Edward Owen – Author

Ray Bradbury Challenge #39 – The Collective

I have a number of projects going on at the moment so many of the stories for the rest of the Challenge will likely be little pieces of those projects as I try to wrap my head around them. Comments, as always, are welcome. Have a great week

#39 The Collective

 soldier 2

“I heard they ain’t got no hangy-downs,” said Thompson. “The Masters cut ‘em off as soon as they crawl out of the vat.”

The fire reflected off his young, stubble covered face. Zealous enthusiasm masked the fear that was always just below the surface. Less than a decade ago, when the bullets started flying, all his fear would likely have manifested itself in the loss of bowel and bladder control. Thompson and his brothers-in-arms no longer suffered such indignities.

“You’re full of crap, Thompson,” said Jenkins. “Just stupid stories the DIs make up to shake the recruits.”

He bit off another helping of rations and chewed them with his mouth open.

The squad consisted of six men, none of whom had yet to see their twenty-fifth birthday. Zanders, Watson, Carmichael and Sellers rounded out the group. Each had been given first names by their parents, but just as they were stitched on their uniforms, only their last names were used.

“My brother’s squad ran into a bunch down in the Flat Lands,” said Watson. “He pumped eight rounds into one and the damn thing wouldn’t go down. Had to hit it with a grenade before it stopped. Fuckin’ genengs don’t feel no pain. Harder to kill than roaches. Three of ‘em wiped out eight of his guys before they took ‘em out.”

Six young faces gathered around the evening fire with bars of enhanced rations and canteens filled with energy water. In the morning, they would face an army of genetically engineered soldiers, or gen-engs (pronounced Jennings) as they called them.

“You ladies best get your asses in your bags,” barked Staff Sergeant Billings, stepping out of the darkness and into the firelight. “Dem Jenny-boys ain’t gonna care if you tired. You drag your ass down there, they just liable to bite it off.”

The squad tossed their containers in the fire and rolled out their sleeping bags amid perfunctory cries of “Yes, Master Sergeant”. Once their trash was incinerated they extinguished the flames with sand and slithered into their bags.

Half a dozen hypodermic injections, administered by the bags’ control systems, had the soldiers in optimum sleep level in thirty seconds. The nano-meds scoured their bodies for any injuries, bacteria or viruses. All such threats to the body were summarily executed with extreme prejudice. Each man received a chemical stimulant into his adrenal gland that would be triggered by the stress of battle.

*****

At oh-four-thirty hours, the soldiers were given a stim-shot by their bags. In less than five minutes the squad was packed and finished with their morning rations.

“Hey Sellers, I dreamed about your mother last night,” said Thompson.

“Fuck you Thompson. My mother’s dead.”

The rest of the squad let out a low “ooohhhhh”.

Thompson feigned a look of remorse and said “That would explain why she was so –”

The round entered his skull just above the left eye. It had a high density core with a break-away titanium jacket which liquified his brain and blew it out the back of his head. His monitor registered the absence of his heartbeat and sent a signal to the rest of the squad. Their stim-packs responded by activating the chemicals in their adrenal glands.

“Sniper!” yelled Carmichael as he strapped on his helmet and dropped to the ground, his optical implants adjusting for the darkness.

“Muzzle flare at two seven oh by twenty two degrees, about twelve hundred meters out” said Zanders as he set up a small missile launcher.

The squad scrambled into the bunker and peered into the night for enemy targets.

“Damn genengs!” said Watson. “Since when do they attack before first light?”

“How the fuck did that asshole get by the patrol?” said Sellers.

“Probably been buried in a hole for a week,” said Zanders. “Fire in the hole!”

He grinned as the rocket shot off into the darkness. A second later a red flash appeared off in the distance.

“Biomass readings indicate a direct hit,” said Watson as he read the display.

A concussion bomb exploded over the bunker killing the five men inside. The EM pulse shorted out their monitors and destroyed all of the nano-meds in their bodies. Every soldier in the platoon shared their fate.

*****

The sun’s rays made a feeble attempt to pierce the smoke and haze hanging over the camp, but the light was dim and gray. It was a perfect match for the skin of the soldiers that marched into the compound. Their eyes were completely white with a small black pupil in the center. They collected the bodies of the men in the camp and loaded them into the back of a large hovercraft.

“Inform Command that we have a total of twenty units,” said the leader.

Inside the ship, the bodies were laid out on steel tables and their uniforms stripped off. Dozens of needles and other instruments probed, injected and operated on the soldiers. Within the hour, their skin had the same gray pallor as did their enemies. The irises faded to white and the pupils contracted to pinpoints.

Jenkins, Zanders, Watson, Carmichael and Sellers became units Alpha Bravo two seventy-five through two seventy-nine respectively. Due to the severe cranial damage, Thompson’s body was fitted with a drone control unit and was used for combat training.

*****

“Recruits, welcome to the Collective,” said training instructor Gamma Three-fifty. “There is no self, there is only your unit and the enemy in front you. You will fight until you die. If there is enough left, you will be re-engineered to fight again. If you cannot be made whole, you will serve as nourishment for the Collective.”

Twenty pairs of white eyes stared straight ahead, unblinking and looking for the enemy.

Ray Bradbury Challenge #38 One in Fifty-Two

For me, in writing horror and thrillers, there are no sacred cows. I find the things that scare me the most are those that are the most real. “Jaws” is one of the scariest movie I have ever seen. Sharks are real. So are the two legged predators roaming our cities.

One in Fifty-Two

 cards

The cross hairs lined up on her chest just above the neckline of her tank top. The lower line nestled between her breasts like a lover’s caress. Even at nine hundred yards and thirty stories up he could see the droplets of perspiration dotting her tan skin. He pulled away from the scope for a moment and stared at the playing card leaning against the brick ledge of the rooftop. The Queen of Hearts. It would be more of a tragedy, given her age and nearly perfect beauty, but that was the point. Besides, it was the cards that made the choice.

He pushed his eye against the scope, double checked his shot and let out a slow, controlled breath. His finger pulled back on the trigger with the precision of a surgeon. A burst of flame erupted from the end of the thirty eight inch barrel. The report echoed through the glass canyon, lost among the noise of the city. A small red flower blossomed on the young woman’s chest and she crumpled to the ground without a sound. The young man with her reacted as though she had fainted. When he turned her over on her back, he screamed for help. He placed his hand over the wound but it would not help. The round had burst her heart on impact and she had died before she hit the ground.

On the rooftop the man removed the spent cartridge from the chamber. The brass cylinder gleamed in the sunlight, the number four etched into its surface. He disassembled the rifle and laid it in the case.

He placed a small rock against the playing card, set the cartridge next to it and strolled to the stairwell. There was no reason to hurry. It would be hours before the rooftop was searched and then only after his ‘anonymous’ tip led police to it. Half a mile was a respectable shot only a highly trained sniper could make. This was the fourth demonstration of his skill. They would be connecting some of the dots now. Good. There were still forty eight more cards in the deck. He had work to do.

*****

The shooting commanded the undivided attention of the evening news. Speculation on the shooter’s motives were postulated by a parade of ‘experts’. He switched stations as he took another swallow of beer. He especially liked the theory that he was a misogynistic loner, relatively unattractive who spent his time playing video games and watching copious amounts of pornography.

“Want another beer?” asked his wife, a stunning red head and former model.

“Thanks, hon,” he said as he handed her his empty bottle. He might not have movie star good looks, but he was far from unattractive. “Where are the boys?”

“Upstairs doing homework. They both have mid-terms next week.”

She glanced at the television. “Another shooting? My God, that’s horrible. I’m surprised you’re watching this.”

“Occupational hazard I’m afraid. Smells like enchiladas. Chicken or beef?”

“Chicken. You want to eat in here? I told the boys they could eat in their rooms since they were studying.”

He unfolded his arms and legs as he rose from the easy chair to his full six foot height.

“Sure. I’ll grab the trays.”

*****

After dinner, after some television and uninterrupted conversation and after he and his wife made love, the man lay in his bed and listened to her soft snoring. His thoughts turned to the deck of playing cards tucked away in his bag in the basement. He had drawn the two of diamonds. Two days until his next event. Even number meant his target would again be female and diamonds meant she would be Hispanic. The location had already been planned out. It was the one aspect he could not leave to chance. As he slipped into sleep, blueprints and schedules ran through his mind.

*****

Rosa Juarez pushed her daughter’s stroller toward the park and their usual Wednesday play date. While their excursions were a delight for Annabelle, they were a much needed break for Rosa. There would be at least four other moms there and sometimes a father or two. Rosa craved adult conversation like a junkie craved the needle. It was one of the challenges of being a single mother that was rarely discussed on talk shows.

The moment the stroller wheels hit the playground, Annabelle released her mother’s hand and shot toward the slide. Rosa sighed. At four years old, her daughter had two gears; full speed ahead and sleep. Another benefit of the playground was afternoon naps for mommy and child.

*****

The images in the cross hairs were a kaleidoscope of color and movement. He had chosen this location because of the challenges it presented. He had had to wait nearly an hour for an appropriate target. Plenty of middle class white women and one man, but the cards dictated otherwise. He let out a deep, controlled breath as the woman with the brown eyes and dark hair pushed the stroller and led her daughter into his field of vision. It took him another fifteen minutes to line up the shot. The rifle’s report boomed across the street and every parent turned in his direction. One of the women screamed at the sight of the blood and the parent’s scrambled to collect their children and get them to safety. All but one.

*****

His cell phone rang as he loaded his weapon into the back of his truck.

“This is Lawson,” he said.

“There’s been another shooting, Lieutenant,” said the voice in his ear. “The Captain wants the entire task force here within the hour. It’s bad, sir.”

“They’re all bad,” he said.

“Yeah, but this time he shot a little girl in the park. What kind of sick bastard does that?”

“I don’t know. Tell the Captain I’ll be there in twenty.”

He clicked off the phone, slid behind the wheel and cranked the engine to life. Forty-seven to go.

Ray Bradbury Challenge #37- Star Crossed

coffee

Star Crossed

 

Toby crashed to the floor, coffee and papers spilling across the carpet. Beth stooped to help retrieve the soggy pages.

“Are you alright?” she said.

Toby’s face burned as he scrambled to collect the report.

“Yeah. Just tripped …” he mumbled as he scooped the coffee soaked mess into the folder. “Gotta reprint all this again.”

Beth smiled and handed him his cup as he stood up.

“Don’t sweat it,” she said. “Jensen will be late.”

“Mmm … okay.” Toby glanced up at her face. He never got tired of her smile. It was the best part of his day so far. The image of her lips touching his flooded his mind. His face grew hot and he looked away.

What are you going to do? Stand on a ladder?

The voice added to his misery and he squashed it away. Of course it was right. Beth Mowry was five ten and Toby barely hit five seven. She was everything he wasn’t; beautiful, outgoing and moving up the corporate ladder.

“Thanks,” Toby said as he slunk back to his cubicle and dropped the dripping pile into his trash can.

As he changed in the employee locker room, the image of Beth’s face floated into his mind again.

If I could just show her who I really am.

Toby sighed as he finished buttoning his shirt. He glanced at his watch; 9:05. It was going to be a long day.

*****

Beth looked out across the empty bullpen. All of the cubes were vacant except one. The click of a keyboard cut through the quiet. As she strode across the floor, she realized the sounds were coming from Toby’s cubicle. She peeked over the wall.

“Hey, what’s keeping you here so late?”

Toby jumped.

“Oh, uh … just collecting some figures for McBrian.”

Beth strode around to the entrance and stood beside Toby.

“He’s taking advantage of you. Come on, let’s go. Coffee’s on me.”

Toby’s face flushed crimson.

“Uh, that’s what I’m afraid of.”

Beth laughed. “Don’t worry, we’ll drink it sitting down. Just leave the report. If McBrian says anything, I’ve got your back.”

“Why?”

Before Beth could answer, the floor shook and both of them were knocked off their feet.

*****

Toby’s head was ringing. The light over his cubicle swung back and forth creating shadows that danced to silent music. He got up from the floor and stared at the office. Every cube had come apart and the ceiling was destroyed.

Beth!

Toby panicked as she filled his mind.

“Beth?”

“Mmmmm …” The moan came from under a pile of debris in the walkway. As he looked closer, her hand came into view. Toby tore through the junk until Beth was completely uncovered. He knelt down next to her.

“Beth? Can you hear me?”

“Yeah. Wow! Some earthquake, huh?”

Beth tried to stand. Her legs gave out and Toby caught her. His arms tingled and he almost dropped her.

“Oh shit!” Beth said. “What time is it?”

Toby eased Beth into his chair and glanced at his watch.

“It’s seven o’clock. You have a hot date or something?”

“No, nothing like that. I just need to get home. Please help me to the elevator.”

Toby draped her arm across his shoulders and the tingling started again. They reached the elevator and he punched the button but it remained dark.

“Elevator’s not working,” he said. “Probably not safe to take it anyway.”

“Then we have to take the stairs.”

“Um, we’re on the twentieth floor and you can hardly walk. Let’s just call 911 and get some help.”

Toby directed her back to the chair and helped her sit down.

“I need to go. It’s important.”

Beth looked out the window.

“The sun’s almost down.”

Toby followed her gaze.

Beth sighed. “There’s something I need to tell you. I’m not who you think I am.”

“Really? Government spy … witness protection?”

Toby grinned.

“Toby, I’m serious. When the sun goes down, I, uh, well, I change and it isn’t pretty.”

“What do you mean, you change?”

Beth stared at him, her eyes tearing up.

“I’m not human anymore. You’ll see in a few minutes. Then you’ll probably quit working here and …”

Toby took her hand in his.

“I’m not going anywhere, you’re the only friend I have.”

Beth gave him a weak smile. “You might want to back up.”

Her face contorted and she let out a groan. Toby let go of her hand and backed away. Beth stood up and stretched out her arms. They grew shorter with bulging muscles. Her legs shrunk and her torso widened. Black wings erupted from her back and her nose lengthened. Within a minute, Beth Mowry had turned into a five foot gargoyle, her onyx skin glistening in the fading sunlight.

“I told you,” her voice croaked.

“You’re not the only one with a secret,” Toby said.

His body began to glow and grow taller. His unruly black hair became long, golden locks and his pudgy body rippled with muscles under a flowing white robe. He too sprouted wings, but they were covered in shining silver and gold feathers.

“You can change at will?” Beth said.

“Yes, but not in the sight of humans. You said you are not human anymore. You were human once?”

“Yes, but I was selfish and cruel. I insulted a homeless woman because she was dirty and dressed in rags. She was a witch and she cursed me. Why do you choose to live among humans as a clumsy man?”

Toby folded his wings and crouched down to Beth’s level.

“I was arrogant and disobeyed our leader. Several of our people died because of my actions. He sent me to Earth in human form to learn humility. The last two hundred years have been a hard lesson. Between my appearance and immortality, I haven’t made any friends. Until I do, I am cursed to stay here.”

Beth’s dark eyes lit up.

“Me, too! Actually, the witch said I must keep a lover for a year to break the curse. I tried a couple of times, but you can imagine the responses I received looking like this.”

“Actually, your appearance doesn’t matter to me. We can see auras and yours is much brighter than your physical body.”

Beth took a tentative step toward Toby.

“You don’t care that I’m hideous looking?”

“Did you care what I looked like when I was human?” Toby held his hand out and Beth took hold of it. Blue streaks of electrical energy shot from their hands, lighting up the room. He pulled her to him and kissed her softly on the mouth. Lightning bolts shot through the building and all of the lights exploded.

*****

Toby still spills his coffee and occasionally trips over his own feet, but he always has a smile on his face. He and Beth eat lunch together every day and spend every night in each others arms. Their coworkers all shake their heads in amazement.

Ray Bradbury Challenge #36- “Defiance”

 “Defiance”

Fist

The laser cut into Dmitri’s shoulder as he leaned on the shovel. He wiped the blood from the wound with the back of his sweat soaked hand. In a couple of weeks the scar would be indistinguishable from the dozens of others that criss-crossed his skin.

“You have not been authorized to cease working number seventy-five-thirty-six,” barked the drone floating above him. As the machine finished speaking, a horn sounded through the tunnel marking the end of the shift.

“Fuck you, drone. Shift’s over and this injury means I get light duty.”

He left his tools lay on the ground and ambled toward the elevator with the rest of the crew.

“I think you enjoy the abuse of the machines,” said Anton as he fell in step with Dmitri and admired the new wound.

“I enjoy not working,” Dmitri said. “They cannot replace my shovel with a machine. Every time I do not lift it the quota falls a little short and maybe a manager gets replaced. The thought of some pompous ass getting sent down here make me smile.”

“I have heard they have a new shielding that will allow the mining bots to work down here.”

Dmitri dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand.

“They have been spouting that gibberish for decades. They will send some fancy machine down here and it will work for a day or two, then it will fall to the ground and billow smoke. No, my friend, the only thing that can stand up to tantathelium energy fields is flesh and blood.”

Anton was silent as the two men plodded toward the elevator.

As the door opened he said, “But you are trapped here. A few days away from the mine and your body would shrivel and die.”

Dmitri laughed and slapped his friend on the back.

“Anton, you must see the cup as half-full. Do you have any idea how long I have worked down here?”

The man shook his head.

“You were here long before me, that is all I can say.”

“I was mining this planet long before you crawled out of your mother’s womb.”

Anton’s eye’s opened wide.

“I did not think you any more than three or four years my senior. How can that be? ”

Dmitri pushed his way into the elevator and made room for Anton. The stench of sweat was thick in the air, intensified by the close proximity of the men filling the small space.

“Did you ever meet anyone in the mine that was forced to be here? They all volunteered. Average life expectancy, barring accidents, is a hundred and sixty years thanks to a daily dose of tantathelium radiation. Housing and food all paid for. Three shifts on, four off. Here you can avoid the crowded, polluted, war torn mess of our home world.”

The elevator jerked to a stop and the men piled out onto the planet’s surface. Only the dome over their heads allowed them to move about without enviro-suits. The stars twinkled through the structure even with the twin suns shining in the sky.

“If you volunteered, why do you cause trouble? Maybe the glass is not so full as you say.”

Anton waved his hand over the palm reader followed by Dmitri.

“I did not say I volunteered to work in the mines. I signed up to develop the planet. When I landed, mining was the only job available. By the time I was eligible to return, I had been here too long. Back then, Earth was not as it is now. The company would not pay for my family to come. They are all long dead.”

The two men stepped onto the walkway and gripped the handrails as it whisked them toward the residential dome.

“You should come for dinner tonight,” said Anton. “Mikala is making stew. She bartered for real meat.”

Dmitri shook his head.

“Thank you, but I must decline. Tell your beautiful wife that the big lummox had plans other than eating her hard won meal. Besides, Marko is getting big and needs his food.”

“I will tell her. See you tomorrow my friend.”

Anton clapped Dmitri on the arm. As he stepped off the walkway, Dmitri slipped a paycard into Anton’s pocket and watched as his only friend headed home.

As soon as Anton was out of sight, Dmitri stepped off the walkway and back onto the one  headed to the mine. He arrived just as the first group from the second shift entered the elevator. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and climbed aboard.

As the crew dispersed, Dmitri headed back into the tunnel where his tools lay on the ground. He grabbed his shovel and swung it at a coolant line. A green cloud erupted from the pipe and the wail of a klaxon filled the mine. Most of the men had barely cleared the elevator and they all made it back inside in minutes.

The same shovel disabled the first drone that flew around the corner. Dmitri grabbed it, pointed the laser at the wall and pressed the manual override button. A red dot appeared on the wall as several drones shot down the tunnel. They attacked, but despite numerous wounds from their cutting beams, Dmitri held the drone’s steady on the wall. The glow increased to several meters and a grin spread over his face. The explosion ripped through the mine destroying all of the drones and the bottom of the elevator shaft.

 ******

 The investigation lasted six solar months and it was another two years before the mine reopened. Experts estimated the accident cost the Company seventy billion dollars, including wages to workers stuck on the planet. All management personnel were demoted to laborer status. Dmitri’s body was never found. The paycard Anton found in his pocket had three million credits in its account. He was able to retire and raise his son with his wife.

 

 

 

Ray Bradbury Challenge #35- Adoption Day

Adoption Day baby

“I assume the DNA has been tested and meets our agreed upon standards?” said the Man in the dark suit. “And all of them have had preliminary training?”

He spoke to a Doctor in a white lab coat and was accompanied by a Woman with a serious face and cold, dark eyes.

“Rest assured any one of them would be a perfect match to your criteria,” said the Doctor.

The Man exchanged a number of words with the Woman in a language the Doctor did not recognize.

“Very well. Can you please show us the three that have the nearest imprint date?”

The Doctor raised his eyebrows.

“That’s an unusual request. Most of our clients prefer to have as much time as possible before imprinting – ”

The Man cut the Doctor off with a wave of his hand.

“My – excuse me – our needs are no doubt a great deal different than most of your clients. Imprinting in the next week or two would be ideal. Will that be a problem?”

The Doctor consulted a list displayed on his tablet.

“We have three candidates that will all be imprinting within the next two weeks. Is gender a concern?”

“No, either will be fine,” the Man said. “How long before we can meet them?”

“It’s meal time at the moment.” The Doctor checked his tablet. “I can have them ready in an hour.”

“Thank you. We will return at that time.”

Without waiting for a response the Man and the Woman turned and walked out the door.

The Doctor shook his head and returned to his office.

*****

The Doctor sat behind a small table with a control panel and a microphone atop it in a large room. The Man and the Woman sat in chairs beside him.

“Please send in the final candidate,” the Doctor said into a microphone.

A door opened on the other side of the room and a boy entered. He was dressed only in a tank top and a pair of shorts.

“What is his age approximation?” said the Man.

“Physical approximation is seven years, five months,” said the Doctor. “Mental is fifteen years, two months. His scores are in the ninety eighth percentile across the board.”

The Man looked at the Woman who nodded.

“Congratulations, Doctor,” said the Man. “The program is producing impressive results. May we speak with him?”

“By all means.”

The Doctor motioned to the Boy to come forward.

“Do you know why you are here?” said the Man.

The Boy fixed his gaze on him.

“I am being considered for adoption,” he said.

“Yes. What is the square root of three hundred eighty-eight thousand one hundred twenty-nine?”

The Boy blinked once and said “Six hundred twenty-three.”

The Woman leaned over and whispered in the man’s ear.

“Name the parts of the body most susceptible to lethal trauma in descending order,” said the Man.

The Boy hesitated for a moment before speaking.

“Brain stem, heart, frontal lobe, esophagus, temple, aorta, carotid artery, femoral artery.”

The Man looked at the Woman who nodded in approval.

“Please demonstrate your physical training,” said the Man.

The Doctor pressed a button on the table and two large men entered the room. The Boy turned to face them. The first man pulled a knife from a sheath on his hip and lunged at the Boy who side stepped the attack. As the man passed him, the Boy delivered a vicious kick to his knee. The attacker fell to the floor writhing in pain. The knife clattered to the floor and the Boy retrieved it. The second man rushed forward wielding a sword. He swung at the Boy’s head. The Boy ducked under the blow and sliced the man’s arm with the knife opening a gash that bled immediately. The man ignored the wound and continued his attack. The Boy avoided each blow and countered with one of his own. After several minutes, the man fell to the floor, bleeding from numerous wounds.

The Boy tossed the knife to the floor and resumed his place in front of the Man and Woman. He was neither breathing hard nor sweating.

“How long can you hold your breath?” said the Man.

“In a resting state; eight minutes, thirty five seconds,” said the Boy. “While swimming fully submerged; five minutes, ten seconds.”

The Man leaned over and conversed with the Woman in hushed tones.

“Why did you not kill your attackers?” asked the Man

“It was not necessary,” said the Boy, “as they no longer posed a threat.”

“Thank you. We have no more questions.”

The Doctor nodded and the Boy trotted to the door and exited the room.

“We have decided,” said the Man. “We will take candidate number three.”

“Very well,” said the Doctor. “If you will follow me to my office we can finish with the paperwork.”

*****

The Man scrawled his signature across the bottom of the contract and sat back in his chair. The Boy stood near the Doctor with his hands behind his back.

“I would encourage you to spend every waking moment together,” said the Doctor. “He will be imprinting soon and it will be much stronger if you do.”

“I understand,” said the Man. “Who else on your staff knows of our arrangement?”

The Doctor gathered up the contract and placed it in a folder.

“Oh, your privacy has been well guarded. I am the only one who knows.”

The Man threw the pen at the Boy who caught it.

“The Doctor poses a threat to us. You will kill him.”

The Doctor’s eyes grew wide as the Boy plunged the pen into his neck. Blood shot from the wound and splattered across the Boy’s face and arms.

“Excellent. You may call us Mother and Father. Have you decided on a name?”

“Yes, I have chosen Gabriel.”

“Then Gabriel, let’s take you home.”

The Man retrieved the folder from the desk and the three of them strode out of the office.

Ray Bradbury Challenge #34 “The Wizard”

“The Wizard”

Wizard

The flames leapt into the night sky, changing hue from deep crimson to viridian to brilliant gold and back again. The crowd oh’d and ah’d in response to the show.

“Brothers and sisters, I have studied the mysteries of the known world. I have beheld wonders beyond belief.  I have tamed the powers of the Sister Gods.”

The man’s muscles rippled beneath the soft silk of his robe. Jet black hair flowed down his back and his dark eyes sparkled as he spoke. He raised his arms and lightning erupted from his finger tips. Several onlookers shrieked in terror and covered their eyes. The hint of a smile danced at the corners of his mouth.

“And now I bid you a Grand Moon’s Eve.”

With a bow and a flourish he stepped into the flames and disappeared. The collective gasp from the crowd carried across the  compound. The flames died leaving a cloud of smoke in the shape of a great bird that floated away on the evening breeze. The audience shuffled away from the fire ring, their voices wafting through the air in excited tones.

Rolath slipped through the night to his wagon. The clans of the southern plains were generous and good natured, especially during the Moon Festival. He had made nearly a third of his income for the season in a handful of days.

The wheeled vehicle he called home loomed ahead in the bright moonlight. Its exterior did not reflect the wealth of its owner.

Rolath placed his hand against a smooth plate alongside the door. It glowed with a soft blue light and the latch clicked open. As he stepped in to the coach, a light breeze ruffled his hair. The interior lights emitted a warm glow in response to his presence.

The wizard paused as he pushed the door shut. He withdrew a small purse from his cloak and placed it on a shelf. A subtle movement in the air caught his attention and he spun around.

“Reveal yourself, shifter,” he said.

The bag disappeared from the shelf. Rolath raised his hands and a green haze revealed the outline of a body on the far side of the room. They attempted to pass him but he caught the intruder by the wrist and forced their arm up behind their back.

“Ow! You’re hurting me.”

The haze cleared and the intruder took the shape of a young woman.

“By Clan Law I am free to do with you as I please. You are either very brave or very stupid to try to steal from a wizard.”

“You are either a coward or you have a very small member to use force against a young girl,” she said.

Rolath laughed. “If you had any idea who I was, you would know that neither of those statements is true.”

“Oh, I know who you are.  I will give you exactly five seconds to let me go before I hurt you.”

Rolath reached for his short knife but before his fingers touched the hilt his feet left the floor. The girl’s arm slipped from his grasp like smoke and his body was slammed against the wall. He slumped to the floor, his head ringing from the impact.

“I did warn you,” said the disembodied voice as the girl disappeared.

The money bag slammed into the door and dropped to the floor followed by a loud thud.

“Sisters be damned!”

Rolath picked himself up from the floor, straightened his cloak and settled in to a large chair. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the door.

“It’s locked and opens to my touch only. There is a containment charm on the entire coach. You will be here until I decide to let you go.”

The bag rose from the floor and hurtled at the wizard’s head. He caught it in his left hand never taking his eyes off the door.

“You have a considerable temper, but your aim is good.”

A small statue flew across the room. Rolath extended his arm and the statue hovered inches above the floor before floating back to its place on the shelf.

“I can play this game all night. Hunger and thirst will be a concern for you soon and you will find no sustenance in here. Why not show yourself and give me your name?”

The woman materialized near the door. She was dressed in a skin tight body suit that shimmered in the dim light. Her auburn hair was twisted into an ornate braid down her back. Bright green eyes bore into Rolath with a palpable intensity.

“I am Leena of Clan Osiris. Should I assume I am your prisoner?”

The wizard remained silent as his gaze wandered over her. The suit left little to the imagination where her figure was concerned but she neither looked away nor blushed under his scrutiny. After a few moments, a smile crossed his lips and he spoke.

“Prisoner implies that I captured you when in fact you entered my home of your own free will, albeit with larcenous intentions. ‘Unwilling guest’ is a better term I think.”

Leena’s brow furrowed.

“For how long am I to be your ‘guest’?”

Rolath rose from his chair and gestured to Leena.

“I have not decided. That will depend on you. The road is long and I could do with some company so you will be with me to Gharita’an at the very least. I hope you didn’t have a previous engagement.”

Leena crossed her arms over her chest but refused to sit.

“Very well, but if you have any ideas that I will share your bed, you will find me a great deal more than unwilling.”

Rolath’s laugh filled the room.

“It will be a sad day indeed when I must resort to forcing myself on a child of less than twenty seasons.”

The wizard turned and headed to the front of the coach leaving the young shifter alone, her fists balled in anger.

Ray Bradbury Challenge #33 – The Heretic

Been busy getting a submission ready for possible inclusion in anthology and had to put the challenge on hold for  a few weeks. For those who have been reading these stories regularly, thank you. I hope you enjoy this one.

 

Ray Bradbury Challenge #33 – The Heretic

 ancient book

“Oh for the love of Bast! Will you stop already?” said Jericho as he stretched out on the floor.

“Leave me alone,” Barney retorted as the door closed. “I honor the Providers. It is from them that all our blessings flow.”

“They live to serve us. There was a time when they worshiped my kind.”

“You were also burned at the stake as demons along with other heretics. Even today, you are hunted by those less tolerant.”

Barney dribbled water on the floor as he drank.

“Could you be any more disgusting?” said Jericho. “Yes, tolerance is slow in coming to your kind. As are manners, refinement and class. I cannot fathom why you are allowed to sully the temple. You should sleep in the dirt, not in here.”

Barney lumbered onto the carpet and scratched his head before lying down.

“I protect the temple from those who would harm the Providers. My love for them is unconditional. Do you not feel the joy of their return?”

Jericho strolled into the room and leaped onto the couch.

“I feel joy when my meals appear and they clean up my quarters. They are servants, nothing more.”

Barney sighed.

“They show us affection. I’ve seen how you act when they touch you. It is a great blessing and you beg for it.”

Jericho rubbed his ears and rolled on his back.

“I am simply allowing them to pay me homage. My station demands it. One need only look at where we are at this moment. I am given my choice of furnishings on which to recline while you must stay on the rug. I am even allowed in the bedchambers.”

Barney scratched another itch but refused to look at Jericho.

“I do so out of respect,” he said. “I am ten times your size. The furnishings are not made to hold me and I do not wish to do them any damage. And, when you are my age, you will not find the stairs so easy to navigate.”

“Keep telling yourself that, beggar.”

Barney laid his head on the floor and closed his eyes.

“I no longer hear you, heretic. It is time for me to seek inner peace.”

Jericho leaped to the floor, missing Barney’s head by a few inches.

“What a load of droppings. You don’t fool me for a minute. You’re taking a nap. Some great protector you are.”

“If you disturb me, I will bite you.”

Jericho walked back and forth over Barney to further torment him.

“Last warning, heretic. Is there not some poor creature that needs chasing? You are easily amused, go away and leave me alone.”

“Very well, beggar, I am going to their chambers and lie on the bed. Enjoy your rug nap.”

Jericho darted across the room and up the stairs. He took a leisurely stroll down the hall, sauntered into the room and jumped onto the center of the bed.

Barney and his kind are idiots, he thought. The bed is more than accommodating, they are simply unworthy.

Jericho closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 *****

Jericho awoke with a start. Barney was yelling as smoke wafted through the room.

“Jericho! Let’s go. The fire is coming.”

Instinct told him Barney was right and he slipped to the floor. The air was clear and he made a beeline for the stairs. Barney sat at the bottom waiting.

“Something has caused the temple to burn,” said Barney. “We must leave now.”

The pair headed for the exit in the kitchen and nearly ran into a bright pink backpack lying on the floor.

“Wait!” Barney said. “That belongs to the Daughter. Did you see her upstairs?”

“I did not go into her chambers but it is time for her return.”

“We cannot leave her in danger. Help me find her.”

Jericho looked at the exit and back at the smoke pouring through the doorway.

“I think it is too late. If we do not go, the fire will consume us.”

Barney glared at him. “Do as you will. As for me, I will serve the Provider.”

He loped into the room crouching beneath the smoke. Tears filled his eyes, impeding his vision, but not even the smoke could hide the scent of the Daughter from him. He paused at the bottom of the stairs. He had not used them in quite some time. The first few steps were fine but as he climbed, his joints and muscles protested. By the time he reached the top, his body screamed in agony. He barely made it to the Daughter’s chamber. He found her on the bed, her eyes closed.

“Daughter, you must wake. There is much danger.”

She stirred but did not wake. Barney tugged on her sleeve and pulled her toward the edge of the bed. She tumbled off, her eyes popping open as she threw her arms around his neck. Every sinew and muscle burned with her added weight but he pushed on until he reached the stairs. A small black and white head bobbed at the top.

“Jericho, I thought you left to save yourself.”

“And let you have all the glory? I think not. Now get moving.”

Barney stumbled and fell to the floor.

“I cannot. The stairs are too much. Get help. There will be other Providers here.”

Jericho spun around and darted down the stairs as smoke filled the hallway.

 *****

“Mr. Jessup, we have your daughter in the ambulance. She inhaled some smoke but she should be just fine.”

Frank Jessup sprinted across the front yard of his gutted home, scooped his daughter up in his arms and held her against his chest.

“Thank you for saving her,” he said to the firefighter.

“I’m afraid we can’t take all the credit. It was the damnedest thing. Your dog managed to get her to the top of the stairs and your cat showed us where they were. I’ve never seen animals work together like that.”

Ray Bradbury Challenge #32 – Fiona’s Adventures in Hollyweird – Bad Girl Hunting

If you are not familiar with Fiona, scroll back and read #19 Blood Hunt and #21 Full Moon Fever. This is her ongoing saga and I think my muse earned her chocolate on this one.

Kate

 

#32 Fiona’s Adventures in Hollyweird – Bad Girl Hunting

 

Fiona stretched and considered the sleeping form in the bed next to her. Ricardo’s raven locks spilled over the pillow. She found his lingering need for sleep amusing. She hadn’t slept in a century and a half. It wasn’t even a distant memory. His body was making the adjustment from human to vampire and still needed to rest. No doubt the two hours they had spent having sex had something to do with it. Fiona allowed a small smile to cross her lips. Ricardo was about as sharp as a marble but he was hot as Hell in the sack.

She popped out of bed and headed for her closet. The sun would be down soon and she needed to open her bar, The Green Dragon. Her customers were neither patient nor human and she couldn’t afford the repairs that would be needed if the place was left untended. Dressed in her customary leather pants, scoop neck t-shirt and high heeled boots, Fiona left her condo as the last rays of the sun waned from the sky. Deep purples and golds danced across scattered, puffy clouds. On nights like these, a nostalgic longing to see a full sunset called to the small remnant of her humanity. She had risked it once when she was younger. The burning had kept her writhing in pain for weeks. Her life no longer afforded her such luxuries. The Dragon would not run itself and she had no mentor to bring her food.

Fiona walked through the dark alleys that ran between home and her business. An attractive woman alone in the bowels of West Hollywood might have been a tempting target for muggers, rapists or the dark, shadowy beasts of the night but Fiona was well known to them. It had taken less than a half dozen bodies in the hospital and morgue to establish her reputation. Everyone knew better than to fuck with her. Everyone, apparently, but the bitch standing in the middle of the alley blocking Fiona’s way.

Without slowing her stride, Fiona said, “You are either new or stupid and I don’t have the patience to deal with you in either case.”

The bolt shot from the crossbow, aimed at Fiona’s heart. She caught it an inch from her chest.

“Really? Well then, stupid it is. Let me guess, you’ve seen every episode of ‘Buffy’ and you found out vampires are real. I’m in a hurry so I’m going to give you a break, fan-girl. Get the fuck out of my way before I rip off your head and suck you dry.”

“Daemonem Faeleneus abominatio tibi. Nunc tibi, morte morietur.”

Fiona’s Latin was a bit rusty but the use of her formal name made her stop in place. Whoever this bitch was, she knew more about Fiona than she was comfortable with. She was also threatening to kill her.

“I warned you,” said Fiona.

She rushed toward the woman at a speed that would have made her all but invisible to an ordinary human. She hadn’t traveled ten feet when she struck a thin, silver wire stretched across the alley. A loud bang sounded and two steel weights at either end of the wire shot from the buildings, flying around her and wrapping Fiona in a tight cocoon. The wire burned into the exposed flesh of her arms and neck. Fangs extended, Fiona writhed on the ground howling in pain. The woman sauntered over to where Fiona lay and kicked her in the ribs.

“Not so dangerous now are you, Faeleneus?” the woman said.

Fiona steeled herself against the pain and glared at the woman, her eyes burning with hatred.

“Remember that when I’m ripping off your arms and beating the shit out of you with them, Buffy,” Fiona hissed.

The woman’s cruel laughter echoed off the brick and concrete walls as she pulled a dagger from a sheath on her hip.

“Demon, before long you will beg for death. In the hours until the sun takes you, I will make you suffer.”

The woman knelt down and placed her face next to Fiona’s.

“My name is Sonja Pavlenco. So that you know who is killing you.”

Fiona’s mind raced. Sonja’s accent and the name Pavlenco triggered the start of an old memory but it vanished like smoke in the rain. Sonja raised the dagger and hesitated as if unsure of her target.

“That blade won’t kill me, not even if you stab me through the heart,” Fiona said, defiance dripping from her words.

“No, it will merely make you wish you were dead.” Sonja plunged the blade into Fiona’s stomach, burying it to the hilt.

Pain exploded in Fiona’s brain unlike any she had ever experienced. An inhuman shriek tore from her throat that witnesses later reported hearing half a mile away.

“Wire and blade, titanium with silver oxide coating. Poison will burn through your veins until sun puts an end to you.” Sonja checked her watch. “You have ten hours to live, demon. Then you will burn in Hell.”

Fiona thrashed as the pain spread like liquid fire through her body. She tried to reach the blade but her arms were pinned to her sides. Her struggles only caused the wire to cinch tighter around her.

Hours later as the sky began to lighten she closed her eyes and resigned herself to her fate. Through her stupor came a vague shadow and the sensation of the knife being pulled free.

“Damn, Fee, you musta really pissed someone off this time,” said a familiar voice. Several sharp pings rang out and the wire released its grip on her. “We gotta get outta here ‘fore you get crispy fried.”

A pair of bony arms slid beneath her body and lifted her from the street. Fiona turned and stared into Brandon’s sunken eyes.

“Thanks. Guess I owe you a raise,” she said. “Right after I kill that Pavlenco bitch.”

As the name crossed her lips a memory returned to her. Viktor Pavlenco…

 

To be continued…

 

Ray Bradbury Challenge #31 The Last Laugh

I’ve been listening to the Comedy channel for the last couple of weeks on I Heart Radio and of course my twisted little brain had to go down a dark path …

open mic

 

 The Last Laugh

 

“Shit Henry, you killed out there. I think that chick in the red dress wet herself.”

Henry Collins grinned at the compliment. They had come up through the ranks of the open mic circuit together making his remark all the sweeter.

Henry slapped his friend on the back, “Are you high or did Mona blow you while I was on stage?”

Tim laughed. “Dude, if she had, I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you. I wouldn’t be standing at all. Hey, some hottie in a white dress is looking for you.”

“Did you see where she went?”

“Maybe over to Howie’s office. I’ll catch you later dude.”

Tim ambled down the hallway toward the exit. Henry headed toward the office and nearly collided with the woman as he turned the corner.

“Henry! Just the man I’m looking for,” she said, grasping Henry’s hand and shaking it.

“I’m sorry, have we met?” said Henry.

“I’m Nairi Sarkisian. I want to represent you and put your career on the fast track… unless you’d rather keep schleppnig around these feeble open mics.”

“I don’t need an agent sending me to a bunch of shit-hole gigs just so you can make a buck at my expense. Have a good evening.” Henry turned his back on the woman and headed toward the exit.

“You’re good, Henry. I can have you on HBO in six months. That’s a promise. And I never make promises I can’t keep.”

Henry stopped with his hand on the door and turned around.

“Talk is cheap. I’ll tell you what. Get me a date with the blonde in the red dress and I’ll think about it.

“Do you want to take her to dinner or bed? If we’re going to work together, we have to be honest with each other.” Nairi regarded Henry, her stare burning into his eyes.

“You get her to spend the night with me, no strings attached, and I’ll give you six months.”

“Consider it done. She’ll meet you at your room after the show.”

“Yeah, sure she will. It’s been fun.”

Henry pushed through the door and headed back to the stage. He forgot about Nairi as he climbed the stairs to the stage and introduced the next act.

*****

As Henry stripped off his clothes a soft knock sounded at the door. Beer in hand, he strode across the room and peered into the peephole. It was filled with a mane of blonde hair and a red dress split with a generous amount of cleavage. Henry opened the door and the girl smiled.

“I’m Julie,” she said. “Your friend said you were looking for some company.”

She glanced down at his boxers. “You didn’t start without me, did you?”

Julie slid past Henry into the room, rubbing her body against him. Taking his hand, she pushed the door closed and led him toward the bed.

*****

The crowd was on their feet; the applause filled every corner of the theater. Henry’s head was spinning as the curtain came down on the stage. A wiry woman with big teeth bustled over to him.

“Henry, oh my God! You were absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “You’re the best comedian I’ve ever worked with on HBO or anywhere.”

It had been five months and a half months since he had met Nairi in L.A. and his life had become a blur. And she hadn’t booked him on a single shit gig, not once.

“Thanks, Tawney, but I have to give Nairi most of the credit,” said Henry.

“Talking about me behind my back,” Nairi said as she sidled up to Henry.

“Speak of the Devil and she appears,” said Henry with a crooked smile. “I need a drink and I’m buying.”

“Shall we?” Nairi pulled Henry to the exit. “I know a great place down this way. We can walk.”

“I can’t say thank you enough,” said Henry. “I owe you everything.”

“Yes you do. And now I believe I’ll collect.”

The city bus was rolling down the street at fifty miles an hour when Nairi shoved Henry in its path. His body was thrown thirty feet into oncoming traffic. Four vehicles struck his body before it came to rest in the street. Paramedics pronounced Henry Collins dead at the scene thirty minutes later.

*****

“Holy shit!” said Henry as he swung his legs off the bed. “I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.”

“You were,” said Nairi. “A bus, two trucks and an SUV. You were dead before you hit the ground.”

Henry stared at his manager in disbelief. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Funny you should mention Hell … Oh, you go on in three minutes.”

“Go on where? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Right there.” Nairi waved her hand at a large curtain at the end of the room. “Today should be especially fun. The crowd is a bunch of angry Bolivian farmers who don’t speak English. Keep your eyes open. They brought vegetables.”

“Where the hell am I?”

Nairi slid the back of her hand down Henry’s cheek.

“You didn’t think all that success came without a price, did you? Silly man. The day Julie walked into your room you were bound to my contract. We can go over the details later. You’re up.”

Henry was propelled across the room as the curtains opened. He squinted in the glare of the lights. A sea of lined and tan faces scowled at him from beneath straw hats.

“Nice of you folks to make it …” Henry stammered. His words were cut off by a tomato hitting him in the chest.

“Usted no es divertido!” (You are not funny) a man shouted from the front row.

By the time he got off stage he reeked of rotten vegetables.

“They were laughing at the end, Henry. You almost won them over.”

“They were pelting me with tomatoes. Of course they were laughing.”

“Maybe you’ll have better luck tomorrow with the French stable cleaners.”

Ray Bradbury Challenge #30- No More Tomorrows

No More Tomorrows

No More Tomorrows

 As he pushed the door, it swung in and the house greeted him with a heavy silence. For a brief moment the words “Honey, I’m home” danced on the tip of his tongue. He’d said them five days a week for almost twenty five years. It had been their inside joke that they were living in a sitcom. He stood immobile in the center of the kitchen. A week ago the smell of stew and fresh baked bread had filled the room. She had loved to cook and his expanding belly was a testament to her culinary skills. If he had known that would be their last meal together, their last night together… the tears he had kept at bay through the memorial service forced their way into his eyes and down his cheeks.

“I miss you so much…” The soft words caught in his throat as his grief hit him like a right hook. He staggered into the living room and dropped into his recliner. Reaching behind the chair, his fingers wrapped around the smooth neck of the whiskey bottle and brought it to his lips. Images floated through his mind in a macabre parade filtered through the alcohol induced haze. The police coming to her sister’s door with the news and the obligatory “we’re very sorry for your loss”. The picture of her mangled Accord on the front page of the paper. “Local Woman Dies in Horrific Crash” the headline announced. In their small town, making the front page took very little effort. It had only taken a split second when the other driver had run the red light. “Police estimate that the suspect was traveling in excess of eighty miles an hour with a blood alcohol level of .16%, double the legal limit” the accompanying article stated. The trip to the mortuary with her mother and sister and the news that there would be no need to bring one of her dresses as her body had suffered far too much trauma for an open casket. The outpouring of grief from friends and family. It was overwhelming. He drained the bottle and the haze grew darker until it blacked out the images. His body went numb, his eyes closed and the empty bottle dropped to the floor.

*****

The hair on the back of her neck stood up and she shivered despite the warm spring temperature. That had been happening more often as of late. It had been three months since his heart had called it quits but she still wasn’t used to being in the house alone. They had shared it for more than half her life. Now her only companions were the things with which they had filled the house and the memories they had made together. There had been no children, only the two of them.

Not for lack of trying, she thought as the sadness washed over her again. Alone. Her parents were gone and she had no siblings. It was just her in their queen size bed. As she passed the living room she looked at the recliner. There was something on the floor. She flipped on the light and it sparkled on the clear glass and bright green label that was all too familiar. Briarson’s whiskey. His favorite. She picked up the bottle and less than a swallow of brown liquid swirled inside. The bottle hadn’t been there this morning when she vacuumed.

*****

The sun shone in the window and the volume of his headache doubled. He reached for the bottle but it was nowhere to be found. All of the windows were open and the curtains were flying in the breeze. He couldn’t remember opening them, but then erasing his memories had become second nature. For just a moment the faint scent of gardenias wafted on the air. It reminded him of her perfume. Hunger gnawed at his stomach and he forced himself out of the chair with a groan and shuffled off to the kitchen.

*****

She must be losing her mind. The proof rested in the ham sandwich occupying a plate on the kitchen counter. A sandwich that she had no memory of making. She hadn’t even been in the kitchen since she got home. The hairs on the back of her neck rose to attention.

*****

There it was again, gardenias. It was too strong to be coming in from outside. Besides, there were no gardenia bushes anywhere on the property. As he crossed the kitchen a wave of warmth washed over him as if he had stepped into the shower. Just as suddenly it was replaced with an icy cold blast. His breath fogged in front of his face. The scent of gardenias was overpowering.

*****

There was someone in the house with her, she could feel them. Goose pimples rose on her arms and legs as the temperature dropped without warning. The scent of whiskey hung in the air, even though she had dumped and rinsed the bottle. The presence was palpable, causing her breath to catch in her throat as it closed in on her.

*****

They materialized together in the center of the kitchen, surprise and shock registering on both their faces.

“It can’t be,” he said. “You died.”

“You’ve been dead for three months,” she said. “I’ve missed you terribly.”

“My heart was broken without you.”

As their bodies coalesced, he wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her to him.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered.

“Neither do I. And I don’t care. Just kiss me.”