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: 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: 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.

Short Story: Not A Prayer Of A Chance

I am not a team-sports fan.  I have some sympathy for baseball, and I find hockey to be fascinating briefly; but I’m definitely not a follower of either one.  Football (the American variety) and basketball I despise with a passion; years of working as a correctional officer, and witnessing all the mountains of problems that were generated by those sports, pretty much destroyed any chance that I will ever tolerate them.  (I’ll make an exception if, and only if, my children play them.)

Imagine my surprise when I let myself be talked into watching the World Cup this year.  Cyndera, being from Germany, is a huge fan; and her enthusiasm was contagious, so I  gave it a shot.  I was pleasantly surprised to find it exciting! (Any of you who may be into  it, you know what I mean!  Also, to anyone who was rooting for Brazil:  Come see me at my day job, we offer grief counseling.)  I may never be  a follower in the regular season, but it was worth watching, and I plan to do so next time.

The writing prompt for the following story, “Not A Prayer Of A Chance”, came a little late; the Cup had been over for a week or more when I came across it.  Still, it was too good to resist.  It read, “One angel is responsible for screening which prayers get to God. World Cup season is a nightmare because he has to filter out every sports-related prayer.”  I hope you’ll enjoy my take on this prompt.

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

 

This is what you get when google "Soccer Angel".  Google, you so literal.

This is what you get when google “Soccer Angel”. Google, you so literal.

“No, Sariel, we don’t need any more angels in the choir, thank you for asking!”  Gabriel quickened his pace, hurrying down the golden hallway, his robe trailing the floor as his wings brushed the ceiling.

Sariel hurried to keep up.  “Then…how about messenger duty?  Surely there are some humans who could use some revelation!  I work well with others!”  Gabriel gave him a look, then kept going.  “Guardian angel duty?  I’m not picky—you could put me with anyone, even, you know, THAT guy.  You know the one.”  Still no response.  “Substitute seraphim?  Angel of death?  Polish the gold in the streets?  Come on here!”

Gabriel came to a sudden halt at a door that was banded with gold and studded with gems.  He turned to face the other angel.  “Sariel,” he said, “I promise you, we have the perfect job for you.  You’ll love it!”  And he reached a hand out to the side and pushed the door open.

Sariel stepped inside and gave a cautious look around.  Gabriel stepped in behind him.  The room was spacious, but empty except for a desk and chair.  “What will I be doing here?”

“Oh, it’s a simple job.  A very necessary one, too, I should say.  You see, when prayers come in from Earth, of course some of them are just frivolous.  It’s a waste of the Master’s time to have to deal with that, and so…well, we…weed them out.”

Sariel frowned.  “Really?  What do you mean?”

Gabriel smiled.  “Well, we bring the prayers into this room, and we look through them, and we find the ones that are worthwhile, and we pass them on to the Master.  We simply toss out the ones that don’t merit forwarding.  It’s really a simple task, suitable for just one angel.  You’ll be fine.”

Sariel appeared to be confused.  “And what determines if a prayer is not worthwhile?”

“Oh, well, little things.  Look at what it’s asking!  “Heal my sick grandma”—that’s a worthwhile one.  “Let me win the lottery”, or, my personal favorite, “Let my team win this tournament”—those can be tossed.  You understand?”

Sariel nodded.  “I suppose so.  But, I don’t see any prayers—“  He winced as Gabriel stuck two fingers in his mouth and gave a piercing whistle; and then, his jaw dropped, as one angel after another began carrying in large boxes.  Box after box after box, piled high with pages.  “These are the prayers?” he demanded, staring incredulously at Gabriel.

“Yes, well, there do seem to be a lot of them today,” Gabriel said breezily, “but I’m sure you’ll be fine!”  Then he ducked out the door.

Sariel shouted after him, “But what is this all about?  What is going on on Earth to cause so many prayers?!”

He didn’t expect an answer, but got one anyway.  Gabriel’s head appeared around the door frame, narrowly missing an incoming angel with a box.  “World Cup season!” he said, and vanished again.

***

Sariel sat at the desk, fuming, as he worked through the last pages in one of the boxes.  “Let’s see, we have “I need a new car,” followed by a “let my team win this game!”  Urgh.  Then we have a “My puppy has cancer”—aww—and three more “let my team win”.  Then, last of all, five more “Let my team win”!  Aghhhh!”  He tossed the last stack into the air and shoved the box off the other side of the desk, then slumped over it with his chin in his hand.  “Well, THAT was discouraging!       And that was only the first of…” he looked around at the room, now stacked to the ceiling with boxes.  “The first of I have no idea how many boxes!”

He stared around the room, and a thought occurred to him.  “You know, I bet…”  He leaped to his feet and grabbed another box.  He began pulling pages at random, tossing them over his shoulder as soon as he read them.  “Soccer.  Soccer.  World Cup.  Soccer.  Soccer!  Oh, look, here’s a “let me make it til payday”, that’s a good one.  Aaaaaand more soccer!”  In a fit of pique, he threw the box to the floor.  “Okay, THIS has got to stop!”  Grabbing a stack  of pages from another box, he marched out of the room and down the corridor.

The hallways grew more ornate.  Gold became less, well, golden, and more and more clear, until it shone like glass.  Gemstones became larger and more ornate.  More and more angels came and went.  From up ahead, seraphic singing could be heard.  Finally, at the ultimate end of the hallway, he stopped at an enormous, incalculably beautiful double door.  Papers in hand, he pushed it open.

The Master always appeared in the way He chose, tailoring it to the one who was approaching Him.  When Sariel opened the doors, he found himself in another office, one much larger and more ornate than his own, but warm and welcoming.  The Master sat with his back to the door, wearing the appearance of a kindly old man with spectacles; he turned and looked over His shoulder as Sariel entered.  “Come in, Sariel.  What can I do for you?”

Sariel nodded respectfully, and approached—carefully; one wasn’t casual in the Master’s presence.  “Master,” he said, “I have been assigned to screen your incoming prayers.  I wanted to speak with you about the job.”

“I see.”  The Master tipped his spectacles forward and gazed at Sariel over them.  “It seems dull, does it?  Would you like to be reassigned?”

“No, Sir,” Sariel began, “I mean—yes, but I wouldn’t—well.”  He paused and took a breath.  “Sir, it is not that the job is dull, although it is.  I don’t mind serving as you command.  Rather, it’s the magnitude of the job.”  He held out the papers.  “This is but a tiny fraction of what I am facing right now.  I will never keep up.  And I can’t help but think that the load is usually much lighter!”

“Ah.”  The Master frowned.  “What is causing the increase, do you think?”

Sariel blushed, realizing how it must sound.  “Soccer”, he murmured.

The Master frowned again.  “Could you repeat that?  A little louder?”

“Soccer!” Sariel shouted, then jumped at the echo of his own voice.  “Sorry, Sir!”  The Master waved for him to continue.  “Sir, it’s the 2014 World Cup down there, and, and, frankly, we are flooded with sports requests!  And I don’t know how to get through them!”

“If you think this is bad, wait til the Olympics,” the Master muttered.  Then He gave a longsuffering sigh.  “Sariel,” He said, “I’ve watched you.  I know you have a good and loyal heart.  After all, I made it that way, didn’t I?”  Sariel nodded.  “I want you to succeed at this job.  It’s a great privilege, you know.  So, how about I help you out, just this once?”

Sariel gave a grateful smile.  “I would be very thankful, Sir.”

“Alright.”  He made a “give-me” gesture.  Sariel glanced down at the papers in his hand, and hastily stepped forward to hand them off.  “Here’s what I’ll do,” the Master said, and he licked a thumb and began to flip through the pages.  “I’ll pick one of these soccer requests, and I’ll answer it…and when I’m done, no one will be even thinking about praying about the World Cup for a while.”  He flipped through the pages until one caught his eye, and  then pulled it out and showed it to Sariel.  “How’s this one?”

Sariel squinted at it.  “Sir, I don’t read German—“

The Master waved a hand.  “You do now.”

Sariel nodded, and looked again; then his eyes widened.  “Wow!  Uh, yes, sir, that would DEFINITELY do the job!”

“I thought so,” the Master said.  “Why don’t you go take a moment and check it out?  I think you’ll be pleased.”

***

“—THIS IS UNBELIEVABLE!  GERMANY DESTROYS BRAZIL, SEVEN GOALS TO ONE!  FIVE GOALS IN THE FIRST TWENTY-NINE MINUTES!  I CAN’T EVEN DESCRIBE THE NUMBER OF RECORDS THAT HAVE BEEN BROKEN HERE TODAY—“

The man at the bar hit the button on the remote, and the screen went dark, cutting off the commentator.  “Well,” he declared, “that’s that.  Nobody else has a prayer of winning the Cup now!”

***

Sariel sat at his desk, humming to himself.  The mountains of boxes were gone; only a very respectable three boxes remained to be sorted.  All’s well that ends well, he thought to himself—and then the door flew open, and angels carrying boxes came flooding in.  Sariel leaped to his feet, shocked, and then saw another angel walk in, unladen but wearing a sour look.  “Ithuriel?” he said.  “What’s going on?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know, Sariel,” Ithuriel growled.  “You did this, you know.”

“But…but, the Master determined the outcome of the Cup!  All the extraneous prayers sorted themselves!”

“Who said anything about prayers?” Ithuriel said.  “These boxes are full of South American profanity!  Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to need that desk.”

The guardian angel of the Brazilian soccer team...ooh, too soon?

The guardian angel of the Brazilian soccer team…ooh, too soon?

Short Story: The One

There’s a cardinal rule in storytelling, one that you will hear repeated over and over by countless writers:  “Show, don’t tell”.  It means that it’s far better, and far more interesting, to display action in your story as opposed to simply telling about it.  This includes dialogue, as well.  If your characters have an argument, don’t say “Sally and Joe argued about x, y, and z”; instead, spell out their argument using their words.  It’s not a hard and fast rule–there will be times, usually mixed in with your action sequences, that description works better–but it’s very good advice.  And now, I’m going to completely disregard it!

I am particularly proud of this short story, although I can’t explain why.  It is very different from my usual writing style; I prefer to write action sequences, as I mentioned above.  In my opinion, though, a sequence like this can go a long way toward making a character sympathetic; after all, as readers we identify with our characters, and never more strongly than when we can get inside their heads and see that they, too, are human, just like us.

This is another Writing Prompt story; and I hope that this series will inspire any potential writers to try their hand at this technique!  The prompt for this story was simple:  “Tell Me Why She’s The One.”  From that I’ve drawn the title of the story, which I’ve simply called “The One”.  Enjoy.

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

the one

After dinner, the old man sat across from me on the porch, pipe in hand. When was the last time you saw someone smoke a pipe? I couldn’t recall. He sat and rocked and smoked, and then he looked at me, and spoke the question that he had been waiting to ask. With slow gravity and spry curiosity, he dropped one eyelid, and cocked his head to the side, and said, “What makes you think this girl is the one?”

I sat back in my own rocker, facing him across the porch, and thought about what I would say. What really made me think so? It was a good question.

My mind went back to the day we met. I remember walking into the little room where the other guys were sitting, waiting on the next task of the day to begin, and shooting the breeze. They were laughing as I came in, and talking—about the weekend, about cars, about football and basketball and what did you do this weekend, and of course, about girls. Always about girls. Did it matter that some of the guys were married? Of course not. It’s man talk. It’s no harm, no foul, and on we go. Then someone mentioned the new girl up in the office, and I, well, I put my foot in my mouth and asked who they were talking about.   You kidding me, right? Boy, this is the finest-looking woman to ever walk this place and man, she is HOT. I laughed it off, thinking, no, I know this place, and that’s gotta be exaggeration. Then she came walking by at lunch time, and smiled, and said hey, how are you? And every talking mouth in that room went silent. She was that gorgeous.

My dad used to tell me that a pretty face was nice, but it won’t keep you warm at night. I felt warm enough that spring, though, watching her walk one way and another, and generally not saying anything more than “um” and “ah” and, when it was just the guys, a whispered “damn!” I thought that was all it would ever be, and I was ready for that, even if I found it hard to push aside the occasional memory of that long blonde hair. Halfway through the summer, though, I came in one morning and walked to my new station, newly reassigned…and she came out of the next room. I suppose that it was in the back of my mind somewhere that she worked in that building, but it truly wasn’t for that reason that I sought the transfer; I just wanted off the night shift, where I and the other guys had recently landed. But then she came out of that door, and gave me that thousand-megawatt smile that I’ve learned to love…well, is it any wonder that everything went out of my head?

She told me later, one long and intimate night, that I was the quietest man she’d ever met, back then. She said that she made it her mission, right then and there, to get me to open up, no matter what it took. I asked her, don’t you realize that you’re the reason I couldn’t speak? She laughed it off, but I saw in her eyes that she was touched.

I remember reading once that men form their friendships through common endurance. It’s the band of brothers, the fellow POWs, the ones who have endured hell together—they’re the ones who hold together through the years. She was certainly no man, but I thought of that imagery often that year all the same. I thought of it when the clouds started to gather at the edges of my attenuated life…I thought of it when they broke over my head. I remember long evenings, sitting in coffee shops and in the quiet rooms of our offices, talking things out. I remember arguments and anger, sadness and determination, hope and despair. I remember saying that the details don’t matter, but knowing in my heart that they did.

I remember, most of all, knowing it couldn’t be. She belonged to someone else, and so did I. It’s funny…we each knew that the other’s marriage was failing, and we each knew that it was because of the other partners. Neither of us could see it happening to ourselves.

I remember the night I knew what I wanted with her…and I remember choosing to leave.

The last time we were together, I sat across from her, and told her that she was the one thing I would miss the most. Any other woman would have belittled it, would have told me that I would forget her and move on. She did none of that. She simply looked into my eyes, and hugged me, and said that she would miss me too.

The days that followed, and the weeks, and the months, I had my own problems, and they were all I could handle. Down the road, I would regret that self-centered focus. It was much later that I discovered that, while I was rebuilding my world (only to watch it fall apart once more), hers was crumbling. I would come to hate myself for missing it. When I called her, she was distant; in messages, she was vague. I thought she was forgetting me, and with a heavy heart, I decided that it was probably for the best.

I saw her again, once or twice, but she hid it so well—the circles under her eyes, covered in makeup; the cuts on her arms, covered with sleeves. I think sometimes, if only I had known…but she didn’t want me to know. She admitted that her marriage had broken up; that her husband, whom she had loved so much, had found someone else, had broken her heart into shards. She hid the truth: that she had taken those shards and cut herself with them.

I never knew exactly how it happened, that she came back into my life. It was slow, and yet so quick. One day, we were old acquaintances, chatting over the internet, and the next we were friends again. It couldn’t have come at a better time, because that summer, my life fell apart again. My own marriage, limping along for so long, dissolved in a fury of ash and fire; my family was torn apart.

I know what people would say, but they’d be wrong. It wasn’t because of her. We were still distant, friends or not. We had to be. But all that long fall and longer winter, when things were burning to the ground around me, she stayed. Too far away to hold my hand through those times, she listened instead. And slowly, yet so surely, she pulled me up out of that pit. Coming out of it was like stepping back into the sunlight; and suddenly I could see her clearly.

I saw all the things I had missed. I saw the fear in her eyes, and the hesitation, every time she thought of trying again. I saw how much he had hurt her, and how far she had fallen, and how she had lost her trust on the way down. And yet, in every instance, I saw that she was hurt, but not broken; damaged, but not destroyed. I made it my mission to pick her up from the dust, and bring her back. After all, she had done it for me.

Day after day, conversation after conversation, I reached out to her, and told her the simple truth—about herself, about the past, about the future, about what I saw when I looked at her. I told her that she was beautiful, and so much more. And in her dark moments, when it seemed to her that everything was doomed to failure, and she came close to forgetting who she was, I reminded her. I reminded her of who she was to me, and not only to me, but to so many others out there—everyone for whom she had tried to do good, all the years I had known her. Slowly, I watched the light return to her eyes, and I watched her open up, and embrace life—and the world—again.

And he wants to know how I know she’s the one?

I gave a laugh, and I looked at him. He looked at me with brows wrinkled in puzzled curiosity. And I laughed again, because I knew that what I was thinking would make no sense to him. I knew he wouldn’t understand if I said it—that I didn’t have to know. I didn’t have to know she was the one, because she already had been, all along. We’d been through hell and back, and survived it, and through everything, she had been the one. He may have asked it, but for me, there really was no question.

He was still waiting for an answer. I leaned forward and clapped a hand on his knee, and gave him a smile. “I don’t,” I said, and stood up. “But I think it will be alright anyway.”

There was a burst of laughter through the screened window behind him, then. We both looked, and I saw her there, with the old man’s wife, laughing and talking as they cleared the table. I watched her being radiant, until I noticed him looking back at me again. He nodded knowingly, and I raised a hand in a gesture that was half-wave, half salute. “Yeah, it’ll be alright,” I said. “But, you know, it never hurts to make sure.” Then I nodded, and walked past him, and opened the door, and went to do just that.

Short Story: Responsibility

I seem to be having a tough time coming up with my usual posts at the moment, most likely because it’s the middle of summer, and the kids are out of school, and time to sit and think is at a premium right now.  Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of fiction waiting to be written!  In the middle of a longer project that I and my fellow contributor Cyndera have in the works right now, I’m also working on my short story series, which can be found here.

This story, like the previous entry, is the result of a writing prompt, which says “A murderer kills his victim, but what happens next makes him regret it…”  It’s my shortest piece yet, with the exception of some of the Ridgeline Drive entries, at only 879 words.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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

 

I planned the crime for weeks.  You’ve seen those crime shows on TV…man, I always just laugh at those things.  They make it look like just anybody can get away with this stuff!  That’s ridiculous.  What I do isn’t chaos, it’s an art, and like all good art, it takes skill and preparation.

So I stalked the guy.  I made sure that I knew his routines, and I made sure I knew darn well that there was no traceable connection between myself and him.  I’m thorough, you know.  On further reflection, that’s probably where the trouble started…maybe I’m TOO thorough.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, now.

What?  Oh, don’t give me that psychopath crock.  I’m not a psychopath, I just like what I do.  Everybody needs a hobby.

I made the hit late at night on a Friday.  Maybe I was showing off a little, not that anyone really would know it was me.  I followed him into that club, and sat through three hours of bad music, good liquor (but not too much—drinking on the job is like bad karma), and truly pitiful dancing.  Finally he left, and I followed him to his car, with considerably less weaving than he was displaying.  I caught up to him, and spun him around, and put my gun to his chest, and pulled the trigger.  Easy.  One shot, and it was done.  The strip was so loud anyway, no one heard the shot, and his chest took the muzzle flash.  I rifled his pockets for his cash—didn’t need it, it just gives the cops something to think about—and walked away, whistling a tune.

“Hey!”  I stopped.  Wasn’t that…nah.  I started to walk again.  “HEY!  Are you just gonna LEAVE me here like this?”

Slowly I turned around.  The guy stood there, one hand on the car door, blood running down his popped-collar shirt from the truly epic chest wound he was wearing.  “Heh,” I murmured, “Alright, heck of a trick.  Who’s doing this?” I called, before I caught myself and realized I didn’t want to be heard here.  My mind was reaching around for an explanation, though, even if I hadn’t realized it yet.  Little stars peppered the edges of my vision, but I kept a smile on.

“You can’t leave me here,” the guy repeated.  “I’m SUPPOSED to be dead.”

“You…I, ah…what?” I stammered.  I didn’t stammer!  Get a grip, I told myself.

He sighed, blood burbling in his chest as he did.  “Look, man, I can tell you don’t get it.  It’s like this.”  He cleared his throat, a bizarre sound under the circumstances.  “You know how they say, if you save a man’s life, you become responsible for him?”

“Yeah, I got that,” I said, completely disregarding the fact that I was having a conversation with a corpse, that I had just killed.  “Some kind of star wars wookiee life-debt thing.”

He made an impatient face, like a teacher explaining to a stubborn kid.  “Well, there you go,” he said.

“There I go where?” I said.  “Last I checked, I didn’t save your life, I took it.”  Top THAT logic!

“Exactly!” he said triumphantly.

“You’re not making sense,” I said, and couldn’t help thinking that neither was I.

“Urgh,” he said.  “Look, if you save a man’s life, you become responsible for it.  That means you’re responsible for keeping him alive from then on.  With me so far?”  I nodded.  “This is the same.  If you take a man’s life, it’s your responsibility to keep him dead from then on.”

“Oh,” I said, “well, why didn’t you say so?”  I raised the gun and emptied it into his chest.

He jerked under the gunfire—really, if I walked away now without any attention, it would be a miracle—and fell to the ground, slumped against the car.  I gave him a glance, and then smirked, and threw the gun at him with one gloved hand; it made a satisfying thock as it bounced off his head.  “That’s for being all metaphysical,” I said, and turned to go.

I got in my own car, and let out a sigh, not relief so much as tension leaving me.  I put the key in, and I even managed to keep facing forward when the passenger door opened and closed.  “Hey, I never said this would be easy,” the guy said.  “Nice car, by the way.  I’ll try not to get any blood on the seats, but I gotta tell you, you made that a little tough.  So, you wanna try this again?  I know a good bridge you could push me off.  Hey, fire this thing up—I don’t have all night!  What are we waiting for?”