Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Friend in Need

by Travis Perry

Jax knelt down beside Ernsto, who was flat on his back on a sandy patch at the bottom of a rocky gully, wincing in pain. “I’m so sorry about last night—I guess I’ve been regulating how much I drink by how much I bring in…I usually run out of cash before I can put down that much ale.”

Ernsto snorted, “So it’s my fault for helpin’ you bring in too big a haul?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. The fault was mine. I’m sorry I led her to you, that Zana lady.”

“Well, don’t expect much from me. I never used to forgive anything from anyone.”

“Used to? Does that mean you forgive now?”

“Well—that angel sure would want me to…” Ernsto’s voice trailed off and his eyes watered.

Jax stared at his new friend and didn’t know what to think. He’d heard Ernsto cry out before, as in for help or in pain—but he’d never seen him cry, not a single tear, not even when he’d set the bone in his arm. There was so much he didn’t know about this guy. What in the world could have affected him so much?

“What angel?” Jax finally asked in a soft voice.

“Never mind about her…I forgive you. God knows I done a lot worse than what you did. To someone a lot better’n me.” A single tear streaked down the side of his face, past his ear into the sand. Ernsto wiped at his face absently, as if he didn’t really care.

“Changing subjects, er…I don’t think I set your bone quite right. Your left arm is shorter than the other.”

“Hmmm. Don’ blame yourself. I think it’s because the bone is shattered in that spot.”

“Ah…doesn’t that mean it will never heal right? I’m not a doctor or anything, but I think that’s the case.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure you are correct.”

“Shouldn’t we, ah…do something about that?”

“Got any suggestions? Remember I’m wanted everywhere. And believe me, the man that’s after me is sure to make me disappear forever. If they catch me.”

Jax rubbed his chin, looking upward, Sheba visible low over the east mountain ridge in the dust-orange hued sky. “You know, I think I’ve got an idea…”

Monday, November 4, 2013

Drifting

by Jeff C. Carter -

Rahab piloted the hulking spider along the lightless tunnels of the space station’s outer ring.  When Rahab entered this arachnid body, it had seemed so rigid and heavy.  Here, in zero gravity, it floated gracefully like Rahab’s true form.  Rahab never suspected that space was so like the ocean depths.

Rahab had learned much about this strange city in the sky.  Artificial atmosphere, to fill the air-breathers’ lungs.  Artificial light, to hold back the dark.  Artificial gravity, to hide the pull of the endless void.  The air-breathers here were even more sheltered than the weaklings of the cities of the sea.  Constant panic boiled beneath the surface of their minds.  The flavor was piquant and intoxicating.

Rahab crippled the artificial gravity wherever he could.  With its illusion torn away, only the truth of empty chaos remained.  The air-breathers of the city in the sky believed they were safe from the crawling horrors below.  Their fragile minds believed themselves beyond reach.  But Rahab was patient.  Rahab was sly.  Rahab was Death.

The spiders were spreading throughout the city in the sky.  Rahab felt waves of blood lust and gales of despair saturate the metal corridors.  The air-breathers were learning the way of all flesh.  The city in the sky would plunge out of orbit and rain destruction upon the cities of the surface and the cities of the sea.  Rahab would greet their scattered corpses as they sank into the blackest depths.  Rahab would embrace them all in his many arms.  Together they would await the end of time. 

A vibration along the tunnel wall caressed the fine hairs in the spider’s clawed legs.  Its multitude of eyes picked out a pair of small air-breathers shuffling along in magnetic boots.  Rahab tasted the sizzle of nervous energy in the air, but not the spice of panic.  Rahab’s heart sang with joyful murder.  Rahab would descend from the darkness and split their rational minds wide open.  Rahab would feast on fresh, primal fear.

One of the air-breathers, a female, spoke.

“Should we double back, Dressler?  This tunnel looks clear.”

Rahab crept closer. 

“Could be.  We have bagged a lot of bugs on this deck,” Dressler said.

An unpleasant clear tone, like a high pitched whine, rang from the male.  It was not just the absence of fear.  It was a quiet conviction.  The bitter tang was nauseating, and somehow, strangely familiar.  Rahab let the air-breathers escape with their sour, overripe minds.  Rahab was seeking juicier prey.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Word Carrier 11: The Just Regardeth the Life of his Beast

by Heidi Kortman -
  
“Ouch,” Bede muttered as he hurried down the corridor toward the dispensary. “I’m sorry you hurt, Pangur Ban, but so does the back of my neck.” With each of the quarr’s rapid breaths, its scales rasped Bede’s skin.

He didn’t dare to leave the animal unattended, and holding it stable across his shoulders meant that he didn’t have a hand free to keep the hem of his robe from hindering his stride. Ahead was the last corner.

The dispensary door and shutters were closed. Bede rattled the shutters. Maybe the dispensarian was compounding a salve. No light escaped the slats. “Brother Wilfred, Brother Wilfred, are you there?” He set the quarr on the narrow counter ledge. “Stay.”
Bede grasped the door lever. Locked. He pounded, and raised his voice. “Brother Wilfred.”

Farther down the hall, a door opened. The bishop’s confessor poked his head through. “Be quiet! Meditation is hard enough in this place without your noise.”

“Father, is the dispensarian with you? I need medicine for my quarr.” He’d said it. My quarr.

“Bibles don’t own anything. No, he’s not with me. Be quiet or be gone.” With that, the confessor slammed the door.

“The two of them deserve each other,” Bede muttered, as he returned to the panting quarr. “Let me see, boy.” The blisters were taut with fluid.

“I wish this robe had a hood.” Bede bent again and took the quarr across his shoulders. If he’d caught the case of grooblies that had struck the dormitory in the spring, he might know which was the dispensarian’s cell. The bishop, however, was cautious of his health. Odds were good that the confessor could steer Bede in the right direction.

He trudged to the man’s cell door, and gave it three solid thumps. When it opened, Bede stared into the confessor’s flushed face. “This quarr saved the bishop’s life. Now it needs tending. Where will I find Brother Wilfred at this hour?”

Pangur Ban flattened his ears and showed fangs. Bede tapped the quarr’s nose, but not before the confessor’s face went pasty.

“T-two levels down, across from Water Purification.”

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Big One

by Greg Mitchell -

“No,” Dressler said for the fourth time, now folding his beefy arms, hoping to add to the effect.

Yulaura crossed the room, releasing an exasperated breath. She flopped in the seat across from him in Meryl’s crowded living room. At their feet, five children played and rough-housed, except for Edilyn. Dressler’s daughter sat next to him, stiff and serious. She was more hunter than child now.

“Dress, be reasonable,” Yulaura groaned. “We need this.”

“We? Or you?”

“Me! You!” She gestured to the cramped quarters, shouting to be heard over the lawless kids. “How long can you possibly stand to live here?”

An especially sharp cry split Dressler’s nerves as one of his nephews pummeled his squealing niece with a pillow. Yulaura had a point.

Only last week he and Edilyn had taken in a stranger who’d run into a spot of trouble. Turns out that trouble had followed him to their home. There had been an attack. Edilyn had kept her cool, and Dressler had never been prouder of her. Together they’d defended their home and kept their haggard guest safe—but the house was destroyed. His sister Meryl had graciously offered them a couch for the last few nights, but he and Edilyn were used to their quiet. Their solitude.

A stray pillow sailed through the air, smacking him in the face. He scowled.

“What’s the job?” he grumbled. “More importantly, what’s it pay?”

Yulaura’s bright eyes lit with excitement against her tanned face. Her teeth beamed white in a wide smile. “Big. This is the big one, Dress. My contact says that it’s a huge infestation. Biggest one they’ve ever had. Hunters from all over are coming, but there’s room for everyone. And money for everyone, too. Lots of money.”

He squinted at her, apprehensive. “Well, there would have to be, considering where we’re going.”

His stomach flopped, just at the thought of it. A wave of queasiness settled over him as he rolled the word over in his mind: Avenir. There was a damn bug invasion on Avenir. The thought of breaking orbit, going into space…

Dressler swallowed hard, his weathered hands feeling damp.

After his little “adventure” down in Eclectia’s oceans, Dressler was determined to keep nice, solid earth under his feet at all times from here on out.

He looked to Edilyn, heaving a sigh. “What do you think?”

His daughter leaned over and hugged his arm. “I don’t want you to leave again.”

He patted her curly, dirty blonde locks. He didn’t want to leave, either. Last time he’d left her, he’d followed his last partner on some harebrained scheme. That turned out badly, to say the least. He’d nearly died down there in those waters, facing off against that thing. Now he was thinking about going up into space and fighting the monsters up there?

Yulaura continued to grin, nearly bouncing in place. “Come on, Dress. We need this,” she repeated. “Think of Lyn. You guys can’t stay here.”

She was right. As usual. He didn’t now why Yulaura was so excited to leave the planet. Maybe it was just the lure of adventure. Yulaura certainly liked to live on the wild side, getting them both into their share of trouble during their partnership. But he trusted her. She’d not let him down yet.

Dressler looked to his daughter, apologetically. Edilyn rolled her eyes and let him go, realizing he’d made his decision. “Oh, alright. But hurry back. If I have to stay here much longer, I’m going to go out of my mind.”


Dress chuckled and gave her a playful smack in the face with a pillow. “Be back before you know it. Maybe I’ll even bring you a souvenir.”

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Appeasement

by Grace Bridges -

Ave hurried along ring E towards the junction of the 38th degree. The sack of food balanced between her shoulder blades as she awkwardly gripped both top and bottom.

Location E-38 was close to Smith’s stomping grounds. Too close for comfort, in fact, but his group wasn’t just any old rival gang—if she could call it that at all. He had been her friend, had wanted more too soon; so she’d removed herself. Now he had Kate to be mama to the littlies under his care. Still, she was confident he would offer leniency.

She came upon the place suddenly and almost tripped over Felicia, huddled at the outer edge of the group. Ave heaved the sack from her small frame. Many hands relieved her of the weight. Hushed cries of delight followed as they found what was inside.

Ave looked over her shoulder, then down the adjoining corridors. All was still. Finally, she allowed herself to inspect the contents of the gift.

Dried bug meat found eager mouths and hidden pockets. Below that were heavy slices of lavabush bread, which not all of the youngsters had seen before, though they well knew the seeds in their shells as a rare treat. After the bread, Ave reached into the sack again and discovered cool, round shapes, smooth to the touch. Her eyes went wide. “Fruit!”

“What is it, Ave?”

“It grew on a tree. In a garden.”

There were gasps all around at the legendary words. Fruit would not grow on the planet’s arid surface. It came only from the hydroponics departments of Avenir itself, or the same setup in one of the undersea cities. This wizard Spiner must be very rich.

She withdrew a shiny globe and held it up carefully between thumb and forefinger. Possibly the greatest treasure she had ever touched. The children oohed and aahed, but none reached for it.

Just then, shadowy figures loomed up in the hallway facing Ave. She checked to her left and right, and found they were hemmed in there too. She turned to the corridor she’d arrived by. Clear so far. Ave took a step.

Smith stepped out in front of her. “Nice of you to pay us a visit, my dear. I hope your intention is for our…mutual benefit.”

The tone of his voice was all swagger and bully. Had he really hardened so much? She stared into his eyes, trying to read him. Perhaps it was a show of strength for the benefit of his groupies.

Ave held up the sack and smiled. “We bring you fruit.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

Allies

by Fred Warren - 

The corridors reeked of smoke and pesticide as they neared the marketplace. Smith and Kate paused to soak kerchiefs at a water tap and wrapped them around their faces to block the noxious vapor.

They found Charlie’s undelivered parceland the horrors writhing feebly within it.

Kate wiped her fingers convulsively on her skirts. “Augh. Fertilized spider eggs, much too close to hatching. What manner of fools has Beadle taken up with?”

Smith crushed the parcel under his boot heel. It made a sickening wet crunch. “Fools or lunatics. Maybe the Peacekeepers are trying out a new weapon they couldn’t test openly.”

“You think they’d turn these things against the very people they’re sworn to protect?”

“I don’t know anything anymore, Kate. The world’s turned upside-down and sideways. Nothing’s impossible.”

They entered the marketplace and found it empty of customers, merchants, and wares. Most of the stalls were overturned and broken. Spiders skittered here and there, and Smith dispatched the few that seemed aggressive. What the pesticide hadn’t killed, it pacified.

Their search revealed nothing. No children hidden beneath the wreckage, no trail, no evidence they’d ever been there. Smith slumped against a wall and slid down until he was sitting on the floor, head bowed on his knees. It was as if someone had drained all the air from his body.

Kate knelt down and stroked his cheek. “Don’t give up hope. Moving a dozen orphans is no easy feat, whether or not they’re cooperating.”

“Or dead.”

Her gentle caress flashed into a stinging slap. “If that word passes your lips again, it’ll be you in need of a proper burial. Think, man. Which route out of here would Beadle and his henchmen take?”

Smith scowled and rubbed his jaw. “It’s pointless.”

“Humor me.”

He stood up and scanned the market bay, pausing a moment to consider each exit. “The service corridor,” he said at last. “Over there. Nobody but suppliers uses it…and us, now and again.”

“Sounds like a good place to begin. Lead on.”

They’d only walked a few dozen paces before they found a skid loaded with motionless children, and two burly men in Enforcer uniforms sprawled on the floor nearby.

Kate sprinted to the skid and began pressing on necks and wrists for warmth and pulse, bending down in search of a soft whisper of air against her cheek. She smiled and waved at Smith. “They’re all here! All breathing, all safe! Let’s get them back to the nest.”

He just stood there, staring at her, eyes blank.

She trotted back to him, grabbed him by the shoulders, and shook him. “Aren’t you happy? It’s a miracle they weren’t lost to us forever!”

He pushed her away—gently, but firmly. “I’m angry, Kate. Angry at myself for thinking I could trust Beadle. Angry for letting the sight of a Peacekeeper uniform terrify me into witlessness.”

“You meant well. Don’t torture yourself. God’s mercy provides for those whose hearts are true. They’re safe. Be content with that.”

“God’s mercy indeed, despite thinking myself too clever by half. Things have to change. It’s not enough anymore to keep to ourselves, pretending that no one will notice, or that we’ll be able to dodge anybody who does. We can’t defend ourselves. We need help. We need allies.”

She wasn’t in a mood to argue. “First, we need to get these wee ones onto their feet and back home. Pull them out of this meat wagon, and I’ll find some water to help rouse them.”

Smith nodded and began hoisting the children from the skid and propping them against the wall of the corridor. A few were already beginning to stir and moan.

Kate knelt down to examine one of the prone Enforcers. It was odd…there wasn’t a mark on him. No bloodstains, no sign of a scuffle.

Then she saw it, and she checked the other corpse to be sure. A single, perfectly round hole was drilled into each forehead, about the diameter of a piece of stout packaging cord, the flesh at its edge neatly cauterized.

A soft whirring sound came from above.

Kate froze. Moving only her eyes, she surveyed the corridor’s ceiling as gooseflesh prickled along her forearms. Nothing was there.

So, it’s allies he wants? Seems he has one already.

And there were some allies it might be better to do without.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

An Unexpected Gift

by Grace Bridges -

Ave rested against the wall with the little ones piled on and around her. Their slumbering breaths formed a restful haze in the dimly-lit service corridor.

A vibration in the floor brought Ave to full wakefulness. She tensed, and the children around her shifted in their sleep. They knew the drill.

Ave listened a moment more, then burst into action with a shake that roused all the babes. Within seconds they sat upright, watching her for instructions.

“E-38. Go!” The tousled heads hustled away towards the prearranged meeting spot. Ave made sure they were all out of sight before she tucked herself into the tiny niche behind a support pylon.

The footsteps grew louder. She still had to concentrate extra hard to make them out; the visitor intended stealth. Ave’s heart hammered. She squeezed her eyes shut and gritted her teeth. Then, like the turn of a page in an old book, peace washed over her with the silent song of a whale from the red planet far below.

She drew herself up to full height, breathed slow and deep, and opened her eyes just in time to spot a smallish shadow pass her hiding place. An orphan from one of the gangs? She was bigger. She could take him.

Ave darted out and grabbed the impostor from behind. Pinned at both elbows, he squealed and struggled. She dragged him back to the nearest light source, a small panel of blinking diodes. “What are you doing here?”

As she roughly turned him to face her, she realised he was hugging a bulging sack. Her eyes found his face. “Gavin!”

He relaxed in her grip. “Ave. Don’t hurt me. I brought food.”

“For us?” Ave boggled at the sack.

“I know you need it. The whales told me. I can get it.”

Ave gulped. “You’re not stealing from the wizard, are you?”

“No, silly. Spiner knows.” He laughed, then peered up and down the empty hall. “So where are your kids? Isn’t this your night zone?”

Ave looked away. “Not any more.”