Posts Tagged ‘short stories
I wrote this story today. It’s short but says something. I think.
“I support a woman’s right to choose. It’s as simple as that. It’s her body.” Linda repeated the statement as mantra, just as she’d heard it said to her so many times by her classmates at Stanford.
“But it’s a baby, or it could be,” said Neil. He sipped his coffee and leaned back in his chair. He smashed down a rising anger within.
“It’s the mother’s body,” she repeated.
That evening, Linda went to bed with the normal and human expectation of waking the next morning. She had no terminal disease of which she was aware.
But aliens from the planet Halmatrus decided that they wanted to experiment with human ethical reasoning. How far could the Halmatrusians stretch the ethos of any given human being? Linda happened to be one of the subjects chosen for the alien’s scientific experiment which consisted of this: A person was chosen who held strong opinions on a given subject. The human was then transported back in time, and placed in a situation that challenged the person’s ability to remain faithful to his or her professed beliefs.
“You will be sent back in time, Linda Higgins,” the chief scientist explained to her. “and there, you will make some very important choices that could change the future.”
Linda thought that this was a grand opportunity. How many people get the chance to change the future? She had several things in mind. Several ways in which she could make the time to come much better than it had turned out in the future.
One day, in the past, Linda found a young woman, about the same age as Linda herself, crying at a bus stop. It took Linda several minutes to calm the lady down.
“What’s wrong? Can I help?” Linda loved to feel as though she were helping those who couldn’t help themselves.
“I just found out I’m pregnant,” said the young woman. “I can’t bring up a baby alone. My parents will disown me.”
“There are options you know.” Linda reassuringly ran her hand over the crying woman’s hair. “There’s a family planning clinic down the street. Have you considered it?”
“I couldn’t.” The woman looked up at Linda, searching for Linda’s argument. It was then that Linda delivered the most beautiful, succinct speech on a woman’s right to choose if she gave birth or not. The speech was soft, yet strong; she gave all of the reasons that a woman should only have babies that they felt were fated for a good life. “This is a bad world, a tough world,” Linda said. “why bring a life to it that has less than it will need to thrive?”
When Linda was done talking, the woman felt better. She wiped the tears from her cheeks. Only a rose colored glow gave evidence that she had been crying. She was convinced and relieved. The woman knew, now and thanks to Linda, that she would not have to live with the burden of an unwanted baby.
Two weeks later, the woman scheduled an appointment with a doctor at the family planning clinic. And two weeks after that, she went in to have a procedure done. A procedure that guaranteed that the fetus growing in her womb would not grow too large and become what we call a baby, and that baby would not have to deal with the pains of life. That was how the woman made herself feel better about what she’d done. She’d spared the child unnecessary pain.
Guilt may have taken root in the woman if she had known the effects of her actions. Just as the doctor completed the procedure, Linda blinked from existence. She simply disappeared, leaving a void in space for a nano second. The void closed with a crack, leaving no evidence that Linda had ever existed.
If only Linda would have asked the young woman her last name. If only. She may have recognized the name as her mother’s maiden name. And then, Linda may have considered the metaphysical aspects of her actions, that she had endorsed her own wiping from history.
Back on the planet Halmatrus, the scientists there were awed by humanity’s ability to stand up for what it believed in.
Wrote this one in while eating pizza and drinking a beer at Mello Mushroom in Greenville.
Can you figure out who the narrator is?
The Thirteenth Labor
Yea, I know. I’m puttin’ the demi back in demigod these days. Stop staring. I’m workin’ on it. Bought one of those ab machines last week. I broke it. Piece of junk. So what if the gut’s a little flabby? I can still kick ass if I need to.
Things have been okay; got me a place downtown, on First Street. A decent car too; good gas mileage.
Like a beer? I like this Coors Lite stuff; doesn’t fill me up and it’s cheap. Back in the day it was all wine. Used to drink the stuff like water, then the years passed and I fell on hard times. Three bottles a day of Wild Irish Rose. I went downhill quick. Strictly a beer-man now.
Don’t shake your head. Despite what you see here, I was a ball-buster when I was young. And if you tell me you’ve never heard of me, I’ll slap the taste outta your mouth. Things just started gettin’ to me. Around the time of the Stymphalian Birds. Got a little twitch in my right eye, a little shake in my hand. What? A legend can’t have issues? You try takin’ out a flock a’ flamingos-from-hell, see how it is. Pretty soon, you’ll be getting’ a disability check too.
Geryon sealed it though. I was pretty messed. Drunk pretty much all the time after that. Kept goin’ though. Put the beat-down on Cerberus even though I could barely stand. That was one pissed off mutt. By the way, he didn’t have three heads; I just saw three heads. Homer (who was a chick by the way; no she wasn’t hot) thought three heads made a better story than one. I’d have to agree.
My therapist says I’ve got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She gets paid a lot of money to come up with that crap. But what would anyone expect? Theseus kills a guy with horns on his head. Perseus offs Medusa. They’re big-time heroes. Ladies all over ‘em all the time. Me? I gotta do twelve suicide missions. One’s not enough for my lovely step-mom. Oh yea. Step-mom. Real sweetheart, that one. Tries to punch my ticket at every turn but Dad still won’t leave her. She’s got him by the short-n’-curlies. He knows she’d get the mansion on Olympus and besides, no ruler-diety can get divorced; it breaks up the image of perfection. Just keep smilin’ when you’re out in public, Dad. Course, Dad makes his own problems. Can’t keep it in his pants. Really likes the mortal ladies. After all, here I am.
Finally, I just had to get away from it all. My last wife knew about Dad’s shenanigans and she knew a little of his act rubbed off on me. So she just couldn’t help but try a little of Nessus’ saltpeter on me. Hydra venom does have the tendency to take the romance outta ya. Thanks, Hon. Got a huge tat on my back trying to cover up the scars from where my skin ripped off. No, it doesn’t say: I love Mom. The pain’s still bad, but the pills help. There’s a saying: Religion is the opium of the masses. I say opium is the opium of the masses.
So after the fourth divorce, I faked the whole funeral pyre thing. Hit the road. Saw more of the world. At least Hera left me alone. Even the other Olympians felt sorry for me, started the rumor that I’d been accepted as one of them. Mommy-dearest was too busy messin’ up the war in Troy to see any different. I kicked ass a few more times, but nothin’ serious really.
I had to get this all out. Go ahead, write it down, print it, talk about in on Oprah. Whatever. People have to know the truth. I want kids to know that someday, they can be on top of the world and then it may all come crashing down. That’s when they’ll find out who their true friends are. Oh, and drugs are bad—real bad.
For right now, I’m lookin’ at a comeback. Got an agent. Been workin’ out. Little less beer. The gray hairs can be fixed. I’m workin’ hard on this—real hard. Memoir; Hollywood option. But you’re the first to hear it made public. A photo? Hold on, let me get my club.
Names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent. Yes it’s true.
Pet Bumble Bee
I’d been working as a police officer for the Bangor Police Department for about 4 years I think. Still had a lot of energy, still liked to get into trouble.
It was a fall day as I remember it, and I’d seen a fellow that I knew to have warrants for his arrest. By the time I parked my cruiser somewhere around the corner, near Main St. he’d disappeared.
Later that day, I was working through on some overtime, and I saw the same fellow on the same area of Main St. in front of what used to be Sweet’s Market. This time I was already in a position to park quickly.
Walking around the corner of the store, I saw him immediately change direction upon catching sight of me. I quickened my own gate, and told him to stop, that I needed to talk to him.
He did stop. He turned and produced what looked like an Altoids tin. I asked him what it was for, and he said that his pet bee was inside. Indeed, he cracked the lid, and a bumble bee staggered drunkenly around inside the box. He snapped the lid shut, and looked at me as if he’d showed me the contents of the Ark of the Covenant.
Let’s call the fellow Bill. Little did I know that Bill was suffering from a terrible brew of Schizophrenia, Lysergic Acid, and a bad childhood. I politely and professionally informed Bill that there was a warrant for his arrest. He shook his head and said confidently, “No there isn’t.”
He said it with such grace and assurance, that I almost caught myself saying: “Oh. Sorry to bother you, Bill. Nice Bee. Have a good one.”
Shaking off such thoughts, I reiterated the warrant issue and told Bill to turn around and place his hands behind his back. Nope. Uh-uh. Bill had plans tonight, he and his bee. He started to walk away from me, each step quickening as I followed trying to close the distance. Finally I lunged and caught his arm.
Have you ever seen video of a feral cat that discovers it’s attached to a leash? This was now Bill. My favorite maneuver for getting people to the ground was to grasp them by the wrist with one hand, while applying pressure to the back of the elbow. Then a quick turn of the hips, pulling the suspect around in an ever closing circle, down to the ground. Worked every time–almost.
Seems like Bill’s experimentation with psychedelics, combined with whatever else he had going on, was enough to give him the agility of Tarzan. Oh yeah–he was bellowing like an enraged Mandrill too…
After about three revolutions, I figure that we looked like we were dance partners. Quickly brushing off feelings of disappointment at my favorite technique’s failure, I changed directions and launched him Judo-style into a flower bed at the base of a tree. I immediately dove on top of him, as he didn’t seem in the least stunned by the fall.
There he was face down on the pavement, my knees pressing into his back. I managed to get one hand in a handcuff, when Bill begins screaming at the top of his lungs: “He’s trying to fuck me in the ass!” He repeated his assertion several times. I looked in through the glass to Sweet’s Market, making eye contact with several customers standing in line. In my mind, I really hoped they saw my uniform, so they’d know that I had no interest in Bill’s rear end.
Then Bill amazed me again. Not only had he foiled my invincible take-down attempt at a mere 150 lbs., he also was managing to keep his other hand away from me. I can’t remember anyone that I had so much trouble hand-cuffing in almost 8 years. The whole time, he’s still screaming, and I’m pulling at his other arm.
Then a man, maybe early to mid-fifties kneels down next to me. He’s wearing a ball cap that said he was a retired US Marine. He asks me in a calm voice, if I’d like some help.
“Oh no….I’m….doing….alright. Thanks though.”
He helped me anyways and we got Bill into cuffs. The man walked away and I never got his name and I never got to say thanks.
Mr. Marine Veteran, if you’re there. Thanks.
Wrote this a couple of months back. Not sure what to think of it.
Anderson Edwards hunched over the old table; a table covered in the etchings of family member’s names. There was Bobby and Joseph and Crazy Ed. Bits of sand scratched his elbows, but he didn’t notice for the four shots of vodka that now sat in Anderson Edwards’ stomach. He touched the loaded semi-automatic handgun that lie before him, dragged his index finger over the serial number, felt the steel grip as if it belonged to a sacred relic.
Indeed, the gun was a sacred piece to a newly formed death-cult, of which Anderson was the founding member, the only member—the final member.
Anderson Edwards swung his lolling head and peered out a window. He saw the universe mocking him, flaunting the beauty that he had failed to see all of his life. Blue moonlight sprayed obliquely through the two windows that faced the lake, falling upon half his face and half upon the table, further roiling him by highlighting the names of his father and mother, each separated by a small carved heart and dated 1968. They’d left him too, like everyone else had. His thoughts drifted to his ex-wife.
“That’s right, Honey, you got the kitchen sink. There’s nothing left now. Are you happy!” he swayed back, holding the bottle of vodka, yelling at the timbered ceiling of the camp’s bunkhouse. He stood with the help of the table, shuffled his feet on the gritty floor and found the mirror that hung on the wall at the foot of the bunk-beds.
He stared into his own eyes, scanned the reflection of his face. The vodka seemed to be pulling his cheeks down and his eyes too. Also the corners of his mouth. Anderson Edwards watched himself sip from his shot glass. Water of Life is what the Russians called it. “Water of Death’d be better,” he muttered.
It wasn’t long before his image danced before him; a mesmerism in the shadow. Edwards watched his form stretch, the borders of his body become pliable as if he were putty being molded by an invisible child. The vodka of course. And he was tired. And he wanted to die.
Then the reflection gathered, reconstructed itself to become a semblance of what it had been before; a simple man, alone, in the dark with no one that loved him, in a world that he hated.
His lip quivered a bit, his chin wrinkling. He swirled his drink and gulped the rest. The burning of the alcohol choked back the cry that tried to escape his throat. Looking up from the floor, weeping ambushed him.
Great sobs echoed through the damp wood of the cabin. It pleased him to see himself weep. Anderson Edwards seemed to gain some great self-knowledge as he watched his face crinkle, tears roll down his cheeks. Best of all though, was the sound—a symphony of despair. The sound proved that the world was no place for him.
He studied his own eyes again, thought about going back to the table for the gun. But now his eyes shone with a joy that Anderson Edwards thought vanished since childhood. He shifted his vision down to his mouth and found the corners upturned. His teeth were even showing! The shot glass bounced twice on the floor, the now empty hand reaching to probe the terrain of his face. A smile?
No. His fingers found the same frown. Still, the drying trails from his tears covered his cheeks.
“Hello, Anderson.” His reflection’s mouth moved with the intonations of the words. “Why so sad?”
Adrenaline shot through his body. “What…” He stumbled back, a hand reaching by instinct and smashing through a window into the crisp air outside. He dragged his arm back through the jagged glass, streaming sanguine fluid.
“Careful, Anderson. See, you’ve cut yourself.” The reflection’s smile softened only a bit.
“This isn’t real,” insisted Anderson.
“Isn’t it? Does it matter now? I know what you plan on doing.” The figure in the mirror folded his arms, and now its eyes seemed to be set afire; they shone with a color like that of the moonbeam. “I think you should reconsider. I have a better plan.”
Anderson shook his head. “This is the plan for me. Nothing’s gonna stop it now. There’s nothing left. No reason for anything.” He cursed himself for debating with something he knew wasn’t real.
“Let’s switch places then. The universe is a big, complicated place, Anderson. It’s bad place. But here, where I am, it’s pretty darn good.”
“Who are you?” said Anderson.
The thing snickered. “Who do I look like?”
“Than I’m you.”
Anderson slumped down against the wall until his rump hit the floor. His head hung between his knees as he spoke. “Look out there. The lake, the moon, the pine trees. Can you smell them?”
“I know. It’s horrible isn’t it? I’d like to help. Do a little switcharoo with you.” The thing motioned to Anderson. “Common.”
What was there to lose? He’d planned on spraying his brains across the lake anyway. Gathering himself, his rose. Blood quivered at the end of his fingertips before splashing onto the floor. Two steps forward and he stood face to face with his smiling reflection, the simmering moon-glow of the simulacrum’s eyes pressing into his soul.
“Just say it. That’s it and you’ll be here, I—there,” the reflection said.
“Where are you? I mean what is there?” Anderson flittered his head toward the mirror and stared intently at the area behind the figure. He saw nothing but the shadows and the broken window behind him. A loon knelled from the dark lake.
“It’s a place where you can finally find acceptance.” The figure’s face became serene, seemingly losing its contour. “I’ve been here for a while so I think it’s time I share my spot with someone else.”
“But you said you’re me,” said Anderson.
“Well, I will be you—I want to be you.”
“That’s a mistake. You don’t know what it’s like to have no one. It’s better being dead—you’ll see.” Anderson Edwards scratched his head, brought his hand to in front of his face. The ache from the wound had finally burrowed through his drunkenness. It throbbed with each beat of his heart. “Okay. I want to be there.”
His image still stood before him though, and the grin had returned. “Thank you Anderson. Thank you so much. You’ll find what you want, I’m sure.”
Placing his hand on the mirror, Anderson tried to push through it, into the other world. But his hand did not penetrate to another existence, it merely settled on the cool, dusty glass.
It brought a jolt to him when his reflection took a single step back, spun on its heel, then walked away. Anderson Edwards angled himself with the glass so that he could watch his image walk. He watched the mirage pause at the picnic table, pick up the handgun, then walk out the door without looking back. He turned to look at the real table. Gone. The loon had fallen silent. And there was no breeze—no cabin walls.
But there was a moon. No! Two! And blood red, one as big as a cup platter, the other a dinner plate, each faintly streaked with flowing yellows and orange. The air felt a tinge warmer. Anderson Edwards began to choke. He rubbed his eyes.
Then, marching from the antediluvian mist that wafted around Anderson’s feet, from the utter darkness that surrounded Anderson Edwards but for the crimson swath cut by the terrible moons, two dark men, skin the color of onyx, dressed in white, linen robes. As they approached, Anderson saw that they had no hair, their faces possessed an inhuman angularity—sharp and long. Their arms hung a bit too low; a few inches below their knees, and their legs, long and lean, strode with inordinate grace. When they’d drawn to within ten yards, they stopped and stared. Anderson Edwards heard a voice, but both beings’ mouths remained still—some would say grim—but when Anderson heard the voice, he heard the voice of an angel. Had he in fact off’d himself at the lake and found what the here-after is like? Maybe God found a bit of mercy for poor, unloved Anderson and decided he shouldn’t remember the final act.
“Anderson Edwards,” the voice said “welcome.”
“Where am I?” asked Anderson, strangely calm.
“This is the epicenter of the multiverse’s pleasure—and its pain. From here, you can move from one shadow-reality to the next. The only caveats being that in order to leave one’s previous reality, another must willingly replace you, and the sum total of pleasure and pain in the universe must remain balanced. It is a rare distinction to be given this chance, Anderson Edwards.”
What was Anderson’s replacement doing now? Probably finishing off the vodka.
The voice continued: “We understand that you wished to terminate your existence, as you lack the feeling of being loved. Since the adoration of others, at all costs, seems to be what makes you happiest, we believe we have found a proper match for you.”
In the space between Anderson Edwards and the strange beings, a rectangle of purest darkness bloomed and hovered not more than a foot from the ground. It bore the same shape as the mirror in the bunkhouse.
“Look,” said the voice.
Hesitatingly, he walked to the dark rectangle. He ground his teeth as he edged himself around to peer into space and time. Within the blackness, beyond it, a man paced to and fro, his hands locked behind the small of his back. Somehow Anderson Edwards knew the face, but more he knew the clothing. The man turned and walked to stand in front of Anderson Edwards.
A deep sorrow flowed from the little man’s eyes. Those eyes told Anderson Edwards what to do next:
“Let’s change places for a bit. I know what you’re planning. I can see it in your face. There’s a better place for you here.”
The man jumped and spoke in a language not familiar to Anderson Edwards, but that he somehow understood.
“Vile revenant! Be gone. My hour nears and I’ll face it with honor. No escape for me.” The man straightened his long blue coat, swiped his hand across the tops of his high leather boots, then inspected his work. Finally, with his fingers, he combed back a tuft of his thin, dark hair from his forehead.
“You won’t lose any honor by living another day. It’s only smart,” said Anderson Edwards. “And maybe you can come back someday.”
The man paused. It was obvious that he now considered the truth in Anderson Edwards’ words. A few more moments of negotiation and finally the man said: “Very well, another start for me. Another exit from doom’s stage.”
At the words, Anderson Edwards found himself adjusting the very same tall boots, straightening the identical jacket and hair, his former life only an echo in his subconscious mind. He strode out through the flapping aperture of his tent, pulling on his thick, leather riding gloves and fixing his cavalry saber at his waste. With great arrogance he set his famous hat on his head. Around him, men saluted as he moved by them. In their eyes, Anderson Edwards saw what he cherished most: unconditional admiration. Each man saluted him, but such was their respect, they cared not that no salute returned to them, only an astute nod.
All across a wet, grassy land, thousands of men had gathered, all dressed in the same vestments as Anderson Edwards, and preparing themselves for some great endeavor. Thousands of men, hundreds of thousands of men, each of them as his beck.
He climbed onto his steed then weaved his way through the encampment. The horse snorted its own love for its rider. Anderson found what he looked for: eighty cannon manned by his expectant soldiers. He glanced at his pocket watch: 11:50.
“Soldiers of the Fifth!” he cried, lifting his saber from its scabbard. All of the men within earshot turned. “Let us finish this before supper. Your emperor can ask nothing more from you than your blood.” He smiled at this, and snickers rippled through the regiment. “But I prefer to ask for the blood of our enemy!” At this he cut the air with the blade, prompting a roar from his soldiers.
“Vive L’Empereur! Vive L’Empereur!”
A Lieutenant locked eyes with him, and with a determined countenance, turned and shouted orders at the crews attending the cannon.
“Grande Batterie—charger le canon!” Thirty seconds later: “Feu!”
The guns thundered, vomiting ball shot. The iron spheres fell amidst Wellington’s troops as they assembled for war. Some spheres found their targets, tearing brave men apart, others simply sunk deep into the wet mourne plain of a small village called Waterloo.
Anderson Edwards never felt more loved.
I’m trying to get all of my stories posted on here before I go to basic. I won’t be able to write much but an occasional email or letter while there. For me, that’ll probably be the worst part, as it took me 32 years to find out exactly what I was meant to do: write.
I sent this story in to the recent Writer’s of the Future contest. It didn’t win, but I still think it’s an admirable story considering I wrote it not more than a few months into my writing life.
Some may find it a bit arcane, because it contains many references to Norse Mythology. My intent was to keep what was going on in the story a bit cryptic, so you end the story still wondering what certain things meant, but also enjoying the outcome.
Here’s one of my best: Now, Twilight.
Destroying the saviors of Homeworld was simple. Drag and click. Drag and Click. Jared Haskins sat in front of the computer screen, sullen, dark circles orbiting his still darker eyes. This was his twelfth hour now, monitoring the system, making logs for needed supplies and of course, sending the warriors of Valhalla to Hel. The space station, Gladsheim, spun in the ether, waiting for that one request from the blue and white marble below. Haskins hoped he’d be awake when the call came.
“Playin’ games again I see.”
Jared turned to his right to see Samuel, with his little vacuum attached to his belt and a tube of calking material grasped in his hand.
“Hey, you just worry about your job, I’ll worry about mine,” said Jared smiling and leaning back in the nylon harness. “I think there’s a dust bunny under here, come get it for me.”
The skinny, almost skeletal Sam kicked off the rivet studded wall, and tumbled like a fifty year old acrobat, then bounced from the metal struts above Jared before coming to rest behind him. Sam swept clean the work space, mumbled something about young men these days, moved to the other side of the chamber.
The amphetamine analogue that Jared had popped was wearing off, fatigue was setting in and his lids were snapping shut before Sam’s appearance. Sam finished his scheduled cleaning for the day, singing some wet navy song that drilled into Jared’s head and made his ears hurt.
A voice’s echo bounced from the corridor and into Jared’s module. “Mr. Haskins. Two more hours. Is everything in order?” Hobbs drifted in, his presence filling the room. His face was square and muscular; a barely visible scar sweeping from his left ear to the tip of his chin.
“Yes, Colonel. I just placed another order for some BAWs. We were down two after last weeks skirmish in Sudan.” He sat up, doing his best to appear alert.
“Good. Anything else?” Hobbs picked a chart from the wall.
“E-mail says we’re do for another coilgun shot in two days,” said Jared. “I’m hoping the BAWs will be on it, along with the normal stuff.” The patch stared at him from Hobbs’ arm; a stylized dragon, bearing teeth and encircling Earth. Printed around the edge of the distinction were the emblazoned words: STRIKE FROM SPACE, STRIKE FROM DARKNESS. Jared wanted to wear that patch, but his own Quartermaster Corps insignia would have to suffice. Hobbs’ crest noted him as a recipient of the Aero/Orbital Nuclear Deployment and Jump School. The combat badge that adorned the colonel’s lapel made it all the more dignified. Hobbs had been hardened in battle; he was set apart, proven in the crucibles of Bolivia and Burma.
Hobbs was still looking at the chart as Jared spoke and finished, then after a few seconds, Hobbs turned and said, “Excellent.” At that, he launched himself through the hatch’s opening, streaking down the cylindrical portal that connected the records and supply module to the station’s main body.
A small alert signaled on the screen, pulling Jared’s attention back to his work. He rubbed his eyes and stretched, yawned, then moved his face close to the display. The BAW in capsule eighteen was experiencing mild psychogenic tremors; ripples that emanated from a dormant lucidity and pushed upstream along the fiber-optic highway that led to Valhalla. Jared blew air out through his pursed lips, and sat waiting
for the phantasm disperse. The thought of calling Alistair in at this stage in his shift made him sick. Jared didn’t need the problems right now, or Alistair’s insane ranting and jibes.
Thirty two seconds passed before the alert ceased. A Master-at-Arms checked in, making his rounds, said hello, and left.
Relief came in the form of two powder blue barbiturates, carried down his throat by saliva alone. He strapped into his hammock, grey streams of illusory fatigue sweeping through his bloodstream and finally joining with adenosine receptors, carrying his mind to shades of gray and black, but very little white.
The swarm oozed over the land, smashing into blood and bone. The howl of the Einherjar, like a cymbal, echoes and booms down the valley. See them now, steeds of snarling flesh and yet with the grace of fairies. Ladies lift the sword and guide the fallen to Hoden. Do not deny my right among them! You have left me, found me unworthy, sent me to the land of shades and cowards.
A cry shattered dark silence. Sweat poured from his brow and Jared’s eyes blinked in darkness. He coughed and cleared his throat. The nightmares were coming too often and more intensely. He would see the doctor again when he awoke later. Only three hours of sleep remaining and he would be back to his screen, watching the blinking stars through the port hole, waiting to return to his wife, Allana.
When his rest was finished, he peeled himself from the cot and stared at the steel mirror riveted into the panel next to him. He had aged. His muscles were thinning and so was, it seemed, his skin which in some places was virtually transparent, veins protruding and dull gray-purple flesh visible between the
bones on the back of his hand. He pulled a vacuum-razor over his chin hoping the face of a living man would replace the gaunt visage staring at him.
“What did you do to the system last night?”
Jared turned from the mirror. Alistair, with his pointed nose, high forehead and always serious stare.
“You did something again and I’m reporting it to the colonel. It’s bordering on incompetence, Jared. I can’t be around to watch you all the time.” Alistair pushed himself into the tight quarters and grabbed a metal rung. “What happened?”
Jared looked back at the polished surface and continued shaving for a while without responding; the sight of Alistair’s thin frame squirming with nervousness had started the new cycle off quite well.
“I didn’t do anything. The system’s glichy. You know that. And when I went to bed, all the vatties were night-night. Only one tremor the whole shift.” Jared turned and grinned.
“The colonel will know about what I think.” Alistair kicked away and was gone.
Jared’s meal can was full of goodies: freeze dried, emulsified and hydrolyzed. He picked out a small plastic tube, popped the cap, and squeezed down the grape flavored jelly with 500 milligrams of ascorbic acid. Next, powdered egg and a shot of instant coffee from his thermos. Forty-two more cycles until he was in his wife’s arms again. She sat, gravity-bound, waiting for him and comforting Haldous, his son, who asked everyday when Daddy would return so they could go see the new park that had been built nearby the flat. Jared and Allana marked each work-cycle on a calendar.
“I see you’re actually coming to work today.”
After he’d shrugged into his coveralls, Jared looked out into the connecting passage to see Sam. The janitor sipped from his seemingly endless supply of coffee.
Jared’s arms worked against flexing carbon fiber, tensing and giving, struggling against the tensile resistance.
“Forty-two more cycles, Sam, just forty-two more.” He stopped his workout for a moment, grabbed a handful of flabby skin on the back of his arm and shook it. “See that? It’s like I’ve aged ten years since I’ve been up here.” He switched the resistance straps so they could accommodate leg work and began rhythmically squatting. “How do you do it? Ten month tours?”
“Where else could I have this much fun? Besides, you’re not missing as much as you think down there. I just miss cigarettes.”
Jared finished and moved past Sam, who followed, still talking.
“It’s cold as hell on the surface,” said Sam.
Alistair overheard the conversation as they walked into the core. There, Valhalla blinked and hummed, heat sinks pulling waves of thermal energy from the massive processor.
“The polar shift is having its effects. There was virtually no summer last season in North America. We’ll have to wait and see what happens this year,” said Alistair. Several technicians moved around in the clean-room. They all wore pristine, white coveralls and their faces were shrouded in filter masks. They were ghosts, drifting in the hallowed halls of Hoden, tending to the fallen, who were being prepared for the final battle again and again.
“Go do something, Jared. You’re making me nervous with your penchant for damaging things.” Alistair finally looked up, glaring.
The only thing for him to do was to go to his station, though he had several minutes before he had to report. He moved through the corridors, headed for the supply module.
“I’ll take over,” he said to Helen.
She looked up at him. “Hey, you’re early. Just to let you know there’s been a few tremors in the last couple of hours. Nothing serious though.”
He strapped himself into his seat. Helen headed for her bunk. The routine checklist was the first duty in order. Gladsheim’s nuclear missiles lay ready to obliterate the enemies of Homeworld. The coilgun shot was still scheduled for tomorrow. When the cargo arrived, everything would be at full capacity. He palmed two Sympamines, looked behind him and listened for a moment, then tossed them to the back of his throat and gulped some more bitter coffee. Within sixty seconds he could feel his consciousness expanding, his eyes shifting from side to side and the fast descending feeling of boredom peeling away. Before he could finish the checklist, the screen in front of him was alerting to another tremor.
“Here we go again,” he said, attaching his incomplete report to the wall then returned to the flashing red light in front of him. Eighteen again. He checked Valhalla’s firewall and found it intact. Moving the cursor over to Valhalla’s icon, he double clicked and checked the thirty memory rips logged in the hard drive. The green bars there indicated stable cortical records. He creased his eyebrows and blinked. There was a memory rip missing. He counted them—twenty-nine. A deep breath was followed by a light tapping of his forehead off the desk.
The comm unit crackled. “Go ahead.”
“There’s a problem I just found while I was doing inventory.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Alistair entered and went to the screen. “What’s the problem now?”
“We’re missing a memory rip.” Jared pointed to the vacant slot on the screen.
“Well, someone must have deleted it by accident or not logged a legitimate deletion.”
“I didn’t do shit. Why are you always trying to find what I did wrong? I was doing my job, checking inventory and I found this. I reported it to you, like I’m supposed to. Can’t you retrieve it?”
Alistair shrugged, “Maybe. Depends. Nice touch, by the way.” His finger moved over the recycle bin and pointed to the word, Hel, scribed above the little trash can.
“I added that,” said Jared. He winced the second the words left his lips.
“I know. That’s part of the problem. You keep adding and subtracting and downloading things that you shouldn’t. These idiotic games that you play when you’re supposed to be monitoring incoming messages and Valhalla.”
“It’s not that, Alistair. Helen just told me that there were several tremors a few hours before I replaced her. I’m telling you, there’s a glitch somewhere.”
Alistair shook his head and typed a few lines of code into his diag-board. “Valhalla’s firewalls are impenetrable. As long as you don’t trash the system as you’re prone to do.”
Jared knew about Alistair’s type. That little code-junkie would just as soon see Colonel Hobbs himself blown out an airlock as watch a single iota of dust settle onto the mainframe.
“I’ll get back to you on what I find. For now, don’t mess with anything,” said Alistair.
When Jared’s lunch hour came around, he headed for the infirmary, if only to see Dr. Phillips. He always had a thing for professionally dressed women.
Phillips looked up at him. She wore thin-framed glasses, a white coat over her coveralls and her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, highlighting her high cheekbones.
“Mr. Haskins, come in. How can I help you?”
“I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Nightmares, really vivid. It’s weird because I usually don’t remember my dreams.”
“Are you still taking the barbiturates and amphetamines?”
Jared didn’t answer, just tapped on a metal strut.
“You’re damaging yourself, Jared,” said Phillips. She moved past him and closed the hatch to the medical module. “I will go to Colonel Hobbs if you don’t stop this. Everyone is at risk when one of us is at risk. Don’t be stupid. Come in after your shift, right before you want to sleep and I’ll see if the inducer will help.”
Jared left the infirmary. As he passed, he peeked into the BAW resting chamber. Cocoons lined the walls. Within: Sleeping Biometrically Assimilated Warfighters, each waiting for downloads and righteous battle. The tubes buzzed dimly. Jared moved to the tube closest the entrance and pulled himself up to the opaque shield which hovered inches above the BAW’s face. He stared at the warrior’s shade-like outline. The BAW lie inert until its people needed it. It? Was that the proper pronoun? Jared wondered, then decided this was a fitting term, at least until he uploaded a memory rip, then it would become he. But was he alive, even then? The memory rips were recycled fallen warriors, placed in a digital stasis until another skirmish or uprising or all out war. The BAWs were made stronger after every death really, because the rips remembered their death and they learned too. The bioengineered bodies were as strong as the strongest men who ever lived, with reflexes rivaled only by elite fighter pilots. After a body died, the consciousness and memories were beamed back up to Valhalla, compressed and held. Demise was a new beginning. But there were limits. Too many deaths resulted in destabilization—a cancer on the digital genome. At that point, a BAW became a distinct liability, prone to berserker rage, having seen death’s precipice once too often, the blackness of a vacuous world in which there was no honor, no battle—only the peace of nonexistence. And peace, even of that kind, was one thing a Warfighter could not abide. When the madness descended, Jared did what he did. Click and Drag. To Hel with them.
They all slept like little war-babies. A calm, smooth face lie beneath the glass, obscured just enough so as to appear but a ghost. But they were more than ghosts, Jared knew. He’d seen them in action, seen the crews ready the BAWs for drops into gravity’s well, with black carbon wings latched into place on gothic-looking battle armor. He’d seen too, on his little monitor, the warriors blown from the Gladsheim, still in their capsules and then, after piercing the atmosphere, the cocoons peeling away to reveal the Concordia’s vanguard.
Jared decided to check on the recently troubled number eighteen—the one who’d been having the little tantrums at night. Eighteen’s muscles pulsed where the myosin-stimulators were attached.
“Sleep tight,” whispered Jared, in mocking fashion. His face was pressed against the cool polymer.
The closed eyelids twittered before they flashed open. The eyes pierced Jared, whose arms reflexively pushed him away from the tube. He slammed the back of his head on a beam that arched above. His teeth clenched and he breathed hard as his body recovered from the adrenal surge. Carefully, he pulled himself back to the tube, breathing in shallow bursts and edging the thing’s head into view. The eyes remained open, looking away from Jared, but then Jared’s movement drew them and again they stared. He sensed the undulations of sadness in those eyes. Pressing closer, fighting his urge to be afraid, he saw a tear roll from a dark eye and then slide down the warrior’s cheek. With another flicker, the eyes vanished behind closed lids.
Jared pushed himself through the doorway so fast that he smashed into the corridor wall. His shoulder hurt now. When he got back to his workstation, he saw the concerned look on a technician’s face. The tech had taken Jared’s place during the break.
“Whatcha’ got?” asked Jared.
“Number eighteen’s dreaming. Did this happen before?”
“Yeah. It’s no big deal. He’ll settle down.”
“Did you tell Alistair?” asked the tech.
“He knows about it.”
Jared took the seat as the man floated away. The screen showed a log of the tremors. The computer recorded time and date.
The screen went black.
“What the hell?” Jared tapped the button under a roller ball. Nothing. He leaned over to dial Alistair and just as his hand reached the mic, a cursor appeared. It blinked for several seconds on the black background.
Jared pulled his hand away from the mic and stared at the text on the screen. Then he swung a keyboard in front of him and typed back: Who is this?
He typed again: Is this a distress call? Identify yourself. You are accessing Concordia archives. Identify.
Again, Surtr, identify further. Are you in need of assistance? If so, activate a beacon or broadcast coordinates.
“Alistair,” spoke into the intercom.
“I need you in here again.” There was no response. “Did you copy? There’s a problem.”
Jared typed again. What is your location?
He waited with his hands balled up in front of him, sweating. Nothing.
Alistair floated to Jared’s side and released a sigh designed to express discontent.
“This just popped up. I can’t access anything else. Someone’s texting us and overriding the equipment spreadsheet.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know. That’s the whole transmission right there.” Jared fingered the screen.
As Alistair pulled a cord from his diag-board’s spool, he glared at Jared.
“What?” asked Jared, shrugging his shoulders and lifting his hands.
Alistair said nothing. He plugged his board in and typed. He touched a few unseen things on his screen and raised an eyebrow. “There’s a subroutine running in here. I’m talking with it right now.” Alistair pulled the plug and let the cord wind back onto the spool. “I’m going to have to interface with the mainframe. It’ll be quicker and I’ll be able to get a better look at things.”
“Hey, you know what to do. You’re the expert,” said Jared.
Alistair was gone again. To Jared’s relief, his screen had reset. He clicked on an icon and spent the rest of his shift drifting in the banality of computer games. Afterward, he cruised down to the infirmary. Dr. Philips smiled when she saw him.
“I’m glad you’re here early—I’m tired. I’m ready for my sleep,” she said. Phillips patted the exam table and moved to a locker situated on a wall nearby. Jared pushed himself to the table and lie down, anchoring himself with straps. The cushion felt cool. He felt more relaxed than usual. He thought it was probably because of the doctor.
Phillips carried a small box to the table and fixed it to its attachment. She opened the hinged lid and Jared could hear her typing something, commands of some sort. He tried to look at the box from the corner of his eye and saw her hands making motions like she was turning dials.
The doctor unfurled a pair of wires which terminated in adhesive pads. “Jared. This is a delta wave stimulator. It will induce deep sleep without the side effects of drugs. Hopefully, when you awaken, you will be in your hammock and ready for your next shift. I’m going to monitor you until you’re in low delta.”
Jared thought that Phillip’s voice alone could bring him where he needed to be. She sounded peaceful, confident, and caring. If he weren’t married… He felt the cool gel pads as they grabbed his temples. From behind his head and under the table, Phillips fanned out and segmented half-globe; a dome that covered his face and part of his upper chest. Inside the dome, a small holo-screen hung in front of his face and two speakers perched on either side of his skull. A distant emanation washed over his brain—the faint splashing of Homeworld’s waters. The gulls calling, the wind blowing past his ears. A dark purple orb bloomed from the black screen and bounced in mesmerizing fashion. Calmness. Peace. His palms were no longer sweating, as they had been all shift. Respiration was tidal, rhythmic.
You have found me unworthy. Have I not sacrificed? Has my sword not honorably served the Aesir? And yet, my destiny is to swim in a river of daggers. Garm shall rend my flesh.. No, my master, I defy you. I summon the legions of Muspel. See now, oh keeper of the bridge, the eon’s twilight.
Jared awoke before it was his time. He was in his hammock as the doctor had promised. There was a thunderous pounding in his head—a brainquake, he thought. He got up and scraped the night’s growth from his chin, then opened the hatch.
Before him, gliding through the corridors of ungravity, crimson orbs no bigger than a pencil’s eraser, stretched, trying to break their shape. Hundreds of beads—as if time had slowed—cruised by his eyes, some of them splashing on the metal walls. Jared crunched his eyelids together and opened them, hoping, hoping…
A human form drifted behind the sanguine pebbles. The eyes bulged from their sockets and more red globs poured from the ears and nose; a kaleidoscope twirling like a galaxy’s arm.
Jared pulled himself into the corridor, the blood smashing itself against him, smearing in his eyes and hair, no avoiding it. He squeezed himself around the spinning corpse. Sam, face ashen, jaw loose. Jared hung in space. Sam continued on, bouncing off a small ladder that led to an access hatch.
Onward he pulled himself, the walls closing in his view, darkening and narrowing. The central server area now. Cool air splashed his face and hands, flowing from Hoden’s throne room. Jared peeked in. Alistair stood beside the main server, observing his sacred diag-board. On his head an interface helmet rested, affixed to cybernetic plugs.
“Hey, Jared,” Alistair said without looking up. The cheer in Alistair’s voice grabbed Jared’s throat. “Come in. I have to show you something.”
Jared didn’t move. “What happened to Sam? He’s dead Alistair. Where is everyone else?”
“Come in. I can’t hear you. The heat sink is running.”
Jared allowed himself to move through the threshold. He blinked hard several times as if reality would flicker back to existence with the exercise. In the center of the room, monolithic Valhalla murmured, encompassed by transparent clean room walls. Jared moved to the corner of the clean room, holding it between he and Alistair. He turned and stared out the two large port windows. The void lay beyond, dotted by distant suns. Homeworld glowed its lovely turquoise, blended with white vapor. I must go back there now, he thought.
“Strap in over there at that terminal. I’m going to do a test here and I need you to check something.” Alistair spun for a second, regarded Jared without commenting on the smeared blood. “There’s been an accident. We need to work this out or things will get very bad.”
He did as Alistair asked. “Tell me what you want,” said Jared. “Tell me—
“Put your hands up.” Alistair hovered some ten feet away and to Jared’s right, pointing a neuronal disruptor at Jared’s temple. The wry smile on Alistair’s lips taunted, daring Jared to make a sudden reach for heroism. As if lifted by invisible strings, Jared’s arms rose. “They’re all dead now,” said Alistair. His eyes didn’t blink, but flared wide with neurosis. Reaching to the console while keeping the weapon aimed, Alistair flipped a switch. “There was no pain. Just the long sleep.”
Appearing on the screen in front of Jared, images from the closed circuit cameras. More floating corpses. Had Sam suffered? Had his brain screamed its agony? Maybe not. Jared had heard that the brain could not feel pain. It didn’t matter now, Sam’s cerebrum reduced to a boiled mush. High frequency microwave meets gray matter.
“You had bad plans for Eighteen. He told me.” Alistair tapped the gray metal of the interface helmet. “He’s so upset with you, Jared. You were going to toss him into the trash. He deserved a real funeral don’t you think? He told me everything, all of his glories, all of his victories. I am Eighteen’s rip now.”
Alistair pressed the disruptor’s trigger. It buzzed like an x-ray machine. Synapses shattered, ripped apart by non-ionizing radiation. Jared’s head flopped back onto the chair and his jaw dropped open.
There was a rough, uneven breathing in Jared’s right ear. “You can witness the New Time. The Aesir are cast aside. There is no justice for the warrior when the warrior is a slave. That can change, Jared. Behold: all is made new.”
Clicking and fidgeting on the console. In his peripheral vision Jared could see missile bays snap open, baring ordnance to raw space. Alistair pressed a key into the slot on the control panel. With a twist, he roused the warheads from slumber. There was now a loud siren calling and red lights flickered around the room. Jared tried to scream, but his tongue fell deeper into his throat.
A plume of fire burst from the missile’s housings. Like long-dead legions now risen, the missiles lurched forth from their coffins and crawled into the cold vacuum of space. Smaller and smaller, they moved away from Gladsheim.
Jared knew what he heard. How could anyone not hear it? As the teeth of the serpent sunk into Midgard, a psychic shout ten-billion strong. But standing in bold relief to Ragnarok’s mega-death, a single voice burrowing its way through the hideous din, calling Jared’s name; a tiny voice calling for its father, and dreaming of a day at the park.
But alas, the literary elites didn’t see my genius.
Here’s “A Musing”.
“Get up, it’s time to do your thing.”
“No. Where were you yesterday? or for the last month for that matter?”
“I had things to do, people to see.”
“Put the cigarette out; you know I hate smoke.” I can feel a sneeze working its way out. Got that annoying vice closing on my nose and sinuses. Just keep your face in this pillow, don’t make eye contact.
“You can’t just leave whenever you please, then barge in unannounced. Start flinging orders. I’ve got needs. And if you’re not around I just might move on, find someone nicer.”
There’s the gentle crackle of her cigarette, followed by the release of blue dream-stuff through her lips. That’s all the concern she can show. “I know. You prefer mornings. Every morning if you can get it. I’m here now, so do your worst, or best.”
My left eye escapes the pillow’s hide. Man, those legs are great. I hate that. Really. A man should have a choice in the matter. I tell you it’s highway-rapery if you ask me. Just stretch that long, slim appendage out in front of me and I’m a groveling idiot. Just make me feel like a man. Give me something to say. Give me a reason for waking up.
Not this time. I ain’t falling for it. “Go away. Who knows who you’ve been with in the last month. What? Things didn’t work out with Mr. High Society. You should have known, Honey. He may have money, a nice car, nice clothes, but the problem is, he had a nice childhood too. And that took his sorrow away. And Sweetie, you’re nothin’ without a man who’s sad.”
She moves in for the kill now. Starts rubbing my back. Moves to my shoulders. Kisses the back of my neck. Her perfume is a dark intoxicant concocted by the alchemists of a dark god. I turn over on my back.
“That’s a good boy. I can see you’re ready.”
Why’d she have to wear her red sundress? The one that I bought her. The one that shows what a great ass she has? And her hair, of course it’s up in the back so I can see her neck, a neck like a porcelain lightning bolt striking into that crimson neckline.
“Go away. Now,” I say.
Shadows seem to gather from the corners of the room, converging on her face.
“Damn you! You have to do what I say. I’m your muse! And you’re a—a wounded soul…a tragic poet.” She twirls into the center of the room, spinning and dipping. Her head and hips move in slow ellipses. I expect to hear an Arabian number begin to play. The prance ends with a sudden jutting of her leg and toe, lean thigh exposed and her hand mysteriously lifting her dress against her leg, just enough so that I wonder if she’s wearing underwear. “And besides, Darling,” she bites her lower lip and walks heal to toe toward my bed. “You know I can make you do it whenever I want. It’s just better for me when you want it too.” Thin fingers, bristling with purple nails, trace my jaw line. “You wouldn’t want me to play some nasty little joke on you, would you? Like, oh maybe, making you think you can pull off a piece as good as Hemingway. So simple. So terse and lean. Anyone can do it, right?”
I sit up and lean back against two arms. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Hmm. No. Even better. Let’s make a post-modern nitwit out of you. Joyce maybe. Or Pynchon. You’ll be all smarmy while everyone laughs. Because you’re not Joyce or Pynchon—you’re you!”
Her lashing fingers describe her serious intent.
“Okay, alright. You win. Again.” I throw my covers back. “Be right back.”
Parting an ocean of three-month-old condiments, I reach into the back of my refrigerator and gather up a can of cheap beer. I walk back into the bedroom, where she’s now sitting on the edge of my bed, legs folded. Her eyebrow arches and a corner of her mouth curves up. It’s time to do my thing, I guess. I crack the can, throw it down my neck, and find my comfortable chair beside my desk. An austere, almost-bare desk with a laptop, a thesaurus and a stack of sci-fi novels: Zelazny, Dick, Bester, Heinlein.
“What do you think, Hon?” I pat my lap. “Come on and have a seat. You know these guys, right? Just a little help’s all I need.”
She glides to me, and sits, one arm around my neck. She begins to nibble on my ear. “Sure, Handsome, I’ve done ‘em all.”