Untitled

Rachel K via Creative Commons

Willow scraped her slippers along the carpet, reaching up to stretch and rub her eyes but stopping short with a little squeak of surprise when she saw the book on the floor. Her office was spotless, a sanctuary from the chaos of a careless boyfriend through the rest of the house. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, excepting the wide corner desk, where she ran her customized balloon distribution company from her laptop. A book on the floor in this office was an affront to Willow’s unflinching rule: no one in the office without explicit permission.

She picked up the hardcover and turned it over. Agatha Christie’s After The Funeral. Willow carried the book into the kitchen, staring at the cover. “Hey Long,” she said, suppressing a sour look at the sight of her boyfriend hunched over a cereal bowl, slurping and chewing loudly with an open mouth, “were you looking for a book in my office?”

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Get Out

Annadriel via Creative Commons

May, 1946

 

Arata Ui could tell the difference between the rumble of ocean against sea wall and the buzz of an approaching aircraft when he was awake and alert. Four hours into his second shift, when cursing Ryo for contracting the flu had lost its distracting fire, it became a uniform hum of white noise. His fingers stiffened on the searchlight. Across the dugout, the battery team shared a cigarette, black outlines of huddled bulk nagged by an orange ember.

“Tetsuya! Shin!” Arata hissed, hoping the Gocho wasn’t making his round. “Someone cover me while I go to the latrine.”

The debate was held in susurrus even Arata’s trained ear couldn’t make out. “Fine,” they said at last. After a moment, Shin tapped him on the shoulder.

“Make it fast. I’m only doing this because you’re pulling a double.”

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Erta Ale North Pit Crater Magma Lake

pierre c. 38 via Creative Commons

Krivoth gestured with two folded black claws and his mandibles clicked a hard, wet rhythm as he spoke. “In here is the break room. Coffee, snacks, suffering-sticks, fresh fruit, ichor, the usual.” Ms. Pollibutton’s sagging, chinless face reflected a thousand times over in Krivoth’s faceted red eye. “You get one fifteen minute break every four millennia.” The tone in his lubricated clacking voice suggested he expected some resistance on this point. Ms. Pollibutton remained stoic and pushed her glasses back up her nose.

After a somewhat disappointed pause, Krivoth’s hind legs drummed in sequence creating an agitated, impatient air. “Anyway, moving on,” he said. The tour continued, Krivoth being sure to tick off the points of interest: The Floundering Abyss; The City of Pain; Dyre Labyrinth; Nightmare Valley. Ms. Pollibutton nodded politely at each, never slowing her short, rapid strides. The soft clink of her Cromwell buckles steadied into an incessant grate against Krivoth’s nerves.

“So here’s your workstation,” he said after an age. The loose folds of Ms. Pollibutton’s throat wobbled ever so slightly as she ran a white glove along the dusty outcropping of red stone. A massive anthropodermic book lay on the slab desk.

Krivoth flipped the book open to a page marked with a bone hook using his spiked foreleg. “It works like this: an entrant will arrive at processing. Once Foharr is finished with intake and cleaning, Sinestine will usher it in here. You record the data and let Nesti know which plane is next in the rotation. This is important, okay? If you start double- or triple-stacking the Murdergrounds or whatever, you’re going to have some very grouchy underdaemons. We can’t torment properly if we don’t have time to do the orientations.”

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Troy Springs State Park:  Algae formations

Phil’s 1stPix via Creative Commons

You expect to lose a few toes to the wet-rot during a contract. Not a single contractor offers hazard pay for getting three of them shot off. I wish I could tell you I took it like a tough guy, but the truth is I howled like a baby sea lion. The deeper truth is, most of my howl of agony had nothing to do with the fearsome pain of taking a zipshot bolt to the wee-wee-wee piggies. It had a hell of a lot more to do with the fact that my ex-wife was on the trigger end of that transaction.

Darla and I didn’t start off as fire and ice. She was a fisherman’s daughter, a naive hick with hair that never dried and a sweet voice that sang songs no one else could remember. I thought bringing her along on a couple of contracts would be good for her, toughen her up a little. But the open water did more than that; it changed her. I didn’t begrudge her taking up a contract of her own, and I didn’t really mind when she was promoted to captain of our skiff ahead of me.

The part I minded was her sleeping with the steward and throwing me overboard when I caught her in the act. That, and when she shot off my toes.

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Rook

Mingo Hagen via Creative Commons

Her mask was made from the head-bones of an aurochs and she ran. Each footfall landed in a violent clatter, the assault of her soles on earth sending the pouches and hanging weapons from criss-crossed belts and harnesses colliding, rebounding off each other. This was no stealthy flight.

Ridgen Village perched at the edge of the great gorge, squatting there as though trying to defecate into the chasm. When the woman clanged and thudded her way into the muddy slums on Ridgen’s western outskirts, her pursuers were nowhere to be seen.

She paused at the rough sign driven into the sticky grey ground at the village’s limit. The words above the faded whitewash of an arrow, gesturing south, read, “Ridgen. Population 1,300. Bridge customers welcome. Gorge floor path.” Words came slowly to Fian; she relished the opportunity to catch her breath while she made sure she understood the sign’s meaning: the bridge lay ahead, through town; to the south, the long road through the canyon.

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