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A Weaver’s Tale By Tara Campbell

May 01 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

I miss Ava. I know you do too, although you won’t admit it.

Yes, you say she was a rabble-rouser, the cause of all of our troubles. Many Weavers agree with you, but not me. As far as I’m concerned, she’s what kept us going through all the years of war.

And life in the Follicles hasn’t been the same since she left.

Sometimes when I’m supposed to be weaving I find myself almost coming to, like I’ve been asleep, strands slack in my hands, just thinking about something she said or the little tunes she used to hum while teaching us a new technique. It was Ava who taught us about texture, how to weave subtly and gradually. She showed us how, over time, the tiniest curve would grow into a wave as long as we were patient—and once our Person grew patient enough to understand our work.

Of course, you needn’t remind me: we have endured many a grim year, with daily battles and loss. But in our current, fragile peace, Evictions are rare, despite our preference for silver and white.

Do you remember the first time you saw silver and white? I’ll never forget. I was in my follicle, choosing between various shades of brown for my next section of weaving, when Ava dropped down from Topside. I don’t know how she ever got any work done, always running from follicle to follicle. Anyway, from the little tune she was humming, I knew who it was even before I looked. But this time there was something more: my follicle was suddenly vibrating with color!

I turned to face her and was dumbstruck. Her cinnamon-brown skin was richer than ever before, her blue stripes more vibrant. The pink of her eyes sparkled with a new light! The walls of my follicle glinted a rich, warm red, and when I looked down at myself and saw my own skin—I’d never realized how buttery yellow I am.

And look at you! Sometimes I’m still shocked at how green you are. You have to admit, before Ava brought us silver and white, everything was pretty pallid.

That first day with the new colors felt electric, like illumination from another world. The only other light I’d known was the harsh, overpowering brightness of Outside.

Come now, don’t act innocent. We’ve all poked our heads out of our follicles for a daytime peek Topside. I was just going to take a quick look around the day I went up, but once I saw how different it was during the day than at night, I just had to keep going…

No, this was before I met Ava; you can’t blame everything on her.

I got out of my follicle that morning, thinking I was going to stick close. But I kept wandering, drawn by the different qualities of light filtering through the strands of weaving as I moved through them. I’d never seen so much light before! Little by little, I had to admit that I was dying to see what lay beyond Hairline—but of course by the time I got there, it was so was achingly bright I couldn’t see anything at all. Which, of course, is why you’re not supposed to wander around during the day. You never know when your Person is going to try a new hairstyle, and bam, there you are, smack in the middle of a Part, blind and sizzling.

But back to silver and white: that day, when Ava held the new strands out to me for the first time, I was so afraid! The colors were so dazzling I thought they would overwhelm me! But as a Weaver, my fingers itched to touch them.

Ava held them even closer, and I couldn’t resist.

The texture! Smooth but strong, substantive. It was a revelation, even you have to admit that. Think back to when every strand was silky and brown, perfectly malleable in our hands: boring. Look at all the things Ava has taught us since, all the unruly curves and twists with shining silver highlights. Magic!

Yes, as you rightly remind me, we paid a dear price for that magic in the early days. Searches and Evictions: the constant upheaval was a horror. A Weaver would be sitting at home, innocently twining, when suddenly the work of months—years—would be yanked right out of their hands. Or worse yet: all those poor Weavers who were so absorbed in their creations they got pulled out of their follicles along with their strands. I still shudder to think of those times, climbing up Topside at night, finding out how many of us had been lost. We didn’t think it could get any worse—until the Great Brown Floods.

All those times I accused you of being overly cautious… I admit now, we didn’t think things through. Too many of us were using the new colors and methods at once. We all thought our Person would have to come to terms with it. We were too numerous, we thought; there was no way to Evict all us all!

But the Floods…

First came the sifting and rifling: the Parting. Our strands gathered up and stretched tight, and then…

The first Flood started in one small section, remember? We didn’t know what it was then; we only knew that something terrible was about to happen. No one could go out with all those new Parts crisscrossing Topside, not to mention the noxious, acidic winds blowing through the forest. All we could do was cower in our follicles.

I heard yelling from above, and Ollu dropped into my follicle, coughing and shivering, covered with pungent brown sludge. He couldn’t see. He didn’t even know where he was. I heard the screams of the other Weavers running past my follicle, and I wanted to jump out and find you.

But Ollu pulled me down and covered me just as the slick, dark liquid started running down the walls of my follicle. I tried to pull away and climb out, terrified of drowning in that stinking deluge, but Ollu held me. He said it was better to wait. He told me he’d made the mistake of trying to run, and found out that conditions Topside were much worse. And as I saw later, he was right. The forest has never been the same since.

I can’t bear to think how many Weavers we lost that day. It took the displaced weeks to find their follicles again and set them in order. While they were away, we weaved for our absent neighbors, keeping their strands flowing until they returned.

Who could have known this would be the first of several Floods, and every time another one struck, more of our neighbors—like dearest Nim two follicles over—never returned.

What could we do but weave, for ourselves and for our missing friends? Our designs became bolder, more defiant, gleaming silver and white, curls corkscrewing from tip to base. But again and again, our artistry was doused and corroded by the next Great Brown Flood.

It was Ava who showed us a new way to fight back: she told us to stop weaving for our neighbors. It was a shocking plan. It seemed so selfish and unnatural, and as much as I admired Ava, it took several weeks before I could bring myself to follow her advice. Staying in my follicle, just letting Nim’s weaving fall apart nearby—it physically hurt to think of her beautiful strands unknitting themselves and slipping away while I continued to work on my own. It was agonizing, but in the end, it was the right thing to do. How else would our Person discover the true impact of the Floods?

Topside became desolate. Every time we surfaced, we saw that another Weavers’ work had fallen away. This was way worse than any Eviction. I will never forget when Nim’s work finally slid out of her follicle. You had to hold me back from ripping my own weaving to shreds.

Little by little, our Person came to understand. Over time, the Floods came less frequently, and then stopped completely. Although, one can never say “stopped” with certainty. A Weaver never knows what a Person will do next.

The forest is thinner now, but what we’ve lost in strands, we’ve gained in texture. I believe our Person now relies on us to fill in the lost volume with grander designs. It’s almost enough to make one feel optimistic, to try out some of the crazier techniques Ava taught us, the ones we would watch but never dare do for fear of being Evicted.

I’ve been wanting to ask Ava about one of those designs—I’ve forgotten the middle steps—but I can’t seem to find her. I’ve asked around, but nobody has seen her for months. No Floods, no Evictions, no Searching or Parting, and yet she’s disappeared.

And don’t try to pretend you’re glad to see her go. I’ve known you too long for that.

She could be anywhere right now. Sometimes I imagine her wandering around Topside during the day, humming one of her little tunes. Or striking out of the forest into a new Part. Or venturing past Hairline into the unknown.

Sometimes I picture her wandering down to the end of a strand and pondering which Split End to traverse. She never turns back. Sometimes she chooses the left fork, sometimes the right. And every time, because she’s Ava, she runs and jumps off the end into a whole new universe.

 

Bio: Tara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. Her fiction has appeared in the Hogglepot Journal, Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, GlassFire Magazine, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Up Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, Master’s Review, Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly, Latchkey Tales, Elementals: Children of Water, and Magical: An Anthology of Fantasy, Fairy Tales, and Other Fiction for Adults

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Corporeal Cohabitation by Cassandra Mehlenbacher

Apr 24 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

“I’ll miss your signature, sweetheart.” In the legal department of the Symbiogenetic Marriage Center, Zeke scratched his name next to Langley’s on their marital and corporeal cohabitation papers. He was wearing slacks, a button up with a little white flower pinned to his breast, and her second-favorite cologne, which smelled of ginger, leather, and coffee.

“It’s the last time I’ll write my name and I wish my hand hadn’t shaken so much.” Absently, Langley reread the binding document: 

I, Langley Dodson, and I, Zeke Dumont, vow to be of One United Body from this day forward as Lake Dumont, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health, to love and to cherish, to honor and to treasure; from this day forward for all the days of our life.

“Separate parts joined together make a better whole. That’s all that matters,” Zeke whispered to her through a kiss on her temple. “Tomorrow can’t come fast enough.” He kissed her on the lips. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.” Langley turned around and Zeke’s Fathermother clapped the groom and bride on their backs. Langley’s parents hugged her. The uneasy tension in the arms of her mother and father made her throat constrict again.

“We’re going to miss you so much,” a red-eyed Mr. Dodson whispered to his daughter.

“She’s not going anywhere,” Mr.-Mrs. Dumont remarked with a wry smile.

Mrs. Dodson pursed her lips and looked at her feet. “Right. Of course.”

Langley knew her mother had more to say. Out of respect she’d stopped there.

*

“You know how much this’ll help us financially, Langley? That tax break. Doubled pay.” In a snug honeymoon suite at the Symbiogenetic Marriage Center, Zeke hugged his wife and massaged her neck. “I mean, of course, Being One with you’ll be terrific. I’ve thought about Being One with someone since I was a boy.” His hand glided down her side. “Since I understood that my parents were One. Just think…” He held his hand against her hip, still covered by her wedding dress. “In about a year, our child, made under perfect conditions by some very clever people, will sleep at our house for the first time…” Zeke’s smile widened.

His words… the last thing she wanted was for his words to penetrate her ears. And the idea of a child growing anywhere but within her renewed the heaviness in Langley’s chest and shook up the anxious matter in her mind. Zeke tried to pull her closer to him, but she moved away and stepped over to the door. She stood with her lips kissing the back of her small hand. If she reached out, she could open the door. She could run.

“This is what you want,” Langley whispered.

“What?” Zeke attempted to hug her from behind, but Langley squirmed away. “Langley, this is what you want, too… right?”

She lunged at the door handle and turned it. The door seemed stuck. Why was it stuck? This facility was too new for the doors to be stuck. She pulled at the door again and then realized that Zeke was holding it closed.

“Are you nervous for tomorrow?” He disengaged her hands from the door handle. One of his hands held both of hers while he brushed a loose strand of rusty blond hair behind her ear. “I’ve dreamed of this for so long. I love you.”

“I love you as you, and me as me, Zeke.”

“There will be more to love once we’re One.”

“Zeke…”

“Think of the good we’re doing, sweetie. Over-population—”

“I don’t care about over-population.” A tear ran down her face. Then more came.

“But don’t you know how much I love you?”

“If loving me was enough, you wouldn’t make me Be One.” Langley pulled her hands from his grasp. Her engagement band slid on her finger to her knuckle. She repositioned it, her eyes drifting to the wedding ring on Zeke’s finger. Both their names were engraved on the interior of that ring. It held both their birthstones.

“Is this because we decided to be a Husbandwife and not a Wifehusband?”

“I want to be a husband and a wife. I don’t want to a voice inside your head. I don’t want to Be One.” Those words felt better leaving her body than a fresh breath of air felt coming in after holding it during a long swim. She bit the inside of her cheek.

A crease formed between Zeke’s dark eyes. “You signed the papers. You’ve been okay with this until now. Not a peep. Are you really doing this to me?”

Her lips trembled. “I feel terrible.” Her breath came in gasps.

Sighing through his nose and leading her to the bed, Zeke sat her down. She cried silently as he removed the glistening pins holding her waves and curls in place. He held the golden, heart-shaped barrette he’d given her for their first anniversary. His palm dwarfed it. “I love that you wore this.”

Unable to help it, she smiled through her tears. The little pin was too juvenile for a twenty-year-old, but the least she could do for Zeke was to wear it on their wedding day. She’d never wear it again, after all, unless she changed Zeke’s mind.

“I want to keep being me.”

“You’re scared.”

“When I look in the mirror, I want to see myself.”

“You will. Because we’ll Be One. One self.” Zeke placed her hair decorations on the side table before he drew his fingers through her hair, separating the moused and hairsprayed strands.

Langley groaned. Her muscles went rigid. “I feel terrible. This is what you’ve wanted, but I—”

“Can we sleep on it, honey?” Zeke drew her close into a hug that she endured like a cat resisting a child’s attention. “That’s all I ask. Time to think. Time to rest. Today was a bit stressful.”

She sucked on her upper lip. For his sake, she could feign consideration. She brought her arms up and lightly hugged him back. “I am tired.” Lots of spouses backed out at the last moment, whether Zeke wanted to admit that or not. Time would not make her embrace the transformation ahead of her.

Zeke grinned and kissed her face. Then he kissed her again and again until he found her lips. “Now, Mrs. Dumont, I’ll start us a shower. Can I give you one great rubdown? I need to run my hands over you. One last time.” He kissed her temple.

Her stomach hitched. There was his oblivious enthusiasm again, and his eager kisses scalded her skin. Pursing her lips, she nodded. “Sure, dear.”

Zeke’s eyes went wistful for a moment as he stood up. Heading to the bathroom, he mumbled. “Mrs. Langley Dumont…”

Langley sat on her hands for a moment, rocking herself. She then looked over. The suite had a balcony. Opening the sliding glass door, she stepped outside and took a breath. A little table and two weather-stained plastic chairs sat facing the view.

“How many have sat here?” she mused under her breath. “What were their dreams?” She leaned over the railing. Their suite was on the twenty-eighth floor, if she remembered right. The sun was setting and the wind was blocked by the building. Trees in the distance shuddered as the wind ruffled their leaves. She scratched an itch on her forehead and raised herself up on her tiptoes.

Zeke said something from the bathroom, and she looked over her shoulder and cocked her head to the side, but his low voice was muffled by the walls and the water falling in the shower. Turning back, she gazed over the railing and a little chill went through her.

Could she? Dare she? Was jumping to her death better than corporeal cohabitation with Zeke? He didn’t seem to acknowledge her unwillingness at all. He wanted to hear her protestations as much as she wanted to hear his wishes.

Footsteps behind her. “That’s a beautiful view.” Her husband put an arm across the back of her neck and his hand on her shoulder. He’d removed his shirt. “You look beautiful, but it’s about time you got out of that dress. Take that makeup off. Get those muscles warmed up.”

Langley closed her eyes. “I really think you’re making light of my—”

“You’ll be happier once you know what it’s like. It’s not scary at all. You’ve seen how happy my Fathermother is. They’ve told me over and over how it was the best thing they ever did.”

“Zeke. The scores on our compatibility test were borderline.” She swallowed the lump in her throat.

With a hand on the small of her back, he guided her back into their suite towards the bathroom. “I love you, Langley. That’s all that matters.”

She closed her eyes and felt bile rise up in her throat. “I think I want to shower by myself.” She broke away from him.

Hurt filled his voice. “Sweetie, I just want—”

She slammed the door and locked it. The condensed air was throttling and the mirror over the sink was covered by silvery gray fog. Fumbling, she slithered out of her wedding dress and left it puddled around her feet. Her body shook despite the steam. She gagged.

“Langley.” Zeke knocked. “Langley. I know you’re afraid. Talk to me.”

Langley crouched down on the floor, her fingertips pressing against the tile that had a fine film of mist on it. “I’m telling you that I don’t want to Be One. I’ll do anything else with you. Why aren’t our vows and rings enough?”

“This isn’t a surprise. You’ve known about my wishes to Be One from the start. Why didn’t you say something?”

“I thought I’d warm up to it…” Honestly, she had. She rubbed her teary eyes. “I should have said something, but you don’t always listen. I want to love you as me. I want to touch you. I want to be with you. I want you to go do things on your own, and then come back and tell me your stories. If you truly love us, you’ll let me be.”

The silence on the other side of the door was relieving. At first. He was listening to her, finally listening. Right? The sound of Zeke listening to her was very strange. Langley stood and turned off the shower, her muscles tense and her ears searching for Zeke’s voice. C’mon. Guilt and anger stabbed at her heart.

“Langley…” The grief in his voice set her nerves on fire. “Okay.”

She froze. “O-okay… what? What’s okay…?”

“I’m pushing you too far,” he said. “I see that now. We don’t have to be a Husbandwife.”

Jumping up, she unlocked the door, fell into his arms, and pressed herself against his chest, rubbing her face into his skin. “Thank you. I love you.”

They cuddled in their marital bed, wrapped in each other’s arms. Langley thought about asking to sleep elsewhere for the night, but didn’t want to be a bother when the bed was perfectly fine, despite its location at the Symbiogenetic Center. Zeke was quiet. Langley repeated herself several times when she spoke to him because he didn’t catch what she’d said. He was grieving his dream of Being One with her.

“I’ll be the best wife. We’ll have no regrets. Just you wait.” She snuggled against his neck, wrapping her arms around his chest to his back.

He rested a hand on her back.

After a while, they made love, and then they shared a light serviced dinner and some wine just before switching off the lights. Langley sighed and nuzzled her head into her pillow. Sleep came on quickly and she rested in fearless peace.

*

Langley smiled, expecting the fingers interlacing with hers to belong to Zeke as he tried to wake her up. The sooner they left the Symbiogenetic Center and went home to their apartment the better. It was bad enough the Center was in their hometown.

She opened her eyes.

A nurse, looking down on her, smiled. The suite had been swapped out for a sterile little chamber.

Langley shivered. What was this? Why wasn’t she in bed with her husband? Had something happened during the night and she’d been admitted to the hospital? 

This was a last minute decision, but it was the least we could do, I thought.

She looked around for her husband. She’d clearly heard his voice, but where was he?

The thoughts in her head turned over as easily as if someone had dialed in a different radio station. Don’t be afraid. You’ve always been more comfortable in your skin than I’ve been in mine. You’re so beautiful, sweetie.

The nurse stepped back as Langley murmured, “What? I don’t…”

Zeke’s words finally registered. 

Langley, don’t be afra—” 

No! Zeke!  I told you I-I… There was something on her head. She raised her arm to touch it, but her limb froze half way from her reaching it. 

Just relax. I will take care of us. We have nothing to worry about. Don’t panic the nurse. 

You lied to me, Zeke! 

We’ll adjust…

How? Why? He’d betrayed her. 

I didn’t expect you to feel so strongly, sweetie.

Tears of frustration ran down her cheeks as her body trembled. How could you have not known? Get out of my head. Now.

Langley knew Zeke was there, waiting to speak, in the background of their mind like a lingering bystander at a crime scene. Why couldn’t he just answer her? 

Sweetheart… they’ve already destroyed my body. I’m sorry. I love you.

 

Cassandra Mehlenbacher lives in the Pacific Northwest and received her BA in English from Central Washington University in 2014. She has publications with The Airship Daily, Wordhaus, The Story Shack, and others. When she isn’t writing and fending off the bills, she is drawing animals or spending time with loved ones.

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The Book by Patrick Doerksen

Apr 17 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

“So. Mark. What happened. Mmm, this is good.”

“Mom started Reading the Book.”

“When?”

“Four days ago.”

“Is it serious? Yup, good coffee. French press?”

“Well, she hasn’t stopped since.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What, there’s still hope.”

“Well.”

“It’s too goddamn easy for them. The Readers. There’s no way to cut ‘em off.”

“…”

“You know, some folks in L.A. even started printing it out. Font the size of ant turds. God. And still fills a gym.”

“Listen. You should talk to Damon. He knows a guy who knows a way, like.”

“Shit man. How? Have you Read any of it?”

“Just the first page, same as the next guy. Don’t judge, but I think it involves shock therapy? Wristbands, like.”

“I was in deep. Third chapter. Like, fuck, the book’s endless, right, but it’s just as endlessly inventive. Funny as hell; still it makes way more sense than anything. You start wondering, how can the guy, the author, keep this up? So you peer further in, looking for some flaw, something boring, and then you’re like, oh shit, this is better than the last page.”

“Talk like a damn Reader.”

“I’m serious. Like nothing else. Can’t paraphrase it.”

“I’ve read summaries. Chapters 1-20.”

“Man. Why don’t I just tell you about a sunset if that’s good enough for you.”

“So then let her keep Reading.”

“Fuck you man. She’s in deep. She’s going to the Reader’s Conference in L.A. next week.”

“Well.”

#

“Welcome, welcome! Please, yes, seats at the front here.”

[Shuffling feet.]

“Thank you for attending the Third Annual Reader’s Conference! Veterans in the audience know how it goes here: We stop Reading the Book for two days to complain about how we hate to stop Reading.”

[Mild laughter]

“In that sense, those of us here represent the less-committed Readers. I’m sure there are a few of you with connections who declined to come—sensing the irony no doubt—and are Reading at this minute! Ah, didn’t we all ponder it. But one of our purposes here is to dispel such narrow notions of “commitment;” being a Reader is not just reading—it is Interpretation. And gathered here today are some of strongest Advocates and Interpreters of the Book in the world!”

[Clapping]

“This morning we will begin with Doctor Berchart, who will be giving a talk on the similarities and dissimilarities between Reading and substance addiction. He will be exploding more than a few myths, I’m sure, so make certain you record it for your concerned loved ones.”

[Laughter]

“In the afternoon breakout we have a selection of speakers. Professor Hammil will be presenting on the impacts of cognitive enhancements and psychedelics on Reading. Sure to be scintillating! Professor Gerhard will be presenting some of his latest research on the origins of the Book; as I understand it, there have been a few small breakthroughs in this field. Which is it, Rick, an underground society of literary geniuses? A group-mind experiment, a host of connected consciousnesses suspended in zero-sensory chambers plugged with stimulants and psychedelics and what else? Some eternal being, perhaps?”

“But the question, Cindy, is rather, What is writing it? Because we suspect Artificial Intelligence.”

“That so? Fascinating.”

[Murmurs]

“The third talk will be given by myself, and that will be on the future of Readership politics in an increasingly polarized world. Oh, I see catering has just put out some refreshments in the back. Help yourselves. The coffee is bottomless, so drink up, sit up, and listen up, because we have two days packed with Readership goodness!”

#

“‘I will not Read the Book. I will not read the Book. I will not read the book.’ Every morning, first thing.”

“That’s it, huh.”

“When you say it with your soul.”

“That and the shock therapy will do it.”

“Always. A good diet helps, too—stabilizes. Who is it, your girlfriend? It’s a parent, isn’t it. A parent…”

“How much are these goddamned wristbands anyway?”

“$200 apiece.”

“Shit, you’ll be booed out of there.”

“Oh, a lot worse than that.”

“You probably think you’re some kind of hero, don’t you.”

“Just doing what I can.”

“You’ll need more than wristbands. To get through to them.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

“Hey, you ever consider that maybe no one needs a guy like you? That maybe the Readers are OK and it’s us who are missing something?”

“Every day.”

“Yeah, no kidding huh. Lose sleep over it and everything too huh. Some fucking hero. Tormented soul trying to do good in a world run amuck.”

“Something like that.”

“Whatever. Just give me the fucking wrist band.”

#

“Thanks Alan. I’m here in L.A. at the Third Annual Reader’s Conference with Finnegan Caulwood, chairman of the United Reader’s Society. There is a surprising amount of buzz for a crowd full of Readers, wouldn’t you say Finnigen?”

“Oh we get rowdy.”

“Tell us a bit about how all this started.”

“Well, Navim, as you know four years ago the Book appeared. Within three weeks it developed an international cult following. I was one of the first promoters, there was a team of us, and we created a real social media presence for the Book. Soon we had some donors and I got a few hundred to agree to fly down to L.A. and voila, we had the first conference.”

“Tell us something about the Book, Finnegan. You left a top marketing job to Read and promote the Book full time. What is it about the Book that excites you?”

“Right, thanks for asking Navim. My introduction to the Book was unreal. I mean that literally. I didn’t know something like that could be real. In university I remember taking this Arthurian Legends class and we read something called The Mabinogion. It’s a collection of stories filled with the most peculiar stuff, but all taking place by the same logic. This is a pale comparison, but it contains the key: the Book is not pure absurdity or lawless creative energy, it’s governed, channeled, by some alien, Godlike mind.”

“That is certainly high praise.”

“Yeah, and Navim I’d actually go further. The Book really is a gateway. What it contains is something entirely Other, capital O—so Other that we would have no access to it were it not that the Book also eased us into it. So it’s a gateway, an organization of space and meaning such that we can perceive where one realm ends and another begins—and then cross over if we like. I’m sorry to you and your viewers, Navim, but only Readers will know what I mean. And if you’re not hooked then you may never be. I was reading the first page, the first paragraph actually, and immediately I had this sense that here  was something different.”

“Is that something you try to explore, here at the Reader’s Conference?”

“Definitely. It’s really slippery, though. The Book comes at reality from an angle no one has ever tried before. It’s in everything, the way the adverbs are used, the way the action proceeds, the details it fastens upon. You go further in, and each chapter of the Book pushes that slant steeper and steeper. Eventually it gets so steep that you’re tipped into a world wholly unlike our own. And still it doesn’t stop, it just keeps tipping; you keep getting that sense of entering something new, something completely different. You know what it’s like, to get caught in the momentum of a really good book?”

[Nod]

“Now imagine that going on forever. It’s like free-falling. That’s something we talk a lot about here at the conference. It’s nice, too, for the early Readers who haven’t made it as deep in; a lot of them—and this happened to me, Navim—will grow anxious for the Author, worried that the Book cannot sustain itself endlessly, that somewhere there must be a roof, or a floor, some sense of a container. That is a really scary feeling. Just being around Readers who have made it deeper than them and who are still Reading is a comfort.”

“Tell me, Finnigen, is it true that anyone who begins reading never stops?

“I can’t answer that without appearing just a little smug, Navim. It’s the truth a small handful of people have made it to the third chapter, the famed point of No Return, and quit. Now, not all of us are convinced these people were actually Reading, if you know what I mean. But anyhow, aside from these rare few, the answer to your question is yes. Everyone who reads the Book Reads the Book, Navim. And what better evidence for the worth of Reading than that?”

“Are you trying to make a proselyte out of me, Finnegan?”

“Oh no, Navim, the Book does that.”

[Laughter]

“I understand that you also offer some more intentionally therapeutic sessions here for Readers?”

“That’s right. We have a session with a counsellor who works with Readers who have lost a sense of priority and proportion in their lives—you know, the Readers who sit on their toilets all day and order take-out. Her name’s Penny, she’s great. It’s really important to keep healthy; it’s all about lifespan—if you’re able to stay alive longer, the more of the Book you will make it through. Binge-reading gets you nowhere.”

[Distant yelling]

“My apologies Navim. Every year we have a few self-appointed “Rehabilitators” who like to cause a disturbance. Really they are just biblioterrorist. I just can’t understand that sort of enmity.”

“I must ask, Finnegan. The Readers are obviously a very passionate bunch—with these naysayers about, have things every become violent here at the conference?”

“Never. We have security who will escort them away safely. Ah, there they are now.”

[Yelling subsides]

“Finnegan, can you tell me about these booths?”

“Of course. It’s important to keep in mind, Navim, that we as the National Reader’s Society have no professional affiliation with anyone or any business who decides to set up here in the lobby. This year we have a representative from an investor in China; you can see by his sign he is willing to pay a pretty penny for each page translated into Mandarin. Of course, the Book is untranslatable. We’ve had some investors from other countries in past years, none have been satisfied.”

“That booth there looks interesting.”

“Yes, we’ve had Expert Summaries every year. They are a good group, but let me tell you something, Navim. You can’t translate the Book and you can’t summarize it. Vicarious Readership, it’s called, and it doesn’t work. You have to understand, Navim, that by virtue of the fact that the Reader is asked to summarize a piece of the Book, he is in too deep to do so. By that point the narrative has grown into itself. Any bits he might bring back to the surface would be like odd shells and carcases brought up from the ocean depths—curious perhaps, but finally ugly and unknown. To access the Book’s wonders, one can’t cut corners. The only path is the path the Book gives us.”

“One last question, Finnegan. Where do you think all this will take you?”

“Only the Book knows, Navim.”

“Thanks so much, Finnegan, and enjoy your conference.”

“Thank you, Navim.”

“Back to you, Alan.”

#

“We should’n come, man; it’s weird, surrounded by all these—”

“Hey look, that’s Veronica Meyers.”

“Who?”

“They say she’s the furthest in—of anyone.”

“Stupid. As though it were some sort of competition, like. Huh, wow, she’s young.”

“She was a speed reading champion, before the Book appeared. 3,000 words per minute or something.”

“Huh. You know, there’s that guy, Jim something, some sort of savant, like; he’s finished it apparently.”

“Yeah yeah, I heard that too, that’s bullshit.”

“He says he can’t describe the end, that the Book redefines what it is to “end,” like. I saw an interview, he was shaking all over. This poor bloke, two weeks after finishing it and still shaking…”

“Yeah, well, no one’s finished it, it doesn’t end. That’s what’s so inane about the whole thing.”

“Think of it. What would a Reader have left in his small little life, if he actually finished it, like? I—”

“You know I said can’t actually finish the fucking Book, Alb. There’s no fucking way, not reading 3,000 words a minute, not reading 3,000 words a second.”

“Well, check out the interview.”

“…”

“So where’s your mom, I’m not seeing her.”

“You hear there’s people actually learning English now just to Read? It’s the fucking tipping point—if it wasn’t certain before the Book, language extinction and the monoculture of English is now the way of the world.”

[Yelling]

“Hey, what’s happening over there?”

#

The Book

 

An audiobook presentation

by Neil Gaiman, Kate Winslet, Benedict Cumberbatch,

and host of other famous performers

 

Updated biweekly

Unlimited streaming for $20/month

#

“Get the fuck outa here man!”

“Go back to grad school tight ass!”

[Ongoing aggressive heckling]

“Hey watch out!”

“He’s got something!”

[Screams, gasps, etc.]

“Listen!”

[The crowd quiets]

“Listen to me! Listen, for God’s sake, while you still have ears! There Book is dangerous!”

[Booing here and there, sparse]

“The first chapter of the Book is not what you think it is! You think it is about a retired UFO crash litigation lawyer and his disembodied wife. No! It is not that! I tell you, it is about the alienation of a people! It is about what is happening to you even now, as you jeer at me and judge me in your hearts! It is a warning that every Reader has ignored!”

[Boos here and there, less sparse]

“Listen, dear Readers: you are growing different! You and I once walked the same road, and could speak to one another, and be heard by one another. Now where are you? You have taken an exit, an offshoot from the road, and you are no longer on it. Furthermore, your path has no signs, no marks—you know not where you go!”

“Like hell!”

“You there!”

[Gasps, a shriek]

“Yes you, who just spoke with such malice. Come up here. What is your name?”

“J-Jarred.”

“Jarred. How long have you been a Reader?”

“Nine months?”

“Nine months. Long enough. Jarred, you understand what this is?”

“Y-yes.”

“Tell me what it is.”

“A g-gun.”

“Jarred, what is a gun?”

“What?”

“What is a gun, Jarred.”

“A weapon? To shoot someone with?”

“What does the Book say a gun is, Jarred?”

“Hey, that’s enough! Let him down!”

[A shot is fired]

“Quiet! … Jarred, answer the question. What does the Book say a gun is?”

“It… it says, that, uh, guns are portals.”

“To where, Jarred?”

“To the Numinous Atopos? The Estranged Land?”

“Would you like to go there, Jarred?”

“N-n…”

“Well, Jarred, would you like to go to the Numinous Atopos? The Estranged Land?”

“Please!”

“Oh, but you like going there in the Book, don’t you Jarred?”

“Please! It’s, it’s just a book. Please!”

#

“What a psycho.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Oh, he’ll survive. Our sniper took out his collar bone, nothing deadly.”

“How the hell did he have the stage for so long?”

“Security’s radio’s weren’t synced up with the Nest. Anyway, no harm done. The conference can continue.”

“Oh, it’s continuing, that’s for goddamn sure. We’re not going to end this fucking epidemic with melodramatic stunts.”

“You think we could just unplug the internet?”

“I sure as hell wish, Rab.”

#

“Please! Mom, don’t do this. It’s insane. Please!”

“Mark, will you first pu-lease calm down.”

“You’re about to empty your bank account to buy a bunch of snake-oil nootropics so that you can sit for longer on your ass and stare at a screen!”

Mark!

“Mom, I mean it. This is insane!”

“Mark, please. You’re all worked up. You’re sure you’re ok?”

“The gun wasn’t point at me, mom, it was pointed at you!”

“M—”

“I mean figuratively. You’re a Reader, mom, not me. Are you sure you’re ok?”

“Mark, I need you to try just for a minute to understand. Here—listen. Don’t interrupt. If you found something that you loved, that made sense of everything in the world for you, that gave you peace, that held you afloat in time, would you give up everything for it?”

“But that’s not what you’ve found, mom! The Book makes sense of nothing!”

“Oh, so I’m talking to an expert Interpreter, am I?”

“You don’t need an expert interpreter or whatever to tell you that! Just an ounce of common sense! Please, mom, just try it, just for a three days. The shocks don’t hurt, only just enough to work on the part of the brain that forms habits.”

“You are offending me, Mark. If I told you to give up on Marisa, that she was ugly and stupid and not worth your time, and gave you a shock collar—”

“It’s not a collar—”

“—and gave you a shock collar to get rid of your ‘habit’ of making out on the basement sofa for hours—”

Mom—”

“—and talking till 3am with the TV blaring, what would you say to me son? What would you say?”

“This is insane.”

“Mark, how am I to communicate with you if you keep insisting that ‘this is insane’? You’re not trying to speak my language at all.”

“No, mom, you’re not trying to speak mine!”

“Oh, listen, the next keynote is beginning.”

[Distant] “And so I asked her, ‘Knowing what you know, would you Read the Book?’”

“Oh mom, I wish you wouldn’t go. I… I’m losing you.”

“Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark… I love you. If you would only Read the Book you wouldn’t feel the way you do. … Oh Mark, come here.”

END

“Patrick is a social worker living with his wife in Victoria, British Columbia. His poetry has featured in a number of journals, including Presence, Simply Haiku, Mayfly, Bones, Haibun Today, and Sonic Boom, among others.”

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Bugged by J.M. Kerr

Apr 10 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

“What’s her name?”

Bill Martin teetered back in his chair, leering at the new I.T. girl across the office.

“Kara something,” said Enrique, Bill’s desk-mate.

“I know that. What’s her last name?”

Bill scrunched his eyes trying to make out the woman’s badge. “Looks like… Wormley? Is it Wormley?”

“That doesn’t sound right,” Enrique said.

“Just tell me what her last name is, Rick.”

“How should I know?”

“Weren’t you with Stan when he hired her? I thought you were his right-hand man now.”

“Is that bitterness, Billy? You said you wouldn’t have taken my promotion even if they had offered it to you.”

“That’s right, Rick. You can be a corporate douche. Not for me.”

“Sure, Bill.” Enrique swiveled around in his chair. “Why do you want to know her name anyway?”

“Facebook.”

Enrique grimaced. “That’s it? You want to invade the poor woman’s privacy just to find a bikini pic to jerk off to?”

“Exactly.” Bill grinned.

A notification sounded from Enrique’s computer. “Sorry perv, but you’ll have to call off your search.”

“What’s up?”

“There’s a shortage in the server room. And, the new I.T. girl isn’t on the payroll till Monday so I need you to check it out.”

“Goddamn rats are chewing on the wires.”

“You’re probably right. Better take a hammer, for protection.”

Bill sighed as he pulled a small ball-peen from his desk drawer. It was stained red from his last trip to the server room.

“Try not to get bit. I doubt workers comp will cover rabies.”

Bill got up from his desk. “Fuck you, fag.” It was a whisper.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

Bill made his way down to the basement which housed the building’s servers. Row upon row of buzzing towers lined the floor. The lights were out, but Bill could hear the rats shuffling around. He shuddered. The light switch was at the bottom of the staircase, half way down the wall. Bill would have to grope for the switch in the darkness. In his mind’s eye he saw fat, greasy rats with beady red eyes, scurrying under his feet, and crawling up the server racks. He hurried to the switch and flipped it. The room was flooded with buzzing, florescent light, and a single rat scurried beneath a rack.

Bill searched for the loose wire, and for the new girl’s various social pages. He glanced up from his phone in time to spot two stray network cables that had come unplugged. He reached down for the cables still staring at his phone.

“What was her damn name? Warby, Warmely? Wor… SHIT!”

The rat plunged its teeth deep into Bill’s thumb, and blood ran down his forearm. Bill let out a yelp, and shook his hand wildly. Black tufts of fur filled the air, but the rat’s jaws only tightened. “Fuck. Get off… HELP!” Bill felt the comforting weight of the hammer tucked into his belt. He grabbed the bludgeon and raised it. Just then, a blue cord wrapped around the rat’s torso and squeezed until its eyes bulged. The vermin let go of Bill’s hand, and the cord swung it against the wall where it dropped to the ground and scurried away. Bill saw that the cord wasn’t a cord, but a tail. A long blue-grey, prehensile tail attached to a creature.

The thing was almost human, but smaller, only half Bill’s height. It was covered in grayish skin that was peeling, flaking. Its face was pointed like an iguana, and wispy white fuzz covered its body. At first glance Bill thought it was some little mutant monkey, but then it spoke.

“Her name is Warner. You weren’t even close.” The creature’s voice was raspy. The sound of it made Bill’s anus tighten. He turned to run, but the creature’s tail wrapped around his ankle and pulled him to the ground.

“What, no thank you?”

Bill lay on the linoleum, his finger dripping blood. “What the hell are you?”

“That’s complicated. The name’s Bugg, though.” The creature extended his claw. Bill flipped and scooted backwards, on his ass, banging his head into a server. “Shit!”

“You need to learn some manners, friend. I can help you with those social graces.”

“What are you? Was someone fucking rats down here, and your some rat-human hybrid? Was it Enrique? That deviant. I wouldn’t doubt it.”

“I’ve already told you, I’m Bugg. I live down here with the rats, and the server racks. Soaking up all the wonderful information that runs through these wires.” Bugg held a network cable between his fingers.

Bill sat up. “I should go. Try to forget. Maybe get a CAT scan.” He tried for the door.

“There’s no need to run. We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. How about a peace offering?” Bugg walked behind the server for a moment. Bill’s phone buzzed in his pocket, but he was too afraid to move. Bugg reemerged. “Go ahead. Answer it.”

Bill got out his phone. “It’s a text message. A picture file.”

“Download it.”

“I’m not going to download it. This isn’t even a real number. It’s only five digits: 8-7-4-2-5.”

“It’s from me, Bill. A gift.”

“What is it?”

“OPEN IT!”

“Okay, okay.” Bill downloaded the photo. His eyes lit. “Holy shit! The new girl.”

“That’s better than what you’d find on her Instagram.”

“Where did you get this?”

“Nothing is safe from me, Bill. If the file is plugged into a network I can get it.”

“You can get more of these?” Bill asked.

“I could, Bill. I could get you anything on anyone. Data, Bill. Information. Knowledge. Power. How would you like to be a CEO?”

Bill wrinkled his forehead. “So you can tell me anything about those people up there?”

“What do you want to know?”

He considered the offer for a moment. A spiteful grin stretched across his face.

“Everything.”

On Monday Kara found a box of dark chocolate wrapped and placed on her desk. It was the third time that she had found a gift sitting there, all from the same person. Bill, again. Dark chocolate, she thought. My favorite. How the fuck did he know that. The day before it was a bouquet of peonies. Peonies were Kara’s favorite flower. Last week it was a vinyl record from the first band she ever saw live in concert. How could he know she had a record player?

Kara saw Bill beaming at her from his desk, leaning back in his chair to see past the fake fern. She glanced down breaking eye contact. He’s spying on me. The fucking creep.

Kara met Enrique at lunch. “Your friend Bill is really starting to worry me.”

“We’re not friends, Kara. Let me make that clear. We share a cubicle. That doesn’t make us friends.”

“It doesn’t matter, Enrique. You know him best. That’s why I came to you. I think he’s spying on me.”

Enrique glanced up from his food. “How do you mean?”

“He knows things about me, Enrique. Personal things. I’ve worked here a month, and he knows the bands I like, the food I eat, and the places I go. How good is he with computers? I swear he’s hacked mine.”

“Bill’s good for plugging in a loose wires. Beyond that, well he couldn’t even figure out the new contact software you gave us last week.”

“I know. He’s sent me a dozen emails about it. I thought maybe that was a ploy. You know, an excuse to talk to me. You sure he doesn’t know what he’s doing?”

“I don’t know, Kara. He could be hiding something from us. He does seem to know things.”

Kara placed her hand on Enrique’s. “He knows something about you, doesn’t he?”

Enrique sighed. “Stan was chewing me out at our last sales meeting. My numbers are down this month, by a lot, and Bill’s numbers have skyrocketed. Bill. He’s an idiot. He tries to fuck half his clients.

“So how did he become the top seller?”

“It’s simple. He stole my leads. All of his new clients are people I scouted.”

“So he is hacking us!”

“Could be. Except I don’t keep the leads here. I keep them in my home office.”

“He stole from your house?”

“He’s never been there. I don’t know how he got those leads. That’s not the worst, though.”

“What is? Kara asked.

“We we’re at this sales meeting, and Stan was reaming me. I guess Bill sees this as a good chance to pile on. He outted me. Told Stan that I was seeing Louis from accounting.”

“Is that true?”

“Yes, but how did Bill know? We’re very careful. Stan already had a grudge against me because of my name. This is just one more strike on my record. I’ll be gone in a month, Kara. Louis too.

“I’m so sorry, Enrique. I wish there was a way I could help.”

“I wish we knew what that bastard, Bill, was up to.”

“We have to confront him, Enrique.”

Enrique frowned. “He’ll just lie to us.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t care either way. I just want him to know that we won’t take it anymore.”

“Okay, Kara. I’m with you.”

“They’re starting to suspect me,” Bill said to an annoyed-looking Bugg.

“They should. You were sloppy. You outted a co-worker in the middle of a meeting. Have you never heard of subtly?”

“I thought Stan would fire him, but nothing has happened.”

“Of course not. You tied his hands. If he fires Enrique now it’ll be discrimination.”

“Well give me something else on Enrique. Something better.”

“I don’t have anything else. Enrique is a model employee, unlike you. His homosexuality was your best play. Stan is a bigot, but he’s not stupid. He won’t invite a lawsuit.”

“What about Kara? She won’t talk to me.”

“Did you give her the gifts like I told you?”

“Yes, but I don’t think she liked them. She won’t even make eye contact with me.”

“Really?” Bugg smiled. “That’s a shame. I was hoping that would work out for you.”

“So what do we do?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? You’re supposed to help me.”

“You’re beyond help. I’m not a genie. Besides, we have a bigger problem.”

“What?”

“It seems I over-estimated you, Bill. Now I’ve tapped out all the information I can get from this office. I need a new source.” Bugg circled Bill.

“Do you need to move to another building?” Bill asked trying to track Bugg with his eyes.

“That won’t be necessary, Bill. By the way, do you know how much data is stored within the human brain?”

“What does that have to do with any-”

“-On average, ten terabytes.”

“That’s interesting-”

“Do you know what that means?”

“Uh…”

“It means that even a feeble minded individual, like you Bill, is a goldmine of information. Every person you’ve known, every secret you’ve overheard, every intimate detail you’ve ever had privilege to, it’s all up there. You may not be able to recall it, but it’s there. Tucked away in all those bundles of neurons is every bit and byte of your existence. An entire human experience. Do you know what that’s worth to a creature like me?” Bugg was behind Bill now.

“Yeah, uh, a lot. Maybe. Problem is-”

“What problem?” Bugg was only an echo now.

“Well how could you get at it?”

“I could just crack your head open like a melon. Once I get in there I’m sure I can figure it out,” Bugg said from somewhere above Bill.

“Where’d you go?” Bill’s voice cracked. He had spent weeks in commune with a troll, and never stopped to ask how it was able to produce this information, or why he was giving it away, for free. Bill feasted on every sordid detail that was served, not once worrying that Bugg might be watching Bill closer than anyone else.

“I’m outta here, Bugg. I don’t want anything else from you.” Bill started to back out of the basement, but tripped. He plopped down on his backside.

“What if I want something from you?” The voice came from directly above Bill. He looked up to see Bugg perched atop a nearby server rack. His tufts of gray hair were standing on end, forming a ridged back. He was staring at Bill with his mouth open, drooling.

Bill turned to run, but in a second Bugg was on his back. Bill tore at him, trying to throw Bugg to the ground, but that tail had wrapped around his neck, choking him. He had almost blacked out when he saw the rat-stained hammer laying on the ground. It was his last hope. Bill dropped to his knees and reached for it. Bugg was tightening his grip now. Bill had a finger on the hammer when he felt Bugg’s tail loosen.

“Thank you, Bugg. Let’s talk reasonably.” Bill saw the tail whip out and grasp the hammer. “Oh shit!” It came down on Bill’s crown with a dull thud. Then the lights went out.

“He’s down here?” Enrique asked Kara as they made their way down to the basement.

“Stan said he’s been spending a lot of time down here. Said he was laying rat traps. Who knows what he was really doing.”

“Lights are off.”

“Do you know were the switch is?” Kara asked.

“Yes.” Enrique ran his palm along the wall until he felt the switch. “Got it.”

The lights flickered on.

“Do you see him, Enrique?”

“No.” Enrique cupped his hands to his mouth. “Bill, you down here?”

“He’s unavailable.”

Kara and Enrique exchanged glances.

“Who is that?” asked Kara.

“Kara?”

“That doesn’t sound like Bill,” Enrique said.

“No. That isn’t Bill,” Kara’s eyes darted around the room. She followed Bugg’s voice.

Enrique stumbled over a bundle of cables as they walked. Kara reached out, catching him. “Kara, what’s going on? Do you know who that is?”

“Yes.” Kara turned to Enrique. “Look, you may want to go back upstairs.”

“Why? Is this person dangerous? I’m not leaving you down here.”

“He’s not a threat. He’s… different.”

“What are you talking about, Kara?”

“If you’re not going back upstairs then you need to brace yourself.”

Kara and Enrique turned a corner and found Bugg perched on an unconscious Bill. “Oh shit!” Enriqued backed up.

Kara surveyed the scene. “Damnit, Bugg! What did you do?”

“Hey Kara, funny running into you here.” Bugg said with a sheepish grin.

“Is it, Bugg? I work here.”

“You work here? That’s a coincidence. I’ve been staying here. After you threw me out I needed somewhere to stay.”

Enrique’s eyes darted from Bugg to Kara, back to Bugg. “What the hell is going on? Kara, who… what is this thing?”

“Sorry Enrique. This is Bugg. Bugg is what you call a… gremlin.”

“Sure. A gremlin. Why the fuck not. Why have I never met one of these gremlins?”

“We like to stay out of sight.”

“What are you doing down here?” Enrique squared off with Bugg.

“We gremlin’s have always had a an obsession with human technology. We tinker with your creations, taking them apart, putting them back together. My father could dismantle a plane’s landing gear mid-flight, a real thing of beauty. Lately, we deal with information technology, like these servers. Were actually pretty handy. In fact that’s how Kara and I met. Isn’t that right, sweetie?”

“Don’t call me sweetie. What the hell did you do to Bill?”

Bill laid on the ground drooling. “Oh right, him. He got a little over-excited. I had to whack him with a hammer. He should be fine… I think.”

“You were helping him, weren’t you? You broke in to Enrique’s house.”

“Well… Yes. Sorry about that, pal.” Bugg nodded at Enrique.

“I don’t get it. Why were you helping Bill?” Enrique asked.

“Yes. I would like to know that as well.” added Kara.

“After we broke up I was keeping up with you. Checking your Facebook, Twitter, Google alerts, federal records.” Bugg mumbled that last part. “Just to make sure you were safe. You know how I worry about you, baby.”

“Get on with it, Bugg.”

“I was… around… on your first day. I saw Bill leering at you so I followed him down here. I may have implied that I could syphon information for him from the office computers. Hell, I think I even convinced him I could tap a human brain. It was all for you, Kara.” Bugg looked at Kara with wide eyes. “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t get wrapped with the wrong kinda guy.”

“You’re the one who told him to get all those gifts for me.”

“Yeah. I know how you hate it when men come on too strong. I figured the gifts would scare you off. It worked too. I saved you from the little perv, baby, but I had to give him something real. You know, to make the whole thing believable. That’s why I stole your leads, Enrique.”

Enrique rolled his eyes. “I’m glad it was for a good cause. How did you know about Louis and me?”

“Your profile photo on Facebook is you and Louis sharing a booth at the Cheesecake Factory. I figured it was a safe bet.”

Kara eyed Bugg. “Did you really think you could win me back by stalking me, sharing private information about me, breaking in to my friend’s homes, and assaulting a man just because he was interested in me?”

Bugg looked down at his tiny clawed feet. “I guess so.”

Kara glared at him. “I know we’ve had our problems, Bugg, but that… that’s so sweet. I know my parents say you’re all wrong for me, but I don’t care. I want you back, baby!”

Bugg looked at Kara with glassy eyes. “Let’s get out of here sweetie.” He ran and jumped into Kara’s arms. Kara squeezed the little gremlin tightly.

“Enrique, tell Stan I’m taking the rest of the day off.”

Kara carried Bugg out of the basement. He glanced over her shoulder, and back at Enrique. Bugg gave him a single wink, and they were gone.

Bill groaned from the floor.

“Enrique?”

“Yeah Bill. How are you feeling?”

“Like shit. What the hell happened?”

Enrique stared at the door where Kara and Bugg had exited. He sighed, and looked down at Bill. “I have no fucking idea.”

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Solstice Queen by Alex Jensen

Apr 03 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

Derek Mill wrote a book about his own life. Three years ago the autobiography awarded him 750,000 dollars. This year he was awarded 150,000 dollars for writing the book three years ago. Derek was awarded an undergraduate degree from a top tier university, which awarded him entrance to a graduate program at a top tier university. He was awarded A’s in every class. Over the last ten years Derek has increased the amount of people he governs by 2.8 million per year. This calculation, although misleading as Derek has only been awarded three different positions in ten years, reminded him of his value. Derek needed this type of thing since his father, Arnold who was Derek’s biggest fan passed away four years ago.

Arnold Mill would tell his son, “To govern is to be an angel walking the mountainous slopes of snowshoeing dragons.” Arnold Mill was awarded wealth as an artist of the avant-garde. He mastered the ability of disorientation, causing an audience to argue with one another about what he meant in a way that made everyone believe that they were the only one’s that truly ‘got it’.

This talent caught the eye of large businesses who hired Arnold to weave together words like, maintained, managed, integrity, talking points, seminar and developed in ways that communicated safety and trust while remaining entirely void of meaning. After his stunt in the business world Arnold became an asset to top tier politicians who went to top tier universities and who published top selling books about their own lives.

Which brings us to the well-educated and ambitious Derek, who just finished kneeling before a stuffed doll, chanting, ‘Envy is a reminder of who I can one day become.’ and who was now watching his sleeping wife Darlene.

Darlene Mill, the famous actress and singer. Darlene Mill the woman whose face was inescapable on magazine racks. Darlene Mill the woman Derek watched sleep when too anxious to dream. However this time it was an excited anxiety as opposed to an impending doom anxiety. For today was the day that the Solstice Queen would be announced, and this year Derek was (for the fourth time, and second year in a row) selected to be one of the seven Princes of the Solstice (In fact Derek, at 45 was the youngest man to receive the award four times).

This six others selected for this year’s celebration were:

Dale Burnett – A former all-star shortstop who now dedicated his life to proving that although return on investment will increase faster than economic growth, this is necessary to increase growth and help poverty. He proved this by filming a reality show where homeless people were given money as charity and others were given high interest microloans. Proving that the incentive of a growing interest forced loan receivers get a home faster.

Stuart Bailey – A pop-psychologist who changed the way people thought about marriage by introducing an idea that marriage should be done on a ten year contract so when the contract matured the couple could decide to renew and have a party or not renew and go their separate ways.

Richard Coin – A former lawyer who preached the philosophy of determinism through documentaries, books and television interviews. Informing the public that free will did not exist and therefore the concept of justice was primitive.  Advocating a change in the prison system and a better understanding of incentives that fuel rehabilitation.

David Peoples – A successful film director who created an algorithm for sound and light pixels which would produce a new film each day that struck every human as intelligent, fascinating, funny, emotionally mature and original.

Burt Johnson and Ron Alexander – Two politicians just like Derek selected by a group of anonymous individuals with a high understanding of political theory. The public was well aware that they were not chosen democratically but all agreed that the anonymous individuals had excellent taste.

 

And then there was Derek. Derek eating his eggs and protein shake while he watched his beautiful Darlene sleep. Thinking to himself how he bought her the sheets with the high thread count and the mattress that astronauts use. That he got her the apartment with the skyline view and air conditioner that maintained a perfect 75 and a humidity level perfectly adjusted to the condition of her sinuses. It was he that kept her fed, loved, famous, happy and safe. Whatever desire she had, he suffocated long ago. She was perfect now, with him, she was perfect.

 

At 6:00 PM Derek and the six other elected Solstice Princes were sitting in chairs behind a podium. They were waiting for President Fremont to show so he could practice reading a speech while they practiced sitting in chairs behind him. At some point Burt Johnson leaned over to Derek and said, “Do you get nervous?” “During the performance?” Derek asked. Burt nodded. “You can take a blue one” Derek said. “I don’t like taking medication.” Burt said.  Dale leaned into the conversation, “You need a blue one?” Dale said. “No.” Burt said a bit embarrassed. “Coin!” Dale yelled, “Burt needs a blue one!” “You need a blue one burt?” Richard Coin said. “No!” Burt said, “I’m fine.” “If you’re nervous you should take a blue one,” said David Peoples. “I’m not nervous,” said Burt.

Stuart Bailey jumped in to kill the discomfort,  “Who do you think will be the Solstice Queen this year?” Stuart asked. “Unofficial poll said Mary Winston would win,” said Ron Alexander. “Don’t believe that bull,” said Dale, “After Michelle Davis’ best actress win she’s on everyone’s mind.” “What about your girl Derek?” said Stuart. “Oh I don’t think so,” said Derek. “People love to see a couple share the solstice spotlight,” said Stuart, “besides she’s due for a win.” “If she didn’t win it five years ago, I doubt she’ll win it now,” said Derek. “Jeez brother have some faith,” said Dale. “I just don’t want to get her hopes up, between Michelle and Mary there’s not much room left for Darlene this year.”

“You all speculating?” Said President Fremont entering from stage left. “Derek, Darlene is certainly due for a win, don’t be such a naysayer.”

“Thank you President,” Derek hated calling Ferris ‘President’. Three decades ago Ferris was crying because he claimed Derek hacked him on a layup. Now he was Derek’s superior. For decades now, Derek fantasized about taking a hammer to Ferris’s head so to release the air of pretension trapped inside.

7:15 PM  was television prime time and President Fremont was before a crowd and several cameras, holding a stuffed doll chanting, ‘Envy is a reminder of who I can one day become.’ After the mantra, there were words put together and thrown at the crowd and cheers thrown back. There was then acknowledgement of Derek and the six other princes, their accomplishments, their ideals, their hard work. It was all very motivating to the people. Then each of the men, including Derek, took to the podium and gave a presentation on someone else who they believed took great strides this year in accomplishing achievement.

Finally Fremont took the podium back and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls, what we are all waiting for is to hear who will be the seventy-eighth Solstice Queen. The Solstice Queen is savvy, goal-oriented, aware and dedicated to improving the lives of others. Displaying honorable characteristics such as these in her everyday life, both as an individual striding to achieve economic, personal and humanitarian goals, and as a woman who seeks to improve society and the world around her. The award is unprecedented and performing in the solstice celebration is an honor that should only be given to the best. So it is my honor and my privilege to announce that this year’s solstice queen is…” President Fremont opened an envelope, looked at the paper, looked back at Derek and smiled. Derek’s wished he was dreaming when he heard: “Darlene Mill!”

 

“I feel like I’m dreaming,” was the first thing that Darlene said to Derek when she returned from the press. She then said something about walking on clouds and started laughing. Derek tried to ask her a few questions about the preparation she had to do, and Darlene gave a satisfactory answer and showed no concerns. She then said she was exhausted and passed out. Derek watched her sleep and wanted nothing more than to shake her until her eyes opened but instead he paced around the living room and left to go see President Fremont.

President Fremont

FREMONT: Mr. Mill!

DEREK: Hey, look, I had a few questions about the performance.

FREMONT: You’ve got more experience than I do.

DEREK: Is there any way we could change the solstice queen?

FREMONT: Excuse me?

DEREK: Could we replace Darlene with a different solstice queen?

FREMONT: I don’t understand.

DEREK: Could the runner up be the solstice queen?

FREMONT: I get what you’re saying. I just don’t understand why you’re saying it. Is Darlene sick?

DEREK: No. But, uh, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s good for her.

FREMONT: Does Darlene not want to do it? Why wouldn’t Darlene want to be a Solstice Queen. (Fremont Laughed).

DEREK: No she does, I just, I don’t want her to do it. I don’t think it’s good for her.

FREMONT: Derek, excuse me for saying this, but you sound incredibly selfish. The Solstice Queen is the highest honor, I don’t know why I’m even saying that, you know it. But even if she had the flu combined with food poisoning surely any woman would still accept the honor.

DEREK: It’s not good for her.

FREMONT: You are not the one to decide that Derek.

DEREK: I’ve given a lot to the performance and I should have some say in the decision.

FREMONT: Yesterday I saw Josephine Dawson, twenty-five years ago she was Solstice Queen.

DEREK: I know who she is.

FREMONT: You know what she told me? (Derek says nothing) She said it was the most meaningful experience of her life. She said she still replays the memory in her head every day.

DEREK: I know, I know, I know, It’s important. It’s selfish of me to not want her to do it. But I can’t help it, for some reason I do not want her to be the Solstice Queen. Now can you help me out? I’ve done a lot for you Ferris. I’ve done a lot. Can you give me this one fucking favor.

FREMONT: Look Derek, we’re practically family and for that reason I will not repeat any details of this conversation. But I would like for you to leave my office at once.

 

Derek watched the sleeping Darlene snore for forty-eight minutes. He felt like he was going to explode. He wanted to scream thousand of things but he knew that he must remain calm and subdued in order for the strategy to be effective.

The first strategy was to ask her how she felt about the whole thing. Did she feel exhausted? She said the excitement kept her running. She said that their adoration was fuel in her bones. Derek said that the exhaustion might be bad for her health but Darlene said even if it shortened her life by a year it would be well-worth it.

The second strategy was reminding her that it would bring a lot of attention into their personal lives. She said, “I know, isn’t it great.”

The third strategy was asking her if the whole event was making her nervous or if she had stage fright. She laughed thinking Derek was making a joke.

Derek had a fourth strategy but he became so wound up in frustration that he forgot what it was. When she was sleeping, his head was filled with only strategy but now he couldn’t find it. He sat there thinking of something to say but only said ‘Um’ and then the telephone rang. It was Darlene’s choreographer letting her know that she was waiting downstairs. Darlene gave Derek a kiss and ran off.

Derek wanted to strangle Darlene. He felt it was justified due to how she disregarded his wants. The logic of course can’t be translated into words, but as Derek paced the parameter of their bed, the logic was rock solid. The greater frustration was that there was nobody who would sympathize with him. He thought there must be someone who had felt this way. At least once a husband must have forbidden his wife from receiving this award.

So he searched the records and he found that four times in history, elected solstice queens declined the award and let someone else perform. Margo Ruth, Gwen Young, Brita Stillson and Penelope Glass. All of them claiming they couldn’t perform due to illness. But Derek thought otherwise, maybe there was a husband behind the curtain pulling the strings. He searched the internet for the names of their husbands. He found that all of them were dead (Cancer, Heart Attack, Cancer, Overdose). Derek said fuck many times. He searched the women and found that three of them were dead (Cancer, Cancer, Cancer). The only one living was Gwen Young. Derek called her and said they had to talk.

GWEN YOUNG

“Hello,” Derek said. Gwen replied with a ‘Nice to see you’. Gwen had blonde hair that was clearly dyed, Derek thought about why she would dye it instead of let it be grey. She was a wise old woman now not a young attractive thing, besides the blonde dye was visibly obvious, she wasn’t fooling anyone. But Gwen was cheerful despite her fabricated hair color and they talked and drank coffee and pretended they were friends. Finally Derek navigated to the object of interest.

“You were once elected solstice queen [but then you decline] is that correct?

(Derek is young and Gwen is old. Derek was respectful of this and treated her politely, however when attention is thin we must get the point across quickly.)

“Yes, [Why is it that you bring this up?] I was sick unfortunately, a great regret in my life.”

“I’m sure you were disappointed, [I can’t let my wife be solstice queen, it’s not good for her and it does something to our marriage, I can’t explain it. It’ll ruin us.] Did your husband support your decision.”

“Oh yes of course. [Let me show you pictures of my husband. He kept a journal, many ideas and theories about the society we live in today, how marriage should be. He wrote many books but they are all in the basement. They are locked and I cannot remember where the key is but if you answer this riddle you shall find it. [‘Riddle’]] My husband was always supportive.”

“The solstice queen is a great honor, [Answer to Riddle] I’m sure your husband was proud.”

[The walls begin to melt and Derek believes he might be a schizoid. He chants mantras to try and grasp hold of reality. When he calms himself he realizes that the walls are not melting and instead it is actually a hologram being projected out of Mrs. Young’s ears to make the walls appear as if melting. Derek surmises that Mrs. Young is a robot and the answer to the riddle must have cracked open her mainframe.]

[Mrs. Young’s tongue unravels out of her mouth and into Derek’s lap. Derek sees a zipper on the tip of her giant tongue. He unzips her tongue. Several thousand microchips fall out of her tongue and scatter across the carpet. Atop a pile of microchips is a silver key.]

[Derek picks up the key] and goes to the basement.

 

On the morning of the solstice Darlene awakes having not seen Derek in six days. She figured that it was a tradition similar to the groom not seeing the bride’s wedding dress and she wanted to confirm if this was so but didn’t want to risk sounding uninformed, and she was much too exhausted every night from practice to search it on the internet. She hoped that Derek was not nervous as he had so obviously demonstrated that he was when he asked her all those silly questions. It amazed her that such a prestigious man still felt nerves and she reminded herself that everyone is susceptible to insecurity, which of course she knew but seemed to always forget.

Darlene met with the choreographer and went over a few basic things, nothing remotely strenuous. She was a bit in denial that she was going to perform and she was aware of this. She told the choreographer that it felt like a dream. The choreographer said that Darlene was the best Queen’s she ever worked with and people were going to be amazed at her talent. Darlene knew that the choreographer said this to everyone every year but still said thank you.

The Night of The Solstice

Derek arrived just as he was supposed to. However he had missed a week of rehearsal, and been out of touch with everyone involved. But he was allowed to skip meetings and he was allowed to come late, he thought to himself. He was Derek Mill goddammit and he prayed for someone to challenge him, but nobody did. They didn’t care.

President Fremont was talking on stage as Darlene was in a green room meditating in silence and as Dale was teasing Burt about being nervous. Burt told him to shut up and go fuck himself and the only reason you are calling me nervous is because you’re nervous. So fuck off. Dale was a bit embarrassed but smiled instead and apologized. Told him that he would do great and so would everyone. Derek wasn’t listening.

Derek ran on stage.

When Fremont saw Derek he gave him a look a father would give a misbehaving son. But when the crowd saw Derek, they roared. “I have something to say!” Derek shouted, and no one heard because the only microphone was at Fremont’s lips. “Save your speech for after the celebration,” Fremont said. Derek walked over to the microphone and said, “I want to speak to my people.” The crowd roared and Fremont was pissed but had no choice.

“Hello everyone,” Derek said, the crowd cheered. “Before we celebrate the solstice I want to say something. Gwen Young was once elected to be the solstice queen. She declined. She said it was because of the flu. This was a lie.”

The crowd gasped and chatted amongst each other about who Gwen Young was.

“She lied because her husband did not want her to perform in the solstice celebration. See her husband saw the importance in marriage and recognized that our values and ideas are backwards. We’ve become obsessed with progress. Obsessed with doing what makes sense but truly what we think makes sense doesn’t make sense. In Mr. Young’s writings I found many poems about love and essays about importance of staying with one another, I read about how the two of them were going to forfeit everything they had and run away with each other just to be together. He would have her and she would have him and that’s all that they needed. And I read that Mr. Young speculated that nobody could understand his logic because the hemisphere of thought had broken off from love when the god Harotha who lived before time had molested the sand beaches of Naragatha. Harotha was a bastard god and belonged to burn in a separate dimensional vortex. But because of him we are stuck in this chaotic nonsense world, where we can’t control what we love. So Mr. Young set out to destroy Harotha, he found the evil god and he even took pictures. But now that I’ve seen the source of evil in the photos of Harotha I no longer want my wife to perform in the solstice celebration, I’m free and I’m disqualifying my wife and removing her participation. It is my right as her husband, I can recognize this now and you will too once you see the photos of Harotha. Look! Look at the photos!”

Derek reached into his pants and grabbed what he thought were the photos of Harotha. He held them above his head for people to see. What people saw was Derek holding a handful of hair that was obviously grey but dyed blonde. Derek looked at the hair and saw it too. It was then that he realized he was in fact schizoid and he most certainly murdered Gwen Young and hid the corpse in her basement. Derek said fuck many times and was arrested.

The celebration still had to go on and Darlene was still the elected Solstice Queen, for this reason the staff decided it was best not to inform Darlene of her husband’s actions. They did however interrupt her silent meditation to tell her that her husband became very ill and could not participate. Darlene thought maybe he got stage fright. She was upset that he would not share this moment with her and felt a bit like crying but pulled it together and reminded herself about her responsibility to perform.

Meanwhile a politician named Joseph Thornwood was backstage well prepared just in case a freak accident like this occurred. He stepped in with great honor and took Derek’s place. The other six men were chatting about Derek’s incident and arguing about the meaning of what just happened. Burt, however, was not taking part in the gossip, his head was elsewhere. “Dale,” Burt said. “I am nervous.”

“Do you want a blue one?” Dale said.

“Do you have one?” Burt asked.

“Richard’s got a couple. We’re all nervous.”

Burt smiled as a thank you.

“Dick!” Dale shouted to Mr. Coin, “Dick! Burt’s nervous, you got another viagra?”

Richard Coin said he did and tossed it to Burt. Burt swallowed it. He was ready to perform and perform he did along with the other six men they showed the public exactly what they wanted to see and when they finished, just as it happens every year, Satan ascended from the Solstice Queen’s uterus and gave a rousing speech about the importance of being cooperative instead of competitive and how the senior teaching benefits are really the same thing as giving away tenure and that we should remember the importance of using incentives to stimulate an ambition to be an effective teacher as education should be the number one priority.

Derek watched the speech from the jail cell as psychologists tried to determine what was wrong with him. Derek envied the seven men on television and knew that he would never get a chance to be in the celebration again.

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A Chilling Affair by Nathan Elwood

Mar 27 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

It was one of the warmer summers in recent memory the year Lord Raxby was murdered; by late July of 1891 old London Town had only received a few inches of snow through the entire season.

I was lying near the Heartstone of my shared abode when our client arrived that day in early August, enjoying the stone’s emanating warmth and dreaming idly of the balmy conditions of the continent, experienced during my military service some years past. At the sound of approach my ears perked up at once, and I quickly rose from my position.

Sitting nearby upon his favorite recliner was my human companion, Absalom Hume, who I noticed was folding his paper.

“Easy, Winston,” he said. “No need to be suspicious of our guest so quickly, especially when you haven’t even seen the young man yet.”

I let out a low growl. “Suspicion is my business, Hume, as detection is yours. Allow me to keep to my nature as I allow you to keep to your own.”

“Of course. My apologies, old friend. Good dog.” Hume smiled then, just a tad bit more smugly than I should have preferred. Unlike most humans however, his smugness was very nearly deserved. I was already somewhat irked that he had detected the approaching interloper as early as I myself had, but I was baffled at how he could have determined that the visitor was a young man when even I could not yet smell him. As a bulldog, I certainly do not have the olfactory ability of some hounds I have known, but I should dare say that I am better-equipped than any hairless ape.

Seeming to sense and acquiesce to my annoyance, Absalom Hume ventured for my opinion. “Tell me about him,” he asked. I took a sniff of the air. “You were right, definitely male. Smells like… nice leather. Inexpensive cologne.”

“A servant, then,” Absalom said. “His wardrobe and footwear provided by his benefactor, the cologne a personal affectation. Care to make a wager?” “Five crown,” I growled. Devil-take me for a fool, but I can never refuse a gentleman’s wager.

A shadow came under the door as the young interloper reached it. I positioned myself nearby to greet our guest as he knocked. “Enter” Absalom said. There was a pause, a momentary hesitation before the door slowly creaked open. The young man entered cautiously, his eyes down. From his demeanor and the hundreds of smells that I could now perceive off him I knew that my companion was right about his occupation, and that I was down another five crown. My inheritance was shrinking dramatically as a result of my friendship with Mr. Hume.

The boy looked up, past me and straight at Absalom. He was well attired, but conservatively. He had a weak chin, and light hair. Consulting Absalom later, I was informed more specifically that the hair’s color was “sandy blonde,” and that his eyes were dark green. He introduced himself, only addressing Absalom, stating that he was “Henry Cooper, First Footman of the House of Raxby.”

Absalom returned the introductions cooly. “I am Absalom Hume, consulting detective. My companion,” he gestured down to me “Is Leuftenant First Class Winston Barnsley of Her Majesty’s Colonial Brigades.”

The boy started, only now noticing me after perceiving me to be a ranked member of Her Majesty’s Service. “P-pleasure to meet you, Leuftenant Winston,” he stammered out. “I am-am at your service, naturally.”

While the disregard of Canids among the upper class and their livery will always be a source of some annoyance, I rarely let it openly affect me the way my companion does. Bulldogs like myself are, if nothing else, resilient. I decided it would make things far easier if at least one of the two gentlemen in the room could play the host.

“Of course, my good man,” I said. “Why don’t you take a seat and tell us what brings you here on such a fine day?”

“I’m afraid I shall not have time, sir.” He looked back to Absalom. “I must request your presence at the Raxby estates at once.” He fished into his coat pocket and withdrew a letter. Absalom reached him in two long strides and snatched the letter from his hands. In no time at all it was read, crumpled, and tossed into a nearby wastebin. While Henry Cooper began to stammer, Mr. Hume was already donning his coat.

“Come Winston,” he said. “It appears there has been a murder.”

***

As we bumped along in the coach of the carriage that young Mr. Cooper had arrived in, Absalom again seemed again to sense my annoyance.

“What is it Winston? I understand your reticence to seem joyful at a murder, but usually the prospect of our adventures gets at least a slight twitch in your tail.”

I sighed. Stubbornness is something my breed is known for, but Absalom is my friend, and I didn’t wish to maintain bad blood between us. “I don’t like being instructed in the manner you did before,” I said. “‘Come Winston.’”

He paused, staring at the wall of the enclosed carriage. He turned to me. “I’m sorry, old man. I forget at times how recently Canids became true citizens of the Crown. I have never sought to treat you as anything less than my equal.”

There were few under the entirety of the Her Majesty’s dominion that I believed Absalom truly saw as his equal, but I appreciated the sentiment of his apology. I decided it best to simply continue on with the mission at hand. “Tell me about this murder, Hume. Why were we notified by that servant, rather than the police? Why in the form of a letter?”

“The letter was sent as it transmits the necessary information of the case far more efficiently than that stammering young man could ever hope to. As to why the boy was sent at all, I imagine the Home Office would like to prevent rumors getting out of a constable travelling from the home of a well-known Deeist to the apartments of London Town’s consulting detective.”

My ears, flopped over as they were, perked up to the degree they could. I had no idea that Lord Raxby was one of the elite scholars who followed in the footsteps of the great magician John Dee. It was their order that staved off the curse left over by the death of the last Ice Dragon in 17th century.

“Since it is the Deeists that maintain the spells that make Londinium habitable, as opposed to the frozen wasteland that is the rest of the island of Albion, any time a Deeist passes from this life is a cause for considerable worry for the Crown. I imagine they’ll have sent a high ranking officer from Whitehall Place. Someone who would know Lord Raxby outside the context of an investigative matter. Sir Lawrence Eardsley, or Chief Inspector Christie, I should wager. She always delights to be assigned to such grisly affairs, and has many connections amongst the nobility.”

We arrived at the Raxby Estate just past noon, as it was outside old London Town entirely, and on the edges of Londinium itself. We were escorted inside by Footman Cooper, where we were greeted by the butler, an impressively tall, thin man with grey hair and dark eyes. He introduced himself as Mr. Bellamy. I noted a similar set of smells from him as from Mr. Cooper, with some distinct variations. Clearly a member of the serving class, but evidently rewarded for his service far more handsomely than the footman. As he directed us to the parlor, I noticed how cold it was in the building. Though I do not believe that I let loose a perceptible shiver, my companion seemed, as he often does, to read my thoughts.

“Mr. Bellamy, has the Heartstone of this home gone out?” Absalom asked the butler.

“Our Heartstone was maintained personally by Lord Raxby, and heated not only this home but the neighboring servants’ quarters as well. It grew cold shortly after he passed away.”

“I presume you were the one who found his body?”

“No, that was the maid, Ms. Smith. She discovered Lord Raxby early this morning while dusting. Naturally I was immediately informed, and the authorities contacted.”

The butler opened the door to the parlor, and bowed to us as we stepped through. “Sirs,” he said.

There, waiting on the other side, was a bald man with a particularly impressive mustache. Though not tall, and in middle age, he exuded an air of strength. I immediately recognized a fellow member of the Her Majesty’s Service. Though it would be impossible to notice for any human (or even for most Canids not familiar with the man), I registered a sense of shock from Absalom by the unexpectedness of this figure. I should have taken his earlier wager, I deduced.

“Good day, gentlemen,” the man began. “I am-”

“Major General Henry Brackenbury” finished Absalom. “Director of Military Intelligence.” Now I understood his shock. The man before us was a hero of multiple campaigns abroad, and one of the most powerful men in Albion.

Brackenbury nodded. “And you are Absalom Hume, Consulting Detective.” He looked to me. “And Leuftenant First Class Winston Barnsley. Leuftenant, I’ve read your works on the campaigns of the Fighting Dog units in the Boar Wars. Your writings are as exemplary as your own service record.”

“Thank you, Major General, sir.” I sincerely hoped my stub of a tail was not wagging behind me.

“I suppose the two of you are wondering why I am here.”

“It certainly came as something of an initial shock,” Absalom Hume said. “But I can only surmise that when he passed that Lord Edward Raxby was at work on a project deemed of military importance, and that the Crown suspects the possibility of assassination.”

The Major General looked hard at Hume. I imagined he was not a man at all used to being interrupted at all, much less twice within mere moments. Nevertheless, he did not reprimand Absalom.

“Your summations are correct, I’m afraid. Unfortunately I am not at liberty to divulge the nature of Lord Raxby’s work, but know this, Mister Hume. Edward Raxy was a personal acquaintance of both myself and Commander-in-Chief Wolseley. Though there is little reason as yet to suspect foul play, we would like to be absolutely certain of all matters that pertain to this tragedy.”

“Of course, of course,” Absalom said. “Tell me, may we see the victim?”

Major General Brackenbury informed us that we may, and Mr. Cooper was summoned to the parlor to escort the three of us.

As we walked, Absalom began to lightly probe into the matter at hand. “Tell me, does Lord Raxby have family?” Brackenbury responded. “The Lady Raxby passed away nearly four years ago. She and Lord Raxby had two sons, both living abroad at the moment.”

Absalom nodded. Presently we arrived at the quarters of Lord Raxby. Escorted in, we saw the body, laid out on the bed, fully attired, his hands stretched out at his side. He was clearly an older gentleman, though he looked to be of good health. His skin was, however, extremely pale. I did not know if this was from the cold, his passing, or a natural effect of the reclusive habits of mages.

No obvious damage to the body could be discerned. Above and to my left, I heard Absalom let out a small snort, breathing out through his nostrils. A minor tic I had documented of my friend, audible only in moments of extreme frustration.

“Why,” he asked, “was the body moved from the location it was found in? On whose authority was this done?”

Brackenbury stared at him again. “Mister Hume, have a care how you speak. As I told you, this man was a friend of mine. I would not allow him the indignity of lying on the floor of his study.”

“Never mind the contamination of the data!” cried Absalom. He whirled to face Henry Cooper. “The body is useless to me. Young man, escort me to this study.” Brackenbury seemed ready to have Absalom drawn and quartered. If the man had possessed hackles, they most certainly would have been up.

“Now see here,” he said. “Lord Raxby very well may have died under perfectly natural causes. I see no reason not to respect the dead.”

“Major General Brackenbury, with all due respect, if you believed at all that he had died naturally, you would not have brought me. Again, I must see the study.”

***

The study in question was, for one of my somewhat limited means and rather pedestrian education, a wonder. Shelves of books lined the walls, which climbed up nearly 14 feet in the air. Many of the books were mighty tomes; some I imagined likely weighed nearly what I do!

At the far end was Lord Raxby’s desk, covered in sheaves of paper, some of which had fallen to the ground. The chair was tipped over onto the ground, and a few of the fallen pages had formed an odd halo around it.

Absalom dismissed the footman and set to his work, making quick, minute observations of every inch of the room. He approached the desk, but was halted by a throat-clearing from Brackenbury.

“Mr. Hume,” he said. “Some of the items Lord Raxby was likely working on could be of a… sensitive nature to the Crown. I am not sure I can permit you to examine them.”

I could see Absalom open his mouth, about to say something that would undoubtedly get him into trouble. As he had risen to my defense earlier, I decided I would do the same for him now.

“Major General, sir,” I began. Absalom closed his mouth. “Though he may be at times… unorthodox, I can assure you that few possess the loyalty to Albion and level of discretion of my friend Hume. I can promise you that no element of this case shall ever see publication, and that not even I shall be made aware of whatever Mr. Hume reads in those notes. For this, you have my word as a soldier of the Crown. But I am familiar with my friend’s methods, and inspection of every detail, undisturbed, is paramount.”

Major General Brackenbury seemed to size me up then. Admittedly, at only three feet tall there wasn’t entirely much to size, but he seemed to be satisfied. He nodded to Absalom.

I might have saved myself the effort, for after only a few minutes of examination, Absalom promptly announced “I can find nothing!” I’m told that I and the rest of my breed have a naturally dour expression, even when we are perfectly content. I cannot imagine what my face must have looked like in that moment.

He approached Brackenbury and myself as I hung my head, wondering if all my military honors would be summarily stripped from me for this embarrassment. Absalom continued. “That is, I have determined from his notes and correspondence that he had a great many reasons to fear assassination, and his death was quite sudden. It seems it took him right in the middle of a sentence. But I cannot find any physical evidence of an attack on him. No remnants of food that may have been poisoned, no items he may have pricked himself on, no arsenic dust, and none of the characteristic sulfur smell of malicious magic. At least, not so far that I can detect. Perhaps a gifted sorcerer could disguise such a scent to some degree. Winston?”

I looked up. I supposed it was possible, after all. I breathed in deeply, absorbing the thousands of odors of the room. “No…” I said. “No sulfur.” I frowned even deeper and padded toward the desk. There was… something odd, however.  A smell that seemed out of place, something I seemed to remember from…

“Almonds?”

Absalom rushed to my side and knelt down, putting us at eye level. “Winston old man, what did you say?”

“I thought perhaps I was mistaken, but there is a slight scent in the room of almonds, a type of nut that only grows in the East. I encountered them there during my service in the Boar Wars.”

Absalom grinned, clapping me on the shoulder and giving me a slight scratch behind the ears as he rushed to the desk. From the top of it he grabbed a capped bottle of ink and darted back to me.

“Mr. Hume,” cried Brackenbury, “what is the meaning of this?” Absalom ignored him entirely. He uncapped the bottle and held it approximately a foot from my snout. “Winston,” he said, “I need to be absolutely sure. Is this what you smelled?”

I breathed in. “Yes,” I told him. “The ink smells of almonds.” Absalom capped the ink, turned to Brackenbury, and said, “Sir, I can confirm it; Lord Edward Raxby was murdered. If you could be so kind as to assemble the house staff in the parlor below, I believe we can resolve this matter.”

***

In the parlor, the small staff had been collected. There was Mr. Bellamy, Mr. Cooper, another footman, the maid, and the cook. All seemed perplexed at their being brought before us. Absalom paced slowly in front of them.

“As you all know, Lord Raxby left this world sometime this morning. There is no evidence of foul play, and for all intents and purposes it seems as though the patron of this house was victim to a heart condition or similar ailment. An autopsy would likely reveal more.”

The maid, a young woman, no more than 20 at the latest, let out a small gasp of shock. Absalom continued. “Luckily, none shall be necessary.” He turned to Major General Brackenbury. “From the many, many pages on his desk, it was easy to determine that Lord Raxby maintained a prodigious correspondence. Can this be confirmed?”

Brackenbury nodded. “I received letters from him daily, and I do not believe that I was the only one.” Absalom turned to the servants, a questioning look in his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” said Henry Cooper. “L-lord Raxby spent nearly three hours each day writing.” Absalom gave him a small, grim smile.

“I suspected as much. Any of the house would have known this, and likely would have known that Lord Raxby had, I believe, a rather common habit of touching the tip of his pen to his tongue before each new page. Mr. Cooper, can you confirm such a habit?”

The boy looked about nervously, but found no assistance from his fellows. “I-I… It m-might be that I’ve seen him do such a thing, yes.”

Absalom pulled his gaze from the young man, whose shoulder slumped as if he’d been suddenly released from a binding spell.

Absalom reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the bottle of ink. “That is why,” he said, “the killer decided to poison not his food, which would have been entirely too obvious, but rather his ink.” He addressed Brackenbury directly. “Cyanide, you see, is a unique poison, very hard to detect once it has worked its effects. But it is often discernible from its scent, which greatly resembles the plant from which it originates: Almonds. I have published a light monograph on how to discern commonly used lethal chemicals, Major-General. I’m surprised it hasn’t been distributed amongst the intelligence services. In any case, this ink was the tool of the killer, and I believe that will be corroborated by the chemists as Whitehall Place.”

Brackenbury fixed his eyes on Absalom’s. “But who is the killer, Mr. Hume?”

“It would have to be a member of the staff, someone with access to the ink. Unfortunately, that could be any one of them. However, there is a detail of one of them that I picked up as we entered. I’m certain my osmatic companion Winston would have noticed it even more readily than I.”

I looked up, recalling my initial impression of the Butler as being far better-off than I initially attribute to members of the servant class. “Mr. Bellamy’s cologne. It’s of a far more expensive variety than Mr. Cooper’s, or even that which Absalom could afford.”

We all turned to the butler. “What’s more,” Absalom said, “his gloves are of a particularly warm make. All the servants of this home were uniformly attired by their employer, but he is the only one wearing such gloves. Almost as if he knew that the house would shortly grow very cold. He must have recently come into money, to afford so many nice things.”

Suddenly, Mr. Bellamy shoved Henry Cooper and made a break for the door. Unfortunately for him, I was after him in a shot. I may be older than I was when I fought the Boars of the East, but I dare say I am still more than a match for a household servant. I tackled him at the knees in a lunge, bringing him to the floor. In mere seconds, the footmen of the house were down to the ground as well, holding Mr. Bellamy there. I found Absalom at my side again. “Good man,” he said. “Good man.”

***

Hours later, back in our apartments, I had resumed my place by the Heartstone, though I found it for more difficult to relax than I had that morning. Absalom, as he often does at the conclusion of a case, seemed similarly restless, and was busying himself by practicing throwing cards in a corner of the room.

“This isn’t the end of it,” he said abruptly.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “The killer has been arrested, and we have both of us entered the good graces of the head of Military Intelligence. I should say this is a satisfactory conclusion, Hume.”

“We apprehended the killer, yes, but we still don’t know the why of it all. Who paid him? It may be determined under the questioning of Military Intelligence, but at the very least we have confirmed that this was indeed an organized attack against Lord Raxby. For all we know, all of the other Deeists of the kingdom are at risk. Winston, I feel as though a much greater game is at play, and we have only witnessed the first move.”

He turned back to his card throwing, and I padded my way to the window. Outside, snow clouds had begun to form above the city. So much for my warm summer, I thought.

***

Nathan Elwood is a student of Library Science at the University of Missouri. He has been recently published in Aurora Wolf, Devilfish Review, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine. His interests include writing and craft beers, and he has an unfortunate habit of combining the two.

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TREE FORT by Tom Leveen

Mar 20 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

Clown walks into a bar. Bartender says, “What’ll you have?” Clown says, “Gimme a treefort!” Bartender says, “What’s in a treefort?” Clown says . . . 

Playboy mags and cigars, hee-hee-hee!

I smiled but did not laugh. Tommy’s voice rang clear and cold in my ears, telling and re-telling his stale old jokes. I heard him as clearly as if he were still standing there beside me. Our tree fort never had Playboy magazines or cigars; those would come as we aged, but our fort was free from such degradation.

I stopped smiling.

The fort looked like it was still in decent shape. I tilted my head back as far as it would go, studying the warped plywood that served as the fort’s floor. I saw cracks, but no splits. I gazed down the length of the trunk. The wooden crossbeams we’d nailed through the bark all those years ago had been swallowed partially by the growing tree. Where once the rungs were weak and prone to popping off, they were now embedded in the bark. I grabbed the lowest rung and pulled on it. It was like trying to pull off a branch. The rungs were safer now than they’d been when Tommy and I first nailed them in.

Grasping the lowest rung, I began pulling myself up the ladder, careful not to disturb the lower branches as I ascended. We’d built the tree fort when we were ten, and no grown-ups had helped. We’d nailed the old wood together with nails pilfered from Tommy’s father’s workshop, and he’d never missed them. We’d surrounded two sides of the plywood with a short wall, constructed out of two-by-four scrap. We camouflaged one side of the fort with green netting I’d asked my mom to buy us. From the ground, you had to look closely to see it. It felt like a sniper’s nest, exactly what Tommy and I had intended. We even had an emergency exit: a thick, black nylon rope tied to a branch above the fort that we could drop out and slide down in case the fort was ever overtaken—or if we just wanted the thrill of sliding down the rope, which was often. It was a straight drop of twenty feet or so, a stupid height to be jumping from, but we had faith in our rope and our immortality. Even after all these years, the rope still held firm.

I reached the trapdoor and shoved it upward. The hinges complained bitterly, but didn’t resist. The trapdoor fell to the floor and startled a flock of birds, which took flight in a cacophony of whistles and caws. I glanced down, making sure their flight didn’t disturb the branches.

I pulled myself cautiously up through the hole. I weighed a good deal more than I had when I was ten. Back then, Tommy and I could scramble up the ladder and be hidden behind our green netting in about five seconds. Imaginary foreign invaders were always chasing us, but our cap guns held them at bay once we were secure in our fort.

The floor wasn’t big enough for an adult to crawl onto. I knew that from visiting the tree fort previously; once a year since Tommy died. Sort of a commemoration. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Tommy had died here. As if the invaders had finally taken one of our own. Tommy hadn’t gone without a fight. He’d fired his cap gun empty before the end came, and I admired him for that. Even to this day, I admired him.

I heard myself sigh. Tommy never gave up on anything. Even when our imaginary enemies invaded the fort and took us hostage—Tommy and I had tied the rope on ourselves –he was always full of ideas on how to escape, and of course, they always worked. When we were ten, eleven, and twelve, we were able to switch roles on a dime, better than any actor. Make-believe required it. I had to switch from fearless defender of American freedom to cold-blooded mercenary at the drop of a hat. Tommy took his turns too, though his mercenaries were always better—more evil and more sadistic—than mine. I envied his playacting as much as I did his stubbornness.

We were best friends, I almost said aloud as I began working my way back down the ladder and shutting the trap door above me. Even when Tommy got loud and obnoxious, which was frequently, I still loved him. I didn’t have the maturity to call it that when I was twelve, but looking back, I knew that’s what it was. It seemed only logical that the two of us would get our first crushes on the same girl upon entering junior high school. We were that much alike. Like brothers. The object of our crush, Lindsey McNaughton, had been swayed by Tommy at first, but in the end, had come to enjoy my company more.

Maybe it was because she felt bad for me when Tommy died. It didn’t matter to me at the time. Of course, by senior high, Lindsey and me weren’t an item anymore, but Tommy was still dead. I think Lindsey had only gone out with me as a sort of comfort, and I didn’t mind. Tommy wouldn’t have either, I figured.

I dropped the last couple of feet to the ground, careful not to disturb the lower branches. I glanced up at the nylon rope that hung taut from above, making sure everything was still in place. Tommy hadn’t questioned me when I suggested we play War one more time, even though at that point video games and girls had become much more important to us both. He’d joined me in one last daring escapade, this one involving more mercenaries than we’d ever faced before.

Our cap guns almost glowed red with the amount of imaginary hot lead we rained down upon our enemies. We were outgunned, in the end, but determined as ever to go down fighting, even as the mercenaries climbed into our fort. I’d prepared for them, setting a neat trap with a slipknot in the rope that served as our escape route. When the mercs burst into the fort, guns blazing, I’d dropped the noose over Tommy’s head and shoved him out the escape hatch. Tommy stayed in character till the end, firing his gun at me all the way down.

I’d never heard a sound like the one I heard that afternoon, the wet-stick snap of Tommy’s neck when the rope had played out. With that sound, the assault had stopped, and I never played make-believe again. There was no need. Lindsey didn’t play make-believe, and certainly never played War. She wouldn’t understand that I was a hero, that I had saved us both. From Tommy.

I shoved my hands in my pockets as I watched Tommy’s bones sway gently from the end of the rope. The police had never made it this far out of town when they searched for him, and I didn’t feel like helping them out. So here Tommy stayed, where he belonged, his weathered bones and leering skull protecting our fort from all invaders, foreign and domestic.

I wondered how long his skeleton could remain intact. Tommy’s blue jeans lay crusted solid on the ground beneath his fleshless feet where they’d fallen several years ago, his green t-shirt tattered and almost gone completely. But Tommy’s old stubbornness must have run as deep as his bones, for the skeleton was a model of perfection. It looked like a fake, something you’d find in a biology classroom, except for small tufts of brown hair clinging to his dry, ivory scalp. I watched the lower branches sway again in a light breeze, fearful they would disintegrate whatever remained of the sinews and cartilage holding Tommy’s bones together, but the branches veered away from the specter, as if in respect.

“What’s in a tree fort?” I asked.

Tommy’s skull was still and silent, smiling.

He loved that joke.

# # #

Tom Leveen is the author of six novels with imprints of Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Abrams. He can be found at www.tomleveen.com and on Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorTomLeveen.

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Bones By DJ Tyrer

Mar 13 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

It wasn’t really his idea of a good job, but sometimes you just had to take whatever you were offered. After all, somebody had to be a gravedigger, didn’t they? If nobody did the job, the world would soon be overrun with dead bodies and piles of bones. If he thought about it like that, he was a freakin’ hero. At least that let him feel good about being there in the graveyard in the middle of the night.

Joe just wished the city council would let him have a digger to do the job, just one of those tiny ones would do, nothing fancy. But, no, budget restrictions meant he was here with a shovel attempting to make a dent in the heavy clay. It was backbreaking work; you couldn’t squash the bodies into a shallow grave. Well, you could, but the bosses didn’t like it and he needed to keep this job. Which meant he had to keep scraping away at the thick earth.

“A stick o’ dynamite could hurry things along,” Joe muttered to himself.

There was a dry, hollow laugh from the darkness in response to his comment. He stuck the shovel blade into the ground and looked around. There wasn’t supposed to be anybody in the graveyard, besides him, unless one of the higher-ups was checking up on him.

“Who?” he called, staring into the darkness. Joe couldn’t see anyone; the night was too dark, overcast. He turned towards where he thought the chuckles had come from.

There was the slightest shuffling sound and scuff of gravel and a figure in a long, dark coat and a hat pulled down low manifested out of the night. Joe couldn’t help but jump slightly at the person’s sudden appearance. They chuckled again, although he couldn’t tell if they were laughing at his reaction or were still laughing at what he’d said. He wasn’t too certain he liked the person. If they were one of his bosses, that would be a solid no.

They hadn’t bothered to answer his question, so he asked again: “Who are you?” Then, he added, “What do you want?” He pulled his shovel out from the cloying earth with a slurp! and hefted it in what he hoped was a subtly-threatening manner. “Well?”

The figure chuckled again, as if Joe were making a jest towards them. Their reaction was oddly disturbing. Joe found himself wondering if he’d been approached by an escaped loony.

“Look, answer me,” he demanded. “Who are you?”

“Heh-heh, my name is Bones. Well, that’s what they call me, at any rate.”

“Bones? Your first name ain’t Dem, by any chance?” Joe sneered.

“No, although it might as well be. Knee bones, toe bones, funny bones – I’ve got ‘em all.”

With a shiver, Joe wondered if he was in the company of a bodysnatcher. He’d heard the odd rumour of such things, but had thought them spurious. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

“In fact,” the man said, “I’ve got nothing but bones.” He reached inside his coat and pulled out a rib.

Joe raised his shovel, ready to strike.

“Oh, don’t be like that,” said Bones, “you don’t know how lonely it gets round here. Sure, I’ve got plenty of neighbours, but they ain’t exactly talkative; know what I mean? Course you do, you’re surrounded by them every night. A dead loss, if you’ll excuse the pun.” Bones sighed.

“I just want to be friends,” he continued. “If you’d like, I could help out. I could lend you a hand – literally, if you’d like.”

“Sorry, are you saying you’re a skeleton?” asked Joe.

“Well, yes. Yes, I am. Is it really such a surprise? After all, friend, you’re a skeleton, too; only you’re wrapped in meat.”

“Very funny.”

“Oh, I’m deadly serious. Or, should I say, deathly serious. After all, I can’t be anything else, can I?”

“Really?”

“In my condition, I mean. See?”

Bones pulled his coat open, as if he were a flasher, and Joe gave an involuntary shriek. Beneath the coat, it seemed he really was all bones.

“No way,” Joe muttered. “It has to be a costume…”

“Oh, yeah,” said Bones.”I go about like this for the good of my health.” He – it – used the spare rib it still held to tap out a tune on its ribs.

“No – no – no…”

“Yes – yes – yes,” Bones replied. It reached up a bony hand and nudged its hat up to show a skull face. It looked as if it were grinning at Joe, but all skulls looked like that, so it was difficult to tell.

Joe reached out with the shovel and poked at Bones’ stomach area and watched the back of the coat it wore sway.

Joe swore.

“Convinced?” Bones asked, crossing his arms and cocking his skull.

“Freaked out might be a better description.”

“Oh, come on, we’re not so different, the two of us,” said Bones, uncrossing his arms and putting his hands on his bony hips. “Take away the flesh and blood and you’re just a load of bones hanging out in a graveyard. I thought we could hang out together. Eternity gets lonely, you know.”

“No offence,” Joe said, stepping back and holding the shovel defensively across his chest, “but I’m rather attached to my flesh and blood, and that makes a pretty big difference between us.”

Bones gave a sigh. “I thought you were the one. That you would understand. That you could feel the connection. That you could be like me.”

“Look,” said Joe, continuing to step away from Bones, “as I said, no offence intended, but I don’t like the suggestion I become a skeleton, too. Hell, I don’t even want to hang out with you – I do this for a pay-cheque, not for fun.”

“I’m sorry,” said Bones, cracking his knuckles. “I didn’t mean to give you the impression you had a choice in this; I’m afraid I must insist…”

“Thanks, but no-ohhh!” Joe took another step backwards and felt the ground give way beneath his feet. He lost his grip on the shovel as he fell into the grave he’d been digging. He lay still for a moment, then tried to sit up. He swore as his head swam. Looking up, he saw the skeletal figure in the flapping coat looking down at him, the shovel in his hands.

“Don’t worry,” Bones told him, as he began to shovel the soil back into the open grave, “I was buried alive and it didn’t do me any harm. You’ll claw your way out soon enough. It’s not like you’ve been embalmed or anything. You’ll rot quick enough, then you can join me. I’m sure we can find ways to make the years pass quickly.”

Joe screamed, but Bones just tossed some of the thick earth down onto his head, filling his mouth and silencing his cries.

“Don’t worry,” said Bones, “it’ll soon be over. See you shortly…”

—–

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines in the UK, USA and elsewhere, most recently in Amok! (April Moon Books), In Creeps The Night (J.A.Mes Press), State of Horror: Illinois (Charon Coin Press), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), Tales of the Dark Arts (Hazardous Press) and Cosmic Horror (Dark Hall Press), as well as in Sorcery & Sanctity: A Homage to Arthur Machen (Hieroglyphics Press), All Hallow’s Evil and Undead of Winter (both Mystery & Horror LLC) and Fossil Lake (Sabledrake Enterprises), and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dynatox Ministries).

DJ Tyrer’s website is at http://djtyrer.blogspot.co.uk/

The Atlantean Publishing website is at http://atlanteanpublishing.blogspot.co.uk/

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The Memory Rock by Geoff Nelder

Mar 06 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

 

Teresa shouldn’t have left at lunchtime—against the rules, but girls need something the arbiters of school rules didn’t take into account, and the corner shop sold that essential drug, chocolate. She should’ve headed in the opposite direction really, to avoid storekeeper, Mr Pervy-Pimpled-Prost but she’d miss Physics. She arrived at the shop and wavered, leaning against the doorframe, afraid to allow the dangly doorbell announce her presence so he’d ogle her alabaster white legs.

May came out laughing. “He isn’t here, gone to his other shop in Kinnerton. Here, I’ve got your seventy-percent, dark. You and your addiction owe me, let’s see you smile.”

*** 

Teresa turned to the vibrating, rain-splattered window to hide her smile and savouring the last square of chocolate. It was July so the rain was warm, yes? The double-decker bus lurched to the left as the driver rushed a tight roundabout, eager to deliver and be rid of his cargo of chewing gum-flavoured school kids. She’d climbed the swaying stairs of the overfull bus hoping to sit by her new squeeze, Finn. Except he wasn’t there. He’d have known better, and so should she, than to share his journey home with an immature bunch of snots from Dodleston.

A familiar voice startled her from behind. “Hey, Tess, he won’t be here. He got himself excluded from school this morning, the twat.”

“Eh?” She plunged her hand into her schoolbag, shoving aside an Advanced Level textbook on Earth Sciences then stopped, gasped and turned to May, her friend since birth. “My phone was confiscated in assembly and I forgot to collect it.”

May laughed making her marmalade hair bounce as she changed seats, pushing a couple of little year sevens out of the way. “Use mine. Bet he’s in the Red Lion.”

Teresa jabbed at the phone but the cacophony of immature voices made it impossible to hear his hardman act, although she suspected it was a, ‘Hey, May, darling’.

“I’ll have to text him, he thinks it’s you.”

May blushed.

“What? Are you cheating on me?” Teresa’s thumb blurred as she asked Finn his location and got nada in return. She looked up again at May, who’d deflected the question. She dropped the phone while giving it back as the bus braked sharply making everyone grab something, someone.

As she retrieved her phone, May said, “He got caught with vodka. You know, for tonight’s party. The shopkeeper saw it on the cam and told old Barney, who… well, like last time.”

Teresa hated the bus. A travelling virus factory, though the antics of the younger pupils made her laugh. She should speed up getting her licence. Several sixth-formers who lived out in Dodleston and the farms would help with petrol. She looked out at the suburbs of Chester, as a few pupils tumbled out of the door. Their green shirts flapping in the June post-shower sunshine and their legs already going like egg-beaters to get to a snack shop.

“Hey, Tess, what’s that in the sky?”

A dirty, smudgy line grew from behind the bus, overtook it and headed southwest.

Teresa muttered, “That’s not an aeroplane.”

May tilted her head then pressed it to the glass. “Is that rumbling noise coming from it?”

Nerdy Podge had just laboured up the stairs and stumbled to the large curved front windscreen. His voice quivered with exuberance. “It’s a meteor, on its way to becoming a meteorite.”

Many of the kids, now silent, ran to the front to watch, fascinated, but some in horror.

“We’re gonna die when that hits!”

“Someone tell the driver to turn round!”

“Don’t they just burn up in the sky?”

“They explode like nuclear bombs.”

“Ya not sposed to look at them. Makes ya blind.”

“Is that heading for Kinnerton?”

“No, Dodleston. My house. Fuck.”

Teresa stared at the descending trail. They all had homes out there. Cold sweat dribbled between her shoulder blades, while a hot tear rolled down her cheek.

Five kids at the front window elbowed and pushed to get to the top of the stairs and clambered down shouting at the driver to stop. He ignored them. He had a job to do.

She stared at the long line of cloud being made by the meteor, swirling round like the eddies when she paddled a canoe. Dodleston was just four miles away. She saw the line meet the horizon.

Instinctively, her eyelids snapped shut with the dazzling white light.

Next to her, May screamed as the front windscreen blew in, luckily in millions of tiny cubes. Teresa had seen enough nuclear-war films to know the blast was followed by a wave of searing heat and ear-splitting noise.

Teresa gripped the top of the seat in front as the bus swung to the left and swayed, tilted. She couldn’t tell which screams came from the bus, kids, acoustic shock or her. Her eyes now wide open. Her grip slipped. Needed to get May away from her window because it would smash in the fall. She’d be cut, or crushed. They couldn’t get away from it. Falling. Need anti-gravity—how did she have time to think of that? Better climb up the seat. Ah, no need. Bus has stopped tilting. A house got in the way.

Had the bus been blown over by an airburst from the meteorite or was it just careless driving, an overreaction? Too many kids bustling for the stairs, so she and May headed for the emergency exit window at the rear. Then she saw the trees and walls strewn drunkenly over the road. Bloodied people slowly scrambled to their feet.

Teresa and May heaved against the emergency bar and the window reluctantly swung open allowing them to disembark, precariously, lowering themselves to the tarmac. It had stopped raining, thank God.

Teresa jabbed at May’s pink phone to see if Finn was okay.

“He’s not picking up. What d’you think, May?”

“We should go back to school, it’s not far and—”

Teresa gave back the phone and looked south in the direction of a growing dark mushroom cloud. “We must go there, home. Walk, run if we have to.”

She jogged past the bus, followed by a reluctant May, and through the melee of pupils some of whom were crying, others heading for home in her direction but most milled around as if waiting for instructions.

A car horn startled Teresa, but instead of moving off the road and onto the pavement, she turned and held out her arms to force the rusty red Ford Fiesta to stop. Assuming it would.

It did, and Teresa saw the driver grinning. Finn, Year 13, lover, ex, maybe.

“We need a lift, Finn. Dodleston, now.”

He draped a pale arm out of the car. “It’ll cost you.”

 

“Whatever.” Should she sit in the front? A glance at the no-eye-contact May, said yes. Fuck ’em.

***

A mile from Dodleston they had to pull up. A snot-coloured furniture lorry languished on its side across the road, one of its wheels rotating.

Teresa gripped Finn’s skinny arm. “Can we get around it?”

“You’re kidding, I’m not taking my car through muddy fields.”

“And,” May said, “we’ve got to help that driver. I saw him move!” She got out of the car and ran over.

“Like there’s not hundreds worse off just up the road. I’ll walk. Phew, it smells of fireworks out here—cordite and ozone?”

She inched past the lorry. Some trees were down, and pointed away from Dodleston, at her. She couldn’t swallow as her mouth dried. She realised the dark clouds were not rain clouds—entirely—but smoke defeating gravity, from a bonfire a mile wide. Then came a drizzle of smuts, smudgy precipitation. From where they were, near the fishing pond, she’d normally see the church tower and the top of the redbrick primary school but it was too hazy to see anything.

Her house was alongside the school. She started to run but stopped to listen. A low ho-hum of traffic on nearby roads. Did they know of the disaster? Maybe some of it was the emergency services, she could hear sirens way off in the distance. Some of it from behind her. She must get to what’s left of her house and family before police-stop-tape and soldiers block her path.

People staggered out of the fog of raining dust. Was one Phoebe, her little sister? Grief they were all khaki and grey head to toe. Dust? At least their eyes were white, shocked open. There she was, dragging her school bag behind her.

“Phoebe, let me hug you.” Ignoring the dust, Teresa embraced her sister, who stood limply, unresponsive in her arms.  “You’re traumatised aren’t you? What about mum? Have you seen her?”

No answer.

“Of course not, or you’d be with her. Ah, your teacher’s here. Miss Anderson? Is there a crater? How much of the village was destroyed?”

The willowy woman’s blue eyes stared out of her grey head. At least her hair precipitated dust in a gentle fall revealing the blonde beneath. Others from the village stopped too, none talked.

“Are you all in shock? Phoebe, Miss Anderson, say something.”

The teacher finally refocused on Teresa. “Confused. Don’t know who you are. Who I am.”

Teresa walked up to embrace her former teacher. She nearly un-hugged when her nose filled with the burnt dust odour, but she continued. “It’ll be shock. I assume the school wasn’t hit then. I see other pupils. Did the meteorite land on the other side of the village? Surprised anyone survived. Pleased, of course.”

“What meteorite?”

“Ah, you mightn’t have seen it being inside the school. One struck somewhere around here. Look at all the damage.”

“What school?”

Teresa let the teacher go, brushed dust off her white T-shirt leaving ochre streaks. She’d need to use Stain Devil on that in the wash. She kneeled in front of Phoebe and hugged her.

“What do you remember, kiddo?”

“Noth … nothing.” Tears streaked through the dust on her cheeks.

Finn came up behind her. “Always thought Dodleston was the land of the living dead.”

Teresa hit his arm. “Finn, I’m staying with this lot at least till the emergency services arrive. Will you go ahead and see if there’s a crater or anything? Perhaps the rock exploded in the air so there might not be one.”

“Yeah, I’ll be the trail-blazer.” He ran on ahead through the dozen survivors, his red shirt and blue jeans blurring into the dust mist.

A few minutes later she saw him wandering back. “What did you see, Finn?”

He stumbled past her, making her grab and pull him round. “Finn?”

His forehead sported worry lines like an accordion. He trembled. “Who are you?

What d’you want?”

“You just went into the village to see… what did you see?”

“What village?”

Paramedics were leading the confused amnesiacs to waiting ambulances. Teresa was grabbed by the elbow by a policewoman and tugged.

“No, officer, I’ve just arrived to check on my family, but my friend here…”

“We’ll take him too. Do you want to come or can you look after these older folk until more ambulances arrive?”

The dust was thinning over the village. Teresa could see ruined buildings now, but no more people coming out. “Are there emergency services on the other side and on the road from Gorstella?”

The brunette policewoman looked back as if checking she won’t be overheard by colleagues. “There was, but we’ve lost contact with them. They’d reported going to the rim of a crater where the Red Lion used to be…”

A paramedic motorbike growled past them towards Dodleston. Both the policewoman and Teresa shouted at him to stop but he couldn’t hear because of the newly arrived helicopter overhead. Any lower and it would make the dust worse.

A red glow brightened from the motorcycle’s brake light then a thud.

Teresa took a step towards the crashed paramedic, eager to help but also curious in spite of the worry knot in her stomach.

“No, you might lose your memory too,” the police officer said. “I’ll go up to that crumpled phone box and yell at him.”

May had come up behind and pulled her backwards. “Come right back, Tess, I’ve seen footage from that news helicopter. It’s too dangerous here. Come on!”

Reluctant to move, Teresa changed her mind when she saw the policewoman holding her head as if it was about to burst. She shivered—it could have been her. “Where did you see it?”

“There’s a BBC TV van, look for yourself.”

***

At last, she saw the crater even if vicariously via a helicopter and mobile screens. Centred on the edge of the village the meteorite had swallowed The Red Lion and the church with the rim running along the edge of the school. Trees, lampposts, walls outside the circle had fallen outwards like spokes of a wheel. Amazingly, the school remained standing as did a few other strong buildings.

May knocked heads with her. “Can’t see the rock in the middle. Too much debris fallen back onto it, I s’pose.”

“Never mind the rock, where are the people? They can’t have all been vaporised. Can they?” She was being illogical, but then it’s only human for a teen to believe they’re indestructible. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

She was dragged away by May, back to Finn’s car beyond the upset lorry and anguished crowds. She considered driving the car even without a licence but their passage back was blocked by the worried and the gawpers. Where to go? Both May and herself had homes with the last known address in a crater.

Teresa borrowed May’s phone again and jabbed at the number of a nearby aunt, but no signal. The service could be overwhelmed, underground or sideswiped by fucked up electrons. Hang on, she remembered a footpath across fields to Lower Kinnerton, then a jog up the road to the Royal Oak to her aunt’s.

***

“Ninety-eight people,” May read aloud from the Chronicle. “Ninety-eight whose memories were wiped that day and more since. A hundred missing. Even bio-hazard-suited-up scientists were helicopter winched back up as forgetful automatons with lost pasts and names.”

May threw the newspaper in the bin at the MacDonalds Amnesia Clinic. “Come on, Tess. You’ve been a patient here for ten days you must remember something.”

Teresa rubbed her forehead. “I fell over a branch.”

“Now we’re getting recall. Where was this, Kinnerton?”

“Garden. I was three. Nothing since. I’ve tried and tried.” Tears filled her eyes until they dribbled down.

May stamped a foot. “They’re moving Finn from the Eaton Amnesia Clinic to be near you. Thought maybe you’d wandered over to the crater. Maybe you thought the amnesia affect had worn off.”

“I don’t know nothing, not even you.”

Her visitor left to investigate screaming. Teresa should be upset, a wreck of tears butalthough she’s been told her mother’s died, her sister has lost her memory and her dad had flown back from his oil rig, none of it meant anything. Oh, a door bang and that girl, May, was back.

“You’re not going to believe this, Tess. The meteorite. The rock that destroyed our village. It’s left! Flew out of the crater, straight up. You know what this means don’t you? It wasn’t a rock. Some kind of alien ship. Why? Probably off course, crash-landed. Or perhaps it’s gathered all those memories to take home.”

***

Lightning crackled through Teresa’s brain.

“May, May come quick!” Where was she? Screams from the other wards. A man’s grating cough and despairing yell reached her from the next bed. She too needed to cough, and scratch down there—nooooo.

She screamed. Withdrew her now contaminated hands, up to her face, stubble. Argh!

“May, May, May!”

She appeared at her bed. “That you, Tess? In there?”

Teresa could hardly hear her friend over the shouts and cries, but May spoke again, “It’s happening to everybody. So sorry, Tess. Erm he’s back there, his hands all over your…”

“Whose body, May?”

Her so-called friend just shook her head, so the mind of Teresa made the head turn to read the name over the back of her bed. “Mr. Percival Prost.”

 

 

Bio of Geoff Nelder

Geoff Nelder is a professional liar, badass editor, and fiction competition judge. He was awarded Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society for his research into air pollution and microclimates and used his students as unpaid researchers to discover urban heat islands in Yorkshire towns and villages. He taught now-out-of-date Geography and IT to the ungrateful alive but escaped on his bike to write.

His publications include science fiction novels Exit, Pursued by Bee and the ARIA trilogy; and thrillers: Escaping Reality, and Hot Air. Many of his short stories have found homes in mags such as The Horror Zine, Ether Books, Encounters, Jimston Journal, Delivered, Screaming Dreams and many anthologies such as Monk Punk, Science Fiction Writers’ Sampler (with Gregory Benford and David Brin) and Zombified.

Website www.geoffnelder.com

 

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Kepler 186f by Jane VanCantfort

Feb 28 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

When the alarm goes off I feel like I ‘m already at work, since my team member, Bonnie, is sleeping in the bunk above mine. Our quarters are tiny, dating from when we first built the outpost, it was all bare bones in the early days; all we wanted was to build the dome so we could get out of the suits.

I still put on the coffee the minute I wake up, an old Earth habit, gulp it, put on the shoes, and run around the perimeter for 45 minutes; I’m staying off the mood drugs, and the running helps me think.

I dreamed of Earth again last night, my old standard, the field of violets in Pennsylvania, right above the elementary school, the same school where my whole family lined up for the vaccines. I can still see the field, and the flowers moving gently in the breeze, and I remember the path through the pines. Everything and everyone is gone to me now.

When I get back, Bonnie is up and not talking at first, and she’s scraped her hair back into a tight topknot. Not good signs, but I have a deal with myself; however Bonnie is acting she’ll get a “Good Morning” from me. Sometimes she’ll grunt, sometimes she’ll be talkative; sometimes she just wants to talk about work, and sometimes she gives me a glimmer of her violent childhood. She’s always been mercurial, all these years. I’ve spent more time with her than anyone.

“Good Morning!” I say, and head for the sink to brush my teeth.

“Here we are again.” Bonnie answers. Great, it’s going to be a talking day.

“At least its Friday!” I say, like I do every Friday. The old sayings are a comfort to me.

I finish my teeth and she straps on her shoes, and we walk to the canteen. We’ve started having better food, but I still go for the protein bars. The eggs from the cloned chickens taste off to me, and they’ve never gotten the flour on the muffins to be tasty. I have more coffee, and we walk to the “Farmyard”, our work detail.

Bonnie checks the daily work orders, and I go off by myself to the back quadrant, and notice one of the hens is frantically fluttering at the edge of the cage. Then I see that one of her chicks is outside of the cage, also desperate, sticking its head repeatedly through the chicken wire, while the mother is flapping her wings in frenzy.

I force myself to scoop up the tiny body, I’m still afraid of birds. It is one of the blond chicks, one of the largest of this group, and it doesn’t have the same striped markings. It seems special so I want to save it even more, and it was probably my fault that the cage was left open. I notice that my heart is beating very rapidly, and that beat is matched by the heartbeat of the tiny chicken in my hand. It is so soft, so fragile, and its head pokes up through my loose fist. Somehow I open the cage with my other hand. I just throw the chick in there, desperate to let it go, and the mother rushes over and tucks the chick under its wings. I feel a moment of triumph; I’ve saved a life! That’s what this project was all about! I had held the flutter of life itself in my hand!

That’s when I hear Mike clapping slowly. Good old Mike. So tall, so slow, so sarcastic.

“How’s it going, Mike?” He usually just plunges into whatever he wants to vent about, I half listen with one eye on the work orders, and today is no different.

“I don’t know why they think I can get all the carrots done today. It’s the same old thing, no one looks at the schedule but when I’m supposed to get off at two then they think of it.”

“Oh man, sorry Mike.” That is the conversation we’ve been having our entire work lives. Sometimes Mike is interesting, he loves to go on and on about old earth history and politics, which I don’t mind listening to; but sometimes he is just a downer.
I didn’t think my life would turn out this way. When we left, the corporation made it seem like we were adventurers, sailing off into the New World, unafraid of strange new life forms, those coiling serpents lying in the roiling sea on the old maps.

Sometime I wonder why Mike got chosen, I know it wasn’t for his work ethic. The suits wanted to protect their investment, so they had a battery of tests for the trip. Like everyone else, I saw a posting that the testing was open to everyone, and signed up for it. I was as amazed as anyone when they kept passing me on to the next level. I had never gotten the second interview in life.

The crew ended up being a mash up of breeders and science types and builders and off we went, just 30 men and 30 women. We went off with uploaded images of lovely Earth sites, like animals and cities and the wonders we left behind, and we brought a simulation of our old food with us, mostly reconstituted powder, which Bonnie says was like camping food. We had seeds and feeds and human needs; I think that was how the phrase went. We had to dig for water under the surface and process it; half of Kepler is ocean water after all.

We breeders all had a genetic component that made us eligible; our team was called “Potential Progeny”, or PP. My “mate”, Bryan, and I weren’t compatible but our gene makeup was supposed to create hardy, smart offspring, pioneer stock, ha. I guess both of us had native intelligence, though neither of us had even finished high school. He was even from the old neighborhood on earth. Bryan was at the first birth, and I remember looking into his eyes when I pushed. He was so good-looking then. What’s that old earth saying? Handsome is as handsome does. Another old phrase.

By the second birth he was flirting with the midwife, and after that he didn’t bother showing up. Now he’s gone off to the other side of the planet, the underwater side; the corporation calls it Oceanside™. I haven’t seen him in over ten Earth years; there are status reports sent to us but I never check them.

At the beginning there was a lot of visionary talk about a new Eden and the frontier and the beauty of the kibbutz model. Of course, most of us only knew of Israel, really the whole Middle East, as a pile of nuclear ash. We just wanted jobs and everything was covered.

They didn’t even want to have a bar on outpost; they thought everyone would be committed to saving humanity, ha. We’d all be loyal comrades and such, like the posters. But, someone figured out how to brew Keplershine from the compost, and so they had to rethink some things. Without the bar, I don’t know how Mike would have made it. He still liked beer thirty, regardless of the planet, and I think he still smoked; someone in hydroponics must have grown some dope. They actually had a darts tourney.

The bar helped people with the heebie jeebies have an outlet, and the serious types could always get the antidepressants. Funny, a lot of the crew of procreators were rebellious types on Earth, but they now seemed anesthetized. You just never know how it would affect people to leave their home planet. Now they do.

As one of the mothers, though, I stayed clean. Remember that old line, “I don’t care it it’s a boy or a girl, as long as its human”…well, some of us were a little worried about that. So we were given the best food and I spent a lot of time pregnant or nursing in those early years; it is kind of a blur now.

I was terrified when we arrived; all I wanted to do was watch images of Earth for the first three weeks, with a few history documentaries thrown in. I loved the film about the Pilgrims, but now they’ve deleted it from the roster; after all, no Indians were going to show up to help us; we weren’t going to discover the Kepler equivalent of turkey, cranberries, corn, or pumpkin, and feast with the aliens.

Too bad the drones never found any evidence of life. No one has left the outpost, and no one seems to want to especially the second generation. Bonnie thinks the kids are all tweaked. They put all the kids in a nursery, and “parents” could go visit but it was always supervised. I don’t know if it’s the best way to raise kids; I still see my progeny around, of course, and they always give me a big smile and act interested in me, but it isn’t the way it was on Earth.

The worst thing is the second generation can’t seem to procreate. Kepler isn’t the first priority of the powers that be anymore; we are on the back burner. And its weird, the kids don’t even want to have sex. When they post the algorithm pairings to control the gene pool, they weren’t even interested. Mike thinks is the filtered water.

In the beginning, it was an issue that it didn’t seem like home at all. I remember all the talk about the foliage; all the bright red, yellow, or orange. They said that everything that was green on Earth would be perceived on Kepler as red tones, something to do with the cones in our eyes and the radiation. Some said the foliage was actually black and white. It was all about interpretation. But we weren’t out there hiking or anything; we just saw it all in the viewfinder. It was all about the outpost, too, we had so much to do. Mostly I just see the walls of the compound.

Bonnie came sidling into the back room. One of our main occupations was bitching about the supervisor.
“Can you believe Miss I Can’t Do Anything Myself is having me clean out the pig area AGAIN?’
“I don’t mind that so much, but she never fills out the work orders they way we do. And she just can’t lay off calling the office every hour or so; I heard they asked her to quit calling so much.” And we’d be off; we could play that game for hours. We were like an old married couple at this point. And we headed back to our quarters, Bonnie talking on and on and me drifting off into a reverie.

I keep thinking about getting out a little, just a little. I’d love to even go half a mile outside of the compound. They say it isn’t safe and the fear mongering is intense. See, I starting to wonder if it would matter if I died. I gave them six healthy citizens and I’ve never been in love and I don’t value my work…. I might as well risk it all for a few minutes of life, real life, while I still have it. I want to breach the compound; I can’t stop thinking about it.

I imagine going out there, there is talk that you don’t need the helmet and all that freaking gear, and take a little stroll into those intense red trees that I can make out through the dome, even the plastic is scratched and foggy at this point. Take a little satchel of those Kepler crackers that keep me going, and wander around a little.

I have a fantasy for sure; in fact, I’ve dreamed it. I’m walking in the “woods”, but all the plants are different. I see “birds” flitting through the trees, but all the colors are different, so amazing that my dream self gasps. I saw the therapist once and told her about it, and she said I was projecting half memories of earth into my current situation, which is delusional. Whatever. In the fantasy I hear a faint crying, and I search for the source, and I finally find a creature in the undergrowth, a helpless mewling creature. I see it as clearly as I see my field of violets.

I don’t always get to this part of the dream, but sometimes I part the plants, and I see a tiny doughy humanoid, like a fetus, with arms and legs but an unformed face, the eyes are still obscured by a fleshy kind of lid, but you can see them moving. My creature is not pink or brown, like a human baby, but a kind of orange, so it could be hidden in the plants. It is waving its arms and legs and mewling and it seems so natural to pick it up and hold it to my chest, like a baby, and I lift it… And that is as far as the fantasy goes.

Sometimes I have another dream, where ethereal floating life forms are outside the compound, peering in. It is a beautiful sight, like a jellyfish suspended in the air with continually changing glowing orbs of color, the most stunning color.
“Hey, do you want to head out to the bar tonight?” Bonnie asked. “Its Friday night after all!” Somehow we had made it back to our place while I was up in my head. Bonnie rooted there her locker for a fresh shirt, and was actually putting on lip-gloss.
“Oh man, I don’t think so. I kind of have a headache.” I’d been at the bar every Friday night for years. Bonnie took off, in a huff of course, and I lay on my bunk. I covered my face with the pillow; the ambient light was always present in the compound. I could see just a sliver of light, and my eyelashes fluttering as they tried to stay open under the towel. They piped in background music at all times, and I felt like I was drifting into a dream space.

While I was under there I got a vision, of a beautiful colorful glowing oval, and in the center was a brilliant light. It looked a bit like a gorgeous earth flower, with intricate petals and the focal point a brilliant scarlet. The oval kept changing color, but was always intensely beautiful, shifting and changing. I felt a certain peace; perhaps everything would end well. I also heard a faint bell ringing, kind of like when yoga class is over, and the sound grew to a crescendo. Even though I was aware of my body on the bunk, and my eyelids fluttering under the towel, I felt myself lifting and drifting away. Somehow my lovely orb motivated me, that and the music. I felt like I was being summoned, directed somehow. I kept getting the thought that there had to be a corner of the compound that wasn’t completely rigged up; some part of the structure that I could slip through. I guess I fell asleep.

Saturday morning I decided to talk to Bonnie. A tough woman like her was just the person you needed for a mission. We had a feature in the bunkroom, where you could turn down the lighting, and turn on an effect against the wall, kind of like the planetarium I once went to on one of the of the few field trips I had in my school days on earth. A city silhouette was projected with the soft glow of twilight, a purple pink light. Imaginary buildings appeared against the while, with tiny pinpoints of lights in the windows, it was like New York City in the early evening hours. I brewed some tea, lowered the music, and woke Bonnie up.

“Want some of your favorite tea?” She groaned and pulled off her sleep mask, and groggily accepted a cup.

“How was the bar last night?”

“Pretty much the usual. Mike was pretty drunk…his team won the darts.”

“Oh nice.” A silence fell, and I decided I had to take the plunge.

“ Have you ever wanted to breach the dome, just for a little bit? See that foliage they always talked about in the beginning?”

“I don’t know. I hated moving around in that suit.”

“I’ve heard talk that you don’t really need the suit.”

“What fool said that?”

“You know Mike’s friend Donald? He says it was just a corporation thing, so we wouldn’t wander off.”

Bonnie snorted. “He’s the dude who believed in chemtrails on earth, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, but doesn’t it make sense? Remember when Valerie had a rip in her suit when we were building, and freaked out but nothing happened? Wouldn’t you love to see all those red leaves? You loved fall back on earth!”

“Not really, its pretty dry and dusty out there. Hey, do you want to check out the new movies on the roster? It’s our day off after all. We can have popcorn for breakfast!”

Our popcorn always tasted dry and stale, and we watched movies every Saturday. I kept glancing over at Bonnie, but she was already totally absorbed in the action. Another day on the outpost, weekend or not.

That night I dreamed of the orb again. It was in the center of my consciousness. The colors kept changing, sometimes a purple with a scarlet center, always shifting and moving. I had often dreamed of the orb, but suddenly it seemed to speak. I heard a voice, or perhaps it was just a thought, pressing into my mind. It seemed to be telling me where to go, and I went. I kept thinking I was sleepwalking. I crept out of our room, and walked through the corridors to the area behind hydroponics. It was dark and quiet in the corridor, and the air smelled faintly medicinal. Maybe the corporation was piping in drugs. No one was around; I could hear faint snoring but that was all. I had brought my breath mask just in case.

The corner of the compound in the back of the warehouse was open, just like the dream had shown me. I put on my breath mask, and crawled under a table. Again I heard the soft sound of the bell, and under the table I saw a tear in the plastic shield of the dome, more like a crack. I pushed against the crack, and it pushed back enough for me to squeeze through. The next layer was also cracked, a little further down. I pushed the breath mask close to my face, and pushed against the dome with all my strength. It gave, and I squeezed through and into the atmosphere. My heart was beating so rapidly I could feel it in my ears. I had never been so afraid, and yet somehow here I was, standing on this alien foundation. The air was dense and moist; I could feel it resting on my skin.

Kepler had a few moons, so there was a kind of twilight, and I could see the red foliage the drone had shown us, glowing in the distance. Suddenly I felt a calmness come over me, and my heart rate slow to a normal steady beat. I stepped on a kind of pine needle on the “ground”, and heard the faint crackling sound my shoes made. I took off the breath mask and just dropped it, and the first few breaths terrified me, but I was still standing.

I felt that the orb was with me, calming me. I thought I heard a rustling in the shrubs, and looked back at the dome once, now barely visible behind me. I used yoga breathing, and kept walking to the copse. This is what I wanted.

In the leaves, which shifted and shone in the moonlight, I heard a whimper. I crept closer, and knelt where I had heard the sound. Pushing away the leaves, I could almost make out a form, emitting a tiny sound. Something made me reach for it, it sounded so vulnerable, and I scooped it up and into my arms. I could feel something pulsing in it; it was a strangely formless thing, soft and pliable. I strained to see it, to bring it closer to my chest. I cradled it like a baby, and I felt it connect to my own heart.

I slowly stood, clutching the “baby” to my chest, and faced the dome once more. I saw the stars, just like you could on Earth, but so clear, unfiltered by the scratched plastic of the dome, and none of them familiar. The sky was alive. I stood on a planet not my own, and bent my head to a living creature, in my arms. And then the orb was all around us, lifting and pulling us in an undulating light, and I felt myself at one with the orb, and with the vast and beautiful cosmos. Home.

Bio: I got an MFA from USF, moved to the Sierra Foothills, and am a lifelong reader. I also love speculative fiction.

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