[WP] After exploring the galaxy for quite some time, humanity finally makes first contact. Turns out science fiction got it wrong: compared to the other races humans are advanced, logical, responsible, long lived pacifists and the galaxy is a massive clusterfuck.

How they managed to become a space-faring civilization was a mystery. Glarkans were a blend of reptile and crustacean with a hefty helping of aggression. I had read the dossiers. I gulped as I stepped off the transport into the musty space station. The first human here. The second through 30th humans were my security detail.

The noise level was that of a souk. A normal one, not like that of Baghdad in the early 2000s.

“No bombs here. Yet.” Chuckling to myself to forget my nervousness. I ate way too much Indian food too.

What did I get myself into?

The noise level dropped as my detail fanned out, flanking my stroll onto their promenade. Strange beasts in the midst of arguments stopped and stared. They whispered. Clicked mandibles. Something not unlike a laugh. Shops closed their windows with a familiar urgency, as familiar as the feeling of rubbing my sidearm.

A large, obviously mature Glarkan towered into view. Ducking to get through a 12 foot doorway, he bellowed an alien laugh through drooping antennae. My detail flicked their safeties off and raised their rifles, and I hissed at them with a hand, palm down.

“Put those away!” I turned away, knowing they obeyed. The creature was already before us, and the others had vanished. Plates of organic armor were covered in scars and paint, clashing red and yellow and black. It crouched to speak, and we held out our translators to record it’s patterns of clicks and whistles. Similar to insect trills. A grunt thrown in for who knows what reason.

And we waited. It was impatient, and began stomping away the translators finally blooped at us.

“Be-gin. I wonder how you found us in this nebula. Are all of you so small? Why should we listen to you?” [[LAUGHING]] “What technology do you offer?”

I sent a mathematical algorithm in response to this first diplomatic exchange. They just managed to get space flight, so protocol dictates first contact. Easy diplomatic job for the practiced man.

“It’s a science.” I smiled inwardly. The being opened a data pad it had tucked somewhere between exoskeleton and hair. It’s 8 eyes flicked about slightly. The mandible mouth opened and closed, as if about to speak. But the response has to be careful.

“Congratulations for gaining a foothold into space. It is a major step for a civilization to get beyond their gravity well. You are now required to submit to Galactic Law. You are under the protection of the Consortium of Planets. We will be deploying a detachment of the Navy to protect you from possible pirate raids, and to prevent domestic disturbances.

We are also willing to share cultural information about our races, their poetry, art, history and characters. You may submit yours if you wish. Technology will be shared after a grace period of – 134,342 – of your home world’s solar days.

Failure to submit to the law will yield a disciplinary embargo of your planet. Our technology so outmatches yours, we do not need to take aggressive action. You will not be permitted to explore past your own solar system.”

It worked, as usual. I left vast amounts of data for them to peruse. Bylaws, and all the fun details of life within the Consortium. Taxes.

I kind of missed the days when they tried to fight back. But the only display that is needed is to steal their sun. A massive blockade of solar panels suffices to kill a world. Fairly nonviolent.

The large creature seemed to cower a bit. Then as it began to sign the line it shrieked and coiled up, appearing to pounce. The first squad shot their net grenades at the creature and the electricity has no effect on it.

The force pushed it back into the corridor and the smaller versions began to pile out of the closed up shops. Thunder of assault rifles echoed, and my earbuds muffled the sound to protect my hearing. With a thought I relayed to CENTCOM that shit had, indeed, hit the fan.

The high powered assault rifles tore into the creatures. They fell falling forward. Reaching.

The nets on the large one toggled to high heat mode as it regained its footing. Bright orange patchwork sizzled hungrily and brought screams from the alien.

I stepped up to it as the last Glarkan died bleeding green blood and my men reloaded. I placed a stasis field around it. A fine specimen. I plugged into its field a computer program that matched the beings neural waves. So to implant suggestions into it. And time could be manipulated with the stasis field. A minute could be a hundred years of whispers in the darkness.

The blue shield vanished as I stuffed the device stuffed back into my pocket. The 8 eyes of the ancient creature shuddered and were followed by a low hum with a click.

An alien “OK”.

 

Impossible.  Something from another galaxy?  Their technology must be —

“Sir,” A Fleuon broke his train of thought. “We are detecting strange readings from our long-distance sensors.  Oscillating frequencies on radio and sub-space bands.  They seem to be working to mimic neural patterns.”

“What?” I whispered.  Suddenly a voice came from all around, echoing within the CIC.

“Please submit.  We do not wish to rule over another dead galaxy.”  The voice was deep, and resonated in such a way that shook his bones.

“Get the marines ready.  Make sure all torpedo tubes are loaded to bear, and get anything that is space-worthy into the launch bay.  Are communications down?”

“Yes, sir.” They all chimed in.

“Naturally.” I spat into the air.

Suddenly the Fleuons all convulsed violently, some sprayed out green fluid onto their consoles and shook so hard that their tentacles dented metal.  After several moments, they were all slumped over and dead.  I ran to the nearest, and felt that its normally soft body was now stiff.  Definitely dead.

The voice chided him. “We have destroyed your methods of control and communications by attacking the brain waves of those beings that run your ships.  Please do not make us alter the wavelengths of our weapons to your neural frequency.”

I collapsed in my chair, silent.  Alarms flashed on consoles.

“Prepare to be boarded.”

I was as ready as I ever would be.

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

Thanks for reading, friend!

Should I write more about this character?

In the meantime, read this story my grandmother told me.

Probably Just a Bug-Bite

I was working late in a rural school, when the power went out. I was the night janitor, a job I had always enjoyed because of the relative solitude. I could sleep all day and relax for a bit before driving to work. I would bring my headphones and listen to some Silversun Pickups or Andrew Bird while I swept and mopped up the refuse from the day. Every day the halls were left filled with broken pencils and crumpled up papers with forgotten love scribbled inside. Sometimes I read the notes, and chuckled at their eager egos reaching for some strange ideal of romance. Sometimes I just sneaked a quick bowl and zoned out into my work and the music. Each day blended beautifully into the next. Rent was paid, snacks were bought, and small bits of my check I managed to save. I was content with my confident mediocrity.

Until the night the lights went out, I was enjoying the relaxing waves of soft rain on window panes.

The darkness washed down the hallway I was standing in like a splash of obsidian. It’s difficult to describe the feeling I had, but it was not a normal, healthy fear of the dark. I felt… Unnerved. I knew it wasn’t true, but I felt like I was being watched by the inky black that surrounded me and touched by the silence that swarmed and swirled.

I stood still for some time, expecting to hear the backup generators kick on or the clicking drone of emergency lights. But the only thing I heard was a loud metal clanging that shot down the hall and into my bones. Frozen. Reverberations shook my bones. Helpless. I stood as if locked in a dream. I felt like a child, confused. Silence finally began to echo and ring and ring and ring in my ears.

It must have been a dream. I must have fallen asleep. This must have been a dream, right? I don’t even believe myself as I begin to think of how to write this…

The lights finally kicked on as the sound ended, with a hum and a flicker. And I saw I wasn’t alone.

I caught a glimpse of a large hominid whirling away around a corner. Legs were too long, and the arms were longer. Slender. Pallid. Vein-y. I remember the veins. Thick and purple on a skinny frame. I could have sworn I saw them throb hungrily.

Next thing I knew, I was sitting in a chair in a classroom. I felt cold, and I shivered. I felt disoriented and my vision was blurry as a soft lightning flash illuminated the room with the slightest gleam. Slowly getting to my feet, my eyes noticed the room number posted on the board amidst reminders and notes. The room was in that hallway I was in, or that I thought I was in before…

I found my coworker after running outside into the breezy night rain and into another building. I must have looked wild, because he asked if I was OK. I wasn’t. I’m still not.

My partner said the lights never went out.

And it’s been two days, and I thought it was an exhaustion-induced hallucination because I hadn’t been sleeping recently. My dog has been constantly barking at the clouds and the squirrels that have moved into the roof of my home, constantly scratching and squealing.

But now I have a unusual dot where my bicep meets the forearm. Sight bruising, too. As if I had gotten stung or poked.

Now that I look closely, it’s starting to seem infected. The bruising is a dark hue, darker than even when I broke a bone as a child. And the veins are thicker around that dot. And my head… aches. Constant throbbing.

Maybe I should drive to the city hospital, an hour’s drive away. Those big-city doctors will know what this is.

Probably just a bug-bite, mixed with this fever and paranoia.

Yeah. That’s it. Still gonna go check and make sure.

Make sure it’s nothing serious.

Suspicious Silence

Click here to read the part before! 

Her bony finger tapped Robert forcefully on the shoulder, snapping him out of his awe at the glorious vista before his eyes.  He turned and looked at her, and threw a glance at the bulging bag of bread she held out to him.

“Thank you, this kindness won’t be forgotten.  Perhaps if we have a good harvest, I’ll bring my son with me next time I travel to your lands.”  Robert smiled genuinely at her.  The bread was some of the best he had ever had.

“Yes, perhaps!” The old woman replied with a forced smile.  Being so good at lying, it didn’t show.  “Well, be careful on your travels.  Better get a good start while the day is somewhat young.”  Robert nodded, and turned away.

“Wait!” She burst out.  Robert whirled back to her as a bird chirped. “Take this with you!  Your legs are still weak.  You have no horse.”  She held out her gnarled wooden cane.

“I cannot take an old woman’s cane from her.”  He said laughing and shaking his head.

“Please, I have plenty more.  This one has no significance to me.  Take it.”  She held it out with both hands, and he saw that it was a very dark wood.  With lines curving up the side in strange spiral stylings he had never seen.  He hesitated, but took it from her.  He might need a weapon in Elven lands, his throbbing head reminded him.

“Thank you.  I will return this one day.”  Robert lied quietly.  His hands tightened around it, feeling the smoothness of the staff before holding it to his side to steady himself.  His legs were beginning to find their true strength again.  He walked, the staff longer than he remembered it in the shade of the hut.  The woman stood in the doorway watching him as he walked away through town, toward the mountains that were close to the borders of the Imperium.  Before those stony peaks lived the forest that Robert was found in, beaten and robbed.  The old woman cackled and coughed as she went inside, closing the door behind her.  The spell she cast left her tired, her bones ached more than usual.  It was time for a nap.

Robert continued walking through the town, feeling the stares of all the Elves looking him up and down.  A lone human in a land that despised him.  Looking to one merchant’s wares, some beautiful red apples gleamed in the sun and Robert glanced up with a smile at the owner.  The man stared back into Robert’s eyes with burning hate.  Robert could see crow’s feet beginning to form around the Elf’s eyes.

Signs of aging.

Robert looked back down and continued to walk, the hateful glares urging him to increase his staggered pace.  Children suddenly appeared out of thin air, singing some Elvish taunt as they threw small bits of rotten fruit at him.  Robert understood.  This was something to be expected.  Children act on impulses that adults bury deep within their hearts.  Well, most adults.  The children disappeared as quickly as they appeared.  Robert continued to walk along as quickly as his legs would take him, both hands on the staff that steadied his steps.  A rock flew toward him from behind as an instinct from his younger days tilted his head to the left.  His right hand reached up and without looking he caught a rock that was meant for his skull with a loud slap.

The crowd watching him was more silent than before.  He was quick despite his age.  A reaction that a farmer shouldn’t have.  Avoiding confrontation, Robert simply dropped the stone and continued down the hill out of town.  Heading into the forest valley below.  The people watched in suspicious silence as his head disappeared behind the road.


 

“Jah’sahn, are you sure that we should go into the Imperium again?  Maybe we should just go home.”  The young elf was nervous, and hungry.  His hands played with the string of his bow.

“We have to.” Jah’sahn replied as he carved up an apple to share with his friend. “This is our last apple, and I am not going back to farming.  I told you that already.”  He took a deep breath to quell the anger he had within.  Looking up at the clouds through the trees, the light glittered between the leaves.  His father used to have a word for it, before he died and left him an orphan.  His mother had died when he was a baby, during the Reclamation.  A stupid name for a stupid war.  Jah’sahn’s hands fiddled nervously with his sword resting in its sheathe.

“Fine, fine” His friend replied. “I just don’t want to beat up any old men again. It’s… not right. Human or no.”

“I understand, Brielbeh. How could we have known? After we tripped the horse up we had to follow through…” He paused for a moment in carving the apple. “But… I felt strange after that last encounter too. Even if the money we got for selling the horse kept us fed for a while. Did your sister recover with that medicine we got for her?” Jah’sahn offered an apple slice to him.

“Mostly. The fever’s almost gone, and she is talking again.” Brielbeh sighed and took the slice from Jah’sahn’s outstretched hand. “Its probably the only good thing that’s come of all this.” He muttered as he munched.
“Hopefully we can score something big. Maybe some information to give to the Ravens for a price. Maybe they’ll even let us join up.” Jah’sahn mused, tasting the sweet fruit as a small bead of juice trickled into his stubble. “But probably not.”

“Yeah, probably not.” They both were sitting in a tree high over the road, looking at the dancing patterns that the sun created through the trees on the ground below.

“They say you have to be pretty skilled with magic” Brielbeh chuckled. “The only magic I’m skilled with is making food vanish!” They both laughed through their nose with a short exhale.

It wasn’t the first time they had this conversation, or laughed at this joke.
Robert was walking down the same road they were watching, his legs steadily gaining back their strength. That stew the old woman made revitalized him unlike any meal he had before. He didn’t have to rely on the cane so much now, and he carried it at his side.  The birds were chirping all around him when he first came into the forest road, unfamiliar tones that made him yearn for home.  Now, they were mostly silent.  Robert’s hand tightened on the staff, as he felt a familiar fear creep into his body.  The urge to stop and go relieve himself on a nearby tree was overwhelming.  Ahead of him, hidden in the trees, the two young men noticed him walking.

“Jah’sahn!  It’s that man from before.” Brielbeh whispered. “What should we do?”  Jah’sahn stared at him coming down the road.  Thinking.

“Let’s see if we can’t help him.  To make up for what we did.” They both smiled at each other and began to make their way down the tree branches, swinging and leaping with the dexterity of youth.  They landed at the same time on the road, several paces from where Robert stood brandishing the staff at them.

“You two!” Robert snarled. “I won’t be taken by surprise again.”  Jah’sahn moved forward, palms out.

“No!  We felt bad about what we did, we want to –” An arrow materialized in his face, pushing his right eye from the socket.  It hung in a muddled mass at the tip, before falling into the dirt.  “Wee.. wahnt…to..” Jah’sahn slumped over and died in the dirt.  Brielbeh screamed and ran toward his dead friend, but three arrows thumped into his back, one cracking through his rib cage and poking from his chest.  His eyes bulged and he coughed, spewing blood over his white tunic.  He fell on top of his friend with outstretched arms.  Robert was mortified, glancing around at the trees and the bushes.  A voice came from somewhere in front of him.

“Aww, look at them.  Two little lovers.”  The words were laced with an audible sneer.  Small laughs came from the foliage to Robert’s left and right.  The voice was familiar enough to put him at ease.

“Omar!  I knew you and your men would come sooner or later.” Robert called out, placing his staff at his side again.  “Come forth, and have my thanks!”

Hooded figures came from the shadows, bows slung over their shoulders.  The curved blade of the Halharken Order rested on their hips.  The Imperium’s best trackers.  “I do think that these young men were going to help me… But…” Robert spit on their corpses as blood pooled underneath them, turning the dirt to mud.  “They also got me into this mess.  Stole my horse and everything.”

“Lucky you didn’t have this” Omar appeared above him crouching on a tree branch.  He tossed a sheathed sword to Robert.  “Or they would have known who you were straight away!”  It was Robert’s sword.  Shorter than a longsword, greater than a knife.  Forked at the tip like a trident.  Carvings along the blade, runes that no longer worked.  The pommel was resolved with the face of a bear.  Emerald eyes.

“Yes, that would have been extremely unfortunate.” Robert whispered, strapping it to his waist.  “Are you and your men hungry?  I have some bread for us.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Heedful Hospitality

Click here for the part before.

“Elven…?” Robert repeated groggily.  His memory was still fuzzy, and his head burned as if it had been set out to bake in the sun.  Despite the pain in his body he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings.  It was a modest hut.  A once colorful rug covered the dirt floor with intricate patterns, the walls were the dark color of a local wood.  A small fireplace was across the room, with a black kettle bubbling over the flames.  It smelled pretty good, and his stomach rumbled into the quietness.

“Let me get you some food.  This was my Grandmother’s recipe.  So you can guess that it’s an old one.”  She cackled cheerfully like the elderly tend to do.  She turned and hobbled away, a gnarled wooden cane steadying her gait.  Her silver hair was pulled into a bun and Robert could see that her ears were longer and drawn into a pointed tip.  All at once completely alien and somehow familiar.  Robert rubbed his temples, taking the edge off of his throbbing skull.

Robert James Lowman.  My name.  But who… am I? 

“Here you are.” The old woman smiled and handed him the bowl.  Her hands shook way too much, yet only a small bit spilled out.  A thick brown stew steamed before him, carrots and potatoes and beef urged him to feast.  Raising the first spoonful, he smiled as his mouth filled with saliva.  Closing his eyes as he chewed, he gave a small moan as he turned the only-slightly tough meat between his teeth.  The smell filled the air around him, and suddenly he felt emotional.  He was missing someone.  Someone who used to cook like this.

“Linda!” He burst out with a full mouth.  He gulped down the bite and stared ahead, eyes pulled wide.  He knew he was married to a beautiful woman, one he was blessed to even know at all.  Robert remembered some of who he was.  They lived in a manor house far from here.

Nearly the other side of the world.

His heart beat faster in his chest, and he fought to keep the blood from his face.  Robert was lucky these Elves didn’t recognize him, but that’s about as far as his luck stretched.  His legs felt as if millions of needles were slowly prodding into them.  He must have been thrown from his horse.

Why am I so far from the border?  Why did the Crown send me here?

“Linda?  Who is she?  A lucky woman to have such a handsome man worry for her.”  The woman grinned at him with twinkling eyes, thinking of past times when Elves were forever young.  When she still had her husband there to keep her warm during the long winters.

“I am the lucky one, truly.” Robert replied.

I can’t let her know I am from the Capital.

New memories were swirling into existence on the canvas of his mind, painted with an eldritch brush held by the skilled, long-fingered hands of ancient shadows.  They enjoyed using this world.  It was more diverse than the traditional universes they sculpted to lure their captives into false memories.  So many opportunities for chaos, so many shadows that could grow and tangle and twist the minds of corporeal beings to their hateful desires.

So many variables.

 “You’re a sweet man for saying that” The woman continuing to smile. “So I know your wife’s name.  Who are you?”

“My name is R…Roger…” He trailed off and stuffed his face quickly with a heaping spoonful of the delicious stew to buy him time to think.  His name was infamous enough that he knew to hide it from even this frail woman.  And she was so pleasant!  The only Elves he had ever met were on the battlefield as a younger man or in the secret laboratories under the Citadel, unknown to even the nobility of the Imperium.

“Roger Theregin.” He said after swallowing his bite.  He could feel it travelling all the way down into his gut.  As if the potato was wrapped in guilt.  Rubbing his head with one hand, he used the other to place the bowl on the table next to him.  He knew he had to get back to safety.  His mission was a failure, but he gleaned some important facts that he had to get back to the Council.

“Ohhh, a name from your East!  You must be a farmer?”

“…Yes.  My wife and I have a small farm right on the border of the Imperium.”

“We both know the Imperiums’ borders reach much farther than the lines on the map.”  She laughed softly and shook her head.  “Ever since that one day all those years ago, we Elves have always lived in fear.  Mortality such as humans know it truly is a burden to us like we have never borne before.” Robert nodded silently, as he slowly began to swing his pained legs over the side of the bed.  He winced as the woman put her hand softly on his shoulder.

“You should rest.  Forgive the ramblings of an old woman.” Robert rubbed his thighs, urging the stinging away as best as he could.  He must have been here for days.  Feeling weak, he pushed himself up to stand.  He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched.

“I am strong enough to relieve myself from your care.  I wish I had some way to pay your hospitality, you were far too gracious to a stranger you scarcely know.”

“Nonsense” She waved her hand and shook her head with a solemn smile. “You are in an Elven home.  We may be poorer than we were before, but these traditions of hospitality will never die.  Even if we do.”  He nodded with silent respect, and stretched his hand out to take hers, she smiled and gave it freely — almost blushing as he kissed it.

“Truly, thank you” He said with real respect. “I will come back one day to thank you for this kindness.  For now I must leave.”  She grabbed his hand with surprising strength as he tried to release hers.  He was startled, and looked into her eyes.  Hazel, but darker.  He felt a small fear grow within him before she smiled and spoke, reminding him of his own grandmother.

“Not before I pack you a bag of bread to keep you going!”

He laughed as he walked to the door, opening  it.  Looking outside as she prepared his bag.  The land was lush, clouds flew along on the breaths of cool wind.  People – Elves – went about their day, some carrying water to their homes.  Some tending their modest shops.  Mountains watched in the distance.  He listened to the far Eastern birds sing their foreign songs.  Unheard to him, the old woman muttered to herself inside.

“Never before have I felt such smooth hands on a farmer.” She scoffed.  “Roger Theregin?  More like Lord something-or-other.”  Placing the last bit of bread into the bag, she tied it shut with a bit of twine.  She flicked her eyes over to Robert, and seeing his back still turned she began to hold a hand over the bag.  The smallest glow emanated from the tips of her fingers as she whispered words that twisted her tongue around in her mouth, and made the space within the hut darker.  Even a skilled mage like her could not sense the devious pleasure of the shadows.  The fire shrank and sputtered, almost going out as she resolved her incantation.

“Foolish human.  To think that I would believe such a poor lie.  And for him to believe my own!” Her lips pulled back in a toothy smile as she unconsciously ground her teeth.  Even if this spell took time from her own life, it was worth it to help her son’s cause.  The last hundred years left Elves mistrustful of humans.  This ‘Roger’ was certainly an Imperial spy, sent to gather information on her family.  The old woman began to shuffle toward Robert’s turned back, the smile transforming from the conniving grin to a pleasant beaming.  Resisting the urge to take the large knife from her left and cleave it into his spine, she reassured herself with thoughts of her talented son.  So gifted with the arts, and with many friends he had spirited away into different parts of the world.  Even the Capital of the Imperium itself.  Reaching to tap Robert on the shoulder, she thought to herself:

“We are everywhere.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Candescent Clarity

Click here for the part before

 

His heartbeat thundered painfully in his ear, mixing with the strange whispers that came and went like a terrible breeze between rotting trees.  He swore that he could feel spit spewing from empty space next to him as the strange language dripped into his ears.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

He shivered so hard he thought his back might spasm.

Robert knew that his wife would never make it off the planet, like most of those on Earth. There were only so many shuttles that were capable of escaping the gravity-well.  Not nearly enough.  They never made enough.  A terrible case-study of financial Darwinism.

He heard the airlock open, a whooshing creak accompanied by shouts and boots thumping into the passenger cabin.  Voices other than the ones from the darkness trickled through the flimsy plastic door to the suitcase compartment he crammed himself into.  A thin line of light gave him the air he needed to breathe and allowed him to hear his soon-to-be captors.

“Well, looks like Brillby finally offed himself.  Poor bastard.” A gruff chuckle.

“Have some respect, Clark.  The man lost more than most.” A reverent voice said.

“Hey — I said ‘poor bastard’.  Just… keeping it light.” Clark grumbled.  Slow, heavy footsteps.

“Jackson, what do you think?”  Silence.  Boots thumped around, and he heard the steel click of a rifle loading a bullet into its chamber.

“There will be no need for that, Clark.  Robert and I know each other.”  Robert felt frost spread within his gut.

Who is Jackson?  I don’t know anyone named —

The compartment clicked open and light flooded fiery fluorescence into his retinas.  Squinting, he saw the familiar sight of a gun barrel leveled at his face.  A man’s eyes came into focus, eyes dark as coal looking furiously at him.  A large hand came from the side and pushed the gun barrel down.

“God, Clark.  You still can’t listen.  You want to be stuck on sewage duty again?”  The older voice chided like an irritated father.

“No, sir.” Clark still stared at Robert with hateful daggers, unblinking.  He backed away, and allowed the older man to step forward and stare at Robert.  A shock of white hair on top of his head was contained by a small black beanie, a large and regal white beard covered his face and went down to the center of his chest.  The bluest eyes Robert had ever seen.  Like clear ice over a frozen lake.  He had seen this man somewhere before.  Somewhere.  But where?

“Robert, get on out of there.  Out of the shadows.”  Robert sheepishly climbed down with the awkward movements of an older, out of shape man.  A foot down onto the chair below – with hands still in the luggage hold – he began to slip and the artificial gravity caused him to fall — but Jackson caught him.  Strong despite his age and taller than he expected, Robert was set down onto his feet by Jackson holding him under his arms.  Like a parent sets up a toddler.  He felt the blood rush to his face.  Recovering quickly, Robert spoke:

“You said you knew me.  Explain.” The men erupted in laughter around him.

“This one has balls, lieutenant.”  Lee giggled.

“Leave us.” Jackson whispered.  The two guards exchanged glances.

“Sir?” They both said together.  Jackson remained silent, simply looking at them from the corner of his eyes.  They both looked at each other and shrugged in unison, walking toward the airlock.

“We’ll be right outside, sir.”  Jackson waved his left hand at them, his right on his sidearm.

“I know why you’re here, Robert.  Do you?”  Jackson asked as he stared unblinking with wolf-eyes.  Robert replied with silence and a stare.

“I finessed my way into this universe.  I followed you from outside your real home, back on Sedgebrook Drive.  You fell through quite the rabbit hole.  Again.  Do you know what’s happening yet?”

“What are you talking about?  Sedgebrook?  I lived outside of the city, within view of the Great Elevator.  What do you mean, ‘this universe’?  Who are you!?”  Robert said.

The older man shook his head.

“When you think of your wife, what memories do you see?”  Robert’s heart skipped a beat.  Those strange memories of a different timeline flashed again into his vision as he conjured the image of Linda’s face.  Something was horribly wrong.

“I… I don’t know what’s happening to me.  These memories aren’t –”

“Those are your true memories, Robert.  Each time you slip between worlds, they become harder to see.  Given enough time, they will vanish completely.  You have to focus, focus on your love.  That’s the only thing that they don’t understand.”

A thunderous explosion shook the Gwaden, and they both lost their footing and fell into seats across the aisle from each other.  They locked eyes and Jackson stood remarkably fast for someone his age.  He leaned over Robert and put his left thumb in the middle of his forehead with a soft force and his right thumb into the skin over his heart.  An electric current rushed through Robert, and memories he had forgotten about rushed back to him in an instant.  The cold forest.  The sands of post-war America.  The lights flickered and died inside the shuttle as another explosion rocked the Gwaden, and the red glow of emergency lights filled the cabin.  Whispers violently hissed, forcing fear to flow into Robert’s body.  A fear laced with anger.  He remembered everything now.

But for how long?

“They hate me, Robert.  I try to save the souls they keep.  You are not alone in this game.  Millions of people over the course of human history have become trapped in their game, replaced by the elites of their malevolent society…”

A blast rocked the ship, cracking a hole in the hull of the Gwaden.  Air began to rush out of the docking bay, and he could hear the screams of Lee and Clark as they were sucked into the vacuum of space.  The artificial gravity created by rotation was stopped as the frigate lost power, and Jackson skillfully glided over to the airlock and pounded his fist on the emergency seal to force the door shut.

“They are going to kill us both, Robert.  Fill your mind with thoughts of your wife, and your life.  Maybe they will be strong enough to –”

Another explosion rocked the ship and there was the monstrous sound of steel being ripped apart, violently tossing the shuttle out into space.  Crashing and tumbling, Robert was bounced around inside the cabin along with Jackson.  He protected his head the best he could, and pissed himself only a little bit.

“Dream of her to escape, Robert.  You must dream of  -”

A stray slug of iron tore into the shuttle, tearing it in half like a wet paper bag.  Robert’s eyes dilated from fear.  Remembering the first time he was knocked out by the vacuum of space, he could not help but let fear wash over him.  There were no happy thoughts to be had.  Clutching at his throat, his lungs burned as the air was pulled out of them.  He felt his eyes bulge, and begin to pop.

Stars looked on, devoid of emotion.  They had seen this all before.

And they would see it all again.

 


 

A washcloth woke him, icy on his steaming head.  Comforting.  Soft.  A skillful hand dabbed his fevered skull with the caring touch of a mother.  Almost settling back into the pillow, Robert began to sit upright and pain shot through his body, driving him back into the bed.  His legs were like hard, dead rubber.  Forcing his eyes open, the natural light made him squint.

“Hush now, don’t try to move.  I found you in the dark wood.  You should know better than to go there.  Bandits love to ambush travellers.  You had nothing but the clothes on your back when I found you.”  Robert’s eyes had adjusted and focused on the elderly woman who was tending to him.  The corners of her mouth were tilted ever so slightly upward, the tiniest smile.

“Where -” A cough thundered from his chest, labored.  He felt exhausted and weak. “Where am I?”

Who am I? 

This thought he kept to himself.  Robert knew his name, but his mind was a terrible mixture of shadows and fog.  He was scared, and tired.  So tired.

“You are far from home, ser.  Human land is a week’s ride from here, with a fast horse.  And we don’t have any of those left.” The woman sighed.  Something about the sighs of the elderly make one feel an existential despair, and it weighed on Robert’s fragile psyche.  Tears began to form under his eyes.

“Shhh.  There, there…  Don’t worry.  You have surely heard tales of Elven hospitality?”

 

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Calcutta, 1946

This is a story recounted to me by my Indian grandmother, who is now in her 80s. She lived in Calcutta through the late 1930s to 1947, when her family moved to England to escape the violence in the region. She was about 9, according to her memory. This period was just before the British Partition of the region based on religious population, where Pakistan and modern-day Bangladesh were created as a separate country for the Muslims, and India was made to be solely for Hindus and Sikhs. This action created the largest population exchange in human history. The story takes place on August 16th, 1946. A day that first was supposed to be known as Direct-Action Day, but became known as the Great Calcutta Killings. Within a short time, over 4,000 were left dead. Even more homeless after the fires died down. This event sparked several days of violence across India, with Hindus attacking Muslims, and Muslims attacking Hindus — the “Week of the Long Knives”.
My Grandmother’s family was upper-middle class, and their home stood tall and clean. They were able to hire housekeepers and pay them well enough to provide for their own families. She was raised Catholic, since the family was close with the British and wished to remain so, but the city itself was predominately Hindu and had a large Muslim population. The Direct-Action day was supposed to be a Muslim-organized peaceful protest to show defiance to the British rejection of the proposed 2-state solution, but quickly turned violent after the heat and fiery speeches turned the hearts of men darker than coal. There are conflicting reports on who started the violence, but both sides were guilty in participation of slaughter and ethnic-cleansing. Skirmishes lasted for days. Factories where Hindu workers lived were invaded and the walls coated in blood and gristle. Homes where Muslims lived were chained up and burned to the ground.
What she remembers is being on the roof of their home with her sisters, taking the day off because of the planned protest scaring her family into isolation. They had a milkman, whose name she could not remember, coming down an alley delivering his goods as usual. He was a young Muslim man, probably no more than 18 years old. Door to door he went about his rounds, and as he drew closer they waved to him. He smiled and waved back as several Sikh men appeared from the shadows and stabbed him with their knives and sliced with their kirpans, each taking their turn thrusting the young man between his ribs, back, and eyes as his screams turned to gurgling noises and silence. They continued their stabbing even after he was dead until they were exhausted and blood filled the alley. The sisters were frozen in horror on the rooftops, as one of the men noticed them and spoke:
“Sorry to have let this filthy Muslim get so close to you, friends!” They dragged the man’s corpse and shoved him down a nearby manhole and left cheering to themselves. About this time, smoke could be seen from the downtown area, as fires were being set to businesses and homes. 

Her and her sisters finally broke from their shock and ran inside, horrified. Luckily their father had the foresight to prepare for this. A detachment of British guards had been sent to their home to protect the family, and all day they remained inside. Screams and crashes mixed with crazed laughter and chanting echoed outside in the city, and crept through their windows. They were inside all day, mortified of what was happening outside.
As night fell, the violence subsided slightly. Every night she would go outside to look at the stars before bed, and out of habit she snuck away from her parents and sisters to go to the roof again. Smoke made the stars blurry this night, and fires burned creating strange shadows that flickered and danced to the music of chaos. She heard the awful sound of metal scraping against concrete, and ducked down behind the low wall that ran along the border of the roof. With the curiosity inherent to a child, she peeked over the wall to look down into the alley where their acquaintance was brutally murdered earlier. The manhole was being pushed aside from below, and when the creaking stopped there was a terrible silence for a moment. A man, clothed in shockingly white robes, came from within the man-hole. He climbed out, and looked around for a while. She recognized the young man from earlier, the milk-man.
“Impossible” she told me. “It was impossible for him to have survived that attack. And his robes were so white and clean, even coming from the sewers of Calcutta! But that was when he looked at me. I felt cold, but not the type of cold from an icy wind from the North. This cold came from my heart — no — my soul! I felt frost inside of myself, and I could not help but cry. I felt so scared and alone then, in that moment. And then he nodded to me, and began to walk away. Something was off, and I couldn’t figure out what! And then I looked closer. His feet appeared beneath his robes as he moved slowly away. They were twisted backward, completely opposite of a human’s feet. He walked toe-to-heel, as we walk heel-to-toe. My father always told me of bhoots, mostly as stories used to entertain us. But now, I have seen one. I rubbed my eyes to clear my vision of tears to get a better look. But he was gone. The silence was broken again and more screams came from up the alley. A woman’s scream, and men’s laughter. I ran back inside to be scolded by my Father. I never told anyone in my family this, for fear they would think I was crazy. But the next day we left the city under British escort, and my sisters protested as they complained about leaving their friends alone. But me, I just wanted to get away from that alley. From that angry, lost soul.”

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

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The Celestial Elder

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Jason Gathers looked back at the colonies being pulled into Earth’s gravity as he began to prime the small craft for a long burn.  Fire spread around the O’ Neill cylinders like fearsome flowers, orange mingling with yellow and red with a terrible fury.  The screams of millions of people burning alive went unheard as his engine spun up, and he felt a heavy sorrow grow inside his chest.

“I wish she could have seen this with me.  Who knew that revenge could be beautiful?”  Jason softly slurred to himself.  “Her hair was the same color when the sun shined just right.”  He felt a small pride that he had turned a group of exploited slave laborers into an efficient task force.  Each of their charges detonated at the right time, at all the right places.  The Earth’s gravity did the rest.

“They were good men…”  He whispered to the memory of his wife. “Friends, even.  But we all made sacrifices for this cause.”  As his engine kicked into gear and the long burn began, the charges he had secretly placed on their vessels exploded and destroyed all evidence of their involvement.  Shadows watched, pleased with the dark fruits of their labor.  Their suggestions in this universe have climaxed to this result.  A beacon he had dropped into orbit began an automatic broadcast on all channels, which had previously been completely jammed.

“People of Earth.  Escape while you can.  We are here to bring a new age to humanity.  We are here to show you that Earth is too small and too fragile a basket to put all of our eggs in.  We have played in this cradle for too long, and despite our advances the Earth cannot thrive under the weight of all of us.  Look above you, now.  See the terror the Republic and the Consortium have created.  They are destroying the colonies, and their sloppy work creates more destruction for the people on Earth, while they hide comfortably in their shelters.  They do not care for those in space.  We are expendable to them.  Rise up, and leave now.  We need your help to achieve humanity’s destiny, to spread our civilization to the stars.  Come, join us and prosper together in space.  Or stay, and die.”


Robert cried, his imagination showing him images of chaos in the major cities.  People fighting over each other to leave Earth.  Soldiers struggling to keep control and to keep their fingers from their triggers.  His wife alone in a crowd, trying to herd a group of small children.  There was almost no way for them to get out in time.  Not with an entire city trying to evacuate.  Hope was translucent, faint as a whisper in a thunderstorm.  If the colonies roaring into the atmosphere did not create the panic, then that broadcast that just played over the intercom certainly would.

In the cockpit, Jason’s accomplice cried too.  He was frustrated with his cause, knowing now that the people they condemned to die on Earth were mostly innocent.  There was no way to contact command and to call off Axis’ descent.  It probably had too much momentum anyway.  It could not be stopped.  Something else was bothering him.  Racking his brain, he could not remember why Jason ordered him to kidnap Robert James Lowman.  He couldn’t even remember the orders.  The shadows stared through him with smug, obsidian smiles.  They knew why.  Confused and isolated with his guilt, he programmed the autopilot to take Robert to the hidden fleet behind Axis, and sat back in his seat.  He stared at the blockade of ships in front of him that ignored this shuttle, turning to face the ancient celestial demon that doomed their home world.   Flashes erupted silently as he coasted above their firing solution.

“Useless.” He mouthed silently and put the small, silenced gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.  His body recoiled, and floated up.  Blood and brain vibrated strangely in zero gravity as the shadows laughed, dancing along with the crimson bubbles.  Whispers filled the cabin as the man’s dead body floated and dreamed of another universe.  Whispers from shadows that were always watching in pleasure.

Robert had moved ahead to the front of the craft to take Omar’s body and give it some semblance of respect by covering his dead face with his coat and placing it in a seat.  Robert could hear the raspy conversation, and stifling his tears he drifted toward the cockpit to investigate.  He gasped when he opened the door, seeing the corpse floating in the same moment as the whispers went silent.

“I must be going fucking crazy.” Robert muttered to himself.  He put himself in the pilot’s seat after softly pushing the corpse down and behind the chair.  Robert had no sorrow for this terrorist, regardless of his situation.  The only thoughts he could think were of Linda, horrified on the planet’s surface as humanity’s impending doom coasted toward them.  Remembering some basic flight controls, he began to flip switches and tried to move the yoke.  It was stuck in its programming, and he was unable to move the controls.  A notice flashed on the instrument panel:

PLEASE ENTER THE PASSWORD TO ACCESS FLIGHT CONTROL.

‘Password’ did not work.  ‘Guest’ did not work.  Robert slammed his fist in frustration on the flashing screen, which also did not work.  To the pleasure of the darkness, he was trapped in this thing on its way to the last place he wanted to be.  He pushed himself back into the cabin, searching for the escape pods in the back.  Their doors had been welded shut.  Probably a preemptive move by the terrorist to stop any escape.  Without options, Robert glided to the seats on the right, resigned to gazing down at the tracers within the barrage of hot steel.  Suddenly the front of the asteroid appeared underneath the shuttle, and he could see that the U.E.R.’s attack was barely whittling away at the surface.  The explosions were probably gigantic,  but the sheer size of the asteroid made it useless.

“Useless”, Robert muttered angrily.  He stared down at his elder, the massive stone rolling beneath him.  Pockmarked with craters, the ancient drifted underneath the craft for what felt like ages.  He tried to look off to see the edge, but the immense rock stretched out to blend with the darkness of space.  There were abandoned structures that dotted the landscape, old mining bases probably.  Finally the end of the space boulder appeared, and he could see mammoth thrusters that were darkened and cold.  Without realizing it, Robert had been crying this whole time, tears filling the space around his face.  He was startled into a scream as the V.I.’s voice broke the silence:

“Please buckle your seat-belts and prepare to dock.  We have arrived at our programmed destination.  Thank you for flying with The Consortium, where your comfort is our priority.”

Docking clamps loudly clamped onto the side, shockingly fast after this announcement.  He looked out the window and he could see dozens of ships surrounding the shuttle.  They were older transport craft, dirty and outdated looking.  There were massive guns on each of them, and he knew that they must have been jury-rigged to become a fighting force.  He saw the space around him disappearing as the shuttle was brought into a docking bay of a much larger ship.  Steel and chrome shined beneath the lighting inside as he saw the name of the craft painted high above the deck and the walkways.  The U.E.R.’s Gwaden.  The old ship thought to have been lost over 20 years ago on a deep-space patrol now closed around him.

The shuttle’s movement ceased with an iron screech as Robert’s heart pounded in his chest.  Who knows what these rebels would do to him?  They would probably think he killed the pilot.  He floated up and hid in an overhead compartment, not able to stop tears welling up in his eyes.  He was completely hidden, but he was not alone.  His fear was with him.  The shadows were with him, keeping him company.  And he could hear their gleeful whispers.  He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to fill his mind with his wife’s beautiful face.

Linda…

Suddenly he was seeing flashes of her in places they had never been.  Like lightning illuminating a darkened art gallery.  A beach at night somewhere, walking from a strange automobile that hadn’t been relevant for generations.  The same car at a 20th century drive-in theater.

What are these memories?  

He had no time to think more, as he heard the airlock start to open with a hiss and the creaking of metal.

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Shooting Stars

 

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The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin and Robert stood frozen, clutching his suitcase.  He stared at the corpse of his friend as it floated eerily just above the floor, dead nose inches from the tacky carpet.  Gulping with a dry throat made him cough, and Robert covered his mouth involuntarily.  The man with the gun turned his sneer to a frown as he tightened his aim on Robert’s face.

“Don’t.  Move.  Slowly toss the suitcase down and put your hands up.”

What can I do?

Moments passed, and he tossed the suitcase to his side just as the man began to bloat with rage.  It quickly floated away and bounced around in the seats across the aisle.  He was in no position to negotiate here.

Here goes nothing. 

“You’re not going to get out of here alive if you don’t put down that gun.” Robert leveled his eyes at the man with a monotone drone his father used to use on him.  The man was defiant, like Robert used to be.

“Pfft!” The man expelled air in disbelief.  “No one in the U.E.R. knows this is happening right now.  No one but you.  And you have no way to contact anyone.”

He was wrong there.  This entire time Robert had been using his mobile to send a live stream of this attack to executive officials at the Consortium.  The communicator was floating now, dangling from his suitcase that hovered off to the side, above the seats.  If the man looked close, he could easily see a red light blinking softly.  But his attention was wholly on Robert, who continued his speech craft:

“Doesn’t matter.  You get to Persephone on schedule, you have security waiting.  You deviate from this shuttle’s flight path, you have military personnel just itching for action.”

The man stared with an empty face at Robert.  Slowly, the gun went to his side. Relaxing.  His eyes were deep in his face, and when the lights flickered for a moment he looked like a skeleton.  A slow smile found its way onto the tired man and Robert’s blood turned to ice as he spoke.

“We have seized Persephone, and the Prime Minister’s office there.  He’s surely been executed by now.  Justice… Justice is almost here.”  The man’s whisper was below a breath, and Robert only saw his lips move:

“Any minute now.”  The man was very assured of himself.

“Justice..?  What “justice” is this? Whose justice?  Who are you?!”  Robert shouted now, and the gun raised again in response to his agitation.

“We are the remnants of those you sent into space — those you sent to DIE!”  The man shouted at him, gun flinging wildly around with each gesticulation.

“What are you talking about?  Forced colonization ended over two decades ago!  Reparations were made!”

“Fool!” The man screamed. His teeth were bared with his lips pulled back in a snarl.  It took all the will he had left to keep his finger from the trigger.

“You think that those “contractors” you use are willing employees?!  What man would willingly take his family on the first deep space colonization?”

Families?

Robert only knew that the contractors the Consortium used for deep space were paid well, and supplied well.  He was under the impression that they were all willing scientists and engineers and workers.  Everyone in the world was.  Robert could only stare blankly at the angry terrorist, too confused to speak.

“What do you think happened to the colonists from before?  They just lived on like usual!?  Why did we need to have mass incentivized immigration to the Lagrange colonies then?!  They should have had plenty of people there already!  Are all of you so stupid?!”

“We thought there were casualt–”

The man slammed his fist into his chest loudly, grabbing at his heart.  His teeth were grinding, and Robert could hear them.  They sounded as if they would explode into dust any second.  Several seconds passed.

“You had… no idea?  No one did?”  Tears poured from his eyes in steady streams.  He did not sob, but the tears would not stop.  Robert shook his head.

“I have no idea what you are talking about.  We thought the contractors were all professionals looking for new frontiers.  ‘Pioneers and Adventurers!’ Haven’t you seen the promo commercials?”

“Good God.  It was only the execs who knew?   How could they keep such a secret, so many military personnel were used to move us all…” The man’s voice cracked.  He looked even more tired now, older.  Weaker.  Smaller somehow.

“Jason got us so riled up.  We were away for so long… No contact, or news… We just thought you all had forsaken us, and just used us up and tossed us aside.  But…”  He trailed off, staring out the window just over Robert’s shoulder.  The Earth stared back at him pleadingly.

“Hey… What is your name?” Robert asked quietly, with caution.  He slowly lowered his hands, and the man did not react.  His unblinking stare reflected the glow of the lights inside the cabin.

“It doesn’t matter.  All of this will be over soon.”  He sounded if he had already died.

“What do you mean?”

“Axis is coming.  It’s probably almost here.” The man whispered with great reverence, as if speaking of a mighty, vengeful god that could hear him.

“Axis?  What is that?” Robert asked, egging him on for more information.  If he noticed that comm device, all of this tenuous trust would fly out the airlock.  Robert needed more information.

“Axis is the reason you came up here, Robert.  But we lied to you about the specifics.” A sardonic snicker.  The man looked down and shook his head.  Robert was confused still but the shuttle’s autopilot interrupted, announcing that they would soon be docking at Persephone.

“I’ll get us away from the station.  There’s no reason for you to die there anymore.”

“Wait!!” Robert exclaimed as the man began to duck back into the cockpit.  “Why did you want me?  Why me?”  The man paused for a moment, and without looking back he spoke to Robert.

“I’m sorry about your friend.  I am.  And your family on Earth.  But there’s nothing we can do now.  Looks like you’re coming to space with us.  We will find a way to make you… useful.”  The door shut behind him, and the man whispered to himself in solitude as he flipped switches.

“Maybe.  I believe you enough to let you live, but my friends…  They probably won’t.”

shooting-stars-1

Robert drifted over to his phone, and ended the live stream.  He pulled himself into the seat and looked to his left out the window.  The vastness of space stretched itself before him, and he could see the blockade of frigates created in response to the alien discovery on Luna.  Something wasn’t quite right though, and he couldn’t place his finger on it.  He stared, confused at a shadowed part of space behind the ships.  A large place without stars.

Impossible.  Must be a trick of the light. 

He stretched his vision to see as best as he could toward the ominous darkness out there, beyond the frigates.  Robert passed several painful minutes in silence and he saw the shadow slowly grow.  A couple more stars disappeared within it. The darkness had been gathering its strength beyond the blockade.

“Fuck.  It’s a giant asteroid.” Robert breathed.  He pounded his communicator’s speed dial and reached electric along with his soul for his wife, searching.  Hoping.  He begged for her to pick up, but it was a Monday, and she was probably still in class.  Looking at his watch as the phone rang, he pleaded for some cosmic being to tell her to pick up the phone.  But nothing was listening.  Nothing good, at least.  Unknown to Robert, his extreme emotions and fracturing psyche were the source of macabre delight to the demons that placed him here in this universe.  He was nothing more than a pawn.  His fear and frustration and existential horror tingled the shadows and made them dance with delight.  Lights flickered in the cabin.  Whispers of their ritual leaked into his mind and tickled his ears, and Robert whipped around to find what made those sounds.  A language he had never heard but for some reason found too familiar.

Ko’se lano makora kojani noss’e

In this moment he finally reached the front desk of the school, and he asked to speak to Mrs. Lowman, with as much normalcy as he could muster.

“Linda… You need to dismiss class and get everyone out of there.  You need to go to the emergency shuttle outside the city, a panic will start soon.  I know it.”

“R.J., wait, what are you talking about?  Everything is fine here.  Nothing is wro–“

“Listen to me, Lin.  You have to trust me.  Get out of there, please.  Please.”  Robert began to cry.  “There’s an asteroid coming.  It’s terrorists.”

“Robert James, this isn’t funny, ” Her voice cracked and gave a nervous laugh.  “You got me, OK?”  Suddenly he could hear a siren go off in the background, and the kids all screamed in unison.  “Robert, oh my god. It’s on the Persephone camera feed.  You weren’t lying!  I have to go, but how did you know?!  I can’t do this alone R.J.!  Where will I meet you?!”

“I’ll find you!  Don’t go to Persephone! It’s a trap!  Linda?  LIN?!” But the line was already dead.  He looked at the communicator and saw that there was no service at all.  The Consortium must have alerted everyone, just like he had hoped.  But there was no way to prepare for something like this.  A mass evacuation plan had been discussed, but there were nowhere near enough shuttles available for an exodus like this.  He could only imagine the chaos his wife would have to endure trying to escape.  If she could even get out of the city.  But why was the service cut off so suddenly?

He floated over to the other side of the empty passenger cabin to look at the Earth.  He felt cold as he stared at massive shooting stars entering the atmosphere, and he couldn’t understand what they were.  But then he realized that they were the various O’Neill colonies slowly falling into the atmosphere.  New Sydney, New Beijing, New London.  They were being ripped apart by the Earth’s last line of defense.  Several million people lived in each of them.

Something suddenly slammed into the window Robert looked out of, and he screamed at the unknown horror as it drifted away.  Then he noticed that it was a human corpse.  More of them were tumbling by, and it sounded like a hail storm outside.  The ship turned away from Earth as he watched the burning colonies returning home.  A bright flash lit the night side of Earth below him, as one cylinder hit the Indian subcontinent.  His view turned with the ship, and he saw what was left of the great crown jewel of humanity’s first steps into space.  Persephone was now nothing more than a blossoming flower of twinkling glass and steel that spread partly into space, partly into orbit, and partly into tiny lines of fire streaking down to the Earth.

The hum of the engine filled the passenger cabin, a steady rhythm to accompany the sobs of Robert James.  The shadows watched him and trembled with pleasure at his hopelessness, whispering among themselves in impossible tones.

On the Earth’s surface, a child in a rural area stared up in wonder at the great streaks of light flying across the sky.  He giggled and laughed as he held out his arms like an airplane, running back to the house as fast as he could.  He wanted to share this moment with his mother, who waited inside crying as she watched an emergency broadcast repeat itself.

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Infinite Ice

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The stare of stars from eons ago gave a passing glance to the tiny craft drifting slowly away from Persephone Station.  Veiled by the darkness and coasting through space, it went unnoticed on the radar of the large U.E.R. frigates that formed a mechanical canyon around it.  Drifting and rotating slowly.  Just like a bullet that was stuck in time.

“Even if a member of the crew looked out a window, they might not even notice this thing.”  Jason Gathers half-chuckled as he took a small swig from the bottle.  Nose burning from the scent, a tiny bit trickled from the corners of his mouth and bubbled in the small cabin around him, twitching and trembling tiny little amoebas of alcohol.  Silence purred.

“Wish I could at least listen to music, this is going to take a while.”  He gobbled up the bubbling bits of whiskey from all around him, and Jason reminded himself of a dog he used to have.  Junior giggled endlessly watching the dog chase after the bubbles that Jason blew for the pup to chase.  After papa taught him how, Jason Junior loved blowing the bubbles himself.  New liquid appeared in the small compartment as he stared out the window at the stern steel sides of the massive warships.

These bubbles came from his eyes, translucent and reflecting the lights that littered the sides of the frigates.  Thousands of portholes stared at Jason.  He stared back.  Thinking.  His wife used to tell him that he thought too much.  After what happened on the mining base, she never spoke about it again.  She never spoke about anything.  Tears constantly flowed from her hazel eyes as she stared off in silence.  She gazed at the spaces in-between atoms.  A half-trained doctor that the workers had access to made some vague diagnosis:

“She’s traumatized, Jason.  There’s not a lot I can really do for her besides some kind of therapy, and I don’t have the time…” The Doc motioned behind him – like a ringleader in a circus – to the lines of tiny dirty cots behind him in the cave that was his clinic.  Coughs mixed with wheezing breaths and the barely audible sound of mice chirping to each other from the shadows.

“There’s not enough meds to go around to fight this flu, and the accidents keep piling up.  I’m doing the best I can.  I’m sorry.”  Jason stared back at the Doc.  His eyes must have been hollow looking, tired.  He sure felt tired.

“Look, Jason…” The Doc put his arm carefully around the shell of a man, and walked him out of the cave clinic and into the main cavern.  Even through his shirt, the Doc could feel that he was cold.  Stalactites poked down threateningly.  They seemed larger than usual.  At least it didn’t smell like gangrene out here, Jason thought absentmindedly.

“Just try and talk to her.  I know it’s hard… All of us cried for you.  Just like we cried for the Willow family, and for the Karns.  I’ll tell you the same thing that I told them: Talk, be with each other, be there for each other, and for god’s sake – keep working.  Idle hands do the devil’s work, they say.  Sure wish they’d give the guards more real work to do.  I hear they get fed well.  I bet they could mine if they tried…”  He trailed off awkwardly.

Jason stared at Doc’s face.  He was trying hard, but Jason’s mind hardly retained any of what he said.  His wife was essentially catatonic.  She had one sick day left from work, but if she didn’t show up for her shifts then they would put her out the airlock.  Just like the old lady Karn, after her sons were killed for insubordination.  Jason forced a smile.  The doctor forced a smile back and disappeared back into his clinic.

More tears were bubbled around Jason in the cabin of the craft.  His hand was playing with the grip of his sidearm absentmindedly, and he took his hand away to swat his stray tears.  Only a few more minutes before he would be able to kick the engine on, and get back to Axis.

An old proverb of sorts crossed his mind: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”.  Space was very cold.  He saw his wife’s streaming tears turn to ice in an instant as the air whipped out of the airlock.   Tiny bits of ice spiraling into infinity.

 

 


 

 

“I’ll never get sick of this view, R.J.  It makes you feel small, every single time.  It’s humbling.”  Omar was looking over Robert’s shoulder at the Earth’s sphere below them.  A beautiful orb hurtling through space.  The moon could be seen hovering over the opposite side of the blue and green glow below.

“I wonder how long ago that weird shrine-thing was placed there on Luna.  Do you ever think of that?”

“Not really, Omar.  I’m actually crunching some numbers in my head.  Do you have the recent market price for yttrium?  I think it spiked again because of the U.E.R.’s increase in ship production.”

“Sure.  I probably have it in my folder here.”  He started ruffling through his papers and Robert thought about other polite ways to tell him to shut up.  He needed silence to think every time before a negotiation.  “Robert-time”, his wife called it lovingly.  She always knew to just give him some chamomile tea and to go watch the TV in the other room.  God, he loved her.  And he was lucky enough to be loved back.

“Here, R.J.  This is that memo they sent out the other… What the fuck?”

Robert looked to Omar, irritated.  His eyes were wide and locked straight ahead.  Robert followed his gaze to the door to the pilot’s cabin, which was ajar.  Dark blobs came tumbling and fluttering out, the strange dance of liquid in zero gravity.

Omar unbuckled his seat belt and pushed off his chair, drifting quickly to the front.  Steadying himself quietly on  another cushioned chair, he slowly reached out and poked one of the dark blobs and Robert watched as the liquid trembled away from him.  Looking at his finger, the color drained from his face.  He looked at Robert and mouthed:

“Blood”.

The sound of a heart thumping filled Robert’s ears.  He and Omar stared at each other, each wondering what to do.  All the while the blood tumbled through the air between them.  Robert grabbed his suitcase, and he looked up to see a man wearing a pilot uniform holding a large knife to Omar’s throat.  A skinny, long blade.

“I take it this one’s name isn’t ‘Robert’, is it?” The man sneered through gritted teeth.  Robert reached his hand up and out to Omar’s horrified face.  A vain gesture.  The blade pressed tighter against his throat for a moment, drawing blood.  Robert continued to stare in silence, unable to respond to the terrible question.

In one swift motion, the man flicked the knife back, pushed Omar to his knees with a hand and a quick kick, and stabbed straight down into the back of the neck.  After a spasm, Omar’s dark eyes rolled back into his head.  The man grinned as the limp body was pushed onto the ground, and bounced softly back up.  Floating face-down as if possessed.  In shock, Robert could only feel a numbed surprise at how little blood came out.

“You’re coming with me, Robert — or should I say R.J.?” The sinister sneer was almost cartoonish in proportion to his face.  R.J. felt cold, only his friends called him that.  How could he know?  Robert’s face was an open book.

“We know more than you might think.  We have people in the Republic government, in the Consortium…” The man chuckled as he drew a small silenced gun and pointed it at Robert.

“We are everywhere.”

 

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

 

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Gravity

Click here for the part before.

 

Snapping out of the fog in his mind, Robert remembered he was running late for his meeting.  Hand tightening around his steel suitcase, he began to power walk through the crowd, meandering around people on their way to somewhere else.

Running late is one of the worst things.  You have to choose between lying and being honest and either option sucks because you’re still late.  Robert hated lying, so he tried to think of why he was late.  He was… Sitting in the park on a bench watching the people and the birds and the sun.  Not a very good excuse at all.  He was lucky to be an executive, or he would be fired.  But what about before that?  Why did he decide to sit?  He normally was never late.  Or, at least, he couldn’t remember being late before.

Why can’t I remember more?  

It was past rush hour, but the crowd was unusually thick.  Like cattle in the early 21st century.  He rode an escalator that was so crowded he couldn’t continue walking, and he tried to think to pass the time.  Tried.  Peering into his memories was like staring into a fog with the sun shining into it.  The past was an amorphous expanse of blinding light, and as he tried harder to remember he nearly fell off the escalator as the ride came to an end.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” An angry man he bumped into exclaimed.  Robert further buried his irritation and began to apologize as he recognized a friend from his department who should have been at work already.

“Shit.  Sorry, Omar.  I’m in my own little world today…”

“Oh, its you!  Happens to the best of us, obviously!   I’m running late too.  It was such a beautiful day outside I couldn’t help but daydream.  The light was coming through the trees in such a way…” Omar trailed off for a moment, staring through Robert’s face.

“I still get amazed by how different and… Well… Idyllic the world is now!  It used to just be my family who would get strip searched but now everyone does! Hah!” He smiled large through his beard with genuine happiness.  One of the first stories Robert heard from him was about his grandfather, a Sikh who was attacked because he looked like a “Muslim”, a follower of one of the many religions that became swept under the rug over the past few generations. Muslims and Christians fought for centuries over strips of land and ideology.  None of that mattered anymore.  There were some sects that still operated in secret, but during Unification religions became blended.  The strange discovery on the far side of Luna shattered most human preconceptions about being the center of the universe.

“Yes, the world does seem to be working together much better now, huh?” Robert clapped him on the back and they began to walk together toward the shuttle-pod doors.

“Speaking of work, lets get a move on!”

 

earth-and-moon

 

White tile covered everything, reflecting light ad infinitum through the hall.  The ceilings were tall, and crystal chandeliers as big as freight trucks twinkled high above.  A wide window at the end of the concourse showed the skyline, green and chrome mingling together in an awe-inspiring vista of civilization.  People walked in and out of the pod doors that blended into the walls seamlessly.  The ‘whoosh’ of the grand elevators arriving and leaving were subtle and could almost be mistaken for a breeze.  Robert looked up at a skylight, and something about the way the light came through the trees on top of the building made him feel nostalgic.  Out of place.  Something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t put a finger on it.

“No more daydreaming, R.J.!  This one’s about to leave!” Omar began to trot, and R.J. got up to speed quickly behind him.  Omar swiped his card and doors whispered open and shut behind them as they found seats and sat down.  These pods are normally pretty crowded, but Consortium employees had exclusivity to a few.  The V.I. hologram’s blue face appeared on the screen, on cue:

“Pleaaase fasten your safety belts, and place all belongings underneath your chair or in the bins above you.  We will be embarking shortly to Shangri-La.  Pleaaase fasten your safety belts…”

“So who do you have a meeting with today, R.J.?” Omar asked as he stuffed his suitcase underneath the seat.  It was too wide, and he was trying to angle it just right so that it could fit.  Robert was already good to go, and he looked at his watch as he spoke:

“One of the contractors… I can’t remember the name of the fellow but the company we are using for this expedition is the deep space one… Shit I can’t remember the company name either.  One secon–”

“Oh, you mean Zaeonic?  They’ve been out in the asteroid belt for a while, from what I hear.”

“Yes! That’s it.  Thanks.  Yeah they’ve been developing bases out there, and a colony from what I hear.  It’s been some time since they’ve been back here.  Almost 20 years actually.  The contact we have had with them has had some good info.  They seem to have found a rather large asteroid with significant deposits on it, that they say is en route to our gravity well.  I’m meeting with advance representatives to discuss compensation.”

“Wow, I can’t believe they’ve been able to keep it out of the news.  If its as large as your expression gives away, then they might be able to build another whole colony out of it!”

The pod began its acceleration up, like a bullet from a gun.  Robert never got used to it, and his hands tightened around the cushy arms of the seat.  The vehicle shook like it was an old plane flying through a storm, and the gravity pushed down hard on Robert’s head, and he stiffened his neck against it.  Omar was shouting over the sound of the vehicle and the classical music that was supposed to calm passengers:

“You look green!! It’ll be over soon enough, my friend!”  Robert’s eyes were closed and he ignored his friend.  He was too busy focusing on not dying / having a panic attack.  He had made this trip dozens of times, and he hated it more each time.  He wouldn’t mind a slower trip – even if it took a day or two – if he didn’t have to deal with this feeling every single time.  An hour was a long while, but after they reached a certain point, the force became much more subtle as the gravity from Earth became weaker.

“Welcome to Shangri-La.  Please find your luggage and exit the pod in an orderly fashion.  Thank you for taking the Great Elevator, made possible by Anaheim Electronics!”  The V.I.’s face flickered a bit before clicking off.  Robert always thought the face was creepy.  Shadowed eyes with the forced smile of its programming.

The pod doors opened to the gray, steel promenade of Shangri-La.  A variety of shops were doing business with the crowds of people.  A ramen shop was next to a Texas BBQ stand, and a gift shop flanked both.  Everyone walked about in their uniformed gray suits, some with red ties, some with the blue of the United Earth Republic.  Even fewer had green ties, which were either business owners somewhere or workers of one of the contractors for the U.E.M.C.

With a name like Shangri-La, Robert felt a bit surprised by how non-descript the station was.  Without the shops on the promenade, there was nothing of note on the station.  Sure, some back-deals were discussed over a latte or some Thai food once in a while, but other than that there was no windows or anything that allowed one to see the view.  The station was more functional than feng-shui.  Robert was confused by his surprise.  He froze.  He had been here dozens of times.  Was his memory already beginning to go?  As he searched his thoughts he remembered bits and pieces of former travels here.  Glimpses into the past.  Flashes of the faulty camera in his mind.

“Let’s get to the shuttle.” Omar said as they began to weave through the crowds.  It was more crowded here than the last time he was here, Robert noticed.  It wasn’t even rush hour.

“Yeah.” Robert said, somewhat annoyed.  Of course they had to get to the shuttle.  Running late, no less.

“I hope that Zaeonic rep is running late too.  He has a wealth of excuses that could be true, and I haven’t even thought of a good lie yet.”

“Well, lying isn’t your thing Robert!  That’s why we love you.  You don’t sugar-coat shit.”

“I was sitting on a bench watching people and the birds, man.  I have to think of something else.” Robert chuckled a bit, embarrassed.  Omar laughed openly.

“Yeah, you should find a better excuse.  And don’t turn red when you say it.  Like you are now!”  Omar laughed and Robert sighed as they both began to walk faster.  They turned the corner around a cupcake shop to get to the docking ring.  Luckily they had a private shuttle waiting for them, so no one was being kept waiting by their daydreaming from before.  The military personnel surrounded the check-in kiosk for their shuttle, and pointed their weapons at them both until their ID cards checked out.

 

o-neill-colony

 

“Sorry for the inconvenience, sir.  Move along.” Robert wondered how many times he had heard that in his life.  Always the same phrase.  He and Omar ducked in unison as they entered the craft.  Luxury didn’t always mean larger.  The seats that they had on there, however, were the best Robert had ever sat in.  His rear tingled with anticipation as he set his suitcase in the overhead compartment.  It was more relaxing than he anticipated, and he felt if he closed his eyes he could fall asleep instantly.  But the view was too good to miss.

Persephone was off to his right outside, a giant wheel-and-spoke colony that rotated to create artificial gravity, identical to Shangri-La but much larger, and with great windows to look out of.  The shuttle released its docking clamps and gently pulled away from the station.  The view changed to be that of the Earth’s sphere, a grand orb beneath them.  A giant marble of blue and green and sparkling white.  The other colonies could be seen now, giant cylinders that had great mechanic arms that opened and closed to simulate night and day.

“O’ Neill Colonies… I’ve always wanted to visit one, Omar.  They look awesome from afar, though.”

“Yeah, I have some family on that one over there — New Sydney.  They’ve sent me some really amazing pictures.  I’ve never been myself though, too –”

“Too busy.” The two of them said in unison, and chuckled a bit.

“Hey, we have to work to eat, right?” Robert quietly said as he rested his head back and stared out the window.

 


 

Outside of Persephone, a man paused in his  work.  His shuttle was docked illegally, but none of that really mattered.  His mag-boots clung hungrily to the outside of the station, hanging in the black.  He stood on one of the spokes that connected the two main rings of Persephone and looked up, taking in the view.  It was beautiful, but the man’s face was unmoved beneath his helmet.  He stretched, and reached into his pack to pull out the final charges.  He set the big block of explosive onto one of the cross-joints, and carefully stabbed the detonator into the pliable bomb.  The last one.

“I wonder if anyone ever made this stuff into a figurine or something.  It’s tougher than Play-Doh, but…” Tears welled up in his eyes.  His son was on his mind.  Little Jason Gathers Jr.  He would never see him again.  The companies put him to work as soon as he could hold a hammer.  He resisted as many in their early teens do, and the company security threw him against a bulkhead and shot him before the man could react.  The man remembered simply falling to the ground and staring at his dead son’s open eyes.  One of the officers spat something about how that hammer was a weapon.  The eyes. Pleading eyes.  Eyes that used to shine with such hope.  Thinking of this memory his soul felt weighed down by invisible gravity.

“This is for Jason.” The man muttered to no one but himself.  Plans were in motion already.  Everyone would finally know of their plight, the struggle that the rugged pioneers of space faced at the hands of the suits from the Consortium.  Everyone.  He climbed back into his personal craft and detached the cable from the station, coasting away on inertia.  Silent running.  He would drift for a couple hours.  He took his helmet off, blew his nose, and opened a nearly empty bottle of whiskey.  The last bottle he had.  But this last bit would be more refreshing.

Hard work always made whiskey taste better.

 

 

tales of a travelling salesman final
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