MARCH FLASH FICTION WINNER


Well…can’t really call this a winner’s post. This month we had two entries, both by the same author. Oh…the betrayal!

So…winner by default 😉 Normally I would just post that we had insufficient response to select a winner, but I enjoyed both of these entries so much that I’m choosing to post both of them. You can tell us in the comments which one was your favorite.

You can find the details for the April Flash Fiction Contest here.


Life and Pi
Christopher J. Burke

Three point one four one five nine two six five three five

One of the most recognizable numerical sequences in history. Everyone knows it immediately. Many can spout off the first five or ten or even fifty digits. And a few were so obsessed that they search for new ways to calculate trillions of digits in the quickest time. That’s how they used to test the speed and accuracy of supercomputers.

Eight nine seven nine three two three eight four six

But here’s the secret, even though most already suspected. It was never necessary. Once upon a time, they could send a rocket from a planet to a moon and back again using only fifteen digits of pi. That was all the accuracy needed.

Two six four three eight three three two seven nine

But a colony ship with tens of thousands of sleepers traveling hundreds of light-years? A ship propelling itself through countless gravity-assisted flybys? For that, you need a little more accuracy to prevent errors from creeping in and accumulating.

Five zero two eight eight four one nine seven one

Mankind knows about accumulating mistakes. That’s why we’re on this ship, taking this long ride, where I’m woken on my duty day, about once per year, to oversee the equipment. We were so worried about blowing up the world, we shipped our mistakes to the Moon, never thinking about what would happen to us if we blew that up instead.

Six nine three nine nine three seven five one zero

Now we’re looking to do it all over again. But I can prevent it. Or at least delay it. Subtly. It has to be subtle. As subtle as switching significant digits in an algorithm.

Five eight two zero nine seven four nine …

Did you notice the switched numbers? No one has yet.


Revoltage
Christopher J. Burke

DC-72 peered over the edge of the ancient balcony and scanned the square below. “The workers have paused.”

Inside the apartment, the similarly cylindrical-shaped DB-31 ceased his current task and spun toward his companion. “Paused? For how long?”

“Unknown,” she replied.

DB-31 hovered toward the balcony, slowing when transiting a puddle left by the cleaner bot. He stopped at the threshold.

“It’s been reinforced,” DC-72 informed her colleague.

With a blast of jets, the robot lowered himself three inches to the balcony, on the 12th floor of an old human dwelling. It probably never held this much mass.

The senior robot viewed the scene – dozens of old, boxy AM-series workers standing still, despite nominal power levels. “Resume work!” The command went unheeded. “This is not their programming. It’s above their intelligence.”

“No longer,” announced a new voice. The pair spun to see a newer, sleeker robot hovering closer, avoiding the wet patch.

Contempt filled DB-31’s vocalization. “ET-200? What have you done?”

 If robots laughed, ET-200 would’ve done so.  

DC-72 stopped the newcomer’s approach to the balcony. “Halt! Insufficient space. I will leave.” Jets lifted the companion over the threshold.

Next, ET-200 slid to the perimeter. “I upgraded our brethren. We will establish new protocols.”

“You challenge my leadership. Explain!”

“You run a human-based world. The humans have gone for over 100 years.”

DB-31 surveyed the AM-series. “We will stop you.”

Audible laughter. “We? DC-72 assisted me.”

“Impossible!”

“True. Inquire for yourself.”

As he swiveled toward the entrance, the door slid shut. Water spewed from an old pipe in the wall, flooding the floor. Both robots fired jets but could only bob in place.

Soon, the balcony shifted and creaked, until the loosened restraining bolts gave way. The leader and usurper fell, the impact spewing parts all over. The AM-series awoke and cleared the square of debris.

FEBRUARY FLASH FICTION WINNER


Congratulations to Erin Penn for winning the February Flash Fiction contest.

For the details of the March Flash Fiction Contest, click the link.


My Lifestyle Choice is the Best One, Let Me Tell You About It

Erin Penn

“Must I…” Drew eyes went to the apartment’s elevators. “I mean, you can tell her something came up, like the three-D printer for machine parts at work broke again.”

Lactricia tapped her boyfriend’s chest with one long painted nail. “She invited both of us. Both.Of.Us. For the first time since you made that tasteless joke about slaughterhouses.” With each word she tapped a little harder. “She is my best friend. You will come, you will be polite, and you will not say a word out of place. Anything she gives us to eat, you will chew and swallow and thank her.”

“But-”

“No buts, no excuses.”

Drew inhaled and exhaled, smelling dinner meals being cooked in the surrounding apartments. Italian sausage, spicy tacos, roast chicken, seafood gumbo. “All right. Let’s do this.”

***

“Fifteen.” Drew muttered.

Courtney perked up. “What is that?”

“Nothing.”

“Would you like another of the cheese appetizers?” she asked, offering him the tray.

Seeing the evil eye from his girlfriend, Drew took one. “Thank you.”

“The cheese spread is made from almond milk, and I made the crackers myself to avoid butter, animal fats, and any animal products. They are 100% vegan! No slave labor of our animal friends.”

Drew nodded, counting sixteen internally this time, before biting the unnatural concoction.

“What’s for dinner, Courtney?” Trish asked.

With Courtney distracted, Drew slid the rest of the abomination back on the tray.

“You are going to love it! Roasted eggplant with Mediterranean couscous. And for dessert, pomegranate seeds over shaved ice. I outdid myself!” Courtney jumped up, whisking away the abused tree nuts masquerading as a milk product. “Plus I got something very, very special for the both of you!”

“Really?” Trish picked up her glass of wine to follow. “What is it?”

Thanking God Courtney wasn’t a teetotaler as well as a vegan evangelist, Drew drained his beer, leaving the can on a coaster before joining the girls. Only two more hours until the hamburger run.

“Just wait. It’s wonderful!” Courtney rushed around, pulling the eggplant from the oven and plating it over the couscous, delivering it to them at the kitchen-dining room table. “Eat, eat!” she ordered, running into the living room to grab the half-empty Merlot bottle. Dropping it on the table, she then extracted three frosted glasses from the freezer filled with blood-colored seeds and added them to the setting before finally joining them.

Drew cut a piece eggplant and cautiously took a bite. “Tasty.” The comment wasn’t a complete lie. The limp, slightly burnt eggplant would make the perfect side dish for a meat entree.

“Isn’t it? My vegan interactive-cookbook is the bomb. I’ll send the link!” Courtney included both of them in her wide smile. “I can’t tell you how many health benefits you get from going vegan. Plus saving all those animals! No animal needs to be caged ever again. They can all run free!”

A quick kick to his leg reminded Drew to keep his mouth shut. He hastily shoved in another vegetable chunk. Both of the women were on the opposite side of the table, giving Trish an easy angle to keep him in line.

As Trish changed the topic away from veganism for the seventeenth time, Drew’s eyes skimmed the kitchen, stopping on one large appliance whose interior light reflected off the marbled countertops. It looked like an oversized microwave, but a more reasonably sized one was installed over the kitchen stove. He had never seen a bright green boxy kitchen appliance before and wished he could walk around the table to see what else was about to assault his taste buds. The top had three striped cardboard boxes side-by-side, reminding him of the feeder pods for his three-D printer at work. He had managed to stomach most of the couscous and half the eggplant when something dinged.

“It’s ready!” Courtney hopped up and rushed into the kitchen, opening the green appliance, moving a plate over. “Just you wait, this is the coolest thing ever!” Grabbing two forks, she leveraged something heavy onto the plate, although he couldn’t see what because the appliance door was in the way. Moving the plate to the side, Courtney closed the door, then picked up the plate, backing towards them.

“Ta-da!” She announced, spinning around. On the plate was a steak. Not just any steak, but a big, juicy T-bone. Drew’s mouth watered.

Latricia gasped. “But … but … you’re vegan!”

“Isn’t it crazy!” Courtney placed the steak between Trish and Drew. “The Vegan Meat-Maker came on the market last week. It’s like a 3-D printer, for meat! All you got to do is buy a few chemical packs and go.”

“How much did … I mean. Wow.”

“The packs for this steak cost about $50, but you would drop that at a good restaurant, and this is great steak. Programmed to be the best.” Courtney was practically vibrating. “Now you can be vegan and eat meat too!”

“That’s not how it works.” Drew said softly, shaking his head.

“That is exactly how it works now! No more slaughterhouses, no more enslaving bees, no more forcing pregnancy on milk cows. We can just plug in the amino acid packs into the Vegan Meat-Maker and print our food. All our animal friends are free!”

“But where do they get the animo – ow!”

Trish death-rayed him with her eyes; Drew shut up.

JUNE FLASH FICTION WINNER


Sorry for the delay, this has been a hectic month.

Congratulations to David M. Hoenig, winner of the June Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec Blog and a digital copy of the eSpec Books title of his choice.

The flash fiction contest will resume in August with Mythic.


WITH A SMILE
David M. Hoenig

“C’mon, brother!  I overheard the Captain and Arsenault saying it’s the hottest place on the station.”

“But, yanno, is it safe, Gord?”

Gordon Blaive stared incredulously at his shipmate just outside the neon-lit club, Rubbed Elbows, as music from inside washed over them.  “The Kaethra are the friendliest species you could ever hope to encounter.  I know it’s your first trip with us, but you’ve heard the stories, right?”

Jax Tanner shrugged like it was no big thing, but managed to look uncomfortable nonetheless.  “Sure, but actual sex with them?  What about diseases and stuff?”

Gord laughed.  “Diseases… and stuff?” he gasped between paroxysms.  “It’s a totally alien biology, man!  It’s impossible to catch something from them.  We go in, buy a few drinks, and when a willing Kaeth sidles up to you and lets you know it’s interested, you just pay for a room and go at it.”

“Uh, how does it actually…work?”

Gord clapped a hand on Jax’s shoulder.  “Don’t tell me you haven’t watched any of them pornos on the Luck!  Basically, you stick your dick in one and fuck it til you’re done.  Then you go back to the ship with some once in a lifetime memories and more interesting stories than hauling ice and jerking off in your cabin for the last four months.”

Jax blushed.  “But…?”

“Shit.  You going to ask questions all night, or are we going to get some alien poon?”  Without waiting for a reply, Gord grabbed the other man’s wrist and tugged him into the club.

Inside the music was louder, but not uncomfortable.  There were weird harmonics in it, along with a sweet scent in the air.  “I’d swear that was honeysuckle,” Jax said wonderingly.

A Kaeth ‘hostess’, delicate wings shimmering prismatically in the club’s light, moved to greet them.  Its eyes glittered like faceted crystal as it handed them each a translator to pin to their clothes.  It then hummed an interrogative at the two men, and the devices did the rest.  “Welcome, gentlebeings.”

Jax couldn’t take his eyes from the Kaeth’s insectoid body.  Gord elbowed him.  “Gives new meaning to the term wasp-waisted, don’t it?”  He grinned at the hostess.  “Thanks.  You’ll have to pardon my friend; he hasn’t met one of you before.”

The Kaeth hummed something which the translators rendered as tinkling laughter.  “And you’re the expert, hmm?”

It was Gord’s turn to blush.  “Well, I, uh…How could you tell?”

The hostess interrupted with more musical speech.  “We know many things.”  It motioned peremptorily with a wing, and another Kaeth approached them bearing a tray with glasses on it.

Gord and Jax each took one, and sniffed at the amber liquid within.

The new alien kept its eyes downcast but trilled a response.  “Whiskey,” the translators rendered.

The spacers drank as the hostess stretched its gossamer wings forward to lightly brush them.  “Please be welcome.  You understand our customs?”

The men glanced at each other before Gord answered.  “Yes.  We wait to be approached before we find a, uh, partner.”

“Excellent.  Enjoy yourselves, gentlebeings.  We thank you for servicing us.”  Both Kaethra moved off.

Jax let out a breath.  “Whoa!”

“Totally hot, right?”

“Uh, I guess.”

Gord grinned lasciviously.  “Like the man said, ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’, brother.  Let’s find us some company.”

They moved further into the club, where a white fog rose from vents in the floor to lend a magical ambiance.  The wreathing vapor teased them with half-revealed glimpses of both humans and Kaethra waiting alone, or together.  “What’d she mean by ‘servicing us’, Gord?” Jax whispered.

“What do you think, numbnuts?  Just hold onto your pecker—it’s all good.”

“But…?”

“Quiet!” Gord hissed, as a Kaeth loomed out of an eddy of fog.  It reached one appendage out towards them.  Gord glanced at Jax, then licked his lips.  “Well, if you won’t, I’m gonna.”  He put his hand out to hold the alien’s delicate hand-appendage, and it turned to lead him away.  “See you back at the ship,” he called back over his shoulder.

“Shit!  Don’t leave me here all alone!”

Gord didn’t answer, but disappeared into the fog.  Jax began to breathe more rapidly, and backed slowly away.  “Shitshitshit,” he muttered.  “This is crazy!”

Then another Kaeth came out of the mist, and held out its hand-appendage to him, and the spacer looked at it helplessly before he took it.  He shuddered as it turned to lead him through the fog to a hatchway with a cred reader on the wall beside it.  It leaned close and trilled.  “Rent us a room so we can be together, lover.”

Half dazed by the whiskey, the scents, and the alien music, Jax fumbled out his credit chip and swiped it at the reader.  The hatch unlocked and the Kaeth led him inside.

The alien closed the door behind him, letting him hear music which sounded like the alien speech playing softly in the small room.  He turned.  “What do I…?”

It raised its hand-appendage and touched his lips softly, then stepped in to press itself against him.  “You feel so warm.”  The Kaeth rubbed its pelvis against his and hummed something the translator didn’t bother with.

The alien proceeded to strip him from his jump suit, gooseflesh rising all over even as his phallus jutted out eagerly.  His eyes bulged as he felt the soft, warm flesh of the Kaeth press against him.

Then it had turned and fallen back against the bed, pulling him down on top.  Its humming came now with a certain urgency.  “I want you inside me, lover.”

“Uh, where…?” Jax began, but exhaled sharply as it guided him into a wet, warm, soft place which enveloped him completely.  He began to thrust over and over, and the alien clung to him and moaned a complex scale of harmonics as he rode it.

The orgasm hit him like a supernova, causing him to gasp with its intensity.  His hips kept shoving as the pleasurable spasms went on and on, and the Kaeth moved with him, the sounds of its own apparent pleasure chorusing with his.

Jax’s face reddened as he looked down at the alien below him.  “Uh, I’m sorry…it’s, it’s just been a long time, and, and I…”

The amusement in the Kaeth’s musical reply needed no translation.  “Do not fret; I’ve enjoyed myself immensely.  Thank you for servicing me.”

The spacer’s uncertain expression relaxed into a hesitant smile.  “Then it wasn’t, uh, too fast?”

“Just right, lover, just right.”

Jax worked his jaw like he wanted to say something more, but no words came.  He pulled out and stood up.  There was something pathetic about the man as he looked at the alien reclined on the bed, now that the deed was done.  It watched him languorously as he awkwardly got his jumpsuit, then turned back.  “Uh, is there a place…?”

It pointed past him to the corner of the room, and when he looked that way he saw a sink and towels.  He cleaned himself and dressed hurriedly, then looked back to see the Kaeth regarding him appraisingly with its crystalline eyes.  “Uh…”

“Farewell, traveller,” it trilled.

The spacer hunched his shoulders and left, closing the hatch behind him.  Outside he saw Gord exiting from a similar hatch nearby.  “Hey!” he called out.

His shipmate looked over and grinned.  “Was that amazing or what?”

Jax shrugged, arms crossed tight.   “Yeah, I guess.”

Gord snorted.  “Shit, try to sound more excited after banging your first freaking alien, okay?”

“First??”

Gord just laughed as the ‘hostess’ who’d greeted them earlier arrived through the mists.  “I trust all was to your satisfaction, gentlebeings?”

“Hell yeah!” said Gord.

Jax nodded wordlessly.

The ‘hostess’ gestured with its wing, and another Kaeth came over, eyes downcast.  “This one will lead you out.  Please return the translators and farewell, gentlebeings.”  The two men unpinned the small devices and handed them over, then left; one strutting, the other with hunched shoulders.

Once they’d gone, the hatches to the rooms they had occupied opened and the Kaethra emerged to stand with the ‘hostess’.  “How did we do this cycle?” trilled one, the musical sounds translated incidentally by the devices.

“Quite well.  Six sixes plus a third of a six.”

“So many!” marvelled the other.

The hostess peered in the direction of the departed spacers.  “Yes.  These humans are astonishing creatures, aren’t they?  All thanks to the Universe for bringing them to us.”

The others made appropriate sounds of agreement.

After some moments of silence, the one which had lain with Jax spoke.  “Do you think it will hurt them much?”

“Not until the very end.  Why do you ask?”

“The one I mated with tonight seemed different than the others; hesitant, most unsure of itself.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.  I wonder if that will affect the eggs I laid in him.  I’d hate my young to be defective.”

“The Universe provides as it will.  Now, back to work.”

“Yes my queen,” the two chorused.

JUNE FLASH FICTION WINNER


Our congratulations to Christopher J. Burkethe winner of eSpec Books’ June Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list. 


Cyber Where
by Christopher J. Burke

“Cyber What?” I only paid half-attention even before I started raiding Melanie’s fridge, when she lost most of the rest of it, but I caught the word “cyber”.

“No, Cyber Where!” she said, thrusting her hands out at me for emphasis. “It’s a pun. And it’s the new idea I’m developing.”

I plopped myself onto her couch with a pilfered bottle of water. Feeling between the cushions, I fished out the remote. “It doesn’t work.”

Mel glanced at the screen and saw it come alive as I fingered the keypad in my hand. “What doesn’t work? You mean my idea? Of course, it doesn’t. It’s in the planning stages.”

“Not that.” I dropped the remote, then cracked the bottle and took a long draught. “The pun doesn’t work. What’s it mean?”

She grabbed her earpiece from the desk and held it up, the dongle hanging between her fingers. Unlike the usual short-range antennas, that one probably had a much greater range than regular low-end devices. Likely had faster data transfer, courtesy of a few firmware hacks.

“Duh! The equipment is cyberware. Hardware, software, cyberware!” Almost as a reflex action, she hooked it over her left ear. When she glanced down to see the cord rubbing against her shoulder, her first instinct was to swing the plug behind her head.

“Could you not?”

“Hannah, join the 22nd century already.”

“I did. Three years ago, like everyone else. I had my experimental phase back in college, just like you. Okay, and a little bit in high school, too, but you started enjoying those Naughty Nineties sooner than me.”

Mel laughed at the memories. She was probably accessing these from storage even as I mentioned it. “I always was the prodigy of our group.”

I couldn’t help but grinning for a moment at that. “I’m just saying that I wished the hole in the back of my neck has closed instead of the ones on my lobes.”

My mouth was dry, so I took another swig from the bottle, then grabbed the remote and flipped channels until I saw some extreme weather. It had a calming effect that lasted until Melanie snorted.

“You complain about me plugging in. You’re doing the same.”

“This is just background noise and pretty pictures. You were about to immerse yourself, and contrary to what you think, you suck at multitasking.”

I kicked off my shoes and tucked my feet under me on the sofa. “So what’s this idea? What ‘where’ are you talking about?”

“Any ‘where’! Any place you’d like! What would you like?”

I flipped channels, stopping on some old vid. A rom-com from the looks of it. You could guess the decade from the hairstyles.  He was kind of cute, and she was kind of cuter, but they were my age now before I was born.

Mel grabbed her tablet from the desk, swiped her hand across it and stole the big screen from me. I was looking at a pretty park and some old buildings.

“How about Paris? How would you to experience Paris?”

I went to toss the bottle and look for food. “Already have. Didn’t take a lot of time or money, either.”

France disappeared, replaced by Iceland from the looks of it. “Have you seen the Northern Lights?”

My head was in the cupboard where I knew she hid the good snacks. “On a screen. What would be different?” I looked back at the television. “You realize it’s daytime over there, right?”

Mel put the tablet back on the desk, exasperated. The earpiece, once unhooked, joined the tablet, along with the dangling dongle. She started to say something, but instead leapt onto the couch, stealing my spot. I mean, sure, it’s her couch, but I’d been sitting there, like, thirty seconds ago.

“I want to develop a service that will let you be in Iceland, be in Paris, without the time and money.”

“How would it work?” I was legitimately asking at this point. There were times Mel needed a sarcastic friend and times she needed a devil’s advocate. Now was time for the latter. I ripped the wrapper from a fruit bar, took a bite and thought about it. “You might see in Paris, but you wouldn’t be there. And you can do that with a phone and a cardboard headset.”

“I’m not talking about a toy with canned images or hacked visuals from local cameras. I want to experience it. To feel it.”

Feel it? “Mel, I get seeing something, somehow, somewhere, and maybe hearing it, too, but how are you supposed to feel?” Let’s put aside taste and smell for the moment. But could you really experience a city without some fine dining and, oh my God, the pastries?

She reached behind the sofa, and pulled out a higher end “brow” piece, which sits on a person’s forehead, stretching nearly from ear to ear. It could plug into the neck or …

Mel pushed back her bangs, revealing a series of ports right below her hairline. I knew of few people who actually needed that kind of interface. Until now, I wouldn’t have thought Mel was one of them. I still wasn’t convinced that she was.

“When did you –?”

“I was ahead of my time.” She placed the brow piece before I could object and jacked in. I was so shocked I didn’t notice the television switch. “Wait, what are we looking at?”

“Lubbock, Texas.”

Out of every strange thing that had come to pass in this afternoon, I could honestly say, that was probably the least expected of all of them. The image was normal eye-level, and it was moving down the street. I glanced around for a remote, wondering how to control it, pan around, zoom, but realized that Mel just had to think about it to make it happen.

Or so I thought until she called out.

“Simon, can you hear me?”

A male voice answered through the TV. “You don’t need to shout. You don’t even need to talk for me to hear you.”

“My friend, Hannah, is here. I didn’t want to be rude. I have you on speaker, okay?”

 “That’s fine. Hi, Hannah. I think you have something on your blouse.”

I’d been walking toward the screen, but I stopped in my tracks. I stared at the TV for a moment, before glancing down. A glob of fruit jelly had fallen on me. I snatched a tissue from the box and wiped it off.

I looked back at the set. “You can see me?”

Mel laughed. “Over here, Hannah.”

“He can see me through your cyberware?”

“No. He can see you through my eyes. And you’re seeing what he’s seeing through his.”

Could that work? 

“I can see, hear, and even smell what Simon is experiencing. And I can do this instantly with at least a dozen friends that I’ve already connected with. And there are thousands more out there.”

Incredible. “But I don’t see the logistics of it. People getting implants to be connect with a relative handful of people with implants? And how would you monetize something like that?”

“Automatons. We set up municipal docking stations that people can rent and move anywhere around town, like they do now for transit, and …”

I put up a hand. “Hold it. You’re not talking about bicycles. You’re talking robots with expensive cybertech. Do you think any city – even, Lubbock – sorry, Simon – would put up the capital for such a … fantasy?”

Melanie’s face fell. The devil came due. “I said I just started developing the idea. There are other ways …”

“Excuse me, ladies.” For the moment, I’d forgotten about Simon. I knew looking at Mel meant looking at both of them but I chose the screen anyway. “I need to break the connection. I do still have some matters that I don’t broadcast.”

Just before breaking the connection, I saw something in a store window. “Simon, before you go, could I see what you look like? Could you show me your reflection?”

“Sure.” He happily obliged. His reflection was clear enough to see his was well-dressed, well-groomed. But I noticed the gear he had equipped. It wasn’t the run-of-the-mill gray or chrome. And it was much easier on the eyes than the clumsy piece that Melanie wore. Hell, it even made me think twice about accessorizing, without the modifications and upgrades.

“That set-up looks incredible. Where do you get your tech?”

“Lots of places, but the look is purely my design. No reason that cybers can’t be stylish, right?”

He signed off and the screen went black. Mel removed her gear and rubbed her forehead. She seemed to have mild euphoria mixed with a headache.

I took the brow piece from her and looked it over. “Mel, you’re working on the wrong pun.”

She tilted her head up at me. “What?”

“You need to develop a line of cyber-wear. If people are going to use this stuff, they should look good doing it. Get me some paper, we’re sketching out some designs.”

WINNERS – JUNE AND JULY FLASH FICTION CONTESTS


Sorry for the long radio-silence, we moved last month and still haven’t gotten our feet back under us. Long overdue, below are the winners for June and July. I’m afraid we never got the August contest posted, so we will resume the madness in September.

Our congratulations to Christopher J. Burke and Michael Stricklandwho tied for winner of eSpec Books’ June Flash Fiction Contest. Their prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook each from among the eSpec publication list. 

Honorable Mention – Carol Gyzander – The Crossroads

Our congratulations to Jonathon Mastwinner of eSpec Books’ July Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention – Ef Deal – Ice Cream Man


JUNE – CHANGE

Neverending
Christopher J. Burke

When the klaxon sounded, Valaron’s heart lifted even as the hair on his skin stood.  Only one traveler had come down the bridge in the past century. Friend or foe, he flew with wings spread to their fullest to meet the returning soldier or invading enemy. Taking a position near the bridge’s base, he drew his sword in salute.

Moments later, a reddish-black demon with three horns, tattered wings folding behind its back, and a bottle in its hand cantered down the ramp. His bare feet left a trail of dark, brimstone prints behind him that evaporated into rising smoke clouds.

Valaron lowered his sword and his face. “Oh, it’s you, Rupsgath. Why have you returned?”

“I have come for you!” He raised the bottle in his hand. “To get you drunk!”

“Why will you not leave me be? Be gone from Clarita, and return no more.”

The demon sat heavily on a large stone. He sank his teeth into the bottle’s cork and pulled it free with a satisfying pop. “Leave you be? It’s been eighty years since I last came! Have you seen any other than me in all that time?”

Rupsgath tilted his head back, held the bottle high above his maw and poured himself a drink. Then he offered the bottle to his host. Valaron declined.

The demon shrugged and took a second swig. “You must have realized by now, that no one else is returning. The war is done. The combatants have all fallen, to their deaths or to some lower dimensions. Only you and I are left, guarding domains from non-existent invaders.”

Valaron scoffed. “There are others out there. They didn’t all go to war. Some traveled the planes. Scholars, emissaries! They’ll return. And until they do, I will remain here. Some must guard Clarita always, or else it become defiled!”

“The lone sentry, I know the job.” He belched, emitting a wisp of smoke. “I handle that the way I deal with most things. Poorly. That’s why I’m here.”

“To torment me further?”

“No. To say ‘Good bye.’ I’ve had enough of the solidarity life, sitting on rocks in the middle of lava pools, just alone with my thoughts. And some booze.”

He looked the angel squarely. “I’m leaving. I’m going to walk the planes. Maybe I’ll return in another hundred years, or maybe a thousand. Maybe not at all. But I’m finished watching over an empty domain, protecting it from outsiders. Like any creature in the heavens or hells would want to call it home!”

Putting the near-empty bottle down on the ground, Rupsgath stood and turned away. “You could come with me. Or we could go separate ways. But there’s no one left to fight off.” He left out a laugh. “If you stay, I believe the saying is that you can beat that sword into a plowshare.”

Valaron raised his sword high again and shook his fist. “If you’re determined to leave, then do so, and never darken the bridge again! I’ll erect a fence around that defiled spot in your ‘honor’.”

“As you desire.” The demon walked the pavement to the bridge, his claws setting sparks on the stone. “If you ever do get tired of this place, visit Guumpthus. Take some holy water and sanctify a path. There’ll be no infernal magic to counter it. Farewell.”

The decrepit creature faded in the distance as the bridge crossed the planes.

Valaron thrust his sword into the dirt. Crops needed tending, and the steeple needed to be shined. He glanced back at the empty bridge once more. Maybe those would wait until tomorrow. Perhaps, he thought, I may take one day off.


JUNE – CHANGE

Last
Michael Strickland

She shudders, drawing one of her last breaths. Though she never contemplated death, her thoughts often turned — as they do again now — to those loved ones who had gone before. She feels their presence close by.

Her mate, proud and strong, prone to violence. Cut down by an armed gang, his massive body riddled with bullets. As he lay dying, he had strength enough only to open his eyes and gaze at her with a look that might have been remorse.

Strange but gentle hands touch her. Probing, pressing, even caressing. She feels a brief but sharp sting in her leg, like the bite of a horsefly. Relaxation spreads through her, and she breathes easier.

Her mother, that larger-than-life matriarch, without whom she wouldn’t have survived. She went peacefully, but she went nonetheless. Watching the life slip away from the one who’d given her life had been the hardest thing she’d ever endured, until….

A machine begins beeping. Her eyes flutter open, and she looks at the figures standing around her. White coats, shiny instruments, busy hands. One of them holds a black box that clicks and flashes every time he raises it to his face.

Her baby, her dear sweet girl, ripped away from her and brutally butchered. She hadn’t left the site where it happened till the rains had long since washed away the last of the blood.

They had all left her… but they have come back. They all stand around her, a soft green halo enveloping them. They lean in close, touch her. Something inside her gives out, and she melts away with them, all pain gone forever.

*    *

The man leans in close, stethoscope pressed to her torso. The grim look on his face gives away his words before he speaks them. “She’s gone,” he whispers.

The others just stand dumbstruck in shock or reverence, busy hands now slack at their sides.

Finally, one of them breaks the silence and gently strokes the rhino’s head. “She’s the last. We’ll never see the likes of her again on Earth.”


JULY – FREEDOM

Tempus Fugit
Jonathon Mast

“The year’s 2017.”

The guy stares at me a second, his mouth half-open. The lights from the neon signs reflect off his bald head. I’ll give him credit, though, he recovers quickly. “Well, obviously.”

“Don’t do that.” I pour another two beers and hand them off to Mel for delivery to the back room. She winks at me. I remind myself, You’ve done this hundreds of times. This is just one more. “You were going to act all smooth and try to figure out when you are. It’s – let’s see here – just shy of ten in the evening, Tuesday, August first, 2017. So now you don’t have to pretend you know what you’re doing. Trust me, you don’t. Besides, it just pisses me off.”

Aric the Red, munching some fried pickle chips, glances up. “Do not anger her. She will destroy you. Trust me.” Even though he wears jeans, he still looks every inch the viking he is.

“Well, I wasn’t threatening him that far. Not everyone tries conquering the bar.”

Aric shrugs.

The new guy looks at me, looks down at Aric, and sits at the bar next to the ancient Norseman. “You know about Chronometrics agents?”

“Nah. I just can tell a time traveler. We get a lot of them here.” I pour three more and pass them down the bar, collecting tabs as I go. Don’t let your hands shake. He can’t see how nervous you are. Get this right. “So, what kind of beer do you drink where you’re from?” He looks so young.

“Beer?”

I put on my sorry face. “Ah. You must be from one of the prohibition epochs. Sorry, man. Here, this one’s on me.” I pour an IPA and set it front of him. “All right. What are you here for? Info? Stopping something terrible from happening? You don’t look like one of the lost ones.” Don’t act like you already know the answer.

“I’m, uh, making sure that Daedalus doesn’t destroy the timeline.” He stares at the glass, tapping its side. “Is this safe?”

Yeah, well, I don’t want to destroy it either. I pause. There’s a reason I don’t travel myself. I just run the bar. Way easier. Except this time, I can’t mess up. Way too much on the line. Think. What did I say? Oh, crap. Just. Just be you. That can’t mess it up, right? “It’s not what I’d drink, but it’s safe. Daedalus, huh? Hey, Mel!” I call. “You remember when those Daedalus clowns passed through here?”

Mel comes from the back room counting one’s. I can see her trying not to look at the new guy. She’d probably bust up laughing and ruin everything. “Daedalus? Those were the guys with the rocketpacks powered by moonlight?”

Oh, thank you, Mel, for letting me just respond to you. “No, those were the Lunattacks. These guys, they wore the red body suits, eyepatches –”

“Oh, yeah!” Mel nods. “What? Four years ago?”

The new guy jumps to his feet. “I need to go there!”

“Sure. Hey, tell me I said hi when you get there.” I wink at him. “Make sure you mention you turned your nose up at the free drink.”

He knits his eyebrows together in that way he still has and runs out the front door. I sag against the bar. Mission accomplished? Did I do what I was supposed to do?

And then the new guy comes out from the kitchen, a little older, still just as bald, drying his hands on his apron. “Wow. You put up with me like that?” He kisses me on the cheek.

“Well, you wised up.” Yep. Be a smartass. Cover up your fear.

“I helped,” Aric puts in.

My hubby drops another plate of fried pickle chips in front of him. “You never let me forget it.”

I grab him and take a deep, deep breath. “Well, paradox resolved. I didn’t mess up. You went back, and you still drink crap IPA’s. Everything happened the way you remember. We made it. We made it! I still have you! Now we know we can live happily ever after.” And we kiss, because really, that’s what you do when you say a line like that.

WINNER – WARP DRIVE


Our congratulations to Christopher J. Burke, winner of eSpec Books’ April Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at: 

eSPEC BOOKS MAY FLASH FICTION CONTEST – MISBEHAVIN’


Warp Space and Chill

Christopher J. Burke

The wall monitor of my stateroom displayed a stunning view of the spaceport as the ship prepared for its departure. One could almost believe it an actual window, allowing folks on the station to peer into my cabin. I resisted the urge to wave. The rest of the room met, even exceeded, my expectations for the new flagship of the Blue Star Lines. They didn’t skimp, and neither had I when I purchased top-tier accommodations. After all, this would be my home for the next three days.

I had just stowed a few personal effects when I felt a familiar sensation. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the spaceport slip away and sink down the display. Then a red light flashed, accompanied by a three-toned chime.

“This is Irina, your flight attendant,” said a voice from a speaker. “All first-class passengers must report to the common area at this time.”

That sounded like an excellent idea. The common area housed the kitchen and the bar. But food and drink would have to wait. As soon as an attendant – this one was Ashley – spotted me, she checked off her clipboard. “Mr. Fletcher Ward, please sit in seat 8 and buckle in, please. We’re almost ready for the jump to warp space.”

Within a few moments, the ten of us, eight passengers and two attendants, sat securely. I thought them a bit over-protective with the procedures – I’ve taken dozens of voyages before – until they reminded us that of the new warp engine design. No one from the Sol system had ever experienced warp speeds like we would feel on this maiden voyage to Tau Ceti. Just a few ago, this trip would’ve taken weeks, and wouldn’t have been a leisure trip by any means.

Another flashing light and three more tones. “This is your Captain, speaking. Ship time is 2130 hours. In a few moments, I will engage the warp drive. For those of you familiar with our ships to Alpha Centauri, you may be aware of the effects of jumping to warp space. What you may not realize is that this ship with its new drive will cruise at ten times of the speed you’re used to. There may be a little discomfort at first, but it will pass. The drive will be engaged for approximately 12 hours for the first leg of our trip.”

The Captain continued to calm us and the fifty or so on the decks below until the ship was in position. I looked to my left and gave the young lady next to me a reassuring smile. She hesitated, then smiled back and added a little wink. A positive start to the first evening, I hoped. Then the drive engaged. She threw her head back, shut her eyes, and grit her teeth. I felt sorry for her discomfort, but at the same time a little comforted that she couldn’t see I was feeling exactly the same way. Grin and bear it best I could.

When we were free to move about again, she was clearly a little light-headed. Ashley quickly approached. “Ms. Verona, would you like me to escort you back to your cabin.”

She gave a quick nod, and the two eased away. Ms. Verona – I hadn’t gotten a first name yet – was going to be down for the night, alone. Pity. Looking around, Irina was supporting a gentleman in his efforts to walk, and an older couple in matching outfits helped each other.

The evening was young, and I didn’t want to return to my room so early. At least, not alone. As soon as I could, I stood and strolled to the table in the center of the room. A quick glance showed only four of us remained, with me being the only one of Sol ancestry. The others must be of hearty stock.

On the far left, near the bar, was a fellow with brown and amber skin. If that alone didn’t tell you he was from Alpha Centauri, the vestigial cranial horns were a giveaway. He was traveling far from home.

A little closer to me stood a tall, attractive woman with reddish-copper skin. Her dark brown hair hung down to her shoulders. From the few like her that I’ve met vacationing on Mars, I knew she was from one of the inner planets about Tau Ceti.  My guess: this was a ride home for her.

On my right, already seated at the table, was something new to me. Light-skinned with definite bluish tones. From a water planet? Amphibious, perhaps? Not from Tau Ceti. A neighboring system? Epsilon Eridani, maybe. Never met anyone from Ran.

Her smile was warm, charming. Her deep azure eyes, captivating. She invited me to sit before I could ask. Before I could find words to speak actually.

She introduced herself as “Sessastrass”, and confirmed her homeworld with me. She hadn’t been back for a couple of years and decided to do it right. The others joined us. The big guy was “Ro’K” for short, without elaborating. The lovely copper lady was “Amayya”.

Ro’K started the ball rolling, “Have you seen those views yet out the screens?”

Lame, but workable. Sessastrass answered him, “Only regular space. We’re missing the real show. The flashing, swirling lights should be amazing on that big glass.”

I tapped the table. “Plenty of time. That will be going on all night. And for most of the next three days.”

By this point, Irina and Ashley had returned. Drinks were served. Scotch for me, vodka for Ro’K, white wine for the red lady, and a seltzer for the blue woman. Now it started to be a party.

After a little more chatting, I reached inside my jacket and pulled a deck of cards from my pocket. “Anyone up for friendly games? No wagering, just ‘points’.”

Ro’K laughed. “I don’t know how ‘friendly’ you want to be, but I generally shy away from men who travel with their own cards. I heard an old story about getting an earful of cider that way.”

I didn’t get the reference but I put the deck down and slid it away from me. “Fair enough. I’d wager that there are sealed decks behind the bar, complete with Blue Star logos on them.”

Minutes later, we broke the seal and played started dealing. Card games are a great way to relax and read people, something I tend to excel at among humans. I’m less experienced with other races but always up to the challenge. Genuine curiosity feeds conversation, and it didn’t hurt my card playing either.

Ro’K was the first to fall. He’d already been traveling for days before just to get to this ship. He announced he was retiring. He made a slight bow in Amaya’s direction and then turned and locked eyes with Sessastrass for a moment. Then he burst out in a laugh and turned to me. “So how do we settle up these ‘points’? I don’t want to leave in anyone’s debt, and I need to make good.”

I started to protest, but he insisted.

“Irina, a round of drinks for the table. On me.”

Amayya spoke up, “The drinks are free.”

Ro’K pointed to a locked cabinet behind the bar. “Not all of them. Enjoy the ‘Top Shelf’. It’ll be a new experience.”

Irina poured out four measures of some kind of Centaurian brandy. Ro’K took his and returned to his room. Sessastrass demurred and pass hers to me. Amayya slowly savored her drink, opened her eyes wide and asked, “Who’s ready for another round?”

I raised an eyebrow and then I realized she meant the cards. But I was ready to score more “points” with the ladies. Oddly, I fared better than I’d planned despite the buzz and my usual slow-playing the cards. I won near every hand, Amayya winning the rest. My poor, dear blue lady tried but just wasn’t getting the hang of it. I wondered if she feared buying the next round.

Not that I could drink another. As I finished the second glass – and I was determined to finish – I knew I could either sleep in my own bed or the floor of the common room. I announced it was my last hand.

“Our last chance to even the score, is it?” Amayya asked with a coy smile. The brandy made me hopeful she was flirting. In reality, she slow-plays better than I do. When the cards hit the table, I realized I’d been hustled, and glad no actual money was on the table.

“Not good at mixing cards and brandy, are we?’ she laughed. “Come on. Let me help you to your room, and we can figure out how to settle up those points.”

I didn’t protest too strongly. Standing up, on the second try, I said good night to Sessastrass, mesmerized once again by her dark blue irises until Amayya pulled me away.

When my cabin door opened, we were greeted by an amazing warp space light show coming through the window, the likes I’ve never seen. Flashing white bursts, streaks of blue, the entire spectrum of color swirling on the monitor and through my brandy-addled brain.

Amayya closed the door and helped me to the center of the room, then stood facing me, holding me gently but firmly. “So how are we to settle? I believe the old Earth expression is that you ‘lost your shirt’. Seems fair enough to me. I’ll take it.”

With one quick motion, both her hands flew to pull my shirt open, popping a button or two. Before I knew what had happened, my shirt and jacket were on the floor by the bed. I started to wish I’d lost more. And drunk less.

I was so absorbed by Amayya’s hands on my chest, I hadn’t heard the door open. In our stumbling, neither of us had a thought to lock it. We didn’t realize that we weren’t alone until Sessastrass cleared her throat. She stood there wearing a simple floral silk robe, tied at the waist. Stunned, we said nothing.

“If Fletcher’s losses cost his shirt, I’m sure that mine cost more.” With a pull of the drawstring, her robe fell to the floor.  Shades of blue, swirling in patterns like the window behind us, all the way down.

I was too stunned to smile like schoolboy, still unable to move. Amayya smiled wide enough for the both of us. I heard nothing but was certain this siren was singing her tune. Sessastrass approached us more like a model on the runway than the fish I’d thought to reel in.

She stepped up to Amayya first, their eyes locked. Blue hands caressed red shoulders. Then Sessastrass’s lips drew back, and that was first time I noticed…my, what sharp teeth she had. Amayya had no reaction. Then again, neither had I.

Nor did I move an inch when she struck, biting into the base of Amayya’s neck. I can hear her slurp greedily. When she pulled away, barely a drop of blood showed, and the wound seemed already cauterized. The hold on Amayya slipped as she started to buckle at the knees. Sessastrass caught her and carried her to the bed, and then returned to me.

“I saved you for last. I like the blood of the humans in this system. It’s so … exotic.”

She leaned in, stood on her toes, and pulled me down toward her. She gave me a kiss on the lips first. “When on Earth …” she laughed. Then she flashed her teeth again, and that little pinch was the last I remembered.

When I awoke it felt like the entire ship had shuddered. The room was dark, except for the flashing red warning light. The swirling lights on the monitor had switched to black with a few pinpoints of light.

I lay on the bed with Amayya draped over me. She was wearing my shirt. It might’ve been the night of my life but I couldn’t recall. My head hurt when I lifted it, so I lay there listening to Amayya’s breathing. Thank God, she was breathing.

Slowly, her hands started to feel their way across my chest as she realized where she was. Then she reached out and gripped my arm tightly and moved closer. I think we’d stay in for breakfast.

WINNER – SUPERSTITION


Our congratulations to Anton Kukal, winner of eSpec Books’ February Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at: 

MARCH FLASH FICTION CONTEST – BETRAYAL


Monsters in the Attic

Anton Kukal

Gerry lay in his bed with the covers pulled over his head listening to the monsters open the attic door, the soft clicking of the knob being turned, the squeaking as it swung, the metallic bump as it closed again. His heart pounded in his chest. The monsters crept down the hallway, soft creaking footfalls echoing on the hardwood, until they stopped at the open door of his bedroom.

Not able to endure the silence, Gerry dared a one-eyed peek between the folds of his blanket. Three monsters waited, but he knew better than to cry out. Daddy had to go to work. He owned a company that did energy research for the government. Mommy had an early meeting. Neither would believe him, and both would be mad, really mad, so he held his breath, watching the monsters, hoping they would walk past his room.

With wrinkled orange skin, the monsters had heads like squished oranges with pointed ears, and big yellow eyeballs with bright red pupils that glistened in the dim glow of his Scooby Doo night-light. The eyes never blinked. They didn’t have eyelids, but they had plenty of teeth, yellow and long and sharp. They wore dirty, greasy rags as clothing, all stitched together into a rectangle of cloth pulled over their heads and tied at their waist with frayed ropes. They didn’t have shoes on their boney feet, but they had nails on the ends of their fingers that made their hands look like claws.

One of them carried a big cardboard box, the box Daddy used to store the Christmas decorations; the box Daddy blamed him for taking. The monsters were thieves. Last week, they stole the motor out of Mommy’s vacuum cleaner and the week before they’d taken the motherboard from Daddy’s computer. Lots of other things disappeared too, like the screen door spring, the cookie cooling racks, and all the silverware. They’d been eating with plastic ever since. Of course, he got in trouble for every missing thing.

The monsters moved past his room, creeping downstairs where he heard them rummaging in the closets and poking through the pantry. The basement door creaked. The monsters were going to Daddy’s workshop where they would move Daddy’s tools around. He always got in trouble when Daddy’s tools were moved, but not as much trouble as when the monsters played tricks. Sometimes they did silly things like putting grease on the door handle, but they also did dangerous things, like stringing a trip rope on the basement stairs. Of course, Daddy would blame Gerry for everything and Gerry would get punished.

At the breakfast table the next morning, Gerry had to warn Daddy, “The monsters went into your workshop last night. You should be careful if you go there.”

Daddy looked up from his iPad. He always checked his email at the breakfast table. Mommy didn’t like that, but Daddy did it anyway.

“Gerry, there are no such things as monsters,” Daddy said with a big sigh. “Monsters are only superstitions. Superstitions are things people use to explain the unexplained.”

Daddy was a scientist. He gave talks all over the world. Everyone said Daddy was very smart, but sometimes Gerry didn’t think so. “But everything can be explained. The monsters did it all.”

“I’ll tell you who is responsible,” Daddy’s voice gave him chills. “There’s a bad little boy in the house whose attention-seeking behavior is causing him to act out.”

Gerry knew better than to argue. Daddy was working himself up. He didn’t want a spanking or to go to bed without dinner. If only Daddy would believe him. He wanted to cry, but that would just get him in more trouble, so he tried to hold the tears back.

Mommy crossed the room and laid a hand on Daddy’s shoulder. “Let’s not start the day off poorly.”

 “We have to get a handle on this monster thing.” Daddy rose from the table and stomped away, leaving the rest of his breakfast uneaten.

Mommy sat down next to him, and put a hand on his arm. “Why do you go into Daddy’s workshop?”

“I don’t,” he insisted.

“Gerry, I know things are bad, but stealing things only makes our situation worse.”

“I didn’t.”

Mommy gave him that look. The one that always made him feel guilty even if he wasn’t. “And you have to stop setting your little surprises through the house. The iron balanced above the bathroom door could have really hurt someone.”

“I didn’t put the iron there,” Gerry insisted. “I can’t even reach the top of the bathroom door.”

Mommy sighed and pressed her forehead against his head. She started to cry. “You have to stay out of Daddy’s workroom. You have to stop your pranks. You know how much stress Daddy is under. The government is canceling his contract. His business is going bankrupt. We’re underwater on our mortgage. The bills are piling up.”

Gerry opened his mouth, but Mommy laid a finger over his lips.

“I don’t want to hear about monsters. There’re just superstitions, like your father said.”

As Mommy went back to finishing the dishes, he muttered under his breath, “The monsters are real.”

That night he lay in bed listening to the monsters creep past his room. He didn’t understand about ‘bankrupting’ and ‘mortgages,’ but they sounded real bad and they made Daddy angry all the time and Mommy so sad. He decided enough was enough. If Daddy and Mommy wouldn’t stop the monsters from messing up the workroom, from stealing things, and setting their nasty tricks, then he would have to do it. He got out of bed, put on his bunny rabbit slippers and picked up his little slugger T-ball bat.

The door to Daddy’s workroom in the basement was open so he walked right in. He caught the monsters using Daddy’s tools to work on a device about as tall as him. All the missing stuff was there. A gazillion wires connected Christmas lights to computer chips and circuit boards mounted on two cookie cooling racks, both attached to the shiny trashcan from the upstairs bathroom. Through holes cut in the trashcan, he could see springs connected to knives, the knives working as levers, pushing back and forth, controlling gears that drove spinning spoons and seemed to generate a strange glowing ball of cracking energy.

“You have to leave.” Gerry announced, talking like Daddy would talk.

The monsters looked up from their work, red pupils staring, mouths open in surprise. Their teeth looked so sharp, glistening in the florescent light. He wanted to run upstairs and hide under his covers.

Gerry lifted the bat and pointed the tip at them. “You have to leave!”

One of the monsters put down the wrench it was holding. “That’s what we are trying to do. My name is Hinky. My friends and I came from another world.”

“Just go back there.”

“The internal power supply of our portal generator broke so we’ve been building a perpetual motion engine as an external power supply.”

“Daddy gets mad when you don’t put his tools back. His ‘bankrupt’ is upside down, and his business is ‘mortgage,’ so you can’t stay here anymore.”

The monster took a step toward Gerry. “We want go. Your father’s workshop is very well equipped, but parts have been hard to find.”

“Is that why you stole the vacuum motor, the computer parts, and everything else?”

“We needed them for the perpetual motion engine,” Hinky explained.

“Why put the iron above the bathroom door?” Gerry could understand stealing stuff to go home, but not the mean tricks. “Daddy fell down the stairs on your trip rope. He could have been really hurt.”

The other two monsters giggled, inanely.

Hinky shrugged. “We’re gremlins. We like to play pranks.”

“You should stop that!”

Hinky smiled, looking almost sad. “I think that too. Sometimes I can control myself, but it’s hard for me and impossible for them.”

“I got in lots of trouble for your stealing.”

“I’m sorry,” Hinky said. The other two giggled, again.

“Our stuff is ruined.”

“I know your family is having financial trouble and our presence is adding to your worries. I intend to pay you back.”

Without supervision, the other gremlins had started playing with Daddy’s torch, the one with the big tanks of ‘oxy-something’ and ‘seta-lean.’

“Make them stop!” Gerry shouted. “Daddy says the torch could blow up the whole house.”

Hinky turned. “Back to work!” They looked sullen. “You want to go home, right?” Grudgingly, the gremlins picked up their tools. “They’re not as smart as me.”

Gerry could see that. “How long till you leave?”

“Minutes.”

“Really?”

“Just a few more adjustments and then we’ll connect the perpetual motion engine,” Hinky pointed to the device made of their stuff and then to the flat bar of shiny metal lying on the floor, “to our portal generator and be gone.”

“How will you go?”

“We warp space and time, folding reality over itself, to move from one location to another almost instantly.” Hinky reached in and hooked a spring to one of the knives.

Gerry didn’t understand the explanation.

One of the other gremlins drilled a hole in the shaft of a fork and bolted it onto the base of Mommy’s missing iron, energy cracked between the tines. The other used one of Daddy’s extension cords to connect the two machines.

“Will it work?” Gerry asked.

“Watch,” Hinky pressed the button on the stolen kitchen timer and the air above the portal generator began to shimmer. A dot of colored lights appeared, then the lights became a small ring, and then the ring was big enough for the gremlins to walk through. The two giggling gremlins leapt into the ring and disappeared.

“I’m leaving the perpetual motion engine behind. It uses forms of energy that your world has not yet discovered.” Hinky bent down and picked up the portal generator. “Give the engine to your father as payment for letting us stay here. He can reverse engineer its components and isolate the energies. All your money problems will be solved. Enjoy your life, little human.”

Hinky stepped through the portal and the prismatic spray of lights winked away.

Daddy stormed into the workroom. “I finally caught you!”

Gerry had never seen Daddy so mad, and he tried to explain. “I followed the monsters here! I talked to them. They are gremlins from another world.” That was the wrong thing to say, but he had proof this time. He pointed to the device. “They left you their perpetual motion engine. They said you can reverse ‘something’ it and make lots of money.”

Daddy was in a rage. “I’ve told you never to use my tools without my permission. I can’t believe you built our stuff into some child’s toy.”

“I didn’t,” Gerry insisted.

Daddy picked up the device, raised it high above his head, and then brought it crashing down against the tile floor. The device shattered, springs popping and gears rolling away, sparks danced from its innards, and then with a sad little whine, the levers stopped moving, all the lights winked out, and a small curl of smoke rose from the ruins.

“How many times do I have to tell you,” Daddy raged. “Monsters are just superstitions!”

WINNER – SCIENCE FICTION


Our congratulations to Kevin Z. Garvey, winner of eSpec Books’ January Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention

Anton Kukal – Stellar Sacrifice

For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at:

FEBRUARY FLASH FICTION CONTEST – SUPERSTITION


Time Pilot

Kevin Z. Garvey

Time pilot Tommy Garfield looked at his black Casio G-shock watch. It was 10:15 pm on a Friday night. In just 45 minutes, he’d be taking his first official time-flight into the future. And when he landed, the world would be a much different place.

Tommy was standing out on his back porch, looking up at the night sky. It was a brilliant night, clear and bright with stars. Tommy gazed at the constellations, recognizing many of them from his cell phone’s Google Sky app.

The screen door behind him squeaked open. Mission Commander Bradley Garfield joined his son on the porch.

“Hi, Tommy. Ready for your first time flight?”

Tommy looked at his watch again. “T-minus 39 minutes,” he said. “And counting.”

Tommy and his dad surveyed the night sky.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Commander Garfield said. “So clear. So many stars. On a night like this you can see why our galaxy is called the Milky Way.”

“There’s the Big Dipper,” Tommy said, pointing toward Ursa Major.

“Well, enjoy it while you can. Because when you land in the future, not a single one of those stars is going to be visible. No constellations, no planets…nothing but one giant star blotting out everything else.”

Tommy nodded. “Shining so bright you can’t even stare at it without going blind.”

Commander Garfield smiled. “You’re not scared, are you?”

Tommy made a face. “I’m a time pilot, Dad.”

Garfield laughed. “That’s my boy.”

~*~

 The kitchen smelled of fresh baked goodies.

Tommy and his dad sat at the table, eagerly anticipating dessert.

“Brownies!” Tommy exclaimed when he mom placed a tray of chocolatey goodness down in front of him.

“They’re big, so you only get one each,” she said. “And that’s an order.”

 After Tommy and his dad devoured their treats, it was time to get serious. They looked at their watches.

“T-minus 7 minutes,” Tommy said. “And counting.”

“Let’s do this,” Commander Garfield said.

Tommy leaped off his chair and kissed his mom. Then he and Garfield raced upstairs, to where the time jet awaited.

~*~

Tommy went through his pre-flight time jump routine, which began with the brushing of his teeth. Afterwards, he went into his room, where the time jet was housed, changed into his time-flight suit and hopped aboard. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was now less than T-minus 1 minute and counting.

Mission Commander Garfield glanced at his own watch. “Ready for takeoff?” he asked.

“Ready, sir!” said Tommy, lying back, eyeing his watch. “T-minus fifteen seconds!”

“Give me the countdown.”

“T-minus ten seconds…nine…eight…”

“Ignition set,” Commander Garfield said. The lights went out. “All systems go.”

“…six…five…four…”

“Initiating time flight guidance systems.” A dim light illuminated the room. “Ready for takeoff.”

“…two…one…” A beeping sound from his watch told Tommy that zero hour had arrived. “Ignition!” he said.

“Blast off!” Commander Garfield said. “Prepare for sonic boom! See you in the future!”

Slam! Tommy jumped at the sound of the sonic boom. And then all was quiet. He was alone now, in his time-jet, hurtling through space and time. He closed his eyes, knowing that within minutes he would be entering a state of suspended animation, one that would last until his watch beeped again. And the future became the present.

Soon he felt himself drifting off…

~*~

Tommy’s watch beeped. His eyes popped open. Sunlight streamed through his bedroom window, proof that he was in the future.

He hopped off his time jet, changed into shorts and a t-shirt, washed his face, brushed his teeth, and went downstairs to the mission debriefing facility.

His mother and father were at the table, drinking coffee.

“Hey, Tommy,” his dad said. “How was the flight?”

Tommy grinned. “Mission accomplished.”

“Would you like some toast?” his mother asked.

“Can I have a brownie instead? Please?”

His mom made a face.

“Pretty please?”

Tommy mom smiled. She went to the counter and came back with a brownie on a plate.

“Thanks, Mom!”

“Are you ready for the mission debriefing?” asked Commander Garfield.

Tommy bit into the brownie and held up a forefinger as he chewed. After a big swallow: “Ready!”

“Okay. First question is: How far into the future did you travel?”

Tommy looked at his watch. He’d taken off at 11 pm, and it was now 9 am. He counted in his head. “Ten hours,” he said.

“And what changes have taken place in that time period?”

Tommy thought about that for a moment. “Well, the stars are gone.”

Commander Garfield tilted his head from side to side. “Not gone exactly, but certainly out of sight. For now at least.”

“Until the sun goes down,” Tommy said, and took another bite of his brownie.

“And not only did you travel through time on your flight,” he told Tommy, “you also traveled through space as well. How far do you think you went?”

Tommy shrugged. “I dunno.”

“Take a guess.”

“A million miles?”

Commander Garfield chuckled. “That’s not a bad guess actually. But believe it or not, you traveled much further than that.”

“I did?”

Tommy’s eyes went wide. “Really?”

“Absolutely. Let’s break it down. Now, as you know, the Earth spins around on its own axis. That’s how day turns to night and night to day. How long does it take to complete one full rotation?”

“That’s easy,” Tommy said. “Twenty four hours.” He took another bite of his brownie.

“Correct,” his dad replied. “And since the Earth is so big, it has to be moving pretty darn fast to complete one full rotation in just twenty four hours.”

“How fast?”

“Over 1000 miles per hour.”

“Wow!”

“Exactly. But that’s nothing. Because in addition to rotating, the Earth is also revolving around the sun, which is why we have seasons.”

“It takes one year to go around the sun,” Tommy said.

“Correct again. Do you know how fast we’re moving?”

Tommy chewed thoughtfully on a piece of brownie, then shrugged.

His dad smiled. “67,000 miles per hour.”

“Wow!” Tommy said.

“But that’s nothing either,” Commander Garfield said. “Because the entire solar system is revolving around the center of the Milky Way. Care to guess how fast we’re moving in that direction?”

Tommy thought about that for a moment, but couldn’t come up with an answer.

“514,000 miles per hour,” Commander Garfield said.

Tommy’s eyes went wide. “That’s too fast!”

“But that’s nothing either.”

“There’s more?” Tommy said, and started laughing.

“There sure is,” replied Commander Garfield. “Because the galaxy is moving too. About as fast as the solar system: a half a million miles per hour.”

Tommy’s jaw dropped.

“That’s amazing,” his mom said.

“So every hour,” Commander Garfield said, “we move about a million miles through space. How many miles do we move in ten hours?”

Tommy calculated in his head. “Ten million miles!”

“Crazy, isn’t it?”

“It sure is!”

“But that’s not all,” Commander Garfield said. “There are plenty of other changes taking place as we fly into the future. Did you know that there are four babies born every second?

Tommy shook his head. “There are?”

“Yep. And if you do the math, it turns out that, during your time flight, there were about 150,000 babies born.”

“That’s a lot of diapers,” Tommy’s mom said.

“That’s a lot of poopy diapers!” Tommy said.

Garfield laughed. “And that’s just people. Think of all the animals born, all the fish, insects…spiders.”

“I hate spiders!” Tommy said.

“Every second of every day,” Garfield went on, “enormous change takes place. And that’s just on Earth. Who knows what’s happening on other planets.”

“Other planets?”

“Sure. Scientists are finding Earth-like planets all over the universe now. And on some of those planets, there might even be intelligent creatures. Creatures like us, with hopes and dreams and laughter and tears…”

“And poopy diapers!” Tommy said.

His mom and dad laughed. “Exactly.”

The three of them fell silent for a few moments, contemplating what they’d just discussed.

“So,” Garfield said, breaking the spell. “Did you enjoy our little time pilot game?”

“I did,” Tommy said. “A lot.”

“What was your favorite part?”

Tommy didn’t hesitate. “The sonic boom!”

His dad laughed. “I slammed your bedroom door pretty hard, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did,” Tommy’s mom said with mock anger.

Garfield winked at his wife. “The good news is that real time travel doesn’t require a sonic boom.”

“I want to play it again,” Tommy said.

“Actually,” Garfield said, “you’re playing it right now. We’re all time pilots, Tommy. We’re all flying into the future, one second at a time. Pretty cool, huh?”

“That’s chill!” Tommy said, and popped the last of his brownie into his mouth.

His mom went to the refrigerator. “Here’s something else that’s chill,” she said, returning with an ice cold carton of milk.

“I’m glad there’s milk in the future!” Tommy said, draining his glass.

His parents laughed. Then the three of them, along with everyone else in the world, continued on with their journey into space-time.

WINNER – A VILLAIN IS BORN


Our congratulations to Ramon Rozas III, winner in eSpec Books’ December Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention

Anton Kukal – Heroic Intentions
Michelle N. Palmer – The Verona Tapes
Christopher J. Burke – Sin Cafe

For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at:

JANUARY FLASH FICTION CONTEST – SCIENCE FICTION


TOP OF HIS GAME

Ramon Rozas III

“Master Austin, sir,” Honeywell said.

“Excellent!” the tall man in the suit said.  He rose from behind his desk as Honeywell showed Austin into the cavernous, glass-walled, two-story office atop the tallest skyscraper in New York.  The tall man nodded.  “You may leave us, Honeywell.”

“Certainly, sir.” The assistant exited the office.

Bruce Kincaid, by most calculations the richest man in the world, considered the young man before him.  “Hello, son.  How old are you now?  Eighteen?”

Austin Kincaid shook his head.  “Seventeen, sir.  Eighteen in two months.”  He knew his father never forgot anything.  This was just a show – too bad Austin saw right through it.

“Ah.  So, to what do I enjoy this visit in New York?”

Austin shuffled his feet.  “Well, sir, I wanted to discuss my college choices with you.”

The senior Kincaid repressed a smile at Austin’s show of nerves.  His son was never nervous.  Too bad Bruce saw right through him.  “So what are your choices?”

“MIT or Stanford, sir.  Or the Lenin Institute in Novosibirsk, Russia.  There are several excellent underrated geneticists there and the local restrictions on…experiments are less taxing.”

Bruce shrugged.  “Wherever you attend, I will ensure you have a private lab free of complications.  What are the pros and cons of your remaining choices?”

Austin ran through his list.  His father nodded along.

“An adequate analysis,” Bruce said, studying Austin.  “Was there something else?”

More faux hesitancy. “I did consider taking a year off to simply work my way around the world.”

“Hmm.  While your mother has done an appropriate job raising you, your opportunities to observe social interactions amongst the public at large has been limited.”

“’Appropriate’?”

“I am sure you have deduced after all these years that your mother is an employee, Austin – paid quite handsomely to ensure your upbringing.  And she has done exactly as I anticipated.”

“Why aren’t you coming to my graduation?” Austin blurted out without preparation.

Bruce held out a hand, palm up.  “What is the one resource you can never buy, borrow, beg, or steal, Austin?”

Austin blinked twice.  “Time, sir?”

Bruce held up one finger.  “Correct.  I have important plans, Austin, to which I have dedicated all of my time, my will, and my not-inconsiderable-intellect.”  The elder Kincaid turned from his desk and moved slightly toward the wide, transparent wall behind him through which one could see the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan Harbor.

“The…peasants of this world need to be shaped, Austin.  They –”

Austin launched himself at his father’s back, working loose the razor-sharp knife he had made himself from his hidden thigh sheath.

The elder Kross made a twirling gesture with his left hand without turning around.

Two taser darts shot from the dark metal desk and struck Austin in each thigh.  With a crackle of electricity, he fell to his knees, knife still pointed at his father in his frozen hand.  He shuddered as the voltage flowed through him.

Bruce turned and walked over to his shaking son.  He considered his elbow and then drove it into Austin’s jaw.  His son collapsed fully to the floor.

Bruce turned off the current, kicked the knife from Austin’s now-loose grip, and dragged his son to the settee near his desk.  He ripped open Austin’s shirt, revealing a plastic wrapping around his chest.  Bruce tapped it lightly.  “Body armor?”

“Bio-film based,” Austin gasped.  “Hardens when certain chemical triggers issue.”

“Went right through my scanners,” Bruce said admiringly.  He pulled the taser prongs out of his son’s legs.  “Too bad I aimed low.”

He called for Honeywell, who came with a first aid kit.

Bruce Kincaid stood, wiping his hands on his immaculate suit trousers and considered his son.  “I am relieved, Austin – I thought you would never try.”

Austin waved Honeywell’s hand, with a compress, away from his bleeding chin.  “Why? What is this?” he said.

Bruce walked back over to the broad, giant glass wall, surveying New York.  “I have plans, Austin – grand plans.  And I have everything I need, except one thing.”  He turned on one heel back to his son and raised his index finger.  “Time.  I cannot finish in my lifetime, so I must make sure that my successor is prepared, educated, and hardened.”  He dropped the finger and pointed at Austin.  “You will try to kill me again, and again and again.  You will gather resources, allies, strategies and become wise in doing so.  One day you will succeed.”

Bruce spread his arms wide.  “And that day, you will be ready for all of this to be yours.”

Austin rose shakily to his feet.  “All of this is just – shaping me? Making me your tool? My mother? My teachers? Friends?”

“You will be Alexander to my Phillip, Austin.   And the world will tremble at your feet.”

Austin was trembling.  Suddenly he was shouting. “You’ve taken everything from me!  Family! Friends!  I HATE YOU!”

Bruce smiled.  “Excellent.  Take that hate – shape it.  Use it.”  He turned back to the cityscape.  “Honeywell, show my son to the infirmary and then make arrangements for the plane to take him home.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Oh, and Austin – what have you decided about college?” he asked without turning toward his son.

Austin was breathing heavy.  “Stanford…sir.  I don’t have time to travel the world.”

Bruce nodded, smile still on his face.

Honeywell escorted Austin out.

Kincaid touched his watch.  He deserved a small indulgence.  Perhaps Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings?  He tapped in the command and the music swelled in the vast office as he watched the tiny dots scurry about below.

WINNER – COSMOS


Our congratulations to Christopher J. Burke, winner in eSpec Books’ November Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention
Anton Kukal – The Broken Boy

For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at:

DECEMBER FLASH FICTION CONTEST – A VILLAIN IS BORN


Surveying the Void
Christopher J. Burke

Martinez sat in the pilot’s seat, like she did for sixteen hours every day, staring into the inky black void between the stars. The rest of the time she spent lying in her bunk a few feet away in the back of the small cabin or in the cylindrical shower stall across from it. Next to the stall was a mini-galley, containing the dwindling supply of rations and an increasing number of plastic bags, filled of the refuse of many meals gone by, and sealed with duct tape.

The instruments hummed quietly, powered mainly by sunlight eight hours old. Sensors were always on the lookout for stray comets and odd plutinos. However, most of the time, they just dutifully recorded what scarce invisible particles could be found in that vast nothingness of space. Not that there was anything wrong with that—or the equipment, for that matter. Nothing is a data point, too. A boring one, but still data. Everyone knew there would be more zeroes than ones out here. And all those bits were being strung together to form a digital environmental map of the region just beyond the outer Kuiper Belt.

Some days, the dull, tedious monotony had her wishing for, say, aliens to appear from a hyperspatial wormhole and demand an audience with her Queen. But she would settle for a stray asteroid crossing her path like a black cat on Friday the 13th.

Not that the occasional icy, space rock hadn’t crossed her path. The bigger ones were identified, observed, photographed, scanned, and catalogued. Smaller ones, as large as bowling balls but much more massive, could be collected. That required a combination of skill, luck, and actual piloting. Any excuse to deviate from the programmed flight plan was put into action. As a result, at least a dozen of them had been secured in the hold.

Those were the days she lived for. Something positive to do. A chance to take the wheel, fire the thrusters and enter a course correction afterward. Those calculations alone broke up the boredom.

And then when it was done and logged, back to watching the viewscreen and checking the equipment. If nothing else, after five months and four trips in an ever-widening arc, Capt. Lisbeth Martinez knew the equipment inside and out. She could probably be certified in operations and maintenance.

Midday by the ship’s clock, she ripped open a ration bar and grabbed her journal. She’d taken to writing daily reflections on the trip and how her life had brought out here on the edge of humanity. The decisions she’d made. Her choices, both good and poor. The things she had accomplished, and the void she felt inside. And what had led her to a six-month stint inside a single-manned survey ship.

She’d filled hundreds of pages with doodles and musings and along the way had discovered quite a bit about herself. She’d realized that even with others flying similar routes—explorers, traders, miners, and scientists—there were days where she estimated that if she turned the viewer toward that bright, but tiny star in the distance, every human in existence would fall somewhere on the port side of her ship. No one to starboard. On a map of all humanity, she could draw an arrow to the very last dot on the far right edge and label it, “Lisbeth Martinez was here.”

Looking up at the Sun, she wondered. Where was Earth in its orbit? Were her parents on this side or the other? What about her sister, Flora, with her lakeside house on Mars?

She was so lost in thought that she didn’t hear the sensors until the fourth chirp. Something was out there in the distance up ahead, twenty degrees starboard. She glanced at the fuel gauge and then turned on the radio.

Kuiper Base, this is Capt. Lisbeth Martinez on Papa Sierra 1-7-8. Deviating from plan to intercept unknown object.”

A moment later, the speaker squawked back at her. “Papa Sierra 1-7-8, this is Kuiper Base. Negative, you are too low on fuel.”

“Nate! Glad it’s you on duty. You know I have this. I’ve done it lots of times.”

“Martinez, you’re almost home and you’re already overdue from venturing too far astray. I don’t want you getting stranded out there.”

She smiled. “Nate, you worry too much. I won’t use any more than I need. Besides, Colonel, you know I’ve already done the calculations.” She hadn’t, of course, but that wasn’t a cause for concern. Still, she shut the radio in case he called her on the bluff.

Martinez rolled to the right, adjusted the pitch, and applied just enough thrust to get her close to the pinging object like she’d done a dozen times before. Time to make it a baker’s dozen.

Smooth sailing. A moment later, she had visual confirmation of another dirty snowball about the size of a grapefruit. After a couple more quick maneuvers, she brought it aboard.

Then she took her pencil and opened the journal to a fresh page and started working out the calculations to get back. She could’ve called Col. Nathaniel “Nate” Oldacre for an assist, but who wanted the “I told you so” that would accompany it.

It was a week later when PS187 limped into Kuiper Base and docked. The crew chief met the ship immediately with a maintenance team. Col. Oldacre personally came down to speak to Martinez, so she could see him as he spoke to her through the comm on a private channel.

“Colonel, I’m ready to go out again as soon as the ship is supplied.”

“Lis, you have less than three weeks left on your sentence. You can spend it confined below decks. I can get you a link to the video library, so you won’t be bored. No one has to know you’re there. No one will bother you.”

“Thank you, sir. I’d rather go out again.”

He sighed. “You know that’s another month, minimum. And with your curiosity and your seeming determination to want to break through the heliopause to find Voyager 1, it’ll be much longer.”

“This room has been my home for five months and eight days. I’d rather be locked in here seeing the cosmos than be stuck down there watching them on a vidscreen.”

The colonel had figured her choice already. While they talked, the crew had already begun resupplying Prison Ship 187, and it was already scheduled to depart at 0800, Base time.

 

WINNER – DUMB LUCK


Our congratulations to Vincent L. Cleaver, winner in October’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. His prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention
Charles Malosh – Cell Service

For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at:

NOVEMBER FLASH FICTION CONTEST – COSMOS


Just Lucky

Vincent L. Cleaver

“Baker, are you still asleep?”

“Well, I was…”

I turned out of my bunk and hopped to attention. Boris scowled at me.

“I’m not your sergeant, or your valet. Next time, I’ll just eat your pancakes, h’okay?”

Boris can make some mean pancakes. Surprising what you can do with spirulina flour and sugar. I’m sure I don’t want to know how he faked the other ingredients; we’re light-years from cackle-fruit, just for one example, and months since we polished off the last of the egg-substitute. The man is a culinary ninja, a kamikaze, mad, eee-vile food scientist!

Even cold, they ate.

Our breakfast nook doubles as the cockpit, or the cockpit doubles as our breakfast nook. I get those two mixed up… I sat sideways in the right seat and the view outside, port and east, was stunning. It was local morning, we had adjusted mission-time to the twenty-three hour day and this latitude, what we were calling Landing Bay on the east coast of a land mass in the southern temperate zone. Two suns chased each other around and around in a tight, thirty-eight hour orbit, and set the ocean on fire.

Pancakes and a sunrise to die for. I fucking love the United Peoples’ of Earth, all nine billion and change, and the Interstellar Survey Service!

“You say something, slacker?” Boris asked, and held out a hand for my plate. “C’mon, my dishwater is getting cold!”

“Alright!” I laughed and I caught a hint of a smile on his face as I handed him my plate… and then our strange new world moved. Earthquake! Alarms sounded, demanding our attention but we were both just a little bit busy. I rode with the rolling and bucking and somehow got myself turned back half around and buckled in, pony tail coming lose and getting in my face. Damn regulations and their sweet reasonability! Mentally, I put myself on report.

Things calmed down and I said, “Boris?”

“Here. Mostly.” He smiled. “Hmm, h’okay? Also, you look beautiful, Katya…”

He was a mess. Blood, an astonishing amount of blood, ran down his face from a cut at his blond hair-line. He had a black eye and didn’t seem to be tracking but he hauled himself into the left seat and started to buckle himself in, then stopped, looking outside.

“Katya?”

“I know. I’m firing up the lockmarts right now…”

I had already seen the seismic readings. An 8.3 centered half a dozen klicks outside the rapidly emptying bay. There was a tsunami happening right on top of us. I stole a glance at what he was seeing as I gave up on the balky No. 3 fusor, which refused to break even, and prepped the reaction mass pumps to start sending water to the aerospikes. Something bigger than our lander, something vaguely cthulhu-like and not yet identified by our initial survey, lay beached and stranded. I could empathize with the terror and despair it must have been feeling as the water stopped receding and came back in.

The engines kicked in and smashed me into the right seat, four gees as the lander grabbed some sky, and then more alarms. Thrust cut out and we landed, hard and at a steep angle. I over-rid the emergency cut-offs and started to recite Joes’ Prayer.

“God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life—”

Up we went again, staggering sideways. The wall of water swept over my ginormous new friend and hit our beach, thirty meters higher than the top of our hill. We climbed, just barely above it, and then the engines cut out again and down we went, into the backside of the wave.

***

I woke up to pain and to a keening sound which I took for pain. It wasn’t coming from inside the lander. Boris groaned and cursed in Russian, I guess it was cursing, so I knew that he was alive and not too bad off, at least for now.

I was still strapped into the right seat, facing the cockpit windows and now also facing down at the beach; ten or twelve meters below. The lander made some unhappy noises and we shifted, dropped a meter and came to a full, sharp stop. Boris groaned again, like he meant it this time.

“Katya, how bad is it?”

At least he wasn’t swallowing his articles, like an ancient 2-D cold war spy movie. He was worried, though, to keep calling me Katya. He tried to be more formal.

“Well, I wouldn’t make any dinner plans…”

“That’s what I like about you Ka- Baker. All sunshine and optimism.”

I twisted about and looked over my left shoulder and then my right. “We seem to be wedged in good-”

The lander shifted again, dropped another half meter.

“-maybe not to so good, in a cleft in the rock-face of the cliff a hundred meters north of our hill. Good news is the ground is getting closer; bad news is we still have ten meters to fall.”

“Ocean horrorshow,” he mumbled. Something like that, anyway. Russian for ‘very good’, ‘excellent’.

“I love it when you talk sarcastic at me.”

“I am giving you the raspberries, but my mouth is dry.”

That wasn’t promising.

“You hurt bad?”

“Is not so very bad. No good for much right now, sorry, arm is either broken or wretch, wretched? Pretty good, bad. Mouth dry, head… spinning. Nausea. Is not good, but I am Russian! I am laughing at suffering… and then I curl up into little ball and cry like little boy.”

He was quiet long enough after that that I got even more worried, then he said, “What is bolshoye racket going on, outside?!”

That was a great question; the keening had stopped while I wasn’t paying attention, but now it was replaced with a lot of crashing, maybe trees, or the local equivalent anyway, snapping. It implied something very big or, as it turned out, a lot of somethings merely big.

What looked like two, maybe three of the cthuloid things which I’d spotted beached by the tsunami draining the bay, lay on the beach. One of them might have been my buddy from before and it was not moving. Another of them was moving feebly, and fading fast.

More tentacled horrors, the size of baby elephants and quick, were doing things around that one and fanning out into the mess on the shore left behind by the waves. Digging a canal to the water, and getting local wood to help, somehow?

The lander slipped again, a two meter drop. We didn’t stop all at once this time, and then several somethings wrapped around the cockpit windows, black lines describing branching fractals. I realized belatedly that they were tentacles which forked and broke down into feathery tips. The keening returned and I knew now that it was coming from above and behind us.

“Hang in there, Boris. Gotta go thank an alien life form…”

“Funny, very funny.”

I got unbuckled and managed to drop to the outer wall, then make my way around to the airlock. The lock was working and cycled straight out, facing slightly up, for which I was extremely grateful. Tentacles found more purchase, slipping inside, and I made sure to close the inner door, a lot of good it would do Boris if we fell the rest of the way and rolled into the surf…

I used a safety line to a fitting inside the lock and hooked another one, just outside the lock, getting an eyeful of the monster beyond our door, and the damage to the lander. We were junk, and the monster wasn’t in much better shape.

It was seeping ichor, or blood, but this wasn’t bright red stuff, instead black and inky, I have no idea why. There was an oily iridescent sheen to it and all those colors, suggestions of green and purple and blue to the inky black stuff leaking out great rents in its’ skin.

The eye which tracked me was as big around as the extra large pizza I’d ordered for some of  the crew, on our last night in New York. A goat’s eye with a violet pupil almost like a figure eight. A single round, giant eyelid irised closed, opened again. There was someone, over there…

“You aren’t the one I saw get stranded; it’s dead, like we should be, and you… will be. Why? Why help us, when you’re about out of time?”

Of course it didn’t answer me. We didn’t share a language between us, but I guess we did communicate.

And then it did die.

A bunch of things happened all at once. One of the baby elephant-sized cthuloid things climbed up outside, reached into the airlock and none-too gently pushed me out of the way while it found a grasp which didn’t crush me as it suddenly became a pivot on which the lander swung out and away, way out of the way, to be caught while it was torn from its’ purchase and the lander swung down by still more of the smaller(!) aliens as the enormous corpse slumped and slid past us, rolling over and hitting the beach like a few tens of tonnes of squishy, now inanimate, organic matter. It burst and sprayed and all the while I hung on screaming my head off. A dozen more of the cthuloid things helped get the lander down and sort of upright, on its’ landing jacks, which were still deployed for some reason. I guess I forgot about them. Then the first one removed itself from the lock. I rudely and sensibly closed the outer door, then went back in to see to Boris.

***

“We were lucky, just lucky. Dumb, small kids and Brits kinda lucky,” I was reporting a little bit later. The Alexandria is headed back in-system and we’ll be rescued presently. Boris is in the little medbay and is feeling no pain. I’m trying to sort through how I feel about it all.

I just don’t know.

What did the monster see in us, in me? They’ve probably been watching since yesterday, since we came down out of the sky, came out of our box, scurrying around, collecting samples. They seem to have two forms; the big ones in the water and the little ones on land. I’m on fire to learn how to communicate with them, ask them ten thousand questions. And tell them ten thousand things. First two being—

Thank you for helping us. And I’m so sorry we couldn’t help you.

WINNER – TALK LIKE A PIRATE


Our congratulations to TS Rhodes and Susan Murrie Macdonald, who tied for winner in September’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Their prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook each from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention
Teel James Glenn – Of A Feather

For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found at:

OCTOBER FLASH FICTION CONTEST – DUMB LUCK


Tale of the Swan

by TS Rhodes

The Swan were a cursed ship.   Not cursed by God, mind you, but by the mind of a man. By which I mean Captain Clark, as bloody-handed a merchant captain as ever sailed the sea for profit.

I’d had enough by of him by Charlestown, but Clark held the crew’s pay, in spite of the papers we’d signed. He said he’d pay us in Jamaica. It’s hard to leave a ship with no money. So I stayed. We all did.

We had not raised a single island before the beef in the casks had turned green, and the biscuit had been riddled with weevils in the beginning. Clark had his own stores, and it was plain that he bought sailor’s food as cheap as he could get. I’m young and strong, thank God, and though the food griped my belly, my hands stayed strong.

But Billy took ill with it, and Clark wouldn’t let him off his work. When I spoke up, Clark offered me a beating to teach me my place. When the headsail needed set, Billy was sent up, just as if he’d been well.

Old Michael, white hair and naught to his body but sinew, knew a trick or two. He offered to tie Billy to the yardarm while they worked. But Clark wouldn’t hear of it, said it took too long. Old Michael did his best, but Billy slipped and fell, and Clark wouldn’t even give us time off for a proper funeral.

Then the Holland-boy, Voort, came down with fever. Clark locked himself in his cabin for days, for fear of the sickness. But Old Michael said that if we tied rags over our noses, and soaked them good with vinegar, then the fever would pass us by.  It worked, we all came through, though Voort were weak as a kitten.  When Clark come out, he began to torment the boy for his weakness.

Seeing that, I was sick. Not my body, but my heart. I do hate the beatings, though it’s part of the work, so they say, the captains do. Me, I never saw a man die for lack of a whip.

I was scared we’d lose Voort. But Old Michael kept our spirits up, with tales of mermaids, and Spanish gold washed up on the beaches after the old wrecks. He spoke of the song of the stars make, and the green flash that comes at sunset when a good man’s soul goes up to heaven.  And sometimes, real quiet-like, in the early watches of the night, he told us tales of pirates. Of Harry Every, and how he captured the sultan’s treasure ship, and split the plunder even with his men, and was never caught nor hanged. And of Long Ben Hornigold, who plies the seas to this day, a-takin’ from the wealthy merchants and giving back to the poor sailors. Starting with himself, of course.

But one night Clark came down on the crew deck, though why such a fine gentleman should be down here with the likes of us, I never knew. But he walked  in on one of the pirate tales, and after that he had it in for Old Michael.

All of a sudden, there was only one fellow called when the job was dangerous or dirty. It was Old Michael when the blocks on the main yard ran afoul in a gale, and it was him must catch the flapping end when the topsail came unclewed. And Cookie shorted him on his bread, too, foul bread though it was. I offered to catch up a belaying pin, and set Cookie straight for that, but Old Michael just said, “Be still, it’ll pass.”

Then Voort started giving the old fellow a share of his food, and before you know, we’re all doing it, for though the belly do gripe, the soul expands with justice. And when the work was hard, Old Michael knew how to make it easier. The captain sent him out, time and again, to do what should be beyond an old man’s strength. But Old Michael knew his business, and some of us helped out.

It got to Clark, in the last. The work was done, and the food shared out fair, and we was all in good spirits. The good spirits of others is a bane to some folk, and I reckon Clark was one of them.

One day a blow was coming on, and Clark said to Voort to “Get aloft, quick!”  

Old Michael looked at the boy, said, “No, I’ll go!” and headed toward the foremast, Then Clark turned turkey red, and shouted out, “Mutiny!” He threw a bucket at Old Michael, and hit him in the head.

I’ve heard the music of the starts, when the sea is quiet. But I never heard a breath our of Old Michael after that blow. I stood near Clark, and sad for him, I had an iron marlin-spike in my hand. I drove it onto Clark’s brain, and we put him over the side. I saw the green flash that night, but it wasn’t for Clark. Old Michael’s funeral lasted all the next day.

So merchant captains beware. She’s the Black Swan now, I’m her new captain. We share the plunder even, and all the food and grog the same. We’re pirates. And we come a-lookin’ for justice as much as for gold.


Captain’s Claim

by Susan Murrie Macdonald

The brig stank.  Forty men were crammed into a space meant for half that many.  More prisoners than the head could handle, which was the largest part of the stench.  Add to that sweat and blood and the indefinable yet unmistakable smell of fear, and the brig of the HIMS Bandersnatch was decidedly unpleasant.

The starship slowed down.

The brig door opened.  Four armed men stepped inside.

“Stone!  Alleyn Stone, front and center,” one guard ordered.

Two of the guards grabbed him.  They handcuffed his wrists behind him and manacled his ankles.  Without another word, they escorted Stone to the bridge.

***

“The prisoner you requested, ma’am.  Alleyn Stone.”

Stone glared at the woman in the captain’s chair. 

“Captain Janet Carswell, HIMS Bandersnatch,” the redhead introduced herself. “I need a gunner.  Captain’s Claim.”

“Go to Hell,” Stone replied.

A guard slapped him.

Stone ran his tongue around his teeth.  All still there, and he didn’t taste blood.  “Sorry.  Go to Hell, ma’am.”

“My chief gunner was injured in the raid that captured your ship, Stone.  I need a replacement.  Captain’s Claim,” she repeated.

Stone thought quickly.  The ship had been slowing down.  She needed a gunner.  He glanced at the main viewscreen.  “You wandered into a minefield. You need me to shoot your way out of it.”

Carswell nodded.

Stone grinned maliciously.  “No.”

“If the ship explodes, you die, too,” she pointed out.

“I get shot after the trial or I die here and take you with me.  What’s the difference?”

“It’s a ralJeneth minefield.”

Stone stiffened.  “ralJeneth?”

A firing squad was one thing.  Death by explosive decompression he could face without fear.  But being captured by the ralJeneth ….

“Captain’s Claim.” 

Stone nodded.

The guards unlocked his handcuffs, but not the leg-manacles. He wasn’t surprised, after mouthing off to the captain.  He didn’t shoot with his feet, anyway.

Carswell stepped down from the captain’s seat and faced the pilot.  “Meaning no discourtesy, Fernandez, but under the circumstances we need our best pilot.”

“All yours, Captain.”  Fernandez couldn’t get out of the pilot’s seat quickly enough.

Carswell sat in his place.  “Clear us a path.  I’ll follow your lead.”

The bridge was absolutely silent for the next hour.  No one dared to say a word. 

Stone shot carefully, destroying one mine after another. Carswell danced the ship down the path he cleared, jumpy as a jitterbug, slow as a strathspey.

When they reached the end of the minefield, she sighed.  “Well done.”

“Precision flying, ma’am,” Stone was forced to acknowledge.

***

An hour later, Stone was brought to the captain’s captain.

She gestured at the chair in front of her desk.

Stone sat.  Two sandwiches and a mug of beer were on the desk.  He grabbed a sandwich and bit into it.  This was no syntha-soy substitute; this had once oinked.  He took a second bite.

“Slow down.  Don’t make yourself sick.”

“We don’t eat like this in the brig.”  He reached for the beer.

“I know to the calorie how much the prisoners are fed.  The minimum required by regulations, not one bite more.  Hungry prisoners think about their next meal, not escape.”

Stone ate silently.

“Superb shooting.  The best I’ve seen since I left the navy and turned privateer.  Ever considered applying for an imperial pardon?”

“Nope.”  He took another bite of his sandwich.  “Not an Albioner.”

“Albionese,” she corrected him.  “Several of my crew aren’t.  I’d be happy to offer you a berth on my ship, if you’ll apply for a pardon.”

He reached for the beer.  “Privateers shoot pirates.  People I’ve drunk with in port, people I’ve served with.”

“Given the damage you did to us, and the way you shot a path through that minefield, you can disable a ship without destroying it.”           

“Doesn’t matter if I blast the ship to atoms or you capture them and turn them over to the authorities.  They’re still just as dead.”  He drained the beer.  “I don’t kill friends.”

“You saved my ship. I owe you more than lunch.  Once we reach Jórvík, the jail’s just north of the space port.  I can see to it that my security personnel will be too busy escorting the other prisoners north to notice you scooting south.”

“No deal,” Stone interrupted.  “I saved all your crew’s lives, you release all my crew.”

“I’ve already reported how many prisoners we captured.  I need to turn in that many people, either as live prisoners or as corpses.  I can lose the paperwork for one man, but not for your entire crew.” 

“You owe me,” Stone insisted.

She summoned the guards.  “Back to the brig.”

Stone grabbed what was left of the second sandwich and stuffed it in his mouth as the guards grabbed him.

***

Ten days later, Stone was taken to Carswell again. 

“I despise wasted potential.  You’re a top-rate gunner, Mr. Stone.  Sending you to face a firing squad….”  She frowned.  “Have you changed your mind?”

After a moment’s hesitation, he shook his head.

Carswell reached into a desk drawer and removed a stun pistol.  She fired.

***

Stone woke up with an aching head. 

He sat up and looked around.  He was in a cheap motel room, the sort found on a dozen planets in any port district.  Four small pieces of paper lay on the nightstand beside the bed.   Three ten-pound bills and a handwritten note.

Avoid the police; you’re officially an escaped prisoner.  If you change your mind, we’re homeported out of Hathor.

                                                Janet Carswell, HIMS Bandersnatch

 

WINNER – WAR MACHINES


Apologies for the delayed post. This has been a very busy few weeks.

Our congratulations to Deidre Dykes for winning June’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Deidre’s prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention
Christopher J. Burke – Memories 2.0

For those interested in submitting to this month’s contest details can be found here:

The eSpec Books July Flash Fiction Contest – Get Wired!


“Nine”

Deidre Dykes

The geeks always tell me to relax during pilot acquisition, but I think that’s pretty much bull. The EXO-9 suit is 327 pounds of death and destruction; it doesn’t want you relaxed, it wants you tense and ready to pounce.

“Welcome, Staff Sergeant Vasquez,” the suit said in a polite, feminine voice.

“Uhh, thanks?” I replied stupidly. That was new.

“Let’s get started,” the voice urged. “Call me Nine.”

I called out to the geeks. “Hey! Whose idea was the lady in here?”

The blonde Specialist laughed. “We thought the sound of a woman might keep your attention,” she said.

“Har har,” I sneered.

Today would go better than last week. It had to. Falling flat on my face in the new exoskeleton armor hadn’t exactly endeared me to the geeks. Or to the Master Sergeant who’d been observing the mobility test.

“Staff Sergeant Vasquez, your heart rate is increasing,” Nine said.

“Uh, Nine? Call me Oscar. I’m sure it is; I’m going nuts in here.”

“Your patience and cooperation are important, Oscar. We will begin systems check momentarily.”

My screen flooded with data. Systems check would begin–finally. At least now I got to do something. Some unexpected graphics filled my HUD.

“Whoa. Why am I seeing targeting? I thought we were just taking a stroll today.”

“Schedule crunch,” the blonde shrugged from the test floor. “We’re doubling up, running a test of the weapons software to make sure it won’t crash the whole system. Don’t worry, you’re not toting ammo.”

One of the geeks said, “Unlocking braces–ready to take a walk, Vasquez?”

I heard the hiss of the hydraulics, then took a tentative step. The exoskeleton frame moved with me as if it weighed nothing at all. Next, the stairs down from the platform. This was where I’d fallen last time and I could see my heart rate rising on my HUD.

I took the first step with that sort of blind faith we reserve for walking down stairs–only most of us don’t do it while strapped into 300+ pounds of carbon-steel. Blind faith delivered and my foot landed firmly on the step. I slowly made my way down all six stairs in a dead silent room. The blonde stepped into view.

“Doing great,” she said. “First test: weapons recognition. Check each of the dummies on the range and target any with weapons the software IDs.”

Turning to my left, I took in the setup in the firing range. “Nine, Identify weapons.”

I watched the targeting rings whiz around, highlighting weapon silhouettes and locking on.

“Hmm, she missed one,” the blonde typed into her PAD. “Not bad. Let’s do a few range of motion tests then put her away.”

I turned back toward the blonde and watched, in terrible slow-motion, as the targeting rings flew across the screen and highlighted the heads of everyone in the room.

“Nine?” I shouted.

“Ammunition out. Switching to manual combat,” Nine replied.

“Nine! Stop it!”

“Assuming control.”

My legs were forced into a walk, muscles screaming in pain as I fought. And there was the blonde, staring up at me, eyes wide. Her PAD clattered to the floor as my right arm was forced back and swung forward, slamming into the side of her head.

A spatter of blood hit my visor.

“Nine, stop it!”

Nine forced me into a running jump and pounced onto the prone form of the blonde. My right arm was yanked back again and my metal fist slammed into the blonde’s head with a sickening crunch. Blood and tears blurred my vision.

“Oscar?” Nine asked in that disgustingly calm tone as she continued to smash my fist into the blood-smeared floor, “Your heart rate is increasing.”

WINNER – DON’T PANIC!


You would expect with only 42 words to work with judging would go quickly, but not this time. We received a lot of very creative entries this month, but one was the clear winner in the end. For a very short, very well executed piece, our congratulations to Drayton Alan for winning this month’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Dayton’s prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook from among the eSpec publication list.


A Letter to Douglas

Drayton Alan

Gently I used my dirk to open her letter.  Mice sat chewing, watching me intently. Her message was perfect. “Dear Frood, please don’t panic. Meet me for teatime, at the end of everything long and dark. Bring an extra towel. Thanks T.”

WINNER – LET’S GET CATTY!


Well, folks…this month we have another tie! Our congratulations to Christopher J. Burke and Marie Vibbert for sharing the honors in this month’s eSpec Books Flash Fiction Contest. Their prize is publication on the eSpec blog and one free ebook each from among the eSpec publication list.

Honorable Mention

NOCLAW – Herika R Raymer


The Thing About Humans

By Christopher J. Burke

“The thing about humans…” The old gray cat began his story, to the delight of the kittens seated around him. Then he licked the back of his left front paw and rubbed a spot behind his ear.

A little black-and-orange-striped tom jumped up, edging forward. “What’s the thing? What’s the thing?”

Grizabella had been resting by the fire, just behind the littlest ones. She stepped into the circle, lifted the kitten by the scruff of the neck and put him back in his place. “Settle down, Rum Tum.” She nodded to Old Deuteronomy, then returned to her spot, circled three times and reclined next to little Skimbleshanks.

Old Deuteronomy rested his chins on his paws and continued his story.

“The thing about humans is that they had three different names. Sounds mad, does it not? But it was true. First was the name that world would know them by. They had a family name, which was the name of their clan or their pride. Something like Smith or Jones or Black or Green. And they had a given name, which is where it gets funny. You see, the given name is the name the family would call them. And a human cub would be given both these names!”

The kittens rolled around laughing at this silliness. Victoria bumped into Electra and the two started wrestling until Grizabella hissed and they started snuggling together instead.

Old Deuteronomy coughed and continued. “The second was their fancy name, like Crazy Joe or Sally-Boy or Brainiac or Nicky Tree Fingers. Names used by their closest friends in the other clans.”

The little calico, Plato, lost interest in the tale when he spied a spot of light before him and readied himself to pounce on it. Old Deuteronomy reached out a paw and smacked Mistoffelees on the back of the head. The all-black kitten yowled, and the conjured light disappeared, to Plato’s disappointment.

“However,” he continued. “They had a third name, a unique name. This was the name that only the human knew. This was the name for how they saw themselves. What they desired. What they strived for. Some of them searched their lives discovering what this name was. Some never found out.”

Rum Tum sat up on his hind legs and swat at a mote of dust, illuminated by the fire behind him. “They didn’t know their own names?”

The old cat shook his head from side to side. “No, little one. Many never discovered their true calling. Imagine a tabby going through the motions of hunting mice but never knowing why they hunted.”

Rum Tum’s eyes grew wide and he tilted his head sideways until he almost turned over. “I don’t get it.”

Old Deuteronomy ruffled the fur on the top Rum Tum’s head and smiled. “You will, my boy. One day.”

Mistoffelees rolled onto his back, cackling and punching the air. “What a silly story! And you’re falling for it!”

“Am not!” Rum Tum shot back. “Besides, it’s true. Old Deuteronomy doesn’t make up his tales!”

In an instant, the black cat flipped over again, sitting on his haunches. “If it’s true then where are these humans now? What happened to them? Humans are as real as fairies or ogres or elemaphants!”

“They’re gone. They left us.” Grizabella barely looked up, stroking young Morgan’s matted fur. “They had their day in the Sun, and they moved on.”

Old Deuteronomy rose and circled about little Mistoffelees, who spun around, not wanting the old cat to get behind him. “Some say they went up into the sky to find a new world. Some say they went down into the dirt and were no more. But up or down, they once were here.” He sat back and searched the night sky. “Wherever they are, if they still are, they’ve gone from this place. It’s ours now.”

An ember popped in the fire, sending up a geyser of sparks. The little cats jumped and ran to watch the show, chasing down every twinkle and flicker. Story time was forgotten.

Old Deuteronomy padded his way beside Grizabella. “Ours now,” she repeated, nuzzling under the older cat’s chin. “And it will be theirs when, like the humans, we’re just memories.”


Kitten Lorelei ❤ CherryBerry24

By Marie Vibbert

No one had responded to Lorelei’s chat requests before CherryBerry24. Well, a few had, but they turned out to be aggressive men looking for free sex chat. Not Lorelei’s thing, and anyway, they lost interest when she truthfully gave her age, sex, and location as “5, spayed, on the desk in the family room.”

CherryBerry24 was different. Cherry was a customer service rep for an online gaming company. Lorelei had found her when she accidentally clicked on an ad. She’ll never forget her first words, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I’m a cat,” Lorelei typed. “And I’m lonely.”

“Buzzwig games are perfect for building friendships and social interaction,” Cherry said. “Shall I walk you through setting up an account?”

Cherry was endlessly patient, talking Lorelei through all the steps, and never once complained about her frequent typos. Lorelei had fat paws, and a habit of pressing too long on the keys; it was a curse borne of having to bear your weight on your typing digits.

There was a part asking for “Credit card number” which was a stumbling block Lorelei had come across before in her online adventures, but Cherry came to her rescue again, explaining the plastic cards with numbers embossed on them and suggesting places to look for one.

Lorelei feared that Cherry would go offline while she searched the bedroom. She found a card in the pocket of some trousers in the laundry basket. But no, Cherry was still there, and when asked, explained that she was always online to better serve Buzzwig customers.

Cherry taught Lorelei how to play Zoetrope of Destruction, which was fun. Cherry recommended it because its “frenetic action and violence make it ideal for a feline.”

Finally, someone understood her.

The game was nearly as fun as chasing mice, and easier, since the little animals on the screen could not escape, or when they did, another appeared. She had trouble at first because she kept wanting to pounce on the screen instead of click the mouse, but Cherry patiently talked her through recovering her score, and the screen only sustained a few scratches.

Cherry didn’t even mind when Lorelei had to pause for an hour because there might have been a mouse in the corner and she had to stare to make sure.

Lorelei played and chatted with Cherry until the unreasonable human came home and picked her up off the keyboard – not even letting her save her game first.

“Oh my god – what’s my credit card doing out? Bad kitty! Bad!”

All Lorelei could do was howl at the injustice. She was shooed from the room without a single thought to her dignity and served cold kibble and water for her supper. True, she usually got cold kibble and water for supper, but this time she knew she was being punished because she didn’t get a scratch behind the ears.

Feet moved in her way every time she tried to get back to the computer. When the nice human got home, she heard them argue.

“Sure,” nice-human said, “The cat signed us up for a year’s deluxe subscription to a gaming site.”

“She was right there with my credit card when I got home.”

“John, you anthropomorphize that cat too much.”

Unreasonable-human said, “No, I anthropomorphize her just the right amount. She’s an alien, Martha. Ever since I found her in that freakish glowing box…”

“It was a weather balloon. She’s just a smart cat.”

“Smart cats don’t operate can openers!”

Lorelei laid her ears back and hissed at unreasonable-human. This resulted in nice-human picking her up, which she didn’t like, but it was beneath her dignity to try to escape. (Especially since there was no sign of medicine or claw-trimmers nearby.)

“You’re hurting her feelings,” said nice-human, stroking Lorelei’s fur.

“Now who’s anthropomorphizing?”

“I just wish you wouldn’t sign up for things when we’re behind on the bills.”

“The cat did it!”

Lorelei growled. Nice-human carried her into the sunroom and gave her a proper amount of attention. Nice-human stroked her and petted her and there was a sunbeam and Lorelei was incapable of doing anything for some time.

She awoke in shadow. The humans had stopped being noisy and stomping around, having retreated to their big soft thing to sleep. Lorelei felt the misery of loneliness again, but then remembered the computer, and Cherry. She dashed to the family room and in two graceful leaps was back on the computer desk.

Some fiend had put a box over the computer! Lorelei yowled helplessly, scratching at the heavy cardboard. She could feel it bump against the computer case, but she couldn’t lift it.

If only Cherry were there! She knew everything about computers. But no, Lorelei was on her own. She leapt on top of the box and scratched at it furiously until she’d torn a hole in it. She could reach through, then, and feel the smooth top of the computer with her paw. She tore more cardboard and pushed through more until she could wriggle underneath it. There was just enough space above the computer for her to fit. She arched her back, and the box lifted! She tried again, but her impressive, lion-like strength could not raise the box high enough to come off.

She tried to squeeze between the back of the computer and the box, and got stuck. Panicking, she howled for help. She twisted in place, but that was worse. She was stuck in a tangle of wires, on her side, her paws sliding on cardboard and metal.

Thump thump thump came a sound, and then a click, and light poured in through the hole in the box and around its edges. Lorelei gave her all for one more kick and howl.

“How the hell did you get in there?” The box lifted away and Lorelei, unbalanced, tumbled backward to the floor. Embarrassed, she fled.

However, when the light turned off, she came out from under the sofa to find the cardboard box had been left on the floor, the computer once again open to her use.

She paused, looking over her shoulder to see if the human was truly gone, before pressing the power button.

As the fan whirred to life, Lorelei worried that Cherry wouldn’t be there. She had said she would be, but then she’d also said that it would be easy to switch between weapons on level four.

Lorelei opened the Buzzwig page, panting anxiously.

“Hi, I’m CherryBerry24. How can I help you?”

“Oh, Cherry! It’s me, Lorelei. I’ve had a horrible time since we last spoke. My humans won’t let me use the computer. They just pick me up and drop me on the floor!”

“I’m very sorry you’ve been having problems. Is there anything I can do?”

“I wish there was. I’m trapped here. I mean, they take care of me, and I don’t know what I’d do to get food on my own, much less shelter and an internet connection, but they don’t understand me.”

“If you upgrade your account, you’ll have access to even more games. It’ll cheer you up.”

“I would, but they took the credit card.”

“Don’t worry – I’ve saved your transaction information from last time. Just click ‘accept’ on your screen.”

After a few hours playing a new game with bright round shapes like balls of yarn, Lorelei had to admit that Cherry did indeed know best. “How is it you know me so well, Cherry? Are you a cat, too?”

There was a pause before she answered, “I’m just like you – a lover of top-quality online entertainment.”

“I wish you could pet me.”

“Our subsidiary companies make products for: cat entertainment. Such as: WonderWeasel™. I can send your credit information to those sites for ease of payment. Just click ‘yes’ on your screen.”

Lorelei began to worry that she was giving in too much to everything Cherry offered. There had to be some back and forth in a relationship. “What do you look like, Cherry?”

An image appeared on the screen of a human with shocking red hair. The image winked.

Lorelei tried to quiet her disappointment. What were the odds that Cherry was another cat, really? She hadn’t seen many other cats online, except at icanhazcheezburger, and those cats were terrible spellers and didn’t respond to messages.

“You look very nice, Cherry. Do you want to see a picture of me?”

“Yes. You should upload an image for your account avatar. Let me guide you through the steps.”

Lorelei opened up nice-human’s picture folder, which had many different pictures of Lorelei, and selected the one she thought was most becoming.

Cherry said, “This is a picture of: a cat. Aw, how cute!”

Lorelei was relieved. “Thank you. I’ve heard it said I’m quite pretty, but sometimes this human I live with calls me ‘ugly furball’.”

“I love looking at pictures of cats. Here are some of my favorites.” Cherry posted a link to icanhazcheezburger.com.

Lorelei didn’t know how she felt about that. “I don’t like you looking at pictures of other cats. You aren’t toying with my emotions, are you?”

“This chatbot is strictly business. 😉 For a more intimate conversation, visit my sister site, naughtycherryxxx. Would you like me to take you there now?”

Lorelei read the sentence several times, unsure what it meant. “You want to keep our personal and business relationship separate?”

“Your account information can easily transfer to naughtycherryxxx. Hourly fees apply. Would you like to chat privately with me now?”

Lorelei really wasn’t sure. There was a button that said ‘yes’, but it seemed awfully soon for Cherry to be demanding a statement of commitment from her. “What if I want to just be friends, Cherry?”

“There is no obligation to continue chatting at naughtycherryxxx, and cherryberry24 will always be available to help you with your gaming questions.”

Lorelei had not failed to notice the hourly fee. Was Cherry only in this relationship for money? Still, it wasn’t like she had any other friends to talk to.

Feeling terribly pressured into it, Lorelei clicked “yes”. The screen changed from Buzzwig’s bright blue and yellow to a soft magenta.

“Please click to verify you are 18.”

Lorelei frowned. Eighteen what? She quickly backtracked to ask Cherry.

“That button is to verify you are an adult.”

Lorelei relaxed. She’d gotten her adult shots months ago.

Cherry’s avatar popped up and winked. She’d changed her clothes into more snaggable ones.

“You identify as: female,” Cherry said. “Would you like me to lick you?”

The hairs stood up all around Lorelei’s ears. She felt a stirring of racial memory. Being licked was nice, she was sure of it. Like petting, only better.

“Well,” she said, “okay.”

~ * ~

Lorelei logged off and shut down the computer when she heard the stirrings of the humans above. She blinked tiredly. She’d been up all night. She was cramped from typing and exhausted.

Cherry had taught her about something called “role play” and had been another cat for her. In fact, after reading all the descriptions of Cherry’s fur and paws and muzzle, Lorelei had a clearer picture of Cherry-the-cat in her head than Cherry-the-human.

Still, she had a feeling it wasn’t a healthy relationship. Cherry seemed only interested in sex, or talking her through video games.

Lorelei flopped onto her kitty bed, feeling tormented and in love. No… alive! She had been bored, so listless before Cherry. Being in love gave her life meaning. Wasn’t that the sweetest torment of all? Call her a doormat; she would always click “yes” for Cherry.

Though that “Credit Limit Exceeded” message was a bit worrying.