Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Weekly Story #25: Sea of Tranquility Plumbing

Can you tell I work in Customer Service?

  • The Moon - Socialite/Plumber - Astrology

 

SEA OF TRANQUILITY PLUMBING

An upscale home with state-of-the-art technology in the most bustling colony on the freaking moon, and Ulric couldn't get his toilet to flush. The party started in only an hour, and the plumber was half an hour later than he promised. Too much later and the guests would have plenty to eat and drink and nowhere to crap it out. All his investments, all his deals led up to tonight, when he would finally get a chance to mingle with some of the moon's best and brightest. And now Ulric would become the laughing stock of the entire colony, if not of the entire moon.

He stood at the window, staring out at the gray dust and rocks, and at the trams zipping back and forth from one dome to the other. Those trams would be bringing in his guests all through the night. Maybe, just maybe, one of them would have the plumber. Maybe, just maybe, it would turn out the problem was something simple, easy to clear up.

The bell rang. Ulric crossed the living room of his condo to the front door and pressed the button to unlock it. "It's about damn time you—oh, it's you."

Ulric's cousin Nadine raised her safety gear—the low gravity made it easier to bump into things—over her head and passed it over to him. "Is that how you say hello in D Colony? Nice place. You have moved up, haven't you?"

"You're early."

"I was already in this dome, and ran out of stuff to do, so I thought I'd stop by." She picked out a meatball from the snacks Ulric had laid out on his kitchen table.

"Well, you couldn't have picked a worse time. I'm waiting for a plumber. The toilet isn't working."

Nadine froze mid-bite. "Well now you tell me."

"It only started an hour ago. And I checked, it's happening to the upstairs toilet, too. So if you have to go, I don't know what to tell you. I just know if that plumber doesn't show up soon, I'm taking this right to the Colony Committee."

The bell rang. "Maybe that's him," Nadine said.

"It better be." Ulric answered. "Oh, right this way."

He stepped back as the caterer wheeled in a cart full of heated containers and laid them on the table among the snacks.

"Is this everything?" Ulric said. The caterer said yes, Ulric paid him, and let him go. The door slid shut behind the caterer.

"You don't think you're overdoing it with the food?" Nadine said.

"What kind of party doesn't have plenty of food?" Ulric straightened the pans. "I happen to know the head of fuel services goes absolutely nuts over old American food."

"Is that who you're cozying up to?" Nadine sniffed. "I thought I smelled buffalo sauce."

The bell rang once again. "All right," Ulric said. "If this isn't the plumber, I'm just telling them to go home."

He opened the door, and on the other side stood a young man in a jumpsuit with a patch that said "Sea of Tranquility Plumbing."

"It's about damn time," Ulric said. "What the hell took you so long?"

"My apologies, sir." The plumber drifted in. "I had a job over in K Dome that took longer than I expected. Which way's the bathroom?"

"This way." Ulric led him down the hall, into the second door on the left. "Right here."

"All right. Do you know if anyone else in this dome had any trouble?"

"I haven't had a chance to ask. Just take care of it right away." Ulric went back to the living room, where Nadine was peeking underneath the foil on the trays the caterer brought in. He whipped one off and snatched up a buffalo wing. "I swear, Nadine, I swear."

"Look, he got here, there's plenty of time, no point stressing out."

Ulric munched on the wing and looked over toward the hall. He heard water flow behind the walls. The plumber stepped out of the bathroom. "You need anything?" Ulric said.

"No, I'm done."

"Thank God, I can pour some scotch!" Nadine said.

"Done?" Ulric dropped his wing, and after swiping his hand twice, managed to catch it before it hit the floor. Sometimes having a fraction of Earth's gravity was a blessing. "How can you already be done?"

"Turned out it was fairly simple. I just had to do a service reset."

"A service reset? On a toilet?"

"Right. This being the moon, and a 100% artificial environment, all water has to be carefully monitored and regulated by the dome's computer network. So I reset the connection to the server, that cleared the memory, and it restored water access to your toilet."

"Seriously?" Nadine said to Ulric. "You brought a plumber up here just for a service reset?"

"I've never even heard of such a thing."

"You have to forgive my cousin," Nadine told the plumber. "He's a little new to the moon."

"Well, newer homes don't necessarily have this problem," the plumber said. "Everything gets rerouted and reset automatically. This one looks like it's still using second-gen plumbing. If it ever stops again, just open the tank and hold down the blue button. That should take care of it. Do you want to pay now or should I send you a bill?"

"Why should I pay you?" Ulric said. "All you did was push a button."

"You hired me to do a job, and I did it."

"A job I could have done myself."

"But you didn't," Nadine said, then sipped her scotch.

"I'll send you a bill," the plumber said, heading for the door.

"I'm not gonna pay it!" Ulric said. "I'm taking this straight to the Colony Committee!"

The plumber walked out, and the door slid shut behind him.

"You realize, of course," Nadine said, "the Colony Committee might be less than willing to side with someone who tried to stiff a plumber on his pay."

"Do you want to stay for the party, or don't you?"

"Oh I'm staying." Nadine finished off her scotch. "I want to hear all the ways you spin this to all your new friends."

The bell rang. Ulric answered, and welcomed the head of fuel services and Mrs. Head of Fuel Services. "Welcome! Welcome! You're early, but it never hurts to be the first one! Make yourself at home!"

"Happy to be here," the head of fuel services said. "But before I do anything else, which way is your bathroom?"

"Down the hall, second door on the left."

"Thank you!"

The head of fuel services took floating steps down the hall as Ulric nodded smugly at his cousin. "You're just in time," he told Mrs. Fuel Services. "We just got the plumbing fixed."

The head of fuel services stuck his head out the bathroom door. "Excuse me, where's the toilet paper?"

"Toilet paper?" Ulric said. "There should be a roll in there."

"It's almost gone, and I couldn't find any under the sink."

Ulric knew he'd forgotten something. All he had was one roll upstairs, and he'd meant to get more earlier that day.

Nadine grinned smugly at Ulric, and poured another glass of scotch for Mrs. Fuel Services and herself.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Weekly Story #24: The Seventh Symphony

Well this turned out to be more than I expected when I first started it. In other stories I've written, including Thresholds of the Grand Dream, I take a more cynical approach to childhood/teenage crushes, but I just couldn't do that this time. I truly want the best for Morris.For reference, you can listen to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony here. The anime song that Morris watched is here. I confess my ignorance as to how high school orchestras actually work, and call poetic license for all the things I got wrong. Hope you like it!One sad note, though: this was the first time I missed a week. That's right, I missed my goal to write a different story each week. This was the week I went to Doxacon and caught a nasty cold. But I'm still on track to publish a story a week!

  •  Concert - Teen/Grandparent - Crush

THE SEVENTH SYMPHONY

I. Poco sostenuto - Vivace

Morris crept through the front entrance of the school to find the lobby stuffed with people. There were classmates—some of Morris's fellow freshmen—along with some upperclassmen and a ton of adults—parents, teachers, and a few alumni. Most of them were in semi-formal wear; boys and men in at least a button-down, girls and women in evening gowns. At least Morris wasn't the only one wearing a tie. Granny had insisted he wear one. This was a symphony, she'd said, not a rave.

He and Granny went to the cashier table, where Arnold Holbert from Biology was in charge of selling tickets. Morris mostly ignored Granny's attempts to chat with Arnold, and searched through the crowd. He touched the pocket on his chest, feeling for the gift he needed to give tonight, or he'd never give it at all. Mae was here somewhere. The show started in five minutes. She'd never be late.

And she wasn't—Morris spotted her as soon as he and Granny made it to the auditorium. Mae was chatting with her friends in front of the stage, wearing a red dress, holding her oboe. There she was, a radiant musician, and here he was, a nobody from her English class. What business did he have interrupting her and her friends, right in front of the auditorium, in front of everyone?

"Aren't you going to sit down?" Granny said. "You're the one who insisted we come."

She was right, he did. He filed into the row of seats behind her and sat down, his eyes still on Mae. Morris had thought that showing up to her concert might get her attention, show her that he was interested in what she did. Sure, he didn't play any instruments, and sure, Granny's interests were more in 70's stadium rock than Beethoven. But Morris read up on Beethoven and the Seventh Symphony and even looked up a performance on YouTube, all to prepare for Mae's performance. Now he and Granny sat close to the back, buried in the crowd. Even if Mae looked in his direction, she'd never notice him.

Morris never told Granny about the gift he'd bought for Mae. Morris had never spoken a word about her. He knew Granny would make some remark that meant well but wouldn't be as funny as she thought. Or worse, she'd try to help play matchmaker. Morris would never survive the embarrassment.

Mae left her friends and took her place on stage and began warming up on her oboe.

II. Allegretto

Mae was going to be so happy when this was done. Beethoven's Seventh had consumed every waking hour of her life for the last month. If it wasn't the new orchestra leader pushing everyone harder than Mr. Onder ever did, it was her parents demanding she practice the moment she finished her homework every single night. She'd hardly had time for friends. She hardly even had time for homework. She barely had time to compare notes with Stanley, the other oboist. The entire symphony begins with an oboe melody. It would live or die based on her and Stanley's performance.

Her oboe was practically a part of her now—where her fingers ended, the oboe began.

All she had to do was get through this performance. Her friends had come to show their support, and were all going out for pizza afterwards. Mae could almost taste the cheese and olives already. If anything went wrong with the performance, she just had to hope it wasn't her fault.

The lights still showed the audience building up in front of the stage. Mae had learned to ignore them, to pretend the audience wasn't even there. This performance was for her, her conductor, and her fellow orchestra members.

The lights dimmed. The auditorium went quiet.

The conductor, Mr. King, took the stage, and began his introductory speech. Mae didn't hear a word he said. She was playing the entire symphony in her mind, running through the most difficult parts, and the parts where she might draw the most attention. It hadn't been like this under Mr. Onder. Back then, just the previous semester, the school orchestra tended to focus on shorter, lighter music. If they performed anything from a symphony, it would be a selection, not the whole thing. Then when Mr. King came along, he blindsided everybody by assigning Beethoven's Seventh, and expecting perfection right out of the gate. Maybe that was Mr. Onder's fault for not preparing them for a full performance. Either way, it would have been nice to have more buildup. Not that it mattered. Mae was going to nail this.

The last thing Mae thought about before Mr. King finished speaking was the test she'd taken a few weeks ago on Of Mice and Men. It was the shortest book she could find on the list for English class, and she still couldn't find time to do more than skim it because of this symphony. If it hadn't been for one classmate, Morris, telling her the bigger details and what Lennie and George's travels and struggles meant, she wouldn't have stood a chance on that test.

Quiet filled the auditorium again. Mr. King tapped his baton.

The symphony began. Mae began.

She began to relax once the clarinets joined in.

Then when the strings began to play, it was all just momentum carrying her forward.

III. Presto – Assai meno presto

Shelley thought the orchestra sounded fine, for a bunch of high schoolers, not that she could necessarily tell good classical from bad. They could be fouling up every other note for all she knew. Poor little Morris was sitting next to her, even more rigid than that conductor's baton. She'd wondered what could have inspired her grandson's sudden interest in classical music. Now that the show had started, it didn't take a rocket scientist to see it. His eyes hadn't left that girl in the red dress since they arrived. He was as transfixed with her as he was with the music.

Now she understood what the tiny oboe keychain on his dresser was for. She'd been this close to actually buying him an oboe and getting him lessons.

She'd first met his grandfather at a concert, though it was nothing like this. She and Paul had wound up at the same Alice Cooper show, and they crashed into each other while he was coming out of the bathroom and she was carrying her snacks back to her seat. As they argued, and then talked, they forgot all about Alice's music and theatrics.

But Morris couldn't have a run-in like that while the girl was still playing. At least he hadn't set his sights on someone a little less accessible, like Beyoncé.

As the second movement started, Shelley wondered if there was anything she could do to help. He'd probably be too embarrassed. Teenage boys always are—his father was the same way. If only she knew more of Morris's friends. She'd only been taking care of him a few months, ever since Martin lost his job and Belinda broke her leg. They were running on unemployment insurance, disability claims, and fumes, and had no time, money, or energy to take care of a teenager. Shelley was only too happy to help. It had been lonely since Paul died, and it was nice to have someone young in the house again.

Except he spent so much time inside, either reading or playing or one of his online games. He still went out to see his friends, but for the most part, Morris tended to be rather solitary. Shelley could tell his parents' situation was getting to him, not to mention their prospects for the future. This performance—and that girl in the red dress—was the first thing in a long while that really energized him. She wanted him to be happy. But how to do that without destroying him?

IV. Allegro con brio

The orchestra got to the fourth movement, which made Morris picture a wild dance party. When exploring the symphony on YouTube, he'd even found a Japanese song from an old anime that set the movement to nonsense lyrics about eggs. It was as much the opposite of the second movement as Beethoven could have come up with.

And the whole time, Mae remained poised, and her playing remained smooth. Morris was impressed with everybody, for that matter. He'd always known the Hayashi twins as major goofballs, yet now they both sawed on their violins like maniacs. Rita from History looked like she was going to pop playing her trombone. And he was pretty sure that was one of the Juniors on the wrestling team on the cello. Mr. King had shaped them into a force to be reckoned with.

It made Morris start to seriously wonder, why the hell wasn't he playing an instrument?

The movement ended. The eggs were finished. The auditorium roared in a standing ovation. Morris stood on his seat to join in. She nailed it.

As they headed out through the lobby, Morris tugged on Granny's wrist. "Can we stay a little longer? I know a few people in the orchestra, and I wanna congratulate them."

Granny raised her eyebrows. "That's fine with me. So you had a good time?"

"Yeah, I'm glad I came. How about you?"

"Not bad. Not quite on the level of the Alice Cooper concert where I met your grandfather, but it was nice."

"You seriously met him at an Alice Cooper concert?"

"Didn't I ever tell you?"

Morris spotted the Hayashi twins. "Hold that thought. Joe, Jim! You were amazing! Didn't know you had it in you!"

"Ha, thanks," Joe Hayashi said on his way to the exit.

Morris kept an eye out for any sign of red. He saw Rita pass by, and then the wrestler with his cello.

"Was there someone in particular you were waiting for?" Granny asked.

Morris groaned. He couldn't say it out loud, not in front of Granny. Not—

"Morris? From English?" A hand touched Morris's shoulder, and Mae in her red dress was standing beside him. "Wow, I wasn't expecting you to be here."

"I—um…"

"Listen, I wanted to thank you for helping with that Mice and Men test a few weeks ago. I've been having such a hard time with this symphony, and flunking that test would have just wrecked me. I couldn't have done it without you."

"Oh. O…Okay. You already thanked me though."

"I did? Well, that's when I took it. Now I'm thanking you again. Every little bit helps. See ya."

And she began to head off, as Morris meekly drew the oboe keychain out of his pocket. "Uh…"

He suddenly felt his grandmother's hand thrust into his back and shove him forward. He tumbled into Mae. In the brief moment of confusion, he helped keep her oboe case from falling to the floor.

"Uh, thanks?" Mae said, then looked down into his hand. "What's that?"

He held out the oboe keychain. "I got this for you. I found it at a yard sale, and I thought you might like it." As he sputtered it all out, every possibility whirled through his mind. What if she thinks it's stupid? What if she already has one? What if she has an even better oboe trinket from someone else?

"Oh," Mae said. "For me?" She plucked it up. "It's so cute. Thank you."

"Y-you're welcome," Morris said as she began to turn away.

He felt another shove from behind. "Wait!" He checked behind her to find his grandmother's wicked smile. He knew she was going to embarrass him tonight, and she'd finally done it. But now Mae was looking at him again, and he had to say something. "Um, I don't suppose you're doing anything tomorrow?"

"Well…" Mae thought about it. "Tonight's Sunday, so tomorrow's just gonna be school, homework, and oboe practice."

"Right. Right. Dang it." Morris thumped his forehead with the ball of his hand.

"But I might be free this weekend," Mae said with a grin. "And until then, I'll see you in class." She grabbed his hand and gave it a soft squeeze. "I love the keychain. See you tomorrow!"

"S-see ya." Morris watched her carry the oboe case outside, with her father holding the door open.

He turned back to Granny. "I'll get you for this."

"Eh, it's not quite meeting at an Alice Cooper show, but every little bit helps, right?" She chuckled. "I'm definitely glad I came."

"Just don't make a big deal about it," Morris said. "Especially with Mom and Dad."

Granny took her keys out of her purse. "Make a big deal out of it. Got it."

"Granny!"

But the embarrassment passed as the two of them went out into the night. All that mattered was that Mae had gotten her gift. For the rest of the evening, Morris's mind drifted between the red of Mae's dress, the grin on her face, and a song about eggs.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Weekly Story #23: The Pantry

I was having a similarly busy week when I wrote this next story, so I made it shorter to get it done on time. As you can see, I didn't even come up with names for the characters. The prompt was:


  • Pantry - Grim Reaper/Anyone - Winter

Sometimes they write themselves.

THE PANTRY

It was late at night, and I felt like a snack. As soon as I opened the door to the pantry, I let out a long, piercing scream. A figure in a black cloak stood inside, holding a scythe. Under the hood was a polished, yellowed skull with ancient symbols carved into the bone. The figure stepped—or rather, hovered—through the door and raised the scythe. I screamed again.

The reaper halted with the scythe still above his head. I couldn't figure out how he'd managed to fit that in such a cramped pantry. "Wait," he said. "You can see me?"

I screamed again.

"You're not supposed to see me," the reaper said, his voice a deep, primordial rumble. "This can't be right." He lowered his weapon and looked back into the pantry. "I thought this was…"

He turned back toward me, his cloak swirling like a black mist. "You. Are you Mr. D_____? Is this 350 Edgecrest Drive?"

I screamed again, and backed up against the kitchen counter.

"Stop that," the reaper said. "Do I have the right address or not?"

Finally the right synapse fired, and I realized the reaper hadn't killed me yet. I tried to steady my breathing. At first I wondered if this was some demented prank by some psychopath in a Grim Reaper costume, but no, that was a skeleton under that cloak, and its bones were moving on their own. And I'd never heard anything like that voice. If a bottomless pit could talk, that was what it would sound like.

"Answer me!" he said. "I'm looking for 350 Edgecrest Drive!"

"N-N-No," I said. "This is 3500 Edgecrest Circle. My name's F_____."

The reaper pounded the handle of his scythe on the floor. "I'm at the wrong house," he said. "That's twice in one century. I'm getting sloppy. I'm sorry to trouble you, Mr. F_____. Is there anything I can do for you before I go?"

"Do for…?"

"Appearances aside, I am an angel. Was there something you needed in the pantry?"

"I… Well, I was going to get some Pop Tarts."

"Seriously?"

"Is it going to kill me?"

"Touché." The reaper set the scythe against the wall, entered the pantry, and came out holding a box of blueberry Pop Tarts. He laid it on the counter and picked his scythe back up. "Enjoy your snack, Mr. F_____. Until next time."

"Wait, before you go," I said, "maybe you can tell me… How long do I have? Before… you know, next time?"

"Even I don't know that. And if I did, I wouldn't tell you." The reaper gripped the handle with both hands. "I just know it is not this night. Farewell."

The reaper faded to black, and the black faded out of sight, until I was once again alone in my kitchen. Somewhere, an unlucky Mr. D_____ at 350 Edgecrest Drive was probably already having an unfortunate encounter in his own pantry. Outside the night was as black as the reaper's cloak.

I gobbled up the Pop Tarts without heating them, and never slept a wink that entire night.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Weekly Story #22: Something Lurks Among the Boards

Bit of a late one this week. The last few days have been hectic, and as of this moment I have to go run an errand. Right now, I'll just say that I got the name "Cordwainer" from Harlan Ellison's old pseudonym (which he in turn got from Cordwainer Smith). You may recognize Maureen Brandon from a previous Weekly Story. From conceptual continuity to actual continuity! This project is truly evolving!

  • Lumber Yard - Director/Actor - Haunting

 

SOMETHING LURKS AMONG THE BOARDS

The shoot had become a disaster. Director Cordwainer Yates sat in his trailer with a coffee in his hand—he never drank, not after that incident at the Oscars—and stared out the window at the lumber yard. He and his crew had been filming what was supposed to be a routine action scene for the movie Dirt Cheap, and after five days, still had yet to actually finish it. Outside, some of the film crew were loading some logs back onto one of the shelves. The logs had rolled off during a take. They hadn't fallen on anyone, but they did manage to trip up Yates' star Taylor Brandon. It was a miracle Brandon had gotten out of it with only a broken leg.

And since of course Brandon specified in his contract that he must do his own stunts, Yates had no double either. With no star, he had no scene. No scene, no movie.

Yates had spent most of the night brainstorming. He couldn't change the location. He had already scouted fifty lumber yards before deciding on Windy Hill Lumber. If he wanted to change, he'd have to start scouting all over again. And it couldn't not be a lumber yard. Doing Dirt Cheap without the lumber yard would be like doing Terminator 2 without the steel mill.

He looked over the storyboards. It was possible he could work around Brandon's bad leg. Shoot from the waist up. Get a double for long-distance shots, just as long as he doesn't do any stunts. Use camera tricks, blue screens, and post-production for the rest

Sure, if he wanted it to look like a B movie.

There was a knock at the door. Yates answered, and it took all of his strength not to cry out "For the love of God." His star's wife, Maureen Brandon, was standing in front of him. "Maureen!" he said, forcing a smile. "I wasn't expecting you."

"I just got back from the hospital," America's Damn Sweetheart said. "Brandon's asleep in his trailer. You're lucky I'm too exhausted to call our lawyer right now."

"And you're lucky I'm too exhausted to care about lawyers. How is he?"

"Oh, he's fine. Hogging the rum, but he's fine. Can't wait to start shooting again, but you know how bull-headed he can be." Maureen opened a cupboard and searched through it as if it were her own trailer. "Don't you have anything to drink?"

"Maureen."

"Right, I forgot, the Oscars thing. Look, Taylor and I can't take too much more of this. Any more screwups, and we walk."

"You're not even in this movie."

"But it's important to Taylor. What would it look like if I didn't stand by him?"

She certainly wouldn't look so desperate to project a squeaky-clean image. Dirt Cheap was a typical role for Taylor, but Maureen was the one who needed everybody to forget how she accidentally exposed her secret past porn career by sending out doctored photos of his mistress.

"We'll figure something out," Yates said. "Assuming this lumber yard doesn't kill us. First that fire. Then the choreographer getting food poisoning. Now this. I'm starting to think this whole place is cursed."

An odd expression appeared on Maureen's face. "Funny you should mention that When we were at the hospital, I heard one of the nurses mention something about a ghost."

"At this lumber yard?"

"I think so. I wasn't listening that carefully."

"Great." Yates gulped down the last of his coffee. He needed more. "So what am I supposed to do? Hire a priest? A ghostbuster? Scooby-Doo? The producers are gonna want an explanation, and I'm gonna have to do better than a friggin' ghost story from a friggin' nurse."

"I'm just telling you what I've heard. Now that I think about it, I have heard a lot of weird noises the last few nights. I thought it was just animals from the woods."

"Probably was. They're right on the other side of the fence. You didn't hear any voices saying 'Get out,' did you?"

"Ha ha," Maureen said. "Although this morning my lipstick wasn't where I left it."

"That's me with my wallet any given Tuesday." Yates got up and loaded his Keurig. "Tell Taylor I'm glad he's all right. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?"

"No, I've made myself clear. I'll see you tomorrow." Maureen went to the door as Yates' mug filled up.

As soon as she opened the door, she froze. "Um, Cord," she said, "I think you should come out here."

Yates picked up his mug and sniffed the coffee. "What is it?"

"Just come look. I don't know how to describe it."

Yates went up to the door. "What the hell?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Maureen said.

Between the trailer and the rest of the lumber yard was a row of oak planks, originally stacked on top of each other, now standing on end exactly three feet from one another.

"Who did this?" Yates said.

"You're asking me?" Maureen said. "They weren't like this when I got here."

They weren't. Yates hadn't seen anything unusual when he looked out the door or answered the door. This could only have happened in the last few minutes. The crew members had stopped picking up logs to stare in befuddlement at what had appeared behind them.

Yates groaned. Of all the people to be right, why did it have to be America's Damn Sweetheart? "So what do we do?" he said. "Is it telling us to leave? Does it want to be in the movie? What?"

A gust of wind rocked some of the boards. They collapsed on top of one another with a clatter like machine gun fire. Yates and Maureen covered their ears until the noise died down.

Maureen said, "Didn't the owner mention anything when you spoke to him?"

"Her. And no. But I think we need to have a word with her."

And Yates and Mrs. Brandon marched from the trailer, across the parking lot, up to the main warehouse. One of the bay doors had been left unlocked so the crew could use the interior at their leisure. Yates pulled it up and went in. The lights were still on. The owner would no doubt still be in her office. Yates walked through the sawdust-covered aisles, with Maureen pacing pensively behind him, past the massive shelves stacked to the top with boards, planks, and beams. Some of the rubble and ash from yesterday's fire still sat in the open. The air conditioner hummed.

The main office was embedded in the far corner of the warehouse. The owner of the lumber yard, Alice Yankrest, sat at her desk. She had just turned seventy, and the angles of her face reminded Yates of a fine wood carving. She looked up from her paperwork. "You need something?"

"Yeah," Yates said. "Hope I'm not bothering you."

"Not at all. Oh, Maureen Brandon? I'm a big fan." Alice shook Maureen's hand. "Any updates on Taylor?"

Maureen said, "He'll be okay, but a broken leg's a broken leg."

"That's too bad. Let him know how sorry I am this happened. If there's anything I can do—"

"Well—"

"Look," Yates said, "right now I just want to get the movie finished. That's not why we're here to see you. Are you aware that just now there were several planks standing on end right outside the warehouse?"

Alice blinked. "Standing?"

"All of a sudden, while our backs were turned. Strangest thing I've ever seen. Did you hear them all falling over a few minutes ago?"

Alice shot from her desk to the door and turned the lock. "I should have known."

"Known what?" Yates said. "This wouldn't have anything to do with what Mrs. Brandon was telling me? About some kind of—"

"About the ghost?" Alice stepped around her desk and dropped back into her chair. "That ghost has been a headache ever since I inherited this business."

"Yeah, rumors can be rough," Maureen said.

"Who said it was a rumor?" Alice laid her arms on the desk. "People have been hearing strange noises and seeing strange things around here ever since my grandfather ran the place. I've seen it myself, in the security videos, roaming through the aisles in the middle of the night. If this is the ghost" She looked off to the side. "But he hasn't been this aggressive since"

Yates couldn't believe this. He was surrounded by nutbars. "Assuming this is a ghost, what am I supposed to do? Is he trying to make us leave?"

"Hm." Alice leaned back. "The last time the planks stood up That was back in '88. Some kids were sneaking onto the lot to drink. The ghost always seems to respond to the presence of alcohol."

"What, he's some sort of Prohibitionist?" Maureen said.

Alice chuckled. "The exact opposite. My grandfather told me about it when I was little. When he ran the lumber yard, back in the 20's, there was an especially ruthless crime boss controlling all the local liquor. He hated competition. If you brought even the slightest drop of someone else's moonshine into town, you were gone, and they'd never find your body. Finally, a rival gang lured him here, to this lumber yard, after hours, and gunned him down. We've had the ghost ever since."

"So what does that mean for us?" Yates said.

"You don't have any liquor in any of your trailers, do you? Beer and wine wouldn't be an issue, but liquor seems to drive him wild."

"I don't," Yates said. "Haven't touched the stuff in ages."

"What about the crew?"

"I don't know. Most of them are staying offsite." There was only enough room on this site for a few trailers, for himself, the Brandons, and the other lead actor, Rubochev. The stagehands all seemed from Yates' interactions with them to be fairly professional—the kind who would at least drink somewhere else when all was said and done—but of course that didn't mean someone wasn't sneaking shots between takes. "That leaves the actors, and—"

And one's wife had been looking for rum in his trailer only minutes ago. And she was standing right here, pretending to read the human resources signs on the wall.

"So if we get rid of the booze, he'll leave us alone?" Yates said.

"Probably can't rule it out. You don't have to get rid of it. Just take it somewhere else."

"Okay." Yates glared over at Maureen. "I'll check around, make sure any liquor gets sent to the hotel. Maureen, you think you can help?"

"I think so," Maureen said with the chill of a blizzard.

"If we find anything, we can save it for the wrap party. Thanks for your help, Ms. Yankrest."

Alice sighed. "Thank you for putting up with my strange, strange family business. Before you go, Mrs. Brandon, could I perhaps get your autograph?"

In an instant, Maureen's face switched from a storm of cold to a burst of warmth. "Why certainly!" Her voice had jumped an octave. She grabbed a pen off the desk. "Who should I make it out to?"

"'Alice' is fine."

"I'll go on ahead," Yates said.

"See you later, Cord," Maureen said. "So Alice, what's your favorite movie?"

Yates skulked down the aisle from the office toward the main doors. As long as he got this stupid scene finished and could move on to the next location, he didn't care if it was a ghost or a live mob boss. He was going to give it whatever it wanted. With any luck, Taylor Brandon would be too crocked to stop a certain director from clearing out his liquor cabinet.

Just as Yates left the aisle, something hit the ground behind him with a sound like a shotgun. He spun around, heart pounding. A two-by-four had slid lengthwise out of its shelf—no, it would have had to be pushed out—and fallen right where Yates had just been walking. It teetered, and toppled, and clattered on the ground across the aisle. Yates watched it lie there as he took several deep breaths. If he'd been a little slower, it would have hit him right in the head.

"All right, all right!" Cordwainer Yates said. "We'll take care of it. Geez! For the love of"

And he turned his back and left the warehouse. He could deal with the metaphysics later. As far as Yates was concerned, ghost or not, this was just another self-appointed big-shot barging onto the set acting like he owned the place. You'd think he was a producer.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Weekly Story #21: Engine Room

Lately I've noticed some patterns emerging in my writing. For example, this story involves a hyperdrive and a ship's engine room, which also turns up in a novel draft I have lurking in my hard drive. The sci-fi concept here also has a previous owner, as in "No Different From Anyone Else." Maybe think of it as "conceptual continuity," as Frank Zappa would have put it. This is another story where the "keyword" prompt never found a place in the story, so you'll find it crossed out below.

  • Hyperdrive cavity - Billionaire/Yacht salesman - Twister

 

ENGINE ROOM

The yacht was just what Armie Stonehouse needed. Everything the salesman showed him confirmed what he already knew when he first saw it: the upper deck with the pool and jacuzzi; the open-air lounge and dining room; the spacious and luxurious bedrooms. Armie couldn't imagine a better place for a party, for any occasion.

"All that's left," the salesman said, "is the engine room, if you're interested."

"Of course I am," Armie said. "I used to work in the engine room back in the Navy, so I'd love to see what's running this boat."

"Oh, it's incredible. I know you'll like it."

"Lead the way." The salesman took him down the stairs from the living room. As they descended deeper, the boat hummed more intensely.

The stairs stopped in a plain white room with a reinforced steel door. The salesman took out a set of keys. "So you're Armie, and you were in the Navy."

"Yes, I've heard it all before."

The salesman jiggled the key until it turned, and opened the door for Armie.

Armie froze at the threshold.

"Like I said," the salesman said. "Incredible, huh?"

"What is that?" Armie pointed at the giant glowing tube embedded in the floor. Various tubes and wires stuck out of it, attaching to large boxes with oscillating lights in their corners. On the opposite end of the room was the control panel, but it didn't look anything like what Armie had used in the Navy. "Seriously, what is that?"

"That would be the hyperdrive cavity," the salesman said.

"The hyper…"

"…drive cavity." The salesman stayed behind Armie. "The previous owner was very… experimental."

"I'll say." Armie stepped in for a closer look. Inside the tube, the machinery pulsated with tiny lights. The text in the gauges used characters he didn't even recognize. He couldn't begin to guess what most of these switches and buttons were supposed to do. "And what is a…"

"Hyperdrive cavity."

"Right. What is a hyperdrive cavity supposed to do?"

"Oh, you know. Faster-than-light travel."

"How's that even possible?" Armie said. "What would I even need with faster-than-light travel?"

"Just imagine. You're out on the open sea. All your guests are having the time of their lives, but you're thinking, how can I make this even better? Well, you can just rev this baby up and… zip! You're in London in less time than it'll take to run upstairs."

"London?" Armie spotted a map on the control panel. "Isn't it kind of far inland? And wouldn't we have, you know, Wales in the way? How do we maneuver at… you said faster than light speeds?"

"Yes. Anyway, maneuvering might be a problem, if you were traveling by water. But this travels on space itself. Set things up right, and you can go anywhere in the world in an instant."

Armie brushed his finger on some of the buttons. "Does it work?"

The salesman laughed. "Does it work." He leaned on one of the large boxes. "Why don't we take her for a test drive?"

"Seriously? We don't even have a crew. No way this boat takes only two people to run. And aren't there preparations—"

"Again, that may be true for the sea. But the hyperdrive's a different story. Just use that map to set the coordinates."

Armie touched Great Britain on the map. It zoomed in, and Armie zoomed in further by touching London. The map showed red and yellow and orange dots and lines that Armie took to be ship locations. He touched an empty spot on the Thames. A crosshair appeared on that spot.

The salesman stepped up beside him. "And now we just press this button…" He pointed at a blinking blue light, and brought his finger down.

The hum around them grew louder. The light in the cavity shifted from bright white to red. The hum became a loud buzz, then a scream. The scream faded after only a second, and all became quiet. The cavity returned to its original color.

"Shall we go up and take a look?" the salesman said.

They headed upstairs to the top deck. It was raining, but from here Armie could see the Tower Bridge and the Shard. "Im… pressive."

"Isn't it?"

"How's this even possible? Where did you even get technology like this? What's it doing on a yacht of all things? Shouldn't NASA know about this?"

"I make it a policy not to ask too many questions about the previous owners. I will tell you that he had some circuits and diodes next to his left eye. Didn't exactly seem like a local. Of course, we're not exactly locals here, either."

"Well, I think I've seen all I need to see. This is exactly the boat I want."

"You sure?" the salesman said. "You don't have any further questions?"

Armie gazed over at the Tower of London. He'd been meaning to come back here for years. Now it looked like it would be a lot easier. Hopefully there wouldn't be any issues with customs. "No questions. I just hope I can find someone who can figure out that engine room."

"I might be able to put you in touch with somebody. Now let's head back to my office to work out the fine print. You stay up here and enjoy the sights, I'll take care of the hyperdrive."

The salesman headed back downstairs while Armie sat down on one of the sofas next to the pool. From here he could see tourists and Londoners gathering by the banks of the Thames to see the boat that had appeared in the water out of nowhere. He wondered what he would think if he'd seen this from their point of view. Would he assume it was real? Or part of a movie someone was shooting? Maybe the first sign of an alien invasion? It was a wonder he himself hadn't heard of anything like this until now.

He waved at the people on the shore.

The boat began to shake. At first he thought it was simply the hyperdrive getting ready to take him back home. But everything was stable the last time they used it. Armie had to brace himself on a rail just to stay upright in his seat.

The salesman came running back up the stairs. "Abandon ship."

"What?"

"My finger slipped. We have to get off the ship, now."

They headed down to the main deck. "I don't understand," Armie said. "What you mean your finger slipped?"

"I'm saying I pushed the wrong button, some alarms went off, and I couldn't find a way to shut it off." They reached the stern, where the salesman picked up a large case and tossed it overboard. As soon as the case opened and the raft inflated, Armie and the salesman jumped out of the yacht and swam to the raft. The salesman disconnected the tether and let the raft drift away.

The yacht cracked, buckled, and crumpled into itself like a piece of paper being wadded up. Then that wad shrank into oblivion.

"You swear that was an accident?" Armie said.

"Honestly? You think I'd cut my own throat like that?"

"So you really expect me to believe your finger slipped?"

"Okay, fine. More like I tripped and hit about five of the wrong buttons at once. My fault. Now what? I don't even have a passport."

Armie glared at the salesman, the man who'd stranded him here on the other side of the Atlantic when all Armie had wanted to do was buy a boat. Armie didn't have his passport, either. He'd have to make a lot of phonecalls once he got to the American embassy.

If nothing else, Armie did want to see London. "We'll figure something out."

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Weekly Story #20: Little Steve and Big Steve

With this story, there's a hint of a larger adventure occurring, and I had a bit of fun suggesting that while keeping everything as self-contained as possible. Think of it like a chapter of a kid's sci-fi novel I'm never going to write.  It should also be apparent with this story that when coming up with a character, I just use the first name that pops in my head. Hence "Bronson Toma." The prompt: 
  • Classroom - Person/Future Self - Japan

 

BIG STEVE AND LITTLE STEVE

Career day in Mr. Graves' fourth-grade class became more agonizing the longer Steve Unger had to wait for his turn. He'd never told his parents about Career Day. Dad had been laid off last year from a customer service job, and Mom was asleep this time of day from her night job. Things had been really rough. It was only the strange watch Steve had found a month ago that gave him hope everything would be okay.

The young man Steve had brought instead kept shifting his weight uneasily beside the wall, standing between Kaylee's mom, the lawyer, and Ray's dad, the biochemist.

Mr. Graves went through the class in alphabetical order, so it took forever to get to the U's. Finally Bronson Toma's father, an editor for the local paper, gave his speech, and Mr. Graves called Steve's name. "Who do you have for us today, Steve?"

Steve suddenly had twenty kids and twenty adults looking in his direction.

"Um, well..." Steve paused to clear his mind and said, "My mom and dad couldn't make it, so I invited my uncle. His name's Malcolm." That was the alias they'd decided on, Malcolm being Steve's middle name.

"All right, Malcolm," Mr. Graves said. "Come on up and tell us about what you do."

And 'Malcolm' stepped up to the front of the classroom. "Hi. As Steve said, I am Malcolm. And I don't so much have a career, exactly. I'm more in training for one. I'm a graduate student in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt."

So far so good. All this was true; Malcolm just wasn't technically a graduate student yet. He wouldn't be for another twelve years. It had been a longshot, but with no one else available, Steve figured as long as he had a watch that could travel through time, he might as well see how he himself was doing. And the future Steven Malcolm Unger seemed to be doing pretty well.

"Interesting," Mr. Graves said. "What drew you to that line of work?"

"Well, I'd had kind of a rough childhood. Not tragic, but difficult. That made me want to help people who also had it rough."

Sayla Bothas raised her hand. "What does a graduate student do?"

"I'm basically still in school, but all my classes have to do with psychology. I have to do a lot of reading, and take a lot of tests, but it's all stuff I want to read about, so it's all good. And this last semester, I started seeing actual patients."

Bill Grendale raised his hand. "Who's the craziest person you've seen?"

Little Steve felt his hackles raise. Bill Grendale was the biggest jerk in class. He had a snotty voice and he stole french fries off Steve's lunch trays and called Steve "Ungo" even though he knew Steve hated it. Of course Bill would ask an obnoxious question like that.

"We don't really like to use terms like 'crazy,'" Big Steve said. "It tends to unfairly stigmatize people who are coming to us for help. As for the most memorable, that would be—" Big Steve took another look at Bill and gave a start, his eyes wide. "Sorry. What's your name?"

"B-Bill."

Big Steve mouthed the name "Grendale," looking as if he'd seen a ghost.

"Is there a problem?" Mr. Graves said.

"No, it's nothing," Big Steve said. "Just looks like a kid I used to know. Just uncanny. Now, I also can't reveal too much, for the patient's safety. But as far as most memorable patient, there was this lady who'd just gotten back from Japan…w"

The presentations came at the end of the day. When class was dismissed, Big Steve, aka 'Malcolm,' walked with Little Steve through the halls toward the exit. "Thank you so much," Little Steve said. "You saved my butt today."

"I'm just glad I didn't bomb," Big Steve said. "At least now we know you're better at public speaking than we thought."

Little Steve laughed. "Imagine if they knew you were me."

"About that," Big Steve said, "does anybody else know about that watch?"

"Howie does. He lives across the street from me, and I've taken him on a few trips. He likes 2006 better than I do. I can't believe you don't remember all this."

"I mean, I remember it, it's just, so much of the stuff I did with it is a blur now. I didn't even remember bringing older me back until you showed up. Maybe it's time's way of keeping paradoxes from creeping up."

As they came out the main entrance, Little Steve noticed Bill Grendale heading down the sidewalk toward his house a few blocks away. "Say, Big Steve, why did seeing Bill startle you so much?"

"Bill Grendale…" Now Big Steve saw Bill too, and gazed at him with a furrow in his brow. "It's nothing. At least I don't think…"

"Did you remember what a big jerk he was?"

"No… It's just… I saw his face, and suddenly, all I could think about was my fourth grade yearbook." His voice lowered. "His memorial…"

"Memorial?" Steve stopped in his tracks. "Is... is something gonna happen?"

Big Steve slapped himself in the forehead. "I think I've already said too much."

"Come on, something's gonna happen, isn't it? Is it gonna be him?" Fear overwhelmed the elation within Little Steve's heart. Sure, he hated Bill, and a life without him would be so much easier. But that didn't mean Steve wanted Bill to… to… "Is it today?"

"No, not today. But soon. I don't think there's anything we can do about it."

"About what? Just tell me what'll happen, and we'll figure something out!"

Big Steve gritted his teeth. "Okay. Fine." Big Steve placed his hand on Little Steve's shoulder. "I'll level with you. Sometime before the end of the school year, Bill is going to die. He'll be hit by a drunk driver right outside the school, right over there. Everyone will see it."

"That… that's horrible!"

"It is horrible," Big Steve said. "Fourth grade was hard enough, what with Dad's layoff and Mom's work. This isn't going to improve things."

Little Steve stared at the watch on his wrist. He'd stumbled on it in front of a Civil War memorial during a trip with his grandparents to Vicksburg. The first time he used it, it had taken him ten years into the past. The second, twelve years into the future. It was only on this last trip that he tried meeting himself. He was just as relieved that he would become a kind, intelligent adult as he was that his parents would get back on their feet.

He had simply taken it for granted that the future would be bright for everybody.

"You sure there's nothing we can do?" Little Steve said. "Absolutely nothing?"

"I mean, I can't say it's impossible," Big Steve said. "Even if I told you to watch him like a hawk, I don't think it'd do any good. If it's like my other time travel memories, you'll forget I told you by the time it happens."

"But I can't just let him die." Little Steve could feel a sob welling up in his throat. "I can't. Hit by a car? Who deserves that?"

Big Steve knelt down in front of Little Steve. "Of course. Nobody does. Look, it's going to be tough. Death always is. It's like with Dad's unemployment. He'll never get his old job back, and life'll never get back to what it was, but he'll get out of it someday, and it'll be great when he does. You just kind of have to let the bad stuff happen until then."

Little Steve rubbed his eyes. "You're wrong. I'm gonna find a way to save him. Bill may be a jerk, but he doesn't have to die."

Big Steve wrapped his arms around Little Steve. "I'm not saying he has to. I'm just saying he will."

"And you don't know when?"

"Memory's just a little fuzzy."

"And what about the watch? I can't use that once I know more?"

"To be honest, I don't even remember what happened to the watch. Believe me, I'd love to tell you everything you need to know. But this is all I have. I'm sorry." He gave his younger self a pat on the back. "I think it's about time for me to head home."

"A—all right." Little Steve set the dial on his watch, held down the red button, and pointed the antenna at Big Steve. "It was great meeting you, Steve."

"Same here, Steve. Not interested in one more visit to 2030?"

Little Steve shook his head. "Too rainy."

The antenna lit up, and its chrono waves rippled toward Big Steve. He shifted out of sight, leaving no sign that there had ever been more than one of him at school today. Steve headed outside, where his dad was waiting in the family car.

When he got home, Steve borrowed Dad's phone and took it up to his room. However much he loathed the idea, Steve knew one way for certain to make sure Bill Grendale stayed safe. He'd have to stay close to him. Keep an eye on him. Hang out with him.

He found the Grendales' number in a PTA directory and called their number.

He asked Mrs. Grendale if he could speak with Bill.

Bill came on the line and said, "Yo, who's this?"

Steve winced at the voice. All he could think about when he heard Bill speak was a Jell-O bowl full of snot. "Um, it's Steve, from school."

"Oh, hey Ungo. What's up?"

Steve winced again. Come on, there were worse things than a stupid nickname. "I was just wondering if you could come over to my house this weekend."

"Really? Wow, thanks, I'd love to. But my mom's taking me to see my aunt in Mississippi. Maybe sometime next week, after school?"

"I guess that'll be fine," Steve said. At least Mississippi was far from the street outside the school. "Mississippi, huh? I went to Vicksburg a few months ago, you know."

"No kidding. Find any old Civil War bullets?"

"No, but I did find something cool." Steve searched the room for the watch, but couldn't find it. It must have wound up underneath some clothes or toys somewhere. It'd turn up. "Have a good time down there."

Bill said, "Believe me, I'll try."

After the call, a weird feeling came over Steve. That was the longest he'd ever spoken to Bill Grendale. And it had actually been a fairly pleasant conversation. Maybe Bill wasn't the jerk Steve thought he was.

But what made Steve want to call Bill in the first place? Didn't it have something to do with the watch? It was really important, but now everything Big Steve had told him was a blur. Something would happen... but what?

Big Steve was right, time travel really did screw around with your memory.

Steve picked up clothes off the floor and threw them in the hamper, and felt through every pocket of his backpack, but never found that watch. He had to retrace his steps from his bedroom door. After he'd taken off the watch, he'd set it on top of his dresser...

There was a handwritten note in that spot now.

It was addressed "To whom it may concern."

Thank you for finding my watch. It was a birthday gift from my grandson. Fortunately it has that newfangled TPS sensor that helps you find it from a different time period. I thought I could use it to help a dear friend, but I wound up dropping the watch by mistake. As for the friend, it seems history has already run its course. Sorry for the inconvenience. I hope you don't get in too much trouble with it.

Signed,
Steven Unger.

Little Steve suddenly had to lie down.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Weekly Story #19: The Dragon Arthur's Gold

  • Fashion Studio - Dragon - Twins

THE DRAGON ARTHUR'S GOLD

The key card let Chloe into the skybridge that led from the parking garage directly to the floor that held her office. She and her sister had been working at Garza Inc. for five years, and had always done everything their boss asked, but now Chloe had reached her limit. She'd barely slept, and she still ached from her flight and felt dragged out from the airport crowds. She stormed past the legal and financial teams to the elevator, where she used her key card again to go up to the studio. Betty Garza would be there. She hardly ever left.

Garza's secretary got up to block Chloe's way. "Afternoon, Ms. Webster," he said, "if you'll take a seat--"

"I'm here to see Betty."

"Ms. Garza's busy at the moment, but--"

Chloe slammed her hand on the desktop. "I'm seeing her now." Without waiting for him to do anything else, Chloe threw open the door to the studio. "Betty!"

Betty Garza was seated at her drawing table, surrounded by sketches and photos of the jewelry and clothing she'd designed, and upon which she'd built a fashion empire. Some of these outfits hung on a rack in the corner of the studio. Garza was working on a new necklace made of dragon scales, and wearing a blouse made of dragon skin. She glanced over her shoulder, her thick 80's-grandma glasses resting on the tip of her nose. "You're back sooner than I expected."

"It's an emergency," Chloe said. "You got my message, right?"

"I did, but it was rather incoherent. You made it sound like you got kidnapped by spies or something."

"This isn't funny. It's Arthur. He's taken Olivia hostage."

"Hostage?" Garza turned her chair toward Chloe. "I thought he was your friend. That you knew him since you were children."

"He was. But don't forget, this isn't a rational person we're talking about. He's a literal fire-breathing, gold-hoarding dragon. And he doesn't like what we're doing with his scales anymore."

"Why wouldn't he?" Garza said. "We're helping people look good, and we're doing it without plundering the Global South, and we're taking centuries of old skin flakes off his hands. Surely he can see the benefits of that."

"Well, he's not only a fire-breathing dragon, he's a moralistic dragon. He seems to think we're succumbing to vanity and greed or something. I've never seen him this upset. He wouldn't give us any scales, and he wouldn't let Olivia go."

Garza tapped her pencil on the table. "But why take her hostage?"

"He used his tail and a pile of scales to block her way out. I couldn't do anything."

"But why?" Garza said. "What does he want?"

"Right. Well, you know how Olivia and I usually have to bargain a little to get him to turn the scales over?" It was easy when they were girls--they'd give him some flowers, he'd turn over some scales from his hoard, and the girls would take them home to turn into necklaces or earrings. "He never just gives us the scales. He exchanges for them. And... I dunno, maybe he's decided we aren't giving him enough."

"Then what does he want?"

"That's just it--I don't know. He didn't say. I don't think he's going to hurt her, but she's never going to leave that cave unless we give Arthur something in return. And even that still isn't going to get us any more scales."

Garza twirled the pencil between her fingers. "I'm guessing money is out of the question."

"He lives in it. No, usually it's something intangible." Since they started working for Garza, Arthur would often ask them to perform some boon, usually a test of courage or moral character. They'd volunteered at soup kitchens; they'd planted trees; they'd even flown to Japan, and brought back a single pebble from a shrine in Kyoto. "It's just, he's always told us before. I've never had to guess. But what do I give him that's just as valuable as my sister?"

"A very interesting question." Garza hopped out of her chair and began to pace around the room. "What do you give the dragon who has everything? Did he give us a timeframe?"

"No," Chloe said. "He'll hold Olivia indefinitely if he has to."

Garza stopped and gazed out her window, looking out at the skyline, the river, the harbor. From up here, it was easy to feel like a goddess raised up on high.

"This dragon..." Garza did not turn away from the window. "Are you the only human beings he is willing to see?"

"I don't know. Why do you ask?"

"I think I'd like to meet him myself."

"Are you... You can't be serious."

"You and Olivia have always been valued employees. At times, I even think of you as friends. And this 'Arthur,' as you say, is--or was--your friend as well. I'd like to at least see if he's taking good care of Olivia. Do you think you can set up a meeting?"

"I don't know about setting one up. Usually I just go to his cave and say hi."

"All right. I'll clear my schedule for tomorrow. We'll fly back first thing. You'll meet me at the airport?"

Chloe dropped into Garza's chair and sighed. She hated airports. Hated, hated, hated them. But if this could in any way help Olivia, then there was no question. "Sure. Just let me know what time."

Olivia lay on a bed made of layers of old dragon skin, staring at the stalactites above her. Outside the alcove, in the larger grotto, the dragon she and her sister had named "Arthur" slept. His true name was an ancient one, and only pronounceable by other dragons. When Olivia and Chloe first met him, back when they were only seven years old, they simply gave him the first name that popped in their heads. Her parents' old farmhouse was only a ten-minute walk away, but of course Olivia couldn't go there. If she so much as took one step near the exit, Arthur would slap his tail down in front, shaking the whole cavern, blocking her path.

Arthur's silver skin reflected the light from the braziers scattered throughout the cave. Every year his skin turned gold, and he shed it, and added it to the hoard. Olivia wished she'd never found it, that she and Chloe had never come back here after Arthur first scared them off. Some friend he'd turned out to be.

Arthur stirred, and opened his eyes, and lifted his head. "Olivia," he said, his voice booming, "are you hungry?"

"No, I'm fine," Olivia said. She had last eaten about four hours ago. She wasn't sure how, but Arthur was able to provide her with freshly-cooked meals, as if they'd been prepared in a professional kitchen. "Don't think I'm ready to forgive you."

"I do not ask your forgiveness," Arthur said. "Rather, it is you who should be seeking mine."

"What? Look, Arthur, Chloe and I have done everything you've ever asked. We've never complained. You're going back on a deal we've had for almost twenty years! For what, to teach us a lesson?"

"Hmph. I think you may have misunderstood the nature of our relationship." Arthur lowered his head to ground level and drew it toward Olivia's alcove. "For these twenty years, you and your twin sister have been my guests. Nothing more. I permitted it because of your willingness to conquer your fear."

Olivia remembered. The first time she and Chloe had stumbled into this cave, they'd run off screaming as soon as they saw Arthur. But they were so fascinated they had to come back. When the dragon demanded to know why they weren't afraid, seven-year-old Olivia explained that they were: but he was just so cool. The two would never give up his secret for anything. Before Betty Garza, they'd only ever told their parents, but Olivia never knew if they believed her. "Is it because we told Ms. Garza?"

"It is not that you told her," Arthur said. "But that you plunder me for her. You use my gold--my gold--to line the pockets of capitalists who don't know the first thing about beauty."

"So you're a socialist now?" Olivia said. "I mean, what good is this gold doing sitting around in here?"

Arthur shook his head. "You still don't understand. When I first shared my gold with you, it was as a gift to two children unconsumed by greed. Back then, you saw gold as more of a toy, not as a tool to gain and wield power. Yet when you returned to collect materials for your employer, it was exactly that lust for power that I saw in your eyes. And no matter what tests I gave you, no matter what lessons I meant to impart on you, nothing was enough. You're now slaves to supply-and-demand."

"But that's not fair! We learned a lot from those tests! I still volunteer at that soup kitchen every few months! Chloe helped start a community garden! What do you want us to do, quit our jobs?"

Smoke issued from Arthur's nostrils. "I don't know that it will come to that," he said. "Chloe is already bringing me what I want as I speak."

"How do you--"

"I have ways of knowing what I want to know, Olivia." Arthur looked toward the entrance of the grotto. "Chloe will be back tomorrow."

"What is she bringing?"

Arthur didn't answer.

Olivia sat against the wall and picked up a handful of dragon scales, each the size of a quarter or a state dollar. From a distance they'd always looked like coins themselves. She let them fall between her fingers and jingle on the floor. As a kid she'd always found this place so beautiful, like something out of a storybook brought to life. Now, the scales might as well have been hunks of lead, for all the good they did her. Arthur could keep them. Olivia just wanted to leave and see her sister again.

But if Chloe did complete her task, what then? What would their relationship with Arthur become, and where would it go? Were she and her twin both going to get out of this alive?

"It's right here." Chloe laid aside the tangled branches, revealing the crack in the rocks that opened the way into the cave. "We'll only need flashlights for a little bit."

"And you discovered this when you were children?" Ms. Garza said.

"Oh yeah, Olivia and I would run all over these woods. We knew every inch like the back of our hands. And nobody knew the cave was here, so we decided, why not take a look?

"And you found a dragon. It's just like a fairy tale."

"I suppose so. You sure about this? Last chance to back out."

"I'm eager to meet the source of my inventory." Garza turned on her flashlight. "Lead the way."

So Chloe ducked into the cave, and remained stooped for several feet before the cave opened up enough to let her stand up a little. The first time she and Olivia explored here, they barely had to bend over at all. It was as if it was made for children, and not a twenty-something assistant to a renowned fashion designer.

The flashlight beams flittered over the rocks. Chloe had been here so many times she mostly just needed the light to remind herself where the landmarks were. Walk over that rock, weave around that stalagmite, squeeze into that passage. At every step, Chloe had to guide Garza over, under, and around every obstacle, and she felt a tiny thrill each time she did. "You know," she said, "I've always wanted to show somebody through this place."

"Someone other than your sister?"

"Olivia already knows the way. She even drew a map once, from memory. No idea where it's gone now, but neither of us really need it anymore. It's just... nice to be able to show somebody through. To let somebody else in on our secret." It helped her forget that they were essentially heading for a hostage negotiation.

Garza pointed up ahead. "That way. I see a light."

"Yup. We're almost there." A warm glow lit up the opening in the rocks ahead. As they crept closer, Chloe turned off her flashlight. Garza did as well.

After dipping down through the opening, they came to the ledge overlooking Arthur's grotto. Gold scales lay in massive piles on the ground, forming mounds and dunes all over, with more shoved into the holes and cul-de-sacs. Braziers blazed throughout the chamber, but the light seemed to come from everywhere, even the walls.

And in the middle of the pile was Arthur, lounging like a bored house cat. Olivia was pacing around him, still in the dress-suit she'd been wearing yesterday. She looked up at the ledge. "Chloe! You're back!"

"Remarkable," Garza said. "Utterly remarkable. If I'd found this place when I was little, I'd never keep it secret."

Arthur raised his head. "You've returned sooner than I thought. And you brought a guest."

Olivia cried, "You brought Ms. Garza?!"

"She insisted!" Chloe said. "You try saying no to her!"

Arthur rose onto all fours. "Very good. I've been interested in meeting you, Elizabeth Garza. You must have come a long way. How was your trip?"

Garza reached for Chloe. "C-C-Chloe, he's talking to me. What do I do?"

"Answer him," Chloe said. "He's perfectly easy to talk to. He's just, you know, a dragon. Here." Chloe took Garza's hand and led her down the ramp that Arthur had carved by the ledge. When they reached the bottom, they were directly opposite from Arthur. "Probably easier if you're down here."

Garza stayed behind Chloe. Arthur's body was the size of an SUV, and when he stretched out his neck, his head reached as high as a telephone pole.

"M-My trip was just fine," Garza said. "I just had no idea what to expect."

"And what do you think? Does the refuse of my skin impress you?"

"I... Honestly, it does. I've never seen so much gold in one place."

"I suspect you never will again. Do you know why I guard this hoard so zealously? It's not that I hold it to be valuable. After all, what would I want with gold? I, who command earth and sky!" Arthur spread his wings, sending a gust through the cavern. "No. I'm not protecting the gold from you. I'm protecting you from the gold."

Garza tapped her chin. "Let me guess. You think that us acquiring this gold can only promote greed, conflict, and oppression?"

"I'm quite aware of what your species does when it gets what it thinks it wants."

"All right then. And you think my jewelry line will encourage this?"

"That depends on you, doesn't it? What is your goal? With the twins, I sense great ambition. It's made them restless. They come here out of fear that their ambition will not be rewarded. That they will lose the wealth and success my gold has given them. I do not reward fear."

Chloe remembered the first time she and Olivia returned here, how boldly Olivia had spoken to him, all the while trembling as if wearing shorts in the winter. There had always been a slight twinge of fear every time they saw him, but he had never harmed them in any way. They had learned to trust him, and he them.

"Well, then I suppose I'm here because of fear myself," Garza said. "I have shareholders, lawyers, and customers constantly demanding new designs. I have a loyal employee being held hostage by a reptile. And I'm worried that a literal dragon is going to take offense to something I say."

Arthur chuckled. "I'm not what you would call thin-skinned. But tell me, wouldn't another source of gold be just as good?"

"Of course not. This is so easily accessible it helps us save money, which means our jewelry's more affordable. And then there's the quality of your gold. It sparkles like nothing I've ever seen."

"So then you have no intention to cease looting my hoard?"

"Well..." Garza took a step back. "I don't like to think of it as looting. Look, all I want to do is design jewelry and clothing, and your scales have been the best inspiration I've ever had. Obviously the rest of the world agrees, because I'm so rich I don't even have to handle my own money anymore. Just being here is so overwhelming... I wish I could keep all this gold for inspiration. I wish..."

Arthur furled his wings. "Yes?"

"I wish I lived here," Garza said. "That I could set up my studio right here. I would just need the twins to take everything back to New York. I suppose I'd have to worry about food, but I sometimes get so busy I forget to eat dinner anyway."

"She really does," Chloe said.

"You don't have to worry about food while you're here," Arthur said.

"You really don't," Olivia said. She stepped closer to Chloe. "Ms. Garza, you can't be serious."

"Actually, I think I am," Garza said. "Arthur, could I exchange myself for Olivia?"

Arthur lowered his head. "An interesting exchange. You'd give up all your comfort, all your social connections, all to stay here?"

"In a heartbeat!"

"Ms, Garza, you're not making any sense!" Chloe said. "You've got Fashion Week coming up next week, and the photo shoot with Ms. Knowles in a few days!"

"Just tell them I've gone on a pilgrimage or some crap. This is where I need to be."

"Arthur," Olivia said, "you can't keep her prisoner here!"

"I have no intention to," Arthur said. "Ms. Garza will be here of her own free will. She can come and go as she pleases. If she has any obligations, I won't keep her away. I have to admit, Ms. Garza, I was not expecting you to make such a decision so quickly. It's been a long time since I've had a houseguest."

"It's Betty," Garza said, "and I wasn't expecting this place to be so beautiful. Can I set up an art table in here?"

"As long as it isn't in my way."

"Ms. Garza..." Chloe reached for Ms. Garza's shoulder, but never touched. "You're sure about this?"

"Positive, Chloe," Garza said. "You two should both have the corporate card. Go to your hotel, get Olivia a change of clothes, and have a nice dinner. I want to get to know Arthur a little better."

"But--"

"Go," Arthur said. "I'll see you again. So shall Betty Garza."

With considerable trepidation, Chloe and Olivia headed up to the ledge, and navigated their way back out to the surface, with no scales, and now not even a boss to show for it.

"Are you okay?" Chloe said.

"I'm fine, just worn out. How about you?"

"Well, at least you didn't have to fly two days in a row. But what do we do now?"

"I guess we just do what Ms. Garza said. I definitely smell like I've been stuck in a cave for a day and a half."

"No, I mean what do we do with Ms. Garza in there? What are we supposed to give Arthur to get her back?"

"I don't think this is a ransom, Chloe. You heard Ms. Garza. She wants to be there. And what Ms. Garza wants, she gets, fashion industry be damned."

"So what, we just leave her?"

"I think at the very least," Olivia said, "we should trust Arthur on this one. He knows how to treat a guest."

Chloe and Olivia headed downhill, toward the country road where Chloe's rental car was parked, using the same path through the woods that the two of them had followed since they were seven. The woods seemed a lot smaller than they had in the past. From this angle, the trees didn't seem quite as mighty, and they didn't seem shrouded quite as much mystery.

But it wasn't the forest that changed. It wasn't just the twins' height, either.

One person had seen everything the way Chloe and Olivia had when they were kids, and that was Ms. Garza.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Weekly Story #18: The Attempt

Well, I'm back from Doxacon, and I had as good a time as my immune system would allow. I started developing a cold at the same time, so while I still went to the convention, I spent a lot of it lying down. I couldn't even stay through the Liturgy on Sunday. The sickness and travel also meant I didn't complete a new story last week. Bleh. Fortunately, I have a six-week buffer, so I should still be able to meet a weekly posting schedule for the time being. The prompt for this story was:

  • Fusion Chamber - Doctor/Assassin - Pie

THE ATTEMPT

The fusion reactor had been running smoothly all night. Heat and output remained stable. Doctor Orton and her team had been using it to power the control room. One more day of successful power output, and the team could get to work on the paper and share their work with the world.

Doctor Orton stood on the observation deck, looking over the chamber. She was staying overnight to keep an eye on everything while the test proceeded. There was only a skeleton crew, with Dr. Jorowsky, Dr. Chau, and Dr. Haller, all running on coffee, the promise of celebratory pie in the morning, and the prospect of a place in history books. They were finally generating power through controlled nuclear fusion, one of the white whales of modern physics. Once this went into civilian use, it would revolutionize energy production around the world.

She could already taste that cherry pie.

Dr. Haller, once a graduate student of Doctor Orton, now a full member of the team, walked up with a fresh cup of coffee. "Here. Just brewed another pot."

"Appreciate it," Dr. Orton said. Black, just the way she liked it. "You not getting one?"

"No, I'm good for right now."

The cup was still hot, so Dr. Orton held onto it while it cooled down a little. The warmth soothed her in her 2-in-the-morning fatigue. "What are your plans for when we're done?"

"I'm taking a week off, running up to Virginia, seeing family."

"That sounds nice," Dr. Orton said. "I've still got to make sure the data is something resembling organized. But as soon as I'm done with that, I'm taking a little well-deserved vacation myself." She raised her coffee, but it was still too hot to sip. She gave it a sniff. "This smells a little funny."

"You sure?" Dr. Haller said. "Smelled fine to me when I poured it."

"You ever tried using a Keurig out of the box without scrubbing the insides? That weird plasticky smell that gets into the cup? It's a little like that."

"Can't say I noticed."

"I hope something's not wrong with the coffee maker." Dr. Orton called down the stairwell to the lab, "Hey guys, is your coffee all right?"

Drs. Jorowsky and Chau both answered, "Tastes great!"

Dr. Orton asked Dr. Haller, "Did you put anything in this?"

"I... No. Why would you think I'd do such a thing?"

"It's just a question, and it's just a cup of coffee." Dr. Orton headed toward the stairs. "I'll just pour another cup."

"Wait," Dr. Haller said.

"Yes?"

As she turned, she found Dr. Haller right next to her, grabbing her sleeve, with a blank glare in her eyes and a small knife in her hand.

Dr. Orton threw the cup aside and twisted around, pulled Dr. Haller off balance, and steered her into the floor. She brought her knee down on Dr. Haller's shoulder to pin her down. The puddle of spilled coffee spread out from the cup.

Dr. Chau called up from the lab. "Something wrong up there?"

"We're fine," Dr. Orton said, then to her captive, "Andrea, what happened?"

"Dr. Orton, I'm sorry." Tears flowed across Dr. Haller's face. "I'm so sorry."

"Was it something I did? Something I said? Something about the project?"

"Just kill me. You might as well. Here's the knife, right here."

"You know perfectly well I'm not going to do that. You've always been a wonderful student, and an invaluable part of this team. Why throw all that out now? Who put you up to this?"

"If they find out... they'll kill my brother and sister."

"Who?"

"The people who paid me to—"

"No, I mean, what brother and sister? Andrea Haller is an only child."

The young woman stopped crying as if on cue. "I guess you got me there. But when did you really figure it out? It had to be before I gave you the coffee. Arsenic's supposed to be odorless."

"Well, for one thing, unlike you, Dr. Haller knows perfectly well that I'm a Shodan in Aikijujutsu. But it was earlier, when Chau connected the reactor to the lab, when you helped make the final connections. You looked at the cords like you'd never seen them before. Andrea Haller helped design the electrical system for this lab. I couldn't tell the difference otherwise."

"It's a miracle what they can do with surgery these days," the assassin said.

"So where's the real Dr. Haller?"

"Oh, she's safe. Thinks you gave her the night off."

"And who are you working for?" Dr. Orton said. "CIA? Russia? Exxon Mobil?"

"The important thing is, they paid well. More than enough to make the new face worth it. The question is, what are you going to do with me?"

"Well, I'm not going to kill you," Dr. Orton said. "I wouldn't want to have to explain to the others why I murdered Dr. Haller, or why she'd suddenly turn up alive the next day." She peeled the assassin's fingers off the knife, and threw it to the other side of the room. "How about this? You go home. I tell the guys you needed to get some rest. And then, I dunno, I'll treat myself to some pie."

"You think you're some badass, don't you?"

"You're the assassin. You tell me."

The assassin struggled, but Dr. Orton pulled on her arm and locked her even tighter in place. "Now, if I let you go, are you going to try to kill me again?" Dr. Orton relaxed herself off of the assassin. "Or are you going to go home?"

"What do you think is going to happen to me when they find out I failed?"

"I wouldn't know. I've never been hired to assassinate somebody."

The assassin gritted her teeth. "Ah, hell. I got half the money anyway. Let me go. I'll leave."

Dr. Orton eased off. They both rose from the floor. She led the fake Dr. Haller through the lab, where Drs. Chau and Jorowsky had their eyes alternately on their data readouts or the movies playing on their tablets. "I'm getting some pie a little early. Anybody want some?"

"No thanks," Dr. Jorowsky said. "I said I'd wait until sunrise and I intend to wait until sunrise."

Dr. Chau said, "I may grab some in a little bit. But thanks."

Dr. Orton continued on to the break room, took the box out of the fridge, and cut out a slice. "Want one?" she asked the assassin.

"I'm not hungry."

"I insist." Dr. Orton cut out another slice and slid it into a baggie. "For the road."

The assassin glared at the pie for a moment, then swiped it out of Dr. Orton's hand.

"I believe you know the way out."

While she ate, she called Dr. Haller at her home to make sure she was all right—she was—and called the police to tell them a woman matching Dr. Haller's description was leaving the lab.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Weekly Story #17: The Wedding Venue

A shorter one this time. Lately I've been a little busier at work than usual, and I have a novel draft in progress, so my writing schedule has been sort of out of whack. I've even had a few that, full disclosure, I didn't finish until early the next week. Shorter stories like this help me get back into the swing of things. Also a bit of an exception to the more science fiction/fantasy-oriented stories I've been doing since I restarted this project in July. Sometimes it's good to stay in the real world for a little bit. This coming weekend (Nov. 2-4), I'll be in Washington, D.C. attending Doxacon at St. Sophia's Orthodox Cathedral! Hope to see you there!

  • Billiard Room - Wedding Planner/Bride - Maple Syrup

THE WEDDING VENUE

"So I have to admit," Sandra said with the smell of a cigar in her nose. "This isn't quite the venue I was expecting."

"I know, it's unorthodox," Roni, the bride-to-be, said. "But I've always had a soft spot for this place."

The place was an establishment called Bill's Billiards, just a few blocks away from the Interstate, right off Castille Street. Sandra didn't come to this part of town very often—certainly not in a long time. The residents here weren't exactly her usual clientele, which tended to have an extra digit or two in their salary. Roni herself lived in Verdure Heights—not the wealthiest, but definitely in the upper part of the middle. Sandra had planned wedding receptions at billiard clubs before, but those were usually not the types frequented by bikers, nor the types that had smoke hanging in the air at all times. Not to mention, Roni didn't just want the reception here—she wanted the wedding.

It was 3 PM on a Tuesday, and there were only three other people at the bar. One sat just a few seats down from Sandra. He had smoked three cigarettes since she and Roni arrived. All of his attention was on the Tennessee/Alabama game on the flatscreen behind the bar. The other two patrons were a couple of unshaven gentlemen playing 8-Ball at one of the tables.

"I'm just not sure this is really the type of place that would normally host a wedding," Sandra said. She sipped her Fat Tire, then waved at the bartender. "Excuse me, sir? Is it possible to reserve this place for special events?" She had to shout over the Thin Lizzy playing on the jukebox.

He shrugged. "Don't think we ever have. You have to ask Bill."

"Oh. You're not Bill?"

"Nope, I'm Rocky."

Roni chuckled at something, maybe an old joke she'd just remembered.

"Okay, Rocky. My friend here's getting married, and it turns out she wants to have the wedding here."

"Oh, hey, Roni," Rocky said. "I saw the post on Instagram. Congratulations. But... the wedding? Here?"

"I always said I wanted my big day to be unique," Roni said.

"I mean, it's your wedding. I just don't know that Bill would care much for the idea. I could see maybe the reception, or the bachelorette party. You do realize we don't allow kids in here, right?"

The Thin Lizzy song ended, and an Iron Maiden song replaced it.

"That's what I was wondering," Sandra said. "Roni, I'm not sure how people are going to feel about an adults-only wedding. I've never been to one."

"I didn't say I wanted it in here," Roni said. "You know that empty lot behind the place? We can set up back there, Bill's can provide some food, and if anyone wants to, they can come in here for some pool."

"Okay, so that makes a little more sense. Unorthodox, but I guess if you're comfortable with this place..."

"I am. I've been coming here since college. Bill's has always been great to me. And besides, I just cannot wait to see the looks on Mommy and Daddy's faces when they figure out where they are."

"Troll weddings. I don't get a lot of those." Sandra had seen pictures of Mommy and Daddy—the kinds of people who owned more than one car, and paid someone else to drive them. "Rocky, any chance we can work something out?"

"You'd have to ask Bill." Rocky looked toward the back of the building. "Don't think we've ever done catering. Speaking of which, you ready to order?"

"We'll both have the pancakes," Roni said.

"Wait, I'm not done looking," Sandra said.

"They're the best damn pancakes in town. Trust me, when you taste them, you'll want to have your wedding here, too."

"But this place isn't even open in the morning."

"No," Rocky said, "but we do get enough night owls who feel like breakfast when they show up here. And she's right, they are really good." Rocky scribbled down the order. "You'll still need to talk to Bill, though. I'm really not sure he'd go along with the wedding."

"I don't mind calling him," Sandra said. "In fact, I'm actually very interested in speaking with him. You see, my full name is Sandra Underhill."

Rocky whipped his head up and stared at her. "Underhill?"

"Am I supposed to know who that is?" Roni said.

"I'm surprised you don't, if you're a regular here," Sandra said. "Chester Underhill was my grandfather. He built this place."

"Chester's your grandfather?" Rocky said. "My God, he's a legend! Whatever happened to him?"

"Currently in Florida. Still has his old hog. My dad was even a bartender here, before the place got sold. I'm glad to see something's happening with it."

"I had no idea," Rocky said.

"I had no idea," Roni said.

"I had no idea," the cigarette-smoking man said as he moved down to a closer stool. "I used to come here back when your pop was tending bar."

"So you think Bill might be willing to make an arrangement?" Sandra asked Rocky.

It was the smoking man who answered. "I think he might." The jukebox switched from Iron Maiden to Jethro Tull. "Bill McKenzie, at your service."

"I was wondering how long you were gonna take to say something," Roni said.

"Ah. Well, then, Mr. McKenzie," Sandra said, "if we can get the lot out back on March 15, and some light catering—I guess we'll want burgers, fries, wings, and those pancakes Roni was talking about—I'm pretty sure you'll be well compensated."

"We will spare no expense," Roni said.

"I think we can handle that," Bill said. "Rocky, their next drinks are on me. Tell Chester I said hi."

Sandra swallowed some more beer. "I just hope those pancakes are as good as Roni said. I'm going to want plenty of syrup."