About bryanknower

I write and play music while struggling with my daily grind as a computer professional. I like nature, history, science, exploration and discovery. I'll try anything once, strive to keep and open mind and look for inspiration in all the wrong places. I wear my heart on my sleeve with a jacket over it so no-one notices. I'll question everything that sounds dogmatic to me, take information with a pinch of salt and feel I grow more cynical with every passing year. I like hard science fiction, noir fantasy and historical fiction and dabble in all three. My musical tastes run to progressive rock and blues, but I like classical music too. Currently I am indulging in Post-Rock music, aka ambient. I prefer cold weather to hot weather and I love Fall. My favorite color is turquoise (blue and green) in all its shades but I like to wear black. I'd rather drink wine and brandy than beer. I like being alone sometimes. I'm comfortable in my skin.

TOMORROW’S NEWS

TOMORROW’S NEWS – A noir short fiction story

I’m reading about my death. A three-sentence story, circled in red on a single sheet of paper and stuffed in my mailbox, it’s similar to the others I’ve received over the past two weeks, but this one is different, in a very personal way, obviously.

The first one I receive, I nearly throw out as junk mail, but something outlined in bold red ink catches my eye and I open it.

It’s a simple broadsheet, containing an eclectic collection of stories that could belong on the pages of any local tabloid. The highlighted one stands out because it’s dated tomorrow. It describes an accident on Old Mill Road, a half mile from where I live, and involves a fatality.

I put the whole thing down to an elaborate practical joke and throw the paper in the kitchen trash.  Imagine my surprise when I turn on the TV next morning and watch the female anchor reporting an accident on Old Mill Road, exactly as described in yesterday’s mystery paper.

I go back to the recycling bin, and fish out the news sheet, all crumpled and slightly dog-eared, but still legible and still as preposterous as when I first read it eighteen hours ago. On an impulse, I smooth it out on the kitchen table and put it into the sideboard drawer. Then I forget all about it until I go out the mailbox later that morning and find another sheet, neatly folded like the previous one, sitting at the bottom of the box.

This one I open before any other piece of mail that day. Just like previously, it contains a small set of stories with one outlined in red and datelined the next day. That’s tomorrow. This time I don’t trash the sheet. I leave it face up on the kitchen table where I will see it when I come down next morning. It’s the last thing that catches my eye before I go to bed that night.

Next morning, I’m up uncharacteristically early, seated at the table with my morning coffee mug, a full ten minutes before the newscast begins. Yesterday’s paper is spread out on the table, waiting for confirmation, and I keep glancing at it, although I know the content of the circled story by heart already. It’s a full forty minutes into the program before the anchor mentions a tree branch falling on someone sitting on a bench in Marley Park, killing her instantly. Exactly as laid out in the now slightly sinister looking paper in front of me.

And so on for two weeks, until I’m taking the predictions for granted, even though I can’t stifle a growing sense of unease. Why am I getting these sheets? Am I the only one receiving them? I’ve chickened out of querying my neighbors about it.  They already look at me sideways because I don’t have a regular job.  That news sheet is always the first piece of mail I open and I always leave it on the kitchen table before I go to bed.

Today, my growing feeling of discomfort bursts like a squeezed boil. Today’s news concerns me.

The ominous red-circled story on the page makes my heart nearly stop. I re-read it to ensure that I’m seeing it right. It says:

Yesterday, an Avalon, New York man, Carl Smyth, was found dead in his home. There were no obvious signs of trauma, but a cryptic note that read “tomorrow’s news today” was found clutched in the dead man’s hand. The authorities are asking for help from anyone with knowledge of this incident.

That’s me, Carl Smyth. According to this piece of paper, I’m going to die sometime later today, under mysterious circumstances.

I panic completely. It’s 11:00 AM and there are still thirteen more hours in the day. Scrambling back to the house, I lock and bolt the front door. I’m hyperventilating, leaning on the wall trying to pull myself together, trying to rationalize what I’ve just read.

For a brief moment, I’m tempted to dismiss this whole situation as crazy nonsense, but cold logic informs me that every single one of the past two weeks’ highlighted stories have been deadly accurate. I have a funny feeling in my belly. Needing to be pro-active about this whole thing, I sprint around the lower level of the house, obsessively closing and locking all the entrances and windows, then double checking them again and again. For good measure, I go upstairs and do the same for all those windows too. I draw all the blinds, trying to convince myself that if no one could see inside they might think I’m not home. But who are they, anyway? I have no idea what form or shape the threat will take. I pace around the living room. I lock and bolt the door to the basement without even going down there to check. I go upstairs and pace some more, then come back downstairs and do the same, getting angrier and more terrified by the minute.

Lunch time and dinner time ooze by like molasses. I can’t eat anything. I’m not hungry. I feel like throwing up.

It’s 10:00 PM, and dark outside. I’m seated at the kitchen table watching the hands of the wall clock crawl around with agonizing slowness. Usually, I’m in bed by this time. I’m an early sleeper, but I’m certainly not sleeping tonight. Every light in the kitchen is turned on, as well as all those in the hallway and upstairs too. I don’t want any shadows or dark corners tonight.

Waiting for time to pass is an excruciating pastime. I can’t find anything to do with my hands and I’m sick to my stomach, counting down the waning minutes of the final hour of this monstrous day. At fifteen minutes to the witching hour, I hear a pounding at the front door and almost jump out of my skin.

The sound echoes in my head like a gong, clamoring to be heard while my mind tries to dismiss what I’m hearing. The hammering continues, insistent, regular, like a knell. It’s so loud the neighbors must hear it too. Why doesn’t somebody put their porch lights on? That might make the sound stop. It might scare away whoever’s at the door. Maybe they do, because, suddenly, the awful racket stops.

I sit, frozen in my chair, unable and unwilling to move. I am not going to that door. Wild horses couldn’t drag me. I stare at the hallway, hands clenched, shivering and sweating profusely at the same time.

After a minute that seems like an hour, the pounding resumes, except, now it’s coming from the back door, down the other end of the hall. My heart, already beating like a jackhammer, speeds up even further. I put my hands over my ears to block out the sound but my palms are clammy and slippery. I can still hear that infernal drumbeat. I’m ready to have a heart attack when it stops, and doesn’t come back.

For a long while, there is almost silence. The only sound in the room is the ticking of the wall clock, seemingly amplified until it permeates the entire house. In a way, this is worse than the pounding. The insistent tick tock draws my attention to the clock like a magnet.

It’s still three minutes until tomorrow.

I watch the second hand spasm its way around the clock face, not realizing I’m holding my breath.

A zephyr of coolness touches the back of my neck, intensified by the sweat tricking down my scalp. The zephyr becomes a breeze that tickles my spine, then it’s a gust, as if the kitchen window at my back is open.

I know I locked that window. I checked it multiple times.

I can’t turn. I’m inert, like a stone, mesmerized by the clock, where the lurching second hand appears to have frozen.

It’s almost tomorrow.

Not quite.

Almost.

© Copyright May 2019 Bryan Knower

Assassin Redux – a flash fiction story

ASSASSIN REDUX

     Salar was waiting to kill somebody. That was his job, the reason he was out here in the woods on a soggy, fog-shrouded night. The rain drifted down in misty veils, obscuring his view of the road. Occasionally, fatter drops, collecting on the leaf edges of the tree under which he sheltered, fell on his hood, spattering in his eyes. He blinked them away without regret. He preferred damp and gloomy weather. His kind of work was always easier in the dark.
He let the sounds of the wood envelope him, straining to hear the unmistakable creak of leather, the mark of his approaching target.
Nothing yet.
He released the breath he had been holding with a gentle sigh, watching it vaporize before him like a small cloud. It wasn’t just damp, it was cold. In spite of his oiled leather cloak, the wind sneaked icy tendrils between the folds, making him shiver involuntarily. He pulled the leathers closer around him, feeling the curved end of the horn bow press under his armpit. Out of habit, he patted the inner pocket of his vest where the bowstring nestled, safe and dry. Wet bowstrings wouldn’t do for tonight’s work.
     Work. He grimaced at the thought of what he did for a living. Looking back at the circumstances that had brought him out on a night like this, he realized that life had brought him full circle. A long time ago, in another lifetime, he had been an imperial courier, like the man he awaited. Now he was nothing but a hired mercenary, hiding his past, killing those whose work and routines he knew so well it had become rote. He took comfort in the fact that he was good at what he did. Better than most. In his new line of work, he had dispatched nine of his former colleagues, though who was keeping count. He was living on borrowed time anyway, a traitor to the Guild of Assassins. He hoped they might think him simply killed in the line of duty but his intuition told him otherwise. The Guild was aware that he had gone rogue and there was only one way anyone left the Guild. Death.
His senses registered a subtle change in the air pressure around him. Something was approaching. Focusing his hearing he pinpointed the soft creak of saddle leather and the faintest whisper of a whinny. Destiny approached.
He extracted the bowstring from his pocket and strung his weapon in a single practiced movement. Picking out an arrow from the covered sheath at his feet he knelt, staring down the road.
His target approached, hunched over his mount, paying no attention to his surroundings.
A fatal mistake, he thought, sighting along the arrow as the figure drew alongside his position.
Then he froze. Something wasn’t right. The rider lolled in the saddle like a sack, loose and uncoordinated.
It was a sack!
Even as he started to turn, he knew he was too late. The Guild had found him.
He felt only a brief stinging sensation as the blade went in under his ribs.  Then his heart exploded.

© Bryan Knower – May 2019

NEVER TRUST A DEMON

NEVER TRUST A DEMON – a dark fantasy

Miriam watched the writhing shape of the demon with unease. She had performed the spell exactly as described in the grimoire. She double checked her position within the chalk drawn pentacle on the floor. The lines were thick and unbroken, her feet anchored within its outlines.
“Let me see you,” she demanded, squinting at the amorphous figure before her. “I can’t talk to a blob.”
“Heh, heh, heh,” the demon rumbled in a pleasing basso profundo. The tone of the voice was unnerving, considering the nebulous shape of its source.
“Now why should I do that?” the demon demurred, shifting its shape. “You might not be able to stand the sight of the real me.”
“I don’t mean the real you,” Miriam replied. “Assume some solid form that I can talk to. You can do that, can’t you?”
“Oh, certainly, I can do that and more,” the soothing bass voice replied. “What form would you like me to take, Miriam?”
“You know my name?” she inquired, taken aback. “How? I never told you that.”
“Oh, we demons have our sources,” the demon replied, a hint of amusement in his voice.
“What else do you know about me?” she demanded.
“Well, let’s see,” said the demon. “Your last name is Price, you are twenty-seven years old and unmarried. You live alone. Your only friends, at least the ones you think are your friends, are the other witches in the Arnost coven.” He paused. “You ‘borrowed’ that grimoire from the coven library, where it is never supposed to leave. You summoned me through its pages, allowing me to access all the information the coven has on you. It’s a lot more than you think.”
The demon exhaled with pleasure. “Satisfied, my dear Miriam?”
Miriam was speechless. She knew she shouldn’t have taken the grimoire from the coven library. But the demon couldn’t know that, but it did. It seemed to know a lot more too. All she wanted was a special push for an Adam Brewer who she had obsessed on for the past three months. Adam Brewer who, to all intents and purposes, didn’t seem to realize she existed.
“I had no idea,” she said at last. “But never mind. I have summoned you and I need a favor from you please.”
“A favor?” the demon sounded amused again. “I’m not in the business of doing favors for mortals, dear Miriam. Why should I indulge you?”
“Because I have the power to bind you,” Miriam replied with some slight trepidation. “The spell that called you here also binds you to me until I release you, so you can’t leave until I let you.”
“Oh, is that so?” the demon said, and the note of amusement had disappeared from his voice. “What if I left? Right now?” There was an undercurrent of menace in his tone now, although the timbre still resonated in the room.
For a moment, Miriam wondered if she had missed something in the incantation. Then she caught herself. She had done it exactly as the book instructed. The demon was faking. He had to humor her until she reversed the spell.
“Let’s not quibble,” she said. “It’s only a very small thing I need you to do.”
“Does it involve a certain Adam Brewer?” the demon inquired with a flash of malice. The amusement had returned to his voice. Also, his form was solidifying, taking shape, changing into something recognizable.
Miriam watched, amazed, as a white rabbit resolved from the gloom, complete with top hat and tails. The rabbit stood on his hind legs and nibbled at his front paws.
“How’s this?” The demon said. “You like my new form? You asked.”
“A rabbit?” Miriam could not keep the disdain out of her voice. “Of all the forms you can assume and you became a rabbit?”
“Well, not any rabbit,” said the demon, wiggling his rabbit ears. “I am a special rabbit. Let me grow a bit and I’ll show you.”
The figure of the rabbit stretched and filled out until it was almost seven feet tall. He was no longer cute but terrifying, and he towered over Miriam like an ominous cumulus cloud.
The demon rabbit smiled, revealing a mouth full of pointed teeth. They glittered like daggers in the light of the many candles Miriam had placed around the room. She noticed for the first time that his eyes were ruby red, like drops of blood.
“There now,” the demon said. “That’s better. I was feeling a little cramped. Now, what can I do to Mr. Brewer for you?”
“I don’t want you to do anything to him,” Miriam whispered. “I want you to make him notice me. You know, like take an interest in me, sort of. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly,” the demon said, rolling his eyes. “How intense do you want me to make him?”
“Oh, not too much. Not over the top,” Miriam replied. “Interested enough to flirt with me and so on.”
“Well, that’s easily done,” the demon said, smiling again, “But I need you to come and stand by me while I set this whole thing up.”
“You mean, come over there?” Miriam was incredulous. “No way I’m stepping out of this pentacle, demon. Not even if you go back to tiny rabbit size. I’m staying right here. You stay over there and do your thing and then we can both be on our way.”
“What, you don’t trust me?” the demon said in an aggrieved tone. “That is the height of rudeness.”
“Why should I trust you?” Miriam was adamant. “I don’t trust demons. All you do is destroy.”
“We say the same thing about humans.” The demon’s voice was no longer deep and resonant. Now it was low and sibilant. “At least, we don’t pretend to be nice while doing it.”
“All I wanted was a favor from you,” Miriam protested. “I meant no harm.”
“Never trust a demon,” the rabbit replied, stretching out its left hind paw. He deliberately brushed it across the floor, erasing part of the chalk line, opening a gap in the pentacle.

© Bryan Knower – January 2018

Fallen Angel – a flash fiction story

fallen angel 01

Fallen Angel

      Far away on Paradise’s horizon, an amber glow told Conah highlight was approaching. It was dark, although dark was relative here in the pearly glow that constituted lowlight. Conah’s eyes auto-adapted to the changing luminosity, catching the faint flash and sparkle of wings in the diffused light.
If you focused, he mused, you could make out the forms of other angels, flitting about on whatever purpose called them.
The heavens were full of the sparkling pinpoints, like fireflies at dusk on the Earth below. But fireflies existed on a different plane of existence, one that Conah could access at will until yesterday. Right now, he couldn’t join his kindred in flight because of a mistake he had made down on that other plane. A mistake resulting in his confinement here, in this garden without walls; an island here in Paradise. The garden had no tangible barriers, but he could not leave. His wings were bound so tight it felt like shards of glass were piercing his shoulders every time he forgot and tried to spread them.
He had not intended to do what he did. Assigned as an observer to a hospital on Earth, he was there to help the soul of a little girl transition from her ravaged body to the halls of Paradise’s first plane. The girl had terminal cancer and her time on Earth was ending. Conah could see she was suffering as she struggled to breathe, her fragile chest heaving with the effort of filling her collapsing lungs.
A nearby machine made strange rhythmic sounds as it breathed for the girl, making her eyelids appear to flutter in sync with the machine’s labors. Conah could not say why he did it, but materializing beside the laboring child he took her hand in his and breathed over her.
The girl’s eyes flew open and a smile lit her thin cracked lips as she saw Conah bending over her.
“Have you come to take me?” she said.
“No, little one,” he replied, placing his hand over her heart. “I have come to take away the thing that is destroying you.”
He leaned over and inhaled the breath from the girl’s mouth, exhaling a smoky cloud into the air around them. Pressing his mouth to hers he breathed into her, feeling his breath expand into her diseased airways, the tissue healing as he filled her with his essence. The girl’s eyes closed and she reached out to him. He took her hands in his and willed his spirit into her. As he concentrated, the girl’s pallor decreased and her face took on a rosy hue. Her body relaxed and she fell into a restful slumber. Conah placed her hands on her chest and leaned back to see Ruhiel standing on the other side of the hospital bed, shaking his head as he looked at him.
Conah stepped away from the sleeping girl and looked at his mentor. The concern in the ageless face and Ruhiel’s eyes told Conah the other knew what he had done.
“I’m not sorry,” he said. “Will you bring back her suffering?”
“No Conah, it’s too late for that,” Ruhiel said. “Neither you nor I can reverse what you have done here, but there will be consequences. You know that. For now, cloak yourself before you do any further damage.”
Conah realized that he was still materialized while Ruhiel was not. Any one of the dozens of people who attended on the child might walk in, compounding his offense. He re-assumed his non-corporeal form while Ruhiel made a series of strange gestures over the sleeping girl. The machines attached to her beeped and flashed, then settled down into a steady blinking rhythm.
“What did you do?” asked Conah, seeing the girl still breathing.
“She is still asleep, only deeper now, and she will not wake up,” Ruhiel said. “I cannot undo your action but I have tried to restore some of the balance you upset. The life you gave back to her she still has, but consciousness is far away and will remain so until her case is re-evaluated. But now,” he pointed upwards at the ceiling. “We have to go, Conah. I’m instructed to return with you. I’m sorry, but this is very bad. Not only for this poor soul but for you too. You knew the rules. Why?”
“She was suffering,” Conah said. The excuse was lame but he had no better answer to the question, even for himself. “I accept the consequences.”
“I know,” Ruhiel’s face was sad. “That’s what I’m afraid of. Time to go now, my friend.”
Retribution was swift. Shortly after his return, seven senior angels took Conah to a garden, and there, bound his wings with psychic spells. Conah knew they intended the binding to remind him of his offense at every discomforting turn. They left him there in lowlight’s seamless dusk, promising to return for him at next highlight. The implication was clear. His sentence was incomplete and Conah had an inking about what was coming.
He was not the first of his kind to make a similar mistake. It must be a flaw in angel makeup that caused angels to break this very rule so many times. The logical outcome was banishment to Earth for a human lifetime, something trivial by his own immortal lifespan. But he would be unable to communicate with others of his kind during that time, wouldn’t even be able to see and hear them. It was a far heavier burden than the pinioning of his wings.
Conah tried to contemplate the immensity of such a sentence and could not conceive it. No fellowship, no rhapsody, none of the glories of highlight or the subtle beauty of lowlight. He would not see his brothers and sisters unless they chose to reveal themselves to him, a forbidden action. He would fall behind his contemporaries along the sublimation path, returning a novice while they moved on to higher planes.
The only light at the end of his tunnel of misery was that his sentence was not permanent. There was no permanent sentence for an angel other than eternal banishment, and in all angelic history, only one had suffered that fate. He would return, diminished.
The susurration of many wings told him it was time. They had come for him. Around him, the seven elders materialized, their great pinions sweeping the air and folding into near invisibility as they took up positions around him. Geburatiel, the leader of the group spoke, his words shaping themselves inside Conah’s mind. Around him, he felt the agreement of the others.
“We have decided,” Geburatiel said. “Conah, you will return to Earth for a time to restore the balance you disturbed. You will exchange your immortal form for a human one and as a human, you will endure all mortal hopes and fears, losing all knowledge of your previous existence. This will prevail until you have redeemed yourself. Then, we will come for you, but, of the when and the where, you will have no knowledge or understanding.”
Conah felt numb, even though it was what he had been expecting. He bowed his head, even that small gesture sending stabbing pains through his shoulders. “When do I leave and who am I to be?” he asked.
“The who is not for you to know. The when is now,” Geburatiel said. “The ladder is ready. Come.”
Like a single entity, the seven elders surrounded Conah and he felt levitated amidst them as they rose as a group and departed the garden. Ahead, a rolling featureless plain ended in a bright line of light that was not the coming highlight. As they approached, Conah saw the head of an elaborate staircase looming at the edge of the plain. A radiance so bright that it washed out all visual perspective bathed the surrounding stairs. The stairs seemed to be floating in the light, disappearing down into it.
The group alighted at the head of the stairs and Geburatiel motioned for Conah to step forward.
Behind him, he felt a gentle push, although no-one actually touched him. He found himself on the first step as Geburatiel murmured something in his ear. A feeling of intense cold washed over him. It was an alien sensation in this place, at odds with the surrounding light and the warmth from the auras of the elder angels. Conah felt something falling away from him as if his garments were dissolving about him, though he wore none. Without any effort on his part, he found himself descending the stairs. The pain in his shoulders was gone. Around him, gossamer fragments materialized and disappeared. His wings were going too. Through the light, away from his kindred he descended, down into a soupy mist that seemed infused with sparkling dust motes. The feeling of downwardness disappeared as the luminescence around him thinned out. Below, he could discern features of a landscape.
He knew that landscape. He had left it with Ruhiel only the previous night. Disembodied and permeable, he drifted down towards a group of buildings set within manicured lawns. One building, in particular, seemed to be his destination. A feeling of dread came over him; a feeling outside his angelic experience; a mortal feeling.
The building was the very one from which Ruhiel had extracted him.
Unhindered, Conah slipped through the roof of the building, his permeable self sifting through the atoms and molecules of the building’s structure like water through a sieve. He passed through walls, floors, machinery and devices with the same ease as his entry into the building. Finally, he entered a room, feeling his form begin to coalesce. A bright stream of material from his core reached out like a tendril, extending towards a still form on a bed. Many machines connected to the figure and he knew her without having to look. It was the little girl he had wrenched back from destiny last night.
At last, he understood the irony of the balance the elders had spoken about. This was his doom then. To enter into this little girl, become her, endure her nothingness as the machines breathed and functioned for her until her cycle and his ran to completion. Only then would he be free again. Conah felt no regrets as he settled into the girl’s consciousness; became that consciousness. The infinite nothingness reached out to envelope him and Conah ceased to exist.

© Bryan Knower – May 2017

ERASURE – a science fiction short story

erasure

ERASURE

Van peered into the binocular scope again, focusing on the garden scene framed in her visual display. Nothing had changed since the last time she looked.

The garden was tranquil, like the still life reproductions of vintage settings she had seen on the server archives. She liked browsing the archives. It helped her gain perspective on her prospective targets, those she was sent to erase. She smiled faintly at the euphemism. Killing was her job, and she was extremely good at it. The best in the system, in fact.

She blinked her eyes to release the strain of staring through the scope and reached up to brush back a tuft of hair that kept falling over her eyes. Irritating, that. She’d have to take care of it after this job. Maybe take a break. Maybe even give up after this, though that was difficult. In her line of work, retirement was a nonexistent luxury. Among the others like her, there were none who had successfully walked away from their careers, retreating into anonymity and a banal life.  Those who hired her and others like her didn’t like loose ends, and retired specialists were loose ends, messy and inconvenient. There was only one conclusion to messy and inconvenient loose ends. Erasure.

She bent her eyes to the scope again, focusing on the tiny manicured lawn and the meticulously detailed beds with their splashes of blooming color, interspersed with swathes of green and brown. From her vantage point far away and high on the summit of a bluestone bluff, she could see down into the garden and its stone walled perimeter, rising an imposing seven meters from the moss of the surrounding ground. She could see over the perimeter to the inner walls, intricately inlaid with designs of various fauna in flight, some of them alien to this world, all rendered in vivid color and relief so that the sense of looking out over a vista was overwhelming.

Against the far wall and artfully hidden in the decor, stood a small white door decorated with pink blossoms and made to look like part of the wall. The only thing drawing the eye to it was the smooth white path that began and ended at the door. The path led nowhere. It started out from the door and looped back to it again, obviously constructed to navigate the garden. From the secret entrance, it fanned out to one side and then followed the wall back around to the door, meeting itself in an infinite loop. Van had identified a problem with this path.

One segment of it ran directly beneath the front wall, disappearing from her view in spite of her high perch. It created a blind spot and Van did not like blind spots. They interfered with the logical nature of things, introducing instability into a carefully choreographed situation. She wished she could get rid of this one, but there was no way to achieve that unless she was hanging directly overhead the garden, a feasibility, but not a viable one. For one thing, she couldn’t hover indefinitely, and also, she would be visible, even if she transformed. Physical laws prevented her from changing into something infinitely small or enormously large, either. A large hovering avian would soon draw attention and become the target of the estate’s defense lasers.

She had been here three periods now, waiting patiently for the opportunity she knew would eventually present itself. As things went, three periods was not that long a time. She had waited longer in similar circumstances. Usually, she was able to enter the fugue state that enabled her to function automatically; synapses geared to the task at hand, mind focused only on the job and its nuances. This time, the fugue kept slipping away like a pollinating insect flitting from one pool of nectar to the next. She thought about the implications.

She had a limited lifespan, she and those like her. She had been created like that, a finite being with a relative terminal date, although the specifics of that date were hidden from her and the others. Not for her the vivo treatments that extended the lives of the elders and the rest of the community. She was a specialized creature, born for a specific purpose and when natural entropy degenerated the execution of that purpose, she was disposable.

Everything on this world degenerated, slowly but inexorably. The entropy hung over everything like a shadow, even when there was no light. The species that had created her had struggled for eons to keep the entropy at bay, and finally, they had succeeded, only to find that immortality had its drawbacks. If everyone lived forever, natural breeding would quickly overpopulate this world and everything would collapse into chaos, forcing the very result entropy had evolved to produce. Hence, the erasures and the specialists like her.

Not that those who were marked for erasure ever went quietly. Ages spent fighting entropy were never relinquished voluntarily or gracefully. Communities became walled enclaves containing walled estates from which world-weary inhabitants seldom stirred. Van doubted if many of the community dwellers had seen the land outside the walled enclosures in decades. Some had not ventured out in centuries. They were old and powerful and warily paranoid of the cyclical edits that marked them for erasure. She was the agent of those edicts and it was these doomed individuals she was created to erase.

The owner of the walled garden was one such. She did not know his name. Didn’t need to. Didn’t care about the details of his family connections. Just that his name had come up in the lottery that decided who died and who lived until the next cycle. Her own lifespan was much shorter. Her kind had no access to the vivo treatments and the ceaseless degradation of the entropy cycles ascribed the limit of her survival and functionality. Recently she had experienced random flashes of unfocus, a clear indicator that she was nearing the end of her terminal limit.

A movement in the garden caught her peripheral vision and she came back into focus with a start, realizing she had missed something significant. The door in the wall had opened while she lost fugue. Three people were out on the path and already a quarter of the way around the loop. Three people. Her research had indicated that there would only be the one. Her target.

He was there, one of the three, his golden chitinous skin gleaming in the light of the sun. But he was flanked by a female and a juvenile, both walking close and obviously part of his immediate family. Van peered down through the scope and increased the magnification so she could study the features of the companions, the intrusions into the perfect scheme she had planned.

The female was older; smooth features and limbs indicative of many cycles of vivo treatments, perhaps not as many as her partner, Van’s target, but nonetheless, an elder of the community. The juvenile was only half the height of the two adults, gangly and awkward in her movements.  Van could tell the juvenile was female. In the enhanced focus of the visual display, the characteristic feminine head stalks and curved back ears were unmistakable.

The trio was now halfway between the door and the point at which the path disappeared from view under the wall. Van could not risk the possibility that they might stop under the wall and ruin her perfectly planned opportunity. She needed to act now, or abort this sequence, and that itself was unthinkable. She had never ever aborted a sequence, though she knew of others who had. Those unfortunate others had themselves been erased shortly after.

No, she was going to go through with this. Compensate for the intrusions. It was what she had trained to do. Exclude everything but the target.

She settled back into her harness, twitching her headstalks to enhance the clarity of her retinal cortex and stimulate the onset of fugue. A familiar calm slipped over her, like a well-worn carapace. Her senses retreated, blocking out the scent and feel of her surroundings. Only the rectangular frame of her targeting display existed, limiting her vision to the corner of the garden below where the target moved towards their shared rendezvous with destiny. Van increased the magnification further.  Now only the trio down below and their immediate surroundings were outlined in her field of focus. Mentally she commanded up the tactical overlay, seeing the concentric rings and rangefinder data superimposed on her display. Without moving her head she made microscopic adjustments to the projectile weapon cradled into her shoulder joint. It would not be silent, but it was far deadlier than a laser.

Lasers were neat. They killed with minimal damage and laser damage could be repaired, even fatal damage. But the weapon she carried was designed to fragment its target, destroying any hope of regeneration, even with the advanced technologies available to the community. Projectile weapons had been banned for centuries. Only specialists like her had access to them, and their results sent a clear message of sanctioned erasure.

The target was approaching the limit of her execution window now. Van extended the second digit of her hand and rested the pad against the firing sensor, taking a final moment to gather herself in the fugue. She felt fluttery. Felt herself skipping over the top of the fugue, not quite in it, not engulfed by it as she should be. With a feeling approaching desperation she manipulated her headstalks, willing the fugue to take hold, trying to immerse her self into the calm.

The target reached critical location and Van increased the pressure with her front pad, but she couldn’t depress. She tried to concentrate, but the fugue was slipping away now as her pad trembled ineffectually on the firing sensor. In her visual display, she saw the trio; the target, the female and the juvenile, disappear slowly from view as the path hid them from her sight. Exhausted, she let go of the fleeing shreds of fugue, lifting her head from the scope.

She could wait until the trio reappeared on the other side of the path. Wait for another window of opportunity to open. She could try again.

But she didn’t. Somehow, she knew they would not reappear. Not in enough time for her to re-enter fugue again. She didn’t think she could summon the fugue again. The unthinkable had happened. She had aborted. Now the reckoning.

© Bryan Knower - September 2016

A New Short Story

shinybeetleSCARAB
A Science Fiction Short Story

The intercom crackled in his helmet, interrupting his daydream in mid-leap. Losing his rhythm, Beck landed awkwardly and nearly went to his knees. Only his reflexes and training prevented him from sprawling face first in the red dust that billowed around his boots. The dust hung in the air like mist, partially obscuring the furrows his feet had dug into the surface. Beck bounced a few more times in decreasing arcs, windmilling his arms until his momentum had dissipated and he was able to stand still.

“Beck, time to come in man, you’re twenty minutes over your EVA limit.” Gardner’s voice sounded annoyed.

“Plenty of air left in the tanks, Leo,” Beck replied, wanting to laugh but not daring to. Leo Gardner had a poorly developed sense of humor to start with, and it had deteriorated rapidly in the three days they had been on the surface.

“That’s not the point,” Gardner snapped, completely missing the point. “Twenty-one minutes to nightfall and I want you in before that. Get back in ASAP.”

“Yes, sir. Coming back right away.” Beck still wanted to laugh but Gardner was mission commander for this landing and nominally his superior. No need to rub him up the wrong way. Still two more days to go on this mission, the first of the habitat survey expeditions launched from the orbiting Nergal.

He activated the homing device on his wrist and turned around to orient himself in the indicated direction.  The hull of the Wolf glittered brightly in the setting sun and Beck was surprised to see how far he had come. The craft looked tiny, like a silver toy on an ochre carpet and Beck felt a twinge of guilt for stressing Gardner out so much. Leo has seen how far out he was but not said anything until just now and Beck knew he would likely have gone on further without Gardner’s warning.

It took him more than an hour to make it back to the Wolf. By that time the surrounding landscape had morphed into a surreal purple twilight. Far away, the top of Olympus Mons still glittered in the light of the setting sun, the bulk of its mass hidden beyond the horizon.

“I’m here, Leo,” he informed his teammate, making short work of the last few meters leading to Wolf’s airlock. The ground around the craft had been trampled flat by their boots, but this was not like the lunar surface. The frequent windstorms had dissipated much of the red dust and left the surface granular, scattered with boulders of varying shapes and sizes.

Unlike mission control to pick such a relatively clear area for a landing site, but then, this was a habitat survey mission, he thought as he switched on his headlamp and activated the airlock door. In the shadow of the Wolf, it was darker and felt much colder, though that was physically impossible. Beck knew his suit controlled his body temperature. Another example of his mind playing tricks with reality.

Inside, he recycled the airlock and waited for the green lights to stop flashing before unfastening his helmet and taking a deep breath. The air inside the Wolf was canned, just as it was in his suit, but somehow, it just felt better.

“How’re you doing down there, John?” Gardner’s voice chimed in over the intercom. “Come to the bridge when you’re ready. I’ve got something to show you.”

“Will do, Leo.” Beck stripped off the bulky EVA suit reflecting on how much larger the airlock was, compared to the primitive lunar landers of the previous century.

Guess they never changed their clothes he thought with a grin.

The boots were the last to come off, and they were dirty, almost completely covered in red dust that clung to the enameled surfaces as if it had been sprayed on. Picking them up by the inner linings Beck dropped them into a waiting container for analysis and cleaning and turned to do the same with the rest of the suit. It was then that he noticed the anomaly.

On the back of his left shoulder, where he could never have seen it while wearing the suit, was a shiny red speck flecked with green, so incongruous in that white sterile space that it screamed for his attention. Picking up the suit gingerly he bent down for a closer look and nearly passed out in shock and surprise. On the white of the suit’s fabric was a tiny object, slightly larger that a ladybug, perfectly oval and glittering iridescent in the airlock lights.

Beck looked at the impossible sight for a long time, hardly daring to breathe, staring at something that should not and could not be there, although it was. The lander was sterile. He knew that. It hadn’t been in here or on him when he left. It had to have come in with him. Come in from the outside.

Very slowly he put the suit back down on the floor so as not to disturb the object and stepping back, switched the airlock cameras from monitor to record. Then he called Gardner on the bridge.

“Leo, can you come down to the airlock right away? It’s urgent,” he said, not taking his eyes from the crumpled heap of white on the floor. He half expected the sparkling object to have disappeared, but it was still there, seemingly inert, defying possibility.

“Be right there, John.” To his credit, Gardner had picked up on the undercurrent in Beck’s voice and he wasn’t asking any questions. At least, not yet. Beck continued to stare at his discovery, waiting for Gardner to open the airlock from the other side.

As he watched, the tiny speck of color expanded visibly, growing until it was five times its initial size. The iridescent red and green hues darkened to a deep burgundy, like a dried blood stain on the white of the suit. Beck’s first instinct was to get as far away from the object as possible, which wasn’t very far in the confined space of the airlock. Instead, he took a deep breath and held it, waiting for his training to kick in. Then he bent down to observe as the thing morphed before his eyes. Gone was the oval ladybug appearance of moments ago. Instead, It now looked like a small red marshmallow with a spongy, pitted surface. As he watched, fascinated, the thing pulsed. Then it exploded in a cloud of tiny spores.

The spores spread upwards in a tiny pink cloud, dispersing rapidly past Beck’s face as he tried, too late, to draw his head back. The feeling of the spores on his skin was a feathery caress, like a puff of breeze on a still day. His throat began to scratch and the muscles in his face and arms twitched involuntarily. Out of nowhere he felt a strange urge. He needed to get out, outside this restricted space. The urge became stronger, grew imperative and his muscles moved to obey even though his mind rebelled at the insanity of what he was considering. He tried to force his body to turn away but he no longer seemed to have control of his limbs or his will. His feet moved towards the exterior airlock, which he had sealed only moments earlier. He tried to focus but control kept skating away like a magnet approaching the opposite pole of another.

This is insane, he thought, fighting his body’s unnatural behavior, even as his shuffling steps drew him inexorably up to the lock. I’ve got no suit on. What the hell am I doing?

Even as he considered it, the thought careened away and something in his head insisted that he open the lock. His fading self-control understood suddenly that the thought was alien, hostile, somehow linked to the iridescent object on his suit and the spores he had breathed.  Detachedly, he watched his arms reach out to the airlock control, his fingers moving over the keypad.

Behind him, a low melodious triple tone signaled the start of the internal airlock open sequence. Gardner was opening that door. He registered the event, even as his fingers tapped in the correct sequence for the outer lock, his muscle memory overriding his failing motor control.

Alert, alert, opening both locks will result in hull breach,” Wolf’s AI broke in urgently. “Warning, catastrophic failure imminent!” The AI continued to repeat the warning in increasingly insistent tone and volume.

As he watched, the lights above the control panel cycled from green to red and a warning siren filled the airlock as outer lock unsealed with a sibilant hiss. Behind him, the inner door flew open and Gardner screamed at him.

“John! What the fuck are you doing, John?” he yelled, then tried to scramble back through the door, which was now pinned open against the airlock wall.

Beck turned to look at his colleague, feeling a vague sense of sorrow as he watched Gardner pull futilely against the air pressure pinning the door open. Behind him, the outer lock unsealed completely and popped open with a bang. The hiss rose to a roar as the air in the craft exploded outwards, pulling him and Gardner along with it. His ears popped and he strained for breath as he was forced outside by the gale of crystalline vapor that had been Wolf’s atmosphere. His head felt like huge hands were squeezing it from both sides and his chest and lungs burned with the effort to extract a breath from the vanishingly thin atmosphere. He landed on his back about five meters from the open lock, in profound silence and the last thing he saw was Gardner flailing and tumbling out of the lock towards him, trailing the last of their air in a glittering cloud of crystals.

© Bryan Knower 2016

THE LAST GREENHOUSE IN THE WORLD

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veryshortstories Gabriel looked with concern at the sapling in the corner. Its silver-gray leaves drooped and the plant, not more than four feet tall, projected an overall air of forlornness. Behind the ornate pot holding the plant the transparent panes of a wide bay window showed a murky red sky and rolling brown dunes denuded of vegetation, numbing in monotony. The dullness of the scene had no effect on Gabriel. His whole concern was focused on the plant before him.
Reaching out, he touched one of the leaves with his thumb and forefinger. It was the most delicate of touches but even that slight contact seemed too much for the sapling. It trembled and the leaf came away in his hand, leaving a stark white patch to mark the spot where it had detached from the trunk.
Gabriel inhaled sharply in dismay, examining the leaf in his hand. The top of the leaf was still a handsome silver gray but the underside showed mottled patches of brown and yellow and a spidery pattern of cracks covered the surface like a fine lattice. Even as he watched, the little tree seemed to sway, although no breeze stirred inside the building. Another of the lower leaves detached itself and floated down to join a small group of its fellows in the base of the pot.
Clutching the leaf in his hand Gabriel ran back up the long avenue leading back to his central office from this remote alcove on the edge of the building.
The office was hexagonal and glass-walled, providing a panoramic view of the interior of the building, which was large. From the central perspective, the six sides of the building were clearly evident, a macroscopic version of the office itself. Inside, machines and displays stood banked against the clear walls except for a small curtained alcove providing the only privacy in the entire building. The alcove contained Gabriel’s private quarters, although privacy never concerned him these days. Gabriel was the only occupant of the transparent building.
Hastily he dropped the leaf he was holding into the receptacle of a quietly humming machine and pressed some buttons. The leaf disappeared inside and the machine made quiet regular sounds as it analyzed its input. Less than a minute later a small screen popped up and data began to scroll down its surface. The receptacle popped open again but there was no sign of the leaf. Gabriel glanced quickly at the display and his shoulders sagged visibly.
Two days, he thought. That was all the time the sapling had left. The deterioration was irreversible and permanent. The tree was dying. Sadly he walked back out of the office and onto the wide plaza with its six broad avenues branching out precisely to the six sides of the building. Retracing his steps to the sapling, he stood looking at it, knowing he would have to take it out of the pot and destroy it before it infected any of the other plants nearby. But not yet. There were still two days and he could enjoy its company a little while longer.
Stepping to the clear wall, he pressed his face to the surface and looked outside. The building stood on a bare hilltop whose gentle slopes lead down to a shallow valley. The slopes were bare brown and dusty, the valley a continuation of the same. Beyond, other small hills rose up around him, similarly denuded and desolate, an endless procession stretching out into the distance. Gabriel knew that beyond the hills lay a great plain, equally dry and desolate, scoured by fierce winds that were gradually eroding the hills into dust. A world of perpetual dusk. He had not been outside in more than a century. There was nothing out there anymore. The machines that kept his building alive maintained him too, his circuits recharged and replenished as he rested in the nothing state he had come to call sleep.
But he never really slept. The term was a throwback to his long dead creators who had made him for a very specific purpose. He needed to stay vigilant. That was his imperative. He was the Keeper. The Keeper of the last greenhouse in the world.

© Bryan Knower 2015