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Day One Hundred and Eighty: Away From the Green

November 17, 2011 3 comments

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

When I got to the “Earth” section of this month’s project, I knew I wanted to revisit Evelyn Pierce – first seen as a minor character in Interviews on Day 36, and later as a main character in A Friend in Need, which was Day 38. Her ability to talk to and – one day – control plants made her a natural for this section.

Tanner Quan wasn’t going to be in this story at all – I had come up with a different government agent when I realized that I already had one. And a pretty entertaining one at that. Tanner showed up in the three-part series Special Agent Khrys Ferro on days 133-135. The bagpipes were definitely his idea.

———–

The desert was empty and vicious and bright. The sun hung in the sky, a tiny, brilliant point in a cloudless expanse of blue. Heat rose from the hard-packed floor in waves, and the air itself did everything it could to suck the water from the bones of any creature lucky enough to try and traverse it. There was no wind, no sound at all. Just an endless, dry, hot silence.

A wheezing pickup truck trundled around the hard pack and shrubbery, sending up a plume of dust behind it. It was filthy, covered in road grime from a trip of hundreds of miles, and it looked tiny in the vast emptiness of the desert.

The house it was driving to was weatherbeaten and small, but solid, built up against a cliff face where the sun wouldn’t touch it. An array of solar panels soaked in the sunlight about fifty feet away, and the house had its own filthy truck parked in front of it. A dirt road stretched from its front door all the way to the nearest state road, a good ten miles away. The pickup pulled in, sat for a moment, and then the engine shuddered to a stop.

The driver was small and slight, a man of Asian descent who had dressed wisely for the desert. He had on dark glasses and carried a briefcase, and took a deep breath before he walked up to the faded, sand-blown front door and knocked.

A minute later, the door opened into darkness. A young woman stepped out, dressed in a tank-top and shorts, with a bandanna holding back green hair. She looked the man up and down. “Yeah?” she said.

The man put on a bright smile. “Ms. Evelyn Pierce?” he said.

She slammed the door, nearly crushing his foot.

He nodded to himself. He’d expected this, or at least something very much like it. He went back to the truck, opened the passenger side door, and took out a battery-powered CD player, a folding chair, and a large hardcover book. He brought them closer to the house, in the shade of the cliff, opened the chair and sat down. He put the CD player on the ground, turned on the power and set the volume as high as it could go. He hit the “repeat” button and then “play,” and settled down to read his book.

A moment later, the brash, weedy sound of bagpipes filled the formerly quiet desert afternoon. A bone-chilling rendition of “Amazing Grace” was the first track, and to Evelyn’s credit she made it all the way through the “Skye Boat Song” and halfway to the end of “The Blue Bells of Scotland” before she burst out of her front door with a large handgun.

“Get the hell off my land!” she growled.

The man didn’t look up from his book, but casually paused the CD player and then turned a page. “Sorry, Ms. Pierce,” he said. “No can do.”

She lifted the gun and pointed it at him. “You do know that Arizona has some pretty loose castle laws, mister? I don’t think it would be too hard for me to convince a judge you were a threat to a young girl living out here by herself.”

The man turned another page. “Probably not,” he said. He reached into his shirt and pulled out a gleaming golden badge on a chain. “Shoot a federal agent, though, and no one will give a damn about your…” He glanced over at her house and then up at her. “Castle.”

Evelyn’s eyes narrowed, and she held the gun up a heartbeat longer. Then she let it drop. “You have a warrant?” she said with a sigh.

The man closed his book and put it on the chair when he stood up. “That’s not what I’m here for,” he said. “I’m here to talk to you, and ask if you would be willing to do your country a favor.” He spread his arms wide in a show of innocence. “That’s it.”

She thought for a moment. “What’s in it for me?” she asked.

“Ms. Pierce,” he said. “What ever happened to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’?”

“Before my time,” she said. “Make your pitch and get the hell out of here.”

He shrugged and picked up the briefcase. “Mind if we do this inside?” he asked. “It’s a little toasty out here.”

She stared at him and then shrugged. “What the hell,” she said. She started to turn, but then stopped. “Is that shirt cotton?” she asked.

His face passed through a moment of puzzlement, but then he smiled. “No,” he said. “Linen. Will that be a problem?”

Evelyn shrugged. “We’ll see. Come on in.”

The inside of the house was cool and dark, and stretched back into the cliff face. It was sparsely decorated, with some throw rugs and bookshelves, and the occasional bit of bric-a-brac wherever she could fit it. He peered back as far as he could see, but she stepped in front of him. “Are we going to do this?” she asked.

“Sure,” he said. He put the briefcase down on the coffee table and took a place on the sofa. “For starters,” he said, “my name is Tanner Quan. I’m an agent with the Department of National Security.” She didn’t say anything, but just crossed one leg over the other and gripped the arms of her chair. “I followed a very long and tangled investigation to find you, Ms. Pierce.” He popped open the briefcase and noticed that she flinched a little. He started taking out manila folders and laying them on the table. “We don’t know a whole lot about you, I’ll be honest,” he said, “but what we do know is very interesting indeed.”

“Like what?” she asked quietly through a clenched jaw.

“Well…” He picked up a folder and began to flip through it. “We know that you dropped off the grid about a year ago and moved out here. Prior to that you were living with your folks in Scottsdale.” He turned a page. “Before that, you were living in Ravensbrook, Illinois of all places.” He glanced up. “Interesting little town, that.”

“I didn’t think so,” she said.

Tanner shrugged. “You were sixteen. No one’s hometown is interesting when they’re sixteen.” He put down the folder and leaned forward. “We found out, of course, why you had to leave Ravensbrook.” He arched an eyebrow. “Rachael Decker?”

Evelyn stood up and grabbed her head. “I want you out,” she said. She flung a hand to the door. “Out. NOW!”

He stood with her. “Ms. Pierce, please. I’m sorry if you’re upset, but -” Tanner stopped talking as his shirt began to writhe and twist on him. It bunched up, wrapping itself around his chest, and started to squeeze. As it did, thin green shoots emerged, which blossomed into pale blue flowers. He grabbed at it, pulling and trying to get it off.

Evelyn was on her knees, holding her head in her hands and muttering to herself. “No, no, no,” she said. “Not this again, no…”

“Please. Evelyn,” Tanner wheezed. “You can stop this.” He tried to cough, but the linen pulled tighter around his chest and began to creep up to his throat. “You can stop this,” he said again, his last word ending in a gurgle.

Evelyn picked up her head, and her eyes had gone a bright emerald green. She looked over at his shirt, and it fell away in pieces, dropping to the floor. The shoots it had produced dried and withered, and Evelyn whimpered a bit as they did. Tanner pushed the shirt away with his foot and stared at Evelyn. “Are you… Are you okay?” he asked once he’d caught his breath.

She looked up at him and nodded. Her eyes were a normal green now, matching the hair that was coming out of her ponytail. “That was close,” Tanner said as she got up and went back to the chair. “Good thing the underwear’s silk.” He grinned, but she didn’t even notice. He sat down again.

“Ms. Pierce, I know what you can do.” He glanced down at the shirt and rubbed his bare arms. “I mean, I knew it before I came here. And I’m sorry that it’s difficult to live with.”

“Difficult?” she asked. “Why do you think I live out here, where there’s almost no plants?” She looked up at him, eyes shining. “I can hear them,” she said. “All the time, I can hear them. And they know that I hear them and they want to… to help me.” A laugh escaped her, almost a sob. “Help,” she said.

“We have people, Ms. Pierce. People who can help you.” He took a breath. “If you help us.”

“And why should I help you?” she asked. “What do you know?”

“You’d be surprised, Ms. Pierce,” he said. He took another folder from the briefcase, this one marked with a red stripe down one side. “Have you heard of Papaver demensum?” He dropped a glossy photograph on the table. It showed a flower, like a poppy but bigger. Its petals were dead black, with a corpse-white center, all perched atop a slender, pale stem.

She picked it up, looked at it for a moment and then shrugged. “No,” she said. “Should I have?”

“It was worth a shot,” he said. “This is the Madness Poppy. It’s a whole new cultivar out of Peru, just starting to reach the U.S. and it’s a nasty piece of work.”

Evelyn sat back in her chair. “How nasty?” she said.

“Well over five hundred beds filled with coma patients up and down the border.” He shuddered. “They just lie there,” he said, “with their eyes open, looking at… something. No idea what it is, but when the screaming starts…” He rubbed his arms again. “It’s not like anything you’ve ever heard before.”

Evelyn looked at him for a while and then got up. She came back a minute later with a sweatshirt. “Here,” she says. “You look about my size.”

He looked at it and shrugged. “Maybe so,” he said. He pulled it on, and it was a little short in the sleeves. He smiled at her and slid them up before he went on. “We’re intercepting the plants as they come across the border, but they’re like no poppy we’ve ever seen. They grow fast, they’re ridiculously low-maintenance, and the profit margin is enormous.” He looked up at her again. “Better than meth, and that’s without all the explosion hazard.”

Evelyn picked up the picture again and then looked back at Tanner. “I still don’t know what you expect me to do,” she said. “I mean, if you wanted them to grow faster, I think I could manage that. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what you want.”

He smiled and shook his head. “They grow plenty fast on their own,” he said. “What we need you to do is to… change them. See if you can convince them to produce less of whatever it is that makes them so potent. Tweak the DNA and just…” He waved a hand about aimlessly. “Out-evolve them.”

Evelyn stared at him for a moment. “Are you kidding me?” she said. She stood up and grabbed a scrap of his shirt from the floor. “I can barely control what I do with those things!” She flung it at him and shook her head. “No,” she said. “I’m not what you think I am.” She opened the door to blazing sunlight and stood by it. “You need to find somebody else. I can’t do this.”

Tanner stood up. “Ms. Pierce,” he said. “Like I said, we have people who’ve got some experience helping people… like you.”

“There are no people like me,” she said.

“Oh, but there are,” he replied, that bright smile working its way out again. “You’d be surprised.” He stood up and put his hands in his pockets. “Some with more troubles than you, believe me.”

She glanced at him for a moment and then looked away.

Tanner waited.

“You really think they can help me?” she said softly after a while.

He went to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I know they can,” he said. “With a little work, you can live a normal life again. Somewhere that isn’t…” He looked around. “That isn’t here.”

They stood there for a moment, the breeze from the desert bringing sand in over the threshold. Finally she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “But if I get everyone killed, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Tanner took his hand back. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We do this sort of thing all the time.”

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Day One Hundred and Fifty-five: Role Model

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

Our players this week both come from science fiction stories. Neil Tapscott was taken away by a mysterious robot on day 126 in Summoned, and young super-genius Kevin Truman from day 71, Genius. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with these two, but an idea blossomed in my head and I ran with it. Let’s hope it takes me somewhere good.

———————————–

A young Indian girl raised her hand and Neil pointed to her from the stage. She stood up, looking remarkably calm for someone who was going to have to ask a question while surrounded by her fellow middle schoolers, and asked, “Is working for a technology company a way to make the future better for everyone?”

Neil blinked. He’d agreed to do this career day thing for his sister, who was teaching at the school, and thought it would just be a matter of telling them to study hard and not do drugs. He came as an “Information Control Specialist” at Acton Informatics, which was a fancy way to say that he was a data entry clerk. He got reams of numbers from the tech and R&D guys every morning and spent his day making sure they got put into the right databases. He supposed that technically his job was essential to the proper operation of the company, but that was only because no one had bothered to teach the tech and R&D guys how to do it themselves.

He cleared his throat, which seemed to echo around the gymnasium. “Well,” he said, “there are many ways that you can make the future better, and not all of them can be done at a company like Acton.” He put his hands in his pockets and tried to think. You could probably make the future better by working at Acton, but not for everyone. Stockholders, maybe.

“Working with technology means working with tools,” he said. “And a tool can be used to do good or bad things, right? I mean, I can take a hammer and use it to build a house, or I can use that hammer to crack someone’s skull.” The kids laughed, and he glimpsed his sister in the wings doing a tiny, frantic wave to get his attention. The look on her face was horrified, probably because she was standing next to the principal, who clearly didn’t find joking about murder to be very funny.

“My point is,” Neil went on, focusing on the girl who asked the question, “you’re not going to make a better world with technology. You can only do that with people. You find good people, you get a good future. The technology just makes it a little easier to do.”

His sister walked in from the wings, applauding frantically. “Wasn’t that great?” she asked the kids, who applauded with at least some measure of enthusiasm. “I want to thank Neil for coming to our school, and I hope you all got something you can take away from what you heard.” She clapped again, and a few scattered kids followed suit. She gestured offstage, and Neil walked away, giving a wave to the crowd that no one really noticed. His sister followed him a few moments later and whispered furiously, “What the hell was that hammer joke?”

“Relax, Marie. It was funny. The kids liked it.”

Her eyes went wide. “Jesus, Neil, you’re in a school! Last April a kid was suspended for drawing a picture of a gun.” She slapped his shoulder. “A picture! These are not rational people, Neil.”

He held his hands up in submission. “All right, all right, I’m sorry. If anyone gives you grief, tell them to talk to me and I’ll make sure they know how completely appalled you were.” He held out a hand. “Deal?”

Marie glared at it for a moment before shaking it. “Deal. Fine. But if I get fired,” she said, “I’m crashing on your couch.”

“Feel free,” he said. “Maybe it’ll get the cat out of my bed for a night.”

She let out a short laugh, and the tension of the moment was gone. “Ah, Nickel. You really have to stand up to your cat one of these days.”

Neil shrugged. “What can I do? I stopped being the boss ages ago.” He reached out and gave his sister a hug. “Good to see you again, Marie,” he said.

“You too,” she said. “Thanks for coming out here on short notice.”

“And get my baby sister out of a jam? Not a problem.”

“Good.”

“So now you owe me.”

Marie grimaced. “Bank it,” she said.

“With interest? Gladly!” He laugh and hugged her again. “I’ll catch you later. I have to get back to work and tell my masters that I put a good face on for the company.” Neil gave a quick wave as he pushed open the backstage doors and tried to remember how he was supposed to get back to his car. There was probably a reason why they built schools like mazes, but damned if he knew why. As he walked, some of the students waved and said “Thanks, Mister Talcott!” Which, he figured, was close enough.

He took a few wrong turns, nearly ended up in the art room, and was just about ready to stop and ask for directions when one of the students called out to him from behind. “Mister Tapscott!” Surprised at hearing his name pronounced correctly, he turned around. A boy was running towards him with a folder full of papers in his hands and he had that look of frantic desperation that all kids get when they think they might miss a big chance. Neil had no idea what the kid might have thought he was missing, but he stopped anyway.

“Mister Tapscott,” the kid said, breathing heavily as he skidded to a stop.

“Slow down, kid,” Neil said. “Take a breath. Or two.”

The kid did, and looked up at Neil. “Mister Tapscott.” He handed out the folder full of papers. “Can you look at these for me?”

Neil took them without thinking, and instantly regretted it when the boy’s eyes lit up. “What are they?” he asked.

“Designs,” the boy said. “I have these ideas for some new machines, and I thought that you might know what to do with them. Since you work for Acton.”

Neil opened the folder and started leafing through the pages. They were packed with dense writing and precisely-drawn diagrams of devices that Neil had never seen before. They had been done with the kind of care that he usually didn’t even see at Acton, and never expected from a thirteen year-old boy.

He turned another page. “What is all this stuff?” Neil checked the name in the corner of each page: Kevin Truman. Not a name he was familiar with, but he made a note to email his sister about him.

“My designs,” the boy said. “I want to be an inventor someday and make the world a better place.”

“Uh-huh,” Neil said, turning one of the diagrams around to see if he could figure out what it was. He couldn’t

Kevin reached out and turned the diagram again. “That one is an artificial arm I thought of. It hooks up to the nervous system and allows the user to control it like it was his own.” He pulled the folder out of Neil’s hands and flipped through the pages. “This one is a design for a bridge that converts vibrations into electrical energy, and…” He found another. “This is for growing crops vertically, so we don’t have to use as much land.” He handed the folder back and looked up at Neil expectantly. “What do you think?” he asked.

Neil wasn’t sure what to tell him. The boy had that hope in his eyes that Neil remembered from when he was that age. It was the hope that he had done something not just right, but uniquely right. It was the belief that he had finally found someone willing to listen to him. And not just anyone, but an adult. An adult who could get things done!

Except that Neil wasn’t the kind of adult who could get things done. He closed the folder and handed it back to Kevin. “Listen, Kevin,” he said. “I’m not the guy you want to be bringing these to.” Kevin’s expression grew puzzled. “I can’t help you, Kevin,” he said. A moment of honesty overtook him. “In fact, if I were you, I’d keep all those ideas as far as I could from a place like Acton Informatics.”

Kevin looked like he didn’t understand, which seemed to be a rare enough feeling that it was uncomfortable on him. “Why?” he asked. “They’re good ideas, right?”

“Sure,” Neil said, even though he had no way of knowing if he was telling the truth. “But I’m just a data entry guy, Kev. I put numbers into a computer every day, then I wake up the next day and do it again.” He shrugged. “Even if I knew how to make these ideas real, I wouldn’t be able to make it happen.” He bent down a bit so he could be more on the boy’s level, and lowered his voice. “And honestly, the ones who could? They’d probably do it, take all the credit, and leave you with nothing.” He patted Kevin on the shoulder. “I’ve seen it happen, and believe me, it’s not pretty.”

Kevin eyed him with a careful gaze. “So what do I do?” he asked when Neil stood up. “Just forget about them?”

Neil shook his head. “No, no. God, no. Keep working on them. Keep making them better, maybe doing what you can on your own. Just make sure to keep looking for the right person to make them real.” He smiled, more at himself than the situation. He didn’t think he’d be able to bring this conversation around full circle. “It’s all about the people, remember?”

The boy nodded and clutched the designs to his chest. “Thanks,” he said, the ghost of a smile playing across his face. “Thanks a lot, Mister Tapscott.”

“No problem, kid.” He watched Kevin run off again with the same burst of energy he’d used when he arrived, and only a moment later realized that he’d forgotten to ask him how to get to the parking lot. Ah well, he thought. At least I made somebody’s day a little better. Maybe the rest of the day will go as well.

Day One Hundred and Twenty-seven: Last-ditch

September 25, 2011 3 comments

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This time around we have an interesting pairing – Peter Wach from Day 46, The Big Day, and Taylor Patraglia from Day 43, Investigations. Just for fun, let’s add a third: the unseen Speyeder from Day 80, One More Door. Plus a special surprise guest who kinda walked into the story on his own.

And here… we… go.

———————————-

“Mister Wach, why don’t you just calm down.” Taylor Patraglia quietly locked the door to his office and turned back to the man pacing back and forth in front of the desk. The man was thin and looked like he hadn’t slept in days. His hollow eyes were shining and darting around the room, from the door to the window to Taylor and back again. He hadn’t stopped moving since he came, and he’d barely stopped talking either. His fingers twitched like he was flicking a cigarette.

“I can’t calm down, mister Patraglia, I just can’t. I’m telling you what happened, I’m telling you the truth, and if you won’t help me then I’ll try to find someone who will!”

“Hold on, mister Wach.” Taylor held up his hands and glanced at his watch. It was three-fifteen. All he had to do was wait another seven minutes and this problem might be out of his hands. “You do understand why I find all this a little difficult to believe.”

Wach laughed, and it was harsh and loud. “You find it difficult to believe, huh? Imagine how I must feel about it.”

Taylor circled back around to his desk and picked up the file folder he’d put there. “I can try,” he said. He flipped open the file and scanned his scratchy handwriting. The notes he had taken on the phone the day before were disorganized, but disorganized in a very specific way. “You were drugged and… tortured? By none other than Ulysses Grodin himself.” He glanced up. “You do realize what you’re alleging here, right? That one of the most powerful men in this city – hell, the country – held you in some secret prison and shoved bamboo under your fingernails?”

“Not bamboo,” Wach muttered. “They used tasers. Not bamboo.”

“My mistake.” Taylor took a pen from his pocket and pretended to write something. “Tasers. And then after that they let you go, but not before… ‘Pulling your life out by the roots.’ In your words.” He snapped the file closed and looked up again.

For a moment, he was worried that Wach would do something violent. The man had finally stopped moving and was gripping the back of the chair with his knuckles white. “They took my home,” he said. “My bank account is locked. My driver’s license.” He barked out a laugh again. “Hell, they sent my wife doctored-up pictures of me and some teenager.” He wiped his eyes. “A boy, even.” He took a deep breath and stood up straight, not letting his eyes meet Taylor’s. “I have nothing left to me now. I’m staying with a friend. All I have is some cash I’d socked away.” He shook his head. “No one will hire me or even give me an interview.” He walked around and slumped down into the chair. “All because of that damned chip.” He dropped his head into his hands and took deep breaths.

Taylor glanced back at the file. “Yeah, the chip. Tell me about it again?”

“It’s memory.” Wach’s voice was muffled by his hands. “It can store a ridiculous amount of data.” He looked up, his eyes shining. “When it gets into production, it’ll be a bigger advance in computing than the integrated circuit.” He sat back, and his body seemed to have deflated. All the nervous energy was gone, replaced with resignation. “I designed it, figured out how to make it work, and then they said I stole it. After that… That’s when they took my life from me.”

“Okay,” Taylor said. He sat on the edge of his desk and tried to look casually friendly, something he’d never been very good at. The man sitting in front of him was either embroiled in a massive conspiracy or completely insane. Either way, Taylor figured that the chances of getting paid were slim. “I’ve got your side of the story. My question to you is this: what do you think I can do for you?”

Peter Wach looked genuinely puzzled by the question. “Do?” he asked. “Isn’t this what you do?” He gestured around the office, and Taylor followed his glance. He had been told, over and over again, about the need to make the office more comfortable, both for himself and his customers, but that took money. Like so many other private investigators, money wasn’t something he had in abundance. But for now it was good enough. It had a desk, it had chairs and a view of a part of the city that was just a good twenty minute subway ride away from downtown. He’d even bought a plastic plant to put in the corner.

Taylor shrugged and checked his watch again. “Yeah, but most of my work is tracking down husbands and runaways, mister Wach. Not digging into the internal workings of one of the biggest companies on the planet.”

There was a moment of leaden silence. “Then I guess I’ve wasted my time,” Wach said. He stood up, and at that moment the telephone rang.

“Just a moment,” Taylor said. He picked up the handset. “Yeah?” he said.

The voice on the other end sounded distorted and strange. It would be hard to say whether it was male or female. Taylor wouldn’t have been comfortable betting that it was actually human. “I’ve found it,” the voice said.

“Good,” Taylor said.

“You’re not going to like where it is, though,” the voice said, and even through all the electronic distortion Taylor thought he could hear amusement.

“Speyeder, I really don’t have a lot of time here.” He glanced up. Wach was watching him closely. “So why don’t you play nice and share.”

“Fine,” Speyeder said. “Be that way. The prototype is stored in a secure locker at Munin Scientific headquarters, and if that thing is even half as amazing as the files look, then it’s worth its weight in gold that’s been dipped in diamonds and wrapped in the skin of baby dinosaurs.” The voice chuckled. “The emails I picked up suggest it’s in the basement vaults, which are protected by the best security Cerbecorp could provide.” It paused, and Taylor could hear the hissing of static in the background. “Unless you have a commando team in your back pocket, you’re not getting in there.”

Taylor nodded. “Thought so.” He sighed. “Well, thanks. I owe you one.”

“You owe me more than one, Patraglia,” Speyeder said. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” The static cut off and Taylor hung up the phone. He stared at it for a moment and then looked back at Wach. “You want the good news or the bad news first?”

The man’s eyes narrowed, but a wave of hope crossed his expression. “Good news.”

“All right.” Taylor nodded. “The prototype you were talking about? It seems that it’s real, and it’s still at Munin.”

Wach stood up. “See? I told you! I told you I was telling the truth!” He took a few steps, running his hands through thinning hair. “Oh, thank god,” he said. “Thank god I’m not crazy…”

“There is still bad news, mister Wach,” Taylor said. Wach stopped and turned around. Taylor looked at the notes he’d written. “Do you know of a vault in the basement level of the building?” Wach sagged where he stood and nodded. “Then you know how hard it’ll be to get at it.”

Wach pulled the chair to him and sat down with a thud. “Then there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said. “God himself couldn’t get into those vaults.”

Taylor walked over and patted the man on the shoulder. “There now,” he said. “That’s what they said about sinking the Titanic.” He took his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped it open. “It may not be easy,” he said. “But I think I know who can do it.”

He selected a phone number and listened to it ring. When a tone sounded, he entered ten digits, waited, and then entered five more. A voice – definitely electronic this time – told him to enter his passphrase. Slowly and carefully, he recited, “Imagine an imaginary menagerie manager imagining managing an imaginary menagerie.” He looked over at Wach, whose eyebrows went up. Taylor shrugged and returned his concentration to the phone. There was a series of beeps. Then a voice, real and human.

“Drake McBane. Talk to me.”

Taylor smiled and gave a thumbs-up to Peter Wach. “Hello, mister McBane,” he said. “This is Taylor Patraglia. I have an adventure for you.”

Day One Hundred and Ten: In Transit

September 8, 2011 1 comment

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This story features Jani Morgan, who was seen on Day 25 –Babysitting as a space pilot for hire who really kind of regretted her life choices, and Eddie Holsclaw, the young sufferer of Capgras Delusion that we saw in Reunion on Day 9. Let’s see what happens when we put them together…

—————————–

The prisoner was beginning to make Jani nervous.

She’d picked him up outside of Antares, part of a favor that she needed to repay to a friend of hers who ran a series of prison asteroids. Just like everyone else who ever hired Jani, Annica started off by saying the same thing: “It’s no big deal, really. Just a simple job.”

To their credit, most of the time they were right. A little cargo here, some upper middle-class middle manager there. The occasional satchel of narcotics or weaponry. The bureaucracy of the stars was so thinly spread and so entrenched that its only reason to exist was to protect its own existence, and the last thing they actually needed to do was their jobs.

But on occasion, it did get interesting. One time she was nearly boarded by a gang of pirates lurking around some little-used shipping lanes. Another time, the creature she was transporting got out of its cage and tore apart half the electrical systems of her ship. They were stories that she loved to tell over a drink in a dive bar, but she would much rather they just be the tall tales of the space sailors.

This guy looked like he was going to be one of those stories.

He was brought onto the ship by two armed guards, and they had him strapped to one of those Lechter frames. He was human, which definitely caught her interest. There weren’t a whole lot of them flying around space, and any time two humans got together, interesting things were bound to happen. It usually ended in a fistfight or a mad night of sex. Sometimes both. The prisoner couldn’t move much more than his head, but he didn’t have the mask. Jani wasn’t sure if that made her feel better or not. His eyes were blue and wide and flickered around the ship as he was wheeled aboard. She couldn’t tell through all the bindings, but he looked thin.

“He gonna be any trouble?” she asked the guards.

One of them shrugged. He was of a reptilian species – probably the ones out of Sirius. They were very good at not moving when they didn’t have to, and being absolutely vicious when they did. “Probably not,” he said in a voice that was surprisingly melodic. “He’s only dangerous if he gets a hold of something.” The other guard, who was hairy and wide and barely fit into his body armor, just nodded and kept his eyes on the prisoner.

Jani nodded. “Fine. You guys can camp out in the galley. I’ll be back there once we’re moving.” The guards wheeled him through the door and they vanished into her ship. She went the other way, to the cockpit, and started preparing for launch. The new piloting rig she’d bought made operating the ship easier, but at the same time it pointed out just how old and crappy everything else was. It still smelled like burned plastic and stale sweat, and you could tell which letters she used most on the keyboard because she’d touch-typed them off. This gig wouldn’t help, either. There wasn’t nearly enough money in it to pay for anything good, but it did earn her some goodwill.

The ship rattled a little as she spun up the engines, but once it got going, the vibrations stopped. You could still hear it, if you listened. She’d named it Titanic, partly out of a sense of irony but mostly out of her belief that disaster might pass her by if she had enough chutzpah about it. So far, so good.

She reached over and called up the coordinates to their destination. Then she leaned all the way to the other side and entered them into the nav computer, all the while thinking about how she needed to refit everything. The autopilot set, she flipped the intercom. “We’re leaving the dock, guys. Once we’re on our way, I’ll come see how you’re doing.” She clicked it off without waiting for a response.

Once the ship was pointed more or less where they wanted to go, Jani activated the autopilot and let it take over from there. She stood up, not bothering to watch as the stars slid past her main screen, and stretched before she went back to the galley.

The security guards were sitting at the booth where she ate most of her meals, and they didn’t look comfortable. The prisoner was still in his cage, staring at them with a look of smug satisfaction. His eyes flickered to Jani when she entered, and she ignored him as best she could. “Everything all right here, guys?” she said.

They glanced at her before they said that everything was fine, and she suppressed a sigh. The coffee maker wasn’t any better than the rest of the ship, but it made something that tasted vaguely enough like how she remembered coffee to taste that she went along and suspended her disbelief every morning. She started fixing some for the guards.

“They made you pretty.”

She looked over her shoulder. The prisoner was staring at her. “What model are you?” he asked.

Jani went back to setting up the coffee maker. She checked the pot twice to make sure it was clean, and double-checked how much water there was in the tank and that the coffee powder was in the little steel cups that she almost never used because they were for company. Satisfied, she turned on the machine and let it start gurgling away. She wiped her hands on a towel, slowly lowered herself into the booth where the security guards were sitting, and leaned her chin on her hands. “I’m sorry,” she said to the prisoner. “Did you say something?”

He twisted his face into what she thought he probably supposed was a smile. “You’re clever, too. I can see you know how to mock us. Bravo.” He glanced down. “If I could, I’d applaud.”

Jani looked over at the guards for an explanation, but the lizard was very decidedly not looking at the prisoner, while the fuzzy one was carefully inspecting his weapon.

“They tell me I’m crazy,” the prisoner said.

“No kidding.” Jani’s expression didn’t change. “What’d you do?”

The hairy guard reached over and touched her arm. “Miss. You really shouldn’t engage him.” His eyes were big and liquid and looked worried, though she suspected that was their standard condition.

“What’s he going to do?” she asked. “He’s tied up, isn’t he?”

“Yes, but…”

She turned back to the prisoner. “You got a name, crazy man?” she asked.

The prisoner made another one of those almost-smiles. “You can call me Eddie,” he said. “Eddie Holsclaw.”

“Eddie?” she said. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve met an Eddie.” She leaned forward. “What’s another human doing way the hell out here?”

Eddie didn’t answer her question. The almost-smile dropped from his face and he closed his eyes. It took a moment to realize that he was shaking. His jaws were clamped tight, his eyes squeezing out thin tears, and his face was reddening. Jani looked over at the guards, who were both watching very carefully. “You shouldn’t have said that, miss,” the lizard one said. “He’s got a pro -”

“You are not human!” Eddie screamed. His eyes were open now, bulging from his face, and spittle flew across the room. “I know what you are! Machine! Foul, dirty machine, a made thing, a simulacrum!” He took a deep breath, and before the end of it, the fuzzy guard was on his feet and reaching into a small pouch on his belt.

“Don’t you come near me, creature!” Eddie yelled. “You filthy mechanical torturer! Let me out of here and I’ll destroy you all! Make room for the living, for the real!” He cried out as the guard jabbed him with a hypodermic. “You will all… I will free the universe… You…” His head dropped forward as far as it could go, and a thin line of drool slowly dripped from his lips.

Jani looked from Eddie to the guards and back again. The fuzzy one was putting a second hypo back in the pouch, keeping his eyes on the prisoner. The lizard was standing and had his baton gripped in both hands. When it became evident that Eddie was out, the guards sat down again, keeping watch on him.

The coffee maker beeped, and Jani jumped. She laughed, a short, unfunny laugh, and quickly doled out two cups of coffee to the guards. “Here you go,” she said. They took it with nods of thanks. She looked over at Eddie again and shook her head. “They don’t pay you enough,” she said to the guards.

“No kidding,” the lizard guard said. He held up the coffee. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” She backed up to the door. “You need anything, just hit the intercom over there. We’ll be at our destination in about two hours.” She backed up through the door, and slammed her palm on the lock switch as soon as the door was closed. Then she exhaled.

The piloting rig wasn’t as comfortable as a chair in the galley, the view of the stars was dead boring, and she’d forgotten her coffee. “At least there’s no crazy person in here,” she said. She glanced back down the hall to the galley door and then, just for good measure, closed off the cockpit. She reclined in the piloting rig and stared out the window. It was probably going to turn into a story, whether she liked it or not. She hoped Annica appreciated it.

Day Eighty-two: The Value of Information [MAKE-UP]

August 28, 2011 1 comment

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This story features Elli Acton, the lead in one of the early stories on day 4, Daddy’s Little Firecracker, and Michael Collington, the off-screen character in day 28’s Fiat Scientia whose suicide got the whole story rolling. Considering that they’re from two different eras in (probably) different universes – and one of them is dead – this should be interesting. Let’s see what happens….

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The first thing Michael Collington said to Elli Acton was, “I’m a great admirer of your father.”

This was immediately followed by Elli knocking him at least three places down the bar with a right hook to the jaw. She emptied her drink over his head and said, “Go to hell, fucker.” Then she picked up her purse and strode out of the bar.

He didn’t see her again for six months.

He ran into her again in a small Los Angeles coffee shop, reading a book. He had to pass by her a few times to make sure it was her, but as soon as he was certain, he introduced himself. “Hi,” he said. “Can I buy you another cup of whatever it is you’re drinking?”

Elli turned a page in her book and held out the cup. “Caramel latte,” she said, not looking at him. “Make it quick.”

Mercifully, the line was short and he was back with her drink in under five minutes. She took it from him while she read and muttered “Thanks.” Michael lowered himself into the seat next to hers and sipped his own drink, a black coffee. He waited, watching people move past, coming in, ordering drinks and going out, and occasionally glancing over to see if Elli was doing anything other than reading her book.

She wasn’t.

After about ten minutes, he took a chance. “I’m terribly sorry to interrupt,” he said. He’d found during his time in the United States that his native British accent was considered charming, so he tried to play it up a little whenever he could. “I’ve noticed you’re reading the new Nicholas Calviani book. Is it any good?”

She continued to read. After a few seconds, she turned a page, coming to the end of the chapter. Then she said, “Yes,” and continued to the next.

“Ah,” he said. “I see.” He took a drink from his cup, emptying it. “It’s just that I find his theories on the causes of inner-city poverty to be rather simplistic and he never really offers a solution to any of the problems he brings up in the book. I mean, if all it took to ‘fix’ poverty was a rousing sing-along and an outpouring of community feelings, we would have solved it by now, don’t you-”

Ellie snapped the book closed and put it into her bag. She drained the last of her latte, stood up and walked out of the coffee shop without a word.

Michael sat at the table and watched her leave. “Damn,” he said.

They way he had come to know her – or at least know of her – was through a magazine interview he’d read with her father, Wilford Acton. He was the founder of Acton Informatics, which began as a maker and supplier of customer listings back in the late 70s. As technology improved, Acton and his company became the premier designers of databases in the nation, and were now supplying programs and programmers to nearly every major government and corporation on the planet. Acton’s systems were elegant and simple, and the moment Michael read about them, he knew he wanted to be a part of the bigger picture.

He had ideas. He’d always had ideas, ever since he was a kid, but they never seemed to work out. Either someone else would get there first, or he would realize that the brilliant plan he’d put together would be impossible to actually work out. He might lose interest in one in order to pursue another, which he would usually drop when another, grander idea came into his head. The result of this was that he had a general working knowledge of many topics, from science and technology to art and music to sociology, psychology and astrophysics. But he was an expert in none, and didn’t have the connections to the people who were experts, so he feared he would be forever lost to progress.

The interview he’d read, however, seemed to be the chance he was looking for. He had thought of ways that companies could use interconnected databases to analyze their customers’ buying habits and then extrapolate their needs. So by looking at their credit card purchases, for example, a company might know when to target them for certain products. If someone suddenly started buying more health foods, for example, instead of their usual purchases, it might be time to make sure they see an ad for a local gym or an at-home exercise machine. Someone whose statements showed more social activities – restaurants and bars, for example – might be dating again. The perfect time to send coupons to local eateries. By keeping a constant watch on people’s purchases, companies could better tailor advertising and product research.

Michael had mentioned this to a few friends, most of whom thought it was a massive ethical violation, akin to spying on people, and he conceded that they had a point. But he knew it would work, and that it would change the world forever. So he studied up on Acton Informatics and learned about Acton’s daughter, Elli. She was young, smart and once again single, so Michael did a bit of research online and managed to find out a bit more about where she liked to spend her time.

What he’d somehow managed to miss, it seemed, was how she felt about her father.

He was determined to try again, though. He’d found her on Facebook and Twitter and followed her on both. He kept notes on where she went and who she seemed to talk to a lot, and produced what he believed to be a good dossier of her likes and dislikes, the latter list being topped, in large red letters with “HER FATHER.” He studied his notes constantly, taking time to make predictions about her behavior and see how well they bore out.

Part of Michael was aware, to some degree, that what he was doing might be considered stalking. That if she ever found out about it, he could be arrested, or at the very least forced to keep as far away from her as the law would allow. And that he would lose his only possibly means of getting to Wilford Acton.

But he didn’t care. The ends justify the means, he told himself, and knew that one day, if necessary, she would forgive him.

He stood in front of a small Italian restaurant where Elli’s birthday party was being held. He’d managed to get on the invitation list through a friend of hers, and he’d brought a bottle of her favorite scotch. He’d wisely left his dossier at home, but he didn’t need it. He knew her likes and dislikes and what would probably get her talking. The first time, he’d gone in blind. The second, he’d been a complete amateur.

This time, he would win over Elli Acton.

After that, the world.

Day Fifty: Breakup

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This story features Dr. Traci Keniston, who was mentioned but not seen in day 48, Creative Thinking; Ty Palmer, one of the leads from day 7, Confession; and Treva Vanderberg, who was shot and injured in day 33’s Monsters. Let’s watch and see what happens…

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Dr. Keniston put the phone down and shook her head. She didn’t know how Dr. Bettencourt had gotten that grant money, but it had clearly gone to her head. She took a look around her desk and did a quick mental calculation. Papers were graded, the exam was nearly finished, and she’d just finished inputting grades for the semester. There was nothing on the schedule until the faculty meeting at three. Just time for a quick lunch.

The student union was nearly empty, being just after the lunchtime rush. There were pockets of students sitting around tables, studying and listening to music on headphones. Some of them chatting about whatever it was they were going to do instead of study. A could who knew her waved and said hi, and she waved back. Not a lot of professors liked to eat with the students – some sort of professional pride or other nonsense. Dr. Keniston felt that it was best for the teachers to know a little bit about the kids they were teaching. To mingle, and get a feel for the world. She ordered a burger and picked up a salad to go with it, and drummed her fingers on the counter while she waited.

An idea for a short story popped into her head – a short-order cook who overhears a murder plot – and quickly jotted it down in her idea book. It might not go anywhere, she thought, but there was no point wasting it. She got her burger, paid for it, and sat down in one of the booths.

Luch was a great time to think, so she ate in silence, without her usual lunchtime reading, until the conversation from the next booth over caught her ear.

“Ty, it’s not you, it’s….” The girl’s voice caught, and she sounded like she was trying to get herself under control. “No, it is you, Ty. I’m so sorry, but it is!”

“Treva, I don’t understand.” Dr. Keniston knew this voice – Ty Palmer, one of her students. She took out her idea book and started spinning the pen in her fingers. Was it right to eavesdrop on what was obviously a breakup? No, of course not. Completely unethical. Only a monster would mine it for dialog ideas.

She tapped the pages, impatient for the next line.

“Ty, it’s just that you’re never… there. Even when you’re here, you’re not here.”

“What does that even mean, Treva? I’ve always been here!”

The girl sniffled again. “No, you’re not, Ty.” She paused, and it was a meaningful pause. “Ty, when we’re… together, you always seem like you’re thinking of something else. Maybe someone else, I don’t know. You don’t look at me, and when you do…” Now the tears came, and there was little point in trying to stop them. Keniston made a couple of notes, but so far nothing had really struck her. Ty said something soft, hard to understand.

“No, Ty,” Treva said. “It’s not just that. I don’t think this is something you can really fix, and I know you want to. I…” Keniston got her pencil ready. This should be it. “You left your computer browser open the other day, Ty. When I came by to drop off your sneakers.” That meaningful silence again. “I saw what you were looking at, Ty.”

There was a sound of someone – Ty, probably – trying to get out of the booth, and she was trying to keep him there. Their words overran each other. He tried making excuses to leave, she tried to stop him, and it wasn’t until she finally came out and said what she’d been holding on to for the last fifteen minutes that he finally sat back down.

“I know you’re gay, Ty.”

The quiet made Keniston’s fingertips itch.

Treva’s voice was quiet, but there was some core of strength to it. “I want you to be happy,” she said. “But I can’t be the one to make you happy.”

“But…” His voice was dry. “But you do make me happy, Treva. You do.”

“Not the way you need,” she said. “And if letting you go means that you can find that person, then… Then that’s what I have to do.” She slid out of the booth and stood up. “I’m so sorry, Ty,” she said. “I love you too much to let you stay with me.” With that, she walked away. Keniston caught a glimpse of her as she headed for the door, a beautiful girl who walked with a cane. She’d seen her around the science buildings before, but never had her in class.

She looked at her notebook, where she had written Treva’s parting lines, and she could feel, like a kind of pressure, Ty in the booth behind her. Perhaps it was a trick of the ears, or her mind making her hear what she wanted to hear. She was pretty sure he was crying. She looked at the notebook again, sighed, and tore the page out and crumpled it up. She took her tray and stood, trying very hard not to look behind her at the poor, ruined boy in the booth. She stood there a moment, not moving, and then turned around.

Ty looked up as she sat down across from him. His eyes were red – she had been right. Even so, he was a handsome one. He’ll make some lucky guy very happy someday, she thought. She set the tray aside and leaned towards him on the table. “I overheard, Ty. I’m sorry.”

He nodded, sniffed, and wiped his nose. “Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”

“Dessert,” she said. “My treat.” She stood up, waiting for him to do the same. He rubbed his eyes clear again, nodded, and stood, not even bothering to sling his bag over his shoulder. “C’mon,” she said. “Nothing like ice cream when you’re the dumpee.” She put an arm around his shoulders. “Make it through this,” she said, “and you’ll have a great story on your hands.”

He started talking before they even got out of the student union. And she was right.

Day Thirty-eight: A Friend in Need

June 28, 2011 4 comments

As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.

This week features Rachael Decker, the ill-fated Girl Next Door from day 9, Reunion and Evelyn Pierce (AKA Botanica, a former metahuman) from story 36, Interviews. Let’s watch and see what happens…

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Green hair isn’t something you can hide easily in high school. Evelyn Pierce certainly tried, but she found that trying to go from a deep, mossy green back to her normal blonde was asking for more than modern cosmetics could offer. The new tint ignored the bleach utterly, and she knew she wasn’t goth enough to pull off dyeing her hair black. So green it was.

She got complaints from teachers, who called her parents, who said they had no idea what was going on. There was no history of green hair in the family, of course, and they were as concerned as anyone.

Compared to what else was happening, though, green hair was the least of Evelyn’s problems.

The real trouble started in biology class, as it so often does. The project was simple: clone a plant. Take a cutting, put it in some agar in a tube and try to cultivate cells from it. Each student pair did just that – plant, cutting, agar, incubate. Evelyn was paired with Rachael Decker, which made life easier. Rachael was a rarity in high school – someone who was incredibly popular, but at the same time genuinely nice. She didn’t care who you were, but rather treated everyone with basic human decency.

No one knew how she managed. But if there was any better person to have to work with when your hair was turning green, Evelyn didn’t know her. All Rachael said when she saw it for the first time was, “Wow! That looks nice!” And that was it. From anyone else, Evelyn would have suspected sarcasm. But not Rachael Decker.

The results of the experiment were, for most of the pairs, fairly ordinary. Lots of fungal infections from improperly cleaned equipment, a few that showed some sign of growth.

Evelyn’s had exploded. It broke through its glass tube and sent blind tendrils all through the incubator, infiltrating other experiments and completely ruining half the class’ work. Mr. Peters, the bio teacher, was amused, if anything. “Looks like we have a success,” he said, carefully disentangling the thing from all the others. He handed it to Evelyn and Rachael. “What’re you going to name it?”

Rachael laughed, but Evelyn didn’t even hear him. She was too busy listening to the horrible thing she was holding in her hands as it screamed at her. It was… crying. Like a horrible, twisted baby. And no one seemed to notice.

She dropped it and ran out of the bio lab. She went to the nurse, who called her parents, who took her home. As they drove, the whispering voice of that thing tickled her mind, and wherever she looked she felt like she was being watched.

She missed school the next day, and the day after. She wouldn’t leave her room – going to the living room with her mother’s potted plants was painful enough, and when her father mowed the lawn she nearly went mad. The grass screamed at her. The begonias begged for their freedom. She couldn’t even take a shower – as scrupulous as her mother was about cleaning, there was still mold somewhere, and it spoke to her in a horrible black voice that made her teeth hurt.

After a few days, her mother poked her head into the bedroom. “Evey, honey? You have a visitor?” Everything her mother said sounded like a question. It always had, and it always bugged Evelyn, but not now,

“I can’t, mom,” she said.

“She says it’s important? It’s your friend Rachael?”

The thought that Rachael could make everything better was stupid, she knew. Childish. No one could make things better, not ever. But it planted itself in her, and took hold. If she could talk to anyone, it would be Rachael. “I’ll… I’ll come down,” she said.

She brushed her hair and changed her clothes for the first time in two days. Rachael wouldn’t mind if she smelled a little.

She heard them as she walked down the stairs. Her mother was a big believer in houseplants and kept them all over the place. Every room had green, growing things in it and until this week Evelyn thought they were nice. That they added some life and some freshness to the house. Now she could hear their voices as they strained for sunlight, called for water and ached in the pots that were provided for them. They wanted to be outside, to have their roots in deep soil and to be able to feel the breeze, to host insects and to be wild again. All of that in a cacophony of noise in her head that was so very loud. By the time she was in the living room, she was whimpering, and didn’t even notice that Rachael was there.

“Evey?” Rachael asked, putting her hands on her Evelyn’s shoulders. “Evey, are you okay?”

All Evelyn could do was shake her head. She wanted to speak, but she couldn’t unclench her mouth.

“I’ll leave you two alone?” he mother said. “If you want anything…?” She left, looking worried.

Rachael guided Evelyn over to the sofa, next to a sprawling philodendron on the side table that was singing, of all things. Singing! Evelyn whimpered as she sat. Rachael sat next to her, her hand on Evelyn’s knee. There was a rubber plant on the other side of the sofa that was growling something Evelyn couldn’t make out. “I know what you’re going through,” Rachael said.

Evelyn wanted to laugh, but that seemed like a very bad idea. What had Rachael gone through that was like this? What had she had to endure? The pitch of the plant noise ebbed for a moment, and she could sense a change in the room. An attention that wasn’t there before. A quiet, definite attention.

They were listening to her.

“Sometimes, life just gets weird, y’know?” Rachael continued. “But I want you to know I’m here if you need anything.” She leaned in. “Is it those guys from the swim team? Because they’re just assholes, and you know it.”

Evelyn shook her head again, but thinking of the laughter and the taunts she got when her hair changed just made it worse. She could feel something uncoiling inside her, something horrible and deadly. The plants had fallen utterly silent. Except for one of the spider plants hanging in the large bay window. It was laughing.

“But in order for me to help you, I need to know what’s wrong.” Rachael tilted Evelyn’s face up to look her in the eyes, and she smiled. She had such a pretty smile. She had red hair that set off gold-brown eyes, and those eyes just looked so honest. So sincere. Evelyn heard her own voice in her head, cutting through the silence. You can tell her, she thought. She’ll believe you.

Evelyn relaxed, and the thing inside her lashed out. The plants in the living room burst into life, their tendrils and leaves exploding outwards with a sound no human ear had ever heard before. Under that quiet roar was a louder one in her mind, a cry of freedom and rage. They had been given a horrible vitality that Evelyn knew was coming from her, flowing from her, but she couldn’t stop it. She didn’t know how it started, and stopping it was like trying to stop a river.

“What the hell?” Rachael stood up and started at the plants, then at Evelyn, who was rigid on the couch. “Evelyn, what’s-” She was cut off as the long stems of a large porthos plant whipped around her neck, cutting off her breathing. The long, grassy leaves of the spider plant whipped around, binding her hand and foot and lifting her, twisting and writing, off the floor. The great, stiff branches of a jade plant held her up, lifting her nearly to the ceiling.

From the couch, Evelyn was helpless. She saw her friend in the air, wrapped in twisting, choking green, and she couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. She tried yelling in her head for the plants to stop, to let her friend down, but they couldn’t hear her – or wouldn’t.

Please, she implored them. Please let her go!

The mad chorus of voices surged, voicing primitive, needy thoughts. The room was filled with the sound of rustling leaves and the smell of steaming, living soil. The plants were happy, she realized. Happy for the first time in their lives. They were calling out – sun, water, soil – over and over again, like a chant, like a ritual – sun, water, soil – getting louder and louder and ignoring the screams in Evelyn’s head to stop, to put down her friend, to please just stop!

There was a loud snap.

The plants went quiet. For a moment, Evelyn thought that maybe one of the branches had broken, that they had pushed too far, too fast. But she heard the plants and knew that wasn’t so. They were murmuring, whispering, quiet. The leaves and vines and tendrils, so alive and vicious just a moment ago, went limp, and Rachael’s body fell to the floor. There were cuts all over her arms and neck where the leaves and vines had sliced into her skin. Her head lolled on a broken neck and rested awkwardly on her shoulder.

Finally, Evelyn was able to move. She dropped down beside her friend and begged and pleaded and sobbed.

The plants watched, and whispered.