Rodolfo’s Pizzeria

by Joe Mankowski

 

Aaron looked out the front window of Rodolfo’s Pizzeria. He could see the lights to Barry’s Diner across the street turning off. It was late, and in Ash Falls, that meant only the weirdos would be out looking for food.

Aaron turned his attention to a clock decorated by tacky, plastic grape vines. It was nearly eleven. He stared at the minute hand with disdain. Some knock-off Pavarotti album was playing over the speakers. He wished Maurice would turn it off after normal business hours. None of the timberworkers, drug addicts, or gangly teens gave a crap about Rodolfo’s aesthetic.

The pizzeria was a counter-top dive bar with a false liquor license on a good day. It had white floor tiles, stained by blotches of marinara sauce and a glass display case for the ‘fresh’ pies. There were two sets of plastic lawn furniture covered in parmesan cheese and a few stools to the right of the cash register for seating. It was a wonder anyone ever came in. The slices were over-priced and often reheated. Aaron stayed because Maurice paid him under the table and gave him hours that worked around his college schedule – even though Aaron hadn’t taken a class in two semesters.

The store phone rang.

“Yeah?” Aaron said.

“I can see you on the camera, Ron. Quit leaning on the counter,” snapped Maurice through the phone. “Look busy. Start mopping the floors or something.”

“I’m waiting for a Mister Don Calriss to pick up his pizza order,” Aaron said as he checked the order slip and pizza box beside the register. The pizza was already cold.

“Don’s a regular. He can wait.” There was an audible shuffling of papers. “I can’t give you a raise if you don’t earn it.” The line went dead.

The threat of not getting a raise nearly made Aaron laugh. He had worked cashier for three years now, and only received a ten-cent raise after working his first year for the scumbag. Aaron didn’t put the phone back on its station. The machine buzzed monotonously. If Maurice wanted to criticize his work ethic again, he’d have to leave his broom closet of an office.

Aaron stared out the front window of the shop again. He watched a few cars roll by. Barry’s Diner was completely dark. Only the red ‘Closed’ sign was visible. A street lamp flickered. When he looked back at the clock, it was five-past-eleven. Swearing under his breath, Aaron pushed his way through the kitchen door to fill the mop bucket.

Two days worth of dishes were sitting in the kitchen sink. The drain had been clogged since the Friday before last. The plumbing was backed up to the point wherein the piping was secreting black liquid through the faucets. Flour and cheese were smeared on the floor. Two flies buzzed around a ball of dough Maurice had forgotten about.

Beneath the sink was a yellow mop bucket. The smell of it up close was a nauseating concoction of spoiled dairy and ammonia. Beside the bucket was a tub of bleach. Aaron tipped the rest of it in.

“Maurice, we’re out of bleach!” he shouted.

There was a disgruntled sound from the office attached to the kitchen. Aaron could hear his boss struggling to stand under his own weight. “What was that?” Maurice said.

“There’s no more bleach.”

The owner of Rodolfo’s stared at the empty can for a moment. “Buy more.”

“Everything’s closed.”

“Then pick some up tomorrow on your way in. Take some cash out of the drawer, and bring me a receipt.”

Maurice waddled back into his office and slammed the door. Why don’t you do something other than sweat in your swivel chair you lard, thought Aaron. He pushed the mop bucket towards a hoseline and turned the water on. There was a gurgling sound of fluid being backed up. Aaron swore again and reached for the the mop, which was caked in flour.

As he lifted it, a family of worms dropped onto the floor. They were pale, thick, and white with a waxy texture. They flopped and squirmed, but Aaron paid no attention to them. The were all over the kitchen.

Finally, the hoseline began to dribble water.

The bell to the front door chimed.

“Door!” Maurice called from his office.

“I’m going,” Aaron said. He left the water running, assuming if he took long enough the bucket would overflow and do half his job cleaning the floor.

Aaron approached the counter. “Welcome to Rodolfos,” he said.

Hi’yah. Ordered a meat-lovers.”

“You’re Mister Calriss?” Aaron thought the man looked familiar, perhaps he was a Tuesday regular – the one day Aaron didn’t work. Either way, the guest looked sickly, like an addict, but still well fed. Aaron assumed the man had ordered the pie for only himself. He noticed the guest scratching at some hives on his neck. Tapeworm, thought Aaron, or maybe an infection.

“Ay’yuh,” said the guest. He tossed a crumpled twenty-dollar bill onto the counter.

“It’s twenty-six ninety-nine.”

Mister Calriss snorted. “Is Maurice in?”

“No,” Aaron lied. He was told to always lie.

The man squinted for a second and lifted his nose a little as he inhaled a bit too much. Aaron had the awkward sensation the man was trying to smell him. “You jus’ tell ‘im I stopped by. Don’t forget. Don Calriss came in tuh see ‘im.”

“Sure.”

Mister Calriss dropped another crumpled twenty onto the counter. Aaron punched the buttons on his register and gave the guy his change.

“This pizza is stone cold, ya know.”

“The order was for an eight o’clock pick up,” Aaron replied.

He grunted again. “Can ya warm it up for me?”

“The ovens are off. We’re closing.”

Mister Calriss sneered out of the corner of his mouth but said no more and left. A minute or so after, Maurice appeared. He was holding a brown leather bowling bag.

“I tried calling you from my office, but the line was dead.”

Aaron picked up the phone and gave it a shake. “Cord must be loose.”

“How much did you charge Don?”

“Twenty-Six,” Aaron said.

“And he paid it?”

Aaron nodded.

“What an idiot,” Maurice laughed. He grabbed a fistful of napkins and dabbed at his balding head, then the stubble on his chin, and lastly the folds between his neck. He looked like a pig roasting in spandex. The napkins fell to the floor.

Aaron stepped aside while his boss closed out the register. He watched as Maurice removed the till and poured everything into his bowling bag. “What time did you get in today?”

“Six,” Aaron answered.

Maurice reached into his cash bag and pulled out the two crumpled twenty-dollar bills and gave it to him. “For tonight,” he said. “And pick up bleach tomorrow.”

Aaron nodded.

“I’m going home to count this. Lock up at midnight. Finish mopping. Take out the trash, and exit out the back door.”

“What if a customer tries to pay with cash?”

“Tell them we only accept cash until eleven.” Maurice grabbed an empty pizza box and a black marker. “New house rule. Write it down and tape it to the display case. No one argues when there’s a sign.”

Maurice left through the front door a few minutes later with his bowling bag tucked tightly beneath his arm. Aaron watched him go, before walking into Maurice’s office where the knock-off Pavarotti album labeled Italiano Muzico was being played. He flipped the audio-player switch to ‘Off’.

He looked around Maurice’s office. It hadn’t been cleaned since the day Aaron had been hired. There were tin-foil wraps filled with burger grease and white worms. He found stray fries that had been kept warm in the crease of Maurice’s folding chair. A paper stack of overdue bills and health-code violations were so high it seemed as though eviction was an empty threat. And then, of course, there were the posters of swimsuit models taped to the walls.

Aaron felt the heel of his right shoe squish a rogue worm. Its guts popped and confettied the floor like black pus from an aged zit.

Back in the kitchen, Aaron could hear water splashing onto the floor. He covered his mouth and nose with his arm. A pool of brownish water was spreading beneath the sink and metal racks holding sacks of flour. The backed up piping was now affecting the hose. Aaron made his way to the faucet valve and twisted it off, then picked up the nearest phone.

“What?” came Maurice’s voice through his cell phone.

“The hoseline is spitting out brown sludge.”

“I’ve called the City’s water department, they said a plumber would be by this week. I ain’t paying out of pocket for the Ash Falls issues.”

“So mop with sludge water?”

“Better than nothing,” Maurice said. The line clicked and went dead.

Aaron smeared the water around the kitchen floor. Some of the worms that had been inhabiting the mop swelled as they, too, were wiped towards the drain. He did his best to mash them through. Aaron emptied the trash bins around the pizzeria, then propped the back door open with a brick. He stepped out into the alley.

A single lamp tried to illuminate the dark stretch between buildings. Aaron always got the creeps when he had to take out the trash at the end of the night. The dumpster was halfway between the back door of Rodolfo’s and the street. Everything was twisted in shadows.

There were usually weird things happening in the alley. Aaron had seen it all. People shooting up green syringes of who-knows-what, hairy men wrestling to settle a score, women with wild hair drawing symbols in chalk and foaming at the mouth. Only the weirdos of Ash Falls came out at night. Only the weirdos seemed to inhabit the alley behind Rodolfo’s. Except tonight, for some reason.

Aaron looked around. There wasn’t another human in sight.

Something scurried across the ground. A cat or a fat rat, Aaron wasn’t sure. But then, the sound of more scuttling followed. Out of the sewer grates climbed nearly two-dozen rats. They all clawed at each other and the pavement. Aaron pulled out his phone and turned on its flashlight.

The rodents were covered in a blackish oil and ooze. Their eyes were red. Some had hairless patches, while others had visible gashes. This wasn’t the first time Aaron had seen rats in the alleyway. Knowing how they hated light, he waved his phone at them. They scurried off and out towards the street.

A door behind Aaron slammed shut. He turned around to see the back door to Rodolfo’s closed. “Crap,” he said to no one. The door automatically locked from the inside. Aaron hurried towards the dumpster. His cell phone revealed clusters of wax worms along the way. The rats, he assumed, had brought them up through the sewer system.

When Aaron reached the dumpster, he found mounds of trash ignored by the city’s waste disposal department. There were dozens of bags piled high around a rusted metal bin. The infestation of worms continued there. They were fatter around the dumpster, like breakfast sausages. Aaron could see them nursing on the waste.

They had mutated; evolved ever so slightly with little tentacle appendages wiggling around the surface of the garbage bags. They probed and prodded for openings. Aaron tossed his bag to them and left the alleyway.

Thankful for not locking the front door to the pizzeria, Aaron returned to his counter. The grapevine clock read ten-to-midnight. He drummed his fingers on the surface of the empty register and stared out the windows. There were no more cars driving by. No one walking along the sidewalk or peering into the pizzeria. Aaron thought about his couch, his game console, and the case of beer in his fridge. Looking up at the security camera, Aaron noticed that the recording light was off. What Maurice didn’t know, wouldn’t bother him, Aaron reasoned. He had already been paid for his shift anyway.

Aaron reached into his pockets. He couldn’t remember where he had pocketed the money. Feeling through all of them, he wondered if he had set it down in the kitchen while mopping.

Aaron retraced his steps. He checked the office and his jacket that had been hanging on a hook by the door. He poked the pizza dough to see if it had melted over his two twenty-dollar bills. Aaron’s money was lost.

In his frustration, he kicked the mop bucket. It crashed against the back door, which popped open, and rolled out into the alleyway. Had the door been open the whole time? Aaron wasn’t sure. He had seen it closed. He had heard it slam shut. The brick, perhaps, had kept the door from latching completely.

Looking out into the alleyway, Aaron thought about when he had taken his phone out of his pocket. His money could have fallen out at that moment. The rats had been creepy enough to keep his attention from his money tumbling away in the dark.

Aaron turned his phone light on again. He wedged the brick more securely in the door. Scanning the pavement, he moved his phone from side-to-side. He saw the mop bucket overturned. Its bleach-sludge-concoction spilled out towards the large sewer drain. He aimed his light at it.

The gurgling of sewer water traveled through the storm-drains below. The smell of sulfur and stale water hung in the air. There was a slight tremor underground. Aaron ignored it.

Through the metal grate, Aaron saw it. His money was stuck to black gunk on the inner lining below. The mop water had washed it through the grate, but not all the way down. Getting on his hands and knees, Aaron surveyed the best way to get his money. Maurice wouldn’t pay him a second time for losing his day’s wages.

Aaron slid his hand between the bars. He could feel the damp air clinging to his skin. The underside of the grate was caked with the black ooze that had coated the rats and their fur. Aaron had to hold his breath as he lowered himself closer to the ground. His wrist and forearm slid down. It was difficult to see how much further he needed to reach. Aaron contorted his body and placed his phone over the grate. The light shined down directly. Hundreds of worms wriggled in the muck below.

The back door to Rodolfo’s slammed shut. Aaron swore as he twisted his head back. The brick was lying flat against the pavement. Next, Aaron’s phone began to vibrate. It shook the metal grate and teetered off balance.

“No, no, no! Shit!” Aaron screamed. His phone slipped through the gap and fell to the depths of the sewer below. He heard a faint splash. The light zapped out.

Aaron removed his hand. A worm had crawled onto it; one of the nasty, sausage-sized ones. He felt its little tendrils probing along his skin. Aaron brushed it off and crushed it with the heel of his shoe. The popping of its guts was audible, like an exploding ketchup packet.

Without a key, Aaron had no way to get back into the pizzeria. His house key was in his coat pocket. His phone was now destroyed. His money was gone. Aaron was on the verge of giving the mop bucket another swift kick when another worm groped at his ankle.

Aaron went to swat it away when he realized it wasn’t a worm at all, but a tentacle. A thick, arm-length appendage that reached out through the grate. The dim alleyway lamp illuminated its white, waxy coating. He screamed. More were beginning to feel their way out of the sewer. Dozens, then hundreds. Their slimy flesh slurped at the pavement. Aaron reached for the mop bucket and slammed it on the tentacle that had latched itself around his foot.

There was a shriek from beneath the storm drain. In revenge, the other tentacles lashed out towards the bucket. Aaron felt it being pulled from his grip. Then, in fear, he watched as the yellow plastic was crushed. Aaron tried to back away, but his foot stepped in a puddle of mop water and the splash alerted the monster that he was still there.

The cover to the storm drain rumbled. The tendrils lashed out at Aaron again, this time grabbing both of his ankles. They bit into him like leeches, pulsing and sucking on his skin until it was torn open.

There was a loud crash and the sewer grate was tossed free. A long, translucent, slithering creature with black veins pumping beneath the surface of its flesh appeared. There were no eyes or snout, just white flesh covered in mucus and a mouth – a gaping hole at the top of its head that reared itself towards Aaron as its tentacles continued to grope and suck at his ankles.

Aaron couldn’t move. He was paralyzed. A cold wave of numbness washed over him from his ankles upwards. All he could do was stare at the ten-foot worm as it revealed rows of jagged teeth with chunks of undigested flesh caught between.

Aaron couldn’t even scream. His throat was being squeezed by longer tentacles that had found their way through the drain. The creature’s tongue unraveled itself through the center of its mouth; boiled and black. It spat mucus onto him, and then, from the back of its throat it vomited thousands of its own spawn.

Aaron closed his eyes as the new vermin made a feast of his flesh. Then the monster leaned over him and swallowed him whole.

 

END

Luminore

Maelin flew spectacularly through the air, landing in the water. Allen laughed. She glared at him.

“That’s not funny.” She growled as she struggled free of the clinging mud. He had tripped her. She knew it. Just like she knew he was the one who kept hiding her stuffed giraffe. Sleeping with a stuffed animal did not make her a baby.

Allen laughed again. “Ah, don’t be a pansy. I was just joking.”

Maelin gulped down her tears as she stomped toward drier ground. Allen kept laughing, following her as if he meant to do it again. Maelin shoved him. He landed in the lake muck with a splat. Maelin ran toward the woods. She did not want to see anybody. Not Tanner, or Summer, and especially not Allen.

Only after she had to stop running in order to catch her breath did she realize that she was out-of-bounds. Nuts. Her parents would ground her for eternity and beyond. That would be the icing on the already crumbly mess of summer.

She kicked a pine cone. It bounced off a tree and flew back toward her. She ducked and followed the pine cone’s trajectory, her adrenalin slowing.

“Stupid Allen. It’s your fault that I’m out of bounds.” She kicked the pine cone again. “Stupid camp. I wish we’d never come.” She followed the pine cone and kicked it a third time. It flew through a tunnel of trees, missing all of them, and landing beyond her sight.

Impressed, she chased after it. The trees opened onto a small clearing, overgrown with bushes, a trailing vine climbing the remnants of a rotting fence. The fence cozied up to an ancient pile of junk, a gorilla’s face haughtily laughing at her. Maelin hesitantly stepped closer. The gorilla didn’t move.

She took another step and released her held breath. It was a painted life-sized sculpture. She ran a finger over his face. There was no dust, though it felt as if she were the first visitor in ages. There should be dust. The climbing vine had wrapped around most of his body. Maelin tugged at the greenery. It held fast to its prize.

She flipped open her pocket knife and carefully cut the vine away from the gorilla. The plant reluctantly released its prize. The gorilla was whole, the paint slightly faded without any chips or damage. A pole pierced the gorilla through the middle of his back, pinning him to a plank of painted wood beneath his feet and a moving metal arm above his head. The tarnished metal glinted as she moved, the pole shivering slightly.

Curious, Maelin took a step back, tugging at the vine as she walked.

Unbelievably, the rest of the plant slid off of their treasure as if every grasping tendril had been cut, revealing an ancient carousel with six animals poised as if they were ready to run or fly. The gorilla seemed, if anything, haughtier in his observation of the young girl. Maelin walked past him, running her hands over the ostrich, polar bear, badger, bullfrog, and dragon. It was the oddest group of animals she had ever seen on a carousel.

She backed away from the carousel. The integrity seemed intact. The fence stopped her backward progression with a shower of wood dust.  

Beyond the carousel she could see the remains of other fair attractions. She ventured near a crumbling booth. One figure remained semi-upright at the back of the wooden structure, waiting for a ball or pellet gun to knock it over. The wood crumbled where she touched it, the paint worn away by years of moisture and abuse.

The carousel creaked. Maelin jumped, but no one was there. She brushed the dust from her hands and returned to the whole carousel.

Had someone abandoned the carousel more recently than the rest of the fair attractions? Was that how it looked so good compared to the rest of the fair cemetery?

She carefully stepped onto the platform. The wood groaned, but held. For a moment, she smelled popcorn and cotton candy. She took a second whiff, but it had passed. A light flickered in the corner of her vision. She turned, but the bulbs decorating the inner pole of the carousel were mostly broken. She touched them, her fingers coming away clean, again. Odd.

She walked the circumference of the carousel platform and stopped in front of the gorilla. He hadn’t shifted, or moved. That would be impossible, but his expression seemed content somehow. She ran her fingers across his back. Each hair felt as if it had been individually carved and intricately painted. Several strands switched color midway through, as real hair often did.

Maelin peeked around the small clearing. She was the only person there, not even the birds dared peep as she climbed onto the gorilla. Eyes closed, the fair grew around her.

Music and laughter twined through the air. Children ran around adults, sticky and giggly. Women wore elegant dresses, their hair coiffed, and makeup perfect. Men tugged at suit jackets, offering their arms to the women around them as they waited in lines for the rides and booths. A breeze lifted Maelin’s hair, almost as if the carousel were slowly shivering to life.

She opened her eyes to bones and mud. “Thanks for the ride.” She patted the gorilla on the shoulder. “It was nice.”  

Maelin walked a little deeper into the dead fairgrounds. Mud sucked at her shoes and her clothes crinkled, reminding her of her unfortunate lake-bath.

“Dagnammit!” She exclaimed as she looked up and realized the sky had turned pink. She did not want to be grounded for the rest of this miserable trip. Maelin raced back to camp, the knife slipping from her pocket to land in a patch of overgrown grass on the outer edge of the clearing.

 

###

 

Maelin sat on the log near the fire. Summer passed her a bag of marshmallows and a stick. “You missed dinner,” Summer whispered. “Where were you?”

Maelin popped three marshmallows onto the pokey end of the stick. “Nowhere.” She lied.

“Huh,” Summer grunted while she stabbed her marshmallow into the fire. “Allen apparently went swimming today.” Summer turned the marshmallow, burning the underside as thoroughly as the top. “By himself.” She turned the stick a third time, then grinned as the marshmallow caught fire. “In his clothes.”

Maelin ignored Summer, holding her own marshmallows just close enough to the flame to grow warm. She preferred them crisp and brown, not crisp and black.

“Tanner said you had gone to the lake with Allen, and that he was going to meet up with both of you there,” Summer did not give up. “But when Tanner got there, you’d already gone and Allen was covered in muck.” Summer plucked the crusted black shell from her marshmallow, ate it with a flourish, and stuck the remaining gooey center back into the flame until it bubbled and crusted.

“He didn’t bother you, did he?”

“Nah,” Maelin finally responded. “He was just being a spaz.”

Bracken cracked as Tanner walked up behind them, dust and branches clinging to his clothes, the bottom half of his pants caked in mud. “Where’d you go?” He demanded as he sat on Maelin’s left, stealing one of her perfectly brown marshmallows. She whomped him on the head with the handle of her roasting stick. “Ouch!” he ducked away from her. “What was that for?”

“Buzz off.” Maelin snapped. Tanner looked hurt as he scooted to the opposite end of the log. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

Maelin felt as if she might cry again. It was bad enough that Allen thought he was being funny, her friends did not need to know what happened by the lake today. She popped her last marshmallow off the stick and thunked it against the log hard enough that it snapped in half before she marched away from the fire.

Tanner followed her. She barely acknowledged his presence with a growl and a glare. “You don’t have to tell me anything, but I thought you might want this back.” He stuck his hand in front of Maelin, a small knife in his palm.

Maelin snatched her knife from Tanner and shoved it into her pocket. “Where’d you get it?” She asked as she reversed direction walked toward the lake. The nearly-full moon lit the path well enough that she didn’t even miss the flashlight she usually carried around after dark. Tanner followed.

“What were you doing out of bounds?” He asked instead of answering.

Did Tanner want to get punched?

“None of your business.” Maelin growled.

Tanner whistled a cheery tune and pointed to the stars. “Look, it’s Orion.”

Tanner chatted as if Maelin hadn’t been snapping at him since he arrived at the fire. She felt a pinch of guilt. She stopped walking, the pocket knife thumping to a halt against her leg.

With a gasp, she turned to her friend. “What were you doing out of bounds!?”

Tanner gaped. “It took you that long to figure it out?”

Maelin straightened defensively, taking a deep breath to better her argument.

Tanner held up a hand. “I was looking for you! When Allen said you ran off in a huff, I knew that you wouldn’t pay attention to where you were going. You barely pay attention when a clearly paved road points you in a specific direction.” He was right. She was skilled at getting lost.

“I was not in a huff.” Maelin said, though her tone lost its bite.

“I know better than to believe everything Allen spews.” Tanner agreed. “But I had to find you before we lost you to the forest sprites.”

Maelin giggled. They had made up the sprites when they were six, the very first year their families had started traveling together. Every state they visited had a different sprite. West Virginia had forest sprites, vindictive little beings that bit like mosquitos, but left welts the size of Texas. Allen insisted that they were too old for sprites. Maelin and Tanner believed in them anyway.

“I found the knife about a mile from camp.” He smirked. “Must have been a forest sprite that led me to it. I never would have found it otherwise.” Maelin shifted uncomfortably.

“I found something else.” He hinted.

“Yeah?” Maelin asked.

“A dragon.” He whispered dramatically. Maelin jumped.

“Woah, it wasn’t a real dragon.” He put a hand on her arm as if she might take flight. Maelin wasn’t so sure that the possibility had passed. “It was a carousel. Strangest carousel I’ve ever seen.”

“With a gorilla?” Maelin asked.

“Yeah. And a badger…” Tanner started to say.

“Ostrich, polar bear, and bullfrog.” They finished together, listing the animals in order. “You saw it too!” They both pointed. “I didn’t make it up!” It was a real possibility since they both spoke with forest sprites every day.

Without conferring, they both ran into the woods. Tanner took the lead, guiding them back to the clearing without error.

Maelin immediately climbed onto the gorilla. Tanner leapt aboard the dragon, whistling shrilly.

“And now we soar!” He cheered and whooped as his imagination carried him over the land.

“Children.” Maelin grumbled in a tone she imagined the gorilla would use. “Always thinking they need to be showy.” She tightened her grip on the pole and squeezed her knees together. “We’ll show them!” In her imagination the gorilla dove into the trees, climbing and leaping with the agility of a much smaller monkey. She looked into the sky.

“Look out Tanner! There’s a flying sprite coming for you!” It was an orange sprite from New Mexico.

“He’ll never catch me.” Tanner ducked and hissed as if the dragon had released a throat full of flame. “But the gutter sprite might get you!”

“Drat. It must have stowed away from our trip through New York.” Maelin swerved and thumped the gutter sprite with her knife.

“Maelin! Tanner! Get down from there!” Summer broke the illusion with her mad stomping through the battle grounds. Maelin slid off the gorilla and leapt to the ground, her heart pounding three-thousand miles an hour. Tanner landed beside her. “That cannot be safe.” Summer nudged them away from the carousel before circling it.

“Why’d you follow us?” Tanner demanded.

“So you wouldn’t get into trouble.” Summer mumbled, her focus elsewhere. She stared at the ostrich as if she hadn’t seen anything so elegant in her life.

“You want to ride her, don’t you?” Maelin asked.

“No.” Summer glared at her friends. “I came to take you back to camp before our parents notice we are gone.”

“You just wanted to snoop.” Maelin nudged her friend closer to the ostrich. It was easy to stop Summer from tattling, just capture her imagination. “Sit on her.”

“No.” Summer shook her head, quite emphatically, but the sparkle in her eyes gave away her fascination.

“You can feel the feathers.” Tanner edged toward Summer, trapping her in front of the large bird.

“Ostriches are fast, you know.” Maelin said. “And fierce.”

Summer looked at Tanner, then Maelin. She laughed. “Alright, alright.” She hesitantly stepped onto the carousel platform. It creaked. She stopped.

“It hasn’t broken yet.” Maelin encouraged.

“Not helping.” Summer cautiously placed both of her hands on the large bird. Her eyes widened with wonder. “She’s incredible.”

Maelin laughed and climbed back onto the gorilla while Tanner mounted the dragon.

“Do you think we could get this up and running?” Summer asked after they had played for a while.

“No idea.” Tanner hopped off the dragon and walked around the carousel, looking under the platform. “There doesn’t seem to be any sort of plug.” He stopped. “Wait. There might have been one here, once.”

Summer passed him a flashlight. He shone it on the dark hole.

Maelin stuck her tongue out at him. “You won’t see anything in the dark. We’ll have to come back in the morning.”

“No…” Summer interjected.

“It was your idea to get it working.” Tanner reminded her. She shut her yap.

“Fine. I’ll come back with you tomorrow.” Summer pulled Tanner up by the back of his shirt. “Now let’s get back to camp before they realize we are gone.”

 

###

 

“Where were you last night?” Marley plopped onto the fireside log next to Summer. He tipped half his eggs onto her plate. She gobbled them down without answering his question. “Fine. Don’t tell me. I’ll just ask Tanner. He was up early this morning, rummaging through the van. I swear I saw several wires and tools sticking out of his pockets.” He slowly chewed a bite of toast. “I’m sure dad won’t mind, when I tell him…”

“Fine.” Summer slapped her hand over his mouth. “Shut up and I’ll show you later.”

“Oooh, show. Must be something good.” He spoke through her hand and raised his bread as if he meant to eat it through her palm. She removed her hand with a disgusted grunt and wandered off. He ate the rest of his breakfast with glee, snuck from camp before he could be roped into washing dishes, and found Summer on the path to the lake. Tanner and Maelin argued with her, falling silent when he approached.

“I bullied her into it.” Marley copped up to his behavior. “Had to see where you went off to.”

“Fine. But no one else knows.” Maelin insisted.

“I won’t tell.” Marley said. “Summer’s the weak link.”

Maelin glared at Summer.

“Aah, don’t put too much blame on her. I’ve had lots of practice pushing my little cousin’s buttons.”

“You are only three days older than me.” Summer protested.

“Still older. Now where is this mystery you were going to show me?”

Marley followed his friends down the path. They turned off of it when the lake became visible and walked through the forest until everyone was hot and sweaty. Anticipation caught his breath as his friends stopped walking. “Remember, this is top secret.” Maelin was so cute when she got all irate and commanding on them. He ruffled her hair. She swatted his hand and he ducked before she could deck him.

“I know. I know.” He pushed her through the last layer of trees and stopped as soon as he entered the clearing, his jaw falling to the ground.

“A carousel? You found a whole freaking carousel?” He bounced up to the carousel, stopping in front of the bullfrog. “Who puts a frog on a carousel?” He ran both hands over the carved animal, the skin smooth and warm beneath his touch.

“The same person who puts an ostrich on a carousel.” Summer jumped onto the platform and patted the Ostrich on the head. Maelin was already climbing onto the gorilla while Tanner straddled the dragon.

Marley walked around the frog three times. He felt as if it might leap off the platform the moment a proper breeze came up. He stopped behind the frog, ready to slide onto its back when he heard a crunch of branches. Everyone froze, silent and wary.

Katherine stepped into the clearing, her eyes snapping between the children and the broken ride. “You are going to be in so much trouble.”

Marley bounded off the platform and tucked an arm around her shoulders. “But you aren’t going to be the one to tell on us, now are you?”

Katherine plucked his arm off of her shoulders with a shake of her head. “You are out of bounds.”

“It’s a carousel.” Marley argued. “This is the best thing we’ve found since our parents decided that a week on dry land would be worth the cost of a crappy motel three weeks ago when it wouldn’t stop raining.”

“That motel had bugs.” Katherine said.

“See. The carousel is much better.” Marley tugged her toward the carousel. “Which one would you like to ride on?”

“It doesn’t work.” Katherine took two steps, then stopped.

“So?” Marley shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time our adventures were solely imaginary.”

Katherine looked from one eager face to another. “Alright. As long as we are careful.” She climbed onto the carousel, slowly circling the inner platform before settling on the badger with a decisive huff.

Marley grinned and returned to the carousel.

“Ouch!” A familiar voice yelped.

“Allen?” Marley looked under the carousel platform. Allen lay flat beneath it, barely fitting. If had been any less stick-like he never would have been able to wiggle under there.

“You stepped on my fingers, you big dolt.” Allen wriggled out of his hiding place.

“What are you doing here?” Maelin asked darkly.

“I followed Summer last night. Came out early this morning. Then you lot showed up and ruined a perfectly good adventure.” Allen pushed past Marley and plopped onto the large white polar bear.

“I found it first!” Maelin said.

“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have found it without me.” Allen argued.

“Guys, cut it out!” Summer interrupted. “There’s enough animals for all of us.”

Allen and Maelin cut a tense peace by ignoring each other entirely. It was enough for Marley. He climbed onto the frog with a grin.

Summer hummed a short tune. Tanner whooshed. Katherine whipped her head around, staring at the center column of the carousel. “Did you see that?” She asked.

“See what?” Summer said, her tune receding with the light breeze that had picked up only a moment before.

“The lights.” Katherine said.

“It’s broken.” Tanner also looked at the lights. “We already looked.”

Marley saw a glint of light behind on the edges of his own vision, a low tune carried on the now stronger breeze. He glanced at his friends. They each held the pole in front of themselves with both hands.

“Mmm, popcorn.” Allen broke his silence with a rumble of his belly. Marley could smell it too, buttery and warm.

The tune grew louder. “Summer?” he asked.

“Not singing.” She sounded less certain of herself than she had when they first arrived.

“Me neither.” Katherine was the second-best singer in their group.

“And nobody sings the piano.” Maelin added.

Marley closed his eyes, lights flashing across his lids. He opened his eyes, broken lights dancing in the sunlight. The flashing stopped as the platform shivered. He clung to the pole in front of him. “Guys?” He asked. Nobody said anything.

The world shivered and bent. The music rose loud and clear as if it played through car speakers. The bulbs sparkled with light and the carousel creaked to life. “Guys?” Marley asked again.

The frog rattled upward as Katherine’s Badger went down. Over and over the animals moved, the carousel spun in tune to the music.

“I think I’m going to be sick.” Tanner groaned.

“Don’t puke!” Maelin sounded a little freaked.

“I think we should get off.” Summer tried to slide off of the Ostrich. The carousel sped up and she clutched the pole instead, pale and shaken.

Marley closed his eyes and clung to the giant frog. The frog was a comforting solid mass beneath his butt as the rest of the carousel shivered and creaked. Somebody screamed, but the wind immediately whisked away the sound.

Just as Marley feared he would be thrown from his seat, the carousel thumped, then slowed. Marley opened one eye. The carousel slid to a smooth stop. He was too rubbery to slide from the frog’s back, but he managed to coax the fingers of one hand open when the creature beneath him moved. “Interloper!” The frog yelled.

“What?” Marley gasped as he fell from the frog’s back.

“Intruder! Stupid hairless monkey. You come from the same land as the sorcerers apprentices— come to Luminore catch us with your evil magic. I won’t fall for it.” The frog stood on his hind legs, his front legs held out as if he were preparing to hit Marley.

A very large, very angry gorilla approached the frog from behind. “They don’t smell of the sorcerers magic.” His voice rumbled through the clearing, pausing the chaos, if only for a moment. “Let us hear their tale.”

In-mortals, Ep. 1

8 WEEKS 1 DAY

I curled around the meticulously scrubbed porcelain bowl and released what little breakfast I’d managed to consume. The luxury of money meant I wasn’t the one to have to clean the toilet and it was always clean for my frequent use. Shaky from the effort, I rose, rinsed my mouth, and straightened my hair and clothes before rejoining the mess of people in the dining room. Family brunch was a monthly occurrence and not even horrid morning sickness could call me away from my duty. I pasted the smile back on my face as I took my seat and carefully maneuvered the food around my plate so that it appeared I was eating.

Chatter wrapped around me, flowing through the exhaustion of first trimester baby-growing to lull me nearly to sleep before my husband caught my hand in his, drawing me fully to awareness.

“Yes, Caprice is doing well. Your babe is sure to be strong and lively.” Wilson told our guests.

I inwardly groaned at his assumptions. It was the same tale he told to each of the families we adopted. While there was truth to the words, it was too soon for any such confidence. If we lost the babe… I hated to think the words, let alone ponder the implications. Wilson placed a comforting hand on my back, almost as if he knew my thoughts. I relaxed and smiled at the couple sitting across from us.

I’d met them last year from Wilson’s work. My husband’s associate, Richard Ingersall, was rather intimidating, but he was kind to his wife and they desperately wanted a child. I placed a hand over my belly.

“Things are progressing well,” I assured them. They believed me. After all, this was my fifth time doing this.

Molly Ingersall grasped my hand in both of hers, tears in her eyes. “Thank you.”

“You are most welcome.” I squeezed her hand in return.

“Molly, it’s time to go.” Richard rose and offered an arm to his wife.

We rose with them and said our good-byes. We’d do this again next month, if we didn’t add an additional dinner or outing later this month.

The front door shut and I retreated to the bathroom. Wilson followed me and rubbed my back until I was done puking the few remnants of breakfast I’d forced down.

“I’m getting Evan.” He paged the doctor. “This is the second time you’ve thrown up in the last hour.” Third. But I didn’t say anything. If he hadn’t noticed, I wasn’t going to point it out.

Besides, Evan would only tell him the same thing as before, that there hadn’t been enough time between the last baby and this one. I needed time to recover. Five babies is hard on anyone’s body and I’d had them nearly back to back with only the six month pumping break between each child. I leaned against the cool marble wall. Wilson placed a wet cloth across the back of my neck. I took a deep breath as my stomach settled.

I must have dozed off because it seemed like only seconds had passed before Wilson was helping me into a wheelchair, Evan at the handles. “Come on Honey, let’s get you to bed.” He gently tucked a blanket around me and pushed me through the double doors that opened onto the deck and down the ramp to the guest house.

It was our compromise— I participate in the family brunches in the main house and recover in the guest house where no offending aromas can send me back to the bathroom. I was asleep before I’d registered that I was in bed.

###

Evan clattered around my room, apologizing profusely, as if it were his fault I woke up. There was an IV in my arm, again. I hated that it was necessary to keep me functioning. Five pregnancies. Each progressively worse, but this baby took the cake with fluids nearly every day since the test said positive.

“We need to talk medication again.” Evan said, but he wasn’t speaking to me. I had no say in whether I got medication or not.  

Wilson shifted in his chair by my bed. “No, it’s not an option. Fluids only.” He tapped his fingers against the wooden side table, ice clinking in the cup of water at his elbow. My stomach curled at the thought of drinking the water, or anything else. There was a tray ready for me. Evan whisked it away with a dark look toward my husband. Evan was one of the few people to get away with such behavior, for there was no other doctor as qualified to care for me and the gifts I carried. Bile rose with my ire. Gifts indeed.

“Leave it be.” I lightly touched Evan’s arm, calming my own irritation more than his. “It will get better, it always does.”

It was a lie and we all knew it, but the lie knit us together. There was too much risk for medication. “Alternative” type treatments, such as teas and massage, were allowed, within reason. Medication was an absolute no. They’d put me on a constant fluid drip before allowing possible harm to the child.

“I’m sorry Love, but I’ve business to attend.” Wilson said before Evan could protest any further. Dr. Wilson S. Krathur left with the formal brevity we were accustomed to— work mode, he called it.

My husband wasn’t the sort of doctor who could give medical care. He was the type of doctor that had earned six degrees by the time he was thirty, a man who meddled in the personal affairs of every official in the city and beyond. No one knew the full extent of his subtle interference. Few knew that he interfered at all. His law firm was the peak of discretion and care. Before he rose to head of the company, he was the chief in-house psychologist. His acuity at reading people and solving challenges made him an obvious choice for leadership when Eric had passed.

Eric Montgomery had been a good man. I’d come to love him in the few years I’d known him. Wilson and Eric had been inseparable from the first time they’d met, long before Wilson and I had met. He was the best man at our wedding, and often whisked us from the house for wild adventures— weekends in Vegas, camping in the mountains, and barbecues in his backyard. Wilson had been so happy back then, lighter and less troubled. I rubbed my belly. Perhaps the worry would dissipate as the pregnancy progressed. I hated that Wilson worried so deeply.

“Are you alright?” Evan’s soft question drew me from my memories.

“What?” Why would he ask me that? He touched his cheek. I shadowed the motion and drew away wet fingers. Briskly wiping away the tears, I settled deeper into the pillows as the doctor put the lovely vibrating cuffs on my legs to keep the blood flowing properly.

“Shall I get you anything else?” He passed me the remote.

“No thank you.”

I clicked on the TV, browsing the numerous channels for something that wouldn’t make me cry. Pregnancy hormones made that a dangerous pastime as I flicked past a puppy commercial that got me sobbing nearly every time I saw it. Just the brief glimpse had me repeating the rapid eye rubbing.

He checked his notes. “Hormone levels are good.”

I chuckled dryly. Yup. Good enough to make me cry during puppy commercials. He glanced up from his notes. “Your timing.” I said. He stifled a quick bark of laughter and returned to his notes.

“Your iron is a little low, but blood counts are good.”

I tuned him out. It wasn’t that I didn’t care if the child did well or not, out of self-preservation I cared immensely, but I wasn’t emotionally attached to the baby. He or she was not mine. I’m an incubator, a lavishly kept piece of flesh capable of keeping the baby alive until the day he or she could meet the world.

He checked my pulse and blood pressure. “I’m worried about you. You’ve lost five pounds already. Wilson says you threw up twice during breakfast and you haven’t kept anything down for a couple weeks now.”

I shrugged. We’d been through this before. There wasn’t anything to do beyond rest and constant watch. Barfing by myself during family brunches was the only alone time I was ever allotted, a ruse to keep the parents from knowing the extent of my morning- all day- all night- sickness. I watched him write his notes on the clipboard. It was more interesting than anything the TV had to offer.

“No medication.” I repeated. It might hurt the baby.

“I know.” Evan drew a small vial of blood from the IV. “I’ll send for Sarah.” He filled out a slip of paper and wrapped it around the blood vial before sliding it into a pre-addressed box with an ice pack. He pushed a button on the intercom, waiting until it clicked in response before he left the room.

Enjoying my brief moment of solitude, I stared at the spot on the ceiling that looked as if a bear were taking off a kneeling man’s head. Today, the man had Wilson’s face. It was oddly satisfying. I giggled. I loved my husband, at least most days, but today it was all I could do not to blame him for the puking misery that was my life. Perhaps if another could carry children to term for our families then I would get a rest, but that was not the case, so here I puked and slept at the mercy of my team of caregivers.

###

13 WEEKS 4 DAYS

In the vision, the child watched me with large golden eyes.

“I won’t come,” she told me, and I knew that I carried a girl.

“What do you mean you won’t come?”

The visions had never spoken directly with me, nor had they come before the second trimester. At most, the visions contained bits of memory, almost like a broken excerpt from an audiobook. Usually, there was nothing more than a momentary impression.

“I won’t come,” said the child, following me with her large golden eyes. She didn’t appear any older than eight. “They want me to come, but they aren’t right for me.”

She handed me a wilted golden flower, the same shade as her eyes. I sniffed it and she laughed. Her giggle was like heaven, the joy immense and addictive. I needed to make her laugh again. I tucked the flower into my hair and spun a circle. The giggles grew and grew until she couldn’t even stand. I caught her hands to keep her from falling. The laughter slowed as we both gasped for breath.

She kissed me on the cheek.

An electric burst of pleasure zipped through me, and for the first time in my five pregnancies, I wished the child were my own and not meant for another.

“I must go now,” she told me suddenly, and her body melted into cascade of mist.

I reached into the mist to catch her, the cool moisture leaving me slightly damp.

“You can’t go!” I called after her. “You can’t leave!”

I placed a hand on my belly as the skin tensed and released.

“No, you can’t do this!”

I desperately raced after her, determined to reason with an eight year old. My belly tightened with a true contraction. Right, you can’t reason with a fetus, let alone the memory of an eight year old.

“Wake up. Caprice, wake up!” Wilson’s urgency drew me from the dream.  

Please don’t do this. Tell me what it is you need. I poured all of my focus into my thoughts, hoping beyond all hope that they would reach the baby. Please, give me a little more time. I begged and pleaded as more pressure filled my body. Fire pressed against my eyes as I refused to cry. I won’t give up. I can’t give up. The contractions intensified for a breath then slowly backed off.

There was a collective sigh of relief before Evan turned to my husband and whispered, “I am putting her on bedrest.”

Wilson didn’t argue, but neither was he pleased. I cringed, thinking about how this would affect our plans. We couldn’t worry the baby’s parents.

“I’m sorry,” I whimpered.

“No, no, sweetie.” Wilson brushed the sweat-soaked bangs from my eyes. “It’s not your fault.”

Thank you.

I poured out my thoughts and worries, wondering if the child really heard my plea and responded. A hint of gold caught my eye. The edge of a petal rested under the pillow. I picked up the wilted flower. The stem was bent as if it had been tucked behind my ear when Sarah or Evan rolled me onto my side. I carefully wrapped my fingers around it, my mind lost in thoughts of the girl with magical laughter.

###

17 WEEKS 4 DAYS

“You really think they would be good parents for me?”

The eight year old appeared at the table across from me. Four weeks without any contractions or visions meant that I was able to join the family for brunch, in a wheelchair, of course.

I tried not to appear surprised. At least this vision was closer to the normal timeframe for crazy. She indicated Molly with a tilt of her head, golden eyes agleam.

“What’s her deal anyway? Is she positively nutso or is it just me?” the child asked. She turned her head the other direction and watched Richard for a moment. “He’s as stiff as a starched potato. How’d he end up with her anyhow?”

The child reached for her father’s plate and plucked a berry from the edge. A shadow of fruit rose with her hand, a little less colorful than the original. “Must have been sheer dumb luck.” She turned those brilliant golden eyes on me. “Have you had enough time yet?”

Fear struck me hard enough to send the bite I was pretending to eat flying. All eyes turned on me as the child laughed with pure magic.

“What’s wrong?” Wilson lay a hand across my back.

“Nothing.” I shook my head. “I thought I heard something, it startled me is all.”

The child’s eyes squinted in glee. “You are an excellent liar,” she assured me. “I would expect nothing else from someone capable of bearing my human form.”

I started again, but didn’t show it this time.

“Much better,” she told me. “If we are to continue this relationship you’ll need to be better practiced at this.”

So, you’ll stay? I let the thought dangle.

“I’ll think about it.” She plucked another berry from her mother’s plate, leaving the pale version behind. “I might stick around just for these.” She waved her brilliant berry in the air. “They weren’t so easy to get the last time I was here.”

The last time you were here? But she was already gone with only a warning cramp to keep me in my wheelchair.

The rest of brunch was bland compared to the life that filled the child. I finished my pretense of eating and made it to the bathroom in time to throw up two whole berries which the child had eaten.

I returned to the dining room where Molly hugged me, tears in her eyes. Richard shook everyone’s hands. I grimaced at the strength of his cologne, eager to rinse the scent of life off and crawl back into bed.

Wilson had other ideas.

“It’s such a lovely day. We should take a walk.”

He pushed my wheelchair to the back door. Warmth soaked into my skin as he pushed me along the path that ran through the grounds. We bypassed a small pond and several cultivated garden spaces. He stopped by the little creek, the calming sound of moving water surrounding us.

“This pregnancy is harder than the last.” He said.

Yes, you obvious bull. I politely nodded.

A breeze carried childlike laughter past my ear. I tried not to grimace, but Wilson hadn’t noticed anything off.

“Do you still get the crazy pregnancy dreams that have plagued you in the past?”

It was an innocent question, but my gut squirmed.

I shrugged. “Hormones tend to do that.” I didn’t speak of the visions. They seemed a dangerous thing to speak of.

He nodded. “Any fun ones to share?”

I had told him about strange pregnancy dreams in the past, but seeing as I was pregnant almost all of the last seven years, that or pumping, I had grown tired of sharing the weirdness of hormones. I wanted my body and imagination back as my own. Images of my mostly unused art studio filled me with longing.

“I gave birth to a bird the other day,” I lied. “A small yellow canary. It came out smooth and clean, and when it saw me, it bit me on the nose and flew away, for I was not its mamma.”

He laughed, as I knew he would. It was close enough to several of the dreams I’d had, but this pregnancy lent itself to a different type of dream that were mine alone to ponder.

The child dangled upside down from the sturdy branch of the oak tree nearest us. She asked with a quirk of her lips and mischief in her eyes, “Is he usually more pleasant or was he born without a bend to his back? How horrible for his mother to have to hold a board-stiff child all the time.”

It was all I could not to laugh as I thought back to our early days together when Wilson had been more fluid and energetic than anyone I knew. We’d play hooky to climb a mountain, stay out all night to watch the sunrise, and store snowballs in the freezer to bombard our friends in the middle of summer. I hadn’t married a board, but that had changed. Everything had changed when I got pregnant with the first baby.

She twisted her body and flipped from the tree. I caught my breath. Wilson looked at me and placed a hand on my back.

“What’s wrong?”

I looked down, my hand splayed across my belly. The babe was wiggling furiously.

“The baby is moving,” I told him. I placed his hand where he could feel her kick. “A strong baby.”

The child laughed, placing her hand over my own.

“Strong, stubborn, willful, obstinate. You take your pick,” she said playfully, and her eyes gleamed as she caught my other hand. “The choice is yours, if I stay or if I go.” Foreboding rode her whisper. “But choose with care, for I won’t be raised by a board or a bore.”

I felt my belly tense. She disappeared.

“Time to get you back to bed.” Wilson took his hand from my belly and pushed me down the path toward the guest house.

I couldn’t agree more. A bath and bed were just what I needed to try and puzzle the meaning of the child’s words.

###

18 WEEKS 2 DAYS

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I stared at the IV line. Something tedious droned on the TV. Wilson graciously sat beside me, half focused on the show, half focused on me. He pretended this was interesting. So generous. I growled. I wanted to be up and moving. I wanted my body back. I wanted to paint and wade, knee deep, in clay.

“Do you need anything?” he asked.

Wilson’s voice grated on me. The deep tones that used to talk me into skinny dipping in the middle of winter now pecked at my final nerve.

“Out. I need out.” I might have snapped, but it had been long enough since the last time that I was due for a thorough snap. “I need out of the bed, and out of the house, and out of my friggin body.” I tried to push away from the bed, but the strength wasn’t there. I would need to increase my physical therapy sessions.

“You can’t do that.”

I know that. It would hurt the baby. Everything could hurt the baby. But she wasn’t even my baby!

“Are you sure?” The child sat at the foot of the bed, golden eyes seeking deep into my own. The world tightened until all I could see was her.

What do you want from me!?

“He can hear you,” the child warned.

Why bother? You wanted to leave? You’ve threatened to more than once. You’ve bound me to this bed…

“Have I?”

She cut off my mental rant. The small girl crawled up the coverlet and a soft hand reached out to lightly brush my cheek. A shock of energy moved between us. I felt myself gasp, but I was no longer aware of the world around me. The child held all of my focus. The hand moved away from my skin to grab the IV line. “Are you sure?” She spoke into my ear as the line crimped closed. The constant drip of fluid slowed and stopped. I shivered.

I’ve been sicker than sick with this pregnancy.

“And you place that on me?” The child sounded sad.

I am carrying you.

“Which shouldn’t be possible.” The child mumbled as if I weren’t supposed to hear, but her words were as clear in my head as my own angry thoughts. “I suppose it is my doing that you are ill, but if you released all the blocks you’ve placed, it might go easier.”

Blocks?

“You should paint,” she told me.

I would love to. My heart cried with the thought of color and light.

The child grabbed my chin. “Do it. No matter how you feel. Paint.” She vanished as multiple pairs of hands filled the space that used to belong to golden eyes and ebony hair. I cried. I didn’t want her to leave.

“Caprice, can you speak?” Evan sounded worried. He repeated the question four more times.

“Yes,” I sputtered. “Please stop talking.” My head pounded a sorrowful tune to the beat of my heart.

Wilson leaned in close. “What did you see?” The words were clear and dark.

I jerked back. “What did you say?” I asked.

His eyes spoke of worry though his voice was as smooth as glass. “Nothing.”

I pulled the arm he was holding away from his grasp, the feeling of slime following his touch. What on earth? I loved my husband.

Evan placed his own hands on my arm. “I need you to calm down.” His tone was serious. I didn’t flinch from his touch. “Tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know.” I could feel the child’s pleasure at my lie. That was new. “I was watching TV with Wilson and now you are all here… What are you doing?” I noticed the number of hands keeping my body still upon the bed. The blankets were a tangled mess, the IV line bearing three true knots.

“Keeping you from injury.” Wilson said.

I grit my teeth together so that I wouldn’t hit Wilson… for his perfectly reasonable response to my question.

“I’m going to be sick,” I told them.

A tray was offered and then whisked away. I groaned and rested back into the pillows.

Once we were all certain I was done with whatever fit had come over me, Evan banished everyone from the room. He sat in Wilson’s chair. I had the sudden urge to light the thing on fire.

“What happened?” he asked me again.

I squinted at him. How was I supposed to answer? There was no way to explain dreams and visions of a golden-eyed child with laughter so marvelous that I would do anything to hear its sound again.

“I don’t know,” I honestly said.

“I don’t believe you.” Evan had been my doctor for a long time. He’d been with us since midway through the first pregnancy, when my original doctor didn’t agree with Wilson’s care plan. “You’ve spoken in confidence with me before. I offer the same opportunity now.”

He was the only one I had told about the visions. His were words of caution, and they kept me from speaking the same words to others, even Wilson.

I shook my head. I didn’t dare speak of the child I carried. Not a soul could know that I had met or spoken with her. Where had that knowledge come from? I looked around for the girl, but she was nowhere in sight. The baby in my belly was still.

“I see,” Evan responded.

What do you see? What do you know?

Wait, what does he know?

I watched my belly for any affirmation or sign. The thoughts in my mind were only partially my own.

He put a new drip into my IV. It offered him the excuse to lean in close and whisper in my ear. “When the time is come, I’ll be ready.”

“For what?” I whispered back.

He watched me with eagle eyes. “You’ll know.” He patted my arm. “Get some rest. I’ll have the others leave you alone for a while. Is there anything I can get for you?”

Paint! The child’s thought rang about my mind.

“Paint,” I whispered, fearful that someone might scorn me for my desire. They all knew that even the smell of paint made me ill.

He nodded, a small smile gleaming in his eyes, his mouth studiously still. “I’ll be sure to provide what you need.”

###

18 WEEKS 3 DAYS

The colors flowed without my conscious input. True to his word, Evan had brought a selection of paint, brushes, and a lap-sized canvas. I closed my eyes. There was no need for me to see as I painted, the images in my mind were strong enough to guide my hand by feel alone. Lost in the world of texture and sound, I was startled when a hand brushed across my shoulder.

“Please, put it away quick!” The voice was frantic.

I blinked away the vision before me and looked at the colorful canvas. It was the flower that the child had given me, light sprouting behind and before it in a slew of colors I hadn’t been given to paint with. I shook my head and the colors returned to the ones I had placed on the canvas. Evan was shoving brushes and bottles into an empty pillowcase. He tried to take the painting. I clutched it to my chest.

“Caprice, please.” His eyes pleaded with deeper desperation than his words. “He must not see this.” There was fear in his words.

I released my treasure.

He quickly helped me into a clean gown and added the paint covered gown and blankets to the pillowcase. He shoved them into the closet just before Wilson knocked and peeked his head into the room with a grin that promised an afternoon of fun.

“I have a surprise for you.” His gaze sparkled as it had when we were dating and life was nothing but wonder and magic.

“Okay.” I feigned excitement. He believed me.

“Can she be in her wheelchair for a spell?” he asked Evan. The doctor nodded. “You’ll come as well,” Wilson commanded. He leaned in to whisper his plans with the doctor before leaving.

Evan relaxed when Wilson had gone. “We have a little time to get ready. Come on, let’s put you in something other than a medical gown.”

I picked a sunny red dress, one of the colors woven through the background of my painting.

Bathed and ready to go, we waited for Wilson to come to the door. He arrived in a spiffy getup that included dress pants and my favorite of his shirts. I hadn’t been aware that he had stolen it back from me. I’d taken to keeping it in my bedside table for the times when I was missing him.

A mischievous grin tugged at his lips. “Come on.” He took charge of the wheelchair.

A limo was waiting in the curved driveway. He helped me into the backseat as the driver packed up the wheelchair. Evan slid into the back next to me. He checked my pulse before trading seats with Wilson.

“I’m fine,” I insisted, though nobody cared to listen.

We took the most scenic route from our hillside home into the city. I watched the water below the cliff with bated breath. It was always a fearful thing to drive along the sharp drop to certain doom.

The child appeared in the seat next to me. Her hand clutched my own with the strength of a vice.

“He’s showing you how good you have it. He’s afraid he’s losing you.” The child filled the still air with thoughts I certainly didn’t want expressed. Once the words were spoken, I could not deny their existence.

How do you know this?

“He’s expected this since the first pregnancy, but I didn’t come then. Neither did I come for the second. He almost had me with the third, but didn’t do it right. This time, he caught me.” Her words were forlorn and distant.

My vision blurred with the strength of her emotions. An overlay of a foreign land filled with rainbow trees and plants I could not name replaced reality. My heart longed for this land.

“You’ve changed,” she told me. “He’s noticed.”

My breath caught in my chest. Surely I wasn’t that different?

“I can still escape, you know. I can leave and go back.”

The words dangled, tempting me that I might stay in the comfort of my life, but it would mean losing her and never hearing her laughter again.

“I thought so.” She responded to the wave of emotions I hadn’t sorted through. “Things will move fast.” She tightened her grip on my hand. “Don’t be afraid.”

I blinked and she was gone. The baby rolled and moved within my belly as a practice contraction moved between us. I placed a hand over her, loving her.

The car pulled to a stop at my favorite museum. The chauffeur pulled out the wheelchair and opened the door. Evan and Wilson aided me into my seat. My husband certainly knew how to make me happy. We chatted of innocent things, art and artists of days past. There was a new exhibit from an up and coming artist who lived just down the hill from us. She had an interesting view of color and lines. Wilson wasn’t too thrilled, though Evan seemed intrigued by the works.

“Meh. I’ve seen better.” The child spoke as she leapt from the arm of my wheelchair to get a closer look at the monochromatic piece, her commentary for my ears alone. For a brief moment I felt as if the blue were suddenly clearer and fuller. When I blinked again the portrait seemed rather dull. She turned to watch Wilson as he moved us deeper into the museum. She spoke over his words. “Really, what do you see in him?”

I glared at her. She brushed off my offense.

“Must have been something grande, a facade worthy of an award to get you so deeply connected to him that you would put yourself through this more than once. Was it your idea or his?”

Both… no, his. I hadn’t wanted to be pregnant again. The first was enough, but how could I refuse the child a sibling?

“Do you still love him?” she asked.

Yes. Very much. The last part held more hesitation than I was comfortable with, but things had drastically changed from the wild passion that had drawn us together. He was still the beautiful and generous man I had fallen for as a younger student giving her first art show. I was still… well, I was hardly an artist anymore. Seven years of all-day-sickness or pumping milk would do that to a person. We no longer had the spunk and spontaneity we had enjoyed in our younger days together. But I still loved him. Wilson took my hand as we moved on to the next exhibit. He cared for me and loved me. My thoughts trailed as we entered the hall of statues, the baby kicking away. No. It wasn’t a facade that drew us together. It was love or lust or something equally addictive. We were good together.

“Just keep telling yourself that.” The child ran off before I could respond.

###

19 WEEKS 4 DAYS

Evan measured my growing belly. The child wiggled as he worked. He laughed.

“A lively little being,” he commented quietly. I nodded. She was the wiggliest of all the babies I had carried. He took my pulse through my failed attempts at creating the proper shade of blue. No matter how I tried, I could not capture the hue I had seen in the museum. The paintings of the child’s land were not right without that blue. Evan moved a blue coated canvas off of the bed and set it next to three others. Each was wrong in a way that made my stomach curl.  

“Blue period?” he teased.

I frowned. “Can you get me more paint?”

“You’ve used all the blue already?” He opened the closet and dug out two fresh tubes, one turqouise and the other Payne’s Grey. I’d already mixed those two as many ways as I could imagine. “It’s all that’s left.”

“May I take these?” Evan asked with an indication to the pile of mispainted forests.

The question was nothing more than good manners. I couldn’t keep them here. I wasn’t sure why I believed this, but I did. I shrugged. Evan hurriedly added them to the basket of dirty laundry he was planning to take to the housekeeper. He left me alone with the blue failures, promising to send Sarah right along.

“Evan’s waited for me longer than anyone else has.” The child picked up the nearest mistake. She squinted at it and for a breath it was the correct shade of blue.

“How’d you do that?” I reached for the painting as the doorknob turned.

“Hello, Caprice.” Sarah entered the room as the painting clattered to the ground outside of my reach. She bustled over and picked it up.

“Interesting work,” she said, arranging the paintings across the top of my desk. “I’m sure they’ll spruce up the room. Just need to get some nails and a hammer.” The walls were already covered by my failed attempts to get the correct shades of red, orange and gold.

“You are trying too hard,” the child told me, as Sarah started hanging the monochromatic canvases. “You have to relax and let it come to you.” She crimped the IV line and took my hands in her own. “Close your eyes and breathe with me.”

I obeyed.

“Now open your eyes.”

Her breath floated across my face. The first thing I saw were her golden eyes, rich and liquid with shades of amber and coal in their depths. A forest filled her vision. She backed away. The forest filled my room. Animal noises and fresh air washed over me. I took a step forward, fully embracing the vision she offered. My legs had the strength to function. Tears blurred my overwhelmed vision.

“Keep practicing.” She told me as the immersive vision disappeared.

Sarah’s worry broke through my wonder. “Are you uncomfortable? Is something wrong?” She was next to the bed, my hand clasped in both of hers. A light flashed in the corner of my vision. Evan would be there shortly. No doubt Wilson wouldn’t be far behind. He kept a close eye on the emergency call line.

“Did I black out?” I asked instead. It was a good excuse that I juiced for all its worth.  

Sarah shook her head. “Not fully. You were just gone.” She brushed a hand across my forehead and checked my pulse and blood pressure. “That’s odd.” She examined the IV line. “It’s not working.” She removed the little plastic bit that kept it crimped. I grimaced as the cool liquid flowed into my body.

Evan blew into the room. For a moment it appeared as if he were wearing strange clothing reminiscent of ancient lore or even a few modern-day fairy tales. The clothing was gone as quickly as it came, his skin no longer carrying the slight green undertone it had borne a moment before. Weird. Must have been some leftover vision-voodoo.

“It’s time,” Evan whispered, just before Wilson joined us in the room, his work clothes rumpled from his quick jog over.

Time, for what?

“Your final decision,” the child explained. “Do I stay or do I go?”

I couldn’t let her go. Not now, not ever. The world needed the life and beauty that she carried. I needed her.

She laughed, and I melted. Wilson took my hand. I wrenched it from his grasp, the feeling of a thousand needles in his touch.

“Shhhh, it’s okay.” Evan pressed me back against the pillows though I couldn’t recall an attempt to get up.

Wilson watched with a mournful sigh. I relaxed my vision and my breathing evened out. For a moment, Wilson was no longer with us, rather a dark facsimile stood in his place. My mind added flames to the imagining and I hid my smile. Wilson, the one I had loved and married, took a step back.

“I just hurt,” I expressed with the deepest sorrow I could muster, offering my husband my hand. He took it with the light touch of a feather. There was no prick or burn. He looked at me with liquid love in his gaze and a soft smile on his face.

“Maybe we’ll take a break after this baby,” he suggested.

I nodded. That would be nice.

“About time,” Evan mumbled, as he readjusted my bedding.

Wilson bent to whisper to Sarah. She left and returned with a movie in her hands. It was the newest in the superhero series I had grown to love. The movie wasn’t even out of theaters yet.

“How did you get it?” I gasped in excitement.

“I pulled a few strings.” His grin grew to match my own. “I thought I’d play hooky on the rest of work today and we could watch Attack of the Mora Beast together.”

I nodded in genuine excitement.

See, he is the man I fell in love with. The child simply laughed at me. I ignored her and settled in to watch the movie that I had wanted to see since the first trailer came out.

###

19 WEEKS 5 DAYS

In the dream, I followed the child through the forest as she moved between the rainbow that she knew and the dull green that had been my reality.

My fingers itched to paint what I saw or even attempt a sculpture of the marvelous flowers that scented the air with foreign aromas that did not trigger my puking reflex.

“Not yet,” the child whispered. “We have a ways to go.”

She tugged at my arm. I followed her into a clearing. The colors of our two worlds mixed until everything was muddy and swirled. I clutched my belly as I struggled not to puke. It was wrong. Everything about this place was wrong. I squeezed the child’s hand. She looked back at me, tears streaming down her face.

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?” I asked as I knelt before her and brushed the tears away.

She shook her head. “Not hurt in the way that you know pain.”

Her explanation made no sense, the words too grown up for the eight year old frame I’d grown accustomed to. I hugged her, offering comfort and safety. She smelled of the glorious flowers and rain, not the polluted rain of my reality, the fresh rain of a place that didn’t know environmental devastation.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Why are you fighting me?”

My breath froze in my lungs. “I’m not.” I heard the pretense of the words before they even left my lips.

“I will miss you.”

She walked away.

“NO!” I placed my hands on her shoulders, barely keeping pace with her.

“Then open your eyes!” she yelled at me. “Open your eyes and quit shutting out the things that you wish were false. Or have you become so comfortable with your reality that you would know nothing else?”

The clearing transformed from the swirl of brown to the beauty of what had been there before travesty hit, deep red earth growing yellow, orange, and green trees with a sparkling purple river rippling green, gold, and turquoise as it bubbled through the fertile earth.

“I’ve shown you the truth, but you refuse to listen!”

The clearing dulled to mud and muck. The thick river struggled, gurgling against the sheen of oil that rested on its surface.

“I’ve been listening,” I insisted.

“You’ve made a valiant effort to listen, but you’ve been dulled for far too long.” She brushed at my tears this time.

Footsteps sounded behind me. The unfamiliar image I had seen beneath Evan’s skin the day before stood behind me. He was taller than the Evan I knew, younger and older, all at once. His skin rippled green, brown, gold and amber. His hair wove about his head like the bark of a tree. However different he seemed, I knew that it was Evan, the Evan I felt that I should already know.

He spoke then, his voice sharp and clear. “Child, be patient with her. There are forces working on her that you have not touched in many generations. She has done better than any before her has done and lasted longer than any other to boot.”

The child listened to his words with an intensity that sent my gut to quivering.

“She is the first to bear your form in how many years?” Evan asked the child.

I did not expect to hear an answer. My curiosity was stifled by a force beyond myself. Instead, I tried to grasp the form Evan wore. It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible!

“She knows nothing of our world,” he explained to the child. “Surely you have gathered that much.”

The child shrugged. “I know much, but my interest lies in her getting away, escaping those that had trapped me within her.”

“Trapped you?” I sputtered.

She nodded. “How else was I to be caught if they didn’t work their vile magic and call to me? What did you think the others you bore were?” She glared at Evan, keeping him silent, though he obviously wanted to speak. “There is no time to be careful or gentle. She must make her final decision instead of this waffling junk she keeps pulling. You do know how to make up your own mind?” she asked me sharply.

I opened my mouth to insist that I could, but in reality, it had been a long time since I’d had to make any decision beyond what I might wear or watch on TV. Those were not the type of decisions she cared about.

“I thought as much,” the child groaned “It would have been easier if I hadn’t been placed in someone so lulled into complacency.”

For a moment, she appeared ageless and ancient, wisdom beyond human years in her eyes. Then she was eight again. It was too much. I fled the clearing. Two sets of footsteps kept pace with me. Evan caught me and waited until I’d calmed before speaking.

“She is right.” He caught my wrist before I could hit him, my reaction startling me more than his speed had.  

“I am not complacent.” I forced my fears into the deepest reaches of my mind, for I could not admit what they might lead to.

“I wasn’t your idea.” The child arrived at a more reasonable pace. “Neither were the other four.” She waited for me to protest, and when I said nothing, continued, “You didn’t want to have the family dinners and chat about children you would never know. As the sickness grew worse, you wished for drugs and sleep… perhaps maybe death?”

I shook my head, but her words were true, and she knew it.

“What sort of veil did he place upon you for you to love him so?” she leered,  piercing straight into the heart of my fears. The image of my dear husband shattered until all I could see was the stranger of the day before. My desire to light him on fire increased.

“I’m sorry,” the child whispered softly, as Evan cradled me against his chest. The smell of freshly turned earth and sunlight suited him better than the chemical smell of soap and laundry detergent. “We’d hoped that you would come to the realization on your own and escape, but you are too close to the day where I must leave if you didn’t fully accept your role.”

“My role?” I hiccuped between the words.

“As my mother.” The child beamed. “Once I am viable we will no longer be able to speak as we do now. I’ve only three weeks to teach you what you need to know.”

I shook my head. “No, the visions last the entire pregnancy.”

The girl rolled her eyes in full childish obstinance. “I am not your normal pregnancy, remember?”

She pushed something hard and worn into the palm of my hand. I ran my finger over the smooth surface of the stone. It was the stone I’d carried with me all through my childhood, the only memory I had left of my mother. She had died when I was very young. The tale spoke of a trip to the beach that I was too little to remember. We had found the stone together, and when she died, I had kept it. I fit my finger into the groove I’d worn into it over the years. It had gotten lost not long after I’d met Wilson, but I hadn’t needed it so desperately with him by my side.

Memories washed over me. Colors and thoughts that had led me to pursue art at the university. My hands itched with the memory of forming clay flowers and fairy homes that came straight from the visions that the child granted me.

“What a grand facade, a wondrous tale, and a lovely life he created just for you.” The child’s words bit into me with a piercing truth.

“So, what will it be?” Evan asked.

I looked between him and the child. “Who are you? Both of you.”

“I am your guardian,” Evan explained with a bow, “though there was little I could do until you discovered me for yourself.”

“No.” I clutched the stone to my chest.

“Your abilities hid you so well that even my people had no way to find you until the first baby became viable,” he offered as an explanation.

“No!” I repeated.

The child caught my hands and my attention. I sank into her golden gaze. “It’s true,” she said, and her words mesmerized and promised adventure and life unlike anything I’d ever known.  

The child grinned. She carefully drew me back to the clearing, to the place where wrong and right were at such odds that the very earth could not determine which to obey. She released my hand and started to walk away as my mind froze in terror.

“Wait! Please don’t go!” I chased after her as the world tilted. She blew into my arms with the magic of her laughter wrapping around us as a warm embrace.

“She’s your daughter,” Evan answered in her stead, as the ground grew solid again, green, brown and fertile. I relaxed my vision, the overlay of color as glorious as before, though not nearly as overwhelming. The child, my child, did not change, her golden eyes and ebony hair blowing on the same wind that carried me from my dream.

###

I sat up with a gasp. The smooth stone was tucked into my right hand. Fear drove me to get out and away while I could.

My night nurse was dozing in the chair near the bed. I carefully pulled back the covers and tugged at my i.v. The thin tube came out with a pop of blood. Oops. I nabbed a nearby towel and held it against my arm.

My nurse grunted in her sleep. I barely breathed, waiting until she settled before I climbed out of bed. The floor was cold and my muscles watery, but I tiptoed to the front door of the guest house. The door was locked from the outside.

The child stood at my elbow, watching with interest. “You seem surprised,” she told me. She didn’t seem surprised to find the door locked from the outside.

“He’s afraid that he’s losing you.” She laughed, breaking through my fear with the joy she carried. “What do you think, can he win you back?” She tilted her head toward the main house where a shadow jogged our way.

Wilson unlocked the door and wrapped me in a hug. I didn’t push away, despite the icy chill of his touch. My mind dreamt up fire. I shoved the idea away.

“Caprice, what’s wrong?” He led me to the couch, urging me to sit while he pulled the cloth away from my arm. There was only a little blood on the white fabric. It resembled a flower or a monster. I couldn’t decide.

“Why was the door locked?” I needed the truth from him, for once.

“I didn’t want anything to happen to you.” Wilson, always my protector, my knight in shining armor, only had the best in mind for me.

“No, that’s not it.” I said. There wasn’t even a shadow of the image I had grown to love in the man before me. His dark eyes held none of the warmth and love that I knew. I relaxed my vision, perhaps it would work the other way around?

For a breath, I saw Wilson, my Wilson, with adoration in his warm brown eyes. Then it was gone and his dark eyes watched me in anger… and fear? I placed my hand on his cheek, the sensation beneath my fingers did not match the image my eyes knew. Wilson’s eyes widened briefly as the angles beneath my fingers shifted to match my sight. I pulled my hand away before I could give away my secret.

“Caprice.” I felt like a child in trouble when he spoke. There was no warmth, comfort, or familiarity in his words. “What aren’t you telling me?”

I hid my desire to flee. He softened.

“You are safe here, you know.”

I nodded. He placed his hands over the top of mine. I closed my eyes, a catch to my breathing that I was having trouble controlling.

“Where were you trying to go?”

“My studio,” I lied.

“It’s three in the morning.”

His concern was nothing but a lie. I squeezed my eyes closed as tears burned behind my eyelids. He tried to twine his fingers through mine, I ripped them away from him.

“Caprice, what is this?” He caught my wrist and forced my right hand open, the stone lying across my palm. There was no imagining the fear this time. “Where did you get that?!” He knew of the stone. My stone.

“You took it?” I accused, certain of his guilt. He didn’t respond. He didn’t need to. “It was the only thing I had from my mother!” I scrambled away from him with the stone clutched to my chest.

“Caprice.” My name stretched into two sorrowful syllables. “Please give me back the stone.”

“What does it matter to you?” I demanded.

Wilson stopped, my body already pressed against the floor length window furthest from the door. There was no emotion in the unfamiliar dark eyes.

“You weren’t trying to go to your studio.” He pulled a small silver device out of his pocket. Fear choked me. What was he doing? He stepped toward me. “I need the stone back.”

“You can’t have it.”

I tried to slide along the windows toward the door. Wilson gently grabbed my shoulders. I ducked and failed to escape his hold. Stupid constant pregnancies! My limbs were as weak as wet bath towels. I struggled uselessly as he took my hand in a tender lover’s grasp.

“Give me the rock, Caprice.” He said, a sharp edge to the words.

Why hadn’t he just taken it? He was obviously much stronger than me.

The door interrupted my refusal. Evan took in the scene without a lick of emotion on his face. I wrenched against Wilson’s grasp on my wrists. Evan shook his head with an almost imperceptible frown.

“Doctor, good timing. I could use your help. My wife is awfully distressed tonight, distraught, really. Perhaps there is something we can do to help ease her mind a touch?” I gulped.

Evan tucked his hand under my elbow. “Let me get Caprice settled and then we will discuss our options.”

I froze. I didn’t want to go back to bed. I didn’t want to be drugged into complacency. The stone grew warm against the palm of my hand. I feared that it would slip from my sweaty grip.

Wilson’s hold on me relaxed. Evan smiled encouragingly. I leaned against my doctor. Evan wouldn’t drug me into complacency.

The door clicked closed behind us, the lock catching with a thud that sank into my body and mind like ice.

I gasped as Evan shoved me behind himself and spun toward Wilson. A shield of light blocked the zip of power that roared out of Wilson’s silver device. Where had Evan gotten a shield?

“You can stop him,” Evan whispered to me as the shield wavered. Another wave of energy popped against the shield.

Wilson sank into his true form, his shadowed body hard and black eyes expressionless as he advanced with the oblong silver device held before him.

“Give me the stone!”

No matter how I screwed my eyes, there was no vestige of the man I knew left.

Evan was steady as he held the shield between us and Wilson. I sank to the floor with a shiver. This couldn’t be happening. I pinched myself and yelped, awake, alert, and wishing that it were only a nightmare.  

“Caprice, stay with me!” Evan commanded, as his form shifted into the woodman from the dream, complete with a glowing sword.

Wilson laughed. “You are the guard they snuck into my presence?”

He drew his own blade, light sucked into its depths as if it were made of the same darkness that shone from the holes where eyes normally resided.

Evan bowed with an added flourish of sword and shield. “And you never suspected me.”

Wilson swung his blade, betrayal in every line of his face. Evan parried. I covered my ears as my bones rang with the attack.

“Please, stop!” I cried out.

“You can stop this.” It was the child, kneeling by my elbow.

“No, I can’t even stand,” I told her, watching as the men fought.

“Evan can’t stop him.” she told me. “He isn’t powerful enough or he might have tried something before now. You are the only one here who can stop him.”

“I don’t know how,” I mumbled as Evan’s shield shattered. I covered my face as burning shards fell over me.

Evan glanced toward me in worry.

“No, don’t!” I screamed, but my warning was too late.

Wilson’s sword slashed down across Evan’s arm. Evan winced and switched his blade to his other hand.

“Close your eyes,” the child instructed. I obeyed. There was no other option. “Deep breaths.” She covered my eyes with her hands. “Now, open them.”

I obeyed, seeing as if there were nothing over my eyes. Everything slowed. I could see the energy that each man gathered before they struck, the energy they poured into their shields, and the energy that Evan wasted in his attempt to protect me.

“The stone?” she prompted.

I lifted my hand. The rock glowed with the magnificent red I could never replicate. I held it in front of me as if it were a shield. It pulsed in the palm of my hand.

“Now,” the child whispered.

I released the heat in my palm, the red glow flowing over the room. Wilson faltered.

“Again,” the child urged.

I poured my focus into the stone, waiting for the red to be just right. I could feel it before I could see it. I held it a beat longer and released just as Wilson came at me, his focus on the stone in my hand. He stumbled at the release of power and Evan struck him from behind. Wilson fell in a puddle of rancid blood.

Evan scooped me from the ground as his sword disappeared to whatever realm he had pulled it from.

“We have to leave, now!” Evan ran from the guesthouse faster than any person I had ever seen. A car was waiting at the edge of the long driveway, an unfamiliar figure in the driver’s seat. Evan slid into the backseat without releasing me. “Go!”

The driver obeyed.

Evan carefully placed me beside him, procuring a bag just as my stomach released its contents. Fear and exhaustion battled with the crazy that my mind had no way to process. I shivered as cold washed over me. “Is he… dead?” I asked.

“Not dead, no.” Evan pulled blankets from a bag that was on the floor of the car. He stopped me from falling over and wrapped the fabric around me. “It would take more than that to kill a hem-netjer.”

“A hem-netjer?”

I could feel my awareness slipping. The air around me wavered between reality and the strange world that the child knew. I couldn’t make sense of either.

“A servant of the gods,” Evan said, as he mixed some sort of powder into a bottle of water. “Drink.” He held the bottle to my lips. I hesitantly sipped and found that my body could tolerate the mixture, at least for the moment. Warmth flowed through my limbs and into my mind. “Just a little more and then you can sleep.”

I didn’t want to sleep. The chill dissipated entirely. My mind broke free of the fear that had claimed it so strongly. I opened my mouth to demand answers. I could have sworn Evan just told me that my husband was a servant of the gods. My stomach heaved a warning.  

“All in good time,” the child assured me, and she curled up on the seat next to me, her head in my lap. “All in good time.”

I placed a hand over my belly in sudden fear. The baby kicked and I relaxed. She was fine. I tightened my hold on the smooth old stone and held the image of a shield in my mind as the car smoothly slid through traffic.

END of Episode One 

 

 

Walk in the Shadows

by Jeremy C. Schofield

 

My sales were done for the day and I was finally able to relax a little, when I saw her coming down Shoreline Drive. I was in my usual M.O., sticking to the shadows, so she wouldn’t have been able to see me until she was only a few feet away. The strange, refracted light from our damnable ever-present clouds gave her two shadows for a moment, and I wished I had a cell phone or a camera to capture it. She was looking back behind her and across the street when I decided to surprise her.

“Hello, Caroline.”

She spun back around to face me, one hand spread toward me as if to shield herself when she saw me and relaxed.

“Dylan. Still lurking, I see?”

“Yup, that is me. The lurkmeister. How has life been treating you?” I didn’t add “…since you vanished overnight all those years ago.” It didn’t seem diplomatic.

“I am fine. I know this seems awkward, but I really need to go.”

I was no longer looking at her face. The second shadow I had noticed before and dismissed as an optical illusion was crawling along the pavement toward me. It rotated around her body, reaching (consider revising) toward me like an accusing finger. I took a step backward involuntarily.

“What the hell is that?” I asked. I did my best to sound calm, but my voice still warbled like a karaoke singer at the tail end of happy hour. The shadow had finished stretching out towards me, and was now forming a line in front of me, looking like a capital “T” someone had written on the sidewalk in roiling black ink.

She looked somewhere between disgusted and amused. “It is trying to protect me. It responds to malice and anger. I didn’t know you were still that angry. Maybe you had better go.”

Supernatural line drawing notwithstanding, this was too much. “You didn’t know I would be angry? How the hell else was I supposed to feel? One more morning I wake up alone, and that is it? After three years, no more Dylan and Carolina?”

Her eyes grew wide when I used the Spanish pronunciation for her name. “Don’t say…” she began, but it was too late. The line vibrated, pulsing with energy, and suddenly vanished. In its place sat a bundle of eyeballs, fur, and teeth. It looked at me, looked back at her, looked at me again, clearly unsure what it was supposed to be doing.

I could feel the brick of the building behind me pushing into my back through the body of my pack, and thought stupidly for a moment that I was glad I had already taken care of my business–no merchandise left to damage.  I pointed at the apparition in the street.

“Again, what the hell is that?”

She sighed, obviously put out with me. I was familiar with the body language. “Look, let’s step in here for a minute, and I will try to explain,” she said, gesturing toward the alley between the closest two buildings.

I took another look at the two-foot tall ball of furry death in front of me, noticing saliva gleaming on its fangs. “How about you step into the alley, and I will stay out here. I have no intention of getting into an enclosed space with that.” I noticed my hand was shaking while I pointed at her hyper-vigilant thing. I was never very good with stress.

She sighed as if I had asked her about texts on her phone from some guy I didn’t recognize, and walked around me into the alley. I noticed her mobile string mop stayed between her and I the whole time, turning around and backing into the alley to stay close to her, never taking its eyes off of me. Unable to help myself, I followed to the mouth of the alley, looking for answers.

She leaned up against an exhaust-darkened brick wall. “It is an Inugami – a dog spirit.” She said this matter-of-factually, as if she was describing a goldfish. “It is my spiritual protector. It normally stays in my shadow, but can be called out with a summoning phrase.” At last, she has the grace to look embarrassed. “I suppose I will have to change it now.”

“Dylan and…” I stop myself before uttering it again. “That was your summoning phrase? Not, ‘Inugami, I choose you?’”

“They are nothing like that, Dylan.” The exasperation returns to her voice. “There is no little red ball, no quests to fight other Inugami, I certainly don’t want to try to catch them all. As for the phrase – no one else has ever said my name the way you did. It made me feel safe.”

I am simultaneously honored and angry. Watching the narrowing eyes and shifting position of her dog-spirit, I decide to switch subjects quickly. “What is its name?” I ask.

“Jun.” she grimaces. “I was hoping it would make him more obedient.”

I step into the alley and kneel. “Come here, Jun.” I have been around dogs my whole life – until Caroline, in fact. I hold my hand out for him to approach and investigate. Being eaten is the least of my concerns right now as I try to make sense of my ex showing up with a spirit walking dog.

Again, her eyes grow wide with panic. “No, you can’t do…” Her voice trails off as Jun walks over to me, gives my hand a cursory sniff, then places his head below it – dog-speak for “you may pet me now.” I am startled by the almost ice-cold temperature radiating off of his body when I scratch his head for a minute. I look up at Caroline, and notice she is crying. Alarmed, I stop petting the spirit-dog and stand up.

“Caroline, what is wrong?”

Now it is her turn to shake, a trembling finger pointing at Jun. “You aren’t supposed to be able to do that.” Is all she can say.

“Why not?” I ask. “If he is a guardian angel dog, surely he knows I don’t mean you any harm.”

She shakes her head in angry denial. “That’s not how it works. He is only a weapon, a tool. He is never anything but angry. He knows I don’t love him.”

I am puzzled by this, but at least I know the answer. “Any dog will be what you expect it to be, Carol.  If you want a pet, they will be a pet. If you want a guard, they will be a guard.”

She can’t take her eyes off of Jun, as if seeing him for the first time. “But you don’t understand…the horrible things I had to do to create him…” she breaks down completely now. Jun moves back toward her and sticks his not-really-a-nose against her leg. She crumples to the ground and embraces him fiercely, weeping like I have never seen her cry. It is a very odd sort of heartwarming moment–the Lifetime Channel meets a late-night horror movie.

Which is, of course, when the spirits find us.

***

The skies have been growing darker this whole time, and now a frozen wind picks up, blowing straight down the alley. Suddenly the voice of the wind becomes louder- an unearthly shriek, with gibbering and moaning human voices captured inside it. I turn my head, and a disembodied figure rushes by me, headed for Caroline. As I look back at her and Jun, I see two more heading down the alley behind her.

“Dylan!” she cries out, then rushes towards me. For a moment I have the crazy idea that she is running to hide behind me, hoping I will protect her from these things.

This idea goes the way of all illusions as she turns in front of me and uses her body to force me into a corner between a wall and a dumpster, keeping herself between me and the spirits. She places her hands together, whispers something I can’t quite hear, and suddenly there is a blinding blade of light between her hands held across her body like a samurai sword. The three glowing figures turn to follow her, and I briefly notice that it is now somehow darker than night in this alley.

There is a pulse- an explosion of light from behind the spirits, and where there was once two feet of mop fur and fangs, Jun has suddenly become an ice-shrouded avatar of dog-spirit, bigger than an Akita. A pair of wings unfolds from somewhere under that coat of ice and fur, and he bays like a prairie wolf beneath a full moon as he launches himself at the spirits.

Caroline, I notice, is doing nothing to attack the spirits, merely fending them off each time they come near her. The fight is left to Jun- he grabs an incorporeal body between his fangs and flies muzzle first into the alley wall. The spirit falls, limp, and then Caroline’s guardian plants his feet on the body, pinning it against the wall and pulling with his head. There is another bright explosion of energy, and where the spirit was there is now a pile of ashes.

The other figures have not been idle, though. While one keeps Caroline busy, the other is rending its claws down Jun’s flanks, causing gaping wounds to appear. As I watch, the wounds are immediately frozen over by the radiation of the dog’s body, and he turns to grasp his attacker between his teeth. When the second explosion of not-light fills the alley, the last spirit abandons its attack on Caroline and flees, keening, down the alley.

The radiance disappears from between Caroline’s hands, and we are left with only two piles of ash and a panting Jun to show that the fight ever occurred. The ammoniac stench of urine fills the air.

“Thank you,” is all I can manage over the thundering of my heart. I look at Jun. “Will he be OK?”

She nods. “Another ritual to heal him after I return home.” She looks suddenly troubled. “I am going to have to re-think this whole thing.”

I walk over to Jun, now reduced back to his fanged mop form, and wonder where the wings went. I place my hand on his head. His rear end moves back and forth as if he was trying to wag his non-existent tail. “Thank you, Jun. I hope you get better very soon.”

He vanishes from beneath my hand, being sucked back into Caroline’s shadow. I look at her as if I have never seen her before. Maybe I never have.

“Are you going to explain any of this?” I ask plaintively.

She shakes her head. “Not right now. These-” she nods her head towards the ash piles, “were what we were looking for in the first place. Now we need to get home and fort up while Jun recovers.”

A silver flask appears from somewhere, and she begins using it to gather up the glistening remains of the two spirits. I notice she is careful to never touch the gleaming ashes with her hands. “Ash Falls is a battleground, Dylan. The walls between the worlds are especially thin here. Every kind of monster, spirit and demon you’ve ever heard of finds their way here eventually. Even fighting back against them turns you into a kind of a monster, like I am.”

I want to comfort her, to tell her she is not a monster. Remembering what she said about Jun, I can’t get the words to come out. She finishes her spiritual housekeeping, and the flask vanishes again. She turns to look at me.

“Are you still dealing?” she asks, looking over my shoulder at my pack.

I nod, embarrassed that I was judging her behavior just a moment ago.

She smiles and shakes her head. “Then you’re part of the problem. Knock it off and get out of this town.”

I shake my head. “I’ve tried to leave before, Carolina. I just can’t make it stick for some reason.”

She nods, sadly. “Yeah, that is part of the effect. Somehow we all have our anchors set at the corner of 1st Street and Rosedale Drive. I don’t know what causes that either.”

She straightens her back and takes a deep breath. “Look, if you really want to know, I will call you and we can talk about it some time later, somewhere safer. OK? Has your number changed?”

I shake my head, wondering if she means it, or if this is the last time I will see her. “I would like that,” is all I say.

She walks forward and embraces me- not like a lover, but not quite like a friend either. “I will call you soon. Maybe Jun would like to see you again, anyway,” she adds, cryptically. Then she is gone.

“Adios, amor.” I whisper. I pull my spare sweats out of my backpack, then take off my soaking jeans and underwear and stuff them in. I will have to go commando on the way home, but you see worse on our streets every day. I take another look at my pack, then throw the whole thing into the dumpster. I don’t know what I am going to do now, but there is no escaping that the world just got a whole lot bigger than I ever thought it was.

***

Halfway home, I start to wonder if maybe I should get a dog.

Phish and Sparks, Ep1

Episode 1: Preacher at Xanadu

The living eddies within the sweating glass of red rebyl mimicked the dust storms engulfing the Martian port city of Lachish. Guido Sparks pressed the glass to the scar transecting his cheek for a long breath. Finally he downed the bottom third of the whisky in a single gulp.

“Another round?” Phish, his Venusian companion, snatched the glass from Sparks’ hand before he could slam it down.

The grit beneath Sparks’ collar, combined with his growing unease from being in one place too long said yes. The jangle of his diminishing credits said no. He nodded. The two of them would simply have to ensure the next lead panned out, unlike the last several.

Phish had already risen and started toward the bar in his typical Venusian gate—a long-strided movement chewing up distances deceptively and without hitch. The shorter of the two men, Phish could outstrip Sparks in a footrace—something Sparks never incorporated into plan A, or any plan.

Sparks surveyed the unusual crush of patrons seeking shelter from the red clouds of dust that blew in the day before. A clash of languages battered his ears. Taken alone he could understand each. At the moment he had no interest in doing so. The Bloody Bucket remained a safe haven for space rangers, smugglers and the like. Even the rankest of outlaws, if intent on continued survival, honored the varied patronage’s shared need for discreet anonymity.

Sparks also respected the unwritten rule, despite the fact such anonymity remained possible for himself in scarcely a corner of the galaxy. Lazily, he noted the entrance of a lone woman amidst of maelstrom of red dust. Stirring up no shortage of curious half-glances, the woman made directly for his corner of the establishment.

Phish returned balancing three glasses of rebyl.

Sparks’s pale-grey gaze flicked from the woman, dressed in spacer’s leather similar to his own, to his partner’s crooked grin. “Expecting company?”

“Employ.” Phish whisked into his seat and distributed the glasses of rebyl while shoving out an empty chair with his foot.

Without dropping the Venusian’s gaze, Sparks watched the woman weave through the crowded bar. He could tell already her clothes were props. Not that she didn’t wear them well, or that the grip of the leather hadn’t been accustomed to the curves it concealed. But something about her posture and movement didn’t match the outfit.

Not waiting for their undisclosed guest, Sparks tipped back his glass. Surely the woman’s lack of wariness, something developed as a natural byproduct of lurking within the galaxy’s shiftiest shadows, hadn’t escaped Phish’s seasoned eye. If anywhere in the galaxy there was a man as worthy Sparks’s respect as the man sitting across from him now, Sparks had yet to meet him.

The woman must have impressed his companion via some other means, but Phish wasn’t letting on. At last Sparks disengaged his cloud-grey eyes from his partner’s turbid black ones in order to address the woman.

She stood before them wordlessly, returning Sparks’s stare without waver—something few accomplished. In a sudden movement that brought Sparks’s hand instinctively to the well-worn grip of the heat gun strapped to his hip, the woman whisked off her visor-less helmet.

An incredible amount of untamed, fire-orange hair spilled out from the helmet’s cramped confines. The radiant tussle lit her face and sparked an instant contrast with her emerald eyes. Sparks’s tense surprise registered in the woman’s awareness, proving she’d achieved the response she’d aimed for. The slightest of grins curled the corner of her lips as she turned toward Phish and nodded while filling the empty seat.

“Guy, meet Persephone,” Phish did the introductions. “Persephone, as I’m sure you’ve deduced, this is Guido Sparks.”

###

After Sparks had confirmed Persephone’s ledger, it had taken all of forty-five minutes to load the necessary supplies and clear the Tempest for launch. Even before that, both men knew they would take the job. As confident as the woman had been confronting nefarious outlaws, she’d been equally as terrified discussing the job—a bounty. And on a preacher no less.

Boring, conceited, sure. But a preacher capable of talking folk to death? Sparks’ curiosity had been indelibly impressed.

Of course not everything was on the up and up. The woman had strived too laboriously to weave a lavish false backstory. Most people who found themselves in need of the likes of Guido Sparks had long relinquished propriety.

As the Tempest cleared the thin Martian atmosphere, Sparks jettisoned the exhausted burn tanks and turned to discuss the matter openly with Phish. “What do you think?”

Phish removed his headset and reclined his seat. “She’s money.”

Sparks nodded. He understood what the cunning Venusian meant in both senses of the word. “Makes sense. She sure thinks highly enough of herself.”

“Only Black Pharol thinks higher.”

“What does that make the preacher? A runaway slave?”

Phish shook his head before riveting Sparks with his hungry black eyes, betraying his cherubic golden locks and pale skin with a deeper savagery. “You saw the terror when she spoke of him. I’ve no idea whether the preacher be slave or free, but I’ll bet the next case of rebyl he’s not a man like you or I.”

“Hardly seems like a fair bet,” Sparks locked course for Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and deployed the sails. “I suppose I’ll take it. In that case, how many do you think she’s sent before us?”

“Does it matter?”

“It’s just that, well you saw how she talked more about herself than the job.”

“As if it were her first time.”

“And she seemed to be more interested in hiding her own identity than describing the preacher’s.”

“As long as the money’s real,” Phish shrugged as he stood. “I’m going to get some rest.” With two long strides he exited the bridge and slipped into the tiny living quarters. “Wake me if you spot Patrol. It’s been over a week since I’ve gotten my blood up. I could use a good drill.”

“You and me both.” Sparks stretched and watched the nearer stars rush past. After a mesmerizing few minutes he lowered the blast shields and drifted off to sleep fully expecting to dream of a sun-haired woman and the terrifyingly sweet-tongued preacher who’d incurred her rancor.

###

Sparks awoke to an orchestra of tiny plinks and larger thunks against the hull as the Tempest plowed a path through unexpected debris.

Instantly blinking away the fog of sleep, Sparks slammed his hand into the controls and retracted the sails.

“Where are we?” Phish flowed into his copilot chair. He switched on the display to answer his own question.

“Right where we’re supposed to be, as far as I know.” Perturbed, Sparks fired thrusters in reverse. The tempo of metallic music playing against the blast shield slowed, then stopped.

“The Tempest agrees. Supposedly we’re one click outside of Titan’s orbit.”

Sparks retracted the blast-shield for a visual and scratched his head. The blue-green haze of Titan filled nearly half their view. “And we’re on course?”

Phish nodded.

“Why hasn’t the shipping channel been cleared?”

“Maybe they’re all at church,” Phish grinned.

“Including Patrol?”

Phish shrugged.

“This guy I gotta hear. Just as soon as he collects an offering to repair my sails.” Unamused, Sparks gripped the joystick and fired all thrusters into full descent toward Titan’s heavy atmosphere.

###

The bumpy ride intensified as they transitioned through blue swirling gases into green ones and finally a faded yellow, like that of the exhausted fields of wheat Sparks remembered from his childhood on Earth. He leveled their descent and corrected course according to Phish’s instructions until they punched through the dense clouds.

Visibility improved marginally as they emerged into a dry blizzard typical for Titan this time of year, or at least Sparks assumed. “What season is it here?”

“Summer, for another thirty-two days.”

“And the temperature?”

“Negative two degrees, or 28 of your precious Fahrenheit.”

The ground appeared suddenly. “Please, spare me the lecture on Earthmen hubris.” Sparks yanked the controls, assuming a course parallel to and no more than a hundred meters above the rugged, snow-covered terrain spanning much of the moon’s surface.

Phish yawned and stretched.

“How far to Xanadu?” Sparks queried.

Phish jumped forward, pressing his forehead against the windshield. “Did you see that?”

Without questioning, Sparks banked hard to port in order to come around for another look at whatever the keen-eyed Venusian had seen.

“By Black Pharol, nothing good has happened here.”

Sparks caught his breath at the sight. He banked into a low circle around the consumed ruins of what he assumed had been a mining outpost. “What does the map say?”

“New Rutan, a decade old settlement along the main vein of guarganite, home to 1,734 souls.”

“Not anymore.” Sparks righted the Tempest and followed the spiny ridge of mountains southwest toward the mining center of Xanadu. “Could have been an explosion from the mines.”

“I didn’t see a crater,” Phish frowned. “I did see bodies, dead but intact.”

“Raiders? Disease? Natural disaster?”

“Preacher.”

Sparks scratched the back of his neck. “Curious.”

The two partners completed the last minutes of their trip in silence, passing over another ruined settlement along the way. Finally, they arrived at Xanadu, a fortress of a town hunkered into the side of the mountain and overlooking the equatorial plains of Titan.

Near the equator, and only near the equator, Titan sheltered a small indigenous population. Tribal folk from a forgotten origin and forgotten time, they sustained themselves by raising herds of Gaugan along the narrow band of Titan tundra. Humans only dealt with them to improve their Gaugan breeding stock.

Here at Xanadu, the two commodities Titan had to offer merged: Gaugan, the cold-planet beast of burden and Guarganite, a volatile mineral used in space combat and interplanetary missiles due to its explosive properties when in liquid form. Concern over military use of the stuff typically rendered criminal access to Titan tricky, to say the least.

Patrol regulations should have dictated the Tempest be intercepted in orbit. While Xanadu appeared intact, no welcoming party had extended a hand of greeting, friendly or not. Sparks opened the com to all frequencies. He eyed Phish before clearing his throat, “Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry.”

No response was forthcoming.

“Hello? Smugglers and outlaws with a warrant here.”

Sniggering, Phish bit his lip.

Sparks continued, “We’d like permission to kill one of your citizens and return him for cash payment.”

Static popped over the connection, “Could you repeat that?”

With raised brow, Sparks stroked the stubble on his chin.

Phish shrugged.

“Edsel class merchant ship, the Tempest, requesting entry,” Sparks repeated himself.

Static filled the connection for a full three seconds before, “Oh, yes. Sure thing, right after I send you back to the void from whence you came, you barbarous devils!”

Sparks’ eyes widened as a Patrol gunner ship plummeted out of orbit and streaked straight for them, a plume of entry smoke trailing in its wake.

“Black Pharol squats!” Phish swore.

Sparks jammed the stick forward and dove for the surface with little hope of outracing a gunner at full decent. The Tempest was fast, but—

“Weapons’ lock!”

Sparks jerked his eyes toward the Patrol vessel. It was falling at suicide speed. “There’s no way.” With the Tempest still descending toward the tundra at full thrusters, Sparks slammed his hand down to deploy the blast shield.

“What are you—” before Phish could finish, the Tempest sheered suddenly to starboard and down. Sparks stiffened as he wrestled to regain control of the stick. A moment later a deafening roar washed past the ship and the hull began to glow red-hot.

“Horizon?” Sparks forced the word through clenched teeth.

Phish snapped into action. “Fifty meters, ten degrees.”

Sparks continued his tug-of-war with the controls. “Little help.”

“Right,” Phish reached across. With his hands on top of Sparks’, he joined in the fight. “Nine degrees. Eight. Impact imma—”

The Tempest struck down hard, but didn’t tumble. Slowing rapidly, she listed slightly to port before coming to a complete stop, apparently in one piece.

“Damage?” Sparks cautiously reached for the button to retract the blast shield.

“As Pharol lives,” Phish scrolled through the readout. He breathed deeply and turned to Sparks. “She’ll take off when we need her.”

Sparks raised the shield with little effect. Instead of the sky or even the surface of the Titanian tundra, the two stared into a wall of ice and alluvial deposits. “Altitude?” Sparks questioned.

“Three meters beneath the surface,” Phish grinned.

###

The partners stood in the aft of the tiny ship, waiting for the heat of the Tempest’s hull to melt enough snow and ice for the hatch to open.

Phish stashed a knife in his boot. “How did you know the Patrol vessel had armed itself with gaurganite missiles?”

“I didn’t. Not for sure anyway. Something about their suicidal approach.”

“I’m surprised they even got a missile armed before it went off, as hot as their entry was. What do you think they were going on about with that barbarous devils bit?”

“Sounded like preacher talk to me.”

Phish cinched his gloves tight around his wrists and checked the hatch, finding it clear enough. “My thoughts exactly.”

###

The two men scrambled out the entry path the Tempest had left in the tundra and took their first look around from ground level. A small herd of guagan sniffed around the scene curiously.

“Wait here, I got an idea.” Phish disappeared back down the short tunnel.

A half hour later, and with a lot of coaxing, the rangers managed to mimic ranchers and herdsman effectively enough to hitch a half dozen of the beasts to the Tempest and tow her to the surface.

As the last of the guagan lumbered away, Sparks turned his attention to the fortress city of Xanadu. “What do you think?”

Phish shrugged. “Things have gone pretty smooth so far. Getting in shouldn’t be too bad.”

“Actually, I was wondering what the chances were of getting a bath. Otherwise I’m gonna smell like guagan leavings until the calendar switches.”

“The beasts were indeed a bit more pungent up close than I had imagined.”

Sparks rubbed filth from his gloves using relatively clean snow. “Still, it was a good plan. Now to find us a bath and a preacher.”

“Clean inside and out? Guy, what’s happened to you?”

Sparks set off at a fast clip for the walls of Xanadu, a few kilometers distant. “Don’t you worry, friend. Nothing a little rebyl won’t cure after this is all over.”

“About that, still think I’m gonna be buying?” Phish caught up and clapped Sparks on the shoulder.

“I hope not.”

###

After twenty minutes of hiking, the two mercenaries stared up at the towering gates built into the abrupt start of the mountain. Sparks had worked up a sweat and wasn’t fond to let it freeze between his parka and skin.

“How does one go about knocking at a place like this?” Phish stepped within reach of the looming metal doors.

Sparks eased his heat gun from the holster and stood ready beside his partner. “Try your fist first.”

Shrugging, Phish pounded three times. The cold metal creaked inward, revealing the doors hadn’t be locked or even latched. Knife in hand, the Venusian stepped aside and offered Sparks the lead.

As the Earthman stepped passed the threshold, a timid voice arrested him.

“Where would my masters wish to go?”

Sparks spun in the direction of the thickly-accented English, keeping his firearm lowered. “Who’s asking?”

A short, ruddy man, lessor in years than Sparks, advanced from the shadows. “Your servant does not deserve name, only task.”

Phish leaned close, “He’s a native.”

Sparks nodded. “Are you the doorman?

The queer man with ruddy oversized limbs and small torso bowed low. “At your service, my masters.”

“First off, stop calling me that,” Sparks demanded.

“As you wish, my—” the man stopped short, leaving an awkward silence.

Phish filled it. “By Pharol what has happened here?”

The native lowered his gaze further. “Much has happened in Xanadu for many—”

Holstering his heat gun, Sparks put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Wrong answer.”

Trembling beneath Sparks’s touch, the native quickly changed tactic. “The preacher comes. He brings truth with him. He speaks it to us, like in Charlton and—”

“New Rutan?” Phish finished for him.

The native nodded.

“What kind of truth tears down a city from the inside out?”

“I—” the man shook his head. “I am only servant.”

“Never mind.” Sparks cocked his head in the direction of a shuffling sound above them. He didn’t like how vulnerable they were at the base of a long set of stairs leading further up into the city. “Just take us to this preacher fellow.”

The native shrank back, spasming with tremors. “Would my masters not rather—”

“Preacher, now.” Sparks drew his heat gun.

“As you wish.” The man scurried ahead of Sparks and Phish. But rather than up the stairs, he hurried into a darkened tunnel at their base.

“What, no bath first?” Phish breathed in Sparks’s ear as he fetched a light from his pack.

Sparks ignited his own chemical stick while loping to catch up with the oddly long-limbed native. “I changed my mind. This place stinks worse than the gaugan leavings.”

###

The temperature inside the tunnel rose several degrees. Sparks had just unzipped the front of his parka when the native man stopped in front of a dimly lit lift carved into the rock. The man ran his fingers over a number pad until a bright red light shone from the ceiling.

Through the dispersing, eery glow Sparks glimpsed a moving shadow several meters further along the passage. He gestured to the native. “What else is down here?”

“Tunnel is direct connection to mines.” The man shook his head. “Few workers remain after preacher speak truth to us.” The red light turned green and the elevator door opened. Phish followed the native onboard.

Sparks stood a moment longer in the tunnel. He swore he heard human speech, but in a tongue he hadn’t heard in years. He understood a few echoing words despite not recalling the language from which they came—something about a mom and dad. Slowly, he backed onto the lift.

As the doors closed in front of him, a snatch of a children’s song rang in his head: “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” It was a Gaelic tune sung to children in the mining town near the farm where he’d been raised.

Pale faces smeared black haunted him until the lift jolted to a stop. The lights flickered once, then expired. Instinctively, Sparks’s fingers found themselves wrapped around the grip of his heat gun. “Doorman?”

“Nothing to worry yourselves, my—” he caught himself. “Is only electricity outage. Every lift is equipped with manual crank.”

A panel cracked open somewhere in the dark. Sparks placed his back against the doors and relaxed his grip on the heat gun.

The native man grunted. Slowly, the lift began again to rise. Rhythmically, the man grunted and cranked, and the lift rose.

After a few minutes, the extent of the distance they had yet to go along with the elevator car’s similarities to a coffin settled over Sparks. “Step aside.”

“But—” the native attempted to object.

“We’ll rotate the duty until we reach the top.” Sparks found the crank handle. Figuring the rotation, he started raising the lift and double the pace. A few minutes later, he recognized why the native had chosen the slower one.

As his muscles began to quiver, Phish stepped in. “My turn.”

The three men kept the rotation for nearly twenty minutes. When the car clicked against it’s moorings at the top of the run, Sparks had never been more grateful to exit a lift. But after the native pried the doors open and Sparks’s eyes adjusted to the light, the thrill abated. Drawing his heat gun, he swept the ruddy man aside and darted for the nearest cover.

Phish leapt to his partner’s side, cracking the skull of an attacker with a vicious elbow. Sparks sent another reeling with a steely-fist. Then, just as quickly as the attack had begun, it abated.

The two who’d been bloodied, tumbled into a drift of powdery snow at the feet of a half-dozen others. “Good show, you dim-wit.” A third man laughed as he bent over to assist one of the fallen. The moment he stabilized the man he delivered a hardy headbut, and both men fell down to the great amusement of the others.

“What the—?” Sparks helped the toppled native to his feet.

“It is true for these to act as such.” The man swept dry snow from his tattered cloak. “Now, unless you have changed your minds—”

“Not a chance. Take us to your precious preacher.”

Phish joined the two, a snarl on his lips. “And things were just about to get fun.”

Sparks scoffed as the three men resumed a quick pace along a cobbled street, “Nothing’s fun about killing a pack of brainwashed idiots.”

Phish wiped the glistening sweat from his face, a disturbing lust still lingering within the dark night of his eyes. “Says you.”

Sparks shivered, both from the cold wind and the reminder of the animal instinct just beneath the pale skin of every Venusian. Quickly, he shifted his focus to their surroundings.

The towering tops of stone buildings disappeared and reappeared as howling skiffs of snow coursed through the deep-cut arteries of the mountain city. Sparks knew the visible portion of Xanadu represented only a small fraction of the total, the portion inside the belly of the mountain certainly the greater.

That so much of his surroundings remained hidden made him uncomfortable. And though the ground beneath his boots felt solid enough, he knew it to be anything but.

For several minutes, they progressed smoothly through the city, seeing little signs of life, but many of decay. Shops had been abandoned, homes barricaded. Sparks gave up counting after they passed three dozen lifeless bodies, the cold preserving them from decay.

They passed a fire in an alley where several natives warmed themselves. A woman ran past them screaming about pursuers. Sparks raised his heat gun, scanning the dark doorways and windows in the direction from which she’d come. Nothing emerged.

It was then he noticed a grinning face amidst a heap of rags several feet in front of him. He lowered his weapon. The hairless face grinned wider, revealing a few isolated teeth, the last cogs on rusty and forgotten gears.

The man, at least Sparks believed it to be a man, smacked his lips and appeared to laugh silently. He raised a disembodied hand from the shifting pile of rags and beckoned Sparks closer.

Out of curiosity, Sparks did so. The closer he got, the more the beggar’s eyes roved over his body, growing wider all the time. From a few feet away, Sparks recognized the pile of rags contained various pilfered items: a cookstove, chemical sticks, full liquor bottles, an empty holster.

At this, Sparks jerked upright.

Again, the beggar shook with silent laughter. Then he nodded, and with a point of his chin directed Sparks’s attention to a darkened alley opening behind his pile.

As if he’d been watching the interaction, the doorman spoke, “Here is home of preacher.”

Phish stepped forward, “What, this guy?”

The doorman shook his head, “At end of alley.”

“No fancy temple?”

The doorman lowered his gaze straight down. “Is only humble messenger of truth.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.” Sparks strode toward the alley opening.

The doorman whimpered and fell to his knees.

Sparks turned toward the native and then his partner.

Phish nodded.

Sparks lifted the doorman to his feet and forced the man to look him in the eyes. “You’ve fulfilled your duties. Now go home, back to your family if you’ve got one.”

“But—”

“Go!” Sparks released the man, and he shot away from them aether in a jet wash. With a nod of his head, Sparks signaled Phish. The partners entered the alley shoulder to shoulder, one side of the two-headed mercenary armed with a heat gun, the other a crystal-sharpened, Venusian blade.

###

“So,” a withered voice rose from a darkened corner of the ground-level flat, “you come from across the system to wrestle with the truth?”

The door had been wide open. Sparks moved to his right on silent boots. Phish disappeared into the darkness at his left.

“There is no need for stealth. The truth is always free for the taking.” The voice paused for a long, raspy breath. “As a matter of fact, it seeks out those willing to accept it. To embrace it.”

“Like all the cold, lifeless bodies I stepped over to get here?” Sparks scanned the dark with his steel-grey eyes for any signs of movement. “Is that what happens to folk when they accept your version of the truth?”

“Oh, the truth is not mine. It belongs individually to those who grasp it. To each his own, Mr. Sparks.”

The earthman shivered at the sound of his name spilling from the preacher’s lips.

“Are you surprised I know your name? And that of your Venusian friend? Would not the truth be aware of such trivial details?” The preacher’s voice rose in timbre and steadiness, as if the man himself were aging in reverse. “Phish and Guido, no two men past or present have matched your lust for adventure or your thirst for violence.”

Sparks misstepped, his boot crunching something brittle beneath it. At the same time, his mind began to swim. He used his off-hand to steady his heat gun. He should just fire, slash the darkness wide open and burn the man until he pulverized the stone wall behind him. But he didn’t know where to aim, and he couldn’t fire without aim.

The voice grew more intense and angry. It vibrated inside Sparks’s head. “Haughty, arrogant, you consider every other form of life beneath your own.”

An aurora burst to life before Sparks’s eyes. Shaking his head, he couldn’t shake the swimming light that burned images of his own violent acts into his sight. He lowered his gun and pressed the heal of his palm to his sockets.

The preacher continued, “Oh, you have strength of will! An iron strength that crushes all else! Death in your wake!” The preacher’s voice rose to a tumultuous fever pitch as he began to sing. “Respecter of none, sower of chaos, you shall reap what you have sown. From boy to killer you have grown! Liquor your drink and violence your food, on nothing else you shall brood.”

Sparks jerked. “Shut up! Shut your cursed face!” His arm spasmed and a dazzling flame burst from the end of the barrel in his hand. Ripped open, the dark dispersed as Sparks flailed to the ground, lashing a beam of energy wildly across the room.

“Watch it, earthling!” Phish snapped as he danced clear of the errant ray.

Sparks only released the trigger when the cold blade of Phish’s knife pinned his wrist to an overturned chair. In the bubble of silence that followed, Sparks heard the preacher laughing quietly. Lost to his pain and confusion, Sparks freed his hand by removing the knife.

As he did so, the voice continued, once again withered and weak, “I have spoken all that truth has to say. Go. If in a day’s time you still desire to kill me, I will offer my life willingly.”

At the mention of killing, Sparks leapt at a thought as if a distant memory. He had come here to kill someone, but who? Killing. It was the only thing that felt right. He should do so now.

“Go!” The voice commanded.

Sparks jumped to his feet. Unthinking, he backed toward the door.

“Come back tomorrow,” the voice paused as its owner heaved a deep sigh.

Sparks wasn’t sure why, but the words seemed full of sorrow and pain.

“If you can.” The voice finished with these final foreboding words.

To Sparks they didn’t seem sufficient. He grasped at a question that seemed to be fleeing his mind  more quickly than he could ask it. He needed to know more. He needed some answer to a question he forgot.

“Out of the way, earthling, before you bleed on me.”

Sparks had reached the door, but before he could back through it, an angry Venusian barreled him over. Tumbling into a drift of snow in the alley, Sparks rebounded quickly. Leaping forward, he swept the Venusian’s legs and shoved him headlong.

A moment later the two men clambered into the street while exchanging blows.

“Out of my way! I’m thirsty!” Getting the better of him, the Venusian clapped a two-fisted hammer against Sparks’s jaw.

Sprawling to the street, Sparks struck the cobblestones and rolled to a hard stop. The punishment severed the final tether his mind had been grasping, and whatever it was he’d been attempting to realize sank into the cold stone beneath his cheek.

###

Sparks awoke to something tugging gently at his side. Reflex guided his hand to the grip of his heat gun where he fought off a frail, bony hand already in the process of removing the pistol from its holster. His other hand shot out just as quickly to grip the throat of the intruder.

Sitting up and blinking snow out of his eyes, he finally focused on the toothless grimace of a beggar. The man choked and sputtered. Sparks squeezed. “You’re not even worth the charge it would take to fry you.

The man attempted to shake his head, his eyes bulging. He slapped his ears repeatedly with open palms and again tried to shake his head.

Sparks squeezed. He didn’t know where he was, or who this man was before him. But he knew the taste and touch of killing intimately. The act of it warmed his insides.

The man slapped his own ears until they bled, his eyes now rolled into his head.

One last twitch and it would be done. Then it struck him. As bright red drops of blood stained the drift of white snow gathered where Sparks had lain on the cold cobbles, it struck him. The beggar was deaf.

Sparks released his grip, dropping the pitiful creature facedown in the street. Why should it matter? Who cared if the man was deaf. He had tried to steal another man’s pistol. For that, it was Sparks’s right to kill him, deaf or otherwise.

But for some reason it mattered.

Cold and sore all over, Sparks let it go. His stomach rumbled. His throat ached. He needed something to sooth it. He needed a drink. Wobbly, he rose to his feet and kicked the beggar out of the way.

A natural instinct for finding taverns and a vague recollection of his surroundings led him in short time to a doorway lit by flame and buzzing with laughter. Scattered chords of a familiar ditty played on a strange tonal percussion instrument greeted Sparks as he ambled across the threshold.

“About time you show up, slowpoke.” A gold-haired cherub of a Venusian called to him from the back corner. “I was beginning to think that beggar slit your throat.”

Sparks grinned, “Fat chance.” He turned aside to the bar. “What is there to drink in this shinta hole.”

“Why don’t you start with your own blood, you foul-mouthed devil!” A lumbering minor rose from his stool and slashed at Sparks with a roughly fashioned shiv.

Sparks casually drew his heat gun and burned a hole through the man’s chest. As the man slumped to the ground, Sparks slammed his pistol on the bar. “I said get me a drink!”

“Better make that two.”

Sparks spun to face the devious black-eyes of the Venusian.

For a split second, the confidence buoying the two terrible windows into a dark time before history deflated. “I seem to recall something about you owing me one.”

Sparks nodded. “You know, I think you’re right.” He pounded the bar again. “Two drinks!”

A ruddy-skinned, long-limbed bartender shook as he attempted to pour the drinks.

Sparks snatched the bottle and shoved the man against the shelves behind the bar. As the bartender struggled to catch bottles of turbid liquor before they shattered against the stone floor, the bar song rose in volume and intensity. An alien voice took up the tune.

Sparks seized, his muscles jerking, his consciousness dancing like a needle across the grooved surface an ancient vinyl record—the kind his grandmother kept on her high shelf. Something familiar resided in those grooves, but his mind couldn’t settle into them.

The musician sang the chorus with lilting tremolo as if from dual throats, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.”

In hostile resistance, Sparks’s mind skipped completely, returning control of his body to a baser instinct. He licked his cracked lips. Half swaggering and half dizzy, he sidled to the table where the Venusian sat. “The service around here stinks.”

“I think it’s you that stinks, my friend.”

Sparks slammed the bottle on the table and lunged with a slow haymaker.

The Venusian caught it while pulling a knife from his boot.

Sparks jabbed his heat gun into the Venusian’s ribs at the same time he felt the knife against his own. Both men looked down and laughed.

“This calls for a drink!”

Sparks attempted to cork the bottle after pouring two glasses of nose-curdling, blue liquid. He stopped short at a sharp pain.

“What happened to your wrist?” The Venusian pointed with his glass before knocking back a third of it and grimacing.

Sparks held up his hand, a curious look on his face. In the background, the harpsichord-like music plinked and plucked at a tune Sparks felt he could hum to if he were so inclined. Gritting his teeth, he dug his thumb into the wound. His hand twitched, but all the fingers still worked.

A memory flashed through his mind alongside the pain. The injury was recent. Why couldn’t he remember it? He battered the door of his mind in attempt to break it down, but failed. The earliest thing he could recall was the beggar. He hummed a bar or two of music. “Did you know that beggar is deaf?”

“Deaf? Why in the name of Pharol should I care about that?”

Sparks used his good hand to tip back his drink. The odor was like wet dog, and the taste diesel. But the burn. The burn took his breath away. Blinking through the fumes, he finally managed to gulp air into his lungs.

The Venusian laughed before taking a swig himself. When both men recovered, he continued, “How can a moon with so much snow be so dry?”

They clinked glasses and Sparks licked his lips in anticipation of that blessed burn.

###

Everything began to blur together. Hours passed, possibly days. Sparks couldn’t be sure. At first he thought it a nasty side effect of the booze, then something else. Possibly the Venusian had poisoned him. He couldn’t remember how many times they had fought, or why.

A strong heat brushed against his face. Laughter filled his ears. Suddenly he rolled onto his side and puked. The bile stripped the inside of his throat, leaving behind nothing but pain. Through the pain, he recognized the sound in his ears as fire rather than laughter. The burn in his throat became a combination of bile and smoke.

He rolled onto his stomach and pushed against the floor, heat radiating from the cobbled stones. His muscles trembled at the effort. What was wrong with him?

Finally, he reached his knees. He coughed in the thickening smoke and froze as a familiar tune tickled his ears. Chords of music rose over the cracks and pops of the fire, then an alien voice, “Carving from the rock I does, what my mommy and daddy before me was.” A clot of fear lodged in his chest. His parents. He had to save them, but where were they?

On unsteady feet he plodded and stumbled through a maze of overturned tables searching for family to pull from the flames. With each uncertain step, the farmhouse and hay barn of his youth transformed into a tavern of stone and rough-hewn wooden beams.

With each rasping breath, his murderous lust evolved into duty, loyalty. But to what? And to who? The music grew off-tune, skipping notes and plucking dead strings. Sparks took up the tune himself. Mouthing breathless words, he continued the song. While his muscles deteriorated with each effort, his mind strengthened.

Xanadu. The bar, the city where he found himself. He remembered.

He caught a flicker of movement through the corner of his eye. Behind a wall of smoke, at the back of the bar, someone else struggled to survive. Hacking, choking, stumbling, Sparks wrenched a table off of a gold-haired Venusian. “Phish,” his throat constricted around the word.

His friend was burned, but angry—the anger a good indicator of life.

“Help me up, earthman.”

Sparks tugged with every dying ember of his strength and the two rose together. The music had stopped altogether and Sparks had lost the tune, but he remembered where he was and why he’d come—to kill a preacher for money.

The purpose lent him new resolve. As the mammoth timbers girding the tavern ceiling snapped and gave way to the hunger of the flames, Sparks and his Venusian partner rolled gratefully into the welcoming cold of a snow drift.

###

A cold trickle worked its way down the back of Sparks’s throat. His swallow reflex jolted him awake as the constriction of his burning throat shot pain up and down his spine. With difficulty he raised his head. A dazzling aurora swam in the sky above him. He watched the colors morph and dance in amazement. A trickle of melted snow ran down his nose and pooled at his lips.

As he licked the water, a thirst reared within him. How long had it been since he had drank anything but booze?

A quick movement caught his eye just before a cold puff of snow struck his head. He blinked away the dry flakes and focused on a man, a Titanian native with long ruddy arms and legs.

The native dusted snow from his hands and cocked his head.

“Do I know you?” Sparks whispered the words as loud as he could.

“Where would my masters wish for me to take them today?”

The accented English combined with the subservient tone sparked a memory in a dormant section of Sparks’s brain. “The doorman?”

“At my masters’ service.”

A rustling at Sparks’s elbow diverted his attention. “Phish, about time you wake up.” Sparks tugged his partner into a sitting position and helped dust off the snow that had drifted around them.

“Guy?” The Venusian’s voice cracked. He grimaced and attempted to swallow. Finally he whispered, “Where are we?”

Sparks smiled broadly enough to make his lips bleed. “Xanadu.” He turned toward the doorman and continued, “I think we came here on a bounty.”

“I remember. Something about a preacher.” Phish gripped Sparks’s hand, and they helped each other up on wobbly legs.

Sparks nodded. “A preacher we’re supposed to kill.”

The doorman drew cautiously near, “Would my masters like me to take them to preacher?”

Breathing shallow, Sparks rested his hands on his knees in an effort to stop the world from spinning. “First, stop calling me that. Second, yes, take us to this preacher. But could we get something to drink first?”

The doorman stepped back glancing nervously between the two men and the smoldering remains of the tavern.

Sparks understood his concern and shook his head. “Not booze. Water.”

The doorman smiled, his lips rising in the middle as well as both corners. His voice warmed and grew an added dimension, “As you wish.”

###

Slowly, the small party worked its way along cobblestone streets—one block, then two, and finally a third. The only visible bodies remaining in Xanadu not belonging to the three of them were dead ones. Sparks didn’t miss the fact that not one of the dead were natives. They stopped in front of large and luxuriously-one-storied building. The wooden shutters were shattered and listing, but the rest of the structure remained intact.

The doorman led them inside the abandoned structure and seated them near a window.

Sparks caught the doorman’s shoulder. “How long—” He fumbled over how to formulate his question, unsure of exactly what he was asking. “How long ago did we first meet?”

Without lifting his gaze, the native responded, “Five days have passed since first I serve my—” he caught himself, “since first we meet.” The man scurried off before Sparks could detain him further.

“Five days?” Phish grilled Sparks with black eyes and furrowed brows. “What have we been doing for five days? I barely remember arriving.”

Sparks met the Venusian’s intensity and raised it. “What are we?”

Phish cocked his head and raised a brow.

“I mean, what dictates who we are?”

“A man’s no better than his actions, why?”

Sparks nodded. “So we’re drunks and hooligans.”

Phish narrowed his eyes, a flare of anger sparking beneath their polished black surface. “We’re mercenaries and smugglers.” He straightened. “At least I think we are.”

The doorman returned with two metal mugs filled with water and two hard loaves of bread that clanked nearly as loud as the mugs when he placed them on the table. “I shall show you to preacher at your leisure.” He bowed and withdrew.

The two partners ate their meager meal in silence, finishing it as quickly as their parched throats allowed. Fifteen minutes later they followed the doorman’s lead as the three of them pushed through a newly invigorated northern wind carrying with it blinding skiffs of snow.

###

“You’re late,” a shriveled voice spoke from the shadows.

A dizzying sense of deja vu struck Sparks between the eyes. “Time flies.”

“For some,” the preacher wheezed, “but truth is eternal.”

Sparks closed his eyes, stabilizing himself with Phish’s shoulder. Slowly but surely his memory of their previous encounter with the preacher returned. “You,” he released Phish, “you on the other hand, are not.” He gripped an unlit chemical stick in one hand and his heat gun in the other.

“Despite your tardiness, I will honor our agreement. You’ve no need to fear.”

“Fear?” Phish interrupted. “As if we were afraid of an old man hiding in the shadows?”

“Oh you are afraid, my Venusian warrior. Do not mistake the willingness to die as lack of fear. Your fear stems from lack of necessity.” The man wheezed in an effort to catch his breath, his audience unable to override him. “But as I have said, you fear needlessly, for Guido Sparks has need of you, as have I.”

Sparks blinked a drop of sweat from an eyelash and grew suddenly aware that he’d raised his heat gun. He gripped it so tight, his hand shook. His chest heaved and his brow ran with sweat despite the cold. “Who are you?”

“Does it matter? You have come to kill me, and I have surrendered myself into your hand.”

Phish nudged Sparks.

Sparks shook his head.

Impatiently, Phish tugged the chemical stick from Sparks’s left hand and activated it. The pale, blue-green glow burst to life, pushing back the shadows and revealing a hunched figure no more than ten paces in front of them. The Venusian sheathed his knife and drew his own heat gun. “Burn him, or I will.”

“Not yet,” Sparks barked through gritted teeth. He fought against his own urge to squeeze the trigger, to vent the building urge to sever the preacher’s connection to this world, to fulfill his word with the taking of a life. With quivering lips, he continued, “You speak of the truth as if you’re incapable of telling a lie.”

“Telling the truth and speaking it are two different things.”

Sparks shook his head, his hand cramping around the grip of his gun. “No. A man is more than what he does.”

“So Guido Sparks wants to be more than a killer? A killer for pay perhaps?”

“Guy, what are you doing? We can’t wait any longer.” Phish squeezed the trigger.

Sparks sensed the moment coming. Colliding into his partner’s shoulder, he forced the Venusian’s energy beam high. The stone ceiling crackled and burst into a spray of shattered rock as Sparks attempted to wrest the gun from Phish’s grip. “Who are you?!” Sparks continued to grill the preacher even as the ray from Phish’s heat gun slashed across the far wall. “I need to know!”

The preacher’s voice rose again in timbre and richness. He bellowed above the crackling thunder of the superheated rock exploding from the ceiling and walls. “One day you will find what you seek, Guido Sparks. I am not truth, but merely an unholy messenger, brought about through unrighteous means and unleashed as a weapon. Now, I beg of you, end me!”

Surrendering both to his own impulses and the strength of his Venusian companion, Sparks and Phish directed the beam of sizzling energy together. Four hands gripping the gun, and in singularity of action, the hunched figure of the preacher toppled and fell beneath the ray of unquenchable thirst.

Sparks blinked through the smoke of sizzling rock and burning clothes. Absent was the stink of scalded flesh. Clambering to his feet, he witnessed the collapse and consumption of the preacher’s cloak, but the old man’s body had gone. If ever he had possessed one, nothing now remained. No stink, no ash, nothing.

Phish rose and holstered his weapon. “What was that about?”

Sparks shook his head. “I wanted an explanation for the past five days.”

Phish raised a brow. “Explanation for what? The dust storms on Mars? For why we had such a long row of bad luck? And why in Pharol’s name would this guy know about any of that?”

Sparks stood dazed. “You don’t remember?”

Phish rolled his black eyes. “Fine, I owe you a case of rebyl. As soon as we find a tavern, I’ll pay up.” He wiped the sweat from his brow. “First why don’t we follow up on that bath you mentioned?”

 

###

 

On their way out of Xanadu, Sparks did his best to explain what he could remember of the five day gap between the first time they confronted the preacher and the last. Part of him had hoped to run into the doorman, but the only living soul they encountered had been the deaf beggar.

Sparks had grilled him with narrow eyes and the beggar had merely shrugged and given him a toothless grin, as if to say “it was worth a try.”

Sparks couldn’t help but wonder why the natives seemed unaffected and if they had been what prevented Xanadu from descending down the same path of complete destruction that the other settlements had. Was their truth that different from his and Phish’s and the rest of the off-world miners’? Perhaps the recent century of oppression had been their salvation. Perhaps his experience simply couldn’t understand theirs.

After they did what they could to repair the Tempest’s solar sails and succeeded in punching through Titan’s thick atmosphere to establish orbit, Phish turned to Sparks with a question revealing what had been occupying his more practically keen mind, “Before we killed him, the preacher mentioned being unleashed as a weapon. If that’s the case, who do you think unleashed him and why?”

Before Sparks could respond, the Tempest’s com bleeped with an incoming message. Sparks hesitated, his finger hovering over the button. “Time to collect payment?”

Phish shrugged, “You’re gonna have to buy me a case of rebyl somehow.”

Sparks opened the connection and cleared his voice.

“About time you boys poked your head up through the clouds.” It was the cocky-smooth voice of Persephone. “I’ve been looking for your signal for some time. I hope everything went smoothly?”

“Your preacher’s dead, if that’s what you’re asking.” Sparks ran a hand across his face, realizing his stubble had nearly grown into a beard.

“Oh I never doubted that.”

“Trouble?” Phish laughed. “Oh no trouble, just transfer the ledger and we’ll be fine.”

Sparks detected the slightest of hesitations on the other end. He hated wrapping up deals of this magnitude via such impersonal means. People made dumb decisions from the anonymity and perceived security of great distances.

“Will do,” she finally continued. “Just give me a minute, and you’ll see it appear.” She sighed audibly. “I’m sorry we couldn’t share another drink together, Sparks.” She cut the connection.

Sparks exchanged uncomfortable glances with Phish and his skin began to crawl. “Did something about that sound—”

Phish nodded before he could finish.

Without even checking their ledger, Sparks fired full thrusters to break orbit. Sitting still had once again become intolerable.

A slim three seconds later, the coordinates where they would have been, had they not altered trajectory, collapsed and then expanded exponentially as a interplanetary ordinate tipped with gaurginite detonated less than a click off their port side. The ripple flipped the Tempest before Sparks could respond.

Held fast by his harness, he mashed his palm into the controls in effort to deploy the single-use, emergency sail. Succeeding, the Tempest tumbled even more violently to face the source of the explosion, as the sail worked like a pillowcase in a hurricane.

Bucking against his restraints and struggling to hold his chin off his chest, Sparks managed to ride the surge without blacking out. The moment they dropped from the wash, he fired full thrusters and manually steered for a course somewhere far away from Titan. “Coordinates.”

“For where?” Phish rubbed his bleary eyes in an attempt to focus.

“Surprise me!”

Phish punched in their destination and without wasting a heart beat, Sparks deployed what was left of their solar sails. Without looking back, he opened up the Tempest’s full capabilities, and to anyone who might still be looking for them, they became a blur streaking across the swirling backdrop of Saturn.

 

END of Episode One

Adventures of Cosmo and Chancho, Ep1

Episode One: Things That Go Boom

A line of dark-skinned Africans zig-zagged out of sight behind mountains of bituminous coal. Coaling a behemoth the size of the Royal Edward was a monumental and dirty task. Cosmo gathered a bird’s eye view of the process from his favorite spot on the afterdeck of the five-level passenger steamer.

Shielding his face with his hand, Cosmo peered upward at the sun through the slits between his fingers. The temperature and humidity created an oppressive heat as bad as anything he had grown up with in the jungles of Northeast India.

Watching the coal porters dump precious coal into the ship’s hopper a basketful at a time renewed Cosmo’s gratitude for his current job—bodyguard to the less-than noble Sir Rendel Wrightwick. Technically, Cosmo’s title was porter and baggage boy, a position more typical for a low caste, tribal boy. However, one of Wrightwick’s colleagues had jokingly referred to him as an esquire.

After sneaking a peek at his boss’s English/Hindi dictionary, Cosmo learned an esquire had once been the title for a knight in training. He liked it. Cosmo Zimik, Esquire.

“Cosmo? Is that you?”

Without acknowledging the voice, Cosmo attempted to identify it. By the accent Cosmo could tell the voice belonged to a white man, American. That could mean only one thing—a missionary. Cosmo faced him.

“I wouldn’t of believed it, but Laura insisted it was you.”

Cosmo recognized the man, but couldn’t recall the name. “Pastor…”

“Pettigrew.”

Cosmo nodded. The Baptist missionary and his wife had been working throughout the Naga Hills for several years. Cosmo had met them during his father’s ordination. What were the chances someone connected with his home village would end up on the Royal Edward? The last thing Cosmo needed was for his father to learn he had left the boarding school in Calcutta.

Pettigrew frowned. “What are you doing out here in the middle of the Arabian Sea?”

Cosmo turned the tables with a question of his own. “Are you and your wife heading home on sabbatical?”

“A bit of a fundraising junket, I’m afraid. We hope to travel back to India soon.” Pettigrew raised his brimmed hat long enough to run his fingers through his hair. “It’s only been a week, and I miss your Naga Hills already. But enough about me and Laura.”

Cosmo dodged the matter. “I miss home, too. You must be looking forward to seeing your home in the States.”

“Well yes, I suppose Virginia will always be home. But for heaven’s sake, you must tell me how you’ve ended up—”

“You there! Bag boy.”

Cosmo blinked slowly and faced Wrightwick’s personal assistant, Barnard. He was an overly scrupulous and annoying man stuffed in stuffy clothes. But at that moment, his appearance served as a welcome interruption.

“Stop your lolly-gagging, you goldbricker. The boss has a meeting in Aden in fifteen minutes. You’ve got fifteen seconds to meet him on the dock, or start swimming back to India.” Barnard glared through his circular spectacles at Pettigrew.

Apparently, Cosmo didn’t need to introduce the two men.

Pettigrew sputtered before finding his tongue. “You’re working for Sir Wrightwick?”

Cosmo had no idea how an American Baptist missionary knew a disreputable business man like Wrightwick, but the unfortunate coincidences were adding up. Instead of answering the question, Cosmo leapt on top of the railing.

Pettigrew gasped. “What would your father think?”

Nearly three feet over Cosmo’s head, a guy wire tethered the Royal Edward to a concrete anchor amidst the coal piles. Cosmo glanced down at Barnard. “Can I borrow a kerchief?”

Barnard scoffed. “A kerchief? Boy, you’d better be worried more about your hide than a runny nose.” Despite his grumbling, Barnard fetched the cloth from his pocket. Reaching up, he slapped it into Cosmo’s outstretched hand. “Now you’ve got ten seconds, so I suggest you get down and stop—”

Cosmo doubled the cloth in his hand, bent his knees and jumped. With an inch to spare, he clutched the cable, which turned out to be as big around as a rupee coin. The kerchief smoked in Cosmo’s hand as he zipped down the steep angle—perhaps too steep.

Imagining the flesh of his hand smoking next, Cosmo scanned for a safe place to land. Heat seared his palm. Swinging toward a less trafficked stretch of boardwalk, Cosmo released his grip and plummeted the last several yards to the dock. Despite tucking his feet on contact, his knees struck his chest harder than he would have liked.

After tumbling into a shocked laborer, Cosmo stood with a stupid grin on his face. “Nine seconds to spare.” He spoke to no one in particular.

Pettigrew called a parting shot after him. “It would kill your father to find out how you’re using your skills!”

Cosmo ground his teeth and pushed through the snaking line of coal porters. Hundreds of miles from India, and his father’s watchful eye still pursued him. Cosmo would simply have to travel further. He didn’t expect his father or any of his people to understand why he’d taken a job protecting a representative of Colonial Britain.

Then again, as an American and a missionary, of course Pettigrew had been referring to Cosmo’s neglect of his spiritual gifting. Of all the stupid things his father could have handed down to his youngest son… Cosmo shook it off. Somehow, he would have to avoid Pettigrew for the remainder of their time aboard the Royal Edward.

Covered in coal dust and several seconds late, Cosmo located his boss. Lateness and untidiness were two things Wrightwick typically did not tolerate in his associates or employees. For some reason, Cosmo’s contempt for his boss exempted him from severe punishment.

Currently, Sir Wrightwick looked undecided between rage and amusement. He tucked his gold pocket watch into his waistcoat. “The landing could have been better.” He sucked the toothpick in his teeth before flicking it off the dock and into the water below.

Cosmo slapped coal dust off of his baggy dhoti pants. “I’ll work on it. No problem.”

###

The settlement of Aden existed for one purpose, the coaling of ships. Decades earlier, a Sultanate of Yemen had surrendered the volcanic spit to the British East India Company and a battalion of Royal Marines. Built inside an extinct volcano, the town was perfectly sheltered against storms and pirates alike. Unfortunately, the walls of dark, igneous rock protected the town from any and all breeze as well.

On full alert, Cosmo rode shotgun next to the coach’s driver. After a series of switchbacks, the horse-drawn carriage arrived at the locals’ version of a house of spirits. Cosmo had no use for alcohol or any adult who imbibed it. His people, the Naga, didn’t touch the stuff.

While Wrightwick didn’t drink excessively, his business appointments convened in such places. Cosmo jumped down and opened the door of the carriage for his boss.

Wrightwick flushed from the carriage like a flock of birds from the jungle canopy. Always in a hurry without looking hurried, that was Wrightwick’s manner. As a result, the man came across as angry and intimidating. He knew what he wanted, and he expected others to keep up.

Usually Cosmo’s young age forced him to work twice as hard to overcome initial impressions. But Wrightwick had seemed pleased by Cosmo’s youth. He had recognized Cosmo’s abilities immediately and hired him after a fifteen minute interview during which Cosmo revealed no personal information.

Handing Cosmo his satchel, Wrightwick flung open the saloon doors. He paused only long enough for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting.

Cosmo flowed past Wrightwick without brushing the man’s elbow. He sized up every individual inside the drinking house in a matter of seconds. By the time Wrightwick proceeded to a table in the far corner, Cosmo had eliminated all but two of the patrons as potential threats.

Cosmo followed his boss while keeping one eye glued on the backs of the two burly fellows seated at the bar. Cosmo didn’t like the fact their turbans and flowing robes could conceal swords or even rifles.

“Sir Wrightwick, I presume.” A portly gentlemen rose from the corner table.

Wrightwick sat without shaking the man’s hand. “I’ve no time for such unscheduled diversions. You have information for me, Mr. Crampton?”

Crampton attempted to brush his hair from his face. Excessive sweating had pasted it to his forehead. The man was nervous, slovenly and alone—a stark contrast to the clean and collected Wrightwick. Obviously, Crampton lacked the confidence to pose any serious threat.

Cosmo turned his back to the meeting. Tensing, he realized the two men at the bar had gone. He swept the establishment with his eyes. How could such men disappear so quickly and so quietly? At the very least, Cosmo should have heard them upsetting a chair or a table.

“Right you are.” Crampton worked up the nerve to speak. “Terribly sorry for the interruption.”

“Then get to it, man.” Wrightwick snapped.

Cosmo observed the remaining patrons for clues to the mystery mens’ disappearance. None of them stared toward the exit or acted as if anything strange had occurred. Cosmo knew he had turned his head for only a second.

“Right, right.” Crampton stammered. “A scurrilous lot filtered through here the better of two days ago asking after the Royal Edward in a roundabout manner, if you know what I mean.”

“Similar to your current manner?” Wrightwick asked through clenched teeth.

“I see. Indeed, you’re right.” Crampton gulped. “Straight to the point then. There’s no doubt in my mind they were pirates, sir. Mercenaries hired with the specific charge of finding your ship.”

Cosmo didn’t like the mention of pirates, especially after losing the two men at the bar. He reasoned the men could have been waiting for Wrightwick’s arrival before setting some devious plot into action.

“Mercenaries and pirates. Hmmm.” Wrightwick scratched his chin. “I apologize for my brash behavior, Mr. Crampton. You were right for initiating this aside. You’ve provided useful information indeed. It’s possible the Ottoman Empire has caught wind of our movements in the area.”

While maintaining vigilance, Cosmo focused on the conversation. He’d undertaken a crash course on Middle Eastern current events after learning of the Royal Edward’s destination. An English newspaper had revealed the Ottomans were currently engaged in a localized war with neighboring countries. Cosmo surmised on his own that Wrightwick’s interest in the area pivoted on the warfare.

“Think closely, Mr. Crampton.” Wrightwick leaned forward. “Did these dastards pronounce the name of the Royal Edward specifically?”

Crampton shook his head. “Nay, sir. But they inquired after large steamers en route to the Suez Canal. You know, asking whether one had been by. Only three boats this week fit that description.”

“Indeed, the coincidence is suspicious. I agree.”

Both men fell silent. A wooden chair scraped the floorboards as a patron rose to pay his bill. Cosmo wondered again of the mystery men, then dismissed them as paranoia. Coincidence. Probably nothing. The alien environment had set Cosmo on edge.

Crampton cleared his voice. “Should I inform her Majesty of any changes in the plan?”

“No no.” Wrightwick stood. This time he extended his hand.

Crampton shook it.

“Everything will proceed as planned. I’ll double the watch, that’s all. Nothing will prevent the Edward from landing intact with its cargo. Certainly no band of clumsy pirates.” Wrightwick glanced at his pocket watch and gestured for Cosmo to take the lead.

With his boss’s satchel still in hand, Cosmo moved swiftly toward the exit. If Wrightwick was deferring to Cosmo’s lead, it meant he was concerned enough for his safety to throw convention out the window. Not that anyone in the saloon would care that a British gentleman had deferred to his bag boy. But Cosmo knew Wrightwick cared.

That meant Cosmo should care. Throwing open the saloon doors, Cosmo leapt aside and held one open for his boss. He blinked rapidly in the harsh midday sun. Two blurs in the shapes of men flashed to his left.

Cosmo shielded the sun with his free hand. His bleary eyes focused on an empty street. No men, no nothing. He whistled for the carriage parked across the way. The driver started as if he’d been asleep beneath the brim of his hat. Straightening, he shook the reins and stirred the horses to life.

Cosmo opened the door of the carriage. After Wrightwick boarded, Cosmo resumed shotgun. He scanned both sides of the street for the mysterious men or anything suspicious. A couple of women shrouded in black burkas emerged from a bakery and immediately scurried from the presence of the strangers.

Cosmo rubbed his eyes—maybe he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Determined to execute his duty with honor, he’d get less sleep in the coming days due to Wrightwick’s heightened security needs.

Before abandoning boarding school, Cosmo had been exposed to Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the imperative to “know your enemy.” Thus, Cosmo’s motivations in protecting the corrupt and dishonorable Sir Wrightwick might have been less than pure. But there was no reason Cosmo couldn’t study his enemy while maintaining his honor and his contract.

Besides, if pirates were targeting the Royal Edward, everyone onboard would be in equal danger. Including Cosmo.

###

Cosmo inhaled the mixture of salt air and coal smoke from his favorite spot on the afterdeck. The clock in his head told him it was nearly midnight—almost halfway through his vigil. Seventy-two hours after striking out from Aden, the Royal Edward had reached the Mediterranean Sea intact and without event.

Wrightwick’s meeting in Aden with a fellow named Crampton had revealed a pirate plot to seize the Royal Edward before she could dock in Salonika, Greece. Crampton had brought up the possibility of informing her Majesty of changes to the plan. But Wrightwick had insisted nothing would prevent the Edward from landing intact with its cargo. Cosmo still had no idea what that cargo was.

During the three days’ journey, Cosmo had overheard Wrightwick talking softly in his quarters. At first, Cosmo assumed Wrightwick was talking to himself. Later, he heard Barnard referring to something called a ‘wireless.’ Cosmo deduced the technology to be some sort of telephone without wires. Never during the countless conversations did Wrightwick mention the nature of the Royal Edward’s cargo.

It bothered Cosmo. Out of curiosity, he stole a glance at the Royal Edward’s passenger roster: 435 civilian passengers, 58 crew. Yet the Edward’s full capacity was listed at 1,114 souls. Cosmo was good at mathematics. No manner of number twisting could take 435 plus 58 and come up with anything close to 1,114.

More than half the boat was officially empty. That meant wasted space and wasted fuel, which meant wasted money. Wrightwick didn’t waste money.

Cosmo rubbed his bare arms. Despite it being July, the Mediterranean breeze chilled him. Worse, the boundless night worried him. It didn’t take an expert in piracy to know the open ocean provided less cover during the day than at night. If a much smaller pirate crew on a much smaller boat intended to seize control of the Royal Edward, they would use the cover of night.

Cosmo intended to make sure no such thing happened.

He stretched his eyes across the vast darkness of the choppy sea. The fractured reflection of the moon spread out in every direction. To the south and east, Cosmo imagined the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt and Ottoman controlled Palestine—the lands of the Bible.

During his father’s youth, American missionaries had penetrated his homeland. Great numbers of Naga converted to Baptist Christianity. Cosmo’s parents believed. Cosmo wasn’t so sure.

The thought of his homeland filled him with loneliness until he shook off the distraction. He had a job to do. A strange job at that. Here he was in a body of water surrounded by Africa, the Middle East and Europe, on a boat supposedly half empty and yet precious enough to attract mercenary pirates.

Cosmo knew Wrightwick was hiding something below decks—something valuable enough to risk the lives of 493 people.

The resonance of the night air suddenly shifted. Cosmo closed his eyes and swiveled his neck. He listened to the sounds of the water as if he were a bat. For the last several hours, the slap of water against the Royal Edward’s hull had fled outward and dissipated.

Now the sound rebounded off of an invisible object to port. Something was out there. Cosmo opened his eyes and stood on tiptoe. The night acted like a black curtain. He couldn’t see the water at the base of the ship, except for the moon’s reflection.

The moon’s reflection, of course. He searched the surface of the water for evidence of something large enough to block the moon’s reflection. After several seconds of frantic searching, he found it—a dark spot large enough to be a ship.

It wasn’t much to go on, but he’d rather wake the crew for nothing than fight pirates by himself. Slipping off his sandals, he sprinted barefoot for the emergency box outside the back door of the cabin. Seconds later, he threw himself against the glass window and shattered it with his elbow.

Reaching inside, he removed the flare gun with one hand and snatched two flares with the other. He loaded the gun on the run, aimed it high over the bridge, and fired. The pilot would have to see it.

Back on the afterdeck, he cracked open the flare gun and ejected the shell of the spent flare. He loaded the second flare, burning himself in the process. Ignoring the pain, he scanned the surface of the water for the shadow he’d seen before. Nothing.

He chided himself for assuming a pirate vessel wouldn’t change trajectory. He shifted his gaze to directly behind the boat. There, in the wake, a growing darkness.

He aimed the flare gun again. This time, he fired directly at the approaching shadow. Instantly, the flare revealed a low profile, iron-clad steamer in the Royal Edward’s wake. And it was catching them up.

A metal ping struck the hull of the Edward below Cosmo. A split second later, the pop of gunfire reached his ears. Dancing backward, Cosmo sounded the alarm. “Pirates! Directly aftward! Pirates!” He turned at the sound of approaching footsteps and collided with the ship’s Captain.

“What’s all this then?”

Before Cosmo could explain, another bullet ricocheted off the cabin wall.

“For the love of Saint Nicholas!” The captain held the rest of his men back. “Pirates! Sound the alarm! Dole out the munitions! If they aim to board the Royal Edward, we’ll make them pay with their own blood!”

Cosmo had already pushed past the others on his way toward Sir Wrightwick’s personal cabin. While he’d assist in defending the boat by any means necessary, Wrightwick was his personal responsibility.

###

The Royal Edward shuttered as Cosmo pounded on the door of Wrightwick’s cabin.

Wrightwick greeted Chancho with a snarl on his lips. “Report.”

“Pirates.” Cosmo exhaled the world between deep breaths.

“So they’ve found us have they?” Wrightwick disappeared inside his cabin. Seconds later he joined Cosmo in the passageway with his sword-cane in hand. “Do you require a weapon?”

Cosmo found it odd the question had never come up before. He shook his head. “I’ll use my surroundings.”

Wrightwick nodded approvingly. “The pirates will have been instructed to kill on sight.”

“And my instructions?” Cosmo asked.

“The same.”

With Wrightwick right behind him, Cosmo darted along the narrow passageway. He slid down the stairs railings without touching the steps and landed on the main deck. He knew the best way to keep his employer safe would be on deck. There, he could defend the ship and Wrightwick at the same time.

The lifeboats would be a last resort. Considering he couldn’t swim, Cosmo hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

The sounds of gunfire and men giving orders filled the deck. Cosmo peered up and down the length of the starboard gangway. All he saw were the ship’s crew darting in and out of doorways.

The moment Wrightwick hit the main deck, he pushed past Cosmo and barked orders to everyone within earshot. “Report. What’s our status?”

Barnard, a short-barrel shotgun in hand, slid up beside Wrightwick and Cosmo. “The afterdeck is on fire.”

“Jiminey F. Cripes.” Wrightwick slapped the cabin wall.

“Some sort of incendiary.” Barnard wiped soot from his brow. “The pirates are using the flames and smoke to mask their boarding.”

“What are we doing to stop them?” Wrightwick demanded.

“We’re positioning the retardant pump and firing blind.”

Wrightwick ground his teeth. “Release the cargo.”

“Sir?” Barnard hesitated.

“Do it now, man! The last thing we need is to lose everything in a fiery inferno! Most of the crates will float!”

“Yes sir.” Barnard leveled his shotgun and charged around the corner.

Wrightwick shouted after him. “For the love of God, don’t open them!”

Cosmo peered through the thick dark of night toward the stern of the ship. The blackness had grown thicker with smoke. Occasionally a flicker of fire pierced the veil. “Do I get to know now what exactly our cargo is?”

“Not what. Who.”

The captain’s voice boomed over a loudspeaker, preventing Wrightwick from explaining further. “This is your captain. All civilians, please stay in your cabins. We’ve encountered a small band of hostile forces. I repeat, remain in your cabins.”

The Royal Edward shuddered beneath their feet. Wrightwick braced himself against the railing.

Cosmo clutched his employer’s sleeve to prevent him from tumbling overboard.

“We need to launch a lifeboat.”

Cosmo frowned. “We’re not going to fight?”

Wrightwick scanned for the nearest boat. “No one is attempting to board this ship.” He shook his head. “They’re trying to sink it.”

“But don’t pirates usually want—”

“Shut up and find me a dingy!” Wrightwick snapped.

“This way.” Cosmo had studied the entire layout of the ship in detail. He reached the lifeboat in seconds and tore off the canvas tarp covering it. “Climb in while I pull the release.”

“We’ll need rope.”

“There’s a fifty foot coil inside.”

“Good.” Wrightwick leapt into the boat.

Cosmo unlocked the pulley system holding the boat in place. A woman’s scream pierced the raucous. “Should we wait for others? There won’t be enough boats—”

“We’re not giving up the Edward, we’re protecting the bloody thing. Now cast off.”

Obediently, Cosmo jumped onboard the boat. Protecting his hands with his shirt, he let the coarse hemp rope slide through his grip until the boat slapped against the water.

The surface of the Mediterranean was even choppier than Cosmo had imagined. Waves broke over the side of the wooden dingy and pounded it against the hull of the Royal Edward. The water chilled him to the bone.

“Hold on until we reach the pirate vessel!” Wrightwick yelled over the churning water and the chugging of the Edward’s steam engines. “I’ll rope the bloody thing. Then I’m afraid the rest will be up to you!”

Cosmo finally deduced that Wrightwick planned to board the pirate vessel. At the speed the Edward was gliding past them, their window of opportunity would come and go in a few seconds. If they missed, they’d be stranded at sea.

“Did you get a count of their crew?” Wrightwick created a loose knot in the end of the rope and coiled the rest in the bottom of the dingy.

“At least six.” Cosmo replayed the image of the iron clad he’d seen in the red light of the flare. “But there could be more.”

Wrightwick tossed Cosmo an oar as the Edward slid past on their right. “Paddle! We need to get close if this is going to work!”

The noise increased as they neared the iron-clad. Cosmo plunged the wooden oar into the water and steered the dingy toward the pirate vessel. But it was gliding past them too quickly.

“Ram the bloody thing!” Wrightwick stood with the lasso in his hand. “Bloody maritime rodeo.” Widening his stance, he struggled to maintain balance against the tossing sea.

Cosmo gritted his teeth and lifted the oar out of the water for another stroke. The pirate vessel rose less than a dozen feet above the water. It wouldn’t be hard to climb, if only they could catch her up. Still twenty feet away, the stern of the pirate ship had drawn even with the dingy.

“Now or never.” Wrightwick heaved the rope toward the shadow of a hooded vent pipe protruding from the afterdeck. “Grab the other end!”

Cosmo stashed the oar and clutched the end of the rope as it jerked taut.

“Bedbugs and Ballyhoo!” Wrightwick wrapped his arms around Cosmo’s waist before the momentum of the iron-clad could yank him overboard. In a series of violent readjustments, the lifeboat jerked in line with the ironclads’ wake.

Cosmo reeled them closer, hand over hand.

Meanwhile, Wrightwick tied off the rope. “We don’t have much time. If the fire on the Edward spreads to the coal hopper—”

He didn’t have to finish. Cosmo knew exactly what would happen if the coal hopper went up in flames. “I’ll help you up the rope in front of me!”

“Forget it, boy. It’ll take too much time. I can take care of myself.” Wrightwick put a hand on Cosmo’s shoulder. “Just tell me honestly, do you think you can do this?”

“I will.” Cosmo believed it one hundred percent. Reaching forward for another foot of rope, he pulled them as close as he could without capsizing the dingy.

“Good. I’ll follow if I can. Remember, you’re not killing pirates. You’re saving everyone onboard the Edward.”

Cosmo looped off the slack in the rope and peered at Wrightwick’s face, barely visible in the darkness. “I’ll do both and be back to get you in less than five minutes.” Without waiting for a response, he scurried up the rope as quick as a monkey and threw his legs over the railing.

###

Cosmo found the low-slung afterdeck of the ironclad unguarded. He scrambled up a slimy metal slope to the main deck using a careful mixture of speed and stealth.

On the foredeck, pirates were silhouetted against the flames of the Royal Edward. To avoid the many invisible guy wires running from the main coal stack to the forward and aft masts, Cosmo stuck to the starboard gangway. The surface of the floating hunk of metal felt greasy beneath his bare feet. Its steady vibration made his eyes dance.

Cosmo froze when a metal hatch burst open a few feet away. A single man leapt out and rushed toward the bow, leaving the hatch open.

Cosmo’s next move became obvious. In a single movement, he plunged below deck. Gripping the sides of a metal ladder with his feet and hands, he slid into the stifling hot belly of the ironclad. As Cosmo shuffled along a narrow corridor illuminated by red bulbs, two voices echoed in the distance. Increasing his pace, Cosmo reached an open doorway as a pirate emerged.

“What—”

Cosmo jammed the palm of his hand into the man’s jaw and shoved him back into the cabin with his shoulder. Before the second man could respond, Cosmo struck him upside the head with a backward roundhouse. The force of the kick bounced the pirate off an iron bulkhead.

Swearing through broken teeth, the first man threw a sloppy punch.

Cosmo countered with a knife punch to the man’s throat and monkey knuckles to his solar plexus.

Both pirates dropped without another sound.

Cosmo assessed his surroundings. Everything around him was outmoded except two pieces of modern equipment. One had a handset resting in a cradle covered with dials. Cosmo knew it instantly to be what Barnard had called a ‘wireless.’

The second piece of modern equipment revealed its purpose by spitting out a constant stream of narrow paper printed with a language Cosmo couldn’t read. Combined, the machines told Cosmo the pirates were not working alone. Not only had someone given them orders, but that someone required direct communication.

Cosmo checked the corridor. He hesitated. If this was a coordinated attack, with whom were the pirates working? And how closely?

An explosion thundered in the distance. The Edward. Cosmo checked the rest of the cabins below deck in a matter of seconds without finding anyone or anything of interest.

Above deck, Cosmo encountered a pirate immediately. During the man’s momentary hesitation, Cosmo climbed his massive frame like a tree. From behind, Cosmo wrapped both arms around the man’s neck and forced his chin against his chest until he blacked out. As the pirate crumpled, Cosmo flipped his limp body over the railing and into the sea.

“We’ve been boarded!”

Cosmo’s shoulders sagged as yet another pirate ruined his element of surprise. Stealth now worthless, speed was all that mattered. If Cosmo could catch the man or reach the foredeck first…

Cosmo burst into an adrenaline-fueled sprint. Swinging around a guy wire, he planted both feet and leapt over the main deck railing. He struck the forty-five degree slope of the armor with his backside and slid to the lower foredeck on the heels of the fleeing pirate.

As Cosmo bounded after him, a plume of blinding flame filled the night sky. Another explosion, larger than those before it, rocked the Royal Edward. The shockwave threw Cosmo to his hands and knees. “No.”

He couldn’t accept the possibility of failure. Yet, the dying faces of the Edward’s passengers crowded his mind’s eye. His grim imagination focused on the face of Pettigrew, the missionary.

Cosmo opened his eyes. His head swam. His ears rang. Beside him, the pirate he’d been pursuing was shaking off his own stupor. Cosmo knew he had to recover quickly. If he could seize control of the ironclad, he could rescue the survivors of the Edward. It wasn’t too late.

“You’re too late, boy.” Strong hands gripped Cosmo’s ankles and yanked his knees out from under him. Before he could counter, two more men grabbed his arms and bound them behind his back. The leader punched Cosmo in the back of the head, causing his chin to bounce off the surface of the ironclad. “You managed to mess up two of my crew, but I’m putting an end to that now. Whoever you are.”

Cosmo couldn’t see straight, but he could talk. “Three men.”

“What was that?” The leader gripped Cosmo’s short hair and wrenched his head back.

Cosmo struggled to swallow. “I threw one of them overboard.”

“Did you?” The man drove a fist into Cosmo’s kidney. “There’s something I want you to see before I slit your throat.”

“What’s that?”

“I want you to see the sinking of the ship you died to protect.”

The two men holding Cosmo yanked him to his feet.

Cosmo focused his eyes on the Royal Edward. It was still afloat.

“As you can see, she hasn’t sunk yet.” They proceeded to the foremost railing. The leader slipped to the side of Cosmo and pointed port side of the burning Edward. “But she soon will.”

Cosmo couldn’t see what the pirate was pointing at, but he heard bloodlust in the man’s voice. Something terrible was about to happen. He struggled against his captors. They pinned his legs against the railing and nearly wrenched his arms from their sockets.

“Can’t see it? The foam rising? The swirls of diesel floating on the water’s surface, sparkling just so in the light of the flames?” The pirate captain lowered his voice, as if he were in a temple dedicated to the worship of violence. “Just watch. You’ll see what happens next.”

Before the words had left the Captain’s mouth, Cosmo saw a sleek metal rod protrude from the surface of the frothing sea—only thirty yards away. Then a larger and flatter surface parted the water in a surge of foam. A submarine.

###

Cosmo’s mind raced. He didn’t understand.

As if answering his thoughts, the pirate captain continued. “We only had to make it look like a pirate attack. You know, incase of survivors. We’re the only ones who’ll know the truth.”

Cosmo lunged at the captain with his head, but the pirate pulled away. He laughed. “I like you, kid. Whoever you are.” He returned his gaze to the water. “Now pay attention, here comes the best part. Probably no more than a few hundred men have witnessed what you’re about to, and survived to tell the tale.”

Cosmo didn’t want to watch, but his curiosity was too great, the situation too terrible. In a rush of bubbles, a torpedo burst from the nose of the submarine and sped toward the Edward. Only feet below the surface of the choppy water, the rise and wake of the self-propelled bomb was clearly visible in the firelight.

As the torpedo struck the hull of the Royal Edward, a series of events unfolded too quickly for Cosmo to react. The men securing Cosmo dropped flat against the deck of the ironclad, temporarily forgetting their captive. A spray of water struck Cosmo. A blast of heat evaporated the moisture and threw Cosmo backward.

The roar of the explosion caught up with Cosmo as he slammed into the main coal stack. He groped the side of his body, checking for broken or protruding bones. The iron clad bucked and rose on the waves caused by the exploding torpedo.

Convinced he would survive his injuries, Cosmo staggered to his feet using handholds welded into the coal stack. The first thing he saw was the pirate captain buckled at the waist. Cosmo steeled his will and pushed his pain down deep. This could be his last chance.

“That was even better than I had hoped!” The captain straightened, his fists clenched at his side. “Have you ever experienced such a thing?”

Cosmo froze. The captain had gotten as close as possible to the explosion on purpose. He was mad, and his madness made him unpredictable. Plus, with the submarine to worry about, Cosmo couldn’t simply seize control of the ironclad.

He could no longer hope to save the Edward or its passengers. Drowning in doubt, Cosmo wondered if he could save himself. Where would he go?

He scanned the main deck of the ironclad and located an emergency box, like the one onboard the Edward. This one was metal, rather than glass. He couldn’t be sure of its contents. But if it contained a flare gun and flares…

He sized-up the nearest exhaust pipe leading to and from the engine room below deck. It’s head-high opening was large enough for Cosmo to force a flare gun into it. He stopped himself short of action. This was the stupidest plan he’d ever concocted. Worse than the time he’d tried to sell vipers as pets.

Maybe he should jump overboard and hope for the best. A dozen large wooden crates, the mysterious cargo from the Edward, were floating nearby. He stepped closer to the starboard gangway and its railing.

“Hold on there, kid.” The pirate captain held his hands up palms outward. “No need to bellyflop into the big blue. I was only kidding earlier about that whole slit-your-throat thing.”

Cosmo shifted his eyes from the railing to the emergency box to the captain.

The captain’s back was to the burning and sinking wreckage of the Royal Edward, his face enshrouded in darkness. “Hey, I tell you what.” The captain held his ground a dozen yards away. “Seeing how you’ve played a part in me being short staffed, the least you can do is fill a vacancy here on the Rochambeau. I already seen you can fight.”

A third possibility blossomed. If the captain could be trusted, joining the pirates might be Cosmo’s best chance of setting foot on solid ground. Whatever the decision, Cosmo had to decide quickly.

END of Episode 1

 

Ash Falls: Behind the Scenes

Interview by Savy Hulen.

Early in my tumble into the Vortex I became intrigued by the StoryVerses. StoryVerses are an easy extension of things I already love, TV shows that span seasons and years, movies with quality sequels, worlds that span multiple media such as comic books that become TV shows, movies, and the inspiration for endless fan-fiction in all the corners of the deep web. As a child, some of my favorite books all happened in the same story world with an overlapping cast of characters. I knew the world and could easily dig into the story each time I opened the book. I realize that I’ve had over a year to wrap my brain around the marvel of StoryVerses. I want to introduce you to the same love. And encourage you to read everything in Ash Falls. It’s good stuff. Really good stuff. So good, in fact, that I had to interview their StoryVerse Head, Jeremy Schofield, for all of you wonderful readers and hopeful authors. Go ahead, grab a cup of Joe, a bottle of wine, or your favorite home-brewed beer and spy on our conversation. We don’t mind. Promise.

Savy Hulen: Do you want to tell readers a little about your StoryVerse?

Jeremy Schofield: Ash Falls is probably best described as “urban paranormal.” The setting is what a reader would recognize as a mid-sized contemporary city. However, due to the influence of mystical forces, it has become a magnet of sorts: attracting various denizens of the underworld such as vampires, werewolves, and long-forgotten deities.

SH: One of the things I’ve noticed about Ash Falls is the tendency for people to get stuck there. What is that all about?

JS: The residents of Ash Falls are trapped there due to an enchantment over the city. Currently, none of the characters in our stories know a whole lot about this enchantment – though the authors do, of course! This enchantment is bilateral – it makes those who reside in Ash Falls uncomfortable leaving, and it makes outsiders uncomfortable with staying as they pass through. The workings of the enchantment (known as the Terlarang) will be revealed more fully throughout the stories of Season One.

SH: It’s a good way to make sense of the crazy that is Ash Falls without it spilling into the rest of the world.

JS: Exactly.

SH: Ash Falls is located in Oregon?

JS: Ash Falls is located in Oregon. It is entirely fictional, out of my own head. In the Oregon of Ash Falls, the Umpqua River is not split into Northern and Southern branches, but is one mighty tributary reaching into the center of the state. Ash Falls is located roughly where real-life Roseburg is on a “real” map.

SH: What made you choose that location?

JS: Sigh…the workings of a writer’s mind, I suppose. The very first story I ever wrote about Ash Falls (almost 20 years ago) had a character heading down to the docks on a river. I live in New Mexico – there is not a river dock to be found within a thousand miles of where I live. I have always loved the idea of Oregon (though I have never been there) and decided I would just sort of invent a river valley somewhere along I-5. With that, Ash Falls was born.

SH: Is there anything you want writers who are thinking of submitting a story to the Ash Falls StoryVerse to know?

JS: Character is king. The protagonist must fit within the dark outlook of our StoryVerse.

It is kind of a hopeless environment, really. My main character, Brian Drake, is quite jaded and despondent from a lifetime of living under the Terlarang. Even being in the know about the working of the “Second World” (as denizens of the supernatural call it) gives him no real peace of mind. Quite the opposite, actually.

Our other authors deal with this concept in various ways. Steve Cotterill is actually telling a coming-of-age story of sorts, about a young man of a minority ethnicity who has grown up in this environment. K. Edwin Fritz and Charel Kunz are tackling the problem from the outlook of outsiders being introduced into this foreign world of Ash Falls. But, in all three of their cases, we are beginning with a strong character that the reader really empathizes with first, then tying in the supernatural elements from there.

SH: Is there anything that you would look at in a submission and immediately say “no, thanks.”?

JS: Sparkly vampires. I have loved vampires since reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula at a very young age, and the “softening” of horror elements, especially in YA books, has really made me sad. I want these immortal creatures to be beyond what we would consider normal human outlooks.

Other things…though I love zombie movies, zombies don’t really fit into our world very well. Beyond that, just about any horror or supernatural element you can come up with can probably find a home here.

SH: What has the StoryVerse building process been like for you and your team?

JS: Controlled chaos. I delivered a couple of pages of background story to my authors at the beginning of the process and we took it from there. We now have a ton of shared resources, including a spreadsheet tracking all major characters, a master document talking about plot elements, and even a map of the city so that we can place geographic locations. Much of the credit for development of this material goes to one of my authors, K. Edwin Fritz, who decided my info wasn’t robust enough, and created the spreadsheet all on his own. I am given to understand that it is going to be used as a pilot for other developing story-verses. It has been a tremendously collaborative effort. We now actually talk weekly and coordinate potential crossovers and other opportunities for development of the setting.

SH: If you had the chance to sit down and chat with a writer trying to sell us on their StoryVerse idea, what advice would you give?

JS: So, to those developing a new StoryVerse…

First, understanding that this will no longer be YOUR story would be the most important thing to remember.

The collaborative effort will take your ideas in unexpected directions. Be prepared to not veto ideas because they don’t match your original vision. Be open to expanding your vision to include ideas that come from your authors.

SH: How was that realization for you? Was it something you were expecting?

JS: I was not expecting it at all. Which was silly, in hindsight. We become fiction writers because we want to create, not because we want to follow directions. It was very humbling for me to realize that I was surrounded by writers who were not only at least as talented as I am, but had much better ideas in many cases.

Secondly, make sure that your StoryVerse is not centered on any particular story. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow and “Inheritance” was never finished, Ash Falls could keep right on going on the basis of The Perpetuals and Fallen and Reborn. 90% your StoryVerse must rest outside of any one story.

I think the best training I had for creating a shared universe was the decades I spent playing role-playing games (as a DM.) There was so much world-creation that the players never got to see, but was still important in order to make it all feel real.

SH: Thank you for your time and words of wisdom. Is there anything else you would like to share?

JS: Write as much as you can. When you aren’t writing, read. Look at how other authors create their worlds, and ask yourself “could I do that?” And don’t be afraid of rejection…

After all, Ash Falls came to be after the Fiction Vortex team rejected a short story I wrote set in Ash Falls. They didn’t like the story, but loved the setting. 

 

Thank you Jeremy for your time and wisdom. I certainly learned new things from our conversation and I hope that our readers did as well. For those who are anxiously wondering how they can get their hands on Ash Falls, just click on the button labeled “The StoryVerse” and it will be there waiting for you. Jeremy’s story, Inheritance is the first on the list and I can’t sell it any better than the description he wrote:

When your legacy is a curse.

Ash Falls is the city your mother warned you about. Supernatural creatures run the underworld. Spirits stalk the streets. Dark magic kills more people than firearms. And Brian Drake, P.I., must find out which of the members of the shadowy ruling council had a reclusive millionaire killed in an attempt to seize power – while keeping himself alive, and his own skeletons locked in the closet. What he discovers will change the balance of power in Ash Falls forever.

(I’ve read it. It’s good. Really good. Lovely characters… wrong word. Dark characters. Real characters. People I might actually meet if Ash Falls were a real place. See. His description is much better than mine. Enjoy your reading!)

For those hopeful authors out there, you can submit your story idea to Ash Falls. Just click on the submissions button, read through our guidelines, and submit something.

We want you to #jointhestory.