Congratulations to Jim Knipp for taking the honors in this month’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Jim’s prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.
Tom Berrisford – Young Space Invaders
Jon peered down the steep, rickety drop, his eyes following the tracks as they swooped into and out of the mist. Luther had assured him it was safe, but he didn’t really trust Luther, with his missing eye and greasy grin. Trust or not, the test was a month away and he didn’t have many choices. Jon’s father had paid good money for this training, paid with notes squirreled away one and two at a time, never enough for the Squids to notice. After nearly thirteen years the best they could afford was this grinning pirate and his ramshackle thrill coaster.
Sudden thunder burst from the sky and the mist erupted into a panoply of color. Jon ducked, a little squawk escaping his lips. Luther didn’t even flinch, if anything his smile grew broader.
“You a jumpy one, young master…” Whatever he said next was lost amongst the racket from the skies.
The sound reached a crescendo and Jon dropped to the floor of the platform, hands over his head, his cheek pressed up to the splintered wood. He felt warmth below his waist, the vague smell of ammonia. He was going to die here, in a puddle of his own piss. He only wondered what form the sanction would take.
Just as swiftly as it appeared, the sound faded, the lights moved away and the valley stood once again in silence, except for a low chuffing sound.
Jon looked up, and Luther stood above him, chuckling in that deep baritone, wiping tears from his one good eye. The other, an empty crater surrounded by twisted scar tissue, stared with black indifference. He nudged Jon, not gently, in the ribs with one booted foot.
“Get up young master, the squiddies are gone.”
Jon rose on faltering legs, his face hot. He pulled his shirt down to cover the damp wool of his trousers. Luther simply shook his head.
“You do that in my truck, you’ll be cleaning it up yourself, hear?”
“Why…” his voice seemed filled with gravel and he cleared his throat. “Why didn’t they stop?”
“It’s safe here, young master.” He turned away from Jon, put his arms up and shouted. “S’all safe here.” His shout returned, echoing from the hills hidden in the mist, and he turned back.
“It’s the iron, see? In the hills. It messes up their sensors, understand?”
Jon didn’t, but he shrugged. The Squid van had moved on, that’s all that mattered.
“So, how does this work?”
“Ah, full of piss and vinegar, now.” He glanced down at Jon’s crotch and chuckled again.
“Will maybe not the piss no longer, right?”
Jon blushed. Luther didn’t wait for an answer. He turned and marched toward the edge of the platform. A small, square cart, a tiny version of the wagons they used back home, sat perched on the track. Luther motioned to it.
“Young master gets in the truck. Luther pulls the magic switch. Truck takes young master up, down, all around…”
He paused and took a swig from the flask he had produced from his back pocket, tilting the mouth of the bottle toward Jon.
“I’d offer you some, young master, for courage, but we don’t want to muck up your training.”
He turned back to the truck.
“Anyway, young master ride the truck again and again until he no longer piss his diddies every time a squid fart. In a month, young master pass his test, go back to his village, farms, fucks, make babies, dies at a suitable age…everybody happy.”
Jon thought of his father, frantically pulling him into the root cellar a month ago. Telling him for the first time about the test.
“The Squid make everyone take it, Jonnie,” he had said, looking into the dark corners of the root cellar, sweat beading on his lip despite the chill. “No one knows what they’re looking for, but they always let us even-keel folks go.”
Jon had remembered Marcus, his old friend, two years his senior. Marcus, who had won every village jailbreak game, every dare contest because there was no place he wouldn’t go, no tree he wouldn’t climb. Marcus and his family had disappeared from the village two years ago.
“Is that what happened to Marcus, Dad? Did the squids take him?”
His father had nodded.
“I told Ruben he had to reel that boy in, he would never listen. Used to tell us his boy would teach them Squid a lesson.”
Jon had thought for a moment.
“But I’m nothing like Marcus, he was…”
Brave, he thought.
“…crazy,” he said.
His father looked pained. “I know…you’re a bit more on the… nervous…side, but the Squid’s take folks like you, too.”
Jon had felt his chest tighten.
“They’re going to take me? Why?”
His father’s pained look deepened. He looked down.
“I don’t know. Tolliver told me he saw Ruben’s boy a few months back. He was all done up in that gear they give to their human troops.” He looked up to Jon, his eyes glistening. “I guess they recondition the reckless and put them to use.”
He grabbed Jon’s hand and squeezed.
“The fearful? No one knows. I have a theory, based on watching these bastards flare up whenever someone went freak near them.”
Jon swallowed. His heart felt like it was lodged directly beneath his chin. The previous spring he had seen the Squid swarm a hysterical old woman, their hideous, hovering bodies flashing from gold to blue to a blaring vermillion that stung his eyes. The broken body they had left behind was unmarked, but somehow seemed empty, as if something unseen had been drawn from it.
“Food,” Jon whispered. His father nodded.
“But it’s going to be okay. There is training available. Stuff to get your brain ready. And I’ve been saving…”
Luther’s voice interrupted his reverie, Jon looked up.
“I’m sorry?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Luther mocked. “Jesus, man. You gonna stand there all day with your mouth open. Time’s a cooking. Get in the truck or go home.”
Luther took another swig from his bottle, and added:
“And no refund.”
Jon looked into the truck. A frayed hunk of rope sat coiled on the seat. He looked down the tracks again and thought about the dips, the way the cart would rock and his stomach would lurch upward and how that little chunk of hemp would be the only thing keeping him from cartwheeling out of the car.
Could what the Squids have in store be any worse than this? He imagined bouncing from track to girder to disappear beneath the mist, coming to rest amongst the rocks, perhaps joining the rest of the young men foolish enough to trust this pirate with the ruined face. He thought of his father, saving a little each year, risking everything just to give him a chance.
Jon took a breath and stepped into the car.
“Let’s go Luther, give it your best shot.”
Luther chuckled and pulled the lever. A bright spark crackled beneath the control panel, the scent of ozone filled the air, and the cart began to roll forward.