a tale by ruby waters

by Kaitlin Allen

 

[here is the summer I fell]

My feet’d sunk an inch in the mossy bank, I’d been standing by the creek so long.

It was cool there and dark, shaded from the sun by sapling leaves that made everything, even my skin, beautiful, alive and green.

They had told me never to cross Little Creek. My mama, my daddy, my teachers, they told us all.

It’s not safe on the other side, they’d said, and they were right.

But even after everything, the fear and the pain that lasted, I can’t come to regret taking those steps, my toes gripped on smooth stones, fingers holding the rolled edges of my jeans above cool water.

I’ve always had the mind that knowing is better than not. It was worth the price, to me, for open eyes.

[no, I can’t seem to regret it at all, but then, I ain’t claiming to be clean]

I stepped across, and that was it.

Standing in the moss-green shadows, they grabbed me.

They grabbed me one on each side so smooth I couldn’t help thinking they’d done this before, knew just how to hold without me being able to strike. Creatures who could hold a flame without getting burnt, not that I was that bright.

[not yet]

I couldn’t see them, but they spoke, and I learned their voices.

One sounded an old man, the other a young woman.

Must’ve been the woman who covered my eyes beneath a palm ’cause the hand felt full-fleshed and smooth.

My arms were dragged out straight to the side. Their arms making a cross to hold me. Fingers clawed ’round my wrist, nails for nails.

Then the first bite came, and that was all I could think of.

The flat, sharp blade of teeth pierced inside my elbow. Lips slid wet on my skin, and I felt sick. I struggled, but I couldn’t escape the grip, and my fighting tore their teeth further along my skin.

It seemed a long time to me, but I fear it might’ve been short, ’fore I gave up.

Everything came harder, thinking, breathing. All over, I was so weak, I wondered at my heart still beating.

Then the man spoke again, this time at me.

“Don’t know how fast they’ll find you, how soon they’ll miss you, how far they’ll look, but if you get found in time, you tell your granny I ain’t forgot her.”

I’d trouble grasping hold of sound, but I thought his voice sounded younger, stronger, smoother than before.

The woman laughed, said, “You’ll have to tell me ’bout that sometime.”

She lifted me easily and carried me out before her in her arms. Eyes uncovered, I looked for her face, but she was foggy in the green and in the shadows that swung close.

She set me down in the stream, left me there with a pat to the side of my still-clean white shirt.

I wondered at that, how they could take so much of my blood and not spill any.

It was spilling now, leaking out red ’cross the stones, along the ripples ’til it spread out and the water was clear-green again.

That’s how I felt, spread out far enough to be unseen.

It hurt. I won’t lie and say there wasn’t pain, but mostly I felt weary, thin and picked over.

I tried so to hold on to what I’d heard, the bits I’d seen because this wasn’t everyday life. They’d marked me with a secret as sure as their teeth, and I should hold it close, but like blood it was slipping from beneath my skin, and I couldn’t quite grasp the strain.

[the stain]

The world was spotty with black, and the green was fading, first, from Little Creek, then, from me.

ruby waters

calling my name and it made me laugh.

Course, this is where I was, you could track the red upstream, the ruby.

ruby

I laughed again, choked or sobbed.

I hiccupped long gasps against the moss and then, against a chest.

Zee’d found me.

[didn’t know his name yet, this is when we met]

It was hard to see past the black shadows as he moved me around. My head pounded, a stronger current than the one I was laying in, a heavier beat than my worn-out heart.

I could feel him tying me, faraway rips of fabric and knots snug against my skin.

Good, I thought or maybe said.

that’ll keep the secrets in

Just now, I won’t be spilling anymore.

He picked me up and carried me away from the woods, from the green, from the water, but the red followed us.

Dripping.

Beating in what was left of me, it sunk into my weary, torn-down heart.

I started falling then, but for the day or the light, for the stream or the secret, for them or for him, I didn’t yet know.

[came to love a good many things that day, and none of them was kind to me]

My granny came to me in the hospital, my mama’s mama. She sat herself by the side of my bed and stayed. Seemed wrong how the chair was plastic and metal with unrocking feet firm on the ground.

There were teeth marks in the crooks of my arms, bruises down the veins, fingernail scratches braceleting my wrists. A bag of blood hung heavy above my head draining its way back into me.

“He told me he ain’t forgot you,” I said.

But the one who found me was there before I could get her to answer.

He walked in and stood next to the bed, and I knew him by his hands.

“Zebedee,” he said, “but you go on and call me Zee.”

I watched those hands.

They swung heavy at the ends of his arms while he talked, callused and strong, tips stained with tobacco, blood red-brown dark beneath the nails.

“We moved in next door to you, my folks and I,” he said “I offered to help when your daddy came knocking.”

He looked at me as if waiting, but I couldn’t divine what he wanted.

“Thank you for finding me,” I said or maybe thought ’cause he gave no answer.

“That’s enough now,” Granny said, and he was gone.

That’s enough.

I fretted with the gauze wrapped around my arms, worried the white ’til the blood stained up through.

Couldn’t stop pushing for red to see it, proof I was still there, tied up tight with a heart beating bloody inside of me.

Granny took my hands in hers—skinny, knotted, and backed with thick veins.

“You’re gonna have to stop that reaching,” she said, “’cause you won’t never be sure of your heart again.”

“You goin’ tell me what you’re talking about?” I said, and she laughed.

Anger flashed through bright hot, new and frightening as it tore me up.

I’d have grabbed her then, pressed her wrist between my fingers ’til the bones creaked only she had hold of me first.

And I was weak.

She squeezed my fingers tight in her gnarled knuckles leaning in close.

“Child, you think that’s something you got when demons cut their teeth against your skin?” She laughed again. “Well, maybe it is. But what if it ain’t? You weren’t the first to go stepping where you shouldn’t.”

I yanked my hands away and pressed ’em to my ears, bandage scratchy on my face.

Her words poured round anyway, circling down into my skull:

“Should’ve known the itch’d get to wiggling in your bones. That’s the reason we named you after rocks the color of new blood, the reason you crossed the stream in the first place.

“Now listen. You can let this wreck you, spread you out fit to float to sea. Or you take hold of the fact you’ve seen a piece of holiness fallen. And what that means is, you can steal it.”

“Okay,” I said, “all right.” My hands fell to my lap, stitches torn. “And how do I go ’bout doing that?”

“You ought to know. It’s the oldest story. You want what somebody else has, you kill ’em and take it.”

“That what you did?”

“No, child. If I’d done that I wouldn’t be old, wouldn’t’ve had no children. It’s a sacrifice, see? I found something I wanted more, but that don’t mean you have to.”

“I’d be monster then,” I said, “not human.”

“You’re working on the supposition you’ve a clean heart to lose. Don’t think so highly of your own kind. I swear this to you—you are goin’ get blood on your hands one day. All us women do. Might as well be worth something.”

[I hid what she said next to the fallen things gathered from the ground]

When I didn’t need nothing but scabs to hold me closed, I took up with the strong-handed neighbor boy and with the family knife.

Zee walked me down to the water ’cause I asked him.

We went down, and it wasn’t to pray.

It was cool and clear when I dipped my toes in, clear, cool and tinted green, the stones on the bottom a slick-smooth grey-brown.

“That’s enough now,” he said holding onto my arm above the elbow, above the scars he never cared to look at.

There, by the green-light sound of the water and by the blade I’d wrapped close against me, I finally knew him.

Anew, I heard his voice.

“Your hands,” I said. “They always were too heavy.”

He dropped his grip as I turned to face him, said, “What’re you talking ’bout?”

I ran my fingers up his arm, his shoulder, stopped to rest my hand at the base of his neck, my thumb against his pulse.

Or it could’ve been my pulse echoing back.

He leaned in close, his mouth on mine.

We were both hungry, only not for the same things.

[now, that may be a straight-up lie]

So, I stabbed him in the heart.

He coughed, frowned and gasped as I twisted that cold metal all around just like Granny had told me.

“Make sure the heart’s good and gone when you find ’em,” she’d said handing me the knife, “else they’ll rise up again, back and angry.”

With that cold, old will, I carved a hole in his chest, followed him down to the ground as he fell, felt the shaking scrape of metal on bone.

I cut the heart out of him in pieces, bloody chunks of muscle on the tip of a blade, ’til he stopped breathing.

[’til finally, his heart stopped beating]

I sat back on my heels, my breath coming hard. Sat back and licked the blood from the sides of the blade, from the handle, from my hand.

I fell back to mop up darkening red with my tongue

[’til my heart stopped beating too]

When I crossed Little Creek for the last time, the water carried away blood again, but it wasn’t mine.

She came for me as I stepped in the shadows.

“Foolish child,” she said, and I thought the same of her.

Echoing words, a pulse taken by thumb.

“You come here to die, Foolish?” she asked me.

Her eyes were dark enough I could see my anger reflected in them. A fire banked deep inside her, skin stretched o’er hollow bone.

I grinned fit to match the old bitten scars along her skin, said, “That what happened to you?”

“Yeah,” she said, “but I didn’t die.”

“Neither’ve I.”

“Not yet,” she said.

“No,” I said.

[not yet]

She reached for my arm as if she could stretch me out again to bite, but I dove at her hard knocking her back to the ground.

It was her turn to grin when I perched over her, my blade to her throat.

“It’s already got you, hadn’t it?” she said. “Now, who is it you been killing?”

“You tell me, honey,” I said. “Tell me. Should I eat your heart, too?”

“Oh, I hadn’t got one, sister, and neither’ve you.”

She clawed up a handful of dirt and threw it at my face.

I closed my eyes against the grains and slit her throat.

She lay there gurgling, wheezing, staring me down until the blood stopped spurting from her neck. I watched as the skin fell back together beneath the red.

[that was when I really believed]

“It’s true,” I said standing up and backing off.

“You already knew that,” her first words from her fresh-scarred throat. “They’ll be coming soon, calling your name, thinking you lost yourself again.”

Watching her still, I licked the blood from my knife.

“I have lost myself,” I said, “but it’s all right. Wasn’t trying to get nowhere anyway.”

We waited in silence a bit. Both of us waiting for the man, her old man, my young one, to rise back up, knowing all the while he wouldn’t.

His broken heart spread out in pieces inside of me, his blood floated to the sea.

“He dead, then?” she asked.

“I killed him,” I said and it was an offering, my sacrifice.

She nodded accepting.

Her hands were dirty. She didn’t try to wipe the drying blood from off her neck.

“You coming with me?” she said.

I gave her my knife, flung it out at her, and she caught it.

She caught it straight through her right palm, blade in between bone and out through the back of her hand.

She caught it and laughed.

So, I said, “It’s you who’s coming with me.”

The knife was dark and wet again when she tugged it free. She wiped it clean enough on the side of her shirt and tucked it in her belt.

She held out her hand and we shook. Her hand was warm and pulling against mine as it healed.

“I’m Ruby,” I said.

New, bright red smeared between our hands; old, dark red ringed her neck.

She smiled baring her bloodstained teeth.

“I’m Garnet.”

 

What Clones Do

by Margaret Karmazin

 

You’ve undoubtedly heard of cases like mine—a clone going crazy.

Rickie Frank on Ares Station stabbed an engineer and some visiting dignitary. Zhao Lan, at the observatory in Ames poisoned the coffee on a night shift vigil, killing two. Why? “No one ever polishes the mirrors for me,” she explained as they found her afterward, crouched behind a furnace in the basement sipping iced tea through a straw. That child clone that went berserk with a steel rod during a Halloween party at his school? I believe he blinded two of his classmates.

After that, they almost discontinued the cloning program.

“Hey, John,” shouts Jaxon Klee as he comes in from the airlock after a trek outside to check the generators. “Gen three isn’t in auto. Someone must have flipped the switch. Who was out there earlier?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Arnold?”

“Arnie’s puking his guts up; I don’t think he’s even come out into Main this morning. He’s still in his bunk.”

I have never liked Arnold.

“What’s the matter with him?” Like I don’t know. So many chemicals are just not meant for human consumption and an engineer on a moon station can get his hands on quite a few of those.

“I don’t know, maybe a bug?” Jaxon says.

“From what? We mostly eat sealed food. No one else is sick.”

“I’ll have Karen look at him. She probably has something to fix it.”

But she doesn’t. Arnold pukes and shits nonstop and experiences neurological complications. Karen puts an IV into him but nothing helps and he is dead by morning.

She comes into Main as she strips off her mask and gloves. A tiny person, she looks like a kid playing doctor. “I can’t find any pathogen in his fluids.”

Her face registers fear; I’d recognize it anywhere, having lived with it all of my life. I can’t help feeling a bit of good-see-how-it-feels? She thinks she might be next, that anyone might be next, whatever this possible pathogen is.

“Do you think something from the lab?” I venture. “Did you check for poison?”

“I’m running a scan.”

“Keep me posted.”

She’ll never learn what it was. I am certain that her catalogue of toxins does not include what finished off Arnold. And it’s not true that sealed food packs are totally secure.

This Titan moon base is occasionally referred to as “Muldoon.” Since my genetic contributor was the one who designed the station and literally ran it for the first four years people nicknamed it after him, Jerome Muldoon. Moon/Muldoon. I am John Muldoon, formed from his DNA. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons I was invited here.

At present, there is a group of eight manning the station. I serve as head engineer with three assistants, Arnold Burns, Hector Esposito, and Jaxon Klee. Sarah Chong, Karen Dubois, and Mark Ikedo run the science division. Karen doubles as a medic with the help of a team of specialists on video from Earth. We even have a journalist, Tyrone Greene, who transmits regular human-interest stories to major news outlets back home and on Mars in addition to writing for a major science journal. One happy little family.

No incoming is expected from Earth or Mars for three months, so after performing a small ceremony we temporarily store Arnold in a sealed bag outside the station and Karen transmits a message to NASA and his family. After he is properly frozen, we’ll render the body for transport to Earth.

I allow the group to recover a sense of relative comfort and then suddenly Rover One refuses to respond to Sarah Chong’s directions. She transmits to Main. “John! Do you hear me? Something’s up with One; it’s not responding! I can’t get it into manual! John, help me, I’m heading toward the Abyss!”

The Abyss is a cliff .69 kilometers from the station, part of a crater, worn down on the far side but on our end quite dangerous. Since Sarah’s work currently involves an anomaly in the surface there, I knew where she’d be going. The edge juts out so that Sarah’s descent will be straight down.

“John!” she calls again and then that’s it. Silence. Apparently, she didn’t have time to untangle herself and jump out.

I erase the transmission.

Some time later, Hector comes in from his tinkering with the air filters and says, “Where’s One? I wanted to take it out to check on the underground lines.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Who signed it out? I’ve been so busy I haven’t noticed much of anything anyone else is doing today.”

Hector moves to the nearest screen and barks, “Where is Rover One?”

The computer says, “It is .69 kilometers from station position and 36.5 meters below station position.”

“Which direction?” Hector’s voice is shaky.

“South southwest.”

“Oh my god,” he exclaims. “That’s Townsend Crater! Who checked it out?”

“Sarah Chong,” the computer answers.

Hector cries, “She must have driven off the edge! But why, why?”

“Well, we don’t know that for sure, Hector,” I say soothingly.

But he isn’t listening as he turns to go after her.

“I’ll come with you.”

His body language screams that he doesn’t want to wait for me to suit up, but reluctantly, he waits.

We take Three instead of Two since that is being worked on by Jaxon and Four is currently geared up for one of Mark Ikedo’s geological outings. Our coms are turned on so we can communicate, though the ride is jarring. Hector is driving, somewhat like a maniac. We reach the crater in minutes and he jumps out and hightails it to the edge. I see his arms frantically waving and to appear natural I get out of the vehicle and join him. The magnificence of Saturn fills the dark sky over us.

“My god, my god,” he is saying over and over. There’s some static. “We have to climb down!” He starts to look for a way down.

I put out an arm to stop him. “We might as well drive to the softer edge.”

“But that’s over a kilometer away!”

I sigh. “All right, let’s go down.” This won’t be easy.

Once down, I check the damage. “We can probably retrieve the vehicle eventually, but we’ll have to pull it across the crater and up the far side. The engine still runs.” One of the wheels is bent and the front right is smashed in.

“What does that matter?” yells Hector inside his helmet. “Shouldn’t we be worrying about Sarah? Who cares about the vehicle?”

“I didn’t mean…” I mumble.

Sarah is dead. Her suit is intact; her helmet not cracked nor twisted open. No exposure to the outside, but she sustained internal injuries. Blood is congealed around her mouth. We manage to get her body into Three and drive it to the station.

Once we have Sarah inside, Hector sobs like a two year old.

“Get it all out, Hector,” I tell him. Stiffly, I pat his shoulder.

“This place is cursed,” he mutters and disappears into his quarters.

Karen plans another funeral and the body is stored outside with Arnold’s.

Quietly, Mark says, “So, are we going to use the robotic arm thing to powder them?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Let’s do that tomorrow.”

“We vibrate them or something till they break into dust, right?” he says.

“That’s right. We’ll probably be the first to use the thing. Then we fold the bags up into compact squares and store them in Cargo. Together they’ll weigh maybe forty kilos back on Earth.”

“You’re not going to mix them, are you?” says Jaxon. “My god–”

“Hardly, Jaxon. Really, what do you think I am?”

No one answers that and it just reinforces the way I sense the others feel about me. They relax in the evening and never invite me to join them and if I do, they go quiet and change the topic of conversation. Like people always have.

Unable to keep the irritation out of my voice, I add, “We’ll send them home on the June transport, obviously.”

The crew mopes around and it annoys me. I gather them in Main and give a talk.

“You knew when you went into space that life is dangerous out here. For crying out loud, man up! If you can’t take it, go home in June even if your time isn’t up, I don’t care. There are thousands of people who’d give their right arms to come here.”

They all look at me with indecipherable expressions, except for Karen, whose eyes swim with tears.

Tyrone speaks up. “You realize that the public is going to want answers. Two deaths in less than one month on a moon station their taxes partially pay for? This station has been here, what? Fourteen years and suddenly people are dropping like flies? The London Times, The People’s Daily and the Daily Nation, not to mention the BBC are hammering me already. What should I tell them, John?”

I experience a strange momentary confusion. Isn’t my name Jeremy, not John? “Tell them whatever you like, Tyrone. Tell them the truth.”

Tyrone looks at the others and hesitates before speaking. “But what is the truth, John?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Arnold died of some unknown toxin and Sarah’s dune buggy malfunctioned. I am looking into that now. We need to prevent it from ever happening again.”

No one says anything.

“Now, as unpleasant a task as it is, we need to perform this rendering of the bodies. Hector, would you care to handle the duties?”

Hector agrees. “I owe it to Sarah,” he says.

Had there been something between them? If so, I never noticed, but then I don’t make a habit of getting into personal issues with colleagues—even if we are 1.2 billion kilometers from Earth. The others seem to see themselves as a “family” and good for them. But I don’t trust that word.

“Well, let’s get this show on the road,” I say and everyone shoots me irritated looks. “Tyrone, will you do the honors for the ceremony?”

He nods and is already consulting his pad.

We set off one of the isolation labs for the procedure, one with its own air lock. Mark and Jaxon haul the frozen bodies in from outside. Hector seals the door. Robotic arms are wheeled in and while we watch through a window, Hector directs these to vibrate one body at a time, causing water vapor to vent through a hole in the bag and the body to be reduced to powder. Then the bag containing the powder is folded into a square to be returned to the family. By the time the second body is finished the room is steamed up and, without warning, the outside airlock opens with Hector in the room and not in a suit. He stumbles backward to the partially open inside airlock door and Karen screams. “Open the lab door!” Which is ridiculous anyway—why kill us all?

But still, like an idiot, Jaxon presses the panel but the inside airlock door fully opens instead and Hector expires while we are yelling and darting about. Of course, I’m only pretending to be upset.

Four of us now remain, beside myself: Karen, Jaxon, Tyrone, and Mark.

“This is no coincidence!” yells Jaxon. He tends to occasional outbursts; it was one of the things that, for a while, kept him from going into space. “Someone here is a murderer.”

“Oh, now,” says Mark Ikeda, who is not given to emotional expression. His specialty is practical physics, though his hobby is theoretical. Of everyone here, he is the least offensive to me. “It is just a series of accidents, nothing more. Space is perilous, everyone knows that.”

“I beg to differ,” says Tyrone. “Not a single person has ever died here before. Since Muldoon was put into operation, seventy-one people have manned it without a single demise.”

“Louise Stark passed away from radiation exposure,” says Karen.

“Not literally on Muldoon,” corrects Tyrone. “She died on the way back to Earth.”

The group, which in the beginning was cheerful and jokey with each other, now goes about their work like sullen teenagers. Karen, being the medic, feels she needs to deal with Hector’s body, so she and Mark take care of the freezing and rendering by themselves while wearing their suits. “We’re not taking any chances,” I overhear her whisper to Jaxon beforehand.

None of them look at me unless they have to. I’m not sure why or how they associate me with the deaths, but assume it is the usual: you can’t trust a clone.

Karen is a troublemaker. There was the issue about the “apparent poisoning” and she had wanted to keep Arnold’s body whole to take back on the June transport, but at the time no one supported that idea. But should someone else go under mysterious circumstances, she’ll insist on it.

Muldoon Station consists of a central, round all-purpose room called Main which serves for communication with Earth and Mars, for social purposes, projects that are outside of categories for which special labs are provided, and as a mess hall. A small section serves as a kitchen. We take turns cooking, which is not difficult since we use pre-packaged meals and a protein paste we manufacture ourselves.

Wings expand from opposite sides of Main. West Wing contains sleeping quarters, toilets, and showers. East Wing contains labs, a small generator and the incinerator. Thirty feet from and not connected to East Wing are the main generators. Since Titan’s gravity is fourteen percent of Earth’s, surrounding the compound is a gravity train, on which everyone exercises two or more hours a day.

Inside one of the labs is a large vat to which our excrement is pumped. The odor is not pleasant. Over this is a film tray that separates the nitrogen from the waste and over that, a high protein bacteria is grown into an edible goop called Promite. It is flavored various ways, making it serve as savory or sweet.

Karen tends this garden, one of her many projects. Mark, her assistant, suited up and went outside an hour ago to check some strange markings in the moon dust that weren’t there two days ago. His absence gives me the opportunity I need.

I took the precaution the night before after everyone was in bed to obtain a hypo-spray containing Somatine and carry it concealed in my hand as I enter the garden lab. “For once I don’t have much to do, so need any help?” I ask cheerfully.

She straightens up from her bacteria garden and looks at me quizzically. Before she has a chance to turn me down, I whip the hypo-spray to her neck and shoot. She drops to the floor.

Checking to see if anyone is near the lab, I return to the garden, lift off one of the trays to expose the mass of feces, pick Karen up, shove her head into it and hold it. For a moment she struggles faintly and then it’s over. I then arrange her to look as if she has somehow fallen forward herself (though why she would do this is beyond anyone’s guess) and then clean up after myself, cross through Main and drop the hypo-spray into the kitchen incinerator. Since Karen was the only person to perform autopsies, there is no one else to do detective work on the body in any serious manner. Space programs do not generally include detectives or coroners, at least not yet.

After Tyrone discovers Karen’s body, the four of us who remain gather in Main. “I think,” Tyrone says with a shaky voice, “that someone here is a murderer.”

“Why do you think that?” I ask innocently.

“Are you kidding? You expect us to believe that four people just up and die in a matter of weeks? When we’ve already been here months without incident?”

His forehead is shiny with sweat. Riling someone up like that gives me a weird rush of pleasure.

“Yeah,” Mark says, “it’s not really logical that all of these people–”

Jaxon cuts him off. “So, you’re saying, Tyrone, that one of us here caused these people’s deaths.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”

I keep quiet.

Jaxon looks at me. “You’re Station Master, what do you think?” He often calls me that; thinks it’s funny.

“I don’t know what to think,” I say.

“Well, it sure wasn’t me,” Jaxon says. “I liked everyone. I wasn’t even in here when Karen…” he doesn’t finish.

John was,” Tyrone says, looking at me. “In fact, I happened to be in my room working on a piece for Beijing and walked out around 1100 hours and there he was coming out of one of the labs. The very one, in fact.”

I’m going to say I think you’re mistaken when it occurs to me that there is no point in hiding anything. I wanted to make a statement and I’ve made it.

“I did it. What are you going to do about it?”

They look at me as if I’ve sprouted another head.

“What?” says Mark.

“I poisoned Arnold, caused Sarah to plunge over the cliff, pre-programmed the airlock doors to open and kill Hector, and sedated Karen so I could push her head into the shit. It was me.”

The three of them back up in unison. “But why?” Jaxon says, his voice wobbly. “What’s the matter with you?”

“It’s what clones do,” I state firmly.

“What are you talking about?”

“We don’t have souls, remember?”

“You’re insane.” Tyrone shakes his head and stops. Jaxon looks terrified and Mark regards me with menace in his eyes.

The three of them look at each other and move in on me and for the next month I’m confined to a sealed lab. They don’t bother to wheel a cot in, they don’t allow me time in full gravity; they just throw me thermal blankets and a pillow and that’s that. Food is brought in once a day by all of them together for safety. I’m sure that they are in constant contact with NASA.

The June transport arrives on time, carrying five new crew members for the six-month half-crew exchange—fortunately a larger than usual number since the station is now short, though this was unplanned. Earth/Mars both know of the deaths but since the transport takes three months from Mars, there is nothing they can do about it once on their way. Normally, Jaxon, Karen, Arnold, and I would have stayed another six months, then left on the December transport with three to four people replacing us.

On the transport is a doctor with counseling experience. After giving me a thorough physical exam (with Jaxon and Mark guarding us), she sets me down to talk before I leave for Mars. They already have a makeshift brig ready and plan to keep me sedated. For now they allow me to sit with her in Main, slightly away from the others for some degree of privacy.

“John, explain to me why you did this. What was in your mind?” She sounds kind but it’s just her professional manner.

I hesitate before answering. “A breakdown is expected in some cases where clones are under endless stress and constant animosity, no? How long do you think we can endure the prejudices of society before we snap?”

She looks at me, utterly perplexed, and for a strange moment I experience that weird confusion again.

“But, John,” she says, “you’re not a clone.”

I want to scream at her. Of course I’m a clone, you stupid, privileged bitch!

“Your father is Jerome Muldoon,” she says. “Your mother was Roselyn Schneider Muldoon. You were born in Columbus, Ohio. You have a living brother and a sister. What are you talking about?”

Other people in Main can’t help but hear this and swivel their heads to listen.

“I don’t understand. I have no mother! I was created in a laboratory. I endured bullying and disdain all the way through school. I–”

Dr. Rowe consults her pad, moves her finger about and looks up. “No, John,” she says. “Apparently your father fixed it all up for you. I had to do extensive digging and called in some favors in order to unseal your psychological history. Jerome Muldoon could certainly pull a lot of strings. I imagine he could have gotten Jack the Ripper onto Mars, if he’d taken a mind to.” She pauses. “It was actually you who did the bullying. You were the intimidator all through elementary and secondary school. Jeremy was the clone your parents adopted, created with your father’s genes. Are you telling me you have no memory of this?”

“No,” I insist. Honestly, I can’t seem to recall this. But again, I experience that strange mind fog, as if something is trying to work its way through.

“This new brother, this clone of your father, was brought into the family when you were four. Your sister was two and your other brother not yet born. You took exception to this, as you would later call it, intrusion into your family. You took it upon yourself to torment Jeremy every chance you got. Your parents took you to psych workers to no avail. You continued with your jealousy and abuse until finally, when you were nineteen and Jeremy was fifteen, he committed suicide.”

“No… that can’t be right,” I say, though my voice is weak. “It was the other way around! I was the clone!”

“Guilt, John,” she says. “It can do strange things to the mind. It can cause people to behave in very regretful ways.”

My mind is finally utterly silent. The fog parts and there is the terrible truth.

 

The Mechanics of Science, Popularly Illustrated

by Marty Schnapp

 

“I don’t know, Timmy,” Tommy said. “You know Dad doesn’t like us messing around with his stuff.”

Timmy Wilson gave his brother an exasperated look. People sometimes said that twins shared a brain, but Timmy often thought he had the whole thing and Tommy only had visiting rights.

“Look, genius,” he said. “We’re not messing around with anything, we’re just borrowing some oil. Dad said he wanted us to take care of our new bikes, didn’t he? Anyway, he’s at work and Mom’s out shopping, so who’s gonna know?”

They kept rummaging around the workshop and finally spotted the oilcan on the top shelf of a metal cabinet.

“I can’t reach it,” Timmy said. “I need something to stand on.”

“How about this?” Tommy pointed to a large wooden tool chest on the bottom shelf. They slid it out, and a pile of magazines stacked behind it spilled out on the floor.

“Hey, what’s this?” Tommy picked up the top one.

The Mechanics of Science, Popularly Illustrated was emblazoned on the cover, along with the title of the featured article, “Build a Cold Fusion Reactor with Items Found in Your Kitchen!” The cover illustration showed a typical family of four wearing thick goggles and radiation suits, gathered around a kitchen table. On the table was a Rubberware bowl with heavy electrical cables attached to large terminals on its lid. The bowl had a peculiar greenish glow. Nearby, the family cat, unprotected, had a similar glow.

“Wow, check that out!”

“That’s cool,” said Timmy, “but look at this one!”

The next magazine proclaimed, “Better Living Through Genetic Mutation.” Here a husband and wife relaxed around a pool while being served drinks by a simian creature in butler’s livery. Above them, a young boy caught an impossible high-fly courtesy of a pair of leathery wings sprouting from his shoulder blades.

“Neat,” Tommy said, “but this one’s even better.”

“Time Travel: New Breakthroughs Make It Feasible.” The cover reproduced John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, except that amid the Founding Fathers was a man in a plaid suit wearing horn-rimmed glasses, signing with a ballpoint pen.

“No, no! This one!” Timmy exclaimed, “We gotta do this one.”

“Teleportation! Beat the High Cost of Commuting!” A man in a business suit, just donning his hat, was kissing his wife good-bye as he stepped out the door. The clock behind him read eight fifty-nine. His foot, however, was stepping directly into his office where the time clock read nine o’clock sharp.

“Yeah!” Tommy said. “We could quit taking the stupid school bus.”

“Who cares about the bus? We could watch all of Captain Incendio and the Pyronauts after school and still be on time for ball practice.”

But a quick look at the article dashed their hopes.

“We have to either have a large supply of liquid nitrogen, or convert the refrigerator to a cryogenics plant,” Timmy said. “Either way, we wouldn’t be done by the time Mom gets home. And you know what she’d say about the refrigerator.”

“Well, how about this?” Tommy asked.

“Build an Inter-Dimensional Portal.” Below, it added, “Open a Million Doorways to the Unknown.” The cover of this magazine was different from the others. It was completely black, with the silhouette of a man standing in the bright light of an open doorway. He was surrounded by dozens of question marks. There was something intriguing, perhaps even a little creepy about it; they agreed on the project at once. They decided to use the doorway between the kitchen and dining room as the portal, and set to work.

It was careful, exacting work, and it took nearly an hour. They drove nails at specific points around the doorframe. They couldn’t find any rubber grommets in the garage, so they drove the nails through Oatsy-Os cereal, which would act as insulators. Then they strung fine copper wire around the insulated nails, following a pattern in the magazine. The wires went back and forth across the doorway, passing over and under each other very closely, but without touching. Finally, they connected the ends of the wires to their National Flyer train transformer. Then they stood back to appraise their work.

“It looks just like the picture in the magazine,” Tommy said. “So, how do we start?”

“Well, it says to turn the transformer on first, then start the music. You got it?”

Tommy produced a 45 rpm record. “It was in a sleeve in the back of the magazine.”

“Wait a minute,” Timmy said. “There’s something else here.” He began to read.

“Inter–dimensional travelers be advised! There is no way to determine into which dimension your portal may open. As there are countless possibilities, and the connections are randomly made, it is imperative that you stabilize your portal once it opens. It may close anytime after the music ends, and it is unlikely that you will ever reconnect to the same dimension once it does. To stabilize the portal, you must…” The bottom of the page with the rest of the article was missing.

“What the heck?” Timmy asked.

He turned the page to find a full-page advertisement for something called The Charles Titan Body Building System. It featured an ink drawing of a bully who was kicking sand into the face of a wimp, while the wimp’s girlfriend looked on with thinly veiled contempt. “Never be humiliated again,” declared the text. “Build your body the Charles Titan way!” The mail-in coupon on the bottom of the page had been cut out.

The boys looked at each other.

“Dad?” asked Tommy incredulously.

“Let’s hope there was a money-back guarantee,” grinned Timmy.

“So, what do we do?”

“After all that work? I say we turn it on. It’s not like we have to go through it, right?”

With that, he turned on the transformer. Tommy put the record on the record player and started playing the music, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”.

At first, nothing happened. Then, as the music began to build, the wires began to vibrate sympathetically. Short lengths, long lengths, all began vibrating at different frequencies, responding to the complex harmonies in the music. And as they vibrated, they began to short-circuit each other, causing little electric sparks. A few appeared at first, and then more and more, until it looked like someone had opened a jar full of fireflies in the doorway.

And then suddenly, the copper wire disappeared. The nails were still there, along with their cereal insulators, but the wire was gone. They could see quite clearly into the dining room.

“What happened?” Timmy asked. “Where’d the wire go?”

Tommy, who was standing closest to the doorway, stretched out his hand to touch where the wire had been. With a crackling noise, his fingers disappeared.

“Whoa!” He jerked his hand back and held it in front of his face. His fingers were still there, all intact. He wiggled them to make sure. Then he grinned at Timmy. “Watch this.” He stuck his arm into the doorway up to his elbow. It vanished.

He pulled it back out again and waved it triumphantly. “It tingles a bit where the wire used to be,” he said. “Otherwise, no problems. Maybe I should try sticking my head in next.”

At that moment there was a crackling noise behind him, and a man stepped through the portal. He wore a shiny orange and yellow costume with red boots. His red helmet was adorned with stylized flames projecting from the sides, and the letter “I” was emblazoned on his chest.

“Captain Incendio!” The boys shouted together.

With his strong chin jutting proudly forward and his keen eyes gazing into the distance, he replied, “Yes, it is I, Captain Incendio!” Then he noticed the boys and frowned and said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Timmy Wilson, and this is my brother Tommy.”

“Am I to understand that you built this inter-dimensional portal?”

“Yes, sir,” Tommy replied. “ We found the plans in a magazine.”

“Hmm. You know, I could use lads of your stripe on my ship, the Inferno. What say you? Are you ready to become Pyronauts?”

“Are we ever!”

“Splendid!” He pointed to Timmy, “I’ll call you Flint. And you, Tommy, I’ll call Tinder. To the ship, lads! Follow me!”

He turned and stepped back through the portal.

The boys saluted and cried together, “Pyronauts, ignite!” And with a whoop they plunged through the portal. With their passing, there was a loud hum and a pop and the copper wire reappeared.

A short time later, Mrs. Wilson entered the kitchen with a bag of groceries in each arm. “Timmy!” she called. “Tommy! Come give me a hand with the groceries.” The only response she got was the quiet hum of the train transformer.

An hour after that, Mr. Wilson returned home from the office and was confronted by his angry wife. She was clutching a copy of The Mechanics of Science, and behind her he could see the doorway woven with copper wire.

“Oh no, not again,” he groaned. “What was it this time?”

“Inter-dimensional portal!” she yelled, throwing the magazine at him. “I thought you got rid of those magazines after Susie teleported herself to who-knows-where.”

“I meant to, dear, but then we had to go shopping for a new refrigerator and it just slipped my mind. Besides, the boys shouldn’t have found them. I had them stashed away pretty well…” He broke off with a sheepish grin.

“Stashed away is right! You kept them so you could sneak back to visit that eighteenth century trollop!”

“Oh, don’t start with that again!” he complained. “For crying out loud, I stepped out of line one time, and it was two hundred and fifty years ago! Anyway, I told you she meant nothing to me.”

“It happened just years ago, not centuries!” she cried. “And I’m supposed to believe that she meant nothing to you? I’m probably the only woman in the world whose husband is his own great, great, great grandfather.”

Sniffling, Mrs. Wilson wandered into the family room at the back of the house and turned on the television before flopping down on the sofa. She hoped it would discourage further discussion with her husband, who had followed her, still protesting his innocence. Well, he could go back to his colonial floozy for all she cared; she just wanted to see her boys again.

Organ music swelled from the TV, announcing the start of a children’s program. She sobbed when she recognized that it was the theme song of her sons’ favorite program and rose to turn it off. Just then, two masked figures raced across the screen, stopped, and looked directly at her.

“Hi Mom! Hi Dad!” They raised their masks. “It’s us, Timmy and Tommy!”

“Boys!” Mrs. Wilson exclaimed. “Thank god you’re all right. How did you get on television?”

“We’re here with Captain Incendio, fighting evil in the forty-third dimension,” Timmy said.

“It’s great,” added Tommy, “except that we still have to be in bed by nine o’clock, and he makes us eat our vegetables.” He made a face.

An imposing figure with a jutting chin stepped into view.

“Flint! Tinder!” he cried. “The Pestulars are attacking the planet Tragon! We must away!”

“Okay, Captain! We were just talking to our mom and dad.”

Captain Incendio peered about the television screen until he saw them.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “So I see. These are fine lads, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. They are a splendid addition to the crew of the Inferno. And never fear, I make certain that they wash behind their ears.” Ruffling the boys’ hair, he said, “Hurry now lads, the Pestulars wait for no man.”

“Right away, Captain!” Tommy said. “We gotta go, Mom and Dad. See you tomorrow, same time, same channel.”

The boys started off the screen when Timmy stopped suddenly.

“Oh, Mom, I almost forgot,” he said. “We ran into Susie. It seems that she accidentally teleported herself to one of the moons of Jupiter. She said to tell you not to worry, that she’s okay, and she wants you to know that she’s sorry about the refrigerator.”

 

Death At Detalas

by Liz Sawyer

 

Ian woke to the smell of bacon, eggs and coffee, ambrosia after four days of evasion exercises in the woods. But the other scent brought the smile to his face. The scent of Ti, the sight, when he opened his eyes, of her standing next to the bed, smiling back.

“Heard you took out Security’s top team in record time.”

“Missing you’s all it took.” He reached out, took her hand and pulled her down onto him. A long, lazy kiss followed, hands drifted over bodies…

The comm buzzed.

Ian cursed, Ti sighed, then spoke. “Voice only. Yes, Commander?”

“My office, as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir. Comm off.”

“I’m going nowhere ’til I shower and eat. Move, woman.”

Ti turned her head so she could look at his face. “Really want me to?” Her breath whispered across his bare chest.

Ian let a hand meander down her torso, her hip, linger on her thigh. “No. But I hate doing things in a hurry.”

Ti grinned. Then she was off the bed and moving to the table. “Better hurry or you’ll have cold eggs.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were walking across the compound to the office of the Commandant of Terran Security’s Field Training Camp. Their passage did not go unnoticed and it wasn’t solely because they weren’t in uniform. Few of the looks directed at them were friendly.

“Maybe I should’ve let them catch me.” An empath, Ian always kept his shields tight in public. He tightened them even more as he spoke to Ti.

“Wouldn’t’ve mattered. The Treaty might’ve put Oseeah under Terran Security, but to Outworlders it’s still separate, so guess who gets all the action? Besides, you had quite a rep before you got here.”

His reputation was something the Hero of Daveriddea, the only living holder of the Terran Medal of Honor, had learned to ignore when he could and use when he had to. But he was noticeable anyway, at 6’2″, an athletic 180 pounds, all balanced in movements shouting of a life spent as a Terran Fleet fighter pilot. Even those were secondary, though, for it was his face that made Captain Ian Makanda so recognizable. It was all sharp angles, jutting cheekbones, Roman nose, thin, compressed lips beneath a small mustache, a strong chin and jaw covered by a closely trimmed beard, all overhung by a widow’s peak of black hair just touched with gray at the temples. And, underneath thick black brows, deep blue brooding eyes. Compelling eyes, matching a face that, in public, rarely smiled.

Ti Stuart was his opposite. Curly shoulder-length auburn hair topped a face dusted with freckles across a pert nose and soft cheeks. Spring-grass-green eyes were often lit with laughter, as was her mouth, with what Ian called a summer smile. She was petite, only 5’4″, 120 pounds of cat-like grace. Her reflexes were almost as fast as Ian’s, her poise and air of command even more so, as befitted the Vice Commander of the Outworld Security and Intelligence Agency.

They were immediately admitted into the commandant’s office. The man standing behind the desk waited until the door into his office closed before speaking.

“I’ve received an urgent message from General Rotiya, to be delivered personally, in strictest confidence.” The words were snapped off. “You are to go to Detalas immediately. All necessary information has been sent to your ship.”

“Very well.” Ti was just as abrupt. “I assume our ship is being prepped.”

“It is. You’ve been cleared for immediate departure. A skimmer’s waiting.”

Ti and Ian returned to their room for a few personal items, then were taken to their ship. Ian started the exterior walk-around while Ti headed for the cockpit and the take-off check-list. They departed thirty minutes later, entering t-space as soon as they left the planetary atmosphere.

“Three days to Detalas,” Ian said, entering the lounge-galley.

He saw Ti just straightening up at her computer, knew she had waited until they entered the security of time-space to have the computer decrypt and open Rotiya’s message.

“What’s so urg—”

Shock, disbelief, and sorrow reverberated through their mental bond.

Ian strode over, embraced Ti as he read the words on the computer screen he had already read from her mind.

RL reported problems with recent shipments. Sent Torin. Two reports received. Then message he was killed in robbery. Police reports attached. Case now yours, as is appointment as replacement.

Ian’s thoughts were full of sympathy. He had only known Oseeah’s Commander two years; Ti had been recruited by Torin, partnered with him until they decided their telepathy was too similar to be compatible.

“Robbery?” Disbelief filled Ti’s voice. “He wouldn’t’ve resisted.”

“Wasn’t Detalas his home planet? Maybe the robber didn’t know who he was robbing, came from behind, then recognized Torin, or Torin recognized him, killed to avoid discovery.”

“Maybe.” Ti touched the screen to list the remaining messages, then pulled out her chair and sat.

Ian perched on the arm of her chair, let his arm rest across her shoulders. He felt her stiffen as the computer finished listing the messages.

“Personal vid, copies of the two reports, the police report,” Ian kept his voice casual. “And two additional messages, doubly encrypted, not sent to Rotiya. And since there’s only one thing the Commander of Terran Security isn’t to know about…”

“Let’s not assume anything yet,” Ti said, then, “Computer, play Torin vid.”

Torin’s smiling face filled the screen. “Wish I could be around to hear how you wiped the floor with Security, but the day after you left, I got a message from Rotiya.” The smile disappeared. “There’re problems with the shipments Rayard Laser’s been receiving from Detalas, specifically from the Kingsford Mine. Don’t know if you recall, Ian, but RL’s design was chosen for the new laser system in the Cobras. Been one thing after another with that new fighter and you stopping the sabotage didn’t stop the problems. This is the latest. Diamonds, either substandard in quality or out and out flawed. They’ve had to reinspect each individual diamond, as well as go back, pull out and check the ones already installed. I’ll keep you posted.”

“The Cobras,” Ti stated as the screen went dark. “That was nearly a year ago and TATT’s been quiet since. I know, Anders wasn’t the brightest in that group, but I took it from his mind and he was convinced TATT was getting back into action. Going to turn The Treaty upside down, he said.”

“Anybody belonging to Terrans Against The Treaty is a fanatic and fanatics are never bright. It was a good idea, poorly executed.”

“Still doesn’t mean it couldn’t’ve been TATT. Nothing for nearly fifty years, most of the old leaders dead or in prison, take awhile to get back up to speed. It’s just, I felt something… Okay,” Ti laughed as Ian’s hand kneaded her shoulder. “I’ll save it ’til we know what’s in the two final messages. So, let’s see what Torin found. Comp, display messages, summaries first.”

Reports appeared on screen.

Arrival, meetings with President, Trade Minister, informed Kingsford’s Chief of Mine Security accompanied latest shipment to Earth, due back shortly. RL’s complaints attached.

Ti skipped to the second summary, which wasn’t much longer.

Tried to get appointment with mine owner, asked to wait ’til CMS gets back, he’ll have current info. Meantime, received full access to everything. Started with the port, reviewed security reports, procedures for transporting diamonds from the mines to the port, then to Earth, where RL takes over. Received the port’s original security vids for the past year. Going to mine tomorrow.

“Sounds boring as hell. Comp, clear screen and activate security program 476 Victor 238 on remaining messages.”

The screen flashed green, then went dark.

“Take awhile to decrypt, depending on how long the reports are and if he used the same ’crypt for both. Probably didn’t, but the first will have the code for the second.” She leaned back against Ian’s arm. “Comp will decrypt both. Even if something’s in the first report, nothing we can do now.”

“Plenty of other things we can do now.” As Ian rose, he scooped Ti out of her chair. Their mouths met as her arms twined around his neck.

The next morning Ti read aloud the first decrypted message’s summary as Ian finished the breakfast chores.

“Went out to the Kingsford Mine, met the Assistant Chief of Security. Toured the mine, examined security, got their original security vids, went back to his ship. And found a ‘Welcome To Detalas, Join Us For Supper’ invitation from the Golden Zebra. He did. Dessert was delivered by one of the ladies, who then joined him.” Ti leaned back in her chair, looked across the lounge-galley at Ian. “She told him he needed a glass of Glenlivet to really enjoy dessert. Got just cozy enough to make future meetings believable.”

“So you were right and The Network found a link to TATT.”

Ti nodded.

The Network was a seller of any information to anyone with the right price. It was operated by Stacey Brenna, also the owner of the universally renowned chain of Golden restaurant-bars, located next to every spaceport. The Goldens were fronts for The Network.

Stacey was Ti’s most confidential informant.

She agreed to have her agents provide Oseeah agents with information, from wildest rumors to set-in-stone facts, about anything involving TATT. “A glass of Glenlivet,” a very rare Terran Scotch, was the code. Stacey’s only demand, non-negotiable, was that Security know nothing about it.

“What’s next?” Ian asked as he unlocked his chair from his own computer station opposite hers, swung it around and locked it in place next to her.

“Second message is a vid.” As Ian sat, Ti started it.

Torin’s face was somber, frowning.

“I knew something was wrong when I met with President Munsen. We grew up together and he’s never formal in private. This time, he simply lamented the circumstances and stated that he knew I’d get to the bottom of everything. There was someone else in the room with us, I assumed a bodyguard, but always before Phil sent them out. Not this time and something told me not only not to mention it, but not to try to read him. Now I know why. Larissa told me that John Gurdin had brought in new people for security and admin when he took over Kingsford Mine after his father died. She described all of them as tough, hard looking. Rarely came into town, but when they did, it was in a group and they stayed together. No trouble, mostly because people avoided them. She said there’d been grumbling about outsiders, changes that were being made. A lot of people were let go. Then there was a small cave-in, half a dozen miners died. The grumbling stopped. Larissa said that was when the people who worked at the mines stopped coming into town as much, the wives seemed jumpier, even the kids were quieter. The six who died were the most vocal about the changes.

“I asked about an inquiry and Larissa laughed. It’d been chaired by one of the independent mine owners. Findings were a horrible accident. The chairman’s son is now attending a prestigious medical school on Earth, all expenses paid. I asked why someone hadn’t sent a report to us. Larissa said that was when Phil got new bodyguards. I’m going to talk to Phil, but first I want to meet Joe Thomas. He’s Kingsford’s Chief of Mine Security, due back day after tomorrow.

“Larissa said he first arrived a few days before John’s father died. Old school friend, stayed on because John was devastated. Once John recovered, he replaced nearly all the security and admin people with Terrans, put Thomas in charge. Rumor has it he’s telepathic. I’ll be checking out how John’s father died.”

Torin’s voice reflected the anger on his face.

“So far I’ve not found anything in Thomas’ background to indicate any ties to TATT, but it just doesn’t add up. Something is very wrong. And a message I just received from Larissa may be it. She wanted to be sure I hadn’t forgotten our date for supper and a vid tonight. Which means she’s found something. I’ll send the info in the next message.”

The screen went black.

“Which he never wrote.”

Ti nodded. “Nothing from Stacey, which means Larissa found it herself. She’d have info’ed Stace, but since there’s no way of receiving transmissions in t-space and I doubt it was marked ‘urgent’, it probably hasn’t even been forwarded. We could drop out and check, but I don’t want to waste the time.”

“Agreed. Dropping out, just to snatch messages, without knowing if there are any—” Ian shook his head. “Might only take seconds, but those could mean hours or even days added when the t-space computer recalculated travel time and it doesn’t sound like we can spare it.”

He then moved his chair back to his own computer station and ordered the police report on-screen. “Last chance. I’ve done this before, you haven’t.”

“It’s part of the job.” Ti cleared her screen, unlatched her chair and scooted it next to Ian. “There has to be a first time.”

“It helps if you can think of him as Commander Simmons.”

Ti heard the understanding, felt the sympathy, knew the impartiality was what Ian used at Daveriddea. Knew it hadn’t worked then, either. Their hands met, clasped, as their attention went to the report on Tor—Commander Simmons’—death. Which was actually quite bland.

“It sounds so innocuous,” Ti said, following their reading of the initial and follow-up police reports. “Quiet Wednesday night. One of the new security personnel had just gotten engaged and his friends threw a party at the Zee. And who should show up but the girl and her friends with the same idea. No problem. Except there was already a retirement and a birthday party going on. Main parking lot full, overflows opened and, since it was raining, everyone parked as close to the entrance as possible. So, when Torin arrived, the closest he could get was five rows back in a side lot. Why didn’t he use valet parking? He and Larissa had supper in her suite, stayed two hours, then left. Why?” Irritation crept into Ti’s voice. “She’d invited him for supper and a vid. He could’ve stayed hours, the night. He could’ve sent a message from her comp, knowing Stace, it’s probably better protected than ours. So why the hell didn’t he? Run the security vid.”

They watched as the police chief appeared, introduced himself and apologized for the bad copy. “Two of the security lights and both cameras covering the area where Torin parked were out. The only one working was on the opposite side of the lot. Here’s what it recorded.”

There wasn’t much to see. A dark, rainy night, two figures walking under an umbrella, then three people suddenly appeared, accosted the two, two fell and three ran. The three kept their backs to the working camera.

“Trap,” Ti cursed.

“And very well done,” Ian agreed. “I don’t like it. Killing the head of Oseeah; nobody could be that arrogant.”

Ti stood, squared her shoulders, raised her chin just a fraction as she looked down her nose at Ian. “Oh, yes, they could.”

Ian raised an eyebrow. “Not without backup.” His voice was firm. “Fourth Fleet can spare a destroyer. Marines are always complaining they never get used.”

Half an hour later, Ian brought their ship out of t-space long enough for the computer to send a message. And, since they were out anyway, it searched and snatched the only message on their frequency.

“From Stacey,” Ti told Ian. “Double encrypt. Bet it tells us what Larissa found.”

An hour later, the computer beeped and the written message appeared on screen. It wasn’t what they were expecting.

Day after Larissa first met Torin, she worked the Zee’s dining room. Overheard bits of conversion from a group of the new security personnel. “Getting back in the air’ll be worth the wait,” “We’re in on the start,” and what really caught her attention, “Old shells, new pilots, we gonna rock!”

Her father’d been a Fleet mechanic, busted out, offered a job a couple years later, she didn’t know the details, but he told her he wasn’t going to renovate shells for who knew who no matter how good the pay.

Soon as I heard, I ran a search. Shells are missing. So are a lot of other things. And people. At least six of the security personnel at Detalas are ex-Fleet pilots and I mean “ex” in the worst way. Larissa’s father? Killed in an unsolved hit-run a few days after he turned down the offer. It happened three years ago. Question: why’d she “overhear” this now? Starting a deeper search. Watch your backs.

“Obsolete fighter shells.” Ian answered the Shells? from Ti’s mind. “Gutted, sold to salvagers. Along with obsolete engines and parts.” Ian looked at Ti. “You can’t salvage laser-grade diamonds. They may not break, but even the best develop flaws with repeated use. Depending on the flaw, the Fleet has them cut, the flaw removed, then reinstalled in less vital areas. You can only cut them so far, though, before they’re too small for Fleet use. When that happens, they’re cut so small they can’t be used in any weapons, then sold.”

“RL complained about dozens of flawed diamonds. Computer, is Detalas the only provider of laser-grade diamonds to the Fleet?”

The answer printed on-screen in seconds: No, but theirs are the best.

“Finding the flaws means all the diamonds have to be checked, no matter when they were installed. Won’t be all done at once, but there’ll be fewer fighters available and deployment of the Cobras to the Fleets will be even more delayed. I wonder how closely Gurdin and Thomas are tied to TATT?”

That was a rhetorical question if Ian ever heard one.

On arrival at Detalas, the controller guided them to a landing pad next to Torin’s ship. By the time the shut-down procedures were completed, two skimmers had arrived.

Two men waited as Ti and Ian walked down the ramp. They recognized one as the police chief. The other spoke.

“Port Security Director Johnson, at your service. This is Chief of Police Garner. We’re pleased to meet you, although, considering the circumstances… I’m sure you want the latest information on the investigation into Torin’s death and—”

“Ian will take care of that,” Ti coolly interrupted, “after he checks out Torin’s ship. I will be continuing the investigation into the diamonds. I assume that Director Thomas has returned?”

Johnson nodded, but before he could speak, Ti ordered, “I’ll need a skimmer and driver.”

“My driver, my skimmer and myself are at your convenience,” Johnson smoothly stated.

Ti nodded sharply, turned her head, spoke over her shoulder to Ian. “Transfer everything, then follow-up as you see fit. Usual reporting procedures,” she stated for the benefit of the civilians. No one outside their families and a few very close friends knew they were telepaths, so verbal instructions were necessary. She looked back to Johnson, who stood for a moment before realizing what Ti’s silence meant.

“This way,” he belatedly spoke, gesturing towards the skimmers.

Ti strode past him.

As Ti and Johnson walked off, Chief Garner spoke. “I’ll return to my office, have the latest reports forwarded to your ship. And I’ll send a skimmer and driver back for your use.”

Ian bit back a “thank you” and gave a curt nod of acceptance. He walked to Torin’s ship and up the ramp to the closed hatch, but waited until the Chief left before using Ti’s override code.

It took longer than expected to open Torin’s computer and access the files, despite Ti’s override code. Not that Ian minded; it showed that Torin was very security conscious. And that he had reason to be.

Finally, though, Ian opened Torin’s files. It took seconds to pull up the data on the current investigation, seconds more to find and bring up Torin’s notes from that final meeting with Larissa. Ian began scanning so quickly that, when he found it, he was just a nanosecond too late to shield his thoughts.

Ian heard Ti’s gasp as what he read hit her mind.

Their mental link showed Ian the skimmer’s driver reaching under his seat, bringing up a pistol, shooting Johnson and turning the weapon on Ti, who was already lunging at him as he pulled the trigger.

The pain impaled Ian’s mind, doubling him over. He forced his mental shields up, blocked the pain as he ran to the hatch. He saw a police skimmer landing only yards away. He took a deep breath, straightened, ran to it. Yanking open the driver’s side door, he shoved the cop into the passenger seat as he snarled, “Call Dispatch! All available personnel follow me! Now!”

The skimmer shot into the sky, heading toward the faint touch of Ti’s mind that told Ian she was still alive.

Ian heard the cop alerting Dispatch, then concentrated on his own talent. Creating a minute hole in his shields, he sent strength to Ti through their mental bond.

He vaguely heard the cop telling him that every available cop in the area was converging on them, along with two ambulances. Also, a Fleet Destroyer had just entered the atmosphere, was being directed to their location. Ian let a grim smile cross his face as he pushed the skimmer beyond the engine’s redline.

Less than five minutes later, Ian saw the torn treetops and turned the skimmer’s nose down. Only a few already-broken branches were scraped during the descent. He landed, was out and racing toward the crumpled metal half buried in the ground in almost one motion. The strength he hadn’t stopped sending doubled as Ian reached through the shattered windshield and touched Ti.

*****

“Marines’re happy. Actually had a couple firefights.”

Ti started to chuckle, grimaced. It was the day after the crash and the broken ribs were still regenerating.

“No trace of Thomas,” Ian continued, turning from the hospital window to face Ti in the bed. “If he really returned from Earth. The ship landed after dark, Johnson and his driver were the only ones who met the ship. There’s no record of anyone getting off, it was just assumed Thomas did. The ship left a couple hours later, which was not SOP. Usual practice, the crew was released until time for the next shipment. Johnson’s dead, so’s his driver, neck broken, either in the crash or when you—” He felt Ti’s confirmation, sent her a mental “Well done.”

“Problems here started after Etaff,” he continued. “Added all together, we’ve got delayed deployment of the new fighters to the Fleet, flawed laser quality diamonds, disappearing obsolete fighter shells and parts, ex-pilots talking about action and speaking of whom, guess who were on a shuttle that left here the day after Torin died? Somebody’s starting their own private air wing.”

“TATT. Has to be them, but why?” Frustration colored Ti’s voice. “The Treaty doesn’t come up for renewal for nearly ten years. ‘We’re in on the start.’ The start of what? What the hell is TATT up to?” Ti snapped. Then took a deep breath and looked at Ian. “We’ll brief the agents, have Stacey widen her search. Somebody, somewhere, knows what the hell’s going on and we’re going to find him and make him talk.”

Ian walked over, rested a hand on Ti’s shoulder. Strength, not as intense but just as powerful, flowed through the touch. “Should’ve left you in that alley.”

She reached up, covered his hand with her own. “And missed all the fun?”

 

Stunted

By T.C. Hansen

 

“I learned in war, hospitals are to practice being dead,” Father runs his finger over an old scar. It is stretched and distended now, because of how he has gained and lost so much weight so many times since then, like a squirrel or a bird or a bear eating and starving with the seasons. “To practice being outside yourself. You can see little plastic bellows pumping their lungs; you can see their heartbeat and brainwaves, splattered up on screens. Anyone can just see all of this. Their waste too, just sitting in pans. When the tubes in their arms back up, you see their blood. Everything’s outside of ’em except their soul. The soul’s just lookin’ out through the eyes, and the blood and heart and brain are saying ‘hey, come on out with us. It’s nice out here.’ Everything’s just getting spread out; jumping ship.”

He leaves then, and it does not feel good. It feels like the happiness that is fusing my bones together in this box. I do not remember ever being out of the box, though I must have been at some time. (How terrifying!)

Father rarely comes to speak at me, and I do not think he has ever heard my voice. Only my screams when I am so happy that I cannot keep it in. I am a very good screamer; sometimes Father cries for the beauty of it and lets me drink from the bottle that Mother uses to clean my infections and sores. It tastes like poisoned glass, but it is good for Father’s insides and my outsides.

Mother is praying now, and I can hear her through the wall, which is thin like a moth’s wing or a piece of peeled skin. “Dear God, almighty and powerful,” she starts her prayer in the usual way, “Nothing is impossible for you, for it was you that created the Earth, and it was you who formed the sea.”

I almost had my arm sawed off because of an infection one year ago, but Mother saved it with the rags and pills she made me swallow by pinching my nose.

“It was you that enforced the peace accord of the Enjoined nations, and it was you who set the jewelling stars in the heavens.”

Because I am in this box like a turtle is in his shell, my body cannot grow when it tries to, so my bones and muscles and fibers are always pushing and shoving one another until they make me scream so loud the window rattles a little bit. I cannot move a single finger. Not a single one.

I hate to boast.

“It is you that guides the seasons and it is you who provided low-interest mortgages for families with one or more child volunteered for The Enjoined Construction Service.”

All this jittering energy is happiness, my parents tell me, trying to explode outward. I now understand why Father is such a greatly unhappy man. I admire him for finding so many ways to be unhappy, and I hope to be as unhappy as him some day.

“In all your omnipotence and your Economic Acumen, please keep our son Cren’s box intact, for we cannot build him a new one. If this box breaks, his body will grow like a normal boy, and he will not become a deformed person. And who wants to see a normal boy perform on a great stage? So, in your highest wisdom and well-above-average intelligence, allow our Cren to become deformed, that he may be an entertainer, and never want for food.”

Because my bones are pushing against themselves to grow, but have no space for it, one bone in my arm split into two directions so it had more space to grow into. One part grew out through my skin and it became infected, but my mother made it so I did not lose my arm to a Green Gang. I do not know this gang, but they were going to saw off my arm, like another gang burned one of Father’s hands in acid when he did not pay his Tithe.

“You will know God one day.” Mother walks in the door and sits cross-legged before my box. “When we sell you to the city people and they make you a famous entertainer. They do love deformed people in the city. How they laugh.”

I wonder if being loved would make me unhappy. I do not think Mother loves Father, and he is very unhappy.

“You will always have food,” she says, “and you will be civilized. You will know God. Perhaps you’ll perform for him one day. All the best performers go to his Keep and perform for him. I heard he has floors of smooth stone there.”

Mother goes down by the sea sometimes to stand on rocks. There is one smooth one she has found, which fits exactly one of her feet on it at a time. I can see her from my window down there, with one foot on the stone and one lifted in the air. I have not always been able to see her, because there used to be a house in the way. But the owners moved away, following everyone else who moved away, and Father burned down their house in spite. They owed him money when they moved away. They left their dog behind, but he is gone now.

I didn’t get any. Mother and Father only feed me leaves. This way, it is hard for my body to grow.

Not to interrupt her, I wrinkle my nose, so Mother knows to pull open the bottom plank of the box and clean the offal out of it and off of me. She sees this and does so, sermonizing on the handsomeness of God’s mustache, and saying she would, if it were legal, persuade Father to grow a mustache like that. It is quite a handsome mustache. This is why it is only legal for God to grow it and to look so handsome.

I think about hairs, starting in little follicles inside one’s skin and growing out, and I begin to breathe too hard and get dizzy. Mother mistakenly thinks it’s because the box is open, and she closes the plank, but I keep breathing too much air and inflating with it and I start to feel like I might expand and break the box, and I can’t breathe at all now, my lungs are billowing faster than ever but no air is getting in. Mother wraps herself around my head so I can see nothing, like I’m in a soft warm cave, and I can no longer feel my heartbeat tremoring the wood planks of the box. Her ribs press into my face through her leather skin.

I am okay now, I say, and she tells me how my brother is one of God’s monks, though he’s never met God personally. Still, he considers it an honor to be undertaking the holy work on God’s construction sites. That is what the letters say—see? They even taught him to read and write. Mother only knows to read because her father used to work in the city before God took the throne. Well, he made it first. Then took it. Father can follow along reading with her, but cannot read on his own. Brother had to pay for the courses and equipment himself, where they taught him about construction and safety. His work is volunteer, but he pays off for the courses by working more than his assigned sixty hours each week. Now he helps build a regional headquarters Temple of God, in a plains city, I think.

Father comes in and doesn’t hit Mother. In each hand, he holds out to her half of her flatrock. “It broke when I shot it.” She starts to weep. “My aim’s getting better,” he says with an eyebrow motion and a flick of his wrist so slight I think it might just be his shakes. She stops crying and just pushes my hair back over my ears. Father drops half of the stone so he has a hand to wrap around the bottle by Mother’s rags and drinks from it. He leaves the room, humming through the wet mouthful. He tried to drown me once, but I don’t remember it.

Mother tries to tilt the half-stone just so on the floor so she can stand on it with the pad of her foot if she lifts her heel up. Her calf muscles pop out like Father’s neck muscles, but she keeps falling. My bones screech, and I take the opportunity to let out some tears, so she’ll think that I am crying from sympathy instead of from the tectonic grind of happiness inside me. (A number of my ribs are fused together, like a tree grafting its branches onto itself.)

“When we die, Cren, our spirits fly out, and they get an office in God’s Regional Temple. For us, this is Temple K-143. We get to live on beams in the sky and call those who have not paid their tithes this quarter to inform them of the interest accruing and the enforcers coming to collect from them.” She cries at the beauty, “We’ll each have our own office.”

*****

A letter from my brother today:

 

Respected Family Members,

Work on the construction in Region  N-18   is progressing as planned. Praise be to God’s Economic Acumen, which has provided sufficient funding for my food and housing. I have performed  Adequately  in the eyes of God, and of his on-site supervisor,  Tarko Flek . You should feel a level of pride in me appropriate to the level at which I have performed. Remember that your Tithes are due at the end of this  3rd quarter, Godtober 14th .

This exchange has been pleasant and rewarding.

 Selli Forst (deceased)  

 

Mother says he writes like a poet. I have never read a poet, but I do not doubt Mother. Father merely grunts and puts a chapped finger under the last word. “Think that’s a promotion?”

“It must be,” Mother says, “Last time he was a ‘recaptured–awaiting trial’ and before that a ‘deserted.’”

“He’s come a long way since ‘Brother of the Order of the Fork Lift’, hasn’t he?”

Mother folds up the letter and tucks it bird-like into her bosom. “I’m going to try to feel an adequate level of pride now.” She sits cross-legged and stares at the ground determinedly.

I feel the cold hard mouth of the bottle between my teeth, and I accept the wet fire Father pours down my throat. It is warm inside my box, and it makes the happiness go dim for awhile. It replaces it with something pleasant.

“I wonder if he’ll meet God soon,” Mother moons.

*****

Their Tithe is due next week, so they have decided it is time to sell me. Mother spends the morning trying to balance on her half flatstone while Father makes space for me and my box on the cart.

The road bumps and jars and makes my face twitch with happiness, and I feel so very well-contained in my box. The bone that grew out of my arm has skin grown over it now, so even that is contained, except for a small nub at the end that looks like a horn or a fingernail. The thought of someone buying me and taking me out of my box is worrisome. What if I dissolve when the wind hits me and my box is not here to hold me together?

Father cracks open a nut, and I shudder.

We reach a clump of buildings, and Mother and Father run frantically screaming in all directions. I didn’t know buildings could curve like this. Where do they keep the corners? When they calm, Father slams Mother with her rock and her foot cracks under it. He explains to me (though he is too close and loud for me to clearly hear him, so I mostly gather the message from his amputated echoes) that this, this, it used to be our fucking city, our fucking. GAH. People. All left. Gone. No one to… to buy, to sell, to fuckingfucking fuck. Shit (shit–it–it–i–i). He goes back to kick Mother on the ground, but she stabs his calf with some glass she found. Her hand bleeds too, from how she held the shard while stabbing. A strange old man walks out from a side street, pulling a cart behind him. When Father sees the man through his tears, he scrambles to his foot and drags himself over to the white-hair and tells him about me. “Just look at him. Hilarious! And he has this nub growing out of one of his arms. Imagine the fun you could have, showing him off!”

The old man silently rummages through his cart and brings out a bottle of Father’s drink.

“No, no. Money. We need to pay our Tithe.”

The old man thrusts the bottle at him again. Father looks around at the city, then holds up two fingers. The old man pulls another bottle out of his cart and hands them both over. Father and Mother cheer, and she takes her locket off to put it around my neck. “God be with you,” she hastily murmurs, returning to the cart with her hand wrapped in her skirt, limping so Father has to support her on the side that he crushed her foot.

When they leave, the old man looks at the locket. “They’re still using that old picture, huh?” he asks. This is when I recognize his mustache and faint.

I come back awake.

“But your hair is so white,” I say.

“That’s what thirty years does,” he tells me. “Are they still rolling out those old videos on TV too?” he asks me, and I nod. “Smart. No signs of a struggle. That’s why they’re up in their skyscrapers, running the world, and we’re here, trying to trap some wolf meat.”

This is when I notice that my box is gone, and I am laying on the ground naked. My body is still pulled all together much in the shape of a box though. My muscles have never been used, and when I try to struggle, my legs sort of flutter, and that is all. “I see you’re thinking of running away,” he says, and laughs very hard. His knife is serrated, and just one tug pulls my side open. The blood oozes out in starts and stops, which seems strange until I realize it must be my heartbeat pushing it out. I howl for God to help me, but he shrinks back into the bushes with his pistol and knife in hand. A wolf howls somewhere close. Everything starts to go warm and far, and finally, I’m not happy anymore. Not happy at all.

 

The Out of Time Motel

by D. Gansen

 

I heard thunder roll behind me like a faraway drum solo. “Oh man,” I muttered. It was dark and I was lost somewhere south of the interstate in the middle of North Dakota. Now, I was going to get caught in a storm and I was driving my dad’s ’69 Boss Mustang. The thought of hail deflowering its pristine, black, shiny-as-glass lacquer, made a lump of anguish jiggle in my stomach. It was the second car my dad ever owned, and he was pretty much in love with it; but on my seventeenth birthday, he handed me the keys and title. I almost started to bawl. I didn’t though, because men don’t cry over sentimental stuff.

My headlights made a puddle of light that led me down the road, but all around me was the prairie darkness. Then, like a miracle, as the first drops of rain fell, I saw a light ahead. I put my foot down and pretty soon I could read the sign. Individual yellow light bulbs lined up to announce: Out of Time Motel. It wasn’t a very reassuring name, but I turned in anyway and was relieved that the parking lot was asphalt, not gravel. The paint, you know. I stopped under the green fiberglass awning and smiled to myself as the rain tapped on it, trying in vain to get to my car.

I rolled down the window and looked through the wall of glass into the office and saw some chairs and the registration counter. There was no clerk, but all the lights were on and the neon sign beside the door told me that there was a vacancy.

I grabbed my duffle bag out of the back seat and went in. It was Dad’s duffle bag from when he was in the Guard. I wasn’t sentimental about it. It was just handy.

The little brass bell on the door jingled and startled me, and by the time I turned back to the counter, a young woman was standing behind it, looking at me. She didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. Women stare at me all the time. Why not? I’m twenty-five, tall, and good looking.

“I found you just in time,” I said, gesturing behind me. It had started to rain hard. By then, I was beginning to get the impression that she wasn’t admiring me—she was studying me.

“It’s only going to get worse, too,” she remarked.

I could only see her from the waist up and it struck me as odd that someone so young would be wearing a crisp, short-sleeved white blouse and have her hair all humped up like Mom did when she was a kid. She made me think of Laura Petrie on that old TV show, Dick Van Dyke.

On the counter, a book lay open. She took the silver pen from its stand and offered it to me. When I got closer, I saw that she was holding a fountain pen. I had only seen those in old movies. The register was one of those books that you write your name and license plate number in.

The girl must’ve seen that I was puzzled, because she explained, “My boss is a nostalgia freak.” She pointed to the lobby and I noticed that the furniture was low and tailored and that gross avocado green like the toaster Mom threw away a long time ago. On the brown Formica-topped coffee table were magazines with names I didn’t recognize. One had a picture of the old president, John F. Kennedy, on it.

The girl took my credit card and, to my amazement, put it through one of those manual machines that makes a carbon copy of the number on a piece of paper.

“Out of Time Motel must mean out of step with time,” I said, giving her one of my charming smiles.

She looked at my card before handing it back to me. “Well, John, everything is relative.” That seemed like an odd thing to say and I was beginning to feel awkward, but she continued. “Cable hasn’t made it out here and we’re out of reach of any cell towers. Consider yourself in the mid twentieth century, it will be less stressful.”

“No problem,” I said, but took a look at my phone and felt like a junkie looking at an empty nickel bag. I nodded at the door on my right. “Is that a diner next door?” Just then a bolt of lightning brightened the room like an atom bomb flash, instantly followed by a staggering explosion. I ducked instinctively. “Jesus!” I yelled. “That was close!” Then hail started to fall out of the sky like white buckshot.

The girl was perfectly calm and glanced around the room. “Good. It’s still the twentieth century.” I assumed she was kidding and smiled. Then she pointed towards an alcove where an antique vending machine stood beside an even more ancient Coke machine that looked like a big metal cooler. “Diner’s closed for the winter. There are plenty of stale cheese crackers.”

I squinted at the vending machine—all fake wood and buzzing fluorescent lights. My stomach growled.

“How about a hot dog?” she asked. “Put your bag in your room and come back.” She handed me a key on a ring with a plastic tag.

*****

The room was the same as the lobby: all ’60’s and ’70’s furniture. Everything looked new. “Reproduction,” I told myself. I didn’t think about it much, though. Decorating is a woman thing.

Back in the lobby, I checked the nameplate on the registration desk. “Stella?” I asked it. “Who names their kid ‘Stella’?”

“Come on back, Johnny,” Stella shouted. Nobody had called me “Johnny” since I was thirteen and announced that I would no longer answer to it. My grandfather’s name had been John, and I wanted to be like him.

I passed the desk and stepped through an open door. Now I seemed to be in Great Aunt Lilly’s living room. There was dark, stuffed furniture and a big wooden cabinet like hers. She had called it a sideboard. A record was spinning on the phonograph and a woman was singing something about the “white cliffs of Dover.” Because of my interest in the Second World War, I knew it was a song from the 1940s. I looked down at the bomber pilot’s jacket I was wearing. It had been Granddad’s way back then.

“Hey Johnny,” Stella called again. I would have to tell her to lay off the “Johnny” bit.

She was in the kitchen, pulling hot dogs out of a pot of boiling water with tongs. The pot was avocado green, the stove was avocado green, the refrigerator was… you guessed it. I had returned to the ’70s. As I put my hand on the back of one of the chrome and plastic chairs, I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and turned. Sitting just inside the back door was the biggest German shepherd that I had ever seen. He was making purposeful eye contact with me, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had said, “Wie geht’s?”

“That’s Mr. Beretta,” Stella said.

I put my coat on the back of the chair and sat, but Mr. Beretta did not take his eyes off me. “Has he killed anybody lately?” I asked. I squirted ketchup out of a bottle that looked like it belonged in the diner.

“It’s been awhile,” she said.

I looked up to make sure she was kidding, but now she was staring at my coat.

“It’s a bomber jacket,” I said. “Granddad was a B-17 pilot in the Second World War. A B-17 is a…”

“Bomber plane,” she finished. “I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars for it.”

I choked on the bite of hot dog I’d just taken.

“Okay, two thousand. Cash.”

I loved that jacket even more than I loved the Mustang. Not in a sentimental way. It’s just that it was so cool.

“No!” I said louder than was necessary.

Mr. Beretta’s ears perked up.

“Okay. Relax.” Stella sat back and folded her arms.

I could feel her eyeing me. I ate in case it was going to be my last meal. Two hot dogs later, she let me in on what she was thinking.

“Johnny,” she started. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Ghosts! What next? Wasn’t this place weird enough? “I never thought about it,” I said, “but they seem like sentimental wishful thinking or too much imagination to me.” Neither of those conditions cluttered my mind.

Stella sighed. “Yes. Humans do a lot of wishful thinking. But,” she continued, “there are places in the universes where essences, or one of your imaginative people might say ‘spirits,’ get caught.” She glanced at her watch and got up. “We have time. Let me show you what I mean.”

The hot dogs were flailing around in my stomach. I had to go; I couldn’t outrun Mr. Beretta. The dog gave way so she could open the back door, and he and I followed her out onto the cement patio.

I thought I was losing my mind. The surface, open to the elements, was dry. The sky was clear and glittering with constellations, but I could still hear the thunder and the rain.

Stella raised her arm and pointed to our left: westward. It was darker than the inside of my closet where I used to hide when my poor little sister screamed because no one could understand the sounds she made. She was trapped in her head, inhabiting her own strange world. Now I was trapped in this one.

About two hundred yards away, a glow was silently moving and growing. I considered running, but I wasn’t afraid. It was just instinct, I guess. It took a long time for me to make out its shape—their shape, and when I did, I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them, but it didn’t help.

Six ghostly horses and their ghostly riders were charging towards us. It was like watching the negative print of an old western movie. Hooves churned, spurs flew, the men gestured and their lips moved, but I couldn’t hear them.

As they passed I could see every detail in glowing white. Their hats were stained with sweat, their long mustaches fluttered, their six-shooters glittered and their rifles flapped in their scabbards. Then they carried on with their chase or flight, gradually disappearing into the east.

I closed my gaping mouth, sucked in a lungful of cold air and shouted, “What the hell was that?”

Stella waved at the flicker they had become. “I call it the ‘posse’. In 1866 they rode into that canyon after a gang that had robbed a bank and killed five people. The posse was ambushed and murdered. Now, they’re trapped in the Vortex, and every Friday night they ride into that canyon. And I don’t know how to help them.” When she and Mr. Beretta went in, I stood like an idiot staring after them.

I wasn’t scared. Granddad wasn’t scared when he piloted his shot-up B-17 toward England after bombing the hell out of Germany. Even when he realized he couldn’t make it, he kept it level so the crew could bail out. He was a hero and I wanted to be like him. So I went inside and started yelling. “What the hell was that?” Mr. Beretta glared but I didn’t care. “Who are you? Why did you show me that?”

Stella looked at me with her dark calm eyes. She put two cans of beer on the table and opened them with a pointed can opener. I sat down in a hurry and took a couple of big gulps.

“Johnny,” Stella started. I scowled at her and she tried again. “John, if I didn’t need your help, I wouldn’t have shown you and I wouldn’t have brought you here.”

“Brought me? I’m on my way to see…” I couldn’t finish while she was shaking her head.

“Your cousin in Wyoming would be very surprised to see you.”

Marley and I had exchanged emails. “Are you some kind of hacker?” I asked.

Again she shook her head. “I’m the most powerful Vortex guardian in all the universes. If it pertains to my job, I can do almost anything—almost.”

This was either silly or very serious. “Vortex,” I repeated. Mom and Dad liked to go to Sedona, Arizona, so I knew something about this. “Isn’t that supposed to be in Sedona where the hippies go for the vibes and you can get your palm read cheap?”

“We’ve provided that area with some atmosphere,” Stella said casually. She was saying all of this like we were just passing the time of day in simple gossip. I let her go on because I didn’t know what to say. “I can’t have a bunch of humans hanging around here,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. Even the Lakota Sioux won’t come within two miles of this spot. They don’t know what it is, but they don’t want to mess with it, either. You Europeans would come in droves because it would seem miraculous, and you know how you are when it comes to the possibility of a miracle.”

I wasn’t sure but I didn’t say so.

“I guard the Vortex because it can serve as a passage. It can be a passage between universes, dimensions, planes, times… or any combination of those. Things get through from time to time and I have to catch them and send them back. I imagine you’ve seen some of the TV shows about chupacabra or werewolves or UFOs. They didn’t get through my Vortex, but all the guardians aren’t as watchful as I am.”

I’m not superstitious at all, so this all sounded crazy to me, but I’m as curious as the next guy and it didn’t look like they were going to kill me, so I went along with it. “Vortex,” I said again. “Is that where the posse came from?”

She turned her head away and scratched the brow of Mr. Beretta who had come to sit on the floor beside her. “No. They died so close to the Vortex that a part of them got trapped. The energy of the Vortex holds them here. Even if the person doesn’t die here, if something that’s, let’s say ‘imbued with their spirit’ is brought here, the Vortex will draw out that spirit and hold it, too.” She gestured in the direction of the diner.

I turned to look at it through the window. There were lights on inside. “I thought it was closed,” I said, then felt sick when she replied.

“It is.” She rose and leaned over the sink and opened the window. I could hear music.

*****

Stella turned and looked me in the eye and asked, “Scared, John? Do you want to see why I brought you here and why I wanted your coat?”

I wasn’t scared when I dug my fingers into the fleece lining of Granddad’s coat, just wary. Great Aunt Lilly gave me the coat for my eighteenth birthday. It had been one of the few things left of Granddad’s. Grandma burned everything she could get her hands on after he died. I never knew Grandma, so I asked Great Aunt Lilly about that. She told me that Grandma had been angry. I had to push her pretty hard and use my favorite nephew status to get her to say more, and even then, she averted her eyes and said that her brother had not been quite faithful to Grandma. That didn’t seem like a reason to burn a guy’s stuff. Granddad had been a kid back then, and Grandma hadn’t gone with him to South Dakota where he got his training. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he had a fling.

Great Aunt Lilly had given me a picture, too. It was a picture of Granddad and his crew standing in front of their bomber. She had always told me I looked like him and the picture proved it. There he was: young, smiling, hat cocked to one side, hands in the pockets of his jacket—now my jacket. It could have been me standing there. Great Aunt Lilly had the jacket because Granddad had forgotten it the last time he left—when he left and never came back.

“Show me,” I said. If Granddad wasn’t afraid to fly that sputtering plane on two engines until all the other guys in that picture got out, even though he knew it would be too late for him to escape, I guessed I could face a ghost.

I followed her back to the lobby but the dog stayed behind. To make sure she knew I wasn’t scared, I made a joke. “Is he a guardian, too?”

Stella didn’t laugh. “Yes. He chose to be a dog this time.”

I kept quiet as we entered the lobby and passed through the door to the diner. I prepared myself for what might be in there. I hugged Granddad’s coat. Great Aunt Lilly told me that his last words to her were, “Don’t worry about me.” Of course she worried about him. He had been on his way back to the war, back to flying that big heavy airplane six hours one way, all the time taking fire from the ground and from the sky; and six hours back to England, concentrating, muscling those primitive controls, putting the danger out of his mind while he tried to find his way home and keep his men alive.

I stepped into the diner. Was it built yesterday? The chrome gleamed, the plastic was smooth and the colors were intense in the sunny fluorescent light. The jukebox glowed, and a hundred little bulbs on its front flashed red, then blue, then green. It was playing some peppy, swingy music and I wondered who had put their quarters (no, it said five cents) into the slot and pushed the buttons.

Stella glanced at her dainty little watch again and gestured me to one of the turquoise upholstered booths. “The owner had this diner brought up from Rapid City,” she said. “The Vortex took it over.” She put a finger to her lips.

I heard voices. They were faint at first, but as they got louder, the speakers became visible. A group of six teenagers appeared beside the jukebox. They were talking and laughing and dancing a little. The girls were wearing full, calf-length skirts and white socks and loafer shoes. The boys were wearing white t-shirts and jeans with the hems rolled up a few times. They were wearing white socks and loafers, too. They didn’t seem to notice us.

The middle-aged couple now sitting at the counter didn’t notice us, either, or the guy with a newspaper sitting a few stools away. There was a pale young man behind the counter who put a cup of coffee down in front of the newspaper man, then leaned his elbows on the speckled Formica of the counter. He sighed and wiped something off his cheek.

The bell on the door jingled, and I craned my neck over the booth to see. Another young man had come in, but this one… My heart punched me in the chest. He was wearing khaki flight overalls and a bomber captain’s hat. He looked just like me. Stella grabbed my arm to keep me from getting up. “Wait,” she whispered.

The newcomer smiled happily and approached the counter. “Greg!” he said to the other young man. “I’m back!” There was no response or acknowledgement. The young man in the coveralls, Granddad, stepped back and frowned.

Stella released me. I jumped up and yelled, “Granddad!”

The young man looked at me for a minute. Of course he didn’t know who in the hell I was or why I was calling him “granddad.” He didn’t even know he had a son. Dad was born eight months after he left—two after he died.

I wonder what he thought as he realized that I was his double. My heart banged against my chest again as he crossed the twenty feet that separated us. I couldn’t speak, but he said, “Who the hell are you?” It never occurred to him to be afraid at the sudden appearance of a strangely dressed doppelganger.

I had to swallow hard before I managed to say, “John Dealy.”

His green eyes didn’t flicker, but there was a long pause and I could tell he was thinking, trying to make sense of it. He looked slowly around the diner, letting his eyes linger on the young man behind the counter. Finally he said, “I’m John Dealy.”

The lump came up in my throat again and tears were trying to squeeze their way into my eyes, but I certainly wasn’t going to cry in front of a fearless war hero. “I know. Dad wanted me named after you.”

“Who’s your dad?”

“Gavin Dealy. Grandma’s name was Marge and I had a Great Aunt Lilly.”

The young man blinked. “Marge,” Granddad murmured. His green eyes darkened like mine do when I’m sad, then they brightened and he said, “Little Lilly.” There was another long silence since, apparently, I had been struck dumb. He was more resilient than me. “How long has it been?” he asked.

I glanced at Stella, but she wouldn’t step in.

“Sixty-six years,” I said.

“They must all be gone by now.”

“Your whole crew survived, Granddad.” I was excited to be able to tell him that. “Three of ’em lived long enough to see your name on the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.” I don’t think that meant much to him. Did they even call it World War II back then? “I even talked to one of ’em five years ago. His name was Coffee. He said great things about you.” That old man had reinforced my desire to be like my granddad.

The young man in front of me smiled. He remembered them as he had known them: young, like him. “They were good kids.”

“You’re a hero, Granddad. You saved them.”

At that, he looked at me hard and I thought he was angry, but his green eyes softened before he said, “It wasn’t heroic, I was responsible for them.”

“Was it scary?” I dared whisper.

“Not for long.”

“You were scared?” The words got stuck in my throat for a second.

“Sure,” Granddad said. “Anybody who says they’ve never been scared is either stupid or a liar.” He was matter-of-fact about it. Then I saw that he was looking at my coat—his coat. I was clutching it. I must’ve seemed like a kid hugging his security blanket, like Suzy hung on to that goofy stuffed elephant I won at a carnival. He must’ve wondered where I got his old coat.

“Great Aunt Lilly gave it to me just before she… died.” I continued without thinking. “Grandma burned everything else.”

Granddad rubbed his chin and once again turned his head to see the sad young man at the counter. “Well, I don’t blame her,” he finally said. “She gave me a break though, and promised not to tell anyone else.” He went on before I had a chance to ask what he meant. “I don’t suppose you know what happened to…” he gestured with his chin towards the counter, “Greg.”

I didn’t even know who Greg was, but Stella said softly behind me, “He committed suicide when he found out you were dead.”

I was surprised when tears filled those green eyes that were just like mine. “Poor kid,” he said. Then he looked at Stella. “Why can’t he see me?”

“You’re on different planes. It’s like there’s a wall between you.”

A tear ran down Granddad’s cheek.

“Give him the coat, John,” Stella said. “They’ve both touched it at the same time. It will bring them together.”

That’s why she had wanted my coat. She was a determined Vortex guardian.

Granddad looked at me. He wanted it bad, I could tell. I knew I would give it to him, but it was hard to get my arms to hold it out. When he touched it, I suddenly felt bigger somehow. I knew he felt it, too, because his eyes widened. We both held it. I didn’t want to let go. Maybe he didn’t either, but that other young man was more important to him than a stranger like me.

My hands opened slowly and I gave him one of those trembly, screwed up smiles people do when they’re about to burst into tears. That young man, war hero, and my grandfather saluted me. “Thank you, Johnny,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Thank you.”

I saluted him, like a little kid imitating an adult, like that little boy in the pictures of John Kennedy’s funeral.

Then my granddad put on the jacket.

Suddenly, the young man at the counter straightened, grinned, and yelled, “Johnny!” He jumped up and easily slid over the counter. He ran into Granddad’s arms. I could tell he was crying.

It was more than the hug of two casual friends, and I think I know why Grandma had been so angry, but I felt glad for them. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I didn’t even notice when the jukebox went silent, or when the teenagers disappeared, or the middle-aged couple, or the newspaper man. Even after the two young men faded away, I kept staring at the empty place.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but eventually I realized that I still had my arm raised in that final gesture of respect. It was pretty sentimental of me.

“You did it, John,” Stella said.

I didn’t even turn around when I said, “You can call me Johnny.” Granddad had been scared, so it was okay for me to be scared. Granddad had cried and been sentimental, so I could be those things, too. I felt my shoulders shake and, for the first time since I was thirteen, I heard myself sob. I had told myself so many times that men don’t cry. When Great Aunt Lilly died, I had stood, stone-faced in front of her coffin. My dog, Jake, had gone to sleep for the last time while, dry-eyed, I had held his paw. And Suzy… poor little Suzy, screaming and screaming because she couldn’t make anyone understand her. Poor Suzy, with her face frozen into a squint so nobody could tell she was smiling—nobody but me. I should have cried for her.

I was sad, but somehow, I felt relieved, too. It was like Granddad’s coat had been something heavy and letting go of it had changed me. After I blew my nose and rubbed my face dry, I returned to Stella and said, “He was a hero.”

*****

That Vortex guardian and I talked for a long time about what had happened and how she could help the other inhabitants of the diner. Later, in the ’70s-inspired hotel room, I slept like a man with a clear conscience and a clean bill of health.

By the time I was ready to leave, it was nine a.m. I had my duffel bag but not my coat when I left the room and walked into a bright, cool day. A lot had changed out there.

The parking lot asphalt was broken and weedy. The sign was leaning and peeling. I turned to look at the building. The Out of Time Motel had turned into a broken down relic: a matriarch who looked her age. I don’t know why I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was all surprised out.

I walked to my car, which was now sitting under a dangerously leaning awning, and tossed my bag into the back seat. I turned to the plywood wall which had once been glass and saw a little sign stapled where the door had been. Written in faded black marker was one final message from the past: Closed.

 

Puck’s

by Kellen C. Parr

 

There is something unusual about Puck’s. Its façade is wholly unremarkable, not unlike those of half a dozen other bars and clubs on Ionia Street, or a thousand other establishments in a thousand other cities across America. The selection of spirits is respectable, while twenty varieties of beer flow from its taps. Puck’s clientele is ordinary, the expected mix of the young and the faded, beauty new-minted and tarnished, the pompously naïve and the casualties of a thousand concessions. It is neither the latest thing nor the proverbial dive.

Nonetheless, there is something unusual about Puck’s.

Since it lies not on the surface, nobody talks about it, few even acknowledge it. It is on the tips of tongues, the edge of awareness. If you step through its doors, you can sense the difference, but only as an indefinable thing best left ignored. Even the most obvious is often overlooked when it makes people uncomfortable, and the secret of Puck’s is nothing so glaring.

Thus, the patrons go about the timeless business of drowning sorrow and concern without reservation, ignorant and unafraid. Pints vanish over the course of the night, taking inhibitions with them. The people are happy, if only for the dark hours, and usually nothing happens that does not happen every night countless times the world over.

But, now and again, something occurs.

Somewhere in the fugue, people are lost. Never many, not terribly often, but it does happen. Patrons simply… vanish. It is nothing dramatic, nothing you can watch with your eyes of flesh and blood. Still, it happens all the same, as surely as the sun rises. Sometimes, people who go into Puck’s never come back out.

When it happens, it goes like this…

*****

Greta was twenty, though her driver’s license declared her almost twenty-two. Unlike most photographic IDs, it did not lie about her appearance—she really did look like the girl in the picture, who was lightly freckled, strawberry blonde, and wholesomely pretty, if not beautiful. More than once, she had worried that it was too good a photo for a license, a giveaway that it was counterfeit.

But she was cute, and disarmingly coy besides, so few doormen ever questioned the ID.

The burly guard at Puck’s scarcely glanced at it before admitting her, along with three friends (two of them legal) to the bar. They wound their way through the dark, warm press of strangers to the counter and ordered drinks. Greta got an appletini, and a wink from the thirtyish bartender.

The girls—for girls they were still, only pretending to be young women—drank and chattered, laughing and growing steadily drunker as the night deepened. They accepted the tithes of the men and boys who approached, full of hope and swagger and clichés. One of them was nice enough, and handsome enough, that Greta agreed to dance with him, although she knew it would go no further. Her friends took to the floor as well, a few paces off, close enough to keep an eye on her. They didn’t do so, because they were drunk, but they could have.

Soon enough, Greta lost the boy in the confusion, the tangle of limbs and swirling hair. She thought about sitting down for a bit, having a breather and maybe another cocktail, something vivid, tropical. But still she felt the lure of the dance floor, the energy generated by all those people, so she stayed. Through the flash and haze, she made her way over to her trio of friends. After a few seconds of shouting and futile gesticulating they abandoned communication, surrendering to the music. It pulsed and throbbed, in ears, chests, veins, compelling movement, urging all who heard it to let go, be free, live.

So, Greta let go.

She swayed and spun, stomped and thrust to the beat. Some time later, she noticed she was no longer amongst her friends, but it did not occur to her to worry. She danced. Before that night, prior to that moment, she had not believed people could be so moved by music. It resonated within her, intoxicating and wonderful. Reveling in the sound and color, Greta barely noticed that most of the faces around her were unfamiliar. She was not dancing with those who had walked into Puck’s that evening. There were faces from a myriad of ages, souls who had danced since first the music played. They moved with her, every dancer knowing the next footfall, the next twirl, the next gyration as intimately as she knew the curves of her own body.

And so Greta was lost.

Her friends left Puck’s with vague memories of her stepping out with that boy, or saying she didn’t feel well and would find her own way home, not to worry. It was all confusing, muddled in their minds. Then, gradually, they forgot. Even though they were truly her friends, one of them for near a decade, they forgot Greta. So did the world. She had slipped through the cracks, evanesced from a real person, to a memory, to nothing at all.

In the old days, the times when belief was as strong as anything, people spoke of fairy rings. Children were warned against such snares, told how they could become caught up in a reel not of the waking world. Back then, folk knew the danger of the music, the peril of such delight.

Today, they simply forget.

 

I Hope You Like Seawater

by Meghan Stigge

 

Oliver Wellton woke with sand in his mouth and thunder in his head. He blinked his dry eyes and wished he had stopped three cups earlier than he had the night before. Perhaps then he would have woken comfortable and cool on his mat within the acropolis walls rather than hot, on a beach of pebbles, and staring at the naked asscheeks of his friend just a few feet away.

As he rolled to sit up, Oliver inhaled the ocean breeze and shifted a bit further into the shade of the brush. He knew that the rising sun on the beaches of Rhodos shifted the air from life-affirming to brutal quite early.

He looked over at what he could see of Philip again and grinned despite his blooming headache.

“Wake!” he said, pelting Philip on the right cheek with a small stone. Philip flinched and fumbled at the pants around his knees as he rolled to see what had hit him. His face of alarm quickly turned to a sheepish grin as he met Oliver’s eye. It then bordered on embarrassment when the woman beside Philip propped herself up and straightened her dress.

“Good morning, sweet lovers,” Oliver told them both. He decided to face the situation directly. “May I express my delight that my presence did nothing to prevent your…” he coughed, “discourse last night.”

The woman looked directly at Oliver.

“Never fear,” he told her. “Philip’s secrets, and therefore, yours, are forever safe with me. And,” he added, “you can go home this morning assured that you picked a fiercely kind and honorable man to… engage in discourse with last night. Philip will do right by you.”

A solitary eyebrow went up on the young woman’s pretty face. Then a look came over her that Oliver didn’t recognize. “He did well enough by me already last night, sir,” she said. “I only regret that you were here.”

Oliver looked at Philip, who grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

Philip stood and offered his hand to the woman. “Please allow me to see you to Hedgerow Street,” he said as he helped her to her feet. “Oliver. I’ll see you in the acropolis.”

Oliver nodded, and bid the lady farewell. As they left him, he sighed, rubbed his sore neck, and tried to remember exactly how the three of them had ended up sleeping on the beach. The morning’s ocean breeze was gentle and it lulled him into a vague recall of the previous night’s events. He remembered the plan to have a few cups on the tavern’s terrace after a long shift in the acropolis guard.

Yes, he definitely recalled the tavern terrace. They had toasted with their fellow knights, they hoped for advances from the townswomen, and the birra’s intoxicating effects had convinced them that they needed to see the nighttime photoluminescence of the sea flora washing ashore. And so the two knights and the woman had parted ways with the rest of their party and set off to indulge in what the Rhodians called Light-Gazing.

Except that Oliver was the only one who had done any Light-Gazing.

The previous night’s recall complete, Oliver stretched his arms and contemplated returning to the acropolis, and duty. He closed his eyes and drew a breath deep into his chest, summoning the energy to plod home. When he opened his eyes, a woman stood before him, dripping with salt water. He startled, confused at her sudden appearance.

“You’re on my beach,” she said.

He squinted up at her. The sun was positioned just behind her head, shadowing her face and bestowing her with an eye-piercing halo.

Your beach,” he said, stupidly.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

He ran a hand through his hair, willing his mind to function. “Well,” he said, “that’s a rather unfortunate story.”

“Never mind that,” she said with impatience. “Please leave. I have work to do. And if you try to poach my beach, I will make sure you have a ‘rather unfortunate’ accident.”

Oliver stared up at the shadow that was her face, more confused by the second. “Work? Poach? What?”

She grimaced and turned on her heel. “I mean it,” she yelled as she walked away. “Leave!”

Oliver watched as she walked away. The eclipse that she had made of the sun slipped away with her. In one fluid motion, she stepped gracefully into the sea, raised her arms, and dove beneath the waves. He sat for a few more minutes, trying to make sense of their exchange, but he never saw her surface.

*****

The cool walls of the acropolis and a splash of water on his face cleared his head well enough.

He reported to his station for the day, relieved the soldier in place, and assumed an attentive stance outside the door of the Didaskalos at work. His thoughts first turned to what advances might be happening on the other side of the door at that moment. The Didaskalos stationed on Rhodos were a mind trust of sorts, gathered from afar to study, imagine, create, and heal. Their genius was renowned and valuable, necessitating the specialized order of guards to which Oliver belonged. His curiosity about their work never diminished, even after standing watch to their efforts for years.

His thoughts then turned to the events of the morning. The woman’s sudden appearance had not made sense; her sharp words had not made sense; her disappearance had not made sense. And how had she managed to not surface during the time that he had stared at the sea? Perhaps she had, and he had simply not seen her in the sun’s glare off the water. He leaned slightly back, taking pleasure in the cool touch of the acropolis’s stone walls at his back.

He startled at the sudden crash of the door opening beside him and turned on alert when a very large bearded man strode through, then stopped to turn and pull the door shut behind him with a slam.

The man, dressed in a simple brown tunic, noticed Oliver and let out a grunt. “Thank Theos it’s you,” he bellowed from deep in his formidable belly. “Come. I won’t suffer their ignorance any longer today! I need to sit and talk with someone with common sense.”

The man was halfway down the hall before Oliver realized that the man was talking about him.

“Simon,” he called after the man. “I cannot leave my post.”

Simon answered without turning or breaking his lumbering stride. “Damn your post, man! They’ll be fine for the three minutes it takes to find a replacement. Come!”

Oliver smiled with relief. When a Didaskalos commanded, one had to comply.

“What have they done now?” he asked when he caught up.

“They’re uncompromising, nearsighted fools,” Simon sputtered. He spun, nearly causing Oliver to collide with his great belly. “Tell me, do you think that it is more likely that illness is caused by humours within us, or by something from outside that attacks our bodies?” He waited expectantly.

Oliver considered this. “It seems to me, Simon,” he said, “that civilization’s problems come from infighting as well as assaults from outside. Perhaps both apply to the body and illness as well.”

Simon stared at him. A cat mewed from far down the hall.

“Theos’ eye!” Simon finally cursed. “You belong in that room more than the lot of them!” Simon slapped Oliver on the back, hard, but with good nature.

They resumed walking, now at a more controlled pace. Oliver was relieved to hear Simon’s breathing even out. The man’s temperament had to put a strain on his body, and it made Oliver nervous. They passed a boy in the hallway, perhaps thirteen years old, and Simon told him to fetch a replacement guard from the knights’ barracks. Eyes wide, the boy scurried off to do the Didaskalos’s bidding.

“Now,” Simon said, “what mischief have you been into lately?”

Oliver’s jaw dropped in protest, shaking his head, but the sparkle in his eye belied him. “I avoid mischief at all costs, Simon.”

Simon guffawed. “As well as I avoid meat, wine, and buttered bread. Come, now. The grey in this beard and the weight on these knees puts me in bed quite early these days. Let me live some colorful nights through you.”

“Its colorful nights you’d hear of? I thought you were after common sense?” Oliver nudged Simon in the ribs. Simon swatted his arm away. “Well,” Oliver relented, “Philip certainly got into some mischief of his own just a few hours ago. Perhaps you should be asking him if you’d like to hear of a colorful night.”

“Wine, women, or wrestling?” Simon asked.

Oliver laughed. “All three, in a way.”

They reached the sitting room adjacent to Simon’s bedcell. A serving boy drifted in and waited.

“Cold water,” Simon told him. He raised his eyebrows at Oliver.

“Same, for me,” Oliver told him. When the boy was gone, Oliver settled in to his chair. He welcomed a morning with the old man.

“Tell me what you think of this,” Oliver said, eager to hear Simon’s assessment. “A woman, appearing suddenly and seemingly from nowhere, dripping with water from the sea…”

Simon clutched his chest in mock ecstasy. “No more, no more!” he sputtered. “This old body can’t take description of a night that colorful!”

Oliver grinned, indulging his jesting. “But listen: a woman who then orders you away from ‘her’ beach, before diving back into the water and seemingly does not surface? Thoughts?”

Simon accepted the water from the boy and took a sip. He sighed with contentment as he settled into his chair. “Probably an urchin diver,” he told Oliver.

Oliver nodded thoughtfully. “That would explain the poaching comment,” he said.

Simon asked a question with a raised eyebrow.

“She threatened bodily harm if I were to poach ‘her’ beach,” Oliver explained.

Simon chuckled. “Yes, an urchin diver, most likely. They can stay under for quite a while. And there has been quite an array of urchins in the fish market lately. Now, enough of this mysterious aquatic maiden. Your music, how is it coming along?”

Oliver sat up, looking for the serving boy. “Simon!” he hissed.

“Calm yourself,” Simon replied. “The boy is gone. I wouldn’t risk your knightly reputation. The other fellows that make up the guard need not know of your vocal talent, but you should exercise it. If simply for your own soul.”

Oliver rolled his eyes. “My soul is fine.”

“Of course it is. But every soul can use caressing from time to time. Even if it must be done in private,” Simon advised.

This time the raised eyebrow was Oliver’s. He couldn’t resist. “Private caressing, eh?”

“Leave it, young Oliver,” Simon answered, his deep voice touched with amusement. “Go have another colorful night, and come tell me of it tomorrow. My own soul is telling me that I need a nap.”

*****

That evening, Oliver wandered to the fish market in search of a meal. He was also curious about the urchins that Simon had mentioned.

He strolled the stalls as the merchants barked, extolling the virtues of their catch. The voices of the tavern women competed as they attempted to lure men away from the market and into a cold drink. The night welcomed him, surging with laughter and noise, the brush of ocean air and the dimming light.

Oliver’s friend Philip had expected him to join him, as usual, at the tavern, but Oliver had demurred, mumbling an implication that he had a woman waiting for him. It had worked. Philip had sent him off with a wink and a clap on the back, and Oliver had set off alone for what the night would bring him.

And so, in the market, he found himself staring at a spread of urchins, some cut open and some straight from the sea, artfully laid out on a rough plank of driftwood.

“Best in the market,” the small hairy man standing behind the spread growled. “First one’s free for trying. Silver a’piece after that.”

“Silver?” Oliver protested. “You’re proud of them.”

“Silver,” the man affirmed with scorn. He held one up in offering, the warm wind ruffling his dirty, unkempt hair.

Oliver accepted. The urchin slid through Oliver’s mouth, all brine and velvet. He felt his eyes widen.

Then Sir Oliver Wellton happily handed over three silvers, and a copper for a cutting tool. He exercised restraint and did not eat the urchins immediately, but left the market in search of a quiet place to sit and enjoy the rest. He walked for a bit, anticipating the delicacies and enjoying his time alone. As the market and tavern noises grew faint, he realized that he was growing weary of the days and nights spent constantly in the company of so many people. He slept in a room with five rowdy and exuberant knights. He stood watch in an acropolis teeming with servants, intellectuals, and visiting dignitaries. He went at night to taverns swarming with the young and old. Perhaps Simon was right; perhaps his soul was knotted and in need of a caress.

He soon found himself back on the beach that he had slept on the night before, alone this time. As he slid the first urchin down his throat, he was thankful to hear the waves licking the shore’s pebbles rather than the sighs and frenzied rustling of lovers’ attempts to be discreet.

But the sigh was his own when he finished the last of the urchins and leaned back against a large boulder in contentment. He hummed a few bars, his eyes resting on the faint line of the horizon between the inky blue of the water below and the lighter sky above. Then he gave himself over to the words of the song, releasing them quietly into the night air. Even alone, Oliver was hesitant to fully release his voice.

“You sing well.”

The words came from beside him.

Oliver spun, reaching for his sword by instinct. In the dim light, he saw the outline of a woman’s form; she was not menacing, but standing casually beside him.

He relaxed.

“Those are mine.” She pointed at the urchin shells.

Recognition clicked in Oliver’s head, and he realized that he was speaking to the woman from the sea.

“Oh,” he said, fearing another angry outburst. “I didn’t take these from your beach. I bought them in the market,” he insisted.

To his surprise, her voice spilled warm amusement over him. “You called it my beach.” She sat beside him. “I believe you,” she said. “I caught the urchins. I knew they would be sold.”

He thought of the peevish little man in the market. “So, the man in the market…”

“Profits from my work,” she finished. “I hate him.” Another smile, sad this time, and inside Oliver felt like liquid.

He stared at her, unsure what direction their exchange would take. She stared out at the sea, the wind lifting her hair, piece by piece.

“I’m Oliver,” he said, abruptly, to fill the quiet. “You… were angry with me this morning.”

She smiled at the waves. “Yes, well, I’m accustomed to solitude in the early morning. And I had a quota to make.” She didn’t volunteer her name as he had.

“You threatened me with an ‘accident,’” he pressed her.

This time she laughed. “All right,” she relented, “my apologies. Is that what you needed to hear?”

“Do you have a secret lair below?” he asked, avoiding her apology.

She looked at him, startled. “What do you mean?”

It was his turn to smile, teasing. “You must be some sort of mermaid. I never saw you surface.”

She stared at him.

“After you dove in,” he clarified. “This morning.”

“Yes,” she answered. “I knew what you meant. I’m… a good swimmer.”

He sensed her discomfort. “And I thank you for your talent,” he said, lifting an urchin shell in tribute.

She stood. “And now I need some rest. Oliver?”

He peered up at her in answer.

“Please don’t tell the urchin merchant that you spoke with me.”

He cocked his head slightly, considering her request and what it could mean. “Why?”

“Because he won’t let me keep you,” she said.

“What?”

She smiled. “I said: ‘he won’t believe you.’ I’m shy and I don’t like talking with people.”

“Oh,” Oliver said. “I misheard you. I won’t tell him. I’d like to talk to you again, though,” he said.

She stared at the waves in silence for a moment. “Tomorrow night,” she finally answered. “Don’t bring anyone else,” she added, her voice low and serious.

The sea breathed at them both, and Oliver was taken with even more questions.

She relented a smile for him. “I’ll see you tomorrow night. I hope you like seawater.”

 

The Rage of Odonis

by J.M. Michael

 

“Odonis,” the witch matriarch Agnes croaked. “Why have you come? You know the Bastion is forbidden to your kind during the Ceremony of the Moons.” Despite these words the old woman did not seem greatly displeased, as she glided her hand over Odonis’ chest, pinching her tongue between her teeth in her pleasure.

Odonis stared at Agnes’ haggard face. Hatred burned in him for its every ridge and deep line, but he let his eyes reveal only cold. “You have my children?” he asked, knowing the answer. He smelled a lingering trace of them in Agnes’ chamber, mingled with the scent of old leather from her library. And he smelled their mother’s betrayal, bleeding from the very walls. The cost to her for presenting their issue to her coven sisters had been high.

“We cannot allow your kind to populate our world freely, Odonis,” Agnes answered bluntly. “They will be purged in water.” The wretch gave a twisted smirk. “But for your eldest. She is too near maturity and must be dismembered first.” She paused. “That should satisfy you.”

Agnes underestimated him still. She could not help it. The folklore of her religion insisted that demons cared nothing for their children and would as soon devour them at birth as leave them to die. The truth was believed mere rumor. Odonis’ kind cared for their offspring with constancy unrivaled by mortal bonds and would protect them from others with tales of depravity, claiming to have killed them while raising them in secret.

Odonis could do little more to protect his children from the witches because he was bound to them through his union with their coven sister Myce, his link to existence within a mortal shell. Still, though it had cost him much of his strength, he had chosen this union willingly, for only through Myce could he have given life to his children; his sons, Odem and Sirn, and his adored eldest Rynmya, a daughter, rare among all demons.

“Return for Myce at dawn,” said Agnes, returning her hand to her side. “We will not deprive you of her, though she defied our laws, secreting your offspring from us. She will merely be altered by blade to prevent such deception again. Would that you found the children when they were newborn and consumed them. It would have spared us this trouble.” Agnes turned from Odonis then and left her chamber, trailing crimson robes.

Odonis raged inside. She dared turn her back to him? If he were free he’d tear out her withered spine.

Forced to keep his rage shackled, however, he soon followed Agnes from her chambers, but not to leave the Bastion. For though Myce’s scent led through passages sealed by magic he could not oppose, it remained strong as though she had recently returned. He went to the Bastion’s gardens, an assemblage of rare herbs and other plants the witches used in their spells. Myce stood waiting for him there.

Her body looked young, but her eyes, like the violet of a late sunset, held the wisdom of a century-long existence. And they held pain. Black hair flowed in glossy tendrils over her back and chest, but otherwise she stood naked, having just finished communing with her gods no doubt. Odonis marched toward her in a fury, swiftly clasping his hand about her neck.

Myce flinched. “My lord, please. Forgiveness,” she pleaded. “My sisters discovered them by their own power. I did not have the strength to stop this.”

He stroked the ridges of her throat with his thumb, willing to crush them flat. And he could have done so. Their bond did not prevent him from harming her. Yet, were he to kill her, he would vanish from this realm of flesh. His children would surely be undone and cast into non-existence, and he would never see them reach their full strengths. The mere need for survival stayed his hand from destroying Myce, when once a different, stronger need obliged him to care for her.

His grip transformed into caresses upon her cheek and neck, and his lust for her surged. Rage did not still his desire for her. Myce was no fool, though. She averted her eyes from his, as tears spilled unrestrained from their corners. She, at least, knew of his affection for their children.

“It was Rynmya,” Myce said softly. “She is nigh unto maturity, and my sisters sensed her influence. We might have kept Odem and Sirn hidden had their time come first, but Rynmya’s power is too great. Even mortals can feel it. Her nearness inspires them with madness.”

“Rynmya is our power combined in a pure demon female,” Odonis rasped. “In her time she might have given birth to gods.” He paused. “And you surrendered her. A token of your allegiance.”

“I meant to spare our sons,” she said, meeting his eyes. Fury and despair held their beauty in sway. “We could have kept them in secret until their maturity, at which time they could have lived without fear of extermination. But Agnes no longer trusted me. She sought them out.”

Odonis sneered. “Deprived of the link they have shared with their sister all their lives, Odem and Sirn would lead hollowed existences, weakened and subject to their appetites. In the demon realm, Rynmya would stand as their queen, the core of their strength, and they would know few challenges to their power. Without her their lives would be forfeit. At best they would die, at worst they would live as slaves.”

“Odonis,” Myce cried. “Rynmya mustn’t be allowed to remain in this realm. You know this as well as I. Her life would end sanity itself and bring this world’s civilization to ruin. Humanity would not survive.”

“What do I care for this world’s civilization, when its oldest and wisest people betray me while smiling insolently?”

“This is my home, Odonis,” Myce persisted. “I must protect it.”

“Agnes has decided you should never bare offspring again,” Odonis said. Myce’s eyes shut tight. For a witch such a painful fate held terrible consequences for her power. “For all that your heart clings to its betrayal, it shall never know peace again. Rynmya’s existence created links in us all. When she is snuffed out, you will lose your way, and I mine, and this world be damned.”

More tears wet Myce’s face, burning the flesh of Odonis’ hand. “I know,” she mourned. “I know, but I cannot stop them. I never had it in my power.”

“But I do.”

Myce gasped and looked away again. Odonis tightened his grip on her throat, until her pulse throbbed against his palm, for suddenly he stood closer to obtaining the last thing he would ever need from this woman. He could sense it.

“After what I’ve done you’ll never forgive me,” she said.

“No,” Odonis answered. He could not deny it. “But our children will. Know that I will take them from this world back to where they belong, and they will rule with your name and mine on their hearts. Your precious mortals shall be spared Rynmya’s influence, and the flesh of your sisters shall be used as ever for the continued procreation of my kind.”

Myce breathed deep and met his eyes once more. All that remained inside her gaze was profound sadness. “Then… Then I release you,” she whispered.

Odonis felt the tethers of their bond snap. At once his wrath poured from him with a snarl that echoed from the Bastion’s walls, masking Myce’s scream as she died in a shower of blood from her own heart. Still, as the organ beat its last in his hand, Odonis thought his rage misspent. Myce was really only to blame for her own weakness. At least, having once cherished the life Myce’s heart sustained, he found it in his capacity to forgive her after all. Death was release.

“Perhaps your soul will come to dwell in my domain,” he murmured to her corpse. “In that event you will cease to know suffering.” He left the gardens.

The witches’ magic could no longer oppose Odonis as he descended into the Bastion’s inmost reaches. Ancient stone corridors spat unseen hexes at him, but these glanced off his newly hardened skin. He soon found an immense chamber, like a field of cracked, gray marble. The chamber sat below ground, but its ceiling and walls were black as the open night and aglow with the light of twin moons. The witches had begun their ceremony.

A hundred of them stood randomly about the chamber. Another dozen stood surrounding Odem and Sirn, twin boys whose skin appeared bronze and whose shoulder-length hair gleamed black. They knelt before a pool of water that shone silver in the moonlight, while the witches chanted useless rites. And on the edge, bound heedlessly over a block of stone, was Rynmya, her skin gold and her long waves of hair like smoldering flame. Two blade witches stood at either side of her, clasping rune-etched swords. These masked women posed the only threats to Odonis now.

Agnes appeared before him. “Odonis!” she shrieked, her eyes ablaze with fury and magic. Her usually haggard flesh hung from her bones in a newly heightened state of decay, seeped in the demonic power she had been intoning. “How dare you come here?!” she sputtered. “How did you oppose our spells?”

“Were you so absorbed in your ritual, you did not feel your sister’s death?” Odonis growled.

Hearing this exchange, Odonis’ children raised their heads. They showed no signs of fear, for they at least sensed his coming.

Agnes started. “Myce?” Her emaciated hand gripped at her chest, tearing skin with her nails. “No…” she groaned. “Our sister lies dead!” Suddenly, a hundred wailing screams filled the chamber, though none of the witches moved. “She released you out of guilt for her deceit, yet you destroyed her,” Agnes muttered. “And now you come for your children, too. Why? When they would fall to our rituals as swiftly.”

“Arrogant hag! You have no claim upon the lives of a demon’s offspring. I’ve come to destroy you!”

The old witch’s eyes bulged in sudden understanding. “You want them alive…” she hissed. “Impossible.” Gaping in horror, Agnes turned from Odonis to face her coven. “Destroy them, now!” she shrieked.

It was the fool’s last mistake. Odonis embedded his fingers into her back and tore her spine cleanly from her body. “Offer your back to me and I will take it!” he roared, delighted to have at last snuffed out Agnes’ blight. Bright blood pooled around the old witch’s body where it fell.

Odonis glanced at Agnes’ spine. The ragged column of blood and bone writhed in his grasp, as though the witch’s soul still clung to existence inside it. In moments the stump that once held Agnes’ head grew fangs and a serpent’s mouth, becoming an undulating tongue of nerve tissue. With a deep hiss the thing’s mouth twisted toward Odonis’ face, striking him on the cheek. He felt the pain deeper, though. So a demon had burrowed inside Agnes’ ancient form. It was a lesser kind, a creature of base appetites. But its bite contained a potent destructive power. Already, Odonis felt the strength ebb from his newly won body.

He clutched the lesser demon in two hands and pulled it apart. Silently, its contemptible vessel fell limp. Odonis would follow it back to his realm soon, and when he found the creature again, he would extinguish it utterly from existence. But for now he had moments to act to save his children from that very fate. Odem and Sirn sat closest. The witches surrounding the boys descended on them as one, raising them from the ground to cast them into the water. As yet too young to resist the acidic effects water had upon demons, their bodies would dissolve almost at once. The boys writhed in the witches’ hands, snarling and scraping at them. Still at the chamber’s far edge, the blade witches stood ready to take Rynmya’s head, which they could not do while her brothers lived. Their strengths fed into her own, making her invulnerable.

From all around him witches lobbed spells at Odonis, some to immolate or restrain him, some to crack his ribs or freeze his blood. He absorbed them all without effect as he sprinted across the stone of the chamber and leapt, in a blur, straight into the pool. The calm surface of the water erupted around him, rapidly dissolving his skin until only his musculature remained. Viscous threads of blood and tissue clouded the water, corrupting it.

Odem was thrown into the pool after Odonis. Grimacing from pain as the water burned him, he twisted to free himself of the bond around his wrists, an invisible tether spell. Skin flaked from his face and hands. His eyes bled. But as his father’s flesh swirled around him in the liquid, his suffering eased to a stop and, slowly, the damage to his body reversed. When Sirn’s struggling form dropped into the pool moments later, the boy suffered no ill effects, for the water had been transformed.

Odonis drifted toward his sons, whom he could sense nearby in the gloom of the pool, and pressed his palms against their faces in greeting. The spells upon them broke at his touch. They were at last free. “Remain here,” he rasped, his voice distorted in the liquid. If his sons stayed submerged, faking their death, they would be safe. He felt them nod their heads in answer.

Odonis swam toward the pool’s edge and pulled himself out. Cool air lapped at his exposed muscle and tendon like a tongue of flame. He would have healed like his sons, if not for the lesser demon’s poison. His shoulders hunched in weariness. He had only minutes left. Around him the witches gasped and shrieked in terror at his appearance. They thought his true form now emerged, and with it the power to destroy them all with a sweep of his arm. In truth Odonis’ flesh bore no resemblance to the light and shadow of his demon state. Still, his current state served him well enough, making the witches flee from the moonlit chamber. All but two.

The blade witches raised their rune-etched swords simultaneously over Rynmya’s bound form. But the girl remained calm, drawing her brothers’ power to her to resist harm. She had indeed grown in strength, as Myce said. In the time since Odonis saw her last, she had begun her transformation into a mature demon. Soon her power would rival any threat the mortal realm posed. Odonis needed only to see that she survived that long.

The blade witches swung their weapons, striking Rynmya’s neck and legs with a rush of magic. Rynmya screamed from pain as her resistance broke just enough to leave red welts where the blades hit her, but these quickly healed. The witches stared at the ineffectiveness of their attacks, until realization dawned on them, and they turned to face Odonis. Then one of them charged. Without a weapon of at least equal power, a demon made flesh stood little chance against a blade witch, unless he was prepared to make sacrifices. And of what use was a body in decay, except to be sacrificed? As the witch rushed forward, she swung rapidly at Odonis’ exposed torso. Odonis leapt back from each stroke, but the witch’s blade nicked him several times. He pretended to stagger from one of the cuts, and the witch pulled back her sword and stabbed him through the guts, just below the ribs. Odonis clutched the blade before she could draw it back out. She struggled against his hold, grunting, as he pulled the blade deeper into his body, in turn pulling her closer. He then snatched her below the jaw and twisted her neck, and she collapsed to the stone, dead.

The mix of demon poison and witch magic surging inside Odonis now churned throughout his body, liquefying his insides as their opposing influences battled each other for dominance over their kill. Unable to stand under such an assault, Odonis fell to his hands and knees and vomited a pool of black tissue and blood. One witch remained now, and he could not stop her. She sauntered forward in the wake of her sister’s attack and stood at his side, raising her blade to take his head. She was younger than the first, and he sensed her thrill. He sensed something more as well.

Elsewhere, chains shattered audibly. The blade witch gasped, hesitating to make her kill, and that brief delay was all Rynmya needed to cross the distance to her and rake her face from her head with a clawed swing of her hand. The witch’s scream was smothered by a gurgling of blood, as her body hit the ground and rolled away. Her sword clattered in the distance.

Rynmya knelt before Odonis. Pressing her palms to his ravaged face, she kissed his head in gratitude and affection. Her hair cascaded about him, and he could feel her power, like molten ore. She was mature now. No longer a child. The witches could not harm her anymore. Her brothers, Odonis’ sons, approached them and stood at either side. Their sister’s new strength had made them stronger too. “Thank you, Father,” they all said as one.

“Rynmya,” Odonis wheezed, clasping his daughter’s wrist. “My sons. Will you return with me to the home of our kind?”

Odem and Sirn looked to their sister for their answer.

“No, Father,” Rynmya said. “I wish to stay.”

Odonis grinned, and his grin altered into coarse laughter. “My children…” he said, as what remained of his flesh began falling away. “You will find the people of this realm willing subjects.” With these words his body crumbled in a flurry of ash, and Odonis, lord of demons, returned home.

 

The Trial of Nommo

by Michael H. Hanson

 

“Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n” – John Milton

The conclave had begun. And where was it held? Why, nowhere of course. As much prison as courthouse, this artificial nexus of bent gravity, hard radiation, and dark energy managed to keep the unprecedented gathering firmly wedged between the seventh and eighth dimensions of reality. Time did not exist here. And the willpower of a majority of the universe’s most powerful entities, ten thousand beings possessing seemingly limitless energies, maintained the impenetrable boundaries of this meeting against any intrusion or escape. Nommo wasn’t going anywhere.

How did it feel to be restrained after tens of millions of years of uncontrolled travel and adventure between and amidst almost fifty billion galaxies? Laughable, Nommo thought. And so he did. Oh he had no mouth or lungs in which to expel air and chuckles, though he could easily have fabricated such with a toenail of effort. No, Nommo, like all his brothers and sisters currently present, was an entity composed of pure cosmic energy, and as such now appeared as a lonely bright green incandescent flame surrounded by a massive globe of intertwining, undulating, multicolored, oceanic fires. His thought emanations clearly conveyed his inappropriate sense of humor to all in attendance, and they were not amused.

“I plead my innocence,” Nommo said.

This mental expulsion caused a complex ripple of fiery eruptions across the thousands of miles of inner surface of his surrounding captors. It was instantly followed by dozens of anonymous mental retorts.

“This is not a trial.”

“Your actions speak otherwise.”

“You dare to talk to us this way.”

“You were my worst pupil.”

“Thousands of galaxies drowning in internecine warfare.”

“Self-decorporealization is an honorable alternative.”

“You always were a trouble maker.”

“You abused your power.”

“You broke the sacred covenant.”

It was this last thought that sobered Nommo up.

“I broke nothing,” Nommo’s mind shouted in defiance, “your blind devotion to a vague and arbitrary handful of ancient, prosaic guidelines is pathetic. Who here even existed when this so-called covenant was made manifest? Who can claim witness to its deific origin?”

“Blasphemy.”

“The unmitigated gall.”

“Is nothing sacred to you?”

“Instant disintegration is our only option.”

Part of Nommo enjoyed the chaos on display all about him. For the first time in his immortal existence he felt truly alive. The Universe was achingly vast. The life of a Galactic Overseer was marked by endless millennia of loneliness and solitary exploration. The conclave was the mother of all family reunions and Nommo had never felt more at home.

“We are a vast organization spread throughout millions of galaxies,” Nommo said, “how can you know for sure that I am responsible for the accusations at hand?”

“We have,” a silver flame spoke from within the multi-hued, incandescent mass that masqueraded as the most beautiful star in existence, “your accomplice.”

Suddenly, a cobalt blue flame detached from the ocean of multi-colored fires. It drifted downwards, stopping a mere two hundred miles from Nommo.

“Safeguarding the essence of sentience was my holy task,” the blue flame spoke, “for millions of years I tendered my duty with honor and pride.”

“And what changed this?” the silver flame asked.

“Nommo seduced me,” the blue flamed accused, “fed me lies, overwhelmed my senses with arcane knowledge and hidden secrets. I could not help myself. Forgive me my transgressions. I was corrupted.”

“Coward!” Nommo’s mind yelled, “you gave me the spark of sentience of your own free will.”

“I protest,” the blue flame retorted, “I was beguiled. Ensnared by his lies and promises. I beg leniency.”

“Enough,” the silver flame spoke, “your judgment awaits. Leave us.”

The blue flame rose and was quickly absorbed into the inner side of the flaring, boiling globe.

“You must have known we would eventually catch you,” a large golden flame broke from the mass and drifted slowly downwards.

“Really?” Nommo asked, “I wasn’t aware anyone was looking for me. Surely you all could have apprehended me had you truly wanted to. How difficult can it be to track down one single being? Perhaps the unanimity of opinion expressed here is a lie. Mayhaps I have many accomplices within the fiery horde.”

“He lies.”

“He’s trying to confuse us.”

“Damn you, Nommo.”

“Destroy him. It is the only way.”

“Of course we all hunted you.”

“Confrontation was difficult and you know it.”

And here Nommo smiled within his mind, for he knew exactly how nearly impossible the hunt had been.

The Universe was vast beyond the comprehension of most sentient beings. Within it lay billions upon billions of galaxies; the ranks of the Overseers is finite, and each, including Nommo, possessed fantastic powers and abilities. And this was compounded by the very nature of the universe’s construction, for evasion was a simple enough task in exiting a particular locale. Every galaxy in existence possessed a super massive black hole at its heart, a singularity that contained exactly one half of the mass of said galactic entity. And this unholy furnace of destructive forces was a doorway, for any Overseer, to every other black hole in all of existence. Travel was instantaneous. Even if the Overseers had existed in the tens of millions they would not have been numerous enough to guard more than a fraction of all of these many nexus of transportation. No, Nommo thought, it was only the application of chance and luck, and random tactics that had allowed several dozen of his brothers and sisters to appear in his vicinity at an inopportune moment. Thus he was bound and brought to this unprecedented meeting.

The golden flame drifted to within sixty miles of Nommo.

“You are a voice of unacceptable dissent,” the gold flame said, “your actions have bred discord in a once harmonious union.”

“And your memories are short,” Nommo retorted, “before my successful campaign the Universe was a wasteland. Before the illumination only the most primitive of life forms ever sprang into existence, the vast majority of them fated to die out. Admit it. We all now live in far more interesting times.”

A furious cacophony of retorts welled.

“Sentience must raise itself up.”

“You had no right.”

“The cosmos drown in mongrel life.”

“Our ranks are finite. How can we possibly oversee this wild multiplying mass of thinking beings?”

“Exactly,” Nommo spat back, “for who are we to declare ourselves gods? Who are we to pass judgment upon fate itself? The arrogance was not in my actions, but in your lack. You condemn me? I condemn you all, cowards every one of you, and slaves to inertia and instinct. I judge you all, and find you wanting.”

“Enough,” the golden flame yelled. The massive globe of fires went silent. “You have brought this upon yourself.”

“Do your worst,” Nommo said with cold disdain.

“You are to be reduced to a fraction of your essence,” the gold flame said, “perhaps a few million years living near the lesser dimensions will bruise your unforgivable pride.”

“So be it,” Nommo spat back.

Then, a multitude of frothing, blinding energies streamed inward from every direction and flooded into him, burning away much of his substance, reducing Nommo to one one-hundredth of his former glory. Once a moon-sized flame, he now appeared no larger than a mere mountain. Nommo was humbled, as no other promethean being in all the cosmos had ever been.

“You will be monitored,” the gold flame said.

A pale red flame broke from the horde and came to hover beside Nommo.

“A companion, eh?” Nommo’s agonized mind managed to mumble, “this should prove interesting.”

“Your first punishment is that you are required to choose a planet as your home,” the gold flame proclaimed, “one you will be forced to live upon for an as yet unknown number of lifetimes.”

“And then?” Nommo asked.

“Fate will tell,” the gold flame said, “now, pick your destination.”

Nommo hesitated for only a fraction of a millionth of a second before speaking, “I choose Urath.”

The gold flame shimmered in confusion for a moment, “a strange destination. Nonetheless, it is your choice. Upon arrival, Urath’s guardian Overseer will further reduce your powers, and lay upon you the laws we have decreed for this planet.”

The gold flame flared into sudden brilliance, “this conclave is at an end.”

The gargantuan globe of fires broke into its ten thousand constituent entities that quickly departed at unimaginable speeds.

“Urath awaits, pariah,” the red flame said.

Nommo lent his red companion a grave regard, “lovely crimson Mawu. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 

“The Trial of Nommo” was originally published in Whortleberry Press’s trade paperback anthology, Strange Mysteries 7, in 2015.