Monday, June 19, 2017

Story 239: Ruining Friendships Since 1992

When they pick a crew for a trip to Mars, one of the main things the International Space Exploration Foundation is looking for is psychological stability. The ship is cramped, the trip is long, and the opportunities for conflict are endless. So the eight of us were hand-picked as the least likely to go stir crazy and the least likely to piss each other off.

And now we're practically trying to kill each other.

Honestly I wonder if we should have just aborted the mission when we got hit. The issue is that the damage was extremely localized - whatever that thing was, it punched a neat hole through one of our hard drives and nothing else. We didn't lose anything vital and we were all worried that if we stopped the mission we'd never get another chance. Also, just a quick physics lesson: once you're well on your way to getting up to speed for a trip to Mars it takes a really long time to stop. We weren't yet to the point where we couldn't do it, but it would have been an enormous waste of time and energy.

And hey, we only lost the optional stuff. Books, music, games. Entertainment. We're a bunch of nerds, we thought, we can make our own entertainment! If nothing else several of us could whip up a homebrew role playing game. We also assumed that Earth would be able to send us replacements for some of our entertainment files because the books in particular don't take up a lot of space. But a combination of equipment malfunctions, political maneuvering, budget arguments, and other factors too idiotic to mention meant we got almost nothing from ISEF command. Oh, and the RPGs went badly. Very badly.

If we had nothing, maybe it would have gone better. Maybe we would have withdrawn into our own heads and had a miserable but silent journey. Instead there's a game console on board, just the one, with a single game. Mario Kart. As the sole source of entertainment, we've all become obsessed with it. Every waking moment not spent going over diagnostics and microgravity experiments is spent on those damn tracks, four of us playing at a time and screaming at each other at the top of our lungs.

It will be fine. We're the best of the best. The most stable, the most sane. We can do this - and when we get to Mars there will be more room and more people and backups of all the entertainment we lost. Just one more month. I really hope we make it. Karen is banging on the airlock, probably yelling at me to let her back inside. I can't hear her though, which is a really nice change. Still, I should check in on her. I reach over and press the intercom button.
"Karen... are you ready to say it?" She lets loose a string of obscenities that really show how smart you have to be to become an astronaut. Some of those verb-noun combinations are ingenious. "No, that's not what I'm looking for Karen. You can say it. It's just six words." Seven if you count the contraction as two, I guess. Karen is too mad to be picky though. "Come on, Karen. Say it: I'm sorry about the blue shell."

I release the intercom button, and the banging intensifies. My hand drifts towards the button to open the outer airlock doors, but... no. That would be taking it a little too far. Leaving her there, I unclip my wrench and make sure I have a nice firm grip on it. It's time for my turn, and Gary may need a little convincing.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Story 238: Save Point

The pine door swings shut silently, and vanishes. The scene is as I remember it, a frozen tableau in the woods outside the ruins - the only difference being my absence. I don't ask where the body goes, I trust that there's a system and it's all neatly taken care of - that there's no mass grave full of identical clerics in identical blue cloaks. I step up to the spot where I had been standing and the world seems to exhale. Jane and August go from still-life to full motion and if I blur slightly, if I'm standing in a different position than I should have been, they don't notice. I want to get this over with, so I step between them and motion them to silence.

"You're both wrong," I say. "If we head back it will catch us at the pass, and if we go into the ruins it will corner us. A direct assault won't gain us anything, and we don't have time to set up a proper trap. We can sit here and discuss for about five minutes before it gets our scent again, at which point we'll have no choice but to fight it and die."
August looks like he's going to argue, but as always he thinks better of it. "So then what? What do we need to do?" he asks.
And I don't know. I'm out of ideas, and exhausted, and these two will only be able to suggest the same losing strategies that I've already heard and attempted. This all has to be me.

I went insane, for a while. Somewhere around attempt twelve hundred, I just snapped. I slapped August for no reason or stripped naked and ran through the woods laughing. I killed myself, I killed Jane, I told my companions that I had a plan and then when they leaned close to listen I belched as loud as I could into their faces. A month later - or no time at all, depending on how you want to look at it - I was just as suddenly sane again. Jane and August were both being torn to shreds, which didn't bother me because I've long ago become accustomed to that sound, and I saw clear as day how I could escape.

It took me another thousand tries to get it right, but I did eventually get away. Covered in blood, missing most of my left foot, and probably still being tracked by the beast - but out of those cursed woods. It was so tempting to meditate again, to connect with the Goddess of Fate and renew my energy... but then I would be locking that timeline in. The death of my friends, and in all likelihood my own death as well - just slightly deferred. And so I crawled to the edge of the cliff and tipped myself over. Since then, I've been back to my original plan. Try everything, and get all three of us out alive. I've got to be getting close to eight thousand cycles by now, I think the record is twelve thousand and fifty-seven by Archbishop Boulan.

"...then I'll stab it from behind," Jane is saying. Right on schedule. I've wasted the last few tries saying variations on 'no' or 'I don't know' and it's time to do something stupid instead. I tell August and Jane to climb two separate trees, and they scramble up just as the beast gets close enough for me to hear. It sees me and I start to run, avoiding every hidden rock and log in the drifts of leaves. I know just where to weave through the trees to make my path as short as possible while making the beast go around. I've tried this before, of course, but there are always tiny differences. I started running later, so it didn't shake the others out of their trees before coming at me. The beast tried to smash through a branch that turned out to be a tad too large, so it was slowed down. Everyone thinks that those who worship the Goddess of Fate don't believe in luck, but they misunderstand how the world works. Of course there is luck. It is through luck, through those tiny differences and variables, that Fate can be changed or fulfilled.

And so, somehow, I make it to the ruins. It's very rare for me to make it this far unless I start running before it sees me. That means I almost never get here while my friends are alive except when we all come together. Maybe, just maybe, if they run the opposite direction they'll get away. Maybe they'll make it to the pass, and once they're beyond that the beast will have a harder time catching them. That is, if they run at all. No matter how many times I've begged them to abandon me they've never done it.

It's right behind me. I can nearly feel its breath. I dodge to the side at the last second, and feel an enormous claw tear the edge of my cloak. Scrambling through a window, I climb upwards. I'm in a large stone building - a church, maybe - half of which is collapsed and open to the sky. The beast doesn't fit through the window but it is enraged at being so close to me and missing, so rather than circle around through the missing wall it just tears the stones in front of it away. There's nowhere else for me to go, I'm dangling from the rotted rafters of a bell tower. The bell itself is down below, slowly being absorbed by the forest that is retaking this ancient town. The beast leaps, and barely misses my leg.

I can see August and Jane. Those fools have followed me, want to save me. I might as well let myself die now and try again; once they make it to this building the beast will kill us all anyway. If only I had known there was no way out I wouldn't have stopped to pray. I wouldn't have sealed my Fate, and I could have stepped back to the camp we made before entering the thing's tomb. August has his sword out, Jane her twin daggers. They've seen me through the holes in the walls, and they're approaching cautiously. Unlike me, they haven't truly seen what this creature is capable of. They'll know soon enough.

Snorting and hacking, I build up a reserve of mucus and spit it downwards onto the monster. Not very cleric-like, certainly, but if I'm about to die I might as well. The shot is perfect, and hits an open eye. The beast roars, enraged. Good. If I can't kill you making you angry will have to suffice. The thing lunges again, and when it fails once more to grab my leg it starts to climb the wall just as I did. The stones shift as its huge frame moves closer to me. Oh, Goddess. It's too heavy. I look upwards and can see the remains of the bell tower swaying like a grass in a storm - and then, in an instant, thousands of pounds of building collapses on both of us.

The pine door swings open. August is frozen, pulling Jane away from the still-falling rubble. Their eyes are wide, and bits of stone are hanging in the air around them - one looks like it's about to give August a nasty cut on his cheek. I step through the ruins, looking for the beast. I find my own corpse, or at least my hand sticking out of the debris. Finally I see the thing, see a heavy stone has partially collapsed its head. Looking up, I can see several more that will probably hit it as well. Is it dead? Probably not. But it's badly injured, and it's trapped, and my friends are alive and armed... this is what I've been waiting for.

I lean down close to the beast. "I wish I could see what happens next," I whisper. Heading back to August and Jane I kiss them both on the cheek and pray to the Goddess that they'll feel it somehow. I step through into darkness for the final time, and the pine door swings shut silently.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Story 237: Ready Player Two

"Well, he shouldn't have been kicking chickens. Those belong to old man Greery, and the last thing that poor old bastard needs is someone brutalizing his livestock."
Nobody responds, they're all just staring at the corpse. The chosen one. I'm so fired. "Look, just... think about if it had been literally anyone else. A strange man comes into our town and starts punting our poultry all over, you absolutely would have asked me to detain him. I'm the town guard, that's my entire job description! And then, and then he starts swinging this massive sword at me -"
"You mean the legendary sword of Holy Light?" the mayor asks.
"Um. I suppose?"
"The one that we've got no less than four murals of? That one?"
I think I see where this is going. "You know, I'm not really a big art lover..."
"The one that you maybe should have recognized as the emblem of the ONE TRUE HERO SENT TO DELIVER US FROM LORD BLOODWORM?"
The yelling seems unnecessary. I'm standing right here. "Okay well yes, but when it's coming right at your face it's hard to take a minute and compare it to the murals, you know?"

Farmer Richards scoffs. Actually scoffs! "You don't look like you've got a scratch on you, boy."
Well he's not wrong. It was the first thing I noticed after killing the... ugh, the chosen one.
The mayor nods. "Yes, that's because he was never in any danger. The sword of Holy Light only kills those with evil in their hearts, not incompetence and stupidity."
"Okay first of all ouch. That's... that's really harsh. I was doing my job. Second, that just proves I'm not evil and it was an honest mistake. And third, I still want to know why he was laying boot to old man Greery's chickens!"
"Who cares!" farmer Richards yells, "It's hero stuff. Why, he came onto my farm the other day and smashed most of my pottery. You'll notice I didn't kill him for it."
There's a murmuring in the crowd, now. Jean, the brewmistress, raises a hand. "Hang on. He came to my shop, as well. Drank some beer without paying, and smashed all the empty barrels."
Carol the weaver nods. "Came right into my house. Didn't knock or announce himself, just dug through my cabinets. He took my last rupee, as well as the apple I was going to have with lunch."
More and more are nodding and whispering.

The mayor finally calls for silence. "Everyone! Okay, it seems the chosen one was exhibiting a lot of... strange and seemingly un-heroic behavior. That's rather beside the point now, however. we need to deal with the fact that captain enthusiasm here murdered him."
"Manslaughter, at the worst."
"Shut up."
The townsfolk start yelling out suggestions. It starts with calls for my execution, but soon it becomes clear that nobody really wants to admit that our town had anything to do with this. They're talking about covering it up.
"I mean," Carol says, "hero-ing is dangerous work. Who's to say he didn't get eaten by a giant spider?"
"I have a spot we can bury him," Farmer Richards volunteers, "and the guard as well if we're still executing him."
The mayor is considering it. "Hmm. Yes, it would be bad for tourism indeed. Well, let's move the body for now. The fewer people see this the better."
A few people grab the body and start dragging it away. The mayor tries to pick up the sword, but his hand passes right through it. Everyone freezes.
"Hey everyone, the mayor isn't worthy to lift the sword!" someone in the back yells.
"I know that was you, Errol! I'd like to see you do better!"

One by one the townsfolk try, but nobody can do more than make it wiggle. Finally there's nobody left but me. Might as well...

The cold metal seems to send energy up into my arms. For a moment the skies part and allow a glimpse into a universe beyond my understanding, filled with radiant beings singing.
"Oh, shit." the mayor says. There's a general grumbling from the crowd that seems to agree. At least I guess I'm not going to get executed.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Story 236: I Wish I Thought This Through

Someone is knocking on the door again. I ran in here rather suddenly, they probably think I'm puking my brains out. I wonder how long I can ignore them before they kick the door in to check on me? After all, they must be at least a little worried that someone has poisoned me. I'm sure people try that all the time. God, I just can't believe I'm Hitler - I really should have worded that wish better. I thought that since it wasn't something selfish the genie would take it easy on me. Although... I guess it was a little selfish. I wanted the glory. I wanted to be the one that prevented the holocaust, prevented world war. Instead I get to be Hitler. Well played, douche.

The calendar on the wall is thankfully one of those that just shows the current day - so it's almost certainly September 27th, 1940. I don't know why that specific date... I guess maybe I should have prepared for this a little more. What the hell happened on September 27th? The war started in like '38 or '39, right? God, I don't even know that. This was a really bad idea. Still, I'm here now. So. I could kill myself, or run away somewhere? But the war is already going. I may not remember dates, but I remember names - and Hitler isn't the only problem so if I go they'll just replace me - him - whatever. From what I've read Hitler was a nut who actually held Germany back in a lot of ways, which means if I take off now the replacement might be more competent. They could actually win this war. So I stay. I could... I could let the war happen, but sabotage it? And maybe make sure we skip the concentration camps part? Or has that already started?

Either way. Okay. I can do this. I can take over as Hitler, make Germany less evil, maybe cripple my own side. I can't stop the war entirely but maybe I can get Goebbels and Himmler killed, so that it's more of a regular war. I'll still be vilified. I'll probably be assassinated or executed or something. But... it's something. It's still a much better history than the one I came from. It feels good to have a plan. Tonight is it, tonight is the turning point in World War Two where Germany goes off the rails and prevents the Holocaust.

They've given up on knocking - there's a rattle as someone unlocks the door from the other side. It's showtime. I straighten up, adjust my coat. Deep breaths, get in character... I can do this... The door opens, and someone really serious looking raises an eyebrow at me. He says something in German. I have no idea what. Well, shit.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Story 235: Trial and Error

"Okay, one more time.  What were his exact words?"

Arthur thought about doing an impression of the White Mage's voice, but it seemed just a tad disrespectful with the man's still-fresh corpse not twenty feet away.  "Use the orb, it is the only way.  Um.  Then he called me some rather nasty names, and then he said... open it now, and be sure to."
"And that was it?"  Taran looked at the brass sphere in his hand.  It didn't look like it could open.
"Yes, that was it.  Be sure to, and then he coughed blood all over me and died."
Taran tapped the orb and listened, just in case.  "Arthur, you left out the part where you dropped him."
"He coughed blood at me!  Right in my face!  I was leaning in to listen, and - you would have dropped him too!"

Taran was pretty sure he wouldn't have dropped the legendary White Mage, just as he was sure he wouldn't have accidentally stabbed him in the first place.
"You know, Arthur, this is the second person that you've killed."
"Sardon wasn't my fault."
Taran squeezed the orb.  "Well you stabbed him and he died.  So."
"It's!" Arthur gestured wildly, not managing to indicate anything in particular.
This wasn't the first, or even the hundredth time Taran had brought up Sardon's death.  Every time Arthur got just a little bit less articulate.  Finally he took a deep breath, and lifted the Sword of Courage from the floor where he had tossed it.
"Fine, Taran.  Fine.  You're just jealous because you wanted to be the chosen one and you're not."  Arthur held the sword out to Taran, who jumped backwards melodramatically.
"Don't point that thing at me, you're a menace!"
"No.  Take it.  That's what you want.  You want to be me, fine.  You can be the chosen one now.  I'd give you the birthmark too if I could!"
Taran grinned as he idly spun the sphere on a workbench.  "Keep waving that thing around and you're bound..."

Arthur hesitated.  He liked to treat Taran as his servant, but more and more as they traveled together Arthur was learning that between the two of them Arthur was the dead weight.  And when Taran passed up the chance to finish an insult it could only mean he was having an important thought.
"Arthur, take the orb.  It has to be you, probably.  Look, the sword is what you're supposed to use to kill the Dark One.  So this must... I don't know, activate it or something."
He took it, and tried to concentrate on it opening.  It remained stubbornly in one piece.  He tapped it against the blade.  He put down the sword, and rested the orb on the hilt.  "Um.  I could, like, try to chop it open?"
Taran shook his head.  "No.  No, because then it'll turn out that you're wrong but the stupid thing will be broken.  Maybe it's not for the sword.  Maybe it's for the armor?"
"But we don't have the armor.  Willis stole it, and probably sold it."
Taran sighed.  "You're so, so bad at this.  Just... give me the orb.  Let's get the hell out of here before anyone finds out we killed another legendary hero."

The two marched out and slammed the door behind them.  Unnoticed, a brass and silver sphere sat in a nook that had been hidden by the open door - candlelight gleaming across its finely crafted hinges.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Story 234: Thinking of You

I finish cutting the crusts off of Toby's peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drop a handful of baby carrots onto the plate.  Perfect.  I look at the finished meal, and concentrate on it - forming a vivid image in my head.

I hear Toby's footsteps on the stairs.

He comes around the corner at top speed, radiating gratitude at me.  He's such a good boy.  Still, a little privacy is good for both of us so I put on my helmet - I only wear it when we're in the same room, but poor Toby has to wear his all the time.  He looks up from his already half-eaten meal and smiles, peanut butter smeared at the corners of his mouth.  I would have thought that his helmet couldn't have fit any more stickers, but it looks like he found a spot for a new one - a dinosaur on a skateboard.
"Okay kiddo, after this is naptime, and then the rest of the afternoon is yours.  What do you want to do?"
The response is muted, muffled first by his helmet and then by mine, so I get something that's almost a regular sentence rather than a full sensory experience.  He wants to go to the zoo.  Oh boy.
"Buddy, you remember what happened last time?"
He nods, and I can feel his sadness.  It wasn't his fault, and nobody was hurt, but having all the primates freeze in place and stare in Toby's direction - regardless of the concrete walls in the way - freaked out the zookeepers pretty bad.  They had asked, politely, if I could keep him away after that.
"How about a hike?  Get out in nature?  That's kind of like a zoo."

He agrees to a nice quiet nature walk once I promise some ice cream will be waiting at the end.  With minimal whining he heads upstairs to take his nap, and I settle into my recliner.  He can't sleep with the helmet on, so I focus on soothing images that won't keep him awake.  The beach, mostly.  Waves, gently sweeping across the sand.  A sunset glowing red on the water.  Sleep.  Sleep.  I can feel it as he passes out, like a slight pressure has lifted off of me.  The weight of his thoughts that can be felt throughout the house.  I take my helmet off and recline the chair, waiting.  It should be any minute now that the show starts.  While I wait, I think about the facility we used to live at.  Those horrible days of tests and needles and... but that's over now.  Toby made sure of that.  He was so young, but even then he was gentle with them.  He could have killed them once I broke out of my cell and pulled Toby's helmet off.  Could have utterly destroyed them.  Instead, my sweet baby just made them all forget.  They all smiled and helped us pack, helped us delete files, helped us burn the facility to the ground.  And then, minds blank as children, they wandered away.

It's starting.  He's all the way asleep now.

The walls seem to melt, sunlight streaming in.  Fields of grass and flowers sway in an unfelt breeze, and what appear to be tigers fly smoothly through the clouds.  I relax, and recline further - it doesn't look like there will be any nightmares today.  Swaddled in my son's dreams, I begin to drift off myself.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Story 233: Reasonable Adults

"Mom!" Alex's voice echoed down the hallway, "Something is happening!  The house is haunted!"
Internally, Jane was ready to scream.  She was just sick and tired of her son freaking out about every aspect of their move - the color of the house, the school they were next to, the lack of a Wawa in walking distance, the shape of his room - and while she had never struck him and felt certain she never would there had been quite a few times in the last three days where she visualized it in excruciating detail.  Externally, she stood up and smiled so that her voice wouldn't sound too annoyed.
"It's fine, Alex.  There's no such thing as ghosts."

Jane ran into him coming the other way as she left her bedroom.  He was pale, and his eyes were wide.  Something had genuinely spooked him.  He pointed towards the kitchen with a shaking hand.  "The... it... it wants to talk to you."
Goosebumps swarmed over Jane's arms despite her firm disbelief in the supernatural.  Picking her way around the boxes she had yet to unpack, she walked into the kitchen.  She was half expecting to see an intruder and was trying to remember if she had unpacked the knife block yet, but... there was no one there.
"Alex?  Kiddo?  There's nothing here."
He slipped around her and nervously pointed to the game of Scrabble that was dumped out on the kitchen table.
"That's... seriously?  That's what this is about?  I told you that I would play with you later.  Did you really think that this would work?  Pretend to be scared and I'll just... look.  I'll still play with you after dinner but you need to give me five minutes to myself."
"No, mom.  Look.  Look at it."

CALL YOUR MOM, the tiles said.  She was about to tell Alex that, A for effort and all, but she was still going back to her room... when they moved.  Tiles slid around each other until the table now said SORRY FOR THE SCARE.
"Alex?  Go play in your room."
Jane sank into a chair and stared at the tiles as they started moving again.  Magnets?  No, the table and the pieces were all wood.  Some sort of... air powered... but the thought wouldn't go any further.
BE OUT OF YOUR HAIR SHORTL it said, and then kept spinning tiles.
"We lost the other Y," Jane said, "and it only had the two to begin with."
A blank tile slid into place after 'SHORTL' and then the whole phrase disassembled itself.
"Oh.  Okay.  What do you need?"
She flinched at the thought, but part of her had been expecting it.  "You want me to dig you up, I assume.  Well, thanks for telling me before I unpack things into the shed I guess."
"And do you need me to tell the police who killed you?"
"I suppose not."

Jane stood up.  This was going to be yet another difficult chore, but she certainly wasn't going to leave a corpse in her back yard. "Well.  I'll get to work on that.  If I have to tear the shed down I don't know what to do with the pieces, and then... I'll tell the police I was..."
"Yeah.  Making a garden.  Sure.  Anyway what I'm saying is it might be a few days."
"No, thank you.  I mean, for not... no bleeding walls or moaning or throwing things."
Jane nodded.  It was a relief to hear from such a reasonable spirit, it seemed to bode well for the afterlife.  "Well.  Listen, if you have any trouble 'moving on' or 'passing over' or whatever once this is done... I'm sure we could work out something.  Roommates, kind of.  You know."
Jane thought about going to the hardware store, but she had a landscaper coming the next day anyway that might be able to move the shed in one piece and besides, that headache was still lurking in the corners of her brain waiting to come back.
"Alex?  Everything is fine, it's... everything is fine.  Go play outside while I get a nap."
Alex, seemingly recovered from his brush with the paranormal, thundered past towards the back yard.
"Oh, but... just stay away from the shed for now, okay?"

Friday, June 2, 2017

Story 232: Limited Contract

Chad woke up a little, sometimes.  They had told him that might happen.

As if in a dream, he would look out from his eyes as he stood at his workstation and typed.  It would fade to numb darkness soon enough, leaving only the faint impression of a huge room filled with identical computers and nearly identical workers.  Later - though it was impossible to tell how long later - he would see the curved ceiling of his sleeping tube inches from his face, or the nutrition dispenser dropping a pre-wrapped bar into his hand.

In these short glimpses, Chad tried to look for dates.  How far into his five year service was he?  A week?  Six months?  Three years?  Once he saw that he was in the gym, and was sure the calendar on the wall said August.  He didn't see a year though, so that wasn't a lot of help.  It didn't matter.  They were clearly keeping up their end of the bargain, maintaining his body as it worked around the clock for them.

Then there was the one where he was walking down a dark hallway.  In the distance, an emergency light was flashing.  A fire drill?  A power outage?  It was gone before he could tell.  After that it was his workstation, and everything seemed fine.  The workstations on either side of him appeared to be empty, but he couldn't turn his head to see for sure.  They were empty the next time, certainly.

He was in the gym, and the treadmill wasn't working.  He watched his hand press on the button over and over, trying to make it start.  He was in the sleeping tube, and someone somewhere was yelling.  Angry.  He was at his workstation, but the screen was blank.  He was typing anyway.  The lights started to be off more often than on, but he never felt hungry so at least the nutrition dispenser seemed to be okay.

The calendar in the gym said October, but the ink was streaked as if water had dripped down it at some point.  Chad started to notice mildew spots on the walls.

His monitor had fallen over, and he could see the rest of the massive room.  Only two other workstations had people at them, out of hundreds.

A dark hallway, with someone screaming in the distance.  Screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and then silence that was somehow even louder.

He stood in front of the nutrition dispenser, hand outstretched.  Nothing fell into it.

His sleep tube.  Something smelled very wrong.

Gym.  Marching in place on the broken treadmill.  Hungry.

Pain.  Someone had just slapped him.  Chad tried to make out the words they were saying.  "...awake?  Snap out of it!  This whole place is..." as the vision faded, he tried to focus.  It was a teenage boy, filthy, wearing a beanie and holding a baseball bat.  Nobody he knew.

Workstation.  Not hungry anymore.  Typing.

Gym.  It was darker than anything before, not even emergency lights.  He could just barely see his reflection in the mirror as he walked towards the treadmill.  His jumpsuit was disgusting and torn.  Something was smeared all over it.  He had a beard.  The hair on his head looked strange, but he didn't get a good enough look.  It might have been a hat of some sort.

Workstation.  The keyboard had fallen, or something.  He was drumming his fingers on the dusty countertop.  He was so, so hungry.  There was nobody else in the room, that he could see.  A single emergency light was on, but his eyes must have adjusted because that was enough to get a pretty good look.  Surprised, Chad realized he was turning his head.  He was in control.  Had it been five years, or had the device just failed?

He reached up with a trembling hand and felt his beard.  It was thick, matted.  Numbly he wandered through the center, but didn't see anyone else alive.  There were a few bodies, and some parts of bodies.  The water was still running in the break room for some reason, which didn't seem right considering the state of everything else.  He used it to wash himself as best he could, and then pulled on a fresh jumpsuit that he liberated from someone else's sleeping tube.  His own tube looked terrible and smelled worse.

The nutrition dispenser was empty, but he found a pallet of the bars in a back room and ate until he felt sick.  The calendar in the Gym still said October, in that smeared ink.  He nodded.  It could be October.  Who was here to say otherwise?  He headed back to the main lobby, almost tripping over something in the dark hallway that clattered against the wall with a wooden sound.  The exit was barricaded, but one side had been knocked inwards.  He considered it for a moment as if it was a puzzle, a riddle in a language he couldn't understand.

Turning, Chad walked back to his workstation.  He picked up a keyboard from his neighbor's unused spot, and began to type.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Story 231: A Quick Errand

Gail hated shopping at Zip Grocery, but the nearest actual chain store was ten miles away and the bus schedules had just been getting more and more labyrinthine.  With all the twists and turns and transfers, it would take her almost two hours each way.

The bell on the door jingled as she walked in, and Gail took a basket.  As always, her goal was to shop as quickly as possible.  Everything about Zip Grocery was the opposite of the big chain places - the aisles were narrow, so that as many shelves as possible would fit.  The lights were dim and flickery, giving off a muted yellow glow rather than the stark white of new fluorescents.  The brands were often strange, companies Gail had never heard of or boxes labeled in other languages.  Still, she had never had a problem with the actual food.

As she passed the counter a ghostly form became faintly visible, like a mirage.  "Still looking!" Gail said, and the figure vanished.  That was really the worst part about Zip Grocery.  The water marks on the ceiling, the dusty shelves, the radio playing mostly static with just a few recognizable fragments of music - all of these Gail could ignore for convenience.  But the ghosts were usually too much, and would have been again today if she hadn't overcooked dinner.

As if reading her thoughts, a voice came over the speakers and drowned out the static.  "You have a date?"
"Yes, Mrs. Habbash."  She had given up asking them not to eavesdrop.  It didn't seem to be intentional, sometimes they just picked up a signal.
"Who is the lucky boy?  Anyone I know?"
Gail dropped a box of what she hoped was cornbread mix into her basket after failing to decipher the Korean(?) on the front.  "Um.  Yeah, I guess maybe.  Eric?  Eric Swift."
The static returned, and Gail sped up.  Chili wasn't a very good meal for a date, but it was fast and easy and she didn't have time to do much from scratch.  It would be better than the bone-dry and rock hard pork roast she had somehow created.  If there was something wrong with her oven she doubted the landlord would get around to fixing it in the next year.

She looked down at her basket.  Two types of beans, shredded cheese, chili powder, tomato sauce, some withered limes, and the cornbread mix.  She had the rest at home other than beef, which Zip Grocery didn't carry anyway.  There was a tiny carniceria down the street she could hit on her way home.  Abruptly, the static stopped.
"Hello, dear.  So sorry about your date."
"Hasn't happened yet, Mrs. Habbash."
"Oh.  Oh!  I must have gotten distracted.  Of course."
"Wait.  Why are you sorry?"
But the radio was just static again, interspersed with tiny fragments of La Bamba.

Gail placed all her items on the counter, and then put her basket away while the old shade of Mr. Habbash rung her up.  He had died right there behind the counter, if the stories were to be believed.  Heart attack or something.  They had found his wife dead in the little apartment above Zip Grocery the next day - presumably she had wanted to be with her husband, and had succeeded.
"Shame about that Kelly girl," Mr. Habbash said.
"Lived on 34th, I believe."
The speakers gave out a burst of loud static.
"Right, right," he corrected, "43rd.  Correct as always, dear."
Mr. Habbash finished ringing Gail up and gave her her change.  She hesitated, wondering if she should ask about this Kelly person.  She hated ghosts.  Hated being in the room with them, having to interact with them, having to smile and be polite around them.  But she was also just so curious.
"So... what happened to Kelly?"

Mr. Habbash turned and looked at her, his eyes suddenly looking extremely solid as if they could at any moment fall through his ethereal body and land with a wet sound on the counter.  A blue light wavered inside them, seemingly a long way off.
"She passed on a few months back.  Spoke to us in passing, about her boyfriend.  Well.  Enjoy your chili, young lady."
The speakers crackled slightly before Mrs. Habbash spoke up, "And don't be such a stranger.  We've always liked you, dear."

The oven did in fact turn out to be broken, which meant even with close supervision the cornbread wasn't quite right.  The chili turned out to be delicious, which was fortunate because there were a lot of leftovers; Eric never showed.  She called but got voicemail, texted but never got a reply.  Later, after even the leftovers were long gone, she heard that he had abruptly moved out of state.  Probably some sort of family emergency, though nobody seemed to know details.  For reasons she couldn't quite put into words Gail felt relieved.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Story 230: What Hath Man Wrought

As if nature itself was enraged at Dr. Rykloff's experiment, lightning tore through the sky over and over again.  The dome of the laboratory was hammered by waves of rain, making the already featureless landscape fade into even more of a brown and grey blur.

"You're mad!" Clarice yelled, in what was honestly a bit of unnecessary theatrics.  She pulled against her restraints again, accomplishing nothing other than making her wrists sore.  "You can't bring them back!"
"Oh but I can!  I can and I have!"  Rykloff gestured to the large metal cubes at one end of the dome, and as if on cue the doors set into one rattled.  "You and the council... and my lawyer... and... well, a lot of people.  You all say I can't bring them back, can't return a lost species to life.  None of you seem to care about when I brought back rabbits!"
Clarice rolled her eyes.  "Rabbits are different.  These things are responsible for the destruction of our environment!"
"Bah!  So what if they are?  It's ruined now, what difference does it make?"
"But the use of resources..."

"No!"  Rykloff yelled, and threw an oversized switch.  The doors on the cubes started to swing open.  "I'll not hear of your precious resources.  I was there, Clarice!  I was alive back when we could live outside!  You think I don't know what happened?  But I can still remember... and I will have it again."
One by one the great beasts stepped out, larger than any animal living in the sealed colony.  One of them turned a rolling, crazy eye towards Clarice.  "Moo," it said.
"I will have steak again, Clarice."