Some Morning Inspiration in Pictures

I posted a photograph of something that inspired me a few months ago.  It was a random moment to be inspired.  It’s not something I plan to do often, but I did like how it broke up the story posts with something different.

Had a bit more of that in the last couple of days.  The movement restrictions have eased in the area so I have been out walking.  The spot I prefer to walk in the morning gives me a fun, two kilometer (a bit more than a mile) stroll.  I suppose the time away from this spot, made worse because I rarely go there in winter, made it more impactful.

I took quite a few pictures, partly to compensate for my photography failing and partly to capture as much as I could.  I will not spam these.  Posted are highlights.  If you like nature and trees and such, then this will probably appeal to you.  A recent post by the Wee Writing Lassie also helped prompt this exposition.  Yes, trees and nature are amazing.

Dog in the Water
I owe a small thanks to my dog, who enjoys these walks even more than I do.  She is partly why I go out of my way to walk in natural areas.
Looking Up
I do not know why, but looking up at the trees from below is really cool.  I have appreciated this sort of thing for as long as I can remember.  It is something that clears my mind (or is that just vertigo in action?)
Across the River
Open areas by the water are pleasant; they just are.
River Reflection
Ideally, I get the walk finished by 6:30am.  An upside of the early hour, on most days, is a calm wind making slow flowing stretches of river give a nice reflection.
Forest Chaos
And sometimes the imagery is pure chaos, a jumble of everything just happening all at once.
Never Surrender
The photograph doesn’t do this justice so I will fill in the blanks.  I did crop it as well as I could.  This tree is bent into a complete arc, probably because another tree fell it or it was bent as a sapling.  Whatever the reason, this tree has no business being alive.  It is rooted in a flood-prone area next to a river and is pointed entirely in the wrong direction.  The only sliver of hope is a slight opening in the canopy above, which this tree is fighting for.  It is difficult to see, but there are branches along the top of the tree shooting up with healthy leaves on them.  The apex of the trunk is roughly seven feet from the ground and the branches have gone up another five or six feet, fighting for access to light with the other trees.  What a fighter!  Sorry for the long caption, but, in some cheesy way, this should inspire you to never give up.

 

The Gillbury Swamp Gold, Part 2

(More mystery adventure. This posting was delayed by fantastic weather and unscheduled work distractions)

Looking over the maps and documents that Charles had acquired took over a day, even with Leo helping out between checks on Mrs. Wiltman.  Charles worked almost frenetically to gather the details he needed to pin down a search area.  It was late the next evening before they formed solid plans.  They sat back and had drinks while they discussed final preparations.  Their office was empty, not unusual for a Wednesday evening, and a sense of urgency had settled over both of them.

               Leo sipped at a modest quantity of gin.  He was still turning the whole, ancient story around in this head.

               “Humour me,” he said to Charles while looking into his glass.  “Let’s have it from the start, again.”

               Charles was happy to oblige.  His brother had been unusually supportive and helpful, so there was no point in rocking the boat.  Besides, his brother was a good investigator, even if he was too conservative in the field.  Another telling, especially in light of their latest findings, might not be out of order.

               “All right, then,” Charles said, putting down his drink and gesturing to their working copy of the map.  “Gilbury was not much of anything in 1857; a tiny farm town without much more than a church, a general store and a recent stop on the Great Western Railway.  The majority of the land was actually owned by the Gibson family, who held an estate a short distance from the downtown, such as it was.  Publicly, the Gibsons were an upstanding lot of good farmers.  They were blessed with old money from Europe and were hard workers, blah, blah, blah.  It has since been determined that the old, European money was largely gained from illegal activities.  The Canadian branch of Gibsons was probably not involved much those affairs.  Still, they were anything but squeaky clean.”

               “It would be nice to know more about their degree of involvement,” Leo commented as Charles paused to take a drink.

               “Absolutely!” Charles agreed.  “That would clear up a few things.  But we do know they knew about it.  So let’s switch the story to fact mode.  Fact: the European Gibsons start sending gold to the Ontario Gibsons as early as 1821.  Speculation: that gold was stolen and definitely hidden with or disguised as lead articles.  Fact: As early as 1833, these shipments start including precious gems.  More speculation: this was probably the European Gibsons trying to hide ill-gotten money.  Fact: the Gibsons, whether they got sloppy or unlucky, had two shipments discovered by outsiders.  Speculation: we are ninety-nine percent certain they murdered the first fellow, a wagon driver that carried the stuff to the estate.  Fact: the second discovery was in 1857 by a railway baggage clerk, Reginald Bannington, who inspected a damaged chest.  Fact: Bannington foolishly approaches Henry Gibson, the head of the Ontario Gibson family, about it.  Fact: Bannington disappears within a day, his body later discovered in a ditch out in Trunkville.  Speculation: Bannington was probably fishing for a bribe and may have got one, only the Gibsons wanted to completely cover their tracks.”

               “Right,” Leo chimed in.  “It’s too ridiculous for him to have gone to the estate, otherwise.”

               “Exactly,” Charles went on.  “Lucky for us that Bannington was greedy and had a big mouth.  The diary of Carol Benick was such a find.  It was meant to fucking be!”

               “She’s the daughter of Bannington’s friend, right?”  Leo asked.

               “Yeah, and she mentions that her father was told by Bannington about the gold,” Charles said, trying to contain his excitement as if he had just figured things out.  “Wisely, her father, John, shut up about it.”

               “Which had nothing to do with Bannington’s sudden disappearance, I’m sure,” Leo added.

               “Right,” Charles said.  “Now, we fast forward to the prohibition era.  The Gibsons are still into farming, but as a cover.  They returned to their criminal roots, if ever they left them, by entering the booze trade.  In 1920, the estate is raided and the cops find booze and various items made of gold.  According to police reports, fifty pounds of gold items were seized.”

               “Which they mistook for the proceeds of alcohol traffic,” Leo cut in.  “Only they didn’t know about their real origins.”

               “I have only recovered fragments of paperwork related to those gold and gem shipments,” Charles said, “but the Ontario Gibsons probably received an average of four shipments a year, averaging twenty-five pounds each.  I can verify that the first shipment was in 1821 and the last in 1883.  So, let’s get conservative.  If half of those shipments were decoys, and only half of the weight was actually gold, we are still looking at 1550 pounds worth.  Any quantity of gems would be over and above that.”

               “And you figure it has to be in the swamp?” Leo asked.

               “Where else?” Charles said.  “When they raided the estate, they also hit their other property and came up with nothing.”

               “Any chance the cops just shut up and split it among themselves?”

               Charles raised an eyebrow to that.  “It would have been awfully tough to cover that up.  Could they cover that with the twenty-ish cops involved?  And the Gibsons never said anything about it, either.  The swamp bordered their main estate.  It’s a half mile from the house and there is no reason to go there.  It would also explain the Gibson’s territorial nature.  Between 1846 and 1887, there are a dozen complaints from locals being threatened, beaten or shot at for trespassing.”

               “And that was all near the swamp,” Leo said.  “And you think the Gibsons all died before this could be passed on?”

               “Anybody who was anybody in the family either dies in the 1920 raid, or they died in prison.  The Gibsons who took over were all young, and somewhat disconnected from the hierarchy.  It is very unlikely they knew anything.”

               Leo sipped his gin, letting things sink in.  Wading through a swamp for a fortune in gold was making him heady.  He wondered if Charles had been feeling this way for some time.

               “These old maps are vague,” Charles went on, “but they note trails into the swamp.  The notes go on to say the Gibsons claimed to hunt and trap there.  Un-bloody-likely!”

               “What worries me is how far in they hid the stuff, and how well they might have hidden it,” Leo said, looking at their map, covered in scribbles.  “For instance, a good chunk of the swamp is still on Gibson property, and the rest is a conservation area.  That’s a risky venture.”

               “Shit,” Charles laughed, taking a drink.  “Who cares about the conservation area?  We play dumb and the worst we get is a fine.  And nineteenth century people never accounted for metal detectors, so we don’t need to worry about digging aimlessly.”

               “Actually, Charles,” Leo said, finishing his drink, “I wasn’t worried much about conservation officers.  The modern Gibsons are pretty tough customers, and not unfamiliar with violence.  What happens if Red or Tanner catch us prowling around in the middle of the night?”

The Gillbury Swamp Gold, Part 1

(It has been quite a span since my last post.  All is well.  I have not been writing as much in the last month or so, and not really for the blog; not yet, anyway.  I hope that everyone out there is doing well in these challenging times.  I will leave the passengers and crew of the Trailblazer for now.  I have to rethink some of it before I post more.

Rather than let the blog go stale (more stale?) I am posting the first part of this story about a pair of small town, private investigators.  It’s not finished and I’m not entirely sure where it is going.  Normally, I would not post something this undeveloped; however, I am not too concerned about it.  For now, consider it a work in progress.  Better stuff is coming.

This story is a mystery, detective adventure.  There are no plans to add any geeky elements, such as ghosts, vampires, ninjas, aliens, etc. That may change, but I doubt it.  I hope you enjoy.  Stay healthy.)

***

The Gillbury Swamp Gold

               “What the hell?” Leo exclaimed.  Charles tumbled into their office, arms overstuffed with rolled maps, charts and the like.  He practically fell through the door, dumping everything on his desk.  When he managed to get everything settled, he smiled.

               “I figured it out, Leo,” Charles said, excitedly rubbing his hands together.  “This is the big one.  It’s all going to pay off.  Mark my words.”

               Leo shook his head and sighed, a poster child for exasperation.  It took him a few moments of watching his brother organise the recent haul to gather his thoughts.

               “You will have to excuse my lack of enthusiasm,” Leo grumbled, trying not to lose patience.  “You see, I am doing this thing called ‘working for money,’ which you may have heard of.  It’s an ancient custom.”

               “Still working the Wiltman case?” Charles responded, half-distracted.  “What’s to work on?  We both know the old lady is messing around.  Does he need a feature length video?  I thought you had that nailed down, already.”

               “It doesn’t really matter,” Leo chided.  “What matters is that we are getting paid to provide the proof.  You do remember that part of the business, don’t you?  The getting paid part, I mean.”

               “Oh, we’re feisty tonight!” Charles said, sounding more amused than bothered.  “We generally get paid when the cases are resolved, at the end.  This is no different.  Besides, unlike you with the Wiltman case, I have made a massive breakthrough.  Beat that, Sherlock.”

               “I don’t have the energy to fight about this,” Leo said, dismissively.  “I will mention our credit line is brutally close to being exhausted and will need to be drawn from, again, to make rent.  All that is assuming the Wiltman case is wrapped up and we get paid in full.  Our credit limit will not bail us out next month.  Will your treasure hunt be paying off in the next month or two?”

               “I’m so glad you brought that up,” Charles began, as if it were a cheery conversation.  “I am on the verge.  It’s just a matter of narrowing the location and we are laughing!”

               Leo had a hard time focusing on his brother’s responses.  He had spent the last week chasing the lovely and adulterous Mrs. Wiltman across town in a desperate effort to get conclusive evidence of her infidelity.  She was careful, bordering on paranoid, about her goings on while Mr. Wiltman was away on business.  Pictures or video were tough to get with any quality.  The proof was there, but Mr. Wiltman wanted conclusive evidence.  The desperate push over the last week had meant sixteen hour days, irregular meals and infrequent clothing changes.  Leo was overtired and irritable; his brother was just icing.

               “Have you followed up on either of our prospective new clients?” Leo asked, looking away from his own report and rubbing his eyes.  “O’Connell and Laird were the names, if I recall.”

               “Oh, that,” Charles said, after a delay focussed on organising his mound of papers.  “They were not interested.  I called, I really did.”

               “I can’t remember which one, right now,” Leo said, “but they were practically in the bag.  Open and shut harassment case.  What happened?”

               “I don’t read minds, Leo,” Charles muttered, looking carefully at a large map he unrolled.  “They just said no.  I tried to get them on board, just for you, but they weren’t biting.  If I were a better salesman, I would sell cars or something.”

               “When dad left us the business,” Leo explained, “the idea was to work together, both of us.  You know, earn money.  These goose chases don’t pay.”

               “Bringing dad into this will not help,” Charles said, scribbling something on another paper.  “If we really wanted to make serious money, we’d have moved to the city.  We didn’t, so we get to scratch by on bits and pieces in a smaller town.  Excuse my reaching for more.”

               “Screw the big city,” Leo snarled.  “Higher overhead and tons of competition is all that would get us.  We are the only private investigators in this town.  Dad made this work for most of his life, by himself.  Why can’t two of us?”

               It was Charles’ turn to sigh.  He looked up from his bird nest of papers and properly addressed Leo for the first time since he had come in.  “All right, all right,” he said, holding up a passive hand.  “I concede I’ve put too much time into this venture of mine; point taken.  I get how it looks.  The business could use some TLC from my side.  No disagreement.  That said, I can’t walk away after this latest break.  It’s too big.  If it’s too much for you, I can walk away from the business; sign it over for a dollar.  I can finish it working this from my car if I have to.”

               “What is the rush with it, anyway?” Leo asked.  “If this mother load has been there all this time, where is it going?  What’s the rush?”

               “I’m concerned my activities have stirred up interest,” Charles explained.  “I know most people who are even vaguely aware of what I’m doing think I’m certified, fair enough, but there are some who do not.  Besides, up to today, your point would be rock solid.  I have made a monster breakthrough, however.”

               “What does that mean?  What kind of breakthrough?” Leo questioned.  His brother was a good investigator, when he applied himself.  This always made it difficult when challenging his hairier ideas.

               “I finally found where the older archives went,” Charles said with a pleased smile.  “That stupid, archive bitch had me believing it was all destroyed in the 1939 library flood.  The town should fire her for being so useless.  Anyway, some tireless investigation turned up most of what I needed in Grahamton.”

               “Grahamton?  Really?” Leo asked, finding himself oddly interested.

               “Pretty much everything I needed was only an hour away, brother,” Charles said, almost dramatically.  “Turns out, our 1939 library flood did wreck a bunch of stuff.  A lot of what they salvaged was shipped out of town, to Grahamton, for temporary safe keeping.  God only knows why, maybe the war, but temporary turned into forever.  In 1971, Grahamton moved most of that stuff to a third party site for storage because of renovations or something.  Here’s where the planets align: the storage arrangement was a handshake deal that went sour.  Gordon Brown had stored the crap at his estate, after which the library people quibbled about cost.  Gordo gets pissed and refuses to give the archive stuff back.  The Grahamton library covers up their end by denying the story and the deal, all the easier because it isn’t really their material, anyway.  Gordo holds onto it for spite and dies.  Et voila, the Brown estate has an attic full of gold waiting for yours truly.”

               “And that’s what all this crap is, then?” Leo asked, trying not to get caught up his brother’s scheme.

               “Some of it,” Charles said.  “I told Gordo’s family I was doing work for the university and needed the stuff, some of which is useless.  I took it all to avoid suspicion.  I don’t think they knew much about Grandpa Gordo’s quarrel with the Grahamton Library.”

               “By ‘take,’ you mean purchased,” Leo commented.

               “A couple hundred dollars for the cause,” Charles said, sounding proud despite an obvious sense of his brother’s disapproval.  “We’ve paid more for information before.”

               “Very rarely,” Leo said.

               “No matter,” Charles went on.  “If this ‘goose chase’ doesn’t pan out, I swear I will step up for the business.  Things will get better, either way.”

Dimensional Tourist, Part IV

(The sci-fi mystery continues)

“Highly unlikely,” Pundel said.  “He has too much control over the ship’s systems to qualify.  If he were on a suicide mission, we would already be dead.  The engineer, on the other hand, is not in the clear.  The captain is our best recourse, for now. In the meantime, Lumbsden, can you see what can be done with the power core, assuming we need a straightforward fix?  I know it is out of your specialty, but we need to start a proper repair attempt.”

“Yes, sir,” I said with a smile and a short salute.

“Xiang,” Pundel said, turning to the professor, “this may be a stretch, but is there any way you could determine if the dimensional module or shields could be modified to use less power?”

“It is unlikely I could assist you,” Xiang said.  “My field of study is mostly theoretical.”

“I understand,” Pundel said, standing up and pulling his shirt straight, “but you are more qualified than anyone aboard, with respect to the physics.  You are also very intelligent.  The system specs are all available to us, so you are the only one who could help on that end.”

“It would take several weeks to explain the complexity of the task you request,” Xiang said.  “It seems highly unproductive.”

Pundel half-turned to go.  “As you will,” he said, “however, we may die for lack of a solution.  Consider that before you give up.”  Xiang looked eager to retort, but Pundel was gone too quickly.

“He is such a bastard,” she finally chirped, moments after he was gone.  “He is in no position of authority to order me around.”

I was already bending my mind toward solutions to the power core problem, but heard her clearly.  “True,” I said, “but he is right.”

[Story switching to Pundel’s perspective]

Lumbsden was a bright tech, no doubt about it.  He had picked up on the matter of the engineer quickly.  If I could count on that kind of reasoning from him, we might just have a chance.  It would be important to reach the captain and access the engineer’s records and personal logs.  A long shot, yes, but if the engineer was the saboteur and foolish enough to record her activity we would be in a better position.  I knew how to find the bridge from the ship specs and the computer reported the captain was there.  Jordan intercepted me in the corridor before I made it.  He was unhappy I had left engineering unescorted.

“You all require escorts while outside passenger areas,” he said tersely, before agreeing to bring me to the bridge.  “What do you need the captain for, anyway?”

“I need some general information about the transit of the ship and so forth,” I said, carefully adding, “as well as taking up a personal request with him.”  I did not want to give insult to the acting engineer.

The bridge was a cozy spot, certainly a change from the stark, functional ones on military ships.  If fact, it looked more comfortable than the lounges on military vessels.  Captain Trussman was slouched back in a padded, oversized seat, focussed on a personal viewscreen to his left.  The other bridge crew looked disinterestedly busy at their stations.  What struck me was the utter silence of the room.

The good Captain Trussman was surprised and hesitant in his greeting.  I was subtle about requesting private information, though Jordan may have picked up on my desire to leave him out; Trussman definitely read my signals.  I was in a briefing room with him a minute later.

“I may not be a seasoned military man, Pundel,” he said, offering me a drink with a gesture, which I declined with a wave, “yet I know when something unusual is happening.  I would prefer you get straight to it and spare me the nonsense.”

“That is fair, captain,” I said, joining him at a briefing table.  “I will try to be brief, but there are some layers, here.  To start, I think the vessel has been sabotaged.  Your injured engineer is likely the culprit, or involved somehow.  If we are to survive this, I will need your help.”

The captain poured himself a drink, after all, looking deep in thought as he did.

“So,” he sighed, “you think it was foul play.  Fair enough.  What do you need from me?”

“Several things, actually,” I replied.  “I will need access to the engineer’s personal logs and effects.  I will also need to speak with your officers and crew.  It would also be helpful to borrow your dimensional technicians during this.  Xiang is knowledgeable, to be sure, but her potential is wasted without guidance.”

“Is that all?” Captain Trussman said with a smirk.  “You do know that we are already operating on emergency protocol.  How do I pull my people away for this little hunt of yours?”

“Good question,” I replied.  “It’s a simple matter of logistics, really.  The general repairs in engineering should be a matter of hours, really.  Then there is the power core and computer system.  Those will require substantially more time, even if we can be sure of the computer and devise a fix.  You don’t have enough crew hours, even if the engineer was available, to make that happen.  Is this ship provisioned with stimulants?”

“Stimulants?” Trussman asked, suddenly looking uncomfortable.  “You mean the military variety designed for full duty hours?”

“Exactly that sort.  According to my understanding of things, we are a few days from our exit point.  If we do not have this vessel ready for dimensional transit by then, it might be pointless.”

Trussman looked pensive and troubled.  I felt bad for him.  This was not a scenario he, or his crew, were prepared or equipped for.

“The personal affairs of our Engineer are a detail,” he said, up and pacing now.  This emergency gives me full authority over privacy matters.  Ordering this crew to full duty hours, assuming we have the proper stimulants…that is more difficult.  Very few of them have a military background to handle that.  That level of stimulation, for so long, it could be lethal.”

“No less lethal than the alternative,” I countered.

“True,” the Captain agreed.  “I will see what we have available.  Access to the crew is yours, only let me advise them, first.  This will be difficult.”

“And one last thing, Captain,” I asked.  “Your officers seem set on monitoring our movements.  I appreciate the need for this, under ordinary circumstances, however we well past that, are we not?”

“I can have those restrictions relaxed,” Trussman said.  “But I have to review it with my security people.  Until then, let’s have a look through my engineering officer’s personal effects.”

He summoned a security man and we made our way to the officer quarters.  They were comfortable, compact cabins designed for modest comfort on short voyages.  The quarters of engineering officer Major Peggy Flint were simply and sparsely decorated, nothing suspicious in that; pictures of a few relatives and friends amidst her credentials hanging on the walls.

Trussman opened her private consol and gave a coded command to unlocked everything in the room and open her computer files.  He motioned for me to proceed as he began opening compartments and searching.  I also began with a physical search.

“What do you know about her?” I asked him.

“Standard information has her as single, divorced a few years back, actually,” he answered.  “A bit too dedicated, perhaps, not much room for a relationship, on top of regularly being away.  She is from one of the mining colonies on the periphery.  The space program gets a lot of recruits from remote places like that.”

“She mixes well with the other officers and crew?” I asked.

“Near as I can tell, yes,” Trussman answered, rummaging through her things.  “She is not overly social, mind you.  As I said, very committed to the job.”

“How about her politics?” I asked, cutting closer to a dangerous possibility.

“Not much there,” Trussman said.  “She is almost apolitical, really.  In addition to standard screening, our crew was then screened by the military.  I went through it, too; and they leave nothing to chance.  If you have the slightest gripe, you had no chance.”

“I see,” I said, having completed the search of her cabin.  “There is nothing obvious here, not that it matters much.  She would be unlikely to have left a physical clue.  Still, if your security man is worth anything, he should be familiar with a full search procedure and execute one.  Hopefully, her private computer files offer something.”

Trussman was already at her consol, glancing through her private information.  “I do not access officer and crew files lightly, Pundel,” the Captain commented.  “There is something I need to ask you, however.  You seem…almost too versed in the investigation process.  You were a technical officer, correct?”

I smiled at his comment.  This question was bound to come up at some point.

Dimensional Tourist, Part III

(More of the same!)

“I will answer your last question first,” Captain Trussman replied.  “We have lost roughly seventy percent our power capacity.  The precise figure is somewhat unimportant, for now.  As to what happened, we do not know with any certainty.  Lieutenant Jordan has been trying to work this out, but we need all the help we can get.”

     “The patchwork looks mostly complete,” Pundel said.  “What is it that you need?”

     “Lieutenant Jordan, you have a better technical sense of all this,” the captain said.  “Please continue.”

     Jordan paused a moment before speaking, the slightest hint of a nervous tick starting.  “The damage is relatively superficial, but has crippled key components of the power core.  We have lost most of the activation inputs and equalisation arrays, which is the majority of the problem.  This is not a fix that can be handled with the core in operation.”

     “Perhaps you should let us in on what happened, in the first place?” I asked.  “It might help to know what caused this before we attempt a fix.”

     Jordan exchanged a knowing, uneasy look with Patel, the security officer.  “We don’t know anything, for certain.  The diagnostics are inconclusive, but it could have been a system malfunction.  We have not ruled out foul play.”

     “So what do you know, beyond the immediate state of the damage?” Pundel asked.

     “Six hours ago, the computer detected a power surge in the power core arrays,” Jordan explained.  “The system compensated in time to prevent damage, except for the equalisation arrays; most of which overloaded and burnt out.  The activation inputs became damaged when the core became unstable.  We have managed to correct the instability by lowering the core’s output and making manual adjustments, which is extremely difficult with so few equalisation arrays operating.”

     “And you don’t trust the system to handle it,” Pundel suggested, “which is probably wise, considering.”

     “Yes,” Jordan continued.  “We haven’t had enough time to dissect the computer functions for signs of foul play or malfunction.  Even then, we do not have the personnel for a full diagnostic if it was a carefully concealed sabotage.  The basic functions are operating normally, though we are monitoring them carefully now.”

     “You need our help to brainstorm up a stability solution for the power core,” Xiang said, bluntly.

     “That is most of it,” the captain said.  “We would also need to know if there is an ongoing issue that needs addressing before we even try to play with the power core.  A repeat of the previous issue would be the end of us.”

     “I cannot speak for the professor, but Terry and I will need to see specs, system reports and diagnostic data before we can do anything,” Pundel said, sounding ready to jump in.

     We were brought to a terminal alongside the control panels.  A screen displayed a series of hub menus, all of which were familiar to me.  Jordan set the screen to an observation only mode and pulled up a file.  A series of files opened, presenting time stamped readings from system sensors.  It was slightly different for the format I knew, but made sense to me.  Jordan forwarded us to the point, just prior to the power surge that set everything off.

     “This is the point where the power surge began,” Jordan pointed out, probably for the benefit of Xiang.  “I compiled this file about an hour ago, trying to chase down answers.  My time has been limited, so I have only looked it over briefly.  Let me know if you find anything.  I will not be far, if you need me.”

     The next hour was spent looking over the information.  The sequence of damage that happened after the fact was easy enough to evaluate.  The lead up was far more mysterious.  Pundel and I made comments, here and there, but largely just reviewed the information.  Xiang had watched with cool interest, not speaking until Pundel and I were finished.

     “So,” she asked, “what happened?  Is there an ongoing concern?  Can we begin to find a solution to the power core damage?”

     Pundel rubbed his temples, squinting.  “I think Jordan is correct about finding a computer flaw, created or otherwise.  In either case, a technician’s solution is a full power down, disconnection and data wipe.  We can’t do that on an operating vessel.  Everything relies on the computer.”

     “So you don’t know what happened, then?” Xiang said, sounding angry again.

     “To be blunt: no.” Pundel said, completely calm.  “My opinion is that foul play is the most likely cause of all this.  A power surge of that magnitude should not occur in any system, especially an essential one.  Then the system disperses the surge to all but one type of array, and the excess power funneled back to these panels, blowing them out quite violently.  All of this together is too suspicious to be anything but a careful sabotage.”

     “Could this have been done before the ship departed?” Xiang asked, calmed down by Pundel’s assessment.

     “I suppose,” he said, “but I am speculating on that point.  Nothing is certain.”

     “So the saboteur could be on board,” Xiang muttered.

     “It is possible,” Pundel said, looking absently at the screen.  “Such a person would be insane or suicidal, if they were.”

     “Did you notice the smell when we arrived?” I asked Pundel.

     “Hard not to,” he replied.  “I take it you have the same concern about the fate of the engineer?”

     “It only makes sense,” I said.  “And it might just explain the foul play.”

     “What are you two talking about?” Xiang interrupted.

     “The sanitizer we smelled,” I explained, “is rarely used in this environment, unless there is…a biological cleaning.  Jordan is the acting engineering officer, which is unusual aboard a ship of this size.”

     Xiang expression told me that she needed no blanks filled in.  We were all on the same page.

     “What do we do now?” Xiang asked, very seriously.  “Is there a solution?”

     “I have a long shot hunch,” Pundel said.  “It assumes the engineer was the saboteur, and sloppy about his task.”  He waved Jordan over to us.

     “Please have good news,” Jordan muttered.  He looked tired.

     “No promises,” Pundel said.  “I am going to be direct with you.  I mean no offense, and I am not trying to cause difficulty.  This is all to strike a solution.  Am I clear?”

     Jordan’s brow furrowed, plainly surprised at Pundel’s approach.  He nodded in agreement.

     “Good.  I have some questions that need quick answers.  Was the engineering officer killed when the panels blew?”

     “No,” Jordan responded slowly.  “He is seriously injured, however.”

     Pundel looked at Xiang and me before continuing.  “Has he been questioned?”

     “Her injuries were quite substantial,” Jordan said.  “She has not been conscious since.”

     “Is she expected to live?” Pundel asked.

     “What are you getting at?” Jordan asked, sounding slightly defensive.  “If you want to wake her for more information you are out of luck.  The medical staff has already said her condition is terrible and will not push her.  We have already asked about this.”

     “Have you tried looking into her files?” Pundel went on, unfazed by Jordan’s agitation.

     “There was nothing unusual about her entries to the engineering log.  I’m sorry, Pundel, but that is a dead end.  We would love to have her expertise, as well, but her condition is too dire.”

     “That is too bad,” Pundel said.  “It would have been helpful to know what happened immediately before the incident.  Anyway, we are almost finished with our review.  Thank you for the information.”

     Jordan nodded coldly and left the engineering area.  Pundel looked pensive as we watched Jordan depart.  “What was that about?” Xiang asked.

     “I always thought I would die in space,” Pundel half-mumbled.  “I am concerned about our situation, here, deeply concerned.  We need to speak with the captain.”

     “Why?” Xiang asked.  “Do you think Jordan might be involved?”

Dimensional Tourist, Part II

(Sci-fi, mystery adventure.)

Captain Douglas Trussman made his entrance a few awkward moments later.  He was a middle aged man, though he looked quite fit for his years.  I had the sense he was competent but rattled, out of his element.

     “I am glad you are all here,” he said, quickly.  “We have a matter of great concern and potential urgency upon us, and we could benefit from your assistance.  I cannot risk panic among the other passengers, so I need this to be kept private.  Is this understood?”

     “You are asking us to keep something private before we know what it is?” Xiang objected harshly.  “What if I refuse?”

     Trussman grimaced slightly.  “I can have you arrested and confined, though I would hate to do it.”

     “You can’t do that,” Xiang shot back.  “I am not a member of your crew, only a passenger.  This is preposterous!”

     “As captain of a registered space vessel, I am fully within my authority to arrest anyone on my ship who presents a risk to her overall safety.  I cannot afford to quell frightened passengers while we have greater concerns.  I can also compel you to service aboard the vessel as I require.  Please, professor, I am confident you will understand when I show you the state of our situation.”

     The professor looked incredibly suspicious, even taking a half step back.  She glanced at Pundel and me, as though we could offer some help.

     “Professor,” Pundel said, trying to be reassuring, “the Captain has complete authority on the vessel.  If you feel you are being mistreated there is a tribunal you can contact later on.”

     “Thank you,” the captain said.  “Now let me get to the heart of the matter.  Jordan, please lead the way to the drive room.”

     The ship was large enough for this to be a fair walk.  Captain Trussman explained things along the way.  “This ship operates by generating a barrier, a dimensional shield that protects the hull from direct exposure to this dimension.  After that, we activate a dimensional module that shifts us to beta dimension.  While we are here, the drive systems are useless.  As far as we can tell, we simply glide while we are here, as though a wind or current was propelling us.  The drive is not reactivated until we return to our own dimension, so we have excess power while we are here.”

     We entered a room that looked like an engineering centre.  It was a long room, and fairly spacious for a functional room.  Several crew were bustling about, glancing at us as we entered.

     “The biggest single use of power by this ship is made on our return from Beta,” the captain continued.  “The dimensional module is an energy sop, in general, but worse for the return.  Also, while we jump, the dimensional shield must be maintained until we have completely left Beta.  The power requirement of the shield and dimensional module combined are about ninety percent of the Trailblazer’s capacity.  Our power core was designed to handle this, with some excess.”

     We stopped in front of the drive and power core, ship elements I was familiar with.  Blast damage was plainly evident.  Several panels were missing, and several more removed; a technician was busy testing connections at one of the exposed areas.  The smell of sanitizing agents was in the air.

     The captain turned to us, looking a tad less confident than moments before.  “Which brings me to our issue: we are damaged and low on power.”

     “What happened here?” Xiang asked, suddenly sounding less defiant.  “How much power have we lost?”

     I was too distracted by my assessment of the damage and concern over the sanitizer smell.  A lot of the standard technical training and testing involved flash assessments of damage; it was designed to make you quicker at recognising and prioritising repairs when damage was not isolated.  It became second nature to run everything through your head and devise a game plan.

     The sanitizer also bothered me.  Damage did not need quick clean up, especially not enough to notice the smell in the air.  It was commonly used to make a quick clean up of biological messes.  I had experienced fairly few deaths in my career, but enough to know how they were cleaned up.  I immediately connected Jordan’s acting status as engineering officer with this recent clean up; which also answered the question of our summons.

Dimensional Tourist

(The last couple of weekends have fallen through for posting. Just life on the go. All is well. This post is a bit of science fiction mystery and adventure, inspired by too many sources to get into. Like so much of what I do, it needs an edit and tune up. Still, it is fun to write. Enjoy)

Sharing a stateroom was the only way I could afford the trip.  Lars Pundel was going to be perfect, though.  For starters, he was clean, pleasant and educated.  What rounded things out was how much we had in common.  Lars had recently retired from a long career as a senior drive technician with the military.  I was a class four technician, with my specialty being in navigation systems.  Different specialties, yes, but techs are techs.  Other than that, the only major difference between us was age; Lars was in his early sixties, about thirty years ahead of me.

     It was going to be a unique vacation.  Cruising to alternate dimensions remained new after many years of being scientifically possible.  The Trailblazer was the first of several ships planned for extra-dimensional tourism.  It had been operating for over a year, travelling to another dimension twice a month without as much as a hiccup.  Level four techs did not exactly make a fortune, but I was intrigued by this new frontier.  What was a bit of money compared to the opportunity for a unique experience?

     For safety reasons, the ship was stationed in a remote area, away from settled planets or inhabited stations.  Even then, it spent two days travelling from the docking station, just to be extra safe.  My trip had been pleasant, anyway, and the anticipation was half the fun.  Lars and I spent the evenings chatting in the lounge over drinks, discussing the technical trades, regular space travel and comparing notes on military versus private spacecraft.  The days were spent gambling, mixing with other passengers, and, well, more drinking.

     When the time for the dimensional jump approached, we were herded to a viewing deck to take in this new dimension; dubbed the Beta Dimension by D-Voyages, the company who owned and operated the tour.  The deck was a clear, high density polymer supported by internal shields.  The deck gave a nearly perfect view of the surrounding space.  Once we were assembled, there was a short safety broadcast about maintaining composure and reporting any nausea or medical disturbances.  Another brief message outlined the history of dimensional travel and threw in a bit of marketing and promotional information; sell, sell, sell.

     When the hoopla of broadcasts ended the captain issued a final message from the bridge.  It was meant to create a bit of drama, I figured, except the passengers around me looked vaguely bored.

     “Ladies and gentlemen,” the captain said through the audio speakers, “this is your captain speaking.  Prepare to be amazed.  I will have the dimensional shields raised in a moment.  After the shields have stabilised, the dimensional transit module will be activated, propelling us to the Beta Dimension in seconds.  After that, you are free to enjoy the sights and sensations of a new frontier.  Commander Clarke, engage the dimension shields.”

     There was no noticeable change as these shields engaged so we were really just standing around for a few moments.  The passengers were generally quiet.

     “It makes me wonder if this dimensional travel is some sort of ritual that requires extended broadcasts,” Lars joked.

     “I hope not,” I replied.  “I forgot to bring any goats or incense.”  We must have chuckled a bit too loudly because several passengers shot us unfriendly glances.

     The speakers sent us the voice of the Captain again.  “Ladies and gentlemen, the dimensional shields have been stabilised.  We are ready to travel to the far reaches of existence.  Commander Clarke, please engage the dimensional module for final transit.”

     This time, there was something noticeable.  The air seemed to hum, almost to a buzzing level, before fading.  The view into space blurred and faded, slowly turning a light purple, swirling with yellows, pinks, greys and some colours I had never seen before.  The interesting part of the experience was that I saw shapes and configurations that I could not describe.  The promotional information and client testimonials had mentioned there were certain elements of Dimension Beta that could only be understood by experiencing them; and now I could agree.  Holo, video and audio taken in this dimension was always incomplete, sometimes looking like a jumble, when viewed.  A popular theory suggested there was an ambient psychic energy or field that permeated even the dimensional shields, altering our perception.  My first impression was awe; the second impression was I had made a great choice for my vacation.

     “Welcome to Beta Dimension,” I said after a couple of minutes gawking at the incredible, impossible view.

     Lars was smiling as he gazed into the depths of this new space; like a kid entering his first holographic action game.  “I’ve been to almost every corner of explored space in the last forty years,” he said, reverently, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.  Bloody fantastic.”

     We sat as the view shifted slightly, suggesting movement.  The captain issued another audio broadcast.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I have one last thing to mention before our cruise commences, and I promise this will be the final interruption.  The view is never quite the same here, so even if this is not your first voyage with us, I advise you remain watchful as we move along.  Remember you will experience things differently, even for different passengers, while here.  Any questions or concerns can be directed to any of our crew.  Thank you and enjoy your cruise.”

     “What do you make of that?” Lars said.  “I don’t even know how to explain some of this view to discuss it with you.”

     “Some of the extended information about the cruise mentioned a group of academics are actively creating new words to address the stuff here,” I said.  “Sounded like bunk to me when I read it.  Now I understand.”

     The cruise experience was new to me, but not disappointing.  Food, drink and entertainment were plentiful and available at any hour.  Some foods and drinks even tasted different in Beta Dimension.  The viewing deck remained the primary entertainment, like an impossible holographic light show.  The trip was scheduled to last ten days and I did not want it to end.  Unfortunately, things change.

     Around day five, I was summoned from a gambling table by a petty officer.  The reason for the summons was intentionally vague, even through my drunken haze, though it was clear the captain wanted to see me.  The officer led me into an off-limits engineering area.  Two officers, Lars and a rather attractive lady passenger were also gathered.  Before departing, the petty officer gave me an anti-inebriant spray that cleared my head, ending the pleasant sensation I had cultivated.

     “What’s all this about?” I asked.

     “I apologise for disturbing you,” one of the officers responded.  “The captain will join us shortly and explain things fully.  I am Lieutenant Jordan, the acting engineering officer.  This is Sergeant Patel, our military officer in charge of security.  You are already acquainted with Technical Officer Pundel, retired, so that leaves Professor Xiang.  Professor Xiang, may I introduce Technical Petty Officer Terence Lumbsden.”

     “Pleasure,” she said, coldly, without even a nod.

     “Yeah, sure,” I said, starting to feel a self-conscious wave of sobriety.

     “You gentlemen have technical skills that may be needed soon,” Jordan continued.  “Professor Xiang is a specialist in dimensional physics at the University of Ulator.  She may have input on our…situation.”

     “A situation you have refused to explain,” Xiang interrupted, apparently bothered with more than just me.  “I would like to know what is happening that required this interruption, or do we need to wait on the Captain for everything beyond introductions?”

     “Don’t waste your energy on the poor Lieutenant,” Lars said, looking slightly amused at her outburst.  “He is under orders to say little until the Captain arrives.  I can speculate that some sort of emergency has cropped up that requires our assistance, otherwise, I would still be swilling gin and gazing into the wonders of Beta Dimension.  Nothing else explains it.”

     Lars was right, judging by the reaction of the officers.  He was right that we wouldn’t get any answers until the Captain arrived.  I had also noticed the use of the rank acting engineering officer, suggesting the engineering officer was ill or incapacitated; the gravity of this did not hit me at that moment.

     “You have our deepest apologies,” Jordan went on.  “I can assure you that we will fully reimburse you for this inconvenience.”  This was more discomforting than anything that had been said yet.

Sacrifice, (Alternate Ending)

(Horror. This was just something I toyed with, even though I prefer the Part 5 ending. This picks up from the end of Part 4, and is a bit longer.)

The smell was what hit her first, followed by the nasty sound of something metallic clanking against something else.  Her flashlight cut through the darkness, tracing through lines of chains and hooks and other things less clear to her.  She could not make out a stairway, ladder or other door; her heart felt like it was going to jump out of her chest in raw panic.

“Colin,” she whispered hoarsely, “is someone else here?”

“Yes,” Colin half whispered, “well, kind of.”

A figure, vague and luminescent, appeared in the corner of the room.  A powerful, nearly overwhelming, feeling of hatred poured from it.  Although the image was faint and misty, it looked like a tall man in a long coat.  His eyes were the only clear thing about him.

“Wouldst ye cheat your grandfather, Colin,” the thing spoke, shocking Macy out of her paralysis, “or hast thou been deceived by a wicked woman?”

“Speak plainly, grandfather,” Colin responded.  “No riddles tonight, of all nights.”

“This creature has known a man,” the figure replied, pointing at Macy, “and ‘twas our agreement she be a virgin.”

Macy was locked in a combination of panic and fascination.  Colin’s grandfather was long dead, and yet Colin acknowledged it as his grandfather.  She wanted to believe this was some trick, an extremely distasteful joke being played on her.  The entire thing was too preposterous to believe.  She was too shocked to even pray, or call out to God for strength.  And yet the feeling of hatred and rage from the figure was intense enough to be visceral.

Colin was looking at her.  “Macy,” he asked, “is it true?”

She looked back at him, confused at his question but anxious to answer.  It was a long moment before the matter of her virginity was being questioned.

“What?” she said, with a touch of her own anger.  “How could you question that?  I told you on our second date.  Do you think that has changed or something?  What is this?”

“Long story,” Colin said, and pointed to the dim figure across the room, “but he has a funny way of knowing these things.  Is there any way he could be wrong?”

Macy was deeply afraid.  Nothing was making sense; it was so overwhelming that it was all she could manage to not scream and run.  The walls felt as though they were closing in on her.  The glare from across the room was starting to freak her out.

“I don’t know,” Macy said, trying to think through a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions.  “Maybe.  When I was little, a man might have, you know…done something, but I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember?” Colin reproached.  “You mean you were molested?”

“Yes, maybe,” Macy said, more confused than ever.  She did not remember anything, but a cousin had let her in on the rumour.  It was such a flimsy story she had not even bothered to tell Colin.  She barely thought about, and really did not believe it.  “It would have been a long time ago.  I don’t know if it happened, even.”

Colin looked carefully at her.  His eyes seemed to search hers for a real answer.

“So that would be it?” he asked, harshly.  “Someone diddled you as a kid.  Nothing else?”

“No, Colin,” she said, noticing the tears in her eyes for the first time.  “I would never lie to you.  What’s happening?”

Colin looked across the room.  “Are you fucking kidding me?” he shouted.  “You can’t seriously count that against her.  It’s not the same thing.”

“I shall account as I will,” the figure spat.  “Our bargain ist not complete.  Ye owest me a betrothed maiden, pure and untouched.  Doest thou forget our arrangement, young Colin?  Time is short, boy.”

This has turned into an impossible task, Colin thought.  Grandfather, his childhood companion and tormentor, had cursed the family to misery and failure until a sacrifice was made.  The family had suffered numerous setbacks and early deaths for generations, supposedly from accidents or poor health, on account of grandfather Charles’ curse.  In this moment of failure, so close to a resolution, Colin was through with it.  Only a moment ago, he was prepared to kill Macy to shake off the family curse; to give himself a chance in life.  He could not go any further down a road of madness.

“Macy,” Colin said, his voice commanding and firm, “we are leaving.  Stay close to me.”

Colin heaved at the door, slowly opening it.  “What is happening, Colin?” Macy asked, clinging to him, afraid to look away from the ghost in the room.

“The family has been under a curse, imposed by one of its own patriarchs many generations ago,” Colin explained.  “You see, Charles, the grey haired man in the portrait in the master suite, came into conflict with his son over…business matters.  The old man wanted to continue illegal practices as part of the regular business.  His son wanted to phase that out.  Things became tense between them, threatening to divide the family.  Charles was making plans to kill off anyone opposed to him, family or not.  Things turned worse when the family got wind of this old Charles and his plans.  They took him into this very room, one night, and tortured him into a confession.  It practically killed him, but not before he cursed the family to ruin.”

“And he needed a sacrifice…” Macy said, starting to put everything together.  “You were going to…”

“That’s finished, Macy,” Colin said as he got the door open enough for them to pass.  “It’s all finished, now.”

Charles, who had only watched and listened to this point, suddenly stirred.  The change in his emotional state was palpable.  Rage was being tempered with suspicion and blame.

“Ye shall not flee without tasting my pains, boy,” Charles said, angrily.  “The Hardwick name shall die with ye, if thou barest not the terms of our bargain.  I will see to it.”

Colin pushed Macy through the doorway and turned to flee.  Charles screamed and surged with the power of the unrested.  The chains, hanging quietly, rattled to life and struck out at Colin, slicing and gouging him before he quitted the room.

Macy was too terrified to scream; only keeping enough wits to escape through the secret passage with all the speed she could muster.  Colin was close behind, and though Macy hardly noticed, he was being battered.  Charles was unleashing over two centuries of hate; Colin was running on adrenaline, hardly feeling the physical effects of the attack.

When they reached the master bedroom, Colin was a mess; his body covered with bruises and cuts, some dangerously deep.  Macy hesitated for a moment, troubled by Colin’s wounds.

“Keep moving!” he shouted, pushing her out of the room.  “We have to get out.”

They ran down the corridors, nearly tumbled down the stairs, ending face to face with Charles at the front door.  The old spirit had materialised in front of them.  Macy got a clear look at the haggard figure, features clear and more fearsome than ever.

“Thou shall not escape my wrath whilst Hardwick House stands, boy,” Charles seethed.  “Ye bear my blows well, yet I have more to give.”

The adrenaline rush was just beginning to slide from a peak, and Colin knew it.  Charles was more powerful that he imagined.  Still, he had a couple of cards left to play.  He pulled out the dagger he had intended for Macy, brandishing it before him.  It was old, but in perfect shape considering its history.

“Remember this, you freak?” he taunted.  “This bring up any fond memories from your last minutes as a mortal?  You were the one who told me about it.  I expect it might hurt you, still.  Willing to test that theory?”

Charles hesitated, fading slightly.  For a moment, the emotional energy he had been projecting wavered.

Colin charged the door, dagger first.  Charles flinched and disappeared before Colin reached the door.  He pushed through, Macy close behind him, until they were outside.  The night was a welcome sight.

“We made it,” she said, panting.  “We made it.”

Colin was about to say something when stones from the ground tore free of the ground and began to fly.  They were aimed squarely at the car; one destroying a tire, another smashing the steering wheel, and another one crushing the hood into the motor.

“What do we do now?” Macy cried.  “This is crazy!”

“He doesn’t like the dagger,” Colin reasoned aloud, “but it won’t keep him at bay for long.  He loses strength away from the house, though.”

“Then let’s get out of here!” Macy said.  “Let’s get way out of here!”

“No,” Colin said, a look of resolution crossing his face.  “You get out of here.  I have to finish this.”

“I am not leaving you here,” Macy said, panic creeping into her voice, again.

Colin choked out a dry laugh.  “I’m not worth it,” he said.  “What I was going to do tonight…I am not worth it.  Just get away.  He doesn’t care about you.”  The pain of the wounds was starting to hit.  Colin was thinking, though.  Charles had made a revelation, perhaps slipping up in overconfidence, that changed the game.  It was risky, but Colin strangely felt no fear; like death would only be welcomed.

Macy stood there, shocked and afraid.  She understood what Colin had intended, but running down a country road, alone in the night, was too much.  Beyond the fear, she still loved Colin.  Leaving him was not an option.

“No,” she said.  “I won’t go alone.  What do we do?”

Colin was too weak to argue with her.  “We have to be quick,” he explained.  “It took a lot out of him to wreck the car, but he is recuperating.”

“Why didn’t he just kill you?” she asked.

“Not sure,” Colin said, approaching the ruined car.  “He probably wants to drag it out, torture me like the family did to him.  The house has to go.  Got to burn it down.”  Colin fished out the emergency kit from the battered trunk.  He removed the pair of road flares, the old school kind.

Macy’s eyes widened as she realised what he intended.  “You’re not going back in there?”

“It’s the only way,” Colin said, lighting both flares.  He felt lightheaded as he approached the open door.  He had lost much blood, and time was against him.  Macy stayed back.

“I’m afraid,” she cried.

“Just stay, then,” he advised as he plodded on.  It felt as though Charles was egging him on, tempting him to return.  Colin moved steadily, bracing for any possible assault.  Charles was not about to lose his house so easily.

Colin gained entry and moved to the nearest set of drapes he could find.  They would be dry enough to start the place up, especially if he could get several of them lit.

Something struck him hard in the back, knocking him to the floor, face first; the flares tumbled from his grasp.  His eyes were clouded with tears, brought on by a broken nose.  A wicked laugh filled the room.

“Ye know not the suffering I can deliver upon the living, wee Colin,” Charles whispered in his ear.  “Drain me, though it dost, there is nought else left for me.  I am cursed to an existence of no pleasure, lad, though your final torment will bring me near to it.  Damned or not, boy, know well your last earthly moments will like unto hell!”

Colin was lifted from the floor and flung across the room, bouncing off a cabinet on his way back to the floor.  Charles struck him several more times before his energy waned.  It was at that moment the old ghost shrieked and faded, swirling down the hall, howling.  Macy stood over him, dagger clutched in both hands.

“Heavenly Father, give me strength,” she muttered with a quavering voice.

“Looks like he already did,” Colin noted.  “Get the flares…light the drapes.  Quickly!”

She ran to the task as he struggled to his feet; broken ribs working against his every move, now.  His head swam as Macy got a fire started.  “What now?” she asked, seeming more confident.

“Another set,” he said, hurting him to speak while hobbling to the next room.  “That should do it.  Go quick.”

She darted to the next room and lit the drapes.  She also got a couple of painting going.  Smoke was starting to fill the area.  “What now?” she asked, running to him.

“Out,” he croaked, feeling nauseous; breathing in shallow breaths.  “Fast.”

She threw the flares into the hall and helped him struggle back out, into the safety beyond the house.  Charles, who had been a wisp of a presence since Macy had stabbed him, stirred.  Colin and Macy both felt it.

“Keep…going,” Colin gasped, hoping he would not collapse too soon.

“I know,” Macy confirmed, half afraid of what Charles’ last effort would be.  She stayed focused on the idea he got weaker as he got farther from the house.  They were past he car, moving to the road.  Colin was nearly unconscious, barely carrying his weight.

Charles appeared before them, yet again.  His form was blurry and vague, just luminescent enough to see in the light of the burning house.  His rage still burned, but his weakness was clear.

“Young Colin meant ye to die this night, to finish our bargain.  Know ye this?”

“I know it,” she said, out of breath and emotionally drained.  Charles wanted her to abandon her fiancé at his moment of greatest need.  It would mean a sure death for him, and she could not be certain of saving him, anyway.  She felt the first tingles of heat from the house, beginning to properly burn, and noticed Charles, still hoping she would walk away, fading in tiny increments.  She needed to stall him.

“I don’t even know why I am helping him now,” she said, noticing a flicker of hope from Charles.  “He was going to kill me, sacrifice me.  Our life together was nothing.  I should leave him.”

“Yes, child,” Charles groaned, even that tiny effort testing his endurance.  “Leave him be.”

Colin’s legs gave out, and she lowered him to the ground.  He was barely conscious.  Macy laid him on his back, stunned at the horrid look of his wounds in the fire light.

“Fly, now,” Charles instructed, impatiently.  “He will receive what he hath earned.”

Macy was not sure what more she could do without being obvious.  She leaned over Colin and gently kissed his forehead.  She looked up at the house.  Most of the ground floor was burning, casting a macabre light on grounds.

“Look at the house,” Macy said, just for something to say.  “It is finished, just like you.”

Charles doubled over, fading; weakly reaching out to grab Colin.

“You…dirty…harlot…” Charles groaned, fading to nothing, his presence leaving like a bad smell blown away by a breeze.

She wondered if she was in shock.  She lay down next to Colin, happy he was still breathing.  The fire continued to throw heat; and yet Macy could not stop her shivering.

Sacrifice, Part 5

(Horror. The full story of the Hardwick House is revealed in a disturbing conclusion)

The smell was what hit her first, followed by the nasty sound of something metallic clanking against something else.  Her flashlight cut through the darkness, tracing through lines of chains and hooks and other things less clear to her.  She could not make out a stairway, ladder or other door; her heart felt like it was going to jump out of her chest in raw panic.

“Colin,” she whispered hoarsely, “is someone else here?”

Before she could react, the flashlight was knocked out of her hands, smashing on the floor and sputtering out.  Colin’s camping light was somehow distant or failing; she could barely see for the shadows.  Her arm was pinned behind her, followed by the other.  She raised her knee and kicked out, though it seemed not to affect her attacker.  A moment later, something slipped over her wrists and held them in place behind her back.  As if remembering she could, Macy screamed for Colin; the last thing she could remember before blacking out, wild with fear.

            Colin felt ill.  Reality, ugly and dark, was sinking in fast.  The presence had materialised in front of him. The gloomy figure of Charles Hardwick, founder of the American Hardwick clan and resident, undead psychopath stood before Colin.  His image was indistinct and blurred, though it was unmistakably the old man.  Colin had known him for a long time.

            “The appointed time hath come, young Colin,” Charles said in his usual mix of mumbles and groaning.

            “I know, Grandfather,” Colin said, strangely self-conscious about speaking aloud to the apparition, “and I am here.”

            “’tis well,” Charles said.  “Time doth drain me, though it be a curse of my own making.  Art thou prepared?”

            “Almost,” Colin said, hanging his head.  “I have to tell her before it is done.”  He could feel a wave of angry disapproval emanate from Charles, as easy to notice as a sudden change in temperature.

            “A waste,” Charles spat.  “What is gained by it, young Colin?”

            “My conscience will be appeased, if only a little,” Colin said flatly, not wishing to debate his decision.

            “Ye throw the minutes to the wind as a wastrel, child,” Charles uttered with distaste.  “My curse holds as ye dally with idle talk.”

            Colin had prepared for this exchange as he had for the one to convince Macy to explore the secret passage.  It was just a matter of executing the plan.

            “I am no longer a young boy, Grandfather,” he said calmly.  “Still, I plan to honour my oath to end the curse.  Midnight has not come or passed, so the time between is mine to use as I please, and it pleases me to explain all this madness to her.  You have lingered here for over two hundred years, a few more moments should be an easy matter.”  Grandfather was angry and impatient, yet shrewd enough to try hastening things.

            “Your conscience will cause ye no ill, lad,” Charles said, still angry.  “Mind ye, I might.  Think on it.”

            “You never had a conscience, Grandfather,” Colin said, remaining calm despite his rising temper, “so your advice has no weight to it.  And harm me if you want.  I know you will not.  I am the last Hardwick, the final heir to the family, and if I fail tonight your own curse will deny you rest for eternity.”

            “As ye will, child,” Charles growled, simmering rage beneath his words.  He stood silent and still, hovering over the room with the appearance of patience.  Colin felt energized after standing up to his grandfather.

            Colin tied Macy’s ankles tightly before lifting her onto the ancient table, securing her further with chains.  It would be enough to hold her until it was over.  He gently shook her.  “Macy,” he said, “you need to wake up for a while.  Just for a while, darling.”

            Macy was slow to come around.  The moments of fear she last remembered were distant and dreamlike.  It took a minute for her to recall her situation; her fear was less frantic, abated, perhaps, by her helpless condition.  Colin looked menacing in the strange light, yet his presence was a bizarre comfort.

            “There are things you need to know,” Colin began explaining, not wishing to drag the ordeal out.

            “Why?” was all she asked.  “What is happening?”

            “The family has been troubled by accidents and tragedy for many generations,” Colin said, keeping it plain.  “This is not chance.  Rather, it is a curse from beyond.”

            “What are you talking about?” Macy asked, understanding his words but not really following his meaning.

            “The family has been under a curse, imposed by one of its own patriarchs many generations ago,” Colin said, simply moving along without concern if she did not follow in detail.  “You see, Charles, the grey haired man in the portrait in the master suite, came into conflict with his son over…business matters.  The old man wanted to continue illegal practices as part of the regular business.  His son wanted to phase that out.  Things became tense between them, threatening to divide the family.”

            “Colin,” Macy said, eyes growing wide with fear, “what is going on?  Did you drug me?”

            He glanced to his side.  Charles hovered there, half mist and half shadow; every bit the ghoulish beast he had always been.  Macy must be feeling his intense malice and anger at being denied an immediate resolution, he thought; something he had grown used to.

            “Sorry,” Colin said, only wanting to finish his explanation without distraction.  “The old man turned on his son, threatening to disown him, or worse, if he failed to obey.  The son was not pleased with the threats and mustered his own supporters, turning on the old man.  They stormed the house.”

            Macy was growing hysterical.  “Not real, not real, not real…” she began to whisper, like a protective mantra.  Colin was tempted to slap her, shock her out her state.

            “The old man was unprepared,” Colin went on.  “They took him and were not certain what to do with him.  They worried he would return with hired help, or something, if they simply cast him out.  The biggest thing, really, was the money.  Charles had hidden the greater share of the family fortune somewhere, and was not telling.  The money was critical to the Hardwick future, no matter what direction the business took.”

            Macy had stopped her whispered chant but hardly seemed to be absorbing Colin’s explanation; which was mattering less and less to him.

            “They brought him here,” Colin said, “to this very room.  I am sure they did not plan for things to be overly brutal, but it was a dark age and things turned ugly.  A few days beatings turned to whippings, and escalated from there.  The torture became something grotesque, medieval.  It was long and terrible, ending in the death of old Charles, keeping his secret to the end.  The family found the money some years later, making the horrendous act meaningless.”

            Macy finally seemed to regard Colin in a lucid state.  “They killed him?” she asked, almost numbly.

            “Yes, Macy,” Colin said, tenderly, “and in his later moments he cursed them, us, to lives of tragedy and suffering for several generations.  He committed his own spirit to enforcing the curse in this world.  His rage and resentment is not diminished.”

            “Why this, Colin?” Macy asked gently.

            “Old Charles became a regular companion of mine, as a boy,” Colin explained, “until my father caught wind of our communications and moved us away.  The curse can be lifted with a sacrifice.  The Hardwick heir must kill his betrothed, here in this room, by the end of today.  It is the only way.”

            “I love you, Colin,” she said, almost as if she welcomed her fate.

            “I love you, too,” he replied, not meaning it but wishing her a touch of comfort in her last moments.  The blade was an old one, suggested by Charles so many years earlier.

            Colin turned to the apparition beside him, feeling the eagerness flow off him, and narrowed his eyes with resentment.

            “What I do now,” he said, as much to Charles as he did to whatever God might be out there listening, “is not of my own free will.  I am coerced by a demon beside me, may his soul reside below for all time.”  Charles stayed silent, seeming concerned only with what was to come.

            Macy was strikingly silent, only gasping slightly as the blade punched through her chest; her heart broken twice by the blow.  She struggled to breathe for a few moments before expiring.  It felt like she had passed in less than a minute.

            “Is it done?” Colin asked.

            “Her passage is beginning now,” Charles said.  “The soul is holding to the flesh as a babe to the womb before birth.  It will be done soon.”

            “Then what?  Do you move on?  Am I truly free?”

            “I shall pass to the beyond and be judged,” Charles said, with the first tinge of sadness Colin had ever heard from him.  “With that, I or my curse shall trouble thee nevermore.”

            After some moments of standing over Macy’s still body, Charles finally reacted to something invisible to Colin.  “Her departure begins,” he said, as if in awe.

            Colin felt relieved, somehow.  This thing had stayed with him, troubling him like a monster under his bed for his lifetime.  He could truly live, now.

            An irksome, troubling feeling from Charles struck Colin as harshly as a bucket of ice water might have.  The look and feel from the elder ghost grew into a state of malice and rage such that Colin had never known from him.  Something was extremely wrong, and Colin could not think of what it might be.

            “What is it?” he asked, fearfully.

            “Thou wouldst cheat me,” Charles said in blood soaked words.  “Such is the manner of mine own kin, sadly.”

            “I did everything my oath required,” Colin said, never so afraid as this before.  “How did I cheat you?”

            “Ye bring a betrothed to me, already known to a man before,” Charles spat, raw rage a torrent from him now.  “Ye, the last Hardwick, shall suffer worldly torments worse than mine own before we ride to the seven hells together.”

            Colin was too shocked to respond or take any action, at all, as Charles descended upon him, a force of pure wrath.  Colin’s screams found him as Charles began his vengeance.

Sacrifice, Part 4

(Horror. Things get properly weird when Colin reveals a new secret of the Hardwick House)

They lingered in the woods before returning.  The presence, as if sensing Colin’s fatigue and resentment, returned with less urgency and intensity, giving him room to breathe.  The day was starting to pass away, the sun dipping toward the tree line.  They walked through cellars with care.  “The newer wings of the house,” Colin explained in the dim light of the first cellar, “have separate cellars because the original never had one.”

Macy was actually relieved when they finished seeing the cellars.  The low, dark rooms were dusty and filled with odd, creepy tools and devices that looked frightening in the poor lighting.  She kept close to Colin and tried to imagine she was in a museum.

They ate sandwiches and drank some wine for their supper.  The evening seemed to take root earlier than usual.  “The valley,” Colin said when she mentioned it.  “It makes it seem like the sun comes up later and goes down earlier.  I had forgotten.”

The darkness brought on an entirely new feel to the building.  As the light retreated from the sky, and the full moon took over, what had been a cosy, odd house felt forbidding and eerie.  Macy noticed the change quickly, while Colin barely felt it.  Some of the lights in the house were not working and Colin could not tell if they were burnt out or had other issues.  Macy decided it would be best to stick close to the master suite until morning.

Colin made the pretense of working on his laptop for a while, supposedly recording his observations of maintenance.  Macy played a game on her phone to kill time.

It was beginning to feel quite late when Colin, now starting to feel a growing urgency from the house, closed his laptop and moved closer to Macy, trying his best to be mischievous and charming.  “I almost forgot to show you something very important,” he said.  “It just occurred to me when I was recording all the maintenance stuff.”

Macy was equally interested and suspicious.  “And what’s that?”

“The secret passage!” he said.  “It is really neat.  I used to love it as a kid.”

A few hours earlier and she might have gone for it, straight away; now, the house had bad feeling about it.  Something just did not seem right and she could not explain it.  Colin was looking at her with keen excitement for the first time since they left, making her challenge her instincts about staying put.  She was pleased to see him looking happy and did not want to spoil the moment.  She let her guard down, pushing her instincts aside.

“Really,” she teased, not wanting to give him no fight on the matter, “and why would this place need a secret passage?”

Colin had expected the question in the way a professional tennis player expects the ball to return to them at a certain place on the court, hitting it back with seeming comfort.  “The family had been smugglers,” he began smoothly, still working his charm.  “When they build the place, Charles Hardwick, the grand old man of the family, got it into his head he should have a comfortable way out in case they had issues with the law.”

“You’re not going to tell me there is an underground tunnel leading off the property,” Macy challenged, drawing the line at creeping through a dark, icky hole in the ground.

“Nothing like that, although there were plans for it,” Colin explained, trying not to sound too forced.  “The old man wanted to build an escape tunnel, but never got around to it, and his successors didn’t think it was needed.  Of course, they were slowly moving away from the illegal work and focussing on legitimate business by then.  Anyway, old Charlie had his secret passage though the house and it stayed, even without the tunnel.”

“And you want to see it now?” Macy asked in a negative tone, hoping he would settle for seeing it during the day.

“Call it an adventure,” he said, smashing the ball back in her court as he had expected he would have to.  “It was a fond memory for me when I was a kid, playing around in the secret passage, even if it was not a secret anymore.”  This was partly true.  Colin did enjoy the mystery and adventure of the passage when he was young.

Macy tried to think of some way to bail on the idea, but Colin was so excited and she wanted to make him happy.  In some way or other, she had lingering guilt about sexually withholding herself from him, and it was times like this when she felt the pang of it.  Her heart gave way and she agreed to go.

“You have to stay with me the whole time,” she said, setting limits as soon as she agreed.  “And no fooling around, I’m already a little scared about it.”

Colin soothed, “I will be with you the whole way,” he said.  “It will be all right.”

She instinctively grabbed her phone, until she remembered it was no use.  Colin, still playing the game as if it were practiced, grabbed one of the camping lights he had packed in case of power failure; brandishing it for her to see.  She used the bathroom before they were to go, finally preparing herself by taking a flashlight of her own.

“Okay,” she said, after a deep breath, “where does it start?”

“Right here,” he said, grinning.  He moved to one of the paintings and gently pulled it back.  The man in the portrait was typically grim and practically frowning; he looked almost angry with his high collar and dark eyes.  “Excuse me, Charles,” he apologized, pressing a small notch in the wood trim behind the scowling picture.  “Yes, that is the old man himself,” Colin remarked.  As he approached another wall and ran his finger along the base board until it reached a specific groove, pressing it firmly.  A loud set of clicks and one of the panels opened, just an inch or so, like a door.  Colin gave her his best, reassuring smile and pushed the panel back, revealing the passage beyond.

“Shit,” was all Macy managed to say.

Colin turned his light on and shined it down the corridor.  The walls were rough wood but dry and clean, even less dusty than the rest of the building.  He stepped through the door, ducking slightly through the entry.  Macy grabbed his arm, “We will be okay, right?”

He turned back to her, ready to win another point in this planned tennis match, “I have done this many times as a kid.  The passage is nothing to be afraid of.”  Her eyes looked carefully into his, as if searching for some doubt; when she found none, she relented.

The passageway was smaller than he remembered, though he was nine when he last set foot in it, but roomy enough for an adult man to walk upright with a little shoulder room to spare.  They took a turn ten feet in, leading to a steep stair that felt more like a ladder to Macy; this lead to a series of short passages, ending in stairs.  Macy was a bit disoriented, but knew they were trending down in their travels.  “Where does this come out?” she whispered ahead to Colin as they reached another stair leading down.

“The exit is just below us,” he said, whispering back.  The presence, which had mostly given him some space since their walk outside, was starting to build again; it was growing anxious, Colin could tell.

The final set of stairs was the easiest set, leading to a small room with stone walls and floors.  “Are we in the basement?” Macy asked in sudden panic.  She had not liked their earlier trip to basement and her nerves were not taking the return well.  It was an unreasonable fear, she knew, yet could no longer contain it.

“Macy,” Colin said, a little harshly, “it will be all right.  Just calm down and understand we are safe.”

“I just want to go back to the bedroom, okay,” she said, a little franticly.  “The adventure has been awesome, now it’s time to fucking go back, okay?!”

“Macy,” he said, rather firmly, “We are almost out, now.  It is faster if we just go to the next room and go straight back into the house.”  The presence was growing agitated, as if anticipating things to come, spurred on by Macy’s burst of emotion.

“Okay, okay,” she said impatiently, “then just go quick, I can’t stand it.” She was shaking, now.

A heavy, wooden door was the only other exit in the room.  Colin turned an ancient latch and shouldered the door open.  Macy stayed right with him as he pushed though.  She squeezed past as he closed the door behind them.  The room was just wrong.