Sympathetic Magic.

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I know how Harold Penderman will die. I know because I caused it; or, more properly, I will have caused it. His crime, his transgression, that doesn’t matter. Suffice to say it was a capital crime, and judgment is nigh.

He will find himself tied by wrists and ankles, tied with strong rope, sailor’s rope, tied to posts or pins driven deep into the ground. Under him will lie a fire-pit, and that fire-pit will somehow be lit aflame. And then, finally, Harold Penderman will burn.

I know not when or how these will happen, only that it will happen.

Hostile Takeover

Thank you, thank you. Thanks. First, I’d like to thank the outgoing Chairperson, Amanda Unvers, she’s been great, really fantastic last six quarters, Amanda. Let’s hear it for her.

So I know a leadership transition can be difficult for any well-established company, and I know there’s some trepidation in middle and even upper management about downsizing and other changes, and I’m here to tell you: there’s gonna be some downsizing and other changes, but we’re gonna get through ‘em together. Well, some of you aren’t: some of you will be torn to shreds and fed to the hellhounds we now have chained in the basement. Starting with Amanda here. But some of you are going to come through just fine.

Now, if you’re worried that you’re part of the torn-to-shreds group, you probably are. But there’s good news: you can get out of this group, there’s totally a way, and here’s how: inform on people who deserve to get torn to shreds more than you. I mean, ultimately, we’ll be the judge, Asmodeus, and Mammon and I, but some good dirt on your coworkers will go a long way towards swaying us.

Anyway, that’s all, and enjoy your casual Friday.

Our Final Rest

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“Found him.”

I made my way to where Finch stood, hands on hips, looking down. “Are you sure that’s Thomas?”

He snorted. “How many skeletons you think there are out here?”

“Dunno. I’ll bet more than one.” It was an ideal dumping ground, actually, close enough to a gravel road that you wouldn’t have to carry a corpse far, but far enough from civilization that you could perform the task without once being seen. “Could be bodies all through these woods, going back decades. Maybe—”

“Fine, fine. But this is him.”

“It’s me, Ben.” The voice came from the skull, though there was no movement. There was no jaw to move, or lips or tongue, and yet…

A cold chill ran down my spine; I hissed at Finch, “Jesus, don’t do that. You always… Can you warn me before you cast the spell? Can you do that?”

“Well, not now I can’t, it’s done.”

Sorry if I startled you, Ben.” The skull intoned, in that familiar voice. “Seriously.”

“Whatever, let’s get on with this. Who killed you?”

There was a pause, before Thomas’ skull finally said, “You don’t know?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be—”

“It was Finch, Ben.”

Implication

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“Is that supposed to impress me? A stupid parlor trick?”

“This?” the rock raised higher, began to spin slowly, tumble end-over-end. “No, I suppose not. You’d have to be smart to be impressed by this. You’d have to be able to think it through. To get the ramifications.”

“Are you calling me stupid?”

He smiled. The rock fell back into his palm. He turned his hand to the side, and if fell to the soft ground with a soft thud. “More or less.”

“Listen, you little shit—”

“Wally.”  He reached his hand skyward, towards a full Moon. “Everything scales up.”

Annie Oakley Of Mars

“There shouldn’t be anyone out here.”

What?”

“Sorry, I didn’t… realize I left… comms on.” Ron spoke haltingly, as he was already climbing the hill, taking care to place his feet on rock rather than sand.

We’ve been listening to your grunting and sighing for at least half an—”

“Who else is out here? I’m seeing a dust cloud going up, to my East. A rover, or a scooter. Something.” He was almost to the top of the hill. “You guys are supposed to let me know if there’s someone else working in my area. I know I’m not scheduled to be using the explosives today, but—”

“Swear to God, Ron, everybody’s inside right now. Maybe the Chinese?”

“Long way for the Chinese to come just to kick up some dust where the treaty says they can’t mine.” He got to the top of the hill, straightened up, hand on an outcropping of rock to steady himself. The dust was dissipating, becoming formless and hard to read. There was nothing moving. “Well now I don’t see anything. What the hell?”

“Maybe a liftoff signature?”

“No noise. Even in the thin atmo you can hear something. Plus the lander would still be in sight. Are you sure everybody’s inside?”

There was a pause. “OK, I asked Penny to do an eyes-on headcount. In the meantime, how’s your yield looking?”

“Well, had some trouble early on sounding the extent of the deposit, but once I—” He’d turned to begin the careful climb back down, but he froze. “Jack.”

“Ron?

“Something here.” There was a misshapen figure standing next to his rover, standing over it, peering down into it long and hard as if to make sense of something strange and unfamiliar. “It’s not the Chinese.”

Ron, what are you—”

“Maybe ten feet tall, maybe twelve. Thing is mostly arms.” He felt a cold chill. “Fuck me I left the camera in the trunk. Can you activate the rover’s feed from there? Am I out of range?”

“Hang on, Ron, I’m already trying.” There was as pause. “If you’re just messing with me, that’s ok, but Penny’ll be back in a minute and you know how she is about practical jokes.”

“It’s not a… it’s looking at me now.”

“I can’t get a connection to the rover. Ron, do you have your key fob on you?”

“No, I left it in the Rover too.” He was back on the top of the hill, holding on to the rock with both hands. “It’s started coming towards me. Did I mention it has a weapon? Like a halberd or something.”

A different voice: “Ron, this is Penny. What equipment do you have on you? List everything you’re carrying.”

“What does it—”

“Just do it.”

“One semi-full sample bag. Four more empty ones. The sounding tool. A—”

“Okay. Okay. If it gets too close, point the sounding tool at the alien, turn the intensity all the way up, and pull the trigger. Then run for the rover.”

“Wait, what?” The creature had stopped at the base of the hill and was looking up at him the way it had looked down at the rover. “What if it’s not hostile. I mean it hasn’t—”

“They’re hostile.” Penny was the base commander. She’d had briefings he hadn’t, received communiques for her eyes only; she knew things, knew secrets. “The sounding tool is designed to be dual-use. Do you understand? Dual-use. It’s also a weapon.

“Yeah, I understood what you meant. Jesus, Penny.” He turned the dial all the way up. It even felt like a gun, had a pistol grip and everything. How had he not realized? It was maybe forty feet downhill: a nightmare thing with a ten-foot reach and an eight-foot-long spear-thing. “It’s stopped, it’s not coming up for me. So far. What will the sounding tool do to it? Stun it? Kill it?”

“Stun it. That’s why you have to run for the rover.”

“You do remember that the rover is slow as hell, right? How fast can these things run?” It had gotten around behind him quickly, assuming there weren’t more than one. “How many of these things are there?”

“Ron? We have you on the orbital telescope. Can you get any further from it? If not, try not to provoke it for… forty-five more seconds.”

“What? Forty-five more—” It had shifted the weapon to another set of hands, and stepped a few feet to its right, placing it directly between him and the rover. Ron raised the sounding tool and aimed it carefully. As he did, the creature took a step back, and lowered its body into a crouch, a protective posture, as if it knew what was coming. Ron hesitated. “How close do I need to—”

There was a split second where the dust and rock in a perfect circle around the creature darkened perceptibly; then Ron found himself on his back at the bottom of the back side of the hill, ears ringing, suit hissing, the sounding tool no longer in his hand. But I didn’t pull the trigger!

“Ron!” Penny’s voice was muffled, quiet, but still perceptibly distressed.

He was too busy fumbling with his suit to answer: he had a limited time to apply puncture patches to the leak before the lack of oxygen caused him to pass out.

“Ron! To your left!”

He looked to his left: saw only the sounding tool. “Hang on.” He slapped a patch on the front of his kneepad, where air and blood had been bubbling out. “What the hell just happened? I didn’t even—”

There was a second creature above him, looking down, raising its own spear-thing above its head in preparation for bringing it down at him, through him. Ron grabbed the sounding tool, jerked it upward, closed his eyes, and fired.

The creature fell heavily next to him, two of its long, heavy arms and the spear-thing landing across him.

“That one didn’t explode…”

“You didn’t shoot the first one, I did. With MOPR. Run for the lander, do it now.”

He pushed his way out from under the creature, and began hobbling towards the rover. “Slow going. Hurt.”

As fast as you can, Ron. It’ll wake up in maybe four minutes, and it’ll take MOPR  five to charge back up for another pulse. Not to mention how hard it’ll be to hit a moving target, assuming it’s chasing the rover.”

He picked up a little speed once he was around the edge of the hill and the rover was in sight. He passed the area where the first alien had stood, a circular blackened patch of sand fused to glass. Microwaves from the orbital relay, power for the base. Penny must have adjusted the delivery coordinates, using the telescope as a gunsight… “Almost there.”

Ron’s knee was on fire, and all his muscles ached, but adrenaline kept him moving. He made it to the rover, climbed in, fumbled for the key-fob, pressed the starter button. There was no sound of an engine growling to life: it was battery-powered. “Okay.” He jammed the ‘go’ pedal down with a heavy foot.

The rover lurched forward, bounced and kicked in the lighter gravity. He adjusted his course slightly, towards the base, and only when he had the distant tower lined up in front of him did he look back.

The creature was cresting the hill behind him, raising the spear-thing. “Hey how far can these things throw?” Maybe he could turn the wheel after it let fly, and the spear would go wide…

The top of the hill exploded in a cloud of dust and red-tinted steam. Rocks and bits of the thing rained down, kicking up dust, and shreds of tissue wafted down like ribbons fighting an updraft.

“Two for two.”

Folio

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“I’m looking for a book.” He was bone-thin, sickly thin, dressed in an once-expensive Italian suit gone frayed at the edges. “I’m told you have it?”

He knew the man on sight, knew the book he must want. “We’re closed.”

“It won’t take but a moment.”

If I excused myself to make a phone call, would I reach the telephone? “I—”

“Perhaps you have it in antiquities? I’d be grateful if you’d have a look. It’s a large book, an old book, written in a dead language—” The man was suddenly behind him, “—or more properly, the language of death.”

That One Last Time

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“You’re going to drive cross country,” Shep’s father said, “all the way to California, in that?”

“It’s a good car, Dad, it—”

“It’s a piece of crap.” The old man brought the beer to his lips, sucked the froth from the top noisily, in a way that had bothered everyone around him for twenty years or more. “Break down before Mississippi, I’ll bet.”

“Maybe. But I’ll fix it and keep going.”

The old man shook his head. “Stupid.” He turned, went back into the house to where his football game was playing.

Shep left that night. The Panthers lost, 21-3.

Colonial History

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“Most rockets, see now, they weren’t designed to land.”

It was pristine: repaired, repainted, shiny as the day it first flew. The kids filed past, some listening, some not. They were hungry, or bored, or distracted; they were children.

“The ones that stayed on Earth, they were designed to go up and spit out a bomb, and then the rocket didn’t matter any more. It just fell, wasted. Burned up, or crashed. The ones we came here in, came to Mars in,” he smiled proudly, and gently laid a reverent hand on a fin, “these babies were designed to land.”

A Foggy Day

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“We wait ‘til it passes.” He stared out the window, down into the white, where the streets should be, the ground. “Can’t be much longer.”

“It’s been three days—” She didn’t look up from her magazine, something from months ago, that had been left in a drawer in the room. “—without power, phone service, without anyone coming up out of that soup. How long are we just going to sit here? Until we starve to death?”

Sixteen hours ago, Frank had gone down to try to find the kitchen, flashlight in hand, and not returned. “We wait ‘til it passes.”

Deep Reds

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He found her, finally, in the Renaissance. She sat quietly, watching the paintings as if expecting them to change, to move, to speak, to peel themselves open and offer her transport into another time and world. He sat beside her, not too close, just out of the corner of her eye, so she would feel his presence but still ignore him if she chose.

Eventually, she reached out and held his hand. “I don’t like this one.”

“Why?” He knew it wouldn’t be about the painting, not really.

“The Queen isn’t happy. She’s pretending to be, but she isn’t, really.”

Fantasy Drabble #381 “Close Up Magic”

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I don’t need the tips; I mostly do it for the practice.

Anything that requires concentration, requires a steady hand, nimble fingers… anything that requires magic, requires practice. Hours upon hours, the same movements again and again, until they are second nature. And if I must practice, I might as well do it for the tourists, for the local children, I might as well stand in the warm breeze of a sunny day out in the Plaza, I might as well make a few coin while I’m at it.

That, and the joy of knowing they think it’s a ‘trick’.

Foreign Policy

He followed her uphill, struggling, wheezing while she climbed effortlessly. When he reached the top, she was reciting incantations in a language only she could name, much less speak. An ethereal window appeared before her, through which the distant mountains appeared much closer. Between the peaks, he spied movement. “How big are these giants, Holiness?”

Her voice decanted a memory more distant in time than the mountains were over land. “Big enough to trample a man on horseback, and not realize it. Big enough to stand astride the Keep at Nochwallag with both soles flat on the earth.”

Nochwallag Keep was a crumbled ruin, and had been since before he was born. “Is that how it fell?” How old is she?

“It fell from hubris, and too little grain.” She glanced back at him, amused by the look of confusion on his face, and waved the window back into nothingness. “A story for another time. We still have many days walk ahead of us. And then, likely, many days of parlay. Come.”

He followed her down the front of the hill, the guards behind, the porters further still.

“Can they see us?”

“They knew we were coming before we did.”

Artifact

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Brraaaang. Brraaaang. A sound he hadn’t heard in years, and only then because nostalgic types would make it their smartphone’s ringtone. He dug the old bakelite relic out of the chest, set it on the dusty attic table, picked up the receiver and held it to his ear. “…Hello?”

The distant, tinny voice on the other end said, “You’re braver than most people.”

“Sorry?”

“The phone isn’t plugged in. Even if it were plugged in, and you paid for landline service, phones like this won’t work with the new system. So when this phone rings, any reasonable person would be given pause. Wouldn’t you say?”

“I suppose.”

“But you answered nonetheless.”

“I suppose I did. Was there something you wanted?”

There was a pause. “Well, as I said, it usually doesn’t get this far. I’m afraid you’ve rather thrown me off.”

“Sorry about that.” He switched the receiver to the other ear, held it in place with his shoulder while he straightened his tie. “Would it help if I admitted to being mildly disturbed?”

The voice sighed. “It’ll have to do for now. Hopefully the flickering lights will have more success.”

“Come again?”

“Nothing.” A click, then only dial tone.

Now You See Me

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“Clicking now.” She pushed down the activator button with her left thumb and shoved the door open with the palm of her right hand.

She had three minutes. The Fuzzer only held three minutes worth of charge; a second more out there, exposed to cameras and sensors, and her biometrics would be measured, compared against the main database, and every drone within five kilometers would start homing in on her, weapons hot.

Don’t stop for anything.” Jilly’s voice was nervous in her earbud.

She was already out of the alley and halfway down the block, avoiding eye contact with the few other people on the street. “I've done this a hundred times now, buddy, I don’t need to be told how to—”

“You there! Just a minute.”

An actual, for-real, brick-and-mortar human cop. What were the odds? She ignored the voice. Maybe he’d figure she wasn’t worth the—

“You, stop!”

He could call down all the drones himself, by touching his badge with whichever of his fingertips he’d registered with the network. She stopped, turned, sighed. Well, that’s just bad luck.

“You dropped this, miss.” He held out something. The Fuzzer! Must have dropped out of my pocket. How long had she been exposed?

“Hey, thanks!” She took it, smiled politely, deferentially, trained by half a lifetime of interactions with people just like him.

“What is that thing, anyway?”

“I keep my music on there.” Barely believable, but she had a face people wanted to trust. It was one reason she’d been chosen.

“You should just use your subcutaneous chip.” He shook his head. “You kids, so distrustful of technology.”

She shrugged. “Thanks again.”

“Have a good day.”

A few steps further down the sidewalk, she whispered, “How much time did I lose?”

“Forty-five seconds; you have seventy seconds left. Could be worse. Why the fuck was there a meat cop out—

She was almost running at this point, trying to look late for work or in search of a bathroom or anything ordinary. “Who cares. Call out my countdown.”

Just get inside. I built some wiggle room into the schedule.

For a month he’d talked about precision, about no room for error, about finding someone who could do this if she couldn’t. “Wiggle room.” If this worked out, if they didn’t get caught, she was going to punch him in the mouth. Her doorway, the goal line, was in sight. “Almost there.”

Don’t trip.”

She hadn’t tripped since the third dry run. She took the steps two at a time, made it to the door, put her wrist against the hacked sensor lock, and, when it buzzed, slipped inside the building.

The windows rattled; somewhere nearby, there had been an explosion. She peered through the slats of the window blinds: the cop was running the other way, towards the incident. With any luck, he would forget about her until the forensic reconstruction interviews, and with good luck, he would forget her even then.

Okay. Here’s where you go now.

After The East Central Game

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She met him where she was supposed to meet him, where she always met him: an illuminated island in a forest of darkness. “Did you get beer?”

“Only two.” He’d already almost finished one, and the odds were fair to good that they’d end up sharing the other. “Terry kept the rest.”

“Fuck Terry.” She took the second beer, the last beer, and twisted it open in the cinched-up edge of her sweatshirt, and took a long gulp. “If he’s gonna take four out of six he’s gotta pay half. I don’t care if he’s the only one with I.D.”

“What do you wanna d—”

“Make out.”

He turned red, looked around nervously. “Uh…”

“I mean, don’t you? If you don’t that’s okay, I guess.” She tilted the beer up again, killing all but a third of it. “I just figured, you know.”

“I mean… I do, it’s just, I didn’t think you’d be…”

“What? Horny?” She stared into space; her pupils had adjusted to the gazebo’s lights and everything around them was jet-black nothingness. “We’ve got a month of school left. Do you really want me to be all coy about it?”

He laughed. “I guess not.”

“Then c’mere.”

Mouthpiece

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“What are you going to do now,” she sipped her coffee, trying to ignore the pigeons around her feet, trying to pretend there wasn’t a little too much of a chill in the air, trying to seem like it was a casual question, “now that you can’t play?”

He shrugged; he wouldn’t meet her eyes. It was as if he didn’t just not know the answer, but that he believed there wasn’t an answer.

“Can they fix your—”

“No.”

She stared at the tiny aperture in the coffee cup’s lid. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

He laughed. “Why would it be?”

Faustian Return Policy

“Listen, this isn’t working out.”

It hadn’t been that long; I remembered his raspy voice. I picked up another crate and put it onto the stack. It hadn’t even been a year; he was early. “Not sure what you mean.”

“Most people, they ask for things for themselves. When you…” he trailed off, shrugged. “I guess I thought I just didn’t get your angle. But there wasn’t an angle. Was there?”

“Still not sure—”

“You’re just helping people. Selflessly. This hasn’t ever happened before.” He nervously stuck a cigarette in his mouth, flipped open a jet-black zippo and lit it. He took a long drag, holding in the smoke, savoring it, before speaking again. “It’s a problem, Ernest. Conceptually.”

“You gave me what I asked for, I’m prepared to give you what you asked for. When it’s time. It’s not time yet.” I hoisted another crate onto the pallet, and reached for the hand jack.

“You don’t get it. The deal is supposed to bring out corruption that’s already there. You make the deal, it means you deserve it. But this is… I can’t have your soul down there.” He flicked his cigarette at the ground. “Stinking up the place.”

That Magic Moment

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Waning hours of daylight, last day there, we held hands and walked down to the lake; one more time amongst the frogs and crickets and fireflies, one more time with the creaky planks of the dock under our bare feet, one more time waiting for perfect darkness to fold over us, holding us immobile until our pupils adjusted.

“I love you so much more than when we got here.” She said it into the crook of my neck, muffled, content. “This has been perfect. Let’s come back next year. All right? Please?”

She doesn’t know I’ve bought the place, yet.

Zombie Drabble #440 “Human Resources”

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“Sit down.”

He could hear the groaning, the scratching,  from somewhere in the darkness. “Listen—”

“You’re going to sit down, and you’re going to answer some questions. If we like your answers, we let you in, and you get to live. If we don’t like the answers, we don’t let you in, and you go back to taking your chances on the outside.”

“The zombies, what are—”

“If we think you’re lying,” there was a pause, a rattling of chains, the clink of a metal key being tapped on metal bars, “Even once, even a little, we open these cages.”

Flurry Of Blows

The ghost was in the doorway, again, staring at him, again. “Go away.”

She floated in, along the wall with the bookcases, a spectral fingertip stretched out to pass through the book-spines like a stick clattering down a row of fence-posts. She turned the corner, kept following the wall. She kept her eyes on him, always.

“There’s nothing for you here. Perhaps the kitchen.” If she were to find the hammer that killed her, she would find she could touch it, lift it, and then she would come for him. “Or, perhaps the stables.”

She was behind him.

“Or, try—”

SF Drabble #478 “Now Hiring”

She was sitting outside the Post on Bologomo, counting scrip while some yokel and his hired help loaded crates onto a sliplifter. She looked like she knew her way around; I asked where there was a pilot’s bar.

“You a pilot?”

“I’m a pilot’s bar aficionado. Love the ambience. Never flown so much as a kite.”

She didn’t bother asking if I was kidding; professionals can smell professionals. “I’m headed that way. You looking for work or just liquor? Or maybe tail?”

“Do I have to decide now?”

Been working for her three years now. We only banged the once.

SF Drabble #477 “Rent Controlled”

She ran as fast as she could in bare feet, having left her heels somewhere around tenth street, between the deli and the laundromat. Further back, the world was ending.

She never watched monster movies as a child; too easily scared. Her brother, her older brother, he would watch them, and mother would say, ‘look for the zipper!’ to remind him that it was just pretend. But she could never find the zipper, not peering around from behind the laz-y-boy. She could never find the zipper, so it stayed real.

The monster was dropping buildings all over downtown. Real enough.

SF Drabble #476 “Multiplicity”

“How many of you are there now?”

Another one had just shown up: short hair, no beard, one of the tattoos but not both, scar on the hand but not the face. “Eight. Well, plus me, the original me. Nine.” George touched the voltmeter to a terminal, scowled. “Dammit.”

“Any luck?”

“Nope. Thing’s shorted all to hell.”

“So they’re just going to keep showing up?”

“It sent the ‘open’ request, but then crapped out before it could send the ‘closed’. Every me in the multiverse will eventually end up—” George Ten burst into existence on the platform. He sighed. “—here.”

The Cost Of Doing Business

Twitchy is the first one to arrive. He’s always early. He doesn’t come in immediately, not that he ever does. He sits in his van, slumped down in his seat and nervously watching the building for a while. Sometimes he does this for as long as twenty minutes before sprinting for the stairs. Today it’s only five.

Twitchy isn’t his real name; I don’t know his real name. I don’t know any of their real names, except for Lucy.

Twitchy doesn’t say anything to me. He slips past me when I open the door and only relaxes — relatively speaking — when it’s closed again. I don’t like being alone with him, but there were guarantees. I go back to making the tea. The tea is part of the deal, and the cookies are part of the deal, and they have to be perfect, or there’s complaining.

The Witch comes next, leaning on her cane. She rings the bell once and waits patiently. She smiles at me when I open the door, thanks me, calls me ‘dear’. She leaves behind a faint scent of powdered sugar and vanilla when she passes. Sometimes she asks me about my day. I try to be vague; she doesn’t pry. If I didn’t know the company she kept I would have no reason to fear her, none at all.

There are three more. Sometimes, like today, the Fat Man gives the Kid a lift, and they arrive together. Sometimes the Kid pedals up on a bike, or rolls up on a skateboard, or doesn’t show at all. Fat man is wheezy and exasperated, and immediately eats a cookie but ignores the tea; the Kid is lost in his smartphone.

By the time I see Lucy approaching the bottom of the stairs, I’m done with my part. I grab my purse and slip outside, pulling the front door closed behind me.

When Lucy reaches the landing, I begin, “Listen—”

“Good afternoon.”

“Listen—”

“Is everyone here?” He interrupts again, his tone civil and imperious. “And is everything prepared?”

“There was a murder. Last time, that night.” I rehearsed this, practiced it in my head, but just being near him, the anxiety…

“I’d imagine there are murders every night.” His mouth stretches slowly into a smile. “People being people.”

“This was the kid from downstairs. From downstairs.

“I don’t see what that has to do with—”

“The cops came. They were asking questions, was there anyone strange around, any vistors. They asked the rental office for the security footage.” I shake my head. “A kid, Lucy. A six year old kid. That wasn’t part of the deal.”

Lucy looks at me like my mother used to look at me when I was little, when I railed against an eight o’clock bedtime. He puts his hands on my shoulders; they are uncomfortably warm against my skin, but under them a chill spreads through the muscle and bone. “The deal was, you live. Instead of bleeding out all over the roof of an upside-down Charger like your boyfriend. There’s nothing about the kid downstairs in the deal. And there won’t be anything on the security tapes.” He brushes nonexistent dust off my coat-sleeves, he straightens a collar that was never askew. “So stop worrying.”

He steps past me, opens the apartment door, closes it behind him. There is polite applause from the others. I hurry down the steps. I will go to the diner on the corner, and order lunch, like I always do; I will eventually vomit it into the toilet in the back, like I always do.

Zombie Drabble #439 “Roommates”

He was a shadow under the door, an indistinct rattle, a muffled slide of worn-out sole across bare floor; she sat with her back to him. “The people in the town have invited me to live with them again.”

Across the room, the window was open a crack, as it always was, to keep air flowing. From outside came sounds of a breeze ebbing and waning and birds chirping, and no traffic sounds at all.

“They say I can’t bring you.” She leaned her head back, closed her eyes. “Maybe after I’m there a while, I could sneak you in.”

Jukebox

The music washed over him, soaked into his ears and the corners of his eyes, nudged his lips open and slid across his tongue and down his throat. There were wavering drones and percussive noises and phasing patterns all mixed with field recordings from some alien environment. He’d never heard anything like it. Eventually he realized he was also experiencing strong, but somehow unfamiliar emotions. He pulled one earcup off and said, “Why do I feel… I’m not sure. Like I’m home, and tired, but satisfied?”

“There is a telepathic component.” The alien said. “The specific results depends on compatibility with your nervous system; yours is sufficiently similar to ours that it should translate well. This particular entry is a meditation on Rithk, the ceremonial end of our migratory season.”

“Wonderful.” He pulled the headset off, laid it in his lap. “How much?”

“For the complete Gwainisch library, and six headsets: one hundred Polixaci credits. We also have a selection of add-on libraries from other systems. Thirty credits each.” It held up a long, blue, nail-less finger. “We don’t guarantee compatibility for those.”

It was a small fortune, but his clientele would pay through the nose for this. “Play another.”

Fantasy Drabble #380 ”Barry Constantine”

I killed a demon in the parking lot of a Waffle House three days ago. That’s not really the beginning of the story, but it’ll do for now. Since then they’ve been trying to find and kill me. One of us for every one of them, that kind of thing. But they’re not that bright, so the number of us I owe keeps going up.

Sorry. But staying alive is kind of a priority for me. So if I’m asleep and someone knocks on the door, asks to come inside, but can’t say the Lord’s Prayer… don’t let them in.

Fantasy Drabble #379 “Raised”

The bones slide and spin and skitter across the stone floor to construct a pile; they pull themselves up, end over end, one upon another, balancing and wavering and finally knitting together into the terrible shape of a man.

“You were Robasch.”

The skull’s expression is unchanged, and unchangeable. It nods, once, slowly, with a sickening scrape.

“You swore an oath.”

Again a nod, deeper, almost a bow.

“Below us, deep within this cursed warren, lies my ring. Remember? You will retrieve it.”

The skeleton turned, but hesitated.

“Take heart. They have already killed you; they can’t do it again.”

Fantasy Drabble #378 “Rekkit and the Highwayman”

“Give me your scrip.” The man has a blade, the handle carved from volcanic stone. “Now.”

Rekkit, dressed as a beggar on the dusty road, smiles. He knows the man, his name, his story. “You have more than me. Why take what little I have?”

“Not your concern.”

Rekkit shrugs, gives the robber the meager fruit of his pockets, and then watches while he continues on, down the road.

The folk haven’t discovered radiation yet, so the robber will not know why he sickens. Vyl will be angry, as all folk are her children, but some lessons must be taught.

What Was Before Now

There is the beach, and there is the ocean, and there is the sky. Shards of broken boat litter the beach and the ocean, but there are none in the sky, none that she can see. Presumably it was her boat, the boat that deposited her here, but she doesn’t remember anything about it.

The future, that she can see. She sees the float plane that is to come, the yet-unfired signal flare, she sees the pilot and the wave of his gloved hand. She knows what she will say and how much of it he will believe. There is a gun under the seat, but she won’t discover that until later, sometime tomorrow, long after she realizes she can fly the plane without him.

It will be a three hundred and seven mile trip — most of it alone — to the weather station, where the radio is, where civilization can be reached. The radio operator will have been the pilot’s wife, and she will feel a momentary pang of guilt and regret in the face of the woman’s panic.

This will all be prelude.

The next part, the important part, she won’t be allowed to see until it’s much closer.

The Next New Amsterdam Vampires

It’s me, and Rocky, sometimes, and Willa. Still no Coral, still no Wen. Rocky would leave if Coral came back, probably, not that he’s said that explicitly. Willa’s young, or was young. Rocky made her. She approached him, wooed him, pitched herself as a candidate. She practically opened her own veins and pulled him by the hair to drink.

She’s fine. I don’t mind Willa. Terrible taste in music, but who gives a shit. She drags us to clubs and goes after blondes, always blondes: Rocky is her sugar daddy and they’re looking for a three-way. It’s a strong play, and usually pays off for them. I do what I’ve always done.

We have a house, this time, bought with pooled money as a fixer-upper. It’s comfortable now, though by design still non-descript. Rocky’s converted the basement into a bachelor pad and Willa’s room is a pink-and-white daydream festooned with LED string lights. Late mornings, I check on both of them, the way Coral used to.

Rocky is still asleep, and alone. Willa is up, earbuds in, dancing around in her skivvies, folding laundry. There’s a girl in her bed. “She going to be a problem?” I am channeling Coral, who was probably channeling her own maker, whoever that had been.

Willa pulls one earbud, squints, asks, “Huh?”

“The girl. Problem?”

“Nope. No problem. She’s for me.”

“Sure, but…” I pull the door shut behind me, take a step in. Willa nonchalantly stays between me and the bed. “Are you… is she alive?

Willa grins. I know this grin from other situations. It’s puckish. “She’s Schrodinger’s co-ed.”

“She’s a college student?”

“Not anymore.”

“Willa—”

“I told you. She’s mine.” She takes out the other earbud, crosses her arms. “I’m sick of just having two old dudes to talk to. I like her. She’s staying.”

Meaning Willa has made her. Meaning she’s turning, even now, lying in the bed. “I wish you’d consulted—”

“Did Rocky ask you for permission before turning me?”

“No, and that was a problem, just like this is.”

“I am not a problem.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“O.K., dad.” Behind her, a momentary stirring: a weak groan, a form contracting into a fetal position, a heavy sigh.

“Does she have a name?” Do you know her name? How much consideration did you give this?

“Emma.”

“You realize she’s your responsibility.”

An eyeroll. “Yeah.”

“You have to teach her. You have to… you barely know what you’re doing yourself.”

“Rocky will help.”

Speaking of Rocky; he’s behind me. “Hey, somebody’s at the front door.”

Willa glances out the window, sees a beat-up Toyota at the curb. “Oh, that’s her boyfriend.”

“Her b—”

Willa grabs a pair of pants. “I’ll get rid of him.”

Emma sits up with a start. “What… ” We all turn to look at her. “What’s going on? Will?”

Willa starts to answer, but realizes my hand is around her throat.

“Listen up, everybody.” I never understood Coral. Not really. “Here’s some new rules.”

Zombie Drabble #438 “Crow’s Nest”

“See anything?”

“Lights,” Mabel said, calling down in a stage whisper, “to the Northwest, maybe two miles. Looks like a school.” She had the binoculars, and was small and limber enough to climb up cell repeaters and water towers and utility poles to get a view of the way ahead. At dusk, she looked for lights.

“Come down.”

When she was back on the ground, she said, “Doesn’t look like a solar roof. Maybe they’ve got a generator? Lots of cars in the parking lot to syphon gas. Couldn’t see how many people…”

“We’ll go around. Too dangerous.”

She nodded.

SF Drabble #475 “Bullet Time”

“Twelve minutes.” He’d been obsessively checking his watch all day. Somewhere, over the horizon, and then some distance further out into space, was a rock the size of Key West, tumbling towards Earth.

“Okay, but twelve minutes until it hits the atmosphere, or twelve minutes until it hits? The guy on t.v. didn’t really give a straight—”

“Atmosphere. But I don’t think it’ll be long after that.” He looked at his watch again. Then, suddenly, compulsively, he stripped it from his wrist and threw it as hard as he could, off into the grass.

“Feel better?”

He sighed. “Not really.”

SF Drabble #474 “Pathogen”

“How far did we go this time?”

He tapped the readout, and the spinning dial came to rest. “2203. March 7th, 2203.”

Most of the buildings were the same as in 2160, at least the ones they could see through the window. But where there’d been swarms of personal air traffic there was only empty sky. “Maybe they went back to ground transpo…” The streets were likewise empty. “Weird.”

Down at street level they found the posters. “REPORT TO DISTRICT CLEARING STATION FOR INOCULATION OR FACE ARREST.” It took almost an hour of walking around before they started finding bones.

SF Drabble #473 “Formula ∞”

It’s a race. No… it’s the race. You want to be a rockstar, out here, where music is a curiosity? You gotta win the race. Or at least, be in the running until the end, or almost the end. I’m the first human to enter, the first ever. My ship is of Yourian make, but nobody cares about that. It’s assumed that the pilots have made extensive personal modifications, and I have.

I think I’ll come at least third. In the money, as they say. Polixaci credits, a fortune by human standards. Richer than old Gates, for twelve minutes’ work.

SF Drabble #472 “Negotiations”

Carl, we need you to turn the fuel generators back on. The packet ship is only three weeks away, and you’re already into shortfall territory. Turn ‘em on, do it now. It’s important. It’s why you’re there.”

He pushed the ‘send’ button. “I was supposed to be relieved eight months ago. I have a contract. You guys can’t give me a pickup date? No generators.” He released the button.

One hour and seventeen minutes later: “Carl, you’ll be relieved at the next possible opportunity. We’re working on it. Now… please. Turn ‘em on.”

He mashed the button down angrily. “Nuts.”

Fantasy Drabble #377 “Conjurer For Hire”

It was maybe twenty feet tall, and screamed continuously, probably because it was on fire. It had appeared instantly in the midst of the enemy lines, already screaming.

“Do we… do we attack?”

The sorcerer shook his head. “It won’t be able to tell the difference between your men and the Raiegan soldiers. Keep them back until it disappears.” When the King gave him an annoyed glance, he added “…is my advice, your Majesty.”

“How long until it disappears?”

“Not really sure. Maybe five or six minutes.”

Burning Raiegans flew through the air by the dozens. “That should do.”

SF Drabble #471 “Take Me To Your Leader”

“The coffee?”

“Yes sir.”

“Is sapient? The coffee.”

“Yes sir, I’m sorry, sir, the boys down in Lab 12 really had a corker of a weekend and—”

“And it’s communicating with them?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And it’s angry?”

“Well, as you can imagine, the boys down in Lab 12 had drunk quite a lot of the coffee before they realized it was self-aware. Not really sure how they figured it out, actually, but they are geniuses, after all—”

“Bob.”

“Sorry, sir. At any rate, the coffee was quite unhappy about having been half-consumed and had declared, well, sort of… war.”

“Unbelievable.”

SF Drabble #470 “Regime”

I have received your recommendation for an order to suppress Jal Hardaway’s new novel, Old Things Looking New. I would first like to say how much I and the Ministry Of Culture appreciate your continued efforts to see that the art of the day serves both to enrich the people and contribute to peace and order.

I feel, however, that when new art raises questions about our society, it is incumbent upon the State to provide simple, reasonable answers to those questions. Where we find objections, we should seek to convince, not to censor. Please approach your assigned subjects accordingly.

Fantasy Drabble #376 “A Woman’s Place”

There were already four notches on the hilt of her father’s sword by the time Wyndree had her armor made, custom to her frame. When she passed by — in the armor or not — the town guard nodded with respect, where once they had leered or catcalled. If there was a great stirring in the woods, or cattle went missing, or the caravan from Solderving was inexplicably overdue, it was Wyndree the town elders approached for help, instead of that overcharging hedge magician Milwrab Conset.

A girl can get a reputation, her mother had often cautioned. How right she had been.

Leaving The Nest

She was packing when he got home. “What’s this?”

“I’m going.”

“Where?”

“L.A.”

“Awfully sunny in L.A.” He sat on the edge of the bed, arms folded, prepared to talk it out. “Maybe reconsider?”

“Fuck off.”

“If you would just calm down and—”

“No really,” she spun suddenly, pointed a finger trembling with rage at the bridge of his nose. “Fuck off.”

He shrugged, got up, took off his suit-jacket. “How about one more for the road then?” When he turned again, she was inches from him, fangs out, eyes like pinholes, hissing. “I can’t tell, is that a ‘yes’?”

The First Ones

The Uji think of them as gods. As mythical beings, anyway, not mortal things that cry and shit and make mistakes. They don’t have a name as a group, they’re all named as individuals in the stories. Like, John, Paul, George, Ringo, but never ‘the Beatles’.

Down in the valley there’s a pair of footprints. "Mohog’s Landing”, where Mohog is said to have leapt from the cliffs and landed, leaving an impression in hard wet clay that petrified into rock. The prints are ten meters heel to toe, and not shaped like a Uji foot.

I wonder who they were.

Fantasy Drabble #375 “Gladiator”

“Who am I fighting today, Colrode?”

“Less a ‘who’ than a ‘what’, my Lord.” Colrode pulled at the straps to tighten Thoran’s armor. “Lord Mackarth has provided a vaettr for you today, captured in his travels.”

“Never heard of it.”

“A kind of zombie, my Lord. The commoners call it a ‘wight’.”

Thoran sighed. “One grows tired of fighting these undead creatures, on account of the smell.”

“Indeed, my Lord.”

“One would prefer some great beast, the hide of which one might fashion into a greatcoat.”

“That sounds very stylish, my Lord.”

“Well, at it then, Colrode.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

Zombie Drabble #437 “Temperance”

He kept the shogun levelled at the screen door, positioned so that he could still see down the hall into the front room. “Anything?”

From the darkness of the basement came, “There’s a shit-ton of wine, man. Like, fuckin’ racks and racks. These people musta been alcoholics.”

A zombie was shambling across the backyard towards the sounds of their voices. “Grab a couple and let’s go.”

“A couple? Are you kidding? Come help me.”

“Time to go.”

“Fuck off, man, I’m gonna get fucked up.”

He walked over to the back door, propped it open, and left through the front.

A Close-Run Thing

The Sorcerer limped from the mouth of the cave, tearing fabric from his robe to wrap around his wounded arm. “Minthray! Minthray!”

“Here, my Lord.”

“Bring the horses. And water.”

“The beast, is it—”

“Finished. Go.” He sat down in the dust, sighed, coughed, and was thinking seriously about laying down when he heard a noise behind him. He twisted, hands at the ready, and saw her: a little girl, hair tied up in colorful ribbon, dressed as if for Temple. “You’re dead.”

“I am. You’ve won. But I have a question.”

The hair stood up on the back of his neck, and his shaking hands held their place, but he answered conversationally: “Ask away.”

“You could have taken my offer, and had great wealth, and even more power than you already possess. Which is clearly substantial. Instead you fought.” Her head cocked to one side with a sickening cracking and grinding of bone. “Why?”

“You would have killed everyone in the town.”

“What do you care? You’re more like me than them.”

“You’re dead; I’m not.”

“True.” She slumped, and her body was already bleached bones when it hit the ground.

Minthray returned to find him vomiting and laughing.

Zombie Drabble #436: “The Socials”

“Remember Twitter?”

“What? Yeah.” He ran a hand over his eyes, his mouth, through his hair. He rolled over to face her, squinting at the firelight. “Waste of time.”

“You were following the wrong people. I told you that, like, three times. You followed people who were good at other things. You should have followed people who were good at Twitter.”

“What on Earth does it matter now?”

She sighed. “It doesn’t, I guess. I just…”

“What?”

“I almost broke up with you over that. I thought, ‘he can’t figure Twitter out, really?’. I figured we didn’t have a future.”

SF Drabble #469: “Don’t Wait Up”

He stood at the end of the metal grate walkway, facing the Arc. “Testing.”

“Coming through loud and clear. Radiation acceptable. Getting some ionization, but nothing we didn’t predict.”

I’m going closer in now.” With each step he felt slightly heavier. “Getting some gravitational effects.”

“Your mass is increasing. Shouldn’t get too much worse closer in: inverse-square law.”

The Arc spun so fast he couldn’t see it; the space-time tear created by the spinning Arc filled his visor. He reached out his hand, fingertips almost touching the anomaly. “I’m going to try going through.”

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

The Burning Men

“You’ve gotta wonder—”

“Yeah.”

“I mean, you’ve gotta wonder if—”

“I’m saying yeah.” The old man killed his drink, looked around, shook his head. “One of these ‘capes’, just one, drop ‘em in the middle of a city, tell ‘em to kill as many as they can, boy, that’s it.”

“But what can you do? I mean, they—”

“There’s things.”

“Like what?”

Things.”

“Yeah, fine, but what if… things turns out to be worse? What if things gets out of control? We trade fireman for fire…”

The old man turned, grinned, a toothy awful horror of a smile. “We burn.”

Zombie Drabble #435: “The New Guy In Town”

crack.

One of the distant figures went limp, mid-stride, and fell hard to the ground. He didn’t look up from the scope. “What’s my count?”

“Twenty-two.”

Someone whistled. “Two more and you’re tied with Hank.”

He chambered another round. “Who the fuck is Hank?”

“Old deputy Mayor. Lost him on a run two years ago. Good guy, always—”

crack.

Another figure spun in place, dropped to lie motionless. “Twenty-three”

“Anyway, Hank: he was always making sure the kids had sweets. You know, candy, stuff the other guys wouldn’t bother with.”

“Kids? What kids?”

A long silence followed.

crack.

“Twenty-four. Tied.”

The Umbrella Man

He’s in the crowd somewhere, beside the lady with the grocery bags, behind the two middle-school girls sharing a pair of earbuds, a few steps ahead of George from down the street walking his dog. He ducks around lampposts and between parked cars where the sidewalk is blocked, never motionless, never breaking his stride. His progress through the city is relentless.

You ignore him, because deep down, you know he’s going to someone else’s office, or home, or table at the coffee shop. He’s coming for them, not you. You wouldn’t see him coming, if he was coming for you.

SF Drabble 468 “Incomplete Pass”

The capsule tumbled away in excruciating slow-motion, engine bell over nosecone, shrinking against the blue and green and white and brown of the planet below.

“Ross?

“Copy.”

She sighed. “I missed.”

What?” A pause stretched out into a lull, into a quietly hissing eternity. Then: “Okay… Okay: FERN says not to panic. We can intercept in less than an hour, if we don’t wait for the window.”

“How much fuel does that leave you?”

Another long pause followed. “FERN says not to worry about it.”

“Patch her into comms.”

She says not to worry. And she’s a computer. So relax.”

Zombie Drabble #434 “Never Goes Out Of Fashion”

“Somebody help!”

Someone was in the hall, the hall outside the apartment, running back and forth, knocking on doors, yelling: a girl, young, panicked, desperate. He listened from the floor of his front closet between ski boots and suitcase-with-wheels.

“Please somebody! Help me!”

There was the old wooden bat, the one with A-Rod’s signature burned into it by a machine, the one his dad had given him when he turned ten, a million years ago in a world that still made sense. He grabbed it, clutched it in both hands.

He white-knuckled it as he listened to her being eaten.