short fiction

Fiction Monday: When the Cat’s Away Part Four

Good morning campers, wakey wakey out of bed, and celebrate glorious Monday!  Aww, come on, don’t use that kind of language, there are children present (Really tall children.  With whiskers and chest hair.  And driver’s licenses.  Okay, they act childish at times, is that good enough?)!

I’ve been dragging my heels on the last short story.  Life gets in the way sometimes.  But I can’t just leave you hanging forever, right?  That would just be cruel.  So guess what:  I’m giving you another installment of the adventures of April Tyree in the Wooden Pyramid; in fact, it’s the last installment.  When last we left our plucky girl detective, she had found Charity and was getting ready to make their escape when Patty the Possessed turned up.  Will April defeat Patty?  Will she rescue Charity and save the day?  Will she ever stop snarking in the face of almost certain doom?  What is the thrilling conclusion?

Let’s see…..


 

When the Cat’s Away

An April Tyree short story
by
A.J. Clarkson

Part Four

Patty dangled my pistol from her fingertips.  If we were unlucky, she’d turn the gun around and point it at us.  If we were very very unlucky, she wouldn’t; that would mean she had something even worse than hot lead to throw at us.  Not good.  Not good at all.

“I guess we’re past the point where you’ll let me and the kid walk out the door and all is forgiven and forgotten, huh?” I said.

“Pretty much,” said Patty.

“You’re really gonna kill me in a horrific blood sacrifice-y way, and then evict the Teeny Bopper out of her own body so Hemet Nesu Weret can move in,” I said.

“Pretty much.”

“You know I can’t let you do that.”

“Yeah, I kinda was hoping you’d say that,” said Patricia.  That’s when she brought her other hand out where I could see it.  Caught tight in her clenched fish was the squirrel that had saved my butt half an hour ago.  The little creature was panicking, struggling and curling around her fist in its efforts to escape; as I watched, it bit Patricia’s forefinger hard enough to draw blood.  Patricia didn’t flinch.  She lifted the ginger creature level with her eyes and said, “That’s enough.”

The little squirrel squealed in pain and terror as Patricia started to squeeze.  I could hear its little bones crunch as Patricia crushed it in her fingers with no more effort than it would take me to crush an empty beer can.  This is what will happen to you, Patty’s smug little smile said.  When the squirrel stopped struggling, she held it out to me, opening her hand so I could see:  some of the rib bones had poked through the flesh, so blood was slowly staining the ginger fur of the crushed torso.  Its head lolled over against Patty’s thumb, the eyes lifeless, like black beads.

“No, thanks, I got some Chinese takeout before I stormed the castle.  Pyramid.  Whatever,” I said.  That quip sounded better in my head.  “But please, don’t stand on ceremony with me.  Enjoy your lunch and be careful of bones.  The teeny bopper and I can find our own way out.”

Patricia turned her hand over, letting the crushed squirrel fall to the floor with a wet splut! that made my stomach clench.  “Forever flippant.  We’ll be sure and put that on the grave marker when you die,” said Patty.  She sighed heavily.  “Don’t you understand?  Your fate has already been determined. You will die tonight.  All you can decide is the manner of your demise.  If you surrender to my will, I can make your death swift and relatively painless.  If you continue to resist, well, I’m don’t think your puny mind can grasp just how long I can prolong the agony preceding death.”

It was my turn to sigh.  “Well, I don’t think you can imagine just how unimpressed I am by your little monologue.  It’s so last year,” I said.  “But I do like the forever flippant thing.  I may get a tattoo of that.”

“Stubborn, foolish child!” Patricia hissed.  As I watched, her eyes went from gray to black again and her posture changed.  She seemed to be swelling up as I watched, growing taller, more imposing, filling the small room with her presence.  The air began to crackle with an all-too-familiar energy as she started to mutter an incantation.

Crap, crap, crap!  I didn’t have the time to crank up another spell — not that I had a good attack spell at my fingertips to defeat possessed crazies about to blast me into the afterlife.  Magic is all about preparation; I always sucked at doing the extra credit on homework.  I didn’t have my gun.  What I had was a half-asleep teenager, a ratty mattress on the floor and… well, that’s about it. Crap!

Patricia’s hair started to move and stand up as the energy caused a static charge to build up around her body.  It made her look like that Eraserhead character from the movies  Her black-with-no-whites eyes glowed and her mouth twisted into a grim smile.  And still that incantation continued.  I didn’t understand the words she was saying, but they only had one possible resolution:  with me being killed to death.

Suddenly I ran up to Patricia and punched her right in the nose.

What?  It was all I could think of.  Okay, I didn’t think, I just reacted; that nasty little smile reminded me of this chick in elementary school who used to take great delight in shoving me into mud puddles or poking me in the back with a pencil until I screamed, getting me in trouble for disrupting class.  I hate bullies.

Patricia/Hemet Nesu Weret’s head snapped back and blood started gushing from her nose.  She continued to chant, but now there was a nasty liquid sound to her words and her teeth were stained red.  More important, I’d wiped that nasty smile off her face, replaced by an expression of real alarm.

I’m such an idiot!  The incantation!  That’s what had put that look of alarm on her face.  Once you start an incantation, you have to finish it.  Stopping halfway through, regardless of the reason for stopping, has nasty consequences, usually for the caster.  All that energy wants to go somewhere and if you don’t give it a path, by finishing the spell, the energy could do something like, oh, say, backing up like a blocked toilet and burning the caster from the inside out.  Yeah, not pretty.

So Patty had to keep chanting, no matter what.  She couldn’t stop long enough to even wipe the blood from her chin.  And all I had to do was make her stop.  I turned my back to her, looking for something, anything I could use as a weapon.  Mattress — nope, doubt she was up for a nap.  Pillow, nope.  Ratty blanket wadded up in the corner, nope.  Naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, could be useful if it were a little longer.  No pictures or crosses hanging on the wall, nothing but a big wooden ankh mounted on the center of the door.

Wait.  The ankh — a cross with a circle on top, an old Egyptian symbol for life — looked pretty heavy.  Maybe, if I could get it off the door, I could bap her upside the head with it.  I ran to the door and started trying to pry it off.

“This old lady, is she singing?” said Charity behind me, still sounding pretty stoned.

I didn’t bother looking back at her.  “Yeah, something like that.  And if she gets to the end of the song, I’m toast.  Then you’re toast.  We’re all toast.  It’ll be bad,” I said.

“What are you doing?” said Charity.

“Trying to get this — “ I grunted with effort, and managed to get the bottom arm of the ankh pulled free of the door.  I started swinging ti back and forth, trying to lever out the other nails holding it in place.  “– this stupid thing free from the door, to use the weapon.”

“Why?”

“So we can get out of here before she finishes that chant and the toasting party starts,” I said.

“She’s not stopping you –”

“She can’t do anything right now.”  I pulled the ankh free with a shout of triumph.  I hefted it in my hands; not perfect, but it would get the job done.

“So…. why don’t we just go out the door?” said Charity.

“Ummm….”  It’s all right, you can say it:  April, you’re an idiot. I resisted the urge to facepalm. “You have a point.  Come on,” I said.  I circled around Patty and grabbed Charity’s arm to steady her.  As we darted around Patricia, I glanced up at her face.  She looked pissed enough to spit nails, but there was nothing she could do.  Until she finished the incantation, she was stuck.  Tough noogies on her.

We got to the door and I opened it.  Running down the narrow corridor was a phalanx of red hooded minions.

Crap.  I slammed the door.  “Plan B!” I said.

“What’s Plan B?” said Charity.

“Still working on that,” I said.  I ran to the back of the room, dragging Charity with me.  We got to the back wall just as the door slammed open and the red robed figures, four in all, burst into the room.  I shoved the teenager behind me and hefted the ankh like a samurai sword.  The minions were unimpressed with my weapon, and launched themselves at me.  I slammed the ankh down on the first man’s head, and he fell back with a yell.  The second one came at me and I swung the ankh like a baseball bat, catching him on the cheek.  I kicked the third one; the fourth one hung back, waiting to see how the others would make out, I guess.  Chicken; I threw myself at him and swung for his head.  He dodged — damn it! — and the ankh smacked into the wall behind me.  The big hoop at the top snapped off, leaving a jagged splinter.  A sharp jagged splinter.  This I could work with.  I stabbed at the fourth guy with my shankh — a sharp ankh, get it?  Aww, man, nobody appreciates my sense of humor — and he danced back out of the way before I could connect.  I kept him at bay by waving the shankh back and forth.  Standoff.

Well, for a couple minutes, at least.  But more red-robed figures were coming in, filling the front half of the room, and effectively blocking the door.  No way could I get past all of them, certainly not while dragging Stoner Barbie with me.  No where to go behind us, and no way to go forward,  I was out of options.

Patricia’s chant had become a scream.  Energy was arcing off her like an electrical storm now, as she gathered in vast amounts of power, much more than I ever have or ever could.  Tiny black lightning bolts, surrounded by a nimbus of purple light, leaped between her outspread fingers, arced like Jacob’s ladders between the strands of her hair, and sizzled across the bloodied surface of her face.  She was shouting the words of the incantation now; there were only seconds until it went off.  She pointed at me, and little lightning bolts jumped off her fingers, trying to reach me.

I was out of time, I was out of options, and I had to get out of there.  I grabbed Charity and said, “No matter what, Barbie, when I say do this, you run.  Don’t look back, don’t stop, just keep running, okay?”

“Wait, what are you gonna do?” said Charity.  She was finally awake enough to realize what a jam we were in, because the muzziness in her speech had been replaced with fear.

“Something stupid,” I said.  I squared off in front of Patricia.  Her blood-smeared mouth twisted into a nasty smile as the words of the incantation spilled out of her lips.  All the lightning that had been dancing around her now shot down her arm, making her hand glow black and purple.  The tip of her index finger began to glow brighter and brighter, like a electrical wire about to burn through.  A bolt of that crazy black lightning started to grow from her finger, a lightning bolt moving in extreme slow motion, coming directly at me.  I had maybe three seconds before I was royally screwed.

I admit, I didn’t think this through entirely.  I just acted.  I started shrieking at the top of my lungs; no words, just incoherent rage and frustration coming out in incoherent sound.  I ran forward and slammed the sharpened end of the ankh into Patricia’s gut.  It sank in with and ease that surprised me so much, I let go.  It surprised Patricia, too.  She stopped chanting, looked down at the length of wood sticking out of her gut, the blood that was starting to spill out around it.  She looked up at me, bewildered.  I was as bewildered as she was, and stepped back.

The red robed followers stood there, just as confused as Patty and I were.  That was their mistake.  Patricia had stopped the incantation, mere syllables from the end, but still too soon.  The glow on her fingertip died as the lightning began to roll back up her arm.  It started dancing around her, wrapping her in lacy arcs of light and color.  Her hair burst into flame, then her clothes.  Her eyes flickered gray to black to gray again, over and over again.  She opened her mouth to scream, but two voices came out:  a shrill soprano and a roaring like a voice from the deepest pits of hell.

Suddenly, Patricia threw her head back and black light shot from her opened mouth, splashing against the ceiling.  Yes, I meant the word “splashing;” that was the only way to explain how that light moved when it hit the raw wood.  Wherever the light touched, the wood blackened and smouldered.  From Patricia’s hands, lightning shot out in thick bolts, striking the nearest red-robed figures. These two shouted in agony, before going stiff and jerking like they’d grabbed a live wire.  Two more bolts of light shot from these poor souls, striking the people to the side and behind them.  It spread, jumping from one man to the next quicker than I could track.

It didn’t take long for the light to come back at me.  You know how I said it looked like the minions had grabbed a live wire?  Yeah, well, it felt worse than that.  It was a cold burning that shot down all my nerve pathways at once.  i thought I was being frozen to death and burned up at the same instant.  I think I shouted something, probably a swear, but I don’t know.  I lost consciousness about two seconds in, and trust me, two seconds conscious during that was an eternity.

The next thing I know, I can taste the flavor of ozone on my tongue, and I can smell something burning, a combination of woodsmoke and burned meat.  Somebody was patting my face.  It was annoying, so I slapped the hand away.

“Come on, wake up, you stupid bitch!” shouted a voice above me.  I opened my eyes, and saw lots of blurry color.  I blinked, twice, three times, and Charity’s voice slowly came into focus.  She was crying.  “Are you awake?  We gotta go!” she said.  Her breath smelled of vomit.

“Don’t call me bitch,” I groaned.  I hurt everywhere; I felt like I had pulled every muscle in my body, and I could feel myself trembling.

“You can ground me later,” Charity shouted.  She grabbed my arm and started jerking on it, trying to get me onto my feet.  “First you gotta get up.  We have to get out of here or we’re gonna burn to death!”

“Burn?”  That would explain the smoke.  I forced myself to sit up.  The room was rapidly filling with smoke from a flame that was licking along the ceiling and working down the walls.  In front of the door, half the red robed figures were smoldering or burning.  The others, the ones that survived, I guess, were stirring, crawling, or otherwise trying as hard as me to pull it together and get the hell out.  Patricia., what was left of her, was a smoldering black blob that nevertheless pulsated and twitched; every time she moved, puffs of smoke belched out of the blob, smelling of a pork roast left too long on the fire.

Charity climbed to her feet, pulling me with her.  I pulled free of her hand so I could lean forward, my own hands on my knees, trying to keep from heaving.  there was already a puddle of vomit on the ground; I guess Charity lost her battle, and who could blame her?  I managed to keep my lunch, however, and straightened after a couple seconds.  “Come on,” I said, and grabbed her hand.  We couldn’t run, because we had to climb over the red-robed minions.

“Are they all dead?” said Charity.

“Dead or dying,” I said.  “You don’t take a magical hit like that and live.”

“You did.”

“So far, so good.  I only caught the tail end of it,” I said.  “Conversation later, okay?”  By now we had reached the door.  Thank goodness they had left the door open; we could never have gotten it open past the bodies blocking it, not in time.  We got out into the hallway, and started running.

It took us a few minutes to find our way out, and by then, most of the pyramid was on fire.  We ran out into the night, getting back at a safe distance before stopping to turn and look.  Some of the red-robed minions had gotten out as well, and milled around in the high grass, bewildered or sick with smoke inhalation or both.  They never gave us a second look, and that was just as well; I couldn’t have defended us from a bad-tempered kitten, much less a cultist who’d just had their cult jerked — or burned — out from under us.

“What the hell happened?” said Charity.  I noticed that she didn’t have shoes on, and her legs and feet were scratched up and covered with dew, though I don’t think she noticed.

“How much do you remember?”

“Passing out at a party.  A long nightmare with those guys in it — “and she pointed at the cultists.  “Then you shouting at me.  What did I miss? How did that woman make lightning everywhere?  What was she doing?”

“That’s a long story,” I said.  “Come on, my car’s this way.  Let’s get you home.  You need your mom, and I need a shot of vodka.”

The End

To Part Three


And that’s it for April this time.  I know it ran a little long, but I wanted to wrap things up.  On the ankh/shankh line, send your groans and thrown tomatoes to lilywhite, who came up with it late last night. smartassery should never go unpunished.  Tell me in the comments if you liked the story and want to hear more from April.  She’s a new kind of character for me, so a little encouragement would not go amiss.  Sometime today all the installments should be listed on the Fiction Index page, so latecomers can catch up without having to run the entire gauntlet of my blog.

And, like April, that’s it for me today.  You know the routine:  share, tweet, comment, write.  I posted on Friday about my new email addy.  I’ve also put it on the “About Me” page for when you want to contact me, with questions/comments, with suggestions for Fun Friday (or anything else, really), or if you just want to shoot the breeze.  I’ll be back on Wednesday, though I’m not sure what I’ll be talking about.  Meh, I’ll figure it out.  Until then, y’all be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Pulp, short fiction | Leave a comment

Fiction Monday: When the Cat’s Away Part Three

So it’s Monday morning again, and I can’t say I’m thrilled.  My weekend was rather up and down:  good times, bad news, stressful necessities and pleasant surprises all warred for my attention.  Sometimes life can be a roller coaster, even here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.

However, that’s my problem, and nothing you need to worry about.  On the Steampunk, Dieselpunk, and New Pulp front, things are all coming up Clarkson!  I have a sparkling new sub-pile on the To Be Read Mt. Everest that lives inside my Kindle (and Amazon wish list), and that’s always a treat.  More importantly, we’re now officially less than a month out from Vandalia-Con!  I know, I know, it’s a small con in an out-of-the-way town in Appalachia.  But I am really looking forward to it.  Generally speaking, I prefer small events over large ones; small ones mean you can sit down and talk, actually interact with people, places, things, etc.  Large events become too frenetic, overwhelming and less fun, at least for me.  Seriously, if you’re within driving distance of Morgantown/Parkersburg (hi, Pittsburgh readers, I know you’re out there!), make an effort to come on down and join the fun!  It’s going to be the best kind of small event, and all the money raised is going to a terrific cause.  Fun AND altruism, together in the same Steampunk package?  How can you beat that?

Okay, I’ve stalled long enough.  I owe you the next installment of April Tyree, Girl Detective.  Will she avoid her fate as sacrifice?  Will she free the girl, save the day and escape from the secret pyramid?  What happens next?  Well, you’re about to find out….


When the Cat’s Away…

by
AJ Clarkson

Part Three

Damn it, where was Charity Rostavitch!?  For that matter, where was the stupid exit?  The inside of this insane wooden pyramid was a maze of intersecting corridors, rooms, open chambers, secret passages.  For all I know, that crazy twit Patricia Blumenthal had smuggled in her own honest-to-goodness minotaur.  All I know was that I’d try a door, tiptoe further down the hall, turn a corner, hide in an alcove when I heard footsteps or voices, (both of which echoed so much there was no way of judging which direction it was coming from), then start the whole ridiculous mess over again.

At one point, I could hear shouts and pounding; I guess Patty and her flunkies had gone back to the chapel and found where I had wedge-jammed the door; it may have been un-openable from the inside, but a few good thumps from out here in the hall and my little jamming trick was toast.  Three loud bangs let me know they’d figured that out; the echoing bang and then voices and scurrying feet told me they’d gotten Mercedes and company out.  Which meant there were now at least seven people looking for me now, and all of them knew the layout here better than me.

Then I turned a corner.  There was only one door down this little cul-de-sac.  It had a symbol smeared on it, in a dark brownish-red substance that looked like dried blood.  The marking looked like this:  y

I recognized it.  I told you already, the weird hangs out on my side of the street; there’s money to be made in knowing how the underground magic scene works.  In this case, that mark was a warding sigil, a powerful one.  Nothing could go in or out of that door unless you either had the countersign or knew how to break the sigil.

What?  Yeah, you heard me right.  Magic is real. Well, some of it is real.  Some of it is pure hokum.  There are such things as wizards, people who do nothing but practice magic, and I’m ambivalent about those sorts.  On the one hand, wizards embrace a level of nerdiness that makes that annoying kid in your high school math class look as suave as the Dos Equis guy.  On the other hand, that much power is a whole new world of scary.  Patty — or whatever’s sub-letting her brain pan — is a practitioner.  A good one, too, if this sigil was any indication.

Most people aren’t at the wizard level of magic-slinging.  Most of us don’t bother with any of it, because magic is generally difficult, dangerous and expensive, even for the wizard nerd types.  Most spells require blood.  Or rare and/or precious minerals, objects, what have you.  Or all of the above.  And that’s in addition to you needing to know how to read and write a couple of dead languges, and to follow the recipe for a particular spell.  If you don’t get it letter perfect, well, the backlash is a world class bitch.

Yeah, I can cast a few spells.  Nothing on the level of Patty’s work, though. Or Herek-al-Hootchie, or whatever her name is, whoever is sub-letting space in Patty’ brain pan.  Luckily for me, breaking this sigil didn’t require that much magic.  I wasn’t casting a spell, technically.  I was just ruining somebody else’s work.  It’s always easier to destroy than to build.

Normally I would have used the kris knife to cut my hand.  But I already had a steady supply of blood, thanks to Patty and her crazy altar of doom.  I pressed my fingertips to the gouge Patty had cut in my forearm.  Okay, that hurt.  Bad.  I had to steady myself against the wall; my knees wanted to buckle from the pain.  I found myself panting hard, waiting for the lightheadedness to pass.  Wow.  I must be hurt worse than I thought.

Anyway, when I could stand up without falling over in a heap, I began muttering, not too loud, so Patty and her minions couldn’t hear me.  I would tell you the words to the incantation I used, but there are rules about that sort of thing.  Besides, I can barely pronounce them, much less spell them.  You think speaking German is hard on the throat, try reciting the thirteen forbidden names of the Sleeper at the Edge of Darkness.  Not fun.

I hate the feeling of magical power building up.  You ever touched an electric fence, or stuck your finger into a light bulb socket when the power’s turned on?  it doesn’t precisely hurt, not the way a cut or a burn feels.  But it’s so not nice, either.  To me, it feels like a fistful of gravel, just under your skin, rolling up your arm.  That’s sort of like what magic feels like as it builds up in your system, waiting to be released.  Only the gravel is hot (sometimes icy cold, but usually hot), and instead of following the nerve paths from your fingertip to your brain, it’s just moving in tight circles, bracelets of not-pain swirling around and around at lightning speed until you want to scream.

Those bracelets of not-pain were spinning around my hand and arm as I finished the incantation; the last syllables (I hesitate to call them words) came out in a harsh whispering rasp as I actively fought to keep from screaming.  Instead of that, however, I slammed my hand down on the sigil, daubing my blood onto the wood and smearing the blood of the sigil.  The magic crawling under my skin zinged out;  there was a whiff of scorched wood and a pop! that I felt more than I heard; that almost-sound was the wards, whatever they were, dissipating.  When I reached for the doorknob a second later, it was almost too hot to handle, a side effect of the broken ward.  I was lucky; if it had zigged intstead of zagged, it would have grounded out through my hand, and I’d be a crispy critter.

Magic is dangerous, boys and girls.  Don’t let anybody tell you different.

But whoever had laid the sigil hadn’t bothered to lock the door — idiot! — so the knob turned easily in my hand.  The room beyond was lit by a single bare light bulb dangling from a wire in the ceiling.  A single, stained mattress lay against the far wall.   On that mattress was a thin, narrow-hipped girl with blonde hair, wearing only a camisole and flower-print panties.  She was lying on her side, her back to me; I could see where the handcuffs that held her hands behind her had dug ugly, bloody gouges into the flesh of her wrists.

She was still alive; I could see her breathing.  But beyond that, nothing.  The girl didn’t move, not even a flinch, at the sound of the door opening.  “Charity?” I hissed.  No reaction.  I glanced back over my shoulder; so far nobody had noticed me.  I closed the door behind me and spoke a little louder.  “Charity?  Hey, girl, wake up!”  Still no reaction.

I didn’t have long before Patty or one of her kooky followers got the bright idea to check in here.  I knelt beside the mattress and felt her neck for a pulse; it was there, but slow, like a sleeper.  I undid the handcuffs (yeah, I carry a handcuff key with me all the time; it comes in handy at times.  Don’t judge me!) and rolled the girl over onto her back.

It was Charity Rostovitch all right; the face matched her photos.  But her eyes were wide open, staring, the pupils narrowed to the tiniest pinpricks. They were keeping her drugged.  Great.  Just great.  I shrugged out of my jacket and started forcing Charity’s arms into the sleeves.  “Charity, honey, come on, up and moving!” I said, as loud as I dared.  “Come on, girl, pull it together!”

Those bizarre pinprick eyes rolled over slowly in my direction, tried to focus, then gave up the effort.  “Mom?” she sighed.

“Nope.  I’m April.  Your mom sent me to bring you home.  You wanna go home, then you’re gonna have to make an effort and help me!”

“Sleepy,” Charity moaned, and tried to roll back over.

“No no no!  Now’s not the time for another nap, Charity,” I said.  I grabbed her shoulders and pulled her up to a sitting position. I jumped up, got behind her, wedged my forearms under her arms and levered her up onto her feet.  Not easy, because A) she was taller than me, and B) her legs were as bendy as Laffy Taffy.  AND she complained the entire time, giving me half-sleeping moans of “I don’t wanna go to school!” and “five more minutes, Mom, please?”

The reason I plan to never reproduce is those cute little babies eventually turn into whiny teenagers.  Blech.

Anyway, I finally got her to stand on her own, more or less, and I braced her against me, her arm around my neck, my own tight around her waist, half holding her up.  We got a whole three steps before the doorknob rattled.  The door swung open and Patty walked in.  I stepped back in reflex; unprepared for the sudden change in momentum, Charity stumbled and reeled backward, sitting down hard on the mattress.  She nearly pulled me down with her; the backs of my heels hit the edge of the mattress and I windmilled wildly, barely managing not to sit down on top of Charity.

Patty watched this graceful drama play out without a word.  When I had finally regained my balance and turned to face her, she smiled and gave me a slow clap.  “Very entertaining, Miss Tyree,” she said.  “But now that playtime is over, shall we get on with business?”

I slid my hand behind me, where my pistol was tucked into the back waistband of my jeans.  But there was no pistol snug against the small of my back; I felt only the wrinkled cotton of my shirt. Idiot!  They must have taken my gun when they tied me to that stupid altar!

Patty must have understood my gesture, and the expression on my face. “Looking for this?” she said.  She reached into the sinus of her robe and came out with my 9mm Springfield X.D, still in its holster; it dangled from her forefinger, thrust through the trigger guard.  Clumsy.  Dangerous. And useless to me, because I still had to get past Patty, whatever was sub-letting her skull (if there really was anybody in there besides a buttload of crazy), and her kook-buddies before I could get this stoned teen home to her mom and collect my pay.  And I had no tools to do any of it; I was well and truly stuck.

I sighed heavily. “Well, shit.”

To Part Two

 


 

Well, that’s it for me for now.  What happens next?  Will they escape the pyramid?  Will Patty turn out to be even nastier than she already appears?  Will April end up a sacrifice to some dark god?  Tune in next Monday, same Pulp time, same Pulp channel!

In the meantime, you know the routine:  tweet, comment, share, write.  My email is ajwriter@ajclarkson.net if you want to ask questions, share goodies for Fun Friday, or just shoot the breeze.  I’ll be back on Wednesday to share my love for all things Punk and Pulp.  Until we see each other again, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: conventions, Pulp, short fiction, Steampunk, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fiction Monday: “While the Cat’s Away” Part Two

When I first started this blog, a blog-savvy friend told me, try not to write any blog over two thousand words, because people won’t read it.  I’ve tried to stick to that maxim.  But this installment of April Tyree’s adventure is running longer than that and has resisted all attempts to trim it back.  So I’m skipping the niceties and pushing right on to the reason you’re here.  Without further ado…..


When the Cat’s Away

An April Tyree Story
by
AJ Clarkson
Part Two

I fought against the ropes holding me down as Patty, her eyes glittering that bizarre black with seemingly no whites at all, raised the knife over her head, ready to plunge it into my chest. She began to chant words that didn’t make any sense to me, but obviously meant something, because the air vibrated with energy.

This wasn’t just about the crazy. There was real power being summoned. Great. Just great. Crazy is easier than the spooky stuff.

“Wait! Wait!” I shouted.

“Too late!” hissed Patty. Her eyes flickered from black to gray to black again. Her posture and facial expression changed in time to the color changes in her eyes. That was a clue, I know it was. But I was too freaked out by the sharp death above me to put it all together.  I couldn’t breathe; fear was a weight on my chest, killing me as quickly as that kris knife would do when it struck home. I jerked hard on my left arm, where the ropes were starting to loosen. That was my only chance, to get that arm free and maybe stop that knife from driving into my chest.  It didn’t work, mostly because of the robed creep holding tight to my arm.

“Hemet Nesu Weret, look!” said one the fellow holding my other arm.. Patty flinched, her eyes narrowing to a scowl at the interruption.  That was when I finally started to notice that the Patty’s devoted followers weren’t focusing on the task at hand.  Their attention wasn’t on me or on Patty; it was on the altar table.  I followed their gaze and when I saw what had distracted them, I couldn’t keep a grin from crossing my face.

“Well, look at that!” I said.  “Not exactly the cavalry riding to my rescue, but points for being adorable.”

“What are you babbling about?” said Patty.

I nodded toward the altar table.  “You’ve got company.”

Finally Patty seemed to register that something was disturbing her ritual and that her own people weren’t focusing on the task at hand.  With a sigh she lowered the knife — Hallelujah! — and turned to see what the fuss was about.

A red squirrel had found its way onto the altar. I’m not that surprised; these woods are alive with wildlife, squirrels being one of the most prolific, what with all the trees surrounding this pyramid. Heck, I’m surprised it took them this long. This particular squirrel was holding what looked like half a hazelnut shell in its mouth as it used its paws to scamper through the various bowls, candles and other artifacts currently laid out on the red-clothed table.

As we all watched, mesmerized, the squirrel threaded its way to the center of the table.  It sat up on its haunches, took a second to shake and fluff its ginger tail to maximum puffiness, and then pulled the hazelnut shell from its mouth.  Its shiny black eyes darted here and there, but seemed to feel no fear as it started to nibble at the fragment of shell.

In case you don’t know, squirrels are like a lot of the smaller animals: they like shiny things. In this case, all the gold and silver amulets and tokens lying on the red cloth.  The little visitor dropped the shell and, with the darting quickness typical of its kind, the squirrel picked up one of the amulets and began to examine it, rolling it over in its paws, sniffing it, even tasting it once.

This brought a collective gasp from the robed followers.  “The Cartouche of Anubis,” said the fellow by my left arm.  “We can’t complete the ritual without that!”

The words seemed to shake Patty back to reality.  “Quit whining, Brian, and get rid of that nasty creature,” she snapped.  “We can’t afford another interruption.”

The fellow positioned at my feet turned approached the altar table.  The squirrel watched, unfazed, until he was almost within arm’s reach.  Then it bolted.

Did I mention it took the amulet with it when it ran?  Brian didn’t even get to begin the move to grab for the cartouche but the little squirrel was on the move, the shiny golden amulet clutched in its teeth.  The amulet’s braided gold chain bounced and jangled, sparkling in the light of hundreds of candles.

Patty used language that I can’t repeat in mixed company.  “Brian, go!  Catch it before it gets out of the temple.  Georgia, go with him.  Retrieve the cartouche,” she said.  Brian scurried out the door, followed by another, smaller robed figure who stood by my right knee.  That only left four here with Patty and me.

I turned my head to look at Patty.  “With Brian and Georgia gone, you don’t have a quorum.  I guess we’ll have to leave this sacrifice business ’til the next meeting.  Sorry about your luck.”

“There won’t be a next meeting.  Not for you, at least,” said Patty.  “So we’ll just wait until my faithful followers return, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Crap,” I sighed.  “I was afraid you were going to say that.”  I looked up at the robed figure standing at my right elbow.  Though the hood cast the face into shadow, I could see the glittering eyes and narrow bone structure of a young woman hiding in there.  I say “woman” loosely; she was barely more than a girl, actually, probably a college freshman at best.  Certainly younger than me.

“So tell me, hon — wait, what’s your name?” I said to her.

“Silence,” said Patty.

“What?” I said, exasperated.  “You said yourself we’re on recess until your flunkies — oops, I mean followers — come back after waging war on the squirrel.  My union doesn’t like me playing the sacrificial victim while I’m on official break time.  So you just cool your jets.”  I turned back to the robed girl.  “Where were we?  Oh, yeah, your name.”

The girl looked to Patty, who scoffed in exasperation and waved her hand.  “Go ahead.”

The girl hesitated a second longer, then pushed back her hood to reveal a startling pretty woman, around nineteen, with light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and light blue eyes. “My name is Mercedes.”

Mercedes?  She’s named after a car? Her parents must have been hippies or whatever the early 90’s equivalent was for hippies.  New Age loonies.  Then again, my parents named me after a month (btw, I was born in September, so how I ended up named April is a mystery even I can’t figure out.  Parents can be weird.)

Maybe I thought all that, but I’m not fool enough to say it out loud.  “Hi, Mercedes, I’m April.  Too bad we couldn’t meet under less, well intense, circumstances.  I mean, what with you being an accessory to kidnapping, torture and murder.”

“What?  I mean — what do you mean torture?  We haven’t tortured anybody,” said Mercedes.

“You mean this big bleeding slice in my arm was foreplay?  ‘Cuz I don’t play those kinds of funtime games, especially not with an audience,” I said, rolling my eyes around to indicate the other three figures and Patty, still standing at my left.  “Tell me Mercedes, why are you doing this?”

“Because Hemet Nesu Weret wills it,” said Mercedes, as though that were obvious.

“Really?  I don’t see any ancient Egyptian princesses lurking around upstate New York.  Even if you did build her her own pyramid,” I said.

“Hemet Nesu Weret speaks with the voice of Patricia Blumenthal.”

“How can you tell?” I said.

“Patricia channels Hemet Nesu Weret.  She invites the spirit into her body.  Then Hemet Nesu Weret speaks with Patricia’s voice, moves with her body,” Mercedes said.

“So? I know all the words to Blue Hawaii and I can do a mean pelvic thrust.  That doesn’t make me Elvis.”

“Huh?” Mercedes’ cocked her head like a puzzled puppy.  It might have been adorable under other circumstances.

“What.  If.  She’s.  Faking,” I said, biting off each word.  Sometimes you have to slow down and spell it out.

“Why would she do that?” said Mercedes.

Was this chick serious?  I started to answer, but I made the mistake of glancing at Patty.  Her eyes had gone from gray to black again, only this was scarier than the last time.  Her whole eye had gone black, including the white part.  They looked dead, flat and shiny, like doll’s eyes.  Her face was contorted into a rictus of rage.  The skin on her cheeks and forehead started bulging in places, pulsing slowly in and out, as though something were underneath the skin, trying to get out.

“What the hell?” I breathed.

But just then a muffled BOOM! exploded shockingly nearby.  I jumped and looked toward the doorway.  Mercedes and her fellow cult members all did the same.  When I looked back, Patty’s eyes had gone back to normal and her face had stopped that freaky bulging thing. But her face was still twisted in rage.  She sheathed her kris knife, laid it on the table beside my head, and walked to the door.

“Brian!” she shouted into the corridor.  “What in the name of everything holy are you doing?”  She disappeared out the door, and I could hear her footsteps echoing on the wooden floor.  A few seconds later came the sound of people talking.  I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but Patty was definitely pissed off.  I did catch a few words, like “amulet” and “shotgun.”  Best I can figure out, Brian had gotten a shotgun from his car or someplace, and was trying to bring down the squirrel in classic redneck fashion.  There was some more shouting, a few swear words, and then multiple footsteps echoed through the halls again, this time growing softer as the walkers moved further into the pyramid.

Not that I care one way or the other.  Patty the Freak was out of the room, and Mercedes and her buddies were distracted.  Now was my chance.  I jerked on the loosening loops of rope on my left arm.  It hurt the deep cut Patty had carved in my forearm, and the blood started flowing more openly.  The warm blood seeped into the ropes, making them slippery.

One more tug, and my left hand was free!  I instantly grabbed the kris blade Patty had abandoned by my right ear, and started sawing on the rope holding my right arm.

This didn’t go unnoticed.  I had not yet freed my right hand when the robed cultist standing to my right shouted, “Hey!” and tried to grab the blade from my hand.  I slashed blindly at him with the knife, just swinging it in a long, sloppy arc.  The tip caught him across the chest, slicing through his robes and the t-shirt underneath; a stripe of blood appeared on the pale skin peeking through the slashes.  The man looked down at the blood and then looked back up at me.  Under his hood, his shadowed face looked stunned.

I didn’t have time to explain the facts of life to him.  I went back to slicing the ropes holding my right arm.  Now Mercedes other companion noticed.  It didn’t take long until I fell into a rhythm:  slice at the ropes, slash wildly at robed idiots, go back to slicing rope.  Why the four of them didn’t attack en masse is beyond me.  Scared of  losing the luck lottery and being the one who ended up on the wrong side of that kris knife.  In my opinion, they’ve been indoctrinated by too many chop socky movies.  Sensible bad guys don’t wait their turn to attack the hero; sensible baddies realize they’re going to get cut eventually, suck it up, and dog pile the hero.

Kids today, right?

Finally I sliced my way free, and, still using the kris knife to hold Mercedes and her buddies at bay, I slid off the sacrificial table.  “Look at the time, my word, it’s been a really sucky party and I must be getting home,” I said.  My hosts looked at me, blankly; nobody gets my sense of humor.  One of the robed figures sat on the floor, holding his hands to a hole in his side that was oozing blood at an alarming rate; I may have cut him a little too deeply, sorry about that.  The other three had various shallow slashes on arms and chests.  They didn’t advance on me as I eased toward the door.  “Any of you care to tell me where Charity is being kept?”

No answer.

“Oh, well, it was worth a try,” I said.  “You just sit tight, look after your friend.  Somebody will be along directly to take you to get stitches.”  I sidled out the door, keeping that blade between me and Mercedes the entire time.  As soon as I was out in the hallway, I closed the door.  The door opened in, so I couldn’t barricade it, and I didn’t have a key to lock it from the outside.  So I used the blade to slice a fairly large splinter of wood off the corner of the door.  This I wedged between the door and the door frame, jamming the door.  It would take all four of them to force that door open from the inside; they were stuck, unable to get out and backstab me, or to carry news to Patty.

Now I was free for the moment.  I looked up the dark hallway, seeing doors and chambers opening off both sides.  I looked the other way and saw the same thing.  I had been unconscious when they brought me in here, so I had no idea which way was the exit, much less where Charity might be.  But I had to make a decision, because Patty would be back any minute.

“When all else fails, use the scientific method. Eeney meenie miney mo, out goes Y-O-U,” I muttered, pointing back and forth down the hallway with each syllable.  The last syllable ended with me pointing to my right.  So I turned to my left, squared my shoulders and said, “Here goes nothing.”

And away I went, hoping I’d find Charity before I ran into trouble.

To Part One

To Part Three


Whoo!  That ran a little long!  But it was fun, no?  Part Three will be up next Monday, no playing hookey this time, I promise.  in the meantime, tweet, share, comment, and/or write, let me know what you think of things thus far.  Also do contact me if you have any suggestions for the next Fun Friday.  I’ll be back Wednesday, bright eyed and bushy tailed.  In the meantime, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

Categories: Pulp, short fiction | 1 Comment

Fiction Monday is Back! Introducing April Tyree, Girl Detective

I’m here to say that Mondays are gonna shine again!  My health is much improved since January, I’ve been (more or less) keeping up with my writing and my various deadlines.  I think it’s time to get back on the horse and get back to my fiction writing for this blog.

Go ahead and do your Dance of Joyous Celebration.  I’ll wait here.   You’re finished already?  Jeez, that didn’t take long; I think I’m insulted…..

Where was I?  Oh, right, fiction.  So when last we left our intrepid fictioneer, I was doing a space opera short story based around my space opera radio show, Fortuna.  Yeah, I kinda lost the thread on that one, sorry about that.  It was a struggle anyway, trying to convert to a new medium; in my head, Helen and the gang just work better in audio rather than print.  So I think I’m going to lay that one aside for the moment.  It’ll definitely get written eventually.  I did too much research on the science-y bits, and the story really is fun.  But more likely it’ll be a radio show, rather than a short story.  Don’t worry; when it becomes a radio show, I’ll link to it here so you can hear it.

However!  I did not turn up empty handed, as you can tell by the blog title.  May I have the pleasure of introducing you to April Tyree, detective of the weird and wonderful.  This is my first attempt at writing a hard-boiled detective story in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and friends.  Okay, more smart-mouthed and snarky that properly hard-boiled, and she probably owes more to Robert E. Howard and Jim Butcher than to Dashiell.  I’ve long been obsessed with the “occult detective” sub genre of pulp, specifically the detective whose focus is on the weird, spooky and supernatural (not necessarily that he practices magic, a la Dresden Files, but he’s definitely in the know).  It’s pretty much my favorite pulp genre, and I’ve read deeply in it; I’ll be saying much more about the genre in the near future.

I’ve tried writing an occult detective before, with little success.  But this story worked much better.  I like the character voice, I liked the opening line (always important, it sets the tone), I just like it.  So I’m sharing with you.  Part one today, part two next Monday.  That’s fair, right?

Okay, onward to the story!


When the Cat’s Away

An April Tyree short story
by
A.J. Clarkson

Part One

If I ever get out of this mess, I need to write a letter to my high school guidance counselor.

“Dear Mr. Hennessy,  

“As I lie here in a forbidden temple under a secret pyramid, tied to a table and waiting for a deranged priestess to come and cut my heart out, I realize that you were right:  I am not living up to my full potential.

“Yours, April Tyree, class of ’07”

Not much of a plan for the future, I have to admit.  But at least it was a goal.  First, though, I had to get free of this mess.  I tried the ropes holding my limbs out in a spread eagle across the rough stone table.  The ropes looked ragged as hell, gray and frayed with age.  But they were strong enough to defeat me; everything was tight enough to cut off circulation.  I couldn’t feel the fingers on my right hand.  Moreover, the rough jute was digging into my flesh like a rasp, peeling back another layer of flesh every time I moved.  Ouch.

“I’m not getting paid enough for this!” I muttered.

Two weeks ago, I was hired to find a girl – Charity Rostovitch, fourteen years old, blonde and blue – who had gone missing.  A regular detective had traced her to upstate New York, but couldn’t get any further than that the girl had somehow gotten mixed up with a weird New Age cult.  That’s where I come in.  I get paid very well to deal with the weird.  I do not — repeat, do not — get paid enough to play the sacrificial victim in somebody’s H. Ryder Haggard roleplay.

Mental note:  add a hazard pay clause to my standard contract.

The room was only dimly lit by torches ranged along the walls.  Most of it was stone, probably a naturally occurring cave that had been re-purposed to make home base for the local loonies.  Wooden partitions and doorways had been built to finish out the space.  The décor was Early American Horror Movie:  pentagrams, arcane writing spray-painted onto the floor and walls, cast iron candelabras, and a collection of artifacts and creepy little props were arranged carefully on a heavy wooden altar just beyond the foot of my table.  I was starring as the damsel in distress in these nutters’ personal B-movie.  Time to get out of here before I was promoted from Damsel in Distress to Victim Number One.

Wait!  The loops of rope around my left wrist felt a little looser than the one on the right.  Maybe….  I twisted my left arm, trying to get a little leverage. Did I feel the ropes shift?  Maybe?  I kept twisting, trying to work my hand free.  It wasn’t much, but I was running out of options.  More skin peeled away, burning like fire.  Blood rose to the surface and stained the loops of rope.

Honestly, who the hell builds a pyramid in rural New York state?  It’s not like we have an overstock of ancient Egyptian pharaohs in Poughkeepsie or Yonkers.  Granted, this pyramid didn’t hold a candle to the Great Pyramid of Giza.  This one was made of wood, and nowhere near the four hundred eighty-something feet that the Giza pyramid is (yes, I do my research, thank you; it almost never helps keep me out of trouble, but it seems the prudent thing to do most of the time).  Most of it is underground, to boot, which makes sense; even the most clueless hick out here in the boonies would notice, and gossip about, a DIY pyramid in the woods.  Not helpful if you’re trying to keep a low profile.

I wasn’t imagining it!  The ropes on my left wrist were getting looser!  Moisture soaked my wrist and dribbled down across my palm.  I didn’t know if it was sweat or blood, but it was acting like a lubricant on the rope, so I wasn’t knocking it.  I redoubled my efforts, gritting my teeth against the pain of the rough rope rubbing against the increasingly raw flesh of my arm.

But back to what I was saying:  you wanna know who builds a pyramid in rural New York?  Crazy-ass cultists, that’s who.  Scientologists and Moonies got nothing on these dudes.  Think David Koresh, okay?  These guys called themselves “Setepen Ra,”  The Chosen of Ra.  Details on how they got started are hard to come by, but I was able to find out that the founder was a woman named Patricia Blumenthal.  She was big in the New Age movement, out of that town, Lily Dale, out in Chautauqua County.  Patsy was a channeler, somebody who allows their body to be possessed by the spirits of long dead men and women, who come forth to share their wisdom with the masses.  If you believe in that sort of thing, of course.

Do I believe in that sort of thing?  No comment.  In this case, though, “masses” referred to masses of the gullible.  When she was feeling the spirit – yeah, I had to go there, don’t judge me! – Patricia called herself “Hemet Nesu Weret,” an ancient Egyptian phrase that (very) roughly translates to “queen.”  Word was, her performances were impressive, and Patsy herself was charismatic as hell.  It wasn’t long before she’d gathered a coterie of true believers around her.  How they went from groupies to religion is kinda fuzzy on details, but I do know that by the time I got this gig, they’d pulled out of Lily Dale for pegging too high on the Weird-Shit-O-Meter.  How weird do you have to be, to give those guys the wiggins?  Flakier than Kellogg’s apparently.  Anyway, getting the boot gave them the motivation to troop out here into the sticks en masse and built a pyramid and temple.

Mostly I’m a live-and-let-live kinda girl.  You wanna trot out into the boonies and dance naked, have sex with goats and worship Kermit the Frog?  Whatever pumps your ‘nads, as long as you’re all consenting adults and you don’t insist I join in.  But these guys had graduated from casual looniness to kidnapping.  The above mentioned Charity Rostovitch.

A grinding of wood against stone, and the soft sound of bare feet marching told me I was running out of time.  I stopped pulling against the ropes, and tried to look casual as a columns of red robed, hooded figures trooped in and ranged themselves around the room.  Six of them placed themselves around my current perch:  two on my left, two on my right, one at my head, and one at my feet.

I couldn’t see faces because of the heavy cowls and hoods; occasionally I could occasionally spot a jaw or a bit of nose, enough to tell me that everybody was human and mostly young.  But the woman at the foot of the altar, her I recognized.

“Patricia Blumenthal, I presume,” I said.  “You look just like your pictures.”

She hesitated only a moment, before pushing back her hood, revealing a middle-aged woman.  Her dark hair was streaked liberally with gray, cut short and finger-combed straight back from her high forehead.  Her face was not as heavily aged as I expected a woman of nearly fifty to be; her features were strong, but not particularly handsome.  “Striking” was the best way to describe her; she would stand out in a crowd.  Her eyes were the most noticeable.  They were large, well opened, and the color went back and forth between gray and black.  Weird.

“We are Patricia,” she said, her voice a confident contralto.  Her eyes went instantly from gray to black.  “And we are not.”

Great.  “Is that the royal we, or do you have a tapeworm?” I said.  Crickets.  Nobody gets my jokes.  Sigh.  “Look, I don’t know if they offer a group rate at the looney bin,” I said.  “But you cut me loose, and I’ll call and ask.  I know a guy.”

Patricia’s eyes went back to gray again.  Man, that was creepy.  But you know what was even more creepy?  The big knife she pulled from the sleeve of her robe.  It was not one of those cheap kris-knives you can pick up on Cultists-R-Us.com, with sparkly gems on the hilt and Pakistani pot metal for the blade.  No, this thing had a wooden handle, a narrow lip for a guard, and a mottled gray blade.  This was not a toy or a show piece; this bad boy meant business.  The edge itself was shiny, freshly sharpened, and looked very dangerous indeed.

“Whoa, hold it, let’s take a minute here!” I said, as she stepped to my right side.  “Come on, Patty, I mean, I know I crashed your little orgy, but let’s not get crazy!  I’d like my insides to stay inside, if it’s all the same to you!”

Patricia grabbed my right wrist and pressed it firmly to the table.  I tried to pull free, to get her off me before she cut me, but I had no leverage.  She pressed the tip of the blade to my flesh and slid it under the cuff of my shirt sleeve.

“Don’t do it,” I gasped.

With a fluid flip of her wrist, the blade cut through my cuff, and sliced my sleeve open to the elbow.

I breathed a sigh of relief.  It morphed into a scream of pain and surprise as Patricia sliced into the flesh of my forearm.  Blood welled from my arm.  A hooded figure handed Patricia a bejeweled golden goblet, and she pressed it to the wound.  The blood – my blood! – flowed into the goblet.

“What the hell, Patty!” I shouted, trying to jerk free of her grip.

“Be still!”  Her voice sounded wrong, deeper, not natural.  I looked up at her face and her eyes had gone black again.  Now that she was this close to me, I could see something moving in that blackness, something writhing and wrong.

I shivered, suddenly cold.  Whatever I was talking to, it wasn’t Patricia.  I held still until Patricia had gotten enough blood from my arm to satisfy her.  She handed the goblet to her acolyte, and then slid the blade back into her sleeve.  She walked back to her position at the foot of the altar.  The acolyte placed the goblet on the altar behind Patricia.  Three of the acolytes left their positions to cluster around the table.  I couldn’t see what they were doing, but I could hear the tinkle of metal objects being moved around.

“So, Patty, now you’re done carving on me–”  ‘for the moment’ passed through my mind, but I didn’t say it out loud; I didn’t want to give her any encouragement. “– maybe you’d be willing to tell me what flavor of crazy are you playing with tonight?”

“You should feel honored,” said Patricia.  “Not only are you witness to the return of our  Hemet Nesu Weret, but, with your sacrifice, you will help her transition back into this world.”

“I thought you were  Hemet Nesu Weret, Patty.”

Patricia smiled at me, her black eyes sparkling.  “Only part time, my dear.  This vessel is too old to maintain my presence for more than a few hours at a time.  I need somebody younger, somebody upon whom the soul has not yet left a permanent mark.  An innocent.”

Light dawned.  “Charity Rostovitch.  The girl I came here looking for.”

“Precisely.”

“You know, normally if you’re going to sub-let like that, you need a contract.  And I think it’s probably illegal to cut a contract with a minor in New York State,” I said.  “Besides, this is the twenty-first century.  Between the Internet and Rule 34, innocence dies at puberty.”

“We’ll take our chances,” said Patricia.  She started to turn away.

“Hey, wait!” I shouted.  She stopped, turned back to me.

“What?”

“What about me?” I said.  I tugged at the ropes holding me.  “I mean, what am I supposed to do while you’re possessing a young girl?  I’m not a centerpiece, you know.”

“Silly fool,” Patricia said, smiling down at me.  That smile was not one to build confidence.  “Blood sacrifice is required for the transfer of  Hemet Nesu Weret into our new home.”

I sighed.  “Thought so.  You know you lack creativity.”

Patricia shrugged.  “An oldie but a goodie.”  She turned away and raised her arms above her had.

Soo esta Set!” she cried out.

All the robed figures around the room dropped to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the floor in obeisance.

Khont a vrongtee!” they called out in answer.

Crap!  Double crap!  I pulled on the ropes harder, even though more blood poured out of my arm every time I flexed my muscles.  I can spare a little blood, but if I didn’t get off this table, and I mean now, I was going to lose a lot more than that.  My left wrist was almost free; all I had to do was twist a little harder, just a few seconds more.

But I wasn’t going to get a few seconds more.  Just then, Patricia turned back to me, knife raised high, her face twisted with gloating, sanctimonious glee….

to Part Two


Yeah, I’m leaving off there.  I’m such a stinker!

I want to hear back from you.  Tell me in the comments whether you like this new addition to the ClarksonPunk stable.  In the meantime, I’ll be back on Wednesday with some nonfiction.  I think I might talk about the history of the occult detective and his/her place in the larger pulp scene.  Then again, maybe not.  We’ll see how fast I can organize my research.  Until then, you know the drill:  write, comment, share, tweet.  My email addy is ajwriter-at-ajclarkson-dot-net (take out the dashes, you know this drill right?  I’m just trying to ditch the ‘bots).

Be good until we meet again, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

 

Just a quick reminder: don’t forget about Vandalia! http://www.vandalia-con.org . May 22-24!

 

Categories: Pulp, short fiction | 3 Comments

October Flurry: Cat Like Tread Part Five

Have y’all missed me?  I am soooo sorry for missing the last two weeks. As I said in my announcement post, I have been very ill with some chronic digestive problems.  So I went to the doctor, and from there to get some tests done, and finally, after two years, we have a diagnosis:  hiatal hernia. I don’t find out what the long term treatment plans are until my next appointment, which is on Halloween.  What a way to spoil my favorite holiday, right?  But I can’t really complain; I’m exceedingly tired of being ill, and the weight loss that I’ve been enduring is starting to get scary (I’m thirty pounds underweight, which is wreaking havoc on my heart and liver, not to mention deflating my own muscle mass).

While I waited to do the tests and waited for the palliative medications to kick in, I couldn’t focus on writing too much; I was just in too much pain, and too busy hurling.  So I crawled into my pillow fort and spent my time reading books and surfing the Internet.  Found a few treasures I’ll be sharing on Friday, which will be more Fun than usual.

Real quick:  y’all recall me talking about the Decoder Ring Theater podcasts of New Pulp?  Yeah, I’m not going to rehash my review; go back and read the post if your memory is spotty on the subject.  I think I mentioned that Gregg Taylor, the writer of the Red Panda audio drama, has written several tie-in pieces for the show, including both comic books and novels?  Well, I broke down and read them during my hiatus.  The comic books were okay, but the novels were good fun.  There are four novels available at the moment:  The Crime Cabal, The Android Assassins, the Mind Master, and The Pyramid of Peril (dig the alliterative titles) Read CC on Saturday, and the other three on Sunday.  My personal favorites were the Pyramid of Peril (cuz Egypt and mummies! YAY!) and Mind Master (just cuz it was fun).  They’re very light reading, no hard depth, no heavy mysteries, no significant character development (they save that for the radio show, I guess).  Just a rollicking adventure, light brain candy.  Quick reads (about ninety minutes each for me, but I’m a fast reader), and lots of fun.  I recommend them if you’re in the mood for a tongue-in-cheek Shadow pastiche.

Okay, enough randomness.  Time to get back to business.  I owe you an installment of Fortuna and company.  Without further ado, here comes…..


 

Cat Like Tread
Part Five

Five minutes found Helen back in the medical bay.  Andi sat at the low table that  was currently serving as her office; she was poring over the scrolling text on her computer screen.

“What’s this about a quarantine?” said Helen, panting as she came in the door.

“What’s with you?” said Andi, swiveling her chair until she was facing the door and Helen.

“I’m getting too old for climbing all those stairs between the Bridge and your office,” said Helen.

“You’re twenty nine, Helen.  You’re not ‘too old’ for anything except diapers and adolescent hyperbole,” Andi sneered.

Helen nodded.  “Point.  Now, what’s this about a quarantine?”

“Pull up a chair, Granny Grunt, and I’ll show you,” said Andi.  Helen hooked a rolling chair with her foot, dragged it over to her, and straddled it, resting her arms on the chair back.  She leaned forward, reading over Andi’s shoulder.

“According to the comm report, Alberada Mining Hub number 114 — that’s the outermost space station in this system — has been closed to all external ship traffic, whatever that means, due to — and this is all it says — ‘a viral outbreak.’ Whatever the hell that means.  I’m starting to go cross-eyed from all the vague-speak.”

“Closed to external ship traffic means that the mining ships that are based out of Station 114 can come and go as they please, but can’t land anywhere but their home base.  Ships from outside – supply ships, ore transports, etcetera — are barred from approaching the station,” said Helen.  “That way mining ships can continue their runs out into the asteroid belt without violating quarantine.”

“Okay, that kinda makes sense,” said Andi.  “But the ‘viral outbreak’ explanation makes even less sense.  Why be so vague?  When you came in, I was trying to hack the station medical logs, so I can unvague that whole ‘outbreak’ thing.”

“You can ask Casey to help,” Helen suggested.

“Pass,” Andi said, scowling.

“Your problem,” said Helen with a shrug.  She didn’t stand up from her chair; she merely pushed off with her feet, rolling her across the room to a wall comm panel.  She touched it.  “Medbay to Bridge, Mac, anything new up there?”

“Casey’s started quoting Shakespeare,” Mac answered, his voice filtered and staticky through the tiny speaker.

“Uh oh.  What play?” said Helen.

“Ummm….Yeah, it’s Henry V; he’s auditioning for Falstaff again,” said Mac.

“Oh, good.  Falstaff I can deal with; it always puts him in a good mood.  Just so long as it’s not Titus Andronicus.  You remember what happened last time.”

“Don’t remind me,” said Mac.  “What did Andi say about the quarantine?”

“Very little.  Which of the mining stations are we closest to?” said Helen.

“Stand by….”  Helen could hear beeps and clicks as Mac consulted his console.  “Yeah, looks like it’s number 114; we’re practically on top of it, only two hours out at our present speed.  Next one out is 115, and that’s sixteen hours out.  You want me to alter course to dock with 114?”

“No!  That’s the one under quarantine,” said Helen.  “What’s our present course?”

“There’s another jump gate about 48 hours away, nearest station 116; I altered course for those coordinates as soon as I located it.  I’m hoping we can jump out of here before those Alliance ships figure out how we traveled off beacon and find their way here,” said Mac.

“I’m in!” called Andi from her position at the computer.

“Great!  Give me a second,” Helen said over her shoulder.  “Mac is there any way we can shorten the travel time?”

“Yeah.  We can make the distance in about 4 hours, but we’ll eat up all our extra fuel doing it; I don’t like the idea of being stranded out of fuel in the middle of nowhere.”

Helen sighed.  “You’re right, Mac.  Stay on our current course and speed.  Slow but safe.  And if those Alliance cruisers make an appearance, let me know, okay?”

“Just listen for me screaming like a little girl,” said Mac.  “Bridge out.”

Helen toggled off the comm panel and pushed off again, rolling back over to Andi.   “You said you were in?”

Andi’s default facial expression was stuck on “scowl,” but now she looked even more perturbed than usual.  “Yeah, I’m in, and this doesn’t make any sense,” she said, pointing at the computer display. “This thing says it’s a level two quarantine, which is what I’d expect for an outbreak of meth-resist necrotizing fungal colitis, which basically turns your small intesting into goo over the course of a screaming agony of a week.”

“Let me preface this by saying, ‘eww! I didn’t need to know that.’  But what about this quarantine forced you to put that horrible image into my brain?” said Helen.

“If I’m reading this correctly,” said Andi, pointing to a block of text on the screen.  “they’re issued a level two quarantine for an outbreak of Gerner’s Pox.”

“Gerner’s — wait, what?”

“You heard me the first time,” said Andi.

“That’s a kid’s disease!  I had Gerner’s Pox when I was six years old.  I caught it from Mac, who caught it from some kid in day camp,” said Helen.  “The sore throat sucked, but it was the itching that nearly drove me mad.  My dad wrapped my hands in bandages so I wouldn’t scratch at night.   If I scratched and broke those blisters, everywhere the pus touched would start itching even more.  And every broken blister left behind a pockmark scar; I have a dozen or so, mostly on my hips and back, where the bedclothes rubbed me.”

“That sounds about right.  And I did the same thing; I had it when I was four years old,” said Andi.  “Ninety percent of reported cases involve pre-adolescent children.  Maybe one percent of those kids suffer major complications or long term effects, and even then, it’s mostly the kids who are immuno-compromised, or kids who didn’t receive any sort of treatment, like on some of the religious colonies that reject modern medicine.  Point one percent of cases are fatal.  Among adult cases, there is a marginally higher chance of complications — usually sterility — but even then, there’s only like a two percent chance of fatality.”

“So why quarantine an entire space station for a relatively harmless children’s disease?” said Helen.

“Exactly the question I’ve been asking myself,” said Andi.  “I’ve put out a call to the station medical officer.  Having to use realspace bandwidths though.  They’ve locked out civilian communication on the ansible.”

“Realspace bandwidths?  That’s gonna take forever,” said Helen.  She pushed back over to the comm panel.  “Medbay to the Bridge.  Mac, Andi needs an ansible channel to contact the space station.  Can she use one of the navigation priority channels?”

“It’s okay with me, but if she gets caught, that’s a thousand mark fine for every minute,” said Mac.

“We’ll be quick,” said Helen.  “Hey, real quick:  has Casey ever had Gerner’s Pox?”

“Stand by,” said Mac.

Helen could hear a brief exchange, too muffled to understand.  A moment later, Mac’s voice came over the comm:  “Yeah, he says he had it when he was a baby,” he said.  “He also said if you play connect the dots with the pox scars on his belly, you get a drawing of the Flying Dutchman.”

Helen rolled her eyes. “I bet he actually did connect the dots.”  She sighed.”Just give us that channel.”

“You got it.  I’ll route access to Andi’s station.  Mac and Wanna-Be Falstaff out.”

Helen toggled the comm panel and spun the chair around so she was looking at Andi.  “That should help, Andi.  Just hurry; we can’t afford to be fined.”

“Have you forgotten the part of job description that says criminals?  We don’t pay fines, remember?” said Andi.

“I don’t mind going up against security teams, police forces; I even like tweaking the government’s nose from time to time.  But two people I don’t piss off if I can possibly help it:  Imperial Revenue, and the Ansible Communications, Inc.  Some sharks are just too big and scary.”

“Chicken,” said Andi.

“Guilty,” said Helen.  Over Andi’s shoulder she saw a dialog box pop up on the computer screen.  “There’s your ansible channel.  Make it count.”

Andi turned around and began tapping the keyboard.  Helen leaned forward to rest her chin on her folded arms.  She didn’t like this. One or two things going astray was just typical bad luck; but this many made her paranoid.  There had to be something she was missing.  What was it?

 


 

Okay, so I think that’s it for me today.  Look for me on Wednesday with an installment of horror and fun.  In the meantime, write, share, comment, tweet.   If you have a treat for Fun Friday, don’t hesitate to contact me through my email, twitter or Facebook (all of which are linked on my About AJ page).

Y’all be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

 

Categories: October Flurry, Pulp, Science Fiction, short fiction | Leave a comment

October Flurry: Cat Like Tread Part Four

Well, we’re not even a week into October, and I’ve already blown my writing goals.  Sigh. Weekends are just too busy for me to do blog posts. Double sigh.  I am so disappointed to say it, but I’m going to have to cut my plans down from seven days a week to only five.  I know, I know. But it’s just the way life happens sometimes.

BUT!  Today isn’t the weekend. It’s the beginning of a new week, and I owe you fiction!  When last we left Helen and the crew of the Fortuna, they were off the beacon, flying blind through hyperspace, being chased by three Imperial Alliance cruisers. They had just found an unattended hyperspace gate, and were preparing to go through and see what waited beyond.  Shall we go see what they saw?


Cat Like Tread
Part Four

Casey showed no interest in giving up the co-pilot’s seat, so Helen retreated to the back of the tiny bridge. She folded a small metal jump seat out of the bulkhead, and sat down there, strapping herself in. Ordinary gate passages seldom required safety harnessing, but this was hardly an ordinary situation; better safe than sorry.

The gate loomed, enormous and dull grey, dimly lit in the perpetual red-tinged twilight of hyperspace.  As soon as the Fortuna’s nose passed beyond the boundary, there was an explosion of light and color as the gate activated. Helen watched out the front viewport, both fascinated and slightly nauseated by the passage of light and energy that formed in front of them.  It was like they were falling, at frightening speed, down a well, with a black window of normal space at the bottom of it.  There was no real sensation of the deceleration from hyperspace speeds to sub-light speeds of normal space; that was thanks to a combination of the gate’s advanced technology and various inertial dampening systems on the ship itself.  The only effect Helen could feel was a sickening pulling deep in her gut, painful, threatening to make her vomit. But the feeling passed quickly.

As quickly as it started, it was over.  The ship was back in normal space, the hyperspace gate behind them.  Helen unstrapped herself from the jump seat, and came to stand behind her brother Mac.  She looked over his shoulder at his console.

“Well?”

“Well, what?” said Mac.  He was busily toggling various panels on his console, converting the ship’s systems from hyperspace settings back to normal space settings.

“Well, I don’t see anything,” said Helen.  She looked up at the viewport.  But there as nothing to see:  just a normal space field, stars hanging in the black. To the left was a slightly brighter glow, but beyond that, it didn’t look like anything.  “Did the gate just dump us out in the middle of nowhere?”

That’s when Casey chimed in, from his seat at the co-pilot’s station.  “We’re not in the middle of nowhere,” he said.  “We’re in the middle of somewhere. We just don’t know where somewhere is.”

“Thanks a lot, Casey,” said Helen dryly.  “Mac, can you do any better?”

Mac touched a contol on his console, and a display lit up. Now the little white dots in the spacefield had little names and designations displayed next to them, naming them.  “We’re in the Khovansky system, according to the maps,” he said, reading from the display.  “Claimed by the Alberada Mining Company, ummm, forty five years ago. Three gas giants, one terrestrial.  No life-supporting planets,but Alberada Mining has built three space stations in the system, to mine the asteroid belt and one of the gas giants.”

“I don’t see anything,” said Helen.

“Why would you?  We’re 1.4 billion kilometers from the system center. I can’t even bring up a magnified view yet, not until we get to the other gate, which is about 5 million kilometers out.  Ooh, that’s interesting, a B class star and a white dwarf star form a binary system.”

“What’s interesting about that?”

“It just doesn’t happen that often,” said Mac.  “A white dwarf is what’s left after a star dies. Sort of.  It’s complicated.”

“I thought stars went boom when they died,” said Casey. “Nothing left.”

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” said Mac.  “This one didn’t.  It kinda collapsed in on itself instead.”  He sighed. “Look, like I said, it’s complicated, and we don’t have time for an astronomy lesson right now.  I don’t know if our Alliance friends followed us to the gate, and if they did, I want to be as far out of reach as we can get when they show their ugly faces again.”

“Can we get lost in the traffic at the mining stations?” said Helen.

“Umm, no, I don’t think so,” said Casey.

“Why not?”

“Because there is no traffic,” said Casey.

“What?” said Mac.

“That’s crazy,” said Helen.

“Possibly, but it’s also true,” said Casey.  He pointed at his console.  “I’m showing three space stations on my readings, and maybe forty mining ships.  But no freighters, no security, no processing relay ships, no transports in or out.  I’m also showing no activity at either hyperspace gate.”  Casey looked up at Helen.  “It’s a ghost town, Sheriff,” he said, drawling his words out dramatically.

Casey was right, thought Helen.  No ships was spooky.  “What about people?  The ships are gone, did the people go with them?” said Helen.

Casey shrugged. “Can’t tell from here.  We need to get closer,” he said.

“Mac, why don’t we get a little closer, then?”

“You got it, Helen.”  Mac bent over the console, but looked up again when the comm sounded off its piercing two-tone signal.  Helen activated it before he could.

“Bridge here.”

“Andi here,” was the answer.  “Are you reading anything strange up there on the bridge?”

“All kinds of strange things up here,” said Helen, glancing over at Casey.  “Why?”

“I’m getting an alert through the medical computer network,” said Andi.  “Something about this system being quarantined.  Do you know anything about that?”

Helen frowned. “Quarantined?  What for?  Wait!  Never mind.  I’m on my way down. Give me five minutes.”


 

And that’s it from Helen and Company for this week.  Tune in next week to see what happens next!

I would like to give a shout out to David Ault of Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, Manchester University, and Brian Mackenwells, Balliol College, University of Oxford, for helping a hillbilly word-wrangler with the science-y bits of this story.  Anything I got right, all credit goes to those two gentlemen; any mistakes are all on me. Thanks, guys!

Okay, that looks like it’s about all for me today.  Tomorrow, we’re going to be talking about one of the most famous urban legends of all time: Sweeney Todd.  Until then, don’t forget to comment, share, tweet, and email if you have any suggestions for Fun Friday.  I’ll see you tomorrow!

Categories: October Flurry, Pulp, Science Fiction, short fiction | Leave a comment

October Flurry: Choir Eternal

 

And it’s Day Two of the ClarksonPunk October Flurry!  Today I’m conducting an experiment on you, Dear Readers; feel free to call me Herbert West!  Seriously.

Writers generally fall into two broad categories:  those who feel most comfortable in a long format (like a novel) and those who feel most comfortable in a short format (like a short story).  I’ve always been in the first category; stories have a tendency to grow on me, sneaking in a little plotlet or a character side-story very time I turn my back to fetch a sandwich.  This is not to say that a writer can’t learn to cross back and forth between the two sizes; they totally can, and do most successfully.  I’m just saying that one feels more natural and comfortable than the other.

I don’t like writing just novels.  Yes, they’re wonderful.  But you are married to that damned story for at least a year and sometimes a lot longer.  Sometimes it’s nice to just jump in, tell the story and out again in less than a year.  So I’m trying to learn to write shorter.  It’s not as easy as it sounds.  I’m starting to get the hang of short stories, so learning the flash fiction style — a story between 300 and 1000 words, generally — is the next logical step.

And that’s where you come in.  The story below is my first ever attempt at flash fiction.  If it works, yay!  If it doesn’t, sorry.  Okay.  That’s all the prelude I got.  Enjoy.

 


 

Choir Eternal
by
AJ Clarkson

 

Despite feeling hot, feeling sweat on his brow and under his arms, John couldn’t stop shivering.  The blanket across his chest itched more than it warmed, the bedsheets were tangled under him, but he didn’t have the strength to push them away, and when he tried to ask the nurse for help, his words came out, “aaaahhhhhrrraaaa.”  His mouth was parched, his lips cracked and swollen, his tongue tasted like bile.  His head didn’t precisely hurt, but an odd pulling sensation tickled the bridge of his nose, as though his thoughts were being forcibly siphoned out from between his eyes.

He could hear Sally’s voice nearby, how close he couldn’t tell.  Sometimes she was whispering softly, talking to the nurses or maybe the kids.  Mostly though, she was just crying.  John tried to reach for her hand, to comfort her as he had done for all the years of their marriage, when her mother died, when he lost his job at the power company and they had no idea how they were going to pay their mortgage.  But he couldn’t lift his hand to catch hers; he couldn’t open his eyes to look for her.  He could only lie there and listen to her muffled sobs.

Just below the sound of Sally’s voice was a soft beeping, metronome-even.  How long had it been there?  John couldn’t remember noticing it before, but somehow it had always been there.  As he listened, it started to speed up, the even measures becoming jittery and irregular.  What did it mean?  John felt a heaviness in his chest.  The heaviness became an enormous pain, like getting punched right on top of the sternum.  John’s breath came in quick, short pants, and still he couldn’t get enough air.  And even now, as he struggled for breath, he  could hear that the beeping had become an alarm, and the room was filled with the sounds of running, of many people talking, shouting.

Somebody was shouting his name; it was Sally.  She sounded hysterical.  John opened his mouth to tell her to shut up already.  But when he tried to draw in a breath to speak, no air came into his lungs; he couldn’t do it.  There was about three seconds of panic before everything faded away.

* * *

“I’ve tried adrenaline, no response.  Continue CPR, and get that damned doctor in here, we need him stat!”

Somebody was shouting.  Stop shouting, John, thought.  The shouting seemed to come from a great distance, out of the fog that surrounded his mind, and there was a weird, thumping sensation in John’s chest, but he didn’t know where it came from.  It didn’t matter, did it?  John relaxed and let the fog roll back in….

* * *

“…. –ty percent of his heart has been damaged by this latest coronary, Mrs. Carmody.  I think you need to prepare yourself for the worst.”

“How long?”  That was Sally’s voice coming out of the fog in John’s mind.  She sounded like she’d been crying again.

“We don’t expect him to survive the night, ma’am.”

Who?  Who were they talking about?  Was it one of the kids?  John tried to turn to Sally to ask, but the effort set off another explosion of agony in his chest and the world faded away again.

* * *

“Remember not, Lord, the offenses of Thy servant, and take not vengeance on his sins.”

The voice was one John didn’t know, but the words he recognized.  A priest was reciting the Extreme Unction.  Somebody was dying.  Who?  He tried to remember if anybody had been in an accident, was sick.  But it was hard to think, like his thought were running in slow motion. So he gave it up.

He’d only heard the Extreme Unction one time before, when his mother was dying.  He didn’t feel the usual pang of loneliness and loss when he thought of her, and was relieved by its absence.  She’d been gone twenty years, and he still missed her.  She’d been a good, God-fearing woman, going to Mass twice a week and playing piano for Sunday School classes.  When he’d been a child, Mama had not bothered telling him about the pearly gates of Heaven, or walking on streets of solid gold.

“I can’t wait to go hear the angelic choir,” she’d said a thousand times, with the same wistful expression on her face.  “An infinite number of voices, all perfect, all raised in song all the time?  Won’t that be a marvel to hear?”  And John, eight years old and madly in love with anything that made his mother smile, was quick to agree.  It would be wonderful. He’d even dreamed of it from time to time, a thousand angels, all wearing choir robes and holding little books just like the choirs at school and the altar boys at the church, singing a song so beautiful it would make you cry just to hear it.

“By the Sacred mysteries of man’s redemption may almighty God remit to you all penalties of the present life and of the life to come: may He open to you the gates of paradise and lead you to joys everlasting.”

“Amen,” John tried to say.  It didn’t come out, but it didn’t seem to matter, so he ignored it.  John felt a warm, damp finger touch his forehead, his eyelids, his dry, chapped lips.  They were anointing him with oil.  He was the one dying.  The thought didn’t seem real, so he ignored that, too and floated away again.

* * *

The fog was gone.  He was in a different place, John was sure of it.  The uncomfortable bed, the tangled bedsheets, the smell of disinfectant, the beeping sounds, all were gone, replaced by cold and dark.  Even his clothes had changed, the feathery touch of a hospital gown replaced by something heavier, scratchy, like his best wool suit.  Had he been dreaming?  Was he dreaming now?  He tried to open his eyes, but that, at least, had not changed.  His limbs were numb, leaden.  He could still hear Sally sobbing softly, as though from a great distance.  The priest’s voice was still there, too, but he couldn’t make out what the man was saying; stupid priest, he mumbled through the liturgy half the time, too.

There was something new. Voices, droning in the background.  For an instant John thought of his mother’s talk of the choir eternal, and rejected it as fantasy; this wasn’t beautiful song, this was like a distant wail.

“As we gather to commend our brother John to God our Father and to commit his body to the earth, let us…..”

John?  Did they say John?  Was he dead?  John didn’t feel dead.  Not that he knew what that was supposed to feel like.  The pain in his chest was gone, which was good.  His arms and legs were numb, leaden, immovable.   Should he be frightened?  He didn’t feel that either.  He felt relaxed.  Calm.  Ready for what came next.  He’d see his mother soon.  He’d be with his best friend Davy, who’d been hit by a car and killed instantly two years ago.  He’d finally get to hear the angelic choirs he’d dreamed about all his life.

Go in the peace of Christ,” the priest said, and a small choir of voices responded with, “Thanks be to God.”  John said the words himself automatically, though his lips wouldn’t move.  There still wasn’t any white light, choir, the face of Christ.  Not yet.  Maybe it would come soon.

Movement. He could feel movement, jostling and a sinking sensation, like being on an elevator.  They were lowering him into the ground.  And still he wasn’t scared; part of him thought he should be, but he just waited.  As they lowered him, that odd monotone moaning in the background grew louder.  Was he moving closer to it?

Now the chorus became more clear:  it was screaming.  Some voices were just shrieking incoherently, some were babbling out prayers and calls to God, to family members, to just anybody.  And it was loud now, a heavy sound that bored down on John’s mind, pushing out other thought.  Some of the voices were accented, some weren’t.  Children, women, men, all mingling together in cries that spoke of broken minds.  One voice, the one closest to him, sounded so familiar; John couldn’t quite place it.

Suddenly John realized where he’d heard that voice before.  Mama.  Oh, God.  There was no salvation, no streets of gold, no pearly gates.  But the choir eternal, that was real:  the screams of minds trapped in holes in the ground, raising up their voices in shrieks of madness.  John felt a new kind of terror well up inside him:  there was no salvation; there was only the choir.

John raised up his voice and joined it.

 

This story is the property of AJ Clarkson, and is protected by U.S. copyright laws, 2014.  This story may not be sold or reproduced in any format or media without the express written permission of its owner.


This short story came from a very strange, dark place in my real life. Would you believe that I once had a psychotic episode?  For real.  It’s called “brief psychotic disorder” and it’s a real condition, last anywhere from a few seconds to a month.  For me, it lasted about two minutes.

My father died when I was twenty-six.  He’d been ill for a long time, and we’d known it was coming.  But I was young, and I was very very close to him; no freaking way was I prepared for his passing.  So when it came, I didn’t cope well.

The episode happened at his funeral. We were standing there, listening to the preacher do his thing, and suddenly, I was sure — really sure — that Daddy was alive in there.  His body was dead, but his brilliant, wonderful mind was still alive, still thinking, and desperate to escape the rotting corpse.  He knew we were out there around the coffin, he could hear us, and he was shouting at us, trying to get us to notice and do something before it was too late.

I’m not exaggerating.  I really truly believed it. I have no idea why, I have no clue where it came from, I just knew it was absolutely real.

I must have reacted without being consciously aware of it, because my husband knew in an instant that something was wrong.  He’d had his arm around me the whole time.  But now he clamped down hard, pinning me, and he started whispering in my ear.  I don’t recall what he said, but it stopped me from doing something stupid (though what that might have been, I couldn’t tell you.  I was so messed up with grief, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me I stripped down nekkid and started dancing the Funky Chicken).  By the time he let go a minute or two later, the delusion had passed, thank goodness.

Okay, the delusion may have passed. But the memory of it never did.  I have dreamed about it off and on over the last twenty years.  The idea for this story came to me a couple years ago, but there wasn’t enough to it to make a proper short story, it was too odd and disconnected to plug into a novel, and, as I said earlier, I’m just now learning the flash fiction format, so I couldn’t write it in that format.  But now I can, so here it is!

Well, that’s it for me.  Please let me know how you liked my first attempt at flash fiction?  Tweet, comment, share, email me with any recommendations you have for Fun Friday..  Which is tomorrow!  Yay!  See you then!

 

 

Categories: Horror, October Flurry, short fiction | 3 Comments

Fortuna: Cat Like Tread Part Three

So I woke up about 5:30 this morning, pretty normal for me, and I was doing my usual morning routine, reading the news, listening to my husband and son getting ready to go to work.  And suddenly, it attacked:  the writing bug!  It grabbed me from behind and refused to let me go unless I wrote the idea that had appeared, fully formed and furry, in my head.  So I wrote.  Which gave me a raging headache.  Joy.  So that’s why I’m running late today.

Anyway, today is Fiction Day, and I owe you an installment of Helen and Mac and the crew of the Fortuna.  So without further ado, shall we go?

 

Cat Like Tread, Part Three

When she was a student at the Beaumont Military Academy on Imperium Prime, Helen had started biting her nails.  The doctors had diagnosed her with stress-related anxiety, given her pills to help her sleep, and painted her nails with a nasty substance that tasted like ass.  It had been unpleasant, but she had never bitten her nails again.

Now, as she sat in the co-pilot’s chair and watched her brother pilot the ship, she tasted copper on her tongue.  Surprised, she looked down.  The fingertips of her left hand were wet, the nails bloody and ragged, torn down into the quick.  She brushed her thumb over the tip of her index finger, wincing at the sting it caused.  She curled her hands into fists and jammed them down into her lap.

“How we doing?” she said.

“We’re not gonna die out here, Helen,” said Mac calmly, not looking up from his console.  “Have a little faith in me.  I’m the best, remember?”

“I remember.  But we’re off the beacon. Going off the hyperspace beacon is a death sentence, that’s what they taught us in school,” said Helen.

“I know, they told me the same thing,” said Mac.  “We’re still not gonna die.  I was very careful when I made my — what’s that?”  Mac frowned down at his console.

“What? What!” said Helen, jerking upright in her seat.  She leaned over the co-pilot’s console and keyed it to life.  The displays flickered, coming to life only slowly, but displaying only static.  Helen growled and thumped the console with the heel of her hand.  The display flickered again, went dark, then came back to life.  It showed the same display it always did in hyperspace:  a blank green field with no landmarks ahead or behind; the beacon they had left was too far behind them to show up anymore.  Now a red circle had appeared ahead of them, floating in the green.

“What’s that?” she said.

“That, my dead sister, is a jump gate!” said Mac, grinning triumphantly.  “I told you we weren’t going to die out here.  I’ll accept your adulation, worship and tribute.  Especially the tribute; four or five really pretty girls, preferably experienced, definitely scantily clad.”

“Man-whore,” said Helen absently as she frowned down at her console.  “Fresh out of hookers, Big Brother.  Will you accept my thanks instead?”

“Only if it comes in a bottle marked ‘drink responsibly,'”said Mac.  “Not that I intend to be responsible with it, mind you.”

“You got it.  What’s the ID link on the gate? Where does it lead to?” said Helen.

“Umm… hang on.”  Mac tapped keys on his console, and frowned down at the results.  “The….Troyens system. Ident says it’s a proprietary gate; Berlioz Mining Company passcodes accepted only.”

“Troyens.  Strange name,” said Helen.  As she spoke, she reached for the comm system, toggling it on.  “Bridge to Engineering.  Casey, you down there?”

The comm crackled to life.  “Where else would I be at a time like this?” said Casey; his voice sounded tinny and thin over the comm.

“We need your skills to get us past a secure jump gate.  Come on up to the bridge, please,” said Helen.

“On my way,” said Casey.  The radio emitted the double tone indicating that he’d closed the link.

“Decelerating; we’ll be at the gate in ten minutes.  I don’t want to hit the field until Casey has bypassed their security.  Mining companies can be nasty about their territory, and Berlioz is one of the worst.”

“Troyens. Troyens.  Why does that sound familiar?” said Helen.

Mac shrugged.  “No idea.  I’ve never heard of it before.  I don’t recall ever robbing any Berlioz Mining ships, so I doubt the local authorities are looking for us there.”  He keyed his console again.  “Troyens. Binary star,” said Mac, reading from the display.  “Three terrestrial planets, none life bearing; one gas giant, one asteroid belt.  Discovered by Berlioz Mining, umm, say fifteen years ago. Registered as Berlioz property later that same year.  Looks like they’re mining the asteroid belt, though it doesn’t say what for. Any of that ring any bells?”

“Not really,” said Helen.

Further comment was stopped at the sound of heavy boots clanking up the steps.  Casey appeared in the doorway, his usual half grin on his face.  “Here I am!  Did you miss me?” he said.  He came to the co-pilot’s chair and jerked his thumb back over his shoulder.  “You.  Move.”

“You talk to your captain like that all the time?” said Helen.

“Yeah.  My rudeness is equal opportunity,” said Casey.  He sat down in her chair, laced his fingers together and, with one extravagant gesture, cracked his knuckles. “Transfer the code sequence to my station, Mac.”

“You got it.”  There were a few beeps as Mac complied, and then Casey’s console lit up with rolling text.  He started tapping the keys, frowning and muttering as he did.  Without looking up he said, “Helen, have you noticed anything strange in your bunk this week?”

“Ummm… I don’t think so.  Why?”

Casey continued typing.  “Well, the other day I found a note in the engine room.  It said, ‘Get revenge on Helen.’  It was my handwriting, so it had to be from me, right?  Except I didn’t remember what I was supposed to be getting revenge on you for.  But I trusted my own judgment, so I went with it.  I can only assume you got what was coming to you.”

Helen looked at Mac, nonplussed.  Mac shrugged.  “Don’t look at me,” he mouthed.

“Umm….well, whatever I did, I guess I deserved it,” said Helen.

“Let that possibly be a lesson to you,” said Casey.

Mac’s board started beeping, and he consulted it.  “Jump gate is in visual range now,” he said.  He tapped his board, and ahead of the three of them, the shielded shutters that protected the main windows of the Bridge.  The swirling red and black of hyperspace slid into view.  Lights, unknown distances away, flickered in and out of existence.  People had been driven mad by looking too long into hyperspace.  Helen felt the old familiar terror rising in her.  Just breathe, she thought.  Breathe, there’s plenty of air, just keep breathing, even, in, out, quit panicking!  She ground her teeth and forced her breath into an even rhythm.

In the center of the maelstrom beyond the windows was the jump gate.  It was unremarkable, just a ring of silver grey metal, dotted with blinking lights, at the moment all bright red; spaced evenly around the outer perimeter of the ring were great blocks of gray and black metal, housing the power plants to fuel the gate. Each one was marked with the logo of Berlioz Mining.   There was nothing near the gate give a comparison, to allow a guess for size, but Helen knew it was enormous, big enough for the largest interstellar cruisers to pass without hindrance.

“We reach the gate’s primary fields in three minutes, Casey,” said Mac.  “You going to be able to crack it in three minutes?”

Casey didn’t look up.  “Omnes una manet nox, et calcanda semel via leti,” he intoned as he typed.

Mac glanced up at Helen.  “That doesn’t reassure me.”

“Me either.  Casey, neither of us speak… whatever it was you spoke.  Are you telling us it’s good or bad?” said Helen.

Casey tapped the console one more time, and then sat back, sighing.  “It means we’re in.”  He pointed at the gate beyond the ship.  As Helen looked up, she saw the ring of red lights around the gate flicker then turn white, one by one.  The passcode had been accepted.

“You’re a genius, Casey,” said Helen.

“I know,” said Casey. He beamed at Helen, and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Accelerating.  We enter the gate in thirty seconds.”

 

To Part Two:

 

 

Okay, I’m done for the day.  I. Am. Exhausted.  I’ll be back on Wednesday, the first of October, and I can’t wait!  In the meantime, don’t forget to tweet, share, comment.  If you have any recommendations for Fun Friday, contact me at the email address on my About AJ page.  Until I see you again, don’t forget to be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

 

Categories: Pulp, Science Fiction, short fiction | Leave a comment

“Catlike Tread” Part Two

Monday morning sneaks up on us yet again, and I’m not ready!  Oh, let’s face it; who’s ever ready for Monday to come around again?  The weekend was quiet for here in the Clarkson treetop lair.  Just  writing, reading, plotting world domination.   You know, the usual stuff.

Okay, I owe you the next installment of the adventures of the crew of the pirate spaceship Fortuna.  When last we left them, Fortuna was in hyperspace being chased by the ICC Burana, when they see another pair of Alliance cruisers in front of them:  caught between a rock and a hard place is Helen and Company.  What will happen?  What will they do?  Well, let’s go find out!


Catlike Tread Part Two

Helen was out of breath as she arrived back on the bridge, where her brother Mac still sat in the special chair he had rigged up himself when he took over pilot’s duties on Fortuna.  As Helen stepped onto the deck, Mac used his hands to push off from the main console.  The chair ratcheted along a little track set into the floor, rolling to a station beside the co-pilot’s console, affording a full view of the second console.  He consulted the console display and punched a couple buttons.

“Well?” said Helen, watching as Mac rolled back over to his own station again; the chair clacked softly as it slid back into position and locked in place.

“Definitely two ships ahead of us and closing.  The Burana has slowed pace.  It’s matching our speed now, instead of trying to overtake us,” said Mac.

“Great.  Just great,” said Helen.  “And here I was hoping it was just coincidence we’re meeting three Alliance cruisers.”

“Hello, welcome to Fortuna, owner of the worst luck in the known galaxy,” said Mac.  “But the MacKenzie luck comes through once, just for a change of pace.  There’s a relay ahead of us.”

“Yeah, you mentioned that earlier.  So?” said Helen.

“So it’s between us and the two cruisers,” said Mac.

“Again, so?”

“So it’s not just a relay.  According to the computer readings, it used to be a branching relay.  It pointed off in this direction,” said Mac, tapping the display on his console.  Helen came up behind Mac’s chair and looked.  The display was simply colored lights against a green background.  Fortuna was a red dot dead center of the screen, slowly sliding along a red line, the hyperspace beacon.  Three more glowing yellow dots, one behind, two ahead, marked the Alliance cruisers.  A white triangle just above the red Fortuna dot marked the location of the relay.  Mac traced a line from the beacon, leading at about a fifty degree angle away from the beacon’s line.

“It used to be a branching,” said Helen. “It’s not anymore?”

“Right.”

“So how does that help us?” said Helen.

“So it’s been turned off, probably; no point expending energy to mark a beacon to a location nobody goes to, right?” said Mac.  “I can send a signal to the relay from here, and it will reactivate the branching beacon.”

“Okay, and then what?  Where’s it going to lead to?  And how does that help?  The cruisers will just follow the same beacon and we’re in the same mess as before, only going who knows where.”

“In order:  I don’t know.  I don’t know.  It can’t hurt.  And leave that to me,” said Mac.  “Come on, Helen, make a decision; I have to start the turn in less than a minute, or we’ll be past the point I can safely turn onto the new heading.  Five more minutes and we’ll be in range of Alliance rail guns.”

Helen threw her hands up in the air.  “Great.  No pressure,” she said.  She stared at the console display, hoping idly that an answer would suddenly appear.  But no answer scrolled across the screen.  Instead the little colored dots blinked as they moved closer together, millimeter by millimeter.

“Thirty seconds,” said Mac.  His voice was tight.

“What if it leads nowhere?  Can you follow it back?”

“Fifteen seconds, Helen!”

Helen growled.  “Do it!”

“You got it,” said Mac.  He sat forward in his chair; his hands flew over the console, flipping levers and tapping madly at a bewildering sequence of buttons.  Suddenly another line appeared on the tiny console screen, springing out from the beacon’s white triangle in the same direction Mac had pointed out only a moment before.  It was dimmer than the primary beacon display.

“Hang on, Helen!” Mac snapped.  “This turn ain’t gonna be pretty.”  No sooner had he said it than he hit a sequence of buttons.  She could hear the engine constant rumble turn into a whine.  Other rumbles joined the first as attitudinal thrusters kicked on.  Normally, inertia compensators kept the crew of Fortuna from feeling the effects of the immense speeds the ship traveled at.  But even they could not mask the pull as the ship turned sharply, until they were sailing sideways along the beacon.  Helen stumbled and nearly fell, only just managing to clamber into the co-pilot’s chair before she was thrown to the floor.

Immediately the comm began bleating.  Mac snarled at it, but didn’t bother answering; he was too busy at the console.  Helen spun in her chair and flipped the lever on the co-pilot’s console.  “Bridge here.”

“What the hell’s going on up there? Are we under attack?” said Kitty’s voice, made tinny by the tiny speaker.

“Not yet.  Brace yourself and warn Andi and Casey.  It’s about to get worse,” said Helen.  She flipped the lever again, killing Kitty’s next question mid-syllable.

Mac tapped another lever on his console, and suddenly Helen’s console lit up.  “Helen, I’m transferring control over to your station.  When I say go, activate the thruster sequence I’ve programmed into the computer.  Can you do that?”  He didn’t look up; his hands were still flying over the console.

Helen stared at the console.  She knew how to fly a fighter craft, and she could even operate the Fortuna in most normal situations.  But this was way out of her league; that’s why she had Mac, to handle the wild flying their piratical life demanded.  “Uhh…” she said.

“Come on, Helen,” said Mac. “They’re already primed and programmed.  When I say go, just hit ‘activate thrusters 1-5” and then “execute.  Can you do that?

“What are you going to be doing?” said Helen.

“I’m dealing with the rail gun!   Ten seconds, Helen, ready?”

“The rail gun?  What for?  You aren’t going to shoot at the Alliance ships, are you?”

“Five seconds, Helen, can you do it?”

“Yes, yes!”

“Okay, GO!”  Mac shouted.

Helen immediately hit the dark buttons under her right hand.  Each one lit up blue as she touched them.  When all five were lit, she hit the red “execute” lever.  The whole ship lurched as the thrusters came online and began firing.  Helen held onto her chair; her stomach roiled inside her and she thought for a moment that she was going to be sick right there.  She clenched her teeth against the threatened exodus, closed her eyes and held on tight.

As she waited for the inertial compensators to catch up to the movement of the ship, she heard a familiar “whine-whump!” of the ship’s rail guns.  Mac was shooting at something.  Surely not at the Alliance cruisers.  They weren’t even beginning to be close enough to hit with the meteors that Fortuna used as payloads.   Besides, their set up was tiny compared to the ordnance and weapons on an Alliance war ship; it would be like shooing an elephant with a potato gun.  She wanted to ask Mac what he was doing, but she was pretty sure if she opened her mouth, the remains of this morning’s oatmeal breakfast would come spewing out.

But finally the terrible pull of inertia began to lessen, and Helen was able to sit up normally in her chair again.  She breathed deliberately, noisy gusts in through her nose, until the nausea passed, in favor of a pulsing throb at her left temple.  Damn those bootlegger turns sucked.

“Did we do it?” she said.  “Or are we careening off into hyperspace, never to be heard from again?”

“We did it,” said Mac.  His voice had gone sickly; he tolerated the nausea of inertial overload even less well than she did.  Which begged the question, Helen thought, of why he’d gone into piloting in the first place.  She was afraid to ask, though; he might throw something at her.   Instead, she stood up on unsteady legs and went to look over his shoulder.

Sure enough, the little red blob that indicated the Fortuna was no longer on the main red line of the beacon.  It was moving off at the same angle the branching line had been. But the second line was no longer there.  “Where’s the secondary beacon?” she said.

“Gone,” said Mac.  “Don’t worry, I have it under control.”

“What?  What did you do?”

“I shot out the relay,” said Mac.

“What?  Why?  How are we going to find our way in hyperspace?  How are we going to get back? Helen shouted.

“Quit yelling!” Mac bellowed.  He could shout much louder than her; Helen backed off a step.  Mac took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, it was in a quieter, if not calmer, voice.  “Don’t worry, I programmed our course beforehand.  But shooting out the beacon is going to slow down those Alliance goons.  They don’t dare follow us without that beacon to guide the way.”

“And you’re sure you know where we’re going?  We’re not going to be lost forever in hyperspace?” said Helen.

“Pretty sure,” said Mac.

“How sure is pretty sure?”

“It’s as sure as you’re going to get right now.  Now shut up and let me do my job.”

 

To part one:

To part two:


 

And that’s it for Helen and company today.  Next Monday, we’ll find out where Mac’s wild decision has brought our heroes.  Wednesday, I’ll be talking about World War II on the home front.  In the meantime, don’t forget to share, tweet, comment, and if you have any suggestions for Fun Friday, email me at the addy listed on my About AJ page.

Talk to you later!

 

Categories: Pulp, Science Fiction, short fiction | Leave a comment

New Fiction!!! “Catlike Tread,” a Tale of Fortuna (part 1)

It’s Monday!  Here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia it’s a little colder than I like (but I’m southern enough to think that any temp below 80ish is too darned cold!), but the sky is blue and clear and I’m feeling froggy.  This weekend was good for me.  The church where I grew up had their homecoming, when all attendees, former and present, come back for preaching, music, and tons of good food.  I missed the first part (I had to play piano at my current church), but I made it to the last part.  We made a special effort to attend, my sisters and I, because they were honoring our mother and acknowledging her passing.  She played piano for that church all through my childhood.  The rest of my family came as well, of course.  Even better, my daughter and her sons came down from their mountaintop aerie to attend as well, and they all came back to our house afterwards, so I got to spend the afternoon with my precious boys.

Okay, on to the business at hand.  As I’ve said ad nauseum, I don’t just write for you, dear readers.  I write non fiction (which is what underwrites the more fun writing), and I write audio drama for the online production company, Gypsy Audio.  Just like for you, I generate steampunk and pulp for them.  Blackburn Gaslight Adventures is my steampunk show over there, starring James Leeper and Gwendolyn Jensen-Woodard.  And then there is Fortuna, my current foray into pulp SF, starring an ensemble cast, including Alex Gilmour, Gwendolyn again, David MacIver (who is absolutely brilliant and worth the tuning in for all by himself), and *gasp* me!  Yeah, I know, right?  It was blackmail, plain and simple, that got me in front of a microphone, but I have to say, I’ve enjoyed it so far (hint: I’m the one with the hick accent).

Now, with classic pulp, there is a great crossover of media.  Doc Savage has been in short stories, novels, radio shows, TV shows, and movies.  If Doc Savage can do it, why can’t I?  So today’s offering is part one of a short story about the crew of Fortuna.

The radio show of Fortuna is still in its early days (only two episodes posted so far, plus the one that’s still on the mixing board), but let me give you a little background.  Captain Helen MacKenzie captains the crew of the Fortuna, a bloodthirsty band of dangerous pirates terrorizing the trade lanes of the Badlands between the Interstellar Imperial Alliance and their sworn enemies, the Confederation.  Okay, not so much on the bloodthirsty.   But still plenty dangerous. Mostly.  Depending on the captain’s mood.  It’s a thing.

Okay, enough already, right?  Just get on with the story!  Well, here you go:


 

Cat Like Tread
Part One

Captain Helen MacKenzie gripped the arms of the co-pilot’s chair so tightly her knuckles were turning white.  For the thousandth time, she wished the safety specs on the ship allowed for the collision shields to be open during hyperspace flight.  As creepy as it was to look out into the hazy chaos of hyperspace, it had to be better than flying blind.  It just felt wrong.  Her attention was supposed to be focused on the map display in front of her.  But her eyes kept straying over to the pilot’s station to her right, where her older brother Mac sat in his custom wheelchair and guided the ship.  Just as her gaze drifted over there for the fifth time, Mac glanced up and caught her.

“How we doing?” said Helen.

“The same as we were the last time you asked, oh, say — ”  Mac looked to his wrist, where no watch resided.  “– thirty seconds ago.”

“How much further to the next hyperspace relay?” Relays were beacons on the most commonly used hyperspace routes; they boosted the navigational beacon signals, and also allowed for branchings of the beacon in multiple directions.

“Another twenty minutes or so,” said Mac.  “Now quit staring at me.  You’re making me nervous.”  Helen obeyed, managing to hold her gaze on her own console for a whole ten minutes before glancing over again.  Of course Mac caught her.

“For the last time, Helen, I’m doing the best I can,” he sighed.  “We’re staying outside the ICC Burana‘s long range sensors.  Just barely outside their range, I’ll grant you, but that’s about as much as we can hope for.  Fortuna’s an old ship; I don’t dare push her any faster, not in hyperspace.  It’s just too dangerous.”

“Are you sure?” said Helen.  “Surely Casey can get –”

“Then you go ask him, and quit bugging me, okay?” snapped Mac.  “Until then, let me do my job.”

Helen sighed.  “Fine,” she said, standing up.  “If anything changes –”

“I know, I know.  Don’t worry, if an Alliance cruiser comes up on our sensors again, I’ll be screaming like a little girl,” said Mac.

That got a small smile from Helen; nothing that flew could frighten Mac.  “Just so you’re consistent.”  That got a snort from Mac, and Helen walked out.  Immediately beyond the cramped bridge of the Fortuna was were a series of catwalks, corridors and ladders that led into the rest of the ship.  Several had been modified into ramps and broad-stair steps to accommodate Mac’s limited mobility.  Helen followed the one that led ahead and down, turning several times until she found herself in the common room.  More a over-broad hallway than a proper room, this was equipped with a tiny galley; a long metal table and swiveling chairs were bolted into place opposite a row of doors that led to the various crew quarters.

At the table sat a tiny woman, not more than five foot two, with a ponytail a shade of red that was too orange to be truly attractive.  On the table in front of her was a pair of swords in black scabbards, four knives of various styles, and at least that many pistols, in various states of disassembly.   She had a foreshortened shotgun in her hands, and was busily unscrewing the barrel from the butt.

“Kitty?  You picked now to play with your toys?” said Helen.

Kitty looked up at Helen and grinned; the expression tumbled the woman’s apparent age from twenty-three or four to about eleven.  “Why not now?” she chirped.  Her speech was as young as her face, bouncy despite the thick drawl that stretched the vowels.

“Have you not been paying attention for the last twenty four hours?” said Helen.

“I try not to,” said Kitty, turning back to her work.  She got the barrel off the shotgun and picked up another, finer tool to begin dismantling the trigger assembly.

“You should, it’s been quite the show,” said Helen.  “First there was the act of piracy, wherein we used computer hacking, subterfuge and a show of force to convince the ICC Carmina to give us their cargo.”

Kitty chuckled.  “Yeah, I liked that part.”

“I don’t see why.  You didn’t get to shoot anybody,” said Helen.

“But there was shouting and pointing guns at people.  That’s always fun,” said Kitty, undefeated.

“True.  But you were so busy having your fun that you may not have noticed the whole “it’s an Alliance trap” part of the adventure,” said Helen dryly.  “How the ICC Carmina was a decoy to get us into position for the ICC Burana to jump on top of us, arrest us, and send us away to a fate I don’t want to think about.”

Kitty paused, frowned, and looked back up at Helen.  “Yeah.  That part sucked.”

Helen sighed.  “Why am I bothering to explain this to you?”

“I was wondering that myself,” said Kitty, going back to work.  “I don’t know why you’re so upset, Helen.  They haven’t caught us yet.  Mac’s the best pilot in the Badlands; just trust him.  Have some coffee; it’s fresh, and it’s real.  The Carmina was carrying two cargo pods full.”

Ooh. The thought of coffee sent a wave of craving through Helen.  That explained the delicious smell that had attacked her as she got near the commons.  But she pushed the craving down.  Business first, coffee later.  “Where’s Casey?”

“Medical bay,” said Kitty, not looking up.

“Great.  Thanks,” said Helen.  At the far end of the commons the corridor narrowed again.  Helen ducked into the narrow space.  It was dark in here; half the lights were burned out and it was too low on the repair checklist/budget to get it fixed at the moment.  But she didn’t need to see to know where the medical bay was.  All she had to do was follow the sound of raised voices.

“Casey, why do medical ethics insist on only local anesthesia for this procedure?  it would be so much easier to sew you up if you were quieter,” said Andi, as Helen reached the medical bay door.  Andi was older than Helen, maybe thirty, a short, relatively plump woman with strawberry blonde curls and a perpetual scowl of disdain on her face.  She was standing over the examining table, gloved, surgical tools in hand, masked.

On the table sat a man who was so tall and thin that he looked as though he had been stretched in a terrible industrial accident.  An unruly shock of black hair topped a curiously tired-looking face.  Helen didn’t know if he was really tired; he always looked like that.  He was smiling, though.

“I thought I was being quiet,” said Casey cheerfully.  “It’s only the voices in my head making all that noise.”

“What are they saying?” said Helen, as she stepped into the bay.

Casey looked up and grinned at her.  “I don’t know.  I don’t speak French.  Do you think we can find a translator in hyperspace?”

“Doubt it,” said Helen.  “Andi?  Report?”

“Captain Brainpan here cut himself back there in Engineering, right down to the bone.  I’m sewing him up before he infects the rest of us with his crazy.”

“Too late,” said Helen dryly.  “Casey, I was just up on the bridge with Mac and we’re just barely staying ahead of the Alliance.  What are the chances –”

“Mac called ahead,” said Casey, gesturing with his free hand toward the communication panel on the wall by the door.  “No, we can’t get any more speed.  This is the best we can do.”

“But you’re the most brilliant engineer I’ve ever met,” said Helen.

“And the craziest,” muttered Andi under her breath.

“– surely you can–”

“No. sorry, Helen.  I talked to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and this is what I got for my troubles,” said Casey, pointing down to the bloody mess in the palm of his other hand.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were what he had named the Fortuna’s engines.  “This ship is just too old.  And we really need to replace about –”

Casey’s next words were interrupted by the piercing two-tone beep of the communications system going off.   Helen jumped, wincing as she always did at the sharp sound.  There was another thing to go on the never-ending repair list:  get a less pain-inducing comm signal.

“Bridge to Medical Bay.  Helen, where are you?” said Mac’s voice, distorted and thinned by the comm panel.

Helen flipped the toggle.  “Helen here.  What’s up?”

“We got a problem,” said Mac.

“How can things get any worse than they are now?” said Helen.

“How about two more Alliance ships on long range sensors?” said Mac.

“Two more ships have joined the ICC Burana?”

“Not exactly.”

Helen hesitated a second.  “What do you mean, not exactly?”

“I mean, they’re not behind us.  They’re ahead of us,” said Mac.

Great.  Just great.  “I’m on my way up.”  Helen flipped the comm toggle.  “Andi, how soon can you get him sewed up?”

“Just finished.”

“Good.  Stick a plaster on it and get him out of here.  Casey, go down to the engine room and start reasoning with your friends.  We need a miracle.”

“They’re not gonna listen,” said Casey.

“Try harder.  Or I’m going to come down and start reasoning with them with a sledgehammer.  Andi, tell Kitty to clean up her mess in the commons; if things go south, we’ll need her.  I’ll be on the bridge if anybody needs me.”

 


 

And that’s it for now!  Tune back in next Monday for Part Two.  And do come back Wednesday and Friday for more Steampunk, Dieselpunk and New Pulp goodness.

Quick note:  On the last short story, “Errand,” I have, at the advice of a friend, gone back and added links to the end of each installment.  The links will allow you to jump forward (or back) the next installment without having to surf through the entirety of the blog archive.  Once I get a little deeper into the fiction thing here, I’ll make a Fiction page with all the links in one place.  But that’s for later.

Okay, that’s about it for me today.  I hope you’ve had fun.  Don’t forget to share, tweet, comment, come find me on Facebook and Twitter (links on my About AJ page).  And if you have any suggestions for Fun Friday, email me at the address listed on my About AJ page.  I’ll see you on Wednesday!

 

 

Categories: Pulp, Radio, Science Fiction, short fiction | Leave a comment

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