Fiction Friday

All posts tagged Fiction Friday

 

They’re going to know what you did.

Nicky was usually more up front in his cautions, but the simple fear that someone would discover his secrets set Pike’s teeth on edge.

“No,” he whispered in reply.

Look at them, moron. They can see it in your eyes, plain as day. You’re giving yourself away. See how they looked away from you? They know!

“They can’t.”

He moved on beyond the trio of Collies who once more stared at him. He shoved his paws deeper into the pockets of his hoodie, pulling the garment down lower on his emaciated frame. With luck they just think I’m homeless or some such, he thought.

Homeless? They know. One of them saw it. You’re gonna have to deal with them.

“Shut up,” Pike hissed. He opened the flask and took a deep drink, letting the fiery liquor within burn a trail down his throat.

That shit won’t make me go away, dumbass! I’m telling you, they know. The short one on the left. Did you see how she looked at you? Like you were scum. She knows what you just did. She’s gonna tell.

Pike walked on, passing through the security barrier and into the grassland. No one ever stopped you when you were leaving. At most they would caution you about suspected activity in the Badlands. It was only when you came back that you had to be questioned. In his youth, Pike had walked casually into and out of the grassland without ever being confronted.

That was before the rats had come. Four years ago, when they had rigged explosives on the seven members of the touring company and sent them back into the mainland to be human bombs, everything had changed.

“See, Nicky? We’re out,” Pike said with a smile. He lit a cigarette as the grass parted before him. He moved through it as if he was born to it.

They don’t stop you on the way out, Nicky reminded him.

“And if you ain’t ever coming back, who cares?”

Behind them, the day was shattered with the first explosion. The Bell Tower, looming so high over the Maltine Academy, had its base shattered like glass before a wrecking ball. With a creak of tortured stone, it listed to the side and then crashed down onto Hanford Hall with the force of a dozen bombs.

Seconds later, all the doors to Lady Serenity’s Hospital blew outward on the front of a blast wave. Balls of fire spat from the openings, an urban dragon that collapsed in upon itself in a rush of horrible sound.

The Police Station.

The Newspaper office.

The giant chain department store.

The support beams for the enormous Passion Street bridge.

The sounds echoed for the next twenty minutes as, one after another, massive explosions rocked the city. The death tolls would be in the millions.

Wish we’d have got those fucking Collies.

“They won’t even remember seeing us,” Pike said. “Besides, we won’t be on-planet much longer.”

Told you to trust them.

“I know.”

“You know what, goat?” demanded a voice. Pike turned and smiled as he saw the first of the rats. More of them followed and they spoke in turn, but he could not tell the difference between them.

“I know they won’t be coming back after you for a while. They have more important things to deal with now.”

Damn right they do.

“Good to hear. You’ll be wanting transport off world now.”

“Yeah. I can’t hang out here.”

“We have arranged for you to be transported elsewhere. May we count on your continued assistance?”

“You bet. These Folk have been nothing but assholes to me.”

“Excellent,” said a rat. They escorted him further into the grasslands, and behind them explosions continued to vibrate the ground.

 

<<<END>>>

Ansel lit the cigarette in blatant violation of the little prohibition sign on the wall. He was two drags in when the door opened and Miss Teller poked her head through the gap. Her mouth was a thin line and her eyes narrowed as she glared at him.

“Just what do you think you are doing?” she demanded. Ansel took a third long pull, and his words were spoken through a thick cloud.

“I’m already getting tagged for the fight. Might as well get it all at once,” he said.

“Get in my office,” she ordered. Her face looked like she had sucked on a lemon. As he passed, she snatched the smoke from his lips and crushed it on the tile beneath her heel. A well-practiced hand shoved him into the closest of the chairs in front of her desk as she waved a paw to clear the smoke smell.

He looked at her with an expression that spoke of numerous previous meetings and an expected outcome that would not be in his favor, but he kept his mouth shut. She looked at him, waiting for him to speak. After a long period of mutual staring, she broke the silence.

“So do you want to tell me what happened?”

“Fight,” he said simply.

“That much I could have surmised from your appearance if I had not been told already. Bloody, filthy, and with ripped clothing tells a story all its own.”

“Must be Thursday,” Ansel shot back.

“Is that when they pick on you, then?”

“Lady, nobody picks on me,” he said. He slapped a paw on his chest for emphasis.

You’re a liar.

“What?” he said, half-rising from the chair. His nostrils flared. Miss Teller looked at him across her graceful muzzle, head tilted to the left.

“Please remain in your seat, Mister Phillips.”

“You called me a liar.”

“I said no such thing.”

“I heard it!”

“Perhaps you did, but not from me. Tell me, if they don’t pick on you, why do you end up back here every other week?”

Because you can’t control yourself.

“What the hell?”

“Language, Mister Phillips!” she snapped, slapping a hand on the desk.

“Tell me you heard that!”

“I did indeed, and there are things I do not have to tolerate.”

“No! The voice!” he said, craning his neck to look all around the office.

You’re the believer here, Ansel. Not her. Why would I talk to her?

“This isn’t funny!” Ansel shouted, jumping to his feet. He knocked the chair over in his haste, and Miss Teller rose from her chair as well, planting her paws on her hips.

“I daresay it is not,” she replied. She pointed to the chair. “Pick that up and plant your butt in it, young man.”

It was the first time Ansel had heard anything even approximating a curse come from the principal, but he did not take the time to appreciate that he had been the one to make her lose control. He was too busy looking around the room.

“Who are you?” he asked aloud.

You really are a dense one, aren’t you? You pray to me and you don’t think I might just listen every now and then?

“No. No fucking way.”

“That’s three days detention!” Miss Teller barked. Ansel was paying no attention to her at this point. He was looking now toward the ceiling, his eyes wide.

“It can’t be,” he said.

It is.

“Why didn’t you do anything? I was getting my ass handed to me every damned day!”

Does this sound familiar, then? “Oh, Gann, just let me be strong enough to fight back and I’ll serve you forever.” And you got stronger. Faster. Meaner. You opened your heart to me and I filled it with raw power. How many of your classmates could stand after fighting six at once?

“That was you?”

I have need of warriors, Ansel. I need guardians for the temples. I need those willing to fight that will carry my words to the masses. Rest assured, it will be a fight. I am not some god of love and peace. My people need me in the trenches. In the mines. In the dark of night, when the monsters come, there will you find my priests, standing as a bulwark against their dark incursions. You said you would serve me. Will you live up to your word?

Ansel nodded, struck dumb by the words. He had always imagined Gann to be a psychological construct of some sort, there to help people deal with whatever was in their hearts or minds, but the thought that an actual god was speaking to him banished that image. He knew now with full and complete certainty that everything his father had taught him was real. It was like opening a door into a room full of pure light.

Miss Teller had flipped the red toggle on the edge of her desk when Ansel stopped talking to her. The office door flew open to reveal the twin wolfhounds that acted as security officers during school hours. Neither one looked to be in a friendly mood.

“Mister Phillips here –” she began, but Ansel cut her off.

“I need a ride,” he said, his voice low and deep. “Whichever one of you two idiots can actually drive needs to take me to the Gannite monastery.”

He turned back to look at his shocked principal. He half-bowed from the waist.

“My apologies for my behavior,” he said. “We all find our way to Gann differently, but He has shown Himself to me today. I will finish my school in His temple.”

 

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

 

Prompt – Awakening

“You know, for someone who’s supposed to be smart, you’re pretty fuckin’ dumb sometimes, Chino,” Harper said. His tone was flat, more a general indictment than a statement with any real malice.

“I didn’t know who else to call.”

“I wasn’t saying anything about that, man. You know I’ll be there if you need me. Just… Goddamn, man. Try to fuckin’ think now and then, yeah? You got some kind of giant brain up in that nugget. Use the damn thing.”

Chino made a chuckling sound. “I’m more the ‘act first’ kind of guy,” he said.

“That’s the problem, pal. You keep acting like this and we’re gonna need to jump a freighter. If the badges don’t come after us, the mobs will.”

“You think so?”

“Faydor already offered a hundred large for whoever took out Sonny Ears. How long til they figure out it was you?”

“You’re not going to tell them, are you, Harper?”

“Nah, Chino, man. I ain’t a snitch. Not even for cash. Especially not where you’re concerned.”

Relief washed over the wrinkled face as Chino cracked a smile around his trunk.

“I love you, man.”

“I know. I love you too, dummy.”

Their shovels clanged as they threw them into the back of the car. Moments later, they were driving north, and the shallow grave they left behind was just another disturbance in the forest floor.

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

Prompt: Non-romantic love.

Thank You Very Much.

 

The sand tasted of dried blood and when it blew into my eyes and nose I knew I’d be hours getting rid of it. I turned away from the gust front, ducking my head behind the remains of the pharmacy and hocking up a sticky filth that soaked into the dirt of the street within seconds of my spitting it there. Cursing my own stupidity, I dragged the shemagh up and into place around the bottom half of my face, tying it as a makeshift filter. It was just dust. No need to use up the good resp-masks.

“Heavy dust clouds, folks. Filters and goggles up,” I mouthed into the radio. The others needed some warning. Abe was out there ahead of us somewhere, but his radio would be on emergency only. It’s not likely I could tell him anything he didn’t already know. Of us all he was the only one who had spent as much time in dusty environments as I had.

I dragged the visor-style goggles from the bottom of my ruck to cover my eyes, even though I hated them. It was the loss of wide-scope vision that bugged me. I have a real fondness for not missing out on peripheral attacks because I’m wearing a screen.

“Anything new, Twitch?” Karen asked over the net. Her voice had a quiet crackle behind it. Some kind of malfunction in her radio, but it made her sound curiously robotic.

“More of the same. Burned out buildings.”

I didn’t know what to tell her. That was all we had found since we came into this shithole. Once a thriving town of about twenty thousand, it was now just an empty shell that remained as a spot on a map. I didn’t care about the destroyed buildings. The lack of free-for-the-taking resources is what pissed me off. Granted it wasn’t why we were here, but upping the profit margin never hurts.

Hans clicked in on the radio, and you could almost see that easy smile of his as he spoke.

“I’ve got some kind of movement,” he said. “Eighth Street, between Flagler and Eagle Way. Something just cut into a grocery store. Well, what used to be a grocery store, at least.”

“Intercepting,” I said, heading due south through the alley behind the pharmacy. The wind picked up. All around me was swirling dust and the howl of directed wind. I could barely make out Karen when she spoke, and even the static on her end seemed to have increased. I picked up the pace, hoping as much to find some shelter from the sand as to find our target. With every step the dust grew thicker. It was gumming up on my face, sticking to the moisture from my breath. I could feel it insinuating itself into the folds of my clothes, trickling down my collar and rubbing my skin wherever it could reach. Visibility was getting short. When I stepped into the alley, I could see the end. Now it was hidden from view.

The radio clicked and chirped in my ear. There was no static at all. It was so crystal clear that for a moment I was convinced I couldn’t hear the wind any more. The voice that came across was juvenile in tone, and I felt a chill go down my spine.

“I am becalmed, lost to nothing,” said the voice. It was no one I recognized, but it was definitely on our commo net. As it spoke, the wind stopped. No warning, no slowing, it just stopped. Dust motes continued on their aerial crusade for a moment and then cascaded to the ground in a yellow-brown shower.

“Hans?” I heard Karen call. There was no response.

“Tac three Charlie.”

The voice was Abe’s, and he was a step ahead of me in insisting we switch frequencies. Whoever that was had gotten hold of Hans’ radio. What had gone from a simple Demonground hunt for a possible telepath was now a rescue. I took a breath, loosening the shemagh from around my face. My hand went to the radio at my belt then, and I flicked the dial three nets clockwise, and then three channels up.

“Twitch?” the big scout asked. I grinned. Between Abe and me we could make short shrift of whoever had snatched the doc, and Karen was passable backup. I pressed the mic but I was shut out of the channel by another broadcast.

“Left to die by two good friends. Tears of God flow as I bleed,” said the voice.

What the hell did that mean? We hadn’t abandoned anyone.

“Isn’t that a song?” Karen asked. She emerged from behind a dry cleaner.

“All the nightmares came today, and it looks as though they’re here to stay,” intoned the unknown voice.

“The lady asked you a question,” I broadcast. I could see the sign for Weller’s Grocery ahead and to my left. I scanned slowly across the front of the place, looking for any hint of movement. The windstorm had scoured any tracks that I could see, and I would bet even Abe would be hard-pressed to find more.

As if on cue, I saw Abe. He had apparently spent time in the same dust bath I had. He was covered from head to toe in it, but in his case it helped him blend in as he crept along, duckwalking near the ground. Coming in from the eastern side of Weller’s, he ducked beneath a hole that used to be a window and kept moving forward toward the front of the building.

“Why are you following me?”

“Out of songs so soon?” I shot back.

I hefted the AR, leaning against the telephone pole I was beside. Moving like glacier ice, I lowered myself into a sitting position. I scanned the store back and forth through the holosight.

“Play some Skynyrd,” Abe said. I could see him trying not to laugh and I felt the corners of my mouth curl up into a smile.

“Why won’t you leave me alone?”

“There’s a bounty on your head after what you did back in Phoenix,” I explained. “It’s considerably more if you’re alive, but if you did any damage to Hans…”

“He is alive, I assure you.”

There. The faintest flicker of motion beside and behind a tumbled shelf. I lowered the sight onto the spot and waited.

“What’s the deal with the songs?” Karen asked.

“I like them. They fit right now, too.”

I saw him then. He poked his head out from behind the barrier, trying to see Karen as she approached. When he finally did, he stared for a few seconds and she stumbled, falling face-down on the dirty parking lot she was crossing. She did not move.

“I’m more of a heavy metal guy myself,” I said. The face that filled my sight was pasty white with lack of exposure. It stood in sharp contrast to the dark shirt he wore, and right now the lower half of his face was bisected by the reticle of my sight.

“Karen’s down,” I added for Abe’s benefit.

“What did you do?” Abe demanded.

“She was going to take the one called Hans. I need him.”

“For what?”

“My people have injuries. He is a healer.”

“Your people?”

“I am not the only one of my kind. We are spread across the face of the planet. You and your kind knew not of our arrival, but we have infiltrated your ranks for years.”

Abe leaned around the corner, sweeping the barrel of his rifle across the store interior as he did so. Pasty Boy saw the motion. I saw him tilt his head curiously, and I swear I heard the sigh as Abe went down.

“What the hell are you?” I demanded.

Pasty Buy started scanning for me. I kept the sights locked in; took up slack on the trigger. I could feel the break only a few ounces away.

His eyes locked with mine and in a second I saw it all. I knew who he was and everything was okay. I knew he was all right. My ears filled with a sultry bass beat and music that promised sex and decadence as much from its chords as from any words he might add.

“You should have told me,” I said, smiling as I was drawn deeply into his eyes.

He looked back at me, his white sequined jumpsuit flashing light from the rhinestones sewn to it. I knew the sideburns and the hip-shaking stance he took. I had seen him on the vid many times. Hell, who hasn’t? The grocery store had become a stage and he was up there, oozing charisma with every side-to-side sweep of his hips. The screams of women filed the air along with the driving beat that underscored everything.

“We will take your kind,” Elvis told me. His voice was a delightful, booming thing. “We will be triumphant. You and the rest of humanity will be our slaves.”

It didn’t sound too bad when he put it that way.

Eh, who am I kidding? I’d make a horrible slave, and the thought of being one, of submitting to anyone, snapped me out of the trance and he was just Pasty Boy again. Damned telepaths.

The rifle jumped against my shoulder and the back of his head vanished.

“TCB, baby,” I whispered.

<<<END>>>

 

 

Miranda wondered if her eyes had ever been this wide before.

Skeeter was dangling from the elevated grasp of the shipboard marine and the marine was staring down at the youth as if he was little more than prey for the terrifying teeth and claws that he was displaying. Skeeter looked panicked and embarrassed at the same time, as if getting caught was worse than the threat of raw violence exuded by the lion.

“You don’t belong here,” the marine rumbled. The words were deep baritone notes, forced from within a barrel chest. His teeth clacked together like graveyard bones when he spoke.

“No shit,” Skeeter managed. His eyes were fixed on the tawny-furred paw that held him aloft. Tangled in his longcoat lapels, the paw was almost larger than Skeeter’s own head.

“It’s my fault!” Miranda said, waving her own paws to get the marine’s attention. “We were playing hide and –”

“Stop talking, miss.”

The order came not from the enormous lion in his starched jumpsuit, but from behind Miranda. She whirled in place, still with her arms above her head. She had seen it on the vid – you were supposed to keep your hands in the air, right?

Standing there was a long, lanky leopard with a strange hat that seemed to hang down over one side of his head. He wore a different uniform. Sand-colored and spotted in a manner that mimicked the leopard’s own coloration instead of the drab grey of the marines, the shirt had no name or insignia attached. He also, as opposed to the marine, carried no weapons.

“Sir, I’m –” she started. He shook his head and gestured for her to be silent, holding a finger in front of his mouth. As the words died in her throat, he nodded and smiled. He used his other hand to gently push her arms back down by her sides, winking at her as he did so.

“This isn’t your place,” the lion said. The leopard half-shrugged, letting his cocked head drop toward the raised shoulder.

“I know, I know. I’m colony security, and this is your ship. It’s cool, brother. They just got outta the controlled zone, is all. I’ll take them back and you can go on your way. You wanna put the kid down?”

The marine shifted his gaze from the leopard and back to Skeeter.

“You’ll keep ’em corralled?” he asked.

“Count on it,” said the leopard.

The paw opened and Skeeter tumbled free. His legs did not set well when he landed, and he fell backward onto his haunches. He winced as he knew his tail would bruise from the impact, but even that was preferable to the grinning maw he had been staring into a moment before.

“About time,” he said, standing and smoothing the lines of his jacket. He tried to look defiant. The paw that fell on his shoulder flashed a series of wickedly-pointed claws for just a second as if to tell him to consider his next actions carefully.

“You be quiet, too, kid. Grown-ups are talking here.”

“Hey, pal –” Skeeter began. The leopard’s paw wrapped around Skeeter’s mouth and held his muzzle closed. He didn’t have to work hard to keep it closed. It seemed more an exercise in simple restraint.

“I appreciate you helping me out,” the leopard told the marine. “I’m sure you can imagine how this shit is gonna make me look.”

“Like an idiot?”

“Yep,” the leopard said with a throaty chuckle. “I’ve got them from here.”

The lion shook his head. “Stupid ground pounder,” he said with a sneer as he pointed them to the entry door.

A ripple of muscles ran across the leopard’s muzzle, and one edge of his mouth peeled up and back, exposing a fang. He placed a paw on the back of each of the kids and urged them on toward the door.

“Nobody can just accept a friendly word these days,” he said as the door closed behind them. “Always gotta flex that extra little bit.”

“What do you mean?” Miranda asked.

“That last comment was to see if he could piss me off enough to take a swing at him.”

“Why didn’t you?” asked Skeeter. “Too tough for you?”

The leopard looked askance at him and then laughed. “Yeah, kid. We’ll go with that.”

“My dad told me you guys were supposed to be some kind of super fighting machines,” Skeeter pressed.

“We do okay. When we need to.”

“Well if I was that good, I would have jumped him.”

“And that’s why you won’t get to be that good. That’s the kind of mistake a kid fresh outta boot makes. Thinking that they taught you everything you need to know to get by in a fight, and you wind up in some dive bar with a chip on your shoulder. Some idiot mouths off about your branch and you go to pound him just the way you’ve been taught. Boom. You wake up in a sickbay with half your teeth broken. Rookie mistake, kid. See, if I’d tagged that big motherfu — Oh, sorry, miss,” he said, looking down at Miranda with a friendly smile.

“It’s okay,” she said, giggling.

“If I had hit him, the marines on board would have all been within their rights to thump any of our guys anywhere they saw them. After that it would have escalated ship-wide. Far easier for me to swallow my pride and escort you to back to the controlled zone. A little humility goes a long way.”

Miranda and Skeeter both smiled at the leopard. “You’re pretty smart,” she said.

“Still,” Skeeter said, brushing at his lapels yet again. “I wish you had kicked his butt.”

“I notice you didn’t do anything either,” said the leopard.

Skeeter shrugged. “I was ready. If he had held me up there much longer I was gonna pee my pants at him.”

 

END

A Matter of Perspective

Chan looked into the yawning blackness before him with the same rapt expression one might hold for a child. It was truly where he felt at ease. Nimble fingers danced over the controls before him, so fast that they nearly blurred, correcting a miniscule course deviation before it escalated.

He had been in the couch for nine hours now, and he could easily manage nine more, but Morgan was coming through the airlock to relieve him. He mouthed her traditional greeting along with her.

“Shift over, mate. Let a real pilot in,” she said as his beak moved in synch.

“If you were a real pilot, you’d be an eagle,” he replied, the response as rote as her intro. He stood from the grav couch, though, and let the sleek hawk take his place. She keyed in her bio-code and the couch moved and changed shape, morphing to fit her larger profile.

“Argyle has some seriously good coffee in the galley,” Morgan said as she reviewed the information on the screens before her.

“Sweet. Hey, there’s an asteroid strike in there from yesterday. You forgot to sign off on the ‘no damage’ statement. I highlighted it so you could find it easier. Don’t want the Captain crawling up your tail about it.”

“No shit. Thanks, bro,” she said, holding up a fist. He tapped her knuckles with his own.

“That’s about it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Get some rest.”

He laughed. “Rest? What’s that? That’s something you slow-moving folks do, right?”

She cut her eyes at him, shaking her head in mock sadness. He threw a salute her way and stepped through the airlock gate. As it cycled behind him and left Morgan alone in the command suite, he hummed a tune of love and loss that seemed to be all the rage in the common quarters. The hallway was open before him and he took off at a quick jog, his boots barely making a sound given his light step.

The galley was sparsely populated at the hour, with a couple of mechanics sitting at a table and discussing the day’s tasks. Soft music drifted in through overhead speakers. Argyle looked up as Chan entered and a big smile stretched back his lips. The cook began filling a coffee cup and had it waiting by the time Chan reached the counter and grabbed a tray.

“Good to see you,” Argyle said as he passed the full mug across. Chan took it with a grin.

“Been needing this,” he said.

“You could have sent a message. I’d have had someone bring you a cup.”

“I know, but once I’m in the cockpit I lose track of everything else.”

Chan dropped toasted bread and jam onto the tray. He didn’t bother with a plate, trusting that the trays had been as clean as the plate would and not wanting to add to the washing burden. He grabbed another slice of toast and tucked it into his mouth, tearing out a bite.

“Thanks, Argyle,” he mumbled around the bread.

“Any time,” the cook said. He returned to the prep area as Chan went to a table.

“Well, look who it is,” boomed a voice. Chan looked up, shaking his head as he saw the massive muzzle looking down at him.

“Morning, Marcus,” he said. His fingers flicked in the direction of a chair. “Have a seat.”

The big marine wore the casual shipboard uniform, little more than a grey jumpsuit with his name and rank tabs. The holstered flechette pistol and broad-bladed cutlass on his belt would be an impediment to using the chair, but Marcus spun it around and sat in it backward, leaning across the back of it as he looked on the small pilot.

“Busy night?” Marcus asked.

“Saw a star,” Chan said with a shrug. “Maybe two. You?”

A paw big enough to wrap around most of Chan’s face waved in a dismissive gesture. “Stayed in my rack. Read a book.”

Chan looked up, eyes widening. “Holy shit, Marcus. You can read?”

“Suck it, birdbrain.”

The pilot made an obscene gesture and they both laughed. Another marine passed by and slapped a carbonated drink of some kind into Marcus’s outstretched paw and he cracked the seal, slurping at the pinkish liquid within. Chan saw that it was one of the stimulant drinks that he generally avoided. The coffee he drank because he liked the flavor, but the last thing Chan needed was a stim.

“So another week, then,” Marcus said. His can made a clunking sound on the table.

“Yeah,” Chan said with a nod. He slathered jam on toast. “Figure a week, maybe ten days to shuttle everything down, then a month back home.”

“The colonists are getting antsy.”

Chan made a high pitched sound that Marcus knew was laughter. “Antsy? Wait ’til they get their asses dropped into their new home. They’ll be too damned busy to be antsy.”

“We had to actually break up a fight yesterday. Two of the farmers got in an argument over some lizardshit vegetable production method. Started punching and kicking. My boys said it was the worst excuse for a fight they’d seen in years.”

“What happened to them?”

“We put them the brig ’til planetfall. Ju’oth gave them adjoining cells so they have to watch each other in the head. That ought to foster a sense of camaraderie.”

“People do funny shit this far from home,” Chan said, biting into his toast. “Makes you wonder what they thought they were going to accomplish.”

“I don’t think it’s the distance so much as the surroundings. None of these people have been locked into a ship for more than an hour or two in their lives. Now they’re in here for a month. I can’t even remember what that’s like.”

“Yeah, but you’re weird.”

“We all are, pal,” the mastiff said, crushing the empty can and rising to deposit it into a bin.

Chan waved as Marcus left. He smiled to himself at the thought of the two colonists in the brig, but his comment to Marcus rang in his ears. These people were flying hundreds of thousands of miles from their homes, places they would likely never see again. He pictured the house he grew up in, and charted the distance in his head within seconds. Years of astrogation made the task a simple one, but the distance itself was no small number. He marveled at the thought of how far he had traveled in his career.

He watched as a trio of ocelots from the mercenaries contracted as settlement security entered and stepped into the line, filling their plates in the relaxed but orderly manner of career soldiers. They took a table not far from him, conversing quietly as they ate. The question ran through his head and Chan wandered over to their table. The conversation ended as he stepped within clean earshot.

“Excuse me,” Chan said. “Got a weird question for you guys. I was talking with one of the marines and he was telling me about the colonists and how far they were from home. I know where I am in relation to my place, but what about you? How far from home are you?”

The ocelots looked around for a moment, as if wondering whether some sort of trick was being played. Finally, one of them looked back to Chan. His eyes had a lonely, haunted expression, as if he had seen and done everything. The ocelot shrugged his shoulders and answered.

“A million years.”

 

END

 

Fiction Fridays – Walls

A Note: This week is not so much fiction as exorcism. Please bear with me.

 

Walls

 

Pale tan things, their flat and sterile surfaces broken by power points, oxygen inlets, and racks of equipment. A silent television hangs from the ceiling, its empty black gaze a counterpoint to the autumn scene on the painting that lurks beside the shelf of boxed gloves. Brilliant oranges and reds add a splash of color between the blue nitrile gloves and the matte grey of the electronic eye.

The walls watch as he struggles to breathe, as the machine bound to his face whines along with his labored inhalations. They see the pain flash across his face as he coughs yet again, a thick, wet sound that echoes through the cavity of his chest. It is the sound of gelatin sucking free of the mold, and it rips at him as he fights to spit the filth from his red-tinged mouth. They smell the hint of corruption, overlaid by the scents of disinfectant and nervous sweat.

The walls watch as the machines spring to life, gauging his blood pressure and graphing the beats of his heart – a heart that holds love for his family and has thundered through war and peace. They see the drops that slither through the tube, drained away from inside him to gather in scarlet columns within the suctioning machine that feeds from him as if a vampire has been mechanized and emplaced beside his bed.

The walls see the uneaten meal on its tray, his body too weak to stay awake long enough to spoon food between the cracked and bloody lips. They see him as he tries to rest, while machines suck poisons from his body and pump air into tortured lungs. They hear the wheezing and the beeping, the organic and the electronic blending into a twisted symphony.

The clock ticks away the seconds, each one stacking atop the ones that have come before it to remind the walls that they may be static, but time marches on, and their steadfast nature will prove no defense.

They see the staff – nurses, technicians, therapists, doctors, and even those who slip stealthily into the room bearing food or drink and empty cans of trash. They see the sudden bustle of activity as he requires additional care, and they witness the selfless response from those who do not even know him, but still treat him as if he were their own.

The walls look on in silence as friends and family move into and out of the room, eyes and spirits haunted by exhaustion on par with his own, but still smiling and joking with those present to avoid confrontation with their own madness. The walls know the jokes. This is far from their first exposure to them.

The walls hear the begging and the prayers, the wishes whispered and the promises made to anyone who will listen. They see the tears and the gritted teeth, the hanging heads and the worried glances. They smell the fear.

Through it all they bear witness to lives changed forever by those who take up space within their confines. They do not judge. They merely watch. The walls have seen everything. Do not envy their visions, nor their memories. The walls have borne witness to countless scenes such as these, and they know that there are many more to come.

<<<END>>>

 

 

*Dedicated to the staff of floor 2, Oklahoma Heart Hospital. Thank you.

 

Fiction Fridays – (Changes)

 

Zeke

Zeke’s memories of the war were filled with blood and fire, and there was so much of it that plagued his mind on any of the long nights. Oh, there had been camaraderie, of course, but those happy moments were small in comparison to the horrors that had come from the ratholes and the slippery, stinking close combat that had come to dominate his dreams.

His claws, wet and dripping with blood and ichor that he did not want to remember. Ears pounding with the continued gunfire. Fur stained a deep brown up both of his arms from the quantity of blood he had spilled.

He looked at the papers and took another long drink of his coffee. The writing was small but his eyesight was still keen. He knew what he was doing. It just felt strange, going back into the world that had spawned his nightmares.

“It will be different this time,” he said aloud. His lies echoed in the apartment.

There was little to slow the sound. He sat in a simple chair beside a small table. A vidscreen was on the wall but had never been turned on in the whole time he had occupied the space since arriving on this planet. The kitchen was where he spent most of his active time, cooking and eating at the short stone-topped bar, and then cleaning in preparation for the next meal. Beyond that he had a latrine and a shower, and a bed that was far too comfortable for an old campaigner. His clothes took up nearly no space in the large chest of drawers inside the bedroom.

“Fuck it,” he said, giving up the fight for excuses. The pen made thick black lines as he scribbled his name in the blocks.

Seven signatures and nineteen sets of initials later, and he was through. He picked up the comm and dialed the preset.

“Zeke Sharn,” he said in a flat tone when the other end of the call opened. “Come and get it. I signed.”

He closed the comm, cutting off the honeyed words that spilled from the other party. He drained the rest of the coffee and headed for the bathroom, dropping his clothes on the floor on the way in. Brilliant white LEDs lit his muscled form in automatic response to his entry. Scars formed a roadmap of bitter memories across his exposed flesh, and they stood out in stark relief against his grey fur. He had long since stopped seeing them as anything more than decoration, nothing greater or lesser than the colorful tattoos that had faded through the years.

He stepped into the shower and turned it on as hot as he could stand. He was toweling himself dry when the door chimed. He wrapped a black-and-grey patterned kilt around his hips and walked to the front. The portal opened to reveal a dun-colored dog in a business suit and a tall, lanky cheetah wearing some kind of jumpsuit. He had a holstered pistol at his waist, but these days that wasn’t unusual. It was the beret on the big cat’s head that caught Zeke’s eye, and a moment later a grin stretched his lips up over the rows of sharp teeth.

“Long time, badger-boy,” the cheetah said. Zeke chuckled and nodded, and then stepped back to wave the pair into the apartment.

“Papers are on the table,” he said. The suit went to collect them, and Zeke turned back to the cat. The two slapped a tight grip that turned into a brief hug with emphatic back-slapping.

“Didn’t expect to see you here,” he said. “Hell, I didn’t expect to see you anywhere.”

“I got out too,” the cheetah said. He looked around the room, shaking his head. “Love what you’ve done with the place.”

“You know I’m not much for decoration.”

“Not even a picture, and I’ll wager there’s dust on top of the vid.”

“Not so much,” Zeke said with another grin. “There would be but I keep it clean.”

“Old habits, eh, Sergeant?”

“It’s just Zeke.”

“Not once you sign in under me.”

“You’ve got that kind of pull? I thought this was a corporate gig.”

“It is, and no, I don’t have any stroke. I am, however, gonna tell the big brass that you’re crazier than a gutted weasel and that if you aren’t on my team you’ll cause no end of trouble for them.”

“And they’re going to believe you why?”

“He can sell it,” rumbled the dog. He was approaching the pair once again, tucking Zeke’s paperwork into a leather valise. He extended a paw and Zeke took it.

“Zeke Sharn.” When the dog answered, his words came in a string that had little space between them and tumbled forth at high speed.

“Cyrus. Cyrus Love. Don’t make fun of the name. Welcome to ArCorp. I’m your liaison. I’ll be helping you acclimate to the company. I figured I’d play it cool while you two reunited. Captain VonHogan tells me you saved his life a few times.”

“Angry squirrels.”

Zeke and the cheetah erupted into laughter at a shared memory. After a minute, Zeke shook off the mirth.

“Sorry. I’m a shitty host. Would either of you like some coffee? Water? Or…well, that’s about it.”

“We’re good,” VonHogan said.

“All right, Captain,” he said, emphasizing the title. “That’s gonna take some getting used to. Not just Tarlen any more. Last time I saw you they had you fast tracked for a Sergeant’s slot.”

“A lot happened while you were gone.” The tone was no longer jovial. Now it spoke of horrible memories, the kind with which Zeke was all too familiar, and Zeke hurried to change the subject.

“So when do I start?”

“You are employed as of now, Mister Sharn,” Cyrus explained. “We will take you back to the headquarters building where you will meet with our personnel department for processing. You’ll receive your identification card and your salary and benefits package will be discussed with you at that time.”

Zeke looked at the smirk on the face of the tall cheetah. “What are you hiding?”

“Me? Nothing. Well, mostly nothing. Once you get finished running around and being told how welcome you are in ArCorp, I’m gonna run you down to the armory and get you properly outfitted for training. We’ve got liftoff in thirty days.”

“Liftoff? To where?”

“Metatropic shithole they call Z262. Colony ships are going in and we’re gonna be part of their security.”

“What are they expecting?” Zeke asked. Cyrus stood beside the pair, completely blocked out by both of the warriors.

“Initial data shows some indigenous life similar to dinosaurs, if smaller. Reptilian and amphib, lots of spikes and teeth. That ain’t the good part, though.”

“What is?”

“The colonists are miners. This Z262 place is apparently rich in industrial grade gems. Diamonds and rubies. Emeralds. Sapphires.”

Zeke’s lips peeled back across his sharp teeth again. “Which the rats would love to get hold of for their laser program.”

VonHogan started bouncing on his feet like a child at a party. He mimed a dance. “And that means squirrels. When they show up we’ll be waiting. See why I wanted you?”

Zeke raked a set of claws across his scalp, scratching at the tips of his ears. “What makes you think I want to play again, Tarlen?”

The cheetah laughed and turned to look at the suited dog. “You know, Cyrus, in this universe you can change a magazine, a diaper, or even a river’s course if you want. But the one thing nobody can change is the fact that Zeke Sharn hates squirrels. This time, he just gets paid better for killing them.”

“Z262 is thick with gems,” Cyrus repeated. “It is probable that there will be an incursion of some kind once the mine is established.”

Zeke shook his head. He knew he would soon be plunged back into the depths of the same fighting that haunted his dreams. He had known it from the moment he spoke with the ArCorp recruiter. VonHogan was right, though. Given half a chance, Zeke would go after squirrels even if he wasn’t being paid. He excused himself and ducked into the bedroom. He grabbed the only things there that mattered. The beret that matched the one VonHogan was wearing went up onto the top of his angular, striped head and the knife that had been his constant companion for years went into the waist of the kilt. Everything else he simply abandoned, walking away from this parody of a life with no regard for it whatsoever.

 

 

Skeeter

Crystals of ice were forming on the crates stacked in the cargo bay. By the time touchdown occurred, much of the contents would be rimed with frost, although that would vanish in a puff of steam within seconds, if the rumors were to be trusted.

It was said that Z262 was a hot place. Word had come down to be prepared for oven-like conditions in what would eventually be called the summer. Much of what was known was due to scientific surveys, but the sweep teams had already been down there. Their reports, in between descriptions of this or that indigenous life form that they had happily shot to clear the landing zone, told of ninety-plus temps.

Skeeter hated the idea of going to Z262. A planet that didn’t deserve a name, he felt, didn’t deserve colonization. It wasn’t his choice, though, and so here he sat, leaning on a crate in the cargo bay, which was the only place no one would bother him. Beneath him he could feel the subtle vibration of the craft as it passed through space at a speed he could not imagine. The crew had explained how it worked, but Skeeter was worse at math than he was with girls. They could as easily have told him it was magic and he would have nodded and smiled with the same blank expression he had shown in the trip brief.

Maybe if he got better at math, he thought, he could get off the rotten colony sooner. Maybe get picked up by a supply ship in a couple years. He chuckled at the thought of learning math to get out of what most people considered an adventure.

“Hi,” said a tentative voice. Skeeter jumped to his feet. The voice belonged to a feline girl maybe two years his junior who stood about ten feet away in the aisle between boxes. Her eyes were big and green, and her fur was a light shade of grey. Nowhere near as white as his own, but then few of the Folk had his coloration.

“Umm, hi,” he said.

“What ya doing?”

Thinking about becoming a physicist so I can bail on the fam, he thought. His words were more kind, if delivered as though he had swallowed a mouthful of acid spiders. “Well, I was, you know, just maybe a little, ummm kind of just sitting.”

“Would you mind if I sat, too? I mean, if you’re, like, hiding or something I’ll go somewhere else…”

“No. Don’t do that. Just have, you know. Have a seat.”

He moved over, showing her the small stepstool he had been sitting on. It kept his butt from freezing on the floor. When she took it, he whipped off his overcoat and dropped it to the floor as a makeshift chair.

“Now you’re gonna get cold,” she said. He shook his head.

“I don’t get cold,” he assured her. “Never have. None of my kind do. I wear the coat ’cause I like the way it looks on me.”

“It does look good,” she said, ducking her head a little bit and smiling.

“You think so?”

“I saw you earlier. I thought you looked pretty smooth.”

Skeeter felt a shiver run down his spine. He wondered if that was the way things were supposed to feel when she said things like that.

“I’m Skeeter,” he said, extending a hand. She reached up and touched his cool fingers with her own.

“Miranda.”

“Looking forward to the landing?” he asked a moment later, trying to think of something other than the electric sensation that passed through him at her touch. His feet shuffled on the deck.

She shrugged and an ear flicked. “Not really. I mean, they can’t even name the planet. What’s the point of going there?”

Skeeter smiled. “That’s what I said, too.”

“Great minds,” Miranda said.

He dropped into a cross-legged position on top of the coat. “I didn’t want to be a colony person.”

“Colonist,” she corrected with a wink. “And neither did I.”

He leaned against the crate, tilting his head up toward the roof that hovered so far above them. He relished the cool feel of the wood pressed to his back. He had been dreading every second of the colonization, and fearing that he would be alone. Meeting Miranda changed that. It was a feeling of closeness, a connection, that he had never felt before. Like he could just be himself.

“It’s gonna suck, isn’t it?” she asked.

Not as much now, said the little voice in his brain.

“We’ll make it work,” he said, and for the first time since they had told him to pack a bag, he believed it.

Fiction Friday – Open prompt
An Evening with Abe

The demon was rattling the doors, testing each of them in turn with a tug of its yellow hand. It was exasperated, and as it reached the last one, it slammed a ham-sized fist into the glass. Spiderwebs of cracks appeared in the wake of the assault. Grunting a noise that might have been a form of speech, it wandered away, apparently deciding that there was no one inside.

“Keep on moving, Homer,” whispered the man on aisle four. He had seen enough of the same breed of demon that he had taken to calling them ‘Simpsons’, a reference to their yellow skin and the fact that they had only three fingers and a thumb on each hand.

He peeled back the internal seal on a jar of peanut butter and plunged a spoon into it, shoveling the substance into his mouth one spoonful after another. He forced it down, knowing he needed the protein and fat that it would supply. He pulled a bottle of Coca-Cola from the shelf, chugging the fizzing liquid to help the peanut butter hit bottom.

“Your diet sucks, Abe,” he murmured to himself.

Since waking on the morning of the third, his entire world had been turned upside down, and he was not as concerned with what he ate as he was with supplying his body with what it needed to keep moving. Waking to a town that had been invaded by hellish creatures and with no communication to the outside world, he found himself operating alone. That added up to long periods of no sleep, and the frequent encounters with monstrous things that wanted to eat him as much as he wanted a cheeseburger and fries meant that he was burning energy at a rate he dared not calculate.

On the positive side, the demons had removed the vast majority of the town in the early hours of the attack, with his skill at movement and concealment keeping him alive, but the stores and homes had not been ransacked very often. An occasional roving gang would strip a place to the bones, but they were infrequent.

The thought of the gangs put a sour taste in his mouth, and he swished the soda around his mouth and spat onto the floor of the convenience store. It had been one of their members that had necessitated Abe doing something he had avoided since the war: killing a human being. The demons were fair game to him, but he had studiously avoided contact with others. That worked until the weaselly little kid in the black hoodie had run into him as Abe was slipwiring the back door of a Taco Bell. The baseball bat the youth carried made a whistling sound as he whipped it back and forth while trying to force Abe further into the alley.

“We gonna eat you up,” the kid said, his lips peeling back over a mouth full of freshly-filed teeth. Abe shuddered as he saw the jagged points the teeth had become.

“There’s enough food to share,” he said, holding out a hand.

“Hunter turf.”

“Well, I’m a hunter,” he said, trying to defuse the situation with a little humor. “Elk, bear, caribou, bighorn -”

He was cut off by the bat as the kid tried to turn his head into a tee-ball. Ducking benath the strike, years of muscle memory took over and he came up hard, driving a shoulder into the chin of the youth as his left hand drew the heavy Bowie from his waist and buried it to the hilt in the abdomen of his would-be assassin. It went in and up, slicing through a lung and nicking the heart before he pulled back a bit and worked the blade like a recalcitrant gear shift lever. When he pulled it free, a lot of the kid came free with it to splash on the pavement.

He had abandoned the Taco Bell. Not only had his appetite been suppressed for the moment, he supposed the other ‘Hunters’ would be coming to look for his victim.

That had been two days ago, and the things he had seen since then were far worse than what the scavenging ganger had made him do. He was becoming numb to it again, as he had human cruelty during his days as a soldier. It was the only way he could do his job then, and no it was the only way he was going to stay alive. It would be so easy to just break, to fall in place and gibber with fear when faced with the creature he had seen on Twelfth and Flagler. Dozens of mouths filled with pointed teeth that gnashed incessantly, situated seemingly at random around the surface of what looked like a conical gelatin mold of humanoid flesh and hair, towering above the streetlights as it lumbered down the street.

Abe Tallcloud was built of stronger stuff than that, though, and he would continue in the manner he had since the incursion began. Sitting on a bag of cat food, he finished the small jar of peanut butter and kept working on the liter of soda. He used the down time to check his arrows and the Bear recurve bow he carried. The heavy revolver on his right hip was full of .44 Magnum loads, and all the spares he had were easily accessible. He kept hoping that he would be able to find a store that had a box or two of his caliber, but given that he had only fired it twice since the third, he figured that was not currently high on his list of priorities. The noise had a tendency to bring the demons.

He crept past the doors, watching to ensure that nothing was looking in at him, and took up position behind the clerk’s conter. A few minutes of sleep would be welcome. He let his eyes drift closed, praying that just this once, his dreams would not be filled with the horrors that surrounded him. When he opened them again, a glance at his watch told him three hours had passed. In a near panic, he checked the store again, seeing no signs of intrusion.

He refilled his canteen from a gallon jug of water and slipped another jar of peanut butter into his rucksack, adding a few granola bars and a package of four Bic lighters. He looked wistfully at the cigarettes on their shelves behind the counter, but shook off the desire to grab even a single pack. It had been just over a year since he quit, and despite the situation, he was determined that he would stay smoke-free.

Opening the lock to the back door took him a full thirty seconds, so slowly did he turn the mechanism. Staying in one place for too long was a sure way to wind up dead, and Abe intended to see this strange situation through to the end. He opened the steel fire door a crack, letting him peek out through the gap. The alley looked clear enough and he opened the door. The Ruger revolver was in his hand.

Once satisfied that he was, indeed, alone, he jammed a piece of wood under the corner of the door. The makeshift door stop might delay the demons, or at least make them think the door was still locked.

He looked around, took a deep breath of the stinking, sulfurous air, and holstered the revolver. He looked back and forth down the alley, finally shrugging his shoulders. To his right the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon.

“East sounds good,” he said aloud. He took off at a jog, heading for the beckoning sunlight.

 

(Author note: Abe Tallcloud is a long-term character of mine, created initially for a session of the ‘Dark Conspiracy’ roleplaying game. I have used his character to work through a few things in the past, and tonight it just seemed like a good time to drop him into a horrible situation and see where he took me. Apparently we’re headed east.)