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
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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

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

AFTERWHERE – a science fiction story

AfterwhereAFTERWHERE

The reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar paused at the beginning of his weekly sermon, surveying the scattering of people spread out in the pews before him. Attendance today was worse than last Sunday and that Sunday had been worse than the previous week.
Every week, a few more people dropped out, sometimes a family, and that was hard on Sebastian Archibald’s ministry. He tried hard to whip up some fervor in the flock, doing his best to expound the doctrines of the church, but nothing seemed to work these days. He tried humor and then sternness but the response was always distressingly similar. Polite smiles and a reluctance to part with their resources. Sebastian Archibald’s church needed those resources badly and in spite of his best efforts, he was falling behind.
A slow burn of a righteous anger began to build inside him as he thought of all these complacent souls, coddled by their technology and comfortable in their regulated lives, giving scant thought to the Afterwhere even as they blithely accessed it in their dreams. Sebastian Archibald thought often about the Afterwhere. In fact, he dwelt on it. His whole purpose for being was predicated on the notion of an unpredictable Afterwhere. Wasn’t that what he was there for? To guide these folks safely through the Afterwhere?
He monitored his implants and fine tuned the vocal enhancers for a more forceful delivery. Today needed to be different.
“Uncertainty awaits you, my friends,” he thundered, pounding the pulpit for emphasis. “Life is uncertainty. You’re here today and maybe gone tomorrow. What have you done for yourselves? With yourselves? What are you in the here and now? More importantly, what do you do in the Afterwhere? Do you dread going there? Do your visits fill you with terror and your days with dread as you anticipate your next inevitable visit? Do you know what’s out there waiting for you night after night?”
He wiped a spray of spittle from his chin and noted with satisfaction that his outburst had woken up at least some of the people in the pews. Tiny green pinpoints of light glittered like fireflies throughout the room as neural implants woke up and registered activity. He re-adjusted his vocal enhancers for more dramatic effect.
“I’ll tell you what’s out there, my friends,” he continued, pointing his finger for dramatic effect. “The devil’s out there, out in the Afterwhere, waiting for those of you who step in there unprepared. Are you prepared?”
Sebastian Archibald was in fine form now, the words rolling off his tongue like waves on a shelving beach. His sonorous voice, subtly enhanced, filled the sculpted hall and The New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church reverberated with his message, making the ultraglass and titanium-steel structure vibrate with delicate sympathetic harmonies.
“He’s real my friends,” Sebastian Archibald continued, “And far more devious and terrible than the abstract constructs your data ports project in your minds. He’s been around a long time and he’s been fine tuning his approach all these years. The Afterwhere Devil lurks behind the portal to the Afterwhere my friends, and he wants to add your soul identity and your memory structures to his vast network. A network of integrated misery and terror that permeates all the interstices of the dark side of the Afterwhere.”
He paused again for dramatic effect. “Are your memories safe? Do you believe the cloned synaptic images in your data banks are safe? They’re all accessible via your Identikey codes, and that’s what he steals from you in the Afterwhere. Your codes. Your After-Identity. Your personality in the Afterwhere. Is it secured? Are you prepared?”
The sweat was rolling of Sebastian Archibald’s brow now, trickling past his ears and into his gleaming tyvek collar. He ignored it. He had their attention now. All of them. The artificially dimmed auditorium was awash in green pinpoints of light, winking and glowing as their owners accessed their implants, uploading recorded copy of his words to their databanks. He smiled. That’s what they needed. A good stir of their subconscious soup to shake them out of their data-safe programmed little worlds.
The Reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar spoke for another forty-five minutes, each one of them more dire and dolorous than the previous. He stormed around the sanctuary gesticulating wildly, his ornate metal-fiber robes glittering as the strobes of the mood lighting caught them. The lighting operator seemed to have caught the fervor of the moment. She had three flash beams trained on the reverend at all times, making him appear to glow of his own accord. The fog machines rolled their heavy white clouds across the floor of the sanctuary and the reverend seemed to float about the room like a spectral apparition.
Just before his closing statements, the reverend linked his interface to the building systems and artificially darkened the ultraglass walls of the church, a signal to the lighting operator, who responded with a frenzy of strobe lighting simulating lightning strikes around the cunningly silhouetted figure of the reverend. For a few minutes there in the Church of the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere, it seemed as if the Afterwhere had indeed become the present.
“You are doomed, all of you. Doomed to an eternity of endless grinding repetition. Repetition of the most unbearable horrors your minds can envision. But all is not lost. I can help you. I can show you the way through the Afterwhere.”
He paused to let the idea sink in. The green fireflies flickered madly.
“Open your data ports to my uplink stream, my brothers and sisters. Do it now. Do it every day. Do it before you fall asleep and your dreams take you where you do not want to go.”
He raised his voice a few more decibels and lowered the pitch and the timbre, going for the payoff now.
“I have what you need. I will show you a safe road. A safe road through the Afterwhere.”
He stormed out through the mirrorblind curtains at the back of the sanctuary as his closing words echoed in an infinite loop through the church sound system, ten thousand watts of amplified reverberated exhortation that hung in the air long after he had departed, leaving the members pinned to their seats like butterflies on a display board.
That night, the reverend’s uplink stream pulsed as it had not in a very long time. The church servers frantically added more bandwidth as more and more people opened their data ports to his stream. The Unicredit counters monitoring his revenue stream blinked madly as his message downloaded across the data spectrum. The credits poured in faster than his mind could register, and the reverend felt a warm glow of happiness at his achievement, but he was already thinking ahead, knowing he needed to maintain the intensity to keep that credit flow active.
Boredom was the bane of this jaded world he lived in; every aspect of life and living regulated, controlled and monitored by robot processes to the point of mundane invisibility. The only escape for a largely process controlled population was through dreams, themselves monitored by robotic AI’s that randomized the outcomes of those visits so that no person visited the exact same scenario repeatedly. The Afterwhere was a logical construct to exercise the subconscious portions of the mind that could not be controlled by the robots, and lately, the Afterwhere had grown increasingly dark. The reverend’s church was a response to a growing emotional need.
Sebastian Archibald needed to keep the fears of his flock alive, their terror of the Afterwhere stoked, so that the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church continued to grow. And he along with it. As he pondered the problem he had an idea. He had posited a devil. They were terrified of that devil. So why not give him to them?
He would give them that very devil. The Afterwhere Devil, live and present via malware that would upload through their data ports and infect their implants subtly, making them receptive to his suggestions. His very own controllable Afterwhere Devil.
The Reverend Sebastian Archibald Castilar did not sleep that night, turning possibilities and outcomes over in his mind until he had crystallized what he wanted. Early next morning he placed a video comm call to an old friend of his who made robots for a living. His friend had done very well for himself, considering that most of the world was now run and regulated by robots of every shape, size, texture and capacity. The call was short and Sebastian Archibald was precise in his requirements.
Could his friend build him a robot interface to his exact specifications?
He could? Good!
Could he do it in a week? Two weeks? Great!
Could he tailor the robot personality to match the criteria he would specify? Excellent!
The price? What?
Well, never mind. There was going to be a lot more where that was coming from. Do it!
Minutes later, Sebastian Archibald had uploaded a hyper-security packet to his friend, with detailed instructions regarding the personality and capabilities of his new robot interface. The reverend was building himself a robot devil. An Afterwhere Devil, no less.
The next two weeks saw a feverish build up of intensity at the New Electric Assembly of the Afterwhere Church. Sebastian Archibald installed pheromone enhancers in the ceiling, subliminal message displays on the back wall of the sanctuary and upgraded the lights and sound before the next gathering. He posted prominent instructions at the entrance that all neural implants should have their firewalls lowered within the church and their receptors enabled.
The church was packed. Word had spread amongst the community that the reverend was onto something. He had a handle on the Afterwhere. He knew the pitfalls within that desolation and how to avoid them. People brought friends. Families brought other families. They sat mesmerized as the reverend expounded on his theme. This time he had visual backup. Giant displays behind him punctuated his words, picturing dismal dystopian futurescapes as Sebastian Archibald described the dangers of the Afterwhere. Subliminal messages pulsed invisibly in the background and the pheromone enhancers pumped the atmosphere full of disquiet and lurking terror as the images rolled on, bleaker by the moment.
At the end of the sermon, Sebastian Archibald was drenched in sweat and so was his audience. They sat slack-jawed in their seats as the reverend choreographed the finale of his performance like a circus ringmaster. The Unicredit input following the service far outstripped the previous week. The reverend’s net worth soared like a spaceship leaving orbit and his visage began popping up on the national buzz feeds, feeding the frenzy. He was a shark in a school of mackerel. He was the titan at the gates of the Afterwhere, the holder of a VIP access pass guaranteeing a good time to be had by all who could afford it. He was unstoppable.
The next week, the week before the devil arrived, he worked himself into a frenzy, foaming at the mouth as he frightened the wits out of those gathered in his church. There were so many people waiting to get in that he set up five services, spaced and hour and a half apart, all of them playing to capacity crowds. By evening the reverend was exhausted but edgy with anticipation. He dismissed his staff, telling them to take the next day off as a bonus for their work at the services and waited for the technicians who would install his dream device.
It was well into the early hours of the morning before the techs were done interfacing the new system with his servers. Sebastian Archibald could barely contain himself as he waited for them to leave. He sat in front of the interface terminal, brimming with anticipation. What devilry would he program for his first week’s rummaging inside his unsuspecting members memory data banks?
A small glittering dot appeared in the center of the display, resolving into a buckyball shaped figure that spun rapidly on the screen before him. The buckyball had many glittering rainbow-colored facets that flashed and winked mesmerizingly. Behind the interface, his data port came alive, servers humming urgently; data access monitors blinking rapidly in synchronization with the rotating buckyball.
The reverend was mildly irritated. He hadn’t activated the devil interface yet but the damn thing was obviously on. No matter, The technicians probably initialized the system before they left. Clearing his throat he stared directly at the buckyball and accessed the audio interface.
“Castilar. Log on and register vocal and retina print.”
The spinning buckyball flashed silver for a moment before turning prismatic again.
“Vocal and retina print confirmed. Welcome Sebastian.”
Something prickled in the back of the reverend’s mind, like an itch on the inside of his skull. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. When he opened his eyes, the sensation was gone.
Sebastian. The system had called him Sebastian, but he had not told it his name. No one called the reverend by his name. His was simple The Reverend. Sebastian Archibald Castilar guarded his personality with a fervor that matched his religious zeal.
The buckyball on the screen grew in size, some of the facets disappearing into dark openings like windows into an infinite depth. Inside those lattices sparks flashed into existence and died. The room lights dimmed and the unmistakable coppery odor of pheromone stimulants wafted into his nostrils. On the display he could see the reflected green LED of his own implant flare into activity.
A nameless dread assailed him as a suave voice bearing a hint of mingled mischief and malice echoed inside his head.
“Sebastian Archibald Castilar. Welcome to the Afterwhere. I’m your host, the Afterwhere Devil.”

 © Bryan Knower: September 2014

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