Category Archives: 26 Stories

26 Stories

26 Stories: Gods of an Empty Universe

A little lunch-time posting for today, as I managed to get this story out quicker than planned. It is short and does end without resolution, but one can’t just put a nice bow on the last battle of all creation, can one?

Gods of an Empty Universe
21st Floor

The armada sat at the edge of the known universe. Behind the massive fleet of dagger-like craft, all bristling with weapons powerful enough to destroy stars, Heracles Station completed its power-up. The station drew the last energy of the star it surrounded into its massive capacitors. The star, one of the largest and hottest discovered, extinguished. In its death rested the hope for all life in the known and unknown Universe.

On the bridge of the largest ship, the Perseus, the Supreme Admiral stared into the void. The black beyond was absolute; no stars existed past this point. The bridge was busy around him, his crew handling the preparations with a deftness that belied their nerves. Training and discipline were all that held them together, now. It had to be enough. A klaxon indicated that Heracles was starting the first phase of an operation that had taken thousands of years of human ingenuity, technology, and self-preservation. Determination forged in conflict and violence since man had made his first kill on the prehistoric plains of Earth came to fruition here, at this moment, in this infinitesimally small point.

When the Heracles triggered the device, a tear formed in the black before the Perseus. The Supreme Admiral drew in a breath. The moment was here. “All hands on all ships,” he said simply, “execute Omega. May whatever god you believe in watch over you.” There would be no rousing speech. No genuflection for posterity. If Omega failed, there would be no history to remember this moment, and if it succeeded, due to its secrecy, no one would ever know how close they were to obliteration.

The tear in space widened. Alarms sounded, but they were not unexpected. There would be no surprises. The enemy on the other side had abandoned subtlety eons ago. The fleet to his back had done the same. Trickery. Magic. Binding rituals that only bought time. Humanity and the Enemy were past all of that.

Now, it was all out war.

The ships—the Perseus, the Athena, the Hermes, and the rest—were not named as they were by accident. While the conflict with the enemy preceded the ancient heroes and gods of that time, they were perhaps the greatest of the warriors who pushed the Titans back and imprisoned them. Symbolism was important.

The rift opened wider, and even from here, the Supreme Admiral saw the things behind it, pushing to get out. Almost immediately, images of great, unspeakable horrors battered at his psyche. “Are the psych-fields holding?”

“Aye Supreme Admiral, operating within acceptable tolerance.” Every contingency had been planned for, including the mental assault. The shield circuitry was patterned after sacred runes of protection. So long as they continued to operate, the only effect would be unease, hardly unique during a life or death battle.

The first of the Titans tumbled out of the rift in space, something that looked like the bastard offspring of a starfish and a slime mold. Targeting algorithms struggled to lock onto it as the thing’s unreality confounded the computers. But the algorithms were only confused for a moment, and the sound of a steady lock sounded on all shops across the fleet.

“Fire,” the Supreme Admiral ordered.

The starfish-mold was annihilated in a conflagration of mystical and conventional fire. Whatever it was, whatever it had been, trapped for eternities in its prison, it was now nothing. Still, no one on any of the bridges cheered. It had been a small intruder. The gap was wider, now, and other things, countless in number and strength, were pouring through. Targeting tones were sounding in a cacophony, as well as warnings of incoming attacks. Lines of magical energy, columns of flame (the Supreme Admiral mused for only a second on how that shouldn’t be possible in the vacuum), and swarms of enemy targets rushed to meet the armada. Behind the vanguard of monsters, larger creatures reached through and tore the opening wide. Approaching fast were beasts that dwarfed the Perseus.

The Admiral readied himself for the end. One way or the other, creation had been occupied by Titans and humans.

By the end of this final battle, there would only be Gods in an otherwise empty universe.

THE END?

26 Stories

26 Stories: The Courier

This story… this one. I’m not 100% happy with it (I’m not 100% happy with anything, but this one more than others). I read it at my writer’s workshop last night and it generated some good, albeit somewhat extensive, critiques. Namely that I do too much world building (I cut out quite a bit before reading it, too) and the two characters have too similar voices. Both of those are valid issues that I didn’t even remotely have time to address before today, so you’re getting the raw version (and I’m certain that I came across two typos during my read, and now I can’t find them, so feel free to typo hunt).

This is a departure from the mostly horror stuff I’ve been toying with; it’s a move into dystopian future. It is also the start of a non-nuanced, not-at-all complex piece of political commentary disguised as an action piece that is destined to be Mad Max meets Smokey and the Bandit meets Michael Bay. It’s a potential chapter one of a longer piece, but I think it’s going to go to the back-burner in favor of something else (perhaps my favorite “don’t call him an ‘urban’ wizard,” Dominick).

Anyway, it’s faults aside, enjoy!

The Courier
20th Floor

Juárez: Day 1, 6:32 am

The Courier waited for his delivery, the engine running. The modified Hellcat was, like its namesake, ready to pounce. He hated to idle, given how critical fuel calculations were. Stopping for gas even one more time than anticipated—or worse, running out of fuel—could get him pinched by the police. These days, that meant summary execution by the side of the road. But the game was a calculation of seconds, milliliters, and inches. The difference of 0 to 120 was huge if he had to fire the engine up. Authorities shot first, rockets moved fast, and this job was hot and likely to attract attention.

About the time he started to think about cutting the engine, the door to the run-down house opened. A man came out escorting a smaller figure covered by a jacket across the street to where he waited. The man fast-walked his charge over to the passenger side of the car and yanked on the door handle.

The Courier shook his head and pushed a button on the dash, On the outside of a car, a small slot opened in the door. The Courier made the universal sign for “pay now.” The escort pushed a stack of bills into the open slot. The slot retracted, and the Courier counted his fee. The escort surveyed the empty street.

The Courier picked up his pistol, made sure it was very visible to the escort, and popped the lock. The door opened, the Fare was pushed into the seat, and without even a “thank you” for his effort, the escort slammed the door shut and fast-walked back to the house.

The Courier and the Fare sat in silence for a moment.

“Seatbelt,” the Courier said, breaking the silence. The Fare jerked in surprise.

“What?” a woman’s voice responded, muffled by the jacket.

“Please buckle up,” he replied. “Safety first. Also, you can take the jacket off.”

A slight hand reached up and pulled the jacket down. The girl sitting next to the Courier was young; couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen. “Christ,” he said. “I don’t run kids.”

“Excuse me?” English, accented, but slight. She either spent some time in an English-speaking part of the world or was educated at a pricy private school. Both suggested money, and money meant pissed off relatives.

“I don’t take kids across.”

“Isn’t the money good enough? And I’m not a kid. I’m sixteen.”

“Still a kid, kid.”

The girl’s face fell. Moisture pooled at the corners of her eyes. “Please, you don’t understand. I can’t go back to my parents.” Angry parents, probably monied, confirmed. “I can’t even go back in there,” she gestured to the house. “I’ve been abused. I’ve been-”

“Save it,” the Courier said. “I’ve seen better.”

“Fine,” she replied in a normal tone, the façade dropped. “I really can’t go back to my parents. They will kill me, and while I can see that you’re trying very hard to do the whole ‘stoic badass,’ thing, I can see through you, too.” He scoffed.

“Money’s good enough, I suppose. And I’d rather not leave you to someone else. They might not be as professional as I am.”

“I’m prepared to do whatever I need to get to Canada.” As if to prove the point, she put a hand to her chest and began to unbutton her shirt.

“Stop,” the Courier said. “I’m making an exception running you, but not this.”

“You’re already bending the first rule.”

“Second one’s non-negotiable.”

She relaxed. “Well, good.”

“Contract says your pick-up is in Toronto, so we’ll be going straight north to Canada, and then…”

“You should go straight to Toronto. That’s fastest.”

“No,” the Courier said, “we most certainly should not go straight through. You clearly don’t know geopolitics.”

“Fancy word for a driver to use.”

“Courier. Our best, safest bet is to go straight north to Calgary or Regina, then ease over to Toronto once we’re safely out of America. Canada’s borders are open to refugees. Hell, you could even take a bus once you’re there, and save money on me.”

“I don’t have that kind of time.”

“No one ever does. Listen, the idea is to get you to Canada as quickly as possible, and straight north is it. Oklahoma and Missouri ain’t safe. Diverting around to Kansas or Arkansas? Even worse.”

“I’ll double your money.”

“That’s ridiculous. I suspect you gave me all you had.” She reached into her shirt, and he stopped her. “I told you, no.”

“No,” she said, “not that. Try this.” She pulled out a pendant on a chain. It sparkled with several very impressive looking gemstones.

“Those can’t be real.”

“I assure you, they are.”

“Where did you get that?”

“My parents gave it to me on my birthday.”

“Hell of a present. I got a second-hand Nintendo once, from a garage sale. Sure you want to be running away? Life like that must be pretty easy.”

“Yeah, my parents—my father, really—are the reason I’m seeking asylum in Canada. Please, I have to be in Toronto in thirty-eight hours. It takes over fifty to get there through Regina. I checked online, and it takes thirty-hours to get to Toronto from here, and that’s driving speed limits. That’s eight hours of extra time even if you drove casually; you ‘Couriers’ are supposed to be fast, right?”

“Missouri isn’t safe,” he emphasized each word.

“All the more reason to drive faster then.”

The silence was painfully long; ironic given his previous worries about seconds, inches, and milliliters.

“I’m going to regret this. Those,” he pointed to her pendant, “had better be real.”

She let out a breath. “Thank you.”

He stepped on the brake, put in the clutch, and grabbed the shifter. “Thank me when we get there in one piece.”

The Hellcat roared and pounced.

*             *             *             *

               “Crossing,” the Courier said, “will either be very easy or very difficult.”

               “What makes it easy,” she asked.

               “If the right bribes went to the right people, we’ll pull in, our papers will be in order, and we’ll just drive on through.”

               “And if not?”

               “If not, you find out why this job costs so much. And we hopefully don’t die.”

               “I’d like to avoid that.” She almost meant it.

               “Risking dyin’ must be better’n what you’re running from.” She responded by staring out the window watching ramshackle houses race past.

               “Right.” He nodded ahead. “As your unofficial tour guide, I feel like this is the time to point out that the Wall is coming up. If you want to see it.” She did.

               The Wall was immense. She had been a toddler when the world watched as the Americans fought over whether the Wall was a necessity, weather it would be effective, and whether it was feasible. When the dirty bomb went off in Tucson, the debate ended. A state of emergency was declared, martial law was imposed, and the purges began. Fascism came to America in earnest, and construction began on the Wall immediately.

               A decade later, the southern border was closed. The Wall stretched two-thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. Everyone moving across the border was scrutinized, or they were supposed to be, but like any good, corrupt government, officials could be plied with enough cash.

               To cross any other way was risky, to say the least. Customs and Border Protection had shoot-to-kill orders. Armed drones thwarted most remote crossings, and scanning technology made smuggling through commercial checkpoints near impossible. That was, of course, if the scanners weren’t conveniently in maintenance mode. Harder to pull off, but doable.

               Getting across the Wall, which had been dubbed the “Concrete Curtain” in some circles, was easiest to do at the civilian crossing points, where inspections were still visual. It was easier to cloud the guards’ eyes with dollar signs then get a dedicated scanner to glitch out at the right time.

               The great wall of America was not at all impenetrable, despite its imposing gray profile, and the Courier knew who to bribe. He brought the ‘cat down to a respectable speed to merge into the line of traffic.

               “Fuck,” he said.

               “What?” The Fare was nervous.

               “Bribes didn’t work.”

               “How do you know?”

               “The STRIKE squads.”

               She looked around. “What? Where?”

               “There are snipers on the wall, twice as many visible soldiers as standard, and that van to our right? Fast assault units trying to be invisible.”

               “Are they here for us.” The Courier shrugged. “What do we do?”

               “We don’t do anything suspicious. We try to get through, as planned, and hope we’re on the all-clear list. If not, I find out if I can out-drive drones.”

“Drones?”

“Drones with TOW missiles.”

               “Can you?”

               “I said I’d find out if I could. I’ve never had to before.” The Fare sank down into her seat. “I would like to tell you that this is the hardest part, but since you’re insisting on going straight through the country to Toronto, that would be a lie.”

               The line ahead of them inched forward, and the Courier followed suit.

               “Can we go to a different checkpoint?”

               “They’ve already tagged every car in line. If we turn away and show up at another point, we’ll be flagged.” They crept forward again, the border a few cars ahead.

               “Can you run now? Why wait?”

               “As cool as the ‘cat is, she still has to obey the laws of physics, and other cars object to sharing her space. Second, even if there was a clean run up to the border, as fast as I can go, we’ll be slag before we get there. If I’m going to try and run, we’ve got to be at least on the American side. Preferably about a hundred miles in.”

               “We have to wait.” The car crept closer again.

               “Yup.”

               “But we run if it looks bad when we get up there?”

               “Yup.”

She looked around outside. “What if,” she asked, “we had a distraction?”

“We’re a little too late for a distraction.”

“Don’t count on that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Three cars behind us is a black SUV. In that black SUV are agents sent by my parents.”

“Have they spotted you?” They were one car from the front of the line that was finishing up its visual inspection. Timing was going to be close.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well,” he said, opening the sunroof, “let’s let ‘em get a good look at you.” She poked her head out of the sunroof, looked back, and smiled at the SUV. In the rearview, the Courier saw that the SUV’s driver noticed and gestured to someone else in the car. She popped back down just as the Courier pulled up to the start of the line.

Three things happened at once.

The Courier handed over his papers to the border guard when asked. This was as intended, and if the bribes had worked, nothing in their paperwork would be off.

As this exchange happened, four men in black suits, doing poor jobs of concealing the fact that they were armed, exited the SUV and advanced on the Hellcat.

Finally, as an agent on the passenger side tapped on the glass for the Fare to roll down her window—which she did—the Fare, with no trace of an accent, asked, “do those guys behind us look dangerous to you?”

The agent on the driver’s side frowned at the Courier’s papers, and reached for his radio, when the passenger side agent said through the car to him, “Johnson, we’ve got a problem, six o’clock.” Johnson looked away from the Courier’s papers. He handed the papers back to the Courier, his hand tightening on the grip of his rifle. “Sir, you can go. And you should go fast.”

“Gee,” the Courier replied, taking his papers. “I guess I can do fast.”

The agent pressed the call button on his radio. “STRIKE team, Delta 10-99, entry Victor Tango. Four targets. Armed and hostile.”

The Courier shifted into drive and was gone. They was a quarter-mile away before he heard the gunshots receding behind them.

Following the agent’s advice, the ‘cat hit one-hundred with the rumbling grace that her name implied, leaving the border and the chaos that they had set off well behind them.

“I’m Carolina,” the Fare said.

“And I don’t like names.”

“I’m not calling you ‘the Courier’.”

“Clint.”

“Very American name.”

“So,” the Courier said as the desert yawned before them, “who exactly are your parents?”

*             *             *             *

               Santiago seethed.

               It wasn’t just that Carolina had run off, though that was most of it. If cornered, or drunk, or high, or just in the right mood, he would admit that he hadn’t wanted the little bitch in the first place. Her mother thought differently, of course, but mothers always did. He’d wanted a son, someone to take over when he was ready to step down. Someone strong and resolute, not the sensitive, emotional child his loins had produced. Girls were trouble, destined to be shrieking hags. Boys turned into men. Leaders.

               That was bad enough. Perhaps he could have married her off to a worthy successor from one of the loyal parties in the government or the more influential cartels. But no, she had to fall in with the Socialists. She had to be public about her disdain for the State. Her rebellious phase had to be political instead of sex or drugs. Those, he could have handled (generous application of murder and torture of non-sanctioned dealers and would-be suitors usually did the trick). She had quite the following before he killed the State’s access to outside Internet. Supporters from here to Canada (especially dissident groups in the United States, a country too big for its leaders to properly crack down on resistance) had egged this on, and he hadn’t reacted in time.

               The mewling lieutenant on the other end of the call reported on the failure of his men to capture her before crossing into the United States. Not only had they failed to bring home one little girl, they had also managed to get detained by CBP in the process. He would have to book rooms in America’s president’s hotels at inflated rates if he wanted to get his men back. And he would, because he didn’t want their punishment to merely be rotting in an American prison. He would want to punish them himself. 

In the meantime, he had to reevaluate his strategy. The men he’d sent had been too obvious at the border. Slipping in more would be easy. The kleptocratic regime in charge of the US was on friendly terms with his own “democratic” rule, but they were too unreliable. If Carolina was going to where he assumed she would be in Canada, they would have to cut through the lawless middle of the country, meaning his erstwhile ally in America would not be willing to send extraction teams. If anything, they would just send kill drones or leave Carolina and whoever was transporting her to the savages and warlords. Santiago almost let it go at that, but the optics of it would be particularly bad, especially with the unrest in the north of his own country. Carolina was well-loved by easily enraged fools, and violent crackdowns never played well. His media would have a hard time spinning it.

No, she had to be brought home, safe and sound. He would “convince” her to make a very public show of reconciliation and embrace the State. Sometimes, political theater was easier than slaughtering dissidents, though admittedly less satisfying.

               Santiago made two calls. The first, to his contacts in the United States Embassy, who would oversee the proper means to get his men back, where he could deal with them. There would be a public execution to plan, but he had ministers to see to that.

               The second call was to al old friend.

               It was time for Carolina to come home.

26 Stories

26 Stories: He Doubts His Muse

As I was drifting off the sleep, I was jolted awake with the realization that I had yet to post this story, despite having written it over a week ago. I’m not going to say much more than enjoy this, the twentieth story of my accountability project. Six more to go.

He Doubts his Muse
19th Floor

               Jonathan Fredrickson watched the orgy dispassionately from the chair at his desk. The events, now occurring almost daily in his 19th floor suite, had long lost his interest. They weren’t for him, anymore, and he knew that. They were Cali’s. While the participants had come to him through his success; from the connections he’d made on Broadway and in Hollywood, the true admirers of his art, and from the hangers-on who wanted to bask in his reflected glory. All of which he owed to Cali, and these displays had her at the center. She continued to bring him success after success, however, and no matter how much he might have wanted things to go back to normal, or at least back to the days when it was just him and her, he had become addicted to success and recognition.

               They still did come for him, first, with Cali drawing energy from their admiration. He also wasn’t precluded from the scene that unfolded before him, night after night. His creative energy fed Cali; she just needed a little something else that he could no longer give on his own, but that his success could deliver to her.

               That, and he had suspected something else. He kept a growing list of missing and forgotten people carefully locked in his desk drawer. Julianne’s name had been the first on the list, but it had grown. It was no longer something he could ignore. He had initially added a name to the list only every once-in-a-while, but it had become far more common now. People coming to the parties, going off with Cali privately at some point, and vanishing shortly thereafter. They ceased to exist both physically and, it seemed, in the memories of the people who knew and loved them. Somehow, they were erased from existence, and somehow, Cali was doing it.

               As the pile of sensual, naked flesh writhed before him, he caught Cali’s eyes. She smiled, and his hesitancy nearly melted away. Those eyes told him that no matter whose hands caressed her body, she was his. It wriggled in his mind like a worm, hooking into his perception, trying to make him ignore any misgivings. He almost gave in; almost decided that whatever the cost was, that he would continue to pay it. He had sealed his fate years ago, and he was already in for the proverbial pound.

               Still, he watched from the fringes, and wondered. Wondered what Cali was. Wondered what awaited him when he faced his damnation.

               That night, unlike others before it, he exerted his will over his cowardice. While the orgy continued, he slipped into the bedroom that was more Cali’s than his, entered the spacious closet, and hid among rows of high-priced dresses.

               Tonight, he would witness the deal he made with the devil firsthand.

*             *             *             *

               As expected, after the sounds of the Bacchanalia subsided, he heard Cali and two others enter the bedroom. Someone giggled, a woman not Cali, and someone else—a man’s voice—weakly claimed to be “too tired” for anything more.

               “Oh,” Cali said, “I’m sure you can find the energy for a little more.” There was more giggling from the unidentified woman, and the sound of impassioned kissing.  Moments later, the soft moans of pleasure started. Jonathan fought against his own arousal, noticing that the desire to be drawn out of the closet was tangible. Without being aware, he had pressed his hand to the closet door and was about to open it and join in, before he stopped himself.

               As the sounds of pleasure grew to a crescendo, the need to be a part of it grew stronger. In that closet, he could believe that Cali was standing beside him, pressing against him. He wanted, more than anything, to be in that room—in that bed—but it was, surprisingly, her voice whispered in his ear that stopped him.

               “Not yet,” she breathed. “You want to see the price of your success, what your art has brought about, and I shall grant that; but wait for just another moment.” The noises in the room rose, louder and louder, as the participants experienced wave after wave of pleasure, giving into it again and again.

               Soon, the screams of ecstasy became screams of terror.

               “Now, my little artist,” Cali’s voice whispered, “now you can see.”

He walked out of the closet.

*             *             *             *

               Cali’s two partners, barely recognizable as a man and a woman, were subsuming into Cali’s porous body. Missions of small holes created a honeycomb like pattern across her body. From some of those holes, what appeared to be small eyes peered out, and the melting, oozing bodies of the man and woman were being drawn into the rest. They were melting, stretching out like putty, and separating into small strands as they were taken in to Cali, or the thing that she was (is?). Their screams had turned to odd, unhuman moans as their faces were pulled toward her, elongating their features into exaggerated, plastic masks. The man was fully devoured first, but as the woman’s misshapen head was torn into spaghetti noodles and slurped into Cali, she managed one barely understandable “help me” before she ceased to exist.

               With the feasting at an end, Jonathan finally was able to turn away. He retched, then, his sick seeping into the carpeting, causing a second round of heaves.

               “It was time for you to see it, Jonathan,” Cali said. He look up instinctively, expecting to see more horror, but instead, saw Cali, her skin smooth and unblemished on the disheveled bed. “You had to know by now that I wasn’t human.”

               “But what are you,” he managed, bile on his breath.

               “Your Muse.”

               “That’s not what…”

               “What a Muse is? Jonathan, I am exactly what a Muse is. I can’t help that your kind romanticized me and my siblings. If the earliest artists and poets and musicians hadn’t made us look like this, the pinnacle of human beauty, no one would call upon us. We’d have all starved millennia ago. The eons that passed without human creativity were very bad years for us; none of us want to go back to that.”

               “Starved?” Jonathan asked. “If you feed ff creativity, what the Hell was that?”

“You don’t get all your food from animals, right? You eat vegetables, too. Same difference.”

               “Those people…”

               “…were sacrifices. Your success requires great amount of energy. All this,” she gestures to the luxurious furnishings, “has to come from somewhere.”

               “If I had known…”

               She shrugged, “You were starving for your art the same way we were starving for artists. Before there were even primitive humans who we could push to draw on cave walls.”

               “I wouldn’t.”

               “I can leave. You can live the rest of your life off the success you accumulated. Not everyone can turn our inspiration into success. Van Gogh died a pauper, but he was satisfied with his legacy being grand.” She got off the bed and slinked to him. He recoiled at her touch. “Is that what you want?”

               “I…”

               “I don’t even have to kill you anymore. We used to have to when we were done, but the Age of Reason has very good to our kind.” She smiled, sadly. “A thousand years ago, talk of monsters masquerading as woman started so many ugly witch hunts. Now? Now they’ll say the fame finally got to you, and you snapped. Call you ‘crazy.’ Write you off as another sad, broken artist and leave you to die in obscurity. Meanwhile, I’ll find a new poet, and the world will turn.”

               Cali walked to the bedroom door. “You get to make a choice. I can walk through this door, or I can stay on this side and close it, and we can go to bed.” She stood on the threshold, expectantly. Jonathan looked at her and sighed.

               Cali smiled again, and gently closed the bedroom door.  

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: Killer App

For once, I finished a story earlier in the week, and this has afforded me the opportunity to post earlier in the day. I use Waze a lot; even on routes that I know just to possibly avoid traffic. I got to thinking, recently, what if a navigation app was good enough to not only reroute around existing traffic, but predict accidents. I grounded it, initially, in the idea of Big Data (something my current day job puts me in close contact with on the regular), but of course, it took a more magical twist. And if it’s not apparent what force or forces would be behind such a app, and why those forces might make it go bad, then I clearly didn’t make it obvious enough.

Enjoy!

Killer App
18th Floor

               The phone slid across Gary’s desk with more flourish than it deserved. “This,” Mark said, “is the goddamn future of navigation.”

               “Your phone?”

               “No not…” Mark sighed. “What’s on the phone.”

               Gary looked at it. “Mustard?”

               “What?” Mark yanked the phone back. He rubbed the screen with the bottom of his shirt. “Not the mustard, the app. ‘Wisp.’” He paused.

               “Should I know what that is?”

               “Well, no. It’s in development. Or beta, or something. I dunno. But it’s amazing.”

               “Okay,” Gary said, drawn out. “So why are you showing it to me?”

               “It’s an investment opportunity.”

               “Last time I checked, we were a FinTech company.”

               “Right, but what about diversification?”

               “GPS is a Hell of a leap from lines of credit.”

               “Well,” Mark said, “maybe we can tie it into auto loans?”

               “That’s a stretch.”

               “Just, look… try it out. I can send you the download link, and you can get it and use it yourself.”

               Gary sighed. “What makes it so great, though? I mean, my regular app works really well.”

               Mark smiled, sensing—correctly or otherwise—that the hooks were in. “It predicts traffic problems before they happen.” Again, Mark waited expectantly.

               Gary laughed. “That’s stupid.”

               “It works.”

               “Uh-huh. How?”

               “I don’t know,” Mark whined. “Advanced algorithms or something. Big Data.”

               “You can’t predict idiots driving.”

               “We can predict credit risk within a nearly insignificant margin of error.”

               “What we do is entirely different. You can’t compare the risk of some low-credit score single mom with a history of overdue credit card bills to moronic drivers.”

               “But I’ve seen it work. Just this morning, it diverted me for no apparent reason, and a little later, BAM! The radio reported an accident on my route.”

               “Clearly, you misinterpreted the timing. Radio is late for little things like fender benders.”

               “No, it was that big one, with the bus and the elderly people. They cut into their regular broadcast. Said it happened moments ago and shut down the whole freeway. I was diverted ten minutes before that.” Gary side-eyed Mark. “Yeah, I know, it’s anecdotal, and that’s not how we work. But listen, you know me. I wouldn’t be pushing this if I didn’t think there was something there.”

               “Fine,” Gary said, “send me the link. Maybe if it works even a little, we can buy their data and incorporate it into ours. Cheap data is useful.”

*             *             *             *

               The install was clunky. He had to download it from an amateurish website instead of a proper app store. He’d appropriated a tester phone from QA, so security wasn’t a huge concern, given how isolated those units were. He blindly accepted the usual terms of service and its wall of text that, if anything came of Wisp, legal would pour over anyway. Wisp also asked for access to a number of items on the phone—photos, location, contacts, and a litany of other services—which he accepted impatiently. Finally, Wisp launched, taking a moment to determine his location before dropping a small blue dot on a dynamically generating map.

               The first example of its full capability was, perhaps, the most impressive. Three days of using Wisp had proven useful, but nothing terribly mind blowing. Diverting around a few hazards here and there, as expected. It wasn’t until the accident with the fuel tanker that he thought that Wisp might be extraordinary.

               In an effort to give it a proper chance, he had decided to follow Wisp’s navigation even if it seemed unnecessary. When it told him to exit the freeway, even though he saw nothing but clear road for miles, he did. He was cursing the application as he sat at a red light on the feeder road while traffic roared by on the highway when the tanker raced by in the lanes he’d just been in, blaring its horn. He watched, incredulous, as seconds later and further down the road—likely right at the spot he would have been in had he stayed on the main lanes—it hit something and exploded in a fireball that lit the early morning sky.

               When the news reported the number of casualties, anecdotal evidence be damned, Gary was ready to personally fund Wisp if he had to, but he didn’t think he would. Not getting in on Wisp while it was some guy’s garage project would be mind-blowingly stupid. He didn’t understand what it was doing under the hood. Whoever wrote the algorithm had to be a bonafide data genius. Even if Wisp disintegrated into vaporware, he could hire the developer, move his department ahead by leaps and bounds, and be looking at a VP position for sure. Maybe even C-level.

               Two days later, when a “please review this app” notification popped up, he dismissed it without thinking. When an email arrived in the throw-away email inbox he’d register his Wisp account with, he didn’t even read it before deleting it. Neither of those casual dismissals crossed his mind until Mark ended up in the hospital after his accident.

*             *             *             *

               The head-on collision left Mark comatose, likely brain-dead, and—if he lived past the first 48 hours—maybe he’d live the rest of his life as a vegetable. Gary gave a solemn meeting at work to break the news to the team. A card was passed around for Mark’s soon-to-be-widow and a small cash collection was gathered. Mark’s personal items had been collected at the hospital, and his own QA phone, functional but with a spider-web pattern of cracks, had been dutifully returned to the office.

               That night, in an empty office, Gary fumbled with Mark’s borrowed phone. He hadn’t disliked Mark, but he hadn’t liked him, either. If he’d quit that morning instead, Gary would feel about the same. The best he could muster was a cold feeling of absence. These things happened, and life had to go on.

               He turned the phone on, thumbed in the default QA password, and was presented with Wisp’s map, showing the phone’s current location. It took Gary a second to realize that Mark was probably using it when the accident happened. Well, he thought, so much for Wisp’s brilliant algorithm. There was no way to spin this with investors, so that great plan was out of the question, as was hiring a brilliant data guy to pump up Gary’s career. The data might still be worth a purchase, though, and it had been working for him so far, so there might still be something salvageable. However, it wasn’t worth expending any major investment effort at this point. All it would take would be one accident on Wisp, and the lawsuits would come pouring in.

               The phone dinged as a notification window popped up. Gary almost dismissed it like he had all the Wisp notifications on his own tester phone, then stopped. The bright red triangle and exclamation mark caught his eye. “Terms of Service violation” he mumbled to himself. “Wisp will not work as intended until ToS compliance is detected.” Gary had blindly agreed to the ToS himself and found himself wondering what Mark had violated. Wondering if there was hope for this app yet (though an aggressive ToS that disabled functionality of a navigation app would have to be taken out… too many legal issues, especially if it somehow tied into Mark’s accident), he tapped on the “More” link provided in the window. The wall of text reappeared and scrolled down to what Gary assumed was the relevant section.

               “User must provide a review and a donation to developer’s Patreon at www.patreon.com/TirNaNogDev,” he recited. It was a bit aggressive for a beta application, sure, but he kind of understood. Reviews made or broke new apps, and Patreon donations could fund years of development, especially if this wasn’t anything other than one developer in his or her spare time.

               Intrigued, he withdrew his own tester phone, logged into the app, and navigated to the independent application store page. While he wasn’t yet ready to make a donation, he could throw down on a decent review. Four stars, at least, with the caveat that the ToS was too forward and required some tweaking.

               There, he thought. That should keep it working.

*             *             *             *

               It didn’t.

               His first near accident came completely out of the blue. Like the initial demonstration of the app’s prescience, he had seen nothing but clear freeway ahead. Wisp hadn’t suggested an exit, so he’d stayed on the main lanes dutifully. It was only a freak chance that he’d looked up from his own phone, about to respond to an email regarding one of the company’s latest initiatives, when he saw the sports car racing up behind him. He swerved to the shoulder moments before the car would have plowed into him, slamming him into the eighteen-wheeler and likely killing him in the process. The police reports had confirmed that the sports car driver had, in fact, been brutally annihilated.  

               When he managed to keep from swerving into an errant motorcyclist who moments later caused a ten-car pile-up, he started to think that not only was the app not applying whatever accident-avoiding logic it used, but that it might be using the antithesis of said code to try to direct him into an accident. At that point, he did what any sane person would do; he returned the phone to the QA department to be wiped and went back to his old standby navigation option. His days of considering making a mint off of Wisp had come to and end.

*             *             *             *

               Which is how he found himself on that chilly January day, in his car and following his regular navigation program on the way to work, when an unexpected notification chimed. He looked down, stuck bumper-to-bumper and in no danger of any manner of high-speed, lethal accident, and saw that Wisp was flashing him a ToS violation notification.

               “The Hell,” he said to no one but himself. “I didn’t even install you on this phone, so why are you-” A second notification popped up, informing him that he could still make a Patreon donation to meet the app’s ToS.

               “Okay,” he said. “No. I’m not going to bother donating to an app that I’m not even using, so fuck off.” He stabbed his finger at the “Don’t Show Me This Again” link, but somehow managed to flick the “Donate!” link instead.

               “Ugh,” he replied. “Goddamn it.” He backed out of the donation page and felt like he’d made it back to his regular navigation’s screen. With a shake of his head, he tried to dismiss his experience, vowing to find out what part of the application had sunk its claws into his personal phone.

               A few moments later, his own navigation app told him to exit the freeway, citing a new incident a few miles down from him. He did so, happy to be following the directions of a much more established program instead of some malware (as he now assumed that Wisp was). He diverted onto a side street and started to wind through an unfamiliar network of roads. Within short order, the neighborhood that he drove though was clearly not the kind of place he wanted to pilot his BMW through. As if to confirm this, he found himself behind a low-rider Cadillac at a stop sign that seemed to be in no hurry to go anywhere. Without thinking, Gary tapped on his horn, hoping to prompt the Caddy into moving.

               The four gentlemen who exited the Caddy seemed less interested in moving than they were in confronting Gary. Regardless of their intention, Gary jammed the gas, tearing off around the car and it’s exited occupants without giving it a second thought.

               At that point, perhaps irrationally though he had the sneaking suspicion not, he decided to ignore his own navigation app and just follow whatever streets the map displayed without consideration for the routing system.

               When he almost drove head-first into a sinkhole that would have swallowed his car, he grabbed his phone from its dashboard mouth and threw it out the window. He’d driven for years before GPS was common in everyone’s pocket, so why not now?

               When he got back on a completely different freeway, traveling in the opposite direction of his office, he allowed himself to take a breather. He wasn’t even heading toward his original destination, so how could any navigation system possibly predict what was going on with his route? He was now, in a way that was completely antithesis to his profession of assigning risk to potential customers, unpredictable.

*             *             *             *

               The truck driver who had been using Wisp swore before a judge and jury that he hadn’t been impaired when he’d slammed into the BMW on the highway that day, instantly killing the driver. He had merely been following the directions on his navigation system that he had not only downloaded but given a positive review and a Patreon donation to, given how well it had worked in routing him through the most efficient routes on his delivery. He felt terrible, for sure, that a man had died in the accident, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen a fair share of distracted drivers in his career, and he managed to get a simple dismissal of his case by pointing out that in fifteen years of driving, this was the first accident he’d been involved in. 

               Yes, the app he’d used was new, but it hadn’t steered him wrong before then, and he didn’t imagine that he would have any problems with Shamrock Shipping’s latest early adoption of Wisp in the future.

               These things, he’d reasoned, were just part of the hazard of travel.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: On a Dying Earth

This is probably the most slap-dash, rushed entry yet, as a number of other writing obligations (getting about 17 short plays together for a submission) took up my writing cycles this past week. Still, I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss a post (even if no one’s reading them) . So lacking any other ideas, I toyed in a very rough way with an intro to a Dying Earth novel idea I’ve had for a few years. This will almost certainly not survive as the actual intro, though, but you have to start somewhere, right? There are things in here that are mostly placeholders; terminology taken directly from what little I know of the genre that I plan to change later. And I don’t want to give away too much because part of what’s so awesome about this is the revelations that come in the full story.

So, really, this is just me throwing something out there with 2 inch wide margins and 16 point font so that I can turn in a paper on time. Yay me?

But anyway, maybe you’ll find something interesting in it. Enjoy!

17th Floor
On a Dying Earth

Aldric was picking through the remains of the abandoned city. It was not one of the Ancients’ cities—those were forbidden and, frankly, too dangerous go risk defying the Decrees—but one that had died within the past million years. Or two. Aldric couldn’t tell and didn’t care. The goal was, as always, survival. Find anything that could be traded for the planet’s rapidly dwindling resources or something that could be used to take them. Aldric preferred trade to violence, but an ancient weapon could fit either scenario, and it was good to have options when the Traders came to his village.

He dusted a thousand years of detritus off some alien object, one that certainly didn’t seem to have any value outside of curiosity, when the Memory attacked. He was thrown back from his perch on the mound of rubble with the force of the attack as the wave of energy slammed into him. He might have been bothered by the loud crack of his head hitting concrete, or by the warm trail of blood that ran down from the fresh wound, had he been aware of either.

The city was alive with people. Merchants in booths on the streets. Towering spires of sharply angled buildings. The murmur of voices so intense that it felt like the thrumming of a thousand insect wings. The streets were clean and smooth. Giant machines flew in the skies.

The Memory had slithered into his mind and latched there. He tried to force it out but was so overwhelmed that he couldn’t. He knew, from experience, that it was best to ride it out; to allow it to become disinterested on its own and leave as quickly as it had intruded.

Everyone occasionally was attacked my Memories, but Aldric attracted stronger ones than most. He’d buried that information and kept it from the Council of Elders. He didn’t want to be a prophet, but he would be pressed into service. Prophets burned and faded faster than others, and the expectations and demands on their ability to summon and control Memories allowed them no rest.

Initially, this Memory was hardly remarkable in what it showed. A vision of the past, before the lowlands were swallowed by the oceans and then reemerged as barren wastes when the sun began its slow death cycle. Before the holes started to appear in the sky. Before whole regions of the planet would merely vanish, excised from the land as if by careful application of a blade in a surgeon’s hand. These people were not Ancients, but they lived comfortably in their shadows. Using their technology and their knowledge. Better times, perhaps, but with their own perils.

Aldric saw himself look down at the device in his hand; or rather, the hand of whoever the Memory had burst from a thousand years ago. It was the same artifact he had found in the rubble, but restored to its original functionality, so he imagined. Though it was flat and mirror black on its surface, a glowing orb hovered above it. Words he couldn’t read, symbols, and images floated in space, transferring some vital information or another to the holder.

The Memory fixated on the images there, and Aldric felt a growing dread. Something that this artifact was showing was troublesome to its watcher. It conveyed a message akin to a revelation of doom. Aldric was suddenly struck with images of a cavernous space; some inexplicably large cavern where rows and rows of Ancient-built monoliths glowed and pulsed with energy. Whether the energy of the Ancient’s technology or some of the magicks from the dark regions of the planet, Aldric couldn’t tell. He could tell, however, that the monoliths were going dark, one by one. He sensed, carryover from the Memory squirming around in his mind, that there were no longer and Guardians to tend to these monoliths. Their darkening was counting down to a terrible outcome. As his heart raced, sharing the fear and panic of the long-dead witness to this brewing calamity, the Memory leapt from his mind, jolting him back to his reality. He managed to catch a glimpse of it, pulsing and throbbing in the air, a strangely insubstantial creature, before it was lost in the ruins.

It was of no matter, however, and Aldric knew he had to cut his scavenging expedition short. He could no longer run from his abilities. The Council had to know what he had seen.

He had seen the moment the sun began to die. More importantly, he thought there might be a way to save it.

26 Stories

26 Stories: Wonderful

Happy Holidays, readers! This story comes from an idea I had some time ago based on the premise that the George-less reality of Pottersville from It’s a Wonderful Life continued to exist; a lawless community where a mad man claiming to know people in the town and the funny little man who claimed to be an angel. What would Bert the cop think when the man he’d pursued to the bridge on the edge of town seemed to have vanished, and he had to go back to his life as a beat cop in Pottersville, which I assume became a den of iniquity during and post Prohibition. I may have to go back and clear up some details later, as even though I’ve seen the movie too many times to count, I still probably missed some details. But as always, this exercise is not about getting it right, but getting it write… er, written. Whatever.

A word of warning; this is my usual somewhat dark take on something, and some people consider It’s a Wonderful Life a beloved story brimming with hope, optimism, and sappiness. I may or may not horribly kill off characters from the movie, because of course I will.

Enjoy!

16th Floor
Wonderful

               Bert looked off the end of the bridge down at the water below. The river was rushing, swollen with the recent rains and wet snow. The kook he’d chased from Main Street was nowhere to be seen, all signs of him stopped where he now stood. Given the obvious, Bert figured that the body would wash up somewhere down river, hopefully far enough out of the township to be some other chump’s problem. It had been a strange night, to say the least, with the unknown jumper (who claimed—insisted—that he knew Bert) and the odd little man who had seemingly vanished out from underneath as he’d tried to apprehend him at the old house on Sycamore Street. Bert was ready to go home, crawl in bed, and not see daylight for at least two days.

               It was a luxury he wouldn’t get, however, as the week of Christmas to New Years in Pottersville was “all hands” for the authorities. Not that it helped, since most of the force was in the pockets of Potter, and the old man had a vested interest in the town’s lawlessness. Still, there were petty drunks and hooligans to bust, and they’d be out in force all week. There wouldn’t be a smidge of rest for Bert until sometime in mid-January.

               Worse still, his sleep was troubled. He dreamed of life in Pottersville, only it was clearly a different town. Pleasant, even, more like Seneca Falls than a town that never drug itself out of the bootlegging operations of Prohibition (funded, again, by Potter himself with the police and town leaders in cahoots). Ernie was there, which was at least something normal, though he had flashes of dinners with Ernie’s family; something that had never happened even before the shrew had taken the kids and split. The scene that struck him the most when he woke up was of himself and Ernie outside that run-down house where he’d tried to arrest the lunatic and his vanishing friend singing in the rain. He knew that they were singing to the crazy man he’d pursued (and shot at) last night and the spinstery librarian… Sarah or Mary or something he couldn’t recall. As nightmares had gone, given all he’d seen on the beat in Pottersville, it was rather tame, though it left him with a sense of unease.

               When he arrived at work next morning, the station house was buzzing. Someone had found Gower, the town drunk, dead in an alley behind what was once his pharmacy. It had been his family business until the incident, and after that, he’d spent time in prison and later on the streets. Bert assumed that he’d finally decided to kick off and do so at the one place that reminded him of a normal life, but based on the talk from the other officers, it seemed unlikely.

               Unless he’d burned his own eyeballs out, turned his tongue to mush, and shoved some sort of spice in his ears. Thyme or basil or something. It was being treated as a murder, but there wouldn’t be any real effort to solve it. Someone else could now take to occupying Gower’s regular bench in the drunk tank.

               Violet Bick was the next one they found, with similarly burned out eyes. Her lips had been sewn shut, and they found flecks of gold under he fingernails. It was determined that she had pissed off one of her “clients” the previous evening, and when the police had let her walk after a night in holding, he must have found her and exacted revenge. To Bert, it was clear that the two deaths were connected, but a homeless drunk and a dead prostitute didn’t exactly cause an uproar.

               When they found Nick, eyes jelly and his body shoved into the hollowed out remains of the jukebox that had also doubled as the entryway to his rum running operations, that’s when the force was tasked to investigate. Potter himself set the dogs loose. While Nick wasn’t an upstanding member of the town, he had been Potters top muscle. The orders were clear; whoever was killing citizens of the town now had to be stopped. Bert, having the most experience on the force, was put in charge of the operation.

               There were no leads, at first. Not until a coincidental report filed by a fellow a few blocks from the bridge. He’d been out that night and come home to one fewer trees in his yard. Bert just happened to overhear one of the younger officers who had drawn the short straw to deal with the insistent man talk about how a crazy drunk had claimed to have hit the tree with his car, even though the tree was fine. The drunk was insistent that not only had he hit the tree, but that he’d interacted with the homeowner earlier that evening. That triggered Bert’s instinct, and he took time out of his investigation to talk to the man.

*             *             *             *

               “That tree,” the homeowner said, “was the oldest tree in Pottersville.”

               “Yeah,” Bret replied, “you’ve mentioned that.” Several times already.

               “I think that drunk came back and pulled it out. Left nothing but that hole in the ground; not even roots or a pile of dirt.”

               “Now why would a crazy drunk dig up your tree?”

               “Because that’s exactly what a crazy drunk would do.”

               Bert sighed. “Could you describe the fellah, buddy?”

               “He was really tall. Eyes were crazy. He had a kind of, I don’t know, deep voice? It was dark out, honestly, and I had groceries to get in the house, and didn’t want to deal with him.”

               Bert jotted down the notes, but already made up his mind that the homeowner’s drunk and the man he’d chased to the bridge were one in the same.

               “Did you see him again that night?”

               “’course not. You think I’d go out there on Christmas Eve? I could, if you lousy bums did your job, but it’s a lawless slum out there. Dunno why I still live here, if we’re being frank with each other. I just want to know why a man would dig up another man’s tree. Did you know that tree was….”

               “…the oldest tree in Pottersville. Yeah, I get that.” Bert closed his notepad. “Thank you for your time, and if we hear anything, we’ll let you know.”  As Bert walked away, the man stopped him.

               “You don’t think he’s the guy that’s killing all those other folks, do you?”

               “I can’t talk about that.”

               “Well, he may have taken my tree, but it he’s killing bums and whores, then I can’t imagine he’s all bad. Doing your job, at least.”

*             *             *             *

               The police found that man the next morning, along with his tree, deep in the forest. In addition to the eyes, the tree had been hollowed out just enough to force the overweight man into the tree. The prevailing theory was that the killer had missed him when he went to deal with him, removed the tree, and came back later to finish him off.

*             *             *             *

               It got personal to Bert when they fished Ernie’s cab out of the river. Bert had to ID the body; what was left of it, at least, after the fish had taken their pound of flesh. At least there hadn’t been any eyes for them to gorge on.

*             *             *             *

               Bert was sitting in his patrol car, trying to come up with any leads, when the angel visited him. It had been abrupt; one minute, Bert was looking down at his notes, and in an instant, the little old man who had somehow wiggled out from under him and disappeared was in the passenger seat next to him.

               “Hello, Bert,” the little man said. Bert instinctively drew his sidearm. He fired a shot into the little man, who not only didn’t react, but didn’t seem to even be hit. Had the gun misfired, Bert had a second to think before the gun was just… gone.

               “Oh now, Bert, that wasn’t necessary. I am sorry I startled you.”

               “Who the hell are you?”

               “No, no, no… not Hell, my friend. Heaven. I’m an angel.”

               “You’re under arrest is what you are.” Bert reached for his cuffs.

               “They’re not there,” the little man claiming to be an angel said. Feeling nothing, Bert went for the radio. “No radio, either.” To Bert’s dismay, that was true. He pushed back to try and open the door, but it was jammed shut. “You can’t get out, and no… you can’t attack me, either.” Bert had been about to pounce on the man but found that he lacked the will to do so. “My name is Clarence,” he man said with a childlike smile, “and I have been sent down from Heaven to straighten all this mess up.”

               “If you’re an angel,” Bert stammered, “where are your wings?”

               “You’ll see them soon enough. They’re brand new. Thanks to my dear friend, George Bailey.”

               “Who?”

               “The man who hit you on Christmas Eve. The man you thought jumped from the bridge, and the man you were starting to suspect of all those murders in town.” The man’s smile was suddenly sorrowful. “That man wasn’t supposed to exist here, but I had to show him something. Something wonderful. To save him.”

               “Look, buddy, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble when I get out of here. You can’t hold a cop prisoner in his own car, you know?”

               “Have you had dreams, Bert? Dreams of a different place? A better place?” Clarence studied Bert’s reaction. “Ah, I can see you have. If it makes you feel any better about what’s going to happen, you have a very happy life, there. Here?” he looked outside the car at the “Pottersville” sign. “You’re a prisoner to this place, not to me.”

               “You’re nuttier than a fruit bat.”

               “You could have left any time you wanted, but you didn’t. You out of all your colleagues resisted Potter as much as you could. You tried to make the town better; to make it more like it was supposed to be. Like Bedford Falls.”

               “Like where?”

               “Do you know,” Clarence continued, “that once I had my wings, I was able to see so much more? There are infinite versions of this town; some that are better and some that are far, far worse. There’s a version of this reality that is nothing but a plane of endless, out of control cancer.”

               “You’re insane.”

               Clarence nodded in agreement. “Going a bit mad a little inevitable, really, when you can observe all those realities at once. But the one that mattered, at least this time, was the one George Bailey came from. I can assure you, he is not responsible for the unfortunateness here in town. George is a kind and loving man and has long since gone home. Back to his reality. To his wonderful life.” Clarence sighed, sad. “But, his presence here left ripples that I couldn’t foresee before I had my wings, and Joseph has tasked me with righting.”

               “You killed them.”

               “I did. It is, unfortunately, the only way to keep this reality safe from instability. Everyone with whom George interacted must be put out of their misery. Well,” he said with a chuckle, “the misery to come, at least, if the reality bleeds really kick in.”

               “What are you?”

               Clarence was suddenly out of the car, standing in front of it. Bert couldn’t move. “I told you, I’m an angel.” His body had begun to glow, and the light grew in intensity until it was blinding. Bert saw, before his eyes began to bubble in his skull, a fiery wheel sporting six wings. He did get his wings, Bert thought just moments before the blinding vision was replaced by the blackness of oblivion.

               Clarence stood before the police car, the job done. He had one more to take care of, and he did not look forward to this one. He’d tried to warn George not to seek this person out; that he “wasn’t supposed to tell him” where she was. Joseph had warned him there would be consequences, and he’d wanted to spare her from this. But, alas, there was a job to do, and it would be better than what would happen to her as her if he let her be.

               With a deep sadness, Clarence turned to the library, and began to walk, the sound of ringing bells carrying faintly on the wind.

 

The End

26 Stories

26 Stories: A Diner in OZ, 3 am

I am returning to a character that I know I’m going to come back to in the future, even after this project is done. My favorite urban wizard… sorry… “ritual practitioner,” Dominic. Who would probably be offended by the implication of the phrase “urban” wizard, since he’s African American (and also, not a wizard. Though now I absolutely have to work that line into a future story. Odd how, so far, my favorite characters are the spirit of a Pakistani woman from a strict Muslim culture, a black ritualist, and an Asian lesbian homicide detective (she’s coming back, too, and I think all three are going to meet, eventually). And me with all my straight, cis-hetero, white, male privilege. I’m sure nothing can ever go wrong with that.

Anyway, enjoy Dom’s continuing adventures!

15th Floor
A Diner in OZ, 3 am

               It was at the point that the kid said, “you’re a wizard, Harry,” to Dominic that he had decided he’d had enough of this conversation. He pressed his fingers to his sinuses in the universal sign of fed-uppedness while his late-night (early morning?) breakfast cooled. The diner was sparsely populated, mostly by drunks realizing that their evening was over and that the hangover was coming.

               “I am not,” he said, “a wizard.”

               “But you, you know.” He mimed flicking a wand around in the air. “Poof, magic, right?”

               “No.”

               “I saw you in that alley. When you made that scary dude vanish in the fire circle?”

               “That was a ritual that I’d spent a better part of the day preparing and you almost fucked it up.”

               “That guy was a demon or something, right?” The kid was far too excited and speaking far too loudly for Dom’s taste.

               “Okay,” he said, “three things. One, keep your voice down, because the drunks think we’re the weird ones. Two, demons aren’t real. Three, and this is critical, I am not a wizard—there are no wizards.”

               “Then what are you?”

               “I am a practitioner of ritual magic.” Dom said.

               “So, you do do magic.”

               “Yes, I guess.”

               “And how does that not make you a wizard?”

               “Because magic isn’t something that you do with faux-Latin words and a stick. Magic takes rituals, and rituals take practice. Hence, ‘ritual practitioner.’”

               “I don’t know, seems like you may as well be a called a wizard.”

               Dominic clenched his fists. If only I were a wizard, I’d set you on fire right now, you little piece of sh-

               “But, anyway, you still made that demon thing vanish with magic.”

               “It was a spirit. And what’s your point?”

               “I,” the kid said, “am producing a podcast, and it would be awesome to have an interview with a real wiz.. uh… ‘practitioner.’”

               “Can you at least use ‘ritualist?’ ‘Practitioner’ is sort of offensive.”

               “Is that like the n-word?” The kid, to his credit, cringed immediately. “Sorry, brother… I mean, sorry my man. Or, just man.”

               “Get on with it.”

               “Uh… right, the podcast. I’m covering local lore, and, well, I kind of saw the real deal.”

               “Local lore?”

               “That monster in the alley was something called ‘the Long Man.’ He’s supposed to be, like, a demon who was summoned during a botched sacrifice by some kids in the fifties when—”

               “He,” Dominic said, “was the spirit of a homeless man who died in that alley ten years ago.”

               “Murdered?”

               “Cancer. And a bunch of other issues. That alley was the only home he ever knew, and he was having a hard time leaving it.”

               “That’s… anticlimactic.”

               Dom shrugged. “We could all only be so lucky.”

               “Why’d you banish him?”

               “He asked. Politely.

               “Oh…”

               “Kind of kills the Long Man story.”

               “Eh, I’ll just make some shit up. Oh!” He snapped his fingers.

               “No.”

               “You can be the focus of my podcast!”

               “No goddamn way.”

               “I could shadow you and learn all about the magic arts. Maybe you could even teach me some.”

               “That’s isn’t how any of this works.”

               “Meeting you was fate!”

               “Okay, fine. I see where this is going.” Dom unscrewed the top of the table’s salt shaker.

               “I might even be the next, I dunno, chosen one or something.” The kid pulled a recorder from his bag and fiddled with it. “I could at least play that angle for the story. Blend of reality and fiction.” Dom carefully poured the salt around the kid’s untouched coffee mug, then shaped the salt circle into an octagon with his finger.

               “What’re you doing?” the kid asked.

               “You want to learn some basic magic?”

               “Yes!”

               “Great. Lesson one of one: every ritual involves at least two components.”

               “Wait, wait!” The kid grabbed a notepad and pen from his backpack. Dom paused dutifully until the kid was ready.

               “There’s a sympathetic component,” at this, he produced a flask and poured its contents into the coffee, “and the symbolic component.” Dominic adjusted the salt octagon around the mug.

               “Sympathetic… symbolic” the kid muttered, writing.

               “Drink this coffee,” Dom said.

               “What, with the booze in it?”

               “Yes.”

               “Why?”

               “Booze is also called a ‘spirit,’ a common linguistic designation that forms a sympathetic bond between the drinker and the spirit world. Plus, drunk people tend to experience the world differently.”

               “Do I have to get drunk.”

               Dom sighed. “Sympathetic doesn’t mean literal.”

               “Is this going to make me see ghosts?” Without waiting for confirmation, he chugged the coffee.

               “Yes. LSD or peyote would be better, but that’s hardly diner fare.”

               “And the salt octagon?”

               “That’s the symbolic part.”

               “Like, uh… are there eight planes of the dead or something?”

               “No. People expect mystical circles of salt. It actually doesn’t do shit, you just think it does.”

               “When will it work?”

               “Soon enough. I mean, it works right away, just, there might not be any spirits nearby. Oh, and,” he said off-handedly, “since people tend to drink to forget, you won’t remember any of this conversation later.”

               “What?”

               “Sorry, kid.”

               “But I’m recording it.”

               “Yeah,” Dom said, “about that. Magic came before technology. That will ‘forget,’ too, because it’s yours and the spell works on you.”

               “That’s not coo—” The kid looked past Dom to the front door. “Oh shit.”

               “What?”

“It’s working, but… what kind of ghost is that?”

               Dom turned. Any amusement at the kid’s situation fled as he saw the entity at the front of the diner. None of the other patrons reacted; only he and the kid could see it. Rippled in the air, as if they were looking at in an aquarium.

               “That’s not a ghost.”

               “Is it real?”

               “Very.”

               The thing turned what could generously be called its face to their table, and Dominic swore under his breath. It looked like a cross between a jellyfish and the rotted remains of the upper torso of a murder victim, left underwater for at least a decade. The human-ish skull’s jaw hinged open, and a raspy voice scratched and burbled.

               “Prrrrractitioner….”

               “Did the Snake send you?”

               “You haaaaave stolen knowledge that doesssssn’t belong to youuuuu.”

               “Right, definitely the Snake.”

               “What snake?”

               “Kid,” Dom said with forced calm, “now would be a very good time for you to clear out of here.”

               “I…”

               Dom stood, grabbed the kid by his collar, and yanked him out of the booth. “Move. Back exit. Now.” The kid moved. The waitress behind the diner managed a quick “hey” as he ran past her, through the kitchen.

               “What’s his problem,” she asked Dom.  Dom shrugged, not taking his eyes off the Snake’s hired muscle. A bloated purple tongue, or a close enough approximation to one, wormed out of its mouth and lapped at its nonexistent lips.

               “This’ll cover me and the kid,” Dom said to her, not taking his eyes off the monster and placing an old shopping receipt on the table.

               “I’ll be right back with your change,” she said, scooping up the receipt, unable to pierce the veil of the magic that made her think it was money.

               “Keep it.” She smiled at him.

               “Thanks, honey!”

He hated wasting the enchantment it on cheap diner food, but there were more pressing issues. “I’m just leaving,” he said, more to the entity than the waitress, “and heading outside.”

               “Well, you have a good night, darlin’,” she responded.

               “Uh-huh,” Dom replied, and edged his way around the other side of the tables, past the creature, and to the front door.

               “I will have you, practitionerrrrrrrr,” it purred.

               “Outside,” he replied, knowing that not seeing the entity wouldn’t save the people in the diner if it came to violence. Thankfully, things like this had just as much of a desire to stay off the radar as he did. He’d only make it as far as the nearly deserted streets, Dom knew, before it attacked, but that gave him time to at least contemplate how to get out of this. If he could get out of this. He hadn’t counted on a retaliation from the Snake this soon.

               He felt the thing slide out onto the sidewalk behind him, and abomination of a presence behind him.

               “Look,” he said, “I don’t see the harm in a little knowledge. I mean, isn’t that the Snake’s thing, anyway?”

               “You tricked ittttttt.”

               “Is it mad about the trick? Is that it? Because I’m pretty sure that’s kind of hypocritical on its part.”

               “You sssssshould not knowwwwwwww what you knowwwwwwww.”

               “That’s fair.” Dom put a hand into his hoodie’s pocket, fumbling around for anything that would work. “That said, given Snake’s place in the cosmos, I think that knowing things I shouldn’t know would be, like, its jam, right? Doesn’t it hate gods who hoard knowledge?” The thing across from him laughed, grating and slick laughter, like oil on water. Oil that was on fire.

               “Do no try to appeal to its hatred of pathetic human religions.”

               “So why did it send you, then? I didn’t know that the Akatharton were thugs for hi—” The thing lashed out with a blast of power that hit Dom with a mix of physical, psychological, and emotional pain. It cored his soul like an apple and drove him to his knees, gasping against the pain and a thousand images of his failure throughout life smashing into his memories at once. He had known that the savagery of the attack would be coming, but he’d hoped for at least a few more seconds to put together whatever weak defense he could. He’d had an idea of what he needed, but since it didn’t look like he’d get the courtesy of an evil villain monologue, his options were limited to dying or suffering whatever his attacker had in mind for him. And that attack was it going easy on me.

               “Stop!” The podcast kid stepped out from the shadows, his hands raised, placing himself between Dom and the monster.

               “Damn it, kid,” Dom muttered.

               “You leave this man alone.”

               “Who arrrrrrrre you?” it asked.

               “Me?”

               “Don’t.” Dom gripped at the trinket he’d finally found. Jacket pockets enhanced with mini-worm holes were, in retrospect, not very helpful when you needed something specific, fast.

               “I’m the protector of this ritualist. I’m the chosen o—” With little fanfare, the kid evaporated into a fine red mist in the street.

               “Insssssssect.” It turned to Dom, who now stood.

               “Yeah,” Dom said, “but to give him some credit, he did give me time to do this.” Dom withdrew his hand. He held a narrow, wand-like object in his hand. He waved it with a flourish, threw in a quick “abracadabra” for good measure, and tossed it to the creature. It caught it with a misshapen appendage and was mesmerized.

               The pen, bought at a truck stop somewhere in the Midwest, showed a pin-up girl in a plastic window along the barrel. Water held a plastic bikini top in suspension across her chest. The thing turned the pen straight up and down, and the swimsuit covering her breasts slowly drifted down. The creature howled in frustration as it found itself unwillingly frozen by the cheap titillation. The magic of the minor ritual that Dom had flung at it was enough to give Dom a fraction of a second of a window. To gather all of his will and respond to this manifestation of pure evil that had erased another human from existence without a second thought.

               Dom ran.

 

*             *             *             *

 

               Dominic knew that he was outclassed. An Akatharton had been sent after him, and would have massacred him, even if he’d had time to prepare. He might, in fact, have only bought himself a few days with the pen trick. Which made it that much more important that he get to Austin sooner rather than later.

               He took out the folded piece of paper he’d picked up in Atlanta; a flyer advertising an underground film festival. For most people who received the flyer, it was an opportunity to be a part of a schlocky, independent horror movie fest. He, on the other hand, had read the flow of magic in the printed words. It presented him an opportunity, and one he was now even more hard-pressed to take. What the Snake had shown him in Upstate New York was dangerous knowledge, and if he wanted to do anything but die with it (or worse), he had a lot of work to do, and decreasingly less time.

               Against his better judgement, Dominic would have to open a byway.

               It was far safer than risking an Akatharton.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: Peddling Ascension

Hot off of a revision of a story about an elevator ride that felt like it would never end is a story about a staircase. This one is an odd bird; it came from a dream I had last week. 

In that dream, I was going to Hogwarts, which was located past a secret entrance at the back of an ice cream store in the retail district of a semi-futuristic city. There were a lot of odd thing about the dream: it was only 24 miles away and I decided to run there in 30 minutes. The ice cream shop had Dumbledor on the marketing. I could fly, encounters were triggered like video games (I play too many video games), and Hagrid–played by Gerard Butler–really didn’t want me to know about the staircase in the back that went up forever. 

Well, I distilled all the Harry Potter and video game references right out of that, and this story was left. 

Enjoy!

Peddling Ascension
14th Floor

“Do you want to know a secret,” the guy at the ice cream joint asked me. He’d already asked me if I thought that the ice cream was “magical,” evidently the tagline for the shop. I had agreed, albeit awkwardly. To be fair, the ice cream at “Cream-o-mancy” was incredible. The wizard on the shop’s signage, with his traditional pointed hat replaced by a waffle cone, seemed to think that the cream was pretty special. The guy behind the counter was buying into the theme, too, though his long gray hair and scrabbly beard were both wrapped in nets, spoiling the image.

               “Uh.” Nothing good ever came from a strange bearded man, peddling sweets, and offering secrets. I was a little old to be lured into the back of a van, but the guy’s excitement was nearly manic.

               “Come on, man… not everyone knows about this secret. It’s cool.” His eyes were also a little bloodshot. Maybe he’s going to offer me drugs? In that case, I was a little interested.

               “All right, I’ll humor you.”

               “In the back, waaaaay in the back, there’s a staircase that goes up forever.”

               This was significantly less interesting a revelation, though I was right about the drugs.

               “Okay.”

               “Nah, really! It’s, like, you can see it going up, but it doesn’t stop.”

               “Haven’t you ever walked up it?”

               “Fuck no! But one guy that used to work here said he did. Said he walked up it for at least half an hour, and when he gave up to turn back, he hadn’t gone up more than one or two steps.”

               I laughed. How could I not?

               “Your friend sounded like he was on some good stuff.”

               “Not him, man.”

               “Okay, well, in any event, the ice cream was great, but I—”

               “You wanna see it?”

               I considered carefully. Should I deny a guy clearly strung out on something, or should I take my chances in the back with mister wizard here?

               “Fine.”

               “Yes! My man, you aren’t going to believe this shit.” He took off his apron and walked into the back without so much as a check to make sure there weren’t other customers. I followed, through a swinging door and into the cold of the storeroom. He led me past empty tubs of ice cream, beyond the large walk-in freezers and their noisy generators, and out the back door.

               The shop was in one of those galleria malls downtown. Going “out back” didn’t put us outside, but in some featureless white hallway. Back doors to other businesses flanked us, and the place held the faintest smell of old produce.

               “So, we gotta go back this way a ways. This place it like a maze, man, all twisting and turning and shit.” I followed trippy Gandalf as he took us around a few turns, down more featureless corridors, and through at least four more swinging doors. He wasn’t kidding; in short order, I was lost. I had tried to keep track of which mechanical room doors we passed, where the electric boxes were, and how many exits signs I counted. All the while, the running commentary from my guide in this demented quest got less and less coherent. The smell of rotting produce got stronger, and then faded, turning musky. We were still somewhere in the interior alleys of the city—we had to be—but it felt like we’d been winding around for a long time.

               We continued this way until we emerged in the galleria.

               Or rather, a completely empty portion of it. I’d been in the galleria a few times over the years, but this was completely new to me. New and deserted.

               “Is this part being remodeled?” I asked.

               “What? Nah, they just forgot about it.”

               “Then why does it still have electricity and,” I noticed, “muzak?”

               My guide shrugged.

               The storefronts were all staples of the malls of my youth; stores like KB Toys, B Daltons, and Sam Goody. Doors were all open and shelves stocked, but there wasn’t a single person in sight. I got the feeling that I could have walked into any one of those stores, taken what I wanted, and no one would have stopped me. There was no one to care.

               “C’mon, man, it’s just over there.” I suddenly felt like an idiot.

               “That’s an escalator, dude,” I said, nodding to the moving staircase he’d pointed to. “It goes around and around, not up forever. Jesus, man, I have to admire your commitment to a joke.”

               “Huh?” He was confused. “Oh, I get it. Maaaaan, that would be a good joke. Like, a total play on, like, expectations or something. But that’s not it. It’s up the escalator and at the end of the hallway.”

I nodded, a little disappointed that this trek wasn’t over. “Oh. Okay, well, let’s go, then.”

               “Dude, I’m not going up there. This is all you, now.”

               “What?”

               “I told you, I don’t like it. And, like, when you see it, I wouldn’t do anything but look.”

               “You’re… you’re at least going to wait here, right? I don’t think I could find my way back.”

               “Sure, sure,” he nodded. He pulled a joint out of his pocket and stuck it between his lips. “I’ll be right here when you get back.”

               I’m not sure why I did it, but I stepped on the escalator. Fluorescent lights and the incessant tunes of synthesized Celine Dion followed me as I went. The walk was a little longer than I expected—clearly, my guide’s definition of “just ahead” and mine were different—but I went on. Sunk cost; I’d gone this far and could go just a little farther for what was sure to be some kind of drug-addled misunderstanding of how stairs worked.

               I was at least a few minutes down the hall before I noticed that the shops and storefronts. The stores of my youth were replaced with less familiar ones. Gadzooks and Camelot Music and Kenny G muzak. Then to Contempo Casual and Casual Corner with versions of ABBA and the Bee-Gees. And on to Chess King and Kinney Shoes. The muzak eventually faded out altogether, replaced by the distant calliope of a carousel.

I was already starting to believe the ice cream wizard’s story by the time the storefronts were nothing but displays and rows of window displays of staircases. All the store names were stair themed bastardizations of the mall stores of the past—KB Stairs, Pepperidge Stairs, and so on. Kiosks advertised nothing but rotating pictures of stairways. Stairs spiraling up (or down, depending, I suppose, or your perspective). Grand staircases in plantations style homes and concrete steps in parks nestled in hidden corners of the country.

The last staircase at the end of this maddening walks was the one the ice cream guy was talking about. There was no mistaking it.

               He wasn’t wrong; it was unsettling. I felt like its impossible length was a trick of perspective, and that it really didn’t go up forever, but just got smaller in scale as it went up.  I thought about turning back at that point, but it seemed like I could no more do so that no breathe. If he really had a friend who had at least tried walking up the stairs only to turn back and leave, that person had more will than I did.

               And so, up I went.

I didn’t decide at any point to turn around. I was in it for the long haul, so to speak, and I wouldn’t stop—couldn’t stop—until I reached the top. Whoever it was that was my wizardly guide here, that dark practitioner of the ice cream arts, had to know that I wouldn’t be coming back. But I think he didn’t expect me to come back.

               I think he knew that he was leading me to a path without end. An escalator ride that never looped around.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: Flesh of my Flesh

The second half of this effort begins now with more goopy body horror elements. Also, I’m relatively sure that my sexual imagery is less subtext and just plan old text. I wonder what my therapist would say about this story?

As always, enjoy. Or be grossed out.

Or both!

Flesh of My Flesh
13th Floor

              “Is this one of those ‘War of the Worlds’-type things? It has to be, right?” Cal asked, fiddling with the antique radio.

              “This?” Martin replied. “These fire-and-brimstone preachers have been on these AM stations since Marconi played the mamba.”

              “Who did the what, now?”

              “You are so young.”

              “I’m not that much younger you. I’m just more cultured.”

              “The devil walks among us, children,” the radio preacher’s twang sounded like an angry child talking through a tin-can phone.

              “Grandpa used to play that shit all the time on this very radio. I wonder if he would find it ironic that it’s probably what made me gay.”

              “We are at war!” the Preacher shouted. “The communists, the freedom-hating liberals-“

              “Here it comes.”

              “The gays and their homosexual agenda.”

              “Nailed it!” Martin said.

              “The only thing on my agenda,” Cal said, “Is to eat. Aren’t you supposed to be making dinner?”

              “Crock-pot,” Martin said. “Been cooking for three hours.”

              “Oh,” replied Calvin.

              Martin kissed the top of Cal’s head. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”

              Cal stood, listening to the radio preachers continue his diatribe on the gays and the atheists and Democrats. “How did you survive growing up here?”

              Martin shrugged. “Deep closets.”

              “Speaking of closets, where are we going to start?”

              Martin scanned the living room of the ranch house. It was in remarkably good shape already on the outside, but too cluttered with kitsch and a hodge-podge of different eras of style. Martin also assumed that the details that were hidden in the walls would prove to be worse. Ancient pipes, bad wiring, thin insulation, and who knew what else waited for the tear-down. The storage company would be coming out in a few days to take the furniture away that they wanted to keep, the charity would come a few days after that everything else salvageable, and the waste management company would park a large bin outside for the refuse.

              “The bathrooms can be cleaned out pretty easily, but I suspect that’s where we’re going to find the most problems.”

              “Get the worst out of the way, then?”

              “Yeah, I think that’s the best approach.”

              “Okay,” Cal said, brushing off his hands. “You tend to that dinner and I’ll see what we’ve got in the master bathroom.”

              Martin left the room.

              “Temptation leads to damnation,” the radio preacher said. “When the merging comes, when the great Beast is birthed, the world be remade in its image of eternal Flesh.”

              “No gays though, I imagine,” Cal said to the radio.

              “All are welcome in the now world,” he said.

              “Yeah, I bet,” Cal walked away.

              “All, Calvin.” Cal froze.

“The change will not come in fire,” the preacher continued. “It will come in a rain of flesh and a changing of the body!” When the radio did not address Calvin again by name, he pressed his fingers to his temples. Convinced that he’d misheard, he continued on his way.

*            *            *            *

              Cal laughed over his half empty beer glass. “I can’t believe that he actually said that to you!”

              “I know, right? Straight guys are so awkward when they try really hard to be accepting. I guess I’m his gay friend he can use to prove his liberal street cred.”

              “We’re not exactly shattering the gay stereotype with all this catty talk, are we?”

              Martin laughed. “I guess not.”

              “Brothers and sisters, hallelujah!” a tinny voice said from the living room.

              “Didn’t you turn that off,” Martin asked.

              “I thought you did.”

              “Not me.”

              “Praise be unto Him, for I come with good tidings.”

              “I’ll get it,” Cal rose and headed to the living room, leaving Martin to take another sip of his Scotch.

              “Children,” the preacher said with a patronizing concern, “I know that I often talk about who stands against us; who we oppose. But make no mistake… this is not about hate. We hate no one.”

              “Sure,” hand on the dial.

              “The gays and their illicit lovers, living in sin,” Cal turned the knob to the left, diminishing the hateful voice almost fast enough, but not quite.

              “Fixing up the old farmhouse together. Making a ‘bed and breakfast’ to lure more of their kind to our good community. To pervert it. But we don’t hate them.”

              “Martin,” Cal called.

              “Yes?”

              “I think the radio preacher is talking about us.”

              “Not ‘about,’ Calvin. To you,” the preacher said on a clearer signal.

“What did you say, Calvin?” Martin asked from the doorway. “Did you decide that you still wanted to listen to that?”

              “I…”

              “Go ahead, Calvin. Turn it off. It won’t silence me.”

              “Did you hear that?”

              “Yeah, and if this guy is just going to repeat shit about the gay illuminati, he’s going to lose his followers to boredom.” Martin exaggerated a yawn.

              “No, I mean-“

              “Ugh,” Martin reached over and turned the radio off.

              “There. You coming back to the table?”

              “I told you,” the preacher said through the dead antique, still with a high-frequency hum. “You can hear the Word now, Calvin. You won’t be able to stop hearing it.” Calvin abruptly grasped the old power chord and yanked the plug from the wall. The action triggering a sharp pop and flash of a spark. Lights in the house flickered.

              “The wiring is going to be a real bitch to fix,” Martin said.

              “Yeah,” Calvin muttered.

              “The Word is truth, Calvin,” the preacher continued. “The truth of the Flesh is next.”

              Martin put a reassuring hand on Calvin’s shoulder. “Are you feeling okay? You look pale.”

              “What?” Cal asked, and then, “No, yeah… yeah. I’m just… tired. Too much beer, maybe.”

              “Don’t I know it,” Martin said. “Okay, we can get to work tomorrow.” He set his glass down on the top of the radio and planted a kiss on Cal’s lips. “Thank you,” he said.

              “Filth,” the radio said.

“For what?”

              “For helping with this.”

              “Sinners.”

              “Of course…” Cal tried to block out the voice in his head.

              “C’mon,” Martin said, taking Cal’s hand and leading him toward the bedroom. “Let’s go to bed.”

              “Fornicators.”

              “Sounds good,” Cal replied.

              “This is not how the Flesh is joined,” the preacher said to Calvin as the two men left. “But you will know soon enough.”

*            *            *            *

              Calvin stood on a vast expanse of skin. Tumorous growths rose around him like termite mounds, mottled pink, black, and blue. Scabs partially covered oozing sores. A fetid wind blew and carried with it the smell of putrescence. The land under his feet swelled and sank at regular intervals. He knew it was a dream instantly, albeit, it was a dream with a different quality than he was used to.

              “Calvin,” his father said, “I will not stand for this.”

              “Dad,” he replied, “it’s not like it wasn’t obvious.”

              “It wasn’t obvious to me!”

              “I played catch, dad! I dated girls. I did everything you wanted.”  

              “And yet you still fuck other men!” His father’s features ran and melted, oozing like putty left in a hot sun.

              “Daddy?”

              The puddle that was once his father reformed. The waxy pink fluid ran backwards, like a video reversed. As it took shape, Calvin stood face-to-face with man of about his father’s age, wearing a robe that wasn’t quite like a preacher’s vestment, but close enough.

              “Your father is with the Flesh, now. We all return to the Flesh. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… flesh to flesh.” The preacher reached out and put a hand on Cal’s arm. Where his fingers touched Cal’s skin, cancerous masses, red and angry, erupted. Fire burned under his skin as his flesh twisted and his bones were broken, liquified, and reformed. Into what, he didn’t know, as the dream faded.

*            *            *            *

              “Slime mold,” Martin said, standing in front of the hole he had hammered into the bathroom’s drywall. Glistening, biological goop had glommed on to the wall studs. “I knew there would be something disgusting back here. We did get masks, right?” Martin waited. “Right, Calvin?”

“Uh… yeah,” Cal nodded.

“Good. If this is here, you can bet there’s black mold and we sure as shit don’t want to breath any of that in.”

              “I’ll get them,” Calvin said, anxious to leave the room. In addition to grabbing a set of mases, he snagged the box of latex gloves, too. I’m not risking touching that.

Martin had started music on his phone. “Thank you!” he chirped, taking a mask and the box of gloves from Calvin. Martin slipped on the mask, pulled on the gloves and made a lewd gesture in Calvin’s direction. When Calvin didn’t laugh, Martin pulled the mask down.

              “Are you sick, or hungover?”

              “I didn’t sleep well. Nightmares.”

              “Oh. Well, they’re just dreams, right? Can’t hurt you and all that?”

              “Thanks dad… er… mom.” Calvin’s stomach churned with the memory of the dream.

              “Mmmm-hmmm,” Martin replied. “Does princess Calvin need a nap? We’ve got work to do, and good music to keep us awake.” The current song—some EDM music that Calvin never got into—ended.

              “Hello Calvin,” the preacher’s voice said from the phone.

              Martin smiled, “That’s my jam!” He started to dance to an unheard beat.

              “No,” Cal said. “No, no, no…”

              “Yes, Calvin. You cannot escape the Word.”

              Martin frowned. “I know this isn’t usually your music, but we can play your depressing rock songs later.”

              “I don’t want to hear this.”

              “Okay, Jesus.” Martin stopped the music. “What the hell got into you?”

              “The Word is inescapable. The Flesh is inevitable.”

              “Leave me alone!”

              “Leave you alone? Calvin, you have to be sick.”

              “Your father is here, Calvin,” the preacher said. “And he’s felt the change.”

              “My father is dead!”

              “Calvin?” Martin, concerned now, stopped the music. “What’s going on? Are you… do you need help?” He held Calvin’s face in his hand, turning to look into his eyes.

              “Yes, let him take you in his arms. Be of the same sinful flesh. Your father understands, now, the pressing and melding and joining of flesh. He doesn’t hate you anymore.”

              “Stop!” Calvin yelled, pushing Martin away.

              “Stop what?” Martin replied.

              “Why, you and your father could become close, Calvin. So much closer, if you just accept the Word and embrace the Flesh.”

              Calvin ran.

*            *            *            *

              He ran into the countryside until his lungs burned and his legs gave out, where he finally collapsed. He tried to rise, to run more, but cramps rendered his legs inoperable. So he lay there, on the ground, and cried.

              When he stopped, twilight had set in. He didn’t remember when he’d left the house or how long he had been out. He knew, at least, that there was no radio out here to talk to him. No phone to tell him lies. He took deep, hitching breaths, and tried to center himself.

              Ahead of him, above a cluster of scrub brush, a radio tower loomed. The tower. Its blinking red lights glared down at him. Each a malevolent eye. From somewhere ahead, a speaker whined.

              “Brothers and sisters our newest sheep has come to join the flock.” Calvin rose slowly to his feet. He trudged forward, toward the tower and the voice, not fully in control and too tired to fight it anymore. “He has heard the Word, the Word of the Flesh, and has come to us to find salvation.” As he pushed past the cluster of scrub, he saw the small steel shack with its single metal door. There had once been a chain-link fence around it, but it had long since fallen. Faded warning signs tried to turn him away, but he ignored them.

              “He comes to be cleansed of his sin, the sin of impure Flesh. The sin of order.” Calvin pushed open the steel door, which screeched in protest on rusty hinges, but opened none-the-less.

The gurgling screams of his father welcomed him.

*            *            *            *

              When Calvin returned, Martin was pacing on the porch. He rushed down the stairs to him, wrapping him in an embrace.

              “Oh thank God, Calvin. You scared me! Where did you go? I thought you were hurt or…”

              “I had to take a walk,” Calvin said.

              “A walk?” Martin pushed back. “You ran out like you were being chased!”

              “I had to talk to my dad.”

              “Your dad’s been dead for years. So, okay, new plan. We’re going to get in the car and go home. You need to get out of here. We can go to that brewery you like, and—“

              “Home?” Calvin said. “I am home.”

              “That was never the plan. You know that. Home is back in the city. We’re just fixing this up.”

              “Home is here. Home is where the flesh is.”

              Martin withdrew. “You need some rest, and we need to get you out of here. Let’s go inside and pack a few things.”

              “Yes,” Calvin said as he followed Martin across the porch and into the living room. “We can listen to the radio.”

              “That thing? I’ve had enough of that. It’s unplugged, anyway, remem-” The radio came to life, a soft glow behind the dials and display.

              “…sins of the Flesh. These are the sins that our lord warned against. The sins that both corrupt us, and cleanse us.”

              “What the Hell,” Martin said.

              “Not Hell,” Calvin said. “The living Flesh is so much more than that.”

              “Calvin, stop. Please. You’re freaking me out.”

              “He’s right,” the preacher said.

              “What? Who?

              “He’s the prophet,” Calvin replied.

              “How did that nutcase know my name?”

              “I know all about you, Martin, and your life here.”

              “I don’t know what kind of bullshit you’re pulling Calvin, but this isn’t funny.”

              “I know about your fumbling with the boy in the neighboring farm.”

              “That’s… stop it.”

              “He wasn’t even gay.” Calvin said.

              “You can’t possibly know about that. Please stop.”

              “He raped a girl to prove it to himself.”

              Martin hit Calvin with a closed fist. “I said STOP!”

              Calvin reached out, despite the discoloration already forming on his jaw. “It’s okay, Martin.”

              “It is, Martin,” the preacher’s voice said calmly through the radio.

              “You didn’t know.” Calvin continued.

              Martin began to cry. “You… both of you… please stop.”

              Calvin held out a hand. “You can be cleansed, Martin. When he comes… when flesh becomes flesh; when all is fused, we can be joined.”

              “What are you saying,” Martin asked, desperation in his voice.

              “We can be one in ways we never could have before.”

              “Listen to him,” the radio said.

              “I…”

              “Please, Martin,” Calvin continued. “Come with me.”

              Martin took Calvin’s hand.

              Calvin led Martin to the bathroom. Inside, in the hole Martin had bashed into the wall, the slime mold had grown. It had taken over the whole wall, spreading fleshy, throbbing tendrils. There was an opening, now; a vertical slit by angry red tissue and living tumors. Calvin stepped into it with one foot and turned back to Martin.

              “The choice must be yours,” the preacher’s voice said from nowhere and everywhere. “Do you want to know the Word and the Truth? Do you want to be one with the Flesh?”

              “Yes,” Martin said.

              “Then follow. In your sin, you shall be remade clean and whole.”

              Calvin fully penetrated the threshold, and Martin followed.

*            *            *            *

              A world of pain and cancer and fire awaited, yet to Martin, the pain was blissful. He was one with his husband. Their bodies merged, no longer in the figurative sense that had been part of their wedding vows. On the plane of skin and tissue, in the realm or tumors and yellow puss, the two men melted into each other, and in doing so, became one.

              “Flesh of my flesh,” the voice of the preacher of the Living Flesh said, “blood of my blood.”

              And so it was.

              And so it would be.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: The Hike

I almost didn’t post this today, despite having written it two days prior. I had overextended myself with stuff (volunteer turn at the theater). Furthermore, I had to read over it at least once. I decided to do it, anyway, even staying up well past my bedtime. It would be a shame to delay my 12th story–nearly half of my goal. I’m glad I read it, anyway, because I managed to shave off about 15% of the content. It’s a major step for me, as the biggest comment I keep getting at my Writer’s Workshop sessions is that I am too wordy. This is something that I, of course, already know. And you probably do, too.

In any event, this was also inspired by a recent trip to Colorado. I admit to feeling the same pull my unnamed protagonist felt when I stood at the base of the Rockies. I, however, am far more sensible, and opted not to be drawn in.

Perhaps that was for the best.

The Hike
11th Floor

               At their base, the pull of the mountains was strong, and instead of fighting it, he gave in. With little preparation or thought, he left his life, such that it was, and walked from the foothills of the Rockies into the haze of their valleys and peaks. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful view on that chilly fall day that drew him in. There was something in the air. A drumbeat that tugged at his subconscious. He wouldn’t be missed; his job was replaceable, his friends nonexistent, and no family to speak of. If anyone cared enough to file a missing person’s report, it would be because they felt some sort of duty to do so. It would be filed, and it would languish. He would receive one, maybe two more paychecks before anyone thought to terminate his employment. His apartment would stay in his name for months before the missed payments turned into an eviction.

               The first day was a wonder of discovery, with every crested elevation revealing another portrait of green and gray. The mountains were more than he’d expected them to be. That he couldn’t see for miles with unobstructed views was better, like there were secrets still to reveal. That day, and the day after, he still saw enough hikers to not lose himself in the remoteness. He avoided them, of course, when he could. As he trekked further in, off of the worn hiking trails with their signs guiding wanderers back to civilization, the frequency of those encounters diminished.

               On day three, he realized that hunger and thirst were two things he should have considered. He had a water bottle with him, and because of the mist and available moisture everywhere, he could slake his thirst, but his hunger was a different story. He hadn’t had even a granola bar to tide him over. He decided that, before he found himself starving, he needed to learn to find food before he was too weak to do so.

               It was easier than he’d thought, to find rabbits and other rodents. This close to the trailhead, the rabbits and squirrels were still conditioned to, if not trust humans, not stay out of sight then they came close.

               The cooking of his catch almost killed him. But he survived, even as he pushed farther into the mountains. Even as the cold got more bitter, the elevation higher, and the food more skittish. He managed to find food here and there; almost as if it were being provided. In fact, in once instance, he found two skinned rabbits already hanging from a tree with no apparent owner. Later, an old camp abandoned with still edible jerky and granola, both of which he devoured hungrily.

               When he found the rift I the land and the stairs leading down, his clothes were ragged, his frame lean, and his general hygiene “filthy,” for lack (or need) of a better word.

               The pull that he’d felt from the foothills was strong here, and it was clear that this was its source. Hesitating now made little sense, given how far he’d already come. There was a difference, here; at the foothills, the majesty of the mountains hinted at wonders and beauty to find. This, on the other hand, cause him to pause. While it wasn’t clear what kind of darkness awaited him, he was scared in ways he hadn’t felt when faced with more “banal” questions of survival.

               He decided that to not walk into that ravine was to betray what brought him there in the first place. And so, he descended the roughhewn stairs into oblivion.

*             *             *             *

               He walked for what seemed like hours, but because the already fading light of the afternoon sky had also been consumed by the darkness of the ravine, it was difficult to see the mine’s entrance, but it was there. There was enough ambient light to see the roughly square opening in the cliff wall as his feet settled on the rock floor at the bottom of the stairs. It seemed impractical to have a mine entrance this far down a narrow ravine with a steep staircase. Maybe, he thought, this was an exit, and the entrance was somewhere else. Somewhere practical. Maybe the miners had carved the stairs up the ravine. It didn’t feel right to him, though.

               The mine breathed at him, stagnant air washing over his body. It was, the noticed, remarkably square and even with its construction. Too perfect, it seemed. Any extra light from the outside world that might have filtered down from the opening high above him did not extend past its threshold.

               And yet, like he did at the foot-hills days (weeks? Months?) ago, he walked in, determined to follow the pull to its source.

*             *             *             *

He stumbled around blindly, feeling the wall for direction and shuffling his feet to avoid sudden drops. He waited for his eyes to adjust, but at this depth they never would. He pressed on, drawn ever forward toward something, certain that he would not take a wrong turn. Minutes became hours became days became an unknowable amount of time. His hunger faded, or he stopped caring. He drank water that dripped from the ceiling, pooled on the ground, or ran down the walls. It had a distinctly chalky taste, no doubt the minerals shaping the cave’s invisible features it carried.

               From time to time, he thought he heard sounds. He should have been scared, but the ever-present drive forward made him feel that his journey had a purpose, and that nothing would interfere. Forces were in play that would protect him, he knew.

               In time, he noticed a soft, blue-green glow. He didn’t know how long it had been there or how slowly it had brightened enough to merit observation. It resolved itself, slowly, into lines, like capillaries, running through the cave walls, floor, and ceiling. Thin at first, but thickening as he pushed on, the glow—some sort of phosphorescent to bioluminescent phenomenon—intensified, adding a myriad of colors. They ran like deep veins in the rock, leading him; lights showing him the way forward just as he’d come to believe he would forever wander in darkness. It warmed him, seeming to imbue his body with energy that it had long since spent. He laughed out loud, a sound of unrestrained joy. As it echoed down the tunnels, the lights pulsed and change in response. Encouraged, he laughed again, changing his pitch and volume, and the lights danced. He let this last one die out, watching the waves of changing color flow down the tunnels with the sound.

               As quiet returned, the colors stabilized. And then, from the tunnels ahead, he saw the colors changing, drawing nearer. His smile faded as the changing colors caught up to him and brought with them what he knew they had to bring. Another laugh, but not his. The colors raced past him with the alien laughter, back the way he had come. For the first time in his journey, he considered turning around. He would never find his way back, he knew. Someone, or something, awaited him ahead.

*             *             *             *

               When he saw a figure approaching, his heart trembled in his chest, and he stopped, as did the approaching shadow. When he stepped forward again, it did as well. Each step and halting pause of his was perfectly mirrored. As he drew close to the apparition, he made out its features in the glow. He gasped as he recognized himself, as it gasped, and shifting violets and oranges raced toward each other, melded in a spectacular display of colors, and passed on. He put his hand out, and the figure did the same. It was a mirror… it had to be.

               It was not the case. He had raised his right hand and the reflection had done the same; it had not raised what would have been its left hand. This was no mirror image. He walked forward, and it continued to do so. As he got closer and pressed to the right wall, his “reflection” did, as well. The two copies of the same man passed each other that way, in the tunnel, each afraid of the other. Once past, they stared at each other. He understood now. It would be him, back in the world he left behind. It would take his place and live out the rest of his uninteresting life. No one ever would come looking for him, now. Even if it was an imperfect, empty image, it would do. When he turned his head, the reflection did as well.

*             *             *             *

               The tunnel narrowed, and he knew his journey in the dark was coming to an end. The glowing veins of dancing colors had gotten narrower and dimmer, but there was a new light ahead of him that was unmistakably daylight. Weak, but it was the sun. The walls closed in on him. He had to turn to his side to continue on as the light grew stronger, resolving into a vertical slit. The ceiling lowered until he had to drop to the ground, crawling on his side and wiggling to move inches. Panic rose, the walls crushing him. Moving forward was now impossible, but so was retreating. He would die here, so close to the exit.

               Then he felt the walls shift and ripple. They pulsed, pushing him forward with each wave. The slit ahead of him grew closer and seemed to expand with each

contraction

movement, until finally he was pushed out of the cave and onto damp earth. He closed his eyes against the light and turned his face to the earth to block it out. He didn’t know how long he lay there like that, shrinking away from the sun. Finally, though, it was time to finally see.

               Cautiously, he raised his head and opened his eyes.

               The light in the sky was weaker than he’d thought and was a color that he was not immediately able to categorize. Something like a pink or coral, but not quite. The trees that towered above him were difficult to make out, though the slowly resolving blurriness of his vision was doing him no favors. He blinked a few times and rubbed at them. He saw the shapes of birds darting across the sky. The air was constricted, as he would expect from higher altitude. He must still be somewhere in the Rockies, though he wasn’t sure where he would expect to be. The indelible pull had gone; the very force that had summoned him here dropped away as if it never existed at all. Why would it lead him here to another point in the same chain of rocks, only to abandon him?

               He rose, shakily, and looked back. There was a large rock face there, but try as he might, no amount of squinting revealed the crack he had crawled out of. As his eyesight finally cleared, he looked again to the sky when a flock of birds drew his attention.

               Only, the things in the sky, silhouetted against the strange color, were not birds. These things flew without wings. They were more like long snakes, winding their way in the air. A star-shaped protrusion at the front wriggled small tentacles in the air, and occasionally, they shrieked at each other from far off, the noise piercing not just his ear drums, but into his psyche. They were also much further away than he had thought; not darting just above and among the trees, but flying high in the air, miles away at least. They were massive creatures.

               Something landed on the ground next to him with a dull thud, snapping him out of his trance. A fruit of some kind lay at his feet. A pomegranate, he though, and he reached down to pick it up. While it vaguely resembled a pomegranate, however, its texture was more like a tumor. It wriggled in his hand, causing him to drop it. Small cilia burst from its surface—some that appeared to have small eyes and some gaping and hungry mouths. It rose on still others and scuttled away from him in to the forest.

               Which showed him the truth of the trees. They were not covered in bark, but they were made of something slick and oily. Protrusions that he thought were branches swaying in a breeze were moving of their own accord. Sometimes, a “branch” would latch onto another “tree,” and it would sink wicked barbs into it, drawing out a black ichor as it greedily drank of the other’s essence.

               He ran.

               He ran through the trees, careful not to touch any. He ducked at screeches from the flying things, imagining them diving down on him and carrying him away. More of the scurrying “fruits” of the trees ran beside him or climbed up the trunks of the strange forest sentinels. He ran up a hill, the soft ground giving spongily with each step, until he reached the crest.

               He saw.

               He saw something titanic on the horizon. A behemoth, giant flesh trunks for legs and a bulbous, shifting body resting on top. Scores of whipping tentacles thrashed in the sky. It uprooted some of the strange trees and carried them up to parts of it that were (blissfully) obscured behind a cloudy haze. Flocks of the airborne creatures snaked toward it. They flew in and out of a great, honeycomb surface that appeared to be part of the leviathan’s very flesh. He dropped to his knees as it made a sound so deep and terrible, so primal and wrong.

               He wept.

               He wept until hand rested on his shoulder. A woman’s hand. The woman it was a part of smiled sadly as he looked up to her. She was beautiful beyond comprehension; flawless skin on a perfectly symmetrical face. Her smile was comforting, and without thinking, he fell against her, wrapping his arms around her and burying his tear-lined face in her chest.

               “Why?” he said, the first full word he uttered in ages. It would be his last.

               She placed her hands on either side of his face and gently lifted it to hers. She didn’t respond, the perfect smile unchanged. He sniffled, and forgot, for a moment, the scene of alien terror all around him. He smiled weakly back. He knelt there before her for a time, a supplicant before his goddess.

               He understood.

               He understood his place when her body split down the middle with the sickly tearing of wet meat, opening to reveal a great, gaping gullet lined with rows of needle-sharp teeth; when her tongue extended and wrapped itself around him and pulled him gently in to it, he did not scream. 

               He gave in.

THE END