warming to the topic. “Ah, but you’re mistaken my alien friend. Even if I somehow created an artificial black hole it would evaporate quickly. And that’s not what I’m doing anyway. Why are you really here?”

The alien looked at him and blinked. The silence stretched on. Cleveland picked up a red plastic eight-sided die and rolled it from one hand to the other. The alien kept blinking. Cleveland rocked back in the chair, he rolled the die. Still the alien didn’t move. Didn’t do anything except blink. It’s a test. A test and Cleveland could wait. He’d wait all day if he had to. If the alien had any sort of expression Cleveland couldn’t read it. The alien might as well not exist.

That made him wonder. What if the alien didn’t really exist? Suppose this was nothing more than a sugar-induced hallucination, a bit of chocolate that had gone bad? That could explain why he thought the alien didn’t look like it belonged here—maybe it didn’t. Cleveland got up from the chair. Enough of this, he’d find out if this was something more than a stale Twinkie.

His stained lab coat billowed out behind him as he walked around the desk. He reached out his right hand. He only meant to touch the alien, to ascertain the reality of what could after all, be reasonably taken as a potential hallucination. Cleveland didn’t even seen the alien move but in the next second his hand was caught in an incredibly painful pincher grip. The alien squeezed with enough force that it felt like he would pulp Cleveland’s hand. Not only that but the alien used his grip to pull Cleveland around and twisted his arm up behind his back. Another hand seized the back of his neck and applied equally painful pressure. The trinity of pain, his hand, his shoulder and his neck, had Cleveland gasping.

“Please! Stop! I just wanted to make sure you were real!”

The pressure vanished in an instant. Cleveland staggered away and dropped down onto his knees. He cradled his wounded hand. He didn’t want to look—had to look—and oh, shit! Already the center of his palm was turning purple with an alien-induced stigmata.

“Apologies, Cleveland Parrish. I took your approach as some form of attack.”

Cleveland cradled his hand. “How am I supposed to work with my hand like this?”

“Ah.”

Cleveland dared a glance up at the alien. He still couldn’t read any expression on that furry face.

The alien smacked his lips together. “I will return with a medical device. I believe it’ll be safe to use on you, and it should heal your injuries.”

Believe it’ll be safe? Cleveland opened his mouth to protest but the alien was already pulling back on his Michael Meyers mask and hat as he turned away to stomp back up the stairs.

🚀

The alien returned with two silvery hula hoops. Cleveland had considered leaving but he didn’t dare leave without his equipment. What if the alien came back and found him gone? He had gotten up and made it back to his chair at least before the alien returned and he had dried his tears. He knew his eyes would look red—they always did after he cried—but he doubted the alien would understand his expressions any more than he could read the alien’s face. The hula hoops drew Cleveland’s attention. What were those?

As if reading his mind the alien lifted the hoops up. “This is the medical device I mentioned.”

“That?”

“Yes. This.” The alien dropped one hoop onto the floor. It thunked as if very heavy. He dropped the other above the first only it flew upwards and thudded against the ceiling.

“Wow, nifty trick. What —”

A column of blue light filled the space between the two hoops. It pulsed slowly from bright to faint and back. The alien peeled off his Michael Meyers mask and tossed it aside. He spread his arms. “Please, enter the device.”

Cleveland’s hand was killing him at that point. The pain throbbed with his heart-beat. He couldn’t even hardly move his fingers and the hand was swelling rapidly into a balloon-caricature of a hand.

“You’re sure this is safe?”

“I believe it’ll be safe, Mr. Parrish.”

“Right.” Cleveland struggled up out of his chair, harder to do with one hand, and walked right up to the column. “I just step inside? What does it feel like?”

“Yes. It feels like sunshine. It’ll make you well.”

Cleveland took a deep breath and stepped into the column. Wow! Sunshine on a hot day! It felt like a hundred degrees in the light. Looking out the whole basement was blue tinted. The heat soaked into his bones. After the shock of going from the cool basement to the hot light passed it actually felt good. He realized that his pain was gone. Even the headache that had been creeping around in the back of his skull. And the backache he always had. He took a deep breath and felt remarkable. Like he could run and jump. The warmth soaked deep inside and he couldn’t remember a time he had ever felt better than right at that moment. He laughed from the sheer joy of it!

“Are you in distress?”

Cleveland looked at the alien. “No, I feel great, actually. This is amazing.”

And his hand! Cleveland lifted it up in front of his face. All of the swelling was gone, the bruise was vanishing before his eyes like water drying on a hot sidewalk. It shrank and shrank away until it was only a dot and then nothing! He wiggled his fingers. No pain! He laughed again.

Then his pants fell off, puddling around his ankles.

Cleveland bent down to grab them and pull them up. They were huge! He held his pants up to his waist. “What’s going on?”

“You are being healed.”

“My pants got bigger!”

“No, Mr. Parrish, your excessive fat deposits have been removed.”

“What?” Cleveland looked down and for the first time in he couldn’t remember how many years he wasn’t looking down the rising slope of his belly. He looked down and saw his feet in last year’s worn leather Christmas slippers.

“Remain in the light until the cycle completes.”

“Uh, okay.” Cleveland licked his lips. Talk about your weight loss miracles. He still felt fantastic, but as he looked down he realized his shirt also hung loose. The warmth reached a peak intensity that almost felt like he was being scalded from the inside out. He grimaced but didn’t dare move.

The light stopped a moment later. Cleveland stepped out of the metal hoop, still holding his pants up. He licked his lips nervously. “Maybe I’d better go change into something that fits?”

“Certainly.” The alien bent and picked up the hoop from the floor. When he moved it the one stuck up on the ceiling fell but the alien caught it as easily as a juggler. “I will put this device away.”

Away. Cleveland looked up the stairs. “So you’ve got like some sort of spaceship outside?”

“Yes.”

“Won’t people notice?”

“No. My vessel is shielded from detection.”

Oh. “Well, that’s great. We’ll meet back here in five minutes?”

“Agreed.”

Good, because Cleveland didn’t want to leave the alien down in the basement alone. Still, it made him think of something. “What do I call you?”

Big yellow eyes blinked at him and then the alien said, “Deep.”

“Deep? I’m supposed to call you Deep?”

“Yes. Deep.”

“Okay.” Cleveland gestured to the stairs. “Go ahead, Deep.”

Deep picked up his mask, slipping it on again before he went upstairs. Cleveland suppressed a remark about the alien’s—about Deep’s—disguise, and followed him upstairs.

The kitchen was empty and Deep went right out the screen door without any hesitation. Through the door in the living room Cleveland heard the sound of the television. He walked past the long counter, everything shining from his mother’s dust rag, and into the living room. His mother looked pretty much as she’d always looked to him, just more gray and heavier, the gray and weight creeping up on her over the years. She sat where she always sat on the right side of the couch, her feet up on the recliner’s support, and a glass of iced tea on the end table beside her.

“Having fun with your friend?” she asked, without looking away from the show she was watching.

“Yeah, mom.” Cleveland hurried on past, glad that she didn’t bother turning around since she’d see him standing there holding up his pants.

Cleveland went through the living room, up the stairs past the photos showing him getting older and heavier on the way to the top. His room was the second on the right. He got inside and closed the door behind him. He leaned against the door and closed his eyes for one second, then two, and then he thought of Deep coming back from his apparently invisible spaceship and going downstairs. Cleveland opened his eyes. He didn’t have time to waste.

He let go of his pants and marveled as they slid down his legs to the floor. He stepped out and then shucked off his lab coat and pulled the t-shirt off over his head. A mirror hung behind his door, he hardly ever looked at it anymore, but now he stood in front of it and looked. Several things happened.

First, he didn’t recognize himself. It was like looking at a stranger that sort of resembled him, maybe a distant cousin, but it definitely wasn’t the way he pictured himself. The guy in the mirror was ripped, muscles everywhere without being overly bulky. Unruly hair cascaded down to his shoulders. He looked like he might be in his mid-twenties.

If that wasn’t enough the guy in the mirror wasn’t circumcised!

Cleveland gaped at his reflection and the reflection gaped right back at him. “No way!”

The reflection moved as if it was him, but how could it be? Cleveland looked down and sure enough—he was intact! Plus, looking down he could see his rippling abs and the muscles in his thighs. He felt dizzy and groped behind himself for the bed. His fingers touched his comforter and he sat gratefully down onto the bed. The medical device Deep had produced would make him billions! Everyone would want access to that device. He had to convince Deep to give it to him, or at least the specs! But to do that he might have to share his invention. Still, for this? It might be worthwhile.

Thinking of that reminded him that he didn’t have much time. He got up from the bed and went over to the closet. On the bottom shelves he pulled out a box of old clothing that didn’t fit, stuff that he’d kept meaning to take to the Goodwill. He pulled out a pair of black jeans—so small it was hard to believe he could have ever fit in them.

He slid on the pants, not bothering with underwear because everything he had was too big, and even those jeans were loose on him. They hung on his hip like the way a lot of the kids wore them. From the same box he found a Warcraft t-shirt and pulled it on. Also too big but it had to do. Good enough. He grabbed his lab coat on the way out of the room.

Running into the living room he heard the screen door opening. Deep was back. This time Cleveland’s mother turned around. Her eyes widened when she saw him.

“Cleveland?”

“Yeah, Mom?”

“What did you do? How?”

“I’ve been working out,” he lied. He saw Deep lingering in the kitchen. “Look, Mom, I’ve got to get downstairs. Sorry. Talk later?”

“Okay.”

Cleveland ran out of the living room into the kitchen. Deep’s eyes watched him from the pale Michael Meyer’s mask. Unreadable eyes that had seen who-knows-what amazing things. Cleveland forced himself to smile.

“All set then, let’s get back downstairs before my mother starts asking too many questions.”

Deep stood back when Cleveland opened the basement door. They went back downstairs. As soon as they were safely down Cleveland turned back around to face the alien.

“Listen, that medical device. It’s interesting. I’d like to take a look at the specs, if I could?”

Deep had peeled off the mask, and his coat. He stood looking down at Cleveland. “I don’t have that information.”

“You don’t have it?”

“That is correct.”

“Well, how about the device? I could study it. If I could make that available, do you know how much good I could do? The people that could be cured?”

“The device is powered by my vessel. The one won’t work without the other.” The alien made a sneezing noise, although without any convulsive head movements. “No.”

Cleveland crossed his arms and then immediately uncrossed them because the muscles felt so weird. His arms were hard! “So what do you want?”

“Your tests caught my attention because they match predicted readings indicating a temporal wormhole. The technology to create stable temporal wormholes doesn’t exist.”

“Until now,” Cleveland added proudly. He crossed his arms again and held the pose this time. “What are you going to do about it? Suppress the knowledge? Tell me not to violate some temporal prime directive? I’ve built safeguards into the system. Even if you destroy my equipment here my time capsules will open and send the information to every news media company, scientist, government and blogger on the planet.”

“Our readings indicate that you have not yet achieved a stable connection.”

“And?”

Deep’s big eyes blinked with exaggerated slowness, as if he was trying to wink with both eyes. “Our theories may help stabilize the field generated by your technology.”

“Okay, that sounds good. But if you already know how this works why are you helping me?”

Deep took two steps forward and then spread out his hands as if he planned to give Cleveland a giant bear hug. Cleveland stepped back. Deep didn’t seem to notice.

“Your planet’s history is a mess. No one can seem to remember what happened, and even when something is explained there are those among you that deny the explanation. Recently a number of balloons in New York were believed to be alien spaceships —”

“You’re proof that aliens are visiting Earth!”

“True, but our ships would not appear as a bunch of balloons over the city. Even now no one suspects the ship in your backyard.”

“Point.”

“Most people do not believe the official account of the death of your President John F. Kennedy. Some believe that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a surprise, or that other administrations had prior knowledge of other disasters. There is a strong distrust of authority figures in your society.”

Cleveland nodded. “And I suppose that the military doesn’t have any of your ships at Area 51?”

“They do not.”

“Right.” Cleveland walked over to his chair feeling like he could bounce along like the astronauts on the moon. He felt as light as but the concrete was cold on his bare feet. He sat down and tucked his feet up onto the seat. He hadn’t been able to do that since he was a kid. “What’s your point about these conspiracy theories?”

“Your device, if it works, could serve as an objective witness to historical events.” Deep pushed forward, right up to the edge of the desk. Cleveland leaned away.

“Don’t you see?” Deep asked. “Your invention will enable your people to stop lying to one another. The truth will be known. Anyone doubting the landings on the moon—and I’ve seen the foot prints myself—can use this technology to witness those events. You can trace back any detail, all of history will be laid open. You must finish the device.”

Cleveland tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. “That’s it? That’s why you came? To make sure that I finish the device?”

“Yes. As a historian it is impossible to get an accurate view of your world’s history without this technology.”

“Well, that’s nice. And I want that medical technology. It sounds to me like we should make a trade.”

Deep stared at Cleveland. The silence lengthened. Cleveland stood up and waved his arms. “Forget it, we’re not going to start that again.” He looked up at the alien. “I want your medical technology. You want my invention. Even swap. I show you how to look back in time and you give me the medical technology. Easy.”

Deep made a rumbling noise. “The medical device is integrated into the ship’s computers and power systems. To give you the device I’d have to give you the entire ship.”

“Okay, then call for a ride and give me the ship. Still sounds like a fair swap.”

“I must consult with the others, but we may reach an agreement.”

“I get the ship first,” Cleveland said, barely concealing his excitement.

Deep picked up his mask again. “I will return.”

Cleveland raised a hand. “I’ll be waiting here.”

When Deep went back upstairs Cleveland went to his workstation. He pressed five keys simultaneously. The system came back up. He sat down and entered several commands into a terminal window. With a hiss a panel appeared in the wall on his right. Cleveland spun his chair around and pushed away from the desk as the panel swung open.

Four aliens walked out of the hidden panic room that Cleveland had set up years ago. Unless someone was very observant they’d never notice that the main room of the basement was smaller than the house above. The first alien was short, as tall as a child of five or six, with scaly green skin and walked on four legs. Her outfit was silvery and layered. Once out she sat down her tongue flicked out, tasting the air. Behind her was a tall, slender, naked alien that moved with boneless grace and lacked any sort of visible head. Thousands of thin pseudo pods lined its arms and legs, while pearl-white eyes clustered around the mouth at the center of its body. The other two aliens belonged to Deep’s species and wore black suits, white shirts and thin black ties. Like Deep they wore masks and these two also wore black glasses.

Sc’int—the scaly alien—hissed and warbled. A pendant she wore around her neck translated. “Our plan worked. We will gain access to the historian’s ship.”

One of the alien men-in-black, Cleveland couldn’t tell them apart, spoke. “Yes. The plan worked, for now. Assuming our human doesn’t make a mistake.”

Cleveland shook his head. “I’m not going to make a mistake.”

“There must be no mistake,” the other man-in-black said. “He can’t discover the deception.”

“He won’t,” Cleveland insisted. “The equipment will function long enough to convince him before it fails.”

Sc’int hissed some more. “You must be correct.”

“I am. And we’ll have the ship, but I still want the medical device, you didn’t tell me about that.” Cleveland spread his arms. “Look at me! That thing is amazing.”

The tall alien’s limbs thrashed about. Sc’int watched it with one eye and then turned her attention back to Cleveland. “General Crush agrees to share the technology with you for your assistance in ending our exile here.”

Cleveland heard the screen door upstairs open. “Great! Get back inside. I’ll take care of everything.”

They all went back into the panic room and the door sealed shut behind them. Deep came back down the stairs. He peeled off his mask and shook his head.

“Uncomfortable?” Cleveland asked.

“Yes. The mask is not to my liking. I look forward to being rid of it.”

“Couldn’t you make something more realistic?”

“Duplicating faces is a difficult task. With an obvious mask people accept it and look away, some sort of societal taboo?”

“Sure, you could say that. So what was the decision? Are you going to help me finish the time camera in exchange for the ship?”

“No.” Deep reached into his coat pocket and brought out a black pointed device. Cleveland didn’t need any explanation to understand he was staring down the barrel of a gun. Up above the screen door opened and he heard more footsteps. “Step away from the equipment.”

Cleveland slowly raised his hands and stepped back. “What’s this?”

More aliens came down the stairs holding weapons. Cleveland held very, very still. Deep’s gun never wavered. The other aliens headed over to the panic room panel and took up positions on each side.

“We are here to apprehend the exiles before they create more trouble. The next world that they are left on has a more primitive culture.”

“You were always after them?”

“Yes. When we detected the signature of time manipulation it was clear that the exiles must be involved.”

“I could have come up with this on my own,” Cleveland said defensively.

Deep shook his head. “Unlikely. Open the chamber.”

Cleveland didn’t move for a second but what other choice was there? He literally had a gun pointed at him. He went back to the station and hit the keys that opened the chamber. The exiles had screens inside, so they already knew what waited for them. They all shuffled out without a struggle.

“Too good to be true,” Sc’int said, through her translator.

The exiles were cuffed and led back out up the stairs until only Deep remained.

“What about me?” Cleveland asked. “What are you going to do to me now?”

“Nothing. I will leave you,” Deep said.

Cleveland gestured at his equipment. “And this?”

“That too. It is unlikely that you will succeed in creating a stable temporal wormhole.”

“I have some ideas. I might get it figured out.”

“Unlikely. If you do, we may return. The technology would be of interest.”

Deep put away the gun and picked up mask. He didn’t put it on, but shoved it in his pocket. Cleveland watched him head up the stairs. Right before he reached the top Cleveland’s mother opened the door. For a second they looked at each other.

“Excuse me,” Deep said.

Cleveland’s mother stepped aside and the alien left. The screen door banged behind him. Cleveland sank down into his chair and looked at the equations on the screen. Deep didn’t think he could solve the problem, but what if he could? What if he could look back and find out what happened in Dallas? Or Roswell? His mother looked back down into the basement.

“Cleveland?”

“Yeah?”

“That’s some mask your friend had on. What are you guys up to?”

“Nothing mother.”

“Do you want something to eat?”

He thought about a plate of Twinkies and pushed it aside. He took one last look at the equations and then shut down the system. He got up and started up the stairs.

“I think I’ll go out for a run instead. Clear my head. Is it sunny outside?”

She moved back as he reached the top and then he could see out the window that there was nothing but blue skies and sunshine.

🚀
4,691 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 51st weekly short story release, written in October 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Playing Possum.