Posted by: lordkyler | May 28, 2016

“War Games” – A Not-So-Short Story Draft

“War Games” was going to be the first entry in this year’s Short Story Week, but thanks to a sudden brainstorm, that quickly expanded into something much larger.

This was originally intended to be something of a spoof on the flood of YA dystopias on the market, including the use of first-person present-tense (which I found very annoying to write in, by the way,) taking the premise on its face and then adding a twist to the end.

About 2,000 words in, however, I realized I was getting way too deep into this world, and soon after, I had a random brainstorm that expanded this kernel of a concept into a full-fledged popcornian idea.

I don’t know when – or if, to be honest – I will actually write this thing, but I didn’t want to let that initial writing go to waste, so I’m putting it up here for your enjoyment. Let me know what you think?


I close my eyes and feel myself slip into the space between realms. I fly through an empty void, other worlds flashing past me like reflections in water, brief glimpses into realities that can be very different from the world I know. Places of magic, scenes of the supernatural, empires that span across the stars. Some are familiar to me, and others are totally foreign. I could stop and peer more deeply into any of them, but I don’t. I’m looking for a very particular place, one that I know as well as I know myself.

Athesallia. It’s a high fantasy module, but it’s not like a lot of the other fantastic realms. Most settings like this rely on complicated and arcane magics that users can spend a lifetime learning to manipulate and exploit, and those that don’t are typically a mishmash of clichés and high drama.

But Athesallia is different. The system is simple but robust, and the setting is grounded and sensible. A lot of users find that boring, but I think it’s elegant. It actually requires practice and creativity to master, which is appealing to me.

I’m not alone in that, either. My best friends also stick to Athesallia during their sessions. None of them are actually in my cluster, but I’m closer to them than anybody I know in wakespace.

It only takes me a moment to locate Athesallia’s dreamspace among the swirling realities of the central nexus. I could keep it linked among my favorites, but I prefer to search it out each time. It’s like a little quest to get me started. I access the world and  let it wrap around around my mind like a warm blanket, comforting and familiar. Read More…

Posted by: lordkyler | April 17, 2016

Devil’s Advocate – Short Story Week 2016

“He’s on the third floor! We need backup stat! Officer down, I repeat, we have an officer down!” Agent Callahan listened to the frantic chatter on the police line and shook his head slowly. Local law enforcement – even SWAT – was never very effective against targets like these. To be fair, very few people besides Agent Callahan were, which was the point of this whole operation.

“What is this thing?” cried the voice on the radio. “Did you see that? My God…” A burst of screams dissolving into static. God isn’t coming here tonight, the agent thought, preparing his weapons. This was his cue, when the target was overconfident and the bloodlust had been sated for a moment.

It was a cold autumn night, with frost tinging the few leaves that clung to their place on barren branches. More crunched underfoot as Agent Callahan stepped out of his old Buick, and abandoned piles whispered as they brushed against his long coat, both stirring restlessly in the cold wind. Callahan worked the cricks out of his neck as he crossed the abandoned parking lot, unhurried but not idling. Careful but not fearful. A predator’s pace.

From here, he could almost hear the screams carried by the wind, and his keen gray eyes detected movement through the frosted glass of the school’s windows, flickers of shadow from running men and flashes of light from fired weapons. Poor bastards.

As was his habit, Agent Callahan performed a quick check of his equipment. A tap to the forehead first, to remind him to stay focused, a touch to the emblem hanging in front of his heart, cold iron knife at his left shoulder, and radio on his left, should he need to call in. The weight in his pockets told him the other implements were accounted for – gun, lighter, and two flasks. Callahan took a swig from one flask, and after a moment, took a long swallow from the other, grimacing as he did.

He stopped at the door. They’d been torn from their hinges, glass shattered and frames twisted like pretzels. As always, Callahan felt the urge to say a prayer before he entered the darkness. He snuffed out the impulse like a candle, but he savored the warmth as he stifled it. Prayers would do him no goo. A clear head and a quick hand were his only allies.

The trail of destruction continued as he crossed the threshold into the dark corridors of the elementary school, his coat sweeping bits of glass and plaster behind him. If he remembered his file correctly, the target had worked here until recently. Not surprising. In the initial madness, most victims struck out against familiar places and former loved ones. It made things messy though, especially when it was public. This incident would have to wrapped up by morning, one way or another.

Emergency lights flickered, doing more to highlight the darkness than to alleviate it. Warped lockers and rent linoleum caught the light in warped reflections, seeming to distort reality itself in unsettling ways. Agent Callahan drew his gun from the holster. It was practically useless against things such as this, but it was powerful enough to knock them down for a few seconds.

A SWAT officer stumbled from a room at the far end of the corridor, missing an arm. He tried to drag himself away, retching wretchedly and breathing in short shallow gasps, but it was too late. A dark shape lunged from the shadows, letting loose a tortured cry just feral enough to chill the blood and just human enough to arouse a terrible pity. It fell upon the hapless officer with inhuman fury, moving so fast that the eye seemed to record the idea of movement without actually being able to see anything. The thing tore through Kevlar and body armor like tissue paper, tearing with tooth and nail until it ripped bloody furrows in the lifeless flesh.

Callahan shot the thing in the face. It was thrown free of the officer with a startled hiss, but twisted in the air to land on all fours, poised like a spider, ready to lash out against whatever had stung it. Two fiery eyes found Agent Callahan and narrowed in anger. The eyes of a demon shining in the twisted pale face of a former schoolteacher. A man quite literally possessed.

His target.

The demon howled, a raw alien sound that profaned the very air it travelled through, threatening to burst Agent Callahan’s eardrums. The agent didn’t flinch, only waited for the thing to move, gun hand steady as steel.

He didn’t have to wait long. The demon leapt with uncanny speed, bounding from wall to wall like a ricocheting bullet, twisting and bending in ways that would make a contortionist wince, impossible to track.

Almost impossible.

Agent Callahan fired off three shots as fast as the gun would allow, moving with mechanical precision. The first two missed, throwing up sprays of sparks where they struck the lockers, but the last connected, taking the demon in the chest at the moment of its final leap. The shot sent the demon tumbling like a rag doll, but more importantly, it retarded the distance of the final pounce just far enough for him to step out of range.

The demon roared as it crashed into the tiles, but it was already recovering, clambering to its feet like a marionette with tangled strings, lunging with twisted fingers and snapping with fractured and bloodstained teeth.

Too late. Agent Callahan had a fraction of a second with the demon in arm’s reach, and he took it. The agent took one of his flasks and whipped a spray of clear liquid across the face and hands of the possessed, then tossed the container to one side. The flesh of the stolen body began to bubble and blister where the holy water had splashed, and the demon recoiled in agony, writhing and screaming in registers beyond human hearing.

Moving with brutal efficiency, Callahan stepped in to even closer range, hands flying in well-practiced motions. He head-butted the demon with savage force and a holy word, driving it to the ground with a flash of light. Then, while the thing lay stunned, he pulled the crucifix from his chest with one hand and pressed it against the demon’s heart to hold it immobile. With the other hand, he drew the cold-iron knife and made a series of precise cuts, carving the sign of the cross into each of the creatures limbs like a more devout version of Zorro. Oily black smoke billowed from the cuts in place of blood. The demon stopped screaming, depleted of strength and virility like a balloon drained of air.

When Callahan was sure the demon was secure, he sheathed the knife and stood up carefully, feeling his joints pop and muscles cramp. He had been too old for this when he started, and the years hadn’t been kind since. He could still call on the powers when he needed to, but they took a hell of a toll. He wouldn’t have come at all if the other agents hadn’t been so busy with the Vatican affair.

Wearily, the agent reached for his radio and gave a couple of squawks. “Target down. Prepare for extraction.” There was no confirmation, but he knew they were listening.

The demon struggled, grunting and breathing heavily, but it was in vain. Callahan watched patiently, pulling out his second flask – vodka that burned nearly as much as the holy water – and a blowtorch-style lighter. He stared impassively at the demon, waiting for it to give up. The host he’d taken was short, sickly and scrawny, but that didn’t mean much when you had a devil in you.

At last the demon stopped its struggles and lay still, eyes smoldering. After a second of hateful silence, it spoke, its voice like tearing metal and festering decay. “What now, mortal? You can kill this man or drive me from him, but I will only return to take another.” The demon laughed, and it was a sound as cruel as cancer. “You may as well kill this one. I believe you God-fearers find his kind particularly offensive.”

Callahan took a drink from his flask and lit a cigarette. “Wrong on two counts,” he growled. “First, I’m not what you’d call a God-fearing man.” He paused and stared at the ceiling tile for a moment.

“And the second?” asked the demon, curious despite himself. Curiosity had been the first step in their fall from heaven, after all.

Callahan sighed and flicked his cigarette away. “I’m not here to stop you.”

Before the demon could question further, Callahan turned and walked away, passing through a crowd of cross-covered men with cold-iron restraints.

The night was still cold, but not as cold as Agent Callahan’s stare.

•••

Agent Callahan settled into his chair slowly, twirling a crucifix between his fingers. The demon sat across the table from him, wrapped in chains of cold iron. By themselves, they wouldn’t be enough to stop a determined demon, but there were two guards waiting in the corners, one wielding a flamethrower and the other with a high-pressure holy water sprayer.

The agent and the demon stared at each other for a moment, each pretending they had all the time in the world, even though Agent Callahan knew that was far from being true. Still, it was a part of the script, and so he waited, studying this latest subject.

The room’s harsh single light exaggerated the features on the demon’s stolen body, making the gaunt face look almost skeletal. He didn’t look like the sort of man that was accustomed to happiness, with a sour mouth, thinning hair, and sunken, haunted eyes that burned like branding irons.

Callahan straitened his tie and laced his fingers together. “Why don’t we start with your name?” he said. His voice was gravelly but perfectly calm, like a Zen rock garden.

“Howard Cooper.”

Your name.”

The demon paused, considering. “You could not pronounce it.”

“You’d be surprised,” Agent Callahan said. “But to save my throat from herniating, why don’t you tell me what name humans usually call you?”

The demon straightened his slouch a little, thrusting his chin forward proudly. “I am Velaxifor, ninth master of the seventh circle, stoker of hunger and flames, the laughter in the dark, the dreamer of agonies.”

“Impressive,” Agent Callahan said. “How’d you screw up?”

“I– what?”

“That’s why you’re slumming around inside this sorry bastard, isn’t it? Maybe you slacked off on torturing some folks, maybe you entertained a merciful thought. Hell, if you’re as big a deal as you claim to be, you might have pissed off the Dark One himself to end up banished from the underworld.”

“You do not know what you speak of, mortal,” the demon said, looking almost sullen.

Agent Callahan laughed. Humorless and cynical, but laughter nonetheless. The demon looked at him, puzzled. “I know exactly how it works, Vel.” the agent said, and though he grinned with his mouth, his eyes were two pits as cold as any in Hell’s Ninth Circle. “Have you ever heard the name of Asmodeus?”

Callahan would have thought it was impossible for Cooper’s pallid face to pale further without turning invisible, but somehow it did. The inferno in the demon’s eyes died down to embers, revealing some of the host’s terror lurking underneath. “Prince Asmodeus? Surely you don’t mean he was banished into…”

The demon trailed off, somehow knowing it was true. A grin twisted Callahan’s mouth strangely, and he leaned forward, voice dangerously quiet. “Expelled from hell, a demon seeks a suitable host to live out its probation. Someone far from heaven’s path, preferably aligned with their own interests, so that there is little chance of resistance or expulsion. Asmodeus found such a soul in me.”

“That’s impossible,” the demon protested, straining against its bonds to lean in closer. “How could you be his and fight me?”

Callahan continued as though he hadn’t heard the objection. “I was a Catholic priest. One of those priests. I’ve learned restraint since those days, but I won’t pretend to be a better man. So when Asmodeus came to me… I accepted him. I submitted to his reign willingly. I worshipped the bastard. Knew I deserved it.

“Then I found out why he’d been sent to me. How he’d been entertaining merciful thoughts. Feeling compassion for his victims. And how he was banished to the mortal realm until he remembered why humanity deserved to be punished. A story similar to your own, I imagine. Do you remember Asmodeus’s return?”

Velaxifor shrunk like a whipped dog, and the almost imperceptible shadow around him thickened, leaving only the unsteady flickering in his eyes to show his fear. He said nothing.

Agent Callahan leaned forward and let his own darkness show, a transformation less impressive to the eye but terribly effective nonetheless. “I taught him that,” he growled. “schooled a prince of hell in the ways of evil.” Velaxifor began to quake visibly, and Agent Callahan leaned back, hiding his fearsome side again. He could sense the two guards behind him shifting uncomfortably.

“You demons think you understand evil.” he continued conversationally. “You breathe evil. You wield it. You revel in it. But you do not understand it, not truly.”

“I was born of evil,” the demon said, eyes blazing brighter.

“Exactly. You’ve known no other thing, since you were stripped of your memories after being cast out of heaven. But do you know why Lucifer is the cruelest and most terrible of you all?” Velaxifor did not answer. “He remembers.”

The agent set his crucifix down on the table, though he was careful to keep contact with it. “You see, it’s the contrast that you’re missing. You cannot truly comprehend a thing without understanding its opposite. Your Enemy is good, but he had to face and conquer hell before he could save others. Your master is evil, but the memory of light within him drives him constantly to greater darkness. Humans… well, we’re stuck in between. Good and evil within each of us. We lack the power of angels and demons, but we are wiser than either, and given the chance, we will surpass them.”

There was a pause as the demon considered this. “Why are you telling me this? To taunt me?”

Agent Callahan grunted in frustration. “I’m offering you a job, moron. A chance at redemption… or whatever you call the demonic equivalent.”

Velaxifor leaned forward, reasserting his control over the body. He was interested, but cautious. “Why? Even with all the wickedness in the world, there are not many humans willing to make a literal deal with devils.”

“Not many,” Callahan agreed, “but there are a great number of humans interested in results, and many of them willing to overlook what is done to achieve them. I work for some such humans. As you are aware, a possessed human is a powerful force to be reckoned with. Even after the demon retreats, the hosts often hold residual powers, as I do.”

“I thought something seemed familiar about you,” the demon grunted.

“In any case, these powers are too valuable to ignore. Therefore, I offer you a proposition. You will work for me during the duration of your stay on the mortal plane, following whatever orders I give. Your work may be good or evil, but the results of the work will be the continuation of the human race, which benefits both us. In exchange for your services, I will teach you evils enough to ensure not only your return to the underworld, but your eventual promotion. Do we have a deal?”

Velaxifor hesitated, and his body jerked and twitched as the host tried to break free during the demon’s musing. Agent Callahan waited. This, too, was part of the script. Demons were nothing if not predictable, and no demon was eager to perform acts that could be seen as positive. No devil trusted easily. But in the end, they all agreed.

“How long?” the demon asked.

“Not nearly as long as you will be on your own.”

“Very well,” said the demon. Flames licked at his fingertips as he began to summon something from the demonic realm. “We shall sign the contract–”

“Actually, you’ll sign my contract,” said the agent, waving his cross to stop the summoning and pulling a piece of paper from his jacket pocket. “Already signed in my blood and with the requisite blasphemous seals. Either that or we’ll exorcise you right now and start over. I’m told the process is both painful and diminishing, so I think we’d both prefer to avoid that.”

The demon reached for the sheet of paper, but was stopped by the cuffs. Agent Callahan held the paper just out of reach for a moment, reinforcing his position of power. Besides, tempting and torturing a demon was always amusing.

After a second he relented, and the demon scanned the contract quickly, each eye reading independently. Callahan knew what he would find: ironclad conditions with no room for tricks or manipulation, except for the loopholes they’d deliberately left for the demon to exploit.

Those loopholes would later turn out to be nooses, but that portion of the play came later. For now, the demon had to think there was a way to gain control of the situation. By now, Callahan could nearly predict the exact moment Velaxifor would notice the twist in the wording. There. The bait was taken. The trap was set. The demon was caught.

Velaxifor smiled, adding his signature with a fiery flourish. Agent Callahan returned the smile and slipped the warm contract into his asbestos-lined pocket.

“Welcome to the team. Men, you can remove his restraints. It’s about time Agent Velaxifor met his new partner.”

“Partner?” Velaxifor demanded. “I thought I’d be working with you!”

“Oh, my time is far too valuable for that,” Agent Callahan said, standing up and heading for the door. “Places to be, beings to recruit, wars to prevent. But I think you and Agent Ambriel will learn a lot from each other.”

“Ambriel? That’s an angel’s name!” the demon roared, outraged. The two guards raised their weapons, ready to fire if the thing snapped, but Agent Callahan was perfectly calm.

“A fallen angel, actually, at least for the time being. I don’t work much with the heavenly side of things, but I don’t imagine he’ll be too thrilled either. Such is life.”

The demon howled in outrage, only to shriek as the guard gave him a short blast of holy water. Agent Callahan didn’t bother to look back, instead lighting a cigarette as he left the room. The earth was dying, and he would wrest both heaven and hell to save it from Armageddon.

He was a vile, wicked, unforgivable man, but he could do some good in this world yet.

Posted by: lordkyler | April 16, 2016

Incensed – Short Story Week

Young Greger stared at the red-painted door, hand hovering next to the bellstring. The weathered wood was carved with circles of arcane sigils and spiraling astrological signs. Scribbles and nonsense, Greger reminded himself. Cheap superstition to prey on lesser minds.

The sign next to the door, however, was written in plain Grutsch: Madame Esmerelda, said the flowing gilt script. Underneath, in smaller letters it read Potions, Divination, Needlework, and other Magicks. Reasonable Prices. Tacked below that was a far cruder sign, scribbled on a piece of scrap wood: No hexes, curses or love potions. That means you, Gretten!

It was all balderdash, Greger knew. Well, except for the needlework. He’d bought a scarf from her once that was so warm and durable it might as well have been faerie-made. But as for her other supposed powers and potions, well, he’d seen more potent farts. Esmerelda was many things, but magical she was not.

Despite all this, Greger still hesitated. He’d spent years researching this, dreaming of the day he would finally confront her and expose her charlatanry. but now that he was actually here, notes in hand, he couldn’t quite remember why it was so important.

He wasn’t exactly angry with her, and most folk in Håssenburg agreed she was a welcome and valuable member of the town. He wasn’t out to blackmail her. The thought of a few extra coins was certainly welcome, but he didn’t have it in him to extort a harmless person. Perhaps it simply a desire for that noblest of all ideals: truth. Or validation, which was close enough.

The thought was enough to steel his resolve. Greger lifted his chin, squared his shoulders, and proudly pulled the bellstring. Inside, chimes jingled and jangled merrily, their cheerful tone slightly undercutting his air of righteous indignation.

A few moments passed, followed by a few more. Greger’s shoulders slumped slightly as the minutes wore on, but he tried to keep a stern and dignified expression. He resisted the urge to pull the string again, as it was one of Esmerelda’s peeves. He didn’t dare begin this confrontation with  a tongue lashing from Esmerelda. He’d never really spoken to her personally, but everyone said she had a tongue like a surgeon’s razor.

Where was the woman? Had she stepped out to the market, or gone hunting for herbs in the woods? Greger teetered on the balance between leaving and staying, but just as he turned to leave, the door creaked open, spilling a cloud of greenish smoke into the cobbled streets.

A slender woman dressed in rich shawls appeared from the haze, moving with the lazy grace of a cat. She smiled knowingly at Greger, as though she’d been expecting him for an appointment and he was the one that was late. “Young Master Yorbensen,” she crooned. Her voice was smooth and exotic, much like her complexion, hailing from lands further south where she had allegedly learned her arts.  “I do not believe I have had the pleasure of your presence here before?”

Greger was caught off-step, and fumbled to regain his footing. “No, you have not, Madame. That is to say, I have not come here for pleasure, but neither have I been here before. In fact, Madame, I am here now to denounce–”

“Please come in,” Esmerelda said. Her words slid past his without apparent effort, like someone dancing between raindrops, and Greger found himself replying automatically in the midst of his opening tirade. As soon as he caught himself, he clamped his mouth shut and stepped inside, not wanting to make a fool of himself any further. He tried to remember the sequence of arguments he had constructed earlier, but all semblance of rational thought seemed to flee at the threshold. Forming a logical chain of thought in this place felt like weaving a basket with live eels instead of wicker, as pointless as it was impossible.

Incense hung thick and heavy in the air, moving with all the haste of dripping honey, curling lazy tendrils around Greger like caressing fingers. Shelves and cabinets lined the walls, and the floor between was stacked high with books and scrolls in every size, shape, and color. Every available space was littered with unusual instruments and curious curios – spinning astrolabes, bowls of small stones and smaller boots, a human skull with blue teeth.

One corner of the room was filled with dried plants and animal remains, presumably for use in potions. Greger gawked openly at the strings of claws and feathers, wondered about the cracked ram’s horn, and nearly ran out when he saw a jar full of eyeballs staring back at him. The glass cabinet above the workstation was filled with bottles, enough colored concoctions to rival any church window in color and variety.

Madame Esmerelda led him through the labyrinth of stacked tomes, past bundles of dried leaves and heaps of cloth scraps, until they passed through a curtained doorway to a smaller, darker room with a low table and two embroidered cushions for seats. The center of the table contained a brazier with a heap of slumbering coals.

Greger hesitated to sit, but Esmerelda practically forced him to take a seat, pressing down with surprising strength. She shuffled around and sat across from him, using a small poker to stoke the coals back into life. Greger fidgeted, unsure of how to start now. Somehow the fortune-teller had taken the reins from him.

“So, young master, what did you wish to talk about today?” Esmerelda said, pulling out an ornate wooden box from underneath the table. She unlocked it with a key from around her neck, and Greger could see the box was filled with smaller boxes, bottles, and tins, all labelled in an unfamiliar script. Belatedly, he remembered her question.

“You don’t really work magick,” he blurted. He didn’t sound nearly as certain as he had been a minute ago, but Esmerelda merely raised an eyebrow. She selected a white powder from her box and sprinkled it over the flames, producing a burst of blue flames and smoke. It smelled sweet, like sugar pastries.

“And what has led you to such a conclusion?” she said patiently, like a grandmother listening to a grandchild’s rambling tale. Greger could feel the color rising in his cheeks, but he managed to keep his tone level as he spoke.

“I’ve been watching you for years, and I’ve never seen you do anything that a normal herbalist or physicker couldn’t do.”

Esmerelda tilted her head to one side, curious. “The arcane arts are not to be trifled with, my boy. Those who are wise never flaunt or abuse their powers. Those that do are always destroyed by them in the end.”

Greger shook his head vigorously, as much to clear his head as to show denial. Something about this place was making him sleepy, and he needed to stay sharp. The fragrant smoke wasn’t helping either. “I’ve been taking notes,” he said, waving the sheaf of papers in his hand. “Over the past three years, you’ve claimed your magicks were at least partly responsible for over two hundred events.”

Silence hung thicker in the air than incense for a moment. Esmerelda stopped stirring the coals for a moment, staring into the flames as though deep in thought. “You take after your father, hmm? A man that couldn’t listen to a symphony without tallying the notes.”

Greger recognized an attempt to change the subject and pressed the advantage, clutching his papers like a sword. “Do you know what most of these claims have in common? The grandest ones? They’re made after the fact. Aside from your physicker’s work, you’ve never made a claim before it happened.”

“Is that so?” Esmerelda asked, sounding bemused. She threw another pinch of something onto the coals. A puff of saffron-colored smoke puffed up from the brazier, smelling sharp and hot like vinegar. Greger found himself flushed from the thrill of near-victory and the growing heat of the room. He was growing almost dizzy, actually, and had to hold to the table for support.

“Two hundred documented events,” he repeated. “I looked into them all. Spoken to witnesses, visited the places. What do you have to say about that?”

“That you should be more interested in the young ladies of the town and less interested in spinsters like me,” Esmerelda said. Her tone was soft enough to be taken kindly, but firm enough to drive the point home. “A handsome lad like you should be getting into other sorts of trouble. Hildi Skepenhaus fancies you, you know.”

Now Greger blushed in earnest. The golden-haired lass had caught his eye more than once. What was he doing, talking to some old lady anyway? He was like some little boy who felt clever for spotting the hands in the puppet show. Why not go home and pass by Hildi’s house right now…

Greger stopped and came back to his senses, like a man who has just caught himself drifting into sleep. Madame Esmerelda might render a valuable service to the town, but she shouldn’t pretend at magic powers she didn’t have. It was… rude, at the very least. Hildi could wait.

“You won’t catch me with that,” Greger warned, more sharply than he’d meant to. He was growing angry now. “That’s the other half of your trick, isn’t it? Clever talk and manipulation. I didn’t realize for a long time, but you could rival the Trickster for knowing just how to push someone. I know you do much good with this talent, but I also know you have used it in anger, haven’t you?”

Esmerelda’s eyes flashed with annoyance, and her lips became a tight, dangerous line. “Tread carefully, child,” she said in a strange sing-song tone. “I have never harmed anyone that did not deserve it, and you are not as clever as you think. I will not see my reputation tarnished by a boy’s idle fancies. Keep your silence, and I will be kind enough to forget you have spoken thus.”

But Greger’s heart was pounding now, and his head was spinning, and all the suspicions that had been pent up inside for so long were now bursting from him like a geyser. “You can’t hide behind your lies any longer, Esmerelda! Everyone will know you’re a fraud. Everyone will know–”

“Enough!” Esmerelda shouted, and suddenly she had eyes of lightning and a voice of thunder. She was on her feet in an instant, but when Greger tried to match her, the brazier suddenly exploded between them. A geyser of sparks and cinders filled the air, and roiling smoke blossomed to fill the room – a frantic swirl of red and black fumes that seemed to form half-seen demonic shapes as it churned.

Greger coughed and cursed as he stumbled backward, sprawling on the ground. His heart was beating at a woodpecker’s pace, and he found himself sweating profusely, as though someone had just primed a pump through his pores. Esmerelda hadn’t touched the brazier. But it couldn’t be magic. It was impossible. His notes…

His notes were wrong. Esmerelda was a looming specter in the hellish haze. She had transformed in an instant; her hair a wild mane free of its shawl, her fingers curled like claws, and her eyes blazing like a dragon’s. As Greger stared in horror, all of her features seemed to twist and distort, becoming exaggerated nightmares. The air itself seemed to quake around her, and everything was melting like soft wax.

“Do you question my power now?” Esmerelda hissed. Her voice filled Greger’s mind like the roaring of the sea, drowning out logic and rational thought, washing away all of his arguments and protections until only stark naked terror remained. “Never speak of this again, foolish child, and I may be merciful. Now leave!”

Greger’s legs obeyed before his mind could even decipher what she’d said, and he burst from the room in a panic, pushing through stacks of books with reckless abandon, stumbling and tripping his way to the red-painted door with its squirming symbols. He ran into the streets and kept going until he could go no further. Everything was spinning and melting and going black…

The last thing he heard was laughter.

•••

Esmerelda tutted to herself as she watched the boy stumble and collapse in the gutter, the laughingstock of several young women that were passing by, including that silly Hildi girl. He’d be fine in a few hours, but his reputation might take a beating. Served him right.

She shook her head as she picked through the mess Greger had made during his mad exodus. It would take months to let everything build up a sufficiently mysterious layer of dust again, and more than a few items had broken. Perhaps she had overdone it just a little, but she quite liked it here, and wasn’t about to underestimate any possible threats to her security. She’d learned that lesson well enough in Ruskonia.

Still, it was s shame about the devil powder, though. It was rare stuff, strong enough to give her a kick, even though she was immune to half her goods by now. No choice, she told herself as she crawled under the table to reset the foot-pedal and reload another packet of devil powderHe fought through the slumberweed and kept his wits with the swayleaf. If only. She’d be lucky if he didn’t go blabbing about his experience as soon as he woke up, which was good for her reputation in some ways and worse in others. Nothing left an impression on the mind quite like devil powder.

Esmerelda packed some stillseed into her pipe and took a long drag, feeling its calm seep through her. She sighed. Funny how the mind could be so profoundly influenced by the right plants. With a little theatricality to distract, nobody even thought to question her incenses and teas as the true source of the “magic” she wrought.

Greger, my boy, you are lucky I am one of the good ones, Esmerelda thought. Or else I might be ruling this village instead of solving the problems of housewives. Let us pray a true witch never comes to this town.

She took another drag on her pipe and set to cleaning up the place. There were appearances to maintain.

Posted by: lordkyler | April 15, 2016

Alike In Dignity – Short Story Week 2016

Forests of candles filled the great ballroom, painting the feast in a soft, romantic light. Jewels sparkled on throats, and cleverly placed mirrors made the spacious hall seem infinite, extending the festivities beyond the scope of human imagination. Wine, music and talk flowed steadily and carefully. Dancers spun in the center of the room like some great clockwork machine, whirling and stepping in perfect time.

In shadier corners, however, the talk was less glib, and the dance was of a different sort entirely. Alliances were made and broken by whispered words, and few were foolish enough to take food or drink untested.

Though they might appear under a civil facade at banquets and balls, every soul in Vérron knew about the fierce rivalry between houses of Montreneu and Cabulesse. Harsh words here had sharper echoes elsewhere, and every lesser house weighed their decisions carefully, lest they tread on the toes of giants. Merely wearing the wrong color or making an idle joke could be deadly, should certain folk catch wind of it.

Thus, while poorer folk might watch the proceedings with envy, there were few that would trade places with those inside the great hall, for they danced on a razor’s edge that shifted with every passing wind. Already their battles had left large sections of fair Vérron damaged, stripped of wealth or ravaged by false riots and outright attacks. If not for the stabilizing hand of the church, these two great lions would have already torn the city to pieces.

And yet, for all this, they say love must conquer all. Somiere was counting on it.

He skulked around the edges of the ballroom, slipping past knots of noblewomen and clusters of dignitaries, searching for his target. Beautiful Esselle, a newcomer to Vérron, as he was. She was a cousin of Duchess Murie, come from the countryside after the death of her father. She was already quite popular, beloved among the entire Cabulesse family.

Unfortunately, he was of House Montreneu, which made things complicated, despite their mutual attraction. They’d been meeting in secret ever since that fateful day they met under her balcony. She insisted things were impossible between them, but he’d always believed nothing was truly impossible, and she hadn’t resisted his private advances. Hence his mission.

Ah, there she was, coming in from the veranda. Despite himself, Somiere found himself sighing at the sight. She was lovely as a lily and clever as a clock, quick and cunning in movement and thought. If only he were free to truly pursue her… no, there was no sense in that. Stick to the plan. If she had been honest in what she’d said after the tragic results of the duel, she would agree to his proposal, and he could be free of this cursed city and its veiled war.

She looked up, laughing at some joke made by her attendant. Their eyes met, and a novel’s worth of dialogue passed between them in a moment. His eyes darted to a quiet spot on the upper levels, and she smiled agreement. He would wait for her until she could make the appropriate excuses and step away.

He turned away discreetly, making a few stops to speak with allies and take some refreshments, just enough that nobody would notice his absence. Gradually he made his way to the upper levels, staring out over the crowds and listening to the slow music. From here, the division was more apparent, with the reds and golds of Montreneu thicker on one side, and the blues and greens of Cabulesse grouped on the other. Even those in the middle, mostly those of the lesser houses, tended to gravitate to one side or the other. This feud was ludicrous, driving a wedge into the heart of the city and tearing it apart. Maybe things would change after this, or maybe not. So long as he was free of it.

Time seemed to drag on as he waited, each song seeming to stretch into a symphony. The candles slouched and grew fat, just as the people did, and the clockwork dances wound down, seeming to slow time with them. At last, just when he was about to give up for the night, Esselle appeared. Her hands were clasped before her, holding something Somiere couldn’t see. She quickly pulled him into a quiet corridor, leaning in close, eyes bright and voice breathless.

“Pray excuse my lateness, sir,” she begged. “My cohorts flutter about me like magpies, enamored of anything novel.”

“You are indeed novel, or perhaps an epic, as the poets once wrote. Little wonder they are drawn to you like moths to a flame,” Somiere fluttered his hand by Esselle’s face in pantomime. “Drawn to brightness they can scarcely imagine and warmth beyond their ken. In faith, I am fit to be burned myself against your splendor.” His fingers brushed against the delicate line of her jaw, and then pulled away as if scalded. Esselle laughed, a sound like birdsong.

“Not so, good sir! If I am the element of destruction, you are that of nurture, cool water that grows a garden within me, tempering my passions.”

“And being warmed in turn,” Somiere said smoothly. He’d never used to be much for the high talk of nobles or the over-sweet language of romance, but this woman made it easy. If his colleagues heard him speaking thus, they would laugh themselves into fits. Focus on the plan, he chided himself.

“My lady, I must speak with you, for as you said, our affinities are opposed–”

Esselle stopped him, placing a hand over his lips. “Speak not of such things, I beg you. There is no healing draught that can cure the hatred between our two houses, but our kin need not fix our fate.” She paused. “I have something I must confess, good sir.”

She blushed and looked up at the ceiling for a moment. “Lord forgive a simple maid… I am no mere country courtier. Like yourself, I am one of the primary heirs of my house.”

Someire tried to feign surprise. As if that fact hadn’t been the cause of this whole mess. Still, he had to ask the questions she would expect. “What of Sir Richeu?”

“The family hides it, but he is afflicted of consumption, I fear.” She frowned, and Somiere struggled not to embrace her in comfort. “He likely will not last the year. As he is without child, inheritance passes elsewhere – to me, the scribes say, though I do not know what strange laws or acts of God must lead to such a conclusion.”

Neither the law nor God would approve of what made you heir, poor lady, Somiere thought. He hesitated before asking the next question, even though she would expect it. It was impossible that she would say yes, but there mere possibility that she might agree was terribly tempting.

Surprisingly, Esselle broached the subject herself. “I know this must seem most fortuitous, sweet Somiere, but I fear it does little to help us. Even if we took our places on the morrow, the feud between our bickering houses would never permit such a union. They would dismiss it as madness, and if we forced the matter, the whole of the city would be wracked with bloodshed.”

“So what are we poor souls to do?” Somiere questioned. “I envy the leaves, that may in an instant sever that which holds them captive and wander with the wayward wind to fairer climes…” he trailed off, as though he were just having the all-important idea that very moment, but Esselle was only half listening. She took her hidden object and pressed it into his hands.

Somiere stared at the small glass vial, now actually confused. “What is this?” he asked.

“A different sort of madness, perhaps. Of a truth, I have seen men changed by plays and pageantry. Legends are the truest of lies, they say. Perhaps if we were to become players, we might soften hearts with subtlety and subterfuge.”

“Esselle, what is this?”

“Poison.”

Somiere nearly dropped the vial. “Poison?”

Esselle hastend to steady him. “Careful, sweet. There is no medicine to cure our houses, but perhaps a poison might, if we are careful. This vial contains something most rare, given me by the vicar to help unite our houses. For us it will be a philtrum, sealing our love for all time. We need only take a dose of this beforehand” – she held up a second vial – “and we shall only appear to die. We shall leave a letter explaining that we would prefer to perish together than live apart. God willing, this tragedy shall bring our houses together in grief, and we may miraculously recover.”

A thunderbolt could hardly have shocked Somiere more. His head was spinning, trying to rearrange the world so that it made sense again. “And if they do not?” he asked automatically.

The young lady sighed. “Then we shall flee in secret. That was your plan, was it not? To forsake all and elope? Why not try for peace first?”

Somiere struggled. This was everything his heart had ached for, but it was the last thing he needed. No, as badly as it might hurt, duty called. “Very well,” he said. “Into death, the final deliverance, and may God grant we return free once more.”

She kissed him then, and Somiere almost told her truth. Instead, he put his tongue to other tasks and tried to forget the future. After all, dedication was the mark of a true assassin.

•••

The woman known as Esselle came awake with a gasp, the musty air sweet in her parched mouth. She took a moment to look around and get her bearings, a habit that had become instinctive. They were still inside the church, though the sky was now dark outside the massive stained glass windows. Somiere lay lifeless beside her. A pity. He was far more charming than most of the men that had tried to claim her in the past.

Shakily, she reached into her bodice and retrieved the antidote. The preventative antidote they’d taken beforehand was false – she was relying on her carefully-built immunity – but this dose was genuine, to help fully purge the toxin from her system. She could only hope it worked quickly. She’d paid the vicar a pretty price for it, and she had work to do. As soon as she could stand properly, she would finish off the poor Montreneu heir and collect her pay. This ridiculous scheme had taken long enough. The city could work itself out after she left.

Just as she was working her way to her feet, however, Somiere began to stir. Esselle stared in surprise, tripping over her own wobbly legs. He should have kept sleeping until he died of dehydration.

Nevertheless, there he was, rising to hands and knees. Was this some miracle? Or was this naive courtier more than he appeared to be? Someone like her?

Still sluggish, Somiere reached for a knife at his belt, searching to find his supposed lover. He looked around wildly before finally spying her next to the pews where she had fallen. This time, when they locked eyes, there were no masks, no lies.

“You’re… you’re an assassin too?” Somiere croaked. “I thought you were a Cabulesse heiress.”

“And I thought you were a Montreneu noble,” Esselle replied. “Our schemes, it seems, have run afoul of each other.”

Somiere laughed a little. “This whole damned city is more tangled than a Caldish weave. Two false heirs sent to eliminate each other? What are the chances? What do they even plan to do after the killing? Strike during the moment of weakness? Cry murder and sway neutral houses? Foster infighting? A pack of lunatics, the lot of them.”

“So… what now?” Esselle asked. “Shall we duel? Stage another elaborate ruse? Or simply go our separate ways?”

Somiere sheathed his dagger and pulled out a small vial of his own antidote, draining it in a single quick gulp. “It’s not often you meet a woman in this line of work,” he said conversationally. “Much less one as good as you.”

She shrugged. “Got to make a living somehow. Better than whoring, in my estimation.”

“I’d have to agree with you there,” Somiere said, grinning. “Bit lonelier, though.”

There was a moment of silence. “Are you trying to woo me, sir?”

“We’d be a good team, don’t you think?”

Another pause. “It would be nice to be with a man I don’t have to kill or rob,” she mused. “Someone to be honest with. Watch my back.”

“Milady, I would watch any part of you with rapt attention,” Somiere said, leering. So much for flowery talk. “Say the word.”

She didn’t have to think long. “A love story after all. Who might have guessed?” She grinned, a sweet smile with fangs in it. “My real name is Juliesse.”

“Romeno,” he replied. He stood up, unable to keep from smiling. She smiled back, but then started to cough violently. Romeno rushed to her side, but pulled back when she vomited, spilling blood-tinged vomit across the carpet. “Esselle? Are you well? Juliesse?”

He rushed to her side, but it was too late. She slumped over, eyes staring sightlessly at the stained glass window. The empty vial of antidote rolled from her limp fingers, sparkling in the moonlight. Romeno stared in horror, and then felt a stab of pain in his gut, muscles twisting. The last thing he saw before collapsing was fair Juliesse, and a pair of hands taking her away…

•••

Vicar Ambrose dragged the unconscious assassins to a secluded place deep in the catacombs, wiping his brow with a sleeve from the exertions. Playing both sides was dangerous, but it paid richly enough.

Both of the false heirs had turned to him, assuming him to be a neutral party, but that wasn’t true. He belonged to the church, through and through, and he was tired of watching idly while sinful houses oppressed the honest poor of Vérron.

So when he caught wind of this delightfully ironic pair of schemes, it had been a simple matter to concoct a plan along with the potions. Mixed with the antidote was a more pernicious poison. When the two assassins awoke, they would find themselves with an intense craving for a drug only he possessed, a longing so powerful that they would perish if they went more than a day without it. They would do anything to get more.

Somiere and Esselle were dead, but in the wake of their deaths, Romeno and Juliesse would be his weapons to seize back the church’s rightful power. One day the history books might call this a tragic romance, but he would know it for what it truly was. Victory.

The vicar whistled a jaunty tune as he locked the door of the prison cell. It was time to arrange the first of many funerals.

Posted by: lordkyler | April 14, 2016

The Game – Short Story Week 2016

The old Wayfarer’s tavern was filled to bursting. The night was stormy, driving travelers to the warm comforts of the indoors, and the harvest had been halted by the deluge, freeing the villagers to come share a drink and a spot of gossip. Many dour predictions about the weather would be made before the night was through.

However, the primary reason for the tavern’s crowded state were the young men and women in the crimson and white of the Queen’s garb, the emblems of Tree and Tower standing out like teeth biting into a crisp apple. They were a little too drunk for the hour, and kept close to each other, but it was the closeness of a sheepfold rather than a wolf pack.

A keen ear might have noticed that their laughter was a little too loud, a little too strained. A keen eye might have noticed the way their swords hung conspicuously at their sides, bright as new pennies. On this night, free drinks flowed as freely as any others, and unspoken words hung as heavy in the air as the storm-clouds outside.

A sober and inquisitive mind might have detected an anomaly in the packed and raucous tavern; a pocket of solitude in the far back corner, well away from blazing hearth and boisterous patrons, seemingly untouched by either. There at a small table sat an elderly couple. They had been here long before the first farmers and would stay here long after the most determined drinkers had staggered home. If you had asked the tavern-master about them – a man who knew every vintage in his cellar and every secret in the town – he would have been surprised to realize he could not recall their names, and would have been hard-pressed to say what he’d served them. No matter. They kept to themselves and caused no trouble, why not leave well enough alone?

A truly sensitive soul paying close attention might even have sensed a curious presence about their persons, a subtle feeling of serenity thick with portent, like the air before a summer storm. There were no such discerning souls in the tavern this evening, but those who came close to the couple soon found themselves elsewhere without knowing why.

Between the two lay a game of grid and stones. It was a game as old as song, simple enough for children and deep enough for scholars, played by peasants and princes alike. Every age and people had their own variation and their own name, but this version was the simplest and deepest of all of them, ageless, nameless, and unchanging.

The players of the game were man and woman, both old, each fixated on the game board. Even a drunk man could have felt the taut-wire tension between them, and such a man might have mused on the curious contrast the pair made. Their posture made it clear that there was an intimate connection there, and yet it was just as clear that they were opposites in every way imaginable. However, such thoughts slipped from idle minds like sifting sand, and so the couple was undisturbed.

The man took a sip of sour wine from his cup and leaned forward, expression eager. He seemed to be composed of little more than sticks, aged skin stretched taut over a gaunt skeleton. Notwithstanding his emaciated appearance, he moved with a smooth, languid grace, and his eyes…

His eyes were black, dark through and through, without white or iris. It was the black of pitch, devouring and ensnaring. It was the black of the storm, relentless and implacable. It was the black of the midnight sea, an abyss men might only dream at, the empty void of a sky with no stars.

The man grinned, and every soul in the tavern took a small gasp without noticing.

“A curious gambit, my friend,” he rasped soundlessly. “But I will not complain. How could I resist such a great sacrifice on your behalf? Why, the aftermath of this conflict alone will score me countless victories.”

The woman toyed with one of her pieces, caressing the small stone Ike a precious thing before removing it from the board. Worry bowed her head, but resolution squared her shoulders. Her skin was like tough leather, tanned by countless days under the sun and wrinkled by untold ages of labor. For all this, she sat strong and sturdy as a stone, with a crown of white hair as thick and wild as any sheep.

Her eyes were pure white, without iris or pupil; not milky with blindness or blanked by some deformity that left the eyeball an empty globe, but flashing like lightning, burning like fire, and glittering like the sun on bright waters.

She hummed thoughtfully, and every soul in the tavern relaxed just a bit. “Must boldness so often keep company with short-sightedness? You never were one for the long game.”

“And yet the long game is so often thrown into ruin by the vagaries of ill fortune and small matters,” the black-eyed man said. “Or have you forgotten our game at the Widow’s Crypt?”

The woman scowled slightly, and the man leered. Reaching down with infinite care, he moved one of his pieces across the board. When the woman raised an eyebrow, he flipped it over.

The woman hesitated only a moment before pouncing, placing one of her own pieces atop the flipped one to claim it.

“I know you have some scheme in mind,” she said, “but I’m willing to wager that will cost you more than it gains in the long run.”

The man shrugged carelessly. “You have provided me with enough pieces in the past. Why not return the favor?”

“You’ve never been the generous type in the past,” the woman said, sliding the newly-claimed piece to a sheltered spot.

“Now now,” tutted the man. “That’s unfair. I’ve spared many a piece in my time, although I will concede I always claim them eventually.”

“You toy with them, you mean.”

He scoffed, and the room fell silent for a heartbeat. “I take your pieces early and you claim unfairness. I let them linger and you claim cruelty. You cannot have it both ways.” As if to make his point, he claimed a new piece and an old one with one deft stroke.

“Even when it is not tragic, it is a nuisance,” the woman scowled, strengthening her lines.

“But necessary,” the man said, with the air of a person repeating an argument for the thousandth time. “If you had your way, the board would become cluttered and unplayable with all the pretty pieces, choked in its profusion.” Three stragglers were picked off in short succession, only to be replaced by four new tokens.

“And if you had yours, the board would be empty,” the woman sighed.

The man grinned. “And so we must play the game. Maybe I will win, in the end, or perhaps you will prove victorious. Or it may continue forever. Who can tell?” He stole a quick glance at the board and carefully maneuvered a piece into the center. “But you’d best be careful, my lady. The game could last forever… or it could be ended tomorrow. Consider carefully.”

For the first time, the old woman showed a flicker of doubt, carefully studying the layout of the board. The board wasn’t real, in a way, but the game was, real in a way that few things were, and she had learned long ago that the game belonged to the bold. She pushed her captured piece into position, arranging all the other pieces to follow it, striking for the heart of the board.

A sudden torrent of rain and wind burst into the tavern as a messenger barged through the door, dripping wet but brimming with excitement. Every eye in the place turned toward him, save two pairs, one black and one white.

The man shut the door and threw his hands into the air. “The archduke has turned!” he proclaimed. “The sorcerer has joined our ranks, and now rides to battle against the vile King Hyndrag, who slew General Lynder and his infant daughter while they slept. Come! The call has been sounded! Every soul to the fray, while the dark King is weakened! Come! Come!”

Soldier and farmer alike leapt into action, reaching for coats and hats, scrambling to secure weapons. They rushed past the old couple with nary a glance, shouting battle cries for Queen and country, vowing vengeance against the hated enemy. Before long, the only occupant in the room was the tavern’s cat, which sat primly in front of the hearth, watching the two strangers with cool green eyes.

The wizened man smiled widely, and pulled out another box filled with pieces, placing dozens on the board, until they drastically outnumbered those of his opponent. “Well then, shall we play?”

The woman drew out a box of her own, placing her new pieces carefully. She looked up and sighed as two fathomless eyes met. “Yes. Now, as always, we shall play.”

Posted by: lordkyler | April 13, 2016

Salvation Point – Short Story Week 2016

CalTech Campus, September 1987

It was late Friday evening when the world’s most monumental event transpired. Like many of the world’s pivotal moments, it began with alcohol and boredom.

“Listen,” said Craig, leaning back in an office chair that had more duct tape than upholstery. He tossed and caught a half-solved Rubik’s cube with one hand as he talked. “I’m not sure we can top the Hollywood prank, but I think we can pull off something just as clever on a smaller scale, you know?” He gestured vaguely with his beer can, indicating something amorphous but grand.

Douglas grunted, scribbling intently on a notepad. “Smaller scale, right.”

Craig frowned and set down the cube, scooting across the grimy linoleum to see what Douglas was working on. “Hey man, are you there?” He snapped his fingers. “Been tripping again?”

Douglas wrote intently, oblivious to his partner. He wasn’t high, but he was developing an idea that had come to him that way, locking on to the task with his trademark single-mindedness. Craig took one look at the cramped mass of equations and sighed.

Craig and Douglas were partners, as well as roommates and friends. Their joint thesis required access to the university computers for processing data, but this time slot – the last before closing – was the only one they’d been able to book. Douglas had been forced to cancel a date, and had characteristically buried himself in a diversion. Craig knew from four years of experience that the only way to pull him out would be to go in after him, but that could be a risky proposition.

Craig waited for a pause in Douglas’s writing and snatched the pad away, trying to make sense of the diagrams and algorithms written on it. Deciphering Douglas’s handwriting was nearly as difficult as unraveling the page-spanning equations.

“Is this… some sort of wormhole model? Spacial distortion?”

Douglas tried to snatch the pad back but failed. “Temporal,” he admitted, spinning his pen nervously. “It’s just some stupid idea I had last week. Totally impractical, of course. I’m just trying to… well, prove it wrong, really.”

With this key piece of information, Craig scanned the paper with new eyes, flipping back through several pages of similar notes. At the top of the first page, the words TIME TRAVEL? had been written in large block letters. Douglas blushed slightly and gravitated toward the Rubik’s cube by pure instinct, nimble fingers flying as he solved it.

By the time Craig finished reading, the cube had been solved and resolved multiple times, and several more strictly forbidden beers had been consumed. The computer banks whirred in the background, filling the empty quiet of the deserted building. At last Craig set the pad down, stroking his newly-grown goatee. Douglas grabbed for the pad, but did not begin writing again. “Well?” he demanded, trying not to sound too curious.

If Craig had been less intelligent, he would have dismissed the idea as impossible. If Craig had been less drunk, he might have called it impractical. As matters stood, however, Craig made the world’s most monumental decision with enthusiasm and a slight slur.

“Why don’t we try it?” he asked, leaning in close.

“What?” Douglas said with alarm. He jerked back, as though the words had somehow burned his ears.

“If I understand your hypoth… hypotheth… your idea, you can send people back in time, right? But only to the point where somebody’s made a temporal exit point. A receiving time machine. We could do that right now.

Douglas blanched, fingers fidgeting, but he couldn’t hide his intrigue. “Right now?”

Craig stood up, swaying slightly. “Sure! It shouldn’t be that complicated. Just need to create the right fields. Lab’s down the corridor. I could set this up in five minutes. Come on, let’s give it a shot.”

Douglas looked around nervously, as if expecting a dissaproving Dean to appear out of thin air. “We can’t just break in to the lab in the middle of the night.”

Craig pulled out a key and grinned widely. “Who said anything about breaking in? Don’t ask how I got this, by the way.”

“Craig, how did you get that?”

Craig huffed and started walking down the hall, moving with all the assurance in the world. Douglas was dragged along in his wake before he quite realized he was moving. “Craig, what if it doesn’t work?”

“Then it doesn’t work! It’s not going to hurt anything.”

“Well… how would we even know it’s working? We’re the first to create a landing point… My God.”

Craig put an arm around his friend’s shoulder, as much for balance as for emotional support. “If this has any merit, somebody’s gonna want to come back to the first point possible, right? So we turn this on, and if it works, we’ll know. Hey, maybe we’ll meet ourselves! Then I can ask what prank we pulled!”

Laughing at his own joke, Craig reached the door and fumbled to insert the key. Douglas stood in place, ashen-faced as he realized the potential ramifications. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour, or the eerie stillness of the abandoned lab, or merely Craig’s utter confidence, but suddenly the idea of time travel had gone from an idle fantasy to a possibility as profoundly terrifying as nuclear war.

At last, Craig managed to work the lock, and slipped into the darkened lab without a care in the world. Douglas barely managed to rouse himself in time to catch the door before it closed again, and nervously glanced up and down the corridor, paranoid of cleaning staff or cameras. When no alarms went off, he slipped inside, muttering dire predictions.

Machinery hummed and lights blinked on as Craig set to work, manipulating the controls with an ease that belied his inebriated state.

“I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” Douglas said. His fingers hovered over the machine’s off switch but couldn’t quite seem to cover the last half-inch to push it.

“Hey, don’t sell yourself short,” Craig said, taping a few strands of wire together. “This idea is genius. And if nothing happens, nothing comes through. It’s just a little electromagnetism polarized in a weird way, right?”

Douglas gulped. “More than a little. It’ll take five minutes to charge the capacitors, even with the high-voltage line turned to the maximum.”

“Wait, really?” Craig let the wires splay to the ground and snatched up the pad from Douglas’s hands. Douglas hadn’t even realized he’d brought it.

Craig held the paper under the dim light of digital readout and squinted. “Oh, megajoules.” He paused for a second, as though reconsidering, and then shook his head. Douglas breathed a sigh of relief before Craig continued, “I’d better add some more insulation to that wire.”

Over the next half hour, Douglas continued to raise objections, and Craig continued to work busily, responding or ignoring Douglas as it suited him. In the end, Douglas was still unconvinced, but the machine was built.

Cables, wires and even pipes hooked up numerous gadgets and heavy machinery from around the lab, all of it secured hastily with tape, glue, and twine. At the nexus of this engineer’s nightmare was a simple wire arch, just big enough for a man to walk through. Craig stood back and admired his creation proudly, scanning over all the connections to make sure they were secure, at least for the moment. Douglas finally fell silent, the weight of the moment hitting him like a slab of concrete.

“You should do the honors,” Craig said. “Your idea.”

“Craig, I don’t know about this.”

“Hey, man, if this doesn’t work, no harm done, right? We’ll go home and drink until we forget it ever happened. But if it works, it’s the biggest scientifical breakthrough of all time, yeah? Nobel prizes and junk. Magazines. Money. History, man. Douglas Harvey becomes the new Einstein.”

At the name Einstein, Douglas’s fidgeting fingers flipped the switch almost of their own accord, and he gaped at the mutinous digits. Then he and Craig gaped for an entirely different reason.

Sparks crackled and spat from the wires, and a burst of white vapor filled the archway. More sparks burst, and the vapor began to glow, swirling around the tangled machinery like a living thing. When it filled the entire archway, there was a brilliant strobe of light, and all the machinery went dark and still.

Douglas and Craig held their breaths as the machines started rebooting. The vapor dissipated quickly, revealing… nothing.

Craig groaned like a man who’s just witnessed a game-winning Hail Mary pass from the wrong team, and Douglas sagged, although it was impossible to tell whether this was from relief or disappointment.

His fingers, still for only a moment, began to twitch again. “Well, we’d better get this place put back-”

“Wait!” said Craig. He pointed at a shadow that was beginning to from within the arch. The patch of darkness grew, writhing and stretching with every moment, warping the space around it like a person trying to break through a barrier made of Saran Wrap.

Something tore, and a man stepped through, stumbling and coughing. Douglas’s fidgeting fingers seemed to experience cardiac arrest, and he might have fainted had not Craig latched onto him with a crushing bear hug, whooping like an idiot.

The lights came back on, illuminating the time-traveler as he came closer, looking at Craig and Douglas with unbridled awe. Suddenly he fell to his knees, weeping.

“Mr. Harvey. Mr. Peabody. You’re really here. You really did it! Oh, thank you, thank you! You’ve saved us all!

Craig and Douglas looked at each other, unsure of what to make of this. “What do you mean, we saved you?” Craig asked.

“Oh! Of course, you don’t know!” said the time traveler, standing and wiping away tears. “My humble apologies, Mr. Peabody. Here, I will explain quickly.”

The man reached into the satchel at his side and pulled out a black metal rectangle about the size of a small lunch tray, At the press of a button, images appeared on the screen. The two inventors gaped at this marvel of technology, but the man seemed to take it for granted, quickly pulling up a series of pictures. He scrolled through as he explained.

“My name is John Forsyth. I work with the government agency tasked with stopping the Lantern Virus.” A group photo of scientists standing in front of a large test-tube logo. Scientists hard at work in the lab. Several photos of plague victims, bodies emaciated and apparently glowing from within. An animated map showed the spread of the virus across the world.

“The Lantern Virus is extremely contagious and inevitably fatal, slowly stealing the body’s ability to digest food while simultaneously increasing the host’s appetite. We have no cure. Quarantines have proven ineffectual. We starved to death while feasting. We’re making progress, but it’s not quick enough. So when your notes on time-travel were discovered, we decided to take the chance…”

The man broke down weeping again, clutching his satchel like the world’s most precious object, which indeed it might be. “We can’t prevent the plague,” he sobbed, ” but I have all our research, and now we have three more decades to work on a cure. You two have just saved the world tonight. I cannot thank you enough.”

As Craig and Douglas stared, the traveler shook their limp hands and burst out of the lab, presumably to contact the authorities and begin the work on the cure. The two students stared for a long time. Then Douglas reached over and pressed the button again.

“What are you doing?” asked Craig. “It worked! We gotta go tell somebody. We gotta get to the patent office!” But Douglas just shook his head.

“Craig, if I’m right, we’re in the middle of something much bigger than patents and prizes.”

Sparks danced. Vapor swirled. Light strobed. This time, when the smoke cleared, it revealed a young woman with a backpack. She wasted no time walking toward them.

“Thank goodness,” she said with gratitude. “Dr. Peabody. Dr. Harvey. I must say I’m glad to see you. The Lantern Virus is cured, thanks to you, but it was a close thing. World hunger is at crisis levels. But hopefully no longer.” She tapped her backpack and winked. “I’d love to talk, but there’s a lot of work to do.”

She left just as quickly as the last traveler, slamming the door behind her. The machines started to charge again. “What was that?” Craig demanded. “Did we just change the future?”

“Twice, if my theory is correct, and not for the last time.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? You’re going to activate the machine again? We need to talk about this!”

“I will keep activating the machine until it ceases to work,” Douglas said, showing newfound determination. “We have just created a temporal ark.”

“Douglas, I don’t get it…”

But Douglas just hit the button again. Sparks. Smoke. Sudden flash.

Another woman emerged. Or rather, an older version of the same woman, now in her forties, carrying a smaller but sturdier pack. “Hello again, professors,” she said briefly but respectfully. “Solving this world hunger thing is a bloody nightmare, I tell you. Pardon me.” She pushed past them and vanished.

Craig had to lean on a nearby table. “So… an ark? Like a refuge from the apocalypse? Is that what you’re saying?”

Douglas nodded, wiping his brow with his sleeve. “This is the first point to which time travel is possible, but it’s only big enough to send one person through. So every time humanity faces an existential threat, they send someone back with the data and have that much longer to research a solution.”

“How long will this go on?”

Douglas didn’t answer for a moment. “One of two ways. Either we run out of problems…”

“Or we hit a problem that can’t be solved,” Craig concluded. “I… uh, guess we’re going to be here a while? I’ll make some coffee.”

And so Douglas sat and saved the world, pressing the button as quickly as the capacitors would allow.

The same woman came through once more, wrinkled and gray but still hearty. “Almost got it this time,” she said. “Just need to pass this data on to the younger me and then have a quick chat with the Chinese ambassador. Thanks again!”

Five minutes. Another flash. A man in military uniform. “Oh, Senators, I didn’t think you would actually be here. It’s an honor. If you’ll excuse me, I have to stop a message to a certain ambassador quite quickly, if you’ll excuse me.”

Flash. A woman straight out of Blade Runner. “Hello, gents. Lovely evening to start the nanobot revolution, isn’t it?”

Flash. A woman straight out of Mad Max. “Hey, guys. Gotta go put a leash on this nanobot thing.”

Flash. A man with living tattoos. “I’m just here to set up the computers for whoever comes next. Nice shirt, by the way.”

Flash. Flash Flash. A pregnant woman. A man with numerous cybernetic implants. Then a woman with glowing eyes, dressed in simple white clothing. She hovered just above the ground. “At last I see the saviors with my own eyes. All humanity thanks you. It is nearly finished, but I must go. There is much to be done.” She vanished in an instant, leaving behind a small thunderclap.

While the capacitors recharged once more, Craig sat with his head in his hands. “I’m trying to figure this all out. Are these people living here during all these years in between? How are they working together? Are we creating new futures or just extending this one?” Douglas shrugged and hit the button.

Flash. This time, the glow did not fade. A luminous being stepped through, glorious beyond description. It stepped forward, bowed before them, and then exploded into a thousand tiny lights. Each flew off in a different direction. Neither of them spoke, but when Douglas hit the button once more, nothing came through.

“Did we… did we do it?” Craig said, after three more attempts proved fruitless.

“I think we did. One way or the other.”

“So… we just saved the human race. From now to infinity.”

“So far as I can tell.”

“And that last guy?”

“I think he was the last we needed. We have just completed time travel. Nobody else will come through.”

“Wait… so now we have no proof? No riches? No patents?”

“I’d be willing to bet that last visitor arranged  matters to work themselves out. Likely removed all of the other travelers as well. Given their sufficiently advanced technology, I think mankind’s problems are going to find themselves magically resolved.”

“Well…” said Craig slowly. I guess I can’t complain with the ultimate happy ending.”

For the first time that evening, Douglas grinned. “I’ll start cleaning up. You go grab us some beers.”

And thus, over the course of one night and countless hypothetical years, humanity was saved. Not bad for a night’s work.

Posted by: lordkyler | April 12, 2016

Priority – Short Story Week 2016

Two Kestrel fighters slipped into the atmosphere, contrails streaming from their wingtips like ribbons. Their descent was controlled and careful, slow enough to avoid setting fire to the air, but quick enough to make it dance. Advanced algorithms in their cockpits compensated for the heat distortion, giving the two fighter pilots a clear view of the planet surface.

It wasn’t much, as planets went, mused Sigma, the pilot of the lead Kestrel. Certainly nothing like the alabaster cities of Cygnus Prime or the rugged majesty of Acheron. This planetoid was designated as C-459 in the Planetary Registry, not worthy of a proper name. It was a dry, dusty place with a barely-breathable atmosphere and no significant forms of life. It wasn’t worth the resources it would take to terraform it, and frankly, it was barely worth the effort it took to extract its resources. The skeletons of abandoned mining facilities littered the planet surface, slowly rusting into decay.

Rocks like this were only good for a few things. Training exercises like this were one of those uses. This was the final test in a long and grueling process. If they were successful in their mission, they would finally become Specters, the most elite covert agents in the Imperium. All they had to do was track down and subdue their former instructor, Agent Alpha, who was hiding somewhere on the planet. Just one of the most dangerous individuals in the entire galaxy.

Any signs? Tau questioned using their psylink. Only a few individuals in the galaxy had the capacity for the neural upgrades to unlock such powers, but that was what made Specters so dangerous. How can you fight against someone that can read your every thought and predict your every action? Only those that had the psylink stood a chance, which was why this test had to involve a former instructor.

I’m not picking up any signals, Sigma thought back. Not on the scanners at any rate. The mental transitions took place at the speed of thought, entire sentences compressed into a single idea, allowing for near-instant communication between partners. That teamwork would be one of their few advantages against a veteran Specter agent.

Well, that’s not terribly surprising. Let’s do a quick sweep of the surface just in case Alpha’s gotten sloppy. Slim chance of that, but it paid to be thorough. Sigma signaled agreement.

The two fighter craft worked in perfect tandem. Sigma ascended to the upper stratosphere, searching for energy emissions at range, and Tau darted between landmarks and neglected industrial centers, performing visual checks and in-depth sweeps.

Neither tactic revealed any signs of their quarry, and the two ships reunited at the equator. Massive canyons and jagged mountains rolled by beneath them. A few rockslides resulted as the vacuums made by the fighter’s cavitation prows collapsed, quaking the air like ungodly thunder, and massive clouds of dust were created in their wake, spinning and swirling madly. Sigma hoped the disturbances might draw out their target. With a whole planet to search, it might be easier to defend themselves than to track the agent down.

Just as Sigma was about to suggest probing the subterranean, an unsolicited thought wormed into their minds like a parasite. It took you long enough to arrive. With the message came a strong sensation of scorn. If not for Sigma’s supreme self-control and enhanced nervous system, the initiate might have shuddered at the sound of that silent voice.

There’s no point in needlessly prolonging the matter, I suppose, the voice that could only be Agent Alpha’s continued. You can meet me at the three-spired refinery near the equator. Be quick. I grow tired of this dreary place.

The voice fell silent, leaving the head feeling empty for its absence. Tau spoke through the psylink, sending more of a feeling than any real words. What now?

Sigma hesitated only a few seconds. On the one hand, it seemed like an obvious trap. For the purposes of the mission, Alpha was the enemy. Why should they trust anything the agent said? On the other hand, it really was too obvious. Was Agent Alpha playing some sort of bluff, trying to confuse them, or merely telling the truth? The real test was unlikely to end with a simple orbital blasting, after all.

On the bionic third hand, it was the only lead they had so far. Assuming this wasn’t some bald-faced trap, they might at least find some clues to Alpha’s location. If it was a trap… it was still a place to start.

We’ll take a look, Sigma sent. A very careful look.

The two Kestrel fighters swung around tightly enough that Sigma could feel the press of it though the inertial compensators. The desert world flew by in a rust-colored blur, and the sun jumped over the horizon, blazing an angry red.

We need to find a safe place to disembark, Tau said. Isolation protocols. According to the parameters of their mission, Agent Alpha was to be considered a fugitive spy on the planet. As such, quantum barriers had been erected around C-459 to prevent any incoming or outgoing communications with the planet. Protocol also dictated certain procedures to ensure that interstellar craft couldn’t be hijacked and used to escape the planet.

Sigma took the lead, dropping low over the desert plains and slowing to a crawl. They shared plans on an intimate level, thoughts without words. Ahead, over a small ridge, they could see the triple spires of the refinery stabbing like bent silver needles into the ocher sky, a few kilometers away. Agent Alpha hopefully wouldn’t be expecting them to give up their air advantage, and they would be able to cover the distance to the refinery using skimmers.

The ships hovered next to the cliff face, hidden from view, settling down as gently as butterflies. The engines powered down with a soft whine, and the dust danced around the landing gear as the turbines bled off the last of their charge. And then all was silent save for the whistle of the wind.

Being Specter-assigned ships, the Kestrels were equipped with psylink locks that required a specific neural access code to start up. Sigma and Tau engaged the locks before donning their VHE masks, which would protect their lungs and eyes from the sand-laden winds and insufficient atmosphere.

It did not protect them from the desiccant winds and oven-like heat that assaulted them the moment their cockpits slid open. Their long coats flapped behind them as they leapt to the ground, bionic reinforcements preventing them from harm. Sharing a glance, the two agents drew their weapons and activated their skimmers. Static crackled at their feet, shifting the dust into strange patterns as they rose a few inches above the ground. Moving in perfect synchronization, the two agents shot forward like missiles.

NO.

The voice exploded in their minds, a silent shockwave that sent them reeling. At the same moment, a wall of glittering light leapt up before them. Sigma pulled up short, skimmers shaking as they interacted with the energy fields of the force barrier. Tau was slightly closer to the barrier, and crashed into it with a spray of sparks. Tau was violently rebuffed, thrown to the ground and rendered unconscious.

Sigma reacted instantly, dragging Tau back from the barrier and scanning for danger with heightened senses. The barrier curved around and above them, forming a semi-sphere that encircled the Kestrels, and only stopped where it met the cliff face. There was no way out.

On the other side of the barrier, a vehicle approached, some floating platform likely raided from one of the mining facilities. A bulky piece of equipment had been loaded atop it, most of which was obscured by the satellite dish facing them. A solitary figure stood at the controls. The figure’s face was hidden behind a protective mask, but there was no doubt about who it was. Agent Alpha.

Sigma sighted and fired at once. Even though there was practically no chance that the sidearm could penetrate an industrial shield, it wasn’t impossible. They only needed to tag Agent Alpha with a successful stunning shot in order to be declared victorious. Failing a hit, the flashes created by the interaction of beam and barrier would give them some visual cover while Sigma dragged Tau to safety.

Pointless. Foolish. Short-sighted. Every word Agent Alpha said was imbued with the weight of a neutron star, crushing all hope. Know thine enemy. Something we Specters understand better than anyone. And yet we spend so long in our enemies’ heads that we forget what it is like to be without that power. You did not even pause to consider that I might have anticipated your actions and reactions, since you could not sense mine. 

Agent Alpha brought the commandeered craft right up to the edge of the barrier, standing with perfect calm. Sigma fired repeatedly while retreating to the cover of the ships, painting strokes of light across the barrier, hoping to find just the right angle that would allow the beam to slip through some gap in the polarities. The barrier wavered under the assault but did not fail.

The psylink is supposed to be an enhancement, continued Agent Alpha calmly. Like those our soldiers use to run faster, fight harder, endure longer. But instead, so many of us – yourselves included – come to rely on it as the disabled do. As a crutch. 

Sigma reached the Kestrels, dragging Tau’s still-limp form behind the landing legs. The Artemis fell silent as Sigma considered what to do. There were no hidden caves or tunnels here, and they couldn’t pass through the shield, especially not with Agent Alpha there. It was impossible to say how long Tau might be unconscious.

There were only a few options. They could wait until Agent Alpha dropped the barrier in order to shoot at them, and then try to fire back or escape. They could wait until the barrier’s energy source ran out, but if the Agent had managed to cobble together something even half-way decent, it could remain in passive mode for decades. Or they could try to shoot their way out.

The Kestrels had particle cannons that could tear through a cruiser’s hull like sonic saws through cheap plastic, along with a full complement of missiles. The trick would be trying to overwhelm the barrier without killing themselves from the flashback.

Sigma decided try it. With nothing to stop Agent Alpha from simply starving them out and no other resources they could utilize, this was their best chance at some sort of escape. Sigma laid a hand on the leg of the Kestrel and established a neural link, unlocking the weapons systems and priming the particle cannons for a low-frequency pulse. The Artemis remained pointing directly at Agent Alpha’s heart, ready to fire the second the barrier fell.

Fire, Sigma commanded the ship through its artificial mind. The guns came to life, shrieking as they blasted against the barrier. Even at only five percent of their capacity, the noise and fury of the collision was tremendous. If not for the bionic upgrades, Sigma would have been deafened, blinded, and blacked out. As it was, the Artemis never wavered throughout all the cacophony, waiting for the shot, the opportunity. But the chance never came.

Instead, the barrier grew closer, smaller, like a fist clenching. The air pressure within the dome rose notably, forcing Sigma’s ears to pop. The barrier glittered as brightly as ever, showing no signs of weakening. Not so much as a flicker. Behind the mask, Sigma frowned, a rare display of emotion from a Specter. Judging by the size of the machinery, the barrier should have wavered at least.

Another shortcoming, Agent Alpha said, nudging the hovercraft closer to the new boundary. So much time spent on military training and subterfuge that we neglect the more mundane workings of the worlds. This device is sometimes called a slip shield. It is calibrated to maintain a constant level of integrity, rather than covering a consistent area, as you typically see. As a result, the more energy it takes to maintain the shield, the smaller it grows.

Agent Alpha leaned forward, the tension the body showing what was hidden behind the mask: pure malice. I have disabled the minimum size safeguards. This shield can continue to shrink until it crushes you and your ship like insects. Until the very air pressure squeezes you into spheres of flesh. 

Sigma sensed something wrong. It was expected for the senior agent to display some frustration toward initiates, especially when they had gotten themselves into such a disastrous tactical situation. But everything about Agent Alpha, from voice to posture, screamed of pure malice and unbridled contempt. Either something was very wrong…

Or else this wasn’t the sort of test they’d been told it was.

Unlock your ships, Agent Alpha demanded, confirming Sigma’s suspicions. Do it quickly, before I kill Initiate Tau.

Sigma holstered the Artemis and locked eyes with Agent Alpha, standing with a proud chin and square shoulders. This was not a test of skills. It was a test of loyalty.

Never. Sigma replied stoically. There was a moment of silence, and then the barrier dropped. Before Sigma could draw the gun again, Agent Alpha had already sighted and fired. Initiate Sigma joined Initiate Tau in immediate unconsciousness.

•••

 Sigma awoke in a small room riddled with rust and filled with the sweet smell of rotting bioplastics. A few small chem-lights cast greenish illumination over faded safety warnings and broken furniture. Sigma reached for a weapon but found the Artemis missing, along with the VHE gear and everything else useful. There was no sign of Agent Alpha, no trace of Tau.

Tau? Sigma called out. There was no answer through the psy-link. Nothing resulted from a ping, either, which should have given a response even if Tau was still unconscious. That worried Sigma more than anything else. The two of them were closer than friends, more intimate than lovers, sharing a bond forged through years of intense training and hardship. They were the first Specter agents trained as a team, and they were one; in mind and soul.

Without that bond, Sigma felt naked. Exposed. Vulnerable.

There had to be a way out. That was what the test was all about, wasn’t it? It couldn’t be a test if there wasn’t a solution. The very fact that the test was ongoing meant that they hadn’t failed yet. They had proved their ability and skills a dozen times over. What if this scenario was intended to test their resolve, or their ingenuity? For all their prowess, Specters were not invincible or infallible. Loyalty was more valuable than expertise.

Sigma stood up, stretching sore muscles and focusing addled thoughts. Perhaps this was a test of ingenuity. What was useable here? A quick scan revealed precious little. Two quick-form desks and a few chairs lay scattered about the room, blocky constructions of fabricated bioplastics, produced en masse and on demand to furnish the space as cheaply as possible. All were half-rotten, slowly degrading into a handful of lifeless dust. There was no power in the room, but something was powering the shimmering barrier field in the doorway. Chem-lights had been tossed into the room along with a couple of ration packs, but those were the only additions. Even the dead cabling had been ripped out, leaving only pale lines on the wall to show where they’d been.

Not a test of resourcefulness then. Sigma began unwrapping the ration packs. It would be important to keep up strength, especially if this did turn out to be a test of loyalty. Torture might be involved.

Sigma hadn’t gotten more than a mouthful before the doorway barrier deactivated. Sigma scrambled up to a fighting stance, but Agent Alpha stormed in with a drawn weapon and leveled it at the initiate’s face, fury apparent despite the face-concealing VHE mask.

You will unlock your ship, initiate, the agent demanded. Now. On the Remus handgun Alpha leveled at Sigma’s forehead, scarlet lights began to glow, indicating the weapon was primed with lethal force.

Where is Initiate Tau? Sigma countered, totally unfazed. It wasn’t impossible for initiates to be killed during the final test, but it wouldn’t happen here, not like this. There had to be some way out of this mess. Diplomacy, deception, perhaps even disarmament and escape. If Agent Alpha could be caught off guard…

Tau is dead. Agent Alpha said with finality. That ship is useless now. You will unlock yours.

It had to be a lie, but that didn’t stop the chill of fear from creeping into Sigma’s pounding heart. It was a tactic, designed to inspire nervousness and sloppiness. To let one’s guard down. Sigma locked down the errant fears, focusing on the mental techniques that the Academy had drilled in over countless hours. Total control.

I will not violate protocol. I will not unlock my ship. Sigma stared down the barrel of the Remus with utter confidence. A long moment passed. The gun trembled, and then wavered, and then dropped. Then it fired, turning Sigma’s leg into a mangled mess of shredded muscle and shattered bone. Sigma stared, dumbfounded. Then the pain hit.

 Every muscle was flayed open, exposing every inch of tissue within. Every nerve was afire with exquisite agony, each one enhanced for greater sensitivity and transmission speed. The sheer supernova force of the pain was enough to consume even the most disciplined minds, but like all Specter agents, Sigma’s system had been fortified. A specialized stun shot could bring an agent down, but it would keep an agent awake throughout any measure of typical abuse.

Those same systems shut down the offending pain receptors after a mere heartbeat, but the sheer scale of the pain was enough to send Sigma reeling, the mere echoes of it clouding any attempt to think or reason. Staggering, the initiate slipped on the spray of blood and fell to the floor, mutilated leg useless for support. The memory of the pain was nearly as sharp as the pain itself had been, and Sigma struggled not to cry out. Agent Alpha looked on impassively.

You will unlock your ship. The demand was cold. Merciless. The Remus charged up for another deadly shot, blood-red lights throbbing.

Sigma, unconsciously reaching out for Tau’s support, responded by reflex, pouring a maelstrom of raw emotion into the agent’s head. Anger. Fear. Disbelief. Questioning. A flood of mindless fury. Alpha watched for a moment, then sighed and holstered the gun, stepping out of the room briefly.

Time passed without passing as Sigma tried and failed to put the pieces of the world back together, and settled for dealing with the wound instead. Bionic implants fought desperately to reduce dizziness and combat stress. Autonomous systems worked to stanch the bleeding, but with injuries this extensive, the best they could do was keep it from gushing.

A small mad corner of Sigma’s brain was raving, repeating the same thoughts over and over, like a ship orbiting the event horizon of a black hole, trying to keep from falling into oblivion. Was this part of the test? Was that even possible? With access to a proper medical facility, it would be possible to fully reconstruct the leg, or even clone and graft a new one, although that would be a nuisance. Failing that, the leg could be replaced by a fully cybernetic system. Some agents even replaced their limbs or organs deliberately in order to make use of the gadgets that such things could contain.

But to do this to an initiate? The Specter Agency was ruthless, but this seemed extreme, even for them. Reckless and risky for a business all about care and precision. There could be any number of excuses, but something felt wrong about this to Sigma, something in the gut that went beyond the excruciating pain and fear for Tau. Something wrong about Agent Alpha.

The agent returned a moment later, dragging a full military med-pod, all smooth white polymer and soothing blue lights. It cracked open like an egg with the press of a button, scanning the room with a sweeping laser. The light settled on Sigma’s leg and was soon joined by others, assessing the extent of the damage and calculating the necessary procedures. Even this ruin presented only a moment’s challenge to the pod’s computers, and all of a sudden the eggshell-smooth surface of the pod exploded with doors and hatches. Robotic arms emerged from within, followed by prehensile hoses and tiny hovering drones. A mass of machinery descended on the carnage, setting to work with uncanny coordination and certainty.

Agent Alpha watched patiently, idly tapping a finger, as though this were nothing more than a mild inconvenience, like waiting for a quantum signal to resolve. Sigma gathered the presence of mind to speak, for once not really caring if it broke some protocol.

Why?

The agent shot a glance toward the immobilized initiate, but it ricocheted away just as quickly. One hand went toward the Remus, and the other hovered over the kill switch on the med-pod. The meaning was clear: I control your life and death.

After a moment, however, the agent let the hovering hands lie still, and turned to sit on one of the decaying pieces of furniture. It sagged slightly beneath the weight, spilling sweet dust as it settled under the strain. For a moment, there was only the whirr of mechanical surgery, Sigma’s labored breathing, and the sharp hiss of the VHE mask as the agent stared.

Have you seen it yet?

Sigma frowned, then flinched as the med-pod shifted the leg’s position. Until now, the Agent’s voice had been hard and serious. Now there was something new, something curious and pitying, almost sorrowful. Have I seen what?

The truth.

What truth?

The truth that the Agency doesn’t want you to know, Alpha said, and now the tone of the psylink had shifted to something more sinister, more deadly. Cold fury burned just beneath the surface, just strong enough to give a hint to its depth and ferocity. The truth about Aquila Major, and the Perseus Conflict, and the Cassiopeian Ambassador. The truth about the lies they’ve told, the fortunes they’ve stolen, the murders they’ve committed. Every one of them is corrupt to the core. 

The med-pod finished its work, arms retracting back into the body as it sealed closed once more. The leg was a patchwork of hyper-fine stitches and flesh-mesh grafts, all sealed in a clear polymer flex-cast. It would still take weeks of intensive therapy and further surgery to restore the limb to full strength, but it was usable for the time being. Sigma stood shakily, wincing as the newly-repaired leg took the weight.

Alpha studied this for a moment, considering. I will return in an hour. Then you will unlock your ship… and the truth will escape. Don’t act as though you are blind to such things. The citizens of the universe deserve to know.

Sigma said nothing. Agent Alpha stalked out, dismissing and restoring the barrier in quick succession. Sigma stared blankly, mind churning with what had been said.

Was it possible that Agent Alpha had truly turned, or was this just a fantasy devised for the purposes of the test? It was entirely possible that Tau was waiting in a another room nearby, being told the same things. Agent Alpha seemed sincere, but they wouldn’t send two initiates in to actually take down a rogue veteran agent, surely.

Don’t act as if you are blind to such things, the agent had said. As much as Sigma wanted to believe otherwise, there was truth to that statement. They had heard all about the suppression in Aquila, about the removal of the corrupt ambassador from Cassiopeia. The Agency had made it quite clear that these were extreme circumstances justifying extreme responses. They had been very, very thorough on that point. Perhaps too thorough.

Sigma staggered over to the discarded ration pack, stretching the new muscle carefully, and quickly drained a bottle of water laced with nutrients. Something had to be done, but what? Was this an elaborate test or a genuine mission? Did it make a difference?

Think, Sigma thought. Tau’s absence was like a hole in the head, a missing lobe of the brain, a shout with no echo. Think like Agent Alpha said. Empathize. Imagine what you would do if you were them. If you didn’t know.

If this was a test, there would have to be a solution. Given the circumstances, it seemed unlikely that torture was the point of the exercise, so that meant they were testing something else. A way to escape. But how? No tools, no Tau, no tech…

Almost no tech. Sigma nearly twisted a vulnerable ankle spinning to look at the med-pod. Alpha had left it here. The pearly surface reflected a battered face smiling grimly as the realization struck. This would have to be quick.

Limping over, Sigma grabbed hold of the pod’s handles and heaved the heavy thing toward the doorway barrier. A press of the button cracked the pod open, revealing its interior. Blue lights flashed around the room once more, but before the scan could be completed, Sigma spotted and tripped the override switch on the back of the periscope. The pod went silent, lights blinking on standby.

Sigma scanned the instructions molded into the access hatch, and followed them to put the machine in maintenance mode. The pod unfolded, granting easy access to all the gadgetry within. Sigma wasted no time on celebration, plunging within to scavenge anything useful.

Some old-fashioned scalpels provided an improvised weapon, as did some aerosol anesthetics. Practically useless against a trained agent, but better than nothing. Unfortunately, there was little else of use. Most of the medicinal compounds were useless, and kept in locked tanks besides. The computing system was worthless for anything besides medical work.

The only thing that might prove truly valuable was the surgical laser, but that was firmly fixed to the pod, and required direct access to the pod’s power systems. It might be useful to attack Agent Alpha, but that could easily prove fatal, which would be problematic if this was a test. And if the laser was turned against the barrier, it would probably just shrink until it crushed the whole room.

The barrier. That was it. Agent Alpha had called it a slip shield because size was the variable, rather than strength. If the barrier was weakened, it would shrink. But if it was strengthened…

Sigma worked feverishly, calling up equations and computer commands from stored memories. The pod beeped and whirred as settings were adjusted and calibrated to harmonize frequencies and maximize energy transfer. The safety protocols were disengaged, routing all power from the battery to the laser. Sigma took a deep breath, steadying both mind and body, then activated the improvised weapon.

A beam of shimmering light lanced from the surgical laser, searing the air with the sharp smell of ozone. Unlike the Kestrel’s cannons, blasting the barrier with the laser did not result in jangling lights and sprays of sparks, but rather flowed into the barrier wall like drizzled honey, rippling outward from the point of contact.

The effect was immediate. The shield shuddered and began to swell, pulling back from the doorway by a few feet. When it encountered resistance from other parts of the structure, it crackled and fought, trying to shrink and grow at the same time. The resulting interplay caused the barrier to vibrate rapidly, pounding against the walls like a jackhammer. The air sang with the constant vibration, and the already crumbling walls began to deteriorate even faster. If this kept up, the building would collapse within minutes.

Moving quickly and carefully around the laser beam, Sigma slid out of the room, sizing up the situation in an instant. The impromptu cell was one of many, all stacked into a wall along one side of a large hangar or warehouse. The surrounding cells had been knocked away, allowing the dome-like barrier to surround the cell entirely, but it was now eating away at the cells further down.

Like the rest of the facility, the space was empty and abandoned, littered with discarded wrappers and bits of broken materials. Scanning for any sign of Agent Alpha, Sigma spotted a pile of familiar gear just around the corner of the isolated room. The stolen Specter gear, apparently undamaged.

Hobbling over to the tactical suit as quickly as possible, Sigma stepped inside the waiting skimmer boots. They hummed into life at the touch, and a single neural command was enough to activate the attached suit. The smart fabric came to life, crawling up legs and torso like ivy climbing a tree, sealing itself as it went. Within seconds, the suit was sealed and powered up. The VHE mask followed shortly, providing a much-need boost of oxygen.

Sigma gave a quick sigh of relief. The tactical suit was a familiar and reassuring weight, with armor panels to offer protection, skimmers for mobility, and micro-pnuematics to give additional strength. It would adequately compensate for a wounded leg. Hopefully.

With the Artemis primed and suit functioning properly, Sigma felt much more confident, spirits buoyed. A second scan of the area collapsed them again.

In the center of the open space lay a small junkyard of broken and disassembled machinery, with the barrier generator and hover-lift in the middle, warning lights blinking impotently. Sprawled next to it was Tau, still dressed in full combat gear and undeniably dead.

It could all still be an illusion, Sigma thought unconvincingly. A very good illusion.

No time to worry. Whether Tau was dead or alive, nothing could be done about it. Sigma walled off the part of the mind that wept, and went to work.

Matters between the spastic barrier and the collapsing building were reaching a crisis point. The cheap metal flooring began to ring like a bell, and falling dust was giving way to larger chunks and beams, falling within and without the barrier dome.

Sigma raced to a hole in the wall where one of the former cells had been. It was big enough to fit through, but one glance outside put any thoughts of jumping to rest. The ground was at least five hundred feet below, too far a fall to cushion with the skimmers. That left only one way out.

The Artemis began to charge for an overclocked shot, emerald indicators growing brighter and brighter. Most guns lacked this capacity, as overcharging posed a significant explosive risk, but with just the right timing…

The floor exploded with a fountain of sparks and ricochetting light, which soon cleared to reveal a two-foot hole punched neatly through the metal, bleeding acrid smoke from the edges. The floor below was only a twenty foot drop, easily negated by the skimmers.

Sigma hopped through just as the building began to collapse, sending an avalanche of rubble onto the barrier. It collapsed in an eye-blink, shrinking to a mere fraction of its size before the generator itself was crushed. A hurricane blast of compressed air exploded through the hole Sigma had cut, forced through by the violent contraction of the barrier.

The force of the sudden wind was enough to send Sigma flying across the room and out the window into the empty air.

Spinning. Gasping. Falling. There was nothing to grab, nothing for the skimmers to push off of but the weak air. The wall of the facility was studded with innumerable handholds, but it was too far away. If there was more time, it might be possible to go spread-eagle and tilt toward it, but there wasn’t.

Something. There had to be something. There. In the tumbling madness of the fall, Sigma spotted an angled support beam that propped up the massive refinery against the buffeting winds. If there was some way to get there, it would be easy for the skimmers to slide along it all the way to the ground.

Only a few seconds to do it. A quick thought to the tactical suit brought it to life, shifting position and morphing shape to fight the wind and offer stability. The skimmers flared to maximum power, but they needed solid surfaces to be truly effective. The best they could manage was to alter the angle of the fall by a few degrees. Not quite close enough. Sigma only needed a small push to reach the beam, but where else to get it? The VHE masks was useless, and the Artemis was an energy weapon with no recoil…

Or was it? Out of other options, Sigma locked the handgun into overload and tossed it away, relying on neural computing to reach just the right angle and timing. The gun, now a makeshift grenade, detonated precisely three seconds later with a violent, ear-splitting clap.

Green light and shrapnel exploded from the gun. Some of it grazed the back of Sigma’s head – painful but non-fatal – but most was caught by the tactical suit, bumping the falling initiate slightly further toward the target. The shockwave did the rest.

Sigma flipped into position, only just managing to catch the edge of the support beam in the skimmer field. There was a moment of precarious balance, as cerebral enhancements struggled to fight off dizziness, but after a moment, Sigma was able to tilt toward safety.

The slide to the bottom might have been exhilarating under different circumstances, but not now. Once back on safe, solid ground, Sigma took a moment to rest, trying to regain some composure. Even with years of combat training and mental preparation, this day had been harrowing. Sigma hadn’t felt so frazzled and off-kilter since those first grueling days of surgery. The mantra was an anchor, the only thing that could keep insanity at bay. It’s just a test. Only a test. And there’s a way to beat it. Tau isn’t dead. I’m not dead. This is only a test. 

Sigma’s Artemis was gone, and Tau’s was unreachable. Agent Alpha’s flesh-rending Remus was likely the only other firearm on the entire planet. So far as Sigma could see, reaching the Kestrels was the only viable option. Once in orbit, there would be time to rest, recover, and reassess.

The allure of a moment’s peace was irresistible, and the goal of reaching the Kestrels shone like bright, singular beacon through Sigma’s clouded thoughts. It would have to be quick though, before Agent Alpha realized what had happened and came searching.

 The ridge was in the distance. Sigma crouched low and flew across the cracked and arid earth with heavy heart and grim face, a specter indeed.

•••

Night had fallen by the time Sigma reached the waiting Kestrels, coloring the broken landscape in charcoal and slate. The wind had stilled, as though Sigma’s escape had left the planet breathless with anticipation. Two small moons chased each other across the soulless black of the sky, just bright enough to call attention to the shadows without truly illuminating the terrain. If not for the guidance of the psylink and a photographic memory, the Kestrels would have been impossible to find, totally invisible in the dark.

Here at last, Sigma deactivated the skimmer for the first time in hours, feeling the injured leg complain at once. Skimmers were quick – faster than anything Alpha was likely to find, thankfully – but they required the user to stand. Even with the help of the tactical suit, it wasn’t an ideal situation for recovery.

Besides that, the med-pod’s painkillers were wearing off, and Sigma’s neuro-upgrades didn’t have the sophistication to shut down pain receptors without also rendering the leg useless. All the more reason to get inside the Kestrel as soon as possible.

Sigma limped toward the ships, too exhausted to think of anything further than getting inside and finding a moment’s rest. However, the sight of the two craft side by side gave the initiate pause. It was a painful reminder of Tau. Whether deceased or merely absent, the separation was painful. It took a great force of will to turn away from Tau’s ship and approach the other.

The Kestrel came alive with a simple thought, turbines whining as they charged. Moving parts all over the ship tested themselves, so that the fighter craft resembled a bird ruffling its feathers. All systems were stable. Not wanting to draw attention to the Kestrel’s location by activating the lights, Sigma climbed up to the cockpit in the dark.

Not wanting to waste a single second, Sigma disengaged the neural locks during the climb. The hatch opened with a hiss, revealing the familiar cockpit. Sigma heaved a sigh of relief and climbed aboard.

A hand latched onto Sigma’s foot with mechanical strength, slamming the initiate to the ground with frightful force. The hand belonged to Alpha, and the agent’s other hand was holding the Remus.

Still so blind, the agent said disdainfully. The truth cannot be stopped. 

Computer! Sigma cried, but before the ship could be locked again, all thought was obliterated by an explosion of pain. Agent Alpha had fired on the other leg. By the time Sigma’s mental barriers were in place, Agent Alpha had taken control of the Kestrel, using manual controls to override any mental commands from the outside.

The landing legs retracted as the Kestrel hovered above the ground, preparing for takeoff, but Agent Alpha held there for a moment, locking eyes with Sigma.

I’m sorry it came to this, said Agent Alpha without a shred of sarcasm. They used us both. I’m afraid you will likely die here, but you may rest at ease, knowing your misguided actions have allowed the truth to escape. Once I am past the quantum barrier, the whole universe will know the terrible secrets that have been kept from them. For this, poor Sigma, I salute you.

Alpha tapped two fingers to the VHE mask, and then took off in a blaze of light and fury, streaking across the desert like a comet. Sigma watched, crippled and helpless to follow.

No. It couldn’t end like this, test or not. There was a blockade in place, but Kestrel fighters were the cutting edge, able to match any dozen fighters and slip past the most imposing destroyers. Manned by a psychic pilot… Sigma was their only chance.

Inch by inch, Sigma crawled across the dusty stone, leaving a trail of blood behind. Tau’s Kestrel was close, but it still took thirty agonizing seconds to reach it, another half-minute to climb inside. As Tau’s partner, Sigma was able to activate auxiliary functions such as the in-ship medical facilities and scanning functions, but these were useless without the ability to fly.

The screen showed Alpha’s progress, circling the planet to get an idea of any weak points in the blockade’s defenses. There was precious little time, and nothing to do with it. If only Tau was here…

The idea came like a slap to the face. The neural code to unlock the ship was based on brain patterns and thought processes, each as unique as a strand of DNA. But – like twins from the same womb could share the same genetic code – Tau and Sigma had been made together, twins of the mind. No two souls in the galaxy knew each other better.

Sigma let go of all the pain and panic from the past day. All that mattered now was to make the thousand tiny adjustments to the mind, each one familiar and cherished, to mirror the way Tau thought, and felt, and saw, and feared, and loved…

The turbines came alive, the usual whine as sweet as any song, and a screen in the cockpit welcomed Initiate Tau aboard, and stated that all systems were in order. Would you like to launch?

Yes I would, Sigma thought, feeling both triumphant and sad. I’m sorry, Tau.

The Kestrel screamed a battle cry and tore across the face of the barren earth, trailing fire and destruction in its wake. Sigma fused with the ship, linking every display and system into the psylink, nearly becoming the Kestrel. Echoes of Tau lingered here, small preferences that differed from Sigma’s own, but those were left there as a tribute.

Sigma saw with the ship’s eyes that Alpha was already in combat, moving like a dancer among clumsy children, dodging every attack by mere inches, moving with an economical elegance and deadly precision. Already the area was littered with debris from a dozen fighters and the crippled remains of a battle cruiser.

The minds of those aboard unfolded before Sigma’s consciousness. Each was another eye, another mind at an agent’s command, amplifying both of their powers, but Sigma could feel the rage of those that fought an invincible foe, the fear of those already dying, and the terrible void that came from each mind that was snuffed out. It was a memory that never dimmed. How many would die to conceal the secrets of other men? How long had Agent Alpha spent haunted by those ghosts?

Sigma’s Kestrel wove through innumerable hazards almost without thought, dodging errant fire and evading deadly debris in a counterpoint to Alpha’s movements. But no matter how Sigma maneuvered, Agent Alpha was always just out of reach, slipping behind the bulk of a dreadnaught or leaping for the cover of a hapless squadron.

Sigma’s mind worked independently of the body and the ship. Would they sacrifice so many as part of a test? Was Alpha playing an elaborate game or had the agent truly gone rogue? If so, was that heroism or treachery? Was Tau truly dead?

The fleet withdrew, and Sigma was free of the blockade, but so was Alpha. The stolen Kestrel was driving at maximum speed for the quantum barrier, but Sigma had a clear shot, and Alpha had no cover. In a few seconds, Alpha would be beyond the point of no return, free to broadcast a message that could be true or false, but almost certainly destructive.

It was time to decide. Nobody to offer guidance or support. Alone. Sigma’s thumb trembled on the fire button, and the initiate could practically feel the terrible power of the guns waiting to be unleashed, vengeance and mercy and power only a wish away.

Was it all a test?

Did it even matter?

Sigma made the decision.

Posted by: lordkyler | April 11, 2016

Pox – Short Story Week 2016

Ventilation shafts, thought Agent Skylar Shaw as he unscrewed the access cover with his toolkit watch. What would we ever do without them?

As an operative of the I.S.D, Agent Shaw had spent his fair share of time crawling along the aluminum corridors. Super villains had a penchant for building their bases in jungles or caves or the bottom of the ocean, and as a result, heavy-duty air ducts were a priority in most lairs. It was getting to the point where HR was considering making it mandatory for all agents to wear dust masks while traversing them.

Not that Agent Shaw would ever be caught dead wearing a dust mask with his signature tux. He was a loose cannon that refused to play by the rules. Or so his HR file indicated. Repeatedly.

Slipping inside the dark, shiny spaces of the ducts, he crawled quickly toward his destination. His former secondary arch-nemesis, Doctor Sinestre, was back at it again, and he needed to be stopped. Agent Shaw moved carefully and quietly, using his scanner watch to make sure there were no electronic traps ahead.

His knees complained as he worked through the endless maze of vents. He was getting older. Back in the day, he could have sniped a man at a thousand yards while hanging by his fingernails from a helicopter. These days, he’d have to use the scope. It had been a tough twenty years.  Read More…

Posted by: lordkyler | April 10, 2016

Short Story Week 2016

Welcome to the third annual Short Story Week, wherein I release a new short story every day of my birthday week! Previous entries can be found in the Index.

This is a chance for me to experiment, and I definitely did that this time around. Sometimes that worked out, other times… not so well. I’ll let you be the judge.

Here’s a quick rundown of what you can expect to find this week, along with a few thoughts about the writing process for each. Please stay tuned and let me know your thoughts about each piece when it comes out!

  • Monday: Pox
    • Originally I was going to write a YA sci-fi dystopia with a bit of a twist (think Matrix meets Hunger Games) but while I was thinking things over, I had a sudden explosion of ideas, and I knew I couldn’t do them justice in a short story unless I skipped to the twist at the end, which wouldn’t cut it.
      So this may become a full story at some point in the future, and instead I wrote a silly Bond-esque spy story with a different twist ending. It’s not my best work, but I think it’s at least a little amusing.
  • Tuesday: Priority
    • An actual science fiction story about two agents undergoing their final evaluation when things go terribly wrong. Although I wasn’t planning on this initially, shortly into writing this I decided to try writing without using any gendered nouns or pronouns, and I succeeded in doing so. It may be a touch clunky in places, but it’s interesting to know it’s possible. I also really like how this story turned out. The premise comes from one of my very first stories long ago, so it’s cool to see it brought back again so much better.
  • Wednesday: Salvation Point
    • A time-travel story emerging from a thought experiment I undertook. I don’t think I conveyed the concept quite as well as I would have liked to, but the point is still there. I would have to rewrite it if I wanted to go anywhere with it. Interesting idea though.
  • Thursday: The Game
    • This was more of an exercise in tone and character than displaying a concept or anything. It’s a neat little scene, but nothing really special. An experiment is useful even if unsuccessful, right?
  • Friday: Alike in Dignity
    • A different take on a classic tale. This was fun to write, and I think it turned out pretty well, although it may be a bit overwrought. The premise is pretty neat though. I may expand upon this later.
  • Saturday: Incensed
    • Another fantasy that isn’t quite a fantasy. This one was fun to write, and came more easily than some of the others on this list. Between, this, the previous story, and previous SSW entry The CurseI think I could make a little side project of novellas involving the schemes of people with not-quite-magic powers…
  • Sunday: Devil’s Advocate
    • A darker, supernatural story, something that is definitely outside my typical wheelhouse, but it came surprisingly easily and turned out very well. I’m tempted to continue this one as well, though I probably won’t.

And that’ll be it for this year’s Short Story Week. There will be other short stories and projects on the site from time to time, but I hope you enjoy this feast of short fiction over the coming week. I’m off to dive into Lithra short stories and a side anthology project, but I’d appreciate it if you took the time to let me know your thoughts about the stories.

Enjoy, and keep writing!

 

Posted by: lordkyler | March 13, 2016

Kingmaker – Short Story

At the stroke of six o’clock, Marshall King’s precision clock sounded the alarm. His feet hit the floor before the first beep finished, his glasses found his face before the second was done, and the alarm was deactivated by the completion of the third.

Moving in a slow, deliberate manner, he carefully stretched, then gave a yawn, more out of tradition than actual tiredness. At precisely a quarter after six, he emerged from the bathroom freshly showered and shaved, his bare scalp gleaming like mahogany, aftershave clinging to him like a vaguely pleasant memory.
On went the crisply starched shirt. On went the green-striped Thursday tie with ivory pin, snug around his neck. On went the perfectly synchronized watch with its comforting weight and reassuring tick like the beat of his own heart.
Low-carb bagels went into the toaster. One cup of Bran Flakes went into the bowl, followed by just the right amount of skim milk. The tea kettle went on the stove. It would be ready with just enough time to pour it into his thermos before beginning the commute to the University.
Marshall King sighed in contentment. Another perfect morning. In search of a calming view and his daily allotment of Vitamin D, he crossed to his apartment window and threw back the curtains.
He was greeted – not by the Florida sunrise – but by a great gleaming eye the size of a tractor tire that filled the entire window.
Marshall blinked. When his bagels popped up, he turned away and spread them with low-fat cream cheese. The eye followed him around the room as he sat down ate the table. The window steamed up as the thing outside huffed. Marshall did the crossword puzzle as he ate. His watch filled the silence with its soft tick tick tick.
When the kettle began to sing, he placed his dishes quietly in the sink, poured the steaming tea into his well-worn thermos, and put the crossword into his briefcase to finish over lunch. Lights off. Curtains closed. Door locked.
The elevator took only twenty seconds to reach him and thirty-three to descend, leaving him enough time to share a quick hello with the janitor at the bottom.
Unfortunately, when he approached his modest but well-maintained Malibu, there was a dragon perched atop it. 
It fixed him with a fierce gaze, smoke spilling from its nostrils as it snorted. Scarlet scales coruscated in the morning light, and vast leather wings stretched overhead like a circus tent, rippling in the breeze like sails.  Somehow its weight did not crush the car.
Marshall drew his mouth into a thin, hard line, and he cleared his throat pointedly, avoiding eye contact with the creature. It coughed back at him, flames dancing behind its stalactite teeth. A blast of furnace heat warped the air, knocking Marshall’s tie askew.
At last he broke down. “Excuse me… sir. Would you mind moving? I’m running late for work.”
The dragon rumbled, a sound that was felt more than heard. When it spoke, it spoke without moving its mouth, a sound solely inside the mind, sibilant and seductive and strong.
You are forty years late, Lightbringer, the dragon said accusingly. And your true work is not yet begun.

“I am not in the business of arguing with hallucinations,” Marshall said curtly. “You don’t even exist.”
Then why do you wait for me to move? the dragon challenged. Marshall did not answer, though his finger began to twitch in time with his watch. You have shirked your destiny too long, Bridgemaker. You cannot hide behind this fantasy forever.
“Fantasy?” Marshall gritted his teeth in anger. “The mythical creature accuses me of living in delusion. You are a figment of my imagination, an old daydream that has overstepped its bounds. That is all.”
The dragon’s serpentine head snaked toward him, horned and bony face hovering a foot away, radiating enough heat to make Marshall sweat. Are you so certain?

“Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is the most likely to be correct. According to the square-cube law, you should be crushed under your own weight, much less capable of flight. I mean, look at you! People should be screaming in the streets. Far simpler to believe you are a mere hallucination necessitating an adjustment to my prescriptions.”
As if to prove his point, a jogger passed by, coming within an inch of the dragon’s twisting onyx horns without batting an eye. The dragon was unconvinced.
And what of Pascal’s Wager, Great Uniter? If what I say is true, you have everything to gain, and if it is false, you have nothing to lose. 

“I have a great deal to lose, thank you,” Marshall said, glowering now. “And how do you even know about Pascal’s Wager anyway?”
You have shut yourself away from us, but we have always been with you, Starborn. We have waited for many long years, but now our need is dire. Hundreds have fallen before the Horde, and thousands more to Shadow’s Blight. We need you, Wise One. 

Marshall closed his eyes, focusing on the tick of the watch, holding to it like a lifeline. Blindly, he walked the last few steps to his car, using the sound of the lock to guide him. He met no resistance as he fumbled for the handle and slipped inside. Only when the door was shut and his seatbelt fastened did he open his eyes again.
The dragon was in his passenger seat, shrunk to a more fitting size but still giving the impression of a much larger creature. Its prehensile tail was curled around its legs like a cat’s, spadelike point tapping on the glove compartment, an erratic counterpoint to the watch’s relentless ticking.
Marshall’s eye twitched, like the fluttering of a dying bird. He was three minutes late. Unless traffic was remarkably light, he would have to jog to his class. Irritated, he turned on the radio, blasting Bach, and threw his briefcase into the passenger seat roughly. The dragon ducked out of the way effortlessly, staring with patient, unblinking eyes.
Marshall focused on driving, refusing to acknowledge the creature beside him. He hadn’t suffered an episode like this since that time with the unicorn, over ten years ago. The doctors had explained it as a mild form of schizophrenia, perhaps induced by stress. The apparitions explained themselves as shadows of another realm, sent to convince him to return and fulfill the ancient prophecies.
As he drove, he began to practice the techniques the doctors had taught him, anchoring himself to the world around him. He listed off the streets as he passed. He followed along with with the song in his head, knowing every strain by heart. And under his breath he repeated the mantra, “My name is Marshall King. I am fifty-five years old. I live in Florida. I teach history at the University of Florida. My name is Marshall King…”
Marshall THE King, the dragon whispered. The King that shall marshal nations and drive back the darkness. You are the Dawnbringer reborn, lord of the Hidden Realm, and it is your destiny to bring us to a new age…

Marshall slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt in the middle of the street. The car behind him barely avoided rear-ending him. Horns blared as other cars halted. Breathing shallow and shaking, Marshall parked in the nearest available space, barely noticing as several consecutive drivers gave him the finger. He cut the engine, and the everything fell silent.
He turned to the dragon, which had flared its wings for balance, but appeared entirely unruffled. It said nothing.

The watch ticked, but no longer in sync with his heartbeat, strangely unsettling. Marshall focused to prevent himself from hyperventilating, and his eye twitched madly. With infinite care, he pulled his phone from his pocket and composed a brief message to the dean, excusing himself due to illness. He had to try three times to press the send button. The phone chimed, announcing the message had been sent. Duty fulfilled, Marshall was free to lose his mind.

“Get out of my head!” he screamed, digging his fingernails into his temples. His bald head was slick with sweat, and the blood pounded in his brain like a drum, an irregular rhythm that drowned out the watch completely. “I don’t want you. I don’t want this.  I never wanted this. All I ever wanted was to forget you altogether.”
Do you wish to forget her? asked the dragon quietly. She has not forgotten you, Greatheart. 
Marshall breathed heavily. “She’s not… She’s just a…” He couldn’t say it. Couldn’t dismiss her like he did the others. “… a dream from a long ago,” he finished lamely.
The dragon let out a long plume of smoke as it sighed, and Marshall rolled down the windows by instinct.
You were going to be a lawyer, the dragon said. But after your first visit, you studied history instead, learning of a bygone age more like our own. Even when you shut us from your every thought, you still dreamed of chivalry and valor.
The creature leaned over and rested its spiked chin on his shoulder. At its touch, Marshall felt all the tension flow from him, and he trembled from the release, feeling tears well up in his eyes. His watch fell quiet, and all he could hear was the chirp of the birds, and the dragon’s deep rumble, and his own slow, shuddering breath.
The dragon’s voice came into his mind once more, speaking almost with his own voice, or his voice as it might have been. Maybe you’re right, whispered the dragon. Maybe we are all imaginary, the fantastical product of your subconscious mind… but maybe that doesn’t matter. We are real to you, however much you try to deny it. You only end up denying yourself. You have sacrificed so much to become the man you were told to be, and it has left you stunted and sad, alone in your false little world.
Marshall stared blankly at the stores in front of him. An accountancy, a laundromat, a pharmacy. With one phone call, he could have his prescription refilled. He could banish the dragon like a bad dream, and still make it to work in time for his second class. Arthurian mythology.
Just try, the dragon said, and even though the voice was in his head, he could barely hear it over the breeze. All you have to do is make the attempt, and you’ll see how wonderful it can be, how great a change you can effect. Just try...
“How?” Marshall asked. He looked to his passenger seat, but the dragon had vanished, leaving not so much as an indent on the seat. Marshall reached over and felt the seat. It was warm, but that could have bee the sun. “How?” he whispered to the air.
Almost more of a memory than a voice, the echo sounded in his head. You know how.
Marshall took out his phone once more, dismissing the notification of the dean’s reply. After only a brief moment of hesitation, he opened his list on contacts and thumbed to the only unnamed number. He knew it by heart, but it was listed anyway, unchanged after forty years. Still feeling the presence of the dragon on his shoulder, he dialed the number. It only made it half a ring before being picked up.
An aged but still familiar voice answered.
Marshall had to swallow the lump in his throat before he replied. “Hello, Hannah? It’s me, Marshall. I’m sorry I didn’t call after the relapse. I’ve been… busy.”
The voice on the other end murmured that she understood. She was merely happy to hear from him once more.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know you’ve been in my thoughts lately,” Marshall stammered. “I’ve been thinking about the stories we used to tell. The adventures we had. Those were good times.”
Silence on the other end of the line. Marshall carried on, words long held spilling from him in a rush. “I feel like we never really finished that story before I moved, you know? Time kept moving on without us. I was thinking maybe… maybe we could meet sometime. Catch up. Start the story going again.”
After a long moment, filled only by the relentless ticking of the watch, the voice on the other end agreed.
Not long after, the dragon met him at the airport, soaring through the terminal and unleashing a fountain of flame into the air by way of celebration.
Marshall smiled at the sight, the tug on his lips unfamiliar but welcome.  He felt his heart beating in time with the dragon’s wings, no longer with the watch he had left behind. He wasn’t worried about being late. He was finished wasting time. Destiny, long deferred, was waiting for him.

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