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.