Category Archives: Archive

Ryan’s Top 10 Favorite Stories, So Far

 

 

No. 051

April 7, 2012

“Humans!” croaked the troll excitedly.

He shuffled out from under the bridge, dragging his gnarled leg behind him. He crept up the riverbank, trying not to make any noise. That would spook them. They would run.

The creature could hear the people clearly, though. He didn’t understand what they were saying, of course, but it didn’t matter. He knew they’d soon be crossing.

Slowly, he limped to the center of the span. Now he was ready.

The men appeared from out of the woods. There was at least thirty.

To the troll it seemed like a lot, but he couldn’t count.

They were wearing shiny new armour. They all carried swords or spears. Some had torches, as well.

“Kill the beast!” the leader shouted. They all raised their weapons and ran towards the low stone structure.

The troll raised his arms as well.

“Hello, friends! Greetings!” he called to them, in troll.

They swarmed him, stabbing and poking with their sharp tools.

“It’s good to see you, too!” he burbled at them. He began to hug them.

They responded by pointing harder, and waving fire at him.

“Yes, yes, we can all play!” he laughed.

“This isn’t working, men! Fall back!” cried the commander. “Retreat!”

The humans turned and ran, leaving the troll alone once again.

People. They were so fun!

 

 

 

No. 062

April 21, 2012

The Flower Shop

He wandered through the flower shop aimlessly, idly observing the various plants and arrangements. He knew something about them, having picked up the knowledge from his girlfriend via osmosis. She was the one he was waiting for now.

He checked his watch. She was supposed to have been off fifteen minutes ago. He tried to distract himself by naming as many varieties of flowers as he could. He didn’t get very far. Mostly he knew them by color and shape. The frilly yellow ones were his favorites, if he was asked.

He found himself in the back of the store. This was where they kept all the tropical kinds. He could feel the warmer temperature, and the slightly higher humidity. Back here the smell was distinct. It was a familiar, comforting scent. He noticed that the rear wall was entirely different types of cacti. The only plant he couldn’t kill.

“Don’t touch those,” said a voice from behind him. It startled him. He hadn’t realized how closely he’d been paying attention to the plants. He turned to the speaker.

“Yeah, I’d thought about it, but you changed my mind,” he told her. He didn’t recognize her, but she had a nametag that said “Sally”. “I’m just waiting for Laura. Do you work here?”

“Yes, but I’m new. She’ll be right out. She’s just throwing her stuff in her bag. You must be Sean. She talks about you.”

She paused, shuffling her feet awkwardly. She worried that she’d disturbed him, somehow. “Do you know anything about flowers?” she asked, to fill the silence.

He considered his answer. He decided to be honest. “A little. Maybe more than I’m supposed to.”

 

 

 

No. 100

May 28, 2012

The Tortoise and the Mole

The tortoise and the mole stood at the starting line.

“You know I just beat the hare, right?” the tortoise asked the mole. “You still wanna go?”

“Oh, sure. Slow and steady. Wins the race. I got it,” said the mole.

“I suppose you think you’re somehow slower and steadier than I am?” asked the tortoise. “Nobody is slower and steadier than I am.”

“You’re a terrible trash-talker,” the mole told him. “Let’s start this.”

The fox dropped the flag and the race was on.

The tortoise began his slow and steady creep to the finish line.

The mole stole the tortoise’s wallet and disappeared down his hole.

 

 

 

No. 127

June 25, 2012

Patrick Peters had sent $7.49 plus shipping and handling, which equaled roughly three weeks’ allowance, and now, after waiting an eternity, there was a box on the kitchen table with his name on it.

He couldn’t contain himself and tore indiscriminately at the thin cardboard sides. He retrieved his prize from amidst a heap of shredded paper. The plastic glasses were hideously bright green and pink with “SURE-FIRE X-RAYS” printed in yellow down the arms.

Patrick held them in awe for a second before putting them on. He was going to see all kinds of girls’ underpants. He glanced surreptitiously around the room. There was no-one in sight to foil his plan. He slipped on the gaudy frames and left the house via the front door.

As luck would have it, the first person he saw was a girl. She was too far away for him to make out clearly, and the lenses were so dark as to be almost useless without bright light. He raised the glasses to balance on his forehead while he approached to within range of Emmy Burton.

Emmy was Patrick’s friend Ricky’s older sister. She was going into eleventh grade next year. Patrick drew nearer to her yard and casually nodded at her while he lowered the glasses and continued to walk past.

Right away, Patrick realized there was something wrong. He couldn’t see any underwear. He couldn’t even see any skin, which he realized in that instant would have been an even greater outcome. He shook his head and looked harder. The glasses were X-ray all right, or something. They weren’t working like Patrick had imagined. He saw almost clear through Emmy.

She coughed and startled him. Had she caught him staring? No. He relaxed, and concentrated again on his reconnaissance. He found he could make out her insides. He recognized them from his school textbook. There was the brain, throat, heart, and lungs.

Patrick noticed something about the lungs. One looked like the picture in his book, the other one seemed different. It was a darker color, and there looked like there was something else in it.

Emmy coughed again. This time Patrick took off the glasses and stopped walking. He was torn. Should he tell her what he saw, or would he be in trouble for trying to use the glasses? He bit his lip and drew in a breath. He thought about Ricky, and that if Ricky knew that someone in Patrick’s family was maybe sick, and Ricky didn’t tell Patrick, then Patrick wouldn’t like that.

Patrick slipped the glasses into his pocket. “Emmy?” he asked. “Are you OK?”

 

 

 

 

 

No. 134

Waiting for Tom Cruise

July 2, 2012

“What are you doing?” asked Jane.

Nate looked up with some effort. “I’m waiting for Tom Cruise to come by.”

Jane shook her head. “You’re drunk, man. Come on, time to go to bed.”

“No. He’s going to be here soon. It’s going to be an awesome party.”

“Uh huh,” said Jane. “And when did you decide this?”

“Halfway through my twelve-pack.”

“Ok, here’s the situation,” Jane took time to explain. “You’re in the living room of our apartment, wearing sweatpants and a trucker-hat. You’ve laid down trail of Oreo cookies from the hall to the front door. I’m not sure if you’ve realized this, but Tom Cruise probably has better things to do with his time.”

“You’re wrong,” argued Nate. “I’ve planned it all out.”

Jane rolled her eyes and shrugged. She wasn’t going to win this battle. “Well, do what you like. But please try to remember that it’s also three AM, and if you’re going to keep playing ‘Danger Zone’ on repeat, just try to keep the volume below eleven, alright?”

She turned and went back to her room.

“Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise,” said Nate.

Jane called back over her shoulder. “That won’t work, either. He wasn’t even in that movie.”

 

 

 

 

No. 221

October 17, 2012

She slept heartily. In her dreams she was slaying dragons.

 

 

 

No. 238

November 8, 2012

Protagonist examined the readings of a strange machine. “That’s it,” he said. “There are no new stories. The humans have run out of ideas.”

“Impossible!” exclaimed Antagonist. “Where will our magic come from?”

Protagonist put his head in his hands, thoroughly defeated after a lifetime spent trying to keep the spark of imagination alive. “I don’t know.”

Antagonist, the younger, less rigid of the pair, put forth a heretical suggestion. “What if we create our own?”

Protagonist’s eyes widened. “That would be against all the laws of the council! We can’t.”

Antagonist was determined. His gaze was steely. “What if?” he asked. “Just what if we did?”

 

 

 

No. 266

No. 238 Part 2

December 11, 2012

Protagonist was still unconvinced. “Ok, say that we did do that. How do we make up a story, especially an original story? The machine is never wrong. There’s nothing left!”

A grin began to spread across Antagonist’s face. “But we’re not human, are we?”

“No,” said Protagonist, now beginning to understand. “We’re not.”

Antagonist leaned in close. “It’s up to us.”

Protagonist nodded. He watched the flat line continue to display on the machine’s printout. “How do we begin?” he asked.

Antagonist was very still for a moment. Then he answered. “First, we need a hero.”

As he said the words, the line on the machine jumped slightly.

 

 

 

No. 425

July 24, 2013

Anne believed that something lived under her porch. In reality, it was just a loose board.

The real danger lurked above.

 

Grimroth was fairly weak, as monsters go. He could still tear a human limb-from-limb, but he couldn’t swallow one whole.

He’d made a nest in Anne’s house, mostly because there wasn’t an abundance of clutter in the attic. Probably soon, in the next day or two, he would feel comfortable enough to slink down the ladder into the home and take a bite of her.

That was the plan, anyway, until the night he spent watching Anne through a narrow gap in the ceiling.

She was cute, in a human sort of way.

As Grimroth saw her go about her business, she began to seem less like a snack, and more like somebody he’d like to get to know better.

Even when his tummy got rumbly, Grimroth resisted the urge to murder. He thought that maybe he could make a friend, even though he didn’t know what a friend was.

 

He ignored his instincts for almost a week.  It was a struggle against his very nature.

Finally, he couldn’t hold out any longer.

 

At 7:04 pm, as she watched her favorite show, he crept up behind her and he devoured her.

He felt sort of bad about it, after, though.

 

 

 

No. 433

August 5, 2013

“So, in my story there’s a vampire, but it’s not a vampire. Well, it is a vampire, but it sucks souls instead of blood,” said Britney. “And it’s more like a ghost, really. It floats. You can’t really see it.”

“Could you kill it?” asked her friend, Trevor.

“I suppose, but that would be difficult.”

“I don’t know if that works,” said Trevor. “I’m not thrilled with the idea.”

“So what’s your suggestion, then?” Britney countered. She crossed her arms threateningly. “It can’t be better.”

“Sure, it could,” Trevor defended himself. “Maybe.”

“Go on.”

“There’s a mad scientist. And he fires his greatest weapon, the ‘frequency cannon’, but it doesn’t do what he expects it do. Then he has to fix the consequences, or something,” Trevor elaborated.

“Not better,” said Britney. “Anything else? I forgot to say that in mine, the soul-sucker lives in stairwells, and sometimes leaves underpants behind.”

Trevor slapped his hand to his forehead. “Underwear? Why? Why would it even do that? It’s a monster.”

 

The debate raged for some time.

 

The next week, when the project was due, Britney and Trevor stood to read their story to the class.

“Once upon a time,” said Britney. “There was a vampire scientist, who created the ultimate weapon. “

Trevor read the next paragraph. “’The frequency cannon would spell the end of the human race, if it worked as the vampire intended. He pointed it toward the town and pressed the button to arm the device.”

“Nothing happened,” said Britney breathlessly. “The vampire pushed the switch over, and over again. The energy from the device backfired, and vampire began a startling transformation. His body began to dissolve, inch by inch. His undead flesh withered away, leaving his evil spirit behind.”

“And that’s how he became a ghost. The end.” said Trevor.

Britney looked up from her page. “That’s not the end,” she said tersely.

“I’m not reading the rest,” said Trevor. “It’s stupid.”

“Do it,” Britney hissed.

“Fine. Blah blah blah, stairway. Blah blah blah, underpants,” Trevor mocked.

“I’m going to kill you,” said Britney.

 

 

 

 

No. 511

December 20, 2013

The arrow struck the armor just above Sir Eliot’s heart. The deflected missile scored the dull gray finish of the steel, leaving a scar of brilliant white.

No. 459 – Bony Finger Canyon Part 2

“I probably won’t,” I tell Miss Kelly.

She’s worried that I’ll throw up in the middle of class. She’s asked me about seven times already if I’m ok.

I guess it’s fair. I’m in a bad state. Nerves, you see. At lunch I made a stupid promise to meet Karl and his buddies and head to Bony Finger Canyon.

I also promised to bring the skeleton arm that gave the canyon its name. But I don’t know where it is. Nobody does.

There’s a good chance that tonight will end with a beating. Definitely humiliation. Oh, and ghostly mutilation. There’s that, too.

I’ve been trying to come up with a plan to avoid bodily harm. My first thought was to fashion a crude arm from junk that I could find in my basement. Maybe slather some meat from the fridge on it and show it only when it’s dark out. That was the frontrunner until I realized that I’m not that handy with crafts.

Poop.

I should have paid more attention in grade two.

The eleven-billionth wave of nausea hits me and I’m forced to put my head down on the desk.

“Philip, are you sure you’re alright?” I hear Miss Kelly call from the front of the room.

“Yes,” I try to mumble with enough conviction that she’ll leave me alone for two minutes.

I open one eye and see the answer staring right at me.

It’s Mr. Granley’s empty eye sockets.

Why didn’t I think of that before? Well, I guess the whole canyon dare proves that I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box. But still. I’m not that dumb.

Mr. Granley is the name that some class in the distant past gave the plastic skeleton that hangs in the corner of the room. I heard there was an actual teacher named that, but he died, or something.

I look closely at the connections between the bones. They’re held together with heavy wire. If I can find something to cut it with, I’ll be one step closer to getting through the night.

There’s one class left in the day. I’ll have to sneak back into the room after school.

I hope I can pull off the, if not perfect, then at least adequate, crime.

The Molten Kingdom

1.

“I have heard of it. They say the volcano is three days from here, to the east.” said the man, pointing into the distance. “You won’t make it that far, by yourself,” he cautioned.

Clue Restacks nodded. “That would be true. But I’m not alone.”

Mr. Mouse appeared on her right shoulder and cast his wily gaze on the surprised guide.

“A rat?” asked the man incredulously. “You are going to cross the Great Desert with a rat? You will surely die.”

“He’s a mouse,” Clue clarified. “And I think we’ll be fine.”

“I hope so,” said the man. “If you return, I will be waiting here.”

 

Clue and Mr. Mouse bid him farewell, and began the long trek toward their goal. Clue used her powers to create a bubble of lowered temperature around them, protecting the duo from the potentially lethal rays of the blazing sun.

“He sure was grim, wasn’t he?” she asked her fuzzy companion. “This is nothing we haven’t seen before.”

Mr. Mouse made a sound that seemed affirmative and Clue smiled. Then he squeaked a reminder.

“That’s right,” she told him. “I forgot.”

Summoning a greater level of concentration, she forced a high pressure zone of air under her feet. She wobbled slightly as she rose a short distance off the ground. “Let’s go,” she said as she propelled herself forward with a focused gust of wind.

 

Travelling in this manner, the adventurers reached their destination by nightfall.

The volcano towered above them, a deep glow emanating up into the dark sky from the lava at the bottom of the crater.

Clue picked her way slowly to the summit, deflecting airborne boulders with well-timed blasts of lightning.  “A walk in the park,” she remarked to Mr. Mouse.

He wasn’t sure if he shared her enthusiasm for the task.

“Do you want to come with me, or stay here?” she asked him after reaching the shore of the boiling pool of rock.

Mr. Mouse chose immediately. He would remain right where he was.

“Your loss,” Clue told him as she shrugged off her pack. She reached behind her back and pulled a small bundle from the waistband of her pants. “Take care of this while I’m gone,” she said to Mr. Mouse as she tossed the contents toward her partner.

A diamond twice his size rolled to a stop in front of the surprised rodent.

Then Clue encased herself in a thick layer of ice and launched herself into the fiery lake.

 

 

2.

Mr. Mouse waited alone on the windswept mountain.

He looked at the diamond that Clue had left behind. Its presence unsettled him. He’d noticed that Clue had been acting differently, lately. Her control over her powers had increased, but she was using them so casually that it frightened him. The diamond’s sudden appearance also reminded him that he didn’t even know exactly what they were seeking on this trip.

Still, he watched the roiling lava, and hoped she would be back soon.

 

Clue, meanwhile, had descended into the mountain’s core. As she pushed deeper, she continually replenished her icy shield. Upon reaching the correct depth, she moved sideways and then kicked upward, surfacing in an underground chamber. She pulled herself out of the magma and onto a solid, rocky shelf.

She lit the cave with her powers, and used the same levitating technique from the desert-crossing to float down the tunnel that stretched out before her.

As she rounded the last corner of the corridor, she came face-to-face with a set of enormous metal doors. Covered in elaborate carvings, they stretched up three times as tall as Clue, into a pitch-black cavern.

Clue shut down all of her powers and approached the gates carefully. She hesitated slightly before she raised her arm to knock.

 

 

3.

She did not have a chance to land a blow. The doors began to open on their own accord. Clue lowered her hand and stepped back as they swung toward her.

A tall, thin man appeared in the entry way. At least, he seemed to have once been a man. His skin was covered in dark scales that seemed to shine with the faint orange glow of cooling lava, and his proportions were wrong, somehow. In his hand was a vicious sword, which he held pointed at Clue. He began to talk and, although Clue was almost certain that he wasn’t speaking English, she understood him. “Why have you come, surface dweller?” the words boomed throughout the chamber.

Clue bowed slightly and replied. “Your people have something that I need. I am willing to trade for what I want.”

“We need nothing from your world,” the guard told her. “Go.”

“I think that I have something you’ll want,” said Clue. She produced another diamond, twin to the one she’d left with Mr. Mouse. She held it out. “This, and the other.”

The guard leaned closer. “Where is it?” he asked.

“Someplace safe.”

There was no reply for several seconds, then the guard lowered his sword and stepped aside. “This way,” he told Clue as he opened the door completely.

Clue returned the stone to her pocket and walked ahead. “Take me to your leader,” she said to the guard with a smile that she fought to keep to herself.

 

Mr. Mouse had, by now, decided that he had a bad feeling about the entire situation. He cast one more long glance toward the lava pit before making up his mind.

Pressing the diamond forward with his nose, he made for a small patch of black sand. Once there, he scraped out a shallow hole and shoved the gem into it.

After burying the treasure, he scrambled up the steep walls of the crater to the rim. Without the ability to survive in the lava like Clue, he was going to have to find his own way to the center of the volcano.

 

 

4.

Clue was ushered to the throne room of the underground citadel.

The queen of the underground beings sat on a throne chiseled from a single piece of volcanic stone. She did not wait before addressing Clue. “I have been told that you possess the Eyes.”

“That’s right, your highness,” said Clue, bowing low. “I have one here. The second is close by.”

“That is good,” said the Queen. “We will not have to kill you immediately. Now, show me.”

Clue held up the diamond. Another guard took it from her and carried it to the royal dais.

The Queen inspected it closely before setting it down on the arm rest of her throne. “Tell me what you have really come here for, outsider.”

Clue didn’t have a chance to answer. There was a commotion outside the door to the throne room, and a group of soldiers entered with a small cage.

“A mouse was found in the fortress,” they reported. “It has come from the surface. There is a breach in our defenses.”

The Queen turned to Clue. “Did you bring an animal with you?” she asked.

Clue shrugged. “What would I do with a rat?” she said dismissively.

The Queen considered the answer.

“Take this one to the dungeons,” she ordered the soldiers. “Kill the creature.”

The soldiers grabbed Clue roughly and hauled her toward the deeper corridors of the stronghold.

“But the other Eye,” she yelled as they took her away. “You won’t find it without me.”

“I am not concerned. It must be nearby,” said the Queen. “And perhaps, before long, you will consider revealing where you hid it.”

“No!” screamed Clue. “You can’t take me.”

But it was no use. She was soon locked away, deep beneath the earth.

Exactly where she wanted to be.

 

 

5.

Clue surveyed her cell. There wasn’t enough room for her to sit, so she leaned against the back wall, looking for a weakness in the bars. Unlike the majority of the settlement that she’d seen so far, the bars were not rock, but metal that had been cast into place. In the hall beyond, Clue could see a single guard who had been left to watch her.

Her plan had always been to end up here. There had been no other way she would have been able to infiltrate so deeply into the subterranean fortress. However, the arrival of Mr. Mouse had accelerated her timeline. She had hoped to have learned the location of the artifact from the Queen, first. But Clue knew she was close by, now, and escape would not be a problem.

First, Clue ionized the air around the guard, and then directed a charge of electricity to the back of the woman’s neck. It wasn’t fatal, but, if the underground people were anything like humans, the guard would have a miserable week.

Then, Clue coated the bars with moisture from the air. Using alternating currents of cold and hot wind on the wet metal, she was able to rust through them in minutes.

With a solid kick, she was out.

She took a moment to remember the way she’d been brought down to the prison level, and then went in the opposite direction at a light jog.

 

Mr. Mouse was not happy. He was still in the cage that had been presented to Clue. He’d already tried to gnaw through his bars, but they proven to be resistant to his sharp teeth.  Presently, he was anxiously awaiting the shift change of the soldiers, after which he’d be thrown into the lava pool.

He’d guessed that Clue’s capture had been deliberate after he’d seen her dragged off without so much as a flicker of her powers. Now he hoped that she’d be back for him before his execution. Still without a clear understanding about what Clue was up to, all he could do was twitch his tail and wait.

 

 

6.

Clue reached the heart of the complex. Along the way, she’d had to incapacitate several more of the Queen’s soldiers. When she’d been too close for lightning or flash-freezing to work, she’d temporarily blinded some with bursts of light. In the back of her mind, she knew that Mr. Mouse wouldn’t approve of the more forceful methods she’d taken to using, but she told herself that she’d have that debate with him on the journey home.

She turned the last corner and arrived in the treasure chamber. There was only one piece. A golden, jeweled crown was set on a pillar in the middle of the room. A moat of lava separated the small island from the door where Clue was standing. Clue could see the empty settings on the crown where the two diamonds had come from.

But she wasn’t interested in the priceless metals or gems. Around the band of the crown was an inscription. The tiny words twisted their way through the elaborate decorations, and anybody who didn’t already know that they were there would easily miss them. Although the writing wasn’t in English, Clue knew that it was the location of the sunken continent of Atlantis.

Clue lowered the temperature of the air, and a solid crust of rock formed at the top of the lava as it cooled. Once it was thick enough, she simply walked ahead and picked up the crown. She clutched it close as she crept back up the passageway. She had very little time to rescue her friend.

 

She didn’t get far.

Suddenly, two thick slabs of rock fell from the ceiling, one in front and one behind, trapping Clue in the narrow hall.

She heard the Queens voice, carried through some trick of the acoustics.

“Outsider, do not think that you will escape with our secrets. We have noted your powers, but they will not help you, now.”

The roof began to lower. Clue could feel the vibration of some massive mechanism working behind the walls. She ducked as she was squeezed down toward the floor.

For once, she couldn’t think of a way to get free.

 

 

7.

Desperately, Clue tried to recall any one of her powers that could save her. The thick stone and the enclosed space severely limited her effectiveness. Any plan she came up with was quickly discarded.

She had only a few inches of clearance from the crushing ceiling when she realized that she was mistaken. She thought back to the rudimentary hovering that she’d used to speed her journey to the volcano. The key was not to choose a single power, but to combine several at once. It would take all of her concentration to do so.

She began by creating two columns of high-pressure air to act as supports for the descending roof to buy herself some time. The volume of oxygen in the chamber made this a dangerous gambit. She would have to hold her breath during the next phase of her plan.

Slowly, she began to raise the temperature of the air around her hands, as well. The heat then spread to envelop her entire body. She rolled to face the ceiling. Placing her hand on the bare rock, she pushed lightly. The stone began to melt. Molten drops fell toward her face, but Clue froze them out of mid-air.

She had soon hollowed out a cavity large enough to stand up in. She was amazed by the thickness of the barrier, but now she was well on her way to escaping. With careful timing, she released the invisible support pillars and used the resulting wind to propel herself up and away from the snare.

She was flying through the earth, leaving a scorched and melted hole behind her.

Reaching down, she felt the crown in a pouch at her side. All that remained to complete a successful mission was to find Mr. Mouse and exit the underground kingdom.

That would not present a problem.

Clue knew she was now almost invincible.

 

Mr. Mouse could detect a dull roar, growing louder as it seemed to approach him. He couldn’t recognize it and, abstractly, felt annoyed that this would be the last sound that he would ever hear.

His guards had carried out their task, and his cage was falling toward the searing lava.

Mr. Mouse closed his eyes and hoped his demise would be painless.

 

 

8.

An instant before Mr. Mouse was incinerated, Clue burst through the wall and projected a sheet of ice between her falling partner and the lava. The cage impacted heavily on the makeshift safety net, then slid to Clue’s feet.

Mr. Mouse squeaked his appreciation for being saved.

Clue nodded at him. She turned to face the would-be executioners. “You’re going to pay for that,” she growled at them, stepping forward menacingly. Her hands were still superheated from her trip through the rock, and she reached out to burn the cowering guards.

Mr. Mouse chirped frantically. He had no intention of watching Clue kill for him.

She heard his protest. She lowered her arms suddenly. Shaken by what she had almost done, she slumped to the floor.

The terrified guards scrambled to leave the room.

“Thanks,” Clue whispered to her friend.

His reply was short. Clue understood that he was very cross with her, but that, right now, they needed to leave the underground kingdom.

“Just one more thing,” Clue told him. “Come on.”

She opened her pocket for Mr. Mouse to ride in. Slowly, he made his was up and tucked himself in. He knew the ride home was going to feel very long, indeed.

Clue powered up, and resumed burning through the ground. Her next destination was the throne room.

 

Moments later, she arrived. Her unexpected appearance stunned everyone in the vast chamber.

The Queen was the first to speak. “It seems that you were never truly our prisoner,” she observed. “I assume you have the crown?”

“Yes,” said Clue.

“And you’ve come for the Eye?”

“That’s right.”

“It seems, then, that you’re going to tell me that I have no choice but to hand it over,” the Queen said, regretfully.

Clue didn’t hesitate. “Or I’ll melt a hole into the lava chamber. You and all your subjects will drown in fire.”

The Queen sighed. “So dramatic. I don’t believe you, though. I have been receiving reports about your escape. You haven’t killed yet. Even the ones that tried to kill your beast are still alive.”

Mr. Mouse popped his head up and glared at the Queen. If only she knew how close her people had come to death. He wasn’t mad at her, though. He was worried that Clue wouldn’t be able to handle being taunted like that. He wasn’t sure if he could talk her down for a second time.”

Sure enough, Clue was very close to carrying out her threat. She lifted herself off of the ground and floated toward the outer wall. She placed her hand squarely in the middle and pushed gently.

The Queen watched in horror as rivulets of liquefied earth began to trickle toward the ground.

Mr. Mouse tried desperately to change Clue’s mind, but he began to shiver as she began to build up her icy armor in preparation for being immersed in the lava.

The Queen couldn’t hear the mouse’s pleas. Sensing, now, that Clue wasn’t bluffing, the Queen changed her mind.

“Stop,” she said, her voice as commanding as ever, despite facing possible death. “Here is what you seek.” She produced the diamond and threw it disdainfully at Clue.

Clue caught it.

Without a word, she turned away from her excavation, and launched herself toward the surface, leaving the molten kingdom behind, for good.

 

After retrieving the other diamond from the hole where Mr. Mouse had stashed it, Clue took the crown from its bag.

She mounted the two jewels into the empty claws on the rim of the crown. Once she had them in place, she held the crown up against the glow from the lava in the crater.

Two beams of light, focused through the gems, flashed out and illuminated a spot on the inside of the headpiece. Clue made a note of the location and turned the crown over, examining the writing carved onto the outside.

“That’s where we start,” she told Mr. Mouse. “We should be there in a few days.”

She replaced the crown in its pouch and began to head down the mountain towards home.

Mr. Mouse sat quietly in her pocket, thinking about how close to disaster the quest had come. This time, once Clue arrived at the edge of the desert, he did not have to remind her to use her powers to glide.

It did not make him happy, at all.

 

 

Clue Restacks will return.

 

 

Around Gray Publishes Mini-Stories, No. 351 – No. 400, April 9, 2013 – June 18, 2013

No. 351

April 9, 2013

“Son, if you slay the dragon, then you will bring the family much honor and glory. If you are killed by it, still some, but less. If you return home without the beast’s head, you will bring more disgrace with you than our name can bear.”

Those were the words that Thomas the Grand told his son, Andrew, on the young man’s 16th birthday.

 

Four hundred years later, Justin Coward delivered them during a school presentation about his ancestors.

Britney Sanders, in the back row, laughed. “Aw, was little Andrew afraid of the big, bad monster?” she taunted.

Justin coughed. “No, not really. When he came back after a year in the hills, he claimed he’d seen no dragons. Unfortunately, as you can tell, the townspeople didn’t believe him.”

Several other children began to giggle. “Coward’s a scaredy-cat!”

“Alright, class,” interrupted the teacher. “Let Justin finish his report.”

 

Justin went home that afternoon in tears.

“What’s wrong?” asked his mom.

“I had to give my speech today. The other kids made fun of me.”

“There, there,” consoled his mother. “Did you tell them the end of the story?”

“No,” sniffled Justin.

“That’s good. The Cowards have always been a patient lot,” she told him as she threw a piece of meat through a trapdoor in the kitchen floor.

From somewhere deep below there was a muffled snort, and something that sounded like the stirring of great, leathery wings.

 

 

 

No. 352

April 10, 2013

Mickey Dallas was a magician, a long-time fixture of the children’s-birthday-party circuit.

“It’s magic!” he would always insist when asked the secret behind his illusions. Of course that wasn’t true. The real secret was time spent practicing, and a devotion to his art.

But, since 10-year-old Madison Green’s pool party two weeks ago, he’d been pausing before answering those questions. There, under the close scrutiny of two dozen 4th graders, Mickey had performed an illusion that not even he fully understood.

The idea that he’d tapped into some form of actual magic frightened him immensely.

 

Now Mickey was performing in front of another crowded room full of children. He reached the penultimate movement of his act, the same one where the unknown had occurred before.

Even as he prayed silently to himself that he was mistaken, and for the illusion to fail, Mickey was compelled to perform. He needed to know for certain if the prior episode had been a fluke.

Breathing deeply, he closed his eyes and said the magic word.

“Abracadabra!”

And, with a flash of light, Mickey’s worst fears were confirmed.

 

 

 

No. 353

April 11, 2013

Joey was watching a movie he didn’t like to spend time with a girl that he did.

The film was brutally bad, far worse than he’d expected.

“This was a terrible plan,” he whispered to himself.

“It is?” asked the girl.

“Uh, yes,” he said. She’d heard him. Crap. “Yeah, they shouldn’t be teaching all those underprivileged kids how to play clarinet,” he covered. “They should learn trumpets, or something.”

“I see,” said the girl, who was quickly drawn back to the screen.

Joey did notice, however, that she’d moved almost imperceptivity away from him.

“Awesome,” he grumbled sarcastically at the new development.

“Really?” she said.

Joey realized that he needed to stop saying things out loud. “Oh, sure. They’re dancing now. Look at them go. I love it when they dance,” he spewed, clutching at straws.

“Me, too,” replied the girl as she snuggled up to him.

 

“You see,” Terry told his girlfriend Sara as the TV program ended. “That’s just a terrible plot device. None of that would happen in real life. That show was even worse than most of the ones you like.”

“Is that so?” asked Sara icily. “Well, maybe next time I’ll just watch at my house, and you won’t be invited.”

 

 

 

No. 354

April 12, 2013

“So, in the story, the ocean’s a monster, and it’s attacking the people, and it’s all ‘Graaa! Rrrr!’, and the people are running around, and they can’t stop it, and it’s taking over everything, and the people are all ‘Ahhh! Oh no, ocean! Ahhhhh!’, and the ocean’s all ‘Sploosh!’, and everybody dies.”

“That’s certainly an interesting idea, Charles,” said Miss Freemont. “Is there any way you could tone down the killing?”

“No,” said Charlie. “You can’t fight the ocean.”

Miss Freemont considered his answer. Reluctantly, she agreed. “Ok,” she said. “I’ll allow it. But remember, it’s due on Tuesday, and I’m not going to grade it if it isn’t finished.”

 

 

 

No. 355

April 15, 2013

Ralph Conner woke up with waves lapping at his feet. Upon feeling the cold water, his eyes snapped open and he rolled up to a seated position.

Another wave soaked him, this time reaching his knees. Conner scrambled back from the water’s edge, stopping halfway up the beach to consider the bizarre situation.

The last thing he could remember was leaving the pub after his 23rd birthday party. The pub was nowhere near the ocean. He rubbed his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts, but the gesture was of no use. Still having no idea where he was, or how he got here, he stood up for a better look at his surroundings.

The sandy beach stretched away, out of sight, on both sides. The angle at which is disappeared suggested that Conner was on an island. A thick band of jungle blocked the way further inland. If he jumped, he could just make out a tiny white speck on the horizon, possibly a boat. He began to collect as much wood as he could, with the intention of making a signal fire.

 

A man in the lab coat passed the binoculars to a woman wearing a black jumpsuit. “Subject 299 is adapting well to the scenario,” he remarked.

The woman steadied herself against the rocking motion of the boat and trained the binoculars on Conner. She watched as he tried desperately to light the soggy wood using a technique she knew wouldn’t work. “He appears to be more resourceful than the others,” she replied. “I’d wager he lasts a week, no more.”

There was an uncomfortably cold efficiency in her voice. The man in the lab coat had no doubt that she was correct.

 

 

 

No. 356

April 15, 2013

“Ha!” said Lynne as she jabbed her unsuspecting friend in the ribs with her fingers. “Poke!”

“Ow!” said Tony, giving her a dirty look. “Stop it!”

She laughed and, ignoring his protest, tried again.

This time he had warning, and twisted out of the way. “So, you’re just going to keep doing that, then? You’re like a child.” He exaggerated an eye roll.

“Don’t worry. This’ll never get old,” she assured him.

“Great,” he said sarcastically. “Awesome.” But he was smiling, too.

 

 

 

No. 357

April 16, 2013

Douglas bought the bird on a whim.

He’d seen the sign staked in a yard on his way home from work. The deal was quickly negotiated and now Douglas was the proud owner of a small green parrot named Willy.

They eyed each other suspiciously on the ride to Douglas’ house. When they arrived, Douglas set Willy’s cage on the couch and opened the door. Immediately, Willy flew to the top of the highest bookshelf in the room.

“Bad man,” the bird squawked.

“Hey, I didn’t know you could talk, too,” said Douglas, neglecting the bird’s message. “Hello! Can you say ‘Doug’?”

“Bad man,” repeated the perturbed bird. “45-7-18-55. Bad man.”

“What are those numbers?” Douglas asked, speaking gently and trying to coax Willy down with a piece of bread.

“47-7-18-55,” said Willy. “47-7-18-55. 1920 Lakeside Drive.”

“Is that where you lived?” Douglas didn’t remember the exact address of the seller’s house.

Willy wasn’t interested in having a conversation. He kept repeating the three phrases.

Douglas, who was now becoming frustrated, turned to his computer to solve the riddle. He carefully typed in the address. “That’s the bank!” he said, surprised. “What do you know about the bank?” he asked the uncooperative bird.

“Bad man,” was the answer.

“Well, I’m obviously not going to find out from you,” Douglas told him. He found the bank’s phone number and called.

“Hi, my name’s Douglas Stone. I have a strange question for you,” he told the person who picked up. “Do you know anything about a green parrot, or the numbers 47-7-18-55?”

There was silence on the other end. “Hello?” Douglas asked again.

“Sir,” said the person at the bank. “Please hold for a moment.”

“Sure thing,” said Douglas. “Quiet down,” he told Willy, who had not stopped chattering during the call.

“Sir,” the line crackled with the return of the banker. “What’s your address?”

Douglas gave it, and was put on hold again immediately after.

He was still on hold when he saw the first police car outside his front window. He dropped the phone and looked at Willy.

“Bad man,” said Willy.

Several police officers stormed into the house and pinned Douglas to the floor.

“What’s happening?” he said, now pathetically outnumbered.

“Don’t play games with us,” said one of the officers. “Just tell us how you knew the alarm code for the bank that got robbed yesterday,” Her tone was very serious.

“No,” Douglas protested. “Not me, the bird! I just bought him an hour ago! He knows the code.”

Willy cocked his feathery head and looked at the officer out of one beady eye. “Bad man,” he said for what had to be the hundredth time.

“Bird says you’re a bad man,” said the officer to Douglas.

“Just go check out the place where I got him. It’s on Lakeshore, just down from the bank.”

The officer looked at her partner. “Are we buying this?”

Her partner shrugged. “It’s his word against a parrot’s. We should probably at least take a look.”

“Ok,” said the first officer. “But you’re coming with us, just in case,” she warned Douglas.

 

Two days later, the case had been cleared. Douglas was released when the true criminals were picked up at a hotel the next town over. They told the police that they’d had no idea that the parrot that they’d stolen during a prior home invasion had been capable of speech.

Willy, who turned out to be a girl named Sunny, was returned to her original owners.

Douglas went on three dates with the officer who’d arrested him, but the relationship didn’t last. From then on, he did research online before considering a new pet.

 

 

 

No. 358

April 17, 2013

At the end of a narrow, dirt lane, far into the woods, lived a man few people had met. Whispers in the surrounding villages were that he had powers, that he was not like normal men.

Makua did nothing to silence these rumors.  They kept the curious at a respectful distance. And they were true, for the most part. Although he had no powers, Makua wasn’t like regular men. Indeed, it would be more fitting to call him a creature.

His ship had crashed on earth in 1947 in a dusty, distasteful place the humans called Roswell. He’d escaped the wreckage before the army had a chance to descend on his ship. They took it away, stranding Makua without the means to leave the planet, or communicate with his people.

And so he waited. Perhaps they would return for him. He waited for many years, and they did not come.

 

But, one day, somebody else did. A boy, too young to understand the warnings about the strange settlement, knocked on the door of Makua’s home. “I’m lost,” the boy called through the door. “Can you help me?”

Makua considered ignoring the child.

“Please,” said the boy. “I’m all by myself.”

Makua fought his instincts and opened the door. “So am I,” he told the boy.

The boy saw Makua. His eyes widened, but he stood his ground. “Are you a monster?” he asked.

Makua turned his mouth into what he knew the humans considered to be a friendly gesture. “No,” he said. “I’m just different from you.” He knelt down beside his scared visitor. “What village do you live in? I know the way to most of them.”

“I live in Sea View,” said the boy.

“That’s very far away,” said Makua. “Beyond the forest. How did you get here?”

“I’m not sure,” the boy shrugged.

Makua was quiet to collect his thoughts. The child clearly needed help, but helping would place Makua in considerable danger of being discovered. He looked at the walls of the place he’d spent the last half century, then at the small boy on his doorstep.

Perhaps it was time to take a chance.

“Give me a moment to collect my things,” he told the boy. “And then I’ll take you home.”

 

The alien and the boy left down the trail a while later, their mismatched shadows stretching out in front of them.

 

 

 

No. 359

April 18, 2013

They told her that if she dug a hole straight down, she’d hit China.

Miranda turned aside the first shovelful of backyard dirt, even though her calculations showed that she’d actually end up somewhere south of Madagascar, in the middle of the ocean.

She wasn’t terribly worried about that, though. She didn’t seriously think she’d make it all the way through. She did, however, hope to strike gold sometime before spring break ended.

 

 

 

No. 360

April 19, 2013

The light gunship, Flower, was drifting in the Uncharted Zone. Its crew was gathered in the mess hall for an emergency meeting.

“We haven’t seen any trace of pirates in two weeks. We’re lost,” said the First Officer.

“Space is a big place,” replied Captain Marlow calmly.

“With our sensors, we should have had them already,” countered Charles Conrad, the technology officer. “We know they hit New Sardis. We know they fled this way. They should have left a trail but there’s nothing.”

The Captain turned to a crewmember in the corner of the room. “Roberts, what’s our status for supplies?”

Marla Roberts looked up from her datapad. “We’ve got another week of fuel and possibly a week and a half of food, if we stretch it.”

“You see,” said the Captain to the crew. “We’ve got enough to search another three days. If we haven’t found our villains by then, we’ll turn for home.”

The crew grumbled about cutting close to the wire, but to return to base empty-handed was almost equally unappealing. The bounty would only be paid upon capture.

Though the compromise was distasteful, the vote was unanimous. The Flower would continue on and then limp back to port on fumes.

 

Roberts spent an uneasy night, awake in her bunk. The figures she’d given the Captain were true, but there was a critical piece of information she’d left out, so as not to frighten the others. Any fuel the Flower spent in combat would have to be made up from the captured pirates’ stores. She had taken a gamble that the pirates would have fuel on board to be captured.

Currently, the Flower had enough to explore and to return home, but not to fight.

 

 

 

No. 361

April 20, 2013

Jefferson Jackson had prowled the desert canyons for almost twenty seasons. Ostensibly looking for gold, Jackson would have settled on a mother lode of almost any marketable mineral but had, so far, proven unsuccessful.

He made his discovery three days before the rains were meant to begin.

 

A weathered human skeleton lay propped up on the rocks blocking the mouth of a narrow crevasse. Jackson dismounted his horse and moved closer to the remains for a better look. He searched the body for any hint of identification, but there was none. It was only when Jackson shifted the bones that he noticed something strange.

The skeleton’s left arm fell from the moldering clothes that the corpse still wore. The bones were silver. Jackson examined them and determined that they were not merely the color, but solid metal.

“How does that happen?” he said, his first words spoken aloud in almost a month. He looked up at the shadowy gap in the rocks that the dead man guarded. “Was it in there?” he asked the grinning skull.

Jackson approached the fissure, stepping gingerly around the deceased. There was something scratched into the rock.

“CURSEI”

It appeared that the letter “d” had been started but not completed. Jackson ignored the warning and peered into the dark hole. There was a faint glow from within the crevasse. The slot was too narrow to enter and Jackson worked his body around so that he could reach toward the tantalizing shimmer.

 

Many years later, another man rode through the same valley. He saw two skeletons. There was a word gouged into the wall behind them.

“CURSED”

 

 

 

No. 362

April 22, 2013

Lillian Lockhart had lived a completely normal life before the day she removed the envelope from the post-box without looking at the address. The letter was home and opened before Lillian realized that she was not the intended recipient. Still, now that the deed was done, she read it.

The letter was written to a Mr. Henry Black, and detailed the outfitting of an expedition to “confirm or capture the Beast of Broad Rock”.

Lillian’s heart pumped hard in her chest. Every child knew of the Beast. It was said to live in a cave at the end of an icy maze, deep within the mountains. Many had sought it out. Few had returned.

The endeavor was to begin on June 12th. It seemed that Black was to be the leader of the team, having been hired by the organizers for his vast experience tracking wild game.

Lillian looked out her window at the drab wall of the apartment next-door. The harrowing journey described in the letter triggered her imagination. In her mind she was the one coming over the top of the ridge, pointing down at the creature below. She was jolted back to reality when she realized that she was out of breath.

She glanced at the now-crushed paper clutched in her hand and began to form a daring plan.

She put the crumpled sheet on her desk, smoothing it to read the sender’s information. She copied the address to the outside of a fresh envelope from her drawer. Then, after only the briefest hesitation, she placed a fresh page beside stolen correspondence and began to write.

To whom it may concern,

Mr. Black has taken ill, and will be unable to perform the duties outlined in your letter of April 22.

In his place, he recommends the hiring of his associate, Ms. Lillian Lockhart.

 

 

 

No. 363

April 23, 2013

Stanley and Livingstone were alligators kept by the Rowland’s Circus. The Circus’ time, however, had come to an end, and all assets were to be sold at auction at the end of the week.

Henry Morton, the reptile’s caretaker, was not about to see his charges removed from him and sold to the highest bidder. He had four days to save his cold-blooded companions.

His first attempt failed. Planning to lure the beasts from their pool with large pieces of meat, Morton had not taken into account that they’d been fed recently, and would have no interest in expending energy chasing surplus food.

His second attempt, to drive them away by beating them with a stick, was similarly unsuccessful. The animals’ thick scales prevented them from feeling their keeper’s prods. They sat still, exactly where they were.

Livingstone, the frisky one, did, however, attempt a lazy bite at the stick.

On the third day, Morton tried to move the entire tank onto a flatbed truck and abscond with the creatures, but a roving security guard intercepted him before he could get close enough with the crane, and Morton was lucky to explain away his presence as “routine maintenance”.

By the time the auction started, Morton was almost inconsolable at the thought of never seeing Stanley and Livingstone again. But he was surprised to discover that, while the bidding had started beyond his financial means, it had soon fallen to a more reasonable level.

In the end, Morton simply bought the Livingstone and Stanley. As it turned out, nobody else was keen to own two thirteen-foot, potential killing machines.

Morton eventually set himself up on a small piece of swampy land in his hometown and charged the local children an inflated price to watch the alligators bask in the sun and do absolutely nothing exciting.

 

 

 

No. 364

April 24, 2013

“Did you see that?” asked Officer Kelly Dale as she and her partner sped down the dark forest highway.

Brandon Irwin, who was driving, slowed the cruiser and turned on the spotlight. He turned around and retraced their path back down the road.

“What did you see?” he asked, peering intently into the night.

“Something was moving along the shoulder. It looked human, but it was kind of off, somehow.”

“You haven’t been reading the tourist brochures again, have you?” Irwin asked her. The forest around them was on the edge of an enormous park, and the locals liked to play up Bigfoot sightings.

Dale ignored him, and continued to scan the edge of the woods.

“Look!” she pointed. “There.”

Irwin slammed on the brakes. He couldn’t believe what was loping across the road in the beam of the headlights.

The creature was tall, and had a shaggy brown coat. It turned toward the two police officers and raised its arms.

Dale leapt out her side and braced herself against the open door. “Freeze!” she shouted at the strange animal.

Irwin followed her lead, but whispered through the car at her. “I don’t think it will speak English.”

“I do,” said the beast. It lifted off its head to reveal a teenage boy.

The police officers looked at each other.

“Step to the front of the car,” Irwin ordered.

The boy did as he was told, leaving the costume’s mask in the middle of the street.

Once the officers searched him and found nothing illegal, they began to question him.

“My name’s Mike Harmon. I live around here,” he told them.

“What are you doing so far from town?” Dale asked him.

“And why are you wearing that suit?” Irwin added.

“You’re not going to believe me,” Harmon told them.

“Try us,” said Dale.

“I heard there was a party on the other side of the hill. I wanted to see if I could get in.”

“A party?” said Irwin. “Who has a party out here?”

Harmon looked around suspiciously before he leaned in to whisper his answer. “It’s not a regular party.”

Irwin stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Maybe we’ll have to check it out,” he concluded.

“You’re going to want this,” Harmon said, indicating his furry suit.

 

A short time later, Dale had changed into the Bigfoot getup. “How come I have to wear this again?” she asked Irwin.

“Because we flipped, and you lost.”

“Sweet,” she said. She was not amused. “Tell me where you think this party is,” she told Harmon.

“Like I said,” said the boy. “Just over this hill,” he pointed to his left. “There’s a valley on the far side. It should be close.”

Dale grabbed her radio and a flashlight and headed off into the trees. Struggling against the cumbersome suit, she made her way up the rise to where Harmon had indicated. Upon reaching the top, she dropped to her belly and inched ahead the last few feet.

 

“Irwin,” his radio crackled.

“Dale?” he answered.

“You’re going to want to see this,” she told him.

Irwin turned to Harmon and hustled the boy into the back seat. “Stay here,” he said, slamming the door shut.  Then he rushed up the hill to assist his partner.

She saw him coming and waved her arm for him to stay low, as well.

He crawled up beside her.

“What is it?” he asked, slightly winded from the climb.

“Look,” she pointed.

There, in a clearing in the small valley below, was the strangest gathering of beings Irwin could have imagined.

“Is that a—?” he asked, trailing off.

Dale nodded. “Yup.”

“And a—?”

“Uh huh,” said Dale.

“This has got to go in the brochures,” Irwin gasped.

 

Back at the car, Dale was on the radio back to base, while Irwin stood over a smug Harmon.

“That’s right,” Dale told her dispatcher. “A sasquatch, a fish-man, some kind of Loch-Nessy-looking thing, a giant bird, and what I’m guessing is a chupacabra.”

There was a garbled question from the other end.

“Yes, that’s right,” Dale clarified. “Real ones.”

 

 

 

No. 365

April 25, 2013

Kate Shaw finished the story. “The end,” she said.

“Can you tell us another one, Mom?” her two boys asked as she tucked them into bed. “Ranger must have plenty more adventures.”

“Not until tomorrow,” Kate told them. She gave them a kiss. “Goodnight.”

She turned out the lights and closed the door.

Making sure she wasn’t followed, she tiptoed down to the basement and typed a code on a disguised keypad.

The wall swung open, revealing a hidden room.

Kate stepped inside and pulled on her mask. Then Ranger snuck out of the house to fight crime.

 

 

 

No. 366

April 26, 2013

“The Australian Outback?” asked Betty Porter.

“No,” said her husband, Richard

“Why not?” Betty pressed.

Richard put down his book and looked up at her. “Snakes.”

“Alright,” said Betty. “Where do you want to go?”

Richard considered the question. “Antarctica, maybe?”

Betty shook her head. “Too cold.”

“Mexico?” Richard tried again.

“We’ve already been there.”

“Yeah, but we liked it.”

“That’s true. But we should go someplace new.”

There was an awkward silence. By now, the vacation discussion had been lingering on for most of the evening. Both parties were getting annoyed with the other.

“Well, I don’t know,” said Betty. “Why don’t we just stay here?” she suggested facetiously.

Richard leaned forward at the suggestion, his interest piqued.

Betty’s eyes widened.

“Road trip?” they both asked at the same time.

 

 

 

No. 367

April 27, 2013

Every day at summer camp, after craft time, each boy was allowed to choose two pieces of candy from the snack window’s selection.

On Wednesday night, three days into his two-week stay, Josh Hill outlined his plan to his astounded cabin-mates.

“We rob the joint,” he told them. “Hit it fast and hard.”

Eyes widened in the flashlight-glow of the secret conference. “That’s brilliant,” said somebody in a top-bunk.

The rest of the boys agreed wholeheartedly.

Josh laid out the details of the heist. “Tomorrow, right after lunch, we’ll need a distraction. Two of you will head out on the lake in a canoe. At exactly 1:05, you’ll start shouting for help. I’ll have swiped the keys and four of us will go in through the back door while the counsellors are occupied with the rescue.”

“Sounds awesome,” said Robby Parker. “But there are twelve of us. What are the others going to do?”

“I’m not finished,” Josh assured him. “We’ll have three on standby, in case the canoe caper is resolved too quickly. One of them will have to fall into poison ivy. That’s nine. The other three are essential to the getaway. After the breach-team escapes, the alibi crew goes to work. You’ll plant a portion of the loot in the dogwood cabin, incriminating our rivals and throwing the fuzz off the scent.”

“It’s perfect,” Robby whispered. A chorus of satisfied murmurs from around the room affirmed his appraisal.

“Are there any questions?” Josh asked.

The conspirators were silent.

“Good,” said Josh. “Now get some sleep. We’ve got a busy day ahead. This time tomorrow night, we’ll be eating like kings.”

 

 

 

No. 368

April 28, 2013

Wayne drove the ball downrange. He immediately felt something wrong with his swing and, without looking up, scooped another ball onto his mat to try again. This time his performance met his standards and he tracked the shot, watching it arc up into the distance and then drop near the target placard he’d been aiming for. Allowing himself half of a celebratory exhalation, he lined up his next drive.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you,” said somebody from behind him.

Wayne turned, annoyed, to face the discourteous speaker. It was a woman.

“But could you show me how to do that?” she continued.

Wayne evaluated her quickly. She was young and pretty, and her clothes and clubs suggested that she’d spent a good deal of money to be properly outfitted. Her nervous bearing, however, indicated that, although she might look the part, experience was severely lacking. He decided to forgive her error in etiquette.

“What’s your name?” he asked, before answering her question.

“Emma Conner,” she told him. “I’d like to learn,” she said. “The lady in the clubhouse told me that you occasionally taught lessons.”

“Did she, now?” said Wayne. “The lady behind the counter told you that?”

Emma nodded. She tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear.

Wayne readjusted his hat. “She’s my wife,” he said.

“So, could you teach me?” Emma pressed. “I’m a quick learner.”

“I suppose,” Wayne agreed. “How about you set up in the box beside me, here, and try to hit a couple. I can take a look and see what we’re working with.”

She hurried to do so, while Wayne looked back towards the clubhouse. It was true that he’d once given lessons, but the last time had been ten years before. He wondered what his wife was up to with this suggestion.

“Ok, I’m ready,” said Emma excitedly, addressing the ball with an entirely incorrect stance.

Wayne returned his attention to her. “Go for it.”

 

 

 

No. 369

April 29, 2013

The Noise had descended on the town four days earlier. Oddly, no one could agree on a description. Some called it a “buzz” while others insisted that it sounded more like a whistle. A faction dedicated to keeping the peace between the two camps labeled it a “hum”.

Tensions ran high, as people struggled to cope with the constant din. A meeting in the community hall was called.

“When will it end?” somebody shouted from the crowd.

Silas Barry, the mayor, had no answer.

“How far does it extend?” was another question. “Can we escape?”

A chorus of voices rose, all asking variations on the same thing.

Mayor Barry held up his hand to quiet the rabble. “We don’t know,” he said.

The audience began to turn on him.

“Wait,” he said. “We tried to find out. I sent Oscar Landry to find out about that. He made it as far as Clarksville and he could still hear it. But when he asked the folks out there when the Noise had reached their town, they looked at him like he was funny in the head, and asked him ‘what noise?’.”

“What’s that mean?” Ellen Fairfield demanded from the front row.

“It means,” said Barry, with a worried breath. “That we might be the only ones who can hear it. And we may have to wait it out.”

There was a loud burst of shattering glass from the back of the room, then screams. Someone had broken a window in frustration.

The riot began almost immediately.

“Please,” Barry implored. “Patience!”

But nobody was listening to him anymore. All they heard was the Noise.

 

 

 

No. 370

April 30, 2013

She was perfect, in the videos.

Every night before Nick went to sleep, he would stop at his computer and watch. He was in love with her.

He didn’t know who she was, exactly, just that she would occasionally post brief updates about her life on her blog. Every time she added a song, or said “goodnight”, he wished it was about him.

Even though there was a link on the page that said “Contact”, he was too scared to click it. What if she didn’t feel the same way?

Once, she didn’t update for three weeks. Nick feared that she was gone forever. It turned out that she’d been on vacation. He was relieved when she returned.

The break spurred him to make a move.

 

He set up his camera and stared into it. He was about to speak when he realized that it wasn’t recording yet. Fumbling with the buttons, he turned it on.

“Hi, my name is Nick,” he said nervously. “If you’re watching—I don’t think you are, but— if you are— I want to say hello, I guess.”

It wasn’t much, but it was something.

 

Of course, she never saw his introduction. If she had, she would have thought nothing of it. She wouldn’t have known it was for her.

 

Nick understood, later on, the impossibilities.

 

 

 

No. 371

May 3, 2013

Initially, Conner didn’t notice anything different. He brushed his teeth, like usual. He ate his cereal, like usual. He fed his fish, like usual.

It wasn’t until he left his house to catch the bus that the first hairs stood up on the back of his neck. Nothing seemed out of place, but he didn’t recognize anybody in the street.

Shaking off the strange feeling, he hustled to the bus stop. The 8:55 was always on time and he only had a few minutes to get there.

“Good morning,” he said to the only person waiting in line.

“Hi,” she said, dismissively.

Conner didn’t pick up on the clue, and pressed the conversation. “I can’t believe it’s already May, can you?”

The woman looked at him oddly. “Yeah,” she said. “Tomorrow.”

He returned the look. “What do you mean, ‘tomorrow’?” he asked.

“You said it was May,” she told him. “It’s not May.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s May.” Now her tone was making Conner feel defensive.

“Whatever,” she said with a shrug.

They both spent the next minute ignoring each other, waiting for the bus to arrive.

Conner couldn’t leave the subject alone, though. “What day do you think it is?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Really? It’s April 31st.”

“That’s not even a day,” Conner laughed. “I thought I was going crazy for a moment there.”

Before he could explain the many reasons that the woman was wrong, his watch beeped. He looked at it. It read “9:00”.

Then he noticed something else. It also said “04 31”.

He made a closer inspection of his surroundings. He felt his stomach drop as he realized they were all very familiar but, also, quite different from the ones he knew.

He knew, in that moment, that he was very far from home.

 

 

 

No. 372

May 4, 2013

Station X was on the far side of the middle of nowhere. Visitors never came, and the two men assigned to guard it had long since exhausted every topic of casual conversation. There was nothing to do at Station X but wait.

Indeed, the men had never been told what they were waiting for. On one console of the barren shack that comprised the entire base was a large red light. If the light ever turned on, the men were to press the yellow button on the opposite wall. Under threat of treason, and the firing squad, they were not allowed to leave before completing the task.

“They’ve forgotten us,” said one man.

“Maybe,” said the other.

Time passed slowly.

 

 

 

No. 373

No. 372 Part 2A

May 5, 2013

The years went by.

In the Capital, an archivist found reference to a “Station X”. He brought the discovery to his superior’s attention.

“Sir, there’s no record that these men were ever relieved.”

The commander examined the documents. “Send a team.”

 

The transport landed just short of the windswept outpost. The archivist and two soldiers disembarked and approached the entrance.

A single old man was there to greet them. “You finally came,” he whispered.

“Where’s the other one?” asked the archivist.

The old man was silent. He pointed at a rough pile of rocks.

“I see. In any case, you can stand down. We’ll take you back home.”

The man from Station X’s eyes welled up. “This is my home.”

“As you wish,” said the archivist. He motioned for the others to follow him back to the transport.

“Wait,” said the man. “I have a question.”

“Yes?”

“What was the button for?”

The archivist shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s classified. Just be grateful you never had to push it.”

The old man nodded once, and then returned to his post.

 

 

 

No. 374

May 6, 2013

“The boy tried to attack me,” the wolf told the excited pack that had gathered around him. “But I narrowly escaped.”

The other s “oooed” and “ahhed” appropriately.

The problem was, the wolf was lying. He’d seen the human at a distance, but at no point during his sheep-hunting was he ever threatened in the least.

“What are you going to do next time?” asked one of the other wolves.

“Oh, he won’t know what’s coming, that’s for sure,” the wolf boasted confidently. “Now that I’ve seen him, I know his weaknesses.  I’ll probably eat him.”

 

The rest of the pack was keen to see this and so, the next day, they all met on the hill opposite the sheep paddock.

“You show that boy who’s boss,” they told the wolf, and pointed him in the direction of the shepherd.

The wolf crept slowly toward the child, while at the same time trying frantically to work out just how he was going to make the kill.

“Go get him!” the pack urged him on when he looked back.

And so he moved closer and closer. But he made a grave mistake and allowed his tail to brush against a dry bush with a rattling sound.

The shepherd turned immediately and spotted the wolf.

 

“That’s too bad,” said the pack leader when the rest were safe in their lair, gunshot still echoing in their ears. “He had such potential. I suppose that’s what happens to the wolf who cries boy.”

 

 

 

No. 374

No. 372 Part 2B

May 7, 2013

A year went by.

The men at Station X had resigned themselves to the fact that the light would never illuminate.

Then, on a stormy winter morning, it did.

Bradshaw leapt to hit the button, throwing his chair aside.

Mitchell intercepted him halfway there. “Don’t,” he said, looking Bradshaw in the eyes.

“I have to,” said Bradshaw. “We can go home.” He strained toward his target.

Mitchell held him fast, and repeated his plea. “Please don’t.”

Bradshaw’s struggles subsided. “The light is on,” he protested in vain.

He reached for the button again.

Mitchell drew his pistol and pointed it at Bradshaw. “You can’t.”

“What’s wrong with you? We’ll be here forever!” Bradshaw was becoming frantic. “Why?”

Mitchell kept the weapon trained on his companion. “Because I know what the button is for.”

The answer was too much for Bradshaw. He lunged forward, ignoring the gun.

 

A single shot from inside the hut echoed across the windswept landscape.

Mitchell sat alone inside the shelter. He did not press the button.

 

 

 

No. 376

May 8, 2013

“You ate it? I can’t believe it!”

“Yeah, well. Not on purpose, obviously.”

“How did it taste?”

“Crunchy.”

“Crunchy’s not a flavor!”

“Do you really want to know what a bug tastes like?”

 

 

 

No. 377

The Return of Fangy

May 9, 2013

After a particularly violent attack on a mailman, Fangy had been sent to live at the zoo. But Nicholas had been given a free pass, so they still saw each other regularly.

Despite the frequent visits, however, Nicholas was unhappy with the arrangement. It was his opinion that Fangy had been unfairly blamed for the mauling. The neighbors had recently bought a new dog, a vicious one, by all accounts, and it had been seen running free on the same day of the alleged incident.

Because of this suspicion, Nicholas spent most of his time at the zoo looking for ways to break Fangy out of his exhibit.

Fangy had spent his time in captivity trying alternately to burrow his way out, or to sneak through the open doors at feeding time. His constant activity and inquisitive-yet-deadly nature made him popular with zoo visitors, and with his keeper, Mr. Marsh.

 

“Hello, Mr. Marsh,” said Nicholas as he walked by the “Staff Only” entrance to the velociraptor pit.

“Hi, Nick,” Mr. Marsh said, waving at the boy. “Fangy’s been in a little bit of trouble since you came the other day.”

Nicholas gritted his teeth. He had a plan to bust Fangy out that evening, but when Fangy got in trouble, that usually meant he wasn’t allowed in the outside part of his pen for a few days. “What did he do this time?” he asked casually, trying not to show his nervousness.

“Clawed a tourist who got too close to the edge while taking pictures. Tore him up real good,” said Mr. Marsh sternly. Then he winked at Nicholas. “But the tourist had it coming.”

That’s why Nicholas liked Mr. Marsh. He always took Fangy’s side.

“Is he locked up?” asked Nicholas.

“Well,” said Mr. Marsh. “We had to for a little while, until picture-guy left the park. But I couldn’t leave Fangy all cooped up like that all night, so I unlocked the gate before I left.” Mr. Marsh paused for a moment. “Come to think of it, though, I haven’t seen him out today.”

Nicholas thought the man was acting strangely, but didn’t want to draw attention to it, lest Mr. Marsh wonder why Nicholas seemed jumpy, too.

“We should see if he’s OK,” said Nicholas.

Mr. Marsh agreed, and they pair went together through the maintenance area to Fangy’s stall. To their surprise, the dinosaur wasn’t in his den. The straw on the floor in one corner had been disturbed, and sunlight shone through a large hole in the wall.

“Uh oh,” said Mr. Marsh loudly while he looked around. “It looks like he chewed his way out.” He pulled out a walkie-talkie and began speaking very quickly. “Code red, velociraptor escape. Code red, repeat, Fangy has escaped.”

Then he knelt down next to Nicholas and whispered. “Sorry, I had to make sure it seems real. Of course Fangy can’t chew through concrete, but they don’t know that. You should be able to find him down by the lake.”

“Thanks Mr. Marsh,” said Nicholas happily. The keeper’s plan had been much simpler than his. And now Fangy was free.

“A dinosaur should be with his boy,” said Mr. Marsh. “But be careful . If he eats anybody else, he’ll have to come straight back here.” He laughed. “Anybody that we like, that is.”

 

 

 

No. 378

No. 368 Part 2

May 10, 2013

Emma swung and missed the ball completely.

“Yup,” Wayne noted.

“Can you tell me what I did wrong, there?” she asked, spinning to face him.

Her direct eagerness surprised Wayne. He wasn’t ready with a reply.

“Almost everything,” he finally managed, with a laugh.

Then he tried to remember the last time he’d laughed. It wasn’t recently.

He showed her how to line up properly and had her hit a few more times. She was a quick learner, for sure.

 

By the end of the lesson, he had yet to get a good read on her, though. He was usually able to size somebody up quickly, but Emma seemed to prove the exception to his rule. Short of asking her directly, he’d tried everything he could to figure her out.

“Should I come back at the same time tomorrow?” she asked as she put her clubs back in her bag.

“Whatever works best for you,” Wayne told her. It wasn’t like he was going to be busy.

“Alright,” she said happily. “Same, then. Sounds good. See you tomorrow, Wayne.”

Then she left.

 

Wayne stood still for a moment. Then he walked back inside to the front desk. His wife met him at the counter.

“How was she?” his wife asked him.

“Good,” said Wayne. “For a beginner,” he added.

His wife looked at the clock on the wall. “You were out there for a while.”

Wayne shrugged. “First lesson.”

“Yes,” his wife agreed. “We could use the business.”

“Right,” said Wayne.

“Is she coming back?”

“Tomorrow.”

There was an awkward silence.

“You know, you sent her out to me,” he told his wife abruptly.

“I most certainly did not,” she said with her arms crossed.

 

 

 

No. 379

May 11, 2013

The Tower dominated the landscape. It had been built when the forest had been a flat plain. Now, the trees had grown full and tall, and it still dwarfed its leafy neighbors.

Princess Alana could see the Tower looming above her as she chopped her way through the underbrush. She tried not to look up very much. Although it was her destination, the Tower frightened her.

But there was a prince at the top, and he needed her to rescue him. She had to press on.

 

 

 

No. 380

May 14, 2013

Jack moved his chair to follow the umbrella’s shadow. He’d been watching people walk past the patio and hadn’t noticed how far the sun had moved. Reaching for his glass, he was annoyed to find that the ice had melted. He shook the condensation off of his hand and looked back toward the shop. He wondered if he should buy another drink, or live with the warm one he already had.

He didn’t see Amy until she sat down beside him.

“Hi,” she said. “How’s it going?”

“Yeah, fine,” said Jack, startled by her sudden appearance. “I’m just killing time.”

Amy worked at a restaurant across the street, and knew who Jack was waiting for.

“When’s Kelly done?” Amy asked.

“Ah, should be soon,” Jack replied. “It was supposed to be twenty minutes ago, but I think something came up.” He’d told Amy about his feelings for Kelly the week before. Now Amy made sure to ask him about her every day.

“I see,” said Amy. She leaned over and stole Jack’s cup. “Does she know you’re here for her?” she asked with the straw in her mouth.

“I think so,” said Jack. “I said something yesterday.”

Amy smiled. “What exactly did you say, yesterday?”

Jack slid back further into the shadow. “I said we should do something, sometime.”

“I’m going in to see if she’s still here,” said Amy.

Jack didn’t say anything. Amy stood up and walked around the table to Jack’s side.

“Get up,” she told him, grabbing his arm, and lifting. “You’re coming, too.”

“But—,” Jack protested.

Amy was having none of it. She hustled him forward toward the door. “Move! At the very least, you can buy your sister something for her parched throat on this ridiculously hot day.”

“Fine, whatever,” Jack mumbled. “But it’s only going to be a small since you just finished mine.”

 

Amy burst into the lobby with Jack in tow. “Kelly?” she shouted across the counter. “Are you still here? My brother has something to tell you.”

Kelly was nowhere to be seen. A man behind the till spoke up.

“Kelly’s gone home,” he told Jack and Amy.

“Who are you?” asked Amy. “I’m here all the time and I’ve never seen you before.”

“I’m new,” said the man. “This is my first shift at this store. I’m Mike.”

 

“And so, four years ago, that’s how Mike and my sister met. I’m going to take credit for it.” Jack finished his speech. He raised his glass. “To the bride and groom.”

He sat down when the applause was over.

“Hey,” Kelly whispered in his ear. “You never told me that story before. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t until a month after Mike started that you asked me out.”

 

 

 

No. 381

May 15, 2013

AJ didn’t like the look of the rash on his right hand. It had started small, a few days earlier, but had now grown to cover everything but his thumb.

“You should probably get that checked out,” his roommate, Shawn Raymond, told him, as AJ left for work.

“Yeah, I think so. I’m busy today, but I’ll try to fit it in,” said AJ on his way out the door. He flexed his fingers experimentally. The dull itch had turned into a worrying burning sensation.

As he drove in to the office, the pain began to intensify. When he arrived, it was only to throw his bag on his desk and let his boss know he was going to the doctor.

 

AJ never made it that far. He pulled his car to the side of the road and tucked himself into the foetal position. He’d never experienced such agony, and the inflammation had reached his elbow. He used his opposite arm to claw at the wound.

He was horrified to see the flesh flake away, disintegrating into a sandy texture. He closed his eyes in misery. Once rid of the tissue, though, the pain slacked.

When he opened his eyes, he regarded his limb curiously. The skin and muscle that he expected to see were gone. Underneath was shiny pistons and cables. He opened and closed his hand with a faint whine of gears propelling the metal skeleton.

“What is this?” he gasped at the sight. Then, worryingly, his left little finger began to itch.

 

AJ threw the car in drive and sped home, hoping desperately that Shawn was gone for the day.

He was in luck. The apartment was empty when he came through the door with a sweater over his arm. He hurried to his room and, after leaving a message for Shawn that he’d be away on business, closed the door and didn’t leave for a week.

 

When he emerged, he was reduced to a technological framework, completely machine.

“Hey,” he greeted Shawn, who didn’t turn around.

“What’s up?” Shawn asked.

“I’m a robot, apparently,” replied AJ.

Shawn kept his focus on the TV. “Yup. We all knew that,” he said without a reaction.

AJ was floored by the news. “What do you mean, ‘you knew’? And who is ‘we’?”

“Almost everyone. It was pretty obvious.”

 

 

 

No. 382

May 16, 2013

“We yawn so that the little aliens who live in our brains can get some fresh air,” Jocelyn told her little brother, Caleb, after repeated questioning.

“That’s not true,” he replied.

“Really? Because you’re the one who asked me, so you’re the one who doesn’t know.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he admitted, then returned to playing with his truck.

 

“She’s on to us,” said the alien commander. “Prepare to evacuate!”

 

“Hey, what was that?” said Caleb.

“What was what?” said his sister, annoyed at being interrupted again.

“Something just flew out of your ear.”

She waved nonchalantly. “Probably just a bug. Stop bothering me.”

“I bet it was the aliens.”

“Are you kidding me? I just made that up.”

 

 

 

No. 383

May 22, 2013

Will checked his phone for messages. There were none. The clock said 8:53. He made up his mind and leaned forward to speak to the limo driver. “She’s not coming. I can still make it in time if we leave now.”

The driver tipped his cap and started the engine. “Perhaps she wasn’t right for you, anyway,” he offered from the front seat.

“Maybe,” said Will. “Maybe you’re right.”

When the car began to move, Will didn’t look back.

 

 

 

No. 384

May 23, 2013

After Rich had racked up more than a hundred dollars in library fines, they suspended his card. That didn’t deter him, though, from finding another way to borrow books.

He had managed to jimmy the lock on the woman’s-bathroom window. At night he slipped inside and simply stole the books that caught his fancy. He was doing well for himself, filling an entire bookshelf in his apartment in a little under two weeks.

Everything was going swimmingly until one Saturday night when he ran into a problem he hadn’t foreseen.

 

He made his way through the window as usual, making sure beforehand that there was nobody else around who might see him. As he dropped to the floor on the inside, he froze. He thought he heard breathing from one of the stalls.

Creeping forward, he paused in front of the closed door. He took a deep breath before pushing it carefully, with one finger. It swung open.

“Alright, you’ve got me,” she said, resigned to her fate.

Rich almost pooped himself. There was a girl in here! He stumbled back in surprise.

“I, uh,” he managed to say.

They looked at each other. Then the truth of their mutual situation dawned on them.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” they said in unison, each pointing that the other.

Rich tried to think of an excuse in a hurry. “I’m the janitor,” he stammered feebly.

She rolled her eyes. “The janitor that sneaks in the window. Right.”

“I, uh.”

“Yeah, save it,” she told him as she closed the distance between them. “I’ll just be straight with you. I’m here to borrow some books.”

“You mean ‘steal’,” Rich corrected.

“That’s such a dirty word.”

Rich shrugged and scratched his head. “Well, I suppose we’re here now,” he suggested.

“Might as well.”

They left the washroom. Rich held the door for her. They parted and each went to their favorite section.

 

The heist was completed in minutes, and afterwards they returned to the window.

The girl threw her haul out and was quick to follow it. As Rich was steadying his books on the ledge to make his escape, she stuck her head back through and smiled at him.

“Same time next week?” she suggested coyly.

Rich was not expecting this offer.

“I, uh.”

“That’s a ‘yes’,” she called back to him as she disappeared into the night.

 

 

 

No. 385

May 24, 2013

In between the void of inspiration and the page is the place that half-finished stories and discarded characters go. Most will never leave this domain of maybes and what-ifs.

Usually, only a great author can save one, once it’s been abandoned. Most of the time, they’re left forever.

 

Wallace Cooper was not a great author.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he hit the backspace button on Moira Maynard, a supporting character in his detective story whose plot he couldn’t resolve.

 

“Another one?” asked High School Comedy In Space. “How many has this guy sent over in the last week?”

Sexy Secret Agent checked a list. “Seven titles, two abandoned concepts, and thirteen protagonists.” He doubled-checked his list. “And nine villains.”

“Ridiculous,” said High School Comedy In Space. “Doesn’t this Cooper know we’re almost full, here?”

“Probably not,” said Reverse Reality Show, joining the conversation late. “I just spoke to this new Moira.  She said there were four other characters in her story in more or less the same situation she was.”

“Something’s got to be done,” said Sexy Secret Agent.

“How?” Reverse Reality Show asked.

His question led to a spirited discussion. Nobody had a solid suggestion until High School Comedy In Space weighed in.

“We find our own ending to Wallace Cooper’s novel.”

“An ending?” gasped Reverse Reality Show. “None of us have ever met an ending.”

“I heard of one, once” Sexy Secret Agent volunteered softly. “She spends a lot of time by herself on the other side of the realm, though.”

“Who is she?” High School Comedy In Space asked. “Can we see her?”

Sexy Secret Agent swallowed nervously before answering. “Her name is Everybody Dies.”

 

 

 

No. 386

May 25, 2013

Danny found treasure at recess. It was an honest-to-goodness gold coin just lying there, in the grass on the soccer field.

He spent it immediately on grape bubble gum.

 

 

 

No. 387

May 27, 2013

I resolved to burn down the cathedral.

In retrospect it was a poor choice. We all make mistakes when we’re angry. I was tired of knights clambering up the hill and chucking rocks into my cave and daring me to come out and fight them. I could only handle so much hassling before I snapped.

Before that, I’d never even thought about hurting anybody, or wrecking their stuff. I’m a dragon, sure, but have you have ever tried eating a human? Ugh. Especially these guys. These guys are not clean.

Well, you can imagine what happened after I destroyed their building. Their trips to my cave are becoming even more frequent and agitated. There are posses. Mobs. One fellow tried to smoke me out of my home. Like I was a problem mole. Come on.

They are angry enough that I may have to move. And moving blows.

You know what, though? Why should I move? I was here first. I should have wiped them out when they built their first stupid little shanty. But no, good dragon that I am, I left them alone. Like I wanted to be left alone. Is that too much to ask? Being civil to each other? I suppose so.

Forget moving. I’ve made up my mind.

If one more person shows up at my door acting like an idiot, I’ll raze the entire town.

 

 

 

No. 388

May 27, 2013

History books say that between 1975 and 1981 NASA didn’t launch any manned missions to space.

 

October 3, 1980

“Houston, this is Polus 2, we are go for lift-off.”

“Roger, Polus 2. We are starting the countdown. Good luck.”

 

December 12, 1980

“Mommy, look! There are lights on the moon!” said Sally.

“Well, honey, the moon is bright most of the time,” her mother assured her.

“No, Mom. They’re moving.”

“It’s just your imagination. Goodnight, dear.”

 

Now

Sally Baker left the meeting feeling numb.

Her department at NASA was facing severe budget cuts. She had just been informed that she had two days to find a new project with approved funding, or begin telling her staff that they were all going to be out of work.

She sat down at her computer, head spinning with the news. How was she going to save the Prospective Missions Division? Their main role to date had been proposing hypothetical scenarios for future exploration, and then passing their reports to Engineering for feasibility studies. Mostly, it was for good PR stories to take to elementary schools to inspire children’s imaginations about space.

She leaned back and closed her eyes, trying to fight off the headache she could feel forming right between them. She squeezed her temples and took a deep breath. She stayed like that for some time, letting her mind wander.

 

When she opened her eyes they fell on her framed poster of Neil Armstrong on the moon and its caption, “July 20, 1969”.

She stared at the date. It triggered an old memory, something she hadn’t thought about in decades.

Sitting up quickly, she grabbed her security pass and phone from her desk. She dialed with one hand as she hurried out the office door.

“Archives? Hi, this is Dr. Baker. I’m going to be down there in about ten minutes and I’ll need an escort for the classified documents room.”

 

 

 

No. 389

May 29, 2013

Every summer, tourists flock to Pikesville to see the “Hole to Nowhere”.

“It’s bigger than last year!” some convince themselves, even though the size of the Hole never changes.

If anything, it is growing smaller, a cause for great concern among the locals dependent on the outside dollars.

 

The Hole first appeared in 1962. Visitors are told it swallowed a horse, even though nobody present at the time could remember losing a horse. Like most sinkholes, its birth was dramatic and unexpected. A horse could have conceivably fallen in, so the legend wasn’t an outright lie.

What was false was the part of the story that said the cause was unknown.

Clarence Humphrey, the warden at the Hole, knew exactly why the ground had given way. Three other men and one woman knew, as well.

Only Clarence and the woman, Sheila Betts, knew that the name was also misleading. They had learned where the Hole went.

 

“Throw down the rope,” Clarence whispered from the bottom of the pit.

Sheila did as she was instructed, dropping the coiled line over the edge. Then she shimmied down the steep sides to meet Clarence.

“You weren’t followed, were you?” he confirmed on her arrival.

“Of course not,” she hissed back. “I’m not stupid.”

“Just making sure,” Clarence mumbled.

Sheila and Clarence were not friends.

Clarence checked his watch. “Come on. We have an hour till the morning shift arrives up top.”

Sheila rolled her eyes at the obvious information, but her contempt went unnoticed in the dark of the Hole. “You say that every time.”

The pair cleared away a loose pile of dirt along one wall and revealed a passage big enough for one person at a time to enter on their belly.

Without speaking, Clarence followed Sheila through.

They arrived in a vaulted chamber, another sinkhole waiting to happen right beneath Harley’s Grocery. Water dripped down from the ceiling into a crevasse in the floor.

Clarence deftly tied the rope around a rocky outcrop and let it down into the split. Without pausing, he turned and slid down it to somewhere below.

Sheila did the same, but not before checking the knot at the top.

Now, far from the surface, the two came upon the final leg of their journey. A steep tunnel led up, toward the hills north of Pikesville.

“45 minutes,” reminded Clarence.

“I seriously don’t know why you time us every week,” Sheila told him. “Get moving if you’re so worried.”

They left down the tunnel at a light jog, arriving soon after at the secret of the Hole.

The spring was small, just a trickle out of the rocks. It was at the end of a narrow box canyon that would have been impossible reach to without taking the route through the Hole.

Clarence immediately dipped his cupped hands in the water and drank.

Sheila produced a shot glass from her pocket, which she filled and then emptied into her mouth.

“That takes care of that,” Clarence grunted.

“You know,” Sheila told him. “The worst thing about finding the Fountain of Youth is that I have to share it with you.”

 

 

 

No. 390

May 30, 2013

The Republic of Steveistan was an independent nation located just south of the rest stop with the diner on Highway 102.

Steven Otter had won his territory when the local law enforcement community agreed to leave him alone if he stopped calling complaints about border incursions by the cars passing by.

The generally accepted frontier was a straight line from the big oak in Otter’s backyard to the shoulder of the highway on the north side, a curved line that followed his neighbor’s wire fence on the south, and the bank of a small creek through his backyard to the east. The total area of Steveistan was just over an acre.

Otter had declared himself Commander for Life of Steveistan. His wife, Judith, was his deputy. The children had long since grown up and emigrated. Otter printed his own money and issued passports to any townsfolk who wanted a discount on his home-brewed beer, Steveistan’s only export product.

 

“Honey,” Otter called down the hallway of the Capitol building. “I’m going on a trade mission.”

“You’d better not being going to Gerry’s Market,” she yelled back from the kitchen. “Remember, you’re banned from there.”

“Yes dear,” Otter replied. “Is there anything we need?”

There was a slight delay as Judith checked the pantry. “We’re low on sugar, so get some if it’s on sale.”

“Alright,” said Otter as he walked to the garage. “Don’t forget to take the flag down when you hear the door close.”

“I won’t,” Judith told him cheerily.

 

When Steve returned, almost two hours later, he wasn’t in a very good mood.

“What’s wrong?” Judith asked him.

Otter shuffled awkwardly, trying to ignore the question. “Nothing.”

“It’s not nothing, and you know it,” Judith scolded him. “What?”

“I got banned from Food Giant,” Otter admitted.

“What did you do this time?”

“The sugar wasn’t on special, so I took some. As an ambassador, I tried to tell them I had diplomatic immunity. But they wouldn’t let me explain.”

Judith shook her head. “That only leaves Valu-Mart on the other side of town to shop at. I hate Valu-Mart.”

Otter wrung his hands together. “I know.”

“I’m invoking the National Emergency Act,” Judith said with a stern finality.

“I don’t remember that one.”

“It’s all written down in the Charter,” Judith told him, reaching for the spiral notebook that occupied a hallowed place in the middle of the dining-room table. She flipped to the correct page. “See, it says here, ‘In the event of the incapacity of the Commander for Life, his second will assume the role and all powers and privileges granted by the title.’”

“This is a revolution!” Otter gasped. “A coup!”

“Only until you apologize to the store managers you’ve upset,” Judith assured him. “Don’t worry. Steveistan will be safe with me in charge.”

 

 

 

No. 391

May 31, 2013

Will came upon an old man in the forest who was sitting beside a freestanding door.

“What’s on the other side?” Will asked the man, even though he could clearly see that beyond the door was more of the same forest.

“Bears,” said the man.

Will nodded. “Sure. But don’t bears just go around the door?”

The old man scowled at Will and pointed angrily with his walking stick. “I didn’t say the door was for the bears, did I? Now move along.”

Will, not wanting to upset the man further, did as he was told.

 

The next day, Will sent his friend Jack into the woods to see if perhaps he could discover the true purpose of the strange spectacle.

 

Jack returned late in the afternoon with a black eye.

“No luck, then?” Will asked.

“Nope,” said Jack. “I asked the geezer specifically what the door was for, and he straight-up whacked me with his stick. That’s it. Didn’t say a word.”

“Huh,” Will grunted, deep in thought and ignoring his friend’s wound. “There’s got to be somebody in town who knows what this is all about.”

“Whatever. The dude’s crazy, is all I know. I’m going home.”

“Ok. Right,” Will dismissed him absently.

“See you later,” Jack called on his way out the door.

 

Will spent all night obsessing about the old man and the door. He tossed and turned under his sheets, with all the possible scenarios racing through his head.

Was the door magic?

Did there used to be something built around the door?

Why did the man say “bears”? How did the bears fit in?

On and on it went, until first light when Will got up and left immediately to the cafe on Main Street for breakfast.

 

“Hey,” he said as he slid his chair up to the counter. He looked around and saw several old-timers with their morning coffees. “Has anybody heard about an elderly man in the forest who sits beside a random doorframe?”

“Oh sure,” said a woman at the next table. “That’s Crazy Bob. He’s been up beside that door for who-knows-how long.”

“Why?” Will asked, leaning forward.

“I think mostly because he likes to hit people with his stick,” said the woman’s friend. “After all, his name is Crazy Bob.”

“That’s it?” Will pressed.

“Pretty sure,” said the woman.

“So far as I know,” confirmed her friend.

Will had one more question. “Do you know why he told me about bears? He told me there were bears on the other side.”

“Bears?” said the woman. “He said ‘bears?’”

“Yes.”

“I really couldn’t tell you,” she said. “There hasn’t been a bear around here since, well, since before my time, anyway.”

 

Armed with the new information, Will returned to the forest to confront Crazy Bob. He found the scene just as he’d left it, two days before. “I know who you are and I know there are no bears,” he told Crazy Bob.

Crazy Bob did not lash out, as Will was half expecting. Instead, the man leaned back. “Is that right?” he asked. “Well, then you tell me, what’s that?” he said, pointing again with his stick.

Will looked where the old man indicated. There, on the far side of the door, was a giant bear. When Will turned back to Crazy Bob, the man was smiling and the door was open. “If you’re worried about the bear, just step on through.”

That was when Will decided it would be a good idea to make a run for it.

 

 

 

No. 392

June 4, 2013

15 July 2013

Dear Sir,

 

As per your instructions on 3rd July, we began excavations beneath the stage floor of the Triton Theater on 9th July.

I must inform you that what we have found so far is highly irregular. I therefore request that you visit in person to provide further clarification regarding the direction of the project.

I have made a complete inventory of our discoveries to date to familiarize you with the situation.

 

9 July

-Slate slabs, ½ inch thick, forming a complete layer under floor

10 July

-Hand tools, dating to approx. early 1900’s

-Sealed tin box with padlock

-Wooden signboard, letters visible – “Cro t”

11 July

No findings, dug 2 yards

12 July

-Stone construction, later found to be the roof of a chamber

13 July

-Stone and brick vault, no clear entry points

-Pair of iron handcuffs

-Sword handle, indeterminate date

14 July

No new artifacts, dug out vault, now 6 yards below Theater floor

15 July

-Possible passageway intersecting vault

-Spyglass with smashed lens

-Human bones, partial right hand

-Wooden oar

-Brick with word “HOME” scratched into it

 

We have stopped work at this time, and await your arrival.

Regards,

Daniel White

 

 

 

No. 393

June 5, 2013

Brian Allen stole road signs. From the time he turned thirteen until he was sixteen years old, he amassed an enormous collection.

His friends would often ask him what he was planning to do with them, and Brian would always smile and decline to answer. His friends would shrug and assume that it was just “Brian being Brian”.

Of course, Brian had a plan.

The night before his driver’s test, Brian visited the shed where he’d stored his prizes. Under cover of darkness, he replaced all the signs along the route he knew the test would take with his own directions.

 

He passed with flying colors, and a very confused instructor.

 

 

 

No. 394

June 6, 2013

“Grandpa, tell me that story you told me before.”

“I don’t know what story you mean. What was it about?”

“Well, it started with ‘Once upon a time’.”

Grandpa smiled. “Well, you’re going to have to help me out. All stories begin with ‘Once upon a time’. Can you think of anything else?”

The child nodded. “I think so. ‘Once upon a time, there was a boy and a girl, and a great big world.’”

“Ah, yes,” said Grandpa. “I remember, now. That’s the best one.”

 

 

 

No. 395

June 7, 2013

Jackson began to see her every morning while he rode the subway to work. She, like he, always chose the same car to ride in, one back from the front. She would usually bring a book and read intently until she heard the chime for her stop, two before his.

Jackson spent his journey drawing his fellow commuters on a small sketchpad. As time passed, she became the subject of more and more of his portraits until, eventually, she was the only one. He was almost certain that she knew what he was doing, and that she knew that he knew that she knew.

 

One day, things changed.

She didn’t get off at the usual place. Instead, she leaned forward when the train started moving again.

“I think you should give me one,” she said to Jackson.

“What?”

“One of your pictures. Give it to me. I mean, it’s only fair.”

“Right,” said Jackson, tongue-tied by the attention. He tore the first page out of his book and handed it over.

She took the paper and examined it. “Not bad,” she appraised. “A little super-creepy, but not bad.”

The person sitting beside Jackson stood up to leave. She swapped into the empty seat.

“Let’s see the rest,” she said, holding out her hand expectantly. “There aren’t any pervy ones, are there?”

“No,” said Jackson quickly. “Of course not.”

She flipped through the book, pausing occasionally and smiling to herself.

Jackson’s stop was announced and he began to gather his things to go. Her proximity made him very self-conscious.

She sat perfectly still and watched him stutter and flail as he made his way toward the door. “You forgot something,” she told him as the train lurched to a halt. She held his sketchbook out.

He took it and mumbled a thanks.

“Just be aware, tomorrow it’s going to be harder to draw me. I plan on sitting here beside you the whole ride.”

Jackson nodded and dashed through the just-opened doors.

 

 

 

No. 396

June 10, 2013

The safe had been in the corner of the offices of Lysander and Plank since the founding of the company. The current owners of the business, grandchildren of the original partners, paid little attention to the hulking artifact. It was just another fixture to them, like a desk, or a lamp. Certainly, nobody living had thought to open it.

 

Clarissa Lysander arrived soon after being called. Luke and Elizabeth Plank were already standing in front of the building, surrounded by a fleet of police cruisers.

“What do we know?” Clarissa asked as she got out of her car.

“Not much,” said Elizabeth. “The security company called Luke and told him there was a suspected break-in. The police are still searching the building.”

“Is somebody still inside?”

“We don’t know,” said Luke, handing Clarissa a cup of coffee. “My sister wanted them to be thorough.”

“It’s their job,” Elizabeth countered.

 

Before Clarissa had finished her drink, an officer approached the group. “We’d like to take the three of you inside, before the rest of the employees, to do a quick inventory. Let us know if anything’s missing,” he said. “Also, we have some questions about something that I’d like to show you.”

The three looked at each other.

“Alright,” said Clarissa, speaking for everyone. “We’ll follow you.”

 

Nothing appeared to have been disturbed as they walked through the building. If there had been intruders, it seemed that robbery was not their motive.

“Just in here,” said the police officer, as he led the way to the inner sanctum of Lysander and Plank.

Clarissa, Luke, and Elizabeth froze as they turned the corner into the back room.

“That’s it,” said the officer.

“I don’t know,” managed Luke. “I just don’t know.”

The safe was open. If there had been contents, they had disappeared. And somebody, in the past or present, had dug a tunnel up from behind a false wall and then burned their way into the safe from the back.

The only clue was an old photograph of Andrew Lysander and Walter Plank taped to the inside of the door. Taken during the war, the men were posing in front of a squad of captured enemy soldiers and a large, unmarked crate.

 

 

 

No. 397

June 12, 2013

The only reason we know Travellers have been here is because, very occasionally, one of them screws up. Obviously, visiting us in their past gives them a massive advantage. And we’re not even sure what they’re up to. Are they coming back here for research, or some other, more nefarious purpose? Our assignment may be dangerous.

With that in mind, the mission of this unit is to capture one. The future can’t hide from us forever.

 

 

 

No. 398

June 13, 2013

Natasha and Tom reached the top of the cliff and looked over the edge at the pool below.

The water seemed dark and uninviting.

“I’ll jump if you jump,” said Tom.

Natasha didn’t hesitate. She leapt off the rock ledge and hit the water a second later.

Tom remained still.

Natasha looked up at him. She pulled a strand of wet hair from in front of her eyes but didn’t say a word.

Tom turned and made his way down the path to meet her at the base.

“I wasn’t serious,” he told her as he wrapped his dry sweater over her shoulders.

“I know,” she said as she held the sweater tightly to stop the shivering. “But I needed to know if I could.”

 

 

 

No. 399

June 14, 2013

Carl Dunn worked nights at the airport. During the quiet hours between flights, he cleaned the floors. His section was in baggage claim, from the customs’ gates to the arrivals pick-up hall.  His job, like his life, was very ordinary.

Besides occasionally speaking to Veronica Jordan, who worked in the food court, Carl kept mostly to himself. There weren’t many folks who were around so late, anyway.  Carl liked it like that.

 

One day, on a shift that began like any other, Carl was sweeping near carousel four. As he made his way around, he spotted something wedged between the side of the conveyor and the row of carts stacked beside it. After looking around to see if there was anyone who could have left it, he knelt down to get a closer look.

He didn’t know that, by doing so, he was beginning the first act of his origin story.

 

 

 

No. 400

The Molten Kingdom Part 1

June 18, 2013

“I have heard of it. They say the volcano is three days from here, to the east.” said the man, pointing into the distance. “You won’t make it that far, by yourself,” he cautioned.

Clue Restacks nodded. “That would be true. But I’m not alone.”

Mr. Mouse appeared on her right shoulder and cast his wily gaze on the surprised guide.

“A rat?” asked the man incredulously. “You are going to cross the Great Desert with a rat? You will surely die.”

“He’s a mouse,” Clue clarified. “And I think we’ll be fine.”

“I hope so,” said the man. “If you return, I will be waiting here.”

 

Clue and Mr. Mouse bid him farewell, and began the long trek toward their goal. Clue used her powers to create a bubble of lowered temperature around them, protecting the duo from the potentially lethal rays of the blazing sun.

“He sure was grim, wasn’t he?” she asked her fuzzy companion. “This is nothing we haven’t seen before.”

Mr. Mouse made a sound that seemed affirmative and Clue smiled. Then he squeaked a reminder.

“That’s right,” she told him. “I forgot.”

Summoning a greater level of concentration, she forced a high pressure zone of air under her feet. She wobbled slightly as she rose a short distance off the ground. “Let’s go,” she said as she propelled herself forward with a focused gust of wind.

 

Travelling in this manner, the adventurers reached their destination by nightfall.

The volcano towered above them, a deep glow emanating up into the dark sky from the lava at the bottom of the crater.

Clue picked her way slowly to the summit, deflecting airborne boulders with well-timed blasts of lightning.  “A walk in the park,” she remarked to Mr. Mouse.

He wasn’t sure if he shared her enthusiasm for the task.

“Do you want to come with me, or stay here?” she asked him after reaching the shore of the boiling pool of rock.

Mr. Mouse chose immediately. He would remain right where he was.

“Your loss,” Clue told him as she shrugged off her pack. She reached behind her back and pulled a small bundle from the waistband of her pants. “Take care of this while I’m gone,” she said to Mr. Mouse as she tossed the contents toward her partner.

A diamond twice his size rolled to a stop in front of the surprised rodent.

Then Clue encased herself in a thick layer of ice and launched herself into the fiery lake.

 

 

 

 

Around Gray Publishes Mini-Stories, No. 301 – No. 350, Feb 4, 2013 – April 8, 2013

No. 301

February 4, 2013

When his phone rang, Lee looked down from the TV to check the caller display. It was his friend, Zach. Lee pressed the button to ignore the call. “Always during the middle of ‘World’s Most Venomous Animals’,” he said as he threw the phone to the other side of the couch.

Moments later, the phone began to buzz again. Lee grabbed it and answered abruptly.

“What?” he snapped at Zach.

The voice on the other end was shrill and panicked. “It’s chewing on my leg!” was the desperate cry for help.

Lee didn’t know how to react. “What’s that?”

Zach’s reply was louder. “It’s eating me!”

The plea was accompanied by a smashing noise. There was definitely a struggle going on.

“Call the police!” said Lee excitedly. “Why are you calling me? 911!”

Before Zach could respond, the line went dead. Lee followed his own advice and dialed for help.

“911. What’s your emergency?” said the operator.

“My friend is being attacked by something. Maybe an animal? I don’t know,” Lee told her all in one breath.

“Can you see the animal now?” asked the operator.

Lee felt helpless, and he was worried about Zach. “No. My friend is at his house. He called me and hung up.” Lee relayed the address and what few details he knew about Zach’s situation while he threw on his shoes and started his car. The operator stayed on the phone with him until he was within sight of Zach’s home.

Arriving at the scene just after the firefighters, Lee watched as they gathered their gear and ran into the house. He could hear faint screams from inside.

One of the firefighters came back out almost immediately. He was shouting at someone behind the truck that Lee couldn’t see. “All the rope! We’re going to need all of it!”

“And the axes,” he added, ominously.

 

 

 

No. 302

February 5, 2013

“It’s a wide world out there, and we’re all stuck here,” said the promoter. “But what if we could change that? What if we could experience far-away things, simply and cheaply?”

She paused, letting the audience’s expectation build.

At the height of anticipation, she spoke again. “What if we could teleport?” she asked as pulled back a large curtain to reveal a polished-metal tube. “My handsome assistant will demonstrate,” she said, welcoming the man to the stage.

The assistant waved his hand over a sensor and the tube split open. He climbed inside while the promoter closed the hatch behind him.

A screen slid down from the ceiling, then lit up with a camera feed. In the center of the shot was a tube identical to the demonstration model. “Live, from Hong Kong,” the promoter explained. “No tricks, just the technology at work.”

The audience watched in awe as the assistant got out of the tube on the screen. He smiled at the camera, then picked it up and panned it toward the window. The audience gasped and applauded. It worked.

The promoter knocked on the tube beside her. The door opened up, and the same man stepped out. The audience was perplexed. Now there were two? The promoter began to explain. “Our technology allows you to be in two, or three, or a hundred, places at once. You’ll never have to wonder what’s going on out there in the world again. Every duplicate passes their memories back to the original.”

A hand rose in the audience. The promoter jumped at the chance to connect.

“Yes?” she asked with a smile.

The woman from the audience had to shout to be heard above the excitement in the hall. “Is the process dangerous? What would happen if the doubles decided they wanted to—,” she hesitated, searching for the right phrase. “Come home?” she finished.

The promoter laughed. “Not a problem. Our system has built in fail-safes. Each duplicate can only operate within a limited range of the transporter that it came out of. We’ve made sure to space them far enough apart from one another that no duplicates will ever come into contact with an original, or another duplicate.”

“Now, let me show you some of the other amazing features of the technology,” the promoter said, bringing her presentation back on track.

“I have another question,” said another voice from the back. “Are you absolutely sure about your answer?”

The promoter’s face went white. She dropped her microphone and took a panicked step back.

Her duplicate was standing in the doorway. 

 

 

 

No. 303

February 6, 2013

The man washed ashore with the high tide. He crawled a short ways out of the water before he collapsed.

 

It was dark when he woke up. He coughed, spraying sand from his mouth. Rolling to a seated position, he tried to see where he was. In the moonlight, he could only make out a line of palm trees beyond the shoreline, bordering the edge of a black jungle.

The man was alarmed to realize that he couldn’t remember how he’d arrived at this place, or even his own name. A wave of terror gripped him.  He instinctively curled into a ball and worked his way into the sand.

Morning took a very long time to arrive.

 

Dawn brought a new visitor. A large lizard, about the size of a cat, had evidently sensed the castaway and had made its way down the beach toward the man. The reptile was about to take an exploratory bite of the sleeping human when a rock hit it in the head, ricocheting off the scavenger, and striking the man in the chest, as well.

The lizard scurried away, and the man woke up with a jolt. He squinted in the bright sunshine. There was another person on the beach. It took a moment for the man’s eyes to focus.

“You’re safe now,” said the naked woman who knelt down beside him. “I’m Wendy,” she told him matter-of-factly.

The man was elated for the company. He was still very confused, but perhaps she could help him. “What happened to me? Where am I?”

Wendy’s head tilted slightly. “You don’t remember?”

“No,” said the man. “Nothing.”

“I saw your boat,” she explained. “I was thrilled. Finally, a chance to leave! But, during the storm, it hit the reef,” she explained. “I didn’t see anybody make it off.”

“Except, I guess, you,” she concluded.

The man lay back down. “Nobody else?”

Wendy answered his question with her silence.

“Was there anybody else?” asked the man.

“I don’t know,” she told him.

“What did you mean, ‘finally, a chance to leave’?” the man asked. “And where are your clothes?”

“Oh, you noticed,” Wendy laughed. Then she sighed. “You’re on an island. It’s remote. I was shipwrecked here a little over two years ago. Your boat was the first sign of humanity I’ve seen, since.”

The man felt like he’d been punched in the gut. “Two years?”

She nodded.

“Come on,” she told him, changing the subject. “We’d better get back to my camp. That lizard will be the least of our worries if we don’t return in time.” She took his hand, and began to lead him into the forest.

He took one last look at the empty beach before following her toward the center of the island.

“I don’t even know my name,” he confided to her as they began down the path.

She didn’t turn around or slow down, but he could hear a wry smile in her voice. “Then I’ll have to call you Peter, for now.”

 

 

 

No. 304

February 7, 2013

Buzz had been in the soup for 20 minutes, and his no-good friend, Randy, wasn’t doing anything about it.

“Settle down,” Randy told him. “The waiter will pick you out after you’ve been served. I’m not getting anywhere near that stuff. Ugh. Tomato.”

“I hate you, Randy,” said Buzz. “I really do.”

“Nonsense, it’ll be fun. Think of the stories you could tell around the carcass. You’re in no danger of drowning. You’re just embarrassed right now.”

“You pull me out right now, or I’ll tell everyone about the time you got too close to the flypaper.”

 

Randy had no choice but to comply.

The meal was eaten without the hilarious cliché.

 

 

 

No. 305

February 8, 2013

The rain was especially heavy that year. I remember, because our backyard turned into a swamp. To a child, the only thing better than a cardboard box is, of course, a swamp.

I was able to enjoy that mud for all of fifteen minutes.

Marcus Hamilton fell on me and I broke my arm. After the accident, I worried that I would have to spend the rest of the summer in the house, watching the other kids have fun outside without me.

But my mom bought me a telescope and, on the clear nights, I learned how to find the North Star.

 

You know, I never did send a thank-you card to Marcus.

 

 

 

No. 306

February 9, 2013

Miranda floated on her back in the calm, warm ocean. She watched the contrails of jets passing far overheard. Slowly, she exhaled, and slipped beneath the water.

 She was suspended, all of her senses tuned to the sensation of the waves. She stayed under until her breath ran out.

Then, with a lazy paddle of her hands, she returned to the surface. Tomorrow, she was moving away. Today, she here and she would enjoy every minute of it.

 

 

 

No. 307

Frank and Molly Part 3

February 10, 2013

Frank looked at her strangely. “But you said—.”

“I said ‘you needed me’,” Molly interrupted him. “I said ‘you brought me here’.”

She drew in her breath sharply, like a disappointed teacher. “But I suppose that it would be your nature to assume that the reasons that you need me are only your own.”

Frank took in the mysterious new island, his beached ship, and the seemingly insane girl sitting in front of him. “I really don’t understand.”

Molly played with a stray curl of her hair, thinking something through. Then, apparently having made a decision, she stood and crossed the small camp to sit next to Frank.

Frank felt more alive than during any time that he could remember.  He didn’t say anything, trying not to break the spell he was under.

She put her hand on his shoulder. His eyes widened.

“Frank,” she said softly. “When was the last time you thought about dying? Be honest.”

He remembered the moment instantly. “Before I named you,” he said in a whisper.

“So, do you see? We both got what we needed,” she told him, with one finger pointed at the middle of his chest. “And how is that all about you?”

 

Frank and Molly sat next to each other, not speaking, for a long time. The embers of the fire turned red, and then black. Eventually, the first rays of the sun appeared over the long horizon of the ocean.

“It’s morning,” said Frank.

Molly smiled and nodded. Frank watched her, trying to commit her face to memory.

“I won’t see you again, will I?” he asked, the answer already clear.

She shook her head.

“Goodbye, Frank.”

He stood, and brushed himself off, ready to return to his boat. He wanted with all of his heart to hug her, but the gesture seemed so small compared to what she had done. Instead, he told her.

“Goodbye, Molly.”

 

Frank Benson leaned against the railing at the bow of his ship. He watched the waves pass by as the vessel made for port.

He was ready to begin his new life.

 

 

 

No. 308

February 11, 2013

The phone rang at 3:34am. Sean’s deep sleep shattered. He felt all the blood in his body turn cold. Rolling over, he answered immediately, bypassing a glance at the display.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” said his sister. Sean could hear fear in her voice. “Are you ok?” she asked without a pause.

Sean felt the tightness in his body lessen slightly. She would have led with really bad news.  “I’m fine, Dana. I’m ok,” he reassured her. “Why are you calling?”

The line buzzed quietly for a moment before she responded.

“I had a bad feeling about something,” she told him eventually. “I just felt—,” she trailed off. “I can’t explain it.”

“Everything’s alright, Sis,” Sean told her.

“I’m sorry I called so late,” she said. “Sorry I woke you up.”

“No, you can always call. Anytime.”

“Goodnight, Sean,” she said, softly. He could tell she was embarrassed.

“’Night,” he told her. “Love you.”

“You too,” she said. Then she hung up.

 

Sean put the phone back on his nightstand and sat up. The shot of adrenaline from the unexpected call would make getting back to sleep difficult. He put on his robe and went downstairs to watch TV for awhile.

He made himself a snack and settled in front of the glowing screen. The news was on. Before he had a chance to change the channel, the picture changed. Sean saw a house, surrounded by crime-scene tape. As the cameras rolled, a police officer walked up the front steps.

The instant before the officer raised his hand to knock, Sean recognized the house.

 

The sound still scared him.

 

 

 

No. 309

February 12, 2013

The absurd quality of a water-balloon fight in the rain did not cross Corey’s mind as he made his move on the strategically significant field-house building. The washrooms inside would provide the means to continue the battle indefinitely.

As he drew nearer to his objective, Corey saw movement in the trees to his left. There was a shout as his opponents saw him, as well. Corey broke into a run, leaping over a low hedge and barely clearing the drainage ditch on the other side. If the others reached the faucets before he did, all would be lost.

He almost made it.

“So close,” said Joel, leader of the rival team, as he stepped out of the washroom with a full balloon in each hand and a plastic pistol tucked into his belt.

Corey skidded to a halt, trapped between the two groups. He knew his own allies were close by, on the other side of the park securing the hose by the basketball courts, but not near enough at this moment to even the odds in the standoff.

 

The rain hammered down. All parties stood still, stoic against the downpour.

 

“Put down your weapons,” ordered Joel. Corey had no choice but to obey.

He laid his single filled balloon gently on the concrete ground, then straightened. After hesitating briefly, he dropped a handful of empty balloons from his left pocket, as well.

“And the rest,” Joel told the captive, as he hefted a balloon threateningly.

Corey knelt to surrender the tiny water gun that was stuffed into his sock. If he played his cards right, perhaps they wouldn’t suspect that he had a stash of balloons in his right pocket, too.

On his way down, he glanced at Joel and the other boys who surrounded him. He was trying desperately to think his way out of the trap.

Then, as his fingers closed on the green plastic of his hold-out weapon, the idea came. It was a plan they would never see coming, and it could turn the tide of the war.

Corey drew the gun and, at the same time, started off in a dead sprint, through the downpour, for the door to the girls’ bathroom.

 

 

 

No. 310

February 13, 2013

It was Dr. Leonard Allen who invented the Time Engine in the science lab at Cedar Hills University. The device allowed me, and millions of others, to cheat death.

The system is brilliant. For a price, the Time Engine will calculate the exact moment of your passing, and then allow you to skip it.

It was such a simple concept. Scientists were amazed nobody had figured it out sooner. Dr. Allen became the richest and most influential man on Earth.

But, like most concepts that appear too simple, the Engine has flaws—deep and terrible flaws. We realized that humans are meant to die.

 The signs began to appear in the First Seven. For obvious reasons, the symptoms were kept under the strictest secrecy. Cover stories were put in place, and four of the Seven abruptly dropped out of the public eye.

Then the trial groups began to turn. That, too, was hushed up. It was easy for someone as powerful as Dr. Allen. 

By the time the regular customers began to see the effects, measures were in place to contain the anomalies.

The sickness comes on quickly. Exactly 1463 days after the Skip, the Change begins. It doesn’t happen to everyone, though. That’s what makes it so hard to tackle.

My job, right now, is containment. Although, it’s possible that I’ll be in need of some myself in the very near future.

I Skipped 1459 days ago. 

 

 

 

No. 311

February 14, 2013

Cupid stood in the airport security line, waiting his turn along with everybody else. He placed his bag on the conveyor, and walked through the metal detector.

“Excuse me, sir, could you stand aside?” a security agent asked.

Cupid did as the man instructed. Another agent, the woman who was screening the bags, gave her co-worker some sort of hand signal.

Cupid’s bags were quickly pulled from the flow and put aside onto a metal table.

The woman spoke first. “What’s this?” she said, pulling a heart-tipped arrow from the bag.

“A heart-tipped arrow,” said Cupid.

“Sir, are you aware that arrows are strictly prohibited on flights?” said the man.

“Come on. It’s just a stick with hearts at the end, really,” said Cupid. “It’s relatively harmless.”

“The government doesn’t think so,” said the woman.

“They do not,” agreed the man.

Cupid sighed. “Every year,” he muttered under his breath.

“What was that, sir?” asked the man.

Cupid didn’t reply. He checked his watch. “I’m pretty busy,” he told the agents. “Am I going to miss my flight?”

“Sir—“ started the man, but he didn’t have a chance to finish. 

Cupid leapt over the table, removing two more arrows from his bag at the same time. With both in-hand, he threw one at the woman, and stabbed the man with the other.

Cupid stood back and admired his handiwork. The rest of people in line drew back, away from the confusing scene. “Don’t worry,” Cupid assured them. “None of you are going to remember this.”

Retrieving the arrows from the impaled pair, Cupid stowed them back in his suitcase and made for his boarding gate.

“Every year,” he said to himself again, shaking his head.

 

The two agents revived quickly. Blinking hard, they stared at each other.

“What just happened?” said the woman.

“I’m not sure,” said the man. “But, hey, do you want to grab a coffee later, or something?”

 

 

 

No. 312

February 20, 2013

Carlisle, the flying frog, lived briefly on the screen.

He was killed by the backspace button.

 

 

 

No. 313

February 21, 2013

Long the domain of surgeons, human enhancements had been taken over by technicians, and had entered the mind. Now it was possible to update one’s personality as simply as changing one’s appearance.

Plastic personas were the future.

 

May 1, 20—

He’d saved secretly for months.

Usually shy and retiring, L— clicked the link and watched the program begin to download. When the computer displayed the appropriate screen, L— put on the neural helmet and prepared himself for the upgrade.

His body tensed for a moment, and then relaxed. L— had reflexively closed his eyes during the data transfer, and when he opened them he was a little surprised to see that nothing had changed. He certainly felt stronger.

 

His mother, S—, noticed immediately. L— moved differently when he came down the stairs for dinner. S—dropped the plate she’d been washing and it smashed on the floor. “Why?” was all she could manage.

L—didn’t have time for his mother’s protests. He barely spared her a glance as he stalked out the front door. 

S—sank to the ground, surrounded by the pieces of the broken plate, and cried softly.

 

 

 

No. 314

February 22, 2013

The sun blazed down on Chloe as she lay on her back on the trampoline in the backyard.

She heard her brother busying himself somewhere over by the house. She didn’t pay attention to what he was doing, and continued to read her book. She was starting chapter seven, and it was a good one.

Seven became eight, and the heroine was just about to find the treasure when Chloe was horribly surprised by a splash of cold water.

“What are you doing?” she screamed at her brother.

He laughed, and dashed for the tree in the corner of the yard. If he could make it to his fort, he would have ways to repel any assault. “You said you were hot,” he cackled as he shimmied up the ladder.

Chloe stood, fuming with anger. She looked at her soaked book, and threw it onto the grass near the deck. She watched her brother watching her from the window of his fort. She knew she had no way to get him back right away for what he’d just done.

She took a step toward the edge of the trampoline, bouncing slightly as she did. An idea occurred to her. She looked back at her brother. Then she bent her knees and began to jump. Slowly, at first, but she built the momentum quickly. In no time, she was bounding as high as she could go.

Nobody could resist for long. After only a few minutes, her brother had been lured down from his hideout and was creeping slowly toward the trampoline. Chloe continued her act, pretending that she didn’t notice him. She waited for the perfect moment to strike. As soon as he was in range, she leapt off the trampoline and hit him with a flying tackle.

“Ow!” he said.

“I win,” she told him as she dusted herself off.

“Ok, but can I jump now?” he asked, scrambling to his feet.

It was Chloe’s turn to laugh. She pushed him back down, and ran for the trampoline. “Nope, it’s still my turn!”

 

 

 

No. 315

February 23, 2013

Turret duty on a MacLehose class freighter was boring to begin with. Turret duty through Pacified Space was even more so. Nobody was ever attacked out here.

Junior Petty Officer Patten sat back in the harness and watched black nothing pass by in front of his gun barrels. He sighed. Only seven and a half more hours to go on this watch. He daydreamed of a good, old-fashioned void-pirate attack.

Of course, the pirates had been wiped out decades ago. Their flagship, the Betsy, had been destroyed off of Lamma IV. The memories were still fresh enough, however, that every transport ship in the fleet was still required to be armed. The MV Matthew Nathan had the bare minimum, the one that Patten was stuck in. He wondered idly if the guns had ever even been fired.

Lining up the sights on a distant star, he mimed blowing his target out of space. “Kaboom,” he said, amusing himself slightly. He tracked the guns toward another point of light. “Pow,” he murmured as he destroyed that imaginary threat, too. He was aiming a third phantom volley when the ship’s hourly chime sounded.

The noise startled Patten and his finger tightened reflexively on the trigger. A blast of searingly bright blue light flashed from the cannons, lancing into the darkness.

“Oh no,” whispered Patten. The captain would not take an accidental weapon’s discharge lightly.

Patten began to desperately think of an excuse. He watched the laser beams continue on their path. They’d go forever unless they hit something. He hoped they wouldn’t hit something.

Then they did.

Patten saw two fiery flashes as the deadly bolts intersected with a ship.

But that was strange. There had been no ship there a second ago. The vessel had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. That wasn’t possible.

Unless.

Something tickled at the back of Patten’s brain. What was it called?

A cloaking shield, he remembered. It was the favorite tool of the void-pirates. 

Patten quickly dialed up the image-enhancers to their maximum magnification. The ship he’d shot at came into focus. It was turning toward the Nathan. Patten could just make out a name painted on the hull.

Betsy II.

“Oh no,” he said again. He checked the power on his guns and radioed the captain. “Bridge, this is Turret. We have incoming.”

 

 

 

No. 316

February 24, 2013

Wes Conrad was walking down the street when he heard a strange conversation. Two disheveled hobos were standing on the corner, seemingly talking about another vagrant.

 

“Well. That’s it. It’s the third today. Richard is out,” said one. 

“Aw man. I always kinda thought that’d be it,” replied the other.

“Really? You had the second? Are you out, too?”

“No. I hedged my bets. I’ve got Carl, November 30, 2019.”

“Long ways off.”

“Yeah, but it pays out at 19 to one.”

“That’s a lot of money. But why does your sign say ‘near’? 2019 isn’t near at all.”

“Oh, that. You gotta give the people what they want, you know? Helps with the tips.”

 

Wes shook his head as he went past the men. The doomsday prophets are running a pool, now?

 

 

 

No. 317

The Good Dog Part 4

February 25, 2013

I’ve got a stick! I’ve got a stick! It’s my stick! It’s not your stick! I’ve got a stick! Do you see my stick? Look at my stick! Oh my gosh—a stick! It’s mine! I’ve got it! It’s a stick! See my stick? Do you see it? It’s mine! It’s my stick!

Here’s my stick!

Throw my stick! Will you throw it? Will you throw my stick? Throw the stick! Throw it! Throw the stick! That stick—that one! Throw that stick!

 

 

 

No. 318

February 26, 2013

Rick Elway began to make a list of his New Year’s resolutions. He made two orderly columns, and numbered the rows one through ten. He began filling in the spots immediately.

 

1.       I will refrain from throwing out the entire bowl of cereal after some gets soggy.

2.       I will stop referring to area south of Portland Street as “That part of town—you know”.

3.       I will feed my own iguana

4.       I will count all my golf shots. Even the “practice” ones.

5.       I will no longer answer the phone “Hey, loser” if the person is a loser.

6.       I will drive the speed limit.

7.       I will stop underlining parts of library books that I don’t agree with.

8.       I will limit karaoke nights to Fridays and Saturdays only. And Tuesdays.

9.        

10.    

 

Most of the resolutions came easily. However, Rick was two short. He studied the incomplete list intently, wracking is brain for flaws. He spent at least five minutes trying to fill out the last spaces.

With no ideas forthcoming, he put down his pen. Who was he kidding? He balled up the list and threw it in the bin.

There was no point trying to improve on perfection.

 

 

 

No. 319

February 27, 2013

The Easter Bunny checked his watch. He had 3 hours left on his shift, and he still had no idea what he was doing.

He scrounged around beneath the little girl’s pillow, feeling for the tooth he’d been told was going to be under it. After several minutes and no luck, he checked the form again.

“Is that a—,” he mumbled, squinting at the paper. “Yup. That’s a nine. Great. Awesome.”

He crept outside the house to confirm his mistake. The numbers here were clear. He was at 2671 Landers Street. He’d misread the 7.

He checked his watch again, and hopped down the road toward the right address. Only 15 more stops to make tonight.

 

The Bunny’s day had started poorly. He been roused by his ringing phone far earlier than he’d planned to rise on his day off. The voice on the other end had been exceedingly friendly.

“Hey, I’m really sorry to wake you up, but the Tooth Fairy’s called in sick. Is there any chance at all you could come in?”

Before Bunny had a chance to respond, the caller guessed what his next question was going to be and cut in quickly. “We’ve already tried Leprechaun and Cupid.”

Bunny groaned. “Yeah. I’ll be in. Give me half an hour.” He pulled himself out from under the covers and stumbled toward the shower. He’d make sure they covered his coffee. He was going to get an expensive one, with all the toppings.

 

 

 

No. 320A

March 2, 2013

“Is that a rat?” were the first words out of my mouth.

“No, ma’am. Possum,” said the disheveled man on my porch.

It was the strangest sight I’d ever seen. “Does he bite?” I asked.

The man shrugged. “Sometimes.”

I was silent for a moment, trying to process the situation. He’d knocked on the door and I hadn’t looked before opening it. That wasn’t like me at all. Now there was some sort of hobo holding a possum standing in front of me.

He looked at me, and I looked at him. Finally, I managed to find something else to say. “Can I help you?”

The man nodded, and removed a tattered ball cap while he spoke. “My name’s Michael. This is Nelson. I was wondering if I could trouble you for a bowl of water. It’s terribly hot out here, and Nelson gets thirsty.”

I watched carefully for any sign of deception. Michael waited quietly while I considered his request. I heard the same part of me that asked if he needed help say something else.

“I don’t see why not. Why don’t you come on in?”

“And Nelson, ma’am?” he asked.

“Of course, Nelson,” my other-self agreed. This was not like me at all.

I went to the kitchen and brought a dish down from the cupboard. I filled it and carried it out to the living room. “There you go,” I told the animal as I set the bowl on the floor. It seemed appreciative, and drank quickly. I turned back to its companion.

“Michael,” I said.

He seemed to understand that I had questions.

“We’ve been travelling.”

Michael told me his story while Nelson finished the water. When the possum was done, it crawled back to Michael’s lap. The man smiled, stood, and thanked me.

They left very soon after.

I stood behind the screen and watched them go down the road.

To this day, I can’t remember where he said they were going next.

 

 

 

No. 320B

March 2, 2013

“The blue lamp went out abruptly.

“I’ve got it,” said Sarah, rising from the armchair in the corner of the room. She walked to the hall closet and began to rummage through the odds and ends that covered the top shelf.

“Do we have any more bulbs?” she asked her roommate Andrea.

Andrea yawned and looked up from her computer. “Did you look under the sink? As far as I know, if we have any, they’re there.”

Sarah redirected her search to the washroom. “Nope,” she confirmed after a brief survey.

“That was my best guess,” said Andrea. “You can take the one from the light in my bedroom. I never use that thing, anyway.”

“What time is it?” asked Sarah.

Andrea checked. “Just after seven.”

Sarah nodded and returned to the closet. She put on her coat and picked up her keys from a dish by the front door. “I might as well go to the store. Do you need anything?”

“Don’t think so. You could bring back some cookies if you’re feeling adventurous.”

Sarah left.

Andrea became aware of the rain hammering the window. She didn’t think anything of it for several minutes.

When she realized, she set her computer aside and crossed the empty apartment. Opening the bathroom cupboard door, the first thing she saw was a box of light bulbs.

 

When a soaking-wet Sarah returned home, she found Andrea waiting for her on the couch. “Did you get the cookies?” Andrea asked pointedly.

Sarah held up a bag. “Right here.”

“And the lights?”

“Uh huh.”

Andrea watched Sarah for some kind of reaction. Seeing none, she took a deep breath. “Good,” she said, deciding not to press the issue. “Good. Good.”

Andrea returned to her computer and Sarah fixed the lamp and went back to her book.

The rain continued to fall.

 

 

 

No. 321

March 3, 2013

It was in the back row, halfway through ECON 340, where Aaron Andrew Alison made his discovery.

While the professor droned on about some European financial crisis, Aaron was been busy drawing aimlessly in his notebook. He had just finished a detailed study of a UFO when the inked craft began to move across the paper on its own accord.

Aaron, seeing the motion immediately, first suspected that he might have accidentally chosen the desk with the wobbly leg. When the table proved solid, he turned his attention back to the paper.

The ship was now floating just above the surface of the page and, in seconds, had risen to the level of Aaron’s nose.  He tried to swat it back down.

The professor saw Aaron’s erratic gestures from the front of the room. “Is there a problem, Mr. Alison?”

Aaron kept his eye on the renegade doodle. “No, sir. I just had a sneeze die on me, that’s all.”

The answer seemed sufficient to deflect the unwanted attention. Meanwhile, Aaron had noticed something else about the strange vessel. He’d added small windows to the picture, and now, through one of them, he thought he could make out the pilot.

It seemed that the creature noticed Aaron, as well. A tiny hand appeared in the porthole and waved casually at its creator.

The UFO dove back toward the paper on the desk, re-entering the pages like a submarine sinking beneath the surface of the water. Aaron flipped rapidly through his notebook, trying to locate the missing saucer.

He couldn’t find it and, more alarmingly, he could see that all of his other drawings were coming to life, as well.

 

 

 

No. 322

CYOA2 Part 1

March 4, 2013

Snow had been falling when Lt. Rob Martin had departed for Hawaii, but his trip was no vacation. While the jet jostled up and down from turbulence, Martin kept one foot on the bag beneath his feet at all times. The part inside was needed for a top secret project.

Upon arriving in Honolulu, Lt. Martin’s orders were to board a one-way flight to a classified location. It was sure to be one-way because, where he was going next, there was no place to land the plane. The pilot was to ditch the aircraft in the sea and Martin was told that they would then be “recovered”. The word did not fill him with confidence.

Martin was now one of the four people not at the site who were cleared into the program. Only Martin’s boss, the President, and a shadowy third party knew all the details of the scheme. Martin had been told yesterday, and he still couldn’t believe that what he had heard was true.

He was being sent to Point Nemo, the location in the Pacific Ocean that was farthest from land. There, under water, an experiment was underway that depended on the equipment that Martin was bringing with him. The outcome of the experiment could change the world.

 

 

 

No. 323

March 4, 2013

Lily caught the tiger’s tail and it turned around to bite her.

Upon seeing the small, frightened girl, the tiger relaxed. “Little girl,” it said. “Do you know where you are?”

“No,” said Lily, her lips quivering with sadness. “I’m lost.”

“You’re in the jungle, where few people go. How did you get here?” it asked her.

“I took the road,” she said. “It was very long, and I’m very tired. Do you know of a place to sleep?”

“Only my den,” the tiger told her. “And that’s for me. You’ll have to find your own bed for the night.”

“I understand,” said Lily. “I wish I knew the way home.”

The tiger sat back on its haunches and considered her statement. The tiger’s home was all around him. It did not have one place called home.

“I don’t know if I can help you, but if you climb on my back we could search together,” the cat told the child.

 

The pair walked for days and days. Sometimes Lily rode on the tiger’s broad shoulders, and sometimes she walked beside the stately animal.

It was early in the morning when they reached the edge of the forest.

“I can take you no farther,” said the tiger. “Your home is that way, and I cannot leave mine.”

Lily nodded and hugged the great beast. “Thank you, tiger. Perhaps one day we’ll meet again.”

“Maybe,” answered the tiger. But the tiger knew that it was not to be. Little girls can only meet a tiger once.

“Goodbye, Lily,” said the tiger.

 

 

 

No. 324

March 6, 2013

It was cold in the warehouse, and Murphy tried to avoid going in as much as possible. Usually, he was able to leave the onerous task to somebody else, but on weekends he was the only person at the office.

Of course, it wasn’t just the temperature that kept him away. The warehouse scared him. Murphy wasn’t worried about goblins or ghosts, though. He was terrified that something would fall off of one of the shelves and crush his skull.

Tonight, he needed something from bin 17-C. He consulted the numbering chart and discovered that 17-C was the last bin in the last row.  “Awesome,” he said, turning the word into a curse.

Arriving at the warehouse door, he paused a moment, waiting for the lights to come on. One in the back flickered, then stayed off. It was an ominous sign. Murphy took a deep breath and hurried down the aisles to reach his objective. He kept his head down, but cast a wary eye up at the looming racks.

He made it to 17-C without trouble. Still, he felt that the journey had taken too long. He resolved to make the return trip at a much higher rate of speed.

With the desired element in hand, Murphy turned and made a dash back for the glowing safety of the exit door.

At the same moment, the light that had flickered betrayed him, snapping to life to illuminate the entire corner of the building.

The flash and new shadows conspired to dazzle Murphy, and he tripped, launching heavily into a large box on a bottom shelf. The impact destabilized the entire structure, and the carefully stacked inventory began to fall to the floor.

Murphy whimpered, and crawled for cover.

With a loud crash, the last item hit the ground, after which the warehouse became oppressively silent. The only sound Murphy could hear was his own breathing. He was alive! His nightmare had come true, but he’d survived!

Glancing around at the wreckage, he spotted the part from 17-C. Retrieving his prize, he jauntily made his way back to the office.

Murphy completed his work and shut off his computer. He wrote a quick note explaining what had happened in the warehouse and left for home.

 

On Monday morning, he arrived back at work. Most of the staff had already arrived, and he walked to his desk past a gallery of strange looks. As he sat down, his phone rang. It was his boss, calling Murphy to his office.

 

Murphy was promptly fired for recklessly damaging company property. He was instructed to clear out his desk and leave the premises.

He did as he was told, and exited the building for the last time. He threw the cardboard box of his belongings onto the passenger seat of his car and drove off angrily.

He didn’t see the red truck passing as he turned out of the parking lot. It struck his car and the force of the collision catapulted Murphy’s vehicle into a tree, killing him instantly.

 

 

 

No. 325

March 7, 2013

Lex Orbis punched the keys of the calculator with a deliberate precision. Then, turning the device to face the shopkeeper, Orbis crossed his arms and waited.

The shopkeeper considered the number, then shook his head.

Orbis did not move.

The two stared at each other, fully engaged in a battle of wills.

Still, Orbis did not move.

The shopkeeper broke first, entering a new figure into the calculator. He showed it to Orbis.

Accepting with a slight nod, Orbis pulled his wallet from his pocket. After counting out the proper number of bills, he placed them respectfully on the counter.

He collected his prize, and left the store.

The shopkeeper was immediately on the phone. Speaking quickly, he gave instructions to the party on the other end of the line. Only then did he remove the cash from the countertop and put it in the till.

 

Orbis edged his way down the narrow street, mostly going straight, but having to dodge on occasion past traffic proceeding in the opposite direction. He made it perhaps two blocks before being interrupted.

Two large men stepped in front of him to block his path. “We’ll have it,” one said. The other was silent, but brandished a pipe.

Seeing a small bar to his right, Orbis smiled at the two goons. “I’m sure you have time for a drink,” he said with a smile. “Why don’t we step over here,” he continued, gesturing toward the patio of the bar.

His assailants said nothing. Pipe grunted his approval. Talky shrugged.

The group all moved toward the bar. Orbis made it close enough that a waiter asked him if he’d like a seat.

“I would,” he said, reaching out and snatching one up off the ground.

Pipe and Talky had no time to react. Pipe felt the chair hit his face while Talky, distracted by the sudden attack, was felled by a powerful kick.

Orbis placed the chair back in its proper position and thanked the astonished waiter.

 

The bell over the door rang, announcing an entering customer.

The shopkeeper didn’t look up. “We’re closed.”

Orbis crossed the store toward the shopkeeper. He placed his hand on the counter where he’d left the money.

The shopkeeper finally raised his head. His eyes grew wide and the surprised caused him to burst into a fit out coughing.

“Settle down,” said Orbis derisively. “It’s only me.”

The shopkeeper swallowed hard. “What can I do to help you?” he asked, cautiously.

Orbis studied the man for a moment before he answered. Finally, he spoke. “It was the last two hundred, wasn’t it?”

The shopkeeper, knowing the game was up, dropped his chin for “yes”.

Orbis once again found his wallet. He withdrew the amount and tucked it into the shopkeeper’s shirt pocket. “And we won’t be having any more trouble, will we?”

The shopkeeper shook his head vigorously.

“Good,” said Orbis. “That’s what I thought.” He made for the exit but, before leaving the shop, he turned back to the crooked proprietor. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know of a good bar around here, would you?”

 

 

 

No. 326

March 8, 2013

One day a spase Ship Landed on plant nuR.

There was an alien. and The aLein was ataKeKing.

The end.

 

 

 

No. 327

CYOA2 Part 2

March 10, 2013

Martin eyed the other passenger as the small plane sped toward Point Nemo. He watched her lean down and casually adjust the laces of her boot. Martin struggled to understand how she could be concerned about something so trivial. He’d just been flown halfway around the globe on an urgent, secret mission. She seemed as cool and collected as if she was taking a trip to the corner-store.

What was also awkward was that Martin didn’t know how much she knew. He decided to play it safe, and not speak to her at all until they reached their destination.

She was having none of that. “Holly Ridgeway, NASA,” she told him, thrusting out her hand boldly.

“Hi,” said Martin. “Lt. Rob Martin. Good to meet you, Ms. Ridgeway.”

Ridgeway smiled. “You’ve got it, then?” she asked, pointing at the bag Martin had been gripping the entire flight.

“It?” said Martin, weakly deflecting the question.

“The servo,” said Ridgeway. “The one they need at Nemo. You know, you’d think that they’d keep one of two of those on hand in case of emergencies. That was all in my report.”

“Was it?” asked Martin, giving nothing away.

“Oh, yes. It’s my test,” she told him.

The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom. “We’re setting down in one minute. As noted in the pre-flight briefing, we’ll be ditching at sea. Please follow my instructions after we set down, and brace for impact.”

“Here we go,” said Ridgeway with a wink.

Martin clutched his bag even closer, and closed his eyes.

“Brace!” called the pilot.

Then the plane hit the water with a shuddering crash.

 

 

 

No. 328A

CYOA2 Part 3

March 11, 2013

Martin lay in his seat, stunned by the impact. A red haze clouded his vision. Far in the distance, he could hear the pilot speaking, telling him how to escape the fuselage.

Something tugged at his bag. Something in the back of his mind told him to pay attention. His eyes snapped fully open and he saw Ridgeway collecting the precious part. Martin waved his arm at her, trying to drive her away.

“Stop,” he mumbled.

“Relax,” she told him. “You’re tangled in your seatbelt. Give me a second to get you out.”

Martin slumped back, and looked toward the cockpit. The pilot had made his escape from the sinking plane.

“There,” said Ridgeway. “Come with me.”

She grabbed Martin under his arms and hauled him toward the hatch. He made sure he kept a tight grip on the precious part. Water began to flow into the cabin through the open door, and Ridgeway struggled under her heavy burden.

“If you could help at all, Rob, that would be fantastic,” she grunted.

Martin found his legs and shuffled along with her. Suddenly they were both out of the wreck and under a clear, bright blue sky, floating in the cold water of the conspicuously empty South Pacific. Martin felt another hand grab his shirt just behind the neck and he was quickly hauled up into a raft.

The pilot helped Ridgeway aboard, next. And the three sat, waterlogged, in the flimsy boat.

“Everybody alright?” asked the pilot.

Ridgeway and Martin nodded.

“Won’t be long now,” said the airman. “I just need to send the signal.”

With a flourish, he produced a grenade. He pulled the pin and dropped the bomb into the ocean. Seconds later there was a muffled explosion and a geyser of frothy white spray as the sea erupted.

Soon after that, there was another sound. Martin strained to hear it, but couldn’t identify the source. It was a loud hum, or rumble that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The water under the life raft heaved up, and the gentle motion of the waves was replaced by a solid surface.

Propping himself up, Martin peered out over the side of boat. He’d been told about the craft during his briefing, but nothing had prepared him for the sight before his eyes.

Surrounded him on all sides was an enormous metal disc that had risen out of the deep.  A hatch opened up and a woman’s head popped out. “Hello,” she shouted. “Welcome to Nautilus Base. Can I have the password, please?”

 

 

 

No. 328B

CYOA2 Part 3 Alternate

March 11, 2013
Martin lay in his seat, stunned by the impact. A red haze clouded his vision. Far in the distance, he could hear the pilot speaking, telling him how to escape the fuselage.

Something tugged at his bag. Something in the back of his mind told him to pay attention. His eyes snapped fully open and he saw Ridgeway collecting the precious part. Martin waved his arm at her, trying to drive her away.

“Stop,” he mumbled.

That got her attention. Her eyes widened, and she threw a panicked glance toward the cockpit. The pilot had bailed out, into the sea. The plane was empty but for the two passengers.

Seeing they were alone, Ridgeway pulled a gun. “Sorry,” she told Martin, almost sadly. “They’ll assume you died in the wreck.”

She snatched the bag away and pulled the trigger at the same time.

Martin’s last view was of Ridgeway scrambling out of the sinking cabin as water rushed in through the hatch. He felt the ocean reach his feet, and then he died.

 

 

 

No. 329A

CYOA2 Part 4

March 12, 2013

Martin’s mind went blank. He’d been told the password during his briefing, but with the long flight and the crash, he’d somehow forgotten. “I don’t know it,” he whispered to Ridgeway. He began to search his pockets and bag frantically, hoping that he’d written it down somewhere.

Ridgeway put her hand on his arm. “It’s ok,” she said quietly. She turned to the woman at the hatch and called back. “Charybdis.”

The woman nodded, and stepped onto the wet deck. “Are you all ok?” she said as she got closer to the raft. “He seems hurt,” she said, pointing at Martin.

Martin stood up slowly. “I’m fine. Lt. Rob Martin,” he said, introducing himself. “I have a servo that you need.”

The woman shook his hand. “Captain Land,” she said in reply. “And Ridgeway, good to see you again.”

“You, too, Captain,” said Ridgeway.

The pilot was greeted, and the trio were led into the station.

“Come with me,” Land told Ridgeway and Martin. “I’ll show you your quarters, then we can get to work. Lt. Martin, I’ll take the servo, if you like.”

“Work?” asked Martin. His duty, as he was aware of it, had only been to deliver the part.

“Of course,” said Land. “You’re crew. What did you expect?”

Martin felt the hairs rise on the back of neck. His first instinct was to lie to the Captain. “No, never mind. I’ll be ready in half an hour. Sorry, it’s just the shock of the landing and all.”

 

Martin’s quarters turned out to be a small cabin, deep in the bowels of the Nautilus. He had the space to himself, and some time to think. He had the impression that Ridgeway was staying in the same part of the station, but it was difficult to tell. The corridors from the hatch to his current location all looked the same, and he had the distinct impression he had been taken on a route that was designed not to pass any sensitive areas.

Most worryingly, he’d remembered the password he’d been given. It had not been “Charybdis”.

He also found that his door was locked from the outside. It was relatively simple to pick it, though, and soon he was standing in the passageway. He moved slowly down a line of identical doors, pausing at each one and calling Ridgeway’s name softly.

She answered at the fifth. Martin made sure there was nobody else around, then carefully let himself in.

“What’s going on?” he asked harshly.

“I don’t know,” she said, and with enough fear in her voice that he believed her.

“This isn’t right,” he said.

“No,” she agreed. “Something’s wrong.”

 

 

 

No. 329B

CYOA2 Part 4 Alternate

March 12, 2013

Martin was quick to answer, having been told the code before he left Hawaii. “Scylla.”

The pilot gasped, horrified. Ridgeway seemed like she was going to be sick.

The woman at the hatch frowned. “How many of you are there?”

Martin looked at his companions. “Just the three of us,” he called back.

“That’s incorrect,” the woman announced. She disappeared and the hatch slammed shut. Nautilus Base began to sink back beneath the waves. In seconds, the raft was alone on the surface.

“Idiot!” shouted the pilot.

Martin was confused. “What’s going on?”

Ridgeway slumped against the side of the boat. “Nautilus is a massively secret project in the middle of nowhere and you gave them the wrong code.”

“No, I didn’t,” Martin protested. “’Scylla,’ that’s the one.”

“’That’s the one’ is right,” said the pilot darkly. “If there’s only one person. You’ve killed us.”

“That can’t be right,” said Martin. “Get them back. You sound like you know the right one, tell them!”

“Can’t,” said Ridgeway. “They’ll assume they’ve been compromised. The base is probably already on the move.”

“What can we do?” asked Martin.

“We drift,” said the pilot.

 

The supplies on the raft lasted a week, then the hunger set it. After two, the trio was desperate.

On the last day of the third week, Martin awoke from an exhausted sleep to see the pilot standing over him with an oar.  Martin didn’t have the time or strength to raise his arms to defend himself. The paddle hit him squarely between the eyes, killing him instantly.

 

After a month, a passing fishing vessel spotted a lonely lifeboat far from any shipping lanes. As it drew closer, the crew could see two passengers.

When the survivors were plucked from the ocean, the rescuing crew noted that they were in excellent health for having been adrift for so long.

 

 

 

No. 330A

CYOA2 Part 5

March 13, 2013

“I don’t think it will do us any good to try to escape,” said Martin. “Not right now, anyway.”

“I agree,” said Ridgeway. “But do we just sit and wait?”

 Martin quietly considered the plan before he spoke. “They may still need us. I’ve delivered their equipment, but I’m not sure if I would have been told about the experiment in as much detail as I was if they were just going to detain me. And you, It’s your experiment.”

“Unless Land’s gone rogue,” Ridgeway suggested. “Did you see how she looked at us when we arrived? I’m not certain they were expecting us, even if they needed the servo.”

“We need more information,” Martin concluded. “I’m going to go back to my cabin. It won’t do for them to know we can meet. If they threaten us in any way, we’ll make a move. Until then, we play cool.”

“’Cool’,” said Ridgeway with a nod. “Got it.”

 

Land returned after the promised thirty minutes. With her was a short, dirty looking man. “This is Albert Hodge,” Land introduced. “He’ll be your liaison with the science team. But, for the moment, would you two like to join me on the bridge?”

Martin and Ridgeway said yes and were soon led to the control center of the Nautilus.

 

“Amazing,” gasped Ridgeway. Martin, too, was impressed. At the center of the bridge was a giant holographic schematic of Nautilus Base. The scale was stunning. Near as Martin could tell, a jumbo jet could land on the top deck with room to spare. And there appeared to be seven such decks.

“Is that the core?” Ridgeway asked, pointing at a void at the center of the station.

“Indeed it is,” said Land with a smile. “Hodge will show you around there after dinner.”

Something clicked in Martin’s brain. “You didn’t need the part, did you?”

Land laughed. “Of course not, we’re completely self-sufficient. But we didn’t have you, and you’re a hard thing to find.”

Hodge began to laugh as well, a joyless, grating sound.

 

 

 

No. 330B

CYOA2 Part 5 Alternate

March 13, 2013

“I think we need to escape,” said Martin.

“Escape to where?” Ridgeway asked. “You saw what we passed over on the flight here. There’s nothing out there.”

“They’ve got to have a way to get around. Boats, or escape pods, or maybe even a seaplane hanger. This base is enormous. We just need to find something,” Martin said with more courage than he felt.

Ridgeway quietly considered the plan, sparse as it was. “I suppose, at least, a walk around couldn’t hurt.”

They left the cabin and crept back up the passageway the way they’d been brought. Martin took the lead. Coming to a blind corner, he paused and motioned Ridgeway to retreat to a discrete distance. Then he poked his head around.

It was the exact wrong moment. Captain Land was coming down the hall toward him and noticed the surreptitious movement.

“Halt!” she shouted. “Guards!”

Ridgeway, who’d been behind, managed to escape capture, but Martin wasn’t so lucky.

 

“So you want to leave our installation?” Land asked him before she had him shoved into the tube. “We can certainly accommodate that.”

A large cover was lowered into place, and Martin could hear screws being tightened. It had a tiny porthole in it, through which he could still see the Captain.

Martin watched as Land pointed to somebody. He didn’t know it was a technician who pulled a lever to open the tube to the deep.

Martin was ejected through a torpedo door. Nautilus Base was currently keeping station far below the surface, and the pressure of the water crushed the lieutenant immediately.

Inside, Land was furious. “That’s one,” she screamed at her minions. “Now find the other!”

 

 

 

No. 331A

CYOA2 Part 6

March 14, 2013

“That was an excellent meal,” said Martin. He wasn’t lying. Captain Land had prepared a feast for her guests although, throughout the dinner, she’d been elusive when questioned. Martin would have liked to have found out why she needed him, specifically. He resolved to uncover the answer.

“It was, wasn’t it?” Captain Land agreed. “We have an excellent support staff on board. They’ve been poached from the best hotels all over the world.”

Hodge and Ridgeway were having their own discussion at the table. Martin heard the words “energy” and “isolated” but couldn’t make out the rest. Turning back to Land, he asked her point-blank about his situation.

“Why me?”

Land swirled her wine glass and said nothing.

“Why do you need me?” Martin insisted.

The Captain leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. She sighed deeply and then replied. “You’re going to find out eventually, I suppose.” She waited a little longer before finally getting to the point. “We need you to calibrate the machine.”

Ridgeway and Hodge’s conversation stopped abruptly and everyone turned to stare at Martin.

“I don’t know how to do that,” said Martin. “I’m really just a delivery man.”

Land smiled. “Why do you think they told the delivery man about the entire project?” she asked him. “I should be clearer. You’re the calibration. Perhaps Mr. Hodge can explain it better.”

Hodge fixed Martin in an uncomfortable gaze.

Martin shifted in his seat.

Ridgeway’s eyes were wide, but she stayed silent.

“You’re the first one,” said Hodge. “We tried this experiment twenty-seven years ago. You were the result. Our technology then was primitive, and we didn’t know much about the time-barrier. You came through and the lab went up. Took the city with it.”

Martin swallowed hard. “A city exploded? It seems like people would remember that. You’re crazy.”

“Of course they do,” said Land. “Everybody does.”

“Chernobyl,” Ridgeway whispered. “That was us,” she said, realizing.

“That’s right,” said Land. “This time we’ve decided to conduct our business without as many neighbors.”

Martin spoke up. “But what do you mean ‘I came through’?”

“You got the briefing,” said Land. “You know what we’re doing.”

“I’m from the future?”

Land nodded. “You were a baby, then.”

“And now?”

“Now, after all this time, we’re ready to turn on the machine again,” confirmed the Captain. “Finish your dessert. Then we’ll head down to the core.”

 

 

 

No. 331B

CYOA2 Part 6 Alternate

March 14, 2013

“That really was an excellent meal,” said Martin. He wasn’t lying. Captain Land had prepared a feast for her guests although, throughout the dinner, she’d been elusive when questioned. Martin would have liked to have found out why she needed him, specifically. He resolved to attempt to get some information from the outside. “Is there any chance I could use your secure comm gear to reach my boss? Let him know I’ve arrive safely, and all that.”

The Captain fidgeted in her chair. She flashed a telling glance at Hodge before she replied. “I’m afraid we can’t have that. All of our long-range connections are down right now.”

Ridgeway interrupted. “What about the emergency beacon? That runs on a separate system from the rest. I’m sure we can send a message that way.”

Hodge pushed back from the table and stood. Land held up her hand with one finger extended. “Wait,” she told her minion.

She rose from her seat, too. “How do you know about the beacon?” she demanded. “I thought you were part of the lab team?”

“It’s the same system as on the Space Station,” replied Ridgeway. “That was my last project.”

Hodge shook his head.

“Too much,” Land agreed. “This is my project,” she told her captives. “I can’t have you interfering.” She sighed, and closed her eyes. “Hodge, deal with them.”

As Martin and Ridgeway were hustled out of the room, Land stayed behind and screamed at them. “Nautilus is mine!” she ranted “I will not allow it to be taken from me!”

 

The pair were locked in a narrow room filled with pipes.

“We’re near the core,” Ridgeway observed. “That’s not good.”

“Why?” asked Martin.

“Because, unless I’m mistaken, those are cooling ducts for the experiment,” said Ridgeway grimly. “I can only guess that Land’s taken over because the experiment is ready to go online. If she activates it, we’ll freeze.”

“How long have we got?”

“It’ll be instantaneous.”

As soon as Ridgeway said the words, a deep rumble filled the space.

“Goodbye,” she told Martin.

Their bodies turned to ice and then shattered.

By turning on the machine, Land had taken the first step towards the end of the world. 

 

 

 

No. 322A

CYOA2 Part 7

March 15, 2013

“Did you know about this?” Martin whispered to Ridgeway.

“Some,” she admitted. “But about the program. Not you.”

Martin raised his voice to address the Captain. “Was I the only one?” he asked.

“No,” said Land. “There were three children. You and another stayed here, and the other one went back before the accident. The little girl who remained died in a car accident when she was seventeen.”

Martin took a moment to process the information. “Why did we end up here?” he said. “Why us?”

Hodge answered. “We don’t know. Like I said, we didn’t know much about the barrier. The machine was on for a total of five minutes. We sent one man through, and the three children arrived on our side.”

“What happened to your man?” asked Ridgeway.

Land shook her head.

“Then we had an energy spike,” continued Hodge. “And the machine destroyed itself.”

One more thing occurred to Martin. “How far into the future am I from?”

“We don’t know,” said Land. “But if you let us, we can try to find out.”

Martin and Ridgeway exchanged glances.

“Alright,” said Martin. “Take me to the core.”

 

The team passed through an entire array of security zones. Martin observed Land using a number pad, her fingerprints, a pass-card, an iris scan, and, lastly, a key from a chain around her neck to reach the inner bay of the core.

They stepped onto a platform that hung over a vast empty space. The walls were smooth and white, and there was nothing to indicate scale. Martin got dizzy looking at it.

“It’ll take a second,” said Land, who seemed unsteady herself. “It happens every time. Hodge?”

“It’s almost two million cubic meters,” the scientist confirmed.

“There’s no machine,” observed Martin when he regained his bearings.

“The machine is built around the Core,” said Ridgeway. “The control room, if I recall correctly, should be directly below us.”

Hodge held out his hand to show the way. “Down here.”

They followed his direction and arrived in the nerve center of Nautilus Base. The room was filled with computer screens, but there was no sign of human activity at the moment.

“Where is the crew?” asked Ridgeway.

“They’ve been kept in the dark about the next step,” said Land. “The fewer people who know about Lt. Martin, the better.”

“I feel safer already,” said Martin, with his eyes locked on a metal chair in the corner of the lab. It was set on a raised platform, and there were white ceramic shackles on the arms and legs.  “That’s where the calibration happens, I’m guessing,” he said, pointing with his chin.

“It’s perfectly painless,” said Hodge.

“Think of an ultrasound,” said Land.

“Would you, please?” asked Hodge, indicating toward the chair.

“Alright,” said Martin. “Here goes nothing.”

He sat down, and Hodge drew closer to latch the restraints closed.

“No,” Martin interrupted. “If you don’t mind, Ridgeway, I’d like you to strap me in.”

Ridgeway laughed nervously, but performed the task. “All good?” she asked when she was finished.

Martin wriggled his hands and feet against the straps. “All good.”

“This is just the first part of the experiment,” said Land. “Nothing will happen in the core, and we won’t run the machine. We’re just going to get some readouts on the screen here.”

Martin realized, suddenly, that even though he was here, confined to a chair in the heart of a top secret lab that was floating as far from land as somebody could get, he didn’t have any more questions. He began to feel a measure of excitement, even.

“Let’s go,” he told the others.

Hodge pressed a button. For almost a second, nothing happened. Then a high-pitched whine began, coming from something hidden behind the bank of computers.

“Shut it down!” said Land urgently. “Cut the power!”

 

 

 

No. 322B

CYOA2 Part 7 Alternate

March 15, 2013

“No,” said Martin. “What you’re saying is insane.” He stood up and slammed his fist down on the table. “I want proof. Right now.”

“Calm down,” whispered Ridgeway.

Martin turned on her. “Did you know about this the whole time? Are you some kind of babysitter they sent along?”

“Hold on,” said Land. “Relax. I know this comes as a shock.”

“You!” Martin shouted, his attention now focused on the Nautilus crew. “You, Captain, and Hodge. What kind of sick experiments are you running here?”

He lunged at Land, but his foot caught on his overturned chair.

Ridgeway watched in horror as Martin fell forward. His head struck the corner of the table with a sickening smack and his limp body collapsed to the floor.

Hodge was the first to reach him. “He’s dead,” was the confirmation.

Captain Land put her head in her hands. “Can we still use the body for calibration?”

 

 

 

No. 333A

CYOA2 Part 8

March 19, 2013

Hodge slammed his fist down on the emergency button and all the computers in the lab went dark. The noise continued, though.

“I don’t know what else I can do,” he said through clenched teeth. “Everything should be off.”

 “I’d really like to get out of the chair now,” Martin said quietly.

Land and Ridgeway rushed to unlock the restraints.

“It’s not working,” said Ridgeway, with real fear in her voice. “They’re fused shut.”

From somewhere, out in the Core, an alarm began to sound.

Hodge’s head snapped toward the sound. “Oh no,” he said. “That’s the field-detection alert.”

Every light in the lab went out, plunging the group into complete darkness.

Land was the first to understand. “We’ve jumpstarted the reaction. The experiment’s begun.”

Martin was struggling against the restraints. “Something’s going to happen. I can feel it.”

A blinding flash of energy from the Core strobed through the windows. Everyone in the lab watched the giant space fill with light. The smooth walls intensified the reaction like a lens, and the roiling tendrils of lightning soon congealed into a stable glowing ball, bright with power.

The manacles on Martin’s chair popped open and he slumped to the floor.

“He’s exhausted,” Ridgeway reported from his side. She put her head on his chest. “There’s a strong heartbeat. I think he’s sleeping.”

“Amazing,” whispered Land, who was captivated by the time-barrier.  “It worked. After so long.”

Hodge rushed to reboot the master computer. He studied the read-outs intently. “Levels are holding. The barrier appears to be stable. I don’t know how the reaction started without the proper procedure, though.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Land, distantly. “We’ve got it now.”

“Should we send in the probe?” the swarthy scientist asked.

“Of course,” replied the Captain. “Immediately.”

Hodge punched in the command and a hatch opened in the wall of the Core. A small drone was launched into the barrier. It disappeared into the light without leaving as much as a ripple in the surface.

Data streamed back onto Hodge’s screen. “We’ll know very shortly if we’ve been successful.”

Moments later though, the drone reappeared in the Core. 

“Why did you bring it back?” Land demanded.

Hodge’s face turned a shade of ashen gray. “I didn’t,” he said. “It came out right where we sent it. Five seconds into the future.”

Then another drone emerged.

“What’s happening?” Ridgeway asked.

Hodge began to shake with fear. “That one’s not ours.”

Martin woke up with a start. “I can feel it all over,” he said from what sounded like a long ways away. “The barrier is vibrating. We haven’t got much time.”

 

 

 

No. 333B

CYOA2 Part 8 Alternate

March 19, 2013

Hodge slammed his fist down on the emergency button and all the computers in the lab went dark. The room was eerily silent.

“I’d really like to get out of the chair now,” Martin said quietly.

Land and Ridgeway rushed to unlock the restraints. As soon as Martin was loose, he jumped free and hustled to the far side of the lab.

“What was that all about?” Land asked Hodge.

The swarthy scientist was examining a print-out from a machine close to the chair. “There’s a problem with the data,” he reported.

“How big of a problem?” Land pressed.

“Martin isn’t the key,” Hodge concluded.

“Can that be right?” Land said. There was a touch of disbelief in her voice.

“It is,” said Hodge, peering at the paper. “In fact, according to this, if we use him, it will be more like putting a lock on the process.”

Martin spoke up from the corner. “Hey, guys? I don’t feel too good.”

Ridgeway was at his side immediately. “What’s wrong?”

Martin fell to his knees. “My insides feel all queasy,” he gasped, holding himself tightly around the belly.

From somewhere, out in the Core, an alarm began to sound.

Hodge’s head snapped toward the sound. “Oh no,” he said. “That’s the field-detection alert.”

Every light in the lab went out, plunging the group into complete darkness.

Martin began to scream. “It burns!”

A blinding flash of energy from the Core strobed through the windows. Land and Hodge watched in horror as the shatter-proof glass was shattered and Martin was pulled back toward the light. Ridgeway tried to grab his arm, but she was too slow.

When Martin hit the center of the blazing ball, the reaction suddenly quit, leaving the survivors unable to see, again. But they all heard the impact as the Lieutenant’s body fell to the floor of the Core, far below.

Emergency lights came on, casting a dirty yellow glow. One by one, the computers began to reboot. Hodge started to access the Core’s sensors to find out what had just happened. He soon had his answers.

“We’re finished,” he said. “The time barrier will never open again. We’d configured incorrectly. Martin wasn’t from the future. He was from the past.”

 

 

 

No. 334A

CYOA2 Part 9

March 21, 2013

“What is he talking about?” Land asked Ridgeway and Hodge.

“Not sure,” said Hodge, hurriedly. His attention was focused on the foreign drone that was approaching the lab. “That’s the more immediate threat,” he said, pointing.

Martin grabbed Hodge’s arm. “No. The barrier is. There’s something wrong with it.”

Hodge shook our of Martin’s grip. Keeping one eye on the foreign drone, he punched a command into the computer.  The original drone disappeared back into the barrier. “You’re right,” he whispered to Martin.

“What is it?” Land demanded.

“The information I’m getting back says that the drone’s gone further into the future this time,” said Hodge. “Seventy-five years.” Then his eyes widened. “Wait. Now it says forty minutes. Changing to a year. Now five. Now a month.” He turned to the others. “It’s doesn’t just go to one time.”

As he finished saying the words, the circumference of the time-barrier increased suddenly, engulfing the mysterious drone and penetrating the walls of the lab. Ridgeway, who was standing closest to the windows, disappeared into the portal.

It collapsed in on itself just as quickly, returning to its former state, floating in the middle of the Core.

The three left behind stared blankly at the empty space.

Martin recovered first. “I’m going in,” he said. Before anyone could stop him, he grabbed a pistol from the Captain’s holster, and had leapt off the observation deck into the barrier.

 

He hit the ground hard. Rolling upright, he found himself still in the massive bay. He wasn’t alone though. He was surrounded by a ring of armed troops. All of them had their guns trained on him.

“Get up,” said the leader.

Martin followed the order.  “Where am I?” he asked.

“The same place you left two years ago,” replied a familiar voice. The statement echoed through the Core.

“Hodge?” said Martin, straining to see into the lab. “Did Ridgeway make it here?”

There was a sinister laugh. “She did,” said Hodge. “About six months ago. You’ll meet her again shortly.”

“I need to get her and go back through,” Martin told him. He finally saw the scientist. He began to get a very bad feeling.

The last two years had been unkind to Hodge. Martin saw a large scar running up the man’s face, and one of his hands had been replaced by a crude metal hook. What stood out the most was Captain Land’s hat perched jauntily on Hodge’s head.

“Where’s the Captain?” Martin asked. “She’ll back me up.”

“Oh yes,” said Hodge, scratching his chin with the hook. “The Captain. Well, it seems that soon after the barrier opened, she had an accident. I command the Nautilus now.”

One of the guards nudged Martin with the barrel of a gun. The prisoner was marched back to the cabin he’d been held in when he’d arrived on Nautilus. The journey was much different now, with various parts of the base having been patched and ruined, as if a battle had taken place. Particularly gruesome were a number of man-sized scorch marks in the main passageway. Martin’s cell had seen the door replaced with crudely welded bars. Martin was thrown in, and left by himself.

 

It was three days before he saw anybody again.

Hodge appeared, whistling as he approached.

“Why?” Martin asked when Hodge stepped in front of the bars.

Hodge didn’t answer. Instead, he drew a pair of handcuffs from his belt and motioned for Martin to turn around. Once Martin was shackled, Hodge put his hook through the links on the handcuff chain and pulled the prisoner along with him.

“Where are we going?” Martin demanded.

“You’ll see,” said Hodge.

 

Martin was taken to another control room, one that was on the far side of the Core. Instead of computers, this one had more industrial machines. There were large switches and levers everywhere. Hodge sat Martin down on a bare metal bench.

“Now,” said the villain. “Now you’ll help me with my true experiment.”

“I won’t do anything until I see Ridgeway,” Martin told him defiantly.

“Very well,” said Hodge. “She’s over there.” He pointed with his hook. Ridgeway was indeed there. She was strapped to a chair very much like the one the Martin had been in when the barrier first appeared.

“Why is she in the chair?” asked Martin.

Hodge laughed his devious laugh. “She’s my calibration,” he said with a cackle. “Oh, that’s right. You still think you’re the reason the barrier opened in your time. No, sorry. That was me. Or, it will be in about ten minutes here. It didn’t start early at all. I opened it to the past.”

 “Remember when Land told you about the three people who came through the portal at Chernobyl? How one returned to their time? That was me. You, me, and the girl, we were all ripped from our homes and sent back. Thirty-six hours to be precise. They didn’t know how close the ends were, then.”

“It was only a little more than a day?” asked Martin.

“Correct,” nodded Hodge.

“And Ridgeway helps you how?” Martin pressed.

Hodge grinned. “I’m not going to use myself as a guinea pig, am I? I needed somebody else. Since there were only three people who are up to the task, my other options are clear, aren’t they?”

Martin realized what he was saying. “But she died,” he said. “Land told us the third girl died.”

“And just who do you think told Land?”

“So that whole time you worked on the experiment, you were planning this? To kidnap me and Ridgeway?”

“No,” said Hodge. “I worked here the whole time so that I could rule the world. With a functioning and properly calibrated time-machine, I have ultimate power.”

“I’ll save Ridgeway,” Martin told him, with cold resolve in his eyes. “And I’m going to stop you.”

 

 

 

No. 334B

CYOA2 Part 9 Alternate

March 21, 2013

“What is he talking about?” Land asked Ridgeway and Hodge.

“Not sure,” said Hodge, hurriedly. His attention was focused on the foreign drone that was approaching the lab. “That’s the more immediate threat,” he said, pointing.

The drone was close, now. The whine of its engines could be heard through the thick glass of the observation windows.

“It looks like ours,” said Ridgeway. “Can you stop it?”

Hodge was too busy entering commands into the computer to reply. “Ah ha!” he cried out as a screen changed color from yellow to green.

The drone’s flight path wobbled slightly.

“I think I’ve got it,” said Hodge.

They were his last words. The drone smashed through the window, the computer, and Hodge before burying itself in the bulkhead on the far side of the room. There was no explosion, but deep, black smoke began to billow out of the wreck.

The fire suppression system in the lab kicked in, flooding the chamber with inert gas.

“Come on,” Land ordered. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

Ridgeway gathered Martin to his feet and she and the Captain carried him toward the exit. None of the party noticed that behind them in the Core, without a hand on the controls, the time-barrier was expanding.

The group was just exiting the security zone around the Core when the first blast rocked the Nautilus.

Captain Land turned white. “It’s happening again,” she whispered.

Martin, who had regained his senses, grabbed her arm. “You can sound the evacuation alarm. We may lose the Base, but we’ll live.”

Ridgeway joined him in reassuring Land. “We just need to get to the bridge.”

Another detonation rocked the vessel. This one was bigger than the first.

“We need to hurry, though,” Ridgeway told the Captain. “Martin? Can you get her other arm?”

There was no reply.

“Martin?” Ridgeway repeated.

Hearing nothing, she turned around.

Martin was dead. The last explosion had driven a metal beam straight through his chest.

 

 

 

No. 335A

CYOA2 Part 10

March 22, 2013

A guard approached Hodge with a status report. Martin watched the guard carefully. There was something about the man’s demeanor that made him seem vulnerable. Martin saw Hodge give the guard an order. As the guard turned to leave the room, Martin understood what his captor’s weakness was. Hodge was a scientist, not a soldier. If he’d been commanding the rogue staff of the Nautilus for two years, their training wouldn’t be as efficient as it could be. Martin knew the advantage in a straight fight would be his.

All he needed was a distraction. Hodge seemed like a talker. Maybe that would work. “Do you remember coming through the time-barrier all those years ago?” he asked the scientist.

Hodge turned to face the prisoner. He shrugged. “I was young, then, only nine. One minute I was at home, the next I was in a strange place, like a factory. Somebody with a gun threatened me, and I tried to run, only to stumble back into a giant light. I thought I’d fallen in fire. But, instead, I was home. Unfortunately, it seemed that almost a year had passed. My mother had died in that time, and my father had started drinking.”

  “I see,” said Martin, as he struggled surreptitiously to escape from the handcuffs. “Do you know what happened to the man that was sent from the Chernobyl side?”

“Yes,” said Hodge. “I killed him. He would have been the only other person who knew that we weren’t from the distant future. If he had reported back to the people in charge of the time-barrier, they would have hunted me down and prevented me from achieving this,” he concluded with a grandiose sweep of his hook.

Martin had freed himself from the cuffs and made his move while Hodge was mid-swing. He dove at the smaller man, tackling him to the ground while at the same time trying to avoid the dangerous pointed claw. “Ridgeway,” he shouted. “Hold on.”

Ridgeway shook her arm weakly against her restraints. “No problem,” she said sarcastically.

Hodge was quickly subdued, but before Martin could free Ridgeway, the guard returned. He saw Hodge on the ground and turned his gun immediately toward Martin.

“Freeze,” was the unoriginal command.

Martin slowly raised his hands. At the same time, he was able to take an extra step toward the guard without being noticed.

Ridgeway saw martin move forward and created her own distraction.

“Look out!” she cried from the chair. The guard’s head snapped toward the sound while Martin lunged forward to grab the gun. Once the guard was disarmed, he too was tied up next to Hodge.

Martin released Ridgeway. She gave him a light kiss on the cheek.

“Thanks,” she said.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Martin told her. “We’re still not where we’re supposed to be.”

They turned back to confront Hodge, but he was missing. Martin pointed the gun at the remaining guard. “Which way did he go?”

The guard gave up the information without hesitation. “Toward the bridge. There’s a master-control for the Core that’s been installed there.”

“Can you walk?” Martin asked Ridgeway.

She took the gun off him and cocked it aggressively. “No problem,” she told him. Then she swung the butt of the rifle into the guard’s face, knocking him out. She shrugged at Martin. “They weren’t very nice,” she explained. “Let’s go finish off that maniac.”

 

The bridge was dark and silent when they approached. The giant holograph had been replaced by a hastily installed booth. Great snakes of wires flowed into the base across the previously uncluttered deck.

“I think we found him,” Martin whispered.

Ridgeway pulled the trigger and sent a hail of bullets toward the compartment. The assault seemed to do very little in the way of damage.

“Cover me,” said Martin. “I’m going to get closer.”

He made it to within an arm’s length of the target when the lights came on, catching him mid-stride.

“You’ve made a mistake,” Hodge’s voice mocked over the intercom. “Your friend just shot up the Nautilus’ guidance computer. We had some problems with the old one, so we had to make do with what we had on board. Lack of parts, and all that. I’m sure we could get some more from the mainland with a convincing enough story. But, for now, I think, we’ll be stuck on a course for the ocean bottom.”

“Where is he?” Martin called to Ridgeway.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t see him.”

Martin ran back up to Ridgeway. “We may have already won,” he told her quietly. “There’s no point chasing him all over the base.”

She understood. “If we can escape, he’ll die when the Nautilus implodes at crush-depth. We don’t have to fight him.”

Martin raised his voice again, for the benefit of their unseen observer. “Where are you, Hodge? We’re coming for you.”

A disgusting cackle echoed out of the speakers. “You won’t find me. And I’ve got full control of the barrier. Come on, Lieutenant, do your worst.”

Ridgeway and Martin made a show of leaving the bridge. “Are there escape pods?” he asked her once they were out of range.

“Better,” she told him. “Follow me.”

Together, they ran down the passageways of the sinking base. They began to hear ominous creaks and popping noises as the vessel descended. Luckily, their path didn’t take them near the Core, and so they did not have to deal with the security layers to get to their objective.

“Through here,” Ridgeway told Martin as they arrived at a seemingly nondescript hatch at the end of a corridor. They stepped inside and Martin almost lost his balance when he saw what was on the other side.

The “escape pod” on Nautilus Base was actually a full-sized submarine.

“Can we handle that?” Martin asked, still amazed by the sight.

“Yes,” Ridgeway confirmed. “It’s heavily automated, for emergencies. It only needs a crew of two, but can carry up to fifty people.”

“’Dakkar’,” Martin read the name painted in ornate letters on the side of the sleek boat. “Fits the theme,” he remarked with a grin.

“Stop wasting time,” Ridgeway told him. “Let’s go.”

They clambered up the narrow ladder to the boarding hatch and made their way inside. They strapped in, and initiated the sequence to eject.

They heard the outer doors of the Nautilus open, and water rush in.

Then they were free.

The radio began to crackle, and a familiar voice filled the Dakkar. “You’re getting away,” screamed Hodge. “Cowards! You won’t defeat me! I am the master of time!”

Martin laughed. “For about another minute, Hodge, and then you’ll be crushed.”

Ridgeway was less impressed. “’Master of Time?’” she replied with a smirk. “That’s what you’re going to go with?”

Martin pulled her toward him and shut off the radio. “Come on,” he said. “It’s poor form to taunt the condemned.”

Sure enough, a minute later, Martin and Hodge heard the Nautilus implode, destroying everything still on board.

“Do you think he made it out?” asked Martin. “Or to another time?”

“No,” said Ridgeway. “He wouldn’t be able to control the barrier without one of us to calibrate it. Or,” she said, pausing for effect. “Without this.” She pulled a peculiar-looking circuit board from her waistband. “They only had one on board. Funny, though, I specifically outlined that vulnerability in my initial report on the project.”

 

Three weeks later, Martin and Ridgeway were standing in the Oval Office.

“Thank you for sacrificing two years of your lives to save the world,” said the President as he handed them their medals.

“You’re welcome, Sir,” said Martin. “But I just have one question. Did you know that I came from the future when you sent me on the mission?”

“No, he didn’t,” said a voice from just outside the room. The speaker stepped through the door. “But I did,” he said just as Ridgeway and Martin recognized him. “Nautilus Base was my idea, too,” said another Martin.

“Where did you come from?” the first Martin demanded.

“From thirty-six hours before you were sent back,” answered the doppelganger. “And, by the way, instead of asking pointless questions, why don’t you give Holly a kiss?”

“Good idea,” said Martin, who took his own advice.

 

 

 

No. 335B

CYOA2 Part 10 Alternate

March 22, 2013

A guard approached Hodge with a status report. Martin watched the guard carefully. There was something about the man’s demeanor that made him seem vulnerable. Martin saw Hodge give the guard an order. As the guard turned to leave the room, Martin understood what his captor’s weakness was. Hodge was a scientist, not a soldier. If he’d been commanding the rogue staff of the Nautilus for two years, their training wouldn’t be as efficient as it could be. Martin knew the advantage in a straight fight would be his.

All he needed was a distraction. Hodge seemed like a talker. Maybe that would work. “Do you remember coming through the time-barrier all those years ago?” he asked the scientist.

Hodge turned to face the prisoner. He shrugged. “I was young, then, only nine. One minute I was at home, the next I was in a strange place, like a factory. Somebody with a gun threatened me, and I tried to run, only to stumble back into a giant light. I thought I’d fallen in fire. But, instead, I was home. Unfortunately, it seemed that almost a year had passed. My mother had died in that time, and my father had started drinking.”

  “I see,” said Martin, as he struggled surreptitiously to escape from the handcuffs. “Do you know what happened to the man that was sent from the Chernobyl side?”

“Yes,” said Hodge. “I killed him. He would have been the only other person who knew that we weren’t from the distant future. If he had reported back to the people in charge of the time-barrier, they would have hunted me down and prevented me from achieving this,” he concluded with a grandiose sweep of his hook.

Martin had freed himself from the cuffs and made his move while Hodge was mid-swing. He dove at the smaller man, tackling him to the ground while at the same time trying to avoid the dangerous pointed claw. “Ridgeway,” he shouted. “Hold on.”

Ridgeway shook her arm weakly against her restraints. “No problem,” she said sarcastically.

Hodge was quickly subdued. Martin ran to the door to make sure the guard wasn’t on his way back, then he released Ridgeway. She gave him a light kiss on the cheek.

“Thanks,” she said.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Martin told her. “We’re still not where we’re supposed to be.”

Hodge was screaming at them from the floor. “Cowards! You won’t defeat me! I am the master of time!”

Martin laughed. “You aren’t two years ago. I’m going back, and we’ll make sure you don’t get the chance to get close to the Core again.”

Ridgeway was less impressed. “’Master of Time?’” she said with a smirk. “That’s what you’re going to go with?”

Martin pulled her toward him. “Come on,” he said. “We can taunt him in the past.”

She didn’t disagree, but she gave Hodge a swift kick on the way out. The pair hurried down the stairs toward the shining barrier.

“Are you sure this is the way back?” she asked Martin right before the passed through it.

Martin checked his watch. “He said it would line up with the day we left in ten minutes, ten minutes ago.”

“Okay,” said Ridgeway.

They stepped forward together.

 

They arrived in the past instantly. But there was a problem.

“Where’s the Nautilus?” asked Martin, confused.

Ridgeway surveyed the dense jungle that surrounded them. “I think we’ve gone back too far.”

“How far do you think?”

Ridgeway lowered her voice abruptly before she answered. “All the way back,” she whispered. “Judging from that Tyrannosaurus,” she finished, pointing at the fearsome beast.

The Tyrannosaurus saw the pair and turned to attack.

“I hope ‘Jurassic Park’ was right about staying still,” Martin hissed out of the corner of his mouth.

But “Jurassic Park” was incorrect. The dinosaur closed the distance in no time. Ridgeway was the first to go, swallowed in one swift motion. Martin was less lucky. He felt the Tyrannosaurus’ teeth grip him around the belly and rip him in half. He watched his legs go down the monster’s throat before he bled to death, sixty-five million years before he was born. 

 

 

 

No. 336

March 23, 2013

The fire had jumped across the valley, and now formed an impenetrable wall around all four sides of the stranded group of hikers. Crews were trying desperately to reach them, but were driven away by the heat. The last option was a water-bomber dump directly on the hikers’ position in an attempt to suppress the flames long enough to reach the trapped party.

 

“Base, this is Dragon 768. We are on approach to the target. Confirm release at grid 27?”

“Roger, Dragon. Grid 27.”

Mike Harrison keyed the radio toggle again. “Copy, Base. We’re going in.” He pushed the control column forward and the enormous plane began its run.

The hot air rising off of the fire made for a bumpy ride.

“Wait until I give the call before hitting the release,” Harrison told his co-pilot, Andrew “Ace” Carol. “They don’t have time for us to go back and refill.”

“Gotcha,” said Ace in his usual laid-back manner.

Harrison often remarked that, when Ace wasn’t flying, it was hard to tell if he was alive.    

Ace claimed “energy conservation”, if he defended himself at all.

The aircraft was seconds from releasing its liquid cargo when Ace sounded the alarm. “Fire warning on the number two engine,” he called, simultaneously pulling the extinguisher handle.

Before Harrison had a chance to respond, Ace made another announcement.

“Fire in number one, too.”

“Leave it,” Harrison commanded. “We need to make the drop. Get ready.”

 

The hikers watched the plane fly toward them. One wing was trailing a cloud of dark smoke. The aircraft started to wobble as it got closer. Then the belly opened up and released the water over the fire. Several of the hikers were knocked down by the deluge.

 

“We’re empty,” Harrison shouted. “Cut the engine.”

Ace did as he was told, and the plane lurched sideways as it lost thrust on one side.

Harrison saw the problem immediately. “I can’t correct. We don’t have enough altitude. Hold on.”

 

Rescue crews reached the hikers just as the bomber hit the ground. Luckily, it crashed just ahead of the fire. 

 

Harrison lifted his head and looked at the shattered flightdeck. He couldn’t quite remember what had just happened. He felt someone pulling at his shoulder strap and looked slowly in that direction.

It was Ace, who had a nasty gash over his eye, but otherwise seemed to be in good shape.

“We need to go,” he told Harrison. “The tail’s already going up. I don’t want to get cooked.”

 

 

 

No. 337

March 24, 2013-03-24

The International Space Station had been taken over in an act of cunning treachery. The crewmember responsible, a sleeper agent, was now threatening, for reasons known only to her, to crash the space lab into a major city.

Lex Orbis had been called on to retake the ISS. He was currently stuffed into a Soyuz capsule, approaching the Station at thousands of kilometers per hour. The plan was that Orbis, once in range, would leap out into space and enter the station through the airlock.

At the appointed time, Orbis zipped up his spacesuit and turned to shake hands with the other man in the capsule. “Wish me luck, Boris,” he told the Russian, who, incidentally, knew no English. Then Orbis threw open the hatch and jumped.

Floating free across the void, Orbis had time only to wonder if, perhaps, the taser he’d brought along with him would be enough to subdue the rogue astronaut.  

Seconds later, he hit the side of the ISS and grabbed a support. He clambered over the surface, trying to avoid passing over any windows. He reached the outer door and pulled the emergency handle to let himself in. It worked, and Orbis was soon safely inside.

Now came the hard part of the mission. He’d been told that the mutineer had smuggled a gun on board, and was willing to use it, despite the risk of puncturing the hull. As soon as Orbis unlocked the inner airlock, he’d have mere moments to make his move.

Drawing the taser, he took a deep breath, then kicked the hatch open and dove through.

There was nobody there. All the lights were off and the entire capsule was lit by the glow of a single computer screen. Orbis floated slowly through the empty modules, making sure he was the only person aboard.

When he returned to the computer, the display had changed. There was a message on it.

 

MISSED ME ORBIS

WE LEFT IN THE EMERGENCY POD

ISS HAS BEEN DISABLED

YOU HAVE SEVEN MINUTES UNTIL RE-ENTRY

LOVE ALWAYS

–S

 

“Curses!” Orbis swore. They hadn’t told him his opponent’s name. It was Sabrina, Orbis’ old nemesis.

He threw the taser across the compartment angrily, and looked for a way to reboot the guidance system.

Failing to find one, he went with the only other option he could think of. Returning to the airlock, he swiftly cleared both doors and crouched on the lip of the outer hatch, watching the world spin beneath him.

“Boris,” he called over his radio. “I’m going to need a pick-up.”

Then he jumped back out into the void.

 

 

 

No. 338

March 25, 2013

Fox’s Landing wasn’t a small town, but it wasn’t a large town, either. Every resident could gather in the square with plenty of space left for visitors.

I can’t tell you what possessed me to stop there that night. I saw the glowing “Vacancy” sign in the window of the motel and pulled over.

The morning was cold. I was the only one in the street. I’d asked the man at the front desk where I might find a cup of coffee and he’d told me to head three blocks “toward the bridge” to Dana’s Coffee. Of course, I had no idea where the bridge was, so I made an assumption and walked downhill.

It was unsteady going. There was a thin layer of ice on every surface. I stopped myself from falling more than once, but I eventually found the right storefront.

The hours on the window said Dana’s was open, but the door was locked. I rubbed my hands together and knocked. After a moment’s wait, it opened. I was greeted by a girl who appeared to be no more than seventeen years old.

“Are you open?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Come on in. You must be from out of town.”

“How’d you guess?”

“All the regulars come in through the kitchen until at least ten.”

I peered over her shoulder. It must have been true. I counted at least four other people sitting at a table in the middle of the shop.

“Come in,” she told me. “What can I get started for you?”

I looked briefly at the menu above the counter, but went with my gut. “Black coffee, please. Dark roast, if there’s a choice.”

“Sit anywhere you like,” the girl told me as she went to get my drink.

One of the men at the table motioned for me to join them. “Welcome to Landing,” he told me. “Don’t worry. Dana will have your drink real soon and you won’t have to stay for too long.”

“That’s Dana?” I asked, nodding at the girl.

“Sure is,” said another man. “This is her place.”

He saw the surprise on my face.

“She’s older than she looks.”

Dana returned with my cup. She gave the men an exaggerated roll of her eyes. “Are you spreading lies about me, again?”

“No, Dana. We were just telling the visitor here that you’re ninety-five years old.”

She looked at me. “Twenty-four,” she said. “It’s a game they like to play.” She gave me the coffee and turned back to the regulars. “I don’t want to have to ban you all for the third time.”

They laughed. “Don’t worry. We’ll be good.”

She returned to the kitchen.

“She’ll do it, too,” the second man admitted to me.

“I’ll bet,” I said. I sipped my drink. The coffee was good. Maybe I had time for one more before I got back on the road.

 

 

 

No. 339

March 26, 2013

If it wasn’t the coldest day of the year, it was close. We were at Dana’s, like usual, when there was a knock at the door.

“Tourist,” said Bill Worsley.

I nodded. Nobody from Fox’s Landing comes through the front door at Dana’s. I sipped my tea and watched to see the stranger enter.

As Dana passed us to open up, she pointed and half-whispered a warning. “Be nice.”

You listen to a girl like Dana.

“Welcome to Landing,” I told our guest after he got in and shook himself off. The man had a hungry look about him. Maybe he’d been on the road too long. It’s a drive from anywhere to Landing. I suppose that’s why we like it here.

 He resisted the urge to get some kind of fancy drink, though. I think Dana respects the ones who order regular.  

The man seemed surprised to hear that Dana ran the store. Maybe we all got used to her being on her own after her parents died. It doesn’t seem like so long ago if you think about it, but time passes slower here. There’s less ways to fill it. It’s been five years since she opened the Coffee shop.

Bill started winding the man up. Like I said, there’s less ways to fill time here. Dana caught him just before he got to the punch line, like we haven’t heard it all a hundred times before. “No, Dana, We were just telling the visitor here that you’re ninety-five years old.”

So she threatened to ban us for a third time. At least this one wouldn’t be my fault.

Audrey Harris asked the man’s name.

 “James Docker,” he said as he pulled his chair a little closer to the table. It was our cue to introduce ourselves.

Bill went first, being the talkative one.

I followed. “Frank Macklin.”

Docker’s handshake was solid.

Emily Wills said her name, but so quietly that I don’t think Mr. Docker heard. In any case, he called her “Emmy” directly after.

Oddly, Dana didn’t come back from the kitchen very quickly after bringing Docker’s coffee.  Sometimes she gets like that. I have a feeling she’s embarrassed that she looks so young. But that’s my granddaughter for you.

With introductions complete, we settled back in to our conversation. I kept my eye on Docker.

You can tell the moment that somebody decides to stay in Landing. For our new friend it was just after his second cup. I think I knew it before he did.

 

 

 

No. 340

March 27, 2013

Lex Orbis is the world’s (1) bestspy. Last year he stopped (2) three attempts to take over the (3) world, and seven (4) mad-scientists with (5) doomsday devices.

His (6) greatest foe, by far, is Sabrina. Sabrina is a (7) deadlyassassin whose (8) hatred for Orbis is tempered only by her (9) twisted love.

Their first encounter was in a (10) small(11) cafe in (12) Switzerland. Lex was on a case and Sabrina was (13) planningher first (14) mission.  

Throughout their careers, their paths have crossed many times. Every meeting is more (15) violentthan the last. Most recently, Sabrina left Lex stranded on (16) the International Space Station. 

It was only with the help of a (17) Russian(18) astronaut that Orbis was able to (19) escape by the skin of his teeth.

Orbis has tracked Sabrina to her hideout. In order to get in, he must first (20) put on a (21) disguise and then (22) overpowerthe guards. The battle will not be easy. She is waiting for him, and she’s just as (23) clever as he is.

 

 

 

No. 341

March 28, 2013

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” said the butler who had answered the door of the stately home.

I was confused. “This isn’t 1947 Albert Crescent?” I asked one last time, to be sure. I’d been trying to get a straight answer for almost ten minutes.

The butler took the ornate card with the numbers listed on it from my hand and examined it. His inspection included turning it over and, oddly, sniffing it. “I’m afraid not,” he said. “What I can tell you is that 1944 Albert Crescent used to be directly across the way. They pulled that building down some years ago. Maybe that’s the one you’re confused about.”

I looked where he directed. There was only an overgrown lot with an old concrete foundation in the center. “Thanks,” I told him. “Maybe I’ll try to call somebody.”

The door closed, and I was left alone on the porch. I was almost certain that I had the right place. It’s true, there were no house numbers on the exterior, but it was the only structure on the street and the butler’s “across-the-road” story seemed dodgy. What was stranger still was that I hadn’t even told the man why I was looking for 1947 before he’d turned twitchy and nervous. 

I had a gold coin in my backpack, as well as written instructions on exactly when and how to deliver it. I only I had to find the location to deliver it to. The person who’d given it to me had been very, very specific.

When the phone number I’d be given connected directly with a “not in service” message, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

I’d been duped. There had never been 1947 Albert Crescent, just an elaborate ruse to lure me here.

I heard a rustle in the bushes.

The door seemed very far away, now. I broke into a run, screaming as loudly as I could and hoping that the butler would hear me.

 

 

 

No. 342

March 30, 2013

“Honey, I just got back from the post office,” said Alan Mersey. “I picked up your package, but I think they sent the wrong book.”

Kyla Mersey looked around the corner from the upstairs office. “What did we get?”

Alan checked the title one more time, just to be sure. “’Care and Feeding of the African Banded Pit-Viper’,” he told her.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s not even close.”

“Can we return it?” Alan asked as he came up the stairs.

Kyla clicked around on the sender’s website for a moment, reading the terms and conditions. “No,” she said, finding the relevant information. “Since we ordered during a sale.”

“Is there anything at all that we can do?” Alan pressed.

Kyla shrugged. “We could buy an African Banded Pit-Viper.”

Alan leaned forward, intrigued. “How much is one of those?”

 

Twelve-to-fourteen business-days later, a courier arrived at the Mersey’s front door. “I’ve got an animal here for you,” she said when Alan opened it. “Just sign here.”

Alan did so, and a medium-sized box was handed over. “Thanks,” he told the departing messenger.

“Be careful when you open it,” said Kyla, with the book in hand. “It’s highly venomous.”

Alan was, and soon had the lid ready to be opened. Slowly, he and Kyla lifted the cover up.

“Oh, come on!” exclaimed Alan. “This is ridiculous.”

Inside the container was not the expected reptile, but a small, furry creature.

“Wombat,” said Kyla, correctly identifying the Mersey’s new pet.

 

 

 

No. 343

March 31, 2013

The light in the old hangar cast a sickly yellow glow on the two occupants. Rain lashed the tin roof, the first sign of an approaching storm. All flights at the airport had been cancelled, leaving an old man and a young man to take shelter and wait.

 

“Have you heard of the ghost plane, boy?” asked the old man. “Every year, on the same night, a fog rolls in from the ocean and the runway lights dim. Then a plane comes in to land.

“We don’t see it on the radar and, when it rolls to a stop, it vanishes. We can never prove it arrived. But it comes.

“Some say it’s Amelia Earhart returning home. Others say it’s the last man back from the lost Flight 19. I can’t rightly say who, or what it could be. It makes the hairs on your neck stand up.”

“I’m not afraid,” said the young man.

“No, not now, you aren’t. But the first time you hear that engine, and every time after that, you will be.”

 

 

 

No. 344

April 1, 2013

“Tell me a story,” said little Brian Sanderson. “A good one.”

His older sister, Amy, sighed. “Again?” she asked. “I just told you one last night.”

“Yeah,” agreed Brian. “But it was crap.”

Amy nodded. He was right, but she didn’t want to have to actually say the words. “Ok,” she conceded. “Give me a second to think.”

Brian waited patiently, eyes fixed on his sister.

She began.

“Steve could hear the monster chewing, deep within the cave.”

“Cool!” Brian interrupted. “Is it eating a dude?”

“Let me get started!” Amy insisted. “You’ll find out!”

The story continued.

“And Steve knew the gruesome noises were all that were left of his friend David.”

“Gross!” said Brian.

“Steve was sure that he had only minutes to live. He struggled against the rocks that pinned him to the floor of the cavern.”

“I’d chew my leg off to escape,” added Brian.

Amy’s eyes widened. “You’re disgusting!”

“What?” said Brian. “I would. Wouldn’t you?”

“No.”

“Will Steve?”

“What did I say about listening?” Amy scolded. “Anyway. Steve was sure that he had only minutes to live.”

“You said that part already,” Brian reminded her, unhelpfully.

“That’s it. You’ll never know what happens to Steve. Story’s over.”

Amy got up and prepared to leave. Brian whined behind her. “No! I’ll be good! I promise! Just tell me the end.”

“Fine,” said Amy, rolling her eyes. “Um. So Steve defeated the horrible monster and went home and lived happily ever after.”

“That’s not fair,” complained Brian. “You skipped everything, even the part where Steve eats the monster’s eyes for revenge, and stabs all the monster’s babies!”

“Ew! Where do you even learn this stuff?”

Brian shrugged. “Better stories?” he offered.

Amy walked back to the bed, punched her brother’s arm, and then stormed out of the room.

 

 

 

No. 345

April 2, 2013

I knew that there were going to be changes in Fox’s Landing, but the change that happened was not the one I was expecting.

The day began normally, as uncommon days do. My grandfather and his group of regulars had arrived at the usual time and were now well into their third round of drinks.

I lingered in the kitchen. I was trying to work up the courage to give them the news.

Dana’s Coffee would be closing for good.

 I’d planned to tell Grandpa about that much earlier, but it was hard. I suppose I’d been worried that he’d think that I hadn’t worked hard enough.

Dana’s Coffee had been my mom’s idea, and my parents died the week before we were going to open. Closing would make Grandpa feel like he was losing her again, but the store wasn’t making money. More importantly, I wanted to leave Landing. 

I was about to take one last sip of coffee before going out to make the announcement when somebody knocked on the front door.

I set my mug down and rushed to answer. I knew it was somebody new and, even on the last day, extra business wouldn’t hurt.

I opened the door and saw man who might have been about thirty. He was a pleasant distraction from the grim task I’d been steeling myself for.

“Come in,” I told him. “What can I get started for you?”

He ordered a coffee, dark roast, not some kind of flavoured latte. That surprised me a little. Most folks from out of town liked a sweeter option.

“Sit anywhere you like,” I directed the visitor. Then I left to get his drink. I knew I’d have to hurry, or Bill would start his routine about my age.

I made it back in time for the punch line. “Dana’s ninety-five years old.” I briefly considered accidentally-on-purpose spilling the coffee on him. I settled on threatening to ban him, again. It hurt when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to follow through on the warning.

Fighting tears, I hurried back to the kitchen.

For the next hour or so, I hid, emerging only to refill enough cups that people wouldn’t get too suspicious.

My misery was interrupted by a light tapping on the wall.

It was the visitor.

“Dana?” he asked hesitantly. “I’m James. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed my coffee.”

“Thanks,” I told him. Immediately, I knew that he knew.

 “Is something wrong?” he asked, taking a step closer.

I broke down, telling this stranger everything that I’d been afraid to tell the others.

He listened without interrupting.

When I finished, he came toward me and leaned back against the counter. “I see.”

I could tell that the gears were turning in his head.

“Maybe we could make a deal,” he proposed.

 

 

 

No. 346

April 3, 2013

Tessa Lane was wanted for robbery.

At 12:32 that afternoon, she’d walked into the Western Credit and Savings Bank on 80th Avenue and, after threatening the cashier with a pistol, escaped with $13,324.

Three other banks were hit in the next four and a half hours.

 

“Pull over here,” she told her accomplice. “I think we’re far enough out of town that we can stop for dinner,” she said, 200 kilometers into their getaway.

Her accomplice obeyed, and they got out of the car to stretch their legs before entering the roadside diner.

“Are you sure we’re ok to take a break?” asked Gabriel Sharp, her boyfriend and reluctant partner-in-crime

“Relax,” Tessa assured him. “Even if they suspect I’ve made a run for it, they’ll still be putting together the false clues I left at the scene. Those’ll lead them south. Besides, this place makes an excellent burger.”

 

But Tessa was wrong. An off-duty police officer on the way home from a fishing trip had seen the car pass by and had turned to follow. Beth Hitchcock had been trailing the fleeing criminals for the last hour. Backup was close behind.

Hitchcock walked into the restaurant and casually took a seat behind Tessa and Gabriel’s table. She ordered a coffee and leaned back to wait for the action to start. 

 

 

 

No. 347

April 4, 2013

Lucas Williams sat high-up in the tree, watching the two men search for the treasure. Though the men were careful to avoid being followed, they did not suspect that they were being observed from above. 

 

The treasure had been part of town lore for all of Lucas’ 15 years, and for many more before that. There was said to be a curse upon whoever found it, but that didn’t stop anybody from looking. Whispered rumors suggested that Farmer Ashcroft had discovered the lode shortly before his accident, although it was clear that he’d made no further attempts to retrieve the prize.

Everybody knew the cryptic directions by heart. “A fortune is buried four fathoms below the clearing west of the forked rock.”

 

Lucas saw one of the men begin to dig as the other marked the coordinates in his GPS device. Before long, the hole had been expanded into a cavity large enough for both men to stand in. Lucas heard the unmistakeable sound of a shovel striking wood and drew in his breath sharply. He strained to hear what the men were saying, but couldn’t make out their whispers.

Slowly, the men scraped away the dirt around a large, rectangular area. Then they traded their shovels for crowbars and jimmied the wooden lid off of the exposed crate. Lucas thought he saw a flash of something shiny before his view was blocked as the men shifted position in the hole.

But Lucas had a funny feeling that something about the situation wasn’t right. The pit wasn’t nearly deep enough as the legend said, and the size of the box, though impressive, didn’t seem large enough to hold the requisite amount of gold.

Lucas was trapped in the tree until nightfall, when the two men left in the direction of the town. He scrambled down the trunk and crept carefully toward the hole. Reaching the edge, he lowered himself down until he was kneeling on the ground, inches away from the mysterious chest. With one last, nervous scan of the clearing, Lucas pulled aside the hastily replaced lid.

Upon seeing what was inside, he gasped, and stumbled back into the earthen wall of the excavation. He felt small chunks of dislodged soil fall onto his shoulders as he struggled to comprehend the contents of the box.

They were certainly not a treasure.  

 

 

 

No. 348

April 5, 2013

The sound of the rain hitting the roof almost drowned out the TV. Oliver Richardson frowned and raised the volume.

During a commercial break, he peered through the curtains to evaluate the miserable conditions outside. It was black. There seemed to be a power outage in the building next-door, and Oliver struggled to see anything.

When his show returned, he left the window alone. Hopefully his power would stay on.

Several minutes later there was a blinding burst of lightning followed immediately by the loudest thunder Oliver had ever heard. The sudden noise made him flinch, almost spilling his beer. The lights flickered briefly but did not go out.

Oliver took a deep breath and re-settled himself on the couch. “Just a storm,” he muttered to himself.

Before he could get entirely comfortable, he heard a strange tapping at the window. He shrugged it off. “Windy,” he allowed.

The tapping got faster. Oliver spared a glance toward the still-closed curtains.

Another peal of thunder made Oliver jump. The tapping continued.  It seemed almost insistent. Oliver’s nerves were on edge.

He turned out the living room lamp, to cut the glare, and tried to look outside again.

The darkness and rain still conspired to obscure his vision. He waited for the lighting.

The tapping was right there, against the window.

The lightning struck, illuminating the scene in a flash.

Oliver screamed.

There was a face outside. It wasn’t human.

A clawed arm smashed through the window, and wind caught the drapes, blowing them wide open.

Oliver scrambled to the far side of the room, fleeing from the invading monster.

He could see the entire horror now, as it crawled in through the broken gap. Large, gray, covered in thick, warty skin, it crept toward him on all fours. Oliver turned his head away from the terrible yellow eyes, and tried to make for the bedroom. The bedroom door had a lock.

The creature was slow, taking each step carefully, as if on unfamiliar ground.

Oliver reached his supposed stronghold and barricaded himself inside. He realized that at some point since the attack started that he’d wet himself with fear. Then, more importantly, that he’d left his phone in the other room.

He would have to face his attacker alone.

He searched the closet frantically for something to use as a weapon.

Finding nothing, he cowered behind the bed. Thunder shook the house, and the lights went out.

Oliver heard tapping at the bedroom door.

 

 

 

No. 349

April 7, 2013

Larry Watson screamed.

The spider was tiny, but it had mere moments to live after wandering into Larry’s line of sight.

Larry lifted a magazine to strike the killing blow.

“Wait,” said the spider. “Don’t do it!”

Larry took two surprised steps backward, and considered screaming again. “It talked!” he exclaimed, instead.

“Of course I said something,” said the spider. “You were going to squash me.” It turned its many pairs of beady eyes on Larry. “For no reason whatsoever, I might add.”

“I. Uh,” stuttered Larry.

“That’s right,” said the spider, waving a fore-leg in the air. “Maybe next time you’ll consider putting on your big-boy pants and not murdering everything that walks past you.”

Larry dropped the magazine. Cautiously, he crept closer to the arachnid. He extended a finger to probe the curious specimen.

“No touching,” said the spider. “I’ll bite you good.

“I should bite you anyway,” it grumbled.

“Is this actually happening?” Larry asked.

“I’ll tell you what,” offered the spider. “You let me go, and I won’t tell anyone that you made that noise when you saw me, deal?”

Larry nodded dumbly.

“Good,” said the spider. “And now that we have this arrangement, I’ll be off. Good day, sir.”

It scurried into a hole in the wall and disappeared.

Larry spent the rest of the evening in the exact center of the room, shaking, and jumping at any sign of motion. Two days later, he moved.

 

 

 

No. 350

April 8, 2013

Somebody knocked on the kitchen door, long after Dana’s Coffee had closed.

James smiled. He knew the original owner had come back to Fox’s Landing.

“Good to see you,” he told Dana as she let herself in.

“It still feels strange to knock,” she said.

“I told you,” said James. “You don’t have to. It’s still your place.”

“Only fifty percent,” she corrected. “How’re things?”

“Oh, I’m sure you know. Your grandfather won’t stop calling me ‘New Guy’, and Bill pretends that he doesn’t know my name yet.”

“Bill might not,” said Dana. “After all—Bill.”

“How’s school?” James asked.

 “First semester’s done. I haven’t worked that hard since, well, here,” she said. “Speaking of work, how about you make me a coffee so I can see if you’re keeping up to my standards?”

“Coming up,” said James, as he reached for the proper jar of beans. He proceeded to complete the task while Dana moved into the dining room and sat down.

“And here you go,” he said a short time later, delivering the fresh cup to her table.

Dana made a show of tasting it before delivering her verdict. “You get a pass, but Miss Harris would tell you it’s too strong.”

“You’d be surprised how far I’ve come with Miss Harris,” James defended himself.

“Would I?” said Dana with a raised eyebrow.

“Sure. Now she only sends back two or three cups a day.”

Dana laughed. “Good job.”

She took another sip, holding the mug with both hands. “How do you like Landing?” she asked.

“It’s—,” James paused, searching for the right answer. “Not what I expected.”

“Better, or worse?”

“I don’t know,” said James. “Different.”

“Wait until summer,” Dana advised. “Summer, you’ll love.”

They both sat in silence for a short while.

She finished her coffee and gathered her things. “I should be getting home. Long day today.”

James nodded.

“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’ll be back in the morning.”

“I’ll see you then,” said James. “Goodnight, Dana.”

“’Night,” she told him as she slipped out the back door.

 

Around Gray’s Choose Your Own Adventure, Volume Two

 

 

No. 322
CYOA2 Part 1
March 4, 2013

 

Snow had been falling when Lt. Rob Martin had departed for Hawaii, but his trip was no vacation. While the jet jostled up and down from turbulence, Martin kept one foot on the bag beneath his feet at all times. The part inside was needed for a top secret project.
Upon arriving in Honolulu, Lt. Martin’s orders were to board a one-way flight to a classified location. It was sure to be one-way because, where he was going next, there was no place to land the plane. The pilot was to ditch the aircraft in the sea and Martin was told that they would then be “recovered”. The word did not fill him with confidence.
Martin was now one of the four people not at the site who were cleared into the program. Only Martin’s boss, the President, and a shadowy third party knew all the details of the scheme. Martin had been told yesterday, and he still couldn’t believe that what he had heard was true.
He was being sent to Point Nemo, the location in the Pacific Ocean that was farthest from land. There, under water, an experiment was underway that depended on the equipment that Martin was bringing with him. The outcome of the experiment could change the world.

 

 

 

No. 327
CYOA2 Part 2
March 10, 2013

 

Martin eyed the other passenger as the small plane sped toward Point Nemo. He watched her lean down and casually adjust the laces of her boot. Martin struggled to understand how she could be concerned about something so trivial. He’d just been flown halfway around the globe on an urgent, secret mission. She seemed as cool and collected as if she was taking a trip to the corner-store.
What was also awkward was that Martin didn’t know how much she knew. He decided to play it safe, and not speak to her at all until they reached their destination.
She was having none of that. “Holly Ridgeway, NASA,” she told him, thrusting out her hand boldly.
“Hi,” said Martin. “Lt. Rob Martin. Good to meet you, Ms. Ridgeway.”
Ridgeway smiled. “You’ve got it, then?” she asked, pointing at the bag Martin had been gripping the entire flight.
“It?” said Martin, weakly deflecting the question.
“The servo,” said Ridgeway. “The one they need at Nemo. You know, you’d think that they’d keep one of two of those on hand in case of emergencies. That was all in my report.”
“Was it?” asked Martin, giving nothing away.
“Oh, yes. It’s my test,” she told him.
The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom. “We’re setting down in one minute. As noted in the pre-flight briefing, we’ll be ditching at sea. Please follow my instructions after we set down, and brace for impact.”
“Here we go,” said Ridgeway with a wink.
Martin clutched his bag even closer, and closed his eyes.
“Brace!” called the pilot.
Then the plane hit the water with a shuddering crash.

 

 

If you think Ridgeway is an ally…
If you think Ridgeway is the villain…

 

No. 328A
CYOA2 Part 3
March 11, 2013

 

Martin lay in his seat, stunned by the impact. A red haze clouded his vision. Far in the distance, he could hear the pilot speaking, telling him how to escape the fuselage.
Something tugged at his bag. Something in the back of his mind told him to pay attention. His eyes snapped fully open and he saw Ridgeway collecting the precious part. Martin waved his arm at her, trying to drive her away.
“Stop,” he mumbled.
“Relax,” she told him. “You’re tangled in your seatbelt. Give me a second to get you out.”
Martin slumped back, and looked toward the cockpit. The pilot had made his escape from the sinking plane.
“There,” said Ridgeway. “Come with me.”
She grabbed Martin under his arms and hauled him toward the hatch. He made sure he kept a tight grip on the precious part. Water began to flow into the cabin through the open door, and Ridgeway struggled under her heavy burden.
“If you could help at all, Rob, that would be fantastic,” she grunted.
Martin found his legs and shuffled along with her. Suddenly they were both out of the wreck and under a clear, bright blue sky, floating in the cold water of the conspicuously empty South Pacific. Martin felt another hand grab his shirt just behind the neck and he was quickly hauled up into a raft.
The pilot helped Ridgeway aboard, next. And the three sat, waterlogged, in the flimsy boat.
“Everybody alright?” asked the pilot.
Ridgeway and Martin nodded.
“Won’t be long now,” said the airman. “I just need to send the signal.”
With a flourish, he produced a grenade. He pulled the pin and dropped the bomb into the ocean. Seconds later there was a muffled explosion and a geyser of frothy white spray as the sea erupted.
Soon after that, there was another sound. Martin strained to hear it, but couldn’t identify the source. It was a loud hum, or rumble that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The water under the life raft heaved up, and the gentle motion of the waves was replaced by a solid surface.
Propping himself up, Martin peered out over the side of boat. He’d been told about the craft during his briefing, but nothing had prepared him for the sight before his eyes.
Surrounded him on all sides was an enormous metal disc that had risen out of the deep.  A hatch opened up and a woman’s head popped out. “Hello,” she shouted. “Welcome to Nautilus Base. Can I have the password, please?”

 

 

No. 328B
CYOA2 Part 3 Alternate
March 11, 2013

Martin lay in his seat, stunned by the impact. A red haze clouded his vision. Far in the distance, he could hear the pilot speaking, telling him how to escape the fuselage.
Something tugged at his bag. Something in the back of his mind told him to pay attention. His eyes snapped fully open and he saw Ridgeway collecting the precious part. Martin waved his arm at her, trying to drive her away.
“Stop,” he mumbled.
That got her attention. Her eyes widened, and she threw a panicked glance toward the cockpit. The pilot had bailed out, into the sea. The plane was empty but for the two passengers.
Seeing they were alone, Ridgeway pulled a gun. “Sorry,” she told Martin, almost sadly. “They’ll assume you died in the wreck.”
She snatched the bag away and pulled the trigger at the same time.
Martin’s last view was of Ridgeway scrambling out of the sinking cabin as water rushed in through the hatch. He felt the ocean reach his feet, and then he died.

 

If you think Martin doesn’t know the password…
If you think Martin knows the password…

 

No. 329A
CYOA2 Part 4
March 12, 2013

 

Martin’s mind went blank. He’d been told the password during his briefing, but with the long flight and the crash, he’d somehow forgotten. “I don’t know it,” he whispered to Ridgeway. He began to search his pockets and bag frantically, hoping that he’d written it down somewhere.
Ridgeway put her hand on his arm. “It’s ok,” she said quietly. She turned to the woman at the hatch and called back. “Charybdis.”
The woman nodded, and stepped onto the wet deck. “Are you all ok?” she said as she got closer to the raft. “He seems hurt,” she said, pointing at Martin.
Martin stood up slowly. “I’m fine. Lt. Rob Martin,” he said, introducing himself. “I have a servo that you need.”
The woman shook his hand. “Captain Land,” she said in reply. “And Ridgeway, good to see you again.”
“You, too, Captain,” said Ridgeway.
The pilot was greeted, and the trio were led into the station.
“Come with me,” Land told Ridgeway and Martin. “I’ll show you your quarters, then we can get to work. Lt. Martin, I’ll take the servo, if you like.”
“Work?” asked Martin. His duty, as he was aware of it, had only been to deliver the part.
“Of course,” said Land. “You’re crew. What did you expect?”
Martin felt the hairs rise on the back of neck. His first instinct was to lie to the Captain. “No, never mind. I’ll be ready in half an hour. Sorry, it’s just the shock of the landing and all.”

 

Martin’s quarters turned out to be a small cabin, deep in the bowels of the Nautilus. He had the space to himself, and some time to think. He had the impression that Ridgeway was staying in the same part of the station, but it was difficult to tell. The corridors from the hatch to his current location all looked the same, and he had the distinct impression he had been taken on a route that was designed not to pass any sensitive areas.
Most worryingly, he’d remembered the password he’d been given. It had not been “Charybdis”.
He also found that his door was locked from the outside. It was relatively simple to pick it, though, and soon he was standing in the passageway. He moved slowly down a line of identical doors, pausing at each one and calling Ridgeway’s name softly.
She answered at the fifth. Martin made sure there was nobody else around, then carefully let himself in.
“What’s going on?” he asked harshly.
“I don’t know,” she said, and with enough fear in her voice that he believed her.
“This isn’t right,” he said.
“No,” she agreed. “Something’s wrong.”

 

 

No. 329B
CYOA2 Part 4 Alternate
March 12, 2013

 

Martin was quick to answer, having been told the code before he left Hawaii. “Scylla.”
The pilot gasped, horrified. Ridgeway seemed like she was going to be sick.
The woman at the hatch frowned. “How many of you are there?”
Martin looked at his companions. “Just the three of us,” he called back.
“That’s incorrect,” the woman announced. She disappeared and the hatch slammed shut. Nautilus Base began to sink back beneath the waves. In seconds, the raft was alone on the surface.
“Idiot!” shouted the pilot.
Martin was confused. “What’s going on?”
Ridgeway slumped against the side of the boat. “Nautilus is a massively secret project in the middle of nowhere and you gave them the wrong code.”
“No, I didn’t,” Martin protested. “’Scylla,’ that’s the one.”
“’That’s the one’ is right,” said the pilot darkly. “If there’s only one person. You’ve killed us.”
“That can’t be right,” said Martin. “Get them back. You sound like you know the right one, tell them!”
“Can’t,” said Ridgeway. “They’ll assume they’ve been compromised. The base is probably already on the move.”
“What can we do?” asked Martin.
“We drift,” said the pilot.

 

The supplies on the raft lasted a week, then the hunger set it. After two, the trio was desperate.
On the last day of the third week, Martin awoke from an exhausted sleep to see the pilot standing over him with an oar.  Martin didn’t have the time or strength to raise his arms to defend himself. The paddle hit him squarely between the eyes, killing him instantly.

 

After a month, a passing fishing vessel spotted a lonely lifeboat far from any shipping lanes. As it drew closer, the crew could see two passengers.
When the survivors were plucked from the ocean, the rescuing crew noted that they were in excellent health for having been adrift for so long.

 

If you think Martin will play along…
If you think Martin will try to escape…

 

No. 330A
CYOA2 Part 5
March 13, 2013

 

“I don’t think it will do us any good to try to escape,” said Martin. “Not right now, anyway.”
“I agree,” said Ridgeway. “But do we just sit and wait?”
 Martin quietly considered the plan before he spoke. “They may still need us. I’ve delivered their equipment, but I’m not sure if I would have been told about the experiment in as much detail as I was if they were just going to detain me. And you, It’s your experiment.”
“Unless Land’s gone rogue,” Ridgeway suggested. “Did you see how she looked at us when we arrived? I’m not certain they were expecting us, even if they needed the servo.”
“We need more information,” Martin concluded. “I’m going to go back to my cabin. It won’t do for them to know we can meet. If they threaten us in any way, we’ll make a move. Until then, we play cool.”
“’Cool’,” said Ridgeway with a nod. “Got it.”

 

Land returned after the promised thirty minutes. With her was a short, dirty looking man. “This is Albert Hodge,” Land introduced. “He’ll be your liaison with the science team. But, for the moment, would you two like to join me on the bridge?”
Martin and Ridgeway said yes and were soon led to the control center of the Nautilus.

 

“Amazing,” gasped Ridgeway. Martin, too, was impressed. At the center of the bridge was a giant holographic schematic of Nautilus Base. The scale was stunning. Near as Martin could tell, a jumbo jet could land on the top deck with room to spare. And there appeared to be seven such decks.
“Is that the core?” Ridgeway asked, pointing at a void at the center of the station.
“Indeed it is,” said Land with a smile. “Hodge will show you around there after dinner.”
Something clicked in Martin’s brain. “You didn’t need the part, did you?”
Land laughed. “Of course not, we’re completely self-sufficient. But we didn’t have you, and you’re a hard thing to find.”
Hodge began to laugh as well, a joyless, grating sound.

 

 

No. 330B
CYOA2 Part 5 Alternate
March 13, 2013

 

“I think we need to escape,” said Martin.
“Escape to where?” Ridgeway asked. “You saw what we passed over on the flight here. There’s nothing out there.”
“They’ve got to have a way to get around. Boats, or escape pods, or maybe even a seaplane hanger. This base is enormous. We just need to find something,” Martin said with more courage than he felt.
Ridgeway quietly considered the plan, sparse as it was. “I suppose, at least, a walk around couldn’t hurt.”
They left the cabin and crept back up the passageway the way they’d been brought. Martin took the lead. Coming to a blind corner, he paused and motioned Ridgeway to retreat to a discrete distance. Then he poked his head around.
It was the exact wrong moment. Captain Land was coming down the hall toward him and noticed the surreptitious movement.
“Halt!” she shouted. “Guards!”
Ridgeway, who’d been behind, managed to escape capture, but Martin wasn’t so lucky.

 

“So you want to leave our installation?” Land asked him before she had him shoved into the tube. “We can certainly accommodate that.”
A large cover was lowered into place, and Martin could hear screws being tightened. It had a tiny porthole in it, through which he could still see the Captain.
Martin watched as Land pointed to somebody. He didn’t know it was a technician who pulled a lever to open the tube to the deep.
Martin was ejected through a torpedo door. Nautilus Base was currently keeping station far below the surface, and the pressure of the water crushed the lieutenant immediately.
Inside, Land was furious. “That’s one,” she screamed at her minions. “Now find the other!”

 

If you think everything is going as planned…
If you think the captain has gone rogue…

 

No. 331A
CYOA2 Part 6
March 14, 2013

 

“That was an excellent meal,” said Martin. He wasn’t lying. Captain Land had prepared a feast for her guests although, throughout the dinner, she’d been elusive when questioned. Martin would have liked to have found out why she needed him, specifically. He resolved to uncover the answer.
“It was, wasn’t it?” Captain Land agreed. “We have an excellent support staff on board. They’ve been poached from the best hotels all over the world.”
Hodge and Ridgeway were having their own discussion at the table. Martin heard the words “energy” and “isolated” but couldn’t make out the rest. Turning back to Land, he asked her point-blank about his situation.
“Why me?”
Land swirled her wine glass and said nothing.
“Why do you need me?” Martin insisted.
The Captain leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. She sighed deeply and then replied. “You’re going to find out eventually, I suppose.” She waited a little longer before finally getting to the point. “We need you to calibrate the machine.”
Ridgeway and Hodge’s conversation stopped abruptly and everyone turned to stare at Martin.
“I don’t know how to do that,” said Martin. “I’m really just a delivery man.”
Land smiled. “Why do you think they told the delivery man about the entire project?” she asked him. “I should be clearer. You’re the calibration. Perhaps Mr. Hodge can explain it better.”
Hodge fixed Martin in an uncomfortable gaze.
Martin shifted in his seat.
Ridgeway’s eyes were wide, but she stayed silent.
“You’re the first one,” said Hodge. “We tried this experiment twenty-seven years ago. You were the result. Our technology then was primitive, and we didn’t know much about the time-barrier. You came through and the lab went up. Took the city with it.”
Martin swallowed hard. “A city exploded? It seems like people would remember that. You’re crazy.”
“Of course they do,” said Land. “Everybody does.”
“Chernobyl,” Ridgeway whispered. “That was us,” she said, realizing.
“That’s right,” said Land. “This time we’ve decided to conduct our business without as many neighbors.”
Martin spoke up. “But what do you mean ‘I came through’?”
“You got the briefing,” said Land. “You know what we’re doing.”
“I’m from the future?”
Land nodded. “You were a baby, then.”
“And now?”
“Now, after all this time, we’re ready to turn on the machine again,” confirmed the Captain. “Finish your dessert. Then we’ll head down to the core.”

 

 

No. 331B
CYOA2 Part 6 Alternate
March 14, 2013

 

“That really was an excellent meal,” said Martin. He wasn’t lying. Captain Land had prepared a feast for her guests although, throughout the dinner, she’d been elusive when questioned. Martin would have liked to have found out why she needed him, specifically. He resolved to attempt to get some information from the outside. “Is there any chance I could use your secure comm gear to reach my boss? Let him know I’ve arrive safely, and all that.”
The Captain fidgeted in her chair. She flashed a telling glance at Hodge before she replied. “I’m afraid we can’t have that. All of our long-range connections are down right now.”
Ridgeway interrupted. “What about the emergency beacon? That runs on a separate system from the rest. I’m sure we can send a message that way.”
Hodge pushed back from the table and stood. Land held up her hand with one finger extended. “Wait,” she told her minion.
She rose from her seat, too. “How do you know about the beacon?” she demanded. “I thought you were part of the lab team?”
“It’s the same system as on the Space Station,” replied Ridgeway. “That was my last project.”
Hodge shook his head.
“Too much,” Land agreed. “This is my project,” she told her captives. “I can’t have you interfering.” She sighed, and closed her eyes. “Hodge, deal with them.”
As Martin and Ridgeway were hustled out of the room, Land stayed behind and screamed at them. “Nautilus is mine!” she ranted “I will not allow it to be taken from me!”

 

The pair were locked in a narrow room filled with pipes.
“We’re near the core,” Ridgeway observed. “That’s not good.”
“Why?” asked Martin.
“Because, unless I’m mistaken, those are cooling ducts for the experiment,” said Ridgeway grimly. “I can only guess that Land’s taken over because the experiment is ready to go online. If she activates it, we’ll freeze.”
“How long have we got?”
“It’ll be instantaneous.”
As soon as Ridgeway said the words, a deep rumble filled the space.
“Goodbye,” she told Martin.
Their bodies turned to ice and then shattered.
By turning on the machine, Land had taken the first step towards the end of the world. 

 

If you think Martin will go quietly…
If you think Martin will freak out…

 

No. 322A
CYOA2 Part 7
March 15, 2013

 

“Did you know about this?” Martin whispered to Ridgeway.
“Some,” she admitted. “But about the program. Not you.”
Martin raised his voice to address the Captain. “Was I the only one?” he asked.
“No,” said Land. “There were three children. You and another stayed here, and the other one went back before the accident. The little girl who remained died in a car accident when she was seventeen.”
Martin took a moment to process the information. “Why did we end up here?” he said. “Why us?”
Hodge answered. “We don’t know. Like I said, we didn’t know much about the barrier. The machine was on for a total of five minutes. We sent one man through, and the three children arrived on our side.”
“What happened to your man?” asked Ridgeway.
Land shook her head.
“Then we had an energy spike,” continued Hodge. “And the machine destroyed itself.”
One more thing occurred to Martin. “How far into the future am I from?”
“We don’t know,” said Land. “But if you let us, we can try to find out.”
Martin and Ridgeway exchanged glances.
“Alright,” said Martin. “Take me to the core.”

 

The team passed through an entire array of security zones. Martin observed Land using a number pad, her fingerprints, a pass-card, an iris scan, and, lastly, a key from a chain around her neck to reach the inner bay of the core.
They stepped onto a platform that hung over a vast empty space. The walls were smooth and white, and there was nothing to indicate scale. Martin got dizzy looking at it.
“It’ll take a second,” said Land, who seemed unsteady herself. “It happens every time. Hodge?”
“It’s almost two million cubic meters,” the scientist confirmed.
“There’s no machine,” observed Martin when he regained his bearings.
“The machine is built around the Core,” said Ridgeway. “The control room, if I recall correctly, should be directly below us.”
Hodge held out his hand to show the way. “Down here.”
They followed his direction and arrived in the nerve center of Nautilus Base. The room was filled with computer screens, but there was no sign of human activity at the moment.
“Where is the crew?” asked Ridgeway.
“They’ve been kept in the dark about the next step,” said Land. “The fewer people who know about Lt. Martin, the better.”
“I feel safer already,” said Martin, with his eyes locked on a metal chair in the corner of the lab. It was set on a raised platform, and there were white ceramic shackles on the arms and legs.  “That’s where the calibration happens, I’m guessing,” he said, pointing with his chin.
“It’s perfectly painless,” said Hodge.
“Think of an ultrasound,” said Land.
“Would you, please?” asked Hodge, indicating toward the chair.
“Alright,” said Martin. “Here goes nothing.”
He sat down, and Hodge drew closer to latch the restraints closed.
“No,” Martin interrupted. “If you don’t mind, Ridgeway, I’d like you to strap me in.”
Ridgeway laughed nervously, but performed the task. “All good?” she asked when she was finished.
Martin wriggled his hands and feet against the straps. “All good.”
“This is just the first part of the experiment,” said Land. “Nothing will happen in the core, and we won’t run the machine. We’re just going to get some readouts on the screen here.”
Martin realized, suddenly, that even though he was here, confined to a chair in the heart of a top secret lab that was floating as far from land as somebody could get, he didn’t have any more questions. He began to feel a measure of excitement, even.
“Let’s go,” he told the others.
Hodge pressed a button. For almost a second, nothing happened. Then a high-pitched whine began, coming from something hidden behind the bank of computers.
“Shut it down!” said Land urgently. “Cut the power!”

 

 

No. 322B
CYOA2 Part 7 Alternate
March 15, 2013

 

“No,” said Martin. “What you’re saying is insane.” He stood up and slammed his fist down on the table. “I want proof. Right now.”
“Calm down,” whispered Ridgeway.
Martin turned on her. “Did you know about this the whole time? Are you some kind of babysitter they sent along?”
“Hold on,” said Land. “Relax. I know this comes as a shock.”
“You!” Martin shouted, his attention now focused on the Nautilus crew. “You, Captain, and Hodge. What kind of sick experiments are you running here?”
He lunged at Land, but his foot caught on his overturned chair.
Ridgeway watched in horror as Martin fell forward. His head struck the corner of the table with a sickening smack and his limp body collapsed to the floor.
Hodge was the first to reach him. “He’s dead,” was the confirmation.
Captain Land put her head in her hands. “Can we still use the body for calibration?”

 

If you think the experiment has begun…
If you think there is a problem with the data…

 

No. 333A
CYOA2 Part 8
March 19, 2013

 

Hodge slammed his fist down on the emergency button and all the computers in the lab went dark. The noise continued, though.
“I don’t know what else I can do,” he said through clenched teeth. “Everything should be off.”
 “I’d really like to get out of the chair now,” Martin said quietly.
Land and Ridgeway rushed to unlock the restraints.
“It’s not working,” said Ridgeway, with real fear in her voice. “They’re fused shut.”
From somewhere, out in the Core, an alarm began to sound.
Hodge’s head snapped toward the sound. “Oh no,” he said. “That’s the field-detection alert.”
Every light in the lab went out, plunging the group into complete darkness.
Land was the first to understand. “We’ve jumpstarted the reaction. The experiment’s begun.”
Martin was struggling against the restraints. “Something’s going to happen. I can feel it.”
A blinding flash of energy from the Core strobed through the windows. Everyone in the lab watched the giant space fill with light. The smooth walls intensified the reaction like a lens, and the roiling tendrils of lightning soon congealed into a stable glowing ball, bright with power.
The manacles on Martin’s chair popped open and he slumped to the floor.
“He’s exhausted,” Ridgeway reported from his side. She put her head on his chest. “There’s a strong heartbeat. I think he’s sleeping.”
“Amazing,” whispered Land, who was captivated by the time-barrier.  “It worked. After so long.”
Hodge rushed to reboot the master computer. He studied the read-outs intently. “Levels are holding. The barrier appears to be stable. I don’t know how the reaction started without the proper procedure, though.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Land, distantly. “We’ve got it now.”
“Should we send in the probe?” the swarthy scientist asked.
“Of course,” replied the Captain. “Immediately.”
Hodge punched in the command and a hatch opened in the wall of the Core. A small drone was launched into the barrier. It disappeared into the light without leaving as much as a ripple in the surface.
Data streamed back onto Hodge’s screen. “We’ll know very shortly if we’ve been successful.”
Moments later though, the drone reappeared in the Core. 
“Why did you bring it back?” Land demanded.
Hodge’s face turned a shade of ashen gray. “I didn’t,” he said. “It came out right where we sent it. Five seconds into the future.”
Then another drone emerged.
“What’s happening?” Ridgeway asked.
Hodge began to shake with fear. “That one’s not ours.”
Martin woke up with a start. “I can feel it all over,” he said from what sounded like a long ways away. “The barrier is vibrating. We haven’t got much time.”

 

 

No. 333B
CYOA2 Part 8 Alternate
March 19, 2013

 

Hodge slammed his fist down on the emergency button and all the computers in the lab went dark. The room was eerily silent.
“I’d really like to get out of the chair now,” Martin said quietly.
Land and Ridgeway rushed to unlock the restraints. As soon as Martin was loose, he jumped free and hustled to the far side of the lab.
“What was that all about?” Land asked Hodge.
The swarthy scientist was examining a print-out from a machine close to the chair. “There’s a problem with the data,” he reported.
“How big of a problem?” Land pressed.
“Martin isn’t the key,” Hodge concluded.
“Can that be right?” Land said. There was a touch of disbelief in her voice.
“It is,” said Hodge, peering at the paper. “In fact, according to this, if we use him, it will be more like putting a lock on the process.”
Martin spoke up from the corner. “Hey, guys? I don’t feel too good.”
Ridgeway was at his side immediately. “What’s wrong?”
Martin fell to his knees. “My insides feel all queasy,” he gasped, holding himself tightly around the belly.
From somewhere, out in the Core, an alarm began to sound.
Hodge’s head snapped toward the sound. “Oh no,” he said. “That’s the field-detection alert.”
Every light in the lab went out, plunging the group into complete darkness.
Martin began to scream. “It burns!”
A blinding flash of energy from the Core strobed through the windows. Land and Hodge watched in horror as the shatter-proof glass was shattered and Martin was pulled back toward the light. Ridgeway tried to grab his arm, but she was too slow.
When Martin hit the center of the blazing ball, the reaction suddenly quit, leaving the survivors unable to see, again. But they all heard the impact as the Lieutenant’s body fell to the floor of the Core, far below.
Emergency lights came on, casting a dirty yellow glow. One by one, the computers began to reboot. Hodge started to access the Core’s sensors to find out what had just happened. He soon had his answers.
“We’re finished,” he said. “The time barrier will never open again. We’d configured incorrectly. Martin wasn’t from the future. He was from the past.”

 

If you think Martin will enter the barrier…
If you think Martin will evacuate the Nautilus Base…

 

No. 334A
CYOA2 Part 9
March 21, 2013

 

“What is he talking about?” Land asked Ridgeway and Hodge.
“Not sure,” said Hodge, hurriedly. His attention was focused on the foreign drone that was approaching the lab. “That’s the more immediate threat,” he said, pointing.
Martin grabbed Hodge’s arm. “No. The barrier is. There’s something wrong with it.”
Hodge shook our of Martin’s grip. Keeping one eye on the foreign drone, he punched a command into the computer.  The original drone disappeared back into the barrier. “You’re right,” he whispered to Martin.
“What is it?” Land demanded.
“The information I’m getting back says that the drone’s gone further into the future this time,” said Hodge. “Seventy-five years.” Then his eyes widened. “Wait. Now it says forty minutes. Changing to a year. Now five. Now a month.” He turned to the others. “It’s doesn’t just go to one time.”
As he finished saying the words, the circumference of the time-barrier increased suddenly, engulfing the mysterious drone and penetrating the walls of the lab. Ridgeway, who was standing closest to the windows, disappeared into the portal.
It collapsed in on itself just as quickly, returning to its former state, floating in the middle of the Core.
The three left behind stared blankly at the empty space.
Martin recovered first. “I’m going in,” he said. Before anyone could stop him, he grabbed a pistol from the Captain’s holster, and had leapt off the observation deck into the barrier.

 

He hit the ground hard. Rolling upright, he found himself still in the massive bay. He wasn’t alone though. He was surrounded by a ring of armed troops. All of them had their guns trained on him.
“Get up,” said the leader.
Martin followed the order.  “Where am I?” he asked.
“The same place you left two years ago,” replied a familiar voice. The statement echoed through the Core.
“Hodge?” said Martin, straining to see into the lab. “Did Ridgeway make it here?”
There was a sinister laugh. “She did,” said Hodge. “About six months ago. You’ll meet her again shortly.”
“I need to get her and go back through,” Martin told him. He finally saw the scientist. He began to get a very bad feeling.
The last two years had been unkind to Hodge. Martin saw a large scar running up the man’s face, and one of his hands had been replaced by a crude metal hook. What stood out the most was Captain Land’s hat perched jauntily on Hodge’s head.
“Where’s the Captain?” Martin asked. “She’ll back me up.”
“Oh yes,” said Hodge, scratching his chin with the hook. “The Captain. Well, it seems that soon after the barrier opened, she had an accident. I command the Nautilus now.”
One of the guards nudged Martin with the barrel of a gun. The prisoner was marched back to the cabin he’d been held in when he’d arrived on Nautilus. The journey was much different now, with various parts of the base having been patched and ruined, as if a battle had taken place. Particularly gruesome were a number of man-sized scorch marks in the main passageway. Martin’s cell had seen the door replaced with crudely welded bars. Martin was thrown in, and left by himself.

 

It was three days before he saw anybody again.
Hodge appeared, whistling as he approached.
“Why?” Martin asked when Hodge stepped in front of the bars.
Hodge didn’t answer. Instead, he drew a pair of handcuffs from his belt and motioned for Martin to turn around. Once Martin was shackled, Hodge put his hook through the links on the handcuff chain and pulled the prisoner along with him.
“Where are we going?” Martin demanded.
“You’ll see,” said Hodge.

 

Martin was taken to another control room, one that was on the far side of the Core. Instead of computers, this one had more industrial machines. There were large switches and levers everywhere. Hodge sat Martin down on a bare metal bench.
“Now,” said the villain. “Now you’ll help me with my true experiment.”
“I won’t do anything until I see Ridgeway,” Martin told him defiantly.
“Very well,” said Hodge. “She’s over there.” He pointed with his hook. Ridgeway was indeed there. She was strapped to a chair very much like the one the Martin had been in when the barrier first appeared.
“Why is she in the chair?” asked Martin.
Hodge laughed his devious laugh. “She’s my calibration,” he said with a cackle. “Oh, that’s right. You still think you’re the reason the barrier opened in your time. No, sorry. That was me. Or, it will be in about ten minutes here. It didn’t start early at all. I opened it to the past.”
 “Remember when Land told you about the three people who came through the portal at Chernobyl? How one returned to their time? That was me. You, me, and the girl, we were all ripped from our homes and sent back. Thirty-six hours to be precise. They didn’t know how close the ends were, then.”
“It was only a little more than a day?” asked Martin.
“Correct,” nodded Hodge.
“And Ridgeway helps you how?” Martin pressed.
Hodge grinned. “I’m not going to use myself as a guinea pig, am I? I needed somebody else. Since there were only three people who are up to the task, my other options are clear, aren’t they?”
Martin realized what he was saying. “But she died,” he said. “Land told us the third girl died.”
“And just who do you think told Land?”
“So that whole time you worked on the experiment, you were planning this? To kidnap me and Ridgeway?”
“No,” said Hodge. “I worked here the whole time so that I could rule the world. With a functioning and properly calibrated time-machine, I have ultimate power.”
“I’ll save Ridgeway,” Martin told him, with cold resolve in his eyes. “And I’m going to stop you.”

 

 

No. 334B
CYOA2 Part 9 Alternate
March 21, 2013

 

“What is he talking about?” Land asked Ridgeway and Hodge.
“Not sure,” said Hodge, hurriedly. His attention was focused on the foreign drone that was approaching the lab. “That’s the more immediate threat,” he said, pointing.
The drone was close, now. The whine of its engines could be heard through the thick glass of the observation windows.
“It looks like ours,” said Ridgeway. “Can you stop it?”
Hodge was too busy entering commands into the computer to reply. “Ah ha!” he cried out as a screen changed color from yellow to green.
The drone’s flight path wobbled slightly.
“I think I’ve got it,” said Hodge.
They were his last words. The drone smashed through the window, the computer, and Hodge before burying itself in the bulkhead on the far side of the room. There was no explosion, but deep, black smoke began to billow out of the wreck.
The fire suppression system in the lab kicked in, flooding the chamber with inert gas.
“Come on,” Land ordered. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Ridgeway gathered Martin to his feet and she and the Captain carried him toward the exit. None of the party noticed that behind them in the Core, without a hand on the controls, the time-barrier was expanding.
The group was just exiting the security zone around the Core when the first blast rocked the Nautilus.
Captain Land turned white. “It’s happening again,” she whispered.
Martin, who had regained his senses, grabbed her arm. “You can sound the evacuation alarm. We may lose the Base, but we’ll live.”
Ridgeway joined him in reassuring Land. “We just need to get to the bridge.”
Another detonation rocked the vessel. This one was bigger than the first.
“We need to hurry, though,” Ridgeway told the Captain. “Martin? Can you get her other arm?”
There was no reply.
“Martin?” Ridgeway repeated.
Hearing nothing, she turned around.
Martin was dead. The last explosion had driven a metal beam straight through his chest.

 

If you think Martin will fight in the future…
If you think Martin will return to the past to fight…

 

No. 335A
CYOA2 Part 10
March 22, 2013

 

A guard approached Hodge with a status report. Martin watched the guard carefully. There was something about the man’s demeanor that made him seem vulnerable. Martin saw Hodge give the guard an order. As the guard turned to leave the room, Martin understood what his captor’s weakness was. Hodge was a scientist, not a soldier. If he’d been commanding the rogue staff of the Nautilus for two years, their training wouldn’t be as efficient as it could be. Martin knew the advantage in a straight fight would be his.
All he needed was a distraction. Hodge seemed like a talker. Maybe that would work. “Do you remember coming through the time-barrier all those years ago?” he asked the scientist.
Hodge turned to face the prisoner. He shrugged. “I was young, then, only nine. One minute I was at home, the next I was in a strange place, like a factory. Somebody with a gun threatened me, and I tried to run, only to stumble back into a giant light. I thought I’d fallen in fire. But, instead, I was home. Unfortunately, it seemed that almost a year had passed. My mother had died in that time, and my father had started drinking.”
  “I see,” said Martin, as he struggled surreptitiously to escape from the handcuffs. “Do you know what happened to the man that was sent from the Chernobyl side?”
“Yes,” said Hodge. “I killed him. He would have been the only other person who knew that we weren’t from the distant future. If he had reported back to the people in charge of the time-barrier, they would have hunted me down and prevented me from achieving this,” he concluded with a grandiose sweep of his hook.
Martin had freed himself from the cuffs and made his move while Hodge was mid-swing. He dove at the smaller man, tackling him to the ground while at the same time trying to avoid the dangerous pointed claw. “Ridgeway,” he shouted. “Hold on.”
Ridgeway shook her arm weakly against her restraints. “No problem,” she said sarcastically.
Hodge was quickly subdued, but before Martin could free Ridgeway, the guard returned. He saw Hodge on the ground and turned his gun immediately toward Martin.
“Freeze,” was the unoriginal command.
Martin slowly raised his hands. At the same time, he was able to take an extra step toward the guard without being noticed.
Ridgeway saw martin move forward and created her own distraction.
“Look out!” she cried from the chair. The guard’s head snapped toward the sound while Martin lunged forward to grab the gun. Once the guard was disarmed, he too was tied up next to Hodge.
Martin released Ridgeway. She gave him a light kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Martin told her. “We’re still not where we’re supposed to be.”
They turned back to confront Hodge, but he was missing. Martin pointed the gun at the remaining guard. “Which way did he go?”
The guard gave up the information without hesitation. “Toward the bridge. There’s a master-control for the Core that’s been installed there.”
“Can you walk?” Martin asked Ridgeway.
She took the gun off him and cocked it aggressively. “No problem,” she told him. Then she swung the butt of the rifle into the guard’s face, knocking him out. She shrugged at Martin. “They weren’t very nice,” she explained. “Let’s go finish off that maniac.”

 

The bridge was dark and silent when they approached. The giant holograph had been replaced by a hastily installed booth. Great snakes of wires flowed into the base across the previously uncluttered deck.
“I think we found him,” Martin whispered.
Ridgeway pulled the trigger and sent a hail of bullets toward the compartment. The assault seemed to do very little in the way of damage.
“Cover me,” said Martin. “I’m going to get closer.”
He made it to within an arm’s length of the target when the lights came on, catching him mid-stride.
“You’ve made a mistake,” Hodge’s voice mocked over the intercom. “Your friend just shot up the Nautilus’ guidance computer. We had some problems with the old one, so we had to make do with what we had on board. Lack of parts, and all that. I’m sure we could get some more from the mainland with a convincing enough story. But, for now, I think, we’ll be stuck on a course for the ocean bottom.”
“Where is he?” Martin called to Ridgeway.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t see him.”
Martin ran back up to Ridgeway. “We may have already won,” he told her quietly. “There’s no point chasing him all over the base.”
She understood. “If we can escape, he’ll die when the Nautilus implodes at crush-depth. We don’t have to fight him.”
Martin raised his voice again, for the benefit of their unseen observer. “Where are you, Hodge? We’re coming for you.”
A disgusting cackle echoed out of the speakers. “You won’t find me. And I’ve got full control of the barrier. Come on, Lieutenant, do your worst.”
Ridgeway and Martin made a show of leaving the bridge. “Are there escape pods?” he asked her once they were out of range.
“Better,” she told him. “Follow me.”
Together, they ran down the passageways of the sinking base. They began to hear ominous creaks and popping noises as the vessel descended. Luckily, their path didn’t take them near the Core, and so they did not have to deal with the security layers to get to their objective.
“Through here,” Ridgeway told Martin as they arrived at a seemingly nondescript hatch at the end of a corridor. They stepped inside and Martin almost lost his balance when he saw what was on the other side.
The “escape pod” on Nautilus Base was actually a full-sized submarine.
“Can we handle that?” Martin asked, still amazed by the sight.
“Yes,” Ridgeway confirmed. “It’s heavily automated, for emergencies. It only needs a crew of two, but can carry up to fifty people.”
“’Dakkar’,” Martin read the name painted in ornate letters on the side of the sleek boat. “Fits the theme,” he remarked with a grin.
“Stop wasting time,” Ridgeway told him. “Let’s go.”
They clambered up the narrow ladder to the boarding hatch and made their way inside. They strapped in, and initiated the sequence to eject.
They heard the outer doors of the Nautilus open, and water rush in.
Then they were free.
The radio began to crackle, and a familiar voice filled the Dakkar. “You’re getting away,” screamed Hodge. “Cowards! You won’t defeat me! I am the master of time!”
Martin laughed. “For about another minute, Hodge, and then you’ll be crushed.”
Ridgeway was less impressed. “’Master of Time?’” she replied with a smirk. “That’s what you’re going to go with?”
Martin pulled her toward him and shut off the radio. “Come on,” he said. “It’s poor form to taunt the condemned.”
Sure enough, a minute later, Martin and Hodge heard the Nautilus implode, destroying everything still on board.
“Do you think he made it out?” asked Martin. “Or to another time?”
“No,” said Ridgeway. “He wouldn’t be able to control the barrier without one of us to calibrate it. Or,” she said, pausing for effect. “Without this.” She pulled a peculiar-looking circuit board from her waistband. “They only had one on board. Funny, though, I specifically outlined that vulnerability in my initial report on the project.”

 

Three weeks later, Martin and Ridgeway were standing in the Oval Office.
“Thank you for sacrificing two years of your lives to save the world,” said the President as he handed them their medals.
“You’re welcome, Sir,” said Martin. “But I just have one question. Did you know that I came from the future when you sent me on the mission?”
“No, he didn’t,” said a voice from just outside the room. The speaker stepped through the door. “But I did,” he said just as Ridgeway and Martin recognized him. “Nautilus Base was my idea, too,” said another Martin.
“Where did you come from?” the first Martin demanded.
“From thirty-six hours before you were sent back,” answered the doppelganger. “And, by the way, instead of asking pointless questions, why don’t you give Holly a kiss?”
“Good idea,” said Martin, who took his own advice.

 

 

No. 335B
CYOA2 Part 10 Alternate
March 22, 2013

 

A guard approached Hodge with a status report. Martin watched the guard carefully. There was something about the man’s demeanor that made him seem vulnerable. Martin saw Hodge give the guard an order. As the guard turned to leave the room, Martin understood what his captor’s weakness was. Hodge was a scientist, not a soldier. If he’d been commanding the rogue staff of the Nautilus for two years, their training wouldn’t be as efficient as it could be. Martin knew the advantage in a straight fight would be his.
All he needed was a distraction. Hodge seemed like a talker. Maybe that would work. “Do you remember coming through the time-barrier all those years ago?” he asked the scientist.
Hodge turned to face the prisoner. He shrugged. “I was young, then, only nine. One minute I was at home, the next I was in a strange place, like a factory. Somebody with a gun threatened me, and I tried to run, only to stumble back into a giant light. I thought I’d fallen in fire. But, instead, I was home. Unfortunately, it seemed that almost a year had passed. My mother had died in that time, and my father had started drinking.”
  “I see,” said Martin, as he struggled surreptitiously to escape from the handcuffs. “Do you know what happened to the man that was sent from the Chernobyl side?”
“Yes,” said Hodge. “I killed him. He would have been the only other person who knew that we weren’t from the distant future. If he had reported back to the people in charge of the time-barrier, they would have hunted me down and prevented me from achieving this,” he concluded with a grandiose sweep of his hook.
Martin had freed himself from the cuffs and made his move while Hodge was mid-swing. He dove at the smaller man, tackling him to the ground while at the same time trying to avoid the dangerous pointed claw. “Ridgeway,” he shouted. “Hold on.”
Ridgeway shook her arm weakly against her restraints. “No problem,” she said sarcastically.
Hodge was quickly subdued. Martin ran to the door to make sure the guard wasn’t on his way back, then he released Ridgeway. She gave him a light kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Don’t thank me yet,” Martin told her. “We’re still not where we’re supposed to be.”
Hodge was screaming at them from the floor. “Cowards! You won’t defeat me! I am the master of time!”
Martin laughed. “You aren’t two years ago. I’m going back, and we’ll make sure you don’t get the chance to get close to the Core again.”
Ridgeway was less impressed. “’Master of Time?’” she said with a smirk. “That’s what you’re going to go with?”
Martin pulled her toward him. “Come on,” he said. “We can taunt him in the past.”
She didn’t disagree, but she gave Hodge a swift kick on the way out. The pair hurried down the stairs toward the shining barrier.
“Are you sure this is the way back?” she asked Martin right before the passed through it.
Martin checked his watch. “He said it would line up with the day we left in ten minutes, ten minutes ago.”
“Okay,” said Ridgeway.
They stepped forward together.

 

They arrived in the past instantly. But there was a problem.
“Where’s the Nautilus?” asked Martin, confused.
Ridgeway surveyed the dense jungle that surrounded them. “I think we’ve gone back too far.”
“How far do you think?”
Ridgeway lowered her voice abruptly before she answered. “All the way back,” she whispered. “Judging from that Tyrannosaurus,” she finished, pointing at the fearsome beast.
The Tyrannosaurus saw the pair and turned to attack.
“I hope ‘Jurassic Park’ was right about staying still,” Martin hissed out of the corner of his mouth.
But “Jurassic Park” was incorrect. The dinosaur closed the distance in no time. Ridgeway was the first to go, swallowed in one swift motion. Martin was less lucky. He felt the Tyrannosaurus’ teeth grip him around the belly and rip him in half. He watched his legs go down the monster’s throat before he bled to death, sixty-five million years before he was born. 

 

 

Frank and Molly

Part 1

No. 147 July 15, 2012

Frank Benson slumped against the railing at the bow of his ship. He drained the last of his whisky and then threw the tumbler overboard.
Benson had told the captain of the vessel to head due east, not to ask any questions, and to stay in the wheelhouse. So far, the man had obeyed. Benson allowed himself a brief moment of satisfaction. If you’re rich enough, people will do whatever you want.
But what Frank really wanted was an out-of-the-way place to roll off of the deck and not be noticed or found. He checked his watch and grunted. He was fifteen hours into his plan. There was no Scotch left. It was time.
He heaved himself up and leaned over the edge. He watched the tropical sea wash by under the boat and then closed his eyes. He shifted his weight ever so slightly forward and began to go over.
A jarring lurch sent him tumbling backwards, away from the water. It was accompanied by a horrific grinding sound. He staggered back onto the deck.
“What the—,” he managed to get out before another jolt sent him into a capstan, knocking the air from his lungs.
He was immediately dizzy as the lack of oxygen and the liquor conspired with each other to keep him from getting up. He could feel through his hands and knees that the steady vibration from the engine had cut out.
He tried to call out again but could only produce a hoarse wheeze and a coughing fit. Giving up, he relaxed his limbs and fell over onto his back. Right before he passed out, he thought he heard something like high heels clicking on the wooden deck.
“Hi,” she said.
Benson opened one eye.
“Are you awake?” the sultry voice asked him. “I hope you are.”
The other eye opened and now they worked together to piece together what was leaning over him.
Immediately Frank felt embarrassed. He could see straight down this girl’s shirt. Shaking his head self-consciously, he turned away and manoeuvred to a seated position.
“Hi,” she said again.
Now Benson could see all of her. He wracked his brain trying to think of a beautiful woman he could compare her to. He couldn’t come up with a single one that was even close. Tall, lithe, blonde, and tanned, she was perfect.
But something wasn’t right. She shouldn’t be here. He’d specifically sailed away to be alone.
“How did you get on my boat?” he asked. “Does the captain know you’re here?”
She laughed. Frank thought it was the best sound he’d ever heard.
“You needed me,” she told him.
He looked in a complete circle for clues to her arrival. He saw something strange in the ocean.
“Is that ice?” he said. “Did we hit ice?”
That was what had thrown him back onto the ship, he realized. They’d hit an icefield two thousand miles from where one should be.
The girl smiled, but drew her lips to the side slightly in a manner that struck Benson as quizzical, yet flirty. “It happens,” she admitted. “Don’t worry Frank. Your boat is fine.”
“How do you know my name?” he demanded. “And you still haven’t told me exactly how you got here. Did you stow away?”
“You brought me here,” she pouted.
Frank leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. Was it possible he was dreaming this? It was a pretty good dream, if so.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
She looked startled, as if that was an unusual question. “I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have a name?”
She didn’t respond right away. She seemed to be thinking very hard. “No. Not unless you give me one.”
“What?”
Now Benson was reeling. Nothing was making sense. “How about I just call you Molly for now? Until I get things straight.”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “Yes!” she announced. Then she repeated the name, as if testing it out. “Molly.”
“So, Molly, one more time, help me out. How and why are you here, now, on my boat?”
She heaved her chest with a deep sigh and shot him a face that was somewhere between puppy-dog eyes and disappointment. “Because, Frank, you were going to hurt yourself.”
Part 2

No. 200 September 21, 2012

“I was,” said Frank.
He lay back down on the polished wood of the deck and closed his eyes. “I still might.”
“I don’t think you will,” said Molly, with her arms crossed stubbornly and one upturned eyebrow.
Frank groaned, a product of the drink and the girl’s sudden appearance.
“What are you going to do to help me, then?” he questioned.
Molly didn’t say anything. She turned quickly on her heels and walked confidently to the railing on the side of the boat.
Frank heard something splash in the water, but he didn’t open his eyes to see what had caused the noise.
He felt the boat begin to jump and quiver, as if it had been suddenly placed on the surface of a huge vat of boiling water. The sensation scared him enough to open his eyes and find something to hang on to. He was unprepared for the sight that greeted him.
Molly was still standing casually by the railing. Beyond her, Frank could see what looked like a giant pile of rocks rising from the sea.
The land surrounded the ship, and then collected it up with a terrific jerk that tore the vessel from the water’s surface. Frank held his breath as he watched large trees and thick grasses grow quickly from the barren landscape.
Then there was a peaceful silence. They had come to rest in the middle of a forest clearing, with no ocean in sight.
Molly turned to him with an impossibly bright smile on her face.
“This is your island,” she said. “I’m hoping that you’re able to help yourself.”
Frank tried to take in the absurd scene. He could only think to ask one question. “Where’s the Captain?”
“He’s fine,” said Molly. “Probably better than fine.”
“I’m hallucinating,” said Frank. “Or dead.”
“Oh hush,” said Molly. “You’d better get to work, though. It’ll be dark soon.”
“Doing what?”
“Well,” Molly hedged. “You’ll find that access to the cabin of the ship is impossible. I assume you’ll want to fashion a shelter and start a fire, to begin with.”
“Are you the devil?” asked Frank.
Molly made a shooing motion, and then sat down languorously on a bench to watch him.
Frank spent the next several hours fighting a hangover and sweating more than he had in the last three years combined. His survival skills were rough, but he’d once spent the weekend at a boot-camp designed to teach businessmen a valuable lesson about the nature of teamwork or some-such. He really hoped that Molly did not subscribe to the same theory.
He was able to construct a passable shelter beside the landlocked yacht and had started a fire by the time night fell, although he suspected that the darkness would have arrived immediately after he’d finished his work, no matter what the time actually was.
Molly had been watching him all afternoon, not saying a word, and seemingly impervious to heat or boredom. She still looked radiant in the firelight as she sat down beside him.
“Good job, Frank,” she told him.
The words of encouragement burrowed into him and found something deep inside.
“Thanks, Molly.”
Frank didn’t say anything else for awhile. He sat quietly, poking the embers in the bottom of the fire.
Several minutes passed in silence until he spoke again.
“Molly?” said Frank.
“Yes, Frank?”
“Why me?”
Molly drew her legs in and put her chin on her knees. She looked up into his eyes and replied.
“It’s not about you, Frank. It’s about me.”
Part 3

No. 307 February 10, 2013

Frank looked at her strangely. “But you said—.”
“I said ‘you needed me’,” Molly interrupted him. “I said ‘you brought me here’.”
She drew in her breath sharply, like a disappointed teacher. “But I suppose that it would be your nature to assume that the reasons that you need me are only your own.”
Frank took in the mysterious new island, his beached ship, and the seemingly insane girl sitting in front of him. “I really don’t understand.”
Molly played with a stray curl of her hair, thinking something through. Then, apparently having made a decision, she stood and crossed the small camp to sit next to Frank.
Frank felt more alive than during any time that he could remember.  He didn’t say anything, trying not to break the spell he was under.
She put her hand on his shoulder. His eyes widened.
“Frank,” she said softly. “When was the last time you thought about dying? Be honest.”
He remembered the moment instantly. “Before I named you,” he said in a whisper.
“So, do you see? We both got what we needed,” she told him, with one finger pointed at the middle of his chest. “And how is that all about you?”
Frank and Molly sat next to each other, not speaking, for a long time. The embers of the fire turned red, and then black. Eventually, the first rays of the sun appeared over the long horizon of the ocean.
“It’s morning,” said Frank.
Molly smiled and nodded. Frank watched her, trying to commit her face to memory.
“I won’t see you again, will I?” he asked, the answer already clear.
She shook her head.
“Goodbye, Frank.”
He stood, and brushed himself off, ready to return to his boat. He wanted with all of his heart to hug her, but the gesture seemed so small compared to what she had done. Instead, he told her.
“Goodbye, Molly.”
Frank Benson leaned against the railing at the bow of his ship. He watched the waves pass by as the vessel made for port.
He was ready to begin his new life.

Around Gray Publishes Mini-Stories, 251 – 300, November 24, 2012 – February 3, 2013

No. 251
November 24, 2012
“Sir, a man walked into our office, and he wants to speak to you,” said the office manager. “He claims to be a character from one of your books. Shall I call the police?”
Trevor Kasper leaned back in his chair. His voice, from behind the great desk, sounded like it was coming from a long way away. “No. Send him in.”
The visitor was led into the conference room. Kasper followed, moments later. They both looked at each other for a long while, neither saying a word.
“So,” said Kasper, breaking the silence. “You’ve sorted it out, then.”
“I must admit,” said the man. “It took me awhile.”
“What do you want?” asked Kasper.
The man sat down in the chair at the head of the long table. He removed a piece of folded paper from his pocket and set it in front of him before he replied. “What’s fair.”
Kasper didn’t hesitate to make an offer. “A million.”
The man didn’t to react to the amount. He merely tilted his chin slightly higher.
“Two,” said Kasper. “Three.”
Placing one hand conspicuously on the paper, the man rose and collected himself. “As you know, I’m not bothered by urgency. I’ll let you to think on a response. Until then, I’ll leave you with this light reading. I must warn you, though, it may be a touch familiar.”
Then he left the room. Kasper could hear him give his regards to the manager on his way out of the building. Kasper went back to his office immediately, clutching the page the man had given him.
He poured himself a drink from the bottle he kept in his drawer and closed his eyes. The past was coming due, and there was very little he could do about the situation. 
After he swallowed, he opened his eyes again and read the first lines of the unwelcome reminder.
I, Trevor Henry Kasper, understand that my fortune will have at its foundation a creation that will live fully in my writings, as well as in life. I will enjoy my success until such time as the creation recognizes my part in its inception and returns to me to avenge itself for what I have done to it in my works.
No. 252
November 25, 2012
There are sixteen things you need to know to be successful in life. I’m going to tell you two of them. The rest you can figure out on your own.
Number one. Only pick your nose when you’re absolutely sure nobody else is watching you.
And number two. If somebody arrives on your doorstep and tells you that they need your help to save the world, lean around them and take a look at the vehicle they arrived in. If it’s a pricey one, you’re good to go.
In my case, that vehicle was a helicopter, and the someone was a woman named Mia.
No. 253
November 26, 2012
The assembled members of the Grand Council of the Toys lorded over the lonely figure in the center of the bedroom.
“You are not a toy,” a voice boomed from the Council.
The cardboard wrapping-paper tube stood against the accusation. “But I am,” it said in its defence. “He plays with me!”
The Council would have none of it. “We have decided.”
A horde of plastic, wood, metal, and fabric descended on the tube. The gathered toys swept up the interloper and dragged the tube towards the door.
“You are hereby sentenced to death. You will be offered to the beast,” the Council declared from behind them.
Sumo the dog loped down the hall. His keen eyes spotted something new in the middle of the floor. It looked like a bone. Perhaps it tasted like one as well.
The tube could not stop the inevitable.
No. 254
November 27, 2012
Elmer Ebbet brushed the dirt off of the artifact.
“Is it a clue?” asked his assistant, Paige Smith.
“No,” said Ebbet. He picked up the ceramic coffee mug he’d just unearthed and threw it away over the steep cliff at the edge of the dig site. The cup smashed on the rocks at the bottom. “We’re no closer.”
Ebbet and Smith had been searching for the Tomb of the Ancients every season for the last six years. Guided to the approximate area by a hand-drawn map they’d found in the national archives, they’d continually been able to the raise the funds they needed. This time, however, the investors had drawn their line in the sand. If no solid evidence was found on this trip, the money would be cut off, and there would be no hope of ever finding the legendary source of the Ancients’ power.
“Was that the last target on the survey?” Smith asked quietly.
“There’s nothing else here,” Ebbet confirmed. He sat down in the dust and bowed his head. “We’re finished.”
Smith sat beside him. “We’ve still got three days. We should keep digging.”
Ebbet didn’t hear her. He was talking mostly to himself when he spoke next. “I don’t understand why the map was wrong. I did everything I knew how to verify it.”
A dark figure watched the old man and his partner from the tree line just north of the cliff-side campsite. He’d been well paid by his employers to keep an eye on Ebbet’s every move. After four deployments, he was almost beginning to feel bad for his mark’s failure.
Not bad enough not to do what would have to be done when the time came, but something, anyway. As for Smith, he’d be glad to see her go.
The observer slowly pulled a radio from his belt. He turned it on and whispered to his contact. “This is Broadsword. The Digger has admitted defeat. Is Protocol A in effect? Over.”
There was a slight delay in a reply. When it came through, the radio hissed and popped first. The agent ducked quickly out of sight in case the noise was overheard.
“Negative, Broadsword. Negative. Dreadnaught says they’ve still got time. Over.”
No. 255
November 28, 2012
“You know, nine out of ten doctors recommend that you don’t do that.”
“Who’s the tenth doctor?”
“Um, that’d be you.”
“Ah, that’s right,” said Lily Steward with a weak smile.
“Well, here goes nothing,” she continued, raising the syringe to inject herself. In theory, the softly-glowing contents would heal her, although the side-effects were largely unknown.
“Wait!” Ivan interrupted.
“Why?”
“It’s just, I wasn’t really kidding. Don’t you think you ought to try everything else before you resort to this?”
“Ivan, I have. You know that. I’m not crazy. I just want to live a normal life. I don’t want to worry anymore.”
“Give me a week,” said Ivan. “There’s one last avenue I’ve been working on.”
Lily lowered the needle. She sighed deeply. “One week. But only because my little brother asked me.”
“Deal,” said Ivan. “Shake on it?”
Lily nodded.  She placed the noxious cure on the counter and extended her hand.
Later that evening, Lily returned to the darkened lab and sat down. She retrieved the syringe from her locked desk drawer and took the cap off the end. She held her breath and plunged it down into her leg. The glow from the liquid seemed to seep up through her skin as the drug worked its way into her body. “I’m sorry, Ivan,” she whispered. “Next week would have been too late.”
Then she passed out. The glass tube fell from her hand and smashed. The remaining fluid inside hissed and bubbled as it hit the ground.
When Ivan Steward arrived again in the morning, the room had been destroyed. He came around the edge of the long table in the middle and saw the broken shards of the needle and a partially melted spot on the floor. There was no sign of his sister.
“Lily, what have you done?” he desperately asked the empty space.
No. 256
November 29, 2012
“Excuse me, are you Rick Collins?” asked a young girl holding a pen and paper in her outstretched hands.
“No,” said Rick Collins, letting the short reply hang uncomfortably between them.
“Oh,” said the girl. “Sorry.”
She walked away, leaving Collins alone with his assistant.
“Why do they always do that?” he asked.
“Want your autograph?” asked Stacy Williams while she scanned her phone.
“Bother me,” Collins clarified.
“Maybe because you’re a famous movie star? I don’t know,” said Williams sarcastically. “Why would they be interested in you?”
“Exactly,” said Collins sincerely.
Williams dropped her phone down and looked up at Collins. “Wow.”
“And do you know what, Stace?”
“What?”
“My chocolate milk isn’t going to grab itself.”
Stacy was shocked at his statement. Something inside her snapped and she threw the phone at Collins. He barely caught it as she began to tell him off.
“Rick, I’ve put up with a lot over the years, but I think that’s it. You act like there’s nobody else but you in your life, and maybe today is the day you learn that there is. I quit. You can get your own milk, and deal with your own problems. And, you know what? Maybe sign an autograph or two for some kids. It couldn’t possibly hurt you.”
She stormed off, leaving Collins with his phone, which was now buzzing with several urgent reminders. He stared at it blankly. This was Stacy’s job. He felt a sharp crush of fear in his belly.
Alone was scary.
No. 257
November 30, 2012
Tom Carolla tore up his betting slip and left the track. The races had not been kind to him. As he rounded the corner at the end of the block, a large man approached him.
“Tom, I hope you still have Mr. Solomon’s money,” said the giant.
Without saying a word, Tom handed over a small roll of bills.
The big man counted to make sure he had been given the appropriate amount. “This should cover it,” he confirmed.
“I might not be a great judge of horses, Dino,” Tom said. “But I’m not stupid.”
The man nodded. “That’s right. That’s why Mr. Solomon told me that if you paid up, I could offer you a job.”
Carolla’s interest was piqued. “What kind of work?”
“Mr. Solomon has a boat coming in tonight. He wants you down at the docks to deal with one of the passengers.”
Tom knew instantly who he was meant to “deal with”. “It’s Kate, isn’t it?”
Dino touched his nose, and his pointed silence confirmed Tom’s suspicions.
“Great,” Tom grumbled.
“And Mr. Solomon doesn’t want what happened last time to happen again,” Dino warned.
“Then can I have my money back?” asked Tom.
Dino smiled and tossed the roll to Carolla. “Not like last time,” he repeated.
The two men spent a moment watching each other in awkwardly.
“She’s my sister. I’m not her boss,” said Tom defensively.
“It’s a good thing she’s your sister, too, Tommy, or Mr. Solomon would have cut you loose years ago,” Dino laughed.
No. 258
December 1, 2012
“Guys, you have to see this.”
Brad Somersby pressed “Play” and the video started.
“Hi. It’s me. Brad Somersby. If you’re watching this, I’m dead,” he said on the tape.
The three people in the room studied the image with shocked attention.
The Brad on the screen kept talking. “In the event that something unfortunate has happened to me, I have some things to say.”
The real Brad cut off the rest of morbid speech before it could get going. He looked at the two others. They both stared back at him, confused about the purpose of the viewing.
His friend Sarah Hollander sat in the corner uncomfortably, finding the whole scenario distasteful. She said nothing, and tried to hunch further down into her seat.
Grant Martins spoke first. “You’re very clearly not dead, buddy. Why are you showing that to us?”
 “That’s the thing,” said Brad. “I didn’t leave that message.”
No. 259
December 3, 2012
Al Munsen wandered through the grocery store, trying to remember what was on his list, and failing to keep the canned background music out of his head. He walked up and down each aisle, grimly searching for something to eat for dinner.
He passed the fresh fish, and then took several steps back to see something that had caught the corner of his eye.
“What’s that?” he asked the man behind the counter. Al pointed at a large, colorful, slightly spiny fish that was laid out at the edge of the case.
“Oh, that?” said the man. “That’s a triggerfish. Nobody ever buys that.”
“Really?”
“Haven’t ever sold one. Not in the whole chain of stores. That’s all I know. Maybe people think it’s too exotic.”
“Why do you have one in, then?”
The man behind the counter became shifty. His nervous eyes darted back and forth, watching alertly for other customers. He motioned for Al to get closer. “Come here. Watch this.”
The man lifted the tail of the triggerfish and, to Al’s surprise, underneath was a small red button, half-buried in the ice. The man took one final check to make sure he and Al were alone, and then pressed it.
Al heard a hollow sound of something falling away, and then the whole ice-filled counter dropped slightly and rolled aside to reveal a narrow trapdoor.
“Come on,” the man beckoned as he began to climb down a ladder. “Check this out.”
Al was intrigued. He placed his basket on the floor, and, with a shrug, followed the man through the hole.
They arrived in a small room. There was a large, metal door in front of them. The man took the handle and slid it open to reveal a gigantic freezer. Frost had built up around the edges of doorframe, and Al couldn’t see inside because of the cold fog that condensed into the warmer landing area.
The man said nothing, but held out his arm, inviting Al to enter the cooler.
The change in temperature was abrupt and significant as Al walked in. He started shivering almost immediately. He didn’t notice the man stay behind as he crept slowly forward into the gloom. As he entered the heart of the ice box, the fog dropped away.
Al gasped. He was not the only being inside. He turned to reach for the exit but the man slammed the heavy door shut. Al spun around to face his new companion.
The huge white creature roared and stumbled toward Al, loping forward on its squat back legs and long, powerful arms. In seconds, the yeti was on Al, howling and tearing at him.
The man at the fish counter whistled while he prepared an odd, red meat. He labeled it “Tuna” as he placed it in the display beside the striking triggerfish.
No. 260
December 4, 2012
It was eleven o’clock on Saturday night as Lewis Halliday looked out the window of the Mississippi steamboat he captained. The sunset was long behind him, and he guided his ship deftly down the river in the dark, taking care to avoid the dangerous sandbars he knew to be lurking just below the surface of the water.
Halliday kept his practiced hand on the wheel, every vibration and shudder of the boat travelling up through his arms. At this speed, they’d reach Memphis by morning. His hopes for an easy journey were dashed, however, when he felt, more than heard, the engine go silent.
“Silas!” Halliday called for his first mate. He knew he could trust the brawny man to help him sort out any problems. “Get to the engine-room! Make her right!”
“Yes, Sir!” Silas acknowledged from somewhere on the deck outside the bridge.
The engine-room was a Dickensian nightmare of steam pipes and fittings. Silas inspected each one for a flaw that might have slowed the mighty vessel. If he didn’t repair the engine soon, the Dixie Princess would be uncontrollable with no way to steer clear of the river’s obstacles. Silas hoped that the fix would be easy. There was no way to fabricate a part in time, if that’s what was needed.
Before he could finish his survey, the pistons began to move again as the steam built up. Control was restored to the helm.
“Well done, man!” Silas head the Captain’s voice from the speaking-tube. “She’s mine, again!”
But Silas scratched his head. What had just happened shouldn’t have been possible. After all, he hadn’t even seen the cause of the problem. He climbed a steep ladder back up to the open-air balcony at the stern of the boat. From his new vantage point, he watched the huge paddle sweep the water, driving the boat forward. He couldn’t detect any hint that moments before, the wheel had been solidly stopped.
Captain Halliday watched Silas duck back through the door to the bridge. “She feels good. You did a fine job.”
Silas took off his hat, and walked closer to YYY. In a hushed voice, so that other crew members could not hear, he explained a recommendation to the Captain.
“What?” said Halliday loudly. “We have a schedule to keep. I can’t allow us to stop for a moment, especially now, as we’ve already been delayed. We can’t miss our target.”
“Sir,” said Silas. “I beg you to reconsider. We need to tie up and shut down the engine to find out why it cut out.” Then he caught himself, and began to whisper again. “I know we have precious cargo, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that tonight is the first time the Dixie’s engine has ever failed.”
Halliday closed his eyes. He realized his mate was right. He replied, matching Silas’ low tones. “You’re correct again, old friend. But we can’t stop. Not for anything. I need to you go to stateroom three and stand guard. Perkins will relieve you in two hours. Don’t move for anyone but him.” Halliday turned his eyes back to the river before he spoke again. “If the engine goes quiet again, ignore it. Enter the room and shield the girl at all costs.”
Silas nodded, and left the Captain without another word.
Stateroom three was on the top deck of the boat. Silas looked down at the black water, four stories below. He pulled a three-legged stool beside the door of the cabin, and sat down. His hand fell to the smooth butt of the pistol he’d strapped on after leaving the bridge. They’d reach their destination in a little less than six hours. He needed to protect Miss Emma Becker until then.
Captain Halliday examined his pocket watch intently. Then he bent over the wheel and spoke to the Dixie. “Hang together, Grand Lady. We’ve got a deadline to make.”
No. 261
December 5, 2012
“You won’t remember for seven days,” was the last thing Henry remembered the hypnotist saying. At the time, Harry had told his wife that taking part in the show was a bad plan, but she’d insisted that they were on vacation and that “it would be fun.”
According to the newspaper that had been slid under his hotel door, it was indeed seven days later. Henry didn’t know where his wife was, but it didn’t seem like anybody had slept on her side of the bed. He pulled back the curtains of the large window in the tiny room, and saw something that worried him greatly.
Instead of the bright lights of Las Vegas, all that filled the view were scrubby cacti and sand.
Then he found the package in the bathroom.
Wrapped in plain brown paper and twine, it was heavy when Henry picked it up. He pulled the covering off carefully. Inside was a single solid-gold brick. The side facing Henry did not have any markings, so he turned it over. It was stamped “1862”. Underneath that inscription was another date, carved much more recently with some crude tool. That date was last week, the day after they hypnotizing.
Henry composed himself and left the room. He found his way to the front desk and asked the girl on duty where he was. She looked at him oddly. “Mr. Peterson, you’re in Arizona. You were quite specific about confirming that yesterday when you checked in.”
Henry stumbled back into a chair in the middle of the lobby.
“Mr. Peterson, are you alright?” asked the girl.
“Yes. Yes, thank you. I’m fine,” murmured Henry Cobb. “I just forgot something, that’s all.”
No. 262
December 7, 2012
“Hey, come look at this,” said Charlie.
“What is it?” I asked him. I’d been reading my book on the couch and I didn’t want to get up for nothing.
He was somewhere on the other side of the house. I could hear him knocking on something. The noise intrigued me, so I put aside my blanket and tea, and got up to see what he was yelling about.
“What?” I said again as I rounded the corner into the back bedroom. Actually, it wasn’t a bedroom. We’d always used it for an office because it was so small.
Charlie was tapping the wall on the far side of the room. “I think this is hollow.”
“Of course it’s hollow. It should be, unless there’s a beam behind it,” I told him.
“No,” he said. “No, this is different.” He thumped on the opposite wall. “Hear that?”
I did. It wasn’t the same sound. “Do the first one, again.”
He hit them both, one after the other.
“You’re right,” I admitted. “What do you think it is?”
He didn’t answer me. Instead, he pulled a hammer out of his toolbox and drove it through the “hollow” wall. The tool left an enormous gouge in the otherwise flat surface. Charlie grabbed the edge of the smashed drywall and pulled. It sloughed off in an entire sheet, as if it hadn’t been properly anchored in the first place.
I craned my neck to see what, if anything, it revealed.
“I might have made a mistake,” Charlie admitted when we didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. There was just the usual pink insulation and framing boards.
“Wait,” I told him. “What’s this?” There was something just behind the edge of the new hole. I peeled back a portion of the wall that was still standing.
“It’s a doorknob,” said Charlie. “What’s a doorknob doing back there?”
I tugged the rest of that piece of drywall. It, too, came away easily.
“What’s an entire door doing back here?” I asked him.
We both stood for a minute and looked at it. Charlie was the first to speak.
“Do you think we should open it?”
No. 263
The Neighborhood Submarine Part 2
December 8, 2012
“First things first,” said Randy. “I’m in charge. You’re a year older, but it’s my submarine, so I’m the boss.”
“Ok,” Marnie agreed. “What do we do to start?”
Randy was surprised. He hadn’t expected her to be so agreeable. Maybe his idea would work, after all. “How much can you lift?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. A lot.”
“Good,” said Randy. “Me, too. We need to pull it from my back yard, to the pond.” He looked at his watch. “But we have to hurry. I need to be home for dinner soon.”
Both children tried their hardest to budge the submarine. Randy’s construction had skewed towards the durable, and the craft proved highly resistant to moving. They sat down together, and leaned on the smooth black hull.
“We’re having spaghetti tonight,” said Randy.
“You should probably go,” said Marnie.
They parted ways with promises to return to the problem before lunchtime the next day.
Randy went inside and washed up.
“What were you and Marnie up to?” his mom asked him while they sat down at the table.
Randy didn’t look at his mom, instead he watched Mr. Fluffy carefully select the spot on the floor that would allow the most efficient path to any food that might fall from the table. “We were trying to get my submarine to the pond. Nobody else would help.”
“I see,” said his mom. “I suppose it’s nice that you had one friend, though.”
“She’s not my friend, Mom. I told you. She’s the only one who showed up.”
“Is there a plan for tomorrow?” asked his mom, changing the subject slightly.
Randy took a bite of his spaghetti and chewed slowly before he answered.
“I don’t know yet. I have to call Marnie after dinner and see if we can think of anything.”
No. 264
December 9, 2012
Bees are typically assumed to be industrious and hardworking. Not Apis. Apis was a lazy bee. He accomplished this mostly by blending in. Looking exactly like everybody else made it fairly simple, and all Apis had to do was wander from one part of the hive to another, looking like he’d just arrived from someplace important.
None of the other bees ever noticed. Most were too busy going about their own business. Apis lived well. Better than the Queen, maybe. It was the perfect strategy.
Except that Apis was lonely. Living like a phantom meant that having friends was impossible. Too many questions would have to be answered, and Apis’ entire system would crumble the minute somebody talked. And if anybody found out how he’d been living, Apis would face the wrath of the entire colony.
So he kept up the deceit. Every day, he watched the other bees, beginning to wonder just what it might be like to join in. Every day, falling just a little bit farther away, until one morning another bee stopped him.
“Hey, you! You aren’t from around here, are you?”
Apis froze, and then turned slowly to face the inquisitor. He had a choice. He could answer falsely, and remain safe, or truthfully, and take his chances. He thought about it quickly, and then took a deep breath before he replied.
No. 265
December 10, 2012
Alan Conner deviated from his regular routine and turned left into the coffee shop, instead of crossing the street.
The barista behind the counter greeted him cheerfully, but he ignored her for the moment and concentrated on taking in his surroundings. His phone beeped at him quietly to remind him of an important appointment, but he ignored that, too.
“Sir, can I help you?” the barista asked again, mistaking Conner’s silence for indecision.
“Yes, thank you,” he replied. “Coffee, please.”
She looked at him strangely. “What kind of coffee?”
“I was just thinking about how I’ve never been in here before,” said Conner.
“We have light, or dark roast on, or we can make you any kind of latte that you want,” said the barista helpfully.
Conner’s phone began to ring. He fumbled to silence it.
“Busy day?” asked the barista.
Conner smiled. “No, not really.”
A line was beginning to form behind him, but he didn’t see it.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the barista. “I’ll get them to make you a latte. You’ll like it. It’ll be on me, today.” She directed Conner to the other side of the counter.
“Really nice place you’ve got here,” he said as he made his way over. Then he collapsed.
Somebody in line screamed. The barista ran around the bar to Conner’s side. “Call 911,” she yelled at her colleague who was near the phone.
“Hold still,” she told Conner. “Are you ok?”
“I’m awfully glad I came in,” replied Conner dreamily. “It’s not what I usually do.” Another alarm on his phone began to ring, and he managed to summon the strength to throw the device towards a trash can. It didn’t make the distance, and it shattered as it landed on the tile floor short of the target.
“What’s your name?” he asked the barista. “I’ll have to come by here again, sometime.” Then he passed out.
The barista continued to kneel beside him, and watched the slow rise and fall of his chest.
The paramedics arrived and Conner was soon on a stretcher and out the door to a waiting ambulance.
“They forgot his briefcase,” said the barista to nobody.
No. 266
No. 238 Part 2
December 11, 2012
Protagonist was still unconvinced. “Ok, say that we did do that. How do we make up a story, especially an original story? The machine is never wrong. There’s nothing left!”
A grin began to spread across Antagonist’s face. “But we’re not human, are we?”
“No,” said Protagonist, now beginning to understand. “We’re not.”
Antagonist leaned in close. “It’s up to us.”
Protagonist nodded. He watched the flat line continue to display on the machine’s printout. “How do we begin?” he asked.
Antagonist was very still for a moment. Then he answered. “First, we need a hero.”
As he said the words, the line on the machine jumped slightly.
No. 267
December 12, 2012
The invasion began at 12:22 AM. Olivia Fielder had just finished her homework, and had been heading to bed. Her father was shouting from downstairs. “Everybody get in the basement!”
Olivia had never heard her dad sound so afraid. She ran down the stairs, taking them two steps at a time. As she crossed the living room, she caught a glimpse through the window of what was happening outside.
Strange, colored lights flashed in all directions. Everything they touched melted instantly. Olivia could just make out a giant, shadowy shape that was moving slowly towards her. She stood, frozen in place, until her dad grabbed her and dragged her back to the relative safety of the basement.
“Stay down!” he warned her.
She could see the panic in his eyes. Her mother and little sister were already in the corner, shaking, but silent.
The entire house rumbled as something huge rolled by. The Fielder family huddled closer together and followed the sound as it passed. Olivia could feel the hairs on her arms stand up.
“What about Brooke?” asked Olivia’s sister. Brooke was a friend from down the block.
Mr. Fielder delivered grim news. “We can’t worry about Brooke right now.”
Something in her sister’s question rallied Olivia. Before anyone could stop her, she got up and dashed toward the exit. “I’m going to find out,” she told her astonished family. She rushed up the stairs and darted out across the lawn toward Brooke’s house.
“Stuff you, if you thought that the last thing that I was ever going to do was study!” she yelled at the attacking armada.
No. 268
December 13, 2012
William Drake had been raised, since he was very young, to act like the King. The King was the same age as William, and the two boys were identical in appearance. But William was poor, and his family had decided for him that when the time came and he was sufficiently trained, that he would switch places with the King and rule in his place.
Years of practice in combat, diplomacy, manners, and law, not to mention memorizing all of the members of the court, had left William as ready as he would ever be to usurp the throne by the time of his 16th birthday.
However, as his family readied the final steps of their nefarious plan, something unexpected happened. The King died, gruesomely and publicly, in a terrible accident. The new regent was a queen, the deceased ruler’s cousin.
There was only one way to salvage the years of preparation and specific training William’s family had invested. He was sent to the castle to play the part of an undead visitor, as a shade who could bend the ear of the Queen to the whims of the Drakes. 
No. 269
December 14, 2012
Davis Purdy watched the numbers on the clock tick down toward zero. He didn’t know what would happen when the time ran out, but he was guessing that it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
The clock had appeared in the center of town the night before with no clue as to where it came from or who had built it. Its solid stone sides concealed the inner workings rather effectively. Square, flat black, and massive, the only feature was the face, with the ominous, decreasing digits.
He studied it as it fell to 620460. Judging from the rate of decay, that would roll over in a little under a week. Purdy pulled a drill from his tool belt and, with half the town looking on from what was assumed to be a safe distance, pressed the bit into the rock.
It didn’t bite, and the gathered crowd was overwhelmed by a loud chime from the mysterious clock. The numbers began to change faster.
No. 270
December 15, 2012
Danny rode in the caboose because his father drove the train. This had always been the case, until the day they stopped for water in a small desert town.
“Come up to the front, Danny,” his father called over the radio. “There’s lots to see from up here.”
No. 271
December 16, 2012
The high-dive platform was awfully high.
“Just jump, already!” somebody yelled from the bottom.
“Hurry up! The rest of us want to go, too!” called somebody else.
Grace Logan crept closer to the edge. She peered down at the brilliant blue water below. She could see the white lines painted on the bottom of the pool, but, from her perspective, they seemed to float up near the surface. They looked like unpleasant obstacles, to be sure.
The shouts from down below were becoming more insistent.  “Come on, scaredy!”
Grace backed away from the drop. She decided that today was not going to be the day that she made her first jump off of the big board. She climbed slowly back down the ladder, hoping that maybe the line-up for the waterslide wasn’t too long.
The boy at the front of the line who’d been screaming the most passed Grace on his way up. “Going to find your mom to help you?” the bully sneered.
Grace punched him right in the face. She was only afraid of heights, not fights.
No. 272
December 17, 2012
Way out, past Guardsville, there is a lone cabin at the edge of the river. Nobody has ever gone that far into the woods to see it, except for the time Lorne Johnson lost his canoe paddle and got swept downstream.
He came back with what might be our only description of the place. Certainly, though, the story has been embellished since the first telling.
They say he saw it on a Tuesday. I can tell you right away that this doesn’t make sense. I know for a fact that Lorne meets his girlfriend, Kelly, on Tuesdays, and that she won’t go within a mile of the river. She thinks it’s dirty.
He spoke of a single lantern hung up outside the door, and some kind of monster shadow behind the boarded-up windows. Yes, a shadow behind windows that are covered in wood. I told you, this town will do things to a story that would make your mother blush.
There might have been singing, or eerie music, and Lorne claims it wasn’t in English. I suppose that’s fair. We’ll give him that one.
Since he managed to make his way home, two weeks later, and after fighting off such dangers as lights and shadows, Lorne says that he thinks he’s being followed. But only ever on Tuesdays. He thinks it’s the “Dark Lady” who lives in the cabin, but we all assume it’s just Trisha, his Friday girlfriend.
Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you about the other part of the story, where there’s a pulsating glow in the sky, and “huge-normous” “snake-tracks” in the ground. I usually try to leave that bit out when I recount the tale to company, because I heard it from Reg Dalton, and he’s even less credible than Lorne.
What we can safely assume from all of this is that, at some point in his life, Lorne has seen a cabin, or cabin-like structure, that he knows what a song is, and that I should probably move, because the folks around here are plum crazy. 
No. 273
The Flower Shop Part 2
December 18, 2012
“Laura tells me about them,” he added quickly, feeling that his first explanation wasn’t quite adequate.
Sally’s face lit up. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she assured him. “Men can be interested in flowers, too.”
“I like them,” he said, looking Sally in the eyes. He knew right away that he shouldn’t have. They both shifted imperceptibly closer to each other.
“Laura should be done soon,” said Sally. A large frond swept her cheek, and she instinctively brushed it away.
Sean nodded, and swallowed hard. “I like the cactuses,” he said, deliberately choosing his words while turning from the new girl.
“That’s not news.”
Sean spun around. Laura was standing in the narrow doorway to the tropical section. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, flipping her hair out of a ponytail.
Sally had disappeared. For the first time, Sean could feel sweat on his brow. The damp atmosphere seemed to hold him in place. If he tried hard enough, he could still smell perfume lingering in air. 
“Why are you waiting? Let’s go,” said Laura. She was bouncing from heel to toe with excited energy.
Sean walked towards her, severing the last connection to the charged space. He held out his hand for hers as they made their way back through the store to the exit.
On the way out, Laura pointed at a large plant with bladelike dark green and yellow leaves. “Sansevieria trifasciata,” she told him. “Remember that from last time?”

Sean shook his head.

Sally waved from behind the counter. “Goodnight!” she called.

“That’s Sally,” whispered Laura. “She’s new.”

“I know,” said Sean. “We met.”

Then they left the flower shop.

No. 274
December 19, 2012
Then Caitlin Wright woke up. It had all been a dream.

But what a dream it had been. Caitlin lay in bed and pulled the covers up over her head, trying to recapture something she couldn’t quite recall.

Her alarm went off moments later, and she remembered that today was the day of the heist. Rolling upright, she shrugged off the warm blanket and padded to her closet. She opened the door and looked down at the man who was duct-taped and gagged on the floor.

He made some muffled noises of protest as she reached around him for her favorite shirt. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “After we rob your armored truck, we’ll let you go.” She bent down and removed his uniform jacket. As she did, she made sure his bonds were still tight.

Hearing her ride pull up outside and honk, she straightened up and squinted at the morning sun that was streaming in through the window. She yawned and spoke again to her captive. “It’s too early, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what. If you’re good, and everything goes to plan, I’ll bring you back a coffee.”

No. 275
December 20, 2012
Today, Boy was going to meet Girl. He just didn’t know it yet. 

There would be a series of challenges, and events would have to fall into place just so between now and then, but the introductions would happen by sundown.

Boy woke up and left his house.

Girl got on the bus for work.

The future was in motion. 

No. 276
Golden Age Part 2
December 21, 2012
“We’re all here,” said Spitfire.

When at an official meeting, all the residents of Golden Age used their code names.

“Excellent,” said Mercury. Then he noticed that Spitfire’s statement wasn’t entirely correct. “Where’s Nuclear Boy?”

Mary spoke up from the back. “He’s in the nurse’s office. He’ll be along later.”

“Well, we can’t wait for him. We’re old. Meeting’s starting,” said Mercury. “As you all may have heard, Golden Age is closing. That’s the first issue. The second is that my mail’s been going missing. I know my old partner Tidal Wave sends a letter every week. Last month, I didn’t get two. And this month there’s already been one that’s disappeared.”

“Tell us more about the closing,” said Electra-Girl.

“Yes,” said The Iron Spike. “Nobody cares about your mail.”

Mercury turned to Mary. “They want to know,” he said, giving her the floor.

Mary ran down the short list of facts about the closing. In two months, the residents would have to move out, and then the building would be knocked down and replaced with a big-box store.

The angry shouts of the residents began to drown out Mary’s soft voice.

“Quiet down,” said Mercury. “What we’re going to do is quite simple. Spitfire and Electra-Girl are going to head out to the old Headquarters and bring back the Confederate gold from the trophy room. Remember that case? That should help with the finances. At the same time, I’m going to head straight down to the new Director’s office and find out about my letters.”

There was a muted buzz of voices. All the ex-heroes agreed with the plan. It did sound simple, and it would solve the pressing problem of possible relocation. They agreed to reconvene when Spitfire and Electra-Girl returned with the money.

John went straight to the Director’s office. The secretary let him in, and he sat in front of the large desk and waited. He did not appreciate the delay.

Some minutes later, the Director entered from a side door. He crossed the wide room slowly and sat down in his oversized chair.

Both men stared at each other.

“Mercury,” said the Director icily. “How good to see you.”

“Professor Death, my old nemesis,” John replied. “I thought you died in Burma.”

No. 277

January 4, 2013

The conveyor belt ground to a halt. In a distant part of the vast factory, an alarm whooped forlornly.
“It wouldn’t be so bad without all the noise,” said Barney Yates.
“I suppose,” said Kelly Ashford. She wasn’t a talker.
The pair had worked together on the same line for almost seven years, although they rarely spoke.
“Seems like it’s been shutting down a lot more recently,” said Yates. Then he waited patiently for a reply.
“Yup,” agreed Kelly.
“Equipment’s getting old,” Barney offered as an explanation that Kelly hadn’t asked for. “Or I guess it could be something else, too.”
In response, she took a sandwich out of her lunch box and began to eat it deliberately. “Sorry. Chewing,” she said, while pointing at her mouth.
“Hey, that’s fine by me. We all gotta eat, right?” said Barney, undeterred, and not catching the hint. “Sure is nice to have a break.”
There was a great mechanical rumble as the machines began to spool up again. The alarm shut off, and a buzzer announced the impending start of the equipment.
Kelly and Barney began their work again, and continued to do so for the rest of the day. When the whistle blew to signal the end of their shift, Barney continued the conversation where he’d left off.
“Any plans tonight?” he asked.
“Nope,” said Kelly. She checked her watch. “I’ve got to run.”
“Okay,” said Barney. “Talk to you tomorrow!”
No. 278
January 5, 2013
“What happened?” Alan asked his friend Sam.

“You know that homeless guy who hangs out behind the Starbucks? He bit me,” Sam replied, cradling his forearm.

“Were you bothering him?”

“I don’t think so. I was just coming out with my drink.”

Alan shrugged. “Sucks.”

“Yeah, it stings, too,” said Sam testily.

They continued walking toward Alan’s car, parked a ways down the block.

Sam staggered, and then fell against a wall.

Alan leapt to help him up. By doing so, he just missed getting vaporized by a thick bolt of light that hit the ground where he’d just been standing.

A shadow fell over the two men. Sam looked up to see an enormous flying saucer hovering above them.

Alan turned to him and offered a completely unnecessary observation. “I didn’t think we were going to go in that direction.”

No. 279
January 7, 2013
I only saw her for a second. She passed in front of the store window and, as she did, she tucked a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear.

I was stuck inside, ringing up a complete jerk who didn’t believe that I knew how to calculate ten percent off. I should have thrown his stupid sweater in his stupid face and run after her.  I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably never see her again.

It was months later, and also my last day on the job. I was moving west, to a state that people usually move from. I was almost ready to go for my lunch break when she walked in.

“I need a shirt,” she told me.

“For yourself, or somebody else?” I asked her. Now that she was here, I could smell her perfume. Some sort of flower. I’m not an expert.

“For a friend,” she said, not exactly narrowing the options. “A girl, um, women friend,” she added, realizing the need to be specific.

“Right over here,” I told her, directing her to the correct department.

I helped her sort through a few choices, answering simple questions about styles and sizing. I suddenly had a feeling that maybe I was watching her too closely. Maybe I was getting a little bit creepy.

I walked into the store on a whim. My friend’s birthday was coming up and I hadn’t had time to find her a present yet. The guy behind the counter looked a little bit like somebody that I’d gone to school with, but I don’t think it was the same person, because he didn’t recognize me.

“I need a shirt,” I told him.

He was very helpful, even when I was useless in describing what I wanted. I can’t expect the clerk to know what kind of thing I’m shopping for. Unless he was a mind-reading clerk, but I’m pretty sure my darkest secrets are still safe.

He was standing a little close, though. I chose to allow it. He was being nice, after all.

I found a couple things I liked, and we took them to the till.

“Do you have a loyalty account yet?” he asked.

I told him no, and he explained about the deals you could get with that.

“Sign me up,” I told him. “My name’s July.”

She told me her name was July. At first I thought she was setting up a bogus account to get the discounts but not the junk mail. She explained that it really was her name, and that she had sisters named January and April. Her story sounded credible enough, so I set it up for her.

“And now the hard part,” I said. “I just need your phone number.”

He asked for my phone number. So I gave it to him.

No. 280
January 8, 2013
Although dogs and chimps had traditionally been used to test man’s space faring vessels, it was a squirrel that was the first earth-creature to make it to Mars.

Nobody was a hundred percent clear on why a squirrel had been chosen. It was whispered in the corridors of the International Space Agency that a squirrel had simply been the first animal acquired by the test department and had therefore been pressed into service due to a certain laziness on the part of the technicians. This rumor was neither confirmed nor denied by those in charge.

Now the animal, unimaginatively named Number One, was in the final stages of descent to the Red Planet. The microphones placed in the capsule to monitor Number One sent back the sounds of vigorous chittering. The camera had failed to come online, and so Mission Control could only guess at the exact emotional state of their rodent subject.

When all the lights on the monitoring consoles turned green, the humans knew that the landing had been successful. A man in the back row keyed his radio and gave the order to release Number One into the modified exercise ball that was to be his primary means of transport across the Martian world.

The history books, somewhat erroneously, would record the squirrel’s name as “Skippy”.

No. 281
January 9, 2013
Rob Tiller had been tied up and set adrift on the lake in a small boat. He struggled to free himself but could not manage to loosen the binding ropes. His attempts to escape became more urgent when he realized that the boat had a leak. Rob estimated that he’d be underwater within the hour.

Tiller’s problems had all started the day before, when his best friend double-crossed him. The betrayal was over a bet, of all things, not even a girl.

No. 282
January 11, 2013
“Where’s my party shirt?” asked Scott.

“You mean that ratty blue one you always try to wear?” said his girlfriend, Hilary.

“It’s not ratty. It’s fine,” said Scott, taking a stand in a battle he couldn’t win.

“I don’t know,” said Hilary. “Last time I saw it was after that thing at the Fleury’s house.”

“You know I can’t party without it,” said Scott. He was rooting through his closet frantically, and was beginning to suspect that Hilary had followed through on her repeated threats to burn the shirt in question.

“Why don’t you wear that nice green shirt you got for your birthday?” suggested Hilary, trying to distract Scott from discovering that she had, in fact, thrown out his shirt.

“It’s not comfortable,” said Scott. “And it’s not fun.”

Hilary put her foot down. “Wear the green shirt.”

Scott gave her the stink-eye, but did as he was told. He knew, in that moment, what she had done.

No. 283
January 12, 2013
The chickens had been hearing rumors for some time that a fox was planning to raid the henhouse. They gathered together to examine their options to prevent the fox from attacking.

“I propose,” said the head chicken, “That we band together and, when the fox arrives, we fight him!”

“Aye!” said all the other chickens. “Aye!”

Three nights later the fox crept toward the darkened henhouse. The head chicken, who had been keeping watch, spotted the fox and called to the others. “To arms, friends! To arms! It’s time to repel the villainous fox!”

But the other chickens had gone. They had realized that they were chickens who had been planning to defeat a fox in open combat. The head chicken re-evaluated his strategy and ran away, too.

The fox ate all the delicious eggs and went back to its den to take a nap. 

No. 284
January 14, 2013
When I worked at the Sunshine Bean, our biggest rivalry wasn’t with the Java Stop down the street. It was with the 80th Street Sunshine Bean, three blocks away. They always seemed to outperform our sales by the slightest of margins, and their reviews were always just a little bit higher.

Our sister store was, to us, a strange, unpleasant place to visit. Even though it had a similar floor plan, and the exact same decor, it was off somehow. And not just because everything was kept one drawer over to the left. The staff were, obviously, not as friendly as ours and, to be honest, we had at least four or five people a day walk into our store to have their drinks fixed that 80th Street had made wrong.

At the time, of course, we all just considered it healthy competition. It wasn’t until I’d moved on from Sunshine Bean that I began to hear rumors of what actually went down at 80th Street. I’d get messages from friends who still worked for the company. Odd messages in the middle of the night.  I found a note under the windshield wiper of my car. All the correspondence said the same thing.

“It happens at night.”

My curiosity was piqued, and one evening, well past my bedtime, I drove by the 80th Street Sunshine Bean. The lights were on, and there were people moving around inside. It was past closing, and according to standard practices, nobody should have been there. I parked around the corner, and moved closer on foot.

They were loading something into a trap door in the floor that certainly wasn’t in the plans of my store. And the something they were loading, though obscured in a large canvas sack, was squirming.

Then one of them saw me. They yelled to the others, and the entire group scattered. The lights were quickly shut off. It was too late for me to run. I pulled out my phone and pointed the camera at the storefront.

I called out into the darkness. “Let me in, or your secret gets revealed.”

No. 285
January 15, 2013
The letter was addressed to her but the apartment number was off by one digit. I should have just taken it over, but I opened it. Now I knew something about my neighbor that I’m sure she’d want to keep quiet.
I debated doing nothing. She’d never suspect that it came to me. Mail gets lost all the time. But this, this letter, she needed to get. I couldn’t look at myself if I kept it from her. Then I realized that if I stuffed it under her door, I’d be home free. She’d know her secret was out, but she wouldn’t be able to pin it on me.
I was kneeling in front of her apartment, ready to do the deed, when her door opened. Her eyes locked on mine as I froze, evidence in hand.
 “I see that somebody’s been a naughty girl,” she said, her face darkening.
No. 286
January 16, 2013
The oasis had been a closely guarded secret for a thousand years. Those who knew about it visited only infrequently, and only in times of most desperate need. It was whispered that the waters stole five years of life for every taste. Men, crazed with thirst, would risk the curse to wet their tongues.
The traveler stood atop the dune that separated the oasis from his caravan. He knew the others had no idea they were so close to a spring. The traveler remembered his father’s warning and wanted to turn away, but he had no choice. They had been without water for more than a day, by now. The desert sun was extracting a heavy toll. He thought about his wife and son, waiting in the valley below. Could they make it to safety, still another day away? He knew the decision he had to make, and, with a conflicted heart, he made his way down the sandy slope to inform the others.
Better to live now, and worry about the future later.
No. 287
January 17, 2013
When the time came, Robert’s house split down the middle, and the rocket rose up on its gantry.
Robert stood by and watched his masterpiece. He sipped his tea, and admired the name painted on the front of the sleek craft.
“Perseverance”.
He smiled.
No. 288
January 18, 2013
Christy Anne Taylor was at the bottom of a wishing well, feeling around in the shallow, stagnant water and shoveling coins into a backpack she’d received as a free gift with a magazine subscription.
“Hurry up, C.A.,” her boyfriend Randy called from the top of the shaft. “Somebody’s pulling into the parking lot.”
“If you wanted to hurry, why didn’t you crawl on down here?” she yelled back. “Go hide in the truck ‘till they leave. They’re not going to look in here.”
Randy did as he was told. It was pork chop night and, if Christy Anne got angry, she would only make enough for her.
The car eventually left, and Randy returned to the scene of the crime-in-progress. “Some kids,” he reported. “Making out.”
“That’s fantastic,” said Christy Anne. “I think I’m about done, here. Pull me up.”
She grabbed the well-bucket rope, and Randy dutifully hauled her to the surface.
“What’s the smell?” he asked as she crawled back onto the grass.
“You watch your mouth, Randy,” she said.
“How much did we get tonight?” he asked.
“’Bout seven fifty,” she told him. “And a pair of sunglasses.”
No. 289
Choose Your Own Adventure 1
January 21, 2013
Shannon Harper pulled out her pen and notebook. “What happens to the ghost?” she asked the small crowd of construction workers.  
“Ghost?” replied the foreman, Frank Gretz. “I don’t know anything about a ghost.”
Harper shook her head. “You’re tearing something down, and you haven’t even considered what might happen? The place is haunted.”
They both looked at the structure in question. One of the town’s original buildings, the general store was being bulldozed to make way for a new shopping center.
“Look, I understand you need to write your story for the paper, but we’ve got a job to do, too. I can’t spend all day talking about nonsense,” said Gretz.
“It’s not nonsense,” countered Harper. “It’s our history. So, again, what happens to the ghost?”
Gretz spat on the ground. “I reckon he’ll get the hint when the walls come down.”
No. 290
Choose Your Own Adventure 2
January 22, 2013
The ghost watched the proceedings from a second-floor window. She set her head down on the sill and tried to think of a way to stop the demolition of her home. In retrospect, perhaps she’d been too keen on haunting the former owners of her shop. Maybe if she’d let them alone they wouldn’t have sold out to ValuMart.

Until now, she’d been relatively benign. Her haunting hadn’t been malevolent. She’d done it primarily to keep busy. There was only so much that a spirit trapped in a single building could do with their time. She’d made the walls bleed, once, but that had been an accident. When she was younger, she hadn’t yet realized the extent of her powers.   

She’d always had bad luck, too, dating back to before the day, ninety-seven years ago, that she’d been killed during a botched robbery.

She saw the fat man spit. She could barely hear his voice.

“He called me a ‘he’,” she muttered to herself. “If only he stepped inside, I could convince him to step right back out. And to take his machinery with him.”

Her words had a touch of fear to them. So far as she understood, if the building was razed, she’d cease to exist. She’d made it through one death, but she wasn’t going to roll over and let it happen a second time.

She placed her head back on her neck and floated downstairs. There wasn’t much time to prepare.

No. 291
Choose Your Own Adventure 3
January 23, 2013
Harper realized that the foreman wasn’t going to be cooperative. She changed her approach. “Can I go inside?” she asked Gretz. “Maybe I can get some color for my story.”
Gretz waved her on dismissively. “Be my guest,” he told her. “We start the tear-down in twenty minutes. You’ll hear a siren go once with five minutes left, and then twice with one minute left.”
Harper nodded, then adjusted her glasses and marched up to the front door of the store.
The ghost saw Harper enter the building. She waited until the reporter was fully inside to trigger her trap. To start, the door swung shut and locked tight.  Then the ghost chilled the air in the room and projected a knife at Harper’s head. The woman managed to dodge the blade. She dove to the floor, where she was left curled up in a shivering heap.
“It’s ok,” the woman called out from the ground. “I know you exist. I’m trying to help you.”
The ghost was startled. She hadn’t counted on an ally.
“What’s your name?” Harper asked the apparently empty room. “Mine’s Shannon.” Gathering her courage, she stood up slowly. “Hello?”
The ghost considered her options.  When was the last time somebody had tried to talk to her? Was this person telling the truth? The ghost decided that there was no harm in responding. If need be, she could always murder the human later. She gathered herself, and tried to remember how to speak to the living, again.
“I was called Ruby Florence,” said the ghost.
Harper’s jaw dropped. “Ruby, you’re real!” She paused, and frowned. “I can’t see you.” Then her reporter’s instincts kicked in and she fished in her pocket for her notebook and pen. If she could break this story, she’d be set for life. She took a deep breath to begin asking questions.
A wailing scream interrupted the thought. It was the warning siren. Harper checked her watch and cursed. “He was supposed to give me fifteen minutes!”
No. 292
Choose Your Own Adventure 4
January 24, 2013
Harper ran to the door. “I’m not coming out!” she yelled at the construction workers.
Two of them started to come towards her, but Gretz waved them off. “I want everyone ready to go,” he told them. “I’ll deal with the crazy lady.”
He picked up a bullhorn and aimed it at the store. “The demolition starts in five minutes, ghost or no ghosts. You need to evacuate the building or I’m calling the police.”
Harper turned to where she thought Ruby Florence might be. “I guess I’m all-in on your side, now. And they’re not going to come in to confirm you’re here. I don’t suppose there’s any way you could prove your existence to somebody who’s not actually on the premises, is there?”
The ghost didn’t respond immediately, and Harper began to wonder if she was making the right choice by staying. Had she really been speaking to an undead spirit? Then she saw the knife that was still embedded in the wall, confirming the events of the last few minutes. “Hey,” she called. “Remember how you just tried to kill me for trying to help you? You owe me a reply, at least.”
Ruby Florence floated back down to where Harper was standing. The ghost concentrated hard and a shimmering outline of her form began to appear.
“You’ve got no head!” was the first thing Harper said.
The ghost laughed. It had been so long. “That is true,” she told her new human friend.
Gretz hailed them again on the bullhorn. “Last chance, lady.”
The ghost ignored the hail, and answered Harper’s question. “I can’t leave. They will need to come to us.”
Harper’s eyes narrowed. She was thinking hard. “Is that for sure? I mean, you must have tried to escape before, but is there a rulebook or something? Can we talk to anybody?”
No. 293
Choose Your Own Adventure 5
January 25, 2013
“I’m sorry,” said Ruby Florence. “Everything I know, I learned from a ghost next door. We would speak through the walls. When the hotel burned, he disappeared. I haven’t had contact with anything since. It’s been almost fifty years.”
Harper bit her lip. She stole a glance out of the window. “I understand,” she allowed. “Maybe it was too much for me to hope for that we’d stumble across some magic bullet.”
 “If we can delay the crew until five, they’ll go home for the night. That’ll buy us some time,” said Harper as she turned away from the window.
But movement outside caught her eye. She ducked back towards the blinds and peered through. “It’s the police,” she told the ghost. “Gretz wasn’t kidding.”
“They’ll come in,” said the ghost. “They’ll come in and drag you out.”
It appeared that the ghost’s words were correct. Soon there were several cruisers parked outside the store, and Harper watched as a line of officers approached the building.
“I need to hide,” Harper told Ruby Florence.
“We can do that,” the ghost confirmed with a grim smile. “Follow me.”
Harper was led upstairs to a small room that had been used as an office. A large cabinet dominated the space.
“In here,” Ruby Florence directed, pointing with the same hand that held her head. “There is a secret compartment.”
Harper ran to the cabinet, but the ghost moved to block her path.
“No,” said Ruby Florence. “Tap twice on the floorboard in the far corner.”
Harper followed the instructions and a section of the floor dropped down and slid aside. There was a space underneath, just big enough for a person. Harper wasted no time climbing down and replacing the hatch. She looked up through a small knothole and saw the ghost’s face directly above her.
“They won’t find you there,” said the ghost. “But I intend for them to find me.”
Then she disappeared.
“Wait!” Harper called. “I thought we were in this together!”
There was no reply from the ghost, and Harper heard the police break through the downstairs door.
No. 294
Choose Your Own Adventure 6
January 26, 2013
The police moved through the first floor of the building quickly, checking all the places somebody could hide. They were wary, but not nervous. They knew who their target was and that she was unarmed. They didn’t know that she had a supernatural partner.
The ghost let the officers get to the middle of the building before she made her move. As when Harper had entered, the ghost slammed all the doors shut, trapping the squad. This time, however, Ruby Florence did not bother with knives.
The lead policeman turned around to face his team and leveled his gun at them. “You are not wanted here,” he told them.
Ruby Florence had possessed him. She watched through his eyes as the other members tried to make sense of their leader’s disturbing behavior. Slowly, they all placed their weapons on the floor. “This is my home,” said the ghost, with the officer’s voice. “You will not let the fat man destroy it.”
“Captain,” said one of the hostages. “You need help.”
The ghost pointed the gun at the speaker. “Your captain isn’t here right now. My name is Ruby Florence. And you will be silent.”
Another officer spoke. “Sir, what are you talking about?”
Ruby Florence did not hesitate. A chair flew at the officer’s head, striking him squarely and opening a large gash. He fell to the ground, unconscious. At the same time, everything in the room began to levitate. The wooden walls began to vibrate alarmingly, sending small splinters flying toward the cowering police.
The man under Ruby Florence’s control stood quietly in the middle of the maelstrom, calm, and untouched by the dangerous debris.
As quickly as the assault began, it ended. Everything in the air collapsed back to earth and clattered to a stop. The room was deathly quiet.
 There was no fight left in the prisoners.
“Now,” said Ruby Florence. “You will take my message to the fat man. This will serve you as a sign that I am serious.”
She pointed the Captain’s gun at his own head. Her spectral fingers helped his to slowly squeeze the trigger.
Harper was cowering in her hideaway. She hadn’t seen any of the confrontation downstairs. She was holding her breath when she heard the gunshot.
No. 295
Choose Your Own Adventure 7
January 27, 2013
The Captain’s body crumpled to the ground. Ruby Florence was left standing in his place. She chose to show herself to the remaining police officers. They all saw her holding her severed head in her hand and pointing at them.
“Go,” she said.
And they did, dragging the wounded man with them but leaving the corpse behind.
Harper stayed quiet as long as she could, but she lay in a cold sweat. Had the ghost really murdered a man? Harper had to know, so she chanced being caught by anybody still searching, and left her hiding place.
She went downstairs and peered around the corner, afraid of what she might see. The sight of the dead body caused her to throw up.
When she was finished, she screamed for the ghost. “What did you do? You’re a monster!”
Ruby Florence floated serenely into the room. “Only what I had to,” she said casually.
“You killed him,” said Harper. “How could you? I was trying to help you.”
The ghost shrugged her shoulders, a gesture made obscene by her lack of a head. “Now he’s motivated,” she explained.
Harper was confused. She felt something on her shoulder. She spun around to see the Captain’s ghost. The gunshot wound made her vomit, again.
Ruby Florence came closer to Harper. “Walk to the window and tell them my demands,” she whispered.
The deceased Captain, now linked to the soon-to-be demolished building, was on Harper’s other side, and was not going to let her get away, either. He tried to speak, but his shattered jaw couldn’t form words that Harper could make out. She understood what he wanted, though.
She went to the window to deliver her message. “Mr. Gretz,” she called to the line-up of police and spectators who were huddled behind a makeshift barricade. “You need to come in, or they’ll kill me, too.”
No. 296
Choose Your Own Adventure 8
January 28, 2013
“I’m sorry, Miss Harper,” replied Gretz over a loudspeaker. “The police have instructed me not to enter the building.”
Harper was in trouble. She knew that Ruby Florence was growing desperate. The murder of the captain proved that the spirits were no longer content with a simple haunting. They would fight to keep their residence intact. And they were only likely to leave Harper alive if she was useful to them.
Gretz’s refusal meant that Harper’s usefulness was quickly running out.
The police appeared to be busy preparing something. Harper knew, too, that if they tried to assault the house again that her life would be in great danger. She was shivering as she stood, exposed, waiting for a response from either of the parties locked in the standoff.
Suddenly, Harper broke into a run and dashed toward the door. If the ghosts were trapped in the building, they couldn’t follow her outside. Their plan to put her between themselves and the police had been a mistake. She was so close to freedom.
The police marksman was watching the house through his rifle scope. He studied the woman at the window as she made demands. She was remarkably unafraid for somebody who’d reportedly just killed a cop. The marksman was friends with many of the men on the team that had entered the general store and was waiting for his chance to avenge the Captain. The marksman was a little sad, though. He’d read Shannon Harper’s column for years. He pushed that feeling aside. It would be easy enough to replace that part of his day.
When Harper made her break for the door, his readied himself to shoot. His earpiece buzzed with instructions. If she made it to the doorway, he was to take the shot.
Ruby Florence saw Harper dash toward the border of the ghosts’ influence. The ghost had to move quickly to counter the escape attempt.
She attempted to gain control of Harpers consciousness. Within a moment, she’d succeeded.
Harper felt the foreign presence in her mind. Her body and will were suddenly not under her control any longer. The only sensation that she recognized was fear. Harper’s footsteps slowed, and Ruby Florence began to force her away from the exit.
Harper was close enough to the boundary, though, that the ghost’s power was not as strong as it was in the middle of the building. Harper fought the possession, and was able to break free for an instant. She lunged toward the fading daylight on the porch. 
She stumbled and fell as she felt a burning pain. She came to rest against the doorframe, wavering precariously between two worlds.
No. 297
Choose Your Own Adventure 9
January 29, 2013
Ruby Florence was waiting.
After Harper was shot, the police had pulled her body away. Then they’d stormed the building again, looking for accomplices. The ghost made sure that not all of them made it back out, and the rest had called for a retreat to assess the situation. Now they were just watching, probably preparing for another assault.
The ghost was alone in the upstairs room where Harper had sheltered. The other, new ghosts were downstairs, adjusting to their new existence. Ruby Florence was angry that Harper was not one of them. She had heard the police telling each other that Harper had been the one that killed the Captain. Nobody seemed to remember that the murderer had been seen with a missing head.
The demolition crew had gone home. Even the repellent fat man had been sent on his way. The ghost would have one more night, at least.
The nurse had gone, and Harper was alone. She watched the news on the TV that the nurse had left on. The only story being reported was the one that Harper had initiated that afternoon. Then, it had been an interesting piece of local history. Now, it was a tragedy. 
With a dramatic musical sting, the news anchor began to speak. “We’ve just received word that possible accomplices of the alleged murderer, Shannon Harper, have killed again. Four more officers are dead following an attempt to search the premises of the former 80th Avenue General Store. With Harper currently in custody at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, it is unclear at this time who is responsible for the most recent attacks.”
Harper stiffened. Ruby Florence wasn’t finished. And the police would keep sending men in, to their deaths, not realizing the true nature of the thing that was inside the building.
For several hours, Harper wrestled with her options.
She could do nothing, and hope the police realized that they were being attacked by a vengeful spirit.
That would clear her name, but the chances of it happening were almost nonexistent, and it was unlikely to occur before the ghost used lethal force again. 
She could tell the truth. But she was sure that nobody would listen. They would discount the explanation that same way that the fat man had. 
Or, being the only person who knew the true story, she could do something to stop Ruby Florence.
The only problem with that plan was that, by taking that path, Harper would still be the only person linked to murders. 
It was almost sunrise when she made up her mind.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, she disconnected the IVs and wires that were taped to her body.  Using a needle she’d just removed, she managed to pick the lock on the handcuffs. The same needle served as an improvised weapon when she threatened the guard outside the door. She ordered the guard back into the room, then locked him in and escaped down the hall. 
Gretz woke up to the doorbell. He threw on his robe and padded down the stairs to answer.
“You’re coming with me,” said the person on his porch. It took him a second to place the strange visitor. Disheveled and bandaged, it was Harper. She had something in her hands. It looked like it could be a gun.
“Don’t hurt me,” Gretz pleaded. “They told me what to do.”
“Shut up,” said Harper. “I’m not here about that. But we need to go. There’s not a lot of time.”
They arrived at the general store at first light. Gretz flashed his ID at the officer posted at perimeter of the site, now a crime scene. “I have to secure my equipment,” he told the guard. He was waved through.
“Pull up as close as you can,” whispered Harper from the back seat. “Get ready to jump out.”
Gretz did as he was told and parked just behind the police line. Then, with slight hesitation, he followed Harper’s orders as they both leapt from the car and ran toward the storefront.
The police were too surprised to see somebody going toward the building that they were too late to stop the trespassing pair.
The ghost smiled as she watched the scene unfold.
“Florence,” called Harper. “I’ve got somebody here who I think you’d like to talk to.”
Ruby Florence floated down the stairs and materialized by the door. She noticed that Harper was careful not to cross the threshold.
“It’s real,” said the fat man.
“Of course I am,” she told him. She turned her attention to Harper. “I’m glad you were able to do as I asked.”
“Oh,” said Harper casually. “He’s not here to talk to you. I just needed a credible witness to see you and clear my name.”
“What?” said the ghost, confused.
Ruby Florence watched in horror as Harper pulled the trigger on the gun she was holding. The ghost noticed, too late, that it was attached with a hose to something on Harper’s back.
Gasoline streamed from the gun’s plastic barrel. Harper made sure to cover the whole front of the building and to get some inside. Then she dipped her shoulders to shuck the tank from her back, and threw the entire apparatus through the door.
“Go,” she told Gretz. “Tell them what you saw.”
He didn’t need any more prompting and sprinted away, back toward the police.
Harper locked eyes with Ruby Florence. “You shouldn’t have killed. I could have helped you.”
“You didn’t,” replied the ghost.
“Maybe you didn’t deserve it,” said Harper. She flicked a lighter and tossed it into the building. Fueled by the gasoline, the structure was engulfed in seconds.
No. 298
Choose Your Own Adventure 10
January 30, 2013
Harper sat on the stool and picked up the phone. On the other side of the glass was Frank Gretz.
“In a way, it’s good to see you,” he said through his handset.
“I’m surprised you had it in you to come,” she said to him. “After what you told them at the trial.”
Gretz shrugged. “It all happened so quickly. You know how things go. We can never be too sure about what we’ve seen.” Then he paused before speaking again. “Especially after you tried to kill me.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Harper. “I never tried to kill you.” Then she realized. Her head jerked up. “It’s not him in there, is it?” she asked the ghost.
Gretz glanced at the officer standing behind him and asked to be let out of the visitor’s area.
Harper screamed and pounded on the partition. “It’s you! I know it’s you!” she yelled, until two prison guards reached her to drag her back to her cell.
“Keep quiet, Cop Killer,” one said as she rammed her nightstick into Harper’s belly. “If you keep this up for the rest of your life sentence, we’re going to get really tired of it.”
Shannon Harper spent a long time piecing together what must have happened. She learned from her former newspaper’s reports that her attempt at arson hadn’t burned down the entire structure. With the police and emergency crews already on the scene, they’d apparently been able to save enough of the building for the ghost to survive inside.
Gretz, who had been on the site every day during the rest of the demolition and construction, would have been a prime candidate for the ghost to inhabit in a desperate measure when the last parts of the store were taken down.
ValuMart’s grand opening was a huge success. Hundreds of people showed up to see the new store.
Among the shoppers was Frank Gretz.
He broke off from the crowd, and slipped past a door marked “Staff Only” to climb the stairs to the manager’s office. Once inside, he closed the door and fell immediately to the floor, dead.
Ruby Florence stood in the middle of the room, having shed the vessel that had carried her for the last year and a half. She placed her head on the window sill, like old times.
“It’s good to be home,” she said with a wicked smile. 
No. 299
January 31, 2013
Keith got on the bus and then immediately fell asleep. He woke up well past his usual stop, in an unfamiliar area of town.
He wasn’t concerned. It would be easy enough to hop off and take the same bus back in the direction of home. As he prepared to leave, the driver, who recognized him, asked him if he was sure that’s what he wanted to do.
“Next one doesn’t come for awhile,” cautioned the driver.
“That’s alright,” said Keith. “I’m not in any hurry.”
Keith stepped onto the pavement and crossed the street. He checked his watch. “No problem,” he told himself, and settled onto the bench to wait.
An hour passed. Keith got up to check the schedule on the pole beside the bus shelter. “I’ve never seen that before,” he muttered. The sign listed the arrivals for all the bus numbers except the one that Keith wanted. Under the column for his bus, the sign read “As Necessary”. 
Maybe it was time to call for a cab. Keith looked at his phone, but was rewarded with no service bars. He began to look very carefully at his surroundings. He was defiantly unfamiliar with the place.
But no matter, perhaps he could use somebody else’s phone.  He walked up to the door of an apartment near the bus stop and picked a random number to buzz.
There was an answer. “Hello?” said a garbled voice through the speaker.
“Hi,” said Keith. “My name’s Keith and I’ve missed my bus. I was wondering if you could let me in to use your phone?”
There was a pause, then an affirmative reply. “Of course,” said the voice. “Come on up.”
There was a tone, and Keith heard the click of the door unlocking. He made a note of the apartment number he’d contacted and entered the building. He made it to the dim hallway of the correct floor and, before he could knock, a door opened.
It was an attractive woman. She called Keith over. “You need the phone?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Keith replied.
She waved him into her flat. “There sure are a lot of you missing that bus,” she told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The 299?” she said. “You’re definitely not the first one who’s done exactly what you’re doing right now.”
“I see,” said Keith warily. “Just how many of us have there been?”
The woman hesitated. “Enough,” she answered cryptically. “Would you like some tea while you wait?”
No. 300
The Prank Part 4
February 3, 2013
It was the day before the last day of school.
Colin and Chrissy sat together on the steps of Charles Hall, watching the crowd watch the results of their prank. Colin produced a paper bag with a bottle inside, and two plastic mugs that he’d borrowed from the cafeteria. He set the cups on the ground, and poured cheap champagne into both.
He handed one to Chrissy, then raised his to salute her. “You were right. That was the best fifty dollars I ever spent,” he told her.
She snuggled up to him with a grin. “I told you so, Mr. Prank King.” She nodded at the frenzied scene in front of them. “How’s this for going out on top?”
Colin sipped his drink. “I don’t know if I’m finished,” he said. “I think with all the prep, I might have failed French.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
Another class ran past to see aftermath.
“And besides,” said Colin. “Now somebody’s going to have to go one better next year.”
Chrissy laughed. “You mean, ‘two somebodys’,” she clarified, as she put her arm around him.
Colin nodded. “Best plan, ever.”

The Prank

Part 1

No. 045 April 1, 2012

“A good prank leaves them talking about it for years to come. Simplicity is key. If they have to spend too long telling the story of the set-up, you’ve already blown it. Efficiency of storytelling,” Colin Charter told the semi-circle of freshmen seated in front of him. As a sixth-year senior still living in student housing, he had wisdom to pass on to the next generation.

“What if we make a phone call telling someone to meet up someplace, then mess with their room?” asked a pimple-faced girl.

“Nope. See, you’re already adding steps,” Charter told her. “Why the phone call in the first place? It would give the target a clue to your identity, and it complicates the story. ‘Oh, I got this weird phone call and blah blah blah.’ Boring! How about just getting to their room while they’re out? If you can’t manage that then you have no business pranking to begin with. And, really, is messing with their room the best you’ve got? Don’t answer that. Freshmen. Ugh,” he grunted with contempt.

“What would you suggest?” questioned a squeaky-voiced boy. “What’s the best prank ever?”

“The best pranks can’t be taught. They take weeks, months, sometimes years of preparation. And then they bloom spectacularly, just the once, and fade into a blaze of memory and whispered recollections. I can only show you the path, I can’t walk it for you,” Charter concluded.

“Are you working on something now?” came the voice from the back. Chrissy Peachland, Charter’s nemesis.

“In due time, Chrissy. In due time.”                                 

Part 2

No. 073 May 2, 2012

Acting strangely out of character, Colin Charter took no more questions. He ended the meeting abruptly and shooed his freshman disciples out of the lounge.

Only Chrissy remained. “So what are you working on?” she asked him again.

“It involves a pig, a goat, six pairs of underpants, and your mom,” he told her sarcastically.

“Really?” she wondered. “Don’t you want to tell me? We could trade ideas. Maybe you’d like it,” she purred.

Chrissy reached under her shirt provocatively. Her hand came out with a folded piece of paper. “Are you sure you don’t want to see what I’m up to?” she said, waving it temptingly.

“I already know what you’re up to,” answered Colin, somewhat sadly. “I bribed my way into your hall last week. You should really keep better tabs on your sophomores. Your plan won’t work. There’s a flaw in phase three.”

He noticed her turn red and saw a flash of surprise before it went away, leaving her angry-white and glaring at him.

“Well, if that’s how you’re going to be,” she huffed. She turned on her heels and stalked quickly down the corridor.

Charter shook his head. “I can’t help it if I’m right,” he called after her. He was almost a hundred percent sure she didn’t hear.

He returned to his room, too.

He’d been lying, of course, about the pig and her mom, but the truth was somewhat more disturbing.

Colin Charter, the Prank King, would be graduating in two months.

And he didn’t have a single inkling about how to go out with a bang.

Part 3

No. 103 May 30, 2012

For the past month, Colin Charter had sequestered himself in his tiny dorm room.  He had very little time left to plan the ultimate prank.

His situation had become desperate enough that he’d turned to the internet for inspiration.

 He moved his mouse over the blinking link that promised to provide the directions for a prank so magnificent that it claimed to be worth $49.99 just to see the plans.

He hovered for a moment, and then gave in. As he hit the button that said “order”, Colin wondered if he was the one getting pranked.

The page loaded.  There were no blueprints. No descriptions. Instead, there was only a phone number.

Colin had no choice now but to call it. He typed it dutifully into his phone and pressed “send”. He almost dropped the handset when he saw the display.

“Calling: Chrissy Peachland”.

The line was picked up.

“Hello Colin. I knew you’d call eventually,” said Chrissy with a just a hint of sex and victory in her voice. “I’ve got fifty bucks that says you need a little help.”

Colin, having been bettered, hung his head and admitted. “I need help.”

“Come around my room after eleven tonight. We’ll put something together that will blow everyone’s mind.”

Part 4

No. 300, February 3, 2013

It was the day before the last day of school.
Colin and Chrissy sat together on the steps of Charles Hall, watching the crowd watch the results of their prank. Colin produced a paper bag with a bottle inside, and two plastic mugs that he’d borrowed from the cafeteria. He set the cups on the ground, and poured cheap champagne into both.
He handed one to Chrissy, then raised his to salute her. “You were right. That was the best fifty dollars I ever spent,” he told her.
She snuggled up to him with a grin. “I told you so, Mr. Prank King.” She nodded at the frenzied scene in front of them. “How’s this for going out on top?”
Colin sipped his drink. “I don’t know if I’m finished,” he said. “I think with all the prep, I might have failed French.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
Another class ran past to see aftermath.
“And besides,” said Colin. “Now somebody’s going to have to go one better next year.”
Chrissy laughed. “You mean, ‘two somebodys’,” she clarified, as she put her arm around him.
Colin nodded. “Best plan, ever.”

Around Gray’s Choose Your Own Adventure, Volume One

Shannon Harper pulled out her pen and notebook. “What happens to the ghost?” she asked the small crowd of construction workers.  
“Ghost?” replied the foreman, Frank Gretz. “I don’t know anything about a ghost.”
Harper shook her head. “You’re tearing something down, and you haven’t even considered what might happen? The place is haunted.”
They both looked at the structure in question. One of the town’s original buildings, the general store was being bulldozed to make way for a new shopping center.
“Look, I understand you need to write your story for the paper, but we’ve got a job to do, too. I can’t spend all day talking about nonsense,” said Gretz.
“It’s not nonsense,” countered Harper. “It’s our history. So, again, what happens to the ghost?”
Gretz spat on the ground. “I reckon he’ll get the hint when the walls come down.”
The ghost watched the proceedings from a second-floor window. She set her head down on the sill and tried to think of a way to stop the demolition of her home. In retrospect, perhaps she’d been too keen on haunting the former owners of her shop. Maybe if she’d let them alone they wouldn’t have sold out to ValuMart.

Until now, she’d been relatively benign. Her haunting hadn’t been malevolent. She’d done it primarily to keep busy. There was only so much that a spirit trapped in a single building could do with their time. She’d made the walls bleed, once, but that had been an accident. When she was younger, she hadn’t yet realized the extent of her powers.   

She’d always had bad luck, too, dating back to before the day, ninety-seven years ago, that she’d been killed during a botched robbery.

She saw the fat man spit. She could barely hear his voice.

“He called me a ‘he’,” she muttered to herself. “If only he stepped inside, I could convince him to step right back out. And to take his machinery with him.”

Her words had a touch of fear to them. So far as she understood, if the building was razed, she’d cease to exist. She’d made it through one death, but she wasn’t going to roll over and let it happen a second time.

She placed her head back on her neck and floated downstairs. There wasn’t much time to prepare.

Harper realized that the foreman wasn’t going to be cooperative. She changed her approach. “Can I go inside?” she asked Gretz. “Maybe I can get some color for my story.”
Gretz waved her on dismissively. “Be my guest,” he told her. “We start the tear-down in twenty minutes. You’ll hear a siren go once with five minutes left, and then twice with one minute left.”
Harper nodded, then adjusted her glasses and marched up to the front door of the store.
The ghost saw Harper enter the building. She waited until the reporter was fully inside to trigger her trap. To start, the door swung shut and locked tight.  Then the ghost chilled the air in the room and projected a knife at Harper’s head. The woman managed to dodge the blade. She dove to the floor, where she was left curled up in a shivering heap.
“It’s ok,” the woman called out from the ground. “I know you exist. I’m trying to help you.”
The ghost was startled. She hadn’t counted on an ally.
“What’s your name?” Harper asked the apparently empty room. “Mine’s Shannon.” Gathering her courage, she stood up slowly. “Hello?”
The ghost considered her options.  When was the last time somebody had tried to talk to her? Was this person telling the truth? The ghost decided that there was no harm in responding. If need be, she could always murder the human later. She gathered herself, and tried to remember how to speak to the living, again.
“I was called Ruby Florence,” said the ghost.
Harper’s jaw dropped. “Ruby, you’re real!” She paused, and frowned. “I can’t see you.” Then her reporter’s instincts kicked in and she fished in her pocket for her notebook and pen. If she could break this story, she’d be set for life. She took a deep breath to begin asking questions.
A wailing scream interrupted the thought. It was the warning siren. Harper checked her watch and cursed. “He was supposed to give me fifteen minutes!”
Harper ran to the door. “I’m not coming out!” she yelled at the construction workers.
Two of them started to come towards her, but Gretz waved them off. “I want everyone ready to go,” he told them. “I’ll deal with the crazy lady.”
He picked up a bullhorn and aimed it at the store. “The demolition starts in five minutes, ghost or no ghosts. You need to evacuate the building or I’m calling the police.”
Harper turned to where she thought Ruby Florence might be. “I guess I’m all-in on your side, now. And they’re not going to come in to confirm you’re here. I don’t suppose there’s any way you could prove your existence to somebody who’s not actually on the premises, is there?”
The ghost didn’t respond immediately, and Harper began to wonder if she was making the right choice by staying. Had she really been speaking to an undead spirit? Then she saw the knife that was still embedded in the wall, confirming the events of the last few minutes. “Hey,” she called. “Remember how you just tried to kill me for trying to help you? You owe me a reply, at least.”
Ruby Florence floated back down to where Harper was standing. The ghost concentrated hard and a shimmering outline of her form began to appear.
“You’ve got no head!” was the first thing Harper said.
The ghost laughed. It had been so long. “That is true,” she told her new human friend.
Gretz hailed them again on the bullhorn. “Last chance, lady.”
The ghost ignored the hail, and answered Harper’s question. “I can’t leave. They will need to come to us.”
Harper’s eyes narrowed. She was thinking hard. “Is that for sure? I mean, you must have tried to escape before, but is there a rulebook or something? Can we talk to anybody?”
“I’m sorry,” said Ruby Florence. “Everything I know, I learned from a ghost next door. We would speak through the walls. When the hotel burned, he disappeared. I haven’t had contact with anything since. It’s been almost fifty years.”
Harper bit her lip. She stole a glance out of the window. “I understand,” she allowed. “Maybe it was too much for me to hope for that we’d stumble across some magic bullet.”
 “If we can delay the crew until five, they’ll go home for the night. That’ll buy us some time,” said Harper as she turned away from the window.
But movement outside caught her eye. She ducked back towards the blinds and peered through. “It’s the police,” she told the ghost. “Gretz wasn’t kidding.”
“They’ll come in,” said the ghost. “They’ll come in and drag you out.”
It appeared that the ghost’s words were correct. Soon there were several cruisers parked outside the store, and Harper watched as a line of officers approached the building.
“I need to hide,” Harper told Ruby Florence.
“We can do that,” the ghost confirmed with a grim smile. “Follow me.”
Harper was led upstairs to a small room that had been used as an office. A large cabinet dominated the space.
“In here,” Ruby Florence directed, pointing with the same hand that held her head. “There is a secret compartment.”
Harper ran to the cabinet, but the ghost moved to block her path.
“No,” said Ruby Florence. “Tap twice on the floorboard in the far corner.”
Harper followed the instructions and a section of the floor dropped down and slid aside. There was a space underneath, just big enough for a person. Harper wasted no time climbing down and replacing the hatch. She looked up through a small knothole and saw the ghost’s face directly above her.
“They won’t find you there,” said the ghost. “But I intend for them to find me.”
Then she disappeared.
“Wait!” Harper called. “I thought we were in this together!”
There was no reply from the ghost, and Harper heard the police break through the downstairs door.
The police moved through the first floor of the building quickly, checking all the places somebody could hide. They were wary, but not nervous. They knew who their target was and that she was unarmed. They didn’t know that she had a supernatural partner.
The ghost let the officers get to the middle of the building before she made her move. As when Harper had entered, the ghost slammed all the doors shut, trapping the squad. This time, however, Ruby Florence did not bother with knives.
The lead policeman turned around to face his team and leveled his gun at them. “You are not wanted here,” he told them.
Ruby Florence had possessed him. She watched through his eyes as the other members tried to make sense of their leader’s disturbing behavior. Slowly, they all placed their weapons on the floor. “This is my home,” said the ghost, with the officer’s voice. “You will not let the fat man destroy it.”
“Captain,” said one of the hostages. “You need help.”
The ghost pointed the gun at the speaker. “Your captain isn’t here right now. My name is Ruby Florence. And you will be silent.”
Another officer spoke. “Sir, what are you talking about?”
Ruby Florence did not hesitate. A chair flew at the officer’s head, striking him squarely and opening a large gash. He fell to the ground, unconscious. At the same time, everything in the room began to levitate. The wooden walls began to vibrate alarmingly, sending small splinters flying toward the cowering police.
The man under Ruby Florence’s control stood quietly in the middle of the maelstrom, calm, and untouched by the dangerous debris.
As quickly as the assault began, it ended. Everything in the air collapsed back to earth and clattered to a stop. The room was deathly quiet.
 There was no fight left in the prisoners.
“Now,” said Ruby Florence. “You will take my message to the fat man. This will serve you as a sign that I am serious.”
She pointed the Captain’s gun at his own head. Her spectral fingers helped his to slowly squeeze the trigger.
Harper was cowering in her hideaway. She hadn’t seen any of the confrontation downstairs. She was holding her breath when she heard the gunshot.
The Captain’s body crumpled to the ground. Ruby Florence was left standing in his place. She chose to show herself to the remaining police officers. They all saw her holding her severed head in her hand and pointing at them.
“Go,” she said.
And they did, dragging the wounded man with them but leaving the corpse behind.
Harper stayed quiet as long as she could, but she lay in a cold sweat. Had the ghost really murdered a man? Harper had to know, so she chanced being caught by anybody still searching, and left her hiding place.
She went downstairs and peered around the corner, afraid of what she might see. The sight of the dead body caused her to throw up.
When she was finished, she screamed for the ghost. “What did you do? You’re a monster!”
Ruby Florence floated serenely into the room. “Only what I had to,” she said casually.
“You killed him,” said Harper. “How could you? I was trying to help you.”
The ghost shrugged her shoulders, a gesture made obscene by her lack of a head. “Now he’s motivated,” she explained.
Harper was confused. She felt something on her shoulder. She spun around to see the Captain’s ghost. The gunshot wound made her vomit, again.
Ruby Florence came closer to Harper. “Walk to the window and tell them my demands,” she whispered.
The deceased Captain, now linked to the soon-to-be demolished building, was on Harper’s other side, and was not going to let her get away, either. He tried to speak, but his shattered jaw couldn’t form words that Harper could make out. She understood what he wanted, though.
She went to the window to deliver her message. “Mr. Gretz,” she called to the line-up of police and spectators who were huddled behind a makeshift barricade. “You need to come in, or they’ll kill me, too.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Harper,” replied Gretz over a loudspeaker. “The police have instructed me not to enter the building.”
Harper was in trouble. She knew that Ruby Florence was growing desperate. The murder of the captain proved that the spirits were no longer content with a simple haunting. They would fight to keep their residence intact. And they were only likely to leave Harper alive if she was useful to them.
Gretz’s refusal meant that Harper’s usefulness was quickly running out.
The police appeared to be busy preparing something. Harper knew, too, that if they tried to assault the house again that her life would be in great danger. She was shivering as she stood, exposed, waiting for a response from either of the parties locked in the standoff.
Suddenly, Harper broke into a run and dashed toward the door. If the ghosts were trapped in the building, they couldn’t follow her outside. Their plan to put her between themselves and the police had been a mistake. She was so close to freedom.
The police marksman was watching the house through his rifle scope. He studied the woman at the window as she made demands. She was remarkably unafraid for somebody who’d reportedly just killed a cop. The marksman was friends with many of the men on the team that had entered the general store and was waiting for his chance to avenge the Captain. The marksman was a little sad, though. He’d read Shannon Harper’s column for years. He pushed that feeling aside. It would be easy enough to replace that part of his day.
When Harper made her break for the door, his readied himself to shoot. His earpiece buzzed with instructions. If she made it to the doorway, he was to take the shot.
Ruby Florence saw Harper dash toward the border of the ghosts’ influence. The ghost had to move quickly to counter the escape attempt.
She attempted to gain control of Harpers consciousness. Within a moment, she’d succeeded.
Harper felt the foreign presence in her mind. Her body and will were suddenly not under her control any longer. The only sensation that she recognized was fear. Harper’s footsteps slowed, and Ruby Florence began to force her away from the exit.
Harper was close enough to the boundary, though, that the ghost’s power was not as strong as it was in the middle of the building. Harper fought the possession, and was able to break free for an instant. She lunged toward the fading daylight on the porch. 
She stumbled and fell as she felt a burning pain. She came to rest against the doorframe, wavering precariously between two worlds.
Harper was cold. She opened her eyes to a bright light. Forcing her eyes to focus, she could make out the source. It was coming from a florescent tube, surrounded by the same kind of ceiling she remembered from her dentist’s office.
“Stay still,” somebody told her sternly. “We’ve got quite a few things hooked into you.”
Harper turned towards the voice. It was coming from a nurse. Harper tried to sit up, but found her left arm in a sling, and her right handcuffed to the bed frame.
“The police,” croaked Harper. “They shot me, didn’t they?”
The nurse was busy adjusting the monitors at the foot of the bed and didn’t reply.
“They did this to me,” Harper repeated.
The nurse looked up. “You deserve it,” she said.
Harper tried to remember what had happened. “I don’t,” she said.
The nurse moved closer to Harper’s head. “What do you think happens when you kill a cop and then charge the rest of the officers?” she said. “It’s all over the news.” Then she jerked on something that Harper couldn’t see.
Pain radiated up Harper’s arm. She fought the urge to scream.
Ruby Florence was waiting.
After Harper was shot, the police had pulled her body away. Then they’d stormed the building again, looking for accomplices. The ghost made sure that not all of them made it back out, and the rest had called for a retreat to assess the situation. Now they were just watching, probably preparing for another assault.
The ghost was alone in the upstairs room where Harper had sheltered. The other, new ghosts were downstairs, adjusting to their new existence. Ruby Florence was angry that Harper was not one of them. She had heard the police telling each other that Harper had been the one that killed the Captain. Nobody seemed to remember that the murderer had been seen with a missing head.
The demolition crew had gone home. Even the repellent fat man had been sent on his way. The ghost would have one more night, at least.
The nurse had gone, and Harper was alone. She watched the news on the TV that the nurse had left on. The only story being reported was the one that Harper had initiated that afternoon. Then, it had been an interesting piece of local history. Now, it was a tragedy. 
With a dramatic musical sting, the news anchor began to speak. “We’ve just received word that possible accomplices of the alleged murderer, Shannon Harper, have killed again. Four more officers are dead following an attempt to search the premises of the former 80th Avenue General Store. With Harper currently in custody at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, it is unclear at this time who is responsible for the most recent attacks.”
Harper stiffened. Ruby Florence wasn’t finished. And the police would keep sending men in, to their deaths, not realizing the true nature of the thing that was inside the building.
For several hours, Harper wrestled with her options.
She could do nothing, and hope the police realized that they were being attacked by a vengeful spirit.
That would clear her name, but the chances of it happening were almost nonexistent, and it was unlikely to occur before the ghost used lethal force again. 
She could tell the truth. But she was sure that nobody would listen. They would discount the explanation that same way that the fat man had. 
Or, being the only person who knew the true story, she could do something to stop Ruby Florence.
The only problem with that plan was that, by taking that path, Harper would still be the only person linked to murders. 
It was almost sunrise when she made up her mind.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, she disconnected the IVs and wires that were taped to her body.  Using a needle she’d just removed, she managed to pick the lock on the handcuffs. The same needle served as an improvised weapon when she threatened the guard outside the door. She ordered the guard back into the room, then locked him in and escaped down the hall. 
Gretz woke up to the doorbell. He threw on his robe and padded down the stairs to answer.
“You’re coming with me,” said the person on his porch. It took him a second to place the strange visitor. Disheveled and bandaged, it was Harper. She had something in her hands. It looked like it could be a gun.
“Don’t hurt me,” Gretz pleaded. “They told me what to do.”
“Shut up,” said Harper. “I’m not here about that. But we need to go. There’s not a lot of time.”
They arrived at the general store at first light. Gretz flashed his ID at the officer posted at perimeter of the site, now a crime scene. “I have to secure my equipment,” he told the guard. He was waved through.
“Pull up as close as you can,” whispered Harper from the back seat. “Get ready to jump out.”
Gretz did as he was told and parked just behind the police line. Then, with slight hesitation, he followed Harper’s orders as they both leapt from the car and ran toward the storefront.
The police were too surprised to see somebody going toward the building that they were too late to stop the trespassing pair.
The ghost smiled as she watched the scene unfold.
“Florence,” called Harper. “I’ve got somebody here who I think you’d like to talk to.”
Ruby Florence floated down the stairs and materialized by the door. She noticed that Harper was careful not to cross the threshold.
“It’s real,” said the fat man.
“Of course I am,” she told him. She turned her attention to Harper. “I’m glad you were able to do as I asked.”
“Oh,” said Harper casually. “He’s not here to talk to you. I just needed a credible witness to see you and clear my name.”
“What?” said the ghost, confused.
Ruby Florence watched in horror as Harper pulled the trigger on the gun she was holding. The ghost noticed, too late, that it was attached with a hose to something on Harper’s back.
Gasoline streamed from the gun’s plastic barrel. Harper made sure to cover the whole front of the building and to get some inside. Then she dipped her shoulders to shuck the tank from her back, and threw the entire apparatus through the door.
“Go,” she told Gretz. “Tell them what you saw.”
He didn’t need any more prompting and sprinted away, back toward the police.
Harper locked eyes with Ruby Florence. “You shouldn’t have killed. I could have helped you.”
“You didn’t,” replied the ghost.
“Maybe you didn’t deserve it,” said Harper. She flicked a lighter and tossed it into the building. Fueled by the gasoline, the structure was engulfed in seconds.
Harper sat on the stool and picked up the phone. On the other side of the glass was Frank Gretz.
“In a way, it’s good to see you,” he said through his handset.
“I’m surprised you had it in you to come,” she said to him. “After what you told them at the trial.”
Gretz shrugged. “It all happened so quickly. You know how things go. We can never be too sure about what we’ve seen.” Then he paused before speaking again. “Especially after you tried to kill me.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Harper. “I never tried to kill you.” Then she realized. Her head jerked up. “It’s not him in there, is it?” she asked the ghost.
Gretz glanced at the officer standing behind him and asked to be let out of the visitor’s area.
Harper screamed and pounded on the partition. “It’s you! I know it’s you!” she yelled, until two prison guards reached her to drag her back to her cell.
“Keep quiet, Cop Killer,” one said as she rammed her nightstick into Harper’s belly. “If you keep this up for the rest of your life sentence, we’re going to get really tired of it.”
Shannon Harper spent a long time piecing together what must have happened. She learned from her former newspaper’s reports that her attempt at arson hadn’t burned down the entire structure. With the police and emergency crews already on the scene, they’d apparently been able to save enough of the building for the ghost to survive inside.
Gretz, who had been on the site every day during the rest of the demolition and construction, would have been a prime candidate for the ghost to inhabit in a desperate measure when the last parts of the store were taken down.
ValuMart’s grand opening was a huge success. Hundreds of people showed up to see the new store.
Among the shoppers was Frank Gretz.
He broke off from the crowd, and slipped past a door marked “Staff Only” to climb the stairs to the manager’s office. Once inside, he closed the door and fell immediately to the floor, dead.
Ruby Florence stood in the middle of the room, having shed the vessel that had carried her for the last year and a half. She placed her head on the window sill, like old times.
“It’s good to be home,” she said with a wicked smile.