His name is Foog, Kymbflikpk Foog. He's an agent for the Xiyan Historical Service and prefers his Flemlik Ooze scrambled, not whipped. He's discovered evidence of a lost Xiyan colony deep in the territory of a hostile alien species and it's his job to find the truth of what happened to the colony.
But he can't do it alone.
Wallace Tran isn't sure he wants to help.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
The Kornak’s Horn was a grungy bar in a slapped-together town snuggled up to a fourth-rate space port. Staring at the remains of what he generously called his beer, Tran wondered why he’d ever agreed to come to the ass end of nowhere. Money was money, but there were limits, and he liked his bars a little cleaner and a little more civilized. He liked his planets that way, too.READ MORE
He waved an arm at the bartender, a skinny green humanoid of indeterminate species. “I’ll have another glass of whatever this is I’m drinking.” Not in a hurry, the being wiped the dust from what looked like a plastic handle and drew some mildly foamy liquid from what Tran hoped was a sealed keg attached to the tap by a clean line. A duplicate of his first drink thumped in front of him but the bartender waited for a palm scan before taking its hand from the glass and walking away with a superior sounding grunt. Tran shook his head and took a sip of the bitter tan liquid. Beer, of a sort. At least it reminded him of beer in a distant way. He swallowed with the same wince as the first sip from the first glass and was rewarded with another snort from the bartender.
The attitude didn’t surprise him. Half the sapients in the Union spent a lot of their time snickering up their sleeves at the poor, culturally backwards humans. Of course, most of the other half were regarded pretty much the same way, some of them by each other, though not always for the same reasons. Everyone needed someone to feel superior to once in a while, Tran supposed, but his experience had shown him it was all bullshit anyway. Most individuals of any species only had redeeming qualities when someone else was looking. When they thought all eyes were turned away, they reverted to whatever form they thought they could get away with.
He suppressed the shiver at the next mouthful and then a groan as a short, squat humanoid in a trench coat sat down next to him. If he’d known his contact was going to be Xiya, he would’ve stayed home on Providence no matter how big a retainer he’d been offered just for making the trip.
Humanoid and human-ish looking, Xiya tended to short and squat, no more than a metre and a half tall but thicker across the chest and waist than he ever expected to be. They’d originally come from a higher gravity world than Earth but didn’t seem to have gotten the extra strength or muscle density out of the deal that was supposed to happen. To human eyes, they also seemed to come in an odd variety of skin tones, most of them some shade of orange. The two things combined made him feel like he was talking to a cartoon character. They were a nice enough species, he supposed, if you didn’t mind them latching on to some of genre of your literature or film history and then trying to become a character from it in order to deal with you in terms your species was supposed to be able to identify with. Small details were adapted to fit themselves, of course. The effect achieved was usually at least irritating, sometimes disturbing, and once in a while nauseating. Tran had the feeling this was going to be one of the third times.
Fighting off the beginning of a headache, Tran worked out the reason for the odd contact phrase he’d been given. He gulped from his glass and let the shudder have free reign through his body as the stubby little being jacked up the barstool and leaned hard towards him without turning. The Xiya spoke out of the corner of its mouth in what he thought was supposed to be an exaggerated whisper, a hissed baritone in accented standard that might have had Slavic roots. “My brother’s goat is very flatulent.”
Tran pressed two fingers to his temple and sighed before dragging the hand down his face to talk into it. “It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good.”
Bright yellow eyes and a dazzling array of beige teeth beamed from under the brim of some kind of probably, if it wasn’t yellow, appropriate hat. His mind supplied the word fedora, though he couldn’t recall ever having seen one before. A hand shot out from the trench coat and Tran dutifully reached out to ripple his fingers several times so the tips made contact with the alien’s.
“You are Wallace Tran, yes?” Not really a question. What other civilized being in that pit could possibly have guessed the code phrase, much less the proper response to an outstretched Xiyan hand? “I am Foog, Kymbflikpk Foog. You may call me Kym, if you wish, or simply Foog.” Foog grinned again, without showing teeth this time. “I am happy that you have finally arrived and apologize for the distance you have likely traveled.” Foog’s face brightened further at the bartender’s approach. “Ah, my good being, Flemlik Ooze, if you please. Scrambled, not whipped.”
A glass of thick green-brown goo appeared in front of the Xiya, who rolled its palm over to clear view before slapping it on the scanner. With a wink at Tran, Foog tossed the substance into their mouth, although slowly drained would have been a better description since it took a second or so for the goo to actually start flowing. Tran had a hard time watching but waited for Foog to finish slurping the last bit out of the glass before bringing up business.
“So why exactly do you need a Facilitator? And why me specifically?”
Foog’s eyes darted left and right and he craned his short neck to scan the entire room without turning around. There was no one else there other than the bartender, who was as far away from the pair as they could get. “Not here.” He lowered his voice to something that might pass for a whisper if the bartender wasn’t paying attention, spy persona returning as his eyes shifted from side to side. “I am staying at the lodging house on the corner. The one with three floors. Room thirteen. Knock twice, count to six, then twice again. I will know it is you.” Foog hopped down from his stool. “Finish your drink before following me.”
Tran looked at the glass on the bar, one eye squinting almost shut. “Do I have to?” He looked up, but Foog was already gone.
Who do the Norse gods call on when a necromancer who's been imprisoned for thousands of years is about to break free into downtown Toronto? A descendent of their own, of course. And if that descendent is a single-father who's just buried his parents, that's hardly their problem. The fact that he's never so much as held a weapon of any kind is, though, and he's going to need to be trained first. Not that there's a lot of time. The necromancer's powers are starting to leak through the boundaries of his prison, making weird undead monsters pop up here and there in the city.
Wind tugging at my jacket, I stood over my parents’ graves. It would be weeks yet before grass sprouted over the bare mound, but the air didn’t carry enough heat to bring me the scent of fresh-turned earth, not that I could really say fresh after two weeks.
No tears today. After everything in the past six months, I doubted I had any left, but if I didn’t really want to test that, I had to wonder why I kept coming to the cemetery every few days. The rock in the pit of my stomach had started to feel like an old friend, the only one who hadn’t figured out to leave me alone until I could process enough to start to work through things.
“A year to grieve, isn’t that what everyone says, Dad? A year?” My eyes shifted over a bit without asking, taking in the name on the other half of the oversized headstone. It hadn’t been a year yet since the latest date on that side. Barely half of one. “But I keep having to start over, don’t I, mom?”READ MORE
Alisha Marie Jackson, beloved wife and mother. Arthur William Lindgren, beloved husband and father. Not much to summarize a lifetime, much less two of them, a lifetime of happiness and love, of good times and bad, of hopes and dreams and fears. Of my parents.
Taking a deep breath and holding it, I scrunched my eyes shut just in case there might be a tear or two left, after all. The feeling passed and, when they opened again as I exhaled, my eyes locked on a fingertip-sized symbol carved into the stone on my father’s side. Right in the middle of the gap between his name and ‘beloved husband and father’, a small circle with a barely smaller plus sign inside it sat without drawing attention to itself, and, looking at it, I had to smile.
My father had never, that I remembered, been a religious man, and certainly not of the pagan variety, but he’d always said he had some kind of affinity for ancient symbols. They spoke to him on some deep, pre-language level, so much that he’d plastered them all over the garage and basement workshop. Ankhs and hammers and crosses, bits of a dozen vanished cultures. His favourite, the circle and plus sign combination he called a sun wheel, sometimes adding the word simple in front of that, he’d felt so strongly that he’d had one tattooed on his forearm only a couple of years ago. He’d never been able to tell me exactly what it meant for him, only that he’d felt it was really important.
I reached out and touched the cold stone, landing just my index finger on the small carving. “It always bugged you not being able to put words to it, didn’t it, dad? But words or not, you still had to leave it behind for the rest of us to wonder about.” Maybe the sun wheel had just a little more to it than I’d thought. I’d done a fifteen-second google search and skim at one point, coming up with a lot more than the simple one here, and way too many interpretations of what any or all of them could mean. It was a common symbol in a lot of cultures and could mean a lot of things of varying degrees of importance. Too much information too fast.
And maybe I was trying to read too much into things, or maybe my father had. Either way, I couldn’t stand in one place all day, particularly if that place was one practically designed to make me quiet and depressed, if not by intent. I wouldn’t be able to hide it from Moriko if I didn’t leave soon. Probably, I couldn’t anyway. She was far too observant and showed hints of being far smarter, not just than she gave herself credit for, but than I was.
“All the things you guys aren’t going to get to see.”
Moriko, thirteen and smarter than her father had ever been, reminded me so much of Hiroshi. That was a mental path that wouldn’t lead me to tears, though. I watched our daughter every day, dealing with her grief better than I could, or at least putting on a strong face for me as I tried to for her, and doing a better job of it. The two of us managed to live something that looked like a normal life, and least if you didn’t look too closely, but it was hard some days. Most days.
Crouching in front of the headstone, I wondered again if maybe I should stop coming to the cemetery so often. It probably wasn’t helping me get over things. Until now, I didn’t see that as an issue since I didn’t actually want to get over things. I wanted to remember, and coming to talk to the gravestones helped a little. This trip felt gloomier, though, and not just because of the weather.
Pushing off the stone, I stood, staring down as I stepped back. “Sorry I’m not very talkative today. Maybe it’s the cold.” The dwindling smell of winter on the wind had dropped away for a little while, but even if I’d woken up to frost every morning in the last week, those mornings had all turned into snow-free days. Not that we ever got as much of the white stuff as I remembered as a kid, regardless of the month, but Hiroshi had always been amazed. Moriko ignored it like any girl her age would. “Maybe if I can just get through to spring. Or summer. Or autumn.” I sighed. “Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about or doing from day to day or moment to moment. I’m just trying to get by.” And was that any different from what life normally was? I was just more aware of how temporary things could be.
I took another step back and a bit of motion caught my eye, a shadowy figure standing beside a small group of pine trees. The man shifted in place, turning just a little, and I realized he was holding a rake or a shovel or something. A groundskeeper, taking a break in the marginal shelter the trees offered, or maybe just not wanting to disturb a visitor. He seemed to be swaying a bit with the breeze. Music probably, if it wasn’t my imagination, from headphones I couldn’t see, but the man’s presence suddenly made me uncomfortable, wary of being watched.
“I should go.” Was I weird talking to dead people? I knew I was really just talking to myself, talking things out, hearing the words to work through the emotions better. Lifeless corpses six feet under the dirt in heavy, wooden boxes probably didn’t hear very well and didn’t respond any better. Every visit was one-sided, but it still helped me, a little. “Hiroshi sends her love.” I thought about my wife, how she would have phrased it in her quiet, stilted English. “Her affection. Or she would.”
I started forward, back to the small parking lot at the cemetery’s edge. As I passed the headstone, I put my hand flat on the rough top surface. It seemed a bit warmer than the mid-March air should make it, a brief bit of heat for chilled fingers. Odd, but not a bad thing by any stretch. “I’ll drop by again in a few days.”
Winter-killed grass crunched under my feet with every step. I kept my eyes fixed on the distant grey smudge of the car while I walked, and tried to remember everything on the grocery list instead of looking around. Maybe Moriko would just think the store had been busy. Or maybe she’d just be thirteen and not even realize how long I’d been gone.
Today, I could live with that.
Balancing the cardboard banana box on one arm, I fumbled with my keys until I managed to insert the right one into the lock. Turning it took a little more fumbling during which I nearly lost the eggs and for just that brief moment regretted that I didn’t keep a couple of reusable bags in the car. Keys dangling from one finger, I kicked off my shoes and didn’t make an effort to slide them to the side before going up the four steps into the kitchen. “I’m home, Mo!”
As usual, I didn’t see enough space on the kitchen table to put a book down, much less a box of groceries. It was long past time to clean up the pile of files and miscellaneous objects, not all of which belonged in the kitchen, and I tried to decide if my energy level would let that happen before dinner. If not, it probably wouldn’t happen today. The stove looked empty. That would let me unload next to the microwave, not too far from the fridge. It would do for now.
“Did you remember the nori?”
By volume and distance, my daughter lay sprawled across her bed, probably facing away from the door and almost certainly having three different texting conversations at once while playing a video game or streaming something, but the question made me smile. I’d be forgiven almost any delay as long as I remembered whatever sushi supplies she’d currently run short of. That didn’t mean I had had to yell back at her, though, feeling like it might be time to pull the dragon out of her cave. “What?”
She kicked the volume up couple of notches. “Nori! Did you remember it?”
Grinning, I shook my head as I began to move groceries from the box to the slim strip of available counter. “Can’t hear you!” And I didn’t hear the heavy sigh, but I absolutely felt its mental echo. A moment later, two thumps marked feet on the floor, and a long sequence of barely softer noises traced her to the top of the stairs. I listened for the indrawn breath as she hesitated there, but the footsteps continued down the stairs, through the hall, and into the kitchen doorway.
I pointed vaguely at the three flat packages of seaweed wrap on the counter, enough for at least five batches of sushi. “Nori’s by the rice cooker.” She stalked across the linoleum to verify I’d gotten the right brand then whirled on me, her scowl turning my grin into a laugh. “If you heard me, why did you make me come downstairs?”
“Would I have gotten my hug if I didn’t?”
Her mouth pressed flat, but I knew she was fighting a smile against the game. “I’m not hugging you.”
I shrugged. “That’s okay.” Before she could step out of the way, I snagged my daughter by one shoulder, gathered her in close and wrapped her in a bear hug she didn’t even try to escape from. After a moment of me rocking her back and forth, pretending she was a lot younger, Moriko’s arms slipped around my ribs, but I chose not to call her on the lie, letting her go after a few more seconds.
She moved quickly for the fridge, retrieving a large bowl of prepared sushi rice, but not without a quick glance at the cupboard beside the microwave before sliding the hidden cutting board out above the cutlery drawer. “You really should learn to take a list, you know. Half of these things weren’t on the list you quoted on the way of the door.”
“You were listening?” So early in the morning on a PD day, that surprised me.
Moriko rolled her eyes. “I’m always listening, but it’s a girl’s privilege to pick when she pays attention.” She started scooping rice onto her freshly-cleaned work surface. “Am I making enough for you?”
A nice offer, but I didn’t like sushi enough to make a meal out of it. The seaweed was the main problem. And the raw fish. And the seaweed wrapped around the rice and raw fish. But definitely the seaweed. And the raw fish. “Don’t worry about me. There’s still some leftover stuff I can turn into a stir fry or something.”
“How about if I do a few rice balls, too?”
I almost hugged her again, wondering if I could get her to do the miso paste and sake thing. There were green onions in the fridge. “As long as there’s no fish in the middle.”
Shaking her head, she reached for the nori. “And you lived in Japan for three years?”
I shrugged and stuffed a head of lettuce and four tomatoes into one of the veggie drawers. “There’s a lot more to Japanese cuisine than sushi, you know.” To be fair, at least to myself, I’d practically lived on ramen, exploring other options almost only when I was forced to socially until I met Hiroshi. She made sure that some of my best memories of the country were from our early dating and all of the bizarre things she made me choke down in the name of cultural exchange. She’d done far better, and been far more adaptable, coming back to Ottawa with me, and better still when we moved to Toronto after Moriko was born, getting closer to mom and dad. Both cities had enough cultural variety for her to find familiar foods when she needed to. Hiroshima had a little bit of North American fast food and not much else when I was there.
With everything pre-prepared, sushi and rice balls didn’t take long for Moriko to put together and arrange artfully on a serving platter. My culinary contribution to the early dinner was to clear and then set the table. Clearing mostly involved moving the pile temporarily, and to a spot even less convenient, if more confined. I’d have to take care of that later. Looking at the beautifully cut California and cucumber rolls, I found my throat getting little rough. Making sushi had been one of Moriko’s favorite things to do with her mother since before she’d been old enough to roll the bamboo. You’d still be proud, Hiroshi. I almost winced at the thought, wishing I could stop. I seemed to wish that a lot.
My daughter didn’t let the expression go on long. “You know, if you’re going to be mopey for the whole meal, I’ll just take a plate of sushi back up to my room.”
I met Mo’s gaze. “I’m sorry, darling, I just–”
“You just miss her, I know.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “So do I, but I’m trying to do stuff to remember her, not just to sit around. Why do you think we have sushi three times a week?”
I swallowed, no idea what to say, how to respond. Still, my daughter needed me to say something. “We’re a lot alike, Mori, but we’re not the same person. To you, she was a constant fixture in your life, but for me she was the person I’d chosen to spend mine with, she was supposed always be there.”
Holding up a hand, I swallowed again. Oh, there were definitely still tears left. “Please let me finish. Together, we made you, and you’re not your mother any more than you’re me, but, in a way, you’re all I have left of her except memories. You’re an incredible young woman and I’ve loved every minute watching you grow up so far, but sometimes I look at you and my heart aches, because we both have to go through life without your mother.” I licked my lips. “And then–”
“And then there’s Grandma and Gramps. I miss them, too.”
I nodded. “Of course you do, but we feel that differently too. For me, it’s closer to how you feel about your mom. They’re, they were, my parents. I’m technically an orphan now, I suppose. They raised me, helped me become the man your mother fell in love with. And they’re gone, too. So I’ve got some idea how you feel and you’ve got some idea how I feel. It’s not the same, because we’re not the same, but I do understand.”
She reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “All so close together. I get it, dad, I really do. It’s just–”
“It’s just I’m supposed to be the strong one, and I’m not right now, not enough. I know.” I wished I was, at the same time I wished I could just let myself go, let myself feel. I wanted to mourn a lot more openly.
A tear escapes her right eye. The left looked like it might follow. “No, that’s not it. Sometimes when you’re expecting mom, or even when you’re looking at me, remembering mom, it’s like you go somewhere else and I’ve lost both of you.”
Pushing my plate back, I hook one foot around the leg of Moriko’s chair and drag her close enough for another hug. “I’m sorry, sweet. But I’m here, even when I’m staring off in the space, remembering something, or nothing. And I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving you.”
“Mom didn’t plan to go anywhere either.”
I don’t have any kind of response for that other than to hold her tighter.
If the man holding the quarterstaff out to me looked like anything, he looked like a comic book Viking of some kind. Horned helmet, bright blue tunic covering heavy steel armor, and, of course, a red beard. I squinted at what I thought were bits of gold in the beard, deciding they might hold small braids in place. Yes, definitely Viking, but not all that realistic. Plate mail and horns both seemed out of character for historical accuracy, not that I really knew much about the period. High school history was a long time ago, and there hadn’t been a lot of dark ages involved since my teacher had been too eager to get to the Renaissance.
“Well, are you going to take it or not?”
Of course, who was I to argue with such a vivid dream, especially when it spoke in flawless, unaccented English?
I held out one hand. “I suppose. What do I need it for?” The smooth wood smacked into my palm, feeling warm and firm and as if it belonged there. I dropped my gaze to the point where my other hand reached out with a mind of its own to wrap around the staff, neatly dividing it into three nearly equal sections.
“To stop me from hitting you with mine.” A second staff, which I hadn’t seen in the Viking’s other hand, arced around to attempt an impact with the side of my head. I jerked my own staff to that side to block it, saving the side of my face from the blow, barely. The two lengths of wood clacked together almost gently, but the strength behind the strike pushed me into two stumbling steps. My whole body vibrated and as I caught myself from going farther, I felt the impact of the stone under my feet through the soles of what looked very much like my own running shoes.
“Wow.” I’d read something once, an article about lucid dreaming, but I remembered that being more about how to take control of your actions in the dream, to make it what you want it to be instead of whatever your subconscious happened to throw up for the night’s entertainment. But this felt like something completely different. The strain felt real, the stumbling felt real, the staff and the ground felt real.
I wondered if I’d remember much when I woke in the morning. That would be a nice change.
“You have fair reflexes, but only fair. They will need to improve.” He stepped back a little, placing his hands in the same positions as I’d put mine, but I saw his right hand faced up and his left hand down. “This time, put your opposite foot out and back to brace against the blow. No more than the width of your shoulders. And try to block as close to the middle of the staff as you can.” The Viking swung again and the clack echoed in my head. His left foot slid forward on about a forty-five-degree angle and I followed his instructions as best I could. This time the impact only rocked me a little. I found himself grinning at what a strange dream this was.
“Better. Again. Now, make the contact real. Put some strength behind the block. Every block is also a strike.”
I pushed hard on the next attack, trying to knock the staff from my imaginary opponent’s hands. The impact made both palms sting and I tried to adjust my grip as I congratulated myself at stopping the strike even farther away but the pleasure turned to alarm very quickly as the Viking pulled a step back, swung over his head with both hands, and aimed a strike at my left ear.
I almost made it.
Ears ringing, especially the left, I looked up from the dirty stone floor, or maybe the ground of a cobblestone courtyard. My vision was a little fuzzy at the moment, but it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder if we were inside or out. I blinked a few times and found my opponent standing there, leaning on his staff, waiting. “What the hell kind of dream is this?” I’d never been so alert in a dream or had one so full of sensation. Particularly pain.
And I’d just changed my mind about liking it.
“The kind where you learn both new things you can do and things about yourself you didn’t know.” The Viking held a hand out to help me up and I accepted with a grimace. I used the same one hand to rub the side of my head when he let go. “What did you just learn?”
“That you’re a sneaky prick.”
The man cocked an eyebrow. “Really?” He grinned. “An interesting lesson. I wonder, could it be perhaps the expressed more generally?”
I sighed. Obviously, I wasn’t waking up anytime soon, so decided I might as well play along with my subconscious and give it a few seconds’ thought. “Maybe that my opponent won’t always attack in a way that it’s most convenient for me.”
Nodding, the Viking tapped a finger on his staff. “Say rather ‘usually’ and you’ll be closer to the mark. Your opponent will strike where and when he senses a weakness to be exploited. Your objective is to present weaknesses for him that are not even as you search for his.”
“Easy to say.”
The big man dragged a hand through his beard as he spun the staff several times in front of him with the other. “Very. But everyone must begin at the beginning, and you will learn quickly because you must.” His face turned serious again and before I could question the statement, I found myself blocking another strike from the right, this time at shoulder height, and glad I’d kept the other hand back on the staff.
My opponent–Sparring partner? Teacher?–nodded. “Good. Now, I will strike at you three times in succession to the head or body. Block each. Then, attempt to do the same to me and we will see what to learn next.”
I had no idea what might be learned from swinging stick at someone, especially when I almost never remembered anything from my dreams in the first place, but it wasn’t like I had anything else to do until I woke up, and the dream didn’t show any sign of fading into something else.
Plus, I owed him for the sneak attack.
Keeping my eyes on the Viking’s face, I set my feet and waited for the first strike.
Did I used to hate Mondays so much?
Rocking back and forth in the subway, staring at a spot on the window six inches above someone’s head, a man who looked really young to be that bald, I tried to avoid even potentially interacting with anyone. Recognizing in myself a lack of desire for human contact, I though back to commutes over the past decade or so and eventually had to admit that I had, in fact, always hated Mondays, probably nearly as much as I did now, and for most of the same reasons.
I didn’t hate my job, but it had been at least a year since I’d really liked it, and I absolutely resented how much time per week it took me away from my daughter. These days, I did have things to dislike about work, the odd sideways glances, the awkward conversational pauses as people wondered if they’d just reminded me of something better left forgotten, the knowing looks and expressions of sympathy from coworkers I barely knew but who obviously knew exactly what I was going through because they’d had to bury their pet hamster in a shoebox last year. Much as I liked my boss and enjoyed the work I was doing, well, more or less, I’d already started looking for other positions or new jobs I could do from home.
That idea seemed ideal, at least on paper, assuming I could find something generating an appropriate income. I’d set my own hours and always be available when Moriko needed me. Plus, it would get me away from all of those pesky people, both at the office and between there and home. I supposed could eliminate a big chunk of the second one by driving to work more often, but parking was ridiculous downtown and it would probably add hours to my week.
I felt my lip twitch, threatening a smile. I mostly liked people, I just wanted to be left alone for a while. A couple of years would be nice. The idea occurred to me that I could accomplish the same goals, changing the faces if not getting rid of them, by taking an overseas job again, but doubted Moriko would have any interest in moving outside of her school’s zone. Scaling back my expectations, I wondered if just moving to a new company would do the trick. Keep it up and you’ll talk yourself into a change of cubicle being enough, even though you know it won’t be.
The overhead speaker mangled the conductor’s voice the same way it did every morning, and the peculiar set of syllables it released now had been recognizable as my stop since sometime before Moriko’s tenth birthday. Along with some subset of the faceless herd, I shifted my weight towards the doors, shuffling forward so those outside the train couldn’t start getting in before I managed to get out. A tiny victory, celebrated every morning, probably by millions, with some variation on the silent phrase, no, you have to wait. Not that I felt like celebrating, and that seemed to apply to my whole life these days. Bringing me to the thought of what I could possibly do for Moriko’s next birthday that wouldn’t totally destroy her mood for a week after.
I sighed out loud and several people nearly looked at me, but since I probably seemed despondent rather than aggravated, turned their offset glances away again. Mental processes were very easy to read even given the blank expressions. Not their problem. But it is yours. One day at a time, okay, Jerry?
The crowd from my train merged into the station crowd, bits of it slowly breaking off to the various stairs, escalators, and tunnels leading sooner or later to the surface world. In my case, a few cold raindrops greeted my ascent to the street, bits of cool damp against my cheeks. I had a hard time understanding some people’s aversion to the subway, unless it had to do with the rush-hour crowds. Having a stone roof over your head was comforting, and the crowds never got too oppressive as long as the air circulation kept up, but I could admit I might feel differently in a city prone to earthquakes.
A block and a half and two corners later, I stood in front of the modest ten-story building that partially served as Northern Books’ offices, joined at the basement with a half dozen neighbouring buildings. Its conversion from a century-old garment factory had turned out nicely enough space, I supposed, but I missed the old warehouse out by the airport. Yes, I’d had to drive every day, but avoiding the main arteries it really hadn’t taken a lot longer than my current commute and I’d had a lot more time to myself. But, new owner, new offices. A lot of new things really. Maybe I should hold out for a package, but it didn’t seem likely almost six months after the so-called merger. I didn’t see where the company could make any more cuts in the office staff and still get things done, but I’d been surprised more than once already.
Some days, I followed the thought past that point, but most days were okay. Most days everything ran more or less smoothly in my workgroup. We ran reports, did data analysis on sales numbers, and fielded questions by phone and email from 211 retail outlets. Most days I went home on time and tried not to think too hard about the razor’s edge book retail worked on.
But if one day of the week had a higher chance of keeping me at the office late, it was Monday. Fresh sales data from the weekend let us re-forecast and adjust inventory models based on current trends as well as giving us access another full week of data for the forecasting models. More than any other day of the week, Mondays had extra numbers. I enjoyed those numbers, and all of the reports and summaries they let me create, but tried to remember how that helped convince me to shift into the book industry in the first place. Hadn’t I wanted more than just numbers? It seemed like they were all I had left anymore, professionally. Not exciting, barely interesting, just there to keep me occupied. As if I needed even one extra little thing to push me out the door. Somehow, somewhere along the line, I’d decided I was dissatisfied with my job and the rest of my thoughts had started to reinforce that. It might even be true.
Even through the mounting frustration, I noticed I was the only person walking up the steps, and as I reached the top I stretched out my hand for the handle. My eyes fell on the reflection of someone standing at the bottom of stairs, someone who certainly hadn’t been when I lifted my foot to move up the first one. Something made me not turn around, trying to study the almost-person, the vague, standing figure, through the indistinct and transparent reflection. My eyes kept sliding away as I tried to lock onto his features. Tall, thick, fuzzy, and possibly frowning. I couldn’t do any better.
When I blinked, the impassive figure disappeared. That’s not right.
I was still frowning, still hadn’t turned around, when a figure I hadn’t noticed climbing the stairs cleared her throat next to me. “We going to work this morning, Jerry? Or maybe just preventing anyone else from getting to their desks? Not that I mind, really, but I do like a paycheck and that usually means I have to work at least a little.”
I blushed as I turned to look at the newcomer. “Sorry, Tilly. I saw you coming and just decided to start daydreaming, I guess.” I stepped to one side, opening the door so she could go in first.
The smile she leveled on me stripped away my crusty mood. “Thank you, kind sir.” She took that last step, her warm dark eyes rising just a little above my own and, even in the cold, not quite spring air, I caught a tiny bit of floral perfume, no more than if I’d been sitting next to her in a meeting.
“Anytime at all, my lady.” The best rejoinder I could manage as she swished past, and I turned my head just far enough to see the spot where no one stood. A quick check didn’t pick out anyone on the street the right size and shape. Sure, life wasn’t hard enough right now. Let’s throw some hallucinations into the mix, too.
I caught up with Tilly just before she reached the elevator and rode up to the sixth floor with her.COLLAPSE
On Midgard, more than a thousand years after the founding of the colony, life is steady and settled, civilization is comfortable stable. With the assistance of the network sentient AIs, each of whom is styled after a god, goddess, or character out of Norse mythology, each serving a specific purpose, the world runs smoothly. If society isn’t the perfect dream established by the original colonists, at least it feels that way to most of Midgard’s citizens.
But there are hidden cracks in the foundation of Midgard’s society, spawned by a mystery going back hundreds of years, and every AI who knows about it is held to an enforced oath of secrecy by Odin, the ultimate network administrator. The human population of Midgard lives in unknown ignorance of the mystery’s existence.
Until the day Loki drops a hint to an archaeology professor struggling with an ancient poetic form.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
Rasmus sprawled across the couch, watching the first dim shafts of light struggle through the treetops of the Inner Forest, and tried to tell himself inspiration had driven him from bed to greet the late Spring sunrise.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the dull needles and stifled a yawn as he opened them again. Just having such a view should be inspiration in itself, and it had kept him from moving into a larger apartment in a newer building for several years. Living on the perceived edge of wilderness won against a little more cubic every time, and his sticking to his budget would cost him the connection to nature he gained just by looking out the window.READ MORE
He stretched, turning his body to fling one leg over the arm of the couch, and looked back down at the data flimsy in his lap. Brushing the surface with one finger, Rasmus grimaced at the text that sprang into existence, his work still escaping standby intact and just as he’d left it. No electronic elves had come to improve the verse while he’d ignored it and they certainly wouldn’t bother while he watched. Several taps changed the order of two words on one line and fixed the resulting capitalization errors. He stared at the flimsy and the words on it stared back, obstinately refusing to make him happy.
Leaning his head back against the soft cushion, he closed his eyes for a moment, half hoping to fall asleep. It might have worked, if he’d still been lying in bed, but he’d been away from that warm comfort for too long to easily drift back into dreams. He snapped his head forward and the motion seemed to pull him from the couch, pushing him a few rigid steps forward to stand in front of the window.
Rasmus sighed, looking out over the blue-green expanse of vegetation as inspiration still failed to arrive. Holding the flimsy at eye level, he took a deep breath. Poetry, after all, was a spoken art. Did it really matter if the speaker made up the audience? And since the poem wasn’t fit to share with other company, it wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Clear and cold, a comet’s path
Searching among stars, seeking home anew
Bright and brilliant, bold and strong
Colours clear the void, chasing and leading
Silence seeking, and slow to die
From far beyond, the arrow’s flight
Time’s crawling tales, cease their telling
All in ancient sleep, late to awake
Rasmus jerked around, inhaling to shout an alarm for the apartment system, but he let it go again when his brain registered the intruder’s identity. Legs dangling over the arm of a soft chair, a textbook representation of Loki propped his head up with an elbow on the opposite side. He shimmered in the suddenly bright morning sunlight and grinned. “An excellent first attempt. The alliteration’s a bit weak, but that was easier in Old Norse. Fornyrðislag, no?”
It took Rasmus a long moment to reply, wrapped up in wondering why Loki would choose to appear in his living room. A hard question not to ask and he wondered how long he could keep it in, along with the affront at the sudden invasion of his privacy. Probably not very. “It’s supposed to be. I’m not happy with the seventh line.” Or most of the others, truth be told, but he felt the seventh was the worst.
Loki nodded, rubbing his close-trimmed beard with two fingers, the hair thickening as Rasmus watched. “That’s the one. I do like the kenning at the beginning though, ‘the comet’s path’. Clever, and it sets the tone for what may follow. You’re telling the colonization story?”
Rasmus nodded. “Trying.” Curiosity drove the question to his tongue where self control left it incomplete. “Um, why…?”
“Am I here?” Loki sat up, swinging his feet to the floor. The dark purple fabric of his pants seemed to swish across the chair’s arm and black boots appeared to touch down on the carpet. “I’m interested whenever someone takes up one of the ancient arts. Poetry is more interesting, even if it is technically Bragi’s line of work—he much prefers modern efforts, by the way, doesn’t really bother with the old stuff anymore—but I might have come even if you’d taken up the Lur, and please don’t.”
Rasmus had listened to a reconstructed Lur chorus several months ago. The sound might be odd to modern ears, but it had spoken to him on a deep level and he wondered what Loki might personally have against the instrument.
The projection stood and crossed the room to look out over the Inner Forest. “I’ll ask a longer question. Why is an archaeologist trying to revive a poetic form, more or less extinct for several millennia on a planet a hundred light years away?”
A ripple passed through Loki’s body in front of the window, the barest breath of the sun’s warmth not touching him at all. Purple drifted into a pale blue and the boots changed to white, putting Rasmus more in mind of winter than spring, but then winter never seemed all that far off.
Rasmus frowned, embarrassed by the question. Smiling, Loki appear to stay focused on the forest, letting the poor human attempt to pick words that wouldn’t make the idea sound stupid when spoken aloud. “I’m looking for insight, trying to see the world through more primitive eyes.” He shook his head. “Well, maybe not more primitive so much as less advanced.”
“By writing a poem about space travel? Seems a little weak to me.” Loki’s laugh bounced against the window plastic. “Yes, you’d be far better to talk to Bragi, I think, if poetry is what you really want, but it seems to me that if you want to see the world through their eyes, you should go outside and actually look at it, experience it.” Loki turned, leaning his head back to give his chin an almost pointed profile. “Go hunting or fishing, maybe hike across the Bjorn Glacial Fields as they once did.” Furs sprouted from Loki’s back and shoulders while a fishing pole appeared in one hand and a bow in the other. Peeking up over his far shoulder, Rasmus could see a quiver of arrows.
“What’s left of them, you mean.”
Loki batted a hand, suddenly empty of rod, and turned to face him fully. “The Fields will come back someday. Midgard getting a little warmer for a few hundred years isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A little more space to explore, a little milder in the winter. And think about what the Melt might reveal.”
Or what it might have already revealed, bits and pieces of a vanished culture just lying around waiting to be found. He thought about that all the time. “It’s an interesting thought.” If not necessarily a new one, since it had driven his career.
“Obviously.” The AI grinned. “It’s mine, after all.” He shrugged. “I do applaud any effort to understand the Ancestors, but the ancient dwellers here are not your ancestors. Poetry will not help you unless it’s their poetry, and they never breached the age of stone, by all accounts so far. Do you even know if they had poetry?”
Rasmus didn’t know if they’d had anything beyond the cave paintings and handful of artefacts he’d spent so long studying. He suspected music, and therefore poetry, but he didn’t really know, and he never truly would.
But the AI didn’t give him a chance to respond. “Sitting here won’t help you, even staring out at a forest barely large enough you can pretend there’s no city just out of sight. Go out into the new spring. See what they saw, hear what they heard, smell what they smelled. Maybe you’ll find your insight that way.” He winked. “If nothing else, some sun and air would do you well.” Loki grimaced suddenly. Furs shriveled away, contracting into black tunic, pants, and boots. “Ah, I have to go. Someone is actually playing a Lur.”
Frowning, Rasmus opened his mouth, but Loki disappeared, blinking out of existence to leave him with an empty room again. He turned back toward the Inner Forest, watched the sun crest over the tallest tree in his line of sight, and wondered whether or not the AI had made a good point, or at least one worth considering.
Was he trying too hard to fit the natives into a human view? He didn’t actually know if they’d had poetry. No one did, though speculation filled libraries and arguments ranged across decades about every fragmentary discovery. If they had voices, it seemed likely they had songs, at least. Why not poetry?
The long departed natural sentients of Midgard may not have had writing beyond the few simple pictographs already discovered. The elements hadn’t left much, really. A few sparsely scattered cave paintings, a few polished stones with scraps of leather cord, a few preserved skins that might once have been clothing, a few bits of shaped bone that might once have been tools. These made up everything the academic community knew about the arts and science and existence of a species they hadn’t even been able to settle on a name for in four hundred years of trying. So much of Midgard remained essentially unexplored, basic satellite images notwithstanding. How could they know anything?
See what they saw.
Rasmus rolled up the flimsy and stuck it in the pocket of his robe. Hunting and fishing didn’t appeal to him, at least not without more data. No, that was a lie to himself. Hunting and fishing didn’t appeal to him at all, unless it was to test methods the native sentients might have used, and not so much even then. A hike across the Glacial Fields seemed excessive for a first expedition, but simply wandering the Inner Forest wouldn’t give him the same experience. It was too sculpted, too civilized, too tame, however it looked from his window.
Think about what the Melt might reveal.
The glaciers had been retreating for longer than he’d been alive, and the rate of retreat had been accelerating for most of that time. How much land had they released? What treasures had been locked in ice for thousands of years? What was waiting for human eyes to see for the first time?
Mobile drones typically did most initial field research, at least in terms of scouring the landscape for possible native sites and artifacts, leaving the actual analysis to human eyes and brains, amateur and professional both. If the amateurs who spent their spare time searching for new sites accounted for more finds, the professionals did more to advance the analysis and understanding of what had once been.
Rasmus didn’t need a database query to see who might currently be walking the edges of the retreating glaciers. He knew someone who’d made searching the borders her life’s work, not of the Bjorn Fields, but further to the east, and much closer to home for him, in the Hvaskald Valleys. It had been a few years since he’d left Copenhagen for any reason, much less gotten away from the museum or university. Maybe he should think about a change in scenery for just a few days.
He wondered if Alexa would take his call.
A breath of wind stirred Karol’s thinning hair, the tiny bite of chill air sending a ripple down his neck. It would be a few weeks yet before the buds around him grew large enough to provide any shelter from the breeze, and by then it might be warm enough he’d rather feel it.
Running a hand across the white cloth covering the flat to make it table smooth, he breathed deep to settle his thoughts before reaching into the worn pouch with the other hand. One at a time, he pulled three tiles from among their brethren, knowing by touch how to place them face down to remain hidden from him. Two small adjustments created an even row to his eyes and Karol fixed the Question in his mind.
“What was.” He slid the first small slice of wood to the left, then tilted it up and let it fall over, already knowing what it would be.
Three sides of a rectangle, the top and bottom shorter and bent inward, Perthro shone silver in the sunlight, brilliant against the wood and cloth. He traced its lines with one finger, searching for some point of power, some insight into the Question. Images and concepts rippled through his mind and he let them find their paths, but none settled enough to give him hope or pause.
The bone-white kilnwood tiles came to him through ten generations of family, almost halfway through time to Landing. More than four hundred years of handling had polished the squares until they reflected enough to show pale images of the world around them. Until Karol’s grandmother pressed them into his hands on his sixteenth birthday, they’d passed from mother to daughter. But she’d had only sons and only Karol among her grandchildren took any interest in matters of the spirit beyond the simple ceremonies that bound families together.
He remembered her early lessons every time he cast. Each rune held many meanings and led to many more. Interpretation came from the caster and the questioner, especially if they were different people, and both flavoured the meanings that might apply. Sorting through those meanings to find any clarity often took time and meditation. Sometimes it took hindsight.
Perthro twisted through Karol’s mind, throwing shadows in every direction. Woman, destiny, mystery all leapt out and pressed at him, and he felt the last most strongly if not to the exclusion of the others. Mystery. Secret. Something hidden. In the recesses of memory, his grandmother’s voice cautioned against quick judgment, so Karol held the words but tried not to let them hold him, still harder than he would like.
He focused his thoughts back on the Question, careful to let it settle back into his mind whole and complete before reaching to the cloth for the second rune. “What is.”
Instead of tipping the tile, Karol watched as his hand closed around the smooth square, the rounded corners smooth against his skin, and he waited long enough for his palm to warm the piece of wood before turning it over. With exaggerated care, he released his grip and pressed his thumb down on one side, sliding two fingers underneath, and keeping the face covered with his palm until it rested flat again.
He saw the deep green painting Raidho reveal itself, in its true old style rather than the slightly rounded version favoured by modern society. Again, the rune brought no surprise. For this Question, it had been the same for weeks. Ride, journey, quest. Search. A mystery that would be solved by some sequence of events. A truth requiring some search. A secret destined to be uncovered, perhaps by a woman and with that thought, he felt by some woman that he knew.
Karol shook his head, trying to clear it of everything but the Question. Distractions poured into his mind as if he’d just sat down for his first Cast alone. Was that why he kept returning to this Question over and over again? Something about it was slippery in his mind. It refused to resolve. Yet with all the distracting thoughts and feelings, with the focus he’d built over a lifetime nearly gone from the ritual, the runes fell into the same pattern nearly every time. Only the third rune, the future rune, ever changed, and that rarely.
Taking a deep breath, he let his hand stray to the cloth a third time.
Gran Vala preferred a Nine Runes cast—more to see, more to know, more to observe—but first taught him how to cast the Norns. Time’s flow always seemed one of the universe’s great mysteries to Karol and he still felt a strong affinity to the Norn Cast, finding that more runes often clouded the issue and made the offered insights even harder to interpret. He’d learned that lesson well enough before his tenth birthday when he’d stolen this same set of rune tiles to ask the Gods what his parents had gotten him as a present. His mind threw up so many images and insights, so many possibilities and ideas, that he’d spilled the rest of the pouch and lost any hint of what he might have learned. And none of the insights they offered him had anything to do with his birthday.
Gran Vala chose that moment to look into his room. She’d said nothing, just helped him pick up the tiles and then took them away. Later that afternoon, he began to find out what it meant to have a Gythja as a grandmother. Eventually, he’d learned to Cast the Nine, but only after learning to make the Question as specific as possible.
“What may be.” The square seemed to jump into his palm and Karol closed his eyes as he turned it over to set the third rune next to the second.
He looked to find a vertical line of gold with a small triangle projecting to the right from its center. Thurisaz gleamed in the dim morning sunlight. Disappointing, but not surprising. He’d hoped for the two sides of an open triangle. Kenaz he might read as revelation, a hint of information and understanding to come, but he couldn’t read Thurisaz that way.
Destruction, conflict, catalyst, change. The words rattled around in his brain, refusing to still long enough for him to focus. His concentration shattered, the Question slipping away to become just another question, Karol closed his eyes again and tilted his head back. He let a long breath slide out through pursed lips then took several more through his nose before righting himself with open eyes and took in the three runes, all different colors, all oriented normally.
Perthro, Raidho, Thurisaz. Meanings and shades of meanings. Each could represent many things and together the possibilities numbered more than leaves in the forest. Impressions faded quickly, and feelings crushed together during the Casting drifted into the shadows of his mind. His desire to know what moved the world, and the human world in particular, drove him to Cast every morning, but the Casts had become unsatisfying of late and the insights he received always slipped just beyond his understanding. Nothing reached through the news or networks to help him make sense of the runes. Perhaps something long hidden would change the path of the world, but he began to suspect it might not be anything he would ever see or know.
He bowed his head over the runes. “Urdh, Verdhandi, Skuld. Past, present, future. I thank thee, Norns, for the insights you have helped me to see and hope for the wisdom to find their meaning.”
With a single sweep of his hand, the runes disappeared back into the pouch. The white cloth followed after a quick shake to clear any bits of leaf or dirt. Karol stood and tried to shake away the unease his Cast had left him with. Shaking his head, he slipped the small pouch into his pocket and turned away from the stump.
He needed to meditate. Silence and solitude he had in plenty this time of year, if you didn’t count the reindeer, but he also had plenty of work to get done. There would be time enough for meditation later. The rest of his morning would be taken up tagging calves. If he could find them in the scattered herd, the network claimed at least another dozen.
“I’ve taken the liberty of pre-downloading today’s list to your data pad, Mistress. It also includes the first ten percent of tomorrow’s list according to your preferences.”
Alviss’ reminder of her daily trip to the Vault had never seemed so welcome.
With one finger, Valborg tapped the window on her desk twice, copying its contents to three separate storage locations, and it shrank to a small icon in the correspondence bubble. She hadn’t felt the passage of time while struggling through the battered grammar of Hans Dergoldt’s article, or perhaps she had but couldn’t believe she’d stuck with it for so long. At the moment, she found it hard to remember why she’d agreed to read through it in the first place. The man needed the services of a good copy-editing program before another human being should read it for content.
She stood and brushed imaginary lint from her jumpsuit. “Thank you, Alviss. Is there anything special on today’s list?” Retrieving the ridiculously bulky—though she had to grant its age, internal power supply, and virtual indestructibility all had something to do with that—datapad from its station on the wall and slipping it into her pocket, Valborg looked at Alviss.
White teeth flashed in the dark, close-trimmed beard and the pale dwarf ducked his head in a mock bow. “Well, mistress, that will very much depend on what you may mean by ‘special.’ There are several engineering texts, some pre-Landing history, and a collection of religious philosophy and lore that includes both some early commentary on the Poetic Edda as well as a slim volume containing several translations and the collected twentieth through twenty-first century commentary on the Alvissmal.”
Valborg looked down at her assistant’s virtual presence. “Isn’t that the poem where Thor outsmarts you?”
“Not me, exactly, mistress, but strange though it is to find Thor using his mind rather than his muscles, you are correct. Stranger still to find that sunlight supposedly turns dwarves to stone.” Alviss shook his head and made a clucking noise.
“Yes, I always thought that was odd. Isn’t it supposed to be trolls?”
“Dwarves, trolls, giants, ogres. Look far enough through the Lore and literature and sooner or later it seems to happen to every sentient creature who isn’t a human or a God. I think it stems from the human need to feel superior to something.”
She laughed. “You might be right.” She took several steps to stand in front of a window and Alviss followed. “I don’t see you turning to stone.”
“I don’t have a physical presence. Perhaps if I were real, we could test the principle.” He shook his head. “As if a dwarf might want an Æsir wife. Strange people, you humans.”
Obviously, he’d retrieved the poem while they spoke. “A mark of high status, I’d assume.” Opening the door, she let Alviss walk through first rather than trying to fit through at the same time. He would make way for her rather than having her walk through his projection, but Valborg held a strong belief in fair and equal treatment for all sentients, regardless of their programming. She wasn’t entirely sure Alviss believed the same, though, and wasn’t privy to his base programming to check, as if she might understand what it said. Still, whatever might be the general perception of the non-AI citizens of Midgard, he was, by all definitions, sentient, so could form his own beliefs about things as he chose.
Bright strips lit the short hall, one of the few places in the above-ground portions of the Archives having no access to natural light. A projected mural of a garden in full bloom ran the entire length of one wall while stylized animals, both Terran and native, graced much of the available space on the other. Valborg walked through the corridor with less thought for the artwork than the multiple redundant sets of data storage that lay beyond them on the far side of the walls. Two other duplicate Archives in Helsinki and Reykjavik held the same structures and each had three sets of redundant backups of its own. Even a complete disruption of the planetary network would leave physical locations intact. Of course, considering the vast stretches of wilderness and glaciations, the network coverage of Midgard wasn’t nearly complete, but it would take a true planetary cataclysm for any knowledge to be lost on Midgard.
And in the event of such a cataclysm, there was the Vault.
The door at the hall’s far end opened into the small public section of the Archives, though very few people ever came in person since everything stored in the Archives’ networks could be accessed by anyone with a network connection from anywhere on the planet. But for those few who made the trip, a dozen tiny desks, miniature versions of Valborg’s own, lined most of long wall under a half dome of clear transparasteel. Four privacy booths clustered in the centre of the open space for those who needed just a little solitude.
As on most days, neither desks nor booths had occupants.
On the far side of row of desks, a thin door neatly blended in with the wall. Without looking for it, casual eyes would drift past. Alviss stared at the door, longing painted across his thick face. “Unsatisfied curiosity is a terrible thing. Worse still, knowing that it never can be satisfied.”
A smile flitted across Valborg’s lips, gone, she hoped, before Alviss had seen. “It’s really not that exciting, you know. Shelves and shelves of books in a moderately lit room. There isn’t much to see.”
The dwarf looked up at her, one eyebrow arched and the left side of his mouth stretched to the side. “Oh, I’m well aware of what the Vault looks like. Drab walls and drab shelves filled with drab books. And it’s not as if there is a scrap of information in it that I don’t have access to many times over. I have the complete inventory of the books it contains and every word printed in those books is available to me as fast as I can execute the search, in multiple styles and translations.” He shook his head. “But I’ve never actually seen it. I have a full understanding of what the Vault is and contains, but I don’t actually know. You can see how that’s difficult for me.”
“For you especially.” She smiled again and put as much warmth in it as she could. Not for the first time, she wished she could touch her assistant, though not nearly so much as he wanted to see inside the Vault. But if she could at least pat his shoulder she might feel as if she made him feel better, though she harboured doubts whether that would work any better with an AI than with a human. “I wish I could take an image for you, but the only thing that works is the inventory function.” Valborg patted the data pad in her pocket. “And that’s just for the inspection checklist.”
Paler in the direct sunlight even than in Valborg’s north facing office, the dwarf turned his back on the door and tried to smile. “I do appreciate the sentiment, Mistress, but I have resigned myself to the situation. Even with my name, there are some things that are not meant to be known. I ask only that you think of me upon occasion while performing your duty.” The smile disappeared, replaced by a frown. “Do you know I’ve never even seen a paper book?”
“In point of fact, and not to be too picky about it, I haven’t, either.” The books in the Vault had pages made of a fine, durable plastic rather than the flesh of dead trees. Full and functional lifespans of centuries could be expected, even with actual use. “But I completely understand and sympathize.” She placed her left palm on the centre of the door and waited for the chirp of recognition. The door slid open and she stepped into the small elevator airlock. “Look after things while I’m gone.”
Alviss bowed and she briefly pictured him as a classic mythical dwarf, dark beard long enough to nearly scrape the floor. “As always, Mistress. I will be here when you return.” The door slid shut again on anything she might have responded with.
Her smile died as soon as she was safely shielded from Alviss’ perception. She always had a moment of panic between the doors closing and the elevator starting its descent. The tiny room was a forced reminder of why the Vault existed. Only a total collapse of computer and power infrastructure would generate a need for the physical books it contained. If some unexpected, unanticipated, and incredibly unlikely event should somehow trigger that collapse during one of her daily short trips to or from the Vault, Valborg would be on her own.
Just before it began to move, the elevator’s controls automatically cut all contact with the outside world, and it switched over to the Vault’s internal power generation units. If something should happen to that power before reaching the bottom, she’d be trapped with no chance of rescue until the power was restored, if it was. Well, not with no chance. Both the tiny elevator and the doors at the top of the short shaft had emergency manual controls, and a ladder ran from top to bottom. She could get out if she had to, no rescue required.
As always, her brief panic meant nothing. The ride lasted three or four breaths and the door slid open in front of her before she could do more than wonder ‘what if?’ At the same moment, sensors in the room registered her presence and fed power to the light strips. The few seconds of anxiety faded into the background, swallowed by the expectation of exercising her core responsibility.
The first room of the Vault, long and thin and lined with shelves of real books, stretched out before her. Built in a single standard size, thirty centimetres long, tall, and wide, each shelf contained as many as eight or nine books, depending on their size, all lying flat on top of each other for binding preservation. At full capacity, the room would store more than two thousand volumes of critical knowledge, but there was certainly more than one third of the space left available. Nine metres away, a manually operated airlock would take Valborg to a corridor connecting the other eight rooms on this level, all entered by identical airlocks, or to the stairway leading to the second and third levels.
In the middle of the room, a small table, bereft of any computer interface or projection equipment, waited for the touch of a book. The act of handling real books in the daily inspections made the rest of her small duties as Archivist easy to forget. That she was forced to do it underground in an artificially lit room cut off from the rest of the world while standing at a chest high table didn’t bother her even after almost four years as Archivist.
Lifting the data pad, she pressed its only available icon, releasing it from standby and sending a coded transmission that travelled no farther than the shielded walls of this first room of the Vault. At the same time, she started scanning the shelves for the two or three indicator lights that would lead her to the books in this room on today’s list. She found the first three sets of shelves toward the other end of the room on her left at about waist height. Comparing the numbered code on the shelf to the code on the list, Valborg bent to find “Introductory Soil Mechanics” by V. Mortensen at the bottom of a stack of six books. Putting the datapad back in her pocket, she carefully lifted the other five before pulling out the book she needed then carried it to the table to begin today’s inspection.
Rasmus let the car pick its own course until it reached the waypoint he’d set. When he needed to leave the road and travel cross country, he might take a closer interest in guiding the vehicle, but for now the automatic system would do fine. He passed the first four hours of the drive watching the replay of a concert held in Lundby the previous month and catching up on some news media and reading. When the car informed him that they were thirty minutes from leaving the road, he triple-checked that the latest satellite imagery for the area had been downloaded into the car systems and went over its projected least-time route. He had no illusions that he could pick a better one or pilot along the selected route better than it could, but leaving the road system always made him just a little nervous and then embarrassed at being an archaeologist with that reaction.
The car slowed, turning off the road at the preprogrammed conversion point and picking a path into the thin, mostly coniferous forest, finding a high flowing creek to follow for the first several kilometers of the trip’s last leg, and he settled back to watch the scenery roll by without thinking too much about it. Beyond the idea of getting closer to nature, he really didn’t know what he’d gotten himself in for. All things considered, Rasmus could probably count himself lucky. Not only had Alexa taken his call, but she seemed receptive to showing off her latest discovery, not that she’d been ready to tell him what it was, only that it was more than he’d expect. “Come prepared to work for it,” she’d told him before hanging up.
North of Copenhagen, the spring forest looked much like it did in the winter, just with a little less snow. Those few trees that dropped their leaves in the cold had yet to push out new ones, content to let their buds swell with the slowly rising temperatures. Thick needles in many shades of blue, and a handful of green, adorned the trees that kept their color throughout the year. Smaller plants and bushes, more impressed by the new spring than the trees above them, took full advantage of the warmth and available sunlight to get in most their growth early before their larger siblings reached out to scoop up the bulk of the free energy the conifers let pass.
The car’s cabin drained away all external sounds, including those of the engines. Removed from the level path of the road, the vehicle had to work harder to provide a smooth ride for its occupant and certainly doubled its power consumption. Rasmus could see graphs or data at will, but knew the vehicle had charge enough to travel cross country for days if he wanted to. He tried not to think about being days out into the wilderness.
The Hvaskald Valleys had never quite been overrun by glaciers, at least not during the current ice age, though they’d often lain in the shadows of the creeping ice flows, never quite succumbing to the lure of permanent winter. A dozen kilometers to the north, the trailing fingers of one glacial group still slowly withdrew, though most had retreated much farther. Small plants and shrubs had begun to colonize the barely unfrozen land all across the lower north.
But in the Valleys, the forests, stunted by brutal winters, had never gone away, giving shelter to animals that would have retreated much further to the south. They were also home to some of the youngest finds of Native artifacts in the north.
Thirty years or so ago, Bjorn Bjarnisson theorized these finds might represent the last stronghold of native culture destroyed by the ice age. Rasmus didn’t subscribe to it, attractive as it might seem to explain the finds so easily, but he still wondered why the lost ones hadn’t moved south with most of the wildlife, away from the creeping walls of ice.
Over centuries of study, the sentience of the natives became undisputed. Prominent tool users, if only those made from stone, wood, and bone, they’d also had art and storytelling at least, clearly shown by the few cave paintings humans had uncovered. Tool use, art, presumably language of some kind. Rasmus imagined a rich oral history. Why would they have let the ice take their world away? It didn’t make sense that they’d collectively give up and die.
Alexa’s camp nestled next to a small lake, three small instant buildings thrown up in minutes by low level AIs. From there, she supervised the slow cataloging of two caves and a butchering site all within ten kilometers and all no more than twelve thousand years old. He’d followed the steady stream of papers and image dumps she’d provided to the academic world and public.
Rasmus let the car glide across the lake. His heart rate picked up for reasons that had nothing to do with being over deep water and he looked for any sign of Alexa in the tiny camp. It wouldn’t surprise him in the least if she’d forgotten he was coming or ignored his approach in favour of whatever she might be pouring over. In her place, it didn’t stretch his imagination to see himself doing the same even without the added baggage of personal history.
But she must have heard the car, appearing from behind one of the buildings with what looked like a backpack hanging from her left hand. From a distance, he recognized her by the bright red hair, loosely curly and hanging down past her shoulders, forever out of control. Closer, her face began to resolve and the almost hooked nose jumped out at him. Her eyes didn’t become more than spots until the car coasted to a stop and began to settle then the green circles burrowed into him and he wondered what old argument she might be remembering.
Alexa didn’t smile, didn’t do more than nod as she approached the car, moving around to the opposite side. He brushed the control to open the door and before it rose more than a decimeter or two, Alexa’s backpack hit the seat. She slipped in before it reached halfway and touched the control herself to close the door again. With the other hand, she held out a small data crystal. “It’s got the coordinates and a best plot path to where we’re going.”
Just like that, they started off. Just like nothing had happened. Just like three years hadn’t passed since the last time they’d even looked at each other. Just like old times.
It took five minutes of silence before Alexa even turned to look at Rasmus, lips pressed together and eyebrows pulled down. The look reminded him of the last time they’d really spoken, and he pushed the memory away, trying to bury old grudges. He thought her jaw might be clenched, but she spoke before he could tell from the tight muscles, or even if her jaw muscles were tighter than usual. Three years was a long time. “It’s weird that you called now.”
Rasmus tried not to frown. “What do you mean?” Brilliant, but the best he could do. He’d been wondering if the call had been a mistake since she picked up, but she’d accepted the idea of a visit without a hint of any of the old issues or conflicts. The long drive to her site hadn’t helped the hard feeling in his stomach, even with the efforts he’d made to distract himself.
Her eyebrows relaxed and the left side of her mouth lifted into something he might mistake for a smile if he didn’t know better. “When you called last week, I wondered if you’d suddenly developed some kind of telepathy. I’d been thinking about you for a week before that.” An old tension he’d thought long buried kick started his heart again, pushed his blood pressure a little higher.
Hoped it had been buried, maybe.
She looked at him, but she didn’t seem angry or upset. Excited, maybe, but not to see him, more likely about where she was taking him. Probably a good thing. “The cave we’re going to is new. One of the roving AIs found it last week. I’ve filed but haven’t done much cataloging. Too much back log.”
He took a moment to gather his thoughts but didn’t want to stretch the mental work beyond the simplest and most obvious response. “There’s something in the cave that made you think of calling me.”
Smiling, she nodded. “It’s full of paintings. Floor to ceiling.”
Not exactly what he had in mind when he called. Better, far better, more than he possibly could have hoped for. He’d spent his academic life studying the art of the natives, what there was of it. Bone flutes, jewelry, a few scattered carvings and wall paintings from a dozen or so small caves, scattered across several thousand kilometers, with representations of hunts and life and, he was fairly certain, spirits or gods. Loki’s words came back to him. “See the world as they saw it.”
Smiling, he shook his head. “Sorry, that wasn’t meant to be out loud. It’s something someone said to me recently. I’ve been trying to figure something out, something that ties together what I do know, and someone told me to see the world as the natives saw it. He suggested I go hunting or fishing, but I thought, maybe, well…” He shrugged.
“That I might show you something to make the connection.” She smiled, and this time it was for him. “Whoever your friend is, you should thank him. I just might myself, but first I’m going to show you something that makes you rethink everything you already know.” Her eyes almost glowed. “This cave is not like the others, Ras, not at all.”
Now his heart raced for an entirely different reason. He swallowed, licked his lips, and opened his mouth to ask, but she cut him off. “I’m not going to spoil it or give you anything that might prejudice your opinions.” He inhaled again, but she still didn’t let him speak. “Yes, I’ve taken video and stills, lots of both, but I left it all back at the camp. We can turn around and get them, if you like, but that will probably cost us twenty minutes that we could have spent getting closer to the cave. It’s up to you.”
And then she smiled that smile. The one he hated. Beyond any doubt, she still knew how to push his buttons and probably took more joy in it than ever. He bit down on any response and let the car drive. If she thought she scored a point, that was fine. He’d finally stopped keeping score three years ago.
“You’re out of shape.”
“How nice of you to notice.” Rasmus wrapped his left hand around a small rock outcrop and leaned in to steady himself. It took two deep breaths to find the words he wanted without using them to start an argument. “I don’t do a lot of field work and this isn’t exactly an easy hike.”
“Think what it might have been like with four legs.”
“They had a lower centre of gravity.”
“And shorter arms.”
And four legs and plenty of muscle mass, Rasmus didn’t say. Alexa made a good point, though. This would have been a tough climb built like one of the lost native sentients, maybe rough enough to be considered a rite of passage. He sighed, but it came out almost like a wheeze. “Are we there yet?”
“Another two hundred metres or so up the slope.”
Slope. Rasmus supposed it was an intellectually fair word for a hill grade that beat most stairwells he’d been in. At least there were solid bits of rock and stubborn bushes to grab onto. Rolling down the hill would not be fun.
And as if he were prescient, his left foot slipped on some loose gravel, an act of betrayal that cost him his balance and all the air in his lungs when he hit the ground shoulder first. His hands lashed out, trying to grab the stone but finding Alexa’s forearm instead. Her fingers wrapped around his wrist and he looked up into her grinning face.
“Saved your life.”
Rasmus let her help him up before rolling his eyes but let the comment pass. He doubted he’d been in any real danger of more than a few scrapes and bruises, but those were two of the many reasons why he hated the great outdoors, at least in an uncontrolled way. “Thanks.”
They took another dozen or so steps upslope before he had enough breath back to wonder how much farther it would be. “How did the AIs find this place?” How would anyone?
“Funny radar echoes.”
Three words that might explain everything with a little background information. Without it, they explained nothing but were also probably the only explanation he was going to get. Ground penetrating radar was a wonderful thing to have access to, but scale issues when you put it on crawlers didn’t necessarily give you as much detail back as you’d like. Funny echoes could mean anything and still didn’t manage to convey why the AI-driven rover had flagged the spot to begin with.
Just like old times, he resolved not to say anything else until they reached the cave. Instead, he tried to focus his irritation into pulling himself up the hill faster. Whether it worked or not, it seemed like only a few more steps before the slope suddenly leveled out and he stood on nearly flat ground, hunched over with his hands on his knees. After a few breaths, he pulled up straight, leaving just a little slump to his shoulders, and looked down at the valley they’d left the car in.
One of the things Rasmus did like about field work–almost the only thing beyond seeing and touching things firsthand–was the view. There were times when you stood up from the dust and the landscape laid out before you stole the breath from your lungs faster than any fall. Rasmus decided this was one them. From half a kilometer above the valley floor, the needle trees hid the leafless, and ripples of blue and green spread out below him. A pine-tinted breeze tugged at damp hair on the back of his neck. He let himself smile a little, thinking that maybe the pristine view might have been incentive for the ancient natives to make the tough climb.
A flying insect zipped across his vision only a few centimetres in front of him and Rasmus sighed. The occasional spectacular view wasn’t worth the bugs and dirt most of the time, or the less than comfortable prefabricated quarters, or the often-unsteady network coverage. He liked his nature a little more sculpted, a little more convenient, and had enjoyed it that way for most of his life. But still—
“If you’re done admiring the trees, we can look at what we came here for.”
Rasmus closed his eyes for just a moment before turning around. When he faced Alexa, it was with a smile, but that disappeared when she gestured at the so called cave she wanted to take him into. A knee-high hole in the side of the hill stared at him, one dark eye peering out from the grey rock and soil. It looked half again as wide as he was, and so was probably wider than that. Not a tight squeeze in his current shape, but that didn’t make him all that eager to dive in.
“There was a rock fall three or four hundred years ago. It’s certified safe by the rover AI, but the entrance turns into a tunnel that stays that size for about three metres before opening up.”
Three metres of crawling on his belly dragging the bag he’d brought. Rasmus sighed and unclipped the helmet from his belt, brushing the power switch for the headlamp as he set it on his head. Field work at its worst. “Let’s go then.”
Crawling down a gentle slope through the short tunnel wasn’t so bad, or at least wasn’t as bad as he’d expected, even if the only view he had was Alexa’s boot soles. He didn’t have any concern following her into an unknown cave since she’d been in at least once before and the tunnel didn’t last that long, anyway, or at least not much longer than she’d promised. After a few metres, she scooted forward and stood up, moving out of the way so he could follow.
His headlamp burrowed into the darkness as he checked the walls, ceiling, and floor. Nothing there, but the passage continued on a little farther from where he stood than the cramped entrance lay behind him. His light didn’t reach far enough past the opening to show him anything of the cavern and its paintings. Fingers twitching, Rasmus moved forward without waiting for Alexa. Four steps past her brought him to the cavern’s edge and the loud echo of his breathing, something he hadn’t even noticed, disappeared into the gloom.
The space was big, much bigger than he’d expected. His headlamp didn’t reach the other side, or the ceiling, but when he swung back around to ask Alexa if she’d brought a bigger light source, the beam swung across the wall next to him and whatever words he’d had stayed in his throat. The small section of wall his headlight illuminated was covered in tiny paintings. They almost fought for space, occasionally even overlapping as newer strokes shouldered aside older ones. He stepped to the side, away from the entrance, shifting his view of the wall in front of him to reveal one not so tiny painting with the others.
Clustered around some huge, six-legged beast, more than a dozen tiny pictographs brandished spears smaller six-limbed figures, obviously representing native hunters. At the edges of the light, more hunters stood or ran, depending on how he interpreted the legs. Hints and shadows lay on the edges, but Rasmus came back to the beast in the middle before he could move on.
As part of his dissertation, he’d done a comparison of native cave paintings to those found in stored images and video of Stone Age cave paintings from Earth. He’d gone further and considered virtual reconstructions of the creatures in them. With those memories occupying the front of his brain, Rasmus mentally traced the careful red strokes crafting a figure that jumped into his mind as a mammoth, albeit one with six legs. He couldn’t think of anything else looking at the tree trunks legs and curved, jutting tusks. Had any fossils or remains been found that could be reconstructed into something like it? Nothing he’d heard. Was this the story of a hunt or the telling of a legend? He wanted to believe the first, but there was little evidence for recent megafauna on Midgard.
His eyes drifted back to the hunters and he leaned in closer to the wall. Reds and browns and oranges. And those painted the same color showed different shades as if they’d been painted at different times or by different hands. Or both.
Behind him, a sudden brilliant light washed the entire cavern, throwing his shadow across the mammoth hunters. Taking two steps back to lighten the shadow, he started to turn slowly through a circle, struggling to take it all in. Hundreds, thousands of tiny paintings clustered and crowded around a few dozen large ones.
They hunted more than just mammoth. Rasmus recognized several of the creatures in the dozen or so hunts scattered around the cavern, but most he couldn’t form a picture of. Hunters with spears clustered around all of them, in more than one case throwing spears at some great beast. Some of the strange creatures weren’t being hunted, but flew or reared or merely stood against rough painted backgrounds of mountains or trees. And in one place, thirty or more six-limbed pictographs formed a ring around a fire, some linking hands as if they might be dancing.
“It’s obviously a holy place of some sort. Or possibly coming here to paint was some kind of life event ritual. Tentative dates range between eight and fifteen thousand years old, depending on which paintings.”
Beings twice the size of the hunters and dancers held out two spears to a pair of natives. A metre to the left and slightly higher, two more giants did the same thing only the spears they held out to the waiting natives had been painted to look as if they were on fire. Rasmus picked out other giants around the cavern, some in the act of gift giving, others with what might be storm clouds or lightning. A shiver ran up his spine as he understood the vanished sentients had a pantheon of gods. “Their whole mythology might be in this cavern.” Something sunk in about Alexa’s last words. “Wait, did you say eight thousand years?” He didn’t break his eyes from the paintings, couldn’t.
“Yes, I did. Tentatively. More analysis needs to be done.”
And then he stopped, eyes glued to one spot on the wall, to one larger painting, spanning maybe twice as far as he could splay his fingers. The image jabbed into his heart. He hadn’t been raised with much in the way of spirituality in his education, and mythology was treated culturally, but no one on Midgard could fail to recognize the symbol. He licked his lips slowly and drank in the sight.
Another circle of natives, these all with linked hands, danced around a circle with a cross painted in it to divide the circle into four equal quarters. Four quarters for the seasons, a circle for the year, for the sun. “Is that a sun wheel?”
“I doubt they called it that.”
He turned on her. She stood with a stern look on her face, beside the lantern that must have already been here since he hadn’t seen her lug it in. “Stop being such a bitch, Alexa! Be mad at me if you want to but stop treating everything I say as if I’m trying to start a fight. I came to see you, but you brought me here. You wanted me to see this. Gods! This is absolutely the biggest discovery of ancient aboriginal culture since humans have been on Midgard. You know that, and you found it, and I’m perfectly happy that you found it.” His finger jabbed out to the painting on the rock wall. “I see a sun wheel. Am I dreaming or is it actually there?”
For a long moment, she didn’t say a word, just stood there, face blank and breathing heavily, but whether from shock or anger, Rasmus didn’t know or care. Finally, she let her face soften and her breath shifted into a sigh. “That was my first thought, but I’m more of a digger than an interpreter, and I didn’t want to prejudice your reaction. You’ve seen the sun wheel. Look down.”
Rasmus looked down at his feet, thinking he might be standing on something. The paintings did not extend to the floor, though here and there he saw drops and smears and splatters of whatever they had used for pigments. Tracking back up to where the wall met the floor underneath the sun wheel, he felt the breath pulled from his lungs in a gasp.
He squeezed his eyes shut but the painting was still there when he opened them again. Taking a few steps to reach the wall, he crouched down in front of the distinctive shape, an inverted T-rune, the bottom thicker, flatter, and clearly drawn to a point in the middle. He reached out to brush his fingers against the hammer and felt a shiver run through his body.
Alexa cleared her throat. “If you look at a few of the giants, sometimes there’s a hammer hanging at the waist on one side, or something that might be one. It’s hard to tell.”
“This is going to change everything, Alexa.” When he pulled his hand back, he nearly fell over, then overcorrected and put one hand on the floor in front of him and one on the hammer to steady himself. The heel of his hand pressed against something cold and very definitely not stone. Lifting his hand, he found a small plastic triangle, five or six centimeters on a side, dark enough to blend in with the stone but easy to see if you knew it was there. He peeled it off the floor and held it up. Not much thicker than the data flimsy in his pocket, there were some discolorations on the surface and he moved it a little to the right to bring it out of his shadow.
“What is it?”
He frowned at the thing in his hand and ground his teeth as he began to seethe. Runes, just a little lighter than the plastic itself, ran the length of each side of the triangle, the same message printed three times. “I don’t know.” He stood up and turned toward her. “I’m really hoping it’s a bad joke.” But the look on her face as her eyes locked on the triangle showed the same anger building in him. The runes sneered at him, taunted him. Someone else had been here and not told the world. Worse, someone else had been here and left something behind to taunt the next person to find it. He read the inscription over and over, turning the triangle around and around in his hands.
A crematorium is an odd place for a part-time job, but the pay is good and is helping Felix help his mother. Setting aside the creepiness factor, though, he’s pretty sure there are things his boss isn’t telling him about part of the business.
Like just what’s in those glowing bottles behind the water heater.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
Felix pulled the wool hat down to cover his ears and eyebrows. Part of the same practiced motion, he yanked the collar of his too-heavy jacket up high so the hallway mirror showed just his eyes and nose. From a distance, he didn’t think anyone would recognize him. Up close, well, if he paid enough attention, no one he knew would get that close.
A couple of shuffling steps took him to the bottom of the stairs. “See you after work, mom!” The words reflected up bare walls and eventually to his mother’s bedroom. Her reply took longer to make the return trip, barely reaching his ears.
“Okay, sweetheart. Be good.”
Be good. As if he were seven and not almost seventeen. As if he were going to a friend’s house on the corner and not to the other side of town. He sighed and yanked the front door open. To the creepiest part time job he’d ever heard of.READ MORE
Locking the door behind him, Felix jammed his hands in the pockets of his jacket, hunched his shoulders, and tried to look like his eyes were focused on the sidewalk instead of scanning the world around him. At least it was fall now. He might be overdressed but making the cross town trip all summer had been much worse. You could only hide so much with a ball cap and sunglasses.
On the bus, Felix was safe, more or less, at least after the first few stops. As close to the back as he could get, he scrunched down in his seat, stuck his ear buds in, and stared at the front door wishing he could relax and crank the volume.
It hadn’t always been like this, but his mom’s disability cheques didn’t go as far as they used to. They needed the extra money and she couldn’t work anymore. Work, hell, she’d be lucky to see Felix’s twentieth birthday but neither of them talked about that, about anything that might happen after next week. He’d do everything he could to take care of her, but for sure he wasn’t going to wait around after she died, find some dumb job to barely make the mortgage every month until his own diagnosis came back with ALS written on it. Fuck that.
Safe between stops, he squeezed his eyes shut until the threat of tears went away. Don’t think about it. For now, he just had to take care of her, make sure there was enough money for decent food. He wouldn’t let her eat junk for any meal that might be her last one at home.
Clenching his teeth, he tried to listen to the music, base line spearing into his brain to try driving the thoughts away. He had all day to be miserable at work if Mr. Thompkins let him, which he probably wouldn’t.
Mr. Thompkins met Felix with a huge smile. Not too surprising considering the company available before he came in. “Felix, lad! How are you this fine autumn morning?” The jovial, booming voice smashed against the wall of his normal funk, cracking the stone just enough to let him smile a little as he pulled his coat off.
“Fine, sir. About like always.” He stuffed the hat down one coat sleeve and turned to see Mr. Thompkins’ lopsided smile and raised eyebrows. Even knowing what his boss’s next words would be didn’t seal the breach. Mr. Thompkins had something about him, some weird aura that never let anyone stay closed down or angry for long and Felix thought that was weird, considering the business he was in.
But his boss surprised him this time. “I hope you told your mother I said hello. It’s been a little while since we’ve talked and I don’t want her to think I’ve forgotten her.”
Felix’s mother and Mr. Thompkins went to high school together sometime back before cable. He thought they might even have dated but didn’t really want to know. Whatever the connection, it helped Felix answer the ad when his mother told him she thought it was Gordon’s business and called him an old friend. It had nothing to do with getting the job, though. Felix was pretty sure being the only applicant took care of that.
“I doubt she’d ever think that, sir.”
Mr. Thompkins grinned and clapped a big hand on Felix’s shoulder. The blow might have rocked someone smaller, but told him it was time for work. “Come on then, son. The ovens’re heating up and we’ve got a heavy day today. Grab yourself a pair of gloves and let’s get to it.”
Even if it goes with the territory for a magic technical writer, keeping an otherworldly pet is inconvenient sometimes. Feeding and care are a little more involved than for “normal” pets. And just because they can talk doesn’t mean they’re good conversationalists.
But all of that is just part of the package. Taking care of a Blood Imp doesn’t become a real problem until someone releases a lower-dimensional predator near your building.
I rolled my eyes. “What, now?”
“No lie, Gordo. Hungry now.”
“Fine.” I hated the passive aggressive sigh I wrapped around the word and knew I should apologize but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. If you’re going to keep a pet, any kind of pet, you have to take care of it, even when it’s inconvenient.
But he should have been asleep.
I clicked the save icon and turned away from the screen, rolling up my left sleeve. “Make it quick. I've got a deadline.”
Melville hopped from the shelf into my lap, running his razor tongue around pursed lips. A quick suction cup kiss to my forearm and he heaved a contented sigh, relaxing his entire body. As usual, I didn’t feel the cut or the blood flow from whatever vein he’d picked. I hadn’t since the very first time after I’d brought him home, and I’d probably imagined that.READ MORE
He did make it quick, actually, finishing his snack in less than five minutes while I played Mahjongg with my other hand. I hate leaving a game unfinished, and almost wished he had taken a little longer, but when you constantly work under deadlines, you learn to leave the game behind. And tonight, I definitely had a deadline. Good thing I hadn’t launched Minecraft.
Melville scuttled up to my shoulder and tensed himself for a jump to get back to his nest on the bookshelf. I wondered about the muscles he kept in that little slug’s body that he could jump two feet straight up without hind legs. Looking down at my arm as he sprang, I could only barely pick out the discolored spot he’d just been feeding at. I had to admit he was neat. Not a trace of blood, and in the three years I’d had him he hadn’t left a single scar on either arm. Not everyone who kept a blood imp was so lucky. At the pet expo last year, I saw a couple of people carrying imps who had forearms like heroin addicts.
His jump was perfect, arcing the fat little body up into the air to drop straight onto his cushion. Spinning around, he blinked that one big eye at me and stretched his rubbery lizard lips into a weird parody of a smile. Too damned smart by half, blood imps. “Thanks, Gordo. Sleep now, prob’ly.”
I nodded and turned back to the computer screen. “That makes one of us.” My copy-editing project had to be done by morning, and the document had been through three languages before it got to me. Technical documentation is fine when you get to write it yourself. Taking the client’s specs, maybe even getting to play with the software, and turning that into readable instructions can sometimes be fun, if not always challenging. Even an editing contract wasn’t too bad if the draft writer could string a sentence together.
Volume 3 of the Citizen Trilogy
Size: 6.00 x 9.00 in
Now firmly placed in a job that’s part office work and part lab tester, our hero discovers his heroing days might not be quite as over as he thought. A corporate competitor has launched some hostile, and dangerous, actions against his employer and he may have to put the suit back on for real. But how will he balance that with being the guardian of his three nieces? And then there’s the fact that he’s in a fairly serious relationship.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
It’s actually being about two weeks since I took the suit out to and I think that’s the longest I’ve gone yet.
I keep waiting for the company to ask for it back and I can’t imagine why they haven’t. The job they have me working now doesn’t require me to have one of my own, but mine is older now, two models back. Maybe it’s no good to them anymore?READ MORE
All in all, I have to admit that the company has been very understanding. There are a lot of bits of the last contract that are still in force, but my current contract, among other minor differences, adds the word laboratory in the testing section and has me working in a private, I might almost say isolated, small building complex located about a 45-minute drive from my parents’ house if it’s rush hour. The pay is just as good, meaning a whole lot better than I ever made working in IT, and the hours are a whole lot better and more reasonable most of the time. I have a couple of late, but not too late, nights and one weekend day per month, and it’s usually easy to get mom and/or dad to come and hang out for the evening or the day with the girls. I have two potential babysitters for when that doesn’t work out.
The lab testing does sometimes involve me wearing a suit, but it’s provided on the spot, an upgraded version from my old one and the one that came after. It will take about 11% more impact energy than mine, but the new Mark III suit doesn’t seem to fit quite as well, or maybe I’m just a little too sedentary now. I’m certainly not running across rooftops at night anymore, and I’m sure I’ve put on a handful of pounds, at least, but I don’t really want to check. Potential weight gain aside, I’m out of practice, if nothing else.
And they never asked for my suit back.
I keep it in a small safe tucked into the corner of my closet, folded neatly. Anybody who knows all three of my nieces’ birthdays would be able to hit on the correct combination eventually, but who would think to look? Only one of the girls even asked about it, and I told her the truth, if only part of it, that the safe contains copies of all of my relevant legal documents; mortgage, basic pay and retirement plan information, and so on. I specifically don’t use the word Will, but that’s in there too, along with all the rest of the paper in a smaller lockbox that requires key, sitting on top of my neatly folded super suit.
Which the company has not asked to be returned.
And if they don’t ask, I’m not going to volunteer it. I know I’m not going to wear it again, that so long as I am responsible for the health and well-being of my sister’s children, that part of my life needs to be over. I can’t afford the risks that come with it anymore.
And being part of the corporate support team isn’t such a bad thing. New toys before anyone else sees them, far better hours, and I still have the occasional slightly less illegitimate contact with Max and Crusader. Not much, really. A note or two here and there, a technical update. But enough.
Maybe I should give back helmet, though. It takes up two thirds of the safe on its own. Never realized I had such a big head.
But it’s been two weeks since I took it out of the safe, and six months since I put in there the first time. Which meant it has to be eight since I’d last worn it.
Eight months ago, more or less, at 21 minutes after midnight, I’d been wearing the suit, sitting on top of a rooftop somewhere unobtrusive and looking out over the city, looking for trouble to get into, or looking for trouble that someone else was in. My last night in the city. The house would close in two days and I’d be on a train with my last piece of luggage-a few changes of clothes and a sleeping bag-by noon after turning over the keys to my now-empty apartment to the building manager.
Now, at 21 minutes after midnight, no, 22 minutes after midnight, a Saturday night when Sheena was not in town, and the most I could do was sit on the bed and stare into the open safe, looking at my neatly folded super suit still programmed to the charcoal gray I’d last set it at. Standing up, I take the three steps to the closet, then bend down to close the safe door, and spin the lock.
And that’s where I’m at now. Two weeks since I’ve had it out, and I can’t do more than look at this time. How long until I even open the safe again? Two weeks? A month? The next time I need one of the documents in the lockbox?
I sit back down the bed and stare at the safe. Yeah, that part of my life is over. Superheroing is for kids, not for people who have them, and I have to step up and be a man, face responsibilities, pay a mortgage even. Bring home the bacon, or Cheerios, or whatever I can get them to eat. Some days aren’t easy, and I’m going to need a whole lot more time before I have any idea what this parenting thing is about. I’d like to go back being the cool uncle, but now I’m the uncle who makes and keeps the rules, checks homework, gives tooth brushing reminders. Somehow, that makes things a whole lot harder, as if they’d been easy to begin with.
On the nightstand, on my side of the bed – as funny as that sounds when Sheena isn’t visiting – my phone vibrates. Only once, so a text, which dramatically limits the number of people can be, anyway, and considering the time, I’m pretty sure I can narrow that list down to one before I turn the phone over to see I’m right. There only two short words onscreen.
Smiling, I type a quick response.
She doesn’t text back instantly, and I start to think it’s time to put the phone down, but after a few more seconds, it rings instead. I touch the ‘accept’ icon and put the phone to my ear, but Sheena’s faster than I am. “Miss you too.”
I have to smile. “You’re coming next weekend, right?”
“You tell me.”
It’s hard not to respond to the return smile in her voice. “Well, you did cancel on me this weekend so you could go out to the coast for some meeting or another.” Which wasn’t fair, but hopefully my tone’s light enough that she’ll take it for the teasing I intend.
“Ouch. Conference. You’re right though. My loss.”
Right is one thing, but whether it’s fair or not is something I don’t really have to think about, but I had really been looking forward to this weekend. I’d kind of thought the girls might be too, and I didn’t know if that was because Sheena got to be cool or because I seem to pay a little bit less attention to what they might be trying to get away with when Sheena is around. Either way, they did seem to like having her around and knew when she was supposed to visit. “I’m sorry.”
“That you’re the one doing all traveling. The original agreement was supposed to work both ways, never mind that I sucked at it.”
“Well, yes, but I was pretty sure you’d suck at it when we made that agreement. I do a lot of traveling anyway. If I arrange one of my flights so I’m getting off or on in a different city, so what?”
“Yeah, but now I do none of the traveling, which is a lot worse than just not doing my share.”
“There are extenuating circumstances these days that make it harder for you, like having to buy four of everything.”
“I will admit that I don’t have the same level of disposable income I used to–” And I’m certainly not saving as much money as I was, even with the increased salary. I’d like to blame the mortgage for that, but it really wasn’t that much more than my rent had been. The killer was groceries. And clothing. And all of the other expenses involved in having three kids. “But that doesn’t mean you should have to shoulder the whole cost.”
“You’re adorable sometimes, you know?”
“I work pretty hard at it. If I’m not, you might stop coming to see me.”
“That’s… not in my immediate plans. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Short call. I can already feel the end coming. “Conference starts early in the morning?” On a Sunday, for some reason, but I don’t really understand how behind the scenes retail works.
“Day two, yes. About seven hours from now I should be getting out of the shower, so I should probably get some sleep.”
“You do that. Miss you.”
“Miss you, too. Next weekend, promise.”
“I live in hope, but I’ll try not to hold you to that. Life happens.”
Short call, but good timing. I feel a lot less sorry for myself knowing that I don’t have to lie to Sheena anymore, knowing that I don’t really have to since I’m not keeping any new secrets. The old ones are still there, and I’ll should let them stay where they are for a little while longer, at least. probably a lot longer.
But I’m mentally in a much happier place with Sheena, and that can only be a good thing.
I’ve grown to hate Mondays and it’s got nothing to do with work.
Monday mornings, for some reason, the girls are hard to get up, in part probably because I’m too lax about things on the weekend, but it’s probably harder for them to get moving and motivated because their routine is still wrong. By Wednesday, things are normal, but Mondays are hard. Mondays, the girls are missing their parents more, missing the old breakfast routine that involved mom and dad instead of their uncle trying not to burn bagels while he poured cereal and packed lunches. To be honest, I kind of miss my old morning routine to. A couple of slices of toast, a too-expensive grapefruit, and a quick energy drink in place of most people’s coffee. These days, I’m as likely to have cereal as any of them are, and I’ve developed a fondness for Raisin Bran, as much because the girls don’t seem to bother with it so I never reach for an empty box as because I like it myself.
Twelve, ten, and eight. And all three of those numbers are going to change in the few months between now and the end of the school year. I wondered how Kaylee and Steve would be feeling about that if they thought about it. For me, frequently with months between visits, the girls had always seemed to be growing so fast, but things are different as their guardian. Now I get the slow and gradual changes happening right before my eyes and passing by almost before I realize it.
And it’s most apparent with Jenna, who’ll be 13 soon, going on 37, changing schools again in the fall, going to a bigger junior high, her second new school in two years on top of the tragedy of her life right before that. We’d all agreed to the move, them even knowing they’d have to make new friends, to live closer to mom and dad, so I could have a little support now and then, and they could have more nearby family than just me. I had decided not to get too close, or mom would feel obligated to be there every single day and she had plenty of health problems to deal with right now. But we still managed a good visit with them at least once a week, and there were a few babysitting nights here and there to match up with my schedule.
I try to make things fun at breakfast, even on Monday mornings, but it’s hard to see the difference in behaviour before Tuesday. I really am still new to this whole parenting thing, and having been their guardian for eight months now, I feel like I should be getting more practice, but I also still feel like I’m coming up sputtering for air most days.
Four different kinds of cereal on the table, none of them Raisin Bran, so the girls have a choice, and I’m dropping fruit and snacks into three separate lunch bags while trying to get their attention at least little. “Okay, so today’s selection of sandwiches, we have green onions and chicken feet, or the ever-popular pickled hot peppers. Who wants what?” It didn’t matter the sandwiches were mostly already prepared, and on Mondays I usually went to the hard-learned favourites for everyone. From youngest oldest, we had processed cheese slice, bologna and ketchup, and lettuce, tomato, and cucumber with a tiny splash of Italian dressing. Two sets of eye rolls, but only the youngest reacts with anything more than that, scrunching up her entire face and sticking her tongue out. “Gross, chicken feet? Gross!”
I grin, grateful to have gotten something out of somebody. “What’s wrong with chicken feet? The chickens like them.”
“Liked. To walk on, not to eat. And you know what chickens walk on?”
I scratch my chin and let my eyebrows come down as if I’m giving it serious thought. “The ground, usually. But you know I washed them, right?” I do wonder how the school might react if I actually sent chicken feet with one of the girls for lunch. While I’m sure they’d get some excellent reactions from their friends, I’m equally sure there would be a phone call from the principal the same afternoon. I wonder if I can get away with exploring different cultural traditions. I kind of miss the easy access to China Town and other stuff not quickly found in the ’burbs. Not that I’ve ever eaten chicken feet.
“Even if you ran it through the dishwasher… no way would I eat that sandwich.”
“More for me.” I shrug and hold up a more or less orange slice of more or less cheese. “Okay for a second choice?”
Now I get the third eye roll. “Obviously.” I strip the plastic off. “Ah, the sarcasm is strong in this one.” After that, it’s just the delicate crunching of cereal for a while, though I do try one more time for engagement before they go up the stairs, but not directly with the one I think needs it the most. My relatively limited experience with the girls a daily basis tells me that Jenna comes out of it fastest if she’s left alone, but I still feel like I should try more. The younger two could always be engaged on some level. So, Marsha is my next target, the only one who eats cereal like I do, without milk.
“When I was kid, probably almost your age, Marsha—” A couple of years younger actually, but not so relevant to the story, and better to draw a parallel. Her eyebrows go up but she doesn’t look at me. “—your grandfather and Uncle Bill took me fishing one Saturday morning. At the time, they both subscribed to the theory that the fish got up really early so you had to get up earlier to be there when they got up if you wanted to catch them. They got me up at 4 o’clock in the morning.” Her eyebrows rise higher but she’s not quite making eye contact. “In those days, I was told, the toaster was too noisy so we didn’t use it to avoid waking your grandmother. Breakfast was frosted flakes in milk.”
“Gross.” She sticks her tongue.
“I agree with you now, but then it was okay, except they spent too long drinking coffee and I wasn’t very awake, so what I eventually wound up with was the sort of sugary not-flake mess, kind of like sludge in the bowl. “
“You’re going to make me gag.”
“Sorry, is your stomach getting delicate again?” I grin at her. “My point is, that’s why I don’t eat cereal with milk on it today, because your grandfather made me choke down that stuff twenty-five years ago.”
“I totally get it. Milk to drink is on the side, not on the cereal. I hate soggy cereal.”
I catch Jenna looking at me through her hanging hair. She rolls her eyes, and that’s probably all I’m to get this morning.
I try to make it a joke, but I’m really feeling the difference in Sheena’s and my relationship activities lately. The girls are all in sight, walking just ahead of us, and Sheena’s holding my hand at least, a firm grip, a warm grip, and I wish I had her around a lot more than I do. I keep my voice low so there’s no chance any of the girls will overhear, and they’re ignoring us anyway. “Remember when I used to take you shopping for fun stuff? You know, jewelry, flowers, candy, that sort of thing?”
She squeezes my hand harder than the joke is worth, but I felt like her laughter is a bit forced. “You have never once have taken me shopping for jewelry.”
“Ah, haven’t I? I thought I had. I know I’ve bought lots of flowers and candy when we get together.” I pretend to consider it. “But no jewelry, really? I was sure I had.” The words are out of my mouth before I can think to stop them, and I very specifically don’t react to the sudden and sharp look Sheena gives me.
“I’m not sure how to take that.”
By my lower lip for a second and exhaled loudly. “That’s okay. I’m not quite sure how I meant it. Can we back away slowly and change topics if I promise to figure it out on my own at let you know?”
Take a few more steps, “But I am sorry.”
“For using a big chunk of our weekend together to take the girls to the mall to shop for clothing.” Like it’s the first time.
She laughs and suggests lunch. We wind up sprawled across two tables in the food court, the girls sitting separately and talking about things that I wasn’t generally equipped to deal with, me using peripheral vision to look on from the table next to theirs to give them at least the illusion of privacy while Sheena and I talk without them feeling the need to be involved. Although, I was sure that they were all paying more attention more than it looked like they were even if they weren’t just paying attention to the things I thought they were.
“It’s not so bad, really.”
My gaze stays to Sheena and I keep the girls in my peripheral, fooling myself that I can keep track of all three of them but not expecting anyone to run off in the middle of lunch. They’re all too old for that. Still, it’s good to be prepared. “What’s not so bad?” I think back to previous conversation to see if I can figure out where she’s at right now.
“This.” She waved a hand vaguely, taking in the whole mall, I think. “I have lots of memories at the mall, most of them as a teenager, even if my job takes me to a lot of them these days. That’s not the same, though and it’s not nostalgia, exactly, but it doesn’t really bother me to spend a Saturday afternoon here.”
I smile back. “Which is cool, but it’s not really what you signed on for, is it? I mean, long distance relationship aspects aside, I was young and single and just had a job to kind of tie me to one spot when we started dating. Things are a bit different now. Different like I’m the guardian to my sister’s three children, responsible in a big way for three lives other than my own.” Yeah, it’s a little different now.
She leans across the plastic table and snares half a spring roll from my plate. “You were pretty committed to that job, I think.”
I snort, shaking my head. “Not so much the job as the people. And it was actually a lot closer than I ever told you. I was actually–” I bite down on the words. because now that I could look back and see things, I remember things that I don’t know if were actually enough in my head at the time to put words to. Being honest, I can see that my stress level was ridiculously high, and it all had to deal with keeping two lives separate.
Her hand tightens on my arm. I hadn’t even felt her put it there. “You were actually…”
I shake my head again. “I’m not sure this is a conversation I want to be having with the girls three feet away.” I glance over to their table, and Jenna has her cell phone out, texting someone, one side of her headphones dangling from the ear close to us while her sisters are making faces at each other. “Yeah, maybe not.”
“Maybe they’re not paying as close attention as I think they there.” I shake my head and look back Sheena. Better not to dismiss it, but also better to be careful. “Still, not exactly how I might’ve wanted to have this particular conversation, if I’d thought about it at all.”
“And yet I think you want to tell me something, enough that it’s burning a hole in your stomach right now.”
Not how I would have put it, but not wrong. “It’s scary how well you know me sometimes.” And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. But there are secrets in the past that can stay secrets in the past, even if there are feelings that maybe shouldn’t. “I was actually… it wouldn’t have taken much more to get me to drop that job and move to wherever you were.”
I feel my mouth twitch just a little as her eyebrows both go up. “At least at the time.” She’d been ready to stop visiting and with a pretty good reason. “After…” I didn’t want to talk about that rough period. “Well, there was a period I started feel a lot less sure about myself and you didn’t seem all that eager for a while.” Even remembering the conflict that I felt, I can look back and see that I was pretty ready to relocate, move my superhero life just as readily quitting my day job, in spite of the difficulty of that secret. “I think about it a fair bit, but it’s easy to look back now and see what should have been obvious. The job was just a job, both the one I’d gotten laid off from and the one I’d just started. My boss at Hamilton was awesome for letting me relocate and keep essentially the same functions, but it was still just a job, even if it was better than the one I’d had before. I do miss Kelly and Henri and a couple of other people. Did I tell you that they she’s pregnant, by the way?”
She shakes her head. “No, but I’ll congratulate her later, if you like. Right now, it’s too much like a deflection.”
There’s nothing to do but laugh unless I want to buy myself a few more seconds with a mouthful of rice. “I suppose it is. The point is, that I love you. It was harder to say before this—” I made a circular motion with the hand holding the plastic fork—“for some reason, and I know that, sometimes at least, the change in my life has been hard for you to adapt to. I’m not sure how the girls feel about things, but I know it's harder for you.”
She stands up and leans forward to kiss me and the movement is too quick and I’m too surprised to kiss her back. It’s not particularly intense or passionate, more like a quick peck to remind me that she can do it whenever she likes. She sits back down and picks out a couple of fries to dip in the sweet and sour sauce, stirring them around a bit. “I love you too. And whatever label you put on our relationship, I don’t see that changing. No, this is not what I was expecting on our first date, but how could I? And, if I’m honest, this new parental responsibility is showing a seriously attractive mature side of you that I like, even if I’m still getting used to it.”
Which, somehow, makes me feel a whole lot better.
The one thing I don’t like that much about my current role is that I have a late night in the testing lab every couple of weeks. It’s an intrusion into my now normal human sleep schedule, otherwise inviolate, except in the events of childhood illness or emergency, both thankfully rare so far. On the other hand, it means I get to see mom and maybe dad for an extra, if short, visit. They drop right into parental mode and make the drive to babysit their granddaughters and we usually spend a few minutes talking before they go home. If it was any more than once every couple of weeks, I’d probably have to look into investing into standardized babysitting services, or even the occasional nanny to cover things, which would significantly eat into the savings I was managing to put together. As it is, we have a couple of possible sitters and I haven’t been in a tough spot yet.
To be honest, I’m not even sure why a late-night is built into the schedule, although pretty much everyone in my department has one, so that’s at least fair. But, really, nothing that any of us did on those late evenings couldn’t have been done in the morning or afternoon, if we wanted to. And leaving work at midnight, well, sucks. That much I totally remember from my on-call days, and if I’d built extra respect for people who worked nonstandard shifts, I already had some from previous lives.
I’m not a scientist or an engineer, although I can spreadsheet with the best of them, and test design and data analysis are certainly things I can use the word ‘specialization’ on. The network security guy persona is comfortable, but comfortably easy. This was actually more interesting and more fun.
Right now, I’m finishing up the last testing series and the first draft analysis package for the latest formulation of sticky ball. The initial data, although I still have a lot of heavy analysis to do, is pretty good. Oxygen permeability looks to be up another 15%, making it within spitting distance of almost being able to breathe through. But it’s still, at least according to the data, costing the final polymer 56% in tensile strength. The last formulation had done little bit worse on both counts, and our test group of superheroes is still using the original, but I wonder how much strength we’ll have to surrender to make it completely breathable.
I do agree that it probably can’t be sold effectively on a large scale until the company could essentially guarantee that somebody got caught in the face with one wouldn’t suffocate and die, but I’m pretty sure that some of the numbers this test run gave me, and I would probably have to do a little googling to be certain, brought the strength of the material down inside two Sigma of normal human strength range without getting us to that point. I can’t help but think of how disappointing that strength might have been when I was dealing with Sylvain.
Still, it’s promising. I don’t know if I can recommend that this one goes out for field testing, but we’ll see how it goes when I get to the bottom of the numbers. Besides, it might be beneficial to work until we got the oxygen permeability up to completely safe levels and then started into a second sequence of tweaks to get tensile strength back to the originals. I hope it’s possible. Not my department, though.
Control+S. Always save the results. Save early, save often. There were several backups of the raw data, but that’s not the same thing as the analysis. I hate to lose work. I skip from one computer to the other and to open up a note file to skim, something I recorded during the testing series.
And that’s when the fire alarm goes off.
Except it’s not a fire alarm, but a totally different, if equally loud and annoying. And, and automated voice message chimes in with the flat
“Data integrity attack. Site Initiated.”
I actually wrap my head around the first statement easily, even if I have no idea why I’m hearing it. The second makes no sense. “What?” A stupid reaction, and I’m suddenly glad I saved as my system starts to shiver and crash. The notes file freezes and then nothing else wants to open, even a basic system readout. Back at the other computer, I find things not much different, but do manage to get to a command prompt to initiate a system check, getting a ridiculous sounding error. Unable to connect to server. Internal server error.
“Initiating site lockdown.”
I know we have IT guys, and I’m sure one of them is kicking around even though it’s 1030 at night. But I’m here, I have a little experience at emergency computer assistance, so I scoop an unconnected laptop from another workbench, one that I can connect with a cable and a couple of clicks directly to a server, and before I can think too hard about it, I’m off to the server room. If nothing else, it will keep me from twiddling my thumbs for the rest of the night and maybe I can even be productive until the IT crisis team shows up.
The server room is actually two floors below me and on the same side of the building. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t take that long to get to, but I worry about the phrase “site lockdown” and think I don’t want to push my luck too far and find myself locked in the stairwell or the elevator. It might be a while before things get resolved.
The door on my floor opens easily enough, recognizing my code, so I have no issues getting into the stairwell, at least, but I decide to use the small network cable I grabbed to prop the door open instead of letting it close behind me, under the working assumption that I’ll probably be able to find another in the server room itself.
Two floors down, the door opens easily again, this time with the manual release, and I’m starting to wonder what these the word lockdown means. Our normal security systems don’t seem to be affected, although it occurs to me that I don’t really know enough about the systems in building since it’s never been my job, and maybe the internal door locks are on a completely separate server. That’s actually smart, if it’s true.
But, even with what I think were quick reactions, I’m too slow. The door to the server room is already open, which means someone is already on the case. Well, at least I can offer my assistance, and an extra laptop. I stick my head in the door. “Hey, I…”
It’s very difficult to complete an offer of assistance when you’re confronted by someone in what might as well be stormtrooper armour, if charcoal gray instead of white, and pulls what looks like a thumb drive out of the server he’s standing in front of. He looks up, probably decides I that I’m just an IT guy and not a threat, and takes his time to pull one more little blue drive from the last server in a row before turning to confront me.COLLAPSE
Once in a while, a shoe washes up on the shore, somewhere on the Pacific coast. Once in a long while, the shoe isn’t empty. The ocean is home to uncounted secrets, a few that we may not want revealed.
First appearing in the Dead Bait horror anthology in 2009, “Searching for the Sea Monster” is a science fiction story with a light speculative touch, but on the darker side of the spectrum.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
I hate seaweed. Slimy, grasping, puke green ropes reaching out of the darkness to bind you, hold you gently bobbing in place to wait for the end. I wonder what the seaweed gets out of it. Fertilizer, maybe? Not that there’s ever much left behind. All I’ve ever found are a few shards of bone lying in the sand and I don’t see how that would be enough for cooperation.
Maybe I’m crazy, but does that make me wrong? There’s something about this stretch of coast, something that hates, something that strikes whenever we’re not looking. Only I am looking and it doesn’t seem to mind, or maybe it doesn’t care.
If you look at the numbers, really look, the incidence of missing people here is about three times the coastal average, accounting for population density. There’s something here that doesn’t belong.READ MORE
The seaweed is the key. Any time I get close to a big stand, some bit of it twitches against the current, ready to reach out and take whatever it can, waiting for the right moment, the right command. If I can just catch it in the act, I might be a step closer. Maybe I am crazy, but I will find out what's wrong here.
Thursday morning clouds roil across the sky and the wind they ride on pushes waves in fast. Too cold for swimming, but a surfer might find entertainment on the beach today. I haven't seen any yet, just shore birds, sand crabs, and stranded jellyfish.
But something smells below the cedar and salt water. It's faint, too subtle for me to know if it's something coming or something left behind, but it draws me to the ripple of sand where the strongest waves reach up from the ocean. I stand there, staring out into the water, and search the shallows through crash and foam for some sign of why I’m here.
A surge of cold water rushes over my boots reaching all the way up to my ankles and I look down to see the receding wave leave something behind. Wrapped in a few light strands of seaweed, an expensive running shoe sits off kilter in the sand. The next wave licks the toes of my left boot and the one after lacks the will to get even that far. It takes three more before I can do more than stare at the shoe. Some feeling, some subconscious vibration makes me suspicious, unwilling to take the gift.
But it’s not something I can refuse. Holding my breath, I bend over and grab the shoe, expecting to feel something, but it just feels like a wet running shoe. The water hasn’t started to leach away any of the bright colours yet so it can’t have been in the ocean for more than a couple of days.
I lift it almost to eye level. Something tumbles inside, not making any noise but I feel the bounces. I tilt the shoe toward me and shake it. Several more bounces bring the unknown thing to the heel.
It’s a toe.
Not a big toe or a little toe, but one of the ones in between, drained of fluid and bleached white by the salt. The real deal, it’s definitely a human toe. Male or female? Morbid curiosity. It’s a man’s shoe, I think. Whoever it belonged to, for me it’s a gift from the sea or a taunt from my quarry.
More disturbing, it’s probably both.
It’s a tough decision to call the police. They’ll spend the whole day, at least, sending in divers to look for more body parts or clues, and generally muddying the waters – pun intended. But someone died. If the police can find anything to narrow down who it might have been, that’s as important as my search could be. More important to the dead man’s family, if he had one.
I’m not brave enough to dive at night so Friday morning comes before I’m back at the beach. The sun nearly reaches zenith before the wetsuit shows my bulging middle to the world. Flippers and mask secure, I try to line up exactly where the shoe washed ashore and wade into the gentle surf.
When I reach the point were the waves push up against the bottom of my mask, I stop and let the ocean hold me there. It gives me a primitive feeling in the pit of my stomach, imagining what it must have been like for my very remote ancestors to poke up out of the water and see the alien world above. Turning around, it’s an ever-stronger feeling as the waves wash up and down showing me varying amounts of beach and tree.
Am I hunting a more primitive mind? Is that why I do this? I think it must be, but I can’t assume it’s stupid. Most of Earth’s predators have primitive minds which doesn’t prevent them from being very good at what they do. My quarry is no exception or someone would have found it before me.
Another step and my eyes dip under the water. One more and I feel a wave wash over my head. It’s bright here and I almost hope I won’t get to the warm, watery twilight. If there’s nothing to find I can enjoy a nice dive in the light. But it’s wishful thinking. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll range out into the murky depths. Yesterday I thought the killer didn’t care if anyone searched for it, or just wasn’t aware. The shoe proved at least one of those false.
I lean forward and start kicking, trying to keep myself straight. Waves try to travel in straight lines but nature doesn’t usually like things so simple. Every tiny thing changes the shape of the wave just a little, driving the currents. But a line is as good, or better, than a random search even if it leads out into the kelp forest.
I find a small stand of seaweed in less than fifteen feet of water. It’s the thick, leafy kind and the police divers spent time here yesterday. They didn’t leave any footprints – the sand here shows the same current ripples – but I can see a lot more broken or torn strands than there should be. A couple of intact vines twitch when I get close, so quick I barely see it, but it’s enough to tell me I’m being watched.
The patch is small enough I can see through to the other side, but I still feel nervous slipping between the strands. They brush across my body, almost but not quite clinging to the wetsuit with just enough feeling to remind me what it’s like on bare skin. My heart starts to beat a little harder, but I swim through into deeper water, deep enough I can see where the darkness begins.
Well, not really, but even as deep as I am, light doesn’t travel far before the ocean swallows every photon. It’s one thing to be fifteen feet under the surface and something else again to look through ten times as much water at that depth. But I still can’t shake the belief that this would be easier a few hundred miles to the south. And warmer.
“Searching for the Sea Monster” first appearing in the Severed Press anthology Dead Bait in 2009.
Moving slowly from star system to star system, the great vessel of Home seeks both new places for colonization and new sibling species of intelligence to observe and learn from. In times when if finds only the remains of those siblings, decisions need to be made. And when those remains are little more than a few scattered footprints on a satellite, those decisions are harder than they first appear.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
“I fail to comprehend how you can possibly be serious, Sanjik. Harvesting this one body will see to our primary resource needs for at least six times twelve to the fourth years. Even for a Preservationist, you are completely unreasonable.”
Sanjik did not raise its facing eye to Ghenkit’s, but neither did it close the eye to shut the Expansionist out. Instead, it remained focused on the oblong impression of lines in the powdered soil beside its float sphere. Optics took measurements for at least the twelfth time and it compared the figures with several previous data sets to learn what it could. Bits of some lighter material took the feeble light and threw it in every possible direction a few photons at a time. “Is it so radical to wish the preservation of cultural artifacts for future study?”READ MORE
Ghenkit made a disgusted blat. “There is no question of preserving artifacts. Such is our duty and obligation to the universe. But preserving the entire Companion merely to have for reference a few impressions in the dust is not logically defensible.”
“Ah, logic. There is my mistake. I thought we spoke of culture.” Sanjik focused one eye on the tiny landing vehicle some twelves of paces behind it. Gold and grey and white, it crouched like some horribly disfigured insect on the grim surface.
Ghenkit ruffled its speech bladders. “A culture so long dead, only the barest traces remain on the world that birthed it. How many incarnate persons are on Home? Would you deny them the resources they and their descendants need?”
Unasked, the network gave Sanjik the answer: five-point-four-seven times twelve to the seventh power. Offered a current count of uncarnate individuals, Sanjik blinked away a number it had no use for. Starlight reflected from the gold. Sad to have come so far and no farther. Sadder still so little remained. “There are other bodies in this system. At least two are better suited to our future needs.”
“But neither of those is so conveniently located and removing the Companion will gentle an already quiet world.” Roldoc’s sudden agreement with Ghenkit forced Sanjik’s focus back to the other two floats. Roldoc often tried to be the voice of compromise, but one had to question its motivations.
“By altering the dynamics of the system. So speaks the Colonial delegation.”
Ghenkit crossed two of its arms, gripping the elbows to form a barrier between them. “So you would harvest another body and deny the colonists the protection of Home while they build a new life?”
The colonists would need no such protection. Sanjik instead focused on the strange metal insect again and its float began moving towards the artifact. “This is not about denial. The universe has other children. When we find them, we watch for a time, then leave. Yet when we find their charred remains, we pick the corpse clean and take its possessions for our own uses.”
Turning off the audio reception of its globe with a thought, Sanjik closed its trailing eye.
Long after the others returned to the survey station, Sanjik remained on the surface. Its globe would support and provide for its well being however long it cared to stay under the stars.
How long had the strange landing vehicle waited in this place, undisturbed by any force or hand? Sanjik slowly followed each track of footprints, wondering at the thoughts of ancient alien minds as they looked up to the blue and green world they’d come from.
Strange thoughts in strange minds. They had too little information about the species that lived here to even decide on their basic form. Judging by the footprints left behind, they were bipedal, and so presumably had two arms but that and anything more could only be speculation without data. Sanjik doubted the Great Council would take the time to explore the rest of the system for artifacts. That would be a task for the Colonists but after at least three times twelve to the fifth years, so little remained on the planet the People left behind would never build a true picture of their long dead sibling.
Pressing its globe to the ancient machine, it stretched out one hand to touch the plasteel surface. A skin’s thickness away lay metal forged by sentient hands in a time before the home ship had been a dream of the distant future, an artifact of first tentative shuffles into the Great Black. Tiny first imprints, and then nothing.
Preservationist support was weak and its Consensus small. The high population of Home had swollen the ranks of the Colonial Consensus. Far more planned to exit Home than at any previous world along the mission path. Significant numbers of uncarnate wished passage into new bodies to join the ranks of the Colonists. Political dynamics worked against the Preservationists.
Many days of discussions had done nothing for the Preservationist cause. Colonials wished to settle, and Expansionists were eager to plant the next seed and move on. If sacrificing the few known traces of a long dead civilization was the price of speed, so be it. The Preservationists sought to keep all the universe’s children from harm. If only remnants were available to protect, the answer did not change, but in this place those remnants were so small the other factions made protection sound unreasonable or impossible, doctrine sacrificed for convenience.
Sanjik looked up to the stars, searching along the ecliptic until its eyes highlighted a pinprick of light and drew a blue circle around it, Home harvesting comets in the cloud. Three days more than twelve squared remained before Home turned its path approach the Companion, and a much greater time before it arrived to digest the airless planet. The team of representatives worked to prepare a program to render the Companion into slices efficient for the processing centers. Sanjik would use every moment of available time to argue against the process.
“You do not hold the most popular view, even among the Preservationists.”
The figure projected just above the dead surface looked real enough to suffer exposure. Sanjik sighed and met its parent’s virtual eye. “Compromise candidate I may be but being chosen puts an obligation on me.”
“I most certainly agree. You are here to represent the Preservationist viewpoint, the main Preservationist viewpoint, not your own.” The projection tapped two fists together and Sankaht’s imaginary air bladders vibrated. “If I were Preservationist in your position—”
“You are not a Preservationist, nor are you in my position. The Uncarnate viewpoint is currently Colonist in the main and you certainly represent that better than Roldoc, eager for a new body on a new world.” Sanjik crossed two arms. “This conversation is helpful to me how? I recognize duties to the various wholes, but it is a new thing if those duties outweigh the universe.”
“Do not twist doctrine.”
“I have no need to twist something that supports my right to argue as I feel best. That I represent a larger group than myself does not absolve me from my conscience.” Sanjik looked away from its parent. “Your argument is suspect for the interest you represent. Please leave me to my thoughts.”
“Agh. Keep your own counsel then. You always have.”
“You have not?” All three hands rose up to slap together above Sanjik’s head. “Ha! Where do you think I learned? I require time alone, if you please.”
Sankaht’s projection disappeared without responding, leaving Sanjik with the peace of the dead surface again. Try as it might, that peace did not breach the irritation its uncarnate parent left. Irritating others was something Sankaht excelled at in any carnation.
A small collection of very short poetry in the haiku style.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
sheltered in shadow
damp crystals hide from the sun
a desperate ploy
On a fallen tree
An abandoned star-nosed mole
Cooled by summer breeze
Whisper of pages
The library warm and dry
Cold rain coats the world
Lines swallowed by flakes
The rumble strips give warning
On the unseen road
Pets & People
A pale orange streak
Stolen property dangles
Nine-tenths of the law
Across still surface
An echo travels faster
Choose a good message
Slow orbital dance
Dark sliver consumes the moon
Light consumes in turn
Puffs of compressed gas
Stolen from a living world
Lost to the vacuum
In the dark places between the stars, the Plriki look for wrecks and junk and things that have gone missing. But since they don’t like to get too close to those things themselves, every ship carries a Contact/Salvage team. Mostly, it’s a boring job poking through the refuse of long-dead sentient beings.
Publisher: Cyborg Bunny Press
I can never tell how long it’s been since I’ve been home. It could be a couple of weeks or even a couple of years; time doesn’t feel quite right on a Plriki ship. In hyperspace, time is non-constant. If a second has passed while looking at your watch, that doesn’t mean it has outside the ship. The opposite is also true. It might have been a week, or not. I’m not sure any human really understands the theory, never mind the reality, but I’m told the equations balance.READ MORE
Colors battle in the wide, round passages of the roving ships, and the ocular nerves of non-Plriki passengers and crew become casualties of the bizarre décor. They try to tone things down in the parts of the ship we poor humans—unable to appreciate proper beauty—spend most of our time. It’s common to come across a wall, deck plate, or door painted in a fuchsia and neon green plaid pattern. Thankfully we’re allowed to decorate our own quarters; mine are almost entirely white from floor to ceiling. Drives the Plriki nuts, so much that none of them have visited more than once.
The ship cruises through hyperspace most of the time, and the Plriki apparently find the sight stimulating in an almost narcotic way, but they rarely pull back the blinds, and never in the human sections. I’m told we aren’t developed enough—as my ancestors heard for centuries—and just a glimpse will drive a human insane.
Never being able to see outside, it’s hard to tell if any time has passed. The only proof that we’ve gone anywhere at all is the difference in scenery at either end of the trip. Having instruments prove things doesn’t qualify; they’re Plriki instruments.
I felt an elbow jab in my back as I pulled my beige suit on in the main airlock. Breckenridge grinned at me, eyes crinkling up around the edges, and jerked her head to one side. I refused to look. I knew better.
Without bothering to tell us, some joker had opened the outer door, leaving nothing but a millimeter-thin force field to hold back the hard void, a force field you can walk through with no resistance. I don’t trust it. A flimsy little bit of energy holding back the universe? No way. One little power failure, and then where would I be? Sucking vacuum. For a few seconds, anyway.
I checked the seals on my gloves. “Bitch. You just want to see me jump.”
“Every chance I get.” Her grin grew, disappearing for a moment as she pulled her helmet on. I swore—not quite under my breath—and copied her, exhaling when the seal hissed. The suit, made by humans, I could trust. I looked around. Everyone else was ready to go. Last again. Surprise
Chinning the group frequency, I gave my standard speech. “All right, people, you know the drill. Get moving, and let’s all try to come back in one piece.” It wasn’t much of a speech, and not very inspiring, but it’s been a tradition on board as long as I’ve been Salvage Chief.
Breckenridge slipped through the field a half step before me, and turned on her suit jets to pick up a bit of a lead. As Team Second, her job was to secure a foothold ensure no dangerous defensive systems were in place for the rest of the team arrived. I fired my jets and locked my eyes on our destination to avoid thinking about the emptiness around me.
Half of a kilometer away, a derelict ship hung in space like an insectaphobe’s nightmare—a giant, wingless wasp with a dozen or so extra legs. Huge multi-paned windows perched atop the front section, reflecting a little starlight, but dark inside. Three sets of triplet antennae sprouted behind them, the ones in the center twice as long as their flanking sets. The rear section curved downward to create a convincing stinger. Between the two sections, the cylindrical hull tapered to only a few meters wide. The legs clustered in groups of three, arching gracefully inward and spaced almost evenly on both sections.
In my twenty years of service, I’d boarded ninety-seven abandoned starships—the wasp making ninety-eight. With the vast, empty distances involved, the discovery of a derelict ship should be a rare and exciting experience, but after the first few it takes something really special to write home about.
The region of space humans and Plriki grew up in has been home to multiple star-faring species for over eight hundred thousand years. An awful lot of ships—and more than a few civilizations—have gone missing, and the Plriki actively look for them. They’re not a hands-on people and they’re pretty shy until they’ve gotten used to you, awkward with social any interaction. I think even Plriki even give Plriki problems most of the time. They are, however, insatiably curious, and maintain a large fleet with the primary goals of exploration and contact.
Since the Plriki are timid and won’t go poke things themselves, they hire humans to do it for them. Of course, they watched us from a distance for forty or fifty years first. I guess they wanted to make sure we weren’t going to eat them, or something.
"Common Ground" originally appeared in the long out of print anthology "Alienology: Tales from the Void" from Library of Horror presses.