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Day One Hundred and Sixty-two: A Day Out

October 30, 2011 6 comments

Lola stared at herself in the mirror and ran her fingers through her long auburn hair. “This is great,” she said. “I mean really great!”

“I know,” Marisse said, coming into view behind her. She spun Lola around and stooped to look into her sister’s eyes. “Nice, nice,” she said. “Green is good on you.” She stood up straight and turned around to show off the short black dress she’d managed to squeeze into. “How’s this look?” she asked.

“You look great,” Lola said, and she actually meant it. Marisse was gorgeous – tall, with deep brown skin and hair that was nearly blue-black, even in the light of their bathroom. She stood like a supermodel, a hand on her hip and made a pouty face like the ones they’d seen in so many magazines. “Seriously,” Lola said. “That is amazing.”

“And thank you,” Marisse said. She ran a finger down the lapel of the jacket Lola was wearing. “You don’t look too bad yourself, my dear.” She picked up Lola’s pale hand and examined her nails. “Brava on your choice here, too.”

Lola smiled and blushed. “It’s the same blue as the suit,” she said. “I can’t believe I actually found it.”

“Well, you did, and you look amazing.” Marisse turned them around to look in the mirror. “We both look amazing. And you know what?” She put her arm around Lola, and Lola could practically feel the confidence welling over from her. “We are going to have an amazing Halloween this year.” Marisse hugged her close. “Mark my words.”

The morning sun was barely a hands-width over the treetops by the time they left their house and began the long walk to the bus stop. They tottered in their high heels and laughed about it as they walked, and they drew stares from everyone else who was waiting by the time they got there. Marisse made sure to stand next to a middle-aged businessman, and she tried flirting with him. She stood in the corner of his eye and smiled at him, and then looked away when he looked at her. A few more times, and he took out his phone and started frantically tapping away so that he didn’t have to look at her. It was all Lola could do not to burst out laughing.

The bus ride into Sylvania City took about half an hour, and they were on the edges of their seats the whole time. Lola pointed out the things that had changed since the year before – a new strip mall, a restaurant that had gone under, a house that had gone somewhat overboard on the holiday decorations. When people got on the bus, they giggled and pointed, and more than once made people stand up and move to other seats. Among the morning commute crowd, they were by far having the most fun, and even on Halloween, that was strange.

They stepped down from the bus in Bemrich Circle, in the most touristy district of Sylvania City, and squinted in the bright sunlight. “Okay,” Marisse said. “What time’s sunset again?”

“5:05,” Lola said. She’d had it up on notes around the house for a week, and made sure she remembered. “We have just a little over eight hours.”

“Well, then, let’s get to it!” Marisse gestured widely and grinned. “Where do you want to start?”

The choices were endless. Sylvania wasn’t the largest of cities – nothing like New York or Boston or Corsair – but it had an eclectic spirit all its own. The downtown was full of people and buses and cars, little bookstores and restaurants and huge national department stores. There were museums along the Hortus and a new walking park that had been built along the Edles River last year. They could spend days here, if they wanted.

But they didn’t have days.

Lola watched the people getting off the bus, tired and hurrying to catch taxis or run to their offices. “How about we get some coffee?” she said, pointing to a small shop on the corner that was doing brisk business with the commuter crowd. Marisse clapped her hands and they dashed across the busy street to join the line.

When they finally got to the counter, an exhausted barista greeted them with, “Welcome to Javaville, what’ll you have?”

Lola and Marisse exchanged glances, and Marisse struggled to keep a straight face as she turned to the young man. “I would like,” she said, over-enunciating each word, “one soy milk latte.” Lola started to giggle and Marisse gave her a slight shove. “And a blueberry muffin.” Lola started to laugh hard enough to attract the attention of the other customers, and the barista arched an eyebrow.

“Anything for your friend?” he asked.

Lola leapt to the counter. “Yes,” she said, her voice taking on the sing-song quality that people use when they talk to children. “I’d like a mocha espresso, please. And one of your delicious scones.” She smiled, showing as many teeth as she could, and the barista had to blink a few times before he rang them up.

They sat in the cafe and planned their day, occasionally glancing around at the crowd and watching the other customers as they came in. They would go to the Finamore Museum of Art first and see the traveling Picasso exhibition they were hosting. From there, they planned to hit some of the nicer boutiques in the heart of downtown and try on clothes. Not to buy, of course, but just for the fun of seeing themselves in something new and different. Marisse tried on the more risque outfits, doing her best to make even the saleslady have to blush and clear her throat and recommend that perhaps she would like to wear something a little more modest. Lola tended towards the more conservative, trying to imagine what she would look like at a fancy dinner party, or perhaps a wedding. She stood in front of the mirror and smoothed down the fabric and let the images form in her mind. No matter that they wouldn’t happen, of course. It was Halloween, and if ever there was a time to play dress-up, it was now.

They had lunch at the top of the Denton department store and ate small pasta dishes while looking out at the city.

“I never get tired of this,” Lola said. “I just wish we could do it more often.”

Marisse took a sip of water. “Me too,” she said. “Me too.”

After lunch they went to a bookstore and browsed for a while, followed by a subway ride to the Hortus, the great park that defined the heart of Sylvania City. The sun was on its descent by now, and they only had a few more hours left to them. The red and gold leaves glimmered in the sunlight as they walked around the Great Pond, enjoying the brisk autumn air. Their spirits were more subdued now, but they still looked at the world around them with glee and astonishment from time to time.

“I think I need to sit down,” Lola said after a while. She sat, took off a shoe and started to rub her foot. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you by the fountain?”

“You sure?” Marisse asked. She glanced across the pond to the fountain and back again. “I can stay here.”

Lola shook her head. “No, you go. I’ll be right behind you.” She smiled and shaded her eyes against the sun. “Don’t worry.” Marisse nodded, but still looked uneasy, glancing back a few more times as she walked away.

Alone, Lola closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out. She liked Marisse – loved her, even. They’d been together for ages and doing their Halloween excursions for as long as she could remember. But Marisse could be a little much sometimes.

Lola’s thoughts were sharply interrupted by the barking of a dog. She opened her eyes to see a golden retriever straining at the end of a leash at her, growling and barking. The young man holding the leash pulled and yelled at his dog. “Rocky! Rocky, knock it off!” He gave the leash a sharp tug, and the dog stopped barking. He bent down to hold it and looked up at Lola. “Sorry,” he said. “He’s usually not like this.” Rocky had gone quiet, but he was still staring at Lola with fear in his eyes.

“That’s all right,” she said. “Dogs don’t usually like me very much.”

The young man scratched Rocky’s ears and smiled. “I can’t imagine that,” he said. He turned to Rocky. “You gonna be good?” he asked. He stood up and Rocky growled quietly. The young man nodded at Lola. “He’ll be good.” He stepped over to her and offered his hand. “I’m Shane,” he said. “But you’ll probably remember me as the guy with the dog.”

Lola took his hand and smiled. “No,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll remember you.” She looked up at him and squinted. “I’m Lola,” she said. The sun was behind him, making it hard to get a good look at his face. “Would you like to sit down?” she said. “It might save me some eyestrain.”

Shane commanded Rocky to stay, and took a seat next to Lola. He looked out over the water with her for a while, and the sun dropped lower to the horizon. “It’s my favorite place in the city,” he said, not turning to her. “It’s one of the biggest reasons I stay here.”

She smiled. “I like it too. I just wish I could come more often.”

“You’re not from around here?” he asked.

Lola shook her head. “I live outside the city with a friend of mine. We… we don’t get out a whole lot.”

He nodded and leaned back against the bench, but didn’t push the topic. Instead he asked about her favorite places to visit, and offered some suggestions of his own for the next time she and her friend managed to get into the city. She, in turn, asked about what he did and how he lived his life, and she found herself resisting the urge to dig into every detail. They talked well together, and she had a conversation unlike any she’d had in a long time. With Marisse, there was nothing new to talk about. They knew everything about each other, but here she was finally in new territory.

And he was good-looking, too. That certainly didn’t hurt.

They talked for a long while, and only stopped when Lola finally heard Marisse calling to her as she ran along the path towards her.

“Lola!” she yelled. Marisse looked panicked, and she’d lost her shoes somewhere along the way. “Lola, the sun!” she flung out a hand across the pond. Lola looked, and to her horror realized that she’d let the sunset slip her mind. It was already dropping behind buildings, and she felt her insides go cold with panic.

“Oh, god,” she said, and stood up quickly. Rocky jumped to his feet and started barking again, and Shane tried to calm him down. “Oh, god,” she said again, “I’m so sorry…” She backed away from Shane and took Marisse’s hand. “I really.. .I really have to go.”

He looked up at her and glanced at Marisse. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

Lola surprised herself by smiling. “No,” she said. “Not really.” Marisse tugged at her, but Lola stood still. “I really wish I could stay, Shane,” she said.

He stood up and put his hands in his jacket pockets. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What’s -”

Lola’s scream cut him off. It was high and keening and terrible, and she doubled over and dropped to the ground, followed quickly by Marisse. Shane tried to go to her, but Rocky positioned himself between them, growling and barking furiously. All Shane could do was watch as the shadows grasped at Lola and Marisse and they started to change.

Marisse shrank and withered, becoming a skeletal version of herself. Her eyes burst into flame and sat in her dessicated face like two hot coals. Her hair whipped up around her head in an unseen wind and waved about, dry and rasping. Her mouth opened, a black and toothless maw, and a howl that chilled Shane’s blood filled the air.

Lola’s back arched and lurched, and two great wings burst forth. They were long and spindly, and webbed with tattered skin that was nearly thin enough to see through. Her skin turned the dull gray of unpolished granite and cracked at the joints. A dull red glow came through the cracks, like molten stone, and when she moved there was a grating and crumbling sound. She stood on thin, insectile legs and turned to Shane, who was on the ground covering his eyes with his arm.

She looked at him, wishing her true face were capable of expressing something other than unholy rage. She wanted to explain, to say that she was sorry, but her mouth couldn’t do that anymore. Her day as a human was done. From tonight, it would be another year of being the monster she’d always been.

Lola growled at Rocky, who whined and cowered behind Shane, who had finally managed to peek out from behind his arm. He was terrified, as he should have been, and Lola felt that strange ache in what used to be her heart. Other years had been fun. Little breaks from who she’d always been. But this was the first time she felt like there could have been more days, more time.

She ground her teeth and turned to pick up Marisse. Her friend was still groaning, and her groans lingered long. She held Marisse close to her and sprung into the air, her tattered wings somehow holding her aloft and giving her the lift to fly back to their house outside the city. It would be another year before she and her sister could venture out in daylight again, and she wasn’t at all sure that was what she wanted anymore.

For the first time in a thousand years, there were tears in her eyes as she flew.

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This is done not only for Halloween, but for the Worth1000 Halloween 2 contest. Of course, I’ll have to trim it somewhat – maximum word count is 1,500 and I’m well above that….

Day One Hundred and Fifty-nine: Paying Penance

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

This story was also written for a Worth1000 contest, Day and Night With a Twist, which is a little involved. The idea was to take an image from one of their Effects contests and write a story around it. I chose the entry by Delpht, which placed 15th, but it really caught my eye. Let’s hope I can do it justice.

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I couldn’t believe my guild was making me pay a penance. They knew I couldn’t make the raid, they knew I wasn’t going to be able to help them out – I mean, if I tanked my midterms, then there’d be no more gaming for me ever. And that’d be a lot worse than missing one night.

But no – next time I logged in there was a message from the guild leaders. Lignar, Vioniel and Asireg all wanted to see me in the guildhall. And that, friends and neighbors, is never good. There’s only two things they use the guildhall for – initiating new members and getting rid of the ones they don’t like, and I didn’t remember seeing any plebes brought in recently.

They put the ‘port token in my inventory, and that brought me right to the audience chamber. It was massive, as befits one of the most infamous guilds in Storms of War. Black marble pillars that reached up into the perpetual shadows of a storm-ceiling, brilliant wrought-silver floors that reflected the eternal light of the countless Victors’ Lamps that stood on tall brass stands. There was gallery seating for everyone in the guild, but this night, they were empty. It was just the three guild leaders and me.

“Unoldo,” Vioniel said, and her voice rang in the hall. She stood tall over me, her elfin armor gleaming in silver and bronze. “You let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need.”

“Look,” I said, “I told you I wasn’t -”

“SILENCE!” Asireg hefted his war-hammer and smacked it into his broad palm a couple of times. “We don’t want to hear your excuses, Unoldo.”

“But guys, listen! I told you -”

Lignar’s sword slid from its scabbard with a long, drawn-out hiss, and in a moment that blood-red blade was pointed right at me. “Dude,” he said. “Shut up.”

I shut up. The two guys looked at Vioniel, who started again. “Unoldo, you let your guild down by abandoning us in our time of need. We lost some great warriors who might have survived if you had lent your magics to our cause.” My palms itched and I had to bite my tongue to keep quiet. Just to be on the safe side, I muted my mic.

“The standard penalty for abandoning your guild is to be expelled and branded a traitor, so that no other guild will accept you ever again. You would wander the world alone, never reaching your full potential in the Storms of War.”

“But,” Lignar said, stepping forward, “you’ve done well by us in the past. You’re a good guy, Unoldo, so we’re giving you a chance. One. Chance.”

Carefully, I unmuted my mic. This still was totally unfair. It was still a complete sham. But if I could get out of it and still stay in the guild? Hell, I could put up with whatever they threw at me.

“Okay,” I said. “I accept. Do your worst.”

*     *     *     *     *

I wandered through the night-forest, trying to find the path I’d been on, and I wondered if maybe it was time to give up Storms of War and maybe start playing games that didn’t involve other people. Tetris or something.

The new avatar I was wearing was ridiculous – a little robot creature, which was totally wrong for the server we played on. There are no robots in epic fantasy, none, but they borrowed a body from one of their friends on a sci-fi server and sent me to some custom-built hub for their little “quest.” Now instead of being a level 35 Elf, armed to the teeth with the best magical weapons I could buy, protected by ensorcelled armor and possessing so much treasure that I liked to just throw money at plebes, I was stuck in this stupid, slow, clumsy, fragile robot body.

The little blue dress and the ponytail were just adding insult to injury.

They had explained the rules, and I could hear their stupid smiles when they said it was “simple.” All I had to do was go to this hub and find the Wyrm. The Wyrm would ask me three questions, and if I could answer them before sunrise local time, then I’d be allowed back into the guild.

“No way,” I’d said. “It can’t be that simple.”

Asired shrugged. “We can make it harder, if you want.” And before I could say, “No thank you, I’ll take it as easy as I can get,” they had me teleported and re-avatared in the middle of a dark, trackless forest.

I had no map. There was no compass in my utility screen. Everywhere I turned, it looked exactly the same. Trees. Grass. Darkness. And the sound of crickets in my headphones.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I said. There was no response from anyone. I was pretty sure they were watching me, but if they were then they’d decided to keep that nugget to themselves.

“Okay, Unoldo,” I whispered. “Find the Wyrm. Answer some questions.” I drummed my fingers on my desk and checked the time. It was already one in the morning. I tabbed over to my browser and checked sunrise. 6:14 AM.

“Okay,” I said again. I waggled my fingers over the keyboard, took my mouse in hand, and began to walk.

At first, I walked in that shuddery, incremental way I used to do when I was a plebe. Back in the days when pretty much anything could kill me, so my instincts for self-preservation were pretty strong. Light taps on the keys, a constant shifting of view back and forth, just in case something was ready to jump from the shadows and take me apart.

As time crawled by, though, I started to relax. I still didn’t know where I was, but there was nothing there. No creatures had leapt out to devour me, none of the trees had reached out to rip me to shreds. Whatever this place was, it seemed like I was the only one moving through it.

Within half an hour, I was bored stupid.

There was nothing to do but walk, and I didn’t even know where I was walking to. Every path looked the same, every tree looked like every other tree, and for all I knew, I’d been walking in a tight little circle all night.

Which was why actually meeting the Wyrm scared the everloving hell out of me.

I had no warning, no sign that something different was up ahead. The trail bent right and BAM. There it was. An ugly thing, like what you’d get if a subway car had sex with a caterpillar and then dumped its horrible mutant child on top of a giant mushroom. With a hookah.

It seemed as startled to see me as I was to see it. The thing reared back, and a message started to scroll across its green, backlit face. If it had a face.

WHO ARE YOU?

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I just stammered out, “I’m Unoldo. I’m on a quest. Umm.” I didn’t know what else to say. “You’re, like, supposed to ask me questions?”

AM I? it asked.

“Oh, for the love of – YEAH!” I lifted off my headset, put my head in my hands and just ground my teeth together so I didn’t scream. My clock said that it was just after four in the morning, and I had school the next day. I put the headset on again. “You have to ask questions. I have to answer them. Then I get back in my guild. Understand?”

The Wyrm just sat there for a moment, and its hookah bubbled. It was so still that I thought maybe whoever was running it had gone offline. Finally, though: BEST FRIEND AND GREATEST ENEMY. SAVES LIVES AND TAKES LIVES. WITH A BREATH, IT CAN BE BANISHED. WITH A BREEZE, IT CAN BE FED. WHAT IS IT?

Aw, hell.

“Okay,” I said. “Give me a minute.” I hunted around my desk for pen and paper. “Can you repeat that?” I asked. It did, and this time the words scrolled up along the side of the screen. I stared at them, and I swore I could feel time slipping away from me. The one thing I knew about riddles what they usually had simple things for answers, so I started running through ideas. I scratched answers down on paper and crossed them out as they failed the riddle. Not water or trees or clouds, those didn’t make any sense. If the rest of it was like this, then I was totally sc-

My head snapped up, and I shouted, “FIRE!” I flinched when I said it, and glanced up at the ceiling. No footsteps, but I couldn’t be too careful.

The Wyrm swayed slightly. CORRECT, it said, and I did a little happy dance in my chair.

A NEUTRON WALKS INTO A BAR AND ORDERS A BEER, it said, the words again appearing on the side of the screen as they scrolled across its face. IT FINISHES THE BEER AND ASKS THE BARMAN, “HOW MUCH DO I OWE YOU?” THE BARMAN REPLIES…?

I grinned and sat back in my chair. “He says, ‘For you – no charge.'” My chemistry’s teacher’s desperate desire to be a stand-up comedian was finally going to pay off. Just not for him.

CORRECT, the Wyrm said. I leaned forward again and cracked my knuckles. One more question to go, and sunrise was still a good hour away.

This time, the Wyrm reared up, lifting its body almost vertically above the mushroom’s cap. Its underbelly lit up, pale yellow in the darkness, and a crude line drawing blinked into existence. It was a square. Inside the square were two words, one on top of the other. “dice – dice”

“Dicedice?” I muttered.

INCORRECT, the Wyrm said, and my heart started pounding against my ribcage.

“NO!” I said, and then I dropped to a whisper. I wasn’t sure, but for a moment I thought I heard the bed upstairs squeak. “No,” I whispered. “I was just, you know, thinking out loud.” I had blown it, I had totally blown the whole thing, and right when I was about to pass. But the Wyrm didn’t move. It just stayed there, its belly flickering faintly in the gloom.

I muted my mic and started trying to figure it out. There were two of them, two dice… Why two? Doubledice? No… that wasn’t anything. Why two? Why two?

A thought jumped into my head. It seemed to make sense, but there was no guarantee that it would be right. And sunrise was coming sooner than I thought.

I turned on the mic again and said, “Paradise?”

The Wyrm swayed in the darkness and then dropped back down. CORRECT, it said.

“YESS!!” I hissed, and I pumped my fist. The breath I’d been holding came out in a rush.

The lights on the Wyrm’s underside flickered off, followed by the lights on its face. The forest was once again plunged into darkness, and my screen went blank. It stayed that way just long enough to make me start to panic again, but then faded into clarity. I was back in the guildhall again, alone this time. My armor was on, and a quick check on my inventory told me that everything I had was still where I left it. Spinning in the air in front of me was a glowing scroll. I grinned and took it.

Congratulations, Unoldo, it read. You passed your first-stage initiation. There will be two more tests. Pass them, and you will be granted the title of Guild leader. You will start the second test the next time you log in.

And at the bottom, in smaller type, it said, We really had you going, didn’t we? The sentence was signed by Lignar.

I grinned madly and put the scroll into my inventory. Yup. They had me going. I logged out and stretched. The sky outside was light, and I had maybe an hour before I was supposed to get up for school. I plodded over to the sofa and stretched out. I’d probably catch hell for staying up all night and gaming, but I didn’t care.

Some things were more important.

Day One Hundred and Fifty-eight: NapNow™

October 26, 2011 2 comments

This is an entry for the Worth1000 contest, Everyday Instruction Manual. The mission: “Write a simple set of instructions for completing a simple everyday task.” I figured I could make a little money on the side. Enjoy.

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Welcome, weary traveler, to the wonderful world of Napping™! Thank you for purchasing volume one of NapNow™ System, a five-volume set that will bring you napping pleasure and fulfillment. Remember that official NapNow™ merchandise can be purchased on our website, napnow-dot-com.

Napping is an art that has been practiced by people around the world for centuries, from the ancient Mayans to the mysterious Far East, and now its secrets can finally be shared with you. By following these careful, time-tested instructions, the wide world of napping will reveal itself to you!

First, it is vitally important that you keep safety in mind at all times. So, step one: check your surroundings. Are there other people in the room? Are you immersed in water or other fluids or fluid-like substances? Is there a risk of fire? Would napping cause sudden injury, death, or long-term unemployment? If so, please avoid napping until the danger has passed.

If you have determined that napping is safe, then please proceed to the next step: finding a napping environment. Many amateur nappers prefer to use a sofa, hammock, or bed. For the ultimate in napping satisfaction, however, we recommend investing in a NapNow Total Sleep System™, which can be purchased for only $4,999, shipping and installation included.

Once you have established your napping environment, prepare yourself for the ultimate in consciousness-obliviating experiences!

Be sure to lie down in your napping environment. Standing up may seem like a good idea, but NapNow™ laboratory tests have shown that standing while napping can lead to such health hazards as concussions, broken limbs, and death. In addition, falling may cause damage to your valuable bedroom décor.

If you have purchased a NapNow Future Perfect Pillow™, be sure to place it under your head. This is the ideal orientation of a pillow, as has been proven by over twenty years of the most rigorous laboratory testing.

WARNING: Do not place the Pillow™ on your face, as involuntary asphyxiation may result.

Now that you are lying down in your sleep environment, with a Pillow™ under your head, you may want to make use of our patented NapNow Millennial Blanket™ thermal regulation package. Be sure to check the Blanket™-compatible digital thermometer (available on our website for only $29.99) to determine the amount of Blanket™ coverage and density you will need. Apply the Blankets™ until you have reached the desired level of warmth. If you feel that you have become too warm, carefully remove Blankets™ until you have reached the desired level of coolness.

It is at this point that you should be prepared to close your eyes. If you close your eyes prior to this step, serious injury may occur. Gently allow your eyelids to cover your eyes, without squeezing or fluttering. If you are uncertain as to how much eyelid pressure you should exert, our patented Blink Monitor™ will assist you to find the ideal level of eyelid tension as you prepare to fall asleep.

Be sure to take deep breaths, using the NapNow Pneumo-Plastic Breath Regulator™ to accurately judge both the rate of breathing and the breath pressure involved. Use the Integrated Metronomic Music-Assisted Breathing System™ (patent pending) to time your breaths at exactly eight breaths per minute, a rate discovered by NapNow™ scientists to produce the optimum napping experience.

In a few minutes, you should begin to notice a loss of consciousness. Congratulations! You have successfully joined the millions of people who are happy and successful Nappers™!

Day One Hundred and Forty-one: The Drawing-Room Reveal

October 9, 2011 Leave a comment

“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”
-René Descartes

The living room of the Browning house smelled of lilies and expensive wood polish. It was small, and looked smaller with the crowd that had been assembled inside. Detective Branden Horne wanted to smoke a cigarette, but dared not. The wrath of Mrs. Browning would overpower her need to know who killed her husband, which was the reason all these people were assembled. On top of that, he knew that he would have far too much to answer for before the afternoon was over as it was.

The five other people in the room were the most likely suspects for the murder of Christopher Browning. Elton, his son, looked like his father in miniature – tall and pallid, as though someone had taken a normal young man and stretched him out with a roller. His liquid brown eyes always seemed to be on the verge of tears, and he looked down at his over-large feet in despair. His sister, Trudi, was almost his opposite. She was short and heavy and outgoing, and wore colors so vivid that they hurt to look at. Even during the investigation of her father’s death, Trudi had been relentlessly cheerful, which was enough to increase suspicion in Branden’s eyes.

Curtis Hancock had been the hardest to convince to come to this meeting. He lurked in a back corner of the room and scowled, except when his eyes lit on the widow Browning. When he saw her, his ruddy face softened and he looked nearly like the person he’d been before she decided to marry the richest man in town. If the crowd could have taken a vote on who the murderer was, Curtis would’ve been hanging before the sun went down.

Addie Horton was standing next to Mrs. Browning, with a cup of tea in one hand and the other on the shoulder of her grieving best friend. She had brought over one of her hand-made prayer shawls – “A prayer in every stitch,” she’d said when she put it around Mrs. Browning’s slumped shoulders. Addie wore the role of best friend well, and it made Branden wonder how much she really knew.

Finally, Celinda Browning herself. She had been older than her husband when they married – he was a millionaire at forty-five, and she was a divorced schoolteacher in her fifties. But they had fallen in love and retreated out to his favorite country house. There she taught some local homeschool children while he indulged in his artistic hobbies. They lived a life that seemed idyllic to anyone looking in, and as far as anyone knew they were perfectly happy.

Five days ago, Christopher Browning had been found dead in his workshop, bludgeoned to death by one of his own hand-made scrap metal sculptures. His wife hadn’t seen him since the day before and wanted to check up on him, but she couldn’t even enter the workshop due to the overpowering smell of solvents and acids that he used in his work. She called the police, who sent in a HAZMAT team to retrieve the body and make the crime scene accessible. When they brought out his body and gently removed the ventilation hood from his head, Celinda had to be held back by three officers so that she couldn’t embrace her husband and contaminate the body.

Branden had been assigned to the case, and very quickly narrowed down the suspects.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do one of these drawing-room reveals.” He chuckled, but no one else did. No one was even looking at him.

He cleared his throat. “You all know what happened,” he said, “but I wanted to update you on what we’ve found so far.” He took the investigation folder from his briefcase and flipped it open. “Christopher Browning was killed by repeated blows to the head with a large metal object. We think the killer was right-handed, but that’s not much to go on. The killer left no fingerprints and no DNA evidence that we could find. And the isolated nature of Mister Browning’s workshop means that there were no eyewitnesses.” He snapped the folder shut.

Branden took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, and a small plastic bottle from his briefcase. “There are lots of reasons why someone would want to kill Christopher Browning,” he said as he uncapped the bottle. The faint smell of eucalyptus blossomed in the air, and this finally got their attention. He dripped the pale blue liquid into his handkerchief. “Money, love, revenge – those are the reasons that people usually kill.” He capped the bottle and put it back in the briefcase. “Honestly, I don’t really care why one person kills another. All I care about is that the killer gets caught.”

He put his hands behind his back and started to pace. “I talked to all of you, and really I think all of you had reasons to kill him.” They watched him as he walked back and forth, and he relished drawing out the moment. “As I said, there was very little solid evidence left behind, and I had a lot of work to do as far as investigations go.” He shrugged. “Most criminals are stupid. They make a mistake and leave something behind.” He stopped and looked at each of them in turn. “This killer did not.”

He walked back to his briefcase and took out a small glass bottle, filled with a pale yellow liquid. “That doesn’t mean, however, that the killer didn’t make a mistake.” He uncapped the bottle and swiftly brought the handkerchief up to cover his mouth and nose.

The room went mad. Celinda Browning doubled over and vomited onto her shoes, just moments before her daughter did the same. Elton groaned and held his stomach, his face reddening as he willed himself not to lose control, and Curtis was on his feet, waving his hand to try and clear the air around his head of the horrifying sulfurous stench that had erupted around them. Branden smiled under the handkerchief, even though his eyes were beginning to water. He’d confiscated the stink bomb from his son weeks ago, and had been looking for a good chance to use it. The capstone of a murder investigation was as good a time as any.

He put the cap back on the bottle and went around the living room to open the windows, gripping the handkerchief in his teeth. The smell would never really go away, but he figured that Mrs. Browning would have enough money to get it ripped out and cleaned. Knowing that his little stunt revealed her husband’s murderer would be some small comfort.

When he turned back, the group was glaring at him, in between heaving breaths and groans. Elton had the collar of his shirt up over his nose, and Trudi was helping Addie guide Mrs. Browning to the sofa. After a moment, Branden lowered the handkerchief and blinked a few times at the lingering smell. “Mrs. Horton,” he said to Addie. “How are you feeling?”

“How am I feeling?” she said over her shoulder. “That was an ugly stunt you pulled young man. Poor Cellie is already in enough distress!”

“Yeah,” Branden said. “But I asked about you. How are you feeling?”

Addie stood up, but didn’t say anything.

“You didn’t seem too bothered yourself,” he said, taking a step towards her. “Didn’t that smell get to you?”

Her face went flat and she narrowed her eyes. “If you must know,” she said, “I was born with no sense of smell.” She sniffed, and Branden suppressed a smile. “It’s something I’ve never been terribly thankful for, until now.”

Branden nodded. “I thought so.” He put his handkerchief and the little bottle in his pocket. “When I visited you, you were doing laundry, right?” Addie nodded. “I remember that, mainly because I was wondering what kind of detergent you used. The basket in your arms should have smelled like flowers or sunshine or something, but it actually had quite a whiff of metal oils and some of the other chemicals that the deceased used in his craft. Not a smell most people would want lingering among their clean clothes, I thought. So I did a little asking around.”

Addie Horton had gone pale as Branden talked, and she looked around the room as though she was looking for someone to come to her rescue. All she saw, however, was anger and astonishment. She was starting to breathe more quickly, and Branden readied himself for anything. “You didn’t know what the workshop smelled like, Addie. You had no idea.” He took another step closer to her and she flinched. “You killed him. The smell stuck to your clothes and you brought it home.”

“You have to be kidding,” she spat. “You can’t prove it was me just because of that!”

Branden nodded. “You’re right – we can’t. But I only said that we had very little evidence. Not that we had none.” He smiled sheepishly. “The thing about fingerprints? I lied.”

Addie gasped. “Then all this…?” She looked around the room, at the people who were pale and sick and furious. Mrs. Browning looked like she was ready to pass out again. “Why did you do this?” Addie asked.

“I needed to be sure,” Branden said. “And like I mentioned, I’ve always wanted to do the drawing-room reveal.” He took his cell phone out from inside his jacket. “You want to come quietly?” he asked as he flipped it open. “Or do I need to call in some back-up?”

The moment hung in the air, and Branden honestly wasn’t sure which way she would go. Finally, she just slumped and nodded. Branden dialed his phone. “It’s over,” he said. “Come on in.” He reached out and took her shoulder.

“Cellie,” she said, turning in his grip. Mrs. Browning looked away from her. “Cellie, I’m sorry.” She tried to reach out, but Branden pulled her away. “I can’t explain, but… I’m so sorry.” She crumpled to the floor as she said the last words, and Branden caught her in his arms. He held her there, in silence, until the other officers came in, handcuffed her, and led her away.

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This was done for the upcoming Worth1000.com contest “Odor.” With luck, I’ll be able to chop out 200 words and get the rest into fighting shape in the next twelve hours….

Day One Hundred and Thirty-one: Among the Low People (REVISED)

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

This is another story that I submitted to Worth100.com for their “Jewelry” writing contest. I think it’s an improvement over the original, so I thought I’d let everyone take a look.

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Othioto made sure to lock the door after he let Sestl in. The room was a cluttered mess, with papers, notebooks, broadsides and drawings set up everywhere. Sestl smiled when he looked around. Or at least he seemed to smile, but with the Low People, Othioto could never be sure. He still wasn’t very good at reading their expressions. “Wow, Cantur. Writing a book?”

The use of his assumed name sent a twinge of anxiety through Othioto’s chest. It mixed with the hope that today would be the last day he had to answer to it.

“Let me straighten up,” Othioto said. “It’ll only be a minute.”

While he picked up papers and tried to put them into some kind of order, Sestl moved over to the window and looked down at the street below. “Huh,” he said. “Would you look at that. A bunch of Blues in this part of the city.”

For a moment, Othioto wanted to panic. He glanced in the mirror just to reassure himself that his disguise held, and it did ”“ a flat, grey-skinned, mottled face looked back at him. He was covered in sores and warts, cracks in the skin that opened and bled. His teeth were broken and stained, his eyes were dull and flat. He twisted the opal ring on his index finger and sighed with relief.

Like the Low People he was pretending to be, he was hideous, yet he was adorned with jewels and gold and clothes of the finest fabric and cut. He wore dozens of gold hoops in his ears, pulling the lobes down nearly to his shoulders. He had a ring on every finger, and they were set with gems that sparkled in even the dimmest light. Silver thread ran through his woolen cloak and fine linen shirt, and he wore a choker of rare shells and stones. The Low People prized their finery, and for good reason.

Othioto joined Sestl at the window and watched the small group of Necoli pass by.

Strictly speaking, no Low Person was supposed to lay eyes on the Necoli. Centuries of tradition demanded that they avert their gaze, but it was hard not to look. They were tall and slender, with skin the blue of a radiant autumn sky. Bright and iridescent scales were scattered about their bodies and caught the sun, throwing off glimmering colors, and their hair shone like polished silver. Necoli wore no garments to cover their beauty, and they possessed no jewelry ”“ they never saw a need for either. They called themselves the Children of the Sky and claimed descent from the gods that oversaw their world.

“Damned Blues,” Sestl growled, and Othioto started at the disgust in his voice. “Think they’re so damned perfect.” He turned away from the window. “You ever actually meet one of ”˜em, Cantur?”

“I… Actually…”

“I did,” Sestl said. “Once. One of ”˜em came down here ”“ in person, no less – to buy some cookware, of all things.” He chuckled. “Some woman with a whole troupe of bodyguards around her. Poor thing looked terrified. Like she was going to turn ugly just by being outside the Walls.”

Othioto put down a bundle of papers. “Maybe she just… didn’t know better,” he said.

“What does she have to know?” Sestl asked. “Believe me, if she could’ve gotten her pots and pans any other way, she would have. All those Blues would be happier if we just went away, you ask me.” He shrugged. “But then where would they get their pots and pans?”

“I don’t know,” Othioto said. He pulled a chair around and Sestl settled into it with a sigh. “Maybe… Maybe if the Necoli knew more about… us, they wouldn’t be so afraid to come out here.”

Sestl’s eyebrows shot up. “You kidding, Cantur?”

“No,” Othioto said quietly. “I really think so.”

The unavoidable moment was twisting Othioto’s guts. He licked his lips. “Sestl… We’ve known each other for a while, haven’t we?”

“Sure,” Sestl said. “Since I saved you from getting the soul beat out of you at the summer festival.” He laughed. “I still can’t believe you wandered out there without any pants on.”

Othioto cleared his throat. “Yes, well -”

“You know, I still tell that story, too. I think you get drunker every time I tell it.”

“Sestl, please.”

“And I have to confess something, Cantur.” He was able to hold a serious look on his face for a few seconds before he cracked up. “I nearly didn’t even step in. I was just laughing too hard.” He started cackling, rocking back in the chair.

“Sestl!”

The other man slowly regained his composure. “I’m sorry, Cantur. It’s just…” He reached out and poked Othioto in the shoulder. “It really was funny.”

“Yes,” Othioto said. “I guess it was.” He started twisting the opal ring on his finger. Sestl’s eyes flickered down to it and back up. “Sestl, there’s a reason why I did that. And it wasn’t because I was drunk.”

He took a deep breath and looked Sestl in the eyes. “I can trust you, Sestl, can’t I?” he asked.

Sestl seemed surprised by the question. Surprised enough that he took a moment to think, and answered without a hint of sarcasm. “Yeah, Cantur,” he said. “Of course. You know you can.”

“Okay.” Othioto stood up and straightened his shirt. “Sestl,” he said, a little louder than he meant to, “I am not who you think I am.” Sestl was looking at him with a carefully blank expression. “My name is not Cantur,” he said. “It’s Othioto.”

Sestl’s eyes went wide at the name and how it had been said. Low People didn’t have names like that.

“Sestl,” Othioto said. “This is who I am.” With a swift motion, he pulled the opal ring off his finger. In a few heartbeats, his body shifted and changed, revealing his true Necoli form. It felt strange to be wearing clothes, looking like this. He tried not to scratch.

Sestl shot out of his seat and tried to open the door. He pulled at the handle, whimpering under his breath.

“No! No, Sestl, please! Don’t do that!” Othioto reached out and took Sestl by the arm. “Look at me, Sestl,” he said. He grabbed the man’s chin and turned his face towards him. “Look at me!”

It took a moment before Sestl cracked his eyes open, and then he clenched them shut again. A moment later, and he was looking again. This time, he kept his eyes on Othioto’s face. The Necoli smiled, and Sestl flinched. “My name is Othioto,” he said again. “I’m from the university in the Inner City, and I’ve been living among the Low People for the last year, learning your ways.” He held up the ring. “This allows me to disguise myself.”

Sestl looked from the ring to Othioto and back again.

“I’ve been putting together a book,” Othioto said, smiling. “All about the Low People and how you live. It’s really fascinating, and it’ll be the first book of its kind ever published.”

Sestl just stared at him.

“You… you might say something,” Othioto said after a moment. He slid the ring back onto his finger and felt the familiar shift as he changed. “There,” he said. “That might be easier.”

“Take it off,” Sestl growled. He wasn’t looking at Othioto anymore.

“What?” He started to reach out when Sestl wheeled around and punched him. Othioto dropped to the floor, whimpering in pain. His jaw throbbed and tears came to his eyes. When he looked up, Sestl was standing above him, his fists clenched and his face red.

“You come here,” Sestl said. “You come here with your fancy ring, and you think you can be one of us?” He delivered a swift kick, and Othioto doubled over. “You think this is fun, Blue?” He kicked again. “Are you having fun writing your book about us?” He moved to kick again, but Othioto held up a hand.

“Please, Sestl!” he croaked. “Please, stop. Stop, Sestl, please…”

Sestl put his foot down and watched the disguised Necoli writhe on the floor. He crouched, his knees popping. “You have until sunset,” he whispered. “Then I tell everyone.” His hand flashed out and he grabbed Othioto’s hand. He twisted the ring from his finger and watched as Othioto changed back. Sestl stood up and put the ring in his pocket. Then he turned around to the door.

“Wait, Sestl!” He stopped, but didn’t turn around. “Sestl,” Othioto said. “I don’t… I don’t understand.” He got his hands under him and tried to get up. He dropped back to the floor.

“No,” Sestl said, not looking back. “No. You don’t.”

He left Othioto there, on the floor amidst his notes and papers. Sunset was a few hours away, but for now, Othioto didn’t feel like moving.

Day Eighty-Five: The Biggest Day [MAKE-UP]

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

This was written for the Worth1000.com contest – “Unmet Expectations.” The instructions were: “Write a story where a key point is something/someone/somewhere that has not lived up to its expectations.”

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Secretary of State Ernest LaFayette turned off the TV in the conference room and excused himself from the meeting. He walked calmly back to his office, removing his jacket and tie as he did so, then ran to his toilet and spent the next five minutes throwing up.

The President had called him two hours ago, utterly frantic, but LaFayette’s staff had already found out from Twitter and Facebook – an alien spacecraft had landed on the National Mall, right in the middle of the Ellipse in front of the White House. There were thousands of people there, all trying to get past the cordon that had been set up. The ground was littered with correspondents, bloggers, and photographers hoping to make names for themselves.

So far, no one knew anything. The ship looked more like a piece of modern art than anything else – it was mostly white, with colored stripes down the side, and was blocky and cubic. There didn’t seem to be any windows or doors. There were nothing that looked like guns, no shimmering shields or giant robots determined to protect the ship at any cost. It just sat there.

And it was going to be LaFayette’s job to find out what it wanted.

Someone knocked gently on the door. “Mister Secretary?” It was Amy, his assistant. “Are you okay? Do you… need anything?”

LaFayette stood up on shaky legs and flushed the toilet. “No,” he called. “No, I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Okay,” she said. “The President is on line two.”

Quietly cursing, LaFayette washed out his mouth and spat in the sink. He inspected himself in the mirror, and for the first time in a very long time, felt as old as he looked. He smoothed back his hair, took a deep breath, and left the bathroom.

Amy was standing by the door, looking professionally concerned. He nodded to her, and she closed the door. LaFayette counted to ten, picked up the phone and pushed the line two button. “Mr. President,” he said.

“Ernie!” He flinched. “Ernie, we’re sending a motorcade to pick you up. Should be there in about five minutes, so get yourself together and get ready to make history!”

“Yes, Mister President.”

“There’ll be sharpshooters set up, just in case, and we’ve got some helicopters watching the skies, in case there are any more of ’em. You’ll be perfectly safe out there.” The President laughed, a short bark. “Unless they’ve got some kind of death ray we don’t know about. Then you’re screwed.”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said. “This is the ultimate diplomacy, Ernie. This is what you were meant to do!”

“Thank you, Mister President.”

“I’d do it myself, but for some reason the Secret Service doesn’t like the idea of me walking up to a bunch of Martians and saying Howdy. Go figure.”

LaFayette gritted his teeth at the insinuation. “Of course, Mister President.” A new Secretary of State would require, what – a confirmation hearing? Far less valuable than a President. “I should probably go, sir,” he said. “I think the motorcade has arrived.”

He hung up. Amy handed him his jacket and tie and offered him water as he walked out the door. The motorcade was huge – he had a limo, with at least five other limousines lined up behind it. Surrounding everything were dozens of police motorcycles and military vehicles. Inside his car, Amy handed him a new shirt and a young man started working on his hair. “The world is watching, sir,” Amy said. “You should look good.”

The police had cleared the streets as best they could between the State Department building and the Ellipse, but it was still slow going. During the drive, the President called three more times, trying to remind LaFayette of the importance of this event, as if it weren’t so obvious. LaFayette’s stomach burned, and his throat hurt from trying to keep everything down while he sat in the car. Amy was busy going through paperwork, but every now and then she would glance up to see if he was okay.

They were met at The Ellipse by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also did their best to impress upon him how important this event was. A young man from the Secret Service interrupted them. “Sir,” he said, breathless. “It’s opening up!”

Everyone looked at everyone else, and they all walked together towards the crowd. LaFayette wanted to run. Run far and fast and away. He bit his lip and put his hands in his pockets as they reached the edge of the cordon and stopped.

The crowd was vast and silent as the ramp dropped down from the ship, revealing a shadowy interior. Cameras were clicking in rapid-fire, and reporters were speaking in hushed tones to the rest of the world.

A dim shape appeared inside, and a murmur went up from those who could see it. The shape soon resolved itself as it stepped into the bright autumn sunlight. It was some kind of walker, eight-legged and metallic, topped with a tinted dome. In the silence, LaFayette could hear the mechanical, electric sounds of its movements and the faintest ring of its sharp footfalls on the metal ramp. The crowd was utterly silent as they watched – even the national guardsmen around the perimeter were gaping. A moment later, a second walker joined it.

When the walkers reached the end of the ramp, they stopped, their feet digging into the sod. There was a pause that lasted just slightly too long, and people in the crowd jumped when the domes atop the walkers let out pressurized gas in a bright, loud hiss and started to open. LaFayette was surprised to realize that he was praying under his breath, something he hadn’t done in a very long time. Whatever happened next would be the defining moment for humanity. He closed his eyes tightly to clear his thoughts.

The domes released a pale blue gas when they opened. From this distance, he could make them out easily. The beings sitting inside were vaguely reptilian. Their skin was scaly – one red, the other gold – and they had large, shining eyes that squinted against the sun. They were wearing what looked like pressure suits and breathing masks, but their skin was exposed to the air. Someone nearby whispered, “My god. Lizard men.”

The aliens looked around at the crowd, and then at each other. LaFayette took another deep breath. This was it. He thought about the times he had met dictators and madmen, sat down with them to negotiate peace – or at least some kind of armed stability. They had been the worst of humanity, the kind of people that would bring shame to the world. And he had been better than they. He would still be better than they.

Ernest LaFayette straightened his jacket, brushed off the cuffs, and stepped forward to meet the aliens.

He stopped in front of them and craned his neck to look up. He didn’t flinch when the insectile walkers hissed and slowly lowered themselves to meet him. There was a moment, where human first met alien, when everyone held their breath.

“My name,” he said, in a level, clear voice, “is Ernest LaFayette.” He spoke slowly and clearly, with his arms at his sides. “I would like to welcome you in peace to the planet Earth.”

The red alien’s eyes widened, and it turned to the gold one. It spoke to the other, and their voices sounded musical, like deep flutes. The red alien turned back to LaFayette and, in a clear voice, trilled, “Earth?”

A murmur ran through the crowd. LaFayette kept his expression neutral, but everyone could hear the excitement in his voice when he replied. “Yes, he said. “Welcome to Earth.”

There was a moment of utter stillness.

The red alien looked around at the crowd and the monuments and the city. It looked LaFayette up and down, and then trilled something to its partner. The gold alien responded, and they conversed in their melodic tongue. Then the red alien looked down at LaFayette and said, “Thought it would be bigger.”

Its walker lifted quickly, turned around, and walked back up the ramp with quick, sharp steps. The gold alien watched it, and then turned to the bewildered LaFayatte. “Apologies,” it said, in the same deep, flutelike voice. “It has been a very long trip.” A small patch of scales on its forehead fluttered and changed hue for a moment, and then it, too, stood up in its walker and returned to the ship.

The ramp was pulled back up, and within a few minutes, the ship lifted silently off the ground. With the world’s eyes upon him, Ernest LaFayette watched the aliens turn around and leave.

Day One Hundred and Twelve: The Earth Died Screaming

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The piece I wrote as a make-up for Day 84 – The End – annoyed me so much that I had to re-do it right away rather than wait until the end of October. The problem was basically this: It read like a history lesson, and history lessons are, by and large, boring. The only way to make people interested in history is to show events through the eyes of someone who experienced them. That’s why so many people love Lord of the Rings, but only the hard-core nerds love The Silmarillion. So I ripped it apart and did it again. I hope it’s better. This story was also submitted to the Worth1000.com contest, “The End,” so if you like it – and you’re a Worthian – go give it a vote!

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My memory has been fading. I don’t remember my childhood anymore. The name of the first girl I kissed. The street where I grew up. I want to remember, I strain and push and try, but the noise of all the other voices – the screaming and the begging – it’s all too much.

There is one thing I do remember, however. Vividly. We all remember, and it will probably be the last thing to go.

We remember the invasion.

I was arguing with my fiancée Joanne in our apartment in St. Louis. Something about plates for the wedding. Or cakes. Or something, I can’t remember, but we were arguing. And then the sky went dark, as something indescribably huge blocked out the sun. It wasn’t an eclipse. It didn’t have that kind of slow majesty to it. It was something else, something we wouldn’t fully understand until it was far too late.

It was a ship. A spaceship. An honest-to-god alien vessel, bigger than the planet itself, which had come to visit the Earth with unknown intentions. In the first few hours of its arrival, the TV news was devouring itself, trying to get information on the ship. Politicians came out and gave speeches, they interviewed every scientist who would talk to them, and flashed every amateur cell phone video that was sent to them. All they knew was what we knew too: It was big.

Its arrival caused chaos everywhere. Joanne left me in tears to go to her parents’ home in Nebraska. I tried to get her to stay with me, but she wouldn’t have it. “Family is everything,” she’d always said. I guess I just wasn’t family enough yet.

All around the city, people were going mad. Breaking windows, stealing televisions, as though there would be anything to watch after this. Cars were jacked and joyridden, and people stole jewelry by the armful. To look pretty for the little green men, I supposed. I wanted to laugh at myself for not joining in – here was the end of the world and I was still worried about being arrested. As though this would turn out to be some big mistake and the police would show up and tell me, “An alien invasion is no excuse for stealing an XBox, son.”

I called my mother in Fenton, just to see if she was okay. She told me to be careful. “There are a lot of crazy people out there, Charles,” she said. “I saw on TV that New York City is burning.”

“St. Louis isn’t New York, mom,” I told her.

“And there have been earthquakes happening everywhere, because of the gravity.”

I wanted to laugh. “Mom, that thing’s gravity can’t be…” I had to pause while the building trembled.

“Still, you mustn’t –“

The phone cut out. My apartment was completely disconnected as the cable service died. No TV, no phone, no internet, all in one terrible moment. I paced around the apartment for an hour, aimless and blind. There was no news, no updates, and for the first time in my adult life I felt truly alone.

Out on the street, people were running through the city. They were crying. They were laughing. They were drunk and sober and horny. I sat in my window and watched them until I couldn’t take it anymore, and I went to the roof.

The ship filled the sky from horizon to horizon. Lights traced paths across its dark surface in amber and blue, great straight lines and slow curves that seemed to go on forever. I wondered what we all wondered, once we took the time to think about it. Who were they? Why were they there? What did they want from us? The movies and TV shows I grew up on gave me two options: they wanted to invite us into their great galactic federation, or they wanted to invade and take over. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that humans were important enough for either.

My question was answered the next morning. With the probes.

I woke at 6:00 AM. The streets were dead. There were cars on fire and garbage everywhere, and people lying on the sidewalks. I chose to believe they had passed out. The ground rumbled under my feet as soon as I stepped outside, and I dove against a building for cover. Masonry fell from the roof, missing me by inches. When the quake was over, I thought I heard drums, of all things. I followed their sound as far as I could.

Tower Grove Park was full of people. Tents, lean-tos, people wrapped in blankets and parkas and big blue plastic tarps. There were people cooking and playing, staying together through the long night and trying to keep spirits up. When I ambled into the park, a guy in a beat-up business suit greeted me. “Welcome to the party,” he said. “Feel free to camp out wherever you like, and if you have any food we’d all appreciate it.” He shook my hand and then hugged me. Then he jogged away to somewhere else, and I never saw him again.

The park was a party. A celebration. People were drumming by the dozens, dancing and spinning across the grass. There were groups telling stories to each other, reading and singing songs to each other and to the ship. If you ignored the sky, it was a festival. The smell of food filled the air, from dark, spicy chili to hamburgers and hot dogs. Not everyone was afraid, it seemed.

I didn’t join in the dance circles or the drum tribes or the poetry readings that were going on all around us. I gravitated towards others, huddling by their fire with the look of people whose entire world has been dismantled in front of them. I sat shoulder to shoulder with an older Mexican lady and we stared at the fire. We didn’t talk at first. Then she told me about her son, who was living in Los Angeles and wanted to become a teacher. I told her about Joanne and how we were planning to spend our honeymoon in Las Vegas and never leave the hotel. For a moment, I almost forgot what was hanging above us.

Then the screaming started.

The probes swarmed towards the park in the hundreds, great jellyfish made of plastic and steel. They had blinding white lights that swept the crowd, and whip-thin tentacles that trailed in the air behind them. As soon as they appeared, people panicked into the darkness. Most of them were caught immediately. What happened to those who were caught – what would happen to all of us – is the most vivid memory of all.

The probe would ensnare a person, lifting and immobilizing them in the air. Then it would slice away the top of their skull and, in one swift movement, scoop out the still-living brain. The body would then drop to the ground and the brain would be put into a fluid-filled sac that hung below the probe. Soon, each one was carrying five or six human brains dangling pendulously below its body. Some of them, having reached their limit, would glide off away from the crowd, only to be replaced by another.

I didn’t see the probe that got me. The Mexican lady prayed and ran as my arms and legs were pinned by unbreakable cables. I opened my mouth–

That’s where my memory ends. There is a blackness there, a period of infinite time in which I sensed nothing. I thought nothing and knew nothing. How those things kept us alive is something I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know for sure is that I would rather be dead now. Any death, any hell would be better than this, and I know the billions of others on this ship would agree with me.

The great, amnesiac blackness ended with awareness. First I knew myself, and then I knew the others. All the others. The noise was deafening, billions of voices full of fear and confusion. In an instant, I knew where I was and what I was. What we all were.

The brains of humanity had been networked. We had been connected together into a huge organic processor aboard the ship, and what the ship knew, we knew. We knew so much, right then, that it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing.

The Earth, hanging perfectly still in space. The mother ship disgorged thousands of smaller ships, harvesters. Some began to spray the surface with a compound that reduced any organic life to a slurry of amino acids, which was scooped up and brought back to the ship. Other vessels collected water and ice, drained the oceans and rivers and lakes, broke up the glaciers and then returned with their prizes. Some large ships brought back mountains, hewn from their roots. They tore up the continental shelves to get at what lay underneath and siphoned off the sluggish, red-hot magma that lay just under the paper-thin surface of the Earth. The process took… days? Months? Years? There was no way for us to tell in in there. In time, though, everything else was gone, leaving only a white-hot spinning iron core surrounded by the detritus of the operation.

Special ships were dispatched. They hovered by the core and primed their great engines before laying down drag hooks in order to slow it down. Slowly, slowly, for the first time in billions of years, the Earth stopped turning. The ships clamped down on the core and dragged it into the main vessel to be melted down and used as raw material.

And that was it. Where once there was a planet teeming with life and intelligence there was now a field of debris that would orbit the sun for as long as the sun shined. Another traveler here might wonder what had been there, but they would never know. Far off, the moon drifted away into other realms of the solar system, having been deemed less useful than its mother planet. Perhaps another world would take it in.

An order shot through our network, and the ship turned. Our sun swept through the ship’s field of view, and then there were nothing but the stars we thought we knew.  Humanity howled in grief and pain, and another order brought us to heel. We turned away from our sun, our home, and started to move to the next world, an impossible distance away.