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Showing posts with label scifi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label scifi. Show all posts

Friday, August 19, 2016 7 comments

A Titanic Change (#FridayFlash)

"Untergang der Titanic",
by Willy Stöwer, from Wikimedia Commons
September 11, 1931

There is a running joke about using a time machine to go kill your grandfather. I mean to save mine.

April 17, 1912 saw one of the greatest maritime disasters in history. Everyone knows about it: the Titanic, having first dodged a near-collision with another liner as it left port in England, then surviving a brush with an iceberg, came into New York harbor at full steam. It ran aground and capsized. There were few survivors.

I saw the disaster, and nearly did not live to tell of it. I was part of a great crowd, gathered to see the marvelous ship arrive safe in port. Safe! My grandfather, who had retired from the steamer lines, insisted on bringing me to see. I was glad to come, if only to escape school for a day. I remember it was a chilly day, and I was glad for my new jacket.

“The finest ship built by the hand of man,” Grandfather told me as we first caught sight of the proud liner, entering the harbor. “A pity we didn’t come sooner,” he said, waving at the crowded pier.

“You think we could board it?” I asked, every inch the wide-eyed innocent.

“If we can find a man I know—hoo, she’s comin’ in fast. The captain better be going full-reverse—ho!” A tugboat turned hard a-port to avoid the speeding Titanic. “We best get back!”

Too late—the spectators crowding the pier realized the danger as well, and we were swept up in the panicking mob. I stumbled, but Grandfather was there to snatch me up, and we joined the jostling throng. The horrors of that morning are still etched on my memory, and I need only close my eyes to see them once again. Looking over Grandfather’s shoulder, unable to turn away, I saw it all. Smoke poured from the funnels, the mighty engines at full throttle to the last. I saw passengers on deck, fighting to board lifeboats, falling or jumping overboard into the murky waters of the harbor. Terrified faces in the crowd all around me, screaming and cursing. I saw a young woman fall with a shriek, and others running over the place she fell. Though I watched, I never saw her get back up.

I had little time to think There I would be, if not for Grandfather, because the crowning horror now unfolded. With a screeching and tearing noise even louder than the voices around me, the doomed Titanic ran aground. I saw the hull crumple beneath the weight of the ship above it, but its immense momentum carried it forward, forward, up and out of Poseidon’s realm and onto the land from whence it came. I saw passengers, clustered around the now-useless lifeboats, scatter across the deck in all directions.

“It’s falling our way!” I shouted to Grandfather. But others heard, and foolishly paused in their flight to look behind them. Some stood stock-still, dooming themselves double if such a thing were possible. Grandfather bulled our way past several stricken refugees, knocking one or two aside to gain more distance. With the groan of a ravenous monster, the beached ship heeled over, its shadow racing far faster than the tiny morsels trying to escape its hunger.

Grandfather pushed on, trying to get clear, as the hull loomed ever nearer. Even as a child, I knew that getting clear of the hull itself would not be enough—the superstructure would tear free and crush anyone beneath. And for those unfortunate enough to be in the path of the funnels, even the most legendary runners could not escape their fate. But he drove himself onward, although by now he must have been frightfully tired with the added burden of myself.

I recall only snatches of the end. The cries of despair from those behind us, terrified screams as more would-be escapees stumbled and fell from fatigue or over the feet of others around them, the hull and superstructure looming above. There were things falling from the deck—chairs, lifeboats, people, detritus—striking down those behind us. I remember hearing Grandfather’s last words, Ah, shit! and how he flung me forward, giving me all his momentum in his last second of life. The thunder that went on and on, the blast of air flinging me onward. I try not to think about what flew around and past me in that moment.

When I hit the ground, I tumbled like a rag doll, coming to rest at last with a broken arm and more bruises than I could count. (This I only learned later, waking up in a hospital with my frantic mother at my side.)

It was only later that the public learned of the telegraph operator, staying at his post until the last, telling any who had a radio of the cause of the disaster. I cared little, and care little still. Nineteen years have passed, and at long last I am in a position to prevent it. Unbeknownst to the crew, I have made a tiny adjustment in the rudder trim. The Titanic shall strike the iceberg more than a glancing blow, crippling the doomed liner, and its passengers shall be picked up and brought home safely. How many men have saved thousands of lives at a single stroke? I am already a hero, though none may know.

Grandfather, I shall see you soon.

Friday, March 20, 2015 9 comments

Fair Trade (#FridayFlash)

“Is all well, good scribe?” Breeze wrote on the chalkboard.

Image source: openclipart.org
My feet were freezing, and I hate for my feet to be cold. The lighting was all wrong. This suit chafed me. But I really shouldn’t complain; I was one of the first twenty humans to set foot on Mars and converse with an alien in person. Symbolic, the language the Phwu had taught us over the last year, was very literal; an inquiry like this expected more than fine, thanks for an answer. “There is some discomfort,” I wrote below Breeze’s inquiry, “but I can function well enough.”

“I share in your discomfort, being very warm. Let us proceed, then.”

“Good Lord, it’s -50°C out here and he’s complaining about the heat,” I said aloud. That got a couple chuckles in my helmet radio.

“You’re talking about the fracking weather?” one of the ESA people griped.

“He said ‘let us proceed,’ so I think we’ll be getting down to business now,” I retorted.

Breeze—his (its?) real name was 40kph wind from the northwest at six atmospheres and 120 Kelvin, so you can understand why we gave him a nickname—confirmed my guess. “As we stated (two weeks) ago, we wish to use your fifth planet as a dwelling place. In exchange, we offer you our starship and the information you need to understand its working.”

I translated the Symbolic for the benefit of those in our delegation who didn’t understand it, as well as for the cameras. Everyone tried to respond at once, making a gabble in my helmet radio. “Ask him if the information is in Symbolic, or if we’ll have to figure out another language as well,” someone finally said.

“Got it,” I said, and turned to the chalkboard. “Must we learn another language to understand the technology?” I wrote.

“The information is in all interspecies languages, including Symbolic,” Breeze replied. “We include tutorials so that you may learn those languages compatible with your senses.” There were at least two dozen different languages used to communicate out in the galaxy; usually, two species could find one they could both use. Biologists were already talking about using some of them to communicate with dolphins.

Again, my helmet radio filled with gabble. The Chinese and ESA delegations were urging caution; NASA and Russia were gung-ho. When the transmission got back to Earth, the xenophobes would crap themselves, but that was normal. As far as I was concerned, it was a no-brainer. The whole galaxy in exchange for one lousy gas giant we weren’t going to use anyway? What I didn’t understand was why our delegation was trying to hash this out all over again; the Phwu had made the offer before they sent us the ship to bring us here. (One of the wags at NASA wanted to dub the ship Short Bus, since it seated twenty humans who probably didn’t measure up to the galactic average, but he got smacked down in a hurry.)

“Ecuador is trying to claim this ship as theirs, as it landed there,” one of the Russians said. “Where will the starship land, and what country might claim it?” The question of where the ship would land had almost triggered World War III, although we kept it really quiet so the Phwu wouldn’t hear. In the end, we all agreed on Ecuador. Maybe that hadn’t been such a good idea in retrospect.

“Wait a minute,” I said, and took up the chalk. “Can you broadcast the information and the tutorials to the entire world?” I wrote.

“Of course,” Breeze replied. “We expected to do just that.” You have to understand, in Symbolic, the phrase do just that is very emphatic.

“Uh, guys,” I said. “I think the Phwu understand us better than you think. If you put Breeze’s response in colloquial English, it would be ‘well, duh.’ Nobody’s going to have a leg up, here.”

Blessed silence filled my helmet for a minute. “I think that will be acceptable,” said one of the Chinese delegates.

“Works for us,” said NASA. The others, including the delegates from India and central Africa, agreed.

“We find that acceptable,” I wrote, conscious of the cameras recording my every move. “When will the broadcast begin?”

“In (one hour),” Breeze replied, then threw an arm around me in an approximation of a human hug. “As for the starship, we shall put it in orbit around the third planet. It belongs to all your people.”

“Get soil samples!” one of the NASA people shouted.

“Vacuum tubes?” I heard from an ESA delegate. “The electronics on this barge are from the fifties! Hell, we probably could have traded them a few computers for the starship!”

That, of course, was a completely different can of worms that we opened about seven hundred light-years from home.

Friday, January 30, 2015 6 comments

Scarecrow 2.0 (#FridayFlash)

Image source: openclipart.org
“Hi, Allie,” Bob said into his cellphone, turning to shade himself and the phone from the summer sun. The corn wasn’t high enough for shade just yet.

“On the way back,” his wife told him. “I saw something interesting at the feed store, though. It might help with the crows.”

“Sounds good.” The crows had been especially bad this year. Bob was afraid they might eat up the whole crop before it was ready to pick. Not that the rats were much better, mind you. Or the raccoons.

“You at your best right now?”

“Yup. Out standing in my field.” This was their little running joke.

“Good. Anyway, I got this flyer. I really think you should call.”

“Will do.” When Allie said I really think you should, there was always an unspoken or else.

• • •

“So here’s the bottom line.” The young fella was earnest enough, but he talked kind of quick and his outdoor clothes didn’t look comfortable on him. “We set up a Scarecrow Two Point Oh system for you. You let us know how it works, and let us come on your property to maintain the thing. Maybe once a week, unless something breaks. If it damages your crops or your property in any way, we make it right.”

“There’s gotta be a catch,” said Allie. “What’s in it for you and your people?”

“Well, ma’am, we do need to field-test the system,” he admitted. “You can do a lot on a test plot, and we fixed some problems that would have had you taking a shotgun to it.” That got a chuckle from Bob. “But we won’t know for sure how well it works until it’s deployed on a real, working farm. We’re sure enough about it to try it, now. If we thought there was a good chance it would damage your crops, we’d still be testing it on our own plots.” He slid a paper out of his folder. “This is the contract.”

Allie looked the contract over. “Huh. Not that legal gobbledygook? This looks pretty clear. Maybe we can work together after all.”

“Great.” The visitor gave them a happy smile. “Just show me a place to put the system, one where there’s lots of sunlight, and I’ll get to work.”

“You’ll need power, right?” Bob asked.

“Nope. It’s all solar-powered. Even we know there’s no outlets out in a cornfield.” All three laughed together.

• • •

A week later, Allie and Bob were congratulating themselves for taking a chance on this “Scarecrow 2.0” thing. The robot patrolled the cornfield and blasted varmints with its laser. Even better, it cleaned up after itself, depositing dead critters in a bin, where Bob counted them up and sent the tally to SC Research. Its best day was the third, with 147 kills; the tally was declining now, but Bob figured it was making a dent in the varmint population and finding fewer targets.

But by the end of the third week, Bob was seeing telltale signs of feeding again. There were only a few critters in the bin each day. “I think we need to call ‘em up,” said Allie.

“Okay,” they heard over the phone. “We see it in the telemetry. It’s tripping a ‘low battery’ fault, then it’s not getting much of a charge in the base station. Probably a defect in the charging system. We’re scheduled to come out tomorrow, we’ll check it out.”

“Holy sh—holy mackerel,” said the technician, wobbling atop a stepladder. “The solar panels are covered in guano.” He took out a rag and wet it with his water bottle. “Man. I’ve never seen one like this,” he grumbled, wiping bird crap off the panels.

Once the panels were cleaned, the charging system jumped right back up to normal, making the technician as happy as the farmers. “Yeah. Keep an eye on this, okay?” said the technician. “Maybe squeegee the panels every other day. I guess the engineers will develop counter-measures to keep that from happening.”

The next morning, Bob went out to check on the Scarecrow. He took a cellphone snap of what he saw, then called the company again. “I got a picture,” he said. “The damn crows are sitting on the solar panels and holding their wings out. It’s like they know what to do or something.”

“This is the kind of real-world info we were hoping to get,” said one of the engineers, after taking them off hold (Allie figured they were cussing the crows). “Sounds like we need to come up with better counter-measures than a wiper. But hang in there, we’ll beat this yet.”

Allie hung up the phone, looking pensive.

“What is it?” asked Bob.

“Well…” Allie trailed off, looking out the window at the cornfield. “They’re gonna come up with something to keep the crows off the solar panels, right? Makes me wonder what the crows will come up with to beat that.”

Friday, April 19, 2013 10 comments

At the Crossroads (#FridayFlash)

I went to the crossroads…

As always, I got a round of polite applause after my first number. I try to focus on the positive. This bar beats most of the gigs I’d played. The audience was polite, and tipped well. The stage wasn’t much—just a raised platform—but I had mikes for me and my guitar, and the acoustics were great. I played too many gigs where I deafened half the patrons, and the other half couldn’t hear at all.

“Good evening, folks,” I said. “And welcome to The Crossroads. Paisley’s the name, folk and blues are my claim to fame.” Again, polite applause. “I’m gonna go up-tempo with this next number, a little ballad called On the Centerline.” The lyrics for this number were rude, and I wouldn’t sing this song back home, but here? No problem.

I called Ma after the gig. She thinks I’m in L.A., playing different bars and trying to get discovered, and I won’t try tellin’ her different. “How’s things at home, Ma?” There was a time, not too long ago, that I would have done just about anything to keep Ma from tellin’ me everything that her neighbors were up to. Now, I just let her rattle on and on to her heart’s content. “Zach will be walkin’ soon,” she told me after about ten minutes. “He stood up by himself this mornin’, right in the middle of the kitchen, and took a look around before he sat down.”

“He’s growin’ fast, ain’t he, Ma?” I asked. Some dumb chick I met at one party or another, Amber or Opal or something, dropped Zack off at Ma’s place one day. Said he was mine, and took off as quick as she could. He sure looks like me, so he’s probably mine.

“He’ll be needin’ his father soon, Pay-pay,” she said. “When you comin’ home?”

“Soon as I can, Ma,” I lied. “You got the two hundred I wired, right? I think I’ll be able to send two-fifty this weekend.”

To make a deal with the devil…

Me and school were never close friends. I made my first money playing a gig at someone’s party, back when I was thirteen. I got straight As in music class, passed math, but I couldn’t bother with the rest. It was drop out or flunk out, and I got my pride. That and my guitar.

I hitched along the Gulf coast, playing gigs where I could get one, putting a hat on a street corner where I couldn’t. It was enough. Usually. Then that big mess with the oil rig, a few years back, gave me the opportunity for what Ma called “a real job with an honest paycheck.” So I worked for a while. I didn’t see the attraction. Sure, I could afford better booze, but I don’t have fancy tastes. Give me food, guitar strings, and a six-pack, and I’m good.

I was out on the road when Ma told me about Zack. I came home to see him, tried to remember the girl, and got back on the road. I had more than myself to support now, and I needed more gigs to cover the expense.

So, I figured trading off my soul for a better paycheck wasn’t a bad deal. Not like St. Peter would let the likes of me in, anyway, you know?

But someone else showed up.

I got everything I asked for, and then some. Ma might complain about my lifestyle, but she don’t complain about the money they conjure out of a computer and send to the Walmart across town for her. All my wants are taken care of—what I think is kinky, they think rather quaint. I can have pretty much everything I want, except for one thing. And you know, going home is something I never would have thought I wanted.

It’s time for me to go onstage again. I thank God for the bright lights shining down on me, so I don’t have to look at what’s out there watching me. Ma and Zack are provided for, so I guess it don’t matter that I’m traveling ever farther away from home, at half the speed of light.

It ain’t the devil I struck the bargain with. Maybe I got a better deal. Maybe.

Friday, February 15, 2013 20 comments

The “Toy” Laser (#FridayFlash)

Hooray, I’m flashing again! Thanks to Eric J. Krause, once again, whose writing prompt got this one started. And of course, since it has a sci-fi nod, I had to go to the Pulp-O-Mizer and make a “cover” for it. I was pleasantly surprised to find one of the foreground graphics has a kid holding a laser gun…

Source: Pulp-O-Mizer
“It’s three-thirty, Tyler. Time to go.”

“Aww, Dad! Can’t I ride the Rocket Sled? One more time?”

“Sorry, Tyler.” Kyle turned off his phone alarm. “I promised your mom that I’d have you home by four-thirty. Besides, you’re about worn out. Keep your grades up, and we’ll come back some time.”

“She doesn’t care.” Tyler’s shoulders sagged. “I’m not tired, either.”

“If she didn’t care, she wouldn’t have given us a deadline.” Kyle figured Amanda really didn’t care, except that she could use his being late as an excuse to berate him about all the things she’d undoubtedly saved up for such an opportunity. Tyler was the only leverage she had since the divorce, and she used it every chance she got. “But since you behaved yourself today… you still want that laser gun at the souvenir stand?”

“Yeah!” Tyler’s fatigue fell to excitement, and his animated chatter about school and his online friends and skating carried them all the way to the souvenir stand.

The guy behind the counter looked preoccupied, staring at something under the counter, when Kyle and Tyler approached. “Oh, hey,” he said, popping up when Kyle cleared his throat. “Choose your weapons.” He grinned and gestured at the array of t-shirts, hats, toys, and water bottles.

“One of those!” Tyler pointed at the rack of lasers, in all different colors, the Spaceport Alpha logo emblazoned on the side with their tagline, “the most fun in the solar system!”

“Um, sure,” said the vendor. He reached under the table and brought out a bright yellow one, with blue trim. “Um, those up there came in with a bad batch of batteries, and I haven’t gotten around to taking them down yet. I checked this one, it’s good. You can have it for a buck off, since it’s not in the package. Okay?”

“Sure,” Tyler agreed, and Kyle wasn’t about to argue. Everything at theme parks was overpriced, and a discount was always welcome.

“Thanks, man,” said Kyle, as the vendor gave him the change.

“No prob.” The vendor glanced up at the sky, then smiled at Tyler. “Have a nice day, kid. Blast yourself a few aliens, okay?”

Tyler laughed and followed his dad out of the park. Kyle was preoccupied, checking messages on his phone, and Tyler looked through the sights and began shooting. “Yeah, got one!” he laughed, his laser making a pew-pew-pew noise as he held the trigger. “Got another!” He could only see them through the sights. “This is cooler than a video game!” he said under his breath.

“What’s that?” Kyle asked, pocketing his phone and unlocking the car.

“Just playin’, Dad.” In the sky, contrails streaked and dissolved. On the way home, he took out three more alien ships through the open car window.

Tyler slept well that night, knowing the world would be there when he awoke.

Friday, January 25, 2013 14 comments

Special Report (#FridayFlash)

Image source: openclipart.org
“Channel 3 News will stay on the air, commercial-free, as long as we can—”


“Lt. Carson of the Georgia State Patrol says if you need to get essential items, by all means go ahead and get them. But otherwise, he’s urging everyone to stay home—”


“The National Guard has closed all streets into the commercial districts, to prevent looting—”

Sam hit the power button on the remote, and tossed it onto the end table. “Nothing’s on!” she growled, chewing one of her braids. “Is it gonna be like this the next three days?”

“It’s not too often we get hit by an asteroid.” Pam reached across her partner, picking up the remote and turning the TV back on.

Sam stood and sniffed. “No, but the talking heads sure love to hype this crap up. Besides, it’ll probably miss, or turn out to be no big deal. This disaster-porn always turns out like that.”

“Tell that to your brother. Wasn’t he in Hoboken when Sandy hit?”

Sam huffed and dropped back onto the love seat.

“—latest model from NASA says this is not an extinction-level event. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be huge problems from this.”

“Isn’t that the weather dude?” Sam whispered.


“—updates from NASA and JPL models as they come in, but the last three runs have Lucifer entering Earth’s atmosphere over the Arctic ocean, near the Siberian coast, on Monday morning around 1:30 a.m. Eastern time. It will pass over eastern Greenland mere seconds later. What happens next, depends on many factors. If Lucifer breaks up over the Atlantic, as expected, we’ll have a string of ocean strikes from roughly the latitude of Boston, perhaps all the way down to Rio de Janeiro. Tsunami warnings and mandatory evacuation orders have already been posted for the entire Atlantic basin. That includes the Gulf of Mexico.”

“I think beachfront property values just cratered.” Sam chuckled. “Get it? Cratered?” Pam, who worked in a real estate office, rolled her eyes.

“—here in Atlanta, we don’t have to worry about a tsunami, but that’s not to minimize the very real problems we’re going to have. The big question is, long-term, what’s it going to do to our weather? Since this is an ocean strike, it’s going to throw a huge amount of moisture into the upper atmosphere. A lot of it will come right back down as rain, or maybe hail, so expect torrential rain most of next week. The rest of it will take some time to work out, and will spread worldwide as cloud cover in the meantime. That’s going to cool us all off, for at least the next five years. Not an ice age, but we’ll have a temporary break from global warming.”

“At least it’s gonna do some good,” Sam mumbled.

“—you’re in a low-lying area, or along a river downstream of a dam, you should consider evacuating to higher ground, just in case. We’re talking unprecedented amounts of rain next week. Flash flooding is very likely, and many roads are going to become impassable.”

Sam snatched the remote and turned off the TV.

“Heyyyy!” Pam protested.

“They’re just going to show the same thing, say the same stuff, over and over, until the damned thing hits,” said Sam. “Then they’ll show us live helicopter footage of the tsunami wiping out the coast. Again and again. Like I said, disaster-porn. Let’s go to bed, okay?”

“Fine.” Pam sighed.

“I wonder why they had the weather dude showing this stuff, though.”

Pam snickered. “Well, he is a meteorologist.”

Friday, September 21, 2012 14 comments

#FridayFlash: Poltergeists in Space

This is a continuation of an earlier #FridayFlash, Ghosts in a Can.

The spirit guides paused in their chanting to confer. “Fifteen,” one said on the general band. In other words, fifteen ghosts on board. “Please proceed with repowering.”

Construction Engineer Paul Temberson checked both ends of his tether, then kicked off the hull of Deimos Salvage VI (aka “Sweet Six”). In a few seconds, he touched the space-weathered outer hull of the can once known as Paradigm Industries Number Four (“Para-4”). This was his third salvage run, and he found he liked the work. Tearing down is always more fun than building up, an old friend once said, but he was describing his ex’s approach to relationships.

Paul found the diagnostics hatch and pried it open. Looking at his wristpad, he punched into the maintenance band. “Looks like a standard D-7 diagnostics port,” he said. “Telemetry receive ready?”

“Let ‘er rip,” Narayan said. Narayan was a Diagnostics Tech, and a damn good one. He and Paul had hit it off right away on his first run. Narayan hadn’t kept Paul hanging in vac at all—third time was the charm. This guy was a keeper.

Paul checked the fuel cell one more time, then sorted through the pigtails on the ancient Atlanta Instrumentation box. His first run, he’d been surprised when they handed him this fossil, but it matched up well with the cans they were recycling. He found the D-7 plug and connected it to the panel. “Applying power,” he said. Several amber lights on the panel started blinking, then turned green, one by one.

“Self-tests passed,” said Narayan. “Ah. Looks like the last one out turned off the lights behind him. Good form.”

“No surprise there,” said Paul. “The solar panels are folded in. I’ll bet the pivots are vac-welded.”

“A bet you’d likely win.” Narayan laughed. “Batteries are depleted, as usual. Try applying evac-level power.”

“That’s all this fuel cell can do,” said Paul. He punched a button on the diag box, and more amber lights went green on the panel. Several others lit up, flashing amber. “Evac power applied. Fuel cell has thirty minutes.”

“Confirming emergency lighting. Thank you, Paul. Narayan.” That was Steven Crescent Moon, one of the few spirit guides who tried to acquaint himself with the rest of the crew. “Primary activity is in Sections Two, Five, and the bridge. The salvage crews can begin their work in the other sections at any time.”

“They’re isolated, then?” Paul asked. Ghosts rarely used a power connection to invade a salvage ship, but it had happened. Such events brought little danger, but much disruption. Spirit guides worked to prevent the possibility.

“They should be, by the time you’re ready to plug this can in.” Paul could hear the grin in Steven’s voice through the general band.

“Roger that. Whup, got a visitor here.” Paul felt the adrenaline surge that accompanied a visitation. Lights flashed at random on the diagnostics panel. Clattering noises came over the general band.

“Poltergeists, poltergeists,” one of the spirit guides said. “Paul, cut power.”

“Cutting power.” Paul flipped the main breaker on the diagnostics box, then disconnected the cable. The indicator lights flickered for a few seconds, but died out. He listened to the noise on the general band. “Everyone all right?”

“So far,” said Steven Crescent Moon. “Everything’s tied down, they’re just throwing dust around right now.” A chunking, snapping noise came over the radio. “What’s that?” one of the other spirit guides asked.

Motion above Paul caught his eye. “Holy… it’s the solar panels! They’re trying to get them open!”

Captain Li’s lilting voice joined the chatter. “Clear the can. Clear the can. Evac Protocol Three.” That was one level above a drill: orderly exit, leave nothing behind.

Paul buttoned up the diag box and kicked off the can, back to Sweet Six. The airlock door was closed. “Knock knock!” he called.

“Sorry, Paul,” Dikembe’s voice chuckled in his ears. We were in the airlock when the captain called the evac. It’s clear to cycle now.”

“Roger.” The light went green, and the door swung inward. He secured the diag box inside, then stood in the open door, waiting for the spirit guides. He watched the vac-welded arms on the solar panels twitch, as the poltergeists tried to pull them open.

“Whoa. Incoming,” a spirit guide said. “We’re leaving!” another barked, her professional serenity under severe stress. “Watch behind,” Steven said, “they might try throwing whatever that was again.”

“Are you in danger?” the captain asked.

“Not much,” said Steven. “As long as they don’t have power, they can’t activate anything.”

“Better hurry, then,” Paul told him. “There’s a little play in the arms.”

“Block ‘em at the diag panel, then!” the stressed spirit guide—Mary Alice something—suggested.

“Negative, negative,” several voices chorused with Paul’s. “Evac protocol. I need to be here to catch your tether.”

“We’re at the lock,” said Steven. “You ready?”

“Do it!” Paul soon saw a blinking light—the tether end—approaching. About halfway across, it suddenly deflected. “Damn!” Again, he checked his own tether, then dived after it.

“What happened?” the captain called.

“Poltergeist knocked the tether end off course,” said Paul. “Got it.” He snapped it onto his belt, then attached it to Sweet Six as he returned. “Secure. Come on home. Better move it, they’ve about got the juice back on!”

“Four fish on the hook,” Steven called. “Reel us in.”

“Roger.” Paul started pulling.

“Look out!” Steven yelled. The others shouted. “Keep pulling!”

“They knocked Steven off!” Mary Alice yelled.

“Hang on!” Paul snapped, and hauled hard. In seconds, three shaken spirit guides stood in the airlock. Paul took the loose end, and dived out. “Steven!”

“Here.” Lights on Steven’s suit raced back and forth, marking his location. Paul kicked twice to deflect himself, and reached Steven with a meter of loose tether to spare.

“Gotcha,” said Paul. “You okay?”

“Just shaken up.” Steven clipped himself on. “Let’s get home.”

Friday, July 06, 2012 19 comments

#FridayFlash: the Disposition of Planet EJK7734

This is based on a prompt by Eric Krause: “A tiny planet declares independence from the intergalactic empire.” The planet’s name and designation are a nod to the prompter, not an opinion about same. ;-)

BONUS STORY: John Xero is featuring my sci-fi flash, Archived, on his site. You get two from me this week!

On the planet called “Capital” is the Emperor’s Palace. Behind the ornate Throne Room, where the Emperor greets important delegations, is the State Room. From this plain but heavily-shielded room, the Intergalactic Empire is truly run.

The Ministers have gathered, per instructions from His Sublime Majesty, Overlord, Emperor Warren the Seventeenth. Several of them skim their reports on private holoscreens, hoping to catch any final error before the H.S.M.O.E. does. Those Ministers who know and trust their counterparts have swapped reports to get another set of eyes on them.

At last, the Major Domo enters, plays a recorded fanfare, and introduces the Emperor. All rise as the undisputed ruler of most of the Local Group enters the State Room.

“Be seated,” he says, dispensing with further formalities. “I trust that all of you have prepared your reports?” They nod as one. “Good. Then let us attend to the matter of EJK7734.” He looks at the woman to his left. “Minister of Culture, I will ask you to begin.”

The Minister of Culture, Rebekah Fennel by birth, stands. “I am honored, Your Majesty. We all received the Declaration of Independence from EJK7734, known as ‘Krouze’ to its inhabitants, shortly before the broadcast services did. It is the considered opinion of the sociologists that Krouze has been infested with Dystopian-4 politics. My report describes the situation further.” The charts appear on the primary holoscreen.

“Minister, I am unfamiliar with the details of your labels.”

“Your pardon, Majesty. Dystopian-4 is what we call a ‘constructed reality.’ It espouses the belief that government is not only unable to provide solutions to problems, but is always the problem. As can be expected, it is always accompanied by a studied denial of any facts that do not support the constructed reality. Those are two prime indicators. The third, which is also present on EJK7734, is the suppression of opposing views by violence—usually threatened, but occasionally physical. We believe that as many as two-thirds of the populace, perhaps two billion people, remain loyal to the Crown, but feel unable to steer their planet to a more reasonable course of action.”

“Thank you, Minister,” says the Emperor. He looks at a serious man further down the table. “Given the potential number of loyalists, Minister of the Military, what could be done to minimize civilian casualties and suffering?”

“Sir,” says the Minister of the Military, “I would recommend Standard Plan SP-RB-79 in this situation.” He sifts through several reports, quickly adds slides from one and modifies a few others. “Damage to both sides would be minimal.”

“A thing of beauty.” The Emperor next turns to a fussy-looking man. “Minister of Economy. What is your assessment?”

The primary holoscreen fills with a mind-numbing array of numbers. “As you can see here, Your Majesty, EJK7734 is what the Ministry classifies as an MPP, or Minimally Productive Planet. A ‘backwater,’ in terms of several generations past. Yearly contributions to the welfare of EJK7734 exceed received tax revenues by two hundred billion Intergalactic Credits.”

“An interesting datapoint, Your Majesty,” the Minister of Culture interjects. “Dystopian-4 politics almost always manifest on MPPs.”

“Good to know. Minister of the Military, what would it cost us to put down this rebellion, using your recommended plan?”

The Minister purses his lips. “At a minimum, sir, six trillion credits.”

“Strategic value?”

“Next to none, Majesty.”

“Very well. Minister of Transportation, what would it cost the Crown to transport two billion loyalists?”

The Minister of Transportation, a dark and slender woman, hems and haws as she calculates. “Perhaps one point five trillion credits? Depends on where we send them, Your Majesty.”

“Minister of Commerce,” says the Emperor, “does this planet contribute anything significant to the Crown?”

“Their primary exports are cotton and iron, Majesty. Their contribution in both regards is minimal.” His report flows across the primary holoscreen.

“Thank you, Minister.” The Emperor pauses for a few seconds. “So, we are hearing that a drain on the Empire’s treasury wishes to sever its ties with the Empire. It would cost us about four times as much to put down the rebellion as it would to transport loyalists to a friendlier environ. The planet itself provides nothing important, commercially or strategically. Am I correct?”

Seeing the nods of agreement around the table, the Emperor continues. “It is the provisional decision of the Crown, that EJK7734 be allowed to peaceably withdraw from the Empire, contingent on their allowing all loyalists to depart unmolested and with their personal property. We will study the other reports, but we suspect that they will reinforce our initial decision. I am placing Minister of Transportation Elsbeth Rialna in charge of relocating the loyalists, and she will call upon any of you in support of that. Minister of Planetary Resources, I especially expect you to help her find a suitable destination for our subjects. Once that phase is completed, we shall expect the Minister of State to establish diplomatic relations.” The Emperor smiles. “But nothing too elaborate. As with others in this situation, we expect that our wayward planet will beg to rejoin the Empire within a generation.”

His detractors called him Warren the Beancounter, but historians dubbed him Warren the Wise.

Friday, June 15, 2012 21 comments

#FridayFlash: Ghosts in a Can

“Your qualifications look good, Paul,” said Cynthia Bluefield, glancing at the document in her desk. “Everything checks out there. Just one problem.”

Paul Temberson blinked and frowned, but looked out her synth-window at Tranquility Base for a couple seconds. Deimos Recycling needed him more than he needed them, and this HR flack knew it. But it wouldn’t do to piss her off too much; she might spite her own company to score a point. “A problem? What?”

“You checked ‘Other’ for Religion and wrote down ‘none.’ Our application has checkboxes for ‘Unaffiliated’ or ‘Atheist,’ if they apply.” She drummed four fingers on the edge of the desk, then tapped the icon that brought up his application. “We can fix that right now, if you’d like to change it. Then we can move on to some other paperwork.”

“Oh. I was going to ask about that,” said Paul. “I thought it was illegal to ask for religious affiliation, but I didn’t want to raise a fuss about it.”

Cynthia pursed her lips for a moment. He hasn’t done his research, she thought. “Actually, for us it’s the opposite.” She tapped at her desk for a moment. “Not only is it legal for us to ask, it’s a legal obligation. Here’s the governing regs. I’m surprised you haven’t read them already.” She pushed the icon across the desk, giving it a two-fingered twist. It opened, the corners throwing off sparkles and eddies, which annoyed her. “Section three dot four, paragraph six.” Pulling up the messenger, she tapped @IT - did you upgrade my desktop and not restore prefs? Plain theme, please. Sparkly isn’t professional.

“Huh,” he said, tapping the document closed and pushing it back across the desk. “I wouldn’t have believed it. I did my homework, but never expected that in the regs. So why do you have to ask?”

“Because we can’t put atheists on a salvage crew.”


“Yup. Insurers won’t cover that situation, and they got the government to update the regs so we’re covered.”

“But why?” Paul looked truly curious.

Cynthia leaned back in her chair. This was always the hard part. “Before you recycle a can, you have to take care of the ghosts.”

He looked baffled. “Ghosts. You mean like stealth hackware?”

She sighed. “I mean ghosts. The spirits of dead humans that haven’t moved on.”

“You’re serious,” he said after a long pause. “But what do ghosts have to—and what difference does it make?”

“This is something the government and the corps don’t like to talk about,” said Cynthia. “You can imagine why. But cans—orbital habitats—are abandoned after a few decades simply because the ghosts get to be too much to deal with. It’s something about dying in micro-gee. Habitats on the moon, Mars, even larger asteroids, don’t have that problem.”

“Well, you can change me to Unaffiliated.” Paul nodded. “But why do atheists have problems?”

“Because when faced with proof of an afterlife, a few of them lose it. Anything from nervous breakdowns to full-blown psychoses. The vast majority adjust their beliefs, but there are enough problems that insurers just don’t want to deal with it.” Cynthia tapped at the application.

“Okay, I can see that,” said Paul. “You hear things, especially from people from out past Mars, but you put it down to sendep. Sorry, sensory deprivation.”

A message popped up: Sorry. We’ve adjusted your prefs. Rebooting now.

“Not now!” Cynthia growled, then looked up at Paul. “Sorry. IT just rebooted my desktop.”

Paul laughed. “That’s one reason I’d like to take this job. Trank’s nice, but you don’t have to deal with flakes like that in orbit. Everyone’s watching out for everyone else.”

“Right. So when my desktop comes back, I can access the offer letter. You’ll need to pick a crew whose spiritual advisor is compatible with your beliefs, but we have most of the major rituals represented. The spirit guides—the ones who actually help the ghosts move on—are either Tibetan or Native American. But your interactions with them will be at a professional level.” She stood and stretched her hand across the desk. “Welcome to Deimos Recycling, Mr. Temberson. We’re looking forward to having you on one of our crews.”

Tuesday, December 27, 2011 4 comments

#TuesdaySerial: Xenocide, pt 11 [CONCLUSION]

Previous episodes: Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4 • Part 5 • Part 6 • Part 7 • Part 8 • Part 9 • Part 10

Xenocide, part 11

The flashing blues strobed the immediate area, but got in my eyes as well. Distant streetlights, porch lights, and jack-o’-lanterns didn’t help. I heard Tenesha grunt and curse, saw her twisting in the grip of… someone. Another man stood to the side; he and Noble had weapons pointed at each other in what they used to call a “Mexican standoff.”

When in doubt, act like you’re in control. “Police!” I barked, aiming at the man holding Tenesha. “Let her go and put your hands on your head! You’re under arrest!”

Noble picked up on that. “Drop your weapon!”

I heard a man laugh from Tenesha’s direction, then Jobst’s voice: “You did this, you moron. We tried to do you a favor, and you blow our cover? Nice.”

“I don’t consider sending an innocent kid to prison doing me a favor.”

“Why? He’s just a pothead punk. If we don’t do it, you’ll have to bust him later on. And who knows who he’d hurt along the way?”

“I don’t know how you do things in spook-land, but this is America,” I said. “And the CIA isn’t authorized to operate on American soil, so you’re way out of your jurisdiction. You hurt her, the only way you’ll see Quantico again is feet-first.”

“You don’t have a clue what you’re dealing with here,” said Jobst, sounding strained as Tenesha continued to struggle. “The victim’s — people — have been in touch. They want justice.”

“You know as well as I do that Danny Freeman did the shooting,” I said. “Justice isn’t justice if you ignore the perp and just yank an innocent citizen off the street. Give them Freeman —”

“No!” the other man yelled.

“— and they get justice. Give them anyone else, and it’s just random vengeance.” I glanced at the other man. “I know it’s your father, but you can’t protect him by sacrificing a kid!”

“Leave him out of this!” Freeman Jr. yelled, turning his gun my way.

Noble saw an opportunity, and took the shot. Freeman went down, bellowing, clutching his shoulder.

Jobst took a shot at me from can’t-miss range — thank God Tenesha’s thrashing threw his aim off. His bullet hit the trunk of the patrol car and zinged past me, making me flinch back before I could return fire. With a frustrated cry, Tenesha broke free but she fell at his feet. He glared at me, took aim at her —

Then something flew out of the dark and smacked Jobst in the side of his head, making a hollow wet thwop. Jobst grunted and staggered, gun-hand flailing, and I took him down.

“Tenesha? You okay?” I called.

“Yeah.” She got to her feet. “What about you?”

“Fine, thanks to you. You think you can keep these assholes alive until the ambulance gets here?”

“If I have to.” She gave Jobst a murderous glance. Noble was already cuffing and searching Freeman Jr. “What happened just now? One second I thought I’d had it; the next, he took one upside the head! Who —”

The Headless Horseman,” a voice called from the darkness. A familiar, youthful voice. I got the flashlight from Noble’s car and shone it on Jobst. Nearby, a pumpkin — the little ones used for Hallowe’en decorations — lay half-smashed, some of its guts spread over Jobst’s head and suit. I shone the light toward the voice, but Jacob Moss had already disappeared into the dark. I shrugged and secured Jobst.

Freeman and Jobst lived, but they might have preferred otherwise. After a hurried discussion with the sheriff and Doc Dix, we called in a news crew from downtown and gave them the whole story, just in time to make the 11 o’clock news. As Sheriff Carmichael put it, “we just turn on the lights and watch the roaches scatter.” We didn’t feel like we had a choice, though — letting Jobst and Freeman go quietly into the night (Sarah Plant was long gone) would have left us with no guarantees that they wouldn’t just grab some other innocent, here or elsewhere.

Politics and news sensations being what they are, we didn’t get much of a break for a while. We charged the perps with conspiracy, credit card fraud, assault, and attempting to pervert the course of justice — not that it mattered, they disappeared from the hospital and were never seen again. Our worthless Congressman vowed to launch an investigation into the matter, but never did. Being on the Intelligence Committee, it’s likely he knew what was happening all along. The sheriff did his time in front of the cameras, looking pleased with a job well-done. He had two years left in his term, but people would remember this. I’d have been surprised if anyone tried to unseat him. With proof positive that we weren’t alone in the universe, people started acting a little different toward each other. A little better.

As for Tenesha and me, the spotlight turned away from us after a few days and we finally got an evening uninterrupted. I won’t go into details, but it went well and we’re still together. We don’t think of ourselves as an interracial couple — because after you’ve seen an alien up close, those kind of differences just aren’t important.


Want to read it offline? The whole story is available on Amazon and Smashwords!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 3 comments

#TuesdaySerial: Xenocide, pt 10

Previous episodes: Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4 • Part 5 • Part 6 • Part 7 • Part 8 • Part 9

Xenocide, part 10
Date-us Interruptus

I went straight to Ruth’s from the Moss place — but Tenesha was there first, keeping the corner booth warm. She and a cold beer were waiting for me.

“Only fifteen minutes early?” she pretended to chide me. “What could possibly keep you?”

“Wrapping up a case,” I grinned, setting my radio against the wall. She listened wide-eyed as I filled her in on the details. “So if our Fed friends have any sense, they’ve already tucked in their tails and are running back to Washington as we speak. The — the victim isn’t getting justice, but pinning it on an innocent kid would be worse than no justice.”

“Yeah.” She looked off to the side. “I ordered us some supper.” The waitress came over and dropped off a plate of nachos and another one of cheesy fries. “I figured we’d need a little extra luck tonight,” she said, maneuvering a cheesy fry to her mouth without losing any of the cheese goo. We ate, we drank, we were merry for a little while.

“Fourteen,” said my radio. That was my code. I gave it the finger before I picked it up, and Tenesha shook with suppressed laughter.

“Fourteen here.”

“Disturbance at 638 Sherman.”

“On the way.” I looked at Tenesha. “That’s just down from the Moss place. Sounds like they’re not smart enough to let this drop after all.”

“I’m coming with you,” she said. The look she gave me said and you’d better not argue. She got a to-go box for the leftovers.

On the way, something occurred to me. I picked up the radio. “Seventeen, this is Fourteen.”


“Any disturbance down the way?”


I frowned. We had Noble watching the Moss residence, because he would recognize the not-FBI agents best, what they drove, and so forth. Something wasn’t right here.

“They’re trying to draw you out,” Tenesha said.

“Yeah.” I picked up the radio again. “Fourteen to dispatch.”


“Has anyone called in a disturbance at 638 Sherman?”

“Negative, Fourteen.”

“Ten-four.” I rounded the corner onto Sherman. “Maybe I ought to take you back to Ruth’s. I don’t think they pulled this stunt to give me a box of doughnuts.”

“You need backup.” That no-argument tone again. I might have resented it if she wasn’t right.

“Seventeen, this is Fourteen. You see our lights?” I flashed the brights down the street.


“We might have a problem. One needing backup.” I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but that wasn’t assuring.

“Come around and park behind me, then.” When in doubt, follow orders and stick to your post. Noble couldn’t bring backup to me, but I could bring myself to the backup.

“Ten-four.” I drove past Noble’s patrol car, then turned around in the next driveway down and slipped behind him. “You should be okay here,” I told Tenesha, and slipped out of the car.

Noble had his motor running, the heater doing what it could to keep the chill October night air from invading through the open window. The sound and smell of the exhaust felt reassuring, somehow. “Everything going okay then?” I asked him.

“Yup. Just did my hourly checkup ten minutes ago. The Moss family has gathered no rolling stones.”

“Clever. Sounds like their new scapegoat is yours truly.” I filled him in on the call.

“Yeah, I was wondering what that was about —”

I heard a door open, and Tenesha’s “No!” A second later, I was crouching behind the car, gun out. Noble lit his blues, then rolled out and came up hot. “Tenesha!” I yelled, squinting, looking for a target in the flashing light as Noble worked his way around the hood.

to be continued…

Can’t wait to see how it ends? The whole story is available on Amazon and Smashwords!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 2 comments

#TuesdaySerial: Xenocide, pt 9

Previous episodes: Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4 • Part 5 • Part 6 • Part 7 • Part 8

Xenocide, part 9
Upping the Jig

“CIA?” I cocked my head at Carmichael. “Then maybe our friends at the Garden Inn aren’t really FBI agents, but still part of a different three-letter government agency?”

“That’s the way I figured. I had a lot of time to think on the drive home. When you depend on the whims of the voting public, you don’t get to let your imagination run loose too often, you know. You got a good imagination though, Adler. I’ll bet you can come to the same conclusion I did in a lot less time.”

“Conclusion?” The sheriff nodded. Why would the CIA still be hanging around if they knew who did the deed? “Oh shit.”

Carmichael laughed. “You’re faster than I thought.”

“They’re gonna pin it on someone local? Damn. I bet I know who, too.”

“I suspect they’re under a lot of pressure from above, and… from above.” He pointed at the sky. “But if you know who they’re gonna blame, you got a big jump farther than me, and about an hour faster I might add. If I thought you were the political type, I’d be worried for my job.”

I laughed. “You’ve got nothing to worry about there!”

I had to do my usual cop duties through the day, which actually worked in my favor for a change. Shortly after the smoke break, I got a text from Tenesha: Are we really both off-duty tonight?

As much as we ever are, I responded. I’d figured the Moss family wouldn’t be together until evening. I planned to wait until eight, to give them time to finish supper, then visit them. Around 9 then?

If I HAVE to wait that long… I guess. See you then!

At 8 p.m. sharp, I pulled up to the Moss residence and rang the doorbell. I remained in uniform for this visit.

A woman opened the door and gave me a puzzled look. “May I help you?”

“Mrs. Moss?” She nodded. “Are your son and husband at home?” Another nod. “Good. I need to talk to all three of you. It’s very important.”

She wasted no time ushering me in and giving me the comfy recliner while she rounded up the men of the house. The elder Moss came in first, with a smile and a handshake. “Good to see you again, Officer. If you’re here about the case you mentioned, I still haven’t heard anything.”

“It’s related to that. But I’d really like to wait until everyone’s here.”

His face fell. “Jacob’s a good kid. He can’t be in any trouble —”

“No trouble, not any he’s made for himself,” I assured him. “He’s been a big help with this case, in fact.”

“Really? He hasn’t said anything about it to us.” The elder Moss looked both proud and confused.

“Is that his computer?” I looked at the desk in the living room.

“Yeah. We heard somewhere that it’s a good way to keep the kids from looking at sites they shouldn’t be looking at, to put their computer in a more or less public space.”

I didn’t bother mentioning smartphones. If Moss Sr. hadn’t figured that out by now… but then mother and child came down the stairs to join us in the living room.

“Um, Mrs. Moss?” I began the conversation. “May I ask a personal question? Have you cleaned under the sofa recently?”

She gave me a strange look. “To be honest? No. Jacob’s too old to be hiding his toys under the sofa these days.” The kid rolled his eyes.

“Do you mind?” I reached under the sofa, found what I expected, and laid it on the coffee table.

“What is that?” Mr. Moss asked.

“That,” I said, “is a listening device. A bug, in the common parlance.” The parents stared at it goggle-eyed; the son gave me a dirty look that said Why didn’t you say something? I shrugged back. “Your son discovered a murder victim last week.” He looked like he wanted to protest, but I continued. “It turned out to be some kind of alien species — and by alien, I do mean from some other planet.” I paused a moment to let them chew on that; it took a little longer than planned. “Two people claiming to be FBI agents nominally took over the case, but we’ve continued to pursue it, and I daresay we’ve gotten farther than they would like.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Jacob.

“It means we have a pretty good idea where the shooting took place, and who did it,” I said. “We’re pretty sure that the shooter — or an accomplice — has a son in the CIA. It’s pretty likely that the so-called FBI agents are actually with the CIA, and they’re desperate to find some sucker to pin this murder on. Someone not related to one of their agents.” I let that sink in for a moment.

“You’re saying… these people are going to try to pin it on my son?” the elder Moss asked.

“Maybe him. Or maybe you,” I said. “But they’re listening in to this conversation —” I pointed at the bug on the coffee table — “so they know the jig’s up. I’m taking the device with me as evidence. We take that whole ‘serve and protect’ thing seriously, so we’re not going to let them pin a murder on an innocent citizen without a lot of publicity. If they have any sense, they’ll find some other patsy. Preferably someone not in our jurisdiction.”

All three members of the Moss family just stared, stunned. I picked up the bug. “We’ll have someone watching the place, just to make sure nobody tries to arrest you for a crime that none of you committed. Stay home if at all possible, it’ll help us help you. All right?”


Can’t wait to see how it ends? The whole story is available on Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, December 09, 2011 29 comments

#FridayFlash: Bait

“Mom! Dad! Shinies!” Elly and Sam ran to the back door, yanking at the doorknob, as Kyle climbed onto an end table and pressed his face against the window. In the scrapyard behind their house, the contents of a transparent box glittered.

“Whoa! Kids!” Mom clapped her hands twice; the two older kids turned to give her pleading looks. Kyle paid no attention. “What have we told you about shinies? Especially on cloudy days?”

Kyle, still pressed against the window, said, “The aliens are fishing. If you try to get the shinies, they’ll pull you up there. Then they’ll fry you and eat you.” His nose, pressed against the window, made him sound strange.

“That’s not true,” Sam protested. “They throw you back if you’re too little.”

“You wouldn’t taste good anyway.”

“Kyle!” Mom warned him, touching Sam to cut off a rejoinder. Kyle huffed and continued to watch.

“It came down out back?” asked Dad, coming through the front door and wiping his dirty hands on his shirt. Mom nodded.

“Jane at school says they always throw people back,” said Elly. “She said her uncle got caught, and they put him in a glider. He could see the whole world, and he knew kinda where he lived, so he tried to glide back home. But he still had to walk for a week after he landed.” She ran to give Dad a quick hug, then returned to the door.

“It’s my turn,” said Mom. She shooed Elly and Sam away from the door.

“Mom!” they protested.

“If we let you come outside to watch, do you promise to stay with me on the deck?” Dad asked.

All three kids cheered their agreement, and Kyle jumped down and joined the others in a flash. Mom opened the door, slipped through first, then stood at the steps and pointed the kids to the deck. They complied, grumbling, Dad grinning behind them. He picked up the spotlight while Mom got the hooksticks. This was the only life the kids had ever known: aliens in the sky, enticing people with shinies, and grownups playing tricks on the aliens. Their parents remembered a world in some ways better, yet poised on the brink of self-destruction, before the aliens changed everything. Dealing with aliens was hazardous, but a box of shinies was the only kind of wealth that mattered these days.

Dad pressed a button. The spotlight itself was a shiny — a piece of alien technology, bait taken from some earlier fishing trip. It showed no light of its own, but now a thin arc glowed above the shinies where Dad pointed it. “See that?” The kids nodded. “That’s their line. It’s a monomolecular filament, and it’ll stick to your skin or clothes if you touch it. Then you’re caught. That’s why we use the hooksticks. And that’s why one of us shines the line, so the other won’t get caught.”

“What’s mono— mono-leck-er?” Kyle asked.

Monomolecular, stupid,” said Sam. It means it’s one piece and you can’t cut or break it.”

“Mom!” Kyle yelled. “Sam called me stupid! Could you stick him to the line?”

Mom caught the line with one hookstick. Without turning, she said, “If you two don’t stop, I’ll put you both on the line!”

“He started it,” Kyle muttered, soft enough that only Dad heard. He and Sam made faces at each other then turned to watch Mom. Elly ignored her two younger brothers, watching Mom and looking worried.

Mom used the second hookstick to catch the hook and pull it out of the shiny bait. The kids cheered as it came loose.

“This is the dangerous part,” Dad told the kids. “A gust of wind can blow the line around, maybe get loose and catch your mom. This is why you should never play around with shinies. We can use them, but we don’t understand them all that well, and they can be dangerous.”

“What kind of shinies are they, Dad?” asked Elly.

“We’ll find out in a few minutes.” He called to Mom, “The truck. It’s closest.”

Mom nodded, watching the line and glancing at her footing as she eased the hook over to the rusty flatbed truck. Using the hookstick, she slipped the aliens’ fishing hook onto the tow point after a few tries. Then she stepped back, tightening the line, and pulled hard.

The line snapped straight, jerking the hookstick out of Mom’s loose grip and sending it flying across the scrapyard. With a groan, the truck lifted into the air, swinging and twisting. Mom dropped the second hookstick and dashed for the deck. The kids watched gaping as the truck dwindled and disappeared into the clouds.

“We need to get in the shelter for a while, kids,” said Dad. “If that truck comes loose, it’ll squash anything it lands on!” He hugged Mom. “Great job. As always.”

Other than a usual Kyle-Sam squabble, they spent an uneventful half hour in the shelter. Finally, Mom said, “Let’s go see what they left us,” and the kids dashed shrieking into the daylight and the scrapyard.

“That’s a keeper!” Zubba chittered, looking at the truck twisting on the hook.

“Yeah,” said Xob. He used his gaffe to pull the catch onboard. The two of them squelched over to it, examining it for a few minutes. “Hey Zubba… you think they’ll ever figure out we’re fishing for iron?”

Tuesday, December 06, 2011 6 comments

#TuesdaySerial: Xenocide, pt 8

Previous episodes: Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3 • Part 4 • Part 5 • Part 6 • Part 7

Xenocide, part 8
Fool’s Gold

The paydirt turned to fools’ gold: when I pulled up Danny Freeman’s Visa card, it was reported stolen. On the same day the perps got their SUV cleaned out, no less. Of course, that didn’t mean it wasn’t him — he could have wised up and tried to cover his tracks. But when I pulled his driver’s license record, his description was nothing like a reasonably fit man in his early thirties: Freeman was fifty-four, and (judging from his height and weight stats filed with the DMV) about forty pounds overweight.

I hate when a lead doesn’t pan out, but instinct told me that Freeman wasn’t exactly out of the loop on this one. The problem was, whoever used his credit card would be local to him — and that was a good hundred miles from here. Well out of our jurisdiction, and I couldn’t exactly get the State Police involved in the case since the FBI supposedly took it over.

“I’m beat,” I admitted to the sheriff on his smoke break. I was frustrated to the point of asking Carmichael for a cancer stick, but I knew Tenesha wouldn’t approve. I wouldn’t want butt-breath getting in the way. “Seriously. I don’t see any way we can take this case any further without tripping over the Feds.”

“It’s not like our friends are working the case very hard,” said the sheriff. “I’ve got Deputy Noble keeping an eye on them, but they’ve hardly left the hotel except to hit a nearby restaurant. And they’ve only done that twice in the three days since they’ve been here.”

“Yeah. I hate to let this drop, but I don’t see how I can take it any further.”

“Maybe you can’t,” the sheriff said, “but I can.”


He grinned. “I happen to know Sheriff Lester down that way, I’ll pay him a courtesy call. And while I’m there, I tell him we found a case of credit card fraud against one of his locals.”

“But how do you let him know you’re coming without the Feds catching on?”

“It’s Friday. I’m going on a weekend fishing trip — I have a trailer on Lake Baldwin, next county over. There’s no cell coverage at my place, so I’ll make the call from a payphone at the bait shop. Nothing suspicious or even out of the ordinary. I’ll be back Sunday night, and I’ll let you know if I find anything interesting.”

The weekend was a bust, no pun intended. Tenesha had shifts when I didn’t, and vice versa. I had a little excitement Saturday night, quelling a domestic disturbance. Like most cops, those are the calls I hate the most: there’s usually alcohol or less legal intoxication issues, and even the person making the call can turn on you in a heartbeat. SOP in our county for domestics is, you get backup whether you want it or not. There were two couples involved, the women no more roughed-up than the men, bombed out of their minds on who-knows-what. We ended up running all four in and getting a warrant. We found plenty of well-used drug paraphernalia, some residual this and that… but they’d smoked up everything before we got there. That was probably what triggered the quarrel.

As for the rest of the weekend, I spent it either working or watching random ballgames, either at my apartment or Ruth’s. I did a lot of fantasizing about Tenesha. You just never know how an attraction will turn out, once you get to know someone a little better, but I knew I wanted more and it seemed like Tenesha did too. There would be crap from some of the other deputies about a mixed-race relationship — bad attitudes take a long time to die — but they could mind their own business.

But one step at a time. If we were going anywhere together, we’d have to find time to be together first. She did text me Sunday afternoon: Were you in on that domestic last night?

Yeah. But they came along peacefully.

:-) Stay safe, OK?

You bet. Can I email you sched? You can pick a free evening?


Email on the way.

I got a kick out of the idea the Fibbies were reading our mushy texts and rolling their eyes.

Monday morning, I barely got to my desk when the sheriff waved toward the back door and mimed smoking a cigarette. I dropped my stuff and followed him out back.

“Catch any fish?” I was almost panting with anticipation.

Carmichael grinned. “Oh hell yes. I got enough crappie in the freezer to throw a fish fry for the entire department. Not only that, our fraud victim is a hog farmer.”

“Yeah, that fits. But we’d need more than that to pin the tail on the donkey.”

“There’s plenty more. Sheriff Lester and I go back a ways, and he didn’t have any problem telling me all about one of his upstanding citizens… and his family. If we were to bring pictures of Freeman’s son and hired hand to your detailing guy, I’d quit this stuff cold turkey if he didn’t say they’re the ones who brought the SUV in for the clean-out. Oh, and by the way, Danny Freeman owns an Excursion.”

“That fits, too. Freeman Junior and his Hired Hank ditch the body and go get the barge cleaned out for the long drive home. They pay with Dad’s credit card, then maybe call him and tell him to report it stolen to provide plausible deniability. I assume the senior Freeman was with his wife all this time, or perhaps doing something in public where they’d be recognized. Alibi covered.”

“And exposed. It doesn’t tell us who pulled the trigger, but if we could round up all three on a conspiracy charge, under normal circumstances we’d probably get one to admit to the deed.”

“Um… ‘could’? ‘Under normal circumstances’? There’s something else, isn’t there?”

The sheriff puffed his cigarette with vigor. “Yup. Turns out that Daniel Freeman, Jr. works for the CIA.”

to be continued…

Can’t wait to see how it ends? The whole story is available on Amazon and Smashwords!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 4 comments

#TuesdaySerial: Xenocide, pt 7

Previous episodes: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Xenocide, part 7

The wreck turned out to be a DUI, and there was what the sheriff was pleased to call “a shit-ton of paperwork” involved in that kind of arrest — especially since the drunk SUV driver was a regular contributor to local campaigns. As lunch rolled around, we stepped out back for a smoke break. Sheriff Carmichael was in a mood. “I already took two calls from county commissioners who would ‘consider it a personal favor’ if we went easy on the perp. Not effing likely.”

“Yeah. He nearly killed the pickup driver.” Good thing we arrived on the scene when we did — Tenesha got the guy stabilized long before the ambulance arrived, but he probably wouldn’t have lived if she hadn’t been there. I did what I could to help, but she was nearly worn out by the ordeal. It was a long time before we wrapped up, and I ended up dropping her off at her place, leaving her car at Ruth’s. She refused both taxi fare and an offer to drive her back there myself for the next morning. I did get a hug, though, and she felt exactly like I thought she would: almost athletic-firm under all the curves.

“You know what that means, right?” The sheriff took a big drag on his cig. “There’s gonna be personal injury lawsuits, and we’ll get a lot of negative publicity if we go easy on the idiot. And we’d deserve it.” He ground his butt against the brick siding and slapped it into the receptacle. “Pah. You make any headway on the alien?”

“I made a list of auto detailers in the county. Maybe we’ll get lucky. I’m gonna check ‘em out this afternoon if nothing else comes up.”

“I’ll make sure nothing else comes up.”

I wish you could have done that last night. “Not that I expect it to pan out,” I said. “If the perp had two brain cells, he’d have used a self-service car wash.”

“If he had one brain cell, he wouldn’t have dumped a body in my county,” said Carmichael. “Go check things out — like you said, you might get lucky.”

Northside Detailing, the establishment owned by Randolph Moss Sr. (Randolph Jr. went by his middle name, Jacob), was my first stop. I’d left my cellphone at my desk back at the office so the Fibs couldn’t trace my movements. Nobody had brought Moss a car that smelled like worms and burnt coffee, though. Nor did the second detailing place. But the third place, I hit paydirt.

Glisten Auto Detail was near a freeway exit, which made it a likely place for someone a long way from home to get an emergency cleanup. It was also the closest detailer to the crime scene. As with most low-paying jobs these days, the staff was mostly Hispanic immigrants. Tomas Alvarado’s English improved rapidly when he realized I spoke passable Spanish, but took pains to make sure I saw the line of pictures on the wall with everyone’s documentation.

“Yeah, I remember that smell: worms and bad coffee,” he said. “Nobody else could stand it, so I handled it myself. They just wanted the cargo area cleaned out, but ended up having a full detail done because that smell was all through their vehicle. It cost over two hundred dollars.”

“There was more than one, then? Do you remember anything about them? Names, descriptions? Anything?”

“Oh yeah. There were two of them. White guys, not much older than us. Both of them looked — trim, is that the word? They paid by credit card, so I’ve got all that on file. We can pull it up. What happened? Did they kill somebody?”

“They’re persons of interest in a case.” The sheriff was right: these guys didn’t have a single functioning brain cell between them. Not only did they leave a trail of witnesses, they left directions to one of their houses. “Great,” I said, following him into the office. “What kind of vehicle was it, anyway?”

“A big SUV. Ford Expedition, I think. But we’ve got that on file too.” He clicked his mouse and tapped his keyboard. “Aha. Here it is. Oh, I was wrong. Ford Excursion. He said it was a bag of compost that leaked. It sort of made sense.”

I had a notepad and pen at the ready, and leaned over his shoulder to get the details. This Danny Freeman was going to get roasted and toasted.

“Oh, one more thing,” I said. “Have you had anyone else come in asking about this? FBI?” Alvarado shook his head. “Good. If they do show up, none of the local deputies have been here. Okay?”

Mi ingles no es bueno, señor.” He grinned. “If they have a warrant, they’ll find this record though.”

“That’s fine. The important thing is they don’t know we’re still working this case. You’ve been a big help, Tomas. I don’t have any ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cards on me, but I owe you a favor if you need it. Hope you never do.” I wrote my new number on a blank card. “If you think of anything else, or the Feds come around, call my personal cell. You’ll get voicemail because I usually leave it turned off, but if it’s something urgent you should call 911 anyway.”

“Right.” A grimy-looking Honda, pulling into the lot, caught his attention. “Gotta get back to work. Hope you catch those guys.”

Back at the office, I texted Tenesha from my “on the books” cellphone: Bummed about last night, but what’s important is the guy’s gonna live.

Five minutes later, I got a reply: Glad you see it that way. Me too. Maybe we’ll be luckier next time.

Hope so! I added a smiley face that reflected my real one.

She responded with a winky face. Life was good.


Can’t wait to see how it ends? The whole story is available on Amazon and Smashwords!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 3 comments

#TuesdaySerial: Xenocide, pt 6

Thanks to John Xero for looking this over and helping me clean it up. If you don’t want to wait for the ending, you should be able to get the whole story on the Kindle Store and Smashwords this week…

Previous episodes: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Xenocide, part 6
Out On the Town

I talked Tenesha into meeting me at Ruth’s. I wanted to catch her up, sure, but part of me just wanted to show off my new wheels. It was a perfect car for undercover work: a gold Cutlass Supreme, lowered, with oversize wheels, plenty of chrome and pinstriping, and a killer sound system. Nobody would expect an undercover cop to drive something so gaudy.

“Looks like something my cousin would drive,” said Tenesha when she saw it. “What possessed you to get a ride like that?”

I lowered my voice. “It’s not official, but I’m still on that case. I needed something the Fibs hadn’t managed to get their buggy little mitts on.”

Her eyes got big. “No shit? You’re still gonna investigate this?”

“Yeah. You didn’t hear this, but the sheriff is backing me up. He got me this car out of the impound lot.” I grinned. “So… you wanna take a drive?”

“Let’s have a drink or two first. Then we’ll see.”

We left after a couple beers and a big plate of nachos to put something on our stomachs. “Where to, copper?” she grinned.

I was tempted to say something stupid like My place, but managed to (as Moss might say) keep it real. “Oh… no place in particular. I just thought we’d cruise the strip, maybe wind it up on the freeway a little. Then come back here and see what they’ve got for dessert.”

“Sounds like a good first date!”

The temperature seemed to climb a few degrees, and I tried to recover. “The stereo’s awesome in this thing. Pick a station?”

“Nah.” She turned it off. “We’ve never had a chance to just chat.”

She had a good point there. The beers got us past the awkward teenager thing, keeping the silences short and amusing, and we ended up telling each other our life stories. “I decided to be an EMT after we got wrecked when I was a kid,” she said. “I was buckled in good in the back seat, so I was just shaken up and scared. Mom was hurt pretty bad though. I thought those guys who got us out of the car and to the hospital were heroes, and I decided I wanted to be just like them.” She sat for a moment, remembering. “What about you?” she asked at last. “What made you decide to be a cop?”

“A couple of things,” I said. “I grew up out in the country, and the cops didn’t have a good reputation. I always thought I could do a better job than that. My brother getting beat up really bad and robbed sealed the deal for me. I was in college, majoring in biology at the time. They never tried to catch the people who did it, even though he gave good descriptions of the perps. I knew I had to do something to make a difference then, so I left college and enrolled in the academy first chance I got.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, laying a hand on my arm.

I slid my own hand off the wheel and took her hand. “It’s okay,” I said. “He got over it — I don’t think it changed his life as much as mine. But I like the work. We don’t solve every crime here, but we do our best and —”

“Oh no!” Tenesha pointed. Up ahead, in the intersection, an SUV and a pickup truck had mixed it up. The pickup was on its side. I hit the emergency flashers and grabbed the portable radio; Tenesha was already out the door and running toward the scene.

That’s the thing about being a cop — or an EMT — you’re never really off-duty. And the evening had looked so promising.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011 4 comments

#TuesdaySerial: Xenocide, pt 5

Previous episodes: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Xenocide, part 5
The Crack House That Wasn’t

“Hey. Can I talk to you?” The Moss kid stuck his head through the window of my patrol car.

“Sure. What about?” I put a finger to my lips, then grabbed my ears and stretched them away from my skull.

He smiled, lips pressed together, shaking with silent laughter, then recovered quickly. “Uh… you know there’s a crack house just up the block from here?”

I cocked one eyebrow, he shook his head. “No. What’s the address?”

“I didn’t write down the number. But I can show you where it is.”

“They’ll be watching for cop cars. Maybe you can take me on foot.”

“Yeah.” He smirked. “C’mon, I’ll show you.”

I rolled up the windows and locked the car, and we walked up the block. “They bugged you too?” he asked me, sotto voce. “That’s some serious shit. I mean, yeah, what’s a kid gonna do about it. But a cop?”

“I doubt there’s much we can do about it either,” I said. “They’ll just deny it. I was trying to figure out how to get word to you when you came by just now.”

“I saw ‘em do it.” Moss shook his head. He looked angry. “Assholes. My computer’s in the living room. That ice queen’s on the sofa, she leans down to tie her shoe, and the big jock’s at my desk. I saw him reach up underneath. I guess he figured I’d be staring at her tits or something. Yeah I did, but I didn’t exactly focus on them. They were okay, but there’s girls at school with better racks than hers. One or two I might even have a chance with.”

I laughed. “What did you do about it?”

“I downloaded that sucky Cop Killer track off a torrent, hung a speaker right next to their bug, and put the track on repeat at full volume for a couple hours. Parents were out, so I just left the house and left it running. By the time I got back I figured they got tired of it and turned it off, so I pried it loose and threw it in the garbage.”

We both laughed. “You know they probably left one or two more where they wouldn’t be so obvious. The sheriff figures they can hear everything going on in the office, so we don’t talk about it there or in our cars.”

“Damn. So you guys are still on the case?”

“Let’s just say we haven’t closed our books on it just yet.” I stopped and thought a minute. “Hey… doesn’t your dad own a car detailing place?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“If we get lucky, he just might have a lead for me.” I motioned for us to turn back. “Listen. You’re a smart kid, smarter than you let on. Stay out of trouble, and you might just surprise some people, how far you go. Okay?”

To my surprise, he laughed. “That’s what I’m plannin’ on, Ossifer Friendly.”

The senior Moss owned Northside Detailing — the name made me wonder if the kid inherited his dad’s sense of humor. There were over a dozen full-service detailers in the county, some that made house calls, and more self-serve car washes than I could count. If the perp decided to hose that alien goop out on his own, I was SOL — and that’s what I expected. But I had to run these leads down. I couldn’t do it from the office, because the Fibbies were sure to have the phones tapped on top of the mikes they left around. A visual inspection turned up four bugs, including one in the men’s room, and we hadn’t even started electronic sweeping yet. I figured my home phone and cellphone were similarly numbers of interest, so I used the old drug dealer trick of paying cash for a prepaid cell and enough minutes to deal with the situation.

On a smoke break the next morning, I let the sheriff know what I had in mind. He surprised me: “You know that Cutlass we impounded back in April? It’s still in the lot. I’ll let Sam know you need it for some undercover work. There’s some cash from the same bust, still in the safe.” He grinned. “You never know when you’re gonna need a slush fund.”

I laughed. “Man. The Fibbies really got on your bad side. I wonder if they know how bad.”

Sheriff Carmichael put the grin away. “To be honest, Adler: I’m probably taking this a little too personal. But someone dumped a body in my county, and the Fibbies bugged my office. I don’t mean to let either one just slide. There’s not a lot I can do personally, but I can give you a whole lot of leeway to pursue this.” He shook his head. “If you decide you’ve hit a dead end, though? Just let it drop. I’m probably giving you too much encouragement as it is. But I’d sure like to wipe that smug look off the Feds, you know?”



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