Have another of those "deniable horror" stories like I did last year

I’m not afraid of the dark.
I just want to make that clear. It’s not the dark that frightens me. Not all dark, anyway.
I mean, sure, when I was a child I was afraid of the dark. But then I learned that some dark is friendly. The warm dark, at night, when you’re under the covers, safe in your bed. That’s the first kind I discovered, the protective, sheltering dark that gently surrounds.
In middle school I was the very first kid picked up by the school bus. It was then that I became familiar with the cold dark, which is no more of a threat than the warm. The cold dark is the crisp, cloudless, star-filled sky at five in the morning, the little fingers of cold that work their way into your coat through sleeves, collar, pockets, to remind you that you are awake and alive. Once I even saw an aurora, a frozen ripple of purple and blue far, far off in the northern sky.
The warm dark was the first kind to which I gave a name. The cold dark was third. In between, when I was six or seven, I discovered that not all dark was safe. There’s another kind, a kind that lurks and pools. The kind that streetlights don’t illuminate so much as punctuate, that feels like a physical substance pushing against the little circle of light, just waiting to snuff them out. The kind that is solid, tangible, and right behind you. It lived in my basement, the lurking dark, waiting at the foot of the stairs. I learned what bravery was the day I first went down there alone, and found nothing. I learned that it was all in my head.
But it still follows. Walking along the street at three in the morning, I feel it, throbbing and alive two inches behind my left ear. There’s nothing there when I turn to look, of course, because it’s all in my head.
Six doors down from my apartment is a narrow room containing recycling bins and the trash chute. The lurking dark lives there, one of many places. You can drive it off with a little dial next to the door. Twist it, and it slowly works its way back, ticking. The dark is patient. It listens, and when its minute is up, back it comes. The skin on my neck crawls as I shove my trash bags into the chute, listening to the ticking. I do not want to be there when the dark comes back.
I know. It’s all in my head.
Where does the dark go when we turn on the light? In the deep, deep caverns and the bottom of the sea, where no light has ever been, does it gather? Warm, cold, lurking, do they all return to the deep dark to nurse? I know it’s there. I see it in my head. The deep dark, the mother of all the others, their home.
And the other kind, too. The kind that’s never come out, that still waits to be discovered. The kind the lurking dark might take me to, if I wasn’t careful. The howling dark. The anger and loneliness for which this world of light and life is just an eggshell, thin and fragile.
But I’ve never seen it. It’s all in my head.
So why do I know that it howls? Why can I hear its screaming? Distantly, like a memory, but never ceasing.
All in my head, all in my head, all in my head. Why do people say that as if it’s supposed to be comforting? It’s all in my head! How can I run from something that’s in my head? No matter where I go, it arrives at the same moment I do!
And of course it’s in my head. There’s never been any light in there either. The inside of a skull is as dark as the bottom of any ocean trench, any ancient cavern. No light has entered there since the day you were born; even your eyes reflect it all back.
Where does the darkness go when you turn on the lights? It goes into your head, to feed. Its mother is right there, the deep dark, all in your head, my head. And waiting inside that, the howling. Of course I know what it sounds like, of course I can hear it, it’s in my head!
Although… There is one way to let in some light.

Fiction Friday: Four Stories, Roughly Two and a Half of Them True

Happy Halloween! Here’s some scary stories. All of them are true, especially the parts that aren’t.

And check out My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 for some coverage of bronies being scary! Purchase links on the Books page!

This is the story of why I don’t believe in ghosts. Because I don’t; not anymore.

As a child I believed in basically everything. Not religion, obviously; that sort of nonsense was fine for Christians but not sensible and level-headed Jews like us. But I understood the language of television well enough at six, seven, eight years old to understand that cartoons and live action shows like Alien Nation or Dallas were just stories, while things like the news and documentaries were true. And since they used the televisual language of documentaries and news magazines, I naturally believed shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings were true, too. So I believed in aliens, psychic powers, Atlantis, and so on the same way that I believed in Congress or California or distant stars–without fervor, matter-of-factly.

My room became mine when I was six. My youngest sister was big enough to no longer sleep in the same room as my parents, so she moved into the room I had shared with my other sister; I therefore moved into spare room, which my mother had used as a study. I can still see the wallpaper in that room, a swirl of purple waves and pale-blue clouds interpenetrating in chaotic whirls. At the seams, it had yellowed a bit, turning those blues and purples into sickly greens, but other than that it was, I suppose, fairly pretty wallpaper. I was content; it made a good backdrop for whatever games my Lego spaceships– because no matter what the Kit was suppose to be, it became a spaceship in my hands–and I engaged in. 

Months passed, circled back, passed again. Six became seven became eight. Until one night I woke up and couldn’t move. 
It was dark. Impossibly dark, as pitch black as I had ever seen anything. There was a window directly behind my head, just above my pillows, but not a scrap of light came through it. 
And I couldn’t move. I had succeeded in opening heavy eyes, I could look around the room, but I couldn’t turn my head, couldn’t speak, couldn’t make my limbs move or even twitch a finger. A heavy weight lay across me, like a thick quilt but without the heat. It was heaviest on my chest, and I struggled to breathe as my eyes flicked around the barely visible room. Something was wrong. Besides being unable to move, besides the darkness, besides the pressure on my chest–there was another fear, beyond all of that, something instinctive and inchoate. I wanted to scream, and couldn’t.

Then the green began to glow. Thin lines of green along the seams of the wallpaper detached themselves into sickly glowing globs, drifting slowly toward my bed. I strained desperately in panic. If I could just open my mouth, just scream for my parents–but I couldn’t do anything as the light assembled itself into the vague form of a human, head too big, limbs too long, body too small, and made of independent smears of sickly yellow-green light, but still recognizably a person, watching me, bending over my bed. Considering me with great dark eyes, reaching one long hideous finger toward my face, closer and closer, until my eyes crossed trying to follow it and it blurred. Any second it could touch me, and this entire time the only sound was my rough panicked breathing, and I still couldn’t move, couldn’t struggle, couldn’t fight the weight pinning down my chest and my arms and my legs, couldn’t get my mouth open to scream.

Maybe there were clouds and they parted. Maybe it was timing and the moon happened to rise over the house across the street just then. I don’t know. All I know is that suddenly a shaft of silver light stabbed in through the window and struck the green, and it scattered. Dozens of little motes of light flowed away from it and back into the walls.

I found I could move one finger. Twitching it back and forth shook my arm free, and then suddenly I could move, and I screamed and screamed until my parents woke.

I refused to sleep in that room until they took down the wallpaper. I slept on the sofa in the living room for perhaps a week while they painted the room a nice blue with white trim and no green anywhere, and then I consented to sleep there again. In the years since I have, from time to time, woken in the night in terror, unable to move, but I read up on it. It’s just sleep paralysis, and sometimes it causes hallucinations.

So I don’t believe in ghosts, or alien visitors, or fairies, or anything else that comes in the night to steal children away. Because if I believed what I saw… well, then I’d be crazy, wouldn’t I?

***

In my second semester of college, I became a copy editor on the student newspaper. The next year, I moved up to copy chief. One of the new reporters that year, K, was small and energetic and cosplayed a quite accurate Yui Ikari, and I was definitely interested. Plus her friend kept hinting rather heavily that if I were to make a move, K would reciprocate. This was not a circumstance with which I had much experience, and I was rather at a loss regarding what to do about it.

Come October of that year, an assignment came down the pipe: a group of students were planning an overnight Halloween camping trip at Point Lookout State Park, which claims to be the most haunted park in America.

The park lies at the point where the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay, and is mostly woods, with a little bit of beach where it meets the bay. It was the site of a minor battle in the War of 1812 between a small local militia and an overwhelming British force, and in the Civil War it housed a POW camp and military hospital. They say that the dead of both camp and hospital were buried by the sea, but the sea has eaten away at the land, so most of the graves are now under the waters of the bay.

There’s a small house on the parkland where the rangers live. They say they’ve had objects go missing only to be found stacked in pyramids in the bathroom. They say that people who spend the night there often feel someone tugging at their toes, that that’s how the doctors in the field hospital used to check if their patients had died in the night.

They say a lot of things, and I was happy to go along and witness none of them happening, because I’d always wanted to get to debunk something. I’m not sure why K decided she wanted to go. Whatever her reasons, we were handed a camera–this was 2002, when trusting a digital camera to a student was a pretty big deal–and told to go along, talk to the others, write about anything unusual that happened, and take lots of spooky pictures.

We arrived in the early afternoon, were told a bunch of stories about the history of the park by a ranger, and then free to explore. I remember emerging from the woods into the sudden shock of bright sunlight off the bay, a few hundred feet from a decaying old shack on the water’s edge. When we looked inside, there was nothing there but a tall, narrow table set into the floor, like a kitchen island. A large carving knife stuck blade-first into the table, next to a pile of dead fish. As we watched, one of the fish slowly, deliberately bent upwards, staring at us out of one black, round eye.

We fled back into the woods, laughing. Obviously, I told her when I had my breath, it was recently caught and flopping randomly as it gasped for air. That we were the only people along the entire beach, that they were no boats to be seen, that the smell and bugs suggested those fish had been there quite a while–well, neither of us elected to comment on any of that.

We explored the woods further as it started to get dark. We found another broken down old shack and tried to take pictures. The shack was empty and very dark inside, but when we checked the pictures there was a ball of light hovering in the middle of the room. A bit creepy, but just some trick of the flash and the window glass, right?

We returned to the campsite and laid out our sleeping bags a little ways away from the rest of the group. It was a clear, crisp night, unusually warm for Halloween. We chatted for a little while about nothing consequential.

“What’s that?” asked K suddenly.

“What’s what?” I asked.

“You don’t hear that?”

We were quiet a moment. I strained but could hear nothing. It was too late in the year for crickets, and there was no wind to speak of. “No,” I said. “What did you hear?”

“A voice,” she answered. “But it stopped.” She sounded scared. I wasn’t, of course. Everything that had happened that day had a perfectly rational explanation and there was nothing to fear at all.

“Maybe we should hold hands,” I suggested.

We did. Her hand was ice-cold, but it was still nice. We lay there in quiet for a while, looking up at the stars, or at least I was.

“I’m cold,” K said after a while. She scooted closer to me in her bag, and I let go of her hand and put an arm around her.

“You are!” I said in surprise. Her whole body was nearly as cold as her hand. But then, like I said, she was pretty small, so it made sense she’d get cold easily.

I held her, and we cuddled, which eventually led to other things, and we forgot about any strangeness until morning, by which time we were a couple. K talked to some of the other campers, none of whom noticed anything particularly strange, and most of whom were also in pairs. We returned to school and wrote the story, which was dutifully published in the next issue’s Features section.

The next few weeks were among the most intense of my life. K was, it turned out, an incredibly passionate woman, not just in the usual sense but in everything. No matter what we did, she flung herself into it with abandon, relishing every experience, from the taste of food to the textures of fabrics. There was little talking with K, and a great deal of doing, touching, tasting.

And she was always, always cold. I liked that; I hate being too hot, and she was always deliciously cool to the touch. Late nights at the newspaper, when everyone was a little punch-drunk and we just wanted to wrap up whatever the crisis of the day was and put the damn thing to bed, I would sit on the floor with my arms around her, cool and soft while we waited for whichever editor was holding things up to get their fixes done so I could check them.

It was an intense time, and like most intense experiences, it is longer in my memory than it was to live it. After a few weeks at most, things began to change. She became suspicious–not jealous, but concerned whether people were who they said they were, whether I was really me and she was really she. She would scream sometimes, a short sharp yelp for no reason she could explain afterwards–and the one time I pushed about it was our first real fight.

By the end of the year, it was over. She accused me of being a spy, of trying to make her crazy so that she wouldn’t realize what I was up to, of being in league with the forces arrayed against her. She was both furious and terrified in that last fight, pale and bug-eyed as she shouted that she wasn’t going to let them get to her, wasn’t going to fall for my tricks.

And then she was gone, from my life, from the newspaper–I think she even dropped out of school.

She had some kind of a breakdown, I guess. Stress of school, or some other issue, who knows? I wish I’d understood better at the time, been able to help, but who knows what if anything I could have done? Anyway it was a long time ago.

And like I said, I don’t believe in ghosts, or curses, or anything silly like that. Everything has a rational explanation, even if we don’t always know what it is–and everything here is explained by known issues with the human brain.

Except the way her hair would sometimes smell like the sea. That’s a bit odd, I guess.

***

Even though I was the oldest, I was the last of my mom’s kids to move out. Once I finally went off to college, she sold the place we’d lived when I was in high school. She lived in an apartment for a little while, but eventually bought a little house with her wife, M. When I came home from school, I lived there for a while, in a bedroom that had once been the attic.

The stairs up were by the kitchen, long and narrow. At the top you emerged at the front left corner of the little room, which sloped down from there in both directions. There was a wall to the left, where the original house ended, and a sort of cross between a skylight and a window, since by that point the ceiling was practically a wall. The back right corner was the lowest point of the ceiling, maybe two feet off the floor, while the back left corner was closer to three feet. 

The odd thing about that corner was the door. It was a perfectly ordinary door in miniature, about a foot high and painted white, with a little doorknob and a deadbolt. Beyond its size, the strangest thing about the door was that it was there at all; the attic ended at that wall, since the extension was only on the ground floor, so there couldn’t have been more than a few inches of space between the door and the exterior wall.

But hey, compared to the sorts of people I had as my first couple of college roommates, a weird door barely registered. I assure you it is entirely a coincidence that my bed was in the farthest possible corner of the room from the door.

Door or no, I liked that little room, with its oddly shaped corners and low ceilings and bookshelves filling every available bit of wall except the one with the door. I particularly liked it on stormy nights, which are pretty common in Maryland summer; I would lay in my bed and watch the rain drumming against the skylight, an endless ratatat that could lull me to sleep easily.

One night, I was lying there, watching a particularly energetic storm, when I heard something odd. It was quiet, but it sounded like a quiet scratching noise. Scritchscritchscritch pause, it went, scritchscritchscritch pause. But it was quiet, and the rain was drumming away, so I assumed I’d imagined it.

But then it came again. Scritchscritchscritch pause. Louder and a little faster, scritchscritchscritch pause. Now I was quite sure I could hear it, and as it became more insistent (scritchscritchscritchpause scritchscritchscritchpause) I was able to pinpoint where it was coming from: the little door, of course.

The scratching grew louder, and began to be accompanied by something else, a sound I couldn’t quite pin down. Scritchscritchscritch scritchscritchscritch, faster and louder. The other sound was getting louder too, but I still couldn’t quite make it out over the drumming of the rain and the scratching at the tiny little door in the corner.

The scratching was non-stop now, a furious and desperate scrabbling, and as the other sound grew louder with it I recognized it, wordless, panicked sobbing. I realized something else at that moment, too, there in the dim room in the wee hours of the morning: the deadbolt was on this side of the door, meaning the keyhole was on the other. That door wasn’t made to lock me out.

It was made to lock something else in.

At that moment there was a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder, almost simultaneous with each other, and the sobbing rose to a shriek. After that… silence. Nothing but the drumming of the rain.

I never heard anything from behind that door again. Eventually, I graduated from school, got a place of my own, stopped spending my summers there. Not long after that, mom and M sold the house and moved away. I never quite got around to opening that door.

***

Elise was frightened. Maybe that’s why she had the dream; maybe that alone was enough.

She’d come to the hospital that morning for a standard check-up, here at the start of what in her mind she capitalized as Pregnancy Week 48. Chuck was with her this time. No particular reason; he’d come to some of her regular check-ups and not others, as work allowed, more at the beginning and recently, less in the middle.

She was glad he was there; he’d known to hold her hand the moment the doctor had trouble finding the heartbeat.

That was one reason she was afraid: scared for the child she might never get to meet.

They decided to keep her overnight for observation. They’d try again in the morning, the doctor assured her, and maybe it would be different.

She didn’t believe him, because she was pretty sure he didn’t believe himself. That led to a second reason she was afraid: scared because of things she’d read about that might go wrong if there was no heartbeat, what had to be done if those things went wrong, and the very real possibility that St. Mary’s Hospital was not a place which permitted doing it.

So there was more than enough fear to explain the dream, because of course it had to be a dream:

Elise woke in the middle of the night. The room was incredibly dark; the only light a very dim green glow from the monitors that illuminated approximately nothing, and a thin yellow-white sliver through the slightly open door of the room, a slice of brightness that angled across her lap and off into the corner of the room.

Something was wrong, very very wrong, but she was groggy enough that it took a moment for her to realize what. The blankets were tangled and shoved to the side, and beneath them the flimsy paper hospital gown made it extremely obvious: her belly was flat, completely flat, as if she’d never been pregnant at all.

Worse, there was an extra tube, beside the one coming out of her arm: long and gray, wrinkled and glistening, it extended out from under her gown, between her legs, and off the end of the bed. She could just make it out in the gloom, extending out through the gap in the door, into the hallway.

The door creaked and opened slightly. There was a very small shadow pushing its way through the door, right down at the floor. It was hunched, crawling, stubby-limbed and large-headed. It lifted its head to look at her, and she saw bright red lips in a pale, round face. Her brown eyes met big, bright green ones.

And then it was morning, and she was heavily pregnant, and the covers were where they belonged. No strange gray tubes stretched across the floor, and the door was wide open as the nurse gently woke her.

The doctor found the heartbeat without difficulty, and it was healthy and strong and everything checked out perfectly normal for thirty-eight weeks, and she could go home with Chuck. Everything was right with the world, and not even the screams and sobs from the couple whose son had been in the room next to hers could damp her relief.

A couple of months later she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, and everything was fine, continued to be fine, would always be fine.

Still and all, for the rest of her life, she was very, very glad he had not been born with green eyes.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga Fic, End of Chapter 2

The woman from the Federation — a spy? A soldier? Special Forces? — moved swiftly and silently down the hall, a small moving patch of darkness in the murk. Wally followed, head reeling at the absurdity of it all. Here he was, a pudgy, balding scientist, clutching a rifle to his chest like a child’s doll, following a spectacularly lethal, beautiful woman half his age through a dark hallway in a building infested with murderous alien monsters, the closest thing he had to a close friend lying dead behind him, and all he could think of was that he didn’t know the name of any of the people protecting him.

The woman paused at a corner and gestured for Wally to get behind her. She peered carefully around the corner. “It looks clear to the emergency stairs,” she whispered. “We’ll take those down to the lowest level and grab the other objective. We’ll use the cargo lift to get back to the surface quickly.”

“It won’t work without power,” he whispered.

“Leave that to me,” she said. “Your job is to confirm the target and make sure it’s in good condition. Ready?”

“What’s your name?” he blurted.

She looked at him quickly, startled, then turned away to watch the corridor again. Her face returned to impassivity as he watched. “Diesieger,” she said. “Sardula Diesieger.”

“Ready,” Wally said.

Sardula ran for the stairway door while Wally covered her. One of her knives dropped from her sleeve into her hand, and almost immediately began to glow. Wally watched, fascinated. He’d heard of the Hilbert Atrophy before, but never seen it in action. Sardula’s knife sliced through the door like butter, and in a matter of moments it collapsed to the floor. She motioned to him, and he ran quickly to the stairs.

Even going down, twenty-two floors was a long way, and Wally was heaving and puffing when they finally reached bottom. “Rest a moment,” Sardula said, not even breathing hard.

Wally leaned against a wall and sucked in a few deep breaths. Sardula kept looking around, scanning for any sign of danger. Her eyes, Wally noticed suddenly, were amber, not the light brown he’d thought they were earlier. She was a Realian, of course. It made sense; almost all of the Federation’s frontline troops were, and it explained how such a tiny person could kick hard enough to make a Div stumble.

Sardula sliced through the door and rolled into the hall, springing to her feet with both blades drawn. “Clear,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Wally followed as quickly as he could. Sardula clearly knew exactly where she was going–she probably had a map of the facility in her brain. They were headed right for the high-security lab where the Original was kept. Unfortunately, he knew how the lowest level was laid out, a series of increasingly secure areas nested inside one another. “You realize we’re going to have to go through Div containment to get to the Original, right?”

“Divs are drawn to sentient prey,” Sardula answered. “I’m hoping they’ve run out of people to kill down here and all moved to the higher levels.”

Wally winced, not sure whether it was the concept or the matter-of-fact tone with which she stated it that bothered him more.

They reached the mangled remains of the reinforced double doors that led to Div containment without incident, but Sardula held up a hand as they approached it. “Careful,” she said. “Hope isn’t a battle plan. Keep your eyes peeled; this is a great place for an ambush.”

She dove through the wreckage in the doorway, blades drawn and glowing as she sprang to her feet on the far side. Wally followed, keeping his distance and sweeping the room with his gun as he’d seen soldiers do in movies. Sardula led the way slowly, primed to leap in any direction if needed.
The very large room was crisscrossed by the remnants of transparent cubicle walls, shattered and broken by hammer-blow Div fists. Most of the chambers had been filled with medical or biological research equipment, oversized operating tables, scanning devices, or computers for genetic sequencing and chemical analysis. They were in a disarray of smashed metal and stains Wally desperately hoped were the residue of chemicals or samples, not researchers. In the center of the room was a cluster of now-defunct forcefield cages, each large enough to hold a Div and give it limited room to move around.

“There’s the door to the top-security lab,” Wally said, pointing to an intact double door at the far end of the room. “Let’s hurry.”

There was a crash and a roar from above them and Sardula rolled to the side as a Div dropped down. Another tore in through the side wall near Wally; he fell back with a yelp of surprise, losing his grip on his gun.

Sardula leaped high as the Div swung at her, slashing its wrist as it passed. Its hand fell to the ground and the Div roared in pain, staggering back. The hand dissolved before it touched the ground, as did the fat, viscous drops of black blood oozing much too slowly from the stump of the Div’s arm. The Div screamed and backed toward the cages, Sardula pursuing it but keeping her distance warily, waiting for an opening.

Wally scrambled after his gun, but the Div stomped between him and it. He rolled aside, barely avoiding its kick, and scrambled hastily to his feet. He ran for the nearest cubicle. Slow, heavy footsteps resounded right behind him, but he didn’t dare look back.

The Div Sardula was chasing reached the cages. Its hand was now partially grown back, a lump of red flesh without fingers or skin. Without turning, it tore a half-ton forcefield generator free of the bolts holding it in place and flung it at Sardula. She dove underneath the attack and charged the Div. She leaped for the kill, but had forgotten to take its injured arm into account; a sweeping blow flung her with a crash into a torn-apart cubicle.

The Div stomped after her as the lump of flesh on the end of its wrist separated into fingers with a wet rip. Its healing was accelerating as the effects of the Hilbert Atrophy wore off; scabrous skin grew rapidly to cover it, then hair and claws began rapidly to grow.

Sardula lay amidst a pile of smashed computer equipment, momentarily stunned. As her senses returned, she realized the Div was approaching rapidly, and leaped to her feet. She shook her head to clear it, and realized her hands were empty. She scanned the room quickly, and spotted one of her knives lying on the floor, near where she had been struck by the Div. Its glow was already fading rapidly, and she had no time to search for the other, as the Div was upon her.

It grabbed for her, but she was able to duck out of the way and try to sweep its legs out from under it, to no avail. The Div’s other arm came ponderously about, but Sardula was too far inside its reach for it to have much effect. She slid between its legs, kicking it in the crotch, but there was nothing there to kick but leathery armor.

She rolled to her feet grabbed the nearest weapon she could improvise, a broken-off length of glass tubing, about an inch across and three feet long. As the Div turned to attack her again, she jumped and stabbed, burying the tube deep in its eye.

The Div screamed and clawed at the makeshift spear, trying to pull it out, but its large claws were too clumsy to get a good grip. Sardula took advantage of its distraction to sprint for her knife. She reactivated the Hilbert emitters in her wrist as she grabbed it off the floor, then spun, scanning the room swiftly.

Wally scrambled desperately from hiding place to hiding place as each one was destroyed by the Div relentlessly pursuing him. He rolled under an operating table only to have the Div rip it out of the floor. In the time it took the Div to do that, he fled over the smashed cubicle wall and behind a metal table, which the Div pounded flat with a single blow of its fist.

Wally’s chest was aching and his head swimming with exhaustion, but he was past noticing. All that mattered was making sure there was always one more obstacle between himself and the pursuing Div. He could barely see from the sweat pouring into his eyes, but he knew the red, moving blur was the Div, and all the other blurs were non-Divs. That was all he needed.

Indefatigable, the Div followed, destroying one obstacle after another, never hesitating. It was inevitable that it would eventually catch up to him. Wally dove behind a pile of several large pieces of equipment — protein extrapolators and gene sequencers, he vaguely noted) — through a gap too small for the Div to reach through. He wiped the sweat from his eyes and realized he’d backed himself into a corner. Through the transparent cubicle walls he could see the other Div snap off the glass tube buried in its eye. A moment later, the portion buried in its eye popped out as the eye reformed as if no damage had been done. Of Sardula there was no sign, and Wally realized that, in his mad scramble, he must have gotten between her and her Div.

A deafening roar echoed a few feet from him, and the Div chasing him swept the top half of the pile to the ground. Wally backed against the corner, but to no avail. The Div wrapped its enormous claw around his torso, pinning his arms to his sides, and lifted him. Wally screamed and kicked at the air as he rose into the air toward its hideous face. Its skin was hot, much hotter than a human’s if not actually painful, and its stinking breath poured over him in waves.

Its claw was tightening, and Wally knew that it could crush him like an egg. Would, in a second. He wanted to scream and rage, but his arms were completely pinned and there was no way to scream louder than he already was.

To Wally’s astonishment, the Div dropped him suddenly, screaming in rage and pain and clawing at the knife Sardula had thrown into its shoulder. It turned to face her as she charged, but she leaped lightly over the blow it swung at her with its good arm and vaulted over its shoulder, pulling out the knife and landing on its other side.

Sardula reached into the pile of equipment Wally had hidden behind and pulled her second knife from where it had embedded itself in the white plastic casing of a computer, then turned to face the two angry Divs converging on her and Wally.

She crouched low, knives held so that the blades pointed back along her arms. “Saoshi!” she screamed, and leapt for the farther of the two Divs. She landed on its shoulder and immediately backflipped off, slashing it with both her blades. She kicked off from the other Div, and attacked again, spinning and dodging tirelessly, never touching the ground, never touching a Div for more than a fraction of a second.

Wally stared a moment, flabbergasted, but then returned to his senses. “Gun,” he said to himself, peering around the room. He soon spotted it, and ran, crouching low, desperately hoping neither Div would notice him. He stumbled as he reached the gun, tumbling to the floor, but managed to keep his grip on it.

As he scrambled to his feet and turned toward the Divs, he saw one manage to clip Sardula as she spun past. Even the glancing blow was sufficient to throw off her aim, and she barely managed to get her feet under herself before she hit the ground. The nearer Div swung for her, and she dove too slow out of the way–

A hail of bullets brought it up short with a roar, and Sardula gasped in relief. Then she returned her attention to attacking the two Divs. Wally’s bullets, lacking the Hilbert Atrophy channeled along Sardula’s knives, could not injure the Divs, but they were highly successful at annoying them and keeping them off balance. Together, they made short work of the Divs.

After the last one collapsed with a guttural, mournful cry, Sardula sheathed her knives and began checking herself for injuries. “You all right?” she asked Wally.

He felt suddenly, intensely cold and sick, and noticed for the first time the dull ache in his chest and the cuts and bruises all over him. “Nothing serious,” he said. “You?”

“A little internal damage to my left arm,” she answered. “Nothing my autorepair can’t handle.” She walked over to the doors to the maximum-security lab.

“You’re a follower of Saoshi?” Wally asked.

Sardula darkened, barely perceptibly. It took Wally a moment to realize she was blushing. “There doesn’t seem to be any way to open the door without power,” she said. “I’m going to have to cut it open.”

“I’m sorry, I was just curious, since you saved me and all. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I’m not offended,” Sardula said. “However, I’m here to accomplish a mission, not to make social engagements.”

It was Wally’s turn to blush. “You think I’m–no no no! I know what they say about cyberneticists, but I really honestly was just curious. I’ve never met one of Saoshi’s followers before.”
Sardula grunted noncommittally as she carved an opening in the doorway for them. “It was an exclamation under the stress of combat,” she said. “It’s not worth dwelling on.”

“All right,” Wally said. “It’s obviously a sore subject. I’m sorry.” Mentally, he cursed the popular conception of Realian designers and cyberneticists as clankers. Okay, so yes, pretty much all Realians were designed to be aesthetically pleasing–why not? So were most children. Parents weren’t under constant suspicion of being perverts, were they? Maybe they were. Wally didn’t actually know any parents.

Sardula finished cutting through the door and pulled herself through the opening. She helped Wally through, and then turned into the room. “So, where is it?” she asked.

“Huh? It should be right in–” Wally stared, then cursed and punched the wall.

The Original was already gone.

End of Chapter Two. Next weekend I’ll have some more original fic up, and then Chapter Three starts after that. What do people think so far? I really struggled with this chapter–there were a lot of problematic descriptions of Sardula in the original, and I really struggled with removing those while also making clear that the same kind of blend of cultural standards, objectification, and sexism that influences the design of (for example) female superheroes and video game characters in our culture was at work on her. I also struggled with Ritzi, because she, Jensen, and the security guard all exist solely to die. I tried to avoid most of the fridge clichés as best I could, and in particular tried to make it clear that throughout Wally is driven by his own fear, not some kind of macho revenge BS, but I don’t know how well I succeeded.

Soundtrack! Only a couple of tracks for this chapter, including the first from a non-Xenosaga source, ar Tonelico:

Div Attack

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyLVN0FyiP0]

Sardula’s Theme

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSN2lPjxd-Q]

What do people think of this “chapter soundtrack” idea? Does it do anything for you?

Fiction Fridays: Xenosaga Fic, Chapter 2, Part 3

Super late, I know, but it looks like I’ll be caught up by the time of the pony post. 

Onwards with Chapter 2, where there be monsters.

The three scientists stood in shock, staring at the guard.

“Hide!” she shouted. “Now!”

Snapping to his senses, Wally shoved Jensen, who looked at him reproachfully for a moment, then shook his head and dove under his desk. Ritzi seemed to be falling rapidly into a world of her own, so Wally had to half-drag her behind the counter on which the giant mechanical arm he’d been working on was laid out in pieces.

“We’re going to die,” she whimpered. “They’re coming back.”

“No,” said Wally. “We’ll be fine. They won’t come here. It’ll be okay.”

“No, no,” she said. “I’ve been here before. Mitsuda Street.”

“Oh,” said Wally, and hugged her. Mitsuda Street was in the Overlook Square neighborhood. Thirty years ago, Overlook Square had been one of the nicest places for a lower-middle-class family to live in the Fifth Jerusalem capital, right up until a Div attack had appeared out of nowhere one evening. It was far and away the worst of the twenty or so attacks the Federation had seen in the centuries since the creatures first appeared, with thousands dead, many of them children.

“I was seven,” Ritzi whimpered. “It, it tore our wall off. It was big and horrible and I was so scared. Daddy was twisted all wrong, and Mommy told me to run. She had the knife she used for cake. I ran out the back door and kept running until I couldn’t breathe. I was sure it was behind me.”

“Shh,” said Wally. “It’ll be okay.” His brain didn’t seem to be working right. Ritzi was older than him after all, and that was hilarious, but he didn’t dare laugh.

“No!” she cried. “It won’t! It’s never going to stop following me!” She tore out of Wally’s grasp and ran out from behind the counter.

“Ritzi, no!” he called.

“What the hell?” shouted the security guard. “You idiot, get away from there!”

Ritzi scrabbled clumsily at the door, trying to force it open. “I have to get away from here!” she shrieked. “It’s coming for me, I have to run!”

Wally watched in horror as the door suddenly dimpled inward under a forceful blow. Ritzi stumbled back away from it, stunned. Something roared, Ritzi and tearing metal both shrieked, and then something enormous forced its way into the room. An enormous three-clawed, scaly hand shot out and wrapped itself around Ritzi’s head. It swung her sharply against the wall, and her screaming stopped.

The security guard was screaming in incoherent rage, firing continuously at the Div, but the bullets just bounced from its chest. Wally felt strangely calm, able to dispassionately observe everything as it happened. He was dimly aware that he, too, was screaming, but it was simply another fact to be noted.

The Div was enormous, half again as tall as a man and twice as wide. Its torso was bulbous, almost spherical, supported on thick, short legs, and its arms were long and muscular. It had three claws on its hands, one shorter and opposed to the others, like a thumb. Its feet had three claws as well, two in front and one behind, like a dinosaur from a holo. Its eyes were small and dark in a bat-like head, with large ears. A narrow crest of thick, course yellow-brown hair ran from between its eyes, over its scalp and down the back of its neck. Its skin was a deep, dark red and scaly, and its chest and back were covered in thick yellow calluses, almost like armor.

It was horrible, a nightmare creature, a childhood ogre, and Ritzi was dead and bullets couldn’t hurt it. From far outside himself, he saw death approaching from one direction and panic from another.
Slowly, the reality of it all was settling in. He was going to die.

The security guard shrieked in frustration and stood, still firing. Her arc of fire traced across its chest and struck it in the face, and the creature roared as bullets chewed its head apart. As fast as the wounds formed, however, they closed again, healing as if they had never been.

It threw Ritzi at the security guard. There was a sickening snap as she struck the floor. Bullets sprayed across the ceiling for a moment as she clenched the trigger in her death throes, but then the gun dropped beside her, quiet and still.

The creature roared again, and Wally shrieked and ran for the closet. He pulled the door shut behind him, piled everything he could find against it, and then cowered against the back wall, trembling and sick, his arms over his head. They couldn’t shut out the sound, however, of the thing roaring, of Jensen screaming, of the wet crunch that ended the screaming.

“Go away,” he whispered. “Go away go away go away.” But slow, inexorable, heavy footprints approached the closet.

Wally yelped as the Div struck the door, its claws penetrating clean through. He stared helplessly as it tore the door off and flung it aside, then brought its face down to look at him through the doorway. It screamed high and loud and reptilian, and Wally screamed back, his hands covering his ears.

The Div straightened. It reached for him. And a dark figure dropped from above, something bright and red slashing across the Div’s face. It howled and reared back. The dark figure landed in a crouch and immediately launched herself again, striking the Div in the face with a spinning kick and knocking it farther off balance.

Slowly, incredulously, Wally stood as the figure lightly and nimbly leaped back and forth, kicking and slashing with shining red blades, driving the Div away from him. The Div tried to strike back, but she jumped onto its arm with incredible speed and launched from there at its head. Unlike the security guard’s bullets, the figure’s attacks didn’t seem to heal, and soon the Div gave a last mournful cry and collapsed heavily, shaking the entire lab with the force of its impact.

She turned to face Wally, who could only stare. She was no more than half his age, and tiny; the straight black hair hanging to her waist probably weighed half as much as the rest of her. She wore a navy blue, formfitting jumpsuit covered in pockets, and carried a pair of long knives, fading now from their previous cherry-red glow.

“Um… thank you,” he said.

“Dr. Wallace Alexander Petrovich?” she asked.

“Y-yes,” he managed. “How–?”

“Your ID,” she said, pointing at the card dangling from his belt loop. “Also, I was given your description.”

“The Federation sent you.” He sagged against the wall. “Did — did you do this?”

“No,” she said. “I believe the Ur government has staged this incident to wipe out all facility staff not loyal to them. You were right to contact us.”

She walked over to the broken tangle of limbs from which the room’s only light shone. Wally followed hesitantly and knelt next to the bodies. They didn’t look like people. They looked like store dummy parts mixed at random. But there was too much blood for store dummies, an overwhelming smell of meat that made him retch, and an ID card protruding from the mass. The picture was obscured by blood, but the name clearly read “Adelaide Ritsuki”. He felt dry and hollow.

“We should find the other card,” Wally said as the woman from the Federation reached into the tangle. “I should at least know her name.”

The woman pulled the flashlight free, shook it to get rid of what blood she could, and held it out. She was saying something, but Wally couldn’t follow it. She shook the flashlight at him again.

“It’s hers,” Wally said. “I can’t.”

“Take it. She doesn’t need it. You do.” The woman allowed the briefest look of exasperation to cross her face, and clipped the flashlight to his jacket herself. “Can you fire a gun?”

“What?” Wally stared at her. “Sort of,” he said. “I mean, it’s been–“

“Here,” she said, and handed him the assault rifle. “Follow me.” She started to stand, but Wally didn’t move.

“We should say something,” he said. “For Ritzi, I mean. She- she was scared. It wasn’t her fault.” He looked up helplessly. “We should say something.”

The woman gazed back at him dispassionately. “Were you friends?”

“Lovers,” Wally said. It wasn’t precisely true, but he didn’t feel up to explaining.

“All right,” she said. “But then we have to move. There are other Divs where that came from, and we might have to tangle with security, too.” She knelt beside Ritzi and the security guard and bowed her head. “Almighty Lord, take your servants into your bosom. Guide them and guard them with your wisdom and your power. Though they fell in battle, may they find peace beyond reach of any weapon.” She opened her eyes and stood. “Ready?”

“No,” he said, and stood. “But I’ll come.”

Back to Xenosaga fanfic: Chapter 2 begins

When last we left our heroes… well, actually, that’s irrelevant, because we’re starting this chapter somewhere else with some new characters. This is, for the record, probably the chapter that needs the most rewriting to get rid of sexist narrative elements. Younger me really sucked.

The Chair of the Subcommittee on Special Projects of the Federation Senate Committee on Science and Technology was tired. He had been up all night looking through agents’ dossiers with the apparently inexhaustible Minister of Intelligence, trying to guess which skillset would be most useful in the mission they had to assign. Minister Niklaus had picked his brain for every detail of the research facility, even though he doubtless knew more than the Chair did.

He rubbed his eyes and gazed blearily down at the dossier before him. He had no doubt that Niklaus was doing it on purpose, to punish him. Everyone knew that their two parties were going to break their coalition after the coming election. Prime Minister Norris was popular, and the Realian Voting Rights Act was going to create a massive new block of voters who would doubtless back the Manifest Destiny party all the way.

Any day now, the Prime Minister would call for elections, and the MDs simply wouldn’t need to put up with the embarrassing religiosity of their coalition partners any longer. The Unionists would get the shaft, and Niklaus would lose his cabinet post.

The Chair’s phone buzzed. “Your seven o’clock is here, sir.”

“Send her in,” he said, stifling a yawn, and stood as the door opened.

The young woman who entered looked to be in her late teens or early twenties, short and slim and dark, with a soft-featured, round face and very long, thick black hair. Only her amber eyes and crisp uniform revealed her true nature: a combat Realian, an artificial lifeform constructed for a specific purpose on the battlefield. Her features marked her age as closer to two or three years, the time since the Semito-Dravidian fad in Realian design–more recent models tended to vibrant pinks and greens for skin and hair, and tall, angular frames. “Lieutenant Sardula Diesieger, Special Forces, reporting as ordered, sirs!” she said, and saluted.

“At ease, lieutenant,” said Niklaus. “You know Chairman Koi?”

Sardula continued to stand ramrod-straight, but put her hands behind her back. “I have seen him on the news, sir.”

“Hm,” said Koi. “We have an assignment for you, lieutenant, as I imagine you’ve guessed. Shall we?” He gestured at a chair.

Sardula glanced briefly at Niklaus, much to Koi’s annoyance. All three were soon seated at a conference table, and Niklaus triggered the holodisplay in the center. A planet appeared, rotating — a mottled blue-and-white ball, as any habitable world must be.

“Ur,” said Koi. “What do you know about them?”

Sardula paused for a moment. Data streamed across her eyes, too fast to read. Koi often wondered why so many Realians were designed to do that when running a memory search; perhaps it was intended simply as a reminder, like the eye color itself, that they were not human. “An independent world with economic ties both to us and to Artaxerxes,” she finally said. “After the Collapse, they had no Realian repair or construction facilities intact, despite being a populous and industrialized world. They therefore developed cybernetics and robotics to an unusually high degree. There is a major Scientia research facility just outside the capital, originally devoted to cybernetics but since generalized.”

Koi nodded. “For the past three years, a joint project involving the Federation, Scientia, and the Ur government has been underway at that facility. Recently, however, a new faction has gained control of the Ur government.”

“Citizen dissatisfaction was high with the aggressive secularity of the previous government,” Niklaus explained. “The new party they have elected has strong ties to the Fleet Church and Artaxerxes, and is not as friendly to the Federation or Scientia. One of our researchers at the facility has contacted us. He has provided solid evidence that the government intends to seize sole control of the facility, and in particular our project.”

“The research subject is Federation property, and of vital national security importance,” said Koi. “It must be retrieved.”

“In addition, the extraction of the scientist is a primary objective,” Niklaus said, stroking his thin, neat mustache. “Secondarily, you are to misdirect any investigations as to your purpose, origins, and loyalties.”

Koi’s pudgy face pinked slightly, and he shifted uncomfortably. “We have created a cover identity for you as a member of an extremist religious group opposed to Scientia. You are to leave evidence that this was a random terrorist attack.” He took a sip of coffee from the mug at his elbow.

“If you accept the mission, further data will be provided to you. You would leave immediately.”

“If I accept?” asked Sardula.

Koi nodded. “This is a dangerous mission,” he said. “You have the option of refusing. No disciplinary action will be taken, and no record of this meeting exists.”

“I am a soldier, Senator Koi,” Sardula said. “I am prepared to die.”

“Admirable,” said Niklaus. “Understand, however, that if you are killed or captured it will be as a terrorist, not a Federation soldier. Sardula Diesieger will be erased from history.”

“Soldier or no, you are a free individual, lieutenant. You may choose to take this mission or not.”
No expression crossed Sardula’s face, but she found herself feeling vaguely sorry for the two humans before her. Unlike them, she knew the purpose for which she was created. Her body, abilities, and personality were crafted to excel at destroying the Federation’s enemies. Two years ago she emerged from a prototyping plant full-grown and educated, ready to begin service, and she had served since. The legal fictions with which they comforted themselves, filled the void of not knowing why they were made, had no meaning for her. “I will take the mission,” she said.

The two men glanced at each other. “Good,” said Niklaus. “We will transmit the full mission details to you within the hour.”

“Good luck,” said Koi. “I’ll try to find a cover story to give you a medal when you return.”

“Thank you, senator,” Sardula said. He didn’t understand. Few even among the Realians did, let alone humans.

Autobiographical Story About Time Travel and Fairies

I put up the first part of this story quite a long time ago. I have made minor edits to that, and written the rest of the story, so this post is the full text.

I put aside the soldering iron and sat back to survey my work. It wasn’t the neatest job I’d ever seen, but then, I’d never been much of a modder. Oh, just like everyone else I’d modded a PlayStation to play import games, but that was almost twenty years ago now, and I hadn’t exactly done the neatest job back then, either.

The point was, it was finished and would probably work. If, of course, the website I’d ordered the mod chip from wasn’t a hoax. I’d been burned before with seemingly legitimate websites that turned out to be much shadier than they looked, most recently picking up an HDMI to VGA adapter which turned out to be (a) illegal and (b) almost completely non-functional.

I was pretty certain the mod chip I’d just installed in my new camera wasn’t illegal, because the tech was too new to be banned yet. I worried anyway, though I could no longer tell how much of that was due to legitimate concern and how much due to the inevitable jitters engendered by three days of high caffeine and low sleep.

Regardless, I put the back of the camera back on and screwed it into place. It was time. I turned the camera on. For a moment my heart froze in my throat, where it had decided to take up new residence, as the camera’s screen stayed black a little longer than I expected, but then it booted up normally. I selected the little icon of the clock in a crosshairs and carefully picked my date and location. Then I pointed the camera and took a deep breath.

“Are you really sure you want to do that?” asked a high-pitched voice like the tinkling of tiny bells.

I looked up and around. A soft pink ball of light was hovering outside my window, where the sound had come from. As I stared, it tapped against the window pane with a gentle tink.

I blinked a few times. It was still there. Tink!

I walked slowly over to the window and bent down to examine the pink thing more closely. As near as I could tell, it was just a fuzzy pink ball of light. Tink! Tink!

“Will you let me in?” the ball demanded. “It’s cold out here, and I think it’s starting to snow!”

For lack of any better ideas, I opened the window and the thing darted inside. It darted about the room a few times, then zipped up into the air in the middle of the room. I got the sense it was trying to orient itself.

Then: “Aha!” went the bells, and it floated over to my desk, where it settled down next to the camera. The light began to fade, to reveal a slender woman about five inches tall, with mauve skin, a triangular face, and a large (for her size) shock of pink hair. A pair of antennae protruded from high on her forehead, and four iridescent dragonfly-like wings from her back. She could not be anything but a fairy.

“Great, I’m hallucinating from lack of sleep,” I said.

“Quite possibly,” she answered, “but that’s not why I’m here. The Hallucination Fairy is a completely different division. I’m the Continuity Fairy.”

“…the what?” I might as well play along. It’s not like you can make hallucinations go away by ignoring them.

“The Continuity Fairy. Well, a Continuity Fairy, anyway.” She pulled a tiny little index card out of–well, out of nowhere I could see, actually–and read from it. “We have detected a probability nexus resulting in retrotemporal distortion originating from this location in approximately twenty minutes, most likely resulting from abuse of a ThioTime ™ brand future-sensitive camera. As the Continuity Fairy, it is my responsibility to ensure that such distortions do not occur.” She smiled brightly and put the card away wherever it had come from. “So: don’t do it, okay?”

“Um,” I answered.

“Something the matter?” she asked.

“If you’re the Continuity Fairy, how come you needed to read that off a card? Haven’t you been doing this for millennia or something?”

She pouted. “If you must know, I’m on interoffice loan. I’m normally a Parking Fairy.”

“A what?”

“You know, I cause open spaces in crowded lots, that sort of thing.”

I pondered this a moment. “You must not be very good at your job.”

She put her fists on her hips and leaned forward. “It’s not my fault!” she tried to yell, though it came out as more of a squeak. “We’ve always been understaffed, and now with you, you… you mortals running around inventing Time Cameras and Time Tunnels and Time Machines,  half of us have had to move over to assisting the Continuity Fairy! Poor thing is so overworked her antennae are drooping!”

I held up my hands to ward her off. “Sorry, sorry!” I sat back in my chair and studied her a moment.

“Well?” she asked.

“Well what?”

“Well, will you promise not to go back in time and muck up all our paperwork?”

I sighed. “Sorry,” I said. “I have to.”

“But why?” she pouted.

I sighed and looked at my workbench, meaning of course my living room, i.e. only, table, and at the camera sitting on it. “Things to fix.”

She groaned and buried her face in her hands. “Of course,” she said. “Look, try to understand this from our perspective, okay? These Time Cameras already have us overworked, what with you lot suddenly starting to photograph the past, forcing us to fix glitches you never would have noticed before. No, that’s not enough, you have to start figuring out how to break the safeties and photograph the future, too! Yeah, to you it’s just lottery numbers and TV spoilers, but to us it’s total continuity violation, glitches everywhere, you have no idea how hard it is to fix!” Her wings vibrated angrily. “But the worst, the absolute worst, are you people turning them into time machines and gallivanting into the past to–wait, how did you even know how to do this? I thought we got that site shut down!”

I shrugged. “Wayback Machine. Didn’t keep the diagrams, but it took maybe five minutes to find them on Pirate Bay.”

“Dammit,” said the fairy. “Look, what are you even trying to fix? It can’t be that bad.”

“My father died when I was thirteen,” I said, flatly factual. Perhaps I should have been dramatic, angry or sad or bitter, but it’s hard to get that worked up about something that’s been true for two thirds of your life.

“Oh,” she said. “Some kind of accident, or violence, and you think you can–“

“Cancer,” I said.

“Cancer,” she said back. “You’re going to go back in time and cure cancer? Are you even a doctor?”

I shrugged. “No. But it was lung cancer. He was a smoker. I figure if I go back far enough, convince him to quit–“

The fairy sighed and folded her wings. Her antennae drooped a bit. “You never tried as a kid?”

“Well, yeah, but–“

“So you think some random stranger he doesn’t recognize will do better? You think there’s any chance he’ll believe you if you claim to be his son?” She spoke softly, but there was an edge to the words. Her folded wings weren’t vibrating, but the air around her seemed to be.

“I have to try!” I snapped.

The fairy made a sweeping gesture with her arm, as if to gather in my apartment, its tiny spaces, the mess, the shelves packed to overflowing with books, the tiny inflatable mattress on the floor. “Why? Because you blame his death for this?” Her voice rose. Despite its high pitch, there was no longer anything cute or small about it. “Because you think if you go back and make him not dead, you won’t be alone? Won’t be stuck? Won’t live in a dump? You think you’re the first person who thinks they know where there lives went wrong?”

“No!” I shouted back. My anger was the opposite of hers. As always, when I got angry, my voice got squeaky and my eyes stung. Anger made me feel as it always did, small, and vulnerable, and tired, and that just made me angrier. “Because he was my dad, and I loved him, and he was terrible! Because he was the gentlest, kindest, most loving man in the world on his meds but he never loved us enough to stay on them! Because I was terrified of him when he was off, and just as scared when he was on because he might go off! Because we were living in poverty and filth when he died and his insurance money was the only reason we got out!”

The fairy looked up at me curiously, her head tilted to the side, one antenna raised. “I don’t understand,” she said, soft again.

I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, trying to steady myself. “Dad did more for me by dying than he ever did alive. I could never have gone to college, I’d never have my career, if he had lived.” I couldn’t hold it, the squeak and volume rose again, a physical pressure in my throat and behind my eyes. “What kind of son is better off without his dad? All this crap,” I waved my own hand around the room, “is the best of all possible worlds, and that’s wrong.” I forcibly plopped back down in my chair at the workbench and reached for the camera.

“Wait!” she cried, flying over to me and hovering in my face, wings beating invisibly fast, like a hummingbird. “Listen! Don’t you think this is what he wanted? For you to have a better life if something happened to him? Does having a good father make you a bad son?”

I shook my head. “You don’t get it,” I said. “He wasn’t a good father. He was a well-meaning father who sucked at it for reasons outside his control, and knowing that is what makes me a bad son. I have to put things right.”

“Please,” she said. “Think about this. If he were here, would he want this? If you’re doing this for him, think about him! And then, if you can honestly say to me that this is the right thing to do by him, the right way to honor him, then…” She sighed and settled down on the table. “Then I won’t stop you. You can go ahead and change history and my sisters and I will just have to deal with the cleanup.” She stepped aside and gestured to the camera. “So, can you? Can you truthfully say this is what he’d want?”

I picked up the camera and thought about my dad.

At least, that’s what I’d like to say. But that’d be a lie.

The truth is, I picked up my camera and thought about thinking about my dad. I thought about missing my dad, and hating him, and being scared of him. I thought about the person I was and the person I became and the long, ugly road in between. I thought about what I owed him. I thought about how much worse my life would be if he were still around, and how much I loved him, and how much I hated thinking this way.

I thought about the things that live in us, wear our skins and smile with our faces, speak with our voices and think with our thoughts.

But I don’t think I ever, in that long moment that stretched out between me and the camera and the small purple insectomammaloid, actually thought about my dad.

But I put down the camera. “I can’t,” I said.

The next day I visited dad’s grave for the time since. He wasn’t any less there than anywhere else, but the symbolism felt right.

I have had this story, its concept, its beginning and ending, in my head for the better part of a decade. In that time, I have written its beginning many times. This is the first time I have made it to the end.

Fiction Friday: Xenosaga Fanfic, end of Chapter One

Last time, in Der Wanderer und Sein Schatten:

“I don’t want to blow up any more than you — oops.” Seth hastily stood and pocketed his tools as the clamps opened. 

“What oops?” Wehj’s voice was panicky. “No oops. This is a no-oops zone!”

“It’s okay,” said Seth. “I accidentally triggered a backup self-destruct.”

And now, the conclusion (of chapter 1)…

“This is okay?” demanded Vix.

“Oh, we’ve got about ten minutes before it blows. Guess it was put in so that people would turn off the other self-destruct, then try to pull the box without noticing this one, and the ship would explode while they were trying to carry it out.” Seth grinned. “Plenty of time to run up to the bridge and turn the thing off.”

“We’re gonna die,” moaned Wehj.

“Probably,” said Seth, “but not in the next ten minutes, if I can help it. You stay here and watch our AMWS and the box. If we don’t call you in eight minutes, head for the Isolde. Vix, come on. I’ll need you to cover me. There’s still at least a couple of pirates running around the ship.”

“Gotcha, boss,” she answered, drawing an automatic pistol from her flight suit.

Seth unslung his own blaster rifle from his back and checked its power pack. “Let’s go!”

He and Vix leapfrogged up the hall, Vix covering him while he opened each bulkhead, then Seth covering her as she ran for what cover she could find in the next hall. They covered the three hundred meters to the bridge in about five minutes, encountering no one until they arrived at the final, armored door.

Seth worked quickly to open it, and was soon rewarded for his efforts by the hiss of the door opening. A moment later, a spray of bullets sent him diving behind the doorframe.

“Guess we found those couple of guys, huh?” Vix popped out from her own position on the other side of the doorframe, squeezed off a few wild shots just to keep the pirates honest, then ducked back behind cover.

“Shit!” said Seth. “They must have realized how hard removing the box was going to be, so they’re going to take the whole ship!” He unslung his blaster and returned fire.

Bullets flew in both directions, and Seth’s blaster spat death, but both sides were too well-covered to hit the other. Then Vix rolled in a grenade, and the guns inside fell silent.

“Cover the entrance while I turn off the self-destruct,” Seth said, and rolled in through the door, just in case one of the pirates was still alive. None were, however, so he got quickly to work while Vix watched the entrance from just inside the bridge.

After a few minutes, however, she was clearly getting nervous. “Um, cap’n, shouldn’t we get moving?”

“Huh?” asked Seth. “Oh, the explosion! Right. Call Wehj, tell him we’ll be there in a minute.”

“But, the self-destruct!”

“Oh, I took care of that ages ago.”

“You… then what are you doing?”

“Done!” Seth announced. “Now let’s move! Quickly!”

They ran quickly down the hall to the aft cargo bay and boarded their AMWS. The other two helped Seth get upright, and then he activated his engines and hovered while they hoisted the box.

“Okay, we’ve got about thirty seconds!” he said.

“Thirty seconds until what, captain?” asked Wehj.

“Until – crap!” Seth barely dodged out of the way in time as two metal ribbons shot past him. The Swordsman hovered in the entrance, its armor scratched and pitted but otherwise none the worse for the explosions Seth had subjected it to.

“Oh hell, a Swordsman?” said Vix. “Who the hell are these pirates?”

“That’s what I want to know!” shouted Seth. “Open fire, and don’t let those ribbons hit you. Keep moving!” He launched himself backwards, then off sideways and up, firing on the Swordsman all the while.

“That’s easy for you to say!” said Vix. “Your AMWS doesn’t steer like a cow!” She dove behind a crate for cover, then joined in with her own partacs.

“Yahhh!” screamed Wehj as the ribbons sliced the crate he was using for shreds. “Captain, do something!” He fled behind the box they were trying to move.

“Vix, get behind there with him! Keep the armored crate between you and the Swordsman! If that box is as valuable as we think, he won’t slice through it.”

Seth began backing toward the box, firing all the while. Vix was closer, and the Swordsman couldn’t really hit her without exposing himself to both Seth’s and Wehj’s shots. It had no choice but to go after Seth. It retracted the ribbons to do so — and Seth chased them straight up to the Swordsman.

“Don’t fire,” he whispered, hardly aware he was doing it. “Don’t fire, don’t fire, don’t fire.”

His luck held; the Swordsman’s pilot, startled by Seth’s charge, hesitated, giving Seth time to unload a salvo directly into its cockpit. He launched backwards as he did so, giving the other two a clear shot to lean around the sides of their box and open fire.

The cockpit of the Swordsman burst suddenly in flame, and it collapsed to the floor.

“Yes!” shouted Seth, punching the air with his AMWS’ fist. “Let’s move, fast!”

The ship lurched, and Wehj yelped.

“Quickly!” said Seth. “We have to go, now!”

“Is the pirate ship attacking again?” Wehj asked.

“No,” said Vix, “that was the drive! That was what you did — you hacked the navigation controls!”

“Nah, the pirates did most of the work. I just programmed it.” The ship shuddered several times in rapid succession. “That would be the pirates attacking. They know they can’t get out of the way in time, so they’re trying to drive the ship off course. Let’s move!”

A moment later, Seth’s AMWS emerged from the transport. His crew’s two heavy lifters were just behind him, carrying the mysterious cargo. The pirate ship and the transport were both moving, deceptively ponderous as their dance came to an end. The pirates’ engines flared to move them out of the way, ribbons of red and blue light connected the two ships, and flurries of missiles danced, but it was not enough to save the pirates. They managed the killing blow, and explosions began to ripple through the transport, but it was already moving at too high a relative speed. Even as it died, it slammed into their hull just behind the midpoint.

Seth turned to watch as explosions burst through both ships. There was a brilliant flare from the transport, then a second, and both ships were gone.

“Woo!” called Vix. “That’ll be a story to tell. The three of us against a pocket cruiser, and we won!”

“Sounds like somebody has some words to eat, huh?” Seth grinned as he signaled the Isolde to pick them up.

“Hey, I still think it was a crazy, stupid thing to try. I’m just glad it worked. I’d hate to have to kill you after we were both already dead. Too confusing.”

Seth laughed. “All right, guys, let’s pack ‘er in. I want to fix up my AMWS and then find out what’s in that box.”

***

Half a galaxy away, a young woman opened slightly protuberant, dark eyes to look at the controls of her gray and gold AMWS. The mech was tall and slender and somehow feminine in its construction, which in one sense belied the short, bulky young woman at its controls, but in another sense expressed perfectly her air of abstract grace.

“Our attempt to acquire the Original has failed,” she said.

A face appeared on her screen. It was likewise young, but severe and drawn, with sharp, pale features and narrow, ice-blue eyes. The hair was cut too short for its color to be readily apparent, but it might have been white or very light blonde. “They defeated our attack, Dasra? I thought Nasatya predicted they would not.”

“No,” Dasra answered. “My sister’s perfect record remains intact, Calvin. There was… interference.” She transmitted a summary of the attack to him.

“Is that..?”

“I believe it is, yes.”

“They have the Original?”

“Almost certainly,” answered Dasra.

“Can you watch them?”

A hint of strain appeared around Dasra’s eyes. “It is… difficult to follow those not of the Chosen, but I can continue to do so for some time yet before I require rest.”

Calvin permitted himself a tight smile. It did nothing to make his face less forbidding. “Find Aser. Show him what you’ve shown me, and tell him where to find them. He will do the rest. I will inform our master. He will wish to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for this opportunity. This is a miraculous event, Dasra. Truly, we are the Chosen of God to accomplish his work.”

Dasra refrained from pointing out that a better class of miracle would not have required the death of an entire ship’s crew. Calvin did not take kindly to such thoughts. “As you say,” she said. “May your feet find the hidden road.”

“And yours,” Calvin responded, then cut the connection.

Dasra closed her eyes and relaxed. As her awareness expanded to encompass all the universe, she gave thanks for her gift. The coincidences Calvin marveled at might or might not be God’s work, but she had no doubts where her own ability came from. She might doubt Calvin, might doubt their methods, but there could be no doubt about the rightness of their cause.

End Chapter One.

I plan to post something else, a bit of original fiction, next week. Chapter Two will resume the following week.

In addition, here’s something hopefully fun: I have never written a plot outline for this story. I made a soundtrack instead. It serves the same function as a plot outline would, anyway–reminding me of future events, keeping me on track with characters and themes, and so on. All are taken from video game soundtracks, mostly the games you’d think, but not entirely. Anyway, I plan to post the relevant bits of soundtrack at the end of each chapter.

This chapter has four associated tracks, all from Yuki Kajiura’s work on Xenosaga Episode II, which is odd because that’s my least favorite soundtrack in the series:

Seth’s Theme

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEez4kqZsEI]

Seth and Izzy (Code Inspection)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kObNFokNOaE]

Scavengers vs. Pirates (Space Battle 1)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DugaacX6XdE]

The Chosen Ones (Ominous Cryptic Observers Observe Ominously and Issue Cryptic Omens 1)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7i6xTqLaZ0M]

Fiction Friday: In which giant robots piloted by main characters do things they ought not to be able to do

Xenosaga fic continues with Der Wanderer und Sein Schatten, Chapter 1, Part 4. As before, prior knowledge of the XS series is probably not required to follow this, but there are allusions you may miss. Plus, possible spoilers.

Since somebody’s going to ask: Steel is good at withstanding kinetic impacts from projectiles, and the honeycomb cross-section makes it more cost- and weight-efficient, lead blocks high-frequency radiation as from a nuclear blast or gamma laser, when ice is hit by a visible-range or lower laser weapon it turns into an expanding cloud of shiny particles that reflect and diffract the laser, plus it’s an excellent heat sink, and paraffin wax is the most cost-efficient way to absorb hard radiation from a nuclear blast. The hull underneath all this is probably aluminum or something similarly light and strong.

That just left the cruiser. No longer needing to worry about its mecha, Seth swooped in close, barely dodging a lethal blast from one of its particle beams. Too close to the ship’s hull for its weapons to fire on him, he skimmed rapidly over the surface until he came to one of the points where the transport’s defenses had burned away most of the armor, leaving a jagged pit four feet deep, lined with alternating inch-thick layers of honeycomb steel, lead, ice, and wax.

Seth stopped, and swiftly detached his remaining missile pod. Quickly, he wedged it into the corner of the hole in the armor plating, and then kicked off, flying straight through the ship’s engine exhaust.
“Boom,” he said, and triggered the pod. A multitude of explosions tore through the hull and into the primary sensor integrator, scrambling the pirates’ fire control. It’d only take them a few minutes to recover, but those would be a few minutes in which Seth could grab the cargo they were trying to steal from right under their noses.

Seth zipped toward the transport. “How’s it going in there, guys?” he asked.

“We ran into some borders in the aft cargo hold,” Vix reported. “We’ve got them pinned down, but a couple fled fore before we could stop them. We’re worried they left some AMWS up there.”

“Roger. I’ll come in from the fore end, see if I can cut them off before they get their AMWS up.” Seth redirected his flight to the fore cargo bay. Sure enough, the bay doors had been blown clear off. There were two AMWS units inside, powered down, and a third standing guard. Seth fired at one of the powered-down models, hoping to take it out before its pilot could get aboard, but he missed.

“Damn it!” he swore, as the guard turned to face him. “They’ve got a Swordsman?” The Swordsman series of AMWS were solidly built models designed for close-quarters combat against other AMWS. Unless he could lure it out of the bay, it would be more than a match for him in a fair fight.

Fortunately, Seth didn’t believe in fighting fair. He opened fire from outside the bay, and the Swordsman dove for cover. Keeping up fire, Seth swooped into the bay. Turning, he kept up fire, landing his AMWS at the far end of the bay. The Swordsman returned fire with its two small projectile launchers, but Seth ignored the shots. His armor could handle them. He was more worried about the Swordsman’s main weapons–and here they came!

Seth punched his engines, launching his AMWS back off the ground and toward the two deactivated AMWS units. Two ribbon-like projections, broad, flexible, and viciously sharp, slashed past, far too close to him as he rocketed across the floor. The Swordsman quickly retracted them to their usual position, curled over its shoulders, then attacked again. Quickly, Seth grabbed the inactive AMWS and cut his drive, spinning to throw them at the oncoming blades, then again turning to drive back out into space.

Behind him, a pair of explosions filled the cargo bay. “They won’t be getting any use out of those anytime soon!” he crowed. “How’re you guys doing in the aft cargo bay?”

“Just about done, captain!” Wehj chirruped.

“Good. Once you’ve confirmed the area’s secure, Vix, you dismount and inspect the cargo. Wehj, stand guard.” By the time he finished giving instructions, Seth reached the bay in his AMWS–like most ships, this one had both AMWS-sized hallways for moving cargo and human-sized for moving people–which had also had its doors blown off, rather less neatly. “Whew!” he whistled as he entered the bay. “Did you two make this mess?”

Humans, Realians, AMWS, and combat drones lay strewn across the floor of the large cargo bay, smashed, burned, and splattered. Smashed cargo containers, all empty, and pits and burns in the floor and walls gave testament to all the shots that had failed to find their targets.

“Vix thinks this is probably where the main party of boarders hit, and they hit the fore cargo bay just so they could move on foot down here and make a pincer,” Wehj explained.

“Looks about right,” Seth answered as he landed. Then his AMWS’ left leg collapsed under him. “Shit!”

The other two cried out in alarm as Seth collapsed. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’m fine. Guess that Swordsman got me after all. I’m not getting any power to the left knee or below.” He double-checked the seal on his helmet, then popped the cockpit.

“Come on, Vix, let’s check out this cargo. That pirate ship might have more AMWS or drones in reserve, or they might decide to just blow us out of the sky.”

“Right, cap’n.” Vix dropped lithely from her own cockpit. “One of the cargo containers is armored. I saw a laser blast ping right off it during the fight.” She pointed. “It was over there.”

“You sure?” asked Seth.

“Absolutely. I knew as soon as I saw it take the hit that whatever was inside must be  worth one hell of a fortune! Especially since every crate that cracked in the fight was empty.”

The two walked over to the crate. Seth whistled when he saw the monolithic steel-gray container. It was easily twice as tall as his AMWS. The corners were heavily reinforced and the whole thing was plated in ablative ceramics, not to mention locked into a pair of heavy floor clamps. “Nice,” he said. “If all the other crates are empty, that means whatever was in there was worth sending an entire transport for, surrounded with decoys and enough defenses to make a pocket cruiser sweat.” As he spoke, he pulled a small toolkit out of his flight suit pocket and knelt by the clamp controls, prying the access plate off to poke in their innards.

“No escorts, though. So whatever it was, they were either in a hurry, or didn’t want to be noticed. Either way, they’ll pay a ton to get it back.” Vix grinned ferally. With her narrow features and short-cropped hair, it made her a vision of an alternate humanity closer to snakes and wolves than apes, which wasn’t far from the truth.

“Man, they didn’t want anybody looking at it without their permission, either.” He moved a wire aside with a screwdriver. “Looks like this thing is linked up to the reactor core. If anybody blows the clamps or enters the wrong access code, the whole ship goes up.”

“Shee-it,” whistled Vix. “Careful in there, huh, boss? Blowing up is not on my to-do list today.”

“Hey, when am I not careful?”

“Remember Geryon 4?” asked Vix.

“Besides that.”

“Arkis 8, Boralla, Lesser Gremmil…”

“Don’t forget that thing with the maneuvering jets last week!” chimed in Wehj over their communicators.

“Right. And landing without even looking at your system warnings, what, five minutes ago?”

“Okay, okay! So maybe I’ve cut a corner here or there. I’ll be careful this time. I don’t want to blow up any more than you — oops.” Seth hastily stood and pocketed his tools as the clamps opened.

“What oops?” Wehj’s voice was panicky. “No oops. This is a no-oops zone!”

“It’s okay,” said Seth. “I just, kind of, accidentally triggered a backup self-destruct.”

Fiction Friday: Space battles, giant robots

The Xenosaga fic continues with anime-flavored nonsensical space-battle fun, including visible lasers and piloted, human-shaped fighter craft.

By the by, if you’re avoiding reading this because you’re not familiar with the Xenosaga series/universe, that’s understandable, it’s a bit obscure. However, please note it’s set centuries later after the events of the series have been mostly forgotten, and as such knowledge of the series shouldn’t actually be necessary to follow this.

The engines of the Isolde flared, barreling the ship ever more swiftly toward the distant flashes of battle. Once her speed relative to the distant combatants was high enough, she cut thrust and rolled over. Three vaguely humanoid, albeit quite a bit larger, craft launched in rapid succession from her belly and moved quickly into a simple arrow formation, then commenced accelerating toward the ever-closer battle. The Isolde swung back around to point toward the combat, but no longer accelerated, keeping its distance from the pirate cruiser.

“Captain!” called Wehj. “They’ve seen us. Six pirate AMWS headed our way.”

Seth grinned tightly. “Ignore them. Keep accelerating straight for the pirate ship.”

The three craft continued their plunge toward the battle. The two flanking AMWS units were squat and broad one-seat mecha, steel gray with colored markings, green for Wehj and blue for Vix. In between and ahead of them was Seth’s taller, sleeker mech, black with red markings. It was a two-seater model, but Seth didn’t bother with a co-pilot; sensors were Wehj’s job.

“Open fire with beam weapons,” Seth ordered. At this range, they stood no chance of hitting anything, but it would keep the incoming AMWS unit on their toes without wasting ammunition. “Start evasive maneuvers once we’re a light-second away, but don’t cut forward thrust.”

Seth grinned as they passed the light-second mark. He and his crew were far from military precision, but they nonetheless managed to dodge and weave around one another without colliding, firing intermittent bright-red bolts at the invisibly distant mecha. The simulator he’d rigged up had been more than worth it.

The occasional answering shot from the pirates flashed past, but never close enough to be a concern. Soon, though, they would be in actual effective combat range. Seth knew the commander of the pirate squad must see the classic tactical blunder Seth’s crew was making. On paper, we’re screwed. Outnumbered two-to-one, the Isolde can’t fire without risking hitting its own mecha, and we can’t just blow past the pirate mecha because that’ll give them time to swarm and board the Isolde.

Seth watched the proximity sensor counting down the distance to the enemy mecha. Their shots were tracking closer and closer now; a little too close, actually. “How the hell do pirates get this good!?” demanded Vix as a laser blast winged her AMWS.

“You okay?” asked Wehj.

“Nothing a little paint can’t fix.”

Seth barely paid attention. He was focused entirely on the distance to the enemy group. Almost… almost… there! He pulled the trigger, and the missile battery on his left shoulder erupted. At this distance, the enemy had plenty of time to dodge out of the missiles’ paths, turn and blow the missiles out of the sky with lasers or bullets. But it also meant, for a few seconds, the pirates couldn’t fire at Seth’s crew.

A lot can happen in a few seconds. In this case, it was plenty of time for Seth’s group to pass through the combat zone and beyond, continuing on their way toward the ever-nearer ship battle. Behind them, Seth knew, the pirates were laughing at him. Seth had just ceded the Isolde to them, and once they were done they could come back and pick him off at their leisure.

They no doubt kept laughing right up until the moment that a pencil-thin blue light stabbed out of the darkness and one of them exploded into flame. Five more shots from the Isolde‘s bow cannon lanced out with impossible–no, merely superhuman–accuracy, and the pirates were gone.

“Thanks, Izzy!” called Seth.

“No prob, boss.”

“We’re coming up on the battle,” said Seth. “Vix, Wehj, board the transport, take out anyone inside. Your lack of maneuverability won’t matter as much in there. I’ll handle things out here.”

The other two mecha broke off and streaked toward the beleaguered transport, decelerating hard to match velocities. “Wow, will you look at it? It’s been chewed apart!” said Wehj.

“I guess we’re not going to have to worry about survivors,” commented Vix.

“Cut the chatter, you two!”

Then Seth was in the midst of battle. Two defenders of the transport remained, military models both, surprisingly. Seth could see some fairly heavy damage toward the rear of the pirate ship; it seemed the transport was not entirely the defenseless merchant vessel it appeared to be, which helped explain the lack of distress signal.

However, it was silent now, and two heavily damaged mecha could not last long against four pirate mecha and the pocket cruiser’s cannons. Bullets sprayed and laser light flickered, painted red across his displays even though actually invisible. The other two mecha were fighting valiantly, but they were doomed, and there was nothing Seth could do to save them.

He could, however, avenge them. His mech hoisted its laser rifle and opened fire, fusing the leg joint of one of the pirate mecha. Another pirate launched a swarm of missiles, but Seth spun, firing a spray of bullets from the smaller gun in his craft’s other hand, destroying them and peppering the firing mech’s armor.

One of the transport’s mecha zigged when it should have zagged and plowed straight through a particle cannon blast from the pocket cruiser. Nothing but debris and fire emerged from the other side. Seth was momentarily distracted by the flare, but soon spotted something important: the missile-launching mech was trying to withdraw.

“Oh ho. Out of missiles, hmm?” Its only other weapon, foolishly, was a vibro-blade, useless at the distances of space combat. Seth gave chase, firing his laser rifle repeatedly. The pirate was an excellent pilot, and dodged well, but Seth had personally repaired, replaced, or tweaked every circuit and servo in his own mech. Three shots tore open a hole in the mech’s armor. The next few shots missed, but finally Seth struck true, and the mech exploded.

Seth spun under the blast, dodged a shot from the pirate cruiser, then another from one of the pirate mecha. A burst of small missiles erupted from the cruiser, and Seth skipped behind the pirate mech on his tail. Three of the missiles, confused by the similar profiles of the mecha, turned to track him instead, and after a moment, Seth was rewarded by a second explosion.

He twitched the flight controls randomly while running a quick scan–the one downside to not having a copilot–and found only one other intact mech, one of the pirates. The last defender and one of the other pirates must have killed each other while he was busy.

The last pirate shot toward him, firing its own laser cannon, but something was clearly wrong in its engines. It spun wildly as it flew, unable to hit, and Seth was able to take his time and blow it away with two well-placed shots.

Fiction Friday: Continuing the XS fanfic where we left off…

Seth lay on his bed, watching computer code scroll through the air. “Well, looks like it’s not hiding in your personality routines, whatever it is.”

“You’re sure it’s there?” asked Izzy. “I can’t find it.”

“I’m sure,” said Seth. “Your unused cycles aren’t. Something’s running in them, and I want to know what it is and how it got in you.”

“It’s creepy, not being able to detect it.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what has me worried. A virus that can infect youhas to be more than some kid playing around. It’s somebody who knows what he’s doing. But the virus doesn’t seem to do anything! It’s processing something in spare cycles, but it has no inputs or outputs I can find, and it always gets out of the way whenever you need the cycles. It’s like it’s waiting for something — but if that’s the case, why run at all? Why not just sit there quietly until it’s time to do whatever it’s programmed to do?” Seth threw a grease pencil through the display. “Turn it off. I’ll work on it later.”

“Hey, boss, you made me, remember? You’ll figure it out.”

Seth rolled back off his bed and grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair he’d slung it over. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he walked out into the hall. His footsteps echoed on the shiny metallic deck, kept meticulously clean by a small army of cat-sized maintenance robots, one of which whirred past his door as he left the room. The walls were a warm, friendly shade of tan above and silver-gray below, marked here and there by the golden splash of a lamp. A multicolored stripe ran between them. Potted plants, marked as “oxygen reclamation units” on the ship’s blueprints, lined the corridor, and a holodisplay in the corner was busy cycling through Izzy’s latest attempts at drawing. Privately, Seth thought she should stick to interior design; her drawing of him looked like he’d lost a fight with several very large, very angry bouncers and one extremely irate barber.

He walked the other way down the hall, toward the elevator that led to the cargo deck and the AMWS bay.

“You all right, boss?” asked Izzy.

“Yeah.”

“You’re worried,” she said. “Is it money?”

“Nah. We’ll make do. We might have to make ourselves scarce in Federation space for a while until we can make some of those back payments, but we’ll figure something out.”

“Vix isn’t going to stay much longer if you don’t find a way to pay her soon.”

“I know,” said Seth. “But we need a crew. If people figured out you can run the ship alone –“

“You’re worried about the virus, aren’t you?”

“It shouldn’t be possible to hack you, Izzy! You’re way too complex and self-referential for an intruder to hide.”

“And a computer that can be hacked can’t be trusted to control the ship unsupervised. You’d need at least one more crewmember, and you can’t afford the ones you’ve got.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about!” The elevator reached bottom, and Seth stepped out into the AMWS bay.

“Aw,” said Izzy. “That’s sweet of you, boss.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m going to see if I can tweak any more maneuverability out of AMWS Two. Watch the drive output while I do, huh?”

“Captain!” shouted Wehj’s voice over the intercom. “We’ve picked up what looks like a space battle near the fifth planet!”

“Izzy, feed it to the AMWS’ screen.” Seth watched as lines of light and blossoms of fire erupted around a large cargo ship, boxier and more heavily defended than the sleek Isolde. It was no match, however, for the dagger-like warship bearing down on it or the AMWS units picking off its defenses.

“All right!” said Vix. “A chance at some decent salvage. I’m staying somewhere with a tub tonight!

“Pirates,” Seth hissed between clenched teeth. “Both of you, get down to the AMWS bay, now. We launch in five minutes.”

“Captain, you can’t mean we’re going to help them! That’s a real warship out there, with real military AMWS! We can’t take on something like that,” Wehj whimpered.

“That’s an order!”

Seth hopped down from AMWS Two. “Prep the launchers and load AMWS One’s missile batteries. Arm all weapons, and set us on an intercept course with that warship, best speed,” he ordered Izzy.

He had his flight suit on and was just sealing his helmet when the others arrived. “Suit up!” he ordered. “We’re launching in two.”

“This is crazy,” said Vix. “There’s a pocket cruiser and a dozen military-grade AMWS out there! We’ve got one bow cannon, one out-of-date military AMWS, and a pair of heavy lifters you slapped partacs on! Besides, what does fighting them accomplish? We drive off the pirates, we get to keep whatever debris they leave behind. Maybe a few damaged AMWS at best, and we have to split it with the ship they’re attacking. Just wait a little while, and we’ll have an entire ship’s worth of scrap metal, any munitions or cargo the pirates don’t carry — way more stuff.”

“I gave an order!” snapped Seth.

Vix stepped forward, topping him by a full head. In her black flight suit, the helmet still deflated and dangling from her collar, she looked sleek and deadly. “I refuse to risk my skin with nothing to be gained from it.”

“I am the captain of this ship!” Seth shouted, beginning to purple.

“Not for long, unless you figure out how to pay off some of those loans.”

“Bounty,” said Wehj.

The other two turned to look at him.

Wehj cringed but kept talking. “Federation has bounties out on hundreds of pirates, and we’re not far from their space. There’s a good chance we can sell these scraps to the Feddies for a lot more than market value?”

Vix rubbed her jaw. “Yeah, okay, could be worth it,” she admitted.

“We launch in 70 seconds,” Seth said, ignoring her. “Finish getting on your suits and power up your AMWS.” He climbed the concealed handholds on AMWS One’s leg and swung into the upper of its two cockpits.

“You all right?” asked Wehj, eyeing Vix warily.

Vix growled. “If this doesn’t pay off, that’s it. I’m bailing, and forget the back pay. There’s gotta be some other ship in this shitpile system that needs crew.” She glanced at Wehj. “You with me?”

He considered a moment. “…Yeah, I guess I am.”