Austin stared at the vast, bleak emptiness and shuddered.
Forbidding. Paralyzing. Insurmountable. His mind churned out descriptor after descriptor like oozing blobs of meat from Mr. Zagorski’s ancient meat grinder. Ferocious, empty, indomitable, hopeless, desolate, foreboding, dire — words continued to froth forth, filling his mind with a picture and purpose but no actual solution emerged. No action sprang to the forefront. No instrument presented itself.
Time was ticking by. Precious, unrecoverable time. Time that was the one commodity that he could no longer afford, nor buy, nor sell. Time was slipping and churning down that drain like water, carrying away the vestiges of his old life, scouring it clean and revealing his true self. The emptiness. And the time. The enemies before him. And he couldn’t turn away. There was no escape. Although he wasn’t surrounded, no matter which way he turned, the bleakness was there and the time still seeped away. The only escape was forward. The only true path to follow lay ahead.
All Austin need was a moment. A moment and an action. One brief beginning and let momentum break the trail.
It was cold. And that wasn’t going to change either. One way or another he was going to have to endure. Austin closed his eyes, thrust his narrow shoulders back, dropping them slowly and stretching to his full five foot nine. Begin, he murmured to himself. Just begin.
Wrapped in his own Ki, hopeful in his energy, Austin gathered all that he was into the moment. This moment. And opened his eyes, leaned into it and… slumped.
“I’ll never get this essay done on time.”
He grabbed another hand full of Bugles.
Hesh-Sheh slowly opened it’s eye and peered towards the slowly brightening flames of the eastern sky.
Already it could feel the first licks of warmth on it’s scales and the long night’s lethargy sloughing off like old skin.
And with the creep of awareness came hunger. It had been many days since the last hunt and it was time. Time to slake the thirst and feel the ecstasy once again of prey slipping down its throat.
As that first dagger of light crawled across its coils, a small shudder ran across the iridescent pattern along its back like an undulating ruby and emerald necklace in piercing blade of sunlight. The tip of its tail twitched now in a slow rhythm.
Warmth suffusing deep into its core, the energy began to surge along its powerful muscles and the coils started to pulse and writhe in time to an invisible solar metronome.
The machete took off it’s head with a solid thwack and buried itself into the hard, dead wood of the fallen tree.
“God I hate snakes. Even these harmless garter snakes. Give me the creeps.”
The man stretched out his arms to the rising sun and basked momentarily in the warmth.
“Git your ass up, Seth. Sun’s up, I’m hungry. And we got some fish to catch.”
California Red-Sided Garter Snake
Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis
“So we are looking at $12K all in?”
“Uh, ya. Twelve thousand and the fees.”
“Ya. Umm, the fees.”
“Umm… the fees.”
“And they are…”
“Uh, well see… Ummm, there’s these fees, you know, for the docks and the paper transfers and the guys. You know.”
“Ok. I agree after the papers are signed I have to pay the marina to keep her here. And the Registrar will charge its usual tithe for the title transfer. But those are my costs and not part of the transaction right?”
“Uh. Ya. I guess.”
“So… the guys?”
“Oh. Ya. The… ummm… guys… um… well…you know…”
“No. Obviously I do not, as you put it…’know’.”
The silence that followed took the whole conversation full circle from weird, to confusing to ominous and finally back to just weird. I waited patiently as long as I could, eyeing the scrawny, scruffy almost-man that had yet to discover a good use for his razor, but eventually it was just too much.
“The guys…?” I reminded him. “They have names? Or a job description perhaps?”
His sallow eyes lit up at this last and hope flared for a moment. “Ya. The gu… The tax collecters. That’s them. The Tax Collectors. They’s gonna wanna talk to you after is all. You can talk to them direct-like. Ya.”
“Dude, I’ve got a deadline.”
He didn’t look impressed. In fact he looked like he was actively considering throwing me a block on this one. It was starting to look like this was the time; that legendary time when your luck runs out, the house of cards crumbles like the proverbial cookie, that taste of goose fat on your lips, dust billowing from the well, the wagon repairman handing me the bill, the… you get the picture.
I mean they always told you to be conscientious, get your work done ahead of time, nose to the grindstone, prior planning and performance, but who really did? There was those two dweeby girls and the weird guy who whined about getting a lowly 99% on the Final, but really, we all knew they were on something. I’ve always suspected that Ridalin was some sort of keener’s high. But not the rest of us. No, the rest of us just sauntered along, doing all-nighters and pulling rabbits out of our asses like normal people do. Month after month, year after year, that hokey parental advice continued to prove false and all was right in the world. Ok, some people started to get scared as they got a bit older. They said the odds were against them now, it was time to shape up or ship out, time to accept the responsibilities of an adult… cowards one and all.
But I don’t blame them. Really I don’t. They say as you get older and continue to learn, that more and more wrinkles appear in the old braincase. Cortexes convulate or something. More surface area to compute the horrific fates that lurk and loom around every corner. Some people just give in to the wrinkles. But to me, a few crowsfeet on the Corpus Callosum is no reason to break faith with the only dictum worth dicking around with: “I can always do it tomorrow!”
At least until now.
Brad here was about to break my streak. My phablet was dead, I was 30 miles by water from the nearest power outlet and while I was sure I could wangle an extension out of old Beasley, I couldn’t do that unless Brad lent me his Sat phone. And Brad wasn’t budging.
“You should have planned ahead. The Sat phone is for emergencies only. You know it costs over 10 bucks a minute. I can’t let you run down my batteries for nonessential purposes. I have to be here for another 3 months you know.” Brad looked at me as if I was some sort of defective trained seal. “Do you understand what I am saying? Emergencies only.”
“Brad,” I replied in my calmest and most persuasive tone. The tone that had got me into grad school with the crappiest marks on record. The tone that had convinced Sara that I’d behave upstairs in her bedroom that lovely summer before Grade 12. The tone that made sure that Mitch caught hell for the burned down haystack and I was absolved. The tone that had never, ever failed me.
“Brad. Look at it like this. An emergency is a situation that threatens the life or well being of someone or something important. I’m important right? And my wellbeing is definitely under threat…”
” Yah, but you coulda prevented it by…”
“Brad. Really? I could have known that there was no generator here? I could have known it was going to take two days to collect the data? I could have known that there was no one else on this rock in the middle of nowhere. No one at all? Really Brad, open your mind a bit…”
“No. That’s final.” He turned and stumped down the hill towards the docks and his dilapidated old cruiser, leaving me standing there alone like a scarecrow in a harvested cornfield.
Oh well, now I guess I’ll have to steal the bloody thing. How hard could that be?
The demon’s ichor dripping from his shattered breastplate, the massive warrior raised his fist to the sky and screamed. “My thanks Oh Oydin for this final victory. Our foes lay shattered at your feet, and we, Are, VICTORIOUS!” Torn and bleeding from scores of wounds, the warrior dropped his massive and broken shield beside the monstrous demon’s crushed skull and stared at the remains of the incinerated mace. He sketched a bow to the now useless weapon and then turned to face the blackened altar.
“After all these years and too many deaths, at last…” Leather creaking and armour groaning he dropped to his knees and bowed his mighty head in supplication. For a moment then he rested his head and remembered the path. The journey of sorrows and tragedies that would now live on only in song.
Then he surged to his feet and strode purposely up the basalt stairs and the pains and sorrows of battles present and past fell away as he stood straight and proud before the sword that lay wrapped in the perfect folds of stone. As he laid his hands upon the sharkskin hilt twined with threads of pegasus mane and decorated with a single massive blue stone, he once again tilted is head back and spoke to the sky.
“I come to claim my birthright. I have survived the trials and defeated your enemies and, as it was foretold, it is time for peace in the land. With this the sword of Oydinright, I and my sons will rule in your name and no more shall Loski’s minions trouble our people. It is done.”
And with that he heaved mightily on the sword to draw forth the ancient symbol of a god’s love and approval and bring it once more into the land.
“Cryste, that hurt. Ok, I got it. What next?”
The slender young man holding the book looked down at the screen and read “Turn the main flange tightening unit clockwise until it hits the safety stopper. Hey Boss, what’s clockwise?”
Kavin was still rubbing his elbow where he’d smashed it into the outer casing, but he glanced up at his apprentice who was hanging off the main strut on his harness, dangling there like a gawky primate. “Don’t rightly know. I mean, turning clockwise is a turn to anti-sinster—you should know that kid—but what a clockwise actually is, well that’s beyond me.”
“How come? I mean don’t they teach ya stuff like that when you become a Master?”
“Look kid. I can strip a modern generator unit down to nothing and rebuild it with my eyes closed, but this ancient shit is beyond anyone. They ain’t taught this stuff in hundreds of years. And who the hell cares why they couldn’t speak proper back then; that’s why books have dictionaries and translate functions.
Now read me the next bit and make sure you got the tools ready. I’m tired of this shit and my wings are about to fall off.”
I never wanted to teach him to drive. It’s not easy, driving, and I think people should learn the good habits before they learn the bad. But I learned on the job and the world’s a different place now.
Funny expression that. Especially in this context. Huh.
“Are you belted in?”
“Yes Dad.” It was in that tone that billions of parents have heard and learned to loath. When did I become such a non-entity. Who’s teaching who here boychik? You gotta few million miles to put on before that tone is justified. Come talk to me then.
Of course I’ll be old and senile when that happens and it won’t occur to him to treat his senile, dried up old husk of a father any other way. So he’ll be polite. Solicitous even. Respect through pity… that’s all I get.
“Make sure you have the seat adjust properly. It’s safer and a lot more comfortable. Trust me.”
“I did Dad.” What happened to that laughing baby? That smiling boy that lit up a room? God, you were a charmer; everyone said so. I hope I’m there when you get it back. I hope it’s not gone from our lives quite yet.
I take a deep breath and double check everything. Letting go is hard.
“Ok. Looks good. I guess I’m ready when you are.”
He looks over at me quickly, not quite willing to meet my eyes, no attempt at reassurance. Just a quick glance to make sure I am not going to change my mind. No doubt in his mind. It’s my fear that’s holding him back; preventing him from growing into the man he already thinks he is. My fear. My understanding of statistics and probabilities. My years of observing and avoiding accidents and my knowledge of the horrific fates of so many, less-fortunate, others who’s ashes are now scattered to the winds.
Suck it up. Be a man. Let go the leash and allow the hounds of fate loose to fly…
He reaches forward with his left hand and disengages the brakes: the safeties; and then he rests his head into the cradle of the high tech headrest. A quick, studied flick of his right hand starts engine and with a second flick I feel my entire body pressing back into the seat.
No turning back now.
I look over at him and I see it. Just a hint at the edges of his eyes. That smile.
I grab the RAM and key the mic. “Moon Control, Moon Control, Moon Control, this is Orbital Launch Laughing Baby. We are out bound heading 240° darkward for a training flight. Estimated return one hour thirty.”
This is a new feature, called Shorts inspired by a blog on Tumblr where a fellow wrote short SF stories everyday. Called 30 Second Sci Fi, it was tremendously successful and a great learning experience for him and he made a book out of it. I thought I would give something similar a try, and hopefully it will be more readable than Edward’s tale. And I made a cool (but cheesy) logo, so that guarantees the stories will be good!
Edward looked across the table at her. His eye were glossing over so she could tell she was already losing him.
“What? No, no I’m listening. He was using the balloons to tell a story… I get it..”
“No you don’t. I can’t believe I bothered. You are so rude. You are a moron. You hate me. Just go, vamoose. Stay. Why don’t you get it? Can’t you try? A little harder? God, am I that complex? It’s so bloody simple, my stupid iguana gets it; I can’t believe I am wasting my life trying to discuss these things with someone with a brain the size of a walnut.
The stupid look on your stupid face. It’s so worth it.
“That’s right Ed. Balloons. But since there actually weren’t any balloons right? And it wasn’t a story. You can see that…right?”
Hmmmm, I think I need to paint that wall again…