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Day Two Hundred and Fifty-eight: Derelict, part 1

February 4, 2012 3 comments

Mara hated how her breathing sounded inside the spacesuit. Her helmet amplified everything – the slow draw of the inhale, with that ever-so-faint squeak at the end. A leftover from the asthma she’d had as a child. The exhale that whooshed out and echoed in her ears, a hollow, close sound that made her feel like she’d been buried alive. It would have been worse if the visor had fogged up, but the thermal plastic kept that from happening. A small blessing. With her own hollow breath in her ears, she turned on her helmet camera and keyed in the override for the airlock.

The interior of the derelict ship wasn’t what she’d expected. Darkness, dust, broken things – that was what every fiction she’d seen since childhood had prepared her for. It was a well-worn plot, after all: distress call, motionless ship, no answer. Followed by a throwaway character going in to explore and being devoured by something the filmmakers could barely afford to pay for.

Of course, no one had ever run into a horrible, carnivorous Monster from Beyond the Stars before, so Mara assured herself that she was perfectly safe. Right on the heels of that thought was the quiet whisper in the back of her mind that said, “But there’s always a first time.”

She wasn’t sure what bothered her more, that she might get eaten alive or that she might be a throwaway character. Neither was very appealing to think about.

The helmet radio crackled in her ear. “Mara, we’re seeing the airlock open. How does everything look?”

She gave herself a light push off the wall and drifted through the hatch. “All looks good, Marco,” she said. “The lights are on.” She checked the readout on her helmet display. “Atmosphere seems intact.” She reached out to the wall and let the ridged fingertips of her gloves drag her to a halt. “Gravity’s off, but otherwise…”

Otherwise it looked like someone should come around the corner any minute and ask her what the hell she thinks she’s doing there. “Marco, what’s the stats on this ship?”

“Hold,” he said. A few loud breaths later, he was back. “Huh,” he said. “Looks like a Hermes-class, small diplomatic vessel. Uploading schematics now.” An orange icon blinked into life on her helmet screen, in the lower left. Mara held her gaze on it, and a detailed 3-D map of the ship blossomed before her eyes.

“Did the S.O.S. say anything about it being a diplomatic mission?” she asked.

“Not a thing,” Marco said. “And you’d think that might be the kind of information that’d be useful. But it was just a distress call, and nothing else. Automated, sent out to Any and All.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nope. If I can get the ship’s ID code, Ken might able to dig something up. He said he did a database backup at our last station visit. Try the bridge, see what you can find.”

“Gotcha.” She glanced around the schematic until she found the bridge – three decks up and at the farthest point from where she was now. “Marco. Grab my helmet feed. Tell me if I’m missing anything.”

“Already done,” he said. “Off with you.” The persistent hiss of the open channel clicked off.

There was a lift about ten meters down the corridor. She thought about it, and then called up the schematics again to look for an access vent. Someplace where she would be slightly less trapped. She pulled a vent cover off and stuck her head inside. It would be close, but she could fit.

The trip along the vent was short and uneventful. She braced her back against the wall and pushed with her feet, popping the vent cover off and sending it bouncing off the opposite wall. When she looked out into the corridor, the first thing she did was curse. Loudly and well.

“Mara?” Marco’s voice cut through the mix of rage and fear that she found herself overwhelmed by. “Mara, is everything okay?”

Everything was most certainly not okay. The walls were covered with old, dried blood. There were splashes on the floor and ceiling alike, bloody handprints, and long, smeared drag marks. It was all a dark, iron brown, and there were tiny flecks of dried blood floating in the air like motes of dust in an abandoned house.

“Holy shit,” Marco said.

Mara swallowed hard. “My thoughts exactly.”

“What do you think happened?”

Mara was pretty sure she knew what happened. She figured Marco knew too, but the question still had to be asked. “Looks like we’re gonna have to find out,” she said. The blood trail led off to her right, which the schematics said was in the direction of the bridge. “I’ll follow this,” she said. She pulled herself out of the access vent and started floating along the corridor, following the blood.

There was more blood as she went along, and the bloody dust in the air seemed to be getting thicker. When she turned the first corner, it just got worse.

There was a head resting where the floor and wall met, and it was facing away from her. It was a small blessing, but the rest of the corridor looked like a slaughterhouse. The blood was now mixed with what was unmistakably flesh, and it caked the walls where it wasn’t floating through the air. “Marco,” she said. “How many people does a Hermes usually carry?”

There as a pause. When he spoke, Marco’s voice was quiet and hoarse. “Around fifty,” he said. “Maybe more, depending on the mission.”

“Jesus,” she said.

“Yeah.”

She checked the map. The bridge was just up the corridor, but she really, really didn’t want to find it. Whoever – and she couldn’t stop amending that to Whatever – had either come from or gone to the bridge. In a ship this size, there were plenty of places to hide, but everything pointed to Mara walking into a horror house.

The bridge door was covered with bloody handprints. Mara took a deep breath and thought about how lucky she was that she couldn’t smell anything. Her stomach lurched anyway, and she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. The suit had ways of handling puke in the helmet, but it was still horrible, and she’d never live it down.

The door opened at her approach.

Except for the floating naked corpse in the middle of the bridge, it all looked perfectly normal. the man was thin and very clearly dead. His throat had been cut, and he was hovering in a thick cloud of dried blood. The main screen was dark, as we’re most of the other consoles on the bridge. Mara moved from point to point, trying to get an idea of who this ship was.

There was an axe buried in the communications console.

To Be Continued… (I keep using that phrase… I do not think it means what I think it means…)

Day Two Hundred and Fifty-seven: Safe Ground

February 2, 2012 Leave a comment

A man of inhuman proportions stepped around the corner into the frozen food aisle of the supermarket, stopped at the vegetables, and sat cross-legged on the floor. Waiting.

Even sitting down, he was tall, taller than most of the men and women who had come to do their shopping. His leather greatcoat fanned out behind him on the floor, and he creaked and jingled when he moved, as though there were still more layers of metal and leather underneath. His face looked like it had been carved from volcanic rock, with a single livid scar that slashed across his nose from one cheek to the other. He had long, silver hair that was bound with a red leather cord, and looked like someone who had stepped off the cover of a fantasy novel.

The other Sunday shoppers didn’t seem to notice him at all. One middle-aged woman with two kids in a shopping cart stopped next to him, reached past his face, and took out a package of peas. Her littlest started at the man, and made to say something, but the child was soon distracted by its older brother, who smacked it with a package of snack cakes.

The man sat there, cross-legged, eyes closed, for hours as the shoppers went by. They guided their carts around him, never really noticing that he was there. Perhaps some of them wondered why it was they should suddenly want to veer left and look at the frozen pizzas. Some of the more sensitive of them may have noticed the faintest smell of woodsmoke curl up into the deep recesses of their brain, but they would have dismissed it as soon as they walked by. Only a few very young children seemed to see him, and none of their parents were interested in following up on the strange fantasies of their toddlers.

The day wore on. More people came in to shop for dinner or to get their groceries for the week. As the night came in, the tide of shoppers slowed, and by midnight the store was populated mostly by the skeleton crew of employees and college students looking to meet their immediate snack and soda needs. The supermarket was quiet, except for the constant hum of compressors and the quiet melodies of the overhead music.

At about one in the morning, the man opened his eyes. They were a deep, terra-cotta red set in black, and they seemed to be following the movements of something outside his own vision. A moment later, a girl walked around the corner. She looked like she had pulled her outfit together from the first items she’d laid hands on in a thrift shop, with oversized combat boots on her feet and a fez on her head. She stopped in front of the man on the floor and flashed a grin that was brilliant under the fluorescents. “Been here long?” she said. She planted her feet and crossed her arms, and somehow managed to look more solid than the giant in front of her.

The man leveled his gaze at her. “All day,” he said. “Where have you been?”

She shrugged and twirled a finger. “You know. Out. About. Doing things and stuff and things.”

He unfolded himself from where he’d been sitting and sighed as he stood. “I should have set the bargain for a dusk limit instead of dawn.” He looked down at her. “I was told that you were more reliable.”

That grin again. “You were told wrong, big man.”

The man sighed, and it was a rumble in his chest. “Shall we begin?” he asked.

“Yup. Let’s get this over with.”

The man reached into a pocket of the greatcoat and pulled out a small cloth bag. He held it up to his lips and whispered to it, words too quick and too soft for anyone to hear. Then he gestured to the girl, for her to move closer. She did. “In this place,” the man said, “this sanctuary, we have come here to make a bargain. In honesty and good faith.” He poured red sand out of the bag, making a half-circle around them. “Siorad of the Western Hills does so swear.” He took the bag in both hands and presented it to the girl with all the solemnity of ancient ritual.

She swiped it from his hands, rolling her eyes. “We’re here to make a deal,” she said. “Nobody tries anything, nobody gets hurt.” She poured the rest of the sand from the bag, but now it was blue. When she completed the circle, she stood up straight. “I’m Liryl of the Underground, and I approve this message.” She tossed the bag to Siorad, who caught it with a look of disapproval. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again they glowed the dull orange of old coals. He spoke a word, and the supermarket around him seemed to ripple and change. For a moment, it wasn’t a supermarket at all. It was a great meeting-hall, ancient and dangerous. A place where even blood enemies could meet and parley without fear of betrayal. It was the place it had always been, even when it had changed beyond all recognition.

The strange waves subsided, and Siorad looked a little more relaxed. Liryl, on the other hand, was shuffling her feet and never letting her gaze settle. She kept away from the sand circle.

“Very well,” Siorad rumbled. “Let’s begin.”

To Be Continued… at some point.

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-six: Entrance Exam

January 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Sarah’s fingers started to lose feeling as she clung to the edge of the platform. She tried to use her feet to lift herself higher, but the sides seem to have been coated with the same ultra-slippery coating that they’d put on the ramp far behind her. No friction, no super-speed, and in a few moments she would plunge into the water below.

And that would be the end of her career as a superhero.

Thousands of young people applied to be an official Sidekick with the Global Defenders every year. Of those thousands, hundreds were invited to take part in a rigorous week of exams, tests, and challenges. Of those hundreds, only twenty would be chosen.

Her fingers slipped again, and she whimpered. Any further and she’d be out of the running permanently.

The obstacle course was the most famous part of the test, and the only one that anyone really knew about going in. It started in a vast gymnasium, five kids at a time. Each one had to follow their color-coded track through the room and out into an individually-tailored course. The Global Defenders would provide obstacles that were designed to test each particular applicant’s special power or ability, and failing the course usually meant being kicked out of the trials.

Sarah’s course had started off as a racetrack from hell. When the gun sounded, and the other four students were still getting started, Sarah was already off and running. The track twisted and bent and spun, with a helical loop-the-loop just close enough to the start that she wasn’t sure she could build up enough speed.

She’d made it through, though, and headed for the ramp. There was a gap of about fifty feet, and if she hit the end of the ramp fast enough, she would have cleared the gap easily. But the ramp had been coated, made so slippery that she lost her footing and her speed. She was still going fast, but just barely fast enough. She flew off the end of the ramp, hurtled through the air, and landed arms-first on the other side.

She tried not to look down as her grip slipped again. “No, no, no, no,” she said to herself. Her feet scrabbled against the wall, but nothing happened. She forced herself to breathe slowly, to think about her options. She was a fast thinker, too. Another benefit of super-speed. No matter how fast she thought, though, she couldn’t get ahead of the panic that threatened to engulf her. Another few inches and the dream she’d had since she was a child would be gone.

A howl crawled its way out of her throat as she slipped again and felt her grip come free of the platform. She dropped – and landed on something solid a moment later. Sarah looked down and saw that she was standing on a tall pillar of ice that had risen from the water below.

“Got ya!” Sarah turned to look at the only person it could have been. Claire skidded to a stop on the ice bridge she was using to get across the room, a broad smile crossing her pale face. She waved. “Gotta be more careful, roomie!” she said. A fine mist formed around her hand, and the ice pillar started to rise until it brought Sarah to the edge of the platform.

Once Sarah was out of danger, Claire swept herself off to continue her own course. The two had been assigned as roommates when they arrived at the Global Defenders’ headquarters, and they’d become friends almost immediately. This was the first time they were actually in competition with each other, though. If Sarah had dropped, Claire would have a slightly better chance of getting in.

She shook her head. Enough wasting time. Whatever Claire wanted to do was up to her. Maybe she’d buy her an ice cream later to say thanks.

Sarah hopped on her toes for a moment and took off.

In an instant, she was out of the vast main obstacle room, following the red line that led her through the course on her way through a featureless corridor that seemed to go on forever, even at her speed. She was slightly surprised when the wall started sprouting barriers, when sections of the floor rose and dropped just before she got to them, when hidden guns started to fire beanbags at her from the walls and ceiling. With her reflexes cranked up, they weren’t all that hard to avoid. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, and she sidestepped, ducked, and jumped in all the right places.

There was another jump, this time a lot longer than the first, and she felt her heart skip. If this was was treated the way the last one was, she’d probably go flying right off the edge and into the water. On the other hand, if she slowed down then she’d do the same, treated or not. Sarah gritted her teeth and poured on the speed. The air around her seemed to turn slippery and oily as it slid over her skin, held back from killing her by some strange feature of her powers that she’d never fully understood.

As she shot out over the dark, cold water below, she realized that she was howling – a long, keening scream that trailed behind her like a slipstream. She seemed to hang in the air forever, watching the far platform inch towards her at an impossibly slow speed.

The impact went all the way through her as she landed, and it was a moment before she took off again.

The track curved and looped. There was a maze that shifted and changed as she ran it, and a route that made her skip across the water’s surface like a flat river stone.

Finally, she came to the final room. It was a small chamber with a button on a pedestal, and all she had to do was press the button. She stepped forward…

A curtain of violet energy dropped down around her. It shimmered and hummed, and when she tried to go through it, she got a mild shock for her troubles. The emitter was far above her, a small glowing panel embedded in the high ceiling, out of her reach.

“Damn,” she said, and she could hear her voice quaver. She had come so far, and she could see the end in front of her. She hit the field with the flat of her hand, and the jolt traveled through her arm.

This was the end of a long, long dream. Her powers had started when she was a child, much to the consternation of her parents, and all she’d ever wanted to do was to be a super-hero. To be one of those colorful servants of justice that made the world a better place, and what better place to learn how to do it than here? The Global Defenders had fought off everything from bank robbers to international terrorists to alien armadas, and the graduates of their Sidekick program had gone on to great super-hero careers of their own.

It was all she’d ever wanted, and a thin sheet of energy was all that was keeping her from getting there.

The signs of panic were pretty clear. She was breathing hard, she could feel her heart beating in her chest. Her eyes were watering and ready to overflow, but she kept telling herself that super-heroes didn’t cry. They never cried. And for a moment, she thought that the flickering of the force field was just an illusion, a distortion caused by the tears.

When she wiped her eyes away, though, she could see it – the emitter was flickering and strobing. She took a breath to calm down, and the effect went away.

That was enough to tell her what she needed to know.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. She looked up – the emitter seemed to be glowing with a nice constant light, but as she stared at it, she thought to herself, Faster. Faster…

The emitter began to flicker faintly, and she concentrated on those gaps, those intermittent pauses. As she did, they became longer – in reality only fractions of a fraction of a second, but she stretched them out and slowed them down until they became a regular pulse. The energy curtain blinked in and out of existence as well, more and more slowly until she could actually see it flow downward from the emitter, like water cascading off a rooftop, only to cut off and vanish into the floor.

Sarah counted to herself – three, two… One.

She stepped through the gap in the curtain of light, walked up to the button and pressed it. The emitter shut down and lights in the ceiling came on, and Sarah could feel her concentration give way. Time seemed to resume its normal flow as the wall in front of her slid upwards, revealing a reception room.

Somehow, Claire was already there. “How’d you…?”

Claire shrugged. “I guess I don’t waste time like some people,” she said, winking.

It was clear that the rest of their group had failed the test. A hologram flickered to life in the center of the room. It was one of the Global Defenders, a young man who called himself Detour. He was able to create wormholes to move from place to place almost instantly. “Good work,” he said. The hologram seemed bigger than life size, and he stood looking down on them, strong arms crossed in front of a broad chest. “We would like to remind you both, however,” he said, seeming to look right at Claire as he spoke, “that these tests are to measure your individual abilities. Wishing to help each other is admirable, but not part of the test. Do it again, Miss Carrington, and you’ll be out.”

Claire looked down at the floor. “Yessir,” she said.

Detour smiled. “Head back to your dormitory,” he said. “Get some rest. The final round begins tomorrow.” The hologram blinked out, and the kids started to move.

“I’m glad you got through,” Sarah said. “But you shouldn’t’ve risked your chances to help me.”

Claire shrugged. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. Then she grinned and put her arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “That’s what heroes do, right?”

Sarah nodded, and they walked together towards the dormitory.

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-five: Ritual

January 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I needed a new hobby. I tried music, but I couldn’t sing worth a damn, and the noises I made on the guitar were just freaking everybody out. I tried to study some languages, and that was kind of cool up until I realized that I didn’t know anyone else who spoke Arabic or Japanese or Russian. I mean, it’s all well and good to be able to rattle off a nice お手洗いはどこですか? whenever you want, but your friends are just gonna look at you like you’ve lost your mind.

Woodworking sent me to the hospital, and every time I tried to cook something, I would end up with a result that was almost, but not completely, unlike whatever it was the cookbook claimed I was supposed to get. The goldfish died, oil paints gave me a headache, I lost count every time I tried to knit, and the sunburn I got when I tried gardening doesn’t bear talking about.

So. Magick. Yes – with a k.

When I was in college, there was a guy in my dorm who said he could do it. Wore black a lot, liked candles, had this big, ostentatious pentagram pendant he liked to wear. He’d stalk around the campus like some kind of hunting crow, looking for something that only he cared about. He’d perch on the back of chairs, with his fingers steepled, talking about the “occult forces that govern the world” as if he knew half of what he was talking about. When you called him on his bullshit, he’d just glare at you until you went away. Then he’d go back to shuffling his tarot cards or playing with the cheap crystal pendulum he’d bought at the rock shop.

I never believed him, of course. He said he could talk to spirits with this homemade Ouija board he kept in his closet, but when I said I wanted to try it he told me that I was surrounded by “disruptive energies” and that he couldn’t risk my getting involved.

Last I heard he was working in some secondhand bookshop in Corsair. Grapevine has it that he drives a minivan.

Still and all, he really seemed to be into it, and there were enough weird stories around the guy that eventually I figured that it couldn’t hurt to at least look into it. At the very least, it would keep me busy, which was all I really needed from a hobby. It’s not like my job requires a whole lot of creative thinking, anyway. The mailroom isn’t the kind of place that cultivates the creative types.

I got on the internet and looked around for a while on what magick was and how it worked. Turns out that half the places I looked at contradicted the other half, and the ones that didn’t seem outright crazy just had that kind of bland, new-age tofu-ness that made me wonder if it was worth getting into at all. Experiencing a oneness with the earth is all well and good, but I was hoping for something a little more concrete. Maybe a new job, a girlfriend or something. Better luck all around, if I could swing it.

I ended up ordering a “Beginniner’s Magician Kit,” which I carefully made sure did not include a rubber thumb and a fake wand. This one had a few candles of Approved Occult Colors – black, white, and red – some cords, a few sticks of incense, and a little bag of rock salt. With it came a nice, concise booklet explaining the basics of magick and how to make the Occult Forces that Govern the World do your bidding.

It seemed a little silly, really. The booklet said I should have a ceremonial robe, but never really explained why. I wasn’t about to sew one, and they don’t do a lot of ceremonial robes at Wal-Mart, so I just tied on my flannel bathrobe and hoped for the best. It said I needed a ceremonial knife – by old bread knife would have to do – and an altar, which was the top of a rolling file cabinet that I kept my tax stuff in.

The hard part was keeping a straight face, honestly.

I lit the candles, keeping the black one on the left, the white one on the right, just like the booklet said. I wrote down my wish on a piece of paper and tied it with a red thread. That went on the altar, too. The booklet said I needed to light the red candle at the far end of the altar and then do the ceremony every day, moving it a little closer to my tied-up wish every day. I wasn’t sure if I had that kind of fortitude, so I just started with the candle in the middle and hoped for the best.

A few taps of the bread knife against the altar, a cone of incense, and I started with the Words. They were loosely based on what was in the booklet, which stressed that the words themselves were less important than the intention behind them. Good thing, too, because of all the things I don’t have much talent with, poetry ranks pretty high.

O night above and day below,
Where the winds and breezes blow,
Here is what you need to know:
My boss, Frank Spry, has got to go!

Every day I live in fear
That Frank is always coming near.
So kick that guy out on his ear
And I will buy you all a beer!

Told you.

I held the knife in both hands and closed my eyes, visualizing what I wanted. I saw my boss leaving the building, cardboard box in his hands and security at his side. I saw him walk to the bus stop and look back at the office building. His face is wistful and full of regret, knowing that he has ruined the one good thing in his life. As the bus approaches, he wipes a single tear from his eye and nods, as though he has come to an important decision. While I never take the fantasy quite this far, I’m pretty sure he’s going to hang himself.

When I opened my eyes, I leaned over and blew out the red candle. For a moment, I thought it might actually work. I felt a kind of energy pass out of me, or through me, and exit with my breath. In fact, I could almost see it – a silvery puff of air that wrapped itself around the flame and then flew off to take my ill wishes to Frank, wherever he was.

But it was only a moment, really. I know better than most what buyer’s remorse feels like, and I was feeling it already. If you looked at the path my life had taken, you would see it littered with the rubble of a hundred abandoned lifetime passions, and I could already feel that magick was going to join them pretty quickly.

I stared at the smoke rising from the wick and then shrugged. “Oh well,” I said. I blew out the other two candles and thought about cleaning up the altar. It could wait. There was leftover pizza in the fridge, and at least that would make me feel better.

When I turned around, I nearly dropped the knife on my foot. There was a woman sitting on my sofa, and she was like no woman I’d ever seen before. She looked like some kind of international super-spy, with an expensive black suit and reflective sunglasses. Her long, blue-black hair was done up in a complicated braid that she’d pulled over her shoulder and she wore black leather gloves. Her skin seemed to shine from within, and she made all those women in magazines look like trolls. I tried to speak, but nothing came out but incoherent noise.

“I prefer Uware,” she said.

It took me a moment to come up with the cogent, suave reply of: “Buh?”

She smiled, and my heart broke. “Uware,” she said again. “It’s a Japanese beer, and it’s probably the best thing mankind has ever made.” She stood up in a smooth, liquid motion and was about a head taller than I was. “Russell Deloria?” she said, holding out a hand.

I looked at her hand for a moment, and then at her. It took another long, humiliating moment before I could say, “Yes.” And I swear, my voice cracked. Because it hates me.

“Good,” she said. “My name is Iaxiel, and I’m here to fix your little boss problem.”

Day Two Hundred and Thirty-four: JobFair

January 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Malcolm carefully unwrapped the long, thin box he had been given by the JobFair organizers when he signed in at the crack of dawn. There were half a hundred people assembled in the cold parking lot outside a mall that had gone bust a few years ago, and everyone had one of these boxes. They varied in size and shape, but they all had the distinctive red logo of the National JobFair printed all over them.

He felt a certain twinge of trepidation as he opened the box – they said that the items would be totally random, and that their usefulness would often depend on the applicant’s imagination and creativity. That worried Malcolm a little bit. He was what his high school guidance counselor had called “a straight-line thinker.” Give him a task to do, and he’d do it. Let him know what steps were required and what the expected outcome was, and you would get exactly what you wanted from him, with no complaints or problems. The job was there, and Malcolm got it done – get the numbers, put them in order and make them make sense. There was no glamour to it, but it worked.

Then came all the new management gurus, these kids with their MBA degrees who would waltz into a company, turn it upside down and then leave with giant checks in their pockets with no thought as to the damage they’d done. Suddenly, after more than a decade of just coming to work and doing his job – and doing it well – Malcolm was expected to excel, to think outside the box and to innovate. There were meetings and retreats and countless hours of managers writing things on giant pads of paper and making Malcolm and his co-workers do role-plays and brainstorming sessions.

All Malcolm wanted to do was his job. In the end, they wouldn’t let him do it. Along with a bunch of other “old dogs,” he was given what they called “mandatory early retirement.” A pat on the back and a kick in the ass and a check every month that was more of an insult than a pension. Not even a gold watch and a chance to get drunk and rip the boss a new one in public.

He’d been sent home to the wife he’d promised to take care of and the kids he hoped to put through college. He explained to them what had happened, and they were all understanding and supportive and it ate away at him inside. He wanted them to be upset, to tell him that he needed to be stronger. Not to pray or to commiserate or to understand.

He was supposed to support them, not the other way around. And he’d failed.

Now he needed work, but it looked like the work didn’t need him. Jobs were thin on the ground, and getting thinner. The unemployment rate was grinding higher and higher while politicians bickered and all the rich businesses moved themselves where the labor laws were less existent. No matter how often the talking heads on TV said that brighter days were around the corner, there were more and more people hunting for fewer and fewer jobs. Of the companies that remained, nobody wanted to waste time and resources retraining a man in his early fifties to sell computers or flip burgers unless they knew that he really wanted the job.

Thus, the contest. They still called it a Job Fair, out of a sense of tradition, but everyone knew what it was, and “fair” had nothing to do with it.

The box held an aluminum baseball bat, shiny and new. It was nestled in bright white styrofoam peanuts and glinted in the half-light of the morning. He took it out of the box and hefted it. It had been a long time since he’d held a bat – probably not since his little league games as a kid. He glanced around, aware that people were staring at him. One guy had a length of pipe. Another had a frying pan. One guy by the coffee truck was cradling what looked like an old Army service pistol. Everyone had something, and not all of them seemed happy with what they’d gotten.

The big screen that had been mounted above the doors flickered to life, and the familiar face of the CEO of JobFair, Stephan Stokely, grinned out at all of them. He clearly had no problem covering his dental work.

“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Welcome to the fifth annual regional Job Fair!” He paused, grinning madly, as though he were waiting for applause. There was none. The guy with the gun shot off a round at the screen, but the high-strength plastic just absorbed the impact and the bullet fell to the ground. Stupid, Malcolm thought. One less bullet to use inside. He cringed inwardly at the thought, and wondered if his wife would let him home even if he passed. She hated the whole thing, wouldn’t even watch it on TV like everyone else.

“In a moment,” Stokely boomed, “the doors will open and the job fair will begin!” His face was replaced with a map of the mall. It was a standard model of the twentieth century: two anchor stores, three floors, with a food court and hundreds of shops that had been shuttered long ago. “All you have to do is make it from here -” A bright blue dot appeared on the screen, right at the doors of Finamore’s, where they were all watching him. “To here!” A bright red dot appeared at the other end of the mall, at the far end of the Denton Department Store.

“Now it sure looks easy, but we’ve made it quite the challenge!” Little cartoon exclamation points popped up and danced about the map. “You all have your own personal tools to help you get past some of the obstacles we’ve put in, and we hope to see some vigorous competition!” Malcolm tried not to look at anyone else, and was pretty sure they were trying the same thing. Nonetheless, he could see them staring at the weapons they’d been given, trying to imagine how they would use them.

He felt sick as he realized what he was about to do, and wondered if anyone else felt the same way.

“You have one hour,” Stokely said. Now there was a giant stopwatch on the screen. “Anyone who makes it to the end of the course before the whistle blows will have a fantastic opportunity ahead of them!”

The JobFair employees moved to the doors. These men were large and dangerous-looking, carrying what looked like cattle prods and wearing bright red armor emblazoned with the JobFair logo. Each man took hold of a door handle, and the crowd started to move in. One of the JobFair guards brandished his prod, and everyone moved back a step. The man grinned, and it was nasty.

“Ready?” Stokely’s voice sounded far too excited.

“Set?” Malcolm dropped the box on the ground and took a solid grip on the bat. He was at the back of the crowd, and could feel the energy that was building up around everyone. There’d probably be a few losses right at the start just from trampling.

“GO!”

The crowd surged forward, and the collective howl that came out of that group was horrifying. There were yells and screams and the quick popping of gunfire, and Malcolm watched as the crowd poured into the mall like ants on a raid. He followed, trying to look everywhere at once while at the same time trying to be as inconspicuous as he could. He hopped over a few people on the ground who were moaning and crying, and a few more who weren’t moving at all. They guy who’d had the gun was bleeding from the head and the gun was lying on the asphalt. Malcolm picked it up gingerly and then dropped it again. What did he know about guns? Probably shoot himself in the foot…

There were more screams and shots coming from inside, and Malcolm paused at the doorway. One of the guards lifted his prod, and Malcolm saw himself reflected in the man’s visor: thin and old and scared, and holding a bat that he didn’t want to use. The guard’s grin was positively malicious. “In or out, man,” he said. He gestured with the prod and started to close the doors.

Malcolm jumped through them, into the fluorescent half-light of the mall. He couldn’t see anyone else, but he could still hear them.

The doors closed behind him.

He adjusted his grip on the bat and took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “Get to the other side.” He swallowed hard. “Let’s go.”

Day One Hundred and Ninety: Spirit Guide

November 27, 2011 2 comments

Adam refilled his date’s wine and took a moment to notice how lovely she looked in the low lighting of the restaurant. She had curves to her, which he loved, and skin that seemed to glow in candlelight. Her eyes were as dark as her long, curling hair, and she always seemed to be waiting for the punchline to a joke that he didn’t know.

That wasn’t going to stop him from trying to tell them, though.

“Hope you like the wine,” he said.

“It’s lovely.” Carlana tapped her glass against his again before she took a sip.

“Glad to hear it,” he said. “But next time I should probably remember the antidote.”

Carlana grinned around the rim of the glass. “Ah.” She put it down and leaned forward. “But what you do not know is that I have spent years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”

Adam blinked and said, “Oh my god. Marry me.”

Their laughter drew attention from the other tables, but they didn’t notice. They were having too much fun. His brother had set them up together after Adam had gone through a long spell of being single. He hadn’t minded, really. Being single had its perks. The free schedule, the lack of a need to clean all the time or close the door when he peed. But after a while the quiet and the solitude had gotten to him, so he’d asked Marv if he knew anyone. The result was what was turning out to be the best first date he’d ever had.

Kiss her.

Well, almost.

Adam ignored the voice and went on flirting. “So how is it, working at Qualis? I hear gaming jobs are really tough.”

She shrugged. “No more than any other job, really. There are some tough days, and it can be a little much being The Girl sometimes…” He could hear the capital letters she put on it and could only imagine. He worked at a small bookstore, and was the only guy there. But other than being the one person who seemed to be able to get heavy things off of high shelves, he hadn’t really noticed any kind of strangeness to it. He knew some gamers, though, and he could easily picture how they’d devolve around a gorgeous woman like this.

It turned out she’d worked on one of his favorite games, Stonecracker Kingdom, and they spent some time talking about the puzzles that were the heart of the game. “Are you sure you can’t tell me how to get the key out of the cage?” he asked.

She just shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “Gotta figure it out.”

“Or look it up online.”

She put her glass down. “Oh, you’re not one of those, are you?” He almost thought she was serious for a moment. “Because if you are, then I think we’re done here.”

“No, no, no,” he said. “I assure you. I figure them all out on my own, bleeding from the eyes or no.”

“Good to hear,” she said. “Bleeding from the eyes is actually a beta feature.”

C’mon, man, kiss her!

He coughed slightly. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” he asked. “Call of nature and all that.”

She raised her glass and said, “Be careful in there.” He was grinning all the way to the toilets, but the grin dropped once he got into the stall and locked the door.

There was a small blue panda bear hovering about a foot above his head. He reached up and grabbed it by the neck, dragging it down in front of his face. “Shut up!” he whispered. “I am trying to have a date!”

The bear looked completely unimpressed. “Yeah,” it said. “I know that. And all I’m trying to do is my job.”

“I don’t need you to do your job,” Adam said. “I need you to leave me alone!”

“You need to get into that girl’s pants before the week is out, kid.”

Adam wanted to scream. “That’s the kind of advice I really don’t need right now!” He let the bear go, and it hovered just out of arm’s reach. “You do that, and there’s pressure on me. There’s pressure on me, and I start to get nervous and nobody’s getting anything!” He had to drop his voice back down to a hoarse whisper. “Got it?”

The bear shrugged and did a slow somersault in mid-air. “Suit yourself,” it said. “But she wants you to kiss her.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Kid, I’m your spirit guide. I know everything you need to know, and I’m telling you – she’s ready to go.” The panda spun to face him and made little thrusting jabs with its hips. “You play it right and you can leave that porno folder closed for once.”

“Oh, for the love of god…”

Adam leaned his head against the tiles and counted his breaths. He’d had the panda for a few months now, and the fun of it was starting to wear thin. He had no idea where it came from, or why it chose him, but from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep – and as far as he knew, all night – this little blue panda was there. Telling him what he should do in all kinds of situations. Talking to his boss, buying furniture, walking around the city. The bear didn’t always talk – most of the time it just hung out, doing whatever it was spirit guides did when they weren’t guiding. When it did talk, though, it was pretty insistent on getting its way.

“Look,” he said after a few minutes. “You have to let me make my own decisions, okay?”

The bear shrugged. “Well, yeah. Fine. But it’s my job to offer advice, so that’s what I’m gonna do.” It tapped its wrist. “She’s probably wondering where you are, by the way. Every minute you spend arguing with me is a five percent decrease in your chances of doing the nasty anytime soon.”

“See? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about!” Adam’s words were coming out in a hoarse rush. “I’m gonna go out there, and have a nice time with a lovely girl, and if anything happens, then it happens and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t and I don’t need you or anyone else nagging me about it. Okay?” He jabbed the flush button for the toilet. “Now shut. The hell. Up!”

Adam yanked open the stall door. There was an older gentleman at the mirror, combing his hair and watching Adam from the corner of his eyes.

“Trouble, young man?” he said.

Adam took a deep breath and forced on a smile. “First date jitters,” he said. “Nothing to it.” He took his hands out of the sink and let the water shut off.

Ten percent and falling.

Adam winced and smiled again. “Gonna be fine.” He yanked a towel from the dispenser. “Juuuust fine.”

Day One Hundred and Seventy-seven: Golemime, part 1

November 14, 2011 8 comments

The chief himself came down to my basement office to get me to make an indestructible mime.

“You want me to what?” I asked him.

“You heard me,” he said.

“Yeah, I heard you. I just thought maybe I heard you wrong, is all. You want me to make, what – a mime golem?”

“An indestructible one, that’s right.” He stood there with his hands on his hips and his jaw furiously working over a wad of gum.

Someone had been killing mimes, you see.

The newspapers were having good fun with it, of course, and even the head of the Estervale city council was caught cracking a “silent but deadly” joke when he thought the microphones were off. But mimes or not, they were still citizens, and it was the job of the police to find and stop this killer.

All the evidence thus far had been that the killer liked to work up close. Several mimes had been stabbed, a few poisoned – two had been shot, presumably with a silencer. So what we needed was a decoy, someone that could be a target without being vulnerable. We could set it up to attract the killer’s attention and then nab him in the act.

And so the job of creating the indestructible mime fell to me, the department’s resident thaumaturge. I tried to hold on to my temper by shuffling some papers around, but it was quickly clear that it wasn’t going to work. I dropped a packet of intra-departmental forms into a drawer and slammed it shut.

“So we can flush out some criminal mime-murderer? That’s why you want me to create an abomination in the eye of God?”

“That’s right,” he said, switching the wad of gum from right cheek to left.

“You realize I could lose my license over this.”

He waved my objection away. “You’re doing this under the authority of the mayor. You’ll be fine.”

“But what if -”

“Gripe all you like, Zoltaire,” he said, pulling yet another piece of gum from the package in his pocket. “I’m not about to let the media keep using my department as its butt-boy.” He jammed it into his cheek. “Get to work.”

So. I made a golem out of clay, and I painted it to look like a mime.

Creating life technically falls under the heading of “forbidden” uses of magic and other eldrich energies, and I suppose if you were being really liberal with your definition of “life” then you’d be right. I’d be a monster. The regional bureau would be within their rights to revoke my license to practice thaumaturgy. They might even tar and feather me, for old times’ sake. But look: a golem? I don’t know if I’d exactly call that “life.”

Golems are usually made of clay – not even good clay, in this instance. The good clay is expensive, and I’m just trying to make it by on a police department budget which, as the chief will tell you often and at great length, is never enough. This was stuff I managed to beg, borrow and steal from wherever I could. This was slag clay, elementary art-school clay. Wednesday night at the senior center clay. So if I was really trying to create a living thing, I sure as hell would have splurged on the good stuff. Marble or granite or something.

I will say this for clay, though – it’s easy to work with. All I had to do was make a plaster mold of some mannequin parts and then just go from there. Before I knew it, I had my golem, and it looked human.

Well, human-ish. Close enough, anyway. Not the Uncanny Valley, but I could see it from there.

After that, it was just a matter of making sure he’d fit in. The problem with that was that it was a kind of dull grey-brown color, something you don’t usually see on people who aren’t zombies. Fortunately, however, the problem I was trying to solve also presented me with its solution.

We contacted the local union of mimes and clowns and told them that we needed a costume as part of our investigations. They were so happy to finally be taken seriously that they sent over boxes of old mime gear – half a hundred striped shirts and pairs of stretchy black pants. Lots of floppy hats and dance shoes and just buckets of face paint and makeup. It was enough to make a good man cry.

I asked the folks up at Records to send me pictures of the dead mimes, so I could use their faces as reference. As it turned out, I didn’t really need to. The picture that my brain provided when I thought “Mime” was almost preternaturally accurate: white face, black-rimmed eyes, and black lipstick done up in a frowny-face. I even put in a teardrop coming from its left eye to sell the illusion.

A floppy hat and some white gloves and it was all ready. Looking at it, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t human. Except for the fact that it wasn’t breathing, and probably would’ve cracked into a hundred pieces if you hit it real good with a hammer. It was good to go, except for that one last thing.

Life.

Or, as my lawyers would rather I say, “The thaumaturgically-inspired simulacrum of life.”

Animating a golem hasn’t changed since the first golem was made. In the beginning, God made a little clay doll, said the Word, and there was Adam, ready to get up and start naming things. Every golem since Adam has been made on pretty much the same principle, except that our Words aren’t nearly as powerful as God’s Word. Human Words are annoyingly vague, and you have to choose them very, very carefully or bad things will result.

I had the clay. All I needed now were the Words.

If I could have, I would have just written, “Oy. Wake up and fight crime,” but that wouldn’t have worked. You need Words, not words, and the only way to get those is to make them yourself. So I headed on out to the Barrowmill Academy library and started pulling everything I could find on sigilcraft. There were some really heavy-duty texts there, the ones that all the graduate students at the school use, and a few that were more popular reading, for the serious amateur who wants to make his pretty doodles actually do something.

Then there are the books for the pros. These are the ones that you can’t check out. They’re in a special room all by themselves, dark and quiet and lit by softly glowing crystals, and guarded by three ancient librarians who never sleep. The book I wanted was the Liber Sermonium Potentibus, and it looked just as scary as the title made it sound. A heavy black cover, bound in the skin of something that probably never saw daylight. The pages were brittle and old, the writing a blood-brown that skipped and leaked across the page. I flipped to the index and took out my notebook and pen.

Well, my notebook, anyway. The pen flew through the air and smacked into the withered paw of one of the unsleeping Librarians, who opened her beaklike mouth and said, “NO WRITING!” Her voice crawled up and down my spine.

I took out my badge. Yeah, I’m not a beat cop or anything like that, but I still get a badge, which is more useful than you’d think. It’s a sigil in and of itself, and a pretty powerful one. “I’m with the police,” I said, holding it in front of her watery white eyes. “I need that book for a case I’m working on.” The Librarian studied the badge for a good long while, time I could have been using to figure out how to animate the golem. She whispered under her breath and I had to fight the urge to scratch every square inch of skin. Finally she looked at me and said, “Mark not the book.”

Slowly, carefully, I took the pen from her hand. “No worries,” I said. “Your book is perfectly safe.” And I meant it, too. I heard that someone went over one of their books – from the general catalog, mind you, not one of these down here – with a highlighter pen, and the next time anyone saw him again it was eight months later and he was screaming at subway trains in his underwear.

To make the sigils, I had to know exactly what I wanted the golem to do and why I wanted it to do it. That alone took a couple of hours. Then I needed to know who the golem had to think it was, and that was even harder. There are no ancient sigils for “mime artist,” after all. For good reason.

After hours of work and nearly every page in my notebook, I had them. Seven complicated little sigils that, when put into the golem’s head, would make it what we needed it to be. An indestructible mime-slash-cop.

I went back to my office. By now, it was getting late. I stashed the Words in my safe and crashed out on the sofa in the break room.

The next day I awoke to crappy coffee and stale donuts from the day before. I went up to the cafe on the corner for a real breakfast, and caught the morning headline: another mime had been killed. His delicate scarf had been twisted around his neck until he asphyxiated. I shook my head and took a bite of a cherry danish. Hell of a way to go. But all it meant that it was more important than before to get this thing wrapped up and done.

I brought my coffee back to work with me, got the Words out of the safe, and settled in for another long day.

Since nothing in magic can ever be simple, it’s not enough to just pop the top off and drop the Words in. You have to prepare yourself, mentally and physically, for the process. I brought my white robe to the showers, scrubbed down with an herbal soap that was made with the fat of sacrificial lambs, and anointed myself with oil that had been blessed by a magus I knew from back in college. My colleagues tried not to laugh, but I knew what they were all thinking, the jerks.

Back in my office, I sat on the floor and meditated for a while, trying to keep my mind focused on what I was about to do. Laws or no laws, I was bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before, and that took some concentration and, of course, a little bit of humility. Deep breaths in and out, repeat as necessary.

Finally, it was time. I took the top off the golem’s head and very gingerly placed the Words inside. I felt a kind of electric charge building up in there, and pulled my hand out as quickly as I could. I replaced its cranium and started walking around the golem in a clockwise direction, chanting over and over again the Words that I had put in its head. I soon began to sweat and to lose sight of where I was and what I was doing. The golem was the only thing in the world that I could see right now, the only thing that even came close to being real. I wasn’t sure how long I walked, or even who I was anymore.

Suddenly, without a noise, the golem sat up.

I nearly crapped my robe. I rolled to the ground, the Words still coming out of my mouth, and I had to force myself to stop talking. My legs still wanted to move, and I grabbed them and curled into a ball for a few minutes until I was sure I could stand up and stand still. I was breathing heavily and had to mop my brow dry a few times.

It was downright eerie. It sat there, staring at me with these unblinking glass eyes. With its makeup and costume and that stupid floppy hat, it should have looked funny, but there was nothing funny about the still, unmoving form. I moved to walk around it, and its head followed me, the neck making a slight scraping noise as it turned. I continued around the table, and its head continued to follow, three hundred and sixty degrees. I shuddered when I stopped. “You’re gonna have to not do that,” I muttered. The golem didn’t respond. It just watched me as I went to my phone and called the chief down to my office.

When he came in, the golem’s attention snapped to him. I swear I saw him jump, but he’ll never admit to it. “Good gods,” he said through a mouthful of gum. “Is that it?”

I nodded. “That’s it,” I said. “Our very own golem mime.”

We both stared at it for a while, and the golem tried to watch us both. Then the chief said, “Make it do something. It’s starting to annoy me, just sitting there. Watching us.”

“Okay,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Golem. Stand up.”

Without hesitation, the golem stood. It was taller than I thought it would be, having a good eight inches on both of us. “Golem,” I said. “Invisible box.”

The golem reached up and placed its hands flat out in front of it. It started to feel around the edges of an invisible box, trying to see where the walls ended, where the ceiling came down. It patted the walls and even bounced its shoulder off, which got a chuckle from the chief. As it performed, something weird seemed to happen.

It seemed to gain a bit of life. The frozen clay face began to look more panicky, more frantic as it realized that it was trapped inside a prison it couldn’t see. Now, I know I was probably just projecting onto the thing, like I do when I think my dog looks guilty for having stolen food. But for that moment, it really looked like it was a real, living thing.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with that.

“Golem. Stop.” The golem froze in mid-panic and stood up straight. Any semblance of life or emotion vanished from its face in a flash.

“Hell,” the chief said. He walked around it as I had done, but the golem kept its dull, lifeless eyes on me. “Does it do anything else?” the chief asked.

“As long as it’s within the parameters of the Words, sure,” I said. “Anything relating to being a mime or stopping a killer. After that, you’re outta luck.”

The chief grunted as he returned to my side. “All right,” he said. “Looks good.” He took the pack of gum from his pocket and shook out another stick. “Get it prepped. We’ll plant an article in the paper advertising an up-and-coming new mime, and see if we can catch a murderer.” He patted the golem on the shoulder, stuck the gum in his mouth, and walked out of my office.

I sighed. “Looks like you’re going right into action,” I said. “Golem. Lie down.” It did as I instructed, but didn’t close its eyes. It just watched me. I could have ordered it to close its eyes, but I had a feeling like it would still be watching me anyway. Somehow.

I sat down at my desk to do paperwork – creating life or not, there was always paperwork – and thought about what we’d do with the golem once it was out in the world.

Somehow, I didn’t think it would end well.

TO BE CONTINUED…

*****

Thaddeus Zoltaire’s page on 30characters.com