The Overlap

Cover art for the Overlap

Mark Duncan rented the room in the Overlap with the last of his cash. Either sell some paintings, or he’d be out on the street at the end of the month.

The Overlap surprises him each day. From his odd neighbors to the uncommunicative manager Heinrich.

Figuring out the Overlap’s secret might just solve all of his problems.

💀

As last hopes went, the Overlap left a lot to be desired. Mark Duncan clenched a paintbrush in his teeth, the dusty sweet taste of dried watercolors on the wood reminding him of the reason for coming here.

Didn’t artists suffer?

Traffic rushed past on the street behind him, an endless river of noise. Honks blared from taxi cabs. A couple blocks over, near the subway entrance, a jackhammer pounded away. The people walking past never even looked up at the Overlap. It was an invisible holdout against the newer construction in the city.

On this block, the Overlap stood somewhat alone, out of step with the rest of the buildings. As if the music had stopped and the massive brick edifice had sat down too soon. It was set back further from the street than the buildings on either side. And was dwarfed by their greater height and sleeker, modern architecture. Long alleys stretched along both sides of the Overlap, further isolating it. The building on the right cast a broad shadow across the Overlap’s face.

It had character. Mark’s portfolio and easel shifted under his arm. He adjusted his grip and another brush threatened to escape. His duffel dragged down on his shoulder. If he got the place, he’d have to come back out here and paint the Overlap.

Overlap? What was with that name, anyway? It was odd. The whole building was odd-looking, almost gothic, with cement gargoyles peering down from the corners of the building. None of the windows were boarded up. It didn’t have graffiti painted on it. Old, yes. Probably a hundred years old at least. Odd, definitely.

And, from the ad, rent-controlled and in his price range. Which was essentially what he had in his pocket. No credit check required, the ad said. Immediate move in. Furnished to boot.

Chances were, the apartment was already taken. That’d be his luck. Then it was either find a place to squat or squander more of his dwindling reserve for a flea-bag room for the night. Unless he wanted to sleep on the streets.

Mark balanced his bags and managed to transfer the brush back to his hand along with the rest. The rubber band had broken. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to show up juggling everything he owned, but what other choice was there?

No sense delaying.

He licked his lips and tasted a trace of the sweet watercolor paint. His stomach growled. He’d last had a grilled cheese and cup of chicken soup yesterday afternoon, at the Last Caboose diner. Coffee and a piece of wheat toast for breakfast before that. Anything to stretch out each dollar. He shouldn’t have ever agreed to move in with Stacy, when he knew how potentially unstable she was, but he had thought they’d make it work. An actress, and an artist? Right, it worked until her producer boyfriend swept her up, and Mark out onto the street.

He still hadn’t taken a step. This, or the street. What other choice was there? Mark adjusted the strap on his duffel one more time and headed to the front doors.

He nearly lost the easel again, opening the door, but he managed. Stepping inside the Overlap was like walking into an old library. It was cool, dim and musty smelling. The noise from the street cut off completely as soon as the door closed. That was nice. The silence of the place was welcome.

Tomb-like silence. The lobby was marble. A bank of brass-fronted mailboxes inset into the wall on his right. Straight ahead a staircase rose up into the building. A narrow, dark hallway stretched along the staircase on the right. Elevators, and dimly lit by a single pocket light, a sign hung that read, Manager.

That had to be the place.

Beneath the sign was a blue door with a brass nameplate. Heinrich.

Mark raised his fistful of brushes and knocked with his knuckles.

The door flew open, yanked by the broad-faced man towering over him as if the man had been waiting right on the other side of the door for the knock. The man was tall, he had at least a foot on Mark’s five-foot-eight. His broad shoulders that filled the door frame. His face was all hard lines and white bristles. His left eye was missing, leaving only a ruined landscape of scar tissue. His remaining eye was huge, watery blue as if it had swelled to compensate for the missing eye. His face looked reshaped by tectonic forces, that had shifted the eye higher and crooked his nose into a series of jagged peaks. The overhead light emphasized his cyclopean nature, enhancing the crags and lines of his face. It was a face demanding to be drawn, something out of legends.

Despite that, Heinrich wore blue jeans, a white shirt, and a black leather jacket. On his feet, he wore big black boots. It was biker gear.

“Ya?” The man asked in a deep, deep voice that Mark felt in his bones.

Mark broke into a cold sweat. He was staring. This had to be Heinrich, the manager, and he was staring like an idiot. “Ah, I’m here about the room? I saw the ad. Is it still available?”

Heinrich’s single eye narrowed. He ducked and stepped through the door.

“Ya. I will show you. Come.” Heinrich shoved past, trailing a scent that was leather and hot spices. A big clutch of keys hanging from his belt clanked and jangled with each step.

There wasn’t any question of following or not. Mark hurried to keep up with Heinrich’s large stride, down the hall, and up the stairs.

At the first floor, the railing changed from wrought iron to polished oak. Mark noticed as they went up the flight. He hesitated, meaning to ask about it, but Heinrich wasn’t slowing. His long stride took two steps at a time.

Mark hurried after. On the third floor, the railing switched back to metal, square, painted white and chipping. It wasn’t only that, the carpets were different too. Each floor was designed differently, Mark realized. Carpets on the third floor were orange, stamped dark along the center line. A dark cherry wainscoting ran along the walls and it smelled of dust.

When they got to the fourth floor the air smelled clean, like after a spring rain. The floor was covered in wide tiles in marbled browns, dull with age. The walls were done in a similar fashion. It was had the look of something once modern, and now antique.

It was the fourth floor where Heinrich left the stairs. That made Mark’s leg muscles happy. He’d get used to the stairs. At least it wasn’t all the way up on the top, two more flights up.

The apartment door was black, with a number in white stencil on the door, 4F. Simple, easy to remember. Heinrich pulled his key ring free and flipped immediately to a particular key, undistinguished from any of the others. He slipped it into the bottom lock, turned it and shoved the door open, then stepped back, out of the way. A gesture indicated Mark should go ahead.

Love-on-first-sight strikes the heart without warning. Mark felt as home as he walked into the apartment. If his jaw wasn’t attached, it would have been on the floor, along with his eyes. Hardwood floors and exposed wood beams crossed the living area. There was a big carved stone fireplace with a massive mantel and a Renaissance-looking painting hanging above it. Dark leather sitting area around the fireplace.

It was a corner apartment, at the front of the building, which gave him windows along the living area, a kitchen, and dining area on his right. Straight ahead an open door let into a bedroom suite. The windows on that side overlooked the alley, letting in light while giving him some privacy. It was huge, beautiful and should have been going for a hundred times what the ad said.

Mark shook his head. “Did I read the ad wrong? I thought it said five hundred per month.”

“Ya. Due first of the month,” Heinrich said from the hall. “I have appointment to keep, you want it?”

“Absolutely.” Mark laughed. He down the duffel, the easel, and his portfolio. He put the brushes down on top of the duffel. His shoulder ached with relief.

He went back to the doorway and pulled out his wallet. Heinrich waited, a massive gnarled hand held flat, while Mark counted out five hundred dollars onto his palm. The fingers closed into a fist, crushing the money, which he stuffed into his pocket.

“First of the month. Put your name on mailbox.” Heinrich lifted his key ring and twisted free the key he had used to open the door. He held it out. “Your key.”

Mark pinched the key between his fingers. It was heavy, thick and cold. “Thanks. You don’t need anything else?”

“No.” Heinrich’s blue eye looked down at him. “First of the month, you don’t pay, you’re out. That’s the deal.”

“Okay. Great. The first, I’ll remember.”

Heinrich turned, leaving. Mark put his hand on the door, solid wood worn smooth with age. “What happened to the last tenant?”

Heinrich’s stride didn’t falter. “She go crazy.”

Then he was gone, jangling off down the stairs. Mark slowly closed the door. It swung easily, silently. The apartment was absolutely quiet. No sounds from neighbors. Quieter than the museums.

Crazy. Right. Surely Heinrich was joking when he said that.

💀

Unpacking didn’t keep him busy for long, there wasn’t that much to unpack. He set up the easel near the windows where there was tons of space. When he could afford some more canvases, it’d make a great place to paint.

By then it was nearly lunch time, which meant getting to work. He needed to make some money if he was going to eat and keep this apartment. He grabbed his sketchbook, shoved the pencil case in his back pocket and made sure he had the key that Heinrich gave him. An hour or two drawing caricatures on the street should earn enough to pay for lunch, and maybe put away some money for tomorrow.

Stepping out of the apartment, he carefully locked the door. The lock moved easily, smoothly, snicking securely into place. Mark pocketed the key and turned to leave.

The door at the far end of the hall was open, but closing. For just a moment there was a woman there, stepping into the apartment. He caught a glimpse of a pale leg and stockings, a slender back and what looked like a black corset. The last he saw of her was her hand, covered in a lacy black glove, shutting the door.

So there were neighbors at least. He wasn’t alone here with Heinrich.

💀

It was late when he got back to the apartment, carrying three new canvases, a takeaway from the Thai noodle place, and a new blank sketchbook. In the night, the shadows had swallowed up the Overlap, hiding it in the dark between the buildings. Lights were on, though, in some of the apartment, like dim embers.

Mark couldn’t be happier. It’d been a good afternoon. Hell, a great afternoon! He’d made enough doing sketches that he not only got lunch but the supplies and still had an extra fifteen dollars in his pocket.

He entered the Overlap’s lobby. He wasn’t alone. There was a woman dancing in front of the mailboxes. She twirled around, kicking out her leg, throwing up her arm, then arched backward. She bent farther and farther until she was nearly upside down. Her face was painted red around her big dark eyes, and it glittered. Beautiful, if odd, with flaming red hair that spread out around her.

She go crazy. Heinrich’s words. Was this the woman? Surely not.

Shiny, full red lips parted revealing a mouth full of sharp, pointed teeth.

“Hell!” Mark backpedaled, bringing the canvases around in front of him. What were those going to do?

She rose back up, spinning around, drawing in her arms. The gauzy dress she wore fell down around her, barely covering her. She was small, petite, and something was obviously very wrong with her. Beneath the thin fabric, a dark metal chain hung between her breasts, from nipple to nipple.

“Mark Duncan,” she said. Her voice was accented, except he was terrible with accents. Irish, maybe? Or Scottish? Something like that.

How the hell did she know his name?

“I looked around your apartment. I’m Kiera. I put your name on your mailbox for you. You’re an artist, right?” Her head snapped around, and she said harshly. “Of course he is! You saw the easel! He’s holding canvases!”

“Uh, thank you. Nice to meet you. I’m going to go up, now.”

“Great!” She skipped forward a couple steps. Her feet were bare and there was something wrong with them. She was up on her toes, except they weren’t really toes at all. Her foot was split in thirds, with a long middle toe, and two shorter, thinner toes on each side.

It wasn’t a human foot, both looked the same. Birth defect, it had to be.

“I’m in three F,” she said. Her head tilted and she winked. “Right below you. You like being on top?”

His mind was numb.

He retreated up the stairs. That was the best thing to do, under the circumstances. Get upstairs and in his apartment. With the chain on. Hell, she’d said that she was in his apartment. Kiera followed him, having no problem keeping up.

“I live with my parents still. One of these days, I’d like to get a place of my own, you know? They say I have to wait until I get married, which is ridiculous, I think. Don’t you?”

They’d reached the second floor. Mark pressed on. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I do. I could run away, but where would I go?”

Sharp teeth and freaky feet aside, Mark understood the question. It was the same one he’d had when he moved out, but things at home were messed up with his stepdad and everything. Tom didn’t understand art, like at all, and a stepson wanting to be an artist even less.

They reached the third floor. Kiera swung on the railing, kicking her leg up onto the square metal rail. She leaned back, arching down low to the floor.

“Nice meeting you, Mark!.”

He paused on the next step. Maybe it was birth defects. He didn’t need to be an asshole. “Yeah, um, you too.”

He took another step before she called out.

“Mark?”

He hesitated, glanced down. Kiera leaned against the railing leading up. “Stay away from Lisette, down in 4D. Okay?”

Four D, that was the apartment at the other end of the hall. The woman he’d caught a glimpse of earlier. That must be who she meant.

“Sure, okay,” he said, to get away.

“Bye!”

Mark looked down. She was gone.

“Bye,” he said.

He made it back to his apartment without encountering anyone else. As soon as he got inside he locked the door and hooked the chain. It wasn’t a flimsy little chain for show either, but a weighty chain with a fat solid knob at the end. It’d take something pretty serious to break that down.

He breathed a little easier, and put the canvases over beneath the windows near the easel and took the noodles into the kitchen.

The spicy scent of the noodles was reassuring. Her teeth were probably fake. Even her feet, as realistic as they looked, most likely some sort of prosthetic costume. She was probably a performance artist. That would account for all of it, the dancing included.

Mark slurped up noodles. Everything except the comment about her going through his apartment, and knowing his name. He’d have to deal with that.

💀

Just before ten o’clock the next morning, he was downstairs knocking on Heinrich’s door again. This time the manager didn’t open the door until Mark’s second knock. Heinrich was wearing the same outfit, minus the leather jacket.

“Ya?”

Mark smiled. “Look, the apartment is great. I meant one of the neighbors, though, from the apartment below me. Kiera? She said she’d been in my apartment while I was gone.”

Heinrich’s single eye drilled into him.

“So, I thought, maybe the locks could be changed?”

“No,” Heinrich said.

What the hell? Mark started to laugh, but Heinrich just kept staring. The laughter died. “No?”

“No,” Heinrich repeated. He reached back and started to close the door.

Mark reached out, putting his hand flat on the door. Heinrich looked at Mark’s hand.

He jerked it back. “Maybe I’m not being clear. She was in my apartment. Don’t you see a problem with that? How’d she even get in?”

“All keys same,” Heinrich said.

“All the keys are the same?” Mark rubbed his jaw. He didn’t have much. Nothing most people would take. Still, it weirded him out. “But she was in there.”

“Anything stolen?” Heinrich asked.

“No, but —”

“Then no problem. You don’t want visitor, you tell them. Not my job.”

Clearly, this wasn’t getting anywhere. Who would Heinrich side with, the guy that just moved in? Or a family that’d been living there who knew how long? Mark nodded.

“Okay. Fine. I’m not trying to cause trouble, it just freaked me out.” Ask about her teeth and her feet. No. He couldn’t. Not without sounding like more of a nutcase than he already did.

The door was closing again.

“Um, sorry, before you go. The utilities? How’s that handled?”

“Included,” Heinrich grunted and shut the door. Hard.

Mark stepped back.

Included. At the price he was paying? It was cool. Fantastic. He turned around. If he saw Kiera again, not something he wanted, he’d tell her she couldn’t come into his apartment unless invited. That was all.

And chain the door at night.

💀

Three days after moving into the Overlap, Mark came home late and discouraged. The past few days he’d barely scraped together enough money from drawing on the street to buy a couple meals a day. There hadn’t been any problems at the Overlap, he hadn’t seen anyone on his way in or out. And the apartment was fantastic.

He hadn’t started a new painting yet. Too discouraged and tired when he got home, he couldn’t even get his head into a place to think about painting. The blank canvas on the easel made a statement all on its own. The emptiness revealed the futility of his plans.

He needed better work or he was going to lose the apartment. If he could finish and sell a painting, that’d be one thing. In theory, he might get enough to pay the rent for the month.

If he could paint.

Kiera was in the lobby as he entered, twirling in the center of the space, wearing a bright red tutu. She spun faster and faster, arms drawing down, tucking in as she spun.

She was between him and the stairs.

She stopped facing him. Her makeup was more subtle today, and green. Her dark eyes lined and huge against the pale skin on her cheeks. Her smile once again revealed rows of shark-like teeth, serrated and sharp. Her feet, the same, three-toed, with bright red claws.

Kiera lifted her foot, spreading the three toes wide. Mark sucked in air. That wasn’t a prosthetic. It was too perfectly organic, he could see the tendons and muscles move.

“Do you like my nails?” Kiera asked. “I did them today.”

He felt dizzy as if he’d been the one spinning. Kiera uncoiled her arm, pointing a long finger at the mailboxes. “You’ve got mail, Mark.”

Mail? What was she talking about? He hadn’t even told anyone he was here. Hadn’t sent the address anywhere.

She waited, expectant.

He coughed and found his voice. “Ah, how do you know?”

She giggled. “I looked, silly.”

Right. What a ridiculous question. It must be mail for occupant, or resident. Junk mail. But she was obviously waiting, and he didn’t have a clue what was wrong with her. Prudence suggested he play along until he could get upstairs.

The brass boxes were old and didn’t lock. At least that explained how she had looked. He lifted the catch and opened the door. There was a card in a gray envelope inside. A bright yellow forwarding sticker was stuck across the front, over his old address.

The return address was his mother’s house, back in Olympia.

Kiera appeared at his elbow. He jerked, but she was looking at the card, not at him. “Who’s it from?”

“My mother,” he said automatically.

“Are you going to open it?”

What the hell? He hadn’t heard from her in months, hadn’t made the effort since their last fight. She didn’t want to believe him about Tom’s cheating, so what was the point?

Mark ripped it open. It was a simple Hallmark card with a tiny cartoon bird on the front. Thinking of you.

Inside, she’d filled up the interior with her neat flowing handwriting.

I was wrong about Tom, she wrote. Mark’s hand went to his mouth as he continued reading.

It’d all blown up. Tom, the affairs, everything. She was moving out, had moved out. They were getting a divorce. At the end, she invited him back home if he wanted. She’d talked to Stacy. No pressure, she wanted him to know that he had a place with her if he needed it while he got on his feet.

“That’s so sweet,” Kiera said, reading over his shoulder. “But you’re not going, are you?”

There was a stone bench beside the mailboxes. Mark went and sat down. Kiera came and perched on the bench, her three-toed feet gripping the front edge of the bench like a bird. It was weird as hell, but he was numb. Instead of freaking out, he actually looked at her. She was sweet and interesting. Pretty too, in a terrifying way.

“I don’t know,” he said. He looked at the Overlap’s stairs rising up into the building. He’d only been here for a few days. The apartment itself was fantastic, the rent and paid utilities unbelievable. “If I can’t make rent I won’t be able to stay anyway. The whole art thing, it’s not working out like I expected. I’m barely scraping by. It was one thing when I was living with Stacy. She was supporting us with her job, and her acting. More than I was doing. I’m not surprised that she took off with her producer.”

“She’s an idiot,” Kiera said. She bared her teeth and hissed.

Mark jerked back.

She laughed and grabbed his arm. “Don’t be scared, silly. I wouldn’t hurt you!”

God help him, he believed her. She was odd, terrifying, but he believed her. “I know.”

He stood. “Look, I’ve got to get some rest, and think about this. I’ll see you around, okay?”

Kiera blinked her eyes. “Sure. See you around.”

💀

It was too quiet in his apartment. He couldn’t sleep, listening for something, anything. He didn’t have a fan, which might have helped. Instead, he opened the window. The honks and rush of traffic lulled him to sleep.

💀

The next day was raining buckets. Even if he found a dry spot to work, no one was going to want caricatures on a day like today. It was a perfect day to get started on the painting.

Or look into a bus ticket home.

Mark paced in front of the blank canvas, tapping a brush on his hand.

Turning thirty was closer than he liked to think, and what did he have to show for his work? Nothing. No paintings, nothing except a couple sketchbooks. He gave his work away for next to nothing. He had a couple pieces in his portfolio, but those were the ones that hadn’t sold.  Even if he could get a gallery interested, he didn’t have enough work for a show. The best he could hope for was a piece in a group show right now.

At least until he created more work and that took money. Not only the rent, and some food, but supplies too. This apartment was a stroke of luck, a lottery win at what he was paying Heinrich. To give that up, it made him want to vomit the contents of his empty stomach.

He needed time, and time was running out. If he didn’t create something, and sell it, then he’d get evicted. On the other hand, if he did, he might make rent this month and hopefully get enough to stay in supplies. But then it’d repeat again next month. And the month after.

On the surface, going home made sense. He could heal things with his mother. They could help each other get back on their feet. Get a job. Maybe even go back to school and finish his teaching certification. He’d run away from it once before.

Those who can’t, and all of that crap.

The blank canvas stared at him like Heinrich’s watery blue eye.

Heinrich’s rugged visage, that’d make a striking portrait. He could paint the man from memory and imagination, but to really capture him, it’d be better to have him sit.

Mark laughed. That’d be something, ask Heinrich up to sit for him. Ya, right. He tapped his brush on his hand.

Kiera would sit for him. The idea popped into his head. She’d be thrilled. He knew it. An electric thrill went down his back at the thought. Why not? With her looks, that shark-tooth smile?

Done well, that might get notice.

If it didn’t? What then? The long bus ride. It was a ball-shriveling thought. Right or wrong, that bus ride meant giving up. He couldn’t do that. Not now.

💀

His mouth was dry as he knocked on 3F. There were light footsteps, then the door opened.

The woman who opened the door had Kiera’s looks, aged to elegant maturity. She smiled, showing the same sharp teeth. Behind her, bright sunlight streamed through the apartment windows. The apartment smelled of fresh baked bread and sugar.

“Yes?” The woman asked.

Mark focused. “Hi, I’m Mark Duncan. I live upstairs? Is Kiera home?”

“Mark!” Kiera yelled, coming into the living room. She skipped across the apartment.

Her mother smile was tolerant as she stepped back out of the way. “My daughter has been talking about you, the resident artist of the Overlap.”

Kiera stopped in front of the door, breathless. “Hi!”

Her mother moved off back into the apartment.

“Hi,” Mark said. His stomach growled from the smells pouring out of the apartment on warm air. “How is it sunny? It was pouring rain a second ago?”

Kiera laughed and grabbed his hand. “No, it’s not, silly. Come on, I’ll show you.”

He let her drag him into the apartment. She shut the door behind him. A man rose up from the dining area table and came forward. He was thin and short, moving with a skip and a hop, beaming equally sharp teeth.

“Hello!” The man held out his hand. “Fletcher Dubois, my wife, Faye. You know Kiera, of course.”

“Yes, nice to meet you all.”

“What brings you by?” Fletcher asked. “Can you stay for lunch?”

“I don’t want to impose —”

“You’re not! And you must,” Kiera said.

Fletcher shook his head. “You must, apparently.”

“Thank you,” Mark managed. “It smells wonderful in here.”

Faye chuckled from the kitchen.

“Come on!” Kiera tugged at his hand.

He followed her into the apartment. It was longer than his, extending past where his living room ended, into what must be the next unit upstairs. But the windows looked out of the front of the building, same as his. Only these were filled with golden sunshine.

Outside the sky was clear and sharp blue, with a blazing sun showing. On the street below a trolley rolled up the center of the street. People hopped and walked around and there wasn’t a car to be seen. The buildings were different too, shorter, with big open windows and balconies.

There was a park down on the right, between the intersections of two streets. Two men sat perched on a wood rail, toes gripping it, conversing as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

“See?” Kiera leaned on the window sill. “That’s our world.”

“Your world?”

“The Overlap, why do you think it’s called that?”

“I didn’t know. It sounded odd.”

“It straddles the worlds,” Kiera said. “Each apartment in the Overlap looks out on a different world, but they all share the same building.”

It was right there, right out the window. A whole other world. “So if I went out there, I’d be in a different world?”

“You can’t! No one can cross between the worlds.” Kiera turned and leaned back against the window. “If you went out there, you’d find yourself in your own world. You can look, but you can’t touch.”

He didn’t have words for it. Kiera laughed.

Mark shook his head. “I guess that explains why you’re, well, the way you are?”

She batted her eyes. “Lovely? Of course! So what do you think? Now that you know, will you stay?”

Stay. Right. “That’s why I came down. I’d already decided to stay. I wanted to ask if you’d sit for me, I’d like to paint your portrait.”

Kiera squealed and spun in place. She skipped away. “He wants to paint my picture!”

“That’s nice, honey,” Faye said tolerantly.

“Yes,” Fletcher added. “Very nice. Can you do that here, Mark?”

“Father!”

Mark laughed. “Yes. I can. I’ll bring down my materials.”

💀

What a change brought by a week? Mark returned to the Overlap, portfolio lighter and wallet heavier. Kiera’s portrait had sold, enough to pay the rent and keep him in supplies well into the next month.

And the Overlap? Amazing. Magical. Kiera promised to introduce him around to the neighbors. Faye was even talking about a rooftop cookout, a welcome to the building event. Her bread and soup were fantastic.

He practically flew up the stairs.

“You’re back!” Kiera called, perched on the railing above. “Did it work?”

Mark hoisted his lightened portfolio. “Yes! A dealer I know, he loved it. He said you were beautiful.”

Kiera clapped her hands. “I’m glad!”

“So am I. And I’m sure Heinrich will be happy I can pay the rent for next month.” Mark climbed the stairs, the rail changing from metal to wood beneath his hand, then metal again on reaching the third floor.

“Thank you,” he said, as Kiera hopped from her perch.

“What are friends for? Just wait until you meet everyone else!”

He couldn’t wait. As last hopes went, the Overlap was proving to be much more than met the eye at first glance.

💀

5,173 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 88th short story release, written in March 2013.

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

Next Question

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

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

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

🚀

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cate hugged the tablet to her chest.

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since when,” Brandon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me introduce you.”

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

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

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

“Hello,” Cate said.

Airi smiled. “Welcome aboard!”

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

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

“Hi,” Tyler said.

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

“Hello,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. It is. We have a good crew.”

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

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

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

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

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

A clown fish circled her floating bulb before swimming away.

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

Brandon laughed.

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

“Do they create a hygienic problem?”

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And these are autonomous robots, right?”

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

“How many?”

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to finish my inspection first.”

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

“Okay. I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll go back out after this?”

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

Who else were they going to blame?

She put the glass down and answered the next question.

🚀

6,134 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

Discards

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s awful!”

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

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

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

“Weeds?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

💀

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

“Are you two getting along okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great!” Ms. Rachel said.

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

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

“Pull list?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony hurried to the back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspen straightened up. “That sounds perfect.”

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

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

“Sure. Yeah, no problem.”

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

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

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

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

Tony turned and grinned. “Funny.”

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

Something snapped, like a stick breaking.

A gassy, farting smell leaked out of the aisle.

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

A final wheezing, gulping noise.

Then nothing.

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspen hung her head.

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

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

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

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

💀

4,200 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 73rd weekly short story release, written in June 2013. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m a bit behind on posting stories but check back next Monday for another story. Hopefully I’ll have it up. Next up is my story Forgotten Opportunity.

Placer Crime

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

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

Trouble is, the story the miners tell sounds impossible.

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Clayton.” Mullins extended his hand.

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

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

Beau chuckled. “Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sheriff?”

Mullins turned back around.

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

“Consult?” Mullins rubbed his chin.

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

“Just up here, around this bend.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Consultant?” The younger man said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you offered to buy his claim?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jus tell him Pa!” Mark Higgins said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Higgins turned to Mark. “Get it.”

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

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

“Where was this?” Beau asked.

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

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

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

Mr. Higgins held up his hand.

Mullins  glanced over at Beau.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

💀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Prank?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

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

“Then you must join us. I insist.”

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

She laughed. “We will manage.”

Beau gestured and they walked on down the street.

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was gone. The table was empty.

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

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

“Mr. Clayton, are you quite alright?”

“Did you see where he went?”

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well.”

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

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

💀

4,721 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 71st weekly short story release, written in July 2013. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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

Sooner Murder

Beau Clayton left behind the job of a lawyer with the family firm to head out west and bring books to the gold miners and their families.

He set up in Eureka Gulch, planning to convince the booming gold-mining town to support a library. Helping expose corruption hadn’t been part of the plan.

Now the new sheriff wants his help solving a murder — when he would rather enjoy a picnic or a good book.

Beau Clayton, first appearing in Two for Death returns for another mystery for lovers of books and westerns.

🔍

The quiet on the hill was very welcome. No shouts of whiskey-drunk miners. No pounding hammers. None of the frenzy of Eureka Gulch as thousands gripped by gold fever filled the region. Here, above it all, one got a sense of the idyllic peacefulness of this region.

Beauregard Clayton’s gaze fell not on the rolling green hills and forests, but on his companion for this picnic. Ms. Emily Collins, sitting smartly in her plain blue dress, her motions as she unpacked the picnic basket, graceful. She carried grace about her, this daughter of the town doctor. And sharp wits. He was, without a doubt, quite besotted over her.

Their horses moved slowly away across the hillside, chomping at the plentiful grass.

“It is really lovely up here, isn’t it?” Ms. Collins unwrapped tins of roasted chicken, potatoes and even a carefully packed mason jar with gravy. There were even fresh golden biscuits.

Easily the most perfect day since he had come in on Mr. Gerlick’s pack train with his books to set up a public library. And get away from a future spent working in his father’s law offices. The population in Eureka Gulch continued to swell with miners and merchants, all anticipating the opening of the south half of the Colville reservation for mineral speculation. New buildings went up daily. Thousands of men, “sooners” spotted claims in the south half in anticipation of the day. The sounds of hammering never stopped and the Prohibition Party was drowned out beneath a sea of spirits that spewed from the numerous drinking establishments in the new town.

With all the commotion, this chance to get away with Ms. Collins above the noise and dirt was most welcome. He had worn his least dusty suit and bowler hat for the occasion and still, he knew, looked a bit of a mess. He was grateful for the company, and the food. As yet the town leaders had not agreed to fund his library. His own funds, mostly spent on his books, were dwindling. If things continued this way he would either have to stake out his own claim or pack up the whole idea of a library. He might try selling the books, but he’d likely have more luck with that in Deer Park or even back in Spokane. If it came to that, he might as well return to practicing law. If his father would even let him return to the practice.

“Mr. Clayton?”

That was the second question that Ms. Collins had asked. Beau took his hat from his head and ran his fingers back through his hair. “Excuse me, Ms. Collins. I’m afraid you’ve caught me drifting away in thought. There will be no more of that! I’m here, and yes, it is lovely. I was just thinking of how nice it is to get away from the town.”

“It is quite busy,” Ms. Collins said. She handed him a tin plate and fork. “Please, dig in. I know how men like to eat.”

“I do appreciate this, Ms. Collins. I haven’t had a decent meal in weeks!” He helped himself to a chicken leg, and a big piece of breast meat, piled on potatoes, poured the thick brown gravy across and added a couple biscuits. More food than he usually ate in a couple days.

Ms. Collins added food to her own plate as well.

The rich aromas added to the perfection of the day. The chicken was favored with rosemary and delicious. A rare treat that even pulled his attention from his companion. He had finished the leg and one of the biscuits before he looked up and caught Ms. Collins’ bright smile. Her eyes sparkled with delight.

She laughed sweetly. “Don’t stop on my account!”

Beau was about to answer when the sound of hooves rapidly approaching caught both of their attentions. Their horses heads came up. Beau’s gelding snorted and snapped his tail.

“Who could that be?” Ms. Collins said.

Beau stood up and faced south, down the slope where a cloud of dust was kicked up by the rider’s horse. Whoever it was, they were riding the horse hard. The rider corrected its path to bring it straight on at Beau. Ms. Collins gathered herself to her feet and stood beside him. She took his arm in her hands. Beau pressed his hand briefly to hers and smiled, what he hoped was a reassuring smile even as his stomach tightened.

He didn’t carry a gun. He had never fired a gun in his life, so even if he had one it would prove of little use.

“We’ll see what he wants soon enough. Do you recognize him?” Beau said.

“I don’t.”

He didn’t either. At this distance, the man’s features were indistinct and shaded somewhat by the broad brim of his hat. A bushy beard and mustache further shrouded his features. He wore a plain shirt, dark pants with suspenders. Beyond that, there wasn’t much to see at this distance. He could have been any of hundreds of men in the camp working the north half mines, or planning to spot his own in the south half. As far as the man’s horse, it was dark colored with a blaze of white down its forehead.

“Stay here,” Beau said. He patted Emily’s hand again and stepped forward, not content to wait for the rider to reach them. It was clear by this point the rider was coming for them, for whatever purpose there was in it.

Tall grass brushed against Beau’s legs. It didn’t take long before the rider reined in his horse to a stop in front of Beau. Dry dust blew around them in a slow-moving cloud that tickled Beau’s nose.

“You’re the library fellow, right?” The man asked.

Up close the fellow had the rough look of many of the men, hollow-eyed and thin with dirt ground into his pores. His horse was out-fitted for the rough country with bags and a rifle.

Beau touched his hat. “Beauregard Clayton, friend. I run the library.”

The man grunted. “Jack Little. Sheriff Mullins sent me out to find you.”

“The sheriff? What for?”

“What’s this about Mr. Little?” Emily asked.

The man touched his hat. “Ms. Collins. Sorry to interrupt your afternoon. The sheriff wants to see you, Mr. Clayton. He wants you to take a look at something.”

“This whole business sounds odd to me,” Beau objected. “What is this all about?”

“There’s been a murder.”

Emily made a noise. “A murder? Where?”

“In the south half, miss. An Indian has been killed, they’s claiming a sooner did it, and the sheriff wants Mr. Clayton here to look at the body.”

“Me? Why I’d think that Ms. Collins’ father, Dr. Collins, would have more business looking at the body than a librarian.”

Jack Little grinned, which wasn’t a pretty sight given he was missing more than one tooth and those that remained were yellowed and stained. “Ask me, I don’t see the fuss.”

“Over a man dying?”

Little spit into the dirt. “Happens. Men go scratching underground they die too. That sheriff, he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing out here. He heard that you had something to do with that business with the old marshal, guess he thought you might be useful. You coming or not?”

Sheriff Mullins was a young man. Unmarried. Came up on Gerlick’s pack train a few weeks back. He’d been deputy down in Spokane, if Beau remembered correctly, before coming out to take over as sheriff. New to the job, he probably wanted advice.

Beau turned around to Emily. She was standing, lips pressed together in a bit of a smile. She inclined her head. “A man has died, Mr. Clayton. If the sheriff believes you would be of assistance, than we’d better go, hadn’t we?”

“If you’re coming, let’s get on with it,” Little said. “I get paid the other half when we get there and I want to get on over to the boarding house before dark. Told my brother I’d meet up with him there.”

With that last Little leered at Ms. Collins. She turned away, color riding up in her cheeks. Beau took a step closer to Little’s horse. Little’s head snapped around, his dark eyes as fixed as a hawk.

“Don’t do anything stupid, mister,” Little said. “Get your things and we’ll go.”

Emily was already gathering up their interrupted picnic. Beau clenched and unclenched his fists, then went to help.

🔍

The dead man wasn’t far south of Eureka Gulch, but Beau wouldn’t have found the place on his own. Little led him up into the rocky hills above the Sanpoil river, following the bed of a small stream that trickled down through the rocks. The hill was steep enough that they had to dismount and lead the horses.

Beau’s legs burned with the effort and already ached from the day’s riding. He hadn’t ridden much since coming north. He was thankful, at least, that Emily had agreed to stay in the town rather than follow them on out to the site of the crime. She was strong, but the terrain in the south half was much more rugged than that in the north. It wasn’t hard to see why the reservation was split, leaving the Indians with this challenging land, as unfair as that was to those people. First the north half was opened for settlement and now there were men all throughout this part of the reservation lands spotting claims. What was going to be left for the Indians when they were done digging out the gold?

Little pointed up the slope. “Just over that ridge there.”

Beau didn’t have breath to comment. The ridge was up a particularly steep portion of hillside covered with loose pine needles and rocks that slipped away beneath his feet. His horse snorted and turned away across the hillside. Beau almost fell, but for his grip on the reins. The horse pulled back with his eyes wide and nostrils flaring.

Beau moved close to the horse and patted its neck. He ran his hand along the strong muscles. “Shh, boy. It’s okay. Okay.”

Meanwhile Little had led his uncomplaining horse around them and tackled the treacherous slope at an angle, working his way across and up to the ridge rather than trying to go straight up. Beau brought the his horse’s head around and followed. Apparently seeing the other horse ahead settled his horse’s nerves and there was no more trouble as they climbed up to the ridge.

Even so, by the time they reached the top, Beau’s legs and lungs burned. The air, clean and fresh with the sun-warmed scent of pines, did nothing to sooth his lungs. He would have liked to rest except Little was continuing on and there were other men visible now, just down the way where the ridge dropped down slightly. Three of them, with horses. Two were sitting on boulders near the horses, until they saw Little and Beau approaching and came to their feet.

Indians. They weren’t dressed that differently than the men in town, in worn clothes, dirty and as unwashed as any other man. Their faces were dark, expressions shrouded. The one on the right was older and wore a battered wide-brim hat. The younger man at his side had a bare head with dark hair that caught the sunlight.

Beau pulled off his hat and took out his handkerchief to mop at the sweat gathered on his brow. The air was growing warmer by the hour with not a single cloud visible in the blue sky above the trees.

The man that came forward to meet them was sheriff Mullins. He was young, with straw-colored hair and deep blue eyes that skipped past Little to fix on Beau. A long mustache covered his top lip, but his chin was beardless and recently shaved. His clothes were in good condition, dusty from the ride out, but well-cut. He wore a wide-brim hat that further shaded those dark, penetrating eyes. Young or not, Mullins gave the impression of a capable man.

Little stopped near Mullins, and said something that Beau couldn’t hear. The sheriff gestured to where the two Indians stood.

“Mr. Clayton?” The sheriff called.

Beau approached, feeling the weight of the other men watching him. He extended his hand. The sheriff shook, his grip tight and palm rough. Clearly the sheriff was accustomed to hard work.

“What can I do for you, Sheriff?”

Little moved off to the side, not near the Indians, standing on his own with his horse.

“We’ve got a dead man, and I’d like to get your opinion on the circumstances.”

“I’m not a doctor. I don’t have any medical training. I’m not clear why you’d like my opinion.”

Mullins looked hard at Beau and spoke in a low voice. “These two say that a white man killed their friend. Maybe a sooner. I don’t see that as likely.”

“That a white man would kill an Indian?”

Mullins ignored the question. “You’re an educated man, Mr. Clayton. You’ve got your library, your books. Mr. Creasor and others have told me about that business with the demon horse. I want a clear mind looking at this.”

It didn’t sound like a good situation, but Beau’s curiosity was piqued. Unlike the sheriff, he didn’t have any trouble imagining that a white man might have killed an Indian. Men like that had rounded up the various tribes and stuffed them onto the reservation, and now were opening up the south half for miners to come in and dig out the gold. It wasn’t that long ago that Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce had been escorted out here by the cavalry. Only last year he had gone to Washington D.C., there were bound to still be problems and tensions between white men and the Indians. And between the twelve tribes thrown together on the reservation. There’d been plenty of words written on that subject.

“I’ll look, although I don’t promise to shed any light on the matter.”

Mullins nodded. “That’s fine. I’m not asking anything more than that.”

“Where’s the body?”

The sheriff turned to the waiting men. “This is Mr. Beau Clayton. He’s going to take a look and give us his opinion.”

The younger Indian scowled. Beau resisted the urge to take a step back from that gaze. “Another white man?”

Mullins stepped forward. “Mr. Clayton is a librarian, an educated man. He’ll give us his honest opinion and then we’ll decide what to do next.”

The older of the two nodded and gestured off to the side.

Beau’s gaze slid across the rock and grasses to a small crease in the ridge, the start of a gully, where reddish rocks lay exposed. One in particular gleamed white in the sunlight and looked wet.

He blinked and it wasn’t rock that he was looking at, but a skull. What he’d taken as a pile of rocks in the crease was in fact a body. The victim lay tumbled, half-covered almost in pine needles and dirt so that his dirty gray clothes almost looked like rock. Had looked like rock a moment ago, but now that Beau had seen the body he couldn’t miss it. All this time that they were talking he hadn’t realized that they were so close to the body. Fat black flies twisted in the air, and when he inhaled he picked up the faint slaughter-house smell of the corpse.

How observant was he, that he had missed it?

No one commented on the fact. Beau took off his hat and mopped his face again with the sweaty handkerchief. Everyone was watching him. He walked forward, watching the dusty ground. There were boot prints and other signs of people, many of them on top of each other. Scuff marks in the pine needles. A clump of grass smashed and bent as if someone had stepped on it.

A big black and yellow wasp buzzed around Beau’s face. He brushed it away with his hat.

There were more long scuff marks and blood splashed and soaked into the ground near the body. A struggle, obviously. Bright shards of broken glass lay on the ground. Beau crouched and picked up a piece with a torn label. Whiskey. The ground beneath the pieces was mostly dry, apparently the bottle wasn’t full when broken. It would evaporate, of course, but maybe not so fast. He couldn’t be sure but if they had some more whiskey he could pour it out on the ground and observe how fast it evaporated. If that was even relevant. If he was a brilliant man, like Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, he’d already know the answer. Even the blood, splashed on the pine needles where it sparkled like rubies, or soaked into the sandy ground, must speak volumes about what had happened here.

Beau rubbed his chin. The illiterates must feel this way when studying a page in a book! There was information here, unfortunately it didn’t tell him much. He lacked the education to read this properly. And the sheriff had called him an educated man?

He considered begging off, and quitting. Yet there were four pairs of eyes watching him and pride forced him back to the task. Whatever he could make of this, he’d share, let the sheriff do with it as he wanted.

The body, which he had avoided since seeing it for what it was, lay tumbled in the small ditch, a gully of the sort where snow melt had cut into the ridge to expose rocks. The gully was dry at this time of the year. A whole swath of ground was disturbed down to the gully, the pine needles and dirt scattered, and dark splotches of blood marked the ground in a line to the body.

Like a wheel that has rolled through a puddle, leaving wet spots behind it.

The man had rolled down the gully. His wounds bleeding and depositing the blood with each turn in the dirt. That also accounted for the fact that the body was liberally covered with pine needles and dirty, stuck to his clothes and skin because of the blood as he rolled into the gully.

Dead, then, or at least senseless as he rolled down the slope.

Reluctantly, Beau studied the man himself. An Indian, like the other two. His braided hair flung back, a whole patch of skin torn up on his scalp to expose the wet bone beneath. That was the bright patch that had caught Beau’s eye when he first saw the body. Up along the right side of the man’s head the scalp was torn up. A nasty wound that would have likely bled a considerable amount. His dark lined face was slack, the tongue protruding slightly, red with blood. His eyes stared vacantly at ants gathering in the dirt around the body. The slaughter house smell was stronger here close to the body.

Beau’s stomach heaved and he turned his head away, closed his eyes and hastily pulled out his handkerchief to press over his nose. His stomach heaved again, reminding him of the time he had gotten sick after eating at a questionable establishment on his way to Spokane. This time, fortunately, he didn’t vomit the remains of the picnic Emily Collins had prepared. One of the men chuckled. He didn’t need to look to recognize Little’s voice.

As Beau’s stomach settled he turned back to the body. Clearly the wound to the Indian’s scalp was obvious, but the bone was solid and intact, not crushed. He leaned closer.

An explosive shout rang out behind him. Beau twisted around and saw the younger of the Indians glaring at him, the other holding his arm. Sheriff Mullins’ hand was on his pistol. Little was holding the stock of the rifle in his horse’s saddle bags.

“Mr. Clayton,” Mullins said easily, “I don’t think he wants you to touch the body.”

Beau lifted his hands. “I’m simply looking for clues about his killer.” He didn’t want to touch the body, but if he couldn’t it would limit what he learned. “I don’t mean any disrespect.”

The older Indian spoke. “Okay.”

The younger moved and the other turned, snapping out words in their native tongue. Beau’s curiosity flared. Had their language been written down? What would it look like? He knew French, Latin, of course, and German, but those were all related. How would it be to study a language that wasn’t connected to those?

The younger man settled back. The sheriff took his hand from his pistol. “Go ahead, Mr. Clayton.”

“I’ll be careful,” Beau said. “I want to help find out what happened.”

“We know what happened!” The younger Indian snapped.

Little spit in the dust, his hand still on the rifle stock.

Mullins’ hand touched the pistol as he lifted his other hand. “Whoa there, now! Mr. Clayton will be respectful, but he needs to look at the body.”

The elder gestured. “Okay.”

Beau turned back to the body. His pulse throbbed in his neck. He swallowed and tried not to think about the four pairs of eyes drilling into his back as he studied the body. Other than the head wound, there wasn’t any obvious wound he could see. As gruesome as that wound was, could it have caused the man’s death? How was he to know? He wasn’t a doctor, not even a drunken doctor like Emily’s father. He studied the wound.

There was a sharp line of blood across the lower part of the skull and it nicked across the man’s ear. A small piece was missing. The edges there were clean, the line in the bone narrow. Whatever had made that mark had a sharp edge.

Beau rocked back on his heels. Another wasp circled his head. More would come, and flies, the longer the body lay here. A blow to the side of the head, with a knife, maybe? Then in the struggle the man’s braid was pulled, tearing up the flap of skin that exposed the bone? Maybe. Possibly.

Gently, not looking back but feeling the others watch him, Beau rolled the man’s body as best he could as the man was already stiffened in death. The arms clutched at his mid-section and there was considerable blood and dirt stuck to the front of the shirt. Some ants dropped away from the mess, slow and sticky with blood.

Grimacing, Beau picked at the cloth and found several slices, about two inches long in the shirt. Even to his eye it was clear the man was stabbed, repeatedly, as if the killer had gone into a frenzy. He counted the wounds. Seven, in all, slicing through the shirt and into the man’s chest and abdomen. Three alone in the vicinity of the man’s heart.

Carefully Beau let the man down.

He stood up, brushing his hands with his handkerchief and walked back to Mullins. He pulled his hat off to mop the sweat from his forehead.

“I believe they are telling the truth,” Beau said, his voice pitched low. “The attacker was most likely a white man.”

Little spit again into the dirt.

Mullins eyed him. “What makes you think that?”

“The wounds are clean and sharp. He was stabbed repeatedly. Neither of them has blood on them, or a knife that I see. Even if they did, would they have a knife of that quality?”

“What about the scalping?”

Beau shrugged and twisted the hat in his hands, running his fingers along the brim. “I don’t know if any of these tribes scalped people, but if they did I expect they’d be better at it. Though the cut is sharp, it’s along the side of the head, and the edges of the flap are torn up. I’ve never seen anyone scalped, but in reading accounts of the process I believe they usually start at the front cut around all the edges peeling back the skin as they go. This looks like a single cut and then the scalp was torn upwards, suggesting the man was already dead or dying on the ground at the time.”

“Is that all?”

Beau shook his head. “No. The smashed whiskey bottle.” He pointed at the broken glass. “That was probably used first, striking the man to render him senseless. Then he was stabbed seven times, at least three of those near his heart. I expect he fell and in his death spasms, rolled into the gully. When he came to rest there, I expect his killer decided to try a hasty scalping, perhaps to take a trophy or to deflect suspicion on to the Indians.”

The sheriff was silent. The Indians watched them both. Beau had kept his voice low, they may not have heard everything that he was saying. Little had produced a flask from somewhere and was sipping at its contents.

“Whiskey.” The sheriff rubbed his jaw and pushed past Beau. He walked over to the broken glass and fished among the pieces for those with bits of the torn label. He spaced them out in his hand and showed them to the Indians.

“Do you know any white men who sell this whiskey?”

The elder said something to the younger man, who scowled but nodded. “We know him.”

“Then that’s the man I want to talk to.” Mullins looked down at the body. “You’ll take care of him?”

“Yes.” The elder’s voice was firm.

“What’s the man’s name?”

Expression and color drained from the younger man’s face. Only then did Beau hear the crack of the gunshot. A red spot bloomed in the front of the younger Indian’s chest. He sank to the ground, the elder kneeling with him, holding him.

Little held his rifle steady. He shook his head and spit into the dirt.

“I can’t have you going after my brother, sheriff. It’s nothing personal, just the way it is. Toss your piece onto the ground.”

Beau stood very still, and very aware of the sun shining on Little’s gun. “This the same brother you were meeting at the boarding house?”

The sheriff snapped a look at Beau, but said nothing.

Little grinned, showing his disgusting teeth. “That’s right. You’re a smart one, all right. Figured out pretty much what happened, except the part where that buck tried to stiff my brother what he owed him.”

“It’s against the law to sell whiskey to the Indians,” the sheriff said. “That’s why you were on the road. You weren’t down here spotting claims, you were selling to the Indians!”

Little laughed. “Me and my brother, we think any man has a right to drink, savages too. Not our problem if they can’t handle it. My brother said that one of ‘em had got away. He never does anything right. I was coming back to fix things up, when you came along. Figured I’d play along, for a time.”

It was in Little’s voice. He meant to kill them all. Beau hadn’t made it this far in life without running into men like him, who would kill to get what they wanted. His own father defended men like this. That was a part of the job Beau hadn’t cared for at all. It wasn’t the future he wanted. Until now he had thought that setting up the library, maybe even courting Emily Collins, was going to be his future.

“I couldn’t be sure what you’d do about it, just damn savages. Hell! Some men, they’d buy us a drink! But not you and this librarian. Toss the piece, sheriff.”

The humor had drained from Little’s voice. As soon as Mullins tossed the gun, it was obvious that Little was going to shoot him. Beau and the elder Indian would be next, but the elder was focused on his slain companion.

Beau’s hat was still in his hands. If he was going to die anyway? He flicked the bowler at Little and rolled forward. There was a shout, and the loud crack of the rifle but nothing hit him. He came out of the roll right in front of Little and lunged up to grab at the rifle.

Little cursed.

They struggled over the gun. Beau held on. He loved books, but crates of books were heavy. He wasn’t a weakling. He wrenched the rifle around and caught Little across the jaw with the stock.

Stunned, the man fell back a couple steps.

Beau stumbled, trying to catch his balance.

Little yanked a long knife from his belt. The wicked edge caught the light.

“Don’t do it!” Sheriff Mullins shouted. His pistol was out and pointed right at Little. “I’ll put you in the Earth, God help me. Drop the knife!”

Beau brought the rifle up to his shoulder and steadied it, aiming at Little’s chest. The dirty fabric was wet at Little’s arms from sweat. The man swore and tossed the knife into the dirt. He sagged.

Mullins kicked the knife back. The elder looked up at them all, watching.

Mullins said, “You got him?”

“Yes,” Beau answered, holding the rifle steady despite the pounding in his chest.

The sheriff approached Little, still with the pistol ready. “Show me your hands!”

Little extended his hands. “Hell, sheriff. It isn’t like they didn’t deserve it! That Indian, he tried to steal from us. My brother was justified.”

“Not in my book,” Mullins said as he fastened handcuffs on the man. “Now you’re both going before the judge on charges of murder as well as illegally selling whiskey to Indians.”

Cuffed the fight had gone out of Little. The sheriff bound his hands together with rope too, doubly making sure the man wouldn’t escape and tied the other end of the rope to his saddle.

“You’re going to make me walk?” Little protested.

The sheriff’s gaze was cold. “No problem for me if you want to be dragged.”

Beau lowered the rifle. His arms burned he passed it over to the sheriff.

“Thank you, Mr. Clayton. They were right about you, you’ve got a sharp mind for this kind of thing. I may call on you again.”

“I rather hope we don’t have more of this happening.”

Mullins shook his head. “If that was true, I’d be out of a job.”

“I guess so.”

The sheriff walked over to the elder Indian, who laid down his dead companion and rose, facing the sheriff.

“Do you need help with them? I can dispatch some men when I get back to town.”

“No.”

“He’ll get justice for this, and his brother.”

The Indian gazed past Mullins at Little. His gaze was as hard and hot as the sun pounding on Beau’s neck. Despite the heat, Beau shivered. That was a look that he never wanted directed at him.

Mullins tethered Little’s horse to Beau’s and then led the way down the mountain. Beau followed, leading the two horses, until they were back down on the valley floor. Then they switched, the sheriff tied Little’s horse to his own and made the man mount up, hands still bound.

“Try anything, and I’ll shoot you dead,” Mullins said.

“I don’t doubt it,” Little replied dryly.

So arranged, they rode back to Eureka Gulch.

🔍

The next morning Beau sat on his split log chair at the opening to his library tent feeling every ache in every muscle of his body. A cup of black tea and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds sat on the stump beside his chair. He was unaccustomed to so much riding. The library wasn’t much, yet, a tent building with a low wood frame and rough wooden shelves for his books. A small cot at the back provided him a place to sleep. His new sign, still oozing sap, hung from a post in front of the library.

“Library.” The sign’s letters rough and chiseled into the wood.

Around the library Eureka Gulch rang with the noises of humanity. Of horses and hammers, men laughing and a shrill giggle from the boarding house down the street. When he had purchased this spot it was near the outskirts of the new town, and already there were more buildings past the library as the town swept out like a wave.

Turning, he saw the slim form of Emily Collins making her way down the street in her practical gray dress. A few curls had escaped her hat, and she smiled warmly on her approach. In her hands, she held a book clasped tightly.

“Mr. Clayton, I’m relieved to see that you returned to us intact from apprehending that man.”

“I believe it was the sheriff that apprehended him.”

“That’s not what I hear from the sheriff.” Her lips curled in a wide smile. “Something about a hat, I believe?”

Beau’s neck burned. “I simply offered some observations, that led to conclusions. Little gave himself away in the cowardly murder of an unarmed man.”

“And the sheriff arrested his brother in the boarding house, I’m told. Apparently the man was so drunk that he didn’t realize what was happening until the sheriff had him in jail, absent the bloody clothes he had left on the floor.”

“I heard that as well. Good for the sheriff. About time Eureka Gulch had an effective lawman.”

“And about time that Eureka Gulch had an effective librarian.” Ms. Collins extended the book. “I finished this one, what do you recommend next?”

Beau took the book. “I have just the thing.”

And he did.

🔍

5,504 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 65th weekly short story release, written in June 2013. I meant to get it posted last week and couldn’t get to it. 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 Your Eyes.

The Time That Remains

Oversight: a process of linking one person’s thoughts to another through the use of quantum filaments.

Dr. Riley Mathews, oversight on the Archon, needs information on the enemy. They lack crucial details about the enemy’s biology and technology.

Sergeant Joby Harrison knows the score. His team, this mission, with Oversight in his head, might get intelligence to change this war.

How much can they do in the time that remains?

For readers who enjoy stories of honor and sacrifice.

🚀

He couldn’t smell the burning flesh from the images splashed across the screens of the command ship Archon. Dr. Riley Mathews, civilian oversight aboard, clasped his hands tightly behind his back as he studied the screens.

Around him, the activity of the deck continued unabated, a constant stream of chatter. Of men and women busy with the thousands of details necessary for this operation pushing into the enemy territory. Bugs, the soldiers called them.

In wars on Earth it was necessary to de-humanize the enemy. Out here, the enemy wasn’t human to begin with, but the lack of precision in the name irritated him all the same.

Whatever the enemy was, they weren’t bugs.

The Archon was the lead ship in the remaining battalion, running dark and cold on minimal power, no external lights, even few lights on the decks. They were trying to remain unnoticed and hidden. Internal gravity down thirty percent. Even the environmental systems were minimal, which left the deck humid, the air sticky, and smelling of unwashed bodies crammed into close quarters. A metallic, nickel taste clung to the back of Riley’s tongue.

The images on the screen showed the planet’s surface, just before dawn. The planet didn’t have a name, just a catalog number. The burned-out troop transports were dark shapes against a darker sky filled with smoke. Some of the shapes had to be bodies, but the shadows hid the details. Including any useful details, if some of those bodies belonged to the enemy.

Colonel Banning Haynes came up from behind to stand by Riley’s elbow. A seasoned veteran on Earth, the dim blue light from the screens cast deep shadows into the Colonel’s face, and beneath his eyes. His fatigue mirrored that of the crew, and the soldiers racked in the barracks in the belly of the ship.

“Doctor? I’ve got a minute now. Make the best of it.”

His rehearsed speech went out the window. “You’ve got to embed me, Colonel. The oversight rules —”

“Got nothing to do with this operation,” Haynes said. He pointed at the screens. “You’ve got your pics, fucking study those. Off my deck.”

“Images like these won’t give us what we need to win this war.” Riley pressed his hands together, and breathed in to remain calm. “Oversight will. You need me to see this first-hand.”

Haynes stepped closer. Smelling of sweat and faded deodorant. “If I could stick you in a landing pod and kick your ass planetside to get a first-hand view, believe me, I would. But I can’t. I’m stuck with you on my ship.”

“Oversight was designed to get me —”

“You think those men and women deserve to have you poking around in their heads? You distract them down there and you jeopardize the mission. I fucking won’t do it!”

Haynes was turning away. Riley unfolded the printout. “Colonel.”

Haynes stopped. Looked back, the shadows hiding his eyes. The work on the deck continued unabated, flowing around them as if they didn’t exist. Haynes tore the printout from Riley’s hand. He came back to the screens and held it up, tilting it to catch the light.

When he finished his arm dropped to his side. Shadows danced on his jaw as the muscles there clenched and unclenched. Riley crossed his arms and waited. Haynes hated him. Fine. Wanted to take his head off, probably. Fine. The orders were clear. But would Haynes follow those orders?

“It looks like the brass agrees with you,” Haynes said. “Get below. Get prepped. You’re getting your oversight after all.”

Haynes stomped off, bellowing orders. He thrust the sheet at a Major. “Take Dr. Mathews down to Oversight! Raise Sergeant Harrison! Fifth unit!”

Okay. That was more like it. Riley followed the Major off the Deck. They plunged into the narrow corridors, turning sideways to pass crew running to stations. Lights flashed and brightened overhead. Suddenly Riley felt as if someone had dropped fifty pounds on his shoulders, and he braced himself against the wall, as ship gravity returned to normal. His heart pounded, and the nickel taste in his mouth was stronger. It hit him suddenly. This was real. They were finally doing it. The orders came in, and just like that everyone was moving.

🚀

Oversight was one of those ideas dreamed up by eggheads back home who thought that they knew better than everyone. You never know what they’re going to come up with next, but ninety-nine point nine fucking nine nine times they don’t have a clue how that shit was going to work in the field.

At least the call had finally come in. They weren’t pulling out yet. The dice roll had come up, and they lost. Orders were to go on a bug hunt. Oversight wanted a close-up and personal look at the bugs. Okay, if that’s what it took.

This planet’s weak, orangey sun was just coming up over that snow-capped mountain range in the distance. The whole jagged chain of peaks, they looked like the Olympics back home, so much like them that it wouldn’t have been a surprise to come across Highway 101 and tourists driving north to Forks. The trees here were different though. Squat, wilty-looking things, with flat, round leaves, green at least, that curled around the edges. It wasn’t proper wood at all, but spongy and brittle. When Private Kempler had tried to burn a branch, it had just bubbled and let off a whiskey fart sort of stink.

The Fifth unit had been in the grind already. Yesterday cost them good people as they fought a running battle through all that damn sponge wood, all to get to this clearing to wait for an evac that clearly wasn’t coming now.

Sometimes you just didn’t get what you wanted, like the year when Santa Claus didn’t bring the bike, but that was okay, that was just fine, because you knew that Dad was out of work and really was the only Santa Claus that mattered.

Just like today. Somewhere, among all of the planets in the Reach, it was probably Christmas. And it was your fucking job to make sure that all of the boys and girls out there got to enjoy their presents.

“Pack it up!” People always jump when you use your loud voice. You’re one of the quiet ones, except when you want to be heard. “I want you ready to move in ten!”

You see the disbelief on a few faces. Private Vaughn looks back at you with this little smile on his face, like he’s waiting for the good news that the evac is coming. You can just see him realize that’s not what you meant as that smile oozes away.

“Sarge?” That’s Charlie Meyers. “Is that you?”

Turning around, he’s standing there, cradling his MEG-47. He’s got red dust covering his boots and uniform. It was on all of them, and all the gear.

“What is it Meyers?” You snap out the question.

He stands straighter. “Charge on the truck is at seventy percent. I patched that hydraulics leak. She’s ready to roll.”

He’s talking about the truck buried under hacked off sponge wood branches, on the side of the clearing. Standard armored transport, but useless against the bugs’ weapons. Whatever energy they used in those guns, it cut right through the trucks yesterday. This one was left behind in the advance, because of the leak. There’s no point taking it.

“We’re going out on foot,” you say.

Everyone is up and moving now. You think, Is it going to be worth it, Oversight? Is there anyone else left?

It’s a weird sensation, like talking to yourself, except it isn’t really talking to yourself. There’s actually someone else there.

I need to get a close up look. And samples. Biological. Technology. We need samples. And no, your unit is the only one left. Yes, it’s worth it. What’s your name?

Samples. That means packing the scanners and the rest of that gear. Your name? Sergeant Joby Harrison, and you don’t have time to play twenty-questions right now.

“Reed!”

Arrio Reed, Private First Class, leaves off pulling gear from the truck and runs over. He’s got dark shadows under his eyes. Small, but tough. “Yes, sir?”

“Pack the scanners. Oversight needs to get samples.”

“Yes, sir!” Reed runs back to the truck, and disappears into the back.

“On foot?” Charlie says.

“That’s right, Meyers. You saw what happened to the other trucks.”

Corporal Ciera Leon runs into the clearing. She’s been out checking the perimeter, making sure that the drones didn’t miss anything. “Still clear, sir. No sign of activity.”

“Good. Pull ’em and pack ’em. I don’t want any of those drones giving away our position.”

Ciera flips back the cover on her wrist tablet. Her fingers move across the controls, and from all sides of the clearing appear a dozen black tri-lobed drones. Each one is the size of a tea saucer. Mobile reconnaissance units, designed to operate quietly and serve as an early warning system. They fly in formation to their storage tube beside the truck and drop inside, one after another.

She’s a good soldier. Mostly they are, even Whitfield, as useless as he was in a fight, can carry heavy loads.

Reed is pulling the scanning gear out of the truck. Whitfield stands nearby picking his nose.

“Whitfield!”

Whitfield’s hand drops, starts to rise in a salute, and ends up flapping there like it can’t decide what it wants to do.

You point to the packs Reed is unloading. “Pack those up. You’re carrying them.”

“Yes, sir.” Whitfield runs over to Reed.

The rest of the unit moves with a purpose. Weapons are checked and reloaded. Viviane Kempler pulls a supply crate from the truck and pops the lid. It’s full of ration packs. You go over there.

“Kempler, what are you doing?”

She looks up. Pretty girl, with big doe eyes, but tough. She doesn’t give up. She’s holding one of the ration packs in her hand. “Sarge?”

You shake your head. “There’s not going to be time for that, Kempler. You want to pack those kilos into a fight? Or are you planning a picnic with the bugs?”

🚀

Riley Mathews blinked at the bright lights over the oversight chair. He lifted a hand to shield his eyes. The light on the planet was so much dimmer than the ship. He’d known that, it was in the reports, but seeing it himself, you got used to it.

Who broke the connection? He pushed up against the chair’s padded armrests, and there was Colonel Haynes standing in front of the chair.

“What’s going on, Mathews?”

At Riley’s side, one of the techs, a woman wearing a lab coat over her fatigues, held the oversight crown. Four disks on a curved cross-shape, dull matte black.

The nickel taste in the back of Riley’s throat was worse. He grabbed the squeeze bottle of water and squirted it into his mouth. He swished the warm, metallic water and swallowed.

“It’s working perfectly,” he said. “I was there, with Sergeant Harrison. They’re getting ready to leave the clearing and advance on the enemy position.”

Sir. Riley bit back the word that came to his lips. Personality ghosting, from the connection. It would fade.

“Let them do their jobs,” Haynes said. “Just tell them what you need. Don’t micromanage how they do it.”

“Sergeant Harrison and his people seem very capable,” Riley said. “I’ll stay out of their way as much as possible.”

Haynes nodded. “We’re at battle readiness. If these things pick up our position, how fast can you send your reports?”

“Fast,” Riley said. “I’m transcribing while I’m connected.”

“Good. Carry on.”

Yes, sir. Riley settled back into the chair. The cushions hissed as they adjusted. He dropped his fingers back onto the key scallops in the armrests and nodded to the technician. She placed the oversight crown on his head. It moved, gripping his skull. The pressure grew as the quantum fibers established sub-atomic connections.

🚀

Back in training they ran formations in all sorts of environments. High gravity, low gravity, in full environmental suits and packs through poisonous atmospheres, under high atmospheric pressures and low. There’d been one moon once, a Titan sort of place, which had a temperature -345 degrees C, and an atmospheric pressure four times sea level on Earth. It was so dark, the only lights came from your lamps. You couldn’t tell if the shadow ahead was a dip, or a crevasse into a bottomless ice pit until you got right on it.

Compared to that experience, this is a cake walk. A dusty, floured cake walk through the red dust covering the ground. It flies up with each step in puffs that settle quickly but it gets everywhere. The whole unit is covered in it. It has a baby powder feel, but smells more like dried seaweed. There’s no avoiding it as it covers the ground pretty much everywhere. It’s even up on the wilty leaves of the sponge wood trees.

Spores.

You have no idea what that means, except that obviously oversight is back. The crown made a tone earlier, signaling the disconnection.

The dust, it’s spores from the trees. They cast it off the leaves and it blows around. Sort of like pollen.

Does anyone know what these spores do to you when you’re breathing it in all the time?

No. But no one reported any allergic reactions. It probably just gets expelled by the body. Maybe some runny noses.

Hell. And maybe a few weeks out you start growing sponge wood in your lungs or some shit like that.

That seems unlikely.

Maybe, but the point is, you don’t know. No one does, not even Oversight. This is where the enemy set up base, so that’s what matters. Some of the survey drones had taken pics of sunny tropical beaches and crystal clear water, but apparently the bugs didn’t go in for that sort of thing. Instead they set up here.

Which is a good question. Why did they choose this site for their base?

The valley isn’t far ahead now. Two kilometers. You lead the squad around to approach it from the east, rather than retrace the path you followed when you pulled out. There’s a lot of underbrush between the trees, but its brittle. It breaks just brushing against it. You don’t even need a machete to make a path. On the downside, it leaves a fucking obvious trail. You keep everyone in a single-file line. If the bugs send out patrols and find the trail they’ll know something passed through, but probably not how many. Especially since the spore dust does a good job of filling in your footprints as you pass.

As you approach the ridge, you signal to the unit to spread out and take up positions behind the sponge wood trees. They won’t stop shit in a fight but they provide some concealment if the bugs have patrols up on the ridge. Which they damn well should. They don’t act stupid enough to leave their flank unguarded.

Reed’s a good one to send up first. He’s small, fast on his feet, and has sharp eyes. You point to him, and signal for him to advance.

He nods, rolls around the tree and heads up the slope.

You watch from cover. The rest of the unit is spread out behind and to either side of your position. All in your line of sight.

Reed moves from tree to tree. He’s quick and careful. He’s nearly to the top of the ridge when a sizzling blue-orange flash cuts right through the sponge wood tree where he was standing a half second before.

He rolls, not hit yet, letting gravity pull him down the slope through the dust. Rapid fire shots rip apart the trees. It sounds electric, like a giant bug-zapper frying bugs but its shooting at your man. Trunks topple over and kick up huge clouds of spore dust.

You move around the tree, signaling to Vaughn and Kempler.

The MEG-47 kicks against your shoulder as you open fire on the spot where the bug zappers came from.

Vaughn and Kempler are shooting too, the air fills with the answering thunderclaps of the MEG’s shots.

Your heart hammers.

Shit. Shit.

Reed’s on his feet. The spore dust cloud covers him as he heads up the ridge.

You move, zigzagging across the ridge. Bug zapper blasts rip apart the tree behind you. Vaughn and Kempler move too but Kempler loses the coin toss. The bug zapper that hits her punches right through her chest. She’s lifted off her feet, folding in half in the air, as the shot tears through armor and the flesh beneath. A red spray joins the spore dust.

She hits hard, going head over heels, boneless on the ground, ripped nearly in half.

Fuck! Get out of there!

You run up the ridge instead. Oversight freaking out doesn’t matter. What matters is the mission. Your people. That bug up there will answer a ton of questions. That’s the job.

Reed throws himself down on the ridge, braces his elbows and opens up with his MEG.

You run up hill, legs burning, trying to gain ground while the bug is distracted. As long as the bug holds the higher ground, it has the advantage.

Vaughn is on your left, still moving up. Meyers and Leon are on your right, holding positions with Whitfield. Without the scanners Whitfield carries, you’ve only got your eyeballs. If you go down, the others know to get to the Oversight crown and take over.

Bug zapper blasts pound the ground closer and closer to Reed. He stays in position, hammering back shots with the MEG. If he sees something to shoot at, you can’t see it yet.

The bug zapper suddenly switches and rains down on Vaughn’s position.

Among the kicked up spore dust and the falling trees you can’t see him anymore.

Then you spot him, dodging behind a granite boulder. His right leg is wet and dark. He’s bleeding. He’s been hit.

You motion for him to stay put.

He shakes his head. Indicates with gestures that he plans to move on up around the rock.

You give him the go-ahead.

You catch Leon’s attention, point to yourself and the hill, then her. She gets it. If you don’t make it, she’s in charge.

You sprint at the hill. Reed continues shooting from his position. Spore dust chokes you.

You cough. Keep running. Raise the MEG and shoot in the direction Reed is shooting.

Vaughn’s out of sight but you hear the thunderclaps of his MEG firing.

More bug zapper shots sizzle the air but nothing comes your way. Or at Reed. You beckon to him and he scrambles up and moves to the far side of the ridge.

Neither you or Reed are shooting. There’s so much spore dust in the air that you can’t see shit. You try not to cough, try not to think that this is the moment when you’re going to have an allergic reaction to the spore dust. Snot runs down your throat and chokes you.

You spit out the snot, the spores and keep moving forward.

A dark shape forms behind the spore dust. You hold up a fist and Reed drifts behind the broken stump of a sponge wood tree.

No one’s shooting now.

You fast walk forward, MEG ready.

It’s a bunker. The dark, reddish concrete is pitted and cratered with impacts. A low wall surrounds the bunker. Behind that is a dome, with a long slit mid-way up, a little higher than you’d put it, but the floor inside might be higher.

Nothing shoots.

Are they dead?

It’s possible. Vaughn was moving up on their position.

You motion to Reed. He takes one side, you the other.

You circle around the bunker and find the entrance on the back side, facing the valley. It’s just an opening, no door or hatch.

Vaughn is there, sitting against the low wall, his MEG across his lap. For a second it looks like he’s just taking a break, a nap maybe. Only for a second. Reed joins you, sees Vaughn but never lowers his weapon.

He moves forward through the gap in the low wall and you cover him.

Reed presses up against the wall beside the opening in the bunker, and then rolls in, moving low.

“Clear.”

His voice cuts through the ringing in your ears. You move back from the entrance. Meyers appears through the dust, beside one of the remaining sponge wood trees and holds his fire.

You beckon for them to move up, and then go to the bunker to see what answers are there.

The bugs are there, two of them, on the floor of the cramped space. They’re both covered in hard black shells. There’s a bigger one with multiple limbs, one is ripped off and lying on its own on the floor. A smaller one is crumpled against the far side of the bunker, with a fist-sized hole punched in the front of its armor. That one is rounded, and only has four limbs, but there are a bunch of bristly things sticking out of the top like antenna.

That’s tech. Armor, antenna. They aren’t insects.

Maybe not, but it won’t take long before reinforcements swarm up out of the valley below.

“What do we do, sir?” Reed says.

“Take position at those slits. You see anything coming up the ridge, take it out.”

“Yes, sir.”

Other than the bodies, the bunker doesn’t contain much. A few crates and cases. Reed drags one over to the center of the wall and climbs on it to aim his MEG out the slit. The crate doesn’t blow up, so it’s probably okay. You wait for Oversight to tell you what to look at first.

Let’s get that armor off them. We’ll learn what we can about their gear, but their biology might be more important.

Leon, Whitfield and Meyers reach the bunker opening.

“Shit, Sarge,” Meyers says. “What now? Those buggers are coming.”

“Then get on that other wall,” Leon says. “Help Reed.”

Charlie grins and hoists his MEG. “Yes, ma’am.”

He picks his way across the bodies, spitting on the smaller one. He doesn’t need a crate to reach the slit.

You move to the bigger alien and motion Leon over.

“Oversight wants us to get the armor off and see what’s underneath. Help Whitfield get that gear unloaded.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Look sharp. Charlie, Arrio, you’ve got to keep them off us so we can get this done. So far we have zero useful intelligence on the bugs this mission. Kadyn, as soon as Ciera  gets the scanners unloaded, you get on that third quadrant and help provide cover. This bunker is our gold mine and we’re going to keep it. You’ve got that?”

You used their first names. Why?

Because they all know what this means. They understand the mission. They don’t get to unplug and be back on the Archon.

You grab the big alien’s limb on the floor and pick it up. Heavy. Really heavy, like its weighed down. Very little blood leaks from the stump. What does come out is as red as Kempler’s or Vaughn’s blood.

You look back up at the men at the windows. Corporal Ciera Leon is nearly done unloading the packs Whitfield carried. They saw what happened to Teo Vaughn, who has a little girl back home and a wife. Viviane Kempler, the pretty girl was a brave and ambitious career-focused soldier. Each one of them was putting their lives on the line for this mission. Even Kayden Whitfield, who might not be the best shot, he didn’t hesitate to come into this fight carrying that gear.

Sorry.

You don’t need an apology. You need to get the job done. You turn the arm in your hands. The armor is hard but there’s almost a bit of give to it. The limb is as long as your leg, and it’s got two joints, two elbows along the length. The hand at the end is covered over the back with a two-piece protective guard. Under that are six fingers, four long fingers and two thumbs, one on each side.

Leon finishes getting the gear out and claps Whitfield on the shoulder. “Sharp eyes.”

You study the armor on the arm and don’t see any obvious catches or releases. It looks like a one piece formed skin-tight around the arm. You wait for Oversight to make a suggestion.

Put it aside for now. Pick up the weapon, let’s look at that first.

That makes sense to you. You hand the arm over to Leon. “Get tissue and blood samples from the end. Run them through the scanner and transmit to the Archon. Let’s give them as much data as we can.”

Yes, good. Sorry. I should have —

You don’t think it’s worth wasting time on apologies. Right now you want to focus on the work. You pick up the weapon.

Like the arm, its heavy and big. It takes two hands to lift. The weapon matches the armor. Black, with long smooth lines. Two grips, spaced wider apart than those on the MEG-47, but not so far apart that you can’t reach.

You keep it pointed away from the men watching the ridge even though there’s no physical trigger mechanism visible. The grips look solid, with no moving parts. But there is a barrel on the thing. The shape, the barrel, it all suggests that it shoots some sort of bullet even though what came out looks more like energy blasts.

Plasma.

You see what Oversight is getting at. The weapons shoot some sort of projectile with a plasma core. Extremely lethal weapons, much more effective than any you’ve seen.

The projectile must have some sort of magnetic bottle containing the plasma. The power source in the weapon must be impressive. But it also suggests ways we can shield against their weapons.

Too bad there isn’t a way to get weapons back to the Archon for study. You pass it over to Leon, who has already taken the samples from the arm.

“Get what scans you can. We think it’s a plasma-based weapon. If we can penetrate the casing and image the interior, that’s great, but don’t do anything that destabilizes the power source.”

Reed starts firing his MEG. The sound reverberates through the bunker. It’s deafening.

You resist the urge to get up, but you stop to check your MEG. It’s ready to go. You sling it back over your shoulder.

The enemy is coming. You think, Okay Oversight, what do we do with the time that remains?

For a moment you feel alone in your head, but the crown didn’t indicate a disconnection. The others fire their weapons. Leon carefully moves the scanner along the enemy weapon.

There’s no way for you to get out, is there?

That was decided back before you ordered your people out of the clearing. Dwelling on that is wasting time. What’s next?

Helmet. If there are external catches, maybe they’re there.

You agree. It makes sense. The constant MEG fire is answered by bug zapper blasts that shake the bunker. Spore dust fills the air as the impacts shake it from every surface.

Leon continues her scans.

You move to the head of the big alien, at least it has a recognizable head shape at the top. You run your fingers along the sides of the armor covering the neck and discover two indentations. You press and something gives way.

A faint blue glow illuminates a line that traces up the sides and along the front of the helmet. Carefully, you pull the front of the helmet down and free. The light comes from the helmet piece. Complex displays fill the inside, a heads-up display that fed the alien information.

There is a face in the helmet. Not human. Not even any mod-sapiens you recognize. A mouth ringed with small toothy mouth parts bisects the face. Three black eyes run in crescents on each side of the mouth. The center eye on each side is larger, nearly the size of golf balls, and streaked with deeper blues and purples. A four-lobed pupil sits in the center of the eye staring up at you.

Nothing moves. Whatever the enemy is, it is dead.

Leon leans close and lifts her scanner, imaging the alien in detail down to its pores.

You look up just as one of the plasma blasts makes it through the slit and takes off Whitfield’s head in an flare of gore. His body crashes into you.

You roll, trying to shove his bulk off, and from your position on the floor see the two tall aliens jumping over the short wall outside.

You yell a warning.

Leon drops the scanner and lunges for her weapon. The first plasma bolts pass over her head and hit Reed, then Meyers as he turns.

Corporal Leon screams in defiance as she fires her MEG out the door at the aliens. They dive to the side.

You shove Whitfield’s body off and grab your MEG.

“I’ve got this!” Leon shouts. “Scan other one!”

You want to help her, but you grab the scanner and crawl across the bunker to the other alien body. The walls shake from the plasma shots outside.

Leon reaches back with her boot and drags the alien weapon within her reach.

The smaller alien is covered in antennas like Oversight said. Four limbs, different joints, but the same tech covering it. There isn’t an obvious head, but it does narrow at one end.

Leon fires her MEG out the opening of the bunker, simply keeping them back for the moment.

You find two depressions on the alien’s armor and press them. Just as before, a seam opens and the front piece comes free. You lift the scanner even before you see what is inside.

Wrinkled skin, folds on folds, fills the armor. The folds get smaller on the face of the creature, surrounding a blunted snout and wide flaring nostrils. A trickle of blood runs from one nostril. Green striped eyes, with black slit pupils stare blankly out into the bunker. You don’t recognize the alien, but it also doesn’t look like it is related to the bigger alien.

They may not be related biologically. Two species, unrelated, sharing a technology. We may be dealing with another interplanetary culture, like the Reach.

In all the years of the Reach has grown, slowly expanding and absorbing more worlds previously outside the Reach, we haven’t found any other civilizations with FTL drives. Even the advanced worlds contacted were limited to their own solar systems.

Until now. We already knew they had FTL, but this doesn’t look like a case of —

Leon throws the enemy weapon out of the bunker. You turn away, shielding your eyes.

The MEG thunderclap hits your ears.

The world heaves beneath you. Heat, searing hot burns your exposed skin. You’re picked up and thrown against something hard. Bones crack.

The world shakes again and again as if the whole planet has decided to split apart. Smoke burns your lungs and eyes. Sweat pours down over burned skin and stings like ribbons of fire.

Sergeant?

Oversight is still there. You cough out blood and ash and realize that you don’t know Oversight’s name. Before you didn’t want to know, didn’t want to think about Oversight sitting safe on the Archon.

Sergeant. I’m Riley Mathews. What has happened?

You know. Corporal Leon detonated the power source on the enemy weapon.

You don’t hear anything except ringing in your head. You drag yourself up and rub away tears and dirt. Your MEG is half buried in rubble. You pull it free.

The top of the bunker, at the level of the slits, is gone. Torn away. Smoke fills the air, but sunlight tries to penetrate it from above.

You drag yourself out of the rubble. Chunks of concrete tumble away. It takes some digging to find Corporal Leon. She’s unconscious, but alive when you check for a pulse. The left half of her face is a melted ruin. Her breath wheezes through cracked lips.

There’s nothing you can do for her right now. You stagger to your feet and move to the broken opening, holding your MEG ready.

The ridge is a blackened ruin. A crater shows where the weapon detonated. You manage to take a few more steps, out to the low wall, which survived and sit down.

The fire had burned down into the valley. Craters dot the landscape around the bunker. A chain-reaction? One weapon exploding, setting off the others?

More than that. The initial explosion ignited the spore dust. That created a flash fire.

Far below, the enemy pours out of the buildings of their base. Flyers rise into the air. The reprieve is temporary. It won’t take long before they get here.

You stand up and head back into the ruined bunker.

What are you doing?

Every second counts, Mathews. What do you want to look at next?

🚀

Riley gasped for air, sucking it in as if he couldn’t breathe. His chest rose and fell. He shuddered and a sob escaped. He buried his face in his hands. The technician holding the crown stepped away from the oversight chair.

“Doctor?”

Riley’s head snapped up. He slid off the chair. His legs threatened to buckle but he caught himself and stood straight.

“Colonel.”

“They’ve found our position. We’re falling back. Did we get what we needed?”

“Yes, sir. Between the scans from the planet, and what I’ve transcribed, I believe so. It’ll take some time to process all of the data, but we’ve learned a great deal about the enemy.”

Colonel Haynes nodded. “Another multi-system alliance? Different species, that’s what you found?”

“Yes, sir. And details about their weapons and armor technology. We can develop counters.”

“Good. We paid a high price for it.”

“Yes, sir.” Riley didn’t care anymore. Personality ghosting or not. It felt right.

“Sergeant Harrison.” His throat constricted. Tears stung his eyes. He forced himself to go on. “Corporal Leon, all of them. They knew what they were being asked to do. They never hesitated. They never stopped. Harrison, even at the end, when they were coming, he kept working.”

“He did his duty. That’s what we do, doctor.”

“Yes, sir.”

Colonel Haynes turned to leave. Riley hadn’t moved yet. The Colonel stopped and looked back.

“So did you, Mathews.”

The Colonel left and Riley took a deep breath, then turned to the technician.

“I need to bring up all of the data we collected. We need to get it organized and sent ahead. We need to know everything that we’ve learned.”

“Right away,” she said.

Riley moved away from the chair. There was so much work still to be done, but they’d learned more than he dared hope for, thanks to the Fifth Unit.

He wasn’t going to waste a second putting that information to use.

He owed them that much, and more.

🚀

5,887 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 62nd weekly short story release, written in October 2013. Between school and being sick, I was delayed posting this story. 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 Special.

Headless Server

Just coming out of an ice age, the alien world of New Anchorage promised Neil and Cassidy plenty of cold cases to solve.

Private detectives with Reach-wide licenses, they came to New Anchorage for a different sort of adventure – and find a chilling mystery.

If you love science fiction mysteries, alien planets, and exotic cuisine, check out Headless Server.

🔍

Breakfast came on a cerulean ceramic platter, covered with a matching ceramic lid decorated with cartoony examples of native New Anchorage wildlife. The server was cold-adapted mod-sapiens, a surprisingly cute girl with really big manga-style eyes, dark bangs hung above her eyes but downy white fur covered the rest of her face. When she blinked, it showed her double eyelid.

Neil smiled at her as she slid the platter onto the small polished stone table between him and Cassidy. Their server gave him a brilliant smile back, as bright as the hidden New Anchorage sun. Then she lifted the lid from the platter.

Breakfast bounced up from the platter. The menu had said eggs and bacon. Instead dozens of orange balls, each the size of a cherry tomato, popped, a snapping-fingers sort of sound, and bounced up and down. A whole jumping, popping, crowd of them. And the smell, it was a spicy, peppery odor with a hint of apple. There were also long blue things coiled on the platter that twitched and jerked, apparently in response to the bouncing balls.

“Joy,” the server said, favoring him with a wink of one big eye.

Cassidy kicked him beneath the table.

Neil fought back a wince and smiled at the server. “Thank you.”

She turned and skipped off. Her short red apron did nothing to cover her furry backside and long, tight legs.

Another kick hit his shins.

“Ouch!” Neil looked at Cassidy. “You didn’t have to kick me.”

Cassidy’s right eyebrow raised. “You didn’t have to ogle the waitress.”

Unlike the server, Cassidy was cyber-sapiens. Mostly unmodified base DNA with sensory and nervous system augmentations. Ten years together as partners in the detective business and in private, and he still found her beautiful and compelling. She had a full figure and dark wavy hair, and an adventurous streak that excited him.

It was her idea that they eat breakfast at this place. It was a small restaurant on the river-side strip, the sort of place where they might pick up cases. The dim interior held a dozen tables, plus seats along the bar. Most of those were occupied, bundled up locals hunched over their coffee and food. Two of the other tables were in use, by a couple of old cold-adapted mod-sapiens. It didn’t look like the sort of place that attracted tourists. Not that New Anchorage had many tourists. Most that did come were relic hunters. But so far Cassidy hadn’t found them a planet that was crime free, so their Reach-wide licenses were still useful. After a month here, business had been slow, but Cassidy’s optimism never let up.

The orange ball things were slowing down. They popping noises were decreasing and the jumps weren’t going as high. Some of them were starting to look wrinkled.

“This is eggs and bacon? Are they alive?” he said.

Cassidy caught one of the bouncing things between two fingers as it popped up and tossed it into her mouth. She chewed, swallowed and smiled. “Nope. Not anymore, anyway. That’s what they say. It’s steam escaping that makes them jump. They’re better before they deflate.”

He poked at one of the blue things. It twitched like it was going to wrap around his finger and he jerked his hand back.

“And those?”

Cassidy jabbed one with a neatly manicured nail. The blue thing whipped up and coiled around her finger. Neil’s stomach rolled as she lifted her finger to her mouth, her lips sliding around the finger and the blue thing. She sucked on it, her eyes on him the whole time, and sucked it right off her finger. It uncoiled bit by bit and disappeared into her mouth. She chewed with relish.

“Hmmm, that’s delicious. You’ve got to try it. It tastes like pesto chicken. Garlicky.”

Neil eyed the whole twitching, bouncing mess of a breakfast. “I don’t know.”

“They aren’t alive. Not really. They react to heat, residual cellular activity, that’s all. The steam from the balls activates them. Or the heat from your finger. I’m not letting you leave until you try them.”

In the ten years that they’d been together, Neil had heard similar statements many times before. Cassidy was always the more adventurous one. She picked out their destinations, a new planet each year, while he tagged along. Solving crime across the Reach.

This year was New Anchorage, a barely habitable, cold world where the day-night cycle took a whole month. Not a place he would have picked to spend a year. Experts said it was coming out of an ice age, but temperatures wouldn’t get anywhere close to comfortable for at least three hundred years. Standard, not New Anchorage years, which lasted ten standard years. It was the ice age that had eventually doomed the native, now extinct, civilization.

“Come on, you have to,” Cassidy said.

He reached out to pick up a deflated orange ball and his finger brushed one of the blue wormy things. It coiled swiftly around his finger. The touch was drier than he had expected and cool.

Cassidy grinned. “Go on. Try both.”

She’d never let him live it down if he didn’t. Neil lifted both up, closed his eyes, and shoved them in his mouth. He nearly bit his finger, pulling the blue thing off with his teeth. He wasn’t making it look sexy, he was just trying not to gag. The blue thing was thrashing in his mouth, trying to coil around his tongue.

He bit down to stop it. Juices filled his mouth. And Cassidy was right. It did taste sort of like pesto, with the orange thing adding a peppery and apple taste to the mix. The texture was firmer than chicken or pasta, not exactly rubbery, but chewy. He chewed quickly to stop the thing from moving and swallowed.

It wasn’t so bad, really. He caught one of the orange things that hadn’t quite stopped bouncing. It popped in a hot rush when he bit into it. That was better. The peppery steam helped clear out his sinuses.

A scream from the back interrupted their meal. Neil stood up, so did Cassidy, as the cute server backed out of the kitchen area. She screamed again and fluttered her hands in front of her eyes, like she couldn’t decide whether to cover them or to look.

The locals stood up off the bar stools and crowded up to the edge. A big man, the fur on his face long and trailing down a hairy chest, reached across and touched the server’s shoulder.

“Bethany, what wrong?”

Neil edged closer to the crowd, but held back. Maybe she’d seen a spider or a mouse or something. If they had those here, or their equivalents.

“Dixon, in the freezer,” she said. Her arm pointed for emphasis.

Dixon? With a name and a reaction like that, it didn’t sound like a spider had scared her. Neil moved closer and pulled his badge. He held it up.

“Detectives. May we help?”

Bethany turned, fixing her big eyes on him. She rushed to the edge of the counter. The locals fell back, turning to face him.

“Yes, sir. Please do,” Bethany said.

Cassidy was beside him, her own badge in her hand. She held the shield out toward the locals. “Case claim, then. We’ll investigate.”

A case claim meant that the local governmental body couldn’t just throw them off the case without paying a nominal fee. Cassidy always did look after the business side of things. She was great at getting reluctant municipalities to pay up, which helped them make enough on each planet to afford moving on to the next.

“Show us Dixon,” Neil said.

The freezer was a simple box at the back of the place. Lacking insulation, it used the ambient temperature outside to keep things frozen. It was neat. Clean plastic boxes lined the shelves. There were whole cartons full of those orange eggs, not bouncing right now. The one thing that didn’t belong with the body lying in the center aisle. It’d be face-down, if it still had a face. The bloodless neck was pointing at the door.

Bethany, and the two cooks, crowded in behind them.

Cassidy went in first. Her implants would film the whole scene, record environmental factors, and document everything that they did. She walked over to the left side of the body and worked her way around to the other side. Her breath fogged the air. They’d left their heavy outer gear in the airlock on the way in. Neil picked up a large can of some sort of pickled vegetable and dropped it on the floor in front of the door.

The server, Bethany, stood in the doorway wearing nothing but her red apron and watched. “Doing what?”

“Just want to make sure the door doesn’t shut on us,” Neil said. He wasn’t going to take any chance, even if it was unlikely that they would all decide to shut him and Cassidy in the freezer.

He turned his attention to the body. The air in here was cold. Freezing, well-below freezing. Cassidy stood opposite, hugging her arms.

“Let’s make this fast,” he said.

The body was another cold-adapted colonist, just like the girl. White fur covered the body. This one also wore a red apron, apparently that was the unisex dress code at the restaurant. Neil walked around the body, following the path Cassidy had walked, watching for anything of interest. Standing at the feet, the view was uninterrupted by the apron, and the body was clearly male. He completed his circuit to end up beside Cassidy.

To Bethany, he said, “His name was Dixon?”

“Uh huh. Yes.”

He didn’t want to be indelicate, but he said, “How do you know it’s him?”

“Dixon worked last night,” Bethany said. “Just he and I covering shifts with Lalia off. And I recognize him, we see each other this way.”

Of course they did. The aprons didn’t cover their backsides, so that’s what she would normally see. It was an obvious thing. He moved on.

He looked back at the cooks. “Were either of you working last night?”

Both men shook their furry heads. The tallest of the two, with a round face that gave him a teddy bear look, said, “Taylor, he cooks night. Does morning prep.”

Neil looked at the crates of the orange eggs. “Has anyone been in here this morning?”

All three of them shook their heads. The cook who hadn’t spoken yet broke his silence. “Taylor loads cooler.”

He turned and pointed back into the kitchen. There was a big refrigerator.

“I come in,” Bethany said. “Starting lunch prep and find Dixon.”

Cassidy said, “Where do we find Taylor?”

He would have been the last person to see Dixon, and right now the most likely suspect.

“I get address,” Bethany said. “Don’t wanna be here, anyhow.”

She shoved between the two cooks. Cassidy moved into the doorway. “Come on, I will take your statements, while my partner works.”

Slowly, the two furry cooks left Neil alone, trailing along with Cassidy. That was the thing about ten years together. They each knew what the other needed. And right now, he needed privacy. The next part of the investigation made some people uneasy.

Plus it was damn cold and he wanted to get done without having to answer questions while he was working. And Cassidy’s enhancements made her a natural lie detector. She could take their statements, and she’d know if they were lying or not. Their thin covering of fur wouldn’t change that. He had his own work to do.

He started back at the neck, absent a head or blood. He bent close and inhaled deeply. No odor. The edges were clean, precise. All the tissues were cut in the same fine line, which had passed right through the spinal column between the vertebrae without cutting bone. Some sort of molecular blade? That would account for the lack of tearing and the precise nature of the cut, but the whole inside of the freezer should have been sprayed with Dixon’s blood and there wasn’t a drop.

That suggested he was killed elsewhere. But why kill the server at all? And if you did kill him, why bring the body back to where he worked and leave it in the freezer?

Neil leaned closer, looking the severed ends of the major veins and arteries. They had a puckered look. He pulled gloves out of his pocket and pulled them on. They didn’t do anything to help warm his hands. His teeth chattered. He had to get out of here soon or freeze.

He poked at the tissues. They were soft, pliable beneath his finger. That was weird. The body wasn’t frozen. He bent closer and probed at the carotid. The cut was clean, level with the cut through the rest of the tissues, rimmed with a fuzzy white substance he had taken for frost. Down inside the artery was more white stuff, completely clogging the inside. It pulled in the sides, causing the puckering that he had noticed.

Neil rocked back on his heels. What could cause that? Not an ordinary cut, and why wasn’t the body frozen if it’d been in the freezer since the night before?

He stood up and moved to Dixon’s side, and crouched again. It was time to roll the body over and see what else there was to see. If he found anything interesting, he’d call Cassidy to document it. He ran his fingers along Dixon’s arms. The tissue was soft to the touch, not exactly warm, but definitely not freezing. He continued on down the arm and discovered that Dixon’s hand was cupping something. It was small, hidden in the shadow between his hand and his thigh.

Neil didn’t disturb it. He wanted Cassidy recording before he moved the body and uncovered the object. It also gave him a reason to get out of the freezer. He walked out into the warmer kitchen. Cassidy was talking with the heavier cook. He caught her gaze and she excused herself.

When she reached him she said, “What did you find?”

“He’s not frozen,” Neil said softly.

“What?”

“Come see for yourself. I want close-ups of the neck, there’s something odd there. And he’s got something in his hand that we’ll see when we roll him over. I wanted you there for that.”

Neil glanced back into the kitchen area, past Cassidy. The cooks were talking amongst themselves, and Bethany. Many of the locals were crowded around too. It wouldn’t be long before they all started wanting answers. With the case claim filed, they’d also have the local law down here soon too. Some jurisdictions would just pay the fee to get them off the case. Sometimes that was okay, but this time he wanted to dig deeper. There were just too many things that didn’t make sense.

“Any trouble with them?”

She shook her head. “All of them are shocked. I don’t think they have a clue about what happened. I did get a picture of Dixon.”

“That’ll be helpful if we find his head,” he said. “Let’s get this done before we get interrupted.”

They went back into the freezer together. Cassidy bent down to get a good look at the neck wound.

“That’s weird. It’s like all of the capillaries have been sealed with that white compound,” she said, moving around to join him at Dixon’s side. “Some sort of clotting agent?”

“What could do that and prevent any blood from spilling?”

“Beats me.” She knelt beside the body and pulled on her gloves. “Let’s see what else we’ve got.”

Neil joined her on her right, closest to whatever Dixon had in his hand. Neil put one hand on Dixon’s wrist to keep it pinned to the body, and the other on Dixon’s side.

“You get the shoulder and we’ll  roll him up and over,” Neil said. “On three. Two. One.”

They both pushed and lifted. The body came up, but it was loose and floppy. Not frozen, and not stiff with rigor. As it rolled, Neil got a look at the thing in Dixon’s hand.

It looked like dark wood, a deep reddish material laced with a grain. Except the grains in the object were white and seemed to snake beneath the polished surface. At three points the white lines joined together and continued out of the object, extending down where they pierced Dixon’s hand beneath his index and little fingers, and at his wrist.

“Hold it,” Neil said. “Can you see this?”

Cassidy leaned close to him. Her warmth was welcome. He wanted to huddle close to her, preferably with both of them in some deep hot spring or pool, without anything on, just to get warm again.

“I see it,” she said. “Whatever that is, it looks attached. What do you think?”

“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he’s got that white stuff around his wound, and this thing is connected to his hand and wrist.”

She leaned across him, still holding Dixon’s upper body. He wanted to press against her warmth, but the situation made that awkward. And there was no telling what that thing was doing to the body. At least they were wearing gloves.

“If this is biological we have to close the place down and file an alert,” Neil said.

“It doesn’t look biological,” Cassidy said. “I’m not getting organic readings from it. And in the infrared there are markings on the object.”

“Native? Is it a relic?” The ice age had buried and ground up most of the native civilization’s artifacts, but relic hunters were still digging up pieces that had survived.

“Looks like it to me,” she said. She smiled at Neil, even though her lips were starting to turn blue. “This could be a big break for us.”

Neil pushed the body further up. “I don’t see any signs of trauma to the front of the body.”

“Wow.” Cassidy’s eyes widened, irises huge and dark, the way they got when she looked into the infrared. “He’s still warm, Neil. There’s a pulse!”

He shivered and it wasn’t only from the cold. “How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. It’s slow, wait,” she said. She stared intently at the furry chest beneath the apron.

Neil’s legs were beginning to cramp. He didn’t feel anything in the wrist he was holding. Not that he doubted her, but how could the server be alive without his head?

“There! Almost two minutes between beats. It’s faint, but there.”

“Put him down.” Neil said, lowering the body with her help.

When the headless server was back as they’d found him, Neil stood up. He took Cassidy’s elbow. “If there’s a pulse, does that mean he’s alive? Without a head, isn’t he sort of brain-dead?”

“I don’t know. We don’t know anything about that relic. Or where his head is. We’re going to need help on this one.”

“Fine. Let’s get out of this freezer, and contact the local medical responders. We’ve got a case claim, amend it to include the relic.”

She didn’t move. “Should we get him out of the freezer?”

Neil shook his head. “We don’t know what that would do to him. Maybe being nearly frozen is part of it, sort of a hibernation thing.”

“I don’t think their mod includes hibernation.”

Teeth chattering, Neil shrugged. His toes were feeling numb. “Either way, we need to go and find this Taylor that was working last night. He was probably the last one to see Dixon alive. Or intact.”

Cassidy finally moved out of the freezer. Neil followed her out, and moved the can away from the door. He told the cooks and Bethany to stay out of the freezer while Cassidy contacted the medical responders and filled them in on what had been found. From the sound of it, they didn’t want to believe her at first. After confirming her universal license and with an image of Dixon’s body, they jumped into action and would be on site within minutes. She gave them strict instructions to leave the native artifact alone, until they knew more about its origin.

With that done, Neil and Cassidy headed out to find Taylor. The best thing about leaving, was getting to put on their cold-weather gear. Neil dialed up the suit’s internal heating to the max.

🔍

New Anchorage was a relatively new colony, that had garnered interest primarily because of the extinct civilization. Conditions were considerably harsher than those experienced by its namesake. Habitable definitions had been stretched by the colonial administrators, in Neil’s opinion, as they stomped into the big geo-thermal-powered warren where Taylor lived. Ice fell from their boots into the melt grate at the entrance while jets of air blasted off the ice clinging to the outside of their suits. By the time they got through the jets their suits were dry. Neil pulled down his face mask, but kept the rest of the suit on. He still hadn’t warmed up.

Taylor’s apartment was on the third floor down, the fifteen door in a stained and chipped corridor that smelled of smoke, food and urine. A half-dozen fat mod-gen cats lounged around the corridor, basking beneath the light tubes bringing in reflected sunlight from outside.

“Why are there so many cats in this colony?” Neil said, not for the first time.

Cassidy grinned at him. “You just don’t like cats.”

That was true. Neil stopped in front of Taylor’s door and pushed the call button.

No response from inside. Neil pushed the button again.

This time something thumped inside.

He looked at Cassidy. “Did that sound like someone in distress to you?”

“It did,” she said.

Their license gave them limited rights to enter private dwellings, unless they thought there was risk of deadly harm coming to someone inside. Or that the dwelling was an obvious crime scene. Given that they’d come here to talk to the last person likely to have seen Dixon with a head, Neil was pretty sure they had cause.

Cassidy moved to the other side of the doorway. He took up position beside the panel. They didn’t carry weapons, but that didn’t mean that someone inside wouldn’t be armed.

He entered his license code into the panel. It flashed green, confirming and recording his authorization, and opened the door.

“Private detectives,” Neil called. “We’re unarmed, and coming in. We are recording.”

At least Cassidy was recording. Which meant he went first with his hands open and out to his side.

It wasn’t a large apartment. Not much more than a rectangular box that extended from the hallway to the enclosed sun balcony on the far side of the room. These were compact dwellings, with features that folded out from the room. Right now there were two people in the bed that was taking up most of the room.

And there was a mod-sapiens head on the steps beside the bed that led up to the sun balcony. Neil looked at the head and she looked back. The head belonged to a woman with fine features, covered in soft fuzz. Her eyes were open, fixed on him, and her mouth moved.

Red lips mouthed the words, Help me.

One of the native artifacts, just like the one that Dixon’s body held, was attached to the head’s neck.

The people in the bed finally stirred. One of them sat up, a woman with rather large, and firm, shaved breasts. She rubbed her eyes and then dropped her hands to blink at Neil and Cassidy.

Except the head had masculine features, and dark eyebrows.

Cassidy nudged Neil with her arm. “Umm, Neil?”

“Yeah?”

“That’s Dixon’s head.”

“That’s not his body.”

The head on the steps rolled her eyes, and then looked sideways, glaring at Dixon.

The other person in the bed groaned and sat up with his eyes squinted shut. He was unmodified, with golden skin and wavy blond hair. He would have looked more at home on a sunny beach than New Anchorage. He yawned.

“Man, what time is it?”

The woman with Dixon’s head jabbed the guy in the side. “We over slept!”

Neil looked at Cassidy. “Dear, would you contact the authorities?”

“Already doing it, honey.”

🔍

Local law arrived in five minutes along with a medical response team. Cassidy shared their files, billed the colony the usual fees for the case. Given that no one was actually dead, Neil agreed that they bill the case as a kidnapping and assault, rather than murder. That, plus the claim they’d filed on recovering the native artifacts, meant that the New Anchorage was going to turn out to be one of their more lucrative planets. This was a discovery that would have the medical establishment salivating for more research.

Dixon stopped in the doorway as they were going to lead him away. “We weren’t going to keep her body. We hired her for the night, that was all. Once we got up we would have switched back, and Taylor would have taken my head back to my body. We just slept in.”

The med techs carry were carrying out the woman’s head at that moment and she started mouthing curse words at Dixon. It was less effective without lungs to give them voice.

“Why all this?” Neil asked.

Dixon glanced at Taylor, being questioned over by the bed and lowered his voice. “Taylor, he’s into women, you know? Once I knew what those things could do, I talked him into trying this.”

Dixon’s voice became wistful. “It was worth it, you know?”

He was led off and Neil stepped out with Cassidy. One of the fat mod-gen cats rubbed against his leg. Cassidy pulled him close and planted a kiss on his lips.

“The lengths people go to for love,” she said.

He kissed her back. She had a point. He’d come to a frozen planet for her, and would follow her wherever she wanted to go next.

🔍
4,384 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 48th weekly short story release, written in October 2013. Eventually I’ll do a 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 Flame Breaker.

Everything for a Chance

A young artist with big dreams, Brant Lloyd heads to the city after graduation, putting everything on the line for his dreams.

The Museum of Art, his teacher. The city, his inspiration. The girl, his future?

A story of unexpected meetings and dreams.

Brant Lloyd got off the train in the city with twenty dollars in his wallet and his most prized possession — his membership card to the Museum of Art. The orange backpack he carried held the rest of his belongings, a moleskin notebook, pencils, a change of underwear, a clean black t-shirt, eraser, pencil sharpener and a pre-paid Visa loaded with his summer savings — a grand total of $2,323.15.

At eighteen, he was undaunted. The city was his future. He felt it in his bones, had felt it since he first took a school field trip to the Museum of Art. There, in that massive edifice of marble, were paintings from around the world. Some very old, but others new. Paintings created by men and women by hand, not on a computer, but with real brushes and paints. It was a light bulb moment for Brant, when his doodles took on more importance, and a concrete reality. That’s what he wanted to do with his life, create works of art that people would still be talking about a century or more after he was gone.

Going to the local community college, the way his parents wanted, was unthinkable. He had to be in the city. They said they couldn’t afford to pay for him to live in the city. Fine, then he’d go on his own. He could make it work. He’d find ways to make money, and spend his days in the museum studying the work of the great artists.

Walking down the street, engulfed in the mass of humanity around him, Brant was happier than he’d ever been. He was doing it! He knew the way to the museum, he’d memorized the layout of the city before he had left home.

He imagined is mother finding the note he had left on the dining room table. She’d pick it up, seeing the ink and watercolor he’d done of a single rose on the front, with a smile. She wouldn’t really notice the petals that had fallen, not until she turned to the inside and saw the rest and his message.

Don’t be scared, he wrote. I’ll be okay. I can take care of myself now. I’ll write as often as I can.

Letters were cheaper than cell phones, and meant a lot more. He liked writing letters. He was the only one in his graduating class that could write cursive. Everyone else was too busy sending text messages, or emails.

He could have taken the subway but he wanted to save his money, make it last as long as possible. And why hurry? He got to see the city this way. All the masses of people, the sound of the traffic, car horns and sirens. He drank in the sights of the massive buildings rising overhead, but tried not to act too much like a tourist. He wanted to blend in, become invisible. His fingers itched to stop and draw everything he saw.

Instead he pressed on. He wanted to visit the museum first.

The main lobby echoed with the voices of everyone visiting the museum. Their voices soared up to the arched ceiling far above. Brant moved out of the main flow going in and out of the entrances.

His stomach was full of the hot dog he’d gotten from one of the carts outside. He gazed around the space and felt as if he had finally come home. It was here that he would develop his skills. He’d fill the pages of his sketch book during the day, studying. He’d roam the city to practice on portraits. Tourists would pay to have their portraits done. He could do landscapes in the park. Or images of the city overgrown and forgotten. The possibilities were endless.

He turned in place, drinking it all in, and then he saw her at the octagonal information desk in the middle of the space. She was young, his age or not much older. Her blond hair was straight, cut short, ending just above her neck. She was helping three older women, leaning over to point out information in a brochure. She wore two small pearl earrings and her fine features gave her an almost elfin look. She was dressed in a suit, complete with tie and vest.

His fingers itched for the pencil. He wanted to capture her right in that moment. He reached into his backpack, and pulled out his sketchbook and pencil. He flipped it open to a blank page and looked up.

Right at that moment she raised her eyes and met his. She smiled, a friendly, open expression, for only a moment, and then she returned her attention to the women she was helping.

Brant’s pencil danced across the page. He threw down lines, trying to capture the gestures of the scene at the desk. Loose, quick lines flowed across the page. He barely touched the three women, capturing their presence and hardly anything else. The desk was defined more by the blank space between the figures. He focused more on her delicate grace. The curves of how she stood.

“You’ve very good,” a man said behind him.

It startled him and a line shot off across the page. Brant took a deep breath, closed the sketch book and turned to face the speaker, smiling as he did. He didn’t want to be unfriendly to someone that had just complemented him.

The man was older, middle-aged maybe, and very well-dressed. His face was all planes and angles, sharp and clean-shaven. His hair was dark, but with gray liberally sprinkled throughout, thicker on the sides. Diamond cufflinks glittered on his wrist. He smiled.

“Sorry,” the man said. “I didn’t intend to startle you.”

“That’s okay,” Brant said.

The man’s eyes lifted, looking over Brant’s shoulder. “She’s lovely. I could imagine her portrait hanging on the very walls of this museum someday.”

It was uncomfortably close to his own dream. “I’m a long way from seeing that happen.”

“Maybe,” the man said. “I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve known many artists. Some of their work does grace these walls. Even in a sketch of a few seconds, I see potential in your work.”

Right. Brant eased back a step from the man. Whatever his agenda was, it was most likely not something that he could afford. “Thanks. I appreciate that, uh, I’ve got to go.”

Somewhere else, at least until this guy was gone.

“Of course,” the man said, apparently without taking offense. “There is always so much to be done.”

Brant nodded and turned away from the guy, and then wasn’t sure what to do next. He didn’t know where he wanted to go. Then he saw the old women moving away from the information desk.

He walked quickly across the space, weaving through the crowd, and reached the desk just before an Asian couple got to her. She smiled up at him. He smiled back, and noted that her name tag read, Kelci.

“Hi,” he said.

She smiled at him. “Hello. How may I help you today?”

“Do you lead tours?”

“No, I haven’t finished the program yet. I provide visitor services help. There is a tour scheduled in twenty minutes, if you’d like that?”

Brant grinned. “That’s okay. I think I’ll wander around. It’s okay if I sketch, right?”

She chuckled. “Yes. Pencil’s only, please, and respect other visitors by not blocking traffic. You’re an artist?”

“Yes.” It felt so good to say that! He took a breath. “At least that’s the plan. I just got to the city. I left home as soon as I got my membership card to the museum.”

“That’s great. The city is fantastic.”

More people were crowding around up to the desk. The other volunteers were all busy, and her eyes flicked to those behind him. She smiled, acknowledging them before looking back to him.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’m Brant Lloyd. I appreciate the help, Kelci.”

“You’re welcome.” She smiled and leaned forward. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Brant knew he was grinning like an idiot and didn’t care. “Oh, I’m going to be here a lot.”

“Great.”

He nodded, raised a hand, and slipped back through the crowd away from the desk. People surged into the opening he had created. He reached a space that was a bit more clear and looked around for the man in the suit. Apparently the man was gone.

Brant breathed a little easier. The man’s obvious wealth, his comments about knowing artists that had their work displayed, it sounded like a line. Maybe it wasn’t. He didn’t know.

Besides, what did it matter. He looked back at the information desk and caught a glimpse of Kelci. Heart-pounding, he looked away. He couldn’t stay here, or pretty soon she’d think he was some sort of creepy stalker guy. The best thing to do was to do what he had planned to do, and go study and practice.

He turned in place and then stopped. The Egyptians! That’s where he’d start. There were lots of cool artifacts to sketch and he could do sketches of the crowds. He went that way, through the impressive entrance to that wing.

The Old Kingdom artifacts gave Brant many subjects to work from. He flipped the page of the sketchbook, on to his fifth of the day so far, and moved to the next statue.

A standing woman, carved of wood. He worked to catch the gestures of the piece. The flow of the lines. As his pencil slid across the page Kelci came to mind. She wasn’t built like this woman, didn’t much look like her at all, really. But it was Kelci he kept thinking of.

Brant stopped and rubbed his eyes. He was being ridiculous. So he had met someone attractive. That was nice, she was nice, but she was doing her job. Most likely, she was married, or at least dating someone. It was his first day in the city.

Besides, it was unimaginable that she was single. And even if she was, so what? He was homeless at this moment. The little bit of money he had saved would go fast if he didn’t make more. He certainly didn’t have enough money to take someone out on a date. If he started doing that, he’d burn through his funds very fast.

No, the best thing he could do right now was practice. And figure out which hostel he was going to stay at tonight. Tomorrow he was going to have to put himself on a schedule, balance studying in the museum with observation practice around the city, and doing portraits and sketches for tourists. He’d need the money. He had to find a place to rent, and it wasn’t likely to end up being on Fifth Avenue. It was more likely he’d have to find a place out of the city. That was okay. The trips back and forth would give him more time to observe, to sketch, to live! He didn’t need much space. Mostly just someplace safe to sleep at night, and keep his paints. He’d meet people.

Like Kelci.

Brant closed his eyes and tapped the pencil against the sketch book. Not like Kelci. She seemed great, but he was here to start his future. This was his chance.

“Hey!”

The voice was female, familiar and close by. Brant’s eyes snapped open and there was Kelci, standing just to the right of the statue. She was shorter than him, probably only an inch or two over five feet. Dainty. That was the word, and she was starting to give him a strange look, because he was staring now.

“Hi,” Brant said. “Hi. Sorry. Kelci. How’re you?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. Brant, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. That’s right.”

She pointed at his sketch book. “May I?”

His throat was dry. He needed to find a water fountain or something. He handed the book over without saying anything.

She flipped it open, and of course the first page she landed on was the quick gesture sketch he was doing of her in the lobby, but she grinned. She turned to the next page, lingered, and then the next, both sketches of artifacts in this wing.

She looked at her watch, a thin gold band around her wrist. “These are great, really. I’ve got to get back. I was just on a break, or I’d stay. Are you going to be around in a couple hours? I’m off at four. We could grab coffee or something?”

“Yes.” The word came out without thought. He smiled, and said. “Great. Should I meet you out front?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.” She started to turn, then laughed and turned back to hand him the sketch book. “Sorry. I’m not trying to steal it, even though they are very good.”

He took the book back. “Thank you.”

She waved and moved off out of the wing.

His knees felt shaky and yet at the same time he wanted to run through the museum just to burn off the energy running along his nerves. She’d asked him to coffee. That had happened. It was his first day in the city, he was at the museum and possibly the most beautiful girl he’d ever met had asked him out to coffee.

And he said yes, even after all of his rationalizing. What else could he have said?

“Isn’t that always the question?” A man said.

Brant jerked around. It really was the same man, the one from the lobby, standing casually, comfortable in his skin. And he’d just —

“I didn’t read your mind,” the man said, doing it again. “It’s just my experience. A hundred and fifty-one years on the face of this planet, and I’ve seen that expression, I’ve made that expression, when we find ourselves in that deliciously complicated moment when there doesn’t seem to be any other answer to give.”

A hundred and…

“Excuse me?” Brant said. “Who are you?”

“Right now I’m called Alex Vicari. You’ve impressed me Brant Lloyd, which is unusual for anyone, much less someone as young as yourself. You’ve come here on your own, to the big city, with the burning desire to become a world-class artist. One of the greats! The ego that requires! It’s brilliant. Really brilliant.”

Brant took a breath, and said, “How could you know all of that?”

A shrug. “Easily enough to explain. I eavesdropped on your initial conversation with that charming young creature. When I had your name, it was a simple matter to pull up all of your personal details, those of your parents, everything, more or less, that is known about you this world. It is so much easier, so much quicker today than it used to be.”

“Why? What do you want?”

Mr. Vicari, there was no way Brant could think of him as ‘Alex,’ snapped his fingers and smiled. “Exactly the right question. What do I want? You are observant. You’ve already deduced that I’m wealthy, easy enough for anyone to do, and you suspect by now that I’m quite mad. That is a subject to debate another time. The crux of the matter is this: I want to help you achieve your dreams.”

Mr. Vicari stepped closer. His cologne was light, but manly. Brant never imagined smelling that good.

“I claimed I was a hundred and fifty-one, a claim that you let slide because you doubted the veracity of it, and yet I assure you, it is most definitely true. It is the result of a challenging path I set myself on, much like you are doing, when I was a young man. A path that hasn’t ended, and yet one that I do not wish to walk alone. There have been others, brave men and women who attempted to follow in my footsteps, and failed. There is no guarantee that it will work with you either.”

Now they stood very close, and Mr. Vicari put his hand on Brant’s shoulder. It was a companionable gesture, but Brant sensed the strength in that hand, as if the man might crush stone in his grip.

“If you follow me, many of your current worries shall fade. Where to live, how to get money or food, these are trivial distractions to men such as you and I. Many a potential giant has found his or her potential drowned under the burdens of an ordinary life, of obligations and mortgages and the like. Can you imagine anything more horrible than going to work day after day, spending your years upon this Earth doing work that is as impermanent as a spray of water in the desert? How many potential greats, how many brilliant minds have withered away under the oppressive weight of what other people would deem success? And all the while their own inner dreams fade, wither and die.”

Mr. Vicari released Brant and stepped back. He looked at his watch, and smiled. “Yes, Mr. Lloyd, you have great potential. You cast off your old life to come here and aspire to greatness. You may have what it takes. We shall see. I have other engagements to attend. I will give you time to consider what I have said.”

Brant’s mind was spinning. He opened his mouth and no words came out. His throat was dry. His head pounded. Mr. Vicari walked out of the gallery and was gone in an instant.

A family, parents and two children, were coming through the gallery. No one else had heard Mr. Vicari. Brant went in search of drinking fountain, considering what Mr. Vicari had said.

In his words, Brant recognized his own fears. It was what drove him away from going to the community college. His mother had even said it one day, that he could start at the community college, go to the state school after, and then maybe get a good job teaching art. Maybe at a high school.

The thought of it was terrifying. Not because it was awful, it was what Mr. Vicari had said, about withering away when you’re doing what other people consider successful. He could go to those schools, get those degrees, and he might turn out to be a really good art teacher, but inside he’d be dead. Or if he went into a field entirely different than art, became an accountant or something. How many accountants out there had unfulfilled dreams? Or any profession?

As crazy as the business was about being a hundred and fifty-one years old, the rest of it made a lot of sense.

Brant found the nearest drinking fountain and gulped down several mouthfuls of the cold, cold water. It was great. He finished and took a deep breath and felt much better.

There was an older woman watching him when he turned around. She was wearing an elegant pearl gown. Her gray hair was cut very short, sort of buzzed. A string of pearls hung around her neck. She was beautiful, even though she had to be as old as his mother. She smiled warmly at him, and extended a finger toward the fountain.

“May I?” She said, her voice deep and amused.

Brant nodded. “Yes, sorry. I’m done.”

He stepped aside. She went to the fountain and bent to drink, and moved with such fluid movements that his fingers itched to take out the sketch book and draw her, try to capture that somehow, but he rubbed his hands instead.

She stood up and met his eyes again.

“You must be an artist,” she said.

Brant nodded automatically. “Yes, ma’am. That’s the plan anyway.”

“You either are a thing, or you aren’t,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you do in this world. If you are an artist, then you are until you decide to stop being an artist. Nothing else will, only you can do that.”

It sounded true. He wanted to believe her, but Mr. Vicari’s words hung in his mind.

“He lies,” she said, folding her hands together.

Brant’s mouth fell open.

She waved a hand. “Don’t go catching flies, son.”

He closed his mouth so fast that his teeth clicked together.

“All I meant was, whomever told you otherwise lied. Only you decide if you are an artist. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a life, or fall in love?”

Kelci’s face came to mind, her delicate elfin features and her bright smile. He must have blushed, because the woman clapped her hands.

“There is a young lady! I knew it.” She smiled. “Some people, they tell you that you must give up everything for your art. And in the end, then what do you have? Nothing. Live life to its fullest, and maybe you’ll have a chance to be the artist that you imagine yourself to be.”

Brant said, “I’m trying.”

“Good. Then keep trying. Give your young lady a chance. Things will work out as they should. You’ll see! Good luck to you.”

“Thank you.”

She smiled and walked past him and away. Then she was gone.

Brant looked at the time, and pulled out the sketch book. He’d go out into the lobby, sit on one of the benches and just draw until Kelci was done with her shift.

He was completely absorbed in the drawing when he heard Kelci’s voice behind him. “Wow, those are fantastic! Who are they?”

On the left-hand page was a drawing of Mr. Vicari, dark and shadowed in his suit. The right-hand page was a picture of the woman at the fountain, her light dress contrasting with her darker skin. It was a study in shadows and light, and drawing from memory.

He turned, and there was Kelci, just as he had pictured. He closed the sketchbook. “Just people I saw today.”

Later, he’d finish the drawing, adding her in between the two of them, spanning the page. He’d come to the city for a chance. A chance at what? The woman was right. He was an artist, here or anywhere. The city gave him the chance to learn and improve, but it gave him other chances too. He slipped the sketchbook into his backpack, and stood up. He held out his hand.

Smiling, Kelci reached out and took his hand. Her skin was warm, and soft, with a strong grip.

“Where do you want to go?”

“There’s a place I like, it’s a few blocks away, if you don’t mind walking?”

Brant shook his head. “I don’t mind at all.”

His heart was hammering in his chest as he walked with her out the doors of the museum. There, just outside the front doors, was Mr. Vicari talking on a cell phone. Brant met his eyes, and walked on past.

He smiled at Kelci. He was going to do everything he could for a chance at the life he wanted. That’s why he came to the city in the first place.

3,845 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 46th weekly short story release, written in October 2013. Eventually I’ll do a 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 Dumping Ground.

Manifesting Destiny

Coffee vats belched and farted espresso aromas so strong not even nose filters helped. Jacob, vat inspector, took his job seriously. Unstable vats threatened everyone.

Catching violators helped his career and kept people safe. Too many people looked to get rich creating vats.

A story about the next generation of genetically modified organisms .

🚀

April 13th, 2068

The air had a rich espresso aroma from all the vat farts. It soaked right in past Jacobs nose plugs. How much worse would it be if he wasnt wearing them?

Standing next to him, seemingly unaffected, Roberta sipped a hot latte supplied by the pimply, over-eager manager. In the nest boxes filling three racks stretching across the room, the coffee vats sat blinking with stupid contentment. Colors ranged from a deep, dark almost black green, to a light spring green color. They were obese, mostly boneless, with flat faces and big yellow eyes with horizontal goat-like pupils. And like goats, they chewed, continuously, a deep-throated mastication noise that had Jacob wishing hed brought earplugs too.

Everythings in order, the manager said again, for like the fifth time. Jacob had already forgotten his name. It was on the forms.

We always get the highest ratings.

One of the chubby mid-tone coffee vats belched out a house blend burp. Jacob pinched his nose. It didnt help.

Roberta lifted her tablet, flicking through the forms with her thumb. DNA samples last filed a month ago?

We drew new samples this morning and sent them off, the manager said. Theyre stable.

Stable. If vats stayed stable, then Jacob wouldnt have a job. Ever since Arvad Blum had introduced the first bioengineered vats thirty years ago, vat designers had been claiming that their designs were stable. If that was true, they wouldnt have had the outbreaks in Los Angeles, the vat swarms across Kansas, or the Paris incident.

The lure of cheap food production kept designers always working on new vats of all shapes, sizes and possibilities. The wonderland of genetics finally opened up for anyone dreaming of getting rich.

Jacob walked over to the vat nest boxes. All those chewing, belching, farting vats watched him, yellow eyes moving and tracking him with placid interest.

What if it was all an act? What if the vats tumbled out of their nest boxes in a fleshy, sticky avalanche? Of course they hardly had limbs to speak of, stumpy little legs with webbed frog-like feet. Unlikely they could even get out of the nest boxes.

A dark green vat in front of him reached up and gripped the bar along the front of the nest box. As if a signal passed among them, the others also reached up and wrapped webbed toes around the bars on their boxes.

Jacob stepped back.

Valves opened above each nest box and a cool mist sprayed out onto the vats. Each vat lifted its fat face up to the spray, opened its fat mouth and hummed a deep thrumming cry. The mist kicked off a second later, and grunting, huffing, belching and farting, the vats settled down again.

They have to stay moist, the manager said at Jacobs elbow.

Jacob didnt twitch a muscle. Roberta grinned over the top of her coffee. I think theyre cute.

Cute? Youve got weird taste, Jacob said.

Jacob ignored the manager and walked around to the back side of the first rack. Mounted at the back of each nest box was a translucent container, catching the coffee beans that each vat produced. Each was neatly labeled with the type of bean and roasting instructions right on the container.

The manager skipped around in front of Jacob. Do you want to see the beans?

Without waiting for an answer the manager pulled a half-full plastic bin from the back of the nest box. A grassy, swampy smell came from the box that didnt smell much like coffee, in direct contrast to the farts and burps. Inside the translucent box was a mass of slimy green beans.

We process and roast the beans right here in house, the manager said. All the process water, and organic waste feeds right back into the vats, each one is engineered to produce a different flavor, which we enhance with our roasting process.

Jacob ignored him. Hed heard it all before. He slipped past the manager and walked down the aisle between the nest boxes. He ignored the vats on his left watching him. The floor was clean. No spilled beans. It looked freshly mopped.

A loud flatulent ripping noise signaled another coffee blast into the air. The nose plugs were useless.

A full circuit later there wasnt anything out of place. Either the jittery manager kept the place clean, or theyd had a heads up that an inspection was coming.

Anything? He asked Roberta.

She lifted her cup. The coffee is good.

Three years theyd been partners. She was five years younger, six inches shorter, dressed better and had a PhD. His wife, Nancy, loved her. Hed asked Nancy once if it bothered her that his partner was young and pretty. Shed started laughing. So much for being jealous.

Not that hed ever hit on Roberta, thatd be wrong on so many levels. His girls loved her too, and were always on him to bring her home for dinner. With five women in his house already, why they felt the need to bring in another, he didnt understand. Even Destiny, his youngest, loved it when he brought home Aunt Berta.

The girls were asking if youre coming for dinner on Friday?

Roberta smiled and winked. Cant. Ive got a date.

He arched an eyebrow, and then turned to the nervous manager. Well file our report. Youll get a copy. Thank you for your time.

Any time, the manager gushed. Thank you. I think what you do, monitoring vats, is so important to keep us all safe.

Even with the nose plugs, Jacob could smell bullshit. He glanced at Roberta. Their eyes met and he knew shed picked up on it too.

He pointed back past the racks. Didnt we park around back? We can go out this way, right?

Ah, sure. Of course. Thats very considerate. Wouldnt want to make the customers nervous.

Of course not.

Roberta went off on the right side of the room. Jacob took the left. Gleaming stainless steel counters caught his blurry reflection, distorting it into funhouse shapes. Sinks, industrial dish washers, and ovens. Banks of drawers, no doubt filled with utensils and supplies.

Except drawers didnt belch. Not normally. Jacob pulled open the top drawer, full of rolls of foil, and paper towels.

Did you need something? The manager asked.

Jacob opened the next drawer down. A dozen fat vat faces looked up at him, only small, fist-sized, like a bunch of slimy green goat-eyed cherubs. All chewing. One belched a light coffee burp.

I found it, Jacob said.

I can explain.

Save it for your lawyer. Roberta was coming around the far side. You dont have a permit to breed vats. Roberta, will you do the honors?

🚀

Home was a yellow rancher in an older neighborhood up on the Eastside, within easy walking distance to the woodland trail. It was a quiet neighborhood, a good one to raise the girls in, with plenty of other children in the neighborhood. The sort of place where neighbors still held outdoor barbecues, and stayed up late to look at the lights on the Moon.

Jacob often joked about applying for a vat inspector job on the Moon, when the girls were grown. Everything they ate up there was vat grown.

Nancy wouldnt hear of it. What about your parents?

What about them? Their tiny blue vat-powered car was in the drive as he turned in. Odd. It wasnt like them to come by on a weekday.

As Jacob went inside he expected an orchestra of high-pitched girlish laughter and instead the place was quiet. His gut tightened. It was the same feeling he got when someone was trying to pull something over on him. Something serious was going on.

He found Nancy and his mother in the living room, alone. No sign of the girls. Both women looked up at him as he entered. Nancy, at thirty, just like him, still looked at least ten years younger. She shared the same pointed chin and tiny nose as his mother, lending some truth to the idea that you married women that resembled your mother.

Mom was, as always, fit and health-looking, white hair hanging in luxurious waves around her fine features. She was like weathered marble, elegant and grave.

Mom? Nance? Whats going on? Where are the girls?

Nancy patted the couch cushion. Theyre at Staceys, spending the night, except Destiny. Shes already up in her room reading before bed. How was your day?

Jacob considered shucking off his coat and rejected the idea. If his mother was here alone, it only meant one thing. Its Dad, isnt it? Whats wrong?

Sit down, Jacob, Mom said. Your father is okay, at the moment. Its you, were concerned about.

Me? Jacob peeled off the coat, and tossed it on the recliner. He joined Nance and looked across the coffee table at Mom. Me?

Mom picked up a steaming mug and settled back in her chair. She smiled. You look tired. Whatd you do today?

She was avoiding the issue. It was like her, raise something, then dance around it. Her tea smelled minty, a welcome change from his day. Theyd spent hours at the coffee house after shutting it down. In the end the young manager was crying.

We didnt try to breed them! We dont even know how theyre doing it! The babies just started showing up!

And now every customer that had had coffee there since the baby vats started showing up had to be contacted and tested. The investigation would turn up if the breeding had been deliberate or not. Deliberate meant breaking a zillion laws, not to mention copyright infringement, but that was easy to handle. Spontaneous reproduction? That was a bigger mess.

Actually, Roberta and I broke a huge case open. Coffee shop downtown was hiding baby coffee vats. The departments going to have to assign a whole special investigative team to it.

Nancy and Mom exchanged a look.

What is it?

Mom peered at him over her mug. She took a sip. Exasperated, Jacob collapsed back on the couch and crossed his arms. Fine. You know, you always do this, bring something up and then dance around it.

He looked at Nancy. You should have seen her about the sex talk. It took her three weeks to get around to it, as if I hadnt already read everything.

It should have been your father giving you that talk, Mom said. She put her mug down. And it should have been him now, too, except he cant.

He sat back up feeling as if an icy hand had slid down his shirt. What? Come on.

She took a deep breath. This isnt easy, Jacob. Particularly given your job.

My job?

Let me talk! If Im going to tell you this, keep your questions until Im done.

Hed rarely heard her sound like that, not growing up. Not as an adult. Okay. Sorry.

Oh Hell. His gut sank. She was going to tell him that Dad had gotten into making vats. Maybe one of those home brew vats that fermented hops in their guts and pissed out beer. Looked like barrel-shaped turtles sitting on their asses with a bony pecker where the spout would be. Some bars had those sitting right up on the counters and let customers feed them peanuts. Said it gave the beer a nutty flavor.

Theres no easy way to tell you this. Your fathers not well. She raised a hand, forestalling questions. Its not like hes going to die right now, therere changes going on. Hes a vat, son. Your father is a vat.

That wasnt a beer-pissing turtle barrel. He looked at Nancy, knowing his mouth was open. No words formed. Nancy patted his hand and her lips pressed together sympathetically. Oh, hell, Nancy believed it. If she believed it, it had to be true.

We wanted to tell you when you were young. Oh, we were so scared when I got pregnant with you. Every day we expected the, well, someone in your position, to show up and know everything. It didnt happen and the pregnancy didnt set off any alarms. When you were born, you were just so perfect, and normal. Well, it never came up.

Never came up. Jacob collapsed back on the couch. He scratched the back of his hand on his stubble. His father was a vat. That made him, what? A vat? Half a vat?

A laugh bubble up out of his chest. It slipped out, making him burp like one of the vats at the coffee house. A bit of hot vomit, tasting of bile and salami hit the back of his throat.

He swallowed and coughed. The laughter died and hot tears stung his eyes.

He shook his head. This doesnt make any sense! Ive been to the doctor! Ive had blood tests, hell, Ive passed screenings at work. We have to pass regular screenings, because we come into contact with vats all the time. If Dads a vat, that makes me a vat, and wed have been caught a long time ago.

Mom shook her head. It didnt work that way, son. Youre not a vat.

Nancy reached up and touched his arm. Apparently it skipped a generation.

🚀

They were in the kitchen, the three of them, around the oak-topped island. The lights over the island were on, but none of the others, making a spot light on the gleaming oak and the jar at the center.

It was just a mason jar, with a brass lid. Holes had been punched in the top with a nail or a screw driver, the way kids sometimes did when they wanted to keep a bug in a jar. Except this wasnt a bug.

The thing in the jar looked prehistoric. It was red and soft-looking, with bumpy skin and a clutch of legs up around one end. Fuzzy antenna spread out form the head. It was coiled around the jar, antenna drifting slowly above its rear end. Spread out it was probably under six inches long. Like the coffee vats it looked moist, almost jelly-like.

Jacobs stomach rumbled. He hadnt had anything to eat except lunch, and right now he couldnt imagine eating. He crouched down beside the island to get a better look at the thing in the jar.

What theyd said, he couldnt believe it.

This came out of Destiny?

His youngest. A perfect cherub that loved to giggle and had midnight hair that cascaded down around her shoulders. She wore princess dresses and looked like a miniature Snow White.

Heaved it right up while brushing her teeth, Mom said. Started screaming her head off.

It was horrible, Nancy said. I was so glad your mother was here to help.

Jacob moved around the island. In the jar the vat thing turned, wiggling that clutch of legs to rotate in place. Watching him. Did it recognize him?

When I saw it, I had to tell her the truth, Mom said. You recognize it, dont you?

Of course he did. Jacob rubbed his jaw. This was Arvad Blums work from thirty years ago. Or at least a copy of his designs. Something like this had infected an office building in Chicago and like the parasites that made snails climb to the tops of trees to get eaten by birds, it had driven all those people up to the top of their skyscrapers. If they hadnt been stopped theyd have gone over the roof.

His throat was dry. He stood up and backed over to the sink, bracing his hands on the counter.

How do we know that she didnt get exposed to something?

Mom pointed at the jar. Because thats what saved your fathers life.

No messing around this time, Mom. What happened?

It was just over thirty years ago. Arvad Blum was in the news with his miracle breakthrough, his gift to the world. No more hunger, no starvation, all of our ills were going to be cured. No unethical slaughter of animals, because the vats were each created by us for a specific purpose.

Mom!

She waved her hands. Sorry! Fine, Ill get to the point. Your father had leukemia

You never told me that.

Nancy touched his arm. Let her finish.

Sorry, Mom.

Leukemia. He was dying. Arvad Blum made us an offer. Part of a research trial. This thing, it would live inside him and not only kill the cancer, but take care of everything else. Give him a super immune system. Thats what it is. It bonds with the host and takes care of you. A symbiote.

Mom walked around the island, her shoes clicking on the granite tiles. She reached Jacobother side.

Only yesterday your father was complaining of a bad headache. I was worried, he never has headaches, he never get sick. You know that.

He did. He always wondered why he hadnt inherited his fathers constitution. Now he knew. Blum had given it to his father. Infecting him. Vat organisms were notoriously easy to make these days. The challenge was creating stable ones. Errant vat organisms spread, cancer-like, converting other organisms in the process.

He got sick. I was going to call the doctor when he threw up one of those. She rubbed her arms. It was much bigger, and gray. I saw it when Blum brought it, and it looked like that one. The one he threw up yesterday, it was dying. It did die, within a minute.

And Dad?

Her lips puckered slightly. She rolled her shoulders. Hes not himself. He complains that he hurts everywhere. That he doesnt feel good, cant see as well. A bunch of things. Now he knows how I feel!

Nancy leaned into Jacobs arm. Can it be a coincidence that his died and Destiny, well, that theres a new healthy one?

How the hell was he to know? This was all so far outside of the norm, they might as well be on the Moon. There were procedures for this sort of situation. People he should call. Would call, except this was his family. It complicated everything. Something about the story bothered him. He touched Moms shoulder.

You said Blum brought this to Dad. When he was arrested, they rounded up all of the people he experimented on. They went through extensive testing and quarantine.

She shook her head. Not us. Blum never made any records of giving this to your father. He was dying, Jacob. Blum knew that. He told us that this was a long shot, but your father, he figured what was there to lose?

I have to call this in.

You cant! Both of them said it together.

A soft voice spoke up from the doorway. Whats going on?

It was Destiny, in purple polka dot pajamas, rubbing her eyes.

Destiny. Oh hell. If he called them, what would they put her through, that she brought up this thing? 

Jacob smiled at her.

I thought you were sleeping, bug. He winced as the nickname slipped out. It wasnt so funny anymore. He swept her up in his arms, drawing out a familiar giggle and buried his face in her honey-scented hair. Lets get you in bed. Tell Mom and Nana goodnight.

Night Momma! Night Nana! Night Fairy Bug!

Fairy bug. Right.

🚀

After tucking Destiny back into bed Jacob returned to find Nancy and Mom back in the living room again, both on the couch this time, with Destinys fairy bug in the jar on the coffee table. Its antennae waggled at him as he sat.

Before you do anything, Mom said. I want you to think about your father. Im afraid that without his vat the leukemia is going to come back, plus who knows what else it was taking care of. I think we should consider giving this one to him.

Of all the things she could have said, that one didnt surprise him. Even so, he shook his head. We cant! We dont know anything about this one. Theres no telling what it would do to him.

It looks just like the one that he had.

You said that was bigger and gray.

Now! When Blum brought it to us, it looked just like this one.

Nancy spoke up. Jacobs right, though. Just because this looks the same, it doesnt mean it is the same.

Im worried about a lot more than that, Jacob said. You said it skipped a generation. How is that possible? How could it have passed on through me to Destiny?

I dont know, Mom said. Youre the expert on this stuff. Isnt that what you do every day?

I find people violating the laws. Im more like a dog catcher than anything.

Well I still think it means something that this one came out of Destiny when the one in your father died.

Theyd never seen a mobile home overgrown with vat tissue that had gotten out of hand, consuming the owner and his birds. That one had had strings of eyes, like beads on a string, that had watched them when they torched the place.

His precious Destiny had vomited up a vat created by Arvad Blum. It was his fault that she had done that, even if it had happened without his knowledge. He still didnt understand how itd happened, how he could have passed so many tests without it being detected.

He reached out and picked up the jar holding Destinys fairy bug. It rotated around the base on that clutch of legs and waved antennae at him. The thought of one of these things crawling out of his throat, hell, itd give him nightmares. Destiny didnt seem bothered, somehow, with the resilience of youth.

Theres only one thing we can do. He looked past the jar at Nancy and his mother. We have to protect Destiny, and help father if we can, but we cant risk letting an unstable vat loose, either.

What do we do? Nancy asked.

We need to go talk to Arvad Blum. He put the jar down on the table. Tomorrow. We take the girls, pick up Dad, and we all go see him.

Do you know where he is? Mom asked.

Yes, he did. Blum was forbidden from practicing any genetic research after his convictions. His appeals to have the sentence suspended had always failed. Vats were big business now, but no one forgot the man that first unleashed them on the world. No matter what his original intentions.

🚀

The smell of salt air and the sight of primary-colored kites dancing on the wind, greeted them as they drove into Westport.

In the back, the girls crowded against the car windows to catch the first glimpse of the ocean. Nancy had Destinys fairy bug jar in her bag. None of them had told the older girls the real reason for the trip, they were all just excited to get to take a trip out to the beach with grandma and grandpa.

Are we there yet? Cracked Dad from the first row of the minivans seats. Are we there yet?

Claire and Jolene, seven and nine, picked up the chant. Are we there yet?

Destiny laughed with her high clear voice and practically screamed it out. Are we there yet?

In the backseat ten-year-old Sarah said, Really?

Jacob watched the street signs. Hed gotten the address from the database at work, right before pleading for the rest of the week off to take care of his sick father.

The same man laughing his head off right now.
Blums position was monitored continuously. He lived in house arrest, forbidden from anything connected to his field. It had to be hell for the man, cut off from what he had loved. He made his living writing popular science articles, on anything except the field where hed made his name.

The file hadnt detailed how else Blum was monitored. Electronic communications, certainly. Was his house bugged? Jacob felt like pulling over and puking himself, except he was also terrified that he might puke up another fairy bug. What if they all started doing it?

It was enough to make his head spin.

There. Breakwater. That was the street. He turned down the quiet street running parallel to the coast.

Dad, Sarah said. Where are you going?

We need to make a quick stop, for work, he lied. Im going to see a man, ask him a question and then well get on to the beach house.

A rental. Hed rented it for the week. Therapy to make his father feel better. His mouth felt dry and sandy. He had trouble swallowing.

Visiting Blum was a bad idea. If the monitoring picked him up, given his position, itd be bad for them both. Blum might not even want to see him. It was enough to make him want to turn around and leave.

Except the house was right there. It was small, brown, with a well-maintained yard. Bright purple and yellow crocuses filled the flower beds in a colorful bounty. Gravel crunched beneath the tires as he pulled over in front of the house.

He twisted around in his seat. Girls, Moms going to take you on to the beach house. Grandpa and I are going to get out, talk to this man, and then well walk over.

We are? Dad said.

Jacobs mother elbowed him.

Oh, right. I guess were there! Dad laughed and got up, moving stiffly and climbed out.

Jacob went out his door, walking fast. He didnt want the van seen parked in front of Blums place. Better that everyone else went on to the rental. Nancy was coming around the front of the van. She handed him the bag with the jar.

Be careful.

I will. He kissed her lightly on the lips.

She slipped past him, moving around to the drivers side. Jacob didnt look back. He walked over to his father, keeping the bag in front of him.

Dad was waving as the van pulled away. Jacob took his arm. Come on, Dad.

Son, if this is going to get you in trouble, maybe we shouldnt.

Jacob shook his head. Its too late now. Come on. Lets not stand here attracting attention.

The house had glass French doors at the front. The easier for anyone to see inside, apparently. Jacob rang the doorbell.

A man moved inside. He was short, bald and round. He shuffled to the door. There was little about him that looked like the Arvad Blum Jacob knew from the old pictures, except for the beak-like nose that made him look like an owl in a moth-eaten purple bathrobe.

Blum opened the doors and squinted at them. Under the robe he wore swim trunks, a stained t-shirt and that was it except a sleek-looking bracelet on his left arm. That had to be the monitor device. Yes?

Dr. Blum —
Not a doctor anymore. Blum snorted. They took that away with everything else.
My name is Jacob, and this is my father.
Dad thrust out his hand. Michael, but weve met.
Blum didnt take the offered hand. We have?”
I was a patient of yours, Dad said. Over thirty years ago. Right before the arrests.
Blum took a wary step back. Whats this about?
Jacob didnt want to say. Instead he lifted the jar part way from the bag. Blums eyes grew larger. His hands fluttered with pushing-down gestures.
Jacob put the jar back in the bag. Blum beckoned to them and backed into the house, holding the door.

Thank you, Dad said.

They went inside. Sand gritted the wood floors. Blum closed the door behind them. The place, like Blum, could use a cleaning. It had a musty smell like day old pizza. Or maybe that was the pizza boxes piled in a bin beside the door.

Without a word Blum went on into the kitchen and disappeared into the cupboards. Jacob and his father followed Blum, who looked back and pressed a finger to his pudgy lips.

A moment later he came out with a box, matte black, with hinges on one side and a round hole. Blum unlatched the box. The inside was covered in eggshell foam, hollow at the middle. Blum put his hand in the box, and then closed it, so that the sides closed around his hand with his wrist through the round hole.

There, Blum said. They cant hear us if were quiet.

 What is that? Dad gestured at the box.

A sound-proof box. The bracelet is a listening device, as well as a tracker. The box doesnt interfere with the tracking capabilities, it just damps the noise. We cant be too long, or theyll get suspicious. Show it to me.

Jacob pulled the jar out of the bag and set it on the counter. The fairy bug looked duller today, and its antenna moved sluggishly.

It cant survive in there, Blum said. Whered you get it?

Jacob filled him in, quickly and concisely. Where hed seen Jacobs father, what happened the other day when Dads vat was regurgitated and died, and Destiny bring up this one.

Hows all this possible? Jacob asked. Did I pass this on to my daughter? What did you do?

Using his free hand, Blum stroked the glass. The fairy bug barely moved. This was my greatest creation. The cure all. It binds to the host, taking over the immune system functions, giving you a super immunity.

My leukemia went away, Dad said. I never got sick after that, not until the other day.

I always wondered how the lifespan would work. And as far as passing it on, yes, the dormant spores are in the blood stream. It was designed to spread, and when it finds an unoccupied host, it sets up home.

But my daughter vomited this one up.

Blum wobbled his hand in the air. Yes, well, thats the other mechanism. If it senses that a host has lost its symbiote it can take more direct action, if its young enough. It can leave the current host, letting a new spore mature, while it moves on to the more established host.

So this was Destinys symbiote, and it picked up and moved, to reach my father, like moving into a bigger house?

Blum laughed. Yes! Like that. I wouldnt worry about your daughter, a new symbiote would have already taken hold there, to pick up the slack.

Were all infected then, Jacob said.

Fortunately for you.

But I get sick. Im a vat inspector, Ive been tested and it never turns up anything.

Then you may have rejected the symbiote. I didnt have time to make improvements before I was caught. Maybe it didnt fully integrate, it might be dormant in you, yet produce spores which passed to your wife through intercourse, and then to your child. The spores wouldnt show up on the tests.

Jacob leaned on the counter, feeling sick. If they find out about this, what happens?

Blum shook his head. You dont want to get caught. Theyll break up your family quarantine you. Blame me, since you came here. Thanks by the way!

Sorry, we needed answers.

Dad picked up the jar. Thisll make me feel better again, like before.

Blum nodded. It should.

Dad twisted the lid on the jar. Jacob reached out and put his hand over his fathers. You dont know that! What if its changed? What if it isnt the same?

It came from sweet little Destiny, Dad said. I dont think its going to hurt me. And I dont want to feel so terrible.

You have to go, Blum said urgently. Theyll notice that Ive gone quiet. They dont like that.

Jacob took his hand off the jar. Okay, Dad. Go ahead.

Dad twisted off the lid. He hoisted it in the air and looked inside. Theres my pretty. Whatd she call it?

A fairy bug, Jacob said.

Dad laughed. Down the hatch!

Jacob turned away. He didnt want to watch. Dad made a gagging sound, and then he did turn, thinking that maybe his father was choking. A flash of a red tail disappeared past Dads lips. Then he took in a deep breath and put the jar down on the counter.

Thats better. Dad held out his hand to Blum. Thank you. You saved my life, twice now.

Blum beamed and shook his hand. Thank you. Im glad to know theyre still out there. Eventually the government will find out, maybe by then theyll spread enough. Go! You have to hurry.

Dad headed for the front door. Jacob turned to leave, then stopped and turned back. Did you keep any research on these things?

Blum squinted at him. Theres a friend of mine, from when we were kids. I trusted him. Name is Jang Sun. Hes working on the Moon now.

The Moon. Hell. Jacob followed his Dad out.

Two blocks away, a pair of big black cars, low slung models, sped past heading towards Blums house. Jacob held his fathers arm and kept walking. No one stopped them.

🚀

That night, after the girls were asleep, exhausted from an afternoon of flying kites, Jacob, Nancy and his parents sat out on the deck. The wind off the ocean was cold, so he bundled up under a rough wool blanket with Nancy. Her hand played along his leg.

Dad and Mom were laughing, heads together. They clinked glasses of root beer and drank.

Far up above the dark waves, hung the bright moon with glittering lights on the surface. The colonies were up there, and more, slowly spreading out into the solar system. Vats helped make that possible, and they always needed more trained inspectors.

He said that this man, Jang Sun had the research? Nancy asked.

Yes. He couldnt answer the questions. Why do I get sick? Mom clearly doesnt have a super immune system either. But you and the girls, you dont get sick.

She was silent for a moment.

I used to, she said. When I was younger. Remember? When we first met, I had the flu.

You were just nervous.

She laughed. But youre right. I havent been sick in a long time, not since I was pregnant with Sarah.

Itd be a risk. If the scans picked up anything, it could be tough on everyone. He couldnt even imagine it, leaving Earth.

Vats are heavily used up there. If we could work with Dr. Jang, we might get some answers.

She cuddled up against him. And could we do this, looking up at the Earth?

He kissed the top of her head. We might.

Out into the frontier, then. How was he going to break the news to Roberta? Shed have to get a new partner. Maybe shed find one that like coffee.

🚀
5,852 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 45th weekly short story release, written in March 2013. Eventually I’ll do a 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 Everything for a Chance.

Death in Hathaway Tower

The Hathaway’s held Hathaway Tower for fifteen generations, one of the older families in the Towers of Stone and Metal.

Young Emily Hathaway, the last surviving member of the family, continues their traditions. Like this dinner party, playing hostess to fascinating guests like brave Mr. Bailey who had spent time among the Salvagers.

A scream interrupts dinner, a body in the library, and a mysterious visitor makes this a dinner party to remember.

1

The whole party was enjoying the silky smooth lemon custard while Mr. Bailey related his experiences beyond the wall surrounding the Towers of Stone and Metal, when a shrill scream came from the library.

All conversation ceased. The candle flames barely flickered. The long dining hall was silent. Eight pairs of eyes in the room fixed on Emily Hathaway, the host of the evening. She was twenty, and no taller than she’d been at thirteen, though she had a more shapely figure now. Tonight she wore a shimmery gown of elvish silk, the color of fresh green leaves, that complemented her flaming red curls and matched her eyes. So pale was her skin, and so delicate her features, that some suggested there was elvish blood in her family. Unlikely, given that the Hathaway’s had held Hathaway Tower for fifteen generations, but she had some of that look about her.

Mr. Bailey coughed into his napkin. Beside him his wife clung to his arm.

Emily lifted her chin. Across the room her butler, and troll, Clasp, stood unmoving against the wall. He was a big gray-skinned figure in a dark kilt with the traditional sash, a slash of scarlet weave, across his chest. She locked her eyes on his tiny black eyes. A twitch of her head and Clasp moved like a boulder breaking loose on a mountain. Thunderous footsteps carried him across the timbered floor to the heavy oak door leading to the library. He pulled it open and disappeared through, shoulders brushing the frame on each side. The door banged shut behind him.

“Never mind that,” Emily said, “Likely one of the housemaids frightened at her own shadow. Mr. Bailey? You were talking about your time among the Salvagers?”

Mr. Bailey was her late father’s friend and the years had stripped away his handsome features along with his right ear. The scar stretched from there down across his cheek and through his lips. He tended to drool when he ate. Or spoke.

He opened his mouth to talk when the door banged open again and Clasp’s crashing footsteps returned. Emily apologetically smiled at her guests. Tall and regal Mrs. Watersmith turned her freshly powdered face to her escort for the evening, the handsome and young Mr. Dempsey, and whispered something.

Clasp’s massive head came down close to Emily’s own. She smelled grilled onions on his breath.

“A body, Miss. In the library.”

She kept her face controlled, even managed a small apologetic smile that would have made her father proud had he lived to see it.

“If you’ll excuse me? I’ll only be a moment.” She rose to her feet. The gentlemen at the table rose as well, Mr. Crane struggling to heave his bulk up. He shook the whole table in the process. His napkin tumbled onto his plate.

Emily followed Clasp, forever a child in his shadow. He stood twice her height, a moving mountain. As a small girl she had climbed those craggy heights, much to her mother’s annoyance. After the fever took her mother in the night, and Emily became the lady of the Hathaway Tower, she had left such things behind.

A body? In her library? She wished for those lost days when she wasn’t the last Hathaway.

Clasp held the library door for her and she steeled herself as she went inside.

There was a body, curled up on the mammoth-skin rug in front of the fire. Emily saw that first, right off, unable to miss it.

That wasn’t all. Anna, one of the house maids, stood just inside the library, not looking at the body but turned away. Her arms clasped her thin body as her shoulders shook.

Most shocking of all was the man that stood across the room from her. He was tall, nearly as tall as Clasp but lithe. His skin, like hers, was pale and unmarked. He wore bright green leather shorts but his chest and arms were bare. The black hilts of his knives rose above his belt on each hip. A band of silver circled his neck. A green cloak billowed around him, fastened with green leather straps to his wrists, bare ankles and thick shoulders. A long white braid, decorated with knobs of bone, stone and wood trailed down around his neck, across a hard chest, all the way down past his navel.

Piercing green eyes above high cheek bones met her gaze and didn’t look away when she took in his pointed ears. She looked back to his eyes.

He was beautiful and impossible. Not a normal man at all, but an elf. And elves never came to the Towers of Stone and Metal.

Emily looked up at Clasp. “You didn’t think to mention the elf?”

Dark eyes blinked down at her, but the troll was mute.

Frustrated, she looked back to the elf. “I am Emily Hathaway, lady of this tower. Is your business here concluded, sir?”

She glanced at the body.

The elf’s green eyes were still on her. He moved with the grace and power of the great scaled cats from Mr. Bailey’s stories. Two quick strides to stand at the edge of the mammoth-skin rug.

“I did not kill this one.” His voice and cadence sounded musical, as if he was singing the words.

Elves were seldom seen, even outside the wall surrounding the Towers. Not that the wall stopped them. Elves were said to be stronger than ten men. Some said that they had the ability to fly and most agreed that elves were only seen when they wanted to be seen. There were stories of elves seducing humans, men and women both, although she always credited that to human fantasies. Why would an elf seek out a human? It was said that elvish beauty was unmatched, true as far as she could see. In any case elves didn’t come past the wall out of choice, remaining above human affairs unless humans attempted to revert to their old destructive ways of the forgotten ages, in violation of the Treaty.

Looking at him, Emily’s heart ached. He was so beautiful, more so than she would have imagined. She steeled herself. She wasn’t some elf-struck little girl. She was the lady of Hathaway Tower and it seemed most unlikely that the body on her rug and the elf in her library were unrelated. She crossed to the other side of the rug and faced the visitor.

“If not you, then who?”

He looked at her as if he could see right through her. She shivered and refused to look away.

He turned away first, looking down to the body. “I tracked this one here, it was already dead.”

It. Emily forced herself to look down. The corpse scarcely filled out the suit it wore, like a child playing dress up. Where exposed, the limbs were wrinkled and deflated in great pink folds as if the insides were sucked away. There was a shiny, almost oily look to the skin. Most shocking of all was the face. A dear face she recognized, though the skin there too was slack and wrinkled, particularly around the bruised neck. Strangled, apparently.

It had her father’s face.

Emily lifted her head. The elf was watching her, as was Clasp, but she looked instead to the portrait above the library fireplace. Her father, in a formal black suit stood beside a chair where her mother sat in a deep iridescent blue gown. It looked like the same suit the body wore, perhaps stolen from his rooms? In the painting her father’s face was relaxed and happy. A square, handsome, kindly face on a man fond of laughter. The same face, more or less, as the body on the mammoth rug.

There was only one possibility.

“A goblinman?”

“A shifter, yes,” the elf said. “Killed while imitating the man in the painting. Have you seen this man?”

“He’s my father, and he’s been dead a year.”

“Shifters usually mimic the living, stealing their lives away.”

“Perhaps it meant to, not knowing he was already dead.”

Emily turned. “Anna?”

Anna sniffed. “Yes, Miss?”

“You screamed?”

A quick nod. Anna was only fourteen, fostered from the Vail Tower. Emily waited for more.

“I came in, meaning to check the fire before the party moved to the library. And, it was there, just as it is.”

“You didn’t touch anything? You didn’t see anyone?”

Anna shook her head twice.

“Good. Go have Mrs. Cormandy gather the staff in the kitchens. Everyone is to stay there and have their dinner until Clasp dismisses them. Understood?”

“Yes, Miss. Thank you.”

Anna hurried across the room. The elf moved around the mammoth rug to Emily’s side. Clasp stepped between her and the elf. It was a brave and loyal thing to do. Even with his bulk, Emily didn’t believe that Clasp could stop the elf if he wanted to do her harm. She put her hand on Clasp’s arm. His hard skin was hot and comforting beneath her hand.

The elf’s eyes watched Anna disappear through the door. “That was foolish, the other one, she may be.”

“Other one? You mean another goblinman?” Emily fought back her irritation. “You might have mentioned that first.”

The elf’s brow wrinkled as if he hadn’t considered that.

Leaving him confused, Emily looked up at Clasp. “Take the body and store it below. Lock it in one of the wine cellars. Secure the tower. No one leaves or enters without my permission. Rejoin us once you’ve finished.”

“Yes, Miss.”

Clasp moved between her and the elf, stooping to pick up the goblinman’s body. It looked like hardly more than a badly dressed doll in his arms. Seeing her father’s face on the thing had shaken her, but she was the lady of the tower and there was apparently another goblinman on the loose.

Carrying the body, Clasp disappeared out the same door Anna had used. The elf moved closer, and she smelled something like a fresh rain in the forest. He lifted his hand, but didn’t touch her.

“I must find the other goblinman.”

“Why? Why are you after them? And do you have a name, sir elf?”

She was testing him. Her father had told her stories of elves, when she was a girl. He always said that they guarded their names.

“I pursue the goblinmen known as thieves and killers. My common name is Brookwind, Lady Hathaway.”

Not his private name then. She was disappointed, but not surprised. She tilted her head up to look at him. She wanted to run her hand over his braid, and along the smooth pale skin. She clasped her hands together.

“How do I know you aren’t the other goblinman?”

Brookwind’s right eyebrow arched upwards. Emily felt heat creep up her neck, either from the foolishness of her question or from being close to him.

She fought down the feeling. “My guests must be getting anxious. I need to get back to them and tell them something.”

Brookwind touched the hilt of his knife. “I can force the goblinman to reveal itself.”

“How?”

He shrugged. “Pain forces shifters to reveal themselves.”

“I’ll not have my guests or staff tortured!”

“If the goblinman has replaced one of your people, then that person is most likely already dead. If I don’t capture it, others also will die.”

Brookwind moved across the room in an instant. His hands seized her upper arms and his cloak billowed around them. Her mind froze. She drew a breath and he released her left arm.

His finger went to her lips, pressing gently. He stared into her eyes as if he was looking into her, through her.

She inhaled and that rich forest scent was there, clinging to him, and beneath it something warm, yeasty, like fresh baked bread. The strength of his hand on her arm was like steel, but the finger on her lips was soft.

Looking into his eyes from this close, they weren’t only green but shot through with specks of gold and blue like a sunlight sky seen through leaves.

His breath was a warm breeze on her face. Her heart hammered in her chest. She reached out with her free hand and placed her palm flat on his muscled chest, as smooth as a sea-polished shell, to steady herself.

He jerked and twitched away like a skittish horse. She stumbled without him there.

“What was that!”

Brookwind bowed his head. “Lady Hathaway, my apologies. A soul search is an intimate thing, yet I had to know if you were the goblinman in disguise.”

Soul search? What was he doing? What did that mean?

“And?”

“I do not believe you are the other one.”

She trembled and took a deep breath to steady herself. “Can you do this with the others, to find the goblinman?”

“No.” His answer was flat, final, like a rock cracking.

“No?”

Brookwind shook his head. His long braid rolled across his chest. “It is not done with outsiders. Only those we are drawn to.”

Oh. Emily’s thoughts skipped on that. Her skin on her hand, arm and lips still tingled where they had touched. He was drawn to her? What did he mean?

She rubbed her hand where she had touched him as if she could rub out the feeling and made her decision.

“Come with me.”

“Where?”

“I will introduce you to our guests. A special surprise for them, and we will determine if any are goblinmen in disguise.”

“How will you do so?”

“I’m the lady of Hathaway Tower. I know my guests.”

“A shifter adept is skilled at imitating others. If it had access to the victim it may have absorbed memories as well.”

“Even so.” The whole thing about absorbing memories disturbed her. “I will know. And if it is not one of the guests, then we will investigate the staff, although I find that less likely.”

“Why is that so?”

“The staff know their own habits and duties. They would see if anyone was behaving oddly. It’d be easier for the goblinman to infiltrate the Towers by replacing someone with more position. As the one had attempted to mimic my father.”

Brookwind pressed his hands together in front of his chest and then spread them apart. “As you say.”

2

Emily went through the door into the dining hall first, with Brookwind following. As soon as she entered the men at the table rose, Mr. Crane struggling once more to rise. She watched their faces most carefully as they saw Brookwind coming in behind her.

Of the men, all showed surprised. A small smile played on Mr. Dempsey’s thin lips, like a kid spying a jar of candies. Mr. Crane gaped like a gasping fish landed on the shore. Drool dribbled from poor Mr. Bailey’s torn lips and he turned very pale. He reached to the table to steady himself. The last gentleman rising slowly at the table, was old Mr. Mumford. He beamed with open delight and ran a liver-spotted hand through his white hair.

The women showed equal surprise. Mrs. Watersmith pursed her lips and tilted her head. “My, he’s a big one, isn’t he?”

Mrs. Mumford giggled in a most girlish manner and grabbed at her husband’s other hand.

Mrs. Bailey’s red lips formed a round ‘o’ of surprise, while across the table the formidable Mrs. Crane pressed her hands to her plump cheeks.

“Friends,” Emily said, mustering her enthusiasm. “Tonight we have an honored guest from beyond the wall. He goes by Brookwind. If you’re all quite ready, we can retire to the library for drinks and conversation. I’m sure we’re all quite fascinated to hear from someone that lives beyond the wall.”

She looked to Mr. Bailey. “Not that your stories aren’t equally fascinating, Mr. Bailey.”

He dabbed at his dripping lip. “Not at all. Not at all! Even in my journeys, the chance to converse with the elvish folk is a rare treat. However did you manage this?”

Emily favored him with a sly smile and then stepped to the side and gestured to the open door. “If you please?”

Mr. Dempsey tossed his napkin onto the table and stepped back. “Alas, Lady Hathaway, I must bid an early night. Please forgive me.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s head snapped around and fixed on Mr. Dempsey. “Mr. Dempsey, what can you possibly be thinking? Of course we must stay!”

Mr. Dempsey’s smile faded as he turned to Mrs. Watersmith. He was sweating as he leaned close. “I have that case to prepare, you must remember it. The evening has already gone on too long.”

“Case?” Mrs. Watersmith gave a brittle laugh. “You are my escort for the night, are you not?”

“Yes.”

She raised her chin. “Then we shall go, when I say we shall go.”

While they argued the Baileys went on through into the library, Mrs. Bailey lifting her hand as if she was going to touch Brookwind when she went past. Under his gaze, she lowered her hand and Emily was glad of it.

Why? What business is it of yours if she touches him?

She shook her head. It wasn’t her business, and she was still glad. That didn’t bear much examination.

Instead she watched her guests.

The Mumfords went on in, with Mrs. Mumford giggling as they went past. Beatrice Mumford was the youngest of three daughters from the Porter family and was always a bit silly. She had married well, to Anthony Mumford, the heir to Mumford Tower. When it came to Towers, size did matter as much as placement and Mumford Tower was one of the Seven central towers that rose up on the hill next to Hathaway Tower.

The Cranes followed and then finally Mrs. Watersmith went on through with Mr. Dempsey following along much like a boy following his mother to the market.

Emily noticed Brookwind’s eyes following young Mr. Dempsey. She knew that he was a lawyer from Watersmith Tower. By all accounts good at his job, at least until he caught Mrs. Watersmith’s eye. If rumors were true, she pitied him. He was handsome with his blond hair and blue eyes, and yet as he passed Brookwind he looked little more than a child.

She hesitated before following and looked up at Brookwind. His gaze was still fixed firmly on the young man. She reached up and touched his jaw.

He turned his head, instead of jerking away, so that her hand slid along his cheek. Blushing, Emily lowered her hand.

“Your goblinman isn’t Mr. Dempsey.”

“He wanted to leave, when the others wished to stay.” Even in his musical tones, she heard the confusion.

“It wasn’t a case that he wanted to work on. He had planned to meet the girl that he is in love with tonight.”

Brookwind glanced into the library and back and remained silent.

“He’s here at Mrs. Watersmith’s behest. She’s the lady widow of Watersmith Tower. He can’t refuse her commands. If he was the goblinman he would have used the excuse of the case to leave. What does he care about Mrs. Watersmith’s opinion? If he was the goblinman it wouldn’t matter, and yet he stayed.”

“None of the others attempted to leave.”

Emily clasped her hands tightly. “No.”

“Then it could still be this Mr. Dempsey.”

She almost laughed at his confusion. “Of course not. If it was him, it wouldn’t have drawn attention to itself by attempting to leave before the others.”

“He is not the shifter because he tried to leave, and also because he stayed?”

“Exactly. Now, you must distract our guests with conversation.”

Brookwind’s eyes widened but she wasn’t going to give him a choice. She walked into the library.

3

Clasp had already returned and was pouring a brandy for Mrs. Bailey. She was setting on the antique moleskin love-seat with Mr. Bailey. The Cranes had taken up the matching couch, its ancient cushions sinking low beneath their combined weight. The Mumfords had the other couch, with the stiff floral cushions. Both Mr. Dempsey and Mrs. Watersmith were on the stiff-backed floral love-seat, but there was a wide chasm between them.

That left the two great lizard skin chairs at each end of the gathering. Emily touched Brookwind’s arm, giving him a nudge to the seat at the head of the gathering, with its back to the great fire where they’d found the body. He moved with fluid grace to the chair, his cloak billowing around him with each step. He was absolutely magnificent. She went to the chair at the other end where she could sit facing him and watch her guests.

“Will you be staying long?” Mr. Bailey asked Brookwind.

Brookwind sat perched on the edge of the chair, with his hands resting on his knees. He shook his head when Clasp offered him a drink. Then he actually smiled, an expression that brightened his face considerably.

He shook his head. “We don’t build dwellings of stone. We move with the seasons.”

“Yes, of course,” Mr. Bailey said. “In my travels outside the wall I guested one day in an elvish camp during a storm. It was marvelous. I don’t believe I’ve ever eaten so well.”

Mr. Bailey laughed and nodded to Emily. “With no insult to our gracious and beautiful host.”

Emily shook her head. “None taken.”

Clasp came around to Emily’s chair. She rose and took a few steps aside with him.

“Are the staff gathered? Are any missing?”

Clasp shook his head as he leaned close. “All accounted for, Miss.”

“Good. Thank you.” It seemed unlikely that any of them were the goblinman, but there must be a reason for the goblinman to stay. She touched his arm and returned to her seat.

“I thought we were to call them Gaians,” Mr. Mumford said.

Mrs. Crane leaned forward, sloshing her brandy. Crumbs from a small cake tumbled from her lips. “Gaian? Why do you say that, Mr. Mumford?”

Mrs. Mumford snorted. “Because some of us are polite enough not to insult our guest with slang.”

Mrs. Crane blinked in confusion and looked at Mr. Crane. He patted her arm. “Elves, dear. They don’t like being called elves.”

Brookwind pressed his hands together and parted them. “Words only, blown away with each breath. Truth resides in actions, not words.”

“Very gracious,” Mr. Bailey said. Brandy dribbled from his lip. “In any event, it was marvelous. Beautiful structures were strung between the trees in such a way that I hardly felt the storm at all. They had this wine as sweet as honey and as refreshing as cold spring water. I’m afraid I must have drank too much. When I woke the next morning it was to the birds singing and the sun shining in my face, but the camp was gone as if it had never been.”

“Perhaps you dreamed it,” Mr. Dempsey said.

Mr. Bailey laughed and lifted his glass. “Perhaps!”

“I say,” Mr. Crane said to Brookwind. “Mr. Bailey has entertained us with tales of the savage saurian beasts and the not-men that live in the wilds beyond the wall. Are the wild lands really so fierce?”

“For such as you, yes.”

Mr. Bailey traced the line of his scar with one finger. “You only have to look at me, to see that!”

Emily had sat silent through their banter, gauging their responses. Mr. Bailey was his usual self, including that gesture with the scar. He brought it up frequently, and his encounter with the raptor that had nearly taken his head off.

The Cranes were their usual jovial selves, flushed with drink and food in equal measure. Mr. Dempsey, she had already ruled out, looked uncomfortable sitting next to Mrs. Watersmith. She sat quite stiff and tall, sipping her drink the way a bird might dip its beak to drink. For her, that was normal.

On the other couch, the Mumfords were whispering to one another, following the discussion of what to call Brookwind. As far as Emily was concerned, elf was perfectly polite.

Of the whole party, only Mrs. Bailey was quiet. In fact, she hadn’t said a word most of the night. Mr. Bailey did tend to go on at length, but she’d been particularly quiet since the break just before desert.

In the awkward moment following Mr. Bailey pointing out his scar, Emily spoke up.

“I quite forgot to mention that the scream earlier was my housemaid discovering a body.” She pointed past Brookwind. “Right over there, in front of the fire.”

She watched their reactions carefully. Everyone tried speaking at once, except Mrs. Bailey who shrank closer to her husband.

Mr. Dempsey rose to his feet. “Have you called the constables?”

Emily shook her head. “Our friend Brookwind was pursuing the victim, apparently a criminal from beyond the wall.”

“Here?” Mrs. Crane squeaked.

Mrs. Watersmith rose to her feet. “Mr. Dempsey, please escort me back to Watersmith Tower at once!”

The Cranes both tried rising at once and the entire couch tipped forward. They fell back into the cushions, their brandy sloshing from their glasses. Pieces of cake tumbled down Mrs. Crane’s front.

Mr. Crane recovered first and leveraged himself up. Once on his feet, huffing hard, he helped Mrs. Crane out of the couch.

“We’re going too!” he said when he finally got her up.

Mr. Mumford shook his head. “Fools. We’re staying right here where it is safe. At least until the constables arrive and provide an escort!”

Emily rose to her feet. Across from her Brookwind also stood.

“I’m afraid I can’t let anyone leave, quite yet.”

Mrs. Watersmith looked down her nose at Emily. “You can’t keep us here!”

“Oh, I think our guest is quite capable of ensuring that no one leaves.”

Mrs. Watersmith darted a glance at Brookwind and took a small step closer to Mr. Dempsey. The young man placed himself in front of Mrs. Watersmith.

“Look here,” he said. “You can’t mean you’ll force us to stay!”

Still seating, Mrs. Bailey huddled against Mr. Bailey’s arm. He patted her hand.

Emily smiled at Mr. Dempsey. “By the Treaty, I have no say in this, it is an elvish matter.”

“Gaian,” Mr. Mumford muttered.

Brookwind looked over the others to her. “You know who the shifter is?”

“Shifter?” Mr. Bailey stood up. “I say, do you mean that the killer is a goblinman?”

Mrs. Bailey squeaked and grabbed at Mr. Bailey’s leg. He stumbled and barely avoided spilling his drink.

Emily gazed across at the others. Maybe she was elf-struck. She’d happily gaze into his eyes for hours and hours. Of course there was a killer to deal with. She smiled.

“Of course.” She pointed at Mrs. Watersmith. “She is the other one!”

“I saw her!” Mrs. Bailey shrieked, springing to her feet and clutching Mr. Bailey by the shoulders. “I saw her!”

Mr. Dempsey turned and Mrs. Watersmith snarled, her once-regal face twisting, and struck him with a back-handed blow that knocked him aside. She ran toward the servants’ door.

Brookwind vaulted over the couches and in a few swift strides caught her well before she reached the door.

“Unhand me!” She yelled.

A obsidian blade was in Brookwind’s hand and pressed to her powdery neck. She went very still.

Mr. Crane and Mr. Mumford were helping Mr. Dempsey to his feet as Emily walked over to face the impostor. Clasp’s bulk was a comforting presence behind her.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Bailey,” Emily said. “She won’t be harming anyone else. What did you see?”

Mrs. Bailey, clutching Mr. Bailey’s arm, peeked at them.

“Before desert, Mrs. Watersmith went to the powder room. Then I decided to go, and on the way, I saw her with herself going into the side hall! And one of her was wearing a man’s dinner suit! It was only a second, and I thought my eyes must be playing tricks on me. By the time I got back, she was sitting with Mr. Dempsey at the table. I thought I might have imagined it, except she kept looking at me.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s breath hissed between her teeth. Emily went to Mrs. Bailey and touched her arm.

“Thank you. I had noticed that she had freshly powdered her face when she returned, not just a touch-up, mind you, but she was entirely powdered even down her neck and hands. That seemed unnecessary, but at the time I didn’t think much of it.”

Emily walked back to face Brookwind and the impostor. “You can drop the disguise. You’ve given yourself away more than once.”

Mrs. Watersmith’s face wrinkled and sagged like collapsing bread. Her eyes rolled up, and when they came down the irises were pink shot through with red. Her mouth puckered and she sneered at Emily.

“You wouldn’t have figured it out if that fool hadn’t imprinted on her also!”

“Maybe,” Emily said. “If you hadn’t killed him and left the body you might have gotten away with it.”

“I didn’t have time,” the goblinman hissed. “I didn’t expect the elf!”

“You truly believed you could elude me?” Brookwind sheathed his knife, keeping a tight grip on the goblinman’s arm. He pulled the silver necklace free and wrapped it around the goblinman’s wrists, behind its back. The silver band constricted like a snake.

“I was more interested in your actions,” Emily went on. “You didn’t remember Mr. Dempsey’s other appointment tonight. Leaving early would make you stand out, so you insisted on staying. At least until I broke the news to everyone else. You were the first to want to leave then, when there was a good excuse. But the Watersmiths and Hathaways have always been allies. The real Mrs. Watersmith would never have left me here to deal with this alone.”

Mr. Bailey patted Emily’s shoulder. “We wouldn’t leave you, dear.”

The goblinman wasn’t looking at any of them now. Its gaze was fixed on the floor. Emily stepped in front of him. “Where is she?”

Then it looked up. “Why?”

“To save yourself pain, why else?”

Brookwind pulled up on the silver binding the goblinman’s arms. Its breath hissed between its lips.

“Closet!”

Emily turned to Clasp. “Find her, make sure she’s unharmed.”

The troll nodded and thumped off.

Emily looked up at Brookwind. “You’ll take it, now?”

“Yes. Thank you, Lady Hathaway.”

His gaze lingered for a moment, his beautiful eyes on hers, and then he moved away with the goblinman over his shoulder. The door banged behind him and she was left alone with her guests.

4

Emily stood alone on her balcony enjoying the cool night wind through her thin night gown. It was late, already well past midnight. Hathaway Tower dropped away far, far beneath her. Around her tower stood the others, including Watersmith Tower where Mrs. Watersmith was recovering from her ordeal after being rescued from the closet.

There was a soft sound behind her, like that a cat might make. She didn’t move until she felt the heat of his skin and his forest scent touched her neck. She turned and gazed up at his beautiful face.

“Are the stories true then, you can fly?”

Brookwind smiled.

“What happens to the goblinman now? Is it dead?”

His smile faded. He shook his head. “Death is not enough, for justice.”

Emily stepped close and raised her hand. Her fingers hovered above his bare chest. When he didn’t pull away she lightly touched him. The muscles jumped beneath her finger tips but he stayed.

“You came back,” she said, “why?”

Brookwind pushed closer. He ran his hands lightly along her hair as he gazed into her eyes. His eyes caught the dim light and gleamed. “The soul search, you called me back.”

Was it possible? If she was elf-struck, could he feel the same about her?

She licked her lips, watching his eyes. “What now?”

He picked her up and carried her inside.

5,334 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 40th weekly short story release, written in June 2013 at a workshop on the Oregon Coast while listening to Metric’s Gold Guns Girls. It doesn’t really have much at all to do with the story, I just kept writing with the song on repeat.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRtd8ArvH_s&w=400]

The story went on to sell to WMG Publishing, to appear in Fiction River: Fantastic Detectives (Fiction River: An Original Anthology Magazine) (Volume 9)

Fiction River is a great anthology series. Check it out for more terrific stories. I was thrilled to be included (plus my story was next to Kevin J. Anderson’s story in the contents, so that was fun). Later on I wrote Astrasphere set in the same world.

Eventually I’ll do a 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. I’m also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story Bed Bugs.