Just Around the Corner

by Judith Glazier

 

“Now there’s a rich one, by god.”

From the cubbyhole he called an office, all Pol could see through smeary shop windows was crumbling sidewalk and passing legs. But that was enough. The lady’s smoke-gray cloak did not quite conceal the layers of creamy lace flouncing beneath it, nor the pointed yellow boots stepping carefully around piles of rubbish.

Pol tapped a key. The street in front swept across his monitor, one of six views offered by surveillance cameras hidden on his property. It replaced a boring newscast about a space shield to be launched jointly by India and China: yet another layer of protection from the famous Carterite Menace. “Huh,” Pol snorted. “Waste of tax money.”

Much more interesting to watch the lady in gray.

“Wonder what brings someone like her—alone—to this part of town?” Half a block beyond his entrance, the woman reversed her direction. “Well, well. Maybe I’ll find out.”

He minimized the surveillance view and rose, extracting long legs swathed in black silk from behind his desk. A quick pull on a lever beneath the desktop allowed a dollop of oil to ooze onto his palm. This Pol worked through his shoulder-length hair, slicking it back from his forehead. His reflection grinned from a small mirror mounted inside the cubby’s frame. “Great heavens but I like today’s fashions!” He smoothed his mustache with the last bit of oil on his fingertips.

When the yellow boots reached his threshold, Pol used a palm remote to release the electronic door lock. The cloaked woman—hooded too, he now saw—entered and descended three of the four interior steps but held the door open. “Is this…” she began, glancing at a slip of paper, “the Galactic Message Shop?”

“Indeed, miss.” No rings on her left hand. “Pol Riyot at your service.” He smiled broadly while unobtrusively pressing the remote hidden in his left hand to deepen the grime on his windows. His customers usually preferred privacy. Edging a step closer, he caught a glimpse beneath the hood of eyes tight with—what—indecision? Something about the woman seemed familiar. He waited.

She let the door swing closed. “I, uh, I need to send a message. A very private one.”

Pol nodded. There were just two reasons people came to him to send and receive messages: he didn’t pry and he didn’t leak. Those with nothing to hide went to Mega-Message on Main. Cheaper and far more convenient. But that voice. He’d heard it before. If she kept talking, he’d pin it down.

Suddenly she yanked back the hood, revealing billowing blonde tresses around a lovely young face. “This is stupid. Why else would I be here? I’ve heard of you, Mister Riyot, and I think I can trust you. I’m Zerubella Arustinian.”

Stars above! No wonder she seemed familiar. How many vids had he seen of her, this daughter of Protruse Arustinian, patriarch of the powerful Arustinian banking conglomerate? Years ago, clips of Zerubella as a child jumping show horses filled the airwaves. Now grown, images abounded of her marching in a “Save the Animals” demonstration or arriving at a glittering Twelve Families ball.

“Please, call me Pol,” he replied, pulling his attention back to business.

She descended the final step into his shop. “Okay, Mister, um, Pol, can I send a message to someone without anyone in the universe knowing about it? Other than him, I mean?”

She’s even more beautiful in person than in the pictures, he mused. “Of course. Where might this person be?” Probably in space. She wouldn’t need his help finding someone on Earth.

“I don’t know. He left five years ago. Is that a problem?”

“No. If he’s out there, we’ll find him. I can hit any receiver in the universe, Miss Arustinian. Civilian and military.” A man gone five years could well be a soldier. And “out there” sounded far better than “alive.”

“And no one in my family will know? They have ears everywhere.”

Time to wind up the sales pitch. “My messages stay confidential. I code and scramble them tight enough to make the devil scream. All I need is sufficient information only the target would know, to drive the decoding.” He didn’t add that some clients were themselves top brass in the Army and Air Force, who at times preferred his services to the ultra-secret military channels. “Still, this all costs money.”

“Money is not an issue. How quickly can my message reach this person?”

No, even his heftiest fees would mean nothing to her. More gold must pour through the Arustinian bank in a day than through all the gambling dens and brothels down here in scruffy Portside in a year. “Your message can leave here within minutes, Miss. But how soon it reaches its target depends on how far out he’s located.”

“Then we better start recording immediately, hadn’t we?”

“Yes, ma’am. Right this way to the recording booth. Give me a moment to calibrate your hologram settings, then you can practice for, shall we say, five minutes?”

The left corner of her lip lifted ruefully. “I’ve been practicing this speech for years. Let’s get moving.”

He led her to the booth, where she removed her cape to reveal an exquisite, shimmering pale yellow and cream dress, cut low to highlight the round tops of her breasts. An exotic blue elephant, exactly the color of her eyes, hung from a gold chain around her neck. Using a hand mirror left in the booth for just this purpose, she vamped her dress, breasts, hair, and face for maximum impact, as if she was alone in her boudoir.

Pol grinned in appreciation and turned on his equipment. When she finally settled into the overstuffed armchair, he adjusted the settings for the glow from her outfit and dripping curls.

By the planets, he thought, just look at her. Should he suggest the wide couch certain clients liked to lounge on during their recordings? Sometimes in the nude? No, he decided, this one was giving her admirer—for lover it must be—the precise look she wanted. Shame, since he would have dropped the sizable fee he added for those recordings for just a glimpse of her in the buff.

Well, maybe she’d want a shoulder to cry on afterward. This thought triggered his next statement. “Pardon me, Miss, but if this is to reach a, shall we say, personal friend, perhaps you’ll want me to switch on the Emotion Enhancer. New equipment, costs a bit more. Packs a wallop in every word. It might please you.”

“Do it,” she said flatly, clearly ready for him to leave her alone.

He shut her in the solid booth: soundproof, electrically shielded, no windows. All equipment stayed inside, leaving no electronic portals that could be hacked. He took his reputation for privacy seriously, since his livelihood depended on it. When finished recording, he let the customers review and re-record as much as they wanted. Then Pol personally scrambled the messages, sent them out on appropriate channels, and destroyed the originals. No trace remained in his shop, and he never saw the holograms himself.

Still, he knew their content.

How? Shiny surfaces all over the booth reflected into tiny mirrors around the room. These opened and closed at random every few seconds, gone before a client could be sure he’d seen anything. The mirrors funneled views to a final vibrating mirror on Pol’s desk in the cubbyhole. There, using goggles with the opposite frequency, he could view a collage of changing angles. No sound, of course, but he’d become skillful at lip reading. Got a good half of the words when people spoke clearly.

Generally, Pol had a sense of the content within a sentence or two: worth hearing or not. Since he never allowed himself to use his hijacked information for profit, he often found the messages dull. Some he watched anyway. Certainly the sexy nude ones. Often the pretty women, even clothed. But many, such as his bet-placing regulars, he ignored. Not a glamorous life, but being an honest galactic bookie paid handsomely.

This Zerubella Arustinian, though, fascinated him. Her lover’s been gone five years, he reminded himself. Maybe she’s lonely, wants a man who knows how to be discrete. His lucky day. He turned the Emotion Enhancer on 1, its lowest setting, then hung on every word he could make out.

“Durak, darling… you are well. I’m… such a long time. I thought… news about me when…”

Not much of a love letter, thought Pol. Too hesitant. The tone doesn’t match the packaging. Does she want the man or not? He whispered, “Let’s find out,” and nudged the Enhancer up to 2.

“…missed you. When we kissed… and you smiled… But we’re young and… never promised anything… I’ve dated other men… and someone as handsome… you’d have offers that… only human…”

No, no, no! Pol shook his head impatiently. If you want the guy back, sweetheart, you’ve got to lay it on thicker than that. Hook him, don’t give him an out. What’s up, just mutual lust or something more? Well, she needs my assistance, that’s for sure. He shoved the Emotion Enhancer to 3, its highest level.

“Durak, my love… missed your… oh, how I’ve suffered… knew only your kisses, my body… excitement like I’d never… barely wait, three years ago… Off World, we… melted at your touch… through the night…”

Pol smiled, aroused at her words. That was more like it, the minx. Maybe the man left home five years ago, but she’s been trysting with him since then at secluded resorts, keeping their names out of the gossip zines. As she reminisced, he thoroughly enjoyed the sight of her running her fingertips up her inner arms, across her breasts, and along one cheekbone. As if anyone would need reminders of nights with this lady, he sighed.

He was jolted from his reverie when she delivered her next statement directly into the holocam. “But Durak, you… two years! Not a word! …the hell are you?” She sank back into the chair. “I love you… my life. But… can’t wait forever…”

The plot thickens, chuckled Pol. I do believe the lady will deliver an ultimatum. If lover-boy wants to keep this incredibly rich and beautiful piece of ass, he’d better get his own ass home lickety-split. He paid close attention.

“…other men, until now… haven’t meant a… love-stricken old maid… Compared to… you know they haven’t… the heat our passion can… so hot when you… my love, nothing at all! My heart… yours.” Here she slowed her speech to where even Pol could understand most of it. “But my family expects me to wed. And…”

A faint buzzer sounded. “Damn it,” growled Pol. Whoever that was could rot on the doorstep. He wasn’t about to miss the rest of Zerubella’s message.

“…lot of Velmer… Yes, your cousin. He’s, Vel and I, we’ve… time together. Nothing like you and me… could never, Durak… but he loves me… think you need to know.”

Here it comes. Pol almost bounced in anticipation. What had she cooked up with this Velmer?

“…to Vel. He’s become insistent… set a date. And to announce the… He’s an honest, decent man… know he cares for me and… Oh, not as handsome as… singe my lips like your kisses… families still want to join through marriage… Vel would do as well as you. But I… and said I needed a few days… need to talk to you, Durak! I need…”

Pol thought he knew exactly what this woman needed, though he doubted Velmer would provide it. And just who was this Velmer anyway? Him and Durak, cousins who wanted Zerubella Arustinian in marriage for, what, financial reasons? Which of the Twelve Families was making a play to unite with the wealthy Arustinians?

“…married to Vel… never be together again, Durak… faithful to the man I wed… old fashioned, but to me… forever. And it’s just around the corner! …Vel says three months… time to plan the biggest, splashiest…”

She leaned into the camera. Pol wondered if the Emotion Enhancer had been necessary after all. “Do you still love me, Durak? …not a word in two years… you ever coming home? Are you even alive? …I don’t have much time… love you, Durak, I always… can wait only two weeks for your reply… must make plans for the… In three months, I’ll be Velmer’s wife!” She stared intently into the holocam another thirty seconds, a smile that could mean anything playing on her lips.

Bewitched by the drama in his mirror, Pol hardly registered that Zerubella had left the recording booth. He whipped off the goggles and tipped the mirror down on his desktop barely a second before the shimmering dress entered his cubbyhole.

“Well. Well.” He tried to keep his voice from squeaking. “Done already?”

“Yes. What did you think of it?” Her golden curls danced a hand’s breadth from his face.

He almost answered. Almost spoke. Twenty years’ reputation nearly down the drain, dear god. Just in time, he bit hard on the tip of his tongue. “Uh!” he gasped. “Didn’t see it. Never watch the recordings. Professional ethics!” He ran one hand, then the other, through his oily hair.

Pol couldn’t tell if her face showed amusement or disappointment. “Ah. Too bad. I had hoped to get your opinion.”

His opinion as a director, or just as another infatuated man? No matter, he finally realized. “You’re welcome to review it yourself. Most clients do.”

“No. Whatever’s there is there. Send it out.”

He drew the necessary coding information from her and asked about channels.

“For heaven’s sake, send it on every channel in the universe! What, do you think I’m trying to save money at a time like this?” She extracted a wad of notes from a jeweled handbag. “Here!” She leaned very close and spilled the money across his desk. “Send it now!”

He reached for her, but just as quickly she slid from his grasp, flinging her cape around her shoulders.

“Wait!” He all but vaulted his desk to reach her side. “You’re not safe walking alone in Portside. Let me escort you home.”

She flicked him away with one hand. “I won’t have any problems.”

When he tried to touch her shoulder, his arm recoiled in pain before his conscious mind knew he’d been hurt. Perhaps she was safe at that. The damn cape would repel anything she didn’t want near her. Pol quietly opened the door and bowed. “As you wish. I will let you know if—when—I get a response.” No reason to ask whether she expected one. He cradled his stinging hand as she swept past.

Returning to the booth, Pol reviewed the beginning of the recording to be sure it had recorded properly, intending, as usual, to shut it off after a few seconds. But prompted by his feelings for Zerubella—love would not be too strong a word, he suddenly realized—instead he edited out the hesitant start and added a Forced Reply. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he was willing to do anything he could to bring these lovers back together. After a few more minutes of coding, he shipped the secured message out on every channel, to every address in the universe. If this man Durak was out there, he’d get it, sooner or later.

Then, for the first time in his career, Pol slipped the holodisk into his pocket. For the life of him, he couldn’t destroy it.

He spent the rest of the afternoon staring absently at the news on his monitor. More nations calling up their reserves, more attempts to break the silence of the Carterite Menace from space. Assuming there was a menace. Even their name was a mystery, “Carter” being merely the first astronomer to glimpse their ships, many years ago, drifting well beyond the solar system. As the armada drew closer, politicians and generals all over Earth pontificated, calling for action. If the Sino-Indian shield didn’t work, they insisted, we must blast the invaders to smithereens. More arms, more reserves…

Pol snapped off the picture, irritated by the same old arguments. Just because the Carterites wouldn’t—perhaps couldn’t?—speak, did that mean they were evil? Might we not be about to annihilate a race that could save mankind from its own stupidity? To date, the only thing Pol was sure the Carterites had done was enrich the Twelve Families beyond belief and swamp Portside with soldiers, gamblers, and whores. A situation Pol Riyot could thrive in.

That evening, he took the holodisk home to his luxurious apartment above the shop. Enjoying a glass of vintage wine, he watched Zerubella’s recording twice before going to bed.

* * * * *

The next week and again the following week, Zerubella Arustinian stopped by to inquire about a reply. She left disappointed. The third week, as the vids announced her wedding date with great fanfare, Zerubella flashed what Pol imagined to be the biggest diamond in the world on her left hand. Gone was the blue elephant pendant.

After that, Zerubella Arustinian and Velmer Hyllkul were constantly in the news. At times they even drowned out the generals and politicians screaming ever more shrilly about the Carterites, whose ships by then had passed Pluto. From all appearances, Zerubella was enjoying every second of her notoriety.

Frequently at night, Pol watched Zerubella’s recording, amazed at its power to arouse him. Late one evening, breaking all of his professional rules, he pulled one holostill from it, an exquisite shot of a golden girl pleading with an absent lover. When he sent it anonymously to her home, the gossip media went into a frenzy. Could it be from a jilted lover?

They never found out, even though Zerubella displayed the picture at the wedding reception, among several holostills depicting her young life. Rumor had it that the Arustinians and Hyllkuls had invited over twenty thousand guests to this party of a lifetime. “I’ve always dreamed of a gorgeous wedding like this,” Zerubella gushed to one of the zines, “and to be the wife of a man like Velmer Hyllkul!”

* * * * *

An abrupt change of orders brought Captain Durak Hyllkul to Leda, Jupiter’s ninth moon. He’d been exploring the stars for, he had to think, four or five years now. Sure, he’d run Earthside when he got the occasional leave, or better yet to an Off World resort. Earth seemed so damn crowded and hectic after the solitude of space. And though he patched in frequently for his updates and orders, months might pass before he could receive the fat, data-hog holomessages from his family and friends.

He had the perfect job.

Durak cared little for titles, referring to himself only as “a Ranger.” He was happy to leave the infighting, the sharpened claws, and the constant struggle for the next rung to others. Give him space to explore. What more could he want?

His current orders specified approaching Jupiter from Sunside, circling the big planet, and jumping to Leda from directly beneath it. Though mystified, Durak obeyed to the letter.

Leda’s base barely justified the designation. One sorry landing field, two small domes housing meager personnel quarters, and a hanger. All of it temporary.

Eric Dunster-Smith, the base commander, briefed Durak moments after he landed. The Carterites were on the back side of Jupiter, apparently stalled in disarray. Earth needed the best intelligence it could get, and Hyllkul had made a name for himself in sorting out seemingly meaningless data from space.

“The boys back home must be grasping at straws,” said Dunster-Smith. “Or they wouldn’t be asking us for direction. It’s my guess we’ll blast the Carterites clean out of space if they ever move from behind Jupiter.”

“Seems likely. No need to wait for a clear shot from Earth, though. From Mars, we’ll get ’em about nine degrees earlier.”

They chewed over likely military strategy a little longer, and then the commander left to report in to Earth. Durak took the opportunity to grab a meal and flip through his holomessages. An unusual one caught his eye. It was clearly coded, but in a way that seemed very personal to Durak Hyllkul. He puzzled out the layers and reversed the scrambling.

The picture of Zerubella Arustinian stunned him. He hadn’t seen her in years. Figured she’d married someone else long ago. Hadn’t even thought of her in… Well, that wasn’t true, of course. He dreamed of her every few nights. But during the days—

“Durak, my love, oh how I’ve missed you.”

He reeled at her words, at the sight of her golden shimmering hair and dress, and at those brilliant eyes that matched the blue elephant he’d given her, lying, dear god, between her exquisite breasts. The hologram clutched unbearably at his mind and heart, forcing an old love out of hibernation. He gasped with hunger for Zerubella and tried to embrace the image, which blinked out as he neared it. He backed away again.

The recording played on. Marry Velmer! The thought pierced his numbed brain. Never! She must be his and his alone from this day forward.

The message had barely ended, the lady’s silent stare still fading, when Durak felt compelled to punch in a reply. He considered neither military protocol nor security. He thought of nothing beyond his need to possess Zerubella Arustinian. The hologram’s formatting invited—no, demanded—a passionate answer.

Durak Hyllkul threw barely coherent chunks of speech at the base’s holocam. “Zeru, Zeru, I love you! You’ve got to—You can’t—Zerubella, wait for me! I love you more than my life! I’ll come—On Earth we’ll—I’ll resign…”

On he pleaded, promising this, that, anything to make her wait for him. He’d give up his commission. Rejoin the Twelve Families. They’d wed, a huge glorious ceremony if she wanted, and he’d never leave her again. He stammered out intimate details of his dreams of her.

Unconsciously repeating her phrase, “just around the corner,” he said he could be home in a few days. Days! Good lord, what day was it? Three months had passed, but surely she had not already wed Velmer. No, it wasn’t possible! Their love was like nothing else in the universe.

Finally Durak stopped, pressed “Send,” and collapsed back in his chair. Nearly a minute passed before his heart stopped pounding. How could he have ignored Zerubella all this time? Why, he might as well have thrust her into Vel’s arms!

Dunster-Smith stuck his head in. “Time to work, Hyllkul. The Carterite ships—Great stars, man, what’s the problem?”

Durak tried to twist his mind back to the small issue of war. “I’ve just heard… Never mind. Let’s go.”

Monitors showed each planet of the solar system, and one focused on the Carterite vessels, which shuffled constantly, without apparent pattern. “It’s as if they’re trying to confuse us,” muttered Dunster-Smith.

“Got much fire power here on Leda?” asked Hyllkul abruptly. “They’re nearly in range for our Mars attack. Let’s take a shot or two, set up a diversion to occupy ’em til it happens.”

Damn, he loved working in space. What a shame he’d have to give it up to go back to Earth. To Zerubella. He groaned, imagining his future. Teeming crowds jockeying for power and money. A palace for a home. The long dinners, Zerubella’s latest fashions, his own stylish suits.

“I’m a fool,” he said, despair in his heart.

“What?”

“Sorry. Nothing.” Durak Hyllkul clasped his head with both hands. What was he thinking? He could never go back to that life. It was why he had gone to space in the first place. “A fool.”

The commander stared at him.

“Look, can you give me just one minute?” Maybe he could call back his reply. What spell had he been under while recording it? Yes, he loved her, but to be honest, he and Zerubella wouldn’t make it past their first anniversary if they actually lived together. Let her think he was gone from her life. Let her marry Vel. His cousin could give her the life she wanted.

Before he could rise, a movement in the Carterite ships caught Durak’s eye. A single vessel, sphere shaped and twice the size of the others, raced away from the pack, heading beyond Jupiter’s belly.

“Shit!” Durak yelled, suddenly understanding. “Hit the bastards now, if you can!”

But he knew it was too late. The big ship halted in position. Both men could only watch the monitors as flaming power surges flowed from each Carterite ship to the sphere, joined, focused, and beamed directly at Earth.

The small blue planet glowed briefly, then turned brown.

The sphere rotated slightly, and the next surge fried Mars. Steadily, as if out for a day of galactic target practice, the Carterites blasted each planet, then began picking off the bases, obviously following a detailed list.

“Our turn soon. Only a matter of time,” said Dunster-Smith.

“But we’re the lucky ones, Eric. Anyone still out in space will die slowly as their supplies run out. May never know what happened.”

As a single Carterite ship aimed at their tiny base, Durak had one last thought. Now that it was irrelevant, he was glad he had sent his reply and sorry Zerubella would never hear it.

* * * * *

Krexipux slid into the Earth wing of the museum, his bottom pad stretching and contracting to propel him across the slick floor. The silver Museum Director symbol glittered on his chest. A phalanx of military officers trailed after him, their chests glowing with colorful decorations for rank and brilliance in battle.

The Earth Exhibit was by far the best documented of all the life forms the Iktorgors had obliterated, and it amused the director to show it personally. The collection contained two captured ships, a whole space base, and innumerable artifacts, all installed at great expense after the museum carefully exterminated the pestilent life aboard.

Krexipux lectured, his combined oral/psychic voice booming through the large hall. “Listen, you can even hear the puny sounds they made!”

He gestured to Lysiff, whose tiny beige symbol befitted his low status at the museum. The empty space station’s hologram equipment had continued to receive messages for weeks after all the senders were dead. There were a lot to choose from. Lysiff switched on a message. Having only rudimentary forelimbs made manipulating the human machines terribly difficult, but he managed. Iktorgorian machines were civilized, of course, responding to mental commands.

The absurd recordings evoked raucous laughter.

“Humans were stupid!” Krexipux roared. “They thought we could not read their feeble minds. They thought their idiotic strategies were superior to ours. Everyone is better off now that we have destroyed them! Our destiny is to rid the universe of such vermin!”

The next hologram radiated and Durak Hyllkul’s voice rang out. After a few seconds, Krexipux interrupted. “This is one of the last messages sent. It is from an elite soldier. And what does he have to say as death bears down on him?” Krexipux mimicked the squeals and hisses with remarkable accuracy. “‘I’m just around the corner! I love you! I cannot live without you!’ Fools! Humans placed stupid sentiment above war. They deserved to die.”

The officers enjoyed the ridiculous sounds, and especially the squeaky imitation coming out of Krexipux’s enormous head. Then they followed the director to the next exhibit.

As usual, Lysiff let the recording play. When sure his visitors were gone, he switched on another holoplayer. Zerubella’s image sprang to life and recited her entire message. Since it had been broadcast to every human address in the universe, the Iktorgorians had found it waiting at the remote base they spared from destruction. A museum staffer with time on his hands realized the two recordings made a pair.

Lysiff pushed the holograms close enough to touch, then listened in fascination as the voices started again, this time alternating sentences. The discovery of what these two messages would do when in contact remained his own secret miracle.

Third time through, Zerubella and Durak spoke in phrases, sometimes mere words, swooping around each other, creating an aria of the dead.

“My love…”

“Without you…”

“Body.”

“Lips.”

“Our time together.”

“I love you as my life…”

“As handsome as you.”

“Oh, my love, my dearest.”

On and on they sang. Lysiff could not explain the phenomenon. It seemed to him that their emotion, this love of theirs, had somehow crept into the recordings themselves. When the images touched, they completed each other.

Lysiff did not know what love was. The concept was foreign; there was no Iktorgorian word for it. But each day, as he listened to Durak and Zerubella, he thought he was learning. Now, after many years, though he knew it was crazy, he yearned to experience love for himself. Just one time, just to understand what those foolish humans had once had.

 

General Order No. 1

by Joseph DeRepentigny

 

The commander looked over the new recruit with some amazement. He was a squat little guy with orange hair and three eyes. He’d seen this type before in the vids and knew they were a large part of southern society. Mostly farmers and basic laborers, they’d recently won the right to better themselves. The commander didn’t care. He wasn’t a fan of the caste system himself. He was born to the military life and often dreamed of being just a simple merchant; he looked at the recruit with wonder, this was the first southerner he’d ever seen up close.

“New to the Martian Defense Fleet?” he asked.

“Yes, sir!” the recruit replied with the typical southern Martian treble.

The commander nodded with approval. Most new recruits, northern or otherwise, gave a less than enthusiastic reply. For them it was mandatory to spend two standard years in the service.

“So, are you ready to become a space hero?”

“I am ready to serve the Martian Empire!”

“Then tell me General Order Number One!”

The recruit opened his mouth and then closed it.

The commander smiled and nodded. “They don’t teach that.”

“They don’t, sir?”

“No, it is something you only learn out here in space.”

The recruit nodded and looked at the commander for the answer.

Grinning, the commander said, “General Order Number One is, ‘When in doubt, kill all humans.’ If you follow that out here you cannot go wrong.”

“Are we at war with them?”

“No, but remember: We may be green but we aren’t Earth friendly.”

 

The Last Word

by Roxana Ross

 

There’s nothing quite like starting your day off with the dead.

That was my thought every morning as I typed yet another obituary about some stranger whose entire life would now be summarized for all to see, usually in a few pathetic sentences. Truly, dead men tell no tales. And if you went strictly by the newspaper obituary sometimes, the dead apparently had no tale worth telling.

“He was a mechanic for thirty years.”

“He loved spending time with his family.”

“She was a member of First Baptist Church.”

How, I used to wonder, would I be remembered, hopefully many years from now?

I know, and everyone else knows, that there’s more to someone’s life than what’s written in the obit column.

It doesn’t tell you about their hopes and dreams, their fears, their secrets and their motivations. What they did when no one was looking. Who they loved. Loved, mind you—not married. Their regrets, their character flaws, the things that deep down set them apart from every other eighty-year-old grandfather of five who loved fishing.

But that’s not what an obituary is. If you want a longer, more thoughtful recap of someone’s life, it’s called a biography or autobiography. Again, I think that even those aren’t the truth, just someone’s version of it. I’m a firm believer in some truths being in the eye of the beholder, so there‘s always a few different versions: what happened, how one person saw it, and how everyone else saw it.

Besides, there’s not room for more than the bland facts that we get in most cases, anyhow.

Grandma has just died, and the family is sitting around the table at the funeral home, where a man is saying, “How would you like her obituary to read?”

Seventy or more years of life, and the best they can come up with is, “She was a lifelong resident of Worthington.”

I liked to speculate about the ones assuring the reader that Granny had gone to her Maker, where she would reside in all eternity. Or to her rest. The arms of the Lord. To be with her beloved husband, gone these fifteen years. To look down on us.

My money says that Uncle Joe, Grandma, and the rest of our loved ones are beyond mortal comprehension, and wouldn’t it be funny if they were somewhere the exact opposite of peaceful rest.

I had just finished typing a particularly pious version of the usual drivel one morning when I looked up to find a woman standing beside my desk who had “unhappy relative” written all over her.

I get them sometimes, when there has been a mistake, sometimes mine, sometimes the funeral home’s. I had learned early on that it was never wise to argue with a grieving family member who now had something to be angry about. Real errors were rare. Mistakes were usually typos that made it past the editor, but it didn‘t matter. Many people would happily take out all their anger over someone’s death on me.

It didn’t bother me much, since I knew some people couldn’t help it. I just tried to be as apologetic and kind as possible, inserting the phrase “of course we will rerun it correctly” into the conversation as soon as possible.

Looking back, I don’t think I could have handled it any better. I tried my best, but I—the newspaper, really—was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With my best smile, the one I thought showed a willingness to listen and be helpful, I turned to her and prepared to nod sympathetically and make apologetic noises when the expected mistake was revealed.

The woman was short, probably in her forties somewhere, and looked a bit frazzled. Her graying brown hair was tied back in a bun, which was losing the battle against the curly strands that wanted to spring loose. Old, oversized glasses that magnified watery brown eyes were perched high on her nose and decorated with a beaded string which hung around her neck. A thin mouth, pursed in what I took for frustration, was painted with a shade of coral that I hadn’t seen on anyone in more than a decade.

She wore blue jeans, canvas slip-ons, and a bright red t-shirt that said “Key West.” Her jewelry was mostly cheap and brightly colored. She could have been an eccentric aunt, but she also had something about her that reminded me of the manic street preachers I saw in college who liked to set up on the sidewalks to call damnation down on the student union. I couldn’t put my finger on why that was, though.

“Hi, can I help you with anything?” I asked, smile in place.

She pulled a newspaper cutout of an obit from her back pocket and thrust it at me.

“It’s my father. It says he has a son, but it doesn’t mention his daughter, me. I’m Caroline Marcos.”

“Oh, well, I’m sure we can fix that, let’s see…” I opened the filing cabinet beside me and pulled out a folder, flipping through until I found the fax that the funeral home had sent for that obit, which I quickly scanned.

Emil Marcos, age 87, of 592 Roberts St., died Jan. 19… Surviving are his wife, Angela Marcos of the home; a son, William Marcos of Florida; two grandchildren…

“Hmmm… it seems that the funeral home sent up the wrong information,” I said, suspecting all the while that it wasn’t necessarily true and that in fact, what we were dealing with was a “family issue” that I wanted no part of.

It happens sometimes. There’s wife number one and wife number two, or three, or whatever. Like battles and empires, the last one standing gets to write the history books.

A funeral home is a business, and if the customer wants to cut out part of the deceased’s past, that’s what the staff will do. It’s not like they know the difference anyhow. They’ll write down what they’re told.

“We’ll be happy to rerun it correctly, all you have to do is tell the funeral home to resend it to us with the new information,” I smiled again, this time adding a hopeful nod to indicate that she would, in fact, have to take it up with the funeral home. “It’s just the policy here, you know; we only accept information from funeral homes. I’m sure you understand.”

Her eyes narrowed some, but not at me. She was staring over my head, thinking.

“It was her, then, wasn’t it,” she muttered. “She wished my mother and I had never existed. All this time and she’s still a—” She stopped herself and looked back at me, apparently coming to a decision.

“It won’t matter. She’s handling everything now and apparently doesn’t want me to be a part of anything, just like she did when he was alive. Am I right? If I go over there and tell them to make a change, they’ll still do what she wants, won’t they?”

Making a face of commiseration, I handed her clipping back to her.

“It’s possible, if that’s the case… I’m sorry, really, but they’re just running a business.”

She snorted and distractedly tapped her fingers on the top of my desk. She didn’t seem angry at me anymore, which was good, so I didn’t mind letting her blow off some steam. I could smile and nod with the best of them. By now I’d had a lot of practice.

“You could buy an ad, you know, if you wanted. You could say whatever you want. Well, sort of. You can’t call this woman names or anything. Not specifically. But you could buy an ad and write up your own version of the obituary. It wouldn’t actually run in the obituary column, but it would run in the paper’s advertising section… I don‘t know what something like that would cost, but I could take you to the advertising department and get someone to help you.”

She didn’t seem to hear me. Instead she started talking again, and I went back to the smile and nod routine. I didn’t understand completely what she was talking about, but it didn’t seem to matter.

“She’s his second wife, you know.” I was right, and I hated it. “He married my mother when he was much younger. They made a terrible marriage, but he loved her. And me. But…” she sighed and shrugged. “I don’t remember much about it, but he always came to see me when he could. Even after he married her. She detested us. We were a reminder that her husband hadn’t always been the white collar citizen she helped make him. That, and… other things.”

She shot me a glance and looked speculatively at my computer before moving her gaze to the rest of the newsroom.

“I’ve never done anything to her, but she’s always been scared of me, I think. Well, now she’ll have a real reason. My mother would roll over in her grave, but hopefully she would understand…”

Leaning down, Caroline peered at my computer screen and let out a long “Hmmm,” before placing one hand on the top of the monitor, a few bangles clinking as she moved. She stood like that for a moment, intently looking at my open file of half-completed obituaries for the next day. Suddenly the screen flickered, as if it had almost lost power. The words seemed to shiver in that second, but they looked the same afterwards.

With a self-conscious laugh, she took her hand off the monitor and straightened up, putting her hands behind her back.

“It doesn’t seem to like me, does it?”

“Oh, the computers are all temperamental,” I said. “They crash all the time for no apparent reason, but it’s not like you can just touch them and make them misbehave.”

Her face turned grim for a moment and then brightened. She smiled at me and looked much happier than she had so far.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry you had to listen to all that… People are always talking about ‘the power of the press,’ but it’s not just a saying, is it? Words have their own power. I suppose the trick is remembering to use your powers for good, eh? That can be hard sometimes.”

She shook her head and rolled her eyes.

“Don’t listen to me,” the woman added. “It’s all been very stressful. I’m sorry to go on about it. Thank you for listening, though.”

Hoping her next shopping list didn’t involve anything that required a three-day waiting period, like a gun, I suggested buying an ad, again.

“Oh, no, I don’t think that will be necessary. It’s fine, actually. I’m sure everything will be fine now.”

With a wink, she thanked me again and walked away.

I sat at my desk for a minute after she left, wondering what had just happened. She seemed harmless, though perhaps too willing to air her family’s dirty laundry to a stranger. Maybe she had only needed to rant. Maybe she realized that an obituary is just words. Words on flimsy newsprint, in ink that will come off on your fingertips. Nothing to get that excited about, in the grand scheme of things.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Nothing happened for the rest of the day. I typed up the rest of my faxes without incident and went home. The next morning was fine, until I got in to work and checked my messages.

“This is Bill, over at Smither’s Mortuary. I would appreciate a call back as soon as possible. If it was someone’s idea of a joke, we’re not laughing, and neither is the Carlyle family.”

“This message is for the obit clerk. There seems to have been a problem with the Parker obituary. Call Community Rest when you get this message.”

There seemed to be one for every obit I typed the day before. I had listened to several and had one message left when the editor, Max, strode up with a crumpled B-section in his hand, his face an interesting shade of red.

“Leigh, what the hell happened?”

Confused, I took the paper from him. It was folded back on the obituary page. At first glance, it seemed normal, so rather than read through it I looked at him for answers.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? Are you kidding? None of this is what you typed, at least, not before I looked it over last night.”

At our small paper, everything went through Max. There were no section editors, just him. Almost every inch of local copy was read by him before it was put on the page.

Going back to the paper, I read the first obit—one 72-year-old Gertrude Shaker—with a growing fascination. It was what I had typed, mostly. It now included three children who had died as infants, an extra brother whose home town was listed as Folsom Prison, and a paragraph that detailed how she had lived briefly in California in her twenties while singing in a band before breaking up with the drummer and moving back home, where she eventually settled down.

The next one was worse. A 22-year-old man who died after being shot when he tried to steal some drugs from his dealer’s trailer. Needless to say, that is one of those details that is never included in an obituary. The story had run on the front page, so it wasn’t a secret, but it hadn’t been in the obituary.

I gave up after the third one. I got as far as, “John struggled with his pedophiliac tendencies every day,” before I dropped it on the floor.

“I didn’t write that. ANY of that. I mean, the parts that aren’t supposed to be in there. I didn’t do that.”

“Pull up the file on your computer,” he said.

I opened up the file I had typed the day before, praying someone in layout was playing a prank, which would mean my copy would still look the way I wrote it.

It was. It was the version that had last been edited by Max. It even said so.

Without a word, Max turned and headed for the layout desk, where Phil was already humming under his breath as he laid out a page for tomorrow’s paper on his computer.

“Open up yesterday’s obit page,” Max snapped. “If you thought it was funny, it’s not. A lot of people are very upset.”

Phil seemed to come out of a daze as he stopped what he was doing and looked at Max. Phil’s laid-back look of concern was no match for Max’s flushed glare.

“Uh… Ok, um… here we go… what did I do?”

He clicked open the file and the three of us nearly banged our heads together as we got closer to read the screen.

Max was beginning to pant now, and he loosened his tie. The page looked exactly like it should have looked, with none of the weird additions.

“What’s going on, guys?” Phil blinked.

Max took a step back and looked at the two of us. I guess we looked innocently confused enough, because he suddenly deflated.

“Someone played a prank, and if I find out who it was, they’re fired. Do you understand? This. Is. Not. Funny.” He waved the increasingly wrinkled sheet in the air. “When these families start knocking on our door, what am I going to tell them? They’re going to want blood.”

He was right. To my relief, he ran interference and spent the morning making phone calls, apologizing, promising retractions and reprints of the original obits. That afternoon, he wrote an editorial blasting the culprit, whoever it was, and publicly apologizing some more.

I had a suspicion, but I kept it to myself. The very last message on my phone was from a woman named Angela Marcos who was angry that her husband’s obit had been rerun that day, with some changes. Nothing very shocking was added to Emil Marcos’s obituary, but it did include information about a daughter, Caroline Marcos, and his first wife, Isabelle, whom “he loved until her death.”

I thought about how Caroline had touched my computer, the way the words had moved, and I wondered what the “other things” were about his first family that the second wife had disliked so much.

 

The Night Jennifer Lopez Ate My Soul

by Anthony R. Karnowski

 

Sometimes I hate her.

She lays there, her arms wrapped around her pillow, sound asleep. I throw the covers off and pull them back on, but she’s oblivious. Her foot is twitching like it does when she’s having a really great dream, too.

Sometimes I really hate her. 

I glance at the clock and groan when I see it’s already 3:42. If I fall asleep now, I can still get three hours. I can function on three hours.

I roll over again and pull my leg out from under the covers for what has to be the hundredth time. It’s still hotter than the seventh circle of Hell. I look up at the ceiling fan and wonder why the people that designed it didn’t include a more powerful setting than ‘high.’ Something along the lines of ‘ludicrous speed’ would suit me just fine.

I manage to tilt my head so that the brunt of the fan’s airflow is hitting me in the face. After a few seconds of enjoying this, my body relaxes and I can feel the first gentle caresses of sleep brush my mind. Within seconds, I drift into sleep.

I jump at the sound of breaking glass.

The clock now reads 3:49.

Fuck, I think. What now?

I try not to wake Rene, though it would serve her right, as I slip out of the covers. There is another loud crash from the kitchen; my heart leaps into my throat. All thought of sleep is gone as I reach into the closet and remove my baseball bat. I’ve never owned a gun, and for the first time I wonder why.

The cold feel of aluminum in my hand gives me courage. I take a deep breath and, making as little sound as possible, I creep out of the bedroom. Expecting to find a man with a black ski-mask waiting for me in the kitchen, I almost drop my bat when I espy the shape of a woman standing just inside the door.

“John,” she says.

I stop. How does she know my name?

“I’m glad you’re awake. I need your help.”

“Do… do I know you?”

She giggles. “I need you, John. Come with me.”

Something about her voice is familiar, but I can’t quite place it. Stepping closer, her perfume tickles my nose. She reaches out and takes my hand. I let the bat slip from my fingers, and it slams against the floor. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wonder why Rene hasn’t woken up.

“Come on, John. Follow me.”

She leads me through the door, and we step out onto the front porch of my parents’ old house. This is strange for several reasons, mainly because that house was torn down over ten years ago. This strikes me as odd, but before I can comment on it the girl turns, allowing me to see her for the first time.

My heart skips. Standing there in nothing but a see-through teddy is Jennifer-fucking-Lopez.

I’m dreaming. I have to be dreaming.

She tosses her hair over her shoulder and smiles. Her skin glows in the moonlight, and her curvaceous form dances in the breeze like the flame of a candle.

“Come on, John. Let’s go,” she says. 

Her voice is soft and sultry, and I can feel my baser animal urges fighting for control of my mind. She takes my hand again and pulls me to the end of the porch.

Reason is replaced by desire, and I follow her down the stairs and into the driveway. She turns and tosses her hair again, beckoning me with a slender, dexterous finger. I follow her around the garage where she leans against the wall, caressing her belly.

“What are we doing here?” My voice sounds odd, distant.

“Well,” she says with a smile. “I couldn’t fuck you in there with your girlfriend watching, could I?”

My knees almost buckle. Before I can answer her, she reaches out and pulls me close. Kissing my neck, she pulls my shirt over my head. Hard nipples rub against my chest as long fingernails make their way across my back. I feel myself grow hard against her. She pushes me to the ground and straddles me, giggling.

“There’s nothing like a good outdoor fuck, is there?” She giggles again.

She kisses me as her fingernails dig into my chest, flooding my senses with a strange mix of pleasure and pain. She arches her back, and I can feel her growing moist.

Saying nothing, she reaches down and rips open my boxers. This show of strength is surprising, but all I can think about is her warmth. She laughs then. It is not the girlish giggle from before. It is… darker, somehow.

“Ready?” she asks. Her eyes glow, and her expression is that of hunger.

I answer her with a kiss. Our tongues dance and she pulls away just enough to tease me. She runs her hand along my chest again and without warning impales herself upon me. Ecstasy unlike any I’ve known before courses through my body, and she assaults me with her mouth. Alternating between subtle flicks of her tongue and small bites, she works her way up my neck. Her breath is heavy in my ear, and her thrusts grow stronger and more violent. She claws at me, her nails digging deep enough to draw blood; her bites are no longer playful. She rips a chunk out of my shoulder, and I scream.

Crimson runs down her chin, and she smiles devilishly. I try to push her away, but she wraps her arms around me, refusing to let go. Her strength is monstrous. With a cackle, she continues to ride me, but my exaltation from before is gone forever, replaced by revulsion and pure pain.

I grip her chin and fight to keep her mouth from tearing any more of my flesh, but my fingers slip in blood. Realizing I can’t hold her, I change my grip and close my hand around her throat. She laughs.

I squeeze her neck, but she doesn’t notice. She rocks back and forth, cackling. I try to push her away again, and in the process I look down.

My legs are gone.

I scream and redouble my efforts. Pulling my hand from her throat with ease, she puts a finger to my mouth and shushes me.

“It will all be over soon,” she whispers.

She thrusts again, and another few inches of my body enter her. I flail my arms, trying to grab hold of something I can use to pull myself out of her, but my fingers find only empty air.

She thrusts again. And again. Within seconds I’m in up to my armpits. I cry out, begging for her to stop. She laughs and thrusts again.

In my last second, I look up. Her face has changed. The comely face of J-Lo is gone, replaced by the twisted countenance of a hag. She thrusts one last time, and everything disappears.

 

On the Dotted Line

by KT Pinto

 

People never read what they are signing anymore. With the influx of internet disclaimers and contracts, people have just gotten into the habit of signing anything that’s put in front of them.

So I ask you, why not take advantage of it?

It’s pretty simple: you just slip in that extra piece of paper with the confirmation slip and the credit card application and you now have written permission to kill them.

It’s hokey, I know. I mean, we could kill them without their permission, but it’s such a rush to see their faces blanch when you show them their signature on the paperwork. Their whole lives flashing before their eyes as they realize that they wouldn’t be in this predicament if they had only read the form before they signed it…

We take our turns killing the customers. Since we’re a small garage it would be wrong for only a select few of us to get that rush. We keep track of our kills on a board in the office; we can’t kill indiscriminately or often, otherwise someone might catch on.

We each have our favorite types of victims:

Brady hunts the storytellers. You know, the ones who have to tell you how they got up early in the morning to take their dog to the vet, because the dog’s nose was dry and he was sluggish, and neither of them wanted to go out in the snow, but the vet was nice enough to fit them into his schedule, etc, instead of just saying that their battery was dead.

Linda likes to take the condescending men—the ones who call her “dear” and talk like she couldn’t possibly know the difference between an idler arm and a ball joint.

Jerry likes to spill foreign blood. It doesn’t matter what country they’re from, as long as it’s obvious that English isn’t their first language.

Roam takes on the P.I.T.A.s—you know them as the Pains in the Asses—the customers who keep bugging us every five minutes, wanting to know why their car isn’t in the garage yet; why cars that are getting an oil change are out faster then their car, when they’re getting a full brake job; why their size 20 tires are so much more expensive then the size 13s in the paper…

Mike kills old people. This brings up questions from us about any paternal issues he may have, but he gets people to sign up for credit cards, so we let this slide.

I personally kill women—the mousy ones that have to call their husbands for every little thing, or the ones that try to bond with me with comments like “This is something that only men are really interested in, don’t you agree?” I cringe at the thought that I am the same gender as these creatures.

It’s usually easy to pick who our next victim is going to be. There’s always one “shining star” who aggravates one of us to the point that we have to go out into the garage and have ourselves a good scream. If it happens to be that person’s turn to pick a victim, then that customer is asked to sign three forms when he pays: the pick-up slip, the preferred customer card, and the special pink slip, all of which we keep. We then take a coded sticker off of the pink form and put it on their receipt.

That innocuous little sticker contains a tiny GPS homing device that our resident techno-geek designed. We realized that we needed this particular toy after we tracked one of our would-be victims to an apartment complex—and lost the trail. This sticker helps us track our prey right into their home. It’s very rare that someone would leave their receipt in the car, since most people rely on the misguided belief that we are responsible for monitoring every bit of work that they’ve had done at our garage. So, the receipt gets brought into the house and put in a pile with overdue bills and memos from work.

Then we hunt.

Most people are simple creatures of habit. They go home; they eat; they watch TV… then they hear a noise outside… and they go to investigate.

The scenario changes from there, depending on who comes outside, but the ending is always the same:

Blood.

Guts.

Death.

And, sometimes, we get a nice car for the mechanics to chop up and sell for parts.

My favorite kill was the woman who had more plastic in her than Barbie. Her nails were long to the point of uselessness; her cheeks and chin were obvious implants; her lips looked like a hive of bees had stung her.

And she was as dumb as a box of hammers. She came into the garage in her spiked heels, her hair sprayed high, and her breasts looking like two beach balls pushing their way out of her shirt.

And, of course, she walked right over to me.

“I need tires,” she said, inhaling deeply as Tony walked past with another customer.

“OK,” I replied, already knowing how this conversation was going to go. “Do you know what size tires you need?”

“No,” she giggled, putting her hand on my shoulder. “Women aren’t supposed to know things like that.”

Stepping out of her reach, I asked, “What kind of car do you have?”

Maybe it’s just me, but that shouldn’t be a stumper.

We finally walked out to the car. It was one of those German luxury cars that hardly ever sees the road.

I measured the depth of the tread on her tires and tried to explain why her tires were wearing unevenly.

She giggled again and said that it was all just too complicated for her.

So then I gave her the price of the tires, with all the labor costs.

“Do I really need the alignment?”

So I again explained to her why her tires were wearing unevenly.

“Do I really need the balancing?”

“Unless you want the car to vibrate.”

“My car doesn’t vibrate.”

“Because your tires are balanced.”

“So why do I need to balance them again?”

Grrrrrr. “Because you’re getting new tires.”

“Don’t they come balanced?”

“When you pay for balancing, they do.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s all so complicated! How do you remember all of this?”

I held back the urge to say “because I have a brain”.

Ironically, stupid people tend to understand when they’re being insulted.

The rest of the conversation consisted of her rambling about the amount of time four tires and an alignment was going to take, because she had a nail and tanning appointment in a few hours, and couldn’t we push things along.

I never understood this logic. Why in the world would you want the people who are working on your car to rush through their job? Would you want a doctor to rush through your bypass?

I told her I couldn’t guarantee the time, but told her that she could take the shuttle and come back after she was through with her appointments to pick up the car. As I was explaining this, I saw her reading the work order closely; I hoped that the words weren’t too big for her to understand. I knew the question that was going to come next.

“I have to pay for the labor?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, pulling out the pink form for her to sign.

“I don’t understand that.”

“Ma’am, would you do your job if you weren’t getting paid for it?”

She laughed. “Oh, I don’t work!”

Of course not.

When I finally convinced her that our mechanics don’t fix cars out of the kindness of their hearts, she agreed to the whole thing and went on her way.

Then we went to work.

Based on the address she gave us, we knew that she lived in a middle-class neighborhood where the houses tried to look pretentious even though they only took up part of a city lot and boasted a postage-stamp sized lawn. We knew the best time to arrive on a block like that was between 8:30 and 9:00 pm, when dinner was finished, the kids were being tucked in, and the evening line-ups were just beginning.

So, at 8:47 that night, our inconspicuous mini-van pulled up across from her house. (The company owned five mini-vans, each registered to a different dummy corporation in Asia.) The one we were in was blue with a dent in the front bumper and a “My kid’s an honor student” sticker on the back.

That night it was me, Roam, and Jerry, with Tony driving. Roam scanned the house with his night vision goggles. “There’s only one human in the house.”

“Oh good,” I drawled, “So we don’t have to bring our alien gear this time?”

He made a face at me. “I meant as opposed to pets.”

“Is that what you meant?”

“Is it our target?” Jerry asked.

I looked through the regular binoculars. “Yep. That’s her in all of her plastic glory.”

“How do we know she’s not waiting for her hubby to come home?”

“Easy,” Krantz said from the back of the van; sometimes we forget about Krantz. We heard a couple of taps on his laptop before he spoke again. “According to her tax returns, she’s single… and her on-line date book has nothing scheduled for tonight. There are also no reservations listed in her name anywhere in the tri-state area.”

“What about phone calls?”

Krantz shook his head. “Nothing of note, and her blog is coming up with nothing either.”

“OK then,” I said, slipping my mask on, “Let’s have some fun.”

* * * * *

She woke up bound and gagged in the tire room of our |garage. We were all there; it’s like a little party when we make a kill, even down to the munchies and beer.

I walked over to her, pressing a long, thin blade against her cheek. “Now, if I take the gag out, and you scream, then you will lose your nose. Understood?”

She nodded.

I pulled off the gag and watched her rubbery lips quiver with fear. “What are you going to do to me?” she asked.

“Oh, we’re going to kill you,” I replied with a smile, “After a long, painful torture session, of course.”

Her eyes welled up with tears and I cringed. The bitch had contacts. I hate it when they have contacts. “I don’t understand…”

“And that’s your problem,” I snapped, “You don’t understand a damn thing. Everything is too difficult for you to grasp. You depend on all of this phony crap. This hair, those breasts… it’s all fake. It’s time for us to meet the real you.”

“What… what do you mean?”

“Wow! You are thick!” I shook my head as the group laughed behind me. “We’re going to take you apart. We’re going to cut away all the plastic until all that’s left is skin and bones… so to speak.”

I grabbed her arm, cut her bonds, and wrenched her hand in the air, causing a sickening popping sound as her shoulder dislocated. “Who wants the nails?”

Mike waved his hand in the air, as if he were still in school. I had known he was going to volunteer. Mike collects nails. He keeps them in shoe boxes under his bed. We’ve told him that keeping trophies like that was not a good idea—especially when he keeps the ones with skin still attached.

If he doesn’t start listening to us, Mike is going to have to go.

He came over with his silver-plated pliers and sat on her lap, leaning back on her so she couldn’t struggle as much. Then he started to rip her fake nails off, causing her to scream into his back as her real nails came off with them. He dropped each bloody tip into a plastic bag, sealed it shut when he had all ten, then walked over to a dark corner to admire his new prizes.

By now the girl was blubbering, her fake lips moving like a bleeding gash across her face. I found the irony interesting. The simile made me think of Nick; I called him over. Nick was new to our sales team, and had an affinity for scissors. He sat on her lap, facing her, and showed her a pair of tongs.

“Someone grab her hair,” he growled. Tony stepped forward, took hold of her hair at the crown of her head, and pulled her head back. Tony’s a good egg. He’s not really into the maiming and killing, but he helps out when he can.

So Nick, with the tongs holding the upper lip out, slowly cut the woman’s puffy mouth off of her face. Blood poured from her face as she tried to turn away, but Tony held her fast, and the lower lip came off just as easily as the upper one.

Nick dropped the lip on the floor, then wiped his scissors off on her silk shirt and stood. “Thanks, Tony.”

“Anytime.”

While Nick worked, I had noticed Brady starting to fidget. Brady is a breast man: he enjoys cutting open women’s breasts and finding out what’s inside. This woman’s breasts fascinated the fuck out of him. I was surprised he was able to hold out as long as he did.

So when Nick left the unconscious, lipless woman slumped in the chair, it didn’t surprise me that Brady stepped forward. He leaned towards her, resting his hand on the back of her chair, and slapped her over and over again, leaving gashes on her cheeks from his ring.

“Wake up,” he purred, ripping her shirt opened, “the fun isn’t over yet.”

Before she became fully conscious, he pulled out a professional looking scalpel and plunged it into her left breast, cutting through the skin like it was butter.

She screamed, loud and long. The thing was, our tire room was in the sub-basement of an old bomb shelter, so she could scream as much as she wanted. Our closest neighbors, three miles away in any direction, were not going to hear her. Roam had the DJ turn up the music. Nothing kills a party like a woman screaming her head off.

Brady stuck his hand into her breast like a kid cleaning the guts out of a pumpkin. Blood cascaded from her chest as he dug inside until he found what he was looking for.

The wobbly implant was streaked with blood and other things, and Brady felt the weight of it in the palm of his hand before hurling it across the room, where it made a satisfying splat against the wall.

He then dug for the other one. The woman had passed out again; Brady didn’t seem to notice as he pulled out his second prize. This one he cut opened and squeezed the goop out of it, letting it pour down his arm. He stared at his arm for a few moments with a small smile on his face before he stepped away.

Disgusted with how weak she was, I plunged a needle into her arm, making sure she’d stay awake until the very end. “Who’s next?”

There was a rustle through the group—what part of her should be the next to come off?

“Hey Jerry,” I said as I discarded the needle and got a drink from the punch bowl, “she’s wearing contacts.”

I walked back to the woman with Jerry in tow, watching as she tried to form words with her lipless mouth.

“Why me?” she finally managed.

I smiled sweetly and held up the pink form. “Why? Because you gave us permission to do so. ‘I, the undersigned, give Kear’s Tire and Auto permission to torture and kill me by any means they deem necessary… blah blah blah… give my car to Kear’s to be dismantled… blah blah blah… and have my body incinerated in the furnace.’ And look, right there is your signature.”

Her eyes widened in shock and tears started running down her bloodied cheeks “I didn’t know,” she croaked, “I didn’t read it…”

“That’s really none of my concern,” I answered, “I would say you are now finally seeing the error of your ways, but that would be too cruel, even for me…”

I stepped back as Jerry walked to the girl, holding something that looked like small, flat salad spoons. I turned away. Eyes creep me out, so much so that I won’t even wear contacts. I avoid the eye doctor as much as I can. Just the thought of the grape-like texture and fragility of eyeballs makes me cringe. And now Jerry was going to slide those little disks into her eye sockets and rip the orbs out, holding them gently between the disks so they won’t splatter like her implants did.

What he did with them after that, I didn’t want to know. Roam told me that Jerry made a tasty stew out of them. Linda says Roam is crazy—he only uses the eyeballs to make a broth, then tosses them away. Mike believes that Jerry eats them whole, popping them in his mouth and savoring the juicy middle like it’s a chocolate-covered cherry.

Mike worries me.

I know you’re wondering why I hadn’t done anything at this point besides talk. As I said before, I kill my victims; I don’t torture them. I torture Linda’s (picture a tazer and man’s most sensitive spot); I torture Roam’s and Jerry’s and Brady’s; I don’t torture Mike’s (torturing old people unnerves me). But my own victims, I just kill. I let my co-workers have their fun.

I waited for Roam to finish shaving the woman’s head, all the time whispering to her about her impending death, then stood in front of her, feeling the weight of my gun in my hand.

I’m the only one of our group that uses a gun. Brady uses a knife; Linda favors the garrote; Roam is fond of axes.

I like guns: the feel of one in my hand, the smell of a freshly cleaned and oiled piece, the sound of bullets penetrating flesh…

Roam slapped her a few times, making sure she was awake when I killed her, then walked over to Fredo—our resident DJ—who had just started the song “Last Dance”.

“Do you have to play that song every time?” Roam asked.

“You bet I do!”

I shook my head with a smile, and turned to the woman. “You can’t see this, but I have a revolver pointed right at your thick head. And, in a moment, I am going to shoot you. It’s a lovely little weapon, engraved with spiders on the handle and polished so well, it shines. But the best part, in my humble opinion is that the trigger pull on this is so smooth…”

The gun rang out three times: once for her head, once for her bosom, and once for her uterus. Those were the three places many pagans believe to be the parts that identify the woman as Goddess.

She wasn’t worthy of those parts.

The party wrapped up at that point. Charlie and George—our stock guys—turned on the hose, sending blood down the drains in the floor, while the body and the paper bag full of her hair were put on a gurney.

We have greased a lot of palms to get the permit allowing us to melt down tires on our property. That’s where the bodies go: into the fiery furnace. The temp is high enough that all that remains is ash among the melted tires, and the smell of the rubber hides any other distinctive odors.

* * * * *

We really don’t have much fear of being caught. We take back with us all of the incriminating paperwork from our victims’ homes, and our clothes, being black, tend to hide any blood spilled… unless they used the black lights and luminol.

But that means that they would have to suspect us, and what simple mechanics—who deal with a thousand customers a week—have to do with one lone woman who disappeared?

Will we ever stop? Perhaps. But why should we when fate keeps dropping stupid people right in our laps?

Stupid people who don’t read what they are signing.

So the next time you’re asked to sign something, and you jokingly comment that you’re signing your life away, don’t laugh.

You may be doing exactly that.

 

Raifuku Maru

by Roxana Ross

 

1925, somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean

Deep below the ship, something stirred. Vaguely female, she was as old as time and ached with a powerful, dark hunger. Alone in her watery prison, her influence could still reach out. It had been a long time since she’d had companionship and longer still since she’d been able to sate herself. Such was her nature that her emptiness and loneliness constantly gnawed at her, but she could not possess without destroying, and nothing she consumed or destroyed could satisfy either her hollow hunger or her desire for revenge.

Once a goddess, known and feared by every people that ever plied the seas, she was now reduced to a petty, slightly mad, and very trapped entity. She had been bound so long ago that even legends about her had passed from every collective memory except her own. She remembered.

It had been a much shorter time, just three days, since the Japanese freighter Raifuku Maru had left Boston Harbor and headed out to sea. It had been an even more recent time, a few hours before, since any of the 38-man crew knew where they were. Before that, after the coast had slipped over the horizon, a thick fog had risen out of the choppy Atlantic Ocean, despite it being a clear April afternoon.

Unaware of their peril, the ship sailed on without problem until the navigator fell ill, complaining of a massive headache. He stumbled off to his bunk, fighting blurry vision, dizziness, and an almost crippling pain behind his eyes. Unwatched, the needle of the ship’s compass spun around in circles for 30 minutes before anyone noticed.

1945, 20 years later

The roar of the radial engine was so loud that Tom O’Halloran could barely hear the pilot’s voice in his headset, asking for a check of their course. As one of five planes in a training mission, Tom didn’t see why the pilot couldn’t just follow the other planes, but apparently his fellow trainee wanted to do everything by the book to impress the old man. As the plane’s radioman and bombardier, Tom felt he was mostly just along for the ride this time. Today was Tom’s twentieth birthday, and a quick jaunt out and back in formation was not a bad way to spend the afternoon. Hanging out at the beach would have been better, but there was always tomorrow. Spending December in Florida was great.

Fort Lauderdale vanished behind them quickly, leaving nothing but dancing ocean and wide open skies visible from the rear of the plane. Facing backward as he watched the coast disappear, Tom didn’t see the dense, grey cloud until it was around them. The three-man crew soon found themselves lost in the sullen gloom with almost zero visibility. Far below the plane, something stirred.

1925

The ship’s cook, Satoshi, was an ancient, wrinkled, and nearly bald little man who made the sea’s best gyoza dumplings. While he worked in his cramped, steam-filled galley, he kept up a constant muttering of curses, prophecies, and blessings, emphasizing his incomprehensible statements by banging a wooden spoon against the edge of the iron stove.

“Not good, not good,” he moaned, wiping sweat from his brow with a dingy edge of his apron. In front of him a large metal pot of rice bubbled to the point of boiling over, then abruptly calmed. Gingerly, Satoshi lifted the pot lid with a chopstick through the handle. Inside, the rice lay uncooked at the bottom of the water. As he watched, the water began to boil again. This time he didn’t stay to watch, but ran to find the captain.

1945

“The cloud didn’t look this big when we were outside it,” said the pilot, Greg Yosten, his eyes narrowing in confusion. “I could see blue sky on the other side before we went in.”

“Come in, Flight 19, this is Tom. Seems Greg’s gotten this Avenger a little off course. Any of you guys still in the cloud?” O’Halloran heard nothing but static on the radio, which had fallen silent shortly after the bomber entered the cloud.

“All my gauges, everything, they’re all going haywire up here,” Greg’s voice sounded calm in Tom’s headphones. “When we get out of this mess, you may have to read me directions from your old Boy Scout compass to find a heading.”

Tom pulled a little leather box out of his jacket and flipped it open. Inside, the compass needle whirled around, seeking north but not finding it.

1925

Satoshi flung open the bridge door and hurried inside. At the shiny brass wheel stood the ship’s captain, Katsu, who worriedly stared into the endless fog on all sides of the freighter.

“Honorable captain,” the cook began to say.

“Not now, Satoshi-san. We’re having difficulties.”

“I believe our situation is worse than you know, captain.”

The captain, a striking figure in his starched uniform and cap, turned to look at the wizened man who stood before him, reeking of old grease.

“I don’t want to hear any more of your superstitions, Satoshi. Auspicious timing or not, our hold of grain is due across the Atlantic by a certain time. Nor do I believe whatever other nonsense you have for me today.”

The cook, who had joined on with the ship because he believed its name was a good omen, had begun to wonder if the name might also hint at a cursed existence they were now stuck in forever. In Japanese, the name Raifuku Maru could mean “coming full circle” or “returning perfection,” but the problem with circles was that they had no end, and the problem with perfection was that it could never be reached.

“What time is it, Captain? What direction are we going? How far is the nearest land?”

The captain’s watch had stopped shortly after the navigator, a long-time friend named Tomoharu, had fallen ill, but the captain didn’t notice right away as his concern for his friend was replaced with concern for his ship. Checking the clock on the wall, he saw that it had stopped, too.

“My rice pot has boiled three times,” Satoshi said. “Each time, when I check the finished dish, the rice is uncooked and the water cool. Something has happened to us in this fog, and I fear we are more than simply lost.”

Back in his bunk, Tomoharu tossed and turned in agony. Inside his head, a female voice painfully whispered words of loss, hunger, and a desire for a destruction of all things that were human. Convincingly, she told him lies and made her feelings his own. He was nothing in the face of such power. He should give himself, the ship, everything, to her.  To sink to the bottom of the ocean and be with her forever was a fitting tribute to her terrible majesty.

“No… no, I can’t. Stop it, stop it!” he cried. Now her insidious voice changed tone and spoke to him of eternity and loneliness, pleading, and cajoling. He could help. He must help. He was hers, to cherish or destroy.

Tomoharu suddenly knew what to do, but he would need to talk to Katsu. The captain kept the only key to the fuel supply room on his belt. There was enough fuel stored for their journey to blow a giant hole in the ship, big enough to bring them all down to his fearsome mistress. Katsu would understand the need to soothe such awesome pain and sadness, or Tomoharu would make him see. Anything to ease the monstrous agony Tomoharu now felt as his own.

1945

“How long can we go before we need fuel, Greg?” It seemed like they’d been circling in this cloud forever. They had to be circling, somehow getting separated from their formation and now out of radio range.

“Keep your shirt on, birthday boy, you’re not going for a swim any time soon,” Greg answered. He sounded jaunty, but he was beginning to feel a touch of fear. With no working gauges, he had no idea how much fuel they had. They could always bail out in a hurry, but he didn’t want to be known as the trainee who ditched his plane in the ocean.

Back in the turret, David Lorenzo, the plane’s gunner, finally chimed in on the conversation.

“I don’t want to hear any more about this stupid cloud, or fuel. Until the weather changes, let’s talk about something else. Anything else… Tommy, give us all a free Japanese lesson so when we get over there we can tell ’em to kiss our ass in a way they’ll understand.”

Tom had learned some Japanese from a neighbor when he was a child in Hawaii. Since Pearl Harbor, he’d brushed up his rusty phrases and taken a serious interest in learning the language until the Navy put him in a plane instead of an office.

“How about, ‘Hajimemashite,’ instead? That means, ‘nice to meet you,’” Tom said with a grin.

“Nice to meet ya,” David snorted. “Yeah, that’ll do. Right before we blast ’em, make sure you yell, ‘Hajimemashite!’ on the radio. Nice to meet ya, and sayonara!”

Tom began to feel a headache coming on, and he took off his headphones to rub his temples. When he put them back on, they increased the pain so much he almost took them off again, but before he could, he finally heard something on the radio.

“Danger like dagger now. Come quick!” The voice with its broken English on the radio wasn’t from one of the other planes. Not unless there was a Japanese pilot up here with them.

Tom hastily tuned the radio equipment in hopes of finding the voice again. The first sentence didn’t make sense to him, and he mentally translated the word “dagger” back to Japanese while he waited for more. In contrast to the quiet panic that had been building inside him when the plane seemed alone in a void, his found his mind calming down as he went through the possibilities. Futokorogatana meant dagger, but it also meant “right-hand man,” like aikuchi meant “dagger” or “friend.” Oddly, all the words that he knew for dagger also had other meanings. A tanken was a dagger, but also a word that had something to do with time, or exploration, and a tantou was either a weapon or a charge. Dagger was a tricky word.

1925

Tomoharu walked purposefully through the door and stared at the captain, who was sitting at a desk with his book of English phrases, carefully puzzling out a distress message that he planned to broadcast on the radio. When he saw his friend, Captain Katsu felt relief burst inside him.

“Feeling better, Tomo-san? I’m pleased to see it. I need you to help me translate and then we need to figure out how to escape this unnatural fog.”

“We must make a sacrifice to her,” Tomoharu said.

“Have you been talking to the cook? That sounds like something crazy he would say.” The captain set down his pen and took a better look at Tomoharu. “You don’t look well, now that I really look at you. Perhaps you should go back to bed.”

“You don’t understand! She’s out there and she’s alone. Horribly alone. But we can go to her and then she won’t be so sad. By giving ourselves, our ship, to her, we will make her happy.”

“What are you talking about? Are you feverish?” Katsu stood up to feel the navigator’s forehead but jumped back when Tomoharu lunged at him.

“Give me the keys! I’ll show you!” Tomoharu was enraged now, as the voice in his head fought to take control of him. “She wants us, everyone! This ship will be hers, too. Hers to destroy!”

The two friends grappled for a moment before the captain broke free and ran out the door. Outside, the deserted deck was slick and water dripped from every surface in the dense mist. Tomoharu was right behind him and skidded slightly as he gave chase.

“What has come over you, Tomoharu? Why are you doing this?”

The evil grip on the navigator’s mind eased slightly as the pleading of his friend almost broke through to him.

“We—we—we have to… go to her.”

Before he lost complete control again, Tomoharu decided to sacrifice himself in hopes that it would be enough to save his friend and the others on the ship. As Katsu watched in fear and horror, Tomoharu ran straight at the edge of the deck and threw himself over the railing.

For a moment Katsu was paralyzed, and then he dashed to the railing himself, but it was too late. His friend was gone.

The fog, however, was still there. Not fully understanding, but mindful of his duty, Katsu slowly walked back to the helm and shut the door behind him. He had a distress call to make but little faith in its usefulness. Tomoharu had been the one with decent English.

1945

“Katsu…” with a rush of nausea, Tom O’Halloran had visions of another time, another life, when he’d also felt smothered in a grey miasma, so similar to what wrapped the bomber now. Sweat rolled down his face as he turned to look out the window, knowing and dreading what he would see. He could feel her, now, at the edges of his mind.

“Hot damn!” Lorenzo saw it, too. There was a clearing in the fog. And not just a sucker hole, either, but a space that showed all the way down to the ocean. And there, sitting, almost waiting for them, was a big, grey ship flying the Rising Sun flag, the Raifuku Maru.

Like a tunnel meant just for them to find and sink the freighter.

“It’s not a war ship,” Greg said. “What do we do?”

“Hell, it’s a stinkin’ Jap ship, and it’s in the wrong ocean. It could be a spy, or maybe they’ve made up one of theirs to look like somethin’ harmless.”

“We’re coming in range. We can drop a few on them,” Tom said the words with a twist in his gut. He knew now that they were all doomed, but maybe, just maybe, if he gave her the Raifuku Maru this time, as he had refused to do before, she would let them go.

“Ok,” Greg said. “Let’s do this.”

The Avenger’s bomb bay doors creaked open. With a sob, Tomoharu sent down gleaming death into the past to save his present. Hajimemashite, sayonara.

 

Whirlwind

by R. Christophe Ryber

 

Dayanara dug her toes into the warm sand and folded her arms across her bent knees as she watched the graying, polo-shirted man move about in his brightly lit ranch house. The stars sparkled in the clear desert sky behind her, but Dayanara only had eyes for Raymond Landry. What an unassuming name, she thought, for a man who had managed so much in just a few minutes; who, while her father had gone to the bathroom, had ripped Dayanara out of sunlit childhood and thrust her into the twilight.

Both Dayanara and the spectacled, pasty white middle-aged man were a few years older now. Raymond Landry had become her father’s immediate supervisor at the Vale Corporation, and Dayanara was now a reluctant student at Highland Preparatory Academy. But, she remembered exactly how those hairy knuckled hands had felt under her summer dress, and how oblivious her father had been when he returned and Raymond had offered him another beer.

Dayanara plunged her own hands into the pure, clean sand. If she could only scrub her mind with it, as well.

“Success doesn’t come without sacrifice,” her father, Eduardo Montenegro, who introduced himself as Ed, was fond of saying, especially after Raymond had promoted him to mid-level administrator. He never asked about the ironic smile on his daughter’s face when she heard those words.

“Why do you tell people your name is Ed?” Dayanara asked him over breakfast one day.

“It’s an Americanization.”

“But you are American. You were born here.”

“It’s complicated, Ella.”

“My name’s Dayanara.” She managed an indignant toss of her long black hair over her shoulder.

“Your middle name is Dayanara.”

Dayanara had glanced at her reflection in the sliding glass door that opened onto their parched back lawn and the desert beyond. She looked at the brown girl sitting at the breakfast table, and tossed her long black hair again.

“I don’t look like an Ella. I’m a Dayanara.”

She looked a lot like her grandmother, actually—her father’s mother, Sofia Montenegro. Sofia’s water had broken as she lay in the back of a truck that sped across the moonlit desert and had given birth to Eduardo the next morning at the hospital in Somervale. Eduardo was American.

Sofia was not. She lived in a trailer park outside of Somervale, on the edge of the reservation. It had been easier when Eduardo was a boy to avoid awkward questions, but now it was rare that Dayanara’s grandmother ventured into town.

“Your grandmother is a brave woman,” Eduardo had lectured Dayanara. “If it weren’t for her, you and I would have none of the opportunities we now enjoy. She gave up her family for us.”

Dayanara wasn’t sure how much opportunity her father enjoyed. His career had stalled out one level below Raymond Landry’s, and she suspected that’s where her father would stay. Most of the people at Vale looked more like Raymond than her father.

Dayanara slipped on her Birkenstocks and pulled herself to her feet. She took one last look at Raymond through his picture window and limped away into the darkening desert. She winced, leaning on her walking stick as the too familiar pain shot out of the base of her spine and down her left leg. It would be a long walk home.

Dayanara glanced up at the moon. Her parents would not be missing her for some time.

The light from Raymond’s picture window winked out as Dayanara slid down a dune, and she stood alone under the stars. The wind picked up and Dayanara sighed at the sound of sand stirring on the desert floor. The dust devil wound its way toward her through the saguaros. Tendrils of sand and wind brushed against her, stirring her hair and brushing at the hem of her plaid skirt.

Dayanara held out her arms, closed her eyes and stepped into the vortex of sand and dust. She gasped as she always did as the wind sucked her breath away, and the tiny sand particles crept over her skin like a swarm of ants. She stretched up onto her toes, wishing the small whirlwind was strong enough to lift her off the ground. Her body went rigid and her brown lips parted as the ferocity of the miniature storm intensified, all thoughts of Raymond scrubbed from her mind by the whirling sand.

* * * * *

Dayanara grumbled in confusion when her mother, Esperanza, banged open her bedroom door early the next morning. Dayanara’s brown eyes, red from dust and sand, squinted at her mother’s pant suit and polished shoes.

“It’s Sunday,” Dayanara protested.

“It’s Easter Sunday. You have ten minutes to get ready.”

It took Dayanara twenty minutes, so the Montenegros had to sit in the back of the church on the folding chairs that had been put out to accommodate the “Christmas-Easter” Catholics. Dayanara wanted to point out that they could have been on time if they went to Our Lady of Guadalupe instead of St. Michael’s, which was clear on the other side of Somervale, but the look on her mother’s face told her to stay quiet. Dayanara had learned early not to speak at church. One Easter, when she was seven, she had asked where the nativity scene was. Esperanza forced a tight smile as the people in the next pew chuckled, but once they were safely home, her mother had slapped her face.

Still, it would have been a lot closer to go to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The church seemed nicer to Dayanara, and she would smile back at the multitude of brown children that played before Mass at the feet of the brightly colored statue of the Virgin. Saint Michael’s always seemed kind of cold to her. There were hardly any children, and the granite image of Michael driving a spear into the Devil had given her nightmares when she was younger.

But her parents steadfastly drove past Our Lady every Christmas and Easter, past the pick-ups and subcompacts to the gleaming white Saint Michaels, to park their Mercedes next to other Mercedes and BMWs, where no one walked on the lawn, much less played on it.

Of course, they would be even later, because Eduardo would have to stop at the confessional before taking his seat. Esperanza would wait in the foyer with Dayanara, tapping her polished shoe on the checkered marble. Esperanza didn’t go to confession.

Eduardo used to go to Mass every day when he was younger, Dayanara had found out, during one of those late night fights that happened after she was supposedly sound asleep. Esperanza blamed Eduardo’s “misplaced piety” as she put it, for “that mess we got ourselves into.”

“It was a blessing. Besides, contraception is a mortal sin.” Dayanara could just make out her father’s voice above the air conditioning.

“What do you think we were doing?” Esperanza’s voice grew shrill. “One sin, two sins, what difference does it make? You’re not the one who gave up their career.”

“You proved you couldn’t handle both.” Eduardo’s voice dropped and took on an edge. Dayanara pressed closer to the bedroom door.

“And you can’t handle the one.”

Dayanara rubbed the base of her spine and squirmed between the two of them on her metal folding chair. She watched the pained look of devotion on her father’s face as the Mass dragged on and tried to conjure similar feelings inside herself, but she had never been successful. To her, the polished wood, marble and glass building filled with tailored suits and elegant dresses, along with the gleaming cars baking in the hot morning sun in the parking lot seemed the farthest thing to her from the spirit world.

“You should try Wicca,” Zoe Calderwood had told her during lunch one day at prep school. “It’s all about nature.” Zoe had pulled a glossy oversized paperback from her backpack and given it to Dayanara.

Dayanara raised her heavy eyebrows at the tall blonde stirring the bubbling cauldron on the cover and leafed through the pages. At the back was an index of websites where Wiccan “supplies” could be purchased. Dayanara had borrowed the book for a week, had tried a few spells in her bedroom with kitchen candles and some sea salt, but it had left her feeling empty. She didn’t want a new car or for the quarterback to fall in love with her, or any of the other things the book assumed she wanted. Dayanara had given the book back to Zoe.

Dayanara didn’t know what she wanted.

Besides, she already knew that she didn’t need candles or sea salt to part the Veil, to hear the desert speak to her. Her grandmother had told her so when she was a little girl.

“There are places where the Veil is thin, Dayanara.” Sofia was the only adult that had acquiesced to her rejection of “Ella”. “Things sometimes come walking out of the desert into our world.”

“I know,” Dayanara had said matter-of-factly. “I can hear them. They tell me to come farther out, away from the backyard.”

Sofia had frowned at this, then went back to her knitting.

Sofia’s words echoed in Dayanara’s head as she watched her father slide off the metal folding chair and kneel on the hard floor. Esperanza remained seated. If she wasn’t in a proper pew with a kneeler, she did not kneel. She was exempt. Dayanara was always exempt from kneeling. Not even Esperanza forced the issue. The strains of the Agnus Dei filled the church. Eduardo, normally a soft-spoken man, allowed his voice to swell with the crowd. Esperanza did not sing. Dayanara twirled her walking stick. It was a new one. She changed walking sticks almost as often as Esperanza changed styles of glasses. The new ones were angular and had minimal frames.

Dayanara thought of her grandmother again as she turned the walking stick on end and spun it, ignoring her mother’s glare of disapproval. It was Sofia that had finally told Dayanara why her back and leg hurt when she walked.

“It was an accident, little one.”

“Did I get hit by a truck?”

Sofia had smiled and brushed her hair back. “No, dear. You fell.”

Dayanara nodded, adding the details to another midnight argument, after Esperanza had brought up going back to work.

“Not until Ella is in college,” Eduardo had said. “That’s what we agreed.”

“Ella is a big girl now. I don’t want to wait any longer to get my life back. I’ve done my penance.”

“No. You cannot work and take care of a child at the same time. You’ve proven that.”

“How long are you going to hold this over my head? It could have happened to anyone. I was distracted.”

* * * * *

Esperanza’s hand grabbed the whirling stick and thrust it at Dayanara. “Stop calling attention to yourself.”

Dayanara wanted to go walking in the desert that night, but her parents had a surprise waiting for her. They sat her down at the kitchen table with them, and they began to go through the glossy college pamphlets and handbooks. Dayanara frowned.

“These are kind of far away. Where’s the pamphlet for Kachina Community?”

“Don’t be absurd,” Esperanza said. “You’re going to a real college.”

* * * * *

Dayanara took lunch outside the next day at Highland Academy. She munched on a celery stick as she sat on the bench and watched the heat rise in waves off the desert floor. Lazy, her father had called her.

“I don’t want to leave Grandma. I don’t want to leave Somervale.”

“You’ll be back,” Esperanza had coldly reassured her. “At Christmas. And Easter.”

Dayanara had smirked. “Well, at least I won’t miss any church.”

Esperanza had raised her hand, and Dayanara had flinched, but the look in Eduardo’s eyes had ended the conversation.

The whirling column of sand and dust twirled about idly in the afternoon heat, just on the other side of the saguaros that bordered the school property. Dayanara heard the five-minute buzzer inside, but didn’t move. She watched the dust devil for a few moments, then ripped off her dark blue tie and walked across the tennis courts toward the whirlwind.

She showed up at the back door of her grandmother’s trailer later in the afternoon, her hair windblown and full of sand, her brown face burned from the sun. Sofia sat her down at the folding table in the kitchen.

“How did you get here, girl?”

Dayanara looked out the screen window toward the desert. “School’s that way.”

“You can’t be serious. That’s a couple of miles as the crow flies, and with your leg…” Sofia tilted Dayanara’s chin. “You’ll peel tomorrow, and itch the day after. I’ll get some aloe.”

“I’m fine.”

“You won’t be when your parents find out. I’m no fool. The way you walk, you must have left school hours ago to get here.”

“Dad’s working, and Mom—she’ll wait for Dad to get me.”

Dayanara’s mother never came over. Every Sunday afternoon Eduardo would bring Dayanara with him to visit his mother. Esperanza would take her SUV into Somervale and go to the mall for her “me time” as she called it. “Me time” involved the hair salon or the theatre, and lunch with some of her friends from the homeowner’s association.

A thought occurred to Dayanara one day as the Mercedes pulled into the trailer park that sat at the edge of the reservation.

“Why doesn’t Grandma come stay with us?” Dayanara had asked as they unloaded the groceries from the trunk. “Then we wouldn’t have to bring her food. She could just eat ours.”

“It’s complicated, Ella.”

After bringing in the groceries, while Eduardo and Sofia sat at the folding table in the kitchen and played checkers over coffee, Dayanara would meander through the trailer park and walk out onto the reservation. As she got older, she ventured further and further out, until she came upon the old pueblos that stood at the entrance to a box canyon.

They were Athabaskan, she assumed, since they were on the reservation. The sun was low in the sky as she climbed the adobe steps and looked into the dark rectangular windows. It had been so quiet there.

That was the night the dust devil had first appeared. She had watched it spin out of the box canyon. She had walked out of the silent houses onto the desert floor, had gasped in pleasant shock as it enveloped her that first time.

That was also the night she had met Joshua.

He had come upon her, confused and spent, lying on the steps of the pueblos. Dayanara had jumped at the sound of his voice.

“You’re on reservation land.”

Dayanara had bolted up, brushing at her sand-encrusted hair, staring wide eyed at the young man in faded jeans and a flannel shirt.

“I’m visiting my grandmother.”

Joshua brushed at his bad haircut and looked around at the silent dark windows. “She doesn’t live here.”

“No, she’s in the trailer park.”

Joshua pointed to the rusted pickup parked amid the scrub brush. “It’s getting dark. I’ll give you a ride.” He looked around the pueblos and into the box canyon. “You shouldn’t be here after dark. The chiindrii will get you.” He smiled wickedly.

Dayanara’s legs felt like rubber, so she climbed into the passenger side of the truck and stared out the window at the saguaros until the highway came into view. When Dayanara pointed out the powder blue trailer with the white trim, Joshua nodded.

“Sofia Montenegro’s house.”

Dayanara looked up. “You know Grandma?”

“My mom does. Picks her up every Sunday morning and takes her to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Somervale. There’s quite a few Catholics on the reservation and Mom’s one of ’em.”

Joshua’s eyes widened as they pulled into the driveway. “That your Mercedes?”

“My dad’s.” Dayanara quirked her mouth at Joshua’s reaction. “It’s a C-class, and it’s a lease, so don’t be impressed.”

“What’s your dad do?” Joshua climbed out of the truck and walked around the car.

“Eat enough shit at Vale and you can lease one just like it.”

“Vale Corp—computers. I’m getting into that myself.” Joshua pointed at the Kachina Community College decal in his rear window. “I’m studying networking. I’ll have my certification this summer.” Joshua looked up at Dayanara. “You think your dad would put in a good word for me?”

Dayanara rolled her eyes and stomped up the fiberglass steps to the screen door. “Thanks for the lift.”

* * * * *

Dayanara had asked her grandmother about the boy.

“Joshua Nizhoni. Jenna’s boy,” Sofia had said. “He does lawnwork for me and runs errands in town.”

Joshua’s truck was there next weekend. He made a point of helping Eduardo with the groceries. Dayanara looked off into the desert while the two talked about computers and college. Finally, Eduardo had excused himself and Joshua had walked over.

“That’s an evil one.”

Dayanara looked up, startled. Joshua pointed at the dust devil winding its way among the dunes.

“You can tell the evil ones because they turn counter-clockwise.” Dayanara frowned as he laughed. “Don’t be so serious.”

Joshua glanced at the trailer, then steered Dayanara to the back of his pickup. Dayanara wrinkled her nose at the wooden crate Joshua pulled out from under the blue tarp.

“You go to that prep school, right? You think there’s a market for these there? I would cut you in.”

Dayanara picked up a mushroom and sniffed it, then dropped it back into the crate.

“You sell these?”

“College books are expensive. Sheep farming doesn’t pay a whole lot.”

“I’m not selling your peyote’s for you.” Dayanara walked off in the direction of the ruins.

“Aren’t you going to college soon? You’re going to need spending money too.”

“Who says I’m going?” Dayanara called back over her shoulder as she disappeared behind the trailer.

It was dark when Dayanara found herself lying on a dune under the stars. The sleepy contentment she felt after being taken by the whirlwind faded as she realized how late she was. She grabbed her walking stick and pushed herself toward the distant lights of the trailer park. She found her father leaning against the hood of the running Mercedes, talking on his cell phone. His dark eyes glared at her as she stepped into the headlights.

Her father questioned Dayanara about Joshua, where she had been, had she been with him? She endured the lecture, and the slap from her mother when she got home. The next Sunday, her father had gone to Sofia’s alone. Dayanara was to remain in the house, as Esperanza was still going to the mall with her friends. Dayanara watched the SUV and the Mercedes leave, then walked to the sliding glass door and opened it, smiling when she saw the twisting column of sand playing out among the dunes. It had grown, and was several feet taller than her now. The ringing of the phone followed her through the open door as she walked out onto the patio and across the lawn toward the desert.

* * * * *

It was three months before her father took her back to her grandmother’s. Dayanara saw Sofia’s wrinkles deepen as she looked her over.

“Come and sit down.”

Dayanara took the coffee cup as she sat at the folding table in the kitchen. Sofia sent Eduardo off to town with a shopping list and pulled up a metal folding chair.

“You’re a sensitive girl, and you have the sight. But so do I, and I’m not blind to what’s going on, child. Bad things happened here, in the desert, back during the war when they began tinkering with things they shouldn’t have. The government dug poison up out of the ground, melted it down, refined it, made it into bombs hotter than the sun. They stopped the testing long ago, but it’s all still there—in the rocks, the sand, the water. It affects the chiindrii as well. They’re not the same as the ones in Mexico. These are… angry.”

Dayanara said nothing. She got up and went to the bathroom, turned on the water, washed the sand from her face, looked at her drawn haggard eyes. She shook the sand out of her hair, and went back into the kitchen.

“Mom’s leaving Dad.”

Sofia put her coffee mug down. “Nonsense, child. Those two are rock solid.”

“They talk after they think I’m asleep. Mom wants out now, but Dad is holding her feet to the fire and making her stay until I’ve gone off to school. Then Mom is moving back to New York.”

Sofia sighed and walked over to the screen door and shook her head. “Child, this isn’t the answer.”

Dayanara walked over to the screen door, felt the inviting gust of cool air pass through the hot trailer. The dust devil was out there, just on the horizon, in the direction of the box canyon.

Dayanara kissed Sofia’s cheek and opened the screen door. “Tell Dad to pick me up out front.”

* * * * *

Dayanara sat on the dune outside Raymond Landry’s house. Her dad’s boss opened his third beer and collapsed into his recliner, out of sight of the picture window. Dayanara picked up her walking stick and turned as the wind changed, stirring the grains of sand at her bare feet. She looked up at the whirlwind as it approached, so much larger now.

“Can you do it?”

She stepped into the funnel and gasped with pleasure as the vortex pulled her off the desert floor, leaving her toes dangling inches above the sand. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she went rigid as she slipped into oblivion.

* * * * *

“Raymond Landry is dead.”

Dayanara squirmed into a sitting position and pulled the covers over the sand-encrusted school uniform that she had fallen asleep in. Her mother stood in the bedroom doorway, wearing a pair of black slacks and a white blouse.

“Your eyes are bloodshot. What have you been doing?”

Dayanara drew back into the corner. “What about Dad’s boss?”

“Didn’t you hear me? He was stung to death by scorpions. They found a whole nest of them in his house. Your father is panicking. We’ve got an exterminator coming this afternoon to check. Raymond’s house is only four doors down. Check your shoes before you put them on.”

Esperanza looked at her watch. “You’ll be late. I’m off to the florists to get flowers. The wake is tonight, so you’ll have to fix something for supper. Your father and Raymond were close, so we’ll be there for a while.”

The door slammed and Dayanara slid over to the edge of the bed. She pulled on her shoes, not bothering to check them. No scorpions would be found anywhere else but Raymond’s house. She grabbed her walking cane and trudged downstairs and out the door, smoothing her wrinkled plaid skirt as she made her way down the sidewalk.

She limped zombie-like toward the academy, the metal point of her walking stick scraping on the cement as she dragged it forward. Dayanara wondered when or if it would occur to her mother that she should have given her a ride.

Dayanara was not at school long. Ms. Radcliff took one long look at her rumpled, dirty blouse and skirt and sent her to the office to call home for some fresh clothes. Dayanara didn’t respond to any of the comments thrown her way as she left the classroom. She never made it to the office. Soon, she was across the tennis courts and back out into the desert. To her disappointment, the dust devil was nowhere to be seen. She wandered in the general direction of the box canyon, the sun blistering her already red skin. She didn’t get far before her leg gave out and she collapsed in the meager shade of a saguaro.

She lost track of time. She had shifted with the moving shadow of the cactus three times before the familiar twisting column approached from the direction of the highway.

“Where have you been?”

Dayanara struggled to her feet. The dust devil was at least twice her size, now, and she did not step in so much as she was sucked into blissful oblivion.

* * * * *

The answering machine was blinking, red and urgent, when she staggered through the sliding glass door. Dayanara collapsed onto the sofa, heedless of the sand she had tracked across the hardwood floor. The door rattled. Dayanara went to the door, slid back the deadbolt and turned the knob.

“Joshua.”

Her fatigued brain struggled to make sense of his presence. He was out of breath.

“Where have you been? Didn’t you check your answering machine? Sofia’s been trying to get ahold of you.”

Dayanara glanced back at the furious red light, then shook her head. Her lips were cracked and blistered, and it hurt to talk.

“Your parents were in an accident. The car swerved into a tractor trailer.” Joshua took a deep breath. “The rear wheels went over the car.”

Dayanara blinked. “They’re at the hospital?”

Joshua looked down at his sneakers. “Your mother is. I’ll drive you there if you want.”

“Dad?”

“He’s not… he’s not there. I’ll take you to see your mother.”

Dayanara squeezed her eyes shut. They were too dry for tears. “Wrong one.” Her voice was a whisper. She collapsed onto Joshua’s shoulder.

* * * * *

Dayanara took her black blazer off and draped it over the kitchen chair. Her mother had already changed out of her black pants suit, the same one she had worn to Raymond’s funeral. She sat across from Dayanara, drinking coffee and looking at some papers she had pulled from the safe. A calculator sat by her coffee mug.

“You need to pick a college.” Esperanza did not look up as she punched figures into the calculator.

“Mom, this is hardly the time—”

“It is the time. You need to make plans.” Esperanza pulled out a classified section of the newspaper. Dayanara read the upside-down type. It was The New York Times.

“So that’s it then?”

Esperanza circled an entry with a red pen and peered across the table through her glasses. These ones were red and oval. “Honey, it was coming to this anyway. We were going to tell you after graduation.”

Dayanara grabbed her walking stick and slid out of the chair.

“You can’t keep me here by not deciding.” Esperanza circled another ad. “If you don’t pick a college, you’ll be living in that trailer park with your grandmother.”

Dayanara opened the sliding glass door.

“Good-bye, Mom.”

* * * * *

Dayanara awoke at sunset. She lay at the base of a giant saguaro. The yellow light from her grandmother’s kitchen window sparkled like an early star. She saw the red and blue lights flashing in the driveway and waited until they left before she staggered over to her grandmother’s trailer. Sofia was on the phone. She dropped it as Dayanara walked in, taking the girl in her arms.

“Oh, thank god you’re alright.”

“What happened?” Dayanara marveled at the detached calm in her voice.

“Your mother was bit several times by a rattlesnake. Honey, I’ve got some bad news.”

* * * * *

Dayanara looked up from where she sat huddled on the fiberglass steps of the trailer. She squinted into the headlights as the pickup pulled into the driveway. The engine sputtered to a stop and the door slammed, but the bright twin beams remained fixed on Dayanara.

Dayanara looked away from the black silhouette that crunched down the gravel drive toward her.

“Stay back, Joshua.”

“I just heard, Dayanara. I’m… I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

“Just go.”

Joshua’s hand crept toward Dayanara’s, but she slapped it away. Dayanara exploded off the step and shoved him in the chest.

“Stay away from me. You mean nothing to me.” Dayanara walked away from Joshua and called out to the dark, moonless desert. “You hear that? He means nothing to me.”

She stood there, arms wrapped around herself, until the door of the pickup slammed and the twin headlights turned back onto the road.

* * * * *

It was around midnight when Dayanara awoke on her grandmother’s sofa. She bolted up in alarm and padded down the linoleum hallway to her grandmother’s room. Dayanara sighed as she saw Sofia in the flickering blue light from the television. She was asleep on the bed, her chest rising and falling in a slow rhythm. Dayanara kissed her on the cheek and the woman stirred, pulling the blanket over her shoulder.

Dayanara closed the door to the bedroom and stepped out into the cold night air. She minced her way barefoot across the gravel driveway, scruffing away the stones that clung to the bottoms of her feet once she was onto the sand. The black funnel loomed above her in the night sky, the base as wide as a truck. The swirling vortex was illuminated now and then by flashes of lightning. Balls of static electricity darted about, playing in the maelstrom.

Dayanara trudged out into the sand in her nightshift, craning her neck to look up into the whirlwind.

“I’ll go,” she said. “Just don’t hurt her.”

Dayanara had time for one last look over her shoulder at the darkened trailer before the dust devil lurched forward and she was sucked into the blackness.

 

The Nearest Vessel

by Michael J. Albers

 

She appeared next to him only half-materialized, the stars visible through her body and an incoming comet’s tail extending from her head like a bad cowlick. “We’re not going to Breenken.” She had appeared as a rather average girl with long brownish-red hair, looking vaguely like a composite of the girls he’d dated in college, at least the ones he wanted to remember.

Roland shook his head. “What do you mean ‘not going to Breenken?’ We’ve got a full load of colony start-up supplies. I thought the captain told me, who told you, who made sure we got there, not vice versa.”

“There’s a ship in distress, and we’re the nearest vessel. New jump time is fifteen hours. I’ve modified course.” The Ship’s image turned and walked off dissipating into the star field.

Roland yelled after her, “Fifteen hours! What star? Details, please! I’m the damn pilot and suddenly I don’t have a damn clue where the hell we’re going.” But the figure had faded to nothingness against the stars of Orion’s Belt. “Shit, Captain Wilson will go supernova! Not that I ever really have a bloody clue about this Orbber ship, but at least it has always gone where I told it. He’s going to go bloody supernova.”

No, the captain will not be happy at all, Roland thought, especially since I don’t even know the name of the star we’re going to. Or even if it’s a single jump. Shit, I better tell them. 

Roland sighed and mentally signaled the system to return to normal haptics and he once more felt himself half reclined in the pilot chair’s deep padding.

A touch on his forearm. His view of his arm didn’t have anyone touching it, but then, he sat alone in his view of the control room. A control room he had designed as a spacious gauge-filled, geeked-up image from one of the campy flat-image movies he liked to watch. His jacked-in world appeared nice, crisp, and clean; it never contained other people. Yet, he knew reality was much different. Roger, an engineering assistant, would be sitting beside him in the cramped confines of the real control room, maintaining the auxiliary systems. In addition, one of the other pilots, Jenny or Rick, or Captain Wilson, or any other crew member may be standing around. With the change in the jump clock, he knew Wilson would be standing there, building to a full head of steam.

This was going to hurt. He opened a chat window and thought the words on it. “Who’s touching me?” Interacting with the outside world while jacked-in was difficult, the Orbber drive fed so much input through the jack that his brain had a hard time handling any additional inputs. Unlike some pilots, his brain simply refused to simultaneously interact with both ship control and the real world. The difference in perception gave him a splitting headache within seconds. The Ship could show up in his jacked-in vision, but no one else could.

Words appeared below his. “It’s me, Jenny.”

“Hi.”

“What’s going on? We changed course, increased speed, and decreased the jump clock by nine and a half days.”

“We sped up?” Roland mused, more to himself than Jenny, “I always sort of thought we traveled at top speed.” His head started pounding.

“Umm, yeah, me too, I guess. But the Ship?”

“It said we’re going on a distress call with jump in fifteen hours.”

“And?”

“And then it turned and walked away. Not unlike most other women I’ve known.”

A playful dig of fingernails bit into his arm. “Told you to bathe. The captain wants to see you when you unjack.” He felt a brushing motion across his forearm, their simple signal to return back to the private pilot’s world.

Closing the chat window, Roland willed the ship’s walls to fade away. Jet-black sky sparked with stars all around him except for the light yellow disk of the Sun which blocked a major chunk of his dead-ahead vision. Earth was a blue dot behind the ship, as they were already over halfway to crossing Venus’ orbit line. Sweeping across Roland’s foot, looking almost like he could stand on it, the long comet tail which had earlier sprouted from the Ship’s head, glowed. Behind him shimmered a translucent image of the ship populated by greenish images of properly working sub-systems, the yellow image of the fan with a bad bearing, and the red image of the sanitary pump being overhauled. As long as everything remained mostly green, all was well with the ship’s systems. He had the strangest feeling that if people were included in this vision, they would be turning red, especially the captain. Not a patient man at the best of times, Captain Wilson was going to be spun up with this undetermined jump change. Yes, most definitely, he’d appear as a bright red flame. Maybe even as bright as the pulsing red-hot iron hammer flailing inside Roland’s head.

He sighed. So we all ride a ship on a rescue mission to somewhere. On a ship that doesn’t see fit to tell its pilot where the hell that somewhere is. Only an hour and half eternity of this pounding headache until Jenny relieved me.

After his watch, Roland sat, eyes closed, in the dim light of his stateroom, willing the brain fog to clear. His bare arms and legs tingled as the fan wafted air over their hair. He breathed deep and slow, drawing the vanilla-cinnamon spiced cabin air deep into his lungs and completely expelling it. It was a routine every pilot went through; each pilot developed his or her own method of returning to the real world. After six hours of virtual inputs from the ship jack, essentially being disconnected from the universe, reconnection was a dizzy fuzzy time.

The bunk trembled slightly with the vibration of the ship’s various fans and pumps. Captain Wilson had done his own stint as a pilot and understood the futility of trying to get coherent answers from Roland until the brain fog cleared. But Roland also knew he didn’t have much time to shake it off. Headache still pounding, he sipped a glass of juice, a tangy mix of berry-flavored something or other.

Fog tendrils still formed a tangled web across his thoughts and vision as Roland refilled his juice glass and stepped out of his cabin to go find Captain Wilson. He discovered Wilson waiting, not so patiently, outside Roland’s stateroom, reading something from a tablet.

“What distress signal?” Captain Wilson said. His finger tapped rhythmically on the side of the tablet, a sign he was tense and not in a mood for anything.

“I don’t know,” Roland shrugged. “She walked up, said we were going on a rescue mission since we were the closest ship. And then she left.”

“What system? What distressed ship?”

“Not a clue. I asked; she didn’t say. I have no idea what star or even if it’s a human ship. Hell, it could be an Orbber ship for all I know.”

The tapping grew faster and louder.

The captain shook his head. “Great. There’s too much here I don’t blasted understand. The ship suddenly seems to have received a distress signal from another star. We change course and start going faster than I thought possible. What is it with those Orbbers? They give away star drives but not interstellar communicators, even though their own blasted drive AIs seem to talk between stars just fine.”

“True, the Orbbers haven’t given any of the space-faring races an interstellar radio. But somehow every ship drive knows what every other ship is doing.” Tap, tap, tap. Roland choked back his next words, realizing he had fallen into his habit of over-explaining the obvious. There were times when it was best to keep interactions with Captain Wilson as terse as possible, and he was suddenly very sure this time was a list topper.

“And we suddenly find out our ship has these unknown speed capabilities,” Wilson slammed his palm into the bulkhead. “Damn it, it’s my ship and we are supposed to be going to Breenken.”

Roland winced as the slamming sound reverberated through his head. “Yes, your ship, but Ship says we’re going to rescue something.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. Rescuing something. The question is exactly what is that something. Scheduling boys on Earth are not happy about this.” The captain stomped off toward the control room.

Roland retreated back into his stateroom. He lay down and resumed his deep breathing exercises. Staring at the stars painted on the ceiling, he wondered if it really was an Orbber ship that was in distress. Would they finally get a chance to actually see an Orbber? Thus far, none of the six space-faring races claimed to know what an Orbber looked like. Orbber ships everyone had seen, including the first time, when three of them had come flying out of the sun, stopped at the moon’s L4 and L5 points to drop off a bunch of spheres, did a close flyby of Earth’s atmosphere, and dove back into the solar glare. The spheres proved to be 257 star drive units; all that humans had to do was build ships around them. But even learning that required a Kreen trading ship to enter the system and explain to Earth what those 27-foot jet-black spheres were and how to use them. And to explain the jet-black tube which melded itself around a potential pilot, who was shoved back out 47 minutes, 18.3 seconds later with a system jack at the base of the neck, a full set of pilot skills, and no memory of the process. Or, for about thirty percent of potential pilots, a boring wait, until the rejected pilot crawled back out with no clue about why he or she had been rejected.

The fifteen hours until the jump passed uneventfully. The Ship never appeared to either Rick or Jenny with more details. Not that that was really unusual. On routine trips, the Ship typically only appeared once. Space tugs pushed them clear of a station dock, then after the ship drifted clear of the station, the Ship appeared to the pilot, asked for the destination, and then disappeared again. The job of a pilot was not to actually pilot the ship, but to act as a go-between with the Orbber drive. Maybe thirty seconds of contact per six- to eight-week trip, but if there wasn’t a pilot jacked in, the drive shut down instantly and the ship, defying all known laws of physics, stopped dead in space without so much as rippling water in a glass. All of the six space-faring races had Orbber drives and were puzzled by the rule. No one had any real theory as to why the Orbbers insisted on having a pilot who obviously wasn’t required. Some comedian claimed it was because the Orbbers were an overly unionized species and the pilot was a leftover from early space travel days. Sadly, while made in jest, Roland conceded it was as good a reason as any he had heard. Likewise, and much more important to each race’s leadership, none of the space-faring races had any solid explanation of why the Orbbers made star drives and just dropped them off without fanfare or communication. Or why they delivered more when the previous shipment had ships built around them. Or how they knew when to deliver more. Or why they kept taking survey vessels only to inhabitable planets, unless the survey team wanted to examine something specific. Or, as hyped by the paranoid and conspiracy types, why all six space-faring races had received their Orbber drives within the last 35 years. This impromptu rescue mission would really provide fuel to those people.

The jump clock in the control room counted down the final minute. Four people occupied the control room. Jenny was jacked in as pilot, sitting slack in the control chair, head rolled to one side. Roland and Wilson stood to either side of Jenny, looking out the viewports. Karen, the ship’s engineer, sat at her panel with its green glowing holos of the ship systems. The question on everyone’s mind was just how far and where were they going. They had crossed inside Mercury’s orbit line five hours earlier, a trip which should have taken two weeks. The sun filled the viewport; without the protective shield of the Orbber drive, the ship’s skin would have melted. As far as they could tell, this was the deepest into the solar gravity well any ship had ever penetrated before jump. Normally a jump occurred well outside of Mercury’s orbit line. The physics types of all the races agreed the drive used the energy of the gravity-warped space close to a star to power a jump, but also admitted they were clueless about the physics. Jumps from bigger stars definitely gave more distance; no one had come up with a better answer than hand-waving about gravitational energy. But if closer meant farther, then how far was this jump with the ship this deep in the solar gravity well?

Roland sighed, for when he was jacked in that instant of jump repaid the isolation of being a starship pilot with a million-fold interest. He always made the entire ship transparent and floated among the stars, waiting for the sudden shift in their patterns. Watching from the control room was not nearly as exciting.

The jump clock reached zero and abruptly the stars changed. The jump felt different. Normally, a jump had no feeling, no lurch, no bump—the visible stars simply changed. People not watching a viewport had no indication a jump had occurred. But this time both Roland and Captain Wilson felt it, a deep gut-level twist that had no real physical basis. Their confused, surprised eyes locked for a few seconds.

The sun, which had filled the space ahead of the ship, was replaced with a huge bright star in the rear viewport. Two large sunspot groups marred the surface and a tall looping prominence soared from the top like a feudal Japanese topknot. A jump to a large star was expected; class O and B giants were common intermediate jump destinations with their huge masses providing longer jumps. Seconds later, the navigation computer beeped: “No constellation matches on visual star maps. O class star has no specific stellar spectral match. Approximately twenty minutes for pulsar triangulation.”

Jenny murmured, “One hour and four minutes to contact and stop. Configure and power up two containers with life support suitable for Clen-Clen, but they are not Clen-Clen.”

Karen groaned as she pushed up her VR visor and turned to the captain. “Clen-Clen. We’ve only got four containers with integrated life-support and those are designed for humans, not those aliens. That nasty corrosive Clen-Clen atmosphere will totally trash those containers. Honestly, I’m not even sure how long they’ll function in that configuration. Plus, they’re configured to snap in as a space station component, not transport. Whoever they are, they’re in for a rough ride back without seats.”

“Prep three,” the captain said, “take two all the way and have the other ready as a quick replacement backup. But leave out the nasty stuff on the third. Wait, if you don’t know about length of time till no-op, leave out the nasty stuff until the last possible minute. ”

“Leave out the nasty stuff in a Clen-Clen atmosphere and it’s called vacuum.” The engineer dropped her visor back down as her fingers flicked the air working virtual controls only she could see.

“By the way,” Karen said, “the containers are not on the outer surface. Getting to them will require our guests to move through access tubes.”

“Finally, something good, “ Wilson grumbled. “At least we’ll see what they look like.”

The Orbber drive, when it was active, provided Earth-standard gravity, regardless of their actual acceleration; an acceleration value no one really wanted to know right now. Slightly under an hour after jump, during which the star had shrunk to a much smaller size than it should have, they acquired a visual on a damaged ship. At a high magnification, they could see it visibly growing larger at a much faster rate than when they approached a station. It was almost like an animation of a vehicle coming in at top speed, slamming on the brakes, and skidding to an abrupt stop inches away from a wall. Exactly one hour and four minutes after Jenny announced it, the ship stopped 100 yards from the alien ship. A ship that was ripped and twisted almost in half with the two halves out of alignment by almost 45 degrees. In one half, a large hole occupied the center of the section. Stars shone through the gap. Halfway down the other section was a second hole, smaller but it didn’t seem to penetrate completely through the ship.

The center break and twist was the same place as the Orbber drive occupied on Roland’s ship. But this ship was a completely different design. All six space-faring races had similar designs, dictated by the Orbbers. Every race had to use the same design; any variation and the Orbber drive simply said it was wrong and refused to move. Their ship had a 700-foot long, 30-foot diameter central hexagonal tube which just fit around the Orbber drive sphere which sat at the middle. The control room and crew quarters occupied the shaft from the drive to the front end and life support and other control systems occupied the other half. Around that center shaft, attached in a 14 by14 configuration, were cargo/passenger containers which were all 48 feet long and 10 feet square.

Roland thought the damaged ship, on the other hand, looked more like a space luxury liner out of those campy old movies he based his virtual control room on. Undamaged, it would have been a huge cylinder with numerous dimples projecting outward. It was also at least twice as long as their ship and much wider, even when they carried a full container configuration. Plus, it seemed to be a single unit, nothing resembling containers broke up the surface.

“Interesting,” Roland said, “that smaller hole doesn’t show any signs of melting or pressure damage. It looks like a giant punch just removed a chunk of hull.”

“My scan results are even more interesting,” the engineer said, her face still hidden in the VR helmet. “Or lack of scan. I can tell the ship is there, but I get nothing clear on either magnetic or spectral scans. All fuzzy wuzzy.”

The captain released a long deep-throated growl, “What do you mean, fuzzy?”

“I mean like spread thick translucent grease over a viewport and then look at a spaceship. Everything blurs into a meaningless blob with enough detail for shape and little else.”

“Shit.” Captain Wilson turned toward Roland. “Grab a camera and take pictures with the highest telephoto we’ve got. I don’t know how it’s blocking our scan, but we need to figure this out. Right now, I don’t trust integrated sensors to record anything.”

“My bet is on Ship filtering the scan signals,” Roland said, “Never heard such a thing before, but everything about this trip seems to be unique. What’s that? At the far end from the damaged section?”

Everyone’s eyes shifted toward a couple of small vessels with long manipulator arms that had moved away from the damaged ship and approached Roland’s ship. Everyone watched silently as they crossed the distance and started pulling cargo containers loose.

“What the hell are those tugs doing with my cargo?”

“Interesting,” Karen said, “they’re pulling exactly the ones needed to get to the containers I prepped. How do they know which ones?”

“I’m more interested in how quickly they work. We take a hell of a lot longer to move containers.”

Roland moved up to the viewport, taking pictures of both the damaged ship and the small tugs.

As each container was pulled free, the tug backed up, swept the container to the side, and released it before moving in to grab another. Soon, a collection of containers hung free around both spots which held the prepped containers. None of the free containers drifted with respect to the ship. Roland wondered how you can swing a large container and stop it on a dime with no drift adjustments. The captain’s fingers tapping echoed through the control room.

The work continued until the prepped containers pulled free. Then, as efficiently as they were removed, the other containers were repacked with the two prepped containers fitted into the top layer. As the second one was being put in place, a third, larger vessel left the damaged ship. It mated with the nearest newly positioned container. After a few minutes, it drifted over to the other container. While it was at the second container, both tugs mated with the first container and then drifted free, slowly tumbling and obviously no longer under command. Through all of this the alien ship never tried to communicate with Roland’s ship.

Everyone stood silently watching the operation. Roland jerked at the sound of Jenny’s voice, “Three seconds to acceleration. One hour twenty-four minutes to jump.”

Wilson slapped the control panel. “So glad I get to make decisions about my ship.” The wrecked vessel was already visibly smaller.

“Eng, where are we?” the captain asked.

“I don’t know. No pulsar match. We’ve got six pulsars IDed, but none match the database.”

“Damn it, calibrate that fucking equipment. We cannot jump far enough from Earth to not have matches.”

Roland shook his head thinking about the 3D pulsar charts he had studied during his Earth-based pilot training and how the instructors had assured the class that almost every pulsar in the galaxy had been mapped. Now they had six pulsars that didn’t match.

“The equipment is in cal. I think it’s all scrambled, just like my scan toys,” the engineer said.

The drumming of the captain’s fingers shifted to all five fingers trying to punch through the hard plastic panel. “My ship goes where I want it to go.”

When it was time for the return jump, Roland had relieved Jenny. Strangely, he couldn’t shift everything to transparency this time. Also, none of the normal container telemetry existed on the two containing their guests. All he could see were black boxes. Kerry, an engineering assistant, had volunteered to go container diving to read direct monitors, but Captain Wilson had nixed the idea. The Ship seemed intent on ensuring the contents remained hidden and he didn’t want to risk anyone physically approaching them. Plus, the access tubes hadn’t been reconnected to those containers, so the idea was moot. The containers fit tightly together with interlocking ports. Under drive, the ship’s surface was inaccessible since the Orbber drive wrapped itself tightly around the ship structure in a pure mirror-like coating.

Roland watched the jump clock countdown to zero and had to be content with sitting in his empty virtual control room watching through virtual viewports as the stars changed. But jump brought darkness instead of new stars. They floated in a black nothingness close to a single blazing star. “Great gods,” Roland muttered, “are we sitting someplace between galaxies?”

A ship hung 100 yards away which looked to be a twin of the damaged one they had seen during the rescue. Four tugs with their long manipulator arms floated close to their hull. Within seconds, they pulled the two occupied containers free and moved back.

The Ship appeared directly in front of Roland, with only a poorly rendered head rather than her normal full body that looked totally real. “Jump in six seconds.”

“Jump in six seconds? With no star?” Roland wondered if he had said it aloud.

The Ship blinked out as the jump clock floating before Roland counted down. Stars appeared around him. A full bodied Ship appeared looking like she always did and spoke, “Twelve days, 14 hours, 43 minutes to first jump. Then 18 days, 3 hours, 39 minutes to Breenken jump.”

“Two jumps! We made it here in one.”

“It’s a long trip.” The Ship faded away.

Unheard by Roland, Wilson was still releasing a string of profanity which had begun when he saw six seconds on the jump clock.

After clearing his brain fog, Roland went to the wardroom to eat. He found Captain Wilson, Karen, and Kerry staring at a display of a highly pixilated image.

Kerry looked up, “Hey, Roland, welcome back to the land of the living and home of the highly confused.”

Roland looked at the image; an involuntary shudder ran through his body. “What is that?” he asked.

“This is a super-duper blowup of one of the pictures you took of the ship we rescued. Jenny spotted this little blip just over the edge of the wreck. So, we enlarged it and found what looks like a huge station.”

The captain tapped the keyboard and an image of the wrecked ship filled the upper corner with an arrow pointing to a white smudge peeking out below the hull. “I don’t think we were supposed to see it at all. That wrecked ship was too perfectly positioned between us and it. But the wrecked ship drifted enough that this came into view in the last photo as we departed for the jump point.”

Roland dropped into a chair, looking at the image. “So it only shows in this one image?”

If it was a space station, it was either totally mangled or designed by someone with no sense of smooth assembly. Even highly pixilated, it was obvious that many sections hung at strange angles and looked as if they were ripped wide open. Two small blips only a couple pixels long, possibly ships, floated nearby. Assuming they were the same size as the damaged ship from their rescue, the station was huge, dwarfing the ships. Much larger than any station either humans or any other space-faring races had considered building.

“Did a big chunk of space debris hit it? Or maybe… no, never mind.” Roland asked. Yet, even as he asked, he knew it wasn’t caused by space debris. He had the strange sensation of knowing, but not really knowing, and not knowing how he could possibly know.

The captain looked at him. “You feel like you know but can’t place it, right?”

Roland nodded.

“I was watching you when you first looked at it and I saw that shudder. Jenny and I both felt that way when we saw it. It took a little bit to realize we both felt it.”

“So, all three of us with pilot jacks feel we know without knowing what is going on? Has Rick seen it?” Roland leaned back and shook his head. “I’m still too brain fogged for this type of discussion.”

“After two hours of staring at this, we’re all brain fogged,” Karen said. “It seems the only thing we really know is that all of the pilots here have a deep feeling they know the answer, but haven’t a clue what that answer is. What we do know is we have a single image of a huge space station ripped to shreds which the Orbber drive tried to hide. It’s too big for an internal explosion. Likewise for a single hit of space debris, although a highly fragmented asteroid might have done it. Perhaps they blew it up before it hit, but the pieces didn’t spread enough. But it seems any race that can build that thing can push an asteroid out of the way. Or it was attacked.”

Roland stared at Karen. “You’re saying the Orbber drive took us into the middle of a war zone?”

Wilson sighed. “Their war zone, someone else’s war zone, who knows. We weren’t there long enough to even start a pulsar match and no spectral match for either that star or this big baby we’re falling into now. So we have no fricken idea where we were or where we are now. Hell, it might be a science research project gone bad for all we know. Maybe just a highly explosive atmosphere that rips everything apart.

“The science and intel guy and gals on Earth will have a heyday with this.”

“They’ll have more theories and fewer answers than we do.”

Roland’s head spun and it felt like everything shifted to the right and back again. Hands against his forehead, he stood up. “Be back later.”

Lying on his bunk, Roland stared at the stars he had painted on the ceiling and considered how everything formed a bigger swirl than the galaxy painted in the corner. A strange rescue comes out of nowhere. A mangled space station. And his head starts spinning every time he thinks about it; no, the head of anyone with a pilot jack starts spinning. Something was definitely wrong here, but specifically what? Ok, he had always accepted the Orbbers had some ulterior motive and now there was a data point to prove it. He had never been one of the paranoids, but also wasn’t one of the overly accepting types who believed the Orbbers were just a super benevolent race freely giving away all the star drives you can build ships for—the Ancient Ones in the Engineer’s cheesy science fiction novels. As he drifted off to sleep, the image of the mangled space station popped into his mind and his whole body shuddered; the answer existed right at the edge of his thoughts and yet did not. His last thought before drifting off to sleep was that the real answer would come sooner rather than later and he didn’t think humans were going to like it.

 

The Ghost Lost Ship

by Scott D. Coon

 

Ed was cool.

His body filled the space behind the round table. The wall buckled as he leaned back, smoking a menthol cigarette. Only Ed smoked menthols; that made him even more cool. He had salvaged them from an old space freighter. Of course, to him, they were just freighters. I mean, he’s in space so why would he call them space freighters? Really? It’s just a writer’s device to let you know this is science fiction and he’s in space.

But, I digress.

He got the menthols from a “space” freighter. He got his muscles there too. He had a forty-five inch chest, a thirty-two inch waist, and biceps that he hadn’t gotten around to measuring yet. They came from moving heavy cargo off of derelict “space” freighters before he realized that if he turned the gravity off before he looted… I mean… salvaged the cargo it would be soooo much easier. And so he did.

Next to him sat Bob. Or, rather, Bob’s head since the table only came up to Bob’s chin. The guy’s short. Really short. There was something definitely wrong with Bob beyond the disembodied head at the table thing. You could tell just by looking at him. He had a face that demanded he wear one of those beanie hats. You know the kind, the ones with the little propellers on them. Yeah, the rainbow colored kind. Just looking at him without it made people want to scream, “I just can’t take it any more! Put the damn beanie on!” It was very useful in interrogations.

So, where were we? Oh yeah. Ed was slowly compromising the integrity of a wall in a sleazy bar while Bob just sat there freaking out the other patrons just by looking the way he does. Just then, a man in full Egyptian regalia walked in—white linen dress, gold neck thingies, sandals, the whole bit. “There’s going to be a bar fight,” Ed said to Bob.

“Yeah?”

“One of Them just walked in.”

“Them?”

“You know… ‘Them’.” He made the curling-finger bunny-ears quote thingy with his fingers. “They’re going to be fighting The Leather Spies.”

“Who?”

“Those guys over there by the bar. The ones in the trench coats and fedoras. They wear them to cover up the leather body suits. You can spot them because you can see the leather going up the back of their necks, and covering their faces, and who wears trench coats and fedoras anymore, really?”

“Oh.”

“They’re both chasing The Lost Ship. It’s filled with all kinds of lost nifty stuff. I read in Salvager’s Monthly that it was believed to be drifting through this area about now.”

“Is that why we’re here?” asked Bob.

“Don’t be stupid, it’s just an old science fiction story,” said Ed as he watched the Them march in unison to their table. “There’s no such thing.”

“What if it does exist?” asked Bob, his fingers nervously gripping the edge of the table. “Would that mean we’re in a story?”

Ed took a long, slow drag of menthol. “We are in a story. Look out there. Someone’s reading us right now.”

“Hello out there Mr. Reader Person,” said Bob, waving at you. “I thought The Ghost Lost Ship was coming. Ain’t that the thingy we’re going after?”

“You mean The Lost Ghost Ship?” asked Ed.

“No, it’s a ship that was lost that became a ghost ship,” explained Bob, “so it’s The Ghost Lost Ship.”

“That’s stupid.”

Then the fight broke out. I’m feeling lazy today so I’m not going to explain the whole thing about the pushing and the shoving and someone calling someone a poopy head. You just fill all that in for yourself and be glad I have enough coffee in me to write this at all. Now, get back to reading the story.

As the Them and the Leather Spies (no relation to the leather mafia, whoever they are) threw each other around the bar, Bob hid under Ed’s chair, crying and shaking, maybe wetting himself a little, maybe. Ed just smoked and nursed a beer. Then one of the Them fell in his lap. She was beautiful and familiar, so he said her name. “Egg!”

“Ed!” replied Egg, since he had gotten her name right.

“I haven’t seen you in…”

“A long time,” completed Egg.

“You’re as beautiful as ever. Why did I ever leave you?”

“To go salvage, jackass. You could have left me the key for the handcuffs. It took me three days to get out of those things!”

“I guess that’s why you weren’t home when I got back. I knew I had forgotten something that day,” said Ed scratching his chin. “How’d you end up with Them?”

“I joined for the uniform but I stayed for the game night. You haven’t lived until you’ve played Uno™ with Them.” She shivered at the very thought of it. “Bob’s here, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“He’s sucking on my big toe.”

“My thumb was all pruny but I wasn’t done being scared yet,” called Bob from under Ed.

“After The Lost Ship?” asked Ed.

Salvager’s Monthly?” asked Egg.

“Yup.”

“Yup.” Egg stood up and wiped her toe on the carpet. “I have to get back to the bar fight.”

“Good luck finding The Lost Ship,” said Ed. “You know it doesn’t exist, right?”

Egg shrugged, “Everyone needs a hobby.”

And so she went back to the fight and Ed and Bob went back to their ship to get another beer for Ed. They weren’t serving at the bar during the bar fight, local statute and all.

A day later, or so, Ed and Bob cruised the emptiness of space looking for stuff floating around. While Ed went to the hold to get another pack of menthols, Bob saw something in the blackness and steered toward it. As he approached, he saw its registry, “NNN.”

“It’s The Lost Ship!” he screamed.

Ed came running up from the hold, struggling with the cellophane on his new pack. “What the hell are you screaming about?”

“The Lost Ship! The Lost Ship! Look at the designation! NNN! Nifty Nick Nacks!”

“That’s, um… yeah. Wouldn’t that be Nifty Knickknacks? Which would be NK?”

“You know I can’t spell.”

“But,” said Ed, holding his head, “the ship.”

“Ships can’t spell,” snorted Bob. “Let’s get it!”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“At least we know it’s not The Ghost Lost Ship.”

“Uh huh. Why’s that?”

“’Cause it’s not all grey and translucent and wavy and stuff.”

“Bob,” said Ed, “shut up.”

They did all that technical docking stuff. You know what I mean. And then they were in the lost ship. Maybe it was The Lost Ship, we don’t know yet. Just hang in there and we’ll sort all this stuff out together.

Anywho…

As with most derelict ships, only the life support and gravity were still working. As with most cockpits on most derelict ships, there was a skeleton at the helm. Creepy, huh? Ed and Bob made their way to the hold where the good stuff was. It was full of boxes of various sizes. Bob picked up a small one, read the label, and opened it. It held an old, copper cup—filthy thing. Looked like it had spent a couple thousand years in a cave, kind of like the cups in that bar where the fight thing happened. You remember, it was in the first half of this story. Go check. I’ll wait.

Done?

Good.

Bob called to Ed, “We’ll have to open these boxes.”

“Why?” replied Ed still looking around for the gravity control so he wouldn’t forget to turn it off before moving the heavy boxes. I say “still” because he started looking for it while you were off checking the first half of the story just now.

“They’re labeled wrong,” explained Bob. “This one has just a cup in it and it’s marked ‘The Holy Grail’. It’s not a grail, just a cup, and not a hole in it.”

“Hmmm.” Ed picked up a small box for himself. It was marked “The One Ring.” He opened the box and said, “Yup, one ring,” and tossed it back over his shoulder.

Bob was scanning the labels on some other boxes. “The Golden Fleece, Cupie Dolls, Declaration of Independence… Hey, wait a minute. Ed!”

“What?”

“Check this out. The label on this one has been torched off. Isn’t that the thing on your girlfriend’s uniform? Not Egg—the new one.”

Ed took a look at the mostly torched-off marking. “That’s a swastika. And, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s a prostitute. Have some respect; the woman’s a professional. But, yeah, that’s what’s on her uniform.”

Bob sniffed the burnt crate. “Why would someone torch this?”

“They didn’t; it was torched from the inside. This is the Ark of the Covenant. I saw it in a movie once. This is what the Them was looking for. I guess this is The Lost Ship, after all. I owe you a dollar.”

“Told you so,” said the smiling Bob. Looking over the loot, something caught Bob’s eye, figuratively. He rushed to the back. “Please, oh, please be marked right!” He threw open the lid and a golden shower of light caressed his tiny cheeks. “Twinkies™!!! Wonderful, glorious Twinkies™!!”

Ed stood over him and said mockingly so as to mock him, “Yeah, Twinkies™. Get off your knees, you look like a doof.”

But then Ed saw the label on the box next to it. He rushed over to it even though he was only two steps away. “Please, oh, please be marked right!” He threw open the lid and a golden shower of light caressed his not so tiny cheeks. “A complete Jenna Jamison video collection!” He fell to his knees.

Before Bob could mock him in a mocking way for having mocked him before, someone kicked in the starboard door to the cargo hold. No, not the one into space. I mean, come on, try to keep up with the story here, we’re in outer space. It would have let all the air out or all the vacuum in, whichever. Then someone else kicked in the port door—and don’t make me go through all that again.

It was the Leather Spies and Them coming in through opposite doors. Once again the poopy head thing happened and they started fighting. Stuff just going everywhere and so forth and et cetera while Bob and Ed hid behind the Twinkies™ and a crate of naughty tapes.

“This salvage is ours!” called out one of the Them. Not Egg, one of the other ones. You don’t need to know who; he’s just a minor character. Go with it. “We’re taking the Ark of the Covenant and that’s all there is to it!”

“No, this salvage is ours!” replied an equally unimportant character from the Leather Spies dudes. “We’re taking the Maltese Falcon and that’s all there is to it!”

Did you catch that? They’re both after different things so they’re really fighting for no reason. It’s silly if you think about it.

They had lasers this time. And the lasers were just tearing things up. Ed and Bob soon became bored because all these people were bad shots. They just kept firing at each other and hitting everything else in the room. Worse of all, Ed was down to his last menthol. They had to get back to the ship. That’s when Ed noticed a switch on the wall behind them labeled Gravity

On

Off

…with that switch I mentioned before in between the “On” and “Off.” I know it doesn’t belong there at the back of the hold with no other switches around it but I’m writing this story at work and it’s almost lunch time so I want to get this done. You’re with me on that, right? Good. Let’s continue.

So, Ed hit the switch. The gravity went off. The poopy heads went floating around the room. So did all the boxes. In the floating confusion, Ed and Bob escaped with the Twinkies™ and the naughty tapes. I know you were expecting to see more of Egg in this part of story but there you go.

As they pulled away, the poopy heads battled for control of the things that only they wanted but were too rash to figure out. Safely away from the poopy heads, Ed offered Bob the dollar.

“Hold up,” said Bob. “Let’s go double or nothing on The Ghost Lost Ship.”

Ed snorted a laughing kind of snort. “Yeah, lets do that.”

As they left the area, another ship, also marked NNN, drifted by. Only this one was all grey and translucent and wavy and stuff.

Ooooo, creepy!

 

The Case of the Tiny Man

by Richard Wolkomir

 

So I’m hearing two-ton feet clomp up the stairs to my office, and I’m smelling landfill, and I’m thinking: “Uh-oh.” I pull the .45 out of my drawer and lay it on the desk, my way of saying, “Howdy.”

Sure enough, the door opens—no knock, thank you—and it’s a troll. Big buster, too. He’s got to duck through the doorway. He’s wearing blue sunglasses. He’s also toting a jumbo rolled-up white parasol, which you can bet he carried opened outside, because if sunshine hits him, you’ve got a troll statue. He lowers himself into my client chair, and I’m thinking, you break it, you buy it. But it just creaks, and he sits glaring at me and reeking.

I’d open a window, except my office doesn’t have one.

To kill the aroma, I finger a smoke out of the pack on my desk and stick it in my kisser and butane it with my .45. Then I lean back, blow a smoke ring, give him the raised-eyebrows look.

“Need a shamus,” he grunts.

“Get an elf shamus,” I tell him.

“No,” he says. “You.”

He’s glaring at me with those cape-buffalo eyes, and I’m thinking, maybe—in demonstrating that my .45 merely ignites coffin nails—I erred. A real pea shooter would be helpful. But just now I’m short the kale.

“I don’t do magicals,” I tell him.

“Need a human,” he says. “You.”

“I don’t work over in Magictown,” I tell him.

“She says, this young man, he could sniff out a lost pickle in a pickle factory,” Big Stinky tells me.

“Who says?” I say, cracking wise. “My mother?”

“Yes,” he says. “Your mother.”

I’m thinking, Damn it, Mom!

She’s got this shop over where our half of the city nudges Magictown, and she sells everything organic and herby in there, from dried St. John’s wort to genuine fairy dust, flown in fresh every Friday from wee factories in Europe. She’s got human customers, from right here in Folkcity, plus all sorts creeping in from Magictown, a regular little shop of horrors.

“She says you need money,” says the troll. “Boss will pay $50,000.”

He had me at “need money.” At “$50,000” I felt faint.

But I play it cool—lean back, blow smoke rings at the tin ceiling. Big Stinky doesn’t need to know I’m three months into the shamus business, and so far my only case was a granny a-twitter because her heirloom earrings got heisted, and it turned out she’d absent-mindedly stashed them in the drawer with her undies. Twenty-five bucks for that. And the office rent due.

Big Stinky doesn’t say anything. Just watches me blow smoke rings. No expression except ugly.

“What’s the job?” I finally ask, faking a yawn, to indicate I sometimes do lower myself to accept a $50,000 case, but only if it offers both edification and spiritual development.

“You find the homunculus,” he says.

Okay, it’s edifying.

“Bring homunculus back,” he says.

Spiritual? You betcha!

“I’ll need a third up front, for expenses,” I say, like that’s my policy with these minor cases. “Also, I need facts, like what’s up?”

You can see he’s struggling to marshal his mosquito brain’s three neurons. But his strong suit is muscle. I figure he’s bodyguard for some Mr. Big, which is a bull’s-eye.

“I work in the Magictown Mayoral Personal Protection Division,” Big Stinky divulges. And then he whispers, as if invoking the deity: “Mayor Duskowl.”

“Ah,” I say, and blow another ring at the ceiling. “Wulf Duskowl won two gold medals in the Sorcery Olympics, then got elected Magictown’s mayor, slogan being ‘Let’s Have a Spell of Progress,’ and he gets kudos in the Magictown Monitorfor providing benefits to aging gnomes and boggarts, and orphaned pixies, and going after Saturday-night-special wands.”

I’m showing Big Stinky I’m up on his bailiwick’s news. I’m keeping it to myself that his ilk—Magictown’s citizenry—gives me the creeps.

“Election coming,” he says. “And the ogres…”

Turns out Mayor Duskowl’s up against the Ogre-Goblin Alliance in the next go-round, and they’re running on the platform, “Is It Dark Enough For You?” Wulf Duskowl and his Go-To-The-Light Party should be a shoo-in, but the ogres and goblins play dirty, zinging in well-placed spells, a hex where it hurts…

“Mayor needed a homunculus,” Big Stinky confides.

Duskowl, he says, contracted with Amalgamated Alchemical Laboratories, Inc., to brew a homunculus, which Big Stinky says is “a little guy, grows in a flask.”

I glean that a homunculus will magnify the mayor’s sorcery, double his whammy. And that will offset the ogre-goblin mud-balls.

But now the homunculus has gone missing. And a homunculus in bad hands…

“Went up in smoke?” I ask.

And I think Big Stinky’s going to cry.

“Long day—meetings and meetings,” he says. “Then a speech, then a soiree, and I’ve got to be watching because, well, you know how goblins are, and then it’s night, and I’m in the mayor’s office guarding the homunculus and…”

He looks, believe it or not, pathetic. The big lug.

“Hey, spill it,” I say. “I’m feeling your pain.”

“I fell asleep,” he moans. “On the mayor’s sofa.”

When he woke up, the next morning, no homunculus. He tells me nobody can get into the office but trusted aids, like him. Big Stinky’s convinced the homunculus went AWOL.

“Bugger!” he says.

He holds up his thumb, which is the size of my head: at the tip, it’s got a nasty bite mark.

“Homunculus, he’s a lemon,” Big Stinky says.

He tells me that Amalgamated Alchemical cut corners. For one thing, homunculus brewing’s main ingredient is a mandrake root dug up under a gallows. But the Magictown Fair-Trade Commission investigated—turns out Amalgamated got their mandrake root from a low-bid supplier, who claimed it was gallows certified, when it actually came from his backyard. Also, the Alchemical Regulatory Act stipulates a black dog must dig up the root before dawn on a Friday. But the supplier deployed his aged golden retriever, who slept in Friday, finally dug up the root on Saturday afternoon, then went back to sleep exhausted.

Net result: a malfunctioning homunculus.

“Why hire me?” I ask. “You’ve got plenty of elf shamuses over there.”

“Homunculus only talks to humans, the bugger,” says Big Stinky. “And he’s probably hiding over here in Folkcity, so we need a human shamus.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m on it, just send my check—I’ll keep you informed.”

He picks up his parasol. He shambles to the door, taking his reek with him. Just as he’s about to duck out, I say, “Hey, one more question.”

He turns, stooped over, half in, half out.

“Who cleans the mayor’s office?” I ask.

“That would be Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services,” he says.

“Maybe I’ll give them a try,” I tell him. “Dust in here inflames my sinuses.”

I hear those two-ton footsteps clomping down the stairs and I’m feeling queasy. I’d vowed, no cases involving magicals. That their whole tribe has negative appeal, like a wart on your nose, that much I know. Otherwise, it’s all don’t knows.

I pocket my trusty .45—who knows?—and head for the obvious place.

Except, when I exit my edifice, across the street a twosome eyes me, a butterball of a guy and a woman with carrot-colored hair sticking up in that chic stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket look. He’s got a cast on one leg and a crutch and she’s got her arm in a sling, and they’re both peppered all over with Band-Aids. They pretend to check out omelet pans in the window of a used kitchenware store over there, but I’m not buying it. On the other hand, I don’t know what to do about it, either.

So off I go on my mission.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom?” I say.

It’s a busy day at Piffin’s Naturals. Mom’s handing over a biodegradable corn-based plastic baggie, tied with a twisty and filled with yellow stuff, to a guy with pimples and a pallor who could probably benefit from just about anything. Meanwhile, a young woman is waiting to pay for three sticks of cinnamon, and behind her stands a gray-faced gnome with a bottle of Nature’s Glue.

I join the lineup, behind the gnome, and shout, “Mom—you know a big troll, wears blue sunglasses, smells like garbage?”

“Arlo,” Mom mouths at me. “Be polite.”

Now she’s ringing up the cinnamon sticks.

“That’s my son, Arlo,” she tells the young woman. “He wasted his childhood reading thousands of private-eye novels, and now he’s a shamus, when he could be helping the planet, like being an organic farmer, and that will be $6.57 for the cinnamon sticks, with tax, Janie—they’re particularly efficacious for your affliction if you brew them with jasmine tea.”

Janie stares at her purchase.

“You don’t think with rain-forest-friendly organic cocoa, Mrs. Piffin?” she asks.

“It’s your itch, not mine, dear, but I do think jasmine tea…”

Janie goes off to fetch jasmine tea. Now the gnome’s forking over a fiver for his Nature’s Glue.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

Mom sighs.

Addressing the gnome, she says: “I thought, since he’s a genius, he might get an exchange-student scholarship to Thaumaturgy U. in Magictown—he couldn’t be a clinical wizard, of course, but I thought maybe on the theoretical side…”

“Theoreticians are important, certainly,” says the gnome, pocketing his change. “Where else would the new spells come from?”

Mom sighs again, displaying her sad, disappointed look. Me, I’ve got my own disappointments. Like, since Dad took off for Nepal with a Starbuck’s barista, when I was three, Mom’s worn only black Victorian-era widow’s gowns, with little black bonnets, and who wants to bring fellow students home from the Folkcity Institute of Criminal Investigation to see that?

“Remember, don’t use too much glue, Edlok,” she tells the gnome. “And press the two pieces of bat’s wing together for at least five minutes, so it seals nicely.”

Exeunt gnome.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

“It was Grunlie,” she tells me. “He needed a human shamus, and guess who I said? Grunlie stops in for persimmon juice, for his digestion, and… Arlo, are you getting enough to eat?”

Now some guy in a gray suit comes over to pay for a broccoli-sprouts-and-organic-portabella-mushroom sandwich, with soy cheese, on organic spelt bread, in a biodegradable container made from compressed organically grown peanut shells. He’s looking at me, critical.

“This boy’s too skinny for a shamus,” he tells Mom.

He hands over his money, still eyeing me.

“Awfully young for a shamus, too—what, just out of college?” he tells Mom. “And he ought to lose that skimpy little mustache because it gives the impression he’s trying to look more mature.”

Mom, ringing up the transaction, sighs.

“Mr. Bridges,” she says. “You have no idea how many times I’ve told him to strengthen his chakras…”

She sighs again. Mr. Bridges shakes his head in sympathy with my mother’s burdens.

Exeunt Mr. Bridges.

By now Janie’s back with jasmine tea, which works well with cinnamon sticks versus the itch.

“Mom,” I say, “I’m on a big case here, and I’m wondering if any of your customers mentioned seeing a little guy around, small enough to take a nap in an orange-juice carton?”

Mom rings up Janie’s cinnamon sticks and jasmine tea.

“Well, somebody mentioned a human-headed pigeon perched up over the subway entrance at…”

But now Janie turns around and gives me a look.

“Funny you should mention that,” she says.

It turns out her boyfriend, just an hour ago, stopped for a brew at Sneaky Pete’s Tavern, three blocks from Piffin’s Naturals, and sitting in there on a bar-stool is a one-foot midget, wearing a Roman toga, totally skunked, buying beers all around, and regaling everyone in the establishment with a stream of invective targeting Magictown’s mayor, his assistants, and all the various races of magicals in general. So, like a slug from a revolver, I shoot out of there.

Then I shoot back.

“One question, Mom,” I say. “Ever hear of Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services?”

“No,” she says. “Have you tried the phone book?”

I give her look. And then I do shoot off to that tavern.

* * * * *

He’s there all right.

If he stood up real tall he’d be halfway to your knee. But, in fact, he’s lying on the bar on his back, snoring. His toga’s got a beer stain on it, but he’s got the face of a cherub. To me, though, he looks like $50,000. I just need to whisk him off to his rightful home.

Sneaky Pete, a bald beefalo with a seen-it-all look in his squinty eyes, is standing behind the bar wiping just-washed steins with a towel and clinking them onto a shelf. I give him a friendly wink.

“If you’re done with my Uncle Maynard here,” I say, nodding at the supine homunculus, “I believe Auntie Bridgett wants him home to help polish the silver.”

He gives me an “oh, yeah” look.

“Haul him out of here,” he says. “But not until—as his beloved nephew—you pay the thirty-two-bucks he owes, buying rounds.”

“Let me start a tab,” I say.

“Cash,” he says.

I’m thinking of snatching the little fellow and running like hell. But then I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“Such a dear, cute teeny man, and that toga’s to die for,” she says. “Oscar, let’s pay his bill, as a charity.”

I turn, and it’s the woman I saw across the street from my office, with electrified red hair. Standing beside her is Mr. Butterball, and they’ve both still got their assorted casts, crutches, slings, and Band-Aids.

“We insist,” she says, snapping open her purse.

She extracts a Jackson, a Hamilton, and two Washingtons and slaps them onto the bar.

“Accept our family’s gratitude,” I say, scooping up the $50,000 homunculus before she gets her blue-enameled talons into him. “When Uncle Maynard wakes up, I know he’ll love you for it.”

“Our pleasure,” she says. “We’ll say our goodbyes outside, won’t we, Oscar.”

Her partner gives her a wink. I’m not liking this. But I’ve got the homunculus in my mitts, and I’m headed for the door, and I don’t see what these two bandaged-up semi- cripples can do about it.

Outside the bar, I feel something hard pushed into my back.

“That’s a .45,” says Oscar. “Hand over our little friend.”

“What you’ve got there,” I say, wry, “is a butane lighter shaped like a .45, examples of which I’ve seen.”

I feel the pistol withdrawn from my back. I turn, and Oscar’s holding the thing, looking at it.

“Why would you say that?” he says. “I paid a lot for this weapon in a gun shop this morning, and I’ve already test fired it in the alley in back of our apartment, and if you’re implying that I’m no good as a shopper…”

Clearly he’s got the nervous twitchies. Which bodes ill in a fellow waving a loaded Smith and Wesson. Especially since I notice we’ve got the street to ourselves.

“Look,” I tell him. “What I’m saying is, murder somebody for a midget, you sit on Old Sparky.”

“I’ll just shoot off your kneecap,” he says.

“Gimme,” says Carrot Top.

And she takes.

So now she’s holding the little darling, who’s still snoring. And I’m standing there with Oscar shakily pointing his popper at me. And I’m thinking, so what’s wrong with being an organic farmer?

“Turn around,” Oscar says.

When I do that, my head explodes, from getting hammered with Oscar’s pistol’s hilt. Next, I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching shooting stars. And when the fireworks end, I’m sitting there all alone, sans the $50,000 homunculus, but with a headache.

Which gets my gumption up. So I moan my way to a telephone booth and check the book.

* * * * *

I find the place squeezed between a plumbing equipment wholesaler and a glass-repair shop. Its faded window sign says: “Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services—We’ll Come Clean.” Smaller letters spell out “Oscar and Nadine Slocum, Proprietors.” It’s closed-up tight, nobody home.

At the glass shop next door, I check their phone book for Slocum. Then I’m on my way. But, en route, I duck into a pet store and purchase a kitty carrier, using the last of my fortune. So I’m toting that when I walk up the front steps of their grimy brick tenement, where a muscle-bound bearded guy in a black suit and a black fedora leans against the balustrade, smoking something black and acrid. He gives me a yellow-eyed look.

I check the foyer mailboxes, then slog up three flights, smelling various residents’ cuisine, mostly hotdogs. I fetch up at 3C, from which emanate thumps and thuds.

I’d guess the Slocums are practicing their free-style dance routine, except I also hear an “Ouch!” I can’t see anything through the keyhole. But I have in my pocket a wire for jimmying locks, which is illegal. But $50,000 trumps scruples.

I get the door open an inch, peep inside, and see Oscar on his keister beside an overturned lamp. He’s rolled up one trouser leg to examine a gash in his shin, and Nadine’s brandishing a kitchen chair, lion-tamer style, to ward off the homunculus, who’s waving a fork at her, yelling in a high squeak: “Fraternizes with the enemy!” Off to one side I see a chicken-wire cage, where I suppose they were keeping him, with the door busted open. I’m betting Oscar doesn’t have his automatic handy.

So I step right on in with my kitty carrier.

All three stop their mayhem and look at me. I pull out my own .45 and wave it at Oscar, then at Nadine, and forget to mention it’s only a smokes lighter. Then I turn my attention to the little fellow in the toga, still holding his fork and eyeing me, undecided.

“Hey there, Mr. Homunculus,” I say. “I’m with the Folkcity Anti-Kidnapping Squad—have you been abducted?”

“Hah,” he says, in that squeaker of a voice.

He peers at me, looking like an infant. Except that he’s a perfectly formed man the size of a squirrel.

“Don’t listen to him,” says Nadine. “He’s a shamus working for Wulf Duskowl and…”

I show her my .45, wordlessly threatening her with the wrath of butane. So she zips it and I give the homunculus a warm smile.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes, expressing distrust.

“What’s Duskowl paying you?” Oscar says, from the floor.

“Our people will double it,” says Nadine.

“Trust ogres and goblins?” I say.

Now the homunculus puts down his fork and applauds.

“Ogres and goblins are slime,” he squeaks. “Wizards and sorcerers are puke, and elves, kobolds, pixies, kelpies, and imps are goat spit, and…”

Such thoughts have occurred to me. But squeaked out loud, they sound bigoted.

“Just because a few bad apples,” I start to say, “act in ways we might disapprove…”

But the homunculus sticks out his tongue at me and utters a Bronx cheer.

So I grab the little bugger by his toga and toss him into my kitty carrier and lock its door. He’s screaming curses at me and kicking the wires with his perfectly formed tiny foot.

“Toodle-oo,” I tell Oscar and Nadine, on my way out the door.

But then I back into the room again, because charging down the hall is the yellow-eyed creep in black who was hanging around the apartment house’s front stoop. And as he comes he’s transforming into a gangster-clothes-wearing wolf. I have a really bad feeling about this.

In his kitty carrier, where he is now sitting cross-armed and cross-legged, like a pipsqueak yogi, the homunculus proclaims: “Werewolves eat donkey dung!”

I’ve got my .45 out, pointed at the wolf’s drooling snout.

“Hold it right there, Rin-Tin-Tin,” I say.

I mean it to sound tough, but it comes out a shriek. Upon which the werewolf sits down on his hairy butt and starts silently laughing, shoulders shaking. He wolfishly grins, showing off his fangs.

“You took your time getting up here,” Nadine tells the werewolf. “And you people never told us the homunculus is a little jerk who bites and kicks and scratches and that he might bust free and go on a toot, and…”

A growl shuts her up. Wolfie gives them a yellow-eyed glare, then turns those yellow eyes on me. He crouches for a spring, planning a dinner of shamus tartare.

I’m thinking, maybe I can butane him, and then he’ll stop to hold his burnt nose. So I’m aiming my .45, except I’ve got my eyes closed, yearning for magical powers of my own, like the ability to change a werewolf into a werecanary, waiting for that hairy body to hit me, and the teeth…

But nothing happens.

I open my eyes and there on the floor at my feet stands a confused-looking canary.

So I hoist up the kitty carrier and evacuate the joint, drunk-lurching on rubber legs. I wobble down the stairs, and only after I’ve put a couple of blocks between me and Chez Slocum do I realize the homunculus shot out a little magic on my behalf.

I peer into the kitty carrier.

He’s sitting in his yogi position, arms and legs folded, scowling.

“Thanks,” I say.

He looks away, making it clear we’re not on speaking terms.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re the magical, not me!”

He won’t look at me.

But I’m looking at $50,000. It’ll almost make up for losing his friendship. Now I need to get him to Magictown’s City Hall without getting hexed. I figure they’ll be watching my office.

So I go to the obvious place.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom,” I say. “My cell phone’s getting zero bars—can I use your landline?”

We’re sitting in her office cubicle, just off the shop, and she’s counting the day’s take. She looks up at me over her octagonal rimless reading specs.

“But I always get lots of bars here,” she says.

“Uh-oh,” I say.

I try the landline phone. It’s dead.

So I won’t be calling Big Stinky at the Magictown Mayor’s office, saying come collect the merchandise. I inch back the window curtain to peep at the street. Two goblins lean against separate telephone poles. Two more skulk in a doorway, smoking. They’re all wearing black fedoras. One wears a Miley Cyrus backpack. And they’ve all got their beady reds fixed on Piffin’s Naturals’ front door, which is its only door.

“They’ve blanked the phones,” I tell the homunculus, who’s sulking in his kitty carrier. “So you choose—Mayor Duskowl? Or those goblins out there?”

He gives me a raspberry.

“Look, give me some support here,” I say. “Pop some more magic—do it for the Gipper.”

He turns his back.

“Arlo, homunculi don’t do magic on their own,” Mom tells me.

“He just turned a werewolf into a werecanary,” I say.

“Oh, dear,” Mom says, giving me a wide-eyed look.

A bang on the door.

We’re disinclined to open it. So now the door gets the full running four-shoulder whamo. That busts its puny lock. It careens open, and I’m looking at four sets of red eyes.

“Arlo,” my mother says. “We have to talk.”

“Not a good time,” I say, pulling out my .45 and showing it to the goblins.

One of them lazily points a finger and the gun sears my hand. I drop it, trying to shake away the burn, which gives the goblins the giggles. Now they spot the homunculus in his kitty carrier, and my question is, do we get out of this still breathing?

I see my mother take a deep breath and sigh.

“Arlo, you should know your dad’s mother was an undine,” she tells me. “His father—your grandpa—met her at an inter-university mixer.”

Now the goblins start toward the kitty carrier, on a collision course with me. Because in this little cubicle I’ve got nowhere to duck.

“I thought you should know,” Mom says.

I get whammed onto the floor. I see goblin hiking boots pass over my prostrate form. I see a hairy goblin hand, claws badly needing a clipping, reach for the kitty carrier. I see the homunculus looking from me to the goblins.

I find myself longing—a deep, aching yen—for Big Stinky’s companionship.

The goblin holds up the kitty carrier, peering at the homunculus inside. The homunculus glares back.

“Goblins,” the homunculus declares, “are bat guano.”

Which causes the goblin to shriek and shake the cage, proving goblins are so sensitive it’s a wonder they get through their days. And do they always stash rope in their backpacks?

Because now Mom and I are sitting on the floor, each with our ankles tied together, and our wrists tied behind our backs. And the goblins are holding a meeting, of which I hear snatches.

“…witnesses…”

“…yeah, and the Elections Commission would…”

“Burn the place down, with them in it?”

Goblin giggling.

Out of the backpack comes a can of lighter fluid. A goblin pours the stuff around on the floor, whistling while he works. Meanwhile, another goblin digs in his pocket for matches.

“So, because of your paternal grandmother being an undine, Arlo, you’re one-quarter magical,” Mom whispers. “Which opens up the possibility…”

“Magicals disgust me,” I moan. “I’ve always despised them.”

“Arlo, that’s because of a suppressed childhood memory,” Mom says.

I’m watching the goblin finally strike a match. He stares at the flame, giggling.

“It’s my fault,” Mom whispers. “Because your father didn’t actually run off to Nepal with a Starbucks barista, which I told you because I was so mad at the hussy.”

She sighs.

“Actually, he ran off to Nepal with a succubus, whom I thought was sort of my friend and… I think you knew the truth, though, and it left you with this sad prejudice, as if one depraved, sex-addicted, toxic-waste-super-site of a succubus means the whole race of magicals is…”

I glumly watch the goblin lean down to ignite the puddle of lighter fluid on the floor.

“I’m only a quarter magical,” I tell Mom. “It’s not enough.”

“This homunculus is a magic magnifier,” Mom says.

I squint my eyes shut and think: snuff the match!

I open my eyes and the goblin is staring with irritated red eyes at a snuffed match. He reaches for another.

How big can I go with this, I wonder. Fill the room with pink fog that puts goblins—and only goblins—into a deep snooze? Probably beyond me. Also, I see the homunculus glaring at me from the kitty carrier. He hates goblins, he hates me. If he’s not a willing magic magnifier, does the enterprise fizzle? Now the goblin has match number two lit. I’m about to snuff it, when I notice that all four goblins hold lit matches. Which they throw onto the lighter fluid on the floor before I can say presto, and giggle around the resulting campfires, pretending to warm their hands.

One of them gives me an ironic salute, clawed forefinger to his forehead, and they start out the door with the homunculus in his carrier. And I’m thinking, there goes the magic.

“Arlo, do something,” Mom says.

And I’m really, really wanting to. But all I can think of is “rabid canary,” remembering my werewolf triumph.

Next, all four goblins back into the cubicle again, where the fire is crackling and it’s getting smoky—a werecanary is flying at them and pecking, while they try to swat it away. I squint my eyes again and wish real hard and when I open them the fires on the floor are snuffed.

But now, while two goblins swat at the attacking canary, which is executing barrel rolls and nosedives, the other two gaze at the homunculus, then at me, with wild surmise. They start toward me with a red glare in their eyes.

I squint my eyes shut and wish away my ropes. Which works. I stand, retrieve my .45 from the floor, squint again, wish again, and voila! I am now holding a genuine automatic, which I point at the goblins, figuring that if they point at my hand to give me the burns, the trigger gets pulled.

So we’re all glaring at each other when something big and smelly, wearing blue sunglasses, shoulders through the doorway.

“Hey, what took you so long?” I say.

“Your message comes, all funny and hard to understand,” he says, one-handedly grabbing two goblins by their shirt fronts and with his other paw grabbing two more, and holding them up like chickens he just bought at the Chinese market.

Coming in behind him is a skinny guy, not much older than me, wearing a wizard’s robe.

“I’m Wulf Duskowl,” he says, taking in the scene.

“I’m Arlo Piffin,” I say. “And in that kitty carrier is your homunculus, and you’re welcome to him.”

“Did you know we’re distant cousins?” Duskowl says.

Turns out my paternal grandmother, the undine, was his maternal grandfather’s sister. Are we all family, or what?

“How do you feel about nepotism?” he asks.

* * * * *

So that’s how I come to be sitting in my new office, over here in Magictown. Sign on the door says: “Mayoral Bureau of Special Investigations, Arlo Piffin, Director.”

Salary? Substantial.

Benefits? Cool.

Satisfaction? Not bad, except for the reek—Big Stinky’s got the office next door. And the homunculus has his tiny desk beside mine, and we don’t get along.