When we hit twenty-one, they send us to Ceres Major for the Diversion. They send us there because it has three moons, of course: Lang, Okami and Susi, each bigger than the last, each rotating in a swift and tilting orbit around its parent planet. Ceres Major’s outpost position from its home star means that it is always twilight there; and at any time at least one of these moons will be full. And when the three moons are fat in the sky together…well, I’m sure you know, if you watch the Diversion.
All those that are like us – those that Unfold - are sent, during the year following their twenty first birthday. Until then we’re kept in institutions, like this one. And there’s nothing so very wrong with it here. It’s comfortable. The staff respects our rights. I’m told that we’re lucky. My parents come in once a month and look guilty, and I watch my mum pretending to adjust her sleeve while she’s really checking her watch. I can’t blame them. They didn’t ask for me to be this way. I feel happy for them that they’ve got my brother at home. Normal.
Hydge is struggling with the concept. Who in their right mind wouldn’t be? She visits me in my room, sometimes, on the pretext of showing me one of her new drawings. They’re good, actually; none of the straining tendons and tearing cloth, like the outside world would expect. Hydge likes still life arrangements: bowls of fruit, mainly, though she strays into abstract plastic cutlery towers when her time’s nearing.
I feel sorry for her: she’s not a complete Unfolder, not that that’s brought her any special treatment in here. The world lumps her in with us just the same – no matter that, even in her second state, she wouldn’t be able to hunt down a small dog – and she’ll be on the list for Ceres Major in two weeks’ time. Just like me.
She edges into my room, and I look up from the book I’m reading.
“Are you busy?” Hydge asks. She pushes her glasses further up her nose. They slide straight back down.
I would really like to ask her to come back another time, but instead I toss the book onto my bunk and lean back in my chair.
“What have you got, Hydge?”
She smiles and enters the room, kicking the door closed behind her. Reverently, she places two sheets of paper on the desk. I get up and have a look. The first is a beautifully fragile rendering of a vase of poppies; the duty nurse’s pet hapnid is curled fluidly around the plastic base. I pick up the second, gently. It depicts, in tender pastel, a group of people folded, like the hapnid, around the boles of trees. Some have tails. Three moons ride the sky, a line of pearl marbles trailing wispy streaks of light.
“Is this what you think it’ll be like?” I ask, not looking at her. “On Ceres Major?”
Hydge makes a rude noise. “I’m not an idiot. But the moons. Do you think that’s what they’ll look like in the sky, in parallel orbit?”
I shrug. “Maybe.”
“But you don’t think we’ll survive long enough to see them.”
A pause. “We might,” I say, “if we keep to the plan.”
Hydge brightens. I outline, again, how we’ll leave the drop ship and head for the planet’s southern pole. We’ll have to separate, to prevent my tearing Hydge to pieces, and there will be no guarantee that we’ll have any ‘lucid’ moments at all with Lang, Okami and Susi forever present, but, if there is any weakening of their celestial holds, we will turn south and continue for as long as we can. Because, having studied some contraband maps and pilfered parchments that outline the overlay of the lunar orbits, I have discovered that there are two clear months of the Ceres Major year when, at the pole, none of its three moons will be full in the sky. And for that time, we will not Unfold.
The reality will be, quite evidently, that we’ll be injected with steroids, to counter the build up in our systems of the preventative drugs we’ve been stuffed with all these years, as the drop ship nears Ceres Major’s atmosphere. We’ll be released to the ground in a remotely controlled pod, and then the plethora of orbiting satellites will feed entertaining images home of the ensuing results. Back here, they on the outside will watch as, in the lunar glare, we Unfold and begin tearing at each other. The ratings respond, I am told, if survivors from previous drops join in the drama as animal pack allegiances form and the weaker are inevitably hunted down and killed. Like Hydge.
“And do you think,” Hydge says, beginning hesitantly, and building, “that if they could see us as, you know, not like that, but as You and Me, the people back home, then maybe the Diversion will be stopped. Because they’ll see that we’re not monsters, are we. And maybe we’ll be brought home. Do you think that?”
I turn my attention back to her drawings.
“Maybe so, Hydge. Who knows.”
Slowly, Hydge takes the sheets of paper from me. She turns her face, ducking inward and downward, seeking my eyes, fixing them, holding them tight.
“It’s alright,” she says.
Hydge abruptly straightens, turns, leaves, pulling the door quietly shut behind her.
Outside, a gibbous moon has risen. Later, I only vaguely feel the kiss of the injection the orderlies give me. Deep down, though, at my core, I feel it: the tug of physical urges pushing against a tight chemical crush. And I think of the bliss I will feel, in those moments of lucidity I may or may not be granted, when the sinew and muscle and blue-red nerves of my body are released from these synthetic bonds, and I dream of how I will howl into an alien night.
'The Unfolding' was first published by Outposts of Beyond in 2017.
My fiction has appeared, or is currently published in, Mythic magazine, Gallery of Curiosities and Dark Moon Digest, and my novella 'Severance' was published in 2017 by Fantasia Divinity.
“So, Lucie, how’s the new job going?” My younger sister Morna stood back to study the Bouvier whose coat she was trimming.
I picked up a broom and swept up the dark curls of hair that had fallen to the floor. “Oh—you know. My training officer, Detective Walnar, keeps making cracks about how nobody comes out of the Academy adequately prepared anymore. I don’t think she thinks much of my abilities. Guess I’ll find out shortly. My probation period’s almost over.”
“You could always go back to the regular forces, right?” Morna asked.
“I suppose.” I frowned. “But I’ve always had my heart set on the Offworld Issues Task Force.”
“You mean you didn’t secretly yearn to join the family business?”
I made a face. “Did you?”
She grinned and put the clippers down. “You know Dad wouldn’t let me anywhere near his precious space yachts. Not since that summer we worked together on the assembly line.”
I laughed and took that as my cue to head for work. As I made the short walk from Morna's grooming salon to the Precinct, a jump-jet headed for Innisfil Spaceport rumbled overhead. Freshly-landed passengers often brought new cases—even if it was just helping a Galvan overcome a misunderstanding with a local merchant, or keeping a couple of N’Kisi intent on settling an honor-feud from harming innocent bystanders. The promise of activity instead of desk-work prompted me to pick up the pace.
I slid into my chair with five minutes to spare before shift-start. Detective Denise Walnar, my training officer on the Task Force, grabbed her jacket and barked, “Don’t get too comfortable, probie.” I looked up, trying not to wince at the audible reminder of my probationary status. “A body’s been found, in an alley. Looks like there may be off-world involvement.” She headed for the door.
“Right behind you.” I scrambled to follow.
At the scene, Officer Sendy Jaymore waved us over, grim-faced. “Saw some scavenger bots headed this way,” she explained as we followed her into a dingy alley. “I came to investigate. And found this guy—”
I blinked, allowing my eyes to adjust to the alley’s gloom. Following the direction Sendy indicated with an outstretched hand, I saw the bloodied corpse, naked except for a pair of black boxer briefs, lying behind a battered dumpster.
The long, parallel gouges in the victim’s back, the puncture marks on the neck—I’d never seen anything like that before. A staccato burst from my wristcomm interrupted my ruminations. All units, report to Centennial Park. Riot in progress. I repeat, all units report immediately to Centennial Park.
Detective Walnar nodded to Sendy. “You go ahead. We’ve got this.”
As Sendy hustled to her vehicle, I frowned. “They said all units—”
“I heard that, too. But this is important. Maybe more important than it looks.” Detective Walnar waved me toward the corpse. “What do we know?”
“No identification on him, according to Sendy. I’ll see if we can find out who he is.” I snapped a photo of the victim’s face with my wristcomm and fed it through to the Big Brain, the Univac 5000 computer that took up half the basement at the Precinct. “Got a hit,” I said a few moments later. “Name’s Rupert Green. Ex-military. And—he works part-time in the crime lab.”
“A criminal might have had motive to kill him. Or grab his credentials, to get access to the lab.” Walnar studied the body for a moment, then turned to me, eyebrows raised. “Shall we see if we can find any clues?”
By “we,” I knew who she really meant. I slipped on a pair of disposable gloves, then crouched down to inspect the body. The damage didn’t look like it had been done by any sort of weapon—more like a clawed hand, or maybe teeth. Luckily, given my career interests, I’d signed up for both the basic and advanced courses in Cross-Galactic Studies at the Academy. I fanned out my fingers to take a rough measurement. “Not a N’Kisi—gouges are too far apart. Galvan—too deep for their thumb-talons.”
“And the grey matter under his fingernails?”
I gently lifted the victim’s left hand, taking a closer look. “Not sure. But I can feed the information to G-SIC.” The Galactic Species Identification Checklist, a sub-routine run by the Univac, should be able to make an ID.
“No.” Detective Walnar’s words froze me in place. “We’ll do this the old-fashioned way. By deduction.” Her expression softened. “I have a feeling that someone may be watching to see who accesses that particular program. Someone with a vested interest in keeping the identity of whatever did this, secret.”
“You have an idea.”
“A suspicion. I want to hear what you think.”
And then, it came to me. “It was a Chameleon.”
Detective Walnar nodded. “That’s what I think, too. We need to get back to the Precinct. Fast.”
“Chameleons have the ability to re-create any living creature they acquire the DNA for, right? Is it possible the police force has been infiltrated?” I asked as we hurried to the squad car.
“I’m sure of it. That riot? They likely staged it to get people out of the Precinct.”
“Then—we can’t trust anyone.”
“No-one but ourselves.”
Sobered, I scrambled into the passenger seat. “If they get access to the crime lab—”
“There’s lots of DNA for the taking,” Detective Walnar said. “DNA we don’t necessarily want replicated. Strap in. We need to go catch a Chameleon.”
The hover-car sped through the road matrix on autopilot, sirens screaming. Despite the emergency, Detective Walnar seized the opportunity to quiz me, as usual. “What do we know about the Chameleons?”
“They're a nomadic race, always looking for new territories to exploit.” Barely repressing a short but heartfelt oath, I scrunched my elbows in instinctively as our vehicle darted through the gap between a truck and a hover-bus. “The Chameleons morph their bodies to resemble local life forms—all they need is a small sample. A hair, some skin cells.”
“And why are Rupert Green’s clothes missing?”
“The Chameleon likely put them on, once he’d switched over.” I paused, frowning. “Killing Green like that—he must have known the body would be found, and the unusual patterning of the claw-marks noticed. Don’t the Chameleons usually rely on stealth?”
“Green’s ex-military. He might have pretended to cooperate, then counter-attacked.”
“If the Chameleon felt threatened, and lashed out—that would account for the killing.”
“What do you think they’re up to?” Detective Walnar shot me a sideways glance.
“Gathering DNA for the Infiltration Team, the Five Hundred, to change into human form. So they can create chaos.”
“It’s their first run at Earth, as far as we know,” Detective Walnar said. “If things prove too difficult for them, their track record suggests they’ll move on. Let’s do our best to help them decide that’s their best option.”
The first thing I noticed when we reached the first-floor reception desk was the unnerving quiet. No officers striding through the lobby with a sense of purpose. No perps being escorted to Central Booking. Just Sally Zelenko at the reception desk.
“What’re you two doing here? There’s a city-wide call out to Centennial Park. All units were ordered to report.”
“Captain Schuster wanted us to pick up additional pepper spray and a few canisters of tear gas,” Detective Walnar said.
“See to it quickly, then.”
Once we’d made it through the double doors and out of Zelenko’s sight, Detective Walnar leaned against the wall, her face pale.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“I just hope they don’t find Zelenko the same way as Rupert Green.”
“You mean she’s—”
“Didn’t you notice the back of her hand? Zelenko has a scar, from a blaster-burn. And it’s gone.”
“The burn’s from an injury she suffered five years ago.”
“But it’s not part of her fundamental DNA. Got it.” I squared my shoulders. “So she’s one of them.”
“Well, we’re past her now. Let’s go check out the crime lab.”
Inside the crime lab, I could see Rupert Green’s doppelganger rifling through the storage boxes, stopping now and then to stuff objects into a large grey sack he carried attached to his belt.
We’d decided to do a quick scout, then withdraw and make a plan once we understood what we were up against. As though on cue, Detective Walnar nodded and pointed behind her. That was our signal to go to the pre-arranged meeting place. I was about to move when I heard a scuffing sound against the concrete floor. Walnar must have stepped on something.
So much for avoiding notice. My mentor spun to face the Chameleon. When the alien raised his stun-gun, she drew her own in a practiced motion. The air crackled as blue rays shot in opposite directions. When the dust settled, both combatants had fallen.
I scuttled over to Detective Walnar and checked her pulse. Sluggish, but still there. I walked over to the Chameleon, handcuffs in hand. Got ya now.
But instead of fastening the cuffs around his wrists, I stood, irresolute. Sure, I could take him into custody, but then what? The Chameleons would know we were onto them, but that wouldn’t stop them. They’d just go on to Plan B for DNA acquisition. And there’s so many ways they could do it. Pose as a Santa at the mall. Infiltrate a hairdressing shop . . .
I glanced back at Detective Walnar. I’d gladly listen to an hour of her lectures in exchange for the opportunity to bounce ideas off her. Should I look for help elsewhere in the Precinct? I bit my lower lip. The Sally Zelenko experience had taught me caution. I didn’t know the other officers the way Detective Walnar did. There was no guarantee I’d be able to tell the humans from the Chameleons.
Both Walnar and the Chameleon would be out of commission for an hour, give or take, and about five minutes had passed since they’d shot each other. That left me with 55 minutes to come up with a plan. I glanced around the room. So many nooks and crannies. Shelving units behind which an adversary could hide. Ready to pounce . . .
I’d never been more aware of my vulnerability.
I stared at the fallen Chameleon, trying to imagine him not as Rupert Green, but as himself. What were his vulnerabilities? I shuddered, thinking of the body we’d found. Chameleons were extremely formidable opponents in their natural form. But they were willing to shed that form when it suited them. Scouts such as this one volunteered to take on other semblances in order to gather the DNA necessary for their infiltration plans, and thereby became subject to all the frailties of their new species, for the six months they were locked into that guise.
And the Five Hundred who formed the attack team would take the DNA samples collected by the scout and morph to human form, also for six months.
I frowned as I tried to remember the special lecture in Advanced Cross-Galactic Studies, where a battle-scarred Marsilvian who had seen action with the Galactic Space Services shared his experiences with Chameleons, Nalagrads, and other species. Something he said about the change-over ceremony . . .
And then I had it. Vanity. That’s their Achilles heel.
There wasn’t much time, and I’d need help. Fortunately, I knew one person I could trust. I toggled my wristcomm and called my sister.
“They found Sally Zelenko. Bound and gagged, in the storeroom.” Relief showed on Captain Jann Schuster’s face as she relayed the news to Detective Walnar and I. “That’s the last of them. Now, will someone please explain why we let a Chameleon walk out of here with a bag full of DNA?”
“Like most species, the Chameleons think their own natural form is the best possible iteration of themselves,” I said. “So, when the Five Hundred assigned to take over a planet morph into their new forms, they must overcome their aversion to making the change. They use the ceremonia mutato to get through that mental barrier.”
Detective Walnar nodded. “The scouts, like the one in Rupert Green’s form, will bring the DNA directly to the doctor-priests for preparation. They’ll prepare goblets of strong drink, each with a DNA sample added. Each member of the Five Hundred gets a ceremonial goblet.”
“They gulp those down in unison, so they all morph at once,” I explained. “And key to our whole plan is that it’s taboo to mess with the samples once they’re collected. Not even the collector can go back into the bag once the gathering is complete. That way, nobody can rig the outcome—give their friends the more flattering or powerful samples, for example.”
“If the Rupert Green Chameleon follows the protocol, they won’t discover Lucie’s ploy until too late,” Detective Walnar said. “Smart.”
“What exactly is that ploy?” Captain Schuster asked.
“I confiscated the DNA the Chameleon collected, and substituted dog hair from my sister’s grooming salon.”
“So they’ll turn into dogs?” The Captain chewed on that for a moment, then grinned. “I suppose it’s possible they’d still come planet-side and wreak havoc, but it’s unlikely. Chameleons like an easy target. Plus, they’re a very proud people. They won’t want to be seen like that. I’m thinking they’ll move on, with their tails between their legs, so to speak.”
“What wouldn’t I give to be a fly on the wall when they change over.” I gazed upward.
“Better still, how about a flea on the wall?” Detective Walnar smirked. In response to Captain Schuster’s startled look, she shrugged. “What? I’m not allowed to have a sense of humor?”
“You could trot it out more often,” I said.
“Look,” Detective Walnar said. “You’ll make a fine Offworld Issues Task Force member. But our job is demanding, and a lot can ride on our success or failure. I know I’m tough on you sometimes, but you really need to know your stuff to succeed at this job. For what it’s worth, I think you have what it takes.”
“Well, my inbox isn’t going to empty itself,” Captain Schuster said. Taking the hint, Detective Walnar and I rose from our chairs. As we headed for the door, the Captain’s voice followed us. “Next time the two of you go chasing Chameleons, try not to get shot. There’s less paperwork involved.”
“Let’s hope there’s not a next time, right, partner?” Detective Walnar said.
Partner? Not probie?
“Sounds good to me,” I said. “Sounds good to me.”
Lisa Timpf is a retired HR and communications professional who lives in Simcoe, Ontario. Her speculative fiction stories have appeared in New Myths, Future Days, Bards and Sages Quarterly, From a Cat's View, and other venues.
Jetta’s crew are hideous, like elephants smashed into an octopus. I tell her so and she laughs and slaps my hand away. “That’s not funny.”
“No, really,” I say, reaching for her again. “I’ve had Lovecraftian nightmares that were better looking.”
This time she doesn’t smile. “Jay,” she says. “These guys are like family to me.” I’m trying too hard, I know. We’ve been together three amazing months, and I’m afraid I’m going to blow it.
Anyway, we meet up with her crew at the site bar: three Hoolians, all huge, muscled, and male. Tentacles for legs and maybe another one for a nose, heavy gray skin, and two oddly human arms with suckers for hands and the most splendid biceps you’ve ever seen. And they have six-pack abs. Like the cover of some twisted interspecies romance: tentacles, biceps, and abs. “Don’t be jealous,” Jetta says, noticing that I’ve noticed. “It’s just a coincidence. Like convergent evolution.”
That’s not at all what convergent evolution means, but I let it go. She’s gorgeously muscled herself, my girl, lithe and wiry like an acrobat. “Who’s jealous?” I say, helping her stay on-balance as she angles toward a chair. Jetta’s muscles aren’t always reliable the day after a long job. Her crew is nice enough, though, and one of them slides me a beer once we sit down.
Talk turns to their work and gets technical. They’ve got too many jobs right now, which is a good problem. Lately they’ve been dropping garnet crystals off the edge of Orbital 41. Something in the station’s tilt and the planet’s radiation makes the crystals grow like barnacles: huge, abrasive, and detrimental to station efficiency. Industrial-grade garnet is profitable enough that the job pays for itself, as long as you’ve got the manpower. Hool-power, I say, and they look at me funny but let it pass.
It’s interesting work, though. Dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but not difficult. So when they mention they’re shorthanded for the next job, I volunteer.
Jetta narrows her eyes at me. “You don’t have a power suit,” she says.
“I’ll rent one!” I say it loud and cheerfully so that I can’t be ignored. One of the Hoolians hoots and gives me a high-five, hand to sucker-palm. They learned that from Jetta, I think, or maybe it’s one of those human gestures that traveled. His sucker makes a kissing sound on my palm, and I can tell we’re going to get along.
We head out shortly: one Hoolian, jovial; tight-faced Jetta; and me. The other two Hoolians are prepping for one of their bigger jobs, but we can do this one with three, Jetta explains, if we’re careful. “Triple-check everything,” she says. She doesn’t seem like she’s having a good time.
At the site, I’m impressed. They really are massive, like glittering skyscrapers, a whole redwood forest in ruby and glass. I stand there staring, thumping my rented boots against the station hull, while Jetta and the Hoolian decide on blast charges, drop lines, edge clamps. Timing is critical, they say. With the station’s spin, the top of each crystal sits in different gravity than the bottom. The angle needs to be precise to drop it down, to prevent it from shattering into space and fouling up the shipping lanes. Jetta and the Hoolian argue a little bit, comfortably, and eventually she comes back over to me. “Don’t move,” she says, clipping my safety line in two places. I already clipped it correctly, but I let her check anyway. “Not until I tell you.” The Hoolian’s already at the top, laying charges. I watch him putter around while Jetta preps the base, then pulses up to the central break point, exactly halfway between us.
Everything goes right until it doesn’t. Later, I find out that nobody did anything wrong, that some kinds of imperfections in the silicate don’t show up on scans. Nine times out of ten it doesn’t matter. The tenth time, a good team will act fast to correct their lines, pop some of the charges early. Usually, Jetta has a good team. This time she had me. The garnet slab cracks like heavy ice, hurling shards and spikes into the black. I feel it twice: once as I’m ripped backward, away from the station; and once as I snap against the void, bones creaking, the thin wrinkle of the safety line linking my suit to the station’s surface and the rest of my life.
“I’m okay,” I say to Jetta, when I can, through the suit. We’re all alive, everybody’s alive, but she’ll be worried, I know, wanting to make sure I’m okay. I look for her at the end of my line. She’s not there.
It takes a second too long to find her. She’s steering in quick pulses toward the Hoolian, splayed at the end of his tether like an octopus against the background stars. They’re checking air vents, passing hands over each other’s suits. It takes almost a full minute for her to finish making sure he’s okay before she turns and checks the lines, most of which held. The larger shards haven’t traveled far. When she’s done securing the site, finally, she turns to me.
She has that look you get when you’ve finally caught the station mite that’s been buzzing around your bedroom for hours, and before you get rid of it you hold it up, close to your eye, impressed that something so small and oblivious could have caused you so much trouble.
We’ll date a little while after that, but it’s in that moment, suspended in the brilliant garnet haze, that I know it’s over.
I think how remarkable she looks: strong muscles, haloed in red. Then, ignoring the auto-thrusters that I don’t know how to use, I pull myself slowly along the tether, hand over hand, to get back down to the surface.
This story was previously published in ThrillingWords.com, JUNE 2019
Monica Joyce Evans is a digital game designer and researcher who began publishing speculative fiction in 2019. Her work has also appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Thrilling Words magazine, and the anthology Way of the Laser: Stories of Future Crime. She lives in North Texas with her husband, two daughters, and approximately ten million books. You can reach her firstname.lastname@example.org.
The humans died, one by one: some in the arena, and some after they'd succumbed to the chemical conditioning of their alien captors. But Tess took a cold comfort in observing that most of them still lived longer than the bugs. She'd fought through fourteen generations of chitinous monarchs. It disturbed her to admit it, but she'd been able to tell them apart for a long time now.
They'd been a science team, taking readings near Gliese 581. Tess was the only woman on the crew, and now she was the only human for twenty light years. She spent the timeless hours between battles composing research papers in her head. "Physiology and Anatomy of the Gliese-System Hive-Organized Astrobiological Lifeforms," subhead: How to Squish a Bug. Fourteen co-authors, credited posthumously.
The gloom in her cell was brightening: the slime-door was thinning. A high, piercing whine filled her skull. Time to fight.
The arena was a curved sticky bowl made from the same mucilaginous material as the rest of the astrohive. It sucked at the soles of her boots with every step. The walls rose high above her head, and behind them the bugs were gathered, vibrating their serrated forelimbs to produce the terrible whine.
There were marked differences among them. Each generation only lived for what Tess estimated to be about two Terran weeks, and the newer ones were definitely more human-like than the originals had been. She could pick out three queens in the stands, each attended by a cluster of her offspring-servitors. And then the youngest, the newest princess, stood alone. She had recognizable arms and legs, only two of each, although the arms ended in clawed pincers rather than hands, and she had delicate wings folded behind her. Her huge multifaceted eyes glittered in their own iridescent light.
They'd theorized—Tess and Min-jun, before they took him—that the battles might be designed to induce an adrenalin response in the humans. They thought the chemical reactions of fear and violence made a human brain more susceptible to the bug's pheromones. Not to discount the ritualistic purpose that the arena clearly served in Gliese-bug culture: there was obviously a social component as well.
But it was always after a fight that crewmembers began to talk about the beauty of the alien queens, raving about the smooth sheen of their carapaces, the sweet curves of thorax or abdomen, the sweep of their mandibles. It happened one by one. And one by one, the bugs came, and took them. And then there was another generation in the stands.
So the princess was waiting for her mate. "I'm female, do you understand!" Tess shouted at her. "It won't work with me!"
The black rainbow of her eyes shifted and shimmered, but the princess gave no response. And on the other side of the arena, a second door began to dilate and to thin.
Abruptly the bugs stilled their applause, and the whine ceased. The sudden, predatory silence was worse.
Tess cast about for the weapon. There was always one—and it was always perfectly adapted to the creature that would emerge. A long, thin harpoon for the snaky thing. An electric lasso for the winged horror. Min-jun had believed there was some sort of message there. "Trust us," or maybe, "adversity drives evolution." Tess thought the bugs just wanted to keep things sporting.
There was no weapon. The membranous door was translucent now, and whatever lay behind it would be on her in a moment. Tess kept looking frantically, but the arena was a smooth shining bowl. There was no weapon.
Was this some kind of final test? Or had the bugs finally determined that she was of no use to them? In desperation Tess clawed at the walls that encircled her, but it was nothing that fourteen men had not tried before her. The arena could not be scaled. Her hands sank uselessly into the jelly-like sludge, and it healed itself as soon as she withdrew.
There was no weapon.
The door opened.
It was a multi-legged thing, hard-shelled, just like the bugs that had created it. Tess couldn't remember who had first suggested the awful thought: maybe these are the rejects. The genetic sports, the discarded spawn. Engineered offspring that didn't grow according to plan.
Or maybe they did plan it. Maybe it was wanted all along, this hideous thing, rippling like a wave as it came for her on its dozen clacking segmented legs.
Tess was beyond screaming. Screaming didn't help. Only the weapon—where was the weapon? She threw herself to the side, somersaulting under the thing's scissoring mandibles and lunging back to her feet.
There was always a weapon. She cast about again—and again, saw nothing but the sleekly curving sheen of the arena, and far above, the bugs clustered about their queens. The princess stood alone, watching, impassive--
—no. Her wings were vibrating. What was that? Excitement? Anxiety?
Tess circled backwards, keeping the wall behind her and the living nightmare-bug a few paces away. Even after her months of captivity, after seeing her friends and colleagues surrender one by one, she wasn't tired or ready to die. She was only angry.
Tess was the same. The arena was the same. The monster was different, but still the same, and the bugs were—mostly—the same. The only difference was the weapon, its absence.
And the princess. She was different.
The xenopede lunged for her, a sudden jerking burst of speed that took her off guard. Its mandibles scraped her arm, ripping a gash in her dirty uniform and lacerating her bicep. Tess did scream, then, but she was already moving, scrambling back.
Distance. It didn't help. The thing was emboldened now that it had tasted blood. It followed her, no more hesitation. Its many rippling legs kept it close upon her. There was no escape.
"Help me," Tess choked. She was clawing, crawling, kicking, rolling. Her grasping hands tore up a gelatinous blob from the arena's floor, and even as the arena squelched back together she threw her handful of goo directly into the mandibles of her attacker. It reared back, surprised, its first few sets of legs waving feebly in the air.
"Help me," Tess said, more strongly. She had a few desperate seconds, and there was only one gamble to make. She looked for the princess—the beautiful, shining princess, who watched with rainbow eyes.
And who moved, then. Alone among all the spectators, the bug princess raised her forelimbs and began to rub them again. One high, thin thread of applause wound through the arena.
Tess ran for her life. Keeping to the edges of the arena, dodging, weaving—winning herself one more second, a few more breaths of life. Something was different about the sound the princess was making. Not just a whine, now: there was something crackling and harsh in it. Chrrrksh, chrrksh. Tess couldn't afford to look.
The xenopede darted forward again, and Tess was too slow. Pain exploded in her leg. It had her, the thing's mandibles were locked around her knee. It had her. Her brain almost refused to process the sight of her own body enveloped by that metameric horror. The pain was searing, and though she kicked and struggled, it was no use. She was knocked to her back, she was being dragged, the monster was eating her--
—and something fell next to her head, something dark and curved and serrated and sharp. Tess grabbed it, heedless of the way it cut into her hand, and slashed at the xenopede. Its horrible face was over her so she stabbed at that, stabbed deeply into one of its black eyes, and when it dropped her leg she just kept stabbing. It tried to retreat but she hacked at its joints, at all the weak spots she'd seen in its arthropod's armor while it was stalking her. She kicked away still-twitching limbs as she dismembered them. And she did not stop until the heinous thing lay curled and unmoving at her feet.
Panting, bleeding, Tess looked up. There was only one place in the stands that her eyes were drawn. There she was, the bug-princess, though one of her forelimbs now dangled awkwardly, and in color it was a startling pink.
That's what Tess held in her hands. The dark sharp thing—it was the carapace of the princess's own pincered arm. She'd forced an early molt, given Tess the weapon of her own body.
A low buzz began to echo through the astrohive. The other queens were talking, and mostly not through sound. Even with her human senses, Tess could feel the change in the air as their pheromones swirled around her. Her head swam and her vision blurred. The bug-servitors seemed agitated, clustered around their queens, grooming them while the . . . it was an argument, wasn't it? . . . continued.
At this point the slime-door to her cell should be opening again. But nothing happened. Instead Tess swayed on her feet, clinging to consciousness. Her leg hurt terribly. She thought the princess might be hurt too. It should make her glad, but it didn't.
Eventually other apertures dilated far above, where the bugs were. One by one the older queens retreated, taking their retinues with them.
And the princess spread her gossamer wings and flew down, into the basin of the arena. She settled only inches away from where Tess stood with the claw still in her hands. They were alone.
Kill her, said some distant part of her mind, but Tess rejected the thought at once. "Look at you," she murmured drunkenly, "nymph with fairy wings, so beautiful, and so brave."
The princess cocked her head and clicked her limbs. The air around them was heady with chemical messages, and Tess, her vision swimming, began to hallucinate that she could read them.
I am for you, the princess was saying.
"Yes," Tess murmured. "But they pushed it too far, didn't they? Made you too human. They've repudiated both of us now."
The princess took a delicate step backwards, and then another. Come. Come with me.
So Tess limped after, bearing the princess's claw like a knight with his lady's favor. And the astrohive opened for them, the arena yawning and hollowing into a corridor that extended even as they walked into it. There was sadness in the air, Tess was sure of it: but heady excitement too.
"Will it hurt?" she asked, as the last door opened. "When you . . . mate with me. And after."
The princess clicked again, and buzzed her wings. Tess tasted confusion. Her brain groped for a translation, and whether it was hallucination or not, the words slowly formed in her mind: This . . . isn't . . . reproduction.
This is . . . exile.
And, oh sweet Einstein and Turing, she saw what lay behind the door. It was the ship. Their ship, her ship, the RV Abhaile. It meant "homewards" in some Old-Earth language.
She wanted to run to it. Her shaking legs would only carry her one halting step at a time. Her breath hitched in her throat and tears burnt her eyes, but would not fall. She crashed against the ship's pitted hull, fumbled for the hatch. When it opened the blast of pheromone-free, oxygen-rich human air enveloped her and, for just one moment, Tess's head was clear again.
How to Squish a Bug. Fourteen co-authors, credited posthumously. She had a weapon in her hands and a free choice in her mind.
She looked back at the princess, at the culmination of their brutal captivity.
And the thing of it was, the bug was still beautiful. Her fairy wings, her shining eyes. Her smooth and gleaming carapace, flawless except for the soft fleshy pink of the exposed forelimb.
"Are you coming?" Tess said roughly. "You know—you won't live long enough—it takes more than two weeks to get back to human space. You'll die on the way."
The princess came forward. Hesitantly, she raised her healthy arm, and with infinite grace laid her shining black claw against Tess's brown human hand. Again, the musky tang of the bugs' chemical communication enveloped her.
Two...weeks...of love. A lifetime of passion. I will cherish it.
Tess closed her fingers carefully around the princess's hand. "All right, then," she said. "I'm bringing you home."
I'm a writer and mom living in Oakland; my previous fiction has appeared in Dragon magazine and the anthologies Fae, Love Hurts and Short Story Bites.
The brig stank. Forty men were crammed into a space meant for half that many. More prisoners than the head could handle, which was the largest part of the stench. Add to that sweat and blood and the indefinable yet unmistakable smell of fear, and the brig of the HIMS Northwest Passage was not a pleasant place to be.
The prisoners complained and moaned, but kept their voices low, like the chittering of insects. Their captors had removed all chairs and cots, to make room for the influx of prisoners. Since they were forced to sit on the floor, they felt the change in the texture of the vibrations.
"We're slowing down," Stone said. He was a short, stocky man with dark hair.
The prisoner next to him nodded.
"I thought we were a week or more from planetfall."
"I'd hoped we were," his shipmate said. "I'm in no hurry to arrive."
Stone nodded. Albion justice frowned on piracy. Albionese civil suits could drag on for years. Criminal cases were another matter. Pirates caught red-handed -- they'd have a fair trial, be convicted, and face a firing squad within a month.
The ship continued to slow, which gave the prisoners something new to talk about. A few minutes later, the outer door of the brig opened. Four armed men stepped inside.
"Stone! Alleyn Stone, front and center," one guard ordered.
Stone had every intention of hiding in the crowd and ignoring the order, but fifteen heads turned and stared at him. He swore beneath his breath. So much for anonymity.
He wanted to yell 'come and get me,' but it was moot. They would.
He wanted his shipmates to rush the guards and overwhelm them. It wouldn't be impossible -- they outnumbered the guards ten to one -- but his defeated crewmates didn't look like the idea had even occurred to them.
Seeing no other option, he rose to his feet. He picked his way over and through the other prisoners. As he reached the outer door, two of the guards grabbed him. They manhandled him into the antechamber between the brig's outer and inner doors, even though he didn't resist. A third guard shoved him against the wall. Stone's wrists were handcuffed behind him. The two guards continued to hold him as another manacled his ankles together. Only then did they open the inner door leading from the brig to the corridor.
"Move," one ordered. "The captain wants to see you."
The guards didn't say another word as they escorted him through the ship. Neither did Stone.
Stone was surprised a few minutes later when he was taken not to an interrogation chamber, but the bridge.
"The prisoner you requested, ma'am. Alleyn Stone," one of the guards announced.
Stone stared at the woman sitting in the captain's chair. She seemed far too young to be in command.
"Captain Janet Carswell, HIMS Northwest Passage," the strawberry blonde introduced herself. She looked like she was in her mid-to-late twenties. Slender and short, her petite stature made her seem even younger. "I need a gunner, Mr. Stone. Captain's Claim.”
"Go to Hell," Stone replied.
The guard closest to him slapped him.
Stone ran his tongue around his teeth. They were all still there, and he didn't taste blood. "Sorry. Go to Hell, ma'am."
The guard raised his hand again. Carswell stopped him with a glance.
"My chief gunner was injured in the raid that captured your ship, Mr. Stone. I need a replacement. Captain's Claim," she repeated.
Captain’s Claim was the ancient tradition, dating back to Old Earth, that a ship’s captain could commandeer the services of a passenger or prisoner in an emergency.
Stone thought quickly. The ship had been slowing down. She needed a gunner. He glanced at the main viewscreen, and the pieces came together. "You wandered into a minefield, and you need me to shoot your way out of it."
Stone grinned maliciously. "Nothing doing."
"If the ship explodes, you die, too," she pointed out.
"I get shot after the trial or I die here and take you with me. Not much of a difference from where I'm standing."
"They haven't had the trial yet. You might avoid a firing squad," countered Carswell. "Especially if I testify on your behalf that you were cooperative."
"Captain, we don't have time for this nonsense," interjected a tall, dark-skinned man with short black hair that was beginning to go gray. "Throw him back in the brig and get Litewski up here."
"Mr. Litewski is the best judge of his own competence, Mr. Washington. If he does not feel he can shoot his way through a ralJeneth minefield, then --"
That got Stone's attention. " ralJeneth?"
Carswell nodded. "You know how the ralJeneth deal with prisoners."
Stone knew. Every spacer did. A firing squad was one thing. Even death by explosive decompression he could face without fear. But being captured by the ralJeneth ....
"Last time, Mr. Stone. Captain's Claim. Or are you disputing my authority on my own bridge?" Her voice was icy, her patience gone.
"No, ma'am. Not disputing your authority ... or your Claim."
"Uncuff him," Carswell ordered.
The guards unlocked his handcuffs. They left the ankle manacles on, but that didn't surprise Stone, not after the way he'd mouthed off to the captain. He didn't need his feet to shoot, anyway.
"Ms. Shetula, get me the Fogarty’s Cove, please."
A communications tech hastened to obey. A moment later the image of a handsome middle-aged man with blond hair appeared in the viewscreen.
"Fogarty’s Cove, Larabee here."
"Captain Larabee, I've Claimed a gunner, and we will be proceeding momentarily," Carswell reported. "Follow our path, but not too closely."
"Understood. Good luck, Ja- Captain Carswell," he wished her. "Fogarty’s Cove out."
Carswell stepped down from the captain's seat and approached the weapons console. She briefly reviewed the controls with Stone. They were standard; he knew he could handle them. She pointed to a blue button. "That connects you with Mr. Slocum, our starboard gunner. That," she indicated a green button, "connects you to Mr. Litewski, our port gunner."
She turned to face the pilot. "Meaning no discourtesy, Mr. Fernandez, but under the circumstances we need our best pilot."
"All yours, Captain." Fernandez couldn't get out of the pilot's seat quickly enough.
Carswell sat down in his place. "Clear us a path, Mr. Stone. I'll follow your lead."
Stone's eyes darted from the main viewscreen to the sensor screens at the gunner's post to the firing controls. His hands rested on the firing controls, like a pianist about to begin a sonata.
The bridge was absolutely silent for the next two hours. No one dared to say a word. The normal communication between the bridge and engineering, the usual chatter between techs as they worked -- all gone. The only voice heard was Stone’s on the rare occasions he issued orders to Slocum and Litewski.
Like a billiards player, Stone studied the angles, made his shot, and fired. He glanced from the viewscreen to the sensors, back and forth, waiting for just the right moment to shoot. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he cleared a path.
As she’d promised, Carswell followed his lead.
First deosil, then widdershins. Jumpy as a jitterbug, slow as a strathspey, she danced the Northwest Passage through the minefield.
Fernandez watched the captain’s every move intently. If their lives hadn’t been in danger, he would have paid for the privilege of a piloting demonstration like this. Washington glared at Stone. His distrust was evident in his expression, but eventually a grudging respect for the pirate’s marksmanship showed in his eyes.
Finally, Northwest Passage reached the edge of the minefield. Carswell exhaled.
Stone turned to face her. He nodded curtly. “Precision flying, Captain.”
She nodded, accepting the compliment as her due. “You didn’t do so badly yourself, Mr. Stone.” She rose from the pilot’s seat.
"Mr. Hamilton, bring Gunner Stone to my cabin in half an hour," Carswell ordered. She turned to the XO.
"Mr. Washington, the ship is yours." She walked off the bridge without another word, as Hamilton and Washington said "yes, ma'am" in unison.
Fernandez returned to his place.
"With me, Stone." Hamilton's tone was far gentler than before, but he held the cuffs out expectantly.
Stone didn't resist as his hands were locked behind him again. Hamilton and the other guard repaid the courtesy by not manhandling him off the bridge.
The two of them took him to the ship's sickbay, where he was unlocked, ordered to strip, and permitted to shower. A water shower, not a sonic shower. Stone took as long as he dared, reveling in the luxury of a real shower. When he got out, they gave him clean exercise clothes to change into and a bad cup of coffee. He drank it nonetheless. Meals in the brig were accompanied only by water. They rehandcuffed him, but didn't put the ankle manacles back on.
"Come in," Carswell called out.
The other guard -- whose name he hadn't learned yet -- opened the door. Hamilton pushed Stone forward.
"The prisoner, ma'am, as requested."
"Undo his cuffs," Carswell ordered.
"Captain, that's not –” Hamilton started to protest. She gave him a look, and he stopped in mid-sentence. He unlocked the cuffs.
"Dismissed," she told the guards. "Sit down, Mr. Stone."
Stone sat in the chair in front of her desk. He rubbed his wrists ostentatiously, even though the cuffs hadn't been on long enough to hurt. There was a tray on the desk with two sandwiches, a mug of beer, and a napkin.
She gestured at the food. He grabbed a sandwich and bit into it. His eyes widened. The ham was thick, cut unevenly. This was no syntha-soy substitute. The contents of this sandwich had once oinked. The Swiss cheese was sharp. His tongue could feel the holes. He took a second, larger bite and chewed vigorously.
"Slow down. There's no need to make yourself sick."
He swallowed before answering. "We don't eat like this in the brig." He reached for the beer and took a small, cautious sip. Pilsner. Crisp, slightly bitter, very hoppy. He smiled and took a larger sip.
"I know to the calorie how much the prisoners are fed. The minimum required by imperial regulations, and not one bite more. Hungry prisoners think about their next meal, not escape."
Stone said nothing, just took another bit of his sandwich.
"That was extraordinary marksmanship, Mr. Stone. The best I've seen since I left Dartmouth."
One eyebrow went up slightly as he continued chewing his sandwich. Dartmouth was the Albion Empire's most prestigious military academy, where the cream of the imperial fleet's officers were trained. Most privateers couldn't claim it as an alma mater.
"Have you ever considered applying for an imperial pardon?" she asked.
"Nope." He took another bite of his sandwich. "Not an Albioner."
"Albionese," she corrected him. "And several of my crew aren't. I'd be happy to offer you a berth on my ship, if you're willing to take an imperial pardon."
He finished the first sandwich and reached for the beer. "Privateers shoot pirates. People I've shared beers with in port, people I've served with."
"Given the damage you did to us and Fogarty’s Cove, and the way you shot a path through that minefield, you've shown you can disable a ship without destroying it," she countered.
"Doesn't matter if I blast the ship to atoms or you capture them and turn them over to the authorities.
They're still just as dead." He drained the beer. "I don't kill friends."
"We don’t spend all our time hunting pirates. We also hire out to merchant ships as escorts. Your marksmanship saved my ship and our sister-ship. I'd prefer that level of marksmanship in the king-emperor's service, not on a pirate vessel, but Captain's Claim is only for emergencies. Once the emergency is over ...." She looked him in the eye, her green eyes meeting and holding his gaze. "I owe you more than a few sandwiches and a beer. Once we reach Jórvík, the jail is just north of the space port. I can see to it that my security personnel will be too busy escorting the other prisoners north to notice you scooting south. I'll have to --"
"No deal," Stone interrupted.
She raised one eyebrow at the impertinence.
"I saved all your crew's lives, you release all my crew."
"Your loyalty does you credit, Mr. Stone, but that's just not feasible." Carswell shook her head. "We get paid by the head. I've already reported to the authorities how many prisoners we captured. I need to turn in that many people, either as live prisoners or as corpses. I can lose the paperwork for one man, but not for your entire crew."
"You owe me," Stone said.
"I do," she acknowledged, "but we appear to be at an impasse here." She raised her voice. "Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Lau."
The door opened, and the two security men hurried in.
"Gunner Stone's own clothes should be clean by now. Let him get into his own clothing, then return him to the brig."
Stone grabbed what was left of the second sandwich and stuffed it in his mouth as the two guards grabbed him.
Ten days later, Stone was removed from the brig and escorted to the captain's cabin again. This time she didn't feed him, nor did she order his handcuffs to be removed.
"I despise wasted potential. You're a top-rate gunner, Mr. Stone. Sending you to face a firing squad...." She shook her head. "There's not much to do in the brig but think. You've had time to consider my offer. Take pardon, and you have a berth on my ship."
"Ain't an Albioner."
"The letter of marque from the king-emperor is in my name. The citizenship of my crew is irrelevant. Last chance, Mr. Stone. Will you join my crew?"
Stone bit his lip. After a moment's hesitation, he shook his head.
Carswell reached into a desk drawer and removed a small stun pistol. She fired.
Alleyn Stone woke up with an aching head. That was the first thing he noticed. The second thing he noticed was the smell. There wasn't one. The stench of the brig was gone. The third thing was that there was a mattress under him, instead of the cold, hard deck. He took a deep breath, then opened his eyes.
He had no idea where he was, but he wasn't in the brig of the Northwest Passage.
He sat up and looked around. He was in a cheap hotel room, the sort found on a dozen planets in any port district. There was a nightstand next to the bed with four small pieces of paper on it. Three ten-pound bills and a handwritten note.
Avoid the police; you're officially an escaped prisoner. If you change your mind, we're homeported out of Hathor.
Janet Carswell, HIMS Northwest Passage
A PORTION of this story won the eSpecs Book flash fiction contest and was posted on their website October/2016
Wordsmith, freelance writer, Mama, stroke survivor. BA, San Diego State University (English major, anthropology minor). Schoolmarm when my health permits. Roughly 20 stories published, mostly SF & fantasy, also romance, children's stories, westerns. Author of R IS FOR RENAISSANCE FAIRE, a children's book. Freelance proofreader, staff writer for Krypton Radio with over 100 articles on their website.
“Ugly, innit?” The soap lady asked as Julia picked among her basket of goods, glancing up with keen eyes.
As she sniffed a bar of lemon soap, Julia looked up at the bottom of the floating city. The craggy black rock that blocked the sky and cast a pool of darkness on the landlocked part of the city hung in the air above them, floating on some invisible science that none of the landlocked citizens understood.
“Like arse end of frying pan,” Julia said.
They tittered together but it felt like they were laughing at their own funeral.
Since the day the upper city came down from the sky and the creatures who lived on it set the new rules, life in the under city had been rough. No sun. No rain to wash away soot. That wasn’t the worst. Shit rolls downhill.
Julia was an enforcer. One of the few humans allowed to move between the upper and lower city. She hunted the burrows and narrows and downs for those desperate humans that took from each other or killed for money. Didn’t matter that the folks below hated her for having connections with those up top. They loved her in equal measure because she was fair. She didn’t double deal them.
“Goin’ up?” The soap dealer asked. “You tell ‘em we don’t get enough trade down here. They got to start buying from us.”
Julia nodded. “I’ll pass it along.”
She dropped a token in the lady’s hand and the lemon scented soap into her pocket. Lemon was a lost food. The new climate didn’t allow for such heat loving fruits, so she wasn’t sure if the tangy scent truly was lemon, or just some pleasant brew the old soap maker called lemon to sell it to folk like her.
Knowing what was real didn’t matter to most of the undercity dwellers, as long as the upper city didn’t drown them in filth.
That had happened in Old New York and Atlanta.
So far, so good. That’s why Julia knew her job mattered. When something came down the pipes and washed something into the undercity river that the bottom dwellers knew they shouldn’t see or have, they passed it to Julia to return up city.
Kids fished roken pieces of upper city tech that glowed with a green power out of the brackish water. The power radiated them the longer they kept it. She had special bags to collect those pieces and take them back up.
Sometimes, things fell that were whole.
In her bag, next to the bar of lemon soap and my synth gloves, lay a black hook that sparkled like wet obsidian. One of the old women who sold corn mash had given it to Julia. Said her son found it and she was worried that he’d hurt himself with it.
It fit in the palm of her hand like it had been made to fit every line and ripple of her palm. She’d seen them before.
Always in the hands of the royals at the very top of the upper city rock.
How one had found its way down in the under city, she couldn’t guess, but there’s be hell to pay if it didn’t find its way back into their blue-blooded hands.
She made her way to the elevator, the black spired monument that used to be dedicated to the poet of the old world. They’d made it over into the only way to get from below to above. The green energy flowed in a waterfall from the rock above dropping down into an enveloping beam.
It lifted her, though it always felt like her stomach stayed below.
Once she’d found her feet on the cobbles of the upper, she glanced around, noting all the shoppers, the guards, the servants of the blue-blood houses. The ending hour when all the undercity dwellers left the upper was only a few turns away, so Julia began jogging up the winding cobbled street that led up into the sky precinct where all the blue-blood mansions wrapped around the pointed crags at the top of the rock. The green lights lit the path. Color spilled from every window and light so bright, Julia always wondered if there was any end to their powers in the upper city.
She finally knocked on the tallest door of the highest building at the top of the crag. The door opened and one of them, a lesser blue-blood stood as servant behind it.
“Enforcer? The ending hour approaches. You must…”
“I need to see your master.” She pushed past him–a brazen act no other could under city dweller could get away with but Zorm needed to see the tech.
She opened the door to the library that Prince Zorm spent almost all of his time in. His father was head of the city and his mother the ear of the gods, but Prince Zorm kept all the records, tracking all that happened above and below. She was his personal enforcer.
“Julia?” Zorm turned to stare at her as she hustled across the white marble floor toward him. He was a handsome one. Blue heart beating inside the crystal enclosure of his chest sending the blue blood coursing through his branchlike limbs. He glowed with his royal blood and his eyes were huge. Human-like but brighter, bigger just enough to make him alien. He smiled and his features softened into the expression he liked best–something between curiosity and lusty hunger.
Julia grinned like a fool. She usually did when he looked at her that way. “Found something.”
She flipped her bag on his desk, dumping the gloves, the bar of soap, and the hook-shaped tech she’d found. Zorm picked through them, first opening the soap and taking a bite of it. It was his favorite, after all. Then he picked up the hook. It lit up in his hand, glowing green and flashing with black shine.
“I can’t believe it.” The blue of his blood glowed in his hand around the object. “When did you find this?”
“And how many people have seen it?”
“Me, an old woman, her son.”
“Did anything happen when you touched it?”
Zorm sighed and flipped the object over in his hands.
“This is a key. The most important of our tech. In the wrong hands…well, I don’t think it’s a real threat. You humans aren’t shaped like us.” Zorm started to set the piece aside.
“I know it’s not my place, but what does it do?” Julia asked.
Zorm looked up at her sharply, studying her face. She kept her features neutral. She always did.
“I guess there’s no harm. This is a blue-blood’s personal key.” He picked it up and put it in his palm just so. As he did, the grooves in his branchy fingers lit up as did the object. The room seemed to shift and around them pictures of things Julia had never seen floated. Zorm touched one and as he did, it expanded. “It keeps all of our knowledge.”
The image was of a forest, though it wasn’t on earth. Julia watched as a creature rolled toward her like a pinwheel–all tentacles and teeth. She gasped and threw up her hands. It was so real.
Zorm laughed at her and drew the image back.
“One of our enemies. Just an image of it.”
“So, it’s not a weapon?” Julia asked, smiling with all the innocence she could muster.
“In the wrong hands, it’s the worst weapon of all. A species’ weaknesses are hidden in their history. I applaud you for returning such an important thing to us, Julia. The ending hour is here and you will not make it back to the common transport pad. Allow me to send you home myself. Father and I will discuss your reward tomorrow.”
Julia smiled and followed Zorn to a closet that glowed with the green light of their power. He bowed as she went in, then in a wash of green, she found herself back in the bottoms of the under city, at the door of her house.
She turned and made her way through the winding alleys and snickleways until she stepped through into a hidden warehouse. Hundreds of humans, the best minds of the city, labored over new and old tech cobbled together. The resistance. She smiled and walked over to the soap woman, General Tomlin.
“Did they take it?”
“Worked perfectly. He thought he had the real thing. They won’t come looking for it, I’d guess.” The real key sat open with all the scenes spinning around the rebel scientists. They picked through the scenes, finding images of the tech, reverse engineering it and making it work for humans.
“I have a good feeling about this,” Julia said, then she left to scour the city for more of the shit that rolls downhill. They wouldn’t be downhill for much longer if she could help it.
Donna J. W. Munro’s pieces are published in Dark Moon Digest # 34, Flash Fiction Magazine, Astounding Outpost, Nothing’s Sacred Magazine IV and V, Corvid Queen, Hazard Yet Forward (2012), Enter the Apocalypse (2017), Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths II (2018), Terror Politico (2019), It Calls from the Forest (2020), Borderlands 7 (2020), Gray Sisters Vol 1 (2020) and others. Her upcoming novel, Revelations: Poppet Cycle 1, will be published by Omnium Gatherum in 2020. Contact her at https://www.donnajwmunro.com or @DonnaJWMunro on Twitter.
[Table of Contents with links follows editorial]
Editorial: Dismantling the Monsters (Especially the Ones in Human Form)
This is an issue of timeliness. All that has been going on in our world, all the hate that we still have to deal with, and witness...the overbearing struggle of the human family who have different levels of melatonin in their skin than others…the absurdity of it all.
Timely because of the struggles in our country for equality, for sure, and...I saw an ad for a new TV show that kind of mirrors this issue: Lovecraft Country. It’s about the nightmare of people of color and monsters, and some of the monsters are not human, but the most inhuman monsters are.
Lovecraft was no humanitarian. He seemed to love his monsters more than he loved other people, especially people of color, as is evident in all of his work. I invited authors to write Lovecraftian tales told from the marginalized perspective. I got some good responses. In one, a wise eternal witnesses righteous vengeance. Lovecraft brings a “friend’ to a Chinese restaurant. An Old One Argues for His Taboo Love. An odd piecing together of the Innsmouth story, stitched together from the fragments of individual reports. A coffee shop brings two people together. Spoiled rich kids go raising hell in the wrong town.
There’s lots to love here. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.
The Colour out of Space: The Quietus, by Michelle Mellon (flash)
Starcrossed, by Gregg Chamberlain (microfic)
THE INNSMOUTH LEGACY (An Oral History, 1962), by Jack Lothian (flash)
Noodles, by Michael Anthony Dioguardi (flash)
When Starbucks Came to Innsmouth, V. A. Vazquez (flash)
Cthulhu Tentacles Are Delicious, by Jo Wu (flash)
The Incident at Chicxulub, by Pedro Iniguez (flash)
The Shade at Aseneith, by JD DeLuzio (flash)
The Colour out of Space: The Quietus, by Michelle Mellon
THE INNSMOUTH LEGACY (An Oral History, 1962), by Jack Lothian
Starcrossed, by Gregg Chamberlain
No one was around when the cracks first appeared. No one was around when they turned into probing tendrils. And no one was around when the wall surrendered and the waters it held rushed forth to cleanse the townspeople of their hubris in trying to contain its power.
Officials debated repairs to the dam, while one person watched over the valley whose secrets had been drowned in tears for nearly two centuries. She watched as grey trees and grasses, inexplicably brittle after their submersion, reemerged like a blight in one swath of the newly revealed countryside. And when surveyors and intrepid hikers began reporting an odd whispering wind and impossibly luminescent flora bordering the grey, she stopped watching and closed her door and windows and waited.
It didn’t take long before more strange things began happening. There was talk, but the words only stirred up motes of fairy tales best forgotten. There were pleas, but no one wanted to explore the desolate valley to find missing people or unwanted answers. Instead, scholars began digging through newspaper and Miskatonic University archives.
What they didn’t find was the truth. Nearly 75 years before emancipation, Massachusetts reported no slaves in the state. But everyone knew they were there, if not in name than in deed. In the valley, black men and women and children who had survived the horrors of formal bondage lived on compounds promising them a bridge to a new life. Instead, they found they had taken the half-step up from slavery to indentured servitude.
Most of those people fled Essex County as soon as they could. The others drifted to the edges of local memory. None of them returned to the valley proper. And none of the migrants who approached the valley would stay. They had known much darkness in their lives and could feel the great sorrow of the place. A half-century later, the valley was flooded, and its legacy submerged. But the land did not forget the terrors it had previously hosted. And it certainly did not forgive.
And so it was that a man with buried sorrows now entered the valley. He was one of the researchers, and he’d read ancient reports of a farmer who found meteorites with a strange substance inside that seemed to spark a series of tragedies. The scholar considered himself open-minded but did not believe in the inexplicable. Whatever had happened to the farmer Nahum and his family nearly 200 years earlier, and whatever was happening now, must have an explanation.
He set a course for the former farmland. Pragmatic as he was, as he approached the area in question, he couldn’t help but be enchanted by the contrast of the grey foliage and the glowing otherworldly plant-like forms beside it. Looking further, he saw the broken lip of a rather large well, and what may have been a farmhouse foundation a short distance away.
He moved forward, stepping gingerly over the waving plants and ducking under clutching vines until he reached the well. When the toe of his boot struck the decrepit stone, the valley went still. There was no whispering wind or dancing plants or scurrying animals or any other indication of life around him.
But there was something in the well.
He could hear it move. A massive slithering, like hardened flesh rubbing over rough rock. He could feel it reaching toward him, doubling upon itself to climb higher and higher from the depths. As if in a dream he peered over the edge into the abyss, but at first could only see shadows shifting from one side of the shaft to the other.
Then he saw the first hint of pebbly tissue, like sandpaper skin fused to rock. One moment it curled upward like an impossibly graceful and weightless cloud. The next moment it crawled the walls like a ghastly husky shuffling spider. He could see no distinction between parts. It seemed to be one pulsating body that smelled of something old and ugly and intentional.
As he continued to watch, the entity changed from a murky charcoal to a swirl of darting colors. They matched the plants on the periphery of the farm, and he realized the chanting wind had returned and the thing swelling up the well was thrumming to its beat. The lights under its skin were brighter and faster and he could start to see more clearly that the creature was shaping itself into a multi-limbed beast most akin to an octopus.
Then it opened its eyes. They were everywhere. The lumps and bumps he’d taken for imperfections across its surface stared back at him now in an infinite array of colors. He leaned further into the well because they beckoned, welcomed, commanded.
Just then the thing’s mouth opened, and he saw how impossibly large it really was. On the outside, it filled the full width of the well. But inside was like looking into infinity, down beyond the confines of the well and through the darkness of the earth out the other side to the vast vacuum of space. As he imagined himself falling past the regiment of jagged teeth, bouncing against razor-sharp edges until he was a tenderized piece of flotsam in the flow of the universe, he was suddenly blind.
Small warm hands covered his eyes and, attached to strong arms somewhere behind him, pulled him back from the precipice. When the hands fell away, he turned to see a woman about his height, cropped white hair contrasting sharply with her ebony skin. She was of an indeterminate age but when she spoke her voice carried the gravitas of eternity.
“You’ve come to find answers,” she said. “But just like the others, you’re asking the wrong questions. Do you know why this land looks this way? Feels this way? Acts this way?”
He shook his head.
“Because it holds the weight of all the pain and blood and sorrow of our people. The cruel lashings, the cowardly lynchings, the turning of a deliberate blind eye and deaf ear to the misery of those who were first enslaved and then freed into a new form of bondage.”
He was mesmerized by her words and tone. And the way the ground heaved with sighs and the song of the surrounding vegetation turned to moans and screams in sympathetic chorus with the story. Underneath it all, however, he could hear a clacking sound. When he looked toward the old foundation, he saw bundles of bare bones scuttling from corner to corner.
“All that agony soaked into the soil here,” she continued, “And when the soil couldn’t hold it anymore, it gathered itself together. Into the well,” she waved her arm in that direction. “Into the stones on this land.”
“The meteorites Nahum found?” he asked.
The woman chuckled. “That poor man and his family. Poking at things they didn’t understand until those things poked back. You know his name means ‘prophet?’ Yet he did not foresee this fate.”
She shook her head. “Those rocks didn’t come from beyond the stars. They came from the beyond,” she said.
“And the bright places inside those so-called meteorites? The ones that match the colors of their plant kin?
Those are the souls of all the brutalized slaves and their offspring.”
“How do you know all of this?” he asked. “It happened centuries ago.”
She smiled, and it was like catching a glimpse into the book of all answers for all things. “I am the Original Mother,” she said. “And though I do not play favorites among my children, it is time for a long overdue reckoning.”
As he looked around, he could see the strange phenomenon spreading across the rest of the valley. The glowing plants drew life in, the grey blight snuffed it out. The bones behind him were racing from foundation corner to corner, clattering out an ominous rhythm. Yet it wasn’t until he heard the moist slap of a tentacle limb hit the outside of the well rim that he ran.
“Welcome back, my loves,” the woman cooed as she began sauntering away in the footsteps of the departed scholar. She was not there to direct or guide the vengeance to come. In this valley of the lost, one had to find one’s own way.
Soon the grey grasslands seemed invisible under the setting sun and the shrouded moon. The wind hummed an aged dirge. The glowing plants seemed dull in comparison to the sparkling creature that continued to ooze from the well.
It was like a nightmare sideshow act made real; the undulating creature spreading slowly across the countryside, seeking reparation, accompanied by the rattle of ancient bones in search of playmates. At such a pace it was hours before the first screaming started, yet the depth of that suffering foretold much more to come. And while others peered from their homes to see if this unknown destruction was coming their way, the old woman closed her door and windows and waited.
I have been published in nearly two dozen speculative fiction anthologies and magazines and my first story collection, Down by the Sea and Other Tales of Dark Destiny, was published in April 2018. I am currently completing work on my second collection. ~ Michelle Mellon
“Starcrossed: was first previously published on the FunDead blogsite, February 24 2017.
“Absolutely not!” roared Yob-Soloth. “I forbid it!”
Ten eyes swivelled on their stalks to glare down at the object of the Elder God’s wrath.
“I don’t care!” screeched Yag-Soloth. “He summoned me. I answered.”
A dreamy look spread across the Elder Godling’s quivering eyes. “We bonded. It was wonderful. We’re soulmates!”
“You’re WHAT?” Yob-Soloth raised his squamous body to its full towering height. “No spawn of mine is going to conjugate with a…HUMAN! Go to your plane, and don’t manifest until I say so! Not for an aeon at least!”
“I HATE YOU!” Yag-Soloth shrieked before vanishing.
“My own sprog consorting with a human!” moaned Yob-Soloth, pseudopods flailing against the aether. “Oh, the shame of it. How will I ever face the Nigguraths and Haggoths at the next conflagration?”
The Elder God paused, eyes flaming bright at a sudden thought. “Unless I put a stop to this right now before anyone else finds out. Yes! I’ll track down this human defiler of my offspring and obliviate him! There’s no other way! Otherwise I’ll be shunned in all the infernal circles that matter. Never to appear in the pantheon again. I can already hear that oh-so-superior-I-Rule-for-All-Eternity Cthulhu, giggling through his tentacles in his sleep in R’lyeh.”
Yob-Soloth waved a pseudopod in a complicated eldritch pattern. “Pray to whatever gods will listen, human,” he rumbled. “I’ll teach you to bond with my spawn!”
The Elder God vanished. Silence reigned in the netherverse. Save for a faint tittering giggle.
Gregg Chamberlain is a community newspaper reporter, living in rural Ontario, Canada, with his missus, Anne, and their two cats, who may or may not be from Ulthar but if they are, they're not telling their humans. Gregg has about five dozen short-fiction credits in speculative fiction, ranging from microfic to novelette in venues like Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Mythic, Nothing Sacred, Weirdbook, and other magazines, and various original anthologies.
I read a lot about the oceans, the sea. Do you know there are over two hundred thousand species under the water? And over two million more that remain a mystery?
I think that’s beautiful.
The idea of a great, deep unknown, beneath those waves.
ANDREW McCORMACK (Deputy Head of Public Relations, FBI)
Innsmouth is a matter of public record. During the February 1928 operation there, agents learned of a severe health hazard that potentially endangered the public. A decision was made to evacuate and contain. Those involved were commended for their swift action in protecting the American people.
AMY ANDERSEN (Reporter, Essex County Enquirer, 1926-30)
Yes, I heard the news about Elspeth.
At the time, I was twenty-six, working as a reporter for the Enquirer. I was ambitious. Didn’t exactly have an eye on a Pulitzer but didn’t plan on spending my life in Massachusetts.
There were mutterings about Innsmouth from some law enforcement contacts. At first, it seemed like standard Bureau of Prohibition remit—shutting down bootleggers, lines of supply—-which made the decision to kick it upstairs to the Department of Justice something of an anomaly.
Journalists are like rabbits. Something’s in the wind, our ears start twitching.
DANIEL KEYES (Editor, Essex County Enquirer, 1920 - 1941)
You’re asking me about a story that happened almost thirty-five years ago. I can’t even remember where I put the TV remote this morning.
There were statements from witnesses who’d seen distant fires in Innsmouth, heard what sounded like explosions. Others up the Manuxet River swore they'd spotted sea vessels firing torpedoes into the bay. Nothing could be proven.
And then I met Elspeth Marsh.
I was ten years old. A lot of my memories from that time are scattered. There was the raid—fires burning across town, screams and smoke. Men in masks, guns, townsfolk grabbed from homes, marched to waiting vehicles. I tried to hold onto my mother’s hand but lost her in the confusion.
I dragged myself into the crawl space under one of the houses by the bay. Stayed there all night, terrified, curled in a ball, dirt in my mouth. I didn’t know what we had done that was so wrong, that made them hate us so.
I didn't have a plan. I wasn't brave or strong. I just knew I wouldn't let them take me.
Elspeth was found walking a country lane a few days later by Hector and Eliza North, an elderly couple who had a farm just outside Ipswich. They knew she was an Innsmouth girl from the look of her. I think if she'd been an adult they wouldn't have taken her in, they weren't what you'd call progressive. They trusted the police even less though. I suppose I was known as a sympathetic ear, I'd written a number of local interest stories, and they felt they could trust me.
Amy was like someone from the movies. Long, auburn hair. Sparkling green eyes. She spoke fast and had a big smile. I liked her instantly.
You still hear the expression around those parts. ‘The Innsmouth Look.’ Large eyes, wattling around the neck, a mouth that seems to droop, a peculiar coloring of the skin. Ridiculous rumors about their ancestry, even about what they turned into when they got older.
It was the first time I'd seen the look for myself through, and it did take me a little off-guard. But I knew to smile, pretend that there was nothing strange. She was still a child, even if she was different.
I told her everything I could remember from that night. I started crying. I was scared; I missed my parents, my family, my friends. She gave me her handkerchief, told me to keep it. That meant a lot.
It wasn’t an act of kindness, letting her keep it... (long pause) I just... I just didn’t want it back.
God, we’re terrible people. Judging others just because they're different. In many ways, I was worse, because I'd act like I was better than that.
Her story though…it was incredible. Filled in so many blanks, connected so many pieces. The more I looked, the more threads started to tie into it. A colleague had told me something strange a few weeks before, about how the military Regional Confinement Facility near Colorado Springs had been emptied of prisoners. All of them transferred, no reason given beyond ‘general maintenance. And then I discovered the facility had handed jurisdiction over to the Bureau, which was unheard of. We're talking about the mass deportation and imprisonment of American citizens.
LLOYD BOLLAND (Guard, Fort Carson Regional Facility, Colorado, 1921-1928)
They brought new staff in. They were erecting ‘temporary accommodation’ in what was the exercise hall. These things were like giant iron cages. I asked one guy what they were for, and he said: “For the children.” I remember laughing, thinking he was joking. After that, most of us got transferred to the facility in Georgia, and I didn’t think much more about it.
I went to my editor Daniel with what I had. I knew it was big. The US government taking families, children, locking them in military detention centers. They practically raised a town to the ground. All because these people weren't, well… They weren’t like us.
Daniel said he wanted to meet with Elspeth. If we were going to do this, then we’d have to do it right. I gave him the address of the Norths.
Then the story got shut-down.
DANIEL KEYES (Editor, Essex County Enquirer, 1920 - 1941)
As I said, I’ve no real recollection of any of this. No doubt, there was a lack of evidence to support the claims. We’re a newspaper. We deal with hard facts, not fanciful conjecture. I do remember Ms. Andersen reacted strongly to the decision not to print. Ultimately I had to let her go as a result, which was unfortunate.
There was no government interference or pressure. The implication is an insult. This is all history, maybe best forgotten.
They knocked on the door, two men in suits. Mr. and Mrs. North tried to stop them, but there were more men outside. They weren’t rough with me. One of them asked me if I was hungry, needed something to eat.
I'd never been in a car before. It was a long drive to Colorado.
I couldn't get hired anywhere. I tried to follow up on the story though, to gain access to the facility in Colorado. I tried to keep going.
One morning, I was in a coffee shop, writing up notes. A man sat down across from me. He said he wasn’t with the agency, but G-men have a certain look. He told me if I didn’t stop, there was a place in Colorado for me too. He was very matter-of-fact, like he was discussing the weather.
I was broke, unemployed… I just gave up the fight.
It’s terrible, but that’s the truth. I gave up.
I’d seen them once, maybe fifty people in these drab uniforms, being walked around the yard like animals. I thought that could be me if I kept going this way.
I never got to say sorry to Elspeth. But I am. For everything.
These words I’m writing might never see the light of day.
I know how that feels. I’m forty-four now. I haven’t seen the ocean since I was a child. Sometimes at night, when the others have settled, and the room is quiet, I can almost see the black waves rolling across the shore and the glimmer of distant lights below. Even this far from home, I still feel the whispering call of the deep.
We don’t live long, my people. I have a few years left, at best. I plan to make a run for it. There are guards, men with guns. They don’t despise us, not in the way I thought they did. They fear us. What we are. What we become.
I hope the world will change, and one day we won't lock away people, children, in cages, just because they're different. Because of a skin. Because of a look.
Either way, I won't be here to see that. I'm going to finish writing this, and get out, anyway I can. Maybe I'm not far from here, in some ditch, a story come to a violent, sudden end.
Or perhaps soon I will finally be home, on the cobbled sea-washed streets of Innsmouth, rushing down the lanes that lead to the shore. I'll let the water rise around me, lift me up, carry me under.
Do you know there are over two hundred thousand species under the water? And over two million more that remain a mystery..?
I really do think that’s beautiful.
In my day job I was work as a screenwriter and have been showrunner on the HBO Cinemax show Strike Back for the past three seasons. My short fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Helios Magazine Quarterly, Hinnom Magazine, the Necronomicon Memorial Book, The New Flesh: A Literary Tribute to David Cronenberg, and Ellen Datlow's 'Best Horror of the Year Volume 12'. My graphic novel ‘Tomorrow,’ illustrated by Garry Mac, was nominated for a 2018 British Fantasy Award. ~Jack Lothian