The Truth – A Short Story

The Truth

The traveler strode across the empty wastes, his face shadowed beneath the wide brim of his hat and protected from the blasting sand by the high collar of his coat. His steps were purposeful and methodical, a straight line across the sand dunes. There wasn’t much left of what had once been rich farmland and open prairies. Even the few small towns had been swallowed by the wastes. Nothing lived this far from the hub. There was no water or electricity. There was only one place left for humans, and it wasn’t western Kansas.

The traveler passed a particularly heavy dune and looked down into the valley beneath the waves of sand. A small patch of ground, barely large enough for the one room shack and small garden, had been reclaimed from the sands. The fluffy green leaves of vegetables growing up from rich, black soil drew his attention first. Nothing should be able to grow out here, but someone had managed. Someone had found water.

He checked the GPS on his wrist-com to confirm he’d found what he was looking for. It wasn’t likely for anyone other than Dr. Kendra Johnson would be living in an impossible reclamation in western Kansas, but he had to be sure. The coordinates told him he was practically on top of her.

This was the place alright.

He felt the hum of the unseen fence as he crossed it. His wrist-com squelched once before blipping to death. Across his body, dozens of other enhancements also fell dormant. It would take time for those systems to reboot to optimal again, but they had important failsafes built in. No one wanted their robotic heart to be wiped out by passing too close to an EMP field. The days of avoiding a microwave to protect your pacemaker were long gone.

The EMP field wasn’t what got his attention. The small garden wouldn’t survive the wastes without it, the nanites would have already consumed any new vegetation. No, his mind was drawn to the familiar whirr of rotary barrels winding up to speed. The old slug-throwers were harder to maintain than anything modern, but the rotating rail cannons packed enough force behind the magnetically powered drivers to put a sewing needle through a concrete bunker. Besides, they didn’t need anything special as ammo. Anything that would fit in the tube would launch. Some ammo was more effective than others, but at this range, all of it would be deadly.

“Good Evening, Doctor Johnston,” the traveler said. His voice was as mechanical as his steps. Too many implants for too many years. It was the only way to stay alive in the Hub. If he hadn’t seen the wasteland oasis with his own eyes, he would have told you it was the only way to stay alive, period. Dr. Johnston obviously disagreed.

“What do you want?” The grizzled woman asked. His face didn’t match the image the traveler had been shown. Of course, it had been nearly twenty years since the nanites had escaped into the world. Twenty years of reverse terraforming the planet, the slow, steady return from the life-sustaining mothership to dead rock.

The image in the traveler’s mind was of a much younger Kendra Johnston. A woman in her early-thirties, a serious look on her face, her lab behind her. The image had been one of the last front pages to be run by the New York Times. “The True Story: How Kendra Johnston Destroyed the World.”

How little the reporters had known.

“I have questions to ask you regarding the night of April 23, 2018. I have come from the Hub.”

“Yeah. People outside the Hub have inflection in their voice. Come on inside.” She gestured for him to come into the small shack but didn’t bother to lower her slug-thrower. She didn’t even reduce the power settings. “You read the report, but want to know the true, true story. Dr. Needlemeyer’s account not good enough? Creeper Paul always had his own way of revising the past.” Dr. Johnston flicked off the slug-thrower letting the spinning chamber wind down. When she sat it against the wall beside the door, the traveler expected to see something fall from the ammo chamber, but nothing did. It was empty. “So, are you a reporter, or just a history buff?”

“I report.”

“Alright. And you, what? Want to know the truth about that night? I can give you that. I can tell you what you want to know.” She gestured for the traveler to sit down on the bench beside the iron stove, then rested down on the bed herself. “The containment systems failed. The bastards got out. They reproduced.”

“There is more?” the traveler asked. This Dr. Kendra Johnston was not what he had expected at all. “Didn’t you have a failsafe?”

“The code was never completed. We didn’t think we’d need it.”

“Why not?”

Kendra leaned back on the bed, resting on her elbows. Years of reclaiming this small piece of land had pushed her skin even darker and covered her frame in lean muscle. Only the faintest of resemblance remained between this woman and the images he had seen. It seemed likely he was not dealing with Dr. Johnston at all, but a perhaps her daughter. Would he be able to find what he had come looking for?

“Creeper Paul.” She mistook his lack of movement for a need to clarify and went on. “Dr. Needlemeyer, Paul Needlemeyer. He was the Network Security Analyst for Deedrah Enterprises Advanced Research Laboratory. The DEARL was the underground equivalent to Deedrah’s undersea research facility. Literally. We were seventy-three stories beneath the Rocky Mountains. Needlemeyer was our security and networking guru.”

“Was he responsible for programming the failsafe”?”

“No, I was. I would have had it in place, too if Creeper Paul hadn’t decided to be so creepy.”

The traveler gestured for her to continue and became acutely aware of her staring at the metallic pieces of his hands. It had taken him this long to realize she had not been enhanced. Was it possible to live beyond the Hub without enhancements? He pulled the collar of his coat tighter around his face, hiding the steel cables and wires.
“Alright, you want the full story, and I’ll give it to you.”

Dr. Kendra Johnston sat at her workstation analyzing code. Across the room, a pool of gray sludge sat in the center of her sterile table, happily consuming a block of wood roughly the size of her fist. So far, the decompilers had torn the block down to about 50% mass. In another eight hours, they would be done and her program would have a new record for matter decompilation.

The second blob of goo was not having the same level of success. The wooden statuette was barely recognizable as it rose up from the table. Its mass had only grown 3 percent since the last measurements. 3% growth in nine hours was not impressive. The board wanted dramatic results.

She could give them dramatic decompile, but the board had seen that. Watching the nanite swarm turn an old building into raw materials again wouldn’t cut the mustard. There wasn’t any money to be made without the other half of the equation, at least as far as the board was concerned.

What Kendra couldn’t figure out was why the recompile team couldn’t keep up. No matter what she did, she couldn’t seem to overcome the nanites lethargy when it came to building. They just didn’t’ seem naturally inclined to create anything.

Perhaps the problem was more chemical than mechanical. She would have to allow the biotechnical guys another look at her work. They had already helped advance her research significantly. Forming the nanite swarms to act like bacterium was a large breakthrough. Microbots were insects. Nanobots were viruses.

She looked up from her console as the door to her lab hissed and The Creeper walked in. Paul Needlemeyer wasn’t the worst person she’d ever known. He was sort of sweet and passionate in his own way. But, he was definitely the creepiest.

Needlemeyer had a doctorate degree in digital surveillance and tracking. If that wasn’t the very definition of a stalker, Kendra didn’t know what was. He was harmless, really. He mostly spent his days watching women through the security system or upgrading this or that service. The old adage about scary dogs came to mind. He was always more afraid of women than women were afraid of him.

“Hi, Paul. I don’t really have time to chat, I’ve got a presentation due tomorrow and it’s not going very well.” Kendra turned back to her scrolling lines of code. There had to be something in there she could use. The control computer was the most powerful device on the planet. It wasn’t a matter of hardware. Something in the code kept the recompile nanos from working in harmony. She could figure it out. Her future depended on it.

“I need your help, Ken,” Paul said. His voice was quiet and nervous. “Something weird is going on with the cameras in the coffee shop on one. I keep getting crossfeed images I don’t understand. Nothing is wrong with the wireless. The rest of the network is fine. I switched out the local cameras, but I’m still getting the images coming through.”

“I didn’t think the coffee shop was part of our security,” Kendra said, absentmindedly. Something in the code was wrong. She could feel it. The resource usage for the recompiler was insanely high. The little builders were doing something, but it wasn’t building the statuette they were supposed to be building. “I’ve got serious issues here. Paul, I could lose my funding.”

“But, Rhonda is working today, and–”

“Oh, my god, Paul! I don’t care. Look, I will help you fix your feed after my presentation. You can stalk someone else for one day. Hell, watch me if you want.” She waved at the black orb hanging from the corner of her lab. “I’ll be here all night.”

“Well, that’s what’s weird. The crossover feed is coming from here in your lab.” Paul walked avoided the table as he walked to stand directly under the security camera orb. “But it isn’t coming from here.”

Kendra looked up from her console. “What are you talking about. That’s the only camera in the room, isn’t it? Isn’t it?” She stood up, angry. The hermetic chamber in the back of her lab required gooping down with a special anti-static slime and climbing into a hazard suit. If there was a camera in her lab that could see behind her privacy screen, she was going to kill the weasel.

“Not that I put in,” Paul protested. He moved to the opposite side of the room and squatted down behind her table. “It’s coming from somewhere around here. Did you bring a cell phone or iPad in with you?”

“Are you insane? The equipment in here is extremely sensitive to electromagnetism. All of my gear is handmade and specialty shielded. I don’t even like the damn camera you installed and I built the shield on it. You think I’m going to risk my funding by bringing a cell phone in here?” Kendra knew it was absurd. She tried to remind herself this was Paul’s’ actual job. He was a security expert.

“I’m just hitting the bases, Ken. This is a formality… or an informality as the case may be. But, yes, your funding is in danger here. So, what if you brought in a camera to show your progress to a competitor, say, maybe Li Wang Industrial?” He was still sliding along in a crouch behind her table, looking at her over the top edge.

“I told you about the Li Wang recruiter. I filed a report on everything they offered me. If my funding gets cut, I might go work for them, but I’m not a spy, Paul. You know that. You’ve got enough footage to know everything about me, so why are you really here?”

“I’m here because a secondary camera feed is being broadcast from your lab. How long have these goo piles been doing their thing on your table?”

Kendra looked down at her console, checking the progress data. “Almost ten hours. Why?”

“The far edge of this table is in the image, but the goo piles aren’t. The camera should be either on the table or in this wall at exactly the right height to hit the line.” He pointed to a space on the wall behind him, just about where his eyes were as he squatted.

“Neither of those is possible. The goo would destroy any electronics left on the table if the broadcast signal didn’t scramble their receivers. Even if it was hidden in that wall, the nanos would be acting crazy.”

“Exactly,” Paul said, popping back up from the floor. “So, why am I getting a camera feed from down here?”

Kendra shrugged. “I don’t know, but can you tell me when you figure it out. In the meantime, I’ve got nanites that refuse to work faster. Lazy little bastards take up an entire server farm’s worth of resources and can’t even build an action figure. It’s going to be hard to convince anyone they’re better than another iteration of a 3D printer.”

“Do they normally use that much bandwidth?” Paul asked, this time pointing to the displays on her console. “I’ve seen Professional Gaming events use fewer systems resources.”

“Not usually, but I’m trying to get them thinking faster. It’s just proof of concept, but if I can get them to build the statuette in, say, an hour instead of 90, I’ll be in business. Even if we can’t do it continually, yet.”

Paul moved in to stand beside her, mesmerized by the processes running on her secondary screen. He leaned in to focus on the code with only the trained eye of a camera obsessed stalker. “Look at ‘em go. Those guys are busy doing something.”

“Yeah, but it’s all junk code. It doesn’t mean anything. As far as I can tell, they’re all stuck in a recurrent loop, like they’re waiting for input. The controller is giving them commands, but only a handful of them execute. Something is broken in their internal network. Something in the code.”

Paul leaned in even closer, putting his hand on Kendra’s shoulder for support. A snap of static shot from his hand to her skin, causing the hair on her neck to stand on end. “Oh, god,” she muttered, already hammering away at her console. “Paul, tell me you ground yourself before you came in! Tell me you didn’t just expose my swarm to static!”

“I followed protocol,” Paul said defensively. “I must have built up a charge in here.”

“That isn’t possible. This room is ionized to prevent static. Everything in here is non-conductive. Even the damn computers are shielding in non-conductive materials. This is an electrically sterile environment for a reason. The nanites–”

“The look fine to me,” Paul said. “See, they’ve started building their little statue again.”

Kendra looked down at the recompile goo sitting on the table. The statuette was indeed rising from the puddle exactly as it should, only it didn’t match the specifications she’d programmed into them. Instead of a dancing ballerina, it was a small eyeball on a stalk.

And they were building it fast. Too fast.

“Is that a camera?” Paul asked, pointing down at the little eye. “You said you didn’t give them electronics to work with.”

“I don’t.” Kendra backed away from the table, moving toward the red button on the wall. “Paul. I’m sorry I called you the creeper.”

“What? Kendra, don’t worry about it. These things are great! They’re working. Look at ‘em go!” Paul turned back, trying to get her attention and saw her reach for the emergency shutdown button. “Ken? That’s for biohazard contamination, these guys are just working really well. Like you programmed them to.”

“I never gave them access to a camera.” Kendra leaned back and pushed the red button, killing the power to the controller computer and sealing the electromagnetic locks on the lab’s doors. “Someone’s been tampering with my goo.”

On the table, a second eyestalk began to grow from the little puddle of sludge. The decompile group finished devouring their wooden block and began moving in mass toward Paul’s hand at the edge of the table.

“What are these guys doing?” Paul asked.

“I don’t know. They shouldn’t be doing anything. The control box is down. They can’t function without input from something.” Kenda watched in fascination as the decompile pool reached the edge. A tendril of silver liquid lifted up from the center of the pool, the swarms feelers on the air, searching for more wood. That had been preprogrammed. The decompiler nanites would only chew fibrous organic material. Wood could be regrown, and they didn’t care what they were eating at the atomic level. Parts were parts.

Horror struck her as the silver tendril darted out and tagged Paul’s hand. He screamed and pulled away, his blood gushing from the huge hole in his flesh. “They bit me! The little fuckers bit me!”

Kendra couldn’t help but watch as the quarter sized chunk of Paul’s hand was consumed by the swarm. They didn’t care what they found. Parts were parts.

Sirens began to sound in the lab as the blood hit the floor. Pathogen protection protocols would be engaged. The entire floor would go hermetic. They would be trapped in here with the man-eating swarm until hazmat arrived if she didn’t do something, anything.

Kendra pulled at the panel for the kill switch, breaking away the shielding. The secondary failsafe was right there. All she had to do was cut the line. They wouldn’t make it off the floor, but they could get to one of the other labs.
She cut the line. At first, nothing happened. Then, new klaxons began to wail.

“Security Breach. Security Breach. Initiate Clean Sweep.”

“What’s a clean sweep?” Kendra asked. She hadn’t thought Paul could get any paler, but the clean sweep announcement shook him to his core.

“You don’t want to know. We need to get out of here.” Paul looked at the sealed door, then toward the back of the lab. “Quick, get in there. We’ll be alright in there.”

Kendra felt his hand wrap around her upper arm as he pushed her through the double containment lock on the sealed chamber. Both sets of doors hissed behind them, cutting out all sound from the rest of the lab. Kendra could still see the two pools of gray goo on the table, slowly forming back into one. They merged together, adding a small amount of mass to the eye stalks–the piece of Paul’s hand, Kendra realized–before turning their attention to the door.

A few moments later, everything went white.

“So, now you know. Are you going to print that, Mr. Reporter?” Kendra asked.

The traveler could see how tired she had become. Reliving the events of twenty years ago must have been emotionally draining for her. He empathized. Too few had been enhanced to ignore those feelings. He could still remember them. They were saved in his memory, but he no longer possessed them himself. “I have one more question, Dr. Johnston.”

“Go ahead,” Kendra said. “I’m game.”

“Dr. Needlemeyer suggested you may have access to the root code for the swarm. He said you were going to build a cure. Are you still working on a solution to the swarm?”

Kendra smiled. “No. The code evolved beyond my ability to comprehend it. I’ve spent the last five years on other projects. Stalling the swarm, slowing it down. Reprogramming them now is a pipe dream. One best left to young people with more brains than wisdom.”

“Do you still have the root code?” the traveler asked again. “My masters are greatly interested in accessing the root.”
Kendra tapped the side of her head. “Good old Human 1.0. I could rewrite that code in my sleep. I’m sure there’s a disk or something with the code on it, but the EMP generators are hard on computers. I’d rather work in my head than lose everything. I have to take them offline to do any new structuring and every time I do, I lose a few inches of my garden. It took a long time to get that garden up and running.”

“That’s good to know.” The traveler stood and pulled a small metal tube from his pocket. “Thank you, Dr. Johnston. Your services are no longer required.”

The traveler stepped out of the small cabin, Kendra Johnston’s slug-thrower over one shoulder. The magnetic field was already fading, and his enhancements were coming back online. The fuzzy edges of his vision sprang to life with a new set of commands.

His primary target had been eliminated. The source code threat had been dealt with. He turned back toward the east and began walking across the Kansas waste again. Soon he would return to the Hub and the collective. The swarm was safe from those who would destroy it. The mother had been silenced. She would never be able to threaten the code again.


A Note From the Author

I have a confession to make. This is not actually this week’s short story. I originally wrote this story back in May 2015. It has never been published before and it was languishing in my Google Docs. But, I really like it and thought it deserved to see the light of day. So, here it is.

did write a short story this week, but I haven’t decided if I will share it next week or not. I’m torn. I really like the character and the story. I mean, I really like them. Enough to maybe turn it into a much longer story.

Like I said. I haven’t decided.

Either way, I will be posting another story next week.


The Botched Job (A Short Story)

The Botched Job Title Card

Each quake brought another trail of dust floating down from the rafters, polluting the air in the already dingy room. Lester sighed and slapped the latest round free from his shoulders.
“That could have gone better,” he muttered to no one in particular. He looked down at the bag at his feet and sighed again. The bag held enough shiny rocks to buy one of the smaller kingdoms–Guldafar, perhaps.
Not that he’d be able to spend them unless he got out of here alive.
The heavy wooden door banged open and Gronn stumbled in. He carried a body over one massive shoulder and his jerkin was split across his orange scales.
“What happened to you?” Lester asked. “You were right behind me in the square.”
“Guard. Strong,” Gronn said, tossing the guard down onto the dirt floor. Great cut. Good.”
“What about Ruvi? He was with you?”
“Gone.” Gronn ticked the guard with one clawed toe.
“I can’t believe Ruvi’s dead. He was special. Fastest hands I’d ever seen and no one ever had a bad word to say about him.”
“Not dead. Gone,” Gronn said. He twisted his head to one side, slitted eyes disappearing into the scales of his face, then popped wide open again. “Glider.”
“He flew off? That sewer rat! I always knew he was a selfish, no good sewer snake. I can’t believe I trusted that fink. Everyone told me he’d flip,” Lester shouted. “And he took my bird? Ratfink.”
“You said–”
“I know what I said, Gronn. I don’t talk bad about the dead.” Lester grabbed the bag from the floor and tossed it over his shoulder. “So, our hand-man is gone, with our bird. We’ve got sixty pounds of hot rocks and no way out of the city. That sound about right?”
“No,” Gronn said. “Guard.”
“You want us to take a hostage?” Lester asked, then stopped and thought better of it. “You want us to ransom a hostage?”
“No, Lester. Guard!” Gronn squinted at him again, then tapped the side of his head. He made a long hissing noise followed by a gurgling growl then shrugged.
“Why don’t you grow a pair of lips already,” Lester said. “No. I’m sorry. That’s not fair. Was that Ttthhhhssurglaraaaah?”
Gronn nodded and gestured to the guard again.
“Oh! Right. Ttthhhssurglaraaah. Definitely.” Lester tossed the bag back to the floor and began stripping off his vest. “You know, Gronn, one of these days, we’re gonna pull a heist in Draknar and you’re gonna have to play the roughed-up guard.”
Lester folded the black spider silk vest and tucked it into the bag. “If I lose my vest, I’m taking all of Ruvi’s share instead of splitting it, you understand?”
Gronn shrugged bent down to pull the guard tabard free. “Nice shirt.”
“It’s not just nice. My granda gave it to me,” Lester said. He looked down to see Gronn staring at him again. “What? We aren’t all hatched in a rookery. Some of us have grandparents and they give us nice things.”
Gronn shrugged again. He thrust the guard’s tabbard in Lester’s direction. “Dress.”
“You’re awfully bossy today,” Lester whined. “At this rate, I might just have to charge you a fee for helping you get out of here.”
Gronn took a deep breath, spreading the muscles on his chest to just larger than Lester’s head.
“I’m joking, big guy.” Lester slid the tabard over his head and belted it in place. It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but he wasn’t about to trade pants with a dead guard. “Alright. You know the drill.”
Gronn held out his wrists, each as thick as Lester’s thigh.
Lester grabbed the irons from guard and held them up to Gronn’s arm. “Maybe your fingers?”
Gronn shrugged and extended his fingers and let Lester click the manacles in place.
“Alright, let’s do this.” Lester grabbed the bag from the floor and tied it to his belt. “Just a guard and his collar on their way to the docks.”
Lester shrugged. “I hoped holding onto the loot would keep that rat from turning on us but I wasn’t that hopeful. I’ve got a plan B… if we can get to the docks.”
Gronn nodded and kicked open the door. “Go.”
Lester shook his head and pushed Gronn hard through the door. “Move, thug! We’ll see what the magister thinks of this strong-arming nonsense!” He shoved him again, pushing him out into the muddy alley as another quake rolled through the city. “You know, Gronn. I’ve gotta ask. Who builds a city on an active volcano, anyway?”

A Copper Coast Distraction

Copper Coast Distraction

The explosive pop of gunfire bounced off the cinder block walls, mixed with the rapid pounding chords of an angry guitar, and echoed out through the dorm’s open windows. The first rifle was joined by a second.Then a third. Before Austin knew what was happening, it stopped.

Blood ran down the television screen and the dreaded white words appeared. Game Over.

“Dirty! Camping! Butt-munching sex badgers!” He dropped the controller onto the coffee table and snatched up the massive energy drink. “Did you see that? Glitch twitching jagoffs came through the wall.”

Jacob looked up from the books laid out in an even line across his desk. He shrugged and pointed at his ears. “What? I can’t hear you over the sound of Herman Li murdering my eardrums.”

Austin reached up and turned down the knob on the massive stereo hanging above the television. “You have no appreciation for the modern classics, man. Our grandkids will put DragonForce on the same pedestal as AC/DC and Alice Cooper.”

“So, on the butt-rock station, crammed between commercials for dating sites and monster truck rallies.”

“Whatever, I saw your foot tapping.” Austin crashed back down on the couch and snatched the controller back up off the table. “Ah, dick-balls. They dropped. Douches cheat and run.”

“Yeah,” Jacob muttered. “If you can’t find a pick-up match you might actually have to do some homework to pass the time.”

“I have a plan for that. I’m going to wait until the last minute and then guilt you into doing it. You know…. Like I do every semester.”

“Come on, man. We’ve got four months until the real world. You better believe I’m not going to come to your job and do your work for you, too.” Jacob picked up his books and shoved them into his backpack. “I’m gonna hit the library. I’ve got two papers due next week and I don’t have anyone to push my work off on.”

“Today was the second day of class. How could you possibly have papers due already?”

“Some of us have a future.” Jacob grabbed his notebook of the desk, knocking over a stack of papers and sending them scattering across the tile floor. “Damn it! That was two hours of work.”

Austin paused the game. “That is god’s way of telling you to take a break.” He grabbed the second controller and held it out. “Come on. We can go old school. Pop in some Gauntlet and order some greasy pizza. It’ll be like freshman year all over again.”

“Where’d this come from?” Jacob held up a pink envelope, his name written on it with glittery purple ink. “Did you put this on my desk?”

“Oh, yeah. It was on the floor by the door when I came back for the first nap. I figured you dropped it. Why? What is it?”

Jacob turned the envelope over. The seal was held in place by a sticker—a cartoon kangaroo wearing aviator sunglasses, smiling and giving a thumbs-up. “No name or return address. Somebody must have slipped it under the door.”

“Ooooh. Mystery letter,” Austin said. He hopped up from the couch and snatched the envelope from Jacob’s hands. He raised it to his face and sniffed it. “Awe… No perfume. Bummer. I thought it might be something sexy.”

Jacob took the envelope back from him and tore it open. Glitter puffed out as he pulled the card inside free.

“Careful. That coulda been anthrax or something,” Austin said, but he flopped back down on the couch and unpaused his game.

“You think terrorists are gonna mix their anthrax with glitter and send it to a college kid?” Jacob asked. The front of the card was a postcard image of green cliffs dropping into a pale blue ocean. Orange and yellow letters drawn to resemble a sunset read “Greetings from the Copper Coast.” The only thing inside the card was a small note and address written in purple ink. “I like kangaroos, too. XOXO, Hannah.”

“Who’s Hannah?”

“Don’t know. 1531 Cooper? You know where that is?” Jacob sat back down at his desk and cracked open his laptop. “I think that’s over by the square.”

“It’s a bar,” Austin said. “1531 Cooper. It’s one of those dueling piano places. They do trivia on Tuesdays and do a theme night each Thursday. It’d be right up your alley. I mean, if you didn’t have a broom shoved up your crapper and an irrational fear of bar stools.”

“It’s not irrational.” Jacob pulled up the bar’s website. “Tonight’s theme is ‘Shrimp on the Barbie’.”

“The plot thickens,” Austin said. He clicked turned off the television and stood up. “So we gonna go and meet your mystery woman or what?”

“I don’t know, man. What kind of girl slips an envelope under the door? I don’t even know what she looks like. What if she’s a serial killer or drug kingpin–”

“–or a dude. Hannah could be a dude’s name. Come to think of it, in the four years we’ve been roomies, I’ve never seen you go on a date. A dude named Hannah might be your bag. If it is, I support you.” Austin widened his eyes and smiled. “I just want you to be happy. So let’s go to the bar and meet your prince.”

Jacob flipped the card over-and-over in his hands then tossed it back on his desk. “I can’t. I’ve got too much work to do to run off and meet some mystery lady.”

“That’s bunk and you know it. Come on,” Austin grabbed Jacob’s arm and pulled him out of the chair. “You do this tonight and I’ll do my own homework for the rest of the semester. What have you got to lose?”

Jacob sighed and tossed his backpack over his shoulder. “Fine, but I’m bringing my homework with me and if things go bad, we’re blowing it off and going with me to the library.”

“Alright. Deal,” Austin said. “But, if it goes awesome, I’m reneging on the homework thing.”

Jacob shrugged. “I guess we’ll see.”

“We will indeed,” Austin said, locking the door behind them. “We will indeed.”

The Orchid

The Orchid - A Short Story

I do not know where the flower came from or what secret admirer left it sitting in the middle of my desk. It just appeared there one morning. I went down to the copy room to run the sixty-five hard copies of the CRPNT presentation–double-sided, 10lb bond weight paper, three-hole-punched–and there it was when I returned. Just sitting there.
At first, I didn’t mind. It seemed like a nice enough gesture. No card was weird, but people leave things on my desk sometimes. Their way of showing some small affection or appreciation. It’s nice, really it is. The flower itself was pleasant enough, too. Not a typical “you’re the best assistant” flower like a daisy or a tulip, but a large, purple and green orchid.
I don’t normally keep flowers around my desk. I have a black thumb. Plants die around me, but I figured flowers aren’t meant to last anyway, so I might as well keep it and enjoy it while it lasted. The honey-sweet smell coming from it didn’t even bother my allergies. Really, someone went to a lot of trouble to make sure I could have a flower I would enjoy, even if it was only for a short amount of time.
So, I moved it to the back of my desk, just below the window, and forgot about it as I dove back into making sure all the i’s were dotted and all the t’s crossed. Such is the life of an executive assistant.
I didn’t even think about the flower again until I was putting on my coat to head out the door for the night. It was still there, sitting in the dim evening sun, bright purple shining happily. I thought about taking it home but decided against it. It had to come from a colleague, and I wanted them to know I was enjoying it. So I left it, sitting in its black plastic pot and hurried to catch my elevator.

The next morning was the first sign this flower might be something more than meets the eye. It grew overnight, a second blossom popping up right beside the next. It was strange to have a plant thriving in my presence, but flowers do that, don’t they? I couldn’t remember. It’s been a long time since I was able to keep anything green alive for more than a few hours. Besides, I didn’t have time to dwell on it.
The office was a mess. The trash cans were still full and no one had vacuumed.
I placed a call to the custodial company to find out what had happened to George. In the four years I’d been working here, I’d never known George to miss a shift. But, he is getting up there in years and not moving as quickly as he once did. I admit, I was worried he might have had a heart attack or a stroke. I wasn’t trying to complain, although the woman on the other end of the line sure thought I was.
She explained that no one had heard from George all morning and he never checked back in last night after doing his rounds. Our office is the end of his shift on Tuesday nights and everyone else was cleaned just fine. I told her I was only interested in making sure he was well and asked her to give me a call if she learned anything.
She must not have learned anything because she never called me back, but at the end of my shift, a sullen teenager showed up with a vacuum. I guess George must have decided to take a vacation. I hoped I hadn’t gotten him in trouble.
I stayed late that night and made sure the new kid did everything the same way George would have. It was after eight by the time I got home and I missed Dance Moms, but I knew George would appreciate it when he came back.

The next morning, my flower was more like what I’d expected from the first day. The second blossom was looking a little wilted and the dirt was dry. I remembered that flowers liked water, so I made sure to give it what was left of my coffee. It seemed to perk up by the late morning. Maybe it needed caffeine, too.
I had meetings after lunch–mostly just updates from one project team or another. I needed to be there to keep minutes and check what they were telling us things cost against the real invoices they turned in. I don’t usually pay much attention, so I couldn’t tell you which projects they were. I used the time to catch up on drafting a memo about the upcoming potluck to celebrate Dianne’s retirement. I was working on a new system to make sure everyone brought something different so we didn’t just end up with an entire conference room full of cookies this time.
When I got back from my meetings, the flower was looking healthier than ever. It had grown a third bud! I decided I would start buying it a cup of coffee of its very own every morning. Maybe I was better at this plant stuff than I thought.
There was also a note on my desk from Dan in accounting. He said it was urgent and I should call him as soon as I was out of my project report meeting, but when I called, I got his voicemail so it must not have been that important. It was probably just some missing receipt for a three dollar stapler, anyway. They always made a huge deal over the nickel-and-dime supplies and then completely ignored the half-million-dollar contracts. Oh, well. That’s life with bureaucracy. I sent him an email instead and told him to call me back on Friday. I had doctor’s appointment on Thursday and I’d already rescheduled it for work seven times. I wasn’t going to miss it again, and afterwards, I was going to treat myself to an afternoon at home.

So, that was my Thursday.

The office was always quiet on Fridays, but that Friday was quieter than usual. I got to work early. I wanted to have plenty of time to go over the things that pile up when I’m gone for even a day and was pleasantly surprised to find my orchid had grown substantially while I was gone. Eleven new buds hung loose and vibrant from the large bush growing from the pot. I gave it some more coffee, moved the handful of papers from under its leaves, and got to work playing catch up.
It was noon before I looked up and realized nobody had come to bother me all day. It wasn’t normal to have four full hours of time working for myself and I double-checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t a holiday before I went exploring the office to see if anyone else had bothered to come in to work at all.
The office was empty like someone had called the day off work and never bothered to tell me. I couldn’t believe it. I decided if no one else was coming in, I didn’t need to be there, either. After all, the weather was gorgeous for the first time in months. I worked as hard as anyone else and I had plenty of vacation time. I was going to enjoy a nice afternoon, too. I sent my boss and email and headed for home.

Several hours later, I got a text message from my boss asking me to come back into the office. It wasn’t like him to call me in after five on a Friday, even during the busy season. I figured it had to be a special kind of emergency, probably because everyone decided to play hooky except for me. I didn’t think it was my problem, but after-hours work is rare enough and I did take the afternoon off, so I headed in.

The office was dark. Most of the building’s lights are on timers, so there usually isn’t much light on the fourth floor after dusk anyway, but it was darker than normal. I didn’t even see the glow from the parking lot lights through the windows in my office. I couldn’t remember if I’d remembered to put the blinds down or not. I’m usually pretty forgetful about that sort of thing.
I skipped my door and headed straight for my boss’s office, but it was dark, too. I couldn’t find anyone in the halls, so I decided to head back to my desk to check my email–make sure I wasn’t getting some ghost message from weeks ago. Sometimes phones work like that, don’t they.

The lights were still off when I got to my office. After trying the switch a few more times, I decided to light the scented candle on my file cabinet. Normally, I’d just leave it there collecting dust. Candles, especially scented candles, are against policy but my mom gave it to me for my birthday anyway and I didn’t want her to think I didn’t appreciate her. I always thought it might come in handy in an emergency, and it did.
Once it was lit, I sat it atop of the big box of recycling so it would be next to my mirror and spread the light out into the room so I could see if anything was working.

That was the first time I noticed anything about my desk all night.

The flower was huge! I swear I thought I saw it growing right in front of my eyes. It was probably just a trick of my mind, but it was way bigger than it had been when I left at lunch. That flower sure likes its coffee.
I turned on my monitor and logged in. Sure enough, there was an email from my boss. He said he was having a family emergency and would be flying overseas for the foreseeable future. He instructed me to “hold down the fort” while he was gone and when he got back everything would make sense. It was weird, but it made sense, I guess. I knew most of the executive functions. I could wrangle lawyers and accountants. Maybe that was why everyone had taken the day off. Maybe he’d told them yesterday.
But why would he call me in and then send me an email? That didn’t make sense. The timestamp on the email was from just a few minutes before I got there. I should have seen him leaving the building. Come to think of it, his car was still in the parking lot. Maybe his wife had picked him up. I decided I had better try catching him at home before he grabbed his flight. I needed more instructions than just “hold down the fort.”

I was halfway through dialing his number when a thick, green vine fell across the receiver and disconnected the call. I pushed it away and started dialing again, but the vine flopped right back in place. I decided the flower needed a bit of pruning. It was great to have raised a plant from a single bud to a massive bush, but I was going to need my desk back. Besides, I’d heard somewhere flowers like a bit of pruning and if you trim them back, you’ll get even more blossoms. I had gotten used to the subtle wafting off the flowers and didn’t think it would be bad to have it a little stronger.
I pulled the scissors from the drawer on my desk and started feeling my way along the vine, trying to find the base in the mess of leaves. I gave up after two tries. My hand kept getting trapped down near the dirt and I managed to scratch my fingers pretty bad on the thorns I couldn’t see. A couple of the scrapes even drew blood. I don’t know if cutting a vine off in the middle is bad, only that my dad used to always clip the branches as close to the trunk as possible when he pruned the trees back home. Either way, I wasn’t going to stick my hand back down inside that thing again, so I grabbed the vine and snipped it off just outside the big bushy leaves.

And the flower screamed–a record-needle-on-smooth-glass, thousand-tea-kettles scream.

I don’t remember dropping the scissors or backing away, but I remember bumping up against the wall as all of the blossoms rotated on their stems, petals curled like the angry snarl of a rabid dog. The leafy bush beneath began to tremble. Vines flopped down across my desk and onto the floor, thick and covered in sharp, hooked thorns. The entire plant began to slide forward, plastic pot scraping across my desk as it moved closer. Things began to spill out from between the leaves. An old hearing aid. A clipboard covered in receipts. My boss’s cell phone.

I froze in place until the plastic pot reached the lip of my desk and slowly lowered to the floor. There was no way this was a cruel joke. No one was pushing the pot from behind my desk just to scare me. No office hazing or bad prank. Once the flower started slowly sliding across the carpet, I found my body again and scrambled toward the door. I forgot where everything was in my office, banging into the file cabinet and stumbling over my trashcan as I hurried to get out of the office and out of the building.

I didn’t stop to look back until I was at the door to the stairs and the flower began to scream again. I could see clearly in the strange orange light where it on the floor of my office, halfway between my desk and the door. All of the blossoms were turned toward the sky and spread out wide. The shook with each new screech from deep inside the bush and the vines thrashed about wildly.

I slammed the heavy metal door and took the stairs three at a time, the shriek following me all the way down. I was already at the front door when the scream died and the fire alarm kicked in. Outside, I could see the smoke and flames billowing out through my window and could hear the sirens in the distance. The fire department was already on its way, so I just sat down on the grass in the middle of the parking lot and waited, worried and alone.

Then, I smiled as a thought floated through my mind. My talent for killing plants had finally paid off.

Urban Fantasy Examined Part 3 – The Future of Contemporary Fantasy

I’m not going to lie. If I knew exactly where contemporary fantasy was going to be in a few months or a few years, I would jealously hoard my knowledge…. like a brain dragon. But, I don’t, so I’m going to make a few wild speculations with less combined accuracy than a typical magic 8-ball.

We’ll start with the easy one:

There Will Be More Vampires and Werewolves

This feels like a safe bet. I’m not complaining. Repurposed Eastern European folklore isn’t really my cup of tea, but I can’t imagine it going away any time soon. People like blood suckers and shape-shifters. These stories go back all the way to when contemporary fantasy was something like “Throck see Crong drink Cruwa blood. Crong baaaaad!”

This isn’t a bad thing, either. Although the market might seem potentially played out, the fact that bloodsuckers and shape-shifters have existed in folklore all over the world shows a lot of potential. My sincere hope is writers will begin to move beyond the Eurocentric… Transylcentric? view. The market will demand it.

We need more diversity in our undead, and I don’t just mean equal opportunity blood sucking.

(Note to self: Undead Civil Rights Movement is worth researching. Get on that)

Speaking of equal opportunity monsters and the fighting thereof:

Diversity of All Kinds

One of the greatest things about the “indie revolution” and the globalization of the publishing market is the creation of opportunity. Voices from all walks of life and every corner of the world will rise up. It is only a matter of time before they break away from the “niche” markets and hit the mainstream.

A couple of years ago now, I found the Knights of Breton Court by Maurice Broaddus. The series is a modern-day retelling of Arthurian legends played out by inner-city gangs. The writing was reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance poets. The characters were absolutely wonderful. The combination of the hard rules of the Arthurian cycle put into a unique frame of reference was top notch.

And yet, I never see it mentioned as one of the pillars of Urban Fantasy, despite being the very definition of the genre.

I blame its publisher.

I happened to stumble on it by pure chance. How many more stories am I missing because I’m too busy spending my time on the bestsellers? Let’s face it, other than very few exceptions, the Urban Fantasy bestseller list is pretty monochromatic.

And that’s only one aspect of the type of diversity I’m hoping to see. I want stories from all points of view. This is as important to me as a writer as it is to me as a reader. The genre needs more voices.

After all, we live in the future. Which brings me to my next point…

Fray — Vampires vs Robots

If you’re not familiar with Joss Whedon’s Fray, it is basically Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a dystopian megacity of the future. It’s a blend of SciFi and Contemporary Fantasy. The genre has existed before, but as technology advances, I think we’re going to see some really great “Technology vs Magic” stories. Sure, our kids and grandkids might think they’re as quaint as we do, looking back on the “science” in Lovecraft’s stories, but for me, it’ll be a real treat.

I’ve recently been brainstorming some possibilities.

There is a particular scene in the Dresden files involving paintball makers and vampires. After many books of me wondering aloud why none of these people carry a collapsible baton when they are going up against fairies, they eventually do.

And of course, who can forget when Buffy takes out the Judge with a rocket launcher?

As a general rule, technology is usually considered inferior to magic. Even in my own work, I handwave modern technology as society’s attempts to replicate the abilities Order Mage’s have always kept secret from them.

Maybe it’s just me, but I like the concept of magic and tech coming together in new and interesting ways and really look forward to seeing what other writers can do with the idea.

Of course, it isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before, which is my final point for the week:

Everything Old Will Become New

The Incarnations of Immortality was probably my first glimpse into Urban Fantasy and the world exists at the pinnacle of both magic and technology (for the 1980s). Everything is mixed together because that is just what humans do.

I’m already beginning to notice a trend towards third-person narration again. In the 80s and 90s, most contemporary fantasies were written third-person, but along came the Dresden Files and everything went into first-person. Now we’re cycling back.

The trending monster of the moment runs in cycles, too. All the way back to the gothic writers. It might be Fey one moment and vampires the next. Angels and demons will be hot for a bit only to be knocked back to the bottom of the pile by witches.

If there is one prediction I can make I am certain will come true… it’s the vampires thing above… if there is a second, it’s the cycle of popularity.

With such a broad and diverse market, everything will eventually get its day in the sun as the flavor of the day. It will shine for a moment, then fade away, ready to pop back up when it’s needed.

Like a truly great fantasy hero… or villain.