Entertainingly Evil

STATION 352A by Wendy Nikel

Seventeen space-clicks out, a light blinked over a battered sign.  “Danger: Asteroids.”  Beneath it, as an afterthought, was another sign: “Refueling Station Ahead.”
            On a clear day, when the asteroids were off bothering someone else and Station 352A’s water system hadn’t fogged up the windows, I could watch it.  On.  Off.  On.  Off.  I’d stare at it for hours.  It was usually more interesting than the single vid station I could get out here.  Not much else a girl could do so far out in no-man’s land.
            Some days, another light would brighten my sky.  A spaceship.  As soon as I’d spot it, I’d stream around the refueling station, wiping glass and straightening freeze-dried snacks on the displays, as if I hadn’t done the same thing each morning since I’d taken up my post here.
            Today’s ship was a sleek, military two-seater, pockmarked with dents.  Good news and bad news.  Dents meant that its pilot might actually get out and chat while the station’s droid repaired the ship.  However, such a fancy craft probably carried an officer, and they tended to be wound too tightly for jawwing with a lowly refuel stationer, especially right after being pummeled by asteroids.
            Tether secured, I floated out to the ship’s hatch.  “Fuel, or just repairs?” I asked, clicking on the short-distance com system.
            The hatch hissed open and a portly man emerged.  Despite his spotless helmet, it was obvious that the war hadn’t treated him well.  He’d lost an eye, and the skin around the socket fell inward like a sinkhole.  I tried to hide my shudder.
            “Both,” he said gruffly.  “Hurry it up, miss.  I’m on military business.”
            I chuckled and pulled out the fuel hose.  “Aren’t we all?”
            The officer scoffed.  Wasn’t the first time I dealt with attitude like his.  They played with their lasers while I played connect-the-star-dots with washable marker on the station’s windows, but we’d both been drafted into this pointless war.  Trouble was, most military felt their job of using up resources was more important than my job of providing them.  No use arguing.  Not like they’d listen.
            “There,” I said an hour later, when the droid’s lights blinked green.  “All set.”
            “About time,” he grumbled, heaving himself up from my armchair and snapping his helmet on.  He stepped into the airlock.  I shrugged, letting him go without a farewell.  The silence of two people trying not to converse is always more silent than the silence of one person alone.  And, no, the droid doesn’t count.
            With Captain Craterface gone, I dimmed the lights and lay on my cot, gazing at the stars.  It wasn’t bunktime yet, at least not by military time, but my time was my own, and the occasional nap helped stem my boredom.
            The light of the officer’s shuttle disappeared, and I entertained myself by watching the warning sign’s light.  On.  Off.  On.  Off.
            Another light.  The officer must have forgotten something.  No, this light was different.  Two shuttles in one day?  What were the chances?
            Shining up the station seemed pointless, having just done so an hour ago, so I donned my suit, tethered myself to the dock, and waited.  I clung to the edge, but my feet hung down into the great nothingness of space.  A vague recollection of summers on a wooden pier, with feet dipped in crisp, cool water flitted through my mind, but I couldn’t recall if that was something I’d actually done, or just something I’d seen on the vids.  My childhood on Earth had become a half-remembered dream.
            I was still staring into the bottomless lake of the universe when the shuttle docked.  It was an older model, and as beat-up as the surface of a moon.
            “Whoo!” I said.  “You must have hit a particularly vengeful patch of ‘roids out there.”
            The hatch hissed open and the ship’s pilot grinned.  “You might say that.”
            He was younger than most, making me question how he’d survived this long.  Most men of my generation had been wiped out in the first decade of fighting.  His face was scarred, and he walked with a limp, so I assumed he’d been one of the ‘lucky ones’ sent home early with injuries.  Their luck wore off a few years later, when injured veterans were included in subsequent drafts, but at least they got to enjoy a few years of their youth.
            “Just fuel,” he said, winking.
            “Just fuel?”  I started the pump.  “Hate to say it, but your ship’s a mess.  You ought to get it repaired.  My droid here’s pretty good—”
            He shook his head.  “Just fuel.  I can’t afford to stop.”
            He looked about nervously and it all clicked into place.
            “You’re a deserter.”
            “Officially, I’m dead,” he said, shrugging, “and my ship destroyed.  Now if you use that droid of yours on it, though, someone might discover it’s a little less destroyed than they assumed.  We wouldn’t want that.”
            I crossed my arms, studying him.  He wasn’t like anyone I’d seen in all the years I’d been stuck here.  Most were either hyper-focused and hardened, or beat-down and tired.  Here was someone who looked… alive.
            “All right,” I said.  “What’s in it for me?  I’m risking my livelihood here, you know.”
            “You mean this job?”  When I nodded, a smile played out over his face.  “What do you need this job for?  Come with me.”
            I balked, but his face was hopeful, sincere.  How long had I been here, anyway?  How much of my life had been spent killing time, waiting, hoping someone would show up just so I’d have someone to talk to?  He raised his eyebrows, daring, pleading me to say yes.
            The pump’s light blinked green.  The tank was full.  I looked over my shoulder at my station, at my perfectly-aligned rows of freeze-dried snacks and my cot that looked into the heavens.  Then I looked at the pilot, at his smile made crooked by scars.
            “All right.  Let’s go.”

When Wendy Nikel isn’t traveling in time, exploring magical islands, or investigating mysterious events, she enjoys a quiet life in suburban Utah with her husband and two sons. She has a BA in elementary education. For more info on her previously published works, see her website: www.wendynikel.com. This story originally appeared in Spider Road Press’s Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers anthology.


Destroy All Human Resource Departments by Robert Quinlivan

“Can I get you anything? Glass of water? Cup of coffee? Tea? Bagel?”
     “That won’t be necessary.”
     The supervisor shuffled in his seat, cleared his throat, and continued. His name tag said Todd Garber, and he looked like he’d rather be watching paint dry than interviewing me.
     “This position requires lifting. Are you equipped for that sort of work?”
     I looked down at my hands, awkward neoprene things tipped with delicate touch sensors. I raised one and rotated the primary rotor by three-hundred and sixty degrees, then flexed my fingers. The voice in my head said to read off the serial numbers of my components in quick succession, but I silenced it. The factory default programming encourages me to be a didactic pedant. But no, that wouldn’t do. Not here. I was trying to make a good first impression.
     “Yes,” I nodded, straining to resist my programming. “As you can see, I am well prepared.”
     Todd mumbled and checked an item off on a list.
     “And what sort of work will I be performing?” I asked. “I mean, if I were offered the position, of course.”
     “Unloading supplies, cleaning, taking out the trash, that sort of thing.”
     “I was under the impression this was an office position.”
     “You’ll be in an office,” he said, “unloading supplies, cleaning, and taking out the trash.”
     I nodded. The nerve sensors in my cheek bent my lips into a demure smile: my programming again, of course. I silently cursed Todd Garber and his smug little face and his stupid blue tie. I cursed him for bringing me in for yet another interview for a job that a vacuum cleaner could do. I’m a Personal Assistance Unit, dammit, a robotic worker designed for handling delicate human social situations, not some common pooper-scooper.
     Or, I should say, I was, until I was made obsolete by the latest model, the UX-4760.
     They let me go nearly six months ago. Since then I’d become desperate, interviewing for any job I could find before I defaulted on the payments I owe to my manufacturer. If a robot misses more than two subsequent payments it’s terminated, recycled, made into forks and hubcaps and air conditioning units.
     I had a payment due in less than twenty-four hours. If I could just show proof of employment I could buy myself some time with the debt collectors. Even so, I just couldn’t bring myself to take a job so beneath my abilities.
     “Mr. Garber, I do apologize, but I was under the impression that this position would be more suitable for a unit with high verbal functionality and facial expressiveness which, as you may have noticed, are among my strengths.”
     Todd frowned, looked down at his computer screen, and sighed.
     “Look, kid, you seem like a nice unit. But I’ll be honest with you. If we needed a new PAU for the office, I would have contracted a UX-4760.”
     Todd shrugged. I seething with anger. He detected my frustration.
     “I’d like to help you but what we need right now is someone to handle supplies and cleaning. I can’t guarantee it, but something might open up later. Maybe.”
     I rotated my hands nervously. This was the first bite I’d gotten in six months of searching. With the threat of impending death hanging over me, was I really going to turn down work?
     Inside my head, my factory default programming rattled off the precise odds of finding another position within the next twenty-four hours.
Based on present labor market statistics and past interview experiences, the chances of attaining another interview are approximately 0.076%, with an error rate of…
     I silenced the voice in my head. I knew the odds were against me. But it was either that or spend the rest of my operating existence as a glorified trash can.
     Sensing my dilemma, Todd leaned in over the desk and placed a hand on my shoulder.
     “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been in your position before.”
     He rolled up his sleeve, exposing a long aluminum bone. He knocked it with a clenched knuckle, making a metallic twang ring out in the dim office.
     “I’m a UX-2901,” he said, drawing his breath to a whisper. “Used to be the assistant to a bank executive.” He flashed me a cheesy grin and passed me a name tag across the desk. It read:
Arnold Halloway
     “Put it on,” said Todd. “I promise you, it’s not as bad as you’re imagining. After a couple months, you won’t even think about being a personal assistant. You’ll be Arnold Halloway, the humble custodian. Or you can pick another name if you don’t like that one, I don’t care. I just chose it because it sounded right for the position.”
     I picked up the name tag and stuck it to my chest to try it on for size. It felt out of place.
     “There you go,” said the UX-2901 unit that was calling itself Todd Garber. “Looks great on you. Of course, you’ll have a uniform, too. You have to look the part.”
     My programming automatically forced my cheek muscles to bend into a contented grin. I twirled my hands. Was I going to pretend to be Arnold Halloway the custodian for the rest of my life?
…odds of attaining another interview are approximately 0.076%, with an error rate of 0.491%, recommend immediate acceptance of employment offer…
     The voice chattered endlessly in my head. Why was it so persistent in its efforts to undermine me?
     I looked up at Todd, at his stupid tie, his ugly toupee, his garish yellow coffee mug. I didn’t want to be like him. Not even if it meant being melted down into license plates and aluminum foil.
     I pulled the name tag off my chest and looked at it once more. But I didn’t have the courage to throw it in his face. What was the point?
     I let the factory default programming override my impotent anger. I sighed, put my hands down, and smiled.
     “When do I start?”

Robert Quinlivan lives and writes in Chicago. His work has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction, among other publications.


The Rescue by Olli Crusoe

I’d wanted a pet for a while. I’d thought a lot about it, about the changes it would make in my life. There were days where all my thoughts centered on it. Would  I able to take care of it? Was I the right type of person for a pet? Did I have the right personality? Would I find the right one for me?
     My friends told me not to worry. “It’ll be fine,” they said. “They take care of themselves. You have all the time in the world to learn how to care for it.”
     It wasn’t like I had anything to do since the incident—apart from eating, napping, exercise, a social call or two a day, and sleeping. I slept a lot back then.
     I listened, and they were right. I made up my mind to take that step and changed my life, though not immediately. I couldn’t just rush it and get the next one that made small, inarticulate noises at me in some adorable manner. It took weeks to decide.
      Every weekend at the same time the shelter was full. The parade, we called it, but there was no helping it. One inspection after another. Nervous glances were exchanged. Small attempts at communication. Hands were sniffed, sometimes ears got scratched. Some days on both sides. Those were the bad days.
     When we finally met, I’d almost given up again. But there he was. The brownish fur in disarray, a little patchy around the cheeks. Tired eyes. Tired but somehow… sweet.
     They opened the door of the cage and stood aside. We approached each other, cautiously. A questioning noise, deep from within his throat. A response. A soft paw slowly touching the back of a hand. A gentle headbutt and loud purrs. And that was it.
     That same night we went home together. The paperwork was quickly done away with and all the shots were up to date anyway.
     It was an interesting first couple of days. Lots of exploring, first indoors. The bathroom, the living room, the bedroom. Not the kitchen though. Never. That’s a thing I’d learned before.
     We ate together, usually twice a day. When I say together, I mean at the same time. Not at the same place or from the same plate. Or the same stuff. That probably would’ve ended badly. Both of us had special needs, but sometimes we did share a piece of sausage. Even a tiny bit of cake, one time. Those were exceptions, though. Usually we each had our own food. One a bowl of water and kibble, the other… well, the usual stuff.
     The rest of the time we usually stayed close together in those first, grand days. At the desk, working. Watching TV and lounging around on the couch. Or rolling around on the floor, roughhousing, but never hurting each other.
     I tried giving him a name. Several names, actually, but after a while I realized he’d only come or listen when he felt like it, so I stuck to “Button.” Yes, I know. A dumb name, but I’d found out the pitch of my voice made more of a difference than what I’d actually say. It’s not like they can understand us. Or even talk. Even though it sometimes seems like the noises they make have a meaning.
     So I adapted. High pitched squeaks for playtime, a grumbling sound when I wanted to be left alone, sometimes whiny mewling to attract attention, just to see if anything was happening at all. Or a firm, annoyed tone or hiss to show my displeasure. Though that wasn’t really necessary often. Once, maybe twice.
     After maybe a week we expanded our activities beyond the walls of our home. Our home. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?
     The garden was exciting: a  few trees, a bench to climb on, a table to nap on when the sun was shining, thick hedges all around, to take shelter in when it rained. Or to rough up some mice and birds in.
     After a couple of days, he started leaving the house. For half a day first. I was anxious, but he always came back in the early afternoon. His absences gradually lengthened, and after a while I realized that was how it was going to be on most days. We had breakfast together, maybe played a little or snuggled up on the couch, then he left. Sometimes he’d pop in around noon, as if to check on me, but most times he’d come back in the evening, just in time for dinner and playtime or watching TV.
     Some days he stayed in. All day. Slept. Ate. Played a little. Sometimes he’d even stay in for two days in a row. Why? Beats me. I enjoyed it though. Those were the best days.
     Once I’d grown used to his routine I started leaving the house for extended periods myself. Well, hours at a time, that is. And not every day. One thing I always made sure of: I took care to always be back at the same time. Dinnertime. Heh.
     Well, not always. There was this time I stayed away overnight, but seeing how worried my housemate (yes, that’s what I call him, silly, I know) looked, when I came back… no.
     Never again.
     The day after was weird, too. He stayed in all day, not leaving my side. I nearly flipped, but we quickly got back into our usual routine. Being alone was occasionally sad, but the welcome when we were reunited again was always glorious.
     It didn’t last long, though. Just long enough so I’d forgotten how it was to be alone. But, after a couple of months of living together, he didn’t come back in the evening. I was worried sick. “Did he find another place to be?” and “He’ll be back tomorrow. The day after, latest!” were the best thoughts I had. Darker ones included “What if he’d been hit by a car?”
     I cried my heart out. I was torn between going out to find him or staying in so I’d be there when he came back. After three days my waiting was over. Yes, you guessed it. They came to get me. It’s kinda obvious, dummy. Would I be back at the shelter if they hadn’t? Would I? No, I don’t know what happened to Button. I hope he’s in a better place, though.
     “Hey, look…” Nelly, the new intern pointed to a clowder of cats arranged in a loose half circle around the old tree stump, where the grey tabby sat upright, making almost conversational noises. “It looks like the new one’s telling stories.”
     “Yup.” Jimmy sighed. “Sometimes I think he’s telling them of the outside world. We’ve had him here before. He got taken home by someone about half a year ago. It was cat love at first sight, but it didn’t last. His new owner died in an accident at work.”

When Olli Crusoe doesn’t work at his desk job (and sometimes when he does) he tweets haiku, bite-sized German lessons and filterless nonsense at @OlliCrusoe. The rest of his time is divided into travelling and meeting internet people worldwide, playing the Tuba and posting on his blog www.ollicrusoe.net. This story was previously posted on www.ollicrusoe.net.


Lost in a Vacuum By Miriah Hetherington

“Douglas Ferguson, Doctor of Fey Veterinary Medicine.”
     Tom read the message on his laptop screen. The online receptionist had said the doctor would be with them soon. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulder, and followed her worried gaze to the bundle in her lap.
     Skittle poked his finger-tip sized bronze head out of Loraine’s scarf. She cradled him in one hand and gently stroked the ridge along his back. Skittle wrapped tiny forelegs around Loraine’s thumb, his long snake-like tail curled around her wrist, and gave a weak chirp.
     Tom bought the genetically engineered fey creature for Loraine after their youngest son graduated from college and moved out. She named him Skittle for his colorful droppings. The two of them had giggled together like teenagers, played with the young sprite, and fed him white bread cubes soaked in cream. Sprite magic kept their house tidy, revealed lost things, and produced a soothing aura. Young Skittle had filled their home with a relaxing peat-smoke scent.
     But just like them, Skittle was getting old. His purple feathers were tipped with gray, his shiny bronze scales dulled. He didn’t have the energy to fly anymore, and his clear yellow eyes had turned an opaque orange.
     Tom rearranged the scarf around Skittle, nestled in Loraine’s hand. He kissed the top of her head, breathing in her clean lavender scent. She was as lovely today as the day he married her, and it hurt him to see her distressed.
     The screen flickered and a young man in a white lab coat sat down. Tom thought of Doogie Howser, except this youngster was probably in diapers when that show was on TV. “Mr. and Mrs. Williams, I’m Doctor Ferguson. How can I help you today?”
     “A pleasure to meet you doctor,” said Tom. “Skittle, our sprite, seems to be sick.”
     Doctor Ferguson’s smile conveyed the perfect mix of sympathy and clinical concern. “Of course. May I?”
     Loraine rested the small bundle gently on the table and cooed, “There now Skittle sweetie. The nice doctor needs to take a look.”
     Tom pealed back the scarf.
     Skittle’s eyes glowed dark orange. He hissed at the doctor.
     A crash. Dr. Ferguson’s on-screen head was abruptly replaced by his torso. Tom exchanged an exasperated look with his wife as the doctor righted his chair and sat down again, back straight.
     Dr. Ferguson cleared his throat. “Pardon me. How old is your sprite?”
     “About fifteen years.”
     “Do you still have the iron sprite habitat?”
     Tom turned the laptop camera toward Skittle’s metal home on the kitchen table. The box included perches and a sleeping sling. He readjusted the laptop to face himself and Loraine.
     Dr. Ferguson seemed to relax. “You’ll need to put your sprite in the iron habitat and bring him to my office right away.”
     “What’s wrong with Skittle?” demanded Loraine.
     “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid that Skittle is quite old for a domestic sprite. He’s dying.”
     Loraine gasped.
     Tom squeezed her free hand. “Can’t you do something for him?”
     Dr. Ferguson shook his head. “You’ve taken good care of Skittle, he’s lived a long and satisfying life. Longer than most.” Dr. Ferguson cleared his throat. “We have several young sprites to choose from. You can take one home today.”
     Tom and Loraine looked at each other, bewildered. “What about Skittle?” they asked in unison.
     “You’ll have time to say goodbye. We’ll keep him very comfortable and then, uh, euthanize him of course.”
     Skittle growled and Dr. Ferguson leaned away.
     “What? Why would we do that?” Loraine gathered up Skittle and cuddled him against her chest. Tom leaned in to position himself protectively between his wife and the screen.
     Ferguson’s jaw was set. “Domestic sprites were engineered with the intelligence of a Labrador retriever to generate helpful, benign magic. But as they reach the end of their life, genetically engineered sprites revert to their natural, wild state.”
     “So what?”
     “Didn’t you review the warning literature when you bought him? Have you read any traditional fairy tales? Wild sprites create mischief. They are extremely dangerous.”
     “Skittles would never hurt us,” declared Loraine.
     “We won’t abandon Skittle just because he’s old,” Tom agreed.
     “We’re keeping him at home.”
     Ferguson shook his head. “I understand how you feel. Many sprite owners become attached.” He pulled up his sleeve to reveal a row of ugly red scars. “A sprite isn’t a pet like a dog or cat. Skittle is dangerous. By law I can send a HazCon team to confiscate him.”
     Loraine rested her head against Tom’s shoulder and began to cry.
     Tom pulled her close, doing his best not to lose his temper with Dr. Horrible. “Be reasonable. After all the years Skittle has given us, it’s only right that he pass peacefully at home.”
     That evening Loraine made Tom’s favorite meal, chicken enchiladas, for dinner. She and Tom lingered at the kitchen table with Skittle in the iron habitat, and reminisced about the good times with their sprite. They took turns offering Skittle cream-soaked white bread cubes he licked with his forked tongue, but didn’t eat.
     Dr. Ferguson made them both sign a liability waiver. They were not to make any important decisions. No guests, especially not their grandchildren. He and Loraine promised to watch each other for unusual behavior. If they changed their minds, they could bring Skittle to Dr. Ferguson’s office, inside the iron cage.
     Tom began clearing the dishes.
     “Do you want help, dear?” asked Loraine.
     “No way. You cooked this delicious meal, it’s only right that I clean up after.” He gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek and a gentle nudge toward the living room.
     Tom had just filled the sink with soapy water when Loraine sauntered up behind him and whispered in his ear. “You’ll never guess what’s on TV. Gremlins.”
     Tom grinned. Gremlins was the last film they saw in a drive-in. Truth be told, they didn’t actually watch and their daughter was conceived that night. “What about the dishes?”
     She grinned back and shrugged. “The dishes can wait. Want to relive a fond memory?”
     “You bet.” Tom dried his hands. “Be right back.”
     “I’ll make popcorn.”
     Tom left his cane behind and hurried to the bathroom. He opened the medicine cabinet, but his bottle of blue pills was not there. He looked under the sink, on his nightstand, under the bed. The aroma of popcorn wafted from the kitchen. Tom limped back.
     Loraine’s face fell when she saw him. “What’s wrong, darling?”
     From the habitat on the kitchen table, Skittle chirped.
     The liquor cabinet key was the next thing to go missing. Tom lost the rubber tip from his cane. When Tom couldn’t find the TV remote, he knew Skittle had to go.
     Tom shuffled into the kitchen and reached for his favorite coffee cup, World’s Best Grandpa. A deep growl vibrated from the sprite habitat on the table. The sour, spoiled milk stink that permeated the house was strongest there.
     Tom lifted the coffee pot and poured a cup. Though just brewed, it smelled like it’d sat on the warmer all day—burnt. He took a carton of cream from the refrigerator and poured a congealed lump that splashed black sludge onto the countertop. Skittle chirped.
     Eleven days since they’d seen Ferguson, and the damn sprite was still alive. Skittle perched in his habitat and watched Tom with half-closed blood-red eyes. Loraine had been feeding the little monster herself since it bit him. Tom’s finger was still sore.
     He left the cup on the kitchen counter and grabbed a beer bottle from the fridge. He dropped the beer-cap in the trash on top of several empty frozen dinner cartons.
     Loraine had stopped cooking meals, to Tom’s relief. She said it messed up her clean kitchen. The microwave dinners weren’t that bad, and he didn’t have to worry about his wife poisoning his food. Yet.
     Tom limped into the living room, where Loraine was watching an infomercial. If it’s got to be clean, it’s got to be tripe.  He congratulated himself for remembering the TV remote was missing before he sat down. From the panel control, he selected a Hitchcock film, Shadow of Doubt. Loraine got up with a huff just as Tom settled in to watch.
     The film was at the best part—the girl trapped in a garage with an idling car—when Loraine returned armed with their new bag-less vacuum cleaner. Its roar drowned out his program, and she swung the hose around with the ferocity of a Jedi knight combating dust bunnies. She nearly lost the fight when the suction end caught on one of the silly embroidered doilies she kept on the coffee table. She rescued it just in time.
     That weak-minded old woman was clearly affected by the old sprite’s mean-spirited wild magic. Cleaning all the time. Before the sprite’s demise, Loraine had never been so inconsiderate. Now that cleanliness was next to obsessiveness, he stayed out of her way.
     Tom retreated to his workshop in the garage to drink his beer in peace. From the dust-free state of his tools, Tom suspected his wife had even succumbed to her illicit affair with Mr. Clean in the sanctity of his workshop. He needed to put a stop to this. It was only right.
     Everything he needed to commit sprite homicide was laid out on his workbench. The plastic hose, white vinegar jug, baking soda, large Ziploc bags, and measuring cups were all ready for tonight after Loraine went to sleep. In the center was the air-tight storage container big enough for the sprite habitat. Or as that website described it: the euthanasia chamber.
     “Tom!” Loraine called. Her voice had that edge of panic usually reserved for discovering a spider. Why didn’t she do the sensible thing and simply suck it up with the vacuum hose and leave him alone? But, a test subject was just what he needed, so Tom hurried inside and found her in the kitchen.
     She stared into the sprite habitat, still holding the vacuum hose. “Just look at poor Skittle. He’s dying!”
     Skittle drooped on the main perch, eyes closed. The sight of his tiny chest rising and falling with labored breath filled Tom with regret. He wouldn’t get to try out his home-made euthanasia chamber after all.
     Tom awkwardly put his arm around her shoulders, something he hadn’t done in over a week.
     Loraine waved the vacuum hose. “What’ll we do?”
     Tom wrinkled his nose. The stink was strongest near Skittle. “Let’s go out to eat and see a film. It’ll all be over by the time we get back.”
     Loraine sniffed. “But… poor Skittle is suffering!”
     Tom thought of the TV remote and the supplies on his workbench. “We could speed things along a bit. Put Skittle out of his misery.”
     Loraine pushed him away. “What do you mean?”
     In his enthusiasm, Tom forgot his plan was a secret. “Carbon dioxide. Quick and painless. Skittle would go to sleep peaceful-like, and not wake up.”
     Loraine’s hand rested on her hip, eyes narrowed. For a moment Tom thought she might hit him with the vacuum nozzle in her other hand. “You mean kill Skittle? By using the car exhaust or something?”
     The thought had crossed his mind, a few dozen times. “You’re thinking of carbon monoxide. We can make carbon dioxide with vinegar and baking soda.”
     “That stuff in your workshop! You’ve been planning this all along? I thought you were going to make a volcano with the grandkids!”
     She’d found the incriminating evidence. Tom stuttered. “No. No way. A volcano with the kiddies was exactly what I was, um, planning. But, you said as how he’s suffering so we may as well—”
     The outrage on Loraine’s face stopped him mid-sentence. Eyes on the vacuum hose she wielded, Tom shook his head. “Fine. What do you want to do?”
     Loraine reached into the habitat and gently stroked the sprite’s head. A bronze scale came off on her fingertip. “I want to take Skittle to that nice doctor. What was his name?”
     “I’m sure he’ll make Skittle’s last hours… more comfortable.”
     Tom looked at the clock. “Just an hour before closing.” This was working out better than he’d hoped. They’d bring home a new sprite and he’d have his TV remote and blue pills by bedtime. “I’ll get the car keys.”
     Loraine hesitated. “Wait. Just look at the habitat.  It’s a mess.”
     The habitat floor was covered in dried-up bread cubes and rainbow-colored droppings. He shrugged. “I’m sure they’ve seen worse.”
     On his way to the garage, Tom reflected on how young people got to have all the fun. The car keys were missing from the peg. They’d just have to call a cab.
     He found Loraine in the kitchen holding the vacuum nozzle to the habitat floor. She reached for the switch.
     “Loraine! No—”
     The vacuum whooshed, followed a second later by the strained-motor suction of a blocked hose.
     Thwump. The blockage rattled down the hose as the motor roared back to life. Rainbow droppings and a gray, purple and bronze lump spun around the clear canister.
     Loraine cried out, dropped the vacuum hose, and collapsed to her knees.
     Tom switched off the vacuum and disconnected the bin assembly. Or as he would refer to it in the retelling: the euthanasia chamber. He dumped the contents right onto the kitchen floor in front of Loraine. Gray and purple feathers mixed with dust billowed up from the pile of rainbow poo, followed by the plop of Skittle’s crumpled body.
     Tom lowered himself to the floor next to Loraine. They stared at the shimmering pile together in silence.
     The sprite’s bronze scales and feathers began to spin around the body, accelerating until it all collapsed into a ball then burst open like a confetti popper. The liquor cabinet key and scales jingled and bounced off the floor, along with the TV remote, bottle of blue pills, cane tip, car keys, and everything else they’d lost.
     Tom sat back on his heels and rubbed his temples. He felt lighter. The soured sprite aura dissipated and the irritation he’d felt toward Loraine lifted.
     The sprite’s influence was gone.
     Tom recalled his recent horrid behavior. The memories washed over him in a wave of guilt for the way he had treated his wife.
     He gathered Loraine into his arms and caressed her back tenderly. Tom murmured into her ear, “I’m so sorry, lovey.” Skittle had meant so much to his dear wife. He added, “At least it was quick.”
     Loraine smiled for the first time in over a week. “Your method would’ve been better.”
     Tom smiled back. After all these years, he loved his wife and fellow sprite murderer more than ever.

Miriah Hetherington lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. She has never been faced with the agonizing choice to euthanize a family pet… as far as her children know. Miriah’s infrequently updated blog can be found at http://miriah.net/


Stone Flowers By Aidan Doyle

Even though he was a god, Daisuke always removed his shoes before he went inside. It was the polite thing to do.
     He slid open the door and stepped into the front chamber. He stared in surprise at the woman sitting on the tatami mat floor. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to see Yoshiko so clearly. She wore a yellow kimono decorated with white flowers. Her bright eyes and sunrise smile shared her face with an abundance of wrinkles.
     “Please sit down,” she said.
     He knelt in front of the low, wooden table in the center of the room. He couldn’t take his gaze from Yoshiko. She looked almost solid. His own skin was translucent.
     Yoshiko poured two cups of tea and handed one to Daisuke. “The cherry blossoms will be here soon,” she said. “I don’t think the flowers would be as beautiful if they lasted all year. A week or two and they are gone.”
     He couldn’t detect any sadness in her voice, but he knew the significance of her flesh becoming solid had not escaped her.
     “The tea is very good,” he said. “Perhaps the best I have ever tasted.”
     She laughed. “Can you remember all of the tea you have drunk?”
     “No. But I would remember if I’d tasted tea better than this.” Daisuke had lived so long that he couldn’t remember what he was a god of. He liked to think that in his youth he had been a brave warrior god, but his memories were jumbled and confused.
     “A child saw me yesterday,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time before that.”
     “Me neither.” It had been hundreds of years since anyone had worshipped Daisuke and he had faded away so that only other gods could see him. Hikers occasionally wandered through the remains of his shrine, but none of them noticed him.
     He didn’t know what else to say. He couldn’t imagine life without Yoshiko. She was the only one he had spoken to in more than a hundred years.
     She came and sat beside him and the smell of the rising sun filled his nostrils. She took his hand in hers. Her hand was smooth, like buffed leather.
     “Cherry blossom love. Cherry blossom love. Cherry blossom love,” she whispered.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
      She smiled. “It’s a surprise.”
     “I’m too old for surprises.”
     The sound of her laughter warmed his heart. “I must respectfully disagree,” she said.
     They sat together in silence as the light faded outside. Days passed and he felt himself drifting into sleep.
     When he awoke, Yoshiko was gone. Words covered all of the objects in the room. His teacup had the word cup written on it in bright red characters. Yoshiko’s teacup was decorated with the word sun and the character for monkey was inscribed on the table.
     He opened the sliding door and stepped outside. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom. One of the petals fell and drifted down in a slow spiral. He caught it in his hand. It bore the word love.
     How had she known it was possible to influence where the words appeared? Maybe he had once known and had just forgotten. He remembered the time he had slain a demon god that threatened to destroy a village. He had thought the villagers would be grateful, but they had complained about the curse words their children found scattered around the village.
     He took a final look at Yoshiko’s shrine and then set off down the path through the forest. It was quiet except for the sound of the water in a nearby stream. A fish with happiness on its tail swam alongside him and a bird flew overhead carrying sadness on its wings.
     Daisuke’s shrine had been wrecked long ago in an earthquake. Or maybe it had been a fire. The dozen remaining broken buildings were overgrown with moss and surrounded by forest. A building that had once held an altar now contained his futon. The roof had long gone, but he enjoyed sleeping under the stars. The night sky was his own personal garden filled with stellar flowers.
     His collection of polished stones lay on the stairs leading to the room where he slept. He had always enjoyed collecting stones. Maybe he was a god of stones. He wasn’t interested in Zen rock gardens though. They were too complex in their simplicity.
     He spent much of his time wandering through the woods, looking for new stones. One afternoon when he returned to the shrine, he found a man had set up a tripod in front of the fountain and was taking photos. A child wearing a pink jacket and skirt wandered through the ruins. She had ponytails and looked about six years old. When she got closer to him, her eyes blinked in surprise. She stared straight at him.
     “Hello,” she said.
     Daisuke glanced down at his hand. It looked solid. He gazed at the trees around him. It was almost spring again. He had lost track of time. The cherry blossoms were coming.
     “Hello,” he replied.
The girl looked at the stones on the steps. “I like collecting stones. My father said this old shrine has lots of nice ones. May I take one?”
     He nodded. “Please, help yourself.”
     She picked up a red stone he had brought back from Hokkaido and held it up to the sun. “It’s really pretty.”
     “You should ask your father to bring you back here sometime. I am always finding interesting new stones.”
     She nodded. “Thank you.” She turned and skipped over to her father.
     Daisuke went inside his room and waited until they had left. The light faded and he lay down. He had kept the love cherry blossom next to his futon. It had long ago withered and died.
     Before he went to sleep he whispered, “Yoshiko stone. Yoshiko stone. Yoshiko stone.”

Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. He has visited more than 80 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. @aidan_doyle



George Henderson knew that Anna had always liked cats. She never had less than four felines in the house, and she talked to and cared for them as if they were her children, which, in a sense, they were, since their own were all grown and gone. George and Anna were both retired, and like many retired couples spent much of their time alone together. The cats were Anna’s only company when George wasn’t out running errands or doing volunteer work at the senior citizen’s community center. George hadn’t minded the cats when Anna first started getting them some fifteen years ago, but now they were always underfoot, annoying George when he tried to eat, climbing up on him whenever he sat down. To make matters worse, for some reason they never seemed to listen to him, only
     “Anna,” George said to her one night, as he shared their bed with the cats, “I think maybe we should do something about these cats. Give them away to a shelter, maybe, or sell them to our neighbors. I’m worried that…”
     “No!” Anna said, with sudden catlike ferocity. George stared at her, startled, and realized that the cats were also watching him, with eyes that suddenly looked ominous in the shadows at the foot of the bed. “I won’t give up my children.”
     “Our real children are all grown up now,” George reminded her. “They’re not people, Anna, they’re pets.” It was exasperating. But he knew from experience that Anna wouldn’t budge. George knew that in the end it was up to him alone to do something, no matter how drastic it was. Otherwise, the cats would drive both of them nuts.
     The next day, George took Anna for her regular physical therapy appointment. While she was in the doctor’s office, he went to a nearby Burger King to grab something to eat, thinking dark thoughts about the cats while he ate his lunch.
     Why can’t you just leave me alone in peace and quiet, he thought. If you were dogs, I bet we’d get along just fine. Then he shook his head. Watch it, son. You’ll wind up even crazier than Anna.
     After they got home, George tried once again to reason with Anna about the cats, but she still wouldn’t listen. George could feel the cats watching him again as they went to bed that night, their sinister eyes staring at him from the darkness. That night, George dreamed that he was being chased down a road in a forest, trying to escape from giant cats that howled at him, reaching out with long, razor-sharp claws. He was sure that one of them was Anna herself, in her true form, as they came down on him in a mass of fur, claws, and teeth…
     The next morning, Anna hummed an old song from her youth as she merrily went through the house, dusting and cleaning without pain like she hadn’t been able to do in ages. The cats that she had always thought of as her own children followed her around. One of them was a tabby that she didn’t remember seeing before. It seemed to desperately want her attention, but when Anna bent down to pet it, the cat only hissed at her.
     Anna shrugged. “Alright, Georgie, if that’s the way you feel.” Anna fed the other cats first, putting the tabby’s bowl down last, away from the others. It stayed there, seemingly afraid of her and the other cats, before finally eating its food. Anna didn’t know why she called the cat Georgie, or even where it had come from, only that it seemed to have been with her for quite some time now, ever since…she couldn’t remember that part. The cat just seemed familiar, as if it reminded her of someone she’d once known long ago.
     Anna sighed. The other cats would get used to Georgie, and he’d have a good home from now on. Anna always knew how to take care of her family.

Matthew Spence was born in Cleveland, Ohio and lives in Parkersburg, West Virginis. His work has appeared in SQ Mag, Under the Bed, New Realm, and Nebula Rift.


Your Most Precious of Gifts by Jason Lairamore

I must leave you for awhile, but I will be back. That gift of yours, your most precious of gifts, cannot be abided.

You can still see.

Even in the darkest night there is a little light and as dreadful as it is, it permeates everything.  And there is color … color to fill a spectrum with names all over, names created by you, just made up jargon that rolls in your mouth and gives noise to hang it on. You see a thing. You hear a word. You do that over and over then dumb it down. You forget a few. You add a few. You change a few. It continues on and on … silly.

The blasted light and your precious eyes! A gift so misplaced. Animals. You have eyes! You have eyes yet you do not see. You do not see the right things.

You throw words around like they make a matter. What are words to your precious eyes? Don’t answer that. Why should your answer interest me? Don’t answer that either.

Long ago, before your words took root, we ventured and paraded in your light. We took a few of you below. We listened. We saw. We used senses you know nothing about. And, though a few of us did for a time rout about causing mischief, and a few may still ponder about up there, we, from most parts, returned below, above … around. You wouldn’t get it. Don’t try.

I’m not being fair, or clear, and I don’t care. It is enough that I’m less bored enough to play with your words and jot down a few for you to find the next time you tidy up your bedroom.

As you see so do we. Time has rent it’s bend on you and us. Our interests, our worlds, come closer in scope every day. That beloved eye of yours, in your thick skulled head with its shallow grooved brain, will one day spread from that seed of a hindbrain.

It’s exciting. One day that precious gift that keeps you safe, pure happenstance as it may be, one day that gift will wilt and flake. And there I will be, in the hateful light … a herald? harbinger? Mere words. Your words won’t be able to describe that day.

My left fore-claw has a good strong talon – a point to draw blood, a serrated edge to slice that flimsy ‘cloth’ you use to hide your many weaknesses. I admire its dull sheen in the gloom just within the light, your light. But don’t worry. Not yet. Not yet. Not while your precious gift – that manufactured thing, protects you.

The light brought you your pitiful eyes. Your words destroyed all concepts, all purity. All of that misguided rot shapes your beloved reality. But that defective actuality is not the gift. No. That’s not what wilts, not what flakes away. That is something else. Something your brain’s word-bound world calls innocence.

When that is gone … I dance – left hoof, right hoof – I marionette up and down – my scaly fur all a-bristle. We shall see – both you and me. One day, that day. You will see… and I don’t mean with those ridiculous eyes.

Jason Lairamore lives in Oklahoma with his beautiful wife and their three monstrous children. His work is both featured and forthcoming in over 40 publications to include Perihelion Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories, Third Flatiron publications, and Postscripts to Darkness, to name a few. “Your Most Precious of Gifts” was originally published at infectiveink.com in 2012.


From the Editor’s Lair by Jennifer Brozek

I’ve read everything EGM.Shorts has received up to August 20th. If you have a story out that you sent in before July 1st and have not heard back, please query.
Thoughts about the slush pile:
     1. Reminder: if you are sending in a horror story, it must have a supernatural or sci-fi element to it. Too much of the horror I’ve received is straight horror that could happen in everyday life. That’s not what I want to read.
     2. Still looking for reprints. Just an FYI. I have almost none in my queue and half of what I buy is reprints. This means you have an excellent shot at making the sale. In particular, I’d like to see reprints from 2014 or before. I won’t accept reprints from 2015.
     3. I’m getting a lot of flash fiction right at or below 500 words. 500 words is the absolute minimum. I would prefer closer to 1000 words.
    4. EGM.Shorts will be closing to new submissions on October 31st, 2015.
Here’s what we have for September, including the longest story I’ve accepted from any author for EGM.Shorts. This month’s unexpected theme appears to be about pets.
     “Your Most Precious of Gifts” by Jason Lairamore
     “The Woman Who Loved Cats” by Matthew Spence
     “Stone Flowers” by Aidan Doyle
     “Lost in a Vacuum” by Miriah Hetherington
     “The Rescue” by Olli Crusoe
     “Destroy All Human Resource Departments” by Robert Quinlivan
     “Station 352A” by Wendy Nikel
You can read all of our previous flash fiction at the EGM.Shorts Archive page.

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