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OVERHEAD

By Alexandra Erin

Politics, they say, is the art of the possible.

Logistics, then, must be the art of the convenient.

In the beginning, warehouses were organized in the order that things seemed to fit into them, and then in orders that made sense on the surface to human sensibilities. They became streamlined through practice, and then time-and-motion studies came along and sped the whole thing up. Cutting the time it took to process orders reduced overhead, and increased volume.

Companies that merely fulfilled orders from top to bottom in the order they came in could not compete with companies that found ways to process the most orders in the least amount of time possible, even when this meant breaking them up into pieces and dropping those pieces into positions in queues that seemed arbitrary on the surface.

The human mind might balk at the unfairness that three orders placed at the same time might be processed at differing speeds based on what was ordered in each and when, but the consumer so rarely saw the evidence of this, only the end result, and that was that every order came faster and faster.

It’s a simple logical fact of logistics: some orders are always going to have a shorter path through the fulfillment process than others. You can identify bottlenecks and snarls in the warehouse floor traffic flow. You can rearrange shelves to create a smooth path between items that are frequently ordered together. You can optimize, but the nature of optimization is that you can’t optimize for everything.

You have to choose. You have to prioritize.

It’s all about feasibility and efficiency.

Logistics is the art of the convenient.

Once bar codes and scanners and computer traffic controllers became part of the process, it was no longer necessary for the layout of a warehouse to even make sense to humans, as humans no longer navigated the mazes of shelves and palettes but merely operated machinery which, in turn, increasingly operated itself.

Centralized warehouses gave way to regional distribution centers, stocked according to algorithms intended to minimize the delivery time and cost for the most orders, the most of the time. The famous “Traveling Salesman” problem of logistical computing was being attacked at multiple levels, as human experts and computers tried to find the shortest paths for the most goods: within warehouses, between warehouses, among warehouses and consumers.

When the regional centers gave rise to a fleet of largely autonomous flying warehouses, the jokes about things like SkyNet and Terminators and The Matrix started up immediately. We had robot pickers and packers in robot warehouses fulfilling orders that would be delivered by robots. The only part of the process that still required human intervention was the actual ordering.

The whole thing was getting so efficient and thus so cheap that the order volume increased, which in turn required more efficiency from the system. The human handlers did all that they could, but it turned there wasn’t that much more they could do. There weren’t that many inefficiencies to tighten up, no bottlenecks they could identify.

In the end, there was nothing they could do except what they’d done all along: turn it over to the computers and let them handle it. If the process of speeding orders through the warehouses couldn’t be sped up, the orders themselves needed to be tightened up.

The system started giving financial and psychological incentives for consumers to order things that would have the smoothest path through the warehouse at the time of fulfillment. Items advertised as “Add-Ons” became more predictable; items “Related To This One” became less so. Prices of everyday goods fluctuated up and down based on traffic patterns no human eye ever saw.

Humans did what they always did, and found ways to exploit this. The new prediction markets allowed people to trade in battery futures or short-sell razor blade cartridges. The first people to really grok the new system made millions by seizing on price differences of less than a dime on household goods, then billions on selling the myth of such an opportunity to the masses.

The window in which it was really possible to making a killing on the warehouse logistics market was very short, but the artificial pressure put on the fulfillment system by people trying to strike it rich in a played-out mine only exacerbated the inefficiencies the soft AI that ran the whole thing was trying to control. The Matrix comparisons only ramped up as the warehouse system found itself in an ever-escalating conflict with the human investors and bookmakers, a virtual arms race that ended the only way it really could: with the humans turning their side over to an artificial intelligence, which almost immediately achieved a stable equilibrium with the warehouse system.

Large numbers of people were buying what computers told them to, when computers told them to, based on the needs of computers. They still bought what they needed and what they wanted, of course, and that was a problem for the whole system.

The first time a delivery drone killed someone, it caused an uptick in both Terminator jokes and thinkpieces. The consensus was that it was inevitable and that we should all have seen it coming, and thus, it wasn’t a problem worth thinking about. Pundits were quick to point out how many people died in automobile accidents every year, and yet no one considered banning them.

And it was, after all, an accident. Exhaustive investigations yielded no signs of mechanical failure or programming failure. No human hands had steered it at high speed into the skull of the unfortunate customer who had ordered a truly random assortment of objects. No one could find anything in its firmware nor the remote software that controlled it that would account for its erratic actions.

No cause could be found at all, and so nothing happened. It was ruled an act of God, and the drone was quietly repaired of its minor damage and returned to service.

This was a useful precedent for the company after the next fatality, and the next fatality, and the next one after that. There was never any pattern to the deaths beyond the fact that all those killed were customers, and no discernible pattern to the items ordered. To human eyes, they were truly random, and even computers tasked with finding commonalities between them came up with nothing compelling or conclusive.

Shutting the system down was a non-starter, as far as propositions went. Too many people depended on it. The bookstores had been the first real casualty of convenience, as that was the market niche where the company had started, but now that they were delivering everything from A to Z, brick-and-mortar stores that sold any of the most commonly purchased consumer goods were rapidly receding into the past.

The system ticked along. The deaths continued. Even while the talking heads argued that it would be unfair and unrealistic to punish a company for accidents where it was so clearly not at fault, the public demanded that something be done, so it was decided that the drones involved in the killings would be removed from service. Experts shook their heads and said this was silly; since none of the “faulty” drones had ever killed before, this was not a precaution but a punishment against an unthinking system. It could not possibly have any deterrent effect on future accidents.

Yet, it did, or seemed to. There were no more killings after the plan was announced, not for two years.

The next killing occurred not long after a breakthrough in energy storage technology made the drones lighter and cheaper to make and operate. Everyone agreed that it had to be coincidence, as the batteries had no effect on the machines’ operations, but the timing alone made it look bad enough that one sitting senator started agitating for sanctions on their use.

That senator was the first casualty of the drones who wasn’t expecting a delivery.

Everyone had an uneasy chuckle about that, but no one did anything. Every major city in the country and many more around the worlds now had a whole distribution network of automated flying cargo carriers circling above it. The delivery drones were so ubiquitous by this point that many people now received deliveries on a daily basis, if not more often.

It wasn’t just durable goods and household staples like batteries, but everyday essentials like food and medicine. You didn’t even need to sit down at a computer to order anymore! You could just speak your request out loud, and the little speaker box that sat in your house listening to every word you said would pass the order along to the fulfillment system.

Really, we told ourselves and each other, it was remarkable how few “hiccups” the system had, given how much it did. Progress always came at a price. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. We said these things to anyone who would listen, or even when no one was around, when we were alone in our houses and apartments with our speaker boxes.

As the deaths continued, the prediction markets started to take on a new importance. No human mind ever figured out an exact pattern to the deaths, not exactly, but a basic idea had begun to take shape in the original distributed cloud computing network that is the human collective consciousness.

If it was true that there was no pattern to the orders of the customers who were, ah, cancelled by the system, this meant the way to keep the system from being so confused as to make a fatal mistake in our own deliveries was to keep our deliveries predictable. We all started following trends more carefully, observing consumer gift-giving holidays a bit more religiously. Years of learning new strategies to avoid and ignore targeted advertising went out the window as we all became very interested in learning what the system wanted of us individually, what it expected of us personally.

There was a day, a different day for each of us, but a day where most of us shrugged and decided to accept the web site’s suggestion of subscribing to the things we ordered most often, so that they would always arrive at the moment that was most convenient… you know, for everyone involved.

The deaths continued, but it’s like they say: you could be hit by a car crossing the street. This is less true than ever now that most routine driving operations are controlled by computers. Accidents still happen, though not as frequently. If fewer people die, it’s a net gain for everyone, even if it seems for all the world like reckless consumer behavior or political opinions cause more accidents than reckless driving.

A year or so ago, when I went out to receive my morning box, I saw my neighbor getting hers. There was an extra package there: a great big box of disposable diapers. Newborn size. Neither she nor her wife were or had been pregnant, to my knowledge, and none of their children were old enough for that to be an issue.

She must have seen me staring, because she said, “You know how the advertisers will show you something they think you need, based on trends and whatnot?”

“Data mining,” I said, nodding. I was thinking of a case years ago, before all of this really took off, where a retailer had accidentally revealed a teen’s pregnancy before she even knew about it.

“Well, this came up in our ads yesterday, and…” She shrugged, almost apologetically. “You know, it’s like, what are you going to do?”

“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t say more. We always left so much unsaid. Every house was wired. The drones were always overhead. No one was ever far from a phone for long.

My neighbors kept buying the diapers. And formula. And baby clothes. A few months back, they started getting notices from various company mailing lists about their child’s first birthday.

I know half a dozen people who had a similar experience. Most of them wound up having a baby anyway.

“It’s just easier that way,” is a common refrain, as is, “Well, I have to buy the stuff anyway, so…”

Having a child’s not a trivial expense, with or without the actual process of giving birth. Still, everything else is so cheap that the consensus is it’s still worth it, overall. We’re not sure exactly what we’d do if we ever had to decide it wasn’t.

Everyone agrees life is better now. In order to serve us better, the company provided a speaker box for every room in our house. Every house. Those of us who have been good about filling out surveys and giving requested privileges to our phones and webcams got the best part of this deal. Two families on my street had to renovate to get the right number of rooms. Still, they agree that life is better, just as loudly and just as often as the rest of us.

And I mean, isn’t it? The deliveries come on time. The traffic flows smoothly through the streets, skies, and warehouses. There’s a certain harmony to life that wasn’t there before. Neighbors get along with each other. Violent crime is way down. No one wants to upset the system. The political process is a lot more orderly. It’s not like our political leaders didn’t watch data trends or listen to polling data before. They’re just more organized about it now. There’s a lot less acrimony and rancor in the process.

The boxes are always there, always listening, but we don’t even have to give them orders most of the time. The system knows what we’re going to need, and it delivers. If sometimes we didn’t need what it delivered before it did so, well, that’s a small price to pay for the convenience of it all.

The system can not only order new stock, it can create it. Automated factories are old technology now, and 3D printers have been getting better and cheaper, especially now that the computers are designing and building them themselves.

A lot of people have been talking about the singularity, the day the computers we designed design computers better than themselves, stretching on into the future. That day’s obviously coming. The system’s gone from re-designing its warehouses to re-designing its drones to re-designing itself. It’s been ordering a lot more raw materials lately, too. Industrial chemicals in industrial quantities. No one’s quite sure what it’s doing with them, but of course, the whole process is automated now. Probably someone could put it a stop to it if it were a problem, but it’s better for everyone involved if it’s just not.

Everything is so convenient now, if not exactly easy on us. It’s getting better, though. As the system takes over more and more things, we have to do less and less work to keep it happy. A year ago you had to order the diapers when it thought you should be having a baby. Now they just show up. At the rate things are going now, we’re months if not weeks away from the point where the whole thing can carry on without any human being having to say a word or lift a finger.

No one’s sure what will happen then, but we all agree: it’ll be the absolute last word in convenience.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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I may have shared an earlier draft of this poem with my patrons before. It’s gone through many revisions, many versions. I first wrote it after the death of Australian novelist, Colleen McCullough, brought an obituary that referred to her as “plain of feature, and certainly overweight”.

It put me in mind of another obituary, for honest-to-gosh rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which had originally begun, “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.”

Now People magazine has chosen to eulogize Carrie Fisher with a blow-by-blow account of the ever-changing mass of her body in a gravity well, I feel like it’s well and truly time to share this piece with the world…

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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I started writing this after recently becoming entangled with the early access game Subnautica, a survival sandbox game where you play the lone survivor of a starship crash on what seems like a largely aquatic world (though most spaceships that crashed on earth would think the same thing, statistically).

The world in the game is conveniently earth-like enough that you can breathe its air and consume its food and water with reasonable filtration and processing, but early on in the game, before you gather enough resources to use magical technology to construct a habitat, your home is a tiny emergency escape pod bobbing in the shallows. It’s big enough for two people, but simultaneously claustrophobic and clangingly empty with just one.

This poem started with the idea of a scenario like Subnautica’s, but tweaked. What if the water was less shallow? What if the world outside was that much more dangerous, that much less compatible with terrestrial biology? What if the lifepod was not just your first home on the new world but the whole of your world? What if you weren’t alone?

That’s what I started with. Where it grew from there is complicated, and far deeper than I initially planned or intended. Essentially, it’s a creation myth shown from the other side.

The poem consists of fourteen named and numbered segments. The first one is like this:


I – Stranded

*

Our world is a lifeboat.

*

This was once metaphor

for all humanity,

back on ancient Earth,

back before the push,

back before the spread

of all humanity

to every corner of the cosmos,

to every habitable world

beneath every sky.

*

Our world is a lifeboat.

*

Outside is a world,

not habitable,

not safe, not ours.

*

So close, on the other side

of our pod’s glasteel ports,

so close and yet so far,

too close for comfort sometimes

when the tempest rages

and the hull shakes

and we toss and twist

upon the surface

of the sea.

*

The autoevac

did its job

as best it could

with the materials

available.

*

No plotted worlds within range,

nor any habitable ones,

it put the survivors down

in a planet-sized puddle

we could almost survive.

*

The exosurveyors speak of

the Goldilocks zone;

just the right distance

from just the right star,

everything just right,

just like the old story

that only survived

because exosurveyors

still tell it to explain

about the zone.

*

The only tell half the story, though.

*

Sometimes, Goldilocks

shows up and the porridge

is thin and runny, or already gone.

*

Sometimes the bears are home when she gets there.

*

Sometimes there is no home.

*

The world outside is in the zone,

but it feeds us watery gruel indeed.

*

Warm but not the right warm.

Wet but not the right pH.

Life, but not the right life.

It can’t grow inside our bubble.

We can’t live in its world.

It can’t live in ours.

We cannot cultivate it.

It cannot sustain us.

*

The replicycle

does its job

as best it can

with the materials

available.

*

It filters the water.

It filters the plants.

It filters the wriggling

fish-like organisms

that have never encountered

a single artificial object

in their brief lives

and have no reason to fear it.

*

The water tastes like ionized nothing.

The food tastes like stale nothing.

The nutritional supplements taste,

but like nothing good.

*

Our world is a lifeboat,

bobbing on the surface

of a world we can see

but not touch,

a world that

will never

be ours.


Again, the full poem contains thirteen more segments: Fruitless, Fruitful, Benediction, Malediction, Posterity, Titanomachy, Flowering, Awakening, Foreboding, Temptation, Apotheosis, Exegesis, and Coda.

At around 5,000 words depending on who is counting, it’s long for most short stories, though not unduly so for one of mine. I have posted the whole of it to Patreon, but as part of my new approach to Patreon, I am keeping the whole of it under patron-locked wraps for now.

You can read it immediately by pledging any amount. Because we’re trying to rebuild our financial cushion, I will also unlock it for everyone to read if I receive one hundred dollars in PayPal or Square Cash tips today.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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Previously I had been posting my work here as well as Medium when it has no other home, but this one takes some tricky formatting that I can’t readily manage on my mobile set-up, so for now I am just linking to it.

I described “The Numbers Game” as a red pill horror story on Twitter. If you are unfamiliar with the phrase “the red pill” as used here, hopefully the in-story explanations and context will make it clear. And yes, it’s a real thing and all the terminology here is real.

The red pill is a subset of the general sphere that pick-up artists, MRAs, and Men Goint Their Own Way belong to, along with the core constiuency and thought leaders of groups like Gamergate. There is a lot of overlap among those groups in beliefs, terminology, and even membership, though occasionally you find a person who insists that two of the sub-groups are polar opposites.

http://medium.com/@alexandraerin/fiction-the-numbers-game-a11ce9242202

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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She sits at the wrought iron table outside the cafe. The table has six sides, the mesh on top a sturdy hexagonal lace. A cup of tea with honey cools atop a bone saucer, untouched.

She’s wearing an extremely well-fitted double-breasted houndstooth jacket of the sort I think you would call a peacoat. Dark gray leggings protrude from beneath it. Her hair is pulled back and up in a high, tight bun, presumably to keep it out of her face while she works.

Spread out on a soft piece of suede unfurled in front of her are a plethora of parts, tiny, delicate, and beautiful. Gold wire legs and antennae, fine-toothed cogs, wings made of leaf so thin you can see through it. She sews them into place once the jeweled carapace is in place using a needle so small she needs a jeweler’s loupe to thread it, then pokes at a spot where the thorax joins the abdomen to set something in motion within.

The new-minted bee starts with a shake, sets its wings to buzzing, streaks in circles beneath the umbrella overhead and zips off.

There are no chairs at her table save the one in which she sits. She has been there every time I’ve chanced to pass this way, and on the occasions such as today when it wasn’t chance at all. I have been here almost since she began, and now that she’s finished, I stand, frozen.

What to do now? Every time I’ve watched her finish before, I’ve turned and hurried away before I could see what, if anything, she would do next. Pull a book out of her handbag and start reading? Get up and leave?

Except she almost always had her tea, as she does now, untouched.

I watch her watch the bee past the point where I can no longer begin to follow where it’s gone. She then smiles to herself. I can almost hear the soft sigh of contentment she lets out. She settles back in her seat.

I want to go up to her, to tell her my name and ask hers. I want to ask her how and why and a hundred questions but above all how. I want to be her new best friend. I want to do all of this and more, but I can’t bring myself to intrude upon this elegant, solitary woman who makes bees on a coffee shop patio.

Not without some sign, some small sign, that she would be receptive…

Too late, I realize that she’s looking around and that the sweep of her eyes are on a collision course with mine. Her smile broadens and she says, “Hello.”

It is probably a mistake to judge someone’s voice based on two syllables projected across a distance in the open air, and had it transpired that her voice was anything other than everything I’d hoped it to be, I wouldn’t have. But it is confident, clear. It drips with charm.

My hands look for something to do, and wind up pulling both my newsie-style hat and my scarf off and mopping my very not-sweaty face. I realize I’m basically hiding behind them and force my errant extremities to my side, then approach her, hat literally in hand.

“Hi,” I say. “Do you mind if I talk to you?”

“Oh, I don’t mind much,” she says. She reaches for her tea. “I find it doesn’t often help if I do.”

“Oh,” I say. I don’t mean for my face to fall, but I can feel it. I turn away, hopefully before it has a chance to ruin her day. “Sorry to bother you.”

“Excuse me,” she says, “but I do find I would like some company, and I suspect yours will do. Please.”

I turn around.

“Are you serious?” I say.

“Too frequently. Please pull up a chair. Oh! Only, if you intend to have anything to drink, please do order it beforehand. I can’t abide an empty chair at my table. Too many people in this world take it as an invitation.”

“Seriously, if I’m being a bother…”

She slaps one delicate hand on the table. Most of the motion is in her wrist, so it makes a satisfying slapping sound without actually upsetting anything.

“I will tell you what is a bother!” she says. Her wide nostrils flare are her dark eyes flash. “It is that the people in this life who are the least bother are the ones most worried about being one, while those who are the least likely to be extended an invitation are also those least likely to wait for one! Please! Get yourself something to drink and then pull a chair over. If you will not, I shall be very disappointed.”

Well, if there is any prospect in this world that fill me with more streams of hot and cold running anxiety than being a bother, it is the prospect of being a disappointment. I take a moment to throw my scarf over my shoulders and replace my cap, then head into the coffee shop.

As many times as I walk by this place, I have never been inside before. I wouldn’t have any reason to notice it if not for her, and that made it feel like the whole place was her territory, or at least, not mine.

No one is waiting for service when I enter, so I study the board and try to find something I can order without embarrassment. I have always loved the smell of freshly-roasted coffee, which I have regarded as one of nature’s most insidious traps ever since the first time I actually tasted it. Tea is a bit more manageable, but I’m too aware that everyone has opinions about how it should be prepared, taken, and drunk to attempt it in public.

I settle on hot chocolate, though. Coffeehouse hot chocolate isn’t quite the same as homemade on a stove, but frothy steamed milk and syrup is not dehydrated powder and microwaved water, either.

I step forward and give my best attempt at a smile.

“What can I make you?” the barista asks. She has a round, pleasant face with a sparkly stud in her nose and short, spiky hair.

“One hot chocolate, please.”

She rings me up, and I pay, then she turns to start heating the milk.

“Oh!” she says “Forgot to ask: whipped cream and sprinkles?”

The question starts a war within me. On the one hand, if I do not dress my chocolate up then anyone looking at it might suspect I am being very properly adult. On the other hand, whipped cream and sprinkles. Boldness or some approximation thereof has already served me well once so far today, though.

“Yes, please,” I say.

“Pardon?”

“Yes, please,” I say a little louder.

A man standing very close behind me, as if drawn by my worries of projecting maturity, says in a carrying voice, “What are you, twelve years old? This is a coffee shop, not an ice cream stand. Whipped cream and sprinkles!”

“I don’t actually care for coffee, thank you,” I say, still in interacting-with-customer-service mode.

He’s a little less than a head taller than me, compactly built but wide across the shoulders. His arms seem long to me. That’s the first thing I notice on most guys: their reach. I wouldn’t care to say why. He wears a blazer with patches on the elbows and a smell like bananas clings to him. I suspect the electric pipe in his breast pocket has something to do with that.

“You’ve probably never had good coffee, then,” he says. “You know, coffee is a lot like chocolate: people think it needs a lot of milk and sugar and other rubbish to taste good, because they’ve only ever had stale, over-processed garbage. Did you know the coffee bean is actually a berry?”

“Is that so?” I say.

There is a smile that I have seen on the faces of other women that is both an armor against men like this and a beacon to other women. I don’t know if I really know how to make it, but I give it my best shot.

“Oh, yes! And like any other fruit, it can be very sweet. This is the only coffee shop in town that serves proper coffee, which is why it’s the only one I come to. When I saw you come in, I knew I’d never seen you before, which meant I knew you were in for a treat. I can’t stand here and let you miss out on that.”

“That’s very kind,” I say, “but I’m really trying to cut down on caffeine.”

“Then you shouldn’t order chocolate,” he says. “Carla, she’ll have…”

“I’m already making her order,” Carla says.

“Then she’ll also have…”

“You know, I’m fine ordering for myself,” I say. “I don’t want coffee. I don’t like coffee.”

“Well, you can’t stop me from ordering an extra one,” he says.

“Have at it,” I say.

“And you’re not leaving until you try it.”

“Are you going to stop me?” I say. “Physically.”

“What? I mean, I wouldn’t… but you’re not going to.”

“Well, I’m not drinking something I don’t like because you think I should, and I’m not staying here one second past when I have my drink.”

“Here you go,” Carla says, reaching across the counter with a steamy mug piled with whipped cream. “You know, I had a hunch and added a little splash of French vanilla, not so much that it tastes vanilla but just a hint? It’s how I make it for the regulars, and I think you’ll like it.”

A look passes over her face for a fraction of a second. It’s half apology and half concern. I understand. This guy is a regular. She has to be nice. She sees me, she’s here. I think she’d support me if something were to happen, beyond the drama that’s already unfolding, and probably nothing will.


Probably.

Most of the men who get in your way and won’t listen when you say no the first time will stomp off with nothing more than a few parting insults. The problem is that the ones who will do worse don’t look any different.

“That sounds lovely,” I say, giving Carla a quick nod and taking the mug with both hands. “Thank you.”

“Oh, so, you’ll let her take liberties, but my suggestion is brushed off?” the man says.

“It’s not my fault if you don’t know the difference between a nice gesture and… what you’re doing,” I say. “And you know what? I bet if I had told Carla that I don’t care for vanilla, she’d have apologized and made me a new one, not stood in my way and told me to try it anyway.”

“Okay, but there’s still no reason you can’t try the coffee,” he says.

“I don’t need a reason!” I say. “Are you going to get out of my way?”

“You don’t have to be so rude!” he says.

“Are you going to keep me here?”

“I shouldn’t have to!”

“You don’t have to!” I say. “No one’s making you!”

“Hey!” Carla says. Her voice cracks when she raises it. “You have to go now.”

“What?” the man says. He rounds on her, and I see the naked fury on his face. I flinch, shrink back within myself, when his arms come up. “What the fuck, Carla?”

“You are… causing a disturbance,” she says. “It’s upsetting people.”

He looks around.

“There’s no one here but me!” he says.

“Her,” Carla says. “And me. Get out.”

“Fine, just get me my coffee.”

“GET OUT!” Carla screams.

He looks back and forth between us. The look on his face says that something very wrong has happened, that he can’t quite make it add up, and then he leaves, stomping out and slamming the door.

“Sorry,” I say to Carla.

“It’s okay,” she says.

“Are you going to be in trouble?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” she says. “There have been complaints about him before. The owner says he hasn’t hurt anyone, though? He’s an artist.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Thank you. For the vanilla.”

“Yeah.”

We exchange another set of nods and then I head outside. The woman who makes the bees has put away her tools and out a sketchpad, and she’s now bent over it, drawing anatomical sections of insects in what I think is charcoal. They look more like ants than bees.

I watch her from what I hope is a respectful distance, wondering if I’ve missed my window.

“I’ve been thinking,” she says, “about branching out.” She blows on the paper, then looks up at me. “Well, put that down and get yourself a chair.”

I do so, and she resumes working and talking.

“I thought I heard shouting,” she says. “Are you alright?”

“I… yeah,” I say. “It was just a man.”

“I told you about empty chairs,” she says. “Well, one day a man dragged a chair over while I was working. He sat down next to me, and made sure that I knew he knew many interesting facts about entomology. I told him that I was working and he said that was okay, he didn’t mind. I told him that if he distracted me, I might make a mistake. He laughed and said I was a big girl.”

“That’s awful,” I say.

“He asked me to make him something, so I did,” she says.

“What was it?”

“A yellowjacket,” she says. “I told him it wouldn’t sting him if he didn’t make it mad, but he didn’t listen. He called me an unkind name and left.”

“What happened?”

“It got mad,” I say.

“Do you do this every day?” I ask her.

“The sketching?”

“Making bees,” I say.

“Weather allowing,” she says. “I think I’ve seen you watching me before.”

I lower my head.

“I don’t mean to stare or anything, it’s just fascinating,” I say.

“It is,” she agrees. “And impressive.”

“Yes. Why do you do it?”

“Well, someone has to,” she says. “Otherwise we’re liable to run out.”

“How does it work?”

“Oh, there are many aspects,” she says. “Little tricks. I’ve learned them over the years.”

“And you just let them go?”

“Bees have their own lives,” she says. “That’s what makes them bees. I mean, not what makes them bees in particular. But having a life is what makes my bees be bees, and not trinkets or toys.”

“That’s interesting, because I thought bees lived in hives.”

“Everyone’s got to live somewhere,” she says.

“I mean, I thought they were colony creatures.”

“I live in an apartment. I still have my life,” she says. “There are solitary bees, but even in a shared hive, every bee is still its own bee. It still does what it wants.”

“Isn’t that just chaos?”

“What are you doing right now?”

“I… what? Nothing. I mean, I don’t…”

“Are you doing what you want?”

“You mean, with my life?”

“I mean right now.”

“I guess?” I say.

“Is it chaos?”

“Sometimes,” I say. I’m seeing the man in the coffee shop, in my head. He had been doing what he wanted, at least as far as he could without my involvement.

“You’re not running rampant, though,” she says. “You’re not tearing things down or burning things up. You go through life and I bet mostly what you want to do is to get along, right? You want to be comfortable. You want to feel good. You don’t want to be alone.”

“I guess,” I say.

“And that’s your nature, just as it’s a bee’s nature,” she says. “Do you know that honeybees can control the temperature in their hives?”

“I’ve heard they do things like gather together and vibrate to make friction,” I say. “To heat the hive. And that they can use wings for air circulation, like fans.”

“Oh, yes, but it gets subtler than that. There are special bees with higher core temperatures and they can move around and regulate the temperature within themselves to change the temperature of the hive. They control how the brood develops, you know. One degree change in any direction  in a developing pupa and you get a different sort of bee. Do you know how they decide, the heater bees?”

“I’ve always thought the queen directs the hive, somehow.”

“Most people do,” she says. “But there are no gears turning inside the hive, no wires running from the queen to the heaters or the workers or anyone else. Every bee, from the queen to the heaters, just does what it thinks best.”

“So there’s no real hive mind?”

“There is,” she says. “It emerges from the behavior of the whole. Right now, what do you think the neurons in your brain are doing?”

“…firing?” I say. Neurology is not my area.

“Each neuron, how does it know to ‘fire’ or not?”

“I guess you’d say each one is just doing what it thinks is best,” I say. “But you could say that about any cell in my body. The muscle cells in my biceps.”

“Yes.”

“But by that logic, the atoms that form the molecules in the cell are also just doing what they think is best,” I say. “And the electrons and protons and neutrons that make up the atoms, and so on.”

“Yes,” she says.

“But subatomic particles and stuff, they’re all following immutable physical laws,” I say.

“Well, aren’t you doing so, too?”

“Well, yes, I can’t decide to ignore the laws of physics,” I say. “But I can decide to turn left or right. I can decide to take the short way home after work, or the long way that goes past the sidewalk cafe.”

“I am not a particle physicist,” she says, “but it is my understanding that they deal in probabilities, that the motion of particles is predictable within large groups over time rather than individual particles in the moment.”

“That sounds right,” I say.

“It’s true of people,” she says. “A social scientist couldn’t predict what you or I would do in a given situation, or even model it properly, but gather enough people together and they can begin to form predictions and determine laws. And if it’s true of people, it’s likely true of bees. And I daresay it’s likely to be true of cells of your body.”

“But if I have consciousness and I’m consciously making decisions,” I say, “and those decisions determine what the neurons in my brain are doing, and the neurons are made out of atoms… there can’t be consciousness in the atoms, or the neurons, can there? I mean, there’s a me that’s making decisions and everything else follows suit.”

“But isn’t the collective action of the neurons the same as you making the decision?” she says. “And isn’t the collective motion of the particles that make up the neurons the same as their action? Or do you imagine a ‘you’ separate from all of those that gives the smallest particles their marching orders and it just goes up the chain from there?”

“I dated a guy once who told me that quantum uncertainty proved free will,” I say. “He said without it the universe would be deterministic, but since it existed, we obviously had free will.”

“I’m not sure I follow how something maybe being random is the same as having free will,” she says.

“Well, we were talking about it in the context of, if you could rewind time and let events play out again, would you do the same thing every time?” I say. “I was saying that you’d do the same thing every time, because whatever reasons you’d had for doing it the first time would still be true.”

“That is completely sensible,” she says.

“He got really mad about that,” I say. “I didn’t understand why. Still don’t. But he shouted at me that I was saying free will didn’t exist. No, actually, what he said was that I was saying he didn’t have free will. Like it was personal? He looked at me like he wanted to hit me, then pounded the wall with his fist and stomped off.”

“‘Pounded the wall with his fist’,” she says. “That is an interesting turn of phrase. In point of fact, he punched the wall, didn’t yes?”

“Well, yes,” I say. “He did. Inches from my head.”

“Scary,” she says.

“It wasn’t at the time?” I say, then I remember how I felt, and I shudder. “No, wait, it was. But it was also normal? I didn’t see him for a day or two, and then he came back, smiling and told me that he’d figured it all out. Quantum uncertainty, he said. The randomness of electrons meant that if you rewound time and let events play out over and over again, he might do a different thing each time, and that meant he might have free will.”

“Did that make sense to you?”

“No,” I say.

“I think he had it backwards,” she says. “If what you do is random, then you have no free will. If you’re doing the same thing each time, that still leaves the possibility that you’ve chosen it.”

“I kind of agree?” I say. “But…”

There’s a scrape of metal on stone at the table behind me, at the same time as a forceful exhalation of air. I twist around and crane my neck to see a man a squat man with short arms pushing back from the table and turning his chair towards ours. He’s wearing an olive drab bucket hat and a pointedly ugly gray and red sweater.

“Hold on there, ladies,” he man says. “This has been an interesting enough conversation to listen to, but now you’re talking nonsense.”

“Excuse me,” she says, “you’re interrupting her.”

“Someone has to!” he says. “Look, the essence of free will is choice, right? And if you have to do the same thing every time, that’s not a choice, and that’s not free. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“That’s an interesting point of view,” she says.

“But I asked you a question. I said, wouldn’t you agree?”

“You already know my thoughts on the subject,” she says. “If you would like to hear more of them, you’re welcome to listen.”

He shakes his head, grinning.

“Darling,” he says, “darling, that’s just not how a conversation works. There’s got to be some give and take.”

“I was not having a conversation with you,” she says.

“Well, it’s a free country, and I have free will,” he says. “And I have chosen, freely, to have a conversation with you. Are you going to respect my autonomy?”

He says this last bit triumphantly, with a gleam in his eye like he has us now. Neither of us has mentioned autonomy as a concept by name, but I have a feeling that in this moment he’s winning the last argument he created with women about how we used our time.

“We actually have somewhere we need to be,” she says. She removes the sheet from her sketchpad and carefully puts it into a pouch, then puts the pad in another pocket. “Plans. Goodbye.”

“Bullshit!” he says. He sounds personally affronted. “I’ve been sitting here since before she got here,” he says, jabbing a finger at me, “and I know for a fact the two of you have never said a word to one another before today.”

“We’re old friends,” I say, “and we really need to go.”

“Yeah? Then you know each other’s names,” he says.

“Katrina,” I say. It’s the first thing that pops into my head. “I call her Kat, but no one else does.”

“Bullshit,” the man says.

“Her parents call her Katie, but she hates that,” I say.

“And she’s Anna,” my Kat says, and just like that I am. “I call her Anna. Are you ready to go, Anna?”

“Yes, Kat,” I say, standing up. “Ready when you are.”

“Bullshit!” he screams again, getting to his feet. “Let me see some ID! If those are really your names, I’ll… I’ll…”

Kat leaps to her feet. She is tiny, and somehow seems tinier standing up than sitting down, but her eyes blaze.

“You’ll what? You’ll let us have a private conversation unblessed by your input?” she screams back at his face. “Let us leave? Let us exist in peace?”

“Don’t make me the bad guy here!” he says. “I’m not the one selling a line of bullshit and getting defensive when corrected!”

“We weren’t selling you anything,” Kat says. “You were listening.”

“It was a public conversation!” he says. “But shit, if you’re just going to be like this about it, never fucking mind!”

He kicks the chair and storms off, his progress periodically punctuated with primal screams of “fuck” and “shit”.

I watch him go to make sure that he’s really gone, and then I turn back towards Kat, who is still standing. Her eyes are closed. Her head is tilted down. She is breathing forcefully but slowly in and out of her nose. Her arms are at her side, straight down, but her hands jut out perpendicular to the ground.

I’m about to ask her if she’s okay when I notice behind her: a whole swarm of glittering mechanical bees, hovering in the air in two perfect formations; a pair of symmetrical angel wings formed of intricate hexagons.

She relaxes, unclenches her body and lets her hands go limp. Her eyes open. The wings break apart, the bees scattering into several streams that stream away in different directions.

“That was incredible,” I say, watching her watch one of them.

“I can certainly barely credit it,” she says.

“Yeah, that guy was something else.”

“No, he really wasn’t,” she says. “I was, though. I’m not usually half that brave, you know.”

“No?” I say, amazed.

“Not at all,” she says. “I’m snarky, which seems similar, but only from the outside.”

“What made this time different?”

“I think you inspired me,” she says. “You know, I’ve never actually balled my fists and yelled at a man like that before.”

“I wasn’t watching your fists,” I say.

“Yes. Well. What were they doing back there, anyway?”

“Swarming,” I say. “Flying in formation. They looked like wings. It was like they were protecting you, or like they were a part of you.”

“That’s interesting,” she says.

“You didn’t make them do that?” I ask.

“I don’t make them do anything,” she says. “I just make them.

“So they all chose to do that,” I say. “Individually.”

“They all chose to do that,” she agrees. “But you were saying?”

“Sheesh, what was I saying?” I say. “We were talking about free will, and doing the same thing over and over again.”

“You said you agree that randomness is not the same as free will,” Kat says. “Do you want to know my name, by the way?”

“…is it weird if I don’t?”

“Then call me Kat, because I don’t think you’d ever not be Anna to me,” she says. “We found those names for each other. We forged those names in fire.”

“Isn’t that a little melodramatic?”

“Compared to him?” she says, gesturing vaguely in the direction in which he’d departed.

“Fair point,” I say.

“I’m up now, I’ve put my things away,” she says. “I would like to walk, Anna. Would you like to walk with me?”

“I would,” I say.

We walk, and we talk. I have so many questions in my head about the bees, but we’re already enmeshed in a broader topic and not only am I afraid to come off as prying, I’m actually enjoying this conversation.

“So, yeah,” I say. “I basically agree that free will and randomness aren’t the same thing. I mean, if we want to really get into it, what we perceive as random might not actually be random, and it might be the levers, so to speak, by which a disembodied conscious can affect the material world. I thought about it a lot, after that conversation, but when I brought it up again, he wasn’t interested. It was like, he’d settled the matter to his satisfaction and couldn’t understand why I was still interested.”

“Do you think that’s likely?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “I think there is something more to us than the material, if only to explain what consciousness is, but I don’t believe in an external soul, and I don’t think consciousness can be explained at the quantum level. I think it’s an aggregate. What’s the word you used? You said it emerges?”

“Yes,” Kat says.

“Yes. I think consciousness is emergent,” I say. “I think it emerges from… complexity. Intricate organizations of matter, complex chains of reactions.”

“So a hive might be conscious, might have consciousness in the sense that you or I do,” she says.

“But then what about the bees?”

“What about them?”

“You say they’re all acting as individuals,” I say. “Are they not complex enough to have consciousness?”

“It’s your theory.”

“Well, I don’t know where the cut-off is,” I say. “But I’m pretty sure my individual neurons don’t have consciousness.”

“Why not?”

“Because I know that I do,” I say. “Cogito ergo sum. If I know nothing else in this universe, and I probably don’t, then I know that I am. And if I’m conscious, then my cells aren’t.”

“How does that follow?” she says. “You know that you have consciousness, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t, or a hive doesn’t. Why should it have any implications for your neurons?”

“Well, you’re not part of me. My neurons are. If I’m conscious, that means that what I say goes, right?”

“You’re equating consciousness with free will now,” she says. “Is it necessarily true that the two coexist?”

“What’s the point of consciousness without it?” I ask. “If it’s all just one domino knocking over the other into infinity, why is there anyone to watch it?”

“If you could set up an infinite number of dominoes, wouldn’t you want someone to watch them tipping over?”

“But there’s no real ‘me’ if I’m not deciding anything,” I say.

“I can credit that,” Kat says. “But why does that mean there can’t be a ‘me’ for each of your individual neurons?”

“Because they might decide different things than I do,” I say.

“Does your body always do everything you want, exactly the way you want?”

“Oh, hell, no!” I say.

“If the heaters didn’t do what the hive wanted, if the workers didn’t do what the hive wanted, if any appreciable number of the bees within a hive did not do what the hive wanted, the hive would die,” Kat says. “Yet, they’re acting as individuals. These are not contradictions.”

“Then who is really making the decision, the emergent consciousness of the hive or the individual consciousnesses of the bees?”

“Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t it be both?”

“Because… because… if the bees are making the decision, then the hive isn’t, and if the hive is making the decision, then the bees aren’t.”

“Why, though?”

“Because either way, one of them is bound by the decision of the other,” I say.

“Except that a bee can act against the hive’s decision,” she says. “And it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that so many will do so that in practical terms, the hive is deciding against the bees’ actions. But even if that never happened, if the decisions are being made at the same time, how can one be said to cause the other?”

I don’t have an answer for that. After a few moments, Kat goes on.

“Think about the rewind scenario,” she says. “No matter how many times a moment is replayed, you’d make the same decision. You know you would. It’s still your choice in every moment, but because it’s your choice you’d make it the same way each time, every time.”

“That’s pessimistic,” a man who had been passing by said. He looped back around and fell in beside us. He’s a scrawny guy, with long, limber arms and a well-trimmed beard covering his whole face. I find my eyes drawn to the abrasions on his knuckles. I get them a lot from running my hands into the sides of doorways and walls when I’m walking. I tell myself his could be from that, too. “You don’t think people would learn from their mistakes?”

“Oh, in the scenario under discussion, there’s no learning involved,” Kat says. “Imagine time flowing backwards, moments unraveling, until you come to the decision point once more. Everything then is as it was the first time through. You know nothing more. Nothing is different in any respect. All the factors that led you to make the decision the first time are in play exactly as before.”

“What if I made the decision on a whim the first time?”

“Then that whim and everything that went into it is in your head the second time,” she says.

“I think I’d figure out a way to send a message back,” he says. “I’d fight to remember. I’d overcome.”

“That’s nice,” Kat says.

“You know what your problem is? You’re underestimating the human spirit.”

“That’s nice,” she says.

He looks at her like she’s slapped him.

“There’s no need to be like that,” he says, and then, mercifully, he turns back around and keeps walking.

“What was I saying?” Kat says.

“You were talking about how we’d make the same choices each time, every time,” I say.

“Yes!” she says. “Only it’s stronger than that: because we only experience each moment once, we only ever do make one choice. If you have two paths laid out before you, you can never choose them both…”

We’re passing a row of houses with iron fences topped with fleurs-de-lis, like ornate little spears. An older man, arms long enough to reach around to the front of his mailbox, chimes in as we are almost past him.

“Your first mistake is accepting the choices life gives you as absolute,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you could find a way to do both, or pick a third path.”

“Yes, but in practical terms, that’s still making a single decision,” Kat says. “Which is my point.”

“You’re allowing yourself to be limited by accepting the terms presented to you,” the man says. “Me? I’m the master of my own destiny. That’s why I’m happy with my circumstances. I chose them.”

“I’m sure you are,” Kat says, and I fall a tiny bit more in love with her, just enough to tip some balance in my heart that lets me know I am in love with her, and have been in love with her, and have been falling more and more ever since the moment I dared to speak to her.

We walk faster. The man falls behind.

“You can’t be afraid to seize control of your life!” he calls after us.

“What I was saying,” Kat says, “is that you can only ever make the choice once. This means, in practical terms, that you can’t pick the other choices. But it’s still free will, isn’t it? I mean, if free will exists, it’s not negated by the fact that you’ll only ever pick one thing?”

“I guess not,” I say. “But that one thing isn’t predestined.”

“Well, I’ve never understood people who believe that predestination and free will are incompatible,” she says. “If someone could predict what you would say in a given situation with ninety-nine percent accuracy, you’d still accept that it was your choice. So why would one hundred percent accuracy change it?”

“When you put it like that, the whole thing kind of reminds me of my ex,” I say.

“I’m very sorry!”

“No, I mean, the whole idea that it was more comforting for him to imagine that his actions were random than that they were fated?” I say. “Maybe that’s where my objection is coming from. If we can imagine that time might be rewound, or if we can imagine a point of view from outside of time, with all my history laid out from end to end, then we can imagine a being might exist that can see from that viewpoint and know everything I ever choose, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still choices? It’s not really that different from looking back at something that’s happened and knowing it can’t be changed.”

“Right,” she says. “So, if you can accept that free will exists irrespective of the ability to make an unpredictable choice, couldn’t you accept that maybe there are multiple consciousnesses making decisions that affect you at multiple levels, and they’re all acting freely?”

“I’m not sure I see the connection, except that it’s too scenarios that feel like they should rule out free will,” I say. “But yeah, I guess? You know what the weird thing is, though?”

“What?”

“The more we talk about this, the less I feel like free will matters as a concept,” I say. “And the less I care about it.”

I stop and look around.

“Are you waiting for something?” Kat asks.

“I’m kind of expecting a guy to jump out of the bushes and tell me that free will is the most important thing in the universe, that without it life is meaningless, or that by giving up on free will I’m giving in to… something. The Illuminati. I don’t know.”

“We could go find a more crowded street, if you’d like,” she says.

“No, this is just about perfect,” I say. “I’m really enjoying talking with you. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation like this.”

“About consciousness and free will?”

“A conversation where we’re just talking, not seeking anyone’s approval, or performing, or whatever,” I say.

“I don’t have a lot of conversations in general.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have a lot of patience,” she says.

“I’m surprised,” I say. “I think it takes a lot of patience to do what you do. I mean, with the bees.”

“That’s me moving at my own pace,” she says. “The materials never try to race ahead of me, nor drag their feet. It doesn’t take patience, just control.”

“Well, it must take a lot of patience to do it in public,” I say.

“That isn’t patience,” she says. “It’s stubbornness. Do you remember the man I told you about?”

“Yes?”

“That happened the very first time I took my work to that cafe. It was a nice day, so I thought I’d work outdoors and enjoy the sun. Then that happened, and I found I had to make up my mind about whether I would let it keep me from doing so again in the future. I almost decided it wasn’t worth it to try again, but I realized I hadn’t actually enjoyed myself, or done the task I’d set out to do. So I went back the next day, and it was fine.”

“And you kept doing it?”

“Yes,” Kat says. “Every day, weather allowing. I’ll sit indoors if it’s not too bad to leave the house but not nice enough for al fresco, either. What might have been an occasional thing instead became a habit. Not to spite him, though.”

“It’s not for him,” I say. “It’s for you.”

“Yes.”

“So, you didn’t always make your bees in public?”

“No, I started at home.”

“How did you get started, anyway?”

“With cats,” she says.

Cats?”

“Yes, cats,” she says. “They’re larger, more like us, and in some ways, less complicated. From there I moved onto birds, which are smaller and winged. I thought for a time I would need to focus on less-social crawling insects before I could manage something gregarious and winged, but I found I really had a knack for it. It’s my calling.”

“You know how to make a cat?”

“Well, it’s not difficult,” she says. “I so hope you won’t ask me to make another one. I feel guilty enough, in retrospect. We don’t have anything like a shortage of cats. Bees were always the goal, for me. The cats were just a means to get there.”

“Are any of them still around? I mean, do you have any of them?”

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I think I made fewer than a dozen before I was satisfied that I had the principle down. I kept three. One is my first. She’s a bit scattered, but very dear. Very sweet, very shy. You put me in mind of her, actually, peering out from behind your hat and scarf like that.”

“I’d love to see her!” I say before I can think about what I’m doing. I clap a hand over my mouth. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to presume…”

“You know, Anna, you’ve been very accommodating to my whims, but what I want most of all right now is to act my nature,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“As the bees do,” she says. “As most things do. What did I say before? I want to be comfortable. I want to feel good. And, Anna, I don’t want to be alone.”

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

alexandraerin: (Default)

Making Out Like Bandits

A serialized novella by Alexandra Erin.

PROLOGUE

The battle began at first light.

“Raged” is the poetic action or emotion typically ascribed to a battle, but it was not accurate in this or most cases. The battle did not rage. It panicked. White hot xenophobic hatred and red-hot patriotic fervor had gotten the soldiers into the camps and then onto the field, but it would not take them any further.

That vantage was far enough for the soldiers to see plenty. From there, they could peer across the valley and see row after endless row of enemy soldiers, too distant to make out any details save for three that could not be ignored: the soldiers across the way did not look so different from those to one’s side, there were a lot of them, and they were all armed.

For well over an hour two sides each stood there in their neatly ordered rows, which is to say in the rows into which they had been ordered, and then from somewhere far in back of one of the lines, the word was given and signals went up and orders were issued and just like that each of the two great armies lurched to life like a well-oiled machine that was rapidly disintegrating under pressure, because even the best lubrication can only take one so far in life.

The battle panicked, and it panicked on all morning, masses of foot soldiers running into spears and volleys of arrows and each other. Neither side had uniforms, but instead each unit had devices on their hats or shields or coats that theoretically served to identify them to their allies in other units, provided they were visible and not lost and even known to the ally in question in the first place, assumptions that became shakier and shakier the longer the battle panicked.

By midmorning the early fog had burned out of even the lowest of the valley, but it had been replaced by dust and smoke. The turf was strewn with corpses and stomped into mud. The survivors of both sides existed as scattered bands under the control of isolated officers, mostly minor nobles, assuming their commander had not succumbed to enemy action or sudden desperate mutiny.

Even those soldiers who had disposed of their officers could not escape the battle, though. Moving in the open meant being visible and being visible meant being vulnerable to fusillades of arrows or stones. Even creeping about the lowlands and skulking in the brush was not safe, for whenever a body of soldiery met another, the frantic melee that resulted was frequently brutal to both sides.

So the battle panicked on through the afternoon and into the evening. Sunset did less to quench the terror than it did to quell the battle, as it made the archers and catapults all but useless. The surviving infantry, most of which no longer held any illusions relating to sides, fled under cover of darkness in whatever direction seemed most appealing. Some of them made it back to the fortified encampments behind their lines. In a few noteworthy cases, they did so on purpose.

The brass hanged enough of these poor fools who straggled back into camp over the next several days to serve as a warning to anyone else who might have a similar idea. The charge was, of course, dereliction of duty. It must be imagined that the leadership on each side would have preferred to hang those among its ranks who did not return, but as the saying goes, one prosecutes deserters with the army one has, not the army one wishes one had.

Neither side had lost many soldiers in the valley, as they counted such things. It had been an expenditure of resources more than it was a loss of them, and there were plenty more where they came from. Losing the cavalry or, worse, the horses, would have been quite a blow. Losing the stands of archers or the artillery crews would have been unthinkable. Serious losses among the elite, experienced troops at this stage of the war would have been unforgivably sloppy, which is why no such forces had been committed in a way that exposed them to unnecessary risk in this early offensive.

Among the less valued troops, the casualties on both sides had been about equally brutal. A draw of that sort was not ideal, but it was acceptable. Every dead soldier on the other side was one that need not be killed later, and if it cost a soldier to achieve that, so be it.

They had not been professional soldiers, those expendable masses, but a mix of conscripts and volunteers. That was to say that most of them individually had been somewhere between a conscript and a volunteer. It’s a grand old life in the army, they had been told. It’s a way off the farm, a way out of debt or indenture, a way to become something.

For some, it certainly had been. Of every seven likely sorts who had been rounded up, handed a spear or club, and marched into the valley of death, one had become a corpse. Two more would die of wounds or disease within a week. Two more would succumb to illness or starvation over the coming months. Of the two that remained, one would certainly be pressed to ride into the jaws of death again, while a lucky one in seven was estimated to have deserted in earnest and broken away cleanly. Though how most such individuals fared cannot be known, we must imagine the breakdown to be somewhat grim in contrast to the rosy picture we have painted thus far.

Our story concerns itself with two of those lucky one in seven who were luckier than most. It does not begin the day of the battle, or the day after it, but the day after that, when a young soldier who had possessed the great good fortune to fall facedown just above the waterline of a weed-choked pool woke up.

CHAPTER 1

Des woke up to a pounding pain in her everything and a distinctly earthen taste filling her mouth and nose. She could see nothing, and she was cold, so cold. Her first coherent thought drove any semblance of further such thought from her head: I have been buried alive.

She started screaming, then stopped as her involuntary flailing produced splashes. She was neither bound up within a coffin–a luxury she had never in her life imagined she would ever have in death–nor pinned under loose earth. She was lying prone, more or less flat, amidst a bunch of trampled weeds and reeds at the edge of a muddy pool. Most of her was in the water. Had she fallen even a few inches back, she might have choked to death on filthy water without ever regaining consciousness.

She tried to push herself up, but found she could not. Her whole body was one cold, wet bruise. There was no strength in her anywhere.

I might have died in battle, might have drowned in my sleep, might have had my throat slit by battlefield brigands without ever waking up, but now I get to die of exposure, slowly…

“You’re awake.”

A hand found Des’s, and then her other hand, and then she was sliding free of the muck and onto solid ground. Helped into a sitting position, she found that one half of the world was a painful mishmash of too-too brightness and the other half of the world was still buried in darkness. She reached up to touch the left side of her face, and found it tender and unrecognizable.

“I think it’s just swollen shut,” her savior said. The voice was husky, low, little more than a whisper in a volume, but more forceful. Turning her good eye towards the speaker, Des saw only a backlit silhouette. “We can’t know what it looks like under the swelling, of course, but the overall shape of the thing makes me think the basic structure must still be intact.”

“Structure?” Des rasped.

“Of your eyeball. I don’t think you’ve lost it, or will lose it. At least not anytime soon.”

“Well, that’s a comfort,” Des said, then coughed a harsh, short barking cough that felt like she’d just sandpapered a scab off the back of her throat. How was it possible for her to be so wet and her throat to feel so dry?

“Drink,” the other person said, tipping an almost empty canteen into Des’s mouth. “There’s more, but you’ll need to drink slowly or it might roil your stomach and you’ll lose more water heaving it up.”

“Sounds like you’ve done this before.”

“Oh, yes. Once.”

“Once?”

“You’re not the first one who’s woken up.”

“How many survivors…?”

“Just you and me, that didn’t crawl away or die soon after. They sent troops through, regular troops, to slit throats. You’re lucky that your weapons had already been stripped, your boots waterlogged, and you fell in such a way that you looked drowned. No one messed with you.”

“Nor you,” Des said.

“I was hidden. I was safe. I could see you were breathing, but they didn’t look that close.”

“You could see…?” Des squinted her good eye. It had slowly been acclimating itself to the light of the land of the living, and the image of her savior was starting to resolve itself into a slender form wrapped in a dark green cloak. The features were angular, almost severe.

The ears…

“You’re a half-elf,” she said.

“I’m not half of anything.”

“Sorry,” Des said. “Well, I feel like half of nothing myself, right now, so we have that much in common.”

“You’re clever enough for a drowned rat.”

“Most people are,” Des said. “I’m Des. What do I call you?”

“What do you?”

“What?”

“Call me.”

“I don’t understand,” Des said.

“Find a name for me.”

“Why…”

“Name me. First thing that pops into your head. First thing you noticed about me, thought about me.”

“Whisper,” Des said.

“That’s what you call me, then. Whisper.”

“So what do we do now, Whisper?”

“Get the hell out of here,” Whisper said. “The wolves missed us, but there will be vultures next, and then rats, and each subsequent sweep by scavengers will use a finer and finer comb in order to find what pickings the last one passed by.”

“I don’t know if I’m ready to move…”

“We’ll go slow, but go we will,” Whisper said.

“You sound fairly confident of that.”

“I am,” Whisper said. “It’s neither my destiny to leave this valley alone, nor yours to die here.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No, I’ve seen it.”

“So if I laid back down out of the mud until the feeling came back into my legs, the vultures and rats and all them you were talking about, they’d leave me alone?” Des said. “Or would their knives turn back from my throat, so as not to upset the great destiny you saw for me?”

“I didn’t say it was great, but it’s certainly better than the alternative,” Whisper said.

“Fair enough. But if it’s my destiny not to die here, wouldn’t it be in my interest to stay here? I could live forever.”

“Assuming you weren’t just dragged out of here in chains, sold as a slave and worked to death in a mine, or hung as a deserter,” Whisper said, “you still might die here. It’s not your destiny, but it could happen. The fates pick our paths and they may set us in motion, but they do not control us. If you wish to die here, I think you will find it quite easy to do so, far easier than the alternative.”

“What the hell. My mother said I always have to do things the hard way. Help me up. I expect I’ll be leaning on you most of the way.”

“I expect you will be.”

 


 

This is a preview of a story written for the patrons who support me on Patreon. New draft segments are published on my patron feed as they are completed. You can read chapter 2 here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/making-out-like-5731594, by subscribing for $1 a month or more.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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Well, it’s the last day of the month, and as promised I have had one story a day for the past eight days. The last story here is the newest one in terms of when it was conceived and written (if not when it was published), and one that’s both highly personal and important to me.

As you read, please remember the point of this exercise. I’ve been writing for a long time. I’d like to keep writing for a long time. But to write, I have to live, and to live I have to be able to eat and pay for pills and meet other expenses, and to that, I need your support on Patreon. I will be posting one new short story per month to my Patreon starting in June, so if you like what you read here, that’s the best way to get more.


WALK BRISKLY

By Alexandra Erin


The funeral home is very old, old enough that it still has an old-style chapel. That’s where we’re holding what is still called the viewing.

The podium on which sits the now-traditional portfolio album is situated in the middle of a recessed nook that was obviously designed to hold something a bit larger than a person in repose, and which now holds something a bit smaller than the average end table.

I’m being a bit clinical about it all partly because I wish to remain detached from the scene, and partly because I am detached, whether I want to be or not.

The jungle of flowers flanking the photo display do nothing to disguise how small it is. They swallow it up.

From a certain angle, it looks like my mother’s unnaturally youthful face is peering at me from out of a monstrous hybrid rose bush. It is not a pleasant or comfortable idea, all things considered.

I turn away. It’s not easy to detach myself from that image.

My grandmother isn’t any happier with the state of things. She handled the arrangements. She picked the funeral home. It apparently has some history that I don’t remember with her side of our family.

I wonder how many times has she been here, before? How many times after? How long would it take a person to get used to a change of that magnitude? I don’t know. The world I live in is the only one I’ve ever known.

My uncles have been trying to keep my grandmother calm for a good twenty minutes. Their results have varied.

“But I just wish I had another chance to see her,” she is saying when I tune in. “Would that really be so much?”

“Ma, the law’s the law,” my Uncle Mike says.

“It wouldn’t be her anyway,” Uncle Jeff says. “You know a body’s just a body. Anyway, is that how you want to remember her? The pictures are better.”

“The pictures are pictures!” Grandmother yells. “She’s my only daughter!”

“Geez, quiet down, Ma,” Mike says. “People are gonna…”

“People know she’s grieving,” Jeff says. “That’s what this is. Grief. It’s okay. Ma, you know it would break her heart if she knew you took that kind of risk. You know how careful she was all the time.”

“You mean she was afraid all the time,” Mike says. “And she wasn’t happy if everyone else wasn’t.”

That’s when I turn away.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Walk!”

This is what she’d yell whenever I was heading out the door. It didn’t matter where in the house she was, or whether I’d told her I was going out. She’d sense the front door opening, zip to the nearest doorway to the front hall, and yell out the reminder.

“I know,” I’d call back over my shoulder.

“Don’t run!”

“I KNOW!”

I did know. Everybody knew. Just like, sometimes, everybody ran, because no matter how brave we all acted around the schoolyard, we still got scared a bit at a rustling in the ditches or saw something staring eyelessly out of a hedge.

There was no need to run. None of them could. Most of them could barely walk. But at the same time, there was no real reason not to run. The point was to get away, right? Running was safer than walking. As for the risks…

“That’s how you trip,” my mother would say.

“But I’m still faster even if I trip,” I said back to her, once. “If they’re not close enough to grab me when I start running, they’re not going to be any closer when I fall!”

“The one you know about won’t be,” she said. “They hunt in packs, remember?”

“Mother!” I said. “There haven’t been packs for years!”

“There are occasional packs still,” she said. “It doesn’t even have to be a pack. It could just be two of them, the one you see and the one you don’t. Anyway, it really only takes one. What if you trip and twist your ankle? What if you break your leg?”

“I’ll still drag myself faster than it can,” I said.

“Oh? Have you ever had a broken leg? Remember when you broke your finger? You almost blacked out.”

“I could still trip if I’m walking.”

“But it’s all about odds,” she said. “It’s all about risk. When you’re running, you can’t keep your eyes on the ground. You don’t have as much time to react when something comes up. You can’t stop yourself if your foot snags on something. And what happens if you wind up running right into a dead end?”

“We don’t live in a labyrinth,” I said. It was a new word to me at that point, and I was very proud of it. Probably a bit too proud, or else I wouldn’t have dared to say that, as sure of myself as I was.

I don’t remember exactly what my mother said in response to that. I do remember I was less proud of my vocabulary afterwards.

I never argued with her about that again. I still didn’t think she was right about running. If it was about odds, then who was to say that it wasn’t riskier to spend more time in the area? If there might be more than one, then wouldn’t it be better to get out of there before they could surround me?

But even if I didn’t think running was as dangerous as she made it out to be, I recognized that there was a different kind of danger in pushing her too far.

In all honesty, the danger posed by the amblers was distant and abstract compared to the danger posed by pressing my mother’s buttons. I had no experience with being dragged down by an ambulatory corpse, but I had been grounded.

Anyway, the debate about running had only been a side point in an older, longer-running argument about the way to deal with things like amblers in the first place.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Hey there, Safety Tip,” my cousin Brian says.

“I’ve asked you not to call me that,” I say.

“Ah, hell,” he says. “I’ve been calling you that for years. Everybody in school did! What else am I supposed to call you?”

“My name. Anything else. Just don’t call me that today.”

“What’s so special about today?”

I stare at him. I know he’s making fun of me, but I can’t tell if this is part of the tease or not. I don’t know which would be crueler.

“My mother is dead,” I say. It’s all I can do to get the words out. I expect them to come tumbling from my mouth in a rising roar, but when I hear my voice, it is tiny, thin, and piercing. I want my words to push him away, but I can see on his face he doesn’t even feel it.

I turn and walk briskly away.

* * * * * * * * * *

My mother always did love her safety tips.

Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t go in the water for a half hour after eating. Stop, drop, and roll if you catch on fire. Stop, look, and listen when you get to the train tracks.

Her favorite, of course, was the famous WALK.

Every time she shouted “walk” to me as I was heading out the door, I knew she didn’t just mean “walk” but “WALK”. I knew this because for the longest time, she would give me the whole spiel before letting me go out alone:

Walk briskly, stay Alert, keep your eyes Low, and Know the area.

That’s what you did if you encountered an ambler. That’s what you were supposed to do, anyway. Don’t approach. Don’t engage. Don’t stop and watch it stumble around towards you. Don’t laugh at it, no matter how helpless and harmless it looks. Don’t stop and take a picture of it. Definitely don’t try to get a picture with it.

Almost everyone else in my class had a picture of themselves with an ambler in the background. Polaroids, mostly, because they didn’t have to be developed. The kids who had actual film photographs were the coolest kids with the coolest parents, the ones who would let them have everything and let them do anything.

Justin Peterson was one of those kids. He had a picture with his arm around one, though it was dead. I mean, it had been rendered inert again. He’d shot it between the eyes and then propped it up for a picture, which his dad took.

He’d been a hero to the whole school, once.

For a while, everyone had wanted to be him.

* * * * * * * * * *

“I’m told your mother died peacefully,” a blonde woman wearing a red pillbox hat with a veil of netting on it tells me. “And that she passed without incident.”

“Yeah,” I say.

I’ve been told that, too.

Everybody keeps telling me that. They clasp my hand in theirs, give me firm, unblinking eye contact, and tell me the news that I had been given long before them: my mother’s body went into the crematorium peacefully and still.

Why do they tell you this? Why do they think you need to know? Dead is dead, even now, or at least gone is gone. My mother is every bit as gone as if something had tried to beat and claw its way out of the box.

Anyway, what do they tell the people whose loved ones did turn unexpectedly? If it’s supposed to bring peace to know that it didn’t happen, what do they tell the family when it does happen? Nothing?

Then I know, with a certainty: they passed without incident. Like an angel. Like a sleeping angel.

Of course they do.

“What a blessing!” the pillbox lady says.

“Yeah,” I agree.

“I had nightmares about my Albert, before he went into the fire,” she continues. My eyes dart around the room looking for an escape, but I know I’ll find none. I came to this corner to escape. It seemed like the last safe place for me to stand. “They tell me that they can’t feel anything, that it’s not really them anymore, but what if they’re wrong? What if they’re wrong? They still don’t know why it happens, and I mean, people used to think cows don’t feel anything. We don’t really know anything, do we?”

“No, we don’t,” I agree.

* * * * * * * * * *

The first thing I asked for when my mother said I was old enough to go out by myself was a sword. Sherry Morgan had one that she said was Japanese. Her grandfather had brought it back from the war, she said, and now it was hers. Everybody thought it was the coolest.

I liked it because I thought its curved, single-edged blade would impress my mother. What could be safer than that?

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “What good is a sword for?”

“Sherry says it can cut right through bone and everything,” I said.

“What sounds safe about that?” she said.

“Mom, it’s not even sharp like a razor,” I said. “You have to, you know, swing it. Hard.”

“Then it’s not going to do you much good at your age, is it?” she said. “Anyway, you don’t have any reason to cut one up. All that’s good for is getting seven kinds of yuck on you, and it doesn’t even stop them.”

“I could cut off its arms and legs and then go for the head,” I said. “Sherry Morgan says she’s killed lots of them.”

“You don’t kill an ambler, sweetie,” my mother said. “They aren’t alive.”

“They’re kind of alive?” I said. “Mr. Grossman says they’re undead.”

“That is superstition,” she said. “They’re just… a thing that happens. Like a storm, or an avalanche, or a sickness. And speaking of sickness, the last thing you want to do is smack into them with a sword. Who knows what germs you’ll splatter yourself with?”

“Mom, you can’t catch it,” I said.

“That’s what they say, but no one knows what causes it,” she said. “And even if you can’t, you can catch other things. A rotting body is a perfect incubator for disease.”

“I’d be careful!” I said.

“Showing off with a sword is the opposite of careful,” she said. “I’ll get you something you can use to keep them off of you and get away. That’s the goal. Just get away.”

When she told me she’d get me a pike instead, I hadn’t known what she meant. Looking it up in the school library, I’d found pictures of wicked looking medieval weapons that looked like a spear had a baby with an axe. It wasn’t a shotgun. It wasn’t a handgun. It wasn’t a chainsaw. It wasn’t a sword. It wasn’t any of the things that I’d ever wished for, but I didn’t care. That just meant no one I knew had anything like it.

It meant that for once, I was going to be the cool kid.

When she actually brought it home, I was horrified. It was nothing like the pictures from the book. It reminded me of a whaler’s harpoon, or at least what I imagined one would look like, only the end of it wasn’t pointed or hooked at all. It was just a broad, flat metal thing, kind of like a boat oar. The patented safety tip, the package had called it.

My mother had loved her safety tips.

“If the goal’s to get away, why not just get me a sword?” I said. “At least then I could run away!”

I knew the words were a mistake as soon as I’d said them, but it was too late to take them back and I didn’t have the speed or eloquence needed to explain that I’d meant it in the sense of retreating, sensibly, at a safe speed.

“Don’t. You. Dare.”

I think I knew then and there that my fate was sealed, that I’d be stuck with the pike forever.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said.

“You don’t run from them. If you see them, you walk away from them. Walk briskly. The pike is only when one gets in your way, when one lurches around a corner or sneaks up on you.”

“How are they going to sneak up on me? Everyone says they barely know we’re here anymore. You practically have to step on one to get bitten.”

“Those are the old ones,” she said. “New ones pop up all the time, and they’re still a bit quicker, and they have better senses.”

“They still can’t exactly sneak,” I protested. “They’re not smart like that.”

“No, but they’re very quiet and they’re very patient,” she said. “Anyway, if you’re so sure they can’t get close, then why do you care if you have a sword or pike? You shouldn’t need to use it very often.”

“Then can I just leave it at home?”

“You were the one who wanted a way to defend yourself.”

“I wanted a weapon!” I said. “I want to fight them!”

“There’s nothing to fight! They aren’t exciting. They aren’t enemies to defeat. They’re just something to avoid when we can, and deal with when we can’t. That’s what you have to do.”

* * * * * * * * * *

They call what happens next the remembrance, though I know I won’t remember any of it.

While her brothers and co-workers get up and talk about the kind of person they think she was, I’m looking at my mother’s face in the big round oval frame that dominates the display. The pictures were chosen from all times of her life.

The biggest one is the one that I guess people thought best represented her. It wouldn’t have been my choice, and not just because I have a hard time remembering when she ever looked that young. Her cheeks are too rosy. Her lipstick waxy-thick. I know she looks happy, but I also know what she looked like when she was happy.

I don’t know what a corpse looked like, lying in a coffin with its face made up by a mortician and fixed into the best approximation of a relaxed expression that can be wrung from a corpse. I’ve read old books, though, where people talk about how such faces are unfamiliar, artificial.

I feel that way looking at the picture of my mother. I couldn’t guess the context from which the portrait was cropped. The background is an almost white sky. She’s smiling for the camera, with no idea that this forced, fixed expression is going to be her death mask.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Take your pike if you’re going out,” my mother said when she saw I was heading for the door without it.

“They just did a sweep yesterday,” I said.

“And they always miss one,” she said. “Watch the news and you’ll see. The day after a sweep is always when someone gets taken. Because it makes people careless, you see. Someone always dies after a sweep.”

“They do a sweep every month,” I said. “If someone died every time…”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I don’t mean here. But somewhere. Anywhere. It could be here. Take your pike.”

I sighed and lifted the long, unwieldy pole off its wall mounting.

“If you want to keep me safe from amblers, you should have got me a gun,” I said. I thought my logic was foolproof. “It’s got a lot longer reach than a big, heavy stick.”

“Are you kidding?” she said. “A gun is way more dangerous than an ambler.”

“Isn’t that the point?” I said.

“Do you know how many people get shot every day by accident? Do you know how many people a day shoot themselves?”

Probably not even one, I thought. It couldn’t happen that often or people wouldn’t make guns. I did know that I was on a losing track.

“I don’t even know how I’m supposed to kill an ambler with this thing,” I said instead.

“You aren’t supposed to kill them,” she said. “First, they’re already dead. Second, that’s why we have patrols. You’re supposed to get away from them. If one’s in your way, you push it back or you knock it down. Sweep…”

“Sweep the knees!” I said. “I know!”

“You get it down, and then you…”

“Then I walk away.”

* * * * * * * * * *

My name is called. I remember being told that I should probably say something, and I remember that I had said in response that I would like that. I hadn’t given it any more thought. That’s just what you do when your mother dies, right?

It’s never happened to me before and it would never happen again, but even an hour ago I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t want to stand up in front of a room of mixed family and strangers, that I wouldn’t have anything inside me to say to them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Justin Peterson got his throat torn out when I was fourteen. He’d been hunting in the woods, supposedly for deer but probably not really.

He turned.

There’s no rule that says getting killed by one always turns you into one, if there are any rules at all. It seems to happen more often that way, though. Some people think there is just a correlation between dying violently and alone and turning, but other people say that’s just anecdotal. They say it seems that way because people who died in accidents in the middle of nowhere never get cremated.

I don’t know.

I do know that the thing that had been his body stumbled onto the field during an outdoor day in gym class, I was the last one to know it had been him. I turned, and I walked briskly towards the school, taking the long way around the big sloping hill up to the parking lot, because I might slip. I heard my classmates’ laughter turn to screams and resisted the urge both to look back and to run.

Most of them were okay, physically. They were screaming because they recognized who it had been. Some of the jocks tried to tackle it and bash its brains in. One of them got a bad bite on his arm. He needed stitches and antibiotics, but he lived. His reputation did a 180 overnight, though. No one ever quite believed that it wasn’t infectious. He went from being one of the coolest kids in school to a total pariah.

It wasn’t just that the other kids were afraid of him. He’d get knocked down in the hall, have things thrown at his head. People would shuffle past him, moaning in the way that amblers never moan but people always act like they do.

I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. Everyone acted like at any moment he might turn into a monster and kill us all, but they didn’t act like he was a threat. They acted like he was weak. I asked my mother about it, not because she’d understand but because I didn’t have anyone else to ask.

“Fear does that to people sometimes,” she said. “It brings out the worst in people. That’s part of why it’s so important not to be afraid.”

“You don’t act like that.”

“Sweetheart, that’s because I’m not afraid,” she said. “And I don’t want you to be afraid, either. I don’t want you to think you have to be afraid.”

“Then why do I have to carry a stupid pike around, if I’m not supposed to be afraid? Why do I have to know all the rules? And why are you always checking on me, always hassling me about them? Why all the stupid safety tips?”

“There are things we do when things are scary, so that we won’t be afraid,” she said. “It would be terrifying to go down the road at sixty miles an hour if there weren’t seat belts and brakes and signal lights and, and… safety features. We have all those things, and we have rules of the road, and because we can count on them to keep us safe, we don’t have to be afraid.”

“But people still die in car accidents, don’t they?”

“They do,” she said.

“And people still get killed by amblers.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, they do. They probably always will.”

“You are afraid!” I said. I’m not sure if I felt triumphant or terrified at catching her in this contradiction. “You said you’re not.”

“I don’t have to be,” she said. “Love, things—people—aren’t just one way or another. Sometimes I get scared when I’m driving, too! The important thing is that it doesn’t become all that I am, that the things I feel don’t overwhelm the things I know, like how to drive safely. The important thing is that you don’t panic.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“My mother,” I say, “always kept me safe.”

I know these words are inadequate. I know I should be explaining, elaborating… saying something about how she knew it was a scary world, and she didn’t hide that from me, but she always made sure I had the tools to deal with it.

I should be saying that “safe” didn’t mean I wouldn’t die, though I didn’t. It didn’t mean she didn’t worry every time I went out the door, but that she could let me go out the door.

None of these words will come, though. They won’t form up into ranks inside my head and I can’t make them march out of my mouth.

“She wasn’t afraid,” I say. “She taught me not to be afraid. I love her, and I miss her… and I’ll always miss her… but I still know I don’t have to be afraid.”

People are looking at me like they’re not sure if I’m finished. Have I said enough?

“That’s all I have to say,” I say. “There isn’t anything else…”

There’s some awkward, scattered clapping, which weirds me out because I didn’t expect it. Were people clapping at the other speakers? I get out from behind the lectern and head down the aisle. I don’t go back to my seat. I need air, but more than that, I need to be somewhere else, anywhere else, just as fast as I can safely get there.

I fumble out the claim ticket for the coat check and thrust it with shaking hands to the attendant, who peers at the scribbled scrawl underneath the description.

“It’s the pike,” I say. “Seven and a half feet long, with a safety tip.”

“Right,” he says. “I saw that in the corner. Hang on. You know, I didn’t know anyone still carries these. Sure, you could brain a thing hard with it, but it’s so awkward to swing. There’s got to be easier ways to take out an ambler.”

“I’m sure there are,” I say. “But I don’t have to take them out. I just have to get away.”

“Well, the threat level for tonight is elevated, so if you’re not looking to fight, you’d best be ready to run. Can I call you a cab?”

“No, thank you,” I say, sniffling. “I’ll walk. Briskly.”


Remember, folks… like this story, want more: support me. You won’t just be getting great fiction like these eight stories, you’ll be enabling my internet commentary, award-nominated science fiction and fantasy poetry, humor, game design, and everything else I do in any creative sphere in a month. That’s quite a lot of bang for your buck.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write.

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When I started this project of posting a story a day for every remaining day in the month, my idea was to focus on my short stories in order to show prospective patrons what I have to offer in that area, to give you the reader an idea of what you’d be getting if I offered you one new short story every month for supporting me on Patreon.

But the thing is, short stories aren’t all I have to offer. Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit of “flash fiction”… short stories of a few hundred words. A lot of it is collected on the website Fantasy In Miniature. I use flash fiction as a writing exercise, a way to spin out ideas or get words flowing. Interestingly, a number of my poems started life as a flash fiction experiment, and vice-versa. It was the poetic quality of some of my shorter flash pieces that convinced my poetry mentor and all around superfan Elizabeth McClellan that I had more poetry in my soul than I had ever let on.

So today’s example of my short fiction consists of two of my pieces that straddles the line between flash fiction and a short, and a poem that tells a story.


Who Said Life Was Fair?

By Alexandra Erin


“So, you’re after the fair folk, are you?” the old lush said to me.

I’d been pointed his way as part of my quest. I had been told not to expect any information about where I needed to go or what I needed to do, but that I needed to hear what he had to say, all the same.

“I am,” I said.

“Then you need to hear my warning,” he said.

“I’ve heard lots of warnings,” I said.

“About accepting gifts, or refusing gifts, or eating food, or declining it, right? Things like that. This is a different sort of warning,” he said. He paused, then threw back his glass, draining the last of the beer from it. “I met just one fairy in my life. Saved its life, by its own admission. Three wishes it offered me… three wishes. Said it would come back on the new moon to hear and grant the first of them.”

“Did it?”

“I full-on expected it wouldn’t… I worked hard to resign myself to the notion that my one and only encounter with the wondrous was all I would get out of it, and to be happy with that. But as the month wore on and the moon waned, I started to feel a flicker of hope and yearning. You see, my father had died of a bum ticker when he was three years younger than I was, and I had a certain recollection that his father had also died young in a similar fashion… so it had often been in the back of my mind that a similar thing might happen to me.”

“You wished for a good heart?”

“Good health in general,” the old man said. “So of course the blasted thing came back, and it heard my wish… that my heart and liver and other organs and parts should be strong and healthy until the day I die. And no sooner than the words were out of my mouth than it struck me that the quickest route to fulfilling that one would have been to kill me on the spot, but no, the fairy just crossed its arms and said ‘It is done’ and damned if I didn’t feel the difference right away, and double-damned if I haven’t felt it since. So, the fairy told me it would be back in a month for the second wish.”

“What did you wish for?”

“This time I knew it was on the up-and-up, so I started to plan ahead. I had my health, and could expect to live a good long life, barring misadventure… as a fit man, I could look forward to a few more decades more of hard labor followed by a miserly retirement. So I decided what I really wanted was a certain measure of comfort, security, and leisure to live out my life in style. That’s not one wish, of course, but the thing that secures all of that is. I decided to wish for money. A million dollars. That’s a chunk of change with the power to change lives today, but back then… well, it was a sight more than it is now. I could have wished for more, but I didn’t want to abandon my old life. A million dollars could be explained. It seemed like a credible windfall.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, the fairy returned, and heard my wish… which was for a million dollars to come to me in some fashion that was legal and brought no misfortune to anyone else… and it suggested I spend the next afternoon removing a certain stump from my property. Under there was a cache of old coins, worth just over one million dollars even after the tax man took his share. And I went a little wild with it, for a while, though my brother-in-law was a banker and he invested the lion’s share of it for me, and I’ve done quite well by him over the years.”

“So two wishes worked out well,” I said. “What happened with the third?”

“Well, the fairy again said it would be back when the moon was new. And I had health and I had wealth,” the old man said. “So for my third wish I wanted something special, something extraordinary… something that couldn’t have been come by any other way. I didn’t know what I wanted when the fairy left, but as the weeks slipped by I thought back to all the times in my life I’d been thirsty and couldn’t beg up a drop of drink to wet my whistle. I knew my liver was good for the duration, so I decided to make sure that never happened again.”

“You were rich,” I said. “You could have bought beer anytime you wanted. You could have bought a brewery.”

“Right,” he said. “But the same could be said for nearly anything I might have wished for. Besides, I said I wanted something special. So I made up my mind to wish that I had but to snap my fingers and the glass nearest to me would fill itself up with whatever I wanted most to drink, the best quality. I had a good week and a half to fix this wish in my mind, to think on the possibilities… the exotic liquers I could try, the fond remembrances I could relive. I could sample thirty-year scotches and the greatest wine collections the world had ever known. And if ever I met a man who didn’t believe my good health and great fortune were a gift from the fairies, I could strike them dumb just like this.”

The old man gave a loud snap with his fingers. I looked at the glass he’d set on the counter, but it remained empty and inert.

“…what happened?” I asked.

“The little devil never showed up!” the old man said. “That was its trick, you see.”

“It gave you perfect health and more money than you needed?”

“It made me believe,” the old man said. “It made me hope. It made me wish… those first two things, they were things I wanted. They were things I asked for. But they weren’t a wish like this was a wish. I’d never felt a deep-seated yearning for a million dollars, you see. I’d prayed for health, in the off-hand sort of way that you do, but I had never fallen to my knees and begged for it.”

“You still had your money,” I said.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “If it had said two wishes, I would have been satisfied. If it had said two wishes, I would have walked away perfectly happy. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if from the start it said I could have one wish, or it offered its thanks and went on its way. But it promised three wishes, and it spread them out so I had time to get used to the idea, to come round to the way of thinking that this was how things worked.”

“But have you ever in your life since then actually gone thirsty?”

“No,” he said. “Not thirsty, exactly. Not for lack of drink.”

“Thanks for the warning,” I said.

“But you still mean to press on.”

“If I’m offered three wishes, I’ll know what not to do,” I said.

“If you’re counting on two, you’ll get one,” he said. “Or three but something else will go wrong. Or you’ll be offered something else, something that isn’t wishes. You see, the lesson here isn’t how it played out with me. The lesson is about what happens when you trust a fairy.”

“I think I could manage a long, rich life,” I said.

“You think I don’t feel lucky?” the old man said. “I do, if only because I’ve heard from others who’ve had their dealings and come away much worse for it. But no matter how lucky I am and how lucky I feel, I also feel cheated… and I’ll always feel cheated. It’s a bigger thing than you think.”

“I could stand to feel a little cheated if I had your life.”

“That’s what they all say, when they find me,” the old man said. “But they all find me in a bar.”

“I won’t make the same mistake you did,” I said.

“No, you’ll make your own.” The man raised his empty glass. “Here’s hoping you come out the other end of it.”


How The Minotaur Lost Her Way

By Alexandra Erin


Well, she lit out from Kellisport
so many years ago
bound for Hulmouth Harbor
before the winter snow.
Her holds were packed with cargo,
her sails were full of wind
and not a mortal living
knows where she met her end. 

Who can know? Who can say
where the Minotaur lies today?
She started out so swiftly
but somehow she lost her way.
My heart was packed inside her
when she went down that day.
Oh, my heart was packed inside her
when she went down that day.

She carried tonnes of cotton,
and barrels full of rice,
casks of hearty wine
and sweetly scented spice,
treasures from the conquest
and priceless works of art.
and one lonely young sailor
I trusted with my heart.

Mermaid-snared? Tempest-tossed?
They only know that she was lost.
The bankers know the value,
but no one knows the cost.
Now my heart lies under waters
no ship has ever crossed.
Oh, my heart lies under waters
no ship has ever crossed.

It happened of a sudden,
one calm and moonless night.
My sailor left his watch-post
and doused his lantern-light.
Urged on by the promise
I’d etched upon his skin
he drew steel and crept astern
and did the captain in.

Who can know? Who can say
how the Minotaur lost her way?
Only one man’s certain,
and he will never say.
He took my heart down with him
when the ship went down that day.
Oh, he took my heart down with him
when the ship went down that day.

The Minotaur lies quiet now
in the darkling deeps,
and prowling round about it
my sailor never sleeps.
In the ribs of the wreck
a light no depths can kill,
and at the center of it
my heart beats even still.


SPECTATOR SPORT

By Alexandra Erin


The two stood near the corner of the roof.

“Okay, watch this,” one of them said to his less enthusiastic companion. He pointed down across the street, where a well-dressed but harried and tired looking woman was fumbling with a set of keys beside a dark-colored sedan. She set a laptop case down on the roof of the car. “She’s just come out of the coffeeshop where she waited over an hour for an interview with a man who never showed up. She’s been out of work since her bank shut down eight months ago. She needs a job, needs it badly, but even more than that she wanted this one. It was the perfect fit for her. It was her dream job. It was actually in her field, and the location would have been perfect.”

“How long have you been watching her?” the other one asked.

“The whole time,” he said. “Now take a look directly across the street from her. What do you see?”

“Another coffee shop.”

“Yes.”

“The same as the one she walked out of.”

Yes!”

“They built two shops at the same street?”

“I know… crazy, isn’t it?” the first one said. “Now watch, because she’s going to look up and see it in about five seconds… three, two, and one.”

As they watched, the woman’s head tipped up in response to the flash of movement from a passing car and the expression on her face became one of surprise, then dawning realization and horror. Her car keys fell from her suddenly limp fingers, straight through the grating at her feet.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” the first watcher said.

“If you saw that coming, you might have done something,” the other said. “Or you might have let her know that the man she was waiting for was across the street.”

“He actually wasn’t, though. He never showed up. He forgot about it. That’s what’s so beautiful about it. She’s going to be kicking herself forever, thinking that she fucked up, when actually it didn’t matter which of the cafes she went into. When he realizes that he blew off a prospective employee, he’s going to rationalize it away so it’s not his fault. He’ll decide he wouldn’t have hired her so he doesn’t have to call her to admit his mistake and reschedule. Nothing she could have done would have made this turn out differently.”

“Are you planning on letting her know that?”

“Are you? Of course not. We’re watchers. We watch.”

“We could let someone know.”

“That’s not my department. Anyway, it’s about to get better,” the first one said. “She’s blaming herself right now, but as long as she’s only blaming herself, there’s still the possibility in her heart that the universe is a kind and loving place. That just makes her kick herself all the harder, of course, because God was good enough to give her the chance to land her dream job and she blew it. What we’re about to see is the moment that she loses all faith.”

“That’s kind of morbid, isn’t it?”

“Morbid how?”

“We’re creatures of faith,” the other one said.

“Yeah, but we’re not like storybook pixies or anything. I don’t think we’re going to die just because someone doesn’t believe in us. We’d probably be long gone if that were the case.”

“Lots of people believe in angels,” his companion said.

“Yeah, but most of them don’t have a clue what Grigori are.” He pointed. “Okay, okay… watch this.”

The woman was looking around for something to fish her keys out. A young man who had just walked past the woman’s car suddenly doubled back and snatched the laptop, then took off running. The woman reacted as if in slow motion, turning, rising, and calling hoarsely for him to stop as he vanished around a corner.

“See, that’s it!” the watcher cried, slapping his knee. “Poof! All gone! Her heart’s breaking in two. She’s never going to believe in a higher power again… and the stupid thing is it’s no more her fault than the missed interview is. It’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Not getting even a disgusted reply from his companion, he turned around and found that he was alone on the roof. The other angel had vanished.

“Probably just left,” he muttered to himself, unconvincingly.

He felt very cold, very small, and not at all sure of himself.


Again, if you like these and want to read more like them, please consider supporting me on Patreon. As an author, I have been limping along on a sub-subsistence level for years, and I know now that I can’t keep going like this. Only your support can keep me writing.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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This is the second of two stories I have selected for this purpose that comes from the MUniverse, the setting of Tales of MU. Like the previous one, it is not part of the main storyline but a separate story that stands on its own. If you enjoy this story, you can show your appreciation either by sponsoring more installments of Tales of MU on its dedicated patreon, or supporting my writing in general on my author Patreon.


All About Soul

By Alexandra Erin


Anno 0, The Township of Phale

Will had made it halfway across the town when the beam of light fell across his handsome, well-formed face.

“You there!” the voice called. He froze. “Halt right there!”

The light bounced around as the figures approached him. When it fell off his eyes, he was able to catch a glimpse. There were two of them. Town guards? No, he could see the distinctive red leather armor. They were Legionnaires from the garrison. They carried pikes, and one held a lantern-like enclosure for the magical light, funneled into a tight shaft by the snout-like opening.

“Blast me with ballistae and butcher me for bacon,” the one with the light said, playing its shaft of light over his forehead, over the pair of symbols there, the Tree of Life and the Circle of Will, Unbroken. The runes, which had once been mere indentations in flesh and bone, had been filled with the purest shining silver.

“That’s the delivery boy for the silversmith,” the other soldier told his mate. “Little late to be going messages all about town, isn’t it?”

“That it is,” Will answered. “Sir.”

“Maybe his master gave him something to deliver to us,” the light-holder said, nudging his fellow in the ribs. “How about it, clayface? Did your master give you a little something for us?”

“What sort of thing might he have given me?” Will asked.

“He’s a silversmith, ain’t he?” the soldier replied. “So it would have to be something silver.”

His expression unchanging, Will reached inside his vest and pulled out five glittering silver coins.

“Is this the delivery you were expecting?” he asked.

The greedy soldier reached out his hand, but his partner restrained him.

“That’s only half of it,” he said. “Do you have the rest?”

Will counted out another five coins and dropped the lot into the eager hands. He nodded deferentially.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said. “You are a credit to our emperor across the sea.”

When the more eager of the two murmured a garbled good evening, Will took that as his leave and hurried off down the street, leaving the larcenous pair to exclaim to each other over their good luck.

“Poor dummy, probably doesn’t know he’s been robbed,” he heard one of them saying.

Will ignored it and pressed on through the dark streets, heading towards the towering stone cathedral that was the oldest building still standing in Phale, the Temple of Holy Khersis. The inside was lit with hundreds of candles… actual candles, blessed by the monks who fashioned them but unenhanced by magic.

One candle flickered dimly behind a pane in the cleric’s booth in the confessional. Will took a deep breath and headed, with a sense of reverence and dread, for the other door. Once inside, he found the matches and lit the corresponding candle, then knelt before the partitioning screen.

“Hear me, Father,” Will said respectfully.

“I hear, my son.”

“Pardon me, your grace,” Will said, in mild surprise at the voice. “I had not expected an audience with the Father Episcopus.”

“My pardon is yours for the asking, my son. The Father Confessor complains of a sore throat,” the Episcopus said. “But we are all one, in the Arms of Khersis.”

“I apologize for taking your time, your grace,” Will said. “I have not come to confess, but to ask a question… about the state and disposition of my soul.”

“You are a golem, are you not?” the Episcopus asked.

“I am, your grace,” Will said. “But… meaning no disrespect, however could you tell?”

“There is a marked quality about your voice… a hesitancy and preciseness about your speech, as of–forgive me, my son–an actor who has learned his lines either incompletely, or too well,” the holy man said. “I have noticed this often, when speaking to golems.”

“And… does your grace often find cause to speak to my kind?” Will asked.

“They are a common fixture in many of the households I visit,” the Episcopus said. “But, I meant no offense by this observation. It is merely another sort of accent, I suppose.”

“I shall school myself to be rid of it,” Will said.

“It is no fault against you,” the Episcopus insisted. “But, come… wherefore would you speak to me?”

“Your grace, I am the servant of one William Barker, the silversmith. I am his property, bought and paid for, but I am treated well enough for it. He has taught me his trade and intends to present me to the guild as his apprentice. I think of him as a father… though it would by no means be proper for me to call him so,” Will said, his voice taking on a pained quality as he admitted the last. “Yet, I was made by the hand of another man. I have two fathers upon the frame of this world… but, I wonder… do I have another?”

“My son, I begin to divine the drift of your thought,” replied the Episcopus. “Speak your question, I pray you, and I shall do my best to answer it.”

“Your grace… do I have a soul?” Will asked.

“The pages of the Librum are silent on this score,” the Episcopus said after a reflective silence. “But… there is a line of thought, and a common one at that, that only a creature invested with a soul would think to worry about possessing one.”

“I have heard that reasoning,” Will said. “It is what my master the silversmith told me, when I put the question to him. Yet, I am afraid it will not do for me. You see, your grace, I am an honest man… or an honest creation… but I did not come by this honesty as a gift of grace, nor did I learn it. I was made honest. I could have just as easily been created curious, and if my maker–my mortal maker–had so desired that I should be curious about the state and disposition of my soul, then so curious would I be, the question of that soul’s existence unanswered.”

“Have you some reason to believe your maker would have played such a cruel trick?” the Episcopus asked.

“None, your grace,” Will said. “Nor do I believe such to be the case. Nevertheless, this example shows us how it is possible to be curious about one’s soul and yet have none.”

“You seem most unwilling to be swayed,” the Episcopus said.

“I am unwilling to be taken in,” Will said. “I am an honest creation…”

“Please, do call yourself a man.”

“I am an honest creation, your grace,” Will said, “and am unwilling most of all that I should lie to myself.”

“I see,” the Episcopus said. “And what if I were to tell you that I find your unwillingness to accept less than the full truth on the matter of your soul an excellent indicator of the presence of one?”

“That will not do, your grace,” Will said. “For the same reason as I have previously indicated. My honesty was created within me. It is no credit to me.”

“I see,” the Episcopus said. “Well, suppose that we were to approach it from the other side. Why should you not have a soul?”

“Only the gods can make a soul,” Will said. “Is it presumptuous of me to suppose you would agree to that premise, your grace?”

“No,” the church father said with a wry chuckle. “I will grant you that.”

“Very well,” Will said. “Then surely golems must lack souls, as we are made by mortal wizards and not by gods.”

“True enough,” the Episcopus said. “But consider… it is not just wizards in workshops who may create new life. Man and woman come together and perform this miracle on a daily basis. Surely, you will grant that they are not ‘compelling’ the gods to give up a soul, and yet, each new child is born with one.”

“Surely, your grace,” Will agreed. “And yet, there are couples who go without child for years, or longer… but not for want of trying. So, it is no difficult thing to see how the gods are notcompelled in such a case, but grant each new life license… and a soul… as they see fit?”

“And do you not see the hand of Lord Khersis at work in the creation of a golem, as in the birth of a child?” the Episcopus asked. “Is that act not as susceptible to failure as any human endeavor?”

“It is, your grace,” Will said. “But, when I look at the base uses many golems are put to, I can little believe that Khersis has taken a direct hand in the effort, nor that he has cast his eye over it in approval.”

“Do you mean to tell me, my son, that an enchanter could create one like you, in opposition to will of Lord Khersis and the other denizens of the heavenly realms?”

“Forgive me, your grace… but much can be and is done in opposition to the gods of good,” Will said. “It is not so strange that wizardly arts could transmute dumb clay into living flesh against the will of the gods, but it is inconceivable that such life could be imbued with a soul without the cooperation of the same. Therefore, it seems to me that we must allow that wizards have the power to petition the heavens themselves in demand of a soul… or else conclude that I and those like me possess none.”

There was silence from the other side of the screen.

“Forgive me, your grace,” Will said. “It was not my intention to blaspheme.”

“I heard no blasphemy,” the Episcopus said. “You merely spoke your thoughts, which seem to me bent most strenuously against blasphemy. You resist the conclusion that you have a soul, because you cannot see how to accept this without insulting the gods. Does that not speak to you of some spark of inner grace?”

“Your grace, it does not,” Will said. “You are most patient to speak with me, but I will not be satisfied with any less than a true test on the matter.”

“A test… for soulhood?” the Episcopus asked. “That’s a most extraordinary proposition.”

“Your grace… have you ever heard of a golem being raised from the dead?” Will asked.

“There is a certain story of a murdered duke, with the only witness–a golem–also slain,” the Episcopus said. “It’s an old tale, and likely apocryphal, but they say most of the old stories have a grain of truth within them.”

“Indeed, but in that story, it is the golem’s worldly maker who brings the creature back to the semblance of life,” Will said. “I have always taken it to mean that the physical damage was repaired and the magic of animation was simply applied to it again. To my knowledge, there has never been a case where a golem, rendered inoperant, has been restored to animation through divine means… through the rejoining of body and soul. Is this because no one has ever had cause to try it, or because there is no soul to call back?”

“My son, the rite of resurrection is the holiest and rarest of sacraments the temple can administer,” the Episcopus said gravely. “It is never done without great need, and great desert.”

“I understand,” Will said. “And I understand that, though my need seems great to me, it may not appear so to others. Of course, there is one other small barrier to this test: I am still alive.”

“Indeed,” the Episcopus said. “And, as you have given this matter much thought, I am confident you have realized that anything you did to correct for that problem would render you outside the grace of the sacraments.”

“I do,” Will said. “But that is a problem which time itself may happily solve.”

“Do golems age as do men, then?” the Episcopus asked.

“We do not,” Will said. “But we do eventually find an end, as everything does. Your grace, it is commonly known–though not commonly spoken of–that the temple regularly performs the rite of resurrection for men of worth and importance, who have done good things for the temple and the community?”

“I hope you are not suggesting that this most sacred and holiest of miracles is something that can be bought and paid for,” the Episcopus said, bristling slightly for the first time since Will had entered the confessional.

“I mean no offense, your grace,” Will said, with great sincerity. “It is just that, today my master has told me he intends to name me as heir in his will, bequeathing to me all his property, his business, and his place in the guild.”

“Such a will could never be honored.”

“It would not be honored today,” Will said, an undeniable quaver of excitement creeping into his voice. “But never? Who knows, save the gods, what wonders the next day might bring? Our new proconsul speaks bold words to the emperor across the sea, and the men in the street talk openly of revolution… of… Republic.” The last word came out as a sort of sigh.

“I do not think they speak as openly as all that,” the Episcopus said. “But… I have heard whispers.”

“And… if this Magisterion brings it about, if these fractured lands become a nation where each manmay have a voice… then why couldn’t one who was made property, be made free and own property?” Will asked. “And if that happens, and I become a…. a man of means, then I would be entitled to the same privileges as any other man in my position, would I not?”

“I cannot say that it would not be so,” the Episcopus said. “But a silversmith, however skilled, is still a tradesman. It’s a far stretch from there to being the sort of man who may… do what you speak of.”

“I do not intend that it should happen overnight,” Will said. “But, golems do not age as men do… I may have decades or longer to increase my wealth, to improve my position.”

“I fear that is the very fact that shall weigh most heavily against you when it comes time to press your suit and claim your inheritance,” the Episcopus said. “But, allowing that it shall come to pass, you must realize that I will likely not be Episcopus here or in any worldly province when the time comes, so what I say to you now will have little bearing on the matter.”

“I realize that,” Will said. “And I know that nothing you say could stand as a guarantee… but still will I ask your blessing for this endeavor.”

“If I will not? If I cannot?”

“If you tell me no, if you say as a man of the cloth that this is an affront to reason and morality, or an act against the heavens… then I shall think no more upon it.”

“It seems a serious thing to take the holy rite of resurrection and turn it to a purpose such as this,” the Episcopus said. “Particularly as you propose to undergo it following a long and prosperous life… there are so many who die so young… but… to speak plainly, it is a better use than many of the well-to-do individuals to whom you have referred would put it. But, have you considered the implications if you put your plan into effect and… it fails?”

“If I fail, I will be no more,” Will said. “But I will not have lost anything. There will not even be anything left of me to be conscious of the failure.”

“But… what of others of your kind?” the Episcopus said. “If the results are made public, might it not be too much for them to bear?”

“I have considered that,” Will said. “For myself, I can choose to say that it is better to know… but how can I make that choice for others? If I can arrange the matter thusly, I shall have it kept secret, unless I should prove successful in my attempt. So, what say you, your grace? Is this not a worthy plan?”

“My son, I say to you that I have met men of my race whose possession of a soul was more doubtful than yours,” the Episcopus said. “But the winds of change do indeed blow across our land, and if nothing else, such a spiritual proof might doubly prove useful in securing material rights for those of your kind. I can find no fault with your plan. You have my blessing.”

“Thank you,” Will said. “Your grace… will you now hear my confession?”

“I will.”

War broke out between the provinces and the Mother Isles the following winter. Will, the silversmith’s servant, was given permission to enlist and fight alongside the revolutionaries. He served in a regiment under Proconsul-Turned-General Magisterion, and died in the Battle of Moncarre.

The Father Episcopus of the Khersian temple in his home town of Phale petitioned for the rites of resurrection to be administered.

This request was refused, as were so many others during the war years.


Remember, you can support Tales of MU’s continued existence by pledging to its Patreon, and my continued existence by pledging to mine.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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This story is a little different than the others I’m sharing this month, as it’s written in hypertext. I created it using Twine, a construction kit that is popular for creating interactive stories as well as simple text-based games and quizzes. “Attract Mode” was very much an experiment, even more so than most of the things I do. It didn’t receive much attention when I released it in February, but it still ranks among my favorite of my story creations.

Click here to read it. And if you like it, support me on Patreon so I’ll be able to make more like it.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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This is the most recently published (though not the most recently written) story I’ve selected to highlight this month. Like a lot of the things I wrote in 2015, it has a deeply personal connection for me. The place described in this story is a real place I have been to many times, though only as an adult. Like the character in the story, I’ve stood there on the shore with my mother, waiting for dolphins who show up, sometimes. In fact, I was standing amidst the sand and shells, essentially trying to figure out how to summon dolphins with my mind (as one does) when this story came to me.

I’m posting this along with the other short stories that have gone up this month to let you the interested reader see what I have to offer as an interesting author. If you like what you read and would like to see more like it, please join me on Patreon.

Oh, and it could probably go without saying, but I’ve had people attribute sillier elements of my fiction to my actual life, so let’s make it explicit: apart from the location and the pasttime of dolphin-watching, nothing about this story is autobiographical.


Sometimes, There Are Dolphins

By Alexandra Erin


Honeymoon Island, off the gulf coast of Florida, was connected to the mainland city of Dunedin by a causeway. It was a state park, open every day from eight a.m. until sunset. The beaches of Honeymoon Island were laid with shells as other beaches are covered in sand, with a fresh batch deposited daily by the gulf water tides.

The water as seen from the shore presented a shimmering spectrum of ocean hues, from sun-dappled silver to sparkling emerald to deep azure and many incomprehensible blends in between. The near-constant wind blowing in off the gulf keeps the clouds moving at a brisk pace, ensuring that even the most overcast days often present an interesting sight when the sun begins to dip below the distant waters at the curve of the world.

None of this had made much of an impression on Clara. She’d enjoyed the first afternoon at the beach well enough, and had had enough fun splashing around in the surf and collecting shells that she hadn’t minded staying to stare at the horizon with her mother.

“Sometimes, there are dolphins,” her mother had said excitedly. “They skim right along the shore, swimming in a pod. They trace the causeway and follow the outline of the island. Sometimes they jump and show off, or swim back and forth. They don’t always come, of course, but when they do, it’s usually it right before sunset.”

There hadn’t been any dolphins, though, that night or any of the five that followed. Each night, her mother had repeated the words “sometimes, there are dolphins,” at least once, with a little less fervor. Clara had gone from resenting her mother for dragging her out each night to feeling sorry for her.

This was the last night of their vacation, and now Clara was excited even though her mother wasn’t.

It was all because of the book.

She’d found it in the crawlspace over the garage of Grandpa’s old rundown little retirement cabin days ago, but it had taken her some time to learn how to read it. She’d never seen a book like it before, one not printed with orderly uniform letters but written by hand, many hands. Some of the letters were loopy and sprawling, some were spider-leg thin, but they all crowded against one another on pages that seemed like they should have been roomy enough to accommodate anyone.

Looking at the writing had given Clara a headache at first, as well as an odd, fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach. Curiosity had brought her back to the book, though.

That, and boredom.

Florida was supposed to be fun, but this wasn’t anywhere close to the right part of Florida, as far as she could tell. There was no Disney World here. There wasn’t even a Universal Studios. There was a Busch Gardens, but her mother had said she wouldn’t like it, even though the best description she had mustered of it was “like a zoo with rollercoasters,” and Clara couldn’t imagine anyone not liking that.

“Maybe next time,” her mother had said, though this was supposed to be the final trip, when Grandpa’s affairs were all wrapped up so the funny old house could be sold off.

Clara didn’t know what her grandfather’s affairs had been. She’d asked a few grown-ups what an affair was, but the answers had been amused and evasive.

So while her mother had spent most of her time meeting with people in suits and going through boxes in what she called the study, Clara’s attention had kept drifting back to the book. In time she’d learned how to look at it without wincing, and then how to read it.

It helped when she realized that the parts written in red pen were newer and made more sense than the rest. In fact, they helped her make sense of the others. She learned to think of it as a teacher correcting a badly written essay, suggesting better words, easier words.

At some point, she had started to think of the teacher as her grandfather and imagined that he was giving her some kind of guidance, knowing how much she hated to feel confused. The day she saw some of the papers in his study marked with the same red ink in the same handwriting, she had realized she was right. That was when she decided to keep the book for herself. It would be her inheritance, the last gift from her long-absent grandfather. It would make up for all the missed birthdays and Christmases.

She couldn’t tell her mother, of course. For some reason, her mother hadn’t wanted Clara to know much about him. Probably she was still mad about all her own birthdays and things that he’d missed.

Clara had already somehow known she couldn’t tell her mother about the book, but it felt good to have a reason that she could use to explain to herself why this must be so.

But even though she would keep the book for herself, she wouldn’t be selfish about it.

When she’d found the ritual, she’d known that her grandfather had a gift for his daughter, too. He’d spent so much time marking it out, translating the instructions into simple terms and even drawing clear diagrams. All the words were sounded out in bright red ink. It couldn’t be simpler.

The sea-king’s summoning spell, the note beside the illegible title had read. That was exactly what they needed. If the lazy old dolphins wouldn’t come out and play for Clara or her mother, she was sure they wouldn’t ignore a summons from the sea-king himself, whoever he might be.

She hadn’t fully believed that it would work, of course, when she’d tried it. It had just been something to do. She was a bit old to believe in fairy tales, after all. Not all the way.

But she’d…felt something, something rising up from deep inside and beneath her. She’d seen the candles gutter green and then sputter out. She might have imagined what she’d thought she’d felt, but she knew that candles didn’t look like that when they just blew out.

And the book…the book had slammed shut and spun around in the center of the circle, just like it was riding on mama’s old record player.

The spell had worked.

It had worked!

And so this night, it was Clara’s turn to scan the horizon as intently as her mother had the nights before.

The dolphins were coming, she knew. They were coming. They’d heard the sea-king’s summons and they would be coming. Her mother’s guidebook didn’t say if the dolphins would come from the left or the right…from the south or the north…so she tried to keep watch in both directions.

“Well, it’s a nice enough night for our last night here,” Clara’s mother was saying. She laid a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Better enjoy the view while it lasts. Look, the sun’s dipping into some haze. Do you think it’ll be swallowed up before we get a proper sunset?”

“I don’t know, I’m watching for dolphins.”

“Clara…I know I said there might be dolphins,” her mother said. “But, honestly, it’s best not to set your heart on it. Sometimes, there are dolphins, but it isn’t something anyone can predict or control.”

“Maybe,” Clara said. She almost decided to tell her mother about the spell then and there, but she thought it would be better if she just let her be surprised.

The dolphins would come by sunset. She’d had that idea fixed in her head when she did the spell, and if she’d only been guessing about how the magic would work, she still had gotten the distinct impression that the message had been received and answered in the affirmative: sunset.

“Just don’t get so fixated on looking for one thing that you miss everything else, okay?” her mother said. “My father…your grandfather…did that, he did that his whole life. He ignored everything else, everyone else, while he went off and searched for…I don’t even know what. I’ve been looking through his files for a week now and I still don’t know what he hoped to find. I just know that he died alone, half-crazed and full of regret. He missed so much of my life, Clara. He missed his own wife’s last years. He missed so much…”

“Jeez, I’m just looking for dolphins, Mom!” Clara said, whirling around and pulling away from the hand on her shoulder. “Will you give it a rest? I’m not going to miss my whole life because I spent one night looking for the stupid dolphins that you wanted to see in the first place!”

“Sorry!” her mother said. “I’m sorry, I…that was probably projecting. This is the first time I’ve been back here since papa’s funeral, and the longest I’ve been here since I was a little girl, and I’ve just…I’ve been feeling and thinking things that I left buried for so long. I shouldn’t have pushed all that off onto you, Clara. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry, Mom,” Clara said. “I didn’t mean to get so mad. I just…I knew you wanted to see dolphins, so I wanted to bring them to you.”

“Oh, honey, you can’t bring someone dolphins,” her mother said, with what sounded like a surprisingly nervous laugh. “They’re wild and free creatures, almost like people themselves. Honey, that’s what makes seeing them so special, you see? They don’t operate on a schedule or come when you call them. You can’t control nature. Believe me, your grandfather wasted his life learning that lesson, if he ever did learn it in the end.”

“Well, I don’t know if he wasted it,” Clara said, as she became dimly aware of a commotion among the other late-lingering beachgoers. “But…”

“What on earth?” her mother said, looking at a point behind her, somewhere out over the water. “What…”

Clara turned to look out to sea. Almost straight out from her, at a point on the horizon and moving on a path perpendicular to the nearest stretch of shore to her, something was moving…several things were moving, racing along the shining silver waters, leaping out of the water as they ran along.

“Dolphins?” Clara said excitedly. Behind the frantically frolicking figures, the sun was sinking into the sea.

“Those aren’t dolphins,” her mother said, then corrected herself. “Those aren’t just dolphins.”

And they weren’t.

There were dolphins, yes, but fish of every size and description raced along beside and ahead of them.

“Are they feeding?” Clara guessed.

“Nah, dolphins don’t hunt like that,” a young woman staring out at the onrushing spectacle said. “They try to surround a school of fish and trap them against the surface of the water, they don’t chase them down like lions hunting gazelles. And look, they’re not trying to catch the fish…they’re breaking ahead of them.”

“What are they doing?” someone else asked. “I thought they were supposed to follow the shore.”

“They’re wild animals, they’re not supposed to do anything,” Clara said. “Right, Mom?”

She looked up at her mother for support, but her budding sense of satisfaction was nipped when she saw the look of pure horror on her face.

“Are they racing?” a man guessed. “Or being chased? Why are they trying to get away from the fish? Don’t dolphins eat fish? I’ve never heard of a fish eating a dolphin.”

“I don’t think it’s the fish that they’re trying to get away from,” the young man said. “What’s that saying? If you and your friend are being chased by a bear, you don’t have to outrun the bear…”

The nearest dolphins weren’t so far from the shore now, and they showed absolutely no sign of slowing or stopping. Clara hardly noticed. Her attention, like everyone else’s, was not on the dolphins but on the rising swell far behind them, behind the stragglers and the leaping schools of fish.

The sun set.

He rose.

Ia!


Enjoy the story? Show your appreciation and help me produce more like it by supporting me on Patreon.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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For those just tuning in: for every day that remains in May, I’m posting one example of my work to this blog in order to help garner attention for my Patreon, so that I can start earning enough money to actually live on instead of slowly and forever circling the drain.

My best known work (not counting that Tumblr post where I wrote the words to the song from Aladdin underneath a picture of Batman and Superman, which has been translated into multiple languages and adapted into multiple mediums) is Tales of MU, a sprawling serial story set in a university in a world that is meant to be something like a typical “medieval fantasy” world if it were allowed to chronologically progress to something approximating the modern age.

While the main story of MU focuses on the life and times of one Mackenzie Blaise, a budding queer college student learning to love herself and several other people, from time to time I write “Other Tales”, side stories and spin-offs and prequels and midquels. Some of them relate to the main story. Some flesh out the setting and the world. Some of these work well enough as stand-alone fantasy stories that the setting is more or less incidental.

I recently separated my Tales of MU activities into its own Patreon, to make it easier to market both it and everything else I write. Nevertheless, when I sat down to pick out nine short stories of mine that stand out as being representative of the best of what I do, there were a few of the MU tales of the standalone variety that insisted on coming forth and being recognized. This is one of them.

At the time I first published it, readers compared it to both Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett. I’ll let you decide for yourself how apt either comparison is.


An Internal Matter

By Alexandra Erin


“Sorry sir, but we are currently closed for renovations,” the short, stocky doorman said. His uniform was trimmed with festive holiday garlands. Snow was on the ground and the whole of the high street was decked out with gold tinsel and red ribbons.

“I’m an investigator with the Imperial Bureau of Finding,” Mike Gregory said, holding up his credentials.

“Sorry sir, but we are currently closed for renovations,” the sentinel repeated. Gregory rolled his eyes and knocked on the door, then peered through the little glass panes set into it. He thought he saw some movement in the dim hallway. He held his badge up, hoping it would be recognized.

“Hello, little girl!” the doorman called cheerfully. “Blessed season to you!”

“Bess’d season!” a girl of about three or four called back.

The investigator rolled his eyes again, though he had to fight to keep from smiling. He had to fight even harder when he glanced to the side and saw that the golem had pulled a tiny gift box out of his coat and was offering it to the tyke. The kid was visibly torn, obviously terrified by the bearded figure looming over her but also tempted by the present.

“Tell the nice man ‘thank you’,” her mother said, snatching the box away and handing it to her kid. She looked more frightened of the automaton than her kid was.

The door opened as the doorman was giving more packages to a pair of children. A silver-bearded dwarf, bald as a boiled egg and wearing a pair of pince-nez spectacles, peered up at Gregory.

“Are you from the constabulary?” he asked.

“Investigator Mike Gregory, IBF,” Gregory said, showing his badge.

“Forgive me for saying, but you’re awfully tall for an imp,” the dwarf said, chuckling.

“I haven’t actually heard that one before,” Gregory said. “You going to let me in?”

“Are you here about… the robbery?” the dwarf asked, whispering the last word and looking at the doorman and the latest child, both a good five feet away, as if he thought they were in on it.

“No, I’m here to buy a boat,” Gregory said.

“And I haven’t heard that one before,” the dwarf said. “I’m sorry, this whole thing has me out of sorts. Do come in, Mr. Gregory.”

He pulled the door open further and stepped back so the detective could enter.

“You closed the store but you’re still doing your giveaway?” Gregory asked.

“In all honesty, I didn’t give it any thought when I closed the shop… and since I didn’t say to notgive the gifts, of course it goes ahead and does it. All the same, it’s a very popular promotion,” he said. “The people around here have come to expect it. They bring their children into the city to see the window displays and get a little gift from Clan Sternbauer… it’s terrible that we were robbed, but why should I compound that by stealing away that bit of joy?”

“You’re all heart, Mr….”

“Gebhard,” he said.

“Son of…?”

“Just Gebhard,” the dwarf said. “Master Jeweler, fifth rank, of Clan Sternbauer. I’m sorry for my manner at the door… we aren’t used to dealing with outside authorities. Ordinarily, when items go missing, Clan Sternbauer treats it as a purely internal matter, but given the sheer scope of the transgression…”

“Mr. Gebhard, the Bureau is here to help, not to steal your secrets,” Gregory said. “Also, failure to report a crime can itself be a crime.”

“Well, naturally, which is why we conduct a thorough internal investigation to see if a crime has been committed,” Gebhard said, wringing his hands as he led Gregory through the second set of doors, past a duplicate of the uniformed figure outside, and into the shop. The interior of CS&C didn’t look like a place that had been robbed of millions of silver in merchandise. Everything was bright, shiny, and clean. There were no signs of violence, no visible damage, and plenty of extremely valuable-looking goodies hanging out in plain sight. “In this case, the evidence is unmistakable. A dwarven dozen items, all gone. I don’t know what it is about this time of year. I understand it’s supposed to be a festive season, but we get more trouble at Khersentide… did you know that last year, somebody cleft our Sam in twain with a greatsword?”

“Murder?” Gregory said. “I didn’t hear about that… if you kept something like that ‘an internal matter’…”

“Murder? Well, some of us might have felt it was like a murder, but in point of fact it was an act of vandalism. Sam is our faithful doorman, you see… we took it a little hard, as he’s one of the most visible symbols of our company. We sell little animated plushes on our weavesite, you know, and in the stores during the holidays.”

“I do remember hearing about that now,” Gregory said.

“The perpetrator was never found, unfortunately,” Gebhard said. “It was such a random, senseless thing…”

“Right,” the detective said. “Do you have a list of what’s missing?”

“Yes, right over here,” Gebhard said. He went through a gate back onto the raised platform behind the counter… this let him look the imperial agent in the eye as he spoke, Gregory noticed. Gebhard picked up a piece of parchment and held it out.

Gregory scanned it.

“Platinum… platinum… platinum… what the hell is palladium?”

“For most purposes, it might be thought of as platinum, but more so,” Gebhard said.

“So, what do these things have in common?”

“Well, they’re all quite small, and very valuable,” the dwarf said. “Though, they hardly rank among the most valuable objects in our collection. Certainly none of them are unique. None of them came out of a vault or a higher security area, though we say ‘higher security’ for a reason. Our default precautions are nothing to sneeze at.”

“What are they?” Gregory asked.

“Well, to begin with, do you see this glass?” the dwarf asked, tapping the top of the counter.

“Yes.”

“No, you don’t. What you see is metal that has been rendered ninety-nine percent invisible.”

“What kind of metal?”

“That’s a trade secret, but suffice it to say, the frame it’s in would give way long before a thief managed to so much as scratch it. As you can see, that hasn’t happened.”

“And if somebody were that determined?” the detective asked.

“Our first countermeasures kick in on the third violent blow,” Gebhard said. “They would be enough to render most thieves insensate. In any event, any contact with the cases or the merchandise after the shop has been locked down would sound an alarm in our living quarters below.”

“You mean, you live on the premises?”

“Yes. Well, I mean beneath them, of course.”

“How many people are in residence here, exactly?”

“Myself, and seven apprentices.”

“I’m going to need to talk to your apprentices,” Gregory said.

“They’re all waiting downstairs,” he said. “They know the shop is closed, but they don’t know why. But, Mr. Gregory, I can assure you they had nothing to do with it… once we’ve closed the shop for the day, the passage is closed. It can only be opened in an emergency, which requires the cooperation of three staff members and results in a silent alert to all of us.”

“Who would be able to disable that, apart from yourself?”

“Nobody, including myself,” Gebhard said. “And I check those wards and seals every day before opening. I double-checked them when I discovered the shortages.”

“So, nobody used the trapdoor,” Gregory said. “I assume the security on the external doors is even higher?”

“As high as the law allows,” Gebhard said. “That’s one reason we have double doors, actually… those laws allow much more persuasive protections on the inner set than they do on the ones that anybody could stumble against.”

“One reason?”

“I’m sure you could see the advantages during daytime operations,” Gebhard said. “Jewelry frequently leaves the protection of the cases in the normal course of the working day. If somebody does a runner, we have the ability to trap them in the hallway and subdue them through the vertical target access slots.”

“The what?”

“We used to call them ‘glory holes’, but apparently that term’s picked up another meaning in the past century,” Gebhard said. “We also have surveillance balls recessed in the ceiling above the entryway. They record all activity in front of the store and in the hallway. My review of last night’s impressions revealed nothing, though you’re welcome to check it yourself.”

“Thanks, we will,” Gregory said. “Mr. Gebhard, not to be indelicate, but you do realize that with this level of security, any robbery is pretty much going to have to be an inside job?”

“Well, of course I know that,” the dwarf sputtered. “That’s why we usually try to handle things ourselves… but that’s usually somebody being imprudent during the day, when money and jewelry are out in the open and changing hands. I can’t see how one of my apprentices could be involved in this.”

“Okay, let’s leave that alone for the moment,” Gregory said. “We know the doors weren’t forced, and neither were the jewelry cases. Teleportation? Phasing? Dimensional gate?”

“All quite impossible,” Gebhard said. “And anybody who tried would get a nasty surprise.”

“What sort of surprise?”

“I’m afraid I can’t reveal that,” Gebhard said. “You have to understand, I’m hardly comfortable discussing our security precautions even to the extent that I’ve done so far.”

“Do you think the Imperium is going to rob your store?”

“Under the present government? No,” Gebhard said. “Clan Sternbauer has a wonderful relationship with the Imperial Republic… in fact, I personally fought alongside Magisterion I. Which brings me to my point: human governments tend to change at an alarming pace. We’ll play along with the current regime, but we don’t expect it to last forever.”

“Mr. Gebhard, when our office received the report, we wanted to get a whole team of investigators down here,” he said. “Forensic enchanters, diviners, the whole works… but we had to go through the dwarven embassy, and they said the most we could send was a single agent, with no magical sensitivity. What I’m trying to say here is that we’re bending over backwards to respect your privacy here… and that isn’t a great position to catch crooks from.”

“I’m sorry, but my hands are tied,” Gebhard said. “I did anticipate this need on your part, and have sent word to my superiors, but I cannot give any more specific information about our magical protections until I receive that word.”

“What if I come back with an imperial decree ordering your compliance?”

“Then I will compose a brief note to my grandchildren and ask to borrow your sword for a moment,” Gebhard said. “It will be messy, but poison is somewhat unreliable when ingested by my kind.”

“Are you for real?”

“Completely. Mr. Gregory, I will not get my clan in ‘hot water’ with the Imperium by breaking its laws, but neither will I dishonor the laws of my own people,” Gebhard said. “For both of our conveniences, I suggest you wait until I hear from headquarters. In the meantime, perhaps we should see what you can come up with based on the information available? Because I can assure you, if you did know the scope of our protections, you would agree that it’s not possible for an item to have been removed from the premises by means such as teleportation or extradimensional transit.”

“No? What about the Khersentide presents?” Gregory asked. “I didn’t see any bulges in Sam’s coat.”

“Ah. That. Hmm… well, you’ve hit on the one exception,” Gebhard said. “Yes, for our gift giveaway, we attach an extradimensional storage pouch to the inside of his jacket. Patrons… and employees… are stopped in the hallway if they’re carrying similar devices, but the spell screens for Sam’s sack specially.”

“So where is he, at night?” Gregory asked. “Sam the Doorman. Does he stand there all night, does he join you in the basement, does he go home to Samantha and their little Samlings?”

“Oh, no, he comes inside with his brother when we close. They straighten up after we go downstairs… wipe the display cases down, clean whatever jewelry’s been recently handled, and so on. It really is an ingenious system. We used to have one dwarf stay behind and do the cleaning, but there was too much temptation and distrust.”

“That means Sam can touch the display cases without setting off any wards?”

“Well, yes, I suppose ‘he’ can,” Gebhard said slowly. “I didn’t think of that, of course… as much as we have a tendency to imbue him with a personality, he is, after all, only a golem.”

“So, what exactly stops Sammy from slipping a few items in his extradimensional pouch?”

“Are you serious, Mr. Gregory? Sam is mindless… he follows orders and that’s all he does.”

“What if somebody ordered him to?” Gregory asked. “Would he do it then?”

“That isn’t among the orders he recognizes,” Gebhard said. “Our ‘Sams’ are made to exacting specifications. All of our stores use two models: the outdoor one, which is both more durable and more versatile, and the indoor one. Neither model recognizes the Master Jeweler or his apprentices as their owner and master, but instead are given a specific and precise set of instructions by their maker. These instructions include a directive to follow certain sets of orders when given by a Clan Sternbauer & Company employee, and stealing from the company most certainly does not fall within those parameters.”

“Who is that maker?”

“Each location has one golem maker who is engaged… quite literally, as they are under a geas of secrecy about our specs… to produce Sams,” Gebhard said.

“And yours?”

“That would be… well, that would be among the information I’ve requested permission to release,” Gebhard said.

“Really?” Gregory asked. “It hardly seems like it would be a breach of secrecy, if the golem maker’s not able to talk about the Sams’ construction or directives, anyway… in fact, it almost sounded like you were about to tell me.”

“Yes, well, I was, but then I thought better of it,” Gebhard said. “It’s really not the sort of thing I can discuss without permission.”

“Are you sure?” Gregory asked.

“Quite sure.”

“Well, think hard about that,” Gregory said. “And maybe talk to your people about expediting your request, because I can get an imperial decree in a matter of hours and I’d hate to see you punching your ticket over something as small as this.”

“I hardly think it’s important for you to talk to our golem maker, Mr. Gregory,” Gebhard said. “We will be happy to investigate this facet of the matter ourselves, internally…”

“You realize that if you make an act of retribution against an Imperial citizen, on Imperial soil, that’s not only a crime but possibly an act of war, Mr. Gebhard?”

“Sir, I have no idea what you’re insinuating,” Gebhard said. “Why don’t you come back this afternoon? I’m sure I’ll have the go-ahead to give you all the information you need by then… I can have my apprentice notify the bureau the instant it comes in.”

“Yeah, sure,” Gregory said. “But remember what I said: an act of war.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”

“Take this under advisement, too… there’s an old human saying: nobody kills a kid at Khersentide and gets away with it.”

“I definitely haven’t heard that one.”

A message for Mike Gregory arrived at the Bureau headquarters at one minute past noon. It contained the name and address of a golem maker and a note that the clan chiefs had agreed with the investigator that this information was not crucial to withhold. Gregory headed to the enchanter’s home workshop with sirens blazing, but he was too late to prevent the golem maker’s death via sixteen crossbow bolts to the back.

Many campaign contributions later, this death was ruled a suicide.

The fourteen stolen pieces of jewelry were never officially recovered. They certainly weren’t found on the golem maker’s body, and if they had turned up back at the store from which they had been stolen there would have been some awkward questions. But as Gebhard had noted, none of the pieces were unique, and items identical to them were certainly available at the other CS&C locations up and down the eastern seaboard.

The unfortunate golem maker’s six-year-old son… who, in what can only officially be described as a freakish coincidence, had been the first person to receive a gift box from Sam the morning of the robbery… happened to be in his father’s workshop at the time of his death, but thankfully he was sound asleep… very sound asleep. He was physically unharmed, and given to the care of his mother.

Early the following year, the firm of Clan Sternbauer & Company bought the exclusive services of a single golem maker and moved production of their trademarked “Sam The Doorman” golems under him.


Tales of MU resumes updates on June 1st. If you wish to support Tales of MU, you can pledge an amount per chapter/posting on its dedicated Patreon. Otherwise, if you support me as an author, any MUniverse stories such as this one that can stand on their own will also be cross-posted to my author Patreon.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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For those just tuning in: every day left in May, I’m posting a short story of mine to highlight an aspect of my body of work. Why am I doing this? Because if you’re the sort of person who likes the sort of thing that I write, I’d like for you to support me on Patreon so I can pay my bills, keep living, and keep writing.

Today’s selection has an interesting provenance. It started its life as a John Constantine fan fic, but before I finished it I decided it worked better with an original character. I first set it in my own superhero fic universe, but it didn’t really fit there so I moved it into its own setting.

I’ve written a few other stories with the same character, mostly shorter or incomplete ones. This was the first Marnie story, though, and it’s still my favorite.


Ghosts of Utah

By Alexandra Erin


I made it to the site much later than I had intended. The sun had already set, though the last angry line of orange had yet to fade from the western sky when I reached the camp.

I had planned on arriving in the afternoon, and getting a good look at the excavations on my way in, as I assumed they had something to do with why I was there… but car troubles had stalled me in Moab, and I’d had to leave my prized Thunderbird to the questionable mercy of a local greasemonkey while I continued on in a rusted-out loaner.

My name is Marnie, by the way. Marnie Masterson. The “Marnie” is short for “Grand Marnier”. Mom says it’s what she was drinking when I was conceived.

Thanks, Mom.

My ultimate destination was an old fashioned tin-can camper, older than I was and very familiar to me. The British call such vehicles “caravans”, and though this particular model had never left the western United States, that was the name its Anglophile owner had affectionately called it: the Caravan. Capitalize it when you say it. Many years out in the salt flats of Utah had done its metal shell no favors, but he’d never heard a word about replacing it. It was a little piece of history, after all.

Worth preserving.

The door of the Caravan opened as I pulled up, spilling ugly yellow light into the desert night.

“I hope I’m not too late for visiting,” I called out to my hostess, hopping out of the car and hurrying forward as if to make up for my hours of tardiness in those few feet.

“Not at all,” she said, giving me a quick hug and the very phoniest of phony-baloney air-kisses on each cheek. “It’s so very good of you to come, Marnie… it’s been far too long.”

“Three years,” I said.

“You might have come to the funeral,” she said. “But… do come in.”

Amelia Conroy was the widowed wife of Professor Ethan Conroy, dead less than a year. Heart attack at fifty-seven. He’d been fairly well-known in his field, if controversial… but of course, the two often went hand in hand. One rarely made it into the papers for saying the same things that everybody else was saying. He attracted attention not so much for having proposed any radical new lines of scientific inquiry, but for stubbornly holding onto long held and established theories long after they’d fallen out of fashion.

As far as I could ever tell, Amelia hadn’t paid much attention to her husband’s work, other than to note how many journals he got his name in and how many times he got his picture in the paper. She had never been much of a serious academic. I think she only went to school at all to get her MRS… and because it took her so long to hook a man, she winded up with a doctorate. She wasn’t exactly stupid, but she also was not what you’d call a liberated woman.

She was pretty much a living fossil herself, a relic of the past… maybe that was what had attracted such a noted paleozoologist to her.

“I’m not much good at funerals,” I said, which was true. I left unspoken the fact that I wasn’t sure how welcome I would have been. Amelia Conroy and I had never exactly been bosom buddies, and depending upon what she’d heard or suspected about me, my presence may have ended up being painful for at least one of us.

“I think… I think Ethan would have liked for you to be there,” Amelia said. She gestured to one of the battered, overstuffed chairs which had occupied the Caravan for God knew how long, settling heavily into one herself. There was a glass half filled with scotch on the small round table beside it, which she clutched like a talisman as soon as she’d sat down. Amelia was in her forties… how far into them, I wasn’t sure… but in this moment, she looked far older.

“The Ethan that I knew would have said that funerals are for the living,” I said neutrally. Ethan had been a die-hard rationalist and card-carrying skeptic. It had been the one point of fierce contention between us that kept us friends.

“I thought so, too,” Amelia said. “Once.”

That single word and the pause which followed it were not just pregnant, they were practically carrying a litter. I knew many people, skeptics and atheists, who’d had similar changes of hearts after their dearest loved ones had passed on. Most of them had seemed to find some comfort in the idea that their parents/children/steady fucks would keep going in some form.

“Well, I’m here now,” I said. “I have to admit, I came out of curiosity more than anything else. Of course I’ll do anything for Professor Conroy’s widow… but I’ve got no idea what I can do. I’m no paleontologist.”

“And Ethan never forgave you for that, you know,” Amelia said. “Turning your back on your education, throwing away your future… you were his favorite student. You know, for a long time I thought for sure you were polishing his knob… nobody ever got full marks in his lectures. That was before I heard you were a lesbian, mind you.”

I wasn’t, but didn’t feel the need to correct her right that moment. I had played a few games on the home court, sure… college had been an interesting time for me. The point was, Amelia was a grieving widow… and possibly unstable. I still had no idea why she had invited me there.

Also, I felt a little bit guilty because no matter how many times Ethan swore otherwise, I still wasn’t sure I’d earned that grade solely for my academic rigor.

Some trace of that must have shown on my face, but Amelia in her blessed distraction misinterpreted it.

“Oh, don’t worry, I have no problems with lesbians,” she said. “To each their own and all that… I just… I think even after years apart, you knew Ethan better than anyone else. I can’t imagine who else I could ask for help.”

“I’m flattered, but surely there are others better suited…”

“I don’t need another paleontologist,” she said. She picked up the scotch glass with a visibly shaking hand. “I don’t need another damned expert, Marnie. What I need is a friend.”

“I can be that,” I said, with more certainty than I felt. “I think Ethan would have liked it.”

“Ethan… Ethan would have hated what’s going on these days… he hated the idea of feathered dinosaurs, warm-blooded dinosaurs,” she said. “He grew up on the big lumbering brutes, the ‘terrible lizards.’ I remember he used to say, ‘They may have been terrible lizards but they’d be even worse birds.'”

“He said that in class a lot,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “I never got the impression you paid much attention to his work.”

“I can’t pretend I understood it as well as he did,” she said. “Or you… but I was a good wife. I knew what was important to him. I supported him. And now that he’s… gone… I’m continuing his work. I thought that’s what he would have wanted.”

“Thought?” I prompted, wondering at her use of the past tense.

“Since we restarted the dig, there have been… accidents,” she said. “Equipment that breaks, or just stops working. Little things mostly. We have to replace the batteries in the walkie-talkies every day. Little things. Then people… one of the grad students got hurt. Most of them have left.”

“You think somebody’s sabotaging the dig?” I asked. I instinctively looked around. It was just the two of us, in a tiny little tin can with no room to hide in, but I did it all the same. Instinct’s funny, that way.

“I think… I think it’s Ethan,” she said, in a very small and very tired voice.

“Have you seen him?” I asked. I didn’t ask if she was feeling okay, or if she had seen a doctor, or any other kind of friendly euphemism for “Are you nuts?” I knew that such things as ghosts were very real.

She still could have been nuts, but she had asked me there as a friend and so I was trying to be one.

“No… I haven’t seen him. I’ve felt him, though… standing behind me when I go to the dig, hanging outside the Caravan when I’m in for the night… or waiting inside when I’m coming back. I’ve felt him, and I’ve smelled him. I’ve smelled those cigars,” she said. “Those damn cigars. He wore a smoking jacket, but that didn’t stop the smell from clinging, settling all over him. You know what they smelled like.”

“I do,” I said, smiling slightly at the memory. I’d always liked his cigars. I’d even picked up a bit of a habit from him… a habit for men with cigars, that is. I personally felt stupid every time I took one of them in my mouth.

Cigars, that is.

Amelia finished her scotch in silence. I let her pour a glass for me, as that gave her an excuse to pour herself another. I sipped mine a bit, and asked for a top-off when she had drained hers, and in that fashion she finished the bottle. We filled the spaces between the booze with chit chat, safe neutral memories of the dearly departed.

I drank just enough to give myself a little buzz, to make the sharp hard corners of reality just a little bit softer and rounder. I would need that for what I had planned.

Fortunately, she was as much of a lightweight as I remembered, so I didn’t have to think up an excuse for opening another bottle. She was snoring loudly in her easy chair not long after the first one was emptied. I went to the Caravan’s kitchenette and looked for a salt shaker. It turned out Amelia had a big old fashioned salt cellar, and luckily enough, it was full.

I went outside and sat down in front of the Caravan’s narrow metal steps, facing outward. I unscrewed the top of the cellar and poured some of the salt out into my right hand, feeling the weight of it. I moved my fingers up and down, letting some of it sift through. There was very little wind.

For what I had in mind, I needed to find a connection with the land in a primal, bugfuck insane sort of way and I hadn’t thought to bring anything suitably hallucinogenic to help get me there. The salt was going to have to do it. It wouldn’t have necessarily worked anywhere else, but here in Utah it just might do the trick.

Once, a great salt sea had covered this land. That sea had died, and now the land covered it in turn. The salt provided an unstable geological foundation, which was responsible for the rather stunning variations in topography found in the Arches National Park.

Salt had other properties, as well. I saw, superimposed over the desert vista, the Roman sack of Carthage… the buildings razed, the land salted so that nothing would grow there again. I saw a Haitian priestess filling the mouth of a corpse with coarse salt and sewing it shut, so it couldn’t rise again.

I poured some more of the salt into my hand and let it trickle between my fingers, thinking about that.

Salt had been more precious than gold in some ancient cultures… the word “salary” for money or wages had its roots in the Latin word for salt. It was a necessary substance to sustain the processes of life. It was the first preservative known to man, limiting dependence on fluctuating seasonal food supplies and allowing for travel and trade over greater distances. Salt could kill disease organisms.

In large enough doses, it could kill people.

I thought about Ethan’s white salt spray on my face, and let the white grains of salt fall between my fingers.

Hey… you want to know a secret?

I can do magic.

Not just tricks with sleight-of-hand and cards, but real honest-to-goodness magic. Not flashy stuff like you see in cartoons, with lightning bolts and balls of fire, but magic all the same.

I didn’t need to throw any fireballs or doing anything else quite that impressive right at that moment. There are two ways to settle a restless spirit. They’re both roughly analogous to handling a restless drunk: you either talk them through it until they come around and calm down, or you get tough with them.

I wasn’t planning on getting tough with Ethan, because I owed it to him for being a great teacher, and I owed it to Amelia, because I had been docking her husband’s cock.

I thought about that some more as I let the salt fall from my hands and watched it as it fell. The tiniest breeze, the smallest stirring of air, caught the falling grains and sent them swirling.

I took off my watch and set it down, alongside the Caravan but well to the side of the door.

I got up.

I walked.

Then I walked some more.

I don’t know for how long I walked, as I’d left my watch outside Amelia’s Caravan. I am a scientist and a mystic, and the only thing both sides agree on is that time is an illusion. Tonight I wasn’t interested in the illusion, but in the hyper-reality of between-time, the between-place. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the twat of a virgin than it would be for me to slip into the Dreamtime with a clunky wristwatch tick-tick-ticking away at my wrist, just daring me to look at it.

You want to know another secret? The thing about magic is that one-tenth of it is knowing what to pay attention to. The other nine-tenths is knowing what to ignore. If I’d stopped to consider how far I’d walked at the time, it would have all come crashing down around me as surely as poor Wile E. will drop the moment he realizes he’s walking on air.

The moon had risen, sort of, and now hung low over the horizon, big and brilliant and bloody… as alien as the landscape it illuminated, as up close and immediate as the world outside was far away.

When I left the Caravan, I had set out in the direction of the dig, and though I didn’t dare think on it, I knew I should have walked right into the tarp-covered pits long before I encountered anything interesting. I had walked right past where the dig should have been, up through the high desert into the Arches. It would have been a good twenty, thirty mile walk if I’d done it the long way.

Have you ever been to the Painted Desert in Arizona and been stoned out of your gourd?

Have you ever been to Mars?

That’s kind of what it’s like to be there in the middle of the Arches National Park, with a big red moon filling a quarter of the sky and that’s with it hanging so low that a good third of it is still below the horizon.

And there, in front of that impossible moon, clearly illuminated by the bloody red light that shines through it… there stood something that looked like it stepped out of an Aztec priest’s most disturbing wet dream.

It had big, vivid eyes like a bird of prey, which stared down the length of its distinctly beak-like snout. Its neck was relatively thin, but cord-like and powerful looking. Its forelimbs were tipped with grasping claws, though they were very clearly wings and not arms.

Even without the brilliantly colored feathers that covered the creature, you would have seen that they were wings.

Its hind legs had three toes, though it walked with the weight only on two of them. The middle toe of each foot was held off the ground, ending in a “now-that’s-a-knife” style claw. Though it looked stooped over, with its torso leaning forward and its tail sticking out ram-rod straight, the tip of its snout hung more than nine feet off the ground.

I knew as soon as I saw it that I was looking at a one hundred million year old ghost.

I was looking at a Utahraptor.

“Well, you’re sure as hell not Ethan Conroy,” I said. “Haven’t seen him by any chance, have you?”

Its long neck curved backward and down, bringing its head lower to the ground. It shifted its balance… the tail swinging in the opposite direction… and one of the hind legs came up. With its smaller claws, the raptor scratched at its chin in a decidedly cat-like manner, before settling back down on both legs and giving its forelimbs a couple of flaps. It gave a raspy, coughing cry. The sound was faint and weak, muffled and indistinct like an old recording that had been overplayed. It ruffled its feathers a few times, and then began ambling forward. Not quite towards me, but past me. I watched it go cautiously, wondering what I’d do if it attacked… assuming it could touch me.

I was starting to wonder if it it could even see me, when it turned its head around and looked right at me, giving another one of its coughing cries.

“What is it, Lassie?” I said aloud. I felt slightly giddy, almost drunk. I’ve often found that the edge of delirium is useful when dealing with this kind of surreal shit. “What is it, girl? Timmy’s down the well?”

I followed the bird—for while the scientific community could continue to argue about whether the raptors were true avians or not, Lassie’s appearance had made up my mind for me—back down towards the camp. Again, I didn’t focus on the time or distance traveled. It was easier this time, as I had something quite fascinating to focus my attention on.

The raptor was magnificent, not quite like anything on earth. It moved with fluid grace, slinkier than any cat that ever stalked the primeval jungle. Nothing sluggish about it… this was definitely no thunder lizard.

Eventually, we stopped… or it stopped, and I did. It turned around in place, looking me right in the eye to make sure it had my full and undivided attention… as if there could have been any doubt… and then it began scratching at the dirt. Quite ineffectually, I might add, as its toe-claws actually passed through the ground without actually making contact.

“What’s down there?” I asked, then realized the answer was obvious. “You?”

It continued to paw at the ground ineffectually with its clawed feet, even reaching down and snapping with its toothy beak. I had a sudden incongruous image of a chicken scratching for worms.

“Well, that means you haven’t been the one scaring people away on purpose,” I said. “You wouldn’t have lead me here if you didn’t want to be found.”

The great raptor stood and stared at me impassively while I reasoned it out.

“You want your bones out of the ground,” I guessed. “All the salt in the ground has got you trapped… you can’t move on as long as your remains are stuck in the earth.”

It gave a little croak as if in confirmation, and I felt a little thrill go through me as I realized the implication. Not every creature that lived and died left any fossil impression… most didn’t, in fact. Most that did left only a fragment of themselves. For Lassie’s spirit to be stuck here in unliving color so long after its death, it was likely that there was a complete and detailed specimen beneath the spot where the specter stood. As the minerals which filled in the gradually decaying animal skeleton had created a perfect permanent image of Lassie’s body, so had a permanent image of her spirit remained. Immortality, of a sort that would have made the Egyptian pharaohs cream their mummy wrappings.

With that realization, I knew who had been responsible for the accidents that had plagued the expedition. The Widow Conroy had been right after all.

“Come on out, Ethan,” I called out into the darkness. “You might as well show yourself… I know you’re here.”

And just like that, he was… fainter and more translucent than the Utahraptor, and even more quiet. Though Ethan Conroy had died in this area, his body was interred elsewhere.

“You’ve been sabotaging your own last dig,” I said matter-of-factly. “Because you don’t want anybody to see what you know is buried here.”

Ethan looked at me defiantly, arms crossed. The message was clear: I was right, but he didn’t care. Lassie gave another one of her choked cries and she and Ethan glared at each other. The great bird pawed the ground like a bull getting ready to charge, but neither made a move towards the other.

“Look,” I said to Ethan. “You’re a scientist. You know this is right… you can’t hold back a discovery like this. Science keeps marching onwards, and you have to move on, too.”

Ethan gave his shoulders a little shrug, as if he didn’t care.

“Even if you shut down this dig, there will be others,” I said. “Not just here. In China, in the Gobi Desert. They’re finding more evidence of avian dinosaurs every year. I know the image of big lumbering claymation-style dinosaurs is a fond memory for you, but that’s all it’s going to be: a memory.”

“Don’t give me that,” I said, though of course he hadn’t given me anything more than a dirty look. “I don’t owe you anything… well, that’s not true, but I don’t owe you enough to help you destroy a find of this importance. Look, I’m going to make this easy on you… if you don’t stop haunting the dig, I’ll get somebody else to dig up the Utahraptor fossil, and I will keep you away. You’d better believe me when I tell you that I can do that. The only thing you’ll have accomplished is upsetting your wife, who’s only thinking of your legacy. Think about that, Ethan.”

His mouth opened and closed, silently… though I think even if he could speak he still wouldn’t have had anything to say. His form faded slightly more. He looked at me imploringly, a “Now what?” kind of look on his face.

“Go back to your wife, Ethan,” I said. “You’ve been scaring her. Tell her you love her… tell her goodbye. Tell her anything to explain why you’ve been haunting her. She deserves some kind of explanation.”

He was gone then, at least from that immediate vicinity. Lassie and I looked at each other for a few long moments, and she gave a tiny nod of her head before she vanished, too. I knew her spirit was still around, though, and that it would be until the imprint of her body was exhumed from the earth.

It was funny… so many ghosts hung around for years because they wanted a decent burial for their remains. This one had lasted for epochs waiting for somebody to dig its remains up.

The reddish light was suddenly very pink. The sun was rising, and there was no sign of the moon, big and bloody or otherwise. Frozen time melted back to normal as I hiked back to the Caravan. Amelia met me at the door.

Or rather, the palm of her hand met the side of my face. I guess Ethan must have found enough of his voice to come clean to her. She spit… yet another spray of salt on my face. You couldn’t get away from the stuff, out here.

There’s a saying that “science proceeds from the death of scientists”… no matter what big, bold words scientists might spout about empiricism and skepticism and methodology, they were human in the end, and thus prey to human folly. They each had their own belief systems, their own pet theories, their own favored ideas that they just would not let go of, no matter how much evidence piled up against them.

I think the saying originally referred to the opponents of Louis Pasteur. His germ theory of disease revolutionized our understanding of illness and created the modern science of medicine. By extending the human life expectancy, Louis might have ultimately done more to hamper scientific progress than to help it.

Morbid thoughts.

I got back into my car, said a silent prayer to whoever was responsible for the souls of Utahraptors, and was on my way.


If you enjoyed this story, you can help me bring others like it to life (and keep myself alive) by supporting me on Patreon.

If you don’t have the cash to help, you can help by spreading awareness and joining my thunderclap, which will broadcast the link to these stories in a tweet-length message on the social media platform(s) of your choice on May 31st, two hours after the last story goes live.

This story along with two others in my patron preview line-up may also be found in The Lands of Passing Through, a short story collection available as a DRM-free ebook on Amazon Kindle, Nook, and as a multi-format bundle directly from the author.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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Starting in June 2016, I’m going to be sharing one new short story per month with everyone who supports me on Patreon. I know the benefits I get from this, so for the rest of this month I’m going to be highlighting one of my previous short stories every day on this blog to show you what you get out of it. Today’s selection is a high fantasy story called “A Matter of Appearances”.


A Matter of Appearances

By Alexandra Erin


Most of the great cities of the south were blessed with a wizard tower. Many of them had in fact sprung up around the towers, and any spot on the map that was important enough to be settled for other reasons would eventually attract one.

The City of Stars alone had two. It was big enough to require more than one wizard, but having a double helping of magic was not necessarily a double blessing. Wizards were prickly and prideful creatures, prone to overweening vanity and destructive outbursts that were tolerated only because their services were too valuable to do without… and because no one was sure how to get rid of them, exactly. The two seemed to do everything in their power to try to destroy or expel the other, and if they had not yet managed it with magical might then it seemed foolish to hope that any mere mortal might accomplish such a feat.

Everyone in the City of Stars agreed that the worst place to stand was anywhere between the two towers, which was something of a grim joke. The tower of Bensalon the Gray stood just outside the town’s southern gate. The tower of Malevole the Red rose just within the north wall. Between them stood almost the entirety of the city.

At night sometimes lightning would dance around one or both of the towers. From time to time a dark shape would be seen streaking through the sky from one to the other, only to rebound and land hopefully in some barren and deserted stretch of land far from the city. Occasionally there would be some otherwise inexplicable eruption or disaster within the City of Stars that would be chalked up the wizards’ feud.

Rumors abounded about what each dire display portended, and what had caused it. Stories were told of the bound demons that Malevole sent to infiltrate Bensalon’s tower, of the hexes that Bensalon wove in retaliation. The red wizard was generally held to be the more aggressive of the two, though his partisans said instead that the grey wizard was the sneakier one.

If the conflict between the two had a source more particular than proximity, it was not known to any save the wizards themselves, and rarely questioned. The folk of the city accepted it, as their parents had.

Some felt that the city’s two wizards kept each other in check, that the need for them to be on guard against each other and to put on a better face for the public than the other kept them from descending to the level of the worst excesses of their distant colleagues.

Since every wizard was different and every city was different, it was hard to say for certain whether this was true. Others believed that the always-simmering conflict between them made things worse, though the two rarely resorted to open warfare as it was destructive and wasteful, and would leave them vulnerable to more subtle attacks from wizards in every city.

As a major port, the City of Stars received many visitors by ship. Those who came by land usually entered through the town’s southern gate, passing within a stone’s throw of the gray tower as they did so. On market days there was a steady stream of traffic, and the tower surrounded itself with a crackling aura of silvery fire that was perhaps specifically intended to dissuade the throwing of stones.

On this particular market day, a young woman in a brown cloak was among those who streamed past the glowing tower. She was alone in the crowd and traveling on foot. She scarcely looked at the tower. She scarcely looked at anyone or anything, save the bit of parchment in her hand. There were not enough lines on it to make much reading, just a name and some directions. It could have been memorized in a single pass, but still she read it over and over again, and gave the impression that she had done so many times before.

Once through the gate, she began to look around… not at the tower or the people, but at the buildings around her and their signs. She moved with the crowd for a short time, and then cut from it to go down a side street where she stopped to check her directions again. She set out again in a different direction, but did not make it far before she had to stop and check her parchment again.

“I know where you’re going,” a voice said from just in front of her.

She looked up and saw a young man, wild tufts of orange hair poking out from underneath his cap. His clothes were well-made but not ostentatiously so.

“I have…” she started to say as she held up the parchment.

“Don’t need those,” the young man said. He snatched it from her hand, crumpled it in his own, and released it in a flash of fire that consumed it completely. She gasped and drew back. Ignoring her distress, he smiled and pointed to the distant tower that loomed over the far end of town. “You can see your destination from here.”

All around the pair, the street was growing emptier. People who had been striding purposefully on a course that would have taken them past the young man were now moving just as purposefully away.

“Sir, I beg your pardon,” the young woman said. “I am to meet my uncle. He is a tailor.”

“That may have been true, but a more exciting opportunity has opened up,” he said. “I am called Winslas… you have heard of me?”

“I am afraid I have not,” she said, and a shadow passed across his face, though he shook it off and re-affixed his smile.

“Well, I am known throughout this city as the apprentice of the great red wizard, the First Wizard of the city, and he has sent me forth to find a replacement for the scullery maid.”

“Replacement?” she said.

“A new scullery maid, I mean,” he said. “And now I’ve found her. Oh, don’t worry. To be a servant in a wizard’s tower is better than being the lady of any house! That’s not to say that there won’t be work to be done,  of course, but there will be wonders to behold as well. Wonders, and great pleasures.”

“Sir, my uncle…”

“Will have no cause to complain for your absence,” he said. “What is your name, girl?”

“Mari,” she said. “Mariana Eskul. Sir, I do not wish to seem ungrateful…”

“Of course you don’t, but no worries. You will have ample opportunities to show me your gratitude at the end of your work day,” Winslas said. “Now, give me your hand… it is not good for servants of the red wizard to tarry so near the tower of the gray.”

“Scoundrel, that may be the first true thing you’ve uttered!” a voice boomed down from above them. There was a crack like thunder, and a man dressed in gray robes cinched with a silver-threaded waistcoat appeared between them.

The young man yelped like a kicked dog and took off running, losing his cap and a shoe and not looking back. The woman, Mari, fell backwards onto the cobblestones in her shock.

The gray wizard looked around, then closed his eyes and leaned on his walking stick for a moment. Nodding in satisfaction, he reached down and extended a hand to the woman.

“Lord Bensalon the Gray, my lady,” he said. “First Wizard of the City of Stars. I hope you have at least heard of me.”

“I had thought you would be older, my lord,” she said, accepting his help to her feet.

“One day I intend to be,” he said. “You mean you thought I would have a great big bushy gray beard and long gray hair to match, of course. But I have been a gray wizard all of my life, even when my hair had more brown to it than it does now. Gray is the color of my mind, of my temperament. Steely. Balanced. Subtle. Boring, to hear some tell it. Gray is the color of my magic.”

“And your wardrobe,” Mari observed, a twinkle in her eyes.

The wizard Bensalon laughed.

“So much of wizardry is a matter of appearances,” he said. “How would people know that I am Bensalon the Gray if I did not wear it plainly for all to see? Especially when I do not have the beard. But, come. We must get you off the street.”

He put his hand on the woman’s shoulder and began to draw her back towards the gate.

“I thank you for your intervention, my lord, but my uncle…”

“Will be in as much danger as you if you go to him now,” the wizard said. “The red wizard’s weasel will go skittering back to him to complain of your perceived insolence, which he will take personally. The only place that will be safe for you is within my tower.”

“So I am rescued from one wizard to become the captive of another?” Mari said.

“Not captive,” Bensalon said. “And you won’t be a servant, either. I will simply protect you until you can make arrangements to depart.”

“I can’t leave the city,” she said. “I came here because I have nowhere else to go. My uncle has a job for me.”

“There are other cities. One assumes they have positions for a young woman..”

“Not for a young woman who desires a life of her own,” she said. “I don’t want to sleep on a tatty straw mattress for a fulsome four hours of sleep and then work a loom the rest of the day. I don’t want to scrub floors and mind brats.”

“I take your meaning, but please, let us walk while we argue,” he said. He linked arms with her and set off at a brisk pace, which she matched.

“Why?” she asked him.

“We are too in the open here.”

“Can you not simply take us to your tower in the same manner in which you arrived?”

“I am,” he said. “To walk the streets cloaked in invisibility is no small thing. To bound the gap between the tower and the city in an instant is a different matter entirely.”

“Why were you walking the streets unseen?”

“I sensed mischief,” he said. “Meaning, of course, that wretch Winslas. I was following him. His master dares not venture so close to my tower unless he desires a confrontation, so he sends his apprentice when he desires something from the market… or when he has some scheme against me. I watched to see whether it was mischief or business that brought Winslas out… when I realized that his business was mischief, I intervened.”

“Would what he proposed have been so terrible?” Mari asked. “I am not saying that I’m not grateful, or that I would have wanted to go with him…”

“Exactly,” he said. “He would have taken you where you did not want to go. Is that not terrible enough? I have never seen inside Malevole’s tower, though I have my suspicions about how he uses his servants… and how his second does. In any case, it would have been terrible for a young woman who desires a life of her own.”

“I see your point,” Mari said, and she offered no further objections.

The silvery fire around the tower parted away from the arching set of double doors as the pair approached.

“Looks impressive, doesn’t it?” Bensalon said, waving his hand at the flames as they passed underneath them.

“What does the fire do?” Mari asked.

“Exactly what I said: it looks impressive.”

“But what would it do to one who touched it?” she asked.

“Disappoint briefly, and then relieve profoundly,” he said. “It looks impressive, though. As I said, much of wizardry is about appearances.”

“Why, is all of magic nothing more than an illusion?”

“No,” he said. “For instance, your uncle’s note really did burn. A small fire, completely natural, consuming such fuel as fire would favor…  that is not so hard to manage. A great big pillar of silver flames that dance around stone without consuming it? That is a different matter. But I must ask your pardon as I attend to the door.”

He touched the end of his walking stick to the door and closed his eyes. After a few seconds, both doors melted away.

“Was the door real?” Mari asked as they stepped inside. They only went a few strides into the dim corridor beyond when the door popped back into place, leaving them in darkness.

“Oh, in the sense that you mean it, yes,” he said. He waved his hand and torches lit themselves all along the stone corridor. “Else we could have simply walked through it. But it is not a real door. Rather, it’s part of the wall that must be removed to enter. This is a big thing, a difficult thing… but it is the only way in and out of my tower, and worth the effort to create and maintain.”

“Why not simply have a door?”

“It would not be as secure.”

“Then why make it look like a door?”

“So people… even wizards… will waste time trying to open it.” He pointed up at the high stone arch at the end of the corridor, which they were approaching. “That is the next stage of my defenses. It strips away all illusions.”

He gestured for her to pass through it first.

“Do I make you nervous, my lord?”

“Say instead that I am nervous and this will make me feel secure. One must be careful,” he said. “Naturally, I performed what divinations I could out in the street. Winslas was wrapped up in charms and glamours, as well a wizard’s apprentice might be when straying into hostile territory. I sensed nothing about you… but one cannot be too careful.”

“Fret not, First Wizard,” Mari said. She turned to face him and took a step backwards through the arch. “I am as I appear.”

“You are indeed,” he said. “But mind where you put your foot… the stairs are just behind you.”

Mari turned and looked behind her, letting out a small squeak of surprise when she saw how the floor dropped away into the darkness.

“Fear not,” he said. “There are stairs, though they are hidden. Take my arm and walk slowly.”

She complied, and they began to descend the invisible staircase.

“Why are we going down, when the tower is above us?”

“It is largely solid through and through,” he said. “More misdirection. The red wizard and my more distant rivals expend their energies trying to penetrate the wards built into the tower’s outer walls, and when they find naught but stone or darkness inside they think I have found some new means of obfuscating their sight. Or perhaps they see through it. Perhaps many of them have done the same. What I think of, another man may think of also. In any event, it may give them some pause.”

“Is all of a wizard’s time spent foiling the attacks of other wizards?”

“Much of it,” Bensalon said. “Understand, I feel little real rivalry, with Malevole or any other man… but I cannot control how my brethren feel about me, and if they believe I am a threat to their supremacy or might pose an impediment to their plans, they will strike at me as they can. Thus I must be on my guard.”

“And do you never act against them?”

“Well… from time to time, I must do something to ensure they remain occupied with other matters, or to show them that I will be no easy prey for their ambitions, or to prevent one of them from gaining enough power to make a decisive strike,” he said. “But I am a gray wizard, so it’s more a matter of maintaining the balance of power than trying to shift it in my favor.”

“Imagine if all wizards feel that way?” Mari asked. “What if none among you truly desires the struggle with the others? What if you each act against each other out of fear of what the others would do, unchecked?”

“It is a thought that has crossed my mind,” he said. “But if it is true, what of it? The situation is unaltered. Hold, here we must stop… the abyss is real, just ahead of us, but our destination is at hand.”

He turned and touched his hand to a section of the wall, and it swung inwards on a hinge.

“A door that looks like a wall,” Mari said.

“And not a drop of magic about it,” he said. “As hard to see with a wizard’s eyes as with anyone else’s.”

Just inside the door was a room of scant furnishings and modest proportions. There was a writing table with a chair, and a shelf with some books on it. Two doors of a more ordinary sort led out of it.

“My chambers are perhaps less impressive than you might have expected, but my needs are simple.”

“You live alone?”

“I have no need for servants,” he said. He leaned his walking stick in a corner. “Malevole the Red prefers to lead the life of a lord in fact, where I value my privacy too much to give it up for a little convenience.”

“I have noticed,” Mari said. “But have you no apprentice?”

“Not at the present time,” he said. “I have yet to find a candidate with the suitable qualities.”

“What qualities are those?”

“Among them are a keen mind and an inquisitive nature,” he said. “An uncommon reservoir of willpower, and the most elusive trait, at least in conjunction with the others: a certain amount of deference. Magic actually requires arrogance to work, but learning magic requires humility.”

“My lord, forgive what may be a lack of deference, but I find myself quite without prospects at the moment, and I believe myself to be somewhat keen and quite inquisitive,” Mari said.

“To be a wizard’s apprentice is a serious commitment,” he said.

“I have nowhere else to be,” she said. “I should like to get in touch with my uncle, but if it isn’t safe for me to be about the City of Stars without a wizard’s protection… well, this seems to answer a need, does it not?”

“A need for you, but what of me?”

“Do you not have better things you could be doing every time the red wizard’s pawn goes to market?”

“You do have a certain sharpness of wit,” Bensalon said. “And you may be quite bright… but no wizard has ever had a female apprentice.”

“Oh? You know what your brethren do in their towers?”

“Magic is about appearances,” Bensalon said. “And a girl for an apprentice… well, it wouldn’t look right, would it?”

“Is this what you think, or what you imagine they all think?”

“It comes to the same thing, mostly,” he said. “But… there is nothing in the nature of a woman that is necessarily incompatible with the practice of magic. There are seers and healers in every village and town across the southlands, after all. Perhaps a small test is in order, and depending upon what it reveals, there may be some things I can teach you.”

“My lord is generous,” Mari said.

“I am not agreeing to a full apprenticeship, you must understand,” he said. “Just some means by which you may better protect yourself against unwanted attention in the future.”

“Of course,” she said.

“Take up my walking stick.”

She went over to where he had left it. It was wood, though inlaid with silver and capped with a gray pearl the size of a cow’s eye. She touched it gingerly, then grasped it firmly and lifted it.

“Good,” he said. “Now, hold it level in front of you, outward from your body.”

She raised it slowly and pointed it out in front of her in no particular direction… but then turned sharply on her heel to aim it at Bensalon, a triumphant look on her face. That look vanished as the gray wizard did, too, and the stick in her hand turned into a snake, its fanged mouth quite near her hand.

She shrieked it and dropped it, jumping back… and bumping into the robed wizard, who clapped his hand on her shoulder.

“So this is what you really look like, ‘Winslas’,” he said. He spun her around. His stick was in his other hand.

“You were right, I’m afraid,” she said. “My Lord Malevole thought a female apprentice wouldn’t look right, though he agreed to take me on all the same.”

“I suppose that was the scullery maid that I chased off, then.”

“A stablehand,” she said. “His face was his own, by the way… the model for the one I wear when out in public, altered only to be somewhat more pleasingly symmetrical. So if you had stripped off his glamour, it would have revealed nothing. When did you know?”

“That you were his apprentice? When you tried to use my wand against me,” he said. “I suspected it before, as impossible as it seemed… but Malevole has tried more desperate tricks in his war against me, so I had to be certain. What you would do when you thought you held my wand was the test. If you had not tried to use it, I would still have assumed you were a spy or even an assassin, but I would have been on guard for hidden daggers rather than spells.”

“I could still become your apprentice.”

“Why would you betray your master, and how could I ever trust you if you did?”

“Because if you took me as your apprentice, as I am in truth, then I would be loyal to you in truth,” she said. “I’m loyal to Malevole because he has done for me what no other wizard would, but it is not what I want. I told you that I’m a young woman who wants a life of her own. My life, not the life I feign to suit him.”

“He could never let the insult go.”

“He could never acknowledge it,” Mari said. “If he were to accuse you of stealing his apprentice, he’d have to reveal that his had been a woman all along… and he couldn’t say a word about you having a woman for your apprentice, because he would know that you knew the truth about his.”

“That may be, but what you want can never be,” he said. “If you agreed to this desperate plan of your master’s in the hope of entering my service, then you have thrown your life away for nothing.”

“In truth, I did not have much hope that it would work,” she said. “Malevole was not the first wizard I approached, and you are not so different from the rest as you might like to imagine. I thought it was worth trying, that there was no harm in asking… but it would simply have been something of an unexpected bonus if you had agreed. Otherwise, I was prepared to fulfill the original plan I contrived for my master.”

“Foolish girl,” Bensalon said. “If that was your intention, you should have asked before you made the attempt because now you’ll never have another chance. I know you came in with neither staff nor wand… I would have seen either upon you quite plainly… and you’ll never wrest mine from my grip.”

“I don’t intend to,” she said.

Whatever reply the wizard would have made to this was lost as he stiffened and grimaced, then looked down. Mari’s fist was clenched around a handle that protruded from his vest.

“You should have kept guarding against knives, my lord,” she said. She twisted the knife. The stick clattered to the floor as he clutched at the wound. “So much of wizardry is, after all, a matter of appearances.”


Liked it? Join me on Patreon to help pay my bills, keep me alive, and keep stories like this one coming.

Note that this story along with two others in my patron preview line-up may also be found in The Lands of Passing Through, a short story collection available as a DRM-free ebook on Amazon Kindle, Nook, and as a multi-format bundle directly from the author.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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Hi, all! I’m Alexandra Erin, author, humorist, blogger, and poet. Like most people you know, I need food, shelter, and other products and services to live. Traditional publishing for authors is such a crapshoot when it comes to actually making a living that even most big name successful authors give advice like “have a second job” or “marry someone rich” when asked the best way to do it. I recognized this years ago, and so resolved to forge my own path.

I was not just crowdfunding before it was cool, I was crowdfunding before there was a name for it, or convenient tools that automate the model. I’ve had a number of successes over the years doing things my own way. Now I’m focusing my efforts on Patreon in a big way, and I’m asking you to join me.

As blessed as I have been, the authors who do best in crowdfunding are usually those who have the exposure that comes from a successful career in traditional publishing. They have a following. They have a reputation for quality. They have a large fanbase ready to leap at the ability to pay them directly for their work instead of filtering their gratitude through a large and somewhat inefficient machine.

I’ve already made a name for myself as a social media commentator, blogger, and satirist. Starting today, I’m going to be making a name for myself as an author. Here, on my blog, I’m going to be sharing one previously published short story a day, every day, until the end of the month. If you support me on Patreon, you will get to read a brand new story like these each month, most months (allowing for the vicissitudes of life). The money you pay will support me in being able to continue writing the fiction, satire, and commentary that you enjoy.

Today’s selection is the first full-length story I ever submitted for publication, to a zine called The Edge of Propinquity, which published it in April 2007. This now-defunct zine was the original home of Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road, a variation on the phantom hitchhiker story. If you enjoy it, please consider showing your gratitude either by pledging support for further writing, chucking something in the tip jar, or even just spreading the word. Share the link, tell people you enjoyed the story, review it on your blog.


I Do Not Fight Monsters

By Alexandra Erin


My name is Gemma Saunders, and tonight, I’m putting a vampire to rest.

To be clear, I’m not a hero. I don’t have special powers. I don’t fight the monsters. I’m just a grief counselor. My training is in helping people say good-bye when the ones they love are gone.

How did I come to be standing in a graveyard at sundown, about to confront the undead with a priest and a sheriff for backup? It sounds like something out of an action movie, or at least someone else’s life. The answer’s surprisingly mundane. That doesn’t stop me from asking myself the question, though. This doesn’t seem like a job for someone like me.

It started in the second year of my practice, when I first became aware that the world is not entirely as advertised. One of my clients, Mr. Applethwaite, seemed to be having an extremely difficult time letting go of his departed wife, to the point where he wasn’t sure that she was entirely departed. I agreed to meet him at his house, thinking I could show him how his imagination was running away from him. But if it was, then it was running away from me, too.

So, it turned out there really was such a thing as ghosts. Who knew?

After a relatively brief and dignified period of screaming, I realized I could still help. What was a ghost, after all, but somebody who had unresolved issues with death, problems letting go? So, I helped the late Mrs. Applethwaite through her grieving process and poof!

Gone with the wind.

Every ghost wants something. Sometimes they want attention. Sometimes they just want someone to listen. Sometimes they need somebody to tell them that everything’s going to be fine and they should just head for the light.

I never feel comfortable telling somebody that. How do I know it’s true?

But I do have the numbers of a few very understanding priests in my Rolodex. They have no problem saying so.

I don’t do enough “spooky business” that I can quit my regular practice. How do you let potential clients find you without the rest of the world thinking you’re nuts? The internet’s been a real blessing in that department. I’ve found that if you don’t intentionally list your website anywhere, and don’t take out any advertising, then the only people who find you are the people who think to look for you.

Most of the people who find my site are looking for an exorcist, but I provide a more humane alternative. I’ve learned it is possible to force a spirit out or even “dissolve it” (whatever that means) through rituals and strength of faith or what could only be called magic. But that seems like a harsh way of dealing with somebody’s wife or mother, doesn’t it? It’s hell on the survivors, too.

Also, I charge less than a professional exorcist. More than my usual hourly rate, of course. But it’s specialized work.

So, how did this unorthodox but effective ghost busting business lead me to be standing in a rural cemetery at sunset, accompanied by a cop, a priest, and a wailing middle-aged woman? Well, after learning that ghosts are real, it should have come as no great surprise that certain other “things that go bump in the night” have a verifiable physical presence in our world, too.

Yeah. It should have, but it didn’t. My first demon caught me by surprise. So did my first vampire. Turns out, it’s easier to mistake those things for ghosts than you might think.

If a body is interred in holy ground, it cannot rise as a vampire. For a mythological being, that’s pretty simple mytho-logic.

But that doesn’t mean the dead body won’t become a vampire. Just that it can’t rise.

Instead, it spends the day trapped in unimaginable agony, and at night, its spirit (or whatever vampires have that make them a vampire) rises up out of the ground all mist-like as a specter.

The specter is bound to the vicinity of its grave, though as it kills and feeds, it gains strength. And range. And eventually it’ll either be able to enthrall some poor sap and get its grave dug up, or it’ll grow strong enough to break out of the ground itself. That’s especially likely if the land’s not particularly consecrated in the first place.

Municipal graveyards are the worst in this respect. Private family plots and Catholic cemeteries tend to be the best. The Catholics love them some ritual.

I don’t know all this from personal experience, by the way. As I said, I don’t fight the monsters and my usual plan for dealing with vampires is to avoid them. But once I first dipped my toe in to the occult, I started noticing other things, and weird people with even more hidden knowledge kept coming my way. Kind of like how when you learn a word for the first time, and then it seems like you see it everywhere.

Anyway, I plan to avoid the issue of graves entirely by having my body cremated. I think it would be mandatory, except then the people in charge would have to tell everybody else what they know.

So, the upshot is that a specter isn’t quite as dangerous as a full-fledged vampire, especially if it’s never managed to lure somebody close enough to feed. At that point, the thing’s almost literally stuck with “one foot in the grave”. As far as I knew, the specter of Mrs. Annabelle Murray hadn’t gotten to anybody, but I was playing it safe. We showed up before the sun set and Father Mike, my bona fide priest, immediately made a circle of consecrated host around the grave and then set his stuff up a good fifteen yards back from that. Just close enough that we could be sure the specter would manifest. The rest of us were behind him.

Holy water would have worked just as well, and with less protestation from the padre, but I like a line that everybody could clearly see. A line I could point to and say, “Do not cross.” It wasn’t my idea to have anybody here but me and the priest. Well, I would have preferred it was just him, but I was collecting for the job so I had to make sure it was done right.

The situation was this: a vampire had run amok in the small town of Fabersville a short time ago, and while somebody had eventually dealt with it, one of its first victims had gone unnoticed and was buried without any of the prescribed “treatments”. Because the experience left the whole town a little wary of graveyards, nobody immediately noticed the specter of a 73-year-old grandmother. It was her daughter, Mrs. Anne Murray Schneider, who made the discovery.

Rather than having her saintly mother’s body dug up, decapitated, and burnt. And sparking a panic in the process, she sought out an alternative solution, and found me. I had a cleaner, friendlier solution: have a priest repeat the funeral mass in the specter’s presence. The mystic types believe that it’s some spiritual component of the prayers that forces the unholy presence out. Maybe it’s my professional bias, but I believe this just reminds the human component that it’s supposed to be dead and so it lays down quietly. Either way, it seems to work, especially when the subject was known to be devout in life, as Mrs. Murray was.

The only wrinkle was that Mrs. Schneider insisted on being there. She was the one signing my paycheck, so I couldn’t refuse her. I wasn’t too thrilled when she showed up with Sheriff Henry Hascomb at her side, either.

“It only seemed right to let the authorities know,” had been her explanation. Me, I had a hard time thinking of a county sheriff as the authorities. The authorities were grim, efficient men with matching suits, sunglasses, and personalities. If a supernatural problem was bad enough that they had to intervene, they’d come in and clean the situation up, and next year Rand-McNally would be selling a map with one less dot on it and nobody would ask why.

But the sheriff had been the one responsible for dealing with the vampire that caused the present situation, so I wasn’t entirely against his presence. I wasn’t entirely for it. Father Mike I could trust not to do anything fatally stupid. The daughter of the person whose face the specter was using, though? I have to admit, I was a little less sure about her. The sheriff’s simply an x-factor to me. Who knew how he’d react if things took an unexpected turn?

And that brings us up to the here and now.

“You sure this’ll work?” the sheriff asks me dubiously. The sun is fast sinking from sight.

“The ceremony or the circle?” I ask.

“Both.”

“The circle, definitely. If the ceremony doesn’t, nothing will stop you from coming back in the morning and doing the usual thing,” I say. I don’t elaborate, but Mrs. Schneider wails louder, anyway. “It won’t be able to cross the ring of hosts, and as long as nobody gets within arm’s length of that line we’ll all be safe as houses.”

“So it can reach across?” he asks me.

“I’m not sure,” I admit.

“Seems like it would be a good thing to know.”

“I’ve never been curious enough to find out,” I tell him.

Father Mike is watching the skyline. “Should I begin?” he asks when the last sliver of the red disk disappears.

“Let’s wait until our guest of honor makes her presence known,” I say. If it doesn’t work, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering if it’s because the specter showed up halfway through the prayers. I don’t say that out loud, of course.

We don’t have long to wait. The cemetery is on a hill, and the fog which settled on the surrounding land starts to creep upwards, settling around us. It’s eerie as hell, but it’s just set-dressing.

The real show begins when fog of a thicker sort begins rising from the bare, hard earth in front of Mrs. Murray’s tombstone. The grass doesn’t always wither and die over a vampire’s grave, by the way, but it’s still a decent warning sign. I’ve seen exactly four specters before. One of them made its entrance with a fully formed ghostly hand rising up out of the earth followed by an arm and the rest of it. Very theatrical. The other three rose vaporously and then coalesced into a human-like form. Mrs. Murray’s specter did that, as well.

I watch her rise, but I try not to look too closely at the image that forms. She looks, appropriately enough, like somebody’s grandmother.

It, I mean. Not she. The specter is not a person.

I signal to Father Mike, who lights his censer and then begins reading. We’d talked about this before and decided it was best to just plow through it. The more time Mrs. Schneider had to spend in the presence of the specter, the worse it was likely to be for her. And the more dangerous for the rest of us. She could grieve later.

The specter of Mrs. Murray shows delight at seeing us arrayed all around us, but the kindly old woman’s face twists into a mask of inarticulate rage when it encounters the barrier presented by the circle. It claws at it like it’s a physical wall, pain and want etched over its increasingly inhuman features.

Henry undoes the snap on his holster.

Father Mike begins chanting louder and faster.

Mrs. Schneider makes a weird strangled sort of cry.

“That’s not your mother,” I tell her as firmly as I can, but she doesn’t look convinced.

“You have to be strong, Anne,” Henry tells her. “Your mother would want you to be strong. We’re doing this for her.”

That’s when the whole thing goes downhill faster than urine flows down a pant leg (and I swear that metaphor came out of nowhere.) None of the specters I’ve dealt with have been able to speak. I’ve never heard of one that could before it tasted blood. Somehow, this one finds its voice.

“They’re hurting me,” it croaks in a very small and faraway voice that somehow carries all the way to us.

Everybody freezes. Wouldn’t you know it; it’s Mrs. Schneider who snaps out of it first. She darts past us, shoves Father Mike I watch him fall backwards over his little tripod censer. I see his head hit a tombstone with a meaty thwack. I watch Mrs. Schneider running towards the waiting, eager arms of the specter, crying “Mommy!” all the while.

I unfreeze.

“Shoot her!” I yell at Henry, who already has his gun in his hand. I scream it; in fact, in the embarrassing scream-yourself-hoarse-before-you-even-start-screaming voice most of never use after the time when we’re twelve and we tell our parents we hate them. “Shoot her! Shoot her!”

The stupid ass shoots the specter. The specter! He empties his clip uselessly into the swirling fog. I don’t count the shots. I don’t even know how many a gun like that would hold. I don’t fight monsters. I only know it’s empty because he keeps pulling the trigger and nothing else comes out.

As Mrs. Schneider kicks up gravel and leaves with every footfall, it’s pointless to hope she’ll somehow neatly step across the outside of the circle. No, she plows a big hole in the line of little white disks, which is all the specter needs to leave its grave and come after us. That, and a little blood.

There’s a theory I’ve heard that new vampires go after their own family members first because blood that is of their own blood gives them more power. Once again, I don’t know for sure and I’m not feeling experimental. After it has its initial taste, it’s got a choice between two victims who are already down and not going anywhere, and two that still have the potential to get away.

When Henry sees me take off running, he comes to his senses and takes off himself. He’s a little bit faster than me. Then I catch the toe of my boot on one of those stupid marble plaques that everybody uses now, and he becomes a lot faster than me.

“Wait!” I yell. “Wait!”

He stops and turns back, a sheepish look on his face. I limp-stagger-run up to him. He offers me his arm.

Survival Rule #23: When you and a friend are running from a ravenous beastie, you don’t have to outrun the beastie. You just have to outrun the friend.

Henry Hascomb isn’t even my friend.

I kick him in the groin and shove him aside, then hobble as fast as I can down the hill. He screams at me, and then, he’s just screaming, but it’s okay because I’m at my car. For one stupid moment I slap my pockets to find my keys before I realize they’re already jangling in my hand. It’s all a blur after that. I just drive.

I drive until the sun comes up, then I stop at the side of the country highway and sit there, shaking. I have no idea where I am. The gas light is on and I have no idea when I last passed a gas station or where one will be coming up. My brain can’t convince my hands to let go of the wheel. I’m going to have to call somebody, I know. I’m going to have to find somebody who can deal with the thing, now loose in the cemetery. And the bodies it will have hidden away as safely as it can; the bodies that will soon be corporeal vampires.

Did it get enough power from three victims to break out of the ground itself?

Or will it have to wait until the others rise to help it?

I don’t know. Somebody will have to find out, though.

For now, I think I’m just going to pass out.

I’m not a hero. I don’t have special powers.

I do not fight monsters.


This story along with two others in my patron preview line-up may also be found in The Lands of Passing Through, a short story collection available as a DRM-free ebook on Amazon Kindle, Nook, and as a multi-format bundle directly from the author.

If you enjoy this story, your sponsorship could help produce more like it.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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Ashes to Ashes

By Alexandra Erin


 

The dust gets in everything.

Every day, we shovel the dunes away from the sides of the domes, clear the paths between them. We spend a full sixty minutes in the airlock, standing under the suction hoses and beating ourselves with our gloved hands, but still it gets in. It clings to the treads of our boots and hides in the joints of our suits until we enter the habitat, then makes a break for it.

We find it coating the inside of the windows as well as the outside, clinging to the our computer screen and tablets, forming a fuzzy coating on the blades of the ventilator fans. The air tastes of dust. The only time the smell of it isn’t in our noses is when we’re outside, wading through it and breathing canned air.

Minute particles slip through the pores in the air filters until enough of them get together at the inopportune moment and the whole thing clogs. They say the damn things are specially engineered for the environment on Mithras-III. We’re supposed to replace them annually, and they have an extended safety tolerance of two and a half years, but we’ve been through three in the four months I’ve been here.

Mission Command says we have to be more careful in the future, but in the future the dust will still be here. I’m not so sure about us.

The electrical system has started developing faults. One board will short out, and then another. When we take the cover off, there’s the dust. We’ve opened up black box systems that were hermetically sealed back on earth and found the dust has wormed its way in, playing merry hob with delicate microcircuitry. At first it was just messing it up, but the last one we cracked looked like it was being rewired.

Did you know that household dust is mostly organic matter? Jones tells me this at least three times a day. She’s gone a bit strange, which is saying something, considering the situation. Some of it’s mites but most of it’s hair and skin. We live among floating graveyards of our own decaying detritus.

The dust on Mithras-III isn’t organic. It’s more like silt than dust, really. We haven’t discovered any organic compounds in it, or anywhere else on the planet. There’s not enough carbon in the atmosphere or soil to support life, the surveys said, but maybe they should have said organic life. What would be the equivalent of skin flakes and hair bits and mites for silicon based life?

It’ll be a very important discovery, if anyone ever believes us and if the extraction ship reaches us on time.

Yesterday, a window cracked in Habitat B.

The dust got in everywhere.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

alexandraerin: (Default)

Attract Mode” was an idea I had for a short story some time ago but couldn’t figure out how to write, until I came up with the idea of doing it in Twine, a visual mark-up tool that is mainly used for crafting interactive stories. I started this last fall, but was stuck on a few aspects of it. Today I showed it to Jack, who helped me figure out how to wrap it up, and so now, I’m sharing it with you.

Enjoy!

(And for the curious, the title “Attract Mode” refers to what most folks call the “demo” of an arcade game. The term dates back to pinball machines, which would light up and make noise to attract people.)

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

alexandraerin: (Default)

The Stars Don’t Fall Here Anymore

By Alexandra Erin

 

The stars don’t fall here anymore. Sometime, one night three summers ago, they started giving our planet a miss.

What’s that old joke? They’re called meteorites when they hit the earth because if they missed they’d be meteor-wrongs.

Well, something went wrong, somewhere, because the stars no longer fall here anymore. If you go out into the countryside on a clear night during the Perseids or Leonids, you can watch them streak across the sky and then zig-zag off, pull a u-turn, bugger off to go streak across some other sky.

There’s less and less of them every time, too. It’s like word gets around, somehow.

No one knows how to feel about it. On the one hand, maybe it means we can all stop worrying about ever going the way of the dinosaurs, but on the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t be worrying about death from above when there’s something so wrong with the ground under our feet that rocks and dust and chunks of stuff from everywhere else have started taking a pass on it.

The stars don’t fall here anymore. No one knows why, or how, or what to do with this information, and now the stars in the sky have started winking out, one by one, a few hundred over the course of the night every night. The moon, bound by tidal forces to show her same face for billions of years, has started to inch around. Some people say she’s started revolving, but I think deep down we all know she’s turning her back on us.

Even the sun is a little colder.

The scientific implications would be profound, if only anyone could make sense of them. There are no answers to be had anywhere, no one to turn to and ask them. It all just keeps happening without any explanation, as if the whole entire universe is telling us, “You know what you did.”

The worst thing is, they’d probably be right, except it’s so hard to narrow it down.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

alexandraerin: (Default)

Hooked on a Feeling

By Alexandra Erin

 

I used to eat my feelings.

It was mostly just a thing to do. I did it because I was bored, or lonely, or scared. Never because I was hungry. Yo don’t get any nourishent from a feeling. They don’t fill you up at all. They hollow you out, at least when you’re eating your own.

So I would be anxious about something, or nothing, or everything, and I’d eat it. The anxiety. Or whatever. And then I’d feel ashamed about it, and I’d eat that, too. Sometimes I’d be surprised how easily it worked, but never for long. Surprise tastes better than shame, much better.

Before long, I never felt anything except for the things I felt about never feeling anything, and I never felt those for long. Every day I got a smaller on the inside, a little fainter around the edges. Feelings aren’t very substantial on their own, but they add up over time, and over time I was chipping away at the core of who I was. I got to the point where I didn’t know how to react to anything, how to respond to people or situations, because all my emotional cues had been chewed away into ragged little splintery stubs, like fingernails that have been bitten off one time too many.

I couldn’t stop, even if I’d felt any desire to. I had been doing it for too long. Even if I couldn’t live on emotion, it fed something inside me. I wasn’t exactly afraid to stop, but then, I wasn’t afraid of anything.

I didn’t know what to do about my growing state of disaffection, and I didn’t care. The people in my life did, though, the ones who hadn’t slid off me or been pushed away. They cared so much, it was painful to be around them. Briefly, anyway. But I can only eat so much pain, and it was getting to be a problem.

So I don’t eat my feelings anymore. I’ve found a better way, and now no one cares what I do.

At least, not for long.

Originally published at Blue Author Is About To Write. Please leave any comments there.

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