Enchanted Spark

Writing Inspirations
Congratulations to our Flash winner Debora Kapke!


Vital Fluids

by Debora Kapke



Fresh air can be nice. But when it's ninety degrees and traffic is barely moving then air conditioning and cold water are hard to beat. Brenda and Fred had neither. The A/C in their Festiva had conked out 100 miles before, and the warm humid air it now spewed was reminiscent of a dog's hot breath, smell and all.


When they saw the sign for cold cups of water, they pulled out of the slow moving traffic without hesitation. The gravel sighed a plume of dry earth. The little shack advertising water could have been a rustic farmer's market, but its bright stripes made it seem displaced from a circus, fair, or perhaps a forgotten boardwalk.


"Oh, thank God," sighed Brenda as she climbed out from the heat of the car.


"You said it," said Fred. He fanned himself with a half-folded map.


"Are they open, though? They kind of look closed." She pushed a piece of sweaty hair behind her equally sweaty ear. Even her necklace stuck awkwardly on the swampland that was her neck.


There was a no-parking sign immediately outside the striped shack, so they'd parked several yards away. Fred walked closer to the odd little building as he examined the surroundings. There was another parked car, but he didn't see any people. Another shack leaned behind the first.


Brenda walked to the sign advertising water and touched it as if to ensure it was no mirage. She stepped to the counter, knocking first, then shouting, "Hello?” Her shoulders fell when nobody answered. It looked so empty.


"Nobody there? Son of a b-," started Fred.


Miranda's hair was hot pink with green tips. Her halter top, tight purple. Her head barely cleared the counter so that her shoulders lifted an inch as she rested her arms there and asked, "Can I help you?"


"-itch!" finished Fred.


Brenda jumped a little and looked down. "Sorry, we didn't see you there."


"I'm usually hard to miss."


Brenda shuffled a little self-consciously and cleared her throat before telling Miranda they’d come for water. Fred chimed in about the sign and then felt the need to explain at length that their car’s air conditioning stopped working and that they were hot as “you know what.”


Brenda said, “When we got the black leather seats, we thought they looked hot. Little did we know.”


“I see,” said Miranda. And she asked, “What kind?”


Brenda and Fred were a little confused as they weren’t sure if she meant the seats or their car. Miranda meant the water. When they cleared that bit of confusion, Brenda and Fred figured it had become pretty obvious they just wanted a cold cup of water like the sign read. They said so.


Miranda pointed to the sign with a long red fingernail as she explained the options on the sign. Each cost twenty-five cents. “Cold cup. Ideal. Water.”


Fred wanted things to be simple, and this seemed way overly complicated for a cold cup of water.


“Just a perfect cold cup of water, so seventy-five cents, right?” He fumbled with his wallet for a credit card.


Miranda said, “Oh no, sweetheart. We don’t take that kind here.”


“What?”


“No credit cards, darlin’. You’ll have to use cash or trade.”


Brenda was rather intrigued with the trade option seeing as they, in fact, had no cash.


Miranda suggested they check their car seats or the side of the road for some coins. “People lose things. Maybe, you’ll find something. You found our little oasis, I’ll bet you could find some spare change.”


Fred thought it all sounded ridiculous and stood indignant, as if that would somehow motivate Mirada to bring forth the water.


Brenda looked at them both and galumphed to the Festiva parked near the shoulder of the road. She searched seats. Console. Glove compartment. She found a dime and some pennies. Then a nickle. Pocketing that, she searched the gravel on the shoulder of the road. There was a crushed earring. A dirty, used paper cup. And voila, a quarter! Enough for water. What that meant for the rest she didn’t know.


Bringing her bounty to the counter, she held it out proudly. Fred stared at the wall.


Miranda counted 48 cents and encouraged Brenda to search for just two more little pennies and, “I’ll serve that water in a nice, ice-cold cup.”


Brenda search a bit more and returned with three extra pennies.


It was the best water ever.


Fred dashed out, a little embarrassed to have to do so.


He returned with a plastic comb, the crushed earring, and fifty-three cents.


Miranda handed him the cup and watched him drink.


Eying Brenda’s necklace, Miranda spoke softly, “Now you’ll certainly be wanting the Ideal Water for your car.”


Brenda and Fred really didn’t see how that would help. Surely one cup of cold water would do nothing to combat the lack of air conditioning. One cup for the road, however, might not be a bad idea.


Miranda spoke directly to Brenda, “Your necklace, and you’ll get the whole shebang. Cold cup, ideal, water. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.” Her eyes gleamed.


The cool scent of water lingered on Brenda’s lips. It was just too good to pass up. She slid off the necklace and handed it over.


Miranda suggested she share with the car instead of Fred. Brenda nodded. She was pretty sure she knew the reason. She sipped the cup carefully so as not to spill on her way. She felt better with each step. Popping the hood, she poured a little in the coolant reservoir and then the windshield fluid, setting what remained in the cup holder in the middle.


When the frost formed on the window, Fred jumped in and they drove on.

###


Deb Kapke writes speculative fiction and blogs on a variety of topics including writing and juggling a busy schedule. She lives near the nation's capital in a temporarily windowless home with her super guy, amazing daughter, and two hungry cats.

Her website is:

 




 

Congratulations to our June Winner Nolan Archer!


The Performance


by Nolan Archer



The bomb was planted, and all Ignace could do now was stand still and eat hors d'oeuvres. He kept himself solitary but amongst the crowd of the vast reception hall, conspicuously distant but still a member of the delegation. His eyes fell on gold statues of Roman deities and elaborate chandeliers grown from crystal. It was enough unchecked opulence to make the thin slices of bruschetta rise in his throat. Along the wall were windows out into space, two of the other Jovian moons easily visible. There was even a Balcony of the Heavens, a bubble constructed entirely of transparent material. Stepping onto it was like stepping out into nothingness, losing one’s self among the stars and the planets.


The only thing at odds with the extravagance of the setting was the centerpiece: A large, circular object covered in a grey shroud. He had mingled earlier in the evening, trying to find out what lay underneath. Some said it was precious metals and gems, a peace offering to the squids. Others said it was some new kind of medical technology. Nobody knew for sure.


The reception was taking place in the Versailles wing of the Lux in Tenebris, an old luxury resort orbiting Europa, reactivated for the congress. There were three other wings, all themed after palaces on Earth. It hadn't been used in over five decades, since before the Contact War had even started. Its position away from prying eyes, and its robust facilities, had made it a logical candidate to hold a peace conference. They had worked overtime to get it working, although there was still a twinge of staleness to the recirculated air. The historical irony of a peace conference being held in good faith among a replica of the Hall of Mirrors appeared to elude everyone. Although some guests could be forgiven, if only for ignorance of humanity's past.


Ignace stared at the Lightwalker ambassador, trying to hide his disgust. Its pale white limbs seemed jointless for the moment, but in motion they would snap in and out of place with a sickening crunch. It had no face, nothing to gauge emotion from, just a forward-facing sensory pod, and strange orifices that opened and closed independently of one another. The aliens had no ears, no way to detect sounds. They communicated to humans through screens that converted light patterns into sounds. Humans, likewise, had small orbs on their shoulders that swirled with colour as they spoke. They were called squids in military circles and in the refugee camps, though truthfully they resembled no terrestrial creature.


They wore clothes, at least. Gaudy, awful things so colourful they almost hurt to look at. It made them look like clowns, or comical caricatures of old-world aristocrats. Their ambassador was the brightest of all, wearing a dozen reflective baubles and ornaments on his bright red cloak. It conversed with its human counterpart, a pudgy man whose name had come to be conflated with the alien collaborators: Kolstads. People who thought that humanity should give in to the aliens. Just...roll over, and surrender.


Ignace thought of all the people killed by the squids’ devastating weapons. Planet-killers were little more than rocks with engines, but their effectiveness was unmistakable. Fragile colonies turned to cinder by a towering fireball brighter than the sun, earthquakes exceeding the Richter Scale, and choking plumes of dust and ash shrouding sky and killing photosynthetic life. The planet would be effectively uninhabitable until the smoke dissipated, slowly shrinking humanity’s grasp on the cosmos.


But for every planet the squids had ruined, humans had ruined another. Lightwalker worlds were bitter things. Cold, damp, with thick carpets of motile vegetation. They lived in rural cities, complexes that spanned hundreds of kilometres of sparsely populated farms, factories, and communal living quarters. All vapourized in moments when a fastball launched from the Oort Cloud slammed into the crust.


The missile that waited out in space had nowhere near that destructive capacity. It was a relic of a simpler time, when human being fought human being, and the greatest destructive capacity lay in the splitting of atoms. Ignace had never met the captain of the modified orbital tug that would launch the device. Only that she had lost her whole family when the Lightwalkers had hit the Tau Ceti system, and that she had picked this assignment knowing full well the consequences if she were caught.


His attention was caught by the clinking of glass. Kolstad was tapping his sparkling wine with a spoon, trying to obtain the attention of the room. The display in Ignace's eye said he had half an hour left. Half an hour before everyone on this station, including him, would be dead.


"In commemoration of this new beginning," the human ambassador began, "The Lightwalker delegation has prepared a performance." He pointed his hand palm up to the door, where another alien entered the hall. This one wore no finery, no ostentatious colours. Its body was wrapped in a simple white cloak. Humans and aliens stepped out of its way. The chatter had fallen to scattered whispering.


Its upper forelimbs struck out and threw the large dull grey shroud off the object in the center of the room. It wasn't gold, or technology. It was an instrument. A cylindrical dais lined with piano keys, installed in paneling made of what appeared to be orange wood. Above the dais, holographic emitters hung from an almost organic web of tendrils.


"A team of artists and engineers from both our cultures have worked tirelessly to create this. It has no name, yet, but it’s a combination of musical instruments from Earth and Forest of Plenty. I'd explain how it works, but I think it would be best if the Artist shows us."


It started with a single tone, echoing from both the instrument and a dozen hidden speakers. Above the keys, a puddle of blue light flashed into existence, only to disappear after a moment. Another tone, lower than the first, was accompanied by an orange colour. The pace picked up, and slowly a melody began to emerge. At the same time, the colours above the instrument began to blur together. They swirled and pooled, separated and mingled.


As the artist moved, its slender limbs began to glow. Ignace never knew that the aliens were bioluminescent, so it shocked him momentarily. But it made sense. How else could their race have communicated before they had developed technology? As if to punctuate the point, the white cloak that had wrapped the Artist's body fell away, and its whole body turned an iridescent green. Its strange appendages began to sway, and its legs soon joined its arm-equivalents.


A dance!


The dancer had an ethereal grace, like water in a gentle breeze, moving along the dais of keys, digits sweeping across and tapping methodically, gently, and without hesitation. The colours of its body slowly fell in sync to the musical apparatus, and for a moment, the Artist and the instrument were one.


The music itself was nothing like he had ever heard. It sounded like piano, yes, but its tempo was unmoored, switching meter and scale with little hesitation or warning. But there was something in the song, something that came through the visual display as well. It was…sadness. Not just sadness. It was sorrowful, deeply and utterly. This was a dirge. A funeral march for the millions killed by both sides. Yes, he was sure of it. It was an expression of pure regret. One so captivating that he forgot where he was, and what he was about to do.


Eventually, the Artist finished its dance. The lights faded, and the music followed. His eyes watered, and he swept his sleeve across his face. It was impossible to him, that something so beautiful could come from something so...


The bomb. He was here to kill them all. The realization spiked his adrenalin. The countdown in his eye had reached its final minute. Somehow during the performance, half an hour had passed. He got a horrible feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. What if he was wrong? What if this peace conference could end the war?


He could run for it, Ignace thought. Run to the maintenance junction, disable the lock he'd put on the door, burn through the sealant and key in the emergency abort code. He shook his head. Not enough time. What's done is done.


He stepped onto the transparent balcony, feet seemingly floating in space. He looked into the dark, trying to see the glimmer of a metal fuselage against the field of starlight. But it was impossible.


The station shook, and the sound of alarms blocked out whatever further speech the human ambassador had tried to give. The bomb had gone off early. The captain of the missile craft must have gotten impatient and triggered the remote detonation fail-safe.


The shield, normally an invisible barrier surrounding the station, began to flicker. The gangling stalks that projected it outward visibly lost power, the blue haze that illuminated them against the dark fading until there was nothing but the black of space.


And against this darkness, a single star exploded. It burned a trail from a low orbit of Io, streaking towards the station at fifteen kilometres per second. It carried a yield of about twelve megatons. Something that small would bounce harmlessly off a shielded station. But without a shield generator, Lux in Tenebris would be incinerated. And then the war would resume. One species would die, or both. Nobody else would ever hear that instrument again. He wept.


The last thing Ignace saw was light.

###

Nolan Archer is a student in the icy wastes of Canada. In his spare time he writes, hoping to one day see his book in a musty old pile on someone's shelf.



 

Congratulations to our April Photo Flash winner Shari Klase!


$76,464,126
By Shari L Klase

King Ferdinand was out of touch with his people. His people were farmers, but King Ferdinand didn’t know a rutabaga from a radish, which is interesting because a rutabaga looks more like a turnip than a radish. King Ferdinand much preferred riches to vegetables, though. He loved gold, silver and precious gems. He spent massive amounts of time determining how to acquire more.

In his drive to become even wealthier, he decided he would sell his daughter, Willomena, to the highest bidder, or suitor as he called it. Willomena was as anyone would expect, unhappy about the prospects of marrying just for money. She was a romantic and she wanted to marry for love. In fact, Willomena was much more than a romantic. She was a caring, compassionate but stubborn person. She decided that she would not stay cooped up inside a mildewed castle waiting for the fruition of her father’s will. Instead, she silently slid from her window one evening to find her own way. 

“Oomf,” she said as she fell on her bottom.

“Meowr,” said a cat underneath her bottom, struggling wildly to disentangle itself from her skirts. It sprang away from her angrily and then paused to glare at her.
“I guess curiosity can kill the cat,” Willomena said, smiling. She dusted herself off and headed to the village, where people strolled the streets before the soon coming sunset.

“Will we really lose the farm, father?” a young man asked.

“If King Ferdinand keeps taxing us all our profit, I fear we will, Francis.”

“Maybe I could petition the King. Surely, if I explained our situation to him, he would understand,” Francis reasoned.

“The King doesn’t grant audiences to peasants. He is a hard, uncaring man.”
Willomena winced. It was her father they were talking about after all.

“If I had my way, I’d thrash him to within an inch of his life. I bet he’d listen to me, then.”

“You’d be thrown in the dungeon. I fear we have no recourse, son.” At that, the father left his son and walked dejectedly home.

Willomena cleared her throat loudly. “Excuse me; are those things you said true about the King?”

Francis studied the girl suspiciously. “Why do you want to know? Are you the King’s spy?”

Willomena shook her head. “I am the King’s daughter.”

Francis laughed. “Hobnobbing with the Rif Raff, I suppose.”

“Have you really no money or gold left with which to pay the King?”

“The only gold we have is the dazzling yellow corn kernels in our storehouse.”

Willomena hesitated. “Corn is golden, isn’t it? I think I have an idea. You’re about to become a prince.”

Francis laughed. “In these clothes?”

“I think my father has something that would fit you nicely.”
                                                     
#

“Announcing Prince Francis,” the royal servant called as Francis appeared in robes fit for a king with a large basket of shiny, golden corn kernels. A silver tag marked them as $76,464,126.

The King’s eyes brightened. “This is extraordinary. Where did you obtain these wondrous bits of gold?”

Francis laughed. “I have much more in my storehouses.”

“Amazing! You are the highest bidder, I mean suitor, I have seen so far. You shall have my daughter’s hand in marriage.”

The King’s royal advisor guffawed. “But your majesty, this man is obviously a charlatan. The contents of that basket are not worth $76,464,126. Doesn’t your highness realize…”

“Silence!” the king shouted. “You just want all the riches for yourself. I have always suspected you of that.” He turned to his royal guards. “Seize my advisor and exile him to the farthest island from my kingdom. And summon my daughter. She shall meet her new beau.”

“This is wonderful, father,” Princess Willomena said. “With such wealth you will no longer have to tax the peasants in your kingdom.”

King Ferdinand stroked his chin. “Very true, daughter.”

It did not take long for Willomena to realize Francis’ heart was pure gold, so she was able to marry not for money but for love. This may sound corny, but the pair lived happily ever after. Everything turned out well for all concerned. King Ferdinand’s time and efforts were taken up counting all the golden kernels of corn in his royal store. Prince Francis eventually became king and together with his queen, ruled the kingdom wisely, which goes to show that the saying is true that all that glitters is not gold, but it really doesn’t matter anyway.


Bio: Shari L Klase lives with a husband who paints and a daughter who writes and a corgi that keeps it all real. She writes because she loves it and because she must.

Congratulations to our April Photo Flare Winner Wendy Nikel!



THE GIRL IN THE WINDMILL

by Wendy Nikel


Maartje van Dijk lived in a windmill. 

At the age of ten, her vater and moeder perished at sea, and she was sent to live with her Opa on the coast. Despite her grief, she grew to love him and he taught her all about how to grind the village's grains and tend the enormous sails and gears that made the mill run.

Her Opa hadn't always run the mill, though. Each evening, by firelight, he would show Maartje the amazing feats of transformation that he used to perform all over the world.

"Oh, please do the mouse again," Maartje would plead, and Opa would smile broadly at his one-person audience and twitch his nose. His thick, white mustache would grow thinner and wispier, and his ears would grow larger and fold inward. His old, brown jacket would grow fuzzy, like fur, and he'd shrink himself down to barely three inches tall. Only his eyes — his bright blue, sparkling eyes — gave away his true identity. Then he'd scamper around Maartje's feet and she'd shriek and cover her eyes. When she opened them again, there he was, her Opa, just the same as he'd always been.

Other nights, he'd amuse her with stories about her parents. She'd never thought to ask them of their past while they were living, but now those tales were more dear to her than any made-up fairy tale. "Tell me again how they met," she'd ask, cupping her chin in her hands.

"Your moeder loved to dance," Opa would say, his eyes wistful and wet. "Wherever I performed, she'd always come with me and dance for the kings and queens and princes. She wore a white dress and would move like a swan across the stage, drawing the eye of everyone in the room."

"And that's how she met my vater."

"Ja, it is. He was but a young artist with nothing to offer her. So instead, he promised to make a sculpture of her as a wedding present, though he doubted he'd be able to capture even a fraction of her real beauty.

"He revealed the finished sculpture on their wedding day, and it was a perfect likeness of his bride. It was heralded near and far as the most beautiful piece of art ever seen. Wealthy lords and ladies flocked for miles around to ask your vater make sculptures for them."

Maartje clasped her hands together, nearly bursting with pride. Yet somehow, this picture of her vater as a highly sought-after artist wasn't quite the childhood she'd remembered. Hers, instead, was a childhood of watery soups and small, dirt-floored cottages. "What happened, Opa?"

"Ah, well," Opa would say, shaking his head at the turn of events. "It was a curse, that beautiful statue of your moeder, because no matter how beautifully he sculpted anything else, the patrons were always disappointed, because no other work came near the loveliness and perfection of that sculpture. Soon, his business dried up, and — as a final resort — he agreed to sell the sculpture of your moeder to a far-off king. They traveled to a distant land to present the sculpture to him, and then set to sea again, their pockets filled with enough gold to live comfortably the rest of their years.

"And all would have been well had it not been for the storm." Opa tsk-ed and shook his head, and they sat quietly for a moment, each in their own thoughts, until Opa looked up at Maartje slyly and asked, "How would you like a rabbit with a white, fluffy tail?"

And as Opa twitched his nose and his ears stretched up over his head, all of Maartje's sorrow melted away like butter on warm bread.

#

The years passed and Maartje grew into a beautiful young woman. Then one day, Opa set out to deliver a barrow full of flour to the baker down the way, leaving Maartje alone to tend the mill. She'd just finished sweeping the floors and washing the windows when she heard a knock on the door. Thinking it was one of the local farmers, coming to have their grain milled, she opened the door with a smile.

The man who stood before her, though, was not one of the farmers, nor any of the other people from the town. He wore the clothing of a sailor, but the weight of his money belt seemed too great for a seaman. She leaned out the door and could see, off on the distant waves, the massive ship from which he'd come.

"I'm sorry, sir," she said, "but my Opa only does business with the local farmers; we don't have anything to trade."

"No matter, signorina," he said with a smile. Maartje backed up across the threshold, for she saw something in his eye that she didn't quite trust. "My ship, you see, was caught in a storm, and we only wish to know where it is that we are now, so that we may be on our way once more."

Maartje gave him the name of the nearest town and pointed him towards the river nearby, and he was so pleased with her answer that he promised her a beautiful golden mirror for her troubles.

"It's only just on board my ship, right over there, within sight of your windmill. Please, just set aboard with me, and you'll be given a reward for your kindness."

Maartje hesitated, but then she thought of her Opa and how much he might earn by selling off a golden mirror. It would certainly be enough to keep them warm and fed all winter. So she agreed to go with him to the ship. As soon as she stepped foot on the ship, however, the sly sailor pulled the gangplank forward and threw her to the deck.

"You tricked me!" she shouted, fighting her way to the side of the ship so she might fling herself back into the water. "Let me go! Let me go back to my Opa!"

"Enough, signorina!" he said with a scowl, and Maartje stopped fighting, seeing his hand close around the terrible knife at his side. "My name is Biagio. I am the second son of a king, and, therefore, have no claim to an inheritance. But my older brother, Adamo, refuses to marry, and my father has promised a third of the kingdom to whoever can find him a bride."

"But why should I marry him?" Maartje asked, looking out at the shore, where Opa's cozy little windmill grew farther and farther away by the minute. "And why would he want me?"

"He's in love with a statue," Biagio explained with a sneer. "A statue he found hidden in a locked room of the palace. He will not marry until he finds a woman whose beauty matches."

Marrtje drew in her breath for she suddenly suspected what this statue was. "Does this statue look like me?" she asked.

"It does," Biagio said. "As it should, for I know its story. I have searched high and low for the lost daughter of the sculptor, in hopes that she may bear at least a passing resemblance to her mother. Imagine my joy when you opened the door of that windmill and I saw that, indeed, you do. You shall make my brother happy and that shall make me rich."

With that, Maartje wept, for she knew that there was no way that this prince would willingly let her go, knowing that he'd never find anyone to suit his brother's tastes as she did. She leaned over the deck's railing, and her tears fell into the water below.

Then suddenly, a fish jumped from the water — a fish with bright blue, sparkling eyes.

"Opa!" she shouted, and the next time it jumped, she caught it in her apron and hastily whispered her plight before dropping it back into the water so it could breathe. All through the rest of the day, the fish followed the ship, and Maartje felt comforted by its presence, knowing her Opa was there and would not desert her.

When night fell the prince dragged her to his table, demanding that she dine with him. She wept into her soup as Biagio slurped his. Just then, something tapped at the window, and the prince stood and opened it, peering out into the dark sea. A raven flew forth and landed upon the table.

"Get out, foul bird!" Biagio shouted, waving his arms.

Maartje, recognizing the bird's bright blue, sparkling eyes, shielded it from him. "It's harmless; let it be!"

Then the raven spoke in a voice hoarse and ragged:

"No prize will be given you, treacherous villain. 

For the gift that you give is not yours to be given. 

Tell your brother of this beautiful one,

And your very own body will turn into stone."

Biagio shook and shuddered and stumbled from the room. After he left, Maartje gently patted the raven's head. Then, it flew back out the window and Maartje returned to her chamber, certain that, in the morning, she'd find herself once again on the shores beside her windmill, returned to her rightful place.

#

But when morning broke, the ship had not turned around, nor did it the following day, or the next. Maartje spied the blue-eyed fish in the ship's wake, and knowing her Opa was there, did not despair. But Biagio became more and more agitated and rarely slept, instead pacing the deck well into the night. When they finally arrived at the far-off kingdom, he brought Maartje directly to the castle and shut her up in a room by herself, save for one small blue-eyed mouse which followed them in from the harbor.

"You shall meet Adamo in the morning," he said. "You shall present yourself and you shall tell him that I have sent you to him. I shall not be the one to tell him, and, therefore, I will not be in danger of that horrid raven's curse. Do not betray me, or I promise you shall regret it."

The following morning, she was bathed and dressed, and led to the great hall where the Prince Adamo was dining. When he saw her across the room, he rose from his chair and rushed to her, falling at her feet and kissing her hand.

"Signorina!" he said. "There is no beauty like yours! Please, tell me who brought you to me that I may reward him, for merely being in your presence, I have now known happiness."

Maartje was shocked, for this man was as gentle and sincere as his brother was harsh and cruel. She looked up and saw Biagio standing in the doorway, ready to claim his prize. But there, at his feet, was a tiny, blue-eyed mouse, and Maartje knew just what to do.

"My Opa came with me, your highness," she said. "He's watched over my journey to you." 

"Lies!" Biagio shouted. He rushed into the room and grabbed her arm. "She lies! I have brought her! She is my gift to you. She has no family here, only me!"

No sooner had he spoken the words than his feet turned the same gray color of the stone floor. Up, up through his legs and then over his chest and arms, the color spread until every last hair on the wicked prince's head was made of stone. And standing beside him was not a little blue-eyed mouse, but Maartje's very own Opa, with bright blue, sparkling eyes that looked upon her with pride.

And so it came to pass that Prince Adamo courted the beautiful daughter of the sculptor and the dancer, and when they married, her Opa — who had overseen her journey to the far-off land — inherited a third of the kingdom. There he built a little windmill, where he lived out his days in peace and quiet, knowing his granddaughter was safe and well-loved.

THE END


BIO: Though Wendy Nikel doesn't live in a windmill herself, there are quite a few of them in West Michigan, where she lives. She enjoys reading, photography, playing video games with her husband, and helping her sons build epic Lego creations. Her website is wendynikel.com.

Congratulations to our first Flash Winner Brynn McNab!




After Closing

by Bynn McNab



After the park closes at night, the gremlins have the run of the place. Fafinell spends his days curled inside a small decorative tower beside the dragon ship ride, and when the last staff member chains the last admission gate, he slides out to stretch his cramped limbs. Across the plaza, Yarinsh, who is young and limber and a little incautious, has already climbed up onto an oversized teacup and set it spinning, all on its own among its dozen static, abandoned brethren.

Fafinell ambles, these days, his joints popping as he surmounts the stairs. He climbs across the dragon's scaled flank--the shining paint slick under his bare feet and hands. Above him, the stars. Below him, the earth rolling in her sleep. All around, the creaking of the park reawakening, and the scent of fried food fading in the cooling night. His grandfather told him gremlins were once havoc-wreakers, but that was in the long ago, the lost days of freedom. Tonight they play the rides, in much the same way the humans do, to burn off their desire for the adventures that life no longer affords them.

On the other side of the park, a tiny trumpet sounds a fanfare. Fafinell pauses, one foot on the boards of the dragon ship ride. A shiver of mixed emotions--fear, hope, animosity and a sort of worshipful awe--passes through the park, almost tangible, tumbling from gremlin to gremlin. The Inventor is here.

Yarinsh scrambles toward Fafinell, leaving his teacup still spinning. "Did you hear it, Fafinell? Time, now."

Fafinell tweaks his own ear between his fingers, to calm himself against the sudden surge of hope and fear. He's not a little ignoramus, he reminds himself, to fall in awe of their self-styled lord. The Inventor is just a man. If Yarinsh's enthusiasm doesn't set him wary, he'll be no match for canny gremlins. He's chosen the wrong beings to enslave, and that's for certain.

Gremlins stream into the plaza from every corner of the park.

The Inventor makes his way slowly, Fafinell remembers. Once, Fafinell was among the dignitaries who escorted the Inventor on his semi-regular visits. Now he's too old for the position--too weak to defend his place. The dignitaries ride the best rides: the biggest roller coasters, the ferris wheel, and the merry-go-round. When he was among them, that little sop of recognition was enough to keep Fafinell placid as anyone. Only after his demotion did he begin to hark back to his grandfather's tales.

Now the Inventor will be checking the seams, the joints of his work. To Fafinell it seem more magic than mechanical, although the Inventor has assured them it's all scientific. Magic, after all, would be an insult to gremlins, and not playing fair.

Fafinell slides from the dragon's scales and shuffles through the crowd to crouch by the Inventor's usual seat, the park bench that he most prefers.

Yarinsh hunkers down on the other side of the bench and winks at Fafinell, who pretends not to see it.

"And once I have the investors convinced," the Inventor is saying as he strolls toward them, the dignitaries tripping along beside, watching him with rapt attention, "gremlins will be famous again. You'll be stars of our advertising campaign." The dignitaries nod, and Fafinell seethes with shame for their sycophantic foolishness. Famous for being slaves? Stars of a campaign for locking up creatures like them?

The Inventor settles himself down on the bench, legs stretched out before him, and surveys his subjects in the starlight. He breathes a happy little sigh; soon he will be rich, and Fafinell can see he's thinking of it. Soon he will be well-regarded by the other humans, no longer laughed at and ignored.

Clouds drift, time slips, and the trap is ready. Yarinsh mutters, moves. The Inventor looks toward him, as Fafinell hurriedly taps out his own half of the spell they bought from the wandering witch. Paid her in cotton candy, oversized stuffed animals, and promises. Magic may not be fair play, but gremlins will do what they must.

The Inventor leans, peering toward Yarinsh, who steps back as bronze begins to form over the man's feet, creeping up his legs. Fafinell jumps up, shoos Yarinsh back.

The Inventor whips around, suddenly grabbing Fafinell by the neck, lifting him off the ground. "Stop it!" He shakes the gremlin hard. His eyes are wide with panic, as the bronze consumes his knees, his hips. "Stop this nonsense!"

Fafinell kicks out. His head is spinning like a teacup, jounced and disoriented by the big man's remonstrations. He struggles to breathe and twists to bite, and the Inventor shakes him again.

In the plaza, the other gremlins are still and silent, watching. Ridding themselves of the Inventor won't break the containment today, Fafinell knows. But give it a week, a month unattended, and someone will find a way out. Back to the days of havoc and joy.

His old bones quake as the Inventor shakes him once more, and then the bronze is engulfing the man's arm, climbing over his face. The man on the park bench, a new statue. They thought he'd be overlooked and ordinary, there.

But as bronze drips over Fafinell's head and into his ears, he thinks of how funny the statue will seem, the man holding a gremlin high.


Brynn MacNab has been reading speculative fiction since before she knew there was any other kind, and writing it almost as long. You can find links to her other published work at brynnmacnab.blogspot.com.



 

Congratulations to our February Winner E. Lillith McDermott!




Dear Eliza

By E. Lillith McDermott




April 6, 1943


My Dear Eliza,


I’m not sure how I’m going to post this letter as my C.O. has just given us the two-hour countdown for our first live mission. In point of fact, ever since joining this unit I’ve been somewhat unsure that any of my letters have reached you. Some of the boys say that our correspondence is checked over. As I’ve only had one letter from you, on the topic of my acceptance into this unit, I’m beginning to doubt. So I guess it might not matter much if I can’t mail this out.


I have visions of you getting all my letters at once, right before I walk through the door. I hope, at any rate, that you aren’t worried. That you know I’m well and thinking of you. My only fear is that you think I’ve abandoned you. That is the thought that wakes me at night.


But enough of these morose thoughts. Tonight, at 0100 hours we set out for our first mission. I must tell you, my dear, that this is not the war I thought I signed up for. To chase the Nazis out of Europe is one thing, but this is another all together. The things they showed us in training, the things we’ve seen. I can’t even put them into words, and even if I could, I’d sooner die than trouble you with this knowledge. What a fool I was! Thinking a combined British and American unit would be such a lark. If only I’d known.


But, I know well enough, after what I’ve seen, that we are necessary. Maybe more than necessary if Hitler’s mad ambitions are to be stopped. I know little of our mission tomorrow, and can tell you littler still. But I do know that our purpose is to stop a further evil from growing, and we will do whatever it takes. My only hope is to see you again. You are what keeps me sane.


All my love,

-A



April 8, 1943


My Dearest Eliza,


I wasn’t able to post your last letter, and I have little hope of this one finding you for some time, but I needed a safe place to lay my thoughts and worries. Hopefully, once we are out of here (and if they’ll let me), I’ll be able to send this off.


We left base on schedule two nights ago, headed south. Even as second in command, I knew very little of the mission. Major P- gave me nothing more than coordinates for the pilots. Our unit has always been small, and for this mission the major selected only 5 men plus our pilot and co-pilot. I rounded them up, told them to dress for cold and got underway.


We flew threw the night, right up until morning. As the sun rose, I could see a vast range of snow-capped mountains ahead. The sky was cloudless, the wind almost nothing. Conditions as perfect as any pilot could wish. You can imagine the shock when the plane began to pitch and yaw. I tried to make it to the cockpit, but the turbulence was too great. I was only able to get to the jump seat before having to strap in. I could hear the pilot and co-pilot yelling. I’m still not sure if they had radio contact, although given our present isolation, I think not. The plane continued to buck, and the popping in my ears told me we were losing altitude rapidly. I tried to listen to the cockpit, but I can only recall the pilot yelling about loss of attitude control, and then we hit.


We’ve trained for emergencies, but simulations don’t even come close to reality. I wish I could take you through the thoughts and feelings of those moments, but they were nothing more than flashes – fleeting and instinctive. I’m still not sure how I made it out of the plane. There was so much fire and smoke. I got the major out, but that was all. We regrouped a little uphill of the crash and watched the fire burn itself out.


It didn’t make any sense, Eliza! No sense at all.


Perfect flying conditions all around. We certainly weren’t shot down – too many of us have seen combat to fail to recognize enemy fire. And yet we crashed.


It’s beautiful, this land into which we’ve been deposited. We are high and remote in a foreign mountain range. I traced the coordinates to northern Nepal. Funny how I thought signing up for the army would take me places. I just thought they’d be places more in line with France and England. The plane had broken into three main sections. Those of us fit to forage were able to find a good deal of supplies. My pack was just lying out on the snow, my letters still intact.


Yes, I said snow. Spring had just arrived on base, but up here, the snow seems permanent. We seem well off for rations and survival gear, but quite low on ammunition and weapons. I fear we’ll run into a few of the Jerry’s we were chasing and be out manned and out gunned.


Of the nine of us on the plane only five made it off. A few hours ago Fitzpatrick died of his injuries. This leaves only myself, Major P- (who is not in the best of shape himself), Scott and Johnson. Once the major has woken, I plan to discuss our target. There is little doubt he will share the mission specs after this turn of events. I doubt the success of our mission at this point, but we must try our best to complete the task. Every member of our unit knows the importance.


I still hope for my own survival. If only to hold you again, my love.

-A





April 11, 1943



My Dear Eliza,


We've been marching through these mountains for nearly three days. We are all cold and tired. Our salvaged rations are holding up, but they can do nothing to fight the fatigue. A certain panic has begun to settle over the group.


Only hours after the crash had burned its last, Major P- shared with us the goal of this mission. It is nothing more than a grainy photograph of a photograph. He didn’t seem to know where the picture came from, only that the crumbling building it depicts is of utmost importance to Hitler and his Ahnenerbe. Our intelligence thinks Himmler himself may even be on this expedition. Beyond that, he only knew the supposed coordinates of the building.


We have plotted our location as best we can. During the night, we try to follow the stars, during the day, the compass. At least we try. The very mountains seem to want us to be lost. If it were possible to mine up here, I believe one could become quite rich quickly. More than a dozen times each day the compass will spin erratically, and we know we’ve wandered near an iron deposit. When such occurs someone must take the compass and walk away in ever widening circles until the readings become clear. At times this has taken over an hour!


And the air is so thin and the heights so disorienting that more than a few times a night we find we’ve gone off course as well. Once Scott swore the stars had rearranged themselves before his very eyes. Altitude sickness may be setting in.


But I’m afraid I scared you with my earlier talk of panic. Do not be afraid for my own safety. My men are true. They have faith in Major P- and myself. These men are steady. Our panic, and I must say ours for I too share it, is that we will never find this crumbling ruin. If Himmler wants its secrets enough to send out members of his Ahnenerbe--


We must not fail.


And I confess, Eliza, that I am also afraid for the major. He tries to hide the extent of his injuries, but I can see him weakening more each day. I believe I can lead in his stead, but am I good enough for this mission? I’m nothing more than a captain, after all. I know so little about this unit, about this secret side of the war. And what will happen if I cannot fill his shoes?


All my love,

-A





April 14, 1943


My Dear Sweet Eliza,


So much has happened in the last day and a half, I barely know where to begin. Shortly after I finished writing my last letter, the compass again gave us North, and we resumed our search. Within hours we came over a rise and there, tucked away so neatly we might have missed it if not for luck, lay our quarry. It is hard to believe such a place has any value, more decay than architecture. The stones seem to crumble away just at the looking.


Perhaps we were too caught in the moment. Perhaps we had just grown weary and careless. Like fools we dashed over the hill and down into the valley. No thoughts. We never saw the ambush. I don’t even know if they were expecting us, or if we were just so stupid an opportunity. I only counted three before I took cover, but I believe, from the fire pattern, that there must be more, at least 6. As I feared, we were outmanned and outgunned.


Johnson went down immediately. Scott and I were separated on either side of a small outcropping of trees, but too far away for either of us to reach its safety. What happened next will be forever seared in my memory. From his cover a few yards downhill, Major P- tossed me his pack, stood, screamed and charged.


It took all my willpower not to chase him down the hill. But you must understand, my dear, he was doing it for the mission, for us. I believe we both knew he wasn’t long for the world. His sacrifice allowed Scott and me to make the trees. But I already miss him.


We doubled back up the hill and managed to find tree cover enough to circle halfway around the building. Scott says it reminds him of an old abbey near his family’s farm in Berkshire. It reminds me of the city in that film you liked so much, I can’t remember the name exactly, something Baghdad. It’s too round and squat to feel like a church to me.


We are hiding in a shallow crevice beyond the tree line. After several hours of watching we’re pretty sure we know the enemy locations. I may have even worked out a way to get inside. The problem is, we don’t know how many more are waiting inside and what, if anything, we can hope to find there. If only I had more information! Unless we can think of a better plan I suppose we will wait until dark and th—


Oh my dearest! We are not alone! Impossible as it is to believe here in these God-forsaken mountains, the building is occupied. Scott appears to have been correct, it is some sort of church. The man who came into the garden is clearly dressed in the robes of a monk. More importantly, he wants our help!


Or at least it seems as if he does. The Jerry guarding him grew bored and Scott was able to signal to the monk with the flashes of a pen-light. We think he wants us to enter through the back door. That was my plan, but now he’s left it open a crack. I cannot discount the possibility that this is a trap, but my heart tells me otherwise. I hope the next time I write it will be to tell you I’m coming home!


Love,

-A




April 15, 1943


My Dear Eliza,


I have just returned from the sanctuary, and my mind is a fever of thoughts and fears. I now know what Himmler wants. And I know he must not be allowed to obtain it. No matter the cost. It is only through sitting here and writing to you that I can control my mind, to hold my sanity and force calm. Ever fiber of my being is so alive with fear and desperation that I want nothing more than to run back to the sanctuary, gun ready, and drive my enemy away from this place by force and blood.


But I must be calm. I must only wait until midnight, when the Brotherhood will be ready. You see, they are sworn, bound to this place, by more than mere oath. This sanctuary, and the others like it around the world, must be protected at all times. There are seven, I have learned. Seven places hidden around the globe that could lead to the downfall of all humanity.


But I get ahead of myself, this will make no sense without some explanation.


You see, Eliza, when Scott and I went through the garden door we didn’t know what to expect. But what we found, well, given a million years of guessing I would never have guessed correctly. While out here snow and cold blanket the mountains, in the sanctuary is nothing but warmth. Warmth and wet. We were instantly sweating. The brother from the garden was waiting for us. He didn't speak, only lead us through winding passages and stairs, ever downward. I felt as if I were walking to the very base of the mountains, maybe further.


Strangely, I never feared. I could not have told you why, but I felt nothing but peace and calm.


Eventually we reached a set of iron doors. On the other side lay the most wondrous of caverns. It was monstrous vast, the edges disappearing into darkness. Candles burned here and there, illuminating the walls.


And what walls they were!


They were painted with the most beautiful renderings, such magnificent work. At first I thought they showed the Bible, and certainly the stories of Old and New Testament were there, but so much more! And as I looked I realized I could see things that have no place in the Bible what so ever. Castles under siege, great palaces, roman cavaliers. All of human history is painted on those walls.


But as amazingly terrifying as the walls were, they were nothing to the floor. The brother led us along a path between the wall and a low fence. Inside the fence the center of the cavern was teaming with vegetation that should not, cannot, grow in a cave with no light. Intermixed with the plant life were figurines of every size and shape. They looked as if they had been collected from all over the world from the very beginning of time to the present. Some, most perhaps, were religious idols, but not all. Some I could not begin to describe.


Scott and I had not been in the cavern but five minutes when another brother emerged from the darkness of the path ahead. His name, he told us, was Brother Abe. He took me by the hand and led me past the fence. We had to step carefully, using only certain footholds. Once away from the walls he bade me look to the ceiling.


Oh Eliza! If I could tell you what I saw! If there were any way to describe it! If I had any hope that you would believe me!


So much more than history is painted on those walls. There on the ceiling I could see images of things I cannot understand, things from the future. Things, Brother Abe said, that might be and should be. That was why they were grey, out of focus. And the floor, he said, was littered with the offerings of time – past, present, future. The whole of human history, start to finish, in one room.


Brother Abe told us that the Germans were searching the sanctuary and had not yet found the chamber, but it was only a matter of time. But they have a plan! However, with so many of the order confined as prisoners, they doubted their success. Of course Scott and I volunteered. At midnight, we begin.


I do not know if these letters will ever reach you, my dearest. Scott will deliver them if he survives, though neither one of us is hopeful. But we knew the stakes when we took this assignment. I wanted, after all, to save the world.


My dearest Eliza, I do so hope to see you again. But if I fail, I’m afraid for your future much more than mine.

-A

 

E. Lillith McDermott writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror for young adults and adults who wish they were young. Her work can be found in the anthologies Under the Stairs and Short Sips: Coffee House Flash Fiction as well as The Realm Beyond Magazine.  She lives in the sleepy midwest where she periodically embarrasses her children by frightening her neighbors. She can be contacted at elillith@elmcdermott.com.

Congratulations to the End of the Year Winner Holly Jennings!


The Virtues of Cherry Blossoms

by Holly Jennings



They lost many good men that day, and only Nami knew why.


She stood atop the stone stairs of the temple, looking down on the town. Though the attack on their village had ceased, remnants of the chaos swirled through the streets, snowing feathers and cherry blossoms over the dirt roads. Soldiers dragged the dead away, each one pulling at the strings of Nami’s heart. Children gathered up feathers, some as long as their arms, and dumped them into fire basins. Flames exploded in massive amber claws that reached up toward the sky as if growing out of the very bowels of Hell. Thick smoke burned in Nami’s eyes, creating an excuse for her tears.


As the soldier Juro passed her on the stairs, he spat on a feather and crushed it beneath his foot. His brother Kin followed close behind, sharing the burden of a moaning man on a stretcher. He eyed Nami on his way into the temple. They would need her to tend to the survivors.


She looked out across the village and then up to the piercing blue sky. The Tengu soared in the distance, white hawks the size of dragons, now mere blurs in the air. They retreated to the mountains, seeking refuge in the serrated rock that no man could climb. The demons had slept for centuries, a peace now ruptured by the broken karmic ribbon surrounding the tiny town.


Before she turned to the temple, a cherry blossom petal whispered across Nami’s lips and left behind the taste of candied apple skin. The snapped twigs and twisted trunks of the trees mimicked her misshapen heart. Every day she had watched them, growing like the bastard child in her belly.


She had brought shame on her people, and the Tengu retaliated.


#


After tending to the wounded the soldiers sat within the temple in perfect lines, creating a facade of discipline, even as the room coursed with tension and sharp whispers. Why had the demons attacked? Why now?


A priest hobbled into the room, his walking stick beating along the floor. As he stood before the men, instead of leading them into prayer for the fallen he announced, "The healer is with child."


A few of the men exchanged glances at the declaration, but none stood or spoke out to claim paternity.


Kin peered at his brother out of the corner of his eye, but Juro stared unblinking at the head of the room. After an uncomfortable quiet had pressed down on the room for several minutes, the priest dismissed them to training. A silent mantra rippled through the minds of the men as they filtered out. They all knew, though none dared to give voice to their thoughts, as dark and treacherous as a storm at sea: the demons would return in the morning.


#



The night Nami gave birth Kin wished the Tengu would attack at midnight instead of the usual daybreak. Maybe then Juro would have fought them instead of everything inside the temple’s training room.


“It’ll be fine,” Kin assured him, ignoring the growing lump of concern in his own throat.


Juro pummeled a padded wooden post, though his words came out as sharp and clear as if he were merely standing still. “The last three women who gave birth died from complications.”


“Nami is a healer. There won’t be any complications.”


“She was with those other women.” Clack-clack-clack. “She couldn’t save them.” Clack-clack-clack. “What makes this any different?”


Juro’s pounding ceased as movement caught his eye. A look of shock softened his creased brow. Kin followed his brother’s gaze to the midwife behind them. She stood just inside the door’s archway, weaving her blood covered hands through her apron. Kin gasped, heart pounding. The lump in his throat grew so large it threatened to cut off his airway.


“It’s a boy,” the midwife revealed as she backed out the door.


Kin followed her through the streets, dodging the broken wood and debris yet to be repaired from the latest Tengu attack. At Nami’s home, a trio of whores peered through the window, standing on tiptoe, gushing and giggling with each other. They felt Kin’s stare and looked his way. He averted his eyes as he followed the midwife inside. Just as he stepped through the doorway, he glanced behind him. His brother hadn’t followed.


Inside Nami’s one-room home, two townswomen folded sheets as the midwife washed her hands in a water basin. Nami lay in bed, her raven hair plastered against her forehead. The newborn lay nestled against her breast. Soft, whispered breaths escaped from his puckered mouth as he slept against his mother. Kin noted how much the boy’s nose and mouth resembled that of his brother, confirming what he’d long suspected.


Nami’s eyes opened and peered up at him.


“How are you feeling?” he managed to ask.


She smiled. “Wonderful.” Her expression faltered as she surveyed the open door behind him. “Is anyone else coming?”


Kin took her hand and gave it a soft squeeze. “I’m here.” He paused, studying the boy. “What’s his name?”


“Riku.”


Kin nodded. “That’s a strong name.”


Nami smiled again, though her head fell back against the pillow and her eyelids fluttered as she fought back sleep.


“I’ll let you rest,” Kin said, and he left the healer’s home.


Kin dragged his feet through the streets, kicking bits of wood as he walked. Puddles dotted the dirt road from a recent rain. A sliver of the lunar crescent curled through the reflection of the black sky above. A new moon. A new life. One that would become full with passing days, if the fates allowed. What then? What life would the boy grow into? One of shame and dishonor? One of endless battles and the torture of his people, bound to the mercy of the mountain beasts?


The wind picked up, bringing with it the smell of beech trees and amber. The cherry blossoms had long since died. The breeze swayed the paper lanterns that hung from the windows and overhanging roofs of the town’s homes and businesses. They squeaked on their hinges as they rocked. The cool wind brushed against Kin’s heated cheeks, though it did little to calm his nerves. When he arrived back at the temple, Juro met him at the entrance.


Is Nami alright?”


Kin studied his brother’s guiltless expression as the taste in his mouth turned to bile and bitter malice.


Why didn’t you just go for a whore?” he spat.


Juro didn’t answer and Kin left him standing alone in the doorway, looking out on the quiet streets--a silence soon to be broken.


#


At dawn, the assault began.


The Tengu pummeled the streets. The giant hawks soared through the village, their talons ripping through rooftops and pillars. Caws thundered through the village. Buildings trembled and glass shattered under the sheer volume. The soldiers fought them off with their spears and shields, and even roof tiles and other rubble created by the Tengu themselves.


Inside the temple Nami tended to the men, her belly still soft from the recent birth. Wounds evaporated under her healing hands, the sole reason they’d sustained the attacks as long as they had. Broken limbs and six-inch-long gashes, were mended in a night instead of a month. So the soldiers fought every day the Tengu chose to attack, and prayed for mercy on the ones they didn’t.


#


The morning they brought Juro back to the temple on a stretcher with the flesh of his legs shredded down to the bone, Kin’s chest clenched so tightly, his heart nearly ceased to beat.


“Someone get Nami.”


“No,” Juro snapped, gritting his teeth through the pain. “Just bind my legs.”


Kin ignored his words and turned to retrieve the healer, but Juro’s hand formed a viselike grip around his brother’s arm. “Don’t get Nami.”


Kin shook him off but stayed at his side and began tending to his wounds.


During the organized chaos in the temple, the midwife stood in the corner cradling Nami’s child. Somehow the infant slept through it all, through the moans and screams of the men, unaware of the future that surrounded him.


#


At the age of five, Riku stood at the front of the prayer room with the priest and the other young boys yet to be assigned to a guardian. All had fathers, some too old or frail to be soldiers, others deceased from the Tengu attacks. All but Riku.


As the priest spoke, Riku tried his best to remain still like the other boys, but his fingers disobeyed him and tapped a silent melody against his stomach as if it were an instrument. His anxiety mirrored the growing tension outside as the murmurs and whispers of anxious parents permeated the temple’s walls. None were allowed in the sacred room. Though, as Kin sat with the other soldiers on the temple floor, he noted Nami’s absence. Surely she was permitted at the ceremony. Was she concerned of Juro’s reaction once they assigned the boy to him?


“Kin,” the priest called. “Riku will be your student.”


Kin froze at the announcement. Why hadn’t the boy gone to Juro? Didn’t the priest realize it was his child?


Kin stood, took the boy’s hand, and led him to the rear of the room. When the meeting ended, Juro confronted his brother. No child had been assigned to him.


“You shouldn’t train the boy,” he said. He cast a fleeting glance at Riku. 


“People will think you’re his father.”


Kin met his eye. “Someone should be.”


His brother offered no reply, so Kin led the child away and left Juro standing alone. He seemed to prefer it anyhow.


#


After a day of training Kin led Riku into the empty prayer room. A sliver of the white crescent moon reflected against the black water of the basins, reminding Kin of the night Riku came into the world nearly a decade earlier.


“The other boys say the demons attack the village because of me,” Riku admitted, scuffing his feet against the floor in shame. “They say I shouldn’t have been born.”


Kin peered down at the boy, feeling his heart pinch with sorrow. “If you were never born, who would be my student?”


Riku thought for a moment and nodded. “That’s a good point.”


Kin suppressed a chuckle at the child’s mature demeanor. He stood with the boy as they admired the engravings in the wood-paneled wall of the temple. The scene depicted soldiers defending the village from the Tengu.


“It’s been ten years,” Riku said, nodding at the feathered beasts on the wall. “If they don’t attack the village because of me, then why attack us at all?”


“The Tengu represent an imbalance of spirit.”


“An imbalance of spirit,” Riku repeated as he thought to himself. “How do you fix that?”


Kin took Riku’s hands in each of his palms. “For most people, there is a gap between who they are and what they do.” Kin brought the boy’s hands together. “You need to make them as one.”


#


Dawn.


Screams from the townswomen rang out from every corner of the village, a chorus that rose with the sun to announce the Tengu’s pending wrath. The fevered cries no longer enveloped Kin with fear, as they were now merely a rooster’s crow, declaring the break of day. One of work and of war. One that meant the weight of armor on shoulders and of wood and steel weapons in hand. A day to look death in its eyes, black endless holes surrounded by sleek, white feathers. But when Nami’s piercing shriek resonated through the temple that morning, jolting Kin from slumber, his heart hammered in his chest. Beads of sweat formed instantly on his brow. The healer had always been the calm in the storm. An unwavering rock within the waves of chaos. What had possibly caused her to panic?


Kin’s feet carried him through the temple, moving as quickly as if on air, until he reached the top of the stone stairs. At the bottom of the steps, Nami screamed again as she struggled against the midwife. The midwife held her back by the waist, away from the dirt roads and within the early-morning shadow of the temple. The Tengu circled overhead, as they always did. Why was Nami so frantic? Kin’s eyes trailed forward to a scene that brought his stomach up to his throat.


Riku stood in the middle of the street, arms outstretched, face towards the sun, as if offering himself to the gods. He bore no armor or shield. No weapon graced his hands. Kin’s heart clenched as he realized the child’s intention, to sacrifice himself, to fix the karmic break that was never his own.


“Riku,” Nami cried, still struggling against the midwife as she clawed at the air.


“This is the way, mom,” Riku replied, “They’ll stop now. You’ll see.”


The Tengu dove.


Kin bolted.


Juro reached Riku first and threw himself over the boy, creating a human shield against the Tengu’s beaks and talons. Kin skidded to a stop and watched in horror as the demons plunged down around his brother.


The Tengu landed, smashing to the ground with such force that it shook beneath Kin’s feet. They studied the huddled duo, their heads cocked sideways, curious. Beaks remained shut, talons retracted. One even chirped. Then they launched back into the sky as if ripped from the village by an invisible hand. A heavy silence accompanied their departure, louder than anything the village had ever heard before.


Juro opened his eyes and peered down at the boy in his arms. Kin saw an expression on his brother’s face he never thought he’d see.


Peace.


Nami joined Juro in the road. Together, they walked up the steps of the temple and disappeared inside with the boy.


Kin sank to his knees on the dirt path, along with the other soldiers, as white feathers rained down around them. Together they watched as the white cloud of the Tengu became a mere wisp against the horizon, and then became nothing at all, where the mountains towered silently in the background.


#


The next day at dawn, a cherry blossom sapling pushed its way through the soil and greeted the sun.


BIO: Holly Jennings writes speculative fiction from her home in Tecumseh, Ontario. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, AE Sci-Fi Canada, and elsewhere. For more, visit her site www.hnjennings.com or follow her as she attempts to understand Twitter @HollyN_Jennings



Congratulations to our October Winner Ellen Denton!


The Cock in the Cloister


By Ellen Denton

Father Luchesi hurried along the corridors, huffing and puffing under his corpulent bulk. Even rising from a chair normally caused his flesh to jiggle like Jello, so the nuns emerging from chapel prayers stopped to watch him with surprise and curiosity as he scuttled by them and careened around a corner.

With rasping breaths, he stopped at the Monsignor’s chambers and rapped sharply.

“Enter.”

He pushed the door open. "My Lordship, the Prophecy has come true."

Monsignor Antonelli was absorbed in paperwork at his desk and barely even glanced at his visitor.

"What prophecy is that, Father Luchesi?"

"The Devil. He's come!"

"What? What are you babbling about?" Antonelli looked up now, annoyed.

"The rooster. It's outside in the cloister gardens."

*

Antonelli and Luchesi peered surreptitiously around the stone wall leading into the gardens. Five other priests leaned over their shoulders or craned their necks to get a look. A group of nuns were huddled a short distance away, whispering and fingering rosaries. They had approached the archway where the priests gathered, but were waved back by the Monsignor.

The rooster strutted imperiously, his neck bobbing in and out or sometimes stretched low so that he could peck the ground. The soft click-click of his talons against the stone pavers sent an eerie chill into the hearts of his observers.

He suddenly flew diagonally across a patch of garden to leap at a dragonfly sunning itself on the base of a statue. The jewel-colored bug swirled off into the air, leaving the rooster at the feet of The Blessed Virgin. He squirted a grey-white blob onto the marble hem of her robe, causing a tall, balding priest watching from behind the Monsignor to gasp at the rooster’s insolent blasphemy.

Hearing him, the cock whipped his head around, fixing a furious, beady black eye directly on Father Luchesi. The horrified father lurched backward, and in doing so, stepped on the half-bare, sandaled foot of Father Elisio, who in turn let out a pained, surprised yell. He yanked away hard in an effort to pull his foot out from under Father Luchesi’s and banged into Sister Marietta, a young recent addition to their community, who was at that moment was rapidly tiptoeing forward to get a peak at the rooster. She was a small, slight girl, and was knocked to the floor by the collision with Father Elisio.

By the time priests and nuns had finished bumping into and tripping over each other and trying to help each other up, no less than three priests and two nuns were on the floor in a black-and-white tangle of arms, legs, and half-raised habits, murmuring apologies to no one in particular.

As they sorted themselves out and onto their feet again, the flap of wings and an ear-splitting screech sent the entire group scattering like billiard balls through doors of the chambered abbey.

*

In a private meeting room, a contingent of gaunt priests and a pasty-faced Mother Superior ringed a thick hardwood table. It was Monsignor Antonelli who spoke.

“There can be no doubt anymore that he is among us. The prophecy of Saint Pielo, given to me on his deathbed, was that the Devil would come in the guise of common poultry and defile a virgin. The question now is only what we are to do about this.

The others in the room crossed themselves and lowered their heads in either prayer or thought.

Antonelli rose and walked to one of the pointed, Gothic windows looking out onto the cloistered garden. What he saw made the hair on his body stand on end; the rooster was fornicating with a black-and-white speckled hen.

At that moment, there was a brisk, urgent knock on the door, and Sister Bernadine entered, her face strained with concern.

“Fathers, Sister Marietta is missing! We’ve searched everywhere for her. We found only her habit lying cast off onto the floor of her sleeping cell, and THIS upon her bed!

She held a black and white feather out at arm’s length to the now wide-eyed panel ranged around the table. A flurry of hands groped for rosaries, crosses, and pocket Bibles.

*

The abbey was located in an isolated area of the

countryside with no one nearby to go to for help. The speckled hen was obviously Sister Marietta, transformed by the devil for his own nefarious purposes, and the other priests and nuns, all themselves virgins, now feared they would undergo the same fate.

It was agreed that there was only one logical course of action – pray. And pray they did, night and day.

Meantime, the doors and windows of the abbey were barricaded in the hopes that, while in the corporeal form of a rooster, the Devil could not get in. The molested hen was protectively brought inside to safety. There was always the chance she could eventually be transformed back to her human form. She was placed in an underground storage room with Father Luchesi given the daily task of ensuring she had food and water.

On the third day of the lockdown, he had waddled his way down the steps with bowls of cracked corn and water for her, but she wasn’t there. There was no place for man or bird to hide here – this storage room hadn’t been used for years and consisted of only four bare stone walls.

Perplexed and concerned, he set down the bowls and started back up the stairs. Half-way to the top, he began wheezing and stopped to rest. He glanced up only long enough to be smashed in the face by the screeching hen. Spiked talons dug in and clawed rivulets of blood from his skin, and the pointed beak pecked viciously at his eyes, finally sending him, with flailing, windmilling arms, falling backwards down the stone steps.

He landed head first with a resounding crack, the fall breaking his neck and paralyzing him from the neck down. As he lay motionless and dying on the floor, one eye dangling from its socket, blood flowing out of his split scalp, he saw the swirling black skirt of a nun’s habit descending the steps. A moment later Sister Marietta stood beside him, bareheaded and flicking a few remaining feathers out of her hair.

Father Luchesi rolled his one, still-good eye up at her.

“Sister, quickly! Go get help! Thank God you’re back.

“Back? Back from where? I never left.”

With labored, dying breaths, he explained to the new nun the “poultry” prophecy, the defiling of a virgin, and how she had been transformed by the Devil in his guise as a rooster.

“Oh, him? Actually, he was just an ordinary, barnyard cock, who incidentally, did happen to be a virgin.”
Sister Marietta grinned cheerfully down at him and with that, turned back to the stairs. She would fly up to the ledge above the door again and wait there to ambush the next priest or nun to show up.






Ellen is a freelance writer living in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two demonic cats who wreak havoc and hell on a regular basis (the cats, not the husband).

Congratulations to our September Winner Wendy Nikel!


NEPTUNE'S REWARD
by Wendy Nikel


The steamship rattled into the harbor, spewing smoke and gasping its last breath.  Luis gripped the handrail and leaned overboard, assessing the damage of the last night's storm.  He cursed under his breath as he watched the wheel shudder to a stop.  At least they'd made it back to the harbor; last night he hadn't been sure that was possible.

He spent the next hours unloading the cargo -- or what was left of it -- onto the steam carriages that would take it to its final destinations.  With each water-damaged crate, Luis fell deeper into despair.  He'd hardly had enough to keep the Marie-Louise afloat as it was.  With the costs of repairs, he ought to just call it quits.

"Tough luck, eh?"

Luis spun around.  A withered old mariner with a crooked spine cackled at him between missing teeth. The gears of an artificial leg creaked as he hopped from foot to foot.

"Go home, old man," Luis said, wiping his hands on his trousers.  "It's nothing to you."

"Aye," he said.  "Though, one never knows who might be of help when one's in dire need.  Let me buy you a drink, sonny, and tell me your troubles."

Luis scoffed, but the man didn't leave.  His mouth did feel a bit dry, and he could use a break.  "Well, I ought not turn down a free drink," he said.  The old man chuckled and scampered away.  Luis had to pick up his pace to follow, and, had it not been for the loud rattling of his leg, would have lost him down the dark alleys.

"Confounded fool," he muttered to himself as the old man disappeared around another corner.  When he rounded it, he nearly tumbled over the man, who just cackled at Luis' unsteady footing.

"Here's the place," the man said, thumping the sign: 

"Neptune's Lair."

"Neptune?  The god of the sea?" Luis scoffed.  "Well, I'd certainly like to have a word with him after last night.  I reckon he owes me a thing or two."

The old man let out a watery chortle that sounded like something drowning.  "Aye, if you say so, sailor."
Luis eyed him suspiciously, but a free drink is a free drink, and he could hardly afford to buy one of his own, so he followed the man through the worn, wooden door to the pub.  Neptune's Lair looked like any other run-down place where tired sailors were known to waste their pay.  A player organ piped merrily, its keys knocking up and down in time, but that was the only cheerful thing about the place. Gloomy, unshaven men lurked in gloomy, cobwebbed corners, yanking on ropes with pulleys to summon the barmaid to refill their drinks.  Luis tried to avoid brushing against any of the other patrons, not wanting to start a fight in what looked like rough waters.  He began to second-guess this free drink.

"You want a word with Neptune, eh?" the old mariner asked.  He gestured grandly with a crooked arm, and Luis' eyes came to rest on a small alcove with a curtain of seaweed over the entrance. Seashells embellished the arched opening, and on either side of it large, bearded men with pitchforks -- no, tridents -- stood guard.  Luis stopped, dumbfounded.  He looked back to the mariner, but the old man had disappeared.

"He had best gone to get my drink," Luis muttered.  He couldn't deny, however, that the strange man's words piqued his interest.  Who was it, exactly, hidden behind this veil of dripping ocean greens?  He approached ever so slowly, but just as he was about to push aside one of the long ropes of dripping seaweed, the sharp barb of a trident pressed firmly against his cheek.

"So sorry."  He raised his hands in the universal display of innocence.

"Let him through," a voice from within the alcove boomed.  Luis stepped back, uncertain now if he truly wanted an audience with whomever was behind the curtain.  Before he had a chance to protest, however, the guard shoved him through.

In front of him sat a massive man, a giant of sorts, clothed in a robe of deep blue that seemed to ripple as he moved.  His gray hair and beard swirled and churned like a thundercloud.  He sat behind a round table etched with waves along the edge and with a seahorse as the sole support.  Fire and smoke danced along the surface of the table, burning grooves that swirled in a spiral toward the center.

"Luis de la Valdez," the giant spoke.  Luis startled, tearing his eyes from the dancing flames.

"How did you know my name?"

The giant laughed, a roar that sounded like waves rolling across the shore.  "I am Neptune.  I know many things.  I also know that you feel I have wronged you. 

Come, tell me your woes."  He gestured to a chair of bright orange, shaped like a shell.  Luis sat down, but never took his eyes from the giant.

"My steamship," he said.  "She was destroyed in last night's storm.  I haven't the money to fix her."

"And you blame me for this misfortune?"

Luis dared not nod, but did not deny it, either.

"Ah," Neptune said.  "There's but one thing to do."

"What's that?"  Luis glanced towards the seaweed curtain, wondering if he ought to leave now while he had the chance.

"I have a proposition.  You need money to fix your boat, and I -- well, I have a need as well."

"What could the god of the sea possibly need?"

"That which was stolen from me."

Luis' ears perked up.  "Who'd dare steal from you?"

"I'll tell you all," he said softly, "if you agree to retrieve it for me."

Luis' eyes darted back to the curtain.  He still had a chance to leave, to cut his losses and start anew.  If he could truly get the god of the sea indebted to him, though...

"I accept your offer."

"Fine!"  Neptune laughed and threw up his hands in delight.  "Your task, Luis de la Valdez, is to dive to the underwater city of Atlantis and retrieve the pearl which has been stolen from me."

"Dive to Atlantis?"  Luis rose from his seat, cursing himself for his foolishness.  "You can tell whoever orchestrated this ruse that they can have their laughs.  I ought to have known--"

As Luis turned to leave, a rush of saltwater dashed down from the walls of the alcove, blocking his path and sweeping him neatly back into his seat.  He gripped the arms of the chair, watching in wild fascination as the water drained out through the geometric design on the floor.

"This is no trick, Luis," Neptune said.  "You'll see the tinkerer now."

#

The tinkerer was expecting him.

"I've certainly never taken orders from a deity before," the tinkerer laughed nervously, adjusting the goggles on his head.  His already-wide eyes grew exponentially larger under the lenses.  "He said you'd need an apparatus for diving underwater, under great pressure, for hours at a time."

"This is lunacy," Luis muttered, looking around the tinkerer's shop.  Gadgets and gizmos of all manner hung from wires across the ceiling.  Some had sharp, jagged edges, and others smooth, glassy surfaces. Luis had no idea what any might be used for.

"Ta da!"  The tinkerer held up a contraption that looked like a barrel.  Inspecting it more closely, Luis could see that it was made of some sort of metal, and that inside were bladders, like those in a dirigible.

"And I'm to wear that?  You cannot be serious."

#

It took nearly an hour of adjustments to wedge Luis into the underwater device.  He stood upon the dock with his teeth firmly clenching the mouthpiece and the bladders pumping air in and out of his lungs.

"Well, go on then," said the tinkerer, but Luis was frozen in place.

"You're sure this will work?" he asked through his teeth.

The tinkerer shrugged.  "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't.  You do know where you're going once you get down there?"

Luis nodded.  Neptune had given him clear instructions.
"Well then," the tinkerer said.  "Off you go.  You have three hours' worth of air in there."  He tapped the outside of the barrel, and something within it clinked loudly.  "Heh heh.  Off you go."

Luis stepped off the dock, certain that he would immediately sink to the bottom of the ocean and drown.  At least then his troubles would be over.
Yet, with some surprise, he realized that he was actually able to breathe through the mouthpiece, and the bladders within the contraption were light enough to keep him from sinking.  He kicked tentatively and let out a bubble of laughter as the propellers attached to the device began rotating, shooting him forward at a pace much faster than he'd ever have been able to swim on his own.  This was truly the work of a genius, probably worth a great deal of money, though he'd never tell that scatterbrained tinkerer he thought so.  

Perhaps, when this was all over, he'd just keep this device for himself and make a few coins off the design...

The movement of his feet powered a generator which lit a headlamp, brightening the murky sea.  It didn't take him long to discover the underground tunnel that Neptune had described, just off the cove.  He gazed in awe at the vaulted stone ceilings overhead.  The Gothic architecture reminded him of the Catedral de la Santa Cruz y Santa Eulalia in his beloved Barcelona.  Ah, what beauty, what majesty... what wealth!

He was so engrossed in his musings of gold and riches that he nearly missed the third tunnel to the left, which Neptune promised would lead directly to Atlantis.  From there, he only needed to sneak into their most sacred temple and retrieve the pearl.  He anxiously rubbed a hand along the mechanized trident which the tinkerer had provided.  At the push of a button, its barbs would shoot out like spears with enough force to break bones.  
Luis only hoped he wouldn't need to use it.

The tunnel narrowed.  Luis' underwater gear scraped along the edges of the stone.  The rocks over his head shifted slightly; any wrong move would send them tumbling down.  Slowly, he inched his way through.  
Once free, he shuddered at the realization of how close he had come to being buried alive.  The giant Neptune would have surely caused a cave-in trying to squeeze his bulk through.

When the tunnel opened once more Luis finally saw it -- Atlantis.

It shone like a thousand stars, glittering with iridescent lights from millions of tiny, luminous creatures.  
Buildings of all sizes, shaped from coral of every shade of color imaginable blossomed from the ocean floor.  
And the people! 

Luis gaped at them, staring in awe at their elaborate gowns, suits, and hats composed entirely of algae and shells.  A pair of men approached the pillar where Luis was hiding, conversing in tones that sounded surprisingly clear.  Luis leaned forward.  It was then that he noticed thin, metallic collars around their necks, with flaps that opened and shut periodically, much like--

"Gills!" he said.  A large bubble of air floated out before him.  Could it be that in those simple collars they could breathe underwater like fish?  What a miraculous contraption!  People would pay good money for something like that.

They glanced in his direction, and Luis darted behind the pillar.  Swimming carefully around the nearest building, he scanned the streets for what might be the temple.  He found it in the center of the city, more brilliantly lit than any of the other buildings.  

Atlanteans swam in and out of the center courtyard, within which Luis could see a table just like the one in Neptune's Lair, only much larger.  The seahorse sculpture that held it up was nearly as large as he was tall, and on the circular tabletop, amid a fire that burned even under the sea, was a pearl the size of his head.

Luis let out a breath, sending bubbles floating upward from his nose.  There was no way he'd be able to retrieve the pearl with his heavy, metal contraption strapped to him.  If only he had one of the collars; then he could pretend to be an Atlantean, and perhaps get close enough to snatch it.

With that determination, he floated towards the outskirts of the city, peering through the gaps in the coral structures into the Atlanteans homes and shops.  

The treasures he saw there astounded him -- rubies and diamonds, emeralds and gold.  Even their eating utensils were made from the finest metals, and all of it unguarded.  Soon, Luis' pockets bulged with all the riches he could hold.

A glimmer of silver refocused Luis' wandering mind.  A collar!  It lay, unguarded, on a tablet of stone within one of the coral rooms.  After making certain that no one was watching, Luis darted in through a large opening that acted as a window and snatched up the collar.  Looking around the cozy domicile, he also gathered a robe of algae to drape over his own clothing.  Once safely outside, he ran his hands over the sleek piece, admiring the metalwork.  Before he could think twice, he raised the band to his own neck and snapped it shut around his throat.

The metal contracted and Luis gasped.  Instead of sucking in water, however, cool, fresh oxygen entered his lungs.  He could breathe!  With a laugh that sounded as clear as in air, he shed the clunky underwater mechanism and -- freed from its bulk -- kicked off towards the temple.

As he dove into the temple, the Atlanteans barely batted an eye at him. He grinned as he swam past them, headed straight for the pearl.  What a simple task!  And what fun!  Without the cumbersome underwater apparatus, he felt so free!

He swooped down and with a single swipe, he snatched up the pearl.  He tucked it in the crook of his arm and swam as fast as he could for the tunnel.

"The pearl!" an Atlantean woman shouted.

"Stop him!"

"He's an outsider!"

The Atlanteans swam after him en masse, but Luis had always been an exceptional swimmer, and he had quite a head start on his pursuers.  He'd forgotten, however, that these people were ocean dwellers.  By the time he reached the tunnel, they were nearly at his heels, and he cursed himself for dropping his mechanized trident along with his underwater gear.

He slithered through the tunnel, outracing the Atlanteans' shouts.  When he reached the narrowest section, he slid through much more easily without his gear, but once he was through, he paused.  Flipping onto his back, he kicked at the ceiling of the passage.  

Hands reached through the tunnel, but just as they were about to close around his leg, the rock above them crumbled down, blocking the entrance.

Atlantis was shut off from the rest of the world once more.

Luis swam through the tunnel with the vaulted ceilings, but dared not stop to admire them.  Neptune would be waiting.

The thought had just crossed Luis' mind when there he was, in all his underwater glory: the god of the ocean himself.  Underwater, he seemed even larger, fiercer, and more intimidating.  His chest was bare and instead of legs, he had the tail of a fish.

"You've brought my pearl."

Luis held it out.  "That I have.  Now, where is my reward?"

Neptune gestured to his left, where a treasure chest full of golden doubloons spilled out over the ocean floor.  Luis sunk to the sand beside it and kneaded the gold between his fingers.

"I'm rich!" he sang out.  "Rich!  Forget the Marie-Louise!  I shall build the biggest, most beautiful palace in the entire world with these riches!  I'll have dozens of servants!  Just wait until I--"

His hands reached up to free himself from the silver collar, but the metal tugged at his skin, as if they had been fused together.  He pried at it with his fingernails, but try as he might, it would not break free.  Luis kicked to the surface, but -- to his horror -- the air was unbreathable.  Gasping, he ducked back underwater.

"Neptune!" he shouted, clutching at the collar.  The god of the ocean was nowhere to be seen, but his laughter -- a roar like rolling waves -- could be heard throughout the sea.

###

When she's not writing about time travel, space ships, or mythical islands, Wendy Nikel enjoys drinking coffee, playing video games with her husband, and building Lego race cars with her two sons.  A list of previously published and coming soon works are available at wendynikel.wordpress.com/short-stories/

Congratulations to our August Winner Levanah Sciple!


Another Day in the Ol' Encounter Suit
by Levanah Sciple

"Classics are always in style," Aya told Dad.  She patted her bubble-clear helmet, which she'd taken off while eating breakfast. The faceplate lit up briefly.  She smiled down at it.

"Are you wearing the clothes I set out?"  Mom scooped some chopped fruit onto her plate.  "Underneath that thing?"

"No thank you!  I like the jumpsuits Lagrange Station issued me."  They were a soothing grey, comfy and familiar and just snug enough to not bunch up under the encounter suit.  She would never wear the awful pink 'tee-shirt' with puffed sleeves and raspy elastic sewn in.  After that disaster, Aya hadn't bothered with the jean shorts.  Her helmet's 10x zoom showed an interesting mesh of pale blue with deep indigo pooled between the threads, but the weave looked scratchy.

"Earth girls don't dress like this," Mom continued.

"Except I'm a Station girl on furlough to the planet.  Now I look the part."

"It's hitting 115 degrees today so keep your suit charged and the AC on."  Dad opened his newspaper to an article on Mars Colony One.

Mom lifted the hateful jar of yogurt. 

"No!  I don't want any of that bacterial vomit!"

"Honey, it's probiotic-"


"That means it's still alive!  You didn't even bother to kill the bugs before putting them inside your body!  It's just as bad as that immune booster you gave me before we could come back to Earth.  How can you be sure all those things in the vaccines were dead?!  I could be crawling with hostile RNA, running in my veins instead of white blood cells.  Now you want to put creatures in my intestines, too."

Mom tightened her lips and stuck a spoon into the quivery white slime.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!"

Dad sighed from behind his paper.  "Let her be; we'll try again tomorrow."

Mom glared at him and put the yogurt down.  It almost touched Aya's plate.  She shuddered.

"So honey," Dad continued, “what are you doing today?"

"I've got some cool homework assignments!  There's geometry, and frictionless physics, and an essay on the history of Martian exploration, and-"

"You know you don't have to work so hard on your summer vacation."  He peeked over the paper and smiled at her.

"You guys told me to have fun.  This is fun."

Aya poured milk over her food, mushed it together, and grimaced.  It would never be like the food pastes on Station.  She shoveled it down, forcing herself to swallow and not choke on the lumps. 

"Moocher's hiding again.  Feed him when he comes out."

She was glad her dad was buried in the paper because she felt herself turn white.  "Uh-huh." She edged away, snapping on her helmet and breathing deeply  as she started to hyperventilate.

Moocher was her parents' cat, left with Grandma while they went into space.  He was a big, fat, fur shedding, dander depositing animal who licked her and left saliva all over her arm, and she'd hated him from first sight until about six hours later...

She'd been lying in a bedroom she hadn't seen in eight years, and she was so tired her body hurt, but she couldn't sleep.   She stretched flat on a bed, not curled up nicely in a net to keep from floating away in zero g.  It was too bright from the moonlight through the curtains, and sometimes the house would groan.  The scariest part was the long minutes of silence. 

Moocher had come in, curled up against her head, pressed to her ear, and purred.  The steady rasping hum sounded like the air processors on Station, the ones that should always be rrrr-ing away or you were in DANGER. 

He'd slept with her every night since. 

Aya slipped into her pink and yellow bedroom.  Her racing heart ... stopped.

Ohnonono, last night she'd woken up to one of those big dust-shedding insects – a moth – beating its head on her window.  She had opened the glass to let it out, let the blinds drop again, and fallen asleep.

Some pollen must have blown across her night stand, contamination from the blooming trees outside.  She saw kitty paw-prints in it.

Damage control! 

She got a damp washcloth from the bathroom.  Every night she cleaned herself with one, because Station girls don't waste water or risk drowning in the shower.  Now, she used it to wipe the evidence from the tabletop.  Then she crawled onto the windowsill and looked out. 

"Locate Moocher," she whispered.

"Error, number of lifeforms present exceeds processing capability."

The helmet's display burst into a field of light like the Milky Way.  Squirming, wiggling things were all around her, from ground to sky.  She gasped and shut off the display.

She scanned with her eyes.  There!  Moocher was at the top of the wall, stretched out in the sun, his tail trailing down the brick. 

Okay.  She could sneak out, grab him, and no one would be any wiser.

"Activate stabilizers."  Aya jumped from the window. 

Thrusters in the wrists and boots of her suit kept her upright and she landed softly in grass.  She tiptoed up to the wall and readied herself.  She was really good at using her rockets in a zero-g environment, but Earth's gravity made everything tricky. 

"Booster," she commanded.

She shot up the wall – too much power!  She grabbed for the top, but her gloves were too bulky, and she couldn't dig her fingers into the gaps between bricks.  Moocher shrank away, eyes wide, as she soared by.  She flailed, accidentally kicked her heels skyward – and her rockets drove her headfirst at the ground.

"Deactivate b-"

SMASH.

She lay there listening to her pounding heartbeat.  Her mouth hurt, and her back, and her behind.  She tasted blood. 

"Suit status?"  She tongued at the line of pain where she'd bitten her lip.

Hssssssss. 

The static was a bad sign.  Her suit's central computer must be offline.

Aya opened her eyes and looked at a cerulean sky cracked from side to side.  No, that was her helmet.  Moocher stood on her chest staring at her.  He bent his face to leave a wet mucus nose-print on her faceplate and trotted away.

She sat up and pulled her helmet off.  It had absorbed the impact at the back of her head and was partly crushed in, with a spiderweb of cracks that ran all around.

Okaaaaaay.  Stay calm, assess the damage.

She stood and checked the readout in her chestplate.  Her suit blinked with emergency lights.  She wasn't sure it could be fixed.

No way.  She couldn't go home with a wrecked suit and no cat.  She had to prove she could handle problems, or her parents might leave her behind on Earth!

She hid the helmet under a bush and stumbled after the fuzzy tail, shaped like a question mark, that stuck up through the calf-length grass. 

The sun beat down steadily, and she wondered if she'd get another radiation burn.  Her parents called it a 'sunburn', like it was something cute and not deadly stellar radiation penetrating the cells of her skin and scrambling her DNA.  Also, it was too hot to be walking around without AC. 

Huh, the thermometer built into her suit's arm still worked.  It read 105 degrees.   

Aya reached the stream that ran alongside their neighborhood.  A walking path followed the course and then crossed an old metal bridge before entering the wild woods beyond. 

She eyed the bridge.  It didn't look safe.  Rust peeked around the paint, and a few bolts were missing. 

Moocher scampered across and stopped at the far end, pretending to sniff the wildflowers growing in tufts there.  She saw his ears rotate, daring her to grab for him.

Right.  She set out, and the bridge didn't fall.  Moocher tensed, and she stopped halfway across.  While she waited for him to let his guard down, she reached between the metal supports and stuck the thermometer into the fast-running creek.  It was 78 degrees.  No wonder her parents kept telling her to 'go swimming'. 

They didn't see the little picture.  When she'd first come here, she checked the water under her x25 zoom, and one look at the horrifying underwater wilderness of algae cells and bacterium and insect larvae convinced her to stay in the suit.  The world was so different through human eyes.  Aya looked down the rush of water that burbled between gravel banks, down to where it joined the sea.  She'd loved the ocean when they flew here from Cape Canaveral.  From a distance, it looked so clean and neat and peaceful. 

Then the plane landed, and she saw the other side of Earth.

It was the jungle lurking at the far end of the bridge.  At first, she'd been dazzled by the pretty glistening green of the banana trees, the black shadows striping down.  She'd walked a little deeper, and it changed into a tangle of native trees fighting savagely for space.  Messy.  The texture stabbed at her, overwhelming after years in clean steel-colored rooms.  Up there, the only green you saw was the neat rows of foot-tall crops growing in hydroponics, producing food and oxygen.  Down here, life ran wild. 

Moocher flicked his tail and walked into the trees.

She hurried after him, and he picked up speed.  His black fur faded into the shadows.  She blinked her sun-dazzled eyes, wishing she could follow his paw-prints with her helmet scanner.     Sweat ran from her neck down her back, and her clothes got sticky.  With every step the suit seemed to get a pound heavier.   

She pushed herself to a jog.

The dark woods closed around her like teeth.  At least there wasn't a lot of brush to fight through.  Ants were the big problem.  They walked in lines everywhere, and she didn't want to slow down to carefully pick around them.

She took running jumps over the insects. 

Her face started to tingle with pins and needles.  She looked at the thermometer - 101 degrees.

Aya realized she was already compromised with pollen, mosquitoes, and who knows what else.  Her body was now a zoo, filled with all sorts of little bugs. 

Fine!  Whatever.

She pulled off every part of her now-useless encounter suit except the boots, wadded it into a bundle, and slung it over her shoulder like a duffel bag.

The air felt so good over her neck and arms!  No wonder people here risked all these weird creatures – this was the only way to survive without AC.

She was crashed on a hostile planet, her suit compromised, but they would never break her spirit! 

"Hm hm HMMMMM hmhmmmm."  She mumbled her favorite space opera theme song.  The tune helped her keep pace.

There!  She slowed to a sneak.  Moocher was right there – she needed to get close enough to grab him – he crouched and stared to the right, and she was four steps away – what was he looking at? Why was he fluffed up? - threeeeee, two steps – almost, alllllllmost -

"RrrrrrrRRRRRRRR!!!!"

Something rushed at them, blacker than the darkest shadows of the trees, big white teeth like the things in Monsters of the Wilds 3.  Her parents wouldn't let her see that show, and maybe she shouldn't have slipped into the entertainment room at midnight and watched it anyway because even with the sound muted, she had nightmares for weeks.  Now the nightmare was real.

Moocher, like a fuzzy comet, shot up a tree.  She swung up right after him.  It was so easy without gloves!  Her hands naturally curved along each branch, and she moved as fast as a flagellate chasing prey across a puddle. 

They got halfway up the tree.  Moocher hugged the trunk with arms and legs, claws digging in, every hair standing up.  Aya crouched on a branch, holding the trunk with one hand.  She leaned out and surveyed the monster.  If it climbed after them, she would do the right thing as senior officer of the away mission and sacrifice her life so Lieutenant Moocher could escape.

Oh great.  The neighbors' dog had gotten loose. 

Crippen was a big, bad-tempered animal who lurked in the yard next door.  He'd thrown himself against the fence and growled the one and only time she went into her own backyard.  He barked at anyone who walked past, barked when no one was outside, in fact he only stopped barking when he had a bone to chew. 

... but where did he get the bones?

Aya shivered and petted Moocher.  He didn't unpuff at all, and her hair probably stuck out as wildly as his, but it made her feel a little better. 

The dog below them kept circling and growling.  Every once in a while he would try to lunge up the tree. 

An officer has to earn the title.

She remembered that from the junior personnel handbook.  It meant: sometimes the right thing was the hard thing.

Aya pulled the encounter suit off her shoulder and touched the protective double layers.  It shielded her from everything creepy, viruses to insects.  It scanned, magnified, and telescopically zoomed, showing her what most textbooks didn't bother with ... the secret world of the biggest and smallest things.  What would she do without her suit? 

She threw it down.

Crippen rushed over and seized it by the chest plate where the central computer rested.  He tossed his head, whipping it hard in the air.  The badly damaged computer made squealing noises,  and the dog snarled. 

Aya knew she only had a minute before he lost interest in the new chew toy.  She grabbed Moocher by the scruff of his neck, pried him off the tree, and with one hand held him to her shoulder as she climbed down. 

Moocher stared with huge eyes at the dog and dug his claws in.  She bit her lip – officers aren't afraid of a little pain! - and they slipped away.  Crippen didn't look up from ripping at her suit.

The walk back took a long time.  Moocher squirmed, but she held his scruff firmly.  Eventually they broke free into the sunlight.  She crossed the railway bridge and trudged home.

She licked her cut lip and thought about her options.  There weren't any.  She couldn't sneak back in without her rockets.  She sighed and went around to the front gate. 

Mom was out there vacuuming under the car seats.

"Honey?!  What happened?"

"I took a walk with Moocher."  It was mostly true.  She hurried inside before Mom could ask anything else.

Dad stood there with a cup of coffee.

"What the – Aya, where's your suit?"

"I dunno."  Also technically true.  She hurried upstairs, closed the window, and put Moocher down.  He rushed under the bed and glared at her, his yellow eyes slitted and malevolent.

"A little light on the gratitude, lieutenant."

She felt sticky and stinky and dirty and so gross.  The Monera covering her were probably five layers deep.  On Station she would have insisted on getting into the decontamination chamber.  Here, she'd settle for a shower.  The wet washcloth wasn't up to this job.

Her jumpsuit was a lost cause until she could launder it and irradiate it in the sun outside.  She wanted to see how the bacteria liked having their DNA scrambled.  Until then, she was stuck with the clothes Mom set out. 

The pink shirt was as hideous as she remembered.  The jean shorts were … really soft to the touch.  They'd probably feel nice on her scratched legs.

She stepped into the shower and kept the water on 'cold'.  Liquid paradise!  She covered her mouth and nose with a towel and risked dunking her head under the torrent.   

"HEY!"

That came from outside!  Aya pulled herself up to the little window set high in the wall.  She saw Crippen running down the street, her tattered encounter suit waving in his jaws like a silvery flag.  Mom chased him, vacuum cleaner raised overhead like a weapon.  Dad raced after them.  He wore just one of Mom's pink flip-flops and was armed with a rolled-up newspaper. 

"Reinforcements deployed against hostile lifeforms!"



Levanah Sciple lives in the woods of central Tennessee.  When she's not busy chasing Wolf spiders and Copperhead snakes out of the house, she enjoys traveling the world, cooking at home, supporting the arts, and rotting  on the couch with a good video game.  Levanah has been a speculative fiction fanatic ever since she was nine years old and Robert A. Heinlein broke her brain and set her imagination on fire with his classic "-And He Built a Crooked House-".  She has decided to try her hand at writing in the genre she loves and is currently working on a science fiction novel and several short stories.





Congratulations to our July Winner Linda Adams!


THE SEA LISTENS

By Linda Adams




Ever since my grandfather Victor's death at sea had brought me home, the voices rolled in with the fog: a thousand voices whispering all at once, demanding attention but not understood.

I walked along the sandy beach, my hands burrowed into the pockets of my jacket.  It wasn't cold -- at least not for here, but it was at least a sixty degree drop for me.  I'd only been back now three days and felt like I'd have to be an Eskimo to live here.

But then it hardly looked like a summer day well into the morning.  Fog pressed against the world, blurring the lines of reality and imagination.  Just a few miles offshore, the sea disappeared into a white haze.  A foghorn echoed mournfully across the peninsula.

I didn't know why I kept coming out here.  Maybe I'd find an answer I was missing.  Maybe I'd catch a snatch of a conversation amidst those whispering voices.  But the words remained unclear, and my questions remained unanswered.

I stopped to gaze at the twin granite formations jutting out of the sea, known unofficially as "the Two Sisters."  The waves crashed around them, spraying foam higher and higher, as if angry that these rocks impeded the sea's path.  Victor had walked out to those rocks, perhaps from this very spot.

A shiver made the muscles in my back jump.  The whispers had intensified, as if urgently trying to communicate a message to me.

The whispers must be a trick of sound caused by the shape of the bay.  That's what I told myself at least, though I wasn't sure I believed it.  I wasn't sure I believed anything. The truth was that I'd already reached my limit of "too much," and this was one more thing to weigh me down.

Before I realized it, I was walking down the beach, staying just out of reach of the waves rushing in to greet me.  Up ahead was the only other person on the beach at this time, a fisherman.  He had the kind of beard that looked like he'd just forgotten to shave that day.  He was sprawled in a beach chair, a fishing line rising above the chair like an extra appendage.  The line disappeared in the surf.

Movement beyond the line caught my eye, and I turned to the water.  I took two steps forward to get a better look.  A head floated on the surface beyond the swelling of the waves.  It rolled with the current.  It was too far to tell much, but it looked like a woman.

Alarm pounded at me, and my soldier training kicked in.  I was ready to do something, even if I wasn't sure what.  It'd been quite a hike to get to the beach from where I'd parked my car.  While I could swim, I think even an Olympic medalist would have trouble in those breakers.

"Is someone out on the water?" I asked the old fisherman.

The fisherman didn't looked up from rummaging through his tackle box.  "Harbor seal.  They like to float with their heads out of the water."

A seal?  The sea was trying to trick me.  I stood on my toes, wishing the seal wasn't so far away.

"You're not from here," the fisherman said.  His voice sounded judgmental, disapproving.

I pushed that aside.  I'd had so much of it this last month that I wasn't sure if it was real or if I was imagining it.  "No.  My grandfather is -- was Victor Talmadge." 

"So you're the soldier.  Meredith.  They sent you back?"

Sent back wasn't the right phrase.  When I found out Victor had died, my commander had to hunt down the Red Cross message.  We'd moved eight times, and no one could figure out where we were.  I had two weeks of emergency leave, and then I had to go back.

I wanted to go back, but then I wasn't sure I wanted to go back.

"Yup," was all I could say.  "Did you ever see him out here?"

"All the time.  He'd walk back and forth on the beach, staring at the sea and muttering about the light.  He'd finally set up an easel and start painting. " The old fisherman blinked, sorrow crossing his face.  "Good artist.  I have one of his paintings.  Hard to believe he's gone."

The line tugged, and he turned his attention to it. 

I wandered on, listening to the voices. 

#

The fog was beginning to burn away by the time I returned to Victor's house.  The first thing that struck me about this place was that the streets didn't have curbs.  The lawns just rolled downhill and right into the roughly laid asphalt.  Victor's house was near the end of a street that dead-ended at a field overgrown with grass.

It was a two bedroom slab house, with white sidings and a red door.  Yellow rosebushes grew under the two front windows, and the lawn was still green.  I liked the houses here because each one was different.  It didn't look like some big cities I'd been where the builders had popped the house out of a giant mold and just changed the color.

A white cat approached me with delicate, fussy steps, stopping at my feet to crane her head up -- can a cat be anything but female?

I knelt and ran my hand over her spine, humming with pleasure at the softness of the fur.  The cat rammed her head against my leg, determined not to let the mortal who was paying attention to her go.

Footsteps slapped against the asphalt.  "Don't let her fool you.  We pet her all the time.  She's spoiled rotten."

I twisted around to see my visitor, a Hispanic woman well into grandmother's territory -- hair that had probably been brown now a mix of gray and white, a comfortable dress that hid stains, a white cardigan sweater to stay warm, and practical tennis shoes for chasing after little ones.

"What's her name?" I asked.  My fingers had found the sweet spot on the side of the cat's neck, and I scratched it gently while she tried to drive my hand to the ground with pleasure.

"Snowball."  The woman gave an apologetic smile.  "One of my nieces named her.  Never even seen snow.  You're Meredith, aren't you?  I'm Guadalupe Sanchez.  My house is over there."

She pointed to a house across the street that used to be only one story.  At some point someone had slapped a second story on top.  The first story was painted a pea soup green -- how did someone think that looked good?  Even the army didn't like that color, and the army was all about green.  The second story was an equally ugly brown, and the siding was smaller.

As if reading my mind, Guadalupe said, "My father did that years ago.  Created all manner of headaches.  My husband had to race to the county seat to get all the permits."  Her lips stretched into an easy smile of memories.  "I left it like this after he died.  It's him.  Besides, a coat of paint's not going to improve it."  Her tone changed, becoming motherly.  "How are you doing?"

"I don't know.  I feel like I should have slammed to a stop somewhere back there, but I keep moving in all these different directions.  Did Victor give you any idea that he was going to--" I couldn't bring myself to say the word suicide.  There was something vile about the thought of it.  I'd spent my last nine months watching for IEDs in front of me and preying hands behind me -- all I had thought about was staying alive and whole.

Guadalupe stuck her hands into the pockets of her dress.  "He was still mourning Opal's death."
I had to pause to count back.  With every day being the same in the war, I'd lost track of when I was.  It had been two years ago, and they'd both known it was coming.

"Did he stop painting?"

"No.  If anything, he painted even more.  Have you been inside?"

I glanced up at the house.  My eyes burned with unexpected tears because of the finality of going in that house.  "No, not yet."

"Want me and Snowball to come with you?" Guadalupe bent in half and scooped the fuzzball into her arms, settling the cat over her shoulder.

I grinned and scratched between Snowball's ears.  "Can't let her get unspoiled now, can I?"

We walked up the sloping lawn to the front door.  I noted holes here and there, drying in the sunlight.  Gophers were mining the lawn for goodies.

I'd been given a red key that opened the front door.  It stuck a little, swollen from the moisture in the air, and I put my shoulder to it to push it open.  Iciness reached out and grabbed me, not from air conditioning, but from a house that had sat empty, waiting for life to fill it.

The floors were hardwood, maple brown, and squeaked with my footsteps.  I remembered seeing these when I was little and thinking how strange they looked compared with our linoleum tile. 

All the furniture was gone, replaced with paintings stacked against the walls.  I went to one stack and fingered through it.  Victor always dated his paintings, and these had been done about three months ago.  Most were of the beach I had just been on, and specifically of the Two Sisters rock formation.  There was desperation and a loneliness in the paintings that reached out for me, as if he were looking for something and didn't know what it was.

"What is it about that place?" I murmured aloud.

"Some say it's haunted," Guadalupe said.

I glanced over my shoulder in surprise.  Haunted?   "Like people hearing voices or seeing ghostly mists?"

Snowball squirmed in Guadalupe's arms.  "Mind if I set her down?"  At my nod, she set Snowball on the floor.  The cat wandered over to sniff the edge of a painting.  "We all know about the voices.  They roll in with the fog every morning.  Some people follow them into the sea."

Something in her tone made me pause.  "You've heard them."

"Years ago."  Guadalupe busied herself with looking through a stack of paintings.  "I'd just gotten back, and it was hard adjusting."

"Vietnam?  You were a nurse?"

A nod.  "The army didn't do much for people with post-traumatic stress then, and even less for women.  According to everyone, I wasn't supposed to have any problems.  It seemed like those voices called to me in my dreams to go out there, and when I went to the shore, I wanted to walk into the sea."  She knelt to pet Snowball.  The cat's feathery tail trailed along her chin.  "I haven't been back there since." 

"What do you think the voices are?"

Guadalupe let out a breath.  "The story is that those two rocks were sisters.  They were waiting for their husbands to come home on a fishing boat.  But the fog was bad, and the ship crashed into the rocks and sank.  The two sisters were so distraught that they walked into the sea and became those rocks."  She took up my hand.  Her fingers were cold.  "You shouldn't go out there again, Meredith.  It's not safe."

Snowball, losing interest in us, trotted through the doorway that led to the hallway connecting the bathroom and bedrooms.

"Let's see what Snowball's checking out," I said, carefully avoiding Guadalupe's eyes.

Oil paint crowded out the other smells.  Victor's room was at the end of the hallway, the door open.  A corner of the bed was visible, looking curiously sterile, like no one had lived here.

The other bedroom was closed off with a wooden door.  I remembered these doors, too.  All I'd ever seen before were painted ones, but these were real wood. This one door glared back at me, forbidding me to enter.  Even Snowball didn't seem interested in the door.

"He painted in there," Guadalupe said.

I stared at that door, my hands closing into fists, fingernails pressing against my flesh.   Fear thudded in my throat.  I couldn't go in.  I didn't want to know what his last painting was.

#

By the time I rolled out of bed the next morning at oh-dark thirty, the fog had already come in for its daily visit.  I puttered around the hotel room for an hour, waiting until the day got light enough out.

I'd been worn out by the events of the previous day and should have slept heavily, but instead I kept drifting into dreams about the beach.  About that harbor seal I'd seen.  Twice in my dreams, the harbor seal had become a woman with silver hair and golden brown skin.

And I thought I knew why Victor had gone out there.

Maybe.

#


The fog draped itself over the beach, and at times, I wondered if it had started raining.  I kept feeling prickles of dampness on my skin.  Except for the waves spilling ashore, the fog quieted the world with misty fingers.

But I knew my mystery woman was out there.  Perhaps watching me.  "Can I talk to you?" I called out to the sea.  My voice sounded more tentative than I liked.

I scanned the choppy water.

Nothing.

Maybe it was just me.

Then a head appeared above the surface in the distance.  Harbor seal?  No.  Definitely female.  The head ducked under the water.  A few minutes later she emerged from the surf, moving like a seal.  She came ashore, bouncing, using her arms to walk on the sand.  The surf splashed around her.  Both her long hair and her tail were a silvery-gray, and covered with mottled spots.  Natural camouflage.

I sat down in the soft sand so we could both be at eye level.  It seemed only polite.  But how did one talk to a mermaid?  I decided common courtesy would probably be okay.  "My name is Meredith."

"I'm Erala." 

Maybe I'd expected her voice to be musical, especially after listening to stories about the siren call of mermaids.  But the voice was ordinary.  I could have heard it on the street.

"Are you the only one ... out there?"

Her lips pressed into a smile.  "No, there are more.  We conceal ourselves as seals."

"Why did you let me see you the other day?"

"We tell stories.  Share them across the waves.  You have stories you need to tell."

"No."  I was already shaking my head.  "No one wants to hear those.  Some act like I'm whining about nothing, and others --" I shrugged.  "They don't want to hear the truth.  What happened with my grandfather?"

"He was lost in his grief, and he was looking for escape."  A wave splashed over Erala's tail and reached for me before being pulled back into the sea.  "He heard what he wanted in our voices."

I nodded, my throat tightening up.  My heart told me it was true.  If he hadn't walked into the sea, he would have probably withered away from a broken heart.  The day Opal died something in Victor had gone with her, never to return.

Erala clasped her hand around mine.  There was course webbing between her fingers.  "The best stories aren't the happy ones.  Sometimes you have to tell the story to wash out all the poison.  Tell me yours."

Somehow then, my mouth opened, and words came out.  Haltingly at first, as if I were trying to find my balance.  I was the private in basic training, being taught again and again, to trust my squad leaders, to trust my officers.  And then I was sent to war, and those same people abandoned me one by one.  The only person I could trust was myself.

By the time I was finished, tears were cooling on my cheeks, and all the energy had drained from my body.  As I reached up to wipe my face, a flash of movement made me turn to the sea.  In the water were more heads, floating above the surface, all listening to me.

"Come back and finish the story," Erala said.  "We'll be here."  She turned and waddled back into the surf.

I stayed on the beach for some time after the mermaid left, watching as the fog melted into the sunlight.  I finally stood and trudged back up the beach.  The door to Victor's last painting still waited, but I was ready for it now.



Linda Adams is a travel administrator by day and a fiction writer by night.  She has a horror story coming out in October in Fabula Argentea and is working on a contemporary fantasy/action-adventure novel. 

She is also a former soldier and served during the first Persian Gulf War, when it was still strange and new for women to be at war.  You can visit her blog "Soldier, Storyteller" at http://garridon.wordpress.com/

Congratulations to our June Winner W. Klein!


THE MYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE by W.Klein

The stars and stripes fluttered proudly in their patriotic vigor, but Jeremy Richardson felt rather less enthusiastic.  What had this supposedly great nation given him, after all, besides pain and sorrow?  It seemed to the lanky seventeen-year-old that it had taken far more than it had given.
   
"Jeremy?" his mother leaned in and whispered through her black veil.  "Are you okay?"
   
Okay?  How could anything possibly be okay?  Michael was gone.  He'd never have a big brother again.  Ever.  All because
Michael had felt some noble urge to go serve his country, leaving him here, alone, in nowheresville, empty-handed and solely responsible for his frail and sickly, mother.  Not to mention the mortgage.
   
"I'm fine, mom."  What a lie.
   
The minister spoke the benediction, and three rifle volleys reverberated through the treeless cemetery.  Jeremy flinched at each one, and his mom let out a sob that made it feel like his chest, too, was being blown apart by shrapnel and debris.
   
After the funeral, the receiving line stretched on and on.  Jeremy shook hands and accepted hugs and condolences robotically.  Each face blended into the next, exasperated by the fact that so many wore military uniforms.  One by one they saluted him and talked about how kind and generous and brave his brother had been, as if Jeremy didn't know the kind of person his brother was.
   
From the time they were kids, Michael had been the one that everyone admired.  He got good grades, and even when he and his friends got caught throwing snowballs at Old Man Thatcher, he'd been first to admit to the deed and, by way of apology, offer to shovel Thatcher's sidewalk the rest of the winter for free.  That Michael Richardson, people would say, he's a good kid. 
   
And now that good kid was buried six feet under in a military cemetery fifty miles from the Virginia hicksville they called home.
   
Jeremy was so consumed with misery that when a uniformed soldier reached out both hands to forcefully clasp his, Jeremy jumped and drew back.  The man held him tight.  He had dark, persistent eyes that zoomed in on Jeremy's, making him feel like he was staring down the business end of a rifle.
   
"Jeremy, right?" The man's voice was low and insistent.  It cracked, ever so slightly when he spoke.
   
Jeremy just nodded.  The man pushed a slip of paper into his hand.
   
"Michael told me to give you this," he whispered as he leaned in more closely, "if anything were to happen to him."
   
Jeremy stared down at it, mesmerized by the way the folds aligned precisely with the light blue lines in a perfect geometric square, exactly two inches wide, just as Michael had done with every note they passed since he was six years old.
   
"But--" Jeremy looked up, but the man had disappeared.
   
The rest of the day blurred together, with the long drive back home and a reception afterward, and more long-faced relatives sticking around, sipping tea and filling the silences into the late hours of the night.  Midnight had come and gone before Jeremy could retreat to his room and read the message.
   
"Meet me at JFK.  Atlantis.  May 4.  11:45p.m.  Don't tell anyone."
   
JFK.  Not the airport, Jeremy knew.  When they were young, back before their mother became too ill to travel, she had let them decide where to go on vacation.  Every year Michael voted for the same destination: the Kennedy Space Center.
   
Jeremy crumpled up the paper and threw it across the room to the wastebasket.  It missed, of course.  Michael would have sunk it.
   
Tears prickled Jeremy's eyes and he pushed himself up from the bed and stalked over to the trash can to retrieve the paper, his final link to his brother.  He picked it up gently and smoothed it out, now sorry that he had been so careless with it.  He'd have to press it under some thick books to flatten it out completely.
   
His room was in disarray, as usual, but there, on his desk, sat a neglected algebra textbook, thick enough with unsolved problems to serve his purposes.  He flicked on his desk lamp, a quirky fiber optic ball with a black light bulb that Michael had gotten him for Christmas one year.  It didn't provide a lot of light for studying, but then again, it wasn't like Jeremy did a lot of studying anyways.
   
Much to his surprise, when he set the scrap of paper on the desk, the black light shone on it and revealed a hidden message inked invisibly behind the pencil markings: blocky letters DMC in an '80s-era font.
   
"Delorean Motor Company?"
   
Jeremy's hand shook and he dropped the note.  No, it was impossible.  Yet, if he understood his brother's hidden message right, he might still have some chance of seeing him one last time, maybe even giving him a warning...
   
Jeremy checked the calendar, then the clock.  He had twenty-four hours to get from upstate Virginia to mid-Florida.  He pulled out his cell phone and calculated the travel time on a map app.  Twelve hours.  Looking around frantically, he grabbed his school bag and dumped out the books, discarded Cheetos bags, and pencil shavings.  Then he filled it up with a few Little Debbies from under his bed, a change of clothes, and the entire box of cash he'd made mowing lawns this spring.  He didn't bother counting it.
   
At the last minute, he remembered to write his mom a note and leave it on the fridge.  He hated to lie to her, but she wouldn't believe him if he told her.  Jeremy wasn't even sure he believed it, but he had to know for sure.  On the way out the door, he spotted that day's newspaper, with his brother's obituary on the front.  He hesitated, then folded it up and shoved it in his bag.

***
   
Late the next afternoon, Jeremy woke to an elbow in his ribs.
   
"Hey, kid.  We're here."
   
Jeremy blinked into the bright sunlight and tried to orient himself.  He wiped some drool from the corner of his mouth, hoping the cute girl across the aisle hadn't noticed.  Furtively, he glanced over, but she wasn't seated there anymore.  Must have gotten off earlier.
   
The man next to him was a tall, thin guy with a week-old beard and clothes that hadn't been washed in just as long.  They'd been sitting together since Richmond, so long that he'd grown accustomed to the man's funky scent and the way he clicked his tongue as he talked.
   
"We're at the space center?" Jeremy asked, squinting out the window.
   
"Yup."  Click-click.  "Your stop."  Click-click.
   
"Thanks."  Jeremy nodded and scooped up his bag.  He'd have a few hours to kill looking around at the rockets and displays, and finding a place to hide when the security guards ushered everyone else out at closing time.  His stomach rumbled.  First, a snack.
   
The rest of the afternoon passed with aching slowness.  The last time he'd been here Jeremy had been twelve, Michael fourteen.  Michael had insisted on reading every single plaque and display out loud.  Turned out, not many of the displays had been updated in the past five years.  Jeremy could almost hear his brother's voice babbling on about propulsion and rocket fuel and the dehydrated ice cream in the gift shop.
   
Jeremy's eyes watered, and he wiped them with his sleeve.  His loud sniffle drew the attention of a gray-haired couple standing nearby.  "Allergies," he explained.
   
Taking a page from a book Michael had read to him when they were kids, Jeremy entered the bathroom five minutes before closing time.  He sat on the tank with his feet propped on the seat and waited.  The security guard didn't even check the bathroom; he just reached in with one arm and flipped the light off.  Jeremy waited in the dark, rereading Michael's note by the light of his cell phone screen and playing Angry Birds until 11:30pm.  Then, he quietly stepped down from the toilet and left the bathroom.
   
The Kennedy Space Center seemed less friendly in the dark.  Bright red EXIT lights cast distorted shadows on the displays.  Jeremy walked swiftly to the enormous hanger that housed the display of the space shuttle Atlantis, arriving long before 11:45.  He hunkered down beneath it and stared up at its dark panels, still streaked by the heat of reentry.  His mind wandered to the vastness of the universe, to all of its still-unexplained mysteries.  No wonder Michael had wanted to meet him here.
   
"Pondering the mysteries of the universe?"
   
Jeremy stood up quickly.  There in front of him stood his brother.  The brother whom, just yesterday, he had committed to the earth.  "What?"
   
"I asked if you were pondering the mysteries of the universe."
   
"What?  No.. I mean... How?  What are you doing here?"
   
By the glow of an emergency floodlight, Jeremy saw his brother's face screw up in a pained smile.  "So I don't make it back, huh?"
   
"I'm here to warn you!"  Jeremy said.  He grabbed his brother's arm and pushed the newspaper into his hand, jabbing a shaky finger at the obituary.
   
"Not how it works, little brother," Michael said, gently pulling his arm from Jeremy's grip.  "I told Devon to give you the note if something happened to me.  He did, so that means something already did happen to me."  He stared down at the paper.  "Seems it has."
   
"But--!"
   
"To be frank, I was kind of hoping I wouldn't find you here tonight," he said with a shrug.   He refolded the paper and shoved it in his back pocket. "But, I couldn't go without saying goodbye, and at this point, it doesn't really matter if you know."
   
"About the time travel, you mean?  So it's true?  You're here, what, from the past?"
   
"Yup.  March 1."
   
"Today's May 4, so you're from about two months in the past.  But, how?  I thought you were an engineer in the Marines."
   
"We're working together with NASA on a special project, codename DMC.  One of those sort of 'if I tell you, I'd have to kill you' sort of things, but since I'm already dead --"
   
"Don't say that!"
   
Michael shrugged.  "Why not?  It's true.  Something must have gone wrong on one of the test missions.  Tell me, when do I die?"
   
"We were told April 15 that it had happened the day before."
   
"Makes sense.  We're traveling out further each time they send us.  I think mid-April is when I'm scheduled to go a hundred years into the future.  No one's ever been that far in before, so we have no idea what we'll find there."
   
"But now that you know, you won't go, right?"
   
Michael shot him an incredulous look.  "You're kidding, right?"
   
"Michael, you die."
   
Michael sighed.  "Everyone dies sometime, little brother.  I knew when I volunteered that there were risks involved.  Think of these guys," he gestured to the various spacecraft all around them.  "Do you think they didn't know that some of them would die in the pursuit of knowledge about the universe?"
   
"But, Michael," Jeremy said, shaking his head.  "You know for sure."
   
"Do I?"  He raised an eyebrow.  "Did you see the body?"
   
Jeremy frowned.  The body in the morgue had been an awful, charred mess.  It barely looked human.  They IDed it as Michael by the dog tags.  "Are you saying that wasn't you?"
   
"It's possible.  If I were to have gotten stuck in a future era, they'd have to come up with something to tell you, wouldn't they?"
   
They stood silently for a moment, simply staring at one another.
   
"So, now what?  You're just going to go off to some future and leave mom and me here alone?"
   
Michael shifted uncomfortably.  "I'm sorry, little brother.  What's done is done.  If I stay here, then Devon doesn't give you that note and you don't come and we don't have this conversation at all.  You can't change the past."
   
Jeremy cursed and kicked at a metal barricade, sending it clattering to the ground.  He slumped down to the floor and buried his head in his hands.  "How could you do this to me?  To mom?  I'm going to have to drop out of school, or we'll lose the house, and --"
   
"Hey, now," Michael knelt down beside him.  "You're going to be fine.  I know it."
   
"Yeah?  How?"
   
"Because I know you.  You're one of the best people I know.  Like, that time when we were little, and me and my friends were picking on you because you refused to throw snowballs at Mr. Thatcher?  It wasn't until after we got caught that I realized how much smarter, how much braver you were to stand up to us and say no.  I felt terrible for being such an awful example for you.  That's why I offered to shovel his walk all winter.  That's why I worked so hard to get good grades.  That's why I joined the military.  I wanted to be a big brother you could be proud of."
   
Then, before his eyes, his brother began to fade, becoming as transparent as a ghost.
   
"Ooops... time's up.  Tell mom I love her."
   
"Michael--!"  How could he tell him, in those few precious moments of time, how much he admired and loved him, how much he looked up to him, how much he would miss him?
   
Jeremy grabbed at Michael's arm, but it passed through thin air, as if he had never been there.  Jeremy sat underneath the Atlantis and sobbed, knowing his brother was now truly gone.

***
   
If Jeremy's mom had noticed his absence, she didn't show it.  The next days passed with an aching emptiness, punctuated only by exasperated sighs and the clinking of silverware on Tupperware dishes brought by neighbors.
   
"His box came today," Jeremy's mother announced one morning, tossing the package on the kitchen table.  "You can open it.  I can't bear to."
   
"Mom," Jeremy said, "it's okay.  We're going to be alright."  He crossed over to her and pulled her fragile body into a warm embrace.
   
"Oh, Jeremy," she sobbed.  "I hope you're right."
   
When she pulled away, he forced a shaky smile, and -- though he could see how it pained her -- she returned one of her own.
   
"Go ahead."  She gestured to the box once more.  "I'll go start lunch."
   
Jeremy watched her leave, and then pulled out his pocket knife.  The cardboard box contained very little -- a few articles of clothing, and a copy of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.  Jeremy grinned. 
   
Grabbing a soda pop, he headed out to the porch, where he sat down on an armchair and opened the book.  An envelope fluttered out from its pages and slipped underneath the chair.  Jeremy snatched it from the floor.  Leaning forward in his chair, he tore it open and out dropped three pieces of paper. 
   
A note.  A newspaper clipping with his brother's obituary.  A lottery ticket.
   
"What?"  Michael had always been so practical; why had he bought a lottery ticket?  It was a very un-Michael thing to do.  Then, Jeremy flipped over the newspaper clipping.  The lottery numbers for that date.  They matched exactly.  Jeremy scrambled to open the note and quickly read over the unfamiliar handwriting.
  
 "Jeremy Richardson," it said.  "Your brother was a great friend of mine, which is why, when I figured out what he was doing, I didn't turn him in or keep the ticket for myself.  I used his money, and he told me when to buy it and what numbers to use, so I guess legitimately it's his, and therefore now yours.  He wanted you to use it for school and to make sure your mom is taken care of, but he said that I didn't need me to tell you that, because he knew you'd do the right thing with it anyway.  The message he did want me to give you, though, was this:
  
 'Same time, same place, in 25 years.  Can't wait to see you.


***

W. Klein has had an interest in writing since the first grade, when she wrote a screenplay for "The Wizard of Oz" for her class to perform.  She lives a quiet life in West Michigan with her husband and two sons, and loves nothing more than curling up with a cup of tea and a good book.

Congratulations to our May Winner Deb Kapke!


The Grandmother Clause
by Deb Kapke

It was the feeling of having your stomach in your throat like on a roller coaster only it didn't stop at the bottom of the hill. There was no hill. It was no roller coaster. When the feeling started to subside she opened her eyes. The helicopter was still there above her head -- a little higher and smaller now -- pounding like drums. The cirrus clouds behind it looked so soft and delicate. The chopper was hard and dark.

Esmeralda was looking for a solid answer.

A week ago Esmeralda stood in front of the Reviewer. She told him, "I wish to see my grandmother's death, so I know."

"Esmeralda," he said, "let it go. What does it matter anymore? It was an accident."

"People still talk. They blame Poppy. After all these years, I want to know. It's my right."

The law allowed a type of energy viewing called MT5.0.7. It was permitted for use 50 years after the original incident. This was to prevent abuse of the system while still allowing people to review an event as it actually happened. Like family. Like Esmeralda. But with longer life spans these days, the law would need revision eventually. Esmeralda figured she better do it now before she lost her chance.

She wrinkled her brow and looked into the eyes of the Reviewer. "I need to know."

It wasn't bad right after the accident. Everyone loved Juanita, and people were full of condolences. But then the whispers started. Whether through guilt or gossip or pure grief, Esmeralda's grandfather never recovered. When he’d see Esmeralda there would be a hint of the old twinkle, but it quickly faded. Even those who knew him, and never would have imagined him to be guilty, began to have their doubts. Esmeralda grew up loving what was left of Poppy and her family, but the unknown still pulled at her gut.

The MT5.0.7 equipment interpreted the energy patterns from the past using just a few physical pieces of matter from the original event. Anyone could read minds and see events as they actually happened, once the time law allowed. Before that, only an official inquisitor conducting an investigation could apply for MT5.0.7. People still wanted their privacy. But just the knowledge that a statement could be accurately confirmed was often enough to move an investigation along. It changed detective work and crime but didn't eliminate either.

This was Esmeralda's turn to find out how her grandmother died. There had been so many rumors, but the official determination remained, "accident." Conspiracy theories and intrigue, however, are downright immortal.

They tried to blame Juanita's husband, Esmeralda's Poppy, because he would have been one of only a few to have access to all the equipment, and he was in the chopper when it happened. When it was also revealed that they argued that morning, suspicions grew.

Juanita was an extreme sport stunt performer called a Bubble Rider. Resorts and tourist spots would hire her. She'd jump out of a good ol' fashioned helicopter, do some flips and twirls, then a glider bubble would deploy. They were iridescent and beautiful. A skilled rider could manipulate a glider bubble to take on any number of shapes -- parachute, glider, a bubble surfer. After her acrobatic moves, Juanita would continue her descent down the oceanic winds and drop onto waves, where her bubble bounced a bit then pushed her in to shore like a surfboard. She drifted into bays at beach-area resorts in front of enthusiastic fans.

She died on vacation. It wasn't even a stunt dive. A ten year old could have made that jump.

And now it was Esmeralda feeling the pull of gravity as she accelerated through the atmosphere. She wasn't really jumping, of course, but this was how MT5.0.7 viewing technology worked. Once hooked up you were
there.

The helicopter was tinier as it began to turn away. Esmeralda hadn't known helicopters were so loud. They were old even in Juanita's day, dancing in the skies like hulking Paleozoic insects. Now there were only a few left, and most of them were grounded.

Esmeralda's eyes watered, and she blinked, barely opening her eyes before blinking again. Her adrenaline rush grew.

Then, like a child's iridescent soap bubble expanding from a wand, the glider quivered and shimmered as it deployed above the ocean, and her descent slowed dramatically. A squirmy human was metamorphosed into a butterfly. Drifting a bit before turning in casual twists, Esmeralda was starting to enjoy this. "I see what Juanita liked so much." She giggled and smiled.

Then there was a flash and a loud steady beep, and Esmeralda fell back into reality. Somebody was yelling, "Shit! Shit! Shit! Is she okay?" It was over. The MT5.0.7 had powered down, and Esmeralda was no longer in Juanita's mind. Juanita was again long since gone. Sirens were going off, and floating view screens were locked in warning messages.

Esmeralda gasped. "What happened?" Dazed, confused. She didn't get to see how Juanita died. Juanita had not been worried. She was glad to be out in the air, feeling great, not even mad at Poppy. Everything was fine. But Esmeralda was back in the dim room where she'd started. The machine had dropped her out of the connection.

The techs frantically checked readings and reviewed logs. Esmeralda eased herself into a shaky sitting position. Electrodes were still connected like antennae.

Glider bubbles could be sensitive to energy. It was why bubble riders liked to use helicopters – less chance of glider disruption from a chopper than more modern craft.

Checking the view time on the MT5.0.7, it was the exact time Juanita's bubble had failed. Both machines dropped both women at the same point of Juanita’s jump.

It was the feeling of having your stomach in your throat.

Esmeralda felt beyond a doubt that Poppy didn't kill Juanita whether by accident or on purpose, but unfortunately Esmeralda and the MT5.0.7 may have. A new investigation was opened. Once again the official determination was, "accident."


Deb lives near the nation's capital with her DH, awesome tween daughter, and two crazy cats. She is a mom and graphic designer who enjoys friends and family, playing games, reading and writing speculative fiction, making small art, eating yummy food, and drinking lots and lots of tea.




Congratulations to our April winner Jennifer Povey!

 


Bright Ladies

Jennifer R. Povey



The Bright Lady was moored outside the town, above the reds of the desert. That was wise on the part of her captain, for the airship was not registered in any port. In fact, the townsmen likely knew their visitors were outlaws or pirates, but they didn't care. It was hard to question the motives and legal status of people who brought good money with them, as these pirates did.


Just as their ancestors who plied the seas, they'd stolen money and treasure. Now they came to spend it - on booze, on women (and sometimes men), and on supplies. Those who dealt with them would come out well, with both money and protection.


The Lady's captain was a swarthy man with a full moustache, known to the rest of the crew simply as Pete. He was not a man who felt the need for some crazy moniker, nor was he a flamboyant individual. Instead, he relied on his skill and his (quite present, but not nearly as considerable as he thought) good looks to succeed in his life of crime. He was neither greatly popular nor vastly unpopular. He treated the crew harshly, but fairly, never denying a man his share nor sparing punishment when it was needed. The sun was setting as he swaggered into town, setting to reveal a night with no moon.


No moon was one reason they were currently moored. None of them liked flying on moonless nights. Even though it was easier to navigate, it was harder to see and to stay focused. Even in the fading light, desert stretched as far as the eye could see. But then, there was little left of this continent but desert. Hence piracy. If Pete was honest with himself, he'd admit it was the only way he could imagine to survive. Perhaps in the old days of oceans he would have been a pirate, perhaps not. Either way, he was a pirate now, and he had a full purse.


It jangled as he strode into the saloon, the doors swinging closed behind him. It was a little cooler inside from a fan struggling against the summer heat. Townsmen filled the tables, and a few townswomen, although this was no place for a lady. The painted wenches who served the drinks were certainly not ladies, unless one immediately followed it with "of the night." Pete had no problem recognizing whores when he saw them, and he smiled inwardly.


He would find a good woman tonight. Or at least a skilled and expensive one. With the money he had he could afford the best in the house. Just another way to make a living, and the best whores he'd known had chosen it with their eyes open and enjoyed it.


He preferred a woman to enjoy it, even if he was paying her. "A drink and a girl," he told the waitress, flicking a grin. "Somebody experienced."


Some men got excited by virgins. Pete found them hard work. The girl giggled. "Sophie's available." She pointed to a sultry brunette.


Good. She wasn't a girl, but she wasn't fading out and turning grey yet either. Pete thought she would definitely do. "Booze first, though." In this place there was no chance of beer, but they had the strong, sweet liquor made from cactus flowers.


Not as good as some he'd had, but as he sipped at it the sultry Sophie approached. She was dressed in a purple gown edged with white feathers, something which spoke to him of the missing moon. It contrasted beautifully with her hair. Whoever the madam was, she was giving her girls good advice. A little overdone, perhaps, but that seemed to be the style here. Pete liked overdone anyway.


He was just reaching out to her when a commotion sounded in the street outside, a commotion that alerted his trained senses on a moonless night, the streets not well lit. He turned from Sophie and moved to the door. Fortunately he'd had only the one drink. His senses were still sharp, even if some parts of him didn't want to pull away from the woman in the feather-edged gown. Then he heard gun shots: three of them in rapid succession. Somebody had a semi-automatic.


Hard to find these days, semi-automatics. "Down and stay down!" Pete yelled at the inhabitants of the saloon, although he was too slow for most of them. Sophie had dived under a table. They knew what to do in a firefight. Good. He positioned himself behind the door pillar, letting the solid wood protect him. The double doors gave him enough of a field of view to see something of what was going on. He knew what to do in a firefight too, and he pulled out his pistol. His single-shot pistol. That was all he had, one shot, and he was going to use it very carefully indeed.


Then somebody knocked over the street lamp or blew it out. He wasn't sure what had happened, except that the street was plunged into darkness. The shooting stopped.

Good. Nobody involved was actually crazy. Nobody was firing into total pitch black night.


Something flickered. A match, lit for a moment, then fading. Pete felt his breathing start to return to normal. The lights in the saloon had gone out too, a moment after those in the street. The barkeep had probably turned them off so they wouldn't be the only visible targets.


He stepped out into the nighttime street. "Okay, gentlemen, I don't know who was shooting at who, but if any Bright Lady crew were involved, they'd better get their butts back to the ship. Now."


He thought he heard running feet. It might have been his crew. It might just have been somebody clearing the area and willing to risk tripping over in the dark. Then it wasn't dark any more.


With a suddenness, a lantern was lit. An electric lantern, expensive and hard to recharge. Somebody had money. Automatic weapons and electric lanterns, and Pete felt something in his stomach tighten. He only had his old gun. It had served him well, but it couldn't match...


...that carried by the woman who held the lantern. He blinked, but the sight remained. A woman in a pink gown, in the dark of the moon. "Don't worry, pirate, you aren't my enemy."


He felt himself relax. Those words and her sex disarmed him, but he shook his head. He knew he needed to focus and to concentrate. Just because she said it didn't mean she wasn't his enemy.


"As long as you aren't shooting at my crew."


"They had the sense to get out of my way." She closed the distance between them. Blonde hair. Remarkably young, but with a certain old look in her eyes. The face of somebody who had been through a war. On a young woman.


Pete shook his head. "Then who is your enemy?"

She wandered past him to the body lying in the street and kicked at it idly. "He was." She kicked harder and turned the body over.


For a moment, Pete didn't recognize the face. Then he did. The notorious bounty hunter who called himself the Red Fox. Taken down by a young woman. Superior weapon or not, she was dangerous. At the same time... "He's no loss," Pete admitted. 
The Fox didn't care who he killed as long as he got to his quarry. He was likely the one who had taken out the lights, not her. It would be his style - he was not a sly fox, no, he was a crazy one. But at the same time, it was hard to trust the woman who had killed him.


"Less than no loss. He needed killing." She'd tucked the gun into her bag, but he could still see part of the handle poking out. Other than that, and the fact that the bag was a little large for the dress, she looked like a respectable woman.


He knew better. No respectable woman could outdraw the Fox. No respectable woman would. Before, women had fought in the army, had carried guns on the streets. The history said that. Before the desert.


Now, women were too valuable for that. This one, though. "What will you do now you've got him?"


Her expression turned lost. "I don't know."


She was a woman, but she clearly had skills. "Come with me." He was sober enough, and he no longer wanted the whore, as gorgeous as she was. He began walking toward his ship.


She fell in next to him, striding casually. They both knew that if she wanted him dead, he'd be dead. Her lantern lit the way. "I'll give you a place on my crew," he said as they walked.


"I'm a woman," she noted, unnecessarily.


"Did you take out the Fox?"


"Yes. But I got lucky. He was drunk."


He laughed at that admission. "Lesson number one. Don't get so drunk you can't shoot straight or think straight. Drink, sure, but never to excess."


She nodded.


"Still, he shot better drunk than most men sober. You may have gotten lucky, but most luck is made. Are you interested?" The crew would think he was crazy, but they trusted him. He knew she'd have to fight off the indecent propositions, but she was surely used to that.


She looked up at the moonless sky. "I don't have any place to go. I can't go back..."


Back to being a respectable woman. Or even a whore. Pete thought of Sophie. Not a bad life, but not one for this woman.


"Then come forward. With me." And he knew he wasn't just interested in her as a potential extra gun for the crew. This was going to be a challenge. For them...and for her.




Jennifer R. Povey is in her late thirties, and lives in Northern Virginia with her husband. She writes a variety of speculative fiction, whilst following current affairs and occasionally indulging in horse riding and role playing games. She has sold fiction to a number of markets including Analog, Digital Science Fiction, and Cosmos. Her first novel, Transpecial, was published by Musa Publishing in April, 2013.

Website: http://www.jenniferrpovey.com/

 

Congratulations to our March Winner Shari L Klase!

                                  


                    
Tree of Life
                                                 
   By Shari L Klase


It was a warm rainy day. The raindrops that poured down Evangeline’s cheeks felt like tears. Her life, once free and happy, was forever changed. She had watched it happen; her mother’s life wasting away little by little, until only a spidery web of herself was left. Evangeline had held her mother’s hand. It was cold and bony. After her mother passed, Evangeline ran outside and stood in the drenching rain. She let the rain cry for her because somehow she couldn’t.

Suddenly the rain stopped and she saw it. It was the most vivid, color-kissed rainbow she had ever seen. It was ironic that rainbows meant promise. God had promised never to flood the world again. She felt only despair. That was the first time Evangeline wondered what it would be like to live forever. She would make it her life’s journey to find out how.

It was nothing new. The Egyptians buried their most famous kings in the pyramids of Giza. Khufu had the most elaborate pyramid of all. But they’d never found his body or even his sarcophagus. Had he found everlasting life?

Ponce De Leon searched diligently for a legendary fountain that could make the old young again. He explored the Bahamas and Bimini but he never found the Fountain of Youth. He died at age 61.

Evangeline didn’t want to just discover endless youth. She wanted to live life without pain, sickness or the final price of death. She didn’t want to experience the ending her mother had. She wanted life without finality.

All her life she’d been taught from the Bible and she believed the stories in it. Actually she more than believed them; she breathed them. She believed in the ability to relive them. She was going to find Eden.

Evangeline remembered sitting with her mother as a small girl. She worshipped her mother’s doe-eyes and glistening brown hair. She touched it lovingly as her mother spoke.

“In the middle of the Garden, Eve, was the Tree of Life. If the man and woman were to eat of it, they would live forever. Instead, they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They chose poorly, but you won’t, will you, Eve?”

Evangeline shook her head solemnly. “I’ll choose life,” she said. So now she chose to find that Tree of Life. If she found it, she would live forever.

There were many clues to Eden’s location. A river ran through the Garden that split into four head waters; the Euphrates River, the Gihon River, the Pishon River and the Tigris River. Yet, she found in her studies that these rivers did not exist anymore all together or at all. Still there were two speculated locations: one in Turkey on the Plains of Haran and one in Havilah, east of Egypt, where there was an abundance of gold and precious stones and the Karun River and the Karkheh River had flowed into the Persian Gulf before the 10th Century AD.

Evangeline knew when she found Eden. A rainbow stood above it. She was led there as clearly as if God had written it on a stone tablet with his own finger. No one had known that the entranceway was through a lost pyramid. Perhaps the pyramid had only appeared for Evangeline, but when she stepped through that entrance she knew she’d found the thing she’d sought.

She gasped as she saw the lush vegetation and exotic orchids. Trees with feathery fronds swayed like hula dancers in the breeze. She felt its magic settle on her like silk.

Then she noticed a hideous gargoyle with a flaming sword barring the way. It had four heads each with a fearsome face and 4 wings spread out from its body. One face was the face of a lion, another the face of an ox, the third an eagle’s face and finally a man’s face. The gargoyle had calves’ feet and was the color of bronze. She stood frozen before it.

It spoke to her from the man’s face. “You wish to pass?” it asked.
“Yes,” Evangeline replied trembling. “I do.”

He looked at her as if he could see through her. “One may pass,” he finally told her.

Evangeline did not hesitate. She was “the one” who would pass. She took a step.

“Wait!” the voice rang out. “If you enter, you enter eternal paradise. There is no turning back.”

“I don’t want to turn back. I want to live forever. I choose life.”

“Then proceed,” the beast instructed her.

As she progressed into the garden, wonders met her eyes. Trees of every kind and description drooped with luscious fruit. Colorful blue Morpho butterflies flitted around her face. Birds of radiant orange, red and purple hues whooshed here and there. She meandered through the garden awestruck by it all. But she was searching for one thing; the Tree of Life. She would eat from it and never die. As she wandered farther and farther into the garden, she came upon a river. She bent down and drank from it. The water was sweet and sparkling. Just then a furry mane brushed against her. Evangeline gasped, but the lion had no plans to lunch on her. It was as tame as a tabby cat. It rubbed its shaggy body against her and purred.

At last she found what she was looking for. She had no doubt when she stood before the magnificent tree that it was the one : the Tree of Life. It’s branches were luxurious and heavy with fruit. She reached out and pulled off one. It was golden and looked delectable. She did not know what kind of fruit it was. She held it reverently, yet she hesitated to eat it. This was the climax of her existence. Once she crossed it, all things would dull in comparison. So she held it a long time in her hand.
“Go ahead. Eat it,” a voice told her.

She jumped back and cried out. Aside from the garden creatures she thought she was alone in Eden. She turned and saw a man. He was tall and browned by the sun, rugged and handsome in his way.

“Aren’t you going to eat it?” he asked.

“Is it fruit from the Tree of Life?” she asked, now doubting herself.

“Of course,” he laughed. “Were you afraid it was from the other tree? Don’t worry. God destroyed that one long ago. There are 12 varieties of fruit in the garden and this one is the best of all. Eat it! You won’t be sorry.”

She took a bite at his bidding. It was like the taste of honey; yet fruity. “It’s good,” she said, not finding any descriptive words. She was at loss in this man’s presence. Somehow she expected the experience to be a bit more.

“Of course. Everything in the garden is good now.”

“But who are you?” she finally asked.

“He looked at her inquisitively. “I thought it was understood. I am Adam and you are Eve.”

She stepped back in fear. “Nobody has called me by that name since my mother when I was a little girl.”

Adam smiled. “Why not? It’s your chosen name.”

“But Adam and Eve. Of course, you’re joking. That was a long time ago.” And she laughed.

“Yes, the first Adam and Eve were a long time ago.”

“The first Adam and Eve?” Evangeline asked, stepping further away from him.

“Yes, they chose poorly. So humankind didn’t turn out as God had hoped. It will be different now. God has chosen us and led us here to begin again.”

Evangeline trembled. “But I thought I could return to my life. I would eat of the tree and live forever, but not here in Eden.”
Adam shook his head. “That’s not possible. Didn’t you listen to the Guardian? He told you there was no turning back. He bars the way with his flaming sword.”

“But it was so easy to come in. He just let me pass.”

“The Guardian is not there to keep us out. He’s there to keep us in. You are a prisoner of paradise, Eve.”

Eve sank down upon the ground. All her years she had sought after eternal life. Now she had her wish. But suddenly the air was close and confining. The vines and foliage seemed to choke her. The creatures seemed menacing. The man, Adam, was a noose around her neck. She was entombed just as the Pharaohs had been in their pyramids. Only she was alive and she would live forever.

Adam smiled again. “I know it’s a lot to take in. I’ve been here hundreds of years waiting for you. I’ve gotten used to it.”
“Hundreds of years?” Evangeline asked in a wavering voice.
Adam nodded. “We don’t really age here.” He pulled a wedge off the piece of fruit he was holding and handed it to her. It looked golden and juicy. “Have some,” he offered.

Evangeline took the fruit and tasted it. She made a face. “It’s not sweet. It’s sour,” she said with sudden distaste.

“Of course it is,” Adam chuckled. “It’s a lemon.”

Shari Klase loves writing fantasy because it is a vehicle for endless imagination. She lives with her artist husband and teenage daughter who is also an author of fantasy stories. You can view her current thoughts at her blog.

Congratulations to our February Winner Holly Jennings!



Judging was tough this month. Shari Klase is the runner up with her story Monkey Shines. Thanks to everyone who entered and please keep submitting!

End Game

by Holly Jennings

The User abandoned us when the infection started. He last logged onto the game 14.3 days ago.


While most nights I sat at the bar enjoying an energy drink, tonight I stood on the roof of my favorite watering hole. Heat from the bar’s sign radiated off my back, the immense electricity buzzing like insects trapped behind glass. Its candy-colored fluorescents shaped like a budding flower--Talia says it’s a tulip--glowed brighter than any other in the city. White lights above spelled the establishment’s name in script.


Flamingo.


No one makes fun of a man who drinks at a bar with a pink sign. Especially one who hunts zombies.


Through the crosshairs of my rifle, I watched them trudge along in their slow, stumbling march. The road beneath their dragging feet, once plain gray pavement, now rippled with white web-like energy. It grew a little more with each heartbeat pulse, veins reaching like clawing fingers through the ground as the virus siphoned the game’s energy.


“Hey, John.”


I peered over my shoulder to find Talia standing behind me, leaning against the bubblegum and tangerine lights of the Flamingo. As the blinking fluorescents ascended the sign, reflecting off her curves and the blonde hair curling around her shoulders, I resisted the urge to follow the same path up her frame. She’d casually slung her bow one shoulder while the strap from her arrow-laden quiver cut diagonally across her chest, emphasizing her white, low-cut top that left little to the imagination.


I didn’t look. Well, not really.


I gave her a smile and turned my sights back down the barrel of the gun. Talia moseyed up beside me, hip brushing against mine. Agility was a standard elevated stat for her class--a hunter--though at times I wonder what else it would be good for. Despite the distraction, I managed to focus, pulled the trigger, and nailed a member of the undead horde through the forehead. It crumpled to the ground, letting out a raspy moan as it died. Level 1 mobs always went down with a single hit.


“Without the User, they’ll just respawn,” Talia said, as the zombie faded away. It reappeared further down the road and rejoined the crowd. “You’re wasting ammo.”


My bullets were down to 258/500, and there weren’t any ammo crates in this level, but I shrugged at her remark.


“I’m bored.”


I didn’t look up as I watched both the virus and the zombies spread through the streets, though I felt the weight of Talia’s stare pressing down on me.


“You’re looking pretty sharp,” she finally said, admiring the camouflage armor strapped to my chest and the modified rifle with attached scope in my hands.


“Thanks. I picked this stuff up on my last run through the game.”


“You were always the User’s favorite.” Talia grinned, though it faded when she looked down at the undead mindlessly dragging toward us. “Do you think they have an idea about the virus?”


“No, but everything gets deleted eventually.” Reload. Ping. Another zombie fell.


“There is a difference between accepting deletion and giving up,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. I felt a little irritated by her accusatory tone, almost as if she were implying that the infection was my fault.


“What do you want me to do?” I dropped the gun to my side and pointed at the white veins slithering through the street below. “We can’t fight a virus.”


“It’s just...” her voice trailed off. She turned away and looked out across the city. Finally she sighed, shoulders sagging, and scuffed her foot against the blue neon lining the roof’s edge. “I never got to see the end of the game.”


An unexpected pang of guilt hit my chest. I’d been to the end many times, and it never crossed my mind that Talia had missed out. Even before he’d left us, the User hadn’t played with her nearly as much as me. I sighed to myself, realizing it wasn’t fair.


I considered the circumstance. I knew the paths through the game and how to defeat every enemy, including the bosses. With over 60.8 hours of logged game-time and 150% health, I knew my stats and experience were enough to defeat them all.


I took Talia's hand. She turned and met my stare, curiosity twinkling in her eyes as much as the Flamingo’s dazzling lights. I grinned in response.


“Let’s go.”


#


Level 17 – Nevada Botanical Park


I hated this level.


Together, Talia and I wove through the jungle surroundings of the park. A howl ripped through the air overhead, mixing with sounds of trickling water and the endless rustling of leaves. As we rounded a corner, a chimp screeched and clawed at Talia, reaching between the bars of its cage. She jumped back, startled, and pressed her body tight against mine.


Maybe this level wasn’t so bad after all.


A gray-skinned hand reached out from the shrubs and grabbed the end of my rifle as a human-turned-zombie staff member of the park sprang out at us. I knocked it down with a swift right hook. Two more came charging toward us, their tan and green uniforms blending into the leafy background. A few bursts from my rifle, and they both collapsed at my feet.


As the zombies faded away, I turned and motioned for Talia to follow but found the path behind me filled with silence and nothing more.


“Talia?”


No answer.


Panic tightened my chest as I started back down the path, pulling through the field grass and shrubbery, searching, until Talia’s voice came from behind a grove of trees.


“Hey. Look what I found.”


She stepped out from the brush, leaves rustling around her. A monkey followed, chattering incoherently to itself. Relief flooded my body, quickly followed by frustration.


“Did you know about the bonus back there?” Talia asked, hooking her thumb toward the greenery, eyes wide with innocence.


I sighed as I looked down at the monkey and dropped my arms. The rifle clacked against my knee. “We’re not here to collect pets.”


“I can’t put him back now,” she said, hands on her hips. “He binds on pick-up.”


The monkey hopped onto one of the park’s wooden gates so he was eye level, his brown-gray fur and white belly contrasting with the oversized leaves and foliage behind him. He curled his lips and cooed, as if mocking me. Checkmate, pal.


I tossed my arms up in defeat. “Fine.”


I started back down the path, clearing out zombies, while Talia padded along behind me, hand-in-hand with the monkey.


#


Level 30 – Mojave Desert


The end boss towered over us nearly thirty feet tall, nothing more than a whirlwind of rocks and dust from the surrounding desert. He moved in a pre-set circular path, not yet pulled by our presence, crushing the odd boulder with a rocky fist that materialized out of nothing. He paced in the center of a narrow valley with a deep shadow cast across it, mingling with the blinding sunlight.


Talia stared up at him, eyes wide and lips split in surprise--or more likely, in fear.


“That’s the final boss?” she gasped, watching as he smashed a fist against the valley wall. The wall trembled under the impact.


I chuckled. “How could you tell?”


I knew this boss well. 5000 health points. Causes 300 damage points per second. Enters a berserker mode at 20% remaining health and increases his speed by 150%. Only has one weak spot.


I looked down at the monkey still holding Talia’s hand.


“You should put him away first,” I said, motioning at the creature with my rifle. Talia waved goodbye to the monkey, signaling him to disappear. He cooed, bouncing in place a few times, and faded away. When he was gone, Talia turned back to me.


“See how narrow it is?” I pointed at the rocky walls of the valley. “That’s what makes this battle so tough. Only fight front and back. Don’t let yourself get pinned against the sides. Watch the shadow and light contrast too. If you move from darkness to sunlight too much, you’ll be blinded. Understand?”


“Yes,” she said with a sharp nod of confidence, though a trace of fear remained in her eyes.


“Good. Now run.” I pushed her forward.


She whirled around. “What?”


“He only takes damage in his back. I need you to distract him.”


She pointed at the valley. “Then you go. I’ll attack.”


“Your bow won’t do enough damage.”


“Then give me your rifle.” She grabbed the barrel and tried to shake the weapon out of my hands. I pulled her hand off the gun and lifted her chin until she met my eyes.


“I’ll protect you. Nothing will happen.”


Talia studied me, eyes thin with suspicion. I stared back, hoping my unwavering expression would convince her. After a few seconds, she reluctantly agreed.


We pulled the boss.


Talia did a good job at keeping the monster distracted and dodging his blows until I got the beast down to 20% health. The increased speed of his berserker mode was more than she could handle. Her foot caught on the rocky terrain, and she hit the ground, backpedaling across the dirt and dry grass away from the advancing boss until she was pinned against the sidewall. I watched as the rock monster descended on her, cocking its fist back for a final blow. Talia cowered beneath with no means to escape.


Rage flared in every cell of my body. As it turned out, I had a berserker mode too.


With strength that came from nowhere, I scaled the monster’s back, feet digging between the rocks, jammed the rifle against its weak spot, and emptied the entire clip. The monster staggered and collapsed to its knees, letting out a dying wail. I jumped off its back as it smashed to the ground. An earthquake rumble rippled through the valley’s floor.


I stood over the creature, trembling with anger, breaths rapidly leaving my chest. Fists clenched, I stared it down as if waiting for the boss to rise again, ready to crush every rock with my bare hands. Instead, it slowly faded into nothing.


Talia’s palms on my cheeks pulled me back to reality. She forced my head up and I met her eyes.


“Whoa, where did that come from?” she asked in disbelief. My breathing calmed as I looked at her face, everything softening until even my innards felt numb. Talia blinked a few times, waiting for an answer. Reluctantly, I pulled her hands off as I searched my thoughts for a response.


“If you died... I’d have to walk all the way back to the start.”


Talia threw back her head and laughed. I chuckled, hoping she wouldn’t notice it was forced.


She grabbed my hand and pulled me through the valley. We passed through the rocky, copper-colored walls, through the flickering shadow and light, trampled over the dry patch of grass, and up the ridge toward the end of the game. With her back turned, I allowed a stunned look to pass over my face. Normally defeating the game brought feelings of victory and pride, but this time, only Talia’s question lingered in my mind.


Where did that come from?


#


Atop the highest ridge of the desert, Talia and I stretched out and watched the end credits roll across the sky, enjoying a pair of energy drinks she had stashed in her pouch. Around us, faint patches of white veins pulsed and faded throughout the parched, sienna terrain. The virus had spread through the entire game.


“So, what do you do once you reach the end?” Talia asked, propping up on her elbows to take a swig of her drink.


I turned on my side to face her. “There’s always another patch or expansion pack to extend the game.”


My stomach bottomed out as I realized that this time there wouldn’t be any more. This truly was the end. I knew Talia came to the same conclusion when the grin on her face wavered. She looked away and centered her gaze on the horizon.


“Is this what deletion will feel like?” She waved a hand at our surroundings. I looked out across the vast emptiness of the desert. The wind picked up, whistling through the ridges and dry leaves. Mini cyclones of dust twirled around us. Then the breeze dissipated until everything lay quiet and still.


I glanced down at the drink in my hand, trying to ignore the ominous silence pressing down on us. “Nobody knows what it’s like to be deleted.”


I looked back up at Talia. As she watched the credits roll across the sky, a gust of air curled through her hair, blowing rogue strands across her face and neck. Dying rays of sunlight danced across her skin and settled in her eyes until they glistened. In that moment, it wasn’t just her agility I found attractive.


Something pulled at my heart. I leaned toward her, reaching to take her chin in my hand and turn her lips to mine. An inch away, I stopped when Talia’s wandering gaze narrowed at a spot in the sky, and her brow furrowed in confusion.


“What’s that?”


Talia pointed, and I looked up. In place of the end credits, something I’d never seen before flashed across the clouds.


Uninstalling 0%...


The ground rumbled beneath us. The desert floor cracked and split, spreading like lightening streaks through the terrain. Thunder echoed overhead though there was no storm. Blue and white chucks of the atmosphere crumbled out of the sky and smashed to the desert floor.


My body went numb as I realized what was happening. The virus had won. This was the end, and it had come too fast.


I turned to Talia and saw the fear in her eyes. I instinctively pulled her close and wrapped my arms around her as if I could protect her somehow. She clung to me, fingernails digging into my arms as she trembled, blonde hair pressing against my lips.


I closed my eyes and counted each breath, wondering how many we had left. I stroked Talia’s back for comfort. At least she got to see the entire game like she wanted. Despite the horrors around us, it gave me a flicker of happiness that I’d managed to fulfill her wish. I just hadn’t realized it would be her dying one.


I pulled Talia tighter against me, telling her I was here, that I’d look after her. It’s just an upgrade. It’ll be over soon.


My chest tightened with grief and regret for all the things I hadn’t done. Of everything I never told Talia. But instead of the truth, nothing I said in those final moments was true. I couldn’t tell her how I really felt. The words wouldn’t form in my mouth. As the world crashed down around us, all I could do was hold her and whisper little white lies against her skin until there was no more.


#


Level 1 – Las Vegas


I opened my eyes, head down, and found myself dressed in a shirt and jeans with a basic handgun clutched in one hand. When I looked up, I noticed a horde of zombies standing in the distance, swaying in place, not yet pulled by agro. The gray pavement beneath their feet stretched for miles in all directions.


Behind me, the glistening fluorescents of the sign overhead shaped like a blossoming flower glowed in pink and tangerine. White lights above scrawled out a name that burned against the night sky. Flamingo. Beneath the sign were glass entrance doors, revealing the bar inside. Its tender leaned against the back counter, cleaning glasses with a rag.


Hmm. Seemed like a decent place for an energy drink.


I turned to the sound of high-heeled boots clicking across the pavement. A cute blonde moseyed up to me, hips swaying in a way that could only mean she had a base agility of +20. The bow slung over her shoulder confirmed my suspicions--a hunter. Although, the clothing wrapped around her upper half seemed unrealistically low-cut for fighting zombies.


I didn’t look. Well, not really.


“Hi,” she said. “I’m Talia.”


“I’m John.”


The bell chimed overhead, signaling that the User had logged onto the game. Talia nudged me. “I wonder which of us the User will play with first.”


I nodded in anticipation and readied myself, taking a staggered stance, and waited for the User to take over my body. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Talia move forward with jagged, mechanical movements toward the horde of undead. The User had chosen her. I waited for the sharp pang of jealousy to hit, but watching Talia bull’s-eye the first few zombies with her bow--for some unexplained reason, it made me smile.


I walked into the Flamingo, door squeaking as I pushed it open, and sat at the bar. The bartender slid an energy drink down the counter and into my hand. In the distance behind me, though muffled by the glass doors, I heard Talia’s arrows zipping through the air, followed by soft crumples against the ground as each zombie let out its last hiss.


I took a swig of the energy drink. The refreshing liquid poured down my throat. Maybe once the User logged off, I’d invite Talia to join me.


I smiled again and sighed, the exiting air only leaving behind room for the satisfied feeling within. With the endless gray roads around me, the cool energy drink in my hand, and thoughts of Talia in my mind, somehow, everything just felt right.


Like new beginnings and second chances.



Holly Jennings lives in Tecumseh, Ontario with her Chow Chow named Jake. Whenever she’s not working as an administrative assistant for an engineering and architectural firm, she splits her time between gallivanting through the galaxy and watching over gargoyles, secretly hoping they’ll move. More of her work can be found at Daily Science Fiction.