Archive for: April, 2014

The Spanish Cross by Tom Howard

Apr 27 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

Clinton James was crawling across a Persian rug when he bumped into a chimpanzee with a gun.

“Keep your head down, you git!” the animal growled as a bullet smashed through a diamond-paned window above their heads.

An old man resembling Santa Claus scurried around the corner of the couch, waving a strange pistol with an oversized cylinder and external wires.

“What’s happening?” Clinton asked Santa. “Who is shooting at us?”

“Bastards!” said the bearded man with a faint German accent. “They don’t want me to find the Spanish Cross. I’ll show them!”

The old man sighted over the back of the couch and fired through a broken window. The gun, instead of firing black-powder bullets, emitted a hum and a bright red string of light. Someone screamed in the street outside.

“Please keep your head down, Professor,” said the chimpanzee, swapping the bearded gentleman an identical gun, this one crackling. The simian was dressed in a pinstripe suit and was much larger – and more verbal – than monkeys Clinton had seen in menageries.

Another bullet whizzed by Clinton’s head, and he acted before anyone was hurt. “Excuse me,” he said, grabbing the spent gun from the chimp and slipping into the hallway and out the back door where he’d entered the house earlier. He moved along the hedgerow and discovered two men – one of them nursing his left arm – firing at the house from across the street. Hoping the blinking lights on the gun indicated it had recharged enough to fire, Clinton pointed it at the two men.

“I’ll take those guns, gentlemen,” he said, trying to sound braver than he felt. “Lower your weapons.”

The men, dressed in dusters with hats pulled down over their faces, laughed. Clinton, though young and slender, had boxed in college, and his roommate had showed him a few moves of a Far Eastern fighting technique called karate. He fired at the uninjured man, grateful when the professor’s strange gun emitted another ruby beam. He leaped on the second man without waiting to see the first man hit the ground. When the professor and his chimpanzee arrived, both attackers were swaddled in their own coats and moaning on the ground.

“Well done, young man,” said the older gentleman, taking Clinton’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically. “I’m Professor Walker and this is my assistant, Bartholomew. I assume you’re the new assistant the university sent. You must tell me how you were able to subdue these two ruffians.”

Still shaking the professor’s hand, Clinton looked around at the neighborhood. The spacious houses sported gas lamps and carriage houses. In the warm afternoon breeze, he smelled dung from passing horse carriages and the open sewage of outhouses. Ah, he’d missed the smell of the city while he’d been away at university.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Clinton, finally retrieving his hand and noticing the professor wore a three-piece suit, complete with golden watch chain and an emerald-colored ascot.

Clinton followed the colorful professor and his monkey into the house. “What about the men who attacked you? Should we summon the police?”

“Bartholomew will run along and tell the constable, won’t you?”

The monkey muttered something about being the senior assistant but waddled toward the town center. None of the neighbors had appeared at the sound of gunfire; perhaps they were accustomed to unusual noises coming from the professor’s house.

Back in the parlor, Professor Walker acted as if a shootout on his front lawn was nothing unusual, brushing broken glass from the seat of an upholstered chair before he sat down.

“Why were they trying to kill you?” asked Clinton.

The old man took off his spectacles and sighed. “I’m searching for a stolen artifact of great value. The Countess Von Hurstenburg, an old friend of mine, asked me to locate her Spanish Cross. I’ve several inventions that might enable us to find it. I assume you’ve read my papers.”

Clinton had not, and he spent a lengthy moment searching his memory for what he had heard about the professor. “I’m sorry, sir, this is my first job as an assistant. Dispatched on short notice.” His advisors, after he’d blown up the second laboratory, had given him the option of leaving university for good or helping Professor Walker through the end of the semester.

“I’m impressed you can make a monkey talk,” continued Clinton, “and I’d like to examine the light gun.” Clinton thought most older inventors were fossils, unable to grasp modern 1900 technology, but Professor Walker seemed to be inventing wondrous things.

“A chimpanzee,” corrected the professor, replacing his spectacles. “He’s sensitive about being referred to as a monkey. I got him from a dodgy surgeon who altered Bartholomew’s cranium to increase his brain power. I created the mechanical voice box he uses to speak.”

Clinton was surprised. He thought the monkey – chimpanzee – was similar to a parrot, imitating what the professor had said.

“He’s quite bright for a simian,” said the professor. “He even helped me construct those light beam guns we were using.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Better not to mention the scars on his skull and the two small bolts in his neck.”

“Bolts?” repeated Clinton. He hadn’t noticed them.

“Yes. One adjusts the sounds of his speech and the other winds his tick-tock vocal cords.”

Intrigued in spite of himself, Clinton asked, “How are you going to locate this Spanish Cross?”

The professor peered at the young man. “I suppose I can tell you since you’re going to be helping me. I intend to use a hot air balloon and a metal detection device of my own creation to search the city. Since the cross is expensive and distinctive, the police don’t believe it has left the area.”

Clinton nodded. “I see.” He’d never been up in hot air balloon before, but everyone at university was mad about them.

“The men shooting at us,” continued the professor, “were either competitors trying to find the cross before I do or the miscreants who took it in the first place.” The professor sighed again and looked out the broken window. “You may find being here dangerous.”

“I’m willing to take the chance.” It had to be more stimulating than the dry lectures at university. .

Just then the housekeeper, a large woman, appeared and clucked over the mess. The professor asked her to show Clinton to his room. Bartholomew reappeared with a constable, and the professor started outside to make a statement.

“Young man,” he said at the door, “I don’t even know your name.”

“Clinton James, sir,” he said. Someday everyone would know who he was.

#

Handymen had repaired the damaged windows by dinnertime. Ah, the advantages of living in the city. Clinton had toured the laboratory, read the professor’s papers, and considered how he’d go about finding a priceless relic. The professor had told him rubies encrusted the cross. Could Clinton come up with a device able to detect the oscillation of rubies? Surely they were dense enough to have their own vibration signature. Now he just needed a giant tuning fork and something to detect ruby vibrations.

He glanced up from the professor’s scientific journal to find Bartholomew studying him with an unfriendly scowl. The chimpanzee didn’t like him and made it clear the professor should send the idiot boy back to university at the earliest opportunity. Clinton had considered asking Bartholomew for a ruby or two to test its vibrations but decided against it.

“What do you think of alchemy, Mr. James?” Professor Walker asked at dinner over an obscenely large portion of lamb.

Its twin was on Clinton’s plate, swimming in a bath of hot melted grease. He looked enviously at Bartholomew’s plate of fruits and vegetables. “It’s a fairy tale from the dark ages.”

The professor laughed. “That’s just what I told Bartholomew! Magic and nonsense. Changing one element to another. What about one metal being attracted to another?”

“Such as magnetism?” asked Clinton, sawing away at the overcooked lamb while keeping one eye out to intercept the housekeeper’s next pass with the gravy boat. “I’ve experimented with magnets. I assisted the late Professor Hinkleberry. Briefly.”

“Yes,” said the professor. “Too bad about his passing. Perhaps the top of a cliff was not the right venue for his experiment.”

“I don’t understand why anyone would copy Leonardo Da Vinci’s antiquated designs,” said Clinton, “in this day and age.”

Clinton turned to the silent simian. “Bartholomew, the professor said you helped design the light gun. Could I see your designs?”

The chimpanzee, who had been pointedly ignoring their conversation, dropped a half-peeled banana in surprise. “Certainly not,” he said. “I’m sure the science is far beyond your comprehension.”

Clinton shrugged. “Perhaps you’re afraid I’ll improve on the design.”

“Gentlemen,” warned the professor. “Let’s remember our dinner manners, please.”

The simian had grasped an orange so tightly it was dripping juice.

The old man laughed. “Remember, Bartholomew, when the original designs for the light gun were so large we had to buy rolls of wallpaper to illustrate it?”

“Made a terrible mess, Mr. James,” interjected Mrs. Sulisman, the housekeeper, as she carried in an ornate white chiffon cake. “I know they don’t feed you right at university, Mr. James. Too many brandies and cold chicken dinners, I imagine.” Her accent was even thicker than the professor’s.

Clinton smiled. If he ate Mrs. Sulisman’s food for an entire semester, he’d be as round as the professor. He ignored Bartholomew’s cold stare. He thought he smelled something strange, but it wasn’t cake.

Mrs. Sulisman served dessert, and Clinton sniffed deeply. He smelled cake, lamb, the professor’s sweat, and Bartholomew’s musk. He even smelled his own wool suit. In the laboratory, one’s nose was frequently the first warning when something was wrong.

When he turned his head and found he couldn’t smell anything, he suspected the answer – an odorless gas was blocking his olfactory receptors. “Professor, I smell gas.” He looked up at the lamps embedded into the walls, already lit and revealing gas was flowing. “Where does your gas line come into the house?”

“Through the back porch,” the professor said, “but I don’t smell anything. Do you, Bartholomew?”

Clinton didn’t hear the chimpanzee’s reply. He was on his feet and headed to the screened-in porch. The others followed him as he traced the lead pipe to an opening near the floor. “Look,” he said. “The soft connector is scarred as if something has been chewing on it. Gas is escaping, but not enough to cause the inside lights to die.”

“Will the house blow up?” asked Mrs. Sulisman, the worry plain in her voice. “I never trusted that new-fangled gas.”

“No, it would take all night for enough to accumulate to ignite. Probably wouldn’t have reached dangerous concentrations at all on this open screen porch.”

The professor frowned. “We shutter the porch at night, Mr. James. Mrs. Sulisman comes down early to begin the baking…carrying a candle.”

Clinton stood. Someone who knew their daily schedule planned for the professor to die in a blaze of glory. “I’ll patch these holes in the lead pipe. You should be fine, but you might replace it with copper tubing.”

The professor and his housekeeper left Clinton to repair the damage, but Bartholomew stayed behind after bringing Clinton some strips of lead.

Bartholomew snorted. “First, mysterious men shooting at us, then a gas leak. Funny none of this happened before you arrived.”

“No,” said Clinton, finishing wrapping the pipe in a strip of lead. “What’s funny is those marks look like they were made by monkey teeth.” He walked by the simian. He deserved a slice of beautiful chiffon cake as a reward for saving the professor’s life twice in one day.

#

Clinton leaned back in the velvet-covered chair in the parlor and relaxed for the first time in days. Over the last forty-eight hours, he’d stopped a fire, pulled the professor from the path of a runaway horse, and detected arsenic in the well water. Someone obviously knew the professor could find the cross and wanted him stopped.

He and the professor had dragged the haphazardly made balloon from a barn in the back pasture and spread the envelope out to air and patch. Clinton’s fingers were still sore from repairing holes in the paraffin-coated fabric. Suddenly he wasn’t as excited about flying as he had been.

He heard the old man splashing away in the kitchen in a large tin tub Mrs. Sulisman had prepared for him, sending Clinton and Bartholomew to carry water from a neighbor’s well and heating it over the new-fangled gas stove. Clinton checked the water temperature himself and placed a rubber-backed rug on the floor. Who knew there were so many ways to kill someone in their own home?

In addition to being a tailor and a butler, Clinton worked several days on four small pieces of metal for the professor, creating the most expensive dowsing rods ever made. The professor theorized that since gold was heavy, coating iron rods with lead and other heavy metals would somehow attune them to gold.

“Mr. James,” said Bartholomew from so close he made the young man jump. “Will you be requiring a bath?”

“No, thank you.” Clinton had already had a bath this week. “You?”

The simian shuddered. “No. I do not require…submersion.”

“Here,” said Clinton, pulling up a chair. “Take a load off.” And stay where I can see you. “Are you excited about our balloon trip tomorrow?”

“The professor is excited, but I doubt his idea will work. If you could attune metals as he proposes, there would have to be a big deposit to attract the rods.” He took the seat, looking comical with his short little legs, but Clinton didn’t laugh. He suspected the simian was behind all the attempts on the professor’s life.

“If it does work, it will destroy our society,” continued Bartholomew. “Imagine finding gold as easily as finding pennies on the street. Every man would be rich. Chaos.”

“True,” admitted Clinton. “Are you sure you won’t loan me one of your rubies from your light guns?”

“No,” said Bartholomew. “They were too hard to obtain for you to shatter them with ignorance.” He stared at Clinton. “I’ve read the letters from your teachers at university. They feel you are far too young and too impulsive to be a good scientist.”

“They are old and fossilized,” said Clinton. “If they had their way, the Earth would still be flat and orbited by the sun. Perhaps I’ll speak to the professor about my vibration theory if the divining rods don’t work.”

“Why should gems be any easier to find than gold?” asked Bartholomew. “You are a fool.”

“That’s a little extreme, Bartholomew,” said Clinton, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“If you don’t help me convince the professor to cancel his balloon search, I will tell him you have been trying to sabotage his work.”

Clinton scowled but noticed Bartholomew did it better. “And I will tell him you have been trying to kill him.”

“Who will he believe?” asked Bartholomew. “His dedicated senior assistant or a boy who is known to leap before he looks?”

“I think I’d have to go with the young man in this case,” said the professor from the doorway. He was wearing a quilted bathrobe – over pajamas and long-handled underwear – in horrible maroon and green. “Although I’m more cross at you for endangering Mrs. Sulisman and Mr. James than I am at you for threatening me.”

Bartholomew jumped up from the chair and scampered to the desk, quickly grabbing the notes on the detection rods. “If you attempt to find the cross…” He held the paper over a nearby lamp and a corner caught on fire.

“I am very disappointed in you, Bartholomew,” said the professor. “I still have the rods,”

“No, Professor. I’ve melted them and thrown the lumps down the well. All your notes and all your calculations are gone.”

“No!” cried Clinton, but he was too late. Bartholomew dropped the smoldering pages onto the hearth and ran past the professor and out of the room.

Clinton snatched up the pages. He threw them to the floor and stomped them until the he’d extinguished the fire, but it was obvious little was left besides ashes.

The professor stood in shock. “It’s gone! All of it, gone!”

“It’ll be okay, Professor,” said Clinton, giving the pages up as a lost cause.

“No, you don’t understand,” the professor said, taking Bartholomew’s seat and looking as if he’d just lost his best friend. “I updated my notes as we went along. I can’t recreate the rods by tomorrow, much less recreate all my research from memory!”

“Professor,” said Clinton, blushing. “I’ve been keeping my own notes of your progress. Just in case I needed to refer to them…for some reason…in the future.” He pulled a small notebook from his pocket and held it out to the professor.

The professor looked hopeful. “You can recreate my process?”

“I think so, but I’ll need your help, and perhaps one of Mrs. Sulisman’s pecan pies if she hasn’t gone to bed already. She planned to rise early to go to the train station in the morning. President McKinley is coming through on the Freedom Train.”

#

It had been a long, hard night, but when the sun rose, two new sets of metal rods were drying on a stand in the laboratory. Clinton’s hands throbbed, his eyes hurt, and his back ached. This must be how it is to feel old, he told himself as he stretched. The professor had gone to inflate the balloon in the middle of the night and stayed with it to make sure the balloon didn’t catch fire. Clinton found him sound asleep in the backyard, leaning against the wicker basket. The balloon was almost full, so Clinton didn’t wake him.

He looked up at the orange moon in the night sky, slowly sinking toward the horizon, and wished he had higher hopes for the day. The professor’s plan seemed like alchemy, using related metals to find gold. Chances of it actually working were small, but he couldn’t blame the old man for trying. Bartholomew must have thought the professor was going to find the cross and tried to kill him before he could. Why? What had a ruby encrusted, golden artifact to do with Bartholomew?

Rubies. Bright red. Light. Oh god.

“Professor!” Clinton shouted. “Where did Bartholomew get the rubies for his light guns?”

“What?” mumbled the professor as he rubbed his eyes. “Did he come back?”

Clinton squatted down and looked the professor in the eye. “No. Where did you get the rubies for the guns?” he asked, but he was sure of the answer.

“I don’t know. Bartholomew said he got a good deal from a supplier back East.”

“Where are the guns now?” asked Clinton.

“In the safe in the parlor. Why?”

“Would you mind checking if they’re still there, Professor?” If Bartholomew was afraid they’d found out he was the jewel thief, why not just run away? Why try to kill the professor and leave the guns behind?

“Professor! Could you to draw a sketch of the cross showing all the rubies?” He helped the old man to his feet and watched him go into the house.

Mrs. Sulisman, still in her nightgown, opened the door for the professor and looked out. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes. Please make a pot of really strong tea, Mrs. Sulisman,” shouted Clinton, moving to help the balloon rise above the wicker basket. “I’ve a feeling it’s going to be a long day.”

#

“We’re still missing something,” Clinton told Professor Walker as they gently rose into the early morning air. He had to speak loudly because the heater over their heads roared as it produced enough hot air to make them rise above the chimney tops.

“Do you have the rods?” asked the professor, looking silly in his goggles and tight cap.

Clinton nodded, sure he looked as bizarre in his similar attire. He and the professor had been surprised when they found the light guns in the safe with the rubies still intact. Clinton was confused, and the professor seemed saddened by Bartholomew’s treason.

“As soon as we level off,” said the professor, “I want to try the rods. Maybe if we locate the cross, we’ll find Bartholomew and discover why he’s acting so peculiarly.”

Clinton nodded, wishing they’d brought the guns with them, although they only had a range of about fifty feet and would have been worthless in the balloon. Why had Bartholomew needed rolls of wallpaper to design such small devices?

The professor removed the foot-long needles from the oilskin and passed two of them to Clinton. They’d notched one end of each rod. Although the balloon was swaying slightly, they had little trouble connecting Clinton’s two needles to the professor’s using the notches at the end. As they had practiced over Mrs. Sulisman’s gold ring, they let the rods rest lightly in their upturned palms, point to point and facing each other.

Clinton gasped when the rods dipped down dramatically, forcing both men to grab them before they were pulled from their hands.

“Did you see that?” asked the professor.

“Down and to the southwest,” reported Clinton, still not believing the rods had found something.

They tried again, and the rods immediately dipped.

“Definitely something southwest of us,” said the professor, a smile as wide as a dinner plate on his face. He pulled the cord that closed the valve of the heater over their heads, allowing the air in the envelope to cool slightly.

Clinton was perplexed. “How did we go south when the winds are from the west?”

“We’ll need to find a thermal going south. Don’t worry, young man, I’ll explain it all to you.”

After an hour-long lecture on air streams and inversion layers, they hung stationary over the train station in the center of town. The needles jerked down to the floor of the basket each time they used them.

“It must be here,” said the professor. “We’ll return home and tell the constable to look in the warehouse beneath us for the Spanish Cross.”

“Something is attracting the needles,” Clinton agreed, “but shouldn’t we go down and verify it’s the jewel-encrusted artifact?”

“Could be dangerous,” said the professor, looking over the side. “What is going on at the station?”

Small groups of people were filling the platform and the loading dock. “Oh,” realized Clinton, “it must be nearly time for President McKinley’s train to arrive.”

“Well, we’ve certainly got the best seat in the house,” said the professor. “Too bad Bartholomew is missing it. He loves trains. He spent a lot of time down here, writing down engine numbers and memorizing timetables.”

Clinton looked at the warehouse. “Jewel-encrusted,” he repeated. “Professor, did you bring the sketch of the cross?”

The old man dug a square of folded paper out of his vest pocket. Clinton opened it on the floor of the basket. “I see four fair-sized stones and two large ones. These four are the size of the ones in the light guns.”

“Yes, it takes two in each weapon, one at each end of the electrification tube.”

“What happened to the two large rubies?” Clinton had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the gently rocking balloon wasn’t causing it.

“I’ve never seen them, outside the cross, of course.”

Clinton realized why Bartholomew needed a large illustration of the weapon. “Could Bartholomew build a really big light gun? A cannon?”

“I suppose so. Why?”

“The guns are made of the same heavy metals you incorporated in the divining rods! Your alchemy didn’t find gold, it found Bartholomew’s cannon!”

“Like calling to like,” the professor said with a nod. “The rods were attracted to the heavy metals. What can we do?”

The sound of a train whistle in the distance made both men look east.

“Why?” asked the professor. “Why would he kill the President of the United States?”

“Perhaps to be famous like John Wilkes Booth,” said Clinton, “or maybe he blames the government for the experiments done on him.”

“Maybe he’s just a sick and twisted little monkey. We’ve got to get down in time to verify your hypothesis and stop him.” The professor yanked the cord above their heads and the balloon sank with alarming speed.

The crowd, grown larger as the train’s scheduled arrival neared, looked up and applauded when the professor’s balloon bounced down. They thought his arrival was part of the show. Clinton helped the professor scramble over the side, shaking his head as the old man waved at the crowd.

“Professor,” he said, tugging the old man through the gathered people to a dirty warehouse window, “how are we going to stop him? We didn’t bring any weapons.”

The old man stopped and checked his pockets. Finding nothing, he said, “We have our brains, Mr. James.”

Clinton peeked into the gloomy warehouse and saw a large tube pointing in their direction. “It’s him. He’s pointed his cannon this way. What can we do?”

The professor pointed at a water tower beside the warehouse. It had a discharge tube to fill the water cars for the train’s boiler.

“Bartholomew said he didn’t like to be wet,” recalled Clinton with a grin.

“More importantly, the electrification tube will be compromised,” said the professor. “I hope you’re a good climber.”

Clinton heard the train pulling into the station and scampered up the wooden ladder. Gasping for breath at the top, he dragged the metal tube toward the roof of the warehouse. Unfortunately, without an opening through the sloping roof, the deluge would simply run off.

Clinton took a look at the shingled roof and made a painful decision. The crowd had turned to watch the train pull in, but the President hadn’t yet made an appearance. Professor Walker stood by the warehouse door, looking up at Clinton with a worried look. Time was running out.

Clinton twisted the water valve several turns before the water splashed down onto the building.

Steeling himself, Clinton jumped off the water tower platform and onto the roof. He followed the arc of the water and broke through with a violent jolt. He’d expected to die when he fell the two stories to the ground, but instead, he smacked into a rafter beneath the roofline. It broke his fall, temporarily, and he fell a few feet farther onto a stack of crates. If he hadn’t already been unable to breathe from the rafter impact, what felt like broken ribs would have prevented him from crying out as he plummeted.

A waterfall swept over him and onto the floor below. Grasping the edge of a crate and sucking in air by sips, Clinton witnessed the professor run into the room to confront Bartholomew. The monkey sat on a giant-sized version of his light pistol. Water poured down on Bartholomew and his nefarious machine.

The simian screamed, jumped from the gun, and climbed the crates Clinton was on. Clinton, too injured to escape, simply watched him approach.

“You!” screeched Bartholomew, hanging onto Clinton’s crate by his fingertips. “This is your fault. I’m going to rip out your throat with my teeth.”

Clinton reached for a piece of wet rafter lying next to him and slid the timber forward into Bartholomew’s forehead. “Who’s the senior assistant now, monkey?” he whispered. Bartholomew fell, bouncing on the crates below on his way down.

Behind the professor, a group of men in dark suits rushed into the room with their pistols drawn. Clinton couldn’t hear what the professor said to them but managed to stay conscious long enough to see them lay their hands on Bartholomew.

#

When he awoke in his little room, he was dry and stationary, and the room smelled of lavender and warm pecans. It felt good to be alive, so long as he didn’t inhale too deeply.

The professor stuck his head in and smiled when he saw Clinton was awake. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“I had the strangest dream,” said Clinton, placing his hands gently on the bandages wrapping his chest. “I dreamt you and I saved the President of the United States from a wet monkey with a giant ray gun.”

“In a balloon no less,” said the professor with a big smile. “The Spanish Cross has been restored and returned. The Pinkerton Men carried off Bartholomew and the cannon. I suspect we’ll never see either again.”

“Never sounds good to me,” Clinton said. “I don’t think I’ll be much help in the laboratory for a while, Professor. You might want to get yourself another assistant.”

“Nonsense,” said the professor. “You get your rest and we’ll discuss your duties later. Being in the balloon gave me new ideas.”

Clinton smiled. “I don’t suppose you want to find out if the moon is really made of cheese or something?” He tried to laugh at his own ridiculous idea and a moan escaped him.

“Exactly,” the professor said as he left, leaving Clinton with his mouth open. “I’ll start work on the plans right away.”

THE END

Tom Howard is a fantasy and science fiction writer in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his four children and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group for their inspiration and support.

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Bows and Internets by Eric Ponvelle

Apr 20 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

An’ki woke with a slight throbbing in his head. He sat upright on the fur covered ground. He looked down at Sul’ki, looking tiny and peaceful as she slept. He hated to wake her, but she panicked when she woke up without him near.

“Sunny,” An’ki whispered in a language unlike anything in modern society. “I am leaving now.”

“Ok, Annie.” She smiled and went still without opening her eyes. An’ki brushed the black hair that had fallen on her midnight-hued skin. She had taken fourteen years to get this beautiful, and every day she wowed him more.

An’ki stood at the entrance of the hut he built years ago while courting Sul’ki, when she was known as Sulia. The sun illuminated the valley below the village’s cliff with a sheet of gold. In the distance, An’ki could see a smoke serpent rising to the sky near a glowing, golden tree. Above this distant village, a Flyer fluttered. An’ki knew it buzzed like a dragon fly. Like the one in An’ki’s village, its wings and tail moved rapidly to keep it afloat. It made hunting and exploring easy.

An’ki smiled at the village his brother, Wyn’ki, built. He missed him greatly. At that thought, An’ki decided he would head to the Dome.
An’ki set himself for the community pantry to prepare for the experience. The tightly bound hut of leaves and sticks was guarded by two men, one older than An’ki and one younger.

“An!” The man on An’ki’s left shouted, becoming animated. “How are you?”

“Good, Kull.” An’ki looked over to the other man. “Ja’ki.” His younger brother tried to steel his expression. A smile broke through. Kull looked at him, resetting Ja’ki back to stone.

“What do you need?” Kull’s tone remained light and friendly.

“I am going to speak with Wyn’ki in the Dome.” Kull stiffened and nodded. He grabbed the door and said nothing more.

An’ki entered the pantry grabbing dried fruits and collected nuts from various shelves and baskets. He knew how much was needed for the “connection” he was about to undergo. He left the pantry and headed towards the Dome.

Kull’s reaction was typical with the older generation. They feared what the Dome provided, but they were compelled to stay near the Tree.

An’ki descended a small slope from the cliff where his village was. In front of him, a large building sat next to a golden tree, like the one near Wyn’ki’s village. The Dome looked like a large bowl, down turned, and placed on the ground. From the tree next to it, glowing yellow tendrils fed into the top of the Dome. An’ki ate his snacks as entered the Dome. He didn’t have to stoop.

Inside the Dome, six other people sat in the dark with golden tendrils in their mouths. An’ki finished eating and withdrew a free tendril from the cluster in the center. Sitting in a corner by himself, An’ki let his breath out slowly, emptying his lungs. He placed the tendril in his mouth, pulled deep, and within seconds, he went blind and could hear voices of everyone around him.

The chatter of his village’s residents merged with the voices of every other village that connected to their own trees. He began a slow, mental chant of “Wyn’ki.”

“Brother?” An’ki heard a monotone voice that matched his and everyone else’s. “Is that you, An’ki?”

“Yes, Wyn.” He could not sound excited. “I see your village is growing.”

“It is.” An’ki knew how proud Wyn’ki was for this achievement. His village was growing faster than An’ki’s.

“I saw the flying ship. Was that yours?” His voice held no inflection of a question. This lack of emotion frustrated An’ki.

“I learned of the design from the northern villages.” There was a pause. “Since you wouldn’t share.” An’ki knew Wyn was laughing to himself.

“Do they bring anything else?” An’ki could hear voices mentioning being from the north. He blocked them out and focused on his brother.

“A bad storm is coming. It passed them yesterday.” An’ki knew Wyn’ki was afraid of the northern storms.

“We’ll be okay. What about the southern villages?” An’ki listened, but no one from the southern villages mentioned anything. Both An’ki and Wyn’ki had sent several men and women to the south to find more trees and establish more villages.

“Yes. They are experimenting with one of the trees in the south. They have broken pieces of it to attempt mobile connections to the mind hub.”

“Any success?” An’ki was shocked and horrified that they would destroy the trees.

“I have heard words here and there.” That development intrigued An’ki. “But they still must bury the broken pieces for now.”

“Keep me informed. Goodbye, brother.”

“Goodbye, An’ki.”

An’ki stayed connected to the mind hub asking questions to anyone who could answer. After several hours, he was jolted by a tap on the arm. In his shock, he spat out the tendril. His vision slowly returned.

“I’m sorry, Annie.” It was Sul’ki. She looked groggy. “I’m hungry.” An’ki stood from where he connected to the tree. He picked the tendril off the ground and returned it to the cluster. He was towering over Sul’ki and smiled at his young bride, twelve years his junior.

“I’m sorry, my love. Let’s find you something to eat.”

“I want deer.” She smirked as his eyes enlarged. “Is that okay?”

“I will get you one. Wait in the hut.” She hugged him tightly and ran off. After leaving the Dome and ascending the small hill to the village, An’ki headed to the hunters’ lodge. Their hut was close to the trees.

When their hut came into view, An’ki was relieved the village Flyer was docked and ready for use. He would finally be able to use it.

An’ki looked at the vehicle. It had a large circular hull, divided into an area where the pilot sat in front. The back had seats for up to five people: two on the wall the pilot shared and three on the opposite side. The outside of it had four large wings that were circular shaped, two on each side. In the back a flat tail would spin to propel the vehicle as a burst of energy would speed it forward. The device ran nearly silent, making it ideal for hunting.

“An’ki! Welcome.” A man somehow taller than An’ki broke the chatter in the hut as An’ki entered. “What can I do for you, friend?” Thull’s voice boomed in the hut.

“I need a deer.”

“Excellent! We were about to head out for a quick hunt. Do you want to join us?”

“If I may.” An’ki, unlike the other village Elders, enjoyed hunting. An’ki was the youngest of the Elders because his father had died recently. He knew eventually he would become sedentary like the rest of the Elders.

“Let’s depart now.” Thull charged out of the door, bursting with excitement.

Thull and the other two hunters loaded spears and nets into the hunting vessel. A fourth hunter was starting the process to fly the vehicle. The pilot began to pump his legs, charging a propulsion unit in the back of the vehicle. At a much faster rate than he pumped, the wings began to flap quickly and produce enough wind to push An’ki back. He laughed at the sensation. The wings began to flap harder pushing the vehicle off the ground. Once in the air, the wings would expand out, and the vehicle would hover down. Ropes kept the gliding vehicle from straying from the launch pad. This stage was when it was possible to board.

“Ready, An’ki? I’ll go first.” Thull jumped in right as the Flyer set down. The wings flapped seconds after he sat down and locked his arms in his seat. It shot up high above An’ki and the two hunters.

“You go next, sir.” One of the other hunters spoke to him. An’ki tasted adrenaline pumping. The device was gliding back to its starting position. As soon as it touched down, An’ki dove inside to a chair on the same side as Thull. No sooner did he drop into the seat did he feel his stomach lurch as the device bounded skywards, much higher than before.

“This will get higher before we start moving. Lock your arms.” Thull yelled over the blasts of wind as they got higher above the village. An’ki’s long black hair covered his face like a mat of fur. Sweat, despite the cool wind, drenched him. The wind pulled at the only cloth An’ki wore around his waist.

“When everyone was boarded, they will close the hull’s doors,” shouted Thull.

As they glided down, much slower than they ascended, An’ki let out a breath. “Have you ever flown before?” Thull shouted despite the reduced noise pollution.

“No.” An’ki could feel his stomach and head spinning.

“You get used to it. Anytime you want to come out with us, feel free.” Thull was smiling, but An’ki couldn’t imagine ever returning.

An’ki jolted in his seat when the device hit the ground. Both remaining hunters entered from opposite open sides. He saw the tethering ropes, loose on the ground. The Flyer shot up once again, even higher and faster than before. The two hunters stood up and grabbed small flaps that extended outside each opening. They were holding their chairs tightly with a free arm. If they fell out, they would surely die. An’ki closed his eyes. When the flaps were closed, An’ki was shocked by the reduction in noise from the wind.

“Hold on tight!” Thull shouted. An’ki wanted to question it, but a loud boom from behind the other two hunters muted him. The Flyer shot forward. An’ki heard a buzz as the back tail began to spin to propel them forward. The wings outside were flapping quicker than before to keep it moving. “You can stand up now.” Thull laughed, hovering over An’ki. “It will be pretty stable now.” An’ki tried his legs, but they weren’t working. He shook his head. Thull laughed again and yanked him up.

On his feet, An’ki could feel that the vehicle was shaky, but it was more stable than he expected. An’ki looked out the open window in front of the pilot. He saw the contours of the trees and landscapes. His mouth hung open as he saw various animals roaming and plants in full bloom.

“It’s beautiful.”

“It is.” Thull sounded vulnerable and happy. “I would never give this part up for anything.” An’ki wanted to leave the Elders and fly for the rest of his life in this moment. This was worth the discomfort of take-off. “That’s where they the deer will be.” Thull motioned to a clearing of woods. It was a little higher than the areas surrounding it.

The hunting vessel tilted to the right and quickly turned to the left. An’ki braced himself against the opening to the pilot’s area. An’ki saw the other two hunters fastening themselves to the frame of the left side opening. Suddenly, they opened the covering flap exposing the left of the vehicle to air and the clearing. Thull walked carefully, using a guide pole in the middle of their seating area’s ceiling and handed both hunters spears. The pilot flew below the tree line. An’ki began to fear his tight grip on the cockpit’s frame would fail him. He could see deer starting to flee from the passing vehicle. Both hunters threw their spears hard. Both spears impaled deer through their necks perfectly. A loud pop from where Thull was standing startled An’ki. A net exploded from a device in Thull’s hand that grabbed both of the impaled deer together. Thull removed the rope that was attached to the device, tied it to the guide pole, then began to pull the net up with the aid of the hunters. Both deer made it inside.

“Are these big enough, young Elder?” Thull laughed. An’ki was shocked at how big the deer were up close.

“More than enough.”

“Get two more.” Thull shouted to the pilot. The repeated the same process, and without mistake, the hunters collected two more deer. As the net containing the last two entered the hull, the hunters tied to the open frame and closed the flap. The change in the air made An’ki’s ears hurt slightly.

“Thank you, Thull. I appreciate it.” Thull was beaming at the praise.

“Let’s get back to the village.” Thull struggled to reply.

As they flew back, An’ki noticed a speck off the coast, not far from his village.

“Do you have a scope?” He asked the pilot who never ceased pumping his legs. He looked exhausted. Automatically, the pilot reached and handed him a tiny monocular scope. An’ki held it to his eye.

The speck enlarged to reveal a very big ship. An’ki saw the ship had white pieces of clothes with barbed Xs the color of the setting sky. These were not ships of the tribes. An’ki felt a nagging sensation.

The Flyer touched down, and An’ki helped unload in silence. He needed to get back to the Dome.

“Here’s your deer.” Thull smiled.

“Thank you.” An’ki was too preoccupied to show much gratitude. He lifted the deer onto his shoulders and started for the Dome. He knew he should eat first, but he also knew he wouldn’t be long. Inside the Dome, An’ki dropped the carcass near the center where the tendrils remained. He remained standing while he sucked on the tendril. The world faded to black and voices rose around him. An’ki spoke quickly, but the limitations of the connection showed no change.

“Is anyone sailing off the Eastern shores?”

Chatter continued, ignoring his question.

“If anyone is sailing off the Eastern shore, please say yes.” An’ki wanted to scream this at the top of his lungs. His fears were growing. There was no response.

He spat out the tendril and ran to his hut. Sul’ki greeted him.

“No deer?”

“I need the scopes.” He saw his panic scared Sul’ki. She ran inside and came back with two scopes like the one from the pilot. He held them both up to his eyes. The ship was near to shore now. He could make out individual people. They were pale men dressed with heavy clothes. He could see they had fat spears in their hands. An’ki dropped his scopes and ran back to the Dome. He grabbed a tendril, sucked hard, and began to repeat Wyn’ki’s name.

“Is something wrong, brother?” An’ki knew his brother was much more frantic than his voice sounded.

“Burn the tree. Tell everyone to burn the trees.”

“Burn the trees?” There was a pregnant pause. “Why?”

“Invaders are coming. We must protect the other villages. Burn the Flyers too.” An’ki spit out the tendril. He left the Dome and bounded up the slope to a fire that cooked various meats. With a long burning log, An’ki returned to the Dome and threw the burning log at the glowing tree. It ignited instantly. Returning to the fire, An’ki grabbed a second burning log, ran to the now empty hunting vessel and with great sadness, ignited it.

Residents of the village walked out of their huts in shock. Before anyone could speak, An’ki raised his arm and pointed to the shore. Men in heavy closes with fat, hollow looking spears began to march towards the village. An’ki prepared for the battle that was coming.

An’ki walked towards the fire that produced the logs he used to burn the tree and the hunting vessel. He reached into it and produced a scalding hot rock that was larger than his head. His survival instincts let him block out the pain. As the war party grew near, they spoke in a language that flowed together quickly. An’ki, hand in pain, looked at the terrified Sul’ki. He stepped forward the flung the hot rock at one of the closest men. It slammed into his head and dropped him instantly.

An’ki waited for the war party to retreat, but instead, he heard them shouting louder as they approached their dead comrade. An’ki moved to the fire to retrieve more burning rocks when he heard several loud pops from their fat, hollow spears. Smoke and fire flashed out of the end of them. An’ki felt strings of searing pain travel through him. An’ki heard another pop from a spear aimed higher at his head. The world turned dark. As his body fell to the ground, the last thing An’ki heard were the shrieks of Sul’ki. He died feeling helpless.

Eric Ponvelle grew up in the swamps of Louisiana. Writing allowed him to claw his way out and discover the world. Now a resident of Atlanta, Eric seeks to use his experiences to craft nightmares and dreams for his readers. He has been published in magazines, literary journals, and on websites. In September of 2013, he was a presenter at the IASD’s PsiberDreaming conference.

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Blame the Bunny by Brian Duggan

Apr 13 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

I give a big stretch and slowly attempted to open my eyes. You must remember I’m a cyborg, a being with both artificial and organic parts. It’s best for all concerned to never discuss my organic sexual parts; authorization was not obtained from the Twin Federation.
A brown skinned, slightly hairy appendage retracts the opaque porthole. Two surviving members of the family Hominids, erect bipedal primate mammals, one an ovulating female and the other her napping product of conception, exchange gases inside my solar-powered pod amplifying a silent, mysterious world.

Carbon dioxide from the great apes is being absorbed by stomata under leaves and transpired oxygen is returned to living tissue. The family is Pilionaceae, the genus Lupinus and the species Texensis and yet these creatures will know it as the Texas’ state flower. How quickly that nation faded but its radioactive soil spreads mutated vegetation in all directions rendering the incoming atmosphere heavy with the scent of their beloved Bluebonnet.

The hominids have entered a primal world that existed five centuries earlier. My pod’s onboard monitors display a stream of their physiological parameters: respiratory rates and volumes, temperature, blood pressure, pheromone release, brain wave pattern and real-time thought display. Like other hominids I have studied, this female can vocalize and I hope comprehensible speech will explain the image displayed on her thought panel, multi-colored songbirds in emerald palm trees lit by a setting sun.

It has taken terabytes of data and species protocols to secure this limited interchange-permit; hominids on this planet consist of these two. The opportunity to study them at close range comes at considerable risk, but so far A2345-H and her product of conception A2345-C have only caused a rising, pleasurable anticipation. The brains of both have received neuronal implants which the hominids will perceive as reality. The critical task was the imposition of short-term and sensory memory processes into the creatures to allow recallable sensation.

There is no certainty that the tissue formation called the amygdale inside their crude, bony skulls will adequately control emotion, fear or memory to insure my safety. So far, observed behavior and real-time thought displays mimic those of a twenty-first century hominid. My ascent from a crude sixth-generation android to a cyborg with an apelike appearance and sex organs has been relatively painless although pleasure and pain are the penalties for cerebral hominid sensation.

Since the time of the great extinction and the subsequent merging of the Andromeda and Milky Way Galaxies into one governing body, the task of regenerating life on this morbid planet has fallen to android specialists such as I and few know of the mission I have undertaken, so count yourself as one of the rare enlightened androids. The puzzling thing for any android is adapting to hominid senses, but so far their sexual attraction has been increasingly pleasurable.

What scents, touches, vocalizations or behaviors I will endure are totally unknown since I’ve never experienced the hominid orgasmic pleasure peak. What I plan to do is strictly against Federation Law but I have accomplished DNA replication, produced two exact copies from one original DNA molecule. Cheers went to the top of the vaulted dome when the banned replication presented “bubbles” of just formed replicated DNA on the giant screen under the South Pole.

I carry that replication in my transplanted testes and fertilization within A2345-H is anticipated since her prior success in producing A2345-C has left her primed for implantation. There was a hominid utterance called “a miracle” in their forgotten lexicon. It meant an unexplainable occurrence that was thought to have been caused by a divine entity. The egocentric insanity of creating gods in their limited form using myth and magic was never questioned until the war of extinction ravaged the planet’s life forms.

The miracle I experienced was buying that ancient frozen hominid egg from the Hawaiian archipelago sixteen years ago. I’m told two countries Mexico and the United States that became a minor power designated this inhospitable outpost I traverse as the last great ape sanctuary on the planet. Later, great apes were exterminated on these very acres after being designated unwanted septic vectors for viruses threatening sanctioned interplanetary life exchange.

Reestablishing a great ape population on this planet is the stated aim of the Twin Federation but I seek a higher and almost altruistic purpose, the liberation of undiluted primitive great ape DNA from a forgotten tropical kingdom once called the Sandwich Islands. I guess future androids will think of me as a debased novelty, a half-human-half-machine with a comforting dialect and appearance that was accepted as a hairy great ape by A2345-H and A2345-C.

The scan of A2345-H latest unfertilized ovum revealed genes, genotypes and phenotypes devoid of racial mixing; it was not one of countless DNA genocides. I’m familiar with prior Earth animals rendered extinct by lack of DNA diversity. As zoological reservations eroded into oblivion, I acquired extinct Hawaiian racial lineage embodied in a frozen unfertilized egg bought illegally on the Great Galactic Gateway (GGG), but enough of miracles and ova.

Male great apes were small brained, deity ridden and deficient in all automated cerebral skills and yet as such a primitive form with imbedded senses, I will experience rolling hills bordering the sides of the gravel highway that snake through a carpet of silvery leaves and purple flowers.
A reassuring keystroke from the Twin Federation’s MH1506 had granted me access to designated Area 10. I’m a cyborg, but now facing the silky bronzed skin gushing with the chemical attraction signatures of an ovulating Homo sapiens, planting seed via an artificial appendage has become more than an altruistic endeavor employing micro-pumps; it is essential.

“Area 10 protocol is within accepted limits, proceed to Llano County but heed the clock.”

“TC5 acknowledges. I will observe the time sequence.”

From now on, I trust that this digital thought output in the ancient language called American-English will continue to record history as I make it. The stream of thoughts you receive will reference the great apes pre-programmed reality and my interplay with them. It is the first Saturday in the month of April, 2434 but I will assume a hominid existence on the second of April, 1934 to sniff the sage outside my pod displaying amplified fragrant splashes of color.

The journey from what was once Llano Texas was interrupted by my brief detour to a rock-strewn hill. Babyhead Mountain was the site of the worst great ape event in Llano County. The dismembered body of a missing great ape juvenile had prompted this name for a once unremarkable hill. The discovery of that small Homo sapiens head impaled on a stick close to the summit six and one half centuries earlier will draw galactic tourists. The eighteen-fifties were a time noted for the expanding American nation which reduced native aboriginal great ape communities to scattered imprisonment camps known euphemistically as reservations.

To a cybernetic organism anxious to dispense seed, the silence in the solar pod inflicted by the female great ape is unbearable. “Area 10 confinement will be breeched in thirty seconds.” I watch the digits drop lower and withdraw an override chip from my ear which will transmit a pre-recorded reality to MH1506, my controller. I’m biological in one coveted respect, my reproductive organ is responsive and my imagination races as I watch testosterone levels climb.

“Area 10 confinement will be breeched in thirty seconds. You face termination.”

“TC5 acknowledges MH1506. I will relocate pod to continue limited-interchange.”

The chip engages as the last milliseconds fade into oblivion and we enter a Ford Model T. Now as MH1506 and the Twin Federation monitor stored data on the chip, I move so close to her that the smell of my cigarette and Bourbon break A2345-H’s daydream into blotchy ribbons of color.

II

“Yeah, you’re in my country. You can dream but you ain’t got the money to make it come true . . . do ya? Don’t clam up on me. Damn it, Sugar, this time I got to know what you’re thinking . . . are we heading on alone or not?” Her brown ape eyes glisten and the bountiful chest expands.

“Don’t ask about Kenike again. Act like the man I thought I’d found?”

“Ain’no need ta talk that way. Call him Dennis . . . yer still in American not that island.”

A2345-H exhibits the anticipated emotions until I slowly back away. A fortifying swig of Bourbon follows the flick of my wrist. The loud crackle of KNOW, a radio station in Austin, Texas erupts above static. The radio announcer reports that yesterday, April 1, 1934 two Grapevine police officers E. B. Wheeler and H. D. Murphy were murdered on a side road near Highway 114 by Clyde Barrow and Henry Methvin. Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was said to have shot the wounded officers again.

“Now that’s a gal after my own heart, Sugar.”

“Not likely . . . you haven’t got one.”

“You weren’t that sour on me when my wallet saved ya from being rode out of town on a rail.”

A2345-C jumps on a torn suitcase. He is waving a toy biplane in my face as I rake unkempt hair in rising anger. Entering the outskirts of San Antonio, the car we ride in passes a mare standing in wildflowers to shield her foal from the 1925 Ford Model T’s noise.

“E kali, wait!”

“Talk Texan ya’ runt. Say stop. Get off mama’s suitcases or I’ll box em’ ears.”

“Lio, horse!”

“Hell, you’re beggin for it. We call that a mare in Texas.”

A2345-C now wedged between suitcases, stares out the window envying the prancing foal celebrating freedom. A2345-H, my fertile young Hawaiian peers over the steering wheel. She stiffens seeing the sign that announces an orphanage and convent belonging to the Sisters of the Incarnate Word. Her face reveals she has finally lost all hope.

“Yer squirts balling for a 900 pound shit-machine. He’ll get it and a few do-gooder nuns. I’m warning you woman don’t give me no grief. You got him sprouting island words in a country of whites. Ain’t it better he gets religion and schooling? Then too, I figure you and I will be speaking that Mexico lingo, there’s no sense messin up his brain; seeing most times it’s overloaded and if they catch us, he’s be sent to a state institution . . . that’s pure hell.”

Sniffles and wet cheeks greet a new pint of Jim Beam. “Go on, take a swaller of Jim. It’ll be over in a heartbeat and we’re gonna leave pronto. He thinks the sun come up just to hear him crow, so it ain’t no bother to him. Ya’ want him sharing a barrel with us? Hell, we’re nothing but rotten apples.” A2345-C sets a dangerous course circling my head. Finally, my hand snatches the plane out of midair as the other slaps A2345-C’s face. I grab the wheel, while draining the pint.

“Damn it woman, stop this bucket of bolts. Let’s get his lio and some peace. Look in th’ mere, ya’ beautiful face is mussed up. Now you set things right at part’in. His old man took off, so this ain’t his first rodeo. Stay in the car, I’ll send him on down the chute.”

The Ford passes Sister Mary Agnes, cultivating rows of sprouting corn. Her determined face breaks into a smile and she waves at the welcomed novelty. The dust bowl pushes impoverished families west toward California in hopes of picking crops, few if any head south. Minutes later, the nun watches the boy struggle in the death grip of a tall, longhaired brunette wearing a chain of desert flowers around her neck. The almond eyes stream tears down light brown skin to a faded cotton dress.

Suddenly a man appears to free the boy who runs to the split-rail fence where small hands reach up to the curious colt. The man struggles with the woman who flings fists and feet in an attempt to break free.

“He’s doin’ OK . . . just about fair ta midlin.”

“Ka’ut keiki, my baby . . . I want him.”

“Stop takin’ on, a dogooder nun is runnin to him, hoodathunkit?”

Sister Mary Agnes is horrified seeing me strike A2345-H’s face. I drag her into the Ford. The nun’s march quickens minutes later as the Ford sputters and lurches down the road leaving the boy hugging the foal. As the Ford grows smaller in the distance, gasoline tinged exhaust mixes with the florid scent of a Texas spring. The boy turns toward the black figure striding toward him with welcoming arms.

“Lio.”

“Hello. I’m Sister Mary Agnes. Where did your mommy and daddy go?”

“Kenike no walk . . . you carry Kenike.”

“We’ll tell the authorities about Kenike after some milk and cookies.”

III

I settle into my seat and glance at the shaking form with hands touching in prayer. Miles past slowly in dreaded silence until I take her left hand and slid a gold band onto her finger. Her unbreakable frown melts into sparkling white teeth and grateful brown eyes. With broad smiles in enter an orchard of apple blossoms and buzzing honey bees. The soft earth is warm on my feet and I lead her under an arching roof of pink and white to high grass.

Her eyes close and no words are spoken until I finish my seeding. The horror of her screaming, the endless pounding of bloodied fists on my unclothed external structures ends as the slender neck droops after a snapping noise. The great ape’s head hangs to one side. The journey to the Ford is memorable as my feet sense the cool moist grass before the hot red soil turns to mud beneath a stream of liquid gushing from my limp untrained organ.

As I settle into the warm cloth inside the sundrenched Ford Model T, a small light brown mammal in the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha but of an unknown species turns its head to one side. Yellow blossoms frame the twitching elongated ears as my metallic limb reaches out the reappearing opaque porthole in an absentminded hominid parting gesture called a goodbye wave.

“Limited interchange-permit with this mammalian species is unauthorized. TC5 is terminated.”

Bio: Brian Duggan is a graduate of the University of Maryland where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. He is an Air Force veteran who has traveled extensively both living and working in Europe. He is a freelance writer who has written movie scripts that have received excellent professional coverage.

He is a member of many writing groups having written short stories have been accepted for publication on-line as well as in print. An honorable mention was earned as a Third Place Winner in a story contest hosted by Carpe Articulum.

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A Constellation of Two by Eric Scott

Apr 06 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

The black water shocked my bones, as if the cold burrowed through my skin and hollowed out the marrow. Nancy screamed as the water swallowed me. I flipped around trying to find the surface. I couldn’t tell if I was swimming up or down, my body twisted and pulled as the cold constricted my chest. The salty seawater burned my eyes as I tried to open them.

The muted sound of the storm surrounded me. But from a distance, I heard the swooshing blades of a motor. I focused on the sound, a signal leading me to safety. Kicking and pushing, I followed the reverberation around me. As I lifted above the surface, a wave smashed into me, the grit of the sea carved tiny roads of pain across my face, and the taste of blood filled my mouth. The icy water swiped the blood away leaving only the biting sting of salt.

The waves lifted and dropped our small boat, reminding me of the toy sailboat I played with in the tub as a child. The black letters of Star Crossed seemed to fade with each wave that crashed into her white hull.  The rain and lightning filled the night sky. I yelled for Nancy, realizing I was only a few feet from reaching her. I tried to swim to the boat, each stroke pulling me closer while the waves pushed me further away.

I watched Nancy try to stand, the rocking of the boat slapping her down each time. She frantically scanned the water for me. The skyline of the city, distorted by the sheets of rain, lorded over us like an obdurate judge waiting to pass sentence.

The harbor patrol, a white dove floating across the choppy sea, sliced into view. The spotlight bounced across the water, like a child shining a flashlight on the ceiling. I knew if I could hang on a few minutes longer, they would rescue us. As I prayed for Nancy to stay down, she stood. She saw the spotlight moving closer. She waved her arms. Her white sundress, torn apart by the winds of the storm, seemed ridiculous now.

An icy wave from deep below lifted me up. I yelled for Nancy to get down, hoping that my voice would carry on the crest of the wave. The harbor patrol pulled close, the bright lights illuminating Nancy as the wave struck the hull. Nancy wavered, losing her balance. She tipped over the edge of our boat, her arms flailing as they reached for something to grab. I screamed, a useless gesture in a concert of noise.

After the harbor patrol pulled me aboard, I begged them to keep searching. The officer said they would find her, for me to relax. But the fear in his eyes betrayed him. I rushed for the wheel, my legs wobbling on the slick deck. The officer forced me down, the back of my head connecting with something metal and unforgiving. The roaring sea was the last thing I heard before the world went dark.

They didn’t find her body. They told me they would continue to look, but they weren’t hopeful. The storm had swept her away. Twelve years together shaping a life eradicated in one terrible moment.

I blamed myself for taking Nancy out that day. I’d ignored the weather report, thinking it wouldn’t be so bad. Nancy’s mother had wanted us to come over for a barbeque and I’d talked Nancy into canceling so we could take the boat out one last time before it became too cold. Nancy came out of our bedroom dressed in an old purple sweater with a picture of a Baltimore Raven stomping on a Pittsburgh Steelers terrible towel. The jeans she wore whenever we painted hugged her legs tightly. She stared at me with her arms held out wide to present her outfit. The tiny grin that started in her eyes and lifted her cheeks into a devious smile made me laugh. She placed her hand under her chin, contemplating my laughter while pretending she didn’t know what I was talking about. She kept playing the dumb girl routine until I promised that we would spend the next two weekends with her mother. She had changed into the sundress, partially to please me, but mostly to show me up.

As I packed her clothes into boxes for the Sisters of the Purple Heart, I picked up the Ravens sweater and jeans that rested on her side of the bed. I let them drop from my trembling hands. Her perfume still lingered on the clothes and each morning I thought I smelled her next to me, the sweet lilac bringing back memories of our first meeting.

We met at a fantasy football draft. Nancy showed up with my best friend Bill’s brother, Kevin.  We didn’t talk that first night, but I couldn’t stop looking at her. A shy smile provided her only response to my stares. As I watched her sitting next to Kevin with her hands folded in her lap, I felt an odd need to protect her. Something deep down told me to hold her and keep her safe.  I don’t know whether it was her nervous little laugh when she talked about her family or the way her shoulders slouched forward whenever Kevin touched her, but I had an overwhelming urge to hug her, like she needed to be held or she would break. I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

When I heard that Kevin dumped her for a checkout girl at Applebee’s, I wanted a chance to give her better. I asked Bill for her number and he told me he would handle it. He and his wife set up a double date for us. We met at Phillips in the Inner Harbor. We sat outside under the large red umbrellas overlooking the harbor, the heat of the day replaced by a soothing breeze. The smell of Old Bay wafted from our plates. Nancy wore a light aqua top that showed off her tanned skin. A silver necklace hung from her neck. She explained the oval with the horizontal lines on the end was a cartouche that spelled her name in Egyptian. Her mother had surprised her with it when she graduated high school.  She always wore it.

“The first time we met, I thought you hated me”, she told me after we had dated for a few months. We spent every night and weekend together. Our dates consisted of having coffee or walking along the paths around the Inner Harbor. We were both drawn to the water, to the calm of the bay and the safety we felt walking and holding hands. Going out with other couples or drinking in Fells Point didn’t interest us. We only wanted to learn about one another. Each hour spent with her confirmed what I felt on that initial date; that I loved her.

When I proposed to Nancy, I confessed that I knew after that first night together we would be married. She laughed and told me the same feeling had overwhelmed her, that she had cried herself to sleep worrying it was a teenage girl’s fantasy, a crazy dream. I promised I would never make her cry again.

Our wedding day on the banks of Gibson Island came one year after we first met. I stood on the edge of the water, the little platform overlooking the Sillery Bay. My family and friends smiled at me from the wooden chairs that formed a semi-circle around the platform.  The green grass, moist with the rain from earlier in the day, added vividness to the setting. The rain had stopped as if it didn’t want to disturb our union. The crisp air bounced off the water and the golden sunset illuminated the cerulean blue sky.

The sails appeared from behind the boathouse. Bill jabbed me.

“I’ve never seen you smile this much.”

I only chuckled, wanting to save my words for Nancy. The sailboat eased into the dock, the wind whipping the ivory sails and filling the air with a cracking sound, like sheets on a clothesline.  The hushed murmurs of the crowd anticipating Nancy’s entrance hovered under the cloudless sky. She appeared on deck, her white dress sparkling in the fading sunlight. She gingerly walked down the ramp, concentrating on each step. When she reached the shore, she looked up and her eyes found mine. The music commenced and she walked slowly to me, our eyes never leaving one another. As she stepped next to me, the crowd let out a collective sigh. Our hands found each other.

We listened to my Uncle Nicholas recite our wedding vows. Our grip tightened as the moment of our kiss arose. When our lips touched, I felt a tremor inside my belly and my heartbeat quickened. We danced and laughed all night and I understood what forever meant.

After the accident, I couldn’t work. The flood of memories engulfed me with such remorse I needed to be somewhere to remember her without the claustrophobia of guilt. Randall, my supervisor and friend of ten years, granted me a leave of absence. I decided to return to the Inner Harbor where we were our happiness, hoping for something to click inside to help me move on with my life.

Each day I sat on a bench in front of the USS Constellation and watched the tourists with their crab t-shirts and Oriole hats glide back and forth. She towered over the other ships in the harbor, like the T-Rex fossil in the Smithsonian, ancient and mysterious. The turquoise keel was the only color on the black and white ship. The majesty of the sails lost as orphaned lines clung to the mast. Even after all this time, she was quite impressive. But most of the tourists didn’t appreciate the history they were seeing. They mentally checked her off their list of attractions, taking a picture or two and moving along to the next exhibit.

One day, I decided to follow one of the tour groups on board. The grey clouds advanced from across the bay and the smell of rain filled the air.

“Nice boat,” said a heavyset man in our group. He wore a pink polo shirt and white pants. He looked like cotton candy.

“She’s a ship sir. A frigate to be exact,” corrected one the guides who wore a navy blue cap with USS Constellation printed across the crown.

“Boat. Ship. She doesn’t look like much of anything, cept a buncha drift wood.” The man guffawed, his large chin reminding me of the bullfrogs back at my grandparent’s house by Deep Creek Lake.

I walked to the prow and leaned over the edge. Across the bay, I saw the Francis Scott Key bridge and the spot where Nancy disappeared. It amazed me how close we were to land. A small drop of rain splashed in the water just below me, expanding rings from the center. More drops followed and I held my breath, thinking of Nancy. As I stood on the deck of the USS Constellation with rain peppering my face, I knew what I needed to do.

Working as a tour guide for the USS Constellation was an easy transition for me. Being a history buff and having lived in the area most of my life, I already knew a great deal about Baltimore’s past. I educated myself on the history of the ship so I could point out key facts for the tourists. Most people were interested in the ghost stories and not the history. I didn’t believe any of the ghost stories, but I had become a good liar. I didn’t care about the truth or doing a good job. I just wanted to be close to Nancy.

Charles, the ship’s caretaker, allowed me to stay after hours. When I’d told him about Nancy, that I wanted time alone with her, his body slumped and his face grimaced. His wife had died eleven years ago in a car accident. Permanent bags puffed under his eyes. The weight of loneliness pulled his skin down and even when he smiled, his eyes remained dark and distant. I wondered if I looked that way to people and if time would ravage me as it did him.

I talked to Nancy every night as I walked the creaking deck, the wind whisking around me. I waited and hoped she would talk back.  God, I missed her.

I remembered when we returned to Phillips for our fifth anniversary. I don’t know whether it was the rain or the oysters that caused us to get frisky, as Nancy called it. A bridge arced across the street from the Inner Harbor to the parking lot. We crossed with the rain at a drizzle and the city smelling clean for a change. We walked down the spiral staircase, our shoes clacking loudly against the metal. Nancy stopped and turned so quickly I almost ran into her. She kissed me hard, pressing into me. Her hands slid up my neck and the raspberry of her lipstick melted in my mouth. She grinned as she pushed away from me, the lipstick smeared across her mouth. She kicked off her heels and backed up to the cement wall. Her manicured nails, long and pink, gestured for me to come closer. I went to her, eagerly kissing her again, slowly moving down to her neck. Her skin damp from the rain and the salty taste on my lips drew me closer until I felt the warmth of her body, hot and yielding against me.

“I took my underwear off in the bathroom,” she cooed.

I pulled back to gaze into her brown eyes and she smiled while hiking up her dress. I reached under and felt how warm she was on a chilly night. She unzipped my pants and pulled me close.

“Sorry they’re chapped,” she said, her eyes dropping down to her hands.

“I’m fine.”

With the far off sound of thunder, we made love in the stairwell. When we walked to our car afterwards, we couldn’t stop giggling.

I hurt inside for Nancy.

My last night on board the USS Constellation was a Saturday. Charlie told me to lock things up and I could spend the night if I wanted. I’d told him that tonight was our anniversary, the first since the accident. He patted me on the shoulder, a forlorn look on his wrinkled face. We hugged, a moment of shared pained between two lonely men.

I set up a small table overlooking the water, a place setting for each of us. A bunch of lilacs, Nancy’s favorite, placed in the vase my mother gave us for our wedding. The gold lining on the vase circled into figure eights on a white porcelain background. Nancy always kept fresh flowers in the vase and I knew she would appreciate my effort. The cold air nipped at my cheeks. I poured a glass of her favorite wine, a rare Calliope Muscat we found in Italy. The sweet, cherry smell caught the cold wind. I lit the lone candle, the light dancing and flickering around the wick. I began to cry.

“I miss you.”

I drank the wine, allowing the warmth to fill my chest. The clunking sound of the water hitting the ship was the only disturbance in the quiet night. It was as if the city faded away. As I stared into the blackness of the bay, a hole appeared in the water, like the breathing hole of crab on a beach. A fog rose, rolling toward me from the aquarium, the outline of the building engulfed in seconds. It looked like storm clouds from a tornado; light vanished as it rolled closer. I heard a click behind me. A small boy, dressed in rags, rushed at me firing an old gun. Before I could react, he passed through me and sunk below deck.

“Don’t mind Jake.”

I spun around. Sitting in Nancy’s chair was a man in a security guard’s uniform.

“Just wine? No food?” he asked.

I couldn’t answer. The moment tore the words from my throat. He motioned to the chair across from him, signaling me to sit down. He poured himself a glass of wine.

“I’m Carl, Carl Hansen.”

I recognized the name immediately. Carl Hansen had been a night watchman on the USS Constellation in the fifties.  I’d never seen a picture of the man, but many of the ghost stories I’d read included Carl Hansen in some way. He was either chasing people from the ship or playing cards with sailors. There was even a tale that he would give people tours of the ship. But it couldn’t be Carl Hansen because Carl Hansen was dead.

The thing that called itself Carl stared at me through his horn-rimmed glasses, a smile creasing his mouth. “It’s me all right. Have a seat.”

The boy whisked by again, a whistle escaping his pursed lips. Carl removed his black cap and placed it gently on the table. He slicked back his auburn hair with one hand and poured me another glass of wine.

“We don’t usually let people see us. I mean all of us at the same time. But tonight is special, isn’t it?”

He waved his hand across the table as if he were a floor model at a car show. The gold cufflinks of his suit caught the light from the candle. White specks of light twinkled inside his blue eyes and I had trouble looking at him. If I stared at him, my eyes watered like looking into the desert on a sunny day.

I grabbed the glass of wine and gulped it down in one motion. Carl laughed as he filled my glass again.

“Don’t drink too much. You’ll pass out before the main event.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts.”

He smiled. “Of course you do.”

“This is a hallucination caused by grief. You’re not real.”

A large man dressed in full naval regalia strode down the deck. He walked deliberately with his head held high and his hands placed behind his back. A large gold and dark blue coat with golden tasseled shoulders draped over his enormous frame. White frills covered his bulbous neck and the buttons on his vest stretched to hold his girth. He paused at our table and regarded us. A pudgy dollop of a nose on an unremarkable face moved closer. His eyes were soft and tired. He nodded at us both and continued his journey forward.

“Glad I didn’t serve under him. A bit of grump that one.” Carl swallowed his wine. “I understand this is a lot for you to take in. But we’ve been told you need some help.”

“Who told you?”

“Life is a gift. You mustn’t waste it.”

“My life ended when Nancy died.”

“You’re wrong.”

Carl poured another glass of wine. Sweat beaded his forehead. “This is very good, by the way.”

“Glad you like it. I just wish this would end. I don’t want any company. Even imaginary.”

Carl put his hand on his chest and shook his head.

“Now don’t be rude.  After all, you are our guest and a guest should be more respectful of his host.”

Carl’s smile faded and I felt a pulling in my stomach making me rise. The muscles in my arms and legs twitched and I tried to stop the momentum leading me to the edge of the railing. The pain flared, like grappling hooks dug into my skin, as I climbed. Teetering on the smooth railing, I looked down. Fog engulfed the entire ship in a misty gray soup. The fear encased me as I felt myself tipping forward.

“Now, can we agree to discuss the night’s festivities as gentlemen?”

“Yes, please let me down.”

I felt the tug inside me release, like letting go a rope in a game of tug of war. Carl grabbed me and yanked me back onto the deck, his strength surprising for such a small man. He walked back over to the table and sat down, waving me to join him again. He smiled as I eased into the chair across from him.

“So, you see that you do want life. Yes?”

I nodded.

“Good. Have another drink. I apologize for the theatrics. But showing you works over telling you and there isn’t much time. I need you to know this isn’t a delusion.”

I took the glass and swallowed the wine, hoping I would pass out soon and be released from this torture. The warmth of the wine eased my shivering. My teeth chattered and all could think was that I wanted to be alone with Nancy.

Carl looked up, examining the skies like a sailor at sea.

“I hope you’re ready. It’s time.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Hi, sweetie.” Her voice sent chills down my arms. I turned and Nancy was there. A nervous bubbly laugh slipped through my lips. Her yellow and white sundress flowed around her as she reached for me. I wanted to run my fingers through her short brown hair, to feel her touch on my skin.

“I’ll leave you two alone.”

Carl’s words were distant, like an echo of an echo. I took Nancy’s hand, her skin warm and soft.  She helped me up, the wine rolling in my stomach. Her dark brown eyes softened as she touched my cheek.

“You’re here? This isn’t a dream?” I said, cupping her chin to kiss her again. She eased back, her hands clasping mine.

“I’m here. For now.”

“What happened to you? How’d you get here?”

“I don’t have a lot of time so you need to listen to me.”

I pulled her close and kissed her. Her lips soft and warm filled the need that suffocated my heart. She wrapped her arms around me and I drew her into me. After a moment, we eased apart.

“This isn’t helping.” She struggled to speak as if each word sapped her breath. I took her hands in mine.

“I missed you.”

“I know. But this isn’t forever. I have to go soon.”

“No. What are you talking about? Go where?”

“I’ve lingered here waiting for you to move on without me. But you didn’t. Each day you got worse. I waited for our anniversary. Carl told me I could see you then, because it’s our night. But I can’t risk staying here any longer. I came to tell you that you need to move on without me.”

“No. How could I? Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. Away.”

“I’ll come with you. Take me with you.”

“Oh, sweetie. It’s not your time. You have so much life left to live.”

“To hell with that. I’ll make it my time.”

I broke her grip and scurried to the edge of the ship, my feet slipping on the polished deck. I climbed up the lines and gazed into the pool of fog swishing below. Hands formed and reached out to me, beckoning me to fall forward.

“No! This isn’t the way to me.”

“It was my fault.”

“It was an accident.”

“We never should have been out there. I killed you.”

“This isn’t the way. Please, take my hand.”

I turned to face Nancy, her eyes soft and pleading. All I wanted was to go back to her, to be with her forever. I took her hand and she gently pulled me down from the railing. We embraced as the cold whipped around us. The wind howled as the fog started to pull away from the ship.

“It’s time.”

“What am I supposed to do without you?”

“Live your life. Make me proud. You’ll always have me in here.”

She placed her hands on my cheeks and kissed my forehead. The memory of her stepping off the sailboat in her wedding dress blossomed in my mind, her dress a cloud of white against the blue backdrop of the sky.  Our gaze interlocked.

I felt her soft lips touch mine, the only warmth as the cold enveloped us.

She was gone.

The last of the fog receded into the sea and disappeared into the clouds. A siren blared, the sounds of the city interrupting the silence. I collapsed onto the deck. Something jabbed at my back. I pulled Carl’s black cap from underneath me, the cotton soft in my hands. Staring into the blanket of black above me, I saw a single star blink.

“I’ll make you proud.”

I placed the cap on my head and walked into the future.

Biography

Eric Scott is the author of several articles in the field of psychology. He is a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health located in Baltimore, MD. He is currently a member of the faculty in the Department of Mental Health and his research involves improving school achievement, and reducing attention/concentration problems and aggressive and shy behaviors, by enhancing family-school communication and parenting practices associated with learning and behavior. His story, My April Girl, was published in the April issue of Skive magazine and Addicted to Losing Love appears in issue #10 of Writers Haven. His story, Contrition, will appear in the Horrors of History anthology in October 2013.

 

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