Tag Archives: 26 Stories

26 Stories

26 Stories: He Dies for his Muse

And here it is. The end of a year of writing something, anything, every two weeks. There are layers to some of the works herein; and some are as straightforward as they seem. I can be a complex writer, and I can be as shallow as a Michael Bay movie. It depends on my mood.

In the coming weeks/months/years, I plan to keep working on stuff I put here, and occasionally add something new, but I’m going to do so as the mood directs me. I am also going to work on a few podcast projects, in addition to trying to complete my play, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Board,” a full-length play that merges HOA meetings and literal Hell (so, you know, not much of a stretch). I will also be featuring a number of short works at Company Onstage in November, so look for more information on that.

Thanks to the, I dunno, maybe ten or fifteen or so of you who came along on this journey with me. Hopefully, I can take this and parlay it into something bigger.

He Dies for his Muse
Roof, 25th Floor
(26th floor, counting the basement)

               Jonathan stood at the edge of the building, staring down at the street below. From here, he could see so much of the city, but what really caught his attention was the set of stairs that went from the sidewalk to the basement walk-up where he had lived so many years ago. Where he had toiled with his one and only success—a success that was truly his—under his belt. Where Cali had first come to him, and the world seemed like it had opened up. Opportunity and art was unlimited with her at his side. That had all gone bad. Nothing good, it seemed, came without consequence.

               “Come to watch me die,” he asked. He didn’t need to turn around to know she was there.

               “If that’s what you want, sure.”

               “Don’t you need me?”

               “You know I don’t,” she said.

               “I do,” he said.

               “Disappointed?”

               “It was hard not to think that I was special.”

               “The curse of individuality.”

               “Did you know that would happen? At the show?”

               She walked next to him to stand at the precipice. “I didn’t know exactly what you did, but it seemed like something was up.”

               “I thought….”

               “I don’t blame you,” she interrupted. “Or resent you. I’ve been at this for a very long time. You aren’t the first to think you could stop me.”

               “Has anyone ever gotten close?”

               “Hemmingway almost did. Tough and clever, that one. But in the end,” she shrugged.

               “Guess I’m going the same way.”

               “You don’t have to. You can keep up. Die of old age like the rest of your kind.”

               “I can’t keep allowing this to happen.”

               “That’s always the case,” she sighed, putting a hand on his shoulder. “The truly gifted of you—the ones who give so much to the world—always come to the same conclusion.”

               Jonathan laughed. He looked at her. She was still beautiful, even though he could see the tiny holes honeycombing her otherwise flawless skin.

               “Can I… can you take me? Like all the others?”

               She sighed. “No,” she responded. “It doesn’t work that way.”

               “So, either I can keep going, keep… feeding you. Or I can…” he looked down.

               “Them’s the breaks.”

               “Can I just stop?”

               “You could, I suppose. I’d leave, no hard feelings. You could live comfortably on what you have, and eventually be forgotten. But you won’t.”

               He nodded. “No, I won’t.” He looked back down at the basement stairs.

               She leaned over and kissed him. “If it helps, no matter what you do, I go on. No matter what you do, it changes nothing. How it ends for you? That’s on your terms. Your decision.” She caressed his cheek. “Your choice.”

               “Choice,” he repeated.

               “Can’t stop a hurricane, earthquakes, or volcanoes, no matter what you do.”

               “No,” he said, looking down. “No, I guess you can’t.”

               And then, he allowed himself to fall forward.

There was a moment of freedom. Twenty-six stories of true release, before darkness overtook him at last.

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: A Misunderstanding of Geometry

It’s a little late, but I’m still on track to finish off this project in a few more stories. I wanted to get this one right because it touches–tangentially–on issues that I am tying to touch on. You can learn a little about me and my particular chemical imbalances based on this, so long as you don’t take this literally (and more metaphorically).

Enjoy!

A Misunderstanding of Geometry
24th Floor

                It may have been a trope of horror stories, but if you measured one a certain way, buildings were bigger on the inside than the outside. On the outside, a building was surface area. Four (or more or fewer) sides, a top, and a bottom. They were black boxes, their insides mostly concealed; windows only let outside observers see a fraction of a percentage of the inside, if any at all. The full inside was volume. Cubic feet. Rooms and access-ways and crawlspaces taking up space in three dimensions instead of two. Buildings’ meager outsides hid their depth.

                Edward’s building was certainly bigger on the inside, but not because of a misunderstanding of geometry. On its face (literally), it was a twenty-four-story building. Twenty-five if you counted the basement, and twenty-six with the roof, which was a floor itself. He never left his apartment, so it was difficult to judge the scope of it. It was easier, hiding away, nested in his bed, in his room, in his apartment, on his floor, in the building. He’d been a programmer once; nested statements made sense. Each more general or more specific, depending on which direction one moved. The world, the continent, the country, the state, the city, the building, and son on, down to his body, his mind, the cells therein, atoms, subatomic particles, and quarks. He wondered at the upper and lower limits until it raised questions for which he didn’t have answers.

                He wondered about a lot of things, especially when he didn’t feel compelled to leave his bed. Why, for example, if he hadn’t left his apartment in days or weeks or months (he’d lost track) hadn’t he been evicted? Why were the lights still on? Why wasn’t he hungry or thirsty? He didn’t remember eating or drinking anything, but here he still was. He’d heard of people who had stayed on a couch or in a chair so long that their flesh grew into the fabric. They would eventually be found and had to be cut out of the fabric, indelibly becoming one with their surroundings.

                Would there even be any rescue workers if I grew into my bed? Worse still, he wondered if it wouldn’t be better if he did just become part of the furniture.

                And so, each morning when he woke wherever he had fallen asleep, he would experience a moment of… something… when he first raised his arm, expecting some resistance. A slight stickiness that said he’d been there too long; that he’d become the bed, or that the bed had become him.

                He considered leaving his apartment. It was always easier not to, though. There were people out there, in the world, that he would have to see. People and problems. Or he assumed there were. No one called him. No one checked in on him. He heard noises around in the building; footsteps above, the occasional TV somewhere reverberating in the bones of his walls. The periodic sounds of footsteps in the hall, of doors opening and closing. He knew that people existed. He knew he wasn’t alone, and yet he was very much alone. That was what drew him to the city; always alone and yet never alone.

                The building took care of him. It provided him with walls to guard against the outside. The building never changed, even as it changed around him, and it did change. Sometimes, the view out of his window was close to the ground, obstructed by a cold brick alley. Sometimes he could see several blocks ahead, his view unbroken. But never any other people. Never anyone on a rooftop nearby or in a neighboring building.

                Never, until a matte-gray morning in what he guessed was fall.

                His view that morning was of a brick wall with a single window. It was something new, and as such, immediately stood out. From his position, it looked like there was someone standing in that window, staring back. He peeled himself from his bed to sit up. He placed his feet on the cold floor and wobbled when he put his weight down. How long was I in the bed, he wondered. There was someone across the alley, there. The feeling of familiarity was odd only for a moment until he realized that the figure staring at him was, in fact, himself.

                It’s just a reflection, he thought, but had to dismiss it because the figure had been standing while he had been lying down. As if to further contradict him, his doppelganger waved, while he distinctly did not. The person across the way then pointed past Edward, and when he turned to look, he saw the door out of his apartment.

                When he looked back, the wall was solely brick. No window marred its surface. The message was clear, however. It was time to leave.

                Edward pulled on his tattered bathrobe and slid his feet into his slippers. He didn’t know if he would have to go far, but there was no point arguing with himself. He walked to and stared at his door for what seemed like hours, but could only have been minutes, before he opened it.

                The smell of the hallway was unfamiliar. There was no foul stench. No mold or musk. Just the regular (as assumed) smell of wood and plaster and ancient paint covering drywall. The odor of people who had walked down this hallway at least a few times, leaving the trail of their essential selves in the air. Behind the other doors that lined the hallway (that stretched too far in either direction, by his estimation), he heard the muffled chatter of TVs, someone snoring, and he was fairly certain that a dog barked behind some wall. Where was he supposed to go, now that he was outside of his apartment, he wondered?

                As if in answer, the elevator at the end of the hallway chimed.

                Edward went the other way. There might, after all, have been other people in the elevator he would have to interact with.

                The stairs were down this hallway, he knew (or thought he knew) and he headed that way. Stairways were much better than elevators. In an elevator, you might be placed in a small, confined space with someone else. People who might want to know how his day was going. He might be expected to tell them that his day was one spent in quiet and total isolation. Or to lie. So, he headed for the stairs where he could choose to go in the opposite direction if he wished or walk faster than anyone else and escape the mundanity of conversation.

                Only, the stairs he expected to be there weren’t. The hallway turned, and he was faced with an equally long hallway, lined by the same anonymous doors. Since he knew the building was bigger on the inside, it didn’t surprise him—per se—that this hallway should have been longer than the building was deep, but it was disconcerting, nonetheless. Still, the stairs had to be this way. He looked back at the corner before advancing and was hardly surprised to see that the hallway behind him had changed. It was no longer his own.

                Turning back, he saw the elevator bank ahead of him.

                Clearly, the building had plans.

                He walked toward the elevators. Surprisingly, one of the hallway doors opened, and a man walked out. The man was dark skinned, with his hair in tight dreadlocks. They seemed to stare at each other for a moment. The man spoke, his voice distorted by some unknown interference, but Edward dismissed him with a wave of his hand, and the man vanished. Edward moved toward the elevator, an older style cab with a movable gate. Someone was coming out of it, he saw, but before he could turn and walk the other way, the man—who looked like he’d emerged from a nineteen-forties movie complete with a tumbler of whiskey—he was gone with only the mutter of someone named “Cali.” Edward walked into the elevator.

                He looked at the buttons and saw that he was currently on the twenty-fourth floor, which he didn’t think was his, but that he accepted without thinking. He pressed the first-floor button, even though he knew it wasn’t going to stop there. The only way to get to the next building over, to see if he was over there as well, was to go to the street and walk across it, to the next building. He didn’t know if he could do it—didn’t know if he wanted to do it—but he was compelled to.

                Stupid brain, he thought. Not doing what you were supposed to. That seemed like something that he should say. Take a breath. See nature. Go outside and everything will be okay. He repeated these mantras as the elevator stopped somewhere mid descent. The doors opened. A woman entered, ignoring him completely. She was tall and pretty. Asian, he though, and he entertained certain fantasies that he and just about every other straight white male had, until he saw the badge flash under her jacket. Without acknowledging him in the slightest, she took out her phone and spoke into it, using it like a recorder. He didn’t hear what she said, despite being right next to her, but did catch the odd word. “Murder,” he was sure she said, followed by “play.” “Titans” was another word, but that one made him nervous. The elevator stopped on a different floor, and she stepped off, vanishing off to whatever floor this was, shimmering like the periphery of an oasis in a desert.

                The elevator continued. The ride seemed longer than it should have taken, but over the years, he had learned to quickly accept anything he didn’t have control over. Anything else would have him breaking down at every unexpected complication. It stopped again, opening into a strange hallway. It felt empty on the other side, except for the row of faceless creatures. Not faceless—like they had no eyes or mouths—but with gaping, empty holes in their heads. Edward was glad that they didn’t get on the elevator with him as the doors closed.

                It made one last stop before reaching the bottom. A strikingly beautiful woman slinked on and Edward was overcome with feelings that he had long forgotten about while isolated from the world. He blinked at her, a momentary pang of regret that he had stopped venturing out into a world with this kind of beauty.

                “Oh,” she said, “looks like I’m riding this thing down with you, honey.”

                Edward balked at the sound of her voice. It was the first clear voice that he’d heard in days (weeks (months (years (centuries?)))). He tried to talk but found that his voice had been stolen from his throat.

                “It’s okay, sugar,” she said. “Words just get in the way.” He was relieved at the opportunity to not have to talk; to be able to just listen. It was easier that way.

                “Eddie,” she continued, “your big day is here at last. All the worry and sadness, the confinement, the embarrassment… it all goes away today.” His brow furrowed at everything she seemed to know about him, and he’d never met her. She put a hand on his shoulder. “I hope you didn’t take that the wrong way. All those characteristics that some see as shortcomings? As diseases? Mental illnesses? Edward, they are what makes you so very special. It chose you because of who you are.”

                “It?” He croaked around vocal cords that had atrophied.

                “The building. It saw you and it needed you. It kept you safe. Kept you healthy. Kept you, you.” Edward was aware that the elevator had gone well past the ground floor; past the basement levels. It had gone deep into the Earth, past the Earth and into an empty nothingness where only the building’s foundation was rooted. A foundation he knew wasn’t made of concrete, but something akin to a thick, tube of flesh. He should have been afraid. The things this woman said to him should have filled him with dread. When he looked close enough at her skin, he saw that it wasn’t flawless, but a honeycomb of tiny holes. Even when what appeared to be a small eye poked out of one of the holes in her face, he wasn’t afraid.

                He had purpose.

                “Yes,” she said. “Purpose.” The elevator dinged and he felt it slow. “Well, sweetheart, this is your stop.”

                “You,” he asked, scratchily, “aren’t coming with me?”

                She smiled, genuinely sad. “There are some things that we must all do alone, Edward.” She pulled out a pair of dark sunglasses from a purse he hadn’t seen her carrying.

                The doors opened, and Edward turned to face his purpose.

                He started screaming, because now… now he was afraid.

*             *             *             *

                Outside the building, on the front door, a sign appeared.

                “Room for rent. Inquire within.”

THE END

26 Stories

26 Stories: Morning Ritual

This one is very short, a day late, and kind of a cheat since I did post it to Facebook in early March. I wrote it during this period, though, so it counts. Right?

Morning Ritual
23rd Floor

The mystic circle was precise. The shape within touched it at three points; toward the three sacred spirits from which the ritual begged favor. One to the water of life, one to the eternal fire for energy and heat, one to the tree of the sacred fruits. At each intersection, a sympathetic item had been placed. A bowl of water, a lit candle, and a dried seed. The ritualist sat outside the circle, chanting in a Caribbean patois. His voice rose and the tempo accelerated. The curtains in the dirty hotel room swayed and rippled in the ensuing confluence of power. The ritualist shaped the energies with his voice and his will, channeling the great river of creation. Every preparation had been made to exacting standards. Each gesture had been carried out as laid down in hundreds of volumes of ancient tomes, compiled by thousands of years of mystical knowledge. Even a small error, a single miscalculation, would be disastrous. All of it, all of this power and energy, focused on the glass vessel at the ritual’s center.

A vessel that had been empty only moments ago, now spontaneously filled with a boiling elixir.

“Fucking finally,” Dominic muttered. He grabbed the carafe of hot coffee from the circle and poured it into a cracked, yellowed mug. It was a lot of effort for coffee, but the room’s coffee maker was broken, and he wasn’t about to tackle the day without it.

26 Stories

Zombalien: Chapter 1

So I think (as much as I think about anything these days) that this may be the novel I work on. It’s based on a screenplay I wrote a gojillion years ago when Sci-Fi was still “Sci-Fi” and not “Sy-Fy” and put out stuff like “Mansquito.” It’s hokey and fun, and I think maybe it has a good chance at legs as anything in this day and age.

And also, I totally missed posting last week, so this is that last week. I’ll have my next story next week, as schedule (I hope).

Enjoy!

Zombalien: Chapter 1
22nd Floor

 

               The end of the world—or rather, an end of the world (humanity’s bit, at least)—started with the best of intentions. There was an old saying about that, but it won’t be rehashed here. The people who kicked it off undoubtedly would have felt bad about it, had they not been the first ones to go. At least one of them, with their dying thoughts, mused that they should have seen this coming. That implementing radical methods to extend human life would probably have some unforeseen results. They were, in fact, fairly certain that there had been several movies about this exact type of hubris, but they had been scientists, and would have professed that there was a line between movies and reality.

               Oops.

               And so, civilization ended, though humanity was trying its very best to hang on. It did that, survive, even in the direst of circumstances. While cities burned and world governments collapsed, while giant corporations tried to find ways to cash in and maintain relevance in the face of an ever shrinking market, individuals lived and died in the chaos. It was just that the living had gotten ugly, and the dying uglier still.

               It wasn’t easy to eke out a literal living when the dead would rise and attempt to devour anyone still breathing. It sure made the days of slaving for a paycheck and putting up with the PTA seem easier, which was what Nicolette had to hang on to while she and Damian were raiding the pharmacy for medical supplies. Back at the base, antibiotics were in short supply, and while this pharmacy had been hit more than a few times, it was easy enough to check again to make sure something hadn’t been missed. Even one or two extra doses of any kind of prefix-icilin might save someone’s life the next time an arm brushed against a rusty nail or a skinned knee when septic. Granted, if a neighbor decided to up and take a bite out of someone’s arm, no amount of medicine would do any good, but it was also nice to have a Tylenol or two to make them feel a little better.

               Before the execution.

               Which was why it was a shame when Nico and Damian had to open the gas lines and set off the spark that turned the pharmacy into a fireball. When the zombie shambled out, on fire, they both took the opportunity to put bullets in its head. At least the rest would burn in the ruins, their flesh melting beyond the ability for it to move. The intense fires would also kill whatever infection it was that the corpses spread. Or so it was assumed. There were a lot of assumptions going around. But it for Nico, the fire was good enough to ensure that she and Damian got away with what little they could salvage.

               “Well,” Damian said, “that was a cluster fu-“ He choked on his last word as something yanked him back and tore a chunk out of his shoulder. He screamed, more in surprise than anything else. Nico, on instinct, raised her gun and put a quick round between the empty eye-sockets of the zombie that had bitten her lover. It dropped and Damian fell to the ground, groaning.

               “Nico,” he said, turning his eyes to meet hers. “Please… you kn-“ Without hesitation, Nico put a bullet through his brain, too. She sighed, allowing herself a split second to grieve, and then scanned the dark alley they had (stupidly) turned their backs to. She saw the silhouettes there, shambling forward in that jerky, puppet like way that they moved. Too many to make shooting worth the effort, especially since they were slow.

               “Sorry, Damian,” she said to the corpse at her feet. She would cry later, but there was little time to let the loss cripple her now. Especially, she realized as she turned to head back to the extraction, when she saw that her way was blocked by another horde of the undead.

               “Fuck.” She did a quick bit of math; she could take four more of them out and still have one more in the magazine for herself. Four fewer zeds might not make a difference for her, but it could make it a little easier for anyone coming around later. Slight margins of improvement were victories. Taking down four here, the one that got Damian, and the handful they’d burned out in the pharmacy for just two lives wasn’t a bad trade. Of course, for her it Was bad, but they had to think bigger. Think humanity versus… anti-humanity. Whatever the corpses were.

               She leveled her firearm and pulled the trigger four times in rapid succession with four clean headshots. “Still got it, “she mumbled before she turned the gun on herself and closed her jaw on the hot end.

               The APC rolled over the line of zombies before Nico could pull the trigger intentionally. Unintentionally, the surprise caused her hand to constrict, and she felt in her teeth the gun’s hammer click mechanically against the firing pin. Huh, she thought, as the realization that she hadn’t spread her brains out behind her in an artistic spray. Miscounted. The fifty-caliber on top of the APC roared as Gunner mowed down the stragglers.

               “Nico!” he shouted.

               “Uh-huh?” she tried to mumble around the barrel of her gun.

               “Did you miscount again?”

               “Uh…” she replied, pulling the gun out. “No?”

               “Jesus Christmas,” he said, swinging the fifty in her direction, which she took as a sign to drop. IT belched fire, and the advancing zombies from the alley disintegrated. “Damian?” he asked.

               She rose. “No.”

               “Aw,” he said, “Sorry Nico. I liked him. Kinda hoped he’d ditch you for me.”

               “Mourn later,” she said.

               “Get anything?”

               “Some indigestion meds.”

“Oh. Any… you know…”

“No,” she replied. “You’re going to have to get it up on your own, Gunny.” She jumped onto the APC and grabbed a handhold.

“Fuck. Tucker ain’t going to be happy.”

“Is there anyone you haven’t at least tried to sleep with?”

“Ain’t tried you, yet. Out of respect for you and Damien.”

Nico smacked the APC’s hull near the driver’s side twice in rapid succession. It jerked forward as Tara got the sign that all were aboard who were coming aboard. “Well,” she said, “guess I’m free again.” That’ll make the grief worse.

“I’d a’ rather had Damien back on this APC with ya’.” The fifty rotated as the APC pulled away and blasted some parting shots at some of the leftovers who had decided to follow, making quick work of them.

“Yeah,” Nico murmured, watching as Damian’s corpse receded in the distance. “Me, too.”

                                                                           *             *             *             *

               She did cry later, alone in her bunk. It was an ugly cry. But it was hardly the first.  

*             *             *             *

               Somewhere deep in an old military facility, tied into advanced medical servers, a hard drive whirred and ground. Algorithms ran and calculations were tweaked.

               Scenario Delta twelve, error. Terminating scenario.

               Simulations ran against millions of advanced processors. Possibilities were calculated and recalculated, attempting to adjust for new data.

               Preparing scenario Delta thirteen, incorporating new…

     The processors adjusted as long-quiet data channels flared to life.

               Interruption. Receiving transmission from NASA probe Prometheus. Inbound object. Identified as non-terrestrial.

     Again, calculations ran and adjusted. Variables changed.

               Reassessment. Running scenario Omega one. Omega one override. Running omega protocol.

THE END

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