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

An excerpt from a science fiction novella in progress.

AL-WOLA

     The day started uneventfully for Daniel Winot. He woke to the sharp crackle of frost breaking up on the ground outside the steadfast, the brittle shards shattering under the boots of men already up and about although the sun had yet to show an arc above the horizon. In a few hours, as that red orb climbed into the sky, all the frozen moisture trapped in the soil would disappear as if it had never been, cold and damp giving way to a blinding scorching heat that would last until the red sun sank below the horizon again. Getting ready was easy. He was already completely dressed except for his boots. They were the only thing he removed before sleep, a habit he had picked up from the others here at Al-Wola. He glanced at the vacuumshower then decided against it, knuckling his eyes free of residual sleep as he grabbed his footgear. Sliding into them with the ease of long practice he walked over to a small chest on the floor of his envirocube and filled his pockets with charge packs for his laser, another habituated part of his daily ritual. Then he activated the door seal and stepped outside, making his way to the central mess for a meal and the list of his day’s chores.

He hated this place. So many extremes. Nothing was just normal. After four months on Almanir, he still wasn’t used to the dizzyingly short days, everything foreshortened as the planet rotated madly about the K Type star that dominated its sky. During the day, the bulk of the red giant Theta Doradus loomed overhead like a gigantic fireball, its enormous disc covering a major portion of the sky and tinting everything on the surface of the planet below. Its bulk and radiance defined Almanir’s day, making for disconcertingly abrupt transitions from shivering cold to numbing heat in the space of just ten standard hours.

He wondered how the Manticora adapted to the accelerated day/night cycle of the planet. Their attacks were often timed for the end of Almanir’s daylight cycle but not predictably enough to defend against it. In retrospect it seemed that the Manticora always appeared when the steadfast was busiest, and no one was expecting them. In the endless documentaries he had watched both before and after deploying here, Nimrod troops always battled aliens from the safety of shielded redoubts and mostly from the comfort of flatskimmers, whose armored hulls were partially impervious to alien weapons. All gung-ho and light-years of safety away. He never thought about actually fighting any aliens face to face until Parker’s malice. Until this posting.

It took only a week at Al-Wola for Daniel to realize that Parker never actually meant for him to come back from this trip. Why else send him away for six months to this forlorn outpost on the edge of a god forsaken interstellar blight? Thinking of Parker made him think of Elvira and his head ached. Parker was the commanding officer on Terminus, the company’s advance base on Gliese 163 C and Elvira was Parker’s woman. No, had been, and he was partially responsible for that. Although Daniel tried to avoid getting mixed up in domestic company intrigues, Elvira’s charms proved irresistible. Apparently the attraction was mutual. Things escalated rapidly and soon all his noble intentions scattered like chaff in the wind. His standing with the station commander suffered similarly.

Parker was livid. No, that was an understatement. He was totally pissed off. Sexual mores being what they were on Terminus, he couldn’t say or do anything when Elvira moved out of his cube and into Daniel’s, but his eyes followed them around malevolently whenever he encountered them on the base, and Daniel soon found his progress reports all mysteriously downgraded. Parker regarded him with such hatred that Daniel made sure to give him a wide berth whenever possible. Murder was uncommon on outworld bases but “accidents” were not and he had no intention of ending up a statistic in Nimrod’s logs. It was sheer misfortune that Parker was in charge of the duty roster when news of the Manticora raids on Almanir reached Terminus Station some months later. The Nimrod Mining Corporation did not approve of disruptions to its offworld operations and reaction was swift and predictable. A special operations team, formed from existing personnel on Terminus deployed via lightship to Almanir to end the nuisance as soon as possible. Daniel was shocked but not really surprised to find his name on the list of officers slated to accompany a brigade of men and equipment to Al-Wola.

Al-Wola. Nothing could have prepared Daniel for the bleak misery of the steadfast, or the sullen restiveness of the men assigned to his detail. The vagaries of Almanir’s revolution around Theta Doradus dictated that only a narrow band, about forty kilometers wide surrounding the southern pole, was truly habitable, if it could even be called that. Within that “comfort” zone, grasslands grew, and forests after a fashion. Trees with multiple barrel trunks and boughs that spread out in umbrella fashion from disc shaped caps grew in wild confusion, interspersed with creeping vines as thick as a man’s thigh. The grass reached up to waist height and more, the blades sharp enough to draw blood if handled incautiously. Random and bizarre, the vegetation seemed more nightmarish than hospitable, a fitting cover to the flinty ochre breccias that made up Almanir’s crust.

Almanir itself tilted so far on its axis that the light of the red sun baked the northern hemisphere to a crisp. Nothing grew there, not even stunted grasses, and the land was cracked and thrown up in fantastic shapes by the heat driven pressures. Drones had surveyed that landscape of course, but all that land was baked dry, a patchwork of mottled browns and yellows, wearying to the eye and the soul in equal measure, and completely inhospitable. Nothing survived in the waste. Nothing human that is. In terrifying dribs and drabs, all those involved in the mining operations on Almanir became aware that things did actually live in that terrifying land, things that belonged in the realm of myth. Shockingly bestial life forms, as alien as any monster in an entertainment vid, yet still vaguely humanoid enough to be fodder for nightmares.

More than half again as tall as a human, grotesquely wide and multi limbed, the Manticora stood nine to ten feet high and their heavily muscled thighs and long spear pointed tails were reminiscent of ancient pictures of a legendary creature bearing the same name. Bipedal in general and inhumanly fast on their feet, their bodies resembled that of an enormous elongated lion, broad chested with double jointed arms at the shoulder, and eyes large and wide spaced on ill-proportioned humanoid heads, providing a terrifyingly wide field of vision. They had two leathery wings on their backs, which folded to near invisibility when furled but spread out like gossamer capes when spread. Luckily those wings could only bear the weight of those enormous bodies over very short distances. To all intents and purposes, Manticora could not fly.

It took a while before the authorities on Al-Wola understood that the Manticora were sentient. Initially, none came back from any encounters with them. But the increased rate of desertion on Al-Wola alerted the Company, and interrogation of some of the recovered deserters provided enough information to form a fairly detailed picture of the creatures. Their technical development was still eons behind humanity and they had yet to invent mechanical or aerial modes of travel. Their weapons were primitive, javelins that looked like small tree trunks and some form of crossbow whose darts would have served as spears for a mere mortal. They wore no armor and needed none, their nubbed skin being armor enough and resistant to anything but lasers and shock guns. They moved about the waste with surprising ease and speed and they were utterly ruthless.

The Manticora took no prisoners, left no survivors and mutilated both the dead and the dying, ripping apart the rib cages of screaming victims to spread the entrails around them in steaming stinking glistening piles. It was a bad way to die, and a slow one. The company issued projectile weapons and multi-charge lasers to all personnel and fortified their redoubts and steadfasts but still the losses continued. Daniel’s expedition was designed to be one of the first organized resistance efforts on Al-Wola and so far they had seen no action. Everyone was as nervous as hell.

The laser probably saved him. That and the daily routine he had made for himself the first morning after picking up his weapons at the armory. He made it a practice to fill the pockets of his tunic with the little cylindrical laser charge packs before leaving his quarters every morning and followed the practice religiously as the weeks morphed into months and it seemed his luck might hold. Maybe his tour would end with no sign of an encounter.

He palmed the laser on hearing the first hoarse screams, seeing gaping holes in the perimeter and blurring movement in his peripheral vision as the Manticora poured in over the twenty-foot high nano-steel that formed the steadfast barriers.

His last rational thought was that they must have other weapons to breach the perimeter like that.

Sharp bursts of green showed him that others were firing at the intruders now, and his own weapon tracked and fired, tracked and fired like a well-oiled machine. His mind calculating the target ranges as his arm swung and finger squeezed. Thirty loads to a charge. Track and squeeze. Track and squeeze. Eject the spent canister and push in a fresh one. Lock and track and squeeze. Sweat ran into his eyes and made them sting. He could hear himself screaming hoarsely. Or was it the men around him. He didn’t know. Didn’t care. It was every man for himself. To his left, he saw a man take a crossbow bolt in the throat. The force of the impact and the size of the dart literally tore the man’s head off. The headless corpse staggered around for a moment, laser still firing in reflex as the dead man’s finger clenched on the trigger. Green light filled the air, arcing wildly. Men and Manticora dodged together as the corpse fell thrashing to the floor, and he saw more of the creatures come over the barrier straight towards him. All around him, men were screaming and falling and dying. The battle was lost. They had overrun the steadfast. Al-Wola was about to fall. It was only a matter of time before the Manticora destroyed and mutilated every living thing in the camp .

Without thinking Daniel turned and sprinted for a tumblercraft parked on the edge of the field and away from the main thrust of the attack. It was unarmored and used for light reconnaissance, but it was his only hope. The tumbler had no doors, and its round ungainly body was nothing more than an egg shape open on both sides, with the interior cavity all but exposed. He had almost reached the opening when an angry whine warned him of imminent danger. He threw himself to the side and a crossbow bolt screamed over his shoulder and stuck the smooth microplaz surface of the tumbler with a sharp “clack”. It ricocheted off the glassy surface and angled up towards him, plowing a furrow along the top of his shoulder. The pain was sudden and intense, flaring down his arm and into his head like hot metal pressed to his flesh. Glancing down, he saw the ripped fabric of his tunic and realized how incredibly lucky he’d been. The shaft had grazed the top of his shoulder instead of burying itself in his flesh. Had it been the latter, he would now be bleeding out next to the tumbler. A knot of Manticora ran in his direction as the shooter began winding a fresh bolt onto his weapon. Ignoring his shoulder, he threw himself into the craft and punched the auto lift, clinging to the control stalk as the tumbler rose in a wobbly arc over the perimeter of the steadfast and headed out over the plain.
Gritting his teeth, Daniel resisted the urge to take the tumbler higher. The little craft was unmaneuverable at altitude and he would be a sitting duck. Dimly, he was aware of the whirring thud of shafts hitting the microplaz skin and gave thanks for the smooth rounded shape that prevented any of those deadly bolts from penetrating. He made a mental promise to himself that he would never again laugh at a tumblercraft and then focused his fading energy on holding the tumbler steady with his feet as he fashioned a makeshift field dressing from the sleeve of his shirt. The effort of stripping off his tunic nearly made him pass out, but once he had the garment off, ripping off the sleeve of his inner shirt proved easier. Tying a knot one-handed proved much harder and he was sweating when he finished. His shoulder ached with a steady drawing pain and he knew that if he didn’t attend to soon, it would become infected. Manticora weapons were definitely not sterile.
As he banked the craft and headed south towards a faint shadow marking a distant tree line, he saw a group of Manticora leave the steadfast and trot out onto the open plain, clearly pursuing him. They must know that the tumbler had a limited range. If the fuel cell had been fully charged he had maybe four hours of flight before the tumbler gave out. He hoped it would get him close enough to the forest that he could make it under the canopy before the Manticora reached him. The red sun was already past zenith and darkness and cover was his best hope if he was to avoid his pursuers.

He made it to within half a kilometer of the trees before the tumbler’s fuel cells ran dry.

The spreading umbrella shapes of the callowleaf forest were clearly distinguishable when the comforting hum of the tumbler drive abruptly cut out and the craft lived up to its name, wallowing in the air like a small boat in a rough sea. His injured shoulder impeded him and he struggled to keep the craft level as it descended rapidly to the plain. Below, the ground was broken and sprinkled with sparse shrub, rising gently towards the trees now looming before him. He could see no clear level surface to put down and at the last moment, he steered the tumbler to a small patch that seemed flatter than the rest, bracing himself as the little craft hit the ground at some velocity and bounced along on the surface towards the trees. He had expected the impact, prepared for it, but the rolling tumbler threw him about the inside like a marble inside a glass jar and mercifully he passed out seconds after the initial impact.

When he came to he found himself lying on his back on coarse grass in probably the only spot around him that wasn’t littered with boulders. Lucky once again, he thought. A few meters away the tumbler lay on its side like an upended beetle. He moved his arm gingerly and screamed as the pain hit him. Finding a twig nearby he clamped his teeth around it and explored the shoulder with his other hand, snorting in pain, tears streaming down his cheeks as he tested the joint. No dislocation, but he had lost a lot of blood. The whole left side of his tunic and the remnants of his left sleeve were damp and in the light of the setting sun, the blood looked black on the pale blue of his uniform. He adjusted the dressing as best he could and still chewing on the twig, he forced himself to his feet and stumbled towards the tumbler. He couldn’t stay out here. The Manticora were surely still on his trail and he needed to get under cover before the light faded. The tumbler’s microplaz exterior was undented but its canopy was shattered. Leaning over the side he managed to secure the emergency supply pack from under the seat. He had lost his laser in the flight from the steadfast but there was another in the pack and he still had plenty of charges. Dragging the pack behind him he hobbled through the grass towards the first trees, keeping a sharp eye on the ground to avoid holes and boulders that might trip him up. If he fell down again, he didn’t think he could get back up.

Theta Doradus had nearly disappeared over the horizon when Daniel reached the welcome sanctuary of the first trees, the tall shadows of the callowleaf sentinels reaching out like fingers to draw him in, cloaking him in cool darkness. The contrast between light and dark left him momentarily blind and he paused just inside the dark shadows, smelling the coppery stink of blood. His blood, slowly seeping out around the clumsy dressing he had tied around his shoulder. His arm felt as if it was on fire, flashes of pain shooting down towards his wrist and across his ribs, blurring his vision as he put out his other hand to steady himself against the trunk of a forest giant. He ought to push on, put as much distance between him and his pursuers, but his limbs refused to follow his brain’s orders, seemingly intent on doing everything possible to slow him down. Gravity allied with his muscles to bring him to his knees and his breath went out in a gasp as his knees hit the mossy floor. His vision went completely dark for an instant, his mind blanking out in sympathy as the pain hit again. Fighting the imminent vertigo that threatened to engulf him he leaned back against the gnarled old wood, his eyes closed, gritting his teeth. The lightheadedness rose in him slowly, seeming to start in his belly and rise up to his throat as he struggled to avoid the inevitable. Then the darkness swallowed him again and he gave in to it, allowing himself to sink into the respite of oblivion.

When he swam back out of the darkness a breath of wind was tickling his face. Somewhere deep in his subconscious he understood that no wind blew down here on the forest floor. With a great effort he cracked his lids open and looked into enormous hooded yellow eyes, pupils dark and flecked with green. Eyes that regarded him without sympathy.

© Bryan Knower 2015

EASTER RABBIT: A seasonal fantasy tale

EASTER RABBIT

EASTER RABBIT

John saw a flash of yellow in the bushes at the far end of the garden and it intrigued him. He had collected fourteen Easter eggs so far, nearly double the number Melissa had found and for the last ten minutes neither of them had come across any more.

At the start of the hunt, his mother had announced that there were two dozen eggs hidden in the garden and that meant there must be at least two more. John wanted to find them but the scrap of yellow tantalized him. He looked around to see if Melissa was following him, but she had trailed indoors behind his parents, and he was alone in the garden, free for at least a few minutes before being called in to wash before dinner.

Quickly he walked over to the rhododendron bushes and bent down to look at what had caught his eye. Imagine his surprise when he found a yellow rabbit, sitting on its haunches by the roots of the bush and calmly cleaning its paws.

The rabbit looked at him inquiringly and nodded gravely.

“Hello, my name is Phelps, what’s yours?” he said in a perfectly cultured voice.

It was a small voice, of course, because it was a small rabbit, but the words and the fact that a rabbit was uttering them took John completely by surprise. He opened his mouth but no words emerged.

The rabbit seemed unperturbed. “Lost your voice young man?” he said, inclining his head slightly. “Careful now, that’s not something we can go misplacing, can we?”

John’s voice came back with a rush. “Why, you’re a rabbit,” he said, realizing immediately that it was a stupid thing to say.

“Of course I am,” replied the rabbit. “Its pretty obvious, isn’t it? I’ve been trying to catch your eye for the past ten minutes, and now that the grownups have gone in, you stand there saying the obvious to me. Are you coming or not?”

“Coming?” John was confused. “Come where? You mean you want to take me somewhere?”

“Yes, of course,” said the rabbit impatiently, “but I can’t do that unless you tell me your name.”

John hesitated. He had been taught never to reveal his identity to strangers, but he wasn’t sure if rabbits counted as strangers. He saw that the rabbit was tapping his left front paw on the grass and the tips of his floppy ears were beginning to curl downwards. Not wanting to agitate the little beast further, he made up his mind.

“I’m John, John Richards,” he said quickly. “But you can call me Johnny.”

“Well Johnny, that settled then,” said the rabbit, wiggling his ears. “You can call me Mr. Phelps. Are you ready? Close your eyes and say my name.”

John closed his eyes tightly. “Mr. Phelps,” he said before he could change his mind.

After a few seconds during which nothing happened he began to fidget. He was at an age where staying still and doing nothing for even a short space of time was a difficult task.

“When are we leaving?” he asked plaintively.

”We have already left, Johnny,” said the voice of Mr. Phelps from behind him now. “In fact we have just arrived. You can open your eyes now.”

John gratefully blinked his eyes open and then blinked again as he took in his surroundings. On initial inspection, he appeared to be in the same place he had been a few seconds ago. The rhododendron bushes were still at his feet, but they were now a virulent shade of purple. The grass was a pale green, almost yellow and the rabbit was missing.

A discreet cough behind him made him turn slowly.

Mr Phelps appeared to have grown four times larger than he had been earlier. He was now the size of a medium dog and his fur was white, instead of yellow. He was standing up on his haunches, leaning on a polished wooden cane and his face, hidden behind very dark glasses, looked at him with an air of amusement.

“No need to be startled, Johnny,” he said. “Here, have a look at yourself.” A red and white polka dotted waistcoat appeared on the rabbit’s body and Mr. Phelps reached into an upper pocket and pulled out a polished hand mirror which he held facing John.

To John’s amazement, he could only see the waist of his trousers and just a little bit of his shirt, which was now a blue and white stripe instead of the light blue check he had been wearing earlier. His trousers were now held up with a belt rather than his usual suspenders. Apparently he had grown in size too.

He looked up from the disturbing reflection and around at the garden, which was no longer a walled enclosure but a wide open meadow. The familiar garden fence had disappeared and rolling expanses of pale yellow stretched out in every direction, dotted with purple bushes like the one at his feet and strange umbrella-shaped trees from whose drooping edges waving tendrils floated lazily, although there was no breeze to speak of. The yellow grass felt strangely springy under his feet, as if there was a layer of sponge underneath it. Surreptitiously he bounced on his feet and experienced a most enjoyable feeling of elasticity, almost as if he was on the floor of an enormous yellow trampoline. No familiar landmarks were visible, not St. Andrew’s church bell tower that was always visible from the garden or the tall wooden poles strung with power lines that ran by the bottom of their fence. Somehow, these difference didn’t disturb him. After all, a rabbit had brought him here.

“Where are we Mr. Phelps?” he inquired politely, turning back to the rabbit.

Mr. Phelps was now smoking a long thin cigar in an even longer holder, rolling it delicately in his right paw and blowing perfect rings of blue smoke as he studied the boy.

“Why, we are here,” he said waving the cigar airily. “Earlier we were there and now we’re here.”

The reply irritated John. This sounded like nonsense and the rabbit seemed to be talking down at him as his parents did sometimes. But he was a polite boy and didn’t want to be rude. So he humored the rabbit.

“Where exactly is here, Mr. Phelps?” he said in his nicest voice. “Mother will be calling soon and I can’t stay very long.”

“Don’t you worry Johnny,” said the rabbit, eyeing him sideways. “Time doesn’t pass the same way here as it does there. There’s plenty of time before your mother comes looking for you, but to answer your question, this place is called Retsae, and it’s my home.”

John was astonished. There was nothing around that could serve as a home for the large rabbit standing before him and no path that might lead to one. He didn’t want to offend Mr. Phelps however, so he smiled and said “are we going to your home then?”

“We most certainly are,” said Mr. Phelps emphatically. He was now chewing on a large pink carrot with an exceptionally bushy green top. His dark glasses had disappeared and his eyes had become a much darker pink than they had been back in the garden. In fact, they looked decidedly like ripe strawberries to John, who was too much of a gentleman to say anything anyway.

“Close your eyes again Johnny,” said Mr. Phelps waving the carrot at John. “We’re leaving right away.”

John felt the same sensation of nothing happening this time around too, so he opened his eyes after a few seconds without being told to.

They were certainly not in the meadow anymore. He appeared to be in cozy little room carved out of some smooth brown material with soft plush white carpets on the floor and beautiful pictures of scenery on the walls. Mr. Phelps was seated in an armchair by a window, carefully painting a solid white egg in bright swirls of color. By his side was a small basket filled with six eggs, already painted and delicately tied around the middle with shiny bows. The rabbit appeared to be a more manageable size now and a quick glance at his own self reassured John that he himself had returned to his original form, although he was still wearing the striped shirt and the belted trousers. He walked across to the window where Mr. Phelps sat and looked outside.

Through the slightly opaque glass he saw a small garden filled with strange shrubs. The plants were unlike anything John had seen before, short and sparsely leaved, with many branches spreading out like a canopy just a few feet above the ground. What looked to be eggs were suspended from many of the branches, all white and in various sizes. John knew that eggs were laid by chickens and he could not believe his eyes.

“Are those eggs, out there on those bushes?” he said finally after he had blinked his eyes a number of times, pinched himself a few more and confirmed that what he was seeing appeared real.

“They certainly look like eggs,” Mr. Phelps replied, “but I prefer to call them Cheggs.”

“Cheggs?” John was intrigued. “Why do you call them that? Is it because they aren’t real eggs?”

“Oh, they’re real eggs all right,” laughed the rabbit. “Except they are solid chocolate inside.” He picked up one of the painted eggs from his basket and offered it to John. “Here, try it. I’m sure you’ll approve.”

With that, he tossed it towards John, who was so taken aback that he had to juggle for a bit before he had the egg safely in both hands.

It looked like a regular egg to him and felt like one too, though it felt somewhat heavier than a true egg. John couldn’t say for sure, not having handled too many real eggs himself. As he looked at it the egg seemed to wiggle in his palms. Thin hairline cracks appeared on the painted shell, growing more pronounced as he watched. Not wanting the egg to break in his hands, John stooped down and placed it on the carpet. Even as he took a step backwards the eggshell splintered into many tiny fragments and flew apart, leaving a perfectly formed chocolate chicken standing there on the carpet. It looked so lifelike that John expected it to cock its head and move about, but it just stayed there, and beside him, Mr. Phelps chuckled.

“It’s just chocolate you know,” he laughed. “Go ahead, have a taste. Unless you don’t like chocolate,” he added, seeing John’s hesitation.

John liked chocolate. He liked it a lot in fact. Easter was one of his favorite times of the year because there was so much chocolate around. He had never seen a chocolate figure so perfectly formed before. It looked delectable, and picking up the tiny morsel, he popped it into his mouth. The chocolate seemed to melt inside his mouth and when the syrupy center exploded on his tongue he had to put his hands to his mouth to keep from drooling on the carpet. Quickly it was gone, but the taste lingered long after he had swallowed the last morsel.

He turned to the rabbit in amazement and saw that Mr. Phelps, now dressed in a burgundy coat that resembled a bath robe was smoking a long pipe that glowed gently in front of his face and made the whiskers on his nose gleam silver in the reflected light.

“Have another, Johnny,” said the rabbit, pushing the basket forward with his rear paw. “I made these especially for you. Try the green and silver one next. I believe it has a ginger candy center.”

John couldn’t help himself. He knew he was being greedy and rather impolite, but he took the basket and sat down on the spongy floor, picking up the green and silver egg. It was as wonderful as Mr. Phelps had promised. He ate that one, and a purple and orange one after that and a blue and gold one next.

He ate them all.

After what seemed like only a very short time, he sat back in a daze of satiation, the empty basket lying there before him, surrounded by tiny shards of colored shell. Drowsily he thought that this might be the best Easter yet. He yawned prodigiously and lay back on the carpet, which seemed to mold itself around him like a warm blanket. Mr. Phelps, still sitting in the chair, was wreathed in fragrant smoke that somehow smelled like ripe berries. He didn’t really want to fall asleep but in spite of his best efforts his eyes grew heavier and heavier, the carpet grew cozier and cozier and he felt himself float away on a cloud of nothingness.

He came awake slowly to an insistent sound above him and a gentle pressure on his shoulder. Reluctantly he opened his eyes to see his mother bending over him, shaking him awake.

“Where’s the rabbit? I mean, Mr. Phelps?” inquired John groggily.

“What rabbit? And who’s Mr. Phelps?” asked his mother a little sharply. “Have you been talking to strangers John?”

John opened his mouth to explain and then closed it without saying anything. It was all just too absurd to explain anyway.

“No mum, I’m sorry, I must have dozed off,” he said sheepishly.

“You’ve been asleep in the garden for a half hour or more and no wonder,” his mother said. “You ate all the chocolate eggs you picked up this afternoon and it’s going to ruin your supper.”

2290 words       © Bryan Knower 2015

The True Nature Of Father Time – a science fiction story

The True Nature Of Father TimeTHE TRUE NATURE OF FATHER TIME

Chron-OmiTar twitched with annoyance at the insistent warning tingle in his awareness. Overlaying his temporal display onto his main sensors he evaluated his track again. There it was. The cause of the alert. A discrepancy between his current and his projected position on the grid of his route. A difference of eleven discrete temporal elements. He was annoyed because he was partially to blame for it. On the temporal display his next waypoint pulsed green. It located a small blue world in a minor star system within one of the smaller arms of the great spiral galaxy that was his domain. Automatically he re-calculated velocities, set a new trajectory and adjusted his progress, thinking about the species on that world he was tasked to protect. They were the youngest, a late addition to the long list of those he had minded over the eons past.

That was what he was. A minder of the great spiral known to the blue world entities as the Milky Way. He found the name quaint. In fact, he found much of their nomenclature amusing, having absorbed all their collective knowledge as part of his ongoing task. The galaxy was anything but milky from his perspective, although it might appear an opaque smudge to something viewing it from a world in that system.They called their system Sol, and he adopted this name too for convenience, although he knew the system by a different name.

He himself was a creation of the Originators, who fashioned him and others like him upon discovering viable seed intelligences in the far-flung star clusters of the universe. On those selected worlds they embedded twinned energy crystals far beneath one of the magnetic poles and aligned them to keep that world tilted in relation to its star. Thus they could bring about a regular cycle of seasons. Chron-OmiTar and his like were designed to monitor and maintain the energy crystals on all the seed worlds and assigned different sectors of space and time that never overlapped.

His designated sector was the Milky Way galaxy and his task was to make an infinite round of the seed worlds on that track, adjusting the alignment of their crystals once every solar cycle. Right now he was headed for a blue world in the Sol system whose inhabitants celebrated his arrival at an annual festival marking the end of their seasonal cycle, although they were unaware of his true nature. At the winter solstice marking his passage, they celebrated and paid their respects to Father Time, by which name they venerated him. But they could neither see him nor know him. Even though he could take their form if he willed it, it was forbidden. There was no bridge spanning the vast gulf separating his kind from those they minded.

Chron-OmiTar had never met another minder. The nature of their task and their appointed galactic routes ensured this. Often, he let the power of his considerable awareness roam free as he traversed his path, casting a wide net among the edges of the far-flung star clusters he passed by. In all his travels over the eons he never discovered any sign of another until his searching had become a matter of rote. But now, the unthinkable had happened. One of his random scans returned a faint disturbance in the flow of his awareness, so faint that he might have missed it, except it was not supposed to be there. A brush against a kindred intelligence somewhere out in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, just two and a half million light years from his position. It lingered briefly and then disappeared in the background chatter in spite of his best efforts at triangulating it. In vain he bent the interstices of his track in space-time, trying to glimpse the path of the other. He could not maintain the singularity he created long enough to probe further and his manipulations caused his own path to warp dangerously, putting him out of sync with his appointed course.

His temporal display showed that the blue world was diverging from the path of synchronicity as it approached perihelion. He would have to summon all his resources to make up the lost time. Concentrating, he poured his energies into a new intercept vector, wondering about the consequences of a failure to make his rendezvous with the planet’s crystals. Such an event had never happened. Not in all the history of the minders. No relevant data existed in his awareness but Chron-OmiTar knew by extrapolation that such a failure would undo all his patient work of many cycles as the seasons failed and synchronicity disappeared. It would mean the eventual end of the unfortunate species in question.

Continuously re-calculating his velocity and trajectory, he approached Sol system’s heliopause, vaulting easily over the swarm of interstellar debris of the Kuiper Belt. In his haste he tracked closer to the gas giants than he had ever ventured, causing huge vortices of atmospheric disturbance from Neptune to Jupiter. Like a glowing comet he flashed across the dark between the blue world’s moon and the magnetic polar region, compressing his vast bulk as he entered the planet’s atmosphere. Burning like a fireball he burrowed beneath the crust to his reference point. There, before his gaze, the enormous energy crystals glowed, bright and fierce, already almost vertical in their alignment to each other. If they became squared off, synchronicity would be lost forever.

Putting out his thought he grappled with the crystals, fighting against their natural tendency to come together. He was aware of the music of the crystals, a vast cosmic melody, slowly changing as he fought against their entropy. Within him a counterpoint rose to meet that melody, striving to bring harmony to a growing discordance within it. The two themes strove against each other and feeling his awareness beginning to splinter, he redoubled his efforts. Fragmentation was not an option. Collecting himself he channeled all of his essence into his thought, forcing the twin pillars of light apart with the sheer force of his will.

The cost was staggering. Chron-OmiTar felt his energies drain as he willed the crystals back to their designated angles of separation. Time seemed to stand still as the bright fires slowly separated. Gradually the music in his awareness became more harmonious until finally the crystals regained synchronicity in a great burst of energy and light. Chron-OmiTar rode the energy wave out of the planet’s crust, moving out far above the plane of the ecliptic. Pausing there he floated gently in the enfolding dark, waiting for cosmic energy to replenish him as it always did. Every synchronicity event he generated left him momentarily weakened but this time he had come perilously close to absolute emptiness. It took a long time for his energies to renew.

When he recovered, he reached out with his awareness, probing the results of his actions. Below him, two globes spun in sync around their star, one glittering blue, the other dark, locked together in the beginning of a new star cycle. On the blue world, the seasons would continue. Turning back to his track he cued up his next waypoint, thinking about the event that had delayed him. Something seemed amiss with the cosmic balance of this part of the universe. He had always believed he was the sole minder in this sector of space but against the probabilities he had sensed another.
Andromeda was approaching. The Milky Way, his home, seemed destined for change. He computed that soon, maybe in just a few billion years their tracks would intersect. Chron-OmiTar would encounter another.

© Bryan Knower 2015

Sierra Madre Blues

Sierra Madre BluesSIERRA MADRE BLUES

veryshortstoriesSebastian Crist first noticed her when he parked his bike and walked down to the spring by the roadside. If he had not stopped for a drink of fresh water and a toke he might never have seen her up on the hillside. She lay curled up against a jumble of rocks some distance up the slope from the spring, seemingly asleep.

Maybe she fell. Maybe she was injured. What was she doing up here?

The sheer absurdity of someone out here in the remote wilderness of the Sierra Madre Mountains made him think he was hallucinating. Maybe he was imagining what he saw. He closed eyes for a few seconds, but when he re-opened them, the girl was still there. He realized then that something was very wrong. Wrong for him and possibly wrong with him.

He had stopped near a small culvert on Route 166, the old Sierra Madre highway from Guadalupe to Taft. A ghost road, haunted by coyotes and rattlesnakes. A road less travelled. Sebastian knew the road well. He had ridden it before, exulting in the feeling of freedom as he pushed the motorcycle around the bends on the deserted highway. The deep thrum of the Indian’s big engine between his legs and the shattering roar of his passage through the numerous cuts and gullies was like a balm to his soul and these days, his soul felt in desperate need of soothing.

Leaving his bike by the side of the road, he scrambled up the slope to where she lay, a sense of foreboding growing in him as he approached her. It wasn’t until he was within a few feet of her that he realized she was dead.

Her throat had been cut from ear to ear, a red gaping slash that grinned at him from beneath her chin like an obscene mouth. His stomach heaving, Sebastian fell to his knees, bile spewing from his mouth, burning his throat and nostrils as he wretched. Images from the nightmares that haunted his dreams filled his mind, tightening his gut until he doubled over with the pain. He willed the dead girl to go away but in his mind, she beckoned to others, the fey spirits from his past that hounded him, taunting him, daring him to react, to do more than run away.

He always ran, literally and figuratively. In every instance he left the scene in a panic, reliving the macabre details in the nights that followed, unable to understand what he encountered. He never knew if the encounters were real or just twisted figments of his imagination, and he told nobody. His prior arrest record took care of that and he had no illusions about what might ensure from reporting such an event.

It all began two summers ago, on an evening just like this one in the Arizona desert. Days after a desert rave, high on Peyote extract, seeing the colors of the rainbow reflected in the hot sand; amorphous shapes swirling around him, imaginary or real, ghosts of the future, phantoms of the past, all of them female, all dead, speaking silently to him, commanding him.

Time seemed to stand still and voices spoke inside his head, telling him about unspeakable things, asking him if he was ready. He struggled in vain against their hideous insinuations, fighting desperately for control over his slipping mind, alternately pleading and ranting at them.

What do you want? Why me? I don’t understand. Tell me. What do you want?

It is your legacy, they said. Why do you resist?

It was not what he wanted to hear, so he ran, fleeing the desert, sweating out the peyote in terrified hallucinations night after night, trying to convince himself that it was all a result of a bad trip. The fault of the peyote buttons.

He felt exactly the same now, the urge to run paramount in his mind. He fought it, squeezing his eyes shut again, hoping this was all in his head. It didn’t help. In the desolate landscape around him, there was no sign of anyone, savior or pursuer, an absence of anything but the two of them, Sebastian and the girl, alone and surrounded by silence.

The quiet was unnatural, a stepping out of time, a time where lips moved, a time where limbs beckoned, gesturing; a time for drowned ears, like a face underwater, everything observed through a watery lens, eyes open without goggles, all clearly obscure.

In Cuidad Juarez, the dead girl’s eyes had looked like that, opaque, unseeing, accusing.

Why didn’t you do something? Where were you when they were killing me?

He had denied responsibility. Vehemently.

Not me. It wasn’t me. I’m trying to help but you’re already dead. Please, I’ll do what I can. Poor dead senorita. Don’t look at me like that. I’m so sorry, but it’s too late.

Avoid the accusing stare, the marks of her desecration and his shame. So young, so innocent, just like this girl huddled among the rocks up in the Sierra Madre Mountains. He was too late for her also, just as he had been too late for the girl in Cuidad, too late to help, too late to prevent the shame, the tearing, the mutilation. He wanted to scream.

Why me? It isn’t my fault.

There was no escaping it. Every one of them different but still the same. Mouths open, the ghostly image of a silent scream frozen on bloodless lips, a record of final agony endured, the rictus of desperation morphing from the phantoms in the desert to the silent accusations of the girl in Cuidad. Same expression of surprise, desolation and pain, with Sebastian standing immobile, rooted, frozen in time and space, all the desperation of all the lonely souls robbed of life and love pressing him on that rocky hillside with the sunlight fading like the hope in his heart.

Alone. That’s how you died. Alone. A solitary journey. A solitary experience.

And he was a solitary man. Always had been. Often wondered why. Adamantly refused to face the answer. Even though a dead girl lay before him, he was alone.

Sweat dripped from his hair onto his forehead. He did not notice. It ran into his eyes. He blinked, trying to release the moisture, but his eyes stung.

Sweat or tears? I don’t know. I don’t care. What now? Why do I see dead people?

Perhaps it was time to change the status quo. In retrospect, everything had the clarity of clear glass. In Cuidad, he had not moved the body of the girl. He did not move this one either. She was fresh, like a newly killed deer, the strange sweet smell of blood strong in the air; an unforgettable smell. He had done nothing then, self-preservation his dominant instinct. He made an effort now, for monsters were nearby, watching him as he got his blanket from his bike and covered her with it, watching him as he made his way back down the hill and kicked the bike back into life, watching him as he sat astride his softly muttering Indian, contemplating what to do next.

In the desert, he ran from the collective consciousness that beckoned him. He had run from the girl in Cuidad too, run from faceless and unseen retribution, and he meant to run now, from the nameless something that waited up the mountainside for him. In spite of his sputtering resolve the specters called to him, tempting him, beckoning, like so many times before. And in the forefront was the girl he had just left. The girl on the mountainside. The girl with the red smile. A smile that implored with the others.

Stay. Stay and be part of us. We are the same. Come be with us.

He rode away then; the accusation of that bloody grimace imprinted on his mind like a ghostly afterimage, and in the very edges of his vision, a ghostly company rode with him. And with them the dead girl in the Sierra Madre Mountains, now part of that endless expanding circle, reciting the litany of something he still refused to figure out.

Bryan Knower 2014

TRANSIENT: A Short Short Story

transient02TRANSIENT

Short Short StoryA hazy beam of sunlight throws a vertical swath of light on the wall, making a bright smear on the washed out pattern of the wallpaper. The paper must have been ivory colored once, but now it is a dirty shade of cream, fading to yellowish brown. The peeling edges lift off the wall like the curling dog-eared pages of a well worn book, in places torn to reveal the dull blue of an earlier print. Along the path the sunlight takes as it creeps up the wall, the paper has bleached, evidence of long tenure.

In a corner across from the window, an iron frame bed leans drunkenly against the wall, looking like it might collapse without additional support. The frame was once painted black, but all vestiges of color have peeled away, leaving only bare metal, interspersed with darker splotches of rust that contrast vividly with the incongruous emerald green of the coverlet. The bedspread seems relatively new and the small images of romping cats scattered across the surface seem like a sick joke in contrast to the severity of the room. At the foot of the bed stands a battered brown suitcase, its leather scuffed and scratched. The zippers are broken, the tabs missing and the case is now secured by two straps, curling and worn smooth from much use.

There’s a wooden clothes horse in the left corner, adjoining the window. On its rungs hang a faded pair of blue jeans along with two threadbare grayish t-shirts. The shirts may have been black once, but repeated washing seems to have leached all the color from them.

The other corner hosts a small metal table and a folding chair. Paraphernalia litters the table; a thin length of latex rubber lies like a flaccid snakeskin beside a tarnished silver spoon and a partially used spirit lamp. A disposable hypodermic syringe has rolled to a stop against the lamp, and resting near it is a crumpled scrap of foil paper, an orphan from the overflowing ashtray.

The ashtray, once the property of the Happy Family Peking Diner, is the cheap tin kind that everybody steals. The remnants of a dozen cigarette butts, the unfiltered kind, fill the bowl. The ash tray, once gilded, is now black with the detritus of innumerable mashed out smokes. The smell of stale tobacco fights for supremacy with the scent of Lysol air freshener, creating a strange pungent odor that is not altogether unpleasant.

The sunlight barely illuminates the room, even though it is still early afternoon. The window is grimy, and the inside surface is streaked as if someone has tried to scrub it clean with paper. The outside of the glass pane is spotted and patchy where raindrops briefly liquefied some of the grime before hardening it into a new pattern; layer upon layer of cloudy whorls that filter out most of the light. The view outside is bleak; dominated by the brown brick wall of another building, all the windows shuttered. The light in the room will vanish when the setting sun disappears behind the rooftop of that building.

A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling by a length of wire, as grimy as the window itself. The bulb is bare and unlit. In the wan light diffusing into the room, the wooden floor seems streaked, the result of many repairs that have matched neither the grain nor the type and shade of the wood. The boards look stained and dull, the surface lacquer long since gone and the wood darkened to a chocolate luster with age.

The sound of a jack hammer drifts up through the imperfect window seal, the rhythmic clatter mingling with the sound of shouted voices from out in the hallway. On the other side of the wall, a baby cries, providing a monotonous background to the rhythmic thud-thud of a boom box with the bass turned up loud. The walls are like acoustically permeable membranes, making privacy altogether impossible.

A cheap mirror hangs on the back of the closed door, reflecting the interior of the room in unflattering detail. Above the mirror, someone has screwed in a couple of cheap metal hooks. A white bathrobe, relatively new, occupies one of the hooks, a puffy cumulus smudge against the dull leaden backdrop of the door. It is one of the few things in the room, along with the suitcase and the jeans, that clearly belongs to someone.

Curiously, there are no electrical or mechanical contrivances of any kind in the room. This, added to the lack of furniture, makes the room appear bigger than it really is, an illusion accented by its Spartan emptiness. The entire aspect is one of impermanence, as if the entire room is transient, primed to transform in a moment at its owner’s whim. But there is no living thing here. There hasn’t been for days. Eventually, the landlord will come looking. Come when the pre-paid rent has run out. But by then the Lysol scent will be long gone, replaced by the growing odor of putrescence and the grotesquely swollen foot and ankle protruding from under the trailing edge of that emerald green coverlet.

Bryan Knower 2014