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++NOTE: “Bait” was a story I wrote a long time back as an entry to a superhero fiction contest at Gordie Laughlin’s ‘Heroic Monkey’ site. Took first with it, so it was a good one to throw out there. It was reprinted over at Freedom Fiction (www.freedomfiction.com) about three years ago. I decided to put it here just for posterity’s sake. I hope you enjoy. TMM++

 

Bait

My jacket was smoking. That last shot had come a little too close for comfort. I ducked to the left and rolled across the street, coming up with my back against an alley wall. The wall opposite my position glowed for a second and I jumped and ran down the alley before it could explode. One day I was going to find the Hunter that invented those damned rifles and put my size twelve in his ass.

What have you got?

The voice in my ear made me jump for a second, even as used to it as I had become over the past few months. There’s just something about a quiet voice whispering into your ear while you’re dodging some kind of high-energy discharge weapon that makes you jump.

“Two up, one down. They’ve got phasers.”

It was not the most original name for a weapon, but once the rifles showed up, the name hit the press and in the span of a couple of days it had become common. Of course, with the press now mostly a thing of the past, it was a moot point as to who got the blame for it. On the lucky side, it was pretty rare to run into the things any more. We could put them to good use… if I could get away.

Current location?

“Running like hell down an alley,” I muttered in reply, vaulting over a trash can that was long-since picked clean.

Specifically. It was not a friendly request.

“Northbound from Figueroa somewhere, back behind the old Arby’s, I think.”

Intercept inbound. Link to them on Seventh.

“About time,” I said, skirting around a Dumpster. There was a guy curled up on the other side of it, wrapped in his old fatigue jacket. I cursed aloud as I skidded to a stop. I didn’t have time for this, but I certainly wasn’t abandoning him to the tender mercies of the monsters behind me.

“Come on, pal,” I urged, reaching a hand down to him. “Hunters coming, and they ain’t particular.”

“I got nowhere to go,” he said, looking up at me through glassy eyes. His beard was filthy and unkempt, and he spoke the words with a sense of conviction I had never heard from someone saying they were homeless. I wondered briefly how he had wound up here, in Hunter turf, without being taken. I pushed the question aside and grasped his arm anyway, hoisting him to unsteady feet. He smelled like cheap wine. A lot of it.

“Then you come with me for now. We’ll find you a cookie or something.”

Veil chose that moment to arrive, in his usual manner, erupting into existence from within a lavender-scented cloud of grey smoke. He was side by side with Athena, his head about even with her muscular upper arms. Athena smiled in that dazzling way of hers as she saw me.

“Find yourself a friend, Bait?” she asked. The smile may have been incredible, but there was no emotion at all in the way she termed me ‘Bait’. It was how she saw me.

Who am I kidding? It was who I was. I was of little to no use in a stand-up power fight. I’ve only got the regen to speak of. No strength, no speed, no power blasts, no flight. No offensive capability on a level with any of the known Defenders. I can shoot, though, and Hunters die just like anyone else, if you put enough bullets in them. Cyber had tried to hook me up with some prototype plasma gun or some such right after I started working with the group. At two hundred yards, it hit like a double-barreled shotgun at close range. Looked good at first glance, ‘til you realized it took thirty seconds to recharge and made some God-awful whine while it did so. I figured in thirty seconds I could put one hell of a lot of lead downrange, and I have found the sound of firearms to be psychologically much more comforting than a computerized voice saying, ‘ten seconds to recharge’.

I didn’t bother with a response. I didn’t have to. The two Hunters had entered the alley, and they had the phasers up against their shoulders. Veil gestured and a wall of smoke flared into the space between us and the Hunters. Beams crackled and hissed as they struck the barrier. Luckily, the weapons tend to liberate all their energy on the first thing they hit. Good if you’re behind a smoke wall. Bad if you’re in a crowd of people.

“It won’t last,” Veil said. His voice was calm, but then it always was, when he bothered to speak at all.

“It won’t have to,” Athena said, gripping the Dumpster. She braced herself and heaved, lifting the huge metal box over her head. With a grunt of effort, she threw it over the smoke wall. It crashed to the pavement a second later, accompanied by a yelp of pain.

“That’s got ‘em,” she said happily, bounding past me and my semi-conscious burden. She ran headlong into the now dissipating smoke, passing through it like a swimmer entering water. A scream of horror sounded for a second, then ended abruptly in a choking gurgle. As the smoke cleared, we saw her standing over the downed Hunters. Her foot pinned one to the ground by its furry throat, and she was squeezing the life from the second in a terrifyingly powerful bear hug.

“Three down. Complete,” Veil announced. I knew without looking that he was not speaking to me.

Recall is authorized. Bring any captured weaponry.

“Yeah, ‘cause we figured we’d leave it all laying in the street,” I murmured.

That would be unwise.

“It’s sarcasm, you moron.”

Discontinue it.

“Bite me, Mister Personality.”

“Come on, Evan. Drop it,” Athena ordered, returning to stand near us. She was spattered with blood from the Hunters.

“You can bite me too, Sky Queen,” I said.

“I bite you, you ain’t getting up. You or your new boyfriend.”

I made a cutting motion in the air with my hand. “You may be seven feet tall and blond – which, let’s face it, years ago I would have killed for – but I’m telling you, you keep pushing me and I’ll walk. You can go find your own Hunters. See how that works out for you.”

“We did just fine before you came along,” she defended, sneering down at me. I shrugged with my one unencumbered shoulder and made a show of yawning.

“Yeah? How often can you die, sweetcheeks?” I asked, deliberately turning my back and walking away.

“Thass a weird question,” the old vet I was carrying slurred. “Nobody gets ta die more ‘n once.”

It would have been an odd question back in the day, even for me. Back when life was relatively peaceful, it was probable that nobody would have come up with it. Even back when Doctor Shaitan and his zombie army invaded, there was little actual loss of life (what with the good Doctor being disposed more toward enslaving folks than eating them). Once the Hunters landed, though, all bets were off – as was the whole ‘not eating folks’ arrangement. And God help you if you were one of the ‘powered’ set. I knew Big Blondie wasn’t going to answer me. Even as good as she is at fighting them, she couldn’t play the bait the same way I can.

“Yeah, pal, I know,” I said as Veil created another smoke portal. We stepped in, Athena and Veil coming with us, and the world changed to a kaleidoscope. Everything swirled and twisted, and reality seemed to roll over on itself. I hope someday we’ll run into someone other than Veil that can transport us, but for now, we’re stuck with some kind of dimensional shift that makes you feel like you’re Alice going down the rabbit hole after dropping some acid. Naturally, Ronnie the Rummy barfed down my left sleeve. Woo hoo. Now the jacket’s burned and a drunk puked on it. Oh, yeah. That’ll bring the girls a-running come party time.

Cyber was waiting when we got back to the safehouse. As usual, he was halfway tied into a chair, with drool running out of his mouth like a faucet. His eyes looked vacant, but I guess mine would too if I was mentally linked up with half the surviving computer systems in the city. It was kind of disconcerting when I first met him, but now I expect to see him that way. On the few occasions you get to see him kicked back on a couch or some such, not linked in, that’s when it gets to feel weird. Standing guard over him was the slab of muscle everyone called Block. Not much upstairs, but able to bench-press a truck without breaking a sweat. Playing bodyguard to a super genius tied to a chair was about his speed.

You have a civilian.

Not only does the voice run through your head when you are in the house, but it comes from the speakers that are hidden all over the place. Hidden in every wall, every bookcase full of remote-controlled cars and helicopters and submarines and robots. Where Cyber doesn’t have speakers, he has cameras. Or computers. Or satellite links. Anything that he can join with. If there was still someone sending out electric bills, I would hate to see the one that came with this place.

“Good guess,” I shot back, dragging the old man over to a couch.

I fail to see how bringing him here is wise. The potential for release of information to unspecified parties –

“I don’t care,” I growled. “I’m not leaving him out there for the Hunters.”

His presence constitutes a danger.

“And how safe is the life we live, anyway?”

“We are trying to protect people, Cyber,” Athena added. “I was doing this back before the Hunters arrived, and it wasn’t safe then, either.”

I turned and looked at her over my shoulder, arching an eyebrow. She shrugged and hit me with that smile again.

“I’ll take care of him,” I volunteered. He had already marked my jacket, so why not?

He will be a drain on our resources, you understand. It was a statement, not a question. I turned a baleful eye toward the chair in which he was strapped.

“Yeah, I get it. You don’t want him here. I’ll take him to my place. Just give me a minute.”

“I don’t need nobody to help me,” the man said, his voice slurring.

“I don’t doubt it,” I said, my eyes flicking across the ‘Screaming Eagle’ patch on his shoulder. It was stained with mud and grime, as was the man himself, but I knew what kind of man it took to earn the patch. “Still, I’m taking you there. Get you a hot bath, some decent food, maybe?”

He looked up at me, eyes focusing just long enough for me to see the loss that was in them. I knew that look. I had seen it more than a few times in the past few years. Every now and then, I even saw it when I wasn’t looking in a mirror. It was the vacant, distant expression of a man who has lost everything he held dear.

I wiped the filth from my sleeve in Cyber’s bathroom, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a chuckle at the image of the much-maligned rubber duck that was perched on the soap tray of the bathtub. Whether it belonged to Block or Cyber I neither knew nor wanted to, but it was one of those old touches of home you don’t get much these days. Whichever one of them owned it, chances are it was something they brought with them to the safe house. When we scavenge, we’re usually after more practical items. Food, weapons, clothes, those sorts of things.  I checked my wires and the Kevlar plates. Everything was good, or at least as good as it gets.

“Let’s go, buddy,” I said as I stepped back into the living room. I helped him back to his feet and we headed for the door.

“Sure you want to do this?” Athena asked, stepping halfway into my path. I grinned a bit.

“Why? You don’t think he deserves it?”

“Oh, I’m sure he does,” she replied, eyes narrowing at my implication. “I just want to make sure that you’re up for the walk.”

“I can deal,” I told her. “Thanks, though.”

“Welcome. I’ll walk you.”

Great. Yet another statement masquerading as a suggestion.

Exercise caution. Recent video pickups show a marked increase in the probability of Hunter encounters.

“I know,” I said with a nod as I opened the front door. “I’m the one they keep eating, remember?”

Athena tagged along with us as we walked. We must have made a fine sight. A seven foot blonde Amazon, a stumbling filthy drunk, and yours truly (still wearing the stinky burned jacket that kept slapping against the backs of my knees now that we had the wind behind us).

“Where we goin’?” the man asked, his voice pitched low. We had walked until sun had dipped below the horizon and shadows lengthened on the walls of the buildings that surrounded us. Sound seemed amplified, and the sense of it penetrated even the thoughts of the drunken man.

“Safe place. Quiet. No Hunters,” I said, shifting beneath his weight.

“They’re everywhere,” he replied.

“Not at my house.”

“Good. I hate ’em.”

“No arguments here,” Athena butted in. Her head was in constant motion, scanning our surroundings as we moved. I knew the route better than she did, but she was better at spotting them than I was. Finding their ambushes the hard way was more my job. Watching for them in advance? Definitely not my style.

“We had ’em in Hollywood,” the man continued. “Had ’em held. Then they broke through the lines up in Colo – ”

“I know,” I said in a voice scarcely more than a whisper. “I remember.”

“Not my fault,” he mumbled.

“Not at all,” I agreed. Athena looked at me, arching an eyebrow. I shook my head to keep her quiet. My own memories screaming in my head were enough noise at this point. I had finally figured out why the old man seemed so familiar, and it was dredging up images I thought were long since behind me. Hollywood. God, what a nightmare.

I heard a can skitter across the stone of a street. We all fell silent. Athena pointed to herself, then ahead and to my left. I nodded and indicated the right.

“Leave me here,” the man whispered. The look in his eyes had gone from hopelessness and loss to grim determination. I still chuckled a bit.

“I’m the bait, pal. Not you,” I said as Athena took off in a jog. Her feet made so little sound on the pavement that it was hard to believe she was not levitating.

“You got something to live for,” the soldier countered. “I don’t.”

“Two things. One, I’m not worried. I know what’s coming for me. Two, I’m counting on you and men just like you to teach the new generation. Back in the day, we were called heroes. Now, we’re just guerrillas in a war we didn’t want. You and yours, the ones that are left? You can teach us.”

“I can’t teach nobody nothing,” he said.

I leaned in close, holding him against me so that he could not evade. I could smell the stench of him now, see the dirt clogging his pores, taste the layers of sweat and grime that coated his flesh. I breathed my next words into his ear.

“I know who you are, Liberator.”

There was silence for a moment, followed by a voice filled with sorrow.

“Not any more.”

“Every day,” I countered.

“No!” he said, his voice a whip-crack of anger.

“You want to run away from life? Fine by me. But, like I said, I know who you are, and who you were. You were a Captain once. An Airborne Captain. Maybe sometimes, you should remember that you didn’t just fight mutants. You used to teach people to fight, too. You can do it again. Teach us. Teach them. Help us fight these bastards back. We’re cutting their numbers, but it’s never enough. They get one of us for every ten of their own, and that means they will still win. I don’t care how many people you’ve lost, you don’t get the luxury of coming out here to die.”

“I didn’t -” he began, but was cut off by an animalistic squeal of surprise and agony from ahead and left of us.

“Contact,” I said, lowering him to the ground. I slipped a pistol from the rig under my jacket and extended it toward him. He shook his head, gesturing toward his eyes. I laughed aloud and nodded as I turned and sprinted away. Before the Hunters came, there was no lack of video coverage of Liberator in action. In the war, he was a rallying point. Anyone who had ever seen him in action remembered those sapphire-hued energy beams, and would forever.

I rounded a corner to see Athena going toe-to-toe with a pair of Hunters. She hits with a fist like a freight train, but sometimes it’s difficult to hit a Hunter. They move like weasels on crank, and some folks have been known to say Athena’s punches are a little slow. Of course, it seems no one says that to her. Not after I did, of course, which is how I know how hard she hits. At the moment, though, she seemed to be holding her own with no problems. It was the other three Hunters closing in from above, their slinky forms crawling down the walls of what used to be a Post Office, that left me concerned for her welfare. Happily, none of them had phasers this time. Just claws and a lot of teeth. I grinned maniacally, raising the pistol in my right hand as I drew one with my left. Both of them cracked, three-shot bursts ripping fur and sending a pair of the new arrivals tumbling to the street.

“Blondie ain’t the threat, Rover!” I shouted at the remaining Hunter on the wall. It jinked to the left as I fired, staying barely ahead of a trail of bullet holes. “I am!”

The hissing sound came as no surprise. You hunt enough of these things and you get to the point where you can smell them. I knew there were more of them. I wasn’t certain where they would come from, but I knew they would come. I always bring them out. You could hear that quiet hiss just before they attacked. It’s like an old teakettle just before it makes that loud squeal.

“Go get the old man!” I ordered Athena.

“Why?”

“Take him to Cyber! He can help!”

“Oh, God, Evan! Here they come,” Athena called. She could see behind me. I laughed, a low, demonic sound even to my own ears.

“You should see the look on your face!” I yelled to her as the first of the Hunters hit me from behind and above. Two more came in behind it, and a second later it was like it was raining fur. Claws raked lines through the armor and into my flesh as I screamed. The pistols chattered like angry squirrels, tearing and blasting holes in the furry mass that was landing on all sides of me now. I could smell their musk, its stench overpowering my own blood. I felt rows of teeth biting down and tearing back and forth as the beasts tore and shredded my body. There was nothing but pain now. I could not tell if the pistols were firing. I could not feel them in my grasp any longer. I was kicking and screaming. The taste of my blood was thick in my throat. This is the part of the job I really hate. I tried to gurgle out a command to Athena but only managed to cough up thick gobbets of blood. I didn’t need to speak. She could see them as easily as I could feel them. I gave up calling and fought to relax, to simply accept what was happening. My vision went dark and I welcomed death.

What felt like a thousand years of raw agony later, I saw a blurry image. Blond hair.

“You alive in there?” she asked. Her breath was horrible. Not that I could smell it, but the motion of the air against my mangled flesh brought fresh waves of pain. I tried to blink twice. I could hear my pulse in my ears; feel flesh slithering and knitting together to repair the horrendous damage. This pain is almost as bad as the original. I amend my earlier statement. This is the part I really hate. The coming back part.

Athena had been kind enough to clear my throat once it had shape again. I took in a torturous breath of air and coughed, shrieking at the new and unique ripping sensation that the cough created.

“What happened?” I heard. The voice was deep and raspy. Liberator had followed us, or simply gone toward the sound of the explosion.

“This is what Evan does,” Athena explained. “He dies for the cause. Every day. It’s why he’s good bait. Hunters are carrion-eaters, and they smell the stink of death on him. He’s wired into a heart monitor and strapped with explosives and shrapnel. When his pulse stops, the charges go off. After that, he comes back.”

“That’s horrible,” the old man said. Even with my ears only partially regenerated I could hear the wonder in his voice.

“It…it ain’t…pleasant,” I gasped out.

“Why do you do it? Keep doing it, I mean?”

“Why did you?” Athena countered.

“We need your help,” I croaked. My throat was almost back to normal. I knew I must still look horrible, but at least I could talk.

“I don’t know what I can do to help. I’m just…”

“The best. You’re the best that’s left. There are resistance teams scattered all over the world now,” Athena told him. “The ones of us who were just mutating when the war started. Those of us left after it was over. We need a leader. Someone who can crystallize the movement.”

“And you want a tired old drunk who’s seen too many of his friends die?” he said. The bitterness in his voice was unmistakable.

“We want you,” I said, forcing myself to a kneeling position on the pavement. It would be a few minutes before I was strong enough to stand. “The old you. Be Liberator, or be the Captain you were. Your choice.”

The street filled with the scent of lavender as Veil arrived. “Again?” he asked, looking at me. He had been nice enough to bring me a new jacket and some pants. I nodded, blinking away the minor ache the motion caused.

“You have a reason now, Captain,” I said, slipping the pants over limbs still prickly from the air. “Help us.”

He turned a frosty glare on me for a moment. I met his gaze without looking away. There’s not much left to frighten me with.

“I know you’re tired of seeing people die,” Athena said, her voice a purr. “Help us put an end to it.”

I grinned and he flinched a bit. Apparently my face wasn’t quite back to normal yet. “I’ll be there with you, Sir. I’ll be your bait.”

“Why…” he began, but words failed him.

“Hollywood,” I said simply, turning my body partially away from him. He was left staring at the tattoo on my upper left arm that rebuilds with me every time: A black shield with a white and yellow eagle’s head, and in stencil-style lettering above it, the single word, ‘AIRBORNE’.

“The first time I died.”

 

END

 

 

 

“We’re gonna get caught,” Miranda whispered. “Again.”

“Nah,” Skeeter said. He flicked his hair back from his eyes and peered down the silent corridor to their right. “I heard them say the Marines were on the other side of the ship.”

“Doesn’t that seem odd?”

“Maybe. All I know is we can get out and do something for a change. I’m tired of sitting in the cabin and listening to Dad and Mom argue about what life’s gonna be like when we get to this stupid place.”

“Mine are all happy and planning the new store,” she said. Following along with him, she edged into the corridor and they took off at a jog.

“At least that gives you something to look forward to. Dad’s making this whole thing sound like some horrible ordeal and Mom is telling him how it’s gonna be even worse. Last night I made it really bad, ‘cause I asked them if it was gonna be so bad, why did they sign up for it.”

They paused and looked both ways at a crossing hall before dashing further down the corridor.

“What did they say?”

“Dad said he did it to get away from Mom’s parents, and then Mom said it was because Dad’s a butthole. Then they started fighting and I ran off to my bunk thing.”

“Gara,” Miranda whispered. “That sucks.”

He paused, leaned against a wall, and pulled on the lapels of his long coat, sinking his body further into the leather. The black material created such a contrast with his snow white fur that Miranda could not help but smile.

“I’m used to it,” he said. His tone belied his words, but she accepted the words in the spirit he had delivered them. She placed a paw on his shoulder and looked into his eyes.

“It’ll get better,” she promised.

The fox nodded back at her and they started moving again. A voice from ahead set them on a hard right down an adjoining hall, and a choice between a dark hall and one with a flickering overhead light left them creeping down through the darkness. The journey, Skeeter had reasoned, was where the fun was to be had, and adventure would give them fond memories of the journey. Slinking down darkened hallways while avoiding the random security sweeps of the shipboard Marines was more than enough adventure for the pair.

At least he hoped they could avoid the Marines. Last time had not gone as planned, and had it not been for the ArCorp security representative that had come to their rescue, he had no idea what the musclebound Marine who caught them would have done to them, although his imagination had shown him a great number of nightmarish scenarios.

They traveled the network of corridors for a few more minutes, following the twisting halls and ducking through the iris door into a cargo hold.

As the door closed behind them the overhead lights came to life. White brilliance flooded the area and the cat and fox found themselves squinting in the sudden light. After the dim and occasionally dark hallways, the illumination was blinding and they found themselves standing and blinking in an attempt to ease the stabbing feeling of the bright light.

“Why did the lights all come on?” Miranda asked. She pushed herself closer to the fox as he looked around the area. He leaned into her as well, wrapping an arm over her in a protective gesture.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “They never did before.”

“Are we in the right place?”

He hesitated a moment, looking about for some form of identifying feature.

“Maybe we came in from the other side,” he said. The quiver in his stomach told him he had made the wrong choice coming in here, but he kept his voice calm and level. He resolved not to let any sign of fear show in front of Miranda.

“Probably,” she said. She took a slow breath. “Let’s look at this side, then.”

They stepped to their left, edging around a stacked rack of equipment crates. The tags on the ends were shiny and colorful in comparison to the drab gray containers. Yellow symbols were used to indicate categories of the crate, large red letters to identify the owners, and lines of black text beneath them. Each tag told the story of the crate contents.

This hold held little more than personal crates, and for that the pair was grateful. They had ventured into one kilometer-long bay early on the trip that had been filled with dozens of the shipping containers that held the contents of the colony to be, with house-sized boxes filled with preserved food, mining equipment, lumber, and more things that they could only guess. The infrastructure of an entire town was carried on this ship, and between Skeeter and Miranda, they had explored at least the exterior crates of most of it. The exploration took hours and they found it all incredibly dull. After that, they spent their days looking for something that might be fun. There were few Folk of their age, and none that wanted to do anything that involved sneaking off behind the backs of the security teams that were responsible for the safety of the colonists, potentially running from or tangling with shipboard Marines, and getting yelled at by the Administrators of the trip.

“What was that?” Skeeter asked aloud, jerking to a halt and doubling back a step. He peered down the alley between two sets of shelves.

“What?”

“I thought I saw someone.”

“Don’t do that,” Miranda whispered.

“I’m not,” he said, knowing she thought he was playing a trick or trying to scare her. “Go back.”

The two of them sprinted for the door, but it cycled open before they got close and they darted down an alley of crates instead, pressing themselves against the closest boxes to disguise their presence.

“Why are the lights already on?” asked a voice. A second later, it boomed in volume.

“Who’s in here?” the voice demanded.

“Go,” Skeeter said in a low tone, gesturing down the aisle. He and Miranda ran hard, trying their best not to make sound on the metal flooring. They broke left at the first intersection, ran some more, and then shot up through another alley of crates, turning right and then left again as they ran. They could hear multiple sets of booted feet ringing on the floor as someone chased them.

They twisted left as they passed a series of low, wide crates, and ducked down low as they ran, trying to hide themselves behind the equipment. A few more steps and the pair found themselves facing an exit door, just down two more sections. They redoubled their efforts.

A dog clad in a long coat bearing some form of insignia stepped out in front of them. Dull rank pins gleamed on his collar, but Skeeter had no idea what they represented. All he knew was they had been caught for certain. There was something about the dog that terrified Skeeter, a feeling of dread that even overpowered his fear of being caught. His feet skidded on the deck as he tried to backpedal, grabbing at Miranda’s shoulder to help pull her along. His heartbeat became a steady flood of sound in his ears as he realized they were trapped. Moving with a long, slow stride, the dog was now in the section of crates with them, blocking their access to the intersection. He crouched low, shielding Miranda with his own body, and as the dog took another step, Skeeter squinted his eyes. The wall was visible through the Folk that stood before him. Skeeter gasped, feeling a cold sensation grasp at his innards.

The dog opened its mouth and a low, mournful sound drifted from it. Skeeter felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and a chill ran down his spine at the sound. Miranda whimpered aloud.

“Gann’s balls!” called the voice that had demanded to know who was in the hold. “It’s the ghost! The ghost of Shen Qi!”

“Where?” shouted another voice.

The dog looked down at Skeeter and Miranda as the pair huddled on the plating. His paw raised and he tapped it to his mouth in a gesture calling for silence. Pivoting, he moved from their position and out of the alley. It was only after he left that they realized he made no sound as he walked.

The thunder of booted feet ran down the adjoining alley.

“There! I see him!” shouted the second voice.

“He’s real!” called the next.

The dog stepped in front of the exit door that Skeeter could see and grinned at the two youths, lips rolling back from around long, sharp teeth. Extending an arm toward the door, he passed through it as if it was not there. His body seemed to shimmer as he joined with the metal, and a second later he was just gone.

Two Folk in ship’s security uniforms darted through the door a second later, stopping only long enough to open it. Neither looked at the two juvenile Folk shivering in the floor, so intent were they upon catching their prey.

The door closed behind them and Skeeter and Miranda found themselves alone in the cargo bay. It felt infinitely colder than it had when they arrived, and both of them were overcome with a strong desire to be somewhere else. Anywhere, it seemed, would do, so long as they were out of the cargo bay.

Three minutes of running led them back to the door by which they had entered and then they were running through the corridors of the ship, paw in paw. Doors and intersections flashed by as they worked their way back to the housing area.

They ran straight up to the ocelot wearing the sand camouflage shirt of the ArCorp security team. The trim female glared at their approach.

“Where have you two been?” she demanded.

“We went to the galley,” Miranda said, her voice high and firm. It was not a place that was off limits, and many of the settlers went there for a change of pace from the makeshift eatery set up in their area. “They had cookies.”

“Did you bring me a cookie?” asked the ocelot, mouth wide in a grin.

“I was going to, but Skeeter ate it,” Miranda said, pointing at her friend and making a face.

“Oh, I see! That’s how it is, is it?” she asked. She reached out and ruffled the fox’s carefully-coiffed hair, chuckling at the offended expression on his face.

Minutes later, they were back inside the confines of the section of the ship where the settlers had been based. They were both shaking with a combination of fear and excitement at their experience. They kept moving, hiding from the sight of others until they reached one of their usual places. Perched side by side on a bench in the common area, the two of them took deep breaths of the recycled air. They were still holding paws, and neither seemed in a hurry to stop.

“What was that?” Miranda asked. Her voice was husky now, edged with the fear brought about by her memories of what had occurred.

“Can spaceships be haunted?” Skeeter asked at the same time.

“We could ask Diem.”

After he had rescued the pair from the clutches of the enormous Marine, the leopard named Diem had become a favorite adult of theirs. Still, Skeeter had his doubts.

“And tell him we went to the cargo bay?” he asked.

“No,” she said, flapping a paw. “We just ask if it could happen. I’ll tell him you were telling me a ghost story and trying to scare me.”

“That might work.”

Miranda squeezed his paw. “After that, we go talk to someone from the ship. Tell them we overheard someone talking about a ghost. Play both sides.”

Nodding, he pulled the cat in for a quick hug. They got up and ran from the bench, heading for the lounge to see if Diem was there.

Behind them, a shimmering canine face materialized, pushing free from a bulkhead wall. It looked at the area filled with colonists and grinned before disappearing into the metal once again.

 

<<END>>

I have a new short story in the latest issue of Protodimension Magazine.

Devoted to gaming aids for horror and dark science fiction roleplaying games, Protodimension has been a favorite for some time now. They publish scenarios, item descriptions, new monsters, settings, and fiction for games, just as a start. Y’all know I like to throw a story out from time to time, right? Well, now so do they! Anthill Morning: the Shooter is in the newest issue, available for free download at their site, Protodimension.com, and I’m thrilled to be in there!

One of the games they support is a wonderful piece of work from years back that has seen a couple of resurgences, called Dark Conspiracy. I started playing DC a few months after Game Designers Workshop released it back in 1991. It was a great premise, with an incredible amount of work poured into the system and the background. Through the years I’ve traded or sold a few RPG’s here and there, but my DC books stayed on the shelf (and they’re still there!). Many a character in one story or another of mine was rendered as a playable character for the system, giving me a concrete idea of their capabilities that I could wrap details around. If you’ve read some of the short fiction pieces on this site, you may have met some of those characters.  Thank You Very Much is based on the hunt for a telepathic monster and involves one of my sweep teams, including Abraham Tallcloud, a frequent “playtester” of mine for scenes in my stories. He can also be found in An Evening with Abe, a short story fragment about the aftermath of a demonic invasion.

The fine folks over at Protodimension Magazine — Tad Kelson, Lee Williams, and Norm Fenlason — are great guys and avid gamers. They have a game publishing company of their own, 3Hombres Games, and are publishing the new version of this great game, with Book 1 titled Conspiracy Rules. You can browse all their content on DriveThruRPG HERE.

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Anthill Morning is still in further development, and The Shooter is merely the first chapter of the story. Hopefully I’ll have plenty more to offer in future issues of Protodimension. I’m looking forward to it.

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.

After some time, Jericho Sims has returned!

The Chickasaw have a legend that stalks the woods and punishes the careless. When an artifact that keeps the monster from rampaging is removed from sacred ground, Jericho is caught up in the quest to return this beast back to its slumber before it destroys him.

kindle

 

There will be more stories forthcoming from our Mr. Sims in the near future. The short stories are fun to write and they keep me prepped to add to the novel that is in the works.

Feel free to comment or send me a message and let me know what you thought of it.

David Bowie was playing on the stereo when I killed Amanda Welsh. “The Jean Genie”. I felt my head bobbing and swaying from side to side in time with the music as I held the garotte. It was kind of irritating that her feet were out of synch when they flopped and thumped on the floor.  That didn’t last, though.
Some time after her last twitch I peeled the wire from where it had sunk in to her flesh. trapped air escaped in a huff and I leaned in quick to suck it into my lungs. Nothing like that last dying breath. It’s that connection with death that only certain people know well. It’s almost like breathing in their memories. The last of everything they were is in there.

One thing I do hate about urban kills, though, is the noise factor. So much easier to crack the skull with a bonesaw, but they seem to draw attention with the sound they make. They’re like a minigun winding up before it starts thundering. So no power tools tonight. This is old school. That’s why I have the toolbox.

It doesn’t take nearly as long as it used to. Back seventy or forty or even twenty bodies ago and it would have been a lot of work and time. I’ve got it pretty worked out now. Pop the skull cap, dig in with a blade. I make a little triangle pattern around it and just hoist out a chunk. Bingo. One pineal gland from a nineteen year old Caucasian female.  That leaves me eighteen more to go.

The younger it gets, the easier it is. Finding the women for ages ninety through one hundred was probably the hardest. Those that are alive at that age are usually under some kind of care. Eighty to ninety was a little easier. Mid-sixties up to the eighty mark? Gravy. No one remembers them much, and by the time someone checks on them I’m long gone. Down to about fifty was easy to find, but I had a few fighters. From fifty through the mid-thirties they all fought. After that I chose more carefully. I had a large pool to pick from. The one with the fresh cast on her arm. The one back from the rather painful ski mishap. Amanda had one of those inflatable boot things on her right foot. What’s she going to do? Run away?

Back at home the gland in its bath of oils and unguents goes into place with the other eighty-one of them in the safe. Miles away, Amanda Welsh’s home is turning into ash around her remains. All that is left of her now floats in a baby-food-sized jar. I can feel it staring at me as I close the door.

It’s a pain in the ass having to take this many glands, but the books are quite precise on what I need. All the non-perishable ingredients have been assembled. The basement floor has all the circles and shapes as written. Cut and polished by hand, two years work. Every groove filled with molten silver. Everything so precise. Nothing to chance.

Eighteen more glands. Eighteen and I will have the key to open the gate.

END