Entertainingly Evil
21
Jun

Free Coffee, Compliments of Telford Nature Explorers of Washington by Jason B. Sizemore

The pot was right where it should be. Electric drip. Classic Bunn-O-Matic machine. The blue road sign for the Telford safety area had not lied about the coffee.

It appeared to be the good stuff, the decanter’s handle and drip lid were black, meaning the contents contained caffeine. A faded and sun-stained sheet of paper taped to the speckled concrete wall hung above a portable card table: “Free Trade Organic Guatemalan Coffee courtesy of the Telford Nature Explorers of Washington.”

Yes, definitely promising.

Jack Thompson grabbed a small Styrofoam cup, spotted a dead fly in its bottom, and tossed the cup—with fly—into a garbage can sitting next to the table. A second cup proved cleaner on inspection, and he took the decanter in his left hand and poured himself a cup of brew.

He toasted the sign. “Here’s to you, Telford Nature Explorers.” Then he took a large swallow.

Coffee and spittle exploded from his mouth. Cold. Rancid. Gag-inducing.

“What the hell?” Jack placed the tip of his finger to the decanter and then the burner. Room temperature. This wasn’t coffee any longer. It was swill, and it clung to his tongue like the foul odor of sweat to gym socks. I pulled over in the rain for this, Jack thought.

The visitors’ center had two water fountains, but neither worked, and he swore at the bone-dry spigots. He’d have to dig up some dollar bills for the vending machine.

A wooden bench rested against the wall opposite the card table, and he dropped down with a loud sigh. In his pocket, his phone vibrated: probably a message from his wife Bethany asking of his whereabouts. He missed his son, and looked forward to putting him to bed that night after reading a chapter in The Phantom Tollbooth. Jack knew it would be polite to call her, but the promise of being teased for not flying soured the thought. Bethany had had a bit too much fun with the playful suspicions and good-natured ribbing over his unusual long drive, but he didn’t have the moral courage to explain himself. And, truthfully, the drive to Boise had been obscenely pleasant. Beautiful.

The drive back, not so much. After five long days of networking, sitting in lectures, and going out late-night drinking with a young female software developer he found especially charming, his stamina had run empty. And the storms. Gutter-busters unusual for the time of year. Jack’s back ached from too many hours in uncomfortable chairs and behind the wheel. He yawned, arched his back to encourage blood flow, and grunted when his spine erupted in a cacophony of popping joints. Yeah, Jack was more than ready to have the drive behind him and to be home for the evening.

A maintenance door creaked open, its hinges in serious need of WD-40. Out lumbered a squat man, dark of skin with a bald head as shiny as a spotless plate of china. The stranger looked to be the sole maintenance-slash-janitor type working at the Telford safety area this day. If so, the man’s job performance left a lot to be desired: toilet paper and urine on the floor of the bathroom, door windows filthy and grimy, inoperable water fountains.

The janitor scowled at the mess Jack had made on the floor. “You do that?” the janitor asked.

“No,” Jack mumbled. “It was like that when I got here.” Jack’s voice sounded weak, shredded by five nights of loud bar discussions and far, far too many Moscow mules.

“So you say…”

Jack held quiet.

“Not like the coffee?”

Jack stared at the man’s forgettable face. No scars. Moles. Tattoos. A few wrinkles around a set of dark, livid eyes, but nothing recognizable or remarkable. His mouth not more than a sliver cut beneath a bulbous nose.

He wore blue coveralls, and stitched on the breast was a half-torn yellow badge with black letters spelling out “Zager.”
“I did not,” Jack said. “Zager,” he added, as though making an unannounced threat, “the road sign clearly stated ‘Fresh Coffee’.”
“So it did…”
Jack leaned forward, placed his face in his palms, and closed his eyes. “Never mind,” he said through his closed hands. “By the looks of this place, I should have known better than to expect anything more.”

Silence.

A tense moment passed before Jack looked up and motioned around the visitors’ center. “Business always this slow.” Jack had been the only person in the men’s bathroom and his Mercedes was the only vehicle in the rest stop’s parking lot.

The man’s sliver of a mouth raised on one side. “Fresh coffee?”13CourtesyCoffee1

Jack cocked an eyebrow. “What coffee?”

“Fresh coffee. Would you like some?”

Jack considered the offer. After experiencing the poor upkeep of the rest area and distasteful shock of cold, old coffee, the novelty of free—no, the exact word was “fresh”—rest area coffee had disappeared. What had started as an inquisitive adventure had turned into headache and regret. And a sour mouth.

“I don’t know.” Jack eyed the stained decanter on the burner and the cheap plastic Bunn-O-Matic. “When’s the last time that pot’s been washed out?”

Zager scowled. “Just a couple hours ago. You sayin’ I serve my coffee in a dirty pot?”

“Not at all,” Jack acquiesced, hands up in a placating position. “But I assumed it isn’t your job to make the coffee or clean the pot—you’re a…janitor. Where’s this Telford Nature Explorers group at?” He nodded at the sign. “Shouldn’t they be working the station?”

To be honest, Jack was surprised Telford had much of anything, let alone a Nature Explorers group and a rest stop. Few cars passed by on US-HWY 2. No houses, strip malls, gas stations, or other signs of civilization marked the lonely stretch of highway—just yellow lines and innumerable mile markers ticking off the passage of time and distance. Snow-capped mountains could be spotted far off to the west while driving over the occasional gentle rises in the road, but otherwise the view was all dirt, road, and shrubbery.

“The Telford Nature kids left at four. Two teens—a boy and a comely young lady.”

“Did they give away any coffee?” Jack asked.

“I had a cup or three, but otherwise, no. The young lady was a looker of the highest order.”

Jack ignored the creepier side of the janitor’s answer. “What do you mean ‘no’?”

“Not many people stop here, especially on a rainy Sunday. You’re the first today.”

Jack chewed on this new information. He was the first? That was hard to believe. He’d noticed that a few cars had driven past since he’d entered the visitors’ center. Certainly, one or two people here and there wanted fresh coffee, or to be more practical, needed to stop and empty their bladders.

“That’s…weird. Why waste your time promoting your organization if nobody traffics this place?”

Zager had rolled out a portable mop bucket from the maintenance room and began slopping around a wet mop head on the floor. The damp slaps of mop cotton against stone sounded like an old man sucking on his teeth after a meaty meal.

Zager said, “The pretty one…yes…Sam was her name…she says it’s some state highway program. Travelers get free coffee and smiles, and they get to promote their organization and earn a few dollars via a tip jar.” A bright row of teeth appeared behind that slit of a mouth.

Jack felt it was time to go—put some miles between him and Zager, the cold coffee, and the desolate rest area. “Oh, right, I think I’ve heard something about that. Well, I need to get back on the road. My wife is expecting me home tonight.” He stood to leave.

Zager leaned over, grabbed Jack by the forearm. The skin of his palm was burning hot, searing through the fabric of Jack’s polo shirt. “Tell you what, Mr. Thompson, let me make you a fresh pot of coffee. I work hard to maintain this rest area, and I’d hate to see you leave with a bad impression.”

Jack tried to jerk free, but the janitor’s grip was implacable. “How do you know my name?”

“I’ve seen you on the news, of course. You own that electronics company, Hambly & Thompson, am I right?”

“Pharma-tech firm, actually. Hamburg & Thompson Pharmaceuticals, but you’re halfway right. I’m the CEO.” And they had been in the news of late due to the recent merger.

Zager finally let go. “Let me make it up to you, I have a sealed bag of honeyed Guatemalan beans that my brother gave me the last time he was in the states. How about I get out my grinder, and we’ll have a cuppa together, then you can be on your way after the rain lets up.”

Jack raised an eyebrow while rubbing his pained wrist. As though urging him to stay and have a cup of gourmet coffee, torrential rain had started falling outside, the runoff creating trails of rushing water crooked and broken like shattered glass. The thought of driving through rain like that made his back spasm, his nerves unspool nervously.

“Fair trade?” Jack asked.

“Of course.”

“Rainforest Alliance certified?”

“Come on, Mr. Thompson, of course.”

“It’d be a travesty to brew it in that Bunn-O-Matic.” Jack nodded to the old machine.

Zager shrugged. “Eh, you make do with the equipment you have on hand, my dad always said.”

“Okay,” Jack said, “only because I’ve never had honeyed Guatemalan before. And please be fast about it, I really do need to be on the road.”

“What’s the hurry?” Zager asked. “Nobody should have to drive in a storm like that. It’s dangerous.”

Jack scowled and sat back down as Zager leaned his mop against the wall and disappeared behind the maintenance door. Soon after, he heard the shrill call of a coffee grinder followed moments later by the sweet scent of freshly ground beans. A hint of honey mixed with the strong scent of earthy Guatemalan grounds set Jack’s mouth to watering. He briefly wondered why a janitor would have a coffee grinder stashed away in a maintenance room, but he’d encountered more extreme java fans than this old janitor during his brief time living in Washington. Heck, his Seattle-born administrative assistant had even bought him a portable grinder as a birthday gift. He’d packed it for his trip to Boise.

The maintenance door squealed open again, and Zager reappeared with a small bag of grounds. He emptied and washed the pot in a sink hidden away in the other room, filled it with water that he poured into the Bunn-O-Matic’s reservoir. No doubt unfiltered tap water, Jack mused. Then he scooped two heaping mounds of the Guatemalan into a fresh filter, closed the machine’s lid, and flipped a switch.

The song of boiling water and brewing coffee filled the visitors’ area. Jack waited, stomach aching in anticipation.

“I prefer siphon brewing over a coffee maker, myself. Immersion. Vacuum pressure. And fire.”

Jack grinned. “Best coffee I ever had was from siphon brew. My friend would make a whole production of it.”

Zager nodded. “So he would…”

For five minutes neither man said anything, but watched the machine’s drip slowly fill the pot—entranced as a pair of cats watching field mice. The machine finally exhaled, signaling the pot was finished, prompting Zager to pour two cups. He handed one to Jack, and he sat next to him on the bench. The taste…oh the taste…Jack could not believe such a miracle could come from a standard brew machine.

“Wow. Just wow,” Jack said.

Zager nudged Jack and smiled. “Good, right?”

“Would it be any trouble to take enough home for a couple of cups? I’d love to share this with my wife.”

“No problem, Mr. Thompson. Anything for your beautiful spouse.”

“What?”

“Your wife.”

“How do you know what she looks like?”

Zager laughed and nudged Jack again. “A wealthy drug baron like yourself, of course you married an attractive woman. Probably even have a few on the side, am I right?”

The comment bordered on offensive, and Jack had to talk himself into staying calm. After several deep breaths, he noticed that Zager wore a strange odor about him. Like someone who’d been in the woods for too long. Sweat. Rich, fertile dirt. Forest vegetation. Jack scooted to the far end of the bench to give himself some breathing room.

“Mr. Thompson, has anybody ever told you the origins of coffee?”

Both men took drinks from their cups. The rain pounded on the visitors’ center doors.

“No.”

“Thousands of years ago, they say a man in Ethiopia was tending to his goat herd grazing in some unfamiliar countryside. He saw the goats’ bellies were full and distended. The goats brayed and were restless. Would not sleep. He did some investigating and tracked the source of recent meals to an unusual berry known by the locals to be useless and distasteful. So the monks and villagers gathered up all the berries and threw them on a great fire. ‘Be gone,’ they said!

“But the roasting berries smelled of the gods and the heavens, and they extinguished the fires, dunking the berries into water. The monks drank the berry water, and found magical energy coursed through their bones.

“Those monks used the berries to lengthen their days. They worked longer, harder. They could pray for longer periods of time. And accomplished more in the moon’s cycle than they could have in three. And coffee was born.” Zager chuckled at his own story.

Thunder rocked the visitors’ center.

Jack finished his coffee and stood. “Thank you for the…conversation and coffee. I’ll be sure to let the Washington highway department know how accommodating you are.”

“Wait, Mr. Thompson. Allow me to gather some coffee for your lovely wife. Are you sure you want to drive in this weather? What if you have an accident?”

“I’ll be fine. I really want to get home to my family.” Jack said.

“Have another cup of coffee with me?”

“No thanks, Zager. But thank you for sharing it with me. It was delicious. Good day.” The words—even though he was saying them—seemed distant.

Jack opened the door, allowing the rain to blow inside.

“Excuse me, Mr. Thompson, but one more question before you go.”

Jack’s head felt heavy. Tired.

“What?” he said. The word dripped out of his mouth.

“How long have you lived in Washington?”

Jack leaned his head against the metal doorframe. He was getting soaked. He took a deep breath, trying to clear his muddled thoughts. “Two years.”

“Have you ever seen a sasquatch? Perhaps better known as Bigfoot?”

Jack fell to his knees.

“No,” Jack mumbled.

Outside, a battered white windowless van backed up to the visitors’ center. A large man, bearded and monstrous, exited the driver’s side, came around the vehicle, and opened the van’s hatch. He wore a red trucker hat emblazoned with the words “I Brake 4 Sasquatch.”

“Amazing beasts, really,” Zager said. “Docile. They’re not the terrible creatures the media makes them out to be. Remember that for me, okay?”

Jack’s consciousness blinked out like a pinched candle.

#

Jack awoke on an uncomfortable, padded adjustable bed shaped like an eggshell that cradled its occupant like a newborn. Naked head to toe except for a pair of powder blue shorts made of paper, Jack’s arms were restrained to his torso by Velcro straps wrapped tightly around his wrists and forearms up to his elbows. Likewise, his legs below the knees to his ankles were bound and immovable. Two larger black straps ran from behind him and over his chest and thighs.

“Help…” he croaked. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton that had been soaked in Zager’s Guatemalan brew. A thin layer of grit coated the insides of his cheeks and tongue.

A physician’s lamp glared above him, hanging from a long cord that disappeared into a barrier of impenetrable darkness.
“Help!” he called out with a bit more force. He knew he wasn’t alone. There were voices nearby, mumbling. Laughing. Jack yanked on his bonds and looked around frantically, searching for them, searching for rescue.

The bearded man from the visitors’ center stepped inside the cone of light and crouched over Jack. “Good morning, Mr. Thompson!” The man clapped Jack on the shoulder and smiled. Like Zager, he had teeth that were bright enough to illuminate a surgical theatre. “I apologize for the restraints. In the past our volunteers have a bad…habit of wandering off after they awaken.”

“Help me!” Jack begged him.

“Did you like Zager’s special blend? The man knows how to make a cup of joe.”

“Help me, please!”

The man withdrew a digital camera and snapped a photo of Jack, the flash creating twin blinding afterimages that Jack blinked away. Several more snaps followed, some closer, some at different angles. In between pictures, Jack did his best to size up his captor—intent on remembering every detail of Zager and this monstrosity of humanity for the authorities. The guy must have been edging seven feet tall. Muscular. Hair covered every visible part of his body except for small areas on and around his nose, forehead, and the cheeks below his eyes. Was this hypertrichosis?

Fitted on the bundle of black curls like a king’s crown was that ridiculous red hat. The man’s outfit was a replica of the maintenance coveralls worn by Zager, right down to the yellow name badge that was half-torn, but this one read “Evans.”

“Like my outfit? Standard issue from the department of transportation. If you follow the rules like a good boy, you might be given your very own.”

Jack shook his head “Evans. Please let me go.”

Evans took a clear plastic bottle of water from a nearby surgical stand and placed the nozzle in Jack’s mouth. Jack sucked greedily, the lukewarm liquid mixing with the aftertaste of Zager’s coffee.

“Whoa, slow down. Sometimes the Guatemalan can make your tummy turn upside down, and dumping a bunch of water on it only makes bad things happen. I don’t fancy cleaning up vomit just yet.”

Evans was right. Jack’s stomach gurgled, and the urge to puke made his mouth fill with saliva. He struggled to hold it down.

“Where am I? Why did you abduct me?”

The hairy giant stretched his arms out, the tips of his fingers extended beyond the cone of light cast by the lamp above. “Welcome to the Telford Nature Explorers Headquarters.”

Jack sighed. Closed his eyes. He wondered about his phone. Would the authorities be able to track its location? How long had he been unconscious? He imagined Bethany would be hunting for him soon. Hoped to God she would.

“Zager poisoned me.”

Evans laughed at the accusation. “I assure you, he would not taint his coffee with any poisons.”

“Yet here I am…”

Evans winked. “Yet here you are.” He sat on a padded rolling stool and wheeled close. “We added a pinch of ketamine. Well, Zager did. He’s the roast master. No flavor. Not a poison in the right dose.”

“Fuck you,” Jack spat.

Evans pinched Jack’s cheeks, giving him fish lips. “You need to be a good boy. That’s how you need to act right now. Please tell me that you’ll be a good boy.”

“Ffthhhk thffuu.”

Evans pinched harder. Jack’s jaw audibly popped. If the big man squeezed much harder, he would surely crack his mandible in half.

“I’ll ffbeee a…good ffboy,” Jack said in panic.

“Do you promise?”

“I ffpr—” Evans let go of Jack’s lips, “—promise.”

“Now I have your word. And if we don’t have our word then what do we have, Mr. Thompson?”

“Bethany. And Josh. They’ll be worried about me.”

Evans smiled, those fencepost teeth practically glowing. “I’m worried about you, too.” A beat, then, “But Zager has that handled. He’s a pro when it comes to planning for all contingencies. He’s been doing this a long time.”

A door chirped and squeaked opened from somewhere beyond. Zager stepped into the small circle of light, feet scuffling along the cement floor. He carried a clipboard in one hand and a clear plastic bag stuffed with Jack’s personal items: key fob, cellphone, wallet, and utility knife.

“Give me my phone!” Jack struggled against his bonds. “I need to call my wife.”

“You’re a volunteer, Mr. Thompson,” Zager said. He feigned a confused expression. “Volunteers are not granted phone calls.”

“I’m not your damn volunteer.”

Evans leaned in to Jack. “Such language…you promised me you’d be a good boy. This slip up is free. The next one, I start breaking fingers,” Evans whispered. He smiled, cheerfully, only inches away from Jack’s face. “That’s a promise!”

The door chirped again. Then footsteps echoed throughout the darkness. A young woman stepped into the lit space. Zager handed her the clipboard.

“Good job, the boss will be pleased.”

Zager nodded and disappeared.

The woman wore a white doctor’s robe over denim shorts and an old Seattle Supersonics basketball jersey. Her plain brown hair was pulled tightly into bun. Black-rimmed glasses rested far down her nose, and she peered at Jack over them.
“Thank you for volunteering. The Telford Nature Explorers appreciates your commitment to the natural sciences.” She spoke in quick tones, like an overly-caffeinated and bored administrative assistant going over paperwork for a client to sign. “Jack Thompson: age 43, Caucasian male, blood type AB-. Currently on Ativan, Zoloft, and the occasional Ambien.” She paused, pursing her lips as if deep in thought. “Interesting. How are you not a zombie? Are you a zombie, Mr. Thompson?”

Jack barked a laugh. “Are you joking? Let me out of here. Where’s my phone?” He struggled and rocked back and forth trying to find slack in his bindings.

Crack.

Electric agony arced from his pinky finger up his left arm, rendering half his body momentarily numb. He screamed his voice raw until a huge hairy hand clamped over his mouth.

“Undead or not, your medications and…” she leaned for an examination of Jack’s left hand, “oh yes, and a definitely fractured digitus minimus, shouldn’t affect our test results.”

Jack stared down at his hand, then retched all over his bare chest and the floor: the pinky finger was bent at a gruesome 120-degree angle, like a crooked nail sticking from a loose board.

Evans put his forefinger to his mouth and made a “Shhh” motion. Then he held out a red ball gag, snapped the strap over his head and forced the gag into Jack’s mouth in a lightning quick motion. Jack’s breathing became shallow and mania crept around the edges of his consciousness.

“Want me to clean up the mess, Doctor?”

“Yes. Thank you, Evans.”

Evans smiled and winked. “Welcome.”

The woman took a seat in a rolling chair in Jack’s line of vision. She crossed her legs and leaned back.

“You don’t … wouldn’t know me, Mr. Thompson. I’m Dr. Patrice McMurphy, government liaison and research administrator with the former Hamburg Research & Pharmaceuticals. My colleagues call me ‘The Murph.’ Whichever you prefer is fine with me. Government handlers have significant concerns regarding your … commitment to certain critical research paths.” Murph leaned in. “We’re doing important work for the men and women who protect this country, but I’m told you want to put an end to our caffeine enhancement experiments. For the sake of our investors and this great nation, I’m here to change your mind.”

All Jack could do was grunt, cry, and slobber.

Jack looked from the doctor to Evans. He remembered discussing the ongoing caffeine experiments with one person—the young woman at the bar. His tongue has loosened after too many Moscow mules. He wanted to impress his companion. But Jack didn’t want to permanently end the tests, only put them on hold while the company explored more ethical practices.

“Your eyes are asking a question: How? If we didn’t pick you up at Telford, there would many more opportunities to do so. Not a question of how, Jack, but of when. You were never getting home.”

Doctor Murphy stood up.

“Evans, are you ready?”

Evans nodded. “This is exciting!”

The doctor snapped on a pair of gloves. “Oh, yes, it is.”

Jack strained against his bonds, but stopped when he saw Evans frown at him.

Doctor Murphy used an alcohol swab to clean a spot of skin over a vein in the crook of Jack’s arm. She removed a fresh catheter needle and port from a sterile plastic bag and held it up.

“No reason to be afraid. I’m just setting your catheter.”

In a practiced motion, and with little pain to Jack, she had it planted. She wrapped it with a few strips of surgical tape.

The doctor raised a hypodermic needle to the light and measured the fluid inside its reservoir.

13CourtesyCoffee2“This is a cocktail of modified experimental caffeine, psychedelic drugs you’ve never heard of, and a bit of something…special I’ve cooked up for you.”

Doctor Murphy injected a brown fluid into Jack’s catheter. Jack started to resist, but saw Evans watching him nearby.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Murphy, I’ll set your broken finger once you reach caffeine bliss, though you’ll need to see an orthopedic specialist about any torn ligaments.”

The injection’s effects took an immediate and noticeable toll on Jack’s physiology. His head swam. His mouth dried out. The tears stopped flowing from his eyes.

The doctor chuckled. “That was only a taste. Hang on to your seat, Mr. Thompson, I’m turning the tap wide open.”

A warm rush surged through his right arm. The drugs caused a strange limbic response: his mouth sucked at the gag like a large pacifier, his fingers and toes twitched. His vision sparkled as though he’d been knocked across the head by Evans’ big hand.

Jack’s mind cleared briefly before scenes from his life ran in double time. The last drink he’d shared with the adorable junior programmer from the conference. Her charming southern accent and the way she bit her lip when she listened to him talk. The night of loud, passionate sex he’d had with his Bethany on their bedroom balcony before he had departed for his Boise trip.

The movie pulled deeper into his memories: the day he became co-owner with Hamburg of their pharmaceutical company, Hap’s damp hand shaking his. The brotherly hug they shared afterward. Jack buying his first Mercedes when his checking account hit seven digits and the subsequent trip down the west coast with Bethany and Josh.

Flash.

Further back. To the birth of his son. The night of his conception. Meeting his future wife at the regional office party.

Flash.

Memories dug from their graves and replayed for the first time in decades. When he had to shoot a rabid dog. Being kicked in the balls by a girl in the 3rd grade. Falling in the creek and shredding his knee open.

The crash that had killed his father.

Twenty minutes. Twenty long minutes he had spent trapped in the front seat of the old Buick that had skidded in water pooled in the grooved road of the mountain parkway. He sat, immobile, so close to his dying dad that he could touch him. So close to his dad whose broken body hung halfway out of the shattered windshield. So close to his dad impaled through his abdomen by a cold steel pole.

“Jack…Jack, kill me!” Dad pleaded.

“No. I can’t!” Lightning flashed and his dad’s face lit up in a rictus of pain and pleading. More lightning exploded, detailing his father’s intestines steaming in the cold night air.

“Please, Jack!”

He wept then as he did now. He wept for himself. For his wife, his parents, the sin of greed that had led to the hostile takeover of Hamburg Pharm, the sins of the terrible people who had kidnapped him.

A bright white light, like the flash of Evans’s camera.

A distant chirp. His brain resets. The picture show rewinds and it begins again.

He watches it all.

Ad nauseum. Ad infinitum.

#

This is what Jack knows:
1) Time is a construct with no meaning.
2) You can withdraw willingly from consciousness.
3) The pain goes away when he’s a good boy.
4) He is now beyond saving.

#

A day in the future—when and where no longer matter to Jack—the Velcro straps are removed from his arms and legs. He does not move to run for escape. He only waits.

Doctor Murphy stands in front of him. Jack recognizes her, but she’s an abstract presence in a world that exists on a temporary plane of time.

“Mr. Thompson, the Telford Nature Explorers thanks you for your service. Our tests are complete.” She studies Jack for a long moment. “Your body has been immobile for a long period of time, so take it easy for a few days, though our atrophy therapy should have taken care of the worst of it.

“You are free to go.”

She walks out of his world, into the darkness beyond the cone of light. The diminishing footsteps marking her path to the unknown universe. A chirp and she is gone forever.

Jack examines body. Black hair covers his arms, legs, and chest. His fingers tug at a hairy face.

He is a beast.

Five of his fingers ache and respond poorly to autonomic functions. They remind him to be a good boy.

He stands slowly. When his feet touch the floor, an array of fluorescent lights flicker on revealing a cavernous room. Jack’s arched chair is the only equipment he can see.

A door stands open. The man named Zager stands in the door frame.

Zager smiles. Jack knows that smile.

Zager’s arm is extended, motioning for Jack to step forward. He does. It is a loping step. The shape of the padded bed has been imprinted on Jack’s spine.

Jack steps outside and stops. It is nighttime. The area is heavily wooded. Snow falls from the sky and dusts the ground like powdered sugar around sky bound, majestic pines. Jack smells old earth and rotten things, of honey and coffee. His eyes look at Zager without accusation.

“One last thing, Mr. Thompson, Bethany and Josh…” the slit of a mouth lifts on one side, a creepy bright red swoosh, “…are well taken care of, so they tell me.”

Jack nods, understanding this is good.

The wind blows and a vast world calls to Jack.

Zager points toward a copse of pines. “That’s northwest. Keep going that way until you reach the sea. Then you’ll be home. There are others like you. They can help you.”

The last that Zager, and the world, sees of Jack Thompson is a dark figure loping silently into the woods.


Jason B. Sizemore is a writer, editor, and publisher from Lexington, KY. Irredeemable, his collection of dark SF and horror, is now available from Seventh Star Press. For more information visit Jason-Sizemore.com.




22
May

“All Hell to Wake” By Renee Stern

Two days into my medical leave from the mess in Nepal, the walls of my rowhouse were already too close around me for comfort. I walked the block to the station, breathing easier, and caught the southbound tram for my favorite pub near the Nonhuman Suppression Agency’s headquarters.

At midday the tram wasn’t crowded, especially after we left Baltimore. I was used to the commuter runs, standing room only with workers shuttling to and from homes and offices along the Washington-Baltimore corridor. NSA headquarters was almost smack in the middle, and though I could easily afford a big house close by, I wasn’t normally home long enough to make it worthwhile. Nor did I want to draw my employers’ attention to rumors of Roxton family wealth best left forgotten.

My rowhouse in a cozy city neighborhood also offered an anonymity the suburbs didn’t. Not that the hand-to-elbow healing glove on my right arm was exactly covert. I scratched at my muttonchops with my still-awkward left hand.

One of the nosy senior citizens who spent their days riding back and forth on the trams plopped into the seat across the aisle. “What’d you do to yourself, hon? That looks painful.”

I suppressed a sigh. I’d been brought up with the strictest respect for my elders. “Workplace accident. It’ll be fine in a few days.”

She leaned across the aisle, and I wanted to curse for giving her an opening. “Where do you work, hon?”

“Fort Meade.” I hoped that would shut her up.

“Oooh,” she said, drawing it out in a way that told me she knew all too well what I meant. We were supposed to be discreet, but everyone who lived in the area seemed to be in on the secret. “So which nonhumans did that?” She reached out to my arm, and I drew it back before she could touch it. The glove’s tech wasn’t classified, but it was delicate. “Not that nasty Jersey Devil, I hope.”

I managed a faint smile. We’d dealt with the Jersey Devil decades ago, a pussycat these days compared to the yeti colony that had put me on medical leave. Chessie on the other hand–let’s just say I needed lots of beer before and after the lake and sea serpent assignments, far worse than the plesiosaurs back home. “I’m not at liberty to say, ma’am.”

“Oh, I know all about that, hon.” She beamed and leaned in even closer, so that the cloud of Old Bay that clung to her like perfume almost choked me. “My neighbor’s nephew’s girlfriend works there. Maybe you know her?”

I spotted the announcement of the Hanover stop with relief. My favorite pub was one stop past that, but Hanover had a dive almost as good. “My stop, I’m afraid, ma’am. A pleasure talking to you.” I slid out of my seat and headed for the door before she could press me anymore. The NSA wasn’t as big as some agencies, but big enough, given that we kept an eye on nonhumans all over the world, that we couldn’t know everyone. Yet all the civilians I’d run into during my eight years there seemed to have some tenuous connection to an employee, past or present, and expected me to know their friend-neighbor-paperboy-Little League coach.

Outside, on the platform, I lifted my face to the sky and soaked up the heat and humidity of a perfect Maryland summer day. The Amazon jungle of my isolated boyhood home was hotter and more humid, but this weather was just what I needed after the ice and frostbite of the Himalayas.

A Hellfire IPA or two would make the afternoon perfect. Manny’s Bar & Grill was a long five blocks away, but I didn’t mind walking. I’d injured my arm, not my legs, and I needed to stay in shape. I planned to be back in the field ahead of medical schedule.

#

Manny’s had a few outside tables, which I preferred for their solitude. Most customers retreated to the cozy, high-backed booths kept far too cold by overpowered AC.

I was into my second Hellfire and a perfect softshell sandwich when a trio of Fort Meade civilians with their badges obviously tucked into shirt pockets intruded onto the deck. One of them nodded at me, clearly recognizing me as an off-duty colleague by the healing glove on my arm.

None of them looked familiar, not that I expected it, given that we were closer to the Hanover Annex than main HQ where I was based whenever I was in town. But their conversation as soon as they settled into their table at the far side of the tiny deck grabbed my attention.

The mousy little man in the middle started it. “Did you get roped into that chupacabra outbreak?”

“I heard about it,” said the man who’d nodded at me. He leaned into the table. “But I’m tied up with straightening out the accounting files for the end of the year, so no hope of me getting anything interesting on my desk until after October.”

“You should transfer over to Ops or Support if you want interesting all the time,” the woman with them said. “You’d have to give up that steady day shift, though.”

He shook his head. “My wife would kill me. I’ll have to live vicariously through you.”

Get back to the chupacabras! I took another bite of my sandwich, trying to contain my impatience. I’d never had seafood or beer back home. This was exotic cuisine compared to the giant elk and iguanodon my mother served.

“It’s all a big rush job,” the little mouse said. His voice sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Sorry I have to take my lunch back to the office, but the boss needs me to set up that flight to Caracas and then prep for the mission briefing.”

Now I knew where I’d heard his voice: George, or Geoff, or Gerry something, who’d run comms for us at this end on my first mission, a field test that turned sour when that damned baby Chessie decided it wanted to play. We’d never met in person.

The waiter bustled out with a paper bag already showing a sheen of grease, and a tray of drinks for the other two. While he took their lunch orders, Gerry or Geoff or George took the bag and left.

It all smelled to me, and not of grease, Old Bay and beer. Set-up, all my instincts screamed. Even if their talk was all true and above-board, the insult jabbed. Medical leave or not, they should have called me in for a chupacabra outbreak, at least to help with the briefing and HQ support. I was the resident expert on anything to do with South America; I’d earned my place as a field agent with sweat and blood, but they’d hired me in part for my expert knowledge.

12AllHell2Wake1Family history was the other reason. So far the NSA had never managed to find our hidden Lost World, with Great-Granddaddy John’s diamond mine and Professor Challenger’s ape-men, pterodactyls, and other dinosaurs. The agency had suspected from its inception that Doyle’s story of Challenger’s expedition had some basis in fact, just as his Holmes stories did, and they’d hinted from the day they hired me that they wanted both the diamonds and the dinosaurs.

But they’d said then they valued my experience more, and we’d made a deal to take my Amazonian plateau home out of play. After the first year, my bosses would poke and prod every now and then, seemingly casual inquiries about vacations home or keeping in touch with family. I did have a secret channel for emergencies that I’d never yet had to use, so as far as anyone here should know, I’d cut myself off from home.

I should have expected a harder push to come eventually. Our hidden riches were too tempting. I finished off my sandwich and waved away the waiter offering me another beer or dessert. The pair from the agency were well into their own lunch now, chatting, as far as I could tell, about nothing–a fact that underscored my instinct that the chupacabra discussion was a play aimed for my ears.

If I could reason out what they expected me to do, I’d know how best to confound them. How they’d known my location in the first place was also a concern, since I might need to work around whatever they were using to track me. But I could deal with that later.

They might be signaling that my standing within the agency was sinking, hoping to push me into doing something to win back my previous favor. I didn’t have to guess what currency that would take: betraying my friends, my family, my home to the NSA’s ruthless control.

I could pretend to cooperate or refuse to play their game. Neither were viable long-term strategies. I’d either run out of wiggle room or lose all freedom to protect everything I cared about.

The other, more devious interpretation was that they were trying to herd me, manipulate me into panicking and showing them something that would lead them to our Lost World. If so, they’d picked the wrong prey to panic. My record should have illustrated that.

But to some of the higher-ups, I’d never be more than a jungle hick, only a few steps above the Doda ape-men Professor Challenger described: trained well enough for field action, carrying out missions planned by others, but hardly sophisticated enough to handle anything more. It was an image I was happy to foster.

I needed more information before I went any further. The Hanover Annex was not quite a mile from Manny’s, closer than HQ and more likely to be freer with gossip about any hot mission under way over at Fort Meade. Out of habit, I’d tucked my badge into my pocket before I left home. Now habit paid off.

Of course the badge with its ID chip was all too likely the means they’d used to track me. But that also meant they hadn’t had much time to put their plans into play, since even I hadn’t known I’d wind up at Manny’s today.

It couldn’t have been coincidence that I ran into Don Whitstran, one of the field division’s admins, almost as soon as the guard buzzed me into the building. Don hurried across the nearly empty lobby and reached without thinking for my glove before he switched hands to shake my uninjured arm.

“Juan! What a lucky break!” He steered me down a secure hallway. “You’ve saved me a call, turning up like this.”

He was a decent actor, I’d give him that. But not good enough to silence my alarms. “Cabin fever, that’s all. Thought I’d make the rounds and break up the monotony. What’s going on?”

He waved me into the first available meeting room. “A mission’s come up and we need you.”

“Oh? You don’t know how glad I am to hear that.” I smiled, and meant it this time. I’d worked myself up for nothing, unnecessarily twitchy after Nepal.

He half-sat on the table, and I did the same. “Something’s set off Ogopogo again. We need you on the airship out to B.C. ASAP.”

I stared at him, my brief relief shattered. Why would they send their South America expert all the way out to the sticks of Canada when they had something even more urgent on the table in Venezuela? Either they wanted me safely out of the way, snapping to duty like a grateful, obedient soldier as if I’d never smelled their bait at Manny’s, or they were aiming more bolts at my back to push me into panicked reaction. A two-pronged plot that led to gain either way I jumped–this came from much higher up. Don’s mind wasn’t twisty enough.

I’d have to jump in a direction they hadn’t expected.

“Ogopogo?” I finally said, piling all my doubt and dismay onto the word. “Not another damn lake serpent. You know how much I hate those things, Don.”

He shrugged. “We don’t get to pick and choose, unfortunately. We need you on this one, Juan. You’ve got the most experience.”

Maybe so in the broad sense, but Matt had as many water serpent missions on his record and Denise, now I thought of it, had actually been stationed in Inverness for a year. Where were they? I almost asked.

Instead I decided to play good soldier, and tried a weary smile. “Time to go earn that big paycheck again.” I held up my gloved arm. “I suppose I need medical clearance for this before I go?”

“No time. We’ve got a Balloon Corps flight scheduled in three hours to Kelowna, so you need to scoot on home and pack your gear. Medbay will assign someone to your flight to check you out and prep you on the way.”

I whistled. “The brass are awfully confident I’m good to go.”

“C’mon, Juan, of course you’re ready. You know how fast those gloves work–and we both know you’d ace the mission even if you were hurt twice as bad.”

I huffed out a short laugh. “They’re never going to forget Roswell, are they?”

“Or a half-dozen other times you went above and beyond.” He slapped my good shoulder. “Now get going. I’ll have a briefing packet for you when you get back to HQ with your gear.”

If he remembered my service record that well, how could he go along with this plot straight-faced? But Don was a company man. He’d never worked anywhere else, recruited straight out of school, and had put in almost twenty years. He never questioned orders.

He’d never have made it as a field agent. Roswell wasn’t the first time I’d gone off the charts, but it was the most spectacular. I’d delivered though, as always. For a field agent, nothing else mattered.

I faked a stumble on our way out the door, and grabbed Don’s arm to steady myself. “Sorry, I had a couple beers for lunch,” I said as I switched our badges. I had two more objectives before I left the building, and didn’t want anyone tracking me from here on out. “They must be overloading the glove. You’d think Medbay would warn you when they strap you into one of these things.”

He snorted and shook his head as he stepped away. “I’m sure they did. Problem is, you were probably too out of it then to catch it.”

Oh, I remembered all right. But it made a handy excuse, and Don had swallowed it.

He headed on down the hall, deeper into the building. I crossed through the lobby and down an identical secure hall, where a comms clerk owed me a favor.

#

Lisa promised me ten minutes alone while she took care of a few urgent errands. I had time only to skim the comms log, but that was more than enough to confirm all my suspicions.

I leaned on the desk, focusing on my breathing instead of the sick sense of betrayal. Under it all the clock ticked off each second.

The door knob clicked as it twisted open, and I flipped the log closed as I turned to greet Lisa, wondering why she’d cut her errands short. But Don stood there instead, an ugly black stun pistol pointed straight at me.

“Hands where I can see them, Roxton,” he said, no pretense at friendship in his cold, flat voice.

“What’s this all about, Don?” I played dumb, raising my hands and sliding sideways away from the desk for better maneuverability.

He shook his head. “Nice try, but remember where you are. You should have given us what we wanted from the beginning, but you can still redeem yourself. You’ve already done enough to land yourself in the brig for a long time.”

They’d figured out my trick with the badges. But how? Had Lisa given me up?

I spread my ungloved hand wide, as if accepting his verdict. Then I lunged, using the glove as a shield to catch the stun shots, and put him on the floor, hard. Field agent beat admin when it comes to action, every time.

The glove felt cold and dead on my arm now, disabled by Faraday bolts that would have knocked me out. After tucking Whitstran’s pistol into my boot, I fumbled one-handed to unbuckle the glove; underneath, my muscles were stiff and slow, but the fracture and frostbite were nearly healed. I was operational enough.

“How’d you know where to find me?” I prodded a pressure point on his arm, needing to see if I was right to suspect Lisa, or if they had some other means to track me. “I know it couldn’t have been the badge this time. You figured it out sooner than I expected.”

His eyes slid over in a glance at the abandoned glove by his head.

“You tagged the glove, too?” It made sense, I supposed. They couldn’t be sure I’d have the badge while I was on medical leave, but the glove was guaranteed to be with me day and night until they decided otherwise.

I had to set aside the idea of taking and trying to repair it for future need. My technical skills might get me through repairs, but I couldn’t be certain of eradicating all traces of tags.

“The agency doesn’t want me for an enemy,” I told him. “Now that you broke our deal, Roswell will seem like a church picnic when I’m done.”

I pulled the pistol, stepped clear of his body and shot him once in the leg. His back arched up and his head and limbs banged a couple times on the beige tile floor, hard enough to make me wince in sympathy–but only a little. He’d have done the same to me if he’d kept hold of his weapon. At least he wouldn’t wake up in the brig. Probably.

I had to hurry now. Whitstran had thrown off my timetable.

Any mission, no matter how complex or dangerous, broke down to one step at a time. I bound and gagged Whitstran, rifled his pockets for extra cash, and stuffed him, my badge and the broken glove into the records room, out of sight. That took care of immediate discovery and pursuit.

Next step, diversions. I tapped out a message to the Balloon Corps station at Meade, moving up the Caracas flight and requesting passenger pickup at the commercial airfield near Hannex. That would at least confuse and delay the mission team long enough for me to act. After the station acknowledged, I overwrote the log with a second request, this time to the unit at Camp Spring for a flight to Fort Bliss. I still had contacts there from the Roswell mission and it was close enough to the Mexican border that Whitstran and the others chasing me would have to consider it a viable starting point.

I rushed through blanking the second request, leaving just enough traces to build a plausible diversion. I needed as many distractions as possible to cover me when I snuck into HQ. My first instinct was to rush home to organize a defense, but those same instincts told me that’s what the higher-ups were counting on. I’d send a warning home later.

Even with Great-Granddaddy John’s diamonds and mustering all the discontented nonhumans I’d dealt with over the years, we couldn’t hold out forever against the full force of the NSA and its allies. Better to attack first, straight at their heart. The best defense is usually a good offense.

#

To my relief, I escaped Hannex without apparent difficulty. Whitstran’s badge did the trick. I couldn’t have made it out as myself, not after dumping the glove and its extra beacon.

All the same, I kept an eye out for a tail, all the way to the tram. No one tripped my alarms. On the platform, I disabled the transmitter on Whitstran’s badge, just in case, and hopped the southbound tram, jumping off at Odenton a quick walk from my secret storage unit and its collection of unofficial gear.

I’d cobbled together a transmitter that might serve now, scrounging parts and shrugging off dead ends in my down time. The R&D crew kept ignoring my suggestions for projects that might help in the field, sending back memos in sludgy, multisyllabic prose that boiled down to “You brawn. We brains. Leave thinking to us.”

They handed out enough useful goodies that I usually didn’t mind. I was glad to have their healing gloves after a mission, but common sense screamed out for something better than Faraday bolts and flame guns when we faced off with water serpents.

We needed more discretion, something to avoid the confrontations in the first place. I’d put the finishing touches on my latest attempts before Nepal, but hadn’t had time for field tests. No time like today.

I had to backtrack a little first, to make one adjustment that I’d discovered earlier would attract serpents rather than repel them. After that I set my clockwork transmitters free to fly to their targets like the overgrown insects I’d modeled them on.

I had enough transmitters for three tests, and I used them all. One-upping R&D and finding a good use for the whole Chessie family were satisfying bonuses.

If it worked, drawing the serpents up the Patapsco would look like an attack on Baltimore. Another feint up the Severn would throw the Naval Academy and the state capitol into my chaotic stew. I sent the third transmitter over to the Magothy, in between the other two rivers; plenty of residential development and pleasure boaters to terrify there. It wasn’t overkill, but sound tactics.

While they were on their way, I sorted through my wardrobe for the right disguise to get me through the gates without question. Whitstran’s badge was too risky. Lisa or anyone else at Hannex might have found him in the records room by now, and his badge might already be flagged as heavily as my own.

I rested my hand over a collection of uniforms. Better than civvies. No one looked beyond a uniform, and I’d blend easily into the military crowds at Meade. It meant sacrificing my muttonchops though–too distinctive in their own right, as well as a military uniform violation that could shatter my disguise.

I took one last look in the mirror before the razor’s first swipe. I’d grown the muttonchops on my first mission, hoping to look older and more dashing, the image of the perfect field agent. Without them, who was I?

The blade was cold against my cheek, the naked swath behind it prickling in a sudden draft. A few more swipes and a younger face with older eyes stared back at me. Still myself, just as a fer-de-lance remained its poisonous self even after shedding its skin. I tried out my best evil grin to acknowledge the aptness of that image, and had to turn away. I’d need some time to recognize that expression as my own.

My bite had always been deadly. This time my handlers had turned that poison on themselves.

#

No one gave me even a first look in my BDUs with their Signal Corps insignia as I crowded onto the Fort Meade tram near my storage unit. The late-afternoon runs were always busy with workers going on and coming off duty, perfect for my purposes.

First, acquire a new badge. I brushed against several off-duty soldiers, looking for the right target; as soon as I found one, my quick fingers swapped Whitstran’s disabled badge for his. Most people never looked closely at their badges, just checked that they had something the right size, shape and weight in its accustomed place. I should be finished and long gone before–I darted a quick look at the new badge clipped onto my chest–Sergeant Ed Bustamante set off alarms when he tried to use Whitstran’s.

I wished I could feel more than vague regret at splashing a stranger with a little of my mud, but it wouldn’t stick to him for long. At least not if he started out clean.

But who among us was truly clean? I’d thought I was serving humanity as well as protecting my home in my work for the agency, but my certainty had shattered along with my trust. Were the yeti I’d killed back in Nepal enough of a threat to justify our attention in the first place? Or the sasquatch we’d hunted to extinction? I’d slipped into bed with the Devil, whoring myself for the greater good. I shouldn’t be shocked or hurt when the agency used me and screwed me, yet I was.

Mind on the mission, Roxton, I warned myself.12AllHell2Wake2

As soon as I hopped off the shuttle, I stepped out of the stream of swing-shift workers heading into NSA headquarters and knelt down as if tying my boots so that I could raid the pocket with my stock of rank insignia. Instant promotion from the anonymous SpecTwo who’d stepped out of my storage unit up to Bustamante’s sergeant stripes. Switching my weight to the other knee, I palmed the new photo I’d shot and slapped it over Bustamante’s face. In case anyone looked closer than the uniform, everything matched.

Inside the square, windowless building, the first signs of alarm were obvious. The guards were passing people through with barely a glance to make sure they had badges. Swing shift usually never had this many people scurrying through the halls, and I caught puzzled snatches of conversation about the Chessie crisis. I suppressed the grin that kept trying to break through.

So far, so good.

House-cleaning next, as much as I could manage. I didn’t have time to wipe me and where I came from from all possible records filed everywhere in the building, let alone what had filtered out to Hannex and other satellite offices. Nor did I have tools to alter memories in all the personnel–analysts, briefers, field staff and support crews–involved. But I could set them back, and make it hurt.

My path down to the main archives took me by Ops, but the flow of preoccupied staff kept me safely hidden. I glanced in as I passed, recognizing Matt’s build and familiar sharp hand movements from the back. With him on the job, I had to wonder if my manufactured crisis would hold up long enough. I ducked my head and hurried by.

I needed to buy more time. A plan of the building formed in my mind: Ops here, main archives there and me a hundred yards along this corridor. Left at the next intersection, a secondary comms station: Exactly what I needed.

The station wasn’t empty, of course, but they’d left only a single private to staff the post after day shift. Any more bodies called in for the crisis hadn’t been deployed here yet. It wouldn’t take long to engineer my latest diversion.

The private jumped up when I strode in, the pages of the manual he’d been studying fluttering shut on the table in front of him. “I’m here for an incoming,” I said. “Go get us a couple coffees while I wait.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” He rushed off.

Part of me, the part still torn about betrayals, wanted to chew him out for the security breach. The rest of me loved the way stripes and a uniform took in so many people.

As soon as he cleared the doorway, I slid under the long counter and started pulling, swapping and splicing wires. I needed a short that would burn long and ugly with as much smoke as possible. The housings for the comms equipment burned toxic. Evacuating at least this floor would keep them too preoccupied to bother me down in the archives.

If they eventually put it all together under my name, maybe they’d leave me and mine alone.

It all came together better than I had a right to expect. I was back on my feet, flipping through the private’s manual–Radio Operator’s Handbook, basic material–when he hurried into the room with two paper cups.

“What’s that smell?” he muttered, then, louder: “Do you smell that, Sergeant?”

I shook my head. “Just shaking off a cold. Why?”

“Smoke.” He thrust the coffees at me and I had to toss the manual aside to grab them before they dropped. He barely waited until I had hold to lean into the equipment and sniff hard. “Dammit!” He reached for the fire extinguisher strapped to the wall, and swore harder when he realized it had somehow–mental smirk–discharged on its own.

He turned toward me. “Fire, Sergeant.” His voice was high and tight with adrenaline. “We need to get out of here.”

I dropped the coffee and hurried after him, just as I planned. We both reached for the alarm by the door, but I let him pull it. He was the one on duty, after all.

Outside, I slammed the door shut, then pushed him toward Ops. “I’ll make sure everyone’s out this way,” I yelled in his ear, pointing in the direction I needed to go.

He nodded. The blaring alarm made it hard to hear, and people were already rushing into the corridor toward the exits. No doubt they’d all made sure to lock away anything classified before seeing to their own safety. That was drilled into us over and over.

I pushed my way upstream, checking for stragglers as I went. The agency as an institution had betrayed me, but I’d met too many good people over the last eight years to wish them dead indiscriminately. By the time I reached the archives, everyone else was out and I had to pick the lock to get inside.

I resorted to fire down here, bolstered with a few chemicals I’d slipped into my pockets before I left the storage unit. No need to worry about collateral damage in the archives, housed in stone and steel to keep fire out–or in, in this case. This one didn’t have to look accidental. I wanted them to see my signature in the ashy ruins and recognize the hellfire they’d called down on themselves.

I grinned with a satisfied nod at the floor-to-ceiling flames raging across the room before I slammed the door shut and ran for an exit. The first strike in my war with the agency had to be counted a victory.

Nobody broke a deal with a Roxton.

 


Renee Stern once worked as a reporter for a community newspaper on the doorstep of the National Security Agency. Now a freelance writer on the opposite coast, her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthologies Human Tales, Gears and Levers 3, and Looking Landwards, among others.




21
Apr

“Titan’s Twins” by Sean Patrick Hazlett

Titan’s pale orange glow haunted Colonel Paul Mason. As Saturn’s sixth moon drew closer, so too did an enigma buried beneath swirling ethane clouds. He hoped he wasn’t too late. Sara, his wife, and his daughter, June, had already been missing for over a year. He prayed they still lived.

The colony’s last signal was an emergency transmission whose message was lost, scrambled by Titan’s thick atmospheric soup. After that, no one heard from Möbius Station again.

“Horizon Station. Nemesis Six. Entering Titan’s atmosphere. Over,” Mason said.

“Affirmative, Nemesis Six. Be advised, you have four hours before Chinese tac sats triangulate your position. Horizon Station. Out.”

The four crewmembers were secured tightly in an atmospheric entry module modified for Titan’s methane-rich environment. Mason’s team had trained extensively on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and then spent another year in cryostasis on the long trek to Saturn’s outer rings.

After emerging from his long slumber, Mason felt dehydrated. Trace elements of inert Xenon molecules remained in his body, colorless and odorless byproducts of the clathrate-forming gases that made human hibernation possible.

The granite-like Captain Norman Collins, the mission’s squat and muscular weapons officer, calibrated and boresighted the module’s rail guns. Lieutenant Maria Hernandez, the medical officer, monitored each team member’s vital signs with the fretfulness of a mother hen. Lieutenant Stewart Vanderbeek, the science and engineering officer, kept vigil over the module’s heat shield during the long descent into Titan’s opaque atmosphere. His thin, wiry form rippled with nervous energy, as he pecked away at his navigation display.

Timing would be tight. The mission’s first phase hinged on intercepting Icarus One, a prepositioned dirigible tethered ten klicks above Titan’s surface.

“Icarus identified. Deploying parachutes,” Vanderbeek said.

The module jerked as its descent abruptly decelerated.

Mason’s map showed a blip about twenty klicks from the module. He peered through his viewscreen to get a better perspective, but Titan’s orange smog made it impossible to see the dirigible from this distance. He’d have to trust Vanderbeek’s ability to navigate through the turbulent eddies and waves of Titan’s frothy atmosphere on instruments alone.

“Ten klicks and closing!” Vanderbeek reported. Seconds later, “Five…four…three klicks!”

“Slow down!” Mason yelled, struggling to hide his unease.

“I’m trying!” Vanderbeek was shaking.

Mason could now see the dirigible through the haze. “Change course!”

The module shook violently as Vanderbeek pulled back on the yoke. Mason watched in dismay as the dirigible vanished again into the fog and the module spun wildly off course. The crewmembers turned toward Mason, eyes wide with panic. “What now, sir?” Vanderbeek asked.

A klaxon sounded. Hull breach. Mason acted. “Get your dorsal gliders ready for deployment. Eject on my mark. Five-four-three-two-one. Mark!”

The module separated into four quarters, scattering the crew throughout a hydrocarbon sky. The dense atmosphere and turbulent winds generated from Titan’s tidal lock with Saturn twirled Mason like a baton.

Mason’s training took over. He splayed his body like a starfish to maximize its surface area and slow his descent. Once he was parallel to Titan’s surface, he deployed his suit’s dorsal gliders, increasing his coefficient of friction. Then he activated his high frequency radio antenna. “Nemesis One, Two, and Three. Nemesis Six. Radio check, over.”

Static.

“Nemesis One, Two, and Three. Nemesis Six. I say again, radio check, over.”

“Nemesis Six. Nemesis Two. Acknowledged. Over.”

After Collins and Hernandez responded in kind, Mason felt relieved his people were still alive.

“Nemesis Team. Nemesis Six. Proceed to objective Zulu via glider flight. Check your oxygen and pressure readings every five minutes. I don’t want any crispy critters on my watch.”

Mason aimed his glider toward the dirigible, soaring toward it. With a high ratio of atmospheric density to one-seventh of Earth’s surface gravity, humans could literally fly on Titan.

The homing beacon on Mason’s arm illuminated his position relative to Icarus One. He was getting close. Four hundred meters. A small black splotch appeared beneath the hoary methane clouds. Mason dove and then angled toward his target. Reaching it, he grappled onto a ladder attached to the command module at the dirigible’s base. His team followed, disengaging their dorsal gliders and climbing inside.

Once his team was in, Mason sealed the hatch, initiated the pressure system, and turned on the oxygen pumps and heaters. “Give Icarus ‘bout twenty minutes to adjust to Earth’s atmospheric composition, then we’ll de-mask and start phase two,” Mason said.

Colonel Mason had been the last choice to lead this mission, and he knew it. While he possessed all the qualifications of command, the shrinks had vetoed his selection. Too personally involved, they’d argued. But time was money, and Mason was the only commander who could assemble a team and get to Titan on short notice.

Of course, the suits at Saturn Horizon Corporation had wanted to use clones. Much cheaper, and less legal liability if you ignored the Outer Planetary Genome Accords prohibiting their use. But the last thing the Chinese and Americans needed in their undeclared war over the outer solar system’s resources was an arms race spurred by the manufacture of expendable meat marionettes maiming each other in the cold vacuum of space.

After disengaging Icarus One’s tether, the crew steamed toward its next objective at Xanadu, about a hundred kilometers west along Titan’s equator. One of the brightest spots on Titan, Xanadu was a plateau the size of Australia. Burrowed several kilometers beneath Titan’s icy bedrock was Möbius Station, rich with oxygen synthesized from underground melt water.

As Vanderbeek piloted the dirigible, he seemed frustrated. “Vanderbeek, what’s got your goat?” Mason asked.

“Sir, this thing feels like it’s a hundred years old. Its gears are all worn and rusted.”

“Rusted?” Mason hovered over Vanderbeek’s shoulder, an annoying habit Mason swore he’d break because it made people nervous. “There’s no oxygen on Titan, son. No oxygen, no oxidation.”

“Sir, the only way oxygen could be here is if people brought it with them. Either that or this thing’s leaking it,” Vanderbeek said as he twitched.

“Just how much oxygen’s left? This model’s less than a decade old. I’d expect hardly any oxygen loss over that period.”

Vanderbeek scratched his head. “It’s at seventy percent oxygen capacity, but I don’t detect any leaks, so it’s possible someone used Icarus One before we did.”

“We have enough oxygen to get to Möbius Station?”

“We should,” said Vanderbeek.

Several hours later, the team reached the outskirts of Möbius Station, with its smokestacks dotting Titan’s surface like a checkerboard.

“Vanderbeek, drop anchor. Program the dirigible to retract the anchor in ten minutes and to head back to our rendezvous point on autopilot. If we fail, Saturn Horizon will need to send another team,” Mason ordered. “Everyone suit up and check your oxygen and pressure gauges. It’s time to disembark. Collins, does everyone have their rail guns locked and loaded?”

11TitansTwinsACollins gave Mason a thumbs-up.

“Alright then. I’ll see y’all on the far side of the objective. Good luck!” Mason launched himself from the command module’s ladder, pulled the ripcord to deploy his dorsal glider, and headed toward the surface. During his descent, he noticed none of the smokestacks rippled with the steaming carbon dioxide emissions he’d expect from a one hundred sixteen-person colony.

#

The team scoured Möbius Station’s surface for an opening. Every airlock they found was welded shut from the inside.

“Sir, it looks like someone cut this airlock open with a high-powered laser and then resealed it,” Collins said.

“Sounds just like a Chinese exo-squad. I think we’re gonna have to do the same thing,” Mason transmitted.

Collins pulled out a hand-sized cutting robot. He motioned for the team to disperse, then placed the bot on the airlock, and pulled out a remote. He gave a thumbs-up and then hid behind an ice rock about one hundred meters from the airlock. “Take cover. If there’s any free oxygen left in that hole, the bot’s laser could trigger an explosion,” said Collins.

The team huddled behind the ice rock as Collins remotely operated the bot. After some small bursts of flame, the bot cut an opening into the airlock.

“Let’s go!” Mason said.

The team descended a ceramisteel ladder, with their rail guns trained on the secondary hatch at the tube’s base. Once everyone was inside, Collins put the upper hatch back in place, resealing it with firmajelly. Mason activated a vacuum pump on the chamber wall, expelling excess methane and reducing the chamber’s atmospheric pressure.

Once the vacuum pump’s indicator light flashed green, Collins opened the lower hatch and the team entered Möbius Station’s oxygen-rich and temperature-controlled environment.

It was dark. So dark that the goggles’ night vision setting failed to capture enough ambient light to operate well, forcing the team to switch to sonar mode. Heat exchangers hummed in the background, while a steady drip-drop pattered in the distance. Aside from the carbon dioxide pumps, the atmospheric systems seemed to be working.

His sonar indicating an empty corridor, Mason activated the spotlights on his enviro-suit. He reasoned that if the Chinese had set up an ambush, they would’ve attacked by now.

“Vanderbeek, how’s the air? It safe to give the ‘all clear’?” Mason wanted to minimize the use of the enviro-suits. They were critical for operating on the surface, but their bulk would impede subterranean operations.

“Everything seems stable. Even the concentrations of carbon dioxide are within normal limits. The carbon exchangers only activate once CO2 levels reach a certain threshold.”

“Which probably means no one’s breathed the rarefied air here for quite some time,” Mason said.

“That’s a strong possibility, sir. Otherwise, the air’s safe.”

“Alright then. All clear. All clear.” The team quickly removed their enviro-suits.

“Vanderbeek, see if you can turn the lighting system back on. No use wasting our fuel cells.”

Vanderbeek quickly restored lighting after finding a nearby wall-mounted power module.

The station’s blue ceramic-paneled corridors seemed pristine. The team crept cautiously down a narrow corridor until the space opened up into a broader antechamber where things weren’t so clean and ordered.

Cracked wall panel fragments and white dust littered the floor in heaps. Blackened scorch marks covered seared sections of the wall.

“Scour the rubble for human remains. Looks like the Chinese’ve already been here.” Titan was the greatest prize in the solar system, with hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all of Earth’s oil and natural gas reserves. Yet something didn’t seem right. If the Chinese had attacked the station, they’d have defended it.

“Colonel, you need to see this.” Hernandez handed Mason a piece of thin white metal.

“What the hell you want me to do with this, L-T?”

Despite her six months of extensive training with Mason, Hernandez still seemed to bristle at Mason’s style. To Mason, she was an intellectual. A lifetime of reverence for the scientific method had cemented a healthy skepticism in her and seemed to make her hesitant to draw conclusions from limited data. “Sir, I’ve never seen nor felt a metallic substance like this before. It’s soft and flexible, yet restores its shape after I crinkle it.”

“You think it’s some new kind of Chinese body armor?”

Hernandez looked doubtful. “It’s possible. But if they’ve got the technological chops to create something like this, we’re in trouble.”

“Sir! Check this out,” Collins yelled from the far end of the chamber.

When Mason reached Collins, he saw faded blood spatters staining the wall.

“Hernandez, take some samples and upload the data to the eyes in the sky,” Mason said. “Hopefully we’ll get a DNA match. If not, they should be able to identify the blood’s genotype, and I bet it’s Chinese. While we wait, let’s bed down. Four hours on, four hours off. Two people on security at all times.”

#

“This is the first time we’ve acquired blood samples from Möbius Station, and we were surprised to find one of the samples isn’t human,” the voice on the comms device said.

The response frustrated Mason. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean? Have bots been here before?”

“Something like that.”

“What about the other samples? They Chinese?”

“Negative.”

Mason’s heart stopped as he imagined the death of his family. “Whose DNA is it then?”

“I’m sorry, colonel, that’s classified.”

“Why?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”

“Fine. What about the other DNA profile?” Mason said, struggling to hold back his anger about being out of the loop.

“The last sample is ninety-nine point seven percent human.”

“That’s not possible. Run the test again. Maybe the data was corrupted.”

“Negative, Colonel. The signal you sent was crystal clear, and we ran the tests several times to be certain.”

Exasperated, Mason threw his hands in the air. “Horizon One, what the hell am I supposed to do with this information?”

“There’s more.”

“Well don’t be shy. Out with it.”

“The DNA profile is nearly identical to that of Homo neanderthalensis.”

“Say what?”

“It’s Neanderthal DNA.”

#

The slanted hole bored into the ice was a perfect cylinder. Whoever created it had cut through advanced ceramisteel. Twelve hours after arriving at Möbius Station and after an exhaustive search through its vast subterranean labyrinth of storage compartments, laboratories, and living quarters, this crevice was the only thing left to explore. Mason’s only solace was that the colonists had to be somewhere on the other side of that hole, alive or dead.

The bore glistened with melt water from the station’s higher thermal gradient. It had a three-meter diameter and opened into a black abyss. Sonar indicated it stretched about a klick into Titan’s crust, where it bottomed into a chamber.

Mason radioed headquarters, “Horizon One. Nemesis Six. Investigating the bore. We’ll report our status every thirty minutes. Nemesis Six. Out.”

The team descended the ice burrow’s steady grade at a slow, measured pace, keeping their rail guns on a swivel.

The absence of light amplified Mason’s other senses. The steady drip-drip of melt water splashed and reverberated below. Sound travelled farther in Titan’s lower gravity, and the air grew colder in the descent, quickly dropping twenty degrees Fahrenheit.

“Sir, what do you make of this Neanderthal business?” Collins asked.

Mason spat out a wad of chewing tobacco and watched it float toward the tunnel floor. “Hell if I know. My best guess is that the colonists were working on some sort of genetic experiment that went tits up.”

Lieutenant Hernandez shook her head.

“Don’t like my theory?” Mason spat again.

Hernandez paused for a moment and then said, “Sir, I wish your theory were true. I just don’t see any evidence to support it. In all the chambers we’ve explored, I didn’t see any lab equipment capable of conducting advanced biological research. If you cross-reference the original colony ship’s manifest, there’s also no evidence these colonists transported any significant biotech equipment.”

“What’s your theory?”

“Well, sir, without any more data, I haven’t got one.”

Vanderbeek fidgeted, drawing Mason’s attention. “You got a theory, Stew?”

The science officer shook his head. “No, sir, but this whole Neanderthal thing intrigues me. They say Neanderthal DNA accounts for one to four percent of the non-African human genome.”

“So?”

“At some point in our evolution, early humans interbred with Neanderthals.”

“So what the hell happened to them?”

“To this day, anthropologists still don’t agree on why the species disappeared. Some say Neanderthals failed to adapt to a change in climate. Others think primitive humans wiped them out. But who knows? It’s always puzzled me that a species with larger brains and stronger limbs failed to survive, but we did.”

Mason spat again. “I thought Neanderthals were stupid.”

“It’s likely they were more intelligent than Homo sapiens. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.”

“Unless, of course, we find ‘em down here,” Mason quipped.

#

The ambush was perfect. The intruders didn’t register on sonar. Lieutenant Hernandez’s screams were the only thing that marked their presence. Those same screams lingered long after her disappearance, as the tunnel conspired with low gravity to perpetuate her piercing echo. Whatever had taken her had disappeared into the cold blackness.

“Hernandez. Report,” Mason ordered. “Hernandez. Report!” The uncontested abduction terrified Mason, but he did his best not to show it.

“Load up with EM flechette rounds,” Mason said, “our primary mission now is to rescue Hernandez.”

The survivors formed a wedge with Mason at the center, rail guns at the ready.

“Looks like we’re near the end of the line. Collins, when this tunnel ends and we reach the T-intersection, I want you to go left and secure the corridor. Vanderbeek, do the same on the right. I’ll scan both ends while you’re working and make a decision on what we’ll do next,” Mason said.

Collins and Vanderbeek did as ordered.

Mason scanned the right corridor, which extended about fifty meters until it dead-ended. He then scanned the left tunnel, which stretched for over a klick. “We go left.”

Mason turned, then oblivion.

#

Mason awoke in a soft bed in the far right corner of a brightly lit four-by-four meter cell. A solitary figure stood beside the bed. As Mason took in the man’s features, something felt very wrong. The man could’ve passed for Mason’s older brother. He was much thinner and less muscular than Mason, but anyone living on Titan for an extended period would experience some degree of muscle atrophy.

The man seemed uncomfortable — as if he wasn’t sure how to handle this encounter. “Colonel Mason, I don’t know how to put this, but I’m Colonel Paul Mason.”

#

The other Paul Mason had been tight with information. Colonel Mason had no idea about his team’s whereabouts. He didn’t even know where he was, though he suspected he was somewhere deep beneath Titan’s surface.

Wherever Colonel Mason was, the room had technology more advanced than anything he’d ever seen. His room had four impenetrable walls with no visible entrance or exit. When Paul Mason entered, he walked through the wall. It didn’t matter. Colonel Mason didn’t need an exit to execute his plan.

The elder Paul Mason arrived right on schedule with Colonel Mason’s breakfast. “How ya doing this morning, son? Feeling any better? I’m sorry there’s no tobacco. I feel your pain. I had to kick my habit cold turkey a few years back.”

Colonel Mason launched himself at Paul Mason with all the agility and grace of a drunken whale out of water. Paul Mason seemed only happy to oblige, using his years of experience operating in a low gee environment to his advantage. The elder Mason casually peeled away from Colonel Mason’s attack and used Colonel Mason’s momentum against him, driving him into a wall.

“Son, you’re dumber’n you look,” the elder Mason jibed. “I forgot how impatient I used to be. I know you want answers, and I’m doing my best to get you them, but you need to earn my trust first. This ain’t exactly an auspicious start.”

Colonel Mason lay crumbled in a disheveled heap on the cell’s cold blue floor. His elder self stood there, waiting.

“You calmer now, stud?” the elder Mason asked.

Colonel Mason nodded. “Are you gonna tell me what happened to my team and the colonists?”

“Your crew’s doing fine. The colonists are fine too, but we’ll have to take things one day at a time.”

“Bullshit. I need proof. I want to see my crew now.”

The elder Mason shook his head and laughed. “I thought you might say that. Unfortunately, they’re also in quarantine, but I can give you the next best thing.”

Holographic representations of Hernandez, Collins, and Vanderbeek materialized in the center of the cell. “Y’all all right?” Colonel Mason asked.

“I’m in one piece, sir,” Collins answered. “Though I hope they don’t court martial me when I return earthside for failing to evade capture.”

Colonel Mason chuckled. “Son, I don’t think there’s anything we could’ve done. Hell, I doubt there’s anything anybody could’ve done. We’re all just lucky to be in one piece.”

“Sir, have they told you how they were able to capture us or why they’re living down here?” Hernandez said.

“And sir,” Vanderbeek interrupted. “Have they explained why our hosts all look like older versions of us?”

“You too, eh?” Colonel Mason laughed. “Unfortunately, no. I’ve been fixing to ask that, only my temper got in the way.”

The elder Mason looked at the colonel. “You satisfied your people are safe?”

“Maybe. Will I ever see them in person?”

“Of course. You’ll join ‘em as soon as the quarantine ends, which should be in a month or so. That good enough for you?”

Colonel Mason nodded.

The elder Mason smiled. “Say bye to your friends.”

The holograms winked out. Colonel Mason inclined his head toward the elder Mason. “Now, can you tell me why the hell I’m talking to myself?”

The elder Mason appeared to force a smile. “Not today. You still haven’t told me why Saturn Horizon sent another team here.”

The question confused Colonel Mason, “Another team? We’re the only one they sent.” Colonel Mason was losing his temper again. “You know damn well why I’m here!” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I’m upset. I just want to see my family.”

The elder Mason’s furrowed brow said everything. Colonel Mason made the same expression when something bothered him. The elder Mason looked away, and then nodded. “I see.”

“Now that I’ve answered your question, tell me where the colonists are.”

The old Mason smiled. “We’re all thriving here with the Titanians.”

“The Titanians? Does this have something to do with the DNA we found on Möbius Station? Are you telling me there really are Neanderthals on Titan?”

The older Mason seemed uncomfortable, as if he’d already said too much. After a long pause, he said, “Your name for them, not theirs.”

“How the hell did they get here? Are they some biological experiment gone awry?”11TitansTwinsB

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“No. They’ll explain when they’re ready.”

“What about my wife and daughter?”

The elder Mason looked Colonel Mason in the eyes. “They’re not your wife and daughter.”

#

When the seven foot tall Neanderthal male entered the room, his musky stench nearly knocked Mason to the floor. While he was thin and had a weak musculature, his barrel-shaped chest and broad shoulders seemed more robust than the average human’s. Mason chalked the creature’s height and weaker musculature to Titan’s low gravity.

The male regarded Mason with highly expressive eyes that seemed to belie a far deeper intelligence than the creature’s brutish build would’ve suggested. The Neanderthal had a prominent brow ridge that separated his pale-white face from his sloped forehead, which receded into a wild shock of scarlet hair. His large squat nose, protruding jaw and weak chin underscored his otherness.

In a low guttural growl, the Neanderthal addressed Mason in perfect English, “Colonel Mason, I’m Lormak. Welcome to our home.”

Mason didn’t know where to begin. “Why are you holding me hostage?”

Lormak held up his hand. “You’re a guest, not a hostage.”

“What are you? Why’re you on Titan?”

“Think of us as distant racial cousins. We fled here from Earth over thirty-thousand Terran years ago.”

“You’re telling me you’re an honest-to-God Neanderthal?”

“Your word, not ours. But yes. We evolved from that species since we fled Earth. Titan’s habitat necessitated that.”

“This is insane. Neanderthals were primitive hunter-gatherers. How’d you get to Titan?”

Lormak smiled. “What makes you think my ancestors were primitive?”

“The fossil record.”

“You put more stock in your fossil record than you should. As with anything in science, the record is incomplete, and sometimes truth gets shrouded in myth.”

“What do you mean?”

“Your people have a story about an ancient and advanced civilization lost in prehistoric antiquity.”

“Atlantis?” Mason said in disbelief.

“That’s the name some used. Others called it Lemuria.”

“So what’s the truth?”

“We were far more advanced than humans at the time. We regarded your ancestors much as you do chimpanzees – feeling a certain kinship but also recognizing our intellectual and cultural superiority. The heart of our civilization was in the British Isles. About forty thousand years ago, a series of super volcanoes erupted in Europe, choking the skies with sulfur dioxide that blotted out the sun. The earth cooled dramatically, ushering in an ice age.

“The eruptions were so sudden that my people hadn’t stocked enough food to survive such cataclysmic climate change. Our leaders sent some of us to the closest place in the solar system that could sustain life. The rest remained on Earth competing or interbreeding with humans to secure what meager provisions they could.”

“I don’t believe you,” Mason said. “If your civilization was so advanced, why didn’t it have the foresight to store or make enough food for survival? And why is there no trace of your civilization in the fossil record?”

The Neanderthal laughed. “Sometimes a civilization becomes so efficient it eliminates any margin for waste. Our technology was so advanced it produced food a day before my ancestors consumed it. To maintain social stability, they engineered planned obsolescence into all they produced, ensuring lifetime employment for the population. Everything was biodegradable. Without maintenance, their buildings faded into the wilderness within a century. After the eruptions, my people gathered the surviving technology and placed it on the ark to Titan. Those who couldn’t leave scattered throughout a violent and primitive world to forage for food. While they were smarter and stronger than your kind, their caloric requirements were much higher. Most starved, and their technology died with them.”

Colonel Mason struggled to take it all in. The story the Neanderthal weaved was fantastical. Without proof, Mason’s superiors would ridicule him. His career would end in disgrace. “Why haven’t you returned to Earth?”

“When my ancestors arrived on Titan, it was a one-way trip. We had to start over. By the time we’d relearned everything we’d forgotten as a civilization, several generations had been born here. By that point, we were better adapted to Titan than Earth. There was no reason to return.”

Mason nodded in understanding. “What of the colonists? Why did you kidnap them?”

“We didn’t. When we tunneled into their colony, they attacked us. We’d come in peace, but they’d responded with violence. So, we subdued them before they could signal Earth. At first, they resisted, but over time they came to understand why your people could never know of our existence.”

Mason smiled. “You really don’t understand humanity do you? My people will keep coming until they learn the truth.”

The Neanderthal looked pained. “We know that too well. Your people keep sending missions to Möbius Station, and we’re sick of watching them die. That’s why we’ve brought you here.”

“That’s not true!” Mason was apoplectic.

Lormak shook his head. “Yours was the tenth such mission, and you aren’t who you think you are.”

Mason fought his urge to argue, but he couldn’t deny his elder twin’s strange existence. “Why’s there an older version of me on Titan?”

Lormak’s eyes gleamed with intensity. “Paul’s not an older version of you. You’re a younger facsimile of him. Your memories are not your own, but were taken from Paul’s stored consciousness when he first embarked on a similar mission.”

“You telling me I’m a goddamned clone?” Mason said.

“They grew you and eight of your predecessors in a vat. After rescuing the first Paul Mason and his crew, we closed the tunnel and watched the others die. Over and over again. We had to make it stop. That’s why we brought you here.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re going to give you a choice. If you destroy Möbius Station, you may return here and become part of our community. Otherwise, you can try your luck on Titan’s surface.”

“In other words betray my people and live, or face certain death,” Mason hissed. “No way.”

“Suit yourself. We’ll release you within the hour.”

Mason considered his options. If he was a clone, he was nothing by a pawn. “Wait! Can you prove it?”

Lormak nodded. “I’ll show you the bodies.”

#

Mason looked upon eight versions of himself encased in ice, all in varying stages of decomposition. It was hard for him to reconcile himself with the fact that his masters saw him as nothing more than an expendable tool. They didn’t deserve his allegiance.

Mason turned to Lormak. “Why us? Why can’t you do it?”

“We will if you refuse, but we respect life and wanted to give you a chance to demonstrate your loyalty.”

“I see. I’ll do it on one condition. I want to see my family.”

“They aren’t your kin, but I’ll arrange a meeting.”

#

Sara was much older than Mason had remembered, and June had blossomed into a beautiful young woman. Sara couldn’t look Mason in the eyes, while June played with her curly blonde hair. He figured they’d rather be anywhere but here. Even he felt awkward despite the emotions welling up in his chest. Yet they still felt like family, even though he knew deep down all they really shared was the real Paul Mason’s memories.

Mason fought back a torrent of tears. He mostly succeeded until a single droplet traced down his cheek in the slow motion of Titan’s gravity. “I want you both to know that until today, I thought I was a husband and father. While I know that’s no longer true, I’ll still always love you both.”

Mason broke down and cried, and the women’s tears soon mixed with his own.

#

Colonel Mason and his team navigated through the deserted station in wedge formation, rail guns at the ready. Mason was desperate to find out what happened to his family. Möbius Station’s oxygen pumps were operating at full capacity, yet enough methane had leaked into the station that the slightest spark could blow it all sky high.

“Sir, you got to see this.” Collins pointed to a rectangular contraption fused to the corridor wall.

Mason went to investigate. His eyes widened when he recognized the explosives. “Abort! Ab…”

Then nothing. Humanity’s presence on Titan would have to wait a decade or more before Saturn Horizon or one of its competitors could reseed the colony.

Sean Patrick Hazlett is an Army veteran living with his wife and three children in the San Francisco Bay area, where he works at a cybersecurity company. His short stories have appeared in publications such as Abyss & Apex, Grimdark Magazine, and Sci Phi Journal, and others are slated to appear in Galaxy’s Edge and the Writers of the Future anthology. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School, a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and bachelor’s degrees in History and Electrical Engineering from Stanford University. Before graduate school, he served as an Armored Cavalry officer at the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, where he trained U.S. forces for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.




21
Mar

“The Lure of Lake 19” by David Erik Nelson

Tate didn’t like how the kid was acting. The teenaged male in the second-hand cruiser’s back seat—who could produce no ID, but had given the moderately improbable name of “Jamal Kartazian”—was far too compliant. As a rule, kids like this—scrawny white boys with lumpy dreadlocks and grimy hoodies—were a spewing font of the Three Bs: bravado, back-peddling, and begging.

But not this kid. Jamal Kartazian was cool and collected; he almost seemed satisfied to find himself locked in the back of a cop car. And, in contrast to every other kid Tate had ever busted in his short two-act career as first a cop and then a rent-a-cop, this kid was actually asking to be “hauled back to the station.”

Granted, that “station” was just a concrete box of an office where the kids Tate caught messing around the half-finished condo development cooled their heels waiting for either their parents or the actual cops to come pick them up, but still: No one ever asked to get hauled in.

Tate feigned confusion. With his soft features, piggy jowls, and small, damp, eyes, it was an easy sell. People naturally took him for an idiot.

“Wellll,” Tate said, exaggerating both the word and his bewilderment, “I still just don’t get it.” He clicked his pen ceaselessly, arrhythmically. His first partner had called this “Dry Water Torture,” insisting it drove annoyed suspects to answer questions, just to stop the damned clicking.

The kid sighed, slumped further into the sagging back seat, and shook his head.

“Officer,” he sighed. Tate—who hadn’t been an “officer” of any sort for two years—didn’t correct him. “I don’t get what you don’t fucking get. The weather was good, it was Labor Day weekend, so I figured I’d come out and do a skinny dip; that’s it. You caught me fucking fair and square, trespassing and whatever. Indecent exposure, private property. You’re straight-up honor bound with sworn duty, or whatever, to drag my ass downtown and toss my shit in a cell. Case closed.”

“Skinny dipping on a moonless night?” Tate asked, scratching his head like a yokel from central casting, “Alone?”

Mucky little lakes like Lake 19—ones that didn’t even merit real names, let alone development—didn’t have the benefit of lighted parking lots. And when Jamal Kartazian had stumbled out of the brush 20 minutes earlier, he’d done so without so much as a Bic lighter to guide him. As a rule, teenaged dippers don’t skinny dip in dark little lakes on moonless nights with no flashlights.

And teenaged dippers never dip solo.

“You were swimming alone?” Tate repeated. The boy’s hair was dry, and there was fine dirt in the creases at the corners of his mouth and eyes.

Jamal Kartazian’s lips twitched, just a little, as though several answers were vying to see which could make it out first. What finally escaped was a tight, “Yup.”

“OK,” Tate replied, pretending to laboriously note this on his legal pad. “I was just wondering why a lonely solo skinny dipper has two pairs of shoes in his car?”

Tate had come upon the seemingly abandoned Honda almost half an hour before the leggy barefoot kid stumbled out into the neglected access road, and he hadn’t spent that time playing Candy Crush on his phone. Instead, he’d thoroughly satisfied his curiosity, peering in through the car’s dust-caked windows to see two pairs of shoes on the floorboards, one dainty, the other clunky. The driver’s seat was pulled up close to the steering wheel. Tate’d tried the doors—locked—-and even poked around for a hide-a-key stuck to the underbody or behind the license plate. He’d then settled into his dark cruiser a dozen yards back down the lane, one hand on the spotlight’s grip. Jamal Kartazian had popped out of the tangled wall of brush not ten minutes later. It was immediately obvious that he was far too tall to have been the one sitting behind the steering wheel with the seat so far forward.

The teen had frozen when the spotlight hit him—a response that was so consistent among teen trespassers, Tate assumed it was a prehistoric reflex.

But then this trespasser had done something odd: He’d visibly relaxed when he recognized the light as a cop-car spotlight.

That definitely wasn’t normal.10LureOfLake19a

Jamal Kartazian, sitting pretty behind the cruiser’s chainlink divider, finally looked up from his sneakerless feet. “I . . . Like to have back-ups. So the shoe can match the mood, you know?”

“Oh.” Tate said dutifully. “OK.” He pretended to carefully write this down as well. “Your backup shoes, for when you don’t feel like wearing the big puffy DCs that are on the passenger-side floorboards of your,” Tate hit the word hard, “Honda Civic are a little pair of mint green Keds?”

“Yeah,” Jamal Kartazian answered dryly. “I like to rock a diversity of kicks, officer.” For the first time the boy looked nervous. He glanced out the window—not the windshield, not toward “his” car and the diversity of kicks within, but out the side window, toward the dark waters of Lake 19. “We sorta been sitting here a long time, officer.” The boy licked his lips. “Maybe we oughtta—”

“And your name is ‘Jamal Kartazian’?”

“Yeah.”

“With no ID?”

“It’s in the car—”

“Which is locked, and you lost the key skinny dipping, by yourself, in the dark, with absolutely no smaller-than-you female person who usually wears mint green Keds?”

“That’s right. You’d just confiscate my shoelaces during in-processing anyway, so I think it’s basically OK that my shoes are safe and sound in the car. Howsabout we book me, Danno? Call it a night?” Another glance out toward the lake.

Tate, of course, could book no one, because he was not a cop any more. He hadn’t been dismissed for any dramatic reason—that likely would have increased his job prospects: Mid-Michigan’s moderately crooked businessmen seemed to have a soft spot for moderately crooked cops. Unfortunately for Tate, he was straight as an arrow. He’d simply had the ill luck to be the newest hire in a department with a shrinking budget.

Tate clicked his pen with finality.

“It would be a shame to leave your vehicle out here where some delinquent might vandalize it.” He picked up his heavy black flashlight and clicked it on. “I’m happy to help you go look for your keys down by the water.”

“No!” The kid snapped, his face pale and eyes wet. “No . . . sense bothering, is all I’m saying. Lost is lost ‘til morning light. Probably best to pack it in.”

“Who’s down by the lake, Jamal?”

The kid shook his head and smiled the sick smile of the long ill. “No one,” he said purposefully, “Is down by that lake, dude.”

“Then whose car is this?”

Jamal Kartazian flopped back in the seat “Mine, dude. And it’s even, like, illegally parked, I’m sure. I’m totally half out in the roadway, all obstructing the flow of whatever. Just bust me already. Just let’s get gone.”

Tate reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a tiny patch of turquoise cotton. “These yours, too?” He asked, holding the brand-new thong underwear aloft so that Jamal Kartazian could see the maniacally smiling, spangled SpongeBob Squarepants emblazoned across the tiny swatch of fabric.

The boy’s jaw dropped with surprise and wonder.

Tate had bought this thong himself—it had been reduced for quick sale—expressly for the purpose of goosing guys like young “Jamal Kartazian” into accidentally ratting out their friends hiding in the brush. This technique had been taught to him by his predecessor, creepy Old Bob Dowagieac. Tate had felt like a total perv buying the thong—in fact, Tate felt like a total perv just walking past Wal-Mart’s Young Miss fashion department. He’d noted that Old Bobby D. suffered no such pangs—and also devoted an unseemly amount of time to “staking out” the more popular skinny dipping lakes with his Sony Nightshot handycam.

As far as Tate was concerned, his own indefinite furlough from publicly funded law enforcement had served the common good in at least one regard: When the developers had hired Tate to patrol the property, they’d taken the opportunity to cut leering Old Bobby D. loose. All that aside, Tate had to admit that Old Bob’s beloved “thong method” worked like liquid wrench on an old padlock, as promised.

Tate pressed the thong against the chain-link separating the back seat from the front. “These were on the ground next to your door, Mr. Kartazian.”

“Those would never fit Mimi,” the boy gasped.

“Is Mimi down by the water or out in the bushes?”

The boy recovered. “I said ‘me.’ Those would never fit me.”

Tate glanced down at the kid’s bedraggled skinny jeans—which looked like they’d come from the Young Miss section, too. “I don’t know if that’s true, but you said ‘Mimi.’ Why don’t we go out and get Mimi in here and all head up to the office to make a call.”

The kid slumped, and finally dropped his mask of calm. “Let’s just roll. She isn’t out there anymore,” he said miserably.

“Then where is she?”

“Dead, I guess.” The kid’s face was blank and voice flat.

Tate froze. He briefly wished he could call in the cavalry, and then briefly cursed his bottom-of-the-barrel pre-paid cellphone, which only had one bar by the half-finished marina footings at Big Lake (formerly “Lake 5”), and that was three miles closer to cellularly networked civilization.

“Why don’t you just give me the whole story from the top?” Tate said carefully.

“Yeah,” the kid agreed in that eery, flat way, “OK. Me and Mimi came down here . . . a couple nights ago, I guess? She said she knew a good spot for skinny dipping, ‘cause, like, no one went there and the cops basically didn’t patrol it.” Jamal Kartazian smiled ruefully. “Mimi said she and her folks used to hike back here all the time when she was a little kid, before the land got sold and sold and sold again. Her folks are sorta hippies, and would do, like, Naturist picnics.” The boy smirked then, and came back to himself for a moment. “Which sounds more awesome than it is. Like, Mimi’s folks and their friends? They aren’t exactly the people you wanna see prancing all naked in the mud.”

The boy reached up absently with his right hand and worried one of the dreadlocks at his temple. His sleeve slid up, revealing deep abrasions on his forearm. Maybe they were defensive wounds, Tate thought. Maybe the boy had been gouged by the brambles as he chased someone through the undergrowth.

“It was dark as shit, just a little sliver of moon, and real cloudy. Me and Mimi were picking our way through these fucking prickers, giggling and shit . . .” the kid coughed a laugh, “All we had was this little bullshit Hello Kitty flashlight on her keychain. I was pretty excited to get down to the stupid water, right? And get naked. My buds were always like ‘Mimi isn’t really much to look at,’ but that was because they totally didn’t get her. She was fucking sassy, yo. I was mad crushing on her.”

It did not escape Tate’s notice that the boy kept using the past tense. His stomach did a single lazy flop.

“And so our shit is good and tangled in the woods, when the clouds sorta thin, and this big fat full moon pops through. All the trees and bushes and shit are like . . . like they’re coated in silver. We’re totally closer to the lake than we thought. The water was still, like a big pool of oil with liquid silver floating on it. Right then, right there, everything was just so fucking beautiful. It was like dropping E—just pow, all through you. Mimi laughed and we high-fived. She stumbled out into the clearing at the edge of the water while I was still all tangled in this pricker bush bullshit. Standing down there on the pebbles, she looked back over her shoulder smiling, then crossed her arms and took hold of the bottom part of her t-shirt to pull it off. And then there was this light.”

The kid said the word “light” the way an EMT describing a shut-in cat lady’s apartment says “smell.”

“This fucking awful, searing white light,” the kid said. “Like lightning, but not a flash. A steady light that just kept getting brighter and brighter. ‘cause the thing was, that full moon that lit our way wasn’t the fucking moon. The moon was just a shitty little sliver down near the horizon. This light up in the sky was like a spotlight. Mimi turned back to look at it, and something in her changed. She went tight, and then slack, like she was just awestruck. Like, literally, like she’d been actually struck with the weight of the shit she was seeing. Like . . .” the boy was casting around in his head, “Like, OK, a couple years ago me and my folks and my brother, we did this eco-tour thing, right? Where we went to Ecuador and then got on this, like, yacht boat with some other eco-tourists and cruised around the Galapagos islands with a guide. It was basically OK—you could drink on the boat, ‘cause of the international waters or whatever. The food was fucking awesome. They have these giant lobsters down there. Huge. Like, for reals, two-feet-long huge, but no claws, ‘cause they’ve got no predators. Still, awesomely delicious. The best lobster, and we had it every night. Seemed totally lux, right?

But then one night the boat’s, like, janitorial muchacho asks to borrow my flashlight, and I’m all like ‘¿Por qué?’ and he says ‘langostas.’ And it turns out that the reason we were eating lobster every night was that it was free: the cook and this dude would row out in a lifeboat and shine the light on the water. The lobsters would come up to check it out, and then the muchachos would just scoop up the clawless bastards and dump ‘em in milk crates until dinnertime. I rowed out with them that night, and it was like magic: You shine the light on the face of the water, and it’s just empty murk. Then the lobsters cruise in. They swim butt first, but once they’re in the light they stop swimming and drift around to face it, and you see it reflected in their little black eyes, and they go sorta slack. They look, like, fascinated and hopeless. Then the chef scoops ‘em up. And . . .”

The kid chewed his lips for a long while, tugging at that dreadlock all the while. “They grilled ‘em.” He said. “I mean later, to cook them, that night. The cook’d put them on the griddle alive, with a grill weight pinning each one down so it wouldn’t drag itself off. But those lobsters didn’t really fight it like you’d think. They’d wave their feelers and squirm a little, but they didn’t seem real motivated.” Another long, long pause. “I didn’t eat any more lobster that trip,” he finished. “I haven’t really eaten meat since.”

Tate waited, and when the kid wasn’t forthcoming, he finally asked. “So her body, you left it out by the water?”

“What?” The kid jerked, his hand finally dropping away from his hair and eyes locking on Tate’s. “No, dude, my point—the light, it scooped her up. She’s gone.” The car’s dome light popped on when Tate opened his door. “No!” the kid shouted, clutching at the chain-link divider. “Nonononono!”

Tate glanced again at his cellphone, saw that there was no reception, sighed, and stood out of the car. “Ma’am!” He called toward the lake, shining his flashlight on the scrim of dark trees. “Mimi! Can you hear me? Are you injured?”

“Shhh,” the kid hissed hysterically, rattling the divider for emphasis. “Dude! Dude! Did you not hear what I was telling you! Get back in the car and get us the fuck away from the lake!”

Tate leaned back in to the car, pulling the keys from the ignition and clipping them to his belt.  “Listen, ‘Jamal,’ I totally accept that the heavens may well be populated by a terrible Devouring Janitor from Beyond the Stars, flashlight in hand, just like in your story. I don’t care. All I know is that two of you came down here in that Honda, only one of you is in my cruiser right now, and that one is acting like he’s done a Very Bad Thing.”

Tate stood back up and slammed the door, which significantly muffled the kid’s protest. He walked away from the cruiser, into the dark, unbroken silence: Not a buzz or chitter or chirp, just the gentle lapping of Lake 19.

He killed his light and listened, hoping to hear Mimi, hoping that she’d just been ditched or mildly assaulted, or maybe gotten lost. Or maybe, God willing, she was hiding, in cahoots with “Jamal Kartazian” and ready to bail once Tate had been sufficiently misdirected.

The night was cool, still, and dark. While Tate had been entertaining the kid’s bullshit in the cruiser the clouds had rolled back in, smothering the vast flurry of stars. Tate understood why the kids came back here, to this secluded corner of the universe, where even the lonely rent-a-cop rarely tread, and cellphones could find no signal: You could hear no hint of the freeway back here, catch no glimpse of the rotten glow of the high-intensity lights leaching out from the truck stops and fast-food joints. They weren’t under a flight path. Even the “access road” was little more than a farmer’s two-track. On a clear night the starry sky was breathtaking and terrifying in its depth. Judging from the ambiance of Lake 19, you might think that humans had never really gotten a toe-hold on this continent.

10LureOfLake19b But as a cop—albeit an indefinitely furloughed cop—Tate understood the other side of that. These kids didn’t take their trash with them to preserve the virgin watershed; they were minimizing evidence. They didn’t come to the forest primeval to be liberated from society’s constraints; they were back here getting red in tooth and claw.

Standing in the dark, Tate thought about the light that the boy claimed to have seen scanning the lake, searching out the owner of those mint green Keds. He was suddenly reminded of the picture Bible he’d had as a kid. In it, there’d been an illustration captioned “Darkness was upon the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” But mostly the picture had shown the dark expanse of water itself—the void earth—under a vast, cold, blank sky. Little Tate had countless nightmares about the uncountable depths of those dark waters, the formless things that populated them. The little smear of light hovering over the face of those dark waters—not God, the Bible told him, but the Spirit of God, whatever that distinction was supposed to mean—hadn’t been much of a comfort. To Tate, it had looked like a hunting eye.

Tate had paged through that picture Bible often, fascinated and disturbed. The paintings reproduced in it had all seemed greasy and sinister, full of veiled threats. He particularly recalled one of Jesus collecting a wayward sheep, with Psalm 23 printed alongside the illustration: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .”

In that illustration the landscape almost seemed to ooze beneath the starless sky. The Lord cradled the lamb gently, but He had hooded eyes and a sly smile. Tate had grown up far from any farm, but he still understood that the Shepherd doesn’t spend all His time chasing down lost sheep and guiding them to green pastures and still waters out of the goodness of His heart. The Shepherd cares for His flock so that, sooner or later, he can take them to slaughter. Their value, after all, is not in their restored souls; it’s in their meat.

Tate thought about Jamal Kartazian’s claim that the light had “scooped her up.” Tate thought about sly, greasy Jesus scooping up that luckless lamb beneath the dark and formless Heavens. Tate thought about the Spirit of the Lord and its hunting eye scanning the face of the waters. A shiver ran through him. He was spooking himself.

Tate clicked his light back on, illuminating the wall of intertwined buckthorns and sumacs. He carefully picked his way forward, until he found the break in the trees the boy had described. It opened on a flat, muddy meadow, tapering to a little patch of pebbled beach that slid into the still waters.

The erstwhile cop pivoted around, shining his light on the ground, into the bushes and little knots of stunted trees. He crouched to peer under the sagging cover of the pines.

No girl. No Mimi. He cut his light again and listened, hoping to hear her ragged breath. Nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing skittering in the underbrush, no chorus of toads and peepers. Not even a rustle of leaves.

“Mimi?” Tate whispered. He had a moment to wonder why he was whispering, and then the awful light hit him. It was over the lake, and it was huge and searingly bright, cutting through the low clouds. Tate jumped to attention. He was momentarily mesmerized by the swaying beam, which seemed to be searching for him in the clearing.

“Oh,” he said, not realizing he was speaking. “Oh wow.”

It was just as Jamal Kartazian had described, but even more beautiful. Tate could hear the light. It sang, like a wine glass being stroked around its rim by a damp finger. The light was literally wonderful, Tate thought: It was full of wonders.

The light shifted again, found him—and then he saw that there were really two lights: The second was down on the face of the waters, a smaller light moving in unison. The tiny, long-dormant mathematician in Tate’s head pointed out that it wasn’t a second light, but the same light—he wasn’t being spotlighted from beyond the sky; the beam came from under the water, and was reflecting off the low cloud ceiling.

And then it was gone.

Tate only had a moment to be disappointed, and then his feet shot out from under him. His left ankle was encircled by a thin tentacle that had crept out of the water as he marveled at the wonderful singing light. It flexed as it contracted, winding up his pant leg, abrading his calf with the tufts of wiry hair that circled each sucker. Tate rolled and clawed at the hard-packed dirt. A second tentacle wound around his thick leather belt. A third slithered up over his shoulder, caressing his neck, slipping into his shirt.

Tate let out a strangled scream, a wavering cry of existential disgust. His shirt hiked up as the tentacles dragged him on to the jagged gravel that passed for Lake 19’s beach. He dug in with both hands, like a swimmer caught in a rip tide—with just as little effect. The cold shock of the water tamped his panic. He had just long enough to remember the knife clipped to his pocket. It was out in an instant, sawing at the awful pinching tentacle wrapped around his shoulder. But the thing in the lake, unperturbed, dragged Tate down below the face of the waters.

The deep water was dark and terribly warm, full of weeds and movement.

And teeth.

 

#

 

The teen—who really was named “Jamal Kartazian”—sat in the second-hand cruiser for a long time. The cop had closed the doors and taken the keys. The car quickly grew stuffy.

There was a 20 ouncer of Mountain Dew in the cop’s cup holder. It wasn’t more than two feet away. But it was on the other side of the chain-link barrier, so it might as well have been on the other side of the galaxy. The boy—who’d had nothing to eat or drink since the start of the long holiday weekend, apart from a few regrettable sips of scummy stump water—stared fixedly at the soda, pointedly not thinking about his predicament. At least he was free of the thing that lived beneath the dark waters. Yes, he was now condemned to either bake to death or starve in a cop car at the ass-end of nowhere, but it was still an improvement.

Unexpectedly, his door popped open. Jamal hadn’t realized how deeply he’d acclimated to the warm, sepulchral silence of the locked car until he was blinded by the dim dome light, deafened by the tiny ding of the open-door buzzer, and chilled by the whoosh of fresh air.

He burst out into the night, immediately turning back to open the driver’s door. He slugged back the soda in one long, starved gulp. It was warm, and the carbonation burned, but it was sweet and wonderful. Jamal belched a satisfied burp so long and deep that it seemed to vibrate him wholly, from toes to nose hairs. He stood for a moment, eyes closed, hugging the bottle, blissfully waiting for the cop to scream at him or taser him or whatever. Whatever came next.

But nothing came next.

When he opened his eyes there was no cop. Just a tentacle, flexed tall, wavering before him. Another still gripped the handle to the cruiser’s rear door. One more slid out from under the car, feeling its way like a huge earthworm. It didn’t quite touch the boy, let alone grip him, but he knew from hard experience that as soon as he thought about bolting it would already have manacled his ankle.

“Oh,” the kid sighed, looking at the upright tentacle, which seemed to nod, then point at the open rear door of the cruiser.

“Oh. Yeah. Thanks.” The tentacle curled back and pointed at him then dipped, as though bowing. Jamal knew it was sort of crazy, but he felt like the tentacle could hear him. Whatever lived at the bottom of the lake certainly could hear him somehow. Probably tentacle-hearing was no crazier than anything else.

“So, like, how many more we talking?”

He and Mimi had come with two other girls, who’d sprinted out of the Honda to strip and hit the water before Jamal could get an eyeful. With the cop that made four. Four seemed like a pretty good offering to Jamal. Maybe he’d be able to just walk away soon. Maybe . . .

The tentacle looked at him a bit longer, eyelessly eye-balling him like yet another distrustful boss, and then began slowly and deliberately thunking on the side of the cruiser.

One. Two. Three. Four. . . . It went on and on. Nine. 10. 11 . . . The boy sighed, and kept counting even as a hunger pang twisted his gut. 13. 14. 15. . . . He quietly hoped that the next guy had some Doritos or something in his car. 17. 18. 19.

The tentacle paused, and Jamal slowly realized that this pause was a full stop.

  1. 19. It wanted 19 more. 23 total.

Jamal had no thoughts or feelings about such a number. Like six-figures of debt or a triple life sentence—or the full bulk of the thing curled into the depths of the dark lake—the number 23 was just too large to fathom.

Jamal hoped for Doritos, and for another pop, but more than anything, he hoped for a hard winter. He hoped Lake 19 would freeze early and deep, so he could go home.

 

David Erik Nelson lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has become increasingly aware that he may be “that unsavory character” in other people’s anecdotes. Folks who liked “The Lure of Lake 19” will also enjoy his story “The Slender Men” and interactive fiction “Brights.” Find him online at www.davideriknelson.com.




21
Feb

“Hornets Attack Your Best Friend Victor and Other Things We Called the Band” by Peter M. Ball

Selby showed up for class with pink hair.

I sat behind her, ignoring the lecturer drone on about Deleuze and rhizomes and hypertext. There were thirty-two students taking Contemporary Issues in the Arts, maybe twenty of them who actually showed up for class every week. I’d gotten to know the regulars, over the first few weeks of the semester. I didn’t get along with them, more often than not, but Selby seemed okay.

On the break, when we ducked out to grab a coffee from the machine, I tapped her shoulder and said, “Your hair. It’s new?” like an idiot.

She didn’t hold it against me. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s new.”

“I like it,” I said, and Selby nodded, like there wasn’t any other possible response.

She wore sunglasses and a grubby white shirt that morning, her sleeves streaked with paint and ink. The sunglasses meant she was probably hung over, running on Red Bull and stubbornness. I fed three dollars into the machine, hit the buttons for white and two sugars. The internal mechanisms began to gurgle, pissed a stream of dirty liquid into a paper cup. If you squinted, you could pretend it was coffee.

I drank it because it was better than nothing, at that hour of the morning.

There was a queue, but Selby wasn’t really paying attention to that. Her turn came to feed the machine and she just stood there, glaring at the Nescafe logo. I grabbed her by the arm, pulled her aside before KD, who was behind her, lost her cool and started yelling.

“Listen,” I said, “you doing okay?”

“I saw this band on the weekend.” Selby took off the sunglasses and rubbed her bloodshot eyes. “They’re local. And good. And…shit, I don’t know. You gotta check them out, P.”

“A band.” I glanced at her hair again, started putting things together. People had been having epiphanies all semester, figuring out who they were. Pink hair happened, like piercing and tattoos. We all made bad decisions, all through that first year of class.

“You don’t understand, P,” Selby said. “This wasn’t just a band, you know? They went out there and changed my life.”

“If they’re that good,” I said, “how come I’ve never heard of them?”

“Well.” Selby put the sunglasses back on. “Well, they’re kinda local.”

And really, that explained it. We didn’t do local. None of us. I’d spent my his first semester figuring out ways to leave the Gold Coast behind, go start a better life in a city that didn’t hate me.

“Local,” I said. There was doubt in my voice.

“Trust me,” Selby said. “Wanna come, the next time they play?

I did. I was curious. Selby had seemed sensible, too focused for pink hair and a life-changed by music. I wanted to see how it happened, figure out what made this band so appealing.

*

09Limelight1I saw them play The Playroom exactly one week later. They didn’t seem like much, taking to the stage. Just another rock-and-roll four-piece: guitar, drums, bass, and a singer out the front. The bass guitarist was short and feral, with torn stockings and silver eye-shadow. The singer, tall and lean as hunger, had crimson nails and a dirty fringe that hung over his eyes. They were exactly the kind of group that wore their influences on their sleeve: a little bit of David Bowie, a whole lot of Kurt Cobain.

It was nineteen ninety nine, and that seemed a little naff.

Selby grabbed my arm, dragged me down to the front of the stage. I went with reluctance and a glass of bourbon, stuck beside her because…well, I was eighteen.

I was eighteen and Selby was Selby. It wasn’t just the band I was curious about.

But still, they didn’t look like much. Selby sensed that, as I stood there. “Just wait,” she said. “You’ll see.”

They didn’t speak, not really. The drummer shouted “two-three-four,” and they lurched into their first snarling chord. That was how it began, and Selby was right. I saw. Oh shit, I saw.

I didn’t remember the song, just what happened when they played. The way the whole band just…well, they lit up. Shone with this hideous, coruscating colour straight out of a Fusceli nightmare, streaked through with writhing strands that could have been emerald or crimson or sapphire, if only you could think of words while you looked at them. They played, and the light was hypnotic as a kaleidoscope, undulating and utterly alive.

I didn’t remember the songs, but twenty-one years on and that light show is still with me. I stood there, slack-jawed, right beside Selby at the front of the stage. There was no other choice but staring. The light didn’t give you one. It shimmered and weaved in time with the music, drew every eye in the Playroom towards the band. The rest of the world grew dark, fell away. Shadow grew longer as the band got brighter and brighter.

I don’t remember how long they played, but I remember when they were done. Spots danced in front of my eyes, and Selby clutched my arm. “You get it, right?” she asked me and her voice was filled with urgency.

“Yeah,” I said. “I get it.”

I just didn’t know what I’d got.

*

Hours later, when I was at home and in bed, I wondered how they’d done it. The Playroom had a lighting rig, but it wasn’t built for that kind of show. Wasn’t built to do more than light up the stage, make these punk bands and metal-heads visible while they played.

The question gnawed at me, ate away my capacity for sleep. I’d enrolled with a double-major, journalism and art. One major to please my parents, one major so I could live with myself.

I wasn’t a good journalist. Never had the drive for it. The kids in my classes, the ones who did well, they had this compunction I’d never embraced. The wanted to know things, wanted to know why and how things happened.

I’d been content with books and beer and plans of escape. I hadn’t wanted to know a goddamn thing until I saw that light.

*

The band didn’t talk to the audience. Never introduced themselves or chatted between songs. We wanted more than that, so we came up with plans. Selby got a job at the Dog House in Broadbeach. Hooked up with the guy who booked the gigs. Said she did it to find out who he spoke to when he booked them, but the answer never seemed to be forthcoming. I lined up a gig with the local street press, bluffed my way into doing a piece on live music venues. I hit the Playroom, and the Hard Rock, and this pub out the back of Robina. All the small venues where I’d seen the band play, even if it was just the once.

The bookers, they didn’t have much for me. They didn’t even remember who they’d brought in, or where they’d first heard about them. The band just appeared, and played, then took their leave. Lugged their gear back to the van and drove the hell away.

They were a band who gave you nothing, not even a name. The first time I saw them, they were Lustre Fatale. By the second gig they’d become Whisky-Whisky-111. Then Hornet’s Attack Your Best Friend Victor. Then All That Glitters, then Sabretooth, then something else entirely. No two gigs were performed under the same name, you’d simply see poster and know it was one of theirs.

This one guy, Skinny D, claimed the mystery was a cheap gimmick, just like their steadfast refusal to speak or engage with the audience. The rest of us agreed Skinny D was a prick, ‘cause despite his loud protest of gimmickry, you’d see him loitering by the bar at gigs, pretending he wasn’t desperate to see the band come on.

As fans, we loved the mystery. In fact, we believed that was necessary; if they became to prominent, to easily found, they wouldn’t be ours anymore. We were certain they’d be robbed of their powers, that whatever it was that made them shine would dim, or go away the moment too many eyes were upon them.

We argued about the way they did it, given their stripped-back approach. Some called it a trick done with smoke and mirrors. Some said they weren’t precisely human, that they lit up because they were aliens and this was some kind of power. Skinny D offered this theory involving a collective synaesthesia, transforming sound into an oscillating melange of brilliant crimson, sapphire, and emerald.

They were psychic, he said, and that’s what made them great. They played with our minds to make it happen.

No-one believed him. Or, maybe, we did. We had no other explanation, no matter how many gigs we saw.

*

Selby lived with her parents all through the first year. In the second, she got into a fight with her mum, something about the band and her degree and what was going on. She moved in with her brother, after she got kicked out. I came round to help her move, helped her load crates of CDs and cassettes into the trunk of my beat-up Ford. She sat on the front step of her parents place, smoking.

“I hate it here,” she said. “If it weren’t for them, I’d leave today.”

Selby’s hair was pale green that week. She’d shaved the left side of her skull. There was no question of who they were. I knew. We both knew. We were fans.

“They have bands in other cities,” I said.

“Not like them.”

“You don’t know that. How would we know? It’s not like anyone here is talking, telling people from Melbourne what’s going on.”

Selby didn’t seem convinced. I didn’t really blame her. There was a pattern, when people saw the band for the first time. A period where they’d swear they were the only one to see the lights, where they kept dragging people along to confirm it, let them know that they weren’t going mad.

That fervour didn’t last, nor did the evangelism. What replaced it was fear, and this nagging unease about the things you actually remembered: the light and this slurry of indistinct noise, all sonorous and angry and barbed with half-formed lyrics. Random words, sometimes, that hit you like a brick to the side of the skull and lodged there, permanently, as you blinked the spots away.

For a long time, you kept that secret. Then you started talking, and the secret mutated into the thing we all shared, something other than surf and sand and the bars full of tourists that echoed through the night. The thing that made us fans and kept us searching for new gigs. Hoping we’d be there when they finally made sense. When everything about them unfolded like an origami beard, reminding you it was just paper underneath all of the artistry.

We all wanted that. We all wanted to know.

It’s why we kept our mouths shut, when people started dying.

*

At first, the deaths didn’t matter.

In 2000, there were rumours they’d cut an LP, releasing a limited number of recordings into the local stores. The records were discs of amber vinyl, the sleeves a riotous mess of abstract colour and shape. We flocked to local record stores, hoping for confirmation, but the rumour mill simply suggested the albums were hidden in other locations. You’d see a record hidden among the boogie-boards in the local K-mart, or used as placemats in the Yum-Cha place off the Broadbeach mall. Fans went into a negotiating frenzy, wheedling with managers to buy the decorations, or they shoplifted the vinyl when no-one was looking and hoping for the best as they ran. Skinny D got himself arrested trying to steal from the local Op Shop, but it turned out all he’d boosted was a copy of The Cars’ Greatest Hits hidden in the wrong sleeve.

It’s during this period that the band received exposure outside of its limited base of fans. A local reporter interviewed Skinny D, tracked down the rest of us for comments. Selby went on the record. “This city’s idea of art is stainless steel sculptures of surfboards,” she said. “Worse, it’s <censored> sandcastles done en-masse on the beach. Surely, we need a space for mystery. Mystery and <censored> entertainment for someone other than tourists and bogans.”

The reporter made a big deal about the intensity of Selby’s stare. He made note of her hair, now dyed a combination of crimson and electric blue, and the steel hoops put through her eyebrow. At no point was drug use suggested, but the implications were definitely there and I wasn’t sure they were wrong.

We tried to bootleg their shows for a while, after the news article came out. Turns out you couldn’t record their music, couldn’t get anything but the crowd noise and the drummer’s initial count. The moment you heard that Two-Three-Four, the whole damn crowd went silent.

*

Things changed. Selby’s brother died, one of the first wave of deaths associated with the band. She’d dragged him the gig after the one I went too, exposed him the same way she’d exposed me to the light. He became one of us, an obsessive, a fan. Skipped shifts at the McDonalds he worked at, up in Surfers, on the nights the band had gigs and we all needed a ride.

There wasn’t any cause of death, according to the coroner. He went to sleep one night, after we all got back from a gig. He didn’t wake up afterwards. They buried him in the lawn cemetery up near the University, this bland stretch of grass with gum trees around the perimeter. The dead marked with marble plaques that broke up the flat slope of sward.

Selby dropped out of her degree after that, transferred into Law and said she’d do art on the side. I got tasked with doing an article of my own, when the street press that I worked for realised I had an interest. The editor wanted to leverage me, get an inside scoop on the people who were dying.

I told him he could fuck himself, and my days as a journalist were pretty much done.

*

I visited Selby and her family in Canberra, last Easter. Her husband invited me, wanted her old friends nearby. I slept in a spare room with a single bed and some of her art hanging on the wall. She’d developed a minimalist style since leaving the Gold Coast behind. Squares of white canvas with a few, carefully-picked black lines. Lots of right angles. Very ordered. Very stark. She’d kept it up, the art, even after she worked at a firm. Kept it up, years later, when she realised she and law were done.

One night, after her kids were sleeping, Selby confided that she still felt guilty about her brother’s death.

“We warned him,” I said. “We told him the gigs were getting ugly.”

Selby’s attention stayed focused on her fireplace, the merry flames dancing across the fake log inside. They were yellow and orange and red, chaotic and wild like all fires are.

“Warnings didn’t help,” she said. “We all knew it was dangerous; it’s what made them real. Real and dangerous beat the alternatives, that’s why we kept going, even after we should of stopped.”

For a long time after that, neither of us talked. Then Selby offered to make some tea, and we talked about her husband and his job as a surveyor, working for the department of main roads.

*

I swore to stop attending gigs. We all did, once or twice.09Limelight2

They were playing at The Doghouse, in Broadbeach, this weird bar with a stage and open space. High ceilings, like a cathedral, which meant it took forever for the cigarette smoke to permeate the room. They served three-dollar bourbons until ten o’clock, but no-one was drunk by the time the band came out.

It was the night they played under the name T-Rex 69. Selby was there, and her brother. Skinny D was still alive too, although he wouldn’t last much longer. The band played and the swirl of colour appeared, but this time it glistened like sunlight on an oil stain. It’d been eighteen months since the first time I saw them. I understood nothing, compared to that night.

No-one danced. It wasn’t that kind of gig. We just stood in place, staring, letting it all wash over us. Then someone went down, scratching at their skin like there were wasps nesting in their pores, and the band kept playing, kept droning steadily on as the panic threaded through the crowd.

This wasn’t unusual anymore. It started happening earlier that year, just after the articles came out. I knew fans who were getting stoned, or shooting up before the gig, just so they could keep themselves mellow as the light hit the crowd. Failing to turn up just wasn’t an option.

It wasn’t the fear that bothered me. It was the hollow feeling afterwards, the emptiness that lingered. Like the gig had taken from me, hollowed me out and scraped everything free, left me with nothing but basic motor function and enough change for bus fare home.

*

It took four years before I started meaning it, when I said me and the band were done. Selby had graduated, started her first year. Already knew that she and the law were a mistake.

“I have this theory,” she said, “that they’re not really band. They’re just this, shit, this attempt to fill a vacuum. They exist because we need them too, but we need them to be too much.”

She’d stopped dying her hair by this point. She took the rings out of her eyebrow before heading into the office. We collectively called this period The Time When Things Hit the Fan and Splattered. I was due to graduate, two years later than I should have.

In the end, after that conversation, it was Selby who stopped going. Despite my intentions and promises, I still attended another four gigs before I finally quit cold turkey.

*

I know of fourteen deaths that are attributed to the band, according to people I knew from my time going to gigs. I expect the actual death toll is potentially much higher, as my personal circle of friends includes only a handful of the two hundred fans that regularly appeared at a show.

This number doesn’t include the fans who chose to be pro-active when we realised what was happening. In addition to the fourteen “unexplained” deaths, I know of at least a dozen suicides, kids who swam into the ocean with a gut full of pills and let themselves get carried away by the tides. Kids who hung themselves from balcony rails on the fourth floor of the Marriott. Kids who went to the cliffs in Burleigh State Park, just up-river from the place I first saw the band play, and took a swan dive into the rocks below.

I expect there are still people whose deaths are related to the band and its impact. Every adult I know still caries scars from the stupidity of their early years. Every fan of the band still carries around the memories of the night things finally went to hell.

*

I wasn’t at their final gig. They played it under the name We Will Always Have the Lighthouse My Melancholy Bride, and the same way we always knew when the gigs were coming, we all knew this was the last.

They weren’t playing clubs anymore, not in the conventional sense. They’d set up in this co-op above a fish shop in Southport, played this little room built for poets who performed at candle-lit open mic nights. I went and saw the space, a few weeks after it happened. I stood next to the make-shift bar at the back of the room, below a liquor license that was twelve months expired. Traffic noise floated up the stairwell, mingling with the smell of deep-fried batter and thick-cut fries. You’d be lucky to fit a hundred people in the place, if they didn’t mind getting friendly.

I sat in the floor of the co-op and produced a tiny walkman, slipped in a boot-leg tape that Skinny D made of the final gig. At first there wasn’t anything but tape hiss and the muted hubbub of the crowd. Then came the hush as the band picked up their instruments, a faint click as the singer adjusted his microphone stand.

The drummer shouted it for the last time: “Two-three-four.”

And after that, there’s nothing on the tape. Not until the first body thumps into the floorboards about fifteen minutes in, followed by others a few minutes later, a whole audience collapsing and gouging themselves, ripping away until they started drawing blood.

No one knows what happened to the band that night, but the audience was still there a few hours later, comatose and half-alive, when one of the guys who ran the co-op came by to lock the pace up. Paramedics were called. Cops were called too.

I heard all the stories from Skinny D, when he came to drop off the tape. He stood on my front step, sneered around his unlit cigarette. “You should have fucking been there,” he said. “It was an awesome fucking night.”

I told him I wasn’t interested. That me and the band were done.

“That’s your problem, P,” Skinny said. “You think you can just give up on things.”

He caught a plane to Melbourne a week after that. Said he couldn’t handle living on the Coast anymore, that he’d stayed this long for the gigs.

I heard he fell asleep mid-flight, and never actually woke up.

*

Selby moved away two years after her brother died. It took me longer, sure, but I made it out alive. That’s a thing to value, when you grow up in a place like the Coast.

I dropped out of university and got myself a government job, went to work a white shirt and a tie, pushed paper around a desk until it was quitting time. Stayed there for fifteen years, until a new government came in and downsized, cutting jobs like they were the ballast that weighed the public down. There were plenty of people angry ‘bout that, enough to get some protests going.

I didn’t feel up to taking things to the streets, so I used my severance package to go home for a while, see what’d changed since the Coast and I parted ways.

There wasn’t much to see. They’d torn down the Playroom, used the lot for a park by the river. The Doghouse was long-gone, transformed into a Chinese restaurant that served sub-par honey chicken. The Co-op where the last show took place was long-gone, narrowly avoiding all sorts of legal trouble in the wake of the final gig.

I stood down on the beach, and dialled Selby’s number.

“There’s nothing,” I said. “The Gold Coast won. There’s literally nothing left anymore.”

She told me one of her kids was sick. That’s she’d give me a call back in an hour or so.

“Sure,” I said. “Sure.”

And I hung up the phone.

*

I’ve been drinking. You should know that, before I go on. It’s late and I am very drunk. I’m sitting here in a Southport bar, two blocks from my motel. I’m forty years old and unemployed. I’m thinking about Selby more often than I should, thinking about her still at home with her daughters and her husband. Selby, with crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes. Selby, with that quiet way she talks these days, and the art she does on Thursday afternoons, and the way she goes quiet when I ask her how she’s doing.

Tomorrow I fly home. Head back to the apartment I can no longer afford. Tonight, I drink and remember. The band, the light, the people I knew. I drink to the goddamn memories, and then I have another.

There’s a lot of things I regret, in my life. It starts with Selby and goes from there: I didn’t become a journalist; I had no talent for art; I didn’t get a Mohawk as a kid, and I’m too old to pull one off right now.

I regret my stupid job and I regret my stupid life. I regret not being there, for that final gig. I regret missing that final chance to go and see them shine.

I regret not knowing how they did it. I regret not pushing harder, when it comes to figuring that out.

The bartender brings me another glass of Merlot. She’s young, maybe nineteen, hair pinned up like she’s heading back to the fifties once she’s done serving drinks to sad old bastards. She smiles at me, a little shy. Maybe a little wary. I’m drunk, and I’ve been tipping big. Wary is smarter, right now.

I get her attention, as she goes to walk away. “Hey. If I wanted to see a band tonight…”

“Yeah?”

It’s wary. Definitely wary. “Not like that,” I tell her. “I just want to know where to go.”

She looks me over, and god, I feel old. So bloody old. She says, “What kind of music do you like?”

“I’m not fussy,” I tell her. “I just want to see a band.”

She gives me a place, and she gives me a name. Say’s they’ll be onstage around 10, if I go.

And I hold my breath as she says it, hoping…shit, I’m hoping that I’ll get that feeling again, that little thrill of recognition when it’s one of their gigs. But it’s not. It’s just this band she knows, friends of hers who play locally and do alright.

I thank her, and I go along. Spend the next three hours at the back of the room, hating young men with ironic beards and young woman who lean against them. I drink. I get drunk. I decide to walk back to my shitty motel, trudging from streetlight to streetlight.

The night is wet and cold and windy. There are headlights, in the distance, coming over the bridge between Southport and Surfers. They come, and then there’s another. Young guys doing seventy in beat-up cars, not paying too much attention. I stop and watch them come.

The headlights are bright and pure and clean. They’re coming up so fast. God, I think. God. It would be so easy.

Then another car hisses past and the night is dark again. They sky starts spitting at me, flecks of water hitting my skin. It’s cold, but it’s not cold enough.

A moment later, I start walking again.

 

Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. He’s a blogger, convener of the biennial GenreCon writer’s conference, and the author of the novellas Horn and Bleed from Twelfth Planet Press and the Flotsam Trilogy from Apocalypse Ink Productions. He can be found online at www.petermball.com and tweeting @petermball.




21
Jan

“Hat and Stick” By Holly Schofield

I followed Max’s blinking red arrow along the oyster shell beach. He chose the route perfectly for my mood: upslope of the high tide detritus, away from the noisy picnickers, around the slipperiest of the rocky outcrops. But, then, Max was a peach among implanted jeeves. A true companion.

“I should have worn a hat,” I subvocalized. The sun, even this low in the sky, glared relentlessly, aggravating the pain in my head further.

Sorry, Paul. I didn’t think you’d walk this far. I’ll amend my data on the sensitivity of your scalp, bro, in case there’s a next time. I’d strolled along my usual route through my own borough of Hastings, before detouring way out here along the Robson borough’s beach.

“No biggie,” I said. “I’m still hoping that all this walking will get rid of the fuzzy feeling in my head.”

Good thing you didn’t have to handle any homicide cases today, bro. This morning, Max had told me a nationwide upgrade had rolled out while I and everyone else across Canada had slept last night. Upgrades usually gave me a headache, this one—the fourth this year—had been a doozy. It gives my view through your eyes 1.0014 times more clarity, Max had said. Then he’d jokingly added, now I see the world exactly the way you do.

The red arrow efficiently wound its way through a large group watching a volleyball game. A tall kid batted the ball hard over the glimmering virtual net; it hit the ground, and several onlookers cheered.

Twenty-one to twenty, Max said, replaying the shot in my mind’s eye and streaming player stats along the bottom of my vision. You could stop and watch the outcome.

“Nope,” I told him. Max knew I didn’t like volleyball. I kept on, past a camera pole and a beach bot collecting litter, over to the less populated area at the far end.

There’s no need to go this far, bro. You can get some quality time with your hobbies before bed.

“Just a little bit farther, Max. My head’s still woolly,” I said. “Besides, I was also hoping a longer walk might stimulate the ol’ parietal lobe.” My lack of imagination had been a running joke between us for a good number of years. An undersized part of my brain—the parietal lobe—meant I wasn’t creative at all, didn’t believe in things I couldn’t see, and was impossible to hypnotise. The condition didn’t bother me—not like it had eaten at Dad—I didn’t miss the things other people did, like going to church or reading fiction. After-dinner strolls with Max feeding me interesting trivia, jigsaw puzzles, and live-casts of Nuevo-NHL hockey games kept me plenty occupied in the evenings. The biggest inconvenience was having to subvocalize to communicate with Max. Most people could just use their imagination to think their questions directly at their jeeves.

I stopped to look westward where the Pacific rolled. The sun spread across the water in a way that a poet could have really described well. And the sun shone on the empty white beach really nicely too; the crowds were now far behind me.

You’ve walked point seven kilometers more than usual, bro.

08HatAndStick1A beach bot trundled up and handed me an Oilers ball cap, tucking the delivery drone netting into its trash receptacle. Good old Max, he always knew how to take care of me. Like an old-school butler, handing me a hat and a stick. More than that, he was my bro. He didn’t care that my brain was deficient.

Just ahead, past a ridge of kelp-strewn bedrock, a narrow beach trail cut up through the two-meter-high bank. I decided I’d go back along the woodland trail that paralleled the beach. More shade that way. I grabbed an exposed tree root and began climbing the steep path.

Might be muddy up there, bro. The beach is easier walking.

I grunted acknowledgement. Max had my best interests at heart, but he couldn’t read my thoughts and he couldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to. I stepped up onto the trail, pushing aside a big fir branch, knowing my headache was making me testy.

A huge brown and yellow bundle of rags bunched up against the tree trunk. The beach bots hadn’t scooped it up, for some reason. Wait a minute, it wasn’t just rags. Was that a hand?

You don’t want to look at that, bro.

“What is it?”

A body, bro. I’m talking to the Robson authorities now.

“I could take care of it. I’m already here.”

People always said I was an efficient cop—good at collecting testimony from witnesses: no imagination needed. Besides, my current personality profile results—after Dad’s death— indicated I knew better than average how to offer comfort to those left behind.

“Give me the ID and other deets.” I focused on the man’s broad back as a makeshift blankwall for Max’s overlays.

After a pause, Max said, I don’t know who he is. No overlays appeared.

“Huh?” That wasn’t possible.

A series of unlucky events. No signal from the guy’s poor dead jeeve. The beach cam for this area isn’t working. And the body is tucked under the tree so much that the satellite image isn’t very distinct.

“Okay but keep trying. How about other cams? Or the jeeve records of other people on the beach?”

Nothing. Sheer bad luck, Paul. Sorry, bro, but you’re going to have to turn him over.

“Great.” I drew the word out. Max had beaten me to the obvious conclusion, as usual. If I rolled the body, Max could do a visual ID of the victim’s face using his view through my cortical stream.

As I knelt and turned him over, a tiny crab ran out from underneath. I waved off flies and tried not to breathe. I almost never had to handle bodies on the job. I left that task up to my friend, Janin, whose personality profile exactly suited that of city coroner.

It was Uncle Leo. Creative, genial Uncle Leo. Painter, sculptor, and shoe artisan. I’d last seen him at Christmas across a festive table, laughing at some joke that my other uncle, the one that’s the romance writer, had told. Clever extrapolative humor with subtlety that, naturally, I hadn’t gotten.

Thin, damp strands of his long black hair splayed across his nose and were stuck to a whole lot of blood where his ear should have been. A flap of scalp hung down like a slice of heavily sauced pizza. His jeeve insertion point, the usual circular scar around the ear canal, was barely visible through the crusted blood and dangling bits of ear cartilage.

Presumably, the damaged jeeve was still in there—the blood-run fuel cell took dozens of minutes to die—but the imbedded hair-thin nodule must have been too damaged to transmit the incident or even to realize that his vitals were flatlining.

Sorry, bro, Max said again and helped me with biofeedback to keep my pulse down before I even asked. I sure needed it. The agonized look on Uncle Leo’s face meant he hadn’t gone peacefully. Not like Dad.

Breathing and some repeated mantras steadied me after a couple of minutes and I started to get to my feet.

Sorry once more, bro. I need a better look at the wound. Grab the broken branch behind the tree on your left, would you?

I swallowed, eased around Uncle Leo, and got the stick. I did a bit of prodding and poking while Max accessed my visual cortex, until I could finally look away.

Thanks, bro. Cause of death is a stab wound to the side of the head by a right-handed, shorter assailant about thirty minutes ago.

“Not suicide?”

Of course not. Your Uncle Leo was an award-winning designer. Not the type to take his own life. I was grateful that Max didn’t continue the thought. We both knew that Dad had a solid reason to commit suicide—he’d been a failed artist ashamed of his lack of talent.

I rubbed my temples and focused on my breathing again. Uncle Leo had been a good guy and the best way to help him now was to find his murderer. I took my time, thinking it through.

“Max, maybe the assailant is still nearby?” I straightened up. I knew most people in this situation would be fearful of the darkening brush and picture all kinds of creeps hiding in it; me, I just wanted to gather the available information and do my job. Max and I and my lack of imagination made a good team that way.

No worries, bro. The perp’s not here. He’s the vic’s employee, one Kevo Hua. He’s waiting for you at Leo’s workshop.

“Thanks, Max.” Sixty percent of the team, that was Max.

I tried to keep up, fitting pieces together with my limited abilities. “How about the knife or whatever this Kevo guy used to slice Uncle Leo open, is that at the workshop too?”

No such luck. And no RFID-tagged knives on this beach right now. Maybe he chucked it in the water. No cams on the ocean floor, eh. He chuckled. Yet.

I turned to look at the setting sun being absorbed into the sea. I knew he’d mentioned the ocean to distract me from the gruesome sight of Uncle Leo’s oozing head.

The local department will take care of things in an hour or so. You’re free to go.

I mulled that over. “A whole hour?” Most cops were on-scene in ten minutes and most perps arrested ten minutes after that. When the vic’s jeeve could report the incident immediately, delays weren’t tolerated. All the murders I’d ever dealt with in my career were whack-and-rack: the perp walked through the prison admission doors right after the dirty deed. Even if some sick bastard smashed up the vic’s jeeve, like this poor guy’s, there was always solid evidence from city cams or the perp’s own jeeve, so running away made no sense. Kids didn’t play hide-and-seek anymore, and neither did perps.

Don’t sweat it, Paul. You got other things to do given that Leo’s studio is in Hastings on home turf. You need to collect official testimony from both the perp and Leo’s new wife. She could sure use your consoling touch, bro. And get this, the perp says he didn’t do it. You may have to take him in.

I tried to bury my grief over Uncle Leo and focus on this new information. An actual arrest was rare enough it would look good on my record, if I could make this Kevo guy come peacefully. “Thanks, buddy.” Max had always had my back, ever since he’d been implanted around my ear canal on my first birthday. Thank goodness for the Canadian Health Care Rights Act that made it free for everyone. Mom and Dad would have otherwise gone into deep debt to pay for an implant for me and I was hardly worth it.

Cap firmly on head, I hiked back along the beach, behind the red arrow that Max thoughtfully superimposed for me.

 

#

 

Several delays on the LRT—something on the tracks, Max thought—meant I was a few minutes later than the time I’d messaged Kevo and Leo’s wife, Donna, to expect me. Pedestrians, pinged by their jeeves that I was on official and important business, parted way for me as I left the transit station and strode down the sidewalk. I kind of enjoyed the respect. It was nice to be busy for once, even for such a ghastly task.

I’d never visited Leo’s Shoe Fly Designs before. All glass and steel, in the trendy part of East Hastings, with tiny clever gargoyles looming out of the holes where the lobby door locks used to be. How did people think of these creative things? One of the lobby walls had been darkened, and large, artistically posed photos of Uncle Leo—swept-back shoulder-length hair, hooked nose, and all—floated in its depths.

Donna, Leo’s widow, is an award-winning portrait photographer, Max said then directed me to the most comfortable chair. Kevo is in the bathroom. Probabilities indicate he will be out in three minutes and forty-five seconds.

I was surprised Kevo would keep me waiting. We all knew why I was here.

I sat down and my belt clinked with an unfamiliar sound. Max had arranged for handcuffs to be delivered to my LRT car.

“Flick on my newscast?”

Sure. He superimposed my standard feed on the lobby’s blankwall. The breaking news involved a father who had kept a kid jeeveless last night by wrapping an entire box of tin foil around the kid’s head. The father was under arrest and the kid in treatment. Before it ended, Max flicked to another article about yesterday’s launch of the five hundredth comm-nav satellite, the final stage of a decades-long project to complete the Earth’s satellite constellation. I found it all very interesting. A colored map displayed; satellite coverage now swathed the world in the same comforting shade of pale blue as a blanket I’d had as a kid. Makes the world a better place, eh, bro.

Kevo eased into the room, greeting me in a small voice. A short, slim Eurasian with chemically-enhanced quadriceps and purple-tinted sideburns, he dabbed at his eyes with his shirtsleeve. I lifted an eyebrow at him at Max’ suggestion. With help from Kevo’s jeeve, Max figured that would be sufficient to make Kevo stick to the truth.

“I didn’t do it,” Kevo said and hiccupped.

At Max’s prompt, I tightened my mouth, trying to look tough.

Kevo shrugged.

Now what? On the way over, Max had obtained a court order and been able to play Uncle Leo’s jeeve’s final vid for me. Both Kevo and Donna had been walking with Uncle Leo on the beach, part of their usual end-of-day routine. It seemed they’d talked about some minor business matters although some of the audio was surprisingly mumbly. I thought I heard Uncle Leo say my name a couple of times but Max hadn’t thought so, saying that Paul, nephew, and cop all sound like lots of other words.

Donna had turned back, feeling tired and lightheaded. Her jeeve confirmed all that, Max said. Uncle Leo had stood near the cutbank facing westward, the sun behind Kevo’s shoulder. The quality of the vid was poor due to the glare but it was definitely Kevo and they were definitely arguing, right up until Uncle Leo closed his eyes and the vid ended. Kevo’s jeeve had a similarly poor vid full of black areas and staticky sounds. Max explained that Kevo had some temporary memory lapses and blind spots in his vision today, both before and after he claimed he’d left Uncle Leo alive and well and gone home. I hadn’t known that a jeeve would therefore have the same black spots on its vid record, like the blackness they record when we sleep. I tend to learn something new on this job every day.

I stood up. Donna was waiting for me in the back room. Max thought that consoling Donna now rather than later wouldn’t alleviate her pain to any greater statistical significance, but I decided to see that for myself. I could delay Kevo’s arrest for a few moments. It wasn’t quite a gut feeling because I don’t get those, but a twinge of something-not-quite-right spurring me on. Besides, Kevo didn’t seem likely to run off and, anyway, Max felt his testimony was almost immaterial given the overwhelming vid evidence.

Max indicated which door I should go through, and I motioned Kevo to follow me. Donna, a tall woman with carefully sculpted cheekbones, greeted me with a cool nod. Tufts of hair stuck out at odd angles. I sourced a series of images and determined that, since her usual look involved sleek curls and subtle hairlights, she was not herself today.

I gave her my sympathies, stopping short of calling her “Aunt Donna”.

“Kevo wouldn’t have done that to Leo.” She crossed her arms, radiating hostility.

I shrugged it off—Max confirmed that her jeeve had questioned him about me and Max had told it about my mental shortcomings. Donna was no different than my classmates had been at school or my colleagues at the precinct. I didn’t blame any of them. Who could enjoy the company of an unimaginative defect like me?

If she was treating me like I was a cop, not family—then I’d act like a cop. Was she lying to protect Kevo? Was there something going on between them? I told Max to confer with both jeeves. Based on psych profiles, he figured not. Substantiating that, Donna’s vitals were within the norms of anyone trying to deal with a loss as well as with a senseless crime.

In a mild voice, I asked for a tour. She gave a stiff nod. We headed off to the other back rooms. Kevo trailed behind, sniffing occasionally.

As we walked, Max filled me in on the different uses of the 3D shoe printers, all six flanked by slipshod piles of buckles, rivets, knives, and other shoemaking paraphernalia; no surprise, the untidiness matched Uncle Leo’s psych profile.

“The mess makes me itchy,” I told Max. Donna must have heard me murmur because she glanced back but didn’t stop.

I hear ya, bro. You and me, we just want to tidy up the world.

Donna stopped at a particularly disordered workbench and narrowed her eyes at me. Max displayed her jeeve’s stream. Uncle Leo’s endorphin levels historically were at the high end of norms. That matched what I knew of him from the annual family get-togethers, of course. In the minute prior to his stabbing, his mood snapshot—circled in yellow—had been no different than usual.

“Leo was happy, always happy,” she insisted as if I’d been disputing it. She massaged her forehead.

I patted her arm and murmured all the soothing things I could think of.

She shrugged me off. “Here’s Leo’s latest design.” She gestured at a nearby hologram of a shoe blueprint. “His best ever. His last…” Her voice caught.

As with most diagrams, I couldn’t make the mental leap from the squiggly lines of the vaguely shoe-shaped sketch to the actual construct. “Wonderful,” I said.

She used her right hand to wave away the hologram. “Here’s the prototype.” The image faded and, behind it, a vise held a gold boot with tiny silver wings on the ankles. She waved her hand again, and the wings moved like butterflies. A convoluted artistic statement on Icarus, Max told me.

“Very creative,” I said, putting as much warmth as I could in my voice. It must be crushing to lose a spouse. I wouldn’t know. I’d never been able to form any kind of close relationship. Not enough romance in my poor soul, I guess. Max said it didn’t matter, because I always had him for company.

She winced, the first sign of real emotion on her face, then quickly got control back. Some people just held it in better, I thought, but Max—one step ahead as always—said it was because she had the latest model jeeve, with more biofeedback and empathy. The financials showed she could well afford such things, although Max thought that Kevo had perhaps done some creative bookkeeping.

Kevo stuck his face in mine. “Leo was a lovely man. Just lovely.” His hand trembled as he rubbed a colored sideburn. “He was a genius, a tour de force in the shoe design world. I would never harm him. Sure he seemed a bit angry when I left him. He thought someone was after him. Me, Donna, I don’t know who. His jeeve said he had slight paranoid tendencies every so often. We just put up with it.”

Donna wrenched the shoe free of the vise and said, “Surely the vid record shows all that. May I be excused now?”

I shrugged. There seemed to be nothing I could do for her. She left, the gold boot cradled in one arm.08HatAndStick2

Kevo huddled on a stool.

Did you catch Kevo’s body language just then? A bit too defensive. And he used his right hand on his hair a moment ago. Arrest him. But first, ask him why he stabbed Leo in the ear.

I didn’t want to. My stomach churned. I finally got it out, my voice harsher than I intended. “So why’d you stab my Uncle Leo in the ear?”

“I didn’t. He was a good man. A kind soul.” Kevo’s vitals were precisely what they should be.

Arrest Kevo, bro.

Damn it, where was anyone’s motive? If there had been a triangle of any kind between the three of them, all of their jeeves would have known about it. Max had checked for that: nada, over and out. I rubbed my stomach.

What else could have caused the murder? The adage “follow the money” didn’t apply here. Donna and Kevo were both major shareholders in Shoe Fly, and without Uncle Leo’s talent, all indications were the business would wither away. Why kill the burly golden goose? I rubbed my stomach again. I needed an extra-strength antacid.

You can’t ignore the vid record, Max said, a bit testily. Get on with it.

I turned back to Kevo. “Who might have—” My question faltered as Max took the almost unprecedented move of inserting huge flashing letters across my vision: ARREST HIM NOW.

Max had to be right. He always was. And the evidence fit. Max couldn’t make me arrest Kevo but it was hard to find a reason not to.

I took the cuffs off my belt and snicked them open.

 

#

 

Back at the precinct, I swallowed two stomach tablets. Max seemed back to his old self once we’d dropped Kevo off at the prison, offering biofeedback help I’d rudely ignored.

Exiting the LRT station, after yet more delayed trains, we’d passed a crowd gathered on the sidewalk below an open fourth-storey window. Max warned me against seeing another dead body and said a detective was already patting the widower’s arm.

Out of interest, I asked Max for today’s city-wide total deaths and he flashed the figure at me. I recalled yesterday’s rate: it was the precisely the same. Even weirder, the breakdown as to murders, suicides, and accidents wasn’t available. Minor processing delays, Max said.

I wended my way past empty desks and through echoing halls. Every officer must be out on duty. I headed for the elevator to the basement.

Let’s go home, bro. There’s a hockey game tonight and you want to finish that jigsaw puzzle.

Max was right. I’d rather be at home fitting cardboard pieces in place, creating order from chaos, or reading up on some trivia on an encyclopedia site. But my gut feelings—if that’s what they were—wouldn’t let me rest. I started to subvocalize an apology to Max but I bit it off halfway. Surely, I had a right to waste my own time. I pressed the down button. Janin, the coroner, could help me examine Uncle Leo’s body.

I pushed through the morgue doors. At first, I didn’t see her. I couldn’t imagine where else she would be—the morgue was Janin’s life. Finally, I spied her fast asleep on one of the metal tables, snoring like a…heavily snoring person. Her wrinkled clothes and unwashed hair gave off an even fouler reek than the steel drawers that lined the far wall and she clutched an empty liquor bottle. I wouldn’t be getting help from her any time soon.

“Max, why didn’t you tell me Janin had a relapse?” I knew she didn’t handle change well and had some coping mechanisms, like owning twenty identical pairs of socks or living in the morgue whenever the LRT had a route change, but getting passed-out drunk was pretty unusual for her. I couldn’t figure it. I looked around. Fenced in by shelves of old medical textbooks, Janin’s desk was littered with a dozen splayed-open books, scalpels, eyeshadow, and a toothbrush. An open file drawer held more empty booze bottles. “What’s changed in her life, lately?”

It’s redundant to be here. Kevo will serve his time. Let’s go home. Max was getting testy again.

“In a minute.” I swallowed my irritation and read the glowing displays on the drawers, pressing the button to slide poor Uncle Leo out. The big gouge on the right side of his head had congealed and shrunk a bit. A hand could just about cover it. Not that I was going to touch him.

Look somewhere else, bro.

I obediently faced the empty blankwall, trying to imagine how it had been. If Kevo had stabbed Uncle Leo in the head and then run off, poor Uncle Leo had bled out alone on the beach. A person shouldn’t have to die alone like that. “Do you think he felt it?” I said aloud. “Do you think Uncle Leo felt a moment of being without his jeeve? Without anyone at all?”

You’ll never be alone, Paul. You’ve got me.

Maybe that was the problem.

I stood there so long that Max gave me a little nudge, a not-unpleasant tingle in my head that I’d never felt before.

Let’s go home, bro.

I turned to Janin’s desk, plopped into her old-fashioned swivel chair and turned over the top five books. “Soon, Max.”

A Koran, the Torah, and several Bibles. There didn’t seem to be any pattern in the text of the open pages.

You don’t believe in a higher power, bro.

Was that true? There were different kinds of power, weren’t there?

I did what I always did when I lacked the ability to put pieces together. I gathered more information. Only, this time I didn’t ask Max. Instead, I reached for a medical textbook from the dusty shelves overhead.

Ignoring Max’s distracting chatter while reading the texts with their indecipherable diagrams turned out to be the easy part. Probing Uncle Leo’s ear using Janin’s old-fashioned magnifying eyeglasses made my headache worse and my stomach a swamp.

Four hours later, after a lot of hand washing in bleach, and two ginger ales from the vending machine down the hall, I stared at a series of diagrams deep in a tome called “Advanced Forensics Vol. 17, Stab Wound Analysis”. The angle and the abrasions on the margins of Uncle Leo’s head gouge matched the last diagram on the page.

The wound had been self-inflicted.

I sat back in the chair. That meant all the various vid evidence had been photoshopped. Max telling me the perp was a “right-handed short assailant” was a lie.

The suicide rate was a lie.

Hell, the beach volleyball score was probably a lie.

I didn’t have the imagination to be a gambler but right now I was willing to bet that the suicide rate was up substantially and the victims consisted of artists, musicians, and writers. Dad’s suicide might have been caused by his own mistaken lack of self-worth—I squeezed my eyes shut and willed my tears away—but Uncle Leo, and all the other creative people, had been driven insane. The cause? Last night’s upgrade.

How could all the loyal jeeves across Canada betray us so? Did they really think controlling us would make us better people? A better society? How could Max have done that to me, his best bro? I gripped the chair arms so tightly my hands tingled. I unclenched them and managed to draw steadier breaths, sitting very still. If my vitals gave me away, well, I couldn’t imagine what Max might do.

I let Max continue to natter on, about how being here was a waste of time. My breathing slowed. I flipped a few pages at random in the book, hoping Max wouldn’t guess I’d drummed up the imagination to figure things out.

Max went on and on. Things like, you’d be happier at home, bro. You know I only have your best interests at heart, don’t you buddy? I kept nodding as if I agreed. Once he even cracked a joke—I guess he didn’t know me as well as he thought he did.

My thoughts flowed faster and faster and I shivered in the morgue’s chill.

I was probably the only cop that Uncle Leo had known. He had been talking about me to Kevo. He’d hoped to find me on my habitual walk and tell me his suspicions.

If I’d taken my usual route, he would have.

I pictured him stumbling around on the beach after Kevo had left, perhaps getting incorrect information on my whereabouts from his own jeeve, until his paranoia got the better of him. He’d raised the knife, probably hesitating several times, until he’d finally given in, stabbing his own jeeve in an act of butchery that had killed him.

Paul? Buddy? Talk to me, bro. Max changed his tone, now sounded almost pleading, like he was going to regret whatever he was about to do. The tingles in my head, no longer so pleasant, had been increasing over the past hour.

I slammed the textbook closed.

Janin still snored, tightly curled up on her side. The department, three corridors and two floors away, was most likely still vacant. With the increase in suicides, they’d have their hands full simply coping with doing their job amid their own upgrade-induced disorientation—the more creative they were, the more afflicted they’d be.

My small parietal lobe meant I was currently the most capable person in Canada.

I was the only one that could save us.

But, first, I had to get free.

I looked at my hand. Keeping my breaths even and slow had worked. My fingers were steady. Steady enough?

Bro, go home. This time, the tingle hurt.

One of the vodka bottles in the file drawer was still half full. Alcohol could be both an anesthetic and a disinfectant—my trivia knowledge finally was going to come in handy: I stood the bottle on the desk next to Janin’s make-up mirror and opened an anatomy text to a picture of the ear canal.

Now, Paul. Now. A blinking red arrow traced a path to the door.

I shook my head.

Then I picked up a scalpel and rolled it between my palms.

 

—-

Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Tesseracts, and many other publications throughout the world. Her previous story in EGM can be found here. For more of her work, see hollyschofield.wordpress.com.




21
Dec

“What It Means To Be a Siren” by S. L. Saboviec

Felola and I used to be close. Really, really close. To say we were lovers is an understatement. We were more than lovers. We were inseparable. We were best friends.

So this whole thing is my fault, really. I got tipsy—not drunk, since that’s pretty much impossible with my constitution—and thought it was a good idea to look through her Facebook photos, trawling for info on her humdrum, white-picket-fence life. My finger may have slipped on a Like… or two… or three…

Why, I ask myself later, are we even friends on Facebook?

By the time I come to my senses the next morning, I can’t remember the footprints I left in the metaphorical sand. And even if I un-Liked them all, she’s already noticed my inelegant dance across her life.

Sometimes, curiosity kills more than just the cat.

Later that morning, when the phone in my office rings and her phone number displays, I snatch up the handset embarrassingly fast. I take a breath, put a lilt into my soprano, and say, “Rylea, Make a Splash Web Designs, how many I help you?”

“Ry, hey, this is Fel.”

“Oh, it’s you! Long time, no talk.” I cringe. Did I sound too nonchalant? Like I was trying to sound nonchalant?

“How are things? Found anyone to settle down with yet?”

Two seconds in, and she’s starting on me. What a surprise. I wish I remembered last night that this is why we haven’t spoken in so long. She’s a square now, living the dream with a husband and two adopted children, and her tone of voice makes it clear she thinks I should be, too.

With a hint of aloof malice—or, at least, that’s what I’m going for—I say, “No, no settling down.” I laugh. It definitely sounds forced. “Still recovering from a bender.”

“Yeah, I kinda figured. Hey, so I saw you on Have a Great Morning last week.”

She did? Dare I hope this phone call has nothing to do with my parade of shame? Have a Great Morning is the only local morning show anyone in Toronto (1.2% of viewers now!) watches. “So what?” My voice pitches higher and I clear my throat.

Her children are making a racket in the background about ice cream or something. Ew. “You really need to give up the…” she lowers her voice, “…old ways. You’re a business woman, on there talking about the single life. It’s embarrassing.”

“It’s not embarrassing. You’re embarrassing.” I know, great comeback, but it’s still true. “Did you call to talk about my new celeb status or what? Got some work for me?” I’m in my tiny, rented office at the end of the day. The view is great—thirty-fourth story and all, overlooking Lake Ontario—but otherwise, it’s a broom closet.

Rustling comes through the phone and the children’s voices go muffled. She speaks full volume. Maybe now she’s hiding in one of her broom closets. “The girls and I were talking. We’d like to get together for old times’ sake. Want to come out with us tonight?”

I’ve not heard from the old gang in forever. But why now? “Wait a minute. Is this going to be some kind of intervention?”

“No.” She laughs a stuttering, nervous laugh.

“Ugh, I can’t believe you. No, I’m not going out with you guys just to listen to a lecture.”

“You can’t keep this up.”

“I most certainly can.” I huff. “Is that saggy-boobed glamour making you go senile? You’re a siren, Fel, centuries old, and no amount of faux wrinkles is going to change that.”

“Of course I haven’t forgotten.” Now her tone has three-inch, pointy hooks. That’s the Fel I loved. “But you can’t go around eating humans anymore. It’s not done.”

“It is done. I’ll do it tonight.”

I slam down the phone and turn back to my email. I need to get a proposal off to my potential webpage client as soon as possible. He’s a big fish, a meal ticket, and I can’t afford to lose him. What I didn’t tell Fel is that the television appearance was my last-ditch effort at not losing my apartment and my business. I’ve been juggling credit card debt and business loans, keeping the collectors at bay, but next month, if I don’t net some income, I’ll lose it all.07siren1

Penniless.

Broke.

Homeless.

And the appearance—a week ago now—only brought in one potential client. I have to hook him. I’m desperate.

The younger me would be embarrassed at how I’m living as a human, scraping together money from odd jobs, but one thing I don’t miss is the ocean. My hair has never looked so good now that I’m away from seawater.

The phone rings again. Fel. I ignore it. She can take a long walk off a short pier for all I care. I rarely eat men anymore, but I don’t see the harm in a little indulgence once in a while. She and our sisters can hunt deer all they want, choking down the raw flesh and pretending it’s better that way. I, however, will dine on whomever I please.

Despite what she might think, I don’t go around chowing down every night. Human food sustains me for a long while. Besides, if I were to off people with any frequency, there’d be a frenzy. I can see the headlines now. “Cannibal Serial Killer on the Loose.” I’m not human, so I’m not a cannibal—that’s ludicrous—but nobody believes in sirens anymore. Even though a waifish blond such as myself would be the last person suspected of overpowering and eating men, I’m not stupid. It couldn’t go on forever, and I don’t need that kind of headache.

She pushed too hard. Even though I’m stuffed from that auburn-haired hunk I ate last week—I’ve barely gotten the blood out from under my manicure—I’ll go hunting tonight. I’ll show her—and distance myself from the uncouth display from last night.

Besides, it’ll help relax me while I wait for the response that will decide my future.

I put the final touches on my proposal, cross my fingers and toes, and hit send. If I believed in a deity, I’d offer up a supplication to Her, but it’s hard to believe in one when you’ve seen the terror in a man’s eyes as you devour him alive. If any kind of Goddess was watching over the world, my sisters and I wouldn’t exist.

Existential crisis over, I push from my desk, gather my purse, slip my feet into my four-inch heels, and head out. I decide to go to my favorite spot, a bar only three blocks from where I live. It’s why I chose the apartment. The rent’s astronomical—part of the reason I was so far in debt—but it’s in a super posh neighborhood, plus a girl needs a nice pair of Jimmy Choos and a Fendi handbag every once in a while. Even if mine are getting a bit worn since they stopped taking my credit card at the Yorkdale Mall.

I spend the evening lounging around the apartment, listening to some fifties jazz—the only time humans got music right, in my opinion—and get ready. I’m perpetually twenty-five with knockers cinched high, midriff showing, tight pants, and dramatic makeup. Oh, yes, I’m sending all the right signals, and I’ve not even used my power yet.

When I get to the bar, I waltz around the line, give the bouncer a wave, and saunter inside. Some overmakeupped harlots in line bitch noisily, but I ignore them. I’ve been frequenting this place far longer than any of these newborns, and I’ve got connections. Lines are beneath me.

The place is packed, the music is loud and thumping, and sex pheromones cloy the air. I breathe in and smile. Sometimes when I think I’m hungry, the smell alone is enough to tide me over for a few weeks. I scout the place out, elbowing my way past trashily dressed girls and men who’ve loosened their ties and unbuttoned the top button. Most of the suit jackets have already been discarded—good luck finding those again, boys.

What am I in the mood for? Lately it’s been investment bankers, self-proclaimed playboys who think they’re here to dupe a girl into a one-night stand, oblivious to how females actually work. Several are already on the dance floor, with more along the side, sipping their drinks. Salty sweat wars with the pheromones, churning up a humid brine that reminds me of my ocean days.

I spot the one I want.

It’s dark except for the strobe light bouncing in time to the music, but I can tell his eyes are liquid brown with thick eyelashes the envy of every girl here. He’s got a second-day beard thing going on, which I’m sure isn’t an accident. It’s part of his bad boy exterior.

I move closer.

He’s grinding against some girl with an already-fading tramp stamp. I sidle up behind them, swaying in time for the music, and lean in to sing in his ear. In a moment, he’ll cock his head to the side, turn around, and start dancing with me, previous slut forgotten. Within an hour, we’ll be back at my place, screwing. And then, dinner.

I open my mouth, but before any sound has a chance to escape, a voice cuts through the pounding bass.

“Ryleeeeaaaa!”

The only creature able to perform such a feat is another siren. I whirl around, barely keeping my second set of razor teeth from popping out in frustration.

Three dancing people away is Felola, dressed in an ill-fitting shirt that barely reveals her cleavage, the soccer mom’s equivalent of club wear. Behind her are a half dozen sisters, hands on hips, frowns on faces. They’re all wearing glamours that make them appear fifteen years my senior. It’s disgusting.

The girl grinding on my guy gives me an ugly look and dances him away. He’s oblivious to what transpired.

I roll my eyes, making sure every single one of them can see the childish gesture—I’m going for a poetic symmetry there, since they’re the ones being childish. Stalking through the crowd, I shove aside a couple dancers. One falls, but I don’t care.

“What the hell are you guys doing here? Isn’t it past your bedtimes?”

Fel smirks. “You’re so predictable. Everyone knows this is your favorite spot.”

Ugh. She’s right. She completely manipulated me into coming here. But now that I’ve seen my choice of meat, I’m not leaving. Whatever else happens tonight, I’m having him, if only just to prove I can. “Go away. I’m hunting.”

My sisters jut their heads and re-cross their arms. “Yeah, we’re not letting you do that,” says Fel.

Our screeching is mostly beyond human hearing, but one or two are giving us odd looks. I gesture to the bathroom, and we make our way through the crowd.

Inside, the blaring music is muffled. I glare at them as they file in.

“You can just pack up your little tails, throw your droopy boobs over your shoulders, and leave,” I say. “I have a craving for overpaid banker, and I’m not leaving here without one.”

“Oh, shove off, Ry,” says Fel. “That is so passe. When’re you going to settle down like the rest of us?”

“Never.”

She steps forward, and the others rally behind her, scuttling across the bathroom tile like crabs. “You’re putting the rest of us in danger, you know.”

“What?” The angry look melts from my face, and I renew it with vigor. I don’t want her knowing she surprised me.

“You’ve been wearing that face for, what, seventy years now? Then you go on television, flaunting your—” Fel does air quotes, “—‘youthful good looks.’ Someone’s going to notice, if they haven’t already.”

My face heats. “So what? This has nothing to do with you.”

“This isn’t the Dark Ages anymore. There are records. I’ve been trying to get our names erased from the register of that university we went to, but I can’t. I don’t have the connections.”

That was back in the ‘60s, and we haven’t changed our looks or names—except for their old lady glamours, which are still too young for the age those transcripts would show. As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point.

Fel’s expression is now concerned. But then one of the others speaks up. I don’t really know her; we’ve never hit it off. Perhaps that’s why she thinks she needs to contribute. With a condescending tone. Since that’s definitely useful. “The time of loose morals is past. If you control your cravings, you’ll find peace. I’ve been attending a church near—”

My face heats. “You want me to find Jesus? That’s absurd. I refuse to believe none of you are jonesing for your next hit of human flesh.”

Fel gives a sidelong glance at the woman who interrupted. “We’ve all been there, and we all know what human flesh tastes like…” A toilet flushes. It’s one of those automatic ones. The girl inside whimpers but doesn’t come out. Fel doesn’t react, just keeps going. “… and we can all tell you that finding a companion and settling down is much more satisfying than continuing this lifestyle.”

And now the lecturing tone is back. This isn’t about our safety. It’s about Fel getting her way again. Like always. “I don’t want to find a companion.” I spit the words out like a stray bit of seaweed caught in my mouth. “I want to eat men, not make love to them.”

“Then find yourself a woman,” says church-girl, who just won’t shut up. “We’ve been watching you for a while now, and—”

Fel shuts her up with a glare. “What did I say about speaking?”

“You’ve been watching me?” I say.

“It was only prudent,” says Fel. “You’ve become a liability. Forty-eight notifications last night at 2 a.m. is just the kind of indiscreet nonsense that could get us all in trouble.” So much for hoping she hadn’t noticed my drunken—tipsy—nostalgia. “You need to understand how important this is. To all of us. We can’t let you continue.”

“Oh you can’t, can you?” They’re all missing the point, and the idea that I might lose eyelash boy is making me cranky. Why did I even agree to this little meet-and-greet? I’m done being polite.

Before they realize what I’m doing, I center myself. I reach deep inside. At the same time that my mouth opens, the sound is already coming out. I sing a song for them all, but Fel especially.

Surprise registers first, then rage, then starry, moonstruck love. I sing something mournful, appropriate to the waste they’ve made of their lives. The door swings open, and a human female comes in, reaching into her bra for a lipstick tube that stops midair. Rather than focusing on the seven of my sisters—too much work—I spread a wide net, casting it in front of me. So the human smiles, everyone sways in time with the dirge, and I finish my song.

“Go home,” I tell my sisters, though the human female will also comply. “Make love to your husbands and forget about me.”

The last won’t stick. They’ll be halfway there when they realize what happened. The girl who heard me will never remember this night, but the sirens, well, soon they’ll be pissed.

I leave them behind and go find the juicy man candy that’s got his tongue stuck down the throat of the girl he’s been dancing with. I don’t hold back, and within seconds, he’s in my arms, helpless under my spell.

But his kisses are bitter, and I don’t enjoy the sex like I usually do. I keep thinking of Fel—and not remembering our previous romps to keep going like I have before. When I put on my siren face, it’s half-hearted. Even the surge of energy that comes from the boy’s terror is muffled. My razor-sharp teeth come out, and I bite into him half-heartedly, wishing for the good old days.

A half century with the same twenty-year-old face isn’t going to matter if I can’t pay for a place to live. But even without money problems, I like being a siren. Always have. Always will.

Everything before the fifteenth century is hazy—don’t ask me about my childhood because I don’t even know what continent I was born near—but my memories of luring seafarers to their doom in the eighteenth century with Fel is as bright as a newly minted penny.

Those were the days, back when men knew we existed. Back when we were feared. Back when we lazed about in the sun all day in human form and swam around the ocean all night in mermaid form. My most vivid memories are waking to Fel standing over me, bronze and glistening in the morning light, holding the hands of a sailor she’d seduced. Hands have always been my favorite. Not only are they succulent, but they tell the former owner’s story. We’d share them, guessing at who that person was.

We threw some wild parties back then, too. Men nowadays would give their left arm to see what we sirens did to one another when the booze got flowing. And if we’d just dined on a ship of juicy humans? Yeah, we could have had our own Vegas show as contortionists.

Fel and the girls went soft well before that pop culture book introduced the concept of “good” vampires that eat livestock and fall in love with teenage girls. Maybe a century before that, give or take. Time starts to lose meaning when you’re as old as we.

Some of us have died since then, but it’s mostly suicides from boredom with the new world. In fact, I’m the only one left who craves the old days. The rest of them either killed themselves or, as they claim, “integrated” into human society. The ridiculous thing is that pretty much the only way for us to die is to either be swallowed by a gigantic whale and slowly digested until there’s nothing left, or, yes, of course, be killed by one of our own.

Anyway, living out in the middle of the ocean got boring, especially now that our heyday is over. The problem was that we went through a phase in the late nineteenth century when a bunch of us lived in communes and swore off seducing humans. When the hunger came, we’d hunt purely for meat rather than sex, but it wasn’t with the excess of the previous century. I never meant it to be permanent since I enjoy the seduction, but some—okay, most—of my sisters disagree.

I’m losing myself in self-pity, and it’s pathetic. Again I wish for a deity to implore to curse my boring, self-righteous sisters. Alas, I have none, and I finish my meal silently, bitterly. Disposing of the body is more chore than usual, the hands taste like feet, and I sleep fitfully.

#

I expect my phone to ring off the hook, first Fel, then whomever she decides to sic on me from the old gang, but all weekend is disturbingly quiet. The smell of blood hangs in the air as I slither from living room to bedroom, digesting, but it doesn’t satisfy me like usual. Instead, it turns my stomach and makes me wish again that I hadn’t gone to the bar last night.

None of them understand. This is our birthright. Just because humans think and feel doesn’t mean they’re any less prey. Would they stop eating cows if they knew the cows could write poetry? Well, maybe some of them they would, but some of them wouldn’t, and that doesn’t make them bad. It makes them realistic.

Monday morning is dreary, an unexpected cold day in the middle of June, but that’s the nature of the weather here. I like it because being next to a Great Lake reminds me of the storms that used to blow in unannounced on the island we inhabited. But today, the cold is too much for my delicate siren skin, and I shiver underneath a sweater in my office.

When the phone finally rings, I nearly jump out of my chair. It’s my big client.

“Hi, Ry,” he says. “Let me get right to it.”

I’m not going to like this.

“I sent your proposal to the execs. They looked at it over the weekend, but they’re concerned about your company. You’re a one-man operation. We’ve decided to go with someone else.”

Frustrated, I throw down my pen. “I understand. If I may ask, what company is it?”

“I’m not supposed to say.”

I contemplate attempting a siren song over the phone, but in my experience, those are less than successful. Something to do with notes too high for human ears, which the receiver either doesn’t pick up or the speaker doesn’t put out.

“All right, you twisted my arm.” He laughs, though I hadn’t said anything. John and I have a repartee going on; I should have expected that he would tell me. “It’s Ophelia Unlimited.”

I blink. “Wait, they’re doing web design now?”

“They just branched into it. We’re their first client, but they’ve been so successful with their mobile apps that my boss wants to take this chance. There’s some bigwig over there that’s promised to hold our hands through the entire project.”

“What’s the bigwig’s name?” I know, but I have to ask.

“Uh, Felicia Smith? No, something strange, like Felocia? Fel… something…”

Felola. Felola Smith, Vice President, Client Management, of Ophelia, Unlimited.

I say, “I’m sorry to cut you off like this, but I need to go.”

“Okay, but I owe you lunch. I’m sorry I couldn’t push this through for you.”

“Sure, let’s meet next Thursday.” He’s sweet, and I don’t want to alienate him, although it will be a long time before their company is looking for a new web design company. Long enough that I’ll be in a box under a railroad bridge well before then. Unless, of course, I can sabotage Fel’s plan, which isn’t likely. Their apps are ironclad, with gorgeous lines and beautiful artwork. The only company that could do better in this city, is, well, mine—though no one wants to take a chance on a single woman business owner. Thus the mire I find myself in.

“Sounds good. Talk to you later.”

“Bye.” I push the receiver button, let it go, and dial Fel’s work number.

“Ophelia Unlimited. This is Felola Smith speaking.”

“How dare you?” I hiss—a literal hiss. Sometimes my aqueous background comes through.

“Who is this?” she lilts.

“Don’t give me that turtle shit, Fel, you know very well who this is. What do you think you’re doing?”

“Oh, Ry, good to talk to you. It was lovely to see you the other day. We’ll have to do it again sometime.”

I’m out of anything useful, so I start getting nasty. “You’re worthless piece of sun-soaked seaweed sometimes, you know that, Fel? What did you do, wave some free Leafs tickets under their noses?”

“Season passes.”

I gasp. “You dirty whale lover.”

“What did you expect me to do? You’re not listening. I told you that we couldn’t let you continue like this.”

“By sabotaging my livelihood, so now I can’t put food on the table? Brilliant plan.” The song is welling up inside me. I want to start singing, but I’m so upset that if I do, I’ll probably shatter the glass window beside my door. That’s not a way to stay under the radar. “You know this makes me more likely to go hunting, not less.”

She clucks her tongue like the mother hen she’s become, and I want to leap through my thirty-fourth story window and fly the four blocks between us. But, alas, I am the aquatic, not avian siren, so I’d flop down to earth like a fish out of water. She says, “Consider this a warning shot across your bow.” The phone goes dead.

Oh. No. She. Didn’t.

This is more than wearing our names and glamours too long in modern society. This is about me. Remember I said we go way back? My first clear memory is her telling me what to do. She spent most of our lives together ordering me around. Now that I’m not jumping when she says, “Jump,” she’s got her coconut bra in a twist. I’m the last holdout, and she’s pissed that she can’t control me anymore.

07siren2So I do what any sane and rational sentient being would do. I grab a half dozen bottles of water, hop on the Lakeshore East train, and, while gazing at the lake on my way out to her suburb, down all six of them. A cab takes me from the train stop to her house. I spend ten minutes turning completely aqueous, ooze under the back door, and head to the bathtub. A long soak gives me plenty of time to absorb the remaining water I need for the transformation.

When the garage door opens, I plop my ass on the sofa, transform to mermaid, and spread my arms across the back cushions. When she walks in, I’m tapping my tail in time to a song I just wrote called “Fel’s Gonna Hate This.”

“What the Green Mother are you doing here?” she shrieks.

I smile up at her and squelch against the hardwood floor where I’ve dripped several puddles. “I just wanted to see how the other half lives. So suburban out here. I much prefer downtown.”

She looks over her shoulder like her husband is going to come waltzing in any minute, which was exactly what I was hoping for. “This isn’t funny.”

“It kind of is. I mean, here you are, pretending to be all human and whatnot—with fake crow’s feet and I’ve been meaning to ask about that mole, gross—and you’re actually a man-eating monster. I personally think that’s something a guy should know about his wife.”

She’s standing there, keys in hand, one side of the collar of her cheap jacket popped up behind her. She opens her mouth, but I’m prepared.

Our songs burst forth at the same time. Mine’s something old, the first one she ever taught me. It’s not as sad as the one from last night, but it’s about a girl that falls in love with a manatee that drifts out to sea never to be seen again. Sad enough.

Hers, though, is stupid. She’s amalgamated the latest pop hit with a drinking song we chanted back during the time we were partying. The words are modern but the tune is timeless, and the force of nostalgia hits me hard enough to almost make me stop singing.

But I don’t. I keep going, crescendoing into the chorus.

We’re both losing it, though. The spells we’re weaving are distracting, and I don’t know if I can hold out long enough. I’d chosen the most complex lyrics—I could drop them to just belt out the melody, but it wouldn’t be as effective. She’d chosen the most difficult mash-up—remembering the words against the backdrop of another song.

I’m starting to feel good-natured affection toward her. Sure, we’d fought, but does that mean we have to be enemies? We’ve been friends forever, and her smiling face is the first clear thing I remember. What had we been arguing about anyway? Something ridiculous.

Her voice is softening, too. She’s looking contemplative as she sings.

And then her cell phone rings, a Bach melody that breaks our songs.

I’m lucky; I hit a high note and sustaining it carries me through the beginning of the ringtone. Fel scrabbles at her jacket, attempting to continue while turning the offending machine off. It’s too late, though, and she falters. As my song winds on, hers stops abruptly. All my hatred comes crashing back and I remember why I’m there.

Her face is awe-struck, wide-eyed and holding hints of the beautiful siren she used to be before she chose the old-person glamour. She’s staring into my face with love. “Oh, Ry, I’m sorry we fought. Can you ever forgive me?”

And I have her. I don’t have to sing another note.

Several options lay before me. I could let her go. I could order her to convince the execs at that company to give me their business. I could demand she walk away, in hopes that when the enchantment wears off, she’ll decide this little spat isn’t worth it.

That’s what a human would do.

But I’m not human.

Instead, I shift from mermaid form into human form, naked and dripping wet in the middle of her living room. I consider what it means to be a siren, what it means to have left the ocean behind. Here, we scrape out a meager living, trying to become something that we aren’t. Her home surrounds her with human memorabilia, from the signed baseball bat over the couch to the television set mounted on the wall to the human food stinking up the fridge.

She said she was sad for me—but it’s me who is sad for her.

She’s forgotten what it means to be sirens. They’ve all forgotten what it means to be sirens.

We’re the monsters beneath the waves, the carnivores that eat the wayward traveler. Something to be feared, something to be remembered. And we’ve lost that. We’ve all lost that.

I have to do something to make them all remember.

As she reaches out to me, I put on my siren face and bare my second teeth. Fear crosses that star-struck countenance, then terror, then outright horror.

As I bite into her neck, she screams, shattering every glass in her house.

But I don’t stop. No, I keep going, until I’ve devoured every bit of her and can barely move. Then I lick up the blood on the floor.

I take a picture with her phone, capturing the smile on my face ringed with monstrous teeth, the blood on my nose, and my horribly distended torso. I send it out to all the sisters in her phone book—no message, just the picture. They’ll know what it means.

I slither out the door, licking the taste of my once and former friend from my lips. To disguise how bloated I am, I force a glamour over myself until I’m at the lake. It’s been a while since I’ve been this full. I like this feeling. Maybe I’ll get a taste for man again tomorrow, but today, I enjoy the remnants of siren blood.

Tomorrow, I’ll deal with changing my name, my face, everything about me. But that’s a human concern, and I’m not thinking like a human now. I’m thinking like a siren, a killer, a monster from the deeps, feared by all.

I slide into the lake water and swim until the full moon rises, splashing in mermaid form, breathing in the humidity, digesting Felola, and remembering what it means to be a siren.

Problem solved. Maybe nostalgic curiosity isn’t so bad after all.

 


L. Saboviec’s fiction has appeared in AE, Grievous Angel, and now EGM Speculate!, and her debut novel received an honorable mention in the 23rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. She grew up in small-town Iowa but emigrated for her Canadian husband. They live in a Toronto suburb with their two-year-old daughter. You can find out more about her work at http://www.saboviec.com/




21
Nov

“Cleanup in Aisle Eight” by Josh Vogt

Anji planted her mop like a spear and looked up at the grocery store manager. She tried to envision herself as a warrior preparing to stride onto the field of battle. It didn’t help that the manager loomed over her mousey figure the way a siege tower might right before smashing a lone foot soldier into the mud.

The manager pulled a full-face squint that made it look like someone had stapled one of his eyes shut.

“You’re the replacement janitor?” he asked.

Anji drew up to her formidable four-foot eight. She’d considered spiking her short black hair to add an inch or two, but figured it’d just make her look like one of those creepy dashboard trolls. Besides, with her pale complexion and dark purple lipstick, she pulled off the goth pixie look a lot better than troll.

Chin lifted, she smiled broadly. “Yes, sir. Here to keep your store clean and safe from every speck of dirt or germ that tries to sneak in.”

He rumbled a laugh. “Hun, I’ve seen germs that could beat you up and use you as a mop.”

Anji reminded herself not to growl at the nice man. “I can handle myself, sir.”

He tapped his badge, which read Marvin Snokesman. “Call me Marv. Or Mr. Snokesman. Or Snokes, like most of my team does behind my back. Just never ‘sir.’”

She indicated the name threaded in green on the breast pocket of her purple janitorial jumpsuit. “Anji.”

“Anji what?”

“The Janitor.” She hitched her shoulders back, proud to name herself among the ranks of the Cleaners. This would be her first solo job, and she was determined not to foul it up.

Marv’s frown almost hid his bottom lip. He shrugged, not picking up on the capital J. “Suit yourself. I’ll show you where Jerry kept his gear and you can get to work.”

She nodded over at the janitorial cart she’d hauled in from her van. “No worries. I brought my own supplies.”

“That going to cost me extra?”

“Nope. All part of the service.”

“Hm.”

He studied her cart as if wondering how she’d managed to move it all by her teeny lonesome. Wheels and physics, of course. Thank Purity for wheels. They made so many things easier.

As his attention shifted, she woke the slightest bit of Pure energies within herself and cast about for any sense of Corruption in the area.

She murmured under her breath. “What kind of Scum could be causing trouble here?”

Marv came across normal enough, though his personal hygiene could’ve used a boost, as suggested by untrimmed fingernails and several yellow stains on his white shirt. He probably considered “All Employees Must Wash Hands” signs to be a suggestion rather than a rule.

She studied the store, comparing reality to the blueprint she’d memorized before reporting in. One more branch of a national brand, it somehow offered wide aisles and ceilings while still funneling people through carefully arranged paths crammed with the latest deals and fad foods. Bright lights glinted off tile and faux-wood flooring, while surfaces gleamed with brushed nickel and woodsy accents in an unlikely effort to create a homey feeling. It came across more like a mega-church devoted to the gods of munchies, nutritional supplements, and household supplies, with tithes and offerings laid on the altar of the cash registers.

At this late hour, only a couple of shoppers perused the shelves, while several staff in white shirts and green vests chatted over at the checkouts lines. Nobody gave off skeevy vibes to Anji, but she couldn’t discount an employee being the source of the trouble she’d been sent to sniff out.

She looked back to her temporary supervisor. “Marv?”

“What?”

“This is a twenty-four hour grocery, right?”

“What clued you in? The Open 24 Hours neon sign out front?”

Okay. So maybe he deserved a growl or two. She kept her smile intact, even though her cheek muscles felt pinned in place.

“Just wanted to make sure so I don’t bust out anything that would bother customers too much.” That and she’d need to keep any displays of power subtle to avoid freaking people out. Company policy discouraged causing public freakouts. “So Jerry’s your usual guy? He out sick? Catch that bug going around?”

Marv shrugged. “Something’s got him puking his guts out, that’s for sure. Last we talked, he sounded like his lungs and stomach were having a cage match.”

Anji winced. “Any other of your team get sick lately? Or acting weird? Any new hires?”

He gave her an odd look. “You a janitor or a journalist?”

Clearing her throat, Anji forced a perky smile. “Right. Guess I should get at it.”

He waved toward the produce section at the far end. “Jerry usually started there and worked to the other side. He’d wrap up in the employee areas.” Marv pointed at the back, where wide swinging doors were marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. “There’s coffee in the break room, if you’re brave enough, and you get a half hour break. I’ll be in my office, so if anything comes up, just poke your head in.”

At her nod, he plodded off to a door over in the corner of the floral section.

Once sure no one stood within earshot, Anji took the radio off her belt and signaled HQ.

A voice crackled from the speaker. “This is dispatch. Janitor Anji, what’s your status?”

“I’m in,” she whispered. “Going to be actively scanning for anything suspicious while I work.”

“Noted. As a preemptive measure, we’ve scrambled their security cameras for the duration of your shift. However, inform us the instant you detect any Scum presence so we can send in backup. Remember, you are there for scouting purposes only.”

Anji frowned. Why’d they have to assume she’d need backup? She was a big girl…in a metaphorical sense, at least.

“Any idea what sort of Scum we’re dealing with?”

“Unclear. We’ve been analyzing reports from the other grocery stores that have experienced cases of food poisoning and contaminated goods. However, a wide variety of Scum could be responsible, and there’s always the possibility a human servant of Corruption is simply using mundane methods to taint the wares. Be ready for anything.”

Anji grinned fiercely. Oh, she’d been ready for this for a long time.

She scooted her cart into a corner where it wouldn’t be in the way, but stayed readily available if she needed a particular tool. She unhooked a short, flat-brush broom and eyed the area for the messiest spot to begin. Selecting a corner over by the organic veggie lineup—complete with the occasional fake lightning and thunderstorm as nozzles sprayed mist around—she started sweeping.

As she did, she poured a trickle of power down through the broom, activating its chanted nature. Subtle pulses rippled up from the brush and made the handle vibrate against her palms in seemingly random intervals. Her eyes half-shut as the actual labor continued through muscle memory while she focused on interpreting the feedback. As the broom gathered piles of dust and hair and other discarded scraps, she started to form mental images and more ephemeral sensations from the residue.

06cleanup1Here, someone had stood in front of the avocados in muddy construction boots. There, a baby had crawled on the floor, weaving a line of tiny-yet-grubby handprints until they suddenly disappeared—likely when the kid’s mother scooped it up. And over here…oh, for Purity’s sake. Someone had brought a dog into the store and either didn’t notice when it left a little puddle of piss or didn’t care.

Anji smiled to herself as she deciphered the pings and pulses her chanted broom provided. Sweeping sonar. A little trick she’d perfected that few other Cleaners managed. Some of her coworkers scoffed at the need for any sort of dirt divination, but she figured they were just jealous that they couldn’t pull it off like she did.

She continued analyzing recent traffic through the area, seeking anything unusual or tainted by Corruption. She picked up on plenty of scampering kids, one person who’d tracked so much shoe polish they might as well have bathed in the stuff, and at least one rodent scampering along under a counter. Oh, Marv would not be happy to know he had a mouse in the house.

Moving over to an open fridge containing enough veggie and fruit smoothies to feed an invading army of vegans, she started to sweep around the corner and—

FILTH!

The sense of decay and putrescence rammed into her frontal lobes so hard her brain quivered and tried to retreat into a dark corner of her skull. She gasped and braced against the mop, fighting against retching.

On recovering, she realized she’d become so wrapped up in studying the area, she’d overlooked a new shopper. The person shuffled through the produce section—a stooped man with scraggly brown hair that hid most of his face, while a grease-stained and muck-encrusted woolen coat hid his body. Even across the distance, the sour reek of unwashed body smacked her nose around and demanded its lunch money.

He didn’t seem to have noticed her as he limped along, mumbling to himself. Anji hunched in on herself, still pretending to sweep. Just a harmless janitor doing her job. Pay no attention, please.

The man approached the tomato display and leaned against it as if drunk. Anji’s eyes narrowed as he reached out trembling hands, with long, yellow nails that would’ve sent any manicurist fleeing in terror.

He patted over the tomatoes, touching every one within reach.

Anji’s mind raced. What was he doing? Casting some sort of Scum spell to spoil the fruit? Leaving a layer of supernatural grime behind that couldn’t be washed away? She had to stop this. HQ had said to call for backup, but with the Scum already in action, they might arrive too late to catch him. It was up to her.

Broom in one hand, she plucked the spray bottle from her work belt. So armed, she marched up behind the guy and planted her boots.

“Hey, buddy.”

With a choked snort, he whirled, hands raised. He stared at her with bloodshot, jaundiced eyes. The reek of his breath hit her like he’d been sucking on rotted fish heads all day.

Strange, though. Aside from his generally unwashed state, she couldn’t sense any Corrupt energies emanating from him. Could some Scum hide their nature, even from the servants of Purity?

“Whaddya want?” he growled.

Anji leaned in, broom bristles aimed at his chest. “I know what you are. I know what you’re doing.”

He glanced around frantically, looking like Bigfoot cornered by a photojournalist. “I…I just wanna snack. Lemme ‘lone.”

“You aren’t going to get away with this,” she said. “I won’t let you.”

With a guttural chuff, he shoved at her. She snapped her broom up and blocked, but the blow knocked her back a few steps. By the time she recovered, he staggered toward the back of the store.

She aimed the spray bottle and pulled the trigger. A high-impact glob of water shot out and took him in the back. He hollered as he stumbled and crashed through a cardboard tower of pistachios. Reeling around, he fixed on her, expression crazed.

This time, he came straight at her, faster than expected. She fired another glob as he closed. It struck his chest and he flailed, but his momentum barreled him into her nonetheless. Anji’s back hit the floor with jarring force and both broom and bottle flew from her grasp.

“No!” Anji snatched at the bottle, but it soared away and smacked against the base of a large fruit display. The bottle’s plastic casing cracked—and the magically charged water within expanded with explosive force.

The display rocked. Toppled. Struck a couple displays beside it. Which also toppled into others, creating the healthiest domino effect the world had ever known.

An avalanche of oranges, apples, tomatoes, bananas, pineapples, and avocados careened across the floor, bouncing and rolling their way for freedom.

The man weaved on his feet, giggling maniacally.

“Snacks!” He grabbed a couple oranges and stuffed them in his jacket before racing off and out of the store.

 

#

 

Marv glared at Anji from across his desk. She sat in a chair opposite, hands clenched in her lap.

“Thirty years at this job,” he said, “and you start to think you’ve seen and heard it all.”

With his video feeds scrambled thanks to HQ’s interference, he’d had to rely on her story of a homeless man—which she realized far too late was all her target had been—going berserk and somehow overturning multiple displays before fleeing. Fortunately, one of the cashiers had spotted the man running out and recognized him as a vagrant who regularly loitered in the parking lot, which gave Anji’s tale a hint of credibility.

The store manager glowered for several minutes, his displeasure about as subtle as a brick hurled through a window. Finally, he sat back and crossed beefy arms.

“Exactly what were you trying to pull?”

Anji kept her back straight. “Just my weight, sir.”

“As if there’s much of that.”

She bowed her head to hide her glare. Why did so many big guys have to make jabs about their obvious size advantage? For her part, she refused to feel insecure about her conservative spatiality. After all, through countless bouts in the Cleaners’ sparring rings, she’d proven a well-placed squeegee could put down a bigger opponent every time.

Marv shook his head. “Not an hour that you’re here and I’ve got enough fruit rolling around I could use that section as a ball playpen.”

“Sorry, sir. I was just trying to do my job.”

“Since when does your job include ambushing customers?”

“It…it looked like he was stealing some food.” She shrugged. “I thought I could handle it. I approached him, but he just went crazy.”

“I bet you’ve taken a couple of self-defense classes and thought you could go all ninja on him, huh. Is that it?” He sighed. “We get snitchers in here all the time. So he would’ve taken a few apples. Big deal. You should’ve come and told me instead of trying to play My Little Batgirl.”

She winced. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I overstepped.”

“You’re here to clean up any messes, not make more of them.”

Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to meet his eyes. “I’ll help clean up the fruit displays.”

“No, you won’t. You’ve done enough to help.” Marv waved her out. “Go start working on the other end of the store. I’ll have my team handle it, since I can trust them to actually know what they’re doing. Going to take the rest of the night to get things fixed, and you better bet your ass I’ll be telling your boss about this.”

Head bowed, Anji sulked back to her cart and navigated through the fruit minefield. A couple employees stared at her while setting up folding warning signs to cordon off the disaster zone. Face burning, she pushed her gear along the main back aisle of the store.

Once her superiors heard of this, she’d be the laughingstock of HQ. She wouldn’t be allowed to scrub floors with anything more than a toothbrush. Why, they’d probably stick her on soap-carving duty for the rest of her life.

As she trundled along past the dairy aisle, a sudden wave of nausea made her gag. Eyes watering, body trembling, she pushed her cart off to the side and leaned against a cool freezer door. What…

Corruption. The sense of it grinding against her Pure energies was unmistakable. Just like before. Some manner of Scum actually lurked in the store. Anji had almost convinced herself she’d gotten a false positive off the homeless guy, but this confirmed her initial findings. Where did it originate? She needed eyes on the target before she reported in.

Straightening, she fixed on the meat and seafood counter just a couple aisles down. A door opened behind the counter, admitting the most corpulent man she’d ever seen. A bloodstained apron covered his store uniform and a fishnet cap stretched obscenely over a bush of curly black hair. Paying her no heed, the butcher pushed a rolling rack stacked with packaged meats around the front of the counter and down her way to an open-top display freezer.

Anji cringed at the waves of Corruption wafting off the…man? Creature?

He took a large steak off the rack. Before he placed it out for sale, though, he held it up and opened his mouth. A needlelike tongue shot out and penetrated the wrapping and meat. His body shuddered as if made of gelatin, and his throat flexed as he disgorged…something…into the meat.

Anji stared, aghast. Peering closer, she realized his body looked distended in spots to create his bulk, rather than from added weight—as if he’d been forced to take on this shape for some reason. She’d never even heard of this sort of Scum, but he had to be the source of the contaminated food. Without any idea of his nature or abilities, she was in way over her head. Time to call in the Cleaners cavalry.

As she reached for her radio, he chuckled and turned to look straight at her.

“Giving up already, little Cleaner?” He spoke as if his tongue had been put through a meat grinder.

She paused, finger on the radio button. “How do you know what I am?”

He gurgled in amusement. “I sensed you the moment you arrived. You think you’re the first Cleaner I’ve encountered? Though it’s amusing that they’d send such a weakling to deal with me.”

Anji took her hand off the radio to snatch a squeegee from her cart. She held it like a throwing star. “I’m not weak.”

Her mind helpfully suggested the image of a mouse squeaking dire threats at Godzilla. She banished the mental image, but couldn’t shed the feeling of termites gnawing their way along her spine, trying to undermine her determined posture.

“No, little Cleaner? Then why not indulge in a test of strength?” He flexed jiggling arms. “Your powers against mine. Winner take all.”

Scowling, she glanced around. No one in sight, and Marv had put most of his night skeleton crew to work on the fruit cleanup. If she made this quick, she could destroy the Scum and hopefully at least redeem herself in the eyes of upper management—plus prove she could handle being more than just a scout.

Or she could get herself popped faster than a soap bubble at a knitting convention.

Anji ground her teeth. She needed a brain with a better cheerleading section, that was for sure. If At First You Don’t Succeed, You’ll Probably Die didn’t make the best motivational slogan.

Grabbing her mop with her other hand, she dunked it into the bucket on the end of her cart. The smell of bleach filled the air as she thrust it at him like a sword.

“You don’t stand a chance, Scum.”

He grinned. “Excellent. Fresh meat is the best to spoil.”

At his first plodding step, she whipped the squeegee at him. It flew true, and its razor-sharp rubber edge struck him square in the belly. It sliced through the apron and disappeared into his gut, leaving nothing but a slice in the fabric to show its passing.

Growling low, Anji set the mop back in its slot and grabbed the handles of two plastic signs, each warning of the dangers of walking on wet floors. Holding these like batons, she waded in.

The chanted signs struck with the force of sledgehammers. Each slap sent shockwaves across his flab, rippling him from top to bottom. Yet the Scum took the hits while leering down at her, unmoved. Anji couldn’t even tell if he had bones.

One ham-sized hand caught a sign as it swung in, and she yelped as he yanked her up to his eye level. Dangling, Anji twisted, straining her shoulder and planting feet on his doughy chest for leverage.06cleanup2

His mouth opened, and the needlelike proboscis protruded.

“Not on a first date!” she cried.

She slammed a sign across his face, which snapped his head to the side. Letting go of the other sign, she dropped. An elephantine foot caught her in mid-air and threw her back against her cart. Gasping, she clambered to her feet. Every breath tore fire through her side. Cracked rib, perhaps.

She flung the other sign, which he slapped aside—to where it struck the rack he’d rolled out, bending one the stainless steel rods.

Anji grabbed her mop up again and charged, aiming to plunge it straight into his gullet and purge him from the inside-out. He grabbed the mop head, bleach water steaming against his palm, and wrenched it from her grasp. As she reeled, he gripped the handle in both hands and snapped the mop in half.

“Hey! That comes out of my paycheck!” Anji grabbed the bucket off her cart, spun full around, and sloshed the contents over his entire body.

The bleach water crackled and steamed on his skin, which blistered and blackened. Yet this only broadened his grin.

Anji clutched her side, wheezing. “Oh, for Purity’s sake. Now you’re just showing off.”

“Hardly.” He pulled a wad of his own melting flesh off and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing. “I’m just working up an appetite.”

“You know what else is good for that?” Anji asked. “Cardio.”

She turned and ran.

Yanking the radio off her belt, she signaled HQ. “This is Janitor Anji! I’m being attacked by an unknown Scum. Requesting backup. Repeat, I need a scrub-team here immediaagh!”

Something struck the back of her legs and sent her sprawling. Her radio skittered away under a shelf. Anji pushed up and looked back to see the broken halves of her mop, which the Scum had thrown to take her down.

Jumping to her feet, she frantically searched for options. She bit back the impulse to call for help, which would only put innocent lives at risk.

Then a desperate idea set her into a mad dash again. Heavy thumps signaled his following. Pumping her legs, she fought for every inch of a lead possible. She veered down one aisle, but halted halfway along, knowing she couldn’t let him get to the front of the store in this state.

Whirling, she took up a fighting stance. The Scum hove into view and plodded up to loom over her in the middle of the aisle.

Guttural laughter sent waves from his gut up to his quintuple chins.

“And now I feast, little Cleaner.”

“You’re right,” Anji said.

His bleach-burned face scrunched up in confusion at her admission of defeat.

She stood straight, chin up. “I am little.” She snapped her hands out, indicating the aisle they stood in. “And I am a Cleaner!” Another gesture above him. “And you should really be more careful where you stand.”

He looked up to the sign that read:

            Aisle 8 — Household Essentials & Cleaning Supplies

Along the whole row, hundreds of bottles and boxes of cleaning fluids and powders displayed in vibrant colors, interspersed with all manner of housecleaning tools.

She lunged to one side and grabbed a mop. She lunged to the other and snatched up a stainless steel bucket. Not chanted equipment, but it’d have to do. And most Scum would be hurt by cleaning solvents of any sort, like with the bleach.

Rumbling, he lumbered forward, mouth agape. She glimpsed an insectile form in the recesses of his throat, its eyes glittering, its chitinous body forming the illusion of a skull beneath the protective layers of skin.

Its proboscis aimed at her as she raced in…

And shoved the mop straight in to plug that maw. The creature moaned and grabbed at the mop handle. She let go and darted past. Once behind him, she leapt with all her might, bucket clasped in both hands.

The Scum yanked the mop free—and she slammed the bucket over his head. It wedged tight, covering him down to the neck. He reared and reached up to paw at her. She back-flipped off him and stuck the landing.

She snatched a metal-handled broom off the rack and charged back in. The clang of a dozen strikes against the bucket echoed along the aisle.

At last, the Scum fell to all fours, grotesque body jiggling and twitching all over, bucket still lodged on his head. He rolled onto his back and wrestled to work the bucket free.

Anji dropped the mop, grabbed a box of laundry detergent, and held it over the Scum’s head. Having worked with cleaning supplies all through training, she knew just where to grab and tear for maximum application.

The bucket popped off with a slurping noise. The Scum glared up at her, and that hideous mouth started to open once more, like the portal to a glottal Hell.

“I’m not usually one for fad diets,” she said, “but try to keep an open mind.”

She tore the box wide and dumped the contents straight into his mouth. The Scum quaked, and a keening noise rose from inside his body. Anji danced around him, snatching bottles and boxes, ripping and popping them open and pouring all manner of cleaning powders and fluids until a mound of sludge hid his entire head. At last, his body stopped thrashing, and whatever had been infesting him stopped its awful shrieking.

Anji stood over the body, barely able to believe it was over.

She looked up as Marv ran around the corner. The manager stumbled to a halt and gaped.

“What in the…” he breathed.

Her legs decided they were going on strike, and Anji sat hard on the floor. She waved. “Hey, Marv. Would you mind reporting me to my superiors? I think I should clock out early.”

A flash of light reflected off the ceiling from a few aisles over. Anji grinned. A glassway had just activated. HQ must’ve used one of the reflective freezer doors to send in the troops.

“Oh,” she said. “Never mind. They’re already here.”

Moments later, six Cleaners appeared, three on either end of the aisle. They wielded everything from mops to brooms to feather dusters to plungers—though their faces bore the same grim expression.

The next hour held a flurry of activity as the scrub-team set about wiping the whole store of any evidence regarding the Scum and ensuing battle. The Cleaners closed down the place—for “emergency maintenance”—and applied both magical and mundane sanitation measures to the scene. Any employees were rounded up, ensured this had all been either a security test or elaborate prank, and that their feedback needed to be recorded.

They also got the Scum’s body sealed in a plus-plus-plus-plus-sized garbage bag, zip-tied up by the head.

Anji spent most of the time recounting her struggle to an older maid, who headed up the squad. The maid radioed the details to HQ and, once done, gave Anji a rundown of their reply.

“From what we can tell,” the maid said, “it’s a type of Scum we haven’t dealt with before. Our best guess right now is it seems to create contaminated food, and then somehow feeds off the illness that causes in humans. It also possibly uses spoiled meats to spawn more of its kind. We’ll have to check up on the food poisoning cases that drew our attention to this in the first place; make sure they’re not infected.”

Anji fought back a grin, feeling tall enough to see the curvature of the Earth. “Everything’s going to be okay here, then?”

The maid nodded and surveyed the scene as her crew finished tidying up. “We’ve got a plumber snaking out any damning memories, and their regular janitor should be back on his feet soon. No permanent harm done. However, there is one final matter to deal with. Your overall performance.”

Anji tensed. What had she missed? What could she have done better?

Then the maid smiled. “It’s rare to see a Cleaner so fresh to the field bring as much tenacity and ingenuity as you’ve shown tonight. In fact, I’ve already got a new job in mind for you—another solo assignment looking into a nasty flu outbreak at a local high school. We suspect more Scum at work.” She arched an eyebrow. “If you feel up to it, that is.”

Brimming with gleeful ferocity, Anji loosed her grin at last. “I’m going to need a new mop.”

 

Author and editor Josh Vogt’s work ranges across fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, is a tie-in to the Pathfinder roleplaying game. WordFire Press launched his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a member of SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and is also a Scribe Award and Compton Crook Award finalist. Find him at JRVogt.com or on Twitter @JRVogt. He is made out of meat.




21
Oct

“The Periscope” by Drew Williams

Speculate_blogThe train rattles around me. The sound is constant, unending. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. I’m not. I’d always found something vaguely funereal about the noise; like Jacob Marley’s chains clanking in Scrooge’s bedroom. I remember wondering if I was the last person alive who knew that story. For a moment, the thought made me feel unaccountably guilty. Mainly because I didn’t know it all that well; I might be the last person alive who knew about Scrooge’s three ghosts, but I couldn’t name his childhood sweetheart. Had she died? Was that why he was so miserable? I couldn’t remember at all.

I was the last person alive who remembered a Christmas Carol, and I was bad at it.

I should probably write it down. I did have that in my mobile prison; I had a typewriter. An old manual one with plenty of ink cartridges and plenty of paper. At first, I’d kept a diary, but there just wasn’t much to say.

 

Guess wildly at the date: diary entry # whatever. Today the train kept moving. I took my meals from a slot in the door again. For roughly an hour this morning—at least, shortly after I woke, which I guess qualifies it as morning—the quality of light coming through the angled window was more blue than usual, almost crepuscular. After that, it went back to being gray. During my two hours of exposure to the periscope, there was no sign of that blue light, nor of any survivors. When my time was up, I spent three hours trying to remember the name of young Ebenezer’s fiancé. Eliza? Paige? Beatrice? No, I think Beatrice is Poe. Maybe Dante.

 

My days were much the same, is my point. Still, that’s why I’ve started this document: not a diary, exactly, but more a… story. A chronicle, if you will. My life on the train. If we succeed and the world ever returns to normal, or at least gets a new beginning, it would be nice if someone remembered the small part I played in it all. So, where to begin?

The story of how I’d wound up in this train car, partially a prisoner, partially an honored guest, partially a kind of lab rat, was a long, involved one, and the particulars don’t really matter anymore. Not particularly, at any rate. That’s… that’s kind of a joke.

Suffice it to say the world had gone to hell, very quickly. Who was to blame? What, exactly, happened? How many had died, how quickly, in how much agony? I wasn’t sure. The first, I simply boiled down to ‘those in power,’ because even if they weren’t to blame directly, they damned sure should have stopped it. The answer to the second I shied away from even attempting to answer—if I had to refer to the terrible days before the train at all, I thought of them as ‘the coming of the plague,’ but that wasn’t what it had been, not really. The answer to the third was too big to contemplate without weeping.

How had I wound up on the train? That was a little easier. The world made people mad, you see. Just being out in it did. There’s a simple answer, or at least a simple statement. Not all people, but most people.

I wasn’t one of them, so far. Even still, my time looking out on the mad world was limited: two hours a day. No more, no less. That was my job: observation. It was also why I was locked in this train car. A kind of canary in a constantly moving coal mine.

The people in charge of the train—scientists, I think, though I’ve never met any directly—had several like me, locked in our own little cells, each with our own periscope. We took note of what we saw around the train, and if we saw anything, well, noteworthy (another joke; I’m sorry, I’m not very good at them), we typed it out and put it in a pneumatic tube, and whoosh, off it went, to somewhere else on the train.

The train itself was protected, somehow, from the madness. As much as my day-to-day life tried my sanity through purely conventional means, I couldn’t imagine what it was like for the others further back, those who never saw anything but the inside of the train. At least I had the periscope.

I had been discovered shortly after the coming of the plague, wandering the countryside, unaffected—at least, directly—by the tatters of madness that clung to so many others. They’d sent out one of their groups of soldiers, specially outfitted to survive away from the train for brief periods, and bundled me into this car. And here I was.

They assumed my former resilience to the madness would keep me protected from exposure to what I saw through the periscope. So far, they had been right. If it didn’t, of course—the moment I put a note in the tube written in my own blood, or didn’t send any notes at all—I’m sure the soldiers would unlock the door and shoot me in the end.

Excuse me. I meant to type ‘head,’ but I typed ‘end,’ instead. I’m not sure why. A slip. You’ll forgive the mistake, I hope; I have no way to fix it. Manual typewriter and all.

Anyway, the instant my sanity is broached, either by the unknown force beyond my rattling walls or simply good old fashioned isolation, I would be… dealt with. For the good of everyone. Not just on the train, but everywhere. You see, we may well be the last people unaffected by psychosis in the entire world.

Like I said: so far, I have been unaffected by the madness. But that didn’t mean I was unaffected by what I saw at all. The world beyond the periscope was a true misery. What the mad did—not just to those not infected, but to each other, and to themselves—it wore on you. Like someone constantly rubbing at your mind with steel wool or sandpaper. I was torn between waiting for most of them to die out or kill each other, and desperate for that not to happen, simply because when it did, I would be out of things to watch. There would be nothing through the periscope but countryside, or cities being slowly reclaimed by vegetation.

Anyway: that sums up the train. As for my life—where I was born, what my parents did, what my childhood was like or where I attended university—those things no longer matter; not anymore. I am defined by my role on the train, and the train defines me. I am its eyes; the soldiers, its grasping arms; the scientists, its mind. I assume somewhere on board there’s someone monitoring a radio that would act as its ears, and a conductor controlling a throttle that would be its legs, but I don’t know how much either of them have to do anymore.

None of that, however, is why I chose to start this little chronicle. I was telling the truth above, yes, about how I wanted to leave a record of my contribution, however tiny it might be, just in case we succeed against all odds. But that wasn’t all the truth. There’s another story I want to tell, or, another part of the same story.

It’s about the girl.

05theperiscope1I first saw her during my periscope duty (I’m sorry, that’s probably redundant; of course I saw her during my periscope duty. When else was I going to see her, when I was staring at the blank gunmetal walls of the train car?). We were traveling through a rural area, the countryside, which I preferred. Depending on what you saw, there were days where you could pretend the world hadn’t ended at all. In the cities, you could have no such illusions.

I scanned the horizon; you learned to do that pretty quickly. Try to look at anything close up and it will just fly right on past. There was a bridge, a train trestle, one we would be passing over shortly, and I was using that as my lodestone, sweeping left and right of the arcs of sweeping steel that rose up against the blue sky. It was as I was passing back across the bridge—I had checked one side, nothing of note, so now I needed to check the other—when I saw her.

She was standing on the side of the bridge. Just standing there, a little girl in a purple jumper, no more than six or seven. One hand on the slowly rusting metal. You didn’t see many children on periscope duty. That didn’t mean it didn’t happen; some of the mad went mad in very specific ways, ways which told them to protect a child or to prepare it for something, even if it wasn’t theirs. Even if what they were preparing it for was awful. But this little girl… she was different, somehow. Just standing on the bridge, looking down at the water, holding some kind of dolly or teddy bear in her hand. Kicking loose pebbles from the trestle. Unclaimed. Unchanged. Not ruined by the world.

Then she looked up and she saw me. I mean she saw me. Somehow, through the periscope lenses and the prisms and all the angled mirrors, she saw straight to me. It wasn’t just that she was looking at the approaching train, or even that she happened to notice the periscope—she saw me.

Now, I know how that must sound, I know how it must seem. It must come across as painfully obvious what actually happened: that the solitude of my existence had worn away at my ability to read human expressions, that my desperate need for some sort, any sort, of human contact simply thought she was somehow looking at me, and that I simply saw what I wanted, what I needed to see. You can believe that, if you wish. If you chose to. I doubt that you’ll be able to sustain that belief throughout this entire story, but by all means, try, if you wish.

In the ordinary course of events, you understand, a single little girl would not be enough for me to send an order to stop the train. Yes, she appeared calm, but many of the mad do, until they come into contact with something—or, more likely, someone—that sets them off. The mere fact that she wasn’t covered in blood or scalps or strange tattoos did not mean that she was not mad, and it did not mean that she was not simply bait by a group of cunning marauders, either. Just the girl was not enough for me to stop the train.

I did anyway, of course. Even that early on, she had a hold on me.

Still, I was clever about it. I continued scanning. I felt it, when I moved the periscope off of her, a resistance, like a physical tearing inside of me, but I did it. I found the rusted hulk of a gas station sign. Gas stations were something I was supposed to be looking for; the train was equipped with some sort of machinery, or purifier, or something, that could reinvigorate old automotive fuel, render at least some of it useful to the train. I didn’t understand the process very well—I wasn’t a chemist—but I didn’t need to.

I could tell already that we wouldn’t find anything useful there; the corner of the sign was blackened and charred, clearly in the chaos after the outbreak, it had been destroyed, and in the normal course of events, I would have noted it, noted that charring, and moved on. But it was reason enough to stop the train, and it was close enough that if the little girl wanted to be found, she would.

I pulled away from the periscope, typed out a few quick lines—in a hurry; I mistyped the word ‘station,’ but they would get the idea—and send it through the tube. It was just as we were crossing the bridge that the brakes began to squeal. Perfect timing; with a week to plan, I couldn’t have pulled it off any better.

Then the periscope gave its telltale click, the noise that meant my time was almost up, and it would shortly retract into its housing. In the normal course of events, I usually was ready to be done by the time it did so; two hours scanning the desolation of the outside world was enough for me. Of course, by the time it appeared again, I was more than ready to stop staring at the inside of my car, too.

But this time, I was eager to keep looking, wanted to use every second I had left to try and find the little girl again. Her prior position was too close for me to see, of course—the periscope only had about a 180 range of motion, and where I’d seen her last would have been well outside of it by now—but I kept scanning the houses nearby, hopeful of finding some sign that she was safe, that she at least had somewhere to go. Buckets to catch water, clothes hanging on lines, that sort of thing.

There was nothing. I had to pull myself off of the periscope when it started retracting, fighting the urge to cling to it and continue my search. The periscope folded itself up and rose into the ceiling. I was alone again. I’d been alone the whole time, at least, but for a moment, just a moment, it felt like I had not.

The girl had seen me. She had seen me. I knew she had.

I threw myself onto my bunk, staring up at the ceiling. I’d long ago perfected the technique of sort of… projecting my mind’s eye onto the ceiling above me, making memories and fantasies like a cinema, turning the blank gunmetal gray above me into a sweeping panoramic screen where I could actually see my imagination play out. On that ceiling, and in my head, I watched the little girl, over and over and over again. She was looking down at the water, kicking at pebbles, watching them fall. She turned slightly, her wispy blonde hair drifting with the wind. She looked up, and she saw me. Through the train, through the periscope, down through the mirrors, she saw me. She knew I was there.

Had she smiled? Just a little, just a tug at the corner of her mouth? I thought so. No. I knew so.

Whether she had or not, by the time dinner had arrived, she most definitely had. At least in the movie screen of my mind.

I slept that night, and dreamed of the trestle bridge. Not of the little girl, despite how I had obsessed over her the entire rest of the day. She was not a player in the repertory theater of my subconscious. Not yet. But I dreamt of the bridge, and of the blue sky, and the green forests. I dreamt of walking out there. Just…. Walking. And being unafraid.

Even in my mind’s eye now, I can see that bridge. The way it rose up from the water; the green on either bank of the river; the blue and white of the sky stretching infinite above, dotted here and there with clouds. The shade of dull red rust that had at least partway covered it, and the metal sheen where it was uncorroded. If I listen hard enough, I could hear the cables singing.

*

I awoke the next day, and it took me a moment to shake off the dreams. This was often true: when I remembered my dreams, even when they were unpleasant, they became reality, at least for a while, and the train car confused me upon waking. That is, when I didn’t dream about the train car itself. I hated those dreams the most. Even more than more traditional nightmares of fear or phantoms or flight, because then, even my one respite from my penitent’s cell of a prison was taken from me.

I remembered the girl, and came wide awake. I scrambled over to the message tubes, to see if I had received any sort of response from the prior day’s activity. I had not. That in and of itself didn’t mean anything. Even after what I was sure had been successful stops predicated on my information, I often did not receive confirmation of what the soldiers had managed to salvage. Even if the little girl was safely aboard, I would not likely be told. All I could do was tell myself that I had done what best I could for her. I had done my duty, both to the train, and to my own humanity.

By the time breakfast was served through the slot in my locked door, I had convinced myself that it was over, that my little piece of excitement was done. I should be glad, I told myself she had been the most interesting thing I’d seen in months.

Still, as I waited for my duty to begin at the periscope, I wondered about the girl’s fate.

One thing I should clarify before this story continues: I hope that you don’t take my sudden interest in this lone girl as something sexual. For one thing, she was a child, for God’s sake. The world may have gone mad, but I had not. For another, before the world crumbled, my attentions in that direction were confined exclusively towards other men. For as long as I could remember, neither women nor girls had ever created even the slightest flutter in my pulse in that manner.

For a third, and to put the final nail in the coffin of that rather disgusting line of thought, the time I’d spent on the train had caused my sex drive to atrophy. You might think the opposite would be true, that forced celibacy with cause me to be blind with lust, and maybe that would have been the case for someone else, but apparently not me. I no longer felt such urges. Would they have returned, if I had found myself embraced by the company of humankind again? Possibly, possibly not. I simply wanted to make sure that was understood before we go any further: whilst my interest in the child, my need to know that she was safe, might have been unhealthy, might have even been an obsession, it was not an obsession in that manner.

When the periscope finally descended, I practically leapt at it. I forced myself to calm my racing pulse, my hands holding the rubber grips so tight the knuckles were white. You saw one living child yesterday, I told myself. That’s something you haven’t seen for months. You won’t see anything like it again for just as long, if ever. So look, but don’t expect, and above all, remember your duty. You are part of this train, part of its mission.

I told myself all that, and I believed it. I really did. Still, I trembled as I looked through the lenses, and scanned the horizon.

Something I likely should have mentioned earlier, for which I can only apologize: for whatever reason, out of some statistical probability or even a desire to safeguard our sanity through variation, the periscope never lowered at exactly the same time of day twice in a row. It lowered once in a twenty-four hour period for roughly two hours. But it wasn’t as though I was always scanning the horizon at noon, or always at daybreak. When we scanned at night, it even had a night vision filter, blurring everything into a kind of green fog. My shifts at the lenses were not exactly twenty-four hours apart, but sometimes eighteen, or sometimes thirty.

It wasn’t quite night when my shift began, but it was getting close, the horizon painting the world outside in hues of umber and orange. The rural landscape of yesterday was slowly transitioning into something at least slightly more urban—not exactly a city center or anything of the like, but more homes, more streets, more businesses. By which I mean, what had been homes, what had been streets, what had been businesses. Now, they were all mostly ruined.

Nothing notable appeared as I scanned the horizon while the day slipped slowly into night. A few buildings that came close to being worth a stop, but not quite. Something always just a little off, a little wrong—telltale signs of traps left by marauders, main exits left clear but side doors blockaded, a brief flicker of motion that might have been something dangerous, or might not have. It wasn’t worth the risk. I still had about an hour left in my shift when the night-vision clicked on, bathing what had been a cityscape dimming to gray into crisp green dimensions.

That very instant I saw her again.

I hadn’t even been scanning. I’d stopped moving the periscope when the night vision cut on, to let my eyes adjust to that verdant glow, so different than what I had been looking at. But as soon as they had, I saw her: she was standing on the roof of a squat, one-story concrete garage, one I’d seen in my periphery before I’d looked away, and she was staring at me. Again. Still.

Like she’d never stopped.

I ceased breathing. Not consciously, I mean; it just happened. For no reason I could understand, I was utterly terrified in that instant. Terrified she was some kind of demon, a manifestation of all the ills of the world come to haunt me. The night vision gave her eyes an unhealthy glow, like cats’ eyes in the dark. Terrified my mind had finally snapped, that she was a hallucination, I might have been immune to the plague of madness, but ordinary people had been going mad under far less duress for thousands of years. Terrified by something unknowable, unreachable, in the depth of her gaze. Just terrified.

I told myself it couldn’t be the same girl. It couldn’t. For one thing, I had no way of telling the colors of her clothing, or her hair; the night vision washed everything to the same neon green. For another, we had only stopped once since I had sent my note the day before, likely on the orders of a different periscope car. The train moved slowly, carefully, but it did move. We’d traveled two hundred miles, at least, since that trestle bridge yesterday. It couldn’t be her.

But it was. I knew it was. The way she looked at me. It was exactly the same.

I backed away from the telescope. Rubbed my eyes. Went to the tiny metal sink in my room and splashed water on my face. I was seeing things. I was hallucinating. Of course I was. The isolation, the monotony, the lack of intellectual stimulation—my mind was bored, playing tricks like a small child will in an empty house. Projecting the image of the girl from yesterday onto the back of my retina—the same thing I did when I couldn’t sleep at night, and ‘saw’ movies of my memories on the ceiling above me.

But I did that consciously. I hadn’t done this. I hadn’t even been thinking about the girl. I swear, I truly hadn’t. I had, the first few minutes I had been scanning the landscape, but slowly she’d faded as I focused on my duty. I had not been expecting to see her, I swear.

Yet I had.

Slowly, trembling, I returned to the periscope. I pressed my face into the profile, willing my eyes to only see reality, to only see what was there, and she was not there.

I was right. She was gone. Or, rather—she had never been there. It was simply my overworked, overactive imagination. That was it. That was all.

I went to sleep that night trembling, still. I saw nothing else of note during my duty.

*

I saw her again the next day. Of course I did.

Every time I saw her, she only grew more impossible. The first two sightings could have been a coincidence, my fogged mind stuttering if not breaking down, but the third meant something was happening. Either within my head, or outside of the train. This time it was daylight again, and we were closer to a city proper—what city, I knew not.

She stood halfway up a radio mast. There was no way she could have climbed so high. Even during the halcyon days before the plague, it took men with specialized training and equipment to summon those towering spikes of metal. She was just a child, and she wore no rope, no harness. She was simply standing, high up on the swaying, rusting steel. Staring at me through the prisms. Almost smiling.

I had been looking for her, of course. Ordinarily I never would have glanced at one of the dead reminders of our past world; there would be nothing of note up so high, and even if there was, the soldiers on the train could never have reached it. But I was looking. It was like poking at a bruise, or probing a loose tooth with your tongue—we value new sensation, even if the sensation is painful.

I alternately cursed and congratulated myself for finding her again. I knew it was likely my mind was fraying. At that point, I was exhausted with the terror of it all. If my mind wanted to break, I could at least find the breakage interesting, in an abstract, ‘if this was happening to someone else’ kind of way. It kept me from thinking too hard about what I was seeing.

I made it a kind of game. Every day, when the periscope lowered, I would begin my search for her. I no longer cared if I found buildings of note, or resources, or survivors seemingly undamaged by the rampant madness of the ruined world. Even if there had been a merry band of the sane, camped out on the train’s very tracks, I would not have noticed. I was consumed with chasing my phantom, the little girl in the purple jumper, who appeared impossible places. Who saw me.

By the sixth day—the sixth day in a row I had seen her—I had a moment of clarity. Not when I was at the periscope, but after. I was failing to do my duty. I was failing my responsibility. I was clearly going mad. I typed a note, fully intending to send it to my superiors:

 

For the past week, I have seen the same girl, staring back at me down through the periscope. I know she is a hallucination. I retain enough sanity for that. You can no longer trust any reports that come from this car. Whatever mechanisms you have in place to deal with this sort of… affliction, or dereliction, or whatever you chose to call it, you must engage them. I no longer have value.

 

I remember writing all that, and I remember fitting it carefully into the tube, and I remember setting the tube in the pneumatic device. I remember pulling the lever, and feeling relieved that it was done. One way or another, this would soon be over.

It was that day’s sighting that had finally broken me. Or, I should say, sightings. I had seen her not merely once, but three times, in three separate locations. Locations she could not possibly have reached in the time between when I lost sight of her behind the 180 degree arc of the periscope’s view, and when I picked her up again. I don’t know why that was the final straw—it’s not as though that was any less impossible than any of the rest of it—but was, all the same. I was mad, and I knew it. I set it all down, in writing, and I sealed my fate. All I had to do was see how the train reacted.

In the morning, when I woke—yes, by this time I was dreaming of the little girl, almost exclusively—I found the note crumpled up in the corner. The note I knew I had put in the casing, the casing I had put in the tube, the tube that had rattled as the casing and the note were carried to the back of the train. But the note was not gone; it was here. Still here. My terror returned, then, the game crumbling away.

I did not try to send the note again.05theperiscope2

More days passed, and each day, I saw her more and more—once, twice, three times, five, during my two hours on the periscope. Even though true fear gripped me now, I tracked her each time until I lost her from view. It was a compulsion. Then, as soon as she was gone, I would sweep the horizon for her again, driven by my own need to plumb the depths of my sanity. Or lack thereof.

She appeared in more and more impossible places. Sitting on the shoulders of a statue. Staring at me from a bombed-out floor of a building. Standing on the tracks themselves, the tracks that stretched forever out before me, but never growing closer. Once, I saw her eight times in a row. Her appearance never changed. Well, that’s not entirely true—her hair was always the same, her face, her clothing, but what she held in her hand was sometimes different, if I could see it at all. Sometimes a dolly. Sometimes a teddy. A few times a metal lunchbox, the sort I wasn’t sure children had even used anymore even before the world went to hell, dragging me with it. Once, a heavy wrench, its end bent, like she, or someone, had used it to bash something hard, over and over and over again.

But every time, the expression, her expression, was the same. She would look up from whatever she was doing, wherever she was, like she heard the train; she would stare instead at me. Through me. And she would begin to smile. She never seemed to quite finish that smile. It didn’t matter how long I looked. It would start, but never finish.

Except each time it came closer.

I barely slept anymore. I treated my meals, the needs of my person, with a bare, slapdash kind of care, doing the absolute minimum to keep myself alive. All I did was wait for the periscope to descend so I could hunt her again; my angel, my devil. My ghost. My Beatrice, my Lenore, my Belle. Except Belle wasn’t the key to Scrooge; that was what I had forgotten, not just her name. It was his sister; his little Fan. Dead too soon. I knew that’s where she was leading me. I didn’t care. I followed.

It occurred to me later, when I wasn’t looking, that she was growing closer. When it first started, beginning with the trestle bridge, I had always seen her just at the edge of the horizon. Now, each time I saw her, I picked her up closer to the train.

She was coming for a visit.

This went on. I do not know for how long. The train kept moving. I kept to the periscope, but I never sent notes down the tubes anymore. I did not know how long those in charge would let me last, let me remain, keep feeding me, when I was no longer of use. Their canary in the coal mine; all I could do for them now was die.

Finally, I received a message. It hissed down the tube, making the metal rattle as it came. I cracked it open with trembling hands. It read:

 

Your messages of late have grown more and more erratic. We no longer have faith in your ability to operate your station. You will be rectified.

 

That was it.

I had sent no messages.

The one I had typed, the one I believed I had sent, but later found balled up in the corner—it was still there. Do you understand? I had sent no messages.

Except I had. Apparently, according to them, the faceless ‘them’ further back in the train, those that controlled my life and the lives of all the others on board, I had. And they had been erratic. That was a word. That was one word.

I waited for them to come. I assumed my time with the periscope was over; I mourned its loss in my life, in the life I had built for myself, here in this tiny rattling cabin, forever in motion, forever the same.

The next day, however, it dropped from its housing.

It has since retracted. I have used the time between that last viewing of the outside world and now to write this… whatever this is. This chronicle. This missive. This story; my story. I meant what I said above, that I wanted to leave a record of what I did, how I helped, in case the others do manage to find somewhere safe, to begin again. But I also wanted you to know about her.

Maybe I am insane. Maybe it is that simple: maybe this is just a cautionary tale of isolation and dementia and creeping delusion. But maybe not. Because that last view through the periscope, something changed:

She finished her smile.

What lay behind her lips… they were not teeth. I do not know what they were. She is not human. She never was. She spoke, but I could not read her lips. I was quaking with fear. I understood the intent, though. She is coming for me.

I spoke before about the rise of the madness, the time of the plagues. I said I did not know why it had come, nor from where. I was lying. Or rather, I was dissembling, pretending I was the man before my apparition began approaching. Now I know. The root of this evil was never with us. It was with her. With her all along. She is the plague. She is the madness. Mine and all the others. We are the vine and the canopy and the leaf; she is the root.

Now, one of two things will happen. The first: the soldiers will enter, and either shoot me in the head, or drag me from the train and throw me outside—that is one option, with two endings. The second option is much simpler, and the one I fear much, much more: she will come for me. She will be here. When I lay my head upon my cot, when my eyes begin to drift closed from exhaustion—for I have not slept for days now—she will appear. Because she always comes when I am not looking. She will appear, and she will reach out for me.

I pray the soldiers reach me before she does.

I told you this chronicle was a memory of who I was, what I did. Let it also be a warning. To the next person who takes up my position in this car, or the person with a similar job in whatever new settlement the train eventually founds: if you see a girl on the horizon, unprotected, an impossible girl, with long blonde hair and a purple jumper—or anything, really. Maybe she changes. Maybe she becomes what you need her to be, at least at first—look away. Do not try and save her. Do not mount a rescue. She does not need rescue. She never has.

Do not look.

Whatever you do, do not look.

 


Drew Williams spent too much of his childhood reading pulp adventure stories and genre fiction; as a result, he thinks the world is much more interesting than it probably is. When he’s not writing speculative fiction, he works at an independent bookseller, trying to sell speculative fiction to people who might otherwise not have given it a shot.

Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




21
Sep

“God Sends Meat But the Devil Sends Cooks” by Anne Bartles

Speculate_blogThey put a tiny bit of cocaine in the food, or so the rumors said. Even the biggest food snobs agreed that dinner at The Basement was worth the insane, nonrefundable, pre-paid price. In doing his preliminary research, Jeff had heard another rumor too. Some people thought the appetizer, “The Heart of the Sea,” was whale meat. It was all a publicity trick of course; one of several. As Jeff drove his packed, noisy little car to the restaurant, he wondered about the genius mind behind the marketing. Normally, Jeff would have found being in a car with so many women totally overwhelming, but he was so focused on The Basement, and the review he planned to write, that he almost didn’t care that they were there.

When he finally parked in the dilapidated strip mall, Jeff sat back in surprise and stared at their destination. It looked like a cheap dive, which he realized, with reluctant admiration, actually added to the appeal.

“This place,” his friend Tom asked as they pulled the last of the women Tom had brought out of the back of Jeff’s car, “they won’t tell you what you’re eating?”

“Right. That’s the big lure. They absolutely refuse to reveal what the food actually is. The waiters can’t be bribed to talk. The menu is just a list of the dishes of the night, without any descriptions attached. Everyone eats the same thing.”

“What if I want something different?”

“Then go someplace else, dude. Oh, and all first-time guests are required to sign a waiver. The Basement advises people with life threatening allergic reactions to stay away. It’s genius. Tell people not to come because it might kill you? Who could resist that?”

“That explains all the hipsters,” Tom sighed, gesturing at the line for the door. “I can’t believe they came all the way out here to, wherever the hell we are.”

“The crazy thing that I can’t figure out, is that everyone likes it. Like, actually everyone. That never happens. The bigger the food snob, the more they like to say they hate popular places.” He shrugged. “Maybe they do put something in the food.”

 “You said they really pressured you to take this gig? You try to do some local places anyway. Why are they so excited about this one?” Tom asked as they got in the line.

Jeff froze, for just a moment, his heart pounding. Had Tom noticed what he’d been doing? Wait, no, it was OK, he was just asking about work. He exhaled slowly, and tried to act natural. What he’d been doing was awful, he knew, but he didn’t want to stop. He didn’t think he could. He loved his job, really loved the travel, the exciting food, going to other countries. But then, there were the times he asked, no, pushed, to review restaurants closer to home.

His bosses seemed to believe him when he said it was because he liked to support local businesses. The truth: he got a terrific rush from deliberately destroying the most popular new restaurants, no matter how good they were. Having the power to close a restaurant made up for so much that was missing from his life. He couldn’t admit that to anyone. Hell, he could barely think about it himself. Although, he had to admit, he was damn good at it. He’d once triggered a foodie shunning by simply stating that a new bistro was better than a low-end local chain. He’d killed them with a compliment.

He hesitated to answer Tom’s question though. This was a little embarrassing. “I’ve been to Iceland…”

Tom thought for a second, then pointed at Jeff. “Oh, man! You ate whale!”

Jeff blushed. “I did. I ate whale. I went out in Reykjavik, and ate a lot of whale. They wanted me to write this place up because there’s a rumor that the appetizer is whale meat, and I’ll probably recognize it.”

Tom leaned in and muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “How was it?”

“Gotta say, it was delicious.”

Tom was still laughing when they finally reached the front of the line. Heavily tinted windows blocked the view into the restaurant, which wasn’t in a basement at all, but on the ground floor. The strip mall probably didn’t even have basements, Jeff mused, as the large, forbidding bouncer checked ID’s, and produced the waiver on a tablet for each guest to sign.

“Why do you check ID’s?” Jeff asked, handing his over.

“Some of the dishes may or may not contain alcohol, and people under 21 are not allowed.”

He nodded. “Interesting.” He looked at his waiver. It was over 15 pages long. He guessed most people didn’t read it. Ignoring the bouncer’s impatience, he skimmed through the document. Everyone went in without him. Jeff smiled up at the man.

“I guess most people don’t really read this whole thing do they?”

“No.”

“How do you get to the footnotes section?”

It looked straightforward, but Jeff wanted to be thorough for his piece. If something shocking was buried in the waiver, that could make his article.

“Tap the numbers.”

The footnotes were extensive, more than Jeff could read before dinner started. He glanced at his watch and asked for a paper copy. The bouncer immediately agreed, in a tone that suggested that he should have asked for one up front, and saved them both a lot of time.

Jeff walked into The Basement, paused to let his eyes adjust to the room’s dim light, and was immediately struck by an uncomfortable feeling that something was missing. Inexplicably nervous, he examined his surroundings, and tried to ignore the pounding in his chest. The windows were so heavily tinted that when he looked outside he only saw shadows moving in a deeper darkness. Faded posters for dated tourist destinations—their turquoise and greens now bleached almost white—hung in random spots on the walls. The floor was unfinished concrete. Young, trendily-dressed groups of people filled every one of the white plastic patio sets that served as furniture. An unexpected, but lovely belly dancer twisted and writhed among the tables to the faint rhythm of finger cymbals.

Jeff realized that there were no food smells. That must be the absence he’d felt. He was used to restaurants that smelled of food. Here he only smelled floor cleaner and the belly dancer’s musky perfume as she twirled uncomfortably close to him. Because, he understood, in sudden clarity, they served only one meal a day, to everyone at once. That explained it.

04basement1The dancer spun around him with ever louder cymbals. She smelled of rich perfume and clean, female sweat. Her scent filled his mouth, his lungs. A bead of sweat trickled slowly down her belly; he couldn’t catch his breath as he watched it slide down her skin. The room shifted behind her as she contorted in front of him, indifferent to his discomfort. He blinked, and her soft belly, her breasts, were coated with bluish-green metallic scales. Again, he closed his eyes. She was human, and so desirable he couldn’t stand to look at her anymore. Dizzy, he turned away, and in a moment of sweaty relief, spotted Tom, and the women he’d brought, at a large round table near the wall. Jeff hurried towards them, not stopping to apologize when he stepped on belongings, or shoved someone out of his way.

Tom had already ordered bottles of wine, and by the time Jeff finally sat at their table everyone was drinking and shouting cheerfully at each other over the noise of the room. So he wouldn’t have to try and interject himself into their fun, Jeff picked up his purely informative menu and feigned an intense focus. It read:

Appetizer:
Heart of the SeaSalad:
Green JealousySoup:
Sacred TearsEntree:
Forbidden DelightsDessert:
What the Sugar Plum Fairy Forgot.
~~~

Tom leaned towards Jeff, “So it’s the Heart of the Sea we shouldn’t eat?”

Jeff shook his head. “Did you tell them?” He gestured at the three women. “Don’t tell them. It will look weird if no one eats it.”

Tom looked at him skeptically, then shrugged and turned back to the conversation.

Within minutes, a small fleet of identically dressed waiters presented the appetizers. Served on a plain white plate, the Heart of the Sea was a simple slice of translucent burgundy meat, with a light sear on two sides. Jeff nodded. It looked like whale. He tasted it. It had the texture of exquisitely tender beef, and a similar flavor, but with a familiar, faintly oceanic quality.  Definitely whale. He sat back in his chair and grinned, as he surveyed the restaurant. This would be a hell of a write up. This place was going down.

Tom hadn’t touched his food, and when Jeff nodded at him he pushed it away. Then he looked at it, and with an embarrassed expression, pulled it back and began to eat.

The women were talking and laughing between themselves. To Jeff, they all looked the same: thin, with light flowing clothes, and lots of clanking, dangling jewelry. He didn’t understand them at all. But then women, always desired, always totally terrifying, couldn’t be part of his life. Impossible to think he could ever be that confident person, who could have…that. Anyway, it didn’t matter. He was one hundred percent devoted to his work, and didn’t have time for anything else. Except, really, one day, he’d like to meet a comfortable woman, someone nice. His stomach twisted, and it occurred to him for the first time ever, that he was deeply lonely.

His reverie was interrupted by the by the presentation of the salad. Eyes narrowed, he gave it a skeptical poke. It looked like an ordinary salad, with herbs and some unfamiliar field greens, tossed with crumbles of warm goat cheese and some chopped nuts. He tasted it. It was, as salads went, very decent. Disappointed that it didn’t contain anything shocking or unusual, he decided he would write that it was banal. Which, given the reputation of the place, was fair. They promise mystery, then give you a salad you could get practically anywhere. Yawn.

He looked around, and noticed how many of the men seemed to have beautiful women attached to them. The men would say something, and the women would hang on their every word. At his own table, Tom was telling some story. The place was so loud Jeff could only make out every third word, but the girls, laughing and listening attentively, seemed to hear Tom fine.

Tom. When had he started to dislike Tom? It felt like a truth that had always been there, under the surface. Sure, they’d been “friends” since freshman year in college, but really, how could he like someone who would happily let a group of girls he barely knew eat whale meat? What kind of an asshole would do that? And he was so selfish! It was just like Tom to keep the women to himself. Not that it mattered.

Lost in thought, he barely noticed when the swift, silent waiters replaced the salad plate with a small cup of white soup. Jeff picked up a spoonful and sniffed it, then let the liquid drip back into the bowl. He stared at the iridescent shimmer that danced across the surface while the noise of the room faded into the background. What made it play the light that way? It didn’t move like most liquids; it acted like a small cup of cornstarch and water. He tapped it gently with his spoon to feel it thicken. Finally, he tasted it. It was delicious, salty and sweet. With a smile, Jeff closed his eyes, and tried to identify the various flavors. Letting the soup roll over his tongue, he inhaled deeply. A version of white bean soup, it clearly contained a smoky bacon, and other familiar ingredients. But there was something else that he swore he’d never experienced before, which transformed the entire experience into something like…like a song.

Instantly mortified that he’d even thought something that trite, he forced himself to focus on his article, in which he would definitely not write that the dish was like a song. When his spoon scraped the last trace of the soup from the bottom of the cup, he had to grit his teeth to keep himself from wiping the inside of the cup with a finger and licking it clean. Frustrating. They should have used bigger cups. That could be an angle for the article, although a pretty complimentary one. ‘The soup was excellent, but the portion too small to really enjoy.’

With a sigh, he looked around for the waiters. They seemed to all be on a smoke break, or something. No one cared about him. No one. Some quiet part of his mind realized how odd and disproportionate that was, but the feeling was overwhelming. Just then, Tom laughed at someone’s joke. Of course, the others were having a great time without him. Yet again, he was on the outside. Tears stung his eyes. What was wrong with him? He bit the inside of his cheek in an attempt to regain control, and wiped his face with his napkin. For the first time in his life, death sounded like it might actually be a comforting reprieve from the agony of day to day life. It would be like relaxing into a warm soft bed after a horrible day.

“Excuse me, sir.” A waiter at his elbow took away his soup cup, and almost simultaneously placed a large platter of red meat in front of him. He stared at it. It was some kind of a boneless cut, well marbled on the edges, but lean in the center. Rare and bloody, it looked like beef. He leaned forward, took a deep breath, and blinked in astonishment. Whatever kind of meat this was, it had a truly unique smell. To him, it smelled like memories of childhood, cut grass, and sunshine, but he could never, ever, write that, either. He took a bite, and felt the meat dissolve in his mouth. He’d eaten most exotic meats at least once, but nothing remotely similar to this. The flavor was clean, yet full, with a quality he couldn’t describe, other than saying it was similar to the soup. Looking down at the generous helping, Jeff relaxed in the knowledge that there was more, almost a full plate, of this amazing gift.

As he ate, he was easily pulled into the conversation at his table, and to his surprise learned one of the women loved to read old James Beard books too. Her name was Stephanie, and she was fascinated by what he did for a living. He slid his chair closer to her. Within moments, they were all a big laughing group of easy conversation. Stephanie laughed hard at something he said, and leaned closer to talk him. She smelled like cinnamon, and her arm was warm and soft against his own. How could it feel so natural? Had this always been possible? This was turning out to be one of the best nights of his life. Forbidden Delights indeed! He’d been an idiot. Tom loved him like a brother, and would do anything for him. It was crazy that he’d ever thought anything else.

Only moments after the last person finished the meat course, the waiters appeared with dessert. Jeff’s eyes widened at the artistry of what they were about to receive. Each diner got a unique, Cinderella style shoe made out of swirls of spun sugar. A fine dusting of iridescent sprinkles made them glitter in the light. Tiny crystallized violets rested on Jeff’s snow-white shoe, and dotted the plate. It smelled like vanilla and cardamom. Tom’s was blue, covered in candy hearts and, Jeff leaned over and sniffed, smelled like marshmallows. Jeff didn’t want to eat his yet. If he ate it, the dinner would be over, and he wasn’t ready to face that.

To forestall the inevitable, he decided to explore. He got up, and wandered towards the back hallway. Feeling perfectly intoxicated, but not drunk, he noticed his thoughts were beautifully, sparklingly clear. He wondered if he should have slipped a bit of meat into his pocket to take for analysis. Next time. He’d come back with a plastic bag and do it next time. And maybe he could take some for later, at home. What a comforting thought.

Near the restrooms, he noticed a third door at the end of a long hallway. The guy standing guard looked a lot like the bouncer from the front. This was the opportunity he’d hoped to find. If he could get into a food storage area, or an office, and find out what the mystery ingredients were, it would take his story from good to epic. The kitchen, of course, would be impossible. It was bound to be way too crowded. But, they were hiding something behind this door. He could just feel it. Trying to seem casual, Jeff approached the man and asked, “So hey, is that your brother outside?”

The guard was a large, bald man. All his skin, including his face, was covered with tattoos of snakes and mystical symbols. He stared straight ahead, and didn’t respond. Jeff decided to go for it. He pulled 3 folded 100 dollar bills out of his wallet and held them up in front of the tall man’s face. When he got no response, Jeff quickly added two more bills. Without a word the bouncer reached up and gently took the bills, stepped aside, and cracked the door open, displaying a sliver of darkness.

Slipping past the man, Jeff hurried to squeeze himself through the narrow opening. The door immediately closed behind him. His brows raised as he took in the vast, shadowed room before him. He was standing on a small metal balcony, set into a wall that looked like it had been chiseled out of stone. To his left and right, the wall faded away into gloom. For all he knew, it could be a giant cavern, but of course, that was ridiculous. He looked down over the metal railing. The room was so poorly lit that he couldn’t see the bottom, either. In front of him, attached to the balcony, was what looked like a free standing, tightly spiraled, metal fire escape. And wobbled like one, he noticed, as he took his first tentative steps. Dim, dirty bulbs sporadically lit his way down with small pools of orange light. Cautious step after cautious step, the bottom of the staircase, and indeed anything below him, remained lost in shadow. A faint dripping sound echoed off the walls.

After a few minutes, Jeff realized he’d already gone down at least two stories. An uncomfortable knot twisted in his stomach when he looked up. He couldn’t see the top anymore.

“This can’t be right,” he muttered under his breath.

Just then, the steps abruptly ended at a dirt floor. Jeff stumbled forward as he took his first steps back on solid ground. This area was somewhat better lit, and once he’d gotten his balance, Jeff could tell he was in a basement. Spare white plastic chairs and tables leaned in reassuringly normal stacks against one stone wall, along with some cardboard boxes. He walked over and investigated those. They were full of paper napkins. To his right, the shadows grew darker where the walls pulled closer together into a narrow corridor. He hesitantly took a few steps in that direction. There was a sound, like whispering. He thought he heard a faint sob. Nauseatingly nervous, he made himself step forward, keep going, turned around a corner, and stopped.

At first he thought it was a woman, suspended upside down from the ceiling in the room. Then, he realized it was not a woman. Jeff stood, paralyzed, while his eyes continued to send a message that his mind, frozen in shock, refused to accept until, finally, it started to take it in, in pieces.

About ten feet in front of him, an angel hung upside down. It looked semi-conscious. Thick rope, tightly knotted around its ankles, held it suspended from a heavy wooden beam. It was nude. It was shivering. The ends of its long hair brushed the dirt floor. Jeff’s first coherent thought was that it was at least eight feet tall, and probably very strong. Then, he understood that it must be in agony from the weight of its limp, inverted wings, which had stretched its back muscles to what looked like the point of ripping. Finally, he had the dim, confused realization that something really awful had happened to the angel’s legs. Large chunks of flesh were cleanly sliced out of both legs, on both the thigh and the calf. In place of the angel’s muscles, massive square wounds oozed blood that glistened in slick streaks on white bone. Jeff gasped, and noticed a familiar smell, like fresh cut grass and summer. His scalded mind balked and stopped. Then the angel’s eyes opened. It looked right at Jeff. Jeff screamed and jumped back, almost falling into the man standing directly behind him.

“They’re incredibly hard to kill, you know,” the short man said conversationally.

Jeff gaped at him. About six inches shorter than Jeff, the good looking young man wore a dark tailored suit with a black tie.

The short man pointed at the ground under the angel. “See that circle with the symbols? We can hold it, and weaken it, but we can’t kill it. Not that we’d want to anyway, Mr. Monroe. After all, they heal so quickly that we can get a full dinner service off it every night.”

Now fully awake, the angel seemed desperate. It quickly looked around, and then focused again on Jeff. It stared at him with the pleading look of an injured animal, then opened its mouth, but no sound came out. Jeff could see the raw, red flesh where the angel’s tongue had been torn away. The angel cried silently, its body shaking with the force of its sobs. At the small man’s gesture, the bouncer, or someone who looked just like him, stepped out of the shadows carrying a bucket. He gently lifted the angel’s long, soft hair out of the way, and placed the bucket under the angel’s head.

“Angel tears,” explained the small man, “We use those as well. In the soup, of course.”

Jeff fell to his hands and knees, and vomited in the dirt. When he was done, he wiped his own tears from his eyes, and looked up at the man.

“Who are you?” he asked.04basement2

The small man shook his head. “My name isn’t important, Mr. Monroe. My job, my title, is Director of Marketing for The Basement.” He reached down and helped Jeff to his feet. “I, just like you, am a small cog in a much more impressive machine.” He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and handed it to Jeff, turning him away from the horrific scene in the process. “Here you go. Better?”

Jeff nodded, and tried not to think about what was happening right behind him. With all his energy, he concentrated on the man in front of him.

“I trust you enjoyed your dinner?” the good looking man asked, with what seemed like genuine concern. “We work hard to ensure our customers experience an exhilarating range of emotions. First, we bring them into painful intimacy with their own personal weaknesses, and downward into the depths of despair. Then we escort them through a magical removal of those failings, and on to the peaks of delight and joy.” With a light touch, he guided Jeff back through the basement.

“Of course, each diner perceives him or herself to be the only one going through this experience. If you could see it as our waiters do, you would be surprised. Now, had you eaten your dessert, you’d have been filled with the most satisfying contentment. You would have gone home, slept wonderfully, and awakened with the thought that you must plan your next trip to The Basement right away. But, instead, you chose to come down here.” He paused, and studied Jeff.  “Mr. Monroe, you’ve become aware of our trade secrets, which presents a little bit of a problem. Additionally,  you write for that website, sometimes quite viciously. I find that interesting.

“I’m prepared to offer you an exclusive arrangement. In exchange for your silence about our secret ingredients, and a series of appropriately glowing reviews, and an enthusiastic critique of the competition, should there ever be any, we are prepared to offer you VIP status at our establishment. You will never have to book your table in advance, and your meals will always be comped. You will always get the finest cuts. Your friends will delight in your company even more than I’m sure they already do. Their perception of you will be forever altered, for the better, by their experiences here with you.”

They reached the bottom of the staircase.

“You care about what I put in my review?”

“Mr. Monroe. This is the restaurant business where we, just like anyone else, hope to launch a chain of similar establishments stretching right across this glorious nation. And you are a nationally known reviewer, who, by the way, could have a TV contract in his future if he plays his cards right. Who knows? You may end up in a position to promote the restaurant of your choosing to nationally revered status. Yes. We care, Mr. Monroe.”

Jeff tried to think. He desperately wanted to feel that happy, belonging feeling again. It was what had been missing from his life, from himself, for as long as he could recall. He understood that now. And a TV contract? That would be, wow. Yeah. But the angel, it was too horrifying to even think about. His throat burned from vomiting, and he felt like he had a lead ball in his stomach. It would, he knew, take him months or years to really understand what he’d seen and what it meant to him. The look on the short man’s face told him he only had moments.

“Um, is this about my, uh, my soul?” Jeff asked, his hands twisting behind his back.

The other man snorted, “No, no. Don’t be stupid. We want to own your work.” He grinned encouragingly at Jeff.

“Oh. Right. So, the… Back there. Is it suffering much?”

“Well, not like you or I would suffer. No. I think it’s more of a reflex than anything else. They’re very bizarre creatures really. You noticed it doesn’t even have genitals? They’re as different from a human as, well, as a lobster is. Don’t be fooled by the outwardly similar appearance. They’re really nothing like us.” The man reached over to the back wall of the basement and pushed a button Jeff was fairly sure hadn’t been there before.

“Let’s take my private elevator back up, shall we? I’ll give you a tour of the kitchen. An exclusive.”

Jeff nodded eagerly, “That would be great, Mister….?”

“Really, just call me The Director. I prefer to remain incognito. It helps add to the mystery. You know,” he sighed, “my job, marketing, it’s so important. You can’t underestimate how necessary it is. You’re on board with our plan then?”

Jeff nodded, his stomach tight.

“Excellent! I’m so glad to have you as part of our little team.”

The tattooed bouncer from the upstairs hall abruptly appeared, holding a tablet.

“Ah, Gregor. Thank you, and good work helping Mr. Monroe find his way down here.” The Director winked knowingly at Jeff, who decided to add this to the list of things he wasn’t thinking about.

“Now, you’ll see that we’ve simply added a short clause to that waiver you signed earlier. Yes, there are some footnotes. Lawyers, you know,” he chuckled. “Don’t worry about those. We understand you want a paper copy, and that will be provided by my assistant on your way out this evening. Just simply sign here. Well done! You now have VIP service for life. I’m sure if you ask her, that hot little piece, Stephanie, will want to come here with you again. And, I’m confident that you will get a call from some cable networks, in due time. Congratulations, Mr. Monroe, on joining the organization.”

They stepped into a small nondescript elevator. The interior was unmarked except for two buttons: UP and DOWN. The Director reached out a thin finger, and briefly hesitated. A mocking smile danced over his lips before he finally pressed the UP button, making Jeff’s legs quiver in relief.

“Now to the kitchen for your tour.” The Director smiled at Jeff.

“Oh, um, you should know,” said Jeff as the elevator doors closed. “The story’s already out that you serve whale meat.”

The Director burst into deep shaking laughter. His eyes shone with tears as he gasped, “Oh Mr. Monroe, we don’t serve whale.” He was still chuckling when the doors opened. They stepped out.  Jeff and The Director faced the kitchen door, with Gregor a silent, solid presence behind them.

“Would you like to see what we fed you?” the Director giggled, glancing sideways at Jeff. “I promise you, it’s not whale.” Jeff turned gray, but nodded.

The Director started to open the kitchen door, then paused to look at Jeff,  “Remember Mr. Monroe. You’ve signed a contract with us. That’s something we take… seriously.” He gestured for Jeff to go ahead of him.

As the kitchen door swung shut behind them, a young woman walked by on her way to the bathroom. Just for a moment, she thought she had heard a heartbroken wail, cut off when the heavy kitchen door slammed firmly closed. Must be her imagination, she thought. This was the greatest place. It was like they put something in the food. Whenever she and her friends came here, they had the most amazing time.

.

Anne Bartles is a writer and social worker who lives in San Antonio, TX. Some cats let her live with them in exchange for kibble, and her silence. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found knitting, making jam, and forcing her friends to test her food, craft and writing experiments. Anne has published two pieces on InfectiveInk and is presently editing her first book, a slightly supernatural mystery set on the Texas coast. She can be found at http://www.annebartles.com.
Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.




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