How Many More Times

People were laughing, talking, bunching up in anticipation of the big moment that had come so many times before and was about to come again. Vince leaned over and whispered, "How long until Marnie brings out the cake?"

Rob shrugged. "Not until after Fred's gone to the bathroom. I was in the kitchen while she lit the candles last time; she waits until he comes back because she wants him to video."

Vince nodded, and then noticed Rob's odd stance: leaned over, off-balance, braced against the back of the couch. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going to try to hear the other end of the phone call. Maybe it's important."

"Rippy's phone call? Why would it be—"

"I don't know. I was standing pretty close to her last time. I think it's her mother, but it's hard to tell: she never puts it on speaker." He rubbed his head. "She leaves right after, while everybody's gathered around the table. Doesn't talk to anyone. Maybe it has something to do with why we're stuck here."

"Why would Rippy's mom have anything to do with it?"

"I don't know, man, and I won't know until I listen to the phone call, okay?"

"Hey, knock yourself out."

"Don't you want to get out of here?" Rob hissed. "She gets out of here. Rippy gets out. You know how many times I've tried to follow her out? It's the only time the front door opens the whole loop."

"Oh, man, that wouldn't help. It doesn't help her, does it? She's always back here, just like us. And she doesn't even know it." Vince said.

"She only lives two blocks away. Maybe she doesn't go far enough."

Vince scoffed, "What makes you think—"

"Just shut up, she's going for her phone."

Vince shrugged and wandered off.

Rippy's finger was in one ear and her iPhone was tucked between shoulder and the other ear. Rob got as close as he could, but only picked up a few words here and there. Frustrated, he went in search of Vince; he found him lying down in the master bedroom, on the side of the bed clear of coats.

"What are you doing?"

"Taking a nap. I'm tired. We've got to have been up for two days straight by now, right? I'm gonna sleep. How long until the next loop?"

"Twenty minutes, maybe twenty-five."

"Don't wake me, maybe I can sleep through the reset. Maybe I can sleep through the whole thing. Maybe two of 'em." He rolled over onto his side, facing away from Rob. "Nobody comes in here at all. Lucky the door's even open."

"I'm going to keep trying to figure out how to get out. Do you want me to wake you if I do?"

Vince took a long, exhausted breath. "Just leave me a note. How you think you're getting out. If it's here and you're not when I wake up, I'll know that's how to get myself out."


"Good luck," Vince yawned.

SF Drabble #417 "And His Wild Heart Slung Behind Him"

The gun beeped, and spoke in its tinny monotone: "Pick me up. Pick me up. Pick me up."


"Pick me up."

"Can't. Hurt." He injected himself with another medspike and then curled tighter into a ball, trying to ignore the cold and the rancid water soaking through his clothes. "Call a medic."

"No medic in range. Pick me up. Kill the enemy."

"I can't. I swear to god. Read my vitals."

"No medic in range. Pick me up. Pick me up. Pick me up."

"Fuck off."

A beep, a click, and a hum: the gun had activated its self-destruct.


Jorge stood at the edge, looking down into the mist. Kree seemed oblivious to the view, and concentrated on cleaning her feathers while the other humans fitted the carry harness across her back: a sort of pre-flight check. He shook his head. "How far down?"

"Long way."

Disappeared into the mist for reasons unknown: Perry, his wife-to-be; Cole, her apprentice; one Fri, Kree's aerie-brother Hraff.  Somewhere down there, in the midst of a primordial alien jungle soupy with the planet's thick atmosphere, were three of his friends in need of help.

"What do you think happened?"

She didn't answer, just gave the Fri equivalent of a shrug.

"Are they alive, do you think?"

"Not sure. If they landed right, could still be alive. Hard to breathe that low. Heavy air. Wet air." She shook her massive head, crouched so that her eyes were level with his. "They could live a while. Maybe longer than Hraff."

The air was heavy enough here, atop the Mesa: much thicker than Earth sea-level. He reached out and placed a hand flat on the  bony bridge of her nose. "It hasn't been that long. And Hraff is a good flyer."

Kree snorted and said, "Hraff is the best flyer. But if a wing is broken, he will go to the cliff-side and climb."

"Climb?" He couldn't fathom a climb like that, not while injured; but it was their planet.

"If he cannot fly, he must climb, or die."

The transponder signal was stationary, had been since the three had been found to be overdue. "Can we carry Hraff out if we need to?"

She shook her head. "Too heavy. We take humans out then I go back with more air-bottles and medicines. You send three strong Fri with a sling. It's been done."

Jorge glanced over to where Morgan was standing: the man nodded and ran to the crawler to use the radio. "We'll make sure they're ready."

In a few minutes, the harness was tightened, the saddleweb centered on her back and opened. He climbed up as the technicians climbed down. By the time he was secure in the web, Morgan had returned and was giving the thumbs up.

Jorge leaned over and to one side, and said, "I'm ready. Anytime."

Kree stepped to the very edge, and his stomach danced. She lowered her head, and was very still.

"What is it?"


"You've done this dive before plenty of times, I've seen you."

"Not all the way. Always level before the mist."

"Do you want to wait for someone who—"

"Too far away, take too much time. We should have brought more Fri."

It had been a last-minute expedition: the humans had wanted to do some testing, take some air-samples below the edge. It'd been his idea. Now Perry, Cole and great, noble Hraff were down there and Kree was hesitant to dive.

"What's down there, Kree? What could bring down Hraff?"

She didn't answer, but she finally stepped off the edge, nose-first.

Five Dollars An Hour

She'd dialed the number they'd left in case of a problem, but it rang and rang and they never picked up. She'd have called the restaurant, but she'd forgotten the name. Something fancy and Italian…

They'd said it would be simple: he'd be asleep the whole time, he never wakes up after eight. No reason even to go down there. Why is the baby's bedroom in the basement? Never you mind, Cindy. There's food in the fridge and no boys allowed.

The noises just got louder, and now there was scratching at the locked basement door. She dialed again.


It was Michigan Jack and his gang.

Normally, D1 doesn't send us out on things like that — men with guns — but Jack had blown himself up trying to get into the vault at the Central Bank and his men were panicked and spraying most of downtown with bullets in their attempt to flee. There were dozens of casualties, and about to be hundreds, and the police were outgunned. So.

Rapture was aloft, chasing a helicopter that had been an alternate escape plan. I was on the ground, running down gunmen. I almost had them all…

I came around the corner doing about eighty. The henchman was half a block away, firing at people indiscriminately. Two seconds later I'd sent him flying into the side of a brick building, a broken ragdoll, but in that two seconds he'd gunned down a group of fleeing bystanders.

When I turned around, there were about twelve or thirteen civilians on the street, bleeding out onto the asphalt. Except that one of them got up — big, burly guy, holes through his clothes but not a scratch on him — looked at me for a second and then ran away.

I didn't chase him; there were people to try to save. Later I found three bullets, compressed as if they'd struck something armored, laying where he'd fallen.

D1 is good with cameras, and there are cameras aplenty downtown. As a self-aware supercomputer he's got access to every database you can think of, and several you're not supposed to know about besides. Before long, we had a name and a face and a credit history and a curriculum vitae for my strangely unwounded victim of Michigan Jack's last big score.

We tracked him to a laundromat. Rapture has very little patience for recruitment, but she came along. Maybe she thought he was cute, I don't know. Seeing her in civilian clothes was a mind-fuck. People are never who you think they are, inside, not really. She pretended to be inordinately interested in the change machine.

He was washing his whites. I know he'd gotten a good look at me on the street that day, and I don't wear a mask anymore, not since Mandy and I moved from the apartment onto the Dreamland campus: no secret identity to protect. I walked up to him, saw the look of nervous recognition in his eyes, and said, "I just want to talk."

He ran for the back door. I took the opportunity to pick his bullet-holed tee shirt out of the wash, still wet, before I went after him. It wasn't like he was going to outrun me. Rapture just rolled her eyes.

He'd gone straight through the security door in back, left a man-shaped hole. I caught up to him halfway down the alley, the shirt in my hands, my fingers waggling through the holes. "Would you like to explain why you're not dead?"

He stopped short, fell down trying to change directions in a hurry. I don't blame him: when I do my thing it's like a streak blows by you and then someone magically appears at the end of the streak. On his ass and elbows, he said, "Just leave me alone, man, I don't want any trouble."

"No trouble." I shrugged. "We're the good guys. If you want left alone, we'll leave you alone. But if we found you, the bad guys can too. And they won't leave you alone. You're a threat."

"I'm not a threat to anybody." He got up. "Let me past."

I got out "Listen, all I want to—" before he drew back to take a swing. I have to admit something now: It isn't just my arms and legs that are fast, I've got super-fast reflexes as well. Otherwise I'd get a few seconds into a sprint and run into something like a tree or building or something else I hadn't seen in time. I can see a threat and move out of its way, I do it all the time in combat. Rapture calls it 'phase–stepping'. Apparently that's a Dungeons and Dragons reference. So I could have dodged the punch. I chose not to; I wanted to know.

He's strong. That seems really obvious to you reading this, of course, but at the time he was a mystery. I ended up skidding across the alleyway pavement and into the street. It would have taken a normal person's head off.

I know when Rapture's doing her thing. There's a hum. When I came to I followed the sound down around the corner and found her, floating in the air, glowing like a lightbulb, holding him hanging by his collar with an unseen spectral hand. "Don't kill him," I croaked.

We took him back to Dreamland Headquarters before too much of a crowd assembled. Mandy clucked over the growing bruise on my cheek. That's never happened before. The bruise, I mean. My neck was sore for a week.

For now he was a rat in a cage. We escorted him in to be interviewed by Dreamland One. He didn't try anything; he wasn't afraid of me, but he was afraid of Rapture. I don't blame him.

D1 kicked us out of the interview, of course. I remember my entrance interview, and that's all I'm going to say.

When he came out he understood, I think. His eyes had stopped darting from side to side, looking for threats or opportunities. He looked at me, paused for a minute, and then said, "There's stuff I need, at home."

"You can take a car from the pool, Otto has the keys. He'll give you a song and dance about insurance and what happens if you scratch the paint, but just ignore him. We go through cars like normal people go through light bulbs."

"Who'll be following me?"

"Nobody. We're kind of busy around here. There isn't even a tracking bug in the car." It was a good faith gesture. Let him go; if he comes back, he's in. The car we can afford to lose.

He calls himself Massive now. He's part of B team, with me and Rapture and the others. He even apologized for punching me, eventually. I don't know for sure that he and Rapture are doing it, but they were flirty, and then they were awkward, and now they stand too close together during briefings.

That's fine. Mandy thinks it's good for Rapture, that it might give her some tether to normalcy that was worryingly lacking before. I just don't want to be around when they fight.