Love, [unpronounceable]

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dinner?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do this time?”

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

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

“Thanks, Larry. What is he anyway?”

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

“Yes, First Technician?”

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

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

Dewey gave a querulous beep.

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

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

“That’d be great.”

“I have transferred the data to your tablet.”

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

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

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

A long snout shoved into the bulkhead beside her knees and yellow eyes blinked at her. “Remember me? I’m — [unpronounceable] — we met earlier in the lounge?”

Chrystal like lying on her back with this passenger by her legs. “Back up. I’ll come out.”

The passenger withdrew his snout. Chrystal turned her head and looked right into Huey’s red light. “Go through it again and signal me in two minutes whether or not you find anything. Got it?”

Huey chirruped happily.

“Are you stuck?” The passenger asked.

“No.” Chrystal wiggled out of the bulkhead and sat up.

The passenger sat in front of her showing off his shark-like teeth. Chrystal stood up and brushed off her coverall. “Look, I don’t think we’re communicating. Thanks for the offer, but I’m not interested. Okay? I’m sure you can find all sorts of females willing to have dinner with you.”

His mouth snapped closed and a rumbling growl came from deep in his throat. Chrystal stepped back but she hit the wall. She glanced down at her toolbox. Could she grab a wrench fast enough to fend off an attack?

The passenger mumbled something and a moment later the collar translated, still in that same cheerful tone. “I want you to reconsider. You are quite exotic and I would greatly appreciate — [unpronounceable] — with you.”

“Right now I’m trying to track down a leak, understand? I’m working. I’m not a passenger on this ship, I actually have a job to do. Why don’t you try going planetside?”

“I understand. I tried to buy your contract, but the ship’s mind declined the offer. I don’t see why dinner and — [unpronounceable] — is too much to ask.”

“For one thing your collar isn’t translating everything, so I don’t even understand what all you want. Why don’t you go have that looked at and we’ll talk after I get off work?”

“This is a top of the line translation collar!”

“Maybe, but it doesn’t translate everything, even your name.”

“My name is — [unpronounceable].”

“See, just then? Did you hear how the voice changed? Each time it does that it’s because it couldn’t translate what you said.”

Chrystal felt something bump her leg and looked down at Huey. He beeped twice. She looked back at the passenger. “I really need to get back to work.”

The passenger mumbled briefly and dropped down on all fours. “I’ll be back!”

He trotted away into the crowd and Chrystal sighed. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone? This was exactly why she didn’t like dealing with passengers. Huey beeped at her again.

“What is it?” Her tablet flashed in her hand.

ANOMALY DETECTED.

Chrystal tapped replay and a video took over the screen. A droid-camera view of the crawlspace in the bulkhead. Huey floating along next to the waterline. The pipe was smooth, except for one spot where a mound of whitish material stuck out of the pipe as if it had developed a pimple. Chrystal froze the video. “What is that?”

Huey beeped sadly.

“I guess I’d better take a look.” Chrystal pocketed the tablet and got back down on the floor, then wiggled into the bulkhead.

It took some contortions to get her head back into the space behind the pipe. Her neck protested the unnatural angle, but she could see the material. It was translucent, whitish and looked very organic. She squeezed her arm up and tapped at the material with her fingernail. Hard, and dry to the touch. Chrystal started to move when she heard something bang against the pipe.

“Huey? Dewey? Was that you?”

Two negative buzzes answered her from the droids.

“Well, something just hit the pipe. Huey, work your way forward. Dewey, head back. Find it.” Chrystal slid on down until her head rested on the floor and her neck wasn’t bent. She pulled out her tablet and tapped into the droids’ visual feeds, displaying them split-screen. Both showed essentially the same view as the droids floated along the pipe.

“First Technician,” Larry’s voice came through her earpiece. “I’m detecting another drop in pressure near your position.”

“I’m working on it. I heard something. The droids are tracking the problem down now.”

On the screen, the view hadn’t changed on Huey’s display but Dewey’s showed something hanging from the pipe ahead.

“Move faster Dewey!”

The droid raced along the pipe closer to whatever it was and then Dewey was close enough that she could see it clearly. An animal with a funnel mouth clamped to the pipe. The long throat swelled and a lump moved down as the creature swallowed. Not an animal, Chrystal realized. The creature wore a green hooded tunic, the hood folded back, and a small pack lay on the floor beside it. The body was very rotund, with skinny little arms and legs kicking in the air as it swallowed straight from the pipe. Dark eyes like raisins in oatmeal rolled to look at the approaching droid. The creature’s arms and legs kicked frantically and the lips peeled back from the pipe. Chrystal caught a glimpse of a hard bony fang-like protrusion piercing the pipe before the creature sneezed a glob of whitish muck onto the pipe, right over the hole, as it fell away. Not a drop of water leaked. The creature snatched up its bag and turned to flee.

“Grab him!” Chrystal shouted.

Dewey extended manipulators and flew after the creature, which was waddling. Chrystal laughed. No way it could out run Dewey.

Evidently, the creature realized that too. It turned and sneezed at Dewey. The image vanished from the tablet and she heard a wail of distress echo through the bulkhead. Chrystal swore and scrambled out of the bulkhead. A tall willowy passenger blinked big black eyes at her as she popped out and then strode quickly away on four thin legs. Chrystal ran along the bulkhead toward the section Dewey had reached.

“Larry! I need security here. Dewey found the cause of the pressure drop.”

“First Technician, why do you persist in using —”

“Security, Larry! We’ve got a stowaway.” As if she didn’t have enough trouble with passengers, now a stowaway too?

“I find that unlikely,” Larry said. “However, I have dispatched security droids to your location.”

Chrystal reached the bulkhead and swiped her id on the access lock. Bolts disengaged and the panel popped free. Dewey lay on the floor, snot gluing him in place. She looked for the stowaway and saw it waddling through the next section.

“Hey! Get back here!”

The stowaway turned and its head drew back. Chrystal recognized the movement and jerked out of the bulkhead. A glob of snot hit the floor in front of her and immediately hardened. “That’s so gross.”

She heard the wail of the approaching security droids and crawled over to the next access lock. She looked up as two massive security droids — Dewey’s giant cousins — glided up to here. “He’s in here. Ready? Watch out for the snot.”

Chrystal swiped the access lock and the panel popped free. She caught the panel and pulled it away, giving the droids access while shielding herself. One of the droids glided forward, extending manipulators into the bulkhead. She heard another explosive sneeze and ducked behind the panel. A glob of snot hit the droid’s visual scanner and hardened. Unfortunately for the stowaway, the droid was undeterred and snatched it out of the bulkhead with a many-tentacled manipulator. The stowaway went limp in the droids grip except for drops of water that welled up from its eyes and pattered down on the deck. Was it crying?

Putting the panel back into place, Chrystal rose and faced the droids and their captive. “Can you understand us?”

The stowaway went into a frenzy of fruitless squirming and then sneezed a huge glob of snot at Chrystal. She barely managed to turn, only enough that the glob hit the side of her head and immediately hardened in her hair, plastering her hair down over her ear.

“Oh, that’s so nasty!” She gingerly probed at her hair but the mass of hardened snot was as hard as the glob plugging the waterline.

Larry’s voice sounded in her earpiece, but was addressing the droids. “Take our unwelcome guest to holding and escort the First Technician down to the medical tier to see what they can do to help.”

Huey floated out of the bulkhead and let out a low mournful beep.

“Someone will come help Dewey and work on repairing the damage caused by that rat,” Chrystal promised. “You stay put to help out.”

Huey beeped affirmatively as she followed the security droids away. Their captive hung limply, but Chrystal stayed back out of range of any more attacks. As they walked past the Paleo restaurant the smells set her stomach rumbling. Stupid stowaway, for the first time she’d found something worse than passengers.

🚀

Two hours later, sporting a new Mohawk hairstyle that she actually sort of liked, Chrystal returned to the spot where the stowaway had hidden. All the panels were back in place. Miguel Stacks, her second-in-command, had already reported in that the repairs were complete. It wasn’t the waterline that brought her back, but the Paleo restaurant. Her stomach growled as she headed for the open doors and breathed in the spicy meat smells coming from inside.

Stepping into the dim interior she saw a waiting area and a human hostess dressed in a skin bikini waiting beside the reception desk. A shaggy shape heaved itself up from the waiting bench.

“At last!” A voice exclaimed.

Chrystal’s heart sank. She didn’t want to deal with this lovesick passenger, she wanted food. Meat that she could sink her teeth in. She raised her hands. “What are you doing here?”

As her eyes adjusted to the lighting she saw the shark-toothed passenger clearer. The thick collar he’d worn was gone, replaced by a thin silver model. He didn’t mumble this time before the collar spoke.

“I took your advice and replaced my translation device with a thought-controlled device. Much more efficient, and I’ve been assured that the translation matrix is more accurate.”

“But how did you find me again?”

Shark-like teeth flashed. “The ship mind told me that you planned to dine here after your appointment.”

That was to get back at her for calling him Larry all the time. He must have been listening when she was leaving the clinic and told the technician that she planned on coming back here.

“Larry, shouldn’t have done that,” Chrystal said, expecting that Larry was listening.

“Perhaps you’d like to dine with me? My treat?” The passenger looked around the waiting area. “Although we could find better on the first tier.”

Chrystal sighed. “I want to eat here. Just tell me one thing with your new translator, what’s your name?”

“My name is — [unpronounceable].”

“Of course it is. Let’s eat.” Chrystal marched up to the hostess. “A table for two.”

🚀

Bill, as Chrystal thought of the passenger with the unpronounceable name, departed the ship at the next stop but in the two weeks until then Chrystal accompanied him to over a dozen different restaurants, including three first tier establishments. At one she had a chocolate dessert that defied description, but it haunted her dreams for three straight nights. She made it clear that, although she was happy to dine with him, their relationship wasn’t going to turn romantic.

A month after he departed she received a brief message, forwarded to her tablet. Bill grinned with his shark teeth on the screen. “Dear Chrystal Eagle, I wanted to let you know I have found someone for — [unpronounceable] — and hereby release my claim on you. Love, — [unpronounceable].”

Claim? Chrystal flicked the message away. Being a starship plumber was the greatest gig in the universe, too bad she had to deal with passengers.

🚀

3,794 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 77th short story release, written in February 2011, and follows my earlier story The Greatest Gig.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Shore Leave, which follows the further adventures of Chrystal Eagle.

Chew, Chew

A leaky toilet might not be the worst problem in the world.

Ask Cody Bateman and he’ll tell you that finding a job, dealing with the apartment manager over late rent, or fending off debt collectors rank as bigger problems than the toilet.

Problems, like time, are relative.

And Cody’s problems just got a whole lot worse!

🚀

The funny thing about disasters is that you never expect them to happen to you. Even in the center of tornado alley, it’s always someone else’s trailer that gets shredded in the cosmic blender of fate.

A half-hour ago Cody Bateman never would have pegged his apartment complex in Lacey, Washington, as the site of a disaster. It was easy enough to put aside thoughts of Mt. Rainier erupting in a mega-explosion. He rarely considered the possibility of a major 9.0 quake hitting the region—even though that was a historical reality.

Thirty minutes ago, it was the toilet that had him feeling dizzy and sick.

Not because it was gross or anything, but the damn thing was leaking. He shoved another towel beneath the dripping hose at the back of the toilet — or was it the tank dripping? He couldn’t tell. It was wet. He twisted the shut-off valve, and it spun. The water didn’t stop.

Cody rocked back on his heels. As disasters went, this wasn’t really a big deal. Heck, as a renter all he had to do was go over to the office and tell the manager and it’d get fixed.

It wasn’t about the toilet at all. It was the past due rent. The credit card bills. His student loan late notices. And the silent phone that never rang. No calls for interviews. Nothing in the fridge except a few slices of American cheese and day-old bread that he used for dry-grilled cheese sandwiches.

If he called the manager, the rent would come up, and an eviction notice would probably follow. He shoved the towels back beneath the water, ignoring the faint smell of piss that clung to the toilet no matter how many times he cleaned it. Cleaning it, that had jiggled the tank and started this mini-tsunami of misfortune.

That wasn’t even the real disaster. That didn’t start until fifteen minutes later, after he got the brilliant idea to flush the toilet, drain all the water in the tank and use the handle of the scrub brush to prop up the valve inside the tank so that it wouldn’t refill.

Flooding averted, for now, Cody had taken a break, washed his hands, filled a clean glass with tap water, and had gone out to the living room to read. Library books at least still didn’t cost anything, as long as he got them back on time.

He had five minutes of thrilling space opera courtesy Kevin J. Anderson when there was a loud crash right outside his apartment.

Cody jerked at the bang and sloshed water onto the library book.

“Shit! No, no!” He grabbed a couch pillow and used it to wipe at the book. Shit. Would the library charge for that?

What was that crash? A car accident? He stood the book up on the end table, put the glass on the coffee table, then went and looked out the windows. Across the lawn, past the sidewalk, were the covered carports. The center of the carport was bowed inward, and sunlight streamed through a massive hole in the roof.

“Holy shit,” Cody said to the empty apartment.

He went around to the front door and hurried outside for a closer look.

The carport was all smashed in, the metal twisted and pointing down at the car beneath, and that was also smashed in. Like something from up above had come crashing down and punched right through the carport and the car beneath. All the windows in the car were shattered, and the glass glinted around the car.

Meteor! Or was it an asteroid? Metroid? Cody ran his hands back through his hair. Whatever it was called, something had come crashing down.

Or it could have been a toilet from a passing airplane because apparently those did fall out sometimes.

He looked up, searching the sky and didn’t see any planes but there was a smoke trail that spiraled down right toward the apartment complex! It petered out some distance up, but it was there!

Other people were coming out now too. All of the day-timers that didn’t have jobs or school to get to were coming out and gaping at the carport. Some of them had phones out and were taking pictures, live streaming, and chattering with excitement.

Cody slapped at his pockets. Shit. He’d forgotten his phone. It was still inside. Screw it, he wanted to get a look at the rock or whatever.

The big curly-haired woman that lived in the ground-floor apartment on the other side of the parking lot was out clutching her fat pug in one hand and a phone in the other as she shuffled closer. She had bunny slippers on her feet and a purple bathrobe over pink pajamas.

The pug whimpered and buried its squashed face in the woman’s cleavage.

There were at least half-dozen other people out, getting closer. Someone asked loudly what had happened.

“Meteor,” Cody said, grinning. “Hope that’s not your car.”

The tall guy that had asked shook his head. “Right.”

A warm breeze stirred the trees along the edge of the property. Sirens sounded in the distance. Someone had called 9-1-1.

Cody walked closer, the cool grass tickling his bare feet because he hadn’t stopped to get his shoes before coming out. Which wasn’t really as bad as coming out in bunny slippers.

A guy and a girl from upstairs came down laughing and hanging on each other until the guy saw what everyone was looking at. He pushed the girl off his arm.

“What the hell?” He came forward, fists clenching. “What the fuck?”

The other guy said, “Meteor hit your car, dude. Punched right through it.”

“What the fuck?” The guy said and ran past Cody to the carport.

Cody and everyone else sort of followed him closer. The car was just an old Jetta, nothing in great shape but Cody sympathized given his own financial straight-jacket. Did insurance cover meteors squashing your car? Probably not his basic insurance.

“I just heard a crash,” the woman with the pug said, her voice high-pitched and almost a giggle. “I grabbed Mr. Pugsworth, and we came right out.”

“It left a trail,” Cody said, pointing at the spiral smoke trail still visible in the air above the complex. The breeze hadn’t blown it away yet.

Several people turned phones skyward.

It was right at about that moment when the next one came down, and the disaster picked up steam.

Somebody shouted and pointed at another spot in the sky. Cody looked, and there was another spiral shape forming in the sky with something dark at the center plummeting to the earth. The spiral narrowed as it came until it was just spinning in place. He kept expecting it to slow down or something —

— It smashed right through the roof of Building F! Debris and smoke vomited into the sky, and every window in the building exploded outward in shotgun blasts of broken glass. People screamed. Those closer to the building screamed from pain, the others from fright.

The curly-headed woman screamed. Mr. Pugsworth barked.

“What the fuck?” Repeated the guy with the smashed car, rising from an instinctive crouch.

Cody replayed it in his mind. The dark shape spinning and then slammed right into the roof and punched down inside the building. Somebody in the building was screaming. It was high-pitched, panting screams that just told you some horrible shit had happened.

Some people from the other buildings started running toward Building F, but most of the day-timers that had come out held back. Those that had fallen helping each other up. The sirens grew louder, and so were the worried voices of the crowd.

A couple kids came into the parking lot from the sidewalk on their bikes. One of the kids fixed Cody in his gaze. “Did you see that?”

“Yeah,” Cody said. “It went right through the building.”

He looked up, and he suddenly understood what people meant when they said their hearts stopped. He couldn’t breathe. There were at least six more spiral trails spinning down toward the complex. He pointed up.

“Look out!”

One of the kids screamed, whipped his bike around and took off out of the parking lot. He shot straight out into the street. A horn sounded, and brakes squealed as a Ford Expedition skidded to a stop just shy of flattening the kid who never slowed.

Cody looked back up. The meteors fell like a missile barrage toward the complex. Maybe they were missiles — they hardly looked like flaming rocks.

Wham. Wham. Crash. Bang. Wham. Thunk.

One right after another the meteors or whatever they were hit buildings. They hit another car. The mailboxes — which blew apart in a shrapnel haze of shredded boxes and confetti letters. The last one punched right into the dumpster corral and the wood fences flew apart.

People screamed and ran. Mr. Pugsworth took off as fast as his little legs could carry him, chased by his wailing owner.

Cody’s limbs shook. This was crazy. Things like this didn’t happen. Not—

A loud screech of tortured metal came from the first car. The Jetta’s owner stepped back from his car.

“What the fuck?” He said sadly.

The sound quieted a bunch of people. It looked like all of the day-timers were out. Some of them going to the buildings hit to try and help, others still standing around taking pictures and filming. A crowd had gathered around the destroyed mailbox, while others had their cameras pointed upward to film the spiral trails left by the meteors.

Police and fire cars pulled up alongside the complex and came in the drive, whooping sirens, and spilling out first responders.

More twisted metal sounds came from the car as if it was trying to unbend itself. Snap. Snap. Snap. Electric cracking noises, followed by more crunching metal.

Cody watched the guy take a step closer.

A loud crunch made the guy jump back. His girlfriend grabbed his arm and tried to pull him away. He shook her off.

Police officers and the firefighters were trying to get people to move out of the way and find out what was going on and they all had several people talking at them.

Cody was more concerned with what was making the noises in the car. Part of the car dropped, crashing to the ground.

The girl screamed.

That got the attention of several police officers who shouted and ran toward the carport. Cody stayed on the grass, watching, feeling more useless by the minute. This was really happening. Like something weird going on, strange meteors crashing down into his complex and he wasn’t doing anything. Not even filming it to put it up on YouTube.

Nothing.

Thirty minutes ago he was worried about the toilet leaking and now he was on the lawn while something inside the Jetta crunched and cracked and made the whole car shake.

Police officers reached the couple. The girlfriend threw herself into the arms of one of the officers, sobbing into his shoulder. Others tried to pull the guy back, but he pulled free.

“No! That’s my fucking car! What’s in there? What’s doing that?”

“Move back! Move back now!”

With a loud thunk, three spikes burst through the side of the driver’s door. Metal cried as the spikes cut the door into thin strips, crumpling the plastic and metal into bits that were pulled back inside.

There was more crunching, chewing noises coming from the car.

Cody eased closer. He hadn’t done anything, ever. School, graduation, a pile of debt and nothing else to show for it. No job. No girlfriend. This was real, and something was eating that guy’s car. Something that had fallen from above.

Like from space.

It wasn’t just a meteor in there crunching and chewing away. The officers were busy pulling the guy back, but he struggled and cursed them.

No one was paying any attention to Cody.

He came at the car from the passenger side and just walked right up to it even though his mouth was tacky and his heart hammered in his chest like he was running a race instead of crossing the lawn. Small bits of glass pricked at his feet, but he ignored that and moved closer.

Whatever had fallen through the carport had completely caved in the roof of the Jetta. The inside looked like someone had turned on a blender. Shredded car parts rotated around the center. The seats were gutted, along with the console and the lower portion of the steering wheel. A pile of small pieces moved and rotated slowly around the interior, and the chewing and grinding noises continued.

The center funneled down, to something Cody couldn’t make out. Whatever it was, it sat at the bottom of the pile and was moving, spinning, shredding the interior.

“You! Get away from there!”

Cody looked back.

A police officer motioned him away from the car, one hand on his weapon. “Get back!”

The car jerked and shook. Metal screamed. Cody smelled burning plastic and fabric. Electrical crackling noises snapped the air and added an ozone odor.

Yeah, maybe they had a point. Cody moved back from beneath the carport. He backed up until he reached the police officer’s side. Cody brushed bits of glass that were stuck to his feet, but nothing had cut him. His feet were tough enough from going barefoot as much as possible.

“What did you see?” The officer said.

“There’s something in there, chewing it up,” Cody said.

A woman came over, and there were other people with her holding cameras and equipment. “KANA News, I’m Anita Kay. You said chewing?”

“Yes,” Cody said. “These chewers, they fell from the sky, and now one of them is chewing up that guy’s car.”

He pointed out the guy that the officers had pushed back behind their line.

A loud bang and the whole mid-section of the car collapsed as if its spine had been broken. The front of the car lurched and was pulled back into the body. Then the rear followed as if it was all being sucked into the center.

The sides caved in.

The destruction of the car went faster now. Police were keeping everyone back from the carport. More sirens were coming. A helicopter buzzed past overhead.

The reporter had taken a step away and was talking to the camera.

“This is Anita Kay, I’m at the Azure Downs apartment complex where several objects have plummeted from the sky, hitting buildings and vehicles. An eyewitness called these things chewers, and I’m here with him now.”

The reporter moved closer to Cody. “Sir, what was your name?”

Cody realized she was talking to him and glanced away from the disintegrating car. “Cody Bateman.”

“You’re a resident here? You saw what happened?”

“Yes, I did. I thought these were meteors at first. This one —” he pointed at the crumbling car. “— It was the first.”

“You called it a chewer.”

“Right, because it’s chewing up that guy’s car.”

A loud crash and bang made them all jump. It wasn’t the car — a section of the first building hit collapsed. There was a growing noise from the building competing with the car.

It was the same thing. Cody pressed his hands together. The chewers were devouring the building just like the one was eating the car.

“Uh, look,” Cody said to the reporter. “We should get out of here.”

The police and firefighters were moving people back from the buildings, vehicles and the dumpster. It looked like they were moving to evacuate the whole area.

Anita Kay’s lips pressed together. She nodded and motioned at the cameraman to follow.

Cody slipped past and hurried across the lawn. He ignored the reporter’s cry to wait. In the distance, more sirens sounded. He ran. He sprinted across the grass, past his apartment and headed up the stairs between apartments. He pushed past two middle-aged women at the second floor and continued running up.

At the top, on the fourth floor, he leaned against the railing and looked out. It wasn’t only the complex. As far as he could see, spiral trails left smoky paths. Several thick columns of smoke rose skyward from fires.

It wasn’t only here.

He gripped the railing. Forget the toilet. The student loans. Finding a job. None of that mattered now. Maybe it never had.

🚀

5,910 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 76th short story release, written in April 2014. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying releasing these on my blog. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll decide whether or not to take the story down.

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

Killing Bennie

Space became a lot more dangerous since the automation revolution. Crews watched every system. Checked everything for fatal flaws.

They survived — as long as no one made any mistakes.

Paul Carlson fantasized about killing his bunk mate, Bennie Dutton. Not out of malice. Everyone’s survival might depend on whether or not he killed Bennie.

The only question? How to do it and make it look like an accident!

🚀

Paul Carlson lay flat on his bunk trying to decide the best way to shove Bennie Dutton out an airlock. He’d bunked with guys who snored before, both on the station and back dirtside, but nobody came close to the noise that Bennie made. It sounded like a wet fart crossed with a death rattle amplified a thousand times by some freak resonance with the ventilation system. It felt like the whole habitation can vibrated with the sound, hard enough that Paul imagined that the tether might just break from the strain. Would Bennie even wake up before they suffocated? Or would that sound be the last thing Paul heard when he took his final breath?

“Bennie!”

Bennie’s only response was another loud ripping noise.

Paul rubbed his eyes. Back home if Cheri snored, not that she was ever as bad as Bennie, he could get up and sleep on the bean bag in his study. He’d done that more than once rather than wake her up. Here on the Communications Station 10 he didn’t have that option. Each CS was laid out the same with a transfer hub for docking and undocking ships surrounded by four modules tethered to the hub, the whole thing rotating. One hub for the operators routing ground-based telephone calls, a recreation can, the mechanical and life-support can and the habitation can. Two men per can working and living on a rotation during their hundred and twenty days on station. None of the other cans had much room for extra bodies, although in an emergency they could in theory cram four people into a can. Of course, if anything happened to the mec can it wouldn’t matter. And he couldn’t call the transfer car anyway without alerting control.

No, he was stuck with Bennie’s snoring for another hour before they were scheduled to move on to the mec can. Twelve hours on, twelve hours off, six at each can, with no days off for good behavior. If it wasn’t for the pay, he wouldn’t have let them strap him into a capsule on top of a rocket and send him up here in the first place. But he’d done two other rotations already, and it always seemed like Cheri had already spent it all by the time he made it back dirtside. With all of the restoration work available dirtside he’d think she might actually get out and find herself a job, but that never seemed to occur to her even with all of the Restoration propaganda about how there was a job for everyone since the Automation Revolution fifty years ago.

Bennie’s snores sawed and sawed at Paul’s patience. He tried listening to some music but even at full volume the tape player couldn’t compete with Bennie’s snoring and the music was painfully loud.

Paul prided himself on being a reasonable guy. People said that about him. Reasonable, even-keeled, reliable Paul. But he couldn’t take it anymore. He swung his legs out of the bunk and rolled out of his small cubby. He moved too quickly and got a little dizzy with his feet moving faster than his head but he ignored it and reached up into Bennie’s cubby. He shook Bennie’s shoulder.

“Bennie!”

Bennie snorted and rolled over to face the back wall where he stuck had stuck up his pin-ups. Every goddamn night Bennie took them out of his locker and stuck them to the wall. Claimed he couldn’t sleep without them.

Couldn’t jack-off without them. At least he did that quietly. In any case, once he lay on his side facing his fantasy harem Bennie’s snores diminished to only snuffly breathing. Paul could live with that. He sank back down onto his bunk. No sooner did he lay back and pull up his silver thermal blanket than he heard Bennie roll over and the snores rose up like a power tool.

Paul lashed out, hitting the underside of Bennie’s bunk with his fist. It hurt and didn’t make any difference to Bennie, who kept right on snoring. Paul shoved the heels of his hands against his eyes until he saw spots. He’d kill Bennie. Going back to figuring out how to space Bennie, that could solve a lot of problems. And Bennie was a bit of an asshole anyway. He liked to listen in on the phone conversations, completely against regulations. Paul could even report him, but it didn’t matter, he was stuck until the end of this rotation. Swapping partners was also against regulations, not that any of the other guys would even consider it. Of course killing Bennie would create new problems for him too. He’d have to handle twice as much work on his shifts, but he could probably manage that. Twice he’d won the switching competition, which was why he kept getting asked back. The other guys might not like working on station with a killer, but they couldn’t do much about it unless they wanted to space him too. Otherwise, they’d have to wait for the switchover flight with the new crew.

But up until the ship came he’d have each can to himself for his shift.

And what if they didn’t even know that he had killed Bennie? If it looked like an accident or suicide, what then? After all, no one would suspect that even-keeled, reliable Paul might kill his shift mate.

A shiver spread through his limbs. He might even get away with it. The alarm sounded, the clanging mechanical bell sounding like God was beating on the outside of the can with a hammer. Loud enough that it woke Bennie who gave one last snort, swung his hairy legs down from the top bunk and jumped down to the floor. He landed and, with his bare hairy ass right at Paul’s head height, let out an obnoxiously loud and long fart. The smell was like spoiled stewed cabbage. Bennie chuckled.

“Man, you’d better wake up,” he said.

Yes, Paul decided, holding his breath as he climbed out of his bunk. Killing Bennie made perfect sense. But he didn’t want to rush into anything. He’d plan it out, and find the perfect time, the perfect method. He climbed out of his bunk every inch of him reasonable Paul, with a bit of a smile on his face.

Bennie turned around, his bulk filling the narrow space between the kitchen and their bunks, scratching at his armpit. “What’re you smiling at? You liked the smell of that?”

“Like roses,” Paul said agreeably. The perfect murder.

Morning had a routine and an order to it. Paul shuffled down the very short aisle and ducked into the toilet closet. He slid the door shut so that Bennie could get past to the shower. One didn’t so much sit and perch on the toilet seat. At least that was the design, Paul checked the seat carefully in case Bennie had gotten up in the night. Just in case. Bennie had a nasty habit of opening the door and letting go from a distance, which usually meant stepping or sitting in a mess. It looked clean enough at the moment. Paul took care of business, cleaning up with the chemical wipes that made the closet smell like a litter box and evacuated the whole business. One more shooting star in the sky. Then it was back out to the kitchen to grab his designated breakfast tray which he’d eat on his bunk then shower while Bennie ate. Together they’d go on to the mec can and take over for Nick and Shaun who’d move on to the ops can, taking over for Reggie and Carl who’d get time in the rec can while Kurt and Andy came back to the hab to grab some more sleep.

Paul peeled back the lid on his tray revealing pasty white muffins, a round of eggs only tinged with yellow and a gray sausage patty. He stacked the eggs and sausage between the muffins and bit into the cold mass. At least the peppery sausage had flavor. While Paul ate Bennie came out of the shower and went straight into the toilet. From the sounds of explosive decompression coming from inside Paul might have thought the toilet had decided to stage a revolution of its own and was ejecting Bennie just like one of the compressed waste capsules it expelled. Bennie’s donkey-like laughter ruined that illusion, but it did give Paul something to consider. Was there any way to turn the toilet into the means of Bennie’s execution? None that he could think of without seriously tampering with the mechanism. Back in the days of automation he could probably have punched up some commands and caused all of the various valves and hatches to open at the same time, decompressing the inside of the toilet. But now it was all mechanical. Open one, and the others closed. Without some serious work he couldn’t rig it and when could he do the work with Bennie always a few feet away?

Bennie came out scratching his hairy belly with one hand, his ass with the other, while Paul vainly hoped that his shift mate might actually clean his hands. But no, Bennie reached into the dispenser for his breakfast tray without once considering the need to grab a chemical wipe. Paul also hadn’t heard the toilet function.

“Bennie, did you flush the toilet?”

Bennie snorted and climbed up in his bunk, an act which forced Paul to turn and face the wall until Bennie was on the bunk above. “No man, sorry. I forgot. Mind getting it when you hit the shower?”

“How hard is it to flush the toilet? You can’t turn a simple crank now? Or use a wipe for that matter?”

“When did you become my mum?” Bennie snorted. “Besides, I thought we’d leave a present for Curly and Pansy.”

“Don’t call them that.”

“Why?” Bennie said, his voice muffled by food.

Paul took a breath and let it go. He ate the last bite of his muffin, glad to be done, and climbed out of his bunk. The tray went into the trash compactor, and he took the few steps to the shower. If he didn’t do something about the toilet Bennie really would leave a present for Kurt and Andy. It wasn’t right. He opened the toilet door. The odor that came out was foul—he’d been in farm yards that smelled better. Drops of urine glistened on the toilet seat and inside was a nasty wet mess. Paul fought not to gag as he reached in and pulled out a chemical wipe from the dispenser. And another, and one more for good luck.

“Aw man, you could’ve left it,” Bennie complained.

Paul ignored him. This mess didn’t look healthy. Maybe he didn’t need to kill Bennie at all, maybe there was something wrong with him, eating at his gut and he’d just drop dead soon enough. Paul wiped down the seat, tossed two of the wipes into the toilet and used the last to wipe off the crank handle even though it was unlikely Bennie had touched that part. He tossed the last wipe in and spun the crank. The mechanism rotated over, taking the mess away while other parts scraped, cleaned and polished the plate. The crank clunked to a stop when the evacuation process completed. Paul shut the toilet. He shucked off his dirty uniform and stuffed it into the recycler, then went eagerly into the narrow shower.

There he hit the button and jets of lukewarm water shot out of several nozzles for twenty seconds to wet him from head to foot. Paul missed soaking in a long hot shower like back home. Right now he could really use a long scalding hot soak. He dispensed the soap and scrubbed all over. Then he hit the button again and scrubbed away the soap before the water stopped. Then he punched the button that turned on the driers. Hot hair blew out at him from several directions. Paul closed his eyes and imagined having both shower allocations after Bennie met his unfortunate end.

The air ended, and Paul went back out to find Bennie in the aisle squeezing into his uniform. Paul couldn’t get to the dispenser to get his own uniform. He crossed his arms and waited. Bennie managed to tear the elbow on his left sleeve.

“Gosh, would you look at that! These cheap cellulose uniforms are rubbish.”

“We’ve got to get going, mind if I get something to wear?”

Bennie looked over at him and laughed. “No, man. Sorry.” He backed up and leaned against the forward airlock door. He waved his arm at the dispenser. “Be my guest.”

Paul walked over to the dispenser. He pulled the door down and took out the pressed and folded uniform. Too bad he couldn’t make the airlock door pop open. He pictured Bennie falling back inside, caught by surprise. Paul stepped into the uniform imagining the look on Bennie’s face when he pulled the door shut and sealed him inside. The uniform was big on Paul, one of those one-size fits all designs that only fit a small percentage of the population well.

The alarm sounded again, clanging with headache-inducing vigor, to announce the shift transfer. Motors kicked on and hummed as the transfer car was brought over from the mec can. At the same time the other cars would ride the cable strung between cans so that each shift moved at the same time from one can to the next. Although the process was technically automated, it didn’t violate the strictures because the whole process was largely mechanical and required human participation to work. Bennie turned around as the can rang from the transfer car docking. Docking caused the airlock release to trigger, and the inner door slid open. Paul followed Bennie into the small space, barely big enough for the two of them. Being closer to the door than Bennie he was the one that shoved the lever down to shut the inner door and release the outer door. If he really wanted to kill Bennie by using the airlock, he’d have to figure out a way to trigger that mechanism from inside the can, after releasing the lockout on the inner door.

The inner door finally shut and the outer door opened along with the transfer car door. A blast of cold air flowed from the transfer car into the can. The transfer cars lacked life-support, really nothing more than a portable airlock that moved between the widely-spaced cans. Bennie went ahead into the transfer car, still fiddling with the tear in his sleeve. Paul followed him and then shoved the lever down in the transfer car. That closed the airlock and car doors and triggered their departure. The electric motor hummed and the car moved forward along the cable. Paul didn’t like thinking about how tenuous their connection was to the station at this point. One steel cable and an electric pulley kept them from being flung off into space. What if he sabotaged the cable and somehow got Bennie in the transfer car alone? If he made it look like a micrometeorite had impacted the cable, then Bennie’s death might look like a tragic accident and his survival a fortunate twist of fate.

The transfer car completed the transit to the mec can without Paul figuring out a way to stage the accident. The car hit the dock hard, making the inside ring like a bell. Right then Bennie started laughing.

“Why’re you laughing?” Paul asked. Then he smelled that rancid, sour smell and knew. “Come on man!”

Bennie laughed harder as he lifted the lever to open the doors. Paul followed him into the mec can’s rear airlock. Inside Bennie checked the light above the door. Green, the mec can was clear. Bennie pulled the lever, and the inner door slid out of the way. They went on through.

The mec can hummed with the sound of the machinery working. A pulse ran through the deck plating from the circulation pumps. The mec can had even less room to move in than the hab, with more space given over to the power and life-support systems. The mec provided all of the air circulation and the power storage from the mag lines that radiated out from the hub, pulling power from the planet’s magnet field as the station rotated. Bennie went straight to the farthest workstation forward and dropped into the chair. He spun it around.

That gave Paul an idea, maybe a simple idea. Loosen the bolts that held the chair post to the deck and the next time Bennie did that he’d topple over. But honestly, falling from the chair probably wouldn’t be enough to kill Bennie.

Paul picked up the work log board. Nick and Shaun had left a note that the air filters needed scrubbing again. Readings had to be taken from the various systems and noted in the log. Otherwise, it looked like systems were still operating efficiently. The station had been designed with simplicity and minimal maintenance in mind, but without automation they had to check and measure everything themselves.

“Readings or filters?” Paul looked up from the board. Bennie was excavating his nose. “Bennie?”

Bennie flicked his finger. “I’ll check readings.”

 

🚀

Six hours with Bennie in the mec room gave Paul more opportunities to consider ways to carry out his homicidal designs. Electrocution looked like the most likely possibility, given the real risk of it when checking on the batteries. Bennie, for all of his disgusting personal habits, actually managed to do the job safely. But a snag in the gloves, if it went unnoticed, could result in a bad shock. Maybe enough to kill, if the contact was sustained. Given the cramped quarters, a person could, in theory, get stuck between the battery drawers and the wall while being electrocuted. But chances were that Bennie’d notice any damage and slap on more electrical tape to patch them up, or if the damage was too obvious, he might just recycle those gloves and take another pair out of supplies.

While scrubbing clean yet another filter Paul considered another possibility. Some sort of sabotage to the air system, leading to Bennie’s suffocation. Poetic, but damaging the air system would likely kill everyone else on the station too unless they got into suits fast enough.

 

🚀

From the mec can, Paul followed Bennie into the ops can, the whole reason for the station to exist. For the next six hours he didn’t have much time to consider killing Bennie while routing international telephone calls from one trunk to another. Still, the idea floated around the corners of his mind, but there wasn’t even much of anything in the room to use as a weapon except maybe electrical wiring. Paul saw Bennie snake a hand down the front of his uniform, scratch vigorously and then he reached up and continued switching calls. Garroting Bennie with wire pulled out of the switchboard wouldn’t look like an accident at all, but if people knew what it was like to live with Bennie they might understand.

At least the calls kept him busy. He dreaded the next stop on their rotation.

 

🚀

The rec can, like the others lacked much space. A small library of paperback books, a selection of magazines, a radio, and a television. They received a dozen different channels on the television, all restoration-approved, of course. The drawers held decks of cards, chips, and a selection of board games. It also contained two bunks just like the hab can. Bennie went for his dinner tray first, turned on the television, and retreated to the upper bunk to eat while he watched the television.

By this time of the day all Paul wanted to do was sleep. He could hardly keep his eyes open. Bennie cracked up at something on television. Paul’s head started to throb. He imagined yanking Bennie out of his bunk, shoving him back to the airlock and what? He still hadn’t figured out a way to override the lockout. The airlock wouldn’t open unless a transfer car docked and triggered the release. He could call a transfer call, but that would get sent in the telemetry back to control, and they’d be on the radio in minutes demanding an answer. And he couldn’t very well space Bennie if there was a transfer car docked anyway.

Even-keeled Paul didn’t actually pull Bennie out of his bunk. He let the day-dream go and went to the toilet instead to take advantage of the opportunity to use the facilities before Bennie. After he had finished, he picked up his own tray, turkey with gravy and mashed potatoes today, and went to the bottom bunk. The noise from the television pounded at his head, and every time Bennie laughed it set his teeth on edge.

“Could you turn that down? Bennie?”

“I’d have to get up then.”

Paul pulled the tab to heat his tray, put it down and got up himself. He turned the volume down on the television, showing some old war movie.

“Come on,” Bennie complained. “That’s too low.”

“I’ve got a headache,” Paul said. “That noise is making it worse.”

“Why don’t you put on a helmet or something?”

Paul ignored him and returned to his bunk. If Bennie really cared, he could get up and change the volume himself. Paul picked up his tray. Now the bottom felt hot. It’d be another ten minutes before the food was somewhat warm. It’d never get truly hot, but it was better than eating it as a cold congealed mass. He held it in his lap while he waited and closed his eyes. Sleep tugged at him, beckoning for him to let go, forget about eating and just sleep. A loud explosion from the television got an even louder laugh from Bennie. Paul opened his eyes.

Food poisoning, that was something he hadn’t considered. There might be some chemical in the mec can supplies that could poison Bennie. But again, it had the same problem as more direct ways of killing. They’d discover that Bennie had been poisoned. The first thing they’d do would be to look at Bennie’s shift-mate, the one person that was locked in a can with him.

Paul peeled off the fork stuck to the lid of his tray, then slid the lid off and dug into the meal. The turkey didn’t taste like much, and the potatoes didn’t taste much different, but there was plenty of pepper in the gravy covering everything. Dill flavored the small helping of carrots. As anticipated, the tray had warmed the food, but he wouldn’t call it hot. By the time he finished eating, he couldn’t hardly keep his eyes open. He got up and put the tray in the recycler and then crawled back into the bunk. He pulled the blankets up, closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep.

Bennie laughed, and it sounded like one of his farts. Wet, and long, with much gasping and moaning.

Paul closed his eyes tighter and tried not to pay attention. If he could only get some sleep then maybe he wouldn’t have to kill Bennie. They could go on doing their jobs, and nobody had to die. As tired as he was the noise Bennie was making was making it hard to sleep. Bennie had told him to get a helmet. He had a point there. It was hard to hear anything except your own breath in those things. Of course, he couldn’t do the helmet by itself unless he wanted to suffocate himself, and he wasn’t that tired yet. If he ever did a rotation again, he was going to bring some sort of ear plugs in his personal space allotment. But the helmet? If he suited up, he could wear the helmet and maybe get some sleep.

He lay for a few minutes on the bunk, but the television and Bennie’s noises proved too much. Why not try it? He rolled out of the bunk and went forward to the locker beside the airlock.

“What’re you doing?” Bennie asked.

Paul opened the locker and took out the first suit. Another one-size fits all garment. He stripped off his uniform. Bennie started laughing.

“You’re not putting on a suit!”

“Obviously I am.” Paul stepped into the first leg and pulled it up. The material stretched and squeezed his foot and calf. The space activity suit provided mechanical pressure to keep fluids from pooling, while it retained mobility. Putting it on, that was the hard part. Paul worked up one leg then switched and did the other. It felt like putting on a pair of pants four sizes too small. He always thought he wouldn’t get into it, but somehow the material expanded just enough while keeping up the pressure. If he could just wear the helmet he would, but with the gap around the neck it probably wouldn’t keep out the noise as well. Bennie went back to watching the television rather than watching Paul get into the suit.

By the time he finished, Paul was even more tired. He grabbed the helmet and snapped it into the ring, then took out the tanks. Four hours and then an alarm would sound. It sounded like a good deal to him. He snapped the hoses in place, and cold air hissed into the helmet. His ears popped, and he tasted a sort of metallic flavor, but then he was breathing normally. Even better the sounds of the television and Bennie had muted to only a dull sound in the background, lost in the general background noise of the can. Paul walked back to the bunk. He saw Bennie laughing but didn’t hear most of the sound.

Lying down in the suit was a challenge. It was somewhat flexible, but he couldn’t bend far. Even so, he managed. He lay back in the bunk, tanks beside him and closed his eyes listening to the soft hiss of the air coming in and out of his tanks.

In minutes he fell asleep.

 

🚀

A loud clanging alarm woke Paul. He tried to sit, a challenge in the suit and braced himself on his elbows. The alarm wasn’t coming from the suit. That was outside, in the can, the sound muffled by his helmet. Paul checked the time. Two hours since he went to sleep. His eyes felt like sandpaper, and he reached up to rub them, but his gloved hands hit the helmet. He started to reach for the catch on the helmet but stopped.

Why was an alarm ringing? It wasn’t shift change.

“Bennie?”

He didn’t hear anything, couldn’t hear anything over that alarm. Paul rolled out of the bunk.

Bennie lay slumped in the upper bunk at an uncomfortable angle. Paul left him there and moved forward to the airlock where an alarm light flashed. It was the carbon dioxide build-up alert. He opened the panel and plugged into the station communications system.

“General, this is the rec can. We’ve got a carbon dioxide alarm here and an unconscious crewman. Respond.”

No one came back.

Paul unplugged and opened the suit locker. He grabbed the other helmet and tanks. He took those over to Bennie’s bunk. He shoved the helmet over Bennie’s head and plugged in the lines to the tank, then twisted the valve open. Bennie kept breathing.

Moving as fast as he could he went to the forward airlock and called the transfer car. Control had to know by now that there was a problem with the life support system. Paul went back to Bennie and shook him.

“Bennie! Wake up!”

Bennie’s eyes fluttered. He blinked and looked at Paul. “What?”

“Get up. Now.”

“Why?” Bennie scowled and licked his lips. He reached up to his head, and his hand hit the helmet. “What?”

“Carbon dioxide alarm. I need you to go rear while I move forward. We need to get helmets on the other guys and meet at the mec can to figure out the problem.” The can rang as the transfer car docked. “You got it?”

Bennie blinked again, but he nodded and swung his legs off the bunk. Paul didn’t wait to see if Bennie actually got down. He went to the airlock and opened the lever to let him pass through to the transfer car. At least the rest of the systems were working.

Back in the hab can Paul found Nick and Shaun on their bunks, both still had a pulse, but Shaun didn’t respond as Paul forced a helmet on his head. Without a full suit, they wouldn’t get the entire benefit, but he didn’t think he could get their limp bodies into suits. At least he had fresh air blowing past their faces. Beyond that, he couldn’t do much until they got the systems work. Once he had them situated, he called the next transfer car. Hopefully, Bennie had gone on back to the ops can.

When he got to the mec can, Bennie hadn’t arrived yet. Reggie was stretched out on the floor near the suit closet as if he had realized the problem and collapsed before he could get there. Carl was slumped over at his workstation. Paul retrieved helmets and air tanks, first getting Reggie’s on and then Carl’s. Then he looked at the system. The filters all showed red. Paul cursed and went to the first access rack. He flipped the toggles and pulled the first filter free. Even through the helmet, he heard the sound of air whistling past. A scrap of a uniform flew around and into the gap opened by pulling the filter.

They’d been holed!

Paul slapped the filter back into place and went to the supply closet. Just then he heard a transfer car slam into the airlock dock. Paul pulled open the closet and grabbed the patching kits. He’d just shut the closet when Bennie came through with Kurt behind him. Both of them just in helmets with tanks hanging by the straps over their shoulders.

“Take these,” Paul said, passing the kits to Bennie. He opened the supply closet again and took out two more that he clipped to his suit’s utility belt. “I’m going out to inspect the outside. We’ve been holed, somewhere in the filtration system. You’ll need to pull the racks and look for the holes. I’ll inspect the unit from outside.”

Bennie shuffled past Paul, and then Kurt, with his curly brown hair pressing against the inside of the helmet. Paul made it into the airlock and shoved over the switch. Then he went into the transfer car and shoved the switch over to close the lock. The transfer car started to move, but he opened a panel and pressed down the braking lever. The car stopped. The next part was tricky, but they’d all practiced it in simulations for just this sort of emergency.

Paul opened another panel and pulled out a safety line on a spool along with a hand crank reel. Then he took out what looked like a small black gun with a round disc on the front. That was the magnetic anchor he’d use to rig a line between the transfer car and the can. He attached the safety line. Then he clipped on and positioned himself in front of the transfer car door. It took two releases, one on each side to open the door when not docked. He pulled the first, then the second. The atmosphere in the car blew past him, but the safety line kept him anchored. After the atmosphere had vented, he took aim with the gun and shot the magnetic clamp at the can. It hit the can more or less where he wanted to go and stuck.

The mec can hung above him, looking much larger from this angle, a big blocky cylinder with square components sticking out into space. A dark groove on one side was the opening that the airlock door slid through when opened. From the top of the can rose a thin looking tower of struts around the tether and the lines that pumped air and power back through the hub to the other stations. The hub wasn’t so far away that he couldn’t see it, but in the bright sunlight it hurt his eyes. He focused on the mec can and stepped off. The station was rotating, and the line sagged as he hung beneath it. One mistake and the station would throw him off into space. The clamp held. Paul activated the small motor in the reel and held on as it dragged him across the gap.

Paul came in fast and caught a handhold beside the airlock.

His radio sputtered. “Paul, this is Bennie, how’s it going out there?”

“I’m on the can, making my way around to the air filtration systems now.”

“We’ve patched one hole, but we can’t reach the other. It’s up on the top, and we just can’t get to it. Looks like something went right through the unit.”

Paul crawled along the skin using inset handholds on the surface, just like climbing a wall. “I’m working my way there.”

The unit was a big block sticking out of the can. He saw the hole that Bennie had patched, it looked like a small pimple in the skin. He pulled himself up the end of the can to the top. There he could actually stand up and walk. It didn’t take long to reach the top side. Paul found a small crater at the top of the unit with air fogging out into space. He crouched and pulled out the patch kit. He took out the small plate and the tube of instant sealing compound. He worked carefully, squeezing out a rope of material around the outer edge of the plate and then a second ring inside the first. He pressed the plate into place over the hole and activated the charge unit. One quick zap like a Taser and the sealing compound bonded the plate with the can. It’d take a torch to cut it free now.

“How does it look in there?”

“Pressure is increasing,” Kurt said.

“We’ve swapped out the damaged filters,” Bennie added. “I think we’re good for you to come on back. Carbon dioxide levels are falling across the station.”

 

🚀

By the time they contacted control and explained everything three more hours had passed. Paul glossed over how he’d managed to get into the suit in time to help with the emergency. Control offered them all bonuses for handling the emergency. Paul didn’t care about that, he just wanted to get some sleep, and for once even Bennie couldn’t keep him up. His last thought before sleep overtook him was that he should be grateful that Bennie snored or he wouldn’t have been in his suit when the emergency hit and they all probably would have died.

And on their next rotation to the mec can Paul used the damaged air scrubbers to fashion himself a pair of ear muffs. It didn’t block out Bennie’s snoring completely, but it at least muffled it enough so that he gave up his plans of killing Bennie.

🚀

5,910 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 75th short story release, written in January 2011. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying releasing these on my blog. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

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

Forgotten Opportunity

Nightflayers attacked ships and colonies. They took survivors for experimentation and study. They ignored all attempts to communicate.

Humanity fought back. With greater numbers and equivalent technology humankind fought without understanding what the nightflayers wanted.

It took Coordinator Tevyan, the sole Survivor and former nightflayer prisoner many years to understand the war.

Returning to Ilivian gave him the chance to make a difference.

🚀

Coordinator Tevyan did his best to hide his feelings during the shuttle descent to the Kepler station on Ilivian. His weathered reflection — somehow an old man now, with what hair he had remaining buzzed close to his scalp and white — stared back at him. The overhead lights cast shadows across his face like craters on an airless body. His cheeks were deep depressions and his eyes nothing but a glint like polar ice at the bottom of the craters. His wrinkles, a tortured landscape shaped by major impact events.

He had never planned to return to Kepler in his lifetime, but here he was, riding on a stomach-twisting grav shuttle to the surface. Grav drives in gravity wells; the competing forces always upset his stomach. Had way back when he was still a young man going through basic. Back before the War, before Kepler, when he was nothing. Just one more cell in the multi-trillion body mass of humanity spreading out, engulfing one star after another.

Not the Survivor. Or the Prisoner. Or Coordinator.

Nothing.

A simple life then, with this future unimaginable. Unbelievable. Humanity fractured, wounded, the entire mass of humankind grieving still for lost limbs amputated during the war. The body survived but seriously scarred, scared and unbalanced. Bitter over its losses and struggling to find any meaning in a universe turned dark and hostile. The war was over, but the whole of humanity suffered from post-traumatic stress.

And somehow this ceremony was supposed to help start the healing process. The socioanalysts planned to spread holorecordings of the event across the entire spiral arm. They claimed this one thing, this one event, could somehow tip the scales. A butterfly effect that would turn into a hurricane of healing across the worlds.

Tevyan agreed, but not for the reasons that they thought. His plan differed from their plan.

“Sir, we will touch down in a moment.” The voice was smooth, pleasant, genderless. Artificially combined to suggest child and mother both.

Tevyan glanced over at the floating silvery orb in the aisle. The attendant for this flight was featureless, but a dim nimbus of blue surrounded it, an ionizing effect of its displacement drive. It wouldn’t be long now before the grav drives shut down and the shuttles displacement drives took over now that they were low enough in the Ilivian atmosphere. He anticipated the switch-over with longing.

“Thank you,” Tevyan said so the thing would go away.

Through his reflection, the world came into view. Ilivian’s blackened landscape at first looked charred and burned, the surface of a planetary disaster but it was actually the vegetation. Black sticky stuff that got into everything. Gum trees, Tar trees, Tar Babies, slink weed, choke vine and all the rest of the nastiest stuff any of them had ever seen. Landing on Kepler had been like landing in a tar pit.

Exactly like that, and like a dinosaur they had all met their deaths on this blasted planet hurtling too close around its star. All except him. The Survivor.

Coordinator Tevyan sighed. He was old and tired and resenting this whole affair but underneath that he felt a tingling, a surging in his pulse, an excitement he hadn’t felt since the first time he laid eyes on Ilivian.

Beside him his aide, a young woman with lovely brown hair that made a straight line down her slender back. He didn’t bother with her name or any of their names. She leaned close enough that he could smell the clean scent of her. Not perfume, no one wore perfume anymore. Her’s was the scent of a person carefully washed clean of any offense.

“Coordinator?” Her voice was pitched just right, soft and clear. “Are you in need of refreshment?”

Tevyan reached over and patted her arm. A bony little thing. “Stay away from the slink weed. That stuff creeps up on you. I saw it strangle a bunk mate once.”

Her perfectly composed face barely twitched at that comment. “As you say, sir. You will let me know if you require my aid?”

“Of course. Of course.” Tevyan looked back out the window.

The shuttle bounced at the switchover. Well, vibrated a tiny amount, but Tevyan recognized that shiver, like the feeling when someone walked over your grave. No one else gave any indication of feeling it.

Beneath them, a bright spot appeared ahead among the frothy black hills. Kepler station, right on time, looking like a raft among the black Ilivian vegetation. The first time he had come down in among the deployment to create the station there was nothing there except the bright reflections from the lake and what looked like a black sand beach. Muck weed was a low-growing plant with a sharp thorn at the heart of the tangled mass. What seemed like a smooth bed of vegetation was actually like walking on a bed of needles. And like many of the Ilivian plants, the muck weed could move and strike out in defense with its needles. The plant killed unwary animals, which rotted into the muck it favored along lakes and ponds.

These days Kepler station was a whole city unto itself with skyscrapers shooting up into the sky, their surfaces an unappealing gray to mute out the intense reflections from the Ilivian star. It gave the station the look of a prison.

But then, it was that too, for a time.

Landing went as expected. Tevyan made sure to keep control of his personal bag, although long habit and attitude ensured that no one would lay hands on the bag. Not unless he gave them a reason or requested help, which he wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t dare. Just as he couldn’t dare allow anyone to see his arm tremble at lifting the bag. His bag, immune to any scans or searches or measurements. The shuttle systems would have recorded the combined weight of passengers and luggage but only for use in calculations involving energy expenditure and allocation. In days past no one, not even him, would have gotten on board without a thorough examination and the weight of his bag would have triggered numerous alarms. Not to mention the added cost of those excess kilograms.

Today none of that applied. Humanity won the war, but humanity itself was the survivor, the prisoner that now struggled with the trauma of its injuries. Growth had stalled. Humanity didn’t reach for new stars any longer. People spoke about returning to Sol as if humanity’s origin could contain and support them any longer. It was ridiculous. Even as wounded as they were, they encompassed hundreds of systems, not even counting the quarantined systems, on which humankind might survive in some nightmarish fashion.

And still, people flooded Sol with pilgrims and refugees. The First Colonies worlds were likewise inundated with the tide of retreat. It was as if all humankind was going to curl in on itself, retreat into the corner to die a slow and painful death from its wounds. Victor in the war, but still to expire from its injuries.

Against that, the socioanalysts worked to promote healing and encourage more growth. Humanity could regrow and expand around the amputated areas. Those wounds were contained and carefully monitored lest the cancer ever spread again. In all of their plans, he was one small part. One small jolt of hope and strength to stir his fellow humanity.

They still didn’t understand what happened. The socioanalysts today weren’t even born back during the war when he was taken prisoner.

Striding toward the reception in the main terminal, he didn’t recognize the place. The ceremony was supposed to take place right outside the front of the terminal building. All of this had looked different back then. A temporary base, a staging area, burned out of the stick Ilivian landscape and built with prefab components. None of it back then had been designed to last. Half of it was charred and melted when the night-flayers descended.

Nightflayers, an unfortunate name for a people that humanity had never understood. The result of sensationalism dating back to the beginning of the war after prisoner remains were discovered flayed among the ruins of a nightflayer mobile base. A combination of nightmare and flayer, it put a name on an enemy that until that point hadn’t had a name. At least none that humanity had identified. No one succeeded at decoding nightflayer computer systems, or even understanding how they functioned. Apparently quantum computers, but with a solid matrix that resisted any attempts to analyze. Any scans done caused the system to fuse and become lifeless. Any functioning systems captured ceased to function as soon as humans came within the vicinity. Robots didn’t have any better luck. In one operation microscopic drones infiltrated a nightflayer base merely to observe and not interact. Before any useful information could be extracted the drones were all simultaneously destroyed by some sort of pulse.

The nightflayers became a mystery, a source of terror. Ships that appeared out of nowhere to eradicate any sign of humans whether found on a ship, asteroid or planet. Military or civilian, it made no difference. Once nightflayers appeared in a system they began randomly destroying targets. One habitat would be utterly destroyed, and then the nightflayers would appear somewhere else in the system to attack another.

No negotiations. No response to any communication attempts.

All of that was bad enough, but the nightflayers took prisoners. Most were never seen again, but what humanity did find in the ruins of captured and disabled nightflayer ships sent waves of terror through the colonies. Not only torture and death but biological modification.

People gathered around Coordinator Tevyan. They clapped, but the sound hardly registered. People talked, but he didn’t pay them any attention. None of it mattered.

“Coordinator?” His aide, right in front of him. Concern on her young, unlined face. “Are you alright? Do you need to rest before the ceremony?”

No. “No,” Tevyan said aloud in a firm, strong voice. He couldn’t show weakness. Not now. “Let’s get on with it.”

His aide looked doubtful. Caryn, that was her name. Not that it mattered now. He straightened his spine and walked purposefully toward the podium where some official was making an introduction. Seeing the Coordinator coming that official quickly wrapped up whatever he was saying and stepped back out of Tevyan’s way.

Tevyan placed his case on the podium in front of everyone. An air of hushed expectation came over the crowd. So many people standing here, but even among these hopeful he could see the aura of defeat and fatalism that had gripped humanity.

Won the war? Perhaps, but humanity was fatally wounded itself. If he did nothing, then humanity would shrink back and shrink back, more and more worlds becoming isolated while others closer to Sol became over-run and collapsed under the mass of humankind.

The body of humanity stood on the brink of suicide. Traumatized and sick of the war. Terrified of the dark spaces between the stars. Doubting in the possibility of a higher purpose.

Tevyan flipped the catches on the small black case. The silence grew longer. Uncomfortable whispers spread among the crowd. Some of those in the front edged back slightly, probably unaware of what they were doing.

The night-flayers weren’t traumatized, even though they had lost the war. At least according to some, never considering that theirs had been a calculated retreat designed to draw humanity out, but humanity lacked the drive anymore and took the nightflayer’s retreat as an admission of defeat. It was on that basis that humanity declared itself the victor in the conflict.

Tevyan knew better. The nightflayers hadn’t given up. They were smart, fanatical and just as technologically savvy as humanity. But they lacked the numbers. If humanity was a wounded animal, it was like a great bear going back to its cave to nurse its wounds. The nightflayers were a wolverine who wasn’t going to tolerate the bear’s presence in its territory. They had retreated in a calculated effort to rest, rebuild and let the toils of the war further sap the strength of humanity. They’d wait until humanity slumbered, then strike again. If humanity hadn’t died of its wounds already, it would the next time the night-flayers came at them.

Unless he stopped them.

The case opened, and the crowd tensed. He saw the almost universal tightening of their features. The way they flinched back, trying to hide it. A crowd of people fearful because an old man opened a case. They knew! On some level they saw something in his manner that suggested the danger. A look, maybe, in his eyes. It was that bit of awareness that he needed. He wanted it.

In the wings, he saw security personnel moving around the edges of the crowd. They didn’t know that it was already too late. It had always been too late.

Coordinator Tevyan smiled. An almost inaudible sigh passed through the crowd. It’s okay, his smile said. He was the Survivor. The one prisoner in the long war that came out of a nightflayer lab at least somewhat intact. Luck and happenstance, only. If one little thing had gone wrong, history would have looked very different.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice picked up and amplified to the room. Sound shapers made it sound like he was speaking to each member of the crowd individually, and he used that conversational voice that they all knew so well.

“Forgive an old man momentarily overwhelmed to be back here again. I never thought to step foot on Ilivian again. For those of you making a home here, forgive me, because I saw nothing of the beauty that I’m sure this world must hold.”

He coughed. Continued. “We landed in a field of scorched slink weed that smelled like burning rubber. We cleared muck weed from the lakeshore with flame throwers, fighting a daily battle to hold this one tiny piece of inhospitable ground so that we could build a foothold against the night-flayers. On this world wrapped in blackness, we fought to blaze a new hope for humanity!”

The crowd cheered and clapped. This was what they had come for, what the socioanalysts wanted. A message of hope to spread across the worlds. They didn’t realize that hope was the poison inflicted by the nightflayer claws.

“And we succeeded. We built our base. Then the nightflayers came. They descended out of the dark like javelins thrown by gods. Their initial assault was meticulously planned to wipe out our defensive capabilities while leaving as many of our soldiers alive as possible.

Security had relaxed. Holorecordings in the wings showed views of the way things were, and simulations of what he was saying. He didn’t care or control any of that.

“What happened then?” Tevyan looked down at the case. It held a large metallic egg-shaped object, but black and non-reflective. The surface gave nothing back, broken only by three lines around the perimeter, tiny grooves.

He took the object out of the case. The crowd now reassured, pressed closer to try and see what he held, but he kept it close to his body. Holding it but not drawing more attention to it just yet.

“Many have spoken about the nightflayers’ victims found in destroyed ships or cracked open asteroid habitats that they favor. You hear of talk of biological modification, but the full truth never spreads. Why is that? What do those in charge fear would happen if that were the case?”

More unsettled murmurs spread around the crowd. This wasn’t what they had come to hear. Tevyan lifted his weathered left hand, wrinkled with age but unmistakably half what it should have been. His outer two fingers and a good portion of the hand was missing. An outward sign of the mutilation and abuse he had sustained. A collective gasp went out from the crowd, even though they all knew of his injuries.

“In all of the battles, the victories we have won, no other person ever emerged alive from the night-flayer holdings. Or so you’ve been told. I’ve been the sole survivor, the prisoner that single-handedly managed to destroy a nightflayer base and then stayed alive among the rubble until rescued.”

Clapping rose up. Tevyan waved it down.

“Thank you, but your applause is unnecessary, my escape was staged by the nightflayers themselves.” Tevyan twisted the first segment of the device. A faint green glow filled the bottom groove. The crowd grew more agitated, and security was watching him more carefully. It must worry them, hearing his words, not knowing what he held.

“It took me too long to realize their purpose. I was debriefed many, many times when I got back. It wasn’t until the years piled into decades that I realized their intent.”

Tevyan twisted the second segment. Now people were drawing back again, but panic hadn’t yet set in. Security remained uncertain.

“They let me free to generate hope in humanity. That’s right. The night-flayers wanted you to hope. It took them a long time to understand hope; it isn’t something that they are wired to understand. They don’t hope, they do or don’t do things. But their quantum computing technology has prescient capabilities, and it determined that our hopefulness would weaken us, make us hesitate, and draw back hoping for a different outcome.”

They were listening. It didn’t matter now, but he couldn’t do this and not explain.

“They sent me as an instrument of hope, to make humanity doubt and question. Many of you don’t remember that there were those at that time calling for a full-out attempt at genocide, to wipe out the night-flayers who had proved impossible to communicate with or reason with. That movement would have gained more strength if yet another base was discovered overrun with no survivors. Without any attempt at subverting me, the nightflayers made me their weapon. Humanity saw me survive and hoped for a different outcome.”

Tevyan twisted the last segment and returned the device to the case. The crowd relaxed further, though their faces betrayed their confusion and doubt at his words. Tevyan leaned on the podium. There wasn’t much time left.

“Be very clear. Our hope for peace, for an end to the war, was fed by that one small act. By a survivor. A prisoner who could convincingly believe that he had escaped, destroying the night-flayer base in the process through means of accessing the self-destruct. The one time in our history that a human accessed any night-flayer system! Don’t you see? Just as the socioanalysts planned to use this reception to reignite hope in humanity, the nightflayers sent me out to ignite hope at a time when we needed to take a different path.”

Silence ruled the room. The device was active. Nothing could stop it now. His words meant nothing, but he felt compelled all the same to speak before the end, as so many others had given their last words.

“We had an opportunity to decide to wipe them out. Those that cried out against that course failed to understand that the nightflayers intend exactly that. They will wipe us out, fighting to the last. Any retreat only serves their benefit. They let the poison inflicting humanity to grow and weaken us.”

Tevyan placed a hand on the device. “Some of you might recognize this device, deemed harmless. A laboratory experiment that proved time could be manipulated on a quantum level, a device without practical application until now.”

Murmurings rose out of the crowd. Any moment now it wouldn’t matter. Tevyan pushed forward, eager to finish before the end.

“I’ve set it for one very specific task. Reach back and flip a question asked of the nightflayer computers. Should I live or die? Would a survivor help the nightflayer cause? Last time it said yes. This time, it will say no and I’ll die with the rest of my squad. I don’t know if it will be enough, but I hope that humanity, outraged by the atrocities committed here will rise in a never-ending fury that will burn the nightflayers from existence once and for all!”

Tevyan swung his hand down at the podium.

The blow didn’t land. Where he had stood wasn’t there, never had been. Kepler didn’t exist, hadn’t except for one brief period many years ago. A tar baby, one of the native inhabitants of Ilivian, wandered through the spot where the terminal had stood, snuffling through the slink weed. Acidic saliva dissolved the tarry black coating on the slink weed and gave the tar baby a chance to consume the plant within. Slink weed tar coated its bare, hairless body. The tar baby didn’t care anything about the affairs of the humans and night-flayers that had battled over this ground. It knew nothing of the spikes of metal that rose up, half-covered by slink weed and gossamer webs.

The tar baby trundled on, blissfully unaware of the forgotten opportunities in that place near the lake shore coated with muck weed.

🚀

3,472 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 74th weekly short story release, written in February 2012. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

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

The Greatest Gig

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. But I’m on a break.”

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

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

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

“Look, what is it that you need?”

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

“That’s what it’s for.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you wish, Technician.”

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

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

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

“Okay. Let’s do this. Come on Huey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. Access Huey’s feed.”

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

“Visual analysis is inconclusive.”

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

The stuff had nearly reached Huey. The droid screeched.

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewey sank lower.

“Larry?”

“Yes, Technician?”

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

“Two minutes.”

“Has the Captain been informed of the situation?”

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

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

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

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

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

Dewey beeped in protest.

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

“Let’s wait outside,” she told Dewey.

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

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

Dewey gave a questioning warble.

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

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

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

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

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

The stranger nodded. “Whatever you say.”

🚀

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

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

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

🚀

3,548 WORDS

Author’s Note

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

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

Witness to Dust

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

They called themselves Witnesses. Witness to what?

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except for the house overlooking the river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…vision swam…

…water dark and rippling below…

A growl and scrambling on the wood.

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

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

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

“Fuck you,” she said sweetly.

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

She went under. Oh Hell.

🚀

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

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

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

She attempted a smile. “Better?”

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

“Okay. Where am I?”

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

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

His eyes opened. “You’re awake.”

“So are you.”

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

“You’re a Witness.”

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

“Isn’t that considered rude?”

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

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

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

“I’m not going to attack anyone!”

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you give me the card, there?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s okay, just the phone.”

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I don’t have any choice?”

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

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

She was a Duster. A freak. A werewolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impossible.

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

Pain!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

“Take a breath,” Wainwright said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you changed?”

“Yes.”

“Did you attack anyone?”

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

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

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

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

“What happened after that?”

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

“You didn’t know you’d been exposed?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, more than anyone unmodified realizes.”

🚀

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

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

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

🚀

2,007 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 69th weekly short story release, written in November 2009. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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

Better the Boy

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

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

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

🚀

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

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

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

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

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

“No! Bones, lie down!”

Outside the blue light flashed again.

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

“No, Bones!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bones barked.

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

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

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

“Bone!” The Boy said happily.

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

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

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

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

The Boy pointed. “Light! Boon!”

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

The Boy looked at him. “Bone!”

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

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

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

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

Bones heard the door back at the house bang open.

The Man shouted. “Liam!”

The Woman shouted something too.

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

“Bones!” the Man cried.

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

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

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

“Come on, Bones.”

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

🚀

1,873 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 68th weekly short story release, written in November 2011. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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

Space Lot

Darren and his friends loved playing in the bio-dome. Almost like being outside.

Down below the station the planet promised endless open spaces if humans and Nivelaxians figured out a way to share. It didn’t make sense. Kl’ct didn’t understand it either.

When an unexpected attack threatens the station Darren and the others find themselves trapped in the bio-dome with older kids, no way out, and no time.

🚀

The whole station shuddered like the rabbits back in the biolabs. Darren noticed but Kl’ct twisted around one of the bio-dome trees and hissed from his perch on the branch above. Lex grabbed onto Mike’s left wing and pulled.

Mike yelled and swung at Lex’s arm. “Let go!”

“What was that?” Darren said.

Kl’ct curled around the branch even higher, pushing his iridescent face through the leaves to peer down at the rest of them. “Chase?”

Mike pulled free from Lex but the left wing was out of alignment in the harness. He twisted, trying to see the shimmery feathers. “If you broke this I’m going to break your arm!”

“You’re not,” Lex said.

“Stop!” Darren said. “Listen!”

“Chase,” Kl’ct said.

There was a loud whistling noise. The station shook again. A loud siren sounded through the dome. They all noticed that. Kl’ct’s antenna rose and spread as he reared up from the branch.

“Alert. Alert.”

“We hear it,” Darren said.

Augmented warnings popped up from the corners of his eyes. Depressurization, destabilization, compartmentalization procedures in force, whatever those meant.

“Shit,” Mike said. “What’s going on?”

Darren said, “Call home.”

An augmented warning popped up in front of him. Systems error. Please try again.

He did and it still didn’t work. The other guys were doing the same thing, trying to call out without any luck.

“Come on, call home!” Lex’s voice rose.

Mike hit the releases on his wing harness and swung the broad wings free. “I’m going to fix this and then get out of here.”

Kl’ct’s beads rattled as he spiraled down out of the tree to the ground. “Disconnected. Disaster.”

Darren waved away his own error messages. They dissolved in a drift of smoke and were gone. He reached out and tapped Lex’s arm.

“Come on, we’ve got to go.”

Lex nodded. “Okay, yeah. Let’s go.”

“Wait!” Mike said. He had realigned his wing and was pulling on the harness. “I’m coming too!”

Lex was already running. He wasn’t waiting. The red lights flashed and reflected on his bouncing blond hair.

Mike finished strapping on his wings and activated them. Responding directly to his thoughts — the wings were an expensive gift from his Earth-bound father — Mike launched himself into the air.

Darren started running after the others. Mike flew faster than any of them could run.

The whistling noise started fading. Darren looked around, noticed shadows moving on the ground and looked up. Hundreds of fist-sized repair drots swarmed over the face of the dome spraying sealant over holes punched through a section of the dome.

“Look!” He jabbed a finger up at the drots.

Kl’ct and Lex stopped to look up.

Kl’ct’s external display flashed on his face. “Structural failures!”

“We’ve been hit,” Lex said. “Meteorite impact?”

Mike swooped down and circled over their heads. “The hatches are sealed!”

“What?” Three voices asked at once.

Darren clenched his fists and looked toward the exit hatches, but the plants were in the way. He couldn’t see the way out. The biodome had two primary exits at each end, it was a like a swollen bead on the string of the station’s main body. It was one of four similar domes spaced around the station, each designed for different sorts of environmental conditions. This one was a temperate forest environment, although it contained species from a half-dozen different worlds. They’d learned about all of them in their lessons.

“I’m gonna check it out,” Mike said. He flapped off over the tops of a Broken Pearl tree. The canopy of broad leaves formed a complicated pattern of pearlescent leaves around the central trunk.

“We should go help,” Darren said.

Up above it looked like the drots had a handle on sealing the holes. At least for the moment it didn’t look like they were going to depressurize.

Darren took off running again, this time getting in front. Lex’s feet slapped the path behind him. Kl’ct’s pointed prods sounded like someone drumming their fingers against the path to make a sort of galloping sound.

They rounded the planter that held the Broken Pearl tree among the thicker undergrowth and could finally see the closed hatches ahead. Both the inner and outer hatches were shut, with red lights tracing the edges.

Mike had landed, his wings folded down his back as he tried the hatch controls. It kept throwing up a red warning message each time he tried before Darren got there.

Mike looked down at him. “It’s not working. The hatches won’t open!”

Lex and Kl’ct arrived. Kl’ct lifted his upper body from the ground and swayed back and forth.

“Trapped. No way out?”

“We can try the other side of the dome,” Lex said.

Darren shook his head. “It’s probably closed.”

“But we don’t know that,” Lex said. “What if it’s not?”

“I could go check it,” Mike said. “I can get there faster than anyone.”

Kl’ct’s probs tapped on the controls and a second later the display showed a schematic of the station complete with read highlighted sections.

“Areas damaged,” Kl’ct said. “Hatches reported closed, sealing off sections.”

Darren joined him and flicked through the reports. It was true. There was damage to the station in sections on both sides of this dome. They’d taken the worst of the impact.

“Still unidentified?” Lex said, peering over Darren’s shoulder. “What does that mean?”

“They don’t know what hit us,” Darren said.

“Not meteorites?” Lex said.

Darren stepped back from the panel. “It doesn’t say.”

Which was very frustrating. Wouldn’t it say if there had been a meteorite impact?

Mike’s wings spread and folded back up. “So I shouldn’t go?”

Darren shook his head. “Stay here. We shouldn’t get separated, and we’re already at this hatch. Someone will come.”

Just then there were voices. Lex and Mike rushed to the hatch doors.

“We’re in here!”

Mike pounded on the glass.

“Stop it,” Darren said. “Stop!”

Both of the guys turned around. Darren pointed off into the dome. “The voices came from out there. Someone else is in here.”

Sure enough, two big kids came around the corner. They were both a lot taller, almost as big as adults, and human. One of the guys had wavy black hair and was holding a broken drot in his hands, the legs dangling around his fingers. The other kid was a red-head, with hair a deep rusty red-brown and a spray of freckles across his pale skin.

The guy with the drot sneered when he saw them. “Shit, we’re stuck in here with a bunch of squirts!”

The red-head nudged the guy and pointed at Kl’ct. “But look, there’s a Milliroach with them.”

Kl’ct hissed softly and scuttled backward around Lex.

“I’ll bet it’s a spy,” the one holding the drot said. “Sent here to scout out the station before the attack.”

“Attack?” Lex said.

“Yeah, squirt. Me and McQueen here saw ‘em. Milliroach ships fired on the station. Looks like the war finally started, alright.”

War. Darren’s stomach shrank. Dad had talked about the chance that there was going to be a war. The disagreement with the Nivelaxians — Milliroach was a bad word — over the colony planet below was all his parents talked about some days. It didn’t make much sense. It was a whole planet! There should have been room for everyone, but the Nivelaxians were there first and weren’t looking for neighbors on the surface.

“We ought to take him prisoner,” McQueen said. “Right, Rod?”

The other kid, apparently Rod, nodded. “I think so. We could be heroes when we get out of here.”

“Not a spy,” Kl’ct said. “Exchange student.”

“Right.” Rod laughed. “Like anyone believed that! You wanted to spy on us.”

McQueen said. “Want to tie him up or something?”

Darren stepped forward. “He’s not a spy. He takes lessons with us. Just leave him alone.”

Rod stepped up and loomed over Darren. “You telling me what to do, squirt?”

Darren squeezed his hands into fists. There were four of them, even if they were smaller. “Yes. You can’t do anything to Kl’ct, he’s not —”

There was a blur and something smacked Darren’s face. It was loud and hurt! He staggered and his whole face smarted. Tears stung his eyes.

Rod had hit him!

Darren wiped the tears away just as Rod stepped closer and gave him a two-handed shove. Darren flew back like a leaf caught in wind.

McQueen was laughing, his voice high-pitched and gasping.

“That’s what I can do, squirt,” Rod said. He pointed at each of them in turn. “Don’t the rest of you think about trying anything unless you want more of the same.”

Darren picked himself up. Lex and Mike stood together in front of Kl’ct. It wasn’t fair, and Darren couldn’t let it go. It didn’t matter what happened, he wasn’t about to let Rod pick on anyone else.

“You’re pretty tough,” Darren said.

Rod looked at him. “What did you say?”

“You’re tough.” Darren walked in front of the others. “Big guy, you can pick on someone half your size. Makes you pretty tough, I guess.”

McQueen’s eyes bulged and he covered his giggles with one hand.

Darren gestured at McQueen. “Even your buddy thinks that’s pretty funny.”

Rod turned and when he saw McQueen trying not to laugh he glared. That made McQueen lose it. The kid started laughing great big belly busters.

Rod shoved McQueen’s shoulders. “Cut it out! It’s not funny!”

“Yes it is,” Darren said. “It’s hilarious.”

Rod pointed a finger at Darren. “You’d better stop.”

McQueen laughed harder.

Rod chucked the broken drot at McQueen. It hit McQueen in the chest, then fell with a dull clank to the floor.

“Ow!” McQueen rubbed the spot. “Why’d you do that?”

“Because you’re an idiot,” Rod said. “Now help me get this Milliroach.”

McQueen kicked the broken drot aside. “Come on kids, don’t give him any excuses.”

Darren stayed where he was and tried not to shake. He lifted his arms and made two fists. “I’m not letting you do anything to Kl’ct. He doesn’t have anything to do with the attack.”

“It was them!” Rod said. “We saw the ship!”

“You saw them?” Lex stepped up. “What sort of ship did you see? Can you describe it?”

“It wasn’t human,” Rod said. “We know that. No one has ships like that one.”

Mike spoke up. “How do you know it wasn’t some other species?”

“It looked like a giant bug,” McQueen said. “Some sort of beetle.”

Kl’ct’s body rose up, rocking back onto his rear prods. “Ships not like a beetle.”

Rod sneered and tried to step around Darren. “Like we’d believe you.”

Darren moved in front of the big kid. “He’s telling the truth!”

“Their ships look like spheres,” Lex said. “We studied them in class. They’re like giant balls.”

Which wasn’t telling the bigger kids that the reason they studied it was because of the report that Kl’ct did in front of the class when he joined their lesson group.

Rod said, “So what other aliens could it be? It’s the Milliroaches that don’t want to share the planet.”

“I don’t know,” Darren said. “But it wasn’t them. And even if it was, it’s not up to you. Help will come, they’ll know what to do.”

“What if the dome depressurizes?” Lex asked.

Rod shoved a hand back through his wavy hair. “The drots are sealing the domes. It’s fine, kid.”

He was actually right. It wasn’t easy to see from here, but it looked like the drots were crawling down the face of the dome. There was a dull, darker spot where they had applied the patch.

Mike picked up the broken drot that Rod had thrown at McQueen. It’s legs dangled limply around his hand. “What happened to this one?”

“It fell,” McQueen said. “Lots its grip up there and fell all the way down. We saw it, give it over.”

Mike threw it back at McQueen. The bigger boy simply reached out and caught it. McQueen laughed, tossed the drot into the air and caught it again.

Rod tapped his arm. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“The other side of the dome,” Rod’s tone suggested that McQueen’s question was the stupidest thing he had ever heard. “While these squirts are sitting around here waiting for this hatch to open, we’re going to see if the other way out is open.”

“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said.

“Yeah?” Rod said, sneering. “Like I’m going to listen to a Milliroach. We’ll go check it out on our own.”

Rod was already walking away. McQueen hesitated for a moment, tossed the drot up, caught it and then he started whistling as he followed Rod away.

Darren finally relaxed and turned back to face his friends.

“That was insane,” he said.

“Do you think they’ll get out?” Lex said.

“Hatches are sealed,” Kl’ct said. “No leaving.”

Now that the immediate danger was past Darren felt his excited rise. “Did you hear what they said, though? About the ships? Not human or Nivelaxian — that means there’s some other alien species here.”

The science lessons said that it was unlikely for two civilizations to be spreading around the same portion of the galaxy at the same time. Most went extinct before gaining the ability to travel between solar systems. There’d been plenty of ruins found on alien worlds in the past hundred or so years.

“Great,” Lex said. “And they took a shot at us because they’re the big kids?”

“I could fly up and see what those guys are doing,” Mike said.

“They probably wouldn’t like it if they saw you,” Darren said. “We should stick together.”

“They can’t do anything if I’m flying above them.”

“Throw rocks?” Kl’ct said.

Mike’s wings flexed and folded. “Maybe, but they probably couldn’t hit me.”

“How long do you think it’ll take before someone comes for us?” Lex said. “I’m getting hungry.”

It was almost lunch time. That introduced a new wrinkle to the whole experience. What were they supposed to do about food? Most of the edible plants grown on the station were in the hydroponics bay. The bio-domes were parks, places for people to get out even under the black sky.

“It probably won’t take too much longer,” Darren said. “Let’s check the panel.”

He went over to the panel beside the hatch. Kl’ct reared up beside him but kept his prods to himself. Darren swiped through the screens but it was only displaying the same information as before. The areas on both sides of the bio-dome showed sealed sections and damage. Portions of the station had been vented by the damage but the interior seals were holding.

“Nothing new,” Kl’ct said, dropping back down to the ground.

“He’s right,” Darren added.

Lex made a frustrated noise. “I can’t connect! How’s that even possible?”

Darren activated his augmentation layer and right away was alerted that the only viable connections were his friends — and the two older kids that had gone off. Nothing outside the dome.

He waved away the interface. “I guess we just wait.”

“Other ways out?” Kl’ct said.

“I don’t think so,” Lex said. “Unless you can override the security on the hatch.”

“Is that even safe?” Mike said. “If sections are depressurized, doesn’t that mean we couldn’t breathe? We might vent the whole dome.”

Darren remembered something on the schematics as he was viewing the damage to the station. He pulled that back up and found what he was looking for.

“There,” he said, spreading his fingers to zoom in on the area. “What about the supply shaft?”

“What’s that?” Kl’ct said.

It was a radial arm that ran from the hub out to the bio-dome. The passage was small on the schematics, but it had to have room for all of the air, water and power supplies to the bio-dome. But there should also be room for them. It was used for maintenance after all.

“Supply shaft straight out to the hub ring,” Darren said. “If we can get in, we can get all the way to the hub ring. There’s no damage reported there, only out here.”

“Let’s do it,” Mike said. “Better than sitting around here.”

Lex nodded. “Sure okay.”

“Sure okay,” Kl’ct said.

The fact that they all agreed surprised Darren but there wasn’t anything else to do except go check it out.

As they set out along the paths Lex and Mike hurried to the front. He let them. Maybe they wouldn’t have any luck opening the supply shaft, but he felt better about it than sitting and doing nothing. Seeing the damaged sections on the panel, all he could picture was his parents caught in one of the depressurized section. Logically, there wasn’t any reason for his parents to be in those areas — they were both supervisors that worked in parts of the hub. No reason for them to be out in the main ring at this time.

Except sometimes they had to for their jobs, but the station was a big place. What were the chances?

It didn’t matter. He’d be happier when they were all safe in the hub and there were grown-ups around to tell them what was going on. Plus, even though the drots had patched the damage to the dome he didn’t quite trust the patch. What if it failed? Or the ships came back. The hub would be safer.

It wasn’t easy to find the supply shaft hatch. The path was almost covered by long trailing ferns. Kl’ct spotted it, but then he was ambling along on his prods much lower than the rest of them.

“Here, here!”

Darren pushed through first, followed by the other guys. Past the ferns the path opened up into a firm path with an almost rubberized feel to it, even though it was designed to look like gravel. At the end, not that far, was the dome wall and a plain metallic hatch with a bright red and yellow bar across the middle.

EMERGENCY ACCESS ONLY. NO UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS.

“I think this counts as an emergency,” Darren said.

“Yeah,” Mike said. “Open it.”

“Is it going to sound an alarm?”

“Likely result,” Kl’ct said.

Darren grabbed the big red lever in the hatch. There were arrows showing that the lever needed to be lifted and rotated around to face the other way, counter-clockwise. He wrapped both hands around it and pulled.

It didn’t move.

“Come on,” Lex said. “What’s wrong?”

“It won’t move,” Darren said.

Mike shoved Lex out of the way. “Let me try.”

Darren and Lex got out of his way, but the wings still hit Darren’s arm. Mike liked to act like he was a big guy, but he really wasn’t. Darren crossed his arms and waited.

Mike strained to move the handle with both hands and it refused to budge.

“Give up?” Lex said. “Maybe Kl’ct should try?”

“Unnecessary,” Kl’ct said.

“No,” Mike said. He glanced back. “Stand back.”

“What are you doing?” Darren said.

Mike’s wings spread out on either side. He wrapped his hands around the handle, crouched and then jumped into the air. His wings swept down and he swung up and crashed into the hatch.

He yelled and fell down, landing on hands and knees.

He climbed up onto his feet and his wings folded back into place. “It’s busted. We’re stuck.”

“Larger humans help?” Kl’ct said.

They all looked at him and Darren saw that they all had the same opinion of Kl’ct’s idea. Ask the older boys for help? Darren didn’t want to see them again, but it might be the only way to get out.

“No way,” Lex said. “You saw what he did to Darren.”

“Right,” Mike said. “We’ll wait until a rescue team gets to us.”

Darren said, “No. Let’s ask them.”

“Really?” Lex said.

Darren took a deep breath and it didn’t feel right. Thin. He hadn’t noticed before, but the air seemed thinner. And there was a faint whistling noise.

“Yes,” he said. “I think the drots’ patch isn’t holding. We need to get out of here into a sealed section.”

“I can check it out,” Mike said.

He stepped away and spread his wings.

“Be careful,” Kl’ct said. “Thinner air, harder to fly.”

Mike nodded. “I’ll be careful. Thanks.”

Darren started up the path. “We’ll go on foot. You can help us find them.”

“Right!” Mike said.

Mike jumped into the air and his wings swept down. Leaves blew around them as he flapped up into the air over the ferns and bushes. Soon he was nearly out of sight over the trees.

Darren ran up the path with Lex and Kl’ct running with him. He turned left and headed down the path in the direction of the other side of the dome because that’s where the older boys said they were going.

None of the paths in the bio-dome went straight. They twisted and went up and down the small hills in the bio-dome. Across a wood footbridge over the stream. It was almost fun except Darren realized that he was breathing heavier than normal.

Mike swooped back over them. “Turn at the next split — they’re heading back.”

Darren shouted, “Okay.”

Up ahead the path split beneath a big tree that curved and made almost a tunnel of branches. It was a favorite spot of theirs because it was easy to climb the tree. Mike dropped down and landed on the thick branches.

“They’re just up ahead.”

Darren ran on through the branches tunnel and coming up the next rise. He sucked air and bent over, hands on his knees. The big kids were just up ahead at the top of the next rise. As Lex and Kl’ct caught up, and Mike hoped down onto the trail, McQueen saw them. He tapped Rod’s arm.

Rod turned around. “What are you doing?”

Darren straightened and ran down the hill towards the bigger boys. They stayed where they were until he got there.

“The air’s leaking,” Darren said, breathing hard.

The guys caught up.

“The drots fixed it,” McQueen said.

Darren shook his head. “It didn’t hold. Listen, you can hear the whistling.”

Everyone was quiet and the whistling was like a distant tea kettle. Rod’s eyes widened.

“We have to get one of those hatches open,” he said. He looked down at them. “You’ll have to keep up.”

He was already turning and Darren grabbed his arm. “Wait.”

Rod scowled and yanked his arm away. “We can’t wait unless you squirts want to be sucking vacuum.”

“There’s another hatch, to the access shaft,” Darren said. “We couldn’t lift the lever, but maybe you can.”

“Okay,” Rod said. “Where?”

“You’re not listening to them, are you?” McQueen said.

“Why not?” Rod looked down at Darren. “He seems tougher and smarter than you.”

Darren pointed back down the path. “This way.”

They all ran, even Mike. He tried to take off but didn’t get much lift from his wings. Darren took the lead with the bigger boys behind him, and the rest of the group following. The air was getting thinner. His lungs were burning by the time they got to the access hatchway.

Rod immediately grabbed the lever and tried to move it. It moved a little, but then he stopped and looked at McQueen.

“Don’t be dumb, help me!”

McQueen crowded in beside Rod and put his hands beneath the end. Rod grabbed it from the top. With McQueen pushing and Rod pulling the lever moved up. As they forced it vertical they switched their grips and pulled it the rest of the way down.

Rod pushed on the hatch and it didn’t move.

Darren went to the panel and looked at the readout. “There’s more pressure on the other side — it’s pushing the hatch shut!”

“Everyone!” Rod said.

He planted his back against the hatch. McQueen did the same thing. The rest of the kids crowed around them and Kl’ct went between the big kid’s legs to reach the hatch.

Darren was pressed against Lex, both of their hands on the hatch. “Push!”

They all pushed. At first Darren didn’t think it was going to work. He was heaving lungfuls of thin air but they weren’t making progress. Then a breeze blew in his face. He realized after a second that it was air escaping around the hatch into the dome.

“Keep pushing!”

A centimeter at a time they pushed the hatch inward into the access tunnel. The breeze became a wind blowing in their faces but it was at least easier to breathe. Soon they had the hatch shoved wide open and kept pushing until it was fully open. Even then the wind threatened to shove it close.

“Get out of the way on three,” Rod said.

“One. Two. Three!”

Darren darted into the tunnel. Lex was with him. Kl’ct scurried past on his prods. Mike stumbled as McQueen shoved him forward. Rod was still on the door, legs planted to try and hold the hatch but he was sliding. Then he rolled away from the hatch into the shaft.

The hatch slammed shut with a loud bang and the wind stopped. Rod slowly picked himself up. Darren walked over and held out his hand. Rod hesitated for a moment and then shook it.

“You’re a weird kid, but sorry about smacking you around.”

Darren noticed the pinched look in Rod’s face. The older boy really was sorry. It suddenly occurred to Darren that Rod had been reacting out of fear from the attack.

“It’s Kl’ct that deserves the apology,” Darren said. “He didn’t have anything to do with the attack.”

Kl’ct lifted his front section up from the floor. “We would never attack you, physical confrontation, very distasteful.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Rod said.

He brushed past them. The access shaft curved sharply just ahead and there was a ladder leading up. The whole station rotated to simulate gravity. To get up to the hub they were going to have to climb up the access shaft.

“Come on,” Rod called. “We shouldn’t stay here.”

Mike flexed his wings but the tips quickly hit the sides of the narrow shaft. “Too bad. If this was bigger I could fly up.”

Rod was disappearing up the ladder, with McQueen behind him.

Darren motioned to the others. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

He waited until all the others had gone first and then followed. It was hard to climb the ladder at first. The shaft was narrow, surrounded by pipes and wiring that extended through the access shaft. The further they climbed the easier it became until they were all making good time. Kl’ct looked like he was running along tracks instead of climbing.

When the hatch smoothly opened at the far end, they climbed out and were quickly surrounded by excited and relieved adults.

The crowd parted and Darren’s parents came through the crowd. Darren threw himself into his dad’s arms and hugged him tight.

“We were so scared!” His mother said. “We didn’t know where you were, but we knew the bio-dome was failing.”

Darren pulled back. “Who attacked the station?”

“We don’t know,” his father said. “But between the Nivelaxians ships and our own, we’ve driven them away. We’re safe now.”

For now. But the aliens could come back. Darren squirmed down from his father’s grasp.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Darren said. “I’m fine.”

This time. But what about the next time? If the aliens came back, he needed to be better prepared. Rod had hit him and knocked him down, but he was nothing but a scared bully. That didn’t mean there weren’t bigger threats out there in the dark. For the first time he realized that he could have died and shivered.

He had to be better. Plan better. Know more about what to do and be ready to deal with whatever happened. He couldn’t grow up faster, but he also couldn’t wait. It was a big universe after all.

He had to be ready for it.

🚀

4,690 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 67th weekly short story release, written a couple years ago in May 2014. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

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

Your Eyes

Wyatt wanted a family. Like his best friend Hank.

Or at least a babezee. The catalog said that the doctors used bits of your hair to make the babezee. Your eyes, your hair color, and everything. Almost like a real baby, only better, because your babezee never grew up.

His to love, for always. Perfect.

GMO food is only the beginning.

🚀

“Have you seen my babezee catalog?” Wyatt shoved the brightly colored catalog at Hank.

Hank scowled. It was his most common expression and one that he was good at. He used his broom handle to shove the offending catalog aside. “Don’t start with that shit, Wyatt. Fake babies? Who needs that? I have enough trouble with the real thing.”

Wyatt’s finger traced the plump curve of a happy cheek. The paper felt slick and cold beneath his finger. Not at all how the babezee would feel. A babezee would be warm and soft. He could cuddle it and carry it around. “Ain’t fake.”

Hank shook the broom handle. “Just push the damn cart, Wyatt. You can look at the catalog when we take a break. We have to get this place clean after all.”

Sometimes Wyatt wished that Hank would listen more. He always seemed angry. Wyatt didn’t understand that. Hank had a perfect life. He had a good job cleaning. It was nice and quiet at night too. No people to give them trouble. When Hank went home Wanda would be there, Hank’s wife. She was pretty. Plump like the babezees. Wyatt liked her laugh. He remembered from the time he went to Hank’s barbecue party last summer. Hank had a house and a car and kids of his own. Wyatt didn’t know what he thought about the kids. They were so quick and loud. At the barbecue he couldn’t understand how Hank and Wanda kept track of them. It seemed like everywhere he had looked the kids were there running and laughing. Screaming sometimes too. He didn’t like the screams. And Wanda had a baby. A real baby that she grew in her own tummy. Hank called the baby his angel but her name was actually Martha. Wyatt thought Hank should be happy because he had so much but Hank usually complained about something.

Wyatt pushed the cart while Hank pushed the broom. Sometimes Hank let him push the broom but when he did Hank usually complained that Wyatt missed something so mostly Wyatt pushed the cart. He liked pushing the cart. He kept it neat. Everything in the right place, ready so he could hand Hank whatever he needed. Sometimes Hank called him his nurse. That made Hank laugh but Wyatt didn’t understand why.

“You still with me Wyatt? Or are you off dreaming about those damn babezees?”

Wyatt rolled up the catalog and stuffed it in his back pocket. “I’m here, Hank. Need something?”

“The fucking dust pan, thank you very much.”

Wyatt handed Hank the dust pan. “You’re welcome.”

🚀

After work Wyatt went out to the bus stop and sat on the cold metal bench. He took out the babezee catalog and looked at the pictures some more. There were all sorts of babezees in the pictures. Wyatt had asked Hank to help him understand why. Hank said no but Jilly back at the office had told him. The babezee doctors took some of your hair when you wanted a babezee. They used the hair to make the babezee match you, so it would have your eyes and hair. Jilly said it made the babezees seem real because they looked like you. Wyatt looked at all of the different babezees smiling in the pictures. Did he want a babezee to look like him? The thought made his palms sweaty and his heart race. A babezee of his very own that would look like him, that’s what he wanted.

He hugged the catalog to his chest and wished he could smell “that perfect babezee” smell. He wanted to come home and find the babezee waiting for him, happy to be fed. It seemed like a babezee would be much better than a dog which might bark or bite. Or a cat that could scratch. You couldn’t cuddle a bird.

A babezee would be the best, Wyatt thought. He had to get one. Jilly might help him. He’d ask her tomorrow.

🚀

“Jilly! I have a question.”

Jilly tapped a stack of papers on her desk. She smelled like strawberries. Jilly always smelled like strawberries but Wyatt never saw her eat any. “What is it?”

Wyatt held out the babezee catalog and Jilly groaned.

“Are you still going on about those things?”

“I want one.”

Jilly took the catalog and tossed it down on her desk. She pointed a strawberry-red fingernail at the babezees smiling on the cover. “You want one of these twisted monkey mutants? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“It isn’t a monkey,” Wyatt complained. “It’s a babezee.”

“I told you before, Wyatt. Those are chimpanzees that they’ve mucked around with. They changed stuff inside them to get rid of the hair, changed around their hands and faces. Turned them into fucking useless imitation babies only without the screaming all night. Perfect angels, they call them but I’m telling you that’s some twisted shit. They sell these things to rich broads too busy and too pure to have children themselves. Real save-the-planet types while they show off their perfectly cute mutant monkeys. Filling the maternal instinct crap. And you don’t have any maternal instincts, Wyatt. You aren’t a woman.”

“I want one,” Wyatt said stubbornly. “I need your help to order one. I don’t know what to do.”

Jilly rubbed her eyes. “Look, Wyatt. These things cost a shit-load of money.”

“I have money.”

“Come on, how much money do you have?”

Wyatt thought maybe Jilly was going to change her mind and help him. He had brought his checkbook with him. He held it out. “I write down everything I save.”

For a second she just stared at Wyatt then she snatched the checkbook out of his hand. She flipped through the pages and her eyes grew wide. She covered her mouth for a second and then let the checkbook drop onto the babezee catalog. “How the hell do you have that kind of money?”

Wyatt shrugged. “I save my money. Isn’t that good?”

Jilly laughed. “Sure, it’s fucking great. Don’t you buy stuff?”

“Only what I need,” Wyatt said.

“But you want to buy one of these babezees? It’ll clean out your savings, Wyatt. Hell, you could buy a house with what you have and as much as those things cost.”

“Really?” Wyatt hadn’t ever thought he could buy a house. He could have his own house just like Hank. Except he didn’t need a house, did he? All by himself? He shook his head. “I just want a babezee.”

“I don’t know about this, Wyatt. Why do you want one of these things?”

“I just do,” he said. It was hard to explain. He didn’t think he could make Jilly understand.

She tapped the catalog again. Outside he heard the truck breaks squeal. Hank would be coming in. “You’ll have to do better than that. They don’t sell babezees to just anyone. They do screenings.”

“What’s that?”

“They test you, Wyatt. To make sure you are the right type of person to have a babezee. They don’t want to sell to fucking pedophiles, you know?”

He wasn’t sure what she meant. “Will you help me?”

Jilly picked up the catalog and his checkbook. She shoved them at him. “No, Wyatt. It’s a bad idea. I’d be wrong not to tell you that. Save your fucking money. Forget about the babezees.”

Hank knocked on the door. “Hey man, you ready to roll?”

🚀

“Come on, Wyatt. What’s the problem, man?”

Hank had already asked that question more than once. Wyatt shook his head and pulled the next trash bag out of the wastebasket. He dropped it into the big trash bin on the cart. When he reached to get another trash bag Hank snatched the roll away.

“Tell me what the fuck is wrong, man! I can’t be going through the whole shift looking at your hang-dog face.”

The trouble was whenever Wyatt thought about what Jilly had said he felt like crying. He wasn’t supposed to cry. He knew that. Men didn’t cry. He didn’t want to start blubbering in front of Hank. Then Hank would know the truth, that he wasn’t really a man. He wasn’t going to have a wife like Wanda and a house. A babezee would be enough but Jilly had been mean. She wouldn’t help him.

“Come on Wyatt. You’re pissing me off. I don’t want to spend the whole shift with you looking like you’ve lost a winning lottery ticket.”

Wyatt pulled the catalog out of his back pocket. He held it out to Hank. Hank took the catalog, unrolled it and groaned. “Babezees? You’re still going on about these things? You know they never grow up, right?” Hank’s finger poked at the belly of a laughing babezee. “They stay like that right up until they die. Pathetic little fuckers.”

Wyatt reached for the catalog. He could feel his face burning. Hank and Jilly were the same. They didn’t understand. Hank didn’t give him the catalog back. He held it out of Wyatt’s reach and moved around the cart.

“Hank, can I please have it back?”

“You know how much these things cost? Heck, if I had that kind of money I could send one of my kids to college, not that there would be much point. You couldn’t afford to buy one of them anyway. How about we just throw this away?”

Hank dangled the catalog over the trash bin. Wyatt lunged across the cart, upsetting the toilet paper rolls but Hank kept the catalog out of reach and danced back with a laugh. Wyatt clenched his fists.

“Hank, that’s mine!”

“Bullshit. You found it in one of the office trash cans.”

“Yeah, but I found it so finders keepers. They didn’t want it.”

Hank waved the catalog. “But you can’t get one of these!”

Wyatt dug in his other pocket and pulled out the check book. “I have money.”

“Really? Let me see.”

“Give me the catalog first,” Wyatt said.

“Sure, sure.” Hank handed over the catalog and took the checkbook.

Wyatt looked at the pictures of the babezees on the front. They looked so happy. Hank and Jilly didn’t like them but that was okay. He liked them. Other people did too or there wouldn’t be this catalog. Hank whistled.

“Jeezus! You do have some dough, don’t you?”

“I told Jilly I had money,” Wyatt said. “She wouldn’t help me buy a babezee.”

“You save everything, don’t you man?”

“It’s good to save money.”

Hank nodded. “Sure it’s good, but you have to spend something now and then. Why else do this work?”

“I like my job,” Wyatt said. “I like things clean.”

“Sure, sure. You really want to blow your wad on one of these babezees, don’t you?” Hank laughed and waved the checkbook. “You won’t have all that money saved anymore.”

“I want one,” Wyatt said. He struggled to find the words. It was hard sometimes. “I want to take care of it.”

“I get it, man. You know that they don’t live long, right? Five years or so, that’s it.”

Five years! It sounded like a long time to Wyatt. He didn’t really care about the money. He saved it because that’s what he was supposed to do. Everyone said that it was good to save money. He hadn’t ever really understood why until now. Without knowing it he had been saving for a babezee.

“Wyatt? You still there?”

“Yes, Hank.”

Hank thwacked Wyatt in the chest with the checkbook. Wyatt took the checkbook back. “I’ll help you, man. It’s some crazy shit but I’ll help you out. Saturday we’ll go over to that clinic they have.”

“Clinic?”

“It’s like a store, man. You have to answer questions and shit before they decide whether or not you are the right type of person to have one of these babezees.” Hank’s voice sounded serious. He put a hand on Wyatt’s shoulder and that made Wyatt feel better. Hank was his friend even if he did get angry a lot. “I’ll help you out there, okay?”

Impulsively Wyatt pulled Hank into a hug because he was so happy. It only lasted a second before Hank pushed him away but Wyatt thought he saw Hank smile as he turned away and picked up a broom.

“Come on man, we have cleaning to do.”

🚀

When Saturday came Wyatt was so excited that he couldn’t sit still and wait so he cleaned his apartment and dressed in his best clothes. Hank came and took him downtown. The whole way Wyatt sang along with the country western songs on Hank’s radio even when he didn’t know the words. He stared at the babezee catalog while he sang as if he was singing to all of those smiling faces, their eyes big with happiness and laughter.

At last Hank pulled to a stop in front of a building. Wyatt was first out of the truck but then he stopped, unsure of where to go. The building in front of them looked worn and dingy. It wasn’t clean. Graffiti made the walls look dirty and trash littered the parking lot. In front of them was a rusted rolling metal door like some of the work-sites had at the loading docks. It didn’t look like the sort of place where Wyatt expected to find the babezees. Hank had gotten out of the truck and came around the front jingling his keys.

“This is the clinic?” Wyatt asked.

“This is better,” Hank said. “You brought the cash like I said?”

Wyatt dug his hand into his coverall pocket and pulled out the banded stack of bills. Hank shoved his hand back to his pocket.

“Not out here! Come on. We have to get inside. Leave the dough in your pocket until I say so, okay?”

“Sure, Hank.”

Hank walked over to the rolling door and Wyatt followed. Hank banged on the metal. After a couple seconds the metal door rolled up rattling and squealing. Two men stood inside. Scary men, Wyatt thought. They looked at Hank and then him with eyes hidden by sunglasses even though it didn’t look bright inside.

“That the buyer?” One of the men asked in a scratchy voice.

“Yeah,” Hank answered. “Stan sent us.”

The man that had spoken gestured for them to follow and headed into the building. Hank went after him and Wyatt hurried to keep up with Hank. He didn’t like these men but Hank was his friend. The other man stayed behind and lowered the door with a crashing bang behind them. It made Wyatt jump. The place was a big warehouse, Wyatt realized. He had worked in warehouses before, mostly sweeping. Usually warehouses had lots of boxes. This place had boxes but the center of the warehouse had some sort of building set up with walls made of plastic and bright lights inside. It made the whole thing glow with pretty blue light. Through the plastic Wyatt saw blurry people walking around doing things with machinery. One of the people reached into something and pulled out a small shape that kicked and wiggled. Even from here Wyatt could see that it had to be a babezee. He hadn’t pictured the clinic would look like this but it didn’t matter. There were babezees!

They stopped at a doorway in the plastic wall. The man that had met them at the door told them to wait and disappeared inside.

“I’m going to get a babezee now?” Wyatt asked.

“Sure, sure you are.” Hank put an arm around Wyatt’s shoulders. “Only the thing is, these are made by a different company than the one in your catalog so they don’t call them babezees. Companies get picky about those things, you know. Trademarks and all that shit. A friend of mine, Stan, put me onto this place. They’re doing some amazing shit here. Better than those babezees in the catalog.”

Wyatt struggled to understand all of that. “They aren’t babezees?”

“It’s the same thing,” Hank insisted. “Better even. These little fuckers are cool. Stan showed me a video. Trust me, you’ll be impressed.”

He didn’t have time to figure out what Hank meant before the man came back.

“Come on.”

Hank nudged him to go first so Wyatt followed the man into the plastic building. It was like a maze inside. Wyatt followed the man through the narrow corridors. They walked past rooms with plastic walls but he couldn’t ever see clearly what was inside. Towards the center of the plastic building the hallway just ended in a big room. The man stopped and gestured at a man and woman in long white coats. Wyatt walked into the room with wide eyes. He ignored the people. The room was filled with small plastic beds and in each bed a babezee squirmed beneath blue and pink blankets. There had to be dozens of them. He could hear soft noises they made like giggles done in a whisper. He wanted to grab them all and give each and every one of them a big hug.

The woman stepped in front of him, blocking his view, which made him look at her instead. He’d rather look at the babezees. She had blond hair piled up on her head and bright scarlet lips. He thought she looked hungry.

“I’m Doctor Penniwell.” She stuck out her hand.

Reluctantly Wyatt took her hand and gave it a quick squeeze before letting go. She smelled like old apples, he thought. “My name is Wyatt.”

The other doctor offered his hand. “Doctor Burton. You’ve made a good choice coming here, Wyatt.”

Wyatt liked Doctor Burton a little better than Doctor Penniwell. He looked like he laughed a lot. Wyatt tried to see past the doctors. He wanted to see the babezees. “Can I see them?”

Doctor Burton put his hand on Wyatt’s elbow and guided him past Doctor Penniwell. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? These are the cutting edge. No one has pseudo-infants like these. Because we’re just starting out you have a chance to get in on the ground floor. We want to build word of mouth. Affordable pseudo-infants for the masses. We call them babimals.”

“Babimals?”

“That’s right, Wyatt. Take a look.”

Wyatt hurried over to the nearest plastic bed. He looked in and yellow eyes with a dark slit-pupil looked up at him with wonder. A tiny red mouth parted in a smile. The babimal gurgled happily and a forked tongue flicked out, tasting the air with several fast licks. Wyatt recoiled and bumped into Doctor Burton.

“That’s not a babezee!”

“No, Wyatt.” Doctor Burton walked around him and lifted the squirming thing from the bed. Tiny legs and arms kicked happily and it laughed. Doctor Burton cradled it in his arms. “I told you. This is a babimal, from our reptile line. Why don’t you try holding it?”

The babimal was cute, Wyatt thought reluctantly. He was afraid he might drop it as Doctor Burton handed him the squirming bundle. As soon as he took the babimal it snuggled up affectionately. It didn’t have any hair. There were fine scales on its head that sparkled green in the bright lights. Wyatt held the babimal in one arm and ran his hand across the babimal’s head. It felt soft and dry to the touch. The forked tongue flicked out again and tickled his neck.

Hank had come over and he peeked at the babimal’s face. “Cool, man. He has snake eyes and everything. Does it bite?”

Wyatt almost dropped the babimal. Doctor Burton quickly took it when he held it out. Doctor Burton didn’t look happy with Hank.

“No. It doesn’t bite. All of our babimals are perfectly safe. Unlike our competitor we don’t hide the origins of the babimals. They’ve taken a species with 98% the same DNA as humans and have altered it to make them even closer to humans while preventing growth and development. By all rights they should be brought up on ethical charges when you consider that their product is essentially human. With our babimals we’ve added the characteristics that we find so appealing in infants but our pseudo-infants are still clearly not human.”

Wyatt didn’t understand everything the doctor was saying but he didn’t like that babimal. He felt bad for it but the scales and tongue made him feel all icky inside. He tugged on Hank’s sleeve. “I don’t want that.”

Hank pulled away. “Sure, why don’t you look around? They have other types.”

Doctor Penniwell gestured at the beds. “Maybe one of the canine varieties would be more to your liking?”

Wyatt felt tears pricking at his eyes. He didn’t like this. He thought about the babezees. That’s what he had wanted. The babimal Doctor Burton held flicked its tongue again and Wyatt backed away. He wanted to go home. Go home and wrap his afghan around his shoulders and eat ice cream.

“Let’s look,” Hank said. “I went to all this fucking effort to do something for you and bring you down here, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” Wyatt said miserably. He could tell Hank wasn’t happy.

“Great, then let’s look.”

Wyatt didn’t know what else to do so he followed Hank away from the doctors. On each side there were babimals in the plastic beds. At first they looked a lot like that first one but then they changed. The next group had fine hair covering their plump faces and long floppy ears. Hank reached down to pick one up and it jumped right up into his arms. Wyatt took a nervous step back. It had jumped! It snuggled up to Hank and then turned its head to look at him. The babimal had pink eyes, floppy ears and the little button nose twitched and wiggled. Wyatt laughed. It looked like a bunny, he realized.

“You like that?” Hank asked.

The bunny babimal kicked its legs and Hank had to struggle to hold onto it. He laughed and put it gently back down into the plastic bed. “Wow, it has strong legs. How about that one?”

The idea of it jumping made Wyatt nervous. “I don’t know.”

Hank rubbed his eyes. “Fine, Mr. Picky. Let’s look some more.”

All the babimals were cute, Wyatt thought. They did remind him of the babezees but they also made him nervous. There was a doggie babimal with big eyes and dark hair on its head but it had a tongue that hung out of its mouth when it panted and a tail that wagged very fast. The kitty babimal was covered in fine fur and purred when Hank made him pet it but it didn’t laugh or giggle. Plus it had sharp fingernails. He could already see how it had torn up the blankets in the bed. At least the doctors didn’t follow them around. The more Wyatt saw the more he kept thinking about babezees. Hank started to get angry.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? All you have to do is pick one out, we pay and you get to go home with it. No screenings, no tests, no waiting. These are cool. Didn’t you see that one that looked like a living teddy bear? Jeezus, my girls would kill for something like that.”

Wyatt hung his head and tried hard not to cry. He didn’t want Hank to be mad but he didn’t like the babimals. They all looked weird even if they were cute.

“Come on,” Hank snapped. “We haven’t seen these over here.”

Wyatt followed because he didn’t know what else to do. He couldn’t run away because that would make Hank more mad and he didn’t know if he could find a way out of the plastic building. The doctors hadn’t followed them but they were standing across the room watching.

“Holy shit,” Hank shouted. “Wyatt, you’ve got to see this.”

Wyatt looked up. Hank was holding a baby angel.

It took his breath away. Pink arms waved above the blanket but behind the arms white wings beat rapidly. A spray of soft white feathers covered her head and framed the smiling face. Her eyes were cloudy gray. She was beautiful. Wyatt reached out to take her from Hank. The angel came to him with a little giggle that made Wyatt laugh, she sounded so happy. As soon as he took her the wings settled down brushed gently against his hands. He held her close and the tiny arms went around his neck. Wyatt inhaled and she smelled of summer breezes. She cooed softly. He thought for a second of the babezees and found that they couldn’t compare in his mind. He remembered Hank’s baby, the one he called his angel, all red-faced and screaming. His angel was perfect.

Hank laughed. “Yeah, I guess that’s the one?”

“Yes.”

He felt Hank take his arm and followed blindly, trusting Hank to lead him out but he only had eyes for his angel.

“You’ve made an excellent choice, Wyatt,” Doctor Burton said. “The Cherub is our most advanced babimal yet. Very complicated to make. Unfortunately that also means it is also the most expensive.”

“I have money.” Wyatt carefully held his angel with one arm while he pulled out the bundles of cash and handed them to Hank. He stroked his angel’s wings and smiled.

Hank split one of the bundles and put half in his pocket. He gave the rest to Doctor Burton who handed it to Doctor Penniwell. “Thanks, doc.”

Wyatt looked at the three of them smiling and then at the pocket where Hank had put the cash. Hank noticed him looking and scowled.

“My finder’s fee,” he snapped. “Let’s get out of here.”

Doctor Penniwell held out a thin magazine with pictures of more angels on the cover. “This has all of the information you need to care for the cherub.”

Hank grabbed the magazine but the doctor didn’t let go. Her expression hardened. “You realize, of course, that we do not offer refunds. Your friend’s purchase is final. And any estimate of the lifespan of the babimal is simply that, an estimate. Until we see several more generations we can’t be sure how long they will live. And, just in case you have any ideas, all babimals sold are born sterile and can’t be bred. Any reverse engineering or cloning is strictly prohibited.”

Hank snatched the magazine away. “Yeah, right. Thanks doc. Come on Wyatt.”

It was all confusing but he wanted to see the magazine and he had his angel so he followed Hank. Somehow Hank seemed to know how to get out of the plastic building because he made his way through the corridors without having to ask for directions. Hank was good at that sort of thing. They left the plastic building and entered the warehouse. It was colder so Wyatt made sure his angel was covered with the blanket. They went to the rolling metal door and one of the men there lifted it up. His angel clung to him tighter as it rattled and clanked. Wyatt stroked her head and followed Hank out to the car.

🚀

Wyatt was surprised when Hank said they were home. He managed to look away from Angel’s beautiful gray eyes and saw his apartment building outside. Wyatt tickled Angel’s belly with one finger. Her face scrunched up and she giggled happily while her little wings fluttered.

“We’re home,” Wyatt whispered.

Hank shoved the magazine at Wyatt. “Get the fuck out already before you make me sick.”

Wyatt didn’t know why Hank was angry but he was too happy to worry about it. “Thank you Hank.”

“Come on, man. Wanda’s gonna be pissed I’ve taken this long already. Get out.”

Wyatt picked up Angel, the magazine and got out of the truck. Hank took off as soon as the door closed. Wyatt turned and pointed up the stairs. “That’s home, up there. Come on.”

He’d just started up the stairs when he heard a shout behind him. Wyatt stopped and looked back. Uh oh, Mr. Travis the landlord was coming across the parking lot waving his hand. Mr. Travis wore a black suit which hung loose on his tall frame. Wyatt waited with Angel.

“Wyatt, what’ve you got there? Is that a baby?”

“No, Mr. Travis.”

Mr. Travis tugged on his suit jacket. “Looks like a baby to me.”

Just then Angel slipped her wings out from under the blanket and flapped them a couple times. Mr. Travis took a step back.

“What is it?”

Wyatt beamed and turned Angel around so Mr. Travis could see her. She cooed and flapped her wings. “This is Angel.”

“That’s a cherub!”

He remembered the doctor using that word back at the warehouse. “That’s right. The doctor said she was.”

Mr. Travis crossed himself and took another step back. He pointed at Angel. “That is a blasphemy! I won’t tolerate this. Bad enough I’ve had to put up with you but this is it. You’re going to have to move out.”

Wyatt held Angel close and marveled at how light she was in her arms. He didn’t understand Mr. Travis. He stroked the soft feathers covering her head. Move out? He couldn’t move out. He lived here. If he moved out where would he go? He kissed the top of Angel’s head, hot against his lips even through feathers smelling of sunshine and dandelion puffs. Her tiny arms reached around his neck and then her wings stretched out and fanned gently in the breeze. When at last he looked up Mr. Travis was halfway across the parking lot, chasing his shadow.

Maybe Mr. Travis hadn’t meant it, Wyatt decided. He took Angel upstairs to his home.

🚀

The next day at work he showed the magazine to Jilly. “I need help, Jilly.”

“Ooh, now I like these. What cuties! Much better than those fucking monkeys.” Jilly flipped through the magazine then tossed it back towards him onto the counter. “But you’d better forget it. Save your money for something that you actually need.”

Wyatt picked up the magazine and held it out to her again. “Please Jilly. I need to know how to feed my Angel. She isn’t eating anything.”

“Wait a minute. What the fuck are you talking about? Your angel?”

“Hank helped me find her,” Wyatt said. “We were going to go to the clinic but then we went to the warehouse and that’s where I found my angel. But she isn’t eating. Please help me.”

Jilly took the magazine. “Hank helped you, did he?”

“Yes, Hank’s my friend.”

“That piece of shit isn’t your friend,” Jilly said. “I’ll look at the magazine. Go do your job. After work I’ll take you home and we’ll see about this Angel of yours.”

“Thank you!” Wyatt wanted to hug Jilly but she was behind the counter.

“Get out my sight,” Jilly said.

🚀

Hank took off with his tires squealing. Jilly waved the magazine at him. “Yeah, get out of here, you piece of shit!”

Wyatt tried hard not to cry. Hank had been angry all day at work. Whenever Wyatt tried to ask Hank about Angel Hank had told Wyatt to shut the fuck up and push the cart. Jilly touched his arm. “Don’t worry about him, Wyatt. Come on. I’ve got my rust-bucket over here.”

Wyatt held the magazine on the way. Jilly’s car smelled like strawberries too. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “See, you need to get baby food. That’s the thing. It says there that she can’t eat solid food so you have to get baby food.”

“Okay.”

“And plenty of water. She has to eat every few hours, Wyatt. You just left her at home?”

Wyatt moaned and clenched the magazine. “I didn’t know!”

“Hey! Cut that out. Look, we’ll get the food and go to your place. It’s only been a day, right? Don’t worry.”

At the grocery store Wyatt gave his checkbook to Jilly. She looked at it and her eyes got wide. “What happened to all your money?”

“Hank said to get cash. For my Angel.”

“Asshole.”

Wyatt stepped back. The grocery store clerk was staring at them both. Jilly shook her head and handed him back the checkbook. “I wasn’t talking about you Wyatt. Hank is the asshole. He cleaned you out, you understand? I’ll buy the food. It’ll get you through until pay day.”

Jilly used a card in the machine to pay for the food. That looked easy, Wyatt thought. Easier than writing a check. Jilly didn’t want to show him the card. They left the store and she drove fast on the way home. Faster even than Hank drove. It was scary but Wyatt didn’t mind. He wanted to get home to Angel.

At the apartment Mr. Travis was putting a piece of paper on his door. Jilly grabbed his arm and tore the paper off the door. “What the hell is this? An eviction notice? You can’t do that!”

Mr. Travis pulled away and ran a hand down his sleeve. “I can too. No pets and no children. It says so right in the lease. I don’t know which that abomination is but it’s one or the other, or maybe both. Either way he is out of here in twenty days.”

Mr. Travis hurried off down the stairs. Jilly handed Wyatt the paper. “What a shit hole. I’ll bet you’ve never been late on the rent once, right?”

“I pay my rent,” Wyatt said.

Jilly gestured at the door. “Come on. Let’s get inside.”

Wyatt unlocked the door while Jilly held the groceries and they went inside. Jilly rubbed her arms. “It’s freezing in here, Wyatt. Don’t you have heat?”

“I turn it off when I leave.” Wyatt turned on the light in the living room. “Angel? I’m home.”

He didn’t hear any answering laugh from her cardboard box. Jilly set down the groceries. She was looking at the box. “Did you leave her in there?”

“I built a nest for her,” Wyatt said.

“Ah, shit, Wyatt. You’re supposed to keep the place warm.”

“I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

Jilly rubbed her mouth. “Fuck it.”

She crossed the room to the box and looked inside. It was a big box. He’d taken the top off and piled pillows inside with her blanket and his teddy bear. Wyatt followed her and looked inside. Angel lay at the bottom on her side, wrapped around the bear with the blanket across her legs. Her wing was stretched out along her body.

“Oh Wyatt,” Jilly said. “She’s beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so wonderful.”

Wyatt reached down and slid his hands beneath her small body. She felt cool to the touch and when he lifted her she felt as limp as his teddy bear. He felt scared all of a sudden and it was hard to breath.

“Ah fuck, Wyatt,” Jilly said.

Wyatt hugged Angel to his chest and felt tears stinging his eyes. Angel stirred and her soft face pressed against his neck. Her wings fluttered.

Jilly laughed. “She isn’t dead! Come on, Wyatt! Let’s get this place warmed up and get some food in her.”

Wyatt held Angel while Jilly turned on the heaters and got the baby food out. They tried the banana food first and Angel liked it. Her dainty mouth took tiny little bits of the banana. As the apartment warmed she moved more and chirped happily with each bit of the food. In no time at all she’d eaten all of the banana in the little jar. She lay in his arms and cooed at him. He tickled her tummy and she laughed. Wyatt looked up from Angel and saw Jilly watching. He almost didn’t recognize her with a smile on her face. He lifted Angel towards her.

“Do you want to hold her, Jilly?”

Jilly laughed. “Okay. Sure, Wyatt.”

She took Angel and rocked her gently. She laughed when Angel fanned her wings. Jilly looked up at Wyatt and then he saw her look at the paper Mr. Travis had left on the door.

“You’re going to need a place to live,” Jilly said. “So maybe it’d be okay if you stayed with me.”

“With you?”

Jilly stroked Angel’s feathers. “Well, it makes sense. I can help with the little one. Heck, I could keep her with me while you’re out cleaning. She has to be fed every few hours. It’ll be easier with two people looking after her. What do you say?”

Wyatt got up and came over to Jilly. He hugged her. “Yes! Thank you Jilly!”

She shrugged. “Heck, it’ll be nice to have someone else around I guess. We’ll figure things out, for all of us. Whatever else those bastards are doing they’ve created a miracle here with this little one.”

Angel looked at both of them and giggled happily. Wyatt ran a finger over her feathers. His angel and his friend Jilly. He couldn’t remember being happier.

🚀

6,200 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 66th weekly short story release, written way back in July 2007. 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 Space Lot.

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.