Short Story: The Light of Her Phone

This short story was written in response to a prompt on Reddit‘s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit. This particular prompt is an image prompt; I’ve borrowed my title from the title of that post, and the original image is included and linked below. Credit to DeviantArt user TomTC (Tommy Chandra) for the image, and to Redditor /u/Syraphia for the prompt. I’ve posted this story on Reddit in response to the prompt, as well.

I’ve opted to set this story in a larger fantasy world on which I’ve been working. Consequently, there’s a bit at the end that may sound like an infodump; I try to avoid that as much as possible, but as this piece is tied into that larger world, I found it necessary to include some of that linking information here. Still, I hope this story is enjoyable. Thanks for reading!

paranormal_girl__practice__by_tomtc-dbnclwe

Paranormal Girl (practice sketch) by TomTC

It was only when the sun set that she began to worry. Rather, she assumed the sun had set; it was getting dark, but the patches of sky that she could see were hazy and grey, and no glowing orb was visible. At any rate, the trees obscured her view.

Her name was Olive Parker, and she was thirteen years old. She’d been wandering for several hours. She didn’t know how she had come to this rather strange place; she only knew it had happened suddenly. One second she was stepping out her own front door; the next, she felt a strange tugging sensation throughout her body, and suddenly she was here, under these ashy grey trees. That was strange enough, and troublesome—to put it mildly!—but she had recovered quickly enough, and started walking. There were paths through the trees; she had found herself on one upon arriving. Surely they must lead somewhere.

Surely not, it seemed now. For the hundredth time, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and checked its GPS. As every time before, it searched the skies for a signal, and then came up blank. NO SATELLITE DETECTED. How could that be? There were always satellites in the sky, right?

She paused and looked around. The woods were dark now, and the light of her cell phone didn’t help her night vision. She pointed it toward the ground. In the dimness around her—there! Was that movement? Yes. Something… it was gone, whatever it was. Nothing too large; maybe a rabbit?

She resumed walking, using the cell phone’s screen to illuminate the ground at her feet. The roots of the trees didn’t seem to encroach on the paths, but one couldn’t be too careful. At the rate she was going, if she tripped, she’d cut herself, and get an infection and die, all before she got out of these woods. Well, that was a morbid thought. Anything, though, to divert her mind from one small but frightening truth:

There hadn’t been any wildlife around during the day.

Something dashed through the undergrowth to her left. She whirled toward it, bringing the phone up, but saw nothing. The light didn’t penetrate far into the trees anyway. She kept walking.

The woods at night were scary enough if vacant. No thirteen-year-old would ever want to admit that, but anyone would feel it. Worry turned to anxiety. She picked up the pace, though she still had no idea where she was going.

A sound brought her up short, and she froze in place. No; two sounds. Something was moving, pacing her, on the left; and something else was to her right—and moving closer.

Olive had reached the end of her endurance. She broke and ran. The light from her phone swung wildly as her arms pumped in counterpoint with her legs. The creatures on either side exploded through the brush, passing her and weaving—were they going to cut her off? She changed directions, darting down a side path to the right, heading downhill now. Ahead, she could see the faint glimmer of water—a pond, maybe? She crashed toward it.

Something huge and dark leaped onto the path ahead of her. She screamed, and darted left; she felt the wind of its massive paw swipe past her face, just missing. She blundered through the undergrowth, branches tearing at her clothes. Another creature appeared before her, all eyes and teeth; she spun to the right and ran toward the pond again, breaking out onto another path.

Ahead she could see the water, and an old wooden jetty that tilted out into the center. Something in the back of her mind registered that the water level was down from its original level; the jetty sat at an odd angle. A few feet from its end was a long, muddy rock that ordinarily (she guessed) would have been underwater. With the jetty, it made a passage across the narrow waist of the pond; she’d be able to run straight across with only a couple of hops.

She broke into the clearing around the pond and raced onto the jetty, feet thumping on the old, rotting wood. She risked a glance back as the two creatures burst out behind her; one was tall and wolfish, with matted fur and freakishly long limbs; the other was stumpy and reptilian, but with abnormally powerful legs and too many teeth and eyes. Both skidded and came up short at the water’s edge; neither seemed willing to risk the jetty, as they split and started around the sides of the pond at a run.

Olive leaped onto the rock, nearly falling into the water. She raced across and leaped onto the opposite bank, and glanced left at the reptilian creature—just in time to see the woods on that side fill with fire, engulfing the creature. The light dazzled her, but she could hear it howling in pain as it caught fire and burned. The source of the flames couldn’t be seen—what could cause that outburst? A flamethrower? Where was this place?! She scrambled up the hill away from the water.

The wolf creature bounded after her—and still there was nowhere to go, no place of safety. She could hear it getting closer, panting and growling. Any second now…

She raised the brightness on the phone screen as high as it would go. If only this one had a flashlight setting… At the last second, she spun and thrust it toward the creature’s face. The sudden brightness stunned it, and it stopped short and yowled in pain, clawing at its face. While it stood there, she turned and ran again. She made a dozen paces before it shook off the pain and came after her.

That trick wouldn’t work again. She wouldn’t get away this time. She could feel it closing the gap: nine paces. Eight. Seven…

Something—no, someone—caught her and shoved her past. She stumbled and nearly fell as the man wrenched the phone from her hand. There was no time to scream; she only managed to look back. She saw the light from the phone blossom in the man’s hand, illuminating his form; he wore a dark cloak with the hood up, but he glanced back just long enough to reveal his face, which was set in determination—but very human. Then her attention jerked back to the phone, for it was growing.

In the man’s hand, the phone expanded, blooming out as new panels unfolded from it. It became a shield of metal, glass, and plastic, pointing toward the onrushing creature. Then, it exploded with light, catching the monster in a beam of sunlike brilliance that spilled out to light the forest all around. The creature yowled and twisted, caught in the light as in a net; and its fur began to smoke. Its thrashings grew more intense; and then, finally, it burst into flames. When the light faded, and the creature’s remains fell to the ground, little remained besides charred bones.

Olive stood, dumbfounded, thinking only that she was glad to be alive. And then, the man turned to her.

“You’ve had a terrible night, haven’t you?” he said.

***

It was never easy to have one’s world expanded—and so much the more, when it was being doubled. The man walked Olive out of the woods, joined along the way by a woman in roughspun clothes, leather boots, and red gauntlets that covered her forearms and hands but left her fingers bare. “I’m Alric,” he explained, “and this is Joanna.” Then they had proceeded to upset everything she knew about the world.

When learning that she had arrived under such mysterious circumstances, Alric had explained that the Earth she knew was only one of two worlds. The forest in which they walked existed in its twin, which he called the Drylands. He explained that the two were very similar, but that some things—like the land around her home, and this forest—didn’t match up exactly. Stranger still, some people—but only from Earth, never from the Drylands—had the ability to pass between the two worlds. “That’s what you’ve done, it seems,” he said.

When Olive asked how they knew to find her, he grew chagrined. “We didn’t,” he said. “That was an accident, though a lucky one. We were on a mission.”

“A mission?”

Joanna took up the story. “We were sent to capture a rogue Zoomancer.”

While Earth produced the magic to travel between worlds, she said, the Drylands produced a different power. The Five Magicks, she said, existed in a scattering of the population, and in different proportions. By far the most common was the power that she herself wielded: Pyromancy, the mastery of fire. It was she who had set the reptilian creature alight; and she had stayed behind afterward to keep the forest from burning. As a result, she hadn’t been on hand to stop the wolf creature. There was Enviromancy, those who could control plant life and the weather; they were still common, but tended to die young, as their powers would spiral upward in strength until they became impossible to control. There were Psychomancers, the rarest form of all; these incredibly rare men and women could control the minds of those around them, and were almost universally to be feared, as their power corrupted them. Then there were Zoomancers, those who controlled and manipulated life. Not as rare as Psychomancers, but far less common that Enviromancers, these mages had the power to change and control living creatures, creating wonders…or abominations. This Zoomancer had gone a bit crazy with power, and had begun to attack the surrounding towns; and so they had been sent to deal with him. He had yet to be caught, but they were close now. It was his creatures that had chased Olive in the forest.

“But what about the fifth magic?” Olive said. “That’s you, isn’t it?” she said to Alric.

He nodded. “My magic is called Technomancy. Not long ago, there were thought to be only four magicks. Technomancy was discovered by a man we call the Engineer; or rather, rediscovered, as it was lost long ago. He taught it to many of us with the aptitude, and we teach others. It is the power to work with machinery; to understand it instinctively, and change it, and use it for our purposes. Like when I took the thing you carry—a telephone, I think it is called?—and changed it into a weapon to burn the abomination.” He smiled. “It’s a good thing you had it in your hand. My powers need something to work with—I can’t create machines from thin air. I expected some machines in the Zoomancer’s stronghold, but I wasn’t expecting to need to carry any on our journey. Without your machine, I would have been left to face the monster with knives only.”

They had reached the edge of the forest; and now they stepped out onto a track of beaten dirt. Above, the clouds had broken, and a nearly-full moon cast a silvery light. “So, what do I do now?” Olive said. “Can you get me home?”

The duo exchanged a look. “No, we can’t,” Joanna said. “If we had the power to travel between the worlds, we could take you home. But, only people born in your world can possess that power.”

“But, you can get yourself there,” Alric said. “This may have been your first time, but the fact that you got here means you have the ability.” He paused. “I don’t know how to walk you through it. I only know you have to intend to go. Perhaps think about it.”

“Like Dorothy,” Olive said. Seeing their blank looks, she added, “The Wizard of Oz? ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like…’ Never mind. Anyway, I’ll try.” She looked at each of them in turn. “Will you stick around until I see if it works?”

“Of course,” Joanna said. Olive nodded, and—thinking it would help her concentration—closed her eyes.

After a moment she looked up. “What if I come back here? What if I can’t help it?”

“Then you’ll be able to go home again,” Alric said. “Each time will make it easier. And if you are here and in need of help, head for the town of Ashdale, in that direction,” he said, pointing down the road. “Anyone there can point you to us, and we’ll help you.”

“But you should try not to come back,” Joanna added soberly. “This world is not a safe place for those who can travel between the worlds. Not now, anyway.” She exchanged a grim look with Alric.

Olive, for her part, let that go; and a moment later, she winked out of existence.

***

“Do you think she’ll listen?” Alric said. “That she’ll stay in her world?”

“No,” Joanna said as they started back into the forest. “They never do, especially when they’re young.”

“And you know this because you’ve met so many travelers?”

“No!” she said. “I mean, only one before this girl. But I hear it’s that way.” She grew serious. “Alric, if she comes back, and is captured, they’ll kill her. You’ve heard the rumors.”

“I know,” he said. “Joanna…we saved her life. We’re responsible for her now. If she comes back… we have to try to protect her. And you know the trouble that might cause.”

“I know.” There was nothing more to say after that; and they each walked alone with their thoughts.

***

Olive arrived, disoriented again, on a bare patch of paved street. It took a moment to get her bearings; and then she realized she was about three miles from home. Her parents would be worried sick…

She stopped in the light of a streetlamp and pulled out her phone. Alric had changed it back so thoroughly that she could almost believe none of it had happened. Still, here it was, nearly midnight… and a quick check of her GPS confirmed her location. She was most definitely back on Earth.

Strange as this excursion was, it was over now. Time to bite the bullet… taking a moment to compose what she hoped would be a believable story about getting lost, she dialed her mother’s number to ask to be picked up. As it rang, by the light of her phone, she started to walk.

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Short Story: Chasing Humanity

A few years ago, Big Finish Productions–which produces the many wonderful Doctor Who and other audio dramas I review over at The Time Lord Archives–unexpectedly lost one of its own to illness: Paul Spragg, a man who wore enough hats that just giving him a proper title is all but impossible.  In tribute to him, Big Finish conducts an annual competition in which participants contribute short stories in the classic era of Doctor Who (that is, between the First Doctor and the Eighth Doctor’s appearance in The Night of the Doctor).  The winning entry is then produced as a “Short Trip” audio drama.  (For a great example, you can download last year’s winning entry, Joshua Wanisko’s Forever Fallen, here.)  I didn’t become aware of the contest in time to participate last year; but this year I made a submission, and…

…I didn’t win.  Oh well.  There were hundreds of entries, so that’s no surprise.  Still, I was surprised to have received a response; the contest rules make it clear that there will be no correspondence (unless, of course, you’re the winner).  I’ve jokingly said that it’s the most polite rejection letter I’ve ever received.  There’s some truth to that, though–and as the letter indicated, the story was well received.

At any rate, the winner has not been announced yet, so I can’t shed any light on that.  You’ll find out at the same time I do, if you’re interested in Big Finish’s work (which I highly recommend).  What I can do is post my entry here, for your reading pleasure (I hope!).  I’ve also posted it on The Time Lord Archives.  This Third Doctor story is titled Chasing Humanity, and takes place during season nine of the classic television series, between The Sea Devils and The Mutants.  (I feel I should mention that the Third Doctor was a rare choice among the entries; according to Big Finish, most entries were for the Seventh and Eighth Doctors, with only a scattering of the others.)  For those who keep track of such things, it’s about 5700 words in this draft.

Third Doctor and Jo Grant

Chasing Humanity

It was only a hotel lobby; but from the way the Doctor looked at it, one would think it was a battlefield. His lips were a thin line, and his eyes, though alert as ever, were narrowed. Jo Grant caught the look, and took his arm. “Come on, Doctor, it’s not that bad. At least try to enjoy yourself!” She paused and looked around. “I should think this symposium would be your type of thing. What was it the Brigadier said?” She lowered her voice and assumed a haughty accent. “It’s the peak of military technology at stake here, Doctor! Who better to send than you, my scientific advisor?”

The Doctor arched an eyebrow at her. “Very talented, Jo. You’ve missed your calling; it’s a pity you were born too late for vaudeville.” His scowl deepened, and he started into the room, drawing her in his wake.

Jo sniffed. “Well then. If that’s the way you’re going to be, perhaps the Brigadier was right. He also said that it would do you good to get out and, you know, interact with people. Spend a little less time in the laboratory.”

“The Brigadier employs me specifically for what I do in the laboratory.” He steered her around the worst of the crowd.

“Yes, and that’s exactly why we’re here. You have a lecture to make regarding that work.” Specifically, he was to speak on the progress made in the field of emotional manipulation in the wake of last year’s tragedy at Stangmoor Prison. The lecture was to concern the efficacy of suppression of emotions in battlefield soldiers. However, that was tomorrow night; and Jo wasn’t sure how she was going to make it through the next twenty-four hours with the Doctor.

“Yes, well…” the Doctor muttered. “I suppose we’ll have some dinner, then. Where is Sergeant Benton?”

“He’s checking in with security and discussing the security arrangements for the symposium. Doctor, this is unlike you–you already knew where he was. Won’t you at least try to relax?”

The Doctor, of course, did no such thing. At dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, he became increasingly more dour, and even grew short with the waitstaff. The situation was not helped by an encounter with one nervous waitress; glancing around as she crossed the room, she failed to see the Doctor, and stumbled, dumping a tray of canapes into his lap. Fortunately, there was no great mess; but the Doctor’s unkind glare sent the mortified waitress scurrying back to the kitchens the moment the wreckage was collected.

The Doctor’s mood brightened, however, when they were joined by a short, bearded man in a tweed jacket. “Doctor! So good to see you here! I was quite surprised to see your name on the agenda–care if I join you?”

“Absolutely! Come, sit down!” Suddenly the Doctor was effusive. “Geoffrey, this is my assistant, Miss Jo Grant. Jo, this is Doctor Geoffrey Chambers. Geoffrey is a geologist with Oxford. We met some time ago, when he took a temporary assignment with UNIT in the wake of Project Inferno.”

“Yes, quite interesting, it was,” Chambers said. “I understand that Ms. Shaw has returned to Cambridge since then? A pity; I was hoping to see her here. Ah, well, we can’t have it all, I suppose… Miss Grant, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance! I will say, if you can keep up with this man, you are an extraordinary individual. So tell me, Doctor, what can we look forward to from your presentation?”

***

In the kitchen, the waitress dropped her tray into a dish bin, and ran out the back door to the alley behind the hotel, ignoring the shouts of the head chef. Shaking, she leaned against the wall, catching her breath. That had been a close call; and she began to wonder, not for the first time, if she could really make this work. Humans were never quite what she expected… still, there was little to be done about it, and less in the way of options. She lifted the hem of her blouse, exposing a square, yellow box on a tight belt around her waist. She regarded the box, which had a thin crack across its surface; she made a minute adjustment to a slide switch on the top, and then covered it again. Setting her nerves, she returned to the kitchen.

***

Jo was beginning to think that not even the chatty Doctor Chambers could lift the Doctor’s spirits for long. As dinner progressed, his scowl, and its attendant rudeness, returned; until finally Jo kicked him beneath the table. “Doctor!” she hissed. “Show a little dignity, please!”

The Doctor set down his napkin and pushed back from the table. “Jo, my dear, I am the very image of dignity. It’s this function that is undignified by its very nature!” He stood up. “Geoffrey, it’s been a pleasure, and I hope to catch up with you again during our stay. In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me…”

Whatever Chambers might have said was interrupted by an odd sight: the waitress who had dropped her tray came running out of the kitchen and past their table, heading for the door. “Well,” Jo commented, “at least I’M not the only one having a bad night.”

***

The chef met the waitress as she came in the door. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured, “I don’t know what happened to me out there, but it won’t happen again, I swear.”

“Just see that it doesn’t,” he said. “We are not some diner on the corner, you know. We have a reputation to maintain! I’ll not have you making us all look foolish, and especially in front of these military types. If we weren’t in the middle of this conference, you would be out the door already! Do you understand?”

She nodded and started to walk away. He scowled and grabbed her hand. “Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you! You still have work to do!”

She yanked back her hand. “No, I don’t. It’s six o’clock, and my shift is over. Just leave me alone!” She turned and ran out into the dining room; as the door swung shut, the chef saw her narrowly miss bumping into the same man on whom she had dumped the canapes. Scowling again, he shook his fist in her direction… and then winced. He opened his hand, and saw that the palm was red and covered in blisters. Now, how had that happened?

***

Sergeant Benton was no happier than Jo to share the Doctor’s company; but as the lone representative of UNIT’s armed service, the role of bodyguard fell to him. Not, of course, that there should be a need for a bodyguard here; but UNIT was not in the habit of taking chances. The trio sat in the audience of a lecture on new techniques in small arms production, as near the exit as the Doctor could manage. The Doctor spent the bulk of the lecture muttering irritated remarks about the subject matter, while Benton and Jo exchanged longsuffering looks behind his back. Only when the Doctor’s comments began to draw the attention of others in the audience was Benton able to get him to subside.

“Sergeant Benton, if we must endure this interminable lecture, we should at least be treated to accurate interpretations of the data!” the Doctor insisted, not for the first time. “If I wanted to engage in half-baked theories, I would find a coffee shop and take up the social sciences. This is supposed to be a scientific symposium!”

“Doctor, please,” Benton said, and raised a hand to forestall interruption. “Your mind might be centuries ahead of us mere mortals, but bear with us while we get there. You’ll have your chance tomorrow night, won’t you?” The Doctor gave him a withering look, but Benton pressed on. “People are starting to stare. The Brigadier won’t be happy with me if I let you get yourself ejected from a seminar. So, please, settle down and just… be in the audience, alright?”

The Doctor drew in a long breath, gave a half-hearted smile, and then nodded. “You’re right, Sergeant, of course. I will attempt to…rein in my temper. Such as it–” He stopped, and cocked his head. “Hmm?”

“What?” Jo spoke up from his other side.

“Shh.” He raised a finger. “Listen.”

Behind them, two security guards stood at the door, one to each side. Over the low drone of the lecture, voices could be heard from their walkie-talkies. “There’s something going on in the kitchens,” Benton murmured for Jo’s benefit. “They’re being cautious about what they say, but it sounds serious.” At that moment, one of the guards turned and rushed out the door.

“Well,” Jo said, “I hope everything will be alri–oh, no,” she said. Benton pulled his gaze back from the door, and saw what Jo was seeing: a speculative look of interest on the Doctor’s face. “No, Doctor! It’s not our problem!”

“Jo is right, Doctor,” Benton said. “Let security handle it, whatever it is.”

“Handle what?” the Doctor said. “I, for one,” he said, standing up, “could do with a bit of refreshment. Care to join me?” He pushed past Jo and strode out the door. Jo and Benton exchanged looks of resignation, and followed.

***

A circle of the conference’s security guards stood near the ovens in the kitchen. A second circle–more of an arc, really–surrounded them, composed of the kitchen staff, and a third arc –the wait staff– stood near the opposite walls. The atmosphere was one of confusion, dismay, and distress. The Doctor strode in as though he owned the place, cape flaring dramatically, and slipped deftly through the outer arcs to the inner circle. “Gentleman,” he said, “what do we know so far?”

As one, the guards looked at him incredulously; and then something curious happened, something which Jo was coming to regard as standard procedure for the Doctor: as one, they nodded, and began to explain. She had seen this happen on several occasions, and it never ceased to amaze her; the Doctor would step into a situation armed with nothing but an air of confidence, and people simply… accepted him, as though he belonged there. It was not new, but it remained exceptional.

One guard took the lead. “This is,” he said, gesturing down at the body on the floor, “or rather, it was, the head chef, a Mister Richard Farley. He was perfectly fine, as far as anyone can tell, right up to the moment he fell out on this spot. No one saw anything, and nothing strange has been reported. One of the other chefs made some attempt to revive him, but there was nothing to be done.”

“A heart attack?” Jo suggested.

The guard was about to answer, but the Doctor beat him to it. “No, I don’t think so.” He knelt down and turned the body over.

Jo gave an involuntary gasp. “But… he’s… he’s burned!” Every visible inch of skin was covered in mottled red burns.

“Yes,” the Doctor murmured. “Third degree burns, at that. But there’s something curious about it. Sergeant, what do you notice about this man’s condition?”

Benton knelt down beside him to examine the body. He frowned at the extent of the damage– and then his eyes widened. “His clothes aren’t charred. These burns are fresh, and some of them have to have bled, but–”

“Yes,” the Doctor agreed. “If he had these burns prior to his shift, well, he wouldn’t be here. And he wasn’t dressed after the burns, either; if he had been, there would be much more in the way of bloodstains. No, he was wearing these clothes when it happened– but they aren’t burned at all.” He straightened and returned to the guard. “And you say that no one saw this happen?”

“That’s right,” the guard said. “He’d been working, giving orders, just like always; and then suddenly, he was dead on the floor.” He shrugged. “We assumed it was an equipment accident.”

“An equipment–” Benton began, and then stopped. “There’s no way that this could have been the result of any of the equipment in this kitchen.”

“Then what do you think it was?” the guard said. His tone had gone cool. “Listen, this hotel is full of representatives from every military and scientific establishment in Europe. We will not allow any kind of scandal to interrupt the conference. In a few days, we can go back and revisit the situation, but for now, this is an accident. And that is what we’re going to tell the police when they arrive.”

The Doctor gave him an even stare. “I see.” At that moment a commotion could be heard in the lobby. “Well, then, we’ll leave you to it. It sounds like they’re arriving now. Jo, Sergeant, come along.” He turned and strode out through the dining room, carefully taking the entrance furthest from the incoming policemen.

“Are we just going to let it go?” Jo said, tugging him to a halt in the corridor. “Doctor! You know that was no accident!”

“Of course it wasn’t,” the Doctor agreed. “The question is, what was it?”

“Well…” She faltered. “I don’t know. But you have an idea, don’t you?”

“Not yet,” he said. “But there is a detail we’ve overlooked. Or rather, we didn’t have time to address it. Come and see.” He led them back toward the dining room, stopping in the doorway. From here, there was a clear view into the section of kitchen where the waitstaff still stood, now gathered in a huddle. “Look at them. Do you notice anything strange about them?”

Jo got it this time. “They’re all red in the face! Like they were–”

“Sunburned, yes,” the Doctor said. “But it’s late, and the sun has been down for a few hours. And why would all of the staff, who don’t come and go together, have the same burns? Except, of course, for the head chef, who certainly got the worst of it. No,” the Doctor declared, “there’s more at work here, and I want to know what it is.”

***

The next morning’s breakfast brought no answers; but it provided more questions. “The kitchen staff is short this morning,” Jo said as she joined the Doctor and Benton at the table. “Four workers called in. Doctor, what do you make of that?”

“I’m not ready to make assumptions yet,” the Doctor replied. “Though I suspect–”

“Doctor,” Benton interrupted. “People get sick all the time. Maybe it’s a virus. We should probably wash our hands once in awhile, but I don’t see how this could connect to what happened last night. Or even more likely, they just called in because of the trauma.” He glanced at Jo, who shrugged.

“It makes sense to me,” she said. “Though I trust the Doctor’s hunches, when he has them.”

“Well, it’s not going to matter this morning,” Benton said before the Doctor could recover the conversation. “Doctor, you’re due to participate in a panel discussion in ten minutes. Look, I know you aren’t happy about it, but the Brigadier said–”

“No, no, it’s quite alright,” the Doctor said. “I’m looking forward to it, actually. Besides, the tedium will give me time to mull over our situation.” He smiled at them, and got up and left the table.

“Was that sarcasm?” Benton said. “Or was he being serious?”

Jo tossed her napkin onto the table. “Oh, who can tell with him?”

***

An hour into the panel discussion, Jo struggled to stay awake. She found these events more difficult than the lectures; at least those gave interesting new information. This was just debate, and she could get her fill of that in the UNIT offices. The Doctor seemed to be enjoying his part; but here in the audience, the heat and the droning were making her drowsy. Finally, she whispered to Benton and excused herself, and headed for the washroom to freshen up.

***

In the kitchen, the waitress’s hands shook as she listened to her coworkers talking about the death of the head chef. It simply wasn’t going to work, she feared. If the local authorities turned their investigative eyes on this place, soon enough they would begin to look into the staff, and then… well, her cover was good enough to get her the job, but she doubted it would stand up to real scrutiny. Perhaps it was time to move on.

The problem was that she would need a new form. It would be best to change now, before slipping out of the hotel; if anyone saw one of the staff leaving when she should be working, they might become suspicious, and she wanted no trail to lead to her. She might not have committed a crime, but she certainly would be a person of interest. That presented a problem, however; it had taken her weeks to prepare this form, using composite features from several individuals. There was no time for that now; she would have to simply copy someone. Well, there was no time like the present–even her world had that cliché–and so she excused herself and headed to the washroom.

***

The washroom door opened as Jo reached for it on her way out. “Oh, sorry,” she said, “I didn’t see you there–” The rest of her words were cut off. The door closed on the sounds of a brief struggle, and then there was silence.

***

Doctor Geoffrey Chambers stepped out of a conference room and into the lobby. If only there had been time to say goodbye to his friend, the Doctor…ah, but here was an answer! “Oh, Miss Grant, it’s so good to see you!” he called out, and stopped the young woman with a touch. She gave him a glance that, had he noticed it, would have been taken as bewilderment; but she stopped. He paid no mind, and kept talking. “I was hoping to say goodbye to the Doctor, but I see from the schedule that he’s occupied at the moment. I wonder if you could convey my greetings to him? You see, I have to leave early– my daughter is, well, expecting– I received a call that the baby is on the way… she’ll be expecting me at the hospital eventually, you see–”

The young woman was caught off guard by the torrent of speech, but she managed a nod. “I’ll– I’ll let him know, yes.”

He gave her an effusive smile, and then unexpectedly embraced her. “Splendid!” Abruptly, he realized what he was doing, and pulled back. “Oh… er… well, you must forgive me and my scattered brain today. It’s been quite the pleasure to meet you, Miss Grant! Do take care of the Doctor, please. Ah, if you’ll excuse me, I must gather my things.” He turned and made his way to the elevators.

Jo gave the man a final, long look, and then turned to complete her own exit. She made it ten paces before she was interrupted again, this time by the Doctor and Benton as they exited the panel discussion. “Ah, Jo, there you are!” Benton said. “Ready for lunch?”

“Lunch? Oh… I, ah…” she stammered, but the Doctor took her arm. “Oh, well, that won’t be… necessary…” she trailed off as he started toward the dining room.

“Nonsense, Jo,” he said, “we’ll all do better with a good meal. And then we can begin to look into last night’s events.” At his side, Jo stiffened, but he didn’t seem to notice. She glanced away, but Benton was on her other side. There was nothing for it but to go along.

Jo said little during the meal, and only picked at her food. Finally the Doctor stood up, and Benton followed suit; Jo did likewise. At the door of the dining room, the Doctor stopped her. “Jo, are you feeling alright? You look unwell.”

A way out! Suppressing a smile of relief, Jo glanced up at him and quickly shook her head. “I– I think I’d better go lie down. Headache,” she added by way of apology.

“Oh, alright,” Benton said, “We’ll take a look around and try to piece together what we can about last night–” Jo gave him a startled look before she could stop herself–”but first, we’ll walk you to your room. Right, Doctor?”

“Oh, no, that won’t be–”

“Absolutely, Sergeant!” the Doctor overrode her. “Truth be told, Jo, I must admit I was rather rude to you last night. If you’ll allow me, I’ll make it up to you in courtesy now.” He was already starting toward the elevators. Irritated, she followed, with Benton bringing up the rear.

***

The Doctor and Benton saw Jo into her room, and heard the lock click before turning away. “She’s acting odd, isn’t she?” Benton said as they made their way down the hall.

“Quite. But she isn’t the only one acting strangely in this hotel… nevertheless, she should feel better after a nap.” They rounded the corner toward the elevators. “I would think– eh, what’s this?”

Ahead, a small crowd consisting of the concierge, two security guards, and a housekeeper had gathered around an open door. A third guard poked his head out of the doorway as the Doctor and Benton approached. “Call for a doctor!” he instructed the concierge.

“I’m a doctor,” the Doctor interjected as they reached the crowd. “What’s going on?” The concierge gave him an odd look–too much good fortune, perhaps, that a doctor would already be on hand–but he allowed them in. “The front desk received a call from this room, asking for help,” he said. “He sounded as though he was in pain.”

“Indeed he was,” the Doctor said as he knelt. There, on the floor, lay Doctor Geoffrey Chambers, who was covered head to foot in severe burns, burns which left his suit and tie untouched. Unlike the unfortunate head chef, he was still breathing.

“Geoffrey,” the Doctor said gently, then more forcefully: “Doctor Chambers! Can you hear me?”

Chambers’ eyes opened, revealing bloodshot whites and darting irises. “D-Doctor? Is that you? Oh, what’s happened to me?”

“Lie still, Geoffrey. We’ll get an ambulance.” He motioned to the concierge, who nodded and went for the room phone. “Geoffrey, I need you to tell me what happened to you. How did you get these burns?”

“They… they just… erupted, all over me. Very quick. So… painful. Doctor, I… I’m dying. And my… grandchild… I won’t see…”

The man was slipping away. “Geoffrey,” the Doctor said, “who have you seen in the last hour? Who did you see last?”

Chambers looked puzzled. “Why… the last… it was your lovely assistant, Miss… Miss Grant.” He exhaled then, a final breath that lasted too long, and was gone.

The Doctor exchanged a dark look with Benton. “The ambulance can see to Doctor Chambers. Sergeant, I think we’d better get back to Jo. Come on!” They leaped to their feet and ran from the room, leaving the startled staff behind.

“What’s going on, Doctor?” Benton said as they ran. “And why Jo?”

“Because,” the Doctor said as they reached Jo’s door, “I fear Miss Grant is not herself at the moment. Listen, I don’t have time to explain it now; we’ll save it for later.” He pulled a short, silver rod–his sonic screwdriver–from his pocket, and aimed its circular head at the door. The screwdriver buzzed, and the lock clicked open. Benton threw the door open, and they burst inside.

Jo was nowhere to be seen. The window on the far side of the room stood open, curtains blowing in the breeze from the alley below. They ran to the window and leaned out. Two window ledges over, a fire escape snaked down the back of the building; Jo Grant was making her way down the iron stairs. Already she was nearly at the bottom. “Sergeant Benton,” the Doctor said, “go downstairs and find Jo, the real Jo. If I’m right, you’ll find her somewhere in the building, unconscious. I’ll retrieve the imposter. Go!” Not waiting for an answer, he climbed out the window.

***

Benton searched the lower floors with military efficiency. Storerooms, offices, conference rooms, lecture hall– all proved empty. He stopped by the front desk, fists on his hips, and looked around, pondering. If she was nowhere to be found down here, that meant searching the guest rooms… which would take time and manpower that he didn’t have. There had to be something he’d overlooked.

A thought occurred to him. Deliberately, he set aside his own thoughts, and tried to put himself in Jo’s shoes. She had to have been taken during the panel discussion, when she left the room… where would she have gone? When he realized the obvious answer, he kicked himself, and then turned and ran for the ladies’ room. Fifteen seconds later, in a locked stall at the back, he found a very disgruntled Jo Grant, wearing a waitress uniform and just beginning to awaken. Her face, he noticed, was red with what appeared to be a sunburn.

***

By the time the Doctor reached the bottom of the fire escape, the woman who wore Jo’s face had reached the open end of the alley. He pounded after her, calling out Jo’s name– for he didn’t know what else to call her– but to no avail. She gave him a single look, and turned left onto the crowded sidewalk.

He was in better shape than his appearance would suggest, and he narrowed the gap; but it wasn’t going to be enough. Soon she would reach a more crowded public plaza ahead, and there he would lose her. He poured on as much speed as he could muster– and then skidded to a halt. Just ahead of her, a fire hydrant stood on the sidewalk. It was a dirty trick, perhaps, but any port in a storm…

At the carefully-aimed buzzing of the sonic screwdriver, the cap popped off of the hydrant; and then, as the woman passed, the valve spun. A torrent of water knocked her from her feet, leaving her dazed in the street.

The Doctor caught up as she began to pick herself up. He shut off the water, and turned his attention to her… and saw that ripples were spreading across her skin, like waves in a pond. “Careful now,” he said, “let me help you.” He pulled off his cape and draped it over her, careful not to touch her directly, and then helped her to her feet. “Come on, let’s get you back to the hotel.”

“No!” She started to pull away, but his grip on her arm through the cape stopped her.

“My dear,” he said, “I assure you I am not trying to harm you–but in a matter of moments, everyone on this street will see you in your true form. I can’t say I know what that will be, but I suggest you may want to prevent that outcome. If you’ll come with me, I can help you.”

She looked as though she still intended to bolt– until another ripple ran across her form. Finally she nodded, and started walking with him.

***

The ripples were coming faster as the Doctor and the woman entered the lobby. Benton and Jo waited in chairs near the dining room; they leaped to their feet as the bedraggled duo entered. “Doctor!” Jo shouted. “What– What’s going on here? Who is she?”

“Patience, Jo, we haven’t time to talk just yet. If the two of you will come with me…” Still leading the soaked imposter, he escorted them into the kitchen, and quickly sent the staff out. “A minute or two, that’s all I need,” he said, “and you can all get back to work.”

When they were alone, the Doctor stepped back from the woman. “Jo, Sergeant Benton, allow me to introduce Lorana Sitel, of the Charidzi people. Lorana, you should turn it off now, I think. You’re safe here.” The woman nodded, and reached to a box hanging from her– or rather, Jo’s– belt. Her form rippled again, and changed, flowing like water from head to foot. Where a perfect duplicate of Jo Grant had stood, there was now a much taller figure, taller than Benton or the Doctor, slender and willowy, with a high forehead and a bald skull. Her skin glinted in shades of blue and silver, and– most strikingly– she had four eyes, two on each side of her face, each pair aligned vertically. Her fingers were long and bore more joints than human fingers, but had no nails. She still wore Jo’s clothes, but ill-fittingly on her long frame.

“A… shapeshifter?” Benton murmured.

“Quite. Lorana, would you care to explain why you’re here on Earth? If it isn’t too painful, please,” he added gently.

She nodded. “My planet is a lot like your Earth. We have some technology that exceeds yours, but culturally, we’re not that different.” Her voice–which was similar to that she had used in her waitress form, but with a reedy lilt–became wistful. “I am nothing special. On my planet, I was perfectly happy. I was… what would you call it… a travel agent? I arranged holidays for people. I had a husband, and two children. My life was quiet.” She paused. “And then, my family were lost. They were coming to visit me for a meal one day while I worked, and their vehicle lost control and struck another. The other driver survived… my family did not. I was suddenly alone.”

“The Charidzi,” the Doctor said, “have an empathic power. They sense the emotions of others. It’s not as invasive as telepathy, but it can still be overwhelming at times. It may sound strange, but as a result, sympathy is not a strong trait for the Charidzi. After all, it’s hard to be sympathetic when you feel every pain, every awkwardness, every moment of judgment.”

“I couldn’t take it,” Lorana said. “I couldn’t stand watching them all look at me, and feel the things they were feeling, and not be able to stop it. So, I left. I scheduled a trip for myself, to several planets. And when I reached yours, I decided it would be a good place to disappear.”

“But, what about the deaths?” Jo said.

“The Charidzi are not biological shapeshifters,” the Doctor said. “It is not a natural ability, but a technological one. It takes advantages of some unique genetic traits, and allows them to change form.” He indicated the device Lorana still held. “The power source of that device emits an unusual form of radiation, which also is found in the light of the Charidzi sun. The Charidzi are quite immune to its effects; their bodies soak it up without harm. Humans are not so fortunate. And as you can see, Lorana’s device is damaged. She was not aware of the risk, of course; it’s quite harmless to her Charidzi DNA, even in human form. Unfortunately, she’s been emitting a low dose of radiation to everyone around her.”

“The sunburned faces,” Jo said.

“Yes, Jo, including your own. But this type of radiation can be communicated through touch, as well, assuming the one doing the touching has absorbed enough of it. Lorana, I am going to guess that you touched the head chef last night, didn’t you?”

“He touched me,” she said. “He grabbed my hand after I dropped my tray on you. I’m… I’m sorry about that.”

“No matter there,” the Doctor said. “Unfortunately you had no way to know what would happen to him. Nor did you know what would happen to Professor Chambers. I am going to guess that he accosted you when you were trying to get away. And the reason you were fleeing is because you feared suspicion in the wake of the first death. Am I right so far?” She nodded.

“I didn’t know,” she murmured. “I never meant to hurt anyone. I came here to not be hurt. When I’m in human form, my empathic sense is dulled. It seemed safe.”

“And so it is.” The Doctor straightened. “The question, though, is what to do with you now? We can’t have you running around exposing people to radiation. As it turns out, I too am not of this world; and I imagine my people could get you home. But that would be to return you to veritable torture. A dilemma, eh?”

“Doctor,” Jo said. “There could be another way.”

***

Jo and Benton sat in the audience, listening to the Doctor’s lecture. “What do you think, Jo?” Benton said quietly. “Did we make the right choice? More importantly, I suppose: Did Lorana?”

Jo gave it a moment’s thought. “I think she did. And I think we did too.”

“Well,” Benton said, “now that the Doctor repaired her transformation device, she won’t have to worry about hurting anyone. On the other hand, I suppose she’ll have to learn to be human.”

“Well, she was already on her way to that,” Jo said. “Besides, that’s not such a bad goal, is it? To be human?”

“Not at all.” Benton pointed to the stage. “When do you think our resident alien will understand that?”

“Sergeant Benton,” Jo said, “if there is one thing the Doctor will never be, it is human.” She said it with a smile, though.

Onstage, the Doctor was beginning to wrap up his presentation. “While the research indicates that full emotional suppression is possible,” he said, “I feel obligated to recommend against its use, in soldiers, or in any other profession. In addition to the long-term risks that I’ve already noted, I’ll simply say in conclusion that emotions are a vital part of what makes a person human. Of course too much, in the wrong place and time, can be a hazard–as some of you may well know.” For a moment, he caught Jo’s eye. “We must of course have every aspect of ourselves in its proper context. But, regardless of the effect on our performance, to eliminate our emotions would make us something less than we are– and far less than what we should be.”

In the audience, Jo turned to Benton with a smile. “Maybe,” she said, “he’s learning something after all.”

Third Doctor party

Short Story: Of Conversations and Consequences; or, How Buster and Rachel Reached an Accommodation

I know, I know; nothing for five months, and then two posts in one afternoon?! Preposterous!  Well, it wasn’t planned that way.  In the course of cleaning up some pages today, I discovered that one story was supposed to be posted months ago, but somehow never made it to the blog.  Can’t let that stand; and so, rounding out my Buster and Marley trilogy of short stories, I give you Of Conversations and Consequences; or, How Buster and Rachel Reached an Accommodation. (You can read the previous entries here and here, and see Buster’s first appearance, sans Marley, here.)

 

“…And, bazinga! Cookies, caught!” Marley said as she scooped up the package of Oreos from the floor.  Buster, the golden retriever, leaped down from the kitchen chair that was situated against the counter, and sniffed the package, inhaling chocolate goodness.  “Buster,” Marley said as she plopped her three-year-old body on the floor, “we have this down to an art.  We make a great team.”  She handed the dog a cookie, and he wolfed it down.

“What,” he said between bites, “do you mean, we?  I’m the one doing all the—“

“Ah-HA!” Dog and toddler froze at the same time.  “Caught you!”  Marley’s mother, Rachel, strode into the room and grabbed the pack of cookies.  “Did you two really think you were going to get away with this again?”

“Be cool,” Marley whispered to the dog, “she only knows about the cookies, I think—“

“I knew this dog could talk!” Rachel announced.

“Busted,” the dog said, and gave the doggie version of a shrug.

***

Rachel sat in the kitchen chair, elbows on knees, looking down at the dog. Buster, for his part, managed to look sheepish.  Marley, much to her indignation, was two rooms away in the living room, behind a baby gate.  Rachel could hear her harrumphing loudly every few seconds.

“Alright, talk,” she said to Buster. “It’s no use acting like you don’t know how.  I’ve caught you doing it more than once.”

“And I was counting on you fainting every time,” Buster muttered.

“Hey! That was just once.  Give me some credit!”

“Twice,” Buster corrected.

“Hey—alright, fine, twice. I can’t believe I’m arguing with a dog.”  She shook her head.  “Well, go on!”

“What would you like me to say?”

She sputtered a bit. “W-well,” she said, “explain!  Explain you!  Where did you come from, how did you learn to talk, why are you different?!”

“And why,” Buster said, raising his head, “would you assume I’m different?”

“Because you are! I never heard another dog talk before.”

He gave her an even stare. “Did you ever try listening before?”

She stared back, and laughed. “This is crazy. I must be crazy.  Dogs don’t talk!”  She paused.  “Except you, obviously.”

“Well,” Buster observed, “maybe you humans just aren’t good conversationalists. “

“Oh, really?”

“Really. Or maybe we know what kind of reaction we’ll get.  You know, my last owner tried to take me to the pound when he heard me.  And it was completely unfair; all I did was try to help him out.  Poor guy couldn’t handle it.”

She sighed. “I know how he felt.”

Buster made his doggy shrug again. “Can’t be helped, I suppose.  So what are you going to do?  You know, we could just carry on as we have.  It’s a good deal—you get a dog, I get a home, Marley gets a companion—“

“And that’s another thing!” she interrupted. “You talked to Marley, but not to me?  How can a three-year-old possibly be better conversation than an adult?  Or for that matter, how can a three-year-old keep a secret like this?!”

“I can hear you!” Marley yelled, her little voice full of indignation.  Rachel ignored her.

“Well,” Buster retorted, “maybe I’m not the only one getting misjudged around here. That little girl is a smart cookie.  And we all know how good cookies are,” he reflected.

Rachel sat for a long moment, staring at him; then she threw her hands up. “Okay, this is silly. You’re a talking dog.  You’re some kind of scientific wonder or something.  I should turn you over to some government lab or something.  They’d probably even pay me for it!”  She jumped up and moved to the kitchen table, where a laptop computer sat.

Buster stood up, alarmed. “Uh…wait, you don’t really wanna…well, haven’t you ever seen E.T.?!  You know what the government does with things it doesn’t understand, right?  Hold on a minute!”

“Can’t hear you, I’m Googling!” she announced from behind the screen.

Buster gave her another look, then ran into the dining room. Marley lay sprawled melodramatically on the floor on the other side of the baby gate at the far end of the room.  “Marley!  Get up!”

Marley turned her head without sitting up, and arched an eyebrow at him. “Oh, well, if it isn’t my old friend Buster.  Buster the betrayer!  Talking to my mom without me!”  She turned her head away.

“Marley, don’t be silly. I didn’t have a choice, I’m just as much the victim here as you are!”  She ignored him.  “Alright, look, I’m sorry, but we have a problem!  Your mom wants to send me off to some lab somewhere!  You have to help me!”

“Oh, sure!” she declared.  “Just run off to some nice lab without me, where you can eat all the cookies by yourself!  Never mind me, your best friend, sitting here alone with no dog and no cookies!  I see how it is!”

Marley!” he said.  “It’s not a good thing!  If I go, I’ll never see you again, and there won’t be any cookies, either!  You have to help me!”

Finally, that got her attention. She rolled over again, sat up, and gave him a considering look.  “No cookies?” she said at last.

“No cookies,” he said, putting as much solemnity as possible into his voice.

“That’s not fair! We have to stop her!”  She climbed to her feet.  “But how?”

“I…um…hmm. I don’t know…oh, why does opportunity never knock when you need it?”  He was interrupted by a two-note ringing.

“Sometimes it rings the doorbell?” Marley said, and the dog barked a laugh.

“I’m coming!” Rachel called out from the kitchen. She passed by the dining room on her way to the front door, and the duo heard it click open.  “Hi, can I help you?”

Buster listened a moment to the conversation that followed. “Sounds like a door-to-door salesman.”

“Is that a thing?” Marley said.

“It used to be. Apparently in this fictional universe it still is,” Buster remarked.

“What?”

“Nothing.   Something something fourth wall.  He sounds pushy.”  It was true; the salesman seemed to be building up a head of steam, and Rachel seemed to be having difficulty getting rid of him.

“Is he selling brushes? That’s a cliché,” Marley declared.

“Yes it is. Hey, we can use this!  Step back.”  Marley moved out of the way, and Buster jumped the gate in a single, neat leap.  “Okay, first I need you to get me out the back door.  Can you do that?”

Marley nodded, and ran to the door. “If mom knew I could do this, she’d be mad,’ she announced; then, nimbly, she twisted the lock switch on the door, grabbed the knob, and pulled the door open.  “Okay, what now?”

“Just don’t let me get locked out. And when the salesman stops talking, you make a distraction in here.”

“How?”

“I don’t know…break something!”

She put her hands on her hips. “Buster…I like the way you think.”

“Not surprising. You like plans that might involve getting injured.  Remember jumping out of the swing and onto me?  Anyway.  Be ready!”  He darted out the door.

***

“Oh, no, I really don’t need—“ Rachel was trying to say, but the salesman wasn’t giving her an opportunity.

“That’s the problem with these situations,” he interrupted, “you never know when the need will arise. It’s better to be prepared than to be caught off guard, isn’t that right?”  She had that weary look that told him she was almost ready; he prepared to close the deal. “So how about—“

“Hey!” a voice yelled from the direction of the street. “You kids get away from that car!  I mean it!”  The salesman spun around, searching for the voice, but saw only a golden retriever in the yard, facing toward his car.  Looking over his shoulder, Rachel’s eyes widened.

“That’s right!” the voice shouted again. “Oh, you think you were smart, hiding on the street side.  But you get caught letting the air out of those tires, and you’ll be sorry!  You better run!”

Alarmed, the salesman turned back to Rachel. “Ah, excuse me just a minute.  I need to check on that…I’ll be right back.”

At that moment, there was a crash from the living room, and the sound of glass breaking. Rachel’s head whipped around.  “Marley!” She turned back.  “Maybe another time.  I need to go check on my daughter.  That sounded…not good.”  Abruptly she slammed the door; the salesman heard the lock click into place.  Without any time to think about it further, the salesman turned and ran for his car.  In his haste, he didn’t notice that the dog had gone.

***

“I can’t believe you two set this up,” Rachel muttered, still pacing in the living room. The broken vase had been cleared away; now Buster and Marley sat on the floor in front of her in equally contrite poses.  Rachel stopped pacing abruptly and looked down at them.  “Couldn’t you have made a plan that didn’t involve breaking things?”

“We didn’t have much to work with,” Buster replied. “Or much time.”

“We saved you, Mom!” Marley announced.

Rachel broke into a grin, and scooped the child up into a hug. “Yes, you did, baby.  You saved me from wasting a lot of money on something pretty dumb.  Thank you.”  Then she eyed Buster.  “And you,” she said.  “I guess I owe you some thanks, too.”

“Well,” he said, “about that…you could let me stay here.  I would accept that form of gratitude with no questions asked.”

She set Marley down, and sat down on the sofa. “No, I…I don’t think so.  You’re a talking dog!  How weird is that?”

“Only as weird as you want it to be. I don’t talk to just anyone, you know. “

“But—“

“After all,” he interrupted, “we’ve done just fine so far, haven’t we?”

She gave it a moment’s thought. “I suppose we have.”

“Please, Mom?” Marley said from the floor.

She glanced from one to the other, then back. “Alright! Alright!  I can resist one set of puppy-dog eyes, but not two.  Buster, you can stay.”  Marley clapped, and the dog dipped his head in acknowledgment.  “But!  No getting anyone in trouble.  If people found out about this, I wouldn’t be able to stop something bad from happening.  Got it?”

“Absolutely,” the dog declared. “I know where the boundaries are.”

“Then it’s agreed. “ She stood up to leave the room.  “Well, I need to make dinner.  Try to behave.”

As soon as Rachel’s back was turned, Marley dug into her pocket. “We should celebrate!”  She pulled out two Oreos, confiscated from the pack earlier.  She stuck one in her mouth, and held the other out to Buster…only to have it snatched away.

“And just because you think I don’t see it,” Rachel announced, “doesn’t mean I don’t know about all those cookies you keep stealing! Chocolate is bad for dogs.  Have this instead.”  She dropped a dog biscuit on the floor.  Buster gave her an indignant look, sighed, and flopped down to gnaw on the biscuit.

“I think I liked it better before she knew,” he grumbled.

“Can’t win ‘em all,” Marley said, and took another bite of her cookie.

Short Story: Performance Review

Lately I’ve been giving the lion’s share of my time and energy to the Time Lord Archives, my Doctor Who-themed blog.  As a result, things have been looking pretty dead around here this year, and that’s unfortunate.  Still, I haven’t forgotten this blog or those who follow it; and so, here’s a new short story.  This story, Performance Review, comes courtesy of a writing prompt from Reddit’s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit (although I haven’t posted the story there–it’s exclusively here for now!).  The prompt in question, submitted by user Mistah_Blue, reads: “It’s common knowledge that lab accidents sometimes result in superpowers.  You’re repeatedly trying to engineer lab accidents in order to gain them. Much to your disappointment however, all your accidents just result in monumental scientific discoveries.”  Happy reading!

Superhero

Artist unknown.  Picture borrowed without permission from the website of consulting firm Travois.

 

“John,” the man in the lab coat and tie said, “you know why I’ve called you here, don’t you?”

The man across the desk was younger by a good fifteen years, and his lab coat was considerably more rumpled. He slumped in his chair and gave a half-hearted nod.  “Yessir, Dr. Corbin.  My performance review.”

The older gave him an impassive look, and then glanced down at the floor beside his chair. “That’s right…the dreaded annual review!  Now, don’t be intimidated.” From the floor, he picked up an absurdly large and overstuffed file folder, and set it on the desk.  It made a disconcerting thump, and John jumped in his chair a little.  “Let’s get started, shall we?” He opened the file and perused the top page.  “Now you joined us last year—well, of course—from one of our subsidiary internship programs.  Very high marks, as I recall.  But you’ve, ah, had an eventful year! Why don’t you tell me a little about it?”

John remained sullen and silent. After a moment, Dr. Corbin looked back down at the file, then back up.  “John, I want you to understand that I’m not here to make you nervous.  Your work here isn’t in jeopardy—in fact, your performance has been spectacular beyond anyone’s expectations.  It’s remarkable, really.  You have nothing to worry about.”  He paused and pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “What I want to talk about is how this happened.  Your review is excellent, so we can get that out of the way.  I really want to hear your take on your experiences here.  Fair enough?”

John nodded again, and finally looked up. “What do you want to know?”

That seemed to be the cue for which Corbin was waiting. He flipped a few pages in the folder, and then planted his index finger on an entry.  “Well, alright.  Let’s start with the fusion incident.  This happened, I believe, about a month after you joined us.  What happened there?”

“The experiment failed,” John muttered.

“Failed?” Corbin seemed shocked. “What do you mean?”

John sighed. “It was like this, sir.  Do you remember Jeremy DuPont?”

Corbin nodded. “The so-called Atom Man.  He actually interned in the same program as you, a few years earlier, though he went on to a different employer before his…accident.”

“Right. Anyway, sir, as you know, all of his research notes were famously lost in the lab fire that sparked his new, um, career.  Well, I thought that I could reconstruct his research.  There were certain markers in his statements about the work that led me to a certain path of study—“

“Wait a minute,” Corbin said. “Are you saying you intended to repeat the experiments that turned Jeremy DuPont into…” He trailed off.

“…A superhero,” John said.

“Yes, that.”

“Yessir.”

Corbin gave him an even gaze. “You are aware of the phrase ‘lab accident,’ aren’t you?”

“Yes. I’m aware that it was an accident that gave Atom—that gave Jeremy his unusual abilities.  But I thought that the process could be standardized, and made safe.  Imagine it, sir! The ability to create superpowers on demand!  To give people the ability to—“

“—The ability to fly, but also to constantly emit lethal levels of radiation, such that one can’t have anything approximating a normal life?”

John dropped his gaze. “Nobody’s perfect, sir.”

“No, I suppose not.” He returned to the file for a moment. “At any rate, there WAS a lab accident during your research.”

“Yes. But the experiment was a failure, like I said.”

“A failure? Because it didn’t make you into a new Atom Man?” John shrugged. Dr. Corbin looked incredulously at him.  “John, your accident gave us a stable process for cold nuclear fusion!  That’s one of the greatest and most sought after discoveries of this century.  It’s already revolutionizing the energy industry!”  Seeing that John was unmoved, he sighed.  “Alright, let’s move on.  Tell me about…” He flipped a few more pages.  “The variable-mass experiment.”

“Alright. I had been reading up on the work of Dr. Emilia Nox.  A few years ago she experimented with mass variability through particle acceleration—quantum mass variability, she called it.  She was making very good progress with it, until…well, I suppose you know.”

“A lab accident,” Dr. Corbin said. “Yes, I remember.”

“Right,” John said. “Well, I thought I could expand on her work by incorporating some of the equations about dark matter.  It’s not as though we had access to any, since no one even knew if it really existed, but we know enough about its properties in a mathematical sense.  I figured that I could incorporate some of those equations and overcome some of her hurdles.”

A suspicious look had dawned on Corbin’s face. “Those hurdles you mentioned…those wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that her unfortunate lab accident gave her the power to turn invisible, would they?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it unfortunate, sir. And besides, it’s more to do with her ability to change her mass at will.  That makes her quite a threat to criminals, you know.”

Corbin glanced at the ceiling in a longsuffering gesture. “Superpowers again.  Well, anyway, your calculations must not have worked out as expected, because you encountered the same accident as Dr. Nox—or should I call her by her chosen name, Doctor Night?”

“She’d probably like that, sir. I’ve met her; she seems like a great person.  And anyway, yes, but it was also a failure.”

Corbin consulted his file. “That failure, as you say, resulted in a new, lab-reproducible, commercially-feasible method for not only detecting dark matter, but isolating samples for use.  As I understand it, as soon as the trial phases clear, that discovery alone stands to make you a very rich man, John.  I’m not sure how it’s a failure.”

Again, John shrugged. “It’s a nice accomplishment, but it wasn’t my goal, sir.”

“A nice acc…oh, never mind. Let’s go on.”

“If you insist, sir.”

“Well, that covers your first two months with us. In your third month…” He searched the file.  “Ah!  You switched your focus from physics to artificial intelligence.  It’s good to see a multidisciplinarian! What prompted the change?”

“Well, sir, I thought that since I’d had a few noteworthy failures already, I must be doing something wrong. I figured that if I could set up a workable AI, it could help me with monitoring and troubleshooting on my other goals.  The problem with current-generation AI, as you know, is that it inevitably goes rogue in some way.  There’s that famous case of the chatbot that turned into a neo-Nazi, and those security robots that killed themselves…and that’s just what we’ve seen on a small scale.  Large-scare AI could easily try to take over, so we don’t dare risk it.  Well, I thought I might get around that by keeping a human element in the system.  I wanted the AI to be dependent on a human brain, not for its processing power, but for its existence.  If a human is in the loop, he or she can shut down the AI with a thought if anything starts to go wrong.  So, I started looking at brain-computer interfaces.”

“It’s a novel approach,” Corbin admitted. “What made you think of that?”

“I, uh…well, sir, do you recall a situation where a microprocessor array blew up in a lab assistant’s face? This would have been a Microsoft project, about ten years ago.”

Corbin thought for a moment. “Ten years ago…ten years…oh, yes, I do recall it, it was a very…wait a minute.” He sat up straighter and shot a look at John.  “You’re talking about Technoman!  The processors penetrated the tech’s brain, and gave him the ability to interact with electronic systems by thought alone.  He calls himself Technoman now, and fights cybercrime, right?”

“That would be the one, sir. Anyway, I thought that if I could implant the processors rather than have it happen by accident—“

“But there was an accident.  A processor array did explode, and you were struck by a flying processor.  I remember it now.  You were out on medical leave for a few weeks.” He arched an eyebrow.  “No Technoman?”

“No Technoman, sir. Even though the processor couldn’t be removed.” He scratched at his temple.  “It still itches.”

“But this was a success for you as well,” Corbin said. “When the lab was burning, your AI made the leap to the local mainframe and took charge of the fire suppression system, ensuring that you lived.  It saved your life; and when questioned later, it expressed loyalty to you.  Examination of its code revealed elements that were clearly not designed, but that in hindsight render it both safe and loyal to humanity—elements that could only have come from its brief contact with your brain.  You advanced the science of artificial intelligence by at least two decades.  I suppose you’re going to call that a failure?”

“Yes sir.”

Why?”

“I needed that AI for a lab assistant. But now it’s so busy being examined and studied that I can never get access to it for my work!”

Corbin sat back, unsure how to proceed. Finally he spoke.  “John…I think that you and this company may have different goals.”

John looked up, alarmed. “Sir!  That’s not true.  You’re not…terminating me, are you?”

“Oh, no, not that.” Corbin shook his head.  “John, we’re a research institution here.  We innovate.  We make discoveries.  Usually those discoveries are incremental, because that’s how science works—well, except in your case.  But you, John…I really think you’re just here to get superpowers.”

John’s face turned red. “Sir, I—“

“No need to defend yourself,” Corbin said. “It’s reasonable enough.  We live in a day when there’s an established history of lab accidents granting powers to individuals.  And it’s a good thing too—with most superheroes having a scientific background, they’re more likely to use their powers responsibly, don’t you think?”

He leaned back and put his hands on the desk. “Your goal is noble, John, but it conflicts with ours.  And I have to admit, I’m conflicted about it, because while you’re causing what is frankly an obscene number of accidents, your results are amazing.  Here, look.”  Flipping through the file, he stopped at section after section.  “May of last year, the monofilament situation.  You wanted a way to strengthen your own skeletal structure with carbon monofilaments; what you got—after blowing up the extrusion chamber—was a brand-new method for structuring the atoms in monofilaments, increasing the tensile strength by a factor of a thousand.  June: One of the technicians says that you mentioned wanting the ability to teleport.  Your experiment put you in the hospital overnight, but it gave us the ability to carry out quantum teleportation on the macro scale, albeit only on small objects—but still, that’s unheard of!  July: You wanted to be able to fly, so you worked on manipulation of energy fields in localized areas.  We lost eighty thousand dollars of lab equipment on that one, but we can now generate stable force fields!  Shall I go on?”

“No sir,” John said.

Corbin shook his head. “John, do you understand what all of this means?”

At last, John sat up straight, even defiantly. His face was red, and there were tears in his eyes.  “Yes! It means that none of my theories were true! I haven’t been able to complete a single experiment all year, and besides, I’ve caused lab accidents every single time!”

Corbin gazed at him, and a smile twitched up the corners of his mouth. “No, John,” he said quietly.  “It means you don’t need to look for superpowers.  You already have one.”

That was not what John expected to hear. “I…what?”

“Yes. John, you’re the luckiest man in the world.”  He held up a finger.  “Think about it.  First, you survive accident after accident with little more than a few superficial injuries.  And on the one occasion when your injuries were serious, you survived something that would have killed anyone else.  Moreover, everyone else present for any of these accidents has survived, so clearly your luck is communicable to those around you.  And last of all, you’ve had an unbroken string of amazing scientific discoveries, all quite by accident! Now, what would you call that if not superpowered luck?”

John was silent for a long minute. “Well, when you put it that way,” he said at last.

“I do.” Corbin sat back.  “Now get back to work.”

John’s jaw fell open. “So…you’re not going to fire me?”

“I said that earlier, didn’t I? I’m not going to fire you.  In fact, I’m authorizing a raise.  HR will get with you about the details.  Now, go do some experiments.  Just,” he added, “do them in a different building, will you?”

Short Story: Of Parks and Plots

This short story is a sequel to “New Tricks” and “Of Cookies and Comprehension“.  Enjoy!

golden retriever

“AND WHAT,” the dog said, “exactly, is the purpose of this…thing you’re doing?”

“Swinging,” the little girl answered.  “It’s fun.”

The dog’s head bobbed back and forth in time with the bright yellow kiddie swing.  “I don’t think that you and I have the same definition of fun.”

“That’s silly,” the girl said.  “What’s not to like?  First you go this way—“ as she swung forward “—and then you go THIS way!”  She let out a giggle, and shifted in her seat.

“Marley!”  the girl’s mother shouted from her bench.  She started to get up, then settled back down.  “You stay still!  You’ll fall out!”

“She’s so protective,” Marley confided to the dog.  “It’s cute.  I let her get by with it because I like her so much.”

“I don’t think we have the same definition of cute, either.  She thinks she’s cute when she calls me the wrong name.”  The dog shook his head and huffed in embarrassment.

“What’s wrong with ‘Goldie’? Your fur is gold.”

“That’s because I’m a golden retriever,” the dog said, annoyed.  “I didn’t pick it.  And my name is Buster, not Goldie.  I didn’t pick that either,” he added as an afterthought.  “But I like it.”

“So why don’t you just tell her?” Marley said.

Buster gave it a nanosecond of thought.  “Marley, I know you’re only two, but you’re old enough to understand that grownups think dogs can’t talk.  Every time your mother hears me, she ends up on the floor with a bump on her head.  YOU tell her.”

“I tried.  A bunch of times!  She doesn’t understand me.  It’s like daycare.”  She dropped her legs straight, making the swing slow down, and gave Buster an intense look.  “Every day she picks me up from daycare, and she asks me what I learned, and I tell her.  But when I say “Cack… cackl… uh… cack’lus—“

“Calculus?” the dog supplied.

“Right!  Cack’lus.”  She nodded.  “If I tell her that, she just laughs like a moron.  Like she doesn’t take me seriously at all!”  She grew thoughtful.  “But if I sing the Farmer in the Dell, she understands that!  Maybe,” she added, “I should sing to her about cack’lus.”

“That would be fun to watch.”

She frowned at him, her nose wrinkling.  “Yeah, we have different ideas about fun.  Anyway, if she can’t understand something as simple as cack’lus, how will I ever tell her about your name?  That’s IMPORTANT stuff, you know.”

The dog dipped his head in a doggy bow.  “Your logic is unassailable, my friend.”

Abruptly, Marley grabbed the chains of the swing in both hands, making it glide more or less to a halt.  “Well, look at that.  SHE’S nose deep in a book.  Guess I’ll get myself down.”  Expertly, she undid the safety belt and worked her feet out of the holes in the plastic swing, then stood up.

Buster looked up in consternation.  “Ah, Marley, I don’t think you should—“

“—CATCH!”  She leaped from the swing, sending it bucking, and landed on the dog, sending them both sprawling in a heap.  Several other children in the vicinity looked around in alarm.

“Now THAT,” she said, picking herself up and dusting herself off, “was FUN!”  Buster bared his teeth in irritation, and let out a sigh.

Marley checked to see that her mother hadn’t noticed, then made her way to the sandbox on the other side of the swingset.  Buster followed, but sat down primly at the edge of the sandbox.  She paused and looked back at him.  “Aren’t you coming in?”

“I’ll pass,” he said.  “I’m not big on sand.  It gets down in my fur and won’t come out.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, “more for me.”  Sitting down, she grabbed a handful of sand.

“More for…what?”  Marley studied the sand for a moment, then abruptly licked it.  “Oh.”

“Blech,” she said, spitting it out.  “This is a bad vintage.  I liked the 2015 better.  I’ll have to have a word with the maintenance guys.  Except THEY probably won’t understand me either.”

“I saw a cat using that as a litter box a while ago,” Buster observed.  “I suppose it’s a little late now, but I thought you should know anyway.”

“Well, that explains it!  Silly cat.”  She stood up again.  “But I’m still hungry.  Hey…mom has some treats in her purse!  Maybe we can get those.”  She scratched her chin thoughtfully, looking for all the world like a pint-sized supervillain.  “Now, how to get them…”

“You know, you COULD just ask her for them.  I’m sure she’d give them to you.”

She arched an eyebrow at him.  “Don’t be silly!  OF course we need a plan.  Work with me here!”

“You’re the boss.”  He gave her a doggy shrug.

“We need…” She glanced around.  “We need…a distraction!  That’s it!”  She patted Buster on the head.  “How do you feel about biting someone?”

“What?!”

“Not too hard!  Just, you know, enough to make them cry.  It would be perfect!”

“Marley, if I did that, they would send me back to the pound.  Is that what you want?”  He drew himself up.  “And besides, I am a lover, not a biter.”

“Fine,” she grumbled.  “Well, maybe…okay, I got it!  Go over to my mom, and get the edge of her shirt, and start pulling on it.  She’ll wonder what you want, and then she’ll get up and follow you, and I’ll snatch the treats.  Then you let go, and run around the back way, and meet me over by that tree—“ she pointed “—and we’ll see what we have.  Does that sound good?”

He pondered for a moment.  “Just one question.”

“What?”

“What’s in it for me?”

She put her hands on her hips and gave him an impatient look.  “She keeps dog treats too.”

“Sold!”  Buster jumped up and trotted off to the bench.  Marley watched as he grabbed the tail of her mother’s shirt and started tugging.  He was very good—he made sure not to rip the material, and he never growled.  She tried to push him away, and when that didn’t work, at last she stood up.  She gave Marley a look—frowned, glanced at the empty swing, then back at the toddler—and then gave in and followed the dog in the other direction.

Marley leapt to her feet and scampered over to the bench, where her mother’s purse sat open.  She pawed through the top and pulled out two plastic pouches—one of gummy fruit snacks, one of bacon dog treats.  “Jackpot!”  Clutching the pouches, she ran back past the sandbox to the shade of the big oak tree, and sat down, hiding the pouches between her legs.

“Dumb dog!” Marley’s mom made her way back to the bench, brushing dust from her clothes, as Buster came running back to Marley.  “Honestly, that dog is so weird sometimes.  I don’t know what he’s thinking.”  She gave Marley a glance, then sat down and picked up her book.

“Mission accomplished!” Marley said as Buster lay down on the grass beside her.  With two-year-old skill, she tore the packets open and tossed a bacon strip to the dog, then turned her attention to the fruit snacks.  “Kinda makes up for those cookies we never got.  Don’t you think so?”

The dog swallowed the treat.  “Something about ‘ill-gotten gains’ comes to mind,” he said, and looked longingly at the bag.  “But right now, I’m okay with that.”

“Yeah,” she said between bites.  “They do taste pretty good.  But you know, this was a lot of work.  Maybe next time we should just ask.”

The dog gave her a look, then shook his head and snorted.  “I have a funny feeling I’ve heard something like that before.”

“See?! I knew you’d understand!”

Short Story: A Fish Story

Fish

“No, I’m telling you, Bill, it was right there!” He shivered as he said it.  Actually, he hadn’t stopped shaking since he got here, zipping around and frantically checking every nook and cranny in the place until he found me.  It was totally unlike Bob to act like this, so…as ridiculous as it sounded, I had to admit that SOMETHING had happened to him.

I looked around, trying to see how much attention he was getting.  We were mostly in the clear right now.  “Okay, Bob, calm down.  Now, why don’t you tell me what happened?  Give me the details this time.  Take it easy.”

He sputtered a little at that, but I saw him open his mouth wide and breathe a little easier.  “Alright.  Let’s see.  It, it happened…well, Bill, it was kind of like this.

“There I was,” he said, “Mindin’ my own, just like always.  I was down on the sandbar, keepin’ an eye on things.  And, and it was like…I don’t know, it was like I felt somethin’ before I saw anything.  This vibration, you know?  You really didn’t feel it?”

“No,” I said, and truthfully.  “But, I was busy getting a bite to eat, and besides, I’m not real sensitive about things like that.  Go on, tell me the rest.”

“Okay.  Okay.  So, there I was, just hanging out, you know, and I felt that vibration, and then I heard this sound.  It was like a roar, like a wave or something, but so much louder!  I didn’t know where it was coming from.  I felt like it was coming from all around me.”  He swallowed, and then looked me straight in the eye.  “Bill, you don’t…you don’t believe in, you know, …… , do you?”

“Huh?”  I wasn’t  sure what he had said.  “Say that again?”

Bob moved a little closer, glancing around to make sure no one would hear.  “I said…do you believe in…” He dropped to a whisper.  “…Aliens?”

I wanted to laugh, but I saw how serious he was—and how shaken up.  “Aliens, Bob?” I said.  “You—you’re serious?”

“As serious as ick,” he said.  “I…I swear, I think this was aliens!”

“Oh, Bob, I don’t think—“

“Just wait!” he interrupted.  “Wait, I ain’t told you the biggest part yet.  You’ll see!”  Reluctantly, I fell silent again; he took that as a cue to go on.  “So I heard that sound.  It was coming from everywhere!  And then…then…Bill, you’re never gonna believe this…Bill, the sky just started churning up!  And, and then, it split!  Right down the middle, right over my head!”

He was getting loud now.  We were getting some looks.  “Bob, I—“

“—And then that split came right down to the ground, right in front of me!  It was as far as the eye could see in either direction!  It was like a clear wall, right there!  I couldn’t go through it—it was like there was nothin’ at all on the other side!”

“Bob, come on, maybe we should—“

“And suddenly, there they were!” he shouted.  “I saw them!  Saw them with my own eyes!  They were huge, and, and they had these tall stalks that they moved on, two of them on every creature!  And heads that were way up high!  And they had these other stalks on the side, and they were hurrying by!  I screamed, but they didn’t notice—they just kept going by!  Right there on the other side of that magic wall!  I couldn’t believe my eyes!”  His eyes were bugging out as he said it, as though they couldn’t believe it either.  “ALIENS!!” he shouted.

Silence.  Everyone on the reef was staring at us now.  I sighed; it couldn’t be helped.  Gently, I patted him on the fin.  “And what happened then, Bob?”

He looked forlorn.  “Well…well, then I came to find you.  And then while I was on my way, I heard this loud noise, like the same one I heard before…and I looked back, and it was all gone.  The aliens, the magic wall…nothing but water.  Just like before.”  He looked at me again, hope and sadness mixed in his eyes.  “You do believe me, don’t you, Bill?  I swear I saw it.  I saw it all.”

“Sure, Bob, I believe you.  Hey, what are friends for?  Now, you gotta be hungry after all that.  Let’s go find some good kelp before it gets dark.”  He nodded, and with a shake of our scales, we swam off into the reef.

***

The two men stopped at the edge of the water, standing on a rock for a better vantage, and looked back.  Broken bits of chariots and gear floated like branches on the waves; later the bodies of the army that had pursued them would bob to the surface, but for now the water remained mostly placid.  “Well, that is that,” the younger man said, and clapped the older man on the shoulder.  “The Lord is amazing, isn’t he?  Who would have imagined He would deliver us through the sea?”

“Indeed.”  The older man turned then, and gave his companion an odd look.  “Moses…I know this will sound strange…but did you hear a scream as we went through the sea?  Like some small animal, perhaps.”

Moses frowned at him, and then laughed.  “Aaron, the excitement of the day must be getting to you!  Who would have been there to scream?  Honestly, next you’ll be saying the fish were yelling.  Or talking even!”

Aaron nodded and gave him a grin.  “I suppose you’re right.  It IS ridiculous, isn’t it?”  He turned to follow the people, the last stragglers who were now heading up the shore.  Moses turned with him, and they began to walk.

“Just a bit,” he said.  “Really, we get a miracle, and you hear talking fish?”

“You once heard a voice in a burning bush!”

“That was different!”  Laughing, they followed the people.

Reblog: Conjured in Gold

It’s been a while since I had a guest post on this blog; too long, in my humble opinion.  So, today, I have something different:  a short story by my friend and sometime-contributor, Cyndera.  This story (or rather, partial, as it will be posted in serial format), titled Conjured in Gold, is one to which I am partial, as I was fortunate to have some input into the direction it took during the writing process.  Rather than hosting it here, I’ll be linking to it on Cyndera’s own blog; you can check it out there.  Happy reading!

“You can’t be serious, Arlia. We have talked about this. More than once! You know how rare winged souls are!”

The tall, elderly man, dressed in scarlet-red robes, stood in the middle of the town’s library in front of massive wooden shelves filled with thousands of books and tomes, his voice a mix of disbelief, annoyance and amusement. His grey hair, once so short that it barely covered even the highest tip of his ears, was now touching his shoulders, clearly marking him as an Elder. The hair blended in with his pale complexion but contrasted sharply with is his dark-green eyes, which were now fixed on a young woman standing right in front of him. She wore a silken, white robe with delicate embroidery at the sleeves. Her white hair merged almost completely with the flowing fabric. Her arms crossed over her chest, she glared at the taller figure with bright, blue eyes.

Continue Reading

Short Story: Of Cookies and Comprehension

I’ve written a number of stories for specific people before, including my children and some friends.  It’s not often, though, that someone has asked to be the target inspiration for one of my stories; and so, when presented with a request recently, I had to give it a shot.  The child in this story is based on a friend’s child, who just so happens to love cookies, and coincidentally happens to believe she knows everything (don’t they all?).  She was a prime model for the main character here; and yet that wasn’t the full puzzle.  After some thought, I decided that one of my favorite short story creations–Buster, the talking dog from my earlier story, “New Tricks“–had another story to tell.  This story, “Of Cookies and Comprehension”, is the result, and I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

retrievers

She broke her concentration long enough to go to the front door.  She may have only been one year old, but she could multitask.

The door wasn’t quite latched, so she worked her fingers around the edge and hauled it open.  The screen door was firmly closed, but the glass was up, and she looked through the bare screen at the golden retriever sitting on the stoop.  It was he that had made the scratching that attracted her.  “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” the dog said.  “I was walking by, and I smelled bacon…would you care to part with any?  I’m quite hungry…”

“No,” she said.  The oddity of a talking dog didn’t register with her; she was, after all, only one.

“Oh, well then, I suppose I’ll be on my way.  Good day—“

“You can’t have any,” she said, “because we ate it all already.  My mom only made enough for the two of us.”  She paused.  “It was very good.”

“Splendid,” the dog said, “It’s a crime when bacon is no good.  Say, I suppose—“

“But you can have a cookie,” she interrupted.

“Cookies are my next favorite food,” the dog said, smooth as butter, “after bacon of course.”

“You have to help me get the cookies, though,” the girl said.  “My mom is in the shower.”

“Certainly!  Ah, now, if you could just let me in…see, I haven’t any thumbs…”

“No,” the girl said.  “Mom says I’m not supposed to let strangers in the house.”

“Oh, really?” the dog said.  “My name is Buster.  What’s yours?”

“Marley,” she said.

“See?  There.  We’re not strangers anymore!”  That seemed like very sound logic to Marley, and so she obliged the dog by reaching up and flipping the tiny lock switch behind the door handle, and then opened the door.  Buster gave her a nod and a toothy, tongue-filled, doggy grin, and then nosed the door open far enough to slip inside.  He was small for a retriever, but tall enough to lick the little girl’s nose, which he did, and very appreciatively.  She frowned and wrinkled it, then smiled and toddled past the dog, toward the kitchen.

“This way,” Marley said, and the dog padded after her.  “The cookies are on the top shelf.”

“Doesn’t it bother you,” Buster said, “that you’re holding a conversation with a dog?”

“No.  Why?”  She tugged on a kitchen chair, inching it across the floor.

“Oh, no reason.”  Buster nosed the chair from behind, moving it a little faster, and together they edged it toward the cabinets. “Just that my last master thought it was odd.  He got rather worked up about it, actually.”

“But did he listen to you?”  Marley paused and looked at Buster before turning back to the chair.

“Ohh, that he did,” Buster said.  “It didn’t go so well.”

“My mom listens to me, kind of.”  Marley climbed up on the seat of the chair, then looked back.  “But I think she needs her ears checked.  She doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying.”

“You don’t say,” Buster said.

“Right?  It’s like she only hears babbling.  It’s so annoying.  I have so many cool things to say!  After all, I know everything.  But she doesn’t get it at all.”  She looked down at him.  “One night, I even woke her up to give her my insights into string theory—she keeps the ink pens, you know, so I needed her to write them down—and she just kept shaking her head and saying “no pattycake, no pattycake.”  Sometimes I think her mind may be going soft.”

“So what did you do?”

“What COULD I do?  I played pattycake with her until she fell asleep again.  She seemed to like it.”

“Of course,” the dog said, and put his paws up on the seat to steady it.

“Thanks,” Marley said, and turned back to the cabinet.

“Don’t mention it,” he said.  “So, what is your mother’s name?  I’ll have to introduce myself, I suppose.”

“Mom,” she said.

“Oh…well…yes, but…well, does she have another name?”

She stopped reaching for the door, and gave him a look.  “Mama?”

“Oh, but she should have another…”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, “why would she need another name?”

“Of course,” the dog said, “just how old did you say you are?”

“I didn’t,” she said, and turned back to the cabinet.  She had the door open in a flash.  “Bazinga!  Cookies, incoming!”  The package sat on the top shelf, one corner stretching tantalizingly over the edge.  “Just…gotta…reach…”

“MARLEY!”  The girl flinched, and so did the dog, who somehow managed to look guilty even while panting. The package of cookies tipped and fell to the countertop, then bounced to the floor.  Buster gave them a longing look, but didn’t move.  The woman in the doorway glared at both of them.  “Just WHAT do you think you’re doing?!”

“We’re busted,” Buster whispered.

“I know!” Marley whispered back.  “What do we do?”

“Don’t look at me,” he whispered, “I’m a dog.”

“I guess I’ll have to talk her out of getting us in trouble,” Marley whispered.  “I’ll give her my most logical and reasoned arguments.  She’ll never be able to resist my rhetorical skills.  Watch!”  She looked up at her mother, who was standing over her now, hands on hips, waiting.

“Well,” the woman said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

Marley glanced back at Buster one last time for courage.  She turned back to her mother, and gathered her wits about her.  Then she raised a hand, and stretched out a finger, and opened her mouth; and in her best and most authoritative voice, she said…

“Cookie, mama?”

The woman laughed, and bent down to hug the girl.  “You know, if you weren’t so darned cute…”  Then she straightened up, and looked down at the dog, and frowned.  “But where did the dog come from?  And how did he get in?”

Buster dipped his head in a doggy shrug.  “What can I say?  I borrowed your daughter’s thumbs.  She’s very helpful, by the way.”

Marley watched as her mother’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she slipped to the floor in a dead faint.  “See?” she said.  “I TOLD you she doesn’t understand me!”

Short Story: Storytime Is Hell

Lately I seem to be lacking in topical posts.  That’s bad for me; but it’s good for you, readers, as you get more stories this way.  (I hope that’s a good thing, at any rate!)

The story that follows, “Storytime Is Hell”, is another prompt-inspired story, prompted by the good folks over at Reddit’s Writing Prompts community.  The prompt reads “You are reading the grittiest, manliest, most testosterone-filled bedtime story to your daughter. She’s adding in bits.”  I also feel like I should give an acknowledgement to Matthew Reilly’s “Jack West Jr.” trilogy of novels here; the names “Wolf” and “Huntsman”, while fitting perfectly in this story (for reasons that will be obvious) are also the callsigns of his characters, Jack West Jr. and his father and rival, Jack West Sr.  The books are some of my favorites, so credit is definitely due.

And now, an audience participation moment:  Rename this story!  I hate titling stories.  If a title doesn’t present itself during the writing, I find it very hard to come up with one that satisfies me.  So, I’m taking suggestions to rename this one!  If you have an idea that you think is perfect, post it in the comments.  For the winner, I’ll rename the story.  (Not much of a prize, but hey, it works, right?)  Thanks!

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

source unknown

source unknown

“Read this one!” Casey squealed, and pressed the book into my hands. It wasn’t thin, and I tried to switch it for another one, but she pushed my hands back with all her five-year-old strength. “No, Daddy! I said THIS one!” Well, alright. I opened it and leafed through; at least the stories in it were short. I flipped to a random one and sat back on the bed; looking cute as ever, Casey sat back against her pillow, pulled the blanket up over her knees, and folded her hands on them in prim anticipation. Her eyes glowed as she waited for the story to begin.

“Alright,” I said. “Once upon a time, there was a minor Central American country. In this country lay a small jungle, and in that jungle lay a tiny, reinforced compound. In that compound lived an old matriarch, and her granddaughter, Red.”

I paused. “Wait, just what kind of book is this, anyway, Casey?” I flipped it over and read the title. “Roundhouse Kick The Wicked Witch: Manly Fairy Tales For Manly Men. Well, that explains it!” I looked up. “Casey, where did you get this book?”

“Kindergarten!”

“Uh…”

“READ!” she shouted.

“Alright, alright, if you insist.” I flipped it back over. “But you might not like it!”

She giggled. I rolled my eyes, and started again. “Now, unknown to Grandma and Red, their simple life was about to change. For on that very day, their little compound, and their minor country, was about to be invaded by another country’s general. They called him…The Wolf.”

“How big was his army?”

Now the Wolf—I, uh, excuse me?” I looked up. She was still sitting with her fingers laced on her knees, but her eyes were wide, waiting for an answer.

“I said, how big was the Wolf’s army?”

“I, uh…well, it doesn’t really…Casey, it’s a bedtime story, I don’t think—“

“Well, that’s no good. For a minor Central American country, I think you need at least fifty thousand ground troops, plus twenty air support units. And sufficient naval forces to secure the shoreline.” She frowned. “What?”

I opened my mouth a few times before any words would come out. “Did you just—“

She sighed. “Come on, Daddy, I want to hear the rest!”

Yeah, sure. Never mind all that. I resumed. “Now the Wolf came rolling into the country on a wave of blood and bullets…oh my…and no one could stop him. He rolled up to the gate of the little compound, and got out his loudspeaker, and announced to everyone, ‘GRANDMA AND RED! LET ME IN!’ And the compound’s guards shouted ‘NOT BY THE HAIR ON OUR CHINNY CHIN CHINS!’…Hey, I think there’s some plagiarism going on here, not to mention some story confusion…”

“Da-DDY!”

Alright! So the Wolf huffed, and he puffed, and he…oh, come on…and he fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the gates, and the guards scattered everywhere!”

“Hmpf.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Hmpf?”

“Shoulda reinforced the gate.”

“Where did you even learn that word?”

“Just saying. Then it would have taken more than an RPG.” She gave me a triumphant look.

“Right…” I cleared my throat. “So the Wolf and his men took charge of the compound, and Grandma and Red found themselves locked in the cellar. But, unknown to the Wolf, the CIA had many connections in this minor country, and they knew they would need to protect their interests. By nightfall, they had their best operative on a plane, and by midnight he was parachuting into the jungle. His codename: The Huntsman.”

“One man?” Casey shouted. “THAT’s the best they can do? One man? How about a slash-and-burn team to clear the area, followed by a four-man squad of Navy SEALS—“

I cut her off with a look. “Are you going to let me read this?” She subsided, but her eyes were still flashing. “Thank you. So the Huntsman parachuted in under cover of darkness, and landed in the jungle. Quickly he made his way to the perimeter, and one by one he subdued the guards, using his knife and his hand-to-hand combat skills. He hid the bodies as he created them, and made his way to the fence. Once there, he used his knife to scrape a dugout beneath the fence, and crawled under.”

“Uh, motion detectors? Ever heard of those? Or vibration sensors on the fence?”

“Casey—“

“Well, it’s like they’re not even TRYING!” she exploded, then subsided, with her arms crossed.

“We’re almost done, if you’ll let me go on.” She nodded glumly. “Alright. Now where was I…oh yeah. The Huntsman made his way to the main house, intending to rescue the hostages before confronting the Wolf. He had no way to know that the hostages were rescuing themselves.” I turned the page. “Grandma knew about the years Red had spent in the local juvenile detention center, but she didn’t know about the recruiter for the CIA that had met her there. She didn’t know about Red’s secret training, or her mission to further America’s interests in the country; and of course she didn’t know about the hidden knife that Red was using right now to cut herself free of her bonds. So, when Red sprang to her feet, she only had time to duck as Red threw the knife over Grandma’s shoulder and took out the one guard on the door. Right between the eyes.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Casey muttered, “he won’t have the keys anyway.”

“Well, I know that, but how did you…?”

“I’m getting sleepy,” she said with a yawn, “can we hurry?”

“Right. So Red cut Grandma free, then began to pick the lock whle Grandma pressed her ear to the door. But the next sound she heard made them stop—for they knew it was the sound of bodies hitting the floor upstairs. The Huntsman had come!” I looked at her; she tapped her fingers on her arm, impatiently waiting. “When the Huntsman popped the lock with a bit of C4, Red burst out and nearly put her knife in him. Only his quick training and martial reflexes saved him, as he caught her arm and disarmed her, and flipped her onto the floor!”

“BOOOO-ring!” Casey announced. “No CIA-trained sleeper operative would have charged through the door without looking!”

I ignored that. “’Well done,’ a voice said behind them. It was the Wolf! He had come down from the second floor during the fight, and now he stood at the foot of the stairs, watching the three of them. ‘I didn’t expect you to escape, but here you are. Grandma, the woman who used to be in charge here. Red, the little girl with the big secret. And you…the Huntsman. My old enemy.’”

“’So you remember,’ the Huntsman said. ‘I thought you would forget.’”

“’I could never forget the man…who murdered my father!’ he shouted. ‘And now, that debt will be repaid! Die, Huntsman!’ And he drew his gun and fired!”

“Oh come on!” She was waving her arms in five-year-old fury. “Body armor, people! He’s wearing body armor!”

“Well, as it turns out,” I said, “you are wrong. Listen. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere, Grandma leaped in front of the bullet! And as she lay dying a bloody and dramatic death, Red and the Huntsman leaned over her and heard her final words. ‘Huntsman,’ she wheezed, ‘I want you to take my granddaughter far away from here, to someplace safe, where she can have a life.’”

“’I will,’ the Huntsman promised.”

“’And marry her,’ the old woman gasped.”

“’Grandma, I’m eleven!’ Red exclaimed.”

“’Don’t disobey your grandmother, now,’ she said, and then she died. Red and the Huntsman looked at each other.”

“’We’ll talk about this later,’ he said. She nodded. Then he stood up. ‘Wolf,’ he declared, ‘I’ve come to end your suffering once and for all.’”

“’Are you going to give me back my father?’”

“’No,’ the Huntsman said, ‘but I will send you to join him!’”

“What followed was a battle too epic for words. It raged over the compound for a night and a day; and in the end, the Huntsman was victorious. He stood over his fallen foe, watching as the final moments came. ‘You can’t think this is over, Huntsman,’ the Wolf growled. ‘I may die, but someone will avenge me! You’ll never be safe again!”

“The Huntsman pointed his gun at the Wolf. ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you how this ends.’ He tightened his finger on the trigger. ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ The gunshot was the last sound the Wolf heard.” I lowered the book. “The End.”

“WHAT?” Casey exploded. “That’s IT?? What about the resulting power vacuum and the reestablishment of government? What about the inevitable puppet state? What about the rest of the military? What about the Huntsman and Red? I need to know–!”

“Goodnight, Casey,” I said, and turned off the light and left the room.

I took the book with me. Strange as it was, I didn’t want to leave it with her. In my own bedroom, I took a last look at the cover, and then tossed the book on the nightstand. “That’s what you get,” I said to myself as I turned out the light, “when a military school opens up a preschool.”

Short Story: It Pays

My first short story to be posted in a while, “It Pays” was written in about an hour.  I don’t often try to spell out the influences on a particular story, but I think it doesn’t hurt an author to give some thought to the things that shaped his writing, both in general and in regard to specific pieces.  At the very least, it makes us aware of our sources–and more important from a legal standpoint, whether we’re unintentionally plagiarizing something.  This story, and in particular the character of the Redactor, drew some inspiration from Neal Stephenson’s portrayal of Hiro Protagonist in the early chapters of his excellent novel, “Snow Crash”, which I referred to in a recent post.  As well, the setting–and I don’t want to give it away here–was drawn from numerous movies, most notably Liam Neeson’s recent “A Walk Among The Tombstones”.  I should also note that this is a writing prompt story; the prompt appears early in the story as the Redactor’s line, “I’m not proud of what I do, but it pays. It pays.”  Read and enjoy, and tell me what you think!

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

 

There was a red dot painted on the concrete floor. It was the only color in an otherwise flat-grey room. Try as he might, the man in the chair couldn’t stop staring at it; his eyes darted back to it over and over, flicking away just long enough to track the movements of the other man in the room. It didn’t help that only his eyes were free to move, strapped into the chair as he was.

He was past the point of yelling. Though he remained ungagged, he knew not to scream. The first time he had raised his voice, a high-voltage current had coursed through him. It was not lethal, but the pain had been tremendous. After the second scream, the other man, the one in the long brown coat, had stopped in front of him, hunkered down, and touched a small stem that was just barely in view beside the head of the man in the chair. “Microphone,” he said. “The electricity is voice-activated. You can talk, but if you get loud, well…bzzzz!” Then he stood and kept walking, circling the chair, checking the devices that were warming up.

“Why am I here?” the man, whose name was Michael Flynn, said. He couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice when he said it. Still, it was a better question than how did I get here, which had only earned him a snort and an eye roll from the man in the coat. This time, the man stopped and regarded him.

“Come on, now,” he said. “You’ve seen the movies before, right? If you’re here, it’s because someone wants you here.” Seeing the look on Michael’s face, he raised both hands. “Oh, not me,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.” He paused, then added, “I’m not proud of what I do, but it pays. It pays.”

“And what do you do?” Stalling for time now, trying to get a glimpse of the machines that were humming just out of sight behind him. He had seen the movies. His fingers twitched against his will, and he couldn’t help noticing that the duct tape binding his wrists to the chair ended above the fingers. Would they be the first site of the torture? Were they going to be cut off, joint by joint? Wounds cauterized with a hot iron? He shuddered.

The man grinned. “You’ll find out.” He started to walk again, then paused. “They call me the Redactor. Or at least, I call myself that. It sounds cool, you know.”

Michael thought it sounded ridiculous, but now didn’t seem to be a good time to say so. “Kind of like a superhero name, right?”

“Sure.” The Redactor continued around the chair, made another adjustment to the machines. “Superhero. I like that. Not so sure you’re gonna like my superpowers though.” There was a click, followed by another, and then a long, raspy susurrus. Michael thought it was the sound of something, a cable or a rope, being unwound.

“The fact is,” the Redactor said, “you know some things.” He stepped back to the front, and squatted down, looking Michael in the eyes. “According to my employer, dangerous things. Things you’d be better off not knowing in the first place. And it’s my job,” he added, raising a finger for emphasis, “to get it out of you.”

“And how do you plan to do that?” Michael was sweating now, fear seeping into his eyes in liquid form.

He stood up and spread his arms. “Oh, I have my ways. A man has to take pride in his work, even if it’s not the kind of work you’d be proud of. You understand what I mean?” He glanced down at Michael. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter. It’d just be nice if, you know, somebody understood for once!” The machines—one of them anyway—let out a beep, and his face brightened. “There we are! Time to get started.” He hurried behind the chair again.

I’m gonna die, Michael thought. This man is crazy. Out loud, he called out—not loud enough for the electricity—“Hey! Can we talk about this? Wh-whatever they’re paying you, I’ll beat it! Just let me go!”

“I thought you might say that,” the Redactor said. There was another sound of cables unwinding. “They always do. But, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I can’t do that. It’s bad for business! If I start breaking contracts, even for more money, it’ll take about half a day before I’m unemployable. And then it’s back to delivering pizzas.” He leaned over Michael’s shoulder. “And I hate delivering pizzas. It’s the smell. It gets into your clothes, your car—I could go the rest of my life without the smell of pepperoni and cheese, and it would be fine with me.”

He grabbed a handful of Michael’s hair and yanked, and Michael felt something cold and sticky against his scalp. He yelped involuntarily, but thankfully the current stayed off. Was this psycho pulling his hair out? And…and was that blood? “Sorry about this,” the Redactor murmured, and Michael felt another stab of quick pain and cold on the other side of his head. “These electrodes are going to pull some hair out when they come off later. But short of shaving your head, that’s the best I can do.”

The comment was so illogical, so out of place, that it took him a moment to follow it. “Wh…what?” He frowned, not understanding. “What kind of torture is this?” The words slipped out before he had a chance to rethink them.

Silence. The Redactor, still out of sight behind the chair, made not a move. Fearing the worst, Michael closed his eyes…

…and opened them a moment later as the Redactor stood in front of him. The man wore a look that was both incredulous and—weirdly—hurt. “Torture?” he said. “Is that what you think this is?”

Feeling surreal, Michael, glanced around, pointing with his eyes at the grey room, the dim lighting, and the chair with its bindings. “Well…you…kinda have the whole torture dungeon aesthetic going on here.”

The Redactor barked a laugh. “Aesthetic! I like that. You’re taped to a chair, and you still have the mind to use a word like that. That’s great!” He shook his head. “You really don’t understand all this?”

“I’m kind of at a loss here, yeah.” Especially with the turn the conversation was taking.

The man looked hurt again. “And here I thought my profession was finally getting some respect. Or at least some acknowledgement. Torture. How could you think that?”

“You said you had to get my knowledge out of me!”

“Right!” Seeing Michael’s blank look, he frowned; and then it dawned on him. “Oh. OH!” He laughed. “I said get it out of you. And that’s what I meant. Don’t you know what it means to redact something?” He put a hand to his forehead, as though it was painfully obvious. “I don’t care what you know. I’m not going to torture you to find out. My job is to make sure that nobody will know. Not even you! I take the memories away. My employer gives me a cue to look for, and I pull all the memories associated with it. The cables, the machines, the dot on the floor…you really don’t know how this works?”

Michael, whose jaw was hanging open, could only raise an eyebrow.

“Well, that’s just…wow. I thought everyone knew. Guess I need to do some of my own PR work. Hey, listen, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. You seem like a nice guy, and I have to say, you made me laugh. Not many people can do that! A job like this, it’s stressful at the best of times. Keep an eye on that dot, will you? Helps to have something to focus on. No, I’m really sorry about all that. I hate that this stressed you out so much, you know? Wish I could make it up to you somehow. Wait, wait, I got it! I can make it up to you! Of course. I’m not even thinking straight. Yeah, I’ll fix this for you.”

Michael felt a glimmer of hope. “You’re gonna let me go?”

“Nah. I’m just gonna take your memories of this, too. Still gotta get paid, remember?” There was the sound of a switch being thrown, and everything went dark.