Gentle Death

A quick little story about dating an agent of death.

I saw her, again.  Every day, riding the 45T.  I normally got off at the tracks, the last stop inside the city.

Today, I was curious.  She never spoke and was always alone.  I couldn’t tell why.  She was cute, with short black hair, blue eyes, and adorable freckles, little on the slender side.  She might have been in her early thirties, a little on the slim side.

I didn’t care.  Today, I didn’t get off on my stop.  The bus was almost empty at this point, just me and her.  “Do you mind if I sit?”

She didn’t respond, just looked out the window.

“Ah, miss?”

She seemed to start, and looked around, not meeting my eyes.  Only after she realized the bus was empty did she look at me.  She seemed surprised to find me looking straight at her.  “Are you speaking to me?”

“Well, yeah.”

“But … well … okay.”

I took my seat beside her, and looked out the window with her, watching the countryside.  “Do you like the country?”

“It’s quieter.  I’m not comfortable around a lot of people.  Nobody likes to make room for me.  Oh, but you’re okay.  You don’t have to move.”

“How about tomorrow, before the bus leaves town, I take you to coffee?  The shop won’t be crowded late in the day.  They have some overstuffed chairs for us to use.”

She looked up at me, her lips upturned. “It’ll be nice to take to someone who can listen.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I just nodded.  I got off at the next stop, and waited for the next bus in the opposite direction, to take me back home

The next day, as we approached the tracks, I stood by her seat.  “Ready?”

She rose without a word.  We walked to the door, and she paused to lean over an old woman sitting by the door, touching her cheek.  “Don’t be afraid.”

She brushed past me and I followed her off the bus, glancing back at the old woman for a moment.  “What was that about?”

“She has a big trip to make.”  She turned, her skirt flaring as she spun, and her eyes turned up to mine. With her eyes upturned and beaming at me, I forgot all about the oddness of the previous moment.  I went to the coffee shop, and we had coffee together.

She liked her coffee without sugar, and her chocolate dark and bitter.  Her nose wrinkled when she laughed, and her eyes brightened every time she saw me.  After a couple of days getting coffee, she started wearing a flower in her hair.  It was almost a week before she let me take her on a real date, shyly agreeing to see a movie with me.

The next morning, I found her in my bed beside me.  We showered together, luxuriating in both the heat of the water, and the heat of each other.  I made her breakfast, and it was then that she touched my cheek, and said those words to me.  “Don’t be afraid.”

“You said that to someone when we met.  You dodged the question then.  What’s that about?”

“I told you, she had a big trip.  It’s scary.  You have a trip to make, too.  But don’t be afraid.”

I frowned.  She was beautiful, but the crazy ones often were.  I stood up, wary. “Look, I don’t know what you think you … what you … think”  The words weren’t coming to me.  Everything was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t catch the words.  I looked up, and everything was askew.  I realized that it was because I was falling, just before my head struck the tile. “Stroke … nine … nine one … “

She crouched beside me, caressing my face. “Before you go … thank you.  Nobody ever sees me.  You’re different, somehow.  It made me remember what it was like, when I was alive.”  I felt her lips on my brow.  “Go on ahead of me.  I’ll meet you there.”

I was so dizzy the room seemed to spin around me, despite how still I lay.  The room darkened more and more, and then I was gone.

Transition

My last body could see infrared and ultraviolet, but I can’t decide what to get next.

“I have no idea.  But I’m going civilian, and I can’t keep the law-enforcement upgrades.  They said they’d cover half of the switch to a civilian model.”

Doctor Ferraz was small and always smiling, but her cheer didn’t ring false.  She seemed genuinely excited about her job.  Of course, she also had pointed ears, naturally shimmering blue hair, and a bone structure entirely too elfin to be a coincidence.  It was obvious she had some enthusiasm for body modification, almost beyond the bounds of professionalism.  It was easy for me to overlook – I wouldn’t want a tattoo from an artist that had no tattoos, and I wouldn’t want a body mod from a doctor who’d never used one.

“So you just built for the job?”

“Biocapacitors charged one Taser shock a week from the hands.  Muscle mass, tendon strength, and bone density beyond the civilian limits.  Infra-red and ultraviolet vision.  I can see where people were sitting, if a car was recently driven, people moving in the dark.  Ultraviolet showed me clues.  Blood traces . . . among other things.”

Doctor Ferraz looked up at me, eyes wide and curious at my sudden vagueness.  “Other things?”

“Don’t ask.”

She blinked, then realized what I meant.  I was glad I didn’t have to explain.  The world that ultraviolet revealed was not a clean place.  “Okay . . . so your job picked your last mods, or you picked them for the job.  What job would you like?  There are so many new mods out!  There are deep-water mods with gills.  The mines and the research on the ocean floor require them.  If you got mods like that, you’d never hurt for work.  And then the orbital shipyard’s going up.”  She looked up at me, an impish grin crossing her expression.  “They’re looking for a new chief of security.  They told me to flag them if anybody mods for hard vacuum, and you were a cop, right?”

“I was a detective.”  There was mischief in her smile, and I suspected I knew just what was on her mind.  I focused my mind on the subject at hand, instead.  “How does it look?  I don’t want to be a space-squid.  Leave the exotic stuff for the people who want to be a spaceship.”

Her grin broadened, and she picked up a slate from the waiting room table.  With a few taps, she opened up a list of mods and swiped through them until she found one.  She held the slate between us, watching my expression from the other side of the holographic display.

I took the slate from her – I couldn’t focus with her eyes on the other side of the display – and examined it.  Hardening the eyes against vacuum.  A bonded layer over the skin, to maintain external pressure.  Valves in the ears and nose, multi-chambered lungs, to get every bit of air out of a breath, and with modifications with withstand vacuum.  There was no exhalation cycle; a custom-built organ diverted carbon into solid waste, instead.  And the body looked human.  I could be handsome in the classic sense.  Call me old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t give that up.

The list of warnings was long; the custom lungs and Co₂ processing had their own set of risks, but I didn’t see anything that was a dealbreaker.  I was moving into a cloned body so I could abandon any degenerative condition with another move.  The rare eyesight problems were a problem for a chief of security, but I’d worn glasses before.  No common neurological or psychological issues.

“You said they want a chief and wanted to know about people with these mods.  Will they help cover them?  This costs an arm and a leg AND a kidney.  The department only wants to cover half, and that was for a civilian model.  They won’t want anything to do with this.”

“I think for the right candidate, I could convince them to spring for it.  I’ll flash them a message if you’re interested.”

For twenty years, I’d been on the force.  It showed you the best and worst of men.  Did I really want another job policing?  On the other hand, administration was a different business, and it was a chance to go into space.  Space was still expensive to visit, and it would be a long time before the launch platform paid back its cost, and travel became cheap.  And it meant a new, unusual set of capabilities to explore, which wasn’t without its allure.

I opened a small case with a few sets of data chips; I pulled one out of the set to the far left.  My generic law-enforcement resume. “Send them that, and ask if they’d like to talk.”

——

It was a week before I heard back from them.  In the meantime, I visited the Corporeal Boutique a few more times, considering a number of modifications for a number of careers.  I learned more about Doctor Ferraz, too.  Her first name was Reina.  Her pointy ears were enticingly sensitive.  She liked creamy food, modern classical music, and having her hair stroked while she fell asleep.  We were eating breakfast at my apartment when the call came in.

“How do I look?”  I straightened my tie, fussing over my appearance.  Luckily I had already dressed to interview.

“Stop fussing.  You look fine.  Face forward for when the call connects.  Don’t let mid-fidget be their first impression.”

I obeyed, and turned to the screen, waiting.  A woman with her hair pulled back in a severe bun faced me as the image snapped to life.  A framed portrait on the wall.  I recognized the haggard, slightly overwhelmed look on her face.  Stacks of folders lay on the desk.  One of them laid open, but the angle was so shallow I couldn’t read anything from the forms inside.

“Detective Thomas Jameson?”

“You can call me Tom.”

“Tom.  We thank you for your interest, and your willingness to undergo modification for the job.  However, we’re seeking a candidate with more administrative experience.”  I felt the disappointment crease my features.  Then I frowned, looking at the folders on her desk.  I couldn’t read her papers, but I recognized the form layout.  Witness statements, and a lot of them.  “We don’t feel that the challenges faced in a community of this size are best served by an investigator’s level of–”

“I mean no disrespect, miss, but that’s bullshit.”  Reina choked on her coffee across the table, and waved her hands, trying to warn me off.  I ignored her, setting my elbows on the table, and folding my hands in front of my chin.  My thinking pose. “You think you need an administrator because your staff is untrained for what you’ve encountered.  You want someone to put a structure in place that will make everything make sense.  And –” In for a penny, in for a pound.  I threw the dice. “–If your chief of security were still alive, he’d know that your security team didn’t need more procedure.  They need to learn to examine, question, and think.  You saw my resume, you know I’m not incapable of administration, and I have every skill your staff needs to learn.”

We stared at each other for a long, nerve-wracking moment.  I steeled myself, hardened my eyes and waited.  Across the display, Reina was staring at me with wide, shocked eyes.

“. . . . Tell me what you know, and I might reconsider.”

“I know that you have a big stack of witness statements in front of you,” She quickly closed the open folder, “and if every one of those folders is the same, that’s a lot of statements.  Your current Chief of Security isn’t sitting in on this interview, meaning that he’s either not worth his title, or he’s incapacitated, or . . . ” I let my words trail off, before picking up again. “That many witnesses means a big canvas, and something big enough that everybody saw it.  But you’re still hiring for administration.  Another clue that your Chief is down for the count.  And I know nothing about this was in the research I did on your company, so you’re keeping it quiet.  Was it a design flaw that killed people?  Sabotage?”  Her flinch confirmed that theory.  “Sabotage, then.  The last thing you need is to push paper more effectively.”

Her face soured, and she regarded me for another long few moments.  “We’ll be in touch.”

Then the screen vanished, and I was left looking at Reina across the table, watching me in shock. “Do you think . . . ”

“They’ll call.  Not right away, though.  First, they have to pretend to be in control.”

Reina jumped out of her chair and into my lap, and her lips were on mine, fierce. “Tom, that was . . . damn, that was hot!  You know what you did? You just spanked a rejection call until they hired you!”

I rose, lifting her to sit on the table, and ran my fingers through her hair, the strands shimmering blue in the light.  “Reina . . . if I get this job, you know what it means.”

“She looked up at me, soberly, her excitement subdued.  “We both knew when we started that it might not last long. With you living in orbit . . . ”

I tucked her head into my chest, under my chin.  She burrowed against me, and I held her.  My mind was spinning though.  Maybe if I had any control over hiring?  No, HR would be intermediate.  I couldn’t offer jobs to anybody I liked.  If we had a sham marriage to help me get her to orbit, they might decide not to hire me.  I’d cost twice as much water and air to hire.  Maybe as a doctor . . .

“Their medical team didn’t list a body-mod specialist.  Did you see the list of warnings regarding the lungs on that mod?  It’d really benefit them if they hired a specialist.”

Reina looked up, her eyes a little reddened, her eyes searching my face.  “Tom . . . we both started this thinking it might last a week.  I didn’t mean to get this serious.  But if I take a job in space . . . I need to know you’re serious, too.  It’s hard to know what you’re thinking.”

I didn’t reply right away.  How serious was I?  I’d known her a week.  I knew she liked to be gentle, that she was quick as a whip and smarter than anybody I knew.  Myself included.  I knew she got mean when she was angry, and I knew that she hated herself afterward and needed to be forgiven before she could be comforted.  I knew that she qualified everything she said unless she was certain of herself, and didn’t mind being wrong – almost delighted in new understandings, usually.  On the other hand, I’d had girlfriends for months that I didn’t know half as well.  I felt the familiar tug of intuition, that force I’d trusted all my career and all my life, and decided to take a leap.

“I know it’s taking a risk.  But I’m deciding to take this seriously.  If you can get up there with me, you can count on me.  I’ll let them know how much I’d appreciate a specialist’s presence.”

“You’re ‘deciding to be serious?’  ‘I can count on you?’ I don’t need someone to water my plants!  I need you to need me!”  The table rocked as she pushed me, and she stood up, pushing me again. “I need you to care!”

“Of course I care.”  I cupped her cheeks, and laid my brow to hers, closing my eyes. “But caring isn’t enough.  Before I rip you away, I need to believe we can work.  I made a decision based on evidence that you and I can make it.  I want you to come with me.  Nothing so flimsy as feelings, Reina, there is bedrock to build on.  Come with me.”

She smiled and looked guilty all at the same time.  “Now I feel bad about yelling at you.”

I folded her in my arms, and tucked her head under my chin, squeezing her. “It’s okay.  All is forgiven.  You know that.”

She burrowed into my chest, the tension easing from her shoulders. “I like to hear it, though.””Will you look strange to me, when I see you?”

“You know I’ll try something new.  But it won’t be too strange, I promise.  You’ll know my face.  There’s a new one for zero-g.  I’ll be able to swim in the air.”

“Like a mermaid?”

She giggled. “Nothing so silly.  More like being able to spread wings from my hands and feet.  And put them away, too, don’t worry.”

“I wouldn’t mind a little strangeness.  Just remember to be human, too.”  The holographic display lit up again, trilling to signal an incoming call.  It was the Orbital Authority again, calling me back.  “That was sooner than expected.  Either they’re still rejecting me, or they’re desperate.”

Reina hopped out of my lap and smiled at me. “You tell them how it is.  You already spanked them once.  Don’t hesitate.  I’ll get up there.  If not with the specialist job, then something else.  You just get on your own way.”

I smiled at the encouragement and game myself a moment to imagine a future with her.  I hadn’t permitted myself that before.  I was so sure this would end.  It still might.  But waking up with her in my arms, Then I turned to face the display, and whatever the future held.

Deadly Wish

Explore a character’s moral dilemma – either he gets a million dollars, and someone he doesn’t know dies, or someone else gets a million dollars, and he dies.

“A million dollars?”

“Yes.”

“Very well.  It’s mundane, so I’ll grant it.  But . . . let’s make it interesting.  I’ll also kill someone.”  The genie that had sprung from the antique lamp pointed out my window, and in the window across the way a woman was dusting; she looked like a cleaning lady.  “Her.  I’ll kill her.”

“What!?  No!  That is nowhere in the wish I made!  I didn’t ask for anything like that!”

To be fair, I had kind of been surprised when a human form billowed out of the lamp.  It was like a silly fairy tale.  But after I spent half an hour crawling around my kitchen counter as a cockroach, I was ready to believe.  It was either that, or risk some new torment.

“Who cares?  The terms of your wish are fulfilled.”

“No.  Take it back.  I don’t want it.”

The genie floated on a cloud of mist, ignoring me.  “Funds will be deposited in your account by six–”

I threw the lamp.  It passed through him, his form swirling like smoke before reforming. “I said take it back!”  I was screaming now.  I wasn’t a killer, dammit.  This wasn’t me!

“Well.  I might be convinced to refrain.  But you’ll have to entertain me, mortal.  Squirm on the hook a little.  Wriggle, worm.”

“What are you talking about!?  You can’t just kill people!”  I couldn’t hit him, I couldn’t stop him, I couldn’t do anything but shout.  Someone in a neighboring apartment thumped on the walls.

“Oh, I can.  And nobody will ever know.  Heart attacks are a dime a dozen.  Even the healthy could have one.  But like I said, I might refrain.  I’ll give her the money instead, and give the death to you.”

I froze.  “You can’t possibly . . . you can’t expect . . . ”

He rolled on his cloud of vapor, stomach-down now, folding his hands under his chin to watch me.  His hair was pure white, like cotton, and his form childlike.  His eyes on me, though, were those of an old man. “I expect you to squirm.  I expect you to decide.  I expect to feast on your struggle, manling.  Take the money, and you may as well have killed her yourself.”

I turned away, planting my hands on the cool tile of the countertop.  I’d never considered myself a great altruist.  I always wondered just how cold I was.  I didn’t donate to anything, didn’t have a great cause.  But could I just let someone die?  I shook my head.  I was looking at it wrong.  Someone would die.  Someone would certainly die.  The question wasn’t, ‘would I let someone die’, but ‘who would I choose’.  I looked out the window and felt my resolve harden.

I was an architect.  I made things, dozens of people were employed to support my work.  She was a cleaning lady.  I doubted she supported more than herself.  I stood up, looking out the window, my decision ready.  I heard the genie’s childish voice pipe up behind me. “Ooooooh, here it comes!”

I saw a second cleaner walk into view, carrying a trash bag.  She was younger, probably still in high school.  The older lady bent to her, and began wrapping some small hurt, then kissed her on the brow.  A daughter.  The girl laughed, pushing her mother away, too old to have boo-boo’s kissed better, but she laughed, she smiled.

I looked around my apartment.  The entertainment center, the Playstation with one controller plugged in, the single microwave dinner on the table, the empty beer can.  Part of me began to die inside, just then.  That part of me so assured of my worth, the part convinced that I was valuable to the world.  I turned back to the genie, whose blue eyes met mine.

With a heart that felt like a lead weight in my chest, I announced my decision.

Geo Rivals

You’re driving home from work late at night when you begin to suspect the car behind you might be following you. You take every right turn until you have made a full circle. The car is still behind you…

Scene from Courtlyn Siepert: You’re driving home from work late at night when you begin to suspect the car behind you might be following you. You take every right turn until you have made a full circle. The car is still behind you…

Why are you so paranoid, and why are they after you?

I had been beaten. Again. This time I had the advantage though; I was intimately familiar with this neighborhood. I glanced in the rearview and made the turn, heading to the hillside that the latest clue had to represent. It would take anybody from outside the region days to do the research needed—

That’s when I noticed headlights in my rearview, making the same turn I had. My instincts twitched. Continue reading “Geo Rivals”

The Stench of the Hunt

What is that smell? And why are you wearing that?

“What is that smell?”

I wrestled the hip-waders off on the step, then peeled my socks off. Maya came to the open door. She was a head shorter than me, and considered plain by some. But the sparkle in her eyes and her questing mind made her shine. She came to the door now, and looked at me, watching me discard the protective gear, the poncho, the rubber gloves.

“And why are you wearing that?” Continue reading “The Stench of the Hunt”

When You Wish Upon a Star

There are more rules to wishing stars than you realize. One is that your wish only comes true years after you make it. Unfortunately for you, your wish has just come true.

I woke from a dream of shaking earth and sirens, and sat up, grumpy. The sirens didn’t stop. Somewhere, there must be a fire. I plodded into the kitchen in my underwear, then turned back to put on my slippers and a bathrobe. Thus armored against cold tile floors, I returned and filled an over-sized coffee mug with coffee. Sugar. Cream.

I looked at the curtained window, wondering what the ruckus was.  I sipped my coffee, taking the time to indulge the bleary, half-asleep fog of early waking. Then, with another sip of coffee, I shook off my sleepiness and went to the window. I found myself looking at a red stone wall. Not brick, a kind of glazed stone. It wasn’t flat; the wall curved, and each fitted stone had a curved surface, almost like . . .

“Scales?” Continue reading “When You Wish Upon a Star”

Cursebreaker

Write a story involving a coin, a cat, a watch, and a hat.

I rolled a quarter across my knuckles as I waited. Walked the coin back, flipped it, caught it between my ring and pinky fingers. He was late.

Then, a small house-cat hopped onto my desk. “Are you the client?”  The cat meowed.

“Lift your left paw, extend your claws, and meow twice to affirm that you are the client.”

The cat raised its paw, hesitant. He seemed to have difficulty, but he spread his claws and peered up at me, meowing twice. Continue reading “Cursebreaker”