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.

Short Fiction: The Sky Is Burning

Confession time:  I’m not happy with this story.  I’m posting it because I promised myself that I would, but it’s still very rough.  Although I won’t change the version that I’m posting here, the version that can be found under the “Stories” tab to the left will be subject to change.

This is the second entry in my short story series, and I’m happy to say that I kept it under 1500 words, which is a goal that continues to prove difficult.  Further, it’s my first piece of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction to be posted here.  I love that genre of fiction, and someday I would like to produce at least one novel of that type, but I’m nowhere near ready for that.  Consider this a practice run!

I don’t make a habit of including current events in my fiction; I like it to be appealing at any time.  With the events in Ukraine causing talk of the Cold War and WWIII, I made an exception in this case.  Therein lies the source of my unhappiness with this story, though; I found it hard to not be heavy-handed with my treatment of the (hypothetical future) Cold War, and yet get the point across that it led directly to the events here.  It’s a question of balance, and I have yet to master the answer.

With all that said, I hope you’ll find something enjoyable here.  Read on!

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

 

Today I came up on deck.  They looked askance at me when I said I was going, but not for long.  I just shrugged and told them I needed some fresh air, but I could have been declaring myself emperor, for all that they listened.  I just shrugged again, and shook my head, and closed the door tightly behind me.

I thought about it as I made my way down the corridor.  Is that the right word, “corridor”?  I don’t know.  I’m not a sailor.  This is my first time on the water, to be quite honest.  Well, it’s also going to be my last, I think.  But never mind that; I was talking about the others.  I couldn’t blame them, really, for not caring what I did; they had paid their passage, just as I had done, and so help them, they were going to get their money’s worth.  If I didn’t want to do the same, well, it was my money, of course, and they didn’t care what I did with it.

My parents used to talk about the cruise they took on their honeymoon.  As children, my sister and I would listen with our eyes wide to the stories they would tell, not only about the cruise, of course; but I we could tell that they had fond memories of that brief time.  They said—if you can believe it—that back in those days, cruises were about seeing the ocean, and the sun, and the waves, and the beautiful ports of call.  In those days, they said, guests didn’t stay below decks; sometimes they didn’t even stay on the ship, but went ashore on the islands.  I should mention that that was also before the icecaps melted; now, those islands are gone, or uninhabitable, being greatly reduced in size by the rising waters.

Listen to me, being all poetic!  I should write this down.  Maybe one day I will, haha.  Of course, when I say “write”, I mean “dictate”; paper is a luxury we really can’t afford, these days, and no one writes things down anymore.  It’s a shame that so many trees had to give way to make room, but then, we are dealing with a population boom on top of the loss of the coastlines.  At any rate, let me at least get my thoughts on record; I’ll be right back.

There, that’s better.  Had to recap, but I don’t think you’ll mind, if you’re reading this; I can be brief.  So, where was I?  Ah, right.  Heading above decks.  I had to show my ID to get on deck, but it was really only a formality; the security guard scanned the oval of circuitry tattooed on my wrist, and out the hatch I went.  I’m sure you know this, whoever you are, but with the resumption of the Cold War a few decades ago, heightened security became commonplace, at least when outside the borders.  You get used to it after a while.  Now, in my opinion, calling it a “resumption” is wrong; I’ve read my history, and I can promise you that this current version of the Cold War is nothing like the original!  Why not?  For one thing, no one cares.  They did in the first Cold War, you know; everyone lived with it every day.  They had fallout shelters and air raid drills in the schools and some funny piece of propaganda on the television that they called a…broadcast system, of some kind.  Disaster?  Emergency?  I can’t remember.  Now, though, we don’t pay any attention to it.  We’re online instead.  Oh, yeah, I know, the Web has been around forever, but let’s be honest, nothing interesting happens out in the real world anymore!  For most of us, the Web is the real world.  It’s where we live, and our bodies just carry us around.

I’m going to pretend like you don’t know anything about all of this.  Why?  No real reason.  I just like to explain things.  Besides, who knows? Maybe you’re some far-future archaeologist, digging up the ruins of our civilization, and you happened to find my little blog.  How exciting!  Well, except for the part where society ended.  But then, all societies end, don’t they?  So far, history is batting a thousand, as far as civilizations go.

So, my oblivious future archaeologist, you have a question, don’t you?  “Why”, I hear you asking, “do people come on cruises if they’re doing the same things they do at home?”  Good question.  We don’t, really—do the same things, that is.  The Web is pretty decentralized, and if not for the Cold War, borders would have probably stopped meaning anything a long time ago; but they do still mean something.  There are things you can’t do at home.  Some kinds of gambling, for example.  They can only be done outside the borders.  People still take cruises to get away from their real lives; they just do it in different ways.  Those ways happen to not require going out in the sun anymore—that’s the difference.

I can see why.  This sunlight is really bright!  It’s a good thing it’s only partly exposed right now.  I shouldn’t be glad for the clouds, but I am.  But I have to say, the wind is nice, even if it is hot out here.  I can’t remember when I last noticed it.    I suppose I must have felt it as I went from the train to the terminal before embarkation, but the gap between the two is only fifteen metres, so I didn’t have much time to think about it.

I can really feel the ship swaying, though.  It makes me nauseated, though I can handle it for now.  I won’t have to worry about it for long, anyway.  Below decks, you have no frame of reference against which to compare that motion, and so you adapt to it.  Up here, I can see the horizon, orange light on dark seawater, and I feel every dip and rise.  I’m not going to complain, though, because I really did need this vacation; it’s the one thing keeping me going right now.  It’s sad, I think, how things just build up until they get to you:  tensions at home, tensions at work, tensions in the news, all running higher than ever, every day.  Of course, we’re almost to the end of this cruise; the food and the drinks are starting to run low, and you can see that the staff and the crew are starting to run short in the temper department, too.  I wonder if cruise staff ever get vacations?

Now I’m starting to get a little melancholy.  I came out here to shake off my grim mood, not make it worse!  Maybe I should just go back inside and go back online and forget about it all.  It’s what everyone else is doing.  Forget about this salt air, forget about my growing seasickness, forget about everything.  It’s just that, every time I do that, I feel like I’m forgetting something good in the world.  I feel like I’m forgetting all of the amazing things that are out there…maybe even forgetting myself.

Some of the crew just ran past me.  They look as dismal as I feel—no, worse; they looked panicked.  I understand completely.  I wonder what they plan to do?  After all, we’re out in the middle of nowhere.  It’s not as though we’re making landfall anytime soon.  And really, what is there to go back to when we do?

I thought it would be different out here, and I guess it is.  I didn’t realize that “different” could be a bad thing.  But I may as well get used to that.  I guess I’m not the only one; I guess the whole world is tired of the same old thing, too.  I know, because the sky is burning, and the horizon is on fire.  That’s the direction we came from, the direction of home.  Or at least, it was.